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Father and son, both at wits' end

By Carolyn See
Friday, October 30, 2009

THE LAST

OF HIS MIND

A Year in the Shadow of Alzheimer's

By John Thorndike

Swallow. 243 pp. $24.95

The first few pages of "The Last of His Mind" are dynamite, in their quiet way. They open up a world that, if you've known it and lived in it, conks you on the head, bashes your memory, brings it all back in a rush. John Thorndike, a writer and farmer in his 60s, describes spending a quiet Vermont Christmas with his brother, Al. Their father, Joseph, 91, naps through the long afternoon. "Resting in bed, he wears the old pair of slippers Al has given him, wide and brown and flattened at the heels. His feet are too swollen to fit into his shoes." That's the Gypsy's warning -- those swollen feet. Later that day, the author and his brother try to persuade their father to sign papers that would give Al power of attorney. The old man can no longer take care of his bills, but he refuses. "I won't be the one in charge anymore," he worries.

The author writes, "I become aware of my patience, as if it's a commodity I'm spending. I don't know how much I have." And after this unsatisfactory exchange, his father says, piteously, "I want to go home."

What a sad sentence, and what does it really mean? Sometimes people dying at home will say, "I want to go home." The home of their childhood? Their heavenly home? It's a mystery because the people saying it are on a different wavelength. The folks who will go on living are metaphorically looking at their watches; some of the ones in the survivors' chorus are already beginning to intone, "He could linger for years" -- a sentence that, with variations, turns up at least five times in this book.

How Joseph will spend his last days is decided during that Christmas holiday. Al will take care of the finances. Since Joseph has begged not to be put into a nursing home, John will leave his writing and farming life in the Midwest to go to Cape Cod, to their old family home, to take care of their father until he dies.

Joseph soon has Alzheimer's diagnosed, but he is not an ordinary patient. First, although he forgets some things, he never forgets his prodigious good manners and he also retains vast chunks of a fine education. He had a long career working for Henry Luce at Life magazine and later was co-founder of two hardcover magazines, Horizon and American Heritage, which were very successful in the mid-20th century. In other words, he was at the center of American cultural life, and he carries these attributes into his illness. He may be reduced to wearing adult diapers, but he invariably says thank you when someone has to change them.

As John settles into his parents' old home on Cape Cod, he can remember summers when the extended family invaded, when they played volleyball and ate lobster by the beach, when there were flocks of children playing. But now during the East Coast winter, there's just Joseph and John, father and son, and a nice lady who comes in during the afternoons to give John a chance to go out on his bike or walk to the library. His life has been reduced to respite now, at some level, because time stretches out on either side of these respites like something close to eternity. Time and silence -- everywhere.

John, because he's a writer, thank God, has decided to record the life he and his father are spending together. His other project may be something deeper. John has always been a great admirer of his mother, who went to med school after she married, became a successful doctor, but also had a series of affairs and eventually left his dad, only to be jilted by her lover as they were finally moving in together. His father, John feels, has always been a bit of a stick, undemonstrative, rarely able to show physical affection, embarrassed by matters of sex. John believes that he, his brother and his half brother have suffered consequences from this. His father married a second time -- thus, the half brother -- but seems to have found long-lasting contentment and love only with the third and last woman in his life. She's dead now and can't be questioned. So is John's mother. If John wants to solve some of the mysteries of his parents' personal lives, he must turn to the evidence at hand: old letters, photographs, lists and datebooks. Why was his dad so repressed? Why was his ability to give and receive love so stifled?

Meanwhile, in the daily routine of caregiving -- of drying between his father's toes after a shower with a hair dryer, for example -- another kind of intimacy grows between the two men. The father deteriorates -- bladder and bowel accidents occur -- but, what is even sadder, he experiences terrible bouts of depression and withdrawal. His son searches through papers and pores over photographs of his parents in their vibrant, glistening youth. Again and again he asks the question, why couldn't his father have any fun when he was young? (One answer is that for married grown-ups in the '50s, fun wasn't necessarily in the cards.)

At length, Joseph dies at home, with his son as witness. This memoir is far too elegantly written to ever state it directly, but the reader is made aware of the high honor involved: The author honors his father in the most profound way and is blessed, in turn, by participating in the most taxing event in his father's life.

See reviews books regularly for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

-- Who tore down the Berlin Wall?

-- The official biography of the Queen Mother.

-- The secret to being funny.

-- The map that was America's birth certificate.

-- And a plea for the survival of books.

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