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No Country For Old Women (Part 4)

I don't keep a ringing phone in my bedroom. Whatever it is, unless it's an invasion from Mars, in which case it wouldn't matter, can wait until I've had a night's sleep, I figure. One morning, just when I was beginning to relax a little, I found the light blinking on the machine. It was the head nurse at the home, calling at 3 AM: She'd had to get out of bed herself and drive over to the home to wrestle Gwendda's cane from her hands. She'd left her room in the middle of the night, seen a staff member going door to door to check on people, decided this person was planting bombs, came up behind her and whacked her, hard, with the cane. Never mind that she was 88 and all bent over with osteoporosis; she was impressively strong, said the nurse, herself a large robust woman. It had been quite a scuffle getting the cane away from Gwendda. She was in another world, said the nurse—struggling, fighting, shouting about bombs. Yeah, I thought — she was in London in 1941. I had no doubt that the chemicals, which were supposed to subdue her and enclose her in calm, had enclosed her in a waking dream wherein she was transported in time to the most intense years of her life. Phantoms and memories draw sustenance from the night. It had been night when my mother roamed the exact same hall after leaving the exact same room, her brain hissing and sizzling with the exact same alien chemicals, and attacked.

Gwendda was kicked out. It was the purest déjà vu: Formerly friendly voices turned cold and officious, reciting rules. My mother had been dead for less than a month. I called the 150-miles-away home where she had died. Would they take our British friend? Bring her on down, they said. We can handle her.

So we took her on down. Tricked her into the car, again, just as we'd tricked my mother into the car, again. When my mother died, I thought that my days of 300-mile roundtrips were over. Not quite. Gwendda did pretty well at the new place. I drove down to see her a couple of times. Her 89th birthday was in early August. Two days later, she had a stroke and was sent to the hospital. I drove down. She was out of it, just about comatose. She came around long enough to open one eye, look at me and say my name. Then she slipped back under for good. I watched her: eyes closed, way, way gone, but she raised her arm occasionally and spelled out letters with her index finger as if on a dream window pane.

She was comatose for about ten days. She went back to the home, just as my mother had, then died in her room there, with a Filipina nurse praying by her bed. I drove down, went to the same funeral home I'd gone to three months before, sat at the same table with the same Miss Thanatogenous, filled out the same forms. I went back to the home, loaded up the car, dropped most of the stuff off at the same thrift store where my mother's things had reentered the cycle. The interval until the actual cremation was about the same as with my mother.

On the official Zyprexa website, I'd seen this when the drug was first prescribed:

Elderly people with psychosis related to dementia (a brain disorder that lessens the ability to remember, think, and reason) are at increased risk of death when taking certain mental health medicines (such as ZYPREXA) compared with a sugar pill. ZYPREXA is not approved for these patients. 

I'd asked various medical people, not too forcefully, if Zyprexa was a good choice. It's fine, they all said. A good drug for old people. What exactly did they mean by "fine?" I have a lurking conviction that we all tacitly colluded in euthanasia. Was that a bad thing? There's the $64,000 question. Or maybe $64,000,000, adjusted for inflation.

It's a couple of months later now. The silence and lack of traveling vast distances is peculiar. So much square footage of my consciousness and reflexes were filled for so long with driving, worrying, managing, phoning, scrambling, prevaricating, dissembling, hiding, failing and fretting that it's like the skin of a circus fat lady who's suddenly lost seven hundred pounds: things don't just snap right back into place. Plenty of time and space now for cultivating my lush garden of regrets and Weltschmerz. I had to tell Gwendda's 95-year-old once-upon-a-time boyfriend that she had died. I considered fibbing to him, telling him she was doing just fine, but I didn't.

I had to tell him. Didn't I?

Jump back a few years: Not long after my book DEATH IN SLOW MOTION came out, 2005 or so, I was sitting in a movie theater watching the credits after "Kinsey," starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. The long arm of synchronicity reached out and pinned me in that seat, because usually I get up and get out when a movie is over. A name rolled by on the screen: Romulus Linney. Father of Laura, well-known playwright, and one of my mother's long-ago paramours. I'd failed to recognize him in the cameo role he played in the movie because it had been almost 40 years since I'd last seen him.

Jump back further, to 1965: Romulus had been a smooth-faced and handsome 34 or 35, standing in front of the fireplace in the Connecticut house, his elbow on the mantelpiece, his gaze on my mother, who was 42 and at the height of her gorgeousness, holding court at a little cocktail party. I'd been a sullen, faux world-weary, Gauloise-smoking, self-absorbed, black-eye-makeup-wearing teenager. But not so self-absorbed that I didn't notice Romulus. I liked him, a lot. It would have been fine with me if my mother married him. She didn't, of course; she married Mike. Romulus was the guy who directly preceded Mike.

