The Last Summer

My father’s face brightened as the yellow whaler pulled up to the dock with my 14 year-old nephew at the helm.  “That…was… my… boat,” he choked out a full sentence as the mental connections attached and sputtered, like wires in a flashlight, illuminating the memory.
It was the boat my father had hopped on for years to escape the confines of the shore.  He’d taken us all for rides, including his nine grandchildren, especially when their tired mothers needed a break.  At the wheel of any vessel, out on the blue green waters of the lake, my father always found peace.
This is likely the last summer my Dad will be able to come to the mountains, his favorite place in the world. Dementia or Alzheimer’s or whatever corrodes his mind in a slow erasure is scrambling the circuitry.  The predictable routine he endures at his assisted living facility in Boston is lost here at the lake.  There are wide open spaces and wooded paths, vast stretches of time with inactivity, then the sudden flurry of all of us around, conversations swirling like individual eddies that confuse and capsize his cognition.  “All this noise,” he says, looking up at me helplessly.  The frustration and anger, the weepiness of past summers has mostly passed.  In those moments it was painful to watch him, like a drowning victim, capsized by the fear of his mortality.  My father is childlike now, a simple man.
Disease, we call it.  And it is a “dis” ease, an uneasiness among us all at bearing witness to this gradual loss, this diminishment.  He can no longer communicate beyond simple phrases.  The hands that once dug in dirt and were callused from chores, are soft now like a babies.  His limbs and extremities are roped with veins that break easily and form angry bruises just under his paper-thin skin.  In the absence of fluid language, his arms swoop through the air like a conductor, fingers flitting a secret sign language, in an attempt to express himself.  His wide, eager smile breaks my heart.
My children are the fifth generation to return to this lake each summer.  And it is inconceivable to me that my father has been asking to “go home” to the assisted living facility.  But this IS your home, I think, the home of your heart.  This is the your “sacred” place, the spot where you found joy and sanctuary. Remember when we’d spy the first sliver of lake and burst into song as the station wagon crested over Tongue Mountain? Can’t you feel your roots in this land? I want to ask him. But he would only look perplexed at such a probing, complex question.

We three sisters know the family generational lore by heart.  Our nook on the lake is where I was conceived, where my father, hiking alone the year before he met my mother, almost slipped and plunged to death while climbing a rocky cliff.   “If it weren’t for a lone root on that sheer rock, none of you three would be here,” he’d remark solemnly during our annual pilgrimage to that spot by boat.
There is nothing at all easy or comforting about being around my father now.  So many of my friends and contemporaries are traveling in this middle place, the valley of mid-life, with aging parents.  We are all at various stops aboard the orphan train.  The details may be different; Alzheimer’s, stroke, cancer, a sudden fall, but the broad-brush strokes are the same.  Losing a parent is tough, primal stuff.  You only think you are prepared.
“Don’t ever let me go into a nursing home,” my Dad said repeatedly when he would return from visiting his own mother in an almost vegetative state.  “That’s not living. Just take me out back and shoot me,” he’d exclaim with a pained expression.
Humans were built for survival.  We are wired to desire just one more day with the people we love.  We are war-like creatures, spoiling for a fight against death.  But at what point can we truly recognize that the scales have tipped, that there are now more bad days, more days of pain or confusion or difficulty than the good ones?
This is heavy stuff, you say. You bet it is, and so let’s tiptoe away to another thought for a moment. This is what I really want to know.  In the end, if you are scared and addled or in pain, does a life well lived mean anything?  Do all of those precious memories, the summer afternoons where you held your grandbabies high over your head on the bright beach, the mornings you woke your young daughters at dawn to fish, the walks down the aisle with each girl, the boat rides with the wind in your hair… does any of that count for us at the end?  I hope to God it does. I hope that it brings comfort and calm and a sense of purpose in some small measure.
My father sits next to me as I write this, staring out at the lake in which he’ll no longer fish or swim or captain his boat.  I hope that, like muscle memory, those images of a life well lived, of happier moments, are playing in his head like an old time movie, reminding him that even though this hurts like hell, he is loved.
Note:  I wrote this piece last summer and the seasonal timing didn’t work out to publish it until this year. I had also wanted to see if Dad would return this summer, giving me a happy reason to revise this post. Sadly, 2012 was the first year of my life that my father didn’t come to the lake.  And he was missed.



