by Joe Shea
September 18, 2010
CRASHING THE TEA PARTY
PLANTATION, Fla. -- It's been raining so hard here in South Florida that the canal beyond our backyard overflowed and the ducks were swimming on the grass. It's just another of the many reasons this place would be a gold mine if I could write fiction.
In the process of moving my mother out of her condo complex and into a one-bedroom apartment in an independent living facility, I've been hearing and seeing some unhinged things.
For example, Don the Handyman came by yesterday to fix a leaky skylight. He used to live in this development with an 85-year-old mother who has Alzheimer's. Now he lives with his girlfriend in Pompano Beach.
I suggested that a girlfriend trumps a mother any day. And he just looked sad. "I loved living here," he said. "I knew almost everyone. I shopped and cooked and took care of my mother. I had a great life. Then the Alzheimer's kicked in. She decided that I was evil, that I was ripping her off or something, and she told me to leave. I stayed for a while, because someone needed to take care of her, and I knew it was the Alzheimer's talking. But then she ordered me to move all my furniture and belongings out of the house. She was screaming at me. I figured that after all these years, if she was so unhappy with her only son, maybe she should be without him. I called my sister and said, 'It's your turn now.' Then I moved in with my girlfriend and I haven't seen my mother since."
I've often encountered stories like Don's here in Elderland. As parents grow old and frail, they need help. And it's a sad fact, but many of my generation - people who came of age in the Sixties - just never got it together on their own. Maybe it was a too-high self-regard, or drugs, or sex, or a kind of unlimited freedom that was hard to handle.
But they went out into the world in some ways unprepared for the difficulties and responsibilities of adult life. They married, but their marriages ended in divorce. Their jobs evaporated. They got older. The high life ended. So, with their parents needing help in a place where the mortgage is paid and the living is easy, they just move back home.
It almost never goes well - there is a lot of resentment, frustration and sometimes outright hatred involved. But at least the elders aren't alone.
A few days ago, Mom and I were visited by the daughter of one of her oldest friends, a woman who is slightly younger than I am. She recently moved back home because, as she said, "I'm so artistic that I can't find a place I belong."
Her mother hates her. And is completely reliant on her. She brought with her a close friend, a massage therapist who told me she was "spiritual" and followed me around the house telling me that I was "a deep thinker."
Then she lowered her voice and whispered: "When you jump in the swimming pool, you get wet."
Her mother, who was also with them, was the most interesting of the lot. She was a former tap dancer and an artist with an amazing face - wrinkled but lively and surrounded by a halo of frizzy orange hair. It was the kind of face you see in certain French films: old and weathered and wise.
She told me that back in 1995, she and her husband were coming back from a restaurant after celebrating their 50th anniversary. He was driving. When they came to a red light, she saw his hand slip off the wheel and his foot make a determined stomp on the brake. Then he slumped. The light changed and the car didn't move. She jumped out, along with the driver of the car behind her. Together they tried CPR, but her husband was wedged behind the steering wheel and they couldn't move him.
This man's last act on earth was stopping the car and saving his wife's life.
"I saw him take his last breath," she told me. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it."
It's been raining hard in South Florida. And there are a lot of ways to get wet.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.