Memories of My Dad

Brian Piana
Feb 20, 2016 · 9 min read

February 20th marks the one-year anniversary of my father’s passing. He died from Lewy Body Dementia at the relatively young age of 66.

If you’ve never known someone inflicted with dementia, it’s a long, emotionally-taxing ordeal. Imagine a loved one slowly and irreversibly changing into someone else over the course of several years. Their whole personality and temperament may change in radically uncharacteristic ways. Dad’s symptoms included paranoia, confusion, anger, illusions, and, ultimately, threatening behavior, to name a few. All of this takes a heavy mental and physical toll on the primary care giver, which in this case was my mom. We left him in the house with her for far too long.

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My son with my father, two weeks before he went into memory care.

My dad spent his final eight months in a memory care facility, being medicated to control his symptoms. He was clearly different under medication, and visits to see him were hit or miss, with some days being better than others. Dementia, they say, is a very long goodbye, and I found this to be true. The Dad I once knew was largely gone in the memory care facility, and he had slowly been leaving for quite some time.

That long goodbye also casts a long shadow. For the two years preceding his death and the better part of this one after it, it has been rather difficult for me to imagine my dad from before he was sick. What did he look like? What did he talk like? How did he laugh? What made him smile? It’s easy to lose sight of those things with the healthy or “normal” version of that person having slowly slipped away, cruelly replaced with — in many respects — a stranger. The mental images of my father over his final years and, more specifically, his final months, have been hard to shake.

A year removed from his passing, however, I’m now trying to recover some of those earlier memories. Writing them down is a way for me to reclaim them for myself and also share them with others. It’s been a productive exercise, and I’ve enjoyed rediscovering memories of my dad.

As an introduction, my father was an engineer, just like his father before him. My older brother Mike followed in their footsteps, graduating with an engineering degree and working for Exxon out of college. I’m an artist and designer, however, so my career aspirations were radically different. I couldn’t really “talk shop” with my dad like Mike could. Dad also enjoyed hunting, fishing, and playing golf, and while I tagged along to these outings as a kid, it was Mike who truly shared his interest in these. I’m so very happy that the two of them would continue to golf and hunt together late into my dad’s life, but I’ve been searching for areas or moments where Dad and I clearly shared something unique, and that’s the focus of this post. There are many, many instances, I’m happy to say, and here are some stories that have had me smiling recently.

I was really into wrestling as a kid, back when WWE was still WWF and Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, and Andre the Giant were the star attractions. I went away to a scouting campout one weekend in October of 1987, and I remember being pretty bummed to be missing a big episode of Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC. (This was a non-syndicated wrestling show that occasionally replaced Saturday Night Live during their off weeks.) When I returned from the weekend in the woods, my dad surprised me by having recorded the show using our VHS player. That was the first thing we ever recorded off the TV, and he had to learn how to do it while I was away. He didn’t care a thing about wrestling, but he did it for me. As a result, I didn’t miss out on the pivotal moment when Hulk Hogan had to rescue Randy Savage from the Honky Tonk Man and they formed what would become the Super Powers (true story). I feel like I watched that tape more than any other VHS recording ever. It was truly special to me. My dad came through in a totally unexpected fashion, and he was instantly a hero in my 12-year-old eyes.

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Dad and me sometime in the late 80’s.

Although he wasn’t into wrestling like I was, one distinct area my dad and I bonded over was music. He introduced me to so much of the music he enjoyed as a younger man, and I became quick fans of the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Chapin, and Jimi Hendrix, among others. (As an adult, I would often give him new Bob or Neil releases for his birthday or Christmas. That kind of became “my thing”.) Surprisingly, he even grew to like some of the bands I was into as a teenager, most notably Nirvana and Pearl Jam. He really enjoyed Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged performance, for example, citing how impressed he was at their guitar skills. Funny story: I remember one night in the early 90s watching TV with him, and MTV aired the Smells Like Teen Spirit video with the lyrics scrolling across the screen. In the chorus, Kurt sings,

A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido

I asked Dad what a libido was. He trained his eyes on me, narrowing them, without ever turning his head away from the TV. After a brief pause of contemplation, Dad very calmly told me to go look it up. I hopped off the couch and went to my room for a dictionary. I don’t remember if I ever discussed my newfound knowledge with him after that, but I appreciated the manner in which he ducked having to answer the question himself.

Flash forward to my wedding in 2001. It was fantastic and joyous and loud, with lots of laughing and dancing. My wife and I had given the DJ a general playlist and and asked him to decline any requests. That didn’t stop my dad, of course, who tried his best to get them to play a Pearl Jam song. The DJ did his job, telling my dad he didn’t have any PJ with him. It truly was the thought that counted, here, and I know this was my dad’s way of trying to put our stamp on the festivities. I really appreciate that.

