Social Security

I experienced a Trump supporter today.  In theory, anyway.  We didn’t speak to each other and he was not sporting that regulation ball cap, so I only presume he was a Trump supporter because of the stereotype.  The vicious spew of bigotry and white male bile that I was witness to was so reminiscent of Trump-trash-talk that it just struck me – he’s one of them.

Lou and I had been at the Social Security Administration office exploring our filing options now that Lou is 66.  After looking at all the options and doing the math, we determined that now is not a bad time for both of us to start collecting; Lou collecting his and me collecting part of his.  I won’t actually start collecting my whopping $400 a month for another 4 years, but the way it’s set up, if my payout is less than half of his, I am entitled to part of his.  Who knew?  It’s ironic, because as two career artists, we haven’t paid in bunches of Social Security over the years, but Lou had paid in enough to make our situation comforting.  The young woman who tried to help us understand the morass of rules was wonderful.  She kept pointing out more and more ways we can actually benefit from our modest Social Security stockpile.  Our expectations were so modest, it felt like Christmas; one little middle-age-rite-of-passage gift after another.  And the holiday will continue; starting next month, a little present will automatically show up in our checking account every month.  For all the government bashing and Social Security doom and gloom I have heard, today’s revelations were pretty damn rosy.  I kept thinking: what a great country we live in.

When we left the office, we were joined by a man I had seen in there speaking to another Social Security officer.  He was maybe late 50’s, early 60’s, a little grizzled, wearing an oversized Harley Davidson shirt and walking with a cane, although with no obvious limp.  In the elevator on the way up to the 5th floor of the parking garage, where all Social Security visitors are asked to park, he was silent, while Lou and I quietly marveled at what we were just beginning to understand about how this is all going to work.  When the elevator door opened, a woman was standing there to greet this man.  She was crying.  When she began to ask him what had gone wrong, which she somehow already knew, he launched into a tantrum about how he had been cheated by the system.  His verbal vitriol elevated as we all walked towards our cars, parked side by side, as it turned out.  Lou and I quickly slowed our pace to avoid the wake of his tirade.  The man’s litany included: he couldn’t pay his bills, they didn’t give a shit, it was his money but because he was white, he couldn’t have any of it, if he were black or Haitian, they would’ve given him everything, the whole system is bullshit, that a white man in this country can’t get what’s his is bullshit, etc.  The expletives became uglier as his volume increased. The poor woman was terrified and kept crying.  They got into one of those huge Tahoe/Escalade/Whatever/Megatruck/SUV’s, the kind that get about 5 miles to the gallon; she crawled into the passenger seat, crying.  He opened the rear door on his side, threw his cane in and slammed the door shut, then flung himself into the driver’s seat and slammed that door even harder.  He burned rubber out of his parking space, and continued to do so louder and louder as he raced down all five flights down out of the parking garage.  Lou and I held our breaths as we waited for the crash, but thankfully it never came.  All I could think was, “He’s one of them.”

We know bad theatre when we see it, and this was pretty bad.  Not that the man’s pain and anger weren’t real; certainly the woman’s pain was very real.  It seemed obvious that a big part of his performance was for us, the dopey older white couple who were enjoying thinking they had just hit some kind of Social Security jackpot.  Maybe the performance was a needed release for him.  Still, it was scary theatre; his palpable anger at the government and just about everyone else, and his bitter blame-lashing at blameless people who live daily with levels of discrimination and injustice he will never ever know, much less suffer.  It was bad theatre, but it was also . . . Hate.

Hate is very scary.  Something has gone very wrong in that poor man’s life, and for that I am sorry.  But he is still driving an expensive gas guzzling vehicle.  And he is still white, which in this country gives him an unfair leg up, regardless of all else.  I am just sorry he hates so much.  And I am really sorry that Trump is making it okay, or even laudable, to hate so much.  I thought as a country we were better than that.  Even a generous Social Security system is no consolation if we are not.

Dear Daddy,

Dear Daddy,

 

Okay, it’s been almost two years since you left, and this is my first correspondence.  I’m sorry; I just didn’t want to have anything to do with you anymore.  Even avoidance gets old, however.  I am having to deal with your house now.  I need to sell it, and it’s needed a lot of work, so I have been forced back into the scene of your last stand.  Here is what is coming up for me:

 

First of all, you know I love you.  And I know you love me.  I often forgot all that back then.  As a bad habit, I still forget it now.  I need to work on that.  Ours was not a hearts and flowers kind of love, but it was love all the same.  Otherwise we could not have borne what we did together.

 

When I go into your house, what I immediately think of is all the pain we both experienced there.  But what I feel in unexpected waves is the love of two people trying to take care of each other in their own awkward ways.  I’m not sure why my mind goes to the dark side, why it doesn’t follow my heart.  The painful visuals are so engraved into my minds eye that they take over the scene.  I have been told it is a legitimate form of PTSD, and that it will take a long time to recover from the war we both fought for so long.

