The Armchair Tale

The Armchair Tale

 

“Too many people in this room,”  he thought. “Again.”

It was getting late. 6 pm to be exact, the hour where everything would shut down at the factory.

“Closing time,” he’d like to say.

The sun going down was the best alarm system ever devised for Dad. It meant quiet would be restored. It was the time when he felt most relaxed, when the world, his world, was in order. Dad sensed someone approaching. He prepared for impact.

“Hi, Uncle George!” the Person said excitedly.

Dad instinctually knew which of his smiles to engage.

Hola!”

He had quite the array of smiles in his arsenal; some were broad, others were veiled politeness. They were never fake or insincere. This one smile was one of his most appreciated because it had genuine warmth, even if he didn’t quite know the source of its heat.

Dad also learned a while ago that his speaking in Spanish was always the best way to keep contact with short.

“If you gave them too much,” he’d reasoned to himself, “they’ll stay too long.”

Communicating with people was never this hard, or maybe it was? How long had this been his “new normal?” Everything felt so hazy these days as if his mind was processing photocopies with very little ink.

Some times, the images before him (memories?) were shockingly bright, with each color pushing its vibrancy to the limit. It was then he couldn’t help but smile. He could see his world so clearly, shapes and figures that felt so familiar and real. Most of the time, he was a witness to an expanse of grey that threatened to dominate everything. Not today, though.

Dad used to miss the “beautiful noise,” as he’d called it before he got “sick.” It still happened from time to time, his recognizing it.  That once beautiful din was often too loud now, and it scared him, something that never happened before.  For Dad, this human tidal wave of sounds, letters, and languages pulled him under without a floatation device.  He couldn’t begin to sort it all out, taking his breath away when a room full of people reached its audible peak.

Dad was well aware something was wrong with his brain. He’d known for some time that things were off. Mom was still a mental constant, as was Sis. They offered him two of the few respites from the long days waiting for “quitting time” to arrive.

“Oh my god! Uncle George looks so good!” said Another Figure.

“This one was more excitable than the other,” Dad thought to himself. Still, something in her face made him feel the need to offer more than one of his pre-fab smiles.

Bien! Bien!” Dad offered as he excitedly patted this Person’s hand for extra measure.

Of all his Old World manners and gestures, the hand pat was his most friendly, the one he only used with people that meant a great deal to him. Perhaps the criteria had slipped a bit of late, but the importance of it hadn’t waned. Not yet, anyway.

More people arrived, breaking his repose. Suddenly, Dad’s leather lounge chair felt like a steel trap. He wanted to leave, but where?

“I know I’m still me,” he thought. A surge of emotion was making its way to his brain, a lava-like substance that took very little time to heat and explode forth.

“Dad’s eyes are looking tense,” Someone said.

Hija? Hermana?

“He’s going to start kicking people out!” Someone else added.

Hijo? Hermano?

“I’m not angry!” Dad wanted to shout.

He didn’t feel sure about who everyone was in the room. His eyes darted furiously about the den, desperately trying to find the familiar faces of Mom and Sis, but they weren’t around. That made him panic ever so slightly, the color of his eyes shifting from their charming hazel shade to something foreboding and stormy.

Hace mucho ruido! Tanto ruido. Chingados!” Dad said to no one in particular.

For the record, Dad NEVER swore. In any language. But a long-buried archive of Spanish language profanities had since been unearthed. All bets were off as to when Dad would decide to access it.

“It’s so much better when it’s quiet. Don’t these people know?” he heard from within his fussy and uncooperative mind.

It felt like these words were tumbling forth. Dad could feel his mouth moving, forming a declarative sentence that could restore order, but it was futile. Even if he did manage to say something, it would not have been discernable to anyone. All they would hear was a defeated sigh from the man they came to visit and love as he settled deeper into the isolating safety of his leather armchair.

Eulogy for My Dad or #Poppadoodlesforever

Eulogy for My Dad or #Poppadoodlesforever

IMG_7617My sister Nancy coined the name “Poppadoodles” way back when. I instantly loved the sound of it, both frivolous and absurd, two words you’d never use when you wanted to describe Dad. He was Big George, Jorge Sr., Tío Jorge, but never Don Jorge, or Jefe. He represented many things to many people.

