Here’s me and my mother a couple years ago. I visited her again recently, through the glass vestibule at her nursing home. In the passage of three years, she’s gone from her own two-bedroom apartment, to living in just one room from which she hardly ever moves. She can’t move on her own anyway, as she’s been in a wheelchair since 2018.
She’s missing a tooth and her hair was wild. I brought her a yellow rose plant for Valentine’s Day, and some cookies. She liked the chocolate chip cookie; the one with the sugary blue duck on it, not so much, and she threw it on the floor.
“Can’t I go back to my apartment?” she says. “I feel like a prisoner here. The people here are stupid!! I never thought I’d end up like this.” She gives me a big thumbs-down sign.
She says this over and over, as is her way: “I feel like a prisoner. Can’t I go back to my apartment? I never thought I’d end up like this.”
I start by replying with the saccharine logical things we say, as we do, trying to soothe, or perhaps to assuage my own discomfort at having had a role in putting her there: “Oh, come now! – these people are taking CARE of you – it’s comfortable – you can’t go anywhere anyway because of the virus – and don’t forget, the apartment was sold.” (“It WAS?” she asks, eyes wide. “But it’s mine!”)
One great thing about memory loss is that you can read the same book for months on end, as she has. Anything that happened yesterday is in the wind. Must be nice, in a way.
“I feel like a prisoner. Can’t I go back to my apartment? I never thought I’d end up like this.”
And part of me is going, “Why not break her out of here and have her come live with me instead of spending all her dough on this place? As long as I have an aide to change her diapers, that is...” But I don’t actually have a place of my own right now where this could happen.
And then I note the tension in me at resisting what she is saying.
Duh! Have I learned nothing? That’s the thing about being with people: it’s a pattern where you remember, forget, remember, forget: what is of service in this moment?
And so, I relax. This is the essence of being intimate with someone, anyone. This is the spiritual path.
Me: “Yeah. I hear you. This place sucks. You feel like a prisoner. I would too.”
She: “I never thought I’d end my life in a place like this. I never thought I’d end up like this.”
Me: “Me neither. I wouldn’t want to end up like this either.”
She: “I want to go back to my apartment.”
Me: “I would want to do that too.”
It’s like magic. The simple act of mirroring and listening and affirming someone else’s pain. Even if it is your own mother, with whom the relationship has been often so complicated and upsetting. And especially because it’s my life too: I look around her, and I think, I really do hear you.
She nibbles her cookie and you can see the tension lines in her face soften, and she gives me a kind of complicit smile. Almost a wink.
Yeah, it sucks. We’re in this together. We’re in the same boat.
We’re all in the same boat, in the end.
Tony walks into the restaurant and sits alone waiting for his family to arrive, and he flips through the song options on the table jukebox. He passes over, and then picks, just the right song.
You can feel the energy begin happening then, as “Don’t Stop Believin’” revs up and Carmela walks in. There’s a formality between them, a couple who’ve been through it all together: they’re solid, they’re adult, it’s been no picnic, to say the least.
“What looks good tonight?”
“I don’t know.”
And they talk of onion rings, and a colleague, Carlo, who’s going to testify (we know it’s to the Feds, but “testify”- what a word pregnant with meaning, right?). AJ complains about his new job.
We see this mixed truculent/vulnerable/hopeful expression on AJ’s face as he tries to put a good face on it, and looks to his Dad for affirmation.
“Isn’t that what you said one time, try to remember the times that were good?” he asks Tony. And we are so with him then, wanting so much from his Dad, and wanting to believe that we will be OK too if we focus on the good times, and Journey is singing “Don’t stop believin’” and the volume is rising.
We watch Meadow pull up across the street in her silver Lexus, say “Shit,” as she struggles to parallel park (she’s late because she’s just out of a doctor’s appointment to get new birth control, Carmela relates, which Tony, as the sensitive New Age guy he’s become, just takes in and nods).
Inside, Tony, Carmela, and AJ each pop an onion ring in their mouths. We see Meadow exit her car and run across to the diner, and the bell on the door rings, and Tony looks up, and the screen just goes black. And that’s all that happens.
Why speculate that there’s more? (But that’s what we often do: assign meaning when it isn’t there).
Because what you get is what you get. It’s like looking at a photo. There it is. You can think about the before and the after but that’s just made up. “No ideas but in things ...” William Carlos Williams said, in Paterson.
Is Tony whacked? Is that why the screen goes dark? Or does the screen ... just go dark? In the end, as in viewing all art, what you see is what there is.
Otherwise, it’s like imagining that there is a heaven. We want something to give us closure. We want to feel more comfortable when things are uncertain. But there is no closure. Is there ever?
You have to listen and watch. Oh, the movie never ends/It goes on and on, and on, and on...
People searching to find emotion, to feel something, and the urge to hold on to that feeling ... of connection? Of love? And the invitation to keep believing. Those are the lyrics. What is there.
I love this last scene of The Sopranos; it makes me cry in its simplicity, beauty, and its enigma. It really does.
If it means anything, it means that we never know how things will turn out, and yet we go on nevertheless.
Mom, we never know how things will turn out. And, it ain’t over till it’s over.
I had no idea how things would turn out when I left California with Aviator Eyes two and a half years ago and drove east, for one. I had no idea you could miss someone so badly, even when you distantly knew/know that we went to each other in the way people talk ruefully about going to the hardware store to try to buy milk.
I had no idea you could miss someone so badly that hearing an old song – say, Elton John, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – would make me lose it in a supermarket. And no idea you could feel such pain that you’d mentally wall off all the good memories too.
Cancer – and cancer recurring – and the consequences of treatment and diagnosis: I didn’t know how it would turn out, three years ago, when I was first diagnosed: emotionally, physically, economically, relationally.
I had no idea about the out-of-the-blue “side effects” of this experience. I had no idea that I would be seriously (or morbidly) considering the different models of prosthetic feet on the market, for example, or joking about Oskar Pretorius.
And all the things over which you had no control, which left their imprints – who can say how that all ends, if it ever does?
And yet ...
I also had no idea that I might just finally – or for now – find a place that feels like home: ironically, the place that was right in front of my nose all along, with a road nearby named after me.
I also had no idea of the absence of fear that would show up. Of the power I – and you – have, to be decent people: which is always there but not always realized.
And I could not have conceived of what it’s like to have a voice again, to speak truth to power, to say what I see, no matter what. And to feel some satisfaction in that, and see the good that results from truth.
We have no idea how things will turn out. And yet we also know the ending. That’s the one thing we know for sure, in any event: that there is an ending, and it ends in a certain way, for everyone. Dust to dust. I mean, that’s just really true, and we hardly ever let that sink in.
And the weirdest thing for me anyway, is that at some point, all of this has become a question of faith.
Can you take one more step? Can you get out of bed? That’s it.
I want heal. I want to be able to ride like the wind, again, like this guy. I am totally serious. But one step at a time.
Can you see where you’re going, at least just a few feet ahead? Does it feel OK to take this step ... and then that one ... can you, if you envision it, envision that sense of home we all want, can you let yourself fall into the faith that it will all be OK no matter what? Can you be curious, and attentive?
Nearing death, Sal, my first hospice patient, insisted on holding his Maglite, day and night. He asked me about Lewis and Clark, who headed west into the unknown. He lay on his bed, flicking the light on and off at the ceiling. Then it all went black.
(Painting by Charles Huschle, 11 x 17, acrylic on paper, 2016)