I apologize for the blurriness of this photo - someday, I will learn how to scan and save old ones! This is a picture of a picture in a very scratched old collage frame which cannot be re-opened or I'll lose everything in it. Taken at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary celebration on Kauai in 1991. My parents had been married 64 years when Dad died.
It's been six years now, six years since my dad died. I still talk to him, though. Most often that happens when I'm driving or sitting in solitude somewhere. I've missed him so much these years - but I think I actually began to miss him even before he died. Because one of the hardest parts about watching your parents age and become frail is the sad truth that pieces of them die before their body follows.
Two of my dad's most defining characteristics, the ones that stood out for me all my life, just sort of disappeared in those last three or four years before death came knocking: his two deepest passions seemed to evaporate - his love for the piano and his care and concern for my mom.
The first one was the most evident, I suppose. All of his life, my dad played the piano, and he played it very well indeed. So well that he became the family trophy when he was just a boy, trotted out at gatherings like a small super-star.
And I think he had a pretty mixed attitude toward that. He was a quiet kid and a quiet man. He didn't say much, but what he did say was always worth hearing, his well-chosen words revealing a deep intelligence, a very dry, wry humor or his love and appreciation for his family. So being forced into the limelight didn't sit well with him.
However, if he wanted to be in the limelight, he went for it. And if someone else got attention that he wasn't entirely convinced was well-earned, he ever-so-quietly grumbled about that. He was the primary accompanist for congregational and choral singing in the church where I spent the first 12 years of my life and when we moved to a different community, it was sometimes hard for him to occupy more of a back-seat in the line-up of gifted pianists at our new church.
But whether he had a specific 'job' connected to his music or not, my dad always, ALWAYS played. He practiced hard, learning lots of different kinds and styles of music, from Chopin to Sondheim. Our home was filled with the sound of his big hands caressing those keys, working out intricate harmonies, repeating the tough parts until they literally sang their way into every room. He also had a wonderful ability to play by ear and created medleys of all kinds, entertaining friends and family, playing at banquets and other social gatherings. Even into his early 80's, he enjoyed accompanying a community choral group near their home in Orange County.
Then Parkinson's Disease arrived. And dad could no longer control those great hands. So the piano was played less and less. As his personal care needs accelerated, my two brothers and I became concerned and we encouraged our folks to consider moving to a stepped-care retirement community.
And when they did that, the baby grand piano moved to my daughter's house, where her talented sons continue to play it. We bought dad a great keyboard for their new apartment, one that looked like a spinet piano but sounded like a concert grand. But I don't think he ever really played it - the encroachment of neurological disease brought with it a deepening depression, a distancing from former loves, an inability to find pleasure in very much of what life had to offer him as a frail old man. How I missed that music! And how he must have missed it, too.
And that frailty, those insults to his sense of himself - these hard things also blinded him to the needs of his wife, his primary caregiver and faithful companion. And for me, this was the death that was the very hardest of all.
My parents shared a passionate connection and commitment to one another, an almost tangible spark passed between them as I was growing up under the umbrella of their love. My mother was as vivacious and social as my dad was quiet and reflective, and somehow that balance worked well for them. He adored her sparkle, she relied on his quiet strength.
They always took time away together when we were kids and I always knew EXACTLY why they wanted and needed to do that. I loved watching my father love my mom - it was one of the pillars of my life when I was a child and adolescent. They were quietly affectionate and playful and were truly devoted to each other and to their marriage. Those first 15 years of retirement were great years for them - time spent traveling, playing tennis, entertaining, volunteering at their church and doting on their grandkids.
My mom always thought that dad had rescued her, rescued her from her binge alcoholic father and her over-worked mother. She loved her own family deeply and so did my dad, finding them to be warmer and more open than his own family of origin. But my mom was the caregiver in her family home and dad saved her from that weight of worry and responsiblity. And he introduced her to the world of higher education, valuing her natural intellecual gifts and helping her to blossom. In return, she made him the center of her world and of our family, perhaps creating a high set of expectations, even a sense of entitlement in my dad.
As his health deteriorated, he simply did not see the impact his care was having on my mother. She became exhausted and overwhelmed, unprepared for the toll her devotion would take on her body and her spirit. How I missed seeing that loving husband during those last months and years! In the midst of my grief over his very serious health issues, I found myself sometimes angry at his inability to see beyond them and reach out to my mom in her fatigue. The adult part of me knew that this was more than partially due to the ravaging effects of disease on my dad's brain and nervous system. But the child part? The child part wanted my strong, quiet daddy to step up, to peek out and to reach out - to allow my mom a little respite, to care about her well-being as well as his own.
And it's the child part that still speaks to my dad as I drive and as I muse. And I'm finding that the frustration and anger are dissipating and the confident, secure loving is ascending. My father was and is one of God's greatest gifts in my life. He was not perfect, but I'll tell you, he came damn close. Up until that last bout with a devastating illness, he loved his wife and his family more than life. He had a deep and quiet faith, he was an encourager, a questioner, a thinker, a fine teacher and academician, a noted statistician and author, a loving grandfather and one of the funniest people I ever knew. And I miss him terribly almost every single day. Happy Father's Day, Dad. I love you more than I can say.