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Vacation Day 1: Dinner with Paul - Elf M. Sternberg
Vacation Day 1: Dinner with Paul

I've just had one of the most depressing and terrifying steak dinners in my entire life. And I learned that my mother lives in hell.

After we woke up, we all went over to my mother's boyfriend's condominium. It's a beautiful place, centerpiece apartment on the ninteenth floor of a gorgeous high-security apartment in the heart of downtown Fort Lauderdale's moneied district, with an ubstructed south-easterly view of the Atlantic Ocean, including the Everglades Port Authority, and across the street from a major yachting canal.

"Oh, you're L's son!" he said as I walked in the door. "You have two beautiful daughters! Such beautiful dimples on both of them." He was gregarious in a high-speed way, but it was, to me at least, a familiar high-speed way. I grew up around Paul , and men like him. They're very geeky about what they do, be it medicine or law, which are the only real professions, according to all their mothers, and mine too-- although engineer and filmmaker are acceptable too "as long as you're happy." This is code for "have enough money to retire someday."

Three minutes later, "You have beautiful daughters, such lovely dimples!"

And three minutes later, "You have such beautiful daughters, such lovely dimples."

Paul, it turns out, has middle-stage Alzheimers. We had been warned about this, so it wasn't a surprise. I just wasn't told how exhausting it could be. Every conversation has to be worded as if you're interested. If Paul starts to think you're ignoring him, or acting as if you've heard it all before, he starts to notice something is wrong, but he doesn't know what, and he gets anxious. Anxiety meds help, and there are drugs that slow the progression of the disease, but I've never met an Alzheimer's patient in his condition before. I didn't know what it was like.

Paul has no memory buffer. He can't remember anything more than a few minutes prior. It never goes into long-term memory; that channel has long since been destroyed. He also can't plan; whatever the cutoff for his memory was, he wasn't in a planning mode when it happened, so he has no capacity to form goals beyond "I'm hungry" and "I need to use the bathroom," and "Oh, there are people here. I should talk to them."

And Paul can talk. At one point, I engaged him in a lengthy conversation about his career. He'd had one hell of a career. He was an entertainment lawyer representing actors and other stars, and his career was bookended by Tommy Dorsey and Rocky Marciano at one end, and Burt Reynolds and Dustin Hoffman at the other. Apparently, stars hire lawyers to look after their needs during filming, and Paul was Reynold's acting attorney during the filming of Smokey and the Bandit. His walls were covered with photos of him and stars from the 1950s through the 1970s. It was amazing.

We sat down. The television absorbed his attention. Three minutes later, I could have done it all again, and Paul would have had exactly the same energy level as before.

It was scary. There's a vast repository of human experience and knowledge in that man. From the day before the disease took hold, all the way to the start of his education, Paul can remember everything, if you know what to ask for. But from that day after... nothing. And for every day into the future, for every human hope and precious striving... nothing. There's a brilliant man there, trapped in time. When I wrote A Place In History, about a condemned criminal with artificially induced Alzheimers on a 24-hour cycle, I thought I was being cute. No, really, that is a living hell.

I made dinner. Mom asked me to. It was pretty easy; she'd bought some chicken pieces, so I doused them in good salt, good olive oil, a handful of dipping spices I'd found in a cabinet (no, really, they were garlic and pepper based, and they worked out fabulously), and cut in some onions and garlic and covered the dish in foil. I steamed broccoli and carrots with more oil and garlic and a little red pepper. We also seared some very thick steak slabs for Paul and myself. It was amazing stuff. Paul even said so. "Your son can cook!" he said to Mom, at least five times.

It turns out Paul and Mom were dating when the disease hit, so he thinks they're still dating. But no, she's been employed by his family to be his watcher now. It's exhausting work. He loves television, which must be a blessing to Mom. Paul is one illness away from serious problems: if he develops an illness that requires more than mere daily medication, if he has to do self-maintenance, he can't. He cannot learn. At all. She does all the learning, all the anticipating, all the planning, for him five days a week, and two members of the family take over the other two days.

We said our good-byes and went back to the hotel, only to discover that the "free wi-fi" in at the Fort Lauderdale Hyatt was worthless, with absolutely no bandwidth to speak off; that there were Caribbean Crazy Ants infesting the walls near the sink, and that something upstairs was making a persistent low rhythmic thrum-thrum-thruming through the floor. But we had no food so the ants weren't that much of a problem, and we were all to jetlagged and exhausted to care much anyway.

