My Nissan sitting in the parking lot of Fairview Care Home in my hometown of Jett, Kan. (pop. 4,000 in the '70s). I'm parked beside my buddy Don's restored 1970 Dodge Charger, the veteran tag on the back. The same car Don bought when he came home from the Air Force 45 years ago. Sometimes when I'm with my kids on Saturday mornings at McDonald's, I run into Jim and his lady friend. I guess she provides him a lot of comfort these days. I remember when his wife, Karen, had to be admitted to the dementia-Alzheimer's unit five years ago, and his daughter, Kari, posted on Facebook, "I've never seen my dad cry before. Now he's cried to the point of exhaustion."
I sit motionless behind the still wheel. Got a bag of off-brand Ensure in the backseat with my daughter, Gabby. I was buying off-brand Depends for her until the home got me hooked up with a program in which we could receive incontinent supplies for free. Jesus, the first time Mom told me, "I pooped my pants" I cried like a damn baby. My son, Max, riding shotgun, fidgets nervously.
"What's up, son?" I ask.
"Dad, is it okay if I don't go in? It's depressing."
"Sure son. That's fine. I understand," I say, knowing my daughter Gabby's like-mind. I tilt my head to the backseat and say, "You can wait here too, Gab. I'll only be in there about five, 10 minutes."
Inside the home, Mom, who once had a rubenesque shape, looks gaunt, emaciated.
"Vickie, you wanna sit down and eat?" the nurses and CNAs say, trying to coax her away from her aimless meandering and to a table in the dining room where they'll feed her.
"Hi Mom," I say. "Remember me?"
There may be faint recognition. I can't be sure.
"Yeah Mom, we've known each other for a damn long time."
Two weeks later, I take her to the Susan B. Allen Memorial Hospital emergency room due to the fact that she had been less than herself all day. Endless naps, one after the other, and an over-reaching lethargic haze. They keep her for observation before sending her home two days later, having never found out specifically what the problem was.
"I guess this is the new normal," I tell Margaret, the executive director of Fairview.
"I guess so," she says.
An hour later, she calls me at home and asks if I'd like to start Hospice treatments for Mom. "Yeah, I had a feeling things were winding down," I say. Within an hour, I'm talking to the hospice nurse, also named Vicki (her name spelled differently). She assesses Mom and deems her eligible for Hospice treatment. That night, the chaplain, a man named Charles calls me.
"I've known your mother for the past few years," he says. "I've talked to her in between ministering to my clients."
"So you've seen her decline," I say.
A day later my brother Jimmy calls me and tells me he's talked with the funeral home. Mom could have three weeks, three months, six months -- hell, we don't know, but at least arrangements are set. "I'll go to her church Sunday and talk to the minister," I say. "It'll be cool, hangin' with the Nazarenes."
June, 1991. I leave the newsroom at the Jett Dispatch where I have my summer job, and walk across the street to have lunch with Mom at her place of work. For a while after my girlfriend left me, I had no appetite. Fell into a dark depression. Now I'm getting my bearings back somehow and I'm entering the death house.
It stands to this day, one of the oldest damn houses in Jett. Still fresh gleaming white as the day the old man -- well, he was a young man then, just out of mortuary school in Pennsylvania -- moved in with his new bride. Black and white photos of the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Deurksford, now long dead, at various stages of life -- young adulthood, middle age and such. Mortuary owners David and Arletta Deurksen in various pictures of their lives, by themselves and with their three boys -- just blended with the retro wallpaper of the parlor like the vanishing years and days of drinking to the end, gospel singing and eulogies gone by. Such pieces of time are said to be ghosts, but according to the stories, there are images much more phantasmagorical shifting through the spaces and walls of this darling abode.
