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Good game of cards is just a memory

By BILL STEVENS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

My dad has always been humble and shy, but for years he would proudly point to the trophy he won as the United States' champion bridge player.

Okay, so it was the SS United States, not the whole country, but still a big deal. On a voyage from Le Havre, France, to New York in October 1965, Arthur G. Stevens demonstrated to some pretty good card sharks something his family had known for years: When it came to counting cards, he had a photographic memory.

His brilliance went beyond the world of black and red, kings and queens. You could throw him any kind of mathematic quiz and he would provide the correct answer in a matter of minutes -- without a pencil. He didn't need a calculator. He was one.

Such talent might have served him well at Las Vegas casinos, but Dad didn't gamble. He bought savings bonds rather than stocks. He limited long distance phone calls to three minutes and followed his kids around the house turning off the lights. Frugal and conservative, he remembered what it was like to be dirt poor, to sell newspapers for a penny profit on each so he could help his mother put food on the table.

Don't count on someone taking care of you when you get old, he warned. Save your money.

Last week my brother moved him into a nursing home, one with a secure lockdown so he wouldn't wander off and get hurt. He's in the Alzheimer's wing, rooming with another man with severe dementia, a guy named Jim. Already the attendants at the home in San Antonio, Texas, have taken a liking to Dad. The man who answered the phone there told me how much he enjoys Dad's gentle nature and told me not to worry, they would take good care of him. When my brother told him he was going to have to move to this new home, Dad's response was typical: "I'm sure everything will work out okay."

Of course, he thinks he's in Cincinnati, his boyhood home. He repeated that to the cops when they found him lying in somebody's lawn a few weeks ago after he took a walk up one of the city's busiest streets. A boy had called to report a possible dead man.

It wasn't the first time Dad had put himself in danger, and the manager of his complex finally determined that he had to leave. They had provided meals, recreation, transportation and nursing care for several years, and they seemed to really like my dad, but he needed more advanced care.

At 87, half-blind from glaucoma and betrayed by the brain that had served him so well, my dad has lost the one thing that I fear will finish him off -- freedom. Those little forgetful episodes and so-called "senior moments" had grown dangerous. And so here we are on Father's Day, and he doesn't have a clue. We'll probably talk, but tomorrow he won't recall. The last time on the phone, he told me he had a wife named Delores. "Do you know her?" My mother, his wife of 45 years, died in 1987.

Hard to say what caused Dad's dementia, although we figure the wounds he suffered on a battlefield in the Philippines in 1945 had something to do with it. He has carried around enough shrapnel in his head since then to set off airport security alarms, and doctors at Walter Reed Hospital once mistook the lead for a large brain tumor.

Whatever the cause, the systematic disintegration of his memory banks has been occasionally frightening and consistently heartbreaking. We feel helpless from a distance, yet grateful that my brother has accepted difficult duty without complaint -- and for Dad's careful financial planning that enables him to get professional care rather than moving into one of his children's homes. It is an unfair ending for a good man who served his country, family and God well.

Today, I expect my wife and daughters will make a fuss over me. Nobody will object that I spend hours on my backside watching the U.S. Open. There will be no yard work or clothes to fold, only a steak and some green bottles from Amsterdam.

I'd trade it for a chance to have Dad give me one of his thumpings in canasta or hearts. Sadly, those are only memories now, and we know how fleeting they can be.

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