Aloha, Aloha

Aloha Gist maybe 1933

As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.

Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.

Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.

In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.

The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”

When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”

My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.

This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.

In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.

Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.

At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.

A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.

At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch.  Love you, Pat.

We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.

My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”

It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.

“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.

Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.

Aloha Wing off to Wayne State circa 1940

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they got the littlest Gist. It took them nearly 91 years

Aloha Jeanette Bill Gist and friends circa 1930

Is there a Thermodynamics-like, mathematically inflexible truth that applies to this? Following all the days, all the afternoons, the various carpeted rooms we gather in over time; beads on a plain tattered string.  So blase in our carefully chosen shirts and pants and socks and so on, we can only faintly apprehend the turning of that gear. In the room with my mother as she ‘passed’ it was clearly impossible that all those years and ‘qualia’, her girlhood spent amiably graying her parents’ hair, her Marching Majorette period, her leaving for Panama with her mother from the thronged docks of Manhattan and being interviewed by a new-fangled t.v. reporter there, her date at a Glenn Miller dance with a sweet guy named Wayne, whose Miller fandom planted him firmly before the Great Man’s bandstand where he gawped for hours while teen Aloha glowered on the periphery (are we gonna dance or what, Wayne?), her 1942 job plane-spotting for the Defense Department, her chance meeting with grinning, irrepressible Bob at a USO dance that year, their Officer’s Clubs, scotches-and-waters, sun-drenched days drinking beer and wine with friends in Puerto Rico, the hurricane parties, the love and loss and open sobbing and breathless laughter, the loss of dear Jeanette, the loss of Chipper during Jeanette’s interment, parent-teacher conferences and homework help, her run-in with Muammar Gaddafi, her late-period competitive swimming, my little brother’s harrowing, defining accident; all winnowed down to this quiet little curtained cul-de-sac, a door off a polished, carefully appointed hallway in this celebrated hospice facility. I know all that experiential platinum isn’t actual matter, but one still intuitively gawps and wonders where it goes on these occasions, this immense quantity of brutally real stuff. This particular wild occasion is the death of my mother. Or my mom, rather. What are the secret movements and quantum dissipations of a human lifetime of stored ‘feeling’? No, it’s not a chimera that is sealed into nothingness when our dumb, quivering little machines switch off.

At the beginning she was a rosy-cheeked little chipmunk who, as soon as she could connive, wink, and shimmy through an open window, began to wear the glimmer in the eye she so shamelessly displays in the photo above. That’s her in the front center, next to the kid who looks like an Our Gang extra. This is like wildlife photography, to be able to capture that elusive moment when Aloha can be seen actually concocting plans to disrupt, surprise, and frustrate. These are qualities she evidenced to the last, and her mischief remained as purist and transparent as that nascent plan clearly being hatched in the rare image that fronts this essay.  Aloha Gist 1930sA massive stoke, like a hammer, tore away her speech and her senses 9 days ago, the bleeding in her previously plan-crammed head ruining everything, shoving aside her power, her laughter, her outstretched arms, clouding and then closing those baby blue hi-beams that greeted every sparkling day for nine decades. The injury did not staunch her singing, though. As if to mock the complaining Exec Director of her last independent living apartment, she sang. The director’s slack-jawed concurrence with the whining nabobs around Aloha’s dinner table, they who complained of her singing at dinner, obliged her second-to-last move; from her favorite spot by the front window to a table in the dead center of the dining commons.

Now I awaken for the first time in my life without my mom on the planet. How long, on waking, does it take me to remember that? Sometimes a couple minutes. She is ‘gone’. Impossible. But that’s been said by my vagrant predecessors and there is no novelty in it. We lament our vanishing mothers. If you believe the poet Philip Larkin, she isn’t here and she isn’t anywhere else, either. I can almost believe it. She was as cold as a bowling ball by the end of the day today, very very very gone. A twenty-something young lady with cute eyeglasses and a charming lisp and a slightly stammering presentation of the Eternal said we could come in and watch her heft my mom’s stiffening shell, and we declined. She entered the room and, we’re told, gently wrapped mom in a sheet, lifting her with a practiced movement of arms and legs that is unique to the business of moving our dead from one gurney to another and thence to a ceremonial hole or fire. Aloha was no slender reed by the end of her journey, and I imagined the candy-striper losing her balance with her outstretched arms filled with Aloha, staggering out the open terrace door, over the decorative flagstone wall and seven-hundred feet down the ivy-covered, nearly vertical hill. That would’ve been just the ticket.

