A cherished photo that comes to life

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

My father, who would have been 94 this year, never claimed to be photogenic. Of the photos of him that dot family albums, it appears mostly that he would much rather have been anywhere but within the reach of a camera lens.

So, when he passed away several years ago, it was somewhat difficult to find a photo of him that could be treasured in the days to come. In other words, the paparazzi would have starved if they had been forced to live on flattering shots of my dad.

Still, thanks to one of my sisters, there are now several framed photos of my father that have found rightful places on my den wall. One is of him with Walter Brennan, the Oscar winning actor that TV watchers of an earlier generation remember as the beloved and folksy patriarch of “The Real McCoys.”

The other, an even better shot, is of my dad with James Garner, a strikingly handsome actor who gained TV fame in “Maverick” and “The Rockford Files.”

The photos were from my father’s days in the early 1960s with WXYZ-TV in Detroit, where he worked in marketing and public relations. His job put him in regular touch with local and national TV celebrities, including the likes of Dick Clark, Pat Boone, and Soupy Sales, the comedian who pioneered the pie in the face routine.

Yet, it is the photo of my father with James Garner that I most enjoy, best capturing his warm, friendly, and engaging ways that forever marked his personality. It came into clearer focus this week after I saw Garner in the award-winning movie, “The Notebook,” a 2004 film in which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Of course, by the time of the movie’s release nearly a decade ago, Garner had aged considerably since his prime-time TV days. He no longer cast the rugged, handsome presence that had a tendency to make women swoon. Instead, he possessed a balding, portly, and bespectacled look that was befitting of a man in the twilight of his life.
The movie, which is based on a book by Nicholas Sparks, revolves around a young couple who fall in love during the early 1940s. The twists and turns of their relationship are told in present day terms by an elderly gentleman played by Garner. He tells the tale to a fellow nursing home resident, later revealed as his wife, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

That, as they say, is when the plot thickened, particularly as it showed the debilitating effects of the disease and the impact it has on loved ones and caregivers. It’s a scene that I remember all to well from the final years of my father’s life, as he was reduced to a shell of himself by a disease that has become almost synonymous with old age.

In his case, there was not a happy Hollywood ending to the story. Instead, it was one written in profound sadness and heartbreak, of time lost and wonderful memories obscured. It was a real-life journey that none of us saw coming when he was diagnosed with the disease three years before his death.

Curiously, I remember well watching a TV news story some 30 years earlier with my dad. It described, in graphic and no-uncertain terms, a disease with a funny sounding name that was just beginning to creep into the modern day lexicon of serial killers. By the end of the news segment, which was told through the eyes of a man providing round-the-clock care for his Alzheimer’s stricken wife, my dad and I were noticeably silent, both wiping away tears from hearing a grief-filled story.

Years later, when the dreaded word came back into his life, this time for real, my dad knew there would be no reprieve. He wrote as much in one of his final newspaper columns before he could no longer work his magic on a keyboard.

“Call it dementia, the initial stage, or skip to Alzheimer’s, the final chapter, and it’s all the same: No cure; the situation will not improve; there is no recovery; and we who are afflicted are on a downhill course with no safety net,” he wrote.

“This column,” he explained to his regular readers, “was put on hold a year or so ago after nearly 50 years of gracing the pages of newspapers throughout several Midwestern states. My excuse for all who wondered and inquired was that I was tired and perhaps the well had run dry.

“That was only part of the story,” he noted. “Fact was that I was having experiences that I didn’t understand which bothered me more than I cared to admit. If I appear to be using all this as some kind of silly game, I’m not. I’m as upset as the next. It’s just that I’m older than most and it’s more difficult for me to cry.”

Those tears would later be shed by his four children and five grandchildren, each of whom longing for the truer picture of a man gone by.

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