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This piece is about 15 printed pages long. It is copyright © Susan M. Schultz and Jacket magazine 2008.
The Internet address of this page is http://jacketmagazine.com/35/schultz-dementia.shtml
Dementia Blog was written over the course of six months during the worst of my mother’s dementia. In August 2006 she was still in her home; by January 2007 she was settled into an Alzheimer’s home. The blog, like all blogs, moves backwards from the present into the past. Because it moves back, the reader has no sense of cause and effect and often does not recognize what has happened until reading further back. This form struck me as appropriate to a meditation on memory and self-loss.
The complete Dementia Blog (January 2007–August 2006) will be published later in 2008 by Singing Horse Press. The first two entries of the section in Jacket were previously published in 5_trope #23 (October, 2007). Other sections have been published in Interim, Bamboo Ridge, how2, and in a chapbook from Slack Buddha Press (2008).
Susan M. Schultz
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
— The famous person of the day is Jim Bakker. Michael asks: Does anyone remember Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker from the 80s? The supervisor’s mother used to send them money. They stole it. Do you think people of the cloth should be held to a higher standard? The supervisor says they’re just flesh and blood, like her. That’s right, says the woman whose sweatshirt has grandchildren’s names on it. (When I make ‘em, I make ’em, she says, lifting her breasts with her hands. I guess I shouldn’t say that.) Yesterday she was Woman 1. Woman 2 ignores her today.
— Michael is from West Virginia. He is large and wears black pants every day, a brown jacket. His beard is thin, as is his hair. He says he has no idea what time it is, or if it’s morning or afternoon.
— Why are we talking about this? Yes! They should all just forget about it and pray to the Lord. That’s what I do. I don’t want to talk about this. Listen to the context of the entire conversation, Emma tells her.
— Michael’s wife arrives; she does not have cancer. They leave. Lina takes over. She says something about Catholic priests. We do not want to talk about this. Not all Christians.
— They decide to sing instead. God bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her...
— Let’s write a poem:
The Christmas tree is a song.
Roses are red.
— Is this what you expected? the grandmother asks. This was not what she expected. Another asks what I think of the “clientele.”
— The woman who wears silk dresses moans. She sits in the back and cries. You mean you can’t tell me that, Christine; but you went to Juilliard! Next door she cries again, sings Barney’s song: You love me, I love you.
— The woman in the festive red sweater asks if I’m a professor. I am a professor, she says, her pale eyes wide. Health administration. Pitt, San Bernardino — that’s in San Bernardino. Get your mother some cough drops; she has a cold.
— The woman who wore no shoes is wearing them, black canvas shoes with white rubber on the bottom. She does not sit still. She places her hands on my shoulders, leans over, whispers you’re red hot. The angry woman next to me says stay away from me, I’m not like that! when the woman with the canvas shoes approaches her. She walks in and out, sits and gets up. She speaks but her subject is not ours.
— The woman who looks most European enters in a striped top; she could be sailing. She sits next to my mother, pushes her chair forward, then back. Lina tells her to stop. STOP. She pushes back until the chair is lodged against another. She keeps pushing. I pull a chair up beside my mother and sit. My mother smiles.
— One of the two black residents was a gym teacher. I’d just pull out my whistle now and tell them all to stop! She carries a kleenex box wherever she goes.
— The memory boxes hold faces that smile out at you. Mental archeology gets you closer, and sometimes the name gets you there, where they were before they forgot and their skin forgot and we who did not know them then cannot know them now. She is an angel, your mother. She always smiles at me. Memory boxes keep families close in some time before this one. Loved ones hold each other, cradle babies. One photo is from 1958; it says so. That was the woman who squeezes my shoulders. That was the inappropriate man who gives the women flowers, talks about their lust. That was the woman who hates her name, with a family that must have had one. That was the man in overalls (in Navy whites) who puts his head down at lunch, even when he eats. That was Dr. French, who cannot stay awake. Name me one song from the musical Oklahoma. They all begin to sing.
