Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

On Watching Sports

When the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1995, my three boys and their father raced out the front door of our San Francisco home and roared “49ERS RULE!” until they were hoarse. And they weren’t the only ones yelling… A chorus of male victory shouts rang out through the streets and well into the night.

Not that the 49ers are lacking female fans. My daughters and I are always happy if they win, and we’re not alone. But men seem to share a passion for their sports teams that is almost tribal. I have never heard two women discussing Monday Night Football at a cocktail party, yet I have listened to men meeting for the first time dissect an entire game together as if they were best buddies.

I don’t know of a single activity that unites women as passionately as watching sports unites so many men. There must be a gene that impels males to tether themselves to a seat in front of a television for hours on end, oblivious to everything but the game, the snacks and sometimes the beer.

It’s not just football, baseball and basketball either.  I have two sons who can watch golf for hours, as excited about a putt as they are about a touchdown. One dreary Sunday afternoon in Germany, I even witnessed my brother-in-law watching billiard tournaments!

One of my favorite young men, a former high school athlete, insisted that he never watched sports.  I believed him until I found out that he is obsessed with off-road truck racing. Something tells me that might be a sport…

When he was just a toddler, my youngest son, who never stopped moving and making mischief, would sit quietly next to his dad mesmerized by football. By the time he was seven, he could rattle off names and statistics for players on teams across the country. It was as if his brain had a separate computer dedicated to sports. By the time he was eight, he was on a city team. He played football through the end of high school, and I cheered with all the other parents even though I didn’t always understand what was happening. Every time my son was tackled, I would cringe and close my eyes and pray that he would get up again.

My middle son went through a baseball phase that included playing on a team, collecting cards and memorizing batting stats.  Oh, and watching the San Francisco Giants!

My oldest son loved soccer and traveled with an elite team. When I would hear the hum of some foreign crowd cheering and that peculiar nasal tone soccer commentators seem to share, I would know he was home.

As for tennis, I’ve lived with that male obsession for several years now. It was quite bearable until more and more of the women started grunting and letting out banshee cries with every ball they whacked.

In her last decade, my French mother started to watch the Denver Broncos. My brother explained all the football rules to her, and she would sit with him and his friends happily watching the games. But I don’t think it was football that excited her. It was hanging out with the guys…and her little crush on John Elway.

On Thanksgiving, the television is usually on all afternoon, with just enough of a pause for my boys to eat as much as they can, as fast as they can, before rushing back to their posts on the sofa.

My kids were with their father this year, but I did cook a few things to bring to a friend’s house.  And I turned on the television so I could hear the familiar background comfort of a football game.

Now if only I could remember what first-in-ten really means…

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Divorcing My Home

IMG_1901Once upon a time, I lived in the house of my dreams. Built in 1905, it was a beautiful Victorian in San Francisco on a shady street just a block away from a gym, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a hardware store, three cafes and several restaurants. My ex-husband and I moved in when our middle child was just a few weeks old. The kitchen had no refrigerator and the stove was an ancient Wedgewood with a tiny oven, but we were in love with that house. I remember sitting on the front stairs with him before the sale had even closed, holding hands. It was everything we had ever wanted.

Fourteen years and two more children later, we divorced.

By then, we had remodeled the house, adding bedrooms and bathrooms and a family room, tearing down walls and revamping the kitchen twice. After the earthquake of 1989, we even redid the entire foundation. That house had been a labor of love, and I was determined to keep it.

In the divorce settlement, I did get the house, but nothing had prepared me for the task of maintaining it by myself. When the family room flooded or the roof needed replacing or the garage door got stuck, I would panic. I had no problem, however, doing the little things: unplugging toilets and drains, mowing the tiny lawn, planting bulbs and flowers, cleaning the pond and the hot tub, replacing clogged tubing in the watering system. As for that supposedly burdensome job so many guys neglect or gripe about, putting out the garbage once a week, what a joke! Compared to cooking and cleaning and driving, compared to shopping, making lunches and washing clothes, it was nothing at all.