Dad passed away the morning of  Tuesday, February 26 at the age of 94 at our home in Pico Rivera. It didn’t rain that day. The sun was out. He was surrounded by family and our closest friends. Alzheimer’s was also his nefarious companion during the last 12 years of his life. It finally left us alone, but it never fully took Dad away.  Jorge Sr. knew where he was and who was the source of the love in that living room space that day.

Writing about him in the past tense makes me want to scream. Thinking about him in the past tense makes me want to cry. That is why I choose to focus my emotion on words these days. Words were my best friend as a chubby, eccentric kid. Words were what kept Dad entertained as he shuttled us all over Los Angeles to meet rock bands at record signings, shows, musicals, sports, everything. A carefully folded newspaper or magazine was also with him when he played chauffeur to the exciteable brood that was us.

I never did ask what he read about or what he even thought about what he read. I just know that when it was time to take us home, he carefully folded the material back up and we’d begin the journey. That slice of peace and quiet was always obliterated by our breathless stories about who or what we saw. He’d smile and listen as we cut through the city with caution because his precious cargo was aboard.

God, I wish I did ask him about those articles in the Herald-Examiner or Newsweek. One time, he even stood in line with my brother and me at Tower Records on Sunset Blvd. We wanted to meet the legendary child known as Boy George. Talk about your culture club. (Boom.) When we got up to meet George, we told him our Dad was a George, too. A huge smile stretched across the Brit crooner’s tastefully made-up face. Wouldn’t you know they launched into a nice little chat? Like neighbors stopping for tea. It was something George did not have time for with any of gallery of nightcrawlers and club kids that were desperate for a similar audience? Dad had no idea who Boy George even was, saying “That’s a nice young man” as we walked away. I wish Steve Jobs had already conquered the world for an iPhone! Imagine the photo, heck, the footage! Still, the memory remains a treasure, regardless, and unfiltered all these years later.

It is fitting that Dad made his living as a textile engineer. The yarn spun on the daily at the factory was no less important and as strong as the family ties he weaved at home. It never frayed. Even when it was pulled to maximum tautness, we didn’t break. Sometimes the words I exchanged with Dad were in anger, punctuated by the slam of a door or the start of a car engine. Even our silences carried the weight and text of our thoughts. That wasn’t the case once he began his travels with Alzheimer’s. I’d be damned if I’d let that bastard of a disease rob me of my time with Dad. I fought against the ALZ hard with smiles, laughter, and talks, real talks. It started out in English and then transferred to Dad’s native Spanish when his mind placed me in that category of awareness.

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I have no regrets. I only possess this incredible want to have him here for a little while longer. I was able to say what I carried in my heart to him way before he left us. It is my most treasured moment with Dad. It happened at the Arboretum in Arcadia early last fall. Walking was tough for him, so I got him a wheelchair. We ventured around the gardens. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful day. In fact, it was grey and humid. The grounds were going through some pruning and renovations. The only added color that day was the famed peacocks, which were plentiful. I chose to tell Dad that I loved him and that he was right about so much. That I was sorry for all the hell I put him through. He was quiet for a moment, then, he asked if it was alright if he pushed me around the gardens, that I’d done enough. I said, “I don’t mind.” He answered, “Okay.” Then he started to comment on the peacocks, saying they don’t do anything. Just walk around and show off. I laughed. “Dad,” I said. I can’t believe you’re arguing with a peacock.” He just smiled and folded his hands on his lap. “I want to go home,” he said. So, we did.

Dad’s burial services were on a sunny Tuesday morning in Pico Rivera. I had the task of speaking, along with my brother. Writing his eulogy wasn’t easy, but when I started to write it, the words didn’t fail me. As my dear friend Ann said to me as my grief was in its upswing:

“He may be gone, but please know, as someone said to me when I lost my Dad, “The conversation continues.”

And it does…

A Eulogy for Dad by Jorge Carreón, Jr. 

IMG_2403When you’ve been blessed to live a life as long, rich and vivid as Dad’s, the brevity of a eulogy seems cruel and unfair. Six paragraphs and out. I couldn’t do that. You only have to stop, pause, take a breath and take a look around a room like this and see the emotion and extent of the impact one life can make. You take comfort in knowing that this speaks volumes to the character and respect generated by Jorge Ramirez Carreón. Words were his power, and words are the inherited power we wield today.