— The woman who is not wearing shoes comes up behind me and places her hands on my shoulders. She squeezes them. I turn and ask her name. She does not know.
— The heavyset man with a Virginia teeshirt comes to feed his wife lunch each day. She hasn’t been able to say how she feels for six years. But she’s a sweetheart. She’s very sweet. He pulls out a pocket comb and pulls it through her short white hair.
— Woman 1: Tell him you want him to sit on your lap. Tell him you don’t want him to sit on your lap. OUCH! What did you just do? Woman 2: I just pinched you. You stuck it out there for me. She reaches out, pinches the first woman’s breast again.
— Do you have grandchildren? I ask the woman with the “I love grandchildren” sweatshirt. I use them up! I ask how many grandchildren she has. All is not right up here, she answers, pointing to her head.
— I can laugh at everything, says Woman 1. That’s the problem.
— Woman 2 points to her head and nods toward Woman 1.
— The woman who hates her own name stumbles when she gets past the railing. I’m holding my mother’s hand. I ask if she too would like a hand. I don’t need any help! she says. I don’t know how I talked to her, she tells my mother, but I get angry at people who want to help me. Don’t be that way, my mother says.
— My mother’s skin is too small for her, is brown, its ridge lines steep. There are white spots on the brown. Her ankles are a rough white. Her hair is pulled up, curled at the top. Her shoulders stoop, but she skitters ahead of me until I speed up. She is very special, says Woman 1, and you’re just like her.
— The woman who hates her own name tries to carve her napkin with a knife. Each reads “Country Lane.” It’s so she’ll know which is hers. The woman who gives her lunch says she’ll help. She takes the napkin, begins to carve until fade out.
— The woman with the loud sweater comes after me, says she has a cold (meaning my mother, who coughs). I spent a thousand dollars trying to get over my cold. The only thing that worked was cough drops. Get your mother cough drops.
— The woman who collects dolls (one hangs around her neck) says her husband was in Hawai’i during the war. She wonders if I was there during the war, though she knows something is wrong with her question. Not that war. The woman who hates her name has taken her napkin, too.
— Xavier is in his early 20s. Xavier attended Bible School, earned his MA in psychology. Xavier tosses a yellow ball back and forth with everyone in a green chair. Dr. French, you need to wake up! X reads out loud from the newspaper. 3000 killed in Iraq. A faint gasp. The man who is most competent opines we must get out of Iraq, there’s no other way. Doesn’t like Clinton, though. Monica Lewinsky (we’ll tell you about her later). Xavier says Gerald Ford is lying in state. He died? Xavier asks how you’d cook a turkey. He asks what goals they have. How many Afghans will you sew? Finish one, start another.
— I grew up on a pig farm, which is where I met HIM.
— Minnesota, Minnesota. I don’t remember where in Minnesota.
— Are you just going to stand there in front of me?!
— Kick him out. Kick him out.
— How do you keep rabbits out of a garden? Shoot ’em!
— People get together with their families for dinner.
— Gone With the Wind.
— Poland. Ireland. England. Ireland.
— See, she’s trying to get her hands in my pants. Sheila, too.
— Do you have change for a quarter? Can you get in the vending machines?
— Is this the way we go?
— I hate my name.
— I don’t know if I like my name or not. It’s my name.
— My son travels a lot. He’s single.
— She’s my girlfriend: see!
— Did I ask you for change earlier? Do you have any more?
— She’s very sweet and very proper, the nurse tells me. I thought maybe she was a socialite.
— People clapped as the hearse passed down Washington Street, Alexandria. Someone waved in one of the other vehicles. A second hearse went by. That one had a flag inside it. Our long national nightmare is over, he said.
