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About The Book

In her award-winning book Harmful to Minors, Judith Levine radically upended our fixed ideas about childhood. Now, she tackles the other end of life in this poignant memoir of a daughter coming to terms with a difficult father who is sinking into dementia, presenting an insightful exploration of the ways we think about disability, aging, and the self as it resides in the body and the world.

In prose that is unsentimental yet moving, serious yet darkly funny, complex in emotion and ideas yet spare in diction, Levine reassembles her father's personal and professional history even as he is losing track of it. She unpeels the layers of his complicated personality and uncovers information that surprises even her mother, to whom her father has been married for more than sixty years.

As her father deteriorates, the family consensus about who he was and is and how best to care for him constantly threatens to collapse. Levine recounts the painful discussions, mad outbursts, and gingerly negotiations, and dissects the shifting alliances among family, friends, and a changing guard of hired caretakers. Spending more and more time with her father, she confronts a relationship that has long felt bereft of love. By caring for his needs, she learns to care about and, slowly, to love him.

While Levine chronicles these developments, she looks outside her family for the sources of their perceptions and expectations, deftly weaving politics, science, history, and philosophy into their personal story. A memoir opens up to become a critique of our culture's attitudes toward the elderley. A claustrophobic account of Alzheimer's is transformed into a complex lesson about love, duty, and community.

What creates a self and keeps it whole? Levine insists that only the collaboration of others can safeguard her father's self against the riddling of his brain. Embracing interdependence and vulnerability, not autonomy and productivity, as the seminal elements of our humanity, Levine challenges herself and her readers to find new meaning, even hope, in one man's mortality and our own.


Chapter 1: Anger

"I don't have any more," says Dad, his whole body a shrug of resignation.

We are eating supper on a small white round Melamite table shoved into the corner of Mom and Dad's blue and white, barely "eat-in" kitchen. Mom and I occupy two straight-backed white Melamite chairs, a punitive imitation of modernism, on either side of the table. Dad sits between us on an antique pine ladderback, carried in from the living room.

At Walden Pond, Thoreau had three chairs: one for solitude, two for company, three for society. Tonight, here on West Twenty-fourth Street in Manhattan, it's one for loneliness, two for conspiracy, three for exclusion.

The pine chair is Dad's last repair job, monument to his Alzheimer's disease. A few years ago, when he refitted a loose rung in its back, he glued the shaped wood upside down with its garlanded edge drooping toward the floor like a fruited vine. Mom couldn't bear to correct him, he'd wanted so badly to be useful. Now, the chair and its formerly identical twin flank the upright piano. Among the first purchases of their marriage, the chairs are a pair like them: one "normal," straight, sturdy, and modestly festooned, the other a clownish imitation of normalcy, permanently out of whack.

Alone in the kitchen, the chair seems forlorn, though not so much as its occupant. "I have no boat. I don't have any money!" Dad rummages in his shirt pocket. "I don't have."

Mom answers: "You don't need money, dear."

"My boat, do you remember, Jude? I had in that, that -- " He waves his arm outward and upward, compassing what I understand to be the coast of Maine. "A beautiful piece, handsome." The landlocked sailor smiles distantly.

"It was handsome," I say.

"But we had, we had to -- we had to."

A familiar lament, the lost boat. Twenty-five years ago it was Dad who tired of sailing, biking, and blueberry-picking and instigated the sale of the steep-roofed little house on the ocean that Mom and I still mourn like a deceased member of the family. These points are no longer debated. "Maine" has become symbolic, its truth bigger than the details.

That truth resides in every photograph of Dad on the boat, face tilted back to gauge the luff of the sail, pipe in teeth, wind in hair, forearm relaxed on the tiller. The boat was pleasure, status, mastery, masculinity. "No boat," he mutters, pushing rice onto his spoon with his index finger. He glowers at Mom. "You have money." Turns to me with a disgusted sigh. "She's always making money."

"Dad, she doesn't make any money either," I say, insisting futilely on reason. "She's retired, like you."

