Before dementia takes everything from my best friend, I want him to know how much he has meant to me
By Ryan French
My dad wants to die.
Most days there are tears as he battles depression. He talks about suicide. It has gotten so bad that my mom has had to take him to the hospital, not sure what else to do. This is the worst stage of dementia, and it is something with which my dad is all too familiar. He watched his parents and brother fight this debilitating disease. He knows he has dementia, and in his few moments of clarity, he knows he can’t do many of life’s simple things, such as getting dressed or making a meal. He promised himself he would never live like this.
Howard French was born on May 14, 1945, to Bob and Annette. His dad was orphaned at age 13 and dropped out of school in the 8th grade but found success in the cement block business. His mom worked at the local sporting goods store. (Our daughter is named after her.) They had three other children (two passed away before their first birthday) and Dan, who was six years older. Dan was always in trouble, so my dad was the “perfect” kid.
My grandfather introduced him to golf. They played at the same club, Alpena Golf Club, where Dad and I would play thousands of times. My dad was a solid player, but basketball was his game. He was a star. As a high school junior, he averaged nearly 30 points a game, and that team is still the only one in school history to go undefeated in the regular season.
He started dating my mother, Ginny, during his junior year. My mom asked him to a dance. He accepted. They never broke up. Next Friday, my wife, Steph, will cook them dinner on their 55th wedding anniversary. “I am happy to take care of him,” my mom always says to me when I call to check in.
Dad played basketball for the freshman team at Michigan State. Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back then, and he would have been on the roster the following year had he not quit to concentrate on his academics. My grandfather never forgave him for that, reminding him often throughout his life. But Dad started to play golf more regularly again. He fell in love with the game.
After graduation, he took a job with Mobil Oil, and in 1977 he accepted a position back in his hometown as the CEO of a small company named NEMROC, which ran a sawmill, among other things. The non-profit was a fantastic place, employing many people with physical disabilities and special needs. My dad was CEO there for 35 years, turning down better-paying jobs as he continued to build his vision at NEMROC.
After my parents joined a country club, Dad’s game took off. When my older brother was born, he stopped playing as much, but when Scott started showing interest in the game, Dad started back up. He played around scratch for years and won the club championship.
The muni my dad played as a kid was behind our backyard. Dad let me tag along with him a few times as a kid, and I’m told I took to the game quickly. My first memory of golf is Monday morning junior days in the summertime. Dad would drop me off on his way to work. The other kids and I would hit buckets at the range and then go out and play four holes. Then there were chipping and putting contests. As soon as Dad got home from work, we would discuss the day.
Soon after, Dad and I started playing nine holes together. He would rush home after work, and we would head out of our backyard for a quick nine. We recorded every score on a piece of paper on the back of the basement door, adding highlights of my round.
I took for granted the dedication it took for him to leave work as often as he did to play golf with me. Rarely does a company CEO leave at 5 o’clock for a quick nine with his son. The record of our rounds on the back of the basement door shows he did it about four times a week for almost 10 years. I’m sure he left unfinished work on countless occasions. He rarely played golf with others, giving up his regular games to squeeze in another round with me.
As I got better, we started playing for a McDonald’s sundae. He hated to lose and never let me win in anything: checkers, a race around the house and especially golf. My mom hated that. I would storm up to my room after blowing another three-stroke lead and listen to my parents argue about letting me win. I am so glad he didn’t relent. “Life isn’t going to give you anything, son,” he would say as he repeatedly made me hole an 18-inch par putt.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the things I learned during those rounds had little to do with golf. Dad taught me about life. The discussions weren’t always easy. More than once we didn’t say a word during our return home. During my junior year of high school, I let my grades dip badly. I had a girlfriend and couldn’t have cared less about algebra. Our rounds that spring featured a lot of lectures, Dad stressing the importance of school and a good education.
He taught me simple things, like how to shake hands with each person we played with, how to win and lose correctly, and etiquette. There was also heavy stuff, including when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We played golf on the day we moved her into a nursing home. It was always our escape.
