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Remembering My Dad Before Alzheimer's

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I write this the day after my father's funeral in Lubbock, Tex. I've been awake for hours, and I even went out for a walk before daybreak, drawn by a full moon and the thought that exercise might dissipate pent-up emotions. I crept out the door, not wanting to disturb sleeping relatives scattered through the house. I almost fell into the flowerbed. Weird stairs. This is not the house I grew up in. Everything seems strange right now. The moonlight turned out to be mostly from streetlights, the full moon itself unspectacular above the orangey, artificial glow. A wind, dry and dusty, sapped moisture from my nose and lips and left my skin feeling scratchy. Cranky, I crossed the street, turned around and came back in.

I miss my home in Mexico. The full moon there is shining on bicentennial festivities. Yesterday was Revolution Day in La Peñita. My dad would have loved the fireworks, music and little kids dressed up in costumes. My dad had a string of patents and professional achievements, but he still loved a good parade.

I miss Daddy. I had breakfast in Santa Monica last week with a Facebook friend who had read "Virgin Territory" and identified with my memories of being raised on the High Plains of Texas. Blocks from the Pacific, we unconsciously lapsed into our native drawl, laughing when we both noticed. Neither of us talks that way now, but there are a few tell-tale signs that give us away as Texans. One of them is the phrase, "my daddy." Another is funeral food: pots of beans, homemade potato salad, Jell-o concoctions, casseroles, glazed ham, pounds of smoked brisket and acres of dessert. Do they mourn this way in Santa Monica? I don't think so. Arugula is not a comfort food. They do mourn this way in Mexico, only with tamales.

Dad would have delighted in my Mexican experience. There are Sam Jackson Humidaire units and drying systems at work in cotton gins all over the world, many in Mexico. I talked last night with a company engineer who had just returned from servicing some of them installed 45 miles south of the border towns of Presidio/Ojinaga, a peaceful area where Mennonites grow cotton, not drug crops. It is Dad's machinery that helps make growing cotton profitable in places as diverse and widespread as Tajikistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Greece, Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Central and South America, South Africa, Israel and, yes, Afghanistan. If you wear cotton, the fiber in your garment has probably passed through a system designed or inspired by the man I called Daddy. He was brilliant and innovative.

But that daddy disappeared sometime during these last eight years. I can't say exactly when his pensiveness and dry humor turned unresponsive, or his thoughtful reflection ceased to take concrete form in vibrant conversation and repartee. Even this past year he'd come out with plays on words that would make our jaws drop because they were so funny. Did his departure begin under the guise of apathy and indifference, a sense of resignation generally identified with growing older? Did I mistake his waning passion for mellowing, instead of recognizing the black hole where there was no one there? I have no question about one thing: Alzheimer's sucks.

We opened a time capsule last night, after well-fed guests left and the house had cleared of all but family. It was a caramel corn container that Boy Scouts sell, filled with letters written by family members and then sealed shut with duct tape. The label on the lid read "Christmas Day, 1999. Do not open until Christmas, 2009." OK, we're a little late. But this is the first time the family has been together since 1999. So almost a year later than planned, we took turns reading our individual thoughts about the new millennium. Ashton, now a self-possessed college freshman, was surprised at the tight little wad of paper she'd scribbled as an angry eight-year old in a post-Christmas snit. "Mean Kindahl. Rude Savannah," she'd described her sisters. "I'm sorry," she said to them last night, all of the sisters sitting together, laughing uproariously at the image of that ranting little girl who had stapled shut her letter to the future.

That was the beautiful thing. We were laughing, all of us. Sweet Ashton was before us, her true image intact, untouched by the past. And, now that the sun is up, I realize that with yesterday's memorial, the true image of my dad was restored, as well. The silent and distant resident of Grace House was no more Daddy than that angry eight-year old is Ashton.

Sam Jackson's friends and family were there to share their stories and memories, to bring him to life -- his identity intact, sweet, solid, unbroken and whole. Hah! My dad with virgin qualities! Perhaps there's an Inner Guadalupe in us all.

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