A Madman's Mantra
In the final six months of his life, my father, stricken with an eccentric dementia that emphatically was not Alzheimer's according to Dr. Hughes, his attending, developed a distressing affectation. Whoever came to see him -- it could be a long-lost co-worker from the River Rouge or it could be his first wife -- he would look the person dead in the eye, grasp a forearm and wrist with both hands and say "Mark these words!" He would repeat the expression several times, three or four. But then, with rare exceptions, he would abruptly look away, and his face would collapse into a mask that was without any affect.
The phrase was one that he used not uncommonly, usually in kitchen table debates. It would be followed by the expression of an opinion or prognostication -- about sports, or winter storms, or the presidential race.
But here, in this odd context, and followed by nothing, the phrase seemed to be "meta;" that is, the only two words that could be "marked" were "these words," and that didn't make much sense.
Or else the ritual had no meaning, which struck me as worse. It had me thinking, before there was Alexa, before there were sexbots, before ChatGPT, that we are all just wind-up dolls with no agency, and hence with neither merits nor demerits chalked up for us on the Big Blackboard of Life. This made it harder for me when finally we put the old man in the ground.