This transcript was created using speech recognition software. While it has been reviewed by human transcribers, it may contain errors. Please review the episode audio before quoting from this transcript and email [email protected] with any questions.
My grandma, Christine Liu, showed her love in a lot of ways. She held my hand really tightly when we took walks around the neighborhood. She cooked these elaborate Chinese meals, never let my plate go empty. And towards the end of her life, she started sending me emails. I loved these emails.
English was her second language. So I knew she worked really hard on them. I like to picture her in front of her giant desktop computer carefully typing out reminders to study hard, to say thank you to my mom and to find a boyfriend, preferably a nice Chinese one. About a year before she died, my grandma sent me an email that I immediately knew was different. The subject line was “Life Story.”
“Dear Anna, I didn’t tell you that in the past years I have been write some of my story and something happening in my life. I’m sending a copy of the writing to you to see if you can understand my English. This is my first time writing in English, and many Chinese customs and thinkings will be difficult for you to comprehensively grasp the ideas. Lots of love, Grandma.”
I could hear her voice as I read that email. And I couldn’t stop crying. My grandma had attached a document. And I started scrolling through pages and pages of her memories. Her first date with my grandpa on a summer day in Taiwan, being imprisoned for her political beliefs, moving to the U.S. as a young mother — all these things I’d never heard before, that she was choosing now to share with me.
That email was a gift. My grandma was giving me her story, a story I could hold on to and a story I could share even after she was gone.
From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. In today’s essay a daughter is losing her father. She needs something to hold on to. And then she discovers his story in his own words. The essay is called “The Day His Journal Went Blank.” It’s written by Annabelle Allen and read by Frankie Corzo.
My father stood in the kitchen eating refried beans right out of the can. He was listening to Paul Simon singing “Graceland” on repeat. This went on for 20 minutes. He finally said, hey, Alexa, why don’t we take a break? As if the speaker were a child who had taken too many turns on the slide. Yeah, let’s rest for a little bit. Then he pet the speaker and gently shushed it.
“Alexa, turn off,” I said. And the kitchen fell silent.
My father gave me a look, the same look he used to give me when I was 10 and didn’t want to call my grandmother, a look of a lesson to impart. “Yes?” I said.
“Next time,” he said, “say please.”
Almost five years ago when my father was 62, he learned he had Alzheimer’s disease. Over the last few years, my mother and I have watched his decline. He forgets his friends names and can no longer read. Every morning he sits in a baby blue polka dot towel and waits for one of us to prompt him to start his day.
My mother will say, come in here and get dressed, honey. Brush your teeth, honey. Come drink some orange juice, honey. I look at other fathers who make money and pancakes and kiss their wives. And I feel depressed for how small my father’s world has become. I see how my mother is nervous to take him to dinner parties, where the other husbands talk about work and politics, while hers asks over and over if Frank Sinatra is alive.
When I graduated from college two years ago, I started splitting my time between my apartment in Brooklyn and my parents’ house in Hastings on Hudson. Every week, I pack a bag and take the train 30 miles north to help with the caregiving. I struggle to understand myself as a 23-year-old who is also taking care of a parent.
I feel stiff when my roommates get dressed for work and ask which shoes I like. I don’t know what to say when they talk about their goals, what they want to do, where they want to live. They sound so sure of their freedom and choices. It’s not that I don’t have plans for myself or that I dislike shoes, but I have a hard time offering style advice or talking about my dreams when my life is all about my father who calls me mommy in front of the neighbors.
I often wish I could ask my father who he was at 23. I wish I could ask what his bad habits were, or how he treated his mother, or what he did on Saturdays. But he can’t remember his past anymore, so I try to ask him other questions. Dad, what do you love about mom? Dad, what is your favorite thing about yourself? Dad, do you like to cry?
I shake him up like a magic eight ball and throw him as many questions as I can. I’m patient as he searches for words and pronunciations. But we often end up playing charades as I guess at the words he can’t remember.
