My father stood in the kitchen eating refried beans from the can with a fork as Paul Simon sang “Graceland” on repeat for 20 minutes.
“Hey Alexa, why don’t we take a break, huh?” he finally said, as if the speaker were a child who had taken too many turns on the slide. “Yeah, let’s give it a rest for a little bit.”
I watched him pet the device and gently shush it.
“Alexa, turn off,” I said, and the kitchen fell silent.
My father gave me a look, the same look he used to give me when I was 10 and didn’t want to call my grandmother or send thank-you cards after my birthday party. A look of a lesson to impart.
“Yes?” I said.
“Next time,” he said, “say please.”
My father has always been the type of person who likes listening to birds and picking up litter. I grew up admiring the way he would walk into a room full of friends watching TV and ask, “Who wants to talk?” He wanted to know what people were thinking about, and when phones lit up at the dinner table, he would sit and watch as the rest of us hunched and stared at our laps like phone-addicted zombies.
I try to be more like my father and make these values my own. But these characteristics of his are fading along with his memory, and the means through which I connect with him feel less like bonding and more like desperation.
Almost five years ago, when my father was 62, he learned he had Alzheimer’s disease. Over this time, my mother and I have watched his decline. He forgets his friends’ names and can no longer read. Every morning, he sits in a baby blue polka-dot towel and waits for one of us to prompt him to start his day.
My mother will say: “Come in here and get dressed, honey.” “Brush your teeth, honey.” “Come drink some orange juice, honey.”
I look at other fathers who make money and pancakes and kiss their wives, and I feel depressed for how small my father’s world has become. I see how my mother is nervous to socialize with him or take him to dinner parties where the other husbands talk about work and politics, while hers asks, over and over, if Frank Sinatra is alive.
Since graduating from college two years ago, I have split my time between my apartment in Brooklyn and my parents’ house in Hastings-on-Hudson. Every week, I pack a bag and take the train 30 miles north to help with the caregiving. I joke about how it’s confusing to live in two places. “It’s like I have divorced parents,” I say as I hug my roommates goodbye.
I struggle to understand myself as a 23-year-old who is also taking care of a parent. I feel stiff when my roommates get dressed for work and ask which shoes I like best, or when they talk about their goals: what they want to do, where they want to live. I marvel at the ease with which they can sound so sure of their freedom and choices.
It’s not that I don’t have plans for myself, or that I dislike shoes. There’s just something about when my father calls me “Mommy” in front of the neighbors that morning, and then says he’s sorry, that makes my mouth feel tight when it comes to offering style advice or talking about my dreams.
I often wish I could ask my father who he was at 23. I wish I could ask what his bad habits were, or how he treated his mother, or what he did on Saturdays. But his ability to recall his past has disappeared, so I have come to terms with not knowing. I spend a lot of time asking him other questions instead, but my queries have surpassed casual curiosity.
Every week I ask: “Dad, what do you love about Mom?” “Dad, what is your favorite thing about yourself?” “Dad, do you like to cry?”
I shake him up like a Magic 8-Ball and throw him as many questions as I can. But just like the toy, his answers are random lines I have heard before. I’m patient as he searches for words and pronunciations, but we often end up playing charades as I guess at the words he has lost.
Last September, my parents and I were organizing our storage bin in the basement of our apartment building when I uncovered a chest of my father’s old journals. Under yellowed Superman comics and water-damaged concert tickets were 15 or so composition notebooks, dating from 1978 to 2002.
My mother said journals are private and attempted to hide them from me, but she soon realized I would keep coming back. Morals and privacy seemed unimportant if these journals could give me access to the person my father used to be. So I began to read them. And they have been a gift.
In his journals, my father wrote about self-doubt and fear and all the things that brought him joy. I copied his sentences into my own journal and cited his wisdom when I spoke to my friends. He also wrote about riding his bike around Brooklyn, reporting for small newspapers and exiting the subway at Seventh Avenue to walk home through the park.
Until I read those journals, I had no idea he’d done those things, and the similarities between us stunned me. I have spent the last two years working as a reporter for small Brooklyn papers, and every Sunday, heading home from the train that carries me back to the city from Hastings, I too take that walk home from Seventh Avenue.
When I read my father’s entries, I feel less lost. I not only recognize the person my father used to be, but I recognize myself.
My mother gave me permission to quote a few of them.
On Sept. 9, 1991, he wrote: “I want to stand up outside between the cars, head blowing in the wind, and scream, scream until I nearly start living … start living my dream. I need something. Too much time and too little touch in my life lately. Loneliness can kill, I believe.”
A few months later, on Feb. 10, 1992: “I feel giddy, like a kid. I want to dance! She called. Suzanne from Brooklyn. Yes, she’d love to go out again. So it’s brunch and watching the playoffs at her place Sunday. God I feel happy.”
“Later last night after 11:00, spurred by the phone call, I danced in the kitchen in the dark. A Stones song, I danced alongside old ghosts and laughed at them. Whether trying to shake demons or embrace a new dream, dancing in the dark always felt good.”
Suzanne is my mother, and it was through these journals that I learned how much my father loves her. His journals also showed me how much he loves his friends, and how much he loves me. Every entry from 1997 to 2002 mentions “little Annabelle.”
What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the moment the entries stopped. On April 28, 2002, my father wrote about my bathtub performance of “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie,” and then the next page is blank. And so is the next, and the one after that. I flipped through wide-eyed, in denial. I didn’t want this version of my father to be over.
As I read that last entry, he and I were sitting beside each other on the couch with “Ellen” on TV. She was playing Burning Questions with Bradley Cooper, but their exchanges were too quick for him, so he stared at the rug instead.
I thought about the scenes I’d just read: my father calling his friends at midnight to tell them a joke, riding the subway and reading the paper, asking my mother to dance. Watching him now as he gazed at the rug, I felt uneasy about all the time he spends in silence. I felt afraid of how much he had lost and would continue to lose.
“Dad,” I said.
“Do you love Mom?”
He laughed. “Of course.”
I took a breath and turned off the TV. I did my best to join him in the moment, as that is all we have.
“How much do you love her?”
“What do you mean, how much?” He laughed again. “One quart.”
“And you love me a gallon?”
“Yes,” he said. This much he understood. “Very many gallons.”