Originally published at Beliefnet.com, on February 12, 2001.
My father died today. What day is today? Perhaps it was yesterday. I have been saying good-bye in small ways every day for so long. It feels like today. It will feel like today for a very long time.
I do not want to celebrate my father’s life right now. I want to mourn his death, and the dirty trick that was played on him. I do not want to trade sentimental anecdotes or well-intentioned euphemisms to hide from the fact that a terrible thing has happened. We live in an infantile culture that lies about death, denies it—real death, that is, not the kind we play at in movies and video games. We too often resort to “positive” thoughts, healing affirmations, and Bible chat about “all things working for good.” We relentlessly cheerlead ourselves on in the “victorious life.” We do not speak of death because it means defeat, and we believe only in winning, our true national religion.
For the record, my father did not pass on. Death is not a part of life. It’s not for the best. And there is no reason for it. My father died today.
I should have been prepared for it; he had Alzheimer’s, diagnosed in 1994, and had been choking in its grip for six and a half years. But his death nevertheless surprised and astounded me. My father was not supposed to die. That’s probably an illusion all sons of good and loving fathers harbor. But you see, my father had a knack for eluding disaster, and I believed he would elude this one too.
After all, my father had survived a war, survived colon cancer, accidents on the job, survived all the entropic forces that threaten any working man living paycheck to paycheck in a world of inflated and devalued currency. And didn’t he live a responsible life, taking all the necessary precautions, never risking unduly? He played by the rules, believed in God, didn’t drink or gamble, took his 400 units of vitamin E every day, and paid his bills. Yet his reward was not an easy retirement, peace, rest, the consolations of a hard life well-lived. It was instead the very worst fate he could have imagined for himself. This fiercely independent man became utterly dependent on everyone around him. The nightmares of his childhood were revisited upon him. He was humiliated. He was defeated. My father died today.
There’s a reference guide called Lippinger’s Gazetteer, which describes the topography, natural resources, and history of towns and cities around the world. On a whim, I looked up the small central-Italian town my father was born in. I did not expect to find an entry for this smudge of a farming hamlet. So imagine my surprise when my finger, riding a column under “O,” landed on “Orsogna.” What could anyone say about this rest stop on the way to Rome? Not much, if you were counting mere words. Orsogna’s significance to the world was in fact summed up quite concisely: “Almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943.” My father was 11 in 1943.
He had barely stepped into adolescence when bombs began dropping around him, the Allies and the Germans fighting their way up the Italian peninsula, my father’s little town unfortunately situated in their path. His memories of that time remained, as one might expect, vividly present throughout his life: Christmas huddled in a cave carved into the side of the Apennines; German soldiers jabbing rifles at my grandmother, her newborn daughter in her arms, terrorizing them into silence; and when the fighting was finally over, land mines and grenades left lying behind like so many bored boys’ toys; friends losing digits and limbs to same. Typhoid from rotting corpses. Scrounging for food. The hunger. Always the hunger.
Alzheimer’s first devours the most readily available part of the brain: short-term memory, the stuff most recently stored. By 1998/99, in what could be described as the middle stage of the disease, my father had lost his sense of place, of time, identification with most people except his immediate family. What remained accessible to him were primarily his very oldest memories, those that time had imbedded most deeply in his brain. He could not remember his address or phone number. But he could remember the war.
One of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s is something called “sundowning.” As the sun would set outdoors, a darkness would descend on my father indoors, a severe anxiety, feeling of vulnerability, paranoia. My father would begin closing windows at dusk. He would beg my mother not to run the vacuum because of the noise. She couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t until he was questioned privately by a doctor later that my father revealed why you had to be quiet, why you had to hide at night. The Germans were patrolling. They would hear you, see you. They would come in. They would shove a rifle in his mother’s face.
