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My Father's Battle With Alzheimer's Revealed an Unsettling Truth About His Life

ELLE logo ELLE 1/7/2019 Sascha Rothchild

a man and a woman holding a baby: After her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Sascha Rothchild finds a man consumed by secrets. © Courtesy of the subjects After her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Sascha Rothchild finds a man consumed by secrets. The tale of how my parents met and their subsequent love story was a thing of legend, in my mind. My mother, a New York socialite-turned-hippie, was in Miami Beach gallivanting at a friend’s notoriously festive mansion. My father, a square, middle-class journalist who had thrived at Yale, was on assignment covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention. He’d heard rumblings of a waterfront manse where the young elite chose to drop out of good society and into the warmth of drugs, sex, and saltwater pools. With notebook and pen in hand, he arrived at the house the moment an exquisite redhead, the daughter of a famed 21 Club founder, alighted down the grand staircase. My mother, barely covered by a thin sarong tied around her neck, was amused by the cute, nervous guy holding the little pad of paper. They’ve been together ever since.

Over the years, they traveled, they laughed. They did the crossword puzzle together every morning. In ink. They discussed politics and art and that time some houseguest gave acid to the nannies. “Then who on earth is watching the children?!” asked my practical, conservative father. After that, the nannies were let go, and my father’s traditional values took hold. My parents committed to raising my brother and sister and me themselves, like a “normal” family. Sometimes they fought. My father had a jealous streak. He was possessive of my mother and haunted by her party days. The thought of her ex-lovers drove him into verbal rages that often got redirected to him yelling about things like having too many bottles of ketchup from Costco, or because I had spilled my milk at dinner, twice.

A few years ago, we started noticing his memory lapses. The man who once knew the price of gold stock on any given day became unsure about which way to put the pod into the espresso machine. A neurologist made it official: Alzheimer’s. It was heartbreaking to watch my father’s sharp mind fall into itself. It had always been his best feature. He was witty and wise, never warm and comforting.

My Dad's Battle With Alzheimer's Revealed His Dark © kcslagle My Dad's Battle With Alzheimer's Revealed His Dark When I was acting out at 13, my father avoided talking to me and put a lawyer on retainer. In case I got arrested. In college, while rushing onto an Amtrak train, I fell into the gap beneath it, and was rushed to the emergency room. My mother hopped on the first flight to Boston. My father never showed up. Again, he called a lawyer. In case he wanted to sue Amtrak. But as the Alzheimer’s eroded his brain, his personality softened. Gone was the man who used to scream at me about traffic and for getting a B in algebra. He was calm and generous. Ketchup from Costco for everyone! Once, he patted me on the shoulder and told me he was proud of me. For what, I’m not sure he even knew. But it didn’t matter. It was the first time he had ever said those words. As he changed, I let go of his voice in my head saying that I wasn’t good enough. Now he just wanted to pet my hair and enjoy the sound of a chirping bird. I let myself cry in private, mourning the loss of my brilliant father, while wrestling with the new, glorious message that just my existence was enough to make him happy. He finally loved me unconditionally.

Recently he was walking with my mother. A man said hello to her, and the worst of my father’s old personality returned. He became jealous and angry. “I’ll just get back together with Karen,*” he said. Karen was my parents’ longtime friend. Karen was my Facebook friend.

My mother, sensing that my father was admitting to something his tangled brain forgot to keep secret, had some questions: “Did you have an affair with Karen?” “When did it start?” “For how long?” He answered, “Yes,” and “For years,” before his memory slipped back into the holes. He knew he had said something bad, done something worse, but couldn’t quite piece it together. Of all the indignities we knew Alzheimer’s would bring, none of us expected it to bring a shocking secret to light.

A few days later, my sister and I headed to Aspen to help pack up my parents’ summer place. When we arrived, my mother told us about Karen. My stomach sank. I could barely comprehend what the affair meant when my sister grabbed my father’s laptop. He’d lost the ability to use it a while ago. She searched for Karen’s name. A world was unleashed.

My father was a writer, and so he wrote. In a folder on his desktop was a journal disguised as a memoir where he detailed his sexual escapades. He wrote about illicit trysts from before he even knew Karen. He slept with hookers, he posted in newspapers soliciting sidepieces, he had affairs on business trips, he made up business trips to have affairs, he contacted old flames to start up again, and once Viagra and the internet were invented he became an unfettered sex addict. This was not fiction. I wish it had been. But the information lined up with dates and times and pieces of my sister’s and my memories. In one entry, he described having sex with Karen in my childhood bed and not changing the sheets. After that, I stopped reading. I knew all I needed to know. That I never really knew my father at all.

a man talking on a cell phone: My Dad's Battle With Alzheimer's Revealed His Dark © Tom Kelley Archive My Dad's Battle With Alzheimer's Revealed His Dark Growing up, whenever I was with my father, I had felt alone and unprotected. I was a girl searching desperately for a path to his approval. I decided that path would be to emulate him. So I wanted to be a writer and like jazz and say clever things at parties. I forgave him for not loving me effusively, because I believed he truly loved my mother. They came first for each other, and that was beautiful. But the truth is that he put himself first, period. He was a narcissist. A betrayer. The kind of man who enjoyed playing footsie with his girlfriend while his wife sat at the same table, unaware. No wonder it felt so hard to connect with him. He was a fake. Those nannies on acid would have been more authentic.

As I look back with this new information, my father’s insecure, jealous anger toward my mother’s past makes sense. Cheaters are the ones who are paranoid. Liars are the ones who assume everyone must be lying. No wonder he had such rage about the ketchup bottles. No wonder he was disappointed in me if I couldn’t live up to his standards. He lived a double life, with zero standards of his own. My mother, the undomesticated chameleon, was the loyal, dependable, honest spouse and parent.

I’m furious at my father for making me work for love that should have felt unconditional, then for opening me up to vulnerability and forgiveness once he got Alzheimer’s, only to reveal himself as an impostor. I’m still in shock, trying to reframe my childhood narrative and make sense of two different realities. The one I always knew, that my parents were a magical couple and my father was worthy of my idolization; and the one I’ve just discovered, that my father has no moral compass. Although I feel hate toward him now, I do feel thankful that he helped give me the gift of writing. Years ago, when I was working on a memoir, I worried about revealing some very private things. I called my father for advice. “The moment you don’t feel comfortable writing something, you have to write it,” he said. “Because that’s the good stuff.” I don’t know if the real him believed that, but regardless, I’m still searching for the good stuff.

Many people mourn the loss of friends or family as Alzheimer’s erases their intelligence. We canonize their former selves. But I’ve learned the disease can also uncover a darkness. And it’s only in the dark that we can see who our loved ones truly were.

*Name has been changed.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of ELLE.

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