Keeping A Father’s Memory Alive

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My dad, Pete Pihos, passed away in August 2011 after a twelve year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

My dad meant the world to me. He was my hero and I always looked up to him. He was one of the most positive persons I have ever known — larger than life — and he has inspired me in ways that I continue to discover.

His life accomplishments are extraordinary. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his tremendous football talent with Indiana University in the 1940’s and the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Of the thousands who have been honored to play in the NFL, only a select few are immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Along with being a gridiron football player, he fought for his country in WWII in the D-Day campaign, putting his college football career on hold to serve his country.

He had four wives and five children, four from his second wife, Cecile, and me from his fourth and final wife, Donna.

In my experience, the most difficult aspect of my dad having Alzheimer’s disease was watching him slowly deteriorate from being a strong, independent man to becoming someone who had to depend on others for daily existence.

My mom and dad divorced when I was younger. When he began to show the early symptoms of the disease, my mom, who had remained his friend after the divorce, took him back and took care of him all the way until the end. I am so thankful.

As he descended into the darkest depths of the disease, he remained positive because it was in his nature to do so and he kept his dignity. Though he lost his ability to communicate through speech, to make decisions and to walk, he remained himself deep down.

Dad was still Dad. I could see it in his eyes. He communicated through his heart. Every time I would visit him, he would smile, clap and move his feet to let me know he was happy. I’ll never forget that look on his face when I would come into the room, reassuring me that he was happy.

When he first had to move into the nursing home, it was tough to see him confined to a small room. He always lived life to the fullest and he always loved going places. Because of his love of travel, he took me all over, exposing me to new places and cultures. I felt as though his love of life and his free spirit were stifled by the walls of this room.

I used to cry after every visit because I knew the disease would only progress and he would not be able to come home. Of course in the early stages, I had no idea what was in store for me emotionally. Each stage of the disease hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had to adapt to each complication. The crying times came less often because I had to keep a smile on for Dad. He never wanted to see me upset. I tried my best not to let him know how worried I was about him and how sad I was that I was losing him. He somehow remained in tuned to my feelings and my moods.

In the beginning, he never wanted to come to terms with the disease or even to admit that anything was wrong. It took him awhile to finally submit to letting others take care of him. He had so much pride that it was difficult for him to let someone provide for him when he had spent his entire life providing for others.

My life and my outlook on life shifted as he moved into each stage of the disease. Relationships within my life changed. Certain trivial aspects of life that used to seem so important no longer did. I realized who my true friends were and who really cared.

I had a tough time adjusting to the many emotions that are associated with those dealing with Alzheimer’s disease: sadness, despair, loneliness, fear and anger. I felt broken inside and I was not sure how to fix it. I felt very alone!

I was fortunate enough to be in graduate school while Dad was slipping into the severe stages so I was able to spend more time with him. I began to wonder about who my Dad was prior to the disease. He was 51 years old when I was born so I only knew him during the latter half of his life.

As I look back, I wish I had not waited so long to get to know about his earlier years. I waited too long and it was to the point that he could no longer tell me his stories himself. I was filled with sorrow over this. I came to terms with this by deciding to research and rediscover his life.

Perhaps I was trying to keep his memories alive as they were slowly fading. Perhaps I was trying to find a way to connect with him because our relationship and our connection with each other was changing.

I was working on my graduate MFA in Choreography and one requirement was to develop and present an original MFA Thesis Performance. I decided to reflect on his life and to draw on his story creatively. A faculty member recommended that I take a documentary film course to help me find approaches to tell his story.

In this class, I created the film, Dear Dad, which turned out to be a conduit for channeling my sorrow and connecting it to keeping Dad’s memory alive through my creative and artistic abilities.

According to a newspaper article, “The film explores the effects of Alzheimer’s by juxtaposing photos and footage of her father from his days as a player for the Philadelphia Eagles, during the late 1940s to mid-1950s, with images of him today. But it’s the relationship between Pihos and her father –– illustrated through pictures and letters, most notably one written by her father after her parents’ divorce –– that proved especially poignant for the filmmaker and her audiences.” (goTriad June 2009).

With much surprise, Dear Dad has screened in film festivals across the U.S and has won some awards. With all the film footage I had collected from making Dear Dad, I decided to create the evening length performance MFA Thesis concert titled PIHOS: A Moving Biography, which combined film and dance choreography, exploring aspects of my Dad’s life: the murder of his father, his football career, WWII, his 4 wives and family, teammates and his ultimate battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

I immersed myself in this creative outlet. I filmed Dad almost every visit, capturing the disease in its various stages and capturing unforgettable days when he was so clear. I traveled to places where Dad had lived, first starting at the libraries in these places, uncovering newspaper articles.

I set up interviews with people representing various times in his life revealing who he was as a man, a friend, a player, a teammate. I interviewed Coach Mike Ditka, Al Wistert, Bill Mackrides and Pat Summerall. I learned what an amazing person Dad was and that he was admired by many people.

When dealing with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease or any terminal illness, loved ones should try to spend as much time with them as possible no matter how difficult it can be. Even though they cannot communicate, they know you are there. Touch can be more important than speech.

I learned a lot about my Dad which helped me cope with the fact that his memories of who he was and the relationship we had were fading. It is important to me now to be able to keep his memories alive even after he passed.

Creating, and then performing, PIHOS: A Moving Biography helped me to maintain the normal relationship with my dad through his memories, his stories, and my reflections of us. Even though our “Alzheimer’s” relationship was something different, I could still connect to him through this work as well as being able to connect with myself.

I went from being absolutely devastated to having hope. Hope is crucial when dealing with a terminal illness, whatever hope means in your life.

As for me, I hoped that each day was not too difficult for him. I hoped he felt some sort of comfort.

This is not just about my dad, me and our relationship. I hope it will help others. Perhaps somehow, someone can connect to this in some way. Perhaps it will give a greater understanding of Alzheimer’s.

Maybe it will help someone not feel so alone.

Editorial Note: The performance of PIHOS: A Moving Biography will go on tour as an Alzheimer’s Benefit Event in the summer of 2012 — in Charlotte, NC (June 2, 1012) Winston-Salem, NC (June 23, 2012), Philadelphia, PA (June 19, 2012) and New York City, NY (July 30, 2012). Click here for more information.

About the Author

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Melissa Pihos is a teacher, choreographer, filmmaker and producer. She received a BA in Biology from UNC-Greensboro and an MFA in Choreography from UNC-Greensboro where she is an adjunct faculty member. She has been dancing for over 25 years, receiving her training at Academy of Dance Arts in Winston-Salem, NC; Appalachian State University in Boone, NC; UNC Greensboro; and The American Dance Festival in New York City. She currently dances for The Van Dyke Dance Group and she has danced for Sidelong Dance Company. She created "PIHOS: A Moving Biography," a dance/video production that focuses on various aspects of the life of her father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Pete Pihos and his fight with Alzheimer’s disease. She also created "Dear Dad," an award-winning short documentary about her relationship with her father and how their relationship has changed due to his having Alzheimer’s disease.

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