 

You got drafted into an old person’s war.  You were a captain, and I was your . . . “subaltern” is the word that comes to mind (all those British novels I’ve read, I guess).   I look it up; yes, it works: “an officer in the British army below the rank of captain, esp. a second lieutenant.”  Except for the British part; but it’s a great word so we will use it.  It sounds like a less official position than “second lieutenant”, more accidental, and so I was.  So there we were for almost ten years, being strafed and bombed by an enemy we thought we knew, but knew only enough to fear it.  Fear begets anger, and so we were often angry; you outwardly and nastily, me inwardly and depressedly.  Anger is a self-inflicted wound, and I have the scars to show it.  But I never showed it to you; that much I know I did well.

 

There were moments, however, sometimes hours or even days – cease fires, if you will – where we cautiously relaxed a little and busied ourselves with the day to day.  We both knew the enemy planes were always overhead, but if there was enough cloud cover, we pretended.  We shopped, we watched a ball game.  We went for bike rides, we petted the cats.  Inevitably, the low drone of the bombers came back, and we found ourselves in battle once more.  It seems that eventually the enemy infiltrated our ranks, and pitched battles were replaced by insidious subterfuge; things missing or changed around, tainted food, and a pernicious miasma that imbued everything.  That’s when you began to weaken.  I did, too.  Our greatest fear was then not the presence of the enemy, but the knowledge that he was never going to leave until you did.  It was a forced surrender, and as best as I can remember, you did it with dignity.

 

Oddly, I don’t remember a lot from that time; the fog of war, as they say.  What I remember too well are the earlier years and the sickening slide into a world neither one of us anticipated or wanted to enter.  You stayed in your house, however;  you never gave ground that way.  The enemy had to take you on your own turf.

 

Have I milked this metaphor enough?  Probably not for you; of all your life’s experiences, your time in WWII looms largest and most significant of all.  You loved to talk about the war.  And even though it is only a metaphor, it is the closest experience I will ever have that mimics a war in it’s hideousness and spiritual depletion.  I am lucky; I only had to fight this one war.  You had to fight two.  May I say, Captain, that in both cases you comported yourself with merit and should be proud of yourself.  I am very, very proud of you.  And I also remember now that I love you.

Parting Gifts from my Father

My father passed away on November 23, 2009.  On the same date a year later, my husband and I flew to Monroe, Louisisana, my family home town, to plant my father’s ashes in his native soil.  It took the Thanksgiving holiday to enable all the scattered siblings and cousins to collect in Monroe for the mini-reunion that my sister planned around the keynote event – my father’s final concession to a force greater than himself; who even knew there existed such a thing?  I thought all the gifts from my father had been delivered prior to his passing, but he had saved three for this final parting.  He must have known I would need them.

I was anxious to get back to my home town and see my siblings and other family, but I had enjoyed a whole year without having to deal my father, and to finally be on this journey was stressful.  I could not ignore that the trip was in large part about him.  I was distracted and moody all day of our return travel, and wrote that off to subconscious anniversary-itis, but I was stunned when I burst into tears as the plane touched down at the Monroe airport.  I had to cry until whatever was expressing itself was spent.  Afterwards I was still upset; it felt like I was going to have to face my father one more time, and I did not want to go there.

I looked after him for almost ten years.  When he was 76 and seemed not to be doing well on his own anymore, I convinced him to give up his long time home and independence and move hundreds of miles to a house around the corner from me.  That was when we began our careful dance with his dementia/psychosis which slowly evolved over the next 10 years into a crippling choreography of mutual sadness and pain.  My father had been a passionate and expert dancer in many styles, but I had to lead in this dance, while pretending all the while only to follow.   His moves were about trying to stay on his cognitive feet while his illness conspired to trip him at every turn.   My moves ranged from covertly propping him back up whenever he stumbled to side-stepping his hurled objects and expletives.  A year after his passing, I needed for the memory of that dance to go away.

It was Tuesday when we arrived in Monroe.  Wednesday and Thursday were balmy days in the 80’s, full of family and food, especially Thanksgiving.  The atmosphere was fun and easy and I was relaxed.  Friday, our cemetery day, dawned windy and a sharp 38 degrees.  An unwelcome anxiety woke me that morning.  We had no particular schedule; it was just my siblings and I and two cousins who were going to do the deed; no service of any kind, as per my father’s request.  I asked my sister if we could just go and get it over with and then all retire to some warm, steamy diner for a comfort food wake.  She said there were no such places that would be open the day after Thanksgiving.  She was heating up cinnamon buns and pigs-in-blankets for breakfast.  I never eat those kinds of things, but I ate some, and they made me feel more anxious.  As we were mobilizing to leave for the cemetery, I opened a bottle of red wine and poured a jelly glass full; it was fortification against the cold, I announced, but that was definitely the lesser part of it.

The Liberty Hill Primitive Baptist Cemetery is a 20 minute ride out a little two lane highway, then another 10 minute ride down a small road that runs through remote woods and small farms.  It is located between Farmerville and Sterlington in Union Parish.  It is where my mother’s side of the family is buried, dating from the 1850’s.  The delta land all around there is flat as a pancake, but the cemetery is on little hilly rise, making it literally a heightened place.  As we wound down the small rural road the first of my father’s parting gifts arrived – the white mule.

