Monday, September 26, 2011

Becoming Invisible

When I was seventeen, adults belonged behind the bench, gavel in hand, a white wig masking their graying, thinning heads of hair, frown lines deeply etched upon their foreheads.

At twenty-seven, I pitied adults. Surely they had never experienced the ambition, the drive, the angst, and hungers of my generation. They were stodgy, incurious creatures.

When I celebrated thirty-seven years, I began to suspect that I had been suffering from a prolonged case of plain, ordinary vanity. I began to question the arrogance of youth, ashamed of willful behaviors.

At forty-seven, humility took root, and I tried to warn the next generations about the hazards of self-absorption. They ignored me.

At fifty-seven, lightning cracked open my brain. I realized that youth dismisses, discounts, and dodges aging and those who have aged because they must deny, as if borne of biological necessity, the fact of their own mortality. Adults are the ground into which they must fall, but bringing this truth into the light requires some hesitation. Acknowledging this truth may even destroy hope. So youth denies, avoids, and obfuscates.

As I grow into my sixties, I must admit that I am growing thinner, fading into invisibility. A young twenty-something scoffed when my husband shared with her something he knows well, works with daily. In disbelief, she asked why she should believe “old people.”  As I share my insights and stories, younger listeners simply forebear, nodding and sighing. My tales are of a time deemed irrelevant because youth believes it is the center of the universe, that it is experiencing love and hate, lust and tenderness, parenting and grief for the first time in the history of the world. Youth is a sun around which planets rotate, Age among them, but like Pluto, its place in the scheme of things is suspect.

How much worse it must be to be eighty-two, afflicted with Alzheimer’s. How weary my mother must be of being told what to do, the order in which to do it, what to eat, the reason for those food groups, and how to take care of herself and her home. How frustrating it must be to have been in command, to suffer the illusion of directing one’s own life, to take charge of creating one’s own happiness, only to lose all abilities to command the present, remember the past, and shape the future.

May I remain humble, visible, and relevant—please, and may I grant my mother at least as much relevance, visibility, dignity and respect as I ask for myself.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Let Her Be

 Let her be.  So all that is in her will not bloom - but in how many does it?  There is still enough left to live by.  Only help her to know - help make it so there is cause for her to know - that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

These are the final words of Tillie Olsen’s poignant, raw story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” a story that tells about a mother’s regrets, summed up as she stands ironing. She reflects that her oldest daughter . . .

was a child of anxious, not proud, love.  We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth.  I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother.  There were other children pushing up, demanding.  Her younger sister seemed all that she was not.  There were years she did not want me to touch her.  She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself.  My wisdom came too late.  She has much to her and probably little will come of it.  She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

I think of these words often when I reflect upon my own parenting. I too was often anxious but fiercely proud. I loved her then, and I always, always love her now. We sometimes made choices that did not provide the soil of easy growth. I was not a young mother; I was distracted by the demands of work and the unrealistic expectations I placed upon myself. Worst of all, my wisdom came too late. I learned that . . .

Success breeds success and brings with it, freedom. Failure is but a brief detour. We learn to endure, persevere, and overcome. Age also grants us the will to abide. A sense of urgency falls away, and we allow events to unfold without our stir. Our ambition does not die, but rather ebbs as we recognize that we have that which is sufficient. And those prickles and thorns that held us back no longer snag and tear.

I wish I could impart that wisdom to every twenty-something, but most of them would not heed the advice even if they recognized it as wisdom. They are made to shun or at least ignore all evidence of mortality. Their ears are dull to the lessons acquired in aging. They fly closer and ever closer to the sun as did Icarus, but most of them will not fly high enough to melt their wax wings. Most will simply learn to enjoy wind currents nearer to the earth. In their twenties, they will despise lower altitudes and call it “settling;” in their fifties, they will find it comforting and wish they had known then what they later see.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia destroy the peace that passes understanding in our youth. My grandmother cried about the strangers that visited her home every night, refusing to leave when she grew sleepy and asked them to go. Alarmed, I risked sending her into sobs in order to nudge the truth from her. Those strangers, I learned, were Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, and various guest stars. She had lost the ability to separate television programming from her tangible, material world; she had forgotten how to turn off the television to send those annoying men and women on their way so she could rest.

Alzheimer’s also steals the immediate and recent memory, but memories from long ago remain, perhaps longer than the power of speech and ability to write. Grandmother told stories about the wrongs she had endured at the hands of her brothers and sisters. Those prickles and thorns still stung when she was least able to heal.

What put me in mind of all this was a recent conversation with Mother. She had left her home after the companions left for the day to walk next door. I’ve asked her not to go out because we have endured more than 50 days of heat in excess of 100°, and she forgets or refuses to drink enough water so heats that oppress even after the sun has set are very dangerous to her. She misunderstood me when I admonished her, thinking that I intended her to be a recluse, a prisoner inside her home. The misunderstanding snarled further when I chastised her for asking her neighbor for help and accepting an OTC medication to treat her upset stomach.

Before I proceed, let me assure anyone reading that the neighbor called my sister and sought permission to pass along a laxative. The neighbor has been and continues to be a wonderful friend to Mother. She calls her daily and watches over those who come and go from Mother’s home. Mother needs her, and I would not wish to come between them, but Mother cannot reliably report what she feels anymore. She struggles to find words and hopes that her listeners will provide the right one to help her explain herself. She can no longer make phone calls; she cannot hold the series of numbers in her head long enough to dial. Worse, in her community, most numbers require the area code without the long-distance number one, but long-distance numbers need the number one. This new innovation to minimize the telephone company’s overload came too late for Mother to learn and remember.

