Parenting, Reading

It’s Worse Than You Think – Cautionary Tales From Childhood – In Recognition Of Halloween

I’ve been, since age 5, an avid reader. Once I discovered the worlds that existed inside books, they have been my constant and steadfast companion. I most always have a book that I’m in the process of reading, and when I don’t….my life seems thrown into a chaotic miasma that I need to quickly find an escape from by simply picking up another book. My childhood memories are filled with colorful tales from glossy storybooks.

A great aunt of mine had a full set of hardcover books with the written counterparts to several Disney film adaptions that I used to pore over when we’d visit her. There were many photos from some of the live action films or drawings for the animated films, and even though I knew the endings to the stories (The Wonderful World Of Disney was Sunday night must-see-t.v. in my childhood, and at the end of the school year my elementary school had a film day with offerings such as Old Yeller and the like), I still read them – at least the Disney versions of them.

I’ve retained many of my childhood books over time. Some I had, when I became a parent, hoped to pass on to my own kids to read and enjoy themselves. Unfortunately in the age of video games and mutant teenage sponge wizards the books I enjoyed so much in my youth (The Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, The Great Brain series, Matthew and Maria Looney’s adventures, etc.) hold little interest for the boys. No matter – they should find and read things they, themselves enjoy.

There have been, however, stories that they’ve enjoyed that are universal and long-lived. Stories that have been in existence for generations before the boys or myself or even my grandparents. Stories that, over the years, Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks have adopted and adapted, sanitizing and whitewashing what, if you read the original source material, are some pretty horrific tales.

Many of these are what are known as Cautionary Tales. Stories that were written not only to entertain but to inform and teach someone about a potential danger they could encounter.

Cautionary tales involve three essential elements:

  • A ‘taboo’ – some place, act, or thing that represents danger to a person.
  • A disregard of the taboo/danger – violation of the warning that has been handed out.
  • A horrific fate/conclusion – often quite grisly in nature.

The concept has been replicated time and again through the years in a variety of mediums. From the original folk tales verbally recounted to the written word being used as a method of recounting these stories to the ‘School Scare Films’ and ‘Army Training Films’ of the mid-20th century that warned young hitchhiking boys that ‘homosexuals were lurking on the highways to offer them rides and corrupt them’ and cautioned young soldiers that ‘fast and easy women would give them social diseases’. Youngsters were warned of the dangers of drug use and disobeying their parents.

Even the film ‘Gremlins’ is a cautionary tale, in which are laid down three very precise rules to be followed (without deviation) by the owner of a Mogwai – with the accompanying warning of dire consequences if you did not follow these rules -and the ensuing mayhem when the rules were (as expected) not followed.

As I said, my childhood is filled with many memories of these cute, cuddly tales with fleeing princesses finding friendly, hardworking midgets to shack up with and puppets who come to life as companion to a lonely old man who not only has an insect problem, but the insect talks and wears a top-hat, and all sorts of other squeaky-clean enjoyment to be derived from them.

What’s even more fun? Reading the un-sanitized versions of these tales as an adult and realizing what the real story was and the ‘lesson’ it was supposed to teach. When all the singing animals and flying throw-rugs and dancing dinnerware are removed, what you are left with are some pretty horrifying and often tragic tales.

If you’d like to investigate some of, in my opinion, the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) examples of this…I highly encourage reading the original Pinocchio story, the original Little Red Riding Hood story, the story of the Pied (which means multi-colored, by the way…it has nothing to do with pastry) Piper, and Cinderella. You’ll find far more blood, gore, and mass-kidnapped children than Disney will ever show you. Another example is the book ‘Struwwelpeter’ by Heinrich Hoffmann. In this book, originally published with the sub-title ‘Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6′ – the stories center on such toddler-centric tales as ‘The girl who played with matches and burned to death’, and ‘the boy who sucked his thumb too long so a scary man with giant scissors cut his thumbs off’.  Just imagine conveying that one to your 5 year old just before you turn out the lights and close the door for their young mind to mull over until they fall asleep – if they can. Makes an episode or two of The Walking Dead before bed seem not quite so terrible now, doesn’t it?

There are also loads of good websites to check out as well. I have listed a few below:

http://www.ancient-origins.net

list25.com

and a pretty entertaining article from ET Online, called Peter Pan and 6 other beloved Disney movies based on dark horrifying books.

