The Wolf’s Tooth Chapter Seven
I certainly did not fall back asleep after this nightmare. I didn’t ever want to fall asleep again, like the pitiful characters in the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies. Hell, I would have actually preferred pizza-faced “Freddie” to a satanic grandmother.
Physical pain was so much easier to handle in the long run. Physical pain eventually went away. Then Helga turned again and faced me, and this time she opened her eyes.
I must have looked pretty bad, as she instantly said, “My God, what happened to you? Did you have a wet dream?”
Oh yes, Freud also believed that virtually every dream topic, regardless of its content, represented the release of sexual tension.
She took me in her arms and I laid my head on her magnificent breasts. We lie there in peaceful silence until Mike finally had to open his eyes. I smiled knowingly. I was going to see my grandmother.
There was one extremely positive thing I had taken from my dreaming experiences. I believed that dream control was indeed possible. What if I was actually waking up every morning- into another dream? I had total control over my actions in this dream. I could focus my attention on everything I saw, smelled, touched, heard and felt.
That sounded really enticing.
Carlos Castaneda said that if you broke through to the other side, you would come to a weird place and the self would then be faced with the question of just who is dreaming whom?
I smiled. A new day had begun.
A Life Affirming Conversation With Nana About Death
As I casually listened to the mini-drama in the room down the hall I wondered about my nephew’s genes and thus any possible connection to his teenage laziness and refusal to open his eyes.
Was it just our genes, or did our current environment also play a vital role in our personality?
Then what about the past environment? Can we truly forget? Should we remember?
Was our childhood responsible for our sins as an adult, or just an excuse, a very convenient excuse to do what we really want to do?
I could hear proverbial voices again, duly explaining to me why it’s not their fault that they do what they do. It was all because of their fucked up childhood. Mom and Dad made me this way.
Hey, it’s not my fault- I smoke dope because my parents smoked dope. I do drugs because my parents didn’t do drugs, and they were obviously bored by life.
I am cold because I didn’t receive enough loving attention as a child. I am affectionate because I never received any affection as a child and I’m hungry as hell.
I drink because my parents drank. I don’t drink because my parents drank and things were more than a bit peculiar at times. And on it goes.
Yes, it’s five o’clock in the morning; do you know where your children are- both spiritually and emotionally?
Had Nana actually been right, or was it just too simple of an explanation? Bad genes indeed.
Helga heard my father’s frustrated attempts at waking the lethargic boy next door and she loudly groaned and quickly turned on her side, covering her head with her pillow.
I chuckled softly at her exaggerated reaction. I gently kissed her exposed shoulder, got up and crept down the back stairs, no longer caring why Mike hated to get up and face the day. I loved mornings.
I had enough self-indulgent, impractical philosophy for one morning. Every valid question was answered with yet another grueling question. Like many things I enjoyed doing, it seemed rather ridiculous when you shined a light directly on it.
A tune began to play in my head, and I hummed along. “We’re on a road to nowhere, come take that ride,” I purred and instantly felt better.
Nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be.
My stomach had finally settled after my bad trip and was now grumbling. It was time to break the fast of the night. I found myself in the kitchen and reached for the fruit basket on the counter. I ate a banana while standing there. Then I grabbed some fruit and sat down.
As I thoughtfully peeled oranges I decided it was high time to go visit my grandmother.
Helga was not too thrilled about my sudden change in plans. I had promised to take her to a popular banner shop in New Hampshire to pick up some flags, which was her latest kick.
When she realized my mind was made up and there was nothing she could do about it, she called me a selfish bastard and fell silent. “But we will go see that fish restaurant first, you promised,” she added and plopped down on the couch.
She clicked on my parent’s television, tuned in the Animal Channel and sulked as grizzly bears ate campers in sleeping bags and cute, randy raccoons mated. Soon she was smiling again. I instantly made a mental note to start video taping some of this stuff before we flew back.
She had seen a wooden horse buggy parked next to a seafood restaurant while we had been cruising around down Plum Island. She wanted me to film it with my video camera, so she could build one like it when we got home.
