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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Confessions

What Happens To A Memory – Confessions Of A Rotten Little Bastard, Part 19

I spent an hour on the phone with my mother this morning talking about her visit with one of the boys who is in Florida to be part of a family wedding this coming weekend.

She related how much she enjoyed seeing him, how handsome he is, how loving and attentive he was, and how much she loves him.

She then told me that try as she might yesterday she just couldn’t recall any other times they’ve spent together. She knows they have spent time together (a great deal of it in the first few years of his life, before his mother died), but that she just can’t bring up any of the memories in her mind. She knows she loves him, but can’t remember doing anything important with him.

“What happens to a memory?” she asked. “How can something as important as that just disappear from your mind?”

Scientifically, there are explanations for what happens to our memories. Recent ones are stored in an area of the brain called the Hippocampus. How long they reside there is up for debate. But eventually the Hippocampus, after telling our brains how to recall that memory (the details of it that become embedded in our minds), the memory is then parceled out to the Cortex, where it lives on, although over time certain aspects of it can be revised or can even fade from our ability to recall it.

An alternative theory suggests that the Hippocampus stores ‘episodic’ memories, with layers of detail such as smell, taste, color, etc., while the cortex stores ‘semantic’ memories which are more steeped in factual knowledge than anything else. The Hippocampus might tell us that we lived in a brown, two story house in a row of houses with a rolling green field across the street where we spent many hours as a child running through the grass that rose up to our waists and chests and shoulders and beyond during the long summer months. We can still recall the sound of summer insects singing their songs and almost feel the warmth of the sunlight that streamed down from above and played with the tips of the grass shoots. Eventually this might be reported to another in much more general terms such as ‘There was a field across the street from my house. I used to play there.’ and little more.

Before the time when the written word became a more wide-spread form of recording and sharing events and history, people relied on the spoken word. Stories would spread from person to person, from village to village, passed down from generation to generation, so that the deeds and words of others would not wane with the passage of time. In this way, stories being passed to me by my parents, I know many things that otherwise I might not as they were never written down anywhere. I know things about myself from a time before I began to remember them and store them inside my own mind.

“I don’t remember my life before here, before coming here. I know I had a house, and I lived there for many years, but I can’t even recall what it looked like inside.” Mom said.

“Close your eyes, Mom, close your eyes and picture something in your mind and tell me what it is, with as much detail as you can.”

“I see a boy – he’s about five or six years old. He has dark hair. He’s sitting in a corner reading. There’s no one else in the room, but he’s just sitting there with a book.”

“That boy is me, Mom. You always said that when I first learned to read, anytime after that when you wondered where I was, you could always find me sitting in a corner, usually behind a chair, reading a book.”

“Yes – yes that’s right. I always loved that about you, that you loved to read as much as I loved to read – and still do. Do you?”

“Absolutely. I always have a book going.”

“Good. Then that’s something we’ll always share. Something we love about each other.”

“Then that’s your answer Mom.”

“My answer to what?”

“To what happens to a memory. Just like you said about your grandson being there and not remembering times you’ve spent with him, but you know you love him and enjoy being with him. Just like you pictured me just now reading in a corner and said it was always something you loved about me, my love of reading. That’s what happens to our memories. Even if we can’t recall them.”

“You think that’s it?”

“I don’t know for sure, but – perhaps we carry them in our heart as the love we feel for others, and that way they never really fade completely.”

“I hope you’re right, Son – but even if you aren’t, I think I like that, and I’m going to choose to believe it.”

Winnie The Pooh said, ‘If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart, I’ll stay there forever.’ Science might not know what happens to our memories exactly, but our hearts know what they know.

Even though memories may fade, love never will.

 

 

 

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Miscellaneous

What I Lost Last Week

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

On Monday, May 25th, 2015 my father passed away. He was 83 years of age.

Each day since then has been filled with tears and filled with sorrow. Each day that passes I’m strong when I need to be, and then not when I don’t. Some days I get bogged down with a task at hand, and the grief I feel shifts around to somewhere other than the forefront of my mind. But when the task ends, or when I sit down to allow myself to rest for a moment, or when the house is quiet and I’m the only one still up, or I awake in the middle of the night it comes crashing back over me. Grief is cruel that way. Cruel and unfair. It strikes when you least expect it, and then lingers to taunt you.

I must speak of my father in the past tense now. I can drive past a certain assisted living home in Maine, but I no longer will stop there. It’s not where he sleeps, it’s where he slept. I can look for grape nut ice cream in a list of available flavors. It’s not what he likes, it’s what he liked. I can mimic his words and tell his oft repeated stories, even in his voice. It’s not what he says, it’s what he said.

