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

To Understand (and he blessed you best of all)

looking up February 7, 2014  Photo by Hallie Swift

looking up February 7, 2014 Photo by Hallie Swift


Your eyes seem from a different face

They’ve seen that much that soon

Your cheek too cold, too pale to shine

Like an old and waning moon

And there is no peace

No true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

                                                          (from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson)

On this day, thirty eight years ago,

my father died.

He was 63 years old.

In my mind,

he was not done.

My dad had anticipated his retirement years;

articles he would write;

classes he would teach;

trips he would enjoy;

someday.

When he died, his record company issued a news release:

‘…one of the very few true experts in the field of classical music…”

my very true expert;

my daddy;

gone at 63.

In his last months, he wrote to us; ideas and observations, philosophies and beliefs;

his letters, I thought, signaled the promise of things to come…

…Beethoven is not the only artist who suffered from excessive solemnity- which is a lead in to my second heretical statement.

If find the famous Sistine Chapel fresco of Michelangelo to be a bit ludicrous- I suspect the reason I regard it as a failure is that Michelangelo attempted to do too much- and found it impossible to sustain a high level of thought on the vast scale that he outlined.

Like the Ninth Symphony, the kindest words…are that it is a noble failure- but a failure nonetheless.

Several times I have been tempted to write a series of essays under a general heading like “Putting the Classics in their Place.” I have myself sometimes been annoyed by my own timidity at not speaking out against the oppressiveness of mass acceptance.

He never got a chance to write those articles; teach those classes; take those trips. My father’s retirement was brief; cancer stealing his hard-earned years of leisure; of reflection; of speaking out.

In my mind, he was cheated.

And I felt cheated too.

I read those final letters countless times; desperately searching for him amid the carefully chosen words and well-reasoned opinions. I wanted to know what he would think; what he would say; what he would do.

I wanted what could never be.

And I could not let go.

Just a few years ago, my pain began to ease. I wrote an article; not about Beethoven; not about Michelangelo;

I wrote about my dad.

He had been a record producer—in the early days—back when there were long-playing albums. In his era, the producer’s name didn’t appear on the jacket. I wanted to correct that oversight; give him credit; capture his role for posterity.

Researching every accomplishment; documenting every claim;

I wrote a Wikipedia page;

the internet equivalent of scratching

I was here

into the sand.

I showed it to my best friend. I watched nervously as she read. She paused and looked at me

This is a big life.

Three simple words:

a big life;

and for the first time in all those years,

I felt relief.

I began to understand;

he had done so much in so short a time;

he could do no more;

he was done.

I no longer needed to talk to him

every time I heard a piece of music;

no longer felt tumultuous anger;

no longer wished for what would never be.

My daddy

gave me all he could;

the rest was up to me.

I Was Here  Central Park discovery as I wrote this post  Photo by Hallie Swift

I Was Here ( a Central Park discovery as I wrote this post) Photo by Hallie Swift

And then, just a few weeks ago, I was completely confounded by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I felt a sense of loss out of all proportion. I kept telling myself

…you don’t know him…he belongs to his family…to his friends…

but the news blared and I listened

…the greatest actor of his generation…

I thought films were better because he was in them; his characters illuminating,

even the smallest part searing.

I read story after story about his prodigious career, his nuanced, soul-diving performances;

done at 46.

Amid the tragedy of his death, articles repeatedly bemoaned

performances we lost;

roles he should have played;

disappointment we will never see his Lear!

I bristled;

What could have been

only undermines

the undeniable feats;

the huge accomplishments;

the impenetrable mystery

of

his big life.

We want to believe

the best is yet to come;

we keep telling ourselves

someday…

but

for any of us;

for all of us;

our best

might be have been

a long time ago;

our promise now a memory.

(But we will never know).

Finally

I understand;

the measure of a life –

any life—

my father’s life–

is not captured by

annotated references

and attributable sources.

His best

might be hidden in the margins–

a fleeting moment;

an off-hand comment;

a letter written to his daughter when

he knew he was going to die.

He tried to tell her

what matters.

Put the classics in their place.

It took me

a long time

to understand;

every life

a big life;

no small parts.

63 years; 46 years;

he gave all he could.

Gone

Done

Blessed.


If tears unshed could heal your heart

If words unsaid could sway

Then watch you melt into the night

With Adieu and rue the day

Did your dreams die young

Were they too hard won

Did you reach too high and fall

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

To Understand

to understand— Corita, serigraph, 1965 Used with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles “to understand is to stand under which is to look up to which is a good way to understand”…art and words by Sister Mary Corita

For more information on Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita) www.corita.org

All Lyrics from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson copyright 1994 Beeswing Music All Rights Reserved

Theme and Variations Part 2

A Swift Current || And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

At the end of the storm Photo by Hallie Swift

We lost Mike.

