Friday, January 04, 2019

Family Update - Last Christmas?

Dad Update: Thanks to everyone for reaching out. As conflicted as I am about facebook sometimes, it’s meant a lot to feel a community out there from the various corners of my life, gathering around in these weird moments the family is living through right now.

Dad’s still with us. He not only made it to Christmas, he joined a phone call from my stepmom Debbie the other night to wish me a happy new year.

Will I get to see him again? No telling, really.

The current situation isn’t sustainable. He isn’t really eating, and thus he doesn’t have a lot of energy throughout the day. We’re lucky to get a few bites of this and that off his lunch and dinner trays into his mouth. Pam, the head nurse, says he’s malnourished. But she also says when Dad first moved in, and he still had more of his faculties about him, before his health started taking a turn in the fall, he was making his decisions about how this all was going to go. And that’s how it’s playing out now.
Some of us were worrying, “Are we just having the staff get him up and dressed and groomed and in his wheelchair and down to the Day Program for activities, just to make us feel better and hold onto feeling everything’s still OK? Is it selfish, on our part, or is it doing him some good, too?” Pam says they don’t want someone to be bedridden before they have to be. That brings its own set of problems. She’s been doing this for thirty years. It’s good to get him out of bed. It’s good to get him out of his room, interacting with other people, varying his routine. Of course he likes his bed. We all like our bed. And he still spends most of his day in bed. But for now, this is a good thing.

Will he make his birthday in mid-February? Heck, will he make Father’s Day? Unlikely. But we were a little scared he wasn’t going to make Christmas, so…

It was both great, and deeply strange. He was still very present, and also slipping away.

In previous visits to the nursing home, including the most recent “emergency” visit right after Thanksgiving, Dad would always notice whatever odd T-shirt I was wearing and comment on it, and that led to other discussions based on what the T-shirt was referencing or where I purchased it. And if I ended up needing to cycle through my clothing more than once in a visit, he’d notice if a T-shirt resurfaced. So I’d been purposely bringing the most strange or distinctive T-shirts to spark a conversation. And even last visit, he was still responding to this. This trip, nothing.

And he’s operating on two different planes of reality now. Some of it may be leftover dreaming, harvesting memories somewhere in the back of his mind. Some it is just coming out of left field. I arrived one morning and it was almost as if he was introducing me to “two lifelong friends of mine” who were not there in the room with us. Another morning I asked how he was doing and he responded that he was a little worn out because they’d had him on the bicycle all morning. (Needless to say, he hasn’t been in rehab or physical therapy for several months now, probably since before they moved to this new retirement community in the summer.). He also mentioned that he had a couple of appointments he needed to get to later in the afternoon that day (He did not). But if he’s not about to touch a hot stove, do himself or someone else harm, you just smile and don’t correct him and redirect the conversation to something else.

As for Christmas presents, Dad is suddenly the easiest man in the world to “shop” for. He just desired my presence. My time by his side was all that he needed. “If I can just be here to hold your hand, and get your hugs, that’s more than any dad could ask for. When people asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I couldn’t have told them something like this, all this time with you, because it just seems like such a big thing to ask you for.”

And of course it’s not. And it is. I’m just grateful I had the resources to do it.

I only really cried twice (which, considering the situation, really surprised me. Staying present helped a lot). The first time the tears appeared was in talking with Debbie after a visit with Dad that first day, and she responded, “I know. It’s hard to see him like that.” And I couldn’t get the words out, but it wasn’t that. It wasn’t hard to see him. I just didn’t want him to go.

And then the inevitable ritual of reviewing the latest draft of the obituary with Debbie, which has become kind of a macabre little in-joke. That wasn’t what made me cry. It’s good to be reminded of the details and the scope of his life. And how it’s hard to pin down the right words to encompass ninety years. What got me was the addition of the rough outline of the graveside service. The pastor Debbie has lined up is actually someone they’d met before, someone who now works for the Country Meadows network of retirement homes serving some of the functions that Dad once did. This pastor also has family and ties to the area where the little church is where the ashes will be interred.

Reading the closing prayer kind of snuck up on me:

O Lord, support us all the day long
Until the shadows lengthen
And the evening comes
And the busy world is hushed,
And the fever of life is over,
And our work is done.
Then, in your mercy,
Grant us safe lodging,
And a holy rest,
And peace at the last.

(Damn.)