I had lost a husband and a united family, but I was determined that my children would not lose the comfort and warmth of the home they loved. Like a stranger in my own house, I would roam from room to room trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Wherever I went, I would see my ex: meditating in our bedroom; lying on the floor reading The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to our children; practicing his Aikido and sword sets in the back yard; watching football with the boys in the family room; laughing and telling silly jokes at dinner, which we shared as a family every night, often joined by our children’s friends who just happened to drop by right at dinner time. I always thought he was happy. Perhaps I had been wrong. I will never know. But now my ex-husband was a ghost who filled every space with waves of sadness.

So I decided to repaint. Instead of a soft white, I picked bold warm colors I would never have thought of using before: a russet wall surrounding the fireplace, a bright yellow family room, a lilac blue bedroom. I even bought a red sofa bed for my little office. Since he had taken the oil paintings with him, I hung colorful framed posters and Mexican art everywhere, with a huge Indonesian wood mirror above the couch and a candle-lit wrought-iron chandelier above the dining room table.

Late one manic night, I had turned the dining room into the living room by dragging each heavy piece of furniture by myself from one room to the other.  Bringing platters of food through the living room to the very front of the house was awkward and impractical, but it was different. And different, I thought, would help me forget.

But no matter what I did to erase the past and make the house mine, I couldn’t get rid of the memories of us. I couldn’t banish his invisible presence. Not that it stopped me from trying. I loved my house, and I thought nothing could make me divorce it.

I refinanced four times in six years, taking out more and more money just to keep going, watching both my mortgage payments and my expenses increase as my finances dwindled.

After the divorce, a friend had made a drawing showing me staring out through the bars of a second-floor window. I had become a prisoner in my own home.

Of course, reality finally sank in: I could not afford to stay in my beloved home. I remember my children’s sad expressions when I told them we would have to move. They were losing the last connection to the family we once were.

The market was dropping precipitously, and I readied myself for a quick sale. People trounced through on weekends, or disturbed our dinners, or made rude comments that made me want to punch them.  No offers came.

I refinanced again, waited a month, and got a different agent. Still nothing.

“You’re holding on too tightly,” said the same friend who had drawn the picture. “Everyone who comes through the door can tell you don’t want to let go.”

Let go? I thought I already had. The house was for sale, wasn’t it?  No, it was the bad divorce vibes that were poisoning the air and turning off buyers. To clear the negative energy, I paid a shaman to walk from room to room muttering prayers and waving a smoking bundle of sage. My East Coast friends thought I had lost my mind. It was sooooooo California.

Two months went by. One day my agent took me aside and, as gently as she could, suggested I move out so they could stage my home. I could tell she wanted to say much more but didn’t want to hurt my fragile feelings. Reluctantly, I rented a small house on a lagoon in Marin County and moved. A month later, the house sold.

A part of my soul still lives in that house. Even after it was gutted and turned into something unrecognizable, I pine for it.  Even though I hate the cold and foggy San Francisco summers, I would give anything to live there again. In the many dreams I have of my old home, I am searching everywhere for something: a child, usually, or a secret, or a forbidden gift. I never find whatever it is I have lost.

Every time I go to San Francisco, I feel compelled to drive by my house. Sometimes I park in my old neighborhood and buy Brie and aged Gouda from my favorite cheese store or a baguette and a French apple tart from the bakery-cafe across the street. Sometimes I sit there at a little outside table nursing an espresso and staring at my lost home’s taupe facade, the only part of it left intact. The tall red maples I planted on either side of the driveway thinking they were miniature Japanese maples now reach the second story.  That makes me smile. And when I have the courage, I walk to the sidewalk in front of my house and read the names etched into the concrete, the names of seven people who used to be a family.

 

My Brother’s Keeper

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When Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New York, my first confused thought was, “I have to call my brother!” And then it hit me inside, like a kick in the stomach: my big brother was no longer in Westchester County. He was in an Alzheimer’s home in France, and I had put him there.

