Michele D. - Life When My Dad Remembered

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*From a memorial service that we had for my Dad’s caregivers.

Aside from my family, there is no one in this room who knew my Dad before last year so I thought I would take a few minutes to introduce you.

Frank McDermott was actually born Francis, but everyone called him Frank or Frankie.  In his 50’s he decided that he had enough of signing his name on official documents as Francis so he legally changed his name to Frank.  He was just very practical that way.

My Dad loved the water.  He was a lifeguard at Jones Beach in Long Island as a teen and was the Captain of the swim team at Roosevelt High School in the Bronx.  He was an excellent swimmer who gave each of us (especially me) a love of water.   He also loved to sail and we spent a ton of time sailing the Chesapeake Bay.  When we lived in Turkey in the late 70’s, he wanted to take the family to Greece.  We didn’t stay in a hotel; we sailed through the Greek Islands with a captain and his wife (Takis and Lucile).  They took us to little islands where we had dinners with their friends and family in their homes.  That is the experience he wanted us to have – not the all-inclusive resort in Cancun.  It was awesome, and we did so many things like that growing up. 

My Dad loved to entertain.  I really don’t know how much was climbing the political ladder at NSA but my parents always had parties, lots of parties.  Some were so fancy that they would move out furniture to set up beautiful dinner parties.  He was practical with his parties, too.  Why hire bartenders when you could mix your own drinks and dress your kids up as waiters and waitresses to take orders.  We loved it!  He had these special little pads that had drinks listed and the little pencils and would roam the room taking orders, checking off what they wanted, writing their name and passing it to my Dad.  I’m pretty sure child welfare may be involved if we did that these days but I can honestly say I turned out just fine.

My Dad loved music.  Not the “crazy” kind of music we listen to today, but he loved jazz, he loved Glen Campbell and he loved musical theatre.  I’m not sure if it was from growing up in New York, but he loved it.  My parents would take us to dinner theaters as kids to watch shows like The Sound of Music and I have vivid memories of him playing the soundtracks of South Pacific and Man of La Mancha.

My Dad had an unstoppable love for learning.  Not the ABC’s kind of learning – but the kind of love for learning anything new.  How to drop an engine in a car, install hardwood flooring, build a house, speak a language (or 10) … anything.   If it interested him, he would educate himself about it.    It was such a great trait – unless you wanted a simple question answered for homework.   I think all of us would rather fail a test then have my Dad help us with homework because by the time we got the one answer we were looking for we would basically be a dissertation away from a masters degree on the subject.  But, there was one thing in particular that my Dad never had an interest in and that was cooking.  We would beg my Mom not to go visit her parent’s in Seattle because we all knew what that meant – beanies and weenies.  Every day.  It’s all he knew how to cook. 

My dad was patient. He could calm down a baby 100% of the time, no matter what.  He loved to hold my kids when they were little, especially when they were screaming.   He would walk around the house for hours talking about everything.  In the calmest voice ever he would walk around the house, stopping at things like a light switch and then go into great detail about how to wire it, the importance of the ground wire and how to screw the wall plate in the wall when you were done   Or, he would look at a picture on the wall and talk about every person in the photo.  I wish I was as camera crazy then as I am today because I’m sure if I captured any of those moments you would see my children’s eyes in a completely mesmerized way.   But, when he lost his patience it was epic.  We didn’t often see it at home but anyone who spent any time with him on the golf course most definitely saw it.  

My Dad loved religion and politics.  We were in complete agreement over religion, but let’s just say that we are on opposite sides of the spectrum with regards to politics.  One of the things I will never understand about Alzheimer’s is how his brilliant brain could forget how to add 2+2, that I was his daughter or how to tie a shoe, but he never forgot how much he hated George W. Bush.   We moved my parents to Texas to help my Mom care for my Dad and when we proposed the idea he wouldn’t hear of it because God forbid, Rick Perry was there.  At the time Rick Perry still had his name in the Presidential run and I tried to explain to him that if he stayed in the DC area he may be next-door neighbors with Perry so at least Austin was a few hours away.   He didn’t buy it.  I actually got him interested in the idea when I took the advice of a friend and told him that he could come and start an anti Perry club.  How funny is that?  Before he moved to Silverado I would pick him up every day to take him to day care so my Mom could get a break and each time we got on the road he would see the sign “George Bush Highway” and every day he would read it and say “George Bush Highway – I never liked that guy and his son - - what a dud!”  Every day.  He had no idea where he was, but he could read the sign and make the connection.   I still don’t get that.