It was true; the girl was mighty handy with tools. After we had moved, she built stalls for her horse and the pony in her new barn. It only took us two weekends.
I remember talking to Dad about it on the phone, and I mentioned that I had helped her. Dad says, “Oh? What did you do, hold the nails for her?”
It made me laugh, but it was the type of comment that angered brother Ted and I, simply because Dad never bothered to teach us how to do anything in our youth. Dad was also a gifted handyman.
So after breakfast we headed down towards Plum Island. The buggy was parked in front of a popular seafood restaurant on the island. This place was doing well. There had been a steady flow of people coming to the area, due in part to the resurgence of bird lovers visiting the State Refuge.
The National Birdwatchers Association had also moved in. The birdwatchers had arrived, with bulky zoom lenses and expensive cameras and telescopes and identification books galore.
I had already noticed them. Birders were everywhere.
We found the place. Helga went over, and was studying the buggy, as I went inside to get us some coffee to go. Then I went back outside and revved up the video camera. I set down the coffee and began filming. Helga wanted to build one similar for the kids. She said it was light enough for Pedro, her pony, to pull it.
As I was dutifully filming it from all possible angles a huge albatross flew by overhead, and instinctively I swung the video camera upwards and filmed its graceful flight.
Suddenly the restaurant’s screen door blasted open with a loud crash.
Two men came flying out, and stumbled down the wooden steps together in unison as they struggled with their bulky cameras, immediately pointing them skyward.
One of them screamed at me “What was it, a migratory Laridae? Tell us. What was it? Where is it now?”
The other man exclaimed, “Did its scapulars have black, swarthy patches? Come on, we’re dying to know.”
Helga and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. I didn’t see this coming.
The exuberant birdwatchers reached us and they by now were practically drooling as their eyes switched from the sky to me, the sky to me.
I couldn’t resist. I smiled a toothy grin and slowly said, “It was a seagull man, a big white one with a yellow beak.”
Helga added, “It was maybe Johnathan Livingston Seagull. It was flying very fast.” That cracked me up; she too had read that hippie book about self-perfection back in the early Seventies.
They looked at us with obvious disdain, and then grumbled as they lowered their cameras and sauntered away. They reentered the restaurant, and not without shooting us some more daggers with their eyes.
When we were done, we climbed back into our own buggy. It was time to go see my grandmother.
This urgent “Nana” visit occurred immediately afterwards. Turns out that my sister Becky had stopped by Milk Street, so she went with us to go see Nana.
Becky warned me as we walked to her apartment, (Nana only lived two streets away.) that our grandmother didn’t look too healthy these days. Nana wasn’t as strong as she was the last time I was home, (two years ago). She had lost a lot of weight during her recent hospital stay, and had never regained it.
“Believe me Becky, I know she looks better than she looked the last time I saw her.” I thought to myself cynically, shivering as I recalled my latest dreaming encounter.
Becky said, “Now Nana had problems finishing off a mini can of “Spaghettio’s”. I wondered why she would even bother to eat something as depressing as Spaghettio’s in the first place, but said nothing.
Now and then I can actually observe without comment.
This visit with Becky took place in Nana’s cozy little apartment in The Sullivan Building, two streets away from Milk Street, and one street away from downtown Newburyport. She had ended up here after selling the house she and Grampie Butch had built together in Salisbury.
She had moved here after Butch had gone away for good, a victim of his own bad genes.
In retrospect, I was extremely lucky to see her here.
It was the very last day Nana ever spent in her apartment.
Earlier that morning my mother had found Nana in a precarious situation. My parents were going up to her place many times daily to check on her, to assist her with chores, make sure she was taking her medication, and of course, to visit, and spend quality time with her.
As with all of us, her time was running out.
Nana had fallen off the couch trying to get up and simply did not have the strength to pull herself up from the floor and get back on the couch. She had lain on the floor for a couple of hours until Mom had walked in and discovered her. (Ironically, as Nana lay helpless on her living room floor, I was lying helpless in a field dreaming about her.)
