Last night I lit a Yahrzeit candle for my father, who’s been gone for two years. And I decided, at the last second, that rather than sing a traditional prayer, I’d just sing a few lines from one of his favorite Broadway tunes. It made me smile in a moment that was otherwise sad.
Like many, my father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s was a long and gradual one, but that did not make it easier for him, and it didn’t make it easier for all of the people who loved him. We had to say goodbye over and over as parts of who he had been vanished like color from a beloved garment, never to be restored.
It was toward the end of my father’s struggle (though even then, the end was agonizingly attenuated) that I wrote WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING, a picture book about a boy and his grandfather (and grandmother!) coping as best they can with the changes forced upon them. I had been visiting my parents every summer on the island where they had a home. It was a special place for all of us.
When my son was a baby, those two-week visits were a blessed reprieve, as my parents would joyfully babysit while my husband and I snuck away for an hour or two to play tennis or go to a movie. And as my son grew, so did his love for these visits. He spent precious unstructured time following his grandfather around and helping with tasks like cleaning up the garden, raking sticks, riding to the garbage dump!
But now everything had changed. My son was still helping, but he was helping my father find his way around his own home. He was making sure grandpa got to the dinner table. It was crushing to him. And confusing.
Now I used my two-hour “break” not to relinquish childcare, but to cope with my own emotions about my father’s struggle, so I could come back and be helpful to my mother, and to my son. So I wrote about my dad and how much he loved to sing. I wrote about the very real way we could still – even as other means of communication had vanished! – sing songs together, how my father’s face would light up as all the lyrics of a complicated song would come flowing out of him. In those few moments of music-making, it felt like we were having a conversation again. And we were.
A dear friend who had been through this same loss advised me that, rather than focus on the long road of loss ahead, I should try to celebrate each individual day in the present knowing and appreciating that it was the best my dad would ever be. I found that awareness and appreciation in music. And I hope maybe reading WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING will bring a moment of comfort to other families as well.
Arthur Levine is the publisher of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic, whose books include the Harry Potter series. He is the author, most recently, of the picture book “What a Beautiful Morning,” about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s disease.