WARNING: This post contains movie spoilers.
I took my family to see Man of Steel for Father’s Day. For several days prior to the film’s opening, Daddy told Mother he was dying to go.
“I wanna see the new Superman movie.”
“Well Bobbin’s taking you to see it for Father’s Day!”
“Oh really?! That’s GREAT!”
Ten or so times, Daddy repeated his cinematic desire.
“I wanna go to that new Superman movie.”
“You’re in luck! Bobbin’s taking you to see it for Father’s Day!”
In addition to Henry Cavill’s pillowy yet firm pectoralis major, I appreciated his manifestation of emotion: saving his classmates from drowning after their school bus swerves into a lake and watching his father die in a tornado chisel intensity into his face (and pectoralis major). Cavill exhibits depth far beyond what Dean Cain achieved on Lois & Clark. (I watched Lois & Clark during my formative years, so Dean Cain remains my Superman point of reference.)
Most little girls view their fathers as Men of Steel both physically and emotionally. A former Army Ranger, my father always maintained a particularly stoic temper. He sort of but not really wept in front of me once; my grandfather (his father-in-law) passed away while Timber was studying abroad in London. When we broke the news to Timber upon her return, he quivered while offering his most logical explanation: “I wanted us to grieve t-t-t-together.” Daddy quickly regathered his impenetrable armor and let Timber do the crying.
While Daddy always remained outwardly reserved, his expression suggested otherwise: furrowed brows and physical tics hinted that M16 rifles constantly fired in his mind. His crinkled eyebrows have softened into Alzheimer’s Stare.
Last week Daddy’s childhood best friend’s mother passed away at 96. During the drive to and from the funeral he obsessed over when he and Mother were scheduled to pick up the dogs from the hillbilly pet resort. As if unmoved by or unaware of her death, he didn’t reminisce with other service attendees and continually asked Mother on the ride home, “When are we getting the puppies?”
Finally before bed he mentioned, “Well I’ll miss Aunt Jenny.”
I spent Saturday with Timber, and my friend Kari asked how our dad is doing. Intrigued by what Timber would say, I let her answer: with a shrug. One of the last statements Daddy made to Mother before fading away was:
“Daddy isn’t afraid anymore,” Timber later said when I noted his overall apathy.
Daddy carries on fearlessly, unable to fully feel.
Daddy used to be my Superman but has transformed into a different kind of Man of Steel.
Timber is living in my best friend Leslie’s childhood home in Dahlonega while completing her ER clinical rotation. Because Mr. and Mrs. McAbee are on vacation for the next couple weeks, my parents and I visited Timber this weekend. My public-facing pleasant facade quickly devolved, not only because I feel comfortable in the McAbees’ house but also because I remained frustrated from a family spat that had taken place a couple weeks prior. Despite my efforts to feign contentment, I couldn’t hide my irritation and came across like a teenage bitch, self-absorbed and intent on making everyone else’s life a living hell as well. Aware of my vexation, Timber kept asking me what was wrong. However, I couldn’t find the right words to accurately express how I felt — a plight that Alzheimer’s sufferers eventually face in the progression of the disease. I guess my reticence resulted from years of built-up animosity that can’t be summed up in an hour-long discussion or therapy session — and only can be understood by one of the members of my nuclear family.
Still, I wonder if an Alzheimer’s sufferer who points to a jug of sweet tea and asks someone to pass the whatchyamacallit, or who snaps his fingers while identifying an old friend as whoseywhatsit, feels the way I did, choking on thoughts that refuse to move from mind to tongue.
This loss of vocabulary and down the road, speech, explains why many Alzheimer’s patients cry out of exasperation. After Timber continued prodding me, I burst into tears because I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.
I eventually let down my unpleasant guard and lay beside Daddy in Leslie’s bed where he had been napping all afternoon after lunch at 2 Dog in Gainesville, the neighboring town. I forced Timber and Mother to join us for a daughter sandwich, flanked by Mother on one side and Daddy on the other. I suggested we skinny dip together in the McAbees’ pool, but everyone refused.
“You would swim naked if it were just you and Mother, wouldn’t you, Daddy?” I asked.
“I most certainly would NOT!” he huffed.
Mother and Timber left fully clothed for the pool, and I followed them naked — my style of a peace offering, a heartfelt truce.
When Mother and Daddy arrived home that evening, she immediately zonked out on the couch and didn’t wake up until 7 the next morning.
“I know I got a good night’s rest because I didn’t fall asleep during church this morning,” Mother said on the phone. (Her head typically rolls around during every sermon.)
