"It's all I've ever known."|
That's what he said when he first came down here. He was talking about the New England landscape
and how much he missed it. Never had he expected to end up in Florida at the mercy of so many unfamiliar
Nor had he expected many of the events that had lately been entertaining themselves in his life. At his expense. Like the prostate cancer, the stupid stroke, the gall bladder crap.
These three energy-expensive insults, taken one after the other, reminded him of a God-Damned military assault delivering blow after blow, rendering the depleted target (him) holding but a puny bag of resources with which to resist.
Yet, he was still resisting, wasn't he? What the hell else was he supposed to do?
Sure, these calamities had succeeded in breaking down his belief that he could forever go on defying the odds; but lie down and quit? The whole makeup of his character structure would preclude such an option.
If the son of a bitch big bomb wants to come and take him out quickly that's one thing, and on some days, not a bad thing--seeing as how his stoic, Yankee stubbornness in-cahoots with a cool, appraising mind had not nearly sufficed in off-setting the ignominious mutiny of his aging parts.
One of those parts was, at the moment, being replaced. He could hear the crazy cracking of his own bones as they worked on him. He hadn't expected to be invited to the party, but, at his age and all, he supposed they didn't want him under a general anesthesia. The spinal was doing a good job but he could do without the sound effects. Every now and then, the nurse would peek under the towel covering his face to ask how he was doing.
Amazing what they could do nowadays.
How the hell he broke his hip was beyond him. Wouldn't think that the short trip from bed to floor would be enough to inflict that much damage.
The good days (if that's what they had been) are gone. Now, it's just one God-Damned thing after another.
Adieu to the taken for granted decades of delicious self-reliance and feeling in charge.
Ah, yes, my friend, the upholding of contumacious self counsel has allowed you (long enough) the delusion of not having to partake in the organically ordained wind-down that waits the rest of humanity.
Catching up to you isn't it?
Mad as hell?
After all these years of voting Republican, paying taxes and taking care of your
own, you feel yourself slipping into the faceless group of doddering old fools (your words) stripped
of who they are, and shrinking a few inches a year to boot.
He couldn't get over the fact that he was getting shorter and, consequently, directed a lot of his energy into a daily system of exquisite eschatological denial. He got so good at avoiding his inclusion in the thanatopsis game of musical chairs, that he became very frustrating to those concerned about him.
Suggestions that he put things in order were endlessly entertained and considered from every conceivable angle. They never, however, made it to action. He, the master of decision under-kill, perfected procrastination into a high art form, and thus preserved his image of himself as knowing better than anyone else how to handle things. This was not a function of old age, but more an extension of a life long tactical trajectory the text books would label "passive aggressive."
He probably first developed it to defend against his mother, and then honed it over the years into a method of keeping others at bay. His genius at doing this consisted in presenting himself as the noble long-suffering fellow burdened either by circumstances or a wife out-of-control.
Everyone admired his patience and fortitude, and wanted to rush in to help him out. He was the All-American "good guy" in the Jimmy Stewart mold. People always thought he looked like him, and he did too. Both somehow seemed to embody the same traditional American values; private, conservative individuals with a large capacity for loyalty and the seeing of things through.
Strange that Stewart died yesterday. Stewart had been born two months after the April child of 1908 that, at the moment, was getting himself a brand new hip. Through the pain of brokenness and some portion of peace supplied by the sedative, he had seen the news report last night on the suspended TV set hovering unaesthetically like a hippopotamus over his hospital bed.
They said he had lost interest in living since his wife died.
No longer such "a wonderful life."
So, he had a set-back with the gall-bladder thing. Daughter and son-in-law insisted upon this so
called "assisted living" arrangement and during his recuperation he might as well give it a try. Play along with the kids and don't let them know you have no intention of staying at a place full of old
coots for any longer than it takes for the winter to pass.
Not a bad place to be in January. Thus, he consented to he and his honey's southern deportation in deference, really, to the utter deficiency of other practical possibilities. His only child had inexplicably embraced Florida: nearness to her was imperative given his fragility of frame and the near total helpless state into which his wife of 65 years had mentally crept.
That was the other thing.