My play, The Picnic, is set in a small Louisisana town like Monroe.  The main character goes looking for an old country cemetery where her family is buried.  She has not been there since a child and only remembers the landmark for the turn-off being a white horse standing in a field on the right.  Forty years later, she drives along, sees a white horse in a field, turns right, and finds the cemetery.  I had not been to Liberty Hill Cemetery in perhaps 30 years myself, and had never driven there, so I had no memories of how to get there, landmarks or otherise.  As we drove along, suddenly on the right side of the road was a small pasture.  Standing in the middle was a white mule.  A little further past that on the left side was another white mule in another pasture.   A backup landmark in case I missed the first one?   A small bubble of coincidence-wonder was growing in my mind, edging out some of my anxiety.  Note to playwright; change the white horse to a mule – more evocative.  Parting gift Number 1 – thanks, Daddy.

We buried my father’s ashes next to those of my mother and the whole time I tried to float above the scene, to not become emotionally engaged in what was really happening.  I wanted to be past this, big time.  Due to the cold, we did not linger and quickly got back in our cars to go home.  As we stopped at the little two lane highway which led back to town to the left, I looked right and saw, not 50 yards down the road, a low slung, tired looking building with a sign which read “50’s Diner”; a few cars in the parking lot indicated that it was open.  Here was the diner I had longed for since early that morning.  It took some pressure to get my sister to turn in that direction and actually pull into the lot in front of the diner.  It did look a little less than appetizing, but it was an open diner and I was determined.  When we walked inside a menu board greeted us with a picture of Elvis, the specials of the day, and a list of a dozen available homemade pies.  The place was warm and redolent of fried food and baked sugar; a more perfect balm for my sad soul could not have existed that morning.  Sure, it hadn’t been redecorated in twenty years, and probably not dusted too well in five or ten, but it was heaven at that moment.  I had the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato and jalapeno fries and a big fountain Coke; perfect comfort fare for a Southern wake.  Parting gift Number 2 – thanks, Daddy.

Everyone enjoyed the diner food and the cozy atmosphere.  Whatever pall I had felt hanging over the morning was lifted and we all chatted up a storm.  I was happily listening to something my cousin, who was sitting across the table from me, was saying, when my gaze wandered to a countertop behind her.  Propped up there among some pretty awful geegaw junk for sale was a book; it’s title read “Smith Family Recipes.”  Smith is our family name.  The cookbook was a self-published weird conglomeration of a certain Mrs. Smith’s favorite recipes, and exemplified the best of white trash cuisine.  Most of the ingredients in almost every recipe came out of a can, except for the grated cheese and the marshmallows.  Ro-tel tomatoes figured prominently.  There were recipe contributions from some of Mrs. Smith’s extended family; one of these called for a trip to McDonald’s for a happy meal.  A picture of Mrs. Smith showed her to be a grandmotherly type, maybe even a distant backwoods relative – who knows?  In my same play with the white mule, a grandmother’s recipes figure prominently as a throughline of family culture and memories, and as I sat there with my family enjoying some not-quite-so-trashy Southern favorites, I recognized my father’s third gift: that I was in the right place at the right time – a warm Southern diner on a frigid cemetery morning.

These personal parting gifts told me that my long journey with my father was officially over. To calm all my fears, he had provided coincidence, comfort food, and a cookbook to take home as a reminder that although he was gone, he had not forgotten me that morning.  The sweet potato fries were an extra little bendiction, and maybe even a belated Daddy nod of thank you.

Thievery

Thievery

My father was always a suspicious type, never trusting anyone about anything.  When we were growing up, he constantly warned us about the people we associated with, the places we went, the activities we got involved with.  The world as he saw it was full of treacheries, both deliberate and accidental.  His paranoia embarrassed me; it was too eccentric, and too self-centered.  It annoyed me that he felt so large in the scheme of things that he assumed the rest of the world was always thinking about him and how to take advantage of him.  

After we all left home, my father bought 50 acres out in the countryside and built his dream house.  His driveway was almost a mile long and wound through huge live oaks and uncleared scrub.  The clearing where he placed his house was ringed by live oaks, with clear pasture beyond.  It was an idyllic natural setting, as quiet and peaceful as one could imagine.  The first floor of his house was almost all floor to ceiling glass, so from the inside one could see all the surrounding nature.  By the same token, one could easily see in from the outside; an amazing degree of exposure for a man so mistrusting.  Thankfully, there was no one out there to see in, not for miles.

All the same, my father always left some cash on his kitchen counter so that if upon returning home he looked in the window and saw that the money was gone, he would know that someone had broken in.  For thirty years that money lay there.  Every time I saw it, it irritated me.   He didn’t ever seem afraid of anything, and he was usually armed, so his constant expectation of villainy seemed more about his disdain for Fate.  If somehow, somewhere he had a date with an inevitable thief,  he was going to be prepared when the guy showed up.

Maybe this all began when he was a fighter pilot in WWII.  People were truly gunning for him then.  A certain reasoned paranoia was wise for a soldier, and it kept him alive, no doubt.   He escaped being robbed of his life then, and perhaps decided at that young age that non-trust of others was a useful survival skill.  That was what he tried to teach us, anyway.

Maybe it was amplified by my mother’s death at age forty-four.  She was driving to the beauty parlor and another car pulled out from a side street right in front of her.  The braking distance was too short and my mother’s car slammed into the front end of the other car.  My mother died 10 days later from the internal injuries she suffered.  The other driver walked away.  That was a grand larceny if there ever was one.

