Dad, At Last

Author Barry Michels' father reveals the reasons behind a lifetime of estrangement, in the most unlikely manner.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

You know, every family has its black sheep. Someone who's apart, aloof, maybe even rejected. Either they left the fold or they got put out. And every once in a great while, you get to find out why.

BARRY MICHELS: You know, I was never very close to my father. He was a quiet man and he rarely showed affection. But when he did, it was in a subtle way. You know, like he would gently put his hand on my head. As I grew older, his silence became kind of an invisible barrier between us. You know, by 10, I was pretty much convinced he didn't love me. I remember one time, sitting in the back of our station wagon on a family trip, I made a bet with myself. If he said anything to me - directly to me within the following 24 hours, it meant he loved me. He went 41 hours. Well, I grew up. I went to college far away from home. I worked hard at finding a career. And I finally returned to Los Angeles and I settled down with a family of my own. My parents lived nearby, but my father and I still hardly ever spoke to each other. You know, the silence between us had just become normal.

Then one day a call came for my mother. My father had been diagnosed with a variant of Alzheimer's disease. Now I've read about Alzheimer's and the wrenching pain that it causes, but my experience with the disease was different. I never could've anticipated how dramatically it would change my father's and my relationship. It happened on a spring day about six months after he'd been diagnosed and I had decided to visit him with my 5-year-old son, Jesse. I was nervous. I was nervous that my father wouldn't know who I was. I have to admit, after so many years of silence, I was glad to have my son there as kind of a buffer between my father and me. I remember the three of us sat out on the cold concrete patio of the convalescent home. My father was wrapped in an old sweater and he was watching as my son clambered over me like a little monkey on a jungle gym. I tried to make small talk but my father wasn't listening. Instead, his eyes were studying the affection that I shared with my son. Then he looked straight at me.

His dark eyes were glowing. They had kind of an intelligence to them that they didn't normally have and he began to speak - more words than I had ever heard before. My father's Alzheimer's had progressed to the point where his speech was disorganized and he mixed up names and places, but his meaning was clear. He said watching Jesse reminded me of a long time ago. It's such a long time ago, but I have such a clear picture of him - of you in my mind. You were a sweet little boy. My little boy. He struggled to find the words. Watching him - you, I never showed you how much I loved you, but I did love you. I loved you so much it scared me. Maybe you would get too connected to me and then I would die and you would be cast out and alone. I was confused and then, staring into my father's eyes, I flashed back to the story of his father. When my father was a teenager, my grandfather got into some kind of trouble and told my father he intended to end his life. My father begged him not to do it and appealed to his mother, to their Rabbi and to others, but nobody responded.

A week later, my grandfather shot himself. The Jewish community shunned my father's family. My father withdrew behind a wall of silence. I noticed his eyes getting heavy. I started to get up, but he held up his hand to say one more thing. I know I have this disease that makes it difficult for me to think and remember, but you know, I'm thankful to this disease because without it I don't think I could have said these things to you. He tapped his heart. I love you. He closed his eyes and fell silent again.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Dr. Barry Michels, for sharing that story with SNAP. Check out our website, snapjudgment.org for a link to Dr. Michels' best-selling book, "The Tools." That piece was produced by Anna Sussman. It's about that time, but don't get cranky. There's plenty more SNAP where this came from. Full episodes, movies, pictures, all of it - snapjudgment.org. Facebook? Yes, we're on the Facebook. Twitter, iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, the NPR app. We serve it your way. That is NPR.

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