(This is an excerpt from the new final chapter in the 2013 Kindle edition of my 2004 memoir, DEATH IN SLOW MOTION)
Winter, 2008: I’m driving a stolen car. Not technically stolen, but it feels stolen. My guilty conscience clatters along everywhere I go in the car, like the tin cans and old shoes honeymoon-bound brides and grooms once tied to their rear bumpers, minus the festiveness. The car, a beige 1988 Ford Taurus, had belonged to Gwendda, the 88-year-old woman I look after. One day about four years ago, she parked the car in the garage and hung up her keys. The car had sat for three years after that, a fine coating of pale green mold gradually dusting the dashboard.
I drive toward the dumpy-looking little nursing home in the next town where Berna, another old lady I know, is permanently flat on her back in bed. Like the Chief in “Little Big Man,” she decided one day it was time to lie down and die. Old Lodge Skins only stayed up on his funeral platform for a day or so waiting fruitlessly for death; Berna has lain in that bed for almost five years. She disassembled her life, reduced her earthly belongings to a box or two, and checked herself into the nursing home to die. I have her car, too.
Tomorrow, I’ll go visit my Alzheimered mother in the assisted-living place in Vacaville where we put her eight years ago. The distance I drive roundtrip will be the equivalent of crossing Nebraska. The last time I was there, Christmas day 2007, a 17-year-old kid was getting killed by an escaped Siberian tiger at the San Francisco zoo, about 50 miles from where I was.
Things had been more grim and silent than usual at my mother’s old-folks’ home when I’d arrived. It looked as if everyone had keeled over from a poison gas attack: one guy slumped with his forehead resting on a table; another was lying on the sofa with his eyes open, head hanging off the side. My mother was in a recliner in front of the TV, head back, eyes shut, mouth open. I sat down by her chair and read out loud from the National Enquirer, as is my wont, and my mother came back from far, far away and actually laughed at a couple of the stories. She looked at me as if I were someone familiar but whom she couldn’t quite place. I also hauled out the photo album I assembled a few years back, full of pictures of her young and gorgeous. She never fails to respond to it, and it attracts the attention of the staff, who gaze in wonderment at the pictures and then at the ruin in the chair.
When it was time to go, I put my head right next to hers and whispered in her ear, telling her who I am and that I love her and such, and her hand went around and caressed the back of my neck. This almost destroyed me. You become accustomed to the "remove" of dementia, accommodate yourself to the notion that she's "gone," and out of habit and self-protection, harden up. But in that moment, she was fully there, she was my mother, and she was caressing my neck. I went out to the car and blubbered. Not for long; I blew my nose, started the engine and got going.
On the drive home, I heard about the tiger attack on the news. And I thought: is this the exact diametric opposite of what's happening to my mother, or what? She's 86 and dying a protracted, ignominious death, decaying in full view while she still breathes. The kid at the zoo steps out one fine day, at the apex of youth, and gets killed in the space of a few seconds by a huge predator. What’s the statistical likelihood of that in a major American city in the 21st century? Back in the Pleistocene, death at 17 by big cat was more of an everyday sort of event. You were lucky if you even made it to 17.
I remembered a demonstration by an anthropologist I’d seen on TV: he had two skulls, one of them a juvenile humanoid with a pair of dime-sized holes in the back, right at the base; the other a sabre-tooth cat, complete with wicked scimitar canines. The anthropologist took the sabre-tooth skull and fitted it over the humanoid skull: the canines slipped cozily into the two holes with a precision fit, as if that particular sabre-tooth had killed that particular humanoid. The anthropologist had a theory: The big cats, he believed, were our species-specific predator, with a taste for the very young. This is why children have an instinctive fear of the dark, he opined, why there are “monsters” under the bed. Because once upon a time, there literally were monsters that came for you in the dark, sank their fangs into your skull and dragged you out of the cave. When the zoo tiger was on the kid, I have no doubt that ancient ancestral memories were activated in his brain during the brief moment before consciousness was extinguished.
Gwendda, whose car I’m driving, is British. I met her about twenty-four years ago when she hired me and the guy with whom I was writing a giant novel about 7th-century China to paint her house. This was what we did before we got a contract and an advance: slung ladders and buckets, risked our necks teetering way high up in thin air on rickety scaffolds. What she wanted us to put on the house turned out to be not exactly paint, but blue oil-based stain, even runnier and drippier than water, with that aggressive velocity peculiar to refined petroleum products.
