Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Goodbye, Vitamin

Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is about one family’s experience with an illness that regularly devastates families all over the world.  Alzheimer’s, perhaps because it does not offer its victims the relief of the quick death that more deadly illnesses provide, is one of the most feared diseases that we face today.  Rather than a quick way out, its victims can linger for most of a decade with little idea of whom or where they are.  It ultimately becomes a toss-up as to who suffers most from Alzheimer’s: the patient or the family members tasked with his care.

The novel recounts the year that thirty-year-old Ruth spends in the care of her history professor father, a man who is steadily losing the fight with Alzheimer’s to maintain his self-identity.  Ruth’s parents have been married for decades but close observers would be hard-pressed to define2 theirs as a close relationship.  Over the course of his successful teaching career, Howard has more than once strayed from his marriage vows, a fact of which Ruth’s mother is well aware.  Even though Howard is not capable of teaching classes at the university now, he can still claim a loyal circle of students and friends from his teaching days who are willing to go out of their way to make Howard’s remaining lucid days as comfortable for him as possible.  Howard, though, would be the first to tell them that those days are limited.

Rachel Khong
Rachel Khong tells her story in short segments (with even shorter sections within each segment) that represent individual days in the year that Ruth spends helping her mother cope with her stricken husband.  The book, which runs from one Christmas to the next, uses humor and irony to tell a very sad story in a way that endears each of its main characters to the reader.  It begins this way:

 Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree that was lit with still-hanging Christmas lights. The stranger called and said, “I have some pants?  Belonging to a Howard Young?”

            “Well, shit,” I said.  I put the phone down to verify that Dad was home and had pants on.  He was, and did.

As it turns out, Ruth and her father are both involved in a struggle to figure out just who they are.  Ruth’s personal life has taken a turn she never saw coming: her fiancĂ© is a thing of the past, and at thirty, she still has no idea what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  Her father is, of course, faced with a more literal struggle to figure out who he is and what his legacy will be.  The beauty of Goodbye, Vitamin is that if they are lucky, they still have time to help each other through the process. 

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