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Then and Now

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Going home again

By Michael Dirda


 

A few days ago I arrived back in Lorain, Ohio—where I grew up—to spend some time with my mother, who now resides in a nursing home. Her mind is still sharp and she plays a mean game of 500 Rummy, but the after-effects of a stroke have kept her wheelchair bound and rendered her right hand useless. Once upon a time I sat in my mother’s lap, as she turned the pages of Golden Books and I gradually learned to read. These days I bring her children’s picture books, which we enjoy looking at together before she puts them aside as gifts for her first great-grandchild.

Every day when I walk through the hallways of this “long-term care facility,” I see rows of the aged, seated in their wheelchairs, with heads turtled down. Aside from weekly bingo, occasional ice cream socials, and church services, there’s simply not a whole lot for them to do. In general, the residents watch television and live from meal to meal: People start rolling themselves into the dining room a little after 4, even though dinner isn’t served until 5. Sometimes, in the evenings, I hear a screamer shrieking for help or find myself accosted by a pathetic weeping woman who wants me to take her home. One handsome if vacant-minded patient regularly raises an arm high above her wheelchair-throne to bestow a regal wave that Queen Elizabeth would envy. It’s all quite heartbreaking.

When I come to visit my Mom—every two or three months—I generally spend five or six hours with her each day. She’s always immensely glad to see me, her eldest child, her only son. My three younger sisters live in the area, and they stop by regularly, wash her clothes, bring her favorite foods. But it’s hard on the whole family. My mother’s savings are gone, she’s now on Medicaid, and later this fall the government will try to sell her house. The real estate market in this derelict steel town is, needless to say, pretty dismal. On my mother’s block alone several homes have been on the market for months, even years. Asking prices probably range around $40,000 or so. A house two doors away recently went for $25,000.

I do stay in my mother’s house—my boyhood home—whenever I visit. In recent years the downstairs has been gradually taken over by dolls. There are dolls on the mantel, in glass cabinets, on shelves, on the floor. Many are of Shirley Temple; one—which might actually be worth something—is a two-foot-tall Princess Diana in her wedding dress. Other than my mother’s dolls, the rest of the ground floor had been decorated, until recently, in Home Nursing Care. Accent items included boxes of adult diapers, catheters, trays of meds and skin creams, a hospital bed, a Hoyer lift, and a folding wheelchair.

As you might imagine, my emotions are complicated when I visit this house. Now that my mother isn’t using my ground-floor bedroom, I’ve taken to staying in it again. Half a century ago my father built this “addition,” largely because the house only had two bedrooms upstairs and I was growing too old to share one of them with my sisters. My mother, in the way of mothers, eventually decorated this room with pictures of me and framed newspaper articles about the honors that have come my way. It’s all a little embarrassing. My middle sister, Pam, regularly razzes about the “shrine.”

These days, lying in bed, I can again look up at the wall shelves my father installed for my youthful book collection. Many of the original books are gone—they’re in a basement in Silver Spring—but others are still here. In the mornings, waiting to find the energy to face another day, I sometimes scan the titles that remain: Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in River of Peril, The Silken Baroness Contract, How to Make More Money, Essentials of Marxism, Litterature Comparee: L’Etude des Themes. Throughout my adolescence, I would study in this room after supper, then read for hour after hour, until my mother—in her old nightgown—would pad down the stairs and say, “Mikey, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. Go to sleep.”

In very rare, Gatsbyish moments I sometimes think, “Well, boy, you’ve come a long way.” But most of the time, when I gaze upon my beloved mother in her wheelchair or stand at my father’s grave, I just tend to grow thoughtful, which is a slightly more genteel way of saying depressed. I miss my young parents. I miss the boy I used to be. Leon Trotsky, no less, once said: “Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.”

As it happens, I even miss my town. Looking out from the McDonald’s in which I’m writing, I can just make out the site of the old branch library, located right in the Lorain Plaza Shopping Center. For years I’d ride my bike over every week or two, browse through the old-fashioned bookcases, then check out The Mysterious Island or Atlas Shrugged or A Shropshire Lad. Of course, that branch library is long gone, replaced first by a Radio Shack, then a cell-phone store. It’s now a second-rate pizza joint, just waiting to become a Dollar General.

Sigh. Since adolescence one of my favorite poems has been Ernest Dowson’s “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae.” This is the one with the famous line, “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion.” Its Latin title can be roughly paraphrased and severely shortened to: “Things aren’t as good as they used to be.” Driving home after spending an evening with my mother, I wonder: Is there a room in a nursing home waiting for me? How many good years do I have left? As my father used to say: “Live fast.”

In fact, I’ve lived slow, dithered and dallied, taken my own sweet time, and done pretty much what I’ve regularly done ever since my mother first taught me to read so long ago: Found a quiet spot and opened a book. When I turned 50 I remember thinking that just maybe I should have spent less time in libraries and more drunken nights in dives and honky-tonks. Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll never know.

Still, just the other day I noticed The Golden Argosy on my old bookshelves. I discovered this anthology of stories at the age of 12 or 13—it is, I recently learned, one of Stephen King’s favorite books. Of its many great selections, my own rather tell-tale favorite was Joseph Conrad’s “Youth.” Half a century later, I can still remember when I first read its carefully cadenced, if syntactically challenging, final sentences, among the greatest dying falls of English literature:

“‘But you here—you all had something out of life: money, love—whatever one gets on shore—and, tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks—and sometimes a chance to feel your strength—that only—what you all regret?’

“And we all nodded at him: the man of finance, the man of accounts, the man of law, we all nodded at him over the polished table that like a still sheet of brown water reflected our faces, lined, wrinkled; our faces marked by toil, by deceptions, by success, by love; our weary eyes looking still, looking always, looking anxiously for something out of life, that while it is expected is already gone—has passed unseen, in a sigh, in a flash—together with the youth, with the strength, with the romance of illusions.”

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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