My father, my dad, my friend, my role model, my example…there will always now be a hole in the world where you were. Yet there will also be a wealth of memories and legacy of you. Alzheimer’s took the memory from you, but it could not, cannot, will not take the memory of you. In the end, all the memories that left you did not evaporate away but left you and filled all of us. I know now that over the last years when I would ask “Do you remember…?” and I would know you didn’t, maybe I was asking myself the questions more. Do I remember? Do we remember?
Nancy Reagan said of Alzheimer’s that it is a long goodbye. And I have been saying goodbye to you for the last eight years. What a strange disease it is…it spreads all the pain, the grief, the frustration and anger, the helplessness, the loss out over the years. It spreads the celebration of life, though, the reminiscing, the connection, the love, the holding on out also. Death not in an instant, but death over a decade. Life filling the same decade. People have asked me if it helped that we knew, that we saw it coming, that it was a long, drawn out process. Well, it helps and it doesn’t. People have asked me if I had my goodbye, if I said my goodbye. As though I could trace it to just one. I feel like I’ve said goodbye to you a hundred times.
And yet, as I sat with you all of your last night, sang to you, rubbed your shoulder, and watched you as a you gasped and fought for each breath, it hurt just as bad as if it had been an end that was sudden. It helps that I know you are at peace now. It also still hurts though. A hundred or more goodbyes, all simultaneous hellos. I came to accept that each time I walked through the door at the nursing home, whether you smiled at me or didn’t recognize me, I said hello and at the same time, a new goodbye. Sometimes, I liked most to just sit next to you, while you ate, not even really aware of me. It meant so much to just be with you…more than words or memories or recognition or awareness. It was the moment. A hundred hellos, a hundred goodbyes, a thousand moments. You couldn’t really hold on to the memories, preserve them, catalog them, and recall them. But’s it’s okay, dad, you didn’t need to always remember me…I remembered for you. And now I’ll never forget you.
I’ll never forget so many things, big and small, things that made me who I am today and things that passed the time. I’ll always remember the example you were of relentless hard work, of determination, perseverance, and conviction. I’ll remember writing out all the college football bowl games, and taking turns making our picks, how competitively I wanted to beat you, how I smiled when I knew you picked a team just because they were a Southern team from the SEC against a PAC-12 team that I knew was having a really good season and I thought “I got ya on that one”, how then you still ended up winning more than me. We’d skip whose turn it was so that you’d get to pick for Mississippi State’s bowl game (when they actually went to one!) (and I always wanted to pick State too!) and I’d get to pick for USC. I remember how you’d let me pick if it was a game with UCLA, so I could pick against them and wouldn’t get stuck with them. I’ll always remember how on New Years’s, you’d have both TV’s in the house going so we could watch all the New Year’s Bowl games.
Football was our bond. A seasoned veteran who played Center and Linebacker for MSU and Southern. And a skinny kid with dreams of playing Quarterback but who didn’t have any real athletic talent and messed up his knee before he could even play junior high. Still, I always knew that I made you proud and impressed you in my own way. Strangely, the thing I felt that Alzheimer’s robbed you of the most was football. I hope that when you got to Heaven and the cloud was lifted on your mind, I hope the first thing you found out was that that kid Dak Prescott (whose family you argued with in the M-Club had to switch from Fullback to Quarterback because “he’s going to be one of the great QB’s of all time!”), he did, dad! He led Mississippi State to their greatest season in forever, a #1 national ranking, shattered QB records, put Mississippi State on the map, and is now in the NFL leading the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl – just like you said he would. You missed that season, unable to be aware of it because of a cruel disease that didn’t care what passions it steals from the mind. But now you have all the time in the world to catch up. Please ask in Heaven if they have that 2014 Mississippi State season on DVR up there.
And know that for the rest of my life, I will be watching college football, knowing that you’re watching with me from Heaven.