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Personal Histories

Our Hallow’s Eve

When dementia gets its grip on a father who always loved slasher movies, a daughter struggles to hold on—if only to the ghost of recognition.

Mark Jacobson, Pumpkin Rider, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Walter Wickiser Gallery, Inc.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood, the trees are exploding into crimsons and yellows. As I push my son’s stroller through the streets, we pass stoops tangled in cottony orange spider webs, with blow-up ghosts bobbing in spooky greeting.

“See?” I point them out to my toddler. I stick my head into his stroller and cackle like a witch, and he gives me a bemused, four-toothed smile. I smile, too. At the same time, my stomach rolls over in a twist of sadness. It’s autumn. Which means I’ll be heading home again soon to see my parents. And I’m fairly certain my father isn’t going to know who I am.

This will be my son’s first Halloween, and I’m taking him to Indiana to give him a taste of Halloween as I remember it. My mom and I have been making plans to take him to a pumpkin patch and maybe a costume party at the zoo. We chat on the phone while I follow Fabian around the playground, discussing the tiny Purple Rain Prince costume she is making for him. She tells me to measure his arms, as she wants to make sure she gets the ruffles at the ends of the sleeves just right.

In between all of the planning, she quietly talks about my dad. About him wandering the house at night. How he has started moving things from room to room. Putting things like her makeup and car keys in his bed. Alzheimer’s has a firm grip on him now, and this will likely be the last time I visit when he will still be living at home. He’s due to move into a nursing home soon, a fact that I’m having trouble getting my brain to process. I can tell my mom is trying to prepare me for my visit, and for the decline in my dad since I last saw him in July.

“Does he still know who you are?” I ask, watching Fabian crawl towards a flapping pigeon.

You’d be trying to enjoy a bowl of Fruit Loops, and he’d leer down into your face, croaking, “Elaine, where’s the bourbon, bitch?”

She hesitates. “Yes. I think so. You know, the other day he turned to me and said, ‘You know, I will never forget you!’ And I just looked at him. I said, ‘Well you better not!’ How weird is that?”

My younger brother Moosie now helps my dad with shaving and bathing himself—two things that have become increasingly difficult for my once impeccably groomed dad. Moosie lightly combs the gray feathers of my dad’s hair and gently runs a razor over his weathered, but still handsome features. When I try to tell my brother how deeply we all appreciate this, and express how difficult I’m sure it must be for him, he brushes away my gratitude and tries to make me laugh.

“I sometimes think about giving him a goatee. Or a Hitler mustache.”

 

The first time I ever brought my husband home to meet my family was right before Halloween. I’d tried to prepare David for my family’s enthusiasm for the holiday, explaining that it’s a revered time of year. Our Ramadan. Except with less fasting and more fun-size Twix.

David is from Northern Ireland, and his childhood Halloweens were a tad understated. Every year he would buy a cheap mask from a grocery truck that visited once a week. He says the masks were always Frankenstein, and you could only wear them for an hour before you felt nauseated from the rubber. That was the extent of his Hallows reverie.   

“It was Northern Ireland in the ‘80s.” He shrugged. “Things were scary enough.”

So I imagine my husband was a bit disoriented to be standing in my parents’ front yard next to a life-sized headless horseman constructed from chicken wire. Overhead, vampire bats swung from the trees while David tried to make small talk with my dad. At their feet, rubber zombie hands jutted from the ground next to scattering of Styrofoam tombstones.

My father—a six-foot-five, smirking, gentlemanly figure clad in Greg Norman golf wear—proudly showed off the various decorations, explaining how the garage would later be transformed into a haunted house, complete with strobe light, chainsaw, and a beckoning Satan.

“My boys made this here.” He gestured to the graveyard at their feet. “Drew the names on themselves.” He plucked a tombstone up and squinted at the Sharpie engraving.

“Here lies Harry T. Boner. He Came and Went. Aw, damn those boys!” Dad snapped the grave marker over his knee, tossing it into the bushes. “Ignore that one. Let’s go in and I’ll show you the corpse on the john. My wife made it.”

My family loves Halloween. And anything scary, really. Growing up in suburban Indiana, we reveled in haunted houses, the glinting blades of Jason and Freddy, sticky tubes of fake blood, and the chemical plastic stink of costume shops. And this love was due largely to our parents, who put a lot of time and energy into showing us the pleasure in a good, old-fashioned scream of terror. I like to imagine them arm in arm, pondering their squirming mass of six boys and two girls and deciding the most entertaining way to get through the years ahead would be to just scare the hell out of everyone.

They delighted in spooking us, and we grew up believing our house was haunted. A ghost christened “The White Lady” roamed the carpeted halls, her white hair streaming. My mother and father assured us they had both encountered her, and as kids, we found this presence both terrifying and thrilling. I’d have friends over for sleepovers, and whilst brushing our teeth, proudly inform them a ghost lived in the room where we stored our Christmas decorations. Then I’d leave them, bug-eyed and frozen, foaming Aquafresh.

