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By:  Kenneth McClane (Pictured)

Republish in 2018 Summer, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Read the Press Release about this issue)

Originally published 2006 Fall, Vol. 64, No. 4

Kenneth McClaneI have put off writing this for some time, largely because it was too painful for me to write about my parents, and largely too because I was worried that my experience—which is purely that, my experience—might cause others undue consternation. In all honesty, the first reason is the most telling: Alzheimer’s disease is a horrendous aliment—it takes someone away, before the body is gone, and it diminishes that person in very small but codifiable ways. First, the loved one loses some of her vocabulary or seems stuck in the interstices of life, as if the film of one’s daily happenings were cut, and one was living in a few frames, with the rest of the narrative unfolding in the next theater, which, somehow, one can readily see. For a powerful second, the two theatres are showing the same frame, but then things devolve, the correspondences unhinge, and both theatres grow shadowy—the film is still playing, there’s even a show of delight on the loved one’s face, but it is a private, peculiar delight, as hard to imagine as the joy of a snake cut in halves, its two severed pieces struggling for a rapprochement.

The disease, most centrally, is about loss and love, both so tightly entwined, that I am reminded of a wonderful Chinese painting of a brilliant long-stemmed lily that I confronted a few years ago at the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell. Initially, the overwhelming flower seemed merely vibrant, resplendent, and triumphant. Its color was vital; its presence, incontestable. But then if one was attentive, one noticed a slight sliver of decay, like a small finger, at the bottom of the stem—one realized, that is, that beauty and destruction share the same root, that one undergirds the other. Alzheimer’s sadly, God knows, presents the decimation and even, at times, the possibility of a flower; but there is no balance, no artifice. There is no suitable metaphor.

Still, this is a far too romantic vision of Alzheimer’s, though it does convey some of my experience, even as it suggests how I was able to cope with it, putting to good use my literary skills. My father and mother both died of Alzheimer’s, and both of them, in different ways, confronted the disease. My mother succumbed first. Indeed, my mother was a perfect Alzheimer’s patient, if one can say that, since she presented all the neurological signs of the illness. At the time of my mother’s diagnoses in the 1980s, the disease could only be confirmed by an autopsy, which, of course, was of little help. There were, however, six warning signs—if the patient obsessively turned her thumbs in a counter-clockwise motion was one indicator; if the patient splayed her feet outward, as if she were chronically pigeon-toed, was another. As we used to joke, of the six indices, my mother exhibited seven. And please understand how important macabre humor became for my family, and for others with the illness, too—before the disease we used to laugh a great deal: it was lifeblood to us; after the disease, we laughed less, but we still found moments of utter hilarity. When your father, who was usually a bit tight with money, suddenly throws all of his twenties out the window—which happened to a friend of mine—what else are you to do?

If this seems rather clinical, I am writing this after ten years. When my mother first entered the nursing home, after we had exhausted every in-home possibility, she was her usual elegant self. My mother was quite beautiful—she had lovely hair, an olive complexion, and was quite svelte for someone in her eighties. In her earlier years she had a 50’s movie star figure—“full-figured” was the term then, I believe. In those days, my mother loved donuts and pies; she always had a sweet tooth, and I recall how she would always pester me to get her a jelly donut, especially if it came right out of the baker’s oven. Her new slim weight was largely a response to the disease, and one could see her ribs, poking out like small tubers. She wouldn’t eat, or she would forget to eat; and when she was told to eat, since she needed the caloric content, she couldn’t understand the concept.

Interestingly, in temperament, my mother remained largely the person she had been throughout the disease’s ravages. When someone would come to visit, she would immediately tell her how beautiful she looked and how happy she was that she had come to see her. This was her characteristic gentility—she has been born in Boston, she has attended the famous Boston Girl’s Latin School, and she was, in truth, a Black Boston aristocrat. Where she evidenced a profound departure form her strict Yankee upbringing was in her love for outlandish clothes and color, which corresponded, ultimately, to her not small success as a painter. My mother would wear wild green pants and always wanted her husband and children to jazz up their sedate clothing palate—something that my father often did, God knows, to alarming affect. In her artwork, there was always a rhapsody of invention, involving boisterous, even hysterical colors that would have astonished Hieronymus Bosch. If she was reserved in manner, her inner soul was irrepressible.