"You have money!" he snaps at me. I don't reply. He heckles.

"Don't you have money? Don't you have money?"

I confess. "Yes, I have money."

A nod of finality -- I rest my case.

"Not much," I appeal.

He has returned to mashing hacked chicken flesh into the heap of rice soaking in the slick of salad oil he has poured over the whole mess. "She always has money," he says to his plate.

We sit in silence for a long minute.

"You have your things, too," I say, hearing condescension in my voice as I enumerate the items he carries each time he leaves the house. "You have your Metrocard, your senior citizen card, your keys." I leave out the plastic forks, magazine subscription cards, combs, and pencils and pens in a white pocket protector he also totes, a few of which he loses each week. "Everything you need."

"Myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-MYA," he mimics the cadence of my sentence and chuckles mordantly. "I need, I need." His hand goes out for yet another chicken breast.

Mom and I lean forward, like two flanks of a defensive army, thwarting him. "Dad, you already -- " "Stan, look at -- "

With a dangerously large gesture, Dad shoos us both away but forgoes the second helping. Returning to work on his meal, he anchors a half-eaten piece of chicken with a spoon and forefinger and saws at it with an upside-down butter knife. I reach to flip the knife over.

"You!" he barks, pushing my hand away. "I'll!!"

Unfettered, Dad would eat the whole chicken. Assurances that he's already had a meal, as little as ten minutes earlier, are met with skepticism, sometimes outrage. Even hunger, it seems, is a function of memory.

"I am aware that I am no longer able to do the things I used to do," he pronounces after a while, almost calmly. It is 2001 and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago. He is most cogent when expressing his disintegration.

We eat in near silence, Mom and I exchanging a few words while Dad maneuvers chicken on spoon or knife or (once in a while) fork to his mouth, dripping juice onto his chin, which is wrinkled in disgruntlement.

Mom appears to be mentally thumbing through tactics: blandish, distract, ignore, commiserate. Sympathize, as in, Yes, you are right. You are not what you used to be. That must be hard for you. This last comes rarely. Sympathy stripped of judgment or advice is not big in our family's repertoire. Perhaps she thinks it will only reaffirm his despair. Or her own. "I can't save him," she has told me more than once, "but I am determined not to go down with him." She feels him like a drowning swimmer with his arms locked round her neck.

Tonight, she chooses commiseration. Co-miseration: a few comradely yards' swim alongside him in the drowning pool. "You know, Stanley, you're not the only one," she says. "We're all getting older. Every day. I'm getting older too. None of our friends are what they used to be." She ticks off the casualty list: Ruth's eyes, Sonje's paralyzed left side, Helen's cancer. "We're all losing something. We're all in the same boat."

"You're losing?" Dad snorts. Meaning, I infer, You're not losing your mind. And to what boat is she referring? Didn't he just point out that he doesn't have a goddamn boat.

"I've lost too," Mom says. I have lost my husband. A thin shell of anger closes around the pain in her voice. In our battle-ready family, the wounded are wary of resting undefended.

Dad reaches back and perches a water glass on the edge of the cabinet behind him. Mom and I simultaneously lunge at it. Amusement animates his face as he watches the hysterical pair he can so easily provoke. In this moment of disorder, he makes a final point: "I don't have." And then, "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

"Okay," I say.

"I don't want to talk about it anymore!"

"I said okay."

"Okay," says Mom, whether in relief or surrender I cannot tell.

Daddy is too big. I am small. His head is huge, his hair so thick it has muscles of its own. He loves to tickle me, but refuses to stop when my pleasure turns to desperation. He calls me "Little Jood," rhymes with "good." But his voice is loud, as if he were addressing a large audience, not one little girl.

His power is always poised to explode through his large body. Fear robs him of grace; he lugs his temper around like a tank of volatile gas, its incendiary potential seeming to scare him almost as much as it does the rest of us. Our tiny Queens apartment compresses him. We kids are told to be quiet, Dad is in his room with "a splitting headache." I imagine his head breaking in half with a loud crack, like a huge walnut. Once, in a rage, he slams a fist through the wall.

