Back when my dad could still use a computer, could still write a coherent sentence, back when he remembered who I was, he sent me an email:
This “forgets” situation is now something I can laugh about, although I usually forget why I was laughing. I think I don’t even recall who you are and why I’m writing this. Now I have something else to think about!
Me, I think.
It’s amazing to me that he managed to find humor in the face of his dementia. If this had been happening to me, I’d be languishing on the couch, hair unwashed, legs unshaven, one hand poised on the phone to Kevorkian even before I got the final diagnosis.
My parents came up to visit me in Oregon the last winter of my dad’s life. He arrived at the airport gate in a wheelchair because it was just too much work for my mom to carry everything, walk so slowly with him, handle it all. She’d always loved traveling, and she used to come off the plane exuding excitement and anticipation; now she got off the plane looking sad and exhausted and angry at my dad.
“And I didn’t trust his breakfast choices ever since I had seen what he made himself: half a bagel with cream cheese and jelly, topped with all his cardiac medications, sprinkled with M&Ms to cut the bitter taste of the meds.”
I got up early the next day with him to make breakfast and get him settled. He assured me that he was capable of doing this himself and that I shouldn’t get up just to take care of him, but I couldn’t sleep late even if I wanted to. My brain was on high alert, like when I had newborn babies. And I didn’t trust his breakfast choices ever since I had seen what he made himself: half a bagel with cream cheese and jelly, topped with all his cardiac medications, sprinkled with M&Ms to cut the bitter taste of the meds.
My dad had been thinking about writing a new play and wanted to get to work on it while they were visiting. This one, he said, would be about the upcoming Democratic primary elections. He was tickled at the thought that nearly all the Democratic candidates in 2004 had some sort of tie to being Jewish, and felt inspired to have Kerry, Clark, Edwards, and, of course, Lieberman sing in Yiddish in this new play. His thoughts were garbled as he attempted to tell me about his ideas but the old fire was burning within him. My dad has written over twenty plays in his lifetime, brilliant political musical revues, but the last few plays were tired and formulaic, and I think that people came to see them more out of a sense of nostalgia and love for him than out of excitement at the content.
That he wanted to embark upon a new one worried me, anxious that he’d embarrass himself, but I figured it was the process of thinking about the play and writing it that was important—who cared if it was ever finished or performed?
I set him up at my computer and offered to do the typing so he could just dictate some ideas. He sat back and began talking. When I asked questions or offered feedback it frustrated and embarrassed him so I just let him talk and I tried my best to copy his words verbatim. My notes say things like, “if in the end never high and grandmothers with their children” and “You see it’s Nancy Pelosi nonetheless of the and it’s all upstairs.”
I felt sick listening to him. This was my dad, the man who had written lyrics like, “… super-callous, semi-fascist, right-wing legislation …”, the man who rewrote The Mikado to portray Nixon’s trip to China and titled it The Maokado, the person who taught me to use the words “podia” and “auditoria” and “stadia” to describe the plural of podium and auditorium and stadium. Later that afternoon he asked me to set him up at the computer. I hedged but he insisted. He had no recollection of that morning’s problems.
About an hour later he came upstairs and handed me a sheet of paper.
“Just a little something, I don’t know, just an idea in my head.” He had written something. And he’d figured out how to print it as well.
“Another Rise of the Memory Items,” it read. “It’s amazing how I can think back things that I have known years ago, before the loss of memory, and now, can easily recognize what it is I am recalling so easily. This time it began in my sleep, when I thought that I had ‘again’ stamped upon a crowning black insect which had just find its way into our bathroom, so I followed usual ‘action’ and ‘stumped’ upon it before it could get away.
I thought nothing of the action, until something struck me as being ‘wrong’. Almost at once, I remembered a well known writer and teacher in Africa, whose name I can’t recall, but I do remember his explication, which called us all “not to kill any living thing”. I recall feeling such an idea as “foolish” and not realistic. Nonetheless, I went ahead and struck the insect, as we always did, and tried not to think any more about its “fall”. The trouble though, is that I surrounded with ‘flying’ insects which always try to join me with my lunch sandwich. It sometimes gets so bad that I have to leave the room and eat alone in the bathroom. I would like to ask that ‘insect writer’ how does he eat his meals in that room he is in. I don’t mean to ridicule such a famous person but I still have to think hard when I sit down to eat, thinking ‘now what is it I should set aside for those insects’ but always hurry up before any of them can get to it. I have to eat also, you know.”