Over the years, after Romulus and my mother parted, I'd occasionally hear his name and the names of some of his plays: "2: Goering at Nuremburg," "Holy Ghosts," "Heathen Valley." He was the real deal, an actual successful playwright, stunningly prolific, making a living at it. And I'd think, in passing, Ah, yes — Rom Linney, the husband who might have been. 

When his name rolled by in the credits that night in the movie theatre, it had been a long time since I'd thought of him. I was jolted: Romulus! Alive and kicking! I want to talk to him! The next day, I found his phone number in New York, called, got him on the second ring.

Hello, Rom, I said. This is a voice from your past.

Ellie! he said, right there, totally and immediately. Forty years fell away.

I told him about my mother, I told him about the book, and we had a terrific conversation. He didn't know about the book, wondered how it was possible that he didn't, but said he'd go get a copy as soon as we hung up.

A day later, a long, long letter poured out of my fax machine:

Let me begin with the picture of Mary on the front of the book, where I think she is a few years younger than she was when I met her. It was, to use the indispensible cliché, deeply moving. What I did not expect was the photograph of her at the end of the book looking exactly as she did in 1964 when we met. Turning the page, I was startled by the loud, clear sound of my own voice, instantly crying out to her. I am filled with so many memories and so much love.... 

They were together for a year and a half, he wrote, and the only time she ever turned her withering tongue in his direction was when they were having a final sort of conversation about the future of their affair ...when it was time, we both knew, to part. He was, he said, chewing gum at that moment, and she let him know she didn't like it much. Ha. I can imagine. Though I don't blame him at all for chewing gum; he'd just finished lugging a mountain of my mother's stuff into her new walkup apartment (third floor, no less) on 71st St. She waited until the job was done before she delivered the news. Nevertheless, he said with great generosity that she was unfailingly kind and courteous to him, that he saw her pierce other people's balloons, as he put it, but she left his alone.

She domesticated me. When I met her, I did not think I would ever be able to live with and for one woman...she brought me into a world of romantic, sexual and social civility that I had never entered... 

He spoke of my mother taking him to Connecticut parties, one of them at William Styron's, and to parties in New York, and the gratification he got from being her escort:

She several times preferred me, to my enormous male satisfaction, over some other very aggressive older men, who were scornful of me... 

As for the difference in their ages, he had this to say:

For me, she was so natural, healthy, funny, wise and beautiful, I never thought about it. She took me into her house with a simplicity and generosity that (she didn't know it) made me cry.... 

And they had between them something extra, a rich dimension of rapport:

As writers, we were young together. I loved her novels, and she respected mine...My God, how many things your mother did for me. I had a terrible kidney stone, ended up in Lenox Hill in that awful kind of pain. Just after they gave me morphine, and I was floating in a boat of relief, there Mary appeared, absolutely like an angel from heaven, handing me a Virginia Kirkus rave review of my just-published novel. I have always thought that book the best writing I will ever do, so the fine comments that came after that will always be accompanied with a vision of her. 

What he really wanted to do, though, was write plays. He had an idea for one, about Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It burned to be written, but the task loomed in an overwhelming way. How could a whippersnapper from Appalachia write a play about the "Enlightened Despot" of mid-18th-century Prussia? He put off and put off actually starting the play, took refuge in endless research.

My mother busted through all that. I can so easily imagine her face, her expression, her tone when she did:

It was Mary who told me in no uncertain terms, when she dropped me off at (the writers' retreat) Yaddo in the summer of 1965, to for God's sake stop reading forever and ever about Frederick the Great and write whatever impossible thing I was going to write about him. With Mary's injunction ringing in my ears, I did that, starting the next day, and began my life as a playwright. 

The rest is, in every sense of the word, history: "The Sorrows of Frederick" got written, produced, and made his name. He went on to write eighty-four more plays.

In the letter, he spoke of sweet times in my mother's company:

There was a Chinese restaurant on 72nd St. It was plain and simple, but with very old mahogany-seeming walls, lovely ancient booths, and it served very weak Stock vermouth and Gordon's gin martinis, which we loved, because we could have several and stretch the evening out without real overindulgence. We collapsed into those booths with happy sighs....My God. Happiness comes in many forms. It is wonderful to share this with you, who will care about it, because Mary was happy then too... 

Mary was happy then too! I seize on this. I add it to my mental store of happy times in my mother's life. Maybe this will tip the balance, crowd out the heartbroken times. By the time I was reading Rom's letter, though, Mike had been dead for sixteen years, and my mother had been incarcerated for five of them. And anyway, happiness is fragile and airy compared to sorrow, which has the durability and atomic density of lead.

But happiness has its own peculiar occasional qualities. It's been known to soar, to create its own upward-wafting, gravity-defying thermal currents under its wings:

There was an old southern hymn we both enjoyed in our childhood churches, about all that was left of that to agnostic writers, FAIREST LORD JESUS. We would sing it together often, over martinis, in bed, driving somewhere. I used it in the most performed of all my plays, and I never see that play or hear that hymn without loving her again.

