Tag Archives: dementia

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.

An Awkard Stage

My sister recently sent me some old family photographs she had come across.  There was one of me, taken when I was twelve or thirteen.  It is a horrible picture.  I look like an adolescent alien trying to emerge from inside an angular bursting-at-the-seams child, with bulging elbows and knees and nose and teeth.  I had new heavy-hardware braces then, and a criminally bad haircut with short bangs.  I have never looked good in bangs.  It was one of those captured-in-time photographs that you can’t burn fast enough.  My sister had stuck a note on it which jokingly read, “an awkward stage!”, which should win her a prize for the understatement of the century.

The pictures of my awkward stages in life greatly outnumber pictures of me where I look fairly put together.  I always liked to think i just wasn’t photogenic, but now that I think about it, my life has been a steady stream of awkward stages.

Once when I was complaining about having to have my picture taken for a magazine article and knowing˙ it would be unflattering, a friend told me how to fix that.  He said to look straight into the camera and think “I am really good at what I do”, and the picture would turn out great.  Damned if it didn’t work.   That made it clear that what had been photographed all along was not my face, but my deep seated insecurities about, oh, everything.  If I think back through the rogues gallery of my most unflattering images, I recognize that unfortunate look in each one of them.  The most flattering images I recall I realize were taken when I was relaxed and happy and feeling like I was really good at whatever I was doing.  So now when someone points a camera at me, I try to hold the same thought – I am really good at what I do.  Sometimes it works, but it’s not easy to quickly rodeo all my features under that umbrella, and so, often as not, another awkward stage goes on record.

The silly thing is, I am good at much of what I do.  I have a successful career as an artist, I have a happy and fun marriage of almost 30 years, I have good health, I keep (with some help) a passably clean and organized home, I am a good public speaker, I am practical, punctual, economical, and reliable.  You would think I would be able to take a good picture any old time, but insecure waters run deep.

When I shared this reflection with my sister of the unasked for old photographs, she said, “Oh, you’re just insecure about taking another bad picture!”  Maybe she’s right, because that would certainly be enough.

My husband never took good pictures of anyone or anything until digital cameras came along.  Now that he can see what’s in the frame before he shoots, heads are no longer lopped off and things are aligned as nature intended them.  This is a good thing, except for the fact that he is smitten with his success and is constantly either pointing his camera or his phone at me and anyone else within range. For a while all his pictures of me captured a witheringly annoyed and thus highly unflattering look, so I continued to fulfill my own prophecy.

The camera always took great pictures of my father.  One, he is very handsome, and two, he never doubted that he was excellent at whatever he was doing.  That meant he was always right about everything, which has often been awkward for the rest of us, but never for him.

My father is going through an awkward stage now.   For a decorated WWII fighter pilot with two engineering degrees and three successful careers, dementia is about as awkward as it gets.  Sometimes that awkwardness shows in photos of him now, but not always; for the most part he still thinks he is good at what he is doing.  He knows, however, that he is not doing so well at growing older, and the insecurity that that fosters shows.  He makes choices which don’t serve his best interests, but he can’t see that, so when the results are not good, he is confused and hurt.  In his mind, he is still always right.  I try to keep him believing that, because having lost so much of his former self, the worst thing he can lose right now is his self confidence.  It is all he has left to sustain him through this awkward stage.

Gifts and Presents

When I started taking care of my elderly father with dementia, the word “gift” started showing up a lot.   I would hear someone else refer to their similar situation as “a gift”.  When people asked me how it was going with my father and I would be truthful, it sounded like complaining, so I, too, started saying, “But it’s a real gift to be able to do this.”  So maybe it is a gift, but it is certainly no present.

I was eleven the only time I remember my father giving me a present.  Normally, my mother took care of shopping for and delivering presents, but I wanted an iguana, and my mother wasn’t fond of reptiles.  My father loved reptiles, and so this present, Gus the iguana, was solely from him.  I choose to distinguish here between gifts and presents; a gift can be inadvertent but a present is presented, offered, deliberately passed from one set of hands to another.  A present is deep giving.  My father gave me an iguana as a present.  And it wasn’t my birthday or anything.