With her wonderful manners, my mother also evolved incredible coping skills. As she realized that her faculties were diminishing, she employed a brilliant ruse to keep up pretenses. When I came to visit her one day, I asked her, rather self-servingly, if she knew what my name was. Now, this is a question that almost all Alzheimer’s family members employ as an essential calculus: if the loved one remembers your name, they are still present; they still share a reality to which you can attest. But this, sadly, involves a misspent logic. Why is the inability for your mother to recall your name any less horrific than her inability to paint any longer? Or to open a carton of milk? It is all a great rupture from the previous: the person you knew before is not the person confronting you now. And yet all of us create these portent lines of demarcation—once a person has crossed this threshold, say, well, things are truly bad. Well, things are truly bad, and there’s no way around that.

And yet the need to create a personal graph of your loved one’s dissolution is natural: if death is a problem for the living, since the dead one is clearly beyond all caring, the living-in-death aspect of Alzheimer’s disease, which is how many people describe the illness, is clearly just a further embellishment of this truism. If one invests much of one’s imaginative life in understanding others—if love is, as James Baldwin suggests, the difficult apprehension by one mind of the mysteries of another’s life—then Alzheimer’s clearly tests one’s imaginative faculties. In some ways, the Alzheimer’s loved one is the ideal subject to be modeled by one’s graph; but just as one is about to make a truce with one’s conception of the disease—just as the clay is about to set and hold the likeness, if you will—the disease irrefutably breaks the cast and leaves one dimwitted.

When I asked my mother my name, she quickly answered, “You know your name, why would you ask me that?” with that practiced New England refinement that both showed her mastery of the retort, and her ability, at least here, to keep the conversation rolling. My mother didn’t have the foggiest notion who I was or what her connection was to me, of that I am certain. But she had outwitted me—and she had kept her own distress to a minimum.

As time passed, and she became more and more remote, my mother talked less and less, and my visits were more and more occupied with combing her hair and doing things for her. Others could talk to their loved one without a response; I, because I am terribly self-conscious, could only with great difficulty commune with the ether, something of which I am not very proud. It is sad when at the most intimate of times, one still feels as if one’s response is never adequate, as if one is still being judged. In truth, where there has once been her towering presence, there seemed to be increasingly my own pitiful falterings.

Still, one day, after my mother had been silent for a very long period, barely evidencing even the slightest flicker of acknowledgement, I brought her a teddy bear that I had purchased from LL Bean. It was a big red bear—with a lovely bib—and I knew that the color would arouse her, if nothing else. When I presented it to her, my mother took it, ruffled the ears, and smiled; for a second, she was returned to me. And then I, suddenly empowered, asked her, what she would name the bear, if she could call it anything.

In a shock of language, my mother replied, “I’d call the teddy bear Kenneth.”

When she said this, I was near tears. Kenneth, of course, is my name and my father’s name. For the last few months, my mother had shown no impulse to touch down with me; we had been together, but there had been no articulation on her part of our involvement; she had been as cut off from me as my brother’s desire, many years ago, to become an astronaut. “This planet is strange enough for me,” I remember telling him, rather cruelly.

Now, I pushed onward. “Mom, why do you call the bear Kenneth?” I asked her. Her eyes softened and she answered, “It’s a name I know well, and it’s a name that comforts me. Your name is Kenneth.” And then she grew quiet. She would never speak an intelligible word again.

