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(This piece first appeared in Men's Health in September, 1995.
Minding My Father
two men near bucket of golf balls

Bing Crosby died the way a man should. After a round of golf in Spain, he had a massive heart attack; he went quickly, perhaps elegantly. Certainly sportingly. If one can die with panache, it seems as though Crosby did.

When my father's Alzheimer's Disease was in its very early stages I often hoped he would die on a golf course, rather than face the agonizingly slow, dignity-robbing alternative. My father certainly wouldn't have argued with such an outcome, because only golf was reason enough to lock the barber shop a bit early once a week during the brief, Minnesota summers. Time from work was lost income, but a little extra daylight on the gently sloping, manicured fairway lawns couldn't be measured in dollars.

As the Alzheimer's progressed, making his mind a shallow ditch that could not hold his thoughts, his death on the golf course was a generous notion I began to surrender. Taking its place in my subconscious were optimistic dreams in which he regained his reason. In those dreams he had grown healthy again, and was able to recall all the tortured and tangled actions. He laughed at them, as if he had been a disembodied observer of it all, ironically remembering that he couldn't remember.

man in suit with foot on railing
 

In a photo taken in 1952, he is standing on a concrete platform overlooking Minnesota's North Shore. His right foot rests knee-high on a wooden railing. His right arm is draped over the raised thigh, left hand brushing back the suit coat to his hip, the brim of a hat set at a slight dashing angle. In the photo he looks classy, but not flashy, as the suit softly drapes over him. He was particular about his appearance, and the innocent clues of his disease that appeared decades later began with clothes.

It started with obessesions

He curiously spent hours each night burrowing through his dresser, sifting through his closet. He would remove hangers containing suits, shirts and pants and arrange them on his bed, "Just seeing what I've got," he would explain. He said it nightly.

Evenings no longer found him relaxed and pleased by his bedtime ritual. It was hard to imagine one could derive pleasure from rudimentary aspects of life such as bathing and pulling on clean pajamas, but he seemed to savor them. Perhaps the enjoyment came from his vivid recollections of a sweltering life on bug-infested Pacific islands during World War II, the weeks he spent in a New Zealand military hospital and surviving a typhoon that capsized one Navy ship to which he was assigned. Maybe that was what gave him this inner calm.

Even two years after the onset of the degenerative brain disease he was still exceptionally vigorous for a man in his 70s. He had such a timeless quality, and at 79 held most of the medium height and lean weight of 20 years earlier. When we grudgingly placed him in the care of the Veterans' Administration he could still recognize us and some familar surroundings.

But confusion played tag with him, and during any hour he might make six trips into the basement to check the furnace. He was a caricature of himself. He had been proud of the only house he'd owned, remodeled it tirelessly, and always tended it with care. But maintaining the house became a fixation once reason began to defy him. It seemed as though all the previous conscientious actions were twisted into obsessions, and he'd dwell on a bizarre notion for hours, then abruptly abandon that concern and latch onto another.

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