Saturday, February 13, 2016

An insane situation

He said “Let’s make love on a mountain top, under the stars on a big hard rock.”
I said “In these shoes? I don’t think so.”

There's a saying among writers - or so I've been told, I don't know this personally because I'm only a covert writer - that everyone thinks they have a book in them.

It reminds me of something the manager of public relations said, during my stint as a corporate communications specialistt, when business leads or company executives wanted to rewrite our press releases. "We don't think we can do their jobs, why do they think they can do ours?"

So does eveyone really think they have a book in them? That's huge. I mean a book. That's really huge. That's a couple of hundred pages at least, or 700 pages if you're J.K. Rowling or Jonathan Frantzen.

I'm a writer, in the loosest sense of the word. I've been published and I have a body of work that includes actual words in actual sentences and paragraphs, on one topic or another, mostly the pinnacles and pitfalls of being me.

But a book? I'm not so sure.

If you'd asked me that 50 years ago I might have said it was my dearest hope, my brightest dream, to be an author. This of course was in the hostoric golden days of print books, before Amazon and ebooks and Kindle and self-publication and posssibly the Internet itself. There was plenty of time though, time to live and experience something (anything) worth putting pen to paper, fingertips to typewriter, keyboard or touch screen.

Then years went by, and I guess I was in one too many bookstores before most of them closed and I'd think, there are already so many books in the world, so many writers. Monkeys have probably keystoked the complete works of Shakespeare by now.

The worst of it was the bargain bins, the markdown tables. Look here, somebody spent time on this tome about shoebox gardening or baking with turmeric or fifty shades of fuchsia. Someone took a chance on putting it in print, someone invested in cover art and head shots and forewords and prologues and illustrations. Someone sent out advance copies to reap praise bytes to quote on the dust jacket.

And here it sits, marked down to $2.

If that was my book, I'd be at risk of revisiting clinical depression. Better not to not write a book at all. Or as my dad liked to say, it's better to have loved and lost. Much better.

He was joking of course. He adored my mother. They were married for almost 62 years until his death did them part.

As I was saying in my last post, if my mom had had her way, his death wouldn't have parted them. She'd have gone with him, or followed closely on his stone cold heels.

Once my dad was resting the long rest of the just we didn't pay enough attention to my mom's relentless mantra, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.

We had lives and jobs and obligations to get back to. It did feel a bit like we cut and ran, but maybe that's mostly in retrospect. I thought it was just words. I never dreamed my mom would actually try to go to sleep and never wake up.

I asked my mom if she wanted to come home with us for a while. She didn't. I raised the idea of hiring someone to come in a few days a week to clean and cook. I said, we could have someone start right away if you'd like that. My mom said, let me see how I do first.

And all the while she had her plan fully hatched and fledged. We went to the grocery store and she bought some Unisom because she said she was having trouble sleeping. At home, the bottle mysteriously got lost. That should have rang a warning bell, raised a red flag. My mom is super organized. When we cleaned out her freezer months later, everything was labeled and dated. Everything had its place. Pills being misplaced or accidentally tossed was out of character.

As I said, we weren't paying enough attention. We were all so sad and shocked by my dad's death. More mistakes were made.

On the day Neil and I left, my brother took my mom to the grocery store again. They picked up another bottle of Unisom. My mom put a second bottle in the shopping cart.

I'd like to say if I had been there I would have objected. I would have confronted her. I would have asked her what she planned to do with all that Unisom. I would have told her that taking an overdose of Unisom would not kill her, it would just make her very, very sick.

My brother flew home to New Jersey the day after we departed for Texas. As soon as his plane landed he called my mom and got no answer. He called me. He wondered if she was lying in bed staring at the ceiling and just not picking up the phone. I thought it more likely that some of her friends had come over and taken her out to eat, maybe to a movie.

I said, let's give it an hour and then call the retirement community security. An hour later, we sent security to her apartment. Mom was lying on the floor next to her bed. She had been very sick indeed, but she wasn't unresponsive. A neighbor later told me that she walked to the waiting ambulance. She was taken to Northwest Medical Center hospital in Margate, where she was admitted and - because she'd attempted to take her own life - Baker-Acted.

The Baker Act provides for emergency or involuntary commitment if there is evidence that a person is a harm to self. I've written about this part of my mom's story before. An aide was assigned to be in the room with her at all times, until, after a week, she was transferred to the University Hosptital Center for Geriatric Behavioral Health. She spent the rest of 2010 there.

It was an insane situation, pun accidental but appropos. Mom still wanted to go to sleep and never wake up, as she told her attending physician daily. This pretty much guaranteed an extended stay. They put her in adult pull-ups and loaded her up with antidepressants. I remember my mom insisting she wasn't depressed. She was completely straight-faced when she said it. Depression, grief, none of it bore weight or meaning beside what seemed to her a perfectly logical, defensible wish - to not go on living without my father.

I'm afraid I didn't cut her much slack. I of all people, who fell down the rabbit hole when I man I'd been dating for just a few months abruptly decided that I was a big mistake. Back then there were days when I barely managed to function, hours when I cried gallons of tears, weeks when I lived on yogurt and oatmeal, months when going to a party was as appealing as cleaning the bathroom. But I didn't want to die. I wanted to get better. I also wanted him to show up at my door with two dozen roses and profound apologies. But even if I was delusional, I was doing whatever I had to do to get through the heartsickness.

