Essays - Winter 2017

The Last Bursts of Memory

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As my father’s dementia progressed, the stories of his life became less accurate but more vivid


By James VanOosting

December 5, 2016



Progressive. Irreversible. Incurable. The same three adjectives describe both my father’s disease and my own. He and I are traveling toward the same destination, though by different routes and at different speeds. Dad is walking into a dense and darkening fog, I into a clearing. He is becoming more confused and disoriented, I more focused. He has forgotten who I am; I am adjusting to who he is. He has outlived his story, I my expiration date. My father is losing his mind. I am merely losing my kidneys.

Loss of memory is a telltale of dementia, manifesting itself in narrative disintegration. Not the loss of semantic, procedural, or working memory—respectively, the recall of words and facts, operations, and data manipulation. I refer instead to episodic memory, the remembrance of things past. Symptoms include the inability to recognize people or recall events, confusion about places, and misconceptions about time. In the end, dementia obliterates an individual’s entire story, supplanting even the identity of its teller. This loss amounts to a narrative clearance sale. Everything must go: I, you, here, now, there, and then.

My father and I never hit it off, not for as far back as I can remember. Over time, our mutual wariness metastasized into reciprocal animosity. One night, about 10 years ago, he phoned. I was living on the East Coast, he in the Midwest. He sounded surprised when I answered, as if he’d dialed the number by mistake. Always efficient, he redeemed the occasion by announcing a decision he’d made. Henceforward, I should cease calling him and sending him cards or gifts of any kind. I thought this was a lousy idea and told him so.

Skip ahead six years to another phone call, also at night, this one from my sister. She told me that Dad had driven off the road some 90 miles from home. The Illinois state police had found him unhurt inside his wrecked car. The passenger seat was littered with traffic tickets and summonses to appear in court. Dad told the troopers he was on his way to visit his son, a professor, in southern Illinois. (I hadn’t lived in Illinois for many years. Neither had he ever visited.) By the time my sister arrived at state police headquarters, Dad had changed his story. Now, it seemed, he was going to an unspecified destination to inspect a motel, a job he’d once held several careers before.

The gradual diminution of my father’s memory and, ultimately, of his thinking may be explained variously. For reasons of my own, I happen to have been looking into this subject at the very time Dad reentered my life. Like many other know-littles, I had been seduced by neuroscience, its allure beginning with Charlie Rose’s PBS series on the brain, then progressing to books by Eric Kandel and Oliver Sacks. Sue Halpern’s Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research tightened the grip on me. Margaret Lock’s The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Dementia and Aging has kept me coming back. My favorite writer on this subject remains Jimmy Breslin, who reported on his own brain surgery in I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.

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James VanOosting is professor of public communication at Fordham University and a former dean of arts and sciences at Seton Hall University. He has written 10 books.

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