After my mother died when I was fifteen, I was well cared for, but there were no presents.   I was provided with necessities by my father because I needed and asked for them, but those don’t count.  Even asking him for things was uncomfortable, so at some point I just stopped.  I baby-sat to make my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask.  I had been accepted to and was supposed to go to a New York art school after high school, but when the paperwork came from the admissions office the summer after I graduated, I found I couldn’t ask my father for the money to register.  I should have considered going to college a right, a necessity, but it was such a big ask, it seemed more like requesting a frivolous present.  The admissions paperwork sat on the dining room table all summer until its various deadlines expired, and so I never left.  There was never a discussion.  I’ve often wondered why he never asked me about going off to art school, something that had been planned for years.  My wiser sister recently pointed out that it was simply because he didn’t want me to leave.  She is two years younger than me, and that summer, she was a rebellious teenager.  She and my father were often not speaking to each other.  As a third party mediator, I filled in the gap for them, I suppose.  Or maybe after my mother’s death just two years earlier, my father couldn’t bear the thought of one more person leaving.  He never said anything about the thick, five hundred pound elephant of a college envelope that sat conspicuously in front of him all summer.  Eventually I threw it away.  I don’t know what he thought about the whole issue.  I’lI never know, because I never asked.  What should have been an major life present to me, a chance to go to art school,  turned instead into another inadvertent gift.  I had to make my own way as an artist.   I had to work harder, take more chances, and put myself and my work out there with no support system.   I had to educate myself.  As a result, I have a wonderful career as a visual artist on my own terms.   My work is unique to me, maybe even odd, but at least it is not the predictable product of an MFA program.  I still regret not receiving the present I expected, but the gift has worked out really well for me.

So, in over forty years of birthdays and Christmases, my father has given me no presents.  He has always said he doesn’t believe in those events, so he doesn’t do presents.  I have accepted this arrangement completely.  I still give him presents, but I never look for anything in return.

In spite of this arrangement, or perhaps because of it, I must acknowledge many gifts from my father, all inadvertent.  I inherited his robust health, a smidgeon of his good looks, his independence, his creativity, his great legs, his love of nature and animals, his dislike for coffee and raw onions.  I also got his agnosticism, his too-fine prematurely gray hair, his control issues, his parsimony, his paranoid intolerance, and his thin skin, both literal and figurative.  Notice how I also got his self-righteous judgementalism.  He has acknowledged most of these inadvertent gifts and he takes great pride in them.  He considers them to be the most desirable gifts one could receive, because they come from him.  That’s one thing I didn’t get from him;  his un-deflatable, self-confident, larger-than-life ego.  It’s something I’ve long lamented.

I still get no presents, but as I am taking care of my father, he gives me gifts he will never even know about.  There are so many they are piling up around me, some as yet unopened and unexamined.  Many are things I did not want and would never have asked for, but these are gifts, after all, not presents.  My father doesn’t do presents.  Gifts just land on you; like bird droppings, you get to decide if they are auspicious or not.  Some of the gifts have proved very useful, and others, though they made no sense to me at first, have become cherished favorites.  Some will never fit me just right, will always chafe and make me uncomfortable, but there’s nowhere to return them.  I have outgrown some of them, but they are always replaced by others.  Who knew that in his old age, my father could bear so many gifts?  Maybe he had them stored up all along, and now that dementia has knocked his guard is down, they are spilling out of their own accord.  Some of these gifts will only be opened after my father is gone, because I know it is only then that I will be able to undo the complicated emotional knots that tie them.

Even if my father had given me wonderful presents my whole life, it’s probable that I would remember very few of them now.  Except for the iguana.  His recent gifts, however, are going to be pretty hard to forget.

Give and Take

Single words are delicious morsels of information.  They are rich with history and meaning.  Despite differences of perspective or language, a word can communicate across vast spaces of time and culture.  We know a lot about things because of the words that make up the intricate embroidery of their descriptions.  There is plenty to be known outside of language, of course, but if we experience or learn something non-verbally, chances are the first thing we do is put that experience into words so we can turn right around and tell someone else about it.  And how we do just that!  It is no accident that humans are the only creatures associated with the verb to blather.

It is always important not to confuse the word with the thing it represents.  A word doesn’t ultimately define that to which it is attached, and so names of things are conveniences, not truths.  Still, words are very important.  Not only for how they sound, but also for how they let us sound off.  Equally important is how words make us feel, above and beyond what they might actually mean.

So, several words have come under my scrutiny lately.  They have been coming up a lot in my life, and they are making me feel things which I want to tell someone about.  Please indulge me as I blather.

The words are give, take, and care.  As words and as verbs,  give and care have a lot in common.  They both imply things like altruism, empathy, and sympathy.  Whichever order you put them in, give care or care give,  they sound nice.  To take seems like the odd man out here, almost connoting the opposite of the other two.  However, when you combine give and take, you get the benevolent idea of parity, of sharing.  When you combine care and take, you get an action that is kindly in an especially deliberate way.  When you switch the order to take care, you get a blessing.

