Between 1949 and 1979, kids in New York City and New Jersey threw high-bouncers against concrete walls, sidewalks, bats, and they called them ‘spaldeens.’ My ex-mother-in-law (of the might-have-been-bend-sinister variety) is a spaldeen: every time she lands at the very edge of life and is about to roll down into the infinite abyss of the beyond, she bounces back, a little lower and a little closer to the edge, but still on what we like to call “terra firma.” I stopped referring to her as the “Chocolate Nana D…a” , which she was called the last 80 plus of her 100 plus years on account of her passion for chocolate (most recently Dove Chocolate was her brand of choice, before that Ghirardelli holding the honor). Now I call her “Rubber Nana D…a” because she’s always bouncing back. Talk to her son, the geriatrician (MD even!) and he’ll give you one version of her life after near death: cracking jokes, poking her nose in everybody’s business, giving” advices” that are now even heavier with the gravitas of experience and the credibility of one who’s seen into the light at the end of the tunnel. Talk to her caretakers — a band of sturdy Polish women ranging in age between 35 and 65 and in silhouette from tomato to pear — and you’ll find out she’s added to the work load with a new habit. Maria, the bad-tempered good-hearted matron who holds down the fort five days a week and does not have a kind word to say about anyone or anything (accompanied by the disclaimer: “I don’t do noting bad. I not kill her. I am Catolik.” ) is of the opinion that Nana D…a is just being contrary for the sake of being contrary. The juice is sour? “NO! Is NOT sour! Dat’s SHE SAY is sour, but NOT sour.” It hurts her to get up? “NO! She not WANT get outta bed. I TELL her,’You not sick. You old. Old notSick. You get out of BED to eat. No eat in bed.” “She alla time stik finger in nose. Den she rub rub rub eye. All da time: rub eye.”
Last week she had a serious intestinal impaction which her son, the doctor – God bless him — removed digitally. Can you imagine doing that to your own mother? Flew into town equipped with rubber gloves . Spent the night on the living room couch, sleepless, steeling himself to do the procedure.The choice was: take mother to hospital and have it done there, which she categorically refused to do. Leave the impaction and watch her die a slow and painful death. Or go spelunking himself. Good doctor and even better son that he is, promptly at seven a.m., still in his white cotton super expensive pajamas, he put on the thick rubber gloves, laid several layers of towels on the bed, and got to work.
“MOM,” he said. “We’re gonna have to do this together. I’ve done this a hundred times in the ER, so just relax and trust me.” I swear, if I didn’t have respect for the man before, I am on my knees before him right now, every one of my two dozen hats off my head, in a gesture of prayerful and humble adoration.
I won’t even count the number of taboos that man had to overcome to stick his finger up his mom’s rectum, feel for the rock-hard impaction, and chip it out, one bit at a time, for two hours, with her all the time moaning “I wanna die… I wanna die..” But he uncorked the bottle, and now everything’s coming out and she’s set for another spell on this earth, that for her has shrunk to the size of her condominium, two bedrooms, two baths, living-dining room, eat-in-kitchen, and foyer, all of it filled with gorgeous Scandinavian furniture and Oriental rugs, books, paintings, photographs, menorahs, dozens of vases from years of floral deliveries.
The indignities of old age: high comedy. Slapstick of the grossest sort. Carnivalesque inversion of normal life. What are you going to do? Cry? I
remember my own father, at his worst demented moments, mistaking the tiny sink in his nursing home room for the toilet bowl, and depositing his shit there. I didn’t have to clean it up, mercifully. Didn’t bother him one bit. A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. In the geriatric psychiatric ward, where they put him when the first hauled him after he threatened my mother and sister with a chair for not — in his mind — feeding the dog, he was so heavily drugged that he sagged in a mammoth wheelchair, propped up by a half-dozen pillows, his head flopped to the side, his hair crazy, sticking out in all directions, an old derelict’s beard sprouting on his usually elegant cheeks.
“Professor, Professor,” the Haitian attendant prodded him,” let’s go to the toilet.”
She hauled him out of the wheeled throne and set him on his feet, where he wobbled for a moment, fumbling with the skirts of his faded gown, tied loosely in the back and hoisted up over the giant diaper covering his butt, and then, leaning heavily on her arm, shuffled with her to the doorless toilet in the sunroom, where the entire ward, equally stoned and delusional, idly watched him expel the day’s waste products. The big, shiny Haitian woman gently wiped off his ass and snapped on a fresh diaper.
The horror of witnessing the degradation of a parent by incontinence and public defecation. Spaldeen. Scenes like that turn you into a spaldeen. You hit the ground. Hard. And then you bounce back. What choice do you have?
Like right now, my daughter’s NYC apartment is infested with bedbugs and my sister has somebody’s escaped Black Brazilian tarantula crawling up her bedroom walls and across the ceiling.