Mr. Farris lies in an expensive casket by the east wall of that room. He's wearing a tan suit with a gold clasp on his tie. People say "they made him up well." I get a good look and why the hell not? Long-time local businessman, civic leader, served on the Board of Education, City Council and two terms as county clerk. "They sewed his eyes down nicely," I say softly. For God's sake, why the hell did I ever read that book, The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford?
I walk into the the homey kitchen where Mom, the Deurksen's oldest son, Dwight, now semi-retired, and his daughter, Myla, now the funeral director at the family business, are having lunch. Sitting around the mint-colored 1950s table. The cushions of the metal-legged chairs have been sewn back together a few times ...like dead peoples' eyelids. They were still smoking cigarettes inside in those days. Well, not Mom. She gave up smoking back in the '70s. Her lungs will be cleared, not to be found tarry and black when the time comes in some dark, distant future, not foreseen at this moment when adulthood is a novelty and Mom's a nice forty-something middle age.
Music pipes in from the speakers. J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers with a death disc shocker from 1964 -- the kind of hit of rock n' roll Stephen King likes.
Oh where oh where can my baby be? The Lord took her away from me. She's gone to Heaven so I got to be good so I can see my baby when I leave this world.
A few months later, the singer at the age I am now, will be dead of alcoholism. The end doesn't mean a damn thing, really. J. Frank Wilson. Still a legend in Lufkin, Texas.
"How you doin', sonny boy?" Mom says, barely looking up from her egg noodles and bottled Coke. "Written any good stories today?"
"No, just a bunch of crap about the Neighborhood Watch program," I say. "Kind of cheesy."
Maybe some day I'll be an investigative reporter at a metro daily, writing about CIA agents selling crack in black ghettos. Then again, maybe the onrushing technological advances will render print obsolete. What the hell will I do then? I'll think of something. Mom was in her 40s a few years ago when she found her calling in the funeral business.
She talks to the corpses as if something is still there. Opening in the morning, she'll say, "Good morning, Mr. Pilsen." "Good morning, Mrs. Mallory." She tells them "Good night" when she closes.A month earlier she'd sold a guy pre-need funeral insurance to a guy from inside a bar. He arranged the meeting at Taft's Uptown Saloon on downtown State Street. Later, when the old guy entered assisted living, Mom would still visit. Make social calls. "Just for shits and giggles," she'd say.
"That was a pretty good story you wrote about Harry," Dwight saya, referring the that feature article I'd written about the new school superintendent, Harry Chapain that had appeared in the previous Saturday's "Neighbors" section of the paper. (Ol' Harry'd been in town for a while. Previously served as high school principal, then director of curriculum, then assistant superintendent -- the role he he had when I was in high school.)
"He was a damn good interview," I say.
Dr. Chapain talked about his more famous name sake (with a minor spelling change) and said that while "Cats in the Cradle" is a good song, he was partial to Harry Chapin's lesser known 1971 hit, "Taxi." But the song to which he felt connected -- as if it went with his life as a "greaser kid" from Tulsa, Okla., flying Huey helicopters in Vietnam, speaking out against the war after coming home, becoming a renegade educator and ultimately becoming a member of The Establishment as an administrator, albeit an unorthodox one -- was Sinatra's "My Way." You'd think it would've been the Doors, Hendrix or Ten Years After, but no, it was Sinatra.
"My Way" -- that's the song they started playing at closing time at Taft's bar shortly after it opened in 1970. It's still there, this little town pub, still using a front bar that goes back to the '40s and still playing "My Way" at closing time, although now it could be the Elvis or, better, Sid Vicious version as well as Sinatra's.
There was a self-activated turn table coming from the chambers of the antique looking funeral parlor, piping another record over the kitchen speaker. One of Dwight's favorites. "Sentimental Journey," the version from Sinatra's 1957 Come Fly With Me album. I'd finished eating my lunch, as much as I was going to eat, and grabbed a Marlboro Light from the hard pack in my front pocket. "Sinatra -- I'll have a cigarette for this," I said.