Remember, we're talking about two non-believers. I know exactly what they were doing. Here's a little insider secret: some of us non-believers have a weakness for religious music. It has to be quality music, though: Handel's Messiah, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, certain hymns. We play them, or sing them, and vicariously "believe" for a few moments. My mother and Rom were both good singers. My mother was great at harmonizing. I can so imagine the coziness of their two voices inside a car, the complicated playfulness of them singing that particular song, the beautiful escape velocity that happens when you're making music.

Why did they part? He writes in the letter of being young, broke, struggling.

Mary understood that however much I loved her, I was too poor to care for her in any material way. I am astonished that she stayed with me for so long…

And so came the gum-chewing moment.

Soon after the faxed letter, Romulus sent me a recording, made especially for my mother, of himself singing "Fairest Lord Jesus." He greets her before he starts to sing, calls himself an old, old friend from a long time ago. His rendition is measured, soulful and fond; he has a pleasant bit of tremolo in his singing voice. When he's done, he says: We used to enjoy singing that together, Mary, and I send you my love. My name is Romulus, and I hope you're well, my dear. Bye-bye. There's a poignant lilt, gallant and southern, in the way he says those last words: Bye-bye. 

On my next visit to my mother, I put earphones on her head and play the tape. I can't hear it myself while it's being played, but I watch her face. Music cuts through Alzheimer's, they say. People who can't speak anymore can sing the words to old songs. Old frayed wiring lights up. Music is resistant to the ravages of The Beast, as if it has its own private circuitry.

Her eyes widen. She looks right at me while she listens. I have this really horrible theory that people with dementia are still completely themselves way deep inside, everything shrunk down to a desiccated nugget, and constrained, like struggling in the mud of a bad dream, but there. I hope I'm wrong, because most of the time, it's a thought not to be borne. But my mother's wide eyes and astonished expression while she listens tell me that recognition is occurring. How much, what kind, I can't possibly know, but the sound of Romulus singing has found its way through to the place where she dwells. Contact!

I report this to Rom. We both get huge satisfaction from it. We did it right.

Before another year has passed, Romulus tells me he wants to write a play inspired by my book and by his memories of his time with my mother. Over the next couple of years, he sends me drafts. It's shaping into something wondrous in the hands of this seasoned professional. Damn, I think; I sure am glad I sat there in that movie theater for those few extra minutes after "Kinsey." My mother dies in 2008. I sadly tell Romulus that she's gone. I had to tell him. Didn't I? By the summer of 2010, there is a staged reading at New York Stage and Film of "Over Martinis, Driving Somewhere."

Rom credited my mother with jumpstarting his first play. As it turned out, she also inspired his last: he died in early 2011.

I have a photograph, taken in 1964 at the Breadloaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. Eight people, sitting and standing, are on the porch of a fine big vintage wooden building. Seven of them are men, all of them young, several of them dark, brooding sorts. The one woman is my mother, in the center, in a chair. She's wearing a slim black sleeveless dress. Her long elegant legs are crossed, sandals on her feet, and she's talking to the man seated to her right, one of the brooders, who's listening intently. There's her fine profile, her shiny sleek brunette hair, her bare tan arms. Is that a cigarette in her hand? Probably. Standing behind her right shoulder is the young Romulus, not at all dark and brooding, cheery and smiling and obviously really, really happy, looking down at my mother, his attention on her like a beam of sunshine. It's a decorous picture, but it's also sizzling hot. Breadloaf was where they met. Elsewhere, he wrote about my mother at that conference, wearing a man's crisp white shirt, drying her hair in front of a summer fire....

Had they begun when that picture was taken? Something had, that's for sure.

It's a snapshot, long ago and far away, a few inches square, an itty-bitty window to another world, removed by time, inaccessible, like the tiny door to Wonderland where Alice can't go.

Old age: It's no country for old women, no country for old men.

(4th of 4)


  1. Zeke Krahlin July 27, 2018

    My bones ached reading this. Brilliant writing, Eleanor! And a fine homage to two, fine ladies so fortunate to have your outstanding care (that took great courage and sacrifice) in the dying embers of their flames.

    • Eleanor Cooney July 30, 2018

      Aw, hell, I appreciate the compliments, but I don’t think I did a good job as a caregiver at all…

  2. Maz Ballantyne December 28, 2018

    I love your writing Eleanor. I bought ‘Death in slow motion’ about 13 years ago and have read and reread so many times that it has become a treasured relative. I have connected so easily to your raw, sensitive and honest account of life. There is a richness to your descriptions that transports me to being like an intrigued observer of someone else’s home movie in my own mind. Truly powerful writing. Thankyou.

    • ecooney January 15, 2019

      Just found this! Many thanks, Maz. It’s easy for writers to feel as if they’re speaking into a void, so your words mean a lot!!!

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