A Father’s Tears

A Father’s Tears

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.” — Psalm 103:13 (NIV

I have only seen my father dissolve into tears twice in my life. The first time it happened, I was a ten year-old child, who along with my brothers, sister and mother, watched him endure the stress of a difficult  medical malpractice lawsuit that involved not only him, but several of his colleagues and their hospital. Although they were eventually vindicated once it was proven they’d provided the very best medical care possible under the circumstances (the patient had barely survived a fall from a 200-foot scaffold and had arrived at the ER with formidable internal injuries) the strain of being on trial for many months while simultaneously performing his duties as a general and vascular surgeon had taken an enormous emotional toll.

One night at the dinner table, somewhere in the middle of this nightmare, he broke down as he expressed his gratitude to all of us for our love and support. It’s one of those moments that’s forever engrained in my memory and one of the biggest reasons my sister Carolyn is now an attorney who specializes in medical malpractice defense work.

The second time I saw my father reduced to anguished sobs was yesterday morning. And it broke my heart all over again to bear witness to such excruciating emotional pain. But unlike all those years ago when his professional career and his family’s financial future were imperiled by a frivolous lawsuit, this time the cause of his grief is much more personal — and infinitely more gut-wrenching.

The early days: Mom and Dad with my older brothers Ralph (on mom's lap) and Mark.

Because notwithstanding his distinguished record as an M.D., he is first and foremost a father. One who now has to face the reality that his most vulnerable child may be facing something medically incurable. In a previous post, I alluded to the fact that there’s a correlation between Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease — a reality that has weighed heavily on my family ever since Ralph celebrated his 50th Birthday over two years ago.

And for nearly two years, I have noted alarming behavioral changes in my brother, first brought to my attention by a concerned cousin. Yet since the incidents of mental confusion and repetition were 1.) sporadic and 2.) not entirely out of the realm of Down’s behavior, we’d decided to simply keep an eye on the situation and maintain open communication with each other to share our experiences.

But last summer, things began to accelerate when Ralph started to become fixated on one particular incident from the past for which he mistakenly believed another family member held a grudge. No amount of reasoning seemed to convince him otherwise and in fact, he even made mention of the non-incident on Facebook, prompting an immediate rebuke from my parents — along with curtailed Facebook privileges.

Then there were the many instances in which he’d pack a suitcase, convinced he was going somewhere. Or insist that he was lined up to babysit our nieces and nephews, notwithstanding the fact that school had started again.

At that time I decided to approach my father, who despite my best efforts to calmly present the facts, reacted incredulously every time I brought the topic up for discussion, insisting that Ralph “remembers things that happened 40 years ago!” When I’d remind him of the difference between short-term and long-term memory, he’d typically storm off in a huff.

Dad and me in 2009.

But I knew instinctively my father was lashing out at the situation, not me. I was simply the messenger reminding him of something he knew to be clinically concerning as a doctor of medicine, given all the facts. As a father however, it was too overwhelming, too horrifying to even contemplate. What loving parent wants to wrap their head around the fact that their child might be called to endure a devastating illness that essentially robs them of their humanity, their relationships and their quality of life before ultimately dealing a fatal blow to their physical existence?

I understood. And yet I knew I couldn’t give up. So I continued to maintain a close watch and write down anything out of the ordinary about my interactions with Ralph.

Then my cousin died, leaving behind a hoarder house and prompting a frightening fluctuation in my mother’s blood pressure that was only resolved (happily, thank God) after a 10-day stay in the hospital and seemingly endless follow-up doctor visits.

Through it all, I continued to notice an acceleration in strange behavior on Ralph’s part, perhaps stimulated by the emotional trauma of losing Maris and then seeing his beloved mother in the hospital. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to confide in Mom at first but I eventually relented once she was well enough to handle the news. And being the astute, pragmatic person she is, my mother was not entirely surprised having witnessed a few things herself (though I believe there had also been a reluctance on her part to admit to a potentially serious problem for the same reasons noted).

Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.

Ultimately, she spoke to my father who finally relented and owned up to his own disturbing incidents involving Ralph. Thus, they contacted Ralph’s doctor to set in motion a series of blood tests to first rule out a physical cause before sending him on to a neurologist. Those tests were completed yesterday afternoon and as I type this, we’re still awaiting the results and praying for a manageable cause such as hypothyroidism, which can be corrected with medication. We’ve been fighting to stay positive and reminding each other that the thyroid can cause many of the symptoms Ralph has been exhibiting, along with depression — which could explain his noticeable fatigue and fairly recent practice of taking afternoon naps.

Which brings me to my dad’s breakdown yesterday. He’d just arrived home after taking Ralph to visit his former co-workers at the hospital in an effort to get him out of the house and put a smile on his face (something we rarely see anymore without a lot of good-natured cajoling). Seeing my father’s anguished tears and listening to him blame himself for not spending enough time with Ralph and for failing to recognize his loneliness was agonizing. As I held him, I reminded my dad that he’s been an exceptional father to Ralph and all of us; no one could blame him for working hard as a surgeon to provide for our needs and ensure the best education possible.

Ralph meets the Phillie Phanatic at Mercy Catholic Medical Center.

I also told him that since he and Ralph were both still here, there was still quality time to spend together. My dad then vowed to make an effort to engage Ralph in more activities, whether it entailed joining him at the movies instead of dropping him off; walking with him on his daily treks around the neighborhood; taking him to my nieces’ and nephews’ sporting events and other activities; and generally ensuring that he didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time alone.

And if the past 24-hours are any indication, my father is well on his way to making up for “lost” time. As we await the blood test results with some trepidation, I pray that both of my parents — but especially my dad — come to appreciate the good life Ralph has experienced, thanks to their loving, dedicated efforts. I pray that they’ll fully realize that there’s no guilt to be reckoned with here; only the acknowledgement that as human beings they might have stumbled along the way but that they always loved their children with everything they had.

In the final analysis, that’s all any child can ask for. May God bless them both as we prepare for what lies ahead.


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