Friday, November 21, 2014

The Last Kind Words Saloon

Larry McMurtry mentions in his brief introduction to The Last Kind Words Saloon, “I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book; he famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.” But the reader will quickly realize that McMurtry’s version of the legend is unlike any other that has been printed over the last 130 plus years.
In the first two pages of The Last Kind Words Saloon, Wyatt Earp, customarily regarded with nerves of steel, turns pale when Doc Holliday says being a dentist is easy: “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.” McMurtry adds that Wyatt “Had always been squeamish.”
The rest of my article can be found at Macmillan's Criminal Element.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mom and Mary, and Timotheus Too

Mom and Mary Margaret.
Before Alzheimer’s deprived Mom of her creative skills, she used to make all kinds of crafts, including ragdolls. With yarn for hair, knitted sweaters, and hand-sewn clothes, each doll was meticulously fashioned by Mom, and if something didn’t look good enough, she would pull it apart and begin again—like any artist takes time to make their work just so.

Nearly all the dolls have found happy homes with my sisters and nieces, except one. Mom probably had kept it because she’d never finished the face—arthritis had stolen her nimble dexterity, then Alzheimer’s gunned for everything else. This doll’s body and features may not be as prim as the others but no less distinctive. That didn’t mean the unfinished ragdoll was unwanted. When Mom went to live with my sister Sheila Marie, the doll went too. Soon after the move, the doll was given a proper name, Mary Margaret, eventually shortened to just Mary.

A year and half later, Mom went into the nursing home, and she mentioned to my sister that Mary should have a face because she was afraid Mary couldn’t see someone coming in the room to snatch her away. “How would she see who had taken her?” Sheila Marie freely admits she is no Norman Rockwell but she nicely drew this pleasant face on Mary, a face that Mom doesn’t leave out of her sight for any length of time.

Mary has been a great sense of comfort, and these days, she is no longer a stuffed ragdoll but a real little girl … a living breathing companion that Mom looks after and cares for each day.

On Tuesday, we brought Mom back to my sister’s home where we watched Casablanca, but, before Bogart’s flashback to Bergman in Paris, Mom began to worry that Mary and her new friend Timotheus (because, as Mom had said, the little girl needs a friend) were alone.
Timotheus and Mary.
I feigned calling the nurses and then assured her that Mary and Timotheus were just fine. Mom still felt that she had to get back to her babies, as she called them, so Sheila Marie, my charmers, and I drove Mom back where she was instantly put at ease by the sight of her good friends.

Often patients in this stage of dementia are consoled by dolls and little children (my daughter Ava is like a celebrity walking through the facility). Everywhere you look, there are plastic and plush countenances peeking out from behind a pillow, staring down from a top shelf, and smiling across the community areas to greet you when you come in. At first I didn’t think anything of it.

After we said goodbye to Mom and she walked us to the secured door, it upset Mom that we were all leaving at once. So Sheila Marie stayed behind for a few minutes while my family and I departed, even though it was troubling to go with Mom in that mindset.

Outside, we waved to Mom standing at the window with Sheila Marie by her side. Mom yelled through the closed window, “Arrivederci.” I yelled it back (and Ava too!).

I looked past Mom to Mary sitting upright against the wall. My own memories surfaced of a stuffed animal named Monkey I’d had as a little boy. Monkey calmed me when the thunder cracked and when I couldn’t sleep because monsters were lurking in the shadows. I remembered what it was like to have a child’s outlook and the bond of a close friend. And in that reflective moment, I found myself comforted because we weren’t leaving Mom alone after all. Not really … Mary and Timotheus were there.
A few of mom's creations.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Ocean at the End of the Memory

“The years have taken its course,” my mom says. She pauses after that statement, and though it’s poignant it’s hard to determine where she is in the moment. In this final stage of Alzheimer’s I want to believe she is aware of who I am and cognizant of our conversation. But I get the sense anyone sitting with her in this nursing home in northeast Texas could be me. The frame that borders her world is crumbling fast, expunging names, faces, and memories, limiting us to what we can talk about. So I search for what’s left, the familiar that remains. An old story from her past told one more time, not so much for her but for me. I want to be lulled back to when she remembers, and that takes us to her birthplace of Georgetown in then British Guyana.

Her language is jumbled as I jot down her words:

“British had lots of water pushing in … I would stay there awhile … water plunges until it gets to the bottom.”

She becomes frustrated with her unintelligible thoughts, repeating, “The years taken its course.” I notice the word ‘have’ is left out of the sentence and it’s only a few minutes into the conversation. Yet, she reaches back through the years struggling to remember her story she has told many, many times: a teenage girl on the shore looking out at the ocean.


“I would stay there awhile. Watching as the water swirls out and returns crashing on the shore. I would run to the top of this wall made out of stone and run across it … looking down at all the people … people in the water. People with lines in the water.”

“What were the people like?”

“What?”

“The people in Guyana? What were they like?”

“Oh,” she smiles, “They were good people.”

As she reminisces, my mom observes my daughter who is laying at the other end of the couch watching a show on the Kindle Fire. “Sometimes you feel sad.”

She pokes a finger toward my daughter who giggles on cue.

“How old is she?” she asks.

“Three and a half.”

“She is very wise. Very smart.”

“Yes she is,” I reply and after a few hours it’s time to go. It’s been a good visit. We gather up our belongings and Mom walks us to the exit. I enter the combination into the keypad that lets us out. She waves and I say goodbye.

“Don’t say goodbye. I don’t like goodbye. Say ‘Arrivederci!’”

“Arrivederci!” I say.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

Engines of War

“I’ve faced this in the past, and I didn’t act in time. If I’d only had the guts to do what was necessary back then, things might be very different now. But I’m a different man now. I don’t live by the same ideals. I have a job to do, and this time, I have no such qualms.” —The War Doctor

I had a lot of fun reading Engines of War by George Mann. My thoughts at Macmillan's Tor.com.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Roots of Creativity

After a long day of work, I've come to enjoy painting with my three-year-old daughter. It's a relaxing pastime that we both enjoy and I marvel at her progress over the last year. Quite often she paints houses with her family in them with the sun in the sky. And she always signs her paintings, sometimes with a heart next to her signature.

Meanwhile I usually create a standard-looking tree and grass with the occasional bird flying past. She liked watching me paint my various trees and decided to make this very artistic-looking tree of her own. I love the fact she went in her own inspired direction.