June 16, 1999

A Different Kind of Father's Day

___By Brian Burton
___My father loved to sing in church. As a child I remember Dad leading the music in our Baptist church and hearing his majestic voice rise to God.
___In our family tradition, Father's Day involved going to church, sharing Sunday dinner and conversation around the table. During the years I could not go home, I'd call and enjoy pleasant conversation with my dad.
___But this year is different. While millions of children stand to honor their fathers today, I stand too, proud and erect, with tears streaming down my face as I watch my father dying.
father___The nightmare began five years ago as doctors began a long process of misdiagnoses. Dad's slight tremor, peculiar gait, forgetfulness and inability to retrieve certain words warned of something ominous. Dad made preparations to retire and sold his dental practice.
___Parkinson's Disease was confirmed but his mental condition remained mysterious until a gifted Vietnamese doctor gently spoke the words we had never heard and would learn to dread: Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). Little is known about this relatively new category of dementia. More aggressive than its familiar cousin, Alzheimer's, LBD adds two horrible features--hallucinations and rapid breakdown of speech functions.
___Though medicine can slow its advance, nothing stops LBD's death march. Dad's mental degeneration is measured by weeks, not months. For example, during May he lost the awareness to reach for the soap while taking a shower.
___The father I once knew was active but reserved, soft-spoken, kind, honest, stoic and wise. He and Mom raised three sons and a daughter. Dad was known to his patients as "Dr. Burton, the gentle dentist." Every Monday, his office closed, and he headed for the Arkansas bayous and forests to fish and hunt. I remember Dad's pleasure when we could accompany him on these outings.
___Today Dad is a shadow of his former self. At 69, he ambles awkwardly about the house with a vacant or bewildered expression. Sometimes Dad gives up communicating his ideas when the words elude him. Despite these frustrations, Mom says his demeanor grows sweeter each day.
___Dad's moments of self-awareness are especially painful. Last Christmas he conveyed to me his regret for not planning better for retirement. Parenting my parent, I reassured him of his good stewardship and my pride in his achievements.
___The grief that consumes me is fresh and unrehearsed. Filled with unanswerable questions, I grope for meaning. It is as though our family is walking through a dark cave, slipping, stumbling and grasping the walls for something to brace that next uncertain step. One day soon we will come face-to-face with the cave's terminal end.
___I and my three siblings live out-of-state, so Mom is the primary caregiver. Strong-willed, spirited, brave and exhausted, she watches Dad fade at close range. Surmounting health setbacks of her own, Mom lovingly cares for Dad in the comfort of their home.
___On this Father's Day, I intend to celebrate differently. As usual, we will attend church services and give thanks to God for another year of life. But this time Dad, the gifted musician, will stand mute beside me as I share the open hymn book. I'll join the congregation and sing loudly, for both of us, proud of my father and remembering his strong voice.
___At some point I'll pause, clasp Dad's hand, look him in the eye and tell him what he means to me. Perhaps, in a moment of understanding, he'll squeeze my hand and smile. We'll form a bond that is complete, comforting, sweet and durable; that seems inviolate, hopeful, and, somehow, sacred
___Brian Burton is a free-lance writer and a member of CityChurch, Dallas.


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