Elder Care & Being a Diva: the Gabors and I
PART ONE: Elder Care
I’m not in the hospice care stage with my mother, but I might be. That’s the thing with Elder Care, Dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Lenore is very frail, barely can hoist up to her walker, can’t see or hear, but she comes booking down the very mini ‘hallway’, over the stained s-t brown carpet, and she’s happy, excited about what’s at the other end of the little hallway. Which might be Martha, who gets $30 to hang out with her 3 hours a week and is always trying to transition out of even that much.
And oh, the command center might be gone, we pretty much know that about the mind, but skills, feelings, and the ability to wound remain:
“You’re the only one I can trust” my mother says to Martha, while I’m a foot away. There might be a schemata in the mind that’s deploying an FDRoosevelt Administration type of divide and conquer, there’s definitely something that makes my mother long for me, tears leak out her eyes when I’m going away. Who knows what love is, but it’s a home feeling.
When you say you’re caretaking a parent with dementia, people want to say something back. That’s how we’re built, I suppose, and it’s tiresome.
“Does she still — you know — “ they start tentatively.
“Recognize me? Yes!” I guess often people don’t recognize children, spouses, key players, but Lenore will always recognize me until the final tears, and then my own tears will start, heaving, for a year I’m guessing, gutted. But this phase, the hospice care for a loved one suffering from dementia phase, which can last for a minute or years, is about being a good soldier, as reflected in the clichés.
“Well, you’re a good daughter.” Or more colorfully, “She did it for YOU.”
Because I help my mother get into her nightgown, and her arms fumble for what they used to know, as I coach her like the caretaker I am:
“You know how to do this! Here! Here!” I say, angling the armholes around, because you know with this f-ing syndrome, she really doesn’t know how to do this anymore. And if the words of the spirit weren’t so wrongly used and overused, primarily by the callous, I would say it’s a spiritual practice, not getting angry, keeping patience, giving up, way giving up any notion of mom. The bewildered vacant stare is a toughie, easier to tolerate in a stranger you never knew.
I had a guitarist who’s sister Alice was a bit what you’d call simple. And they were from Queens, where people return to and mostly never leave, tight knit, suspicious, keeping non clan members out of the loop, the opposite of the culture of indignation. You don’t squeal. Alice sat with their mother, who was mostly not there or difficult or paranoid I can only guess, in a room, for her entire life, and now that she’s middle aged and dumpy George would drop her off at Veselka Diner, have a coded word with a sympathetic waitress, and leave her there for 3 hours at a time while he came to rehearsal.
“Oh, she likes LOOKING at things. She’s happy there.” George said, impenetrably, because he wasn’t going to tell me his mother had a protracted period of maybe traumatized incapacity, they were from Armenia a ways back, the Turkish march of death is still very personal, and Alice either wasn’t…smart — or became mentally stunted from her life force being pretty much a dark room and a demented woman, and this must make George good, but you can’t really tell. People are maybe so not what we’re conditioned to act like that it’s a fine line, conceived goodness, loyalty, acting right. So I could only just barely intuit what was going on over there, in Queens, or with George, but man that guy was good at music, composing, playing, the fine ear, but in their space that wasn’t super important. It’s relatively recently that fine craftwork or musicianship has been considered particularly noble. Now its more like a prank, sacrifice your own life span so you heirs can study Western Liberal Arts and if they get good maybe realize how full of s-t the whole deal you made was in the first place.
“HOW is your mother doing?” well meaning near strangers say to me, maybe after a movie premier or at an Event.
This is a mini sucker punch, because each time I almost think I have to answer literally. An outsider with poor social skills, you know.
“Ummm… frail, I think she’s blind, but — She’s glad I’m there!” I lamely wind up.
Dying, incurable, annoying, alive, and a remnant of a smart person who had some verve. Lenore taught me Democracy, that we are equal, or should be equal, and I’m doing this right now for a person who just made my day another great day, looking at other New Yorkers, viding on each other, not paranoid or jumpy at extended proximity, all of us, from all these f-ing diasporas everywhere and every month, and this is a way to be rich. So I do this, take care of the Lenore in a way that the real Lenore would find unspeakably untenable.
PART II — Gabors and me memoir
The DIVA thing
“At the Russian Embassy I was charmed by the Ambassador, Lev Mikhailovich Karakhan. A giant of a man with a huge spade beard, he was married to a Russian prima ballerina. But what fascinated me was the rumor that he in some way had displeased Stalin and any day would be summoned back to Moscow to be shot. M. Karakhan was a gallant man. On several occasions he had chosen me as his bridge partner, and bridge was not my game. After I had ruined his hand for the third time, a friend asked him, “Excellency, why do you continue to play with her?”
