Posted February 26, 2023

A memory that is fading...

Several years ago, I took my dad for Thai food. We were in Hanover, N.H. My pop lived in Hanover a long time. He taught high school English there when I was a kid. He’d coached football as well—state championship coaching—and directed plays. A Renaissance man.

That day, we’d been walking around for a while. It was warm, so I suggested we find a spot, get something to eat. I asked my pop what he’d like. He steered us without words to the new Thai place. Dad was pretty confused when we first sat down. It was noisy, busy, chaotic. He looked anxious. I started to say it was a bad idea, but Dad jumped in, “This is nice,” he said. He gestured to the menu, “Just pick some things.” So I did. Then, as sometimes happens in restaurants, all the noise and chaos paused. My dad calmed and we talked. Real conversation. A bit like it used to be.

Dad smiled at something I said, smoothed the napkin on the table, like he used to do when thinking, and I looked at my pop and said, “I bet you were a happy drunk.” That made him smile some more. He smiles with his eyes. He said, “Well, you know, it could be. I know what you mean. Yes, I was a happy drunk.”

We don’t really talk about what is happening to him. We talk around it. At this point, I don’t even know if we could talk about it. My dad has dementia—a slow build but it is getting worse, creeping in like an oily shadow. But that’s the happy drunk part; even as this darkness settles in, my pop holds the lovely joy he has about life.

Before this disease replaced all other frustrations, I had two great beefs with my pop. The first was his always being late, or just being too distracted to show up. He’d say we would do things, but mostly we wouldn’t. Jim Croce wrote a song about it. The second great frustration (tragedy, even) is my dad is a wonderful writer but never really wrote. Dad sees how people make things worse or better or just get washed up in what they are living, and how that can derail a person, lead someone to unintended and tragic consequences. He sees how the simple humanity of life makes the most important sort of story. “Shakespeare’s got nothing on this,” he’d say when describing some events or people in his life. He’d say it with a smile, with kindness, without glee. He’d relate the tale and make me think. That is a gift: to see, make it all relatable, and not judge.

But he never really wrote any of it down. He always said he would, but he never did. Now he can’t. Maybe it is why I write. Maybe that’s a gift he gave me.

Another great gift he gave me is a singular road trip. A time he did show up. In 1972, when I was 11, just after my parents split, Dad and I pushed his fire-engine-red Plymouth Scamp across the heart of America.

Top memories: watching two teens steal a car in a small town in Oklahoma; Mexican food in a sun-bleached Amarillo, Texas; a Charles Bronson movie in an old-school cinema in Colorado Springs; Dad shows me where the Army made him a mountaineer; Cheyenne, Wyo., back when it was a cow town; and Chicago, where Dad of course found an Italian neighborhood and a dive of an Italian restaurant, which the police did not raid until just as we left.

I memorized each minute of that trip.

I don’t try to talk with him about memories anymore; that’s too hard. I still love to listen to my old man, though. I don’t care that I can’t always follow. I just let his words come as they do.

It’s his voice, laugh, and hands. He talks with his hands. They move in front of him like a conductor’s baton.

As so many can attest, dementia and Alzheimer’s are hard to watch take and wring a loved one. There is a slight silver lining. Dad is still here. He still has a light in his eyes and sees the world with joy.

Here’s how I see what is happening: My dad stands at the stern of a ship leaving port. He leans against the fantail, and waves and shouts to me as the boat pulls away. I pretend to hear and understand. I smile. I wave back. I shout over the distance and the noise of the ship and the sea. I shout, ‘You are a Great Man!’ I shout, ‘I love you!’ I shout and hope he can hear me.

As I write this, Sunday is Father’s Day. Given that, I want to say two things. First, to my lovely wife and kids, did you happen to see that 40-liter Patagucci tech backpack in the catalog? Isn’t it cool in orange?

Just saying.

Second, even if a few days early, I want to shout to my dad from shore: Happy Father’s Day; I love you; as Jim Croce sang would happen, I don’t see you enough, I think about you every day.

David M. Rocchio lives, works, and writes in Stowe. This column first appeared in the Stowe Reporter, June 14, 2018. Anthony Rocchio died Oct. 8, 2022.