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September 7, 2022

What People Don’t Talk About: Losing an Estranged Family Member

“I have something I need to tell you. I’ve got dementia,” said my Dad in April of 2019. He was 62. I was 26.

I had known something was very wrong for years at this point, and can honestly say I wasn’t surprised, but when I actually heard them spoken aloud I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest, and felt a flush rise into my face and ears.

So many thoughts ran through my mind in the following weeks. Not only am I losing my dad, but I’m also losing the experience of a father I never got to have. Dad traveled constantly when I was growing up, missing birthdays, important events, seemingly only to come home to lay on the couch to read the newspaper and bark anytime he was interrupted.

Soon after his diagnosis, I remember someone saying to me “Just think about all the wonderful things you shared together!”, and nothing came to mind. I sat for weeks trying to think of an untarnished memory.

As we both grew in age, my parents split, and Dad moved 1200 miles away. He became angrier and more judgmental, and his health was a glaring concern. His weight ballooned up and then dropped suddenly, his driving was erratic, and he seemed to always repeat himself, telling the same story or saying the same phrase over and over again.

I finally expressed concern, saying how I was worried that something was wrong, and I wanted him to take care of himself, that maybe we should see a doctor together. I told him I  was young and wanted to have the experience of him walking me down the aisle the day I got married. He was absolutely furious.

I’d had enough. I blocked his number, and didn’t speak to him for weeks. It was during this time I had a deep inner knowing that either by my own personal choice, or some other reason my dad would never be the person walking with me down the aisle. I decided I shouldn’t have to beg for someone to show up for me when I needed them.

I thought after he was diagnosed with dementia I would have the time to say the things I’ve always wanted to say to him. How I could forgive him, how I was proud of myself and hope he was too. I wanted to tell him he wasn’t a good father, but I was a better person because of it. But I haven’t gotten the chance. I’ve never had privacy, and even when I was alone with him it was abundantly clear to me he didn’t want me in the room. I pulled a chair right up to his hospital bed, looked into his face with tears in my eyes, and he shooed me away. “Get out of here”, he would say “I don’t miss you.”

Now it is summer 2022, and I am getting married in a few short weeks. Dad is too ill to travel, let alone attend a wedding. My heart is aching, but not for him. My heart is aching for the big glaring hole of a father. The kind of father who helped teach you to ride your bike, that put a bandaid on your skinned knee, the father would hold your hand and guide you as you flew a kite. My heart aches for the father, putting on a silly hat and doing a choreographed dance with his daughter on her wedding day.

On a day where all I want to do is celebrate, all I can think about is that dad, the one who is gentle, fun, caring, is one that I never had and never will.

And the last thing I want to hear is some fucking cliche about how “he did the best he could”, “you’re so much stronger because of this”, or person after person regaling their story of a grandparent who died due to complications from Alzheimer’s or dementia, that on their last day they were the most lucid they had been in a long time, that they got the apology or acknowledgement they had waited on for so long. People think they’re helping by handing me books or blogs about last trips, or journeys people took with their parents, how they shared a wonderful time reminiscing on the past, and can find peace.

I have accepted that those types of experiences, closure, whatever you want to call it, is something I won’t have. That my dad is dying in the way that he lived, shut off from the people who only wanted to love and be loved.

What I have decided is the best medicine for me is to live in a way he never did. I will love deeply, I will explore myself and the world around me. I will relish the small moments of staying in bed a little bit longer, sharing a meal with a loved one, dancing when I want to dance and cry when I want to cry. What I can see perfectly clear is that Dad never let himself live, and goddamit I am going to live my life in the biggest, juiciest, most authentic way I can.

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