Young Bill Young here. With this post, I’m starting a recurring feature about books that have had an impact on my life. (And I’m hoping you share some books that made a difference in your life in the comments section!)
We always talk about the power of reading on this blog, and some of the best conversations I’ve had with friends are about books that opened doors, or that helped us see the world in a new way.
First up is Dad, a novel by William Wharton. I read it years and years ago, but only recently have I fully appreciated it. You see, my Dad just turned 97 years old a couple of months ago. He has been in a nursing home for three years. He has the dementia that is common to the elderly, and his short term memory is pretty non-existent. His eyesight and hearing are beyond simply failing, but he is fairly content, still has a sense of humor, still plays his harmonica on occasion, still sings songs, and still flirts with the women.
He is also able to live in the moment much of the time. Other times, not so much. Some of the stories he tells these days are fascinating! Here’s a sampling:
• He has a second son who was a quarterback for the OU Sooners and is now a sports broadcaster.
• He owns land in Peru and has been unable to find out if oil has been discovered there.
• He runs a big, successful business with lots of employees, and he is very good to them. (A care plan meeting a couple of years ago was a “board meeting” in dad’s mind)
• He’s made excellent investments and is going to buy homes for me, my sister, and the other members of his family.
• He was lost in the jungle when he was younger, and was helped by an ape that lived there. When he was rescued, “they” wouldn’t let him take the ape home with him.
• He was an Olympic track star, and won two gold medals.
None of these stories are true, but no one can accuse my father of being a boring storyteller. Where the jungle story is probably related to dad’s preference for books, articles and television programs on science and nature, the other stories just had me shaking my head. Some of the stories (like the football-playing son, the smart investor, and the Peruvian landowner) are recurring tales. Where could these be coming from? And then one day, I remembered Dad.
In Wharton’s novel, the elderly father is slipping into dementia. The author not only tells the story from the caregiver son’s point of view, but from the point of view of the father, who is struggling with his memory. In the book, Dad is beginning to confuse his fantasy life with reality.
Fantasy life. We all have one. Did my father’s fantasy life include two sons, instead of just one? Was the other son a star football player? Did he daydream of being a successful business man? (He and mom owned a neighborhood grocery store in the late forties and early fifties.) Did he dream of wealth that he could use to help his family? Did he dream of a patch of land in a beautiful South American valley?
There is much more to Wharton’s Dad than the fantasies and confusion of an old man, but that’s the one theme of the book that revisited me while contemplating my own father’s mental journeys. I suppose this is a poetic way to look at it, certainly more intriguing than the simple misfiring of synapses and the dying of brain cells.
But there is often poetry in what my father says. Last weekend, he said to my sister: “My life is just a riddle.” Perhaps Wharton’s novel has helped me to decipher a bit of that riddle.
(My dad with balloon cap and harmonica at his 97th birthday celebration.)