The Disciples of Memory


When I was eleven years old, my father enrolled me in a memory improvement course at the local community college. The room was full of high school students taking the class as part of their summer SAT preparation. My feet dangled above the floor in the adult-sized chairs, and I hid my cartoon emblazoned notebook from the teenagers sitting around me. After the teacher dismissed us, I met my father in the school parking lot, where I suggested that perhaps I should take this class in two or maybe five years.

Instead, my father clapped his hands in delight upon learning I was the youngest student. “It’s those other kids who are learning too late,” he said. “You are just in time.”

I had brought home a spring report card with an A in English, B in social studies, and C’s in my math and science courses. But my father claimed this was not a punishment.

That evening after dinner, he sat me down to work through my first assignment: linking ten words to ten numbers. My father was a devout disciple of memory word association, believing it was the key to acing all of my classes. I had my doubts: the images my father created to connect an apple to the number 34 seemed improbable (You love apples! A 3 looks like a heart, and a 4 is in the shape of a tree! An apple tree!), and required more effort than simply rote drilling the linkage into my head, as my third grade math teacher had done with my multiplication tables.

Linking these numbers and images was only the first step of his summer goal to have me memorize the periodic table of elements, and ultimately pave my path to becoming a doctor.

“I was a lazy student,” he reminded me. “And I paid for it. Not you. You are going to be better than me.”

Twenty-two years later, my husband hands me the phone. My brother. I am already annoyed. It is six in the morning.

“It’s Dad,” Andrew says. “Mom lost him in Vegas. She’s been walking the strip all night. We already called the police. I’m flying out there in an hour.”

They had tried calling me last night. Fifteen missed calls. Eight voicemails. Now, I sleep with my cell phone on the nightstand. I should have been the one to go, the writer-teacher with more free time. Instead, my responsible younger brother, the pediatrician with more demanding hours, is doing my duty.

“I’m sorry,” I say, after my brother pauses, collecting a breath. I can hear the airport terminal in the background.

“I really needed to talk to you,” he says. For hours, he has had to handle my mother by himself. Something I never would have forgiven my brother for, had he done it to me.

My mother has lost my father before, though never for this long, and never this far from home. She had called us several times in the past year, complaining of my father wandering away from her at the Kohl’s department store, or driving off and stranding her at the bank, when he should have been waiting in the car. We thought we responded to each of these situations responsibly: we took away his car keys, we secured him with a cell phone and a medical identification bracelet he could not take off. My mother had grown accustomed to linking arms with him, always reminding him to stay close.

I call her next. Her voice betrays her exhaustion, embarrassment, and fear. It had happened close to midnight after strolling through several casinos to take in the sights after one of their favorite buffet dinners. My parents loved Las Vegas. They visited at least once a year. While walking back to their timeshare, they needed to stop at the restroom, so my mother walked into the women’s and my father went into the men’s.

“I waited for twenty minutes,” my mother admits. “Then I asked one of the security guards to go in and find him.”

He wasn’t in there, and he didn’t show up on the Wynn Hotel security cameras. How could one of the most luxurious hotels on the strip lose track of a seventy-five year old Vietnamese man? I email the Las Vegas police department the clearest and most recent picture I had of our father, cropping my infant daughter out his arms. Back when she was still too young to be afraid of him.

“He has Alzheimer’s,” I remind the police detective on the phone. “He doesn’t like to talk to anyone he doesn’t know.”

The police found him that afternoon, after tracing his credit card to the purchase of a soda at a Seven-Eleven, wandering in front of the Flamingo Hotel. He had been missing for twelve hours. Afterward, my father would tell this story with wonder.

“This man shouted ‘Mr. Phan, Mr. Phan,’ as if he knew me!” he exclaimed. “He was so nice, he asked me to wait for him, and then your mother and brother showed up. I couldn’t believe it. How did he know me, Aimee?”

Unlike other daily events, this one stayed with my father for over a week, because of the sores on his feet from walking all night, and my mother’s lingering bursts of frustration and anger.

