You can have fun a lot of different ways in a Senior RV Park. A friend asked where we got our propane and I told him Tractor Barrel. His face squeezed up while he was trying to figure out the connection between propane and Hash-brown casserole.
I am in that time, after someone passes, in which the dirges are done, the cadence still, the calls, cards and casseroles quit coming and the work of grieving begins in earnest. Usually when you are alone with your thoughts. Maybe passing in public like a scar covered by a shirt sleeve. When the memories of that person light, like sparrows flitting amongst the leaves and grass vying for your attention. Many at once. A handwritten note, a saying, using her favorite frying pan which is exactly why you wanted it. That last hug of tiny frail bones upon which all of your love hung precipitously, defying gravity and inevitability. Until it didn’t.
It is a time when your ship has stopped in the doldrums and there are no waves or ripples or no one, and nothing moves except your mind. You feel paralyzed. Your length of stillness unrelated to anything you have done or should’ve done but just because it has and will always happen. Staying longer or shorter has no mathematical relation to the intensity of your love. There is no logic here. No rules. Your hopes vigilantly pinned as telltales on the sail for any wisp of wind. And there you sit until you are done. Maybe sooner, or maybe later, but some unseen force will lift you out. It is this that you wait for, when that endless stillness shrinks from days or hours to moments. When the sadness doesn’t take your breath away. When your vessel is lifted and your pain and sadness are carried off by the wind. That will bring the moments once again. I think you know what I mean, because such is love when someone dies.
Karen and I have been driving down I-75 to Florida for most of our lives. But it’s just been recently that I’ve formed the judgement that Southern Georgians are perverts after reading their billboards. There’s research on that.
All along I-75 in southern Georgia are “spas”. These are not your Swedish Grandmothers spas. We know that SPA is a code word. There’s the Green Spa, the No. 1 Spa, the Peach Spa, and on and on. Then of course you’ll need to stop at “Loves” to fuel up your spark plug, or in my case, diesel, you have a glow plug. I kinda like that. Then you see “Adcock Pecans”. Code word. And you’ll see the little town called “Sparks”. And in the middle of this debauchery you’ll see two Jesus billboards (Jesi?). Because one is not enough for the spawn of Satan. Don’t even get me started on “Stuckeys” Restaurant. And then I notice a billboard for an AG Expo and I think ‘Dammit they’re into the vegetables’. About this time I’m thinking Karen and I should check out southern Georgia retirement communities. But then here come the Adult stores. An Adult Superstore “Central” so I’m thinking they have all points of the compass covered now. By the time I see the “Active Adult Community” I raise my fists and yell “I’M ALL IN DAMMIT I’M IN!!!”
Karen looks at me: “What?”
“Nothing” I say.
I can barely drive.
And I’m glad Tennessee is next and not Arkansas.
My Mom has been at Vista Springs for some time now. We see her once a week and I feel sad and guilty when I go to see her, and sad and guilty when I leave. I think about her quality of life and am not sure it even applies. I know they do take care of her so I’m grateful that’s not a concern. She turned 91 this summer and now she sleeps about 22 hours a day. It’s hard now to carry on conversations. Her memory continues to slip so we try to tap into her long term memory by talking about older times and stories. We show her pics on our phones or a cartoon I stole on line.
Since Dad died years ago, she always said she missed being touched. That’s when Karen and I decided to give her two geriatric gift massages every year for Christmas. So when we’d visit, I would remember this and rub her head, arm or back which reminded me just how tiny and frail she is now. But that of course just puts her to sleep. Now I’ll sit on the couch with my arm around her shoulders and have her rub my arm. I’m really proud of this opportunistic self serving strategy. This keeps her awake for a while longer. When we’re getting ready to go I’ll rub her arms or back so she’ll go to sleep and is less likely to cry when we leave.
I have seen a lot of poignant moments at Vista Springs. The seven or so ladies in Moms “pod” take care of each other. It’s touching. There was an English woman there that hated my guts. She’d give me the stink eye from across the room or assail my integrity and reputation as I walked by. Sometimes I didn’t even understand the English phrases of her insults. She must’ve met Bad Santa many years ago.
