Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lost In Translation With Bill and Scarlett -- And My Dad

I'm pretty sure my Dad knew what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of the movie. I'm also acutely aware of the fact that he probably forgot it moments later.

I have the movie Lost In Translation on DVD, but can't watch it. I have the soundtrack CD, too, but when the music comes shuffling by on my iPod, I can't listen to it. Both are inexorably linked to a memory, and even after eight years, I'm just not sure I'm ready. And I'm not usually like that. I am a very nostalgic person. I don't just remember the past; I wallow in it - the good, the bad and the ugly. I can remember the song that was queued up on the tape in my car when Lisa#1 dumped me in March of 1986 in Carlisle, PA (it was Fishbone's "Party At Ground Zero"). I remember the song playing on WHFS when I left Lisa#2 in my rear-view mirror for the last time in May, 1989 (Romeo Void's "Never Say Never"). I have no problem listening to either of those songs, or any of a host of others that are linked to traumatic, sad, stressful or otherwise icky times.

Lost In Translation is different. It's not that I can't listen to the music, and it's not that I can't watch the movie. I don't want to. My memory of the day I took my father to see that movie is a sad one - or at least bittersweet - but I like it.

In October of '03 my dad was about to turn 75. He had retired from his beloved analyst job at CIA over a dozen years earlier and despite rebounding rather well from his 1995 stroke, he was by the early 2000's - well, fading. He certainly had dementia, and by 2003 we were sure he had begun a final disappearing act into the mists of Alzheimer's.

He was actually doing better than any of us could have hoped, at this stage. Apart from failing to get dressed and eat and take his pills without being reminded, he got through his days in one piece. I don't think he had any of those traumatic episodes of wandering off - except that one time in Rehoboth Beach, and I don't count that because it was a hot day in a strange location (okay, I count it a little bit).

Still, as my dad's short-term memory deteriorated, my mother - recently retired herself - mana
ged an ever-expanding litany of nursing duties, and she needed a break. So there I was, taking my 75-year old father to the multiplex on a gray October Saturday. That's it. That's pretty much the story.

Okay, not really. I knew - feared, really - that this little excursion had a good chance of being my last constructive or remotely coherent one-on-one time with my father, so I was a little nervous. I gave him the option: "Lost..." or "School of Rock" or "Kill Bill Vol. 1," and he chose "Lost..." It was set in Japan. He had lived in Japan in the aftermath of World War II, while his father helped maintain order or whatever. Done - two, please!

His reactions to the movie, like his reactions to everything else, were muted. Tokyo looked nothing like the Tokyo he had known in the 1940s, but he knew enough Japanese that he could decipher some of the various loudspeaker announcements in the movie. "That's Japanese," he would whisper, more to himself than to me (he was already beginning to lose track of who was with him - mainly when it wasn't Mom).

He seemed to recognize the temples. "That looks like Kyoto" was repeated several times. He scoffed at the odd relationship between Murray's aging character and 20-year old Johansson's. He chuckled at the fish-out-of-water, tall-American-among-short-Japanese gags. He winced at the in-your-face strip club scene and its blaring hip-hop soundtrack. Great. Gratuitous Japanese nudity - he's gonna have a heart attack and die, right here and now. Mom will never forgive me.

Mostly, as he had for the past couple of years, he just sat there and smiled and took it all in. It was just stimuli. I know now that he was probably well aware of how much he couldn't remember, but as deeply pragmatic as he was, he oscillated between faking it and just going with the flow, living in the now. I never heard him complain about his memory loss. He just sort of kept going.

Driving him home, I was ten years old again, searching for ways to engage my father in conversation. I asked about the movie. He remembered we had seen one, but his vaguely, generically-positive assessment of the last couple of hours made it clear that he couldn't recall what we had seen. I asked about his time living in Japan, and his thoughts crystallized. He shared in vivid detail a memory of seeing the Ama pearl divers.

I asked what he thought about the Bush Administration's role in the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, which at the time was widely believed to have been a deliberate punitive action by the President's inner circle - retribution for Mrs. Plame's ambassador-husband's public contradiction Bush's arguments for US military action in Iraq. I didn't then, nor do I now, know enough about that story to converse intelligently on the subject. I just wanted to get him talking. I was taken aback at the clarity and intensity of his response. I won't rehash it all here, because it's political, but despite not being fully aware of the identity of our nation's President, he had a keen sense of the fact that there was no "administration," but rather simply a collection of cronies, half of whom didn't know what their ol' buddy George had put them in charge of (see FEMA Director Brown). He didn't know their names, but he was dead-on. I didn't realize until well after his death in 2005 just how accurate, how incisive, his analysis had been.

I left him in Mom's capable hands that afternoon and headed home, with my notions of Alzheimer's and its effects completely scrambled. He could recall 55-year old scenes from Japan, but couldn't remember the last scene of the movie. He couldn't keep track of which of his offspring was with him (he kept calling me Andrew), but he had an accurate and scathing analysis of the political scandal of the day. I was at a loss. He seemed happy enough. He was much more comfortable once Mom got home, of course, but he had spent the entire afternoon with a look of slightly-confused wonder. Upon hearing what movie we had seen, Mom rolled her eyes. "He saw that with me last week."

This was one of the last times I was alone with my father for more than a few minutes, and certainly the last time I heard him speak coherently and with conviction. From time to time, I wish I had tried some other tack to get him talking, but it's cool. I saw that spark. I heard that professional analyst's voice one last time. His opinion of the issue is neither here nor there, now. He was there, with me, sharing his thoughts.

I'm sure some of it was lost in the translation, but that's okay. Alzheimer's or no Alzheimer's, he still had words to share. I only wish there could have been more.


  1. That was a punch in the gut. Really bittersweet and relatable.

  2. Thanks, Stacy. You know how there's stuff you want to write, and then there's stuff you HAVE TO write. This was definitely the latter.