My mother died in 1995 and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994. For one year, they both shared a room in a well-run nursing home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, although their relationship was, at least to my father, completely mystifying. Although they had been married for fifty-three years, and had raised three children, my father couldn’t understand why he was living with this woman, with the lovely face and wild clothes. On one occasion he asked me, “Who is that woman; why is she always around?” And I had to stop myself from either laughing or crying. As I recall, I told him that she was his wife and that she and he had been together for many years, which I thought my father finally understood. But a few weeks later, in a rush of energy, my father informed me that he was going to marry someone, a friend of both my parents, and start a new family. And this was just the beginning of the story’s complications.

My father had been a physician, and when he informed me that he was intending to marry Mary and begin a family, I was troubled, and not only because I had certain obligations to my mother, but because Mary was a good slice above 60 in age. Thus, her ability to have children was certainly a medical challenge, something that a younger Dr. McClane would have easily discerned. Interestingly, when confronted with the implication of having two wives, my father quickly told me that he had consulted with a lawyer, and the lawyer had told him that as long as he kept my mother with him, it would be fine to marry again. This reasoning, however opportunistic, was vintage my father. He would always try to please everyone; and no one, in his world, was ever left bereft. As a doctor, with his office in Harlem, he had treated seventy-five percent of his patients gratis—they simply did not have the money to pay. And I well remember how his thankful patients would bring him pawn tickets, pies, and freshly caught fish—anything that might remotely be conceived as payment.

When I would walk around my neighborhood, people would often comment on how my father had saved a life, often thrusting the benefactor, if it were a child, into my hands; one woman, wearing perfume that almost suffocated me, told me, through the vapors, “Your father is a big man; we’re little people. He’s God’s face on the earth.” Now, that was heady stuff!   

Still, my father was a good doctor, although he would never speak about his work. I recall once when he came home mysteriously in the middle of the day, with blood covering his shirt, the stain resembling an errant Jackson Pollack painting. When I asked him what had happened, he told me it was “just work.” I later learned that my father had literally held a man together with a towel. A number’s runner had burst into my father’s office, his guts tumbling out, and fell onto the receptionist, ruining her taffeta dress. The man had been brutally stabbed in the stomach because he had failed to honor a bet; and my father, seeing that the man was perilously close to dying and beyond anything that he in his office might do, grabbed a bath towel and tied it around the man’s mid-section, holding his innards in, until the ambulance came. The man survived, but two week’s later, he was shot in the head—these things happened in my father’s office, and he kept them secret, honoring a code of medical ethics, as ancient as it is draconian.

In the nursing home, my father had started to write Mary, his intended, salacious notes—which, of course, embarrassed her. These notes, interestingly, were in my father’s usual handwriting—one could barely decipher every third word. Yet Mary was right: my father was fantasizing about what he would like to do with her, even if it was, thank goodness, a fantasy of few connections. And so I was confronted with a very odd dilemma. In the first instance, I had never known my father to have a sexual fantasy life—which is as it should be. And in the second instance, my father never—and of this I am certain—ever cheated on my mother, or wanted to. So I was on very shaky ground. And then, too, Mary was a close friend and she felt decidedly uncomfortable. That both of us realized that my father was sick was of little help: we could only calibrate our response in the language of our own lives, which tended, hopefully, towards the rational. And Mary, of course, was in a much more difficult position than was I, since I had seen my father’s progressive demise, and I did not have the same divided loyalty. Quintessentially, I was able to see my father as merely otherbodied; she, for her part, saw him as both her friend—which meant as he once was, in his verve and brilliance—and as the husband of someone whom she very much respected. She knew that this was not my father, but she couldn’t figure out how to deal with the cipher before her.

