Remembering What Is

JimGelfandMy little dog is very old now. I miss the younger dog, once admired by the likes of Paul McCartney, Kim Basinger, Anne Hathaway, and the steady stream of New York City strollers who have been delighted to see her smart sidewalk bounce and her platinum and charcoal coat. My Attie no longer bounces. She can not see well, and when she manages to hear, perhaps my very loud clap to get her attention, she looks up expectantly, puzzled by where the sound might have originated. It is heartbreaking, but when I pick Attie up to hold her close, she is warm, sweet, patient, appreciative, and unassuming — the same dog I have loved for seventeen years. She is a great joy, not despite the alarming changes due to her aging, but in a very real way, because of them.

My mother too, is old. Alzheimer’s Disease, which destroys one’s cognitive functioning, is devouring her mind. I am helpless to satiate it. I can only be aware that, day by day, my mother can speak less and less coherently, understand less of what is said, walk a little less surely, and, perhaps most devastatingly, she is still able to understand and fear the loss of light, without knowing who will be holding her hand when darkness ultimately descends.

Yet, I am lucky. I am lucky because there is an aging little dog at home who does not want pity. She wants me to feed her, keep the floor clean of her accidents, and give her treats. My dog loves treats. Oh, and if she happens to get herself into a corner she can’t get out of, she wants me to come and get her out.

Likewise, I have come to realize that my mom wants company. She wants to communicate. She wants me to come to Baton Rouge and show her pictures. She wants me to insist that my partner and soon-to-be husband, Tom, comes too and draws his skilled, beautiful crayon illustrations for her. She wants us to walk with her and to take her to dinner. She takes such delight in having a man on either side, holding her hands when she enters a public arena — putting on a “So, top that ladies” face and donning her most girlish swish.

Yet, there was a time when Wynona, my mom’s given name, derived the largest part of her identity from the pity others bestowed upon her. She had adopted the “we are made closer to God by all that we suffer” persona by which her own mother had lived. But it is true that my mother’s life had not been an easy one. Mom had been a brilliant mathematics student who refused a university scholarship so that she might honor the wishes of her parents and that of the Catholic faith, which at the time espoused the sanctity of motherhood and family above all else. She married my father and, honoring their love, produced four children. The fourth child, like her deceased brother, was born a hemophiliac. There was no treatment for ongoing bleeds then, except the application of ice, and in dire situations, complete blood transfusions. She stayed awake nights, bathing his various limbs in freezing cold water, coaxing him to eat when he did not want to, and saying novenas to the Virgin Mother when it was deemed necessary. She later endured the indignities of an increasingly difficult marriage and self-involved, too often unappreciative children — because, above all else, she loved.

Ferocity is not ordinarily an emotion one associates with feelings of love, but my mother’s love was ferocious. Yes, she could bathe limbs and cook biscuits, but when one of her children was suspected of stealing at a local discount store, she could march herself over to the manager’s office to have it out until he knew that he had embraced a shamefully unsubstantiated position. In a time of increasing drug abuse, she could interrogate an aspirin-taker until he was made to question putting any substance in his body, the ramifications of which he may not have understood. If a child seemed sad or depressed, she was capable of inspecting drawers, diaries, and interrogating siblings until she knew the cause, no matter who was offended. In every possible way, she was a caretaker of the first order. I will never forget her indignation at being asked in the home of a prominent lawyer:

“Mrs. Smith, how did you come to terms with having two gay sons?”

“Terms?” she retorted. “Sir, I love my sons. What terms?”

She loved her husband and her children. She was not deterred by affairs or grown children who, consumed with their young professional lives, neglected to call.

“I can’t talk now, because I’m too angry, but regardless of whoever it is you’re so impressed with in New York, you were born from my womb. I think you owe me a phone call, don’t you?”

Thereafter, I never went more than two weeks without calling. She kept on loving. So, when her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease came, our family was devastated. But, the mother who had committed her life to family in the most active way was soon less interested in the pity that her trials might engender than the living that was yet to be done. She manifested new responses to the most difficult trials.

