A few days ago, when it became clear that my mother’s time with us was coming to an end, I realized that I had no photos of her by herself. Her life had been so intertwined with that of my father, her husband of nearly 62 years, that most photos I had featured both of them together, or otherwise the two of them and some configuration of my brothers and I.
My mother’s dementia was such that when my father died last April, she didn’t seem completely aware of what had happened, or even where she was. She was hospitalized due to severe hydration, but recovered quickly, and enjoyed 18 months of relatively good health until earlier this week.
When we spoke to her back then, she expressed some confusion about my father’s whereabouts, but before we could figure out what to say in reply, she added “I think he’s in the room next door.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Gladys Isabel Mena (Fairchild): 1/24/1932 – 10/23/2021
Many people know that I’m a bit of a word nerd. I’m fascinated with the origins of words and their usage in different parts of the world. Since moving to Cape Cod, we’ve discovered the radio program A Way With Words on WCAI in Woods Hole. After hearing many callers recounting stories of words, phrases and figures of speech, I decided to call in myself back in June. The episode was aired on September 11. I urge anyone who doesn’t live within the listening area of the show to listen to their podcasts. You just might learn something about scooter-pooting.
For anyone who might want to hear my 4 and a half minutes of questionable fame, I’m edited an excerpt of the show and have posted it here.
It was one of those dreams that occurs just before waking in the morning. Bits and pieces of reality merged with the subconscious in the form of rapid-fire fragments that came and went without explanation.
I woke up to Mary watching television shortly after 7 in the morning. My alarm was set for 8, and real-life Mary would never do this, so dream Paul was a bit perplexed. We were in a big old house filled with many families, most with small children who were already awake. My understanding was that we were there for some sort of reunion, but Mary was watching footage of a festival that was occurring on the other side of town. Clearly she wanted to go, but I reminded her that that wasn’t why we were here. Then I asked her if she was going to remain awake instead of letting me sleep until 8, not that there was much likelihood of that. She took my question as a less-than-subtle hint and wandered to other parts of the house, reminding me that we were expected at church at 9.
Returning my head to the pillow, I closed my eyes and heard crying, laughter and conversation, as if I were the only person in the house still trying to sleep. After a minute or two of futility, I got up, hastily washed my face and put on some clothing, trying to catch up with Mary.
There were many familiar people in the house, most of whom didn’t recognize me. Every room had multiple black-and-white televisions of various vintages, one of which was incorporated into a child’s playhouse. On the screen was grainy footage from “Howdy Doody” that no one was watching.
I was struck by a young blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who looked extremely familiar.
“Are you… Johnny?” I asked.
Another boy, clearly an older brother, answered on his behalf.
“No, Johnny is our uncle.”
I grew up with Johnny and his brother Jimmy, so this was the next generation, or perhaps – because so much time had passed – this was another generation beyond that. I was, as we used to say back then, a bit freaked out.
I walked out of the house and wandered around a complex of farm houses like the one I just left, each teeming with children and televisions and the occasional adult. Then I thought about the time – a quarter to 9 – and began imagining what the consequences might be if I skipped church.
standing outside a country church the unforgiving sun
I had a feeling this was not going to be a typical first day on the job. For starters, my boss encouraged me to come in early, so that he could “show me around”. In the financial services industry, the work day revolves around the Stock Market, which opens at 9:30. I came in at 8.
My boss was already there waiting for me in his spacious, ornate corner office. It must be nice, I thought, knowing that I would be in a cramped cubicle on a busy floor. A few other people were milling in the lobby outside his office. They weren’t particularly friendly, and their expensive suits told me that they were important people.
As a unique signing bonus, I was granted $10,000 worth of a special company stock. This particular stock was named after my new boss. While I commuted into the office on the train, I checked on the stock price and noted that it was listed as “on hold”. I thought this might be the case because I had just started, but when I mentioned it to my boss, he was clearly alarmed.
He quickly logged on to a website to confirm for himself, and then slammed his fist against his desk.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m going to have to ask you to wait in the lobby.”
The men who were waiting outside his office walked in, and the door closed behind them. An “animated discussion” ensued.
Given my unexpected spare time, I looked for news about the company on my phone. Trading on this particular stock had been suspended for unspecified reasons, and the company itself – based upon a tip from an anonymous source – was about to be investigated for “financial malfeasance”.
