family

Mork from Ork

mork

This photo came to me in a box of my father’s stuff. My stepmom had collected a bunch of my father’s belongings into a cardboard box after his death, which she then gave to me. It was filled with some of the random and wonderful things he had collected in his later years, including autographed baseball paraphernalia, antique stock and bond notes, random old movie posters, strange prints and artwork, and some wonderful photos of him and me together. Most of these photos were framed and were pictures I had given him for his birthday or Christmas or father’s day. This one was a card I must have made him for Christmas, which explains the ribbons and frame made out of wrapping paper. I’m sure the inside read something witty, such as… like father, like son. You see in the picture we both have casts on, him on his ankle and me on my arm. Hilarious irony.

This particular photo sits on my desk, and seeing it everyday has somewhat diminished the memories it dregs up. So many memories I don’t really want to talk about. I don’t want to talk about my dad’s amazing red pants and matching turtle neck, or the crazy blonde mop of 80’s hair perched on my head like a wig, or my patriotic tube socks. I don’t want to talk about the thumb cast that I got after badly dislocating my thumb while trying to roller skate down the paved cliff in front of my house with ski poles. I don’t want to justify what I was thinking at the time, having witnessed my cooler than cool neighbor place skateboard trucks on an old Rossignol ski and go plummeting down that steep hill numerous times, and my own sad attempt to replicate the feat with cheap roller skates and ski poles, which ended tragically for both my thumb and one of the ski poles.

I don’t want to talk about the Mork from Ork shirt that I’m wearing, or the rainbow suspenders (thankfully not pictured in this photo) that I just had to have to show my affinity for the crazy alien from Ork. I’m guessing this photo was probably taken around 1980, and I don’t want to talk about how my father would have been roughly the same age as me now. Mork and Mindy was one of my favorite shows, not only because Robin Williams played this amazing and hilarious alien that made funny sounds and flew to Earth in a giant egg, but also because my younger sister’s name was Mindy. Hilarious irony once again. I would pretend I was Mork and then we would became our own sad little version of the show, even though my sister never wanted to play along. I would say things like nannu nannu, shazbot, fly be free while she played with her Barbie dolls. When Barbie landed on her head at least she didn’t break open like an egg. I don’t want to talk about my parents’ separation and eventual divorce, about how my father and mother argued so much and with such venom that I was glad when he eventually left. I don’t want to talk about how I saw less and less of him as time went on. I don’t.

I don’t want to talk about how much I miss my father , and definitely don’t want to talk about the bicycle accident in 1994 that left him a quadriplegic, leaving him bed ridden and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his days. I don’t want to talk about the grief and depression I felt after the accident as I watched him spiral closer and closer to the proverbial drain. I don’t want to talk about how he had such a profound effect on my outlook and life that went largely unrealized until it was too late. Sometimes we don’t realize how important such influences have been until they pass tragically out of our lives, and a different point of view provides us with perspective that is simultaneously enlightening and heart breaking. After they’re gone all we have left is a box of random stuff which we go through again and again trying to decipher some deep profundity and meaning. I don’t want to talk about that.

I don’t want to talk about how I was looking at this photo when I learned that Robin Williams had killed himself, or about how affected I was by it. I don’t want to admit that, much like my father, Robin Williams had a profound but unrealized affect on my perspective in life. Judging from the tributes and stories being shared across the interwebs I sense I was not alone in this connection. I don’t want to talk about how depression is an unrelenting bitchslap, or how someone that could have brought so much joy to so many millions of people could be so dark and troubled inside.  I don’t want to talk about how this makes me realize that our time in this life is limited and a thing to never take for given. I don’t want to talk about how the world can suddenly seem so much smaller when someone with such profound unrealized impact is suddenly gone, and all we are left with is a box of Mork and Mindy, Dead Poets Society, and Fisher King to sift through and try to remember and forget at the same time.

And above all, I don’t want to talk about how these two tragedies will now somehow be linked in my mind because of this picture.

I just want look at this photo and appreciate that moment, without all the other stuff it brings up.

Shazbat!