— My mother smiles to see me. Sweetie. She sits in a chair in a large room and she turns her ankles this way and then that. Lifts her legs below the knee. We go to lunch and she smiles. I show her kids’ photos and she smiles. Hands them back. Is she always so quiet? I ask the nurse. Yes. Michael, who initiates the ankle twists, says she talks to him. She remembers why she liked her husband, he says, and she graduated from the University of Iowa. Did she teach at Langley High School? he’d asked earlier, and I said no. She does not say her home town, or how to keep the rabbits out, or how to grow roses; nor does she speak the name of a best-seller or sing the song the television brings.
— Two men and a knife. A pregnant girl. The scheming older woman. Stanley on a boat, Stella serving coffee on a tray. Clearly, the plot is dark. Someone will get hurt. And yet they sing, on deck, on the rocky shore, to themselves and to each other. This was before West Side Story. When Americans were wholesome, did not seduce each other at clam bakes while their songs entered the happy place.
— She’s in her happy place, the nurse says. We’d all like to be there. People come and go, but nothing affects them much. It’s all the same.
— What are they talking about? We can’t hear the movie. Be quiet!
— Poetry or poetic prose. Sequence or unraveling of. Prose or text message. Forward, then back. The writing dances, a child beside the canal, its green water not yet inviting. Failure to thrive. Two of them died right after they came. She did not. Failure to fail to thrive is life. Life is a happy place.
— Bad year for empire. Occlusions of memory. Do not tell us what you did in Vietnam or Panama or the Philippines, Cuba or Cambodia. We have chosen to tivo those out. Shiites “reorganize” neighborhoods. Once mixed, they’re now “purified.” We’ve created a culture of dependency in Iraq, the governor opines. If only they’d grow up to be like us. He actually likes to hang out with his parents. The journalist compares Iraqis to American Indians. Forgetting is not easy; there is blood on its hatchet, too.
— In her year of greatest dependency, she lashed out at others. [Cross species metaphor erased here.] In her year of forgetting, she took on new memories like clothing to cover the disfigurations. In her year of assuming new facts, she forgave the president his lies (he’s not so bad; don’t be so hard on him!).
— New rules from China: no one with a facial disfiguration can adopt a Chinese baby. (Provisions also against obesity, singleness, age and anti-depressants.)
— I live in Ahuimanu, Temple Valley, Kane’ohe, on Hui Kelu Street, near the cemetery and the McDonald’s, windward side of the Koolaus, mauka of the highway, parking lot 5. Were they part of the British empire? he asks about Nepal. They gave their soldiers to the British and kept their land.
— She writes about Jerusalem. Old Arab man attacked by young Arab men. Enter the Israeli police. Blame put where it always is. Hers is not a defense of empire, but a puncturing of story that fails to acknowledge particular fact. Not a call to action, but to observation. Dangerous to see amoeba in the microscope when there is the sea!
— The brain is wider than. Oh for an ounce of your poetry’s acid, Emily, to sear through this empire’s rigid grammar.
— Her friends’ notes come to me: I was in surgery, have bad diabetes and I’m sorry we lost touch; my daughter is away and everyone else is dead and I tried to call, but the phone was disconnected. Do not expect her to write back, I write back.
— The hikers were missing for a week on the mountain. One called from his cave, said his friends were on airplanes, or at home in Dallas. Hour after hour the mountain rose a vivid white on the television; black dots were rescuers. He was found, his cell phone sodden, testimonial photos in a disposable camera. The story cannot end on television, is dropped.
— Refuse closure, the poet insists. Language, like the mountain, offers no RSVP to our insistence that it hold us like a cave or like a perfect sentence. Techniques of fiction offer tension released in an ending. The couplet demands we change our lives, but tells us how. Buy a map of the city, the syllabus says. I dream they will not let me finish my degree; I dream my life has no direction now, which is then. A dream of openness disguised as anger. My mother’s rage at being told her laundry had been done again, by her. Again the angry word that cannot acknowledge the end.
— Sangha doesn’t want Harry Potter; it’s too scary. Nor The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In his hands, Santa becomes an action figure.
