The Public Humanist

Love, Loss and Poker

Autobiography Writing at an Assisted Living Residence

My father is bored, and my brother can’t understand why.

After all, there is an activity for every part of the day, every day of the year. “I wish I had time to do those things,” my overworked lawyer-brother sighs. But the bingo, films, backgammon, trips to ice-cream shops, and sing-alongs do not seem to provide my dad with the sense of purpose that he once earned by running a trucking company, building the house of his dreams, and being a husband and father. And he’s not the only one. Lillian writes:

Living here is like living in a hotel. Is it good or bad? I think it’s both. There’s not enough you have to do. I throw back the sheets every morning to air the bed, and then when I come back the bed is made.

It’s not really my fault that my father is bored, but I am the one who put him here. A little more than a year ago, I uprooted my parents from the place where they had been born and raised and moved them 600 miles to the best assisted-living residence I could find near my home. My mother was so deeply lost to dementia at that point that she was emptying trashcans into the washing machine and leaving the stove on all night. Meanwhile, the stress of caring for my mother had landed my father in the hospital seven times in two years.

The move could not save my mother. She died a month and a half ago from complications of Alzheimer’s. But it did allow my father’s health to improve to the point where he is once again capable of transfixing you with the gleam in his eye. Except the gleam is only occasionally there. My dad is bored and lonely, and no number of bingo games will fill the hole in his life.

Which is how I ended up with my eighty-six year old father as my student.

* * *

When I originally offered to teach an autobiography-writing workshop in my father’s assisted living residence, I did it with the idea of giving people “something to do.” I hoped to give people a bit more as well: a mental challenge, a sense of accomplishment, a deeper sense of community.

What I didn’t expect was the fact that I would learn more than I would teach. This is the best group of students I have ever worked with. They listen to one another’s work with affection, respect, and delight. They are the best class I have ever taught. I have never had to convince them that writing matters.

As a college English professor, I’m used to dispensing not only advice about reading and writing to my students but also advice about life. Only a few weeks ago I joined the other members of my department to toast our graduating seniors and share with them a few words of wisdom borrowed from our favorite writers. My choice was an excerpt from Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions… Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Now I face this class made up of a different kind of seniors, and they don’t need my advice about life—or Rilke’s. Esther writes: “My first thought, when I knew my mother was dying, was who’s going to tell me things?’” The other members of the seminar nod in support. Only eight when her mother died, Esther has been trying to untangle the mystery of how to live without her ever since. Like Esther, each member of what we call our Writers’ Roundtable has been “living the questions” for more than eighty years. Now they are writing them.

Most of their questions are about how to deal with loss. Helen writes of the excitement of getting the phone call from the doctor telling her she was having twins. “I got into the car, my open raincoat flying, and when I got into a parking lot in midtown Manhattan I realized all I had in my pocket was a nickel.” All was changed, however, when one of the babies was born with a disease that threatened to kill her by the age of six.

The day the babies came home from the hospital, big brother Steven hopped on to this bike and rode up and down the streets announcing their arrival. The next day he and his brother carried batches of chocolate cigarettes to their classes to involve their mates in the good news. Soon the family’s life took on a reassuring routine. The boys did occasionally ask unsettling but valid questions like “Is Sharon going to die?”

My father writes:

While Bridget was fixing Sunday dinner she called a fork a spoon and I immediately realized that our lives had just changed forever.

Are these the kinds of stories I expected when I signed on for this project? I doubt it. Certainly it wasn’t what the Director of Activities expected when she originally named these sessions “Golden Memories.” But I should have known better. In one of the first readings I assigned to the group, “Looking Forward, Looking Back” William Zinsser recalls reading a class his celebration of an afternoon spent watching the Boston Red Sox at a spring training game in a Florida ballpark.

So the afternoon slipped by in contentment . . . We were suspended in a pocket of time unlike any other moment in baseball’s long year . . . It was a time for looking both forward and back: forward to the new season and as far back as the oldest codger could recall. And what made it all work was memory. Memory was the glue that held baseball together as the continuing American epic.

But Zinsser encountered unexpected disagreement from a student who had been on duty as a firefighter at the World Trade Center on 9/11. “I don’t think the piece is about memory,” he said. “I think it’s about loss.” And Zinsser reflects, “A firefighter who was in one of those collapsing towers knows everything there is to know about loss. Thanks to Tom, I saw that memory is only a writer’s recall mechanism. I was in the loss business; my territory was the unrecoverable past.”

