My (61M) father (92m) is still going, albeit with dementia which, as the song says, is just a hard way to go. Most days he doesn’t remember that his wife of 68 years (my mother) died two years ago, and being told of it makes him grieve anew every time. It is very sad.
I have not seen him for a few years. My brothers make the trip, one a month, but I am not only much further away (California v. Pennsylvania) but have also been kept busy with my own health matters. The truth is that it hurts. The last time I saw him, we were sitting together at the kitchen table, having a conversation that repeated every five minutes like clockwork. I got up to go to the bathroom and I was no sooner out of site than he said to my mother, in a seriously frightened tone, ‘Elsa, I think there’s someone in the house!’
My father was a distinguished sort of fellow, a university professor, a Ph. D., highly regarded in his field, and a therapist’s therapist. He founded and ran an institute that trained other therapists. An ex-girlfriend of mine once said of him, rather uncharitably but nevertheless with accuracy, that his true calling was to be a cult leader. It didn’t happen though. He wrote several books but in a peculiar vocabulary all his own that very few people understood. One such memorable title was “Undoing the Clinch of Oppression”. He was a true radical of the mid-twentieth century Marxist-Freudian-Franz Fanon-Paul Goodman-counter-culture variety and did some truly good and socially conscious work. I grew up being taken to all sorts of marches – anti-war, civil rights, women’t lib, you name it – and was always proud of my parents, who somehow ended up raising their four boys in the middle of a very traditional, right-wing, Republican, white supremacist, highly segregated suburb of Philadelphia. We were not the most popular family; not only Jews but commies as well. They were intellectuals, and lived a vivid life of the mind. And now, today, where is that mind? He is not who he was.
It’s generally considered good advice to “live in the moment” but in practice it’s something else entirely. When you have little to no memory you have no choice but to live in the moment, and what is that moment? Is it life? Are you living? How could you tell, and what is your past life now that you have no choice but to live in the moment? As another song says, we’ve been spending most of our lives living in a past-time paradise – our memories, the stories we tell ourselves, the life we invent and re-invent continually and constantly.
I was thinking of this today because of a prompt far more trivial than my father’s dementia. My son (17m) told me how he’s been listening to an album a day lately. I’ve mostly been listening to a random shuffle of my online songs and hadn’t listened to an entire album in a while, so I thought I would do that today on the way to work. The album I chose was Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ (I do have a long commute!). While listening (and thinking, wow, this is brilliant, what a great work of art) I remembered that last year I was listening to the audiobook version of Keith Richards’ autobiography, and he mentioned a concert that I actually went to, in Philadelphia, in 1972 at the Spectrum. I was 15 and went with my best friend and all I really remember is 1) the music was so loud and the acoustics so bad that I couldn’t tell one song from another and 2) we had to wait for what seemed like forever for my friend’s older brother to come and pick us up in the middle of the night. What I absolutely do not remember is that the opening act for that show was Stevie Wonder, who even came on later to sing a duet with Mick Jagger at the end.
I remember wishing, many years later, that I had been able to see him in his prime, because I never did again and believed I never had. I have recently talked with my old friend, who clearly remembers the show, and I just can’t. I remember the opening acts of all the other shows we went to see together around that time: For Hot Tuna the opening act was Brewer and Shipley. For Creedence the opening act was Booker T and the MGs. For E.L.O. the opening act was Al Stewart. That summer for Peter Frampton the opening act was the J Geils Band. So why can I not remember Stevie Wonder, whose music I love?
Maybe I was too busy living in the moment. It’s impossible that I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was a huge R & B fan. I loved Al Green, Harold Melvin, Marvin Gaye, all the Gamble & Huff Philly sound records of the time. It’s a blank but it happened. July 21, 1972. It doesn’t really help to know that.
What is the life you don’t remember? Is it even yours?