I never heard Mom’s last roommate say a word. Her short silver hair was always askew and her eyes were rimmed red as though from tears. She always looked terribly sad which I could intuitively understand. Her husband Tom was always by her side. As faithful as the sunrise. I was in the hallway waiting for Mom one time when I saw them sitting side by side looking out the bedroom window at an unremarkable field. The Venetian blinds were down but angled open letting in the horizontal light that revealed only their silhouettes. She on the right with her unkempt hair and Tom on her left with no hair. I wondered what they were thinking. Was she remembering her wedding? Her children? A moment of intimacy or romance? Or was her mind a Picasso canvas of jumbled thoughts and images? Was he sleeping or thinking about life without her or how much he loved her? Then I saw his right hand raise and rest on her forearm as though to make sure she was still there. A powerfully intimate moment for such a simple gesture which made me ashamed I was watching. By the time Mom had returned I had tears in my eyes as I clenched my molars into dust as though that would stem the flow. This is what I do, why my masseter jaw muscles are so pronounced. This couple was living the vow of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part”. She was gone shortly after that and I hope that someone would be there when her husband Tom needs it the most.
I’ve told Karen that I could never live like that. Not that I remotely expect to live that long. A friend once said regarding an impossibility “the chances are slim to none and slim just left town”. All of this has made me wonder about the impressive strides in medicine today. But no matter how advanced we get, there are no procedures or pills to alleviate the humiliation of sliding into incompetence or incontinence. Nothing to give you back that human dignity. It’s mean and it’s ugly.
I keep trying to convince myself that this “Mom stuff” is not about me. On the other hand, yes it is. I’m 62 now and so is Karen. It’s about all of my boomer friends and family. We are dealing with this more and more in our lives and I know others have gone through this already but it’s only novel when it happens to you.
At our age our survivability is a function of genetics and life style and fortune. I’m pretty sure few of us have illusions about this now. So what can we do as we move inch by inch? How do we maintain an enriched quality of life?
Not to long ago I read that studies showed that simple thoughts of being grateful were effective in elevating our spirits. This sure is true for me. It changes the way I think. It makes me humble. I have to remember this.
I have to be more Zen. Staying in the moment. Which takes a lot of training and discipline. It means not borrowing trouble from the future or the past. It means being optimistic against all odds. To be hopeful, which is the oxygen we breathe during difficult and tragic times. Take away hope and we can suffocate.
But most of all it means managing my expectations. None of the above are reflexive for me. I can’t be good at all of this all the time. I have to forgive myself. Again and again and again. And again for getting old. And remember that the good thing about the future is it starts again tomorrow.
I figured out that the leak in our basement was coming from the AC drainage pipe. The installers had forgotten to seal the joints with PVC glue. Karen and I have a fairly sophisticated security system in basement. It’s called Boxes of All the Crap We Have Accumulated in a Life Time That We Were To Lazy Organize. It’s an effective deterrent to any would be intruders since we imagined they would see it and mutter “No effing way!”. We did need an alarm since we would hear clunking and crashing and loud run-on sentences of swear words. But the problem was in order to shut off that security system, it meant moving the boxes and cleaning by God. The water was below the boxes so of course they were wet and things fell out and it was a huge mess. When I have a liquid mess in the garage, I usually pour kitty litter on it, it absorbs it all and sweeps up nicely. I decided to use our kitty litter in the basement to do the same. Only this litter is the kind that chunks together when wet which was never a good idea but I thought I was being really bright and never considered using towels like a normal human being. I liberally poured on the chunky litter in the 6×6 wet area. The chunky litter absorbed the wet but became glued to the floor and was impossible to sweep up. It had to be scraped up. I had to go to the garage and get my ICE SCRAPER. I tried the SNOW SHOVEL but that didn’t seem to as work well. Not only did the litter stick to the floor, but it stuck to my shoes. Well, my flip flops. The more the soles accumulated litter, the slicker it became and my flip flops looked like snow shoes. Several times I slipped into my Michael Jackson Thriller routine, ultimately saving myself. I remained confident that at 61, my stealthy cat-like reflexes would keep me from falling down. I tried to clean off my flip flops but the litter was glued to the bottom so I changed to my outdoor clogs, which of course were no better. The creases filled with litter and became slippery and snow shoey. There is only so much scraping and slipping a man can do without getting pissed and of course you know I was well on my way. Becoming impatient never helped me complete any work and in fact, more often made more work. At this point I went in to a full fledged slip seizure with arms and legs flailing and boxes and poles flying and then my foot came down on the side of the open kitty litter box catapulting chunks of cat poop and pee clods all over me, my feet and the room. That’s when the well preserved Johnides artifacts started flying across the room. In all, it took my the better part of three hours to clean up a one hour mess. All because I am not the sharpest chunk in the box. Tip: don’t use chunky litter to clean up liquids.
I bought some chrome door side molding for my truck from an online source at the end of March. And I’ll never buy from them again. They sent me the wrong parts because the molding is about 4 inches longer than the passenger door. The directions said you have to wait until 70 degree weather to apply the moldings, which in Michigan already exceeded their 30 day return policy. They have refused to exchange the parts. It occurred to me that anyone who buys anything in the winter that requires 70 degree temps may also be screwed by these shysters.