  1. Lindsey

    September 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Oh, wow. This is so beautiful, so true, so rugged. Tough, primal stuff, indeed. I am just looking ahead into this land, this furrow of loss where parents die, and it terrifies me. The very recent loss of my grandfather was sad, because I miss him, but even more because of what it signals about who is next. We have a few friends who have lost parents and more who are ailing. This next stage is for sure marked by letting go of those who raised us and, perhaps most scarily of all for me, of stepping into the role of true grown-up. I'm so sorry that your father was not there this year. I an imagine the deep loss that represents. The lake sounds like a truly magical place, also. xox

  2. Linda R Adzigian

    September 4, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    This was absolutely beautiful – such a tribute to your Dad, who I knew, as well as your Granddad Doc McConaughy. It brought tears to my eyes, as my Mom also had Alzheimers, and in the end, she had no clue who any of her family members were. My Dad, her caregiver, was the only person she knew til the end. If you good could come out of my Mom's Alzheimer's and her passing, was that my Dad, Robert Richards, came to live with my husband Dave and me. It was the most wonderful, fantastic and awesome four years. I miss him dearly still today. You write so eloquently about how so many of us feel; and can't truly describe in writing ourselves. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
    Linda R. Adzigian

  3. Lindsey

    September 5, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I wrote a comment the other day but it must have gotten lost – just chimed in that I love the expression "tough, primal stuff." Yes, yes, yes. I just lost my grandfather, which is clearly not at all the same, but watching my 69 year old father respond has been moving, and in some ways, scary. The folding of generations is not easy to accept. I'm sorry about your father not being at the lake, which sounds like such a magical place. I can imagine what a profound loss that was (is).

  4. Margaret

    September 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Lee, I just heard you speak in Pittsburgh. Thank You for your wonderful, inspiring speech. I went on your website to read about your new book, and low and behold I saw your post about your dad. My dad too has dementia. But what was even more interesting to me was your time spent at Silver Bay. I am YMCA career professional, and have spent MANY wonderful times at Silver Bay. As a matter of fact, I have a gorgeous water color by Ruth Strickling hanging in my office..
    Once again, thank you for your wonderful inspiration this AM.

  5. Anita

    September 11, 2012 at 1:59 am

    I could have written this post myself, as I understand exactly where you are with your father.
    My father is nearly 88, he has also been slowly robbed of most of his short term memory, and some of the long term too. Combined with Parkinson's Disease that has limited his ability to move he is not the man I grew up with. My dad was strong and gregarious and happy. He wanted good lives for his children and he always saw the good in us, even when mom was giving us the evil eye for some wronged deed. My dad also loved to garden and be outdoors, we camped, boated and hiked most of my youth.
    I travel tomorrow to spend the week with he and my mom, they are in a senior complex, currently in independent living, but that can change at any time, as my mom does so much for my dad, but at 85 she is changing too.

    Thank you for sharing this, so beautifully written. I'll be reading your book soon…based on this blog post, I have a feeling I'm in for a treat.

  6. Elizabeth Roth

    September 14, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Lee, I just had to contact you to tell you how much I am an admirer. In fact, I just read the article, Dancing With My Dad, you have published in October's Good Housekeeping. It arrived in my mailbox just this evening. I almost cried and I truly got chills. I am in the throes of trying to find the right agent or publisher for my first YA novel, Dancing on My Daddy's Toes. My story is about a teen girl whose father is schizophrenic and unmedicated, and about how much she loves him but how his illness is tearing apart their relationship and their family. It is a story of searching, healing, and faith. Perhaps someday I will be able to share my story with you as you have so courageously shared your stories with all of us. Love and hugs, Elizabeth Roth
    PS—I know how much you miss your father as I do mine, in my case, both the good times and the not so good.

  7. Liz

    September 18, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    In a work avoidance moment, I picked up the latest issue of Good Housekeeping and went directly to the essay that's always on the back page. I was super happy to see you had written this particular essay. Then, half-way through, I was bawling like a lunatic. Not those little delicate tears. Oh, no. Big, fat, sloppy tears were jumping out of my eyes. What a powerful piece. Wow. Wanting to tell you how incredible your essay is, I came to your site to send a note and discovered your blog entry about your Dad. More fat, sloppy tears. Oh, Lee.

    Just two of the many reasons why I LOVE your writing.

    Thank you for sharing – and for doing it so bloody well.

  8. Glenda

    September 20, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Your writing is so beautiful. I lost my dad when I was 13. It was always my mom and I. I lost her in 2004 after 3 mos of being hospitalized and a week after being told she had pancreatic cancer. I definitely can relate to this post. Although I'm married with 2 grown kids I still feel like an orphan. Weird but I do! Just got your book in the mail and can't wait to start reading it.

    Thank you for sharing your Dad with all of us.

  9. Jen Bryant

    October 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Lee, As I read this I have so many thoughts. This summer while at the boatclub the twins were over playing and someone asked if your Dad had made it to the lake this year, the response was no. After reading this our summers seem rather praelle…excitement as you crest Tongue Mtn, the days spent exploring and swimming. It also brought me to our first summer where my grandmother, Janet Griffin, could not come to the SBA. It was so strange to not have her waking us in the early morning on Terrace Rd proclaiming we were wasting the day(it was not even 8am) and then to have her ask about our day as we returned for dinner. It was her home, her soul, and the place all of our 6 generations have spent their summer as well. Although in her final years she was non communicative, the demetia stealing her abillity to speak but certainly not her ability to know she was home when she was at the cottage. In that I take comfort that even though she didn't know us she knew she belonged there on the porch looking at the lake through the trees. She gave my family a home and her time with us will be remembered always. I have a feeling your father has done the same for all of you. God Bless your family as you go through the last journey with your dad. Jen Bryant

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