Because of my father’s dementia, I am now officially what the health care industry calls a caregiver. It’s a good enough word; it means good things.  I don’t like it for me, though.  I prefer caretaker.  I know that makes me sound more like a janitor or gardener, but I do all that for my father anyway, so it’s not an incorrect description.  Both titles mean the same thing in this context, so this sounds nitpicky, I know.   Probably no one else cares about this little taxonomical issue except me.  Lord knows my father doesn’t care.  But I do, and if I am going to be burdened with a title on top of everything else, I want it to be right.

Care-giving sounds a little impersonal to me.  Like an obligation.   Like one can be somehow detached from the care itself.  It doesn’t have to be part of you, and won’t be part of you once it is given.  We give things away.  That’s what we say when we want to detach ourselves from our cares – we give them away, toss them, release them.  We give things up for good.  Or we give them a whirl.  We give a shit.  Something gives us the creeps.  The concept of giving can seem so superficial.  Want to give? Just write a check.  We give up.

Care-taking sounds like complete absorption to me.  When you take care, it’s personal.  There is no space between you and your care.  It is a choice, not an obligation, to take care.  You take part in the caring.  You take a stand.  You take your place.  You can take a hike.  When you take action, you do it on purpose and you mean something by it.  If you take ill, it’s serious.  Ditto if you take a fall.  If you are taken by something, it has all of your attention.   If you take a pill, you ingest it into your being.  If you take an object, you take on responsibility for it.  If you take a chance, your whole life can hang in the balance.   A second take can change everything.  I’d rather take someone by the hand than just give them a hand.  Taking is active, involved, personal.  Take a number, and when it’s your turn, you are taken care of.

When I picture a caregiver, I picture someone in a white uniform and thick squeaky shoes. Someone who smells medicine-y.  Someone with an education  certificate and a reasonable car.  Someone who was interviewed and hired.  Someone who was given a job.

When I picture a caretaker, I see someone in practical work clothes with a little grime under their fingernails.  Someone with a set of important keys.  Someone who smells of physical labor, either rigorous or plodding.   Someone who can fix things.  Someone who evolved into the job through hard work and determination.  Someone who takes on challenges.

I’ll concede that caregiver implies an animate recipient of the care being given, like my father, while caretaker connotes care directed towards an inanimate object, like his house.  I think this is just a trick.  Caregiver is a professional term only recently applied to nonprofessionals like me, but caretaker has always represented folks who just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter who or whatever was on the receiving end.

One cannot define the care giver-taker-doer-provider by way of the recipient, anyway.  As in my father’s case, the animate recipient is just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg that you crash into when you take on this job.  The real treacheries are inanimate and deeply submerged; a lifetime of assumptions (and thus many misconceptions) you have to rodeo and deal with, a minefield of not-very-good choices you have to finesse, and the awkwardness of being stuck in a small lifeboat with someone you thought you knew but who now turns out to be a total stranger.  You become hopelessly entangled in what you thought was a lifeline you were tossing, but which, as often as not, morphs into an anchor chain instead.  Ultimately, the most critical thing the caretaker cares for is not the point person, the parent or whomever, that everyone is focused on.  The real job is to expose and care for all the murky submerged stuff that has buoyed that person up their whole life.  In other words, to best care for the person, you identify and care for all that which constitutes them; their  history and their relationship to it, not yours, thank you very much.  You care for, take care of, that which they care about, the depth and breadth of who they are in their world, however they experience it.  You take care of them, for them.  It’s hard work, but on a good day, you might be tempted to call it a blessing.

I know it’s only semantics, but to me, this is not a job about giving.  It is all about taking.  Taking care, of course, but also taking it on the chin; taking your medicine, the bull by the horns, the last train to Clarksville – or  whatever it takes.

My Hybrid Life

My Hybrid Life

After seeing the Al Gore movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I traded in my car for a hybrid.  I love it.  I love spending half as much as I used to on gas and decreasing my own dependence upon oil.  I love reducing my carbon footprint.  I love being able to squeeze into parking places I never could have before, and sometimes I am even able to create parking spaces where none existed.  Everything about this car is better than any other car I’ve ever owned.  I think the whole idea of hybridism is better – two or more diverse elements combining to become more than the sum of their parts.  My car is a final formal manifestation of what I realize now I’ve preferred all long in all things, the hybrid.  Without thinking within that specific concept, before popular use of the term itself, hybrids have always been appealing to me.