“Why is she so mad?” my father cheerfully asked me on the phone.

“She was scared,” I replied. “She didn’t want anything to happen to you. You were gone for hours.”

“It was not that long,” he insisted. “She worries for nothing.”

There is no use arguing. There never is. He will never realize what we went through, how my heart sat in my throat for hours until my brother finally called me to say they found him. And he shouldn’t. I don’t want him to know.

When I was a journalism intern one summer in college at a city newspaper, I worked the crimes desk and had to follow a story about a man with Alzheimer’s who disappeared from his family. I feared the worst then. They found him two days later riding the bus from one side of town to the other. He was too afraid to step off. It could have been much worse. That is what I think, always. It could be much worse.

When people who don’t know my father see him, they are surprised to learn his actual age. Though his hair is white, his skin glows a golden caramel, with few wrinkles. His natural grin, infectious laugh and spry body exude vivacity and youth. It isn’t until you speak to him for more than five minutes, and he has asked you the same question three times in a row, that you realize.

We should be thankful that his physical health is optimal, yet his agile body betrays his slowing brain, so they will sometimes collide with disastrous consequences, like his predilection to run away. He doesn’t think he’s running away, but every time he walks off quickly, he cannot remember how to return to my mother or to my brother or to me. Even when we are calling out to him.

My grandfather also suffered from Alzheimer’s, but he was well into his late eighties when the disease began affecting him. Every subsequent visit to my grandfather’s left my father in tears. “If this ever happens to me,” he frequently told us, “just put a bullet in my head.”

My brother and I never responded, accustomed to his dramatic exaggerations. We do not talk about this.

My father was immensely proud of his memory. He read voraciously, disdained my mother’s constant television watching, and jogged every morning. He bought brain puzzle books to flex his memory muscles. He took vitamins and his blood pressure medication religiously. He monitored our mother’s vitamins and medications as well. When he called me on the phone, he never failed to remind me to take my vitamins, eat vegetables, and exercise.

“Look at me. I have to keep healthy to live longer with you guys.” And when I gave birth to his first grandchild, he included her in his mission as well. “I want to live long for Amelie.”

But he isn’t the grandfather he was supposed to be. Instead of seeing the gentle, clever man that I grew up with, the one you wanted to share secrets with, the one who would play hide and seek at any given moment with you, Amelie is scared of her grandfather, who uses a loud booming voice and exaggerated hand and arm gestures to demonstrate his affection. She shrinks away from his requests for kisses and hugs. She yells at him to go away.

When the first symptoms appeared, it was easy to dismiss them as forgetfulness. His doctor still insists it is senility, but my brother and aunts and uncles, most of them in the medical profession, know what it really is.

We tried to stop it. We researched and changed his medication and vitamins. We ordered more monthly magazines and books that claimed to improve his memory. We asked him question after question, reminding him of simple facts and details, until most of our conversations ended with everyone being frustrated.

My brother was the one who insisted we put an end to these futile efforts, to stop forcing him to return to the person he once was. “We want him happy and safe,” he said. “That’s what we can do for him now.”

My father showed me what to look for in a good partner. I have found a man who is loving and ethical and patient.

My husband has never really met my father.

“You didn’t know him,” I say to Matt almost every time we leave my parents’ house. “He was so smart, and witty. He always had the perfect response to anything you said.”

“I believe you,” he replies patiently. But that is not enough.

As a child, I knew the drawbacks of having an older parent. My father was over forty when my brother and I were born. Though he could still run with Andrew to play soccer, or chase after us in a neighborhood game of tag, I used to cry at night at the thought of my father dying while we were still young.

His age was a joke to him. “I am getting old,” he sighed, when he caught his reflection in the car mirror. He sat in the passenger seat as my brother drove us to lunch. I was home from college for the weekend, and my dad wanted to take us out for pho, one of my favorite comfort dishes. “How do I have so many white hairs?”

My brother and I did not respond, too absorbed in our own thoughts.

