I arrive at the little nursing home to visit Berna. In the foyer is a TV. Three old women, two in wheelchairs and one propped up on a gurney, are watching, but they turn hungry eyes to me when I come through the doors. "Hello, there. How are you?" I say as I breeze by, dispensing noblesse oblige like Eleanor Roosevelt going down into a coal mine. And I think: Eleanor Roosevelt got hit by a car when she was 76, never recovered, died a couple of years later. Imagine being the person who hit Eleanor Roosevelt with a car...
Berna's room is way down at the end of the hall. I pass open doors. This being a small town, I recognize people, some of them altered by age or disease so that I do a double take and check the name placards. It's a gallery of the fallen familiar: Here's a woman who was a robust, glamorous artist, but a heavy smoker, now wrinkled and withered with an oxygen tube in her nose and an obvious case of emphysema. But she's dressed and groomed. She greets me, assures me that this is only temporary, that she'll be checking out soon and going home. A little further down, I'm surprised to see a guy who was once a great denizen of Gwendda's tea parties, where I first met him maybe twenty years ago. He's 92 now, looks about the same as when I first knew him: slight, boyish, an interesting King-Tut-like head, the clearest, most youthful-looking blue eyes I ever saw, mind entirely intact. He broke his hip, but he's already back on his feet, he says. He's dressed, too; being a member of the tribe of the dressed, as opposed to the tribe of the hospital-gowned, seems to be definite bit of juju, as if Death might mistake you for somebody else.
In the hall, ones who can roll themselves along maneuver past each other in a stately traffic formation, and every visitor goes down a sort of receiving line: Hello, hello, hello, I say. I pass the bathing-room where freshly-washed people, some of them young but damaged, others gaga with senility, are swaddled like babies in big white towels. The staff is noisy and cheerful.
I approach Berna's room. Reluctance slows me down like heavy mud under my tires. Interest and penalties have compounded: guilt over not visiting has kept me from visiting. I dawdle in front of one of the perky informational signs decorated with flowers and butterflies: Vera S., 89 years young, five children, eight grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, homemaker, schoolteacher, loves to cook.
At Berna's door, I poke my head into the gloom; the blind is shut, and the divider curtain that separates her from her roommate is in place. I say her name. No answer. I say it again; no answer. I go in and peek around the curtain: she's on her back, as she always is, and asleep. I say her name again. She doesn't wake up. I sneak away like a coward and a thief, out the door, down the hall, and gone. I tried, I tell myself: I tried.
I wish she could die.
I'm not convinced I'm not a thief, and I'm not convinced I'm not an old woman, either. A sneaking, thieving old woman. I remind myself of the black-clad hags in "Zorba the Greek," who convene like buzzards around Madame Hortense's house while she's dying, even creeping inside, and at the moment of her death, swarm all over it and pick it clean. A little extreme, perhaps, but this is the way intensive and protracted immersion in dissolution and senescence can affect a person. I'm one of those physically fit baby-boomers, a member of the largest and most extensive Peter Pan experiment in the history of the human race, who's managed to extend my adolescence into a decade which, in any other era, would have made me unequivocally old.
One rainy night this past winter I was out getting firewood from a pile of construction scraps. The scraps were obviously discarded, left out in a heap, and so what I was doing was not exactly stealing, but I know how greedy and possessive humans can be, especially well-to-do humans with the means to build houses on the northern California coast, whose attitude tends to be that if you're such a loser that you're gathering scrap firewood, then you don't deserve any firewood. And so I do my scrounging furtively, at night, pressure-sensitive flashlight in my teeth. I love this wood — it's dry, cut to just the right size, and free. I'm good at this sort of thing. I like sneaking into places, I like switching my light off when I hear cars or footsteps, and I especially like it when people pass by, oblivious, while I watch them from the dark like a ghost or an animal. And it occurs to me: at this exact moment, all over the world, other marginal folk are picking and scavenging on the fringes, furtively gathering scrap firewood, and I'm a member of another vast fellowship.
It was a hell of a winter. We get spectacular storms here that blow in from thousands of miles out in the Pacific. The wind howls, waves lash the cliffs, huge trees come crashing down. A monster storm in early January brought down about a hundred trees, knocking out the power for days and days. Gwendda lives outside of town, and her neighborhood is usually the last to get power restored. In her day, she'd soldiered through these long annual outages with the same stiff-upper-lip capableness that got her through the London Blitz. Now, she's helpless. She can't remember that the power and hence the electric heat are off, she can't build a fire in her woodstove the way she once did, she can't remember the location of any of the dozen flashlights I've put everywhere in her house. Unlike Berna in her bed in the nursing home, she's done nothing to thin out her possessions, and her house is crammed with stuff, most of it highly combustible: clothes, furniture, teddy bears, dolls, and that hallmark of "senior squalor," piles of old newspapers and catalogues, which she accumulates as fast as we can get rid of them. I think of her bumbling around with candles or oil lamps: old lady plus piles of paper plus open flame equals funeral pyre.