“Ah,” he replied, “But she has such a delicious décolleté.” I admired such a man, but even at his dinner parties I could not hold my tongue.”
- A tiny quote from Zsa Zsa Gabor — My Story Written for Me by Gerold Frank.
Ah ha ha ha! See how she and a loving Gerold Frank did that? Ricocheted from light to deadly serious back to seemingly light? These Gabors have at least a thousand instances of crafting a zany story out of every manner of tragedy and compromise. This is Zsa Zsa at age 15 or 16, married unhappily to the Turkish diplomat during a time when it was very dangerous to be a Jewish Hungarian. She’s in Ankara, terrified of her husband, about to launch on a somewhat arranged affair with the Ataturk, founder of the modern Ottoman Empire, flirtingly blurting out hints at the German Russian conflict with a man living under Stalin’s cruel and pernicious gun. Making light of a serious time — DIVA ALERT.
The word has come to mean, if we’re honest, that somebody is, as they used to call me in rural Rhode Island, “too big for their britches”, acting above their station, demanding too much from the decent people, the salt of the earth. In this case, Zsa Zsa, in her proper place, would have been — well, dead, submissive to the kill joy she got hitched to, and for the most part, very very quiet.
I reject the starchy moral overtones of who is and isn’t a Diva. Post Mortem, and believe me her body is cold but her will’s been kited by a sinister hustler, the Amer-Western way to put her in her final place is to suggest that she and her sister were not method actors, Uta Hagen Strasburg style. For god’s sake, no, they were not method actors, living to convey treacly survival dramas penned by hackish clods. THEY WERE SURVIVING GENOECIDE IN EASTERN EUROPE during WWII. Just for starters.
It may be, in the reworked notion of Diva ness, that there’s a sense of not quite knowing where you/she are/is, and the annoying success of the stunt. In my family, I’m guessing that my Russian great grandmother was a Diva, because she had two sets of kids generations apart and made the first set take care of the second one. And I hear she was just a terrible cook, and a real pain. Her physical reality was a shtetl, where the Jewish peasants lived as peoples so marginalized that every locater is a modern lie. Russia, Belarus, Poland, the Ukraine — Ashkenazi. She was supposed to be dead, banned from literacy by makeshift nations and then dark ages Judaism. Yeah, I bet she was SUPER annoying.
I’m also knowing that my British Grandmother was a Diva type, because her reality was so low, and she crafted a bright fancy and stray cat feeding vivacity that ACTUALLY WORKED so she could flourish on Avenue D at a time when big strong men got mugged right in the hallway! By a fence! Going to cop! Theodora was sashaying around in a crooked wig, with a zany laugh, whooping it up at Soup Kitchens and a Quonset Hut thrift store run by NUNS in the Ghetto, and don’t lie you know that if you have the balls that is one sort of fun life. Right now I’m bored of tertiary tales ‘o suffering so I’ll skip what that imaginative and again, irritating to the conventional, leap really encompassed.
And I, I am called a Diva. Probably — my father tried his best to destroy me, I’m the only practicing artist that survived a generation of alienated cultural strivers, and I’m, so sorry, generally good at the s-t I do. Weirdly good. Plus, and this has become mass evident but for most of my life it was a taboo secret, I’m kind of smart, and in many American public school systems that is the worst.
“People in our circle of friends are all saying that you’re starting to become a Deva.” This socio told me on the phone a few years ago. Now I’m pretty sweet, but a woman gets to a point where it’s all just snowballed, and she speaks her piece. Preferably to an asshole who barely registers the moment of fury — that way nobody’s big day is ruined. Because days need to be great, even for an enemy.
“That’s not how ITS SPELLED, Damian!” I bellowed back, disrupting and shocking the entire second floor of one of those Apple stores — remember how reverential they used to be before everyone just figured out it was a place to get free wifi. “and WE DON’T HAVE ANY OF THE SAME FRIENDS!!!!”
Also a Diva in peri-menopause is not to be trifled with. Oh, this person tried:
“Oh, I know what you’ve got — I saw this woman at the NYU pool today — It’s that Change of the Moon Thing!” Damian parried.
In my case, of course, I am a Diva in that I’m good at a couple of things I do, and this, rather than being celebrated, can be seen as shrill, above my station, rivalrous, and downright unacceptable. Plus I like myself some interesting outfits, but work hard at not being a sexual untouchable. So this is a manuscript, impressionistic prose, a think piece, and for those few and wrong headed of you who despise me, an unsolicited lecture about The Gabors and Myself, and the notions of being a Diva, Class, Strivers, and the legacies of world war. Which brings me to my next point…