I don't know love. Oh, I know it better than you do, in the direction of the abstract, of God's love, or even of the sort which requires paid counselors to rectify. I even have a nifty little proof of how love is out there, a part of reality with or without us to feel it, a step more real than the sort attributed to God. Abstracted like a subatomic particle is abstracted. But the love I don't know is the kind that you have to learn, and it was never on offer where I got my learnin'. For you neither, I'll bet.
Here's a strange exercise: Go out to dinner with Dad, and then when he says that he doesn't remember anything, start to tell all the things you remember, in some sort of random order, or based, perhaps, on some assessment of their level of emotional impact. To him.
Some things will actually stir a memory. Sometimes, that will even trigger him remembering a few things on his own. Most of the time, it's just you remembering things, which is a pleasant enough exercise. It passes the time at dinner.
But the thing is that there is always something which will trigger interest when there is some presumption of involvement of Dad's "I". Some pride that there was a him actually involved in whatever it was I was telling him about. Or maybe he just appreciated that I appreciated it. But it doesn't seem that I could tell an outright lie and keep his interest. Although he frequently expresses disbelief at what I do tell. "Really, I did that? Tell me more . . ."
There are a few things I'd like to ask my daughter some day when the right moment comes along. Nothing about drugs and sex and alcohol, but I would like to know if she's ever cheated on a school assignment. I hear that all criminals feel justified, and so, you know, in this very dangerous exercise, I'd like to know if I feel as though I fell short, if I would like to assign blame to her Mom, or if I am angry with my child. I'd just like to know is all.
It's not the answer which weighs on me, ever so lightly. It's the question mark; the sense that there will never quite be an occasion to ask this question, to open up that channel for a level of trust which could transcend all questioning. Perhaps it will be denied me. I know it's a dangerous arena. It's not my love at risk. It's more about my character, and how much I devoted to her. I'm 99.99% sure that she never has. In fact I know of plenty of ways in which she demonstrated that she'd rather undermine herself than to do those cheap things her classmates did to grub a grade.
Alright. I don't want to know. I already do know. What am I talking about??
I have split my parents now, taking on that initiative because neither of them has the ability to do it for themself. Over time, it became blazingly apparent that there was no happiness in one another; Dad a kind of addict of Mom's mere presence, having long since forgotten that there is a life of its own inside the female of the species. He never was taught that way. Or he's just afraid, as he always says; afraid of "girls," afraid of dancing.
And Mom his slave through so many physical manifestations of introverted rage, near death each time, and still she has no idea what, actually, would make her happy. She has no instinct at all about what to do to please herself. Dad's memory is mostly gone, and so when springtime presented the opportunity to spirit him off to their summer home without Mom, I took it. But as I've learned it's not his memory that's gone. It's control, in perfect analog to his physical body which is remarkably strong and fit for its age, but not really all that strong.
I am regarded as some kind of hero within the small orbit of my family, having taken upon myself something no one else knew how to accomplish. And, in truth, I do resent it. I feel that my life has been robbed from me, as I tell both parents little lies, act out things I don't quite feel, determined to see this chess match through to where Dad believes that Mom is also in his past, a forgotten melange of Mom, grandma, some shadow person.
But that's not about to happen. It really isn't his memory that's gone, it's the story of his life, which he wrote before he would forget it, but which had already written itself as a long list of obligations capped by self-indulgence. I think that Dad was afraid to dream. I think he's always been terrified to step outside of his competency, formidable as it is, and every single move has gone according to plan, during a time in the history of mankind when such a thing was actually possible.
Now, the man is attenuated. The plan complete. What would you expect to be left at the remains of a completed life.
There is absolutely no question mark in my mind that neither of my parents ever cheated - not once - in school, and certainly not with each other. This has not seemed any sort of triumph - more a shortcoming in the passion department. Their rage is always staged. There is never any actual danger that it could escalate to physical harm. But it does the trick to keep each person from himself. It delineates the boundaries beyond which is something unknown, messy unpredictable.
I am become that sort of Catholic child I thought I never would or could become. The one who throws over some distant life to return back home to care for infirm parents. Those parents, or generally it is Mom, linger then for years and years and friends drop away since that particular sort of passion is exclusive of a life for oneself.
I have never ever cheated on a school assignment. I don't have it in me. And, well, I don't have it in me to know what it is that I really want with and of my life. And the lies I tell, therefore, are nowise geared toward advancing my own agenda. Other than to liberate myself from this strange purgatory on one of Earth's almost certainly most perfect pieces of real estate. This is the it life. Charming waterfront living, tastefully arranged.
