Monday, December 10, 2007

'Savage' Love

Michael and I saw Tamara Jenkins' new film, "The Savages," on Saturday night. I had heard it was great, but even if I hadn't the close-to-home storyline was what compelled me to part with $12 that night, arguably the best 12 bucks I've ever spent had spent on me. In it, brother and sister Jon and Wendy Savage (played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) suddenly find themselves responsible for their long-estranged father, Lenny (Philip Bosco, who also delivers an award-worthy performance), whose dementia has left him unable to care for himself.

I was just 6 the summer Dad -- a onetime boxer and an alcoholic whom my mother had divorced the year before -- wound up disoriented in a Veterans Administration hospital in Allen Park, Michigan. Only 40 years old, Dad -- seemingly overnight -- had morphed into a helpless "old man" suffering from "organic brain syndrome," "psychosis" and dementia. His files would later reveal that doctors perceived him to be "extremely bright" but with "little insight into his situation." The cause? Unknown. (A blow to the head is anyone's best guess.) Remarried and hoping to shield her three young boys from the horrors of what was to come -- we'd seen plenty already sometimes taking refuge in motels or at friends' houses -- Mom arranged to have my dad's nephew (whose family was in the nursing home business) bring Dad back to his hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to be near his large extended family. (I would later learn that Dad would sometimes call my mother up and say he was "ready to go home" as if nothing had ever happened.) Although it feels like an out-of-body experience to even write it, somehow 20 years would go by before I would see my father again (I was 26 when this reunion photo, below, was taken in the summer of 1993.)

The birth of my (half) sister, Jennifer, and later moving to Arizona when I was 11 were pivotal to forcing me to "move on" with life, although not everyone in the family handled things the same.
By the early 1990s my brothers -- who had relocated to the East Coast just before I did -- had gotten to see Dad at the VA hospital in Lebanon, Pa., where he'd been living since 1974. They were horrified by what they saw, with seemingly no separation between residents who were disabled and those who were deranged. By the time I'd gotten to Washington in early 1993, the laws had changed and veterans who had not been injured during active duty were no longer welcome in VA facilities, so our dad's nephew had arranged for Dad to move into a "nicer" (a relative term no matter how you approach it) nursing home nearby.

My childhood memories of my father have long been a haze of reality (being thrown through a paneled wall as a 4-year-old boy for trying to pull him off my mother during one of his drunken tirades; I donned my brother's hockey gear in an attempt to intimidate him) -- mixed with old photographs that I've allowed to come to life (Dad making me giggle chasing me up the stairs in Notre Dame stadium). Sure, many years had passed. But to suddenly walk into a room and see the "big, strong man" I remembered now being spoon-fed and drinking out of a sippy cup felt like a combat boot to the stomach. The first time the nurses took me to see him and "introduced" me he looked right at me and said, "I have a son named Kenny." The visits over next 12 years would never get any easier. If anything, they seemed to get increasingly painful. Why had this happened to him? He had problems but he had so much to live for. The room, the smell, the whole place. It was hard to imagine your father living in a room like that for over 30 years and each return was another reminder of his dank existence. He would continually forget who you were if he remembered at all; he would repeat the same question over and over and over. He would say the same "joke" over and over and over. Sometimes he would get agitated and make inappropriate comments. Still, every so often I'd catch a glimpse of the Dad I (sort of) remembered. He could talk about things from 20 years ago with precise detail, so if you could keep him from getting into his loop it could make for a heartwarming experience. And once in a while the "current" version of him would hint at his old self, like when he would tease the other residents and the nurses or the way he was always at the end of his rope with his latest "annoying jackass roommate" and wanting to punch someone's lights out. (I certainly know where I get my lack of tolerance for people from, although my mom certainly didn't help in that department either!). But no sooner would the old Dad appear he would slip away and my heart would break all over again.