My father continued. “I am getting old and then I will die.”

I looked up, saying nothing. My brother’s eyes were still fixed on the road.

“But I will come back…as a ghost…and I will chase you, for the rest of your lives. Then you’ll be sorry.”

My brother and I finally laughed. It was so typical of my father, to turn his self-pity into a jibe. But now I hope that he does haunt us. I want him to.

His clarity will sometimes return in unexpected outbursts, usually anger or impatience. I don’t mind, actually, because this cheery senile man is not the father I want. My real father did get angry, did get irritated, usually for very good reasons. He’d rail about state politics to me, still frustrated that I voted Democrat. Yet I remember his reaction to the California recall that allowed the state to elect Arnold Schwarzenegger in as governor.

“These people are so stupid!” he shouted, this man who was once a staunch Reagan supporter. “He is an actor! What does he know about politics?”

There are some things I’m glad he’s forgotten. He is no longer bitter and upset about memories and mistakes he’s made in the past. His birthday had long been a mourning day for him, because it was the same day he’d found out, while in medical school in the Philippines, that his only brother had been shot and killed by a sniper in Saigon.

We used to take long car rides to visit relatives in Texas or Northern California. While my brother and mother slept in the backseat, I’d keep my father company in the front. He liked to chat and reminisce to stay awake.

The stories often turned tragic and regretful, remembering his late brother or his mother, who passed away when he was a small child.

“On her deathbed, they asked me to come to her and kiss her goodbye, but I was so afraid,” he’d say. “Why didn’t I say goodbye to her? I will never have that chance again.”

He still has his long-term memory. If I ask him, he can tell me these stories verbatim. Whenever he gets upset about not knowing where he is or why he isn’t in his own house, I ask him these questions. I can rely on them.

He always wanted to know what I was thinking. As a young girl, I remember him giving me his full attention, shoulders leaning forward, his expressive thick eyebrows lifting, eyes trained on me.

“Share with your Dad.”

This ranged from a mundane morning at kindergarten to my more unpredictable hours temping at a title company after graduate school to make ends meet. No matter what I said, he wanted to know. And I was eager to tell him, to surprise and entertain him. He was the first person in my life who made me feel like my thoughts, my perspective, was important. His passionate reactions, full of advice and concern, to my daily accounts inspired me to write my thoughts down, to consider them worthy, to become a writer. He was my first, my favorite first reader.

Matt and Amelie have started playing memory games. She received two for Christmas, and her obsessive nature finds their logical structure appealing. She will turn and turn the cards for hours. She has memorized her favorite picture books.

When my father would ask me about my writing in grad school, I’d tell him I was working on a short story about a cruel dad who tortured his dutiful daughter.

“Oh really?” he’d reply. “Well then I will write a novel about an ungrateful daughter. I will tell my side.”

He had also wanted to be a writer. He’d written stories in high school, bawdy, violent stories that shocked his classmates. He said he loved to see their reactions. He asked me if I liked the same thing.

“They’re not that exciting,” I said. “They’re mostly about sad things.”

“Oh, you want to move people,” he replied, nodding. “That is much better.”

He was easily irritated, but also compassionate. One morning after driving me home from ballet class, he spotted a woman swinging wildly along the sidewalk.

“What is wrong with that idiot?” he asked, laughing. But as we got closer, we realized she was in tears. My father felt horrible.

“I shouldn’t have joked about her,” he said sorrowfully. “She was in terrible pain.” For the rest of the day, he kept bringing it up, unable to forgive himself.

I get that from him. I do the same thing.

He had a temper. He and my mother would have screaming matches downstairs, and I would hide in my room, praying they wouldn’t get divorced. They sometimes fought over me, the rebellious child, who didn’t want to be a doctor, who wanted to move in with her boyfriend even though we had no immediate plans to marry. It was my father who usually took my side, who defended me.

I remember asking him over the phone if he was ashamed of me for moving in with a man before getting married.

“I just want you to be happy,” he said, sadly.

