Women Walking and Talking

Pippa , on her way to Griffith Park

We meet, Emily and I, and my Chihuahua mix Pippa, in front of Trails, in the park. We hug tightly because it’s a chilly morning and we have missed each other, even though it’s only been two weeks.

I look her over, and she looks me over, and I always decide she’s beautiful and much more photogenic than I.  Often I envy her new sneakers, her morning expression, and her Emily brand of happiness—a kind of avid embrace of the day that starts with a nod and a slivery grin.  I note her white teeth, her hot little body, and Carole King (on the cover of Tapestry) hair. The thing is, she doesn’t look to me like a friend anymore. She’s become a relative, a sister from another mother. When does a friendship transcend friendship? It happens granularly,  purposefully. Luckily, it happened to us.

We start our ascent to the observatory as clouds are clearing, and with the recent rains, the white orb at the top of the hill looks magical. L.A. mornings can achieve that elevated feeling. Misty…big skies…brisk, before it’s too warm for anything but a t-shirt.

We pass the newly erected jungle gym, where young mothers are catching their toddlers. These little ones have just learned the joy in skimming down a long plastic slide followed by recovery in a mother’s waiting arms. We smile at the mothers, confident we know every milestone and every beat that awaits them. These mothers are still teachers of how to drink from a straw, detangle a knot, pull on a sock, sound out a word, or lace a shoe.

Now that our kids are launched, now that they look after us in ways we hadn’t imagined, we remind each other of details, of elations, of fraught moments in childhood spaces that passed much too quickly. We talk of the things that shaped our children’s lives, and, in turn, shaped our own. The SoCal summer vacations spent in turquoise swimming pools, the field trips and pizza parties, the camps and beaches, the matinees, sports teams, and music lessons, and our own never-done days, days of joy and servitude.

Women walking and talking. It’s a thing. Though we did not invent it.

We stop to chat with walkers of varying sizes, ages, and shapes, often seen hiking with their dogs or partners, or both. We exchange thoughts about breeds and canine behaviors, road closures, air pollutions, and the threat of coyotes. We opine about leash, harness, and water bottle styles, while pretending to ignore the familiar actor marching ahead of us in his tight shorts, on his regular hike to the summit.

The walking, the forward momentum of walking, drives the conversation. The words and phrases capture the rhythms of our lives. As our feet move, we grow closer to our destination. When we pause, the silence is welcome, filled with contemplation.

We girls, we sit on the bench overlooking Hollywood proper, and we sigh, Emily and I. We sit together, side by side, as we did on the Madison Avenue bus that once took us from my house to hers, where we sat together, watching our Friday night line up on the chic red sofas in the TV room.

We love this city view with its sprawl and its iconic buildings and its long boulevards. But this is only a quick rest – don’t get too comfy, she says — before pushing me to the final stretch, the wide marble steps and the panoramic views at the top of the trail.  

There is much, but not too much, that is left unsaid between us on these walks. Our lives together and apart are lived in the ellipsis. ‘Til next time — Dot. Dot. Dot. I have my wins and  losses, my romances and my question marks, my grand ideas and small conundrums that I save up like currency.  We talk in shorthand, in laughter, in tears. We talk from our hearts and our heads, and our bellies, having taken time for the walk and for the joy of conversation itself. We walk and we talk. We suggest and we digress.  We ponder and we listen.

It’s been more than a year since my mother died. In that year, I’ve lived, and loved, suffered, and endured. I traveled to Lisbon, and to an artist’s residency at a convent in Mertola, where I wrote and communed with peacocks, horses and geese, canoed along the Guadiana River at sunset with a young, South American filmmaker, and walked single file each day along a narrow road to a castle town made of cobblestones. From there, I visited generous friends in Madrid who invited me to Greece. I saw the ancient sites of Athens, and caught crowded ferries to two spectacular islands where I ate and drank and swam like a drunken fish in the warm Aegean.

Perhaps through travel and friendship and grace, I’ve let go. I’m now on track to publish stories and essays and eager to finish a play. I’m on track to fall in love, stay in love, rock a new hairstyle, paint my house white, develop my serve, set up an easel, learn to play a Beatles song on my lonely guitar, cook a lemony lentil soup, and buy myself a brand new racquet.

Emily and her family are starting on a journey with her mother that I know too well. She travels to New York and comes back with reports for our walks and our phone calls. I listen and I know and I nod.

Em visited my mother throughout her illness and was there as a witness when my mother vanished, when all that was left behind was a long-necked skeleton of hair and bones, abrasions, and murmurs.

And Emily was there when we were 9, when we borrowed each other’s clothes, when we refused to brush our long, Herbal Essence-scented hair, way before our bodies sprouted. Before we were women or mothers. Before we shared books and recipes and links. Before we raised our kids and encouraged them to drive away to start their own energetic lives.

Once we were 9, Emily and I, giggling so loudly on our sleepover that my mother, tipsy and glamorous, still in heels, having gotten home after 2 AM from a party, opened the door to my bedroom, and in her low theatrical voice, tried to scare us.

Girls, she said, it’s late! Go to sleep, or I’m going to have to separate you.

My Mother Was a Feminist

Thursday nights, when my dad met his boys for tennis at the 59th Street courts, followed by burgers and drinks at PJ Clark’s, the ladies gathered in the living room to talk about the breakdown of communication in their marriages, the insidious and daily oppression they felt, the depression and malaise in the absence of career or workplace engagement.  They looked for meaning in their lonely if sometimes pampered lives, lives often lived for the purpose of serving their husbands and children.  

My mother’s “rap” group was a consciousness raising event, similar to the CR groups founded in kitchens and living rooms across the country. These groups had rules and themes derived from effective strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. Here are three of the popular guidelines:

  1. No men allowed at women’s CONSCIOUSNESS—RAISING SESSIONS this year; maybe next year. Separate male groups are probably possible if they are initiated by males.
  2. Neutral ground for a meeting place is preferable so that one woman does not have to play hostess…The group can chip in for whatever expenses are involved but the amount should be self—determined so that no woman is excluded for financial reasons. Remember, the wife of a wealthy man may feel financially strapped when she has not a resolved within herself whether the money is hers or his…
  3. Let any woman in. Do not be exclusive. We’ve been in purdah too long. Women have too long socialized in hierarchical, competitive, compartmentalized groupings… CONSCIOUSNESS—RAISING must never be a closed club…

The meetings lasted maybe two hours in our cozy living room, and alternated locations each week. There were a few regulars like Janet M., a Smith graduate and divorcee, who resembled Ali McGraw, and worked as a paralegal. She gave disheartening (what we’d now call “rapey”) reports from the frontlines of the 1970s dating scene. She hoped to become a real estate agent, but was trying to break from the ingrained doctrine that a husband would come along to rescue her. There was stylish Joyce F. who lived in an upper floor of our building with her husband and poodle. She complained that her bald, ruddy-faced husband, whom I knew from riding the man-operated elevator, never asked her about her domestic day, but demanded nightly sex as Walter Cronkite signed off on the CBS evening news.

Janelle, an actress who had appeared in Two Gentleman of Verona in Central Park, and had spent some weekends at our summer rental on Fire Island, may have been the only black woman in the group. My mother used to say that Janelle offered new perspectives on being a woman in America. She was quick-witted and matter-of-fact, as she described her painful put downs and assaults from white male directors, cab drivers who often meant their disrespect, well-meaning fellow actors, and the female salespeople at Bloomingdales, who seemed suspicious of her, or failed to recognize her as a regular shopper.  