Needless to say, her tumble had scared everyone pretty badly, but Nana did not seem too upset about it. She complained of a sore lower back because of the long wait on the hard floor, but other than that, she was okay.
I had listened to my mother’s gloomy account in shock. Welcome to the real “Other Side”.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nana had always been strong enough to get around alone in her apartment. The fall forced questions to be asked that no one really wanted to hear the answers too.
The grim reality of ageing.
I remembered Ringo’s great line in The Beatles movie- “A Hard Days Night”. He was alone, talking to Paul’s “grandfather”, who was obviously not too thrilled about being too old to go out “Parading” and chase girls with the younger guys. When Ringo finally realizes what Grandfather McCartney is really trying to say, he stops and frowns.
“Funny, I never really thought about it, but being middle aged and old really takes up most of your time, doesn’t it?” Ringo quipped as a young man.
You’re so right my fellow big-nosed drummer friend.
But it goes by in the blink of an eye. Twenty-five years ago Grampie Butch and I were working together in his garden one late autumn afternoon as the daylight slowly departed.
Out of the blue he just dropped his rake, sat down on the lawn facing the sunset and said, “When you are young Blaine, you get old, but when you are old, you only get older. A beautiful sunset suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”
I added, unnecessarily, like the brat I was, “You no longer waste the dawn.” I giggled.
He had turned away from the setting sun and was now watching me, thus I continued, trying to get a funny retort from him. “You get closer to the edge. You prepare yourself to burn from the fire within. Am I right?”
Butch grinned now too, shaking his head slowly from side to side and said, “The fire within? Do you still think you are going to Hell for melting all those crayons on the radiator in the Brown School back then?”
He laughed heartily, as he often did. Then he continued. “Everything once again becomes magical Blaine, as it was for you and I as a baby and a young child discovering the many wonders surrounding us everyday, the things we all eventually take for granted”.
At the time I thought Butch was simply humoring me. He often did. Everybody did at this point in my life; I was only sixteen. But turns out I was wrong, he had meant every word.
Yet this subject was something my other adult mentor, Ray, never quite understood; how people could take so much in life for granted. Of course Ray had the ultimate lesson of life and death slammed into him.
Drafted into the Army in the Fifties he was sent to Korea after completing his rigorous infantry training in the south. Twice he was a member of a platoon patrolling in the Asian jungle that was viciously ambushed, and twice he was the only man who lived to tell about it, the Sole Survivor.
He had actually seen the inside of a real life “MASH” unit. Not one time, but twice. (And according to Ray, it was not funny in any way.)
And Ray had walked away, incredibly enough, he had lived to tell. No chance for misunderstanding the message here. No chance to ever forget.
I was never bored down on Ray’s farm. He fascinated me. Ray would say weird things to me, for example he would often tell me that I could easily improve my memory just by doing unforgettable things.
The swift passing of time often staggered me as a child. By the time I was a teenager I had realized it was just an illusion, this statistician’s whim of an average 75.5 years of life. Seems like an incredibly long time as a kid. But I wasn’t buying it. It’s a fucking lie. Ray woke me up.
I practiced the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. Ray felt if you miss the little things, you miss all you’re really going to get in life. If you miss that, you simply become your attentions.
He said we all watch way too much television. I knew he did not watch TV, and that he included himself amongst the pack merely as a didactic device, but it was still great.
Today Ray would say, beware if your attentions revolve around your phone or some other device. We are losing touch with something very important.
The ability to focus deeply on a single idea or task for long periods of time is one of the most important abilities you can learn for succeeding in this modern information age.
Ray said that our ability to focus and hold our attention on what we need is the key to living a happy, healthy life.
We’ve all had those moments where we are constantly sucked into situations of useless drama brought about by endless clicks and notifications. What happens? We get confused.
And now, with the upsurge in smart devices and internet available pretty much everywhere from Germany to Newburyport, this loss of attention is hurting us more and more.
Ray would remind me that this inability to focus for any length of time hinders our efforts to keep our attention where it belongs- on the moment at hand. It causes us to lose our train of thought.
Even worse, it eats away at our ability to connect and just be present with one another, eliminating any chance of true human intimacy in the process.
