We talk about the weather. (It’s getting cooler now.) We do the run-down on my three kids and what they’re up to. (Pretty much the same things they were up to yesterday, and the day before that.) We talk about what my work has been like lately. (I’m writing a memoir.)
Then, every day, after all that, there’s a momentary lull in the conversation. And then Dad asks if I want to talk to my mother. He is eager to pass the phone on, to pass the buck to the responsible party. Mom is in charge of phonecalls.
We have done this, in this way, with this division of responsibilities, for more than 30 years, basically ever since I left home. They have divided things up: He does the taxes; she organizes their socializing. She takes charge of the garden; he handles car maintenance.
Maybe couples today are more woke, less traditional. But my parents are approaching a century. Mom has been the social memory for a long time. And my father is from that generation of men who are short on dialogue. So mom fields phonecalls with the kids. It has been that way for 30 years.
Dad is OK with the first part of the talk, the five-minute overview, but after that there might be emotional content for which he is ill-equipped; dramatic undertones with which he chooses not to engage. That is where my mom comes in.
Recently, mom’s role has become even more essential. Dad abdicated on the phonecalls years ago, but lately his short-term memory has waned. For five or so years, dad has found it impossible to recall words, to remember names, to keep track of what happened with whom. Some weeks are better than others, but mostly it gets worse day by day.
It is not Alzheimer’s or any fancy diagnosis, they say, just garden-variety vanilla senility. They say there is nothing to be done about it: He’s 91. It happens. He’s old.
So my mom has been the institutional memory, modeling social cues, reminding dad of how he needs to respond. “You remember Alex,” she’d say. Or, “Isn’t it great that Shuli is growing up so beautifully?” Dad takes his cues from her, nods and scoffs when she does, and mostly muddles through.
But he’s not remembering; he’s using her as the memory crutch. The only thing dad seems to never forget is that he adores my mother. It is the one constant of his newly confusing life.
Mom is the family memory. Dad is used to handing her the baton. They are in a relay race, and each has their part. Dad can sustain the conversation for five minutes, along the familiar fault lines. After five minutes, though, he is done. He is ready for Mom to take over, to do the heavy lifting.
Now, though, after 30 years, there is a wrinkle, a sudden snafu.
My mom died two weeks ago.
And Dad doesn’t remember that she’s dead.
“We’re fine,” he tells me when I call, every day, to check on him. “We’re enjoying ourselves.”
He can not adjust to speaking in the singular. It is jarring to me to hear him relaxing into a dual narrative that is now, suddenly, a solo performance. After 61 years, he can’t quite remember that he is not part of a we.
It isn’t just a misspeaking, though, a long-standing habit that hasn’t adjusted to his new reality. That would be jarring, but understandable. It is deeper; a fundamental failure of memory, a hurt buried so deeply it can not be retrieved.
“Would you like to speak to your mom?” he asks me after we’ve done our five minutes.
He is ready to pass the baton, but there is no one to accept it.
The first few times it happens, I gently correct him. “Dad—you remember, mom died.” There is a pause that could accommodate tomes. “Yes,” he finally says. “I—I forgot.”
The next time it happens, I wonder if I should resist correcting him. I could tell him I don’t need to speak to mom, even though that’s not true. I could lie. I could almost-lie: I could say, “Let her sleep,” or “Let me finish telling you this story first.”
Maybe he prefers to spend his day thinking she is just in the other room, in the dining room, at an art class. Maybe imagining her asleep nearby is better for him than the crushing reality of the finality of her death.
They were married for 61 years.
Most of the time, I think it’s sad that he can’t remember that she’s gone. I think that probably, he’s also lost all the texture that made their shared life: The amusing anecdotes, the camaraderie, the joint history.
I’m glad that I can remember my past with my mother, glad that I can leaf through the album and fill in the gaps of what happened before and after the photos were snapped, glad that I can recall moments big and small, even when they are painful.
But remembering my mom, for me, is also remembering that she is dead. It is beyond painful.
Because dad doesn’t remember that she’s gone, in his very limited world, at least, she sometimes isn’t. He has eliminated the pain of her death by denying that it is his new reality.
And I find I do it too, sometimes. I think of something I want to tell her. I find myself reaching for the phone to ask her. I wonder what she would tell me.
Sometimes, I think, forgetting that she’s died might be easier for me, too.
Fern Reiss has published in Smithsonian, HuffPost, and Nature Magazine. She is writing a memoir.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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Published: 2023-06-18 09:30:01