My father’s descent into the disease was horrible, in many ways, largely because he fought it so tenaciously. As he was losing his faculties, he, like my mother, learned to play to his strengths. As a doctor—and a very good one—he knew how to charm people. And, interestingly, his medical acumen was the last of his skills to leave him, with, just as tellingly, his ability to spin a good story. He might forget your name, but he would not forget how to diagnose a disease, or what to prescribe for a malady, which made his presence in the nursing home problematic. In short order, I made certain that my father has no access to prescription pads; Ms. Smith would not find an order for bursitis medicine, penned by Dr. Feelgood. And as luck would have it, just before my father became ill, he had co-authored an article on a rare form of hyperthyroidism, and it had received much notice in medical circles. When he talked to doctors—or anyone else who seemed interested—he would often mention the article, and they would be suitably impressed.

Indeed, early on, when I wanted a physician to diagnose my father’s condition—I had seen signs of his mental impairment, which were worrisome to me—the doctor came to our house, began to talk to my father, and lo and behold, after my father held forth about his article and the fact that he had recently retired from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (where he had served on the medical school faculty for forty years), the diagnostician was clearly in his hands. When I asked the consultant for his recommendation about my father’s acuity, he told me, “Your father, is there something wrong with your father?”

Here, of course, the physician was encountering a unique situation: first, my father knew how to keep the conversation anchored in a narrow channel that he had well learned to navigate, and my father was truly brilliant; even with a few synapses misfiring, he could astound and astonish; second, the doctor, understandably, was delighted to meet someone who knew more medicine than he did. Most doctors have not been exposed to the latest medical techniques; as my father used to tell me, “You’re only as up-to-date as your last medical school class.” Indisputably, my father has been at one of the premier medical schools in the world for the last umpteen years—he knew a great deal. And just as accurately, I do not believe that the consulting doctor could imagine that another doctor might be losing his faculties: it was simply too frightening a consequence to contemplate.

Getting my father to move to the nursing home was quite a feat, and I needed the help of my wife, my father’s best friend, and a bold face lie. My father did not want to go to a nursing home: he loved his small house. For most members of his generation, your house—if you owned it—signified your achievement, even your personhood. Though a professional, my father held no stocks, bonds, or antiques: he simply had his home. To take it from him was, in truth, to remove something almost corporeal. At the time, my father was living on Martha’s Vineyard Island, in a very efficient ranch home, with everything all on one floor, so he needn’t struggle with stairs. But after he went missing for six hours on a very cold night, and was found by the police lying in a hedgerow a half block from his house, it was clear that the sixteen-hour-a-day, live-in staffing was no longer adequate to keep him safe. With an uncanny ability, my father would somehow find the one “soft spot” in our preparations: if we wanted to protect him, to keep him alive, he could no longer live at home.  

On the day I planned to convince my father to enter the nursing home, I deployed a rigor of persuasive techniques worthy of Homer’s Sirens, although at the time I simply felt despicable. Time permits you perspective, but perspective can’t alleviate the horror of metaphorically pelting someone who seems inert, who, in his suffering, can only offer the most inglorious of supplications.

At first, my father’s best friend, Bill Preston, asked him a few general questions: what is the day of the week, who is the President, and in which city did my father once work? Of course, my father did not have a clue, although he did try to offer a number of inventive explanations, which was both enormously poignant and sad. To see this formerly luminous man take small tentative stabs at reality, was heart-wrenching. At one point, my father began to talk about the New Deal with Rooseveltian fervor; and I almost believed that I was listening to a fireside chat when, like a whirlwind, my father migrated into a diatribe about John Kennedy’s civil right’s posture and then evolved into the small chapel where his father had once preached, which was a true remembrance, except that it suddenly found congress with an allusion to Tin Pan Alley. I tried to keep up, like a child chasing after a untethered kite, the trans-historicity was so spell-binding, and my father had just begun his peroration—details were colliding like sea-tossed stones: there was the FBI, Emmett Till, my wife, John Betti at BU, Adolph Jones, Duke Ellington, Boston Blackie, May Fane, the Federation of Protestant Agencies, the Kentucky Derby, Paul Robeson and World War II; there was Cornell University, Robert Scott, Elizabeth Taylor, Spinkie Alston (known as Charles), Dr. David Spain, Menemsha, clambakes, Block Island, Harvey Russell, Brigadoon (the house with the “big porch,” he merrily added)—all congealing in a Whitmanic cumulus.