A few months ago, my parents and I were organizing the storage bin in the basement of our apartment building. We dug through yellowed Superman comics and the water-damaged concert tickets. And underneath I uncovered a chest of my father’s old journals, 15 or so composition notebooks dating from 1978 to 2002. And they have been a gift.
My father wrote about self-doubt and fear and all the things that brought him joy. He also wrote about riding his bike around Brooklyn, reporting for small newspapers, and getting off the subway at 7th Avenue to walk home through the park. Until I read those journals, I had no idea he’d done those things. And the similarities between us stunned me.
I have spent the last two years working as a reporter for small Brooklyn papers. And every Sunday, heading home for my parents in Hastings, I, too, take that walk home from 7th Avenue. When I read my father’s entries, I feel less lost. I copy his sentences into my own journal and cite his wisdom when I speak to my friends. My mother gave me permission to quote a few of them.
On September 9, 1991, he wrote, “I want to stand up outside between the cars, head blowing in the wind, and scream, scream until I nearly start living, start living my dream. I need something, too much time and too little touch in my life lately. Loneliness can kill, I believe.”
A few months later on February 10, 1992, “I feel giddy, like a kid. I want to dance! She called, Suzanne from Brooklyn. Yes, she’d love to go out again. So it’s brunch and watching the playoffs at her place Sunday. God I feel happy.”
Suzanne is my mother. And it was through these journals that I learned how much my father loves her.
Later he wrote, “Last night after 11 spurred by the phone call, I danced in the kitchen in the dark, a Stone song. I danced alongside old ghosts and laughed at them. Whether trying to shake demons or embrace a new dream, dancing in the dark always felt good.”
His journals showed me how much he loves his friends and how much he loves me. Every entry from 1997 to 2002 mentions “little Annabelle.”
What I wasn’t prepared for was the moment the entries stopped. On April 28, 2002, my father wrote about me singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie” in the bathtub. And then, the next page is blank. And so is the next, and the one after that. I flipped through wide-eyed in denial. I didn’t want this version of my father to be over.
As I read that last entry, he and I were sitting on the couch with “Ellen” on TV. She was playing burning questions with Bradley Cooper, but their exchanges were too quick for him. So he stared at the rug instead.
I thought about the scenes I’d just read. My father calling his friends at midnight to tell them a joke, riding the subway and reading the paper, asking my mother to dance. Watching him now as he gazed at the rug, I was afraid of how much he had lost and would continue to lose.
“Dad,” I said.
“Do you love Mom?”
He laughed, “of course.”
I took a breath and turned off the TV. I wanted to join him in the moment because that is all we have.
“How much do you love her?”
“What do you mean how much?” He laughed again. “One quart.”
“And you love me a gallon?”
“Yes,” he said. This much he understood. “Very many gallons.”
After the break, I talked to Annabelle about caring for her dad and how he cares for her. That’s next.
Annabelle, it’s great to have you in the studio. Welcome to Modern Love.
Hi, Anna. It’s great to be here.
So you wrote this essay almost two years ago. How was your dad doing now?
If you simplify it, there are good days and bad days. A good day is when I’m outside with my dad. We live in this apartment in Hastings on Hudson, but outside is like this gorgeous yard. It’s right by the Hudson River.
And last weekend, it’s kind of a stressful morning, just energy-wise in the house. So it felt good to be outside. And I was like, dad, how about we yell so loud right now? And he was like, good idea. And we were just screaming at the water, just like hands on our knees, absolutely giving it our all.
He thought me screaming was the most hilarious thing he’d ever seen.
Oh my god.
He’s like, you go, girl. And it’s just killing him.
And he was screaming too?
Yes. We needed that.
Tell me about what a bad day looks like.
I think a bad day is him showing frustrations about his limits. He picks at his nails.
And the nail-picking is a manifestation of that frustration you read it as?