Thirty years ago, I chose my first hybrid – my husband.  I grew up as a Southern, white, middle class Protestant in a homogeneous community of pretty much the same description.  The boys I grew up with and dated were very sweet, but ultimately, all too similar and not very interesting.  My  husband is half Jewish, half Irish Catholic from New York City, and the first Yankee to marry into the family.  He was like an exotic alien when I met him; thrilling in a weird way, like a kindly two-headed visitor from a far away galaxy.  I remember my older sister commenting after meeting him, that “he‘s nice, but he sure is different from all of us.”  He is indeed one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  And different not only from us, but, as I eventually found out, even from his own family.  He gets along with everyone, miraculously survived the seventies fairly uncompromised, and he never gets sick, not even a cold or a hangnail.  The double cultures of guilt he should have inherited from both sides of his gene pool canceled themselves out,  and he is an emotionally efficient and happy person.   He has absolutely no neurotic footprint.

My next hybrid was a dog.  I had always owned purebreds, and when this cutely unattractive puppy of indeterminate heritage showed up on my doorstep, my only thought was to find him a good home.  When that didn’t happen after a few days, I stopped looking.  There was something different about this puppy, something I had never experienced with purebreds.  That something turned out to be the smartest, funniest, sweetest, most poetic dog I have ever known.  And the healthiest.  He could climb anything, open anything, catch anything, and eat anything with no ill effect.  Unlike my purebreds, he did not come with allergies or attitude.  He never did get pretty, but he possessed breathtaking canine efficiency of every stripe.  I have had nothing but highly functional hybrid dogs ever since.

Twenty-five years ago, my art began to morph into hybridism.  What began as “oil on canvas” is now mostly not.  Technically, my work is known by the common term “mixed media”, but what’s uncommon about it is that much of those media aren’t even normal artists’ materials.  Although I still use oil paints and canvas in many of my pieces, “domestic detritus” better describes what I work with, and there is a deliberate  recycling component to my process.  I’ll never forget an artist friend lamenting, upon seeing my first hybrid work, that I “used to be such a good painter”.  I guess I moved away from traditional media and application because they just weren’t giving me enough creative mileage.

I now live in an outrageously hybrid neighborhood.  It was once a white, middle-class neighborhood, and yet when we moved in fifteen years ago it was aging towards run down rentals and crack houses.  Thankfully, it has since evolved into a better neighborhood of you-name-it.  It is hard to imagine a richer mix of race, nationality, age, income bracket, sexual orientation, and lifestyle.  We have multimillion dollar homes across the street from modest blue-collar ones.  We have low-income apartments, historic garden homes, and at least one suspiciously meth-like house.  We have a local policeman, a Buddhist cell, and several cat ladies.  We even have an older couple living in a parked RV.  We have people with walkers and electric wheelchairs, and kids on skateboards.  We have mockingbirds and parrots.  Many of us walk, with and without dogs, and when we pass each other we all smile and greet each other.  We know each other and each other’s dogs by name.  Even the people in the neighborhood who only drive wave and smile as they go by.  I believe everyone means it, too.  It is a disparately beautiful neighborhood, both physically and culturally; a community far greater than ever for the sum of it’s current parts.  It’s a great place to park oneself.

It is encouraging that I am also living in an increasingly hybrid country.  If my limited but positive experience with mixing it up holds consistent, then I think we can all look forward to a country that is less attitudinal for being as diverse and inclusive as it can be.  A country where people are not allergic to each other.  This is, after all, the kind of footprint our country was meant to have, wasn’t it?

Considering  all this, I guess it was inevitable that I eventually become a hybrid myself.  For fifty plus years, I have been father’s child, and now I am also his parent.  This isn’t what any of us would have wanted, but I have to admit that it’s improving me in ways I never anticipated.  Because my father has dementia, I am finally learning about living in the moment.  I have espoused that for years, but it was all naive new-age rhetoric; I had no clue what it really meant until now.  Living in the moment is not easy when my mind still wants to go in any direction it likes, but my father has shown me how to achieve that simple focus, and indeed it is lovely.  Because my father’s food tastes run to the basics now, a protein and two vegetables for dinner, I am preparing and eating less yummy but healthier meals.  I find I don’t miss the cream sauces that much, and I’ve lost that nagging ten pounds I hated.  I am getting more exercise, too, some from running up and down the stairs more often, and some from taking him out for a bike ride everyday.  I have developed absolutely profound patience; who knew I had that in me?  I have learned that there is more than the normal 24-hour-clock kind of time to live by, and I think some of the other kinds are just as good, if not better.  I am much more energy efficient these days, having no time for apathy or frustration, only for caring and kindness.   As a hybrid I am getting much better consciousness mileage than ever before.  I like to think I have dramatically reduced my selfishness footprint.