There are many others to be found in your favorite internet browser. If you really want a good scare for tomorrow night – read a few of them. They’ll put a chill in your blood if the change of seasons hasn’t done that already.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Halloween full of spooks, specters, and spirits.

Standard
Faded Pages - Out Of Print Authors

Faded Pages – Out Of Print Authors: Christopher Isherwood

isherwood

Twenty years ago I found myself cast in the show Cabaret. I knew of it, of course, having heard the music from the score, and having seen the film version with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Gray…and had learned that there was a (non-musical) film based upon the story called ‘I Am A Camera’ with Julie Harris in the lead.

What I didn’t have any experience with as yet was the source material – The Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood.

I have dubbed this section of my blog as ‘out of print’ authors, and I am pretty confident that many of Isherwood’s works are out of print and therefore can be a bit of a challenge to find. Truth be told, I’ve not looked for a brand new Isherwood book in a store for years. I own much of his catalogue in hardback, snatched from the coffers of used book stores here and there over the years, devoured as I went along, and worth every penny and every moment spent to read them.

Isherwood, born in the UK in 1904, emigrated to the United States in 1939 when he was already an established author and playwright, as well as mentor to other authors and poets. During his early adult years he traveled extensively in Europe and China as well as a trip to the United States prior to settling in California and becoming an American citizen in 1946.

Isherwood then spent the remainder of his life chronicling his experiences, from early childhood through his adult years  (as well as working on travel diaries, plays, and non-fiction works about a religious monastic order called the Ramakrishna) which provided the source material for his fiction works and his autobiographical offerings, with each being equally as enjoyable and fascinating as the other. Much of Isherwood’s fiction can be then deconstructed and deciphered as to his motivation and perspicacity for the fictional works by reading its non-fiction counterpart or what, where, and who Isherwood ‘was’ at the time he wrote it or not long before. His inspiration for his novels is more than just largely drawn from his own experiences.

Admittedly (which may surprise some) I’ve not yet read The Berlin Stories. That said, I have indulged in PLENTY of his other books – The Memorial, The World In The Evening, Down There On A Visit, A Single Man, Christopher And His Kind, Lions And Shadows, and My Guru And His Disciple amongst them – and still have more to go, such as Prater Violet, A Meeting By The River, All The Conspirators, The Mortmere Stories, and Kathleen and Frank – as well as his collaborative novels written with other authors, his letters and diaries, and much, much more. To begin to read Isherwood is to find yourself with a treasure trove of material to select from.  There are also, for the diligent, articles he wrote over a series of years between 1943 and 1969.

Isherwood is, to me,  one of the best examples of ‘autobiography as fiction’ writers that the twentieth century is to be credited with. Less drug and drink addled than Kerouac, less oversexed than Miller, but every bit as enjoyable to read. While it might be challenging to try to find some of the works listed above, they are all (and I mean all) worth pursuing if you try one and find that you like his style. Many (if not most or all) of his books can be found on Amazon, of course, but I highly recommend the giddy feeling of finding him in a used book store somewhere between Washington Irving and James Joyce in the literature section and slowly collecting and savoring his work over time.

There are also books about Isherwood (none that I can say I’ve read personally) which give greater insight into a man hailed as one of the best writers of his time.

He may be out of print (possibly) in brand new copies – but Isherwood and his observations of his education, life, and experiences are never out of style.

Happy reading!

Standard
Confessions

The Sun Behind The Clouds – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, part 23.

A few weeks ago I received a gift from Mom – she had a day of extreme clarity and knew that I am her son, not a former neighbor or just a friend or her nephew (nephew is the most common, or rather she refers to herself as Aunt Carrie). She knew I am her son that day. The ray of light that penetrated the fog inside her mind also shone upon me for a bit and warmed me, if only temporarily.

Five minutes after we hung up from our call, she called me back and spoke as if we hadn’t just hung up the phone with one another. It was such an odd thing to experience with her – like a temporary break in the clouds that reveals a patch of soft blue, briefly, without warning, breaking the spell you might have fallen under to believe that the sun had completely disappeared, and yet there it was, all along, just behind the clouds. You look at it, let it warm you for a few seconds, only to lose it again behind the clouds.

Nevertheless, the break in the clouds that day, for both of us, was a gift – no matter how short-lived.

