- Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, 1958
So what happens is, I go to see Aloha now and she is pottering around the darkened lamplit room a little, where before I could always hear the tv roaring from behind her closed door; Alex Trebek politely grilling a threesome about a Terry Southern screenplay, or a bridge somewhere, or a nursery rhyme based on a gruesome 14th century pandemic (you know the one). When she answers the door now the room is quiet behind her, and her demeanor is a skeptical amusement that wonders aloud ‘Do I know you?’ with one eye squinting theatrically and the other laughing disarmingly. It’s as if she knows she is in an untenable position and helpless to address the fact coherently. She settles on a mild exasperation, and I have the sense her presentational collapse going forward will have this exasperation as its hood ornament, and not the howling fear I couldn’t bear to witness and would be, I know, incapable of ameliorating.
“Do I know you?” It’s the new greeting, but I’m sure not the last iteration of what was once “Hi, Jeff!” or “Well, come on in!” There will be a new greeting, maybe this year? Maybe next? That one will startle me, signal the ringing down of a curtain. For now my mother is still aware she ought to know my context and is mildly embarrassed not to be able to pinpoint my coordinates in her newish darkling world. But this world doesn’t seem newish to her. It is now as it’s always been.
“I would hope you know me. Your son?” Then a comic game-show flourish. “Jeff?”
“Well,” with the bemused and slightly frightened smile, not at any danger I present, but at the growing sense that I’m a deeply felt companion in another milieu and that she has lost that map somehow. She knows this loss. I see that she knows it. It’s terrible, as pacific and becalmed and even content as the elderly (hate that word) often seem to be, this walk down this corridor in the last rags of cognition is a cruel final affront before the sun really gets to setting in earnest on a life which is frankly almost all the way behind her now and which, when she can be made to recall it, is experienced in dreamlike tatters and scraps. What is this neural failure, oh, and why? All those many many many minutes, simmering down into this nonsense, reducing into mush? Really?
Let’s hurriedly move on, launch straight into a mediating schtick. When Aloha laughs, she laughs long and hard and I pride myself on that. For those seconds she is 35, maybe 40 years old. Unchanged! Her laughter is completely unchanged. The laughter doesn’t know anything but the moment, aglow and coherent. It’s 1966. Everything dreary and confused falls away. My sister is in her upstairs bedroom in Cheyenne, in our Air Force base quarters. # 98? Phone number 53608. The Mamas and the Papas are warbling ecstatically from behind 17 year-old Jill’s closed door, the sparklingly majestic descending chorus of ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ already enchanting my curious ear and setting me up for a lifetime of adoration, of many things. My brother Bill has brought a friend home from Texas A&M and they’re goofing around in their maroon Aggies sweatshirts and military haircuts and they’re picking me up and they’re laughing and terrifying me and I clutch uselessly at their shoulders and pretend to laugh, too. Aloha is sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in capri pants, taking it all in, looking up at Bill with delight, a scotch-and-water on the carpet beside her, a Benson&Hedges lodged very organically between the first and second fingers of her right hand.
“I think you forget a lot; where you’ve been, what you’ve done, sometimes even who you are.”
“Oh, yes!” she agrees, emphatically, but without any sense of emergency. She’s relieved to hear her temporary little predicament given voice.
My dad’s handsome photograph, the wedding portrait of he and Aloha, 1942, which we paid to have fashionably computer-painted onto artist’s canvas, hangs above her tv set in the perpetual dusk of her apartment. A portrait of a ghost, and as haunting, his dimpled smile as present and as seemingly on the very perch of hilarity as it ever was in our kitchen or back patio, the last chapter of chummy grins before his own fading denouement in my converted old teen bedroom with poster tape still on the walls in browning triangles. Dad in that period would quietly watch whatever sport blurted onto the tube, and he could barely walk across a room, and none of us wanted to sit with him despite his weakened and half-hearted and constant requests for tv-watching companionship – as he had never really wanted to sit with us or engage with us, roaming pleasantly into and out of the rooms and across the lawns, and straight through my own variously-colored years in a vague plumb line, a benign and amusing and unaffected distant uncle. Why didn’t I sit with him? etc. What I wouldn’t give. etc etc
He’d been a living sparkler once, before my era – camping with my older brother and sister and wrestling with the family dog, Chipper, on the black and white lawn of the home movie my mom is always surprised to watch, and which I could wholly recreate with pencil and paper if given a few days. Chipper, lost to time when he wandered out of the Ohio motel room they’d booked for my young aunt’s cancer funeral several months before I was born. Chipper, the famous Wing Golden Era family pet, seems to break my old mother’s heart anew every time his fate comes up. She is haltingly amazed and aghast at being the only sibling yet alive, stunned twice a week by her mother’s death by car crash in a small town in Wyoming in 1961, grandpa asleep-at-the-wheel-then-suddenly-waking-but-too-late, Aloha’s own running outside into the hurricane in Puerto Rico, tipsy, the other revelers waving in syrupy panic from behind the picture window – come back in the house! Bob was waving, too. We laugh. He didn’t come out to save you mom, he just waved! Too funny. I can make that moment really very funny. Aloha receives with confused quietude and very occasional flashes of revelation and laughter news of her former life. But when she is made to recall Chipper’s languid, unhurried walk to a nearby copse of motel trees, never ever ever to be seen again – she grows very quiet, very quiet. Why did she turn her head away? How can a single moment wreak such havoc? That’s what moments are for, in part. Chipper is lost in time. A door opens on a little coal furnace of deep sorrow. Strange what captures us.
It’s almost all of a piece now, though. Aloha loved and lived, and yet does so. But her weekends with Bob at the Officers Clubs, from Florida to Libya? Back there somewhere, if anywhere at all. Might as well not have happened at all. Really. So what’s the use? What’s the use of it? Anyone? And that guy up there on the wall in his uniform and cap, what’s that about? She looks up at the canvas studiously, as one would take in a painting in a museum, and she turns to me smiling and embarrassed.
“Who is that guy, again?”