A Son’s Future, a Father’s Final Down

By Jacqueline Woodson

Zachariah Johnson Jr. (ZJ) is living a 12-year-old boy’s dream: His father is a star professional football player, he lives in a comfortable home in the suburbs with a half basketball court upstairs, he has a trio of friends who always show up at the right times and his budding songwriting talent seems destined to take him far.

He is also living a nightmare.

Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel, “Before the Ever After,” is not a work of horror (despite the haunting title), but a creeping, invisible force is upending ZJ’s world and slowly stealing away his father — known as “Zachariah 44,” for his jersey number — before his and his mother’s eyes.

The father’s hands have begun to tremble uncontrollably. He stares vacantly. He forgets basic things, most achingly the name of the son who bears, and at times is burdened by, his name. He’s prone to angry outbursts, to the point that ZJ’s friends no longer want to come by the house.

He is suffering the effects of a degenerative brain disease that, while not named, bears a strong resemblance to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which has been found in