Friday, March 25, 2016

"The Ghost Behind My Shoulder" (on what it means to be a senior citizen)

the ghost behind my shoulder

Today, I received, as I have many days over the past few years, a friendly call from my United Health Care, who regularly counsels me about my need to call the pharmacy about my drug dosages and question my general health. Since I am still quite competent and order my drug refills on time, and since I had, this time, just seen my primary doctor for my annual checkup, I angrily hung up—the call, after all, was an automatic one, with no human being behind it who might be hurt or abused by my obstinate return of the phone to its cradle.
      I know why they are they are calling. I am 68 years of age, and in May I will be 69; I am described by them, and the government, as a senior citizen. And they are a bit worried that I may becoming somewhat forgetful, perhaps even moving toward a bit of dementia that perhaps might allow me to forget about my need to call my pharmacy for a refill, or allow me to ignore major signals of human deterioration. In truth, I am quite actively killing myself through alcohol, but my health plan doesn’t actually know that—although perhaps my primary doctor has reported that information to them. Nonetheless, I’m angry. They are treating me as a very old man, who doesn’t quite know what I’m doing, while I perceive—and I presume anyone who read these pages might perceive—I am not quite there yet. 
     My entire writing in the My Year volumes is about my memory, wherein I have revealed, apparently, that I remember much more than other members of my own generation and those even younger can now recall. Yes, there is always the possibility, as we all must admit, that I have misremembered much, or make up some of what I define as the past. But I have worked hard to produce actual documents that reiterate my own memory; and I believe that what I am remembering from so long ago actually represents facts, as I have worked hard to substantiate my own experiences. 
      I specifically do recall my mother’s own complaints of a decade or two ago (now, at 90 years of age, she no longer complains since she is suffering from dementia) that whenever she had a doctor visit, he would communicate only with my brother or sister, as if she was not in the same room. “She,” the doctor might report, is “suffering from ….whatever…” as if my mother might not be able to hear or respond about the report. What she was severely suffering was the absolute ignorance of her own being in the very room in which she sat with the doctor. Why couldn’t the doctor turn to her and tell her, to her face, what was the problem? And why couldn’t my brother or sister speak up for her, and report that she, in fact, was sitting right before them, and might be actually spoken to?
      I was angry for my mother when she reported this through our long telephonic conversations, where I had determined to allow her to speak rather than me dominating our conversations. It was after the death of our father, in the process of which I had to deal with my mother, that I learned to simply stop talking and begin to listen to the woman with whom I’d had so many battles, that changed everything. I began to listen, and was pained by what I knew she was encountering. If only I had been there, I am sure I would have told those doctors to please speak to my mother instead of to me: she was alive and very much able to listen to their advisements. But they treated her, at the age of 70 and, later 80, as if she couldn’t possibly comprehend what they might have said. She was angry and hurt. 
     Despite her belief in the system and her absolute commitment to authority, she had finally begun, in her old age, to doubt the wisdom they might have pontificated. And, I think, in the end, even today, it has changed her entire vision of what the authorities or the system might be able to offer for her own existence. 
     She is disturbed today when the workers at her health-care facility sweep in and take away her day-old blouses and pants to clean them; she is peeved when they suddenly force her into the showers for a needed clean-up. I try to explain to her that these actions represent only good intentions, to make sure her clothes (which she may not know she has spoiled) are properly cleaned, and that her body is purified, as she always desired it would be. My mother spent her entire life cleaning our house and our lives…why does she now so resist the idea? 
     Well, I do now begin to understand. It is not she who matters as much as a system that is insisting she behave in a certain way. Without even knowing it, she has become a kind of resistant elderly person who no longer desires to be defined by the society at large. Although, in her thinking, she remains a conservative, she has joined the intellectual revolutions of those who feel abused by the system.
      When my sister wanted to have my mother be tested for Alzheimer’s, I adamantly protested. Even having such a test would have possibly have determined that she was suffering from something far more seriously than her simple aging memory. She still tells me, every time I call her, even to this day, what she eats each evening, and shares with me her personal hurts from the comments her dinner-companions make; although these are stories she has repeated over the years, they are, I am sure, incessantly repeated, little accusations of why she isn’t wearing earrings (when the accuser never wears any kind of jewelry), etc. If these are repetitious statements, they are probably represent repetitious actions reiterated by the looks and statements of her table mates day after day; or, even if existing only in my mother’s overactive imagination, they still dominate her memory. 
    She has still her imagination. She reads. She wonders when my sister might join her again in an evening of what she perceives as “illegal” glass of wine or two in her small room (“I have to share a bathroom,” she incessantly complains); she remembers and appreciates my weekly calls. She is angry only for being treated as if she had no active mind. How can I blame her for that perception?; and even her expressing it is only evidence that she does still very much have an active mind.
      When I recently went to the doctor for my annual checkup, for the first time in my life the attending nurse, after checking my blood pressure and reconfirming my pill usages, suddenly told me that she was going to mention four words—table, apple, peach, and knife—which I might be asked to repeat later. I immediately knew why she was asking those questions. Was I suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia? Suddenly I was terrified: had I become my mother, an old person to whom they could they longer directly speak?  
      “What year is it?” she suddenly inquired. I was so astounded by the banality of the question that for a few seconds I couldn’t even speak. “2016,” I answered.

      And what day is it?
      I puffed for a few seconds in shock. “Tuesday, the day of my appointment,” I answered. “And it’s March in case you’re interested.”
      She was.
      Now can you recall the four words I mentioned beforehand.

      I offered them up in their opposite listing: “Knife, peach, apple, table.” Not very original or profound words. And you might notice they all relate to a perfectly happy picnic? The kind I might have experienced in my childhood.

      My friendly hispanic nurse said nothing. I had proven that I was not “one of them”—the old folk who needed further help.
      Everything was fine.
      Everything was not fine. All good boys and all good girls do not to heaven go simply by knowing. If you get too far up the scale, well there’s sour notes up there and you will most definitely be punished for hitting them. 
       I hope when I am 80 years of age, a doctor will speak to me, directly, telling me if I am still living or about to die. Please, doctor, do not speak to the ghost behind my shoulder. I want to talk to you directly, even if I can’t quite comprehend what you’re talking about. I have spent my life attempting to explain my experiences to your generation.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2106