Three years after my mother’s diagnosis, my brother died unexpectedly. His beauty and frailty were the composite markings of a rare bird, an endangered species which had suddenly gone extinct — unexpected, devastating. It was a loss we feared the mother who had sometimes not slept for as long as two weeks at a time, seeing to his ministrations, could not possibly overcome.

But, her reaction was strange and uncharacteristic. While she certainly cried, she found a way to talk to him through an oddly besmirked painting in my room. It is not an attractive image of my brother, but in it his eyes seem imploring and his jaw slightly dropped, suggesting his saying: “I don’t believe that just happened.” My mom would go in and visit once a day. She would talk to him, maybe cry, kiss the tips of her fingers and place them to his lips, but then she was ready to move on to the life that had still to be experienced.

It was clear that she was going to be responsible for her own life and she would not be bound by even her own emotions. If there was a thing that wanted doing, she did it, and woe be unto anyone who felt the need to stop her. Whoever might be cooking had to look out for the sudden plopping of a thickener or salt into their gumbo, if she deemed it necessary. Mail that had her name on it had to be hidden, since she would open what was rightfully hers and keep it from my sister, who had taken over the care of my parents’ finances. The car mom was no longer permitted to drive became fair game. She was once guided home by two good souls she met in our former neighborhood Krispy Kreme — two black men of whom she no longer had the wasteful energy or time to be judgmental or afraid. Several times the family was called by city police so that she could be retrieved from the far side of Louisiana State University or some other distant Baton Rouge location. Keys hidden were no match for her wit, but after having to deal with the police twice she at least began to limit herself to shorter, if more frequent jaunts to my aunt’s and sister’s houses a mile away. My siblings admonished my father for not taking better precautions, but it was increasingly clear that dad had become exhausted by mom’s care, not to mention his own.

During the March following my brother’s death, my father was discovered to have pancreatic cancer. When everyone became more deeply involved in my parents’ lives, we realized that my folks had become engaged in a complete “folie a deux” of mutual care-taking. My brother and sister took charge, but even with their generous spouses, both couples were soon exhausted by maintaining full-time jobs and the intense caregiving required. They needed my help, and at the end of the school year, my sister Judy reluctantly called me in New York. I went down for the summer and extended my stay until the fall by taking a leave of absence from my teaching job. I did the best that I could to tend to my parents’ needs, but, in retrospect, mom’s immense need to be in constant motion often obscured the possibility that my ordinarily self-contained father might have needed more company. Once he was too weak to feed the rabbits and dogs that he had kept and bred since his teenage years, he got rid of them and, within two months, succumbed to his illness.

Her diagnosis now only four years earlier, yet another integral part of my mother’s life had been shattered. Her reaction, as with my brother, was very strange. My mother, who had always worn her heart on her sleeve, cried once. I had taken to sleeping on the sofa next to the lounger in which she slept. I awoke at about three in the morning to hear the voiceless exhalations and gasps of deep mourning. She was, at last, grieving, but within an hour or so, she fell asleep and I never saw or heard her cry about my father again. Either there was no longer time for fruitless endeavors, or my father and brother, now out of sight, were quite literally out of mind. It was Alzheimer’s. Who could know?

At that point, mom had stopped stealing the car to escape the forced limitations of her disease, but she had found smaller, stranger ways to give herself a sense of control. She sprayed her hair incessantly. She often disappeared into her dressing room and came out wearing as many as three blouses at a time, to make absolutely certain that in the event we should go somewhere, the blouse issue was resolved. Because she is someone who finds comfort in numbers, she counted everything, from pieces of laundry we would put into the wash, to the number of items we would buy at the supermarket.

She even seemed to overcome the lifelong arachnophobia from which she suffered. One day I was complaining about a spider that had come to live on the back porch swing, so she got up and batted it away, saying, “We’ll knock it off.” She liked doing, not saying, possibly because her language skills were now less concise. She was quickly losing them. One moment she might not remember the words “off” and “on,” so when referring to the light in the room she would say, “Hit it hard.” Hard became the default word for other extremes like “hot” or “cold.” There was a code, and deciphering it became a challenge.

