Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew. I tell him about my travel plans while I make him lunch. I joke that Icelandic literature is essentially people drinking coffee before and after someone disappears in the snow.
The only thing to ask about his day concerns Nero, his black cat, who dependably warms his knees. This is my snow, what I tell myself. For there are few other questions he’s confident answering anymore, and I’m nervous about the replies I might get, where they might lead.
“How was dinner last night? Did you go to Santo’s Restaurant as usual?”
“I’ve been down near London this week,” he replies. “Can’t think why.”
Nero nudges a hand to be rubbed and tended.
Of course, dad hasn’t been further from Toronto than the suburbs for some time, so I change tack. Find some classical music on the radio, a comedy show. Something he can follow minute by minute, or something that might jog a memory. Anything without coordinates in the day-to-day, where ignorance winces shame.
He picks up a book next to his chair and asks about it. A few minutes later, never having put the book down, he asks again. The cat stretches on the blanket that covers his thighs. We talk about the book, where he bought it, where he’s been; I try to guide him to a topic from his past that we might expand upon. But conversation is more and more elusive, and the day slides towards a kind of failure.
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew. Last night’s dinner is hazy, as is the view through the snow outside the window.
“What’s for lunch today?” he says, but it’s always bacon and tomato. I slice the tomatoes while Nero makes his careful way across the furniture to dad’s lap. And I wonder what to do with it, this whiteout winnowing of him, in poetry. Because that’s the only place I have to contain it.
I started observing the progress of dad’s Alzheimer’s on the page while we were in England five years ago, our first trip ever that was just the two of us.
Then, it was cascades of his past mingled with our tourist stops along England’s left hip that came into shape on the page, trundling the borders through Shrewsbury, Ludlow, then inland to Salisbury. We spoke more of his past than we had since I was a boy. The poems were almost lists, scrawled inventories of what we were seeing, interspersed with his absences and returns.
Own. He names Norbury Hollow, Three
Purse Lane, the rail track,
The miners’ placid cottages, gentles me
“Drive slow if you’re not ready
For the road,” which he knows—
House of Twelve Windows, blood map
Of ring roads, coping the edges
Of today, unbidden tomorrow.
He talked over and over about cycling to Stonehenge, dropping his bike in the grass to explore. This spinning, the weight of the chain. Five years ago, such repetition meant returning to a tale once a day. It was almost a comfort—ironically, the repetition helped lodge his memories in my mind.
This continued, in its way, back in Canada. Each week a pub lunch and talk about his parents, their jobs, the family scandals. The losses. We never spoke of his disease, though, and it hid itself most days. He could hide so much in his age, all that he was forgetting.
A few things I’m sure he made up—stories of family members disappearing in the wilds of the US Midwest. People I’d never heard of. But aren’t most families half-truths?
I noticed that reading frustrated him—no ability to follow plot from day to day—but little else changed. Unless he drank, which he did, too much. Then he’d wake in the night asking where he was, feeling suddenly unsafe. What is this place? But he wouldn’t stop, just as the snow doesn’t, the coffee doesn’t. As my poems don’t. When I write, this repetition of stubbornness is like waves that come back to me. The stuck click of his repetition makes me appreciate the dirge of a villanelle or pantoum, the weight of repeated lines hammering at the door that won’t open between writer and subject.
When I say he wandered out into the snow in his slippers
I mean there’s no accounting for his movements.
He remembers nothing of panic or fear, dark houses,
ringing a doorbell to tell a neighbour he is lost.
Much like he can’t account for the bruises
each time he loses his balance, each time he’s mashed
like a doorbell and finds no one home,
collisions patterned into what we call a day, a week.
When I write about him waking, staring out a window, unsure of where he was, a friend comments, “Of course, poetry is all body, isn’t it? Doesn’t all writing have that connection?” I look back at the poems and we don’t touch. It has not been erased; it simply didn’t happen. I go back and describe him more, to see him better.
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew. Nero drools across his knuckles, rubbing up to him.
I’m amazed how long he hid his losses. His wife remembers him giving up the crossword, says she should have known that was a sign. I think of her birthday party two years ago, during which he sat in his chair and welcomed everyone with a laugh. I doubt he recognized a soul. He taught me this trick, the nervous laughter that welcomes in its insecurity. It’s an old skill he now brings into play.
Doctors say he has an “executive mind,” which means he’s good at hiding his inability to remember.
“What day is it today, Dad?”
“Does it really matter? I’m retired.”
Early on, I catch him out with questions I know the answers to, but this becomes more frequent. Do I do it intentionally? A kind of game? I guess part of me needs to keep track, understand where we are.
