My father often said in his forties and fifties that he wanted to die young and sane. His greatest fear was losing his mind. Probably because he’d come close before. He knew what it was like to be at war with his mind, as did all of us. Also, our minds were really our only assets. Without them we were undernourished, unhappy outsiders.
He didn’t get his wish. He went crazy early on. Every time I spoke to him we’d meet all over again. I learned that he wanted to be a paramedic when he grew up. He started spending time outside in our suburban wasteland yard, where the razed garage used to stand at the end of the driveway. As always, the yard was half overgrown weeds, half swamp, and the rusted skeleton of our swing set.
He spoke to our neighbor’s dog for hours, through the diamonds in the fence.
I wanted to know if there was sense to his words, and we couldn’t understand. Or if there was none at all. If his prophecies and memories and musings were each distinct from each other, momentary thought bubbles that came and went.
My mother moved a table out there for him. There were books on it, usually open, and when people came to talk to him, he’d pretend to be looking at one of them.
Once I asked him what he was reading.
“Oh, nothing you’d be interested in,” he’d answered, and quietly closed the nearest book. After that I didn’t ask. I sat with him and he spoke to me.
“I should travel more,” he said, “I’ve been practicing my French”. He didn’t tell stories of his past but often made reference to it. “Mel should have traveled more,” he’d say, referring to his brother who died as a young man.
“It might have saved him.”
I came home for Thanksgiving to find him still sitting outside in the yard. The weather was colder now. He sat in a sweater and a coat over an old bathrobe and pajama pants. His nose and ears were bright red.
“Why do you let him stay out there?” I asked my mother angrily, but she just shrugged resignedly. She was a devoted caretaker. Too young really to be tending to a crazy old man. I was angry at my siblings for not coming around more. They were angry at me that I could stand it, sitting out there in the cold, listening to him mutter sentence fragments. They wanted to remember him as he was – a scholar, a teacher, a brilliant mind.
“The dog speaks Yiddish,” he told me. “only Yiddish.”
I bought him an iPod but he refused to use the earbuds so I rummaged through boxes in the basement to find an old Walkman.
On my third day home he was already outside with his coffee cup and his pile of books when I woke up. I made myself a cup of coffee and layered myself against the cold chill.
He’d been crying. His face was still wet. He was sitting cross legged on a folding chair and his body still thin and lithe, shuddered when I reached out to touch his shoulder.
He looked up at the pale blue sky over the yard. “It’s too big,” he wailed. “It’s much too big!” His eyes were magnified by his large, nineties era glasses.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said and patted his shoulder. He threw it off.
“It will not!” he shouted, and more quietly “Why is everybody lying to me?”
He sighed, crossed his arms over his chest. The wind blew through the willow tree that stood in our neighbor’s yard but drooped over our drive way. The neighbor’s back door opened and their dog bounded out. He came up to the gate and started barking, calling to my father.