My dad is, was and always has been, for me, the definition of how to live a good life. My opinion is probably biased. Fact is, I didn’t know him at all for the first half of his life and now I have children of my own, I can be damn sure that the father they know isn’t the same person I was before they were born. That person apparently skied off a cliff and floated down a mountainside with a parachute. This person barely remembers. I’m told it happened. I dimly, if pushed, remember that it probably did and can dredge up a hazy recollection of some floundering in the snow beforehand. That’s not dementia, that’s just a life stuffed full of, well, stuff and leaking badly at the edges. Pretty much like anyone in their middle years, I suppose, although I don’t know. Anyway, point being that my kids will never know I did this because they weren’t there and I barely remember myself. I was a different person then and frankly their existence had a lot to do with the change. I don’t claim either me was better than the other, only that the person my children remember when they grow up won’t be the person I was before they were born. There are whole tranches of me that they’ll never see or know and so I have to suppose that the same is true of my own parents. Sometimes I wonder who they were before I came along and then my brother and we quietly pinned them to the wheel of raising a family.
With my dad, I’ll never know. He doesn’t remember any more and it was always shrouded in mystery even when I was little. He was a chemist and it was often something to do with explosives. For three years before I was born, he was assigned to the British embassy in Washington as a scientific adviser of some sort. It was all a bit Official Secrets Act and not something to be talked about. It all sounds desperately interesting and if a younger me had known about all this then younger me would have hounded him mercilessly to find out all about it. But younger me didn’t. What I do know, because I remember, is that he was sharper, smarter and kinder than I’ll ever be. He taught me chess and quantum physics, and there was always a quiet gleeful joy to growing up in a house filled with books on how to make things explode. He had a quiet strength and willingly gave himself up for the rest of us, as I suppose many parents do. It was one of those solid lives that no one ever remarks upon and has no apparent significance in the greater scheme of things and yet form, in the sum of them, the foundation on which civilisation stands. I can guess and I can imagine who he was before I was old enough to see and measure it for myself, but I can never know. Rather like skiing off a mountainside, perhaps the true story is rather less glorious than the imagined one, but that’s OK. I’ll stick with the imagined one on both counts.
I noticed, years ago, that he was losing that sharpness. Chess wasn’t any fun any more, and then pointless to even try. But he was still there, still my dad. It seemed as though he was simply happy to sit back and rest on his mental laurels, content with what he’d done with his life and pretty happy with the way most of it had turned out and pleased not to have anyone make him think too hard any more because thanks but he was done with that. I kind of quietly said goodbye to him then, told him what I thought of him, how great he’d been, how I’d always looked up to him, how he was the quiet role model and hero of my life. Here and now I’m glad I did that back when I had the chance to see him appreciate it. One of the few unequivocally smart and good things I ever did, for both of us.
Last year he started losing his memory. Badly. Not Altzheimers but some other form of dementia that might as well be. In hindsight I wonder whether the first symptoms of this was what I was seeing, years and years ago, but it doesn’t really make a difference one way or the other. It could be worse. He doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him and seems largely happy enough. I know there are people with Altzheimers who are exquisitely aware of their own fading and live in near-constant terror at their own deconstruction. I can only try to imagine what that must be like. Blissful ignorance seems so much better.
A couple of days ago we picked some vastly overripe tomatoes together. Managing that much was an achievement and I felt a little proud that we’d actually done something, and done it together. Sorting the moldy ones from the rest was a challenge too far, but that didn’t really matter. At the rate things are going, he probably won’t remember my name six months from now.
Losing those we love is inevitable. I’ve had death and I’ve had depression come sit very close by. But fuck you, dementia. In many ways I like you least of all.