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.”  

Poetry That Still Resides in Me

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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. 

Problems with Pacing

Year Five

Despite the fact that we had no resolution, no reliable narrators, no positive identification regarding the incident with her lover, The Bear, she was moved to a new facility in West Hollywood we’ll call, The Gardens.

There my mother’s pacing and general nervous agitation progressed. I received calls at all hours from the director, Mona, or Didi at the front desk, or one of the “Techs” (nurse’s aides with little training who administer all the medications).  They would describe my mother’s pacing – up and down the carpeted hallway, like she had entered a silent marathon for anxious folks. They said she became combative when they asked her to go back to her room. She claimed her bed was on fire. Maybe it was. 

It’s important to note that once all the residents were put to bed after dinner, the night team of two or three caregivers was most likely tired from a long day. They didn’t want to be bothered. The word combative was used throughout Pat’s long illness. It became synonymous with non-compliant. Words are so important. Words and emotions. 

I eventually understood that in the world of assisted living, a sleeping or inert resident was a cherished resident.

My mother, described her problem with pacing. She said it was a result of her feeling that she was “going to jump out of [her] skin or peel off [her] skin. Or both.”  She was always a bit dramatic, a trait I inherited. From the swelling of her feet and her manic look, I imagine this was apt.

I was at an event at my children’s school. I think it was a special chapel during which one of them was receiving some kind of award. I remember I had just parked my car on the back field lot and I was heading to my seat when my phone rang. Mona sounded very annoyed.

“Your mother is bothering other residents. We can’t have this. Last night she set off an alarm. Then she walked into the room next door and scared Helen so badly she fell out of her bed!”

“Oh, that’s…shit…I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said.  

“You’ve got to do something about this, Deirdre, or I’m going to call an ambulance and have her taken to a psychiatric ward in The Valley for two-week hold and observation.”

“Please don’t do that,” I begged. “She has no idea what’s going on. You can’t just strap her down and cart her off to a psyche ward —  I can’t get over there right now.”

“Get her to a psychiatrist by tomorrow and get her meds adjusted, or she has to leave for observation,” Mona warned. “Too many residents and staff complaining about her.”

The Russian-accented geriatric psyche in Beverly Hills was the kind of scary doctor trope you see in old movies. The lobby of her building was dimly lit, the halting elevator seemed like the kind of  box that could take you to another dimension, and the shaded noir office looked like the kind  the KGB would bug while the doc was out to lunch.

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” the doc asked Pat. My mom was pacing like a banshee and holding an unlit Marlboro 100 in her fist.

“Am I what?” Pat asked. “What did she say?” 

“Yes, you are, mom,” I said. “That’s kind of why we’re here. Apparently, you frightened your neighbor and she fell out of her bed.” 

“Oh her,” Pat said, dismissing any wrongdoing.  “She’s very fussy.” 

“We can give your mother Seroquel,” the doc said, as she scribbled on the prescription pad. “It might work, might not, but we can always adjust again.”

I explained that she’d had trouble with Seroquel, a blackbox warning antipsychotic med used to treat schizophrenia and  often recommended for dementia patients.

“Not problem. I got something else similar, and we change the dosage on the Seroquel…and then she rest, and then no more problems maybe…”

I nodded, gratefully. I had gone from a no-drugs stance to being in favor of just about anything that could help her get some relief. Gingko. Coconut oil. Melatonin. Acupuncture. Music. Green Tea.  Skin creams. Xanax…

Off we drove in the direction of The Gardens, with our potions and our prayers and our faith in one another. I remember we stopped for frozen yogurt on Fairfax, and she leaned in to hug me. Tears of exhaustion mixed with confusion rolled down her cheek.

“When can we get away from all this?” she asked. Her voice was deep, theatrical, like Lauren Bacall’s. 

“Soon, mama,” I said. “Very soon.”

Steve McQueen + Other Lovers

A June Taylor Dancer 

My mother met Steve McQueen at Louis Tavern in Greenwich Village in the early 1950s. She had won a contest and had been to Spain and back as Miss Playa de Nueva York, and was living with her best friend, another actress, Betsy H. in a little place around the corner from the Tavern. Her fourth floor walk-up had handmade floral curtains, ashtrays stolen from the bar, and Betsy’s yappy dachshund as a guard dog. Pat wore her dark hair in the wavy style of the day. She made her living as a fit, tradeshow, and catalog model for Evan Picone and other big names on Seventh Avenue.

She had dyed her hair blonde for a part in the play “Tobacco Road,” but she said she was back to her dark hair by the time she met Steve in the bar with his buddies. They started a love affair that lasted half a year. On weekends they went to Coney Island, where he won some prizes in the bottle toss, Across town she rode, white-knuckled, on the back of his motorcycle, keeping her manicured hands tightly fixed around his waist. She said he ran into gorgeous women he knew “every ten minutes,” but that was something you had to accept if you were dating Steve McQueen. She said she was thrifty but chic back then, since all her clothes were samples that had been made on her by the designers. She said young Steve looked pretty stylish himself in his moto boots and leather jackets.  

