After the Fall

Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a production of the Lincoln Center Repertory company, directed by Elia Kazan, and produced by Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, opened in January 1964 at the Anta Theatre in Washington Square.

Opened in rep with “Marco Millions” and “But For Whom Charlie” then continued into next season and played in rep with “The Changeling”; “Incident at Vichy”; and ‘Tartuffe”.

Jimmie played The Clergyman in the production, which also starred Jason Robards, Barbara Loden, Faye Dunaway, Hal Holbrook and Mariclare Costello among other actor luminaries.

After the Fall has taken on new resonance, as our lives have been shaped by a single event. Our short-lived period of pain-free peace was shattered by the nocturnal victory of gravity over balance at home one night in the middle of October.

Our dear friend Susan was visiting us from South Africa, a trip booked in a previous period of medical panic, and we were basking in the final moments of her visit, the night before her departure.  We were enjoying the end of the Major League Baseball playoffs, soon to gift us with a fourth World Series title in 15 years for our Boston Red Sox. Susan’s May visit was punctuated with an ill-timed trip to the ER, and this time, I’d made Jimmie promise we wouldn’t go again while Susan was here. Little did I think I’d be tempting fate with such a promise. The final night of her October visit, Jimmie tumbled, his Lear-like cry and the resultant clatter of his walker against the mirrored closet doors roused me from the murky depths of a deeply restorative sleep.

I rushed to his side, tripping over the too-heavy-for-LA-comforter which lurks on the floor at the foot of our bed. The fall was traumatic; he was shaken, but I checked him over and finding nothing broken, returned him to bed. The next day, we went to the ER. No fractures, thankfully. This photo we took in the hallway on our way to the ER as Susan waited at the apartment for her ride to the airport.SusanJimmie10-18-18After that foray to the ER, we returned home, and spent about 10 painful days there until last Thursday when his visiting niece Martha and I realized we couldn’t manage his care at home. We called 911 and two strong EMTs came and lifted Jimmie onto the chair gurney.

Martha and I followed in the car, and I caught up with him in the third floor ER. After a CT scan, confirming no fracture, he was admitted to hospital overnight.

I never thought this day would happen. I’d always sworn that whatever happened, Jimmie would stay at home. But when your husband’s a dead weight in your arms, it’s a stark reminder that we don’t always control decisions about our circumstances, especially as we age.

Pain meds are powerful and effective. When administered regularly, they have stultifying effects which exacerbate the pain even more. Pain causes lack of hunger. The combination of lack of hunger and pain meds causes a glassy-eyed ghostly non-presence which descended quickly and in our case, irrevocably.

I watched as my normally impish and flirtatious husband become a vision of St. Therese, gazing up in beatific gape-mouthed wonder. I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past days. These are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve worked hard all my life in my job, very often at the sacrifice of cultivating social relationships. I think it’s probably fairly common in an industry where “I can’t. I have rehearsal.” is a slogan on T-shirts. While I love the people I work with, I wouldn’t necessarily call on them to be with me at my husband’s bedside. That’s not the nature of our friendship. When the social worker said, “this is the time you need to call on your friends,”  I realized that our son is the only one I can really talk to about this.*

*Shortly after writing this, my phone rang and it was a dear colleague from school “just checking in on me.” It was so meaningful and amazing that such a brief conversation could have such a restorative impact. Since then, I have had numerous outpourings of support which have cheered us on.

No one prepares you for making tough decisions like these by yourself without your loved one’s input. An Advanced Health Care Directive and Medical Power of Attorney are critical to having control over your circumstances. After a day or two in the hospital, Jimmie wasn’t able to answer a question about what his level of pain was – how could he endorse my decision to take him home and cease medical intervention? These are conversations best entertained in the flush of good health during the early part of your life and marriage. Or the middle part. Tough talks. Gotta do it.

So many people have told me that I have to care for myself in order to care for him. Fighting away the doubt and guilt, the third night of his hospitalization, I succumbed and went home to sleep on his side of our bed, lolling drunkenly in his scent like a dog in roadkill. The next morning, Tuesday, I took time to vote before coming back to the hospital. They were right, I felt more like myself, less victimized by grief and loss of control.IVotedhospital

Now, about 20 days After the Fall, we sit patiently by his bedside, now home in the comfort of our shared world, Chris by my side, his little dog Cupid affording us all pet therapy.

