Watching my widowed father age as he neared 90 was like watching an old photo fade: every time I saw him, he was a little less himself. Day by day, Leo, a humanist, a devoted Central Park South dentist, a lover of opera, golf and political debate, shriveled into a generic old man, irascible and self-absorbed. Though Prozac brought him back from serious curmudgeonliness — “You call this soup hot? What are you, an idiot?” — he remained a poor facsimile of the person he had been. I pictured his mind as a sieve through which bits kept dropping out.
This image was corrected one spring, when my father made his yearly pilgrimage to Boston, where I live, to consult an arrhythmia specialist. The specialist did nothing tangible for what was a fairly benign problem, but over time the annual checkup took on life-or-death significance. “Can you promise me five more good years?” Leo always asked the doctor. “That’s all I want.” The five years were never consumed.
The last year of my father’s life, I booked his checkup for the day before my son’s high school graduation. The visit began to go awry as soon as Leo reached the Massachusetts Turnpike, where he browbeat his companion, Lupe, into driving west. By the time he could face his mistake, they had missed the appointment.
Although it meant his forgoing the graduation, I rescheduled for the next day; no question which event was the more important to him. We left without Leo and Lupe, only to return hours later to find that my father had again failed to see the doctor. In the waiting room, he had had a severe arrhythmia attack and lost consciousness, though he was able to return to his hotel. He had been asleep ever since — the chance to collect the precious benediction now irretrievably lost.
Since he was not up to joining our celebratory dinner at his favorite Boston restaurant, we carried out a care package of the dishes he and Lupe would have ordered. Arriving at his hotel, I expected the worst.
Instead, looking out through the shining eyes of the 91-year-old who came to the door was someone I had not seen in a very long time. “Come in, come in! I’m so happy to see you!” he sang out, as if it had been months, even years since our last meeting. And perhaps it had.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am to have missed the graduation,” he said. I could barely believe my ears. This was the sort of statement — polite, appropriate, focused outside himself — that had been beyond Leo’s reach for years. He showered affection on us all and dismissed his own disastrous day as “not worth talking about,” insisting instead on hearing all about the ceremony.
While we spoke, he and Lupe sat down to the dinner we had brought. “The chowder hasn’t changed one bit,” Leo marveled. “I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a meal so much!” It was as though the mental and emotional changes of the previous years were just a spell from which he had suddenly been released, as though what I had taken to be permanent cerebral losses were merely cobwebs in need of a feather duster.
Most amazingly, he regaled us with stories I had never heard. With wonder, he reminisced about making human pyramids with buddies at the beach, about the horse’s clopping hooves on the Brooklyn Bridge when he moved furniture in a wagon to his N.Y.U. fraternity, about the emotional challenge of operating on German prisoners during his World War II service.
He had found the key to a long-forgotten treasure chest untouched by time. It was all there, and not just the memories. The person my father had been — the thoughtful one, sage, amiable, perceptive, the person I had always loved — that person still existed. It was his wiring that had been malfunctioning and then somehow repaired by the episode in the doctor’s waiting room.
The next morning, looking in his eye, I saw that the disconnected 91-year-old was back. For good. Still, fleeting recoveries like my father’s — reported anecdotally but little understood — are a gift. Those who had seemed to be living only in our memories return, suspending the paradox that even when their essential selves seem to have slipped away, our feelings about them remain unchanged.
Published July 5, 2010
New York Times | science section