Patrick J Hamilton

A Father, a Son, & a Storm

Filed By Patrick J Hamilton | July 25, 2012 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Alzheimer's, father and son, losing father

1992andy1.gif"Who's that nice young man out in the backyard?" my father asked my mother, about the man clearing branches. It was me. His only son. I was the nice young man out in the backyard.

Hurricane Andrew had just blasted through Miami the night before, but Alzheimer's had long begun to both clear and tangle my father's memory. The storm whipped the massive old live oaks in our half-acre backyard like Twizzlers left in a sizzling glove compartment. The winds brought down foot-thick branches in an overnight barrage that sounded - and felt - like cannon fire from imagined pirates, reverberating up through the foundation of our solid tidy house, to our bones and teeth.

The house where we rode out Andrew was largely spared, except for a few cracked spots on the roof where Branch had beaten Tile in an all-night game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

In neighboring yards, you could hear the efficient roar of gasoline-powered chainsaws. I was tackling the fallen branches now covering the yard in heavy August air just a day before my birthday with only my father's flimsy bow saw. A bit of a futile effort, but the only way to pass the time without power.

My father used to trim those trees himself, and before he carted the branches out to the curb for pick-up, they were a great treat for my imagination. As a boy, these branches, normally too high to reach, were now my safer earthbound jungle gym. To me, they were islands (I was a member of Swiss Family Robinson, or one of those pirates firing the cannons) or improbable backdrops for scenes from Oliver! or The Martian Chronicles that I'd play out by myself in the yard. But no play now. Just the back and forth of a saw blade, drips of sweat dropping onto the blade, blister forming between my thumb and index finger.

I spent the day before the hurricane also out in the yard, clearing it of garbage cans, lawn chairs, and potted plants. My father followed in my footsteps, replacing everything I had removed, in an infuriating comedy of errors. Change in routine is the ultimate enemy for someone with Alzheimer's, and even moving furniture in December to make way for the Christmas tree, its trunk freshly cut with that same bow saw, had become a familiar and similar battle.

Turns out all the things that make a house wonderful for tropical living also make it a nightmare to secure as a storm barrels down . . . every room had windows, and because this was pre-Andrew, Allstate-required hurricane shutters had yet to appear. Shade trees and swaying palm fronds were now the potential enemy, betraying us in a storm's winds.

The night of the storm, my father had refused to sleep anywhere other than his bed surrounded by those windows and branches - in this house where I lived since I was born and during Hurricane Cleo, almost exactly 28 years prior. There was no reasoning with him. He was well along the curvy, deceptive, overgrown path of Alzheimer's, at a stage beyond comprehension of what was happening. Like my grandmother struck by Alzheimer's before him, my father faced change with anger and took it as a personal affront. "Why are you people still up?" he asked us, bewildered and agitated, as we watched Andrew turn from an angry red circle on a TV screen to a monster overhead - Voldemort unleashed from a shattered horcrux.

We lost power around 3am, just minutes before the worst of the nation's then-worst storm roared above us. The TV went dark with one last bright crack, sending my mother and me to our respective hiding places.

I had set up a mattress-barricaded area for my mom in the only inside hallway we had. I spent the rest of that terrifying night, ironically, back in the closet. I sat on a filing cabinet in the weird space halfway between mom and dad's sides of their shared bedroom closet, a spot I had loved to play in when I was much smaller. Back then, the hanging shirts and pants did not press up so claustrophobically against me. Now, the plastic suit bags so close to my sweaty face echoed back my own breath in the darkness.

In my ear all night long in that dark closet was the calm and steady Brian Norcross (a man I knew from the gay bars of Miami, and a man who became a hero to South Florida that night). He was only a voice on a transistor radio now, but he kept me company, kept me calm - the voice of a stranger who only I could hear. Just feet away, my father lay sound asleep on the bed even as winds roared, a closet door between us, my mother just beyond the bedroom door.

At one point earlier, he tried to go outside, in his boxers and t-shirt, the odd Alzheimer's mix of terribly frail and remarkably strong. The Miami-standard wrought iron porch bars kept him in, kept Andrew out - two spinning, fuming forces angry at everything in their paths, trading gusty curses through the bars.

This was a man who had previously built an addition to this house with only his bare hands and the day's services of a cement truck. He was a byproduct of the Depression: practical, Scottish, Yankee. He had secured this home, and our family, many Hurricane Seasons before. Now he was in his own swirl of clouds, with briefer and briefer spots of clarity. But like a hurricane, the clear eye means only more winds and chaos will arrive from another direction you did not expect or fully see coming.

This was also the man who did not want his only son to be gay. Alzheimer's made that dance a more interesting one. When he had all his mental facilities, he was not supportive, another product of his age and era. A few years prior in the hospital recovering from coronary bypass surgery, in a fog of meds and (I'm certain) a spike in his early-stage Alzheimer's from the shock to his body, he told my mother that he and I had a heart-to-heart, coming to terms with "everything" (my mother understood that euphemism for "gay"). A lovely thought, but an apparition . . . he and I had no such conversation. It was so vivid in his head and healing heart that for a while, it did change the temperature between us, so I was willing to go along with the charade.