At the trendy lunch places in midtown, they talked about acting. They were both passionate about the craft – they’d read Stanislavsky, argued about Brando and method acting, and agreed on the brilliance of Chekhov. Though Pat was still in her 20s, she was having a tough time of it. After all, there was plenty of competition. The Village was flooded with beatniks and artists, actors, writers and runaways. She thought about saving money and heading to the West Coast for a screen test. Some of her girlfriends had made the move. Steve encouraged her “not to give up, no matter what.” He said she had the right stuff and that she’d eventually get her lucky break.

Pat said McQueen was kind and funny and seemed to have agood time, no matter where they went. In the end, he was just “too fast” for her. She said he drove like a bullet through the streets after having a few too many; he seemed to want to test his own mortality.

My mother was not innocent by the time she met Steve. She had been married briefly at the age of 19 to a production designer on the “HitParade” variety show, who turned out to be a real louse. He looked like a louse in the glamorous photos taken at popular New York clubs like The 21 Club and The Stork Club. In the photos, the mustachioed first husband looks old enough to be her father –  that’s because he was old enough. The marriage, which lasted only a year or so, was annulled by The Church. It seemed to serve its purpose: it emancipated her from the house,where she felt constrained and often abused, while taking care of five younger siblings and her alcoholic parents.

Pat said she was stung, slapped, ambushed, and ridiculed by her mother, a beautiful, blue-eyed pint-sized Scot with a thick brogue, who could sew masterfully and play songs from the old country – by ear – on the family piano. My mother and Maime eventually made their peace, but I know my mother was haunted for years by traumatic memories that she talked about in fragments on occasion, especially after she’d had too much to drink.

She often repeated how she loved her father, a tall, boilermaker with a gentle, sing-song voice. He was one of thirteen born in the Glasgow area. He made her a pendant with an image of Shakespeare that she later wore on a long gold chain to Manhattan parties, and he helped her memorize Irish and Scottish songs. And she loved her sisters and her brother, each one a big personality and together a gang of spirited siblings. 

Her father loved books and that’s why my mother began to recite poems and imagine a life filled with verse and literature. She said that at the age of 14, she briefly considered becoming a nun, but decided that her new found love of acting, which she studied at the local Greenwich House, a settlement house that offered classes, was more appealing. In a journal that later became the basis for a certificate at Fordham University she writes: “…my first exposure to live theatre was in 1939 when I joined the Children’s Theatre Group. My first audition was a rendition of “Loch Lomond,” sung with Scottish accent and an improvisation.”

I know she had another big love  affair while doing summer stock at a theatre in Pennsylvania. A preppy fellow actor,  Bruce, who was also ten years older than she, a drunk, and emotionally shut down. They argued constantly and one argument led to a cut across her wrist, which she says happened when she broke a glass or a dish in the sink.  After she was hospitalized and floating on  morphine for a few days, she realized she never wanted to see Bruce again. I don’t know if she did or not, I just know she was left with a scar across her wrist that I saw each time she held my hand.  It was pale and curved like the whispery skeleton of a tiny fish.

Pat always wanted her career more than anything, or so she said. But men were a constant. She said she loved too much and lost herself. Years of therapy and groups and self-reflection healed her. I seem to remember the names of her psychiatrists  — and the titles of plays she was in.  

One bright Saturday afternoon in about 1956, after hearing that Fire Island, a beach community on Long Island, was the in spot for models and actors and guys in the ad industry, my mother took the ferry across from Bayshore to Ocean Beach. She must have been with a girlfriend, two gals on a weekend adventure, but she never named her accomplice. She sat inside the lower cabin,listening to the purr of the motor, until she could see the woodsy island in the distance. She walked up the stairs and parked herself next to my father, Jackson, 34, a handsome WW II vet, a Jewish advertising man, a lithe tennis player, who had a son from his previous marriage.

“Is this your first time on the island?” my father asked, moving closer to the woman he found so alluring.

He sat just close enough to smell the splurge of fancy perfume she’d bought with the last of her paycheck at Bonwit Teller.

“Whoever you are,” he said, “you smell like a dream.”

10 Things My Father Said About Her

pat and jack 1963 jpg

  1. I couldn’t resist the pigtails and the raincoat when I ran into her on Lexington Avenue–a knockout if I ever saw one.
  2. She made me appreciate good theatre.  We saw everything on Broadway.
  3. She’s one helluvan actress.
  4. It’s 4 o’clock. Is she “napping” again?
  5. We paid 50 grand for two years of that lady shrink, and where are we now?
  6. She had a pretty rotten childhood, but she could laugh about it.
  7. When we met on the ferry, she was overly polite. Always saying, pardon me.
  8. Sure my friends hit on her. They can’t help it.
  9. She’s not really a tennis player, but we have fun. And I like her in a tennis dress.
  10. Where is she? I’d like a sandwich and a cream soda.

