Today Douglas Hedlund, my dad, turns 80. I couldn’t find one picture of him without his arms around my mom or tightly holding my brother or I or his grandkids. He grew up in a farming family in Fargo. He was the first in his family to attend college. He served as a Navy doctor during Vietnam. He was a psychiatrist for 53 years. He left Abbott hospital when they wanted to restrict the length of his appointments and the amount of therapy he could offer patients. He toured churches giving lectures on becoming affirming congregations. He campaigned on behalf of later school starts, more hospital access for mental health patients and the ethical responsibility of mental health providers to accept Medicare and Medicaid. He also never missed a race or concert, not mine or my brothers.
I remember my brother and I used to have contests to see who could get him to laugh. He was often busy working, thinking or reading reading reading. He remains a lousy small talker. But if you’d like to discuss feminism, hone your decision making skills, attempt to solve the riddle of anxiety disorders or just tell someone your life story as he sits and listens deeply and pats your arm, he is your guy. He won’t judge. He will take your late night phone call when you can’t stop crying or worrying and he will always succeed in making you feel better–and he does not reserve this for his kids. Really, you can call him anytime.
In his seventies, he reduced his private practice hours in order to work one day a week at Lutheran Social Services. He did it again when Tennyson needed infant care. He loves babies. Do other dads stay nearby and offer breastfeeding advice? With my parents doing childcare for me, I felt like I got to witness how they raised me–what a practice in gratitude.
Though cloudy with Alzheimer’s, I recently couldn’t help but call him when once again, I had to explain the news of a mass shooting to my kids. I asked, “Is the world becoming a more violent place?” Keep in mind this is a guy who can’t keep the days of the week straight these days
“Yes. There has always been hatred and extremism and war. But now children see it everyday. They have access to images and stories and videos because media and information have changed. It doesn’t matter if there is more violence in the world. Our perception of the world is more violent than it once was, and it is that perception that shapes our well being, our sense of safety and our mental health. I worry about that for children and I worry about access to guns. Talk about violence and their fears, but talk about peace too. Talk about solutions and let them know they are safe.”
Maybe it just doesn’t matter what day of the week it is today.
My dad also struggled with depression and anxiety. I asked him once if I could write about that–reveal that. He said, “We should all talk about our mental health struggles more.” I deeply believe that he would not have been as long in this world without my mom. They love each other fiercely and as they reach their eighties, appear to have somewhat exhausted themselves in the care of each other and their family and friends. With luck and persistence, he wooed my mom with a song. I believe that song saved his life.
My dad was not typical. He was not easy. He married levity and an easy laugh with the wisdom that he lacked it himself. Only in the company of children, laughing with my mom or on the golf course does his lighter side appear. And that is why Alzheimer’s, despite all we hate about it, has eased some of his burdens. It’s not so bad, after all, that he can’t get to the end of every troublesome thought. He smiles more. His laugh comes more easily. He will walk next to you now, not a mile ahead.
I know we are losing a little of him everyday. I miss him sometimes after spending the day with him. We will miss his thrilling intelligence and stories of American history, adventures in Fargo and recollections of his cousins. Alzheimer’s feels some days like a sickening long goodbye. Alzheimer’s also has the potential to feel socially awkward. Luckily for us, nothing new there. A nurse recently said, “He seems to be growing more quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t want to talk about the weather.” My mom and I just laughed. Some days I’m angry that the universe paid him back for his service by afflicting his mind. But mostly, I am grateful he is turning eighty today and I am still his girl.