Dad rarely missed a tournament of mine, but if he did, we would go over the round shot by shot later that night. He always asked me what I could have done better.
When I was 17, I won the city championship with him on the bag. We hugged after I made the putt to win, and my mom was crying. I have thought about that moment a lot since Dad got sick. It was extraordinary, and I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have.
He wasn’t perfect. His temper was legendary. He was hard on himself, often lamenting that he could do better at work or home. It took him a long time to forgive himself for the mistakes he made. When I left for college, he stopped playing. I know he missed our rounds, but it was proof he didn’t love the game as much as he loved playing with me.
The caddie trips soon followed. I was old enough to appreciate the experiences a bit more, and Dad never passed up an opportunity to talk to me about life. Trips to Canada, North Carolina, Florida and numerous other places were among the best times I’ve spent with my dad. One of our last trips came soon after I met Stephanie. For the first time in years, I was truly happy, and Dad was so happy for me. We talked a lot about her. In five months Steph and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.
When I was on Ryan Yip’s bag for his victory on the Canadian Tour, Dad was jumping around as if I had won. He was so proud of me. We laughed more than I remember ever laughing together during those trips. We usually camped, but I recall one time when we stayed in a hotel. Dad, who is notoriously cheap, booked the reservation. The room was horrible. We laid on mattresses that I’m sure were crawling with bed bugs and laughed about how ridiculous it all was. One time after the final round in Canada, a thunderstorm blew through during our drive home. The power was out almost everywhere, and I had to go to the bathroom…badly. We would pull off at a highway exit only to find the gas station or restaurant closed because of the power outage. My dad took great joy in my misery. The stories go on and on.
This story has a sad ending, but it is by no means a sad story. Don’t feel sorry for our family or me. I’m 44 now, and my dad was in perfect health for 42 of those. I have experienced things with him that other children would give anything to share with their dad.
Around Christmas in 2019, Dad had a stroke. He recovered, but it has been downhill ever since. The dementia started soon after. The disease has been part of our family. My grandmother lived almost 15 years in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. My grandfather too, toward the end of his life. My Uncle Dan got dementia at 55.
After his brother died in 2005, Dad made a pact with his best friend, Bill. If either one got dementia, the two would go deer hunting together, and only one would return. Watching your almost 60-year-old brother have his diaper changed leads friends to make pacts like that. Dad is well aware of the burden that falls on the family. He doesn’t want that for my mom or any of us.
The dementia started slowly but has progressed quickly. And his depression rapidly grew deeper. If he couldn’t button his shirt in the morning, the rest of the day was ruined. He is a proud man, and he doesn’t want to live like this. In the rare moments of clarity, anxiety grips him. He worries about what my mom will do when he is gone.
Dementia makes your circle smaller and smaller. My parents used to visit once a month, but that stopped long ago. My family and I Facetime with them three or four times a week, but Dad rarely participates in the conversation, unable to hear or follow along. He can’t read anymore, so my mom reads my articles to him. The depression gets deeper and deeper. It is the cycle of this disease.
My mom cares for him daily, never leaving his side. My two siblings and I exchange texts, often asking if anyone has heard from Mom. We know when we don’t hear from her that it has been a long day.
I remember the first time my mom told me Dad was suicidal. That hit hard, of course, but after some time to reflect, I understood. This is no way to live. My mom fights to keep him alive but also struggles with the reality that the future will only hold more of the same.
We know what’s next, but that doesn’t mean we are ready for it. We are especially appreciative of the times we have had with this man and the life he has led. That is what we focus on.
So Dad, as Mom reads this to you, I want to thank you. Thanks for introducing me to this amazing game, for giving up rounds with the guys to play with me, for driving me to all the events, for the life lessons, for the caddie trips. Thanks for being the reason behind the career I am carving out. Thank you for all of it. I love you.
Listen below for more on Ryan’s story and how it led him to the Fire Pit Collective