It was just few years ago when my grandmother, who I was named after, started leaving plates of food on the table. For my grandfather, she says. At that time my gramps, a notorious womanizer, has been dead for at least 10 years. She then started accusing household help of stealing items she’s kept away, or for sneaking out when she’s sent them to run errands for her.
I was about 7,000 miles away from her when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She passed soon shortly after that.
Grandma was on my mind when I first started reading Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound), a story about a year-long care-giving of a daughter for her ailing father suffering from the same sickness.
After her mom suggested she move back for a year to help care for her father, Ruth slowly establishes a life back at their home in southern California. In the midst of reacquainting herself with her father’s new ways (a sour temperament, always holed up in his home office), she also recounts moments from her last failed relationship.
Ruth cooks for his father, studies and avoids what could exacerbate his symptoms, is diligent in ensuring he takes what he needs. But it isn’t so simple, she finds out. It started with him forgetting his wallet, then forgetting to turn the faucet off until it got to a point where he would show up to teach a class at the university on the wrong day.
In one of many attempts of trying to regain “normalcy” in his life, Ruth and some of his father’s mentees and colleagues employ an elaborate set-up. As agreed upon by everyone, they would pretend that he is back in the university teaching, as the “students” pretend to move the class from one place on campus to restaurants across town to avoid being caught. His father seems to be his old self back.
These strategies seem to work for a while. One day, her father shows her notes he’s written when she was younger. Over the next few weeks and months, she comes across more of these notes, usually on his desk. While Ruth starts getting to know her father in his sickness, she also discovers the way he thought of things almost a lifetime ago. How her brother and mother saw her father differently, a drunk and a womanizer.
But the notes reveal a slightly different story. Although they contain random things about a younger Ruth, as if reading a new mom’s diary of her baby’s firsts, what they really convey is the depth of a father’s love for his daughter.
This is one of those books that slowly grows on you. Details emerge page after page, portraying a picture different from what you first imagined. I like how as the story and her father’s sickness progresses, as it feels like his father starts to lose himself, Ruth (and the readers) become privy to a side of him she’s never known. Interspersed throughout the story, these notes are glimpses of a man who wanted to hold on to these memories, as if he knew that one day he would forget.
The beauty of Khong’s book lies in its universality, how she portrayed the ebbs, flows and tides of familial relationships. I like how things that seemed inconsequential at first actually built up a narrative of love, vulnerability and tenderness.
As I get older, I think it’s good to be reminded of the impermanence of everything, how everything is actually fleeting. I have a lot of regret for not being able to be with my grandmother during those dark hours. I don’t know how it must’ve felt for her to not be surrounded by her kids and her grandkids, at a time when it seemed like she was losing grasp of everything she thought she knew. I do know that she was loved immensely, even though from afar.
* * *