RIP Ralph Hager (1939 – 2006)

RIP Robin Williams (1951 – 2014)

 

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Dad’s Castle

The land, willed to my father, had been in our family for generations. Everybody considered it useless and unbuildable. His dream became constructing something wonderful on the eroding bluff, somehow overcoming the treacherous pull of gravity. Every portion completed required constant reinforcement afterward. Even as the lowest levels crumbled away, more rooms and terraces were added on top. He was certain that one day a magnificent castle would stand atop this land.

When the land was willed to me, his dream became mine. Someday there will be a castle here.

I just hope I live long enough to witness it.

Björn 6

This week’s entry for the Friday Fictioneers, a 100 word story based on the photo prompt above.

Hosted by the phenomenal Rachel Wisoff-Fields. View other entries below.

The Impermanence of Memory

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore (via goodreads)

 

Back before the Fall

Back before the Fall

On a recent trip to the doctor my mom and sister were driving home and were stopped at a red light. Plastered on the bumper of the car in front of them was a bumper sticker declaring, Joy Comes From Within.

What do you think about that, Mom? Joy comes from within.”

I can almost hear the annoyed sigh my mom must have made. “Joy come from within, huh? Well, let me know when it comes out.”

This has become an inside joke amongst us as we battle for meaning in the face of my mom’s Alzheimer’s. We will remind ourselves that joy comes from within as we laugh in the face of the depression we feel. These are the memories I will hold on to. I don’t want to remember the tears, the confusion, the sad pleas for help. I want to remember the joy that comes from within.

I have accepted the fact that my mother is dying slowly, not unlike my father. Her path will be different, but the destination will be the same. In my father’s case his body went before the brain, while my mother’s descent will proceed in the opposite order, her mental state deteriorating until the body fails. I often wonder as I watch the Deer Hill Dinner Theatre which is preferable, to lose control of one’s mind or one’s body. When I struggled through those years watching my father battle his own body after his accident, many of his favorite things in life taken from him as a C-4 quadriplegic, I could imagine no greater tragedy than being confined to a wheelchair. But having seen my mother’s sad dive into dementia, I realize that there are so many important parts of life that stay unappreciated. How many people give thanks for the ability to walk, the ability to feed themselves, the ability to remember yesterday? How many people truly understand the significance such simple actions?

Seeing the people you love suffer is not easy, but the shock is somehow eased through the process of acceptance. In the case of Alzheimer’s, what is perhaps saddest is that my mother herself will never be able to reach this final plateau of the grief hierarchy, that she will never be able to embrace her condition and comprehend the trajectory. Not only is she unaware that she has a disease which will eventually destroy the part of her brain that controls the autonomic function of her internal organs, but she has no idea that she is even sick. Another cruel trick of fate. She still calls the disease old-timers, and considers her memory only slightly hindered. Sometimes she has a moment of lucidity and realizes that something is wrong with her, but cannot understand the implication of the reasons before the moment fades away. My father was well aware of the fate that eventually awaited him, and I’d like to think he was able to accept it and move on. I often wonder if that gave him closure.

Closure is another ambiguous term that gets thrown about when people discuss grief and loss. Is it coincidence that the fifth and final step of the standard lesson format most teachers learn in their training programs is called closure? Closure provides summary and context. Closure deepens understanding through scaffolding and connections with preexisting knowledge. Closure creates a bridge between what happened today and what will happen tomorrow. Closure is supposed to be the part where the other portions of the lesson introduced earlier come into focus, leading to deeper meaning and understanding. Closure is when everything gets wrapped up in a neat little package that students can take with them. It is considered the most important part of the lesson, and is also the hardest part to get right. Unfortunately not all lessons can be so easily wrapped up with a bow. Some lessons are open ended and ambiguous. Some lessons remain ongoing and aren’t ready to be closed. I felt that if I transcribed all these memories and saw them on paper, that meaningful closure would come to me. I am still searching for it. I know it must be here somewhere.

From all this I am reminded above all that I have lots to be thankful for, but in the tumult of daily life it is easy lose sight of this fact. It usually takes tragedy to remind us of these things we should be thankful for, which ironically is a tragedy in itself. Must we really have something taken away from us before we can appreciate it? Is it that absence makes the heart grow fonder, or can we never truly see that which is right in front of us? Are we destined to lament and covet what is missing rather than exalt and celebrate the amazing abilities and relationships we still possess?