I wonder. Certainly that describes some of what I see in my students’ writing. Molly, for example, seems to recapture the smells, and tastes of a lost world when she remembers Friday dinners with her family.

Sabbath started quite early for us. It started with washing our faces and hands after school but not before we get that whiff of roasted chicken, potatoes drizzled in chicken fat and onions roasting in the oven, that tzimine simmering in honey, cinnamon and cloves, that aroma of honey cake baked just right. That was worth suffering through soap and water and combing our tangled hair. Somehow, that just glistened as grandpa came home from the bathhouse, glowing from being beaten with willow sticks and hot steam.

But if autobiography is only an attempt to recover the unrecoverable past, why do so many of my students so insistently write about loss? Perhaps the real problem is that we can neither hold on to the past nor escape it. Each day my students’ lives continue to be shaped by the losses they have experienced. Esther continues to lament the mother she lost at the age of eight. Helen continues to be troubled by the fact that her daughter escaped the death that seemed to be her fate in infancy only to be snatched from life unexpectedly in middle age by ovarian cancer. And for my father the day when my mother called a fork a spoon will never be simply past–it shapes his present as well.

Perhaps then it is the writer’s enterprise is to learn to live well with the past. Some students in my class, I think, have done that by finding answers to their questions. At the beginning of the course, Esther would become so overwhelmed by feelings about her mother’s death that she couldn’t write. So I suggested that she postpone that too-difficult subject and begin by writing about other things. Here is how she begins her first story:

I had a husband who just thought about me. My father wasn’t for me. My brother wasn’t for me. He was the first man who was for me.

I came home from work one day and said “Milt, what are you doing?” “I’m making you a Noguchi table.”

I’d seen a Noguchi table in a store and said, “Milt, that’s gorgeous. Look at that table.” And it was twelve-hundred dollars. He knew he could trust me: I would never ask him for something he couldn’t afford.

So he goes to the store and measures it. The salesman said: “If you’re going to buy it, why would you measure it?” And Milt said, “I like to know the measurements of what I’m getting.”

And here is how she ends her second story:

My mother was always in the hospital. Always in bed. Always sick. She had cancer of the colon and she was always in pain. So I never remember being hugged. And I think I missed that. And my father expected everything and gave nothing. He accepted what you gave out and never gave back. So here is what I know. Love is not demanding. Love is wanting to give willingly without being asked. Love is caring. Love is feeling. Love is sharing. Love is my daughter.

By now, everyone in the class knows the answer to Esther’s question. Although as a child she worried that no one would be around to teach her things, she learned from her loss the importance of love. And the love she missed in her childhood has been amply supplied since by first her husband, and now her daughter.

In fact, although I first thought my students were focusing almost exclusively on loss, I have come to realize that the real subject of most of their stories is love–the love of those lost and the love of others that helped them survive loss. Lillian writes:

I wasn’t that interested in my brothers when we were kids. You know how brothers and sisters are. But I learned as we got older how much I enjoyed them, and when my husband died, I appreciated what they did for me and my boys. I had to take the business over, and they would take me out every so often or invite me down to their homes when I was able to get away from business. They would take my boys to different games. Those are the things I keep thinking about.

That’s not to say there’s always an answer or that we are always ready to find one. My father, stinging from the recent losses in his life is still bored, still lonely. Today in class he reads aloud:

A person can walk down 42nd street in New York and still be alone. Although I live in close contact with other people, I feel that the days of my life are ticking away in a lonely private environment of solitude.

After describing the happy hours he spent with my mother, even after her illness, he concludes.

Now she is gone. I get up at night and I think she is still there. But she’s not. I’m alone.

So why is it that hearing my father read his grief aloud stirs both sadness and joy in my heart? Because he wasn’t bored while writing. Because I believe that speaking his pain may bring my father some peace. Because I believe that writing his truth will bring my father a sense of accomplishment. And because I think the courage that lets him share his solitude will be rewarded by fellowship.

Around the table, people are wiping tears away from their eyes but also smiling. Esther says: “That’s why we keep inviting you to play poker!” Poker? Just another “activity” — like bingo, like backgammon, like Scrabble? No, because this is not the automated anonymous telephone message that regularly announces a residence event. This is Esther talking to Joe, inviting him because she knows him. KNOWS him. So do the other people around this writer’s roundtable. They know themselves and one another in the deep way that comes from writing the questions and sharing their writing with one another.

And today, my father played poker.

To view more writing produced by the students of this course, visit the on-line publication of their work prepared by Lucia Knoles.

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