After the surgery, he didn't feel up to monitoring the
home care crew whose lack of professionalism had driven him up the wall. He needed to be able to count on someone showing up in the morning to bath, dress and get "Hon" going in the right direction. Perhaps he truly had not noticed the insidious inroads accomplished by the Alzheimer's.
After a lifetime of running interference for her, the glaring personality inadequacies were regarded as her unique signature, and had, therefore, to be preserved.
Out of his love for her and for his own
convenience as well, quirks and patterns that might have been
constructively challenged were coddled and left free to roam the range. His mission, as her champion, was laid early in the compulsive care-taking cement of his own needs.
As far as he was concerned, her problems stemmed from the way she had been treated by her relatives after her mother died. They were, at best, a petty clan. She and her father were considered second-class citizens, representing as they did, the mother's scandalous second time around.
Married at fifteen to a man much older than she, the convent-raised girl gave birth to a son and a daughter, and eventually divorced "the bastard." At the turn of the century, this sort of initiative in a woman was unusual. The church gave her problems. She became a Protestant and married a man much younger than she.
This circuitous domestic course took some time. Consequently, the child of the second marriage (the lady of this story) was the age of her own niece, the daughter of her half-sister. Her half-brother, meanwhile, was old enough to be riding his horse like a damn fool in the infantry during the first world war.
This unconventional domestic design could have been fun in the hands of a less small-minded, mean, narrow, and ungenerous lot, but this was not the case.
Fourteen when her mother died, warmth and security left her life.
She was passed around to various clan members when she was not living with her father of whom SHE, could really never quite approve. "Hieni," as he was known, lacked the respectability she craved, and she had learned early that she could not count on him.
That he had loved her mother she did not doubt, but he seemed to be ruled by gypsy spirits and flights of vagabond fancy alien and dangerous to her ordering of the world.
This was his take on her story.
Assuming then, that he did on some level comprehend her encroaching condition, he practiced denial, which was not difficult as she slept most of the day, thus enabling him to carry on unimpeded. He would use these hours to do the things he wanted or run errands and when she did rise, they tended to talk about things of yesteryear anyway. Her long-term memory was intact, and if he was careful not to rub her the wrong way, the time spent together could be pleasant enough.
In short, he managed her.
He had managed her for years, after all, and the job was getting easier. Dementia notwithstanding, she
was becoming paradoxically more reasonable than ever before. He couldn't quite figure all that out--but he was quick to capitalize on it. His position toward his wife was not essentially any different
from the stance he had early adopted with his mother. Both women were to be given a wide berth as they went their willful way; so stormy their temperament, so absolute their power.
He had defied his mother by marrying his "Honey." She had retaliated by refusing to attend the wedding. His three brothers took their mother for a ride in the family car (thereby, unfortunately, absenting themselves as well), while the vows were exchanged.
Only his father and sister attended. Clearly these
two more enlightened souls took something of a stand toward the capricious lady of the household, but she was too entrenched in petulant motives for them to successfully infuse the situation with good sense. She stuck to this stupid stance for the remainder of her life, never to know her daughter-in-law or grandchild.
Her son, forced into making a choice, had no difficulty doing so. It was clear to him that he would not have much of a life if he continued to postpone what he needed to do for his future.
There had long been sufficient tension in the household, especially after he refused to quit high school in order to work and bring more money into the house. His siblings had not been asked to do this, and he understood this to be a capricious whim on his mother's part. Perhaps women of that generation had no other recourse than to inject venom when the convoluted opportunity seemed to present itself. Thus they perhaps sought to compensate for the lack of outlet or power in the environment, and strove to make themselves heard one hurtful way or the other .
Twenty years younger than her journalist husband, she must have found herself increasingly burdened and alone as she struggled with the advent of five children and frequent household moves.
It couldn't have helped to have the youngest born "not quite right," as it was put back then. Her maternal distress displaced itself onto the person of her second-youngest son, upon whom she exacted unrealistic expectations.
Had he been thrust into the care-taker role arbitrarily? How does one come to assume such family assignments?
He always rather imagined that something strong and decent within himself inspired these expectations from others. He liked to recall the fact that in 1918, during the terrible flu epidemic, the ten-year -old boy that he was, attended to and provided for his stricken siblings and parents, managing somehow to remain symptom-free.