For three years, I flew back and forth between San Francisco and New York to try to save first his condominium, then his life, then his independence, then his rented apartment. Finally, defeated by his deterioration and the expense of New York’s memory care homes, I resorted to taking him back to France, just a few miles from where he was born, and leaving him in a place so far from me that now, despite the work, the worry, the responsibilities, the endless paperwork and all the legal battles I fought for him, I am filled with sorrow and regret.

“You did the right thing,” people tell me. Did I? I see him in my mind, wandering the corridors with empty-eyed men and women twenty years older than he is. I see him going outside to the small fenced courtyard to feed the chickens and stare at the familiar vine-covered hills of his childhood. I see him watching French television, restless and agitated whenever someone approaches, as he waits for a phone call or a visit, both so rare, both of which he will forget moments later.

But when I call him, I can see the smile on his face. “Maia, my sister, how are you doing?” he always asks, recognizing my voice instantly. “Are you coming to see me today?” And I lie. Yes, I lie again and again and again. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be seeing him soon, the way I used to. We’ll go out to dinner. We’ll have fun.

In truth, it may be many months or even years before I can afford a trip to France, and by then he may not recognize me at all.

What is the right thing to do? When my ex-sister-in-law alerted me to my brother’s decline, my first thought was, “Oh, he’s just getting more eccentric with age.” But she was persistent, and I finally flew out to find the most appalling scene I could have imagined. My brother, who cherished and refinished antiques, who was passionate about trout fishing and the environment, who spoke – and still speaks –four languages fluently, who had an MBA from Columbia University and managed the investments of rich foreigners, was living in squalor.

He had become a hoarder, unable to manage his money or his daily life, spending every penny he had on expensive meals and things he didn’t need. From the front door I inched my way through mounds of excess stuff, through a kitchen piled with dirty dishes, through a dining room littered with fishing rods and tackle boxes, to the one usable living room chair, where he sat watching grainy images on his vintage television, his beloved tabby cat on his lap, oblivious to just how bad his situation had become.

Upstairs was even worse: closets filled with dozens of expensive suits, slacks, shoes, shirts, and jackets, hundreds of ties, some with the tags still attached, drawers crammed with t-shirts and sweaters, boxes shoved under the beds and dressers, filled with who knew what. No wonder he was sleeping in his chair: a pile of unopened mail covered his bed.

When I started to sort through those envelopes and all the others littering the condo, I found that he owed every major credit card money, that his condo was about to go into foreclosure, that he owed the IRS a fortune in back taxes, and that he had liquidated the line of credit on his home and every savings account he ever had, including all of his retirement accounts. My brother, once well off and successful, was now completely broke and in serious debt. Somehow, I had to help him.

With the help of his forgiving ex-wife, we began cleaning the place, throwing out collections of empty cat food cans, wine bottles, plastic containers, magazines, newspapers, paper napkins – the list is far too long to recount. We filled one trash bag after another and snuck them out at night, so he wouldn’t see us. Otherwise, he would open the bags and look through them for hours, angered if we were getting rid of anything he found valuable, which was everything, from a pebble to a broken shell to a piece of wood he had found on one of his outings. The back of his van was crammed to the ceiling with objects he had taken from the streets or roads or garbage cans, objects he insisted could come in handy some day.

In the middle of one particularly bad night, he woke me up yelling, his face red with rage. He accused me of throwing out his favorite river rock (he had a huge collection!), a rock shaped like a heart. I was sure I had not, but afraid he might turn violent, I went out to the dumpsters in the biting cold, took back that night’s haul, and looked through every last item, finding nothing, as he sat staring at me in anger. The next morning, I found his precious rock in the kitchen.

I went back in November to continue the cleanup with my daughter. One morning we found him screaming outside in his underwear, angry that the squirrels were eating the birdseed he scattered everywhere, against his condo association’s regulations. People were getting into their cars to go to work and staring as I tried to gently steer him back into the house with the promise of eggs and bacon.