I know people who get quite nervous if they can’t check their damn phone in social situations. I know people who feel like they need to always be checking Facebook, Instagram or their messages to feel as though they are alive. They feel like they have to always be caught up on every piece of worthless information that is sent their way, otherwise they’re somehow incomplete.
We have friends who can no longer sit through an entire movie or even an episode of a TV show without pulling out their damn phones. We know people who can’t make it through a meal without having the phone lying in view next to their plate on the table.
It seems to be happening everywhere, and thus- it’s actually becoming the social norm. That would have scared Ray and thus, it scared me. Ray would have never tolerated me pulling out my phone for a peek as we spoke. He would have smacked it out of my hand. I missed Ray.
Intense thoughts and idealistic memories of this nature overwhelmed me as the three of us leisurely walked in silence down the crooked and uneven sidewalks of the south end of Newburyport.
We arrived and Becky led us in. We rang the bell and it took a while until Nana opened the door.
It was a sad visit for me. I was not too sure Nana even knew who I was. She was vague, and I caught her looking at me a few times with a bewildered look in her eyes after we had all sat down in the living room.
I had not seen her for two years, and before that it had been even longer. She was either not hearing well, or unable to understand the unpretentious questions I was asking, as the conversation never really got off the ground.
I was also so frightened at her tiny appearance. She actually resembled the Nana in my dream, other than the distorted features, of course.
She was so tiny, but her voice was definitely not booming, as it had been hours earlier in the fog. Her voice was meek and tired. We spent most of the visit just looking at each other.
It was enough.
I flashed back to my last visit. I had spent hours with Nana hanging out in the cemetery next to Grampie Butches grave, just the two of us. It had been astonishing.
Nana and Butch. The dream team with the odd- yet entertaining name.
Butch was her second husband, a good friend of my father and his brother Earl. We all called him Butch, his childhood nickname, even though his real name was Joe.
None of us kids called him Grampie; although all of us saw him as our grandfather.
For the first fifteen minutes of that visit I had stood next to her at Butch’s monument, feeling more than a bit awkward as she literally “spoke” with Butch. But then she wished him well and told him I was here from Germany, and she was going to talk to me for a while.
And she did just that.
We talked casually about life, family ties, Butch and bad genes. Yes, bad genes. Sometimes “knowing” was just as bad as “not knowing”.
Dreaming was often nothing more than the “not-doing” of long forgotten knowledge and sleeping memories awakened by opportunity and then brought back to life.
After some gentle prodding from yours truly, Nana recalled Butch’s last days before the cancer literally ate him alive. I had only heard bits and pieces from people while back in Germany, so I listened in respectful silence.
Butch had handled the news of his upcoming death incredibly well. Outwardly, no one can say what Hell he was going through on the inside, not even his wife. He loved life so much; it must have been unbearably difficult to live with the confirmed knowledge that he would not be around to celebrate Nana’s next birthday.
They went to see a lawyer, an old schoolboy friend of Butch’s. Butch told him he wanted to sell their house and split up the money evenly amongst the family before Nana died, to spare everyone the hefty inheritance tax.
He also wanted to assure that Nana would have enough to comfortably live on after he was gone. He wanted to buy his gravestone, pick out a coffin and pay for their cemetery plot. (Naturally Nana would also be buried there when her time to escape arrived.)
He calmly added that this all had to happen rather quickly, as he only had a few months left of trouble-free pleasure, and the real pain was yet to come, and he was not sure he would be able to get around freely anymore when “that” nightmare finally began.
Nana said the hard-assed lawyer was actually misty eyed as he listened to Butch’s soft-spoken demands. He assured Butch he would take care of everything right away, which Nana proudly added, he did.
And it was all done pro bono. He waived his fee, refusing to accept so much as a penny from Butch for his legal work. Whenever Butch wanted to see him, or called him on the phone with a question, the lawyer immediately made time for him.
Nana said Butch knew so many good people. I wasn’t at all surprised.