The Hospital Stay Play (With apologies to actual playwrights)

Characters
Jimbo – our hero

Elsa – his wife

Lawrence – Trans Male Night Registered Nurse (Nights 1 and 2)

Emily – Sturdy Pacific Islander Certified Nursing Assistant (Nights 1 and 2 and Days 2 and 3 – they never let her leave)

Delauney – The intravenous gold that allows him to sleep in spurts of 2-3 hours

Ms. Contina – the pill that evens out the pain during the day and night.

Place: Limbo, AKA a room on the fifth floor of Good Sam Hospital

Time: Now, then, whenever, an eternity of time that easily spans hours, days, weeks

Set pieces – two medieval torture racks – one with electric controls to raise and lower the back and feet, the other, a decidedly analog roll out hospital cot. A rolling table that barely fits under the bed and rolls up to within 6″ of the patient’s chest, causes anxiety and revulsion.

Scene 1 – \Transitioning from the ER. Jimbo and Elsa enter, Jimbo on a gurney, Elsa, as usual, carrying too much for the given situation. Jimbo moans in pain. Elsa hovers, holding his hand as Lawrence and Emily get him situated. Emily takes his blood pressure. Lawrence nods. 

Lawrence: Jimbo, what is your pain level on a scale of 0-10?

Jimbo’s eyes dart left and right, pupils almost too tiny to see, his hand reaching for a hand to clutch. Elsa provides it. Minutes pass, Lawrence waiting patiently next to the bedstead, holding Delauney and a saline chaser in his hand.

Lawrence: (after several moments, giving him the benefit of the doubt) Jimbo, are you still thinking about what pain level you are at?

Jimbo: (silence. Mews in pain. Soon Delauney saunters into the bloodstream and we enter the Beckett zone. Jimbo’s head lolls back.)

(Hours pass. Elsa climbs onto the second torture rack and falls into fitful sleep. Jimbo’s passed out, sprawled on the pillows on the electrical torture rack.)

(Suddenly)

Jimbo: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

Els: (Springing off the rolling rack, wrenching her back) What is it?

Jimbo: Pain! (Els pushes the call button on his rack. Lawrence enters. Unawake, Elsa narrates what Lawrence is doing. Her lack of sleep and general gender confusion cause her to use the wrong pronouns and clumsily, finally, no pronouns at all.)

Elsa: She’s trying to get you positioned, Jimbo! ….helping you to be out of pain.

(once Lawrence has left the room)

Jimbo: Are we alone?

Elsa: Yes

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: Sorry, she is a he, and no he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes)

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: (firmly) No, he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes, and the hellish exchange continues three more times.

(Later)

Jimbo: (genuinely contritely) I’m sorry I can’t go to the theatre tonight with you.

Elsa: We’re not going to the theatre tonight, Jimbo.

Jimbo: Can they hear my voice on stage?

Elsa: Jimbo, we’re in the hospital. We’re not in the theatre.

Jimbo: But can they hear me on stage? Are we in the wings?

Curtain

More days have passed. In a fluke of the world showing it’s perfectly kind underbelly of good Karma, we were sent a caregiver at night who turned out to be a theatre buff, and kept saying loudly by Jimmie’s bedside, “He’s a National Treasure!”

We are still in the wings. To a transitional phase that  happened so quickly, so unexpectedly. Only two weeks ago we were back to a pain-free life together.  Treasure the moments you have. Be present. Plan ahead so you don’t ever have to plan under duress. (She said, sounding like the logistician/stage manager she is.)

 

 

 

Phantom Threads

Though you’d never know it from my silence, this has been an event filled week. After finishing the scones, yes, all the scones, last Thursday, I escorted Jimmie to his surgical procedure and home the same day, quite a feat for the 91-nearly-92-set, and we settled into the recovery period over the weekend.

Though the surgery had gone well, the dreaded C words still prevail – cancer in the biopsy, and catheter in the “leg” as Jimmie said to his sister Kate when we called her this weekend to wish her a happy belated 84th birthday. I could tell from his expression and from reading the handy captions on our phone, Kate wasn’t getting it. I leaned over and mouthed

It wasn’t in your leg, dear, it was in your penis. That’s where a catheter is.

Which of course cracked us both up.