**

Aloha and Jean Gist 1936

Youngest and oldest sisters chatting cinematically about the arc, each one individual, they will follow. Jean will find Mike, and Aloha her Bob. There was no greater luck.

Not truly believable.  That explains some things just now. Until 5:16 that morning she was everywhere. When I came-to in 1959, she was here already. She’s always been here. Before Jeff was, Aloha Am. She has been the overarching inhabitant of my reality, of my bread and butter life, as common as the motes of dust. Yeah yeah yeah, mom mom mom. These fugue states are among the most familiar in our written record. I mean, the first shelter we apprehend is mom. You wake up inside her, for chrissakes. When it gets more primal than that summon the waiter. Does an Aloha pass away and not leave a trace? Can anyone do that? A fire without smoke? The thought is literal nonsense but is the cornerstone of our rational discourse. But when she left the room earlier tonight she was as cold as a telephone, as they say. So where’d she go? It’s been my wild privilege to spend the past fourteen years with her as her primary companion and caregiver and overseer. In truth I’ve been a first rate companion and a second rate caregiver. When my father died she carried on for 7 more years and then we thought it best she move out heAloha Wing with Jill 3712 Horatio Tampa 1949re. She rented an apartment, swam every day at the YMCA next door, pedaled for an hour a day on a recumbent bike, took daily walks around the car dealerships that ruled her mid-town street, walked over to the mall next door. And eventually began leaving the stove burners on through the day, so that I’d show up at night for a visit and could feel the heat radiating all the way from the font door. Or the stove clock timer would be going off, that droning little buzzer that is activated by the little black plastic dial on stove timers of a 70s and 80s vintage. I’d come in and it would just be buzzing, and sometimes I wouldn’t even notice the buzzing till a minute or so had passed. One night this struck me as very curious, as if the constancy of the drone in my absence had infected the apartment, had somehow worked its way into the sonic environment. I had the sense that the buzzing had so ensconced itself in the very theme of my mom’s apartment that it was not as immediately detectable as it might have been the first day it went off. Is that thinking ‘crazy’?

Bob & Jeff & Aloha 1972

the river quietly overruns its banks, to devastating effect

That morning I was sleeping next to her bed on a cot-like thing that folded out of an easy chair in the beautifully appointed hospice room. It must be said they lavish much more attention on the dying than on the visiting living in those places. It seems churlish to complain. But the hide-a-thing had that omnipresent cross-bar that bites into the area just below the scapula, plural. I’d been sleeping fitfully next to my dying mom. I’d grown accustomed to the mission. My mother was in this room to pass away and I was, when everyone had gone home, alone with her to travel through that process with her.  I would awaken periodically throughout the night since she was snoring like a lumberjack (“she’s snoring like a lumberjack!” I’d exclaimed to the grief counselor when she introduced herself, to which remark she blinked rapidly) and remember without alarm that I was lying next to my dying mom, dying after all this time, all those houses and kitchens and back yards and so on. I was sanguine, in a strange way. The previous two days had been such that this denouement was almost relaxing. Then I woke up in early morning twilight, raised myself on my left elbow. The night nurse cut an indistinct silhouette on the other side of my mom’s bed in the half-light. She was checking mom’s breathing. They’d been giving her something called atropine through the day, to reduce the secretions in her lungs, to ease the labor of her rattling intakes of air.