I remember the day after my big performance in a high school play when I asked Dad what he thought of my “star” turn. He said, “Mijo, you’re a lot of things, but you’re not an actor. Write. It is what you do best.” He was “right,” for lack of a better word. He was pretty much always right about things.

I’ve been staring at a blank screen for days, crafting this message of remembrance and goodbye for Dad. All I could hear in my head are messages like, “Is this going to be enough?” followed by “I can’t do this.” When I finally sat down to put these words up on a laptop screen, it was surrounded by his spirit at our family home in Pico Rivera. Flowers, his favorite slice of nature, were everywhere. Music, the songs inspired by his varied tastes, provided the underscore. It made sense to me here. He made sense to me here, the house that raised my siblings and me.

My brother has composed a fitting testimony to his life, the details and achievements of a life less ordinary, but extraordinary. He ventured from the security of his home and living in Mexico to venture into the unknown territory of the US. He met Mom, married, had four children; he built the life of their dreams. The palm tree that graces the center of our home in Pico is that perfect symbol of our family history. It stands taller than ever before. It has bent with strong winds, never breaking, even when it felt like life was too much. It is the summation of who we are as his people, his family. You find a piece of who we are with each frond. Lil’s maturity and leadership as the firstborn. Nancy’s devotion and selfless protection of us all. Ernesto’s poetry and introspection. Mom’s love of life and strength. It is resilience incarnate.

With Dad’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s 12 years ago, the first impulse was to think life was over, that he’d forget us all quickly, that the damage to his mind and body would be relentless. We were scared he’d never be able to partake in our lives most crucial moments as adults. We were cursed and doomed. Yet, in the end, it was a gift. My father getting lost in the haze of this infernal disease allowed me to find him again. It is a personal detail that I will never let go.

My family mobilized upon the Doctor’s word. Nancy and Ernesto led the charge in researching every facet of treatment programs, medications, insurance allowances, anything, and everything to make sure Dad would live his best life with us beside him. That he was with us for as long as he was, glowing with color and filled with energy, is a testament to everyone’s role in keeping Dad healthy and alive. We involved him in all aspects of our lives. He wasn’t “sick” Dad. He was chingón Dad for us, for everyone he’d offer a smile. That’s the lesson of his life. Don’t fear the illness; make it fear YOU.

Like many Latino men, we like to live in our memories, tasked with the preservation of our family lore. Being Jorge is not just sharing the same name. Being Jorge means living as the chief chronicler of my family. You should see the epic collection of slides that remain encased and boxed, dutifully scanned by my sister Nancy with Smithsonian-like care. That is why I was compelled to record all that is Us before Dad’s mental files were purged entirely of data. My family and I will never forget the outpouring of emotion felt by many of you who never had a chance to meet Dad in person but were witnesses to his life in other manners.

My name now carries a stronger aura of poetry and romance. Yet, Dad is singular, the original creation. My task is never to let his memory fade, preserving that beautiful handprint in my heart, in all of our hearts.

Back to the power of words. Dad era creyente, a devout believer. He was a voracious reader, informed, an elegant debater who loved a good match of wits. I ask you all to take a moment at some point today to think of a word that personifies what Dad means to you. Share it with us today, tomorrow, whenever inspiration strikes.

As for us? Let me tell you: Dad is adventurous, sage, loyal, devoted, humorous, strict, careful, silly funny, lover of the song “Guantanamera,” classical music and Lerner & Lowe showtunes, Howard Stern-listener, admirer of Trini Lopez, Willie Nelson & Glen Campbell, damn good long haul driver, world-traveler, Christmas card address monitor, abstract pancake maker, mistaker of wasabi for guacamole, Nescafe drinker, eater of canned tuna fish in Italy, church leader, Eagle Scout motivator, industrious, a textile engineer, cultivated, Catholic, mustached, bald, native son of Celaya, Caballero, Mexicano, husband, father, tío, hero. He is forever our Poppadoodles.

We love you, Dad. Te queremos mucho, Pa.

**This is a video produced by my brother Ernesto for his Mateo & 8th line of home decor. We played it during the rosary services in honor of Dad. Hearing his voice sound so confident was shocking for a moment, then, restorative and calming. I hope you give it a view. 

