Had to Cry Today

A friend and fellow Vox refugee posted a moving story about a friend roughly her age, who had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and had been moved into a “someplace nice.”

“Someplace nice”: such a curious term, and so common. It’s almost like a tacit apology–“we had to put mom in a nursing home, but at least we found someplace nice,” as if turning your mother over to a bunch of strangers is somehow less of an abandonment than if the paint weren’t pretty and the floors clean.

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for the “someplace nice”s in the world. I had an elderly aunt who was in a “someplace hellish that reeked of urine,” and it galled me that my Aunt Frances had to be there, far away from friends, family, and the heavily bourboned egg nog she and my grandmother overimbibed every Christmas.

My friend’s friend has an amazing mind–a teacher and writer, a scholar in Classics and Comparative Literature. She’s always been a little scattered–what genius isn’t?–but she’s gotten noticeably worse. Not late-stage bad, of course, but little things. A couple times, she got lost, with no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. My friend  & her husband took their friend out to the zoo, and had dinner together. They could see the scatter-mindedness was worse, that their brilliant friend wasn’t always able to follow the conversation.

The friend’s daughters got her into a “someplace nice,” and set up her room with a giant TV, and nary a book. This is a woman who read and wrote volumes, and they put her someplace with no books? The friend is relatively young–early to mid 50’s, I think–too young to have Alzheimer’s, too young to know that she’s going to lose herself, that her “muchness” will evaporate into the “someplace nice”‘s rarefied air while her body goes on living for several more years.

My mom and dad had to put my grandfather into a “someplace nice.” It was a big single storey house, remodeled so each of the guests could have his or her own bedroom and tiny bathroom. My grandfather fell in that bathroom a few times, one time bashing his head so bad that he needed 20 or 30 stitches to close the wound. But no matter how bad Grandpa was, the “someplace nice” was always clean, the meals always good, the small staff always friendly and kind and quick to help when needed.

And soon after Grandpa died in his “someplace nice” room–while I was a thousand miles away, raising a toast at my best-friend’s wedding–I’m certain the room was cleaned top-to-bottom, and readied for the next “guest” whose children were putting them into a “someplace nice.”

I don’t knock the “someplace nice”s of the world–I’m grateful they exist. What gives me pause is that I wonder if one can become too dependent on the “someplace nice,” if it accelerates whatever malady led them there. I wonder if Grandpa declined more quickly once he moved into that “someplace nice.” He was 88 years-old, and he was near the end of his life. He had buried two wives, and since his second wife’s death, he spent a lot of time requesting that Jesus come get him and take him Home.

He lived with my parents for awhile, around the same time I stayed there after the Devilbitch breakup. Grandpa’s life was filled with a whole bunch of purgatorial waiting.

I’ve been in waiting rooms that have big TV’s to hypnotize and placate the waiting throngs. These TV’s are frequently tuned to the local 24-hour news station, or maybe The Weather Channel–something completely unobjectionable. Grandpa was big on The Weather Channel. He’d watch it all day if nobody else changed the channel. He’d sit there, and every three or four minutes, he’d look at his wristwatch, and sigh mournfully. Periodically, he’d get around to bugging Jesus again. My mom was about ready to send him to Jesus, too. Mom’s an RN, so it was natural that most of the care-giving duty landed in her lap. Sometimes, Grandpa’s plaintive requests for death to take him pushed her to the edge.

My life was good those few months. I was making good money doing evenings at WSJT. From 7pm to Midnight, I played music and said pseudo-cool stuff. Then I’d usually buy a fifth of something, and drive the hour back to my parents’ house. I’d go into my bathroom, and I’d chug vodka or bourbon till I was good and buzzed. This was my routine. I’d finally pass out around dawn, then wake up around 2pm. I’d take a shower, get dressed, and wander out into the family room. Grandpa would be sitting in my dad’s recliner. The big chair dwarfed him, and Grandpa was a mere withered husk of the tough, funny guy who tended his own huge garden and orange grove until his mid-70’s. I’d say hi, and he’d ask me how work was going–work was always hugely important to Grandpa. I’d tell him the truth: work was going great. I was well-suited to be a night-jock-on-a-jazz-station, and my ratings were really good. He’d acknowledge that this was good, and provide me with that day’s rain chance.