I went again in January, and then every other month. The house began to look better while my brother got worse and worse. Every time I returned, he had put new yellow post-its on the refrigerator, on the telephone, on the kitchen cabinets, on appliances he could not remember how to use, on his stereo buttons and his television remote control. I made him a notebook with all of his important numbers written down, but he would misplace it. There might be four post-its with our father’s number right on the phone, yet he would claim he couldn’t find the number. The message machine was always full, mostly with threatening calls from creditors.

Meanwhile, he had no awareness of his condition. He insisted on taking an exam to maintain his broker’s license so he could work again. He failed it repeatedly, always blaming someone or something and vowing he would pass it the next time.

Desperate to find out what was causing his mental decline, I took him from one doctor to the next. He had severe diabetes, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis.  He was ordered to stop drinking, which he ignored, repeating the same story that he never liked to get drunk growing up and had been raised the French way on red wine mixed with water until he was old enough for the real thing. Both of those statements were true. I had never seen him noticeably drunk, but he had obviously become a big drinker. His supply of expensive French wine was running out, so he started buying beer instead.  If I showed disapproval, he would wag his finger, furrow his brow and give me an angry lecture denying he had a problem.

After an exhausting series of tests, including one for mad cow disease, the diagnosis was always dementia. Probable cause: alcohol and uncontrolled diabetes or early onset Alzheimer’s. I got power of attorney, applied for disability, and put his house on the market.

On February 20, 2010, my sister-in-law called me to say that my brother was very ill and had called her to ask what he should do. The day before had been his 60th birthday, and he had drunk a few six-packs of beer outside of the nearby gas station with some guy he barely knew. He was throwing up blood. She called 911 and they took him to the hospital.

Everything was wrong with him, including a bad case of pneumonia. He went into a coma for days and was put on a ventilator. Once again, I was asked to decide whether or not to keep someone alive by artificial means. This time, I did not hesitate to say yes. He had a daughter I loved, and I was not about to give up on him. I was even naïve enough to think that he might regain his mental facilities!

When he came out of his coma, he remembered nothing. And when he finally returned, after escaping from the convalescent facility through a bathroom window, he denied that he had ever been hospitalized.  He had been gone for nearly a month. He had lost weight and seemed much healthier, but his mind was worse than ever.

And so it went. I arranged for Meals on Wheels and help with his utility bills, and he was approved for Social Security Disability payments. My sister-in-law agreed to come once a week, as did a social worker. But no one could control him, really. He would disappear in his van to feed feral cats or wander the country roads or shop and eat and drink in his old haunts with a new account he managed to finagle before I could close it and pay back all the overdraft fees.

Because the real estate market was so weak, it took months to sell his condo, and when it finally sold, at a greatly reduced price, paying back the liens and fees and attorneys left me with just enough for moving and rent and expenses his disability check could not cover. But where could he go?

I wanted to give my brother a chance to live on his own just a little longer.  He was much too young for a nursing home, and Medicaid had turned us down. So I lied again and made a great case that he was diabetic but fine otherwise and signed a lease for a coop apartment in a nearby town, where he could walk everywhere if he lost his driver’s license.  We painted the walls, sanded the floors and filled the place with his beautiful furniture, paintings and rugs. It was on the seventh floor, with a view of trees and sky and the sound of trains rushing by on the nearby rails. He loved it, and quickly forgot about his condo.

Wherever we went, he would pick up papers and garbage as he walked, railing against people who were pigs and had no respect for the environment. At home, he would spend hours cutting off loose threads from his towels or picking lint off the carpets with his fingers. Clearly, obsessive-compulsive behavior was part of his baffling disease.

The last time I took him to New York City, he wandered off in the subway station while I searched for him in a panic, calling out his name like a madwoman. I eventually found him dancing in front of a subway musician. By the time he had picked up all the trash on our way to H&R Block, we were very late. He fell asleep in his chair while the tax preparer was talking.

