Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brave on (virtual) Paper


Brave on (virtual) Paper.

I have been trying to get my friend Valerie to come to bootcamp. She is, after being a drive around mom for many years, working now and her husband has retired. I will be discreet about her employer and say only that it is an organization that attracts philanthropic types and most interaction is with a Junior League-ish demographic. She is the only African American at the worksite. She is miffed because she had looked forward very much to watching the inauguration quietly cocooned in her private office but the entire staff barged in, wanting to watch it with the black girl, and she was rendered numb by self consciousness and pressure to provide a photo op reaction.

When I first met Val she sported a cutely trimmed little afro. Now her style is like Michelle Obama’s, just a bit shorter. This new look prevents her from attending bootcamp and demands a 7 a.m. Saturday three hour hairdressing marathon. Her husband and I both suggested she go back to natural but it absolutely unthinkable to her with THIS job. She’d sooner turn up in a dashiki. I asked, if she has to spend three hours a week straightening her hair so that she could work with white folks, what in God’s name was this whole election was about?

I have watched hours of cinema verite life in prison on plas. I have attempted to wear down my hard assed beloved on the merits of Obama. I snapped smugly, “We no longer torture, “ but after reading an article in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande about the devastating psychological effects of solitary confinement and the large percentage of U.S. prisoners who are subjected to it, I realize that this is not true. It has been proven in every civilized nation in the world that meaningful activity, education and psychological support reduce prison violence and decrease recidivism. The U.S. has five percent of the world’s population but twenty five percent of its prisoners. I hope the Obama administration takes this on as a critical human rights issue, the correction of which happens to be essential to building infrastructure.


My mother always groomed herself fastidiously and with enormous vanity. Bushels of makeup were sent to the dump when we dismantled her home. Now her lipstick is always askew and her wardrobe mix and matching is luck of the draw. I don’t have the heart to say anything. She has been deprived of all cutting devices including nail clippers because on several occasions she severed the telephone cord in her boyfriend’s room to protect him from his annoying daughter’s calls. I noticed that her toenails resembled the claws of a large avian. I considered, very briefly, trimming them myself but made a pedicure appointment, bringing Marlene to help wrangle. My mother suffers from edema and her translucent old skin bruises easily and is mottled. She is very thin. A small wound on her foot is bandaged. Suddenly she is frail and hunched and for the first time, old. It is a challenge to get her from hotel to car to salon but the pedicure is administered with such gentle kindness, she falls asleep.

With pretty nails, she handles and examines everything on the lunch table. She mutters inchoate sentences. She pours water onto her meal. She was diagnosed with irreversible dementia and moved to the “hotel” over two years ago. When I closed the door and left her locked in there for the first time I felt that she was lost to me. I see her dutifully every week and am astonished by the manifestations of her decline. For the first year and a half or so she knew where she lived and which room was hers. She basked in the constant presence of her gentleman friend. Now she is befuddled when we return home and when asked about her companion, she doesn’t remember him. The honeymoon simplicity and safety of the hotel has ended. Now she does not know where she is and therefore isn’t confident that she is in a safe place. She grows more and more agitated when I leave. I was happy she was able to have a nice period of romance and security. I only realized when I broke down her home how frightened and distressed she must have been. But now she has so little memory that she reverts back to her former natural state of anxiety. Emphysema causes frightening shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. The hotel staff is pressuring me to remove her eighteen year old cat, as, although I have installed an automatic feeder, they feel her care of her is inadequate. I have sweet talked them out of this before but this time I will probably have to comply and there are not myriad options for the disposition of an eighteen year old cat. There is no happy outcome here and there is nothing I can dare myself to wish for. She was lost to me a long time ago but now the loss continues to wound as it becomes so exaggerated and extreme.




My weekly posting here has taken on a form and rhythm. I make a few notes on Monday and Tuesday. I record disparate things that are salient to me and usually on Wednesday I begin to shape paragraphs. Normally on Thursday morning I have a sick feeling I’ve made a mess and accomplished nothing. I review the previous day’s work, edit and trim and by doing this fine tuning I attain an intimacy that helps me tie things together. The connections made, the piece is written except for a closing paragraph or two which serves purely as my pep talk and as close a substitute for therapy as I can contrive. The formulation of conclusion is an emotional exercise that helps me find the reasons to be thankful for the near completed week and go into the weekend fortified to face my mother and then relax and enjoy my family. I lamented at the end of last week how treading water is growing wearisome. The standards I use to define survival are lowered a bit each week.

