Persephone in New York
Good Monday morning from Chinatown, Canal Street to be exact, where there is never at anytime (except for that one time) not a lot of street noise, basic New York City stuff and also Hamza, who sits in front of my building in a lawn chair and prays, with accompanying music from his car radio, five times a day; the hupping man, the firehouse next door and the bodega on the corner. Inside my cozy apartment yesterday, I fed Matt Welch lunch and Michael Moynihan dinner and had them here taping a Fifth Column with Ethan Strauss (whom I got to chat with over the interwebs) as I live Zoomed with Sarah Hepola and a few dozen Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em subscribers.
“Are you glad to be back the city?” Matt asked sometime after midnight, though I suspect I was glowing so hard the question was rhetorical.
Yes I am glad, if not un-glad to be where I am about half time and have been for a year or more, which is at my mother’s in upstate New York. This is an easy place to be. It’s beautiful country, there’s a pool to swim in when it’s warm and lots of room to bring friends, which I sometimes do. Mostly, it’s Mom and me as she slows, or maybe slows is the wrong word. As she leaves.
Tonight I will go to a Reason event hosted by Nick Gillespie. He will be in-conversation with the beautiful and brilliant and funny and wry journalist and author Kat Rosenfield, whose latest book, You Must Remember This absolutely floored me. We are all massive fans of Kat’s (and you should be too) and were delighted to host a party for her previous book, No One Will Miss Her.
The opening of You Must Remember This is harrowing, and closely mirrors a dream I had two nights ago, or I guess it’s more accurate to say my dream mirrored the opening. I am looking out over a pond. It’s winter, and dark out, though the moon is lighting the snow and ice on the water, ice that I can see is not stable the further you walk out. My mother is walking out on the ice, she is maybe 40 feet away, then 50, I am screaming from shore, “Mom! Mom! Come back!” But she keeps walking.
I don’t think I need to explain what this means. My mother is in her 80s. As the months go by, she is becoming not quieter so much as meeker. Whereas before she was hyper and a chatterbox, now she likes to listen, and also, to have you near, “Come, keep warm in the bed”; “Come, sit in the sun.” She will rub your hands or feet for a half-hour if you let her, and it is true that I recently bought her a robot cat. That sentence would have made no sense to me a year ago. Now I understand what comfort this brings her; it’s what she shows everybody as soon as they walk in the door.
Being upstate, disengaging from your day-to-day, the social stuff, the work dives, has rewards. You read a lot, you eat more regularly, you drink less and find pleasure in cop shows, Law & Order: SVU and particularly Chicago P.D.
“There’s my guy,” Mom says, when Jason Beghe comes on-screen. She will watch this show for as many episodes as air, which is all evening. This, from a woman who I might wager previously watched maybe 500 hours of TV her whole life, mostly PBS.
There are also hazards, definitely hazards. I am not talking about leaving the stove on but the fissures that open in people who are failing. Nature abhors a void, and there is an industry waiting to fill that void, people on the phone selling extended auto warranties, selling computer protection plans, and how about a time share? And did you know your social security has been cancelled, that your payment is overdue, that your granddaughter is in trouble and you need to wire her money right now. This is the government calling, this is the police, this is your former accountant, your former lawyer, your long lost relative, do you remember me? I am a caring person in a world where your husband is dead, where your friends are dying; it’s okay if you don’t remember my name, if you don’t remember me at all, if you will just give me some access, if you will just lie down on this plush carpet, if you will just keep still as I plunge into you as many blunt instruments as I can and suck and suck and suck.
So this is what you do, too, upstate. You rip up the garbage come-ons in your mother’s mail, and take the phone out of her hand when you hear her giving out her birthdate, and when she says that he sounded trustworthy, you set the phone on speaker so she can hear the man with what sounds like a Punjabi accent shout, “Fuck you fuck you fuck you!” because you’ve told him to never call this number again. And you realize you will never ever ever be able to protect her in all the way she needs protecting, but you buy the special call-blocking phone anyway, and you let every trustworthy person in her world know what’s going on, and you speak to her with as much transparency as you can about the hazards and also, why this is happening and where she is at, and the thing is, she knows. She knows she remembers practically nothing, or nothing of the present, and she is okay with it. You’d be freaking out if your daughter told you, “Mom, your brain is betraying you, and I am so sorry.” But she’s fine. She’s sweet. She’s happy.
Or happy so long as you are there, which you cannot always be. This, she understands, and she doesn’t. It’s just a fucking rat show. But you make as much time as you can, and when she suggests for the maybe 80th time that she’d like you to drive her to Long Island, to the town where she grew up, and maybe also out to Hampton Bays, where she watched the soldiers drive past in their big trucks in 1943, you tell her, yes, we will do that, when the weather warms up, we will get off the ice and into the sun.
I'll turn 80 in April. My dream is that I stay (become?) civil as I lose my faculties, rather than becoming a cranky old fucker snapping at anybody who comes near me. My understanding of neurology suggests I will have no say in the outcome.
By the time I was 32, I had buried my last parent. That was a lifetime ago. They weren't good at survival. There's a lot of that in my family.
There are a lot of ways to miss your mother. It's probably easier to do it after they're gone. Vaya con dios, both of you. I'll be there soon enough myself, maybe with no one to visit at all. You make your choices and you get to live (and die) with them. Her choices got her to her 80's with a caring, loving daughter to do whatever she can to help her out. We'll all do our best in the meantime.
"I'll try to not be quite so damn cranky," he said.