MORE AND MORE, I CATCH MYSELF REFERRING TO MY FA- ther in the past tense. At 67, still a little shy of the biblically allotted threescore and 10, he is dead in all but the flesh. When I speak of him today, I speak from memory: "He had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved children and hated dogs. He was generous to a fault."
What remains of him suggests nothing of the man that was. It suggests nothing of any man. Once there was harmony of sense and spirit; now there is only the black hole of intellectual chaos. A simple biochemical reaction fails, an electrical impulse misfires, and personality and personhood, self and soul -- all that we take to be individual and human -- are reduced to the chance collision of indifferent molecules. Do laughter and hatred exist? Do sorrow and desire? Or is there only the chemistry of laughter and hatred and sorrow and desire?
My father's story began as comedy, which all too soon took upon itself the face of pain. A vigorous man, he moved to the rhythms of the natural athlete. His intelligence, his fundamental knowledge and self-confidence, took root in muscle and sinew and blood. His were the instincts of timing and strength and flawless coordination.
So we laughed together at the grown man tumbling out of bed or tripping over his own feet. Like an intellectual's absent-mindedness, his occasional clumsiness struck us as one those benign jokes nature plays to remind us of our fallibility. Great orators become tongue-tied; accomplished hostesses forget the guest of honor's name, and Babe Ruth leads the
American League in strikeouts. In the balance, these lapses signify nothing.
Nothing, that is, but the beginning of the end. Before his 40th birthday, we suspected it. Increasingly, his balance failed. Increasingly, every sidewalk crack, every curbstone, every flight of stairs was a pratfall waiting to happen. There were the moments of transient rigidity and paralysis and a pin-rolling tremor in his hand.
"Parkinsonism," the doctors said. "Not really Parkinson's disease, you understand, just a cluster of symptoms that may or may not progress."
My mother was not fooled. "God," she prayed, "don't let him end like his father." The memory of that invalid, bound to wheelchair and cane, nearly stopped her heart. The vision of his father consumed her imagination of the future. In the end, her imagination failed her.
His father had been an old man when Parkinson's disease began, and death spared him the full savagery of it; my father's relative youth would doom him to live with it longer and suffer its fullest impact. Now we know -- he will not end like his father. He will end worse. He is already worse.
His father could barely walk. My father cannot stand, even with support. My father cannot walk, or talk, or comprehend. My father does not know that he cannot walk or talk or comprehend.
A dozen times a day, and through every sleepless night, he obeys his instincts to rise, to walk, to move. A dozen times he falls, and the crash rattles my mother's windows. He cannot remember. He cannot learn. My mother cannot turn her back on him. "It's like caring for an infant," she tells the social worker. "A 250-pound infant." The social worker tells my mother to tie him down.
He was the quintessential optimist who feared nothing, except, perhaps, loneliness. The son of poor immigrants, youngest of 11 surviving children, he feasted on companionship all his life. From infancy to old age, except for a military interval, he never occupied a bed by himself.
Now he lies at home in a narrow hospital bed and flails all night against the bars that protect him from falling, from wandering, and from human companionship and intimacy.
His friends knew him as a Pied Piper, to whom children naturally attached themselves. Once, a neighbor's 3-year-old knocked on our door to ask if my father could come out and play. He could and he did. Today, he cannot remember his 3-year-old grandchild's name.
There was a softball game, one of those spontaneous whims of late summer. He was five years past diagnosis, and his body shook violently. But he swung the bat with instinctive grace, and the ball sailed over the center fielder's head. He sprinted to first base and picked up speed as he rounded second. A few inches short of third base, he shouted, "For God's sake, somebody stop me!"
His doctor suggested cryosurgery, an experimental operation to freeze part of his brain. We caught a glimpse of him on the gurney, and he looked like someone's prize marlin awaiting the taxidermist. Fifteen minutes later, an intern handed my mother an opaque plastic bag. "What's this?" she asked.
"The patient's hair," he said.
A day later, the surgeon asked him to count backward by sevens from 100. On a good day, I would have found that difficult. "One hundred," he said, "93, 86, 79," picking up speed as he recited. A good sign; he would get better.
And for a few years, he did seem a little better. Or at least he was not getting worse. His body shook, but he walked and ran and drove a car. He swam and played golf. He sang badly and joked loudly and loved ferociously. He swore he would live to be 100.
Meanwhile, we lived on the hope the doctors held out. Operations. L-dopa. Miracle cures and new discoveries every day. Besides, they promised, his body might deteriorate, but Parkinson's disease would leave his mind unharmed. As if Parkinsonian dementia were not a staple paragraph in every medical text.
But the time came when nothing helped anymore, and the athlete moved to a new, unfathomable rhythm. His walk became a shuffle, then a stumbling stop-and-start. His legs moved east, and his torso jerked west. His face became rigid. Then it was a mask. Sometimes, when you looked into his eyes, there was no "there" there.
With the dizzying acceleration of a body in free fall, he lost his hold on memory. Or perhaps memory lost its hold on him. Out of the blue, he would ask, "Do we have car insurance?" In the next hour, he would ask five more times. Once a doctor asked him about his family, and he could not remember whether he had three children or four. He had two.
Like a lot of big men, he was a combination of good-natured gentleness and resolute courage. On Pearl Harbor Day, he was a high school senior. On graduation day, he was a Marine Corps private. On V-J Day, he was a Marine Corps corporal, sitting on Okinawa waiting to invade Japan. He was 21 years old, and he had survived beachhead landings, blood-drenched invasions, foot rot, malaria and hand-to-hand combat in the South Pacific jungles. He seemed invincible.
I walk into my mother's house, and he looks up. He cannot smile. He cannot talk. Except for an occasional grunt or belch, his voice is a monotonous whine below the threshold of hearing. All night, in his sleep, he screams of terrors he cannot describe. In the daytime, he is calm -- almost semicomatose -- but he cannot make himself heard. His few coherent words make no sense.
He cannot control his body. My mother's house stinks from his urine. Half his lunch is strewn across the dining room table and floor. He is awake, but his jaw is slack and he is drooling. He would like a glass of milk, my mother tells me, so I pour one. He stares at it, uncomprehending. I put the glass in his hand and cup his fingers around it. He wants to drink it, but he can't remember how. Later, he will dribble most of it down the front of his shirt.
He is slumped in his chair, with his weight resting on his neck. I try to set him upright, and he resists. "Give me your hand," I tell him. No response. I say it again, three times, maybe four. "Give me your hand." Finally, he raises his left foot.
Sometimes, he gazes, puzzled, at his hands and feet. Like an infant discovering fingers and toes, he seems not to understand that they are part of him, rather than inanimate objects suspended in space.
I cannot get his attention. I stand directly in front of him and say, "Dad, look at me." He has no idea what I mean. Later, he will respond. He still knows me, and he will be glad to see me, once it dawns on him that I am in the room. But for now, I look into his eyes, and it's like looking out the window.
Or perhaps what I really see in those vacant eyes is a picture of my own tomorrows. Every time I misplace my car keys, or forget an appointment, or feel a muscle twitch, I pray as he once did: "Don't let me end like my father." And then I feel ashamed, as if I had said something disloyal.
The time is getting short, and I start the drive home along the interstate highway. I can taste my anger. Anger at him for dying so young and anger at him for living too long. Anger at him for abandoning me and anger at him for still holding on.
Before I'm safely home, a storm erupts out of nowhere. The weatherman never warned me about this. I flick on the headlights and windshield wipers. The rain is so heavy, I can hardly see the road. Only it isn't rain.
ARLENE EHRLICH'S last story for the magazine was on the nation's slide into mediocrity.