My Mother called my Dad’s closest friend from work. She spoke three words and dropped the phone.

We lost Mike.

She let out an anguished wail; a strangled sob from the deepest part of her.

We lost Mike.

She ran into their room and slammed the door.

We lost Mike.

They were married for 34 years. And for 34 years, he called her Darling.

On their first date, they saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia and had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. Year after year, for birthdays and anniversaries, we joyfully returned to the scene of that immortalized first date, creating our own family folklore.

Every night as he came home from work, my Father walked down the street loudly humming bars from whatever symphony or concerto happened to be running through his brain. The neighbors, hearing my Dad before they actually saw him, laughed and waved. And my Mother invariably called out…

Here he is…our husband and father!

They were older than the other parents; graying hairs, aging profiles. They were thoughtful, careful, deliberate. Yet at the same time they built a home bustling with new ideas and discoveries. They challenged our thinking; embraced our interests; encouraged vigorous debate. Politics and religion were lively dinner table topics; homework a serious family endeavor.

And our door was always open to the neighborhood kids; our house teeming with activity on warm summer evenings– tag on the front lawn; the Beatles on the turntable; hamburgers on the grill.

I remember one night studying in my room when I heard the muffled sound of unfamiliar music coming from the living room; the rhythmic beat of castanets and guttural Spanish cries; a new record on the stereo.

I peered into the living room and there they were–

My parents

dancing

to Flamenco!

My Mother turned to me, beaming:

Oh Hallie, doesn’t this just stir your Spanish soul?

I was incredulous. To my teenaged eye, they looked ridiculous.

And thrilling.

My serious parents

dancing to Flamenco.

Who knew?

Then

only a few years later,

after a brief, excruciating battle with cancer,

We lost Mike.

She was only 61.

I thought she was old.

I thought she was old and an adult and
of course, adults know how to handle these things.

I gave little thought to her loneliness; her sorrow; her grief;

their marriage.

Until decades later, as dementia set the stage, and my Mother’s mind became obsessed with certain subjects. Unresolved issues rose to the fore. A single topic would kidnap her brain. If I tried to change the subject, I might succeed for a sentence or two, but in a flash she would reintroduce her latest theme.

Each theme would take center stage for months.

And just when I thought she couldn’t possibly explore it any further, she would circle back to her opening lines.

It was unyielding.

It was exhausting.

And one of those themes:

My Father.

Where is he? Why doesn’t he call? He is living down the street. I saw him walk right by– but he doesn’t visit. He is paying my bills but another woman lives in my room. Who is she? Why does he let her live here? She has no right to be here. Why is he doing this? Why is she here?

Get out!

Despite the do-not- argue dictum for families of dementia,

I simply could not go along.

When the WHERE IS HE? theme first emerged, I gently reminded her that he had died years ago.

He died? No one told me.

Mama, he died. We had a funeral.

NO. If we had a funeral, I would know. I would have been there.

But you were there.

NO! You did it without me. You and your sister; How dare you go behind my back!

I am his wife;

I have a right to know!

For at least a year, this theme underscored our every encounter.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

She created scenes in the hallways, accusing other residents of cheating with my father. She upset their families. The nursing staff explained that false accusations are a normal part of dementia; not to worry.

I am his wife. I have a right to know!

But even the nursing staff had its limit. One day the social worker pulled me aside:

Your Mother keeps saying: I have a right to know…

This doesn’t just happen.

Her insistence is too overpowering, too relentless.

Is it possible that she is confronting a deep wound?

Did your father have a secret?

Perhaps we were confronting the ultimate indignity of dementia:

It pulls back the curtain:

Dark suspicions aroused;

Fissures revealed;

Pain relived;

Wounds stripped bare.

Perhaps we were confronting dementia’s ultimate truth:

Buried questions exposed;

Secrets succumb;

Sorrow turns to rage.

The theme continued, month after month, variation after variation:

He is alive; he isn’t calling; he’s been murdered; you girls are hiding the truth…

After my initial efforts to dissuade her, I simply gave up.

I listened. I couldn’t argue. I couldn’t agree.

The most I could muster:

I don’t know, Mama. I just don’t know.

Of course you know.

Mama, I don’t…

One day, as abruptly as it started,

the theme simply disappeared.

She let it be– as though she had finally reached a resolution

in her own private purgatory.

