Kaylene Johnson: Unraveled

Kaylene Johnson

The weight of gravity
presses me into my seat as the plane lifts off the ground. As the 737 banks over
the Columbia River, pelicans wing low over the gray water. I am thinking about
what it must be like to unlearn everything you’ve ever known. My father has
Alzheimer’s disease and as the spool of his life unwinds into tangled
confusion, the four women in his world struggle to pick up the threads and
weave them into something that we can hold onto. Dad has a wife and three
daughters whose presence, in his shrinking mind, grows dimmer each day.

I went to Portland to
help during my mother’s most recent heart procedure—the fourth in two years. Before
her first procedure she asked the surgeon to “mend my broken heart.” My mother’s heart was often broken during the
fifty-four years of my parent’s relationship.
 Their marriage was held together by my
father’s tempestuous devotion and my mother’s grit to persevere. My father was
a rolling stone, a self-made man, independent and indignant at the structures
of institutions or the unreasonable demands of the companies he worked for. We
moved around a lot as Dad followed the next best job or business opportunity.
He provided for his family over the years but sometimes just barely. He was
restless, even then.

All my mother ever wanted
was a house to call her own and roots where she could create community. She
came from a small town in Germany where connections and familial ties went back
for generations. She wanted to build a foundation for her own daughters that
reflected the rich family life she so dearly missed. Born during the height of
World War II, her need for security clashed with my father’s impulsive,
devil-may-care sensibilities. The brashest thing she ever did was marry the
handsome GI she met at an ice cream shop in her hometown. He sang to her “It’s
Now or Never” and kissed her in the shadow of the moon. Following him to
America as his bride—one baby in tow, another on the way—was the beginning of a
fifty-four-year odyssey of one new beginning after the other.


Now that Dad has been
diagnosed, we are turning the memories of him over and over in our minds,
seeing them in the new light of this illness. We know he loved us and this
knowledge is a gift. Yet he had a volatile temper and we were at times
terrified of him. My mother, sisters, and I have made careers of studying this
man, trying to unlock the key to his heart and mind; trying to learn the hows
and whys of his ways over the years. At the least, Dad has been profoundly
depressed much of his life. His older sister tells us that he was a sensitive
child who suffered greatly through the fractured childhood they led. Looking at
him today, we are once again terrified. This time we are afraid that like his
mother before him, who also died of Alzheimer’s, we too will someday watch the
contents of our minds drain irretrievably into an abyss. 

With each passing day, my
mother is ticking off the things my father can no longer do. She is reminding
him daily, sometimes hourly, of the things he can no longer remember. He is
leaving us one day at a time. For Mom each day is a painful series of goodbyes.
For his daughters comes the shock from one visit to the next, at how much he
has changed since the last time. For an illness that has been known to take
years to run its course, it seems to us that his decline is going much too
quickly. As his train pulls out of the station, we’re calling after him,

There are mercies. For
now at least, Dad is compliant and mostly listens to Mom’s direction. For
someone so fiercely independent, that alone is an indication of the changes in
his brain. And in my father’s uncharacteristically unrebellious state, I see
between my parents a tenderness that defies their earlier conflicts. Mom is at
her best as caretaker. She is nurturing, attentive and devoted. Dad tells her
he loves her repeatedly throughout the day. Yet this too can be a trial—he
wants her at his side at all times. It is exhausting and Mom’s heart is not

As each of his daughters
grapple with the ravages of the disease, we remember the stories of our
childhood with him. And we remember the stories that he told us with sometimes
aggravating frequency. We now surmise that he has been sick for some time—and all
along we thought it was “just Dad.” Now, somehow it has become
important to preserve the stories we had learned to ignore. 

What were they again?
There was the time he bought his first car and wrecked it; what kind of car and
how did it happen? There were the times as a young man that he fought with and
for his kid brother; at a dance once, but what was it about—a girl maybe? 

There are others we do
remember, like the story of the first time he field-dressed a deer, learning as
he went with a rock on either page of the Field
& Stream
magazine that he kept in his hunting jacket. And the story
about his love affair with his one and only horse, Lena, and how her
long-lashes and black eyes captured his heart. She was a high spirited Arab
that needed a sensitive and knowing hand, but he was a “show ’em who’s
boss” cowboy. They argued a lot. He was crazy about her. 

It’s a bumpy ride from
Portland back to Anchorage. I’m grateful to be trading Portland’s soggy skies
and rain for Alaska’s crystal winter landscape of mountains and blue sky. I
think about the power of stories—how they connect us, define us, and carry us
from one generation to the next. They become the mythology of our families and
ourselves and unless they are heard and passed on, they disappear. Vanish. I
think how we are suddenly alert to capturing Dad’s stories before they are
silenced behind his retreating eyes. Because at the end of the day, this is
what remains of our lives. This is all that we have left of each other. 


Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan is the author of Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of
Dick Griffith
, the memoir A Tender Distance, and other books about Alaska and the
people who live here. Her award-winning essays and articles have appeared in
Louisville Review, the Los Angeles Times, Alaska magazine and other publications. She and her husband, dogs, and horses live in
Eagle River, Alaska.

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