My mother will turn 90 soon. I notice a steady decline each Saturday when I visit. Sometimes she knows my name and sometimes I can make out the phrase “my daughter” from what is otherwise unintelligible jabber. Her face is soft and shows no tension and if she were to magically snap lucid, she’d be particularly pleased to see that she got her money’s worth on that last facelift. She eats with delight and climbs into a twin bed with her roommate at the board and care and they both sleep peacefully. The past few years, as the dementia has eaten away and taken her farther and farther from me, seem, given the years that preceded them, her most happy.
I’m not sure whether my memories of her unhappiness as chronic are exaggerated or corrupted by the terror she experienced, and the backlash consequently inflicted on me, as she attempted to conceal her slippage into dementia. If I’d realized what was happening I like to think I would have been more patient. I wonder too if the onset of the dementia began even decades before I finally picked up on it. My childhood memories of her are more weighted toward the selfishness and the screaming than the warm or the fuzzy, although my uncertainty as to when the brain actually begin to crumble fosters an inclination to forgive. With my own kids I try hard to keep the ratio of loving gesture to permanently damaging atrocity within a mentally healthy range. I worry though that my children’s more vivid memories will be of the times I fucked up. Perhaps my relentless mining of my own childhood for the joyful is a form of insurance that the preponderance of what my children remember about me will be good.
Edie and Thea, A Very Long Engagement is a documentary as sweet as it is efficient and elegant in recounting the forty year romance of its title characters. The women fell in love and have lived together since the 1960s. Thea’s Jewish family emigrated from Holland in the 1930s. A psychiatrist who treated her as a teenager assured her father that he would have her cured of her lesbianism and married off in no time. She refuses to expand about her relationship with her family when interviewed and she went on to become a psychologist herself. The film chronicles underground lesbian life in 50s and 60s Manhattan and the burgeoning gay rights movement. Edie and Thea much more resembled models from pages of Town and Country than the braless overalled crewcut sporting lesbians I usually associate with the genesis of the movement. They were very publically involved from the inception nevertheless, even though Edie, a pioneer in the computer field, had significant corporate ties and undoubtedly put her livelihood at risk. At the age of 45 Thea is diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. My older sister Sheri was sentenced with the same diagnosis.
Edie and Thea have sufficient resources to provide an entourage of helpers and a lot of services, like hydrotherapy, which seemed to have prolonged Thea’s life and kept her free of pain. My sister depended mainly on public assistance although she refused to participate in hydrotherapy that was offered to her at no charge. I do not know her reason but given my family’s worship of physical beauty, I suspect it may have something to do with appearing in a bathing suit. Sheri also, despite medical advice to avoid warm climates, moved to Las Vegas. Her husband moved there in an attempt to end their relationship and she followed him there in an attempt not to. That both were compulsive gamblers exacerbated the consequences of a lifetime of bad decisions.
I have written many times over the past few years about my mom and dad and sister, trying to understand what it was that didn’t work, and while this propels my occasional forays into arrogant superiority, for all my words, the picture is still hazy. Edie dances, draped around Thea in her electric wheelchair, to some soppy pop song. My sister lived to dance too but the love that she craved eluded her. I was holding her hand when she died but it had been decades since anyone danced with her.
Dementia has ravaged my mother but also stripped her of a lifetime of inhibitions so she innocently clings to a warm body in the night. My father always seemed the most happy in the throes of acquisition, the latest fine things and the youngest fine women. Having been hungry as a child during the depression may explain his later penchant for conspicuous consumption and his love of buffets. Marriages and the onus of alimony and child support tarnished my own relationship with him. I sat with him too when he died. The hospice people unplugged the machines and said it would be only a few hours but he endured for thirty and I don’t know if this was due to a quirk of medical science or his iron will.
When finally all systems shut down and death was pronounced I was desperate to flee the stifling room at Cedars and my stepmother and I walked to our cars. I returned home for the first of dozens of uncleansing showers. My stepmother snuck back to my father’s body. She kissed his gangrenous legs. She clung close until she was physically removed and locked out of the morgue. Nearly three years later she is still essentially immobilized by widowhood and as frustrated as I get with her dogged refusal to try to have some sort of life, I am grateful that for all my own conflict with my dad, who never made as much money as he felt he deserved, he died feeling utterly and completely loved and remains so.