***Please consider making a donation to one of the following charities:

Alzheimer’s Los Angeles: https://www.alzheimersla.org

Alzheimer’s Association: https://www.alz.org/

Hilarity for Charity: https://hilarityforcharity.org/

Act II

Act II

Being a child of the 80s, the message of having it all seemed so easy to process. You went to school. You received a degree. You landed that dream job. Life was set. Easy peasy. Right?

Sort of?

I went to three schools, no degree. I did land a dream job, several. Life has been rather complicated thanks to my lack of financial restraint and other demons I have yet to truly conquer. But I’m trying, dammit. I’m trying.

I made a comment to my boss about making it only to “the middle.” Of course, he was annoyed that I am inferring that all of my hard work as a producer since 1999 only carried me as far as his company. That’s not why I meant. Not in the least. I’ve never felt more creative or expressed myself as well as I do as an interviewer these days. Hell, I tend to get a hug after every interview these days. Even from the men.

So what the fuck? Why do I feel like the sky is falling every damn day?

I’m single. Who isn’t?

I’m fat. Who isn’t?

My dad is dying.

Is it too late to change careers? Am I lying to myself thinking I can set up shop at the Vogue offices of London or Mexico City?

Can I go back to school and finish that damned degree once and for all?

My dad is dying.

And no one in my family has been able to think about life after Dad yet. Not even me, but the task is something I am grappling with now. I have questions, too. Is it going to feel like a house of bricks crashing all over us? Will it be followed by a sense of relief? Will it be followed by the sound of siblings running to the four corners of the world? Will we finally be able to be civil with each other and not let our toxicity spoil the soup? Is it all too late for that to happen?

I hear their not so hidden anger in the constant stream of critiques and judgments that dominate our dinner table. I sit and marvel these days, thinking, “These are the people that have my back?” Still, how can we shield ourselves from any sort of attacks when most are happening from within our own house? Dad wouldn’t want to see us this way. Mom doesn’t like it either, but she’s ground zero at times.

Our entire narrative has been penned with our Dad as the central figure. We do our duty, giving Mom a much-needed break where we can. Yet, how is it possible that I feel guilty for not wanting to be around any of them, that I am kind of hanging on to a thread of sanity right now. I should go back into therapy, something to diffuse the atom bomb that I carry in my brain right now. I am eating to stay silent, but I feel my body is in full revolt right now. It is literally slowing down. Every move, every reaction, it’s life in forced perspective.

And that’s not supposed to be the Mexican way. Oh no, we’re supposed to that warm, united front of good humor and great food. Allow me to dispel that concept. It is total BULLSHIT. You had to be that group when the family lived in the hacienda, where great swaths of land dividing us from other families and communities. You know what makes the Mexican family survive? A lot of us drink and eat… to forget the lives we can’t seem to leave. While it feels great to see that sentence, yes, it is followed by a strong wave of guilt.

I think about putting such distance between me and my LA life a lot now. It seems like I want to pioneer a life that doesn’t require facing the past or a present that only makes me wince.

So, what’s going to be the narrative of my Act II? It starts when the lead character, Me, reaches out for help. That’s what I am doing, reaching out for help and guidance. I can’t do this alone. No one can. The time does arrive when you have to release the side of yourself that stops you from harming yourself and others in the wake of the blast of an emotional bomb.

It’s here.

 

A Report On A Few Days in Springtime

A Report On A Few Days in Springtime

The woman crossing Atlantic Blvd. on the cusp of East L.A. smoking a cigarette. Did I mention she was pregnant?

The sounds of Dad shuffling across the living room to get a good seat and listen to the family chisme being dished out in big, heaping soundbites.  He’d call this “the Beautiful Noise” in life B.A. (Before Alzheimer’s).

Nancy starring as the G’rilla from Manila at the BBQ rig for our last-minute family brunch.

Neto acting like he had Dengue Fever, but oh-so awake and eager to contribute to the chisme and chatter on such topics as “Why the new Roseanne series is ‘relevant’ or a ‘piece of shit.'”

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Buying a foulard at the Versace boutique in the Design District in a bid to honor the great Gianni while having the clerk whisper to me that he is also an actor and model.

Being asked at Estefan Kitchen in Miami if I had a reservation for a late lunch even though entire place was nearly empty.

