THE DEEPENING FOG (Part 1)
My father says in a moment of insight and despair, "My life is shit. My identity is crumbling." Although I would like to comfort him, I don't contradict him. I have learned that it only upsets him to have his sense of reality challenged. I have learned that the best way of trying to be a good son is simply to listen compassionately.
Besides, he is right. He is 90 years old and inhabits that terrible gray area of dementia, in which he is intermittently aware of his losses. They have been huge. This successful executive, homeowner, husband, father, teacher, writer, wit and cynical observer of human nature can now not remember to bathe or shave himself, confuses dates, gets spatially disoriented even in familiar surroundings and can't concentrate enough to read a book.
He lives in the assisted-living section of an expensive retirement community run by a Jewish nonprofit corporation that also runs a rehabilitation center for the aged and is building a second retirement community even more expensive than this one. My mother also has dementia as well as physical limitations caused by a spinal fracture and severe arthritis. She needs what nurses call "total care" and now lives a floor below him in the skilled nursing section of their community. Dementia has affected her differently: she has become passive and timid. I worry about her less, because she seems to want very little.
Also, I have always identified more with my father. We look alike and share many habits of mind: we are both skeptical, wary of authority and slow to trust. I used to think that with his Semitic nose and high forehead he looked like a noble bird of prey. Now his wings are broken, and he flaps them desperately but ineffectually against an institution that provides for his safety but not his emotional well-being, against the brutality of time.
I first noticed his decline when my parents, my wife Ruth and I were playing Scrabble together. These games were a ritual that occurred on afternoons when we had invited them for lunch. They were still driving in those days. But their lives were already beginning to shrink. My father was no longer teaching his extremely popular history courses at the lifetime learning center. My mother had given up leadership of the short story discussion group for which she was widely admired by her neighbors. They never went anywhere at night and even during the day only drove to familiar places. But, if we questioned them about these losses, they dismissed our concerns. "I've been leading the group for 10 years. That's enough. Let someone fresh take over," my mother would say. "Teaching takes too much time. I want to concentrate on writing now," my father would offer, but he never seemed to finish the essay he was working on. And both of them claimed that they had no desire anymore to travel or even go into the city for a play or concert, because they had everything they wanted where they lived.
Scrabble has always evoked mixed feelings in me. I used to play it with my parents when I was an adolescent, trying to establish my own identity. This was a task made difficult by the fact that I have a severe neuromuscular disability. I was dependent on my parents for my care. I was unable to compete in any physical realm. I was socially retarded and sexually frustrated. So, intellectual pursuits were especially important, and I felt a fierce desire to outdo my father in Scrabble. Of course, he usually bested us. And although he never puffed himself up about winning or belittled me for losing, I still felt the sting of defeat. As I got older, I became closer to his equal in playing ability. I enjoyed winning more often. But Scrabble remains an arena in which my anxiety about competition gets repeatedly enacted.
Each of us played with a revealing style. My mother, accepting her view of herself as intellectually inferior, never struggled very hard to win or took very long to play. Ruth played with the enthusiasm that I found so endearing about her, sometimes brilliantly but erratically. And my father and I brought to the game a similar dogged desire to do our best, often exhausting Ruth and my mother's patience by trying so stubbornly to make the best possible use of our letters.
On one of those afternoons I realized that the overall quality of my father's game had changed. It wasn't just a matter of his having a run of bad luck in the letters he drew; he wasn't playing as well -- misspelling words, misaligning letters and not seeing opportunities. I put this observation together with my mother's complaints about his forgetfulness and his own reports of difficulty finding his way when driving and had to face the fact that he was losing mental ability. This didn't give me any pleasurable sense of oedipal triumph; it filled me with pity and dread.
From then on our Scrabble games were no longer occasions for anxiety about competition. The opposite was true: they made me anxious about easily outplaying him and embarrassing both my parents by exposing the failing that they clearly didn't want to admit.