Remembering My Father this Father's Day
As Father’s Day Approaches, a Daughter Remembers her Father and Realizes His Love is Eternal
As the only girl in the family, I always felt that my father adored me. My father was a Holocaust survivor who never really mastered the English language, but he had no trouble communicating his love for me. Thinking back on my relationship with him, I realized that there were three times in my life that I experienced losing him.
My father worked as a builder and when I close my eyes, I conjure up the image of him with a hammer in his hand and two nails between his teeth. He had an assortment of tools and I grew up around hand saws, levels, and sandpaper. The scent of sawdust is as redolent to me as the fragrance of honeysuckle in the spring. It embodies the blissful existence of my early childhood where my father was the sun who beamed down on me with his radiant smile and warm brown eyes.
Since construction workers try to get ahead of the sun, they make an early start and my father was gone by the time I woke each morning. As a five-year-old, I looked forward to his return home each afternoon - that was my favorite time of day.
We lived in a small apartment building with a few other young families. As my father walked up the path towards the building, the first child to spot him would announce, “Daddy’s home!” It didn’t matter that he was my father and not theirs, because my father was Dad to everyone. He had an exceptional fondness for children that was broadcast through the twinkle in his eye.
After he got home, Dad and I had our daily ritual. Each afternoon, he would place me on his lap facing him, and hold both my hands in his large calloused ones. As I sat with him, he would sing songs to me and we both delighted in this pastime.
The pleasure I felt was immeasurable. Although he had several songs in his repertoire, we had our favorite and we always ended up collapsing into fits of laughter with me landing in a full embrace against his broad chest.
I loved going for walks with my dad, my hand securely encased in his. One day, I had asked him whether he could buy me a swing set. He answered that he will, someday. My five-year-old ears mistook the word someday for Sunday. He corrected the misunderstanding and we continued on our way - him taking large steps and me skipping alongside him. He hadn’t disappointed me with his someday answer. I knew I was heard and that he loved me.
When I was six, Dad had a heart attack while at work. He was hospitalized near the construction site, nearly two hours away from home. He spent six weeks as an inpatient. Unlike today, children weren’t allowed to visit their parents in the hospital, so during his confinement, I wasn’t able to visit Dad. Long distance telephone calls were an inconceivable luxury, so for six long weeks, full of long afternoons, I longed for my father to come home.
During his absence, I often wandered into my parent’s room. Although he wasn’t there, I felt his aura. The bedroom had a window which overlooked a large empty lot canopied by a wide expanse of blue sky. Being so small, this view represented the universe to me. I stood at this window talking directly to G-d in the plain and simple language of a six-year-old girl: “Please make Dad better so he can come home." While talking to my Father in heaven, I felt very close to my father, Daddy.
The day my dad was discharged from the hospital brought an end to this arduous period in my life. I will never forget the blend of elation and comfort I felt as he enveloped me in his arms in the doorway of our apartment. All was right in the world again.
As it turned out. life was not to be the same. As per medical advice, Dad could no longer work in construction. Since he had no experience working in any other field the problem of providing for his family weighed heavily on him. He became preoccupied with those pressures and had no more time for games. There were no more after-work song fests for us. He was focused on finding work and that took center stage - I no longer claimed the spotlight.
That marked the first time I lost my father.
Thirty years later, when Dad was in his early seventies, I began noticing subtle changes in him. He was becoming forgetful which was not uncommon for a man his age. More concerning were the other unusual behaviors and remarks that at first were just puzzling but later prompted me to take action. The turning point came while we were in his car half a block away from home and he asked me where we were. That question rang out like a siren announcing a five-alarm fire and I scheduled a doctor’s appointment for him.
Sitting side by side in the doctor’s waiting room Dad turned to me and said something that shook my foundations.
"Are you my daughter or my sister?" he asked.
My heart broke as I stared back at him mutely.
Alzheimer’s was the word the doctor used to describe my dad’s condition. He explained that the prognosis was dire. During the next five years Dad’s need for care steadily increased until we could no longer manage his care safely. His inevitable admission to the nursing home devastated me.
There was something else too. At the onset of his disease, Dad drifted in and out of different states of cognition and awareness. There were times when he was entirely lucid, but at other times he was highly confused and often agitated. During one of his agitated states, he pointed at me and said, “One day you’re going to put me into a nursing home”.
I was so devoted to him! How could he ever think I would do that to him? The afternoon that we admitted Dad into the nursing home, I remembered his accusation and it reverberated in my ears like an indictment.
Placing him in the nursing home marked the second time I lost my father.
The nursing home was an hour’s drive from my house and because I worked full time and was raising a family, Sunday’s were reserved for visiting Dad. Those visits were draining. It wasn’t just the long drive that sapped me of my energy. The visit itself depleted me because by then, Dad didn’t know who I was anymore. He didn’t recognize me as his daughter or even his sister.
His physical condition continued to decline. Eventually, he stopped talking, and eating and his eyes were always shut. Due to medical complications, he was frequently in and out of the hospital. During one hospitalization, the nurse advised us that a decision was necessary. She questioned whether extraordinary measures should be taken in the event of a medical crisis. After much discussion and consultation from others, my family decided that no extraordinary measures should be taken.
Months later, during a medical crisis, I pressed the nurse to do everything possible to save his life, despite our earlier decision. It was plain to me that I could not let Dad go. I was not ready to lose him. During the Holocaust, he fought heroically to survive, and I was intent on fighting for him now when he could no longer fight for himself.
Life continued like this for years. I rarely missed a Sunday with Dad. Towards the end of his life, it seemed pointless visiting him since he had no awareness of my presence. But he was my father and my Sundays belonged to him - until that one afternoon when the hospital called to tell me that Dad was gone. Ten years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Dad passed away.
That marked the third time I lost my father.
The curious thing is that with each passing year, he seems more alive to me than ever. He may be gone but I have not lost him. With age, I’ve come to understand him better, develop a deeper appreciation of him, and miss him more. When I look at my grandchildren, I find myself looking at them through his eyes. My father frequently pointed at his own grandchildren boasting, “They are the interest from my investment.” When I heard my father say this and saw the pleasure radiating from his face, I recognized it as the exact same look he had on his face while playing with me after work.
Today, as I look at my own grandchildren, and all of my father’s other great grandchildren, I hear his voice saying those words, and can’t help but think that my father invested well.
*This article first appeared in Ami Magazine