Until I was 33 years old, I lived no farther from the Pacific ocean than about five miles. As a child, since bio-dad was a beach-loving athlete of a cop, I spent every other weekend at the beach, my skin the color of bronze and my hair streaked white from sun and salt. Sun, sand, the smell of saltwater, seaweed, and randomly applied Coppertone, were as familiar to me as the scent of my Auntie Helene’s night-blooming jasmine, which perfumed the air in front of our house.
When you’re a child or, at least my generation of beach children, one grew up with adults yelling, “Don’t go out too far,” when we headed into the water, reason being, what makes the surf so good on the Southern California coast is also what makes it dangerous: rip-tides, and more dangerously, the undercurrent. A few times a year it becomes dangerous enough that the beaches are closed, and only crazy surfers go out, because they live to surf and so they must.
But children get older, and parents worry a little less. Sometimes that parent drinks too many Coors or goes off to play handball with his mates, and takes his eyes off the nine- or ten-year old child who is by now a pretty good swimmer anyway. For me and my friends, it was almost a rite of passage that one day, you’re frolicking along in the water when suddenly, you look toward the coast and realize it is a long way off, much farther than you thought it was. Moreover, it is not the coast or lifeguard tower where you went in. You start to swim, but you don’t make a lot of progress. You suddenly realize the vastness of where you are and you are afraid of the water, for the first time in your life.
Now, one of three things will happen next: you swim swim swim and finally break free of the current and get back to shore, where you face a long walk back down the coast to your towel and friends; you swim swim swim and maybe holler at a surfer or a lifeguard comes and tows you back in; you swim swim swim, become exhausted and get pulled out to sea, where you die. I only ever had the first scenario happen to me and it happened only once because that’s all it took to learn respect of the ocean.
I work on a 5-A high school campus as a secretary, theoretically, supporting three Assistant, and one Associate, Principals. All discipline goes through my office. Our district was once noted for it’s excellence; it’s boundaries encircling the desirable neighborhoods. It’s why my husband and his late wife chose to live here, to ensure their children got the best education on offer. Perhaps, in some areas, this is still true, but it’s hard to see that from my desk.
My campus is diverse, with a high minority population, a lot of economically disadvantaged students, and an influx of displaced/transplanted persons in the form of relocated Hurricane Katrina victims. It is not at all unlike the campus I worked at before, and why I initially felt comfortable taking the job. I thought I could succeed here as I had there.
My measure of success is not complex and has nothing to do with money: I want to make a difference. Not lightning-bolt difference, but kind-word-at-the-right-time difference. Listening-ear difference. Make-things-better difference, even if that is a small difference. I’m foolish enough to believe that small differences, cumulatively, grow into big differences, even if I never see them.
I didn’t realize the deck was stacked against me, that the rip-tides of budget cuts, yes-men promoted beyond their levels of incompetence, and an atmosphere of denial beyond my wildest imaginings, would all create an undercurrent that is pulling me and worse, our students, out to sea.
It is not at all uncommon for students on our campus to tell their Teachers, “Fuck you!” and slam out of their classes, roaming the halls, dicing in the restrooms, and taking all four lunch periods. Fights are commonplace, especially among girls. Teachers thought the APs weren’t holding up their end of the disciplinary bargain, and began writing Dresscode referrals by the dozens, choking the already clogged disciplinary database. The APs run from fight to ARD to Parent Meeting to Principal Meeting to STAAR testing to fight while I radio them to remove disruptive students from classrooms, send them and our School Resource Officer scurrying to check out suspicious smells emanating from a restroom, break up another fight, clear the upstairs area of loud, truant students disrupting on-going classes. It is usual that we have 50+ disciplinary referrals in the database waiting to be worked every day, and even as they are worked, more pour in.
Because I worked most of my life not in Education, but in Corporate America, my skill level is greater than most of my peers; I’ve automated those processes I can but, every day I go home, feeling much like I did when I walked that two miles back to bio-dad and the towels, exhausted.
But it’s getting worse. One day, we had nine fights. In a single day. Nine fights. Involving students from the other High school in our district as well as students from other districts, who managed to get on to our campus without being detected. Some brought with them older siblings. Older, adult siblings. No one noticed until they became involved in altercations; they were too busy writing Dresscode referrals.