— If the story refuses to end, if the story exhausts the frame called “story,” if the story is about the dissolution of story (what we cannot remember is no longer story, but Sappho), if the story is remnant, ruin, then what holds us to it? My mother’s life a loaded one, her words clues, symptoms to a foregone opening. The scholar translates death laments. But what do you call the lament that lacks death?
— Holding patterns. Which is the alpha word, the one to govern its phrase? Can one exist without the other?
— And if the lack of ending does not yet suggest openness? When the failure to die does not open the possibility of rebirth?
— Like Jesus, I tell the kids, Santa is someone who only gives, does not receive. At the corner, an inflated Santa towers over the plastic holy family. Down the hill, he turns and turns in a plastic bubble. The mean man has the most decorations. During the day, Santas lie flat, lacking air. Birth before death certain, resurrection into this myth of goods and services. Those we love shall die only by degree.
Are the programs any good? I ask. Not really, she answers, in character. I’m so glad to hear you’re doing well. Her voice is muddy; she doesn’t know where it went.
— She was as surprised to see us on the second day as on the first. Knowledge is the memory you’ve done this at least once before. Prancing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh. Sangha sings: Har-ry Pot-ter’s com-ing to town!
— The senator began to stutter, then recovered his words (hear the tape at cnn.com). He lay on his couch, unable to move his body or his mouth. The president sleeps better at night than you might imagine. Talk of doubling down the troops. Christmas bombing. History of the English language. Grammar as stricture, as ligament, as joint that aches when it bends. Incursion. Which side of the river are you on, and how did you get there? What you say will be used against you, no matter what it is. I’d like to see them so they can take me home.
— The art of lying is one of omission. The lie is lyrical, says less than it means, in as few words as possible. Taut prosody, the art not of losing but of making up. To cover over with paint; to mend a friendship’s wound; to invent whole cloth.
— Parent as editor. She says: there are only three smart kids in my class (she’s one of them). The parent says: they’re probably all smart; just not in Japanese. She says: there are only three smart kids in my class, but the others are good in other things. Ethical orthodontics (she loses actual tooths).
— Why can’t my sister live here? [Because she has another mother.]
— The defense secretary is sent off with “fond memories.” The best friend I’ve ever had (the vice president); The best defense secretary in American history (the vice president). The president will not entertain any ideas that lead to defeat. We will attain victory in Iraq.
— The cat attacks his phantoms, hurtles into the palm’s fronds. Once a day he gallops around the house, attacks the chair, the carpet on the stairs. Once a day he confuses his world with another, more dangerous, and once a day he launches pre-emptive strikes upon it. Sangha finds empty claw casings sometimes. The cat sleeps better than you’d think.
— Amber answers when I call to ask what I owe to Arden Courts. Last night there was a Christmas party. The musician played an inflatable guitar; they all danced. It was wild! Did my mother have a good time?
— Incontinence (not yet). Anxiety (always). Loss of (you name it). Patter’s muses. Old age is excess, the more than fits, the less than can be controlled. Less than remembered is more than sustains us. What we have is what we were, to this point. Are we there yet? No, here. Zeno works in time, if not space.
— Laura Bush claims the media fails to present the good side of Iraq. Rumsfeld says if you fly over Iraq you’ll see it’s not all burning. Parse without parsimony. Untruth as excess, as the more than is true. We admit defeat, but press on the temporary tattoo of a rose thrown at troops “on the ground.”
— Improvised explosive device. Coltrane’s favorite things.
— I show Sangha photos of his aunts in Cambodia. He says he remembers the smaller woman on the left in the pink shirt. The significance of photographs in adoption narratives. Their sister was your birth mother, I tell him. She died. Those who remain to be photographed do not smile. Their faces are tired, foreheads creased. Speedboat on a river in Takeo province. Field beside the water. The sisters appear again. “You could not remember her,” I say; “you were a tiny baby.” Then let go. If he says he remembers, he does.
— There is a photograph of a photograph of a half-sibling and cousin. Sangha leaves to find his sister. At dinner she asks, “when will we go see where Sangha was born?”
