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Dating My Father

I brought him chocolate bars and polar fleece. I did little dances and sang him funny songs. Humiliation wasn’t too high a price to pay for his attention.

I can't remember what I did on the Sunday after my father died. What do people do on Sundays? Football? Laundry? Home improvement? My weekly visit to the nursing home room where he lived had become more than an obligation; it was a steady date. That's when I realized why I hadn't been able to keep a boyfriend. I had been dating my father.

He suffered from Alzheimer's and wasn't sure who he was, let alone who I was. Sometimes he ignored me entirely. But, like a smitten coed in a survey course, I worked to get him to notice me. I brought him chocolate bars and polar fleece. I did little dances and sang him funny songs. Humiliation wasn't too high a price to pay for his attention.

When I wasn't with him, I sent him cards for no reason, photos of chimps in dresses and bulldogs in sailor suits that made him smile. When I traveled I brought him back a hat from wherever I'd been: a cowboy hat from Arizona, a beret from Paris, a bowler from London. I chose them in anticipation of his reaction; I wanted to please him. I wanted him to remember me, because if he knew me, then he still had a hold on everything he had forgotten, because I had resolved to remember for him. It was a rookie mistake: I thought I could love him enough for both of us.

From time to time my father would resurface in all his glory like a comet streaking across the night sky. Our last Christmas, a month before he died, I walked in and the smile he beamed toward me lifted me off my feet. I was happier than a kid getting a glimpse of Santa.

Like everything else, our parting came on my father's terms. One early January, he contracted pneumonia. My mother knew it was the end, but she waited to call me, because she thought I would fall apart. She couldn't have been more wrong. When I heard her voice, I felt a strange relief. I didn't have to wait anymore. My duties were clear: I would sit with him, just as I had for all these years.

As he lay before me, as light and pale as a memory, I began telling all the old crazy stories about him: three-piece-suits and threadbare T-shirts, strange accents and even stranger songs ('If I had nose full of nickels, I'd sneeze them all Atch-You'). That quickly, it was settled; this was how I would say goodbye. I would remind him one last time who we were.

The weeks after my father's death felt eerily similar to the days after a break-up. The ache of loss, the fog of loneliness, the despair at having to begin again: I had felt them all before. Of course, this is my father I'm talking about, not some wine, dine, your-place-or-mine courtship. Even at the time I resented the feeling that it was at all familiar. But the space left behind when someone leaves your life, large or small, can be avoided for only so long. The emptiness took my breath away. The freedom I had anticipated was nowhere to be found. I only wanted to be back beside my father, sharing what was left of his life, instead of lying on my couch, wondering what I should do with mine.


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