“We’re getting quite close these days,” I said, about my father, to a friend. I would never have predicted that possibility, and it’s happening, as these things always do, at the end, when so little time is left. He tells me about growing up in English boarding schools, always surrounded by boys, about going to Dartmouth Naval Academy at the age of 13, about being in the English Navy. “Maybe,” he says, “That’s why I’ve always found women hard to talk to.”
I type his stories up on my computer, making up his biography so that when he’s gone, we won’t have to rely on silence and fuzzy remembrance of hints dropped in other conversations. I brainstorm questions to ask him. “What’s your favorite book?” “What’s your best memory of Mum?” “What was your worst moment?”
It seems imperative that I do so now, not later. His sister has Alzheimer’s. His memory is going. Something slides away into darkness every time he loses a memory. I want to tell his story. I want to say that he worked in CERN in the late 60s and early 70s, exciting times for physics, that he left there with a glory about him because of the research in which he’d been involved. I want to tell my memories of going down into the depths of CERN, where the underground atom splitters are, and have him fill my memories in with descriptions of what exactly did go on there, in that vast purgatory. I remember an underground room filled with a computer the size of a boat; I remember reams of tractor paper spitting out calculations. I remember puddles of harsh light, and shadows. But perhaps it was all just my own projection, the mystery of what was happening encased in my fear of it. Why be afraid? I want to find out.
“Does anyone know what this picture is?” he asked one day a few months ago. “I’ve asked the others and nobody knows.” He had been scanning old pictures into the computer. I knew immediately. “It’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to climb on it after we’d eaten there.” (I remember sometimes we got little sausages there, and I hated the texture, hard little bits of gristle embedded in the meat. CERN was my first impulse towards vegetarianism.)
His face lit up. “Of course,” he said. “That’s right.”
I am top of the rock, looking out at the building that houses the canteen. Has it changed, I wonder? The old blue Volvo 144 is in the parking lot. The sun shines. In the basement, the computer spits ot its calculations. My father’s memory wavers.
This weekend, I will ask him. It will be my birthday present to myself.