Dancing in the Dark

A Swift Current thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Madame Vuillard at Table Eduard Vuillard 1888 Private Collection

The times are tough now, just getting tougher

The whole world’s rough, it’s just getting rougher

Cover me,

 Come on baby,

 Cover me…

 

 

Did you watch the Grammys, Hallie?

Yes, but I was disappointed. I wanted Bruce Springsteen to win but, well… you probably don’t even know who he is…

Bruce Springsteen? Hallie! Of course I know Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen is THE BOSS. After all, Hallie,

I live in Hollywood!

I’ve always loved that story. I thought it showed my mom’s youthful vigor; her spirit; her vitality.

But now I think it tells you

something about

me.

When that conversation took place,

my mother was 70 years old.

Though she spent her days working in an art gallery–

her evenings watching PBS or reading The New Yorker

to me, she was old.

And old meant out of touch—unaware–incapable of appreciating

the good and the new and the exciting.

But even if I detected her mild annoyance, I didn’t begin to anticipate what was in store for her–

or understand the battles that would shape the rest of her life.

Some incidents seemed minor at first;

like the day we went to the drug store,

only to discover her doctor had failed to call in the prescription.

The wait was long; the clerk was rude; the pharmacy had no chairs.

And as we stood,

I witnessed time take its toll–

at my mother’s age,

nothing was minor.

Other incidents were more serious,

harrowing, in fact;

like the day she walked to the bus and

muggers knocked her to the ground.

They stole her purse,

broke her wrist;

a few weeks later,

money was missing from her account.

At the bank,

the teller yelled

Speak Up!

She called me in tears.

I did what I could

from 3000 miles away-

but I couldn’t change her reality–

she was old;

she was vulnerable–and

she knew it.

But it wasn’t only impatient clerks and cruel strangers who made her days more difficult.

The truth is

I did too.

To this day, I relive moments that should have been different

Guess what mama? My company is sending me to London and Paris!

Oh honey, that’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you.

I’m so excited.

Tell me, are you flying to London and then returning to New York and then going to Paris?

What?

Well, um, are you going to London and then back to New York and then to Paris?

Why would I do that, mama? Think about it. Why would I fly all the way home when London and Paris are so close?

I don’t know.

You don’t know? Why would you ask me that? Look at a map! THINK ABOUT IT!

Her voice was barely audible

I was just asking…

But I wasn’t cutting her any slack. I thought she asked silly questions to get attention. I didn’t appreciate that her questions were harmless. It never occurred to me that she might be confused.

And I never once thought

what is this like for you?

Instead our conversations became delicate dance, often underscored by my dismissive tone and impatient replies.

My mother endured it until she could take no more. But one day, through the unfiltered voice of dementia, my mother’s truth came roaring back at me.

I was visiting the nursing home. But it was no ordinary visit. That day, when I arrived in Los Angeles, I learned my mom’s last remaining sibling, her beloved Julia, had died.

It was my job to tell her.

We sat in the garden in the fading afternoon light. I told her I had bad news.

Something happened, mama. And it makes me sad. And it’s going to make you very sad, too.

I looked into her eyes. I waited.

She murmured

Julie?

I nodded.

She threw her hands to her face. She screamed–shrill—piercing–raw–

She was like my mama–my mama! Oh, Julie, Julie– I had a feeling! I should have been with her.

Oh mama, no. It’s OK that you weren’t there.

NO, it’s not OK! I knew I should have gone to Seattle. I wanted to go. How could this happen?

Mama, she was 99.

Yes, and I thought she would live to be 100!

My mother was rocking back and forth—sobbing

My poor Julie, all alone, all alone…

I was desperate to calm her–

And so I lied.

It’s OK, mama. It’s really OK. She was peaceful—and well…she wasn’t alone. You know, Aunt Julie had lots of friends…

Friends?

Yes, friends. Aunt Julie had lots of friends!

(Clever me—she’ll stop crying if she thinks her sister was surrounded by friends…)

My mother’s eyes hardened. Her expression froze in contempt. Her entire body trembled

Aunt Julie didn’t have any friends. She was old.

And people HATE old people.

She spit each word with a sneering, harsh growl:

OLD!

The nursing home staff was watching from a distance. They quickly approached. My mother grabbed her nurse’s hand

My sister died. My Julie…

We’re so sorry…let’s go inside…

I sat alone in the garden, staring at the dimming sky; upended by her ferocious rebuke.

People hate old people–

my lie had unleashed her truth.

I knew

she had heard every

curt response–

exasperated sigh–

disdainful tone—

from the world;

from me.

 

A Swift Current Thoughts about how we treat the elderly

Girl with the Flowered Background, Richard Diebenkorn 1962 Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

 

After that day

I’d like to think I finally saw her;

I’d like to think

I changed;

I’d like to think I was more understanding, more honest, more giving

in the decade left to my mother

after her Julie died.

But one thing is true:

my mother’s words reverberate to this day.

