By Dan Moore
Every family has a story, a means of making sense of itself, complete with beginnings and villains and lingering, inglorious ends. The story of my family, beautiful though it began, promises to end in one of those lingering, inglorious ways: with my father’s lingering, inglorious death. As I lay in the darkness of my childhood bedroom, now — 27 years old, anxious, and having just learned the end is coming, that endings are real — it feels like the saddest story I’ve ever known.
I’m here in my childhood bedroom embalmed in this badness because last night I received a seemingly innocuous text from my father that read: Hey Melly, do u want to come up 4 dinner tomorrow night? Mom will make chicken parm, your fav. Excited 2 see U! Love, Dad.
I read the text twice. Precisely because it seemed so normal, it triggered me the typical unease. I held my phone in my lap for a while, gut burning with a familiar, parasitic rot — the old anxiety, hatching. I put my glass of wine down on the coffee table.
Sure! I replied. Can’t wait!
Then, after another pause that extended for probably just a second too long, I added: Love you, too.
Things used to be different.
When I was little, my father was everything: beautiful, kind, intelligent, strong. To a girl with a fancy for fairytales, in fact, he was nothing short of a hero. That’s my dad, I’d think, watching him lay the foundation of a joke before a circle of friends at one of the neighborhood block parties he and my mother used to host, everyone’s eyes latched on to him, hair spilling over his glasses in elegant, coffee-colored curls. His magnetism mystified me, but when he looked up and caught me watching him from across the room, for a beautiful moment, I’d feel like I understood him completely. And that he understood me, appreciated and loved me — had even created this space above the laughter just for us, a space above the party, away from everyone else, a place meant purely for me and him.
Even as I got older, anxious and ever-nervous though I became, in moments like this, I felt entirely and totally myself — comfortable, confident, the opposite of anxious, the opposite of nervous. I felt proud to be me because to be me was to be my father’s daughter, and that felt like a truly wonderful thing.
It’s funny, the moments you remember, the memories that stick with you. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. It remains largely unchanged. When I visit, however, I don’t think of the moments I shared with my dad there, those pockets in time. Instead, regrettably, I think of the darkness he began to exude in the latter half of my adolescence, a darkness like a leak of something insidious, an emanation of something evil that spilled out of his eyes and ears and filled up the house. It felt thick, and alien, a sort of cancerous fog that jarred so noticeably with his once-fluorescent disposition that it felt purposeful like it was something he produced willfully, so as to deny us the more amazing aspects of his healthier, happier self.
I was never sure what changed inside my dad to account for the darkness— could have been a number of things, in retrospect, some more obvious than others. For a while, when I asked my mom whether Dad was OK, or if anything had happened, she assured me that everything was fine, and that nothing had changed, he was just busy with his new job. She assured me that her and I were still the most important things in his life. Later, though, all she could offer was a beleaguered “I don’t know, Mel. I don’t know.”
I began to feel more and more as if the change in my father — and subsequently in my family — was somehow my fault like I’d done something to make my dad stop loving my mom and me and was thus complicit in ruining our story. Possibly to avoid these feelings, I spent most of my time from here on out as far away from my house as possible, idling on street corners with friends, leaving my mother alone in her bedroom or in the dining room with her books, my father meanwhile gone or in his office, festering in his darkness. Leaving everyone to nurse their personal resentments, everyone arming themselves with animosity, anger, and all of it building up, the darkness itself breeding more darkness, infecting everything. The aim of our interactions became either avoiding or flat out winning whatever fight was silently raging at the moment. I’m told most families go through periods like this, chapters of tension, but ours felt unnatural, somehow. Ours felt wrong.
Then, one night, around when I was a junior in high school, we reset. I came home from school and found my mother and father sitting at the dinner table. They asked me to join them, and, together, they apologized. They told me they had pledged to rebuild the things we’d let rot. They asked me to help. “I’m sorry, Mel,” my dad said. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to make it better. I‘m going to fix it. I promise. This family means too much.” “All we have in life is each other,” my mother added, her words measured and clipped, carefully chosen. “We have to remember that.”
Although I felt an inclination to resist, to flex some strange, rare political power, I looked back at my dad and told him yes, I’d help, I’m here. And this is what we resolved to do: forget about the resentments, forgive the darkness, forgive one another, and focus instead on appreciating the present, the blessing of each other. This, too, is something I’m told all families have to do, at some point — reset, redirect. Adjust the plot of their story. And I’m glad we did this — really, I am. In the years that have passed since we’ve been happy. But things have never truly felt the same between my father and me. I have never been able to shake my interpretation of his darkness as the villain of my family’s story. Whenever we are together, still — and each time I go back home, especially — there rings in my ear a kind of low-wattage tinnitus, an uneasy yet constant awareness of something different about the pressure of the air that I don’t want to feel but do. It’s an awareness that prevents me from ever truly being in the moment with my parents, from ever truly living up to the promise I made them years ago at the dinner table. Which itself produces its own kind of guilt, which produces its own kind of anxiety, and then down, down, down we go…
All of which accounts for why my stomach curdled so violently when the text message from my dad came on Friday night.