And as if awaiting their cue, other themes captured her. Each recalled a past trauma– the deaths of her sisters; a baby lost more than sixty years ago. One by one, each past agony, real or imagined, was confronted; relived; then extinguished,

never to be mentioned again.

It was brutal to witness her war with the past. And when each theme finally dissolved, I felt complete unmitigated relief.

During her final years, I tried not to mention my Dad. If I accidentally referred to him, I held my breath; but she never resumed her diatribe.

In fact, she even seemed at peace.

My Father;

Perhaps he was less perfect than I once thought.

Perhaps he was flawed.

But for me, his song remains the same.

The man who loomed large then still looms large now.

And I know what I know.

My great man;

He will always cry at the end of Carousel.

And so will I.

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid

Of the dark…

A Swift Curent And Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

And Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagen Company, All Rights Reserved

Theme and Variations Part 1

Dad in the sand

“Dad”–writing found in the sand June 12, 2013, Photo by Hallie Swift

My Mother turned toward me:

Aren’t you disappointed that Daddy hasn’t called?

Yes, Mama, I’m disappointed.

She sighed, eyes downcast:

I never thought he would do this to us.

At the time of this conversation, my Father had been dead for thirty years.

I have written about my efforts to accommodate my Mother’s version of events, however fantastical or off beat. With the mantra do not argue, I would agree with her assertions; accentuate the positive; change the topic. With clever phrases or funny asides, I would say anything to avoid conflict; anger; recriminations.

But when it came to discussing my Dad, I faltered. I could not play the dementia game.

My Dad has been dead for 37 years but I feel his presence every day. He approached everything, from his job in classical music to the latest Dodgers game, with a fierce intelligence and unquenchable fervor. Our lives pulsated to the soundtrack of his enthusiasms and his temperament. When he liked something–and it was often– his eyes lit up and his words tumbled at a lightening pace, as if his mind were on fire.

And he wanted us to share his joy. He read George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton aloud– when we were just little girls. He surprised us with tickets to the Beatles concert or the latest Beach Boys album. He took us to see John Gielgud act; Bob Gibson pitch; the Bolshoi dance—because, he said,

you need to know there is greatness in this world.

When I was 12 years old, a local college invited him to deliver one of its “Great Man Lectures.” I remember being dazzled, primarily by the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had been the previous month’s speaker. In my mind, Alfred Hitchcock was a Great Man.

This man was my Daddy.

My Daddy, who worked hard to give me moments of wonder and excitement and grace. Without a car to traverse LA, he traveled all day on city buses in search of 4th of July fireworks. After a long day at work, he took me to the Griffith Park Observatory to see the magical Saturn. Knowing it could become a life-long memory, he awakened me to hear the final innings of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game (Hallie– are you awake? I think you need to get up…I think Sandy is going to pitch a perfect game!).

My Daddy.

My great man.

One of those indelible moments unfolded while we watched the movie Carousel on late night TV. At the finale, I fought tears as the entire cast began to sing the uplifting, heart wrenching

When you walk through a storm…

My teenage self could not let him see that this unabashedly sentimental story was ripping me apart. As I watched the daughter’s graduation scene, I battled every emotion; my head aching with trapped tears

And don’t be afraid of the dark…

As the voices swelled, I glanced at my father. I was astonished. Tears flowed down his face. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. His tears absolved me, and together we cried as the lyrics reverberated:

Walk on, walk on,

With hope in your heart,

And you’ll never walk alone…

I recently learned of my parents’ tremendous efforts to assure my Dad could attend my college graduation. He was battling cancer. Correction: they were battling his cancer. They strategically scheduled his chemotherapy so he would be his strongest when the day arrived. My Mom’s best friend drove them to the campus, only to discover their car would not be allowed within an easy walking distance.

They did not give up. I am told that my parents steeled themselves for a grueling trek in the hot Los Angeles sun; my dad weak but determined. They sat in the uncomfortable stands of UCLA’s outdoor track and field stadium; the unrelenting sun beating down.

And there I was; a little speck in cap and gown across the playing field among thousands of identically- dressed little specks in caps and gowns. It never occurred to me that they had made a huge sacrifice to be there. And it never occurred to me that the day was anything less than magnificent.

He died within months. Devastated, abandoned, stricken; my sorrow knew no bounds. And thirty-seven years later, while the passage of time has altered my pain,

I have never stopped missing him.

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown…

End of Part 1

A Swift Current || Theme and Variations Part 1 || When Your Walk Through A Storm

With Hope in Your Heart Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagem Company, All Rights Reserved