After the Luau Party     

IMG_5981

Her story about the Luau Party was filled with the kind of lusty murmurings that awaken memories of a younger self.  The rest, the details provided here, are made up, imagined,  patched together, much like everything else I know about the twelve years in which the woman known as my mother slowly disappeared.

There were ukulele songs piped in from the tinny speaker system, oddly meant to connote an island paradise. Populating this walled-in resort, were colorful leis – pink, green, blue, orange, purple— worn around each resident’s neck and clashing against the Easter egg blue of the Pal’s starchy uniforms. There were soft Hawaiian bread and jam sandwiches, a pink punch concoction made from water and powder, and cardboard hibiscus garlands strung from the center of the room.

My mother danced in her kitten heels, and later barefoot, moving her hands in the ebbing motion of the ocean.  Charles from Kansas was there in his pale cardigan topped by an orange lei. He danced with my mother until he lost interest, forgot that he was dancing, forgot that he was momentarily free, and froze in place like a stick figure who’d lost his maker. My mother’s nemesis was there, the cantankerous woman with the purple unicorn fixed to her walker. She didn’t remember she had hissed at my mother earlier in the week, hating Pat for trespasses that couldn’t be named. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and swung it back and forth, the way sweet schoolgirls do on the yard, as if to say, on the dance floor at the Luau party, we can have a detente.

Uncensored, the party continued. Smiles on the faces of the PALS, non-ambulatory residents strapped into wheelchairs and locked in place on the sidelines, plates of creamy mayonnaise filled salads and half-eaten sweets looked no different from the trappings of a low-budget workplace party. The outrageous behavior, the shouting or stomping, the stealing of another’s cake, or the gelatinous, bigger than expected dance-floor moves were all within reason. The party rocked on until 6 PM, when the music stopped, the guests were stripped of their leis, sticky, veiny hands were washed with antiseptic soap, more magic meds were ingested, and each resident was led to a dorm room, undressed, and tucked into bed.

Except for my mother. Her room was not in The Neighborhood. She was still allowed to sleep in her suite upstairs. She was meant to be escorted home after the Luau. Her story, my story, continues from there.

Oh yes, it happened. It happened with him. Everyone left. He was big, like a bear. The room was where they kept the… I don’t know… cleaning stuff. He opened the door to the room with a…key?. He had the key. We had to be quiet…shhhhh… he put his arms around me. He’s so tall… and then… and then we… and then we… and then…

 During the investigation, Tom and I had become adversaries. My emails to him were curt and went unanswered for too many days. He claimed he was conducting an internal investigation. Getting to the bottom of it. He claimed no one had “seen anything unusual.” No interactions between my mother and Ilian, the PAL in question, were reported. His recommendation was to drop it. Chalk it up to her vivid imagination. Unless, of course, I wanted to get outside agencies involved.

Hi Deirdre,

I spoke with your husband and gave him the same information that I gave you.That after speaking with the PALs that are currently working and worked the Luau, she was in a public, visible location the entire time she was in the secured dementia area. We also confirmed that she was escorted up to her room after the Luau and was checked afterwards… Let me know if you have any questions.    Thanks,  Tom

I did have questions. Thousands of questions. But they were mostly rhetorical. There were no witnesses, no reliable witnesses, to confirm or deny what actually happened. Here is where memory goes faulty. Here is where fiction and actuality become distant cousins.

Advocate. Advocate for her! Around the time of the incident, I asked Tom to make sure my mother was bathed and dressed by female PALS. Prior to the Luau night, a diminutive Filipino PAL, with a limp and a ring on his finger, had bathed her with his tiny feminine hands. I thought that should halt. No, the bather PAL was not under suspicion, but I thought I should rule out anyone—small or large—who might be The Bear.

I called a friend who had been a forensics nurse and recounted the story of the Luau party and my mother’s love interest. She thought I should move forward with a police investigation. She thought a rape kit, an exam, and formal charges should be filed. This seemed worthy of consideration but stressful for Pat – and invasive at best.

That night in her room, after I learned about our options for moving forward, my mother told me that she “hadn’t seen him [her lover] in a while.” She thought maybe he was “away, out of town.” She said she missed him. She hoped he’d come back soon. I asked her if she remembered my late father, to whom she’d been married for 46 years. She said she did remember him. He was her favorite. Then she put her head down on the pillow and rested her dancer’s legs.

She was relatively lucid that night. For years she’d had similar moments in which she seemed to unpack a small valise and make a valiant return from her own exile. She seemed to know me or at least the warmth of me, and to be familiar with herself.

For years, she’d had these fleeting moments of connection, which fooled me into thinking she was present, that she had understood our conversation, our interaction.  Maybe there was an understanding, something primal, that lives between the cracks.

That night, for a brief and wondrous moment, I wanted to believe that no matter what occurred after the music ended at the luau party, my mother was in love.