Do You Remember Me? by Judith Levine, a New Yorker and part-time Vermonter, is one of the more poignant and deeply honest of the rash of memoirs regarding loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s disease. The book chronicles the decline of Levine’s father’s health over at least ten years. Stan, married to Judith’s mother, Lillian, for fifty years, has been professional, efficient, faithful to his Jewish faith, an avid reader and wordsmith, and distant from his daughter. They frequently argue. As he sinks into the disease, he transitions into what the daughter believes is a nicer, easier to get along with man. They become closer and continue their relationship through the end of the book, by which time her father does not know her name and can no longer do even simple picture puzzles.
As we follow Levine’s growing fondness for her father and growing commitment to Paul, her partner, the narrative follows the downward trend of her father’s memory and abilities. She writes, “Ten percent of Americans over sixty-five suffer from the disease, says the Alzheimer’s Association, and half of those over eighty-five. The numbers climb with age and an aging population: four million today, sixteen million by 2025… We knew, in other words, we were facing a long, grueling slide.” There is still no cure for the disease, although various drugs are being tested in clinical trials to slow its progress down.
It is never easy to witness the effects of a person’s brain deteriorating, especially when that person always prided himself on high intelligence. Yet Levine, author of two other nonfiction titles, admits to a slightly different attitude in her Prelude: “For me, the diagnosis is not about endings. Instead, it is an invitation, maybe a dare – anyway, a deadline. I have spent a lifetime fighting my father. Now as he slips from me, I will try to find him." As she finds him, she finds out more about herself and various ways that they are similar, never before apparent. Both she and her partner, Paul, are incredibly patient and loving with the difficult father who is also, at times, uproariously funny.
One thing that Stan does as he loses his memories is to speak to all animals and birds on their outings. He also speaks to strangers more than in the past, and develops something of his own vocabulary. Always intellectual with a large vocabulary, he finds himself grappling for the right word and eventually finding fewer and fewer of them. Sometimes photographs seem to interest him; they remind him of some small piece of his past.
Although her father increasingly loses touch with his family members and friends and cannot function nearly as well as when he was entirely well, he does surprisingly well at an adult daycare center he attends. This becomes the focal point of the day for him; his group admires and likes him and asks for him when he’s not there. Always social, he is able to enjoy some quality of life in an entirely new social sphere. The cocktail parties have been replaced by day care.
Judith sees her father frequently and even takes him on excursions to museums and restaurants. But, eventually, these must stop, as he is too distracted and distracting. By the end of the memoir, Stan Levine is reduced to a small vocabulary and a love of singing with sounds like “Dah-dah-dah!”
At one point during the downward slide, Judith’s parents decide to move to assisted living outside New York City, their permanent home. But they feel so isolated in upstate, rural New York, they soon return home to a new apartment in the City. Eventually, the mother leaves Stan for another, healthier man, but Judith’s father is able to stay in his own home with an extraordinary housekeeper who indulges him and who has wisely taken all valuables and artwork off the shelves and walls.
Although this is primarily a memoir about the author’s father and about their relationship, Levine also provides a larger context for what the illness does to individuals, families and society. Throughout the book, she quotes from doctors and psychologists who best understand the disease, its course and its ramifications. Levine has done her homework, and it helps her understand and empathize with her father’s decline. She also sometimes bitterly discusses the way old people are treated in this society.
“His brain is chewed and his tongue is tangled. His thumbs can’t find the holes in his mittens and he pisses in the closet,” writes Levine. But even in his most isolated state, he still has a loving daughter, a supportive “son-in-law” and an occasionally visiting wife to wait with him until the end.