everything is shapes

everything is shapes

I’ve learned since that Atropine is a derivative of the Deadly Nightshade plant, and is named after Atropos, one of the Three Fates in Greek mythology. She’s the one who decides the exact manner of every individual death. The nurse found nothing amiss, she told me later, and left the room to get some more atropine. When she left the room I saw, still propped on my left elbow on the adjacent cot, that my mom’s breathing was slow, so slow. While I peered through the slowly increasing light she exhaled and was still for maybe 30 seconds. The breathing had stopped. I jumped up and leaned over the bed like a nervous orderly, I touched her hair. She took in a relieving, rattling breath, shallow, and I released my own breath. Then she exhaled slowly slowly slowly and was still. That was it. A vanishing act. Then, changing perspectives, you cry in lurching heaves and then it passes somewhat, and you climb in and lay next to your mother and even through your shock you feel the heat leaving her, and it seems in no particular hurry to leave her, no drama. But it is 90 years of 98.6 taking its final leave, and that’s a privilege to feel.  Then later, two days later, at the bus stop, you stare up at the blue morning sky, and see yourself staring up at the sky and there is a vain, pleasing sense of piety. But why do we think our loved ones are up there? I don’t think that. Up there in the sky? And anyway it isn’t really ‘up’.  It’s out.

Mom. Enough. Goodbye! Goodbye.

The Opus in Gethsemane

Easter Sunday 2014 (‘…in three days I will raise him up…’) my mom walked cheerily out of her independent living apartment for the last time. She’d stopped whistling several months before or she surely would have been whistling as we left, as she had been whistling every day of our lives as far back as I can remember. I have her by the arm now. This particular Sunday (he shifts into full-frontal present tense) we walk arm in arm like a couple of pals going out for a stroll, her thrice-broken left linked trustingly to my right. She is wearing her familiar black puffy vest and red sweater. Her apartment is the usual mild mess with small stacks of newspapers and books everywhere, her bed hastily made.

“You like the way I make my bed?” Umpteenth.

“Yeah, where does one find a blind butler these days?” Umpteenth.

Today, with no preamble and no ceremony, we just walk out. Goodbye, apartment. And something irretrievable just…ends. All brouhaha to the contrary, when stuff ends in this life it just ends. Your dad dies forever and you drive home from the hospital and sit on your dumb familiar couch with your mom and sister and little brother and the cheap wall clock in the kitchen seems not to know that some big fucking thing just happened in the universe, the biggest thing so far. My father died about 2 miles from here, in a hospital bed! My big sister was with him when it happened! I was driving my mom home so she could get some rest and he passed while I was driving back to him! I found my sister crying and rushed in and kissed his cooling forehead, inadvertently trapping the startled nurse by the stilled machines so that she had to stand there jammed in the corner and look away while I kissed my dad’s face! O ticktockticktocktick. Now some 20 years later, my mom and I walk out of apt. 206.

Her Door, her Life Door? It’s beginning to close, and it’s an enormous Door, so large that its swinging massively on its hinge produces a movement like that of the moon across the sky, or distant mountains on a cross-country road trip with the family. There is movement, but it’s imperceptible. Imperceptible but by the fucked and very very useless gift of hindsight. But this hasty afternoon Aloha is going down and down and down to the dungeon of her last days on Earth. I’m taking her there with our arms linked. The import of this day must not mean much to me as we leave the apartment, because on the way over to lead my poor mother to slaughter I have done a work errand, dropping off some documents with an architect. ‘I’ll just work this into the morning on my way over to move my mom to the slaughterhouse’. She has her questions, once I’ve reminded her again that today is ‘moving day’.

“Why am I moving?”

“Remember? The management here says, and they regret it, because everyone loves you here, they say you have to move. Because your memory is getting dangerously bad.”

“My memory!” she galumphs and hangs her head like Walter Matthau. “What’s that got to do with anything!”  I’d been explaining to mom, sometimes 6 or 7 times in a 10  minute period, that her increasingly (if still mildly) erratic behaviors had obliged the management to ask her to leave the apartment she had lived in for 10 years. She would be moving into a place (I was careful not to use familiar, horrifying bromides euphemizing safety or security – buzzwords to failing seniors that only say Incarceration and Death) where a nice couple would be able to watch over her; benign caretakers who would make sure she didn’t fall. Of all the useless things to avoid, to take such lavish steps to avoid. FALLING!? Falling on an unattended walk is the finest champagne, ambrosia –  the delicious afterglow of a dream she wakes from every daybreak.