I feel vaguely as though I should have a life, and it can't be here. I can't even last the summer, nevermind the years and years of lingering always in store for dutiful children. I don't feel as though I care either that little or that much. Perhaps I simply don't feel, enslaved all these years to some idea for myself. Some bottled aspirations, as my parents led the way toward what seems almost normal now. Like drinking corn sweetenered carbonated water, it's considered acceptable now to spend an entire life in devotion to the kids' success. That's what having enough means now: the sheer excess to be able to give your kids the message that if they don't get into the Ivy of their choice, they might as well die.
We saw an unusual bird today, and the other day there was some new not unattractive growth on the beach. Some invasive species, rendering useless the classic field guides strewn about this house. I once thought I had to learn the names of these things. I never did. Lots of Dad's memories are about the Boy Scouts. That's where I would have learned to identify plants and birds and constellations. Later on, I learned lots of Chinese characters. Then I stopped and they linger on in my being as unused competencies, shades of knowledge.
We eat often at a Chinese restaurant, one started by an artist, a calligrapher, a poet who drew his recipes from the classics. They know me there. I taught his daughter. I recognized the character in one of his "drawings." It was "filial piety" as normally translated. Respect for ones ancestors. It was somehow, vaguely mis-written. Or maybe it was an archaic form. It was tipped a bit, drunken. There's another full moon tonight. I snapped a picture of it, and got a flying saucer. I posted it to Facebook. I have no idea why. I thought it was funny.
Dad's struggle to find words is extreme. I struggle to find words, but his struggle leaves him comically bereft much of the time. He pantomimes with vague approximations, vocally, grasping for the most common terms. Things familiar. I'm not sure this is what's meant by "memory loss" to most people. In some cases, he has an apparent thing in mind, but can't get at the words for it. It reminds me of myself speaking some foreign tongue. It's frustrating, but only because you can't dig up the word to make a connection. You want a dictionary.
But a dictionary wouldn't help Dad. The mechanics would elude him. Right now he's watching something on PBS about something about war. War captivates him, just like memories of boy scouts seem the most present. But the war stuff has to be real. History. He can't watch caricatures. Dramatic enactments of WWII go well. Just now he remembered how his father was all set to ship off during WWI, but luckily was absolved by the War's end. He seemed to have a perfectly clear memory of this.
Lacking words for the organisms around us must be similar to what gets called "memory loss." We become abstracted from the natural environment which is also part of us, but it was the words themselves which abstracted us in the first place. Without them, we would be embedded, connected.
So there is nothing separate from losing grasp in general to memory loss. I guess there are some people who keep a good memory well after their body is decrepit. But what good would that be? Is a sharp mind in a blasted body more free than a blasted mind in a sharp body?
This sense of "I" that we celebrate so much is nothing other from abstraction, separation, identity, that thing which makes us unnatural. There is nothing about my Dad which is not perfectly recognizable as him. There is nothing lacking, though much has been attenuated. And he's no longer in control, even of his wife, who has finally learned to assert herself. At least on the phone. At least across an international boundary.
I won't be able to do this much longer. My mind is subsumed beneath the white noise of Dad. I can't think. I'm losing my mind in a different way. My words are not available to me because there is no peace. I think we mirror each others' frustration. Perhaps another TV uipstairs would do the trick?
Oh, I can read there on my Kindle, which allows me to purchase new books without leaving my seat, pulling in the tower from the hill across the lake in the good ol' U. S. of A. Remember when a book was something to have and to hold, and folks would have been embarrassed to sell you just the words and prevent you then from giving them away to the next person.
My struggle is with irritation, with bodily functions and smells and old bad habits which were only lightly veneered by some civilizing influence. It's hard to like Dad now. He smells and won't wash and makes embarrassing and loud comments in restaurants of the sort he used to know enough to keep to himself. And this new being can't be blamed on new deficits. Rather, something got removed which kept the disagreeable stuff in check. But it was always there.
Then what is left, when everything else gets removed? When the house and chotchkes gathered up across so many years of perpetually contested truce are disposed of and all the memories must be told from someone else's mouth, or pen, or also-fading memory. Constructed memory which will always be cartoon-like smoothed, toward abstracted perfect shapes, for better or for worse.
Is all that's left just simply this compulsion to care, to act out love, to treat the shell as though it were the real thing, and not what should get left behind. I'll keep you posted. I'm learning love, but I'm not there yet. I sitll have plenty of work to do, to arrange for disposals, for professional care, for preservations when necessary. I still have truths to tell so that there will be calm and peace and something like co-existence, on the same campus, of two individuals who can't help one another anymore.
One, my father, always competent and always preparing ahead, shedding things, before he can't handle them anymore. He is stubborn like a bull if asked to relinquish authority, autonomy, charge, unless invited to do so by someone who will help him as a peer. The other, my mother, always resentful of control taken away, and for whom help is something compelled, with belittlement if necessary, with money doled out or withheld.
So I must stand in. For love. In all the wrong places. And then one day, perhaps, I will experience it, as a felt experience, as something real beyond control. As something not dependent on so many things piled up across the years. Perhaps.