Discovering after interviewing great Nicky Jam that we have a lot more in common, like our battles with being members of the clean plate club.

Reuniting with Gin-Gin and getting ridiculous at Versailles in Little Havana over plates lechon and picking up where we left off, the true mark of a touchstone friend and savior.

Meeting two teen girls from NJ at LAX before our delayed VA flight to NYC and chatting like we were BFF’s while being surrounded by soap opera legends from GH heading to NJ for a fantasy weekend. It was no BFD for the girls yet it was for their moms as they texted them with pics, OMG!

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Watching a sumptuous revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, feeling emotional at listening to this glorious score by Lerner & Lowe, thinking how Dad saw the original production with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews during his life as a young man in the U.S. and understanding why he loves theater as much as me.

Sitting watching Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, desperately trying to suppress the emotion swells as Harry and his son Albus fought their way to understand each other, just like how I fought with my Dad.

Sharing some of the most important parts of my life with Nan in NYC, hanging with Karen and Stevie and hearing her effortlessly become one of this group storied group of friends who mean the world to me.

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Powering through sleep deprivation and jet lag and failed not to “fag out” before interviewing several of my screen heroines on a Sunday afternoon in Hollywood, especially the wonderful Candice Bergen.

Even as life deals you some difficult moments, you have to stop and look around you to acknowledge the wonderful that still occurs. And that’s good enough in a world that is all about the hustle and flow.

Be good enough. And laugh when you can, dammit.

The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978

The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978

If you know my family, you’ve probably heard the tale of “The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978.” It remains one of our favorite stories to tell because it has everything, laughter, drama, realizations about a child’s true nature, and mummies. It makes sense that it includes mummies since most Latino families pretty much embalm all sorts of moments they can drag out from its tomb now and again. It usually happens at a family gathering, especially during the holidays.

But I digress.  First, a little context to the Tut connection.

From 1976 to 1979, the treasures found in King Tutankhamen’s tomb toured seven U. S. cities, including Los Angeles. The exhibition was a wild success, to put it mildly. “King Tut Mania” was the only pyramid scheme destined not to bankrupt the regular folk. It was as if a Cecil B. DeMille film had come to vivid life, seeing these treasures. The mystery, the glamour, the history! All of it on display and separated by glass. Angelenos lost their proverbial shit when it arrived at the L.A. County Museum of Art. About eight million Americans made the trek nationally to the “Treasures of Tutankhamen” when it hit their chosen cities. However, more than one million visitors were tallied in Los Angeles alone. (You know how Latinos love their gold!) And, I represented two of said entries at LACMA. Reasons exist as to why.

Dad was already caught up in the fervor. A factory next to his was manufacturing swag to cash in on “King Tut Mania.” He’d bring home such replicated artifacts as Tut’s funeral mask, a small statue of the goddess Isis encased in a lucite pyramid. Yes, these were factory rejects, but so what? It was so rare to see Dad get excited by such things, but his being a pragmatic man meant that he was obsessed with science and history. He loved truth and facts versus the fantasy of the abstract represented by fiction.

Tickets were sold out for the LA exhibition, but Dad was so proud when I was chosen to be one of the fifth graders from South Ranchito Elementary to visit with the Egyptian boy king at LACMA. It meant something to him that one of his family members could bear witness to this glorious exhibition of rarely-seen history.

A few weeks later, as the exhibition prepared its departure, Dad had this wild notion of heading down to LACMA to see if we swing two tickets. As he always stated, “The worse they can tell you is ‘No.'” So, we jumped into our aqua blue VW Beetle and made our way down Wilshire Blvd.

Mind you, Dad first sent me by myself to the box office to see if any cancellations were available. He waited in the car and I bolted up the steps to the museum entry. (I don’t think any parent would do that today. I was 10-years-old and Wilshire Blvd. was still a muy busy thoroughfare then.) Unfortunately, my this first inquiry did result in a “No” that held until I got back to the curb where I was to wait for Dad as he made a turn around the block.

As I kept a vigilant eye for Dad, I felt someone tap my shoulder. I looked up with nary a look of surprise to gaze at a handsomely dressed woman. She smiled this congenial smile and asked, “Are you trying to get tickets for Tut.” This wasn’t a “Stranger Danger” moment as she looked like she’d been to Bullocks Wilshire and that mattered to me then. Haha. I think I said something like, “Yes, ma’am. But there aren’t any tickets.” She then reached into her pocketbook and pulled out one of those Golden King Tut tickets from her pocketbook.