These memories of my father and mother are the memories that have shaped me, and I hold on to these memories tight, afraid to let them go. Some even argue that our memories make us, that without our memories we would not be the same person. I’m not ready to tackle this debate, in truth. But in order to prevent forgetting I will continue to write them all down, everything that makes sense and especially everything that doesn’t. I will read it over and over and try to reach an understanding of what it means. Hopefully the act of writing it all down will prevent me from forgetting. Somewhere in this act I will find closure.

Understanding now that the persistence of memory is never guaranteed, I don’t want to lose these memories, no matter how painful, because if we don’t have our memories, what is left?


 

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Memoir Madness

I had been working on this piece to publish this Wednesday, but decided to publish a little early for the Weekly Writing Challenge.

What do you think? Any feedback, advice, or constructive criticism is always welcome.

Dinner Theatre

It seems like every time I visit my mother I arrive during a meal, usually dinner. My mom always asks me to pull up a chair to the table and eat, offering to share her plate of food with me, but I always feel as though I will interrupt the normal ritual with this little intrusion. There is something comforting in such daily routines, especially for people suffering from dementia, and I don’t want to throw off the carefully cultivated dynamic at the dinner table. I prefer to sit to the side and watch the scene unfold with the interplay of all the characters, both comic and tragic at the same time. It is truly dinner theatre. I have never tried to write a play, but I see these nightly meals as a never-ending dramatic production, filled with all the heartbreak and laughs of any gut wrenching performance. If, as Shakespeare wrote so many centuries ago, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then the Deer Hill Care Home dinner play might look something like this.

. . .

Cast of Characters

Mary . . . . .   woman with Alzheimer’s, walks with a cane, early seventies but looks much older
Barbara. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . woman with a spinal injury, confined to a wheelchair, late eighties
Ted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  man with advanced Alzheimer’s, has difficulty walking, early eighties
Foster . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . man with Parkinson’s, confined to a wheelchair, mid eighties
Bert . . . . . . . . . . . . . . man with nerve damage and palsy, confined to a wheelchair, mid eighties
Barbie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . woman with Alzheimer’s, walks with a cane, late eighties
Mirna . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Filipino woman with strong accent, caretaker, mid thirties
Jun  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Filipino man, head caretaker, mid forties

TIME: 4:30 sharp on any given night

SETTING: The elderly residents are seated around a large dinner table, each wearing colorful matching bibs, while the caregivers bring plates filled with hot dogs, potato salad, and steamed broccoli.

MIRNA: Bert, I have a hotdog sandwich for you. [MIRNA tries to give it to BERT]

BERT: I don’t want a sandwich.

BARBARA: It’s a hotdog, Bert. [yelling across the table]

BERT: Huh?

MIRNA: Bert, it is a hotdog sandwich. Here, take it. [MIRNA places it in BERT’S shaky hand]

BERT: I’d rather have a hamburger. [Begins eating with his eyes closed but looks disappointed.]

[JUN turns music on, Frank Sinatra station on Pandora. I Get A Kick Out Of You plays.]

TED: [Singing along with song.] Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, so tell me why should it be true that I get a kick out of you?

JUN: Ted, you know all the words. [Places a plate of food in front of TED]

TED: What’s that?

JUN: You remember all the words to the song, Ted.

TED: No, what’s that? [Points at the plate of food.]

JUN: It’s your dinner, Ted.

TED: Oh.

BARBARA: Ted, you have such a nice voice, keep singing.

TED: What was that now?

BARBARA: I really enjoy your singing. Keep going.

TED: If you say so. [TED doesn’t keep singing, but stares at his plate in silence.] (more…)

Family Reunion

Chauncy had slept with each of the three sisters and married two. He cheated on his first wife, the eldest, with her youngest sister, resulting in her impregnation. When his wife found out about their affair she filed for divorce, and ever since the two sisters never spoke. The middle sister, who had always been passed over for her two more attractive siblings, became enamored with Chauncy’s flirtatious advances, and they were wed before the ink on the divorce papers had even dried.

Between the three sisters Chauncy had fathered five children. He was their father and their uncle. They were cousins and half-siblings. These things get confusing, as is often the case with families, especially one so tangled up in itself.