From Bell Hooks’, Theory as Liberatory Practice:
Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, we have already witnessed the commodification of feminist thinking (just as we experience the commodification of blackness), in ways that make it seem as though one can partake of the “good” that these movements produce without any commitment to transformative politics and practice. In this capitalist culture, feminism and feminist theory are fast becoming a commodity that only the privileged can afford. It is fast becoming a luxury item. This process of commodification is disrupted and subverted when feminist activists affirm our commitment to a politicized revolutionary feminist movement that has as its central agenda the transformation of society.

I am, I was, my mother’s only child. I was a tomboy, an afterschool center mini pool player and banana seat bike rider. I could only glean that men were treating women unfairly.

In sixth grade, I got chosen by Ms. Mosson—yes, she wore ties and used “Ms.”— to appear on “Not For Women Only,” a TV show hosted by Barbara Walters. The show covered mainstream topics of equality. I don’t think I opined about injustice as much as my teacher hoped I would, but I remember thinking this women’s lib thing must be a hot topic if they were devoting a whole show to it. When I thought about why she had picked me, I realized it might because I ran for class president on a feminist slogan: A Vote For D Sets You Free

Back at home, I eavesdropped on mother’s women’s group and was invited to leave my shag-carpeted bedroom to listen in a few times. I was glad to finally uncover the mystery of the muffled female voices, yet uncomfortable when adult women talked confidently about sex, or the lack thereof with their mates. I was there for open discussions about their private parts, or their encounters with chauvinist doctors, who said things like, “I’ll put you on the pill,” or “maybe that uterus needs to come out since you’re not using it anymore.”

While Dory Previn, Joan Baez, and Carole King played on the stereo, and the smell of pot sweetened the hallway, I heard the mysterious and weighted word “abortion” from women who found freedom in their graphic depictions. I pondered the phrase “hippie dyke” for the first time when it was claimed by Sandra, a not-yet-out lesbian. She wore black turtleneck sweaters and shared that she felt “hated for being who she was.” It seemed so hard to be a liberated woman, and a mother and a wife, nearly impossible to achieve. But I had no choice; my mother was a feminist who quoted from Ms. magazine while writing grocery lists on a refrigerator pad with a Supermom-Wonderwoman graphic— and that’s where I was headed.

My mother was a good listener, an empath, a non-judgmental person, someone whom younger people liked to confide in. She came from very humble roots and had little pretense despite her glamour. She knew how to turn off her actor’s persona when others needed help. In these CR groups, an early safe space, she shared about my father’s bullying, his ingrained belief that she came second.

“If I’m not getting jobs and making money as an actress, dinner better be on the table, and I better be ready to meet all his needs,” my mother said with her deep theatrical voice.

Heads nodded, and another reveal came from Janet, who had dated an overweight man who told her that her body “needed reconditioning” after the birth of her child. He suggested she take up jogging.

There seemed to be a consensus about the white male patriarchy and how it manifested at home and in the workplace. Listening to my parents fighting about the same things the women at the CR groups complained about, I developed the general theory that women weren’t considered as important as men in the overall picture. Money or paychecks seemed to have something to do with all the anger.

The consciousness-raising groups at home were only a part of my mother’s campaign for liberation. She often pointed out the crude ways men operated in society and was candid about the countless assaults she had endured. She talked about assertiveness and the idea that women had to speak up for themselves, push for their equal footing and “refuse to be a doormat.”

She reported that in her modeling days, men assaulted her in dressing rooms, pinched and licked her when she went up for “go-sees.” They whistled from the curbs and bus stops of Manhattan, and groped her in crowded subway cars. A good Catholic, she waited until she could marry a much-older producer from the “Hit Parade” show to leave her family home. Her first husband physically and emotionally abused her, and the marriage was annulled by the church when she was only 19.

Years later, Pat was told by casting directors to wear miniskirts, put “falsies” in her brassiere, and why not show more leg? She was hounded by my father’s friends and business associates who insisted she must be lonely when my father left for multi-city European business trips (some of which included yacht-hopping at the Cannes Film Festival). After the first sickening evening, when one of my dad’s Fire Island pals became angry and aggressive because she refused his drunken advances, Pat learned not to pick up the phone.

“That’s how they are—pigs,” my mother said about my father’s friend, an advertising man, whose wife had apparently given up on sex. I remember thinking how strangely adults behaved when my mother hosted this same friend and his wife, six months later, at our family Christmas party.

From the Redstocking Manifesto

…Male supremacy is the oldest, most basic form of domination.  All other forms of exploitation and oppression (racism, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are extensions of male supremacy: men dominate women, a few men dominate the rest…Men have controlled all political, economic and cultural institutions and backed up this control with physical force… All men receive economic, sexual, and psychological benefits from male supremacy. All men have oppressed women. 

We were lucky. I was lucky. We had arguments, heated debates, and conversations. We had books and plays, and magazines, and playbills from Broadway shows lining two large built-in sets of shelves flanking the fireplace.  My mother read Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Kate Millet, Gloria Steinem, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and later, Bell Hooks, and Roxane Gay. She argued, lashed out, stood up for herself, and drank. She gained big respect from my father when, a year after returning from rehab, she decided to enroll at Fordham University, where she trained to become a substance abuse counselor.   

My father had always agreed that if she worked, he would acknowledge her as an equal partner, but there were too many years where the domestic work she did was dismissed and negated. This inequity was the basis of their numerous years in group counseling at an Upper West Side office, where they shared their troubles with other well-to-do couples.

Among them were a Time magazine editor Bob, and his wife, (who grappled with recognizing their son was gay). From what I overhead after family dinners, Bob didn’t want Lynda to work, while another couple, Burt and Harriet, had “problems in the sack.”

Each week, the morning after the couples-therapy sessions, my dad could be heard complaining bitterly that the “lady therapist” was a “ballbuster” who was stealing [his] money. I don’t know if their years in group therapy held their volatile marriage together. I want to believe it was love and a flickering passion that triumphed over half a century of upheaval and gender liberation.

When my father died in 2002, my mother started to unravel. Her sorrow was deep and justified. Though she had wanted independence and a kind of respect she may not have fully achieved in the marriage, she was lost without his love, companionship, and paternal devotion.

In the early 2000s, when my husband soothed my daughter with a milky bottle, or on occasion, picked her up when she cried, my mother would practically stand up to applaud him. If I questioned why she was so impressed with what seemed like a loving gesture, she explained that she was confounded by the new normal.

“Are you kidding?” she’d say. “Your father never changed a diaper or put you to bed. Men just didn’t do that in our generation.”

“What did they do?” I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.

My mother grinned and exhaled the drag of her Winston. “What did they do? They did whatever the hell they wanted.”

This entry has taken on new urgency, or perhaps a new layer  this week, as the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Texas propose and attempt to pass the cruelest and most aggressive anti-abortion laws in the 21st Century. I refuse to leave my son and daughter a nightmarish world in which women’s bodies are controlled by male legislators, and Atwood’s, prescient novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, becomes as real as Orwell’s predictions about surveillance. Perhaps our collective agency is in telling our mother’s stories and our father’s too.  It seems we must raise consciousness, recognize where we’ve been, in order to see where we’re going.