You could almost hear an angelic choir at that moment. I went’ from a “No” to a shocking “Yes!” Fortune really favors the child left alone on a busy street, dammit!

“My friend isn’t able to make it, so why don’t you take it,” she said.

I wish I remembered more of that exchange because all I know is after saying “Thank you, ma’am!” I took a good look at that ticket just as Dad pulled up to the curb. I do remember that I was too excited to enunciate, “Dad! I got a ticket. Look!” Dad smiled this huge smile.

Then I said, “I’ll be right back. I’m going back in!” And boom, I was off!

Oh, how my family and I discussed the selfishness. The lack of awareness. The utter glory of my young self-absorption! For years!  Reflecting on that moment now, I know my Dad would have never left me in the car while he walked through the exhibition… again. Although, he did leave me to my own devices at the ticket office. Whatever. The important thing was for me to say, “Dad. Here’s the ticket.” For him to decline it would be a lesson in how we sacrifice our own needs and feelings. (Orale, Latinos católicos! Guilt starts early!) Haha.

Well, it is kind of true.

I do remember Dad’s dejected look as I turned and walked away. When we got home, I remember the silence in the car. I knew I hurt him a little. Once home,  I also remember hearing Mom and Dad talk about my brazen nature, my incredible luck, and my brazen nature again. It was followed by laughter, but I knew I disappointed them. Hell, I’d live to disappoint them again and again, but this episode remains my favorite since it carries a better layer of charm and innocence.

In the end, we both did get our chance to share the Tut experience in 2005 when “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” made its appearance at LACMA. This time, the entire family made the trek to Wilshire Blvd. Of course, that adventure is marked by Mom saying, “Hmmm. This looks smaller than the exhibition your father and I saw in Cairo. You know, in Egypt.”  (Hahaha. Yes, we’re THAT family.)

In the end, my globe-trotting parents did venture to the land of Pharaohs to get a singular view, first hand, to the wonders of Tut and more. As much as I envy them, I am also proud of my parents, who took their vacations in places far and further away. They were our first guides, showing us the way to see the world as a source of adventure. We were meant to leave our backyards to see what doesn’t have to exist in a museum brochure. As a result, we’ve created our brand of history, too, and I love that.

It’s wonderful to see our family history repeating itself as Tut has returned to LA yet again. It’s been 100 years since Tut’s tomb was discovered, thus the largest exhibition of artifacts ever will be touring the world to honor the occasion, perhaps the last time they will ever be seen outside of Cairo. Los Angeles was selected to host the world premiere of “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharoah” at the California Science Center. Of course, my family and I made the journey yet again and yes, the day is sold out. However, due to Dad’s current health issues, he won’t be able to make the trek to the California Science Center with us. Mom and Neto were also down for the count due to having colds.

My family and I know we don’t need a reason to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “The Adventures of Dad, Jorgito, and the Golden King Tut Ticket of 1978.” It is a bummer to note that glorious golden mask can no longer leave its home in Egypt. It just means our spirit of adventure will take us to the heart of the Nile, see the pyramids, and give them our best from our parents who stood there in awe and joy so many years ago.

This is such a powerful full circle moment nonetheless, one I will share with Poppadoodles when we return from our visit with El Rey Tut. I am reluctant to write more now as I feel tears building up. I have so much more to say to Dad from “Remember when?” to “Thank you” to “You were so right!” That’s a conversation that has to happen sooner than later and time is no longer on our side, I’m afraid.

As my family and I take in these treasures anew, I can’t help be reminded of the beauty of history.  Wherever these essays may rest long after I’m gone, I hope people will appreciate the love and respect that remain the hallmark of my Dad, as a parent and a human being. What I hope is also unearthed years from now is that our history as father and son, and as the Carreon Family as a whole, was a precious one indeed.

 

 

“Dad”

“Dad”

Dad: How far is your house from here?

Me: About 14 miles.

Dad: I’m tired. I think you should go.

Me: But I promised Mom I’d watch you.

Dad: Where’s Mom?

