A Great Storyteller Loses His Memory

From The Paris Review:

Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.

A few months earlier a friend asked how my dad was doing with his loss of memory. I told her he lives strictly in the present, unburdened by the past, free of expectations for the future. Forecasting based on previous experience, which is believed to be of evolutionary significance as well as one of the origins of storytelling, no longer plays a part in his life.

“So he doesn’t know he’s mortal,” she concluded. “Lucky him.”

Of course, the picture I painted for her is simplified. It is dramatized. The past still plays a part in his conscious life. He relies on the distant echo of his considerable interpersonal skills to ask anyone he meets a series of safe questions: “How is everything?” “Where are you living these days?” “How are your people?” Occasionally he’ll venture an attempt at a more ambitious exchange and become disoriented in the middle of it, losing the thread of the idea or running out of words. The puzzled expression on his face, as well as the embarrassment that crosses it momentarily, like a puff of smoke in a breeze, betrays a past when conversation was as natural to him as breathing. Creative, funny, evocative, provocative conversation. Being a great conversador was almost as highly regarded among his oldest group of friends as being a good writer.

The future is also not completely behind him. Often at dusk he asks, “Where are we going tonight? Let’s go out to a fun place. Let’s go dancing. Why? Why not?” If you change the subject enough times, he moves on.

He recognizes my mother and addresses her as Meche, Mercedes, La Madre, or La Madre Santa. There were a few very difficult months not long ago when he remembered his lifelong wife but considered the woman in front of him claiming to be her to be an impostor.

“Why is she here giving orders and running the house if she is nothing to me?”

My mother reacted to this with anger.

“What is wrong with him?” she asked in disbelief.

“It’s not him, Mom. It’s dementia.” She looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one. Surprisingly, that period passed, and she regained her proper place in his mind as his principal companion. She is the last tether. His secretary, his driver, his cook, who have all worked in the house for years, he recognizes as familiar and friendly people who make him feel safe, but he no longer knows their names. When my brother and I visit, he looks at us long and hard, with uninhibited curiosity. Our faces ring a distant bell, but he cannot make us out.

“Who are those people in the next room?” he asks a housekeeper.

“Your sons.”

“Really? Those men? Carajo. That’s incredible.”

There was an uglier period a couple of years earlier. My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over and over again is enormous. He would say, “I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me,” and then he would repeat it in one form or another multiple times an hour for half an afternoon. It was grueling. That eventually passed. He regained some tranquility and would sometimes say, “I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it,” or “Everyone treats me like I’m a child. It’s good that I like it.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review