R.I.P. Daddy

Image of older man and candle

My dad died last month.

Daddy had this thing he said. “Hurry every chance you get.” I’d forget my coat on the way to the car on a chilly, Alaskan morning and have to run upstairs to get it. Glancing at his watch, he’d call after me, “Hurry every chance you get.” But it wasn’t strictly about time. He said it to the neighbors as they left for a mid-winter trip to the warmth of the lower forty-eight. “Hurry every chance you get.”

Before a scary, tenth-grade chemistry midterm, my first lesson with the driving instructor, or heading out with a friend to trick-or-treat: “Hurry every chance you get.”

You’d think Daddy was a Type A personality with all that hurry in him. But no. He knew how to lie in the grass and watch clouds float by. He knew how to enjoy fishing when the fish weren’t biting. Daddy could have just as easily said, “Focus on what matters and don’t waste energy on other stuff.”

Don’t fiddle around picking a coat. Just grab one.

Enjoy your trip down south.

You’ve studied thoroughly for the midterm. You’ll do fine behind the wheel. You two vampire kids be safe out there.

Apparently Daddy said the same thing at work. (BTW, it was always Daddy and Mother. Maybe that’s a Southern thing, my family having Southern roots.) One year his fellow petroleum engineers got together and gave him a plaque engraved with Hurry every chance you get. I rescued the plaque from my parents’ house.

I am not all that sad at his passing because I’ve already grieved. Daddy had Alzheimer’s, and he stopped recognizing me in 2015. I realized the father I knew was gone. I shed tears for two years and punched pillows and screamed at God and did all the regular things grieving people do. Daddy’s recent corporeal death is a relief, really, a relief that his clever and kind and wonderful mind is finally free of that awful disease.

Because Alzheimer’s sucks.

The last time Daddy and I had a conversation when he still recognized me, we were walking on the sidewalk outside an Anchorage hospital. Actually, I was walking. He had trouble with his gait by then and was shuffling. He was trying to describe what was going on in his head and getting more agitated with every word. He described how he could “see” chunks of his brain go black.

“I know, Daddy. That’s why you’re under the care of several doctors.”

“Do they have a diagnosis?”

Do I tell him? I didn’t know if it would upset him or if he’d get even more frustrated not knowing. This was new territory for me. Over the next few steps (shuffles) I remembered the honest things he had shared with me over the years, uncomfortable things about why a certain family member was this way, why another relative always did that thing, even what happened to the boy in the pond.

“You have Alzheimer’s,” I said.

His masculine, adult veneer cracked. “Then people will make fun of me,” he whined. I had never heard my dad whine, but I knew the disease did awful things to a victim’s personality.

“No they won’t,” I said. “I won’t let them.” His shoe was untied. He couldn’t tie a shoe anymore, so I knelt down and tied it for him.

“How will you stop them?” His normal voice again.

“I’ll beat ‘em up!” I swung a fist through the air to punctuate my promise.

Daddy laughed. It was the same laugh he used years ago when my adolescent friends and I would be up to some antic or another, as in, Oh, you silly kids.

It didn’t matter that I had told him his diagnosis. By the time the sidewalk ended and we were at the doors to the hospital, the part of his brain that stored me, that remembered conversations, that understood diagnoses, was black.

It may not have made me particularly sad that my dad died last month, but it threw me off kilter. Like God had taken the horizon and tilted it a bit. I found myself stumbling around. What do I do next? Why does it feel like I’m marching in place?

I set up a mini-memorial with his picture, a candle, and the old plaque from his coworkers. Every time I sit down to write I light the candle. Daddy is my muse for now. He reminds me to keep moving forward, to hurry every chance I get.

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