My Dad loved his family.  Because of his job, there was only 1 day in my life that I was ever invited to my Dad’s office at work and that was a holiday Open House.  We lived in Turkey at the time and to get to the office we had to go through 2 huge safe doors.  I learned years later that in order for them to have that function they spent days moving everything out and securing it since what he did was always Top Secret. He did, however, involve us in other ways.  One in particular was a project he did while at the Armed Forces Staff College.  I honestly have NO idea what his project was, but he came home and spent days creating signs saying things like “DEFENSE”  “BUDGET” Gross National Product” and a whole bunch of stuff written in Russian.  One at a time he had us hold them and took our picture.  We have some photos that are real gems – like my little brother Sean wearing some metal thing on his head holding a sign that says “nuclear power” and my sister in some super sexy go-go boots and mini skirt holding a sign that said something in Russian.  Let’s just say that I’m really grateful that YouTube wasn’t invented back then because I think it may quite possibly have turned out to be the most embarrassing moment in YouTube history and I would have had a staring role!

One of the greatest things I believe my father ever taught me about family was that to get buy-ins from your kids on big life changes, all it takes is for them to believe they were part of the decision.  Scott and I moved – a lot.  In fact, 13 years here in Texas is a record for us.  Whenever I would find myself lying awake at night worried about how to tell my children we were moving, again, I would remember what my Dad would do.  He would always bring us into the conversation and ask us what we thought.  He gave us the opportunity to tell him why we didn’t want to do something and in his very awesome way, would always leave the conversation getting exactly what he wanted and we never complained.  We were excited because we felt like it was our decision.  He was brilliant! 

My Dad worked at the National Security Agency as a cryptologist.  I honestly had no idea that what my dad did was any different than anyone else’s dad.  It wasn’t until I was 12 years old and recently back from Turkey when I wound up in the hospital with a crushed arm that I learned my dad was different.  When I got to my post surgical appointment my mom mentioned that we were just retuning from Turkey.  The surgeon asked what my Dad did; my mom gave him some quick answer.  He immediately responded, “Oh, wow – he was a spy?”  My Mom got this funny look on her face like parents do when they want the subject changed immediately.  After that I asked a lot of questions and always got the same answer … one day, when I’m ready, I’ll tell you all about what I did.  We really didn’t get that opportunity because when he was finally ready to talk about it he was already forgetting the details. 

My dad had a fabulous sense of humor.  He was funny and despite it all, up to just a couple of weeks ago when we celebrated his 85thbirthday, was entertaining everyone around him at Silverado.  He couldn’t tell jokes anymore, but he could make funny faces and fake heart attacks.  Yep, totally faked heart attacks, in total Fred Sanford style, he would make all of the expressions, he just didn’t have the words to say “Elizabeth, I’m coming home” any more.  

My Dad had Alzheimer’s.  He knew exactly what it meant because his mother died of Alzheimer’s and he and my mom were her primary caregivers until she moved into a nursing home.  He would never say the word out loud.  He would tell people that he “had problems.”  It was also very ironic.  You see, my dad loved memory games.  Growing up, from as far back as I can remember, he would teach us memory games.  When we were studying for a tough exam he taught us to turn it into a song so we would remember.  He would play games with a series of words that we had to memorize and then gave us tips on how to do it.  That’s what he did – he remembered everything.  I think my Dad had Alzheimer’s for a very long time.  Maybe 10-15 years, but he was smart enough to cover it up.  It wasn’t until he couldn’t do something very simple and had run out of jokes to change the subject that he finally raised the white flag and conceded. 

My Dad was a man of integrity, a lover of life, a golfer, sailor, husband, father, grandfather and huge Washington Redskin fan.  He was also the perfect gentleman, up until the very end.

I know that the way he lived was a life for which he had no regrets.  However, I do believe as he is watching down over us now he is thinking that he didn’t have the chance to say “Hey Toots” to all of the women and caregivers at Silverado before he passed away.  But, like my family never doubted for a second that we were loved, I know that each of you must feel the same about Frank.  He loved you and was so happy.  Thank you for everything you did for him … thanks for loving my Dad!

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