When my father lost his memory to dementia, everything in the house around him became new. He often can’t remember how sitting in a chair traditionally works, but turning the chair upside down makes total sense. The rugs aren’t floor coverings any more, but mazes that he can trace by tiptoeing along the edge. The appropriate response to a ringing phone is shouting.
Many things now must be destroyed. I had to help my mother move all the books she kept for years in the kitchen because Dad would pick them from the shelf and tear the pages out one by one, often counting aloud in numbers that he somehow remembered in the correct order. It’s interesting to watch what information his brain has completely erased (my name and relation, why the locked door won’t come open) and what still remains (how to shoot pool). Some objects, like the model car of the Corvette he had when he could still drive, or the photo of him and all his seven brothers and sisters, are spared, suggesting there’s a method to his work. Without the paper to tear up or something to move from where it belongs he often paces from one end of the house to the other, as if each time he’s somewhere different.
About four months ago, after the other books were taken away, I found a first edition hardback copy of Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays, How to be Alone , in a box of my old stuff. I mostly can’t remember the part of me that would have paid money for a book by Franzen. To me, he has become the moniker of “safe” fiction. That is, suburban, proud of itself, relationship-based, linear, of traditional canonical aspiration, blah blah blah, etc.
I took the book into the kitchen where my dad was sitting with his head down in his hands (a way he often sits now). It’s hard to entertain him for very long; he always seems to want to move on to something else. Objects only hold their newness for a fraction of time, though in a different way than that of an infant. A child seems to get bored with what it sees when it learns the item is not magical—that it is a thing there in the world. With my dad, whatever’s going on inside his head is constantly more alive and mesmerizing than any physical object. I can’t imagine what he sees. I don’t know what the words he speaks to no one mean to him or to whatever. It is both incredible and hard to watch; a perimeter of experience perfectly seamed between the real and the unreal.
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