The executive editor of Tin House magazine perfectly captures a middle-aged rite of passage: returning home to help a parent die.
Montgomery grew up in Massachusetts. Jovial “Big Dad,” though emotionally distant, fiercely loved his three kids. Mumzy was a lush, larger than life except when passed out from too much gin. Their offspring escaped in various ways; Montgomery herself married and moved to the West Coast after several fraught vocational crises and love affairs. When her father, whom she had always tried to please, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, she headed east to care for him. Her debut memoir delineates Big Dad’s sickness, Mumzy’s ineffectual courage, the author’s helpless attempts to micro-manage her father’s diet and to control the experience by taking small, useless notes at the doctor’s office. It captures the awkward pressure to have meaningful conversations before it’s too late, the guilt over leaving ailing parents for even an hour, let alone a weekend. Montgomery expertly interweaves the present-tense narration, which describes Big Dad’s decline in the late 1990s with occasional glances back to her ’60s childhood, which are well placed and never gratuitous. Kudos also for her careful attention to the emotional thickets of siblinghood; she subtly renders the struggles and strains among a brother and two sisters suddenly called on to act like adults in a situation that encourages regression to childishness. The author lays bear the trials of alcoholism with a light touch, never descending into whining or acrimony: “I will never be able to explain my mother, but I will most likely spend my life trying. . . . How do you explain that your mother drinks gin and tonics for breakfast? You don’t.”
Everyone with a terminally ill parent should read this spare account, which is damn near perfect.