This daily exchange pretty much exhausted our conversational repertoire. I’d drink coffee and watch The Weather Channel with Grandpa till I could invent an errand to go run. I had to leave, because sure as hell, every five minutes or so, he’d look at his watch, and there’d be the sigh: ohh, woe, ohhh. Periodically, he’d invoke the “come get me Jesus” mantra.

Seven years after Grandpa died in his “someplace nice,” I found myself checking-in to one of my own.

This is why I wonder if people don’t decline faster as they lose their independence. I had a lovely room, with a comfortable bed, a powerful air-conditioner, my own bathroom and shower, and a lovely triple-vaulted ceiling with a skylight. (It didn’t dawn on me till later that the ceiling was so high so that hanging myself would be impossible).

I grew accustomed to my “someplace nice”. My room was cleaned for me every couple days; our meals were buffets filled with spectacularly good food. I didn’t carry keys or a wallet during my 30-day “visit.” I had no need. The only time I left was one Sunday afternoon when my parents signed me out–seriously, they checked me out of the “someplace nice” like a library book and had to check me back in when they returned me. (I got pee-tested when I got back, of course) The thing was, it was kind of nice that I didn’t have to entertain people from the “real world”, except on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and even then, only for a few hours. Then it was back into the comforting routine. I woke up when they woke me. Took my meds when they told me. Ate when it was time to eat, and went to classes or meetings or crafts or whatever when it was time. If I got overwhelmed and panicky from the intense meetings and classes, I could always go to the nurses’ station, and request my prn Ativan.

It was on the front of my chart: if I asked, I was to be given a 4mg Ativan prn–pro re nata, “as the situation demands,” or more accurately, “when tom demands.” There were days where I’d feel myself going into a panic attack. Sometimes, going outside and chain-smoking Marlboro’s with a friend or my counselor helped. Sometimes, a hug from my girls M or J helped. Other times, I took my prn Ativan. The nurse didn’t ask questions or pry. She’d note my chart, bring me a little plastic cup with my Ativan, along with a cup of the coldest, best-tasting water on earth. Down went the Ativan. I’d usually go smoke two more Marlboro’s, then weave to my room and pass out on my bed. I’d sleep droolingly, and life was invariably more tolerable when I awoke.

By my fourth week at the “someplace nice”, I felt ready to go back to the world: to my job, my friends, my apartment, my freedom.

I lasted about a third of the way home before I had to pull off the road, and sit there shaking for 20 minutes. I’d been 30 days without driving–no big truck clutch, no shifting gears, no lanes to stay in, no other cars. And no damned noise. I was driving through hell, and I wanted my prn Ativan.

I wanted to go back to my “someplace nice”.

When I had my 2012 Abyss Summer, there were a few times I’d find myself somewhere and not know why. I could always figure it out and find my way home. Simply, I was in such a pharmaceutical haze, that I operated on autopilot much of the time. My eyes were lifeless, and I felt like my soul was dead.

But I never lost “me.” I never lost sight of who I am, where I was, or why I was there. I was always aware that I was tom, and that my brain had gone kablooey, and that I was someplace very dark and bad, but that I had a team behind me, helping me fight my way back; I was safe at my parents’ house, my “someplace nice”. Today–ten months after the Kablooey started–I feel like I’m as back as I’m going to get. I have a coleslaw of psychotropic meds propping me up right now, and it’s working. This past week, I’ve felt like maybe it’s time to wean off of them. There is not a chance in hell I’d skip even one dose without asking my doc. The guy’s a genius, and he got me out of The Dark Place.

My friend’s friend can’t be put back together with a bunch of pills. My friend was sad, because her friend has begun what someone termed, “the long goodbye.” It’s horrible; it’s sad as all hell.

My friend titled her post “So Sad Today.”‘ For some reason, that led me to think of the Blind Faith song, “Had to Cry Today.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6F3czhKWc9U

Blind Faith did one real album in the late 1960’s, and I always liked this song. The verses were negligible and unimportant–good thing, because I couldn’t understand what Steve Winwood was singing anyway. This version is Clapton and Steve Winwood reunited in 2007. Steve Winwood’s singing is a little more intelligible on the verses, but it’s the hook that always gets me. They’ve changed the lyrics. And this is why my friend’s post made me think of an old, obscure Blind Faith song:

“Had to cry today. (Because) I saw your face, and I missed you there.”

It’s hell to be there physically, yet to be missed; it’s hell when your mind goes careering downhill, swerving hither and yon, with no regard for the nice lines that we’re supposed to stay between. It’s hell when you need someone else’s help just to remain cared-for and safe.

I’m grateful for this world’s “someplace nice”s, for my parents’ house–my “someplace nice” this past summer. I’m glad, too, that Grandpa was asleep in his “someplace nice” when he got his wish, when Jesus finally showed-up in His cab, and took my grandfather home.

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16 Responses to “Had to Cry Today”

  1. Tom, thanks for your reply here.
    It is so hard.
    We’re all a bit older than you think – I’m 61 – so she’s somewhere in her 60s too.
    Not desperately early, but, damn it, aren’t professors supposed to get old and doddering and die in harness muttering about verbal formations in obscure Late Latin poetry.
    They are supposed to become emeritus and finally write the long-considered things that teaching and committee work were always getting in the way of.
    (And teach the occasional seminar on the side.)
    But it is a nice place of its kind.
    That is it woefully inappropriate and soul-killing is specific to our friend.
    The country club set are probably quite happy.
    But our friend is still there, which is the hardest part.
    She’s watching the decay, and clearly terrified by it.
    And everybody is doing the best they can for her.
    It’s just that the best is so compromised, and so wrong.
    But I don’t know if there is a better alternative.
    My current plan?
    I think I have to befriend her somewhat Lear-like daughters and try to become the voice of the academic side of her life.

    Note: why do all these places have pianos that are clearly Not To Be Touched?
    Some kind of marker of bourgeoise standards.

  2. Even once I understood the lyrics of that song, it didn’t matter, I still didn’t understand the song any better. It’s one of the very few songs where I’m content to fixate on the most intelligible line to meet how it makes me feel.

    With generations of women in my family before me suffering the same decline into dementia, I worry about this too. I don’t want a long goodbye in a nice place.

    • Something about Steve Winwood’s voice on the hook, and Clapton’s mournful guitar response always gets me. That mournfulness more noticeable on the original, when the lyric was still “I saw your sign, and I missed you there.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1v-PvZFvwbM Sorry about the naked 13 year-old girl on the cover–that was the original, though, odd though it was.

  3. I was grateful to be able to look after my mother when she was in the last stages of her illness. I seriously doubt if many people could do it the way I did, however: 24/7, getting up in the middle of the night when she yelled for a sandwich or “needed to go”, and the fighting—that was the worst—with my father and siblings about her care never being good enough, or the house never being clean enough, or why are you hiring an aide when you can do all the work yourself? It was hellish; I confess it was a huge relief when Mom went to the hospital for the last time.

    I don’t regret doing it—but when Dad’s time comes, I’m going to be more adamant about placing him in “someplace nice.” Some people will never be easy to care for. Dad is stubborn and will never believe he might be wrong. He also thinks I’m incompetent and stupid, even though he depends on me to organize his appointments and negotiate with the banks, the insurance companies, and the county tax office. He also will not allow me to bathe him or help him with any his personal hygiene, and I’m fine with that: I don’t want to anyway!

    But I don’t get sad about this as much as I get angry. I rail against the politicians who refuse to allow stem cell research that may find a cure for this disease; against a system that basically leaves the old and disabled at the mercy of their family’s dynamics, however dysfunctional; and against the ravages of age and disease. (Why is the human body so frail?) I hope my kids don’t have to go through this: but if they do, I hope I have the grace to make it easier for them. They seem a lot smarter and more purposeful than my siblings, who believe they’re still in high school, and Dad, however much they hate him, is still in charge.

    • “Why is the human body so frail?” Great question. There’s a line in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” where Anya the vengeance-demon-turned-human is trying to cope with Buffy’s mom’s death:

      “I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s- There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And-and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.”

      In context of BtVS “The Body” (s.5 ep.16), it’s heart-rending. It’s so true, though. It really IS stupid and mortal, and I’m with Anya: I don’t understand how we go through this.

      Neither my brother nor I would be able to care for our parents if, God forbid, this happened to them. They’re 72 and 70, and they’re both in great shape, mentally and physically. I can’t imagine having to “parent our parents.” I’m lucky if I remember to brush my teeth.

      (This is a crappy copy of the Anya scene from BtVS when Buffy’s mother dies. Willow has kept changing her clothes; Anya is the one who can’t seem to figure out what to do. Her breakdown always yanks out my heart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGM5QXNvR3E)

  4. The Beloved’s dad was exhibiting signs of dementia during the later years of his life and we were beginning those difficult discussions of “what to do about Wayne…” when he had a massive stroke and died at 78.

    I remember he joked with me once that he’d smoked for years and years because his parents, aunts and uncles all ended up being “vegetables” for the last years of their lives and he wanted to take 10 years off of his to spare himself that.

    In a very odd way, perhaps his plan worked.

    • Steve, you made me laugh. I like your FIL’s way out a lot better than many.

      • Your FIL brings up a good point: dementia/Alzheimer’s wasn’t an issue 100 years ago, because few people lived long enough to get it. My mother’s father–the sports writer–went out when he was 67. Giant coronary. When he died, he was still working, still productive, his wonderful mind still sharp as ever. My other three grandparents lived much longer, but they had to go through the bad parts. Though it crushed those of us who loved him, I have to admire that he went out before that terrible final act the others endured.

  5. I am blown away by this post. I just need to think and sit quietly for awhile.

    Life is about loss, isn’t it? Sometimes it feels like that is all it is about.

    • Well sure, but if it’s about loss, it’s also about all the things that aren’t lost before we lose them. Which are often awesome things up until that point.

      • Yes. No energy is ever lost, it just transforms. And the brilliance of someone’s life is not lost, though they lose themselves at the end. We only see the ground-floor, down and dirty side of everything. On a level of energies, there is more going on.

        That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 😉

    • I’m with Ms. OddMe. To quote that font of philosophical wisdom, the band Cinderella, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Not to compare, but I felt like that this past Summer. I couldn’t think the way I was used to thinking. A lot of the time, I could get to the same thoughts, but it took sooooo much longer. Where I was normally an insufferable smartass commonly thought to be “funny,” I couldn’t crack wise to save my life. I knew (or assumed) this was only temporary, and I’m grateful it was. It was hellish to be trapped inside that mind, even for three or four months–to be ineloquent, slow to process, and just dulled.

      I can’t imagine facing that, knowing it was permanent. I don’t know what it’s like to be inside that disease, whether it’s as hellish inside as it is seeing it from the outside. I can’t see how it could help but be just that hellish. I hope I’m wrong.

  6. Your post has me raging.

    My mother was a state ombudsman for patients in nursing homes in my state for years. She had quite a few degrees behind her name, yet she gave it all up to help patients with their voice. And she won a lot of awards for her advocacy.

    Like I said, your post has me raging for many reasons,. I will form a better platform and respond.

    • (I say this after one parent dying unexpectedly, and then the other one *almost* dying unexpectedly and having to deal with the system of a slow, stunted, recovery.

      This! After having my own mother tell me that if she was ever in this situation we should just give her a gun and walk away.

      So yes, I will be forming a more coherent, thoughtful response. I’m the one who called 911 and saved my dad’s life… it was very scary…. He chalks it up to luck. No thanks needed in his book. )

  7. Thanks for dropping by on my blog. Which made me look up yours. 🙂

    I like this post. Really got me. I mean, I am the eldest and mostly it will fall on me to see who takes care of my parents (they’re in their 60’s now). I, too, have nothing against the ‘someplace nice’ of this world, but I don’t think I’ll have the stomach to put them ‘someplace nice’ when the inevitable old-age-can’t-take-care-of-ourselves-anymore arrives. Sigh. I just really hope I don’t have to eat back my words in the future.

    Kudos on your writing!

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