Monday, May 04, 2009

Patrimony by Philip Roth

Last night I completed reading Philip Roth's memoir, Patrimony, a story about his relationship with his father as his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor and eventually succumbed to it.

It is such a moving story, and one in which I find several familiar scenes that I can relate to.

My mother-in-law died last June of a brain tumor, having been diagnosed not even a complete six months earlier. We watched as her body began to shut down.

My own father had a brain tumor diagnosed back in 1981. He was operated on, and it was discovered to be benign. But it was the scar tissue and fluids over the years that built up, pressed on nerves and caused him grand-mal seizures, and his eventual death.

Roth examines his own thoughts and feelings as a son who has to figuratively hold his father's hand through Herman Roth's diagnosis and physical setbacks. As his father continually reviews life in New Jersey as he once knew it, Roth listens and nods again and again, the nostalgia feeding him at times while at other times making him nauseated.

As his father's disease progresses, without the tumor being operated on, save for a biopsy, Philip watches and records his father's decline. It hurts for him to record it; it hurts for us to read about it.

And in those last hours: “Dying is work and he was a worker. Dying is horrible and my father was dying. I held his hand…I stroked his forehead; and I said to him all sorts of things…”

I could've written those words...first about my mother-in-law, and then about my father.

When my mother-in-law was dying last summer, her sons, daughters-in-law and young grandchildren did those things.

My brothers and I, our spouses and dear children did exactly those things, said all the endearing words and relayed our personal messages to my father in March, watched as my dear mother had to do the same. Although our words were met by silence and closed eyes that entire week, we continued to do so. My brothers and I were there with my father, seeing him through the last night, listening to the labored breathing, and near the end, as the pattern and sounds changed. There was almost a gentleness, a calmness, an acceptance of the inevitable end. With our hands on my father’s chest, his breathing slowed, slowed and the last breath was taken. And still we continued to stroke his hands, his forehead and whisper our messages…for the soul is said to still be there to listen and understand, even if the body has ceased. Our rabbi said that we should comfort the soul before its journey. It was the week of shiva that was to comfort us….

And as Roth said: "A mystery, scarcely short of divine, the brain…” So true. The brain, with all its achievements, yet with so many deficiencies, continued to astound me as I watched my mother-in-law and father's mental/physical abilities decline.

I highly recommend reading this memoir; it allows us insight to the mind and personal life of an award-winning, longtime author. We ride along with his pain, and we smile when he does, too.

His father, Herman, was a real character and a tough man in so many ways, providing much source material for his son to write about. May he rest in peace...