Robert Kirby: The Old Man and a promise I’ll never keep

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Kirby

I was a teenager on the lam when Delbert died in Idaho at the ripe old age of 78. His son in Utah — my father — eventually located me by telephone at a friend’s house in Southern California.

After giving me the solemn news, he said my grandfather’s funeral would be in Boise on Friday. Would I be able to attend with the rest of the family?

When I declined, he demanded an explanation. I can’t remember the reason I gave but almost certainly it involved hitchhiking 900 miles to attend the funeral of a guy I barely knew, and who didn’t like me anyway.

While I was sure that some found Delbert’s death sorrowful, I remembered the conversations the Old Man and I had regarding grandpa’s eventual death being something of an overdue mercy.

Just the year before, the Old Man and I were under my car replacing an exhaust valve and discussing the fact that Delbert had finally lost his mind. The police hauled him home from a store, where he had been bagging groceries, probably in his underwear.

Dad • “Promise you won’t let me get like that. If my mind is gone, help me check out.”

Me • “OK.”

He made me swear to do it. I held up a grease-stained hand and swore an oath. My father was that terrified of meeting the same fate that his father had in his final years.

Fifty years later, my father is in a care center in South Jordan. I visit him, even though his mind is sketchy. Last week, he looked up and gruffly demanded to know who I was.

Me • “I’m your son, Robert.”

Him • “No, you’re that smarta-- in the newspaper.”

Me • “That, too.”

Him • “I want some cereal.”

The Old Man can’t remember much anymore. He doesn’t remember running the bulls with Ernest Hemingway in Spain, serving in Korea, Thailand or Vietnam, and he has no idea who his grandkids and great-grandkids are.

There are a few good moments. Occasionally he remembers that he’s still married. He asks about Mom in a distracted way but then forgets and wants some cereal.

Note: Mom has been in a separate rehab center in Draper after breaking her leg in a fall last month.

I have no intention of honoring the oath I swore that summer day under my car. Yeah, it would probably be a mercy. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are a final indignity life forces on many people.

The Old Man doesn’t recognize me, but I recognize him.

He’s the guy who raised me and kept me out of prison, even those times he dragged me down to the police station himself. He’s the guy who taught me that a real man always provides for a family. And he’s the guy who loved my mom even when she suffered emotional breakdowns later in life.

So I keep doing what he needs me to do, even though he doesn’t know what it is or even who’s doing it for him. I owe him.

I thought about making my nurse son-in-law promise to put me out of my misery when my time comes. But I’ve changed what’s left of my mind. Yesterday, I spent a full five minutes cursing and looking for the wallet I had been holding in my hand the entire time.

Can’t be much longer now.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.