After the dementia settled in, the bickering between my parents dissipated. My mother won every argument because my father just wanted to please her. Their marriage, stormy and unpredictable for so many years, improved and weakened at the same time. My mother, who no one had ever considered the nurturing type, stepped up to her role as his caretaker. Although I felt gratitude, I still felt consumed with loss. My protector was gone. The compassionate parent who wanted to know how I felt, who encouraged me to share, was gone. I was used to speaking to my father whenever I called home. Now, he passed the phone to my mother within seconds of saying hello. I had to learn everything about this new father from my mother.

Over Thanksgiving, my father reached out to Amelie several times to play with him, but she refused. She screamed at him to leave her alone. Finally having enough, I pulled my daughter aside.

“I know he’s not like your Mimi and Papa,” I said, referring to Matt’s parents, her younger, more fun grandparents. “But he’s my daddy. And I love him, just like you love your daddy. And Grandpa loves you too.”

She simply pushed away from me, running off to find her books.

“She is three,” Matt reminded me. “She doesn’t understand.”

Later that evening, she opened one of her puzzles and asked my father to help her.

“I want Grandpa,” she said, tugging on my father’s hand to sit with her at the coffee table. Together, they sorted out the princess puzzle pieces. She handed him pieces, then took them back one at a time. He exclaimed that he didn’t know where any of them belonged. She showed him, explaining each piece.

“How wonderful!” he said every time she fit two correct pieces together. We could not be sure if he was simply humoring Amelie, or if she truly was showing him where these pieces belonged.

They did this for an hour, even though it was past her bedtime. I recorded it with pictures and video. I couldn’t sit still as they played together, trying to find a new angle I hadn’t captured before the moment disappeared on me.

We conspired together over the same simple pleasures. We organize silverware in the dishwasher in the same order. We dip chunks of French baguettes into our coffee. On a flight home from Texas after visiting relatives, my father and I waited for the rest of the passengers to board. At the same moment, we both realized that the coveted middle seat could possibly be empty. We leaned over and shushed each other in delight, afraid of jinxing it.

The seven-hour car ride home from my parents’ house was always exhausting. After putting Amelie to bed, I saw that my parents had called my cell phone. I initially considered not calling back, knowing it was my father, knowing he’d already forgotten about our holiday together, and that he wanted to ask when we were planning to come visit.

But he surprised me. While home, I had left an advance reader copy of my upcoming novel for my mother. She wanted a better picture of the cover to show her sisters and friends. My father picked my novel up that morning after we left, and began reading. He spent the whole afternoon reading—and finishing my book. In the last few years, his reading had dropped off due to his lack of concentration. He preferred watching television or listening to the radio with my mother, but he couldn’t put this novel down.

“I didn’t know I had a daughter who was so talented,” he marveled. “Who taught you how to write? I am so moved. I needed to tell you that. Can we get copies for my sisters? I have money—I don’t want you to spend yours. When are you going to write your next book?”

I didn’t know how to react, what to say. What do you say to your father after so many years?

We were on the phone for almost three minutes, which is the longest conversation we’ve had in years. He sounded clear and articulate, the father I used to know and love.

I was in tears when I hung up. Wandering into the kitchen, I told my husband what happened. Matt hugged me.

“You have to remember this,” he said. “Whenever it gets bad, this will make you feel better.”

It took days to recover from that one moment of happiness, of reconnection. I avoided calling home, wanting to keep that last conversation fresh, to not replace it with anything I’d grown to expect. That initial joy did not last. That conversation reminded me of all we had lost in the past five years.

Those three minutes were not enough.

A few days later, I found a message on my voicemail.

“Hello Aimee, it’s your dad. I was just calling to say hello to you and your family. I miss you. I love you. When will you come see us again?”

Aimee Phan is the author of the forthcoming novel The Reeducation of Cherry Truong and the story collection We Should Never Meet. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Oregonian, among others. She teaches at California College of the Arts. You can find her at More from this author →