Alzheimer’s disease is what made the difference in my relationship with my father.  It saved us and it transformed our relationship.

I know that sounds strange and perhaps even cruel, given that Alzheimer’s is a horrible, degenerative disease.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  But, for me and my father….  Well, there was a blessing in there…

For most of my life, my father was a scary man – an Italian “machismo” alpha male, socially and physically dominating, imposing his will on his wife and children with an angry voice and demeanor – a “Stanley Kowalski”-type, loud and boisterous with a love of dancing, parties, and beautiful women.

I do remember loving him when I was very  little, running to meet him at the door every day when he came home from work, jabbering away at the dinner table, trying to drown out my brothers and sister to be the one to get his attention with all my stories, some real and some made up.  I remember he laughed and I thought that was great.

When I was four or five, I started a practice of giving him a fake “manicure” every night after dinner while he watched his favorite shows on television.  I would bring my little stool to sit beside his chair and pretend to file each nail and then buff them with a handkerchief that I had rolled up to look  like a real nail buffer.  I don’t know how I knew about manicures, but I did – and that was how I showered him with my love and affection.

Something changed when I was 11.  That’s when my mother had her first heart attack and went into the hospital for two weeks — and I had to cook the food, which I burned, and do the laundry, which I ruined —  mixing the red towels with the white sheets — for which I got in trouble every night when he came home.  I was really scared:  scared of messing up, scared my mother would die, and scared that my father would yell at me.

It never occurred to me that he might be scared, too.

So, scary is how I thought of him then – even after I had taken a stand for myself on the fourth or fifth day of her hospital stay – the same fourth or fifth day in a row that I burned the dinner – and I turned to his angry ranting and said, “You can’t yell at me like that anymore.  I don’t know how to do these things and yelling at me won’t make a difference.”

Things were never the same between me and my father after that.  There was an awkward distance between us.  We would try to have a conversation every once in a while, but it always deteriorated into rolling eyes, anger, and a phone slammed down, or stomping out of the room by one or both of us.

By the time I went away to college, I was relieved not to have to see him every day anymore.

I went to an all-girls school.  Every year, they had a “Father-Daughter Day” and, for the first two years, I invited him to come, which he did.

It rained on “Father-Daughter Day”.  As we walked under his umbrella, I watched the other girls with their fathers, arms around each other’s waists, snuggling together under their umbrellas, as I tried desperately to hold the handle of ours without having to touch his hand.  That’s when I understood that I had a strange relationship with my father – a relationship that other girls didn’t have.

In my junior year, I didn’t invite my father to come.  I thought it would pass un-noticed, but it didn’t.  One day, he asked me when “Father-Daughter Day” was.  I lied and said, “That’s just for freshman and sophomores.  No one in the upper classes does that.”

I didn’t look at him when I said it, but I think he knew I was lying.

It went on like that for most of my life.  I had as little to do with him as possible.  I had a life and he wasn’t in it – and I didn’t think he cared any more than I did.

When he was in his early 80’s, his behavior became erratic and we realized that he couldn’t live alone anymore.  My sister found a terrific assisted-living Marriott for him. Even then, he was grumpy and cantankerous – he didn’t want to go, he didn’t want to stay, he used to escape whenever he could get out, and the director would have to call us to say they had caught my father trying to get off the grounds.

Soon, they called to say that he couldn’t take care of himself anymore – and the dreaded diagnosis was delivered:  my father had Alzheimer’s disease.  That particular Marriott had an Alzheimer’s wing and we made a decision that he would stay there.  He was accepted into that program and I breathed a sigh of relief – that someone else would be taking care of him and it wouldn’t have to be me.

God works in mysterious ways and this time was no different.

My own life had been falling apart for years – I was separated from my husband, my son had chosen to live with his Dad, and I was virtually a recluse, not working, going out only to the gym and to the store, dating men I had no business dating, spiraling down into who knows what?  I sold my beautifully renovated three-bedroom apartment and prepared to move into a rental – which fell through at the last moment, leaving me with no place to live.

My brother’s daughter was getting married, so I put all my stuff in storage, packed a few bags, and headed to my brother’s house where the weekend visit for her wedding turned into a two-month stay.

My sister picked my father up and brought him to the wedding.  That’s the night I noticed that he was no longer his boisterous, party-loving self – he was quiet and distant and sat in his chair, saying almost nothing the whole evening.  I remembered how much he loved to dance.  Years before, my father had been an Arthur Murray dance instructor.   I asked him if he wanted to dance.

