A few years back I got to film my first comedy special in Provo, Utah with Dry Bar Comedy. It was a unique situation for me given Dry Bar’s religious affiliation. They don’t promote anything religious, in fact, you wouldn’t even know they were (except for maybe the name “Dry Bar,” meaning no alcohol- even at the bar), but I suppose that is the beauty of a company who can hold their own values without forcing them on someone else. I appreciate Dry Bar’s approach… they don’t ask other people to be religious, they just ask that everyone be respectful of what they value if you are going to perform on their stage. Fair enough.
It was unique because given certain religious values, you had to not only work clean, but their version of clean, which is a little cleaner than church clean. I work clean, so I wasn’t technically worried, but their version of clean knocked out at least three of my favorite bits, none of which are dirty, but perhaps a little suggestive and leave room for you to imagine what I may be talking about. There was no room for imagination with Dry Bar, there was only pure, unadulterated fun… along with no alcohol.
I had to do some rearranging, which really wasn’t too difficult, in part because of who would end up taking center stage of my material given the omission of at least three big bits. The new focus of my material would be less about awkward dating situations in my 30s, and more about my slightly senile 98 year-old Aunt Jackie. I hear a lot of comedians do jokes about their kids, and while I’m sure children produce golden material for parents, I don’t have any kids, so I can’t count on a kid saying the darnedest thing to put in my act. In recent years, after spending time with my Aunt Jackie, I realized I didn’t need kids to make good comedy, because it’s not just kids who say the darnedest things… so do the elderly.
I’ve always loved the elderly, had more of a heart for them than kids, which is funny to me because part of what I love is how childlike they can be at such an old age. For some reason childlike at an old age is more endearing. Childlike at a child’s age is just normal, sometimes annoying.
For as sweet as it can be, I know there can also be really difficult things about the elderly reverting to a childlike state, losing their memory, forgetting who people are, or even who they are… it’s hard.
In processing aging parents and memory loss with an older cousin of mine, she shared that her mom (a different aunt) had put a tide pod into her Keurig machine. Thankfully, she was caught before she drank it. While my cousin tried to keep her mother in her own home for as long as possible, it was getting too dangerous for her mom to be alone at all. Fretting over whether or not she was doing the right by putting her mother in a memory care unit of assisted living, her mom kept showing sign after sign that she couldn’t be alone, like walking the dog with an electrical cord.
They had pictures up all over the house, her mom constantly asking who these people were, “these people” being her kids and grandkids. Physically, her mom was in great shape, which perhaps made it even more dangerous as she’d wander off outside and walk down the street until she got lost, not knowing where to return home to.
“She stopped living after my dad died,” my cousin said, “she stopped engaging, stopped going to activities or meeting up with friends, it’s the isolation that I think took her memory.” The day they took her to assisted living she protested, “you can’t leave me here with all these old people!”
We laughed and we also felt sad. “You laugh or cry,” my cousin said, “so sometimes you just gotta laugh for it to all feel okay.” I realized I didn’t want to make fun of the elderly, but I wanted to make light of a hard situation, especially for the families going through the aging process with their elderly loved ones. Sometimes you just need to laugh, not to avoid what’s hard, but to be able to endure it.
When I shared my material about Aunt Jackie in my Dry Bar set people loved it. “We want more Aunt Jackie,” people would comment, along with things like “women are not funny.” But amongst the trolls and their insecure criticisms of other people were compliments and love for essence of Aunt Jackie.
My special came out in fall of 2019, which meant a few short months later the world would shut down due to COVID. The last time I saw Aunt Jackie was the time I shared about in my comedy special, just a few months prior to the performance. She was also living in a memory care unit of assisted living, diagnosed with dementia. Aunt Jackie had no idea she was a hit, and two years later, she may have had no idea who I was at all.
This last Monday my mom and I made a trip to finally go see her. Between COVID, COVID restrictions, and long distance there always seemed to be some reason for why we couldn’t quite make it. Knowing her time was limited if for no other reason than age alone, we made the trip.
We were warned before going to see her that she may not remember us at all. We prepared ourselves mentally but held out hope that she would be the same sharp and witty Aunt Jackie we’d always known, loved, and quoted over the years.
Once we were in the facility, we walked down a long hall passing door after door, most of which were wide open, revealing elderly men and women, some of whom were asleep with their mouths open, some of them reading or watching T.V. As we passed a door where a woman was reading a magazine I heard her yell out, “Dolly Parton is 75 years old!” She wasn’t talking to anyone so much as just remarking out loud. I love Dolly Parton, so naturally I lingered to see what the old woman was going to say, she did not disappoint… “What the hell am I doing in here?”
When we got to Aunt Jackie’s room, her door was slightly open. She had a roommate who’s bed sat next to the door and Aunt Jackie was nowhere in sight. “Hi,” my mom said, “we’re here to see Jackie Wallace.” Her roommate pointed towards the bathroom, “she’s in the tub.” By herself? we both thought, is that allowed? “She knew she had company coming,” her roommate said, “so she wanted to wash up.” Well that seemed like a good sign, at least she knew someone was coming.
My mom and I waited in a sitting area just down the hall from their room. After about five minutes we heard all the nurses making a fuss, some even arguing about a lost patient, probably a frequent argument in a memory care center. My mom and I gave each other that look you give someone when something awkward happens but you can’t say anything- it’s all in the raised eyebrows.
After another five minutes or so my mom whispered, “I hope she’s okay.” I said I’d go check again. I walked back to her room and peeked in when a nurse noticed me and asked if she could help me. “Yea, we have an appointment to see Jackie Wallace and her roommate said she was in bathtub so I wasn’t sure how to go about checking to see when she’d finish.” The nurse had an A-HA look on her face, “Oh my God, that’s where she is.” She rolled her eyes as if to say “duh,” and said they had been looking for her. “Why no one checked the bathroom is beyond me,” the nurse said, “I’m sorry, we’re usually a little more put together than this.” Apparently Aunt Jackie was the missing patient the nurses were trying to locate, she remembered she had guests coming, but didn’t remember she’s not supposed to bathe alone.
The nurse had someone go in and help her finish while we waited in the sitting area. The Golden Girls were on the big screen T.V. and it felt like too perfect of a setting. Rose was making omelets for the girls without the yolks, “so we don’t get too much cholesterol,” she told Sophia, but she hated to throw all the yolks out, so she decided to bag them up to give to the homeless. “Your heart’s in the right place,” Sophia said, “but I don’t know where the hell your brain is.”
There couldn’t have been a better quote to sum up a memory care center.
“And here she is!” A nurse said as he rolled Aunt Jackie into the room. She started to say a generic hello, one that every southern woman knows; you act pleased to see someone even if you aren’t sure how you know them.
Would she actually remember us, or possibly pretend like she did? “HEY!” my mom and I yelled, and we pulled down our face masks just to see if our faces would ring a bell.
To be continued…