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Ghost of Valentine Past

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Five years ago today I said goodbye to a father I barely recognized. I sat perched on the edge of a flimsy nursing home mattress and said goodbye. I said, “I love you” and meant it. And this man, this father I barely recognized said, “I’m sorry.” He whispered, “Forgive me” and meant it, while floating in and out of a morphine dream.

My real father, the one I knew growing up, would never have apologized. He was too proud for that kind of thing. An apology would have had a domino effect — a string of sorrys collapsing into the future and careening into the past. A concession so mighty, its wake would have left him powerless over the daughters who scrambled to please him.

My real father was angry. He was critical and he had a temper. He demanded authority, attention, loyalty and love. My real father goaded me into every I love you of my childhood by saying it constantly and without an air of authenticity. His upward inflection on the word “love” turned the expression into a rhetorical hijacking, demanding a response for ransom.

In the last year of my father’s life, dementia was the Robin Hood of our relationship. Dementia robbed him of his memories and gave me the gift of a second chance. Dementia allowed us to rebuild our broken past. It was an adjustment I was happy to make because it allowed me to forget a few things too. It gave us a fresh start, every day. Dementia was sloppy and disorganized. It lost track of grudges and couldn’t keep time. It was hard to stay angry with a man who constantly offered snacks and never stopped complimenting last month’s haircut. It was easy to love a man who thought he was window shopping for his granddaughters as he peeked through the glass wall of the nurses’ station.

Five years ago today, this man held my hand and asked for nothing. He hoped for companionship and tenderness but knew it hadn’t been earned and was grateful for every unmerited moment. This man who was not my father laughed when my sister and I asked him to divulge all his dying secrets. He smelled like warm linen and asked if we were traveling with puppies. This man did not mock our sorrows or raise his fist in anger. He did not forget our birthdays or move out of the house while we were at school.

For a fleeting moment that Valentine’s Day, five years ago, I caught his eye and saw through the tired, cornflower blues that this man was my father after all. But instead of criticism, he showered us with kindness. I said, “I forgive you,” and meant it and he smiled as he flew in and out of his morphine cloud, preparing to skip out on us one last time.

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