About my Dad or Polar Bear

By Susan Keats, Contributor &  Seize-the-Day Propagandist

As I write, my dad breathes steadily. He sleeps endlessly, about 22 hours each day. I sit by his side and tell him I love him and massage lotion into his hands because I can’t think of what else to do. He wakes up a little and looks at me with the blank eyes of Alzheimers. Does he know who I am? Somewhere in his head, I know his feelings about me float. They bubble to the surface and I get a smile. They sink to the depths and he looks at me with no recollection.

It has occurred to me that my father is no longer alive, but that is a painful thought. He’s still here, but the man he is now is not who he is…was. He loved chocolate chips in milk and B movies late at night. He is the man my mind still tells me to call when I have a financial question or a new business idea. This is the father who offered wonderful words of wisdom to me in moments of stress, the words I now share with my kids and still tell myself when I’m looking for a little comfort.

When I was a kid he sometimes recited a joke or two at the dinner table. I recall one was a long and meandering story about two polar bears. He called it a “Shaggy Dog” story. The story goes on and on in a long and non-sensical way and then finally the bears find themselves sitting on two ice floes that have separated. As they drift apart from one another, one bear calls out to the other: “Polar Bear!” I remember thinking, why is that funny? That is sad that the two bears are drifting apart and can no longer be together. I didn’t like Shaggy Dog stories.

So now here we are grappling with Alzheimer's and like most families, the extent of how unfair it is is palpable. Do bad guys get Alzheimer's or is it only the smart, loving and intelligent ones who fade away before our eyes. Even in the confused state he now drifts in and out of, my father has continued to be sweet and thoughtful of my mom’s feelings, even though she is mostly a stranger to him.

Many friends who have already been down this road are sending me beautiful words of advice and tales of last words suddenly spoken. The advice I receive is the same each time: spend every day with your dad like it is the last, tell him that you love him and that it is ok to let go.

So I sit here and watch him breathe. We are close to the end now. I dread in equal measure the phone call that will tell me he has died, or the one that tells me that nothing has changed and he still lives, suspended in sleeping but not in living. I feel dread that even at my age of 50, my childhood ends when I am no longer someone’s child. We are arriving at the punch line. And I don’t get it. Alzheimer's has caused my dad to drift away from me and I’m left with the icy awareness that he is gone. I miss him.

Polar Bear.
Polar Bear.

Donations to the ALZHEIMER's Foundation can be made here.

Susan-KeatsSusan Keats ~ In 2010 Susan received life-changing news after a routine mammogram. She had breast cancer. After plenty of tears, anxiety and soul searching, she finished treatments and is now entering a year of renewal, growth, and recovery. Susan hopes that those who are just stepping into the experience of illnesses or crises will find the same comfort and inspiration that she felt when others shared their experiences and wisdom with her. She is looking forward to rediscovering parts of herself that she had allowed to fall away. This is going to be a great year!

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16 Responses to About my Dad or Polar Bear

  1. What a lovely and heartbreaking tribute to your father. When my father died 5 years ago (I was 45), I most certainly felt that my childhood had ended – I often say that was really the start of my middle age. But your father will stay with you forever – you’ll hear his voice, remember his face, and, if you’re very lucky like I am every so often, he will visit you in your dreams and you will awaken sure that you have been hugged closely by your dad.

    My condolences to you and your family.

  2. Haralee says:

    So lovingly written and so touching and I am sorry for your loss.

  3. I’m so sorry about your father. Such a beautiful and touching tribute. Unfortunately, I know what you mean by feeling that your childhood is over. I lost my father 31 years ago to cancer. There’s not a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of him in some way. I can still remember his voice and his face as if it were yesterday. Our dads will always be alive in our hearts. Sending hugs your way.

  4. Beautifully said and written. I lost my childhood when my fiancé died at 36 (I was almost 27…) my father died 2 years before and my mother 10 years later. It’s what we do with loss and tragedy that makes us grow — and grow up. Having cancer and living through that can help us grow, too.
    I’m blessed to have met my cousin George — although late in life. And I’m so glad Gloria, his loving wife, and Susan, have been added to our lives, too.
    A beautiful tribute to a beautiful man!

  5. Oh Sue, this is so beautiful. He would be so proud of you. I can see him smiling, his peculiar shy little smile. But take care of your mom… she has lost the best life partner there was. You have him in you… you are so much your dad, he did such a wonderful job with you!!!!
    But don’t let the child in you go anywhere… you may feel like its gone, but it is deep within you. When the horror of the grief is gone, the little Sue of that photograph is still there, and he will be there too. Grab on to the memories, it is what we are made off. Love you my dear friend.

  6. Marci Rich says:

    This is one of the loveliest, most moving essays about loss that I’ve ever read. Susan, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  7. Susan says:

    Thank you everyone for all of your kind and supportive thoughts which help me to keep my head slightly above the cloudiness of my sorrow.

  8. Papa says:

    Sue, your essay is a sweet and touching as you are. George was someone I didn’t meet often, but I liked him as a serious, no-nonsense man.
    It’s easy to understand why you miss such a sweet person. But you’re strong, and will cope with this as you have coped with so much else.
    People leave us, but not memories. Much love.

  9. Mary Babiez says:

    This is beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. My mom has been gone 13 years and my dad, 3. Each passing affected me differently – losing my mom was the first and left an emptiness I’d never known. Losing my dad 10 years later (I was 46) left a different feeling of emptiness with both parents now gone. I was alone when my mom died, but had my wonderful husband by my side when my dad passed. I am crying now as my husband’s mother is suffering her own dementia now, and I am with her every day. She is our last remaining parent, and this one, too, has its own unique emptiness. What I know everyday is both of my parents are with me and helping me and husband through this pain. Blessings to you and your family.

  10. Ronna says:

    Beautiful Sue. I am so sorry for your loss and hope wonderful memories will help ease the pain and provide some peace. xoxo

  11. laurie says:

    Susan, your writing is lovely, your stories poignant and the memories you conjure up sweet. Your dad must have been something…because you certainly are. My belated sympathies. I lost my dad way too early at 59–but I didn’t have to watch him disappear before my eyes. How painful that must have been for you. In losing my dad, I always felt I lost the one person who really really got me–who was my biggest supporter and loved me absolutely unconditionally. I still miss him dearly, but I feel like he’s my guardian angel, along with my mom, who also died too young.

  12. Sandy says:

    Sue: A beautiful tribute to a sweet man who I had the privilege of knowing. I lost my Dad when I was 36 and he was only 62, but not a day goes by that I do not think of him. I had my Mom longer; she was 83 when she left us, but I remember her every day too and am thankful for the good life she had. They are always in our thoughts and deeds and the way we live our lives. We pass all those good things on to our children and that way our parents live on…..

  13. Susan Lieberman says:

    Lovely memory of your father. We are all polar bears, drifting away from our parents through life. Thank you.

  14. Nancy says:

    Your tribute was forwarded to me today. You shared some wonderful memories of your dad yet also a painful experience. I have fond recollections of your dad from family gatherings over the years. Recently your mom shared the charming story of how she and your dad met. I am very sorry for your loss. I hope good memories, time and strength pull you and your family through this difficult time.

  15. Susan says:

    Thanks everyone for all of the nice comments. I appreciate having them. Susan

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