I expected, the day after the nine fights, there would be an emergency staff meeting where we would discuss what had happened and the plans to ensure those things did not happen again. In the Corporate world when a bid is lost there is a “postmortem” to discover where we went wrong and how to win the next one. But, despite two staff members sent to the hospital the day of the fights, there was silence. It’s weeks later, and the silence is deafening. It’s like the silence of diving underwater, feeling the water press against your ears, muffling all sound.
Every day, I send passes for the kids with referrals, input the data once they’ve seen the AP, send for their work if they’ve been assigned to In School Suspension even though I know only about 25% of them will show up there, and I feel myself drifting ever further out, losing sight of the shore, the endless paper of referrals washing over me like water when it finally claims the one foolish enough to swim too far out.
But I have a surfer ready to put me on his board and paddle us back to shore, in the form of a husband who says, “I worry about you every day there; it’s not a safe place.” For the students I see in my office, I have no such reassurance that they’ll be pulled from the undercurrent, that a District in denial of who and what we are will look out and see them drifting inexorably further away from the shore of Education, Impulse Control, Critical Thinking, and Tolerance. Their deaths will be of the spirit, of hope, of love. How many will end tripped up by the rip-tide of hard-core drug use? Of early pregnancy? Of prison? Of all the rip-tides in Life that trip one so the undercurrent can pull one out and finally, down?
“Boy am I glad to see you!”
This was an unexpectedly cheerful greeting from Mary, along with a bright smile and a wave of her amethyst-be-ringed hand. Ducking his head under the EXIT sign at the juncture of hallways, Mary’s youngest son smiled too. In the two years I’d been coming with him to visit, neither of us had seen this type of effusive greeting.
It was a lovely visit, with Mary cheerful and animated. We talked, laughed and she held up her end of the conversation with a couple of quips, this woman who had loved words and who had always had an appropriate adage or a bit of poetry, especially a comic line from her favorite, Ogden Nash, for any situation. It was an answer to a prayer.
By this visit, Mary had been wrestling with Alzheimer’s disease for seven years. Most visits found her slumped in her favorite wing-backed chair in front of the TV in the lovely common area, dozing through the innocuous programming of the Hallmark channel. The combination of pain meds, mood-levelers, and the inexorable advance of the disease, rendered this type of pleasant animation most uncommon. Paul once said to me after a particularly bad visit, “You know, if God came to me and said, you can have one more visit with your mother as she was, have a real conversation but, she’s not going to wake up the next day. That will be it, I would take it, rather than see her like this: confused and miserable.”
Most visits had devolved into a polite exchange of her short litany of sentences, “It’s so good to see you,” “I love you,” “You look good,” to which Paul responded in kind, or tried to reach some part of her remaining memory with details about his brother or children, a photo of the snow in Boston, her hometown. She was unfailingly polite and, I think, on better days covered her lack of understanding with pleasant, feigned interest. Many times we left and Paul said he wasn’t sure she really knew him any longer, she just went along with the situation because it was pleasant to have company.
When we were planning our wedding, I felt a cold shot to my heart when she looked brightly up at Paul and said, “You’ve not been married before.” Calm and gentle, Paul said, “Well, yes Ma, I was. You remember Jackie?” Crestfallen, Mary thumped her forehead with a delicate fist because clearly, she did not remember Jackie, Paul’s first wife for whom she had grieved when she died. In my mind’s eye, I saw Jackie and all that had come with her, the four now-adult children and their children, popping away like balloons in Mary’s memory, all these lovely people whom she had loved. But we steered the conversation to more pleasant topics and prattled on, Paul saving his reaction for the driver’s seat of the Mustang when we left. “I know it’s the disease….. but it just doesn’t get easier.” I comforted as best I could, anything I could think to say woefully inadequate to…. this. This slow disintegration of the mother he had loved and respected.
The evening after that remarkably good visit, from the kitchen table as I cooked dinner Paul sheepishly confessed, “You know, all day I was sort of waiting for a call from Bethesda…. “ I agreed that I, too, had wondered if that was it, that was his answer and Mary would wake the next morning not in Fort Worth, but in the arms of the husband who proceeded her in death, and in the presence of the Lord in whom she never lost faith. It was not to be; instead, the next few months brought a steady, relentless deterioration.
