Sunday, February 7, 2010

Time Marches On

There are many films I've seen many dozens of times: Hitchcock's The Birds and Notorious, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, and so many, many others. An interesting thing that happens after so many viewings is that your perspective starts to drift and change in relationship to where you are in your life and what's currently happening to you. Watch To Kill A Mockingbird when you're eight and you're drawn into a spooky Southern gothic world of children's games and looming dangers; see it at 50 and you wonder how Atticus manages to pay for a housekeeper in the throes of the Great Depression.

Recently, I caught Harold and Maude on television, and was no less delighted by it than I had been when my college friends and I would all get high and see it again and again at some retro house in Harvard Square. I'd forgotten how many Cat Stevens songs there are in it -- not just the ones that come easily to mind, but others that show his talent and provide a musical backdrop for the story -- but now it's hard not to also be aware of the performer's conversion to Islam, and how that somehow makes us view him differently than we did then. I think I also now relate more to Harold's imperious mother, setting up a string of pathetic dates for Harold with one fortune-hunting loony after another. You can see how she finds Harold so annoying; can't he just enjoy being wealthy like everyone else? But the one takeaway I didn't quite expect was this: I used to be Harold, with a full life of possibilities ahead of me. Now I'm Maude, with a far more limited array of serious choices to make about my remaining time on earth.

I bring all this up because, like many middle-aged men, I'm currently facing the realities of having really elderly parents. In fact, it sort of amazes me that at 52 I still have parents. For several years now, my many siblings and I (six children in a Roman Catholic family) have been noticing the slow decline of my father, always a healthy and vigorous and generally pretty gregarious man, one who used to blow smoke rings and pull the tablecloth out from under eight place settings without disturbing a glass. Now nearly 86, he's become silent and forgetful, displaying alarming lapses such as claiming to never have visited a restaurant he and my mother have frequented every week for two decades, or wiping the dishes but putting them away in bedrooms and far-flung corners of the house. My mother is a strong-willed woman but never bothered to learn to drive or manage finances, and now she finds herself stepping up to fill the gaps -- watching for turnpike exits, accompanying him to the supermarket because he returns with strange odds and ends not on her carefully crafted list. Having seen some of the signs, I gave her the opportunity, two summers ago, when the entire family gathered back East to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary, to talk about what was happening. She wasn't ready at that point, but a year later, when the situation had worsened, it all spilled out to my sister, who shoulders the burden of dealing with their many needs because she lives so near them. Dad's muddled confusion, his uncharacteristic anger and surliness, his refusal to take a shower before bed the way he had every night for 50 years, his silence in mixed company or when alone with my mother, all added up to an undeniable fact that finally needed to be addressed. My brother who lives here in California and my sister have joined forces with me to get him the help he needs, setting up an evaluation for dementia, googling possible treatments, and prepping my mother in setting the stage for whatever comes next. Years ago it seemed wasteful when Ruth Gordon's character took poison tablets at the onset of her 80th birthday; at my age I relate to that decision more with each passing day.

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