Single Set Drama

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In high school, our Drama Club competed each year in a one-act play festival. We’d square off against other high school drama clubs in an orgy of hormones, showtunes, and Ben Nye pancake foundation. It was horrifying. It was glorious.

The challenge, each year, was to come up with something brief-yet-substantive, with a set flexible enough to travel and to fit onto more than just our own stage. As a result, someone sitting through a typical round would see a lot of single set plays. Living room dramas, dining room farces, kitchen confessionals. Keeping things small and compact typically ensured our repeated success.

I think back often to those festivals, and to the time I spent in Drama Club in general. Despite a great deal of turmoil on the home front and a deeply complicated relationship with my father, the time I spent onstage, backstage, on buses to and from competitions and to and from New York City, was a time in which I was the most comfortable with myself. In that environment, I felt utterly safe and valued. It provided a near-daily shot of magic into a life that was otherwise fraught with a lot of uncertainty. I never wanted to stop the process of transformation. So I went on to study theatre in college.

But then I “grew up,” which is to say that I started engaging in activities that I thought were pretty sophisticated, and more real than those which had protected me as a teenager. Those activities typically involved a lot of alcohol, and rather spontaneous “romantic” encounters. And even after I’d settled down on the latter front, on the former I drunkenly raged through the rest of my twenties and into the beginning of my thirties, long after drinking had any sort of even remotely magical effect on me. Oh, it was still transformative, to be sure, but I no longer transformed into anything pretty, witty or bright.

The other thing I began to notice was how very small my world was becoming. Because I was no longer particularly interested in alcohol as a social lubricant. I had no desire to be social. No, what I really liked to do was buy an asspocket of Jack Daniels, retreat to the “music room” (which in any normal house would have been the dining room, but I felt no need to entertain people in that kind of way, and so it became the room in which we put my records, the turntable, and our various and sundry stringed instruments) and drink. Drink, and listen to the same two or three songs over and over again. Drink until I felt better, which is to say nothing, and pass out.

This is what happens when alcoholism creeps up on you: you become the solitary performer in a single set play, only there isn’t any audience, or if there is, they’re walking out in the middle of it. It happened to my father, who by the end of his drinking lived in one room. It happened to me, hiding in one room and mentally staying in that one room even when I left it to go to work. It’s not particularly interesting to watch or be a part of, even as we convinced ourselves that we were the principal characters in our own great tragedies.

It’s an act that goes nowhere. Dramatic stasis. It will go on and on just as it’s going unless something comes along to change it.

So my father and I had to decide if it was worth writing a second act. It was. We did. It’s still in revisions. Generally speaking, we don’t give a shit what the critics will say.

In sobriety I found that comfort again. I’m not able to memorize lines quite as quickly as I used to, but I surround myself with magic, and with magic people (a couple of whom were in Drama Club with me all those years ago). I am acutely aware of what sustains me, and I don’t ever want to wander away from it again. And when the curtain goes down, I want this production to have been a success.

On matters too serious for a pithy title.

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My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s.

I used to joke about Alzheimer’s…until I started to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. You know what I mean. Forgot my keys, can’t remember the name of some actor… “Oh, I’m having an Alzheimer’s Moment.” “I’m getting the Alzheimer’s.” Now…no. Just NO. If you forget your keys, it’s because you’re forgetful. Distracted. Maybe a bit of a dumbass, if that’s your bag. BUT YOU DON’T HAVE ALZHEIMER’S.

Please don’t joke around about it; you never know who is dealing with this.

Right now, we still have mostly “good” days. She is still able to pretty much handle her day-to-day stuff. She cleans her house, feeds her cat, walks to the mailbox on the corner, dresses herself. But she no longer drives; this was, thankfully, one battle we did not have to fight. She happily surrendered her driving privileges a few months back. We take her where she needs to go.

Our biggest challenges, right now, are in trying to figure out what she’s trying to say. Lately there has been a profound loss of vocabulary in addition to short-term memory. On the occasions when she comes downstairs to ask us something – when she remembers what it is she wanted to ask us – she can’t put it into sentences that make sense. Often, she ends up using the word closest to what she’s trying to say. For example, “cafeteria” becomes “dish.”

It’s sort of like reading poetry, navigating these sentences. Or solving a riddle. We took her to the cemetery on Memorial Day, and en route she announced, “I forgot my mouth.” We figured out fairly quickly that she meant “lipstick.”

Other things are not as easily arrived at. Grocery shopping is almost always an adventure in interpretation. “I want one of those things…you know…those things that the men like to eat. And women too. Men and women like to eat it.” Turns out this meant a small rotisserie chicken. Don’t ask me how we eventually got to that understanding.

What helps – for the time being, anyway – is to have her draw her needs. For while the language is slowly leaving her, she can draw – with amazing attention to detail – her shopping list.

She remembers the package design, the logo, even the words on the package, even if she doesn’t remember what the words actually mean. Everything is visual. For Mother’s Day, we gave her a fairly UN-flowery, utilitarian series of gifts: a package of colored pencils, erasers, blank notebooks. And a plastic bin to put them in. Because organization is still very important to her.

So she draws what she needs. A few days ago she came down with paper and a pen and drew a roll of paper towels. And so we took her to the store and got her paper towels.

I tell people about this, and they’re fascinated. And it IS fascinating, when it’s not so goddamn sad. This is a woman who always had it together, never had to ask for help, knew her finances to the penny, raised two boys as a single mother. As recently as a few years ago, she regularly took herself to Italy. She was a faithful reader of my blog, until even the act of turning on her computer became too overwhelming, so she gave it away.

Now, our interactions with her are similar to the way you would deal with a small, docile child. Get her in the car, make sure her seat belt is fastened, listen as she makes her observations, and acknowledge them. “Yes, that house back there was dirty; it caught on fire.” “Oh, I’m not sure why those windowshades are green; maybe the people who live there like that color.” It’s a balancing act, these conversations. It’s important not to infantilize her, or deny her maturity. At the same time, NOT keeping our responses simple and to-the-point invites circular “conversations” that invariably end in frustration and tears.

We are less and less able to give her options, or let her make decisions for herself. Sometimes she remembers that she used to be able to decide, and demands to know what her choices are. When we cave and present these to her, her face falls. “You’ve lost me. I don’t know what any of that means.” And so it goes.

“It’s my brain…this thing in my brain. Everything goes away as soon as I’ve heard it,” she tells me.

“I know. It’s because you have Alzheimer’s, Mom.”

“Yes. That.”

My heart aches for my mother-in-law. It breaks for my husband, his brother, her grandchildren. I feel guilty sometimes, because my own parents are still so sharp and engaged and able to talk knowledgeably about everything, from the political climate to some off-color joke my dad heard to how much they love the new “Sherlock Holmes” series on PBS.

And yet my mother-in-law is no less “in the moment” than they are. She may, in fact, be even more so. And that’s only going to become more and more acute as the days and months go on. The past will continue to get dimmer; we will stop having to remind her that she was once married or that she went to Italy, because it simply won’t matter to her. The future will no longer be of much concern. It’ll all be about today, this particular hour, this very second. It’s admirable. It’s terrifying.