INSTRUCTIONS FOR LOSING YOUR MIND
You’ve noticed the flow of books through your parents’ house stagnating over the last decade. Each time you visit you can spot a distinct era of trade paperbacks across the room, hardened into geologic strata: the 2003 layer, the 2006 layer. The piles grow steadily outward, but the core is undisturbed. Your father brings home the same titles over and over; he can’t recall what he already has. When you visit he admits he needs to start organizing his collection. The first time he asks you for help you think maybe you can.
That Christmas you spend the week of your visit trying to find all the duplicates. You ignore the protests of your stiff and aching back as you dive into the piles: excavating, sneezing, alphabetizing. Over fifty multiple copies of various books emerge. You are making a dent! You show him five copies of the same unremarkable mystery. He can choose two to keep, you say magnanimously, but he blanches when faced with the choice, as though you’ve asked him to banish three of his children to hard labor.
The next Christmas you find the single bag of books he’d grudgingly agreed to part with sitting by the garage door where you left it. You take it to Goodwill without mentioning it to him, and your mother’s outsized gratitude for this tiny act is almost unbearable.
If he ever becomes incapacitated the first thing you’ll do is throw away all these books. They’re driving you crazy; you can’t sit anywhere, can’t set the table properly, can’t sit on the piano bench. Every surface is covered, every pathway choked with them. Annie doesn’t notice because he clears off her bed when she visits, transfers a few stacks to the garage to widen the stairwell. But he keeps bringing them home and they close in on you again. You can’t function in this mess.
Correct him, even when he yells at you. He’s always been absent-minded, but this is different. Stand your ground when he denies it. It really happened. You were there. He was there, just last week. Last Monday, to be exact. Show him where you wrote it on the calendar.
Describe the restaurant to jog his memory: how crowded it was, how he complained that the water smelled like bleach. Describe the pot pie he ordered, how he forgot to ask about onions and then ate it with the onions, how they gave him such a headache. How you gave him a Chlor-Trimeton out of your purse.
When he yells that no such thing happened, that he’s never set foot in the place, that you’re crazy to suggest it, consider driving back to settle the argument, asking the wait-staff to corroborate your account. If he insists the meal you shared never happened, hasn’t he erased you too?
First of all, deny everything.
What does your wife know, anyway? She’s always embellishing the story, talking to hear herself talk, just like her mother.
If it had actually happened the way she’s describing it, you would have remembered it. Or part of it. It wouldn’t be this big nothing, this blank grey space where she insists you did something you didn’t do.
It’s not just an exaggeration, it’s totally fabricated––a trick to make you believe you ate that meal, made that comment, agreed to do that thing she wanted you to do. She always has to be right, even when she’s wrong. You don’t even like pot pies.
She nags you to visit the doctor, because doctors can never be wrong. She wants to make the doctor tell you to stop driving, stop riding your bike. Take this pill, take that pill. Your wife won’t be happy until you have eight pills to take at every meal, just like she does.
Of course he yells at her when she corrects him. You’d do the same. In fact you do the same on every visit home. She might as well put that on her calendar too, argument with Annie, penciled in neatly next to your flight number and arrival time.
Your mother’s need to manage her anxiety through order and control is not a new development; it’s the story of your life. Any outburst of anger, anxiety or lapse of concentration wasn’t viewed as normal childhood behavior. To your mother, they were a symptom of your food allergies, to be dealt with scientifically. She had the empirical evidence: all those trips to the allergist, all those pricks and bumps on your arm, the blood sent off for testing merely confirmed what she already knew: you were a very sensitive child. When new foods were introduced to your diet on a trial basis she enlisted your teachers and babysitters to report any “out of character” behavior. Once the offending culprit, tuna or grapes or saltines or bananas, could be identified and eliminated, you’d return to your sweet and smart and easygoing self. She only wanted to keep you safe.
As an adult you’ve resorted to geographical distance to diminish the gravitational pull of her need to control. You thought you’d finally outgrown this anger with your mother, but the resentment slides back onto your shoulders so easily, warm and familiar as a coat made just for you.
Worry that he sits around the house all day doing nothing. He gets up early to get the paper, does the crossword, goes back to bed and sleeps till noon, watches TV, wanders from room to room shuffling books and papers around.
Worry when he does leave the house and forgets to take the cellphone. What if he gets lost or forgets where he parked the car? What if he loses track of time? How will you know when to start making dinner?
