Sunday, November 23, 2014

The making of an October hero

Today’s “Me” generation may snicker at the possibility, but I happen to believe that October relational stories, that small but bountiful pond where I cast my storytelling nets, provide the necessary ingredients for warm and satisfying tales of late-life relationships gone right---age-appropriate examples of geriatric adolescence, offering fortunate outcomes for deserving couples. In my own very biased eyes several of the Tanner Chronicle stories I tell fit that “warm and satisfying” description. But then again, some do not.
It was a video clip I posted last week about end-of-life issues, the ones we would prefer to avoid, that reminded me of Leona Peck’s harsh Alzheimer’s trials in Best Friends and Promises---and how Aaron Peck struggled to deal with his wife’s life-changing illness. I can remember when it first dawned on me that Aaron and Leona’s journey was leading me toward new and sometimes troubling places I had never visited before. In the course of writing a pair of more or less “happily-ever-after” stories there had been no need to ask myself the obvious question. Who would read something as realistic, some would say “dark,” as the Pecks’ story?
I stumbled around a while searching for an answer to that question, before concluding that even my most warm and fuzzy tales were not likely to attract much of a readership. Who even knew they were out there? Besides, October relational stories were not exactly mainstream. Yet I kept writing them---because they were the stories I wanted to tell. In that case, why not give myself permission to tell a less-comforting story, one that depicts a troubling, but very real side of October life? After all, if I am writing to please myself, why not tell it the way I want?
In fact, Best Friends and Promises is not the story of Leona’s sad descent into Alzheimer’s. Instead, her distressing decline serves as the backdrop for Aaron’s befuddled “coping”---his struggle to adapt to a frightening new reality. The scenes that follow depict his growing awareness of a world gone terribly wrong. and set the stage for his tentative efforts to make sense of it and carry on. They are not meant to be pleasant reading---simply realistic.

 * * *

Aaron had been busy in the garage, having vowed to finally bring order to his cluttered work bench, when Leona stopped by to say she was off to pick up a few things at the store. By the time he came back inside she had been gone nearly an hour. That was enough to trigger his concern. Something was not right. Stepping out on the front porch he scanned the sidewalk in both directions, looking for her approach. 
Back at the kitchen table he drained his coffee and told himself there was no reason to worry. Yet try as he might he could not relax. Ten anxious minutes later he stopped pretending. Slipping on his jacket he started off on the two block walk to the shopping mall that fronted Center Street. For the first block he proceeded at a moderate pace. By the time he reached the mall’s parking lot he was moving faster, striding in time with his growing sense of urgency.
Inside the sprawling supermarket he paused, leaning against a row of nested shopping carts to get his bearings. It was not the short walk that had his heart racing, but a fearful anxiety he could not will away. Closing his eyes, he waited for the queasy lightheadedness to pass. Then, with a deep breath, he started toward the daunting maze of aisles that crisscrossed the store.
For fifteen minutes Aaron hurried from aisle to aisle, looking desperately for the slightly stooped, gray-haired woman who could be his Leona. Pacing the width and length of the mega-store his stride quicken and his panicked thoughts grew more demanding  Finally he realized there was no reason to continue. She was not there.
Returning to the back of the store he approached the glass-enclosed Manager’s cubicle, set on a raised platform above the main floor. There he tapped on the glass door.
The chunky gray-haired man at the cluttered desk looked up, then rolled his chair to the door. “Can I help you, sir?”
“My wife. She’s lost. I can’t find her anywhere. She’s just gone.” Aaron's words came in a rush, matched by his anxious frown. “Can you help me?”
“Please, sir. Calm down.” The Manager stepped down from his cubicle to stand beside the obviously distraught old man. “Your wife is lost? Here in the store?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve looked everywhere, but I can’t find her. She must be somewhere else.”
“Let me explain, sir.” The man’s hand was on Aaron’s shoulder. “The store’s security team can only help if she’s here in the store. The shopping mall company has their own people. But they spend most of their time securing the parking areas and warehouses. They probably wouldn’t be much help in locating a missing person.”
“What can I do? I have to find her.”
“If you’re sure she’s not here in the building, I suggest you call 911. Perhaps they could help.”
Outside, in front of the store, Aaron sat down on a display of sacked lawn fertilizer and took the cell phone from his pocket to dial 911. “I want to report a missing person,” he explained when the operator answered. “My wife. She’s gone. I don’t know what to do.”
In a matter of minutes the pleasantly efficient Emergency Operator had managed to calm her frantic caller, assemble the information and description he provided, and assure him that city police patrols would be alerted at once.
“I suppose that’s all you can do,” Aaron said, taking some comfort in knowing that others would be looking too. “Anyway, I’ll be walking through the rest of the stores in the mall. Maybe she went window shopping.”
“Please keep your phone turned on, so we can reach you.” He appreciated the hint of concern in the operator’s voice. She was probably trained to sound that way. Still, it helped at a time like that.
“Please find her. That’s all. Just find her.” Aaron wiped at the tears with his sleeve, closed the phone, and started toward the pharmacy next door. For the next half hour he moved mechanically from one store to the next, while his panicked distress mounted, filling his thoughts with mind-numbing questions. Where she was? Why couldn’t he find her? What could have happened? His hands were shaking and it was becoming harder to concentrate.


