Elderly Love Part 2

 (Continued from previous post)

Aunt Jackie did a double take in the middle of her generic hello when she clearly realized it was my mom, “WELL HEY! Oh my goodness, it’s so good to see you!” My mom pointed to herself, “it’s Lydia,” she said. “I know it’s you,” Aunt Jackie quipped like how dare you think I don’t know.

“And this is JJ!” My mom pointed to me and I pulled my face mask down for her to see. “JJ!” She yelled, “JJ! WHOOO look at you, JJ! Great Scott!” I remember Aunt Jackie saying “Great Scott!” long before I ever heard Doc Brown say it on Back To The Future. She repeated back to us what we said to her, so we still weren’t entirely sure if she fully knew who she was talking to, after all, it had been three years since we’d last seen her, and things were getting more “fuzzy” back then.

The three of us sat silently for a moment all looking at each other, the Golden Girls still playing in the background. Aunt Jackie put her hand on my mom’s knee, “Pawleys Island,” she said with her slow Southern draw. My mom and I looked at each other as if to say she knows! We both got emotional. Our hometown of Pawleys Island was Aunt Jackie’s favorite place to visit. She loved the ocean and made annual trips with her own group of golden girls to soak up the sun and salt water. “That’s right,” Mom said, trying not to cry. “You lucky birds,” Aunt Jackie said.

I told her we had just come from Pawleys Island, “don’t say it too loud,” she said, “people might get jealous.” Already she was off to making us laugh. “Did you get in the water?” she asked. “Yes, JJ did, she went surfing,” Mom said. “She went to what?”

“Surfing, she went surfing,” Mom said, and I added, “in the ocean.” Aunt Jackie sat back in her wheelchair, raised her eyebrows as if she finally processed what we had just said, “that’s an ugggly thing for you to saaaay in front of me!” We both laughed and she asked if the water was cold, “it was freezing,” I said. “Oh!” Aunt Jackie took a sip of her coffee, “then I won’t feel so bad, ah ha haha!”

Aunt Jackie’s laugh is just as classic as her Southern accent, a much more sophisticated Phyllis Diller type laugh (and more enjoyable to listen to, in my biased opinion, but it has tones of the Diller cackle in it). As an old school Southern woman of devout faith, Aunt Jackie would die if she knew I compared anything about her to Phyllis Diller.

“So what have you been up to?” Mom asked. “What have I been up to?” Aunt Jackie repeated back as if it was obvious, “this!” she said, “this is what I’ve been up to… sometimes I move over there, or over there” and she pointed to different spots in the sitting area, “but mostly I just sit here and they roll me around wherever I need to go.” We laughed at her sense of humor about it, but also knew it must be hard to live confined within the walls of a place you can’t leave.

“It’s okay though,” she said, “most people just sit around here until the end, but not me, I’m busting out of here soon.” She nodded her head as if to say you know what I mean? and took a sip of her coffee. We laughed at the thought of Aunt Jackie busting out of assisted living. “Well if anyone can do it, you can,” I said.

“Yea,” she agreed as she nodded, “there’s a two-way highway right out front of this building. The only problem is, once I get there, I can’t figure out which way to go!” Mom and I were rolling in laughter. “Well tell me about the children,” Aunt Jackie said, “there’s one of the children right there,” and she pointed to me. Mom told her all about the kids being grown up, some married, some dating, one with a dog. The dog is what most excited Aunt Jackie, “Ohhhh, tell me about the dog! Now, what kind of poochy!?” We told her all about my brother’s corgi and she responded with “ooooh how cute” to each detail. She told us she had a dog but could’t remember her name. “Claudette,” mom said. “Who?” Aunt Jackie asked. “Claudette, that was the name of your dog.” It didn’t seem to ring a bell, Aunt Jackie shrugged, “well if you say so!”

I later found out the dog’s name was Tallulah, so both Mom and Aunt Jackie had a little memory slip there, but at least Aunt Jackie remembered what her dog’s name wasn’t. She told us about her horse, Solomon, who died 20 years ago but she seemed to think it just happened. “I think they did something to him,” she said, convinced that someone had prematurely put her horse down. This was where her memory was “fuzzy,” she clearly remembered things, but the order of events was disoriented. “I remember Solomon,” I said, “we used to ride him with you.” She looked surprised so I pulled up an old picture I had saved on my phone of my sister and I riding Solomon, Aunt Jackie standing beside us. Aunt Jackie gasped, “Oh! there he is,” and she began to mimic kissing the picture, “mwah mwah mwah, oh I love him so much.”

