Our memories inform our personality and the inability to remember really shakes me to my core. However, spending the last 18 months of my father’s life, as he suffered from progressive dementia changed both my perceptions and my expectations about this notion. This series of portraits captures my father’s many moods, alter egos and moments in between during this both bittersweet and enlightening journey.
To put it mildly, my father George loved old movies; especially “Film Noir” and he could literally quote almost every film ever made. In fact, he owned over 2000 titles and his vast film archive was second to none. He also collected records, starting in the 50’s and was a huge fan of jazz and avant-garde music. He was theatrical, but never showy, although he did love to be the center of attention. He played jazz piano, sang, often spoke in rhymes, danced the “soft shoe” at any given moment, and was a gifted hypnotist. I believe growing up isolated with very elderly parents, (his father was 68 and his mother was 47) contributed to his oftentimes socially awkward personality. He was the embodiment of eccentric but literally lived a very private conventional lifestyle as both a husband (married to Loretta for over 60 years) and as a father. In fact, he was quite reclusive and considered himself to just be, “an ordinary man.” Of course, to me he was anything but ordinary, although I didn’t truly know just how special he was until this experience.
For as long as I can remember my father always interlaced his sense of humor with serious issues. Even during his last months he never wavered from that life-long trait. A direct quote that he stated very matter-of-factly about a year before he died summed him up perfectly: “I am waiting to die. I have lived long enough. I am comfortable and I really don’t have any health issues,” then he’d laughingly quip, “that’s the good and the bad news.” Dad’s quirky humor was rooted in his self-perception. On the surface he was a strong character, very self-assured with a quick cutting satirical edge. However, below the surface he was very soft, playful and somewhat self-deprecating. Through his progressing veil of dementia George became almost childlike and you could sense his struggle to hold onto his memory, fully aware that it was quickly slipping away. And even though he grappled with simple activities on a daily basis he held onto the few things that gave him comfort, which I believe enabled him to cope. For instance, he would insist on watching a favorite film, sometimes over and over again, oftentimes for multiple days. I witnessed how this calmed and settled him, seemingly helping him to regain more clarity. One of the most awe-inspiring realities was that through it all he was able to remain adamant about one of the most important choices a person can make, their own end of life decisions.
In fact, the day my father decided to stop eating and drinking full stop, saying it was “essential to his plan” I wasn’t completely surprised. He was clear on what he wanted and we stood in solidarity with his decision. Ten days after that unwavering choice, he got his wish. It was both bittersweet and beautiful to bear witness to his death. Pain free and seemingly more coherent than he had been the months before was inexplicable. He clung to his sense of humor, singing lines from his favorite songs and films, sometimes changing the words to try and make us all laugh.
As I sat beside my father, as he rested in his bed in those last hours, I felt as if I had stepped outside of myself. I was overwhelmed with anxiety, literally devastated as I looked at my father who had grown so thin and weak to the point of no return. I tried to hide my feelings but at one point his eyes locked with mine as he caught my glimpse, instantly lifting my spirits. Then his eyes glistened as he boyishly smiled with a renewed moment of clarity as he lightheartedly instructed me, “Give me a hat honey… take my picture.” He looked straight into the camera, winked at me and then pursed his lips, throwing me a kiss, as he did so often. He was fully aware it would be his last portrait. I knew then and there that he was in control; he was calling the shots with his humor and dignity intact. To me he looked stronger than ever before, full of grandeur his eyes sparkled as he glowed with pride.
(My father George was widowed for 18 months, missing Loretta, his wife of 60 years, whom he referred to as, “Love of my life, love at first sight. He was a WWII Navy veteran and extremely proud of his service joining just 3 days after his 18th birthday. He died exactly one month before his 89th birthday. #GeorgeMyDadInTheHat (instagram) initiated and continues a dialogue with others, many also touched by Alzheimer’s and progressive dementia.)
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