October 8, 2008
Sounding the Territory
By Bloch, Lucienne S
A PERSON I HADN'T thought of in decades sprang to mind recently with the zing of an arrow released from a bow. I was waiting for a bus on Lexington Avenue, headed downtown to a movie. There was no one else at the bus stop. The bus arrived, the doors opened, the driver glanced at me and, suddenly, the bus kneeled. Me? old? visibly past my prime? I stared at that lowered step, then I glared daggers at the driver, and then I boarded the bus remembering: Looking her age never fazed Mrs. Exeter.
Vogue scrapped Mrs. Exeter, rather unmercifully I felt, at the start of the 19605, when the advertising industry embraced a dubious gospel that heralded youth and tasteful nudity as key factors in the mass movement of consumer goods; this despite the postwar baby boom that would inexorably result in a larger elderly population than existed previously. But before Mrs. Exeter was banished from Vogue, if not from demographic fact, I admired her. I didn't particularly care for the high-society life she led. It was her aplomb that appealed. She was comfortable with herself, vibrantly in tune with her matronly body and situation. In that respect, I thought Mrs. Exeter might be a better model than the pouty wraithlike nymphets who chased her off Vogue s slick pages.
To my surprise and delight, Mrs. Exeter has made a comeback, as I coincidentally learned the other day when flipping through Vogue in a periodontist's waiting room. There she was again, soon after I remembered her when the bus kneeled; chance, pure happenstance, dumb luck, for once those unpredictable engines appeared to be running on my timetable. I was glad to see that Mrs. Exeter didn't just outlast her years of exile and enter the new millennium, but was also promoted to the magazine's "View" pages under the "Style Council" banner with a subhead of "Ask Mrs. Exeter." She is now an arbiter of elegance for older women, making direct and thoughtful pronouncements, a distinct upgrade from her former job and a triumph of statistics over sexiness.
Recalling Mrs. Exeter has jogged other memories of those years when I used magazines as investigative equipment. Nancy Drew had her trusty flashlight, I had Look, Life, Time, The New Yorker, Commentary, Vogue, The Saturday Review, National Geographic, Cue, Fortune, Esquire, Art News, Harper's, Flair, for a while, and The Nation. This sizable fleet of magazines flew through my parents' home, arriving and departing on schedule, every week or once a month. The top of a sturdy side table in our living room was reserved for magazines. Each issue was kept until its successor was delivered with the mail, at which time, read or not, it was discarded. Only National Geographic had a longer stay in our house; my brother stashed it in his closet so he could examine bare breasts at his leisure. I used to leaf though many of these magazines, but the three that I concentrated on, that I needed, were Life, The New Yorker and Vogue.
As I attended a hard-line progressive school that categorically rejected the traditionally structured study of geography, history, science, and what were then called civics and hygiene, the latter a fifties code word for sex education, I turned to Life for visual instruction in those and some other subjects. Life showed me spacious horizons in remote places like Iceland and the African veldt and Tierra del Fuego. I saw the crowded streets of Calcutta and Naples and Cairo, the despair of GIs on Pork Chop Hill, the inside of a bus in Montgomery, Sing Sing on the day of the Rosenbergs' execution. I peered into Congressional corridors and sessions of the HUAC and the seedpods of flowers, gazed at the chambers of the heart and the passageways of the birth canal. I could explore these informative sights, stroll through them, taking my time. At the movies, images sped by, quicker than thought. Still photographs idled quietly on a page, waiting for someone to enter their stories, or not to. For me, a child in a family that fled from Hitlers Europe to cosmopolitan Manhattan, Life was America, the real whole big thing. Touring the photos in Life, I learned about Town Meetings in New England and Revivalists' tents pitched in the Southern pinewoods and Midwestern bake-offs and the fat city-state of California, where everything shimmered with possibility. Life gave me secondhand but enticing views of the country I hoped truly to call home someday.