With a grim determinism that could only involve the warp and woof of love, Bill told my father how he had exhausted all our remedies, reminding him how he might have frozen to death had the police not been so zealous. Bill and my father had been inseparable for twenty years—they had shared countless fishing trips, suffered dreary near-football games (watching Columbia U. lose and lose and lose), and attended numberless civil rights benefits, where my father and Bill would often give brilliant exhortations, the money easily flowing, like curses at a juke joint. After his wife left him, Bill had lived in our home for a year, and he and my father were “spitting close,” as my aunt would say. Bill, in fact, was the only man who could call my father an ass, and have my father learn from it. And my father did the same for Bill.  

Bill’s father had been the New York Editor of the International Harold Tribune, but with seven children, it was often touch-and-go. Bill—who should have gone on to college, he read more deeply certainly than anyone I knew—worked so his siblings might have a better life. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted. As a young boy, Bill had walked out of his parish after a “difficult confession” and never found use for God again. “Hard as a pool ball,” he’s make it on his own, and the war, of course, just further cemented his detachment. “Ken,” he told me, “no God, could permit this carnage.” If war would make everyone a believer, as it is often said, it did not do so for this lonely, wounded traveler.

As a tank sergeant, Bill had landed in North Africa, participated in D. Day, and was waiting to go to Japan when the bomb dropped. When Bill had a few drinks, he would always return to the same tragic story. In Germany, his outfit had set up a perimeter around a fuel depot, near a groove of trees. Bill’s tank was the lead one, and should there be any sound, it was his duty to ascertain what the commotion was. If it was suspicious, it was he who was to spray the area with his machine guns. One day, there was a slight ruffling in the trees, and Bill yelled, demanding to know who or what was present. There was no response. Quickly, he pummeled the field with bullets, leaving chunks of bark splayed on the ground like broken teeth. As he would always recount, he jumped out of his tank, grabbed his carbine, ran into the woods, and found a dead young girl, who had been scavenging for food. Bill had been in the war for three years, he’d killed hundreds of men, and had liberated two concentration camps: he’d seen the worst human beings could do to one another. But that child’s face was always with him, like a phantom limb. “She’s only a child,” he’d say, speaking unwittingly in the present tense; “Christ, she is only a child.” When Bill would get into his story, my mother and father would hug him, and he would weep, hoping—inveterate atheist that he was—that the world might someday offer him a godless absolution. “I killed her,” he’d say, over and over, the weight of it, as heavy as a vat of mercury.

“Ken,” Bill said to my father, “you can’t do this any longer. You’ve got to move. You can’t do this yourself, to your son and his wife.” When Bill finished talking, my father simply looked sullen, as if we had beaten him with sticks. Bill was his great friend, but friends could be wrong.

Then it was my wife Rochelle’s turn. In her characteristically generous way, she suggested how much we loved my father, and how he would be able to have a better life, in a better situation, if he would move to the nursing home: he’d be able to travel with others, see recent plays, and possibly even go fishing, things he had always loved. Although my father was clearly listening to her, I couldn’t tell if he was simply being the good, attentive father-in-law, his face was totally inscrutable.

After a time, Rochelle stopped talking, and my father smiled at her. I realized that he was trying to balance his great care for her, as he maintained his independence. Suddenly, I recalled how he would look as he straddled the small centerboard of our seventeen-foot sailboat when the boat would be coming about. At that magnificent moment when everything for a second stills and the sails luff, my father would hunker down, crumpling his big six-foot frame, waiting as the boom flew across, telling us in which direction we might proceed. Sailing, of course, is an art, and my father was very skillful at it. I never saw him frightened—the wind might be blowing, I often thought we might perish, but my father was simply engaged in the work.