Mother might think solid sleep prepared her for a boring Sunday service, but I prefer to believe our family spooning session on Leslie’s bed is what rejuvenated her the most.
My father never liked to talk on the telephone. However, he used to stay on the line with me to discuss the urgency of my earning an MBA, the importance of my starting a Roth IRA, or the irreparable economy. Now Daddy is either disinterested in or incapable of elaborating on the topics that once facilitated father-daughter conversation. These days our 2-minute-tops phone chats revolve around one thing: my cat MacGyver.
“How’s MacGyver doin’?” he always asks.
“He’s doing well. His automatic food dispenser went off, so he’s happy to be eating dinner.”
“That’s my grandcat. He’s a grand cat – literally AND figuratively!”
I laugh as if Daddy never had made this joke before. Half of the time, he asks the same question 10 seconds later.
“How was your day?” I attempt to switch the subject.
“Good. Slept a lot. So how’s MacGyver doin’?”
“He’s doing great. He’s eating dinner.”
“Let me tell you, that’s a grand cat – literally AND figuratively!”
“I know, Daddy. He’s grand all around.”A little history: MacGyver’s weight posed a problem until I started feeding him prescription diet food about a year ago. His formerly grand physique continues to provide family joke fodder. Despite MacGyver’s new lithe silky build, perhaps Daddy still remembers his grandcat as borderline rotund and himself as lanky despite his rapid ingestion of chocolate and hot dogs, and subsequent weight gain.
Ryan and I recently considered the idea of buying a house, and I felt sad I couldn’t talk to my father about it.
“You should try,” Ryan encouraged me.
Daddy immediately attempted to get off the phone, but I semi-forced the subject.
“Any advice?” I winced and asked.
“Well… just get somethin’ ya like. Buyin’ a home is the best investment you will ever make.”
Three years ago Daddy would have approved of the idea but also broken down the hidden costs of home ownership, told me to kiss my love of clothing goodbye, and mentioned that my generation never will enjoy the quality of life our parents achieved.
Still, he said something.
“Yup. How’s MacGyver doin’?”
“He’s awesome. He wants to make sure we buy a house with adequate bird- and squirrel-watching windows.”
“That MacGyver is a grand cat – literally AND figuratively!”
I laughed and released Daddy from the phone so he could go back to sleep.
Over the past few months I’ve watched movies depicting male protagonists with fathers suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. While the actors portraying said fathers fulfill only minor roles according to the credits, they add major depth to the plots for me.
In 50/50 Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a twenty-something who develops a malignant spinal tumor, and surmises via Internet research he has a 50% chance to survive. Although the majority of the film revolves around Levitt’s coping with his diagnosis and the toll it takes on his relationships with family, friends, and his girlfriend, a few scenes illustrate the painful distance between Levitt and his father – a distance widened, I believe, by Alzheimer’s disease. At one point Levitt’s father introduces himself to his own son as if they never had met. Later the father responds dispassionately when Levitt says “I love you” before undergoing traumatic spinal surgery. My father recognizes me and still frequently asks about my cat. However, his apathy gradually has increased over the past year. Daddy’s always thoughtful furrowed brow has become a crinkled confused gaze – much like the vacant expression that remains on Levitt’s father. I guess I would call that harrowing look Alzheimer’s Stare.
My husband Ryan lay comatose in front of Friends with Benefits one Sunday evening, and I caught snippets of the story while flitting around the house. However, a strong subplot grabbed my attention. Justin Timberlake’s father has Alzheimer’s disease and requires supervision. Timberlake asks his buddy to check on his father periodically while he’s out one evening, but explains to his father that his friend needs to borrow the kitchen instead.
“I know you’re sending him over to check on me,” his father responds [in a nutshell], still quite cognizant of his condition.
I often wonder if Daddy understands just how much his personality has dissipated, or if the majority of his social withdrawal can be attributed to memory loss, not identity atrophy. After all, conversations often revolve around recent personal events, the news, and other topics involving the retention of new information.
This weekend my family dined at a hole-in-the-wall oyster bar to celebrate Timber’s graduation from Physician Assistant school. When Daddy announced he was going to use the restroom, I flung myself over our picnic table to follow him, in case he became disoriented or lost.
When we returned to the table he said, “It’s a good thing you sent Bobbin to the bathroom with me because they moved it.” (I had accompanied him there a half hour prior as well.)
How demoralizing it must be to recognize you have to be babysat; how inspiring my father is for carrying on with a sense of humor.
The simplicity of our beer orders, even, became chaotic. Ryan requested a Yuengling; me, a Blue Moon; Daddy, a Miller Lite. However, when the waitress dropped off our brews, Daddy seemed confident he had asked for the Yuengling. To the waitress, we probably looked catty, ruthless, crazy.