So many words seem infinite in their potential and their capacity. We can like many things. We can know many things. We can love many people. So many words in our language seem to encompass moments and hours and weeks and years. Live is one of those words. We live by breathing and eating and loving and feeling. We live in the miles that we travel and the disappointments that we face and rise above. We live in the moments that we create with others and for ourselves. We live in the knowledge we acquire and our relationships with others and the legacies we leave behind. We live from the moment we draw first breath to the moment we expel our last.

The word die is different. It is a present tense word that the use of only encompasses a brief moment in the span of eternity. It is the moment when we cease to breathe…we cease to feel…and we cease to live. There is before, which we participate in and leave our mark for later if we are lucky. There is also after, which is not ours to own. That belongs to those we leave behind to mourn us and honor us and miss us and remember us. But in the word die there is only the briefest flicker of time in the space between before and after. Our eyes, once open, close, and then before is done, and after has filled its place without us even noticing the transition.

At my father’s funeral, I spoke of him and of our relationship, and how it suffered over the years. Fortunately it ended in healing and in forgiveness some ten years ago. I am grateful for those ten years, and yet feel cheated out of the other 36 I might have had with him. For a period of time lasting more than a decade I cut my father out of my life and robbed myself in the process. I won’t take full responsibility for that separation, as we both had a hand in it. But for my part in what brought about our silence with one another for all those years I am sorry. For what I lost in those years, time with my father, I am filled with regret and told him so before he passed away. For what I have now lost with his death, I know there is no apology for, and no forgiveness to seek, and no substitute for.

When my father died last week, I lost many things. I lost more than eighty years of wisdom and experience. I lost answers to questions I never thought to ask. I lost arms that would wrap around me no matter what was wrong or what I had done and comfort me. I lost stories of my grandparents and their parents before them that he hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I lost laughs that we hadn’t yet shared, as well as tears that we might have cried together, safe and comforted in the presence of one another. I lost the hours of anticipation I’d feel knowing I was driving up to Maine to see him. I lost someone who cared about me enough to listen to what my favorite cookie was and hand me a bag full of them, lifted from the coffers of his assisted living home, to send me home with them and carry me through until our next visit. I lost someone who would pick up trinkets and toys found around the facility and send them home for my boys to put a smile on their faces. I lost insight into a time before I lived that no history book will ever offer me. I lost stories of myself that come from a time before my memories began to imprint themselves on my own mind.

I lost a friend. I couldn’t always say that he was my friend. Thankfully that changed before it was too late.

People say grief has five stages to it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I believe I’ve skipped over the first three stages in an end run for the final two. I cannot deny that my father is gone. I cannot be angry for I know he was prepared for his death and that he had reached a place in his life when he no longer wished to fight a losing battle. I cannot bargain for his continued existence because I’ve already lost him. That leaves me with two stages. I won’t call what I feel depression. Many times people feel as though they have nothing to live for when someone passes, or they begin to think about their own mortality so strongly that it becomes a kind of paralysis to them for continuing to live. I have to go on. I have kids, and family, and friends and experiences to make with all of them. I have many things to teach the boys, memories to not only pass on to them but to make with them as well.

I think this stage is, for me, more aptly labeled sadness. Sad that I can’t listen to him telling me stories, no matter how many times he’d told them to me before. Sad that I can’t hug him anymore, or kiss him on the forehead when I’m leaving and feel him reach up and place his hand over my own that I lay on his shoulder. Sad that my boys won’t get to know him better, at least not directly, and will have to rely on my stories to teach them things about their grandfather. Sad that I have one less place to visit when I go to Maine. Sad that while I can still say ‘I love you, dad’, I can never again hear him reply, ‘I love you, too.’

I know that the stage after this is acceptance. I know that in time the hurt will change and the memories won’t bring so many tears, and I’ll be able to think about his passing and about going to his grave site without a feeling of panic sweeping over me. I’ll come across pictures of him and be able to look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling as though someone has knocked the wind out of me with repeated kicks to my stomach. I’ll take out the very few material things I have of his and hold them in my hand and imagine his hands upon them and perhaps feel that he’s really quite near, rather than feeling the incalculable void that seems before me now when I look at them. I’ll sift through memories of him and not feel like I just want to curl up in a ball and sob until I have no tears left. I know I’ll get there. It’s a journey I’ve taken many times before.

For now, I think I’ll just stick with sad for a while longer.

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