He was always a very ethical person, my father. He was the type of person to drive back to the grocery store if he realized the cashier had shorted herself. He had high standards for himself and others. He was honest, straightforward and a very moral person. I had always put him on a pedestal in that regard. In my adult years I knew someone who did not have the perfect father growing up. My friend had great acceptance of that and told me that he had come to realize that parents are humans too. They are flawed not perfect. They come through life with baggage and issues just like everyone else and that this was what shaped who they were. I hadn’t given this much thought until my father’s health, at age 87, was beginning to fail.
The last few months were difficult ones. My father suffered with some sort of dementia thought to be arterial related. His body was simply beginning to break down. It was painful to watch. Up until that point he had been in exemplary health, and, anyone who experiences the dementia of someone close to them knows it’s agonizing to watch. With each declining degree, the person you know and love slips further and further away. I have four siblings. We read all we could about dementia and tried all of the suggestions to prolong the progress…puzzles, labeled photo albums, notebooks, routine…everything. It was one Saturday of routine that brought me back to what my friend had said.
My son and I offered to go for a walk with my father. He was having a particularly good day and walks around the neighborhood were always something he enjoyed. We spent a lot of time talking. One place that my father always went to in his dementia was his time in World War II. He was in the army stationed in France. He talked with my son and me about his time there sharing with us many interesting stories. When we arrived back home he took us to his study and to a big white binder on his desk. Inside the binder was page after page, yellowed with age- some handwritten some typed; poems. Without introduction he began reading from the pages.
My father had a knack for words, both verbal and written. One of the things that has been most missed since he passed are the lengthy birthday cards we used to receive. And it has been said by many that when we lost my Dad, we lost the family event speech giver. So when he began reading from these pages I was not necessarily surprised by what he wrote but I was surprised about the depth and beauty that emerged from the pages. There was poem after poem written about Jacqueline, my father’s fiancée during the war. He had met her when he was stationed in France. She was from a little town called Epernay. My father was young when he was enlisted in the Army. He was sent overseas to France. While stationed there he met Jacqueline, a young translator for the French Army. Her family, like she, was warm and welcoming and took great care of him while he was there. He was lonely and homesick and they took him in. He fell in love and soon Jacqueline became his fiancée. He became great friends with her brother and her parents were elated at her marrying and returning to the states with my father. She was smart and educated and they felt the states would offer her much promise. She corresponded with his mother and got to know his family via cross continental letters. They planned that once the war had ended, they would come back to the states and start a family…and live happily ever after.
The war eventually did end and when it ended, so did their relationship. It was time for my father to return home. In preparing for this he came to the realization that even though he loved Jacqueline, he was not in love with her. He didn’t know how to tell her, so he did the unforgivable. He left France without saying goodbye. No explanation. No ending for her. He just left. He had kept in touch for a while with her brother who told him that Jacqueline had a bit of a breakdown after he left. She apparently, her brother reported, sank in to a difficult depression. Growing up we all knew about Jacqueline. She profoundly affected most of his life after the war. The mere mention of her name would always send him to a place of sadness and regret. It was obvious that he struggled with it even after all of this time.
My father never forgave himself for the pain he caused her. For years, he would become visibly upset by the mention of her name. He imagined her devastated, broken and feeling unloved. He could not release himself from the guilt. I believe in many ways this molded who and what my father became. My father went on to have a successful career as a psychologist who helped many people get through dark times in their lives but he could not forgive himself of the one dark time he created. He owned this as a great character flaw in himself and not the mistake of youth that it really was. As he read these poems out loud I was awestruck at the love and sincerity that poured from the words. They were truly like something out of a romance novel; certainly something I had never experienced with anyone myself. From the words that were etched on this paper it was clear that he was truly in love with Jacqueline. As he continued to read I wondered how this had all shaped his life, if this was what propelled him into his chosen career and devotion to consoling others. I also wondered if she had truly known how deeply he cared for her, if she had in fact seen these poems and known that it was the sincerest form of young love. I felt sad to think that if she hadn’t heard these words she may have somehow thought their relationship was all a lie and spent needless time doubting her self-worth. We have all been there at some point in our lives, whether we are having our heart broken or being the one to break a heart.
In these words I found my father was not perfect. He was a beautiful person but flawed. He had hurt someone, someone he cared deeply about and he had carried that burden for most of his life. Things happen for a reason, though. He eventually met my mother and had the family he was meant to have. They would have been married 60 years the year that my father passed away (2011). I say that he carried that burden for the greater part of his life because in the 1990s, some 45 years after my father had left Jacqueline behind, he and my mother took a trip to France. They returned to that little place called Epernay and knocked on the door of what was Jacqueline’s family home. Her father who still lived there immediately recognized my father and opened his home to my parents. It was then much to my father’s relief he discovered that Jacqueline, too, had after all led a wonderful life. She was happily married with children. Her life did not end when he left. It had all worked out for her as it was meant to be. After 45 years my father finally received the closure he needed and was able to finally forgive himself for that mistake of youth so long ago.
Dementia patients often have flashbacks to significant times in their life. It isn’t the present they live in, but mostly the past. It is no surprise to me that at the end of his life my father spent a lot of time with the war and Jacqueline. I pray, though, that my father’s death isn’t the end of this story. I am haunted by the thought that if someone had written such beautiful prose about me, I would want to know, to touch the pages. Especially if it was someone that I believed had never cared about me, unrequited love. I can’t be sure if Jacqueline is still alive but I am hopeful at least that her children are. If someone wrote those things about my mother, I would be elated to have them and awestruck to view my mother through a lover’s eyes. I pray one day that through technology and God’s help I will somehow have the opportunity to place those beautiful words about their mother in their hands. Maybe somewhere, somehow they need that perspective on who their mother was and what baggage she carried through life, time will tell.