My siblings and I exchanged notes and made games for communicating and dealing with mom. We fretted and conspired, planned and enacted, but ultimately, we came to find humor in the odd ways that only siblings so ingeniously devise, with their ever-present eye for the bizarre and unseemly. We were giggly children laughing at the underbelly of life, not so much at my mom as at our own plight.

We got to know each other again. I helped my brother with the upkeep of the house and yard, and, when I could, helped my sister with small errands for which she had very little time. I began to see the cousins near whom I had been raised and fell deeply in love with my great nieces and nephews, particularly my sister’s grandson Tanner, who is hemophiliac like my late brother and the uncle I never knew. My mother, who had cemented our family loyalties in the care of my brother, had unwittingly brought us together to play the parts we had so long ago orchestrated; again we learned, again we loved, and again we were made fortunate to be together in our awkward journeys.

Although in the midst of a devastating chapter, we realized and appreciated each other for living the values imparted by my parents, a couple, the more involved partner of which, too soon, would be gone. This mid-life awakening of the now, the appreciation and the laughter, gave life urgent meaning.

Following the leave of absence from my job I went back to work for the spring term, without the patience I usually have for the ridiculous turf wars or the barrage of new regulations that are part of being a teacher. Tom and I resumed our fortunate lives and, although she was a little slower, I walked Attie and people smiled. She had developed an enlarged heart and had to take several medications twice a day, but she neither railed nor refused. She just gobbled up the treats that followed. I worked through a dispiriting situation in my department, enjoyed my funny, infuriating students, and as soon as school was over I returned to Baton Rouge for a second summer.

I wanted this opportunity for my mother to be happy inside her home. We cleaned and went to dinner, and I took her on the long car rides that brought her peace. Sometimes we rode when there were subtropical deluges, and other times we rode when the late afternoon was both haunting and beautiful. There were times when the setting sun was so intense I could barely see the tail lights of the car ahead. Neither she nor I knew what was before us. Whatever the conditions and despite a very limited vocabulary with which to express herself, mom wanted to talk on those journeys.

She needed to communicate. I remember the telling of one particular story:

“I told him…now you go get that…ohhhh, what do you call that thing…anyway, that whatchamacallit…and she didn’t…oh, and that other one came…her…but it was good…and I said, there.”

“Really?” I answered, acknowledging her intensity. In her cajun patois and with grave seriousness, she said, “Oh yeah – Cher,” and suddenly threw back her head and laughed. Her laughter was the complete opposite of what had come before. The effect was so sad and so hilarious that I burst out laughing. My mother laughed, and I laughed, and we motored in the glory of the darkening Louisiana sky.

Before I returned to New York at the end of the summer, my family shared a final outing that was symbolic of a new reality. We were together and although no longer with all of her faculties, my mother was, fittingly, at the head of the table. My brother’s band played in a local barbecue restaurant that is, in essence, a barn with a dance floor. Mom and I were there, several of my nieces and nephews came with their children, and Tom was there. I heard Nat, my brother, sing and play, as had my father, and with every danceable tune my nephew, Tanner, came to grab my hand and said, “Come on Joe-Joe, let’s dance!” We jitterbugged and twisted, twirled and dipped. We danced. Everybody danced.

I am now back in New York at LaGuardia High School, where I teach the art of dancing. Like all humans I will soon become driven and maybe numbed by the responsibilities of life, but unavoidably, I will be energized by all that is on the streets around me.

My Attie doesn’t like to go out walking much anymore, but she is content with her minimized life. She does not know that it could be otherwise. I sometimes lie down beside her, for no other reason than to be beside the sweet spirit of the dog who has been such a devoted companion. I will continue to care for her. Caretaking is only one gift that my mother, by her rigorous example, has imparted.

I have come to understand that harsh realities can remind one that life is horrifying and hilarious. It is life. If we do not consider what has come before or what might come after, we can see this moment as perfect. My sweet Attie will be gone soon, as will my mother. I hope I remember of Attie that if she slipped to the floor, she simply got up. Of my mother I will, without doubt, remember that even through life’s most difficult trials she has learned to throw back her head and laugh.

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