Whatever the reasons, she relied on this son to care for his odd brother while her cerebral husband took more and more to his room for the solace of chess moves and drink. He would not come out for days, yet somehow managed to conduct his business and a number of simultaneous chess games from his room. Colleagues would bring themselves to him. People in those days made allowances.
The father? What kind of man was he?
Difficult to say.
If you ask the old man this question, you will come to see that he idolized his father for the qualities of his mind that cast him as a champion of words and chess. That he would episodically barricade himself in his quarters with booze seemed appropriate, given the complexity of domestic life. Certainly, he had always identified with his
father, and reserved his less positive regards for his mother.
It has been said that we tend to select a mate along the lines etched by early significant figures. In this way, without realizing it, we create facsimiles of the original relationships, because this is
what we have come to expect.
Who knows; certainly not I. But the degrees of difficulty along interpersonal lines presented by both women seem to support this view. Emotionally labile, suspicious, prejudiced, and hell to live with if they didn't get their way, they trained all in the environment to go out of their way to avoid a scene.
That above all.
No surprise, then, that he escaped the twisted confines of the family compound only to build up his own; using many of the elements from which he had run.
We all do that.
Identified with the detached and abstract father, he nonetheless, took on the primary roles assigned him by his mother, and combined them to serve, protect and care for his not quite right wife.
Perhaps he went from the frying pan into the fire, but he loved her and she him. If he was tall and handsome, she was no slouch in that department either. Athletic, with a high energy level and lots of spunk, she complemented his quiet, steady manner.
They were happy (whatever that means) in spite of the depression and the fragmented family situation. They could look to neither of their families as a resource, and that was the way it was.
They went their way.
And, they made their way.
He somehow always found work and put himself through college at night. The threat of the bread lines was on everyone's minds. He abandoned his earlier thoughts about a career in commercial art and developed that side of himself adept at accounting and business.
One had to be practical.
He landed a bank examiner position for the federal government. This was a solid step, and the only negative factor was the travel attached to the job. He didn't like being away during the week from his wife and their infant daughter.
It was 1940; American involvement in World War II was brewing, and another Roosevelt was at the helm. He and his wife had come into the world under the bombastic Teddy's administration as had, remarkably, the Boy Scouts, the Ford Model-T, and Hollywood.
The world was moving fast.
The nurse lifted the towel off his face to check him out. "We're almost finished; won't be long now."
"That's good," he thought; "Got better things to do than lie here ruminating about long ago. Haven't thought about these things for ages, and I don't know that it's doing me any God-damned good to do so."
He kept it up anyhow.
His being with the Feds saved him from his patriotism; they decided they needed him where he was, although he had applied for a commission. He was deferred
from active service.
The little family moved into one of the first
suburban developments in New Jersey, close to the George Washington Bridge. When he wasn't traveling upstate, he would walk to the train station for his commute to New York City.
Eventually, he landed a sweet job as president of a small, New England bank. This advancement meant
leaving the New Jersey stomping grounds for the more sophisticated backdrop of Connecticut. It was the early fifties.
People drank, smoked, and had unlimited optimism for the future. Ike was President, and the culture was yet to be infused with the great confusion of change associated with the sixth decade of this century.
Connecticut, in those days, was the epitome of chic. Hollywood churned out movies depicting the rolling stone-walled hills and the cocktail party set of inhabitants imbedded therein. She, however, failed to flourish in this socially more threatening territory. He watched her become more and more withdrawn and phobic.
Frankly, it just seemed easier to work
around this development than do something about it. It was not in his nature to confront and challenge her avoidant tendencies. Besides, the few times that she had ventured out to one of these social affairs, she had ended up looped and had to be taken home.
Her temperamental pattern, observable early in life, was now consolidating itself. Withdrawal moved up a few notches to reclusion. That he did nothing about it suggests that it suited him, and, because we all tend to create one another, he can take some credit for this outcome, along with genetics and the cultural climate of the times.
Whatever it is that goes on between two people like this, the essence remains forever elusive, and requires the respect due such mortal mysteries.
Yes, life is mysterious.
The nurse took another quick look at him. "Jackie" had been, in her day, a fine looking woman, and as far as he had been concerned, the only good thing about that whole Kennedy crowd; until she sold herself to that Greek fellow.
Consider Castro, the Beatles, space exploration, Vietnam, and all the many change agents that paraded across the split-screen of the assassination decade.
