“The stars in the sky may seem ageless and unchanging, but eventually, most of them will become white dwarfs, the last observable stage of evolution. These stellar corpses dot the galaxy, leftovers from brightly burning stars”
There is a photograph of my father hula-hooping. It exists only in my mind’s eye, but it exists nonetheless. It was captured two summers ago on the occasion of his 77th birthday. He had never tried hula-hooping and this would prove to be both his first and last attempt. He was already experiencing Alzheimer’s pretty profoundly and he would die only eight months later on a snowy February morning. But in this snapshot he is very much alive. More alive, perhaps, than I’d seen him in a long time. He looks like he’s five years old. It turned out he couldn’t hula-hoop worth a damn, but that was no matter. His joy was in the playing.
Because what Alzheimer’s took away was the memory of trudging through the mud and cold, Nazi soldiers barking orders, his big sister, only 6 or 7 herself at the time, dropping her doll in the mud. And the memory of the one soldier who hit his father–my grandfather–in the face with the butt end of a pistol, picking up the doll for himself and tucking it inside his coat. “I have children too”, said the soldier.
It took away the memory of his best friend, Mickey, dying in his arms while fighting in a desert in a war in ‘56. It erased our time in India, all orange hues and sacred stench and hot. When I was a child, my father would sit me on his lap and drive his Jeep down the dirt roads of Madras, two hands up in the air, letting me steer while he worked the pedals, alarming everyone in sight. He loved to tell that story and when he told it– which was often–the whole scene would unfold in slow motion once again, as though to allow the listener to feel the unapologetic heat on their skin, taste the grit and sweat and unfettered joy on their lips. Father and son, united in the world and victorious.
Alzheimer’s absconded with the memory of that Brazilian woman—the one who came to Thanksgiving one year as my cousin’s date, dressed in a tight mini-skirt and a tank top that revealed plenty. Late in the evening, after the wine had been flowing for hours, she snuck up behind my father and whispered, “Have you ever had a Brazilian woman?” Without missing a beat my happily married dad shrugged and said, “Who hasn’t?” No one remembers her name now, but in my imagination she’s wandering somewhere on this earth, drinking coffee at noon after a late night, or sitting at her kitchen table smoking a morning cigarette after sending her kids to school, or possibly at an office desk somewhere longing for just a little more living. All this, not realizing that she is legend in our family.
Alzheimer’s took away my father’s memory of my birth, and eventually the ability to say my name all together. It took away the word for noodles and his love for soccer and boats and pickled herring. It erased the way he took to his favorite breakfast place, the ability to use an ATM or a hammer or a teapot.
But gradually it erased something else too: the emotional filters that we all cling to for most of our lives. It erased politeness. Inhibition.
Instead, in the end, he became a joy jockey. He began giving long bear hugs to unsuspecting maitre d’s at restaurants. He hugged old people as though he wasn’t one of them and they must be in need of his compassion. He hugged friends and strangers and babies and dogs. And me. He hugged me like I was the Hope Diamond. No, beyond that. Whatever is more precious than the Hope Diamond was what I was to him. He had a way of taking my face into his hands, cupping my cheeks, looking deep into my eyes and proclaiming his love for me. I was not the only person upon whom he bestowed this grace, but it sure felt like it. He forgot so much, but not love. Indeed it bloomed in him like an azalea in spring, gaudy and unrepentant. The kind of blooming that, reflectively, makes you wonder if you’ve ever been fully alive.
Here’s a truth: the moment we are born, no matter our preference or fervent desire, our own unbecoming has begun. What are we to do with this blip of Being? Perhaps, underneath all our skins, that’s who we are: a bunch of lovers smuggling our hearts through the world, dying to get caught. There he is in his hula-hoop, smiling beatifically, a white star at the center of the universe.