Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 10 minutes (2,523 words)
Everyone is screaming.
It is 4 p.m. and we are in the car. The 6-year-old and the 3-year-old are cranky from a long day at school, the baby indignant at having spent too long strapped in a car seat. Still, when my phone rings over the cacophony, I answer because it is my father and because he has dementia.
“Hi Daddy, is everything OK?”
“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” he whispers, with unusual loquacity.
“Then why are you whispering?” I yell over the din.
We are sleep training the baby. She is our third so I am no longer surprised by the uncomfortable feeling that I have somehow become pitted against my own child in a fight for survival. This does not make the feeling more comfortable. Every night before bed, I jam Amazon’s top-rated earplugs into my ears in the hopes that I can sleep through her crying and her father can perform the prescribed rituals. It rarely works. Apparently, a baby’s cries are like a “sledgehammer” to its mother’s brain. The next person who tells me that the days are long but the years are short is going to get a sledgehammer to the brain. It is always an older person who says it, their soft words offered up as comfort. But what they no doubt intend as knowing reassurance I hear as a warning of still more different sorrows yet to come; their nostalgia seems deployed to shame me into recognizing my blessings before it is too late.
How long do I have before it is too late?
I do, of course, recognize my blessings, and I know, with a certainty I rarely possess, that someday I will look back on this tired person and I will want to be her. But it’s not just the sleep-challenged baby, it is also the auditory assault that begins before dawn. There are so many voices. More voices, it sometimes seems, than there are bodies from which they supposedly emanate. I move through my day to a soundtrack of temper tantrums and raucous laughter, endless questions and knock-knock jokes with nonsensical punchlines. Almost every sentence begins with the words “And, Mom.” They have so much to say and they want to say every bit of it to me, all at the exact same time.
When the real voices have quieted for the night, the imagined ones take over. Earplugs are powerless against the phantom baby cries and other voices, similarly faithful to their waking life counterparts, that live in my head. One dream has me caught in a loop, over and over again, hearing the baby from another room and grabbing her right before she is about to fall down the stairs; in another I am once again living in my childhood home, caring for my father as he loses his memory and his ability to speak. On a good night, these dreams can provide a solace: In real life, I don’t always catch the baby, and neither my father nor I have lived in that house for more than a decade. In my dreams I can sometimes be in two places at once, both called home.
When I was 9, we lost my dad at Canada’s Wonderland. Panicked, my mom dragged us around the park looking for him, eventually asking a police officer for help. It must be that people often take leave of their families at amusement parks because the officer gently asked if it was possible he was lost on purpose. My mother’s indignant response: “He would leave me, but he would never leave the children.”
One dream has me caught in a loop, over and over again, hearing the baby from another room and grabbing her right before she is about to fall down the stairs; in another I am once again living in my childhood home, caring for my father as he loses his memory and his ability to speak.
This story always got a laugh. It was funny because he was usually sitting right there at the table while it was being told, and he hadn’t left anyone yet, at least not permanently. But the laughter papered over the fact that the Wonderland episode was just a more dramatic version of many other, tiny absences. He was frequently the outlier on our family graph, spending his evenings secluded in the attic, writing music or paying bills. On vacations there inevitably came a point when he would step back for some time alone, as if he could only be part of a unit for so long. In Canada, he had stepped so far back that we no longer knew where he was.
In the end, my mom’s assessment was mostly right. After 27 years, my dad left her and assumed he could hold on to us. But we weren’t children anymore and, while he might want to stay in our lives, no court could compel us to remain in his. And anyway, he wasn’t particularly adept at “staying,” which, because we were adults, had become less about location and more about consideration.
At first, we were hopeful. Maybe, we reasoned with the hopeful naivete of adult children of divorce, this painful change was what he needed to be his best self. But it soon became clear that his commitment to my mom had not been what stood in the way of commitment to others. If anything, he seemed to be getting more out of touch with what we needed. At my grandfather’s unveiling, mere months after the ink had dried on my parents’ get, my dad spoke about his brave decision to start a new life. He had already introduced us to his new girlfriend in front of rows of family, friends, and acquaintances who had come to pay a shiva call. He held his own wedding three weeks after my brother’s and, when I asked him to wear a tuxedo to mine, he showed up in a bolo tie. This was not his best self, and I was too old for all of this drama. My move halfway across the country for graduate school meant that our relationship soon devolved into a couple of short visits a year, quick pop-ins during which my father seemed to have less to say to me as time passed.
But it turned out that all of this leave-taking was but a dress rehearsal for a more enduring absence. When, three years ago, he haltingly told me he wouldn’t be getting on a plane to attend my son’s bris, I wasn’t surprised. He had already made clear his feelings about tribes. But then his wife got on the phone and explained that he had been diagnosed with progressive nonfluent aphasia, a form of frontotemporal dementia that slowly robs its victims of the ability to speak and only then comes for their memories. In his case it had happened so gradually that to my brothers and me it seemed only as if he was carelessly discarding his obligations to language, another failure to meet an essential commitment.
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Frontotemporal dementia often sets in around the time midlife crises do, so suddenly our familial narrative became hopelessly muddled: Had my father caused our family’s rupture or had his failing brain? Where did one end and the other begin? It didn’t help that certain behaviors that characterize the disease’s early stages — poor impulse control, mood swings, sudden anger — overlapped with some of my father’s preexisting personality flaws.
