Many years ago I found a picture of my dad taken when he was eight years old. The wide eyes were already bright with the razor-sharp intelligence that would largely define the image of him I had growing up. But I saw something else in those eyes as well, something not quite so familiar: sweetness. I was looking at the emotional, loving little boy everyone called Ronny.
Ronny grew up in a five-room house on the blue-collar side of town, sharing a small bedroom with his older brother. Unlike my girls, he and his brother weren’t friends. They fought constantly. Ronny, three years younger, lost those fights. His father, a railroad worker, was a functioning alcoholic stuck in a bitter, loveless marriage held together primarily by the Catholic Church’s prohibition against divorce. Ronny remembered seeing his parents kiss exactly once in his life.
As often happens with the children of bitter marriages, he absorbed much of the emotional fallout. He stuttered when he spoke, so he spoke little. Sweet little Ronny became Ron and grew a hard shell he opened only for a few people, and even then only partway. As an adult, he could be charming and generous and witty … but also hot-tempered, critical, defensive and aloof. He only said “I love you” to his sons when the shell was pried open by several glasses of scotch.
Ron was able to attend college because his mother had, for years, been stealing money from his dad’s wallet whenever the old man came home and passed out after a night at the tavern. During the summers, Ron worked on a railroad section gang, hauling railroad ties on his shoulders. He came home grimy and exhausted, but developed stronger muscles than he’d ever had before.
Despite his innate shyness and ever-present fear of stuttering, he succeeded as an office-equipment salesman after college — because he had to. By age 24, he was married with two sons. He saved every nickel, then bought his own business at age 36 and expanded it rapidly. The expansion halted during the deep recession of 1981-1982, when he often lay awake at night, wondering if he’d have to close the doors. He studied for a real estate license just in case. Meanwhile, he refused to lay off any of his employees and paid himself a dollar per year for three years. He’d been a child during the Great Depression and remembered the constant fear of unemployment. He wouldn’t put anyone through that if he could help it.
Then in the mid-1980s his business came roaring back to life. He retired as someone his father would’ve considered a wealthy man — just in time to be battered by heart disease, colon cancer, and Alzheimer’s. He had stents put in his arteries. He underwent two rounds of cancer surgery and chemotherapy. The oncologist told my mother, “He’s a lot tougher than you think. Most men his age can’t finish one round of chemo. He finished two.” But he was weak afterwards and never recovered his strength.
We first suspected he was developing Alzheimer’s when he was around 72, but as I noted in a previous post, the warning signs were there years earlier. Recently my best friend Bob’s wife told me that when she and Bob greeted my dad at my wedding, he wasn’t sure who they were. And Bob wasn’t just my best friend growing up; he spent a lot of nights at our house when we both attended the same junior college. We played in a band together, and my parents often came out to watch. They referred to him as their third son. And yet, at age 65, my dad couldn’t remember Bob’s name.
My grandmother developed Alzheimer’s in her 80s, so the genetic risk factor was there. But what could cause my father to succumb so much younger? I can’t prove it, but I blame Lipitor, which he took for 20-some years. Twice in his 60s, he suffered day-long episodes of what I’ve since learned is called transient global amnesia. He babbled nonsense and couldn’t remember much besides his own name. Both times he seemed to recover the next day. The doctors couldn’t explain what had happened, despite running a battery of tests.
So you can only imagine my reaction when I first heard of Dr. Duane Graveline, a former NASA astronaut and doctor who also suffered bouts of amnesia while taking Lipitor. (You can listen to Jimmy Moore’s recent interview with him here.) After tracing both his amnesia and his sudden muscle weakness to the Lipitor, Dr. Graveline made it his life’s mission to discover and expose the side-effects of statin drugs. He’s since learned that roughly one of every 200 people who take Lipitor will suffer bouts of amnesia. Others suffer a slow decline in memory and cognitive ability, and for many — but not all — the effects are permanent, even after quitting the drugs.
Hoping they wouldn’t be permanent in my dad’s case, I flooded my mom with emails and links to articles about statins. She was eventually convinced, and my dad stopped taking Lipitor. His cardiologist went ballistic and said it was just plain stupid for a man with heart disease to stop taking such a wonderful drug. I reminded my mom the Lipitor didn’t prevent Dad’s arteries from clogging up in the first place and offered to fly to Illinois to go toe-to-toe with the cardiologist myself, since she seemed a bit intimidated. (I also suggested I’d happily shove several hundred pages of research up his colon, if that’s what it took.)
