James Baldwin died in 1987. “When someone finds themselves digging through the ruins”, the writer once told his brother, “I pray that somewhere in that wreckage they’ll find me; that they can use something that I left behind.” Baldwin’s remark carries echoes of his books, among them Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and No Name in the Street, titles that reflect the author’s anxiety about his place in the world. Several of his early books, including the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), work through Baldwin’s troubled relationship with his stepfather, a disciplinarian preacher. One of his earliest stories is “In My Father’s House”, and Raoul Peck’s documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016), is drawn from an unfinished civil-rights memoir called Remember This House.
These repeated references to home and place have a new meaning for me now that my father is in decline, brought on by the cruel efficiency of’s. Richard Field was an English teacher for thirty-five years, and an admirer of Baldwin, whom he had seen debating the conservative polemicist William Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. My father and Baldwin were my foremost influence literarys; Both were articulate, charismatic, volatile men, their passion for truth fueled by whisky and cigarettes.
Last October I gave my father a copy of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. By Christmas he was struggling to make out the words on the page. “I’ve got the German disease”, he would say, pointing at a coaster he’d stuck to the wall, which read: “I have lost my mind and I am making no effort to look for it.” Language, which my father used so gracefully, now traps and confounds him like unexpected bollards on a motorway. Moments of humour – “There’s no wine in the whole of urine – I mean Europe!” – are fleeting. There was a horrifying period when he knew that his condition would worsen; Moments of lucidity served to underline his anxiety. “It says in the dictionary”, he told me over the telephone, “that Alzheimer’s means I’ll stop understanding how other people feel. I want you to know that I won’t mean any cruel things that I say.”
In Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin describes his father, shortly before death, “sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors”. When I call mine, he says either that he is too depressed to talk or that he is too busy. He has become fretful and compulsive, agitated; in his last months in the apartment he shared with my mother, he spent hours of every day – time he once spent reading – turning the key in the front door. I suspect that this compulsion to be locked in is connected in some way to a formative experience of insecurity. My father was a child of the Second World War, born in Cheshire, where his father, a pilot in the RAF, was stationed. He grew up in Italy, Egypt and Germany, an only child who moved countries – just as his friendships flowered – every four years. He recently moved to a care home, where the decor and routine seem to remind him of his years as a schoolmaster or his days at boarding school in England from the age of six, while his parents were abroad. At one point he explained to my mother that his father, who has been dead for many years, had given him the home in which he now lives. Each day he wanders down to the office and gently upbraids the staff for being late for class. They have given him a folder and a clipboard, props to support his happy delusion. He sits in front of a computer, which he can no longer use, explaining that he is too busy to answer questions. A year ago he would have chuckled at the poster in reception, which depicts a First World War soldier with the caption “Lest We Forget”. Now poppies have been replaced by forget-me-nots, the emblem of the Alzheimer’s Society, whose badge adorns my father’s oblivious lapel. Recently he has dispensed with clothes, as well as the distinctions between day and night.
He paces his room and roams the larger territory of the home, wandering, chatting, falling wherever he finds himself. Sometimes he pushes a toy pram along the corridors, just as I push my six-month-old daughter along the pavement. He has found a cupboard in which he likes to nap, often naked, a space where he can lock himself away, where I hope he is enclosed in Elysian bliss, not terror.
Such erratic behavior reminds me of the painter Beauford Delaney, Baldwin’s close friend, mentor and “spiritual father.” Towards the end of his life Delaney, who moved to Paris to be closer to Baldwin, was arrested for vagrancy. But the truth is that he was simply unable to find his bearings. My father, too, in the earlier stages of his decline, wandered the town where he lived, talking to groups of homeless men, his conversation darting between the profound and the absurd. Delaney probably suffered from Alzheimer’s; his speech was described by one of Baldwin biographers as “necessarily disjointed and sometimes incoherent, [ranging] from the denied pleasures of a scotch and a cigarette to the ‘devastating’ economy of Jane Austen, to the impossibility of holding food down, to religion.” In recent weeks my father has forgotten that he smoked, or that he loved red wine. He has also forgotten the rules of syntax and grammar, tools that he kept sharp for as long he was able. “Be with me, words, a little longer”, as John Updike wrote in a verse sequence late in life.
To grieve for someone still living is an experience my family and I must fathom. It strikes me, as I write, that my father will not read this piece. I listen to the cricket and instinctively want to ring him up – but he no longer listens to the radio or watches television. Lifelong interests have been abruptly sloughed off. Friends reassure me that my father is “still there”, deep down, but I’m not sure I believe them. “It’s an awful thing to think about, the way love never dies!”, says one of the characters in The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin’s first play. I seek glimmers of my father amid the wreckage of his brain. I help my mother clear out his belongings, which are ruins of a different kind. He has no need for books, tapes or DVDs, or for the drawer full of his lectures on Jane Austen and Maya Angelou. I glance at his lecture on John Betjeman, which begins with an anecdote about how, as a teenager, he met the poet and informed him, with the confidence of youth, that the Poet Laureate wrote excellent verse, not poetry. The lecture notes are mixed up with tax accounts and a copy of the first article I wrote on Baldwin, twenty years ago, with my father’s notes crowding the margins of every page. He was never concerned with material things, but without these papers he has at last become the monk he sometimes used to wish he had been – otherworldly and alone in his freshly painted cell.
I regret never asking my father where he felt he was from. I think of Giovanni’s Room, in which David’s fiancée writes to him about Paris: “I’ve never felt anyplace was home before”. Midway through the novel, he in turn wonders if “home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition”. I wish my father could read again, and that he could re-read Baldwin’s short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” (1965), in which the author sets the cornerstones of love, loss and memory. “After departure, only invisible things are left”, Baldwin writes: “perhaps the life of the world is held together by invisible chains of memory, loss and love. So many things, so many people, depart and we can only repossess them in our minds.”
Douglas Field teaches at the University of Manchester. He is the co-editor of Harold Norse: Poet maverick, gay laureate2022
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