In what could only be described as the extreme “good news, bad news” scenario, April 24 was my birthday. It’s also the day my beloved father died.
While most of my friends and acquaintances were sending me “Happy birthday” messages, my family and I were making funeral arrangements.
And, while many of those same individuals expressed their condolences, I, not normally considered a “glass-half-full” kind of guy, have in fact, taken solace and comfort in that fact.
You see, my father, Carl Leonard Horowitz, who was 86 when he died, had been given a death sentence some 13 years earlier when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Dad knew how much all of us wanted him to be released from the “life” that this once nimble and graceful athlete found himself “living,” a life lived in the confines of a wheelchair, behind a locked door, unable to speak to or remember the people who cherished this wonderful man for decades.
This was not a “life” that anyone who had a say would ever choose.
And although an estimated 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, and that in just five years, this number could rise by 50 per cent, this was not something that was supposed to happen to my family.
Even after he was diagnosed, my dad refused to believe that he would – or could – ever forget the names of his kids, grandkids or wife. After all, he had finally retired not long before the disease hit, and it was time to enjoy the spoils he had earned after all those years of hard work as a pharmacist in Mississauga, Ont., in the eponymously named Carl’s Pharmacy.
“I don’t think I’m Alzheimerish, although I may have to think about it in the very near future,” he wrote in a letter to his family years ago. “Then again, if I fight it and think positively, maybe I could conquer this Alzheimer fellow. It would be a pleasure to laugh at him and say goodbye.”
Unfortunately, despite those brave and optimistic words, nobody’s laughing at Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the man who, in a meeting in 1907 in Germany, presented the monumental findings for which he will, ironically, be remembered.
The case was of a 51-year-old woman whose symptoms included depression, hallucinations, dementia and, upon post-mortem examination, a paucity of cells in her cerebral cortex and clumps of filaments between the nerve cells.
Still, it took my father some 13 years since his diagnosis, with his family looking on, to finally give in to the ravages of this unrelenting, cruel and brutal disease, and I believe he held out that long for one simple reason: he wanted to wait until Passover had ended before, well, passing over.
Dad loved leading seders with our family crowded around the dining room table. Hell, he loved any excuse to bring his family together. And up until he got sick, he would often lead those seders in his fluent Hebrew. He loved going around the table and asking us what Passover meant to us, and often, we’d surprise him by not answering, “It’s around the same time the Leafs are eliminated from the playoffs, Dad!”
You don’t even want to know about our take on the Four Questions.
Even when he knew that Alzheimer’s had started to change him, he joked to me that “if this thing ever gets a hold of me, I won’t be able to hide the afikoman anymore, because I’ll forget where I hid it.”
I believe his death mirrors the Passover story, in particular our escape from slavery into the light of freedom – our Exodus. Today, I believe my dad is at peace, his memories of his beloved family fully intact once again as they were before this devastating disease took them from him. I believe, too, that he is now free, his once limber and athletic body no longer a prisoner of his wheelchair or the locked doors of the facility in which he spent his last eight years.
Every year on April 24, I will not only celebrate my birthday with my wife and my two beautiful children, but, more importantly, I will recall my dad’s incredible legacy, as well as his own personal exodus. After my family sings the requisite Happy Birthday to me, I will sing the same silly songs that my dad sang to me five decades ago to my son Eli and daughter Shira, so that they’ll know the man that Zaidy Carl really was, the man they never got to meet.
I will continue to show them photos and tell them my favourite memories of the man who was once my best friend, a man of infinite jest, infinite wisdom, infinite intellect and, of course, infinite and unconditional love.
And, next year I will hide the afikoman, albeit without Dad’s usual flair and humour, and I will pray that, unlike my dad, I will never forget where I put it.
Dan Horowitz is director of communications and public relations with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.