When we were very small, my father used to treat us to original ghost stories before bed. We considered him a masterful storyteller, even though his tales always seemed to somehow conclude with a message about the dangers of smoking.

When we were very small, my father used to treat us to original ghost stories before bed. We considered him a masterful storyteller, even though his tales always seemed to somehow conclude with a message about the dangers of smoking.

“And that was the terrible fate of Simon Cigarette!” he’d cackle, and we’d sit in the dark, terrified of goblins. And lung disease.

My mother, a Michelangelo with a glue gun, went in more for costumes and props. Come Halloween you couldn’t round a corner in our house without bumping into a severed head, a witch, or the aforementioned corpse upon the toilet. She once convinced a couple of nun friends from our Catholic school to let her dress them up as monsters, and then she had them stumble into our living room one night after dinner. There we all were, quietly relaxing with Pet Sematary, when Sr. Jean Ann suddenly lurched into the room, struggling to keep her Jason mask from sliding askew.

Once, with Halloween lurking around the corner, we watched Raising Cain, starring a crazed John Lithgow. A few days later, my mom dressed as Margo in a red trench coat and black wig and came into each of our rooms to gently shake us awake for school. We opened our eyes to her menacing smile hovering over us. I was 14 at the time, and I remember shrinking into the sheets in horror while my mom snickered. She was having a ball. That is, until she went to wake up Moosie. He opened his eyes and instinctively launched his fist straight into her nose.

“Damn it, Moosie! That hurt!” she shouted.

My brother felt bad for punching our mother. To be fair, he did think he was about to be stabbed by Lithgow in drag.

But Raising Cain was child’s play compared to our usual fare. The Exorcist and The Omen were our Muppet Show—fun for the whole family. We would gather and cozily watch Linda Blair projectile vomit or Jack Nicholson hack through a door. Mid-film, my father would slip outside unnoticed, then suddenly bang on the living room window or let out his trademark “ROAR!” sending us all into frenzied, delighted screams. My mother would glance up from her knitting and smile fondly, as though we were sitting round the hearth watching my father strum a banjo.

Dad was particularly partial to the Nightmare on Elm Street films. He found them hilarious, especially the sequels, where Freddy really starts to camp it up in between slashings. For Halloween, Dad typically donned a Freddy glove and rubber hat along with his pressed golf slacks and cashmere vest. You’d be trying to enjoy a bowl of Fruit Loops, and he’d leer down into your face, croaking, “Elaine, where’s the bourbon, bitch?” misquoting one of his favorite lines from the film.

 

Dad stopped saying “I love you” many months ago. If you tell him you love him, he smiles and responds, “Thank you, dear.” But he is still affectionate. Particularly with my mother. She told me a few months ago that my dad came into the kitchen while she was doing the dishes. She was listening to a choir on her headphones, and the choir began to sing “O Holy Night.” My mom took one of the headphones out of her ear, and put it into my father’s. Hearing the music, Dad pulled her into a slow dance. Sometimes, if I think of my parents, 47 years married, standing in the dim glow of the kitchen, swaying to a Christmas carol in the middle of June, something inside of me cracks.

When I told my dad goodbye the last time I was home, he was headed up to bed. As I walked him to the stairway, I held his big hand, which still swallows mine. He chatted away about something I couldn’t quite follow, and I nodded in pretend understanding, breathing deeply to swallow the tornado of emotion that was twisting through my chest. We stood at the bottom of the stairs, and he turned to me suddenly, his eyes glinting playfully.

“Come here. I have a secret.”

I leaned in, and he whispered in my ear, “I love you.” I looked up at his pale blue eyes in surprise, and he smiled at me. In that moment, I felt certain I could see the ghost of my old father—the laughing, teasing dad I used to know. But seconds later his eyes clouded again, and he turned and headed slowly up the stairs, easing his long legs over that same stretch of carpet he’d walked thousands of times before.

When I am home, I do not want to fight the sadness. I want to stand with my father and mother beneath the turning leaves, zombie arms scattered at our feet, and let the happy, hilarious memories flow through me, right along with the unfathomable loss. I want to find a way to accept what is. Because right now, if I am honest with myself, I still sometimes feel like my dad’s illness is a mask he might pull off at any moment. A rubber hat he might in fact remove.

When I saw that ghost of recognition pass through his eyes that last time, I felt an odd lurch of panic—a desire to reach through him and grab the ghost, to hold it steady in place—forbidding it to flit away once more. But ghosts, as I have known since childhood, are transparent, translucent things. Impossible to hold.

Johanna Gohmann has written for Salon, The Chicago Sun-Times, xoJane, Babble, Red, and Curve. She is a regular contributor to Bust. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, The Best Sex Writing 2010, and Joan Didion Crosses the Street. More by Johanna Gohmann