Dad is jubilantly silly. A summer camp director, he dances before all the campers with a fake plastic knife on a headband that look as if it's stabbed through his head. "Hotchky potky!" he shouts with joy, usually in public places and always to his children's mortification. He surges through the waves at Jones Beach with me on his salty-slick back. I feel both secure and unsafe, wondering if he just might (jokingly) flip his passenger off into the bottomless ocean.

He has funny names for things. A fart is a "poopel," and poopels are funny. "Poopel" is also pseudo-Yiddish, because it is related to a gastrointestinal function, and all things gastrointestinal are Jewish. Jewish is funny. Our family adopts a dog from friends. His name is Lox, his sister's name is Bagels. People find this cute. The Jewish things that are funniest are those that are in some way distasteful or painful, or at least inspire ambivalence -- organ meats, poopels, mothers. Dad tells James and me the endless, directionless saga of Seymour Lipschitz, a runny-nosed, violin-playing skinny melink from the East Bronx, and Herman Schullenklopper, the strapping, daring diver from railway bridges and stealer of nickel pickles who is Seymour's idol and tormentor. In this more or less autobiographical story, Seymour is (of course) Jewish, Herman is probably German. One of Dad's remaining "jokes," since Alzheimer's, is to call out playfully and plaintively, for no particular reason, "Sey-mour! Sey-mour!," a "Jewish" name. He laughs, mystifying everyone with his painfully unfunny humor.

As I grow up I learn to joke with, or at, Dad. I become cockier, but I'm still scared of him. When I am nine, shortly after we move to the suburbs, I leave my bike unlocked at school and it is stolen. Fearing punishment, I run away. Two hours later, when I return, Mom is weeping, Dad apoplectic.

"How many times have I told you not to leave the bike?" he bellows. "How many times have I told you to chain it up?" His rage ratchets up and up, he can't seem to stop. How many times, how many times, how many times!

I duck past him, run to the bathroom, and lock myself in. He is yelling from the other side of the door. "I TOLD YOU NOT TO LEAVE IT! I'm not buying you another bike!"

"Okay, don't. I'll buy another one with my allowance."

"How many times have I told you? You're not getting another bike!"

"I said I'd buy my own."

As usual when Dad and I fight, Mom interjects only occasional pleas for us both to stop. Now, though, she needs to use the bathroom. Her Crohn's is exacerbated by stress. I agree to come out if Dad won't hit me.

"All right, I promise! I said, I promise!" he shouts the second time I insist he promise. But when I push the door and peer around it like I've seen the cops do on TV, it is suddenly yanked open. From my left side I see a hand swoop in like the wing of landing bird. It thuds flat and thick from my forehead to my jawbone.

I duck past him and around the corner to my room, where I slam the door and push a chair against it. I lie back on my orange corduroy bedspread, nursing the betrayal, which stings more than the blow. After a while, though, my dizziness and tears subside into a sort of epiphany. Striking me, Dad has displayed not authority but weakness in the face of his own impulses, not control but frustration at the limits of his authority. His palm is huge, but using it makes him puny. My hurt turns to dispassion. My eyes dry.

I address my threadbare Teddy bear: Do I love Dad? In my family, this is a legitimate question. Mom and Dad both felt they had been forced to love undeserving parents, and they did not want to burden their own children with what they saw as an emotionally confusing hypocrisy. To them, a child's unconditional love is compulsory love, so it was not required of James and me. For their part, my parents may have loved us, but we did not assume they did.

Do I love Dad? Beary stares in solemn witness, one button eye hanging by a black thread. The answer is no.