Mother also does not recognize signals that her body sends. Like toddlers, she is slow to awaken to urges and instincts, and for these reasons, I have asked her companions to restrict all medicines to those recommended by doctors, and I have told Mother not to take anything else until we can bring her body back into balance.

Mother made her hurt and fear known by asking how I would feel if I were alone in this world, with no one to turn to, while sick. She is frail and keenly aware of her vulnerability.  Visits, phone calls, companions, and care will never compensate for the terrible losses of old age and Alzheimer’s. That is the sorrow. Contrary to Tillie Olsen’s narrator, there is not enough to live by; still, let her know that she is not helpless. Let her know that fear need not paralyze or drive her out of doors into the dangers she no longer recognizes.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Instant Memories: Dad's Polaroid

Like many men and women who came of age during World War II, Dad was fascinated by innovations and inventions. Our family was among the first to have a television and among the first to switch to color television when it became available. Dad loved his TV for the next sixty years, finally abandoning it as a pastime when the programming became too risqué for his taste and too repetitive.

Mom never spent as much time watching television. Now, after Alzheimer’s, she watches Turner Classic Movies hour after hour. She even calls for help when she touches the wrong button on the remote and cannot see her shows. TV has become her entertainment and stimulus package.

Before Alzheimer’s, Mother was too busy to watch TV. She had a house to manage, three meals a day to prepare, civic and fraternal obligations, and creative projects, including photo albums and later, scrapbooks. She had an artistic eye, developing photo pages that commemorated entire events with just a few snapshots.

Most of those photos were taken by Dad, and one of his old Polaroids became a Christmas gift from him to Mother, my younger sister, and me. This is another of the three gifts I can remember Dad actually taking charge of and giving. I’m looking at it now.

I see Mother at the wheel of a classic Chris-Craft boat. She’s wearing a swimsuit and a Captain’s hat with bill. I am in the front seat, my sister in the back, both of us wearing life jackets. Mother looks at me, smiling. My sister smiles at Mother, and I squint at Dad, behind the camera, the sun high above and behind him.

The photo is black and white, but I see color: warm wood varnished to a rich, deep shine rides the dark water. Mother, behind the black steering wheel, wears a white suit with a dark blue ruffle, a matching white cap with black bill. The orange life jackets protecting the children are bright against the white leather seats.

That moment captured for all eternity is not a special one. We went to the lake most weekends. We swam off the dock and learned to ski in deep water. We felt the wind blast our hair as Dad picked up speed, and we watched him watch the water closely for floating hazards and oncoming boaters.

The photo suggests that we had a good time at the lake, in the boat, together. Mother doesn’t even seem to know she’s being photographed, but she’s smiling in the moment--at me. More important, Dad treasured this simple moment of happiness in the sun. He made a gift of it, blowing up the snapshot to an 8 x 10, making three copies, and having each framed. When Mother asked him why, he said the photo was one of his favorites, that he liked the way she looked, the way we looked together.

Mother sees it now and asks when it was taken, where it was taken, and by whom. She touches the images and smiles again. Alzheimer’s has not stolen all of her past yet. She still smiles.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Was I Switched at Birth?

Mother tells a story about an amusement park that set along a road our little family traveled quite often. I must have been a big fan because I’m told that I set up a raucous ruckus to ride the pony if my eye caught sight of one so my parents resorted to subterfuge. They distracted me, making me look down, the opposite direction, anywhere but at the pony. This memory made them smile, and I thought surely they made up the whole tale. My earliest memory of horses is not the one they share. I remember horseback riding at summer camp as a trip through a House of Horror.

My memory informs me that the instructor was careless and impatient, especially with novices. Pony rides notwithstanding, I was a novice. I had no idea how to stand near a horse without being kicked. I had no clue about mounting a horse; the stirrup seemed impossibly high. Worst of all, that horse kept rolling its eye in my direction, sizing me up, finding me deficient, it seemed to me. That horse was Menace on four legs.

When it took off with me, it moved from zero to sixty in half a circuit, running at full throttle. My hair band bounced off and my barrettes unclasped to fling themselves into the grass, desperate to survive. They were never found again, and that hardened my heart against the instructor once and for all, especially after she shouted at me--something about pulling the reigns and about my ears being plugged with cotton and my ability to pay attention to the simplest instructions.

Utterly humiliated and astonished that this instructor had so little skill with children, I refused to go to the meadow again. I refused to go near a horse again. Camp officials had to replace Horseback Riding with something else to fill that hour in my day. As I recall, I had to learn the names of trees and vines, identifying them by their leaves. My task was to collect them, then pin them to display boards with neatly written labels. I pretended not to mind this mindless labor in the heat of an Oklahoma summer because I never went near a horse again.

Another tale that Mother and Dad told was about an early birthday gift from Dad, a rarity. I can only remember three that he personally selected and purchased. For one of my pre-school years, he bought a cowboy outfit, complete with chaps, a tin gun, vest and one-gallon hat. After being coaxed into putting on the clothes, I dissolved into tears that escalated into sobs, heartsick to think that Dad wanted me to look like a boy. He had to promise to return the whole set and exchange it for a cowgirl outfit that I did wear--at least once, for a photo in which I am not smiling.

Can you imagine being plopped into the middle of such a family? They deceived me about the proximity of ponies, then pushed me into horseback riding, all the while secretly hoping that I would turn out to be a Tomboy.

You can see, can’t you, why I must have been switched at birth?