[1]In 1969 a group of female resisters founded a group to represent two traditions: the "bluestocking" moniker implying that early feminists were merely unhappy wives and the "red" for revolution.

Medias Res

In 2013, I come undone.  Medias res. I escape to the farthest reach of North America. I fly through Ontario to St. John’s, and then I’m picked up at the airport and driven to Grates Cove, a silent, bite-sized hamlet, known for being the most northerly community on Canada’s Avalon Peninsula. I am here for a writing residency created by an artist-activist couple. The owners are young and progressive. They grow their own everything and are raising their daughter off-the-grid.  

I wake each day in my own two-floor cottage perched on towering cliffs that jut out into the Atlantic. I slip on my rain boots for a morning walk past the patchwork cemetery. I drift in and out of an abandoned 18th century church, following the trail through the high grass meadow, making my way to the small café that the owners are about to launch. People come from miles away for their coffee and their pie, their soups, and their pizzas. It’s the only game in town.

I think about my kids who are home with my husband. I think my husband and I will probably get divorced when I get back to L.A, and how much that sucks. And we all know it’s going to happen: we’re all about to crash.

But I’m not back in L.A. yet. I’m here, at the other end of the North American continent, in a land with no trees, a land of odd, quail-like birds and a cast of friendly people who slide into focus and seem to be watching me, because they are.  One older man and his wife invite me to Sunday night bingo. After a weekend of silence, I decide to go.

The neighbor’s house is built like a steel container, but not one of those modern trendy ones. I find a table of drinks, some punch that burns with vodka, a well-intentioned boiled egg thing, and a bowl of sticky popcorn. I’m happy to be with the summer locals. Most have come from Ontario. They are funny and real and they like the idea that I’m a Californian. I seem exotic, but I’m part Irish, as are many of their ancestors, which seems to please them.

I don’t tell them my story. I do say I’m working on a revision of my book. I don’t say I’m escaping from the bills, and the job, and the kids and the ex, and the mom, whose dementia has been advancing for more than seven years, and who can barely hold the phone up to her ear. I don’t want to make someone cry.

We play bingo for what seems like hours, getting lost in the tension as the numbers are called out by a television announcer from the station in St. John’s. We smile and frown at the tiny checkered board. My activity partner is an avid cyclist who bikes around the world with his boyfriend, and we’re delighted when his last number—30—is the winning number. “You’re lucky, you are – luck of the Irish,” he insists.

On my way out, I thank my new bingo friends, an older supportive crew, and walk back in the dark, a single beam from my flashlight leading the way. I’ve gained three dollars and I’m feeling buzzed from the vodka punch and the sticky sweet popcorn. I walk past the cemetery, where I’ll bet some brave-hearted fisherman have cycled from flesh to bone to ash.  The stars are fantastically bright and impossibly close. I stop to gaze, to succumb, to live in this frighteningly beautiful moment.

The next day, in my cottage, I talk to myself, I read the words on the screen aloud, I have big thoughts. (This is nothing new). Some of what I’m writing is good; some is shit. (This is nothing new). I have a soundtrack that includes Conor Oberst, Sly and the Family Stone, and Radiohead that I play on my laptop. Mostly, my soundtrack becomes the interrupted silence of the natural world.

Sometimes we–the artist residents (of which I am the only one this July)– can connect to the Internet; sometimes, we cannot. Nonetheless, I’m here with the humpbacks who breach like tight tornadoes arising from seams torn in the sea.

At sunset, I droop a little because sunset is traditionally made for romance.  So I make my solitary rituals count. I walk as close to the cliff’s edge as I want to go and I watch the whales cavorting from my runway made of prehistoric rock. I learn to carry my binoculars because then I can see the veiny lines on the flukes as the whales run synchronously in athletic packs. The trick is to keep watching them until they disappear; they get absorbed in the black line of the horizon.

During the last Ice Age, Newfoundland was a glacial landscape, swept clean of all life. My cozy cottage overlooks the ocean, which is the former home of a cod-fishing industry that ended after multiple decades of overfishing. This led to a the creation of ghost islands in coastal Newfoundland and the relocation of more than 35,000 fisherman and their families. Today the population of Grates Cove is 127.

After two weeks at the residency, some friends in San Francisco connect me to Marco, an artist-surfer, who lives half the year in a nearby town in Newfoundland and half the year in Maui. He picks me up in his truck and I’m excited to meet him. I reconnect with my own speaking voice, and I listen to his voice, a masculine tone, a new character in my adventure. In one recollection, he has a dog with him, a thick-necked, adorable mutt, but maybe I made that up.

Marco takes me on a tour of his town, which really is called, “Heart’s Content.” We eat at a fish place and we visit with a guy who makes leather goods. I buy a few gifts, including a key holder with an image of Newfoundland embossed on it, to bring back to my people.

The weather is cool and sunny and we decide to hike down a long steep path out to a lighthouse, a point where you can see the whales. And there they are, as if on cue, the humpbacks cruising at full speed, pulsing with grace and urgency through the frigid water. We watch, and then we take out our phones and we record.

Marco’s an artist, like my ex, and I’m enjoying the conversation about painting and writing, and I like the videos we make of whales ruling the ocean. No doubt there’s freedom and charm in this serendipitous encounter at one end of the world.

We meet because we have some good friends in common, or maybe we meet because of forces beyond our control. It becomes apparent that we both understand how undiscovered and beautifully strange it is to be in this remote part of Canada.

He takes me to the house he bought in Heart’s Content for five grand a few years ago. He shows me how he’s transformed the place, allowing him to surf at undiscovered breaks — and to make a resort-style living, more or less. In the movie version, he and I fall in love, find each other’s chaos intriguing or at least palatable, and regain the trust we lost in past relationships. We live through some torrential storms and softer days in a coastal hut off the grid. When the weather changes, we jet to his place in Maui for a different look at paradise.

He takes me to see his friends, a cool high school teacher and her partner, an Israeli chef, who are transforming an early 20th century beach cottage to a tiny bohemian palace. Their view is of the forever expanse of the unswimmable ocean. They spend days and nights tearing layers of wallpaper off the walls and rebuilding infrastructure. We drink wine and tell stories about our respective travels to wonderful places. Travelers love travel stories. I think of how I’d like to build something, resurrect something with a partner. I dream of Southern Spain and Portugal. Maybe I romanticize transformation. Maybe I do.

Years later, I will build a no-budget tiny house on my property in Los Angeles.  I’ll do it with the help of a hard-working contractor, not a lover. I’ll rent it out to a lovely Australian songwriter, and I’ll take all the glory.

Later that evening, at the couples’ beach house, we meet a former photography professor at NYU. He gives me a copy of the book of photo essays he’s written about the lost towns of Newfoundland. He tells captivating stories of sleeping in tents on abandoned islands where wild horses roamed and feral dogs circled in the night.

While photographing these once flourishing islands, he had to be dropped off and trust that his friend would return in the same speedboat at the agreed time. He hoped that he wouldn’t be abandoned like the horses and the dogs and the statues and the remnants of houses, markets, schools, churches, and once-thriving lives. He says he heard the presence of something inexplicable on one of the islands. He says he heard words in the wind that howled through the island, the same wind that spoke to me in my Grates Cove cottage, as I was trying to tell my stories, the stories that, for now, are mine.

