Daughters loving memoir probes Alzheimers and relationships

Growing up, Judith Levine was sometimes bothered by the way her parents used to “shtick, kibitz, kvell and kvetch.” In her new memoir, “Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter and a Search for Self,” she writes:

“They talk in the bathroom, while Dad shaves. They talk while they are both reading. They don’t just take a hike together, they talk about the hike they are going to take, then talk about the hike while taking it, then review the hike once they get back, and call their friends to tell them about the hike.”

Yet when Levine’s father, Stan, starts showing signs of Alzheimer’s, she is surprised by the fact that she actually misses the “tribal chants” her mother and father had exchanged over the past 50 years.

“This is a community of people who talk a lot and yell a lot,” says Levine, 51, during a telephone interview from her home in Brooklyn. “They’re Jews!”

Written in an emotional and wry narrative, Levine’s book is more than just another caregiver’s memoir. By delving into the texts of Alzheimer experts, Levine pushes her readers to ask what happens to relationships when a family member falls prey to a disease like this one.

“One of the main points of the book is that self is not something that exists autonomously,” Levine explains. “This sense that you’re not just yourself — that you live in a community and have a social responsibility to others — is a strong Jewish precept. You don’t just have to save yourself. You have to heal the world. That was a very strong part of my upbringing.”

As Levine’s father — a psychologist and liberal political activist who was first diagnosed in his early 70s — slowly loses his ability carry on a conversation, she struggles to help him maintain some sense of himself.

Raised in a family of lively left-wing New York Jewish intellectuals, Levine says, “In my parents’ circle of intellectual Jews, they don’t know what to do with somebody who has lost his mind.”

She explains on the phone: “I think that besides the Jesuits, Jews, more than anybody else, really care about the rational mind. So, that was conflict: How were they going to relate to this person? They don’t just gather around in an emotional way.”

Levine, however, finds herself feeling emotionally closer to her father. Shortly after 9/11, she sets her father up at the kitchen table to make a birthday poster for his wife. Levine writes “Happy B-Day Lillian” on the card, and he busily scrubs with crayons until all the white is covered. Then, when she reaches out to hug her father for the first time in years, she feels like his daughter again — “not like a nurse, a mother, a wife or a sex object.”

Hence, one component of publicizing her new book is “to make a plea to the progressive Jewish community.” Levine is asking the younger Jewish generation to stop isolating itself from the older generation.

This is not the first time Levine has taken a forceful stance. She is also the author of the controversial “Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex.”

Turning to end-of-life issues, she says that if we remain fearful of aging, we will not be able to take care of our elders. “It’s so terrifying. Then, you don’t have any policy or funding, and you just send people off to nursing homes.”

Even after Levine’s father continues to withdraw — and her mother leaps into a new relationship — she protests against sending him to a nursing home.

“I think that one of the things that is so tragic about disability is that there is no place in the broader community where people can be integrated,” she says, “so every family has to deal with it themselves.”

Today, one year after completing the writing of her book, Levine says that her father’s health “is quite diminished. He has lost a lot of his language and comprehension.”

Still, Levine has seen glimpses of her father’s old self. For his 85th birthday, close family members gathered at his apartment for a small party. He had not spoken a complete sentence for six months. “We were all hanging around in the living room,” Levine says. “And he had no idea what was going on.”

But all of the sudden, her father got up and walked over to her. “He said, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘I’m fine.’ And he said, ‘Because you look like s—.'”

“Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter and a Search for Self” by Judith Levine (310 pages, Free Press division of Simon & Schuster, $26).