After that my father had years of failed relationships with other women.  He was handsome, successful, elegant, and superficially a true Southern gentlemen in his treatment of women, and the girlfriends came in a steady stream.  They also inevitably left.  He drove them crazy.  He was always suspicious of where they went and what they did.  If they went to the store to get something, he would time their absence, and if the drive took longer than he had previously clocked it (I’m not kidding), they would be interrogated upon return.  One could say that he was afraid they might rob him of his trust, but since he never trusted anyone, they had no chance.  

To my knowledge my father was never robbed in the sense that he always anticipated, so his paranoia was really prescience, a foreknowledge of what was to come.   At some early age he got a glance through the folds of time, and saw thievery in his future.  It should have come as no surprise then, when sometime in his seventies, dementia and psychosis began stealthily taking his mind away from him.  He is now eighty-six and the robbery has been severe.  At first it was just short term memory and a few words here and there, but now it has been everything.  His career, his dream home, the ability to drive and manage his financial affairs, all life long pleasures, personal independence – all gone.  He can no longer read, or even watch television.  He needs full time help to take care of him, so his much cherished privacy is gone.  He has to be fed and also wears a diaper, so even his most basic dignities have been stolen.  In lucid moments he tells me he wants to die because he has nothing left, but his ability to do that on his own is missing, too.  The only thing the thief hasn’t taken is his perfectly healthy heart, which goes on beating and shackling him to his emptied out existence.  The scale of this heist absolutely justified a life long fear of being robbed.

Caretaking comes with it’s own kind of thievery, so he was actually right to warn me all along.  First I was robbed of my father as I knew him, then over the years I have lost sleep, time, personal and professional opportunities, health, and friends.  Fatigue and depression are my constant companions, and they leave little time for anything else.  I feel like I’ve lost my identity as an artist.  People no longer ask me about upcoming exhibits or what I’m working on; they ask me how my father is.  My identity as a caretaker is not a good fit, either.  I feel vague and uncentered most of the time, not to mention scared, angry, frustrated, sad, and resentful, depending on the moment.  Despite years of my father’s warnings, I never believed him and so I was unprepared for this.  He was the one always guarded, and yet it ultimately did him no good.  The thief slipped up on him undetected and leisurely set to work, so why should I, the non-vigilant, have been spared?

Both my father’s anxiety about thievery, and my outrage, are ridiculous, of course. Our lives are only loaned to us at birth – we know we have to give them back someday. Because of that, all of our stuff, large and small, tangible and intangible, is also only on loan. We don’t get to take any of it with us. Neither do the thieves. So what’s the problem?

Like my father, I have a strong heart, physically, and hopefully, emotionally.  Someday when this thief is gone, I hope I will be able to find myself in the ransacked mess that he has left behind.   My father’s only hope is that he will just finish the job.

Walking the Cats

For a couple of years during my childhood we lived in Trinidad in the West Indies. My father was employed there as an engineer and we lived in a company owned residential compound. Every night after dinner my parents took a walk together down the middle of the quiet road that meandered through our small community. The post dusk air was delicious with the smells of ocean and tropical flora. There were no sidewalks; the narrow road was lined instead with oleander and hibiscus and palms. My sister and I would get on our bicycles and accompany our parents. We rode our bicycles everywhere within the compound during the day but we were not allowed to go out on our bicycles after dark except for this evening ritual. We kids knew these few roads thoroughly, every angle and bump, but at night, they took on a different character. There were tall yellow-hued street lights here and there, but not many, so there were regular stretches of near darkness. The long cast shadows created by the lights gave strange tone and shape to otherwise familiar surroundings.

The residential compound was surrounded by sugar cane fields which were home to feral dogs and cats we often saw slinking in and out of the edges. The fields were also home to the never seen but much speculated about cane-man. The cane-man was a wild, child-hating, machete-swinging concoction served up to us regularly by the other kids who had lived there longer than we had. It was assumed that the cane man lurked near the dark stretches of road at night, so it was with fearful squeals and false bravado that my sister and I would race our bicycles ahead of our parents and into the treacherously dark zones. We never went too far, just far enough to taste the thrill of near fear, always looping back to circle the two walkers for the reassurance of parental presence before speeding off again.

Until we moved to Trinidad, I had never known my parents to take a walk after dinner. That in itself was exotic. They walked purposefully, their stride more athletic than a stroll. They talked, but didn’t hold hands. They walked for the exercise. And maybe to wear us out on our bicycles before bedtime. Regardless, it was an evening ritual which I loved. What I remember most is riding my bicycle like a happy drunk in the intoxicating night air, and the simple joy of seeing my parents taking a walk together. Looking back, it has become a memory of two people together as a couple; people who, to my child’s mind, had previously been nothing more than parents. At age twelve, I endowed that walk of theirs with a mysterious intimacy. The heightened excitement of it taking place after dark was a potent factor I was just beginning to appreciate as a preadolescent. Those tropical years were a good time for my parents, and a giddy time for us kids; a bright treasury of security and happiness we shared for a few more years before being swallowed up by the darkness of my mother’s death.