We weren’t cracking up last Thursday when we got home from the hospital.55V1xr5eSDW3Ng94F5OOXQ I had sent this photo of him to our family,  taken in the recovery room, showing him beaming in his lilac paper hospital gown, not yet un-numbing from the epidural he’d had. He repeatedly was asking me why we were in the hospital? What happened?

Every time he woke up, I told him again why we were there and what he’d had done. He just wanted to go home. And so we did by about 4:30 that day.

The next four days were painful, dulled only by the heavy doses of Extra Strength Tylenol. This was the darkest time. There’s little worse than seeing your partner in pain, and it started me on a sober accounting:

  • is the pain related to an advance of the cancer or just the catheter?
  • how to be with him as much as possible
  • when to take time off
  • how to notify family and friends
  • how to organize visits so they wouldn’t tire him out
  • the effects of stronger pain medications on his lovely presence and our quality of life
  • how much longer do we have

I really went there. I don’t think Jimmie was thinking about it that much, but was just hunkering down with the pain. He was completely distracted and therefore absent, which of course made me worry more. These issues are familiar, having gone through the loss of two other loved ones to cancer, and participating in their final days. But it’s different with your partner than your parent.

Finally, on Tuesday, the fifth day of watching Jimmie suffering in pain, I called his doctor and said we needed something stronger. We went in and much to our surprise, he said he could also remove the catheter. He also gave us a prescription for heavier pain meds; mercifully, we still haven’t had to fill that.

And then, within a day or two, the pain was gone. A miracle. No more Tylenol, the notebook where we’d been recording all the medication sitting on the table untouched now for five days. To say that we won’t resume at some point would be naive, but for now we are out of the woods.

Which brings me to the real reason I started this post. We’ve resumed our lives, the absence of pain and the catheter constantly reassuring. Last night we watched the film Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day Lewis and Vickey Krieps. IMDB summarizes the plot of the movie this way:

Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it is about so much more than that. For me, the title is a tidy metaphor for Jimmie’s short term memory loss.

We were having dinner tonight- some strange pesto chicken patties I’d gotten at Whole Foods, and sautéed zucchini, an orzo feta salad – when I made an offhanded remark about the texture of the chicken patties. They bordered on pre-chewed, but then I joked about Alma’s cooking from the movie.

Jimmie looked at me and said what movie?

You know, the movie about the couturier who lived in the big house with all the women working there to sew his dresses……..

I then went on to describe the rather bizarre turn the movie took. Aren’t I good to not spoil it for you?

Jimmie: Blank look.

Els: You don’t remember anything about the movie do you?

No, he said, calmly eating his zucchini.

What I love about Jimmie is that he doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed about his loss of short term memory. He is always so present so you could give a fig about whether you have to repeat a story. It used to bother me that when I came home he couldn’t remember what happened in Trumpville that day, but I can easily get caught up with about 10 minutes of CNN. And what a blessing for him that he doesn’t carry this toxic mental waste around like the rest of us have to.

My favorite of his new expressions is “In one head and out the other.”

Els: It doesn’t seem to bother you that you can’t remember details. That’s wonderful that it isn’t causing you worry.

Jimmie: I just feel sorry for you that I don’t remember.

Els: What are you kidding? I can repeat myself endlessly and you never get the least bit bored about what I’m saying. You don’t put your head down on the table and say, For crying out loud, that’s the sixth time you’ve told me that story!

He smiled across the table at me, and we resumed our companionable silence as we ate the rubbery patties. And now I’m worried that I have become Alma…

Ghoulish Games with Husband #1

It’s been a rough week. Sometimes biology, anatomy, aging and the logistics of bodily fluids management conspire to create hellish circumstances. And so it’s been this week for my first husband and me. Before you put me or him on the pyre for sacrilege, let me assure you that this term has been vetted as completely ironic by the two people it most directly concerns. In fact, when we latched onto it sometime in the course of our dinner last night, it took us both several minutes to recover from the giggles. In the furtherance of medical clowning research, I promise to persist in using it at every appropriate opportunity.

Once we’d recovered, we started riffing on the application process for the next Mr. Collins, and the questions that would be on the application for the position.

  1. Can you list your medications on less than two pages?
  2. Do you sleep through the night? If not, why? Please list these reasons in excruciating detail. NB: I promise, no facts are too small to include here.
  3. Do you ambulate?
  4. Do you use a toy* to ambulate? (*toys are herewith defined as canes, walkers, scooters)
  5. When was the last time you played tennis?
  6. When was the last time you went skiing?
  7. Do you like to travel?