It’s the little things. There’s a tiny artificial tree that Debbie purchased when he went into the nursing home after the stroke five years ago and it became clear he wasn’t coming home for the holidays. And it’s become a little tradition for me to bring the tree down to his room, and make sure the battery pack is loaded, and the little lights work, and then I put tiny little ornaments that Debbie bought onto the little tree. And it sits where he can see it from his bed, whenever he opens his eyes.

This year, one of the stepchildren loaded up music on an iPod for him so he could put on a set of headphones and listen to relaxing music at the end of the day. But he didn’t have any Christmas music loaded yet. So I dug into Debbie’s music collection and loaded up the iPod through my computer, and we took it down to him along with the tree this year.

He put on the headphones, and looked at the tree, and smiled, and said, “Now I have Christmas.”
It’s SO easy to make him happy.

I’m just glad I get the chance to do it.

Because he deserves it.

And I may never see him again.

So Christmas was wonderful, and terrible, and better than any of us expected it to be. So we’re feeling pretty lucky that it happened.

(But I have to admit, the following week down in Pennsylvania with my mom, and brother, and MSNBC, and Aquaman, and Scrabble games where the cat kept trying to eat the letter tiles, and comfort food, and a full-size but slightly off-kilter Christmas tree, and bingeing episodes of the new lady Doctor Who, and the constant neediness of a rescue wiener dog named Radar, was all enormously comforting and familiar - even though I know there’s a clock ticking on that, too, just (hopefully) slower.)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Family Upate - Time With Dad

(I originally posted this on facebook but I wanted to spread it around so...)

Dad Update:  What a gift the time with my Dad was this week.  I wish I could take a picture that would convey what happens when he opens his eyes and sees me.  His face just lights up.  He smiles and says my name.  None of which I thought would be happening at this stage.  But despite his memory issues, my Dad seems to be holding on really fiercely to the idea of me as his son.  It seems as though my Dad will be just as happy to see me on the day he leaves this life as he was on the day that I entered it.  And it gives him such pleasure just to see me and spend time with me, showing up is really all he needed me to do.  So I’m very glad that I went.

Since returning, I’m constantly reminded of all the things I do each morning without even thinking that are out of my Dad’s reach.  I can get out of bed by myself.  I can walk to the bathroom.  I can take a shower.  I can use a toilet.  I can wash and shave my own face, brush my own teeth and gargle.  I can brush my own hair.  I can dress myself.  I can walk around my home without anyone’s assistance.  I can prepare meals and feed myself.

When I was a baby and a small child, my father and mother would do these things for me, or help me as I learned to do for myself.  If you’re a lucky child, there’s no way you could ever repay your parents for all the many things they’ve done for you.  It’s a strange and rare privilege to be able to return the favor, even for a few days.  Dad has an amazing staff of caregivers doing most of the heavy lifting for him.  But just to be able to sit with him, and help to feed him or hold a glass to his lips so he can drink.  It’s a very humbling thing to be given a chance to do.

The day I arrived in the afternoon, he was already pretty done in for the day, but he rallied a little just to be able to say hello.  When I asked how he was feeling, he said, “I don’t feel like I get all that much out of my days anymore, son.  And I don’t feel like the family gets much out of them either.”  My stepmom Debbie and I visited him again at dinnertime.  She feels it’s important to show up and help him eat then because it’s the lowest point of the day for him, energy-wise.  The company and encouragement help.

The next morning, I accompanied him to what they call the Day Program, a huge room with all sorts of activities, access to an outdoor patio (during warmer weather), and big windows with beautiful views of the grounds.  New England scenery is working overtime where they live.  The challenge for Dad these days is by the time the nursing staff gets him up and fed and groomed and dressed and, via a Hoyer Lift, into his wheelchair for the journey off the dementia unit and down the hall to the Day Program, he’s pretty much wiped out energy-wise.  It takes him a while to get a little bit of a second wind, or just to get his bearings.  He wasn’t so much confused as just tired.  So he didn’t get much into the day’s art projects, though the singalong grabbed his attention from time to time.