Now, it was my turn to convince him, and I had one ploy, if only it might succeed. After recounting the dangers of my father’s present situation, I reminded him of how he would wear his clothes all night long, so he wouldn’t be found undressed when the senior citizen bus came. Since he couldn’t tell time, my father would sport his jacket and trousers twenty-four hours a day, his clothes bedraggled, his shoes mismatched. My father was always prompt; he was never late; and he knew that the only way he could be ready for the bus—to look presentable—was to remain dressed all day. Seeing him struggling to measure up nearly stopped my heart: my father looked like a thin reed in a windstorm, his face so full of anticipation, his bearing, so tentative. After I had piled every stone of oratory on him, I suggested that he try the nursing home for one week. If he did not like it, we would bring him back home. And that’s a promise.

In truth, I hoped that my father would not call me on the agreement—for once I placed him into the nursing home, he was not going to return. It was a terrible lie, and I hated to lie to him. But he accepted the bargain.

I well recall the journey to the nursing home, from one life to another. As we had so many times before, we took my father on the ferry from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole, slicing between the picturesque East Chop and West Chop lighthouses, where we had often sailed in our small boat, and he talked to everyone he could on the ferry, telling them about his life and his family. My father was enormously proud of my wife and me, and as he recounted our tribulations, I felt great ambivalence. As always, people enjoyed him: he could tell a riveting story, and he wore his age well. Now, he was a wizened old man, and people rallied at the Normal Rockwellian ideal of the octogenarian, which possessed great power, no matter how hackneyed it might first appear. If it is sentimental, so are we; and thank goodness, we are.

After the ferry docked, we took the four-mile drive to Falmouth, where we had a wonderful dinner—of shrimp, his favorite—and went shopping for everything he might need: toiletries, new shoes, a bathrobe, stamps, and clothes that could easily be laundered. As always, my father was a raconteur. He spoke to all the sales people, flattering them; he was in rare form, telling the sale’s girls—always the pretty ones, as he would remark—something about his travels that day. His stories were always full-bodied, if not a bit freewheeling with fact. And then we entered the nursing home, and hoped that he would make a life there. My mother was already a patient, so he knew the place well. It was poignant to see him give her a small, winsome kiss on the lips.

At the end of that first day, just before we had to take the ferry back to the Vineyard, my father thanked us. “Ken, I had a wonderful first day.” He said. And then, in the most generous act of a parent, he told me: “Ken, you did the right thing.” There it was, my parent of old—the one who would never place his wants before his child’s smallest wish. I needed to hear that; I had felt, in truth, like Judas.

My father quickly made a life in the nursing home. Since he was a realist at heart, he knew that his faculties were deteriorating. He’d still charm the nursing staff, tell wonderful stories, and thrill any listeners with tales of Dr. Martin Luther King and other notables he knew. My father, here, was not fabricating: he and my mother had been directly involved in the Civil Rights movement on a national scale, and they had worked with the Southern Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and the Committee on Africa. At our home, one might see Roy Wilkins, William Kunstler, and Ralph Bunche; Sydney Poitier came to my 10th birthday party, although he was most interested, I must admit, in the beautiful divorced parent of one of my friends.

It was not that my parents were extraordinary, or at least not in the way one might think: they were simply doing what they had to do as black professionals, who lived at a certain time, and who shouldered their weighty responsibilities. That my father also rented his office from Congressman Adam Clayton Powell gave him tremendous entrée into the world of the doers; that Congressman Powell, at every chance, also touted my father’s medical acumen provided him with much needed work, fellowship, and visibility. So, my father’s stories were rich with luminaries, historical ephemera, and wonderment. His listeners, probably, thought that much of it was balderdash; but, in truth, there was a great deal of bedrock under his embellishments.

