“What’s it like to have lost your father?” the social worker at Mount Sinai Medical Center asked me at our second visit to the hospital’s Wien Center for Alzheimer’s Disease & Memory Disorders.
“What are you talking about?” I thought to myself. “I haven’t lost my father. He’s just outside, in the hallway, waiting for me.”
She went on to tell me what would happen over the next few years — how he’d be unable to groom himself, probably lose his mobility and even his ability to speak, and need round-the-clock care.
My father? The man who never came out of the bathroom without a splash of Old Spice, who in his mid-80s still had a strong right arm that he used to toss tennis balls at the dog park, who got up an hour before dawn so he could swap stories at the golf course with the first guys to tee off.
My mother had suspected he had Alzheimer’s for some time. But for many years, Mom and Dad were able to compensate for one another. My mother, whose mind was sharp, had trouble with her legs. She could walk, but needed an arm for support. My father, who couldn’t formulate an answer to a question, was physically strong.
After a particularly bad fall when her ankle was shattered, Mom was in the hospital after surgery. Dad would spend the day in the room with her, just sitting in a chair, looking off vacantly and not saying a word. In those last weeks, I was with my mother nearly round-the-clock. During one of those late-night, early-hour conversations, she tried to prepare me for my future.
“I think your father has Alzheimer’s,” Mom said.
“Yes, I agree,” I said. “Once we get you out of here, we’ll take him to the doctor.”
“I’m sorry to leave you with him,” she said.
A few days later, she was gone, taken by pneumonia.
Mom had been Dad’s everything — the one who guided him professionally, the one to fix his meals, pick out his suits and ties, keep a perfect home, put money aside for a comfortable retirement, and even let him hit as many mulligans as he liked on the golf course.
He had never in his life paid a bill, gone grocery shopping, tidied the house, done laundry, fixed a sandwich.
On his own for just three months, Dad quickly dropped from the 140 he’d been his entire life to 120 pounds. Also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he became more wobbly and frail. The man who was always smiling and whistling a tune now cried continually.
Always a stellar athlete, Dad played in the baseball minor leagues in the 1940s. He could have played any position. But a smart guy liked Joe Carr only wanted to catch — it was the catcher who really controlled the game, he said.
He was with a Yankees farm team when Lefty Gomez, the Hall of Fame pitcher and teammate to Babe Ruth, broke the news.
“Joe, you’ve got a really strong arm. And you’re a smart guy. You’re just too tiny. Some 200-pound third-baseman is going to slide into home plate and cream you.”
Dad packed away his catcher’s mitt for 30 years.
He only got it out when his non-athletic daughter — me — began playing softball. One day, the coach pulled me out of right field to pitch. The ump — my father — called a record 40 balls.
What Dad lacked in a formal education, he made up for with his charm and ease. He was hired in 1958 by IBM, where he worked as a contracts negotiator on the B-52, Apollo and U.S. Navy submarine projects.
Dad rarely met a stranger he couldn’t charm. I remember one time when I was about 13, he took me with him to the mall. As we passed from one end to the other, he was smiling and waving to everyone.
“Dad, are you friends with all these people?”
“Nope, I don’t know any of them.”
While never interested in books, he would read — and still does — the newspaper until the ink fell off the page. I was a second-grader when Watergate was raging. Over breakfast, he’d read The Washington Post out loud and explain anything I didn’t understand. It was then, as a 7-year-old growing up in the Virginia countryside, I decided I would work for a big city newspaper some day.
Next to my mother, the dog, and me — in that order — the biggest love of my father’s life was golf.
The day I was born, he played 18 holes. That was back when men just sat in the waiting room. He figured he had a tee time that really shouldn’t go to waste.
He ran the IBM golf league for years, never causing suspicion when he and his various partners won the Watson Trophy every year.
Even before Dad retired, he had started working at the golf course as a “starter” or “marshal’’ — the guy who drives around the course making sure people are playing fast enough, and having a good time. The pros, Billy McBride, and later Billy Jr., hired Dad to work at whatever golf course they were running for the next 25 years.