They serve lunch at the Day Program so they parked Dad and me at one of the big windows to look out on the grounds as we ate.  Dad loves the view from that window.  I started feeding him and they brought me over the New England version of a Philly cheesesteak (which was actually pretty close, and quite tasty).  That led to a discussion of this great old hole in the wall place that Dad, my brother Mark and I used to go all the time for real Philly cheesesteaks, and some delightfully bad for you cheese fries.  At the mention of this my Dad obviously latched onto a memory because he got a different kind of smile on his face.  Debbie was introduced to this restaurant when Dad was first introducing her to my brother and me and she still remembers it - not her kind of food at all, but she was a good sport about playing along with the dining choice.  I’m sure the place isn’t even there anymore, but we all carry it around in our heads still.  At one point Dad said, “Now when I sit at this window it’s going to be even more special because now I’ll have a memory of having lunch here with my son.”

Every time throughout the day when I would leave him so he could rest, I’d kiss him on the forehead and say “I love you, Dad” and his response was always the same.  “I love you, too, son.  I’m so proud of you.”  And even though he always asks about the two day jobs I hold down to pay the bills, and makes sure to get a full report, he always makes sure to ask about the writing I do if I don’t bring it up first.  And when he talks about why he’s proud of me, it’s never the day jobs he mentions, it’s always the playwriting.  He’s seen and read so many of my plays that he knows the kind of stories I write.  And even though he can’t remember the details of them any more, he talks about them being important because they’re helping people to understand each other, and realize we’re not as different as we think we are.  Even if there isn’t a new production of anything in the pipeline, I’m always writing, and he always wants to hear what I’m thinking about.

“I’m happy just to sit with you and listen to you to talk,” he said at one point.  So I would sit and hold his hand, or rub his knee or run a hand up and down the side of his arm, because he found it soothing, and just be with him.

The last morning on this visit, I’ll admit I had a good solid cry over breakfast.  And walking into Dad’s room that morning, seeing him with his eyes closed, laid out on the bed in the transfer sling they use with the lift, waiting for them to come back and move him, even though he was just resting, the visual brought me up short.  Then I walked over, said good morning, and he opened his eyes and smiled at me, and on we went with the morning routine.

One of these visits is going to be the last visit.  We just don’t know for sure which one it is, yet.  This might have been it.  But if he makes it to Christmas, and if we get more time like that at Christmas, that’ll be a good thing, too.  And if this visit was the last one, then I know it made him happy, and that’s enough.  The last several years, me buying a plane ticket was the major Christmas gift anyway.  The man doesn’t need things.  He just wants to see his children.

Sometimes, showing up is all you need to do.

Now we just see how many days are left, and make the most of each one we get.  Thanks for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers, everyone.  It means a lot.




Friday, November 30, 2018

November Writing Challenge 2018 - 30 - Rewrite Someone Else's Play


THE THIRTIETH CHALLENGE

Rewrite a play of someone else’s

WOW


HEY!


You made it! (or you didn’t and that’s okay too- no really it is I’ve only finished about half the time when I try to do these. Kids, ya know? Life. Etc.)

If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Why do this? Well, for me it goes back to the essence of theater and promoting it as inherently an act of play - even the writing of it!-  dangerous, delightful, adult, play.

It’s a bit of a yogic practice to be sure- good days and bad days- but it’s a mistake to try to hold back the waters and pray that it all works out when the dam bursts. It’s much better to live your life- idk why the water metaphor but--- building up muscles walking next to the creative river.

Anyway- last challenge. Here it is:

CHALLENGE: YOU. Rewrite a play of someone else’s. From this challenge. From classic works. From whatever. Boil it down to yourself with a sentence like “essentially this is a play about bad bosses- just like when I worked at Groupon (or whatever).” Then rewrite the play from your perspective, your life markers, yours and you and u.
Make it personal. A campfire story about how you got here.

And… add a dream sequence in the middle

Make it theatrical. Make it a rain dance.

Then smack us back down into the reality of the first part of the play.

Don’t forget to advocate for yourself.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself.
Obama says “Don’t boo, vote.”
I say “Don’t bitch, write.”

I love you for reading these.
I love you for choosing an artist's life. You are a leader in your community whether you feel like one or not. Whether they express it or not, other (muggle) people know you’re dangerous, powerful, and creative. They know you’re full of mystery and potential.
Honor yourself at the end of this.
Heal. Rest. Rest.
Celebrate it AS a thing. The end product is YOU- not the writing. The writing can’t happen without you, being in tune, doing that river walk (see above).

‘Til next year!

