THE GEMSTONES OF OUR YEARS

The house I grew up in had large plate-glass windows, which birds frequently crashed into headfirst. My father helped me assemble a bird hospital, consisting of a few shoe boxes, some old rags and tiny dishes for water and food. When I lost my first patient, when the tiny gray creature died in my hands without ever eating any of the Cheerios I'd provided for it, my father patiently explained to me that the bird was free now, flying happily through the blue breezes of heaven, where there are no hazards such as windows. I was locked into his eyes, locked into the story. My father was always more accessible when he was teaching his children through stories.

Thirty-five years later, I would walk beside him along the beach, after he had already begun slipping into the shadows of Alzheimer's. A dark thief, it steals portions of a person, leaves remnants behind. He looked up at a flock of seagulls soaring overhead and his eyes followed them, shining with something I couldn't decipher, but which I interpreted as longing.

The years between those two events were often war-torn, weighed down with sorrow--with words he found difficult to say and words I wish I'd never said.

My father was a shy man; he wasn't demonstrative with his children. His affection didn't announce itself with strong embraces of dramatic declaration. We had to interpret it. Like delicate calligraphy, it required patience and a keen eye, attributes I had to acquire. I was not born with them.

Eventually, I grew beyond the girl who wanted more from her father than he was able to give. I began to focus on the gifts he gave me. He taught me to talk to God, to read the stars, respect the cycles of nature. I am a strong swimmer and a decent horsewoman because of him. I plucked from the years the shiniest memories, strung them together. It's what you do with someone who is always a bit out of reach. You content yourself with moments; you gather them, treasure them. They are the gemstones of the years you shared.

I returned to my family, the prodigal child, in October 1994, two months before my father disclosed to the world that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It's been reported that his disease brought us back together. That's not quite true--it happened earlier, when my mother and I laid down the armaments of our long dispiriting war, allowing the rest of the family to breathe easier, drift toward one another. But the chronology doesn't really matter; the coming together does. I returned in time to say goodbye to my father, to witness his steady withdrawal from this world.

Losing a parent is an experience that has no comparison. Like childbirth, it exists beyond the realm of language: our words strive, but never completely describe it. At first, grief carries you out like a tide to an ending you always knew would come, but couldn't possibly be prepared for. With a long, relentless illness like Alzheimer's, you remember every detail of the journey, every slow mile you traveled.

Hope dies along the way--the hope that things will someday change between you and your parent; you'll be less hesitant, perhaps, with each other, more open. During the last couple of years, I would sit beside my father, silence floating between us, knowing that we would never be any more to each other than we were right then.

I don't know whether the loss is easier or harder if a parent is famous; maybe it's neither. My father belonged to the country. I resented the country at times for its demands on him, its ownership of him. America was the important child in the family, the one who got the most attention. It's strange, but now I find comfort in sharing him with an entire nation. There is some solace in knowing that others were also mystified by him; his elusiveness was endearing, but puzzling. He left all of us with the same question: who was he? People ask me to unravel him for them, as if I have secrets I haven't shared. But I have none, nothing that you don't already know. He was a man guided by internal faith. He knew our time on this earth is brief, yet he cared deeply about making his time here count. He was comfortable in his own skin. A disarmingly sunny man, he remained partially in shadow; no one ever saw all of him. It took me nearly four decades to allow my father his shadows, his reserve, to sit silently with him and not clamor for something more.

I have learned, over time, that the people who leave us a little bit hungry are the people we remember most vividly. When they are alive, we reach for them; when they die, some part of us follows after them. My father believed in cycles--the wheel of birth, and life, and death, constantly turning. My hand was tiny when he held it in his and led me to a blackened field weeks after a fire had burned part of our ranch. He showed me green shoots peeking out of the ashes. New life. I let go of his hand for too long, pushed it away, before finally grasping it again, trusting that even in his dying, I would find new life.