I’ve been wanting to write this column for a while but have been waiting for the right time. I think this is it. Although it’s Mother’s Day weekend, I’m going to go a different direction. My mom has received quite a bit of ink here so I’ll introduce you to my dad instead.
My dad is the single biggest reason I chose to move to Wyoming and make a life here. Dad came out with his parents and older sister in 1946. They were headed to the HF Bar Ranch — the second oldest dude ranch in the country — west of Buffalo. That was the beginning of his love affair with Wyoming. Over the next 12 years, they came out sporadically as a break from the Illinois heat and humidity. Horseback riding and fishing were a complete departure from their suburban Midwestern lives, and they loved it.
In 1976, Dad made the trek west again but this time it was in a Ford station wagon with a wife and two kids, ages 6 and 8. I’ve referred to one of those road trips in a past column — who could forget the story of our picnic next to the waste pond? And you saw that fantastic picture of my brother and me with our cowboy shirts and coordinating cowboy hats. Oh, we were the real deal. Complete dude-o-ramas.
From the Bicentennial through 1999, my dad didn’t miss a year at the ranch. An unbroken streak of 23 years until I got married in 2000.
He gave me away at my wedding, which was not conveniently scheduled during his usual late June, early July two-week stint. Dad re-established his annual pilgrimage after that year and kept it going until just a few years ago. All told, he easily has 40 years of HF Bar summers in his memory bank plus several more trips out for fall color.
I was addicted to Wyoming from the moment I saw it that first year. I would cry as we left and count the days until we returned. Along with Chicago Bears football, Kansas basketball and obsessive weather watching, my dad and I are bonded over our mutual adoration of Wyoming. He still lives in Illinois but knows the Bighorns and environs better than I ever will.
In mid-February, my dad had a hemorrhagic stroke caused by the blood thinners he took for atrial fibrillation. The brain bleed and swelling occurred in his right frontal lobe, so although he didn’t lose speech or movement, he struggled with names, identifying the right words and more. Dad spent nine weeks fighting his way back to some semblance of normal, from intensive care to a rehab center to a skilled nursing facility.
During the 10 days I spent with him while he was hospitalized, I was petrified I’d never get my dad back.
He couldn’t find words and the ones he did find didn’t make sense when he put them together in a sentence. Most times he knew who I was but not always. He got very frustrated very easily. Scary doesn’t quite describe those days.
The bright spots were the randomness of dad’s recall. He could tell me the make of car in a Heineken TV ad (Jaguar). He could look at a photo he had taken and name the songbird (rose-breasted grosbeak). Show him one of the tens of thousands of photos of our mountains he’d captured and he’d nail it (Crazy Woman Canyon).
It’s been a long three months for dad and especially for those who love him. He doesn’t remember most of the first six weeks, but we do and in excruciating detail. Dad’s been home for a couple of weeks, and I went back to Illinois to see his progress for myself.
I’m ecstatic to report that this new normal (or Dad 2.0 as I like to call him) is different but so good. I can’t believe what a difference even the five days while I was there made in both his mood and communication. If you just dropped in or didn’t know him better, you’d swear he was back 100 percent. He’s not that far along and maybe never will be but the brain is an amazing organ and so resilient.
I share all this with you because, as always, I like to take you on my journeys of discovery with me. This particular journey has taught me patience, the importance of tiny wins and a deep gratitude for all the amazing times I’ve shared with my dad. That gratitude has an extra layer of wonder now that I’ve had a glimpse of what it might feel like to not be able to share them anymore.
Finally, I learned about the healing power of time. I credit Glennon Doyle Melton again. Like the caterpillar building its cocoon and emerging as a gorgeous butterfly, she says caterpillars are slow yet they turn out beautiful. It takes time to become and it gets dark first. Like the caterpillar, I need to trust the process. My dad is emerging from his chrysalis with new wings. How lucky are we to bear witness to his transformation?
Amy Albrecht is the executive director of the Center for a Vital Community.