-Aaron

**********************



(I’m trying to do a riff on Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, with most of the genders flipped.  The young trophy wife is instead a trophy husband, etc.  So the professor, GWENDOLYN, has come with her new younger husband JONATHAN, to summer at the family farm of her late husband, now run by her daughter, OLIVE, and former sister-in-law, CONSTANCE.  The local doctor, ESTHER, makes frequent visits.  OLIVE pines for ESTHER, but she has her eye on JONATHAN, and it may be mutual.  Which is even more awkward for ESTHER’s friendship with CONSTANCE, for she also pines for JONATHAN.  Right now, I seem to be in a meditative phase where none of the characters are talking to each other; they’re instead engaging in conversation with inanimate objects.  And so it goes…)


CONSTANCE kneels by a bed of autumn roses – a mixture of blooms in oranges and yellows and reds.

                          CONSTANCE
Such lovely things.  It seems a shame to pick you.

The ROSES look to CONSTANCE.

                          ROSES
If you live in there, and I live out here, how are we ever going to see and appreciate each other’s beauty?

                          CONSTANCE
You want me to cut you down?

                          ROSES
It’s the only way I can be near you.

                          CONSTANCE
But you’ll die.

                          ROSES
We’re all going to die.  Flowers soonest of all.  September is here anyway.  Would you prefer I die out here alone in the chill?

                          CONSTANCE
No, of course not.

                          ROSES
Take me inside, where I can be warm, with you.  Let me brighten your rooms.  You’ll tend me just as closely in there as you do out here.  You’ll keep me alive as long as you can.

                          CONSTANCE
I will.

                          ROSES
And if there’s someone you want me to impress and watch over for you, I can do that as well.

                          CONSTANCE
Beautiful autumn roses – lovely, sad roses.

                          ROSES
We’ll be less sad together.  You could bloom as well.

                          CONSTANCE
I have the clippers.  I’ll be gentle.

                          ROSES
Do it quickly.
Oh!  Oh!

                          CONSTANCE
I have you.

*************************

OLIVE sits at a piano.

The PIANO waits impatiently.

                          PIANO
You’ve dusted me and polished me.  Now play me.  I’m not a piece of furniture.  I’m meant to sing.  But I need you to touch my keys.

                          OLIVE
I’ll disturb mother.

                          PIANO
She and her books can walk outside.  We are less mobile.

                          OLIVE
What if I play badly?

                          PIANO
You’re not liable to play well if you don’t play at all.

                          OLIVE
I won’t offend you?

                          PIANO
You only offend me by not allowing me to truly speak.  I need your caress to set my voice free.

                          OLIVE
But the whole house will hear.

                          PIANO
Let them.  The silence in this place is suffocating.

                          OLIVE
You seem so sad.

                          PIANO
There is nothing sadder than an unplayed piano.  If you touch me, I’ll perk right up, I promise you.

OLIVE lays her hands gently on the keys, but don’t press down to play the notes yet.

                          PIANO (cont’d)
Oh, the warmth of your fingertips.  I’ve missed you.

                          OLIVE
I’ve missed you, too.

OLIVE plays first one chord softly, then another.

                          OLIVE (cont’d)
You sound so lovely.

                          PIANO
We sound so lovely.

OLIVE starts picking out a little tune.

                          OLIVE
You’re magnificent.

                          PIANO
Dance with me!

OLIVE plays the PIANO with abandon, not caring who might hear.

***************************

JONATHAN finds the DOCTOR’S BAG, left behind.

                          JONATHAN
The doctor’s bag, but no doctor.

JONATHAN moves closer to the bag.

                          JONATHAN (cont’d)
It’s not like her to leave her tools behind.

The DOCTOR’S BAG speaks up.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
She has another life.
When not looking after human life, she cares for the trees.
For that, I have no tools for her.

                          JONATHAN
I’ve always wondered what she keeps in here.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
Go ahead and look.  I won’t tell.
If she valued her privacy, she wouldn’t leave me behind.

                          JONATHAN
If you’re certain –

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
Take a peek.  You’ll kick yourself if you don’t.

When JONATHAN still hesistates –

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
I won’t bite.

JONATHAN reaches into the DOCTOR’S BAG, carefully removing each tool and setting them in ordered rows next to the bag.  He notes the location and order as he goes and arranges things in such a way that he’ll be able to reverse the process.

Last of all, he pulls out a small pocket flask for liquor.

