50-پسرکتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 50
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My mother was on her fourth marriage. The sequence of husbands was Easy, Joe, Peter, and then George. George was a lifelong smoker, thin as a rail, convivial, but not very bright. After my dad, my mother always chose men who made her feel better about herself. It was as if she wanted to play tennis with someone who wasn’t as good as she was. She knew she’d always win if she were playing against a beginner. But in this context, what was winning?
Even decades after my dad split, my mother’s anger always felt newly minted. She was angry over being left, angry over losing the love of her life. As a young child, I’d known her as a loving, fun parent; then, without warning, she became a bitter alcoholic stuck in the past.
As an adult I tried to have as much of a relationship with her as I could, but it wasn’t easy. My mom dwelled endlessly on the ways she’d been mistreated by life. As for love, she was more about the men in her life than her children. Consequently, I saw her less and less.
George and my mom were living in Hemet, a town in Riverside County, way out in the desert, and they’d decided to move to Saint Louis because George’s sister lived there. My sister, Amy, and I went to see them before they left. (My brother was living in New York by then.) We drove out to spend a couple of days and help them pack up their mobile home. We walked in and immediately knew something was wrong with George. His color was bad. He was gray. He said he had a chest cold. My sister, a nurse, shook her head and said, “George, you need to go to the doctor. When’s the last time you went to the doctor to check on this cold?”
At the hotel later on, Amy told me. “He’s dying.”
Meanwhile my mother had severe sciatica. When she was driving, every so often her leg went numb and her foot got heavy on the gas pedal, flooring it. You crossed your fingers no one was in front of her at such moments.
So we convinced them to ship their car and take the bus to St. Louis. We said, “It will be much more enjoyable.” They agreed, and we made all the arrangements and put up the money.
George and my mother set up house in Missouri. They were there not three months before he was diagnosed.
“It turns out he has lung cancer,” my mother said, shocked. We were shaking our heads and thinking: YEAH, he has lung cancer. He’s a chimney!
He died almost immediately, and she moved back to California. She needed more care and a place to live. I found an adult retirement community and moved her into a one-bedroom apartment. We started to notice she’d forget why she was in a room. Everyone does that from time to time, but she started to do it a lot. She was cooking something and forgot about it. She started a fire on her stove. We knew something wasn’t right.
I went to visit my mother in her apartment. We were going out to lunch—nothing special—Sizzler or something. She was changing in the bedroom and taking an eon. I knocked. Mom? There was a meek I’m fine from behind the door. Finally, worried, I went in, and she had one arm through a twisted pant leg and the pants’ waist was stuck over her head. She was trying to get her pants on over her head as if she were putting on a sweater. Here let me help you, I said. Those belong down there.
About the same time, I was asked to raise money and awareness at the annual Alzheimer’s Walk. Leeza Gibbons, David Hyde Pierce, Victor Garber, and Shelley Fabares were there. All had parents afflicted with the disease. I got to talking about my mother and described some of her behavior. They said, “Those sound like the beginning symptoms of Alzheimer’s. You need to go have her checked.” They were incredibly helpful.
She did indeed have Alzheimer’s. I called the Motion Picture & Television Hospital, a wonderful medical facility for members of the entertainment industry; actors, crew, production, and so forth are welcome. They had an Alzheimer’s ward funded by Kirk Douglas and his wife. They told me they were changing their policy soon because of the demand, the flood of aging baby boomers. Soon my mother wouldn’t be eligible.
We went through the channels and applied, and she made it under the wire and got a room. When we first got there, Sandy Howard, who had produced many movies, including A Man Called Horse and The Island of Doctor Moreau, showed us around the facility. Sandy was informative and gracious; we thought he was a volunteer. He wasn’t. He was a patient who still felt the need to be needed.
The facility was beautiful. The patients could wander outside on walking paths and gardens; they could experience the open greenness of nature. Of course the openness was an illusion. Fencing and gates prevented them from walking off. Patients had the sense they could roam freely, but, for their own protection, they weren’t truly free.
