Do You Remember Me? : Chapter 1: Anger
"I don''t have any more," says Dad, his whole body a shrug of resignation.
We are eating supper on a small white round Melamite table shoved into the corner of Mom and Dad''s blue and white, barely "eat-in" kitchen. Mom and I occupy two straight-backed white Melamite chairs, a punitive imitation of modernism, on either side of the table. Dad sits between us on an antique pine ladderback, carried in from the living room.
At Walden Pond, Thoreau had three chairs: one for solitude, two for company, three for society. Tonight, here on West Twenty-fourth Street in Manhattan, it''s one for loneliness, two for conspiracy, three for exclusion.
The pine chair is Dad''s last repair job, monument to his Alzheimer''s disease. A few years ago, when he refitted a loose rung in its back, he glued the shaped wood upside down with its garlanded edge drooping toward the floor like a fruited vine. Mom couldn''t bear to correct him, he''d wanted so badly to be useful. Now, the chair and its formerly identical twin flank the upright piano. Among the first purchases of their marriage, the chairs are a pair like them: one "normal," straight, sturdy, and modestly festooned, the other a clownish imitation of normalcy, permanently out of whack.
Alone in the kitchen, the chair seems forlorn, though not so much as its occupant. "I have no boat. I don''t have any money!" Dad rummages in his shirt pocket. "I don''t have."
Mom answers: "You don''t need money, dear."
"My boat, do you remember, Jude? I had in that, that -- " He waves his arm outward and upward, compassing what I understand to be the coast of Maine. "A beautiful piece, handsome." The landlocked sailor smiles distantly.
"It was handsome," I say.
"But we had, we had to -- we had to."
A familiar lament, the lost boat. Twenty-five years ago it was Dad who tired of sailing, biking, and blueberry-picking and instigated the sale of the steep-roofed little house on the ocean that Mom and I still mourn like a deceased member of the family. These points are no longer debated. "Maine" has become symbolic, its truth bigger than the details.
That truth resides in every photograph of Dad on the boat, face tilted back to gauge the luff of the sail, pipe in teeth, wind in hair, forearm relaxed on the tiller. The boat was pleasure, status, mastery, masculinity. "No boat," he mutters, pushing rice onto his spoon with his index finger. He glowers at Mom. "You have money." Turns to me with a disgusted sigh. "She''s always making money."
"Dad, she doesn''t make any money either," I say, insisting futilely on reason. "She''s retired, like you."
"You have money!" he snaps at me. I don''t reply. He heckles.
"Don''t you have money? Don''t you have money?"
I confess. "Yes, I have money."
A nod of finality -- I rest my case.
"Not much," I appeal.
He has returned to mashing hacked chicken flesh into the heap of rice soaking in the slick of salad oil he has poured over the whole mess. "She always has money," he says to his plate.
We sit in silence for a long minute.
"You have your things, too," I say, hearing condescension in my voice as I enumerate the items he carries each time he leaves the house. "You have your Metrocard, your senior citizen card, your keys." I leave out the plastic forks, magazine subscription cards, combs, and pencils and pens in a white pocket protector he also totes, a few of which he loses each week. "Everything you need."
"Myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-MYA," he mimics the cadence of my sentence and chuckles mordantly. "I need, I need." His hand goes out for yet another chicken breast.
Mom and I lean forward, like two flanks of a defensive army, thwarting him. "Dad, you already -- " "Stan, look at -- "
With a dangerously large gesture, Dad shoos us both away but forgoes the second helping. Returning to work on his meal, he anchors a half-eaten piece of chicken with a spoon and forefinger and saws at it with an upside-down butter knife. I reach to flip the knife over.
"You!" he barks, pushing my hand away. "I''ll!!"
Unfettered, Dad would eat the whole chicken. Assurances that he''s already had a meal, as little as ten minutes earlier, are met with skepticism, sometimes outrage. Even hunger, it seems, is a function of memory.
"I am aware that I am no longer able to do the things I used to do," he pronounces after a while, almost calmly. It is 2001 and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer''s six years ago. He is most cogent when expressing his disintegration.
We eat in near silence, Mom and I exchanging a few words while Dad maneuvers chicken on spoon or knife or (once in a while) fork to his mouth, dripping juice onto his chin, which is wrinkled in disgruntlement.
Mom appears to be mentally thumbing through tactics: blandish, distract, ignore, commiserate. Sympathize, as in, Yes, you are right. You are not what you used to be. That must be hard for you. This last comes rarely. Sympathy stripped of judgment or advice is not big in our family''s repertoire. Perhaps she thinks it will only reaffirm his despair. Or her own. "I can''t save him," she has told me more than once, "but I am determined not to go down with him." She feels him like a drowning swimmer with his arms locked round her neck.
Tonight, she chooses commiseration. Co-miseration: a few comradely yards'' swim alongside him in the drowning pool. "You know, Stanley, you''re not the only one," she says. "We''re all getting older. Every day. I''m getting older too. None of our friends are what they used to be." She ticks off the casualty list: Ruth''s eyes, Sonje''s paralyzed left side, Helen''s cancer. "We''re all losing something. We''re all in the same boat."
"You''re losing?" Dad snorts. Meaning, I infer, You''re not losing your mind. And to what boat is she referring? Didn''t he just point out that he doesn''t have a goddamn boat.
"I''ve lost too," Mom says. I have lost my husband. A thin shell of anger closes around the pain in her voice. In our battle-ready family, the wounded are wary of resting undefended.
Dad reaches back and perches a water glass on the edge of the cabinet behind him. Mom and I simultaneously lunge at it. Amusement animates his face as he watches the hysterical pair he can so easily provoke. In this moment of disorder, he makes a final point: "I don''t have." And then, "I don''t want to talk about it anymore."
"Okay," I say.
"I don''t want to talk about it anymore!"
"I said okay."
"Okay," says Mom, whether in relief or surrender I cannot tell.
Daddy is too big. I am small. His head is huge, his hair so thick it has muscles of its own. He loves to tickle me, but refuses to stop when my pleasure turns to desperation. He calls me "Little Jood," rhymes with "good." But his voice is loud, as if he were addressing a large audience, not one little girl.
His power is always poised to explode through his large body. Fear robs him of grace; he lugs his temper around like a tank of volatile gas, its incendiary potential seeming to scare him almost as much as it does the rest of us. Our tiny Queens apartment compresses him. We kids are told to be quiet, Dad is in his room with "a splitting headache." I imagine his head breaking in half with a loud crack, like a huge walnut. Once, in a rage, he slams a fist through the wall.
Dad is jubilantly silly. A summer camp director, he dances before all the campers with a fake plastic knife on a headband that look as if it''s stabbed through
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