It often comes with no pretense. A flash, a memory, an impression of the way things used to be. A glimmer of the past seeping into the present moment, brought on by a taste, a smell, a sound, an action.
A tunafish sandwich.
My dad used to make them all the time. It was easy–open a can of solid tuna, mix in a little mayonnaise, maybe add some celery if he was feeling ambitious. A slice of lettuce, two slices of whole wheat bread–never white, he didn’t believe in it–and always cut in half. A glass of milk or orange juice to go alongside.
It’s hard to write “used to”. To write my father into the past tense, as if he was a ghost. As if he were dead. Because he’s not. He’s in between life and death; his body is very much alive, although beset with problems; his mind has been so far from the way it used to be that it’s hard to remember what it was like. Alzheimer’s Disease has taken the charming english professor and sometimes infuriatingly quirky dad away and replaced him with a still charming, albeit helpless dementia patient who can’t get through a whole sentence without spouting gibberish. His brain, once filled with Chaucer and Bronte, Conrad and Shakespeare, is now caked with Beta Amyloid, shriveling its gray matter and riddling it with holes. Some kind of poetic justice from a literary devil.
My babysitter, Mavis, also would make tunafish sandwiches. Now she makes them for my dad, for whom she is now a caretaker. Tonight I made one and remembered how he used to make them, and sit down with me at the dining room table. How we’d read the newspaper together, sometimes reading stories aloud to each other and discussing everything from politics to science to education. All now as distant as if they were a dream.
He still tries to read the newspaper. He still eats tunafish sandwiches. But the days of whipping up sandwiches and pouring two glasses of milk (he’d insist on it, no matter what we were eating, because it was good for our bones), sometimes bringing them out with a fake french accent in his characteristically slow, dramatic way (“votre sahndweech, monsieur!”), are long over. Now he sits and attempts to read the New York Times aloud to our caretaker, who listens with kind, patient compassion to what is all but comprehensible. For a moment, the professor is still there, as he proudly reaches the end of the sentence he struggles to read, and exclaims dramatically to Mavis, “now, you see, that’s what it’s alllll about!”
Like a dream, like a bubble, like dew on a blade of grass at dawn, like a flash of lightning in a distant storm you can’t hear; that’s all my father’s life is now. And yet he is still here. He is in this liminal state, in between here and not-here, between alive and dead. The man that was the academic, the goofball, the absent-minded professor, is gone. Now he teaches me to love unconditionally, as the parent becomes the child and the children grow up to be caregivers.
Where did all of that past life I used to know go?
Don’t know. Let’s make another tuna sandwich.