I don’t realize until I leave my apartment the next day, however, that there is a second reason my father’s text produces such a physical response in me, a more lasting physical response than such texts typically provoke, nearly ten years now after our familial pledge: my dad never texts me so late at night. He and my mom typically go to bed around nine. And although they had taken to texting me more regularly over the years — my father especially, always trying, I think, to combat with appreciation and love whatever darkness remained inside him — my dad would only text me so late if something had changed. If something is wrong.
My suspicion only deepens when I arrive at my parent’s house.
“My baby’s home!” my dad exclaims as he opens the door, swinging it open before I’m even up the front steps, smiling big, his green eyes still conveying a mischievous intelligence. In his outstretched hands, he holds a bottle of champagne and three glass flutes; they clink behind my neck like wind chimes as he gives me a hug.
“Just kidding I know you’re a big city girl,” he says as we part. “And I’m so proud of you.”
In his arms, smelling his unique smell, I feel, for a moment, that old force, his old power.
I release, he steps aside, and there’s my mom with her hair tied back and her hands clasped in front of her tucked in shirt.
“Hi Mel darling,” she says as she wraps her arms around me. Then, into my ear, she whispers, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
There’s something about the tenderness in my her tone that worries me further, and I consider inquiring as to whether something is going on right then, but I don’t. “So, what are we celebrating?” I ask instead, as my dad leads us into the dining room, the smell of my mother’s homemade marinara sauce thick in the air.
“LIFE!” my dad booms in response. He sets the bottle and the flutes down on the table, decorated at the moment with pumpkins and pine combs and little red leaves. “We’re celebrating the fact that we’re all here, alive, Melly. It’s a beautiful thing.”
With a twist of his hand he pops open the champagne.
“Also, my new iPad,” he adds as he fills up the flutes, nodding over at the new shiny tablet sitting on the other end of the table, his enthusiasm for the thing endearingly dad-like. “It’s incredible.”
“I’m happy for you, Dad,” I say. “Small things, right?”
I take a breath and try to relax. My dad hands me my champagne. I take a sip, and then another. As always, alcohol helps. My dad asks me how work has been going; I lie and tell him well. I ask him how he’s enjoying the Thanksgiving break, as he’d recently returned to the classroom. He says it’s great, been doing lots of reading on his new iPad.
It all does feel generally normal, but that’s when I notice the nervousness of my mother. Quietly, without having touched her champagne, she stands up from the table. She shuffles over to a cupboard in the kitchen, then shuffles back to the table, then steps behind my chair and starts flitting with the buttons on her small little cotton blouse. Just as I turn in my chair to see what’s going on, she asks me, Mel, dear, are you hungry? I promise dinner will be ready soon would you like anything to drink no in addition to the champagne, dear, would you like any water or milk or perhaps a diet soda oh let me check the garage Rob did you get more Coke when you were at the —
“OK,” I say, forcefully, reaching up and finding her hand, and then turning to corral my dad’s attention, too. The chandelier above drapes the table in warm, suburban light. My mother’s homemade marinara sauce lending the room a certain aromatic heat. From outside the open windows the hiss of sprinklers, the tidal wash of cars in the distance. Around us a hundred pictures, smiling down. “What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” my dad says, demurring.
“Midnight text. Mom’s nervous. Guys, I get it. You’ve got something to tell me. What’s going on?”
A beat passes. My dad rests his champagne flute down on the table. The smile that heretofore had been gracing his face slowly fades, succumbing to some kind of gravity. He steals a look at my mother, then turns back to me. Suddenly his face is void of any happiness at all. The last time I can remember seeing him so serious is the night he and my mother sat me down in high school.
“Um, OK, you’re right…Look, Mel, I, I don’t really know how to tell you this…”
He glances at the champagne bottle. “I suppose I might have been avoiding it.”
Another breath. Inhaling through his nose. My heart speeds up in my chest.
“We received bad news from the doctor,” he says.
“What?” I reply, quickly. That my father had been seeing a doctor is news to me.
My mother’s hand resting gently on my shoulder, now.
My dad takes another big breath. He adjusts his glasses.
“Mel I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
It takes me a second to understand. I hear my dad. I know what Alzheimer’s is, and that my dad as a person is hypothetically capable of getting it. But I can’t make the connection. The words I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s feel impossible, the sentiment conveyed so starkly out of line with my still-prevalent perception of my father as infallible — as foundational — that I just can’t make sense of it. Then, though, my mother’s fingers start digging a bit deeper into my shoulder, and my dad’s eyes start quivering just slightly, and for a terrible, precipitous second, the world stops spinning. The room darkens. And, quickly, I understand.
