During the middle phase of the disease, Dick often told me a story about a quest. His quest. I heard echoes of old legends in his tale, so I wrote it down. It evolved into the first essay I wrote for the collection, “When I Was a Young Man Courting the Girls.” His story served as a declaration of our love and as a metaphor for the uncharted path we found ourselves on.
He began with a new “ditty,” as he called it: When I was a young lad courting the girls, I looked for my love, and I found her.
Gradually, he elaborated on the story: When I was a young man, courting the girls, I saw her. I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked. I caught up to her, put my arms around her, turned her around, and we kissed. His tale always ended there, with a kiss.
I’d ask, “Who was that woman?”
“You!” he’d declare as he looked at me with delight.
He told that story quite often for several years. The opening, When I was a young man, signaled we’d entered the world of “once upon a time.” As he repeated the words I walked and walked and walked and walked, his ditty began to resemble a folk tale.
The protagonist in folk tales leaves home and enters uncharted territory. He or she does so in order to complete a task or, in the folklorist Jack Zipes’s words, “fulfill a lack.” Dick found much wanting as his memory and cognitive abilities waned; his despair, fury, neediness, and silences told me so. Casting himself in the role of the seeker, Dick sent himself on his journey.
The folktale usually ends with the traveler’s return home. As the scholar Maria Tatar observes, the most important part of the quest is not attaining power or riches but, having lost one’s bearing, finally finding “a way out of the woods back to the safety and security of home.” When Dick found me, he’d arrived home.
Once home, the hero often is rewarded with the hand of a princess in marriage. For Dick, the guide and the bride were one and the same. And we kissed.
His tale resembled a quest—a quest for “her.” And he always found me.
Featured image: H.J.Ford. “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” Blue Fairy Book (1889)
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