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     

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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.