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My Father's Ghost: The Return Of My Old Man And Other Second Chances
Suzy McKee Charnas
Tarcher / Putnam hardcover $23.95

review by Amy Harlib

Acclaimed American writer of Nebula award-winning SF (The Holdfast Chronicles) and young adult fantasy novels, Suzy McKee Charnas (born in 1939), in her latest book, records a superb memoir about being a caregiver for her aging father Robin (Robinson) McKee from the time of his reluctant arrival in 1973 at her Albuquerque, New Mexico home to his curmudgeonly, gradual decline in health and to his eventual death 17 years later.

Written in a clear, elegant, utterly candid, compellingly honest style with all the emotional intensity and fascination of any fiction, it is a mystery why this brilliant recollection didn't receive critical attention from major publications such as The New York Times or The New Yorker or The New York Review Of Books although insider sources - Kirkus Reviews, Publisher's Weekly and Booklist gave My Father's Ghost the praise it deserved. Perhaps the subject matter, the unsparing account of an adult recalling all the vicissitudes of a parent-child relationship reversed by the inevitable consequences of aging, is too painful for far too many potential reviewers to examine closely.

Fortunately for readers out there, Charnas tells it like it was with love and warts and all. The author skilfully cuts back and forth from a present-day perspective to flashbacks from earlier moments in her and her father's lives and liberally sprinkles the text with apt excerpts from the 40-odd volumes of journals that Robin kept from 1930 until shortly before he moved in with his daughter. Charnas' tale reveals that when she was only eight-years-old, Robin McKee left his Upper West Side Manhattan apartment home and his wife and children (there was a younger girl named Liza) to move to a loft way downtown to live a Bohemian life pursuing his dream of fine-art painting after he had quit his job moderately successfully illustrating children's books.

Sporadically in touch over the years, Charnas hardly knew her father when he grudgingly admitted he could no longer live independently with his failing eyesight and other age-related, physical frailties. Charnas and her husband Steve were able to offer Robin the chance to live on their property in his own small cottage adjacent to the couple's New Mexico home in a warm, bright climate. Robin arrived with few possessions and his quirky tabby cat Bibi and for nearly two decades Charnas strove to get closer to her father and to cope with his hermit-like attitudes and eccentricities. Robin proved reluctant to attend to his personal hygiene; to paint or do any other artistic activity; to socialise; to shop unless his daughter went with him; to exercise adequately; and worst of all - to admit to increasing health complications.

Finally, when Robin's ailments became more serious then either his hosts could handle by themselves; Charnas found she was forced by necessity to find a suitable nursing home for her father. Her account frankly details the financial and emotional costs that the decision to place a close relation in a care-giving institution, even the best of them, entails. Poignantly, during Robin's final year of life at the Vista Linda Nursing Home, he experienced some miraculous happiness when he fell in love with another resident, Jane, whose feelings were mutual and they spent most of their time together with the beneficial effects on Robin being: his mellowing out in demeanour; his grooming himself better; his eating with more appetite; with Jane's urging, his voting in a Presidential election for the first time; and his participating in life in general a lot more.

When pneumonia ended Robin's life (he died in his sleep) in 1993, it took Charnas until recently to process her experiences and the contents of her father's journals to produce My Father's Ghost, a book that beautifully captures the ups and downs of her relationship with the colourful character who happened to be her male parent. Charnas' account details the positive and negative effects of living in close proximity with Robin: discovering family secrets that were often surprising and/or disturbing but always intriguing; becoming reacquainted with some of these relatives in question; experiencing how the ripple effects that caring for an aging parent influences every other aspect of life and most importantly - getting close physically and emotionally with one of the most significant people in her life. The cat Bibi and several dogs also feature prominently and touchingly in the narrative, documenting the importance of companion animals in adding to the pleasures and quality of life.

Anybody - ultimately - all of us, dealing with aging parents should read My Father's Ghost, a wise and revealing look at a father-daughter relationship rich in emotional complexity in a portrayal of relevance to everyone. All the troublesome and joyous happenstances of life with a man who understandably clung to his independence and splendid solitude and his daughter's heroic efforts to care for him throughout his gradual decline get examined insightfully and unflinchingly in this book which uses intricate detail to reveal universal truths. Suzy McKee Charnas' splendid, masterfully written book will rivet the reader's attention like a novel even as it offers inspiration and guidance for coping with thorny issues all of us must face. Any human being with a heart deserves to read My Father's Ghost, a heartfelt memoir that will haunt you long after the covers close.
My Father's Ghost

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