Monday, May 12, 2014

My Father's Transformation

If you are anything like me (and for your sake, I hope you are not) you spent a lot of time in your early life wondering what it was going to be like to lose a parent. It was so bad, for me, that I would lie in bed at night, when I was a boy, doing math -- I would try to figure out how old I would be if my dad or mom died at this age or that age. The goal, there, in my young mind, was to determine whether I would be "old enough to handle it."

This was all prompted by my grandfather's too-early death. He was only in his sixties. I guess it got me kind of paranoid.

Well, my dad made it into his late seventies and he died about five months ago. Am I old enough to handle it? I'm forty-six.

I remember, in my bedtime calculations, I once worked it out that, if my dad died at a certain age, I would be 30 -- I'd be "a man," by then, so things would be okay, I reasoned. Well, at forty-six, it was still hard, but...I'm okay.

What I really find interesting is that I feel closer, now, to my dad than I did when he was here over the last few years. He suffered from dementia and from general state of melancholy in the years before he died. These conditions altered him quite a bit -- his flawed character traits were amplified and his enthusiasm for things -- even his deep love of music -- seemed to fade. His strong independent nature became reversed. In short, he was not the same guy who raised me.

The guy who raised me was goofy, loving, passionate and intellectually curious. He was opinionated and he was deeply interested in the world around him. He was my first and best role model.

My dad at his nightclub gig: Palumbo's
in South Philly. He's the lead trumpet, upstage, center. 
But, the guy who was facing this horrible decline was different. I loved him just as much, but, he puzzled me -- even angered me. In my instinct for analysis, it was hard not to blame him for "acting that way" even though I knew a lot of it was beyond his control; that he carried little blame. This guy, I had to take care of, and I had to sometimes treat him like one of my kids -- the whole cliched nine-yards: child becomes parent. He simply wasn't the father I had known growing up.

Something weird happened, though. In the months after he passed, I have, maybe paradoxically, come to feel closer to him than I have for a long time. This is because what I had hoped would happen, did. My mind has started to slough off the decline and the difficulties like so much snake skin. Now, when I remember my dad, it is the real him that comes through. I find myself, more often, and with increasing pride, saying, "My dad used to say..." or "Remember when my dad would..."

It should be heartening for all of us. If we ever face dementia, ourselves, and if we worry (as I do) about our personal legacy in the minds of those who love us, we can take some hope from this, at least on an anecdotal basis:

The person my dad became at the end was only a blip -- just a moment in a lifetime. In my head, in the months since his death, the guy in the wheelchair who couldn't express himself clearly; who was losing control of his most basic skills...he turned back into the guy in the tuxedo, leaving the house with a trumpet tucked under his arm like (to a kid like me anyway) a knight going off to adventure. He has turned back into the man I watched conducting bands and orchestras and who earned the accolades of Ira Gershwin with his orchestrations of George's work for the Pennsylvania Ballet. He is, once again, the patriarch at the end of the dining room table, telling the jokes he learned from years of night club comedians. He is, again, the nut who would make up strings of nonsense words with which to both tease and show affection to me and my sister. He's the guy who wasn't afraid to weep in front of his son during beautiful passages from Ravel or Respighi. He's Joe Matt -- my dad.

I do remember the hard times. But the hard times are no longer my default memory. They're just a thunderstorm tucked into a string of soft spring days.

So...yeah. I'm okay. I wish I could go back and tell all of this to the little guy in the bed in the house on Burnt Mill Road. Alas.

A few years and a generation later:
like father...I sit upstage, center, too. 


  1. I had a similar experience. I lost my father at 41 after watching him decline for years. Two months before he died, he suffered a massive stroke and was too brain damaged to communicate or even sit in a chair. I remember feeling furious, even contemptuous towards this strange person that occupied my father's body.

    In the months after he died, my father gradually became Dad again, as the recent past gradually became eclipsed by the many memories of him before he was diminished by ill health. I'm sure that he'd be relieved to be remembered this way.

    1. Thanks, Steerforth -- it is always good to know that someone else, even very far away, has walked a similar road. Far as we think we have come from our primal origins, we men do want to be remembered, in the end.