I live on the east coast of south Florida now, in the subtropics. My elderly father, who has dementia, lives alone, right around the corner. I look after him, including bringing him all his meals. My husband and I have dinner with him almost every evening. One night after dinner as I was feeding my father’s two outdoor cats, the smell and temperature of the ocean breeze suddenly evoked the memory of those after-dinner walks in Trinidad. I hadn’t thought about that period of our lives in quite a while. When I went back inside I asked my father if he remembered those walks, and he said yes. Often when I ask him if he remembers something from our mutual past, he says yes, although his face says no. By his claiming to remember some things, I am not sure if he is accepting my gift of returning a long lost memory, or if he is giving me the gift of not disappointing my desire to relive and share. Whichever it was in that case, I suggested we go for an after-dinner walk. My father looked surprised, then intrigued, and so we went. The sun had officially set behind a bank of towering clouds, and the ambient light it cast was glowing pink. It was beautiful. After a slow start, my father found his stride. Like forty years before, he did not stroll, but set out with as vigorous a pace as he could manage. Walking in that air was like swimming in a therapeutic lotion, and I loved it, remembering a happy childhood time. Suddenly I heard the tiny bells of cat’s collars. My father’s two cats had followed us from the house, slinking along the curb in fits and starts, We went two blocks, and then my father said we had to go back. When we turned around, the cats, just behind us, stopped and sat down with tails twitching nervously as we reversed course. As we neared the driveway I heard their bells ringing and the cats shot past us, obviously relieved to be back on familiar ground. They immediately sat down and began to clean themselves thoroughly, as though in the course of the adventure they had become soiled, or at the very least, had worked up an un-cat like sweat.

We walked after dinner for the next few nights, my father, my husband and I, with the cats, Liz and Rani, following us. The teeny jingle of their collar bells always accompanied us. My father and I did not hold hands as we walked together, but I stayed close enough to be able to support his arm if he should wobble. The weather was the same every night; perfect. Then the superficial clock shift of daylight savings time ended. The next night it was just as beautiful, but dark, when we went out for our walk, and my father’s stride was a little more tentative. There are long stretches between our streetlights, and when we hit the first of the more dimly lit areas, he said we should turn around. The next night our walk was also ended when we hit the shadows. The next night my father just said it was too dark to walk at all. I picked up an ever present mega-battery hurricane lantern, which casts an enormous light, and cajoled him to try it again. That worked for a few more nights, but it was obvious that the extra light and our proximity were not enough to make him feel comfortable outside at night. The next night he simply declined to walk after dinner and went up to bed. When my husband and I left to go home that evening, Liz and Rani were sitting right outside the front door, waiting. They had become used to our nightly walks. As we walked out to our car, they raced down to the street, then stopped to wait for us. Not wanting to disappoint them, we took the cats for a walk.

My father never wanted to walk after dinner anymore, but every night the two cats waited immediately outside his door for their turn, their faces practically pressed up against the glass. If I opened the door too quickly, it would bat them off the mat. Once we were outside, they would race down the driveway ahead of us, their collar bells jingly raucously. Every night we walked a little farther until we finally reached the small park in our neighborhood. Walking through the park the cats were giddy, racing up tree trunks, leaping down to chase each other up the next tree. The scrabbling of their claws on bark sounded like soft chuckling. Unlike my father, they relished the dark and it’s potential mysteries.

The cats played with bold abandon in the park, but they were more cautious along the road. When the occasional car approached, they slipped into the closest available plant cover until it had passed. Conversely, they were immediately drawn towards other walkers like magnets, stepping right in front of them to be petted, and thus often tripped over in the dark. People walking dogs, however, got a very wide berth, accompanied by arched backs and twitching tails. The one thing that stoped the cats in their tracks and completely immobilized them was another cat. Whether the other cat sat in its own yard just staring at us, or approached cautiously, Liz and Rani froze. No amount of cajoling or reassurance could get them to move; We had to pick them up and remove them from the cat stare zone before we could continue. It makes one wonder if this is where the word catatonia originated.

One night my sister called me on my cell phone as we were walking back from the park. Being focused on giving her the daily Daddy report, I didn’t notice until we got back to the house that Liz wasn’t with us. I called and clapped, but no Liz. We had to retrace our steps for two blocks before my calls produced a streak of rocketing cat. Liz came running up to us, crying her abandonment the whole way. Something had detained her, most likely the eyes of another cat, and she had lost sight of us, finding herself alone and immobilized in foreign terrain. I picked her up and cuddled her as she purred loudly in relief and Rani rubbed up against my leg. Reunited and reassured, we went home.

Now my husband and I walk the cats after dinner every night. At first, I simply couldn’t disappoint the cats, but I too, have become addicted to the ritual. It is my meditative transition time between Daddy duty and the rest of the evening. We don’t walk for the exercise, though, we stroll. The night air is a soothing tonic, the soft respiration of the earth laying itself to rest. The night sounds of crickets, and birds settling into their roosts, are muted and gentle on the ear, like whispered reassurances. Often we hear the soulful wails of distant trains. The huge Florida sky offers stars and slightly glowing clouds for decorative lighting, and the condo and car lights from across the lake twinkle prettily. The night blooming plants release their perfumes, harmonizing to the warm bowel-y smells from the storm sewer drains. We see other people and their pets out for their own walks and we greet each other quietly so as to least disturb the spell we are all under. There are brief sightings of raccoons, possums, and the occasional fox, all intent on more serious evening business than we.