Chauncy’s mother-in-law had died and the sisters would be together in the same room for the first time in years. The entire family had already gone into the church, but Chauncy loitered outside in the parking lot to smoke a cigarette and bolster his nerve. He wondered how it would pan out. Would all be forgotten and forgiven with kissing and hugging and what were we thinkings? Would his first wife make a scene like she always did, embarrassing everybody with her accusatory rants, calling the youngest sister a slut and a whore in front of the entire family? He envisioned the casket getting spilled into the aisle in the hair pulling scuffle, that the tragic reunion would be far more depressing than the actual funeral.

He stamped out his butt and made his way to the entrance, but discovered the door to the church locked tight. The sisters had decided that the best way to keep the peace during the service would be to exclude Chauncy altogether.

At least they could agree on something.

chicago- north center (by like, totally on Flickr)

The DP Daily Prompt: I can’t stay mad at you,

The DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Flash Fiction

 

Joy Within Joy

I drove my mom to a doctor’s appointment yesterday. We are completing all the necessary tests and paperwork for her to enter an assisted living facility. Her dementia (from Alzheimer’s) has been progressing rapidly, and it is becoming quickly apparent that she cannot live by herself anymore. She can’t regulate her medications, feed herself, or do many of the normal activities necessary for her to maintain her independence. Last week she tried to open a bottle of soda water that she couldn’t twist off with a sharp knife and cut herself. This is just one of a myriad of examples.

So I drove her to the doctor to have a rash on her belly looked at, and a TB test done, and have her doctor fill out the necessary paperwork for the Board and Care facility we have decided on. All went surprisingly well at the hospital. Then on the way home there was one of those incredible moments that I cherish. An amazing non-sequitur bit of hilarious wisdom that can only come from the awful depths of irrational confusion known as Alzheimer’s.

We were stopped at a red light. The car in front of us had a bumper sticker that my mother proceeded to read aloud. While her short term memory and all sense of time have abandoned her, her hearing and vision are as sharp as ever. The conversation went like this.

Mom:  Joy comes from inside. Huh.

Me: What do you think about that, Mom?

Mom: Let me know when it comes out.

Me: Okay, I’ll keep my eyes open.

I tried not to laugh. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it just did.

Sometimes that tiniest hint of light at the bottom of a dark well can provide a momentary sense of joy. Humor and sadness are two sides of the same coin.

Read more adventures with Alzheimer’s HERE

Love and Marriage

My parents’ relationship didn’t exactly inspire trust in the institution of marriage. In fact, their almost nightly screaming matches convinced me at a young age that marriage was hopeless and broken. When their tirades began I would usually go try to hide in the garage or outside in the bushes. Their arguments would echo throughout the neighborhood, and I would try to position myself out of earshot, but I could never get far enough away. More than sad I felt embarrassed. Embarrassed for them, what with the sheer volume and prolific profanities over the seemingly most mundane disagreements. Things that should not provoke such responses. I also felt embarrassed for myself, since they were my family and I was somehow involved by genetics and proxy, despite my best attempts to distance myself from it all. Every time I heard them arguing I told myself that I would never get married, because it seemed to bring out nothing but spite and swearing and angry sentiments. My sister and I were forgotten victims. When my father finally left for good and the house fell silent, it felt like a release from torture. Until, that is, my mother eventually turned her nagging bitterness on me, but that is a different story.

When I met my wife I felt a certain connection that was beyond profound, and I was truly frightened. I had been in plenty of relationships of many lengths, but usually entered into them with the understanding that they were all doomed, no matter how amazing, lustful, or fulfilling they felt at the time. I always had an escape plan, an emergency exit for when things went south. As involved as I may have seemed I never fully invested myself with the thought of marriage as an end result, and that made it all temporary and disposable. But this woman that became my wife terrified me. She was so smart, beautiful, and exotic. She had viewpoints I admired and respected, and became a beautiful foil to my foibles and detachment. She drew me into her in a way that I never thought was possible. She broke down those prison walls and let me free, and helped complete the person I was meant to be.

Happy Valentine’s Day to my wife, my love, my other half.

family photo (by flora-file)