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

Interlude

A Swift Current Interlude Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing...

Woman in the Countryside by Vuillard 1897-1899 Private Collection

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing,

     of just going along,

listening to all the things you can’t hear…

                                                                  ~ Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
 
 
 

During the last few weeks, several people have asked: Did you write this summer?

The answer is yes, and no.

I wrote– but not about my mom. Of course, I thought about her every day. Some memories brought smiles; some brought tears.

But I didn’t commit any of it to paper.

I gave myself the summer off.

When I started writing A Swift Current, I wanted to share my experience with dementia and the death of an elderly parent—personal revelations which, at the time, I hadn’t seen discussed in any other forum.

And so for the last three years and 40 essays, I have shared our story here– the ravages and grace of dementia; our renewed and strengthened bonds; my searing grief over the loss of her.

My grief shocked me. I had thought her death would be a welcome relief—she was, after all, 95 years old. She had dementia. But after her death, the numbness of the initial months blossomed into an unexpected anguish.

I missed her–dementia or no dementia.

And while the intensity of my emotions has evolved, I still stumble. Five years later, I feel an unrequited longing I never imagined. I frequently replay scenes from our lives-the teenage years; the career years; the dementia years—

I see it all so clearly now.

We have so many expectations of our parents. When we’re young, we want them to be different. When they’re old, we want them to be how they always were.

During my mom’s decade of dementia, I slowly grew in my understanding—and even acceptance– of her illness. Despite her confusion and fantasies, turmoil and anger, I still saw the core of my mother in her fading and fragmented being–even near the end of her life. I wish I hadn’t been so frightened of her disease in the early years. I wish I could have accepted who she was, and who she was becoming.

My friend Kathleen Novak captures my hard-won perspective in her poem Clarity, written when her father first began to show signs of confusion. As I resume writing future essays for A Swift Current, I offer you Kathleen’s thoughtful, generous, realistic view of an aging parent—with remarkable Clarity.
  

He is ninety after all, so

not everything is in bright focus, like a photo snapped mid-afternoon,

not everything looks as clear as that, for example,

he may not know whatever day it is today,

possibly a Thursday, unless that was yesterday

and today is Friday, or he may not know exactly

when he is to fly out to visit his son

though he wrote it down somewhere and he will find it

because he remembers having that piece of paper

along with the monthly bills and statements, the insurances and taxes

he has those written down too, the amounts paid and due

but there is this blur of dates and times, of numbers and facts

 

He is ninety after all, though

certain particulars still remain in bright focus, for example,

a great good game when he wins, the memory

of everything important that ever happened in any decade

and the way it all stacked up, the rises and falls, the girls

he left for other girls, the time he got meningitis in Africa

and later when his daughter smashed the car,

when his son became a doctor, the first time he saw his wife

and asked her to dance and the night his father-in-law died during a storm,

and years before, when he looked for the babies’ graves with his old mother,

 

there’s no blur when it comes to the pure blue of an afternoon sky

or the threat of snow again, those hovering white clouds,

who is true and who is not, whose heart is open and whose is not

at ninety you have a different kind of clarity

at ninety, after all that,

you know what you know.

      ~Kathleen Novak

A Swift Current Interlude

You Know What You Know…Madam Vuillard and Her Daughter by Edgar Vuillard 1893 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak

Winnie the Pooh
, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books