This week I am writing about a short story by the Seattle-area writer David Guterson, best-known for his novel Snow Falling on Cedars, about the internment of Japanese residents in Puget Sound during World War II. About a year ago, I came across Guterson’s story collection Problems with People. At the time, the story that most resonated with me was one in which a father grieved over having encouraged his son to work as a fisherman in Alaska. It was very similar to a story that I had published more than a decade ago.
But it was not Guterson’s story about a young man who drowns in Dixon Entrance, just north of British Columbia, that most impressed me. It was a story about a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The story, “Shadow,” begins with a series of short, declarative sentences:
He went in for tests that revealed changes in his frontal lobes. A battery of interviews yielded the conclusion that his short-term memory had declined. His ability to act serially was compromised, and he’d lost what a doctor called “executive function.” All of this within three months of retiring—not what he’d had in mind.
There is no wringing of hands about the diagnosis. The man is stoically unhappy, even when – or maybe because of – going on a cruise with his wife. He pines for his freedom. He resents his wife’s condescending comments. It is not until he gets a call from his youngest son, whom he hasn’t seen in years, that the old man’s spirits rise. The son, a former global backpacker and war correspondent, is working on an oral history project about people who took part in the civil rights movement in Alabama.
The father is taken aback by his son’s invitation to help him with the project, and he wonders whether one of his other sons has put him up to it.
He didn’t think he needed their concern or assistance. He was a man who still knew how to operate in the world. So what was wrong with everybody? Talking about him as if he was a baby, talking to his face that way, talking to him as if he weren’t there, about his driving, clothing, eating habits, etc.
The plan is for the father, a former chair of the local Anti-Defamation League and president of his B’nai B’rith chapter, to fly from Seattle to Atlanta, where his son will pick him up before driving to Birmingham. “You’re not going anywhere,” his wife declares. “How would you find your way around?”
This, of course, is the wrong thing to say to a man who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It only solidifies his resolve to demonstrate that he is still a competent person.
But in the post-9/11 era, airports are curious places. People are herded into lines cattle-style, and then asked to remove their shoes, lest some unhinged mind has a dream of copycatting the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, a true failure, and yet a failure so colossal that each of us, now and forever, must remove our shoes to be allowed to board a plane.
His son waved and receded, and then he was alone. He waited his turn, but when his turn came, he’d failed to understand about his shoes and belt and had to wrestle, in a time crunch, with these wardrobe items. After some trouble with his shoelaces (he’d double-knotted that morning, at his wife’s insistence), he was told to empty his pockets into what looked like a dog bowl, and in so doing spilled change. A lucky thing next—in a switch from what was normal, he made it through the metal detector without a hitch. Then back to normal: the X-ray machine picked out his razors, so he had to wait while a security guard unpacked and examined everything in his bag. In the end, he was admonished for his razors, and lost his razors, and had to hear the rule about razors, which he already knew but had hoped to circumvent, and now feigned surprise at.
Things continue to go badly. He can’t find his pills. He ends up at the wrong gate. He learns that he is in the wrong terminal. He gets on the airport tram, which at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, makes announcements in several Asian languages, causing the former lawyer to miss hearing the announcement in English. It is like a bad dream derived from Kafka.
In frustration, he asks an airport official, “Do you really think I look like Osama bin Laden? Do you think I’m going to blow up my own plane? Let’s be reasonable for a moment. I’m asking you to be a reasonable human being.”
He is soon escorted out of the airport terminal.
And when the son who is a lawyer picks him up at curbside, the son looked “neither distressed nor surprised on taking delivery of his father.”
What I most like about this story is Guterson’s gentle touch toward his luckless main character. It would be easy to make a buffoon of the old guy. But Guterson grants dignity to his character through an anecdote about his mother, who made sacrifices that enabled him to get through law school:
“To me, every year I live past forty-nine, which is how old she was when she died—that’s a bonus I don’t deserve.”