When I am a teenager, Dad and I fight over the usual things: chores, my clothes, the music I like, and because it is the sixties, sex and drugs. We make a misery of what ought to be fun. He takes me to the tennis court but instructs me so sternly that I throw the racket to the ground in tears. He takes me sailing, but corrects me so relentlessly that we are not speaking by the time we pick up the mooring. I don't learn either to play tennis or to sail. When I am an adult, I watch him avidly trounce my six-year-old niece, Jessie, at checkers, picking the red disks off the board as a brave tear rolls down her cheek.

It almost seems that we fight for fun. We fight about things that concern or interest neither of us, like cars or opera, or arcane subjects, like the temperature inside caves, about which neither of us knows anything. We goad each other, skirmish over politics, even when we agree. For instance, we fight about feminism. I know he supports women's rights; his marriage has been remarkably egalitarian. But I also think he can't stand it that I know more than he does about the subject. This may or may not be because I am a woman.

We know each other through our fights. I believe this means I know him well. Anger limits him; besides depression, it is his chief emotion. This makes him efficiently knowable. At the same time, he is large in his anger, a maestro of anger. He can be artfully angry, sensuously angry, wittily angry, coolly and warmly angry; he even can seem contentedly angry.

I begin to chart our relationship as a series of jagged spikes connected by flat lines: arguments interspersed with absences. I ask myself again and again in different situations whether I love him. The answer is always the same: No, I do not love my father.

Toward James, three and a half years my senior, Dad is dismissive at best, violent at worst. If you have to deserve the love you get at the Levines, James keeps coming up short. Dad takes his son to Washington for his thirteenth birthday. At the Lincoln Memorial, he suggests they "race" to read the Gettysburg Address. Although the reading is silent, Dad claims victory. In high school, every report card brings a conflagration. A German tutor is enlisted, whom James resists with aloof humor and persistently low grades. Dad seems to pay no attention to James's competence in all things mechanical, his charm and wit and good looks. He flirts with James's girlfriend, Leila. When she does not respond, he takes another tack. "We were in Jamie's room making out," Leila recalls. "Your father just barged in without knocking. He looked at us, half-dressed on the bed, and he just laughed. This supercilious laugh, as if we were cute."

All Dad's friends tell me he boasted about James and me.

James leaves home at eighteen without a word. Dad is shocked. "He was totally devastated by it. I think he was looking for reasons," says a colleague of Dad's at the school where he worked as a psychologist. "Such a bright man, with so much compassion for and perception of others that he met or counseled. It's a shame he couldn't use any of that for himself and his son." To me, Dad's surprise that his son ran off is evidence of the reason his son ran off.

During this time, James becomes a carpenter. Some years later, Dad and Mom visit him and his wife and first child in Montana.

My brother takes my parents to see a house he is building. He does not remember a single positive remark from Dad. But when Dad returns to New York he tells a friend that his son is "the Michelangelo of carpentry."

Home from college at Christmas freshman year, girded by feminism and my first round of psychotherapy, I decide to tell Dad what a terrible father he was. I march into his bedroom, where he is reading. He puts down his book and looks up. I launch into my J'accuse. He was self-involved, volatile, unjust, overbearing, cruel to James, and negligent of me. He was not there to protect me; he was hardly there at all. "All you ever did," I tell him with nineteen-year-old certitude, "was criticize." I add that he's an asshole if he doesn't know why James left. I look not at him, but at his mother's Mexican hand-blown cobalt-blue glass jar, my favorite heirloom, spilling dim blue light onto the battered pine dresser.

I expect a fight, so I am thrown off when instead of roaring, he grovels. He did not have a father, he explains, so he didn't know how to father. He pleads for understanding. It is the first and last time I see him in tears. I remain impassive, unforgiving. But when I leave my parents' bedroom, I feel hurt, unheard and -- though no voices were raised -- fought with.

The next day, Mom comes into my room and sits on the bed. She asks me to go easy on Dad. "He's always been threatened by strong women, like his mother," she says. "And like you." I'm flattered but also disgusted. Why does Mom, a strong woman herself, play Dad's toady?

"He's fifty-two years old. He can grow up already," I mutter. I am like that blue glass jar: fire-made, a container of cold light.