There is a concept in Jewish thought that God punishes us in line with our sins. It is called middah k’negged middah, and its most famous articulation comes in the book of Pirkei Avot, literally Chapters of the Fathers, a compilation of ethical teachings. It is the Jewish version of karma, and it was a foundational teaching in my Jewish day school education. As I got older and more skeptical, I was embarrassed to believe in a god who could muster no more retributional creativity than punishment by copycat crime. But now, watching my dad struggle to communicate the most basic information, I marvel at how spot-on his affliction is. He was my first model for crafting a sentence just so. The right language, he would sermonize, can change people’s minds, can build them up or break them down, can spark love or inspire fear. Words have the ability to change people, for better or worse. He knew of what he spoke. As a child, I was captivated by his words; they sparked my own intellectual curiosity and became the building blocks of my adult worldview. But they could also be cruel and destructive, cutting like an aural guillotine, the sharp blade hitting flesh so swiftly that sometimes it took a beat to realize your head was rolling away.
In the aftermath of my parents’ divorce, I saw my future with my father as a forked road, one path leading to more self-protective anger and the other to virtuous forgiveness. I thought I had time to choose and I took the choice itself for granted. I am not prepared for this third path, along which neither anger nor forgiveness has any purchase. When I walk into his home with my 5-month-old daughter, his eyes fill with tears. His naked emotions, finally freed from the mitigations of language, break a part of my heart I didn’t know existed. We hug for a long time and it feels like visiting day at sleepaway camp, when you don’t realize how homesick you are until you catch a glimpse of your family walking up the dirt path. Only now, I’m the parent and my father the homesick child.
But I am also homesick. Growing up is fragmentation and reassembly, but now I mourn those things that can never be put back together. I think about the fact that none of the people I now call home will ever know the father I grew up with. I think about how much he would have loved being a grandparent, a gig equal parts taking joy and stepping back. I spent a long time bristling at the sound of his voice. He had turned the family and the childhood I loved into a retroactive lie. What could he possibly say that would be helpful to me as I moved forward, building a relationship and a family of my own? During all those years of spending as little time with him as possible I knew there would come a time when he wouldn’t be there anymore and I would feel regret. But I imagined that he would be gone all at once and it is instead a staggered affair. His voice, his personhood, is mostly gone and his body remains as a relic, a trick. Now that his disease has taken his anger, and mine with it, I find that I miss his voice, which is to say that I miss him.
He coos at the baby and she smiles. He can seamlessly interact with her because, at 5 months, she has no words and requires none from others. Then he hums a tune, not exactly melodious but not offensive either. She likes it and I think about the kinds of voices that begin before words and remain after they have gone.
In a 15th-century manuscript of the works of Virgil, there’s an illustration of Aeneas saving his father and his son from the burning city of Troy. This is a scene that is depicted multiple times in Western art but — and I know everyone says this about their favorite rendering of Aeneas — this one is different. Maybe it’s because Troy is in the deep background, so deep that you can almost forget it’s there. Maybe it’s because, unlike other representations in which he is carrying his father on his shoulder or in some other semidignified position, this illustration has Aeneas carrying his father on his back, as if he is giving him a piggyback ride. When I caught a glimpse of it two years ago at the British Library, I had just wrapped up the first year of my son’s life and my first year of knowingly living with a fading father. All I could think about was how we sometimes end up shepherding our parents and our children at the same time, in different directions.
Growing up is fragmentation and reassembly, but now I mourn those things that can never be put back together. I think about the fact that none of the people I now call home will ever know the father I grew up with.
Does that seem too on the nose? I have been struck by the way in which family tragedy wears cliché like a bolo tie to a wedding: effortlessly and also daring you to call it on its chutzpah. My father left our family home when I was 24. As my brothers and I were starting our adult lives, moving into sparsely furnished apartments and getting serious with romantic partners, he was doing the same. How unoriginal, I thought. With this second departure, his life is no longer a bizarre reflection of my own but a sad inverse of my children’s. Having found out his diagnosis six days postpartum with my second child, I have no choice but to embrace the sad banality of marking his decline against my son’s blossoming. There was a time, not so long ago, when I would find myself helping both of them find their words. Now their two ships have decidedly passed each other: My son surprises me with new phrases every day and my father has only a handful left. For one, “too late” is a point too far out on the horizon to see. For the other, it is a haunting refrain that he can no longer really understand.
I write about being a parent a lot, and I read about it more. We who reflect on ourselves in this way sometimes write as if we invented parenthood, as if we are the first to discover that making people and being responsible for them forever is a really hard thing to do. We hack through overgrown brush with our machetes expecting untrod ground only to find a well-worn path. We have been here before but never noticed the effort that went into clearing the way. And the most clichéd cliché of all is, of course, that we all become our parents. If we’re lucky, that transformation occurs when we can still tell them that we understand what they have done for us and, if we’re even luckier, when we can move seamlessly between two homes, when we can be a parent in one and a child in the other. For me and my father, it is too late for all of that.
We are in the car. I am driving him home from his newest grandchild’s bris. We are both emotional, maybe for different reasons or maybe for the same reasons. I stop the car and open my laptop to show him some home videos I have had digitized. Watching the video from my bat mitzvah, we see an almost unrecognizable version of him perform a song he wrote for me.
“Is that — did I do that?” he asks.
“Yes, you did, and it is so special to me.” I pause but then continue, because it is only momentary kindness, rather than anger or forgiveness, that can mean anything anymore: “You were a great father. You gave me a wonderful childhood and now I am trying to do the same for my kids.”
“Really?” he asks, his eyes once again filling with tears.
I’m not sure which part he’s asking about, but I quickly nod and try to reassure us both: “Yes, yes, of course. Everything is fine.”
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Sara Fredman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Longreads, Slate, The Rumpus, Tablet and Lilith.
Editor: Sari Botton
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me