Friday, May 27, 2011

Dad Forgets. I Remember. Barbara (Ruth)

Father’s Day is just around the corner. In my family we’ve never really done much about Father’s Day (or Mother’s Day, for that matter). Just a card, maybe breakfast in bed, or a trip to Dairy Queen. But this year I’ve been thinking about him a lot, and I thought I’d tell you about him.

You see, Dad has advanced multi-infarct dementia, sometimes called vascular dementia. The signs and symptoms are very similar to Alzheimers, but the progression is different. Where Alzheimers is a condition with gradual decline, multi-infarct dementia is caused by a series of tiny, nearly undetectable strokes that happen over years and years. These strokes attack various parts of the brain, impacting vocabulary, memory, motor function, behaviour, and cognitive ability. Because there is no decline without a stroke, the person can be stable for some time, and then have a decline of varying degree. In this way, it’s like a step-function progression.

The result, however, is just like Alzheimers. Friends and families watch their loved one slip away. I guess it’s about 5 years since Dad was diagnosed and his driver’s license revoked, 3 years since he started to have trouble with simple tasks, and 2 years since he started to need extra attention. Today my Dad is nearly 83, with three degrees including a PhD in Organic Chemistry, 30 years in the pulp & paper industry and another 10 or so in innovation research. And he doesn’t know how to write his own name.

I want to tell you who my Dad is, deep down inside. I don’t want people to look at him and see an old man with food spilled down the front of his shirt, who shuffles his feet and says things that make no sense. I want them to know that he’s brilliant, and funny, and has a gorgeous baritone voice. That he can build a canoe from scratch, tell a fabulous story, play the banjo and ukelele, and win every hand of cribbage. And mostly, I want you to know what a kind, generous, and good man my Dad is.

He’s always been a story-teller, whether in song (all those songs from the 30s and 40s tell a story) or in jokes (he always blushed when telling an off-colour joke). My Dad is hilarious – he still is! I could recount some of his jokes but they wouldn’t be funny to you – you have to see the delivery to really laugh deep down. Thankfully Dad and I have quite a few “inside jokes”, and last time I was there he couldn’t put a sentence together, but he remembered a couple of our signals, and so we had some good non-verbal moments where we laughed and laughed.
Dad telling a story on his 80th birthday in 2008
Dad always told us stories about what it was like growing up, and these stories were so colourful and detailed that we could picture them like any happy 1940s movie. About 10 years ago my Mum got Dad to write a few of his stories down, thank goodness. I still have them – as a kid we called them “Grammy stories”, because they were about his childhood with his mother, our Grammy.

Music has also been a big part of his life. Whether whistling while he worked, playing the ukelele around the campfire, or humming lullabies to soothe cranky babies as he held them close to his chest, music was always in his head. My fondness for Sirius XM’s Channel 004 (Forties on Four) is thanks to Dad, for he introduced me to Artie Shaw, Bennie Goodman, and Glenn Miller. I still love Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing”, and every time I listen, I see Dad jitterbugging around the room or playing “air clarinet” along with Benny’s solos.

Before his hearing went, Dad sang in classic and church choirs, and even some barbershop quartets. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a fan of barbershop – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you have, you know that in addition to having gorgeous voices, they usually have some kind of “shtick” or fun in their performance. Dad was the deep-voiced member of any foursome, and was the one you could count on to hit that loooooow note, and add the “boom boom boom” before any entry to the chorus. Oh he was such a ham!

Dad is incredibly smart. Did I mention his PhD in Organic Chemistry? Who does that? By choice? Sadly, chemistry was my lowest mark in high school – I just hated it and still don’t understand what a mole is, other than a blind rodent. I can hear my Mum now, shouting from the kitchen as Dad tried (and failed) to help me with homework: “David! You can’t give a PhD answer to a high school student!”