Since that time she’s gone back to being ‘Aunt Carrie’ or just ‘Carrie’ or ‘Whoever the hell I am today’ on the phone and in her messages to me when she forgets that I’ve gone back to work recently and usually call her now in the evening rather than during the day. I can’t say that it surprises me, though, that she forgets this small detail when she’s forgotten so much else…things, places, and people…even the fact (most days) that I’m her son.

That said, I am fortunate that no matter who she thinks I am, she trusts me still.

A week ago she called me in a panic – telling me “the people who work here won’t let me out so I can go to work, they’ve got me locked up and I can’t get out, you’ve got to come help me get out of here so I can go to work!” There was fear and anxiety and desperation in her voice. She’s grown convinced that she leaves her ‘apartment’ (as she refers to her room) and ‘goes upstairs to work’ in a different part of the building (it’s a one-story structure), and for some reason the people there were refusing to let her go out the door to go upstairs.

“Please – PLEASE come here and help me!” she begged into the phone, and I could hear that she’d begun to cry.

I asked her if anyone was in the room with her, and she said that yes, there was. I asked to speak with them, and she handed them the phone. I talked, briefly, with the caregiver there who explained that Mom was having a VERY rough day and was refusing to stop trying to go out the door which of course they couldn’t let her. I thanked her and told her I’d do what I could to calm Mom down.

At first I tried distraction – asking her what she’d had for lunch, what the weather was like, if she was reading anything good lately – but she knew what I was up to. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, depending upon how fixated she is on whatever is bothering her at the moment. This was sizable. She wasn’t about to be deterred. The staff at the assisted living had tried to distract her by telling her that the ‘meeting’ she had was cancelled, she told them they were full of shit (per her words), etc. I could tell that for me to try to use that approach, placating and going along with it, was going to be a huge failure for me as well.

And so I changed gears, to my ‘rainy day’ tactic, which I try to use sparingly because it can certainly backfire in a hurry. I told her the truth.

“Mom, I have to tell you something, and I need you to listen carefully, and this is one of those times that we’ve discussed that no matter how far-fetched it seems, no matter how you might believe otherwise, I am telling you the truth – is that something you feel you can do right now?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” (deep breath for me) “Mom, where you are right now is not a place of employment – it’s where you live. There is no second floor, but you do go to other areas of the building now and again. You are very helpful to others who are less physically able to help themselves at meals, but it’s not a job for you – you live there. The people who do work there are concerned that you will wander out the door and down the street and get hurt because you don’t know the area. That’s why they won’t let you go outside by yourself. They are, whether it seems like it or not, trying to take care of you.”

“Well, why the hell would they worry about that?”

“Because, Mom – your memory is failing. It would be very easy for you to get lost around there and not know your way back.”

Silence.

“Mom – I know you don’t like to hear about that, about your memory, but I need you to trust that I would not let anything bad happen to you, and I believe that the people there are trying to take care of you – can you trust me about that and not continue trying to leave?”

She began to cry again then, as did I (the silent type of crying I sometimes do so that she’s not aware of it on the other end of the phone).

“Mom?”

“Okay.” she said softly. “I don’t really understand what you mean by I don’t work here, but okay. If you tell me this is where I live, not work, and that I could get hurt if I try to leave on my own, I’ll believe you – I do trust you.”

“Thank you. I wish I could be there right now to give you a hug.”

“I wish you could, too.”

“Just know that I don’t want you to get hurt, ever, and I’ll do everything I can to prevent that – even if it doesn’t make sense to you sometimes, I hope you know I am doing it for your well-being, not to harm you.”

I suspect this was the first of what will likely become increasingly difficult to diffuse scenarios. I hope that she continues to trust me, trust the sound of my voice, no matter who she thinks I am, or who she is to me.

I remember hearing Mom say (to others) in my youth, on days when we might have gone to a nearby strip of beach along a river or somewhere else out of doors and the clouds had come in and overtaken the sun that the ‘sun had disappeared’. I used to believe, in my youth, that this was true. That the presence of the clouds meant that the sun, whereas I could no longer see it, had, indeed, disappeared.

I know better now. I know that the clouds are just a cover. A wispy, gauzy veneer that often obscures the bright blazing ball of gas beyond them. But the sun doesn’t just disappear –  not really – it’s still there behind the clouds, waiting for a fracture to appear so it can shine through once again.