I explain again now to my mom, in telegraph; I’m tired of explaining this! Her behavior at the senior independent living apartment house had changed a little recently, her demeanor had begun to change a very little. She had yelled at a dining companion who had complained about her constantly singing at table (always ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ or ‘Two Sleepy People’), and then mom had lost her prize seating by the front window and been moved to a table in the center of the dining commons. The next day the lackluster and frankly inept manager of the facility complained to me that Aloha could not remember to go to the new table. Then she’d walked out of the front door at 2am in her nightclothes, made her way down to State Street and been gently returned by two good Samaritans and the police. This late-night episode of ‘wandering and elopement’ (episodic dementia terminology that is cruelly ironic in its seeming reference to marital joy) had been boldly marked on the indemnifying mimeograph the slack-faced building manager had asked me to sign a couple days later. The form protected the apartment owners from legal action should my mom walk into traffic or simply walk away.

At the obligatory doctor’s appointment mom was asked a series of questions in my presence; had to know the date (nope), the year (nope), what city she was in (nope), what a pen was (got it), what a ring was (got it), had do redraw a Venn Diagram right next to the original drawing (strangely, no), had to spell world backwards (she got as far as d and l). She did get three things right and was amusing besides, for which they give no extra credit.

When the doctor asked her height mom said ‘5 foot 5 1/2. And that half inch means a lot to me! ‘ During the cognitive test the nurse asked her ‘what State are you in?’ ‘October‘, says mom. The nurse and I exchanged glances. ‘No, what STATE are you in? Are you in Wisconsin, Florida? Maine?’ “Ooh, what STATE,’ mom says, and thinks about it. ‘August.’ she says. Then she starts laughing. Then, resigned; ‘I don’t know what state I’m in.’ A couple weeks before, mom and I had been about to enter a watch store to get her watchband resized. As we approached the door she pulled back on my arm and said ‘I can’t go in there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. She pointed to a sign in the bottom of the window. No Bags Allowed.

Today, though, the Move. All the cascading elements have been leading to this. She is copacetic

“Oh well, whatever. I have to move, right? So let’s do it. I don’t mind moving.” The stiffened girlish shrug. Even then, I felt relief and not sorrow, despite knowing full well she would very soon now find herself enclosed and confused and frightened and without a single scrap of the hope that had, for some years, been dwindling in concert with the square footage of her shrinking domiciles.

“Yeah, you like to move, right? Born into the Army, married into the Air Force,” I said. She laughed.

“That right!”

So anyway we close her apartment door. “Take a good look!” I say enthusiastically, but feel the first mild sinking. She looks briefly around and nudges me playfully.

“Let’s go!” o god o god o god if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew if she knew

We walk downstairs. When we pass through the hallway behind the reception desk, by the mailboxes and sign-up clipboards, she completely surprises me by saying ruminatively ‘I’ll never see this place again’. Some of her friends and acquaintances there haltingly sense something and gather. Where is Jeff taking her? A couple of them look at us with troubled expressions, not sure how to process this. But they know, with whatever increasingly fine-tuned avian sense these fragile wraiths develop as they move forward into their own winnowing-down, they know that what is happening is The Thing. It is The Thing. The Thing That Happens. As if in the increasing fineness of the structural physical body there is more resonance, a heightened sensitivity to changes in timbre. They know. And now the group of glorious, chummy oldsters, they who have so lovingly seen my mom through these 10 years of falling action, they are murmuring the dreaded ‘goodbye’ – another one of their friends being weeded out, like  a soldier in a battle of attrition, or a siege. And now we’re just heading out the front door of the place. Just like that.

“Goodbye!” I say, as much to prompt my mom’s awareness as to actually, really say goodbye. I’ll be back to clear out the apartment, explain to everyone what has happened, apologize for the abrupt departure. I’ll be back. “Goodbye, goodbye.”

“Wait!”