I didn’t want to let Dad see me cry as I read it so I’d excused myself and taken it to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, reading and sniffling. At first I cried because my dad was really gone, my real dad, the one who would be mortified at knowing he wrote this simple story. Then I cried because I saw an innocent beauty in his words. My dad, my real Dad, would not have been caught dead thinking about—much less writing about—saving the life of an insect. He would have stamped on the cockroach and flung it into the garbage without a thought, perhaps even enjoying a testosterone warrior moment of superiority.
Dementia had left a small consolation prize in place of all it had stolen. Dementia had unleashed the unspoken vulnerable emotions that were not allowed a man whose parents had abandoned him at three years old, a man who was a drill sergeant in the Army, an office-going, suit-wearing suburban husband in the 1950s. Dementia had allowed him to consider the life of a cockroach.
Christmas Eve fell on the last night of their visit that year. My plan for that evening was to stay home and rent a movie (this being my plan for every night of their visit, and of my life); my mom wanted to go out and experience the Christmas spirit. So we left him at home with my husband and the kids, and Mom and I walked to the corner church for Christmas Eve services.
We got to the church early and took a seat on the aisle. My mom looked around and smiled at people, chatting, observing; I kept my head down and studied the program as if it contained the secret to the immaculate conception. I hated the way I looked in the sweater I was wearing, I hated my hair and my throat was a little sore. I just wanted to go home.
Of course I knew all the songs the choir sang; you can’t grow up Jewish in the San Fernando Valley in the ’50s and not know every Christmas song there is. My mom sang out with abandon. I cringed, not wanting her to call attention to us. But as I sat next to her, listening to her voice, I suddenly saw how utterly beautiful she was, how full of life she was. I sat up a little straighter even though my sweater was too tight and my fat didn’t show as much if I slouched. I looked at my beautiful mom who was finally getting some respite from my dad, and I sang louder.
The ushers made their way down the pews carrying baskets. People were reaching into their pockets and purses. Uh-oh. I nudged Mom. She started feeling around in her coat pocket. Any money, if it was there at all, was buried beneath old tissues, Ricola lozenges, Pottery Barn receipts, raisins, buttons, and other lucre, each of which she pondered and carefully examined. Sweat began to form on my upper lip when the ushers were only three rows from us. My mom laughed, her lap overflowing with the contents of her pockets.
I knew what happened when my mom laughed because lately, it’s been happening a little to me, too. A touch of stress incontinence, which on that night, of course, made us laugh even harder. The closer the ushers came, the harder we laughed, and the more we peed on their pews. This was not going to be good for Jewish-Lutheran relations.
Finally, my mom pulled out a bill. A fifty.
Um, no. The fifty went back onto her lap.
And then, a Christmas miracle! My mom found a twenty-dollar bill in her other pocket. “I knew I put something in this one,” she whispered to me, and she gave me The Look. The look that said, see, you always worry so much for nothing. Story of my life.
We walked home in the rain, sharing an umbrella and sucking on the last two Ricolas from her pocket. When we got home my dad was on the sofa, asleep in front of a roaring fire. I sat down at his feet.
“Go to bed,” I told my mom. “I’ll sleep here in the den and watch Dad. You’ll have the bed all to yourself.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I’ll wake him in few minutes and put him in bed. He’ll be more comfortable there.” She stretched out on the other sofa and watched the fire. “You go to bed,” she told me, “I’m fine.”
“Why don’t you let me do something for you?” I asked. “Give yourself a break.”
We argued quietly for a few minutes until my dad opened one eye.
“Are you fighting over me?” he asked with a big smile.
“Yeah, dad,” I whispered to him. “Lucky you.”
“I am lucky,” he said, closing his eyes again. “I am the luckiest in the world …”
I looked over at my mom, to see if she was smiling. She was already asleep. I put another log on the fire and I watched over the two of them—my mom and dad—until the bells from the church starting ringing at midnight and the fire burned down to glowing embers.
“I am lucky,” he said, closing his eyes again. “I am the luckiest in the world …”