I correspond through a Jewish public service agency with three inmates in California prisons. One inmate, a lifer, is transferred recently from Mule Creek State Prison, to inaptly named Pleasant Valley State Prison for medical reasons. He writes about the transition to the new prison:
I am in the “hole” (first time ever) simply because they have no bed for me anywhere else. So, I have none of my property. I have been given boxers and t-shirt to wear. My shoes have been taken. I get cuffed and belly chained to leave the cell and I have to step out backwards. I can have a shower every three days (chained to go to it) and ½ a bar of miniature soap once a week.
I joined the penpal organization when I was laid very low by the economic downturn and was desperate to pull myself away from the refrigerator and have something that would improve my opinion of myself. I get a lot of letters from three men who have a lot of time on their hands. I write to each of them once weekly and mainly blather on about the day-to-day travails of my life. The composition of these three weekly letters remains in the back of my mind as I go about my day. While the self imposed obligation to describe my life to three men deprived of freedom and confined to what I consider cruel and inhumane prisons, isn’t always in the forefront, my tacit promise to them does obligate me to remain mindful of my own freedom.
I have California Code of Prison Regulations on my desk. It is several hundred pages but the interpretation of the rules varies wildly from prison to prison. Most California Corrections facilities do not serve inmates fresh fruit or products containing sugar because either can be fermented into prison moonshine, called pruno. The letter that describes the transition from Mule Creek to Pleasant Valley goes on to note a difference in policy at the new institution:
Imagine my delight on my first morning here when on my breakfast tray was an orange. A real orange. First one I’ve seen in five years. I cannot tell you how much I savored it. When it was gone, I ate the peel.
Himself was reared and maybe is even genetically predisposed, not to expect any happiness during this lifetime and that it is base and vulgar to aspire to anything purporting to give the kingdom of heaven a run for the money. My deli inclined/temple disinclined family was much more rooted in the here and now and coveted physical beauty and flashy material possessions. I learned early on that these were the requisites for happiness. While my beloved’s people would have trashed the relevance, there have been a number of studies in recent decades about the nature of happiness. Two years ago, French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy appointed a commission to study how the government could be more effective and the conclusion was that a nation’s gross national product had little to do with general quality of life and that increasing public happiness and satisfaction is a better objective of government policy than financial growth.
Other studies corroborate that the rich are not necessarily, and often not at all, more happy than the poor. There is also indeed evidence that there are genetic factors that effect an individual’s disposition. Older people are apparently more predisposed to happiness than younger ones and religious people are generally more upbeat than non-believers.
Statistics on Alzheimer’s suggest that my mother will not live very long and while she lacks the cognition to evaluate her own state of well-being, via proxy on her behalf, I would aver that this final stage of her life can be considered happy. My dad’s memory is beloved and I like to think that by mining my memories of my sister, who in her too short life really only harmed herself, I pay a little tribute. If nothing else, maybe she would be happy to think that I remember her. Shortly before Thea’s death, she and Edie are married in Toronto. The assistance of helpers is required to help Thea slide a ring on Edie’s finger and both beam as their forty years of love is finally consecrated.
A year ago I was uncertain whether my business would endure but as I write this, the phones are not ringing off the hook but the lights are on. My children hit me up for money all the time but have very few physical requirements of me now. They are tall enough to get me things from high shelves and are capable, when I luck out, of lively conversation and excellent cultural recommendations. My beloved is on a well deserved, albeit too little, too late, sabbatical and has had a number of stellar book and music reviews published in prestigious publications and during our twenty plus years together, I have never seen him so much in his element. The puppy Oprah is almost housebroken and the other dogs have bonded with her. There is a basket of oranges on the counter.
I am superstitious and am always uptight and afraid of jinxing things but given the inevitable twists and turns life takes, it seems foolish not to drink in and be grateful when times are good. My family thought that heaven was a silly gentile notion and I was conditioned to seek happiness here on this earth but in the wrong places. My beloved learned that his existence vis a vis the mortal coil was a mere conduit to eternal life in heaven or hell. He is superstitious like I am and also has that “who the fuck are you to be happy?” thing etched on his soul. Still, I take a risk and ask him one night if he doesn’t really think that this is a happy time for us, expecting he’ll change the subject or otherwise deflect the question. He stretches in the bed though and rubs my bushy head. He whispers, “Yeah.” In my humanistic Jewy rationality I cannot imagine that such a state as heaven exists but as we share a pillow on a balmy night, I cannot imagine that it doesn’t.