susan schultz: “old women look like this”

I just downloaded Susan Schultz’s free e-book, Old Women Look Like This (an offshoot of her Dementia blog project). Schultz is editor of Tinfish Press. A dream last night preceded my downloading of the e-book this morning:

I dreamed that my mother died. I brought her into a bedroom of the old house, closed the door, and left the body there for several days, because I just didn’t want to deal with her death again. But I had to be responsible, so I returned to find her in a different position (still on her back, but knees bent. Oddly, she was wearing a halloween outfit, a brown, knitted Casper the Ghost that covered her head and torso. It was a bit silly, but clearly meant to say that she was just pretending to be a ghost. Lifting the hood off her head, I realized she was alive — weak, but definitely living. What a relief. I rushed out of the room to get her some water, to do it all again — differently. We like to think there is a right way to die. All the relatives are there to say goodbye, and all the right words are finally said; reconciliation happens.

My mother didn’t have Alzheimer’s. Maybe a fleeting touch of dementia toward the end, but she kept it mostly together. My father, however, had long-lasting dementia–probably Alzheimers, since he forgot, not only where his “self” was located, but also how to eat. Reading Susan Schultz’ “Dementia Blog,” and now “Old Women Look Like This” brings it all back. It’s a subject I couldn’t very well address through poetry or prose back then, or even up to now, but it’s something that stays with you, nevertheless. A feeling tone or undercurrent.

Having a parent with Alzheimer’s is a horrific process. Moreover, it forces you to look at society, family, and yourself in a stark and different light. Not many people can maintain that gaze for long.

I appreciate Schultz’ approach, which goes searchingly into the language, the assumptions, the institutional structures, societal failures, and fairy tales of aging, and breaks them apart. She enters that landscape of memory fragments, clinical statistics, and family survey forms, and wanders back and forth in time. She listens to the stories we tell each other about parents or neighbors who retain a semblance of self, or are now somebody else, or not even that.

Schultz writes that the manuscript “was inspired by a series of paintings of old women by Elizabeth Berdann” which you can find HERE.

“Villa Villekula” in “This is how Women Look” was ironic and devastating to me (although it makes me laugh a little too), because I used to love reading Pippi Longstocking as a kid — that eccentric, impossibly independent, weirdly dressed, schizo kid that I wanted to be, and in a way, am now (albeit more boringly dressed). That mythic freedom, which is, however, hemmed in by society’s fears and expectations.

Now my Christian neighbors send their son over to see if I need help, I suspect, because I am an older “woman alone” [he came and knocked on the door even as I was writing this!]:

“…Probably she cooked for herself on her small stove, and in moments of glee threw all the eggs in the air and watched them fall, cooking only those that hit the bull’s eye of her bowl. She likely had imaginary friends, a horse perhaps, monkey, or neighbors no one saw otherwise. She had time to scrub her floors, to mend her socks, to tend her garden within. By now, her clothes were patched and mended, at once too long and too short, her shoes a size too small, and her braids gummy; lacking audience, what need had she [to] perform?

They adopted words for her: reclusive, withdrawn, divorced, self-reliant. They toyed with dementia, stubbornness. They came to her door but then they went away. Someone mowed her lawn, and watered it. An ex-husband came, and left.”

In “Women Look Like This,” dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are everywhere; in Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Disaster Speech, as well as in the “Soap Opera Generator” for Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband. It’s in our nation’s destructive “habit” of forgetfulness. While we can, we try to say all kinds of things about “those people” who are us, those failures to be perfect and to die in some state of grace. Sometimes they are given names or initials, and their movements are described, some traces of character, kindness, or irritation.

So I read the e-book, the notes and fragments, diary and blog, and I notice things that I didn’t notice before, because I just couldn’t.