Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Oh, Danny Boy

by Jaden Terrell

In 2004, my father-in-law, Dan Hicks, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It's a disease sometimes called "the long, slow goodbye." It's a thief, and a cruel one at that, stealing memories, independence, and even the ability to carry on a conversation. It makes children of grown men and women, turns spouses and children into caretakers. What it cannot do is vanquish love.

Dan was a quiet man. It's a trait shared by both his sons, who bide their time until exactly the right moment, then say exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. None of them have ever been much for small talk.

Case in point: Mike and I were once in a grocery store buying chips and soda for a get-together at our house. The man behind us said to Mike, "Are you guys having a party?"

There was a long silence. I smiled at the man and looked at Mike, not wanting to be one of those pushy wives who answer for their spouses. More silence. The man shifted uncomfortably, gave me an embarrassed smile. Finally, I answered the question and we had a brief conversation. As Mike and I were walking back to our car, I said, "What do you do when I'm not here?"

He said, "What do you mean?"

"That man. He asked you if you were having a party."

"Oh that." He shrugged. "He didn't really want to know."

Over the years, Thelma, my sister-in-law Nikki, and I would shake our heads over it. "Those Hicks men," we would say, and laugh. They were three of a kind: men of few words, but also strong men of dignity and kindness. Men who would come out in a thunderstorm to fix your flat tire, who dropped you off at the door when the weather was bad, even though they knew you wouldn't melt and wouldn't have minded walking across the parking lot in the rain.

Dan's quietness helped him cover for his diminishing intellect. Those first few years, he could follow a conversation fairly well, inserting an occasional apt comment, even making the occasional joke. As the disease progressed, his jokes became simpler.

"How are you?" I would ask.

"Still here," he would say, with his old smile. It was an answer with layers of meaning. Still here. Still alive. Still me.

A few years ago, Thelma bought him a powderpuff Chinese Crested puppy. Dan fell in love with the pup and named it after himself and after his favorite song: Danny Boy. The family had begin a tradition of meeting weekly at a nearby Sir Pizza, and Dan would fret, "Do you think my little puppy is going be all right? . . . We'd better get back home and take care of my little puppy."

Always a man of few words, those words became fewer and fewer. Still, he would reach across and straighten Thelma's collar or pluck at a stray thread. Those Hicks men. Always taking care of the ones they love. Even when he could not remember her name, he remembered her.

She kept him at home and cared for him as he became less and less her partner and more and more her child. His daughter, Rene, says it was Dan's gentle nature that made that possible. Yes, he was stubborn (those Hicks men!), but his easygoing nature made him easier to care for. But I also think his love for Thelma carried him. She was his anchor and his lifeline. When he didn't remember himself, he remembered her.

It was hard to watch him slip away. It was just as hard to watch Thelma lose her best friend and life mate, little by little and inch by inch. When they married, she was sixteen and he was nineteen. Her older sister, Lucille, signed the papers allowing her to marry, and for fifty-three years, they loved each other. Raised three children. Loved four grandchildren. Welcomed their children's spouses as if we were their own.

At 2 AM on December 16, just four days before his 73rd birthday, Dan passed away. His daughter, Rene, gave the eulogy. It was a brave and loving thing to do, and I admire her for it. She painted a picture of a loving father who taught his children to swim and to love roller coasters, whose quiet humor blessed their lives, whose pride in his service in the Marine Corps inspired one son and whose love of hiking and photography inspired another.

I once read a quote in a Jewish prayer book. It said that every act of kindness contributes to the goodness in the world and that these acts of kindness live on forever, long after those who committed them are gone. It was about acts of goodness done by common men and women, whose names will never be in history books but whose lives touch other lives like ripples in a pond.

Dan Hicks, you made the world a better place. And now...the pipes, the pipes are calling.

You will be missed.


Bill Kirton said...

Beautiful, Beth - a worthy tribute to someone who sounded as if he brought only good to the world. And the opening example of Mike's taciturnity is priceless.

Melinda said...

I was so blessed by reading what you have written Beth...As I read, I could see and feel what you were describing.

I did not have the privilege of meeting Mr. Dan Hicks, but I felt I just met his spirit through you.

Kindness does live forever. I have seen it in both you and Mike. Well done Mr. Dan Hicks, good and faithful servant...Semper Fi

Nancy said...

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man who left behind a wonderful family who will honor and love him always.

Juanita Olson said...

I couldn't help but cry through your wonderful tribute about one of the great men in your life. May we all be remembered for our kindess.

Jaden Terrell said...

Thank you all for your kind words. I wish you could have known Dan.

Alzheimer's is a terrible and terrifying disease, but it's comforting to know that there are some things even it can't destroy.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Beautifully written, Beth. As I read I thought of my grandmother, who lived with us until she died when I was 17. Her hardening of the arteries caused dementia and it's so difficult watching someone you love slip away as though watching the tide retreat from the shoreline, never to return.

Chester Campbell said...

Knowing only Mike and, to a lesser extent, Brian, I can still visualize how Dan must have been. He sounds like a great guy, one who will be missed sorely by those who knew him. I'd say your piece was a fitting memorial. Like Juanita Olson, I read it misty-eyed.

Mark W. Danielson said...

This was a beautiful tribute to someone who handled this cruel disease with absolute dignity. Thanks for the post, Beth.

Jaden Terrell said...

Jean, my grandmother also had dementia. It was hard to see her slipping away, but she was funny and stubborn and dramatic all the way to the end. I can still remember her dancing down the stairs (at the age of 91) in a pair of oversized slippers that looked like pigs. My brother gave them to her for Christmas, and they were her favorite gift that year.

The day she died, she kept smiling and reaching up toward Heaven. I'm sure she saw someone there she knew and loved reaching down for her, and that gives me great comfort.