  Strangely, near the end of his life he was far more lucid than he'd ever been in that first decade I'd been reacquainted with him. Even his doctor noticed the change. Just before he died, Michael and I drove to see him one weekend. It was the first time I'd gone without one of my brothers. Dad never had a hard time remembering Terence, who looks so much like Dad's late twin, Kenny. Going alone I was eager to see if he would recognize me. We pulled up to Resthaven that afternoon and I asked Michael to wait in the hallway so I would have Dad's undivided attention. I nervously entered the room and his face lighted up like a Christmas tree as he screamed out "Hey!" (He may have even called me Terence, but I was so happy he "knew" me that I honestly don't even recall.) I sat there with him alone and we talked and talked and I was so wrapped up in the only father-son moment we'd ever had that I'd forgotten I'd brought company. Suddenly Dad looked up over my shoulder at the doorway and saw Michael -- who could easily pass for one of Dad's strapping blue-eyed Walsh brothers. Dad got quiet then sheepishly whispered in my ear, "Is he related to us?" (Without question the five sweetest words I've ever heard.)
Seeing Lenny Savage's kids on the big screen Saturday night cope with some of the same indignities of nursing home care -- from inconsolable guilt to horrendous fluorescent lighting -- yet still find some of the joys that are hidden in even the most desperate of situations really helped me begin to scrub away 35 years of pain and shame. At some point virtually everybody will find himself in a position to have to make decisions about the care of parents (or grandparents). In my case, my brothers and I were initially spared from the heart-wrenching process of choosing "a home" but paid for it dearly in other ways. Jenkins' writing is so spot-on there's no way she hasn't lived something very close to this, and I'm grateful that she shared her story with the rest of us. I give this film an A.

My last photo with Dad, taken in the months before he died


Christopher said...

Thanks for sharing something so deeply personal, Kenneth...such a beautiful post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for putting your personal experience into words. I'm sure many will be able to relate to your story.
Well told!

Anonymous said...

That was one of the most beautiful, original things I've ever read on any blog. It's amazing sometimes how much we keep bottled up inside, and when it comes out, it's poetic. Thank you for sharing that.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the tears you invoked are but a small amount from the ones you shed.What a great guy! It's no wonder I won't go a day without reading your thoughts and sharings.
Robert Graham

Anonymous said...

You brought tears to my eyes Babe. I am so glad i had a chance to meet your Dad, and visit him a couple more times before he passed. I will never forget the first time you said to me proudly, "Michael I would like you to meet my Dad" and you both looking up at me with those Irish Eyes Smiling. : - )

Anonymous said...

This is so sweet and you are such a dear, dear man! I mean it.

Matthew said...

When you post something as personal as this that probably took you ages to write and to express in exactly the way you wanted, do you ever then feel funny putting it next to all the underwear stuff? I ask this not as a criticism but because I'm in the same boat. Granted, life is not all about deep thinking and feeling, it's also about underwear. But anyway, I just wanted to call this post out as one of your very best posts ever. Thanks for taking the time to craft it and thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting read. Real life can be rough. -Joe T.

Anonymous said...

Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air had a great interview with the author, which reveals that the author did indeed have an experience that laid the foundation for the film. You can listen here:

Kepe up the great work!


Anonymous said...

This was a really moving post, Kenneth, and a good reminder for all of us about how important family contacts are. Coming right after the (sizzling hot) underwear pics, it was even more mind-blowing. What a day in the 212!

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time comment. I too lost my father, in May, of long term dementia. Acquired after open heart surgery. He & my mother had divorced when I was young. Mostly I identified with the stolen moments in the nursing homes & the sorrow over what could have been...thank you for bringing this movie to my attention. I will let you know when I see it. Many thanks. Andrea

Anonymous said...

Your post about your Dad bought me to tears. Some of it was quite similar to what we went through with my father. It was very touching and an excellent piece of writing. KUDOS for putting it out there for your fans to read.

Right now my grandmother is in a nursing home due to her dementia. She has decided that a black man who lives there is my grandfather (he's been dead for over 30 years). My Mom, who can't help but be sympathetic, tells my grandmother that her husband wasn't black. So, my grandmother tells her that's what happens to him when he goes out in the sun. Anyway, my grandmother walks up to him the other day and tells him enough is enough with the sun, he's getting too dark. I know how sad this is, but I'm going to hell because it makes me chuckle a little.

Criticlasm said...

Thanks so much for this. I have similar pictures of my father in a nursing home (he had MS), and my own visits--almost identical, actually. Wierdly, I had a complete breakdown after "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" because of it--seeing him unable to move in a hospital bed. But this really touched me, and having had a difficult (at best) relationship with my own father, I really related. Thanks so much for sharing it. I am more and more interested in seeing the movie