Remembering Opa

Jeff’s dad Bob Waites passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 80. Bob was a high school coach, gym teacher, and lifelong athlete. After retiring from working in the public school system, he ran his own landscaping business - the recliner was never his style. Bob regularly beat runners and opponents half his age at tennis well into his seventies - and he didn’t even brag. He was deeply spiritual, kind-spirited, and hard-working - a great man.

Bob grew up working on his family farm in rural Georgia, and was a star on his high school football team. He got a football scholarship to Florida State only to blow out his knee during the first season. Happily though, he transferred to a small school in Tennessee, where he met and married his college sweetheart Marilyn. He enlisted in the army after college, did a tour of service with Marilyn in Germany, then moved to Roswell, Georgia. There, they raised three delightful children - Wendy, Phil, then my Jeff – who in turn all had kids of their own.

I knew Opa in his grandfather phase, and we would visit once or twice a year from Chapel Hill, then later from Maine. He used to delight the kids by driving them around in his big landscaping truck, and would always be up for round of ping-pong or horseplay. No questions asked.

Several years ago, Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s- which I've come to understand as a cruel mirror image of autism. Jeff coined the term Autheimer’s to capture this bitter paradox, for while autism rises, full of hope and plans and potential, Alzheimer’s recedes, suffers, regresses. Our son was building skills around safety, communication, emotional awareness, physical coordination, and executive functioning, while these very same skills were slowly vanishing from his father visit by visit.

But there was this sort of golden moment a couple of years ago - where Roman’s social anxiety made it hard for him to connect with most people, and Bob’s speech was declining - when they just bonded. They could enter a room from opposite doors, share a wordless look, and it was GO TIME. They'd meet up like prize fighters in the middle of the ring and wrestle each other to the ground. It was beautiful.

I always picture Opa outside, fit, handsome and well tanned, with coach shorts on. Here he is in better years with Roman, at our favorite spot on Macworth Island, Maine, before the thought of Autheimer's ever crossed our minds.


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