I am a control freak, which makes it difficult to be a writer or a mother or a wife or a…well, you see my point.
I’ve mostly learned to circumvent this particular quirk, at least when it comes to writing. It’s taken years, but I’m getting better at letting my characters figure out how to behave based on who they are and what they long for.
Still, the control freak in me resists. Some days Ms. CF spends hours circling me, poking, prodding, jumping on my shoulder to whisper in her harsh, Gollum-y voice, “They’re nobodies. You’re the one writing. Make them do what you want. Make them!”
That’s usually when I muster the courage to kick Ms. CF across the room. Because she’s wrong. Whenever I listen to her, I strangle the life out of my fiction. But when I give in to my subconscious, where my love and hate and fear reside, unruly and uncontainable, that’s when my fiction and my characters flourish.
But some days my courage fails me and I can’t get rid of Ms. CF and her nasty Gollum-y self. I start to wonder whether spending so much time and effort on this skill of inhabiting other people’s lives is worthwhile. What good is it in the real world, what help with actual, life-altering problems?
Then I heard “Rainy Days and Mondys,” Act Two of This American Life’s episode,”Magic Words.”
“Rainy Days and Mondys” tells the story of how Karen Stobbe and her husband, Mondy, both actors, stumbled onto a new way of dealing with Karen’s mother, Virginia, who moved in with them after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Instead of constantly correcting Virginia when she misremembered things, which caused more strife than it alleviated, Karen and Mondy discovered that they got far better results by applying a rule from their improv days: they stepped into Virginia’s world.
Says Karen, “You walk on stage, another actor says something, and you step into their world, whatever world they’ve just created. You don’t ever say no. You don’t question their premise. You just say yes.” At first she didn’t see how this improv technique could apply to caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. “And when I did,” she said, “it was just so obvious. It’s a whole ‘yes, and’ world.” Which means that if Virginia decides that she sees monkeys outside, then Karen and Mondy see them too; they even help think up ways to capture them. This approach proved so successful that Karen founded In the Moment, an organization that helps Alzheimer’s caretakers more effectively deal with patients or loved ones.
The methodology can be hard on the caretaker, often demanding that she deny her own reality. As Karen points out, she can’t be her mother’s daughter in her own home, since her mother doesn’t remember that she even has a daughter. Instead, Karen must listen to the fragments of memory that Virginia still retains, fragments that rarely contain Karen now that her mother’s disease has progressed. She has to agree with those fragments, draw them out, help Virginia elaborate on the reality in which she now resides. And Karen has to be okay with that.
Upon hearing this story, I realized that, by resisting Ms. CF, I’ve learned to say “yes, and?” to my characters even when I don’t like their choices. Which means I can also learn to say “yes, and?” to someone with Alzheimer’s, a disease that runs in a strong, steady pulse through my father’s family. Several of his cousins had it, as did his aunt and his mother, my grandmother, who spent the last twenty years of her life descending into its nothingness.
We didn’t realize at first what was happening to her. She hid it well, keeping to herself at family gatherings that she once dominated, nodding and smiling and laughing in mostly the right places if someone chatted with her. When we finally realized what was happening, she was already deep in an Alzheimer’s haze.
I didn’t handle the situation well. I was self-absorbed as only a twenty- and thirty-something can be, focused on law school, career woes, demanding relationships and breakups. As much as I adored my grandmother, I visited her less and less. She barely noticed when I was there, I reasoned, and when she did, she didn’t know who I was, no matter how often I reminded her. Sometimes we paced the street outside her house, her arm threaded through mine, her fingers picking at the sleeve of my sweater. Quietly, calmly. Those times were still good, those quiet, mindless walks.
Once she was bedridden, I barely ever visited. There was no one left to engage. She lay there silently, fed through a tube in her stomach. Waiting. Mindless.
But someone was there. Someone must have been. Unbeknownst to me, she was near death the week before my wedding. My father visited her, told her, “Ma, Colette’s finally getting married. Hold on, just a few days, so you’ll know she’s happy.” And she did.
Three days after my wedding, she died, quietly, at home, in her hospital bed. I hadn’t seen her in months.
I imagine all this now and I create in my head the woman I knew and worshipped. I watch her pace, wondering where I am. When I’ll visit.
My father is his mother’s son: he looks like her, acts like her, has her ferocious intelligence and her temper. He is likely to follow her path, as am I. I dread that outcome for us both. Yet, at least with my father, I now see that I don’t have to dread spending time with him once he doesn’t know me anymore. I don’t have to frustrate myself by attempting again and again to remind him of who I am, what we shared. What memories we made together. I can draw on my subconscious, on my ability to imagine other realities. I can take my father’s lead, listen to what he wants to talk about. Let him have his new versions of the truth. Step into his word and say, Yes, Dad, yes, that’s how it was.
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