"That shit'll kill you," Mom said, the same thing she said when I played punk rock on my car stereo.
"I promise I'll quit as soon as the stress of college is over," I told her, not for the first time.
"Or when your ass dies," she says.
"Actually Mom, these cigarettes are keeping me alive. I'm gonna live forever."
"Who the hell would want that?" she said. I understand now. Nobody wants to live out long past their warranty. We assume we'll go to Heaven, I guess, but the anticipation of that singular moment is scary and uncertain.
Around this time, Myla softly reaches into her silver cigarette case and takes out a Newport. Lips protrude like luscious rhubarb jam over a volcano, the long thin cigarette between them as she torches the tobacco -- a flick of her finger on the button of her Cricket lighter. Myla is in her early 40s, divorced, wordly -- has a passport and been to Spain and Argentina -- and educated. I mean, hell, I can talk to her about Chaucer or Shakespeare or about how her dad, Dwight, was in the European Theatre nearly 50 years earlier before he returned home and went to mortuary school. Love her dark, straight hair and almond eyes. Myla -- Jesus loves you more than you will know.
She jokes about the late preacher's wife they conducted services for the previous month -- Mrs. Avett. Mom joins in. She has a friend who works as a nurse at Fairview Care Home where the nonagenarian lady spent her final few years in the dementia/Alzheimer's unit.
"My mom used to say she was a glamorous lady," Mom says, bringing up my beloved departed grandmother. "You couldn't find a more fitting preacher's wife. She was always so prim and proper, never stopped wearing hats and gloves to church. She would've been mortified to know what she'd become. They'd change her and she'd say, 'You like digging in my pussy.' If she knew what she was saying, she would've died a million deaths."
The humor in the funeral home is as dark as my depressive spells, but not as black as death, itself. "People are dying to get into this place," she says, not the first or last time she'll make that joke, but hey some things never grow stale or platitudinous. They just keep regenerating like flowers in a field where you lay down with a girl. Okay, hell, the joke did get old. Things do, you know.
I hear the noise in my coat pocket. It's a Freddie King ring. Means it can only be one person. All other calls arrive to the tune of John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom." I glance down at the
contact name on my screen. "Shit, what now?"
My brother, Jimmy and I talk about the cost of putting her in a home. The paperwork. Rigmarole. Spendown to Medicaid. We're not at that point yet, but the future's bearing down on us.
"Christ, there's only a god for rich people." I rant on, walking past the Walmart Pharmacy and aisles of Pepto Bismo and stool softeners, iPhone to my ear. It's a winter's day, 2012. Outside a man in gloves, coveralls and a stocking cap rings a bell for the Salvation Army. Christmas time and we're all doing what we can. "Poor bastards like us -- I'm not saying God fucked us, just that he doesn't give a shit."
"Man, why you gotta dis on God about it?" he says of my blasphemy.
"Why not? Where the hell is he?"
Earlier that day at around 7:15 a.m. I call Mom, while stopped at the intersection of rural 70th Street and Hopkins Switch Road. A detour. One of many I've taken in this life.
The one person in this world who understands me (with the exception of my wife) who restore my calm, allay my fears. Hopefully enough of her will still be there to revive me one more time. She doesn't make calls anymore, but still answers her phone.
Hello (is anyone there)?
Sobbing incessantly. Something about her voice, I guess. Awash in tears.
I don't wanna go to work today
"Oh honey, what's wrong?"
"I'm lost." Barely able to release the words. "My whole life is for nothing."
"Oh, I'm so sorry."
"Remember that cult back in Texas? The Army of Yahweh?"
"Oh, I haven't thought of them in forever. I'll have to visit and see how they're doing.
She's cognitively unable to comprehend. We almost get there. We're within reach. We don't make it."
"I wanna die," I say between sobs. "There's nothing for me here. I'm nothing but a drain on my family."
"Why don't you come over? Tell me everything."