After the Fall II: The Dancer Could Not Dance

Following protocol, the nurses in the post-op rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills had tied my mother to the wheelchair with a bedsheet that circled her waist and crossed her chest like a makeshift toga. The restraint was knotted in the back of the chair, leaving her arms free, though her pale veiny arms had no purpose. They couldn’t hold anything. They didn’t push anything away. They weren’t used to put on makeup. They didn’t stir, or pick up things, or bend.  Nothing more than drooping wings.

My mother’s expression was that of a forgotten wall: olive green eyes set back in their sockets. Eyes that saw nothing or something for which the words have not yet been invented. Lips that did not move, a slack tongue, and a face still held taut against the tiny sloping bones in her cheeks.

As I got closer, I saw her elegant ghost, dressed in a suede maxi coat and woolen crocheted hat, ease into the chair. I felt us speeding through the crushhh of the snow in the long wooden sled, shifting our weight as one. Down and down and …down to the bottom of Dog Hill, my mother’s cold cheek pressed against mine. Her leather gloves holding my tiny mitten hands. Our cottony breath circling our woolen scarves.

Prisoner of the chair, tied like a feral creature, less alive than not. The legs of the dancer who could no longer dance.

The nurses, bless them, each  of their voices like the cut of a scissor: she fell out of the bed, found on the floor. She goes too fast. Found before the nurses changed their shift. No one –  no one with a head in a sign-in sheet, a med jar, a  linen closet, a hand on a dial, a hand on a chest, or a lung, or a back or a lip – no one heard the bed alarm sound. No one heard the bleeep.

An object in free fall in a vacuum will accelerate at approximately 9.8 m/s2, independent of its mass. With air resistance acting on an object that has been dropped, the object will eventually reach a terminal velocity, which is around 53 m/s (195 km/h or 122 mph) for a human skydiver.

Somehow it was my mother’s fault for getting up after the operation that happened just two days ago, her fault for trying to act on the most basic of two-legged instincts, her fault for being, well, demented and helpless. Perhaps she had ignored the low-pitched alarm as if she’d heard a taxi honking in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. Maybe she had pivoted on her newly minted robot hip, before stepping down on her once muscular leg. Her lips kissed the tiled floor.

Someone must have blamed me. Blame must be placed. It’s the American way! The tone with which the harried nurse mentioned the fall again and again, making sure I knew why Pat needed the bedsheet restraint. Maybe it was my fault for attending a party for my son’s high school graduation while Pat attempted a dangerous escape from her bed. Perhaps it was the way the sun and stars were aligned that caused the second fall. Mercury in retrograde, a super moon on the rise. And all that jazz.

There were few words exchanged between us during those visits at the rehab. Words were fast becoming obsolete, beside the point. Touching her, feeling her, helping her move in small ways, smiling back at her with love, encouraging the belief that there were still things worthy of smiling about: these were my goals.

The untying of her bedsheet restraint was sad to watch. Powerlessness is sad to watch.

I made sure the staff knew of me. I exist: she exists. After five weeks the insurance coverage ran out. By then, many knew my name and that I lived close enough to be a regular visitor. Her only visitor. They told me what she ate and didn’t eat. They told me about the drawings she made in arts and crafts. One nurse insisted that my mother had drawn a portrait of me. When I held it up, I thought the drawing looked more like my mother. I thought it was a self-portrait. But I was never sure.

When I arrived late afternoon,  I watched as the bathing nurse wiped and preened, and smoothed my mother’s body with lightly scented soaps and  goopy lotions. She brushed my mother’s feathery hair, pinned the front wisps with a barrette, and slipped a nightgown over her long forgotten frame. A dancer’s frame.

In the bed next to my mother lived Sibuy, a 90-year-old with a thick Armenian accent, a lash of grey hair, and faraway eyes. Sibuy tossed in her bed, afflicted by a pain that could not be soothed. She cried out in a voice that was as tender as a child’s and as ancient as the shell that contained her.

“Mama! Mama! Mama!” she repeated, despite the shooshing from the overworked nurses.

“Mamaaahh” she cried again. Mamamamahh. Rhythmically. Quivering lips and toes. Hands curling to fists.

The sleep meds were easing my mother out of her misery, so I turned off the light beside her bed and kissed her forehead.

I looked for a nurse but could find none. For a few minutes, the ward was dark and quiet, except for the clinking sound of metal trays and the occasional squeak of sluggish feet across the floor.

I sat for a few moments next to Sibuy, who held to her mantra. I tried to quiet her by touching her cheek, offering a sip of water, and pulling the sheets up around her neck.

Mama mama mammm, Sibuy said, slowing the words in her throat until the syllables melted. That’s when I slipped away. I escaped in my car, drove home across the city, made a simple dinner, called a friend, listened to the news. I was afraid of something unseen, unknowable. But I could no longer hide from it. The future was on its way. The future was a woman, nine decades old, calling all day, calling with a singular mission, calling until her throat was hoarse and sleep took possession.

Free Falling (Part I)

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An 80-year-old woman, a former dancer and actress, a runway, catalog, and designer’s fit model, a tennis player, swimmer, and walker in fashionable heels, a gardener who preferred to dig with her hands and kneel at the foot of azalea beds, fell from her narrow twin bed at 6 AM on a Friday in 2016, while attempting to walk to the restroom of her suite at The Gardens.

This woman had dreamt the previous night of her unexpected crowning as Miss Surf Maid (which, when she arrived in Spain, later translated to Miss Playa de Nueva York). In the dream, she relived the shock of the actual win in a contest she hadn’t planned to enter.  The hovering tiara and its placement on her head, the cupping of her cheeks in her hands, the excitement of the contest execs in their slim, tailored suits, the hushed envy  of the other contestants, and the smile as wide as a river.

In her dream, she was her 19-year-old self at Rockaway Beach with her girlfriend. They were eating chips, drinking cokes, and taking dips in the frothy ocean to cool off from the summer heat. A photographer approached and asked to take her photo.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “What’s it for, anyway?”

“A contest, a beauty contest. You’re a lovely gal,” the photographer said. “Doesn’t hurt to try.”

Jump cut to the plane gliding above the sea, bobbing in the clouds like a child’s handheld toy. She’s seated next to her Scottish mother, who is dressed in a woolen suit she had sewn by hand just days before. The loud whirr of the engine… The poetry of the clouds resting above the world! Flying higher than the birds, higher than all the earthly goings-on.  

This was a recurring dream, a dream that often leapt from her muddled mind and returned in her slumber. Or returned to her when she could narrate along with a series of photographs that were later bound by my ex-husband in a sleek black portfolio.

The same weekend of my mother’s fall, a son, 17, a soccer player, an A-student, a reader, who had sustained a major knee injury on the field and had later turned his interests to film and literature, was about to be graduated from a fancy high school in North Hollywood, California. This ceremony would take place at the Frank Ghery-designed Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. This son was my son.

This dilemma of which event to attend was mine too.

According to the Annals of Medicine, “older adults have a 5-to 8-fold increased risk for all-cause mortality during the first 3 months after hip fracture.”

The beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of…

From another journal, The Conversation, we see that “beyond suffering pain, a hip fracture results in a loss of physical function, decreased social engagement, increased dependence, and worse quality of life. Many people who have a hip fracture need to change their living conditions, such as relocating from their home into a residential aged care facility.”