Every week, he would get into trouble of some kind or other, and I would get calls or e-mails from the building manager and his landlord. He kept parking in the wrong spot, usually the manager’s. He was feeding birds on his balcony. He crushed beer cans on the kitchen floor with his hard heels during the middle of the night. He told an old woman who was bugging him to go fuck herself. He got into a fight with the superintendent. One night he locked himself out of the building and pounded on the doors, yelling for someone to let him in, until someone called the police. His unpredictable behavior and angry outbursts cost him the renewal of his lease, although I did manage to get him a six-month extension by filing a bogus discrimination suit.

Finally, in November of 2011, police arrested him for driving erratically and impounded his car. By the time he told me, it was too late to get the van back, although I tried. I had ignored his doctor’s repeated advice to take away his car keys. How could I do that to my brother? Furious when he realized they had taken his precious van to the dump, he threatened to blow up the police department and set fire to their cars.

In three short years, I watched as my brother morphed into a demented man unable to care for himself. But when had it really started? And why had no one noticed when his eccentricity degenerated into madness? I felt guilty as hell.

April 1st loomed ahead of me, with no solution in sight. After his old cat died, we had gotten him a new one thinking that having the responsibility of a pet would help his mind.  Instead, he left open cans of cat food in every room of the apartment and forgot to change the litter. Already fat, the cat became positively obese.

I hired a wonderful woman named Dora to come in twice a week to clean, wash his clothes and arrange his medications.  They chatted away in Spanish, and she coddled him into taking showers and changing his clothes. Despite her efforts, he now slept fully dressed on top of his bedcovers. .

In March, he was hospitalized again for an infection in his hand that wouldn’t heal. He was forgetting to go for his infusions. Once he was better, the hospital refused to let him leave unless I promised he would have 24-hour care. He would wander away from his room, and the nurses would find him in CVS trying to buy beer. How could I afford 8-hour care, let alone 24-hour car?  So I lied to the social worker, signed a paper and faxed it back, and had Dora take him home.

I arrived a few days later. When I came to pick him up for dinner that first evening, he had disappeared. It was a cold wet spring day. I drove around and around looking for him.  I saw a homeless old man trudging through the slush with a black beanie on his head and big rubber boots on his feet. He was carrying two CVS bags, his eyes focused on the ground. He put the bags down and picked something up. I slowed and stared. It was my brother…

I had to hide my tears as I helped him into the car. He insisted on putting the bags in the trunk. As if I didn’t know they were filled with candy and beer! He had a daily limit on his ATM card, and every day he would walk to the bank to get his “lousy twenty bucks!” He was constantly losing the ATM card, or getting conned out of his money or getting kicked out of stores for stealing, a fact he thought he kept hidden from me.

Seeing my lonely brother bent over in the semi-gloom picking garbage off the sidewalk finally broke me. I gave up hope that I would find an affordable memory care home in Westchester County, which he loved so much. I gave up hope that I would ever be able to rent a place and pay for daily help, let alone have Medicaid help pay for it. I gave up hope that I could do anything more for him than pay his bills. He needed to be in a place where he was safe and cared for.

And so I lied again and bribed my brother with a vacation to France. Then I abandoned him to strangers.

He tells me how he has to clean the dining room after every meal – the people at this hotel eat so messily. How he saves the crumbs to feed his big birds.

“You mean chickens?”

“Yes, yes, chickens. “

He says he misses music and dancing.

“But I bought you a radio and your daughter bought you a CD player just before she left. She said she taught you to use it. “

“Really? I never saw them. I’ll have to look. I’d sure like to hear some Lady Gaga…”

Everyone says that I did the right thing, that I did what I had to do, that he’s healthy now and better off. But I would give anything to have him back!  Just to see him smile. Just to hear him tell the same stories over and over again and laugh out loud. Just to let him feel that someone he knows cares about him.

He may have lost his mind, but to me he is still the brother who wrote to me when I was far away in college, the brother who took my son and my daughter out to dinner every week when they lived in New York City, the brother who sent me a beautiful set of serrated knives with wooden handles for my birthday. The brother I love.

Who Decides When It’s Time to Die?

