Well Ralph has made a liar out of me (probably not the first time, and no doubt not the last).
In responding to Mary Smith’s comment on last week’s post, I wrote that Ralph doesn’t read anymore. And at the time it was true. He hasn’t read a whole book for several months. Similarly, these days the long newspaper or magazine articles he used to relish don’t hold Ralph’s interest because they have too many facts to keep straight. The kind of serious movies we used to see together are often too convoluted for him to sort and remember now; every one we have seen in the last six months has been “too long and confusing.”
He will still ask almost daily for a book recommendation, put the book by his bedside table, but then let it sit there unopened on the growing pile. Yesterday he asked me if he’d already read some 400-page tome on top of the pile, a non-fiction history I knew he’d begun many times. Instead of going through the motions of pretending that monster read was viable, I had a brainstorm and suggested a very short novella, Ashes in My Mouth Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson, instead. Ralph sat down and finished it in one reading. A young boy’s narration of his relationship with his father, written with childlike clarity, Ashes turns out to be the perfect book for a man with a short attention span to read (or have read to). Actually, it is a lovely book for anyone to read. Petterson writes about children and about men with startling sensitivity. His other books tend to be quite dark (if wonderful), but Ashes is more elegiac and bittersweet. Ralph obviously loved it.
I have been struggling for a while with the dilemma of how to engage Ralph’s interest and exercise his brain, not with any illusions of curing him but because he still likes to be engaged and the old ways don’t work.
And short stories are, well, short. Plus the emotions and psychology they explore require exactly the kind of intuitive response Ralph remains adept at giving. In fact, if anything, he is more intuitive than he has ever been. So after he finished the Petterson, I gave him Tenth of December by George Saunders. Not exactly light fiction and very serious, but as I said, short. And if he reads the same story over twice, who cares. What’s more, since they are short we can both read them and discuss.
I am pretty excited to discover I was wrong to think Ralph was beyond reading. For now, the choices have merely changed, well changed and narrowed….I have no illusions that the narrowing won’t continue, but enjoy what we can while we can is my new motto.