I become suddenly cognizant of the muscles in my throat.
“I’m so sorry, Mel,” my dad says, holding me with his eyes. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Throughout my body I feel this blooming sickness, a warm, creeping nausea, like a thousand spiders crawling along the walls of my stomach, up and down, worse in every way than the rot I’d felt in my gut last night, upon receiving my father’s text — as if this in fact is a realization of that rot, a manifestation of what it had always been threatening to be.
“But… how?” I manage. “You’re… you’re so young.”
“Early onset,” he says. He lets his eyes drop to the table. “I started seeing Dr. Ludrow about my, my symptoms a few years ago, when I just couldn’t seem to get better. I’d thought this whole time it was depression, this depression that just kept threatening to swallow me completely, taking more and more of me, but…but apparently it’s not. He says that I might still be alive for a long time, but also, I…it’s going to get hard, Mel, and I know…”
My dad continues, but I stop hearing him. As that’s when, sort of all at once, it hits me, for real: my dad is going to die. He is going to forget me and he is going to die. And I can feel, all of a sudden, sort of floating around me, the brutal and ghostly reality that endings are real, and that ours had arrived — arrived and wrapped itself around us, this cold, mercurial, terrifying grip.
And what becomes clear, in death’s cold embrace, is this: our stories don’t just happen to us — we make them. We are the ones in control. Our stories are the sum of our choices. And in my selfishness, in my self-centeredness, I’d chosenfor my family’s story to stay sad. I’d fixated on the bad parts, wasting precious time. The real reason my family’s story is sad, I realize now, is that it didn’t have to be.
The next thing I know, my dad and my mother have their arms around me and we’re a huddle of limbs and wet cheeks — no words, just us, holding on to each other like survivors at sea. And down, down, down we go…
That night I sleep in my old bedroom. But of course, I don’t sleep. Instead, I lay there, staring up into the not-quite-dark, regrets like tire fires in my mind. And how powerful regret is, an intensely physical thing. I try and force myself to think about happier times, good times, the moments when everything was beautiful, when everything was perfect, moments I had thought I was thankful for. I try, too, to remind myself that it’s not in fact over, that there is, thankfully, more time. I grit my teeth and clamp my eyes and try as hard as I can — but I just can’t do it. All I can think about is everything I’ve done wrong, everything I should have done differently. Everything I now won’t be able to do. All the reasons I don’t want my dad to die.
Deep down, as tears soak my pillow, I wish it could be me, instead.
And perhaps that is why I eventually fold myself out of bed and start down the hallway: I want to stop feeling. Or at least I want to go somewhere I can’t be found. I paw along the cold hardwood floor with ambitions of opening the front door and going into the night and never coming back. But then I reach the end of the hall, where it opens to the rest of the house. Beneath a cone of light at the head of the dinner table, my dad sits in plaid pajamas, looking down at his iPad, a big smile on his face.
I stand there silently for a while, floor cold beneath my feet, unsure if my dad notices me. Then his voice fills up the room.
“This iPad,” he says, a voice carried by an acoustic confidence, not looking up, just kind of swaying his head in childish wonder. “It’s the most amazing thing.”
“What are you doing with it?” I ask, weakly, not allowing myself any closer.
“Looking at pictures,” my dad replies.
Finally, he looks up. He considers me a moment, studying me for a bit. And in his eyes, again, I recognize the old energy. I can feel, too, our old connection, the old, magical thing we used to share. The urge to cry surges, my throat tightening up again, but then my dad lets out a dry laugh, a short chuckle, floated with the faintest hint of disbelief.
“I’m looking at all of them.”
This almost does it, shatters everything inside me, but I fight it, trying as hard as I can to remain here, in the moment, as I’d once so hollowly promised to do. Not even really understanding fully why it’s so important that here, tonight, right now, I do this — fight it, feel the moment — but fighting as hard as I can nevertheless.
“All of them?” I manage, voice like thin ice.
“Well I mean it’s going to take a while,” he replies, folding his hands in his lap and leaning back slightly in his chair.“But I transferred all our old ones over and downloaded a bunch off Facebook and I made this album. I’m gonna go through all of em, one by one. It’s incredible, the story they tell.”
I find then that I can’t make my voice work.
“Want to join me?” my dad asks, when he realizes I won’t be saying anything back.
I nod; I do. A tear beads in my eye, but I wipe it away. I set my jaw and unclench my balled up fists that I didn’t even know were balled up and take a light-footed step towards the table. And then, miraculously, it’s just me and my dad, sitting together beneath the cone of light, looking at pictures, the world revolving chaotically everywhere else but here, my dad’s right arm wrapped around my shoulder, he once again creating a place separate from everyone else, a place once again preserved solely for me and him.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius