Shave

A moment with my father who is now in the late middle stages of Alzheimers.
I wrote this on the train this morning…

I went to see my father the other day.
I needed to sign some papers so he could get a flu shot since he can no longer sign his own name.
What comes out instead are crazy lines and meaningless squiggles that would probably mean more to a child than any adult.
In my mind, I can still see his signature from not so long ago; the smooth and precise lines of legible writing that defined the organization and intellect I once associated with the man that he used to be.

He smiled softly when he saw me.
Maybe I still look “familiar” to him, which seems to me a paradox because he’s become a total stranger to me.
My sister had been to see him and asked that I stop by and trim
(please, excuse me here) his nose hairs which were, in the words of my sister, “long enough to braid”. Hey, hair grows, right?
His beard was stubbly as well; a testament to his growing aversion to anyone strange getting near him.

“Would you like a shave, Dad?” I asked.

“Ok.”

He doesn’t say much more than a few words these days and is sadly beginning to dabble in a bit of gibberish as well.
I know the pattern well by now.
He was never a talker anyway but these days I feel he’s just dog tired of trying to communicate his needs to the strange world around him.
I’ve learned over the years that it’s just easier for me to talk about… things. Anything relatively inconsequential works: my life (boring),
the grandkids (cool), the weather (foul), food, the Red Sox (suck season)… Nothing too complicated.

Questions are pointless and leave him frustrated because he searches for an answer I know he’ll never find.
I feel sad knowing my mother is flying with angels and can never tell him so.
In his heart he still thinks she’s alive and maybe that’s not such a bad thing because in some ways, she is.

I walk him to his room and have him sit in the bathroom for a shave.
I draw some hot water to soften the stubble and glance at him, he's unaware I’m doing so. He looks sad to me and my heart breaks for him, like always.
It’s almost as if he knows all that’s transpired but refuses to acknowledge it to the world.
It should be an unusual thing to shave your father’s face but after all he and I have been through it seems almost a comfort, for him and for me.
It’s simple and it’s right.
He seems to enjoy it as much as I enjoy doing it for him.
I finish and find myself face to face with him.

I look into his eyes that seem to be growing more tired by the day and I say, “How’s that?”

“It’s good.” He says.

And it is good; for him and strangely enough for me.

Shaving is an essential part of the day for any man, a ritual we look forward to, a cleansing of the soul of sorts, a clean slate we give to ourselves.
For us gorillas, it seems to complete the daily “routine”, and we like the way it feels.
So my father takes pleasure in the memory of the ritual with my help and it makes me happy.
I bring him back to the common room where the other residents are doing some light exercise.
He seems happier now than he did before and I feel I actually accomplished something.
Come to think of it, maybe I really did….

~m

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Mayflower

A journal entry from my last day at the Cape.

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It’s early Tuesday morning and I’m sitting alone on Mayflower Beach in the town of Dennis. Not a soul out this morning and I have the sand bar all to myself.
I have a hot, dark roast coffee (cream, two sugars) and my favorite cigar.
It’s somewhat overcast and a bit chilly keeping most of the beachcombers at home.
Looking out at the restless ocean, I study the dark, bruised clouds floating on the horizon and think, maybe it’s not so hard to believe that there’s a war going on thousands of miles away and another tropical storm has just turned into a Category 4 hurricane.
My eyes scan the breathtaking 360 degree panorama and I think of Steve Martin’s “Let’s Get Small” routine and smile because at the present time that’s exactly how I feel: small.
Sitting on a swath of sand this vast you can’t help but feel any other way.

It’s quiet here save for the briny ocean breeze and the rushing sound of the surf.
In my mind, I see my mother standing by the shore with her feet in the water.
She’s wearing a one piece, light blue and white checked bathing suit as she stares out at the foreboding horizon.
She always loved the beach while my father basically tolerated it.
I see my father sitting under his ever present umbrella, wrapped up in a bunch of towels to avoid the burning rays of some long forgotten summer sun.
His fair Irish skin will still turn an all too familiar lobster red anyway.