Indeed, it was these stories that were his last connection to the world to vanish. As my father became more and more sick, he grew thinner and thinner, and his stories grew less historically accurate; and yet, interestingly, they never failed to have a consistent beginning, middle and end. However bizarre their content, they were always narratively complete—that is, they were good narratives, and I’m speaking here as a teacher of writing.  

In one of the most painful episodes I can recall, my father inquired about my brother Paul, who had died twelve years earlier of alcoholism. Paul was a tough, truculent kid, who was enormously talented, but he did not love himself; or, more accurately, he loved others more than he did himself. In fact, he so identified with others, that he almost chromosomally became them. Thus, if his friend was a manic, Paul became manic. If his friend had a fight with his girlfriend, Paul’s relationship with his sweetheart became perilous. In this odd transference, Paul’s life seemed strangely to vanish, as if he existed only as a medium for others. “There was not enough of life left over to keep him around,” a friend of his once said, and though I might quibble with the language, the sentiment was irrefutable.

When my father asked about Paul, I slowly explained that Paul had died a few years ago. Suddenly, my father began to wail, his once great shoulders slumped over. Paul’s dead, Paul’s dead; I didn’t know, he murmured. Then he wailed again, his small ribs poking out like fish bones. Paul’s dead, Paul’s dead, as if this was the first time he had learned of his son’s demise.

I realized that this revelation might occur daily—that in my father’s besotted mind, he might each day relive his son’s death. Each day my brother would die; each day my father would confront life’s utmost devastation. It was horrible: Kafka could not have anticipated a more terrible scenario.

Yet, miraculously, the next day, my father had completely forgotten about Paul and our conversation. And he never returned to the subject again.

Alzheimer’s disease wends its way rather predictably (although no one who lives through it can intuit this, for good reason), and I think of the disease metaphorically, as mirroring how one sees a landmass from an airplane. From a great height, everything is viewed as large sinews and great gentle curves: there are no rough edges to the shore, or ragged, ill-shaped promontories. With Alzheimer’s, a person first loses her memory; then she loses control of her body; then she stops eating; and then, finally, succumbs to an ultimate malady. One does not die of Alzheimer’s: one dies of septicemia, pneumonia, or a heart attack. During this progression of diminishment, the person reacts in any number of ways—my mother, for example, when I brought her an easel and suggested that she might like to paint again, simply told me that she didn’t need art any more. When I asked her why, she told me that “she could see hundreds of trees and they were filled with dogs laughing.” Now this vision, worthy of the best hallucinogens, aptly synthesized my mother’s true enthusiasms: she loved dogs, and we had a number of them, to the great distress of my father. And just as poignantly, my mother always cherished gardening. Her mind, therefore, whatever else it was doing, was providing her with much satisfaction. If she was not in the world I understood, she was not unhappy. And this for me was a great dispensation.

Near the end of my father’s life, his stories became far more impressionistic, and yet they would always meet the demands of a sturdy narrative. When I brought a number of family members to see my father, realizing that this was probably the last time that he would be at all present, the family ushered en masse into his room, talked with him for two hours, and made a wonderful fuss over him. His brother Warren was there—whom he hadn’t seen in a year—and his niece, her son, my wife, and a few other people; it was a lively throng, and my father was holding court. At times, he would say things that were clearly appropriate: when he looked at his brother, he asked him, rather unfortunately, why he hadn’t come to visit sooner. And I felt especially horribly for Warren, who, I knew, found confronting his brother in this state unbelievably painful. It had taken enormous courage for Warren to make the trip from New York City, and now he was being denounced. This, I think, in truth, was a brotherly confrontation, with a history that harkened back to Warren’s birth placement as the youngest of four siblings, the baby of the family, who had always been beholden to my father, something that must have rankled Warren too. In Alzheimer’s, often a long ago rift finds a bizarre idealization: the disease is no respecter of persons or truth, but it does providently mine the fault lines, and it mines for lode. In a more conciliatory vein, my father asked his niece about her life, and he seemed to enjoy her passion for her new job. After a great deal of ballyhoo, my father simply dozed off, and we all departed.   