The well-dressed men exited the office in a huff. My boss had tears in his eyes and was visibly flustered.
“I just got divorced,” he explained, “and my ex-wife’s family is trying to shut me down.”
I tried to be supportive, but I what I really wanted to know was if I still had a job.
“It’s all lost,” he said, staring at a corner of the tall wooden ceiling.
As Robyn Hitchcock would say, I often dream of trains, although admittedly far more often back when I used to commute into Boston from Cochituate. But I digress.
Last night – or should I say early this morning – was one of those times. I had several fragmented dreams in rapid succession, each lasting only seconds before I abruptly woke up and attempted to take mental notes. At one point a cow nonchalantly walked up the street in front or our house wearing a sign advertising a VPN. But again, I digress.
Minutes later I was on an uncrowded train in a foreign city. I stared out the window vacantly when I noticed a large billboard clearly placed to attract the attention of passengers. The billboard had capital letters in bold black print spelling out a message in a language I didn’t understand – with the following exception: in bold red capital letters I clearly read my name.
As is the case with most of my dreams, this one consisted of fragments, but a familiar time and place provided me with a context from which I could weave some sort of dream narrative. Otherwise, the usual disclaimers apply: virtually none of the events depicted really happened.
An exception to this disclaimer is the time and place. It’s Spring, 1991, and I’ve just started a new job. As this job requires a security clearance, I have to wait out the process in places other than my assigned location. I spent three weeks in training, and then three more at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I assisted another Systems Administrator. Mostly we just hung out in a cramped office. For the first week, we also went out to lunch together, but I was broke and subsequently ate on campus, where I could eat for free as a member of the technical staff.
My lunches were a tour of the dormitory cafeterias that dotted the sprawling campus. The food was a step above basic, but I appreciated the hour-long break. I sat by myself, trying to be invisible. I marveled that, at 31, I seemed so much older than the students who swarmed around me. They ignored me entirely, as if I truly was invisible.
During the work day, I mostly interacted with other technical staff, people my own age or older. Students rarely came to data center except for tutoring with professors and their assistants. This intensified with my last week there, which turned out to be finals week.
One teen-aged girl caught my attention. She wandered the hallway instead of walking directly to one of the offices.
“May I help you?” I asked somewhat sincerely.
“I doubt it,” she replied.
Eventually I found out that she was a freshman on the verge of flunking out. She had submitted a programming project that would essentially determine her future at MIT. She was hoping to gather some intelligence about her project ahead of getting a final grade.
Finally a graduate assistant spoke to her in impatient whispers. She wasn’t happy.
She walked up to me and announced “I have a security flaw,” and started to walk away.
“What if I could help you with that?” I offered, not having a clue about what or how.
She seemed intrigued, but unconvinced. I told her everything I knew about cyber security, which took only a minute or two. She gave me a quick hug and then left.
The following day she stopped by the office with a backpack and a suitcase.
“I’m off to California,” she said.
“What about your project?”
“What about it?”
“Have you addressed the security flaw?”
“I think he’s bluffing,” she surmised. “I’m pretty sure he has a crush on me.”
Then she walked away, wheeling her luggage behind her.
At the risk of being a pest, I followed her, speculating about what I thought the flaw could be and how to fix it. It was a wild guess on my part, but she seemed to be buying into the idea.
Against my better judgment, I drove her to the bus station while I continued to expound upon my theory. She wasn’t listening. I stopped talking. We sat down in the waiting area and stared at the buses coming and going.
Abruptly, she turned to me and hugged me tight. “I know I can’t stay, but I don’t want to go.”
She sobbed. I didn’t know what to say.
The bus driver walked up to us.
“One ticket to Los Angeles?” she asked in the form of a question. Both of us stood up.
The bus driver gave me a good long look.
“First stop, Springfield.”
I followed along in my car. It was about an hour and a half drive. The bus pulled into a service station, where all of the passengers disembarked except one. A minute or two later, the bus driver stepped off and closed the door behind her. She didn’t seem surprised to see me.
“Asleep?” I asked her.
“On the phone,” she replied.
I sat inside the waiting area and sipped an overbrewed coffee. After about twenty minutes, the bus driver emerged from behind a door marked “Staff Only.”
