Alzheimer’s, Throwback Cans and What My Father Taught Me About Football

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To celebrate Father’s Day, Jeans & Ties is presenting essays from men at different stages of dad-dom. Today, it’s Stuart Burkhalter, a lawyer and budding author in Nashville, Tenn

My dad is a Vanderbilt fan. He always has been but, like many, he gave up on the football program a long time ago, before I was even paying attention to what I was watching. That does not mean he was not deeply annoyed that I was a die-hard University of Tennessee fan through most of my adolescence, because he certainly was, but he simply had refused to follow Vandy’s football team after so many decades of incompetence. In recent years, of course, the program has made what has been a remarkable resurgence and he, in turn, has slowly come around.

The author with his father (Photo courtesy Burkhalter family)

The author with his father. (Photo courtesy Burkhalter family)

My father was an ophthalmologist for more than 40 years. He retired about three years ago after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a few months before his 65th birthday. In the past three years, he has steadily declined—or, else, the first two years were a series of plateaus with periodic slides before a new, lower plateau, while the past year has been the steady decline. I have been told that many Alzheimer’s sufferers go off a cliff, so my family has been, in some way, blessed.

What this means, practically, is that for the past three years, we have had some time available with him. It can be tough, of course, to continually be in a position of self-consciously trying to appreciate a time or an event or a person. To so often be asking yourself, well, did we utilize that correctly? Did we take advantage of this event as we should have? Did we rack up some good quality time? And this isn’t necessarily my father at the same level that he was 5 or 10 years ago, so it isn’t exactly as if we’ve been granted a magical opportunity to spend a few last days with the man who once was. But we certainly, as best we can, try to make the most of it.

Thus, when he mentioned in late 2013 that he wanted to attend the BBVA Compass Bowl, in Birmingham, on Jan. 4, 2014, to see Vanderbilt play Houston, my ears perked up. It was a Saturday game, at noon, only about two and a half hours from Nashville. I knew my brother-in-law would more than likely go and I thought it could be a good, quick little road trip. Plus, frankly, it would be a way to contribute just a little bit and take my dad off my mom’s hands for the day.

In the past few years dealing with this disease, my father’s traditional eagerness for attending sporting events—usually Tennessee Titans games or Vanderbilt basketball games—has not abated. It has become apparent recently, however, that he isn’t necessarily following the action all that closely and the length of the game seems to affect him more and more. He has expressed to me after a few of these, with a laugh, that he simply “didn’t know what was going on.” In some of these situations, I could see where he was coming from.

Thus, on a sunny January morning, my Dad, my brother-in-law Eric, and I made good time down from Nashville to Legion Field. It’s a straight shot down Interstate 65 to an exit in what appears to be the heart of downtown Birmingham. The exit funnels you onto a street, which runs directly into the stadium. Before you get there, though, you stop and start in traffic through a series of boarded-up homes, discount stores and housing projects.

We secured parking in an empty patch of grass next to a Family Dollar from a man who did not appear to actually be a parking attendant. He looked us over a suspiciously long time—I was thinking, Come on, man, how do we look any different than any other Vandy fans here: three white dudes, one with a mustache?—before he seemed to pick a number. “Twenty dollars,” he said. We then made the short walk to our destination.

Originally built in 1926, Legion Field once was widely known as the 'Football Capital of the South.' (Photo by Stuart Burkhalter)

Originally built in 1926, Legion Field once was widely known as the ‘Football Capital of the South.’ (Photo by Stuart Burkhalter)

Legion Field is an old concrete stadium that seems to be—or actually is—left over from a bygone era, and this stadium in particular makes you wonder about that era and about what that era could possibly have been thinking to consider so much concrete cutting-edge. I’m not saying the place is a Brazilian soccer stadium death trap or anything, because it isn’t. But it is a convoluted and dark concrete monstrosity that just doesn’t seem conducive to accommodating large numbers of seething throngs.

When we arrived an hour before kickoff, the place was bustling and crowded. Eric had purchased tickets for pretty cheap from a scalper on the sidewalk and the man kept assuring him the tickets were good. (We were self-righteous and skeptical.) We weren’t sure where to go, though, and Legion Field was not providing us any comprehensible directions. Eric and I were very conscious of the situation, and, thus, I made sure that my father was behind me at all times. Until a few seconds later when he wasn’t.

