Thursday, November 01, 2007

One More Time

Well, I did it again.

Tonight, I participated in the class show for the Solo Performer 2 course I'm taking at the People's Improv Theater, or The PIT, as we like to call it.

I took the first class earlier this year and we had our class show in May.

I am not a natural actor and I don't speak in public, so these classes push me in ways I never thought possible.

In the theater they like to say "break a leg." Last night I damn near busted a toe walking into my room. I let out such a yelp I must have frightened people two zip codes away. But the show must go on.

I wasn't happy with my performance tonight, to be honest. I stuttered a couple of times, but I also think I "acted" better this time around. I was conveying emotion, and not just reading.

I spoke about losing my parents and how difficult it was dealing with my dad, who suffered from Alzheimer's, so there is no shortage of emotion here.

One of my classmate's had invited several friends and family to the show and when I came out of the theater I heard one of them say, "there he is." Meaning me--one woman patted my shoulder and told me how much she enjoyed the show.

"My mother died from Alzheimer's," she said.

I think I relied too much on reading tonight, rather than memorization. I see now that the more you remember, the more natural you become.

I'll get another shot at this: In December, we'll be doing our 30 minute (!) shows, which means yours truly will be on the stage by himself for half a freaking hour.

What the hell was I thinking? Damned if I know. I am Catholic, after all and self-abuse comes naturally.

As much as I love this class, I have to say it is taking time away from the other thousand projects I'm working on.

But I'm going to give it my all and devote myself to cleaning out the artistic closet: shoot the film, finished the goddamn novel, and write the screenplay.

Here's the text of tonight's performance. Some of this may be familiar, since I've been writing about this topic for some time now. Nevertheless, here you go...

Breathe With Me

I dreamed one night that my father was still alive.

He was walking through the living room of our house in Brooklyn in his boxer shorts and I could tell by the brown stains around his calves that he had soiled himself…and I’d have to clean him up.

As I guided him into the bathroom to give him his shower, like I had so many times before, I felt confused rather than elated at seeing my father among the living.

I thought I didn’t have to do this anymore, I said to myself. I thought I was free.

Didn’t we bury my father back in January, just a few freezing days into the New Year? Didn’t my family come together to watch as he was laid to rest alongside my mother, who had died five years earlier?

I saw the honor guard standing at attention around his casket, in tribute to his time as a soldier during World War II.

I remember the bugler playing taps and the head of the honor guard walking over to my sister with this slow, robotic dignity, and presenting her with the folded flag that had draped my father’s coffin, and expressing thanks on behalf of the president, the President of the United States, and a grateful nation for my father’s honorable service.

And now you’re telling me none of that happened? The wake, the funeral, the honor guard, that was the dream? It all took pace in my head, a bit of wishful thinking expanded into a feature-length fantasy?

My father had the Alzheimer’s, not me.

So I still have to take care of the old guy, get up in the middle of the night whenever he has to go the bathroom, go with him to his doctor’s appointments at the V.A. Hospital, and face his explosive temper—as well as my own?

I have to go back to all that misery? Is that what you’re telling me?

And that’s when I woke up and found myself in my parent’s bedroom—alone. My father really is dead, so I don’t have to bathe him, feed him, wash his filthy underwear or give him his pills three times a day.

I don’t have to be responsible for him in any way whatsoever. And in that moment of realization, I felt such joy at being relieved of duty, like a solider getting his discharge papers.

And then I felt such incredible shame for what I was thinking.

My father had always been a tough customer, a hard case, and having Alzheimer’s hadn’t helped things any. When we were growing up he had a series of colorful expressions he’d use to get his point across:

“I’ll lose my shoe up your ass!”

“I’ll knock you into the middle of next week!”

“I’ll turn you every way but loose!”

“I’ll kick your ass up through your collar!”

Or for those times when he was feeling especially poetic, he’d say, “death will come on swift wings.”

But yet, this was the same man who would comfort me when I was worried about something by quoting Gen. Patton’s line: “never take counsel of your fears.”

When faced with a difficult task, he gave me the greatest advice, simply by saying, “better behind you than in front of you.”

And he told me the three rules for survival in the U.S. Army that work just as well in civilian life: “keep your mouth shut, your bowels open, and don’t volunteer.”

I’ve lived in my parents’ house most of my life. I’m not proud of that—quite the opposite, actually—but that’s just how things worked out. Or how I let them work out.

After working at small newspapers in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, I came back to New York for a job at a trade magazine and moved in with my parents: just for a short time, until I found my own place.