It was not the only charade I was used to - not the only thing so vivid yet ethereal that came from that man in that house.

Many, many years after when I suspected/knew it happened, I came to terms with the fact that my father was a sexual abuser. I have pieced together a past with the help of a therapist, painful discussions with my mother, and long talks with my sister. But it has been like sewing together a quilt of mist and water.

Memories of abuse are shifty. So vivid, so vague. So real, so surreal. So improbable, so possible. I have never been so certain, and so uncertain, about something, ever, in my life. I can imagine that this memory, for me, was a lot like his memory when Alzheimer's moved in and started to evict him from his own mind and life. Moments of the past, so strong and real and clear at their center, so blurry around the edges. Like a hurricane.

When I think of my father, I think of two things: Him, handsome and smiling in a black and white photo, holding tiny versions of me and my sister on a branch bench made from and perched between those live oaks that were my fort, friends, theater backdrop and backyard escape. He was always, it seemed, "out in the yard." But with memories of abuse, apparently not. Maybe that's just where my memory wants to keep him.

Then I think of him, almost eighty years later, a cloth-draped frame, bruises and scabs and bandages, struggling to breathe through a tube, his newly-cut white hair plastered to his sweaty forehead after an accident had landed him in the Neuro ICU at Jackson Memorial hospital.

After the Depression, World War II, hurricanes and a heart by-pass, it was a haircut that took him away.

My mother had come home on Friday to find my father sunburned and flustered. When pressed, he had admitted he had attempted to walk to his barber, but could not find it, and he had not found his way back easily.

There is a dangerous phase where Alzheimer's patients understand they are losing their grip, and they become very adept at covering their tracks, denying the slips. The more fiercely independent they were when they were "fine," the more aggressive and crafty they are about evading detection. This was one of those moments, but it was also something that scared him, stuck with him. This, he seemed to know, was a turning point.

That next day, my mother drove him to the barber shop. But he was so perturbed about not finding his own way, (and no doubt, mortified he was being driven, like a schoolboy, like punishment) he set off the next day, a Sunday, to "get his haircut," but in secrecy. He slipped out while my mother was cooking dinner. He never came home.

Two policemen arrived on the porch, in front of those bars, to tell and fetch my mother, frantic in his absence, having called the police, then me hours earlier. My father had been sideswiped by a truck on a now dark and rain-slick road, blocks from his barber, long closed on this Sunday night, almost one year to the day after Andrew struck Miami.

The doctor, in a brutal moment of bedside mis-manner, told my mother her very first bit of news after nothing for over twelve hours, "If he does ever come home, the head injury has catapulted his Alzheimer's to a far more advanced stage. You can no longer care for him."

Forward, fast. Fast forward.

A week later he died of pneumonia in a dark wing of the hospital where there had been nothing to do but wait.

So now, after Alzheimer's and in his absence, I have come to terms with a fleeting vision of abuse, ready to confront a man who no longer exists, who slipped from us in a departure both dramatic and pathetic. But how do you rectify a past of abuse when the man in question is a shell, a ghost of fog - even in memory just a skeleton struggling for his last breath? I don't know. It is like expecting the answer from the Sphinx, who knows only riddle and misdirection - even if you know where to find her and know what question to ask. And only when you know that answer do you know how you get past.

I should be angry. I am entitled to be, of that I am certain. He should be held accountable. But he is gone, cloaked in all the complicated layers of Alzheimer's, then caught in its tangle of curtains as he left the stage, making his exit awkward and clumsy. Wasn't I now the monster, thinking these things of a man incapacitated by the disease, unable to defend himself against the accusation - a man who at one point near the end could not remember if he had eaten his lunch sandwich cut in fours? I could not rectify any anger with how this man left this world.

In just one of many, many ways, familiar and unfamiliar, Alzheimer's complicated things.

Where does the anger go when there is no one there to be angry at?

It goes places it does not belong. It bounces back, flying at your face like a ball thrown hard at a wall. It chips away at esteem. It complicates a sexual life. It makes me deal with the end of things badly, to take every goodbye as rejection.

I have been chipping back, and this is not meant to be about that. Even though, in many ways, this is a big part of that. It's a step.

Alzheimer's is such a thief, a terrible robber of not only thought, but of closure, solace, and understanding for those in the circle around the patient. To hear your own father say, "who is that nice young man?" and also to be saddled with the answer, as an adult, "the boy you abused" is a staggering, paralyzing place to be.

But I know that the shroud of Alzheimer's should not hide the truth. It should not forgive him. It should not absolve or excuse. But for me, the sympathy for him, brutally robbed of wit and vigor, often outweighs how and what I know I should feel.

In a way, his disappearance into the fog spared me, too. Spared me the confrontation. Spared me the difficulty of seeing his face either admit or deny. And many who've experienced abuse get no closure even when all minds remain clear.

My closure is now my own to craft. My father, lost before he left this earth - after hurricanes and through clouds, holds no answers. The storm has blown over. I'm still clearing the fallen branches.

But now, with my own saw in my hand, I can start to see the yard again.

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