Yeah, I see him doing it. And he’s never really been an anxious person. He’s always been my calm parent. He has lost a lot of his vocabulary. He recently lost the word, like, tissue and banana and shoes. He’ll say, the what’s it called? Can you get me the what’s it called?
And he has a lot of trouble with the bathroom. That’s been new for me, to see my dad in those moments and see him frustrated that he’s peeing himself.
How do you react in those moments, to calm him, to soothe him, to show him you understand?
For myself, I struggle with the panic I feel to see a parent struggling. I think that’s always kind of upsetting. But I say, I have you. It’s OK.
I have you.
Mm-hmm. I say, I’m taking care of you. I think when I was younger, I tried to have him pass and appear as functioning and appear as social. And I would hide his limitations from him. Never would I say, you have Alzheimer’s.
You never say that out loud directly to him.
Yeah, I think I speak to him a little bit more directly about it now. And that being said, I will say to him like, you’re OK. I understand you have trouble with your memory. But I’ve allowed him to be flawed. And the people who are around him, if they love him, will allow that, too. He doesn’t have to nail it socially at a dinner party. He can say some weird stuff. And that’s fine. If you want to stick around, if you want to hang out with us, it might be awkward sometimes.
Do you and your mom have a plan for your dad’s care in the future?
Well, he’s actually going into a home in the next couple of weeks.
That’s really soon.
Yeah, but I’m going to be home that weekend I think.
Have you or your mom — you haven’t told him that he’s —
Is there a plan for telling him?
I think we will say something like, hey, you’re going to go here for a little bit. We’re traveling. Oh, god, I don’t know, honestly. To answer your question, no, we don’t have a plan on what to say.
Wow. OK. How do you and your mom share taking care of him now?
My dad came and stayed with me in Brooklyn in the fall, gave mom her vacation weekends. And we went to the movies and my friends came too. And went to the bathroom. I say, OK, go, dad. Go to the men’s. And he’s taking a minute. So I go in there to rescue him or attend to whatever is happening.
Oh, you sent him in. And then it was just taking longer than —
Yeah, I just go in. He’s having trouble with his belt.
Did you pause and think like, should I go in? Or was it just like, I’m going in. My dad’s in there.
Oh, I’m going in, just to support. I’m sure there are people in there being like, what’s up with this guy? How come his pants are down? How come his belt is in the sink? So he needed a buddy. It’s just an act of love to help keep someone alive and have them feel good and cared for.
I think I refuse to feel shame about helping him in that intimate way, when it also happens to be public. Life is too short to care.
Has there been a time recently where you’ve been able to connect with your dad outside of being his caretaker?
Yeah, I was going through a breakup at the time. And he’s the best to throw advice off of. And I was just expressing some hurts. And he was like, move on, you’re going to be OK. And he’s never harsh like that. And I was like, if he’s telling me to move on, rest assured, I will move on.
So you’re still able to have these moments where you feel like he’s hearing you and he’s understanding what you’re saying, he just might not — I mean, you tell me he might not remember it in a couple hours?
Definitely, he won’t know. Like after we got to the apartment after the movie, he didn’t remember that we’d been to a movie. So that is upsetting when something feels so meaningful to me, and it’s absolutely cleared his consciousness.
But we are still able to connect. Definitely I will call him and share something that’s plaguing me. And he gets that. He gets the sentiment of that. And he gets it enough where he’s like, I will be here for her.
Annabelle, thank you so much for coming in and talking to me about your dad.
Anna, thank you for asking.
Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, Christina Djossa, Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sarah Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Sophia Lanman. Our show is recorded by Maddy Masiello. Dan Powell created our Modern Love theme music.
Original music in this episode by Elisheba Ittoop, Marion Lozano, Sonia Herrero, Sophia Lanman and Pat McCusker. Digital production by Mahima Chablani and Nell Gallogly. Special thanks to Anna Diamond at Audm. The Modern Love column is edited by Daniel Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.