The National Catholic Review
Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

John Thorndike’s wrenching, detailed and affecting memoir chronicling the year he cared for his Alzheimer’s-beset father is at its core a story about touch.

The son’s yearning for touch was never sated. His parents—Lois, a physician who suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1972; Joe, an editor at Life magazine under Henry Luce, an intellectual among intellectuals—loved and cared for him, he knew. But apart from his toddler’s experience of being “buzzed” or “flown” around the living room by his dad, John Thorndike never received the physical comfort he sought: “He [Joe Thorndike] can’t be emotional or affectionate. This seemed normal when I was growing up: weren’t all fathers the same? But looking back as an adult, I see how much warmth I didn’t get from him, and how much I needed.”

Less emotionally and physically inhibited than her husband, Lois Thorndike satisfied her sexual desires in a series of affairs that her son researched and narrates in these pages. Bravely asking his son not to blame his mother for her betrayals, Joe reveals a “hurt” he caused his wife, insisting to his son that it was he who breached their marriage vows first. John likewise acknowledges some self-destructive choices in his own life. His salvation came about, he says, by caring for his only child, his son, Janir, whose mother (John’s ex-wife) suffered severe psychological probems. Winning sole custody of Janir, John was determined to give his son what he himself desired.

“When was I happiest?” he asks himself:

…it was the years with my son on our farm in Ohio, years of volleyball and soccer in the living room, baseball in the meadow, board games at night and wasted hours with the rain falling outside and the two of us lying around on the sofa. It was a simple life—just as life with my dad is now simple and repetitive—but I was never more engaged than in those childhood years when Janir and I lived together.

When he becomes responsible for his father’s very survival, John Thorndike finds a similar satisfaction. Despite the tedium, long silences, spilled food, soiled diapers, despite the loneliness, fear and regrets, despite the encroaching inevitability, John craves his father’s continued presence in his life.

Even as Joe Thorndike “loses nouns” and suffers the indignities of incontinence, he retains for quite some time the laconic, correct and distant manner of speech that has pained John since he could himself articulate his desire for paternal intimacy. No matter the gentle service John willingly offers and provides his father, Joe responds with a startling consistency: “For the past few days, he’s been thanking me constantly. When I serve him a meal, when I bring him his coat, when I open a door for him, he thanks me. The formality of it has started to get on my nerves. He never says Thanks or Great or Okay, it’s always a precise Thank you. It makes me feel like an attendant.”

But over the course of his 92nd year, as Alzheimer’s lays claim to Joe’s mind, the touch so long denied to his son becomes for John both burden and gift. While others—the nurse Harriet, the psychologist Gerry Elovitz, John’s brothers, Al and Joe, friends from Ohio, home hospice staff members—offer respite care, advice both sought and unsought, humor, financial compensation and respect for the man who honors his father’s plea not to be placed in a nursing home, none of them experiences the anguished intimacy John at last shares with his father:

I’m going to move into the living room and stay there, because if he starts to go I don’t want one of the sitters to be here in the house. I don’t want anyone here, not even Harriet, maybe not even Al. Of course I’ll call him, and Joe in Virginia—but what I really want is to be alone with my father when he dies.

And so he was.

He had arrived on Cape Cod, suitcase in hand, when Joe Thorndike still knew what was happening to him, when he posted notes to himself all over the house: “I already ate breakfast”; when he could, like a wonderful surprise, correctly use the word “prong”; when he could ask to go to the ocean, eat ice cream, visit with his granddaughter.

He was there when Dr. Elovitz listed Alzheimer’s encroachments: “Aphasia is language impairment, agnosia the failure to understand the source or meaning of pain, anosognosia the loss of self-awareness, and dressing apraxia the inability to dress himself according to the usual norms....”

And he is there when Joe Thorndike breathes his last. His loss and his love indistinguishable, John Thorndike takes his father “fully in [his] arms.”

Readers, too, will respond to the touch of his daring, deft embrace.

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick chairs the English department at Chase Collegiate School, Waterbury, Conn. She is a founding editor of The Litchfield Review.