Gay men of my generation are veterans of watching people die. AIDS. COVID. Scattered throughout all of that are the random cases of cancer. Then, of course, there are also the sudden deaths: heart attack and stroke. Car accidents. Suicide. And then, just when you think you’d seen it all, you get an up-close and personal look at dementia. Good times!
As a kid I changed schools thirteen times in thirteen years. It might have been manageable if it had been a new school every year, but it wasn’t. In the ninth grade I went to four different schools – one for only four days. And if they were thirteen different schools, that also might have been a bit manageable, but because the bouncing around was sometimes between parents, I sometimes bounced back to the same school system every few years, prompting the inevitable questions, “Why are you here? Again?”
I bring this up because this semi-nomadic existence developed in me a need to hold on to whatever I could, however I could, for as long as I could. People were most important to me. It was decades into my adult life before I realized not everybody did that and the birth of social media didn’t really help. Suddenly people who had been living in my memories for more than half my life were now resurrected and reaching out through Facebook, and once again coming to life in my mind. Years of reconciling the creations in my head with the pseudo-reality of social media just became too difficult for even an Olympic-level hanger-on, and for my own sanity I severed many social media ties.
Ninety-nine percent of these people didn’t seem to notice. I was amazed at how much lighter I felt, and how rarely these people surfaced in my thoughts. I think about Jake Gyllenhaal far more often than I do people I knew in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But I may think of Mr. Gyllenhaal for very different reasons.
In 2019, while I was in New York on a Broadway trip, I received a phone call telling my mother needed to go into a nursing home, and that she had dementia. A nurse with thirty years of experience caring for dementia patients walked me through what to expect. She said patients usually last between four to eight years after diagnosis, and that as far as she could tell Mom was probably about midway through the progression. Looking back, of course there were signs I didn’t want to see. I’m sure there were more that my mother hid. She was an expert at creating a favorable narrative for herself, but that’s a story for another time.
The nurse rattled off a number of medications they were starting her on, a list of which I promptly forgot. One was an anti-psychotic, which set me into a minor tailspin. There was slight improvement, enough for her to be released, but then a very slow decline. It was another year before she went into a nursing home permanently. Just as COVID started. Ah, the good times.
From that point forward, I increased my visits to three times a year. The first visit had me standing outside a window, trying to explain why I couldn’t come into the building. I got her a new cell phone, a red one to help her remember it was from me. She still turns it on and presses buttons, but I don’t think she realizes what it is. I sometimes get random calls, or a blurry picture of her room door. I know she’s still alive.
My sister has made a couple of trips up from Arizona to visit Mom with me. The girl my mother would remember is a blonde, and now the woman who is her daughter is a redhead. She knows that she should know her, but doesn’t know how. She refers to my sister as “your friend.” My sister is amazing with her.
But Mom knows me, and on my last visit she kept insisting – demanding – that I take her home. I couldn’t tell her that she was home. I had to leave her in her room with her catatonic roommate, Pam. The last time I saw her, I told her I’d be back soon. And I did come back. I thought that if she was in bed, then wouldn’t insist on being taken home. Before I went in to see her, I asked a nurse to check on her.
She was still in her wheelchair. Waiting for her son to come and take her home.
Wanting to go home was really the only coherent thing she could say. When my sister and I walked into the dining room, she recognized me. I sat next to her, she looked me in the eye and said, “I walked the dog over you.” She knew she wanted to say something, but that the words out of her mouth were not matching the words in her head. She said it again. “I walked the dog over you.” And again. I told her that I didn’t understand. And then with great effort, she tried again:
I walked the floor over you I can't sleep a wink that is true I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks right in two I walked the floor over you.
The words aren’t exact, but they’re lyrics from an old country western song. I’ve looked it up and it’s been recorded a number of times over the years, and while I can’t be sure I believe the recording Mom is thinking of was done by Merle Haggard.
The actual lyrics of the entire song are:
You left me and you went away You said you'd be back and just that day You've broken your promise and you left me here alone I don't know why you did dear, but I do know that you're gone I'm walking the floor over you I can't sleep a wink that is true I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks right in two Walking the floor over you Now darling you know I love you well I love you more than I can ever tell I thought that you loved me and always would be mine But you went and left me here with troubles on my mind I'm walking the floor over you I can't sleep a wink that is true I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks right in two Walking the floor over you Now someday you may be lonesome too Walking the floor is good for you Just keep right on walking and it won't hurt you to cry Remember that I love you and I will the day I die I'm walking the floor over you I can't sleep a wink that is true I'm hoping and I'm praying as my heart breaks in two Walking the floor over you.*
All the moving and changing schools. AIDS. COVID. Social media. Therapy, for God’s sake.
Nothing prepares you for this.
* Walkin’ the Floor Over You – Ernest Tubbs, 1941