I’ve been reading Patrimony by Philip Roth – a true story about his 86-year-old father, Herman, who is suffering from a brain tumor. But it reaches far beyond illness – the story is also about identity and the body as it relates to aging. It’s about a son’s growing understanding of a father who, as Roth says, possesses “stubborn discipline, the source of all my frustration.” It’s about the difficult decisions Roth must make concerning his father’s care, which lends universality, as most of us will face similar decisions on the behalf of our aging parents who likely will become steeped in illness. I know, this sounds terribly morbid, but at least, Roth’s story is poignant and honest. He isn’t maudlin or over-sentimental. He tells it to us straight via mostly dialogue, which allows us to hear the idiosyncratic voices of father and son, their everyday exchanges that lure us into the most intimate aspects of their lives. Here’s a brief section from the book, where Roth shares with us his father’s wishes concerning his care. It underscores what we (at least for those of us over forty) fear most as we age – loss of independence:
He repeated to me, to everyone, that he didn’t want a biopsy or an operation through the back of his head or the roof of his mouth – all he wanted was what he had wanted from the start: to be able to see his food and to read his paper and, as he put it, to navigate on his own.
Believe me, if your read this book, and I hope you do, you will likely find moments when you need to put it down and take a deep breath. But there are also moments when you will laugh – I promise.