Equally intriguing were views of another nature: outlooks. For positional training I went to The New Yorker every week. It spotlighted an Anglophile-Ivy-Establishment arena that was as foreign to my experience as hot-rodding on a highway in Texas, and it had a voice I aspired to then. Purveyor of cool, The New Yorker's prose demonstrated something my mother liked to remind me of, although her context was usually a different one, having to do with my fresh mouth. "C'est le ton qui fait la musique" she frequently told me. Ton mattered, and le bon ton topped it. I could see that in The New Yorker's articles and short stories and profiles and reviews and advertisements, even when I had trouble getting a message lurking below the polished ton or when, worse, I found the cartoons unfunny. Because I lived in New York City, I felt I had a citizen's right to the sophistication that pulsed in every line of text, and often between the lines, on The New Yorker's pages. Even the typeface, which I later learned was called "sans serif," impressed me. It projected a bedrock devotion to restraint. No messy twisty excesses ornamented either the ideas or their appearance in print in The New Yorker. Smart, spare, mildly acid, reliably correct: that was the way to think and to be; at the very least, it had to look as if you had those qualities. When you got the stylish skin down pat, the substance would probably fill it. That was one of many mistakes I made at the time.
Vogue I read for practical tips. They were couched in honeytongued imperatives that steered women through the currents of allure's narrow straits. Unfaltering attention to hair, hems, nails, makeup, the cunning use of colorful accessories to refresh last season's outfits or tired home decor, romantic candlelight dinners with hard-working husbands and charming rapport with everyone else were emphatically advised. Following this advice didn't guarantee a passage to attractiveness, but it was an approach. If you did everything Vogue urged you to do, you might just wind up looking okay and feeling good, about yourself, your near and dear, your appeal to the world at large.
The problem with Vogue, for me, was its fashion pages. The photographs were too fantastic, severely arty or glaringly flashy or plain implausible. The models, both professional and society beauties and the occasional actress or ballet dancer or royal, were mostly flawless, svelte and glossy as white egrets, their clothes flapping in breezes I couldn't feel. They were often pictured in sporting activities, gesturing with an ease that implied years of practice on tennis courts, ski slopes, and golf courses, years which, along with athletic skills, I did not have. The women in Vogue bore little resemblance to the ones I saw in Life, at home, in school and on the streets, in life itself. Nobody cried in Vogue, no black or yellow or brown models appeared on its pages in that bluntly noninclusive era, no upper arms or thighs bulged lumpily, nobody slapped a bratty child, nobody worried about anything at all or was bored or lonely or afraid or sick in Vogue s dreamy version of reality. Mrs. Exeter was the only woman in Vogue who seemed genuine to me, and she was an outright invention.
Evoking my magazine-reading past, recollecting my adolescent hunger for illuminating clues to a fast-looming future, has led me, willy-nilly, to think about something else, someone else. Mrs. Exeter's graceful aging may have been the ostensible point of the arrow that struck me at the bus stop, but the actual and timelier point is a different one. I have crossed the numerical divide that Vogue established for Mrs. Exeter, and there are fewer futures open to me now, one of them being the alarming prospect of my fathers final years. I know that familial history doesn't always repeat itself, but the dreadful fact is: DNA stacks the deck. I don't have even tentative answers to the large hard questions posed by prolonged dementia, I have only a handful of observations about my fathers experience. This is anecdotal information, unscientific for sure, weighted by affection and close involvement, skewed by my ingrained narrative bent. Narrow and sketchy as these particulars are, they may anyhow put a face on flat formidable generality. Moreover, personalizing an all-too-common affliction may in some small way defuse my fear of it, or so I hope.
My father forgot how to think, to talk, to button his shirt, to whistle, to laugh, to chew and swallow routinely; by the end, a Parkinsonian dementia of the Alzheimer type had stripped him of even the simplest bodily habits he'd had since early childhood. It took eight years for the end to arrive, and all that while his mind was draining its essential reservoirs of comprehension and knowledge. It took too long. He was a legendarily punctual person. Traffic might be at a standstill, nor'easters could blow, any number of delaying events could occur, and he somehow managed to be where he had arranged to be, on the dot. He would certainly have scolded tardy death if he could have, said something like: Inconsiderate bum! Keeping me waiting!
We-my mother, her four middle-aged children, their spouses, nine grandchildren-were also waiting, restively on occasion, for my fathers ordeal to conclude. We felt guilty about our impatience, but shame was overridden by the onerous realities of cognitive disintegration. We had a clear picture of the tough times ahead if my father lived much longer. Even so, we couldn't alter the picture, intervene in any way, help him escape his misfortune.