Me: In Mexico. Visiting her family. She’s coming home today.

Dad: I’m fine. I don’t need you here. I’m tired. You should go.

Me: Okay.

That’s when I called my sister…

The day didn’t start out this way.  That exchange happened around 6 pm. We’d made a day of it, Dad and I. We ran errands, had lunch, even went to a movie together. Then things got a little complicated, ending with my saying to my older sister, “Thank God for pharmaceuticals.” In the end, I had to turn my Dad into Neely O’Hara to restore order. Under normal circumstances, this day out with Dad should have been like it was 40 years ago when we were father & young son. Now the roles are reversed, but with one crucial difference: Alzheimer’s.

Being with an Alzheimer’s patient is a bit like being in a scene from “Groundhog Day.” Repetition is the name of the game and it requires a decent amount of patience and humor when they are this stage. You push away thoughts about the silence still to come when they enter a state of haunted immobility as they no longer engage with the world. For now, we can still have conversations. These are comprised of lightning rounds of the same group of questions as they fixate on specific topics. In my Dad’s case, it usually involves the measurement of space or time.

I was assigned one day to sit and care for Dad, which was also the day Mom was to return from visiting her family in Mexico. Dad’s mental long play record was stuck in one groove. His current jam was the track about where was Mom and when would she return. My younger sister had gone to work and I was chuffed by the idea of getting to spend time with Dad in during the regular week.  I sat in our family home living room, taking care of Emails as Dad took his usual spot, the outside porch. Yet, for the next 90 minutes, he’d rotate from the living room to the porch. Each time Dad would enter the room, he’d ask:

Dad: Tu viniste a cuidarme?

Me: Si, papá.

Dad: Muy amable.

He seemed touched to know I had been asked by the family to take care of him. He’d rap on the table, an emphatic gesture that made me smile. An hour or so later, his pacing evolved into that of a caged animal. His eyes glittered in a unique way and the rapping, which at first felt like a war buddies fist bump, now had a tone of anger. Without hesitating, I took Dad on a Target run.

My Dad has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for well over a decade. We’ve been fortunate to have him mentally present with us for so long. He recognizes my mom and sister, who care for him 24/7. As for the rest of my siblings, we are in iPod shuffle mode. Sometimes he knows who we are and we ignore the times he doesn’t.

Sometimes we are simply “los muchachos,” a catchall term that refers us as being his “kids.” It offers its own comforts, being part of that group memory. We’re still his children. Then reality takes over. One time, he told Mom I couldn’t be his son since I’m too old as he’s only in his 50s. I go, “Mom, that makes you an OG cougar.” We both laughed. You have to laugh, otherwise, you cry.

Dad’s eating habits are changing. Texture matters, in addition to the color of his food. At times, he can forget when he’s had a meal, then he’ll insist that he hasn’t. He is losing weight. He’s irascible at times, the Latino machismo surging to a boiling point when contradicted. Again, those glittering eyes are a sign for us to be calm. That’s when he’s in that “mad” mode.

My mom and sister have learned to wait out the tantrums instead of fueling them further, although I see now why Mom has no fuse at all anymore. Their matrimonial sea roils and it calms itself just as suddenly as if nothing happened at all. Yet the after effects are revealing the wear on her, too. The one saving grace? Whenever things do get too intense, Dad’s physician has prescribed Dad a mild sedative. Yes, it is on par with giving a screaming toddler Benadryl, but sometimes…

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I can see Dad’s age now. He’s 92. I regret not getting him on record to capture his view of the world, the chronicle of a Mexican immigrant father, businessman, and world traveler projected against the canvas of contemporary history. Today, he can’t differentiate what he sees on the television screen, fictional or otherwise, from his real life.

When we do receive those treasurable moments, though, it is on par with winning the lottery. Like the time, I went to meet Dad and my younger sister for a showing of “Atomic Blonde.” As they entered the cinema, he saw me and instantly opened his arms for a hug. Usually, he just offers a gentlemanly handshake and a pat on the shoulder, which was his way. But this was wonderfully different. For a moment, we were on the track many grown sons are with their older parent.

Families, particularly Latino families, do not like to share the truth of their loved ones’ health, especially serious conditions. For whatever reason, illnesses are a “private matter.” We become traffic wardens, telling onlookers, “Move along. There’s nothing to see. Everything is alright.” But everything is not alright. Our parents will get sick. They will change because of an illness, not because of some cosmic punishment.