My coauthor got into big trouble pretty quickly with the blue stain. It raced, ran, dripped, exploded and splattered. If the stuff had had been red, the deck and west wall would have looked like the scene of a really atavistic murder, complete with spatters and footprints. Gwendda wasn’t happy at all. I salvaged the situation by telling her that I would finish the job by myself, including remedial work on the drips and footprints, and that when it was done, she could decide what she wanted to pay. I remember the moment when her expression went from exasperated and expecting the worst from a couple of grifters to pleased and surprised that the encounter had been so sensible, civilized and satisfactory.
That successful negotiation with Gwendda would never have happened if not for my mother. Thanks to her, I knew how to actually listen and be reasonable when another person talked. That was my mother’s great talent, even when she was blazing with anger: she listened. Not in the mere sense of allowing sound waves to vibrate her eardrums, but in the sense of making an effort to actually see the other person’s position. It took me a long time and some serious disillusionment to understand how rare a quality this was.
On that day, I listened to Gwendda as if I were my mother. I saved my coauthor’s and my short-term bacon, but I could not possibly have imagined how that little moment of cultivated diplomacy would play out, in my own life and consequently my mother’s, a couple of decades and many convolutions down the line.
Berna, the woman in the bed at the nursing home in the next town, had been a writer and a first-rate reader. Here was wired-in maternal influence once again: For my mother, the most egregious social inexcusability one could commit was to be a bore; conversely, you could have a variety of glaring deficiencies and still be pals with my mother if you were an initiate into the rarified bandwidth of literacy. If you’d read John Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, Nabokov and Faulkner, McCarthy and Styron and D.H. Lawrence, and could discuss them intelligently, your currency was high with my mother—and so, with me. Berna was a manic talker and a “body inhabiter,” a polite way of saying utterly out-of-shape slob with multiple health-destroying habits, heavy smoking at the top of the list. But man, she was literate. And she had a collection of rare first-edition books to die for.
She’d had a stroke at age 69. It left her able to walk, but feebly and clumsily. She hired me to empty her house, gave me her’86 Toyota as payment, and put herself into assisted living. Then she had another stroke. She wasn’t paralyzed, but she said that if she raised her head even slightly, she was overcome by black, sucking, devouring dizziness. This was when she checked herself in the nursing home. I’m done for, she said to me that first week, looking up from her pillow, after arranging herself to receive the Reaper.
Still waiting, she lies in one position, asleep or awake, forbids anyone to crank the head of the bed up, bellows in fury if they try. She refuses a TV, a radio, a Walkman, those prismatic glasses that allow people flat on their backs to read at a 45-degree angle. No Books on Tape, no movies, no nothing. Her mind is intact and dementia-free; when I visit, she remembers exactly what we talked about the last time and asks for news of the world. She’s grown deaf to the point where you have to shout directly into her ear, like the town crier. But when she’s alone, she just lies there, drifting and dreaming. Year after year after year. People who used to know her are frightened when they learn that she’s not demented, not dead, and still just lying there. That’s crazy, they say.
Gwendda, the Brit, had led a strong, adventurous, stunningly competent life. In a photo album she showed me, there’s a picture of her when she was a baby just sitting up. There’s a slight but definite “caste” to one of her eyes in the baby picture, a subtle misalignment of the features that kept her just this side of being beautiful when she grew up, and which had everything to do with making her ferociously sexy in photos from later in her life. Like those holographic postcards, though, that change when you tilt them—so that Jesus’ eyes, for instance, open and close—those irregularities are tilted into something ominous when a certain misaligned defect in her personality occasionally emerges.
Four years ago, right around the time she’d quit driving because she knew she was slipping, Gwendda was ready to go back to England where her younger brother was making arrangements to bring her home. She was ready to pack her bag and walk right out the door, leaving her house and everything in it behind. Then, during a phone conversation with her brother shortly before she was to leave, something she said shook him so badly that he abruptly cancelled all plans. I’ll never know what it was, because the brother couldn’t bring himself to repeat it, but he did describe it: Vicious.
This was how I came to be “in charge” of her affairs. The brother engaged me from across the Atlantic to oversee her existence—shop, pay her bills, take her to the movies, look out for her. The very last thing I needed, both practically and psychologically, was this fresh load of big responsibility. This was four years after I’d put my mother away. My mother was not living with me anymore, but I was still overseeing her life, making gas-burning, car-wearing, exhaustion-producing eight-hour roundtrips to Vacaville, always in a state of acute guilt and anxiety, struggling with my own professional work. In order to take care of my mother, I desperately needed the money Gwendda’s brother was offering, but by agreeing to take it, I was insuring that I would not see my mother as often as my agonized conscience told me I should. One step forward, three steps back.
