When I think of my father singing, it’s in half-audible, incorrect words, loud vowel sounds that mimicked crooning. It always seemed that my father was mocking someone or something, in this case, a song, but further a lifestyle, a way of thinking that he thought was nonsense. Maybe the song was too melodramatic in his opinion or too romantic. I believe that it was this mockery that created the many voices that were my father. “As Time Goes By,” turned into a long, drawn-out melodramatic ballad, my father singing, “’The fundamental things in life,’” instead of “the fundamental things apply.” Of course, silly songs like that didn’t really matter. Who paid attention to lyrics, anyway. “Tea For Two” was just too much for my dad. He had to move his legs around like a chorus girl. I could imagine him thinking about privileged idiots having tea.
The funny thing, though, is that he grew to love tea. He’d drink it every afternoon around three, and he’d always had a tea biscuit with it. My mother would make sure that they were bought. I’d pass him, angry for some reason, disgusted, refusing to sit with him. Sometimes I’d be sad, afraid that I’d become like him, a doormat, I used to call him, no backbone. I never thought for a minute that he might be depressed, although it was so obvious and for so many years. I was too afraid when I was unemployed that he would gently hint that I get a job. A few times he had, and I became furious.
My father’s silence is what galled me the most. Nothing was ever said but was always communicated to you through his silence: his freezing you out for months, never knowing why it was happening or what you did to make it happen. I drifted further and further away, and finally, I moved out.
Irrationally, I thought that when I left my house, nothing would happen to anyone left there. They would be frozen, like bugs in amber. In many ways, things didn’t change. However, what did change was their moving on without me, nieces and nephews getting bigger and more remote; attachments that were not made; memories that I was not a part of.
My mother had gotten old: every time she walked, she let out a small chirp of pain. She took care of my father for five years, virtually alone, mashing up his food in a blender; washing him; taking him to the bathroom. And it was all hidden from me: how bad his dementia was since I had last seen him five years before. When I got there, I saw how true the expression of a shell only remaining of someone was. That was my father. He smiled all the time. No one would admit that he had dementia, and he only got a nurse two weeks before he died because of this denial.
When I asked my mother what the first sign of my father’s dementia was, she said that she had discovered his underwear outside in the garden. She had no idea why they were there, but kept quiet for fear of embarrassing him. Driving was out of the question, and since she didn’t drive, hadn’t driven for decades, they had to move back to Brooklyn. The apartment they lived in was a filthy extravagance, more than they could afford and all that my sister could find. The hallway was menacing, something from a David Lynch movie, eerily silent all of the time. The elevator would sporadically break down, leaving them unable to go out in my father’s wheelchair. They hallways were pitch black. My mother cleaned, but whatever she did was not enough. Everything was sticky and had the faint odor of mildew. I was repulsed. There were no comfortable places to sit, and sleeping was worse.
Visits were interminable: we all sat around, not talking about the obvious. It always felt that I was part of a different struggle, a different sorrow. My family had already given up on my father. They didn’t want to know officially if he had dementia. That would make it real. Instead, they were content with an ambiguous condition that they couldn’t do anything about.
My parents died five months apart: my father went first in the middle of a May night. My mother was there, but could not do very much for him. My mother soon declined, having no purpose and feeling guilty for the transgressions, real and imagined, that she committed against my father. She fixated on one time that she slapped my father in frustration. My sister had caught her in the middle of it, and this added more fuel to my sister’s against my mother. My mother never wanted to be alone, so she called my sister at all hours and myself on occasion. There isn’t much that you can say to someone who feels alone, especially when their aloneness is real, concrete, and unconquerable.
She died in October after a week in the hospital. The funeral service was non-existent. According to my sister, there wasn’t enough left from my father’s funeral. There were no song lyrics, like they had at my father’s service: Ronnie Milsap’s song, “We Thought He Walked on Water.” This was because no one thought that about my mother, a frightened woman who never shook the sadness that she had inherited.
One of the tenets of psychoanalysis, and therapy in general, is the idea that a great part of healing is the telling of what ails you, the narrative of your life: the talking cure. It’s mystical, clearly unscientific, but often very effective. I write what are others’ stories, knowing that they are also mine, and I wait for that healing, that blissful realization that all of the sorrow has been worth it. ((unreliable narrator?) Doesn’t or won’t acknowledgeor realize it’s also his own story?)
There are feelings that arise: I can’t really say they’re memories because of their opacity, but they come when a familiar song is played or I see a photo. It reminds me that I am missing something, another life perhaps, or at the very least a clearer set of experiences that I can’t reach. And I long for them without knowing what it is I long for.