Wasn't it Anne Sexton who said "It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was." That quote invites me to reflect on the fact that memories of my father are divided into: Memories of Dad before MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and Memories of Dad after MS.
MS first visited my dad when he was 50. It was sneaky: A quiet but persistent tingling in the toes and intense fatigue that he just couldn't shake. (Learn about early symptoms.)
I was 17, preparing for college, the future. Dad was in a different place — his own pain — a pain he held privately for a long time.
Because an MS diagnosis may take a while to be confirmed, he spent many years fighting what ultimately became a confirmed MS diagnosis.
He was determined not to believe it for a while and just figured he'd "push on through." (Just the same way Dad would cope with cold and flu ...)
But MS had a better plan. Let's just say it took as long a time for the disease to unfold as it took for my dad to accept the diagnosis. Maybe that was a saving grace, since a faster progression might have been too much for him.
Before MS, my dad was active and outdoorsy. Very much a "man in his body" he liked to work hard and play hard. I remember my dad — built like a lumberjack and with the ruddy complexion of a sailor — up on the roof fixing cedar shingles, sailing our small boat with friends and family, building custom cabinetry for the house, and doing everything he could himself in order to save money for the future, for education.
Dad kept his family active too. I remember my father skiing downhill on frosty mountain mornings. I remember the long rides he scored while body-surfing in the Atlantic. I remember tennis lessons with him, and watching him genuflect at the edge of a church pew on Sunday mornings after a rowdy Saturday evening with his friends ...
But if I had to pick one pre MS memory of Dad to preserve it would be of him on the dance floor. My dad was so sure-footed and gifted on the dance floor that he literally made any woman glow-n-glide like a natural. The last dance I shared with my dad was on my wedding day, an impressive 12 years after his initial diagnosis.
While I will forever and always cherish the meaning behind that last dance with dad, I have grown to love and admire, just as much, the memories my post-MS dad — still just 65 years old and full of life — gives me.
For instance, I am so very proud that after years of teetering on the verge of a fall, rather than using one of the canes he bought "for the day he needed one" my dad has given his family the memory of a man who accepted his diagnosis and is learning to live well with it — even though the losses continue to be significant and they hurt a lot ... a real lot.
I am proud that after years of fighting his diagnosis my dad teaches me and my children to ask and receive help when they are sick or need assistance.
I am proud that after avoiding the learning he was being asked to do, my dad is now enrolling in drug studies and that he uses a scooter to stay engaged and independent in activities when his energy affords him the chance to do so.
I love and deeply admire the courage my father shows when he makes small adjustments to his life with MS. Instead of building and installing those heavy wooden cabinets, he now carves award-winning decoys of light-weight wood. Instead of being first at sports, he's first with patience for others ... and first to accept when someone he loves comes up short.
It may sound corny, but Dad, you have given me the memory of two men's lives. I will cherish them both always.
Happy Father's Day to a guy whose life gives a whole new interpretation of the famous old Two-step Dance. We love you so — perhaps twice as much — for being who you are.