Omaha made the comment that, when I come to Florida my accent comes out, my speech patterns speed up appreciably, and I speak in a kind of rapid-fire shorthand that she can barely follow. "You were doing it with Paul. It must be a Jewish thing. It's not a Florida thing, nobody on the west coast [of Florida - elf] talks that way." I had to agree; I did see the speech pattern she was describing, and it did only emerge around my father's family and friends, which were mostly, you know, lawyers and doctors whose names end in "zelle," "stein," and "berg."

Current Mood: uncomfortable uncomfortable
Current Music: Vanessa Carlton, Ordinary Day

6 comments or Leave a comment
tehrasha From: tehrasha Date: August 11th, 2011 04:39 am (UTC) (Link)
How tall is that apartment to have a view of the Pacific to the SE?
elfs From: elfs Date: August 11th, 2011 04:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Thanks. I plead exhaustion. It's 1am after driving halfway up the coast, from Ft. Lauderdale to Clearwater. Or Sarah "I can see Russia from here!" Palin infection. Or something.
kistha From: kistha Date: August 11th, 2011 05:56 am (UTC) (Link)
It's very tough to deal with Alzheimer's patients. I wish you all much luck and patience.

You Mom is great for doing this.
shunra From: shunra Date: August 11th, 2011 07:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Linguistic note

It's Jewish, all right - but not any ol' Jewish. It's a specific sub-dialect of Ashkenazi Yiddish, relexified into American English. My guess would be that it's either Latvian or Lithuanian, although I've seen it all the way from (descendants of people from) Gdansk to the Moscow.

I get triggered into it by certain cadences of language. Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union totally pulled out out of me. Certain combinations of cooking & companionship do it. Certain topics of discussion, certain words get thrown in - and my entire grammar goes Yiddish.

It happened inadvertently last September, when I met up with a relative (retired DC lawyer) and his traveling companion (NYC ESL teacher) and by the end of the a few sentences, we'd entirely lost Daniel. After dinner he asked me if we were intentionally othering him, and only at that point I understood what he was talking about. It's full of codes, too. Once I knew what it was, I could stop - but it felt entirely natural (it didn't actually *feel*, as such) until he pointed it out to me.

Interesting to note: it's entirely absent from Israeli Hebrew. You basically only hear that speech pattern from Americans (or US expats) there. It is entirely absent from all Mizrahi Jews, and most of the ones whose origins are from other parts of Europe. It's really a very northeastern Europe phenomenon.
edichka2 From: edichka2 Date: August 11th, 2011 12:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been working with a few dozen geriatric patients at a nearby assisted-living place for a few years. Of those with significant dementia, I think the most fortunate are those who (1) are with it enough to realize that they have that deficiency, AND (2) have the serenity to accept it. They go with the flow and have a chuckle at themselves. Sounds like Paul lacks that perception (1) and perhaps acceptance (2).
- E
zonereyrie From: zonereyrie Date: August 12th, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, this gave me some unpleasant flashbacks, things I'd long since forgotten/repressed.

My maternal grandfather died of Alzheimer's while I was in high school. It took years from the first onset, and watching him slowly vanish is the singularly most horrifying thing I've seen in my life. I'd rather eat a bullet then go out that way.

It started out with a little forgetfulness, and things you'd chuckle about - like putting the lawn mower back in the garage, running. (This was before the days of safety cut outs that shut them down when you let go.) Or asking the same question a few times. Sometimes he'd get a lot like he knew something was wrong, but not quite sure what. Or "I can't believe I forgot that, weird..." kind of thing. But then it was getting lost driving home from the grocery store - like six blocks from the house my grandparents had lived in for decades, shopping at the same store. Or leaving things on the stove.

And he started to get violent - a mindless lashing out, like a child. He basically had tantrums in his confusion. Once it got to the level of danger he needed full time care and couldn't live with my grandmother anymore. His last few years were in a nursing home, and by the end he was a husk.

I'd rather lose my body than my mind. I still remember the worst moments - they weren't the times when he was lost to the disease, but the moments when he *wasn't*. When he would float back to the surface for a minute, and was fully aware he was drowning and no one could save him. The look in his eyes and on his face during those moments is still something that shakes me 20+ years later.
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