It would have been a different picture if my father had needed surgery or chemotherapy, or was on life-support machinery in a medical setting. No heroic measures, we would have told the doctors. Pull the plug. Do not resuscitate. But that was not and never became the case. He was in fair health for his age, eighty-four at the start of his irreversible slide into florid dementia. His Parkinsons was controlled by medication, his appetite was hearty, his cheeks were rosy, his eyes were on speaking terms with the world. Apart from enfeebled legs and a disorganizing mind, his vital systems did their customary jobs until the last year of his overlong trial by dementia. Like millions of otherwise unsick people ravaged by dementing disorders, my father was not in a hospital where suffering can be cut short by compassionate neglect or more hands-on procedures. The demented stay home, or in long-term care facilities, enduring, often against their wishes. Unable to speak out for themselves or make common cause, they are a powerless hidden multitude whose everyday agonies seldom get even a mention in any of the heated public debates about our badly broken health-care system, the bioethical dilemmas created by end-of-life decisions, or the Social security catastrophe that is waiting to happen.
Dementia is a word that covers a lot of ground, most of it wasteland. Broadly speaking, it is a condition, a cluster of symptoms, few of them currently treatable. Syndrome, progressive disorder, organic brain disease, cognitive disfunction, infirmity, whichever: it is usually considered a management problem, not a medical one. That is true, and it is also false. Severe dementia is a mortal injury to the distinctive features of human life. My fathers brain stabbed his mind in the back and it bled uncontrollably, bled memory, language, logic, personality, pride and will, dignity, courage, humor, hope. All we could do was watch him vanish piecemeal, erode, so slowly, to dust.
Death was constantly on my father s impaired mind. He wished to die several years before the fact. He said so, frankly, when he could word his thoughts. He was more than ready, he'd had a long full life, and he deplored his diminished state. In his lucid moments, he was sorely aware of his mental confusion, and by turns irate, agitated, sad, frightened, humiliated, and apologetic about the brandnew and frustrating stupidity that massive memory losses imposed on a formerly sharp-witted person. Somewhere inside the tangles and plaques in his brain, somewhere he could not reach handily or at all, was the man he used to be: astute, courteous, unassuming, shorttempered, firmly fair and square, a bon vivant with a zest for pranks and a gift for friendship, dutiful, a voracious reader, a should-havebeen scientist quietly miserable in the family diamond business, multilingual, an intrepid traveler with often- told tales from far and wide. We tried to remind him, and ourselves, ofthat worldly person by asking for stories from his deep past, cuing him with pertinent words or phrases: Jo'burg, Pelikaanstraat, Kuala Lumpur, Madame X. in Rio, the Savoy Grill in London, bicycling in Knokke. His memory's inventory control system worked on a last- in, first-out plan; when he talked about people and events in places he had been a half century or longer ago, his search for words was less labored, and his sentences were whole and cogent enough, though not always sequential. He could usually be distracted from regrets about his confusion by his own yarns, but his anger was harder to deflect. Chocolate bars and ice cream calmed him, sometimes. We were lucky, we knew, his Alzheimer s wasn't explosive or clamorous or restlessly hyperactive, his behavior was only occasionally chaotic, and only during the early years of his cognitive decline.
The burden of caring for a dementing person at home fell chiefly on my mother's elderly shoulders. Live-in help gave her brief daily respites from the constant effort and vigilance that burden demands, but did not begin to lighten it emotionally. Even so, she would not put my father into an institution of any kind, although she didn't have the satisfaction of knowing that he knew he was home. He was utterly and intractably convinced that he lived in a hotel, an amazingly exact replica of the apartment that he and my mother had occupied for almost all of their years in America. The view of Central Park was the same, he admitted as we wheeled his chair around the apartment to show him that it was home, the rooms were identical in size and layout, the furniture was the same, yes, those were his clothes in the closets and bureaus, but the place was definitely not home: "You can't fool me, goddammit!"