 

Well, she was already in a residential facility, serving her second sentence at one of these “homes,” so that recommendation was taken. However, the fall did lead to numerous problems, including even more mental detachment, vulnerability, and confusion.

And the fact that she would never walk again.

Hours after word of the fall, I met my ex-husband at Cedar Sinai’s emergency room and was given access to my mom who was laid out on a gurney, crying out in pain, unsure of her name, rank, or serial number.

“She’s Pat_______born in 1932 New York City no allergies…blood type O

“Be kind, she has mid-to-late stage dementia.,” I told the no-nonsense ER nurse. “Imagine she’s a wounded child dropped by helicopter into the ocean.”

I am her story and she is mine.

The morphine kicked in and soon she was docile. Drifting back in time and out of her frame, up and over the clouds… Flying once again in a capsule, her 112 lbs no longer held by the gurney.  Soaring. Free falling.

Maybe she had landed in Madrid to begin her tour as Miss Playa de Nueva York. Dressed now in contest-prize furs and diamond jewelry, Dior red lipstick, and hair fussed over by a Spanish entourage. Far from her Greenwich Village neighborhood, a world of Irish and Italian immigrants, artisans, factory workers, entrepreneurs, and artists, Catholic school girls, good kids, bad kids, reciting their prayers, performing schoolyard pranks… reciting Shakespeare in rehearsals for a play at The Greenwich House…caretaking sisters and a brother, hearing the catcalls, the whistles, the attention of boys and men on the streets of Manhattan, business men on the subways, guys in the hallways at the tradeshows where she stood beside boats and cars, handing out pamphlets in her bell-shaped dresses…

…the click…clickety…click of the castanets…the strum and taptaptapatap of flamenco…   And soon the playful attention from one of the most famous toreadors of Spain…

 

We, my ex and I, spent hours at the hospital getting Pat settled in her room. Comforting to know that despite our pending divorce, he remained a willing participant in most things familial. The decision making, the emotionally-charged marathon, and the acceptance that I was doing it all alone often felt like a weight I could no longer carry. Would there be a verdict at the end? Would I be absolved? When a friend could step in to support me, it provided much relief. When the face of a doctor, a caregiver, a bather or later a hospice nurse was kind and compassionate, I marched on with borrowed strength and sustenance.

“You’re here because you broke your hip and the doctor’s going to give you a new one,” I told my mother repeatedly in the confines of her room overlooking the tall adjacent hospital buildings and the buzz of Beverly Boulevard. 

“What?” she asked groggily, her head propped against the crunchy hospital pillows.

“…remember, you fell and broke your hip. You were getting out of bed and…”

She smiled flatly, nodding her head, as if she’d finally put the last word in the crossword puzzle, and reached for a cup of water on the tray, which she sipped with a straw.

Then she muttered again softly. “Who did?”

“Someone you used to know, Mama. Someone like you.”  

The Untitled Poem

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Roger, tall, 63, and seemingly put together, could still juggle three balls in the air. I can prove it with a short video I made on my phone.  For some reason, I never erased it.

That afternoon my mother and I sat captivated by Roger’s antics like two girls who’d gotten a backstage pass to see a boy band.  Roger wore a jolly smile as the blue, white, and yellow sparks hurled above his head. He caught each one, as if he had more than two invisible hands, fumbling only when he flung one at an angle that was wider than expected.

Roger’s room at The Gardens had a nautical-themed clock, a bedspread that seemed an appropriate holdover from a former life, with its blue and grey striped pattern, and a set of framed architectural drawings from his days as an engineer in Cape Town.

Alternatively, my mother’s bare room, containing a small TV, a dresser and handsome desk from 80th Street, reflected the fact that she had lost any lingering sense of aesthetics. I remember when she cared about decor: fresh flowers, reading Met Home, or talking about paint colors with her actor-designer friend Tom. I remember when she painted several rooms in our apartment by herself.  In her tank tops and flip flops, she stood on ladders, laughing when drops of white primer landed on her brows, smoking her Winstons when she took her breaks.  I remember when she made the living room slipcovers by hand, sipping her drink, and pressing her foot against the pedal, while listening to Dory Previn’s sad songs about stolen husbands.

Years ago, Pat had dispensed with clocks, no longer bound to the time of day or the flip of the calendar, living instead by her own wonky circadian rhythm, a day-less, night-less netherworld of sounds, images, visitations, and seismic vibrations.

This was not true for Roger. He still knew something about the louder world and its up and down motion, its rooted trees, its gravitational pull, and its fragmented pieces that could fit together to make a mise en scene. He was a resident, sentenced in his early sixties, though not as young as another woman not yet in menopause, whom I’d met at Pat’s previous place, The Village. Anne, I think it was, Anne from Texas, kept her suitcase with her, claiming that her daughter had dropped her off for the weekend, and that “she’d be leaving soon.”

Roger’s origin story, the story of how a blue-eyed engineer with an Afrikaner’s accent and an impressive resume of nautical engineering projects lost his mind and ended up at The Gardens seemed cruel and implausible.

“I had an accident over there in India, you know,” he said.  “I was driving and – really the others were driving – and, well, I hit my head, you know, several years ago. Never the same. Never the same. My daughter suggested this place and it’s…now I’m here. No bother.”

To which my mother replied much later in the fragmented conversation: “If you have to be in a place, at least this has some… Well, it’s not New York, but…they try.”

That afternoon, the story of Roger’s accident, was repeated over and over again, as if the looped confessional speech he had committed to would sell it. My own children, then teenagers, were impressed with Roger and his juggling and had trouble believing that he may have been, like nearly all the other residents, suffering from dementia. He seemed deceptively with it, serene, if slightly detached.

It’s true Roger had aphasia, a common symptom of neuro disorders, which manifests as a loss of key words. He’d lost the names of people, common objects, essential nouns that slipped out of place without warning. This affliction came on quietly, more of a drizzle than a downpour. He’d be masterfully describing his trip to the store, when he began to stutter. I went to buy some… the thing with the…  Then a shake of his head. A  look of fear, followed by humiliation, while he tried to capture the consonants hidden in a crevice.

Words are so important. Words and their cabinets.

Early on in my mother’s stay at The Gardens,  Ron, a young healthcare professional and part-time marathon runner, began running the show. He’d replaced Mona, who had returned home to New Orleans after a few passes at a TV deal for her scripted show about a small, West Hollywood facility for people with dementia.

Ron took the reins, pushing wheelchairs when needed, reassuring residents that the hallways were free of nazis, and quoting from Eckhart Tolle. Ron was now the official disseminator of good reports: “She’s sleeping well, hasn’t had problems with other residents, seems to cling to Roger, and eats most of her meals.” Or bad ones: She’s pacing again, refusing to eat, crying in the afternoons and asking for you.”

I often found my mother seated with Roger in the lounge, chatting as if it didn’t matter than she was 15 years older than he and diminished by a later stage of the disease. Or as if talking about anything at all was a primal ask for connection that all creatures would instinctively manage when placed in close proximity. They could have been dolphins, turtles, or tigers. Creatures who somehow recognized in each other that which had now been buried.

I called Roger’s daughter at one point to talk about his friendship with my mother. It seemed I was the one who wanted connection. She wasn’t aware that her father was devoting part of his day to a still glamorous older woman who had played Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” but who could now no longer recognize herself in the mirror. Roger’s daughter confirmed that the India car crash story was fabricated and that sadly her father had been diagnosed  with cognitive impairment at 60. She sounded like someone who was busy with young children, unable to visit as often as she’d like. She mentioned her father’s girlfriend. “Sheila doesn’t come to visit anymore. She tried. But she wants to let him go.”