“Just say goodbye to her, Dad.”

The odd sound of my voice takes me by surprise.
I know this can never happen in real life but still a part of me wants somehow to “see” it.
I want closure.
I see my father cast away all his protective wrapping, stand up, and slowly walk to the shoreline.
There, he takes my mother’s hand in his as they stand side by side, silently watching the white-capped Cape Cod Bay.
After a short time, I see her slowly turn and smile at him.
She says, “It’s ok, Wally. I’ll always be here. You know that…but I have to go.”
He looks down at the sand and nods his head, silent.
She kisses him gently on the cheek and begins walking down the shore away from him.
He watches until her silhouette sinks into the distant grey mist.

It’s at that moment that raindrops begin dotting the pages of my journal and my written words all begin to run together.
It is time for me to say goodbye as well.

~m

Goodbye House

Several years ago I sold the house I’d grown up in.
It turned out to be much more difficult an ordeal than I originally thought.
I wrote a piece in an attempt to journal my emotional state at the time.
I put it on the blog in the hopes that someone somewhere down the road may find that they went through the same labyrinth that I did and yes, life does go on.
The piece is a bit lengthy, sorry about that.
Should you connect with anything in the story, I’ll be a happy camper.

best,
~m

The Goodbye House

The house I’d spent the better part of my life in was sold. The feeling that coursed through me was that of guilt because I was the one who decided it needed to be sold and I didn’t know if that was right or wrong. An intrinsic part of my childhood history was on the auctioning block destined to go to the highest bidder and I never had a chance to rescind that decision.
Time had come to clean the rooms and closets that had once held the bittersweet secrets of my life. Memories descended on me like white-capped waves washing the shores of some distant but familiar beach.
There was more of me here than I cared to admit, but the job ahead needed to be done and finally put to bed.

Mom and Dad fell victim to the affliction we call Alzheimer’s Disease, the memories of their lives turning opaque and as lifeless as their soon to be empty house.
In time, they were both moved from a place they could no longer remember, leaving me with a house I couldn’t forget.
Safe within the foreign walls of their new homes, I was handed the unenviable role of caretaker and property manager, a title that to this day still scares the hell out of me.

In one word, the house had been a ‘haven’ for my twin sister and myself. The world outside was safer to view from inside the four walls of the 15’X15’ living room than anywhere else on the face of the earth.
That feeling of shelter was a concept never taught: we just knew it to be truth.
The skies could be raining boulders but as long as we were inside, life was good. I looked at the scattered bits and pieces of my life, our life, resting placidly, albeit sadly, on the unseen shelves that ubiquitously lined each room.
During my walks from room to room, I laughed at myself for the constant carrying of a box of Kleenex wondering what memory would push up the next batch of ‘eye dew’.
The echoing voices of last days of school and first days of summer softly careened off walls barren as the Sahara desert during a dust storm, back into my heart where I prayed they would somehow always live and knew they would always belong.

Finding myself in the den, Mom’s piano called longingly to me. I felt the dusty keys as if waiting for some divine inspiration to strike but it never came.
I looked inside the rickety piano bench through sheet after disintegrating sheet of music and found “The Burning of Rome”, a two-step written decades before I was born, a piece of music that my mother loved playing. Oh, how she could play!
The piano brought her so much happiness and peace.
Who would take care of this sad and abandoned instrument now, I wondered.
She loved to play Christmas songs around the holidays and always made my sister and me sing for our guests. Now, most of her music books sat untouched, collecting more particles of dust than stars in the heavens and I wondered if anyone would ever love this piano the way she did.
I didn’t feel I had the heart to sit down and play but I did anyway, for old times’ sake. It was a very short and old-fashioned song she used to play:

Toorah Loorah Loorah, hush now don’t you cry…

But I did cry.
Oddly enough, the piano reminded me of a child’s music box, out of tune but pretty in its sweet own Irish way. Closing the fallboard, it occurred to me that I wrote my first song on this piano. I couldn’t remember the words or the music but I remember the feeling of writing it; of creating art out of thin air; of running to my mother ecstatic I had done it and Mom trying not to be too excited saying, that’s my boy.