Gwendda is two years older than my mother. She doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. She has plain old-fashioned senility, not the same thing at all. Her short-term memory is shot, and her world slowly narrows down. But she knows where she is and who she is, bathes and dresses herself, reads books and the newspaper, and occasionally surprises the hell out of me by remembering something we talked about on another day. Occasionally, she gets confused about the real world versus the dream world, but not exactly like my mother, who dwells in a perpetual shifting kaleidoscopic fusion of the two.
Gwendda had done what a smart, successful person without offspring does to prepare for old age: cultivated financial security and friends. For years, she threw Sunday afternoon mad tea parties that spiraled up into wild sugar-and-caffeine-fueled hilarity. Invitations were prized. My mother, on pre-Alzheimer’s visits to California, had attended a couple of these parties with me. I was thrilled to show off Gwendda and her pals to my mother, and vice-versa.
The plan had always been for Gwendda to return, eventually, to England. But she ended up in exile and with just one viable friend: me. How did this happen? She drove the rest of them away, one after the other, by accusing them of “stealing” from her. She very nearly drove me away, too, accusing me of bringing “children” to her house who stole “figurines.” She left an unpleasant message on my answering machine, saying that if I did not bring the figurines back, she was calling the police.
Of course, I’d brought no “children” to her house. It had been a dream that had leaked through the sleep/wake barrier, persisted, and merged synergistically with her chronic suspicion. I was too sadly expert on the subject of border-crossing phantasms—I who had put up signs in the driveway to discourage my mother’s imaginary dinner guests, I who had gathered letters into a manila envelope for a ghostly female reporter coming to “interview” her. Alzheimer’s and regular old senile dementia are not identical medical conditions, but they are roads to the same bleak destination: they break down the same organ, the brain, revealing the frightening delicacy of its intertwined and interdependent systems of consciousness. I was learning way more than I wanted to.
The thing is, I’m not totally convinced that I’m not a thief. You’d think it would be plain. Either you’re a thief, or you’re not a thief. But it’s not plain at all. It’s hazy, shape-shifting. I’ve felt like a thief ever since we put my mother in assisted living. What you learn when you are dealing with the non compos mentis is that truth, honesty, and transparency are worse than useless; they can be downright destructive. Deviousness, deception and manipulation become virtues. It’s harsh and confusing, but you get used to it. And in exercising these neo-virtues, questionable parts of your character, which were there all along but kept mostly in check, grow new blood vessels, thrive and expand.
I didn’t feel like a thief when I got the car from Berna; that was a clear, unambiguous exchange of goods for services. We were both satisfied, and there was nothing wrong with her mind. And my own mind was much less damaged then, because that transaction happened a couple of years before we tricked my mother into a van full of her clothes and furniture, told her we were going on a “picnic,” drove her 150 miles away, and essentially committed her. Now I know: I traded my mother’s life for mine, and it turned out to be a devil’s bargain. That was the thievery. I think I thought I could get my youth back, but what happened instead is that my own old age and decrepitude leapt into view with the disturbing immediacy of looking at a faraway scene through expensive German binoculars. I don’t believe in karma, but I have a powerful conviction that I’ve forfeited any hope of, or right to, or expectation of a lucky old age. And not exactly “forfeited,” but learned that there’s no such thing as a lucky old age, because old age by definition means precisely that your luck has run out. Some people’s luck runs out more egregiously than others, to be sure, but everyone’s luck runs out if they live long enough.
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…
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. 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.
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, and unlike my mother, who was forced from her house and everything in it, 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: dotty old lady plus piles of paper plus open flame equals funeral pyre.
Before dawn on the second morning of the blackout, I woke. 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 speak 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? What are my mother’s thoughts, as she lies in the deep darkness of her Alzheimered brain?
Within an hour, the ordeal seemed to have evaporated from her memory.
But it’s burned into mine. What will my thoughts be, when I am lying on the floor some day?
My own “good” car was getting old and tired. Gwendda’s car was beginning its fourth year of rusting in her garage.
I needed it, wanted it. The brother across the sea had 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.
You’ve earned it, he said. Just take it. It’ll help you look after my sister. I’ll sign it over to you.