 

Lily was 17, a lovely black-and-white American pit bull, wiser and gentler than any dog I have ever known. My son had owned Lily since he was a teenager, but as his drug problem had escalated, his sense of responsibility had evaporated.  He had been smart enough, however, to realize that Lily needed better care than he could give, and he had let his girlfriend take her. Now clean after ten long years, he was driving to his ex’s house to tell Lily he loved her before the vet sent her off to eternal sleep.

Kept in prime shape with a raw food diet and regular exercise, Lily had outlasted her breed’s average life span. Although it seemed she would live forever, despite her arthritis and her hearing loss, despite her cloudy eyes and her mottled fur, she finally succumbed to a kidney infection. Incontinent and unresponsive, she lay on the bed with her eyes closed and her tail limp. It was finally time to say good-bye.

When he arrived, my son cradled Lily’s head in his arms.  She opened her eyes and licked his hand. Her tail came up and thumped lightly against his leg. He picked her up like a baby and pressed his nose to hers. She licked him again.

The scent and touch of her first owner seemed to bring Lily back to life.  My son placed her gently on the floor, and she took a few wobbly steps. The vet was called and cancelled.

Lily was no longer ready to die. Today, she is still getting by, slowly, sometimes painfully, but clinging to life, wagging her tail and enjoying every caress that comes her way. Lily will die sometime soon, of course, but not yet, not quite yet. She still has love to give and people who love her, no matter how frail and old she is.

Ten years ago, the doctors told me my mother was going to die. When I got to the intensive care unit, they had stuck a tube down her throat and tied her tiny hands to the bed. Weak and shrunken to barely 80 pounds, she had still summoned the strength to try to break free from the tubes and lines that bound her. When she saw me, her sea-green eyes filled with tears and her face crumpled into a look of frantic pain, as if she were begging me to release her from torture.

The nurse gave her more morphine.

A team of social workers and nurses escorted my brother and me to a windowless conference room. “Your mother cannot survive,” they told us. “Her lungs and heart are shutting down.” They asked if we wanted them to keep her alive no matter what or refrain from resuscitating her should she start to fail.

We went out to the hall, a depressing dull beige hospital hallway, and wept.

Long ago, my mother had asked me to help her die when she could no longer take care of herself. I had promised, but I later realized that I could never actually “pull the plug.” Now she had been ill for at least three years due to a pulmonary embolism, leashed to an oxygen tank, in and out of hospitals — where, being French and a picky gourmet, she refused to touch their nasty food or sip their cloying Ensure or even drink their water, which she had always hated. To please her, we would smuggle in red wine, oysters and strawberries. No, my mother would not have wanted to be revived, would not have wanted to be a burden, would not have wanted to have us suffer because of her.

So my brother and I signed the “do not resuscitate” order. They removed all her tubes, unhooked the clicking and buzzing monitors, and wheeled her out of Intensive Care. They put her in a little room with a big red dot above the door, a dot that meant “let this patient die.”

But she didn’t die. She woke up, saw us standing by her bed and smiled a big happy smile. She reached for our hands. We kissed her and smoothed back her blonde hair. She called us by name. My mother wasn’t ready to die!

We went out into that hall again and wept under the big red dot.

Every day that I went through that door, the red dot seemed to glare at me. Meanwhile, my mother continued to improve. The nurses and doctors called her “our miracle girl.”

One day, as I was painting my mother’s toenails a brilliant blue and laughing at how silly they looked poking out from the sheets, a nurse walked in. My mother looked up at her with a smile and said, “You see, I’m so much better now that my daughter came.” She gripped my hand and looked up at me with the sweetest look of love and gratitude.

She was giving me credit for her recovery when in truth I had signed her death warrant.

My mother lived another two years, slipping slowly away yet always eager to see her loved ones. She said knowing what her children and grandchildren were doing kept her wanting to live. At the end, we moved her to a hospice, where she received the most loving care.

The last day I saw my mother alive, she told me I was beautiful even though she could hardly speak.  But soon her breathing grew ragged and her translucent green eyes were fixed on a faraway place, a place I couldn’t see. I held her hand and I kissed her and I whispered how much we loved her and what a great mother she had been.  When she was finally ready to die, she did.

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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