All my fifty-something friends give me a thumbs-up, but I notice they’re not following suit: I’ve bailed on my glittering city life and even my life as a scholar in the desert heat and am instead camped out for the summer at my mother’s house, the house where I grew up, in a land of undulant forested hills we call the Kentucky Knobs, a long hour’s drive south of Louisville. I am here to be a supplemental caretaker, helping out and keeping company with my mother, who turned 94 last spring.
At mid-June, I’m two weeks into a two-month stay, and already this much is clear: It will be a long, hot summer. For days the highs have been in the low 90s. A stationary front drifts back and forth across the country’s mid-section, bringing short, violent, isolate storms that leave the forests steaming. Biting insects are plentiful after a wet spring and each day I acquire more angry, red, itching welts from chiggers and mosquitoes feasting on my fresh thin blood. Ticks abound and I have found them deeply embedded in the most private places, an experience so revolting that only my passion for hiking and swimming can overcome it. I swim often in one of the monastery lakes but I have never gone without bringing back a tiny hitchhiker. How a brain so small can store so much information is a great mystery — I think of Chekhov’s wise old man, telling the young bereaved mother that each of us is given to know only so much as he needs to know. A tick is given to know where people walk and how to conceal itself in clothing and evidently that is enough.
A small gym has opened in the county seat — the equipment is new and the woman who manages it calls me “sweet pea” even before she signs me up, and there is something impossibly charming in being called “sweet pea” by a stranger. She tells me that she and her husband drive over to my town to hang out at my family’s tavern, The Sherwood, on Wednesday nights, where the bartender, a lifelong bachelor who sports a salt-and-pepper handlebar and knows more about the Civil War than Shelby Foote, has been holding court for upwards of thirty years. When he took a daytime job that paid a decent salary and benefits I asked him if that would spell the end of his bartending. “What?” he asked. “And give up the stage?”
The gym manager and her husband are relocated Yankees, as is the Pizza Man, who moved from the Chicago suburbs about ten years ago and makes a pretty good pizza, being from Chicago and all. The pizza parlor has a hand-lettered cardboard sign in the window “Air Cond. Dinning” and consists of a chaos of tables and chairs assembled from Goodwill scattered among pieces of a band set (drums, amps, electric guitars). Pizza Man works construction during the day and has a pick-up band that hangs out on Wednesday nights in the back of his pizza parlor and he invites me to join them. I ask him his name and he pauses for a moment, befuddled, as if his synapses are reaching backward to a distant time and place. “Well, everybody here calls me Pizza Man,” he says, “but my name is Blaine.”
At the county library ten miles up the road I have commandeered a small meeting room for my work. Barely a decade ago I had to meet with the county librarian and insist that they carry my books, one of which had received (among other awards) the American Library Association Award for best gay/lesbian nonfiction. But the old staff is gone and now when I give the librarian my name so as to obtain a library card there’s much whispering and commotion. Young staffers come forward from their offices, asking if they can meet the “famous writer” and asking me to sign books.
I find this change in attitude more touching than I can put into words. How many little scenes and conversations and arguments must have taken place to bring it about, or maybe there’s just the slow, subterranean movement engendered by the books themselves, witnesses whose power roots itself in silence. In young librarians’ shy handshakes I find proof that we can change things for the better, that one must always and everywhere keep faith.
This, in the face of growing old. Within a day of my arrival I realized that for my mother and her caretakers the hardest years are yet to come. For the past decade and more we have fought my mother over the usual — everything from providing a handicapped accessible bathroom (“I can use the old bathroom just fine”) to building a ramp to the door (“I don’t have any problems with those steps”). We’ve escaped only the fight over driving — in her 80s she voluntarily gave up driving after an incident she refers to in the vaguest terms, whose particulars I don’t want to know.
All those fights seemed unimaginably hard, wasted energy — why fight a handicapped ramp when the steps were so obviously dangerous? Now I understand that they were her way of laying claim to her life, and so long as she could claim it, it was hers. Now she no longer fights, and her yielding turns out to be harder to bear than her resistance. Caretaking for someone who’s engaged, even if resisting, turns out to be both easier and more enjoyable than caretaking the functions of an otherwise inanimate body.
Mother is not there yet. Toward the end of the day spent napping in front of the television she rouses herself, and in the evening — her brightest hours — it’s possible to see embers of the woman who danced atop tables and learned to shoot a rifle better than my father, her teacher. Of her ten siblings, only she and one older sister survive, and the sister is more infirm even than my mother. Two of her nine children and one grandchild have died, and if she lives much longer she may outlast more of us, a prospect we tacitly avoid.
Watching her hoist herself from chair to walker — she has no knees to speak of, and this simple movement requires concentration, marshalling of resources in the upper body so that it may levitate and then command the lower — I consider that the bravest of all acts is consenting to growing old. After all, with a little assistance the alternative is readily available. “Awaken your faith!” cries the aged king to the audience near the end of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play, as the title suggests, about greeting and enduring winter, most likely written late in the winter of his years on the planet. I saw it produced recently before world-weary, jaded New Yorkers, and though they wanted to read the the play’s first half as a comedy (which it’s not), at the moment of the king’s command there was not a dry eye in the house; and it was our collective tears, summoned by Shakespeare, that restored his dead love to life.