This was a revelation. Roger had been living for several years with Sheila, an attorney, who had neither the stomach nor the backbone for this brand of anguish. As awful as it sounds, I did not believe that Sheila had abandoned Roger. Perhaps he had unwillingly abandoned her. He never mentioned her by name or seemed to be tied to a past other than the incident of the imagined car crash. In any case, I understood Sheila’s decision not to visit. Or at least I had no judgement.

That afternoon, following Roger’s juggling act, he strummed the guitar, nearly picking out chords for “I’ll Follow the Sun.”  I sang along while my mother used his restroom. I asked her if she’d be okay in there on her own. (Distinguishing a bathroom from a closet or an elevator is a skill we take for granted. Doors turn or open and we use our powers of deduction to imagine what we’ll find on the other side.) Pat insisted she’d be fine in there, so I waited outside.

When she finished in the bathroom, the poor girl emerged with her lipstick drawn strangely across her lips. Roger seemed not to notice and went in to turn off the light.  He came out smiling as he held a big doughy diaper. “I think you forgot this, Pat,” he said gently, cradling it in his palm as if he were making an offering to the gods.

All I could do was laugh. And cry.

Thanksgiving came that year as it always does, with expectations, anxieties, and remembrances of years past. Another holiday season, another opportunity to get it right, keep it simple, to end the year with small regrets. This time, Thanksgiving came to The Gardens with gobble-gobble jokes among caregivers in the hallways, lopsided pilgrim hats on the residents, politically incorrect Native American coloring books in the art room, and the smell of turkey with salty gravy as dark and viscous as motor oil.

We planned an afternoon feast in the Guest Room, combining our small family, my mother’s helper Arlene, and my childhood friend Emily, as well as Millie’s 92-year-old mother and their relatives. Roger went with his family and that was fine.

I cooked a turkey, cranberries, greens, potatoes, and more. We feasted and drank and acted like we were all an estranged extended family, patchwork relatives brought together by a similar fate. We took pictures, exchanged stories, and finished the last of the wine.

That Thanksgiving, in honor of her 80th birthday, my  mother wore a velvet jacket over silky black pants. Her hair was chin-length, silvery and soft. We toasted to her, and she took a bow, and with delight, a bite of cream cheese cake. She blew out the candles with muscle memory and followed along with the other rituals like a pro.

Like all seasoned actors, she seized her moment, waiting till the room was quiet and the birthday wishes had died down before taking the stage. As Emily and the kids and my ex-husband and I looked on, my mother summoned something from deep inside herself, from the vault of music and poetry that I believe resides in all of us. She began reciting Rosalind’s epilogue from Shakespeare’s, “As You Like It.”

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue;

But it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue.

If it be true that good wine needs no bush, ‘tis true that a good play needs no epilogue; yet to good wine they douse good business and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues…

You bear to women-as I perceive by your simpering,

None of you hates them—that between you and the women the play may please.

If were a woman I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me and breaths that I defied not: and, I am sure…when I make curtsy, bid me farewell.

2. My Mother Was an Actress

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Many nights, while other fourth and fifth graders were sneaking flashlights into bed or fighting with their siblings, I was up ‘til 11 or so – I remember hearing the heavy male voices reading headlines from the 11 o’clock News.  I was up reading lines from Neil Simon or Pericles, (which Pat would later perform in modern dress at midnight at a converted church downtown). I was with my mom in the living room, delightfully giving hints when she couldn’t remember a line, enunciating, or gesturing as I read my part.

On that sofa, I learned accents and foreign words while cueing my mother on her lines.  I learned that people from certain social groups speak with particular affectation, while others swallow words, or sling them at one another like warriors.

I learned to sing, “Consider Yourself” from Oliver with a cockney accent, and to sound bereft while performing, “Where is Love” in my nightgown for my mom’s drinking buddy Joan, the owner of a summer theatre. I managed to dip down an octave when joining my father in “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, and to master  duets with my mother, including, “Bosom Buddies” from Mame. (I guess she was Angela Lansbury and I was Bea Arthur?).

Friends came over after school to watch TV and eat Twinkies, Mallomars and Sarah Lee pound cake, washed down with whole milk, Hawaiian Punch, 7-Up, or Dr. Pepper. My father was a late onset diabetic, so all forms of sugary snacks were on demand. When schoolmates asked why my mother was napping under the cheetah print coverlet at 4PM, I could always explain nonchalantly that she was going to rehearsal later and needed her rest. Or I could report,  “She has a disease called insomnia. But don’t worry, she says it’s not contagious.”

The main thing was not to tell my father that she had been lying down in the afternoon because that would inevitably incite a storm in the living room. I tried not to act as a 4-foot 11-inch informant, despite my constant desire to do the right thing. A girl scout, a class vice president (I wish I could remember who had robbed me of the highest office), and an MLK poetry contest winner at my elementary school, I wanted always to be on the right side of justice. It wasn’t until the end of sixth grade, when a bunch of us started smoking cigarettes and I attempted to join the 84th Street Gang, that things went south.

The gang was made up of Irish kids who wore basketball jerseys with their ripped jeans and high tops. They drank beer, smoked Newports or Parliaments, had greasy hair, and liked jumping in the fountain in front of the Metropolitan Museum with their boxer shorts on. They also jumped over schoolyard fences, used curse words and sex words that I pretended to know, threw up a lot in garbage cans, spat on the street, and ate rum-flavored ice cream from Baskin Robbins. The big draw, I guess, was that ten times a day the girls in the gang, who had long stringy hair and magic marker slogans on their Converse, threatened to beat the shit out of someone…just because.

I wasn’t an official member of the gang. No way. But I did use the fact that my mother was napping or at rehearsals to sneak out and try to act like a badass kid who didn’t live in a doorman building. This went on for at least three weeks, but it seemed like a lifetime of crime.

One day, probably after reading my diary or something clever, my mother decided to take action.  I was on the “stoop,” a set of stairs belonging to a townhouse somewhere south of Lexington Avenue. I was planted next to Vinnie, 14,  an older guy, who smoked and chewed Bazooka bubble gum at the same time. Legend had it he’d gotten an exaggeratedly large number of stitches related to an incident in which he’d heroically defended his mentally retarded brother. I had been writing Vinnie’s name in graffiti letters in my notebook during the day, because I heard he was “crushing” on me.  So, I was there on the stoop with Vinnie and few other bad kids, when I looked up to find my mother: a cigarette hanging from her lips, wearing denim slacks and an unglamorous expression.

“C’mon, let’s go –  you think you’re a little toughie now, don’t you?” she called in her theatrical voice.

Then she grabbed me by the flannel shirt sleeve. I kept my head down and walked away from the life.  Shame…Humiliation…Relief. It was a mixed bag of consternation, knowing that my career as a young ruffian, a gang member of New York’s Upper East Side miscreants was never fully realized.