When we walk the cats, my husband and I walk as a couple, holding hands. We talk. We always comment on how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place, which leads to an acknowledgment of all our many blessings and a grateful squeezing of hands. This is a happy time in our lives. As we stroll, the cats race ahead and back to play around us, not unlike two excited little girls on bicycles. The jingling of their collar bells are like squeals of childish laughter, a hopeful music to protect us against the dark stretches, now and those surely to come.

Proud as Sin

I have always loved the word “hubris.”  I learned it in English class when I was fourteen.  We were discussing Greek mythology and it was brought up as an example of how to really tick off the gods: to have “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”  I love the soft, unassuming sound of the word hubris, how beautifully it juxtaposes the meaning.  I use the word whenever possible.  It is very potent for me, because I think I am a little too well acquainted with it’s manifestations.

It’s a good thing my father is an atheist, because with Pride being the deadliest of sins, he would be in deep doo-doo otherwise.  They say Pride is the worst of the bunch – Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Envy – because Pride enables all the others.   I can honestly say that of all those, my father’s only real sin is his Pride, but being a nonbeliever, the concept of sin doesn’t bother him anyway.  The virtuous counterpart to Pride is Humility, but the number of times in my life I have heard my father justify himself and fault everyone else makes me doubt there’s much of that in there.   He almost never apologizes, for anything, and he is hard pressed to offer forgiveness.

My father was brought up in the Southern Methodist church, which is how we were raised until Mother died, and then everyone was pretty much on their own.  In my experience, it seems that religious indoctrination was not a strong suit with the Methodists.  They hit all the obligatory bases that a church is supposed to, but what I remember most about the church going experience are the pancake breakfasts, the spaghetti suppers, and the occasional cake walk.   I know now that these were fundraisers, that the church didn’t inspire enough fiscal generosity with religious overtures to pay the bills, so funds had to be eked out of the congregation via cooking.  As a child, of course, food was easier and more fun to digest than religious doctrine, and therefore most memorable, but you’d think something of a religious nature would have stood out and stuck with me.  It was all too bland, however.   I disliked everything about going to Sunday school and church, except for the doughnuts they served.   Methodism is just not a brickbat kind of denomination.

So I can only assume from my own experience that my father’s religious training was also more like glancing exposure.  Maybe they never warned him about the seven deadly sins, that being more of a Catholic thing.  I’m guessing the perniciousness of Pride never came up.  And even if it had, my father is the type who would see all the bad pride in others, and only good pride in himself.  Bad pride is what other people have when they don’t agree with you and get in your way.  Good pride is what you’re entitled to when you are . . .  my father.

My father was the middle child and the only son.  He was only one of two male cousins an extended family dominated by girls.  He was always pick of the litter.  He was worshipped by the whole family, with his maternal grandmother as head cheerleader.  He was smart and creative.  He was all-american-boyishly handsome, with bedroom eyes and a sweet as pie smile.  He was fearless and ambitious.  As a teenager, he worked several jobs to pay for flying lessons so that he could become a fighter pilot should the country enter WWII.  He got his wish, and he flew one hundred and ten missions by the time he was twenty-one.  He helped liberate France.  Most importantly, he survived.  After the war, he got two masters degrees in engineering and had a successful working career.  He had a good marriage, raised four kids to self-sufficient adulthood, had a second career as a business owner, and then a later life avocation as an art photographer.  All good endeavors, all successful outcomes, all things to be proud of.

My father saw himself as a beacon of honest virtue in an ever encroaching  fog of Sloth and stupidity.  He has always credited his Pride for his accomplishments, and that’s fair.  Those would indeed be the result of good pride, virtues like a strong work ethic, Diligence, Temperance, and Kindness.   He worked hard and followed the rules.  He also knew how to create beauty and fun.  If Pride was that which motivated him to higher things, then he has a right to be proud of that.

He would not recognize or even acknowledge some of his other prideful accomplishments, however.  The darker ones, the bad pride ones.

We, his family, and the things we did, were never quite good enough for him.  We all lived under the pall of my father’s lurking disapproval, which could be both subtly demeaning and overtly withering.  It was always his Pride that justified his Wrath.  Looking back, I can see that my mother took the brunt of this.  I don’t think she was as happy in their marriage as he was, because everything was always strictly on his terms.  They grew up together, so she was well trained and stayed busy with her four children, but I remember seeing moments of what in retrospect I recognize was not Humility but full blown frustration and resentment.  I think she was often depressed.  My older brother, the first born, should have been the next generation’s golden boy, but instead he struggled to grow up in my father’s shadow, failing to live up to like-father-like-son expectations.  He has always been a little tentative, a little diminished, like a plant that never got quite enough light.  The main damage done to us three girls was that the first time out of the gate we all married men who were too much like our father.  Thankfully, each of us eventually corrected that mistake, but only many unhappy years later.  In textbook manner, the things about our husbands that were most like our father made him disapprove of them and vice versa.  All of their bad prides butted heads a lot, so familial relationships were strained.  For too many  years, my father avoided close relationships with our families, so today his grandchildren are strangers to him, and most sadly, he to them.  I say sadly, because under the influence of good Pride, my father was mostly a great dad, sweet and inventive and lots of fun.  His moments of Charity and Kindness were profound.  Had he allowed himself, he would have been a terrific grandfather.

