My Father’s Eyes – The Photographs

I only have two photographs of my father and me where we are both looking straight enough into the camera to study our eyes.

In the first one he is about 33 and I am about 3 years old. He is sitting down and I am standing next to him. The picture is in a small album he once put together for my great-grandfather. After my great-grandfather passed away, I got the small photo album with hand-written captions. The one under the picture of my father and me reads (in Swedish): “What’s mommy doing with the camera?” In this picture, he is a thin, slightly balding big-eared young man with a point collar shirt and a hand knitted sweater. I am a toe head with a similar outfit, but with chubbier cheeks. He looks a little sad or perhaps just plain tired, and I look calm and well fed.

This picture reminds me of Livingston Taylor‘s words:

“My father’s eyes
My father’s hands
Oh daddy quickly pick me up
When will I be a man
When will I live long enough
To make somebody fly?
When will the mirror show me
My father’s eyes?”

The second picture of my father and me was taken shortly after he moved into the dementia ward where I visited him last month. He is seated in the center, thin again after years of being overweight, and my mother and I are standing, scooching slightly, behind him on either side. My wife took the picture when my father was 83 and I 53. In this picture he again looks a little sad or perhaps just tired. I remember that he wasn’t quite sure what this was all about. When my mother told him she was leaving at the end of each afternoon visit, he would try to get up to follow her, or sometimes offer to drive her home.

My own eyes look a little bit tired, too, maybe from jet lag, and perhaps also in response to my father’s decline.

These two photographs, taken fifty years apart, frame the story of two men who each left their home to make themselves a new life somewhere else; my father left the farm and his birthright to find work in a factory, then earned an engineering degree in night school. I went to medical school and left Sweden to make a new life in America. I never then, at age 28, reflected on what it might mean to have children and grandchildren on one continent and parents on another.

My visit to Sweden last month was a whirlwind trip. I only spent three days there this time. Each day I spent much of the afternoon with my father at the nursing home.

Each visit passed quickly with breaks for obligatory coffee and cookies, which he eagerly devoured with minimal help.

His room is spacious with a peaceful view of the grassy yard behind the building, the bed is a hospital-type unit and there is a Hoyer lift. The armchairs and table are from camp, and he has his own TV. Tall trees shade the front of the three-story building, and there is a balcony off the homey kitchen. Next to the kitchen is a dining room with seats for all seven residents. Beyond the dining room is the living room, dominated by a large color TV. The exit doors have electronic combination locks.

The staff is wonderful; hugs are shared freely, hair cuts and manicures are provided, and the staff even picks up personal items for residents downtown. The care is subsidized and fees are based on income. As my father has a good pension, his monthly fee is somewhere around $1400.

His dementia was evident many years ago, and his decline has worn on my mother. She finally has peace in her heart with his living in a dementia unit, and she visits him five or six days a week. I talk to her on the phone every week, but I see my father usually only once a year. Even before he developed his dementia, he never talked on the phone; he would answer and then get my mother on the line.

I read somewhere that we lose our parents little by little over many years. The daddy that picked me up the way Livingston Taylor describes has been gone a very long time, the father I discussed politics with has been gone for fifteen years, and the father who beat me at cards has been gone for a decade.

Like my hometown in Sweden, I can still visit my father, and the memories well up inside of me, but his dementia is like the ravage of time on the streets where I played as a child. Much of him is simply gone; it is only because I love him and remember him that I still find all of him there. A stranger would not see in him what I see when I look at my father.

I don’t know if he’ll be there when I visit Sweden next. I know I’ll never hear him speak again. I’ll never walk down to the lake with him again, and he’ll ever beat me at cards again, but when I look into my father’s eyes I see my past and maybe also my future:

Out of six siblings born in the 1920’s and 30’s, all are still alive, but the three oldest have been diagnosed with dementia. Livingston Taylor’s words echo in my mind:

“When will the mirror show me
My father’s eyes?”

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