In the end, we remember people in pieces – slivers of memory, images, bursts of sound and trails of whispers. When I remember my father, I think of his eyes. As a child, I searched for them, wanting feverishly for them to focus on me, twinkle as they always did when he was about to say something funny or indulge one of my childish fantasies, like searching for leprechauns when the moon was full. On bright California days, his eyes seemed to match the sky. But I remember also how they could take on a mineral stillness when he was determined to teach me something important, like getting back on my horse after I fell off.

            I remember his shoulders, broad enough for me to sit on when I was small, strong enough to hoist me up onto a horse, build fences at our ranch. His legs were a swimmer’s legs, lean and sinewy. He had perfect form when executing a dive into the pool, and his kicks when he swam were hard and athletic. When I was a child, I used to say that my father could do anything. My parents found it cute, so I said it often. But I meant it; I thought nothing could get the best of him. A lifetime later, I would watch him stand helplessly in front of a beast he could not slay

            When Alzheimer’s began stealing him away, his eyes were my barometer for how quickly, how relentlessly, the disease was progressing. In the early stages they reached for what was still recognizable, sinking back into fear if what had once been familiar suddenly was not. At some point during the ten years of his illness, he was pirated to a place far away, and the only comfort was that his eyes looked relaxed, as if it was okay to be there. Over time, they changed color, fading from blue to an uncertain shade of gray, like the sky when fog drifts across it. A week or so before he died, he closed his eyes and I thought they would probably never open again. But they did. 

            The night before he died, the nurse unbuttoned his pajama top to listen to his heart through the stethoscope. His shoulders were so thin, just edges of bone and pale skin. I rested my hand around his left shoulder; it fit into the curve of my palm. Then I asked the nurse if I could listen to his heartbeat. She handed me the stethoscope. 

            “It’s weak,” she said. “Thready.”

            I heard it like an echo. A heart that was leaving this world. A heart I had always wanted to know better, to feel closer to. I knew I’d remember the sound for the rest of my days.

            Seconds before my father died, his eyes opened. They were bright blue and focused, twinkling like they once did so long ago, in a time that seemed like ancient history. He focused on my mother, let his eyelids fall again, and in an instant he was gone.

            In 1994, the year my family’s life changed forever, people were not talking about Alzheimer’s. When my father released his letter to the country and the world revealing he had been diagnosed with the disease, the Reagans suddenly became the poster family for an illness no one wanted to discuss. I was living in Manhattan at the time and if ever I was recognized on the street strangers would often stop me and mention his Alzheimer’s. Usually they would say that they were praying for him, or that they were so sorry this had happened. But occasionally someone would share a snippet of their own experience with a loved one who had been given the same diagnosis. It would always be brief, almost cryptic – an image through a half open window. And then they’d be gone. I was left with glimpses into their experience, never the full story.

            I remember walking along Columbus Avenue one drizzly afternoon after such an encounter and realizing that I needed to accept the fact that I was alone on a journey I knew nothing about. I felt like I was embarking on a trek through the Himalayas without a Sherpa. I knew there would be stumbles, and times I would feel lost, but I committed myself to embracing the passage of my father’s exit from this world, whatever that would mean.


3 Responses to FLOATING IN THE DEEP END (an excerpt)

  1. Joy kim says:

    This excerpt underscores the beautifully descriptive and honest portrayal of ‘the’ Ronald Reagan. P.S. I noticed my library has put Patti’s book on order:)

  2. robert coles says:

    Great interview on NPR ! Thank you. When will your book be translated in French ? My father in law is at early stage and my Mother in Law should be aware of all of your advices.

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