He followed me to the dance floor.  Suddenly, a remnant of his former self appeared.   On the dance floor that night, my father transformed into the fabulous dancer that he had once been, leading me strongly across the floor as if he were still a young man.  We glided and turned effortlessly — the way it always is with a good dancer.

When the music was over, so was he.  His shoulders slumped and he walked back to his seat – where he sat for the rest of the night.

Something shifted inside me.  I caught a glimpse of what he must have been when he was much younger — and I remembered what it was like before he was scary all the time.  For so many years, everything that he was or did was colored for me by his anger and impatience.   There was no anger or impatience that night.

The next week, we got a call that he was in the hospital.  He started to bleed in the bathroom and he continued to bleed so much that they couldn’t do anything to find out what was causing it until they could get the bleeding to stop.

I had planned to use my brother’s house as my base to travel into the city to find another apartment.   My father’s car had been there ever since we took it away from him because it wasn’t safe for him to drive anymore.  Since my father was in the hospital over an hour away, I started driving his car to the hospital every day to see him.  I don’t remember consciously saying, “I’ll go visit him every day.”  It just seemed like the natural thing to do — and there was the car.

Once there, I talked to him, I straightened his bedclothes; I bathed his face and his hands.  Most of the time, what he talked about made no sense to me – sometimes he even lapsed into Italian, his first language.  I smiled and answered and reassured him, although I never got the sense that he really understood what I was saying.  Often, I had to champion for him with the nurses who were over-worked and forgot to shave him or didn’t respond quickly enough when he needed a bedpan or to have it removed from under him.

I started cutting his nails and cleaning them every day before I left.  It took a while before I flashed back on how I gave him his manicures when I was little.  The moment I thought of that, I looked up and caught him staring at me with a slight smile curling up at the corners of his mouth.  I smiled back at him and finished cleaning his nails.

Every day, before I left him, I shook his top sheet and folded it back down across his lap.  I smoothed it out and tucked it in loosely at the sides.  One day, as I was performing this ritual, he looked at me and said — as lucid and as clear as could be –“You know, Linda, you turned out to be a nice girl after all.”  Laughing,  I said, “Daddy, I always was a nice girl.  You just never noticed before.”  He laughed with me.  A moment later, he stopped and looked away.  He was gone again.

I stood there, watching him for a while.  He looked so helpless and so innocent.  All those angry years – his AND mine — melted away and I saw who he really was – a man who tried to do his best to raise his family and probably didn’t know how to do that.

I cried the whole way home to my brother’s house that night.  I thought about my father when my mother was in the hospital and how it must have been for him, with 4 children under the age of 12.  I thought about how scared he must have been because we were so young and couldn’t take care of ourselves, what with me burning the food and ruining the laundry.  He must have worried about what he would do if she didn’t come home.  I thought about how I had blamed him and took myself away from him – never giving him a break as someone who was just doing the best he could.  I realized how angry and impatient I had been with him all those years.

I thought of how I wouldn’t forgive him for just being human.

The next day, I went back to the hospital and I was a different person with him.  I was lively and excited and listened more intently, and I looked at him – all the time.  Every once in a while, he smiled back. Every once in a while, he looked happy to see me.

Alzheimer’s is an awful disease – but, for me and my father, it gave me the opportunity to see his humanity.  We were both redeemed.

He did finally go back to the Marriott for another year before he died.  He even got himself a girlfriend there – a sweet lady who also had Alzheimer’s.  The director had to call us again – this time to let us know that he was “having a relationship” with this lady and was it OK with us?  I was happy this time – not relieved that I didn’t have to take care of him, but happy that he found someone to be with in loving relationship before he died.  He deserved that.

We all do.

Happy Father’s Day.

Deliciously yours in the Innocence of it All, Linda

The blog post title is from Harry Chapin’s hit song, “Cat’s in the Cradle”:

“I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu,
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me,
He’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon.
“When you coming home, son?” “I don’t know when,
But we’ll get together then, dad.
You know we’ll have a good time then.””          …by Sandy and Harry Chapin   Here’s Harry Chapin singing the song:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zH46SmVv8SU

This is my father, Ralph L. Ruocco, when he was in the army and dating my mother.

© Linda Ruocco and “Spiritual Chocolate”, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Linda Ruocco and ”Spiritual Chocolate” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Thank you.

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