Against Memory

My dad died one year ago today, following many years of experience with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis occurred in his mid-fifties, and he lived roughly seven years with the disease. Those years often felt like losing him several times over. He would be simultaneously present and not there. He would be back and forth in different states of consciousness. Those changes would call into question who or what he was, just as he would question my own identity. “You’re my cousin!” he once said to me with joy, as though recently reunited.

I have two particular memories of my dad. The first is the feeling of his hand on my back. As a child at night, being lulled to sleep. As a teenager, being comforted by him in a moment of distress or sadness. As an adult, in friendship and understanding. The second memory is his love for cameras and photography. A somewhat unwieldy but beautiful camera would always be on hand to capture a moment. At times as a child I would be annoyed with him, wanting him to come out from behind the lens and play. I watched his slow care in taking pictures, developing photographs, and arranging them into books.

Even from childhood, I had difficulty looking through those photobooks. Memories were something missed, longed for, lost. My dad was proud of those photographs and they filled me with sadness. Only now can I look at them with some quiet. Maybe because they are what’s left. The greater sadness later is how those pictures, at times, failed to preserve his memories. He would see a picture of himself holding me or my brother as a baby without recognition.

It might be a strangeness of his particular instance of Alzheimer’s, or just a discrepancy from the way it is often depicted in the movies, but at most times my dad did not seem to know that he had the disease. He was not aware of his loss, and even in moments of confusion accepted everything as normal. There was only one time my dad seemed to realize that he was experiencing decline. A couple years ago, he wanted to show me one of his digital cameras and found that he could no longer understand how it operates. All of his avenues for holding onto a moment were being closed off to him. I told him he could still learn how to use the camera again.

I thought my dad’s inability to remember me or himself would turn him into someone unrecognizable, but I was wrong. His gentleness and easy smile remained. And he never lost his desire to make someone feel loved. My dad, Max Rudmann, was born in Cairo, Egypt in the middle of the 20th century. He came to America as a child, went to high school at Brooklyn Tech, was a fencer, a speed skater, and a cyclist. Later he became a lawyer and had two children. He taught me to play backgammon and ride a bike. He is forever an exemplar of kindness. I can still feel his hand on my back.

Given what’s happened to everyone this past year, I haven’t had the strength most days to delve into memories of my dad. But throughout the last year, I found that when I needed it the most, I could still call on him.

Dan Rudmann @drdr