It’s like Mom’s recognition of who I am, in ways. No matter who she thinks I am or who she is to me, she still trusts me. She still listens and accepts what I’m telling her, no matter how contradictory and far-fetched it may seem to her. It may not be this way for whatever time she has left, but for now, I’ll take it – for now I’ll enjoy and appreciate the fact that just my words and my voice can calm her down and redirect her and help her out of the dementia haze that she’s in. No matter how thick and impenetrable the haze may seem to her, there’s still something behind it trying to fight its way through to her.

Just like the sun – or rather, the Son, behind the clouds.

 

 

Standard
Faded Pages - Out Of Print Authors

Faded Pages – Out Of Print Authors: Mary Renault

 

mary-renault-books-top-ten-tuesday-e1464102640672

I discovered Mary Renault quite by accident. A most happy accident, indeed.

There are many ‘types’ of novels I enjoy reading (well-written ones that is). Isolation stories, The Templar Knights, thrillers involving a hunt for a religious artifact, autobiography as fiction, classics, gothic stories, and Greek Mythology and history to name a few.

Mary Renault, to me, is the ‘Anne Rice’ of Greek history with a wonderful catalogue of novels of Ancient Greece, several twentieth century set novel, and a wonderful biography of Alexander the Great. She has a few ‘romance’ type novels, but I’ve not ventured into those.

Renault’s most revered works depict numerous familiar names from Greek history and mythology and paints a far broader canvas for her characters than history books ever could. In her Ancient Greece set novels, as in her contemporary (1950’s) work The Charioteer, Renault’s writing does not shy away from depicting the ‘commonplace’ relationships that men shared with other men in their society and time. Socrates, Dionysius, Theseus, and Plato all gain greater depth and apotheosis under the skilled pen of a writer clearly in love with the society and rituals she chose to devote the greatest part of her career writing about. Under Renault’s artisan treatment, the characters, social mores, and settings all come to resplendent life where the day to day affairs of a long since passed civilization are offered in greater abundance than many textbooks can boast.

Renault herself lived with another woman, Julie Mullard, whom she met during her training as a nurse upon graduating from college. Long rumored to be in fact a gay man writing under a female pseudonym, based upon her affectionate and compassionate treatment of relationships between males (even of a significant enough age difference that they would be labeled as pederasty at the time her works were published and still today but were considered unexceptional and pedestrian at the time Renault wrote about), the writer lived relatively openly with her female partner, but sought to distance herself from being labeled as a ‘gay’ writer, either male or female, and was herself a fervent detractor of the pride movement of the 1970’s.

Finding herself wanting to forsake the repressive atmosphere and attitudes that gays and lesbians faced in Great Britain at the time, Renault and Mullard moved to South Africa where they spent the remainder of their days. Finding a much more relaxed posture and even a community of expatriated gay and lesbian compatriots in their new home, although they were still dismayed enough with some of the other non-liberal views in their adopted home and took a stand against apartheid in the 1950’s.

Mary Renault’s health declined into her seventies; first becoming evident when she developed an ‘irritating’ cough and fluid was found on one of her lungs which had been aspirated, but at the time it appeared there were pockets of the fluid that could not be reached. The cause of the fluid developing was cancer. Renault passed away in 1983 at the age of 78, leaving behind a legacy of having eased the stress of accepting themselves and then coming out to others that many gay and lesbian readers had experienced finding a ‘champion’ in the voice of Mary Renault. Although she was criticized by some for her negative view of the post-Stonewall push for greater tolerance and acceptance for gays and lesbians in such a public fashion, Renault believed that a person should not accept a label of being gay as their primary identifying characteristic.

Renault also left behind eight historical novels of Ancient Greece, six ‘contemporary’ novels, as well as her Alexander biography (some criticizing of this work calls it overly romanticized and not critical enough of the person and man) and a non-fiction treatment of the Persian wars. Having read all but one of her Ancient Greece works (I am saving one, just one, for a years from now revisit to one of my favorite authors), I encourage anyone with an interest, either romantic or scholarly, in the society Renault brought to vivid life to seek out her works. Her Alexander trilogy is amongst my favorites, yet all are eminently readable and highly enjoyable.

Happy Reading!

 

 

Standard
Confessions

It’s A Quiet Thing – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 22

Mom’s journey with dementia, at least from the point of factual diagnosis and not just a suspicion on my part, has been ongoing for two years now. It was August of 2014 when I accompanied her to an appointment with her primary care physician, mentioned that she’d had a prior ‘cognitive’ exam and perhaps an updated one was a good idea as there were some ‘gaps’ cropping up. Two years since she was referred to the geriatric medicine center of Maine Medical Center and diagnosed with dementia. Two years since her life as she had known it for so many years began to unravel before her eyes.

