The older one gets, the more complex losing a parent becomes.
As an adult, it’s easier to see and unwrap the subtleties hiding in shadow or, for that matter, those sitting out under the full, bright light of the sun. No longer larger than life heroes in a child’s eye, or targets of adolescent rebellion, one’s parents become flawed, real, and if one is lucky, beautifully imperfect human beings.
Al Mossman, the man who taught me, among other things, that life is something to be explored, savored, and unapologetically enjoyed, died earlier this week.
He was my hero in more ways than I could count.
He was the deeply disappointing, reactive force behind my most painful wounding experience.
He was the co-creator, with those who came before, of a legacy I’m proud and honored to embody and, hopefully, pass along.
Generous, optimistic, and welcoming to a fault, Al never failed to make an impression. And as complex a character as he was, when good food and dessert was to be had, Al was remarkably simple.
As often happens in times of mourning, I’m navigating a flood of emotions, to say nothing of 64 years-worth of memories…
I have a vivid recollection of the two of us sitting at a table in our home on Devonshire Road in Cedar Grove, New Jersey when I was 5- or 6-years-old. “We” were building my first model together. It was a tugboat, and through my child’s eyes, I still see it taking shape and color as it’s glued together and painted. Black above the waterline, red below, small coils of hemp rope on deck, the smell of Tester’s model paint wafting over the table. That moment cemented a lifelong fascination (and love affair) with tugboats, and I continued to build my own models through my high school years.
Al put me on skis at age 2½. I don’t know what, or even if, he was thinking, but two decades later found me living the dream in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
He and my mom, Judy, shared an insatiable wanderlust eventually visiting every continent save for Africa and Antarctica. I have no doubt they would have made it to both had it not been for the onset of Judy’s dementia. (I’d seen travel brochures for small-cruise adventures to Antarctica on their kitchen table, and knew those booklets had a mysterious way of becoming real.)
After Judy died, Al made his way to Eastern Europe on a group tour, and later to Jost Van Dyke with my sister and brother in-law. He also took several trips to the West Coast and Mountain West before his own declining cognition and the pandemic forced him to hang up his traveling shoes.
The father of four arguably gifted teachers, each in our own area of specialization, Al was certainly many things, but “teacher” was not one of them. He just could not grasp how, if he could do something – math, in my case – his children would not automatically follow suit. In his brilliant engineer’s brain, there was simply no space for the possibility that his own kid couldn’t see what he saw or do what he knew how to do.
How would that even work? The only logical explanation must be that the child had a “mental block,” which he’d declare before retreating in frustration.
We learned to seek help elsewhere, relieving Al of any explicitly instructional responsibilities.
On the other hand, he was masterful, though I’m not sure he was aware of it, at leading by observable example. My brother Ralph and I learned to sail by sailing with him, and I learned to work with wood and tools by observing Al in his basement workshop. I also saw him presenting to rooms full of people – something that seemed to come naturally to him – and indeed I found my own way to speaking, leading, and facilitating groups.
My siblings and I have been on two parental journeys with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Both were glacial in their pace – and their violence. Just as rivers of ice slowly cut through stone, the disease ground away our parents’ cognitive and physical capacities. Judy first, across an eight-year span, then Al, a bit quicker over three or four years. All the while my siblings and I traveled parallel paths of loss that crept along at speeds akin to the slow movement of tectonic plates. It was heartbreak at a geological pace.
Until, just as glaciers do when they reach the sea, fracturing and calving, sending waves that unmistakably signal the path’s end.
No matter how well prepared one thinks they are, the finality that hits does so in unexpected ways.
My father’s last day went something like this: After a couple of days of taking little food or drink, of being so weak (his weight had dropped to below 90 Lbs.) as to require being turned in his bed every couple of hours, he awoke asking to get dressed and to have breakfast. After being unable to even sit upright for several days, he sat at his regular table in the dining room, had his breakfast and, a few hours later, came back in and had his lunch. Following lunch, Al joined his fellow residents in the facility’s living room for an exercise class. Part way through the exercise program, he settled in for a nap…
And quietly died in his sleep.
Finality, as I mentioned above, hits in unexpected ways.
I find myself circling between sadness, grief, awe, amazement, a sense of being firmly grounded, and exhaustion. In one moment, I’ve lost my father and my heart is broken, in the next, I’m delighted knowing that, in his very last hours, he lived very much as he always had. As one of his aids tearfully reported, “he had a GREAT day!”
And I imagine, though I didn’t ask, that his lunch included dessert, because no full meal, to say nothing of a full life, would be complete without a little ice cream or “just one more cookie.”