I understand the desire, particularly when it comes to our parents or grandparents, to want people to remember how they were and not as their infirmed selves. It is such a waste of time, time left with us that we can’t possibly measure or gauge. Family can become so entrenched in denial. Better living through chemistry, at least when it comes to Alzheimer’s, yes. But the truth is it is just a stop gap.

I see where we are heading with Dad. That’s why I choose to laugh now about his, “Yo soy el dueño de esta casa” demeanor. It wasn’t easy knowing he wanted me to leave his house. My work caring for him was done and he wanted his independence and space back. Later that night, I regaled my Mom and younger brother about how Dad refused to go to sleep because he wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to “steal his shit.” Eventually, like a toddler, sleep caught up with him. Granted it was aided with the sedative I gave him a few hours earlier, but our cherished Poppadoodles was finally having a well-deserved rest.

I do not regret the frustration I felt at times that day. At times, I wanted to just yell, “Why don’t you understand?” I felt robbed because I can’t stop thinking about the conversations we could be having now we are both able to communicate again. It all seems so unfair. I can’t tell him I finally understand what he tried to teach me when I was a kid. I can’t tell him how he hurt me when I came out to him 17 years ago. I can’t tell him that I forgive him. I can’t share with him how I think this full circle reality we share is so good and inspiring to me.

Like “Groundhog Day,” we will be back at the same starting point the next day and the one after that. Our “Dad’s Day Out” will be forgotten, but how marvelous to know that when we do get to do this again it will be like a brand-new adventure. We have nothing to mourn or feel sorry about here. Dad is a part of many lives, not just with the family here and in Mexico, but our friends, too. As long as that smile still shines through I will remember what his mind can’t hold anymore. It’s the ultimate privilege and the best story I am ever going to be able to tell.

From the Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles website:

“Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles is a leader in developing culturally and linguistically appropriate programs and services, including those for Latinos.  Research shows Latinos with dementia are low users of formal health services and less likely than non-Latinos to see a physician.  Given the significance of familia in the Latino community, families (particularly daughters) provide a disproportionate share of Alzheimer’s care.

In order to reach these women (and their families) ALZGLA has taken a creative approach…we produced a bilingual, educational telenovela.  Lost Memories tells a story familiar to many Greater Los Angeles families.  It also disseminates complex medical and health information to caregivers with the goal of raising awareness of Alzheimer’s, fighting stigma, and encouraging Latino families to seek help sooner.

In honor of Latino Heritage Month,the 4-episode web series will debut September 19 at alzgla.org and on YouTube.

 

“Glen”

“Glen”

Dad was a big fan of Glen Campbell. That these formidable men have been afflicted by Alzheimer’s is still tough to fathom. Today, Mr. Campbell succumbed to this disease. He leaves behind generations of fans, a loving and supporting family and a legacy of art that is without compare.

I will never forget the sound of his music playing over the car radio as my family and I drove through the Southwestern desert on our way to visit family to Mexico in the early 1970s. My Dad would hum along, tapping the steering wheel, offering back-up. It was a late night, our family Impala cutting its path through the star-filled darkness. Dad didn’t know I was awake, his silent co-pilot, determined to remember it all.

Years later, before Mr. Campbell retired from touring, my siblings and I took Dad to see him perform live at the Pala Casino outside of San Diego. His own family shared the stage, with his daughter carefully guiding her legendary father through the songs. I remember holding back tears as my father smiled and tapped along to the music, clearly engaged by the Campbell musical experience like it was those many nights long ago.

Both men were in the throes of dealing with Alzheimer’s at that moment, never knowing what they had in common that evening. That one of these two men is no longer with us fills me with a surge of fills me with a surge of emotion. I am very blessed t still have my father in my life, despite the hardships of this disease. While Dad was far from being a rhinestone cowboy or a Wichita lineman, he still towers in my heart and life. And the music created by Mr. Campbell? It is a shame I can’t tell him it will forever be something so profound and poignant for my family and myself, now and forever. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, for leaving us this gift, too.

As posted on the Glen Campbell website: “In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Glen Campbell Memorial Fund at BrightFocus Foundation through the CareLiving.org donation page.