Through that summer and into the autumn the changes in Leona’s behavior continued---some subtle, others more dramatic. At home coded locks and magnetic signal alarms were installed on exterior doors. Within the walls of her thus-secured home Leona Peck was free to roam at will, often pacing nervously from room to room, as if looking for something she had misplaced. In the course of her random wanderings she sometimes walked right past Aaron without offering the slightest hint that she was aware of his presence.
Not surprisingly the kitchen was one of her favored destination. How many times had he found her there---staring blankly at the mixing bowls, utensils, and assorted ingredients she had spread out on the counter? She might stand there for minutes, in what had always been her most comfortable surroundings, appraising those vaguely familiar elements, yet making no effort to put them to use. Finally, with a resigned shrug, she would turn and shuffle off to the front of the house.
On other occasions Leona simply disappeared, creating anxious moments for Aaron---at least until he learned to look for her in the darkness of the narrow walk-in hall closet. He would find her there, sitting silently on an empty suitcase, withdrawing from an all-too-confusing world. Still, as frightening as those episodes were, even worse were the unpredictable outbursts of angry agitation, when her frustration boiled over and she appeared unwilling to accept her diminished universe. In those moments of irrational flailing Aaron could scarcely imagine what demons possessed her.
Surprisingly, however, some connections remained, still accessible to her retreating memory. “See you later, alligator” never failed to elicit her predictable “After while, crocodile,” complete with a childlike grin. It was more than Aaron could comprehend. Their daughters, Leona’s own flesh and blood, had become unrecognizable strangers. Yet “after while crocodile” was still within reach.

* * *

Aaron Peck had no words to wipe away his painful dejection on that January morning, no way to escape the disgust he felt for himself as he descended the front steps of the Davies Care Center. Moments before he had left Leona sitting by herself in the sterile silence of the facility’s day room. Her blank, unknowing gaze would haunt him for days. Although there was no hint that she had heard them, his parting words had been a promise to return the next day and every day. He would not leave her alone in that friendly, but foreign place.
He spent that afternoon at home, walking nervously from room to room, surrounded by still fresh memories of what had always been “their” home. More than once he paused to weigh that affirming past against the forbidding future Dr. 
Flescher had described, asking himself again if that was where their long-ago promises to each other were meant to lead them. For so long he had relied on Leona’s supporting presence. Now, standing before the ornate fireplace mantel that had been her pride and joy, it felt as though all that was good in his life had been defined by their partnership. Without her, what would there be but emptiness?