Lake Placid

That summer, I went to camp in the Adirondacks, while my mother was hired to perform in two plays at the Lake Placid Playhouse. After a month at camp, I moved out of my bunk and into my mother’s one-bedroom apartment above a restaurant, located 15 minutes from the theatre.  Her place had a big television, a kitchenette and a balcony overlooking a parking lot. We shared a queen-sized bed, even though there was a pull-out couch in the living room. I remember thinking this was a whole new pretend world the two of us lived in. New York and junior high school in the fall seemed light years away. It was also a world without my dad. He stayed in the city working. He wrote lots of letters and postcards, called every Sunday, and planned a visit when Pat’s show “went up.”

I was glad to leave camp and have more independence. I hated being told what time to go to bed and when to wake up. And some of the girls were mean. They hid my toothbrush in the bushes outside the cabin. And we all had to short-sheet each other’s beds—which was funny the first time. Besides all that, the water in the lake was ice cold and I definitely saw some leeches on my leg when I got out to the floating dock, despite the swimming instructor’s repeated denials. You know a leech when you see one.

As my mother’s roommate, I had different challenges, different concerns. I brought all my art supplies, and I drew a lot that summer. I drew, I learned to cook spaghetti topped with store-bought tomato sauce, stole the occasional cig from my mother’s crumpled packs of Winston’s, and made my acting debut as one of the seven dwarves. Dopey? I just remember I was told to project my voice, (I had maybe three lines) and we all wore knee pads and sang, “high ho…high ho…”

That summer in Lake Placid, my mother was the star of two shows: Cactus Flower and Dial M for Murder. She got great reviews in the local press, and tried not to worry about some “abnormal cells” that the doctor told her about before she left.

That summer, I hung around with the apprentices, young people who worked at the theatre. I danced close with long-haired, 18-year-old, Kenny, at The Marcy nightclub. He gave me sips of his beer when my mother wasn’t looking, and when he whispered into my ear I felt confused, lightheaded.

Driving back to our apartment that night in our green MG, my mother had trouble getting the key in the ignition. She drove a few feet and then — up onto a curb. I guess she’d had quite a few at The Marcy. We sat on the curb and she cursed a lot and lit a cigarette. Fortunately, another car full of actor friends pulled up, and they took us home. I looked back at the MG half on the street, half on the curb. I thought maybe next time we should take a taxi to the club.

That summer in Lake Placid, I discovered slow dancing to Roberta Flack, and what people did in night time rehearsals, and why everyone’s afraid of getting yelled at by a director. As I walked through town to the theatre, humming my happy dwarf songs and feeling strangely mature, I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window. I looked like a small woman in my cut-offs, bandana, Indian print shirt and smart red clogs.  I was eleven years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. My Mother Was an Actress

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Nine-to-five moms, moms who wore tailored office outfits, moms who looked at their newfangled digital watches, or sent nannies to pick up the kids, were still unusual in New York City of the early 1970s.  (Ms. magazine wasn’t launched until the end of ‘71). Emily’s mom raised a family of four and made marble sculptures.  Amy S.’s mom wore an apron all day — and had a computer in her house. Sarah M’s mom looked like Ali McGraw in Love Story, and seemed to work in a crummy office full of “chauvinists.”  But my mother was even more curious than some of the fancy East Side women’s libber moms.

My mother was an actress.

Both my parents stayed up late into the night reading, or talking and fighting. They often woke by 10, and my dad dressed in a dapper suit and tie, put on some aftershave, and went off to work.  When they eventually moved out of Manhattan in the mid 1990s, people in their North Carolina town joked about their bohemian schedule.

“Didn’t want to knock on your door before 10 AM. We know you need your beauty rest.”

Many weekday afternoons, my mom sent postcards and headshots to agents, took my father’s shirts to the cleaners, ordered groceries from Gristede’s, planned the social and cultural events of the week. When essential tasks were completed, she drank vodka. Bottles were delivered weekly in crisp white paper packages through the service door of the apartment. She tipped the guy a couple of bucks — and she was off to the races.

She had drinking buddies like Iris, a petite gal who lived a block away, wore cashmere turtlenecks, had a convincing facelift, and was married to a laconic heir to a publishing dynasty.  Mostly, my mom drank by herself in the private ritual many of us know, tucking glasses diminished to watery ice beneath the hemline of the paisley sofa, or between the legs of the wide back smoking chair, or behind the flap of a paper towel above the sink.

Though I didn’t understand it at the time, she lived in depression because the phone didn’t ring. Because the callback didn’t happen. They went with someone with wide hips, someone Slavik; they went with someone who’d already worked at The Public; someone who’d slept with Pacino in his lean years, they went with a name. She ran her hands through her thick bounce of hair, filled the ashtrays with her Winston’s, finished reading The New York Times (which was delivered to our door each day) and took involuntary afternoon naps under a cheetah print blanket.

Throughout my childhood, my father traveled for business often to Europe for several weeks at a time, leaving Pat and me in the apartment together for long stretches. We found our routines, ate some of our dinners in front of the T.V. in the tiny den, and stayed up late on school nights. She helped me with homework—unless there was math involved. We sat together on the sofa telling stories, reading or saying nothing. In the living room, I learned to cue her on her lines for an upcoming play, or listen to a monologue she’d memorized for an audition.

So, at the age of nine, alongside Pippi Longstocking and Charlotte’s Web,  I read pocket-sized playbooks in one sitting, sounding out the hard-to-pronounce words, the new vocab of sexual innuendo, and the memorable or weighty words of Shakespeare and Edward Albee, Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and John Guare.

One of the first times I remember understanding that she did this “make-believe” thing as a pro, was when she asked me to help her memorize lines for Last of the Red Hot Lovers, a comedy by Neil Simon. I think she already had the role and was soon starting rehearsals at an Off-Broadway theatre.

With my freckly legs dangling off the sofa, I played, for example, the part of Barney,  a balding man in his 40s, (think Alan Arkin) looking to have an extramarital affair.  My mother, played the part of Elaine, the Sally Kellerman (“Mash”) role:

 ME/( Barney):… I’m sure it will come as no great shock to you, but you are the first “attempted” extramarital affair for me in twenty-three years of marriage… I got married to my high school sweetheart…having gone steady with her since I was sixteen. And how many experiences with other women do you think I’ve had prior to getting married? One!.. When I was eighteen my brother took me to an apartment in Newark, New Jersey, where I consorted with a forty-four-year-old woman who greeted me lying naked on a brass bed reading the newspaper. It cost me seven dollars and I threw up all night…

I asked precocious questions because, at nine, I couldn’t help it, I was precocious.  All New York City kids are. I asked about playwriting and telling the truth, and how the hell Neil Simon knew these people!

ME/ME: What’s “consorted” and what’s an “extramarital affair?”

PAT: It’s when a person who’s married goes to bed with another person they’re not married to.

ME/ME: Oh.

PAT: Yup.

ME/ME: Is that something they do?

PAT: Sometimes.

ME/ME: That’s weird. How come they don’t know whose bed they’re in?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

now is all there is

 

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According to an article in the Journal of New England Medicine, there is general agreement that Alzheimer’s disease will become a crisis by the middle of the century. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease and that their loved ones devote nearly 18 billion hours annually toward their care. If the disease remains unchecked, these numbers are projected to more than triple by 2050, and the economic burden will exceed $1 trillion per year.

This report offers a bleak vision of millions of altered beings–our friends, our parents, ourselves–beautiful or not, cycling slowly through the minutes and hours of a day, unable to define waking life from slumber, learning to mistrust the elaborate proposals of their minds.