The hotel was in various locations, always at some unspecified distance from New York, and even in bright daylight my father was acutely anxious about getting home before dark. When he had the words, he begged us for money, "a couple of twenties, don't be a piker," for a taxi to take him home. You are home, we said, trust us, you're already where you want to be, you don't need a taxi. He couldn't believe us, his delusion was unshakable. We gave him the money anyway, in dollar bills, thinking that a wad of cash in his pocket might make him feel he was still independent, in charge of his acts and thoughts and finances. He promptly gave the money away, to the doormen, to people he saw on the streets when he was wheeled outdoors on nice days, to anyone who happened to cross his habitually generous path.
Long-standing habits die hard. His love of reading outlasted his ability to make sense of words on paper. Now my father read books and magazines upside down as often as not. Or he pored over the Manhattan telephone directory, one torn-out page at a time, randomly searching for names he might recognize and jot on a note for our future use, the names of friends and business acquaintances who should be informed of his death when it occurred so they would not miss his funeral. He had attended many of their funerals, we sometimes reminded him; it didn't seem right to us, mentioning those deaths, reducing the crowd he expected and deserved to have at his funeral service.
My father had been a businessman since the age of nineteen, and he continued to go to the office every morning. After breakfast, he would get dressed, with assistance, and be eager to leave for work. His office was my brothers room refurnished as a den, and his desk was a shopping bag crammed with slips of paper that he consulted constantly. He was always a list maker; his lists had lists of their own, wee memos he kept in his shirt pocket. His note-making habit persisted although his handwriting became largely illegible, typically Parkinsonian, cramped meandering script that resembled snail slime, the visible residue of meaning but not meaning itself. He wrote his notes on paper, on his trousers with his index finger, some scrawled in the air, many having to do with his wished-for death. His undecipherable scribbles often had one capital letter standing out, an M. It took us a while to come up with an explanation, possibly erroneous, for that M: it was the initial letter of his burial society's name. "Guard this with your life," he told me one day, explicit instructions after a half hour of incoherent speech. He handed me a tightly folded piece of Kleenex. I unfolded it and saw a lonely inky M on it. I made a production of putting the tissue in my purse, in a zippered compartment. He was pleased to see that I took his request seriously.
Or did M stand for mama? a child's cry?
One of my father's habitual traits changed radically during the years he slogged through the self-parching desert of dementia. Apart from having liked to reminisce about his adventures in exotic lands, he had never been a big talker, not at home. Not that he would have gotten a word in edgewise: my mother could talk the paint off walls, and we four children made more than our fair share of gab. In the event, my father was by nature a quiet person, a listener, reflective, defensively silent at times, merely preoccupied at others, nose in a book, head in who-knows-where, a faraway kingdom of secrets, I believed when I was a girl. Dementia turned my father into an industrial-strength yakker. It seemed as though he felt compelled to make up for a lifetime of characteristic reticence. There were days when he chattered nonstop and most of what he said escaped us-we caught only a phrase here, a word there. Other days, or when he told his deep-time tales we'd heard before, we could more or less follow his wandering mind on its fitful zigzag route through eight decades and six continents and nine languages, those we spoke at least. He also used the telephone in his ongoing struggle for verbal connectedness. My father made a lot of calls, farewell calls for the most part, many to people whose numbers he remembered although he forgot they were dead. He recalled numbers better than names and words, not only phone numbers but street addresses and birthdays and business figures and mileage between cities throughout the world. He was hard-of-hearing, selectively, we often thought, but didn't like to wear his hearing aid, and when he made those calls he may have thought that, as usual, he was just not catching the voices of his friends and relatives. He didn't say much on the phone, he mainly listened, but he enjoyed using it, making dozens of calls an hour if no one unjacked the telephone on a shelf next to his easy chair in the den, or even if they did. For four years, he was the wheezy breather on my answering machine; he never identified himself, seldom left a message, and when he did it was: Emergency here, call me. Or words to that effect.
He watched television for hours on end, but what he saw may have been something other than the sights on the screen. He invariably pressed the mute button. My father handled the remote control device as though he'd grown up with electronic gadgets, switching channels fast and deftly, switching, switching, never finding the program he seemed to be looking for, and whatever that was he would not or could not say.
