In her attempt to come to grips with her father's death from the complications of Alzheimer's, Sue Miller's The Story of My Father examines closely those last years and months that she spent at her father's side.
Her father, James Nichols, retired from his professorship at Princeton Theological Seminary, and his quiet demeanor was quite the contrast to Miller's overly dramatic mother. When Miller's mother died suddenly of a heart attack at 60, her father found himself adrift and unable to focus on moving on with his life.
Gradually, Nichols began to show symptoms of forgetfulness, and as each of Miller's siblings seem to be in denial of their father's disease, Miller noted more and more her father's troubling behavior.
When the diagnosis was confirmed, her father smiled "ruefully and said, 'Doggone, I never thought I'd lose my mind.'"
As we age, we all think of how we will die. Cancer? Heart disease? Falling down the basement stairs?
Miller reacts to her father's comment: "I was startled at the time to realize this -- that he had thought about it. But now that he is dead, and several others of his generation and the one before it in my family are dead also, it's my turn to think of it -- of death -- and I do. I wonder how it will come to me. Unlike Dad, though - but largely because of him - I think often of the possibility that I may lose my mind. And when I do, I remember this moment; when my father seemed to be getting the news about his fate, about how it would be for him; when he took it in and accepted it and was somehow interested in it, all at the same time, before my eyes. It was a moment as characteristic of him as any I can think of in his life, and as brave. Noble, really, I've come to feel."
This is the beauty to me of Miller's memoir of her father and the telling of his story. As sad as it is, it is also a gift for others of us -- to have a first person narrative of a child watching a parent succumb to the ravages of this disease, and through that process come to know and understand not only her father better, but herself: "The drama that brought me to this memoir was my father's illness and what it meant in my life."
In simpler terms, Miller shows how much death teaches us about life.