On the second morning of the blackout I was up before dawn and about to go back to bed. A little voice told me to get dressed, get in the car and go over to Gwendda's house, where I'd last been around midnight. I went. The place was completely dark. I crept in, and jumped when I heard her speaking my name. I found her with my flashlight beam, lying on the living room floor. I lit a lamp, hauled her to her feet. She wasn't hurt. She'd fallen, landed on a carpet, had lain there for hours, I guessed, though she couldn't tell me how long. Somebody pushed me, she said.
I got her into a chair, built up the fire, made some tea, draped a blanket around her. As the sun rose, I saw the wreckage — pictures pulled from the walls, papers and books scattered, furniture overturned, and I reconstructed events: She'd got up during the night, gone into the bathroom, forgotten that the power was out, turned off the little battery lamp I'd left on in there, started down the hall, tried to use the light switches, got confused, crashed around in the dark, tripped and landed where I found her. And I thought: how many other old women, and old men, are lying on the floor in the dark at this exact moment, waiting for someone to come along and find them? And what are their thoughts while they lie there?
Within an hour, the ordeal seemed to have evaporated from her memory.
After that, for the duration of the blackout, I slept at her house, without her ever knowing I was there. If I'd told her I was going to spend the night, she'd have rejected the idea as unnecessary nonsense. Besides, it was just easier to do it on the sly, like a stage manager. So I slipped into her house after she was in bed, flashlight in my teeth, and stealthily went about the business of stoking the fire and checking on the battery lamp in the bathroom. I stood outside her slightly ajar bedroom door and listened to her breathe, thinking: Good thing I'm not an ax murderer. I crept into the unused wing of her house, cold and still as a tomb, played my light over more dolls and teddy bears, which looked especially solemn, festooned as they were with cobwebs and bug casings, crawled into the chilly musty bed, listened to the wind and the seals barking out there on the dark wet rocks and slept for a couple of hours. Later, I got up to tend the fire. I'd just put a log in and shut the stove door when I heard the creak of hinges at the other end of the hall; I switched off my light, stood still, and watched, by the pale light cast by the battery lamp, as she moved across the hall into the bathroom, bent over, hair wild, in her nightgown, looking like something out of a Black Forest fairy tale. She never saw me.
My own "good" car was getting old and tired. This was not the car given to me by Berna; that one was already old and tired when I got it, strictly for close-to-home use. A hundred roundtrips to see my mother had left the "good" car with a slipping clutch and an evil spirit in its electrical wiring. Meanwhile, Gwendda's car, which she had maintained assiduously before she stopped driving it and which had low, old-lady mileage, was beginning its fourth year of rusting in her garage.
I wanted it. The brother across the sea has Power of Attorney, conferred on him voluntarily by Gwendda the last time he'd visited. For a couple of years, he'd been urging me to take the car as a "bonus" for looking after her. I resisted. It was so much like stealing from an old lady. I considered being forthright and simply asking her for it, but didn't dare. She hadn't driven it, looked at it, mentioned it for years. If I asked her for it or offered to buy it, she'd be reminded of its existence, and her dormant chronic paranoia might be roused; if she said yes, then she might later demand it back. If she said no, then I'd be in an even deeper dilemma. So I waited.
Letting a lot of time go by seemed to be the thing to do. I considered finding a decoy, an old wreck the same shape and color, putting it in the garage to fill the space if I ever took hers.
My "good" car became undrivable, and I was stretched too thin financially to fix it. I had to rent cars to get down to see my mother. I wasn't going often enough; guilt was reaching critical mass. Again, the brother urged me to take the car. He'd sign it over to me, he said. You've earned it. Just take it. It'll help you take care of my sister, he added, which was absolutely true. Time had indeed rendered her ever more dotty and dependent, putting more psychic distance between her and the car, and, I hoped, mellowing and diluting her tendencies. She needed me, she didn't need the car, I needed it badly.
So I did it. At night, when she was asleep. Put a new battery in, fired it up, and drove it, groaning, creaking and mildewed (the car, not me), out of the garage. My broken car, similarly shaped but an entirely different color, sits in its place in the garage, covered with a tarp, behind the very door with the still-visible dent in it.
It's been a year since the car heist. I haven't quite had the balls to actually take Gwendda anywhere in her car. I think about getting a fast, cheap Tijuana paint job. Bright blue, maybe. I use the other old-lady car to take her on trips to the movies or the hairdresser, though that's happening less and less because it's becoming almost impossible to get her out of the house. She sleeps all day, doesn't always know if it's 6 AM or 6 PM.
One evening not long ago, she said she was going to call the police because someone had stolen her car. My heart thumped irrational panic. But I stayed cool.
Before you call the police, I said, you need to have some specifics for them. Who took it?
It was those two men from the Bed and Breakfast Inn. They said they wanted to borrow it, and they never brought it back. It's a damned nuisance; I had to walk to the store to buy food.
Well, I said, relieved but still cautious, it's a little soon to call the police, isn't it? Why not wait a day or so and see if they bring it back?
Then, boldly, I asked: Have you looked in the garage?
I don't know how to get into the garage, she said.
