In the fall of 1988, Sue Miller found herself caring for her father as he slipped into the grasp of Alzheimer’s disease. She was, she claims, perhaps the least constitutionally suited of all her siblings to be in the role in which she suddenly found herself, and in The Story of My Father she grapples with the haunting memories of those final months and the larger narrative of her father’s life. With compassion, self-scrutiny, and an urgency born of her own yearning to rescue her father’s memory from the disorder and oblivion that marked his dying and death, Sue Miller takes us on an intensely personal journey that becomes, by virtue of her enormous gifts of observation, perception, and literary precision, a universal story of fathers and daughters.
James Nichols was a fourth-generation minister, a retired professor from Princeton Theological Seminary. Sue Miller brings her father brilliantly to life in these pages-his religious faith, his endless patience with his children, his gaiety and willingness to delight in the ridiculous, his singular gifts as a listener, and the rituals of church life that stayed with him through his final days. She recalls the bitter irony of watching him, a church historian, wrestle with a disease that inexorably lays waste to notions of time, history, and meaning. She recounts her struggle with doctors, her deep ambivalence about many of her own choices, and the difficulty of finding, continually, the humane and moral response to a disease whose special cruelty it is to dissolve particularities and to diminish, in so many ways, the humanity of those it strikes. She reflects, unforgettably, on the variable nature of memory, the paradox of trying to weave a truthful narrative from the threads of a dissolving life. And she offers stunning insight into her own life as both a daughter and a writer, two roles that swell together here in a poignant meditation on the consolations of storytelling.
With the care, restraint, and consummate skill that define her beloved and best-selling fiction, Sue Miller now gives us a rigorous, compassionate inventory of two lives, in a memoir destined to offer comfort to all sons and daughters struggling-as we all eventually must-to make peace with their fathers and with themselves.
“Deft, sincere and eloquent. . . With the care, restraint, and consummate skill that define her well-crafted and bestselling fiction, Sue Miller has now written a beautiful, compelling memoir about her father and his downward spiral into the demonic grasp of Alzheimer’s disease.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Stunning. . . A remarkable yet self-effacing testament to the vagaries of memory . . .
[Miller] turns a man’s simple life and tragic death into a lively and unforgettable narrative.”
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I think that at the heart of my not-seeing was my astonishingly naïve set of assumptions about death. This could not be what was happening to Dad. Not to my father. That he would diminished, and diminished again, before he died? That I would lose him, over and over, before the final loss? That I was already losing him? Some childish part of me simply said no – this couldn’t be the way he would die, he would end – and continued to say no even after it ought to have been clear that it was, indeed, the death he was moving toward.
Now that they’re both long gone, it is my mother, the one who died earlier, the one whose death I did not see, whom I sometimes dream alive and whole again. What I imagine in my sleeping life is that it was all a mistake, the notion of her dying – some sort of confusion on our part. And when I wake after these dreams, occasionally I believe in them for a few moments: I believe she is alive.
I never have such dreams about my father, though he comes to me often enough. But the dreams aren’t a denial of what occurred in life. Too often, they confirm it. Something terrible is happening to my father in the dream, my father is trying something and failing, my father is speaking and making no sense. And always, always in these dreams, I am useless. In spite of my tortuous, dreamlike efforts, I am utterly unable to help him.