But the event of most impact, personally, had been the marriage of their daughter. The way to handle that kind of catastrophe was to get a dog, collect antiques, expand his interest in family genealogy; in other words, work at it.
Both he and his wife were proud of his family going back to the Mayflower. Their increasing social isolation accommodated an emotional investment in his family's long dead members whose hagiographic histories glossed over any embarrassing or untoward artifacts. Identification with this or that ancestor made up for the family flesh and blood ones who, it is true, had done little to endear themselves.
Her family had never been a contender in their minds for this kind of idealized emotional investment. No, by whatever criteria at work at the time, her blood line lacked the necessary credentials.
After four years of engagement, they married in 1931. He was 23, she a year younger. Herbert Hoover was the President, and the depression in full swing.
Everyone's dead now on both sides, except for 92 year old sister Leticia, and baby brother "Bubbie," who's still living out his life in some institution in New Jersey, where he's been for many years. He must be 75 now.
When he first came down here, his daughter had tried to arrange a reunion between her father and his sister who lives in Florida. To her way of thinking, it was a most wonderful idea to bring the two together after more than thirty years.
The younger generation is often mostly well intentioned, and often mostly wrong in these matters. Brother and sister had kept in touch during the decades through delicate letters only, and they wished to keep it that way. For as long as they could remember, emotions were not to be encouraged; why start now?
The Seventies delivered Watergate to Nixon, and to the gentleman of this story, a watershed situation in the guise of mandatory retirement. Both men wanted nothing to do with these invasive realities; both went unwillingly--forced to reinvent themselves.
He consolidated his experience as a banker and town planner, and moved into land appraisal. It gave him some income, and, more important, a place to go and things to do. He would dress in the appropriate manner of the bank president, get in his car, and go to the real estate office. It was a good structure, and appeased his sense of desperation.
She slept late, cleaned house, grew flowers, fed birds, and drank.
He drank too--but differently.
He started sipping early in the day, and took in just enough to keep the edge off.
She was much more dramatic; episodic in style, her imbibing was down-right flamboyant. She would get rip-roaring drunk, scream, cuss, and throw things down the stairs of their "architectural gem" of a recently acquired house.
Drinking wasn't a disease yet.
Ten years ago, at the age of 78, she quit.
Congestive heart failure is apparently one hell of a persuader.
He cold-turkeyed it as well.
She might be a disaster as a well-functioning individual, but, she was his wife, and for better or worse, he meant to stand by her, even if it meant for better. If she mustn't drink, then neither would he.
She did well under the more healthy regimen. He, however, without the steady placation of the sipping-scotch,
became more driven than ever by his need to control every little thing. Quotidian obsessions and compulsions wearied him from sunrise to sunset. Always a dedicated puttzer around their charming country house and perennial garden, he was no longer able to enjoy the satisfaction of fixing or beautifying anything. He became overwhelmed at the thought of all the things that needed doing. Paper-work bogged down and he lamented having to
let most of it go. He had always been a detail man and it drove him nuts to let things slide. He would lay in gallons of milk and pints of half and half for his wife's coffee, and most of it went bad. He would not consider a milk delivery or dried milk.
The stroke took away the car.
True, he sneaked the Mercury out on the back roads, and you can bet he fully intended to resume his former prerogatives just as soon as he got some peripheral vision back.
It didn't come back, and his wife started to bitch about a perfectly good car sitting in the garage without being driven. Each time she would squawk, he would patiently remind her that he had had a
stroke and it was taking longer than he expected to recuperate. She would triumphantly point out to him the fact that she had quickly and fully recovered from HER recent stroke.
What could he say? This was true. He remembered the morning when she fell getting out of bed, and he had dragged her by the feet until he could position her in a chair. It had been very difficult preparing her for the ambulance ride, and later, having her admitted into the hospital.
Her natural suspiciousness swelled into paranoia. She became combative. Physical restraint was ordered. Humiliating that it had come to this.
Course, the time HE had to be hospitalized, a similar scenario cranked out.
She took it into her head that the woman downstairs from the agency was bent on murdering her. She scrambled up the stairs to the safety of her bedroom, and proceeded to barricade the door with all the movable furniture she could budge.
She was amazingly strong for her age.