I don’t know if I was distracted by the funnel-cake trailers or in general out of sorts in this musky building, but while traversing the crowd, in an instant, I turned around and couldn’t find my dad … or, for that matter, Eric. I raced around the corner ahead of me and spotted Eric a good distance away plunging headlong with the crowd and about to make a pivotal decision regarding which arch to pass under to reach the field and I shouted him back. We regrouped and retraced our steps, but could not locate my dad in his old, puffy blue parka anywhere.

“He, honestly, just disappeared,” I said, “I turned my back and he was gone.”

miller-lite-2Legion Field is kind of a strange place. If you take a moment and glance around at the completely unintuitive layout and concrete walkways leading off at random intervals in random directions, you can imagine that it would not be too terribly difficult to make a few wrong turns and end up in a dungeon. Plus, not only does Legion Field seem like a stadium plucked from time that has not had a significant upgrade of any kind since back in the day when trailers provided the primary food source, but also right around this time Miller Lite introduced its “throwback” can—the old-school, white can with “Lite” emblazoned in blue on the side. I had not seen these throwback cans before and had not heard about this particular marketing campaign whatsoever. Instead, when traversing through the stadium, I started to notice older African-American gentlemen, pulling wheelbarrows full of Miller Lites from what looked like 1985. I was flummoxed. This place really had been lost in time—they still had beers from 30 years ago!

Luckily, my Dad had his phone and answered. He said he was walking up some type of ramp. I told him to walk back down the ramp. We eventually reunited.

We found our seats on the Houston side. Then-Vanderbilt coach James Franklin had pushed the harder core Vandy fans to travel early and en masse and, thus, the other side of the stadium was packed to the gills with black and gold. Houston only filled up about a 1/3 of the opposing side, so we settled in, somewhere around the 50-yard line, on about the eighth row. Pretty good seats, indeed.

Alzheimer’s is an awful disease. One of the worst things it does is force everyone else involved to get used to it. With us, at least, it hasn’t moved fast; it’s taken its time. Thus, you get way too familiar with whom your loved one becomes. It’s not as shocking and acute and tragic as some other deaths—he isn’t preserved in youth and he isn’t there and coherent for the majority of the time as he goes down. Instead, my father’s sons and daughters and wife and others simply get used to the fact that he needs to be watched after, pretty much just like my toddler does, and, among many, many other worse things, that he might not really know what is going on in a football game. You maybe start to forget what he was like before this happened or you wonder now and again if you were ever even paying attention earlier when he was himself.

The game began. The seats eventually filled in around us with young VU alumni, mostly drunk. I don’t have a terribly clear recollection of what happened during the early quarters. I do remember that Commodores receiver Jordan Matthews was unstoppable. Vandy was rolling. At one point, I took my dad and we walked up what seemed like precipitously high and not necessarily uniformly stable steps, to get a Chick-Fil-A sandwich. I remember when my dad had taken my older sister, brother, and me to Fulton County Stadium to see the Braves play years ago, in the Deion Sanders/David Justice era, and how our seats were the second from the top and, while walking up the steps to get there, it really did seem that a moment of imbalance might send all 45 pounds of me careening through the night sky. I told him about that as we waited in line. We laughed and made conversation about other things—how inefficient this chicken sandwich distribution was, for instance.

Jordan Matthews dominated the day for the 'Dores with 143 yards and two TDs. (Stacey Revere/Getty Images)

Jordan Matthews dominated the day for the ‘Dores with 143 yards and two touchdowns. (Stacey Revere/Getty Images)

The game was long, abnormally so. I guess it was the fact that it was a bowl game, but the first half lasted more than two hours and, in particular, the early commercial breaks were borderline unreasonable. My father commented on it and I agreed. Vandy was blowing them out at this point.

At halftime, the bands performed. My dad made a joke about the Houston band’s hats, said he wanted to get himself one. The Houston band had a male baton twirler. Some camaraderie with strangers in our section manifested itself based on the existence of this baton-twirler. We laughed. I felt for him, but you had to figure this guy must have some thick skin already if he was a male baton-twirler, in Texas.

After halftime, our half of the stadium was covered in shadow. The temperature had been pleasant at first, in the sun; now, it was getting chilly and it was becoming apparent that my Dad was a little worn out.

