Above: CR napping on top of his bedcovers while he waits for the health team to come to a progress meeting—his progress. He is wasting away in his clothing. When he first got onto the bed he pulled his pant's waistband out and up and said, "Well there's one good thing about all this, I've lost weight." Since he didn't need to lose weight there is no comment I can make. It is what it is in his mind. Staedtler Pigment liner (running dry) on a notebook sheet of paper stuck down later into my journal (which is too big to carry around).
I look at the pile of papers on the side table and realize how fractured and disjointed the past month has been.
For three weeks of that month I was actually well. But CR crashed again and went back into the hospital (some complications after bladder cancer cauterization). I remember the Saturday evening it happened because I was feeling well enough, after almost 3 months of flu and bronchitis and a side dish of a cold, to stay up and paint. Dick went to bed early. When his phone rang and he didn’t answer and then my phone rang I knew that at 11:40 p.m. things were going to get interesting fast. I woke Dick and he went into the hospital where he stayed with his father for about 18 hours until he was stable.
CR had 4 days in hospital and almost two weeks in temporary care—where you transition through physical therapy and a crew of nurses and practitioners determine if you’re able to go back to your living situation or, if not, what help will be needed, what changes made. And there will have to be changes. His short-term memory is totally gone. He is on continuous loop—about 60 seconds duration. He forgets if he's eaten a meal. He believes his doctors who have been working to keep him alive have given up on him. He clings to the belief that he is in better condition than his wife—he's wrong—it's the final competition of a game that has played out for almost 70 years. He echoes back things that I have just told him as if he heard them on the news. (OK that belief in my veracity is sensible.) He sleeps a lot. He can hardly see. He no longer remembers where his apartment is, or that it is connected to the same building Phyllis is in, the building that he is in right that moment. He is disappointed that I haven't brought his coat for his journey back to the apartment. He starts to be argumentative when I tell him we just have to walk inside, down a couple hallways, as if we were going back to his apartment from Phyllis'. Then he stops mid sentence. He tells me that he doesn't remember how to get back to the apartment from Phyllis'. The admission, offered spontaneously, crushes him and he slouches down into his chair.
Some of this memory may come back when he reestablishes his apartment routine. Some of it we both realize is gone forever.
On the day I spring him from temporary care and return him to his assisted living apartment I spend several minutes and run through several sheets of paper trying to compose a reminder note I can leave for him so that he'll take his last pills of the day. I can't think what to say, or where to tape it up. If it's on the door and he doesn't see it when he goes to dinner will he see it the next morning and assume it's about tomorrow's pills? Days have no meaning to him any more. What is Tuesday? What is Wednesday? He has asked me in the four hours that I'm with him that day no less that 16 times what day it is. I realize I've started to count a lot of things about his behavior as if I'm compensating for his deterioration by reinforcing my own ability to "control" statistics and lists, as if knowing all these details somehow matters, when nothing matters except sitting right there near him and smiling and nodding.
Towards the end of CR's spring health run (he has collapsed like clockwork each spring for the past 6 years), Phyllis caught one of the bugs that circulates through long-term care. I remember visiting and being shocked to see how ill she was. She rallied quickly (in about 4 days); a testament to her strong constitution.
To round out the trifecta of fun I caught another cold, just in time for my sister-in-law’s visit—so at least I don’t feel badly that the folks don’t have regular company. And I’m relieved that they are back to what is a new normal (because in aging you never go back to the old normal). But I’m pretty damn grumpy.
So I’m sitting here with a pile of papers: all the things I started to write down when there were only a couple quiet moments at a time to catch an idea; all the fragments of conversation that Dick and I had while we were trying to be realistic about the folks and while lately he’s been trying to jostle me out of grumpy mode.
One evening I was watching a little bit of “The Voice” (a TV show which my massage therapist turned me onto and which I find very upbeat and fun, unlike most other competition and reality shows) and at a singer’s rendition of “How Great Thou Art” the end scene for a script I’ve wanted to write popped right into my head—that’s scribbled and stacked in the pile. The pile also contains a conversation about love-anger-Dick’s eyes-and-the various examples of love I’ve witnessed in my life.
I was going to share that with you, but I realized that it will be better as a funeral video—short video monologues that my friend Tom and I are making to show at my funeral (yes I plan ahead). And besides, one of the tungsten-halogen bulbs above my head just exploded into a billion bits with a loud pop while Dick was standing next to me saying goodnight—which is actually a good thing because I didn’t have shoes on and he brought me my shoes so I wouldn’t step in any glass, and he cleaned it all up. That’s one of the perks of having lung crud, no one expects you to clean up exploded bulbs.
Isn’t that funny? Writing about fragmentation and having fragments fall all over you. Sinister synchronicity. Nah, it’s just a damn bulb exploding while I’m sitting here trying to put the stack of notes together. Why didn’t they get written in my journal? I didn’t feel like moving and getting the book when the ideas popped into my head—I felt that weak. That never happens. I’m glad I’m starting to feel better because that’s the closest I’ve been to the end of my tether in a long time.
So here are some fragments that I wanted to share with you. I’ve included some movie viewing. Frankly on another day (one without coughing or exploding bulbs) I’d probably turn each of these into a 1200-word blog post, so hey, let’s all rejoice in the brevity that illness brings to me.
