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Bursack: Memories of father before his dementia

Father's Day and my birthday are always close together, this year falling back to back. I smile as I look at a copy of an old photo taken when my dad and I first met.

Father's Day and my birthday are always close together, this year falling back to back. I smile as I look at a copy of an old photo taken when my dad and I first met.

Because I was born during World War II, Dad didn't see me until he came home on leave when I was 6 months old.

It's one of my favorite pictures of Dad, the young soldier post brain injury, once again walking and talking. Gratitude and pride beam from his face as he holds his little daughter while embracing his 3-year-old son with his other arm.

Dad's smile in that picture is the smile of my childhood and all through his years as Super-Grandpa to my children. Then brain surgery to correct damage from the old injury backfired, leaving him with a voice in his head and a world-view that had all the reality of a fun-house mirror. The change in that smile, post surgery, was my first clue something went wrong.

Throughout more than 10 years of dementia hell, I clung to the memories of my pre-dementia dad, despite his being trapped in a nightmare that didn't end until his physical death in December 2004. The night of his death is the night I got my dad back.

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For some, dementia is a slow process, so people adjust the best they can as the disease eats away at their loved one's brain.

For others, dementia is instant, like Dad's. One moment he was Dad, growing slightly fuzzy from the fluid building up behind the scar tissue in his brain. The next moment he was, well, still Dad, but his thought process had been hijacked by dementia demons.

Keeping memories of Dad, as we knew him before the surgery, has been part of the healing process.

Talking about him with my sons and my sister, feeling his smile on me as I work with our picture just over my shoulder, and chuckling over comments from people who exclaim over how much I resemble him are all part of my tunneling backward through the years of dementia to again feel his essence.

Today, this day to honor the fathers who loved us, I honor my dad. Happy Father's Day, Dad. We love you.

Bursack is the author of "Minding Our Elders," a support book on family elder care, and maintains a Web site at www.mindingourelders.com . To view past columns, go to www.inforum.com and click on columnists. Readers can reach Bursack at carol@mindingourelders.com or write her at

The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107

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