— I tell Hongly that everyone clearly tried to find a place for the baby, but failed. All the stories are like that, he says.
— An acquaintance sends an email ad for The Stork Market: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry. “2. an in-depth report on the international market where children are the commodity being bought and sold to the highest bidders including pedophiles with prices based on quality (i.e. age, skin color) of the merchandise and set as high as ‘desperate’ consumers continue to be willing to pay.”
— The boy (was he 10, 12?) attached himself to me at Bal Mandir. He smiled, he followed. He was like a cat that rubs you as if to say “I’m not feral.” We toured the orphanage, met the women who cared for the children, gave them combs and lotions. They smiled, and we. The boy held to me, without touching, walked the corridors with me. Then he was gone. I turned toward a room packed with babies, and then we were gone, out the front door of a cold former palace. In the car I wept. What’s the matter? our driver asked Bryant. By the waters of.
— Geneva, where I visited my father by the lake. Swiss watches. Time as an elegant object. It passes, marked by works that do not fail. It passes, contained in a gold case. If time is not worth much, the watch will be.
— Take the “con” out of confession. We need time to parse the report, said the White House spokesman. In this space I confess my mother’s life; wonder why I assume that right (or wrong). He was member of both reading groups: the Marxist and the Christian. When I rehearse the words I am feeling low because I am so homesick, to what extent do I appropriate, and to what purpose? Luna on the Rubber Stamp Plantation, she reiterated her desire that mail be returned to sender, not to the deceased party whose address now fails. There is no place in which she could be content, though here she becomes my content, the muse of her dementia a weak sister to her elders, those who whispered an angel’s tongue in another’s ear. Ear and ethos, ethos and the recasting of my mother’s words to mean something to us, though not to her. The desire to be useful. She wants her body given to science. I give her words’ bodies to art, though she signed no release.
— I edit out the day to day, give privacy to its inhabitants. That leaves thoughts scattered as if unrelated to the others. They are there. I give them back.
— It is the greatest poem, and it failed.
— -We wave our arms side and back, usher in the sweet ramblings of a man we can only see on a large screen. He sings to us. The guitar comes in, its odd notes shrieked through two dozen speakers. His finger makes a sound loud enough to bang your chest. The reporter calls them brain surgeons. In the act of decadence he assumes the voice of reason, nay the name of love. It could not be more paradoxical, kind.
— To write about others without making of them stick, stock figures. The one who learns language, the other whose teeth sprout, the third who shepherds them to school. She who writes about them loves them, but in the writing loses feeling. Words are not to be touched, not here on the screen. There is no velvet on the word. It is dark and hard and composes itself letter by letter, the kind chiseled into lead or pixellated for your reading comfort. He laughed that I did not know “Pilates” as exercise, rather than Roman king.
— Who knows the difference between Sunni and Shia earns a trip to Iraq or place on the study group that pronounces the word “failure” as it must be pronounced. We are well past enunciation now. We will achieve victory.
— The hen clucks, the rooster calls. The cat meows from the grass. Birds chatter that he is near. Call distraction for what it is. It may be our lives, but that means we are missing things. The aquarium bubbles, a distant television hums. Key clack. 4:51 PM 0 comments
* January 2, 2007 — The famous person of the day i...
* January 1, 2007 — The woman who is not wearing s...
* December 31, 2006 — I grew up on a pig farm, whi...
* December 23, 2006 — Bad year for empire. Occlus...
* dementiaws December 21, 2006 — Her friends’ not...
* December 16, 2006 — Are the programs any good? ...
* December 15, 2006 — Amber answers when I call t...
* December 11, 2006 — Take the “con” out of confes...
* December 2006
* January 2007
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— She says my life sounds fragmentary. I say fragments must be set down to see where their edges meet. He says he “throws his eye” at the books I sent. I say in English we do not throw our eyes, we cast them. Whiz of the line, kerplunk. Your glance is a hooked fish; you will draw him back in. He and you will drown in fullest air.