One day I got a call from the nurse practitioner, Susan. “Your mom is fine,” she said. “But a situation has arisen . . .”
“What’s going on?”
“Your mother is, well, a friendly person. And she has developed a relationship with another patient.” Knowing my mother was the Blanche DuBois type—I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers—this didn’t surprise me at all. “They really like each other,” the nurse continued. “It’s very rare for Alzheimer’s patients to have . . . amorous feelings.” She paused. “I know this may concern you, Mr. Cranston,” she said, having trouble finding the words. “We have . . . proof that they have . . . consummated their relationship.”
“Oh?” I said. “What proof?” And then I thought better: “Forget that. I don’t need to know.”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this. It must be very difficult for you to imagine your mother with someone other than your father.”
Actually, it was easy to imagine. My mother had had scores of boyfriends. And several husbands.
“I do have one concern,” I said.
“What is it, Mr. Cranston?” said the nurse, serious.
“What if she gets pregnant?”
Then the nurse started cracking up, and I laughed, too.
“I’m thrilled,” I said. “Do they know? Do they romance each other during the day and then forget each other at night? Is it like Groundhog Day every day?”
The nurse said, “To some degree, yes. There is a thread of recognition. They don’t remember each other’s names. But they recognize each other.”
I was happy for my mom. She got to have a sweet romance late in her life: two lovers who discover each other anew every day. Every day a new man would pursue my mother. She’d have loved that.
It turned out her boyfriend was Albert Paulsen, an actor who’d been in The Manchurian Candidate, among many other films and shows, and I’m sure that his stature in Hollywood would have tickled her had she been still able to absorb such details.
I remember once Robin and I went to visit on arts-and-crafts day. My mother was sitting at a table with the other patients. Everyone was happily crafting away, but my mom had her arms folded across her chest. I could see right away she was stewing. We pulled up a chair next to her. What’s wrong, Mom?
That woman in the red is trying to pick up my boyfriend, she said. We looked over. The woman in red was mono-focused on gluing her Popsicle sticks together.
We implored my mom not to be silly. But she insisted: The woman in red was trouble!
A few minutes later, Albert came in, and the woman in red brightened and swooned and called out to him: Yoo-hoo! Will you help me?
Robin and I looked at each other. Oh my God. The woman in red was trying to move in on Albert. My mother had lost a lot of her faculties, but not so many that she failed to notice this hussy moving in on her man!
My mother looked back on the years with my dad as her glory days, but I think the two years she spent in the US Coast Guard was the best time of her life. She had purpose, and she was so pretty, and she was making a paycheck.
After that, her aperture onto the world got progressively smaller. She narrowed her focus onto men. The right romance would save her. Through the years there were a lot of paramours. She was seeking a feeling of comfort with each guy. And she’d find it for a time. Then the guy would flitter off. So she’d find another one. She hated being alone. Being with someone—anyone—was better than being alone.
Through the years she had said, “Why don’t I see you more?”
During an argument, I stupidly blurted out that the problem was she’d invested her time and energy in men rather than her children. “You got back what you put in,” I told her. I regretted that.
She couldn’t see or appreciate the love that was available to her. She had three children. All different. All with something to give. Our love wasn’t the kind she hoped for, but it was what she had, and it was real, and she didn’t nurture it.
Eventually she’d go from the Alzheimer’s facility to intensive care and then on to long-term care, where she’d last another year. She died in August of 2006.
But there was a window of peace before everything started shutting down. Because of the Alzheimer’s, she couldn’t hold on to the pain and the resentment anymore. She got an illness that would not allow her to dwell in the past. And she was released. After she was diagnosed, we never argued again. Our conversations were simple, words you’d exchange with someone you felt comfortable with, but with whom you had no history of misalignment or pain. We’d smell a rose on her walking path. We’d feed the ducks in the pond.
“Look at that one. He’s too fat.”
“Let’s not give him any bread.”
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