                          JONATHAN
Oh, doctor.

JONATHAN opens it and sniffs.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
Mostly still in there.  It’s been a good day.  Only one person died.  And they were old, and not in pain.

                          JONATHAN
Her lips have touched this flask.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
Yours should, too.

JONATHAN looks around.

Piano music can be heard in a distant room.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG (cont’d)
Nobody here but you and me.

JONATHAN brings the flask to his mouth for a small, gentle sip.

                          JONATHAN
It burns.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG
Most medicine does.

JONATHAN picks up the stethoscope.

He puts the eartiips in his ears.

He places the diaphragm against his chest.

                          DOCTOR’S BAG (cont’d)
You can hear better if it’s against your skin.

JONATHAN slips the diaphragm inside his shirt.

It’s cold.  It makes him jump just a bit.

Then he stands still to listen.

                          JONATHAN
I have a heart.
Good.
I wondered.

***************************

GWENDOLYN sits, surrounded by stacks of books.

                          GWENDOLYN
My brain used to retain a library of knowledge larger than this.  Now bits and pieces, facts and quotations, just keep slipping out one after the other, day after day.  And I don’t know I’ve lost anything until suddenly I’m reaching for a word and it isn’t there.

                          BOOKS
That’s why we exist.  To hold things for you, for later.

                          GWENDOLYN
I read you, but then it all falls out again.

                          BOOKS
Not all.

                          GWENDOLYN
Some.  More than I’d like.

                          BOOKS
That’s why you keep us.

                          GWENDOLYN
I keep you for vanity.  So people know that I’ve read you.  I command you.  That you’re up here in my head.  Something they haven’t even touched, couldn’t possibly understand.

                          BOOKS
No one’s quizzing you.

                          GWENDOLYN
I’m terrified.  The blood coursing through my skull, my heartbeat, it’s deafening.

Piano music is heard in a distant room.

                          GWENDOLYN
The joy in that music mocks me.

                          BOOKS
It’s only music.

                          GWENDOLYN
I’m scared.  I feel so small.

                          BOOKS
Come here.  Get lost in us for a while.

The BOOKS gather round and embrace GWENDOLYN.

                          BOOKS (cont’d)
We’ll keep you safe.

************************

ESTHER, wearing work gloves and carrying a small bucket with gardening tools, walks up to a massive tree, towering out of sight.

In its shadow, she finds a small sapling.

                          ESTHER
Well now, you’re not going to get a lot of sun here, are you, tiny thing?

                          SAPLING
I keep stretching, but I can’t reach the sky and I can’t reach the light.

ESTHER kneels down beside the sapling.

                          SAPLING (cont’d)
It’s been so long since anyone even noticed I was here.

ESTHER touches the sapling’s leaves with a gloved hand.

                          SAPLING (cont’d)
It’s been even longer since anyone touched me.

                          ESTHER
I think the solution is just to move you about six feet to the left.

ESTHER gets out a small trowel.

                          ESTHER (cont’d)
I’ll try to be as gentle as I can.  I may not get every single one of your roots.  You’ll have to forgive me.

                          SAPLING
I can grow more roots, what I need is more sun.

ESTHER digs carefully around the sapling.

                          ESTHER
There now.  I think that’s got it.

ESTHER digs her hands into the dirt around the SAPLING.

The SAPLING giggles.

ESTHER scoops the SAPLING up in her arms, roots dangling.

                          ESTHER (cont’d)
I dug a hole over here the other day, thinking I might need to move you.

ESTHER gently sets the SAPLING in the hole, then fills in the dirt around it and pats it down.

                          SAPLING
It’s so warm here.  I’d forgotten what the warmth of the sun was like.  It’ll take some getting used to.

                          ESTHER
There.  That’s a start.

                          SAPLING
I wish I could offer you shade as a thank you.

ESTHER walks over to the massive tree while addressing the SAPLING.

                          ESTHER
You’ll be able to someday.
Just like this tree my father planted now shelters me.

ESTHER sits in the shade of the massive tree.

ESTHER takes off the gloves and gets a book out of her bucket.

The TREE speaks in a deep voice from above her head.

                          TREE
Welcome back, Esther.

                          ESTHER
Now let’s see, where was I?

ESTHER reads, leaning against the TREE, as the SAPLING wiggles in its new spot, settling in.

Piano music can be heard coming from the house just beyond the woods.