Her carefully built wall of defenses was crumbling. The explanations and assurances she had given for so long for repetitious conversations and grasping for names and details more and more were no long holding up to mask what was really going on with her. Her memory was disappearing. Her ability to figure out a process or to pull a word from her 80+ years of building vocabulary were becoming more and more compromised.

I can’t pinpoint an actual date or month or even a seasons when this began. I can say it was within the past ten years….more than five, less than twelve, but there’s not one single occurrence or ‘slip’ or concern that arose and gave me pause and led me to think ‘maybe things aren’t quite 100% with her’ for the very first time. It was lots of little things that in and of themselves were able to be justified or overlooked without much distress and anxiety – but when strung together they became a procession of clues that Mom’s cognitive ability was on the decline. It came without fanfare, without signal, without omen or caveat, and without mercy – much like Christmas in Whoville, ‘it came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes or bags.’ There was no overcast sky or bone-chilling wind; no cautionary background music or telling sound effect, no blaring horn or raid siren going off.

None of this preceded dementia.

It just ‘came’.

It’s a quiet thing.

Ever since Mom’s journey started, the decline has been, to me, relatively rapid. For several months she still maintained an apartment, yet all the while I was noticing greater chasms in the years and details she was losing. I noticed her growing more frail. I noticed her getting more and more anxious having new routines introduced into her life. New doctors, new medications, new diet, new home…..all these things, every one of them necessary to her overall well-being and safety, brought upon her like shouting back at the dementia raising my staff and shouting ‘GO BACK TO THE SHADOW – YOU SHALL NOT PASS!’ like the grey wizard Gandalf to the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dûm.

And yet over time she still lost names, and places, and dates, and other details – little by little, one by one. The names of her parents, the circumstances of their deaths – even the fact of their deaths as she asked me recently if she’d told me what her mother said to her on Mom’s 80th birthday. Mom’s mother passed away when Mom was in her early 30’s…a full 50 years ago now.

I’ve been doing all I can to ease her through this process. Acting as if all the repeated conversations are being heard for the first time – all the answers I give her for the repeated questions are being given for the first time. When she brings up the anxieties that seem to plague her either daily, weekly, or on a six week loop (lately that has grown for many things), we talk, calmly, and I do all that I can to explain things to her in a way that will mollify her.  In a way that will smooth the rough spots out and de-escalate her worries somewhat. It’s not any kind of special trickery or shrewdness. It’s a calm voice. A reassuring tone. Talking to her in a way that is respecting that she’s an adult, not a child; not telling her what to do, but rather rationalize with her what is in her best interests and what she knows she should do for herself.

In my mind, it’s also the decades of talking to her and listening to her about her thoughts, her family, her life, her fears and building a trust between us that I would take care of her no matter what. It’s the 47 years of her being my mother and my being her son that she is still able to process that if I tell her she’s safe – she accepts it. If I tell her that although she is remembering something differently than I am, what I am telling her is the truth. In my mind it’s been all a combination of these things.

In the past few weeks Mom has called me and left me a few messages in between our daily calls (she often forgets we’ve spoken already or that I’ve told her I’ll call in the evening the next day, which is fine, understandable) and on my voice mail she’s said hello and then said, “this is….” and then paused for a moment before she identified herself as ‘Aunt Carrie’, rather than as ‘Mom’. She leaves me a message, I call her back, I don’t correct her on the ‘Aunt’ thing. She’s talking to a machine, not me, she slips, it happens. She knows who I am when we actually speak, calls me by name, calls me honey when we’re talking, same as always. Sure, she doesn’t remember where I live or what my age is (it goes back and forth, some days she does, some days she doesn’t) but the basics are still there, I’ve told myself for weeks now.

Amazing what we can convince ourselves of when we want to. Just over a year ago she told me she promised she’d never, ever forget who I was. I told her that even if I wasn’t in her head, I knew I’d always be in her heart, and let her off the hook from the promise immediately. I knew she couldn’t keep it – through no fault of her own. She knew it too, I know. I think she was trying to convince me more than herself at the time.