• A lovely thought from Dorothea Lang: “Your file of negatives is your biography.” (And in case you don't know—Dorothea Lang was a photographer and she was speaking of actual film negatives.)
• “Destiny needs work.” The older brother in Papadopoulous & Sons. A simple but enjoyable movie about families and life and what makes you happy.
• Red Cow
If you can work out what that means drop me a line. I might have been feverish and hallucinating. I do that sometimes.
• “Top Five” written and directed by Chris Rock is entertaining and well-worth watching, and good to discuss with friends.
• “He’s too worried about acceptance. You’ve got to get on the side of ambition.” Something Pharrell Williams said about one of his protégés on “The Voice.” Think about it. Apply it to an “artist” you know. I think he’s dead on.
• Halls Black Cherry sugar free cough drops taste like the old “Smith Brother’s Cough Drops,” I had in my childhood. (In the 60s they were still using a close match to the 1948 packaging you can see on their site.) I didn’t realize they still made the Smith Brothers cough drops. I don’t dare try one now, one could only be disappointed over a flawed memory. (That’s the grumpiness talking, and also I really don’t like to use cough drops—I find not talking helps a lot. I just like to have cough drops around when I have to take phone meetings, or when the computer guy stops by; I’ve seen a lot of the computer guy this week.)
• I watched "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp. It hit all the points I could have hoped for. It is about the incompatibility of justice and life; the inherent sickness and greed in man and the self-delusion of seeing evil as more than you can cope with; "civilized" man's need to cover and justify his actions at the cost of justice and his own soul; and the need to have a tribe. I always felt that Tonto (played by Jay Silverheels in the TV show) was the real hero. I didn't know that "tonto" is Spanish for "moron" or "fool" but now that I do I recall that fools and tricksters are separated by a thread (and that's the way that Depp plays it). Wikipedia will tell you that Tonto is a Potawatomi word, that the radio show's producer remembered from his childhood in Michigan, which means "wild one." In the film Depp's Tonto is a Comanche.
Watching the movie the first time, and then again the second time (which I enjoyed even more because the movie was so long I'd forgotten how some things were neatly tied together), I could not get over the force of the graphic silhouette the costume designer gave Depp's Tonto. It was truly wonderful to see that figure move across the screen. The negative space around that silhouette is endlessly satisfying frame by frame. And all the business with the crow…
I was so taken with the movie after the first viewing, that I called upstairs to Dick and asked to show him some parts, and we ended up watching it all (and it's a long movie so that was my day, but remember I was very ill at the time). And then when it was over I had to try and reconcile Dick's assessment of the movie with mine! I thought I might have to divorce him.
Yes it was too long and many scenes could have been shortened. Yes too many things blew up or crashed into each other. (Jerry Bruckheimer produced it—it's what we want from him.) But the backstory on Tonto is so achingly wonderful. And unlike Dick I thought the comic bits were balanced well with the dire circumstances (heck I'm funniest when my back is against the wall) and the grave, calm acceptance of the Comanche chief. The fact that it was told in flashbacks from the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition (and we see the Golden Gate Bridge going up in the background)…well I loved it.
We all have to hold on to something, whether it's a dead bird or a silver star; some thing that means something to us and anchors us and allows us to be in the world. These things remind us of ourselves, who we were, what we became, and how we can hold onto ourselves by letting go.
Yes I did find it annoying that they included John Phillip Sousa marches at an 1869 celebration—songs that weren't written for more than 20 or 30 years later. Use of the Finale to Rossini's William Tell Overture at just the right time almost made up for that. And Hans Zimmer's score is hauntingly beautiful.
I would watch the movie all over again, if it weren't already so late (when I'm writing this). I'm not hallucinating. But we all have stories from childhood that carry our baggage. I know this is mine. And I'm still coming to grips with how different Dick's opinion of the movie was to mine. But then his childhood was different too.
• Acorn TV is messed up. I got a message from them on March 12 to renew my membership. I did so. They billed my card on March 13. On April 9, my anniversary with them, they discontinued my service and left a RENEW message up. I’ve tried to contact them 3 times via emails and once with voice message. No luck. I may have to cancel my subscription since it’s been over a week and I don’t get the service I’m paying for. I may never find out what happens to the model in that show I was watching on April 4.
• I have been GAZING at the illustrations in “Animal Studies: 550 Illustrations of Mammals, Birds, Fish and Insects” by M. Méheut. (Dover book, out of print, ISBN 0-486-40266-5) I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy of it. Jean-Christophe Defline (another of the Sketchbook Skool teachers) recommended Méthuet to me because of his gouache paintings. Méthuet is a master with gouache, but it is almost more fun to look at the sculptural solidity he gives to animals in simple pencil sketches—all while retaining a graceful fluidity of line and gesture. This is important work.
• OK, there are some other things on slips of paper, but I think those are definitely hallucinations.
Let’s leave it like this:
Remember that life is very short. Work your butt off even when you’re sick. (But watch some TV too. And read a book if you can hold your head up.)
Tell the people you love that you love them, because at some point you are going to catch yet another bug (and another bug, and another) and be too grumpy to contain yourself, your real self.
And when that happens all you can do is be thankful if you live with LB—for his ability to take infinite amounts of grumpy and keep a firewall between love and anger.