The man in the photograph above is sixty-seven years old. The boy has just turned three. They are in Bar Harbor, Maine, at the rock beach next to the pier off Agamont Park. It is low tide. One of the things the boy loves about the man is that he can throw rocks — big ones — into the Atlantic Ocean, and he asks him to do this. Repeatedly. Whenever the boy sees a rock of significant size — the bigger the better, be it a boulder or slab of decorative stone on one of the carriage paths in Acadia National Park — he will ask, hypothetically, if the man is capable of throwing it into the ocean, even if the ocean or another body of water is nowhere in sight. The boy mimics the man, throwing rocks of all shapes and sizes into the water. They may have been at this for ten minutes when the picture was taken. They may have been at it for an hour. It is August, 2013, not quite two years ago. It was one of the last moments the man will recognize that he is the boy’s grandfather.
The man is my (Ben’s) father. He is sixty-nine now. Eight years ago, he was in a car accident on his way to work. As a pediatrician, he often drove to work at the wee hours, especially if he was on call. In his early years beginning a new practice, when he was one of just two doctors, he was frequently on call — every other weekend — and sleep for him was a luxury. But on the morning of his accident, he was not on call, nor was he unusually tired. He just blacked out at the wheel. He did not hit anyone else; he simply ran into a telephone pole going about twenty miles an hour. My father, for whom any public attention or recognition was a discomforting thing, was largely embarrassed by this incident. He insisted he was fine. After the accident was the first time he saw a neurologist, and the first identification of gaps in his memory, though they were then short-term, just blips on the radar.
I go back and reread the previous paragraph and see how I refer to my father in the past tense: “My father, for whom any public attention or recognition was a discomforting thing.” That “was” should be an “is,” because that statement is still true. But it’s also not true, in the sense that I can’t say with any certainty if my father is aware anymore when he’s receiving public attention — or even if there’s ever a time when my dad isn’t uncomfortable nowadays, trying to find his way through a landscape where no one’s face (even his wife’s now) is always recognizable, where no place (even his home of thirty-six years) feels comfortable, familiar. In other words, like home.
This is why I catch myself sometimes, when I think or talk about my father as though he is no longer living. In some very practical sense, he is not. When I call to wish him a happy Father’s Day later today, he will not immediately know that I am his son, or why I am calling. My mother, God bless her, will prompt him, and he will figure out how to play along, echoing what she says: an act that used to bother me but which I now understand and accept. She will hold the phone up so he can see my face, but he will not look directly at me — will not understand, even, what the phone is, how I am able to see him and he me on it, and this will make him uncomfortable and cause him to look away, usually down at the ground, speaking to someone he thinks is in the room with him.
At some point during the last few years, I said goodbye to the father who knew me as his son, who had a shared past that included hiking, wiffle ball, watching “The Simpsons” together, bicycling the Beartooth Highway, going to Pirates games and attending my graduation. All those things still happened. I remember them. But he does not.
In the years following his accident, my father began to forget things. He began repeating himself. Though it seemed impossible to me and my brother, who were used to his meticulously planned vacation itineraries which included rising as a family at six a.m. to ascend some peak or bike some trail, he began slowing down. I remember discussing with my mother at some point — this would have been 2009 or 2010 — whether it was safe for him to continue practicing medicine. She worked with him, as a pediatric nurse, and could keep close tabs on him throughout the day. He’s still very sharp, she said. Though he gets tired quicker, she added. Again, this seemed impossible to me … that my father, who biked across the country when I was in ninth grade, dipping his rear tire in the Pacific and, two months later, his front tire in the Atlantic — who was forever a couple steps or paces ahead of me, so that I always seemed to be staring at his back — could run out of steam.
He was still sharp, yes, but nonetheless, he moved retirement up a year. Then things deteriorated quickly. There was another car accident — this one more serious, involving another driver, with my father at fault — and he stopped driving. He got lost, wandering away from our home until he turned up hours later a couple miles down the road, or in the passenger seat of a police car which had picked him up. He stopped bicycling, the thing I was certain he would never stop doing. He became sedentary. He could no longer finish books. Whenever he cannot recall a name, he sticks his tongue out and touches it to the side of his mouth — a tic he can no longer control. He put dish soap in the refrigerator and forgot to wear a shirt underneath his jacket one day to church. When my mother began to help him take his jacket off, she saw his bare chest and said, “Steve, where’s your shirt?” He shrugged. They laughed. (“If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry,” she says.) It was Easter.