“Well you know I’ve got this memory problem,” Daddy finally conceded.
At dinner the next night I watched Daddy grind his teeth – a habit he has formed since developing Alzheimer’s. I often grind my teeth while engaging in an intense daydream or thought; maybe that means Daddy’s brain is wheeling with activity after all.
I appreciate Hollywood’s recent inclusion of minor characters with Alzheimer’s disease. If a movie character were based on my father, he should be the focus, the hero.
My big sister Timber is blunt. I don’t know where she gets it. The rest of our nuclear family thrives on passivity while Timber enjoys engaging in verbal vitriol. She has no problem telling Daddy he’s gotten fat. The other day Timber asked Daddy if he would like to join her for a walk.
“Nope!” he answered.
“You need to exercise. You’ve gotten fat.”
Daddy lifted his iPad over his head, slammed it on the floor and screamed, “THAT’S BULLSHIT!”
I wonder if Daddy only remembers the 50-pound-lighter version of himself. Perhaps Daddy’s short-term memory loss explains his daily shock to discover his pants no longer fit. Timber’s relentless reminders even can’t permeate the tangles in his brain.
“Do you want to get fat? Because you already are,” she noted the other day when Daddy refused to accompany Mother to the gym.
Timber lived with Ryan and me for the entire month of April while completing a psychiatry clinical rotation as part of her Master of Physician Assistant degree. She traveled to three different hospitals over the course of four weeks and observed both support groups and one-on-one therapy sessions for people recovering from addictions or psychiatric episodes.
Every evening she brought home new information that could be applied to my own set of mental problems.
“Today the group took a quiz to determine whether they exhibit passive or aggressive behavior,” Timber began, handing me a blank worksheet. “I would like to think that I am assertive.”
“I know. You’re flawless,” I squinted.
“Take the quiz. I want to know how you score.”
“Whatever, you know you’re aggressive.”
The next night Timber staged an intervention of sorts with Ryan and me.
“Y’all take a cab when you’ve been drinking, right?” she asked with her arms crossed, blocking the TV.
“Yeah. Most of the time,” Ryan answered.
“People often are more intoxicated than they realize, and drive when they shouldn’t be operating a vehicle,” she continued.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I moaned, swatting her away from the latest episode of Wives with Knives on the Investigation Discovery channel.
The following Saturday I woke up with scabs on my knee and hand, unaware of their origin.
“That’s a sign of drunkenness,” Timber blurted from the corner while sipping tea.
“Whatever, I remember now. I fell on a fountain. So there!”
“I really want you to go to WHC* for your eating disorder,” Timber notified me another night, forcing me to accept one of the counselor’s cards.
“I don’t have an eating disorder anymore. I eat!” I huffed.
“You have an unhealthy image of your body.”
“Thank you so much for your daily critique” became my mechanical response to Timber’s nightly intrusions.
Around week two I started making fun of Timber’s lectures. “A schizophrenic patient at the clinic really reminded me of you today… I met a meth addict with a personality very similar to yours this morning…” I mocked her.
“Bobbin,” Timber sighed. “You act as though this experience didn’t cause me to engage in any self-reflection at all.
“Ha! So you aren’t perfect!! ! ! !” I stomped.
*Facility acronym has been changed.
Last week I ate lunch with a friend whose father recently passed away. She vividly described her father during his last days (uncomfortable and solely concerned with water and food) and noted she doesn’t want to remember him that way. It must be hard not to cling to those final images of our loved ones.
If Daddy wakes up every morning believing he’s 50 pounds lighter and a few years younger, I wonder if that mode of thinking also applies to Timber and me — those years before we started building our own families and lives. I can’t blame him for running on a treadmill time machine: physically present but mentally stuck in the past. For Daddy those were happier days.
My father’s family physician demanded that he stop driving more than a year ago. Subsequent visits to the neurologist and psychologist ended with them asking my mother, “You’ve taken the keys away, right?” On a medical chart under the “Driving” section, one doctor wrote “Never” in red and underlined it. Daddy without a doubt no longer can safely operate a vehicle.
In an instant Mother’s role switched from carefree passenger to constant chauffeur, from wife to exhausted caregiver. While Daddy remains the captain of his soul, Mother steers his day-to-day life. Daddy’s overall loss of independence is emasculating, but, to me, driving in particular underscores a father’s manhood. This past Christmas my father-in-law drove my husband, mother-in-law, and me around his neighborhood to scope out the entrants for the annual community holiday light competition. He navigated the side streets and cul-de-sacs while we suctioned ourselves to the windows, noting the sophistication of classic manger scenes; smiling at old-fashioned bubble lights; and laughing at a tacky ice skating Snoopy that actually moved. My stomach packed into a snowball when I thought about Daddy, unable to take us on Christmas light car tours; on long, scenic rides through the North Georgia mountains; or somewhere as simple as the store.
