I’m trying to teach my dad again the sport he once taught me and it’s devastating
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“Who is it?” my father said, pointing to the television screen in front of us.
I am surprised to hear his voice.
“It’s Aaron Rodgers,” I said with a little too much enthusiasm, happy to engage with my father. “He’s the quarterback.
A blank stare from my father.
“He throws the ball.
Another look from my father, back to the place in his mind where he had been for two years.
At 72, he is in the last stages of Parkinson’s disease with dementia. He was misdiagnosed for almost three years, which gave him too much time to relentlessly progress. He is finally receiving proper treatment, but it does not seem to be enough. I continue to hope for a medical miracle, so that he will one day wake up like himself.
I visit him in Wisconsin whenever I can. On this trip, I left California with red eyes. I couldn’t sleep during the four hour flight even though I knew I should. I looked straight ahead in the dark cabin, feeling the sense of urgency that rose in me as my father’s health declined: it was the desire, the need, to tell everyone about him, how he is sick, how he left but not. About how he got had – a great mind and was the nicest person most people have ever met.
It’s a dark and white Sunday in November in Wisconsin. In the common room of his assisted living facility, while we watch television, a red balloon floats between our heads. It is “active time” and around us other patients are playing tennis with badminton rackets and balls. The room is carpeted and the chairs and pillows are well padded. This room, this whole place, was created for soft landings.
Administrators have deliberately brought life to every corner: there are parakeets and cockatiels chirping in cages and turtles swimming in their tanks and therapy dogs roaming the hallways. Looks like we’re in a pet store.
“I looked straight ahead into the dark cabin, feeling the sense of urgency that rose in me as my father’s health declined: it was the desire, the need to tell everyone about him, how he is sick, how he left but not. About how he had a big mind and was the nicest person most people have ever met.
My mom was my dad’s babysitter before that, but when he wandered around the house all night, missed steps on the stairs, got lost in and outside their house, it became a necessity a matter of safety. install it in a facility with 24-hour care.
My rowdy, once larger than life father, the head and heart of our family, now looks like he’s been swallowed up by his wheelchair. His clothes hang from him; his cheeks are pale. We lose it a little more every day. He can no longer walk or eat. He hardly ever speaks, unsure of himself. My mom tells me he’s not quite sure what’s real and what’s not.
We’re trying to watch our Green Bay Packers play soccer as the balls fall all around us now, like we’ve won big in a game show. I push them away.
“We could qualify for the playoffs, daddy,” I said. “A really strong team this year.”
He looks at me, as if he realizes I’m here.
“They had a first down,” I said, gesturing to the television. He shakes his head, then shrugs his shoulders.
I grab a subscription card from an AARP magazine on a side table. On the back, I hastily draw a football field, with yard lines and goal zones. It suddenly seems important to me, like I can just get his understanding of football back, the rest of him could follow.
I don’t remember the first time my dad explained football to me, but it was definitely one of the few games we attended at Lambeau Field. Someone from my dad’s law firm gave him tickets on the 50-yard line for a few games in Brett Favre’s day, and my dad took me, his tomboy young girl. I’m sure he explained downs and turnovers and what constitutes a penalty.
I don’t remember learning football; I have the impression that I have always known that. I remember the smell of beer and peanuts in the shell, and the subzero temperatures that made us so cold in the stands that we prayed for the numbness to finally set in. He put his arm around me to keep me warm. We would try to predict the next pieces. “Look,” my father once said. “I bet Favre will throw it himself on second and goal. The defense won’t expect it. And so often he was right. I associate the roaring cheers of the wave-rippling crowd, bound by the mutual love we all shared for this team with my dad.
“Since he got sick I have sometimes wondered if I like the sport itself or if I like it because it was a way of bonding with my dad. I always never miss a game, but my team’s wins are less important when I can’t share them with him.
Growing up, I never missed a Packers game, even though I lived in different cities. When Green Bay played the Super Bowl in 1997 against the New England Patriots, I was in college in Boston, in the land of the Patriots. While the majority of my classmates were at keggers, watching together, I was alone in my dorm, wearing my Favre swimsuit, pacing in front of the TV, on the phone watching it live with my dad in Wisconsin. He cried when they finally won.
For many seasons before he fell ill, my dad would call me if a Green Bay player won more than 40 yards in a single play. It was relived at long distance. “Did you see the way the kicker blocked for him?” It’s the best of teamwork, Carrie! ” he said. When Aaron Rodgers threw a 65-yard Hail Mary pass to his teammate in the end zone for a touchdown and a win on the foot in Detroit a few years ago, I rocked the family room of my own home in Los Angeles by jumping up and down. After I caught my breath, I called my dad.
Since he fell ill, I have sometimes wondered if I liked the sport itself or if I liked it because it was a way to bond with my dad. I always never miss a game, but my team’s wins mean less when I can’t share them with him.
“Daddy,” I say now, showing him the map as I draw hash marks on it. “Imagine it’s meters…” I show my father the football field I designed and try to teach him what he once taught me. He nods, probably trying to figure it out for me.
I like football. There are rules and people follow them, you can often predict what will happen next. There’s a clock, and you know how much time is left. I know my father’s spirit and memory will never return, never in the form we once knew. There is no cure for his illness. I fold my little drape in on itself and comb my pen, pushing back my tears. I lift his arm and put it around my shoulder, lean towards him and watch our beloved team lose.
Carrie Friedman lives in Los Angeles. It has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek magazine, among others. You can find out more about her at www.carriefriedman.com.
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