By Dave Andrusko
Sometimes you read the accounts in “Private Lives,” described by the New York Times where they appear as “Personal essays on the news of the world and the news of our lives,” and you know the emotional lift you feel will last a long, long time. Not a “isn’t this sweet” uplifting but a buoyancy that comes from demonstrations of faithfulness and wisdom acquired under extraordinary circumstances,
That’s how I feel About “Dad’s Last Ice Cream,” by Sara Faith Alterman, which appeared in the Times today.
It is a beautiful and inspirational and deeply personal account centering on the last months of her dad’s life. Alterman does not sugarcoat her dad’s swift descent, once the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made. But she puts his condition in a larger context—the context of her family’s history—that makes you want to meet her someday.
Let me begin at the end where I read some of the online responses.
Many could identify with the story of her dad’s lifelong love for ice cream, which toward the end of his life was essentially the only food he could eat. That was a common experience for the respondents as well and was a vivid memory for Alterman (she recalls that each member of her family had their favorite flavor) of sharing and caring and love and ties to home.
In his last days when she took her turn to gently feed him ice cream, Alterman said she “nearly had a heart attack” when her dad said, “The flavor! It’s extraordinary! Extraordinary.”
She does not belabor the point but that was exactly what he said back when she and her siblings were children when her dad ate a spoonful of his favorite–a combo of coffee ice cream and orange sherbet.
Alterman interweaves the story of her not-welcomed pregnancy into the narrative to enormous effect. “When I got pregnant in May 2014, I cried,” she writes. “Not happy tears, but miserable, self-pitying blubbering.” She tells us of her fears: “A woman could lose herself to a baby, I knew. Some women never find themselves again.”
In a way the remainder of her remembrance is how her dad and the ice cream and the manner of his passing helped her understand what she so under-appreciated.
Her dad was excited to be a grandfather. Alterman tells us that her brother already was a father and when we read that the diagnosis came a week or two later, we can infer that her dad was beginning to forget. But that does not minimize or alter how that might have influenced Alterman’s perspective.
After Colin was born, her parents came to visit them in San Francisco. Alterman tells us that the rental house they were living in “had been a minor character in a sad scandal. A man named August DeMont lived there, and one morning he took his 5-year-old daughter, Marilyn, to the Golden Gate Bridge and convinced her to jump. Then, he followed.”
Alterman then proceeds to tell us
In the middle of the night, when my baby son was inconsolable and my postpartum hormones raged like a pack of furious bears, I’d think about August DeMont and how he’d probably sat in the very room where I myself felt one sad poem away from sticking my head in the oven. I’d think about my own father, and how he’d driven extra carefully on those Erikson’s excursions [where they went to get ice cream as children], because his kids were in the way back without seatbelts. And I’d look at my own child and think, no matter how bad this gets, no matter how much you scream or how little I sleep, and even though I wasn’t really sure if I wanted you, I will never hurt you.
The essay—this “Private Life”–concludes with lessons learned, especially about what it means to be a parent. She writes
After Dad had eaten as much as he could handle, I held Colin close to my heart and close to my father’s face, so he might see his grandson. Dad reached a very shaky hand toward the baby, and when I saw his cracked and yellow fingernails my first instinct was to move away. Dad must have understood somehow, because he went for Colin’s leg instead, and gingerly stroked my son’s plump thigh, encased like a sausage in a pair of stretchy baby pants. “Let him live,” Dad croaked, and I wondered if this was poignant counsel or if Dad were hallucinating that we were in a war zone.
That ice cream turned out to be my father’s last meal. Later, back at my mother’s house, the rest of the family gathered around while I fed Colin his first bite of solid food: a jar of neon goo that purported to be “macaroni and cheese.” He absolutely hated it, and as his face puckered and a disgusted wail gathered in the back of his throat, we all laughed, then cried, and I resolved to stop worrying about losing myself to a baby and instead to give myself to him.