Dad’s birthday is August 1st, which makes him a Leo. And as a Leo, he is warm-hearted, open, honest, and sincere. He can talk to ANYONE – he’s one of those people who is equally comfortable talking to a CEO or a janitor. People of all ages truly like him. He is compassionate and kind – years ago when we lived in New York, a group of families moved into our neighbourhood from the Hasidic community. There was tension between the long-time residents of the neighbourhood and the new Hasidic families because they were so different from everyone else. Their speech, clothing, habits, and even children’s games were not like ours at all. Yet my Dad spoke to his new neighbours with respect, offering to help them when needed, and building a sense of trust. So much so, that on my sister’s wedding day, a group of four Hasidic families brought a wedding gift to the house – that was simply unheard of.

What else can I tell you about him? Dad is a big man. He is 6’ 2”, and I guess over his adult life he averaged between 190 and 200 lbs. He has steely blue eyes, a full head of hair, and a hearty laugh. He is a man of faith, having been raised in the Baptist church, and then spending his adult life in either the Presbyterian or United churches. He loves the ocean and everything to do with it – sand, salt, sun, and seafood. His hockey team is the Maple Leafs. He used to be a whiz at crossword puzzles. He is handy, and did some beautiful woodwork.  He can spit cherry pits pretty far, and roasts a mean ear of corn at summer barbecues.

And as a father, he is an unqualified success. My sisters and I simply cherish him.

I could go on. But I think you get the idea that my Dad is a multi-faceted man, and all of these things are still there, but buried by these little strokes. When I visit, Dad knows me. He can’t tell me my name, but he knows what it “isn’t”. He chats with the other residents of the assisted living condo where he and my Mum live. The staff there love him, of course, and they don’t care when he talks and nonsense comes out.

And even though he has his days which are worse than some, there are still moments where he sparkles. Those are the moments I hold on to. Because although Dad forgets how to play cribbage or tell a story, I remember for him. And then we both laugh.


  1. And those are memories worth having... wonderfully remembered and written, Ruth...

  2. I am moved to tears as I read this~what a loving tribute to your father. What a wonderful example of a gentlemen your father is.There is nothing like a man with a sense of humor, one of the many things I adore about my husband, Sam.His quick wit has always helped me not take myself too seriously.
    My dad is also a chemistry genius, although he does not have his PhD, just his masters. He was in the cosmetic industry for over 30 years creating new formulas and running the labs for many different cosmetic companies. (Avon, Coty, Revlon, to name a few. having 4 daughters, all that free make-up came in handy!He would bring home samples for us to try and ask us what we thought of them.
    He is having a hard time being retired, as he wasn't given a choice in that~ He lived for his work.
    Thank you for the reminder to treasure the things that matter most in people and in life.

  3. I don't know you but I wanted to say what a lovely tribute to your father, an obvious success story as a professional, a citizen and more importantly a father. So glad that you are able to treasure those memories and the sparkles that your Dad still has!

  4. Ruth, As always you have shown how much you appreciate your Dad by this wonderful essay highlighting his great qualities. On the few occassions we spent time with him, he was certainly many of the above things. He's lucky to have such a great caring daughter and we wish him and your Mom well.

  5. This is a really beautiful and touching post, Ruth. Thank you for sharing these wonderful stories about your father. I remember his gorgeous singing voice and his sense of humour, but many of these stories are new to me. What stands out most about the post is the special bond between the two of you.

  6. Well done! Ruth you are not only an amazing daughter but a beautiful writer - not to mention a great cook!!

  7. Lovely post,and it brought more than a few tears to my eyes! Your father and mother are very fortunate to have such a loving daughter, and what a wonderful way to keep all your memories so alive!


  8. What a nice post, Ruth! I have to admit, it brought several tears to my eyes...not only were they wonderful memories, but it was so well-written...what a nice tribute!

  9. What a beautiful post Ruth- I was moved to tears. It made me think of my grandfather, who I was very very close to. He lived an amazing life (incidentally- he had a PhD in Plant Chemistry and his brother had a PhD in Organic Chemistry!) and in his last few years it was hard to see his decline. Your Dad is lucky to have you and you, to have him. J