By Sandy Fleming
My most influential early memory of my father is of the day he gave the eulogy at his own father’s funeral. Even though I was only 10, I remember being rapt with admiration at the awesome composure and eloquence with which he delivered what must have been the most difficult address of his prolific public speaking career. That moment held particular meaning for me because it was the first time I had ever heard anyone adequately express the combination of affection and veneration for their father that I felt for him. I was listening to my hero describe his hero in a way that validated my own filial pride as his son.
My Dad is the middle of three sons born to a World War II Army Intelligence Officer turned political science professor and the Parisian hat seamstress he fell in love with while deployed during the Nazi occupation of France. He was so proud to be his parents’ son, and he worked tirelessly to live up to their example of intellectualism, patriotism, and compassionate civic duty. He somehow managed to be the smartest person in most rooms without betraying a hint of superiority or pretention. I loved to do crossword puzzles with him, but I always walked away with the sneaking suspicion that while he’d let me work out a couple of the clues so I could feel like I’d contributed, he probably could have done it faster without me.
He was fiercely passionate about his moral and political beliefs, but he never let his passion supersede his courtesy and composure. He practiced a nostalgic style of etiquette and chivalry, to the point that the only times I remember him losing his temper were when I talked back or lied to my Mom. While honesty and respect were nonnegotiable, his love for me was unconditional.
I never really thought of my dad as old, though I suppose in retrospect he was on the older side relative to my friends’ parents. When I left for college in 2007, he was 58 and had retired from his career as a litigator and public servant. When you’re away from someone for extended periods of time, the gradual changes in their behavior are a little easier to spot because you witness their cumulative effect all at once, instead of constant, desensitizing exposure to the slow, subtle deterioration. Every time I came home from school, the frequency of little uncharacteristic and absentminded mistakes began to steadily grow. Reluctant to inflict the devastation she expected from me, my mom waited until I had graduated in 2011 to tell me that my dad had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease earlier that year. She was astonished at my lack of surprise. He was 62.
By now I’m sure you’ve realized how fortunate I feel to have been born to my parents. Trust me, I could write just as long and heartfelt a tribute to my mom, particularly in light of her heroism since my dad’s diagnosis, but for your sake I’ll save that for another piece. It is a cruel affliction to lose a parent you worship just at the age that you finally grow up enough to appreciate the titanic generosity of parenting and start to look forward to an adult relationship with them. It is something worse to watch their eyes slowly cloud with fear and confusion as their mind, their most reliable asset, begins to betray them with accelerating frequency. There is no better moniker than “The Long Goodbye.”
Since his diagnosis, one of the only comforts for my family has been the support of the Alzheimer’s Association. Not only do they raise desperately needed funds for cure seeking research, but they also provided my mom with reassuring but candid information about the realities of caretaking for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. I could always hear relief in her voice when we would talk after a meeting with their support group, a community of patients and caretakers that helped to mitigate the isolation and stigma of an early onset diagnosis.
Last fall my fiancée, Brianne, recommended that we volunteer to participate and help fundraise for The Palm Beach Walk to End Alzheimer’s. I immediately called my mom to verify her experience with the Association because I knew she would give me her candid opinion of the organization’s services. She unequivocally told me that the Alzheimer’s Association had been an invaluable resource to her, particularly during the early stages when she was seeking information about treatment, expectations for the disease’s progression, and future external care options. Her resounding endorsement sprung us into action and we began soliciting our personal and professional networks for walkers and donations.
At 28 years old, I should not have to refer to my living father in the past tense. Alzheimer’s disease is not reserved for elderly people who have lived full lives and had a chance to know their grandchildren or remember their son’s wedding. Today, I try to be worthy of sharing his name, my most prized possession, and I hope that I find a way to emulate his parenting when I have kids, even though I won’t get to ask him for advice. Our donations of time and money are the lifeblood of organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association who provide comfort to patients and loved ones through support and community, and fight every day to help find a cure.