The next day, pleased with last night’s happenings, I asked my father about the family gathering, and he could not recall a thing. But then, almost as an afterthought, he began to describe a magical excursion, where he had visited an “enormous party,” with hundreds of boats “dancing” in the harbor; there was a “great table,” he joyfully added, replete with omnipresent shrimp for everyone. Shrimp, here, of course, was an expression of both his greatest delicacy and extravagance—when there was abundant shrimp at a salad bar, it was a true feast, for this child of the depression. What most impressed him, he said, was that “no one made him come in early.” Clearly, something had pierced his isolation: it was not the true event; there was not one accurate detail. But my father has encountered something extraordinary, and it had brought him great pleasure.

I said at the outset of the memoir that I did not want my experience to be seen as representative of how Alzheimer’s patients handle the disease or how families deal with their loved ones. Each family is different; the disease, I know, is horrific, and it can only bring unimaginable sorrow to a family, in ways that are specific, brutally intimate, and often disabling. Even the strongest family can flail apart under the enormous pressure of trying to conflate a wonderful past—or at least one, where there was an assumed level of intimacy and identification—with an increasingly distraught present. It is the height of horror to confront someone who has the shape, the smell, and the aspect of a person with whom you have shared your most intimate moments, and yet that person is merely a shell. It’s like confronting a simulacrum of your father or brother or mother; and still—and this is both a blessing and a curse—he or she can suddenly blurt out a sound, or give you a slight nod, or make a shrill whistle-like noise, and the world is returned to a moment of clarity, of identification, where you once shared a glass of wine, or tried to fix the toaster, or simply collapsed into a hearty laugh. As A. R. Ammons asks in his poem. “What destruction am I blessed by?”

Near the end of my father’s life, as he was sitting in the nursing home, he suddenly looked up at me, his head almost jerking, “Ken,” he said “would you like to take a drive? We could drive down the West Side Highway and go to the Village.” I knew what he was suggesting. My father worked six days a week, from 8 AM until 9 PM, seeing patients. On our wonderful, rare outings, we would often travel to the Village, where we might get a sausage sandwich; or go to O’Henrys, where we might purchase a hamburger and he, a planters punch; or, most wonderfully, have paella at La Seville—a marvelous Spanish restaurant on Charles Street, where my father was treated as royalty. These were among the best moments of my childhood, when Paul and I, the boys, would be with our father. Interestingly, my mother would only rarely join us on these sojourns. I think she wanted us to have our father on our own terms—it was she, doing what she always did best, effectuating something, even if it demanded her orchestrated absence. It was, in Coltrane’s terms, “a love supreme,” since I know how much she missed us, even for those few moments.

I thought for a second about my father’s proposition. I could, of course, remind him that there was no automobile, that we were in a Massachusetts nursing home, and that he was near the end of his days—I could tell him that. But I was driving with my father, the car was slowly snaking from our Harlem brownstone, down Riverside Drive, and we’d soon cross over 72nd Street to get to the West Side Highway, we’d brush along the Hudson River until 23rd Street, and then we’d turn and go down 7th Avenue, which would be full of people hawking wares—and possibly a street concert would provide us with congas, or violins, or a tender drift of Brahms; there might be a small art show near St. Mark’s Place, and he’d comment on how much better my mother painted; but I could also sense, for the first time, my father’s growing impatience with the transgressive jaywalkers—he was tight in the shoulders, his breath labored—and so I suggested, with great tenderness, “Dad. Let’s swing by Central Park. It’s lovely this time of year.”

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Read the companion piece "Departure Gate" by author Mandy Thomas.


Kenneth A. McClane is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature Emeritus and former Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University, taught English, African American literature, and Creative Writing for 34 years. This was his sixth essay in The Antioch Review, originally published in the Fall 2006 issue, Vol. 64 No. 4.


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