Looking back, my sister Eileen was the one who noticed our Dad’s decline before anyone else wanted to accept it. I think it took me the longest to see it, and then I only saw it because I was with them much of the last year they spent in their house.
When I was working in accounting, I knew a lot of experts (or SMEs, in MBA-speak). If I had a question about the Earned Income Credit, for example, I had a client who, as a young lawyer in Washington, had helped write the enabling legislation. If I had an obscure question about S Corporations, I was acquainted with a Big
8 7 6 5 4 partner who’d experienced every S Corp question, every S Corp emergency and every S Corp tax disaster known to man. If I had a question about a recording contract, there were a half dozen reasonably powerful music business lawyers in Los Angeles or Nashville who would take my call.
But there was only one guy on the planet that I could ask the most important question. There was only one number I could call and say, “Sure, I know what the issue looks like and I know what the book says, but Dad, what do I do?” There was much he taught me that I never could have looked up.
I knew before my parents moved out of the house that Dad’s business mind was declining. The experienced auditor, CPA and retired CFO had been sending checks to some questionable “charities” that showed obvious red flags in their direct-mail pitches. His bill paying was slipping; he’d missed enough important payments that my credit score was actually higher than his (People who knew Dad might be surprised by that, but people who know me would be astonished!). I learned that he’d deposited a couple of scam checks and caused some minor embarrassment at the bank. I learned that he had agreed to pay a fee to a Jamaican guy claiming to be the president of Publishers Clearing House to ensure delivery of his Grand Prize. I took to intercepting most of my parents’ junk mail and turning off the ringers on every phone in their house except the one I carried.
After they moved, Dad’s decline seemed to accelerate. They were in a locked unit because my Mom wandered at night, and Dad really didn’t have a lot of engaging adult conversation with the other residents. In the nearly three years they lived in assisted living, he lost track of things – some small, some significant. We had stopped talking about the markets by 2018. I knew at one point that, when I needed an answer on how to approach a question from a Revenue Agent or how to record a particularly complex transaction, Dad was no longer the guy I could call.
But it’s funny, the things we remember and the things we don’t; the places in our memory that stay secure as we decline and the things we let go. Dad’s military service from 1943-1946 and 1950-1952 was a source of pride to him for nearly 70 years after he separated from the Navy. And we four kids were a source of pride to him from November 1951 until the moment of his death.
One day I showed Dad a book I’d bought about Sumner and Gearing-class Navy destroyers, and opened it to a photograph of the ship on which he’d served. The Witek was in dry dock in Boston with her non-propeller propellers exposed. Dad looked at the picture and as soon as the ship’s name registered with him, he started explaining her experimental “new” (for 1951) propulsion system as though he’d just attended a briefing on the subject below deck.
On another occasion I showed him the website of the company from which he’d retired in the 90s. I mentioned that the company was using a new process to draw copper into projectile shells – and he started telling me about the metallurgical challenges with drawing copper that weren’t present with brass. He may have been his company’s Chief Financial Officer, but he knew the products and he knew the processes.
But nothing filled his heart, or his memory, like his love for Peachy, our Mom, who he first encountered in the summer of 1946 when he came home from the Pacific to finish his senior year of high school. He remembered the first time he’d seen her; he was absolutely devoted to her until the last moment of his life. Our parents often told us that marriage was hard work, but seeing them together made it look like a 70-year honeymoon.
More than one philosopher has pointed out that – with the possible exceptions of Gordon Gecko and Larry “the Liquidator” Garfield – no man dies wishing he’d spent more time at the office. At the end of his life, Dad remembered the Navy. And he didn’t remember the covenants and balance requirements attached to his employer’s 8-figure lines of credit with banks in New York or Dusseldorf, but he sure remembered what his company made and what they did. He remembered the grandchildren and step-grandchildren, recognized them by sight most of the time, and asked about them by name. And he remembered his love for Mom.
Dad died a year ago today with Mom at his side. At his funeral, I mentioned that he had taken up photography as a hobby well into his 50s and, characteristically, took it seriously and bought really good gear. Some of the best photographs of any of us, or of Mom, or of the grandchildren were taken by him. But it wasn’t the quality pro-sumer gear that made the pictures good ones (I have good gear and I’ve taken some really crappy pictures). It was the heart of the photographer. Our family pictures all say “This is a family I’d like to get to know better” because they were taken by someone who cared passionately for his subject.
At the end of his life, Dad’s memory retreated to the things he cared most about. And after a year, it seems my memory of him has concentrated on the same things. I haven’t thought about his war story about a three-year running battle with IRS on the valuation of certain tools in a long time – but I think about his smile, his laugh and his love every single day.
Miss you, Dad.