In their retirement, Mom and Dad took annual golf trips to Myrtle Beach, S.C., or Pinehurst, N.C. He could hit them long and straight; she could putt.
When I was 16, we took one big family vacation together. We flew out to California and saw all the typical tourist sites: Disneyland, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Golden Gate Bridge.
Upon learning that Pebble Beach was just a couple hours away, Dad said he wanted to play. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he pleaded.
“Absolutely not,” Mom said. Greens fees were $60, and they had a daughter’s college education to save for. (Today guest fees are $495, and that doesn’t include the caddie).
Instead, we all went on a boat tour to Alcatraz.
Four years ago, Father’s Day 2009, while in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, he finally got that “once-in-a-lifetime” chance.
Our balcony overlooked the 18th green at Pebble Beach, with the waves from Monterey Bay crashing against the coastline, and sightseers coming out to watch the golfers.
Each afternoon, Dad and I sat on the patio, he with his Budweiser, me with my chardonnay, and we’d talk about our favorite mutual subjects: big band music and Zsa Zsa, the tri-color collie my parents had before they had me.
Each day Dad played a different course: Spyglass Hill, The Links at Spanish Bay and then, of course, Pebble.
We hired a caddie who pointed out Bing Crosby’s home, lined up Dad’s putts, and kept score — marking down a birdie or par on every hole, despite the bogeys and double bogeys.
“I can’t believe a little guy like me is here playing Pebble Beach,” Dad said, over and over.
After our trip, he spent more than a year living with me in Miami. Each weekend, we’d have an outing: spring training games, the WGC-Cadillac golf tournament at Doral, boat tours of Biscayne Bay. Hoping to ward off the Parkinson’s for as long as possible, he’d go to the gym with me and work out. But no longer able to drive, he was trapped at home while I went to work.
Within months, I saw him slipping away even further than before. The man who used to wear starched white shirts, three-piece suits, skinny or fat ties depending on the decade — couldn’t figure out which were swim trunks and which were golf pants.
Food left for him in the fridge would go uneaten.
He sat in front of the TV all day, watching a baseball game or golf tournament. He’d try to record some of the golf tournaments because he wanted to show me the courses in California he’d played. But no longer able to work the remote control with anything more complex than off/on, he’d get frustrated and angry.
He wasn’t happy, and neither was I.
In July 2011, I took him back to his home in Virginia and hired at-home caregivers. Billy Jr., the pro at a nearby golf course, issued a standing invite to bring him over and drive around the course any time. The club manager promised to always sit Dad at the corner booth that he had shared with my mom for 20 years. He has a new collie, a tri-color named Callie, to share his morning breakfast sandwich. He joined the YMCA and began working out for 30 minutes with a personal trainer. The church paired him with a lady who sits with him during service, and offers up her arm as they walk up for Communion. A neighbor comes by regularly to clean, and more importantly, to talk to him.
I thought I could handle going home to see my father every couple of months. At first I went up every two months, then four months. But it has become something more and more I dread.
He refuses to take his pills and change his underwear. He makes sexual innuendo, or worse, pinches a woman’s buttocks or grabs her breasts. His once pristine language is now laced with four-letter words.
It’s been eight months since I last saw him.
Last summer, it was discovered he’d fallen and broken a few bones. I’d hired an additional caregiver to help out.
A month later, one of the caregivers took Dad’s vehicle home with her and totaled it. Another had run up thousands on his credit card.
When I arrived at his home, the kitchen was bare — not a scrap of food was in the fridge or cabinets. Despite all the good people looking out for him, he’d been taken advantage of.
As I searched for new, more reliable caregivers and checked out nursing homes, it was up to me to help Dad in the shower, put on his disposable underwear, and help him in and out of his back brace.
Before all of this, I never saw my father in anything more informal than an evening robe and slippers. Now, I was cleaning up his excrement from the shower and helping him off the toilet.
One morning, as I was pulling off his Depends, Dad started chuckling.
“This is one hell of a vacation for you,” he said, his pale blue eyes laughing, not crying like they usually do these days.
I began laughing, too.
I don’t think I’ve ever loved him more.
Heidi Carr is the Broward Editor for The Miami Herald.