My father worked for several different companies during his career as an engineer.  We were led to believe that each job change was either a promotion or a recruitment to a better company.   It was only last year when my father participated in a life history project for a memory center that I learned that all those job changes were because he had been fired.  Each time the circumstances involved what he called his “integrity”, specifically his having more of it than his boss, and maybe that was true.  But even in his telling of the stories there was the smell of bad Pride all over the place; Envy and Wrath, theirs, and definitely his.   In the end his resume must have been pretty tattered, so he opened his own business, a retail hardware store.  That worked.  With his Diligence and his ability to control everything to his high standards, it was a very successful venture.  It supported him well for thirty years, and when he sold it a few years ago, it set him up with a good retirement.

Dementia is a cruel challenge to anyone’s pride.  My father hangs on to his as best he can, and thankfully mostly the good kind.  The bad kind still shows up now and then, but less and less often.  The good kind also seems to be a comfort to him these days, and he talks a lot about who he was and what he did during the war.  He has dug out pictures of himself from that time and I have framed them for him so he can have a gallery of them across from his bed.  He spends most of his time lying in bed these days, staring at those pictures.  He points them out every day and talks about them, always the same stories over and over.  The pictures and the stories fill him with Pride, and having lost so much else of his life to this disease, it is wonderful to see him full with something he so cherishes.

I take care of my father now.  Many people tell me I should be proud that I am such a good daughter.  Unfortunately, I just can’t put the concepts of me and pride together in one thought.  I don’t think one should be proud of simply doing the right thing, of assuming a necessary responsibility, of paying one’s debts,  or of loving.   Trust me, this is not virtuous Modesty.  It’s just that Pride of every stripe has only been my father’s department.  I just hope that, somewhere in the ranks of all he has ever been proud of, there might be a little room for me.

The Service Dog

My husband and I have always kept two dogs at a time. For the dogs’ sake, and ours, the symmetry of a family of four always seemed to work best. When one of our dogs would pass, another one would somehow show up to take it’s place. There is never a shortage of good dogs needing good homes and they always find us. The most memorable of these was Otis, a true rogue and poet. He was a houndish mutt of such profound presence and personality that after he passed, his absence left a big hole in my life that no two normally wonderful dogs could fill. After our new second dog had found us, I still felt an aching loss. There just wasn’t enough dogness in the house. I toyed with the idea of adopting a third dog, but balked at the asymmetry and the extra responsibility. Instead, I decided to investigate being a puppy raiser for a service dog organization. Puppy raisers raise and train the dogs until they are mature enough to go to advanced training and then placement with their life partner. As a puppy raiser I could have a third dog, but just for a year or so. This appealed to my emotional need of the moment and gave me an out down the road if indeed three dogs turned out to be more than I cared to deal with. Plus, I would be nurturing a helpmate for someone who needed that dog much more than I did; a good cause combined with breathtaking reasoning and no small amount of selfish neediness. Danger, Danger.

Researching online, I found a Florida based organization that provides service dogs to people with mobility disabilities, mostly wheelchair users. I sent the group an email inquiry about puppy raising, and the director called me the next day. We had an hour long chat, which, unbeknownst to me, was an interview. At the end of the conversation she informed me that I could pick up my puppy in two weeks. I panicked. I had done lots of obedience training with my own dogs, but this was a whole different level of training responsibility. The director assured me I would do fine, and that I would be provided clear guidelines and support for raising my dog from an eight-week old butterball peepot to a mature and capable service dog.

Two weeks later we drove up to the middle of the state and picked up our puppy. Labrador and golden retrievers are the prominent breeds used for mobility disability service dogs. These dogs often act as hands and arms for their partners, so having a built-in passion for retrieving and carrying things in their mouths is a necessity. I had known several pet goldens in my life, and based on all of them, I disliked the breed. I thought they were a stupid and slobbery breed, so I was disappointed that we were given a golden puppy and not a lab. My husband pointed out that this should be seen not as a disappointment but an opportunity, that my prejudice was being tested. Love those tests.

He was right, of course. Raising that dog was a revelation. I would like to claim that I also trained him, but he seemed hard-wired from the beginning to know the list of thirty verbal commands I was to teach him, not to mention the various tasks he was to master. Every time I taught him something new, it was if he had been waiting for me to learn the command so he could then show me how it was done.

Retrieving dropped things and giving them back to their partners is a big part of what the mobility service dogs do. I quickly learned that whenever I dropped something in the house or the studio, which was often, I should not pick it up myself. When this dog heard the sound of anything hitting the floor, he would come running to retrieve it and hand it back to me. If I had already picked it up by the time he got there, he would look at me like I was the one who needed better training. He was the server, and I was the servee. That’s how it worked, otherwise I was interfering with his life’s mission and passion. I would have to drop the thing again so he could pick it up and give it to me, thus setting the matter straight. One day I had a guy repairing an upstairs window in my house, and he dropped his screwdriver down onto the patio below. Who knows where the dog had been until that moment, whether inside or out, but he obviously heard the sound, came and figured out that the screwdriver was the dropped object, and figured out who must have dropped it. By the time the guy had climbed back in the window and reached the top of the stairs to go down and look for his tool, the dog was coming up the stairs with the screwdriver in his mouth to return it.