Lupe, a longtime Aloha booster, comes hustling out from behind the reception desk. “I can’t let you go without a hug!” she says, hurrying to my startled mom and throwing her arms around her in a very demonstrative and unquestionably final hug of farewell. This is a Last Time Forever. Aloha doesn’t raise her arms at first, but then she does, hesitantly. When Lupe pulls away tearily my mom turns to the door and she has a furrowed brow and water falling out of her eyes and an expression that says “Why am I crying?

I’m not a liar, I’m a traitor.  For Aloha this is the end of the day. The day I was born she would not have guessed that I would be the bailiff ushering her to a lasting confinement. Through an unremarkable little gate. Let’s keep up the cheery chatter, the terrified chatter, because what am I doing to my mother right now in full sunlight? I’m giving her a drink of poison, a long slaking draught of poison, not from a chalice but from a fucking jelly jar.

We walk the sidewalks of the City College campus, look appreciatively at the striking Pacific Ocean and while away the minutes, a little delaying tactic, and as the minutes pass I see a black mountain looming, just up ahead there. An hour? A friend of Sam’s walks by and says hello. Aloha seems mildly embarrassed to be seen, but as always she is suddenly not 90 but 40.

“Hey, nice to meet you!” she says with that trailing laugh I’ve known forever.

An hour later we pull up to her new House, the couple who run the place come to the gate to greet us, the gate is swung open, and with my splayed hand on mom’s back…my mom just walks right through the gate. And that is the end of that. We walk into the house. A speechless crone with long gray hair sits in a wheelchair at a lovely dining room table working her jaw and my mom looks at her with horror. Frank, the burly husband of the two who run the place says to Aloha –

“You like apple?” He puts his arm across my mom’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” she says cautiously.

“I’ll cut it up for you!” he says and strides off. My mom sits down, and I sit down with her at the dining room table. The crone is bobbing her long face and her long stringy gray hair, she’s babbling – a crazy old ghoul from Central Casting. When my mom can take her eyes off her she looks at me. The little light flickers on.

“Let’s go. Let’s go home.”

Here it is.

“Mom – this is home. You’ve moved here.” Of course she looks at me blankly for 5 seconds – and then her face, very very suddenly, you would say ‘spontaneously’, her face folds into a grimace of horror and her very blue eyes are aswim in sudden water.

“Oh, no!”

Clench your fist under the table, asshole. This is what you get, asshole. Keep it together.

“Mom – ”

“Oh, no, let’s get out of here! Oh, no, Jeff.”

“Where do you want to go?” I ask stupidly, my blood on the run, heart slamming.

“Let’s go, oh, please – let’s just go! I don’t care where! Let’s get out of here!”  Never seen her like this, not since Pat’s accident. And her blue eyes are full of water but it won’t fall down her face. The fullness of the trap makes itself known, it’s slammed shut already. When I watched her walk blithely through that gate in the driveway, I should’ve grabbed her. NO! Let’s go, mom! Forgive me! It’s a trap, a trick! But now 20 years of sickened anticipation is over, the surreal is real, and the gate is shut. This is that moment. She knows it. It has struck her like a wave. She raises her hands –  her arms –  raises her arms up as if to fend something off and lightly brushes her temples with her fingertips, a horror actress about to push her hands through her hair.

“Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

“Mom …let’s walk to the back. C’mon.” I adopt the ameliorating tone of a confidant. “C’mon, let’s walk to the back.” This is what ‘unbearable’ means. This is what that means. I can’t bear it. Just walk and hold her. There is a long driveway, it bends to the left as you walk to the back of the property and there is a sitting area with an umbrella. We sit down, but I don’t remember what was said, because within a half-minute Frank comes walking boldly toward us. My rescuer.

“Heeey! Let’s eat!” he says, Telly Savalas announcing supper. Slavika is with him in her apron; a nice, humor-filled Croatian couple. Been doing this for 30 years. Highly regarded, fully licensed, seen it all. Done it all. They shower their stupefied residents while wearing surgical gloves. Aloha, my mother, looks at me and grabs my forearm. I can’t. I CAN’T!! Frank looks at me conspiratorially as he says –

“Come on, we got dinner.” He face is motioning to me – Now is Your Chance, she just needs to acclimate, it’s better this way. Aloha gets the whole routine, though, and she looks at me. THAT look. And she just takes her hand off my forearm. And now I can see her door closing and the moon sweeping across the sky and all the bullshit gears working their phony magic. Frank gets on one side, Slavika on the other, they’re very gentle, they coax her to her feet and she rises from the cushioned lawn chair with difficulty.

