My last column at the beginning of December ended like this:
"Life can change in an instant, so instead of spending that Thursday with Dad, I ended up cleaning his room, I'll never forget how I felt when I saw that his bed was empty, his room full of shadows and silence. "My life flashed before my eyes, and in that moment I was reduced to nine years again, a child sobbing for a loss he could not understand."
The last two and a half years of my life have brought great physical and emotional changes. The experience of my parents' journey with dementia – and my father's death – was incredibly difficult. They were the epicenter of my life for over fifty years. Even after I got married and become a father, Mom and Dad were still mum and dad; always there, always near.
I wanted to write my final chapter before the holidays but I was not able to do it. The first Christmas without dad was lonely for me, like a child lost in a shop. There is a feeling of separation anxiety, something that can only be alleviated by reuniting with mom or dad. Only this time, for me, it was not possible.
It's hard to explain, really, to someone who has never walked this way. I did a lot of soul research to find answers on why my pain and pain were so profound. Much of it goes back to my childhood. I was the youngest of five children; Michael, Leonard, Cindy and Lewis were my brothers. Mike was nine years older than me. He taught me how to play sports and sometimes he did paternal things, like going to my games. My sister and I were closer because she took care of me after school, while mom and dad worked. We are still very close and often joke by knowing the thoughts of one another before articulating them.
Through this entire trial, we joined. I have heard stories of struggling families for those responsible for caring for elderly parents, discussing who got what they once went. Many families divide and never speak again. We gathered around our parents and we approached. We all knew that it was what Mom and Dad wanted – to keep us close to each other during the years of the adult. In a sense, we took care of each other while we take care of mom and dad.
I read not so long ago that situations like ours affect the youngest child the hardest. Why? This is something I've been thinking about for months. Why did what happened to my parents influence me the most? I can not speak for others, but I think I know why now. I was the last to leave the nest, the last to venture into what we call "adulting" or the act of becoming adults. Long after my brothers left home, I stayed there, and it was as if I became a single child for a few years.
My parents held me tight when I was still thirty years old. When I was a commuter college student in Long Beach State, Mom and Dad allowed me to stay home to work and graduate. I am eternally grateful for this. When I moved here in 1990, my parents followed a year later. Three years later, my sister and her family also came to Red Bluff. I guess life could not just break us up.
Dad always used to say: "The greatest years of my life were those who raised you children". It was something that he really meant, and I never understood before I had my own children. Dad's death forced me to reflect on my youth and the moments that struck me so much.
This experience was this. As children, we waited for Dad to come home from work every day. And he always did it, without failing. Once a month, he returned home on Friday in his work truck. It was blue and white, shaped like an oval, with the words Benedict and Benedict on the side. It was, in essence, a wheeled pipe shop. He waited at the end of our dead-end street, so he could run and jump inside. Dad would have driven us the rest of the way, and it was something we all loved, especially me.
Spending those weekends playing trashman. I would take all our garbage cans and line them along the driveway. Then, jumping on the leather seat, I grabbed the steering wheel and imagined I was picking up the trash on Monday. Heck, Dad did not even care. I also smile now just thinking about it.
So, where does this story end? Recently, I came across a woman who was a waitress at Countryside Deli on Main Street many years ago. He saw me and I said, "My parents were Jack and Charliene Gleason, you were waiting for them when they went into The Deli, I wanted to tell you how much they loved you."
Then he said something that I will never forget.
"What a sweetie," she replied. "My God, Patrick, you look just like your dad."
Imagine that. I understand it now.
Pat Gleason grew up in Los Angeles; he lived in Red Bluff for almost 30 years. She is an English teacher at Red Bluff High School and can be contacted at the address: firstname.lastname@example.org.