* * * 

Every day Aaron was reminded of how much he missed her presence and the subtle interactions they had shared---the soft touches in passing, seemingly unnoticed smiles, even the unspoken aggravation she could communicate with the simple raising of an eyebrow.
One winter afternoon, in a particularly introspective moment, he reflected on how much of their relationship had been played out below the surface---those times when their verbal interaction was little more than redundant phrases and muttered code words, each carrying a long-established significance, conveying volumes of meaning in a handful of syllables. It hurt, knowing that the personal dialect which had served them so well had ceased to be. The way they had communicated their love and caring was no longer effective, as though he was the last person left who spoke their dying language.

There you have it, thumbnail sketches of life lived in the hard lane---dealing with one of the harshest ordeals a long and loving relationship can face. If it makes for uncomfortable reading, you can imagine how depressing it would be to live out. It also begs the question---how does someone in Aaron Peck’s shoes carry on?
That brings us to the heart of Best Friends and Promises, which I describe as warm and hopeful, often frustrating, and very human. The story follows Aaron’s well-intentioned and sometimes misguided efforts to deal with the obstacles life has put in his way. Along the way he comes face to face with yet another October truth, “happy endings” are a relative thing---sometimes a matter of settling for modest results, while relying on coping skills Aaron is not sure he possesses. It will not be easy, but cope he must. How else can he deal with a future built on little more than best friends and promises. His is a story of fighting October battles, and emerging as an October hero.
Finally, I will close with a personal observation, which in turn leads to a special request. The post I mentioned above, about communicating with an Alzheimer’s father, was “Shared” by several of you, which I was glad to see since it contained worthwhile advice. That sharing also enabled us to reach many more readers than usual. Hopefully you are not surprised to learn that I would like to expand the readership of these scribblings. 
So when, or if, you come across a particularly interesting or thoughtful post I encourage you to “Like” it and/or “Share” it with anyone you think might be interested. And of course, if you would like to add your voice to the conversation I hope you will take time to leave a “Comment” below. Taken together, those modest efforts are probably the most effective way to spread the October Years message. I thank you in advance for any such help. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

If retirement is so easy, why did I nearly flunk it?

As seen through younger eyes retirement has the look of an easy, carefree time of life. One of our grandsons is certain that it must be “the sweetest thing ever---you can play computer games all day and all night if you want.” Of course, those of us who have reached that time of life know the truth is something more than that.

It begins with Retirement 101---the first grade of a brand new and different kind of school. There are probably a million roads leading to that space. Each of us has followed our own unique path. Yet no matter how we approached it, as we grew nearer to that goal the thought of it became more seductive. Now, having arrived, some of us are disappointed to find that the fact of it is something less than expected. Actually, as I have confessed before, I very nearly flunked retirement.

Chances are we have spent years dreaming our dreams of that special prize waiting at the end of our career journey. “The Golden Years” we call them, the ones I’ve labeled October Years. If we are the kind to do that, we have painted glowing mind-pictures of how it will be---the things we’ll do and the places we’ll see. For many the fortunate happenstance of being born into the “pension plan” generation, with its generous payouts, will make those dreams financially feasible---assuming they can agree on which dreams they want to follow and stay healthy long enough to enjoy them. 

Beyond that I must admit that I am reminded, sometimes rather forcefully, that for those whose career centered on the never-ending need to keep house and feed the family the retirement dilemmas I describe may have the ring of false distinctions and cosmetic change---like the same old play being performed on a new stage. (In Family Matters I tell the story of a couple who can not agree on retirement dreams.)

Yet, within the confines of those realities October life leaves prospective retirees, the ones who are actually changing jobs, with an elemental set of choices---deciding how to use the time their new status provides. Though it may sound like the least of our worries that can, in fact, be a serious challenge. The fortunate ones began their preparation years before---cultivating interests and capabilities that would help them adapt to a time when the structures and strictures of employment were removed. The rest of us were left to deal with the burden of empty, unstructured days.