“I think they did something to him, you know?” and she sat silently for a moment as she thought about it. We weren’t sure who she meant by “they,” but it was clear that though the memory was fuzzy, it left an impression. After talking about Solomon for a while she asked about the children again. Mom went through and told her about each of us again, a little less detail than the time before, but included the part about the dog. “Ohhh, tell me about the poochy, what kind of dog!?”

The longer we stayed the more obvious her lack of memory became. She was sharp in that she could remember stories from her childhood, stories from our childhood, and pretty much anything we would remind her of, but where her memory failed was by the time we finished talking about a topic, she’d have forgotten we talked about it.

Aunt Jackie pretty much helped raise my dad, who’s own parents were always traveling as music evangelists with Billy Graham, America’s Preacher back in the day. Generations now don’t really know him, but any generation my mom’s age or older tend to have an idea of who he is. He prayed with every America president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, my grandad always at his side.

Aunt Jackie started as my Granddad’s secretary, but quickly became a caregiver to the five children who grew up with a dad the whole world knew, who’s own children barely knew him. That’s another topic in and of itself, and there’s been peace and resolve made about that. I only bring it up to say, Aunt Jackie was just as a vital role to the family as a parent or grandparent to all of us. With all my grandparents now passed, she’s the closest thing I have left to a grandmother. She’d never accept the title grandmother though, “it sounds too old,” she’d say, so much like my dad called her when he was growing up, we’ve always called her Aunt Jackie (despite her being the same age as my grandmother).

I showed her all the pictures from when she worked with my granddad and Billy Graham, she remembered all of them and gasped with delight at each picture. I got to a picture of Billy Graham kissing me on the cheek, “this was at Nana’s funeral,” I said. “Who’s funeral?” she asked. “My Nana, Bille Barrows.” She sat back with a look of shock, clearly remembering who but not quite remembering that she passed. “Where was I?” she asked. “You were there,” mom said. “I was?” She asked with a sigh of relief, “okay good.”

It didn’t dawn on me that with the order of events being fuzzy, it might overwhelm her to know who of her friend group wasn’t around anymore. Aunt Jackie is one of the last ones left from the generation of friends who poured into our family over the years, having long outlived her husband, but she didn’t seem to notice. Probably a blessing and a curse, to not remember, there’s a sadness in the sweet memories not being there, yet a gratitude to not relive the pain all over again.

“Well what else can you tell me?” Aunt Jackie would ask, trying to think if there was any news she hadn’t heard yet. “Well what do you want to tell us?” Mom asked. “What do I want to tell you?” Aunt Jackie asked, “about what?” “About life,” Mom said, “if there’s something you’ve learned about life that you’d want us to know, what would it be?”

Aunt Jackie paused, “now I’m thinking, which is dangerous, but I gotta think.” She looked around the room and then looked at my mom and I, “don’t take life too seriously. Everything doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Just enjoy it,” she said. We agreed that life should be enjoyed more, which was humbling coming from a woman in a wheelchair at an assisted living facility.

“Do you want to tell her about your comedy?” Mom asked me. I proceeded to tell her I was a Stand Up Comedian, “Oh I love it!” She said. I explained to her that my sets included stories about her, “I always tell people about Aunt Jackie!” She laughed, “Ohh, don’t tell them everything!” I proceeded to show her my clip from Dry Bar Comedy where I tell everyone about my great Aunt Jackie. She needed me to repeat the punchline, “what’d she say?” when she heard the audience laugh. I retold her what she had said to me so long ago about how to be an artist when I grew up, “just get married and then you can doodle all day long!” She laughed hard at her own advice, “you can,” she said.

I recorded most of our time with her, and my mom recorded me showing her my Stand Up clip. It’s footage I’ll treasure for a long time.

Before we left she made one last declaration, “As for me and my house,” I was certain she was getting ready to quote scripture, “I’mma blow this pad first thing, you know!” We all laughed and she looked at my mom, “ain’t that right?”

I don’t have resolve for this post. We left on a happy, high note. I was so glad we had decided to make the trip. But it’s never as simple as leaving the facility and moving on with your life, well, it is and it isn’t. I still think about her being in there, alone in the sense of not with family or friends anymore. She had a whole life that looked so different than where she is now, all of it changed merely by the aging process.

I think about my own parents and what the aging process will look like for all of us one day. I even think about my own 98 year old self, wondering where I’ll be and if I’ll even make it that long. I hope to remember my husband, and yet I can’t imagine living without him should I surpass him. He knows, however, that if I die before him, he’s getting in the casket. “You coming with me,” I joke.

I over processed the