That was 10 years ago. I’ve got plenty of excuses as to why I never moved out: I couldn’t hold to a steady job, I was afraid I’d wind up homeless. And, hey, my parents needed me.

So the years went by, I stayed still while my mom and dad got older and older.

It’s been said when you have elderly parents that you become the parent. But that’s not really true. It’s not the same as the young couple who brings a new life into the world. You’re not filled with hope or joy.

Instead of watching your loved one grow and learn, and experience new things, you see your mom and dad become slower, weaker…feeble.

Their world shrinks, until it’s down to a few rooms in the house or a bed in the nursing home.

You’re like a gardener tending a dying plant.

My mother was the first to go, a victim of lung disease. It got so bad--and she became so frightened--that she’d call me into her bedroom on some nights and plead “breathe with me, breath with me,” as if I had some divine power to keep her failing lungs working.

And I’d do it; I would breathe with her. We’d look into each other’s eyes, like acrobats about to perform a difficult stunt, and I’d inhale slowly, exaggerating the motion, flaring my nostrils, and exhaling through pursed lips: smell the roses, blow out the candles; smell the roses, blow out the candles.

I only wish I could have kept her breathing. But her condition worsened, she went in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, until one summer day her doctor called me to say my mother had gone into cardiac arrest.

By the time I got to the hospital she was gone.

My father aged rapidly after that. For a while, he’d drive over to Staten Island nearly every day to visit her grave--“going to see Mom,” is how he put it, as if he were meeting her for tea.

But that stopped after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis and my father, a salesman for 30 years, could no longer drive a car. He stopped washing, unless I pestered him, and the line between the past and the present began to disappear for him.

Sometimes he’d come into my room at night with this puzzled look on his face.

“Where’s mom? I don’t see her anymore.”

“She’s gone, dad. We lost her.”

“I miss her.”

“Yeah, dad, me, too.”

We had some tough times, though. Between his dementia and my self-loathing, our house could be a pretty volatile place.

The worst was on Memorial Day one year, when I was at the kitchen sink and he was suddenly right on top of me.

I snapped at him to give me some room, for Christ’s sake and then he bellowed into my ear, like he’d been doing all my life.

I got so angry at him, so sick of him screaming at me, that I put my hands against his chest and…pushed him back. I only wanted some space, some room, damn it, in this huge empty house--I felt like I was on the IRT at rush hour.

But I forgot how old and weak my father was-- no longer the man who once hoisted me on his shoulders to see JFK at Coney Island ages ago. No, this man was frail, unsteady, and he fell backwards, crashing hard to the kitchen floor.

You know, there were times in my life when I really wanted to let my father have it, to kick his ass up through his collar and knock him into the middle of next week.

But as I watched him struggled to his feet that day, like a boxer trying to beat the referee’s count, I realized I didn’t want to do the oedipal smack down; I didn’t want to live in a world where I could overpower my father.

I didn’t want to be him.

So I ran; I left the house, desperate to alone. But I had forgotten about the Memorial Day parade that was being held in our neighborhood, where men like my father were being honored, not thrown to the ground.

There they were, veterans as far as the eye could see: Korea, Vietnam, and, yes, World War II.

And if these brave soldiers knew what I had just done, they would have banded together and formed the biggest firing squad in modern history.

We patched things up that day, but there were other skirmishes. Once last summer he tried to hit me and I got so angry, I shrieked “May God strike you dead!” like some backwoods Bible-thumping preacher.

But at least this time I didn’t attack him; I was the adult, the mature one, the parent, and I left the house before I did any damage.

And then one night around Christmas my evil wish came true. My father got out of bed to go the bathroom, fell down and hit his head. A short time later, on the first Sunday of 2007, he died.

So now I’m in our family’s house, alone. We’re slowly cleaning the place out and fixing it up so we can sell it.

Some days, I feel overwhelmed, like I’m at the bottom of well, a mouse in a deserted cathedral.

There are too many memories here and not enough people. I’m suffocating in all this emptiness.

When we finally do sell the place, we should have a ceremony. My siblings and I will stand at attention outside our house.

I’ll walk over to the new owners with this slow robotic dignity and present them with the keys while a bugler blows taps.

But taps marks the end of one soldier’s life. The others, the survivors, must keep marching, keep fighting.

That’s what our parents want us to do. They want us to keep smelling the roses and blowing out the candles.

Breathe with me; breathe with me.


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog while browsing around looking for posts about elderly parents and dementia. Your reflections here are very well written and moving. All the best to you.

(zoe_1418 on LiveJournal, who is also trying to write a novel)

Rob K said...

Thank you, Zoe! So sorry it took me so long to respond!