During one of his more lucid moments, Dad announced he’d rather not take Lipitor anymore, saying he’d rather die of a sudden heart attack than fade slowly from Alzheimer’s, and that settled the issue. But whether the Lipitor was to blame or not, it was too late. Within a year, he was asking my mom who she was.
When he began putting clothes on over his pajamas and wandering out of the house in the middle of the night, my mom hired a nurse who arrived late in the afternoon and stayed through most of the night. Mom would wake up to hear the nurse telling my dad, “No, your friend Duke is not picking you up right now. No, it’s not morning, it’s the middle of the night, so you should go back to bed. Yes, this is your house.”
Eventually Dad could no longer dress himself, wash himself, or do much of anything else himself, and Mom accepted that it was time for him to live in a nursing home. Thanks to his success in business, they can afford a private facility with nice rooms and an attentive staff. My mom, despite everything that’s happened, considers them fortunate. That’s her nature.
When I drove home for Thanksgiving last week, I hadn’t seen my dad in a year. I’d spoken to him on the phone, and while he tried to play along, I could tell he didn’t know who I was. During one conversation, he set down the phone but continued talking to me. I could hear my mom trying to explain to him that he needed to hold the phone to his ear. He wasn’t grasping any of it.
As my sister and I went to pick him up at the nursing home, I was bracing myself for the worst. But it wasn’t the traumatic experience I’d feared. He was sitting in a chair in the lobby, hopelessly confused as a gentle giant of an orderly tried to explain that he needed to put his shoes on before going outside. But when he saw me, he brightened and exclaimed, “Oh, hi! How are you?”
He didn’t call me by name. I don’t believe he knew my name. But he was clearly happy to see me and gave me a hug. He shuffled outside to the van with my sister guiding him. It took me a few minutes to get his safety harness in place because he thought I was dressing him and kept raising his arms. As I was helping him out of the van and into my mom’s house, he squeezed my forearm and said, “It’s good to see you. I love you, you know.”
Little else he said all day made sense, but I responded as best I could. Twice, he asked how I like living here, meaning in Illinois. I said it’s fine. The second time, he replied, “Yes, it’s good, because you can go that way and be right there, or you can go over there, or you can go down to … uh … that other place.” I think he meant St. Louis, where he and my mom used to drive for weekend getaways.
Meanwhile, he smiled at my girls, he hugged them, and he chuckled at some of their antics. When Alana cackled about something, he turned to me and said, “There’s nothing like the sound of a little girl laughing, is there? They’re so precious.” During dinner, he turned to my mother, waved his arm across the table to indicate all of us seated there and said, “I just love this. I love seeing all of this.”
He needed help getting out of his chair, and after he shuffled back to the bathroom, I had to help him get dressed again — he couldn’t remember how to get his pants up or buckle his belt. I discovered that he didn’t understand it was Thanksgiving Day, and he thinks he has an office at the nursing home, with a job selling walkers. He expects to do quite well at it.
In the early evening, the girls gave him goodbye hugs and kisses. As my sister and I walked Dad outside, Alana turned to my mom and said, “Grandpa’s brain is sick, but we still love him, don’t we?” At the nursing home, I had to half-lift him out of the van because he didn’t remember how to step down. I managed to get him on his feet and, for the first time in my life, I kissed him on the forehead.
“Goodbye, Dad. I’ll see you soon.”
“Okay. Good to see you. I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
I wanted to explain to him that I live in Tennessee now and we’re happy there. I wanted to tell him I acted in an outstanding play recently, that I produced a film, that I’m writing every week, that I’ve started doing standup again and will be appearing at a club right there in his town in two weeks, that his friends have already bought tickets. But I knew he wouldn’t grasp any of it, much less remember it.
He smiled at me before my sister took his arm and walked him inside … and that’s when I thought of the photograph I found so many years ago. His hair has long since turned white, his hands are spotted, and his face is wrinkled and weathered, but it was all right there, in the eyes.
My father, the complicated man who raised me, is mostly gone. But for a couple of days, I got to spend some time with Ronny. And since it was Thanksgiving weekend, I gave thanks for the chance to know him.
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