Kenneth McClane shares the backstory of his essay, “Driving,” that first appeared in The Antioch Review in the Fall of 2006. The piece was reprinted in the Seventieth Year Anniversary issue, published in the Fall of 2011.
I thought for a second about my father’s proposition. I could, of course, remind him that there was no automobile, that we were in a Massachusetts nursing home, and that he was near the end of his days—I could tell him that. But is was driving with my father, the car was slowly snaking from our Harlem brownstone, down Riverside Drive…
“Driving” was a difficult essay to write because I needed to keep many things in my mind, all equally compelling. First, Alzheimer’s is a horrific disease: it cannot be described in any other terms. And yet I had two parents both of whom died from Alzheimer’s, and both who, in their healthy life, and in their diseased life, loved me. Whatever their predicament, they remained generous, and, very often in spirit, the people they always were. So I wanted to write something that honored my parents, was not dishonest, and would permit the reader to see how wonderful my parents were to me, warts and all, even in the most difficult of situations. Secondly, I wanted to show how I developed a way to have my parents with me a little longer—how I learned, and it was truly a work-in-progress, that Alzheimer’s is simply another way of seeing the world. Yet let me be very specific here. I am not stating that Alzheimer’s creates some romantic new reality, or that my parents were involved in a reinvisioning of the world—I am just stating that I realized, particularly with my father, that if I entered into his way of seeing things when he told me something, however improbable the narrative, I could still encounter the sense of him, his joys, unhappiness, struggles. When I first began to contemplate this, I was on very shaky terrain: I had no idea of where I was or where my father might take me. But after a time, I learned to associate large swaths of his narrative with other in-the-world details. When, for example, my father didn’t recall that I had invited many family members to visit him in the nursing home, he quickly began a story about how he had gone to a “grand” party and there were “ heaping mounds of shrimp,” a detail that resonated with him, a child of the Depression. My father did not recall that Warren, his brother, or Farrell, his niece, had come to visit; he did know, however, that something clearly momentous had occurred. Again, this was not my father—the doctor—who had lived mightily in Harlem and in our home. But it was a clear shadow of my father—an inkling of his generosity and character.
By the same token, I did not want to write an essay that would further wound others who had loved ones with Alzheimer’s, for it is a ghastly disease, something that no narrative can adequately convey. Luckily, my parents remained largely the people they had always been. My mother remained gentle, full of love for dogs and the natural world: she had been a painter and many other things—a writer, a stockbroker, and a pharmacist. Although she no longer painted, when I asked her if she’d like me to buy her paint materials she told me she didn’t need to do it anymore, that the world “was full of trees with dogs laughing.” Here my mother, like my dad, was creating a counter-narrative: it wasn’t true, but it expressed two of her great loves—dogs and flora, and, just as powerfully, her indomitable conviviality.
My, father, too, of course, somehow found ways to show his true character whatever the disease demanded. He had been a doctor—a very good one—and I never remember him failing to honor any responsibility. If he said he’d be somewhere, he’d be there. But one day he told me that he’d “lost the children.” I, of course, was one of those, so I felt directly involved, and then he began to chart the ways in which he had lost us—loaning us to a woman somewhere, who had simply absconded with us. “Can you imagine losing my children?” he asked, laughing.
The mixture of the surreal and the real; the true moments of connection and disconnection—this is what the essay needed to convey. And the horrors, too, of the disease. My brother Paul had died of alcoholism many years before, a fact that started me to abandon poetry and turn to the essay. One day in the nursing home my father asked me about him. I reminded him that Paul had died and my father started to cry uncontrollably, his thin ribs moving like an addled accordion. “Paul’s dead, Paul’s dead,” he kept uttering, as if he had just learned of his son’s demise. At the time I worried that my father might confront this horrific predicament each new day, that to his compromised mind this might become, day in and day out, a new visitation, but my father never again asked about Paul. Indeed, this was always the reality with the disease: one was always confronting an ill-explored psychic landscape.
In many of my essays, I try to give voice to how well my parents handled the vexations of a very difficult time: they were both African American professionals, they were both New Englanders, and as most members of their generation, they didn’t complain much—they simply hoped that their children would have better lives. Both of my parents were born a generation too early. My father, though brilliant, never received his due, largely because of racial prejudice in the 1930s, although he did teach at Columbia Medical School for 40 years, and was honored as one of Boston University’s 100 Most Distinguished Alumni. My mother, the Salutatorian at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy, could never practice her pharmaceutical profession because of her gender. To this day, this still angers me. Yet my parents never uttered a word. In fact, it was I who had to unearth much of this history—my parents never dwelled on it.
“Driving,” at its best, simply celebrates two human beings who met life with great courage, generosity, and grace. The essay, I’m certain, has moments of being Pollyannaish. And I certainly included instances of humor, because there were truly many such moments, and both the reader and I needed the reprieve. And I also included moments of poetic, near-Whitmanic rhapsody, because I felt the essay needed it, and because, at bottom, lyricism matters to me—it is, at times, its own great blessing.
My essay, sadly, fails to covey much of my parents’ true spirit; but it, in a very difficult time, allowed me to share some of their luminosity—and I had them, if only in language, a little longer.
Kenneth McClane is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature at Cornell Emeritus. He has published seven poetry collections and two volumes of personal essays, Walls: Essays 1985-1990 (Wayne State University Press) and Color: Essays on Race, Family, and History (University of Notre Dame Press). In 2010 The University of Notre Dame Press reprinted his collection, Walls: Essays 1985-1990 in paperback.
McClane’s essays have appeared in many anthologies, including The Best African American Essays; The Art of the Essay; Bearing Witness: Selections from African-American Autobiography in the Twentieth Century; The Anatomy of Memory; You’ve Got to Read This; and Literature for Life. His essay “Walls” was selected for The Best American Essays 1988 and The Best American Essays (college edition) volumes. In 2002 he received the Distinguished Prose Award from The Antioch Review.
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