"Water?" Mom asks, taking a carafe from the refrigerator and carrying it to the table.

"No thanks." The water is a little beige and tastes a little sweet. Dad sometimes pours undrunk soda back into it.

"I don't want to go there," Dad says. Mom and I look at each other. We surmise he's talking about his "program," the day care for adults with memory loss that is held in a community room of their apartment complex.

"You need to go," Mom replies. "Everyone depends on you. They miss you when you're not there."

It's another old discussion, a script Dad has memorized. He knows Mom's part too: a monologue of affirmation that he can reliably prompt. For Mom, who no longer has the energy to make him feel virile, it's a vehicle of unambiguous praise.

Usually her cheerleading works. And in fact, he likes the program. But lately, her exhortations are less honest, and he seems to know it. For the first few years the staff pretended Dad was the program's consulting psychologist. He attended meetings, took "notes." He even adopted a fractured version of the workplace plaint -- too many clients, short funds, disorganized administration, etc. In the apartment, he erected a version of a busy home office on the radiator cover under the south-facing window in their bedroom, collecting, sorting, stacking, and restacking the postcards and circulars, magazines, and envelopes he finds around the house.

But as his dementia advances, his temper and rambling monologues make him unwelcome at the staff meetings; his anxiety about moving from one activity to another turns him from a help to a hindrance in organizing meals or cleanup. The workers have ceased to "consult" him. Superfluous in the last place he felt crucial, Dad is frustrated and angry, and expressing these feelings has only pushed him further to the margin. Without articulate language, he resorts to a more direct means of expression. Once, when the music instructor declines to take one of his suggestions, Dad slugs him.

"I can't go to that now," he says between spoonfuls of chicken-rice porridge. "It's anymore."

"They miss you when you aren't there," Mom repeats.

"You're not me!"

Mom, who has learned to let most things drop, is not dropping this. She reprises the earlier theme of loss. Because of his program, she seems to be telling Dad, he is actually better off than she. She volunteers at a public garden and a pacifist organization, yes. But volunteers are a dime a dozen. She comes and goes at these places; they could live without her, she says. Whereas Dad's daily connection with the people in the group gives him continuity and purpose. She reminds him of the praise and affection he gets there. "You are really needed," she says. "At this point in our lives, that is a very lucky thing."

Dad's lucky? When his slack face arranges itself into an approximation of understanding, he also looks incredulous. I share the sentiment. I am beginning to feel as I often do in their altercations, exasperated by both of them.

Why is she persevering? Maybe it's nostalgia. This exchange, rare for its length and relative coherence, almost resembles a normal dinner table conversation. Or maybe she has seized this occasion to tell him, with me as witness, how she feels about her life. No longer running a large nonprofit agency, she is bereft of worldly responsibility and recognition, which is now supplanted by the private drudgery of responsibility for home and husband. The fate she escaped, uncommonly, in the prefeminist 1950s and '60s has finally caught up with her. She is needed, but only by Dad. And rather than recognize her for the competence with which she looks after all his needs, he resents her for the competence he's lost. Rather than show gratitude for the minor independence she arranges for him, he blames her for his dependence. Rather than loving her for caring, he hates her for taking care of him.

A lull in food consumption cues Mom to clear the table. It's all the same to Dad, just another arbitrary change of activity, though he has only half finished the vast quantity before him. He gets up to "help," moving the dirty dishes from the table straight to the cupboard. I tensely hold my tongue.

Back in his seat, Dad sets about tidying the environs within his reach. He picks up the spoon, turning and contemplating it, waiting for its message to rise to the shiny surface, wipes the spoon with the paper napkin, folds the napkin into a small square, lays the spoon on the napkin. Then, moving the spoon neatly to the right of the napkin, he fashions a scraper of the tiny paper square and proceeds to steer each crumb on his place mat toward a central pile, transfers the crumbs to a larger pile near the table's edge, and finally negotiates a swift drop of collected crumbs over the side and into his hand, dropping about half onto the floor. Looking around for a place to empty his palm, he shakes the crumbs out beside the mat, then scrapes that pile again into his left hand. Holding the crumbs in his half-cupped hand, he licks the napkin and rubs at each grease spot on the mat. Then he smacks his hands briskly together, scattering the crumbs onto the floor.