So I did it. At night, when she was asleep. Put a new battery in, fired it up, and drove it, groaning, smoking, 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.
It’s been a year since the car heist. That homely old Taurus has carried me down to Vacaville and my mother about twenty times, sturdily and reliably, if not glamorously.
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? These staffers 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 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, she’s “getting ready to go to heaven.” I jump in the “stolen” car and drive down. Something, big, decisive, dreaded and yearned-for seems to be getting ready to happen. I’m about to join the ranks of people whose mothers are dead. The prospect is fearful, awesome. As with bungee-jumping or paraplegia, 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, a remarkably civilized place with a deli and a Starbuck’s where I can sit and get composed before going to see my mother. Soon 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 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. She quit wearing earrings a while ago, but the holes are still there, the one I'm looking at way too close to the inner edge of the lobe. Pretty clumsy work, I think, on the part of some long-ago ear-piercer.
I do my best to avoid looking at her mouth. She’s gone dentureless since she started refusing to keep her teeth in. We got her some more comfortable ones but she wouldn’t keep those in, either, and they vanished. Probably wadded up in a paper napkin and gone into the trash. 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, wit, charm, worldliness and natural nobility. Getting used to those toothless jaws was a tough one for me.
Arrangements are made to send her back to the home and put her in hospice care there. This is good: she goes back into the hands of people who love her, and when she slips another notch, they’re no longer obliged, legally or morally, to rush her to the hospital. I meet with the hospice people, a nurse and a social worker; they both have a trained, professional manner, a little like casket salesmen, and they relax when they meet me and see that I’m not going to go hysterical or weepy on them. Thank you for making it so easy, says the nurse, and before she goes, she hands me a piece of paper with the names of local morticians on it.
They bring my mother back from the hospital; I’m watching through the window when they arrive. Two strapping young EMT guys slide her out the back of the ambulance. There she is, in full merciless daylight, the open mouth looking particularly tragic and cavernous. They wheel her in and load her onto the bed. The staff are all over her, kissing her, patting her face, arranging pillows. One of the EMT guys is so young his cheeks are rosy. He and his partner are polite, but I sense their revulsion at the decomposing female flesh they’ve just transported. On the way out, one of them sees a photo of my mother from forty-five years ago. Whoa! he says. Who’s that?
I spend the night in a nearby motel, dream that my mother and Gwendda have merged into one chimerical creature, go back and see her in the morning. I walk into the room at the exact moment they have her on her feet, supporting her on both sides, about to lower her into the wheelchair. They’ve dressed her. She howls, vigorously, not at all like someone who’s dying. There are no words, but the message is clear: Leave me ALONE! They offer her food: she takes it. Not enthusiastically, but with an air of Oh, Jesus Christ, okay, if you insist. She glares at us with red-rimmed eyes.
I get behind her and start combing the tangles out of her hair. Careful, the staff people warn me; she’ll hit you if you pull it. Don’t worry, I say. I know how to do this. I get it all combed out, and it looks startlingly beautiful—fine, silky, flowing, with subtle colors, from white to gold to black. I take a picture, from behind, of just her hair. I check the picture: it’s a keeper. The back-of-the-head shot, though, the slight tilt…it’s just a little too reminiscent of Norman Bates’ mother, down in the basement, before the chair swings around.
My mother doesn’t die. She gets better. Joyful reports from the staff come in daily: she’s up, she’s feeding herself, she watched TV today, she smacked one of us. The part of me that dreads my mother’s death the way a child would is flooded with relief. Another part is darkly disappointed. In May Sarton’s novel AS WE ARE NOW, she describes an old woman as a “grotesque, miserable animal.” My appreciation of that phrase has deepened over the last several years, but fully ripened during this latest skirmish. My mother’s screech when they moved her from the bed to the chair was not of pain—it was of exhaustion. In Sarton’s novel, a woman in an old people’s home thwarts the ghastly ignominy of death by disintegration, for herself and her fellow inmates, by burning the place to the ground: a violent but decisive and honorable death.
I imagine a Siberian tiger, 350 pounds of feline speed, power and killing efficiency, equipped by nature to bring down a muskox, loose in the nursing home where Berna lies in bed, or in Gwendda’s house, or…in the assisted living place, headed for my mother’s room. A pause, a pair of green-gold eyes, a basso profundo rumble, a flash of stripes, claws, and teeth, faster than thought, faster than light…..
In exactly the same way that Sarton’s old woman chose fire, my mother, if she could, would choose the tiger.
To be continued....