Friday, May 22, 2009

13. Running Interference

How does one face the indignity of old age gracefully?

I recently spent a week in the Dallas area visiting my parents and aunt in their new retirement facility. It is a lovely place with beautiful grounds, spacious living accommodations, decent food and many activities from which to choose. As the trip approached I began to feel a sense of dread- I was anxious about seeing my mother and dad there and not in the family home in Lubbock. But that particular fear did not materialize: their apartment is full of familiar things and feels like them. And most of all they are where they need to be.

But the sense of dread was not misplaced. First of all, I was unprepared for the realities of staying in a retirement place for a week. But more importantly I was dismayed by my dad’s deterioration. Even though my sister had warned me that he could barely walk, I felt that something very significant was slipping through my hands.

There are so many different types of people at the Remington and most would probably prefer to be somewhere else. Walkers, electric wheelchairs and oxygen tanks are common. Cliques form in the dining hall whereas others are left to eat alone. When entering the lobby you are forced to walk the gauntlet, through the folks sitting around chatting. It is always the same group and as you walk past you hear the not-so-whispered comments: Who’s that? Who’s she visiting? Emily was nearly assaulted by an old codger wanting to take her out to dinner.

Most amusing, yet also sad, was a couple trying to have some sort of romantic relationship. She was insanely jealous of anytime her man friend spoke to another woman and I could hear them yelling at each other as they watched wrestling matches in front of the big screen television down the hall.

For several years my dad has had congestive heart failure and spinal stenosis and has been in a slow decrescendo. In fact in 2005 the doctor gave him a year to live. But I am not surprised that he has hung on- that side of my family tree just doesn’t know how to die. They wring out every last drop of life and, unfortunately, usually wear out the caregivers in the process. As downcast as I am at seeing Dad’s demise, it is equally sad to see what’s happening to my mother.

Coming to terms with Dad’s illness has been a slow process for Mother and there have been times when I believe she has single-handedly kept him alive. They have an extraordinary marriage, but she is now a caretaker more than a wife. The strain of taking care of Dad, as well as her own aging, has led her to lean more and more on my sister and me as she struggles with decisions. Gone is the confident, optimistic woman I grew up with. And Amy and I are weary, too, after the endless persuasions, encouragements and even arguments necessary to get them out of their home in Lubbock.

It is hard for me to imagine what it feels like to be unable to take care of one’s own most basic needs or to lose control of bodily functions. I looked into the faces of the Remington residents, knowing full well that many are at this stage of life. Some are able to cover this up and perhaps even deny it, but what does it feel like on the inside, when it’s just you acknowledging it to yourself? How are some able to maintain their dignity while others slip into despair? And how many only put on a happy face, pretending to accept the situation, while actually living in a personal hell, wanting this life to end?

As I watched my mother give herself completely over to caring for my dad, sometimes sympathetically and sometimes resentfully, I could not help but wonder if I was seeing myself in the not-so-distant future. My husband is 21 years older than me, and although we have had a fairly normal married life together I see some things starting to change. Hearing loss, forgetfulness, occasional cognitive confusion- these seem inevitable signs of aging which are becoming more noticeable and problematic. Bill has often said, only half-jokingly, that he doesn’t need long-term care insurance because he has his younger wife to take care of him.

As a wife I know that I will, in fact, take care of Bill in any way necessary as he grows older. But selfishly, I don’t want to turn into my mother. I have years left of energy and interest in my career as a musician: many organ works to learn and perform and many choral works to conduct. There are thousands of miles I want to cover and so many friends to spend time with… I pray that fate will not ask me to spend these peak years mainly as a caregiver.