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Dad and my grandfather at my wedding in 2001.

My dad was also a craftsman, and he enjoyed woodworking in the garage. In 1999, he decided to build me a desk and made one from an old hollow door. It features tapered legs and a satin stain, and it even has a secret smile on the bottom, where he drew a peace sign. (My dad was a bit of a hippy growing up, and I am much more the hippy son than my brother.) This has been my computer desk ever since he handed it over to me, and I love it dearly. After nearly 17 years, one of the legs is starting to come apart from its joint, and I will eventually need to repair it. My work on it won’t look nearly as good compared to his, of course.

After graduating with my MFA in 2007, I shifted my artwork from making digital prints and started exploring sculpture as a way to present my abstract concepts. Knowing my dad was a good craftsman, I would occasionally recruit him into my (sometimes two-person) production team. He also had three things I needed: (1) proper woodworking tools, (2) knowledge of how to safely use said tools, and (3) time, given he was retired. The best part: he was always game. I’m pretty sure the initial conversation went something like this, having explained what I was doing for my first big solo show at Lawndale Art Center in 2007:

Dad: “How many of these do you need?”
Me: “About 550.”
Dad: (pause) “All the same size?”
Me: “No. Lots of different sizes.”
Dad: (longer pause) “Alright, make a list, and we’ll get to it.”

He was so great about listening to my ideas without judging them, or even probably understanding them. He never questioned why I wanted to build these things, but instead jumped in with recommendations as to how.

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MDF sawdust carnage in my parents’ garage following a work day for my installation in 2007.

When I took him to see the final installation of Lawndale Has Many Friends at the gallery, he lit up at the results. He would touch the work — generally a gallery no-no — and mention to complete strangers that he had helped build it. I probably sheepishly asked him not to touch the work (because, like my dad, I’m a rule follower), but I liked seeing how clearly proud he was of the final installation and of his contribution. And, of course, of me.

Lots and lots of MDF pieces hanging off the walls, all cut in my dad’s garage. Photo by Chuy Benitez.

We would work together on another art project shortly after this one, and I greatly enjoyed our days spent in his garage. I was in my early thirties and he was pushing 60, but he still viewed those times as teachable moments, and rightfully so. He was the woodworking expert, and it was important to him that I understood why we chose certain methods over others and also that I had a firm grasp on proper technique and safety measures.

In hindsight, I wish I had pushed forward with more sculpture to prolong our creative partnership. I remember thinking, distinctly and perhaps selfishly, that our window of artistic collaboration was closed once his dementia symptoms started to manifest.

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RGB and Sometimes Y sculptures in a 2014 exhibition dedicated to my dad.

In the fall of 2014, I exhibited New Compositions in RGB and Sometimes Y at Box 13 ArtSpace in Houston. Dad was living in a mental care facility at this point, and the work was very much about him and his disease. It featured two sculptures that were rather simple structures, pieced together from wood I could easily cut and nail together myself. Essentially, stuff I could do without Dad’s help. Although he would never see it, I dedicated the exhibition to him. He died two months after it closed.

Dad passed away on a Friday, surrounded by me, mom, and Mike. We held a memorial the following Monday. The funeral home reps suggested we bring in photos to create a slide show from and also perhaps make a CD of his favorite songs to have on. As it seemed appropriate, that task fell to me. I’ve made many a mixtape in my life — for myself, for friends, for my wife — but there seemed to be more pressure on this one. I had to do right by Dad. Here’s what I came up with:

Like a Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan
The Wind Cries Mary, Jimi Hendrix
Harvest Moon, Neil Young
Blowing’ in the Wind, Peter, Paul & Mary
Mr. Tambourine Man, Bob Dylan
On the Road Again, Willie Nelson
Circle, Harry Chapin
Long May You Run, Neil Young
Around the Bend, Pearl Jam (of course!)

The night of the memorial, we were awaiting our guests and I was listening to the CD, fidgeting with the volume on the sound system. The tears came pretty freely, and I fled to an empty room to collect myself. I hadn’t listened to this playlist again until today, and sure enough the tears came back.

Thankfully, it has been easier for me over the past few months to remember my father as he was before his illness started breaking him apart and invoking irreparable change. I’m hopeful the memories of my “real” dad will continue to come back to me, and I’ll do my best to hang onto them and share them with my own kids in due time.

Long may you run, Dad. I love you and miss you.

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Mike, Dad, and me in 2013.

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