My mom was a Holocaust survivor. I thought she was strong, much stronger than I was. When I was growing up, she had no patience for my melancholy moods, no tolerance for my sensitivity and vulnerability. She engineered my low self-esteem with her constant disapproval of me, her disappointment that I wasn't someone who I wasn't, someone more like she was. Practical. Sociable. Outgoing. Well-adjusted. Assured. Poised. Positive. Sanguine. Upbeat. Pragmatic.

So when my dad died, how could I have stood in her shoes? How could I have had even one clue about the kind of shoes she was wearing?

How much of her flawed decision-making was a result of her impaired cognition? My brother saw it this way. As long as my mom knew my dad was there she was able to function reasonably well. Knowing that he had her back gave her a certain confidence. They had fallen into patterns they were probably scarcely conscious of, my dad putting out my mom's medicine, reminding her about little things, coaching her through her days.

My dad did her no good deed by denying the degree of her mental degradation. I do understand. He was old, he was ailing, he was tired. He didn't want to face change. He didn't want to move. He didn't want to think about my mom, struggling to survive in a world without him around to prop her up, cheer her on. So he didn't.

My mom eventually was discharged from the psych ward, after my brother and I suggested that if she wanted to leave, she should stop telling the doctor she wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. We had her transferred to Homewood Residence, an assisted living facility in Coconut Creek, for what we naively hoped was temporary "respite" care. At that point I thought she'd rally. Grieve, get a grip, go home, resume some sort of life.

The damage my mom did to herself snowballed. The overdose attempt, the first hospital stay, where she ricocheted from relative lucidity to talking to imaginary people in tongues, the longer psych ward stay, where they took away her underwear and her dignity, and fed her on styrofoam with plastic spoons, culminated in her waking up in an unfamiliar room, day after endless day.

It could have been different. My mom had choices. She could have stayed in her home and hired help, full time if need be. She could have moved to New Jersey or Texas to be nearer one of her children and some of her grandchildren. There was a short window of time when my brother and I could have made that choice for her, but we chose instead to believe she'd improve and respected her express wish to stay in Florida.

We didn't know that she would live almost three more years. Her initial decline was so rapid that by May we started hospice care. But my mom didn't die. She didn't exactly live either. She stabilized and kept breathing, eating, sleeping, ticking off the days. She existed but she didn't want to be here on earth any more.



Sometimes I feel quite guilty. I wasn't the worst daughter but I wasn't the best daughter. I left her alone too quickly after my dad died. I didn't insist on moving her when it was still possible, even though she would have gone, figuratively, kicking and screaming. Later the obstacles to a move, the physical and mental toll on my mom, always seemed to outweigh any nebulous benefit. She really didn't care where she was.

She had good care, kind staff at Homewood, a wonderful hospice team, a lovely personal aide, whatever small comforts money could buy. Yet at some level it felt as though we'd "warehoused" her. Put her in storage while we all waited for her to die. And there is a little mean voice deep inside me that whispers, "you reap what you sow." But am I talking to my mom - who failed to nurture my psyche during my childhood, who didn't care enough about me to stick around after my dad died - or to myself?

Your guess is as good as mine.

I've judged her harshly I think. I have no frame of reference for being alone after being happily married for more than 61 years, for being in an indefinitely deteriorating state of mind.

What provoked this reminiscence is that Neil has been traveling on business and whenever he is gone for a few nights I start to imagine the kind of shoes I'd be wearing if I knew he was never coming home. And it's impossible. I can't project how I'd feel. Obviously I'd feel differently now than I would in 25 years, if I were 87, my mom's age when my dad died. I hope if I were 87 I'd be able to grieve without giving up, live out whatever time I had left, find solace in my children and grandchildren, maybe even feel joy again.

Dementia in my mom's case was the wild card. Luckily I take after my dad. But if I were to go down my mom's road, I hope I'd recognize the signs and accept the prognosis. In the worst case scenario, being left on my own, I hope I'd have found a sustainable living situation for whatever time I had left. Because I don't look at life as a choice. That doesn't mean it would be easy.

It would be better if Neil outlives me. Much better.



My mom, 90 years old, May 18, 2013. She died Oct. 30, 2013.


I once met a man with a sense of adventure
He was dressed to thrill wherever he went
He said “Let’s make love on a mountain top
Under the stars on a big hard rock.”

I said “In these shoes?
I don’t think so.”
I said “Honey, let’s do it here."

So I’m sitting at a bar in Guadalajara
In walks a guy with a faraway look in his eyes
He said “I’ve got as powerful horse outside
Climb on the back, I’ll take you for a ride
I know a little place, we can get there for the break of day.”

I said “In these shoes?
No way, Jose.”
I said “Honey, let’s stay right here.”

Then I met an Englishman
“Oh” he said
“Won’t you walk up and down my spine
It makes me feel strangely alive.”

I said “In these shoes?
I doubt you’d survive.”
I said “Honey, let’s do it.
Let’s stay right here.”

No le gusta caminar, no puede montar a caballo
(She doesn’t like to walk, she can’t ride a horse)
Como se puede bailar, es un escandolo
(But the way she dances, it’s a scandal)


(Kirsty MacColl and Pete Glenister)

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