Novelist Sue Miller’s beautiful, spare memoir about her relationship with her father during his illness and death from Alzheimer’s disease is such a unique achievement that it is impossible to adequately praise it. Or accurately describe it.
But for starters, in fewer than 200 pages, Miller offers a moving, emotionally complex portrait of her father—and mother—and their contrasting influences on her life. She provides a fascinating, if disturbing, description of Alzheimer’s manifestations in the brain and body. And, almost as an aside, she writes interestingly about how she transmutes and transforms observed experiences drawn from her life into events and characters in her fine, luminous novels.
What Miller does not offer in The Story of My Father is anything resembling a step-by-step guide for the perplexed. "I wanted to write a book that talked about what it felt like to live through the illness with someone whom you love," Miller says during a call to her home in Boston. "I wanted to write in a clear way about what was going on in the illness but also about the sense of confusion and loss one experiences in trying to respond reasonably to an unreasonable person who was once a very reasonable person."
And this Miller certainly does. The course of her father’s Alzheimer’s disease is central to this narrative. But it is also oddly peripheral to the heart of the memoir. The real story in this quietly amazing book is Miller’s effort to understand and even sustain her emotional bond with her father.
Miller’s father, James Nichols, was a respected church historian at the University of Chicago and, nearing the end of his career, at Princeton. A deeply religious man, Nichols was, says Miller, "incredibly considerate of other people, in almost an abstract way. As I write in the book, in a certain sense he considered everyone equally, and that was a problem being a child of his."
Miller remembers when she was a child sometimes doing things with her father and "feeling his shyness and my shyness and this sense of great effort and work being together, that he was working very hard and I was working very hard. I think that’s unusual for a little girl to feel about her father."
By contrast, Miller’s mother, a poet, "was excessive in all she did." She seemed to demand and absorb all the family’s emotional energy. Yet it is clear from Miller’s memoir that her mother and father were, improbably, very much in love throughout their marriage.
"My mother was very difficult and demanding," Miller says, "but my father loved her through all that. Once or twice he spoke a little sharply to her, but that was it. Those were memorable occasions because that was all, ever. I’m sure there were times when things were hard for him, but he understood life as a series of loving obligations. That’s what being as deeply Christian as he was can do for you—it makes burdens feel light. [He believed] there are few things which can give as much joy, as much meaning to life as doing something for someone else that you know no one else can do. I think my parents had a very intensely loving relationship."
Miller herself seems to have remained somewhat distant from her father until after her mother’s death. Ironically, she and her father began growing closer as Alzheimer’s disease slowly destroyed him. Since she was the sibling who lived nearest to him, Miller saw him most frequently and seems to have been the primary decision-maker overseeing his care. She describes his decline and her reactions to this decline with directness, intelligence, even humor, which lends an unexpected poignancy to the book.
Miller’s father died in 1991. For 10 years she struggled to write about who he was and what his life and death meant to her. In the meantime, she also wrote three novels that she believes were affected to some degree by her work on this memoir. The novel The Distinguished Guest, for instance, is "very much about the death of a parent," she says. And in The World Below "there is sense of the lives of the people we love who have gone before us running underneath our own lives" that derives in part from thinking and writing about her father.
Miller says writing the memoir seemed to prolong her grief. "I felt when I finally finished the book that I had finished something in myself too, that some way of being with him in my grieving was done and my sense of inadequacy as a caregiver was done. This is sort of an apologia for myself as a caregiver. I was still enmeshed in what I hadn’t done right while I was writing this book, and that was hard.
"I was so bitter and angry for a long time—on his behalf," Miller says near the end of our conversation. "The disease was just so cruel, particularly to someone who had lived by his intellect. What I slowly came to terms with, by really thinking about my father as I wrote the book, was that that was not a bitterness he would have shared. That helped me let go and be less furious at the illness. There was a kind of softening of my very dark anger. That is something I learned from my father, and from writing about him."