Four nights ago we were talking and she thanked me, again, for making the time to call her every day.  The conversation was a bit different than usual – just a slight modification in the way she carried herself on the call – something in her tone that was not the norm for her. Something less ‘familiar’ and a bit more ‘impersonal’ about how she spoke.

Something that, knowing her the way I do, as well as I do – I knew immediately what it was.

I replied, again, that calling her every day is my pleasure, that I enjoy talking with her and look forward to it each day.

“Yeah,’ she said, ‘but you do it every day – you call and talk to me and make me feel special every day…and who am I to deserve that? Who am I?”

“You tell me, who are you?” I asked.

“I’m Carrie.” She said.

“Right, but who are you to me?” I asked.

Perhaps she didn’t hear my voice crack slightly, but I noticed it, as I went toe to toe with my own denial ready to face the consequences, ‘ready’ being a relative term – full of caveats and cautions and forewarning.

“Well – we were neighbors for a long time, and we’ve always been good friends.” she replied.

Dementia creeps up on a person without  warning. It submits no proposal and awaits no committee approval. It arrives on our doorstep and invades our home without auspice or invitation. It just appears one day and stays there until it carries first the mind and then the body away.

It’s stealthy and voiceless; predatory and reticent. It skulks around for a while before it takes a person forcefully yet silently.

It’s like the tears that roll down your cheeks as you sit in a chair in a room in your house that you sit in every day while you talk to someone that you talk to every day. It’s those tears that you cry, without wailing and sobbing, just a stream of tears coming out of your eyes and you feel them there, making their way down your face wet and bothersome, while you sit in your chair stoically and compose yourself so that you don’t betray the anguish going on inside of you, anguish you convinced yourself you were prepared for just because you knew it was coming, and yet now you find yourself realizing how naive a thought that was, because right now, in this moment you have no idea how to process the realization that this woman who you speak with every day, who bore you and raised you and taught you many, many things and was a constant in your life for forty-seven years and yet suddenly you know, just by a slight variation in the timbre of her voice, no longer knows she’s your mother.

Dementia is like that as it pillages a life and a mind. It’s just like that – feline and bucolic just like those tears that you cry and keep yourself from sniffling or letting your voice break as you say goodnight and give the assurance that you’ll call again tomorrow, as usual. Just like the moments after you hang up and you realize that your life is forever altered now and there’s nothing at all you can do to change it so why scream and wail and carry on at all in the face of incapacitation? That’s what dementia is like when it trespasses into our lives and takes and takes and takes from us. It’s just like that.

It’s a quiet thing.

 

 

 

 

Standard
Confessions

The Sun In Flight – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 21

There is a Dylan Thomas poem that I first heard of in, of all places, a Rodney Dangerfield film called Back To School in which he accompanies his son to college and enrolls as a student himself.

The poem is called ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night‘. It reads as follows:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thomas’s poem is about living boldly, living fully, even as we age and reach the conclusion of our journey – to continue to burn with life.

I think Dylan Thomas was unfamiliar with Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

On my daily call with Mom yesterday she mentioned that she’d been out earlier, gone to her brother Logan’s, and picked up a book. She noted this happily, as if it had lent an unexpected happiness to her day. She truly believed that’s what she’d done. Had it been ‘real’ I would have been happy for her.

Her brother Logan passed away more than a decade ago.

This morning she called me (before I could get to calling her) and asked me what time I would be over. In my typical fashion (calm, as if there’s nothing out of the ordinary and as if this is the first time I’m hearing whatever she’s saying), I replied, “Well, I’m at home in Massachusetts, so it won’t be today.” Mom carried on as if nothing were amiss about our exchange thus far and informed me that she was heading out shortly to ‘work’ in case I tried to call her. I said, “Okay, thanks, I would have wondered where you were.”

The decline in her cognitive abilities is more rapid these days it seems. She has begun asking me, nearly each day, who she was married to, who are the children that live with me, etc. She sometimes hesitates before speaking my name, or responds to me initially as if she’s suspicious that I’m a telemarketer or a bill collector. She asks me where I’m living now, and how old I am. Each question she asks she has known, in the past, the answer to without having to ask. Lately she’s needed more and more prompting.

