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First Person

The Last Good Fight: It Came Far Too Soon

July 30, 2001|CHARLOTTE HILDEBRAND HARJO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I should have suspected it when I walked into my parent's pink home in Florida and saw all of my father's golf clubs lying out on the counter, cleaned and polished, with price tags attached. A blurb intended for the local paper read: GOLF CLUBS, INEXPENSIVE, USED BUT LOOK NEW.

These were my father's golden clubs, the silver lining for which he had worked so hard during his retirement in the years he was supposed to soak up the sun and finally relax. And there they were, lying about, without purpose, after all they had meant to him. Now he barely looked at them as he passed through the room.

I should have suspected it the next day when my father was a no-show at the breakfast table. As long as I could remember, he had always been there during my twice-yearly visits to greet me in the morning. Today, his Cream of Rice was getting cold on the stove. Finally he made an appearance, minus his pajama top.

"What should I do now, Lil?" my father asked, as he wandered into the kitchen.

My usually patient, sweet mother could hardly contain her frustration. "Sit down and eat," she commanded. To me he confided, "I'm walking around like a zombie, not knowing what I'm doing."

With children, last times are a given--when a child no longer needs to be bathed, is too heavy to be carried off to bed. But with parents, last times are more elusive. You may see them in contrast to how things used to be, or you might not see them at all. Even though the signs were lined up like ducks upon the chilly water, I never suspected on that trip my father and I would have our last good fight.

When I was a teenager, my relationship with my father was circumscribed by the kind of fights that, after years of therapy, are known to build character. We were two peas in a pod, willful and stubborn, emotionally volatile, unable to agree on anything. You name it--friends, privacy, religion, sex--we fought about it.

Even after my father retired and moved to Florida, we continued our battles, shouting for the whole world to hear, outdoing the other in asinine opinions and stubbornness. The visits would begin politely enough, but by the end we would both be dying to escape--I, back to Los Angeles, and my father back to the peace and quiet of his TV room.

The years passed, but not the fighting: This visit seemed no different than others.

Upon my arrival, my father warned me not to open the window in the stuffy guest room where I was staying, but later that night, I needed to breathe.

When I wiggled the window open, it triggered the burglar alarm. Immediately, my father rushed into the room, agitated and angry.

"If you're in my house, you obey my rules," he yelled.

"If you don't want me here, I'll stay in a hotel," I yelled back.

Our bickering escalated into a full-blown fight. My father warned me if I left now he'd never allow me in his house again, to which I replied that was fine by me. He walked away stiffly as I threw my Florida-whites into a frightening lump inside my backpack.

I couldn't believe we could still go at it, over a stupid window, no less. A few seconds later my mother quietly entered the room and, for the first time, told me of a spouse's nightmare: Her husband of 57 years could no longer remember what he had done the previous day, even the previous minute, no longer played bridge (the men had kicked him out), no longer socialized. He stayed home, insisting she stay home too.

In a very short while, he had grown totally dependent on her to tell him what to do. For a man who had a reputation among his family and friends for being as demanding in his personal life as he had been in his business, this was a terrible blow. She had told no one; she was still in shock.

I tried to comfort her; I would look up Alzheimer's disease on the Internet; maybe we could find some useful information. "I don't need to know what it is," she scoffed. "I know what it is. Dad's brain is dying."

Later, I found my father sitting deflated in his easy chair, staring at a fuzzy TV. As hard as it was, I apologized. "I'm sorry, Daddy," I said, and kissed him on the forehead. He told me he was sorry too. We agreed not to fight anymore, at least for that trip. Without warning, he told me he loved me, something he rarely did.

In the morning, at the breakfast table, a devilish smile spread across his thin face, "Where have you been?" he asked cheerily. There was no need to worry about the fight the night before; he had already forgotten. I realized then that our fighting days were over. Despite what was happening in his head, and probably because of it, my father had softened, and I had softened right behind him.

Now, a year later, when we have our weekly phone conversations my father ends by saying he loves me; I say the same. I'm glad for this turn of events, I am, but I sorely miss those fights. I never thought I would say that of those frightening yet strangely exciting battles, but there it is--I miss that emotionally charged bond that tied us together for so long. Now my father fights only to remember.

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