We got really carried away. By now, the only thing distracting us from our ghoulish game was the not-distant-enough and relentless sound of a building’s fire alarm going off. I know it well, because we have the same sound in one of our theatres at work, and when I hear it, I suffer the same heart-clenching panic as the sophomore stage managers who’ve had to evacuate the house because of overzealous haze usage. I walked over to the patio, slid the door open, and looked over the balcony, to find the front steps of the Ralph’s market populated with onlookers and the sound blaring across the street to the balcony. And soon, sure enough, in came the firetrucks. IMG_0778

So we did what any self-respecting hearing impaired couple would do. We chose to have our dessert pudding on the patio overlooking the event. Yes, we rubbernecked with the best of them. In fact, we decided to continue our game playing with a good old-fashioned game of outdoor Scrabble®. Meanwhile, the poor onlookers waited on the steps of the store with amazing patience. I imagined 25 carts half-filled with the makings for dinner, ice cream puddling under the carts eventually because they were there for the longest time. And on and on and on it went.

On our side, things were going rather well on the Scrabble® front. I drew the lowest tile and started off with a few zingers, zit for 24 points followed immediately by buxom for 32 points. I was feeling pretty cocky, until things started to go downhill for me.

IMG_0782
Els sweats it out while Husband #1 takes his turn.                                                                                              See the rubbernecking hummingbird watching our game.

Eventually, I recovered, and took the game by a score of 240 to 182, after donating my U tile to Jimmie because I hadn’t seen the Q appear yet. He finished with Quo. (Yes, we play that way).

Anyway, all of these ghoulish games keep us amused and on track even when other things conspire to derail us.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

The Adventures of W & M

W & M have known each other for ever. From back in DC where they worked as interns for some Capitol Hill pols, carrying their bosses’ lunches back to the office, purses over their arms, chattering like magpies.

WAIT! Did you say magpie? Where?

No, W & M, it’s a figure of speech. Let me tell the good people the story.

Last weekend, I was assigned the job of checking in on W & M while their parents were away. I think it’s a wedding – unclear. But W & M live in two cozy apartments near our downtown cozy apartment, and we know the “checking-in-on-the-kids-while-the-parents- are-away-for-the-week” deal. At one point, our policy was to only leave a live person in situ so that things didn’t get out of hand. So I’m an old pro at this. I went to check out the lay of the land on Sunday.

Keys. Check.

Food. Check. Really, they only eat kibble?

K-litter. Check. No scoop?

It’s okay – shakeable tray.

Oh, okay.

Moms and Dads left last night. So I went to check on the girls after work this afternoon. I opened the door, catching W with the game remote in her paws, cigarette hanging lazily out of mouth, Ark: Survivor Evolved blaring away on the TV. She was busy fighting T-Rex when I opened the door. She dropped the remote like a hot potato, cigarette falling perilously to the floor. I ran across the room and stomped it out, tried to look stern, but she was so nonchalant I didn’t know quite how to handle it. I was completely dumbstruck. Then she dropped to the table like she’d been doing her nails.

You know how tough it is to yell at someone else’s kids, so I just went on checking her food and water, then grabbed the fascinator (I know it’s not really called that, but its such a great descriptor and so current) just to let her know that I wasn’t mad. After all, I don’t set the house rules, her parents do.

I bid W farewell and made my way down to M’s apartment. I am pretty sure W had called her about my coming because by the time I got to the door, M was wailing. I mean on the guitar in the living room. She was wailing. Sounds came out of that guitar like you’ve never heard. I mean I knew she was good. W’s parents had told me, but I had no idea. 

I put the key in the door and turned the knob only to find M sitting demurely by the door, no guitar in paw, looking up at me with ennui. Which is hard for a cat to master. Usually they have the imperious thing down, but ennui is a real affect that they have to master. Ennui, that is, until she realized I was her meal ticket. Then the caterwauling started for real and she wrapped herself around my legs.

I scooped her food and filled her bowl and backed away.

What can I tell you? I know they were both up to something before I got there and then when I arrived, almost all evidence was gone. I’ll have to wait and see what other shenanigans they pull the rest of the week. I bet it will be good. Kids always misbehave when their parents are away.

For now, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that W & M are living the high life.