— They wrote of seams, of writing as a rough sewing. Canvas or skin, brush stroke scar.
— Sangha asks to spell “broomstick.” He speaks of walking through magic walls, writes that Harry loves “Hermione,” that he wants to walk to the “castle,” that he feels how little boys feel who have “magic” powers. The “cupboard” was his orphanage.
— Use the word “and” to mean as many things as it can, then move on to “or.”
— Operation Forward Together. Operation Desert Storm. Operation Just Cause. Operation Enduring Freedom. And in my theater: Operation (Cult of) Overwork, Operation Disseminated Gossip, Operation Betrayal Guesswork, Operation Control Freak, Operation Drama Queen/King.
— Emma calls to say mom has pneumonia in her lower left lung.
— Radhika makes her own connect-the-dots pictures. Which come first, lines or dots? In a desert country, there are dots for cities, very few river lines. Anbar Province: 11 Americans killed yesterday from IEDs that can pierce a tank’s skin. This is an elephant! And this discarded metal. Open it up and see all the people.
— To avoid fragments, join together mother’s pneumonia with the IEDs in Anbar with the operations that leave orphans in cupboards with the boy who would fly from them on his broomstick with the fish who makes his progress back to sea, away from the rod and line, line that leads us to the page-end, ragged edge where we find (this other morning exercise) haole privilege on-line with the metaphor of the back-of-the-bus turned on its head, where the haole sits at the back and forward together those who are not haole assume the front seat position in this geometry. I have heard those words in those subject/object positions, yes, but what of other sentences, those that refuse closure, open to offer me a middle seat? I will not let go this contested beauty. For each sentence admit the possibility of another, and another. If you are the guilty settler of one sentence, change your noun and verb. The adjectives will follow.
— Oh, not much really. They had a hard time finding me today. Many women feel rage at this time of life; others weep at the drop of a pin (cushion). Radhika looks for letters on the floor. The alphabet is neat, like gin. In order, it fails to mean.
— Secret memos leaked. The mean level of water in Windward streams before the tunnels, before the storms, before the pineapple fields, the resorts, did not include storm surges. The defense secretary gets a medal; he smiles. The defense secretary says we are not succeeding in Iraq. He says pull troops into Baghdad. Baghdad says three cars exploded at once, killing dozens. One man looks for his son at the morgue. One man becomes a hundred men, a hundred women, grandmothers, sisters, brothers, their shoulders hooked in premature mourning.
— She writes that her understanding of love is “premature.”
— Write what you know. Know what you see on television, its broken choreography of axles, car tucked beneath a house, ponds of blood, sentences diagrammed and broken, spent arrows, solace within the chaos she says must be resolved in order.
— X-rays disrobe the traveler. She sings beyond the genius of airport security. The shore is there to stop us.
— To write late is to revise. To revise is to contain a life. The first time many of us enter the house of an ordinary African American, the famous writer notes, is within the pages of this picture book about Katrina. $90.00 plus shipping. How will you read? As native, settler, or as tourist?
— The Crimean war rages above the bed, and Washington still surveys his slaves on the near wall. Out the back window, Waikiki. He sings all the way to W each time he puts his spelling words in order. According to many historians, W. is the worst in history.
— She sounded distant, her breath shallow. She did not say she was homesick. She told Radhika she couldn’t hear. Sangha said he was eating. It’s not the image that’s hard to face but the sound. Dissolution of language, not by syllables but by what is no longer contained in or by them. What she no longer says takes more time not to say. How it seems not the dissolution of her language, but ours. What I can still say is simply not received. The receiver is gone; so are my words, whatever they tried to mean. How I tried to make them mean. Context, not form, breath not page. She is a page poet.
Note: “haole” means “white person” in Hawai’i.
Susan M. Schultz is the author of several volumes of poetry, most recently And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004) and a book of essays, A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2005). She edits Tinfish Press (http://tinfishpress.com) out of her home in Kane’ohe, Hawai’i.