Worry when he does take the cellphone with him that he’ll lose it, set it down somewhere and wander away, like he did with the library book he can’t find. He can’t figure out how to use that phone anyway, no matter how many times you show him. He’s too impatient, irritable, unwilling to learn anything you’ve mastered first.
Go for a drive to clear your head. The regular book-hunting rounds: first Goodwill, then Salvation Army, stopping by yard sales along the way to the Friends of the Library sale. Bring home a carload of books. Arrange them in neat stacks in the living room. Sure bets to sell in Berkeley for cash or credit: literary trade and mysteries, books that might sell if you erase the penciled marginalia, books to mail your sister, your brother-in-law, your daughter, once you find the right size box. Canonical works you’ve always meant to read, worn favorites you pick up out of a sense of kinship—who can leave an old friend like Thoreau or Farley Mowat or E. L. Doctorow collecting dust at Value Village?
Some books might not sell but are useful to have: only a bit of highlighting or a torn cover, Advance Reader Copies not for resale. Yellowing pocket books with spines that split when opened. Twenty-five-cent gems liberated from the grimy oblivion of a rummage sale down the street. The contents of a curbside free box: sad, mildewing classics you can’t bear to abandon to the ravages of rain and neglect.
Your wife wants you to get rid of them all. She doesn’t care if you sell or give them away or throw them in the trash. She’s never cared about books the way you do, and now she hates them. She’d throw them all away if she could.
Suggest alternative explanations. Could his memory loss be stress-related? Grief over his mother’s death three years ago? A lingering reaction to the anesthesia from his open-heart surgery? Could it be that he hasn’t forgotten recent conversations with your mother so much as never really listened in the first place? Is forty-plus years of distracted disinterest being repackaged as evidence of dementia?
In your childhood home, all variables of chance or wonder or chaos came from your dad––the Ernie to her Bert. He took you birdwatching and taught you old advertising jingles. You could make him laugh, you could scratch his back just right, and what did his outbursts, his quick temper and emotional withholding from your mother have to do with you anyway?
He comes home rigid with frustration because the goddamn phone doesn’t work; he’s been trying and trying to call you and it wouldn’t go through. When you check the phone and realize he’s been dialing and redialing his own number (which you’d helpfully affixed to the phone casing with label tape) he flies into a rage. You sit down to dinner and the pork chops are tough and dry, the broccoli limp and overdone, and though you expected him home over an hour ago you are somehow to blame for this too.
You can’t find that mystery you were just reading—the library book. It’s due next week and it’s around here somewhere and your wife keeps nagging you to find it, find it, find it, and it’s really her fault. If she would just stop haranguing you long enough to let you collect your thoughts you’d remember where you left it. She only cares about the library fines, the cost of replacement, but you want to know how the story turns out.
When you moved away for college he started scouring thrift stores on weekends for hidden treasures, selling them back to the bookstores in Berkeley for pocket money or store credit. In the heyday of his collection going home for a visit was like living inside a used bookstore curated by someone who loved you, who’d shaped your sensibilities and sense of humor through dinner table puns and drinking-song lullabies, who’d taken you on walks when you were sad or anxious for some forgotten teenage reason.
At first, he sold as many books as he brought home. With each visit you had fresh piles to dig through and the range always delighted you: Moby Dick next to Dykes To Watch Out For next to Powers of Ten next to some dopey joke book about cats or an outdated West German travel guide. You barely needed to buy textbooks for college or grad school—you just sent him a list and received boxes full of Tacitus or Virginia Woolf in the mail, and what did you care if The Lover had a broken spine, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was embellished with some actor’s blocking notes? It drove your mom crazy, but that was part of the fun.
He’s always leaving things behind everywhere he goes and bringing home more junk you don’t need. Maybe he left the library book at McDonald’s. Remind him to ask about it tomorrow when he goes for coffee. Surely they have a lost and found.
He goes to McDonald’s twice a week with Joe Spinelli. He drives because Joe, who has macular degeneration, can no longer drive himself. A year ago he would have disdained the idea of going to McDonald’s, but he and Joe are regulars now. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the forgetful leading the blind, a couple of old men on a coffee date and who knows what they talk about for hours. Once Joe’s wife suggested it would be fun for the two of you to join “the boys” sometime, and you laughed out loud before you realized she was serious.
Call the library to see if anyone else has turned in the missing book. They haven’t.
Renew the book
Watch Charlie Rose every day at noon, and take notes—details you want to tell your daughter when she calls on the weekend. Sometimes you call right after the show and leave her a message to watch it if she gets a chance. You might even catch her on her lunch break. Ask her if she’s read Marley and Me. You know she loves dogs. You picked up a copy last week, forgetting you already had two at home. Maybe you’ll mail it to her, if you can find that pile of books you set aside for her.