Giving it a name and searching for a cause is vital. But madness is nothing new, nothing unseen or undiscovered. It manifests differently in each of us. Some forms are potent, others benign. Though my mother suffered from depression, anxiety, and addiction all her life, her decade-long final descent swept me in its cruel undertow.

I heard myself getting louder on the phone, losing patience with customer service and DMV employees, weeping in the hallways of emergency rooms, and flipping off local drivers who honked at me to speed up. I became increasingly sensitive to anything that sounded derogatory.  A desperado suffering from insomnia, unsure of where to bury my sadness, burdened and exhausted by fielding crisis after crisis.

As my mother became less one of us and more one of them, I mourned the loss with every visit. I dreaded walking through the doors of The Gardens and searching in the Common Room for her meager remains.  Would her eyes recognize me? What did she see when she looked at me? Not a stranger exactly, but someone dear whom she couldn’t quite place.

My own identity was always in flux. Some days I was one of her sisters, sometimes her daughter, and sometimes just a pair of arms that wrapped around her. In the last few years, she never found a context for me. It was as if when I arrived, I had been dropped into her freeform narrative.  I was an insider who embodied everything, including her DNA, and I was paradoxically nothing more than a smaller body beside her, touching her, praising her, and styling her hair with brightly colored children’s barrettes.

I had to arrive without expectations and without wanting. I had to arrive with an eclair or a bar of Halvah, a basket of strawberries, or a bouquet of flowers. I had to arrive and be present, since I learned early on that each moment was the only one we had. With no past and no future to reference or borrow from, we learned to face each other with nothing filling the long bouts of silence. Nothing but love.

Some visits lasted an hour without as much as a word from her lips. More often there was a fragmented narrative she repeated, a parade of  faceless characters: “the tall girl,” “the people,” “they always…,” “bring me some of that,”  “…it’s all going to go away..”  There were days when she swore she’d watched my son playing soccer out her window, or she’d seen her own mother, who’d been gone for decades, sewing a school uniform.

In early November of that year we planned a Thanksgiving dinner at The Gardens and invited Mille’s family to join us.  We would bring the turkey and the stuffing, the sweet potatoes and more. We would remind my mother that Thanksgiving was coming, along with her birthday, that events happened and we celebrated them. We told her that life moved in a linear direction, as far as we could tell. We told her all this simply and cheerfully at first, growing wearier with each repetition.

As I drove away that night, I found comfort in believing that the chaos and anguish of my life was nothing more than a moment in time. Our experience of misery, elation, and transcendence exists only now.  Now is all there is.

 

 

 

Who the fuck is Ed?

 

Heavily medicated, Pat began a new chapter at The Gardens. We had to secure her stay by paying for a night nurse, often a young Ukranian woman, who arrived after Arlene left for the night, at about 10 PM. The nurse would sit in the lumpy chair, locked in Pat’s room, crocheting, studying for an exam, or listening to Fox News until Pat stopped weeping or moving. I don’t know if they conversed, or if there were routines. I don’t know if Pat felt relieved to have someone there, or if Pat ever knew if it was night or day.

Questions only lead me to more questions. 

Meals were served in the holiday-themed dining room. I remember it was Halloween for weeks and then Thanksgiving for most of November. The Gardens brought Pat a new set of table mates: Bunny, who had been a clinical nurse and seemed to have found the answer to her suffering in a daylong valium high; Bea, a seemingly kind but uncommunicative woman in her 70s, whose lips were always parted, awaiting whatever food was put in front of her, and later, Ed, a former sales manager for home security systems.

One afternoon while I was at work, Mona called to say that my mother had “settled down.” But the second part of the call was about the fact that my mother had become quite “close” with Ed, whom I had not officially met.

“They’re a couple, trust me,” Mona said, as if I were the only one missing the news flash on TMZ.

“Okay, well, that’s great, I guess. Right?”

“I want to make sure you’re okay with it. Some people don’t like their parents to…”

“If she’s happy, I’m happy.”

I heard about Ed on the phone from the tech ladies and from the activities coordinator, which only helped to grow his legend. “They walk around holding hands,” one said. “He makes sure she gets her tapioca pudding during snack,” said another.

Around this time, I had become friendly with another daughter of a resident who was about my age. I think her name was Millie. She was a beachy type, who had grown up in Orange County, but seemed to have voted for Obama. She explained her job as a “greeter.”  She drove to LAX or the Santa Monica airport five or six times a week from Marina Del Rey and greeted celebrities. Then she made sure they found their drivers, and said good-bye.

“They need someone to greet them when they arrive, said Millie. “I guess we all do.”  

Millie helped me pass the hours during longer visits to The Gardens. It was the first time I had a friend to witness and understand the journey on a weekly basis. Having a witness became increasingly important to me, as small details of my mother’s disappearance became the notes of a dirge. 

(She can no longer feed herself. She can’t cross a threshold from one room to another. She doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. She’s losing more names of common objects: a shoe, a pencil, a dog, a napkin, the sun, a cactus, a kiss.) 

Millie and I had few things in common: we were both recently separated from our husbands; we were moms to teenagers, and we were our mothers’ only daughters.  Millie was great about bringing snacks and wine, and usually had one of her adult kids along with her. We’d get a little tipsy and laugh through our tears. We’d watch a Bogart-Hepburn movie with our moms in the common room, shushing the residents who snored too loudly. 

Millie’s mother, Heidi, 92, a former pianist from Austria, moved about with a walker. On talent night, she sang a beautiful operatic song, accompanied on piano. Millie liked my mom, and because of her flexible schedule, was able to visit during the week at odd hours. She acted as my spy and part-time confidant, reporting on the questionable aides.

She told me about one aide who had grown impatient with the old folks and deserved to be fired, and another that always got the laundry confused. The laundry one dressed my mother in a pink blouse belonging to the fast-talking, bubble gum-pink clothing resident, which almost caused a fist fight.

Mostly, though, there were kind folks from faraway lands, doing a very thankless job for little pay. Some were downright saintly. Things ran relatively smoothly under Mona’s watchful eye, until the daughter of the owner started showing up to oversee the operation. Things became less relaxed. More rules to follow.

After a week or two of hearing about my mom’s special friend, I finally got a chance to dine at my mother’s table. One of the servers pointed to a jelly roll of a man with a prickly shaved head, and large doughboy hands. This was Ed. I wasn’t expecting Sean Connery or Denzel Washington,  but after all the buildup, I thought maybe Ed would have a smidgen of pizzazz.

“The soup is a little salty tonight, Mom. What do you think?”

This is my sister,” she announced to her table mates for the fifth time.

Bea stared blankly at me, while Bunny repeated her prompted lines about her daughter, a dental hygienist. 

Then I took the leap. “And you must be the famous Ed. I’ve heard so much about.”

Ed stared at me and lifted his fork, as if to say, here, here!  I could not picture Pat having a future with him.

“Mom, this must be your new friend, Ed.”

“Hmn?”

“You know, your buddy that you’ve been hanging around with.”

My mother wanted a ritual cigarette immediately following dinner, even if it meant skipping the tapioca pudding. She turned to me with frustration and said loudly: “I’m sick of hearing about this. Who the fuck is Ed?!”

Even better, was that Ed didn’t quiver or bother to identify himself. Instead, he waited until we got up from the table before plunging his spoon into my mother’s leftover pudding.