The other day Mother left Daddy at home while she ran a few errands. My uncle, however, had come over to complete some yard work Daddy can’t do anymore. When Mother returned, her brother approached her with a confused expression, apprehensive about whether to bring up what weighed on his mind.
“What?!” she prodded.
“Uh. Is he s’posed to be drivin’?”
While Mother was away, Daddy backed the truck out of the garage and down the driveway, and left.
“He wudn’t gone all that long,” my uncle said.
“And how did he get the keys?!” I hysterically interrogated Mother when she later relayed the story to me.
“I left them in the ignition. They are hidden now,” she emphasized before I could freak out.
Perhaps Daddy escaped to the local Citgo station to purchase a candy bar, or coasted across nearby Cornelison Road to view the chicken houses and open fields and corn rows. Another lost freedom is taking a country drive alone.
The driving incident reminded me of a poem I wrote for Daddy in college, when per usual I mourned his future death.
The Meteor Shower
At four a.m. Daddy shines his flashlight in my face,
pulls me out of bed and says “C’mon.”
I follow his lean silhouette down the hall,
the sound of the pine needles crackling under his feet.
He stops at the top of the hill and opens his arms
to magnificent meteors drizzling down the sky.
“That one’s headed for Memphis,” he says, as I realize that,
like stars, my daddy’s not forever.
That star must have melted over Memphis
when my single tear hit the ground.
My excitement over Easter might confuse my hardcore religious friends since I no longer attend church or follow the strict dogma by which I was raised. However, the story of Jesus’ resurrection in tandem with spring inspires me to celebrate rejuvenation, rebirth, and reconnection with my loved ones.And I won’t lie: the commercialization of Easter appeals to me, too. Every year my mother presents Timber and me with a basket filled with seasonal candy and other items we perhaps expressed a need for over the winter, such as facial moisturizers, muffin pans, or toenail polish. The only item that Mother consistently nestles amongst Cadbury Creme Eggs and fake pastel grass is a selection of “five for 25″ panties from Victoria’s Secret. Before I discovered boy shorts, I went through a phase of sporting thongs, as I assumed they were my only option for maintaining an invisible panty line. Dressed in my Sunday best, I hung lacey, stringy, and faux rosebud-spotted thongs on my arm and swung it around as a gesture of gratitude, surrounded by my clapping Mother; equally stoked sister; and silent, tolerant father.
This year Mother requested that I select some panties for my Easter basket, but I didn’t have time to scour the Victoria’s Secret site for an assortment of boy shorts. One recent night while I was rushing to get ready to go out with Ryan, Mother called. Stressed, I put the call on speaker:
“Bobbin? Bobbin?! HELLO?” Mother yelled.
“I just wanted to check. Have you picked out some panties for your Easter basket yet?”
Ryan paused his iPhone He-Man game to shake his head in disbelief.
“You have an interesting relationship with your family,” he later commented.On Sunday Mother presented Daddy, Timber, Ryan, and me with generous Easter goody bags. I ogled Timber while she surveyed her bag’s contents until she reached the panties on the bottom layer. She held up one unique pattern, paused, and moved onto the next pattern until done displaying her new underwear. (Ryan received not underwear but wine.)
After the basket fest, I made a special egg dish for Daddy and Ryan, and summoned both of them to join me in the breakfast room. Daddy stopped in the kitchen, hovered over a bowl of deviled egg stuffing, and spooned it onto his plate, confusing the yolk/mustard/vinegar mixture for his breakfast.
“Mmm-MMM!” he exclaimed.
“Robert! NO!” Mother screamed.
Once I figured out the source of commotion, I yelled, “Come in here, Daddy! I already set up your food on the table!”
“That does look like a bowl of scrambled eggs,” Ryan defended Daddy.
I admit that Easter this year didn’t feel rejuvenating at least on the surface. When we walked the dogs at the local recreation center, Daddy’s gait seemed noticeably slower and more like a shuffle; we didn’t talk about much until I hit the jackpot asking him about R&R from the Vietnam War in Australia; and the deviled egg breakfast mix-up was both funny and disturbing.
However, I insist on rising from the sorrow of Alzheimer’s and connecting with my family on a deeper level. Next year and every following year, I aim to give my mother an Easter basket.