Decades before he collected books, he collected maps. Bike and street maps, satellite images, historical maps, topographical maps, three dimensional maps where mountain ranges sprouted up in sharp relief. Your dad, the city planner, tried to share his enthusiasm with you to no avail.
Maps showed you the distance from A to B but you didn’t see how that could possibly concern you. Your mom decided where you would go and took you there, so what use was a boring old map to you? Where was the story in a map?
As an adult you’ve grown to appreciate the abstraction, the birds-eye view that a map affords. Some realities feel too loaded to face at street level.
Keep a running list of everything he forgets. Log it on a spreadsheet to show his doctors if he ever makes an appointment. Worry that he will somehow find it, though he has no idea how to turn on the computer, much less open Excel.
Tell Annie how worried you are. Tell your former boss, tell siblings and distant cousins. Log on to his Kaiser.org account and send furtive emails to his doctors. Ask them not to tell him about these messages.
It’s not, as he insists, that you need to be in control all the time. You don’t relish being in charge. It’s just that you want things done properly. As a tax preparer, you’ve spent your life untangling the consequences of inattention to detail. You’ve seen the penalties first-hand. You can’t relax unless you know everything’s being handled the right way. You just need someone who understands this—not your daughter, someone responsible like a doctor—to step in and take over.
America’s Test Kitchen comes on next. You had no idea a cooking show could be so interesting. They have a lot of useful preparation tips. Jot down some notes to share with your wife, though she’s easily offended—thinks you’re criticizing her cooking, and why not? You’re only trying to help, but she’ll be damned if she tries anything new at your suggestion. She’s actually pretty touchy about it.
You’ll tell Annie when she calls. Your wife is too busy measuring rainfall and making lists and keeping score to talk about books or food, but your daughter understands. What is she reading these days? Does she have any book requests? Have you told her about Behind the Beautiful Forevers? You have another copy around here somewhere if she wants it.
A few years ago, his repetitions weren’t as obvious. You pictured a subway map—certain routes were bound to be more heavily traveled. Those well-worn conversations about Marley and Me were like your daily commute from Inwood to Morningside Heights—the same sequence of platforms, same guy selling newspapers and two-dollar umbrellas, same sights, smells, and light greeting you as you came above ground. Just because you traveled so often between home and work didn’t mean you couldn’t go all the way to Coney or Flushing or Far Rockaway if you wanted to.
But his conversational orbits are noticeably shrinking. Certain trains turn back sooner, bypass familiar stops without explanation or blink out of service entirely. If you see something, say something. It’s easier to think of a conversation with your dad as a map then to look him in the eye and decide whether to tell him he’s repeating himself.
Swing by McDonald’s on the way home from the store to look for the missing library book. You know he won’t remember to ask about it. The smell of grease permeates the place—how can anyone stand to eat there? You’re stuck in line behind an obese lady in flip flops. The fluorescent lights flicker too-brightly overhead, and you’re glad you wore your visor—without it they would trigger one of your migraines for sure.
When it’s finally your turn, the uniformed teenager behind the counter stares at you with slack-faced disinterest. You start to repeat yourself but she wanders away to summon a manager. You explain a third time that it’s not you but your husband who’s lost his library book, but the fat-fingered manager waves your question away like a bad smell.
“No books here,” he says without even pretending to look. Would anyone throw a library book away, you wonder as you step out into the relatively fresh air of the parking lot.
Today you found six bags of books in the car that you’d been looking all over the house for yesterday. You’d wanted to take them to Berkeley to sell, but you never got going because you couldn’t find them. This morning you looked in the car for your missing sweater and there they were. No sweater, but six bags of books—quite the windfall! You’ve brought them into the house to sort through again—just in case there’s anything good to set aside for Annie.
Does she have any book requests? Has she read Marley and Me?
At first he asked you to tell him. He knew he was forgetting things and admitted it freely to you, and even to strangers, though never to your mother. It was like cheating on a diet: if I eat it at work, if the cookie is broken, if no one sees me eat it, it doesn’t count. You know this drill well. He dodges your mother by admitting his frailties to strangers, the way you ate bananas at your high school friend’s house because her mom didn’t keep tabs on every piece of fruit.
