Dementia and the Gold Pen

Author Deborah Cohan details the obstacles she overcame while slowly losing her father to dementia.

  • Deborah Cohan explains how her father's gold pen came to represent more than just a writing tool.
    Photo by Alexey&Svetlana Novikov/Fotolia
  • "Letting Go," edited by Donna King and Catherine G. Valentine demands a radical recognition that the values, relationships, and structures of our neoliberal (competitive, striving, accumulating, consuming, exploiting, oppressive) society are harmful both on a personal level and, especially important, on a social and environmental level.
    Cover courtesy Vanderbilt University Press

Letting Go (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015), edited by Donna King and Catherine G. Valentine, questions modern attitudes toward achievement. At a time when women are being exhorted to "lean in" and work harder to get ahead, this book encourages both women and men to "let go" instead. It also explores alternatives to the belief that individual achievement, accumulation and attention-seeking are the road to happiness and satisfaction in life. 

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Dementia and the Gold Pen

I hate yellow gold. I always have. It looks gaudy and cheap to me. My skin is pale, my eyes green, and my hair almost black, and silver looks better on me. I like chunky silver bracelets, cuffs, or bangles, and a few big silver rings with African motifs. I also hate thin pens, the ones that are hard to grip. I prefer thicker pens, the ones that others often seem to dislike because they write more like magic markers. So I am not sure why I am obsessed with my dad’s pen. It’s gold; it’s thin; it’s one of those fancy Marc Cross pens that businessmen have used for decades. The powerful kind of pens that close deals, sign contracts, and make things happen. In my dad’s case, he made a living wrestling with words, arranging them just right into catchy ad campaigns. With his pen, he scoured others’ prose and made relentless revisions of others’ ideas, and more privately, he wrote my mom and me love letters and poetry, hate mail, and then apology letters.

On July 12, 2012, the movers were at my home in Boston to box me up and move me to South Carolina. The next day they would load everything onto the moving truck, drive off with it, and on July 15, I would get on a plane with one suitcase, my backpack, and my mother, who had agreed to join me, to help me unpack and get settled in my new home. I had decided it would be wise to pack certain things myself — like the contents of my jewelry box where I have been keeping my dad’s pen — but the packers convinced me that the more I let them pack and transport for me, the easier. I tend to over-pack anyway so this made sense. I found an oversized, red silk drawstring jewelry bag, dumped the contents of the jewelry box into it, and handed it to one of the men.

I arrived in Bluffton, and a few days later so did my stuff — all 149 boxes and my Nissan Sentra. As I unpacked, some things surprised me, things Mark, my ex-husband, and I had not used that had been stored in boxes in our basement from my dad’s place — boxes of slides from childhood trips to Europe, childhood diaries, letters that my grandmother had written to me, letters that my mother had written to my father, and so many photographs. It was intriguing figuring out how to repurpose furniture and objects in my new home. That spirit of reinvention inspires me. We unpacked my bedroom, but I couldn’t find the pen in the jewelry bag. Then I went to unpack my study and set up small colorful pails of pens and pencils on my desk, the same desk my father used years ago, and I still could not find the pen. How could I suddenly have lost the one thing that I have held onto for the more than seven years since my dad has been sick? How could I be that careless and disorganized? How was it possible that I had doubles and triples of some things, that I had every pashmina, every book, and way too many spatulas, and yet I could not find this pen? How have I managed to lose the one thing that seems most my dad, that tethers me to his work and the life of his mind?

I understand my dad lost his mind — after all, that’s what the diagnosis of dementia is all about — but I have not lost my own memory of my dad’s mind with all its crevices of brilliance, darkness, and madness. All I want is this pen. For me, it represents a link to a writing life, a creative life, a juicy life, and a prosperous life. It is also a link to my dad’s healthier days, an evocative object that helps me recall his vigor and vitality and robustness. I have other objects I know he used or enjoyed when he was living independently, but many of these are objects of leisure. My dad’s words are what I remember most, and the pen is the tool to craft and mix and blend the words that I long for. The very one he used.

4/25/2016 10:44:13 AM

This is a beautiful narrative about Deb's finding her own written voice through her rich and diverse lens. The gold pen is a powerful symbol throughout. Bravo, Deb for pulling this all together!

4/22/2016 9:07:11 PM

A beautiful story written by my amazingly talented friend Deborah Cohan. Deb, the tears started flowing with the letter you wrote in your dad's room. Really beautiful and a wonderful tribute.

4/22/2016 9:13:28 AM

"How do we finish the narrative of our lives without our parents?" Heartbreaking and beautiful.

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