But I know it's no use. She will have forgotten our conversation if I visit. Throughout this phone conversation, she hasn't once called me by name. Has she forgotten it? Does she remember I'm her son? Sometimes she gets confused and thinks I'm her cousin. She'll never be able to calm me down again. There's so many things I finally realize about life and just at the moment I want to tell her, it's too late. She's fading away, and I feel guilty for thinking only of myself while dementia festers in her mind. I think about how this is the beginning of The End and I'll cry about it every day for two weeks.
"I have to go to work. I have to let you go."
"Okay, sweetie, but you call me back later."
Late that night I get out of bed, unable to sleep, sit at the foot of the stairs and feel sorry about the things I said earlier in the day to my brother. Sorry about a lot of things.
A couple of weeks later, my friend, Valerie, posts on Facebook about her mother. She's posted several times in recent weeks about her mother, who was suffering from Parkinson's and dementia, had been hospitalized and was eventually given Hospice care. Years ago, when Val and I worked together as reporters at the Ash Valley American in northeastern Oklahoma. Back then here mother was a Norwegian language instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- Val's alma mater.
"My point of light has flamed out," she wrote on Facebook. "Mom has become with the earth, sea and sky. I love you, Mom."
I replied to her comment, said I was sorry about her mother.
I felt a little bit of selfishness when I private messaged her. "Do you think there's a Heaven where people go when they die?"
"Don't know -- hard to say. You?" she messaged me back. "Seems like it matters less as I get older. My mother just seemed exhausted. Not like she wanted eternal life."
Friday afternoon, I take off work an hour early to talk to Myla at Deurksen Funeral Home. Her hair is now dyed a rasp concrete blonde with a few purple streaks. Her dad died around 20 years ago.
"I haven't talked to your mom in years," she says as we sit in her office. "She always had such a good sense of humor. You think I could visit her at the home?"
"You can, but she wouldn't know you anymore," I say. "She's not what you remember. She's rail thin. She'll talk in almost a whisper and none of it makes sense. A lot of her personal animation is gone."
"Bless her heart."
"We don't know how long Mom'll be around, but she is doing good now for what it all is."
"Well it's never too early to start making plans," she says.
As I get up to leave, I mention that Mom liked the country singer Alan Jackson so we could play his version of "How Great Thou Art" when the time comes."
"That's so your mom," Myla says. "She could cuss like hell, but she loved gospel music. You were at Dad's service, weren't you? They played 'Sentimental Journey.'"
"No, I was living in Oklahoma at that time. Was it the Sinatra version?"
"It was the Andrews Sisters. Of course, Dad saw them perform at a USO show when he was in the service. (Pause) "Now they did play Sinatra at Harry Chapain's funeral a couple of years ago."
"I was there. They played 'My Way.' He had Alzheimer's, the same damn disease Mom has."
Myla walks me to the door, past the old school funeral parlor, caskets, made-up corpses and "No smoking" sign.
"Smoking is so 1995," I say.
"Yeah, it was a bitch-and-a-half to quit, but I did it," she says, laughing. "Long before they had vaping."
"I quit sinning a while back. A little before my first kid was born."
"Oh, how old are your kids now?"
"My son is 16, my daughter is 13."
"Oh my! They keep getting older. Max and Gabby, right?"
"Yep, that'd be their names."
"My oldest granddaughter graduated from high school this year."
"Oh shit," I say and we both laugh.
Around 8:30 a.m., a Saturday. Sitting at a booth in McDonald's with Max and Gabby. We finished eating a while ago. Now we're just sitting there, each of us on our phones -- the kids playing games, me writing a few lines for my blog.
"Well Jeff, how 'ya doing?" the familiar voice says.
I turn around and there's Don wearing a cap, his lady friend to his side. We shake hands. It's the first time I've seen him since that day a few weeks ago when the kids didn't want to go into the nursing home. It had been around lunch time and Don dutifully fed his wife, Karen. Since then, she passed away.