Mom, readying dessert, ignores him. When she sits down with a bundt cake and coffee, he grasps her arm, repeats her name, and repeats it again and again -- "Lil, Lil, Lil" -- until she doles out acknowledgment for his housekeeping, a coin in his palm. His eyes turn to me, asking for more.

But I look away, silent. After just an afternoon and evening with him, I am emptied of affirmation, and what spills into its place is my reflexive resistance to his lifelong demand for it. More than the extra chores he has created, what is irritating me is the unspoken requirement that I collaborate in the charade that he's taking care of everything. It is the same illusion my mother has perpetuated all her married life, and now the day care staff has joined in too. The first time it was farce. Now, it's tragedy.

At the moment, for Mom's sake, it seems easiest to collaborate. "It's true, Dad. You're a leader at your program." That's not saying much, considering the competition, but I am not exactly lying either. Despite the staff's efforts at industry and jollity, the esprit in that cinderblock room is vegetal at best. Dad is the life of the party. When he's not pissed off at someone, he is a singer and dancer, lady's man, and all-around happy camper. I tell him now, "You're definitely the most fun guy in that room."

He looks skeptically from Mom to me and back. Are we ganging up? Although he angles for flattery outside, in this kitchen nothing inflames him more than phony compliments. And more often than not, he wagers that Mom's and my compliments are phony. If he doesn't want to go to his program, why are we insisting? He knows why: because it lets Mom get rid of him. He tries expressing this complicated idea. "She's always going," he says to me, his hands fluttering up and out like quails flushed from a forest floor. "There here and there and there and there." Mom and I look at one another -- conspiratorially?

"Dad, why can't you hear what Mom and I are saying? People like you in the group. That's all."

His face darkens. "Like me?"

"They like you."

He laughs, the parody of a villain -- Boris Badenov. "They like me."

"Yes, the people in your group like you."

A pause, while he regroups. "What are you talking about?"

"You understand," I say. "We're saying people need you."


"People need you."

Angrier: "I need you?"

He's a man who can't take yes for an answer, Mom always says. But his refusal is more selective than that. He pulls desperately for yeses most anywhere he can get them, but when one comes from a person close to him, like Mom or me, he can't stop himself from rebuffing it. "Dad," I hiss. "Listen. To. What. We. Are. Saying."

"They need me?" His voice rises, then steadies. "You need me?" Upheaval, his most familiar emotion, seems to stabilize him.

"Mom and I are saying that people like you and need you."

"You need me?"

Our last fair fight, just before Alzheimer's, is about the fact that we fight. It takes place in another blue and white room, this one in upstate New York, a few country houses after the sale of the house in Maine. It is sometime in the 1980s, and we are talking about the Chinese student dissidents, one of whom has been imprisoned. Dad, a barely reconstructed Stalinist, is calling the students "counterrevolutionaries." The Chinese have it a lot better than they had before the Revolution, he says. They have food, they have housing. There is too little to go around in China as it is. Why do they need consumer goods? As for democracy, economic rights must come first. I'm saying that people are willing to sacrifice a lot while a revolution is going on, but once it is won, they expect the goods they were promised. They want democracy. They also want blue jeans.

The argument is fueled by what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. In the big picture, we are on the same side. But we will disagree over the details, and struggle over that last half inch of disputed territory, until one of us is bleeding.

Later, I think, this is a debate about scarcity -- about how much a person can expect when resources are few, when everyone feels deprived. In his life, Dad has learned to expect little. Neglected child, adolescent of the Depression, husband whose wife loves him but cannot provide the bottomless affection he longs for, he tries for contentment. Yet his need spills over. I, postwar Baby Boomer, entitled child of peace, plenty, and psychotherapy, want more. Like the young Chinese, my expectations are high, and so are my disappointments.