Apart from imaginary shows he might have been watching on television, he occasionally had authentic visual hallucinations. For a while, early on in the course of his cognitive disorder, my father believed he was witnessing crimes being committed, robberies, vicious muggings, murders. He wanted to prevent the crimes but couldn't because of his weak legs, his lame brain, his this, his that, a garbled litany of helplessness. For a solid week, he repeatedly maintained that there was a corpse on the floor in the living room. Loosely interpreted, what he said was: There, there, under the piano, goddammit! Plain as day. What's wrong with your eyes? Don't tell the officials or I'll wind up in court.
He was already sentenced, doing hard time. We rolled up the Chinese rug on the chance that his gruesome hallucination might have been fueled by his staring at its sinister design of fierce-looking fire-breathing coiled dragons. We supposed, foolishly in all likelihood, that there was still some symmetry of image and idea in his deteriorating mind. However, the corpse did disappear several days later. The muggings continued for a few more weeks.
In the belief that socialization might slightly decelerate his slippage, we enrolled my father in an Alzheimer's group that met on Wednesdays at a nearby synagogue. This was in the third year of his losing battle with his brain. He was reluctant to go, but agreed to try it if I would take him there and promise to stay in the room with him. The first morning we went, there wasn't a ramp on the steep five steps up to the front door, making it almost impossible for me to push his wheelchair with him in it through that door. I chided myself for not checking out the place beforehand; it wasn't suitable for people who couldn't manage stairs. The building's superintendent happened to be outside and saw our predicament. The wooden ramp usually on the steps was broken and had not yet been replaced, he said, but he knew what to do. He lifted the trapdoors of the freight elevator that rose from the basement to the sidewalk, and wheeled my father onto the clanky metal platform of that elevator. Once inside, they could take the passenger elevator to the third-floor meeting room. The super wouldn't let me ride the freight elevator, for reasons of insurance liability, he explained, although he kindly overlooked that constraint to get my father where he had to go. I pried my fathers fingers off my wrist, he was gripping me like a vise, and I tried to reassure him that he'd be okay, this stranger taking him away was a friendly person, a helper. Watching my father descend below ground level, shouting, terrified, angry, I thought: This is a dress rehearsal that nobody needs.
I took him to that group seven or eight times. I knew that my father and I wouldn't last long there. I burst into tears one morning when I heard a man in his sixties despairingly confess to shaving his teeth by mistake. My father insisted on accompanying me to the ladies' room when I wanted to splash water on my swollen eyes. "You go, I go, it's a deal," he said, and he was right, we had a deal, though I hadn't figured on toilet togetherness. He wouldn't have used a restroom anyhow, he wore adult diapers whenever he left home. Soon, he would wear them day and night. He was not the only person in that group with continence problems. There was a whiff of urine in the air, along with the sweet scent of talcum powder: essence of infants. Perhaps my father smelled the piss and found it offensive. He vehemently refused to stay for the lunch periods, waving away the sandwiches and grapes I brought along for both of us. He complained that everyone in the group was too old, too silly, too rude, too boring, too weird. He was by several years the senior member ofthat sorry club. His behavior was not the weirdest, not noticeably at any rate.
As the years passed, he recognized only the most familiar faces, people he saw every few days, although he confused our names when he didn't lose them. When visitors came, less and less frequently, as happens with visits to chronic shut-ins or to the demented, who are stigmatized like so many people with various mental diseases, the identity of those rare visitors eluded my father entirely. For all he knew, they might have been aliens from outer space, and many times that is exactly what he believed those old friends were. Paranoia often comes with dementia's territory, and my fathers took the form of a rigid conviction that a Great Spymaster in the Sky had marked him for constant surveillance, cloak-and-dagger work carried out by an extraterrestrial police force that could operate on earth. Was the celestial overseer an allusion to God? Was the alien police force a haunting flashback to the inhumanity of the Nazis? Could metaphor still enter and cross his mind? Or did we lean on stray vague hints for even a semblance of explanatory relief? Whatever the answers, they didn't translate to useful.
The firm certainty that interplanetary spies were watching him didn't particularly scare my father, but it did obsess him for weeks at a time. He insisted that airplanes, birds in flight, clouds, the moon, were not what they seemed, they were hovering camouflaged spaceships with telescopes and cameras and listening equipment pointed on him. Sometimes the alien peepers and eavesdroppers sent him important messages, he could hear them shouting loudly through megaphones. He was sad to say, clearly or in scrambled words, that he couldn't understand the announcements because they were made in a language he didn't know. My fathers perseveration about outerspace espionage was comic, and it wasn't.