The final days with Butch were often obscenely wonderful. He was constantly trying to cheer her up. He was lively, spontaneous, funny, and even romantic.
For example, he would suddenly turn up the stereo when one of their favorite songs played and grab Nana, and say, “Hey babe, wanna dance?” Then he would wing her across the living room cheek to cheek in a lively waltz.
They listened to a lot of music together in the end. He would hum along, and longingly reminisce with her about their square dancing days and their life melting together as one in the early days when they met and living was really simpler, and the days seemed longer, the nights sweeter and time had moved so much slower.
But he also had tragic moments where he cried like a baby, unable to hide his sorrow and his mounting pain. She said he was such a passionate man.
He had also been the unofficial family photographer for years. He gave me the bug and had helped me pick out my first real camera when I was twelve. It didn’t stop there, as he had always asked me to show him my latest snapshots.
I was thrilled when I found out my cousin Kathy ended up with Butch’s camera after his passing. (Kathy also possessed an eye for beauty.)
Unfortunately it was just not meant to be. Malevolent thieves broke into her house one day while no one was home and stole all of their video equipment, electrical adult toys, and- Butch’s sentimental camera.
Understandably, Kathy was heart-broken. Desperately, she placed an advertisement in the local newspaper explaining the exceptional circumstances and begging the thieves to return just the irreplaceable camera- no questions asked; and she also checked out all the local pawnshops for months afterwards, all to no avail.
Butch’s camera, as with Butch, never returned.
Nana and Butch had a closet literally filled with photo albums. He loved to capture the moment on film, and our growth as children was chronologically filed away under the simple title- “The Kids”.
They spent hours looking at these pictures now, marveling at what time had done to us. After his passing, Nana could no longer bear to admire his pictures, and eventually split them up amongst us “kids”.
His love of photography was only matched by his love of gardening. He had a green thumb, and an eye for natural beauty. She reminded me of my long bike rides where I would trek to Salisbury and help him for hours in the garden. I didn’t need to be reminded, but I listened closely just the same.
As she spoke longingly from the garden in Salisbury, she was simultaneously looking up at the sky. Her big eyes were misty, her gaze forlorn, and I was helplessly falling into them, feeling her unspoken anguish.
Damn, life could be so unfair. No one had ever expected Nana to outlive Butch; she was so much older than he was. He was only fifty-nine when he passed.
Suddenly she looked at me and said, “He really loved you kids, and he really loved me. I’m glad he came around. I’m so often lost without him Blaine. But you know, he made me promise to keep going after he was gone.”
She smiled and continued. “He told me that being a part of this family was the best thing that had ever happened to him. And that I was lucky too, because my family would always be there for me, and it is true. Everyone has been so good to me.”
Nana was silent after this for a few minutes. Then she went on. “Blaine, he was in so much pain at the end. I hated to see him suffer; I would have done anything if I could have taken his pain from him. It was awful, simply awful. It’s terrible to say this, but the suffering, the pain made it easier to let him go, you know what I mean? You get the feeling it makes dying easier, because then the pain finally stops. The suffering ceases. It was wicked bad.”
I gazed into her eyes, as my eyes clouded over, her voice suddenly coming from very far away. Tears trickled down my cheeks, but neither of us noticed. I wondered if she was going to talk about his death, but she remained still, obviously lost in deep thought.
Tears also trickled down her face, and I reached out and took her hand into mine. I bit on my quivering lower lip, and my mouth dried as I angrily cursed that goddamn evil disease cancer.
As a kid you are luckily spared from vivid details of this death thing. Yet the addition of decades of new experiences to add to your memories doesn’t make the passing of loved ones any easier.
It’s where the vicious bouts with your faith begin, when a person close to you dies a horrible, painful death. Make sense of it if you can, but it’s more likely you will ponder your own direction for a long, long time.
Hopefully afterwards, you shall embrace life again, live fully and return to your path. (As Nana had done.)
Unfortunately, some folks never recover completely, and carry the emotional scars as their own private, sacred muse, using it as justification to be bitter and distant, forever wasting their own precious time until their time to exit life actually arrives.