I was fantasizing about taking them to court in Ingham County so they’d have to pay a lawyer which would exceed the cost of the parts that I can’t use. Ever. But I’m pretty sure the Judge would throw out the case.
“Mr. Johnides, it is your responsibility as a consumer to assume responsibility for what you are buying and you assume that risk when you purchase something on the market. We call this “In Flagrante Delicto”.
Defense Attorney: “No your honor, that’s not it.
Judge: “You’re right Counsel. It’s ‘E Pluribus Unum’ .”
Defense Attorney: “Ah, no your honor.”
” It has to be ‘Manage a Tois’.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s French your honor.”
” Mucho Painess Speculum Largoso? ”
“I don’t even know what that means your honor. It might be a spell from Harry Potter.”
The clerk approaches the bench and whispers to the judge.
Judge: “Yes. Yes. That’s it. “Caveat Emperor”, which means Mr. Johnides, your case is dissed.”
I look at pictures of young people with coordinated belt and shoes, layers of shirts and coats, all the trendy accoutrements and remember my youth, when I felt very cool if I could string together two possum pelts and a splash of English Leather.
In Wmstn, I try to do anything requiring a functioning brain before noon. Largely because later in the day I’m getting tired and irritable. That’s when I get really tired of the obnoxious stupid things messing with me. Not that I take it personally though. It’s when I’m pissed that I didn’t take out those last two nails on a board or the jagged metal plaster corner bead, that snags my shirt or pants or tool cord that I’m working with and I then have to dick around trying to get free. Or I can deeply impale my forehead on the meanest eighty year old board in the house that the crease becomes my new pencil holder. It’s when the extension cords become this complicated paradox of tangles. It’s a time when special things happen.
When the kids were young, we took then to oodles of fairs, carnivals and amusement parks. I would play those games of chance to win that big-ass Teddy bear. Throwing the ring onto the bottle tops. Pitching to knock off those obvious clowns. Using the glass encased hydraulic shovel to lift and drop the coveted prizes into the drawer. I wanted to be that bad ass alpha guy walking around strutting his male prowess; showing off that huge stuffed animal. “Yeah baby! I AM a provider!” But did I ever win those prizes? Hell no.
But in Wmstn in the late afternoon there is some funky shit going down. I become a master of the paranormal, Bob Villa on steroids. Or Norm the Crack Master. I deploy my latent Jedi skills, mystically defying all odds and decimating statistical probabilities. When I have that last flat head screw, perfect for the job on the second floor, I can drop it 8-10 feet and through the tiniest crevasse in the wall or floor, never to be retrieved. I can drop my hammer from a second story ladder, that performs the most complicated gymnastic tumbles, bounces and twists through cords and boards to eventually rest two floors down on the basement floor. I throw a piece of scrap wood behind my back and smash the only light bulb on the table. A board on the saw table will mysteriously move so that I cut it one foot shorter than what I needed. Or when I’m not looking, the miter saw rotates 45 degrees cutting an inverted angle, the opposite of what is needed. I make tools disappear before my eyes, or levitate and fly at the speed of light across the room.
It becomes a spiritual enclave that knows no earthly bounds nor yields to laws of physics. Where all inanimate objects become alive. I am Mickey the Wizard in Fantasia. Except these animated bundles of matter do not do the dishes or my bidding, instead acting of their own accord, despite my constant swearing. And I morph into the artistically uncouth poet, Beelzebub, and effortlessly string together paragraphs of the obscene that would make Linda Blair blush. And the innocent pedestrians who pass by the open windows and doors are captive to my poetry reading. An incendiary barrage of ear lobe frying expletives. I expect, any day, to see extra crossing guards directing children away from the haunted Swearing House at 302 E. Grand River.
It’s true. This really truly happens. And then I know it’s time to go home.