He always loved to eat, whether in fine restaurants, at an Automat, or snagging pickled herrings from a barrel on Essex Street. Maitre d's in cities all over the globe greeted my father warmly, he was an appreciative loyal customer and a princely tipper. He had a tenacious on-again, off-again weight problem, but that never hampered his enjoyment of food and its convivial rituals. He wasn't a greedy eater, stuffing some implacable inmost emptiness, he ate quite delicately, cutlery held just so, silver ribbons fluttering above and around his plate. In the fifth year of his mental disintegration, my father began to eat air, invisible spoonful after spoonful, his hand moving repetitively, unerringly, toward his slightly open mouth. He didn't swallow the air, but kept spooning it in as though it came from a puzzlingly bottomless bowl of mulligatawny, his favorite soup.
Approaching the final stretch of his long ordeal, my father retired from such business of life as was still left to him. He grew more and more silent, and one rainy afternoon ceased to talk at all. He seemed stunned, stone faced, a fossil of his formerly animated being. We could see anxiety in his blue eyes, and nothing else there, nothing recognizable. Dementia had done its cruel worst, dispossessing my father of self-memory, of cultural freight and experiential lore, of human life's most human attribute: the natural gift of language. Were words still there, whirling like tumbleweed across the barrens of his mind? Or did language vanish with his lost personhood?
I can hardly imagine the magnitude of my father's numerous losses, the holes in his brain formed by the deaths of clusters of neurons, blank spaces responsible for the disturbing enigmas and novelties he must have encountered every moment, mysteries of time and motion, of cause and effect, of place and person, of ordinary things and events, of you and I, hello and goodbye, of shoes and headache and thunderclap and soap and orange juice, an entire universe of strange stuff accosting him constantly, fresh raw data he could not process, much less retain, every dawn a perplexing new start he did not want. I wonder if he ever had the feeling of being buried alive, trapped in a lonely box of bones and skin and involuntary duration. I wonder if he cared, or whether he was beyond loneliness by then, beyond emotional and moral and temporal awareness, beyond even his own desolate wilderness of incomprehension, feeling only, maybe, sensory stimuli: a kiss, the heat of the day, salt in his mouth. He died in his sleep, at home, a week after his ninety-third birthday.
There was a big crowd at my father's funeral, just as he wanted and expected. Along with the planned speakers, several people spontaneously rose to eulogize him. Everyone spoke of him with affection, some humorously, some with plangent nostalgia in their reminiscences, others with gratitude for the help that my father was characteristically eager to give, and did give, to every needy person, school, hospital and charitable organization that appealed to him for assistance. All those speeches and not a word, not one word, not a hint or a whisper, nothing but a crushing silence about what mattered most for eight long years, to him, his family, his friends, his vast community of fellow sufferers.
At the cemetery later that morning, the rabbi s chant was punctuated by the drumming of a woodpecker looking for lunch in a nearby oak. Yisgadal, rat-a-tat, v'ylskadash, rat-a-tat. Glancing up, I spotted the bird making that unseemly noise. I scowled at the clattering intruder because I couldn't shout or clap to shoo it away. Then I thought: Is this a message? from him? an appeal in rudimentary Morse dotted and dashed on a lush leafy tree of life? Heads up, people, rat-a-tat, this matters, rat-a-tat, get cracking, goddammit, it's time to make a racket about dementia. The rabbi continued to chant the Kaddish, evidently unfazed by the disturbance; it must happen frequently, given the trees in most cemeteries. I meant to ask him about that when the graveside service was over, but I forgot.
There: incomplete, slanted, notional, but there: expressed. A momentary stay against confusion, as the poet said, as I feel this to be, a little spoke in fear's wheel, for a little while.
LUCIENNE S. BLOCH is the author of two novels, On the Great- Circle Route and Finders Keepers. She was awarded a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, and her stories have appeared in The Sound of Writing, the O. Henry Festival Stories, and Literary Calvacade.
Copyright Rutgers University Summer 2008
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