The smell of barbecued ribs is in the air. I am with a friend who knows his ribs. His father taught him everything he knows.
My friend can also handle more beer than I can—he can drink several, back-to-back, without spontaneously bursting into “Louie Louie.”
We were good friends once, but we lost touch a long time ago.
I liked his father, who was a natural teacher. For example: his father taught me how to change the oil in my truck when I was a younger man.
He also attempted to teach me to throw a football—which is on the large list of things I never learned. Also on the list: water skiing, pronouncing “Worcestershire,” parallel parking, making my bed, earning a living.
My friend’s father is here today. He is white-haired and shaky. He has Alzheimer’s. He is not the man who once showed me to throw a spiral in his yard. In fact, he doesn’t remember me.
He’s holding a beer can.
My friend says: “It’s non-alcoholic beer. We replaced it with fake beer. It makes him feel like old times to hold a can. We hope it jars a memory.”
The old man sits in a chair between us. His language is a mixture of gibberish and one-liner jokes, and he ends every sentence with “Inallmylife.”
When he starts talking, it’s impossible to understand him.
“Whositwasasittlemershimackinpillowhapper…” he chuckles. “Inallmylife.”
We all laugh—we know by the tone of his old voice that he’s telling a joke. And you always laugh at punchlines, even if you don’t understand them.
My friend answers, “Oh yessir,” to almost everything his father says. And this suits his father just fine. Any response will do.
“Listenlistenlistentome,” his father begins. “Wasabackinnineteenerother…”
“Yessir, Dad. That’s right.”
And so it goes.
The old man sits near the grill. He can’t lift the heavy lid, but he tries. His son opens it for him. They look at the ribs together and grin.
The pecan wood making the smoke is from a tree the old man cut down one decade ago. That was back when he was a sharp man. Back when he could operate this grill.
“Alzheimer’s hit him fast,” my friend says. “You just won’t believe how fast it moves. You hope for moments of clarity… You live for those moments.”
A few weeks ago, around lunchtime, my friend got a phone call. It was his mother.
“Your father’s having a good day,” she said. “Hurry up and get over here before you miss it.”
Seconds count with Alzheimer’s. My friend showed up at his parents’ in under five minutes. They sat on porch chairs, facing the street, talking.
“He was clear as a bell all day,” says my friend. “It was like he’d come back in town for a visit.”
But such episodes are getting further between. Still, the family tries to keep doing things to jolt his memory, like barbecuing, playing his favorite music, or telling stories.
Sometimes it works. Most times it doesn’t.
And so the man who once taught boys to throw footballs, sits in a patio chair. His son misses him. But he is beside him.
The old man interrupts our conversation. My friend looks at his father.
The old man says, “Jon?”
It is all he says. Then, there is silence.
My friend sets his beer down. His eyes are glassy. There isn’t much time. There’s no telling how long he’s here for.
“It’s me, Dad. I love you. I love you every day. Every single day, Dad.”
“Love you, too, Jon,” the old man says. Then he smiles.
Yes. Those were the best barbecued ribs I’ve ever had.
In all my life.