My Mum died suddenly on September 4th, 2006.
Suddenly, I found myself taking care of my 97-year-old father who was suffering from dementia. I was overwhelmed and shocked -- shocked at my mum's death and shocked at my father's mental state.
He didn't have Alzheimer's, but he had no short-term memory and was often lost. I had never realized how much my mother had been shielding me the last few years.
I took him to her funeral, but when we got home, he'd ask me every 20 minutes where my mother was. I'd explain carefully that she died.
This was shocking news to him.
Why had no one told him?
Why hadn't I taken him to the funeral?
Why hadn't he visited her in the hospital?
He had no memory of these events.
After a while, I realized I couldn't keep telling him that his wife had died. He didn't remember, and it was killing both of us to re-live her death constantly.
I decided that my job as his son was to make whatever time he had left as happy as possible. So I made up a story that was less excruciating to both of us. I said that mum had gone to Paris to take care of her sick brother. And that's where she remained, for the next three years.
After the first year of taking care of my dad, I began taking photos and writing. My mother had died so suddenly, and there were so many things that I wished I had asked her. So many conversations I wish I'd had. I didn't want to make that mistake again. I wanted to record everything, before my father died. To document the love between us, and by reflection, the love we both had for my mother.
I wanted to remember my father's stories, and how he told them; his eyes, right before he said something funny; his pink scalp shining through his white hair in the afternoon sun; and the sound of his voice, singing, as I made him scrambled eggs in the kitchen.
What emerged was not a story of death, but a story of life. Our life together.
I posted the work on the web at DaysWithMyFather.com in the late summer of 2008. I'm not really sure why I did it. Perhaps, in some way, I just needed to unburden myself, and it was easier to do it with people I couldn't see. I certainly didn't expect anyone to be listening.
To my great surprise, after a few days, the site started getting thousands of visits a day. The numbers kept climbing. I began to receive hundreds of emails, often with photos of parents attached.
To date, more than 1.2 million people have been to the site. I've gotten thousands of emails from all over the world. Grandparents. Parents. Teenagers. Over 200,000 comments have been posted -- sons who want to reconnect with their father after years of silence, kids who suddenly see their own parents or grandparents in a new light, and people whose parents died but never had a chance to say goodbye. I read the new comments every day, and each time I do, I'm deeply moved.
Days with My Father became a book, and I really wanted to involve the extraordinary community that had reached out to me so generously. So when the publisher and I couldn't decide on what image to use for the cover, I thought we should ask the thousands who'd sent me their email addresses to take a vote. The book came out this month, June 2010.
There are other stories. A man named Ricardo in Portugal emailed me. He wanted to translate the site into Portuguese and print it out for his 70-year-old father to read. Ricardo was convinced that there should be a Portuguese edition and told me he'd be honored if I used his translation. I put him in touch with my publisher who forwarded his email to a Brazilian publisher. As a result, Days With My Father comes out in Portuguese this summer.
The other day, I got a phone call from a producer in Los Angeles. He wants to turn my story into a film. What a kick my dad would have gotten out of that, being a Hollywood film star himself in the 1930s.
Losing my parents before I was forty has been very hard. But that pain has been softened, by the gentle and honest voices of the thousands who have spoken to me. I may be an only child, but I'm not alone.
In closing, I'd like to say this. And yes, it's corny, but sadly, the one thing that death has taught me is that there's a lot of truth in corny.
Call up everyone you love, and tell them what they mean to you. Your parents. Your grandparents. Your brother or sister. Don't wait. You won't regret it, I promise.