"Really sorry to hear about Karen," I say.
"Well thank you," he says. "I miss the old girl. I really lost her years ago."
I nod, knowingly.
"But she's better off now, he says, still a little sadly. "She wouldn't have wanted to live that way."
We switch gears, exchange some more happy talk about the breezy, sunny weather and what we'll do over the weekend, the smile back on Don's face, his characteristic affability shining through. He introduces me to his girlfriend, something he hasn't done the several other times we ran into each other at Mickey Dees. "This is Joyce," he says. She gracefully takes my hand.
After they leave, I suggest to the kids that we get dessert. "Their strawberry cream pies are to die for."
"I don't like pie," Gabby says.
"Little girl, you're missing one of the true joys of life."
He shuffles the three white cards, then one by one, he turns them over. "A PowerPoint presentation." "Crying into the pages of Sylvia Plath." "Mufasa's death scene."
Reese, his girlfriend, Janie, and I are playing Cards Against Humanity at their dining room table in their home in the Riverside section of Wichita. For shits and giggles, we added an imaginary player, Rando, a sort of phantom presence.
"I have to go with this one," Reese says, laying down the card with The Lion King reference.
"Oh come on," I protest. "A PowerPoint presentation -- white people love that shit."
"It's a fucking turd," Reese says, giving our ghostly player his fourth black card. One more and Rando (like random withouty the m) wins the game.
"But PowerPoints are so white, I mean, like megachurches and gentrification," I continue.
"Mufasa's death scene trumps all that," Reese says. "It's an insipid Disney movie with an insipid Elton John song, all white bred and lachrymose. It's contrived to make the privileged look like they have a heart."
Well I couldn't argue with that.
It's the second time I've been at Reese and Janie's house for dinner. This time I brought my kids, whom I have for the weekend. While we play cards, they're entertaining Carson, Janie's 7-year-old son from a previous relationship. Carson looks up to my kids, especially Max, whom he worships -- because they're teenagers. The kids are in Carson's room, playing Nintendo Wii, which "doesn't have violence and cussing" Gabby told me, so it's okay for a kid.
Earlier when we arrived at the house, Reese and I slapped high fives, feeling victory over the spot I recorded for Kansas Characters, a locally produced show on Wichita's public TV station, KPTS, where Reese is a producer. We usually celebrate such things over a beer or a meal at Maggie O'Malley's pub in the Delano district. The piece I filmed was about a group of small town boosters in Jericho, Kansas who raised money over several years and restored the town Opera House, which opened in 1885 and had sat vacant, collecting cobwebs, since 1953.
"This has been a community wide effort to reconnect and bring back to life an integral, vital part of our town heritage," the chief volunteer said on camera. Then her face took on a playful look as she leaned forward and said, sotto voce, "It's said to be haunted."
"Heaven is" reads the black card I pull, back at the dining room table.
"Gotta pick this one," I say, singling out the white card reading "pooping back and forth. Forever."
It's Rando's card. The ghostly man wins.
"Your mind's still in the shitter," Reese says, then adds that it's time to watch "the damn movie." We're always picking apart movies -- Cool Hand Luke, Blood Simple, Raging Bull...or TV shows of the past 20 years -- The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Pushing Dasies, Dexter, Mad Men...Reese is a hard ass critic. If he doesn't like your movie or music, he'll tear your ass up.
Pink moon-like standing lamps create mood in the room. Red oak floor that trails down the hall, connecting the lavatory and bedrooms and goes the other way into the square, prayerful-like, but secularized beer-bong-and-baulderdash-skewn dining room. Reese and Janie's living room is a paean to kitsch. Off white walls. So 1950s Reader's Digest, but with a domicilic swag that could be Costello-ishly cruel if you punked it just a little. The sofa is burgandy-colored and warm. The coasters on the end tables are abstract in colors.