As I help an elderly gentleman search for a jar of cloves in the market;

slow my gait behind the woman with a walker;

instruct a clerk to assist the old lady in the eyeglass store

(will somebody help me please?),

I wonder what it’s like for them—

and hope my smile masks my impatience

(some things are hard to change).

I relive many moments

but this time

I do better

(yes, I am going straight from London to Paris– it’s so close, you know!)

I’m a little late,

but still

I’d like to think

I’m becoming the person

my mother always thought I could be

 

A Swift Current Dancing in the Dark Thought about how we treat the elderly

Adele Springsteen, age 90, dances with her son, March 2016, Madison Square Garden “She’s Still Got The Moves” he shouts with pride

Cover Me music and lyrics by Bruce Springsteen Copyright 1984 Bruce Springsteen. All Rights Reserved

There are several complete videos of Bruce Springsteen dancing with his mother Adele available on YouTube–the one excerpted above was recorded by markit aneight

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24 thoughts on “Dancing in the Dark

    • Thank you (again!). Over time, the art has become an integral part of the posting…not something I set out to do but certainly it has evolved that way. I spend time looking for images, and it has to hit me in the gut to know it’s right. The Diebenkorn painting actually appeared on my Facebook newsfeed just a few days ago (I am friends with an artist who posts famous paintings daily)–as soon as I saw the painting I knew the post was ready to go…just like when I saw Bruce Springsteen’s name trending on Twitter at the end of March-and when I checked it out saw the videos of his dancing with his mom–a perfect bookend to my opening…! Thanks, H

  1. I’m weeping as I write. Your poignant words and striking anecdotes tell a whole tale of perception versus reality. A woman nearing 90 told me last week that she finished her Masters degree when she was 80. “I never felt old,” she said. I’m thinking nobody ever does. And how do you get the art? It’s all so powerful. I love this post. It was worth waiting for!

    • Two nights ago I came across a song by Emmy Lou Harris called Back When We Were Beautiful. I almost quoted the lyrics, but decided the mood was too different–but in a nutshell they reflect your observation that people never feel old…
      I don’t feel very different, she said
      I know it’s strange…
      But I still love to dance
      You know we used to dance
      the night away
      Back when we were beautiful…

      Re the art, in this case, I went looking for the opening image. This site could almost be called “A Swift Current with Vuillard” because in fact he is one of the few artists I have found who paints older people-and on top of that he captures the elder years with insight, sensitivity and respect. I found a website with what might be his entire repertoire, and last week I went through several pages-stopping when I saw the expression in this image. I was dumbfounded. He did it once again…
      Diebenkorn is one of my favorite artists but I did not know this image when a friend posted it a few days ago on Facebook. When I saw it, I knew it was the break I needed between thoughts.
      I am glad it was worth waiting for. I have wanted to write this since the very first post–it has been a long time coming…

      Thank you, H

  2. You nailed it. Captured how we “blame” people for getting old while at the same time beginning to understand their increasing limitations.

    Joan

    • It is interesting because even though you said I nailed it (which I really appreciate!), I hadn’t quite thought of it that way-that we “blame” people for getting old-but you are absolutely right and that is an interesting way to think about it. Something to ponder–
      Thanks for you support of my efforts here, H

    • Thank you. I know you’ve discussed how the elderly are treated in different cultures. I perhaps one day will revisit this topic in that context–this must might be the opening salvo! But my mom’s words reverberate for just one person after reading this, I will feel gratified…Thank you, H

  3. Okay, now you REALLY made me cry. With empathy but mostly with guilt. I did the same to my mom. Before but certainly after she became confused. Daughters. We can be so hard on our moms. And yet we KNOW they are everything to us. Why why why.

    • I wish I could answer the why but I think the best I can do is share my behavior, as embarrassing as it is, so people will perhaps pause before their next curt reply. I wish I had a clue then how deeply I would regret my abrupt words twenty years later.

      When I shared the topic of this post with a friend the other day (she has told me in the past that she has guilt over her impatience with her dad), she asked me how I deal with the guilt. And the only answer I have is that I use it to fuel how I act today. The gentler, more considerate me…with hope I am not deluding myself…but I do wonder what I would have been like had my mom not unleashed those words. Would I have barreled through her dementia years with the same impatient demeanor and dismissive attitude…?

      But she stopped me in my tracks–some could say, finally…

      And in the end, I am grateful for those years. Who could have seen that coming?

      Thank you for your honesty here–I know it isn’t easy to admit our less than stellar behavior…
      H

  4. I wouldn’t have appreciated this a year ago. But now, after spending so much intimate time with my parents the past 9 months, you have so eloquently articulated how they struggle with getting old and how I have changed my perspective, actions and words with them. Whether trying to find underlying truths in delusions, helping them manage the hurdles of independence or encouraging my busy siblings to see the changes, it aways helps when I seek to look thru my parent’s eyes. Your words and images are beautiful, as always, in capturing the realities of life.

    • This is so beautifully expressed, I feel like I want you to continue writing! I wish more people realized “the underlying truth in delusions.” And an interesting thought that your siblings don’t always see the changes. I cannot tell you how many times I heard people exclaim that my mom didn’t need to be in the nursing home–this after a 15 minute visit.