After about an hour, I yield on one point. Immediately, Dad runs around to the opposite corner, the one I'd just stepped away from, to keep the punches flying. I raise my fists for the next round, then drop them. Suddenly, I am exhausted.

"I can't stand this anymore," I scream, tearful. "You won't even let me agree with you. If all you want to do is argue, I can't talk to you." I add: "I don't want to talk to you. Ever again." And, like a tragic hero in the last act, I fall upon my sword. (Actually, I go upstairs to read.)

When he recounts the event to my brother on the phone a few days later, Dad says, "You know Judy. She wants everybody to agree with her, but she'll never agree with anyone else." Of course, he's right. I am my father's daughter, a girl who won't take yes for an answer.

Dad cuts the slice of bundt cake Mom has served him in half and half again. He stirs four packets of Nutrasweet into his black coffee, powdering the area around the cup as he tears into the little pink envelopes. "I don't want to talk about it anymore," he says.

"Okay," says Mom. "So we won't talk about it."

"Okay," I say.

"Okay!" says Dad.

He bisects the cake until there is no piece big enough to pick up with a fork and gathers the remnants into his spoon. Then he turns his body fully toward me. "So. What do you think?"

I work at gathering the remnants of the subject, if there was one, back into cogency. Dad may no longer be a master of repartee, but now that he's demented he's gotten good at driving other people out of their minds. "Ye-es," he prompts. "Go on..."

"You're right," I say, coolly. "You aren't what you used to be."

It takes him a minute. That comment was way too long ago for him to remember. "THAT's what you think!?"

"Dad, I'm agreeing with you."

He chuckles sarcastically. I go back to my cake. He waits, alert. "Ye-es?"

"What I think," I say finally, "is that you do want to talk about it." For my nimbleness in debate, I credit a lifetime of paternal tutelage.

Cornered, he strikes. "Do you need me?"

I pause, unwilling to reassure him. "You're my father -- "

"Do you need me?"

"Well, I can take care of myself, if that's what you mean."

"You're not me! You don't know me!" He spits cake crumbs.

I parry. "Well, I know you better than I did as a child. I mean, we spend much more time together now than we did then."

"You did that," he grumbles.

"Oh," I retort, constructing an argument far more logical than the one he's flailing around in. "It was my fault you were never there." My sarcastic chuckle is almost identical to his.

Dad is drifting. Rage is his only raft.

"Judy, don't -- " says Mom quietly.

"We spend an afternoon almost every week together," I say. Then I taint goodwill with ill: "I can't remember ever spending an afternoon with you in my childhood." Feeling slightly guilty, I cast around for an antidote. "And -- " I hesitate, unwilling to say our time together feels good, "and I think we're closer than we were."

He slams his big hands flat on the table, flipping his fork onto the floor and rattling the cake plates. He rises from the table. "I don't need you!"

The kitchen shrinks. Dad fills one end with his fulminating, Mom clutters the other, tossing little scraps of diplomacy: "Jude, he's just trying to -- " "Stan, take it easy. Judy doesn't mean -- "

I stand in my tight corner, shoulder Dad out of my way, clump through the door into the living room, and wildly start to collect my jacket and bag. "Okay, Dad," I shout back toward the kitchen. "Have it your way. Nobody needs you. You don't need anybody."

But he is hard behind me. I feel his heat and noise like a furnace opening at my back. He muscles around to face me, forces his face into mine, close enough to kiss. Fierce gibberish and spittle hit my cheek. "You need me?" That old grimace of sarcasm, now twisted crazy.

"All right," I shout. "Fuck you! People hate you. That what you want to hear?"

We are inches from each other's bodies, our torsos leaning in, then pulling away, hands drawing backward, afraid of striking -- a boxing video run in reverse. "DON'T MAKE ME STUPID!" he shouts.