And then others simply exist, go day from day without really tasting anything anymore, forever missing out on things that once brought a smile to their lips. A broken heart could indeed be deadly.
And then some people still seem to enjoy life, yet they never stop mourning. The name of the diseased is mentioned at every possible opportunity, morbid anniversaries are openly celebrated; they literally never let go of the memory.
Suddenly she changed the subject. “Blaine, despite our bad genes, we have such a wonderful family.”
I was so taken aback. I was instantly fascinated, and wanted her to explain what she meant with “bad genes”.
I had spent my whole adult life across the ocean. The adults I grew up with were in many ways strangers to me, as I had never had the chance to talk to them about personal things, or about life from a philosophical standpoint.
So when I came back, I constantly asked “them” about their lives, and their motives for doing things I had remembered as a child. It was and is still so fascinating for me. I smiled at her, and patiently waited for her to answer as my anticipation greedily grew.
She smiled back at me and began. “We really do have bad genes Blaine, there is a lot of cancer and heart disease in our family. I have been told it is hereditary. We also are prone to alcoholism, and to chemical imbalances. That can lead to depression you know. I used to be depressed when I was younger, before I met Butch.”
“I didn’t know that. Funny thing though, Mom told me that the Moran’s were prone to depression. I guess we kids don’t have a chance in Hell to be happy.” I laughed, but I guess Nana did not find it very funny as she looked away.
“Just kidding. I do remember you being nervous though.”
“Oh yeah, wicked. Well I was depressed all the time. Remember the big fight with John and Paul a few years ago when they stopped talking to each other while they were living together? It made me so sad. It reminded me of my sister and me. We got mad at each other about some little meaningless thing, and one stupid thing led to another, and in the end we just stopped talking to each other. She died before we ever made up. I felt awful about it for years. It still haunts me you know.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that either.”
“Don’t be sorry, I’m sorry.” She was still again. I waited in silence. She smiled and continued. “Then I got nervous all the time. I don’t know why, life got so busy, and you know how mothers worry about their children, it doesn’t matter how old they get.”
“Oh I know all about that. But didn’t you used to do Transcendental Meditation?”
“Yes, I used to meditate, that helped me to relax a lot in the beginning.”
“Isn’t it weird? The Beatles played such a big part in introducing the western world to meditation.”
“Oh? I didn’t know The Beatles had anything to do with T.M.”
“Oh yeah, they went to India back in 1968 and studied with the Maharishi for months. When they came back, the press was anxiously waiting. It was like they came back down from the mountain and the world wanted to know the answer to life, the comprehensible truth. T.M. really took off then, The Beatles interest in the East totally changed western attitudes about Indian spirituality and T.M.”
“They were a pretty good band. Butch liked a lot of their music, that is until they got so weird. Darling, he did not like the weird stuff.”
I had to laugh. “Did Butch meditate?”
“No, Butch was always calm you know, except when he was watching sports on TV. But he helped me with it you know, he helped me learn to do it.”
“Why did you stop meditating?”
“I stopped doing a lot of things after Butch left.”
But had he left? Was Butch really gone? Physically, of course, but here we were; standing next to his grave talking about him, and I could still feel his spirit, his energy, and his lasting presence.
“Butch lives on inside of us Nana.”
She smiled at me, and our eyes met in a long, meaningful moment.
She let my hand fall and we hugged spontaneously. I held her tight, gazing down at her bluish, silver hair, suddenly aware of how small she really was.
Once I had looked up to her. Emotionally, I still did.
Nana was my grandmother. Grand Mother. What a fitting name, a fantastic collection of words. Nana had raised her own children. Now she could spend time with her grandchildren without parental tribulations, no judgment, certainly no criticism, and no unsolicited advice, but when asked, she gave great advice. Grandmothers felt no more pressure, plain and simple. Nana accepted us for ourselves, without rebuke or any effect to change us, as no one in our lives has ever done.
Nobody ever forgets their last conversation with their grandmother.
May 6, 2017
THE SECRET BEHIND LONG LAST LOOKS
(The rest of the conversation for those pushing up daisies.)