“Come on, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Slavika assures in the singsong mantra of a caregiver. My mom, to my surprise, seems relaxed, her posture has loosened. But then I see it’s a striking surrender. Frank looks down at her and speaks very gently.

“You like potato salad?” My mom, while I watch, looks up at him with a sort of doomed leer, a gallows smile. WTF is that? I’ve never seen that expression. Has she ever used it before? She looks up at him and smiles, a ‘sad’ smile, a smile of saddened new ‘hello’. She is more alive and aware and aflame than anyone else in the scene. She looks right at his eyes.

“Yeah. I like potato salad,” she says with disgust, smiling. The white flag.

She lowers her face, she lets herself be escorted down the driveway. Am I seeing this? Frank and Slavika make faces and gestures – you can take this time to leave – it’s the perfect time. It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay! Go to your car, she’s fine. I’m afraid, though. My mom’s going to look over and see me leaving, Judas slipping between the guards. But she just walks between them without looking back. What is this? She puts her left hand on her hip as she walks between them, a gesture of fortitude, of putting her back into something. To my puzzlement, she doesn’t even look back toward me, doesn’t look back at all!  The goddamndest thing. Ever. EVER. I didn’t picture this. Her rounded shoulders obscured by her new keepers, she shuffles up onto the porch and through the open door. And that is how I killed my mother.

Bob and Chipper are Lost in Time

Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB
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?”

The Last Evenings of My Mom and Me

Aloha and Bob

There are few animals in the kingdom as easy to sneak up on as as the terminally bored, tragically ossifying 90 year-old former livewire, now parked unwittingly and inevitably in one of life’s final Waiting Rooms; a senior apartment house of the ‘independent living’ variety. Because my mom is losing her footing and her faculties, it’s a smallish parlor trick, this illusion that I appear out of nowhere, a little ceremony that always brings a brief surfeit of joy as Aloha glances up from her newspaper or magazine, her previously expressionless face bursting into an astonished smile, my self-serving reward, my booster shot, much needed on those visits because the hours that follow are often difficult ones, wherein she will ask the same questions 15 times each, react with anger when I assure her for the 100th time that the handsome serviceman next to whom she is all aglow in the large sepia photo on the wall is indeed her husband of 49 years (now deceased for 20), and will refuse again to understand why her adult diapers are to be disposed of and not washed in the bathroom sink, a ritual that leaves the deliriously absorbent items crazily swollen with tap water and heavy as basketballs and hanging about the bathroom like the foul fruit of a nightmare. I’ve hefted one of these soaked things in one toweled hand and demanded of my mother “Can you imagine ever putting this on again?!” to which she always answers with a right-back-at-ya “Hell yeah!” Game, set, match.

At around 7pm on December 23rd, 2013, I surprised my mother in the usual way with a visit to her apartment house lobby. She was bent over a clipboard and applying her still pristine and grandiose signature to the twice-weekly-field-trip-by-van roster. Perfect, I thought, and crept up to within 8 or so feet of her. She will look up and I will have appeared, to her great happiness and surprise and mild consternation, out of nowhere.  When she did look up though, effecting a mild double-take when she realized she was being so stalked, her face remained slack, one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen. Her eyes registered no flash of recognition, there was no beatific smile of relief and love and familiarity.  Nothing.  Her look just took me in. I was a simple unencumbered physical fact, the years and moments and heartaches and joys and mediocrities we’ve shared, our mass-conferring Higgs, gone in that instant.

“Mom?”

She didn’t know who I was, hadn’t a clue. I was a dark-haired man standing and staring and grinning like an idiot. My posture and easy smile told her, apparently, that I was no danger to her, that at least I was a Friendly. It was as if a huge steamer trunk of journals and photographs, memories and fleeting thoughts and scraps of conversation, a human life’s worth of carelessly considered Moments, had been opened and its contents tipped into the middle of the deep sea.