      I don’t know if your parents have the mental capability to tell you what it’s like for them–but how I wished I had asked my mom, especially before the dementia took hold. I wonder if our phone calls were an exhausting struggle to keep it together. There certainly were signs all over her home that the decline had been happening for quite a while. I chose to see what I wanted to see. How I wish I had tried to look at it, as you say, through her eyes.

      Thank you, H

  5. Once again, thank you for sharing and teaching me. My mother is still quite lucid but in this past year, and even in the past month, I have come to truly understand that she is old now. Funny how she has days when she seems to be 70 and moves fast with her walker, and remembers everything I say and she was a huge advocate for me on the day of my surgery. She made herself heard to the nurses and doctors as my mother. Then there are the days, like this past week, when she had a bodily function mishap when we were out and she became so upset and she seemed very old at that moment. Sometimes she forgets now and I am guilty of raising my voice and saying “I told you, don’t you remember?”. I have done that more than once in the last year.
    After reading your words, I am going to think twice about what comes out of my mouth. Thank you Hallie. You remain my teacher and voice of sanity in a situation that is slowly heading towards that painful day that I cannot bear to think about. xoxo

    • I am sure there are lots of us who have raised our voices to our elderly parents–and then regretted it. But it is daunting to admit and I appreciate your comments here. One of the things I certainly didn’t realize is how my own words (and tone) would come back to haunt me–years later. In the moment, I was convinced I was in the right. It wasn’t until later that I has a sense of what she was grappling with.

      And how brave she was every time she took on a task–even going to the pharmacy–which I didn’t appreciate at the time.

      People have written to me that they are going to re-think how they treat the elderly from the essay–including two doctors re their patients!

      I know the pharmacy story comes early in the post, and perhaps the impact was clouded as the story moved on. But I had heard my mom call her doctor the day before, and she was assured they would call in the prescription. In other words, she did her part. The doctor’s office didn’t. When we got home that afternoon, I called them, and tried to communicate their elderly patients suffer when they slipped up. My mom later told me that her doctor asked “who was that woman?” and implied that I had been harsh with his staff. But my mother told me she responded–that’s my daughter, and she gets things done.

      It is so wonderful that your mom was able to advocate for you during your surgery. And now you advocate for her. We all run interference for each other…

      Thank you as always Francesca. You are in my heart, H

    • Thank you.There were many versions of this post, including comments about how society treats the elderly. That’s one of the reasons this took so much time… I am grateful for readers’ patience. Thank you for sticking with me! H

  6. Hallie…your words make me think “I should have, I could have, I did.” Tears are flowing, your beautiful writing elicits such feelings…I learn from the stories you tell. Timely for so many reasons. Thank you so much for continuing to write.

    • Well, I know you were there for both your parents, and though we all think of things that we could have done better, I know they left this planet knowing they were deeply loved. That is the goal, isn’t it? That we communicate our truth. I’d like to think my mom saw me grow– and understood her impact on me.

      My mom was a great connector. People-relationships-were her forte. My dad was good at it too, but considered the more intellectual. A few years ago, a close family friend was commenting to me on how attentive I am to friendships and connections, and she said, you know, everyone thought you were going to turn out like your father, but you really have a strong dose of your mom in you.

      it is the highest compliment I could receive…

      Thank you as always, H

  7. Yes. All of the similar conversations that I had with my mother and then later with my aunt came back to goad me when I read your post. Sometimes though, it was my own frustration and fear that drove my irritable, sometimes unkind responses. Perhaps if I raised my voice, or point out clearly the illogic of their statements– again, I could shock them back into reasonable discourse. But all that it ever did was wound.

    I did learn some valuable things too, not perfectly, but enough to be less demanding and much more appreciative of elders. They are so beautiful.

    • They are so beautiful…Now it is my turn to have tears in my eyes. Because that is the truth of this essay, and in fact of this entire A Swift Current–they are so beautiful (and I would add brave) and yet we are so afraid of them.

      I had started to write this post with a broader scope–a discussion of our culture–not the veneration of youth, because that seems inevitable, but the acceptable mockery of the aging and elderly. I am offended every time I see it, and I see it all the time (so I guess I am offended a lot!)–comedians, birthday cards, even subway ads– regularly make fun of the elderly. Even Garrison Keillor this week wrote an op ed piece on why older people should not be President, with an obtuse discussion of waking up in the night with stomach disorders. I was appalled, but helpless. (I wish I could find the poignant Letter to the Editor by Keillor from years ago defending his Presidential vote for an elder Eugene McCarthy…interesting how perspective changes over time, in this case making him less idealistic…)

      But I think your insight is valuable–impatience driven by our own fear and frustration. If we could all just take deep breaths–a lot of them! Because your conclusion is spot on–and once again beautifully stated…but all I ever did was wound…

      I am grateful for the letters that tell me this post will make them pause. You might be aware of the Corita Kent print which quotes Blaise Pascal the entire ocean is affected by a pebble. This writing is my pebble…

      Thank you for commenting here, H

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