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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

My father worked unitl age 75. It wasn't much of a retirement -- the heart troubles began and then the Alzheimer's -- but in a sense the rapid decline was an echo of his life. There wasn't much gray area: He was either a working fury or napping on the couch. He rarely sat down to watch TV or read a book, and turning down his life a notch for retirement didn't seem to suit him. Work was obviously meaningful to him even after his mind blurred. "I use to go to work," he thought aloud one day while looking out a window on his ward, "but I don't seem to go there anymore."

The only escape for him between work and family seemed to be the golf course.

The last summer he lived at home my sister and I convinced our mother to take a week away from caring for him. One sunny afternoon I suggested that we go to the golf course and hit a bucket of balls on the driving range. I knew it would be an ordeal, knew that I would be frustrated before we were done. The disease always won. It was a struggle to remember he wasn't being difficult on purpose, even though he was as eager to please as often as he was difficult. I always tried to focus on that, tried to put myself in his place.

His inablility to handle multiple details made the mere loading of his golf bag into my car a slow process. I had to repeatedly convince him he had all the necessary equipment. "Have you got my shoes there, now? How much money will we need for this? Does your mother know we're going? We better tell her." He chirped the same phrases five times in 15 minutes.

man standing to address golf ball

When we arrived at the course it took a half hour to remove his golf bag from the car trunk, purchase the wire bucket filled with balls, and walk the few hundred yards to the driving range. He was distracted by everything and everyone, frequently stopping as golfers walked past.

"I think I know him," he would say as he paused to look hopefully. The people would continue walking.

"No. I guess not."


Final golf lesson

He had no trouble addressing the ball. His short, thick fingers curled strongly around the leather grip. He hit the ball straight but, despite powerful forearms that gave him the grip of a truck driver, he couldn't drive the ball into the air against the green backdrop of trees. Soon, he was standing there offering me tips. He was always more concerned about my game than I was. I didn't tell him the clubs he had given me years ago went largely unused.

A few months later as we sat in the lounge of his hospital ward he surprised me when he began talking briefly about how he hoped he would get out to the course that coming summer, and shocked me when he mentioned the day we had gone out to the course that one last time.

Back home, my mother prepared to sell the house. Dad's golf clubs had stayed in the basement since we had been out on the course that previous summer, and I took the clubs to my home to sell. When I examined his golf bag I noticed two clubs were missing. He had hidden them, which is a typical practice among Alzheimer's patients once the disease has progressed. If he wasn't hiding cigarettes it was golf balls or flashlights or money. It was a silly thought, but it struck me that it was almost as if he had known someone would come for his clubs. He was going to foil them.

My mother eventually found the missing clubs hidden in the garage, so then I had two complete sets of golf clubs cluttering my closet. About that time the dreams started again, where everything with Dad was fine, the fog had risen, and he was reflecting on it and all the silly things he had done.

I sold the clubs. My clubs. His are waiting for him in my closet.

Epilogue