On hot Sunday afternoons, when the young women walked around with light clothes and sporty young men, my old father felt particularly sentimental about his life. A life mostly past, if not entirely, for his most euphoric times were behind and when he said this I wanted to disagree to make him feel better but stopped after a few times because I was never convincing and felt sad whenever I was the one convinced.
I’m going to the bookstore, he used to say.
Do you want me to come?
I’d rather go alone, he’d answer, wanting to be clear though not curt with his daughter.
My father walked out, walked slowly and took the most scenic and winding route to admire the world and wonder at how it managed to be both so full and empty.
He walked into the bookstore, and he was always glad and sad to see young people wandering about the aisles.
He spent hours meandering through the shelves, and had recently developed a habit of plucking out tens of books, all past favorites of his, carrying them around everywhere and eventually leaving them right on some rack at the entrance of the store when he left.
He told me how looking at the thousands of neighboring backbones filled him with doubt. He’d chosen his books and lived his life. He’d been careful in choosing, always asking for recommendations from those he admired most and those whose hearts were most intimate with his. And he knew that his choice of books had shaped his life and could not help imagining what else could have happened and what else he could have made happen had he chosen other stories to read and make part of his.
He skimmed the rows with his lingering fingers, and tried to scan as many sideways titles as he could. Once in a while, a familiar few words in a row reminded him of a life he’d lived, past friends, love stories, sights and other joys of the senses. And how he wished to know these again, but how he knew he’d never again know them with the candor of a first time meeting.
He paused every so often, lay his pile down on a table, sank down in an armchair and started to read at random. The lines were tinged with memory, and the memory with lines. He remembered exactly where he’d read each one of them and what he was feeling at that point in his story. Remembering how much he’d felt was not as strong as what he remembered and he was brought to tears of frustration when he realized he’d lived all these lives to the very last pages and wished he could rewind and erase but couldn’t.
My father doesn’t go out that much anymore. Time having taken his friends has moved on to his wits and every once in a while his memory is wiped clean, souvenirs like footsteps covered by the snow that’s fallen overnight. He forgets who he is and forgets that I am his daughter and I come to see him every day.
He lives at home with Sergio, the nurse. I’m happy he gets to live at home because I’m convinced and pray that it must feel familiar to him in some way, although I’ve hidden the photos of mom because it’s too hard to explain to him that she is gone over and over. To give her to him and to take her away.
Sometimes he goes two, three or four days in a row without forgetting my name, and all the rest. When those certainties finally leave him, he never forgets me completely because when I come in he smiles a kindling smile and then tells me that I am his daughter as if I too wished to be reminded and I do and he asks for my name and apologizes and I kiss him. And in my purse, I always carry the same book everywhere I go so there’s no doubt I’ll have it when I see him. It’s been his favorite all his life, since he was young, and he’s read it to me many times all along our parallel timelines. This book has also become my favorite, and it’s hard to know if it’s because of the story or because of my father.
On those days when his thoughts are opaque, I tell him I have a story that I think he’ll like. He doesn’t always believe me at first and sometimes says he’s tired and would rather talk or watch television. But I insist and he says alright my love, just because you are my daughter and I love you.
And then I start reading the story reading it like he read it to me and he’s instantly silenced and his face is filled with everything. I don’t think he remembers precise things like the facts and the dates and the names, but the emotions are remembered and become stronger at every reading.
I go through the whole story, and I’ve become good at reading and remembering, as parents always are, and so I watch him gasp and laugh and feel real surprise and care about the lives of these people and feel for them and forget himself and his forgetful condition. And when I’m done his face is worn out in the good way, worn from the stretching and the contortions and all the ways emotions get themselves noticed on our faces and he cannot stop smiling and saying how good all of it is and how beautiful life can be and that’s how I leave him, exhausted like a poet who’s taken a drunk walk around Paris at night, and he is asleep when I shut the door and leave him until I’ll read to him again.