My father died today. What day is today? Perhaps it was yesterday. I have been saying good-bye in small ways every day for so long. It feels like today. It will feel like today for a very long time.
I do not want to celebrate my father's life right now. I want to mourn his death, and the dirty trick that was played on him. I do not want to trade sentimental anecdotes or well-intentioned euphemisms to hide from the fact that a terrible thing has happened. We live in an infantile culture that lies about death, denies it -- real death, that is, not the kind we play at in movies and video games. We too often resort to "positive" thoughts, healing affirmations, and Bible chat about "all things working for good." We relentlessly cheerlead ourselves on in the "victorious life." We do not speak of death because it means defeat, and we believe only in winning, our true national religion.
For the record, my father did not pass on. Death is not a part of life. It's not for the best. And there is no reason for it. My father died today.
I should have been prepared for it; he had Alzheimer's, diagnosed in 1994, and had been choking in its grip for six and a half years. But his death nevertheless surprised and astounded me. My father was not supposed to die. That's probably an illusion all sons of good and loving fathers harbor. But you see, my father had a knack for eluding disaster, and I believed he would elude this one too.
After all, my father had survived a war, survived colon cancer, accidents on the job, survived all the entropic forces that threaten any working man living paycheck to paycheck in a world of inflated and devalued currency. And didn't he live a responsible life, taking all the necessary precautions, never risking unduly? He played by the rules, believed in God, didn't drink or gamble, took his 400 units of vitamin E every day, and paid his bills. Yet his reward was not an easy retirement, peace, rest, the consolations of a hard life well-lived. It was instead the very worst fate he could have imagined for himself. This fiercely independent man became utterly dependent on everyone around him. The nightmares of his childhood were revisited upon him. He was humiliated. He was defeated. My father died today.
There's a reference guide called Lippinger's Gazetteer, which describes the topography, natural resources, and history of towns and cities around the world. On a whim, I looked up the small central-Italian town my father was born in. I did not expect to find an entry for this smudge of a farming hamlet. So imagine my surprise when my finger, riding a column under "O," landed on "Orsogna." What could anyone say about this rest stop on the way to Rome? Not much, if you were counting mere words. Orsogna's significance to the world was in fact summed up quite concisely: "Almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943." My father was 11 in 1943.
He had barely stepped into adolescence when bombs began dropping around him, the Allies and the Germans fighting their way up the Italian peninsula, my father's little town unfortunately situated in their path. His memories of that time remained, as one might expect, vividly present throughout his life: Christmas huddled in a cave carved into the side of the Apennines; German soldiers jabbing rifles at my grandmother, her newborn daughter in her arms, terrorizing them into silence; and when the fighting was finally over, land mines and grenades left lying behind like so many bored boys' toys; friends losing digits and limbs to same. Typhoid from rotting corpses. Scrounging for food. The hunger. Always the hunger.
Alzheimer's first devours the most readily available part of the brain: short-term memory, the stuff most recently stored. By 1998/99, in what could be described as the middle stage of the disease, my father had lost his sense of place, of time, identification with most people except his immediate family. What remained accessible to him were primarily his very oldest memories, those that time had imbedded most deeply in his brain. He could not remember his address or phone number. But he could remember the war.
One of the symptoms of Alzheimer's is something called "sundowning." As the sun would set outdoors, a darkness would descend on my father indoors, a severe anxiety, feeling of vulnerability, paranoia. My father would begin closing windows at dusk. He would beg my mother not to run the vacuum because of the noise. She couldn't understand why. It wasn't until he was questioned privately by a doctor later that my father revealed why you had to be quiet, why you had to hide at night. The Germans were patrolling. They would hear you, see you. They would come in. They would shove a rifle in his mother's face.