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Memories that can't be erased
June 14th, 2014
09:05 PM ET

Memories that can't be erased

By CNN's Susan Garraty

He needed permission from his parents, and they would not give it to him. Always a distinguished scholar, he skipped a grade in elementary school so he turned seventeen his senior year of high school in 1942. For months he pestered his father and the answer was the same: wait and go to college – you’re too young.

image 6The radio crackled with reports that the war was not going well, and John Robert Falvella wanted to fight. Academics were not his only forte, outstanding under the rim and at the free throw line, he received a scholarship to basketball powerhouse, Manhattan College in the Bronx. In October of 1942, still shy of his 18th birthday, his mother and father relented college would wait; he became a Marine.

My dad fought in the Pacific. Decades later, he told his three kids that he didn’t “do much” in the war. It wasn’t till at his wake that we found out he was a hero. See, we all always wondered why a man with a career in labor relations was obsessed about the clouds in the sky. He taught and tested us about Cumulus, Cirrus, Nimbostratus. We just considered our dad a weather geek.

image 5Out in the Pacific, only men without wives or children were asked to volunteer for what became his job. As covertly as possible, his team on a small boat would go and launch weather- balloons near the islands that would be targets of attacks hours later. Sending the balloon up was kind of like a message to the enemy: “hey guys, we’re over here.” He was promoted in the field to Staff Sergeant. He lived, came home, and was too old to play basketball so he refereed to stay in the game.

He was a lovely dad. The kind who teased your girlfriends, but they loved it. Rolling down the windows at stoplights next to guys in a convertible and announcing, “The young ladies in the back seat think you’re good looking.” Yeah- that kind of dad.

The fight in the Pacific turned out to be the easy part of his life. Blood transfusions for two different operations for cancer left him with hepatitis, but he fought and won. Rounding the final corner of a successful career, our strong as a bull 63 year-old dad seemed to be at a loss for words- literally. He started consulting maps on how to get to the office he had driven to for a decade. Something was wrong.

This week, the 64 year-old restaurateur, style diva, and former model, B. Smith, announced she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. Just like our dad, she could feel something wrong, but couldn’t define it; and just like our dad, she doesn’t “look” like an Alzheimer patient.

Getting Alzheimer disease in your early 60’s is rare. Only five percent of the five million Americans with Alzheimer Disease are diagnosed younger than 65.

Our dad’s final years had a nightmarish quality in part because he didn’t look or sound “sick.” Before being officially diagnosed, he abruptly retired, but for weeks he would get dressed before sunrise and arrive at his old office. We had to put keyed locks on our doors to keep him from leaving the house. His descent from executive and super dad to wearing adult diapers and the inability to recognize his family was meteoric. He died ten years after his diagnosis.

June is Alzheimer’s awareness month.

So, on this Father’s Day, remember those around you who have a dad battling this debilitating affliction. Perhaps this will be the generation that finds a cure for a disease that robs patients of their minds and families of their fathers (and of course mothers, too.)

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