I wrote this as a Facebook “note” in August 2009, a kind of diary entry seen only by friends. It came to mind today in an online conversation, and so I decided to revisit these thoughts.
I am not sure whom this is addressed to. It’s really a public diary entry, blogged meditation.
I went to see my father-in-law Joe this morning, as I sometimes do. Joe lives in a home, suffering from Alzheimer’s. He’s gradually getting worse, which is precisely what they predict. While prognoses are usually a series of predictions, they’re a sketchy scenario at best. You know the rough curve of the decline, not the ups and downs along the way. Who would expect that this man who worked most of his life among other men (a contractor) would often forget the women blood relatives of his family, yet remember me, the chief man in this life that he still remembers. Some days are better than others, but mostly he sleeps the day away since his wife passed away in April and stopped coming to see him regularly (yes: she exhausted herself with visits to him, and now he lives on, vaguely aware that something in his life is missing).
I’m going to make a comparison that will sound grandiose to some people. And maybe that’s what it is; but I am trying to make sense out of things, so if this works for you, great, and if not, that’s life….
In Wagner’s opera Parsifal, the story concerns the Holy Grail. It’s almost impossible to talk about the subject without invoking hysterical laughter, as we recall Graham Chapman’s King Arthur (God bless him), John Cleese as “Tim”, the woman in the weigh scales with the duck (to see if she was a witch). Symbolic stories full of portents make people laugh, often because the underlying truths are expressed in such absolute language –either this or that, with no gray areas–that reminds us of church and other places where laughter was prohibited. I used to think nursing homes would be like that, but in fact laughter is allowed and encouraged. Parsifal, though, is as serious as they come. When it’s presented at Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival the tradition is that you’re not supposed to applaud at the end of Act I; and sometimes you’ll hear people shushing others. No it’s not an opera about spontaneous emotions, but something more like a visit to a church or a shrine.
Speaking of shrines, in the story of Parsifal, the story itself is a bit of a shrine. Not only do we see the holy grail revealed in the course of the opera –twice in fact, and i hope that doesn’t spoil the story for anyone about to see it–but there’s something in some ways even more magical than the grail.
More magical than the grail? Well how about someone who is almost dead, ready for a crypt, who comes back to life whenever he sees the grail. The Grail ritual renews everyone who sees it, especially Titurel, who is barely alive.
I couldn’t put my finger on it today, when I visited Joe, but there was something curiously familiar. Yes, it was Parsifal. Joe has to be fed by the staff, as he gets weaker. This big strong man has become a 120 pound shadow of his former self. One thing that he loves is chocolate. Today for instance, I brought him the usual — a diabetic candy sweetened with aspartame rather than sugar–to offer to him. When I arrived he was asleep, at 11 am. I stood beside his bed, CNN blaring away on the TV (he doesnt’ seem to understand what’s on, but it’s really a kind of company he wants rather than a specific show), wondering if he would wake up. Then I felt his presence, looking down, suddenly i saw that his eyes were open. He said “good night”, as he often does. And he closed his eyes.
I talked to him. I was trying to re-engage him, to see if he’d wake up. I said hello, and asked if he knew who I was. He was blank…and then when i said “son in law” he nodded and said “son in law” and i said Leslie. And he nodded but didn’t say anything. I am a lot bigger than him, so i wonder sometimes if he’s agreeing because a big stranger is looming above him, and offering him chocolate. Why argue?
Today for the first time, he had serious trouble taking the chocolate from me. Four time he reached towards his face. His hands were having trouble closing on the candy. Once he dropped the chocolate, and it fell alongside his body (he was in a semi-foetal position throughout my visit). And he seemed to drift off to sleep.
I asked him a couple of times if he wanted the chocolate. He’d say yes, reach for it, open his mouth to accept it on his tongue, but couldn’t get his hand –a hand that had powerfully held a hammer and driven nails to build the garage and shed behind my house –to close. His fingers were stiff, bending where they met the hand but otherwise refusing to articulate or curve. His chocolate repeatedly fell from his hand. One time, he closed his eyes as if to just drift off into sleepy surrender. I cleaned off his hand with a kleenex, where the chocolate had partially melted.
Finally I asked him if I could feed it to him. It’s a very intimate moment as you can imagine. He looked up, our eyes met but he said nothing. I brought the chocolate closer, and his eyes widened. I said “let me feed you the chocolate” and he opened his mouth wide and took it. He started to chew…then seemed about to fall asleep again.
If he were to fall asleep with the chocolate in his mouth he could choke. So I woke him up, engaging him in a conversational red herring (and please excuse the mixed metaphor…chocolate herring can’t be very tasty). I asked him if it was good. And told him to chew it. And asked him if it was coconut. Coconut was my favourite. Eventually he chewed it. And then it was as if Titurel came to life, the great king revived and resumed his regal posture for a bit. Joe came back into the room for awhile. He became more animated. I don’t recall what we talked about because i was so delighted to see so much life from him, the strongest and most animated he’d seemed in a few weeks. He said “good night” a few times.
I was struck by the torturous aspect of the encounter, which is why Wagner is sometimes useful. His tales are mythical, which is another way of saying that he paints in broad strokes without being realistic whatsoever. At times like this realism has nothing to do with it. I need a symbol, that i can then imbue with my own meanings. In the opera Titurel has been wasting away because his son has a wound inflicted while sinning. Or in other words, Amfortas had the holy phallic symbol (the holy spear) stolen from him while he was busily having sex with a beautiful woman. Sounds a bit like VD or a psycho-somatic illness brought on by guilt. Amfortas has guilt alright. And so he rarely unveils the grail anymore because the grail torments him and reopens his wounds. By avoiding the grail he is aging his father Titurel. Lordy, everytime we visit Joe and unveil the grail –chocolate flavoured in our case with coconut–to bring him back to life, it’s torture. He is drifting closer and closer to the afterlife where i think he dreams of re-uniting with his recently departed wife Irene. When he sleeps i am sure he sees her. When he eats chocolate, aside from the yummy taste, it pulls him back into this world. But he is gradually getting weaker, his death more and more certain. Today i was shocked that instead of eagerly taking the chocolate, he could not even hold it anymore. What exactly do i accomplish, pulling him back to life, away from his sleep?
In Act III of Parsifal, when the hero finally retrieves the spear from the bad guys, and returns it to the castle of the grail, we hear that dear old Titurel finally passed away. It’s a sad moment but nobody is immortal. I am trying to reconcile these two contrary wishes in my own opera: the desire to feed Joe his chocolate to bring him back to life, and the wish that he will wander off in sleep to be with Irene.
As you all get older, unless there’s a miraculous leap forward in our understanding of Alzheimer’s, there will be more Titurels, on the edge of life and death. Good luck.
Epilog: at the time I wrote this in the summer of 2009, I was a regular visitor to my father-in-law, at a home where he was living with Alzheimer’s, having outlived his wife (my mother-in-law, who had passed away in April 2009) until he too passed away in February 2010.