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OPED: Missing Dad and taking stock this Christmas

Ben Boychuk
The Sacramento Bee
Secret Santas are spreading Christmas cheer for families in Pennsylvania.

This will be the second Christmas holiday without my father. Although I miss him every day — we used to talk on the phone, like clockwork, at 9:30 every morning — I think I miss the cantankerous old coot the most on the big holidays.

Dad could be — how to put this? — difficult. I’m in the opinion-writing business. Most things are debatable. My father was in the certainty business. An engineer by trade and disposition (if you’ve ever known an engineer, you’ll know what I mean), he liked things a certain way, and that way was always his way, and his way was always the right way, and if it wasn’t right, he would make sure it was somehow or another.

In his prime, he cooked the turkey and he cooked the roast. He ruled the table. He knew everything. We had some great fights.

The old man mellowed in his late 70s into his 80s. My mother likes to say he became kinder when his heart troubles began. He was less strident, more generous. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners moved from my parents’ house to The Smoke House in Burbank. We had good times there.

In 2014, Dad spent a week in the hospital for uncontrolled atrial fibrillation. It was during that stay that he exhibited some weird behaviors. His doctors weren’t sure whether he’d had a mild stroke. A cat-scan ruled that out. His neurologist instead gave him the preliminary diagnosis of dementia.

After he was discharged, the specialist made him an appointment for a follow-up and a memory test. The first time, Dad rescheduled. Then he simply refused to go.

“What am I supposed to do when they tell me what I already know?” he asked plaintively. He didn’t have to tell me what he meant. Alzheimer’s took his mother after a torturous 10-year decline.

“Dad,” I said, “they have different treatments now. It isn’t like it was 20 years ago.”

He was quiet for a minute. “I don’t know, Ben.” And that was that.

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In the end, it wasn’t the slow, cruel erosion of dementia that killed him, but rather something that looked like dementia at first. It was a subdural hematoma, most likely brought on by the medicine he took for his atrial fibrillation. One morning he simply couldn’t get out of bed. He was gone in a matter of months.

I didn’t grieve for my father for very long, but I still mourn his loss. When we gather around the dinner table at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I look at the empty chair at the opposite end and think about what he might say about the latest with Trump or Gavin Newsom’s election or how the L.A. Clippers are doing this season.

But then I look around and reflect on what’s left. My mother is alive and well and making new friends. His grandkids, whom he adored, are thriving. We have a solid roof over our heads and food on the table. We’re mostly healthy, though age is taking its inevitable toll. We know we’re blessed. We remember there are people less fortunate. We do what we can to brighten their holiday, too.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of lamenting what’s lost or what one may want and might not have. Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, and it’s often a struggle to remember to be grateful in the face of disappointment. We humans are very good at that. We’re an envious species.

We’re also a broken one. Now more than ever, it seems, people are broken and lonely. Americans’ life expectancy is falling as people are dying of despair.

I heard a podcast the other day with Joe Rogan and his actor-comedian friend Duncan Trussell. They were talking about depression and some very dark periods in their lives. Trussell explained he found solace in Eastern mysticism. Although that sort of thing isn’t for everyone, the wisdom he gleaned has universal application.

It begins with a basic recognition that everyone has a purpose. Then acting on it. With that comes a realization that life is short and procrastination is deadly. Trussell came to ask himself: “How many tomorrows do I have?”

Christians think of it in a slightly different way, recalling Jesus’ words from the gospel according to Matthew: “So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return.” Despair is a deadly sin in part because it drains you of purpose and tempts you to be inert, passive, and numb to the blessings of creation.

You don’t have to accept the tenets of Christianity to see the point. I hope as you sit down to dinner this holiday, you will take a moment to reflect not just on the blessings of friends and family, or the gifts you may have received, but also the little things of daily life you may take for granted — you will miss them when they’re gone.

I will think about my father and about living today — and however many tomorrows I may have — with purpose, love, and gratitude.

Merry Christmas.

— Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness.