Earlier today, as I was doing the laundry, bagging up the trash filled with wet, smelly Depends and admittedly feeling a little sorry for myself, I heard my Dad mumbling something from his living room/bedroom suite. As I came into the room I heard him say what sounded like, “keep your promise” several times. I stealthily approached his bedside to ascertain if he was talking in his sleep, fully awake or wandering betwixt in the foggy hinterlands and hallucinating ‘hobos in the house’ or ‘monsters under the bed’. Once again he muttered, “keep your promise” I said, 'OK' just to comfort and quiet him, without knowing or caring if he was speaking specifically to me or offering phantom fatherly advise to the hobos. As a child and a teenager, my father tempered his orations regarding the primacy of character, integrity and honor with massive does of fear, intimidation and foreboding warnings. Of course, at the time, I dismissed him and his rants. To me, he was a deranged old man who was out of touch with my generation and I ignored his tirades; to my later dismay. But now, 40 years later, even his nebulous mumblings, both rational and crazed, have begun to garner my attention. Perhaps because they are delivered in a meek and gentle voice, the antithesis of my childhood recollection of his fiery diatribes or because I know his time is short. Hopefully, it is because I am finally able to genuinely hear his voice, however weak, and his message however strong.
I made eye contact with him and in a clear, solemn voice, he said to me for the final time, “Keep your promise”. Hesitantly, I asked him ‘Which one’? He locked his failing, glazed eyes onto mine and spoke softly, “to look after us”. I was both thunderstruck and chagrined. I said back to him with all the earnestness I could muster, “I will Dad. I will keep my promise to ‘look after’ both of you” and with that, he closed his eyes and quickly fell back to sleep. Soberly I went back to my previous chores, but the ammonia vapors from the soiled diapers must have caused my eyes to tear up and I began to weep. How wretched is it that a 94-year-old Alzheimer’s patient believes that he must exhort his son, from what will ultimately be his deathbed, to keep his promise. And then I remembered who I was to him and our history. How, as a willful child and then as a rebellious teenager, I mocked him, rejected his values and disdained him. Perhaps he remembers me all too well.
What I heard standing beside that bed were not the ramblings of a moribund Alzheimer patient, but sage words from a man of principle, character and honor. So 40 years later the lessons from the harangue of a zealous young dad were finally heard by the tone-deaf son in the soft murmurings of a wise, wizened and doting father. I got it dad; integrity, character and honor really do matter.
Rest easy Dad, and sleep away the troubled miles that lie ahead. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.