I was to meet a builder at 9a over at the Williamston house today so we could get started moving the stairs. I got there about 815a and decided I better head over to McDonalds to use the bathroom before he arrived. When I arrived, the parking lot was full which was a little discouraging. Maybe it was Senior Day I thought. Sure enough, when I went in, there were Seniors everywhere. Knowing their penchant for bathroom hoarding, I wasn’t optimistic. I went into the Men’s room and was amazed there was no one. Locking doors in bathrooms is just a reflex from growing up with five sibs. If it wasn’t locked, some smart ass would open the door and walk away. Then you had to do the penguin across the floor to close the door again. So of course I locked the stall door. When I went to leave, the door wouldn’t open. I turned the handle this way and that and nothing. I pressed the lock button as though that might help and it got stuck inside the handle. I turned it several more times. I started lifting and banging at the door since pounding the shit out of things always seems to help. I looked at the door and thought “I’m going to McGyver the shit out of this”. I checked the door hinge pins to see if I could pop them out but the bottom hole was the size of a pinhole. The physical laws of the universe didn’t stop me from thinking I could fit one of my keys in there despite the fact they were twice the size of hole. No luck. I got out a credit card and tried to jimmy the lock just like Jack Bauer. It didn’t work. I thought it would be embarrassing to call the McDonalds I was stuck at to ask to be rescued from the bathroom stall but I had to get over to the house to meet the builder. Then I remembered my phone was in my car. Throughout this time no one had come into the bathroom. I won the Latrine Lottery on Senior Day no less. There was a space under the door and I was measuring it in my mind and then looking at my middle girth and of course I thought I could fit under the door. And of course that would be when someone came in. Now there is nothing appealing about getting your body down on the pissy floor of a stall at McDonalds. It would give some dry heaves. But I could see no other way out. I was wearing my working bibs so I had to try it. I laid down on my back and slid my head through and started shimmying on the bathroom floor. I got past my chest, and kept squeezing and sucking in my stomach and managed to get right to the middle where my pens and reading glasses were. But on the outside of those pockets is a stupid button so you can snap the pocket shut. So when I decided this strategy was not going to work I tried to back out. But the bottom of the door was sticking on one of the pocket buttons held in place by my glasses and pens. So I was stuck by that damn button. And worst, I couldn’t get my arms up through the bottom of the door and put my hands through to move the button. So I Iaid on the floor contemplating giving up. But then I tried to puff out my chest or suck it in. I could imagine the conversation I could’ve had with a bathroom patron as I lay on the floor, part of my torso sticking out underneath the door. But I decided that I would act like I was passed out or dead, lying still with my eyes closed. They would wonder what happened but I didn’t care because I would be passed out or dead. When the paramedics got there I would come to and ask what had happened. But then I would be taken out on a stretcher and then to the hospital where I would spend the afternoon. At that point, no one was getting into the stall until I got out. Then I thought about that really fat Senior with really loose bowels coming in and having to use the stall. I had visions of having to be rescued by the Fire Department which of course would end up somehow on the Internet. At this point I was getting pissed off (pun) and started flailing my legs back and forth and lifting up my hips in a wild frantic effort to move my torso and get that damn button unstuck. Finally it worked and still no one had come in that bathroom. I got up off the floor and looked around the ceiling because I was sure this was being filmed by some sick bastard. At this point I had no idea what I was going to do. I rubbed my pockets again, trying to find some McGyver material and then I felt my phone that had slid sideways in my pocket. That’s why I didn’t feel it. I asked Siri to find the McDonalds in Williamston and pressed the call button. A young girl answered.
“Hi, I’m stuck in the Men’s bathroom.”
“I’m at your McDonalds and I’m stuck in the bathroom because the door is locked and will not open.”
“Can you tell your manager so he can rescue me?”
Some kid comes in the bathroom.
“Are you stuck in there?”
“Yes, I’m STUCK in here. Can you get me a screw driver, a hammer and Allen wrenches so I can try and get out of here?” By now it was about 855a.
He came back and slid the tools under the door. I took off the door handle and opened the door. I left everything on the floor, handed the kid my business card and told him I expected his manager to call me and I wanted cheeseburgers for a year.
They still haven’t called.
“If you ask me what I came in this life to do, I, an artist, will tell you: I came to live out loud.” – Emile Zola, French writer
Living out loud can mean many things. I choose to interpret this quote as having many interests and trying and learning as much as possible in the brief time we call our life. It also means embracing who you are; what you think and feel, your experiences whether sadness, happiness, travails and overcoming them, or victories. To go through them, not around them. Pain and happiness mean we are alive. And whether you consider yourself an artist or not, sharing your experiences with others. From my religious youth, I chose to embrace the concept of witnessing what it is like to be human and eschew shame in doing so. Perhaps to the chagrin of my family and friends. It means being interested in many things. Life should be a fertile endless field where you can plant as much as you want of anything you choose. But I suppose the challenge is to tend the field, to maintain some sort of balance which is easier said than done. We all cannot or will not be recognized for our creative endeavors. But maybe the true value lies not in the accolades from outside but the insights we absorb on the inside. And whether we can use those insights and experiences to comfort and reassure to others that they are not alone. Because ultimately, this is what we fear the most. To me, this is living out loud.