For most of my life, I would have said that my mother would have ‘raged against the dying of the light’. That’s not to say that she travelled extensively or participated in numerous social functions and clubs and read classic literature and developed an appreciation for opera – she did none of those things. Mom’s favorite author (to this day) is Danielle Steele. She only ever left the country to cross the border into Canada, and the first time she attempted such a feat she (and her companions) chickened out as they feared they wouldn’t be let back into the U.S. upon return for some unknown reason. Mom wasn’t one to socialize readily (much preferring a one-on-on lunch or someone popping in to see her now and then), and most likely the closest she ever came to opera appreciation was watching ‘What’s Opera Doc’ with me on Looney Toons with Bugs Bunny in drag sitting atop a near morbidly obese cartoon horse and Elmer Fudd wailing about how lovely his Brunhilda was.

Mom lived in her own home, in retrospect, longer than she should have. The early warning signs of Dementia were there, certainly, but not significant enough to convince her to do anything about it any earlier than she did (or, more to the point, to accept what had to happen any earlier than it had to happen in which she realized, at some level, she had no other choice). She gave up cooking (saying her back bothered her too much to stand that long) and existed on store-bought quiche and cooked chicken breast. She drove anywhere she needed to go, even transporting others occasionally, until her license was taken from her when she could no longer identify road signs and their meaning. She stayed to the tried and true route to get anywhere rather than ever seek out a shortcut, becoming annoyed with me when I drove her somewhere and took another way that I knew was faster. When yard work and snow shoveling became too much for her, she hired out, constantly annoyed at the cost associated with that, but conceding that she could no longer do it herself (having fallen at the end of the driveway into the ditch that ran along the front edge of the property). She kept a calendar, a large one, handy to her favored living room recliner and made notes on it as to her day-to-day activities (such as ‘August 5 – saw Tammy, had lunch, great time, warm day’) which I realized had become her talking points in conversations with me (I found the calendar when cleaning out her house and imagine now that she would, as we talked on the phone, consult this calendar and improvise and embellish with just enough flourish to her tale to pass as her own unaided recollection of events).

For some time, she managed to not go gentle into that good night. Now, the darkness is overtaking her. I hear people describe Dementia as many things – a ‘fog’, a ‘memory thief’, a ‘slow disappearance of the mind’, etc.; many ways to say the same thing, as if your mind, your identity, your whole life is collapsing in on itself. The thoughts and remembrances you cling to of lost loved-ones and comforting conversations and passed on wisdom disintegrate until there’s not a trace left of them. Mom fought it off for a long time with her notes, her carefully worded explanations, and her assertion that she was ‘doing just fine’ no matter what new ailment or obstacle had befallen her.

Now, she can no longer mask the encroaching darkness that continues to invade her mind. She can’t find the words to describe a situation or an act. She speaks of deceased relatives as if they are still amongst the living. She scrambles for names of people she’s known her entire life, and she repeats herself ad infinitum (to which I learned to adapt months ago). She tries to still convince me that all is well and not to worry about her, to which I simply say, “I don’t mind worrying about you; you did that for me for so many years, let me return the favor.”

The child becomes the parent, and the parent becomes the child.

For all the imploring of Dylan Thomas – Mom cannot help but go gentle into that good night. She has not the presence of mind any longer to ‘rage’ against the dying of the light – to continue to burn with life as the candle shrivels and the flame flickers to an ebbing before it is finally extinguished. The ‘close of day’ finds her looking at the shadows on the walls and, as she has told me, realizing that she doesn’t know for sure if anyone is out there, outside her room, in case anything happens to her for what seems like hours (though it could be just half an hour) until someone pokes their head in and checks on her.

As Mom’s mind fades more and more, I find myself holding onto a belief that with the passing of her good memories, equal in number are the bad ones that disappear as well. That a life of regrets, which she conveyed to me over time, becomes more of simply a ‘life lived’, and the regrets are no longer ruminated upon, no longer a weight upon her, no longer an ever-present part of her day.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight – and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way

Mom was never a ‘wild’ person – like myself she was cautious and heedful of unexpected consequences, although often to her (self-admitted) discredit; whereas she has expressed to me (several years ago now) a wish that she’d not been so ‘afraid’ of life at times that it prevented her from living it more fully. What she truly meant by that, those things she allowed her fear to obstruct her from doing more of, taking more risks and allowing happy accidents to more fully illustrate her experiences in life – is now lost somewhere in the same vapor that once was her ‘raging’ against the dying of the light – her passion and determination to keep her precious independence, taking whatever steps necessary to fortify it against the thief of awareness that, more and more, was pillaging that very independence from her.