One day he tells me how he woke to see his mother standing in front of him in the room, and she said, in her laconic Cheshire accent, “What are you doing sat there?” At that point he knew she was long dead, so it shook him. I imagine other people visiting from his past to guide him safely around his house. There are times, at the beginning, when I can feel almost whimsical, writing about the fractured space he occupies, but that doesn’t last.
When she appeared,
did she seem lost?
Did talc or lavender
solidify the host?
Was she a young mother
eating bread and butter
cut so thick it was corporeal?
Was she hungry?
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew. I worry that he will doubt me. For two months, my visits involve at least one discussion of where we are and who is this person who collects maps of England? And this black cat is very much like my Nero. The cat is unsteady, too, fragile, sleeping longer on his knee. I try to talk us around to other topics, his sister, the weather, the birds, but the questions repeat. He disturbs the cat, wanders from map to map on the wall in wonderment.
There’s something in a gaze
when it isn’t returned,
can’t be given back…
I think of our small nephew, who is at an age where he sees connections everywhere—the dimples of a knife blade, his pencil case, a picture on the wall, in each he sees eyes. As the world becomes a curious whole to him, dad loses a synapse. I can still write a lyric in that. It still surprises without hurting. He will calm down. He will come back to me in some way yet.
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew in a space that is shrinking. Where once I would take him for lunch, I no longer feel confident that he’ll be able to control his bowels, or that he won’t become agitated by the voices of others in a restaurant. We have accidents, we have days I need to distract him, to calm him down.
I want so much to micromanage this situation that we eat at home. Partly to keep him safe, partly because he wakes later, most days. In the summer we sit in the yard. In the winter we move from room to room as purpose demands. Sometimes he asks when his wife will collect him. One day he wonders when his mother will arrive.
My poems shrink to pantoums and triolets, poems of repetition that return to their beginning, somehow new. Except the new is more loss.
Forty-six, watching the exits, my mouth,
but something else crouches out of sight.
The “why the fuck” of family habit.
Forty-six, watching the exits, my mouth
saying he loved me, loved me enough
for this profanity to be stifled
forty-six minutes of an hour, my mouth
an anger, resentment blotting out my sight.
Nero calls deafly from elsewhere in the house.
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew, and I worry that he might not know me. Before his condition had progressed, when he still drank, I took him to dinner. On the drive home he asked if I’d far to go. I said no, not far, not knowing that he was fishing for clues, sorting through who I might be. Only when we reached his door and he said, “I’ll be fine from here,” did it click. So I said, “Dad, I could use a cup of tea before I go.” And he said, “Good idea.”
I enter with “Father” to occlude any doubts
before questions come about my name,
before this loss is confirmed.
“Father” my safe word against.
Another repetition, a ritual. The poems now are rituals too, repetitive jostlings toward understanding. Language narrows as our lives narrow. The cat’s routine is an odd comfort in this.
When I share the poem about that bewildering drive home a friend says, “You can tell there was something missing all along between these two.” And she’s right, of course. We have no sense of the pulse of the non-verbal connection that some families have. We are good at gathering what we can without questions and hoping for the best. Which shows how desperate he was to know why he was driving through these dark streets with some stranger from another town. How clueless I was not to catch it.
Every Saturday I visit my father, we start anew. This time he is still asleep at 1 pm. I am tired and dread all the questions.
Is there another conversation to be had? I don’t know.
I scrape ice from the drive instead of waking him.
The shuck of blade on asphalt is its own incantation,
the shudder of impact, calling of spirits. You hear?
Once done, I go to wake him and find him staring vaguely at the ceiling. He gets up, sits at the dining room table delicately. Says, “I don’t know if I’m alive or dead.”
I shudder at how blank that morning must have been—knowing who you are but not where or why. Signposts didn’t make sense that day, no guiding voice until I roused him. Time is flattened out. “Here” is separated out and fickle.
I joke about his age, that the jury’s still out, but that he is very old indeed. He knows the tone—it is the same mocking lip of his sister. This rouses him an inch or two, and a pot of tea does much of the rest.
My poems narrow to syllables some days. They want to be close to this blankness, not to disrespect it with their will to flower. They begin to break at their conclusions, try to find their beginnings but bend and rupture. Is this poetic failure or just the necessary warp of a story?
Everywhere, tiered groves of olives,
Romans mocking our pedestrian
So much we want to learn,
though suspicion and complaint mar
A Saturday arrives without my father, and I begin the day believing the poems can open once again. Now the more distant past can reign. But it doesn’t happen. Too soon? All the words are snapshots, small stanzas on posterboard, as if made to display at his funeral.
But they are everything I don’t want at his funeral. The poems were never him. Not really. They were me, chasing him through his illness, catching what I could. And after? I am staring at photographs, but it’s silence I’m sitting in. No one to answer my questions.
—From CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022).
Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. His most recent book of poems is Democratically Applied Machine (Palimpsest Press 2020).
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