My nose looks this way because in the summer of ’73 I was biking to the Boulder, Colorado Elks Club pool with my neighbor Cathy and my little brother Patrick, and at the corner of Quince Avenue and Broadway I attempted to cross without looking both ways. I’d peeked to my right and seen no threatening oncoming traffic, and I’d listened briefly for a car coming the other way and heard nothing. When I started across I was slammed by a southbound Toyota Corolla, breaking my left knee and flipping me handily onto the hood, my face then kissing the windshield with full concussive ardor. The freaked driver, a young man, slammed on his brakes, naturally, and I was comically launched 50 or so feet through the air in my beige swimsuit and t-shirt and hit the asphalt in a full body skid whose hot friction adhered my trunks to my right buttock, burning down through several layers of living skin and commingling the synthetic fabric with the nerves and blood vessels there. I remember the accident, as most remember such things, as a smooth-running film of a summer afternoon from which several celluloid feet are suddenly and silently removed, the disorientation of the narrative line a spontaneously nauseating and bewildering veil of magic dropped down to further confuse the mix of injury and horror. I was crossing the street on my newish Browning 10-speed and then with no mediating footage to explain the transition I was lying on the ground with Cathy’s face bobbing above and crying out Jeff! Jeff! in a tone I would never have previously imagined coming out of my wise-cracking co-conspirator in first kisses and vague proto-sexual experimentation by tween bedroom black light. The impact had turned my nose south by southwest, my once proud if unremarkable Robert Wing aquiline turned forever after to a small-scale, jarringly asymmetric Russet potato.

In the ambulance I heard a lady say ‘too bad, he’s a cute kid’ and vividly remember, even in the context of this emergency, feeling a full body blush of amazed gratification and excitement. At the hospital I found myself on a gurney while a roomful of professionals swirled and hollered without alarm. I was stunned and sick, rolling sideways and throwing up into a bedpan every three minutes. Where was I, what had happened, where were the people I knew, etc. I learned later my kid brother Patrick, who would some time later suffer his own traffic-related tragedy, had bike-sprinted the mile or so back to our house and burst in sobbing “I don’t have a brother any more!”

So finally, in the thick of the maelstrom and out of the clear blue my mom burst into the emergency center, whirling through the crowd like a movie actress, rushing smoothly to my side. I remember she pushed out of the crowd, grasped my arm, her looming face a portrait of crazy love and terror and concern and torment, and she yelled something and placed her hand on my bloodied hair and looked straight at me, locking eyes the way mothers do with their troubled or injured kids. Our eyes would now never lock that way again. How is this even possible? In the ~ 50 years of my memory my mother, Aloha Wing, has looked straight at me with various expressions of exasperation, amusement, love, anger, a little despair a couple times, across countless joking, berating, conversing mornings and afternoons and evenings of my life. Dawn, midday, dusk. Clean your room, Jeff. Mow the lawn, please, Jeff. Thank you for the nice card, honey. You’re not excused till you finish your dinner, Jeff; yes, even the green beans. Is your homework done? Empty the dishwasher, will you, Jeff? Jeffry, hang up your clothes. (sobbing on the phone) Jeff, Jeff…come over here, something’s happened to Patrick…

My omnipresence, my mom. Our story’s final shared paragraph fading after not very many years, not many at all. Where’d that lawn-mowing boss go? Where’s the Bridge player in slacks with her hair poofed up? All those afternoons? The crazy yoga period? My Cub Scout period? Her then-embarrassing and now endearing ineptitude as our Den Mother? Her lifelong teary laughter at my jibes and impressions?

This new woman wears my mother’s half-dozen rattling bracelets, sports her blue eyes, but the woman who stroked my bloody hair and looked straight into my eyes – she’s gone. Not temporarily. Tonight I met her replacement; a kind of benign stepmother. Where is the other one? River of Time plows heedlessly on and on and on, giving the fragile moments and hours, days, weeks, months and years a platinum sheen to dazzle the eyes, then drowns every last one of us.