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.