Saturday, November 6, 2010

Re-entry: Gerontology, & an email to State Sen. Hee

Yesterday, sandwiched between conferences with my composition students, I went to Fook Yuen restaurant in McCully (for you bilingual punsters, it's located very nearby the Phuket Thai restaurant) to speak to a group of people who work in gerontology and aging. Aside from the organizer, Michael Cheang, the group was mainly older women who had earned their caregiving spurs (as it were) over decades of personal and professional work. As requested, I talked about my writing about dementia, and read a few pages from Dementia Blog. During the reading, diners at the next table down in the restaurant erupted into a loud conversation about root canals. As ever, I was impressed by the density of stories and images, their humor and pathos:

--One woman had just gone on a cruise and discovered that the cruise company now caters to the elderly. You could get dialysis treatment on the Dutch ship and have it covered by Medicaid.

--Another woman had a story about a man who wanted to die and be buried at sea. So as the time approached, he was booked on an around the world cruise. Everyone at the table had the same question: "and did he die?" Yes, he did, and his body was put to sea in a burlap bag.

--"What do you do with the hoarders?" another woman was asked. After saying she used patience and love, she spoke of a woman who lived on a thirty year pile of stuff, naked, surrounded by the corpses of dead cats. Her first effort to engage with her involved organizing a burial for the dead pets. (Again, I wonder about the connection between Alzheimer's and the work of Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein: did they have relatives who suffered the disease?)

--Someone talked about a study done on a woman with dementia who had meditated for many years and was aware of what was happening to her. She made a pact with a friend to help her die when she said it was time. The friend could not follow through. The woman with dementia, aware of what was happening, kept begging to die.

--The woman next to me asked a man on one of his clear days what it was like inside his head. "It's like scrambled eggs," he said. Some days thoughts got through the scramble, other days they did not.

--To the families of the demented, one woman suggested saying, "you're speaking to a disease. This is not your mother or father." To which, after a night's sleep, I would respond: "it is your mother and father, but they've changed." It's not only their body, but also some element of them-ness remains, even at the end. But the point remains that we cannot act toward them as we had toward their previous incarnation, as parents, as care-givers, as independent beings.

I appreciated the opportunity to take my work into the community. Kaia Sand and I talked a bit when she was here about getting our poems out into places where poems don't usually travel. Her walks through Portland are an instance of community work. My conversation with care-givers and gerontologists was also, in a much small way than Kaia's, a moment of community outside the world of poems.

I am always humbled by these stories. My book, based as it is on my mother's experience of Alzheimer's, works over long distances. I have never been my mother's caretaker; I have watched others give care. I have been given the freedom to observe, and retain the hope that observation, too, is of assistance--if not to my mother, then to others going through the experience of watching a loved one deteriorate. But caregiving can be an extended act of heroism, even when (as is probably inevitable) the caregivers responses are not always perfectly patient, absolutely loving.


When Secretariat won the Triple Crown, Time magazine put him on the cover. I vividly remember a Letter to the Editor the next week. "Thank goodness you're showing us the front end of a horse for once, not the back end." It was during Watergate, or so my gauzy memory tells me.

Many people associate politics and politicians with horse shit. Little did I realize, as I waved signs for Neil Abercrombie this past Tuesday, that the metaphor would become so literal, so in my face, so smelly. As a few of us were waving our signs and chatting, who should come up the rise but State Senator Clayton Hee on a white horse. As he dismounted, we could see that he wore boots, that his spurs were shining in the hot light of afternoon. He and his horse stood on the street in front of us for a time, and the children approached to pet the horse. Well, the horse (Jessica) pooped. Right in front of us. Hee and his horse disappeared, but the poop remained. So I have written the following email to Mr. Hee. (There's nothing political about this; he and I are both Democrats.)

Aloha Clayton--I was waving signs near Ahuimanu School when you appeared on a white horse. Certainly not what I expected from a day of standing around. But I just wanted to suggest that the next time your horse shits in front of a group of sign wavers, that you pick it up. We stood there for the rest of the day staring at it and smelling it. Of course we could have probably picked it up, too, but it was your horse.

thanks, Susan 

[I received a reponse from State Sen. Hee, as follows:

Hi Susan:

Thanks for your email regarding last week Tuesday afternoon. I actually came by later in the day for the purpose of picking up for the horse. While I wish I could have come back sooner the ride home by horse takes place in its own time. Along the way, several youngsters happily took turns doing what they don't have the opportunity to do - ride a horse.

I apologize to you that I could not come back sooner. I also apologize to you personally that you had to endure the smell of horse manure or "shit" as you call it. Nonetheless, your suggestion is one that I support.

Thanks again for your thoughtful email.

clayton hee]

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