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Cathy Free: Split pea soup with Dad was treasured time

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The last time we had lunch, I brought him his usual favorite: split pea soup and bread sticks. He was waiting in the doorway to greet me when I walked down the stairs.

"You're Cathy, aren't you?" he said, giving me a long, curious look. "Are you the writer?"

"Yes, Dad, that's me."

We sat quietly at the table that day, spooning soup into our mouths, happy in the moment. Later, as I watched him nap in his recliner, I knew somehow that we'd had our last meal together.

He's been gone about a month now, but the memory of that afternoon will always seem lustrous and new. So I hope you won't mind if I digress from my column's usual format this week to write about the person I'd love to lunch with again.

If any of you have watched a loved one with dementia slowly fade away, then you know how much a simple thing like sipping soup together can matter when the long goodbye is finally over. Perhaps like me, you find yourself remembering a particular song or a silly phrase, something to evoke memories of the person you loved before an unpredictable disease turned him into a stranger.

My thoughts slipped back to the pleasant lunch hours I'd shared with my father over the years, from childhood grilled cheese sandwiches and split pea soup (his specialty) to birthday celebrations and quick "catch-me-ups" at the Chinese cafe near his insurance office. Our conversations were always lively, full of laughs, in spite of our contrary personalities.

Then one day, things took a turn.

I stopped by my father's office on a spring afternoon and found him staring into space. We learned later he hadn't been functioning well at his job for several months, but felt duty-bound to take the bus to work each morning.

When I entered his office, my dad slowly rose and extended his hand. "Don Frei," he said (I spell my last name differently than he did), as though I were a business client instead of his daughter. I numbly stood as Dad turned to a photograph of him and my stepmother, Suzie. "We're at Iguazu Falls in Brazil," he said. "Have you ever been there?"

In time, I learned to get used to his memory lapses. At family get-togethers, Dad left the chicken too long on the grill, and at restaurants, he couldn't remember what he'd ordered.

"I'll have a lemonade," he'd say, then when it came: "What's this? I didn't order lemonade." The waiter would quickly take it away. Seconds later, Dad would ask, "Where's my lemonade?"

We laughed, but of course, we hurt inside. Our bright, witty father had become a cranky person we didn't recognize.

Still, even on the darkest days, there were glimmers of the tender man who gave his all to his family, never expecting much for himself. "Bye, Dad," I told him last month, hugging him in his recliner. "Love you." He opened his pale blue eyes and squeezed my arm. "Cathy? I love you, too."

A few days after his death, I found a loving letter my dad had written me more than 30 years ago, when I was entering my teen years. I'd forgotten I'd kept it. How did it end up on my basement floor?

I'm pretty certain there's a man with a love for split pea soup who knows how it got there.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.