The constant accompaniment to any kind of service performed by this dog was a wagging tail and a big golden retriever smile. The only time the dog looked put out was when you didn’t let him do something for you. He was always thinking, trying to anticipate your next need so he could meet it before you asked him. We often took him with us when we went out at night, much to our two personal dogs’ resentment. Socializing the dogs to know how to behave in public, in stores and in restaurants, is important. Whenever we were preparing to go out, he would stare expectantly at us, tail wagging, asking to go along. One night I was getting dressed to go out and he gave me that inquiring look. I told him yes, he could go with us this time. Elated, he dashed off down the stairs to wait for us by the door, or so I assumed. A few minutes later he reappeared with my car keys in his mouth. He had found my purse, wherever I had left it downstairs, and had gotten the keys out to bring to me, knowing I would need them next. This was not something I had taught him to do.

We ultimately raised and trained four service dogs, two goldens and two labs. Contrary to my previous prejudice, I loved the goldens. They were very serious about their work and therefore the easiest to train. But I loved the labs, too; they had a better sense of humor about the job. It was as if in the middle of learning a new task, they had to stop every so often to tell a joke. We would get to the same end result as the goldens, eventually, but only after much mutual cracking up along the way.

When you finally deliver your mature dog back to the organization for advanced training, it is best if you leave with a new puppy in your arms. This helps ease the wrenching separation you inevitably feel from the dog you have loved and nurtured for a year an a half. You can’t focus on feeling sorry for yourself when you have an un-housetrained eight week old puppy on your hands. Yes, turning the mature dogs in was heartbreaking, but the joy and excitement of starting over with a new puppy was huge. The challenge and fun of preparing them to serve their future partners was magical. All four dogs were placed with wonderful partners and I see them from time to time at reunions. When we meet again there are ear to ear smiles on everyone. Although the dogs remember me and we have a big noisy, slobbery love fest for a few minutes, they now have a meaningful mission in their lives and a partner that they are devoted to. Their partners have in the dog a best friend who assists them to be more independent, and who gives them unconditional love and chronically cheerful companionship. By puppy raising I got to make a profound difference, for possibly the only time in my life, in eight other lives, human and canine. It doesn’t get any better than that.

When I turned in my last service dog, I didn’t bring home a puppy. It nearly killed me. During the tenure of the last dog, my father had moved down into his own home around the corner from us. Seeing him everyday instead of only talking to him long distance, it became quickly apparent that what had seemed for years as simply the eccentricities of old age was something more serious. His now obvious dementia made him require more of my help than we had anticipated. When everyone asked why I hadn’t taken a new service dog puppy, I joked that I didn’t have the time and the energy to train a service dog and my father at the same time. Not a very funny joke, as it turned out.

I see now that all those years of training the dogs was just a set up. It’s like the service dogs truly anticipated what my future needs were going to be. It was really me who needed and received the appropriate training so that I could become a service dog for my father. This is what I tell people, but this is not a joke, either. I don’t have children, so I had no basic parenting skills like patience and effective communication with an uncooperative being. My father had taken care of me when I was young, but now the roles were reversing, quickly, and suddenly it was my job to anticipate his changing needs and to serve them. To call it a learning curve is ridiculous. This experience has been more like a monster rollercoaster ride where you are constantly in fear of being thrown to a horrible death, or of surviving only to throw up all over yourself and everyone around you.

What the service dogs taught me is how much better cut out for caretaking they are than I am. The dogs could not teach me how to be naturally happy in this job, but they did teach me how to do it well. Their secret is that, unlike me, they would never even think of trying to fix someone’s disability; that kind of effort only frustrates everyone involved and makes them all unhappy. Instead, the dog’s sole focus is to make their partner the most successful person with a disability they can. It took me a while, with much frustration, but I finally got this. I cannot fix my father’s aging or his dementia. Instead, I am trying to make him the most successful old man with dementia I can. This isn’t a job I love, but it is gratifying, at least. Success for my father means his being able to continue to live alone in his house. It means eating nutritiously, getting daily exercise, and being safe. Success is his not being made to feel dependent on someone else for all those things, although he is. Success means not having his lack of memory pointed out to him, or putting him in confusing, thus embarrassing, situations. Success is his being left alone to his own thoughts, no matter how scrambled they are. Everyday, as I repeat the same thing to my father or answer the same question for the umpteenth time, I think of the service dogs, tails wagging madly as they happily repeat the same task over and over and over. The dogs retrieve dropped objects; I do the same with bits of my father’s life. I retrieve lost words and moments of awareness. Unlike the dogs, I have to make an effort to smile as I’m serving, something they do automatically and sincerely. I have to admit, though, that when I do smile, the burden becomes much lighter.

Out of necessity for his well being, I guide my father through his daily life now, but I try to make it seem like I am no more than tail-wagging companionship. Ironically, I think I am like the golden retrievers I trained, taking it all a little too seriously. I need to be more like the labs; I should lighten up and learn a few jokes.

10/10/2009