My father came to America from Italy in July 1956. He was to have ridden cheap steerage on an ocean liner, but instead swallowed his fear of flying and took Catholic Charities up on a free airplane ticket. My father made it safely to the New World, but most of those who rode the liner did not. It was the Andrea Doria. My father had escaped disaster again. God had looked out for him. God had wanted him safe. Wouldn’t he always? Wouldn’t he always protect the little boy playing among the guns and grenades from, if not the bad, at least the very worst? But my father died today.
When my father was diagnosed with colon cancer, one year before the Alzheimer’s, one year before we realized that the memory lapses and fogginess were not long-term side effects of the chemo and radiation, I prayed for his full recovery, even though the odds were worsened by the cancer having metastasized, jumped to the liver. My prayer was heard. He beat the cancer. On January 13, 2001, the day my father died, he was seven and a half years cancer-free. But something, perhaps the three and a half hours under anesthesia to remove the tumor, had triggered a gene and the hive of neuron-destroying proteins that marked the onset of Alzheimer’s. He was so healthy except for the cancer, then so fit and strong except for the dementia. Beware what you pray for. My father died today.
How do I make sense of what happened to him, a stable, indefatigable, always reliable provider who asked very little above the basics for himself—how do I come to terms with watching him die in increments, a little every day for six and a half years, first his personality, then, as his brain shut down, his body, no longer receiving the proper signals to function, to repair, two deaths, dying twice but every day, when the actuary charts — and his own family history — declared he had another 15 years left in him? What spiritual exercise will strengthen me when I think of his losing 30 healthy pounds of flesh, the result of nursing-home staff failing to feed him as he lay sedated to keep him off ulcerated feet, the result of their own clumsy care? How do I, some kind of Christian, now worship a Creator so bereft of imagination that He could only contrive hunger as the framing device for my father’s life story?
Some people use illness as a time for communion with God. But this disease could provide my father no opportunity for “spiritual” growth, for deeper union with God, as he became incapable of understanding his own experience or relating his self to another Self, or surrendering his will to a higher Will.
Was this then meant for me and my family? Were we to grow spiritually from self-surrender and self-sacrificing love? In short, were we to benefit from his suffering? Was God, in His infinite wisdom, asking us to harvest my father’s pain for our own betterment? Was God asking us to use him as a means to our own spiritual ends?
I resolved not to mitigate my father’s suffering by concocting a “reason,” importing a purpose from a grab bag of pious cliches. After all, what reason could possibly suffice? Any so-called reason would only become a coping mechanism, an attitude-adjustment technique. It would become about healing me. But my father died today.
My father was a locksmith, a calling heeded after a serious fall on a construction site had steered him away from the “building” trades. His repertoire extended from installing the simplest deadbolts to plumbing the mysteries of the most Byzantine vault-door time locks. If a bank had been robbed, a door jimmied, a safe blown open, panic-stricken managers would call Tony, at any hour, to replace busted cylinders, cut new keys, reset combinations. To put things right again. The boy who had known so little material security had spent his adult life ensuring it for others.
In certain strands of Christianity there is the notion of “eternal security,” the promise that once you have evinced saving faith you cannot be lost. I no longer believe in eternal security. I no longer believe in security of any kind. The locks will be picked, the guards will fail, the money will be stolen, and the bombs will go off. If not around you, inside you. Land mines laid by invisible forces. Dormant for decades. Waiting. As you go to school and get married and make babies and plans for the future and dream your dreams. Waiting. Until, suddenly you begin tripping them, one by one, inadvertently, when you least expect it, losing not limbs but names and dates and faces. And dignity.
And if you think my father was just unlucky, or that he had in some New Agey karmic way brought this on himself, or that he had failed to do X, or should have done Y; in short, that this could not happen to you, that the very worst thing you fear for yourself cannot be visited upon you, then you are a fool. Because you—and I—are no better situated in the universal scheme of things than my father was.
And no, I cannot simply let go, accept, fall back on an ostensibly benign Providence. Because between the Last Supper and Easter Sunday falls a descent into hell. Because God terrifies me. And life terrifies me. And death terrifies me. Because my father died today.