As Dylan Thomas wrote; blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay. Sadly, life seemed to have another happenstance in mind for  Mom. The blaze continues to fade, the night to settle in more fixedly, more securely, holding her in its grasp as the blaze dims, the meteor paling as it continues its migration into the abyss that claims us all, eventually – the past.

I tried, for a long time, to rage for her. To try to stave off the dying of the light. But that time has been displaced. Dementia wins, and the fool that  I was to try to stand up to it and conquer it must capitulate. There’s only one more thing that I can do for Mom.

I can make going into that good night as gentle as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
Faded Pages - Out Of Print Authors, Reading

Faded Pages – Out Of Print Authors: Sholem Asch

As I stood perusing the selection at a used book store recently (a separate blog post on that to come at a later time) I was asked what type of books I like to read.

I replied that my tastes run to classics, some modern literature, some thrillers, and biography as fiction. Truth be told I’ll read just about anything that catches my eye; although I typically don’t read science fiction and fantasy, as I find those types of stories more visually appealing (when translated to film) than I do to read in black and white.

My personal library is filled with old bindings and new ones. Very little of them are New York Times bestsellers, at least not from the past forty plus years. I buy used books because I read a lot of novels that are only available in modern paperback bindings (which I don’t typically read as I can’t prop them open on my lap and simply keep the pages from turning involuntarily), or are long out of print and hard to find in a ‘new’ book store.

Some of the authors I have most enjoyed reading are not well-known to my reading friends. When I find an author I’d not yet ventured to read whom I have initially enjoyed, I begin looking for additional titles and stock-pile them to read at a future date. Buying books used, I can easily pick up three, four titles for under twenty dollars.

Just this morning I happened to glance at my copy of ‘The Shadow Of The Wind’ on one of my book shelves. The story centers on a young man’s visit to a vast underground warehouse full of books by long-forgotten authors where visitors are allowed to select a work to take home and make their own. The authors in the ‘cemetery of forgotten books’ have long faded from popularity and many have even earned the title of ‘obscure’. The novel that the young man selects unlocks a dark mystery steeped in the history of Barcelona, Spain (and is also a wonderful read) as the young man attempts to determine whatever became of the book’s long-forgotten author.

These are authors I love to find, and have found several of in my years of being an avid reader.

Such has been the case with Sholem Asch. The first of his books that caught my eye was ‘The Nazarene – A Novel Based On The Life Of Christ’. The binding I found is not flashy at all; with only two text colors and an appealing though not altogether ornate font. There is no accompanying photo on the dust jacket, simply the author’s name and the title of another of his works.

I am not a religious person. I have merely a passing interest in theology, seeking only historical fact, not spiritual fulfillment, when I read a ‘Christian’ work. I love well-written historical tales and the recreating of worlds that existed thousands of years ago which show that the author did their research in bringing those worlds to life.

Sholem Asch delivers a tale of the life of Jesus Christ that is comprised of a series of recollections from three separate yet connected viewpoints, those of Cornelius, Pontius Pilate’s governor of Jerusalem; the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, and a young student of Nicodemus named Joseph. What I liked most about the book is that it neither preaches nor pontificates in speaking of Christ. The story of Christ, known to most, is simply the ‘thread’ that holds the tale together as the historical and cultural context of the time is presented in lavish detail. While there are several familiar literary ‘devices’ employed to present the life of Christ to Asch’s readers (the long-lost manuscript, the reincarnated being, etc.) the three connecting tales deliver a profile of Christ and of the holy land during his lifetime like few other authors ever have offered.

Sholem Asch, born in 1880, emigrated from his native Poland to the United States where he became a naturalized citizen in 1920. During his lifetime he wrote many novels and plays, and was (at the time) a celebrated writer up until his death in 1957. His works include several other novels based upon Biblical figures and tales (Mary, Moses, The Apostle, The Prophet). Of those here mentioned, The Prophet is the only one I’ve not yet read. Other more secular works such as East River, which describes the potential conflicts of coexistence between Jews and Christians and Salvation, which centers on a ‘slow-learning’ scholar in the 19th century who is kicked out of school due to his excessive time off to help his mother and support his family (neither of which I’ve yet read as I’ve not found them in my travels) are reportedly wonderful reads about the life of the Jewish people.

For anyone, such as I am, with a more ‘temporal’ interest in Christ and his life and times, Sholem Asch’s works are a great place to learn more.

Happy Reading!

 

Standard