My father used to be the smartest person I know. He approached everything in his life, analytical brain first and had the annoying trait of taking the most mundane dinnertime conversation and turning it into a dissertation of sorts. As I grew, I began to see him as a more complex person and I came to the conclusion that this trait was the result of the loss of his own father at a young age. A wound that, to this day and in his 84th year, he still sheds tears over whenever it comes up. A wound that forced him to favor his brain over his heart for the rest of his life.
He graduated from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1955 and immediately started working for the military contractor, Lockheed Martin. I like to think of him then, in full Madmen attire, perhaps drinking whiskey out of fancy decanters at lunch. But this wasn’t advertising, this was aerospace, in all of its nerdy and mathematical glory. Aerospace was an industry that was all about defense during those Cold War years, and with that came many secrets.
Whenever I would ask him about his work while I was growing up, he would reply in a mysterious voice that he was not allowed to discuss it. “Why not?” I would ask. “Because you need security clearance,” He would reply. This response would send my imagination soaring about top-secret missions and spies. All I really knew was he worked on designing planes for the government. A job that he found very stressful and on occasion he would let his guard down and share how he felt about the weight of his responsibilities. He would tell me how one mistake at his work could cost many lives. In his mind, accidents did not exist-only miscalculations and failures.
At some point in the late 1970s, he received a promotion and was sent back to UCLA to get his MBA. I was little but I remember those late nights when he would come home exhausted. Some nights he would not come home at all. I didn’t see him very much during those years and I have very few memories of spending time with him then. His limited presence combined with his inability to discuss his work only amplified his mystique, and this became our recipe for distance between father and daughter.
After he completed his degree he was immersed in his new role of management and continued to work for most of the 1980s until he could not take the pressure anymore. He was not so secret about how much he hated his job and in 1988, at the young age of 55, he retired. He was very active and enjoyed excellent health during the first 20 years of his retirement. But starting in his mid to late 70s his health began to decline. First his heart and then the thing that he held most precious, his mind, began to fail him.
It started with emotional reminiscing over his childhood, many times circling back to painful memories of the loss of his father. He began forgetting names, first of places, then of objects, and then of the people he knew. But when he started to talk about how he kept seeing the family cat on TV, we knew this wasn’t simply dementia anymore, this was Alzheimer’s disease. And as the delusions came, the decline accelerated. But despite his failing memory, one thing still held true-his loyalty to the secrets of his trade. That is, until this past year.
I began to fear he was approaching the end of his life so I made a bigger effort to spend time with him. I figured my time was limited to narrow the gap between us and I did not want any regrets after he was gone. Also my son, his youngest grandchild, was only 5 years old and I wanted to be sure that he would remember his grandfather. I took pleasure in the way my little boy would make my dad’s eyes shine with happiness and brighten his mood. So, on one of these days during a casual visit, my dad’s wall of silence began to crumble.
It started innocently enough. He was talking about his coworker when he lived in Atlanta back in 1972. I knew this was fact because my father had moved there with my mom and brother before I was born to work on a project for Lockheed. I started to ask him probing questions to chip away at his memories and this induced a loosening of facts, which began to fall away like old masonry. As I listened I felt a sadness and a sense of guilt that was hard to define. He then spoke about traveling to a secret conference. “Where?” I asked him.
He put a sly smile on his face and replied, “In Nevada. We had to determine if there was interference.”
“Interference from what?” I asked.
He looked me in the eye and said with certainty, “From space.”
I woke up in the middle of that night and had trouble falling back asleep. I was filled with conflicting thoughts. I figured his story was not real, but many of the things he talked about earlier I knew were true. The topic of extraterrestrial phenomenon seemed like nonsense but what brought it to a place of possibility for me was that it was coming from the mouth of my father. The most practical and fact based person I have ever known, at least until his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The following week, I had lunch with my parents again. This time, he didn’t need probing. His thoughts were not linear but consistent with some of the things he had mentioned before. He then began to speak of secret meetings, code names, and nighttime trips. He told me he would fly out in the middle of the night on private airplanes, have meetings with people he new only by code names, and then return early the next morning before I woke up to go to school. At first he would not say where. Then, he mentioned in the same matter of fact way he had just ordered his lunch, that these visits in the middle of the night were to Area 51.
When I turned to my mother to sadly roll my eyes, she stopped me and said parts of his story were indeed true. She confirmed my dad had confided in her years ago that he was having these secret overnight meetings for years. In shock, I turned to my dad to press further and he began to ramble on about secret underground nuclear tests. I was desperate for more. But as he spoke about his coworkers who passed away decades ago as if they were all still working together, I realized he was becoming progressively nonsensical. Sadly I watched his sanity retreat like a wave during low tide.
There are countless moments that I have loved my father and a few when I have even hated him. But never a moment passed that I did not respect him for his brilliance. Alzheimer’s disease is cruel because it robs one of their sense of self and the ripple effect is how it steals away the essence of your loved one. But what complicates things for me is that this whittling away of my father’s mind was what allowed me a glimpse into a part of him that I never knew. The part that was filled with the possibility of unimaginable things and secrets. The part that I had always been forbidden access. Now I am left to always wonder whether his stories were simply hallucinations or facts anchored to real events and memories.
That conversation at lunch was the last one I recall having with my father where there were hints of truth and sense to his words. The times together since have become more dream like and even my little boy knows that grandpa is not right. It is hard to watch the one thing my father held most important, his mind, slip from his grasp. And heartbreaking to know that as his mind slips away, so do his secrets. As well as my last chance to know, really know, my father.
This post was originally published Jun 8, 2018 on thrive-global.