The 50-inch flat screen with the blue ray/DVD player hooked on are the most auspicious links with modernity in the room. Reese and I are both fans of the movie I brought over -- The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's breakout film of 50 years ago. I checked it out the DVD from the Jett Public Library. Max comes out and joins us while Carson listens to Gabby play her ukulele. My boy took a Cinema Appreciation at the high school last semester and I like introducing him to classic films.
"Son, why do you think the camera is zoomed in on the character's head with a fish tank behind him?"
"Cuz he likes fish?"
"I think it's indicative of how overwhelmed he feels , all these people there for him. He feels isolated, like a fish in a tank."
Later Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) enters the room, ostensibly to ask where the bathroom is, but with an ulterior motive. She throws the car keys to Ben (Hoffman) and they land in the fish tank.
"That's gotta mean something," Max says.
"What do you think it means, son," I ask.
He ponders for a moment. "I think it means she's gonna enter his tank, his life."
"Wow!" I exclaim proudly. "You learned a few things in that class. Good catch, sonnyboy, you're getting pretty damn good at this."
After the movie, Reese and I talk about it for 30 minutes. Janie checks on Carson and does her own thing. Max rejoins Gabby and Carson.
"I know Anne Bancroft was the first sex fantasy for a generation of young men and I can see why," I say. "But the movie is about a lot more than Mrs. Robinson taking the young guy's innocence. It's about being in a funk and wanting to go somewhere, to do something, but what? What the hell happens next?"
"It's like you go through a crisis at different transition points in your life -- from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to young adulthood to middle aged and finally to elderly," Reese says, with a little excitement. He always digs relating art to life.
"Yeah, I usually have a nervous breakdown about once every 13 years," I say.
"But you're feelin' all right now. Like, you were a wreck after you got divorced, but now you seem to be in a good place. You're breathing easier."
"Yeah, but a good place is tenuous," I say. "Everything's temporary."
"Hell, depression is temporary," he said. "It's fucked up to off yourself, but I can't say I've never thought about it. I was in this black void after I left seminary school. I lost all my spiritual resources, but now I'm at peace, not really believing or disbelieving."
"The religious cult back in Texas, they fucked up my mind," I say. "But I had to leave town, couldn't become one with them, getting dunked in water, handling snakes or whatever the shit they do. I couldn't dig that image of God as The Enforcer who's going to rain down fire and fury and create genocide."
"It's strange you're still a believer," Reese says, as if impressed. "You've got stick-to-it-ive-ness."
"Well in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote about the once born who live in a state of religious euphoria and can't fathom tragedy and the twice born who've been through hell and purgatory, suffered a crisis of faith, then come back with a deeper faith, but the melancholia never really leaves."
"I would take you to be the latter," Reese says.
"I'd say that'd be accurate," I answer.
"So what do you believe now exactly?"
"I finally just concluded God is love. I mean if there's a Higher Power in the Heavens who embodies the universal laws of love and justice, he's gotta have a heart, right? If I could love my kids even if they were gay, how could God do any less? I believe Christians are going to be in Heaven alongside Muslims -- assuming there is a Heaven."
"So you believe in universal salvation?"
"No, I think that's bullshit. I don't believe in some traditional conception of a fiery hell, but there's gotta be some darkness or absence somewhere. Some people, I just don't see coming back from the dark side. I mean, Adolph Hitler -- there's no way he could live in some godly paradise."
Reese laughs. "Yeah, Hitler was pretty incorrigible."
Then he gets up, heads to the kitchen. "Want another beer?"
"No," I say, laughing a little. "I'm good. We'll have to be headed home soon."
Alone, I look at the lamp light reflected on the hardwood floor. I envision Mom again in that funeral house, said to be haunted. She appears as if a few decades have been returned to her. So youthful looking as she closes up shop for the night. "Good night Mr. Farris," she says, turning out the light.
"Children of the Grave" -- Black Sabbath