My father was a military man. He was an athlete, an artist, a music lover, a charming smart-ass who always had a clever retort. He was a 6’6″ giant and there was nothing scarier than his tennis racket sized hands, though he rarely had to lift them to make my brother and I behave. He seemed to literally be the “Big Man On Campus” on our small Air Force Base. As kids, we couldn’t go anywhere without someone recognizing him and wanting to talk for a few minutes.
When I was 9, my little league team was the Cubs, we were in 1st place. We were playing the Pirates, they were in last place. It wasn’t hard to tell why, their coach was negative and aggressive, yelling at players and taunting the other team. I was at bat and he was screaming at the pitcher “C’MON SON PUT IT DOWN THE MIDDLE, THEY’VE GOT NO HITTERS, NO HITTERS ON THEIR TEAM!” The next pitch I roped the ball straight off the center field fence. As I trotted down first base I looked at the coach and said “No hitters huh?” It turned into a standup triple and, as I settled on the base proud of my early attempt at shit talking, the coach yelled from the dugout, “BOY IF YOU EVER TALK TO ME LIKE THAT AGAIN I’M GOING TO STOMP YOU.”
In a purely instinctual reaction my dad flew off the bleachers near 3rd base, ran around the backstop, stepped over the waist high fencing on the side of their dugout (a normal sized man would’ve had to hop over it), grabbed the coach by his collar, looked down from his huge height advantage and bellowed “WHO YOU GONNA STOMP NOW?!?!” I was scared for the coach because I’d felt the wrath of those tennis racket sized hands before. At the same time I’d never understood how much he cared until I saw him react that way.
In 2009, a few days after his 55th birthday, my father was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. An elongated conversation with the charming man I remember from my childhood has been reduced to a chain of repeated questions or sentiments. In a long car ride, he’ll turn around every 2 minutes or so to make sure my mom is still in the backseat. Even still, if you weren’t told you might not know. The remnants of his clever charm have created great defense mechanisms when told he’s repeating himself [i.e. "I KNOW I just said I haven't been on this road in a long time…but it's been a REALLY long time"]. It’s not like you see on the movies. He’s not old and gray. He’s not a happy-go-lucky mindless punchline. He’s not a walking zombie wondering “who are all these strange people.” He’s there. He’s just losing his grasp of “there” slowly, day by day.
The meds helped at first. They seemed to bring some life back to him, seemed to slow his decline. After 3 years, I think they do more for my mom’s sanity than his health. She’s been amazing throughout the ordeal: caring for him daily, keeping him on schedule, writing everything down, researching realistic plans for his care in the future, being a breadwinner, homemaker, and caretaker. I often wish I were more prepared to help. I never thought I would be dealing with a parent’s health decline before I had children of my own.
This song is about his disease, and how I’m trying to cope. This song was hard to write. This song is hard to show people. I’m scared it could be misconstrued as using my father’s pain for art. I’ve pondered how unfair it is that I have a platform to vent about our past, and he doesn’t. I worry greatly about how he’ll feel if he hears it. I don’t want it to be seen as a cry for pity. The worst response when I tell someone my father has Alzheimer’s is “I’m sorry.”
I hope this song raises awareness about a disease that will be cured. My family and I felt some sort of stigma when we got my father’s diagnosis. We’ve felt alone, I know we’re not. Over half a million Americans younger than 65 suffer from some sort of dementia. My father is one of them, some of you reading might know another. I hope that some of you will be inspired to donate to The Alzheimer’s Association or Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Great strides are being taken to cure this disease.
My father visited Los Angeles last Christmas. My brother, Steven, bought us tickets to see Bob Seger at Staples Center. My dad loves Seger, but I noticed him looking around in awe at our surroundings almost as much as he payed attention to the music. There was a man behind us, in his late 40’s, drunk and loud. He kept yelling things aimed at Seger, but my father kept looking back with a puzzled face. I could tell it would eventually turn into trouble.
I said “Dad, stop looking back at that guy, he’s going to think something’s up.”
He told me innocently “Oh, I thought he was talking to me for some reason.”
Eventually the guy behind us yelled again. My dad looked back again. The guy said “Is there a problem buddy?” I grabbed my dad’s arm to turn him around, leaned behind him, grabbed the drunk guy by the back of the neck in a firm, but non-threatening way and said “Look…my dad gets confused, he thinks you’re talking to him, he means nothing by it. Leave it alone.” He didn’t yell for the rest of the show.
My father didn’t notice how the situation was handled. At this point he doesn’t remember that we went to see Seger. But I think the man that stood up for me as a 9 year old would appreciate the reciprocation.