Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giffenlude - personal essay

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

--Dylan Thomas

The pounding on the door awakened me. It was 3:30 a.m. "Come to the house quick," mom said. I slipped into my clothes, grabbed a flashlight and went. My RV was parked a couple hundred yards from my parent's home.

Dad stood in the living room, his clothes on. Well, not exactly his clothes. He was wearing mom's pants. "He says he's going to work," mom said. "I can't stop him."

I suppose there's no reason a man shouldn't go to work if that's what he's done all his life. But at age 74 Dad's not working anymore. Finding work had been his specialty. But he has run out of memory -- short term, long term. His memory has gone.

"Dad," I said. "It's dark out. Three-thirty in the morning. Bed time. Nobody works this time of the night. Get undressed and go to bed."

"I suppose sometimes that might be," he said. "But you know they don't like that."

"I know," I said. "But it's time to go to bed."

"Sometimes it works that way," he said. "But now I have to go home."

"This is your home," I said. "You can go to bed here so get undressed."

"Well I could do that," he said. "But I don't think it helps much. You can help people but you know what happens if they do that."

He kept pushing toward the door and I could see his present tense mind was hung up on leaving. "I'll go for a walk with him," I told mom. So we took his German Shepherd, Judy, and left. Briefly I thought of my days as a young G.I., living in an open bay barracks, and how I dealt with drunks who insisted on disturbing my sleep. I simply knocked them out with a swift blow to the back of the head and put them to bed. Their hangovers were a bit worse but they were none the wiser.

But this was Dad. He didn't mean to disturb our sleep. He is just unstuck in time. Anyway, there are more sophisticated measures now. As we walked out the door, mom said, "have him take these pills."

We walked and talked. It had been thirty years since I spent more than a day or two at home. I had been looking forward to the six weeks my wife, Pearl, and I would be spending here.

"You know how they are around this place," he said.

"I don't know," I said. "Tell me."

"Well, if we don't get there you know maybe they won't find their things," he said.

We stood on a bridge over a small creek at the end of the driveway. "They could put a square here," he explained. "And then one next to it, like that and that would be gifenlude."

I shone my light over the side of the bridge, catching a spider in the light beam. It clung to the middle of a perfectly spun web. The light glistened on water droplets hanging from its strands.

"Look Dad," I said, "a spider collecting insects for breakfast."

"I suppose," he said. "Some do and some don't but you have to hide your stuff or they find it."

We walked back to the house, sat in the living room talking for a few more minutes while the medicine took effect, and finally he was ready for bed. By then it was 5:00 a.m. Mom had her alarm set for 5:30. She had lost another night's sleep.

As I brood about Dad, my frustration rises. The bracelet on his wrist so authorities can contact his owner like they do with stray dogs. Or driving unexpectedly into the yard with mom to see him standing in the rain, guilt faced like a child caught in a wrongful act, concealing treasure under his rain coat (shoes I think) to be hidden and the whereabouts forgotten.

I came home to visit the man who had kept poverty from his eight children by working year after year without vacations or holidays -- mere blanks in the work year to be filled in with part-time jobs. Gas station attendant. Carpenter. Coal miner. Sawmill worker. Brick maker. Milk delivery man. Automobile tire re-capper. Church camp maintenance man. He was hardcore employable.

I want to talk to the man who challenged sin and the devil weekly from the pulpits of small town churches he pastored across Washington. In Roslyn he located his store front church between two taverns. His miner friends would declare at work Monday morning they had intended to go to his church, but their feet just took them through the wrong door. One of those miners toughened my five-year-old mind to the realities of ridicule. He would stop me and sing a drunken ditty. "Put another nickel in the Rev. Grove and you'll get a sermon, sermon, sermon." Being a son of the only pentecostal preacher in a red-neck, coal town could be rougher than being the boy named Sue.

I want to hear from the man the community called on when it needed a tender word, a challenging word, a word of compassion. Year after year high school seniors voted him baccalaureate speaker. At class reunions, classmates don't ask about me, they ask about him. Many mornings he left the house in coveralls, carrying a suit on a hanger. On those days, he left the job at some point, going to the mortuary to officially and personally share in the grief of the town. Rarely were they his parishioners, just friends who trusted him to meet their sorrow with the right word. He performed his last funeral as recent as a year and a half ago (1989).

All that's left is nonsense, the behavior of a child, except the child learns. Is this the reward of right living? He didn't drink alcohol. He didn't use tobacco. He didn't indulge in illicit sex. He ate right and always pursued physical work. At age 74, his blood pressure is ideal. His cholesterol is low. His mobility is fine. His body has outlived his mind. I begrudgingly answer my foolish question asked in frustration. No. Right living is its own reward. I think he has been wounded by a genetic dragon, possibly the same dragon that got his father.

I have never, even as a child, feared death. No serious thinking person would want unlimited life in a limited world. But the inevitability of old age chills my optimism of the future. It is a cruel hoax. God told Adam if he sinned he would die. He should have told him about old age. Maybe he would have found it easier to just say no.

I look at Dad and realize why old age should burn and rave at close of day. But for him it is too late. His light has already faded.

I promised mom I would take Dad to church on a Sunday as she had to work. While sitting in church, I realized Dad still communicates at the level of feelings, attitudes and emotions. The familiar refrains of "Power In The Blood," or "Amazing Grace," and the verbal praises offered to God by the congregation comforted him. His church friends hugged him and chatted with him. He didn't have to make sense. They were friends. I realized this was his one remaining connection with this life and I pray his connection with the next.

I remember 25 years ago reading him the opening line of Camus's Myth of Sisyphus. He didn't understand why whether or not to commit suicide was a serious philosophical question. I did. And I now know that, like most serious questions, this one also can be put off until it is too late.

When my emotions are under control, I get very curious and analytical about the situation. We don't realize how much our understanding of the present and ability to function depends on memory. First, Dad's vocabulary began to slip away and his world became evermore confining. Then he could not longer put words together in a way that made sense. But what does he hear? Do my words make sense to him? I watch him doze on the couch. When he awakens, he has obviously been dreaming. But what does he dream? Are they pictures that make sense? Does his world function at that level? I see him sitting and staring vacantly. "What are you doing," I ask.

"Thinking," he says.

Without words? Without syntax? I wonder. I think his mind just got ahead of his body, slipping early into that mystical dimension where eternity is played out.

Like Dylan Thomas begged his father, I too want to say, "And you, my father, there on the sad height,/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray./ Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." But it is too late for him to curse or bless.

Old age punishes us all for having lived, and I refuse to be soothed by those little sayings that are suppose to make it alright. Bertrand Russel and his hating the 40's but loving the 50's because they were the youth of old age. Nonsense. Or age is simply mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. But I do mind and it does matter. You can call it by another name --Alzheimer's-- but it's still old age and as Camus observed, "when life is reaching its end, old age wells up in waves of nausea."

At age 49, my blood pressure is ideal. My cholesterol is low. My mobility is fine. I get on my bicycle to ride the twelve miles to the library. For the first time I realize I may simply be conditioning my body to outlive my mind. With every forgotten word, every stutter, every jumbled sentence, I feel the breath of the genetic dragon.

Copyright 1991