It was a colorful evening in the neighborhood, especially the part with the police.
He, who had never had even so much as a parking ticket.
The home health care people started to pick up more of the domestic pieces. Meals on Wheels, the Senior Citizen Van, and gradually life began to organize itself with some predictability around this new set of necessities.
She settled into it in a big way, enjoying the aides in the house (as if making up for the years of semi-seclusion) and all of those aides, to a one, found her to be a most sweet and charming little old lady. And she was, as long as her eyes could rest upon her provider and protector of all these years.
He, instead, was perceived as a dignified old gentleman with eyes in the back of his baby-fine, white--follicled head, which had, remarkably, endured little defoliation in his season of decline. He was very clear about his expectations of the home aides--clearer than they themselves were--and he would not let them forget.
Within himself, however, he lamented his losses and longed for his former independence.
His first year at Camelot house (he had to laugh his head off at the name) was spent biding his time until the right moment for "Arthur and his Queen" to return home. At certain points in life, though, things don't get better.
He got weaker, she got loopier.
The handwriting was on the wall of their chamber in their sub-tropical joke --"The Castle Camelot."
The Knight of the Roundtable's mission was the
same, only the location had changed, and, he thought, when you come right down to it, what the hell difference does it make?
Sure, the food was lousy, but his taste buds had seen better days anyway. Other than make sure that SHE ate properly, there just wasn't that much of an issue there.
What you REALLY need in this life (heretofore robotically and idiotically dedicated to the asinine accumulation of things) is a lousy bed and bathroom--especially bathroom!
He calculated that he now spent 65 percent of his day in the john, and proximity to this facility was currently at the top of his priority list.
He was like a puppy; always ready to go. He even referred to it as "piddling." For the rectal region, he was now out-fitted with the oh-so-dapper Depends. Ever since his radiation treatment, he tended to leak.
She leaked, too, but was not at all reluctant to depend on the Depends. Consequently, she rarely got up to go.
She rarely gets up at all of her own accord.
These days it goes like this; he sits at his desk going over Medicare forms and bank statements (cussing under his breath), while she is more than content to sit on the sofa and stare in the direction of the television. These days they watch tennis, golf, obligatory news, and re-runs of "Murder She Wrote."
Clinton's approval ratings in the polls are a whopping 64 %, and the country's going to hell in a hand-basket, along with his physical frame and all the increasingly dysfunctional organs incased unhappily therein.
These days it is less and less clear to him what he was put on earth for.
She, God help her (or is it bless?) falls asleep with her head cradled in her hands, dreaming, one would hope, of her old dog Sport, or her beloved mother gently brushing her hair in the days when they used to catch rain water in barrels.
What is a life anyway but inlaid perceptions and self-fulfilling projections?
We make sense of the world in ways that are given us.
Creatures of our time, we DO our time and then, probably none the wiser, die.
But not until "The Horn Blows at Midnight!"
"Jesus Christ! Probably no one is still alive," he laughs to himself, as he marvels at the workings of his own mind in producing that crazy old memory of a worthless, but very funny movie starring a young Jack Benney as an angel who blows his horn to bring in the new recruits.
Or something like that.
Nurse Peek-a-Boo interrupts this latest reverie with the announcement that "You're done!"
"What am I, a chicken on a spit?" He doesn't say that, of course, but be sure he's thinking it.
Now, if life was merciful, the story would end here; it was supposed to.
Last night, however, he fell again, of course, while trying to assist his wife at something or other. Seems her leg fell asleep, making it difficult for her to rise from the sofa. He went to steady her, and they took a dive. She ended up, none the worse for the wear, in a rag-doll sitting position on the carpet .
He, naturally, broke the other hip.
The surgeon who had replaced the right hip one month ago happened to be making rounds when they brought him in. "You again?" he said.
"Well Doc, " he slurred, (he had had a root canal that morning--doesn't rain unless it pours, don't you know?) with the first one, all I was entitled to use was ONE of them. Now (and he was working with his mouth muscles very hard so he could make himself understood) I can legitimately replicate the original cheer."
"Oh?" queried the doctor, looking up from the chart, "and what cheer would that be?"
His moment had arrived!
"Why, HIP-HIP-HOORAY! of course" snorted the old man--insanely satisfied that the doctor had fallen so easily into his trap.