He asked, and you agreed to tell him, but on your last visit you told him he’d already taken you to see the neighbor’s new drought-tolerant landscaping, just the day before. As soon as you said it you wanted to take it back. You’d rather admire the same cedar bark mulch a thousand times than revisit the look of realization and fear on his face.
Call Annie, when he is out, to report on his latest troubling behaviors. Enumerate them in hushed, furtive tones: the lost library book, the angry outbursts, the missed freeway exit on the way to the concert that caused you to miss the first two movements of the Trout Quintet.
You need her to report any similar behavior she sees when she visits for Christmas, to defend you when he jumps down your throat for correcting him. He might listen if she agrees that you’re right, that it really happened just like you said.
Visit your own doctors religiously, as if to atone for his inaction. Talk to your doctors about your concerns. Tell the handsome podiatrist who cuts the calluses off your feet, the Chinese-American dermatologist who removes suspicious moles for further testing, the brisk young gynecologist who fits you for a pessary after your pelvic prolapse.
Dismiss the suggestion that you may find it helpful to talk to a counselor about this. Explain that you’ve never suffered from anxiety or depression. Even the psychiatrist you saw 15 years ago, when you were having dizzy spells, agreed you were the least depressed person she’d ever seen. She only prescribed you antidepressants because they were proven to treat vertigo. And you’d hated those drugs with their terrible side effects. You couldn’t wait to get off them.
Besides, this is about your husband. He’s the one who needs to see someone, not you.
Your mother has asked you to report your observations, and though you know her intentions aren’t malicious it still feels like selling him out. How will she use this information? What will be taken away first?
Correct her, instead, when she gets her own facts wrong. Ask her how it feels. Ask her to think about how it would feel if every mistake she made, every misplaced item or forgotten word was tabulated as evidence of dementia. Saying this gives you a shivery little stab of pleasure. You know it’s cruel, given her family history, but you do it anyway, wrapping that coat of resentment around you to ward off the chill.
Years ago you watched her scold and correct her own mother long after it was clear that arguments and score-settling would do nothing to delay or reverse your grandmother’s disease. You saw her inability to empathize with her mother and you resolved not to treat her this way when she got Alzheimer’s. You felt so virtuous then, just picturing how gentle and patient you would be with her. But your dad losing his memory was not part of the plan, and for some reason you are furious at your mother for this. Why are you losing the empathetic parent first?
When he asks you for the millionth time if you’ve read Marley and Me, it’s because he still cares about what you think. You will have this conversation with him as many times as you can. At some point, you know, you’ll be nostalgic even for this.
You wish he’d have his driver’s license suspended again, but then you’ll be tasked with chauffeuring him around, to McDonald’s and Goodwill and Peet’s. He’ll insist on stopping by every bookstore in Berkeley though you’ve told him how the lighting triggers your migraines, and he won’t even notice or care. He’ll have forgotten all about you, will disappear to browse for books he doesn’t need, books he already has at home, buried two feet deep on the coffee table. All that standing around will cause the neuropathy in your feet to flare up—sharp, stabbing pains, and he’ll continue to chat up the clerks and book buyers, oblivious to your discomfort. He’d stay there all day if he could.
When he is gone, all the books will go. You’ll call Salvation Army, have them send a truck. You can’t help wanting, sometimes, to fast-forward to this moment.
This isn’t how it was supposed to work. He was supposed to take care of you.
The call log shows two missed calls from home in less than an hour and your fingers and gums tingle with panic. You fear the worst, though you’d be hard pressed to define what that means. You are constantly revising your expectations these days, bargaining with a God you don’t even believe in. At what point will you prefer the worst to the incremental creeping of worse and worse and worse?
12:50 pm. A voicemail from your dad. He’s just watched a wonderful Charlie Rose interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin and wants to tell you all about it.
1:15 pm. A voicemail from your mom, urgent and furtive. Your dad has gone for a walk and she’s hoping to catch you on your lunch hour. She needs to tell you about some very disturbing behavior. She hopes you can call back before he gets home.
Your dad picks up when you call—he’s glad to hear from you! And while he has never yet failed to recognize you, you’ve become acutely aware of the relief you feel each time that he still does.
He found the missing library book! It was stashed in a backpack on a chair in the bedroom. Your mother was convinced he’d left it at McDonald’s, but he knew she was wrong. Now he can finally finish the book.
Your mom picks up the other extension. You ask your dad about Charlie Rose and he’s glad to tell you all about it in great detail. You are so grateful for this conversation, so glad to postpone the other one indefinitely. Each time he pauses to find the right word, you can hear your mother breathing on the other end of the line.