Mary lived in the memory care unit of a fantastic assisted living facility. It was not inexpensive but Paul, Sr., had provided well for his widow and we were thankful he had. His namesake managed her money well enough to keep her there, in beautiful surroundings and cared for by attentive, gentle, loving staff. One day the manager rang to say Mary needed more help than they could give, and it was time to call in Hospice care, fortunately covered by her insurance. There was a meeting on a bright Friday afternoon and we listened attentively as the Hospice manager explained the care she would receive from their visiting nurses, modifying her medications to keep her calm and anxiety-free while eliminating those that were clearly no longer of benefit, and what all of this meant for the long-term.
It was not a good day for Mary. She was agitated, angry even, and kept telling me, “I’ve been a naughty girl.” She seemed to think this meeting had been called to discuss her poor behavior, as she had been increasingly angry and nasty with staff. She had a tendency to vocalize, including a repetitive vocal tic which I had found conveyed her mood, by tone and inflection, better than any human being could. I sat with her while Paul discussed the details and she was calm and happy with me, though she had no idea who I was. I assured her, as one does a child that she had not been naughty, but merely in need of some additional help, which Paul would make sure she got. “I’ve been a naughty girl….” When the meeting was over and Paul stood to wheel her back to her room, she looked up at him and said, “Who are you?” Nothing, nothing prepares one for that and this time we both shed tears in the front seats of the Mustang.
She began retreating further away, drifting someplace we could not follow. One day, a terrible visit, she was anxious, agitated, and worried. She remembered Paul and the only thing she could seem to get out was, “I love you,” and then she’d slump, seeming to gather herself to say what she needed to say, rising to look me dead in the eye and say, “I love my son so much.” It seemed to cost her a great deal of effort to tell me that, like she was struggling to get to where we were; I imagined her trying to tear away an ever-thickening veil separating her from us. I felt she was somehow aware she was slipping away and she was desperately entrusting Paul’s well-being to me while she still could.
The last time Paul saw her before the end, she stared into space, never acknowledging him. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and on Christmas Eve as I chopped and cleaned in preparation of the big day, Paul got the call that Mary was leaving us, in hours rather than days.
The Hospice nurse was there and she or one other RN would remain with Mary until the end. She explained that her blood pressure and respiration had increased, even though she was unresponsive to outside stimuli, as the body made a last-ditch effort to save itself. Unfortunately, the insidious bastard of a disease that had taken Mary Theresa away from us long ago was now attacking all her vital systems and they were shutting down; the nurse explained what that would look like over the next hours.
Unable to get the Roman Catholic Church which had provided communion to this deeply Catholic woman for the last several years to come grant Last Rites (“we don’t go to nursing homes – only hospitals”), our own Episcopal priest dropped everything and came. The attendants of Bethesda Gardens gently, lovingly tucked her into bed for the last time, placing a pillow here, an extra blanket there, ensuring her comfort as silent tears ran down their cheeks. By ones and twos, other attendants slipped in and kissed her goodbye. My sister-in-law, Donna, arrived and while Paul discussed matters with the medical personnel we sat on either side of her, taking her hands in ours and promising we’d look after her two tall sons. I whispered it was ok if she needed to go.
When Father Bill arrived, all of us joined hands and prayed, as he commended her to the God she loved and to whom she remained ever faithful. Eager to wish the birthday boy well, Mary passed on Christmas Day, her youngest son at her side.
We buried her on a snowy January afternoon, laying her to rest with her husband at the beautiful Veteran’s Cemetery on Rhode Island. Her sister, Claire, was there and in her I got to see Mary as she might once have been, bright and funny, with twinkling hazel eyes and humor to spare.
Of course it hurt Paul to lose his mother. Now, he’s an orphan and that’s a feeling I understand very well indeed. But that remarkably good visit, an answer to a prayer, in showing us a glimpse of who Mary Theresa was before Alzheimer’s claimed her, somehow made it easier to let her go. Now she is well, now she is with the God and the husband she loved, now she is no longer confused.
Rest well, Mary. I wish I had known you and your little quips, your poems and wit, before Alzheimer’s claimed you. I will see you, many years hence, and in the meantime, I will look after the son you loved, “… so much!”