It's a little blurry, and to be honest the reason she was so close to the podium was that she worked right next to the mall. She was an attorney for the newly formed Peace Corps and her boss was a 26 year old named Bill Moyers. Both my parents were bureaucrats, and when we were bad they'd threaten to send my brother and me back to "the Office of Babies," where presumably we'd get all tangled up in paperwork. Both my parents were liberals too, so when the Limbaughs and Hannitys of this world demean them, I take it personally.
Theirs was a different time, with different ambitions and different heroes. Back then it wasn't all just about getting rich, it was about making the world a better place, and a life well-lived included good music, good books and traveling the world. Mom's visited close to a hundred different countries in her life... now she can barely walk. We're living a lot longer these days, but we're dying a lot longer too.
It started with forgetting words and names and repeating the same stories over and over again. She calls it short-term memory loss, but it's more than that. She'll hear a word, "Syria" for example, and tell about the time her wristwatch was stolen in Damascus. It's not that she's forgotten having already told the story, even though she probably has, it's that she can no longer hear the word Syria without thinking about that watch, and if someone else is there, she'll talk about it. Certain words or ideas trigger the same, predictable responses. Her mind travels in loops now, and the loops are getting smaller and smaller.
I read somewhere that the older we get the more we become parodies of ourselves. Mom's always worried a lot, but now she does it constantly. It's always about family, never about herself, but you don't need a degree in psychology to see she's projecting her own fears onto the rest of us. As her body gets weaker and weaker her mind relies more on the amygdala: fear takes the place of reason simply as a means to survive. Apart from short walks and the occasional trip to the grocery she doesn't go out anymore. The outside world scares her, especially if there's even a hint of a crowd. Like just about everyone else her age, she's just one fall away from being bedridden for the rest of her life.
I'm sure this is familiar territory to a lot of you, especially if you've bothered to read this far. So far it's just been a lot of pain and the mild indignities of a failing mind and body. I know the real horrors are yet to come: there's a whole lot of verses to the Caretaker Blues.
If I had to sum up what I've learned from mom so far it's the importance of the unimportant. All her adult life my mother has kept herself occupied with things that are important: career, family, financial security. The books she reads are either historical or biographical, the movies she watches are almost always serious and the only music she listens to is classical. I once asked her to name a song that'd been written in the last fifty years and she came up with "Happy Days Are Here Again," written in 1929. And the only reason she came up with that one is that it was written by a relative. I rephrased the question, upping the stakes by saying "Let's say there was a madman holding a gun to your granddaughter's head, or the admissions department of Stanford saying she was about to be accepted, but only if you could name a song that'd been written within the last fifty years... then could you do it?" And she couldn't, or better put, wouldn't. Anything having to do with pop culture - even The Beatles for chrissakes - she refuses to admit any knowledge of. And while I'd like to think that it's simply posturing and that if said madman or admissions board were to challenge her she'd come through... honestly, I'm not sure she could.
As far as I know she has never played a musical instrument, written a story or poem, sang, sketched, painted, built or sculpted anything since she was a child. I doubt she's ever even tried doing a crossword puzzle. And throughout her life that hasn't really been a problem, until recently. What do you do when you've spent your entire life concentrating only on "important" things and find that your mind is no longer able to handle them? Suddenly take up knitting? Fat chance.
Back in the 90's I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing stories for Penthouse. For a while I was actually making more money from my writing than I was bartending and I used to joke that I was "writing in order to support myself as a bartender..." To quote Roxy Music, it was one of those "throwaway lines that often ring true." Because the truth was if all I was doing with my time on this planet was serving drinks to tourists, I'd probably go insane. The fact that I was writing - that I was practicing some form of art - there was at least a chance, no matter how slim, that I could actually accomplish something great. And it didn't matter if I accomplished it or not, so long as there was a chance... that was enough.
With mom I've found a whole new world of reasons why it's important to have an art: to fill the long hours, days and years that medical science has now given us. Same goes for playing games, doing puzzles, or just generally wasting time - these become increasingly valuable talents when the others start slipping away. Mom reads of course - or tries to - generally books about the holocaust. She's always had a sort of survivor's-guilt-by-proxy since her family was safe in the U.S. when it happened. You know how many so-called "primitive" cultures practice ancestor worship? My brother and I do the same thing: we call it "Thank God our great grandparents got the hell out of Poland." Still though, the death camps have always haunted our mother. Her last big trip was to Iran during the Ahmadinejad regime, and when people asked me why I joked that she was "teaching holocaust studies at Tehran University."
I heard a guy on the radio say he considered taking care of his aging mother to be a privilege and I've clung to that word ever since. Unlike practically everything else in this weird, fucked up world we live in, at least I don't have to worry whether or not I'm doing the "right thing." I am. And if you're taking care of an aging parent or loved one, so are you.
As her world gets smaller, so does mine. I haven't been up to Portland and Seattle for years now, and even the Bay Area's pretty much out of my reach. I can still paint signs though, and thanks to the First Amendment and the five foot tall roll of butcher paper in my garage, they can be as big as you want and say whatever you want them to say. Send me a Kosmail and we'll work it out.