I want father to die. Contrary to the constant and forceful opinions I’m offered—those which insist that I love the person he has become, that he’s still in there somewhere, that I should appreciate this time with him, that I have a duty as a daughter, that he enjoys being on the planet—I have come to believe that real love involves deep honesty, and honesty demands my acknowledgment that his life is over.
My father, like so many fathers out there now, has Alzheimer’s. To me, he is particular: a geneticist, professor, rancher, a man who traveled the world—from Argentina to Australia—teaching and sharing his research. He raised nine children. He would carry me upside down by the ankles to bed at night. He smoked a pipe filled with cherry tobacco and he loved to whistle. To say he still is remotely that man would be an ungraceful lie and an avoidance of the horrible facts of this disease. He is still beautiful, but, no, he is not the same soul or spirit or brain or whatever you want to call it. That part of him has already died. I can feel it in my bones, regardless of what all the well-intentioned (or opinionated) insisters say.
I know, because I watched him go. In the last 11 years, I have walked hundreds of miles with my father across his Colorado ranch, loving the man he was becoming and appreciating that he appreciated being on planet Earth. I walked with him through the greening fields of spring, the hay bailing of summer, the yellowing of fall, the ice-encrusted path of winter. For several years, he was aware of the facts of his disease and bore it with grace and strength, and we spoke of it to the extent we could. Then he advanced from stage one into the others; words have left him, the knowledge of the disease has left him, and, I would argue, he has left him.
Now when we walk, I am increasingly of the shocking (to me, at least) opinion that he should die. I say this not out of selfishness, not because I’m tired, not because he’s a burden, not because I’m coldhearted or ethically flawed—although I’m sure I will be accused of those things and more. No, I say it out of love. I say it because of this: we owe humanity a great deal, but not an obligation to support ongoing life at all cost; we owe our own hearts the difficult work of expanding and loving in new ways, but we also owe our heart the respect it deserves when we reach a valid and real boundary; we owe our parents a great deal, but we do not owe them a surrender of our own short time on Earth. We owe no one dishonesty. We humans owe each other an honest assessment of what constitutes human life and when it ends, and the allowance and open-mindedness of different opinions, the ability to discuss death without the knee-jerk opposition that dictates that a human being dies only when the last breath is taken.
Perhaps the desire to push back against these societal pressures was the initial reason I wanted to write a novel based on my father. I also wrote to give him voice, which is why I made the decision to tell the story from his point of view (not an easy task, to tell a story via a diminishing mind). I wanted him to say everything he wanted to say before the silence set in. Most of all, I wrote Stars Go Blue to see him with renewed clarity, so that I could love him better and more deeply than ever I had before.
I will walk with him until he’s done. I’m not going to kill him, of course, and I don’t wish for him to commit suicide—even if he could, which he cannot. What I want is what clinicians refer to as “contented dementia”—as calm and peaceful a journey as possible as the body catches up with the mind.
On a recent walk, he said, “Hello young lady. How do I know you? You’re the writer, aren’t you?” I told him I’d known him for a long time, and that I loved him, and that, yes, I am a writer. Then we started whistling “You Are My Sunshine.” I never did tell him, though, that I’d written a novel based on him, or that it was more or less a love letter. It would confuse him. He doesn’t remember what the words “novel” or “dementia” mean. The love part, though—I think he’s well aware of that, and knows that love won’t stop when he’s dead.