The sixteen year old is on vacation and doing time at the office, helping with an inventory and removing films that have rotted beyond salvation. Film cases have to be lifted off high shelves. Each weighs close to twenty pounds and is stored in a fiber case, the straps of which are tricky to open and particularly to close soundly. Every reel of film is enclosed in a metal canister, also sometimes frustrating to open and close. The odor of rotting films is sort of a hybrid of decomposing eggs and the vomit of someone who is severely dehydrated. There are cases stacked high in the aisles, my dwindling equity, destined for the dumpster. The 16 year old clocks about two hours a day, but most of the time seems spent making selections on his Ipod or disentangling the cables of his headphones from a film strap. The rest of his eight hour work day is spent snoozing in his grandpa’s little cot or computing. I don’t much like having him at the office and he doesn’t much like being there but we are so desperate to make an impact that we are willing to curtail his freedom, and therefore our own, to get his attention. I have provided a better than average lunch on his office days and let him buy a diet Dr. Pepper at the 7/11 but other than that I haven’t been very nice to him.

Spuds complains about an infected cuticle on his big toe and I make him sit in front of plas with his foot in a Tupperware with hot water and Epsom salts after which Neopsporin and a bandage are applied. I feel very confident and momlike. It is beginning to look better but Spuds is skeptical of my hubris and demands an evaluation by a medical doctor. I keep him out of school and we are referred to a licensed physician in Century City, in the same building that houses the hospital where my mother had a bad reaction to anesthetic, punched me and required four chunky nurses to restrain her. Similarly, my father flipped out once at St. Vincent’s and threw a telephone at me. Is there something anesthesiologists don’t get about old folks? The podiatrist has the requisite hodgepodge of foot and shoe art. He boasts to Spuds that one of the patients in the waiting room was the stand-in for Magic Johnson on a Morongo Indian gambling spot. He pokes around a bit and trims a particle of dead skin and prescribes soaking in Epsom salts and applying Neosporin and a bandage.

I am the only person on the earth my mother recognizes now. She gets in the car and I am surprised at how automatically she fastens her seatbelt. She pays attention to the things I eat. The “mom” instinct is indelibly engrained, like breathing or seat belting. This week finds me at sea and approaching this writing like the last two paragraphs will never come. But as I write about my mother and my sons I begin to see what will form it.

I arrive at the office Monday morning and find the same sad state as Friday when I admitted that my pep talks to self were getting harder and harder to muster and make effective. I send out some sad e-mails and a few are responded to with loving comfort and crushingly, a few were not responded to at all. I fear that those whose strength I need the most find my despair beyond hope of comfort and so mutely recoil. These are extraordinary and fucked up times but I am also paralyzed and gun-shy by a pernicious sense of personal failure. I am not very nice to be around. I have barely spoken to Himself, afraid that if I attempt more than a curt sentence the dam will break and I will cry and momentarily glimpse his stricken hopeless look before he steps to hold me.

He is at work on a paper about a place he loves in Ireland and when he emerges from the bunker I will edit it a bit. Words have been the foundation of our relationship for over twenty years and returning to our most comfortable milieu our conversation will resume. I’ve had it with compulsive eating and sitting catatonic in front of the computer looking at Facebook, reading my horoscope, doing crossword puzzles and writing pathetic needy e-mails while praying for orders to come in. I have a Blackberry and can monitor business correspondence from anywhere and maybe I will be less mopey and nasty if I work a bit on my own infrastructure. I am exploring the possibility of doing some outreach to the prison population but in the meantime it was suggested that I volunteer at 826LA a literacy program for children started by Dave Eggers. I will either tutor individual children in writing skills or teach a workshop. It seems that no one is earning a living right now and I am certainly more confident at present about my teaching skills than my ability to run a small business.

Things that are important to me seem to be slipping away and I am often shrill when those who love and trust me need me to be tender. I do not know how much the conclusion I struggle with here will fortify me. I wait puppylike for e-mail life preservers and physical manifestations of love and comfort too. I see my morose indolent teenage self in the sixteen year old and while sometimes we are not very nice to each other, he knows and I will continue to remind him, whether he likes it or not, how fiercely I love him. Spuds may be skeptical of my medical knowledge but he doggedly trusts my momness. My mom’s momness is less and less distinct and for the rest of her life and after it, there will be the sorrow of watching her become brittle and hollow. It is wretched to witness this and my ritual weekly visit does the double duty of self mortification and feeble attempts to mold the compassionate person I long to be. I believe that words can heal and that they will and that bleeding wounds can be staunched by deft and naked sentences. Teaching children about writing words at 826LA will reinforce this most of all for the teacher. My beloved will be the first to read this post and he will know first hand the struggle it’s been to put these words to (virtual) paper and his face will soften and he will step forward to hold me in (real) love.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

I guess I am the first to read this post, but as I have not blogged since Tuesday morning and this being Saturday afternoon already, you can see my own busy-ness with first my own paper, then teaching, third my teaching class (speaking of prison), fourth seeing my day (ditto for elder care), and fifth, the need for sleep and commuting. But, I do welcome your outpourings, and I hope that when dams break the floods are not as dramatic as those between Fargo & Moorhead as I type this. xxx me