People on my dad's side of the family don't get senile-- they get mean. Or so the family lore goes. My mom's side is a different story. She had a great-great uncle who used to bicycle around Crystal Lake in Illinois singing Methodist hymns at top volume, until the family took him to the asylum in Elgin and he got a lobotomy. He died when he fell out of an apple tree- apparently, people were picking apples in a local orchard, he got startled, and he fell.
That's the way to go, I think, sometimes.
My father is going into a nursing home. My father, a man of huge brain, passionate interests, and an outsize personality, left us a long time ago. A geriatric psychiatrist by trade, my mom recalls waiting to pick him up at Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick, and hearing him bellow at his patients, "WHADDAYA MEAN YOU DON'T CARE? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF ANSWER IS THAT?" He worked at the Veterans Administration in Boston and had at least one mercenary as a patient. He worked for the Archdiocese of Boston and used to come home with tons of edibles from the North End. He worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield, which he loathed-- one time, a patient drove through the plate glass window of a restaurant, and Blue Cross didn't want to pay for hospitalization; that summed up that job.
Secretaries and nurses loved my dad. Other doctors and administrators wanted to kill him, because my dad was smart and he knew it. He did things his own way. When he had finished his work for the day, he left, regardless of what time it was. He took long, rambling lunches. He would take three hour walks and my mother would try not to worry.
My father was brave. He married outside of the faith and my grandfather, who never left the Bronx, showed up in his apartment and told him that if he married my Methodist mother, Grandfather would wear a sandwich board that said, "My Son Has Shamed Me." My dad was not impressed, and he and my mom got hitched at the Harvard Club, where they ate tuna sandwiches and drank champagne, and only ten people attended.
My father instilled in me a love of classical music, Woody Allen, good food, and above all, reading. He gave me a biography of Sigmund Freud when I was ten, and I read it. He also taught me the value of a grand gesture. One summer, when we rented a house in Chatham, he gave my brother and me a garbage bag each, filled to breaking with toys and books, just because it was summertime and he loved us.
My father accidentally packed two left shoes for my graduation and had to wear Birkenstocks instead. Good thing I went to Wesleyan.
When I had a genteel nervous breakdown junior year in Ireland and came home, my father told me, "Home is where your head is."
Now he is silent-- a man defined by talk-- now just sits. He doesn't look miserable. He smiles slightly. He moves his hands, but the nails are long, the fingers are beginning to look fleshless. His dark eyebrows jut over his face in a vaguely James Mason-ish way-- he's lost his round Yeshiva boy face. He still gives me huge hugs, and my mother tells me that he reads this blog and it makes him laugh, which is amazing because as far as I can tell, he doesn't really read any more. That makes my heart break, because above all else, my childhood was filled with bizarre books my father would leave around the house. A history of philosophy, a Georges Simenon mystery, the Michelin guides, the poetry of Kenneth Koch-- you name it, it was somewhere in our house.
And the cookbooks! My mom is a dynamite cook, but my dad was a dynamite reader of cookbooks. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Indian Cookery, Simple Cooking. Noshing is Sacred. From My Mother's Kitchen.
He keeps on falling. Years ago, he suddenly couldn't walk without falling, and despite batteries of tests at various snooty Harvard hospitals, no one could determine why, and has gotten worse with each passing year. He also, somewhere along the way, stopped talking. My mother has to carry him from place to place, essentially, and cannot lift him herself-- she is a tough broad, with a huge amount of patience, but she also has pins in one of her legs and it cannot be easy to lug an inert person to any sort of upright position. She cannot keep on calling the fire department every time he falls and my brother isn't home-- yesterday he fell three times, and after years of this, she realizes that he needs to be safe, and she can't guarantee his safety any more. My brother asks my father, "Well, Dr. Merowitz, what do you think?" "I should go," he says, in a rare sentence.
They are in Massachusetts, and I am here, in New Jersey, alternately feeling nothing and then feeling crashing waves of sorrow. Not sadness- I feel like sorrow is a deeper word, something that tugs at your roots with an inexorable pull until you cannot breathe, until, mercifully, it recedes.
For the past year, there has not been a single hour where I do not think of my father or see his face. But if you ask me how I feel about it, I don't know. Or maybe I do know, but the effort of articulating it is something I don't want to think about. There is a feeling that once those gates open, they cannot be closed, and I will be swept in the wake of giant, messy, unresolvable tears.
But I am grateful for the long time I had when my dad was, well, dad. Did I want to kill him sometimes? Hell yes. Was he unfair and nuts about stuff? Oh my GOD YES. But he was a good dad, and I love him. I wish that he had not experienced this strange, glacial descent into the madness of old age. Are you gone, Dad? Because if you aren't, you need to know, you did so good by me, I can't even tell you. Thank you for being.
Dear Father- Colin Hay