Memory is not an exact, camera-like, permanent process. “Neuroscience, which has undergone extraordinary breakthroughs over recent years, tells us there are reasons to distrust what we are certain we remember,” Jonathan Kozol writes towards the end of his new memoir, The Theft of Memory: Losing my Father One Day at a Time (Crown, 2015). Age and illness often have their way with us. The worst is the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease which robs its victims of their memories and decimates their personalities while caregivers must bear witness to the destruction. In spare, clear prose, Kozol takes us through the final years of caring for his parents, one of whom, his father, suffers from Alzheimer’s. It is a heartbreaking, yet unfortunately not uncommon, story.
Kozol is best known for his chronicles of poverty and educational deficiencies, especially for children of color, in American society. His books Death at An Early Age (Plume, 1985), The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home (Touchstone, 1990), Rachel and Her Children (Broadway Books, 2006), and Savage Inequalities (Broadway Books, 2012) all are classic sociological texts that excoriate a system rife with injustice and discrimination. However, this book is a departure for him, and in its pages, we see another side to this tireless advocate for children and their educational future.
Kozol’s father was a well-known neurologist in the Boston area. Over the years, he had been involved in, and provided key testimony for, a number of high profile cases, including the Patty Hearst trial and the Boston Strangler murders. He also treated playwright Eugene O’Neill for many years. So it was with great trepidation that in 1994 at the age of 88, he faced a diagnosis of a debilitating and eventually fatal brain disease. He knew something was wrong for some time, so like the good researcher-doctor he was, he began to document his decline. He was familiar with the common symptoms he experienced: getting lost on walks through the neighborhood where he had lived for many years; the intense restlessness that gradually destroyed his ability to concentrate; the falls and resulting injuries that limited his mobility and independence. He eventually sat his son down for a heart-to-heart discussion of his advancing disease. Through the onset of symptoms, his father kept records of his own decline. He studied himself as a patient or research subject and recorded everything in memos and notes, all of which he turned over to his son as well as his patient files from his years of private practice. The disease robbed him of his clinical observational powers, but he made every effort to document the crime.
What follows in the book is a story not uncommon for those caring for elderly parents. Yet, the well-worn narrative path the elder Kozol’s disease takes never lacks emotional punch. This is a story many of us have seen play out in frustrating and tragic loss. We live longer now, but do we not suffer more in this longevity? His father lived another fourteen years to the age of 102, most of it in child-like oblivion and shadow. The decline of a parent or loved one in this situation becomes a piece-by-piece, slow motion dismantling of a life as the patient slips further and further away. Death, I dare say, comes with a mixture of sadness and yes, relief. For nothing can assuage the growing confusion and terror of the patient as his perceptions become scrambled and language fails him. Nothing can console the family in their grief and loss. Once robbed of memory, of character and personality, who is this person we once called grandfather and father, wife and mother?
Kozol renders all of this so poetically. When his father struggles to remember his own name in Yiddish, he tells his son, “It’s been a good trip, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Kozol responds. “It’s been a beautiful trip. You made it good for all of us.”
Kozol must also deal with the decline of his mother in a parallel narrative but she remains lucid to the end. For some of those years, while his father was still in the hospital and nursing home, his mother continued to occupy the family apartment. Kozol must find a way to pay for his parents’ care as their financial resources dwindle to nothing. Eventually, after many heartbreaking pleas to take him out of the nursing home, Kozol gives in to his father’s requests and brings him home to the apartment. His father and mother live in separate rooms, sleep in separate beds, with separate professional caregivers who become like family. These men and women in particular are singled out by Kozol as his staunchest allies in the care of his parents; they give heroically of their time and effort, more than any monetary reward could ever compensate. He portrays them as heroes in a narrative that will end tragically, and they perform with unflinching sacrifice and dedication.
As in all his other work, Kozol is a passionate writer and chronicler of injustice, in this case the injustice of old age and disease. Gone is the edge of anger and rage he has when railing against failing schools and institutions that should safeguard children, their education and their future. Here, there is only somber reflection, a softer, more introspective side to a man who has devoted everything to the crusade for social justice. Here, his adversary is death, and he knows there is no victory. He can only bear witness to his father’s life, his work, his character. In the end, the memoir is the tender story of a father and son. The relationship, as is true in most families, is not easy, and Kozol must come to terms with the times when he might have disappointed his parent by pursuing a life of advocacy for the marginalized. But his prose is clear-eyed and for the most part, avoids overwrought sentimentality. He is never maudlin or hagiographic when analyzing his parents and their familial relationship, their marriage, their lives. He is the consummate chronicler, a writer of poetic grace and detail. The story of his parents’ decline, especially his father’s, is told with love and honesty. His rumination on the substance of memory, its fallacies and reconstructions, is cogent and enlightening.
I did have one persistent thought after finishing The Theft of Memory. Jonathan Kozol is a man who has fought for the well-being and education of thousands of children, yet he has none of his own. Who will stand up for this man in the gloaming of his own life? Who will chronicle his story and bear witness when it comes to his untimely end? Having no children or close family members of my own, I worry about such things. In Kozol’s case, every page of this book validates him as the good son. As he is for disadvantaged children in this world, he is an advocate for his parents as they slip into the next. In his quiet, dignified writing, Jonathan Kozol again speaks for those without a voice (in this case, his father). There are many heroic caregivers who do this every day. They are all heroes. In the fall of this life, they stand, human and true. Through grief and loss, they stand.