Today, I am here with 88-year-old mother in the nursing home dining room for Friday Happy Hour. The beverage highlight is a Fuzzy Navel with rum. All of the resident attendees, my mother included, are in wheelchairs. I am thinking that we could all be characters in a Tennessee Williams play. The scene is a sober reminder of many of Williams’ themes—loneliness, confinement, abandonment, mental illness; he certainly would have approved the palliation of these conditions with a weekly happy hour.
Sharing our table are two of Mom’s neighbors from the third floor. Joy is like her name, a bright spirit who shines her smile on everyone, dimples even. Her husband died before she retired as an elementary school teacher in Indiana. Like my mother, she is here in Knoxville because her daughter lives here. Joy is more engaged, more active than most of the residents. She has a portable sewing machine in her room, is always making something for her grandchildren or giving someone here one of her little crocheted cross bookmarks. Despite being on dialysis with liquid intake restrictions, she cons visitors into bringing her lattes from Panera’s. Charles is a black crooner from Jacksonville, Florida, who, as a young man, was part of a gospel singing troupe called the Southern Travelers and toured Europe in the late 40s. He says he loved Paris, loved the French, and the French loved him. I have no doubt of that. Like Joy, Charles has never met a stranger. He is small and wiry and still able to walk short distances. Many times I’ve seen him pushing, rather than riding in, his wheelchair. He always wears dress slacks and long-sleeved shirts with sleeves rolled and a black felt hat. He embodies that rare gallantry of another era. Some days I can hear him across the hall singing “You Are My Sunshine” to his wife Helda. Helda, who is bedridden and mute due to strokes, came to the nursing home six years before him. Someone told me he visited her almost every day. Now they are roommates once again.
At the table next to ours is Joanna, a tiny woman who literally shines, from her gold slippers and pink sequined sweater set to her blonde wig. She is the only woman I see wearing makeup beyond lipstick—most aren’t even wearing that—and the only woman I know who wears big Hollywood sunglasses indoors. When I first saw Joanna, I thought, why, it’s Blanche DuBois, as I live and breathe. I could hear Blanche’s Southern accent in my head, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.” But after getting to know her a little better, I realized that Joanna is no Blanche. Joanna is not the type to ask directions nor depend on the kindness of strangers.
Joanna takes her rum straight, no fuzz, no schnapps. Joy tells me that Joanna bartended in Miami for over twenty years. I look at her again, trying to imagine her petite figure behind a bar pouring shots and highballs and, amazingly, can. “Hey, Joanna,” someone yells across tables, “how’s the Cutty Sark?” She shakes her head and gives a thumbs-down, her gold bangles jingling. Barry Manilow is singing “Co-pa, Co-pa-ca-ban-a.” I wonder if anyone else notices the poignancy of the lyrics:
Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago,
When they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in the dress she used to wear,
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined,
And drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind!
Mom will not touch anything with alcohol and sips her Sprite. She has already removed the little paper parasol from her glass, consigning it along with, I’m sure, Happy Hour itself to that broad category of foolishness she calls “too much sugar for a nickel.”
“I don’t like their music,” she says. She may not remember the recent past, but she is clear about what she likes or does not like and is not shy about saying so. I know that her objection is not to the lyrics—she probably can’t hear them—but to the style. She grew up on country music and never ventured into other genres. I know she doesn’t like living here either, although that is something she has never expressed an opinion about. Like most of her generation who grew up during the Great Depression and married during World War II, she accepts her fate without bitterness or whining.
My mother always said that she did not want to die a long, lingering death; she wanted to just fall over. Whenever she said that, I immediately thought of the man riding a tricycle on the old Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a sketch comedy television program that was popular in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The man, wearing a yellow raincoat and hat, is furiously peddling away from the camera, and then, for no apparent reason, tips over, Splat! then freeze-frame—dead, as my mother would say, as a door nail. At some point, maybe in her late seventies when she began to tire easily, the image seemed less comical. I began to picture myself in that scene, a little desperate, running behind that tricycle, arms flailing, hoping to be there to catch her.
Neither of us is getting our wish. After three falls, none the fatal keel-over she wished for, she is now in a nursing home five minutes from my home. She has been here five years, slowly but steadily disappearing. Her broken bones have healed, but silent strokes have left her with some short-term memory loss and paralyzed legs. She also has some age-related dementia, mainly a loss of social inhibitions which frees her to say, “Shit,” when Charles, being cute, asks, “Would any of you lovely ladies care to dance?”
I look around the room, ponder so many once-vibrant narratives that have now been reduced to the barest essentials and feel like Tennessee Williams, who said, “I am haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.” Before this year is out, Joy, Charles, and Joanna, and others whose names I do not know, will be gone. Such sudden and quiet disappearances, even of people I’m not close to, are hard for the mind to comprehend. I am grateful for writers like Williams who were (and are) not afraid to address the unspeakable, whose works are part personal protest against life’s terrors and society’s inequities, part defiant attempt to breach the unfathomable abyss.
I can almost see Williams here now, sitting in a far corner signing autographs for staff. He is wearing his party attire—white Panama hat and sunglasses, loose embroidered Key West shirt open to the chest, light canvas slip-ons. He motions to one of the servers and asks if, by chance, anyone here knows how to make a Ramos Gin Fizz. Joanna would know.
“I’m ready to go home now,” my mother says. I don’t ask her what she means by that, just roll her out to the elevators. I don’t want to know; it’s kind of a Catch 22 question, sad answer both ways: home is either her little house on Cross Street in Kingsport which she bought with her hard-earned money and lived in for thirty-five years after my father died and which was sold five years ago, or the tiny room she shares with Mrs. Perelman, age 93, who plays her keyboard every afternoon and likes the thermostat at 80.
Whenever I ask her what she’s thinking about, she says her mind is blank, and I guess that’s a good thing. In Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Flora Goforth, an eccentric widow who is writing her memoirs, asks her friend, “”Has it ever struck you that life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quick you hardly catch it going?” If old age is a backward flowing river, a regression from adult to child then infant, the only difference is that from that blank slate a baby will add new memories; an elderly person frequently will not. Dementia, then, is probably Nature’s way of making death easier. Otherwise, how could one die peacefully with a lifetime of memories calling one back? Maybe my mother’s will be a “good death” after all, one that I hadn’t considered until now, one that occurs after all memory has been erased.
It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, about Mom’s bedtime. As the elevator door closes, I hear the fading voice of Frank Sinatra singing, “…the memory of all that. No, no, they can’t take that away from me,” while I am just as hopelessly trying to write all this down in my head.