Then she told me she'd bought a new house, would be moving soon, and she hoped I'd be able to find my way to it. I said she could draw me a map.
And she said: My mother and father walked right by my new house, and didn't even stop to say hello, the buggers.
Well, I said, maybe they didn't know you were in there.
A graph of my mother's gradual, grinding decline and dissolution would resemble the classic boardroom cartoon depicting a failing business: a jagged line going up, down, up, down, but the whole in a sure angle of descent. She'll soon begin her ninth year of incarceration. That's one of those thoughts that has to be just rudely shoved aside. Get in touch with my feelings about it? No, thanks. Avoidance, denial, dissemblance — that's the ticket.
They've called me from the home to say they sent her to the hospital again. They're conscientious at this place — if the old folks fall, or act peculiar, they send them to the emergency room for observation. She'd been acting limp and groggy and wouldn't eat, so they called the ambulance. I made an extraordinary discovery a while back, earth-shaking, at least to me: the old people get actual love from the staff. I'd expected competence and professional compassion, but love? I kid you not. These staffers I speak of have a genuine vocation. They get profoundly attached to the crumbling people in their care, treat them like prize orchids — diapers, drool, and all. This is what allows me to get some sleep occasionally. It's luck, I know; neither mine nor my mother's has completely run out. Not yet.
Usually, my mother is bounced out of the emergency room and back to the home within a few hours. This time, though, they've admitted her. She seems to be just running down, they tell me, as if her battery is finally and forever out of juice. As the sweet, golden-hearted manager of my mother's unit at the home puts it on the phone to me, she's "getting ready to go to heaven." I jump in the "stolen" Gwendda car and drive down. Something big, decisive, dreaded and yearned-for seems to be getting ready to happen. I think: I'm about to join the ranks of people whose mothers are dead. The prospect is fearful, awesome. Like going to jail or being abducted by aliens, I'm aware that it's a state of being you just can't know without experiencing it.
When I get to town, I do a little foot-dragging. Instead of going straight to the hospital, I go to the local Safeway, my oasis there for years, a remarkably civilized place with a deli and a Starbuck's where I can sit and get composed before going to see my mother. The people-watching is unsurpassed: one of the employees is a pretty, high-functioning young Down Syndrome woman who bags groceries, laughs and carries on conversations with customers. Most people would not have spotted her as Down, but I did, several visits back. Today, I'm thinking about her as I go in, wondering if she'll be there. I run into her almost immediately. We make eye contact. She greets me in a friendly, modulated voice. I have the feeling she knows that I know she's Down, is aware that I've been watching her. They're highly prone to Alzheimer's, at a shockingly young age.
I gather my courage and forge on to the hospital. My mother's in bed in the classic mouth-open-eyes-closed pose. Her doctor is female and Pakistani; I see the formidable intelligence behind the huge dark eyes. We talk a little about Musharif, the election, the death of Benazir Bhutto. The doctor tells me that since she began practicing in the U.S., she's been shocked at the amount of dementia she's seen. It's rare back in Pakistan, she says; where most people are dead by age 65. You should let your mother go, she tells me. Put her in hospice care, make her comfortable, and let her go.
Indeed, I have a letter my mother wrote way before she started to lose it. She said she'd taken out a long-term care policy, good for five years. And she wrote: Five years is enough. After that, find me a getaway pill. Her exact words. We've exceeded that limit by three years now, will soon start a fourth. Horrible. Beyond horrible: betrayal.
Lying there in the hospital bed, she certainly looks like someone getting ready to check out. I sit with her for a while, thinking I really ought to be talking in her ear, but feeling weirdly self-conscious and finding it oddly awkward to think of what to say. I look at the polish on her fingernails, put there by the staff; back in her day, she never, ever wore nail polish. Plain, short fingernails were her style. I look at her ear lobes; she'd had her ears pierced on a trip to Europe fifty years ago. The hole on her right ear was off-center; I remember noticing it when I was little. Now I'm looking at it up close. She quit wearing earrings a while ago, but the hole is still there, way too close to the inner edge of the ear lobe. Pretty clumsy work, I think, on the part of some long-ago anonymous ear-piercer.
I do my best to avoid looking at her mouth. She's gone dentureless for a couple of years now, when she started refusing to keep her teeth in. We got her some new ones, more comfortable, we hoped, but she wouldn't keep those in, either, and they vanished. Probably wadded up in a paper napkin and gone into the trash. I think: those teeth exist somewhere, right now, grinning away in a landfill, to be found by archaeologists of the future. Or maybe never to be found. Matter whirling around the sun.
My mother's teeth. She once had a beautiful mouth—red-lipsticked, her breath mint-gum and mentholated-Kools sweet and fragrant. I used to swoon a little over her mouth and breath when I was a child. I was kind of in love with my mother. They say that women try to find men like their fathers; thinking about it, I see that I wanted to find a man like my mother. Not the lipstick — the lucidity, brains, literacy, humor, manners, charm, worldliness and natural nobility. Getting used to those toothless jaws was a tough one for me.
(Part 2 of 4)
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