I have an indelible memory of my trip: of being in Target with my mother as she begged the pharmacist to fill a prescription which the doctor had forgotten to authorize, all the while holding a bag of adult diapers. Every bit of grief, worry and pain that she’s endured the past few years were etched on her face… and in my heart as well. I returned to Maine feeling bruised and battered, as if I’d been running interference between my parents and the blows of life.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

12. Music for the Weekend

A few years ago CD’s for certain occasions or times of the day were quite popular. Titles such as Mozart For Your Morning or A Baroque Breakfast were ubiquitous at gift shops and bookstores. The local classical music station here in Maine even has special programming for Sunday brunches, weeknight dinners and the evening commute. I suppose these ideas have been good marketing tools and have at times encouraged the neophyte to purchase a recording.

My fingers seem to have been running a marathon lately, playing a lot of music which would never turn up on these commercial lists. I am the accompanist for the Acadia Choral Society, a community choir of around 60 voices, and our spring concerts were May 2 and 3. On these programs I played piano, organ and harpsichord- a challenge, to be sure. We did Handel’s youthful Dixit Dominus, four songs by Stephen Paulus, and three anthems by John Ireland in which I got to “pull out all the stops” on the organ. The concerts are in my church, so I am accustomed to the piano and organ as well as the acoustics.

The harpsichord is another story. It is not my favorite sound and I am often reminded of the esteemed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s comment that it sounds not unlike two skeletons copulating. I haven’t played one since graduate school, so I was a bit worried about it. Yes, the keyboards are laid out the same as a piano, but the touch is stiff and finicky, to say the least. There is no damper pedal and the sound evaporates immediately. And then there are the many early music “experts” who are very particular about style and ornamentation. Would any be in the audience? Luckily I’ve played enough Baroque music on a tracker organ to have a good idea of what to do.

The Handel was accompanied by eleven strings plus harpsichord and many times I’m sure I wasn’t even heard. But there were a couple of movements for solo voice and continuo where my part was exposed and prominent. All in all it was fun and I think I did fairly well (I haven’t heard the recording yet). That is, until I reached the last four pages of the piece in the second performance. I began to notice an odd clanking sound and something looked amiss when I glanced at the inside of the instrument. Some keys would not rebound after playing them, so I shifted to the upper manual. Then those keys began to malfunction and within seconds all the notes remained down and I could not play the instrument! What to do? If I were to just sit there with my hands in my lap it would surely draw attention to the problem. Fortunately the entire orchestra was playing forte at this point and my part would not be missed. I decided to fake it by keeping my fingers moving without actually touching the keys, and nobody was the wiser.

I still don’t understand what happened; something must have gone out of adjustment. When the harpsichord technician came to move it back to the library the day after the concert, he was not alarmed. However, if I end up playing this instrument again I am going to know more about its mechanics!

The Ireland pieces were fun to play and the local critic even commented on the spine-tingling organ accompaniment in one. But his Te Deum quickly became known as the
Tedium among the choir because at twenty pages it is just too long. Stephen Paulus, a Pulitzer- prize winning composer, has a beautiful way of setting text, but I was disappointed that the choir was unable to sing the appointed ones a cappella. They would have been much more effective without the piano quietly plunking out the notes.

The program was long and demanding and the chorale sounded a little tired by the end of the second concert. Still, the comraderie among the singers was strong and there is always some post-concert euphoria surrounding a successful performance. I chose to bypass the party afterwards, opting to have dinner with friends.

The following is a Celtic invocation, used as the text in one of the Paulus songs. It is a beautiful prayer of reverence and thanksgiving which gave me pause every time we rehearsed it. I’ve decided to recite it every morning for awhile in hopes that it will inspire me to each day look beyond the problems, hassles and struggles of life; to find the beauty, hope and peace that exist in my world.

May I speak each day according to Thy justice,
Each day may I show thy chastening, O God;
May I speak each day according to Thy wisdom,
Each day and night may I be at peace with Thee.

Each day may I count the causes of Thy mercy,
May I each day give heed to Thy laws;
Each day may I compose to Thee a song,
May I harp each day Thy praise, O God.

May I each day give love to Thee, Jesu,
Each night may I do the same;
Each day and night, dark and light,
May I laud Thy goodness to me, O God.