My father has never been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There are many subtle variations of dementia (a catch-all term for a wide variety of symptoms including memory loss and behavioral changes) and it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, my father has. I latch on to Alzheimer’s, if only because it gives me something to call it by; naming it gives me some power over it, when really I know that I have no power over something which has wiped my father’s mind clean, and which may be lurking somewhere in my own genetic make-up, waiting for its time. This is my greatest fear. That one day I will be throwing rocks into the ocean beside a boy who is my grandson, and that may be the last moment I am fully aware of that fact. That Sam or Leo will be watching that scene from afar, wondering what happened to their dad, asking how it came to be that he got erased.
Stephen King was once asked by Terry Gross what scared him. He responded “the supernatural stuff doesn’t get to me anymore,” then described a movie scene which haunted him:
KING: The movie opens with a woman in late middle-age, sitting at a table and writing a story. And the story goes something like, then the branches creaked in the – and she stops, and she says to her husband: What are those things? I can’t think of them. They’re in the backyard, and they’re very tall, and birds land on the branches. And he says, why, Iris, those are trees. And she says, yes, how silly of me. And she writes the word, and the movie starts. That’s Iris Murdoch, and she’s suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
KING: That’s the boogeyman in the closet now.
GROSS: Why is that the thing you’re most afraid of?
KING: I’m afraid of losing my mind.
GROSS: Losing your memory?
KING: Mm-hmm. Well, you don’t just lose your memory. You lose your mind, basically.
KING: You lose your identity, your sense of who you are, where you are. If you’re a block away from the house, you may forget how to get home. I think I could put up with a lot of things and a lot of pain. I have put up with a lot of pain. I got hit by a car in 1999 and got most of the bones on the right side of my body broken, and I bore up under that and I got better. But you can’t get better if your mind is stolen away from you.
I am learning to talk to my dad all over again. It used to be that I needed him to understand what I was saying to him. When he stopped understanding, I felt uncomfortable in his presence — a guilty witness to his disease. Over time, I’m learning how to be around him, which is to say I’m learning to be less self-conscious. I am learning that just because he may not understand me doesn’t mean I should stop saying the things a son should say to his father. So moments like this can still happen:
My father and I are playing with Sam and Leo in the driveway. This was the last time my parents came to visit. He becomes flustered by too much busyness and activity; sometimes being around his grandchildren is taxing. But being outside helps everyone. I am struck by how much his illness has made him childlike. Helping him navigate the world is not that different than helping a toddler. A little fussy and agitated? Let’s go outside!
Sam zips around on his bike. He learned on a Strider balance bike. Once he mastered that, it took less than an hour to adjust to a bike with pedals. Although my dad cannot appreciate how Sam’s newfound skill is a sign that he is his grandfather’s son, I appreciate for him. I see three generations of Vores standing together, and I know that while my dad isn’t fully present, he is still physically here.
“Sam loves to bike,” I say. “Just like his Papaw.”
“Oh, is that right? We were just talking about what was going on over there.” He has a number of stock phrases he goes to which bear only a tangential relationship to what’s going on in the moment. He often talks about the weather, traffic, his brother Eric.
“You were a great biker. You bicycled across the country when I was in high school, remember?”
“Oh, sure. Uh-huh. Now that you mention it…”
“I biked with you for two days in Ohio. Had a hard time keeping up, but I did. I still remember that.”
Sam zips by again. He takes one hand off the handlebars at a time, testing his limits.
“I loved biking with you, dad. I was really proud of you.”
“Well, we all did what we could and, you know, I’m not really sure where we’ll be going from here…” He’s talking about going back home to Pennsylvania, although sometimes what he says carries a double meaning. I’m not really sure where we’ll be going from here either, Dad.
Sam passes again, this time with his legs kicked out, feet off the pedals. He’s grinning. I’m grateful, for the moment, that we’re all here together. I am lucky. I still have a dad I can talk to.