Being left alone with all these emotions has a way of changing you and my insides were changing from room to room. Stripping away all the furniture and belongings that had accumulated over some 50 years was no easy task.
It was murder, plain and simple.
A part of me was dying and I had no choice but to let the spirits of the past fly out of the open windows and into that black void where all shadows go.

The second floor was the toughest emotionally.
My bedroom was the first door on the right when you reached the top of the stairs.
The walls were a soft knotty pine (good for hanging up posters- and yes, I did have the Farah Fawcett one) and covered most of the room except for a foot of bare wall that bordered the room before reaching the ceiling.
Once upon a time, there had been an orangey rust colored shag carpet covering the floor, but that had been ripped up years earlier exposing what would now be considered ‘art deco mocha’ floor tile.
It was spattered with what looked to me like black and white drops of paint.
I sat at my desk and rummaged absentmindedly through the drawers.
I pulled out a crinkled pack of firecrackers as my mind shot me thirty-five years back in time. Mom and Dad used to play cards in the dining room with neighbors and friends because Saturday night was the time for Gin Rummy.
The particular Saturday night that came to mind was different.
I had been given some Black Jack firecrackers from one of the ‘bad apples’ in the neighborhood and I decided to try and see if I could light one and get the fuse to go out before the firecracker exploded.
I guess I did it because that’s what curious (and dim-witted) boys did.
Hearing the enormous bang, Dad came bounding up the stairs two at a time assuming I had just committed suicide. He shoved open the door only to see me sitting at my little desk with that ‘deer caught in the headlights’ look on my face.
He surveyed the room wondering why it looked like a winter Nor’easter had just blown through with firecracker paper everywhere.
I had lived to re-live the tale sitting at the desk.
That night was coming back to me in living color, the pungent sulphur odor from the exploded firecracker singeing the hairs in my nose and filling my mouth with acidic smoke. But as bad as that night was—was as good as the memory made me feel.

From the window in my room, I looked out over the neighborhood I once ruled as Daniel Boone; a neighborhood I knew like the back of my hand in the dead of night.
I suddenly wanted to tell the kids moving into the house where the best salamanders were and how sliding in the winter will never get better than the Collins’ backyard and how ‘ya gotta watch the sand that covers the road on the cul-de-sac turn when you’re on your bike ‘cause if you don’t you’ll wipeout.
The seasons of my life stretched out over the neighborhood as I said out loud: I can’t say goodbye to this house when there’s still so much of me in it!
My voice echoed off the tile floor of my bedroom wanting a reply.
It would be months after the closing of the house and that final locking of the door before I would see some closure enter my life.

Business often took me near the house but I chose to stay on the highway, not wanting to admit to myself that someone else was living there; looking out windows I once looked out of; playing the piano I once played; watching the sunset from the deck in the backyard, the sky painted with deep royal purples and cotton candy pinks as stars twinkled on, one by one—that was my sunset.

But one late August afternoon, after flying into Providence after a business trip, I had the chance and the time to drive by and sneak a glimpse of the old gal.
I was happy to see that her lawn had been freshly mowed and that there was a canoe resting against the shed out back.
I couldn’t put my finger on it but the house had lost its blues.
She didn’t need me any longer.
She was once again filled with life and light. I drove down around the cul-de-sac (that once had claimed all the skin on my left forearm) and came back up the quiet street for one final look before heading back into my own life.
I glanced up at my old bedroom window, saw that a light was on and imagined some young boy staring at the ceiling, wondering what life had in store for him. I managed one last smile for my old friend as I turned on my headlights and headed for new haven.

© michaelm 2005