I can assure you that the giddy exhilaration of sleeping in every morning soon wears off. Without a plan retirement can become a matter of empty hours, days, and weeks, waiting to be filled. But how? At that point the real test begins. For the unprepared it will have the feel of a clean slate or, if you are a writer, a blank page. No matter how you describe it, your new “retirement” job will include filling in those blanks. 

For some the process of “retirement renewal” is a matter of finding something that draws them beyond themselves. In my case I was pulled deeper within myself. Wherever it takes you, the answer you seek will be a very personal thing. I happen to believe the right “something” is waiting out there, in one form or another, for everyone. If so, it is a matter of exploring the possibilities to find what works for you.

Looking back, I can see that I started my own search for a viable retirement lifestyle with only the vaguest of guidelines in mind. I was searching for something I would look forward to doing---ideally something that provided a means of creative expression I had never found in my work. I told myself it was time to be bold, to take chances, even risk failure---behavior rarely expected from a school administrator. But things were different this time. If my work pleased others, that was fine. But in the end I intended to be the primary judge of my sometimes dubious results. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone else---only myself.

That I finally stumbled onto my storytelling, the thing that works for me, was primarily a matter of “try, try again.” The wife’s gardening didn’t suit me. I just couldn’t get interested in woodworking. It was hard to get excited about something as pathetic as my golf game. Not until I came across a thirty-year old manuscript, a story I had written and set aside, did it dawn on me that perhaps I had found my retirement project.

In time story telling and blogging came to fill my personal retirement void, taking me places I never expected to visit. Today’s technology can make that possible. How else could these geriatric ramblings of mine be read from Maine to Alaska and beyond. (I can more or less understand the consistent England readership. But Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan? Why do they show up every week?) No wonder I have a hard time getting my mind around the reality of this internet world.

Take it from someone who very nearly flunked retirement---it can be a daunting change---one that requires serious attention. We begin the process with grand ideas of how it will be, but precious little experience in actually living that new life. 

Still, we mustn’t be intimidated. Having waited a lifetime to get here, why shouldn’t we let retirement be a liberating experience? For perhaps the last time in our life we have the opportunity to choose our future. The goal is simple enough---to settle on a life and lifestyle that suits us, that holds our interest, perhaps even help us grow. However we choose to pursue that goal, it deserves the best effort we can muster. After all, it’s the rest of our life we’re talking about.

Back to the question of where this post is being read. I for one would like to know where you are as you read this. I hope you'll take a moment to "Post a Comment," below. Just fill in your city and country, nothing more. Thanks.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Soulmate? Are you sure?

The rains have returned and a brisk October wind is blowing leaves past my window. I won’t be working outside this afternoon, so why not settle back in the recliner and let the recurring stream of pleasant thoughts have their way with me? You can chalk up today’s post as unadulterated self-indulgence. As I say in the heading, it’s a “writer’s blog.”

For at least some of us it ranks high on our list of October perks---these unstructured visits to well-remembered good times, hoping to recapture the ethereal essence that made them so memorable in the first place. ‘Fess up now, you’ve been in that space too, haven’t you---when it feels like you are visiting an old friend, or reconnecting to special times spent with your children and grandchildren, the ones you watched as they grew into the persons they have become. When I return to the “writer” side of me, I must confess to that same “feel good” comfort when I close my eyes and revisit any one of my Tanner Chronicle stories. 

After all, they are offspring of my imagination, that indefinable something we sometimes want to hide from, but never can. From that murky reservoir of dated, but never-outgrown highs and lows I have birthed each of those stories---sending them off to follow the path they choose, pulling me along in ways I never expected, toward outcomes I had not foreseen. The results are almost always different than what I originally had in mind, leaving an unsuspecting October dreamer like me to wonder---where did all that come from?

For instance, imbedded in Long Way Home, the second half of a two-book story that begins with  Second Chances, there is an unexpected, but intriguing side trip---a visit with the woman Clint Harris thinks might be his “soulmate.” Like you, I had read about “soulmates” before. Though I suppose the term means different things to different people, the basic idea is probably the same---there is someone out there who is meant to be with you, the special one with whom you are paired in some mysterious, predestined way.