At one point, a happy, good-looking couple came and sat down near us. They smiled. Not long after they sat down, my dad decided to strike up a conversation. This was not something he ever did before, with strangers. He pointed at the scoreboard and said something to them along the lines of, “I want to take that and just get it out of here. Just throw it out of here.” They looked confused. I actually knew what he meant, although, of course, it wasn’t terribly clear. He was noting that he wished the game had been moving along more quickly because, when he looked up at the scoreboard and noticed that it was still in the third quarter, with about eight minutes to play, he doubted that this was possibly true, because the game had been going on for so long, and, thus, he wanted to, you know, toss the scoreboard aside and find the real one that showed, perhaps, only two minutes to play in the third.  I don’t know if it was the South Park in me, but I chose to laugh at this interaction. Not laughing at anyone, of course, just laughing at what these people must possibly be thinking. I stepped in and gave a wave and tried a “Yes, the game has certainly been going on awhile,” and brought him back over.

A little bit later, a rowdy fella wearing an old-fashioned, gold VU helmet, a bomber jacket, and hipster glasses ambled by and struck up a conversation. I told him my dad had been to every Vandy bowl game except one. He interrupted me before I said “one” and then went off on a tear about a man he had met earlier who had played in the 1955 Gator Bowl game—the one my dad had not gone to—and about all the details of that team. This guy looked to be in his mid-thirties, maybe just a little older than me, but he knew his Vandy football. I tried to keep my dad on point with the conversation and things progressed pretty well. He eventually gave us both fist bumps and went back out into the crowd.

At this point, it was definitely uncomfortably chilled on our side of the stadium. Vandy’s lead had dwindled and Houston was making a pretty substantial run. The crowd next to us was getting loud. Eventually, at a moment unconnected to anything that was taking place on the field, my father stood up, expressed anger and frustration, said he was going and walked away. Eric and I were shocked as, although I had noticed my father having some discomfort, I was not expecting a sudden bailout. I scampered down after him and got him to stop. We stood at the bottom of the stands at track level, below some of the Houston fans. I couldn’t really see anything that was happening in the game, over the Houston bench, but the Houston crowd kept periodically erupting.

The author holding his newborn daughter, with his father nearby, TK. (Photo courtesy Burkhalter family)

The author holding his newborn daughter, with his father nearby, in January 2013. (Photo courtesy Burkhalter family)

I asked him if he was OK. He did not directly engage me in conversation, but he expressed frustration and said he was, essentially, sick of all of this. I asked him if he wanted to get something to eat, if he wanted to move seats, if he wanted to leave. He didn’t really answer and we stood where we were. I tried to catch glimpses of the game more than anything, I guess, just to act like I was doing something other than standing aimlessly in this blind spot. Eventually, he renewed his expression of frustration. I flagged Eric over. We walked to the end zone area and tried to get in the sun. It was pretty crowded down there, though, and it was clear he had long since hit a breaking point.

With a few minutes to go in the third, we left. Outside, in the sun, out of the shadows of the stadium, things felt better. We started to warm up almost immediately as we made the way back to the car. The Family Dollar lot was packed as tight as it could have been and my sedan barely slipped out between the ends of two trucks. We went to Dreamland Bar-B-Que and watched the rest of the game. Vandy weathered the Houston onslaught and looked like they were finishing up things. We had a beer.

dreamlandAt one point, after my dad had eaten and things were more stable, he noted something along the lines of, “Are they all just going to sit out there in the cold all day, just watching those people run into each other again and again?” I laughed and said, “Well, basically, yeah.”

We tried to pick up one of the NFL playoff games on Eric’s phone on the ride home but had some technical difficulties. It was a smooth drive back otherwise. We dropped off my dad, and, in the end, he expressed appreciation. He did seem to have enjoyed himself, despite the long day.

I know, at least for this coming fall, my dad is going to be geared up and ready to go to Titans’ games when they roll around, and I imagine if Vanderbilt makes a bowl this coming season, he’ll probably be up for that too. I know we’ll keep taking him to these games and we’ll leave early if we have to, but we’ll keep taking him until he can’t go anymore. After that, we’ll probably just go and watch the games with him on TV and tell him what happens. And after that, well, I trust that we’ll just keep doing that until the end.

Stuart A. Burkhalter is the author of Catawampus: The Fertility Process from a Man’s Perspective, available at StuartBurkhalter.com and bookstores in Nashville, Tenn. Stuart is an attorney and lives and works in Nashville with his family.  

More J&T: Micah Whitson’s What a Father Knows || John Popham’s Questions for a Father

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