“The next stop is Schenectady. It’s about an hour and a half away.”
“I should probably go back.”
An hour and a half later, the bus pulled into the Schenectady service station, and I followed close behind. Once again, all of the passengers got out except one, followed by the bus driver a few minutes later.
“Asleep,” she said.
“Does she have a name?”
“Probably, but I don’t know it.”
The bus driver clutched a bottle of water and stared at her bus.
“The next stop is Syracuse. It’s about two hours.”
The scene repeated itself, except that I had to refill my car with gas in Syracuse.
“When do we knock off for the night?” I asked the driver.
“This bus goes all the way to LA non-stop. I get relieved in Chicago, and then pick up the same route from there the following day. That’s when I knock off for the night.”
“So you drive all the way through to Chicago?”
“Lots of coffee?”
“No, that wrecks your body after awhile. I used to try to fight off highway hypnosis. Now I use it to my advantage. It helps me to focus.”
“I should probably go back,” I said. Again.
“If you leave now, you could get back to Cambridge before midnight. If not, the next stop is Rochester.”
I looked at my watch. I wore one back then.
“How far to Rochester?”
“About an hour and a half.”
“I’ll make that my point of no return,” I said unconvincingly.
“See you then.”
Nearly 400 miles later, a familiar pattern took place. The one passenger I was following didn’t leave the bus. The bus driver used the rest room, purchased a bottled water and walked over to where I was sitting.
Turning 61 a few months ago was fairly anticlimactic, given both the unremarkable age (although it is a prime number) and the fact that it took place in the middle of a pandemic. I received a small handful of birthday cards and unsolicited email and snail mail from people trying to sell me things, but that was about it.
One month to the day after my birthday, I received an email from a non-profit group whose mission was to match willing bone marrow donors with patients in need. I had volunteered for this opportunity during a blood drive years ago, and having known people in need of bone marrow transplants, I thought it was the least I could do.
As it turned out, 61 was a magic age as far as the registry was concerned. It meant that I could no longer be considered as a bone marrow donor for reasons they labored to explain nicely but could be summed up: “Transplant doctors want younger donors.” There was a table listing maximum acceptable donor ages in different countries, and I had the consolation of knowing, for example, that Australia would have dropped me from their roles at age 40.
As further solace, I was encouraged to donate to the non-profit registry.
happy birthday! removed from the potential donor list
It was our first getaway since the pandemic began, and only our second venture off Cape. The intent was to meet up with an old friend, her husband, and daughter for a relaxing weekend at a seaside resort. Embracing the new normal – or at least acknowledging it – we wore masks and didn’t hug or shake hands.
To our surprise, another mutual friend had made the trip, along with her husband and children. Mary and I looked at each other, but otherwise tried to hide our concern.
Then, another family we didn’t recognize came through the door. They clearly knew our friends, and quickly made themselves at home. The father thrust his baby at me in an apparent gesture of instant friendship. The baby cried immediately.
Our dog Tito, always nervous around new people, was quite agitated, so Mary took him outside. A minute or two later, I followed, realizing that we might have to rethink this whole weekend. I couldn’t find Mary in the yard immediately surrounding the house, so I thought she might have taken a walk nearby.
The neighborhood wasn’t nearly as upscale as we thought it would be. Very few homes appeared to belong to permanent residents, giving the community more of a transient vibe than we had expected.
The boardwalk and pier had seen better days. The arcade was sprawling and noisy, but only sparsely attended. A large food court and seating area was nearly empty.
I crossed a bridge from the boardwalk to a residential area on the other side of a narrow canal. Many houses were boarded up or abandoned, with some evidence of squatters past and present. A man came out of one of the houses wearing a mask and some freshly splattered white paint. Surprised to see me, he began muttering to himself, although it occurred to me that he may have been trying to talk to me. I didn’t stay around long enough to find out.
Retracing my steps, I passed a convenience store with an upstairs balcony. Leaning out was a man in a carnival barker’s uniform, shouting some unintelligible nonsense at me. I picked up my pace and crossed the bridge over to the boardwalk.
A small band of musicians began playing for the dubious entertainment of a virtually non-existent crowd. Their song lyrics were intended to parody old classics. For example, to the tune of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” they sang “Has Anybody Seen My Drink?” I kept walking, but woke up before reaching my destination.