Lessons From My Father
I marveled at the way he accepted the diagnosis eleven Thanksgivings ago.
“Leonard,” my mother said matter-of-factly, “the doctor says you have Alzheimer’s.”
“Dad, do you have any questions?” I asked.
“Nope. I know you kids love me and will do your best to take care of me. It is what it is.”
Then he yawned (exhausted each day by noon from the hard work that thinking had already become), laid down on the couch in my sister’s basement, and took a nap. Facing the fact without drama or remorse that he would die twice, was classic Dad.
My barely high school educated parents were married at 17 and 18, both fleeing their abusive fathers. With no idea that children like to be tucked in and read to at bedtime, or should have toys, or be asked about school, they had the five of us before they were thirty. My Dad often made me cry. Rules were military strict, punishment was swift; sometimes as severe as two days locked in our room allowed only our underwear and 15 minutes for bathroom breaks and meals: prison for kids.
But his toughness and the junkyard he owned with Uncle Mort put the five of us through college. He often came home with frostbitten toes from working outside in the Minnesota winter. Somehow, no matter how dirty, how cold, how hard, Dad made things work. And not just mechanical things. He was a blue collar guy who lived in a world of truck drivers and fag jokes yet turned his entire world view around to walk my gay brother down the aisle at his wedding.
Dad was tough; ten damn years with Alzheimer’s (amazing what you can get used to). At first, we got used to him trying to make phone calls with the TV remote, then the car accidents, the confusion, the extra time it took him to pay the bills at the office, the way he could no longer find things, his angry outbursts, his withdrawal…we watched it all as if in slow motion.
He was right about us doing our best to take care of him. Even mom, who mostly struggled with him through 55 years of a terrible marriage before the diagnosis, tried hard for a while, dressing him in the morning like her eleventh grandchild. She kept him at home until he fell in the bathroom in the middle of the night with the door locked, trapped and urine-soaked until morning. The paramedics took him to the hospital and he never came home again.
The new normal was a nursing home where Dad seemed to enjoy the aquarium and singing along to “You are My Sunshine.” Singing that song to the five of us kids in the back of the station wagon was one of the few gentle things I remember about my father when I was young. “You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my Sunshine away….” Somehow I knew he meant it. He really loved us. Watching the well-meaning volunteer with her guitar coax those words from my father’s failing brain broke my heart.
There would be plenty more heartbreaking moments where that came from—seeing him in a diaper and bib for the first time, watching him being hoisted from his wheelchair to his bed with a lift, dangling and helpless like a marionette. Then there was the catheter, the baby food, the drool. Like most boys, I watched my dad shave in the morning with awe. Never did I think I would be shaving him while he stared blankly into space.
Despite his lack of formal education, my father was a professor of sorts and always teaching. Usually, each lesson included a Yiddishism from his childhood. If the day’s topic was “Things could always be worse,” he quipped, “Iz beser vie a geshfir aoyf deyn hinter—It’s better than a boil on your ass.” No matter how anxious, sad, frightened or defeated we felt, no matter what terrible thing we thought we were facing in our teenage angst, the idea of it being better than a boil on our ass always made us laugh.
But Dad was right. A boil on your behind is no joke. At the time that expression was coined, there were no antibiotics. A bed-sore meant almost certain death from infection. Six months after he entered the first nursing home, my mom called to say she was moving him to a new home because the care was awful and he had a bed sore on his butt. I wept.
If we wanted to spend money on something he thought was frivolous, which was pretty much everything, my father warned “A bisl, iz a plats—A little, is a lot.” He grew up a skinny kid on welfare. There was a reason he re-used his dental floss and tea bags. There was a reason he washed off a paper plate and let it dry for the next time. There was a reason he buried gold coins under the big tree in the backyard. He knew the worst could happen and the only protection was hard work and pennies saved. His care cost $150,000 a year and he gutted it out for a decade. Right again, Dad.
In the quiet of endless days, my tough, frightening, crude, funny, and wickedly smart dad slipped mostly away. His memory and body were nearly gone by the end—he sat and stared silently in his nursing home wheelchair, asleep most of the time. He did not know my name. Every day the disease gained ground. But it also lost. Alzheimer’s lost when it tried to fracture my family. We group chat, and talk, and visit with each other in ways closer and more beautiful than ever before. Alzheimer’s lost when it tried to distance me from my dad; teaching me instead how much it meant just to hold his hand in perfect silence until he fell asleep.
Alzheimer’s stole my father’s memory, but it sharpened mine. I try so hard now to remember, to remember everything, every lesson, every joke, and gesture: Sundays at the roller rink, watching him and my mother glide and dance on wheels, savoring those few happy, graceful moments. How he worked so hard for so long in the bitter Minnesota cold, and the way he loved butter brickle ice cream on a hot summer night. How things could always be worse and that I can be strong enough to change. This forgetting disease has taught me to remember.
Alzheimer’s wore my father down, but at the same time enabled me to make peace with his once hard edges. It was a lesson in essentialism, a stripping away—leaving behind toward the end a sweet man whose kind eyes lit up when someone, anyone, said “Hello.” The last few years when I visited my dad I was grateful if he was simply awake. In a world where we all want so much I learned that minimal expectations were best.
Lenny Leder died peacefully in his sleep last September. Today is my first Father’s Day without him. The last time I saw him in Minneapolis, I flew in from Los Angeles just for the day. It had been months since he had said anything to anyone. When it was time to say goodbye, I looked at him, memorizing his blue eyes in case I never saw him alive again, and simply said, “I love you, Dad.”
He stared back expressionless, pursed his lips again and again and again, then whispered, “And I love you, too.”
Right again, Dad. A little really is a lot.
Steve Leder is the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us and the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.
This essay was featured in the June 16th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward. To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.