I’m going to take you back to a Christmas that happened close to 20 years ago. This is what I remember.
This was on a Christmas afternoon eight months after my divorce. My kids and I were visiting my parents in Vevay, Ind. During the visit, my kids had done something to provoke my father — probably making too much noise, laughing or just being kids. My father clearly wasn’t himself.
He was usually a quiet man who didn’t have much to say but that wasn’t the case on this Christmas. He had a very harsh warning for my daughter and son, telling them to be quiet or he’d spank them. I’ll never forget the look of anger on his face as he shook his cane at them. He scared my kids. He scared me.
As my father approached them, I blocked his way telling him to leave my kids alone. He shook his cane at me, too, then walked away going into his bedroom to rest.
This isn’t a Christmas story I necessarily want to remember but it has stuck with me through the years. It was the beginning of a change for my father.
Some weeks after this incident, we found out he had Alzheimer’s disease. Some weeks later, after threatening to kill my mother, he was placed in a nursing home. My mother could no longer handle him.
If I said that the illness turned him into someone I no longer knew, that wouldn’t be true. The fact is I never really knew him at all.
Talking with my father meant talking about my job, my car, the weather or if I wanted him to make me a cup of coffee.
I’m serious. We never talked about anything meaningful.
While growing up, he was a father obsessed with work. He worked on the docks at a distillery in Lawrenceburg, Ind., and then would come home and tend to our small farm close to Vevay. He couldn’t sit still. My father always had to be doing something.
This didn’t include doing something with his kids. I don’t remember him ever playing a game with us, tossing me a ball, reading to us or even helping with homework. If he had any interest in his kids, he didn’t know how to show it.
I remember once my mother insisted he take me and my brothers fishing at a nearby neighbor’s lake. You could tell he didn’t want to do it, in fact hated the idea. It wasn’t work. It was a fun activity, and that was something he didn’t know anything about.
We got to the lake, couldn’t find any worms in the ground for bait, put our cane polls in the water anyway and then when we didn’t catch any fish my father said it was a waste of time and we went home. Maybe this “fun” activity took all of 20 minutes. Afterwards, my father went back to work.
Growing up in my teen years, we sometimes would have shouting matches but I can’t remember what they were really about. What I do remember is I was always frustrated with his strong work ethic and the fact I couldn’t talk to him.
I got older, got married and started my own adult life. My mother was still a part of my life and so was my father, but he was just kind of there — sort of in the background. At that point, even if he wanted to talk about meaningful things, I wasn’t paying much attention.
Some years went by. When my twin brother died in late September 1994, I thought that maybe my father would show some grief or say something about one of his sons dying. He never said a word to me about it, never saw him cry or show any kind of emotion.
But maybe he did care. Shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my mother told me that after my brother died my father gave up on himself. Did this sideways kind of grieving help bring on his dementia? I don’t know. I’ll never know.
Thinking of my father as yet another Christmas approaches with him gone leads me to believe I did learn an important lesson from him. While I’m certainly not a perfect father, at least my now two adult children know who I am.
It’s fun to talk to them about what’s going on in their lives, their world and what they think. They know what I think, too. While we don’t always agree on what I think they should be doing or what they think I should be doing, in the end, it works out OK. We talk to each other. We know each other.
My father has been gone for many years now. Remembering back to the last few years of his life, my kids and I would visit him in the nursing home at Christmas. We would bring him gifts and talk to him while he mostly said nothing to us. He didn’t really know who we were anymore, didn’t even remember shaking his cane at his grandkids some Christmases before.
Oddly, at the end of his life our relationship was just like the beginning. He never knew me, and I never knew him. It is what it is. I can’t change anything now. It makes me sad.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: firstname.lastname@example.org