MY UNCLE CALLED RECENTLY AFTER MANY YEARS of not being in touch and asked about my 88-year-old father, who has Alzheimer's disease. There was no good news to report, so I told him about the last time my father and I talked. It was back in December 1991, just after a snowstorm had hit northern Idaho.
The airport limo driver had ignored travel advisories from the Idaho Highway Patrol. "You're awful lucky that I'd drive the grade on a day like this," he grumbled as he downshifted and eased the van into the snow-packed curves. "Must be damned important for you to reach Moscow today." It was.
My father was there in a nursing home. Before he surrendered the last vestige of lucidity, I had to talk with him, not about "How are you feeling?" or "Are they treating you well here?" but about some personal debris from the 1950s that still smoldered like radioactive waste.
We'd talked of such things the year before, when the disease had softened his resentments and ended decades of conflict between us. Meeting for the first time in 15 years, we worked around his occasional confusion and spoke in the abstract about mistakes and hurts and, by nightfall, even about apology and forgiveness. There had been a transformation, though the specifics were left for later.
On the phone, his wife explained the problems: "Your father cries, he's lost weight, he is incontinent and the scans show that his brain is shrinking." She went on: "He still has some memory and conversational capacity, but they're affected by the tranquilizers he takes for the violence."
Like a bad boy, my 82-year-old father had been expelled from four rest homes for having thrashed patients and staff members--he accused them of stealing a baseball hat and of being gay. Sadly, his violence had preceded the disease by a lifetime. Learned from his own father, reinforced on the streets where he was a motherless kid and validated in World War II combat, his violence was something I still remembered 40 years later, whether awake or asleep. We needed to talk about it, finally.
Once in town, I paid the driver, rented a car and set out for the nursing home. Quickly, I found my bearings and then drove past the hospital where my father had been a prominent physician and where, 30 years earlier, he had sobbed to my comatose mother about the same things he and I needed to resolve. The nursing home was just beyond the hospital.
Clearing the locked doors to the Alzheimer's unit, I found him in a multipurpose room where patients lived out their days, staring at the floor, wandering about or mumbling incomprehensible sentences. He was seated with an outdated medical journal in his lap. Eighty pounds gone, eyes leadened and skin charcoaled, he looked like a shrunken voodoo doll of his former self. After some coaching, he said my name, stood up into a hunch and greeted me formally as he always did, with a handshake at the end of a fully extended arm. During some small talk that was surprisingly rational, he shuffled me off to his private room and threw hostile glances back at the stares that followed us.
Encouraged by his coherence, I asked about the scenes from the '50s that still scripted my nightmares and drove my depression. "Dad, do you remember the day that you were drunk and took out your revolver and waved it around at Mom and me?" Silence. "Were you going to kill us?" No response. "When I got sick and couldn't walk, why did you leave the house and force Mom to get another doctor to diagnose the polio?" Nothing. "Did Mom ever forgive you for striking her?" Blank stare.
Then, suddenly, he reacted all at once, with tears, gestures of remonstration and blubbery sounds intended to be words. As I watched this sick and dying man weep, the shameful truth finally registered that I was not here for him or his comfort but for me. Like a bad cop, I had come to wring confessions out of someone with half his brain gone and then, in the name of closure, settle old scores by dispensing morally superior forgiveness. It was disgusting.
For what seemed like a long time, we just stared at each other. Then I remembered the photographs in my briefcase. Though they were no more than strangers to him, the faces of his grandchildren ended the tears and inspired rapt attention. Looking next at a photo of me, he wanted to know who it was. He could not place my mother, despite their 20 years of marriage.
The last one, a faded oval in a small frame, pictured a soft-featured, faintly smiling young woman who wore a white lace dress with a high collar and a Gibson-girl hairstyle. "LaRoux," he said without hesitation, "that's . . . my . . . mother." She'd died in 1914 from a doctor's overdose of chloroform. My father was 6. Repeating her name with a long "oo" sound, he took her photo gently in both hands, staring. When I asked how he could recognize that face after 76 years, he said, "LaRoux . . . I'll . . . remember."
Again and again, we pored over the photographs. Each time his reactions were as if he had never seen the images before. Through the day, we took breaks and I helped him eat, go to the bathroom and find things he needed. Afterward, we returned to the pictures and especially to LaRoux, whose face he would study for long stretches and whose name he repeated with that evocative "oo" sound.
At day's end, he shuffled with me to the locked doors and shook my hand. Through the doors' wire-meshed windows, he watched and cried as I walked to the reception area and then left his sight for the parking lot. Outside, the storm had passed and the snow was melting.
There had been no confessions, no delayed redress disguised as forgiveness. For the first time, I took care of my father: cutting his food, taking him to the bathroom and, most important, showing him the face of a young woman who still smiled at him from before 1914 and beyond his tomorrows.
"LaRoux," he had said, "I'll remember." So will I.