In Clint’s case, the lure of a soulmate is a fall-back situation, a way out when there seems to be no other options. He has lost his wife. The lady he hoped would fill that void has apparently taken up with his rival---Fat Tom Berry. 

From a writer’s standpoint it would have been awkward, so late in the story, to introduce a new female character who’s only purpose for being there was to provide Clint with another round of relational failure. So instead I have him considering a possibility that at least some of us can imagine and perhaps even relate to---meeting again after sixty-some years the person who had first stirred those emotional fires---the one who might be his “soulmate.” 

It begins as a mind game---as it would for any of us---an angst-driven return to the memory of a special adolescent moment, one he had carried somewhere in the back of his mind for his entire adult life. Though he could not know it at the time the impact of that incident on a young Clint Harris had been indelible---a brief, emotion-packed taste of how the affirmation he longed for ought to feel---providing a relational baseline he had never outgrown

Now, deep in his October Years, yearning for what he apparently cannot have, he returns to what-might-have-been. In spite of his doubts he wants to believe that first-time, long-ago soulmate could be the answer to his emptiness. With each swallow, his whiskey-propelled remembering of whom “she” had been sixty years before grows more persuasive. Finally, after enough swallows, he finds the courage to plan a much-belated reunion.

So there I was, sitting at the computer as I composed Clint Harris’ story---sifting through bit and pieces of my own youthful history, gathering snippets from which to assemble a rationale for the feelings I wanted him to feel. I was trying to imagine how it would feel to be caught up in that disorienting mind-drama so late in life. Before long I was wondering if they are real, those "soulmates" I was writing about. If so, did that mean the sweet lady who has been at my side for fifty-eight years was intended from the beginning to be there? Was that the Big Guy’s plan for us from the start---a pairing of soulmates? 

Of course, in the fictional setting I had created I was also dealing with other, more practical questions. Their stories---both Clint’s and his potential soulmate’s---had to provide some explanation of how a chance connection made sixty years earlier could have survived to become a possible “second chance.” What had there been about their first encounter, so brief and noncommittal, that now made her soulmate material? More to the point, if it had been meant to be, if they had really been soulmates, why hadn’t it happened the first time?

Without dwelling on the outcome of Clint’s soulmate adventure, let me take a moment to turn from the nebulous realm of literary construction to a more personal real-life look at how each of us---you, me, and everyone---deals with our own unique set of adolescent lessons. 

How was it for you? Were those “first time” experiences, the ones that felt so real in the moment, simply discarded and erased from your memory? Or did they, in some form---real or imagined---find a permanent home in some far corner of your mind? And if so, have they played any role in your becoming the person you are? Were they an important part of that process, or simply a bit of excess baggage you would rather have unloaded? 

Finally, having imagined the story of Clint Harris’ return to his roots, hoping to find his soulmate, I was left to put those conflicting elements on paper, a paragraph at a time. In truth I approached that process with a degree of timidity---proceeding with the certain knowledge that once finished I would be asking my own soulmate to read and critique my stumbling description of a time before we met, when perhaps an earlier soulmate candidate had crossed my path. 

Since then I have walked that same intimidating path again and again, as the “She” in my life has read all nine Tanner Chronicle stories---ones that by their very nature have included my personal interpretations of the “mind matter” I have gathered and stored away over the years. Truth is, it’s not something we normally talk about. Yet by the time she had finished reading about Clint's “soulmate” episode I was accepting her willingness to be part of the process as the ultimate endorsement of our shared history.

So what is your take on the cache of “memory clutter” you have stored away over the years---be it “soulmate” related or other “becoming” recollections? Does all that matter at all? Is it simply the stuff of an overactive imagination? (To which I plead guilty.) Or an acceptable way of recalling what we are sometimes unable to put into words?