Ruth: In Hollywood, writers are striking. I might strike, too, but I’m afraid no one would notice. How ignominious would that be?
Still, it’s something of a thrill to see the solidarity, the stubbornness, the signs, the picket lines. The writers are bringing the TV industry to its arthritic knees, I want to think, robbing the world of new episodes of Desperate Housewives (how will we ever cope?), snatching the bon mots before they reach Letterman’s mouth, stranding plots in mid-conflict, in the first twitches of lust. I love it. I love seeing people finally paying a little attention to writers (respect might be a bit too much to hope for. Have you ever heard the old joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer? I think it still applies).
Maybe a gang of writers will even get together and beat up somebody, striking fear into greedy hearts everywhere. Like the Teamsters. Oh, well. Maybe not. But I bet they’re circulating some very literate, sarcastic, annihilating emails about the powers that be.
In my own strike-less life, things are quieter and I wish somebody would script a better plot. I spent a few minutes this morning talking to the nurse where my father has been taken care of for years, trying to understand what would be the best decision for him.
How can I take him away from a place that has taken such loving care of him for so long — simply to bring him closer to us? What is wrong with me? Why don’t I know what the right decision is? Why does it feel so terrible?
I called Ellen and talked to her and she assured me I was making the right decision. She feels terrible that she can’t be here helping me right now, that she’s thousands of miles away. But I felt better as I talked to her.
As always, we turned to stories that diverted us. She reminded me of the creepy, clinging girlfriend Daddy took up with a few years ago. The aged girlfriend’s family loved Daddy, of course, since he took such good care of her, fussing over her, steadying her. He was recreating the long relationship he’d had with our mother, whom he doted on and nursed in her last years.
Every time I showed up to see him, the girlfriend’s family had decorated his room a little more — mostly with pictures of the girlfriend. Gigantic pictures of her in her prime — as if the two of them had shared a history, for God’s sake. I’d always hide them in his bureau drawers or dump them in the wastebasket, but they’d pop up again in a place of prominence.
Finally, when Ellen and I were both visiting, we took the biggest framed photo, went to lunch nearby and left it in the restaurant. “Remember how homely she was?” Ellen asked today. “She looked better as an Alzheimer’s patient than she did when she was middle-aged.” Ellen and I cackled and when we hung up, I felt better.
But still not great. I’ve been reading some Shakespeare as I’m working on an article for a university magazine. I keep thinking about the seasons of a man’s life.
So I think of Daddy as a young, poor, good-looking kid, growing up in an alcoholic household where there was never enough money to pay the bills. I think of him as a young athlete, then a soldier in Europe during World War II. As a young husband and father. Think of how steadily he went to work and how no one ever thought to ask him whether he liked what he did, day after day. It’s the kind of life you don’t respect that much when you’re young and critical and it’s your father’s life. But it had a certain nobility to it — I can finally see that now. The steady, eternal taking care of business, paying the bills, never complaining.
But he did complain, of course. Especially about Ellen and me, who seemed like spoiled ingrates to him. That’s a part of the story. But I’m loath to tell that part of the story, since it’s his, not mine, that I’m trying to tell.
All those years and all that steadiness, and he ends up helpless. You know, theoretically, that that helplessness — what Shakespeare referred to as a second childhood — will happen to most of us. But you’re still shocked when it happens, still outraged and saddened by this final, humiliating season of a life. He’s been spared that knowledge and has the resources to be taken care of well; but those are the only two mercies I can find in this final season. It’s essentially a merciless season that goes on far too long and offers no good or comforting resolutions. No good writer would ever script a long, painful ending like this, as bodies and minds fail bit by bit — but since when did we ever get the chance to author our own lives?
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)