Reading With My Father
At 60, David Ulin reflects on his favorite way to connect with his 85-year-old Dad.
A decade-and-a-half ago, around the time he turned 70, my father announced that, should he make it to 85, he’d want one gift: a carton of cigarettes. By then, he figured, he would have lived long enough to indulge with abandon, regardless of what my mother had to say. It was she who had coerced him to stop smoking; as a physician, he knew she was right, although he never stopped yearning for what he’d given up. Several years later, he confided that he was fine with aging, even with deterioration, so long as he could continue to read.
None of this was surprising, exactly; as a kid, I had decided, by observing him, that reading and smoking were among the most essential gestures of adult life. If, like my father, I no longer smoke, reading remains, as it has ever been, our secret language, the medium through which we most comfortably connect. Even when we’ve had our conflicts—and what father and son haven’t?—we’ve maintained a common ground in books. We recommend novels to one another. I order titles for him (the essays of George Orwell, among others) via the internet. This is what got us through the COVID lockdown, my father in New York and me in Los Angeles, talking books over the telephone. Then he became sick and began to lose weight and strength and stamina, shrinking into a ghostly manifestation of himself.
Even when we’ve had our conflicts—and what father and son haven’t?—we’ve maintained a common ground in books. We recommend novels to one another. I order titles for him (the essays of George Orwell, among others) via the internet.
He also stopped getting on the phone.
The day before his 85th birthday, I flew east to see him. I did not bring a carton of cigarettes. I did bring a book, Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division, but I didn’t know if he could read it. I had no idea what I would find. Would this be the last of his birthdays we would spend together? My brother, who had visited a few weeks earlier, offered the starkest warning. “You need to come now,” he insisted, “if you want to see him again.” The person he described was one I wasn’t sure I’d recognize—tuned out, speaking incoherently when he spoke at all. I was concerned about dementia. My father was convinced he had a brain tumor, although he did not share this thought with anyone. He underwent tests: angiogram, blood work, cranial MRI. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
Lyme was a relief, or at least it was an answer. By the time I landed in New York, my father was receiving treatment, although he was still frail. He could hardly walk from his bedroom to the kitchen without growing winded. He had trouble with his balance and kept falling down. Almost all his time was spent in an armchair, listening to my mother’s worries. But his mental fogginess had begun to dissipate. I spent five days with my parents, running errands, buying groceries, helping get the bills paid, doing whatever they needed to have done.
This is what got us through the COVID lockdown, my father in New York and me in Los Angeles, talking books over the telephone. Then he became sick and began to lose weight and strength and stamina, shrinking into a ghostly manifestation of himself.
This, of course, is hardly uncommon for the so-called sandwich generation, caught between caring for their parents and their kids. In a lot of ways, that’s the circumstance in which I find myself; my children are in their twenties, but I still offer aid and comfort, material or otherwise. My parents, on the other hand, have long been self-sufficient: a universe of two. Just a week before I came to visit, they rejected an offer from my brother to assist them with a real estate concern.
What surprised me, then, about my visit was their willingness to ask for help. Not only during my stay but also after; over the last few months, I’ve checked in with them, or they with me, several times a week. For now, we are among the lucky ones. And yet, my parents are in their eighties, so how long can this persist? They, like all of us, are vulnerable, which means each moment we share could be our last. I don’t say this to be morbid but pragmatic, in the sense of appreciating every interaction for what it bestows. We laughed a lot during my visit, circumstances notwithstanding. We recalled a lot of memories. More than anything, we were pleased to be in one another’s company, not only because of my father’s illness but also because we had not spent time together for so long.
This was a homecoming, in other words, in every sense of the term.
We both had trouble discussing our feelings, yet reading in the same room was an acknowledgement that we wanted to be together, even if we weren’t always quite sure how.
Nowhere was that clearer than in regard to reading, for this is what my father mostly did. Every day, in that armchair, he put away 100 pages between lunch and dinner, as if it were a necessary ritual. I could remember sitting with him throughout my life, each lost in a book. These were among the most associative experiences we had shared. How to describe it? The intimacy of the instant, the two of us alone together as we read. A necessary ritual indeed; we both had trouble discussing our feelings, yet reading in the same room was an acknowledgement that we wanted to be together, even if we weren’t always quite sure how. Now, I used the opportunity to engage him, to ask about what he was reading: Erik Larson’s portrait of Churchill during the Blitz, The Splendid and the Vile. Now, I used reading to get him to talk.
In all honesty, there was a diagnostic aspect to my questions. Or perhaps comfort is a better word. I wanted to gauge the flexibility of his memory, of his thinking. I wanted to reassure myself that he was there. We laughed at Churchill’s excesses, his late nights and his drinking; we discussed his efforts to rally the private sector to support the government. “He knows his way around the language,” my father said of Larson. This has long been one of his favorite ways to compliment a writer, and hearing it felt like coming face-to-face with him again.
We tell stories, or we read them; they give shape and meaning to our lives. If they don’t work out, we make adjustments. We change the arc.
Although my father had a smoke-free birthday, we toasted the occasion with a drink. Then, we ordered dinner from a neighborhood restaurant and I went to pick it up. My father made a slow, unsteady passage to the kitchen, where we celebrated at a table that still bears impressions of my handwriting, a palimpsest inscribed as I filled in grade school worksheets more than half a century ago.
I don’t want to make too much of this; I know things are likely to get harder. And yet, it felt close to miraculous to be present on the birthday my father had anticipated so many years before. If it hadn’t turned out as projected … well, nothing does. We tell stories, or we read them; they give shape and meaning to our lives. If they don’t work out, we make adjustments. We change the arc.
So yes, my father was diminished. Yes, illness had made him small. But here’s the story I choose to remember: On the night of his 85th birthday, he was still himself, which felt like the most sustaining narrative of all.
Beautiful story. You too know your way around language.
What a gorgeous essay. This is just what I needed to read this morning as I look for ways to bond with my own aging father. Recently, we have been connecting over football (of all things, because I've never liked it!). Thank you for helping me to see the beauty of this connection in new ways, David. I will carry the image of you and your father in that space, connected by words, the sound of turning pages. May there be many more books in your shared future...