He grabs at my bag and jacket -- to harass me or hold me? We are almost equal in size now, he stooped and shrunken, I tall in my heeled sandals. Now we're close, I think. Now we are connecting. This is what we need each other for. I am shaking, but not crying. My eyes follow the creases beside his mouth down to the wattles of his neck. A perverse energy shivers through me. When Jane Eyre's beloved, the mesmerizingly potent Mr. Rochester, is blinded, "his power dropped and my Soul grew straight," she says. I am stronger and nimbler than my father. My hands could easily collar that neck. I could hurt him.

I push past him, slam the front door behind me, and make for the stairwell, my shoes clapping like sparse applause -- for what? -- on the six flights' descent. In the subway to Brooklyn I scribble what I can remember on a pad of tiny yellow Post-its. The pages flutter into my straw bag, sticking to each other and everything else. They are the beginnings of the book I hope will help me know my father. But knowing him may be no easier than fighting with him.

When I reach home, I can barely lift my legs up the three flights of stairs to my apartment. I peel the Post-its from my bag and spread them on my desk, quickly typing some sequence of the events at Mom and Dad's apartment into the journal in my computer. My reconstruction is probably more logical than reality. I often do this with Dad's sentences too: in retrospect I rearrange the syntax, insert missing subjects, verbs, and transitions. It's almost involuntary, the same way retelling a dream constructs a narrative of scattered images and feelings.

I call Mom, worried that Dad's rage might have spilled onto her. She says no; he turned contrite the instant I left. "I'm all alone. You're the only one I have," he told her. "I love you," he said, followed by his twin declaration, "I need you." This she recounts with weary dread in her voice. She tells me, "When you were kids, I used to ask myself, in the midst of the screaming and crying and hitting, 'How can I stay with a man who cares so little about his children?' "

"So how could you?" I ask. As I teenager, when I had absolute opinions about what was acceptable in a relationship (that is, before I'd actually been in one), I used to exhort her to leave him. Now her tone changes. She talks about how supportive he was of her work, how patient with her illness, how funny. She doesn't mention my outburst this evening. But I know that my temper, my messing with Dad's emotions, has only left her more to clean up. She says Dad floated to lucidity, as often happens. "He looked at me that way, with his same old plaintiveness," Mom says, "and he asked me, 'What did I do to my children?' "The funny part, she says, is that he always wanted more children, four or five. "He loved fatherhood."

I hang up the phone, flip through my mail, wash the dishes in the sink. I'm happy to be in my own lemon-lime-colored kitchen with its shelves of bright, mismatched fifties dishes and a clutch of apricot-colored tulips wilting in a vase on the table. It's late, but I call Paul, who lives in Vermont. He answers groggily but is happy to talk. We chat about the tax sale of his neighbor's property, about the emu chicks at the organic farm further down the hill. We arrange Paul's next trip to New York, the exchange of cars and cat. Paul's house is in Vermont, my apartment is in Brooklyn, we both have offices and phones in each other's houses. I live in Vermont in the summer; during the year we go back and forth, sometimes together, sometimes apart. Usually the logistics of our peripatetic relationship irritate, but tonight they seem simple; they center me. As always I ask how our cat, Julius, is. "He's fine," answers Paul cheerfully, as always.

"I had a huge fight with my father tonight," I say after a while.

"How'd you manage that?" Paul asks, laughing gently.

"He's still...himself. You know."

"And you're yourself."

"Yeah," I say, feeling sheepish. "I'm myself." We're both silent for a minute. "Well," I say, "I've gotta figure out a better way to deal with it."

Paul laughs again, patient with the obvious. "That would be a good idea, Judith."

Copyright © 2004 by Judith Levine

About The Author

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Judith Levine's work explores the ways history, culture, and politics express themselves in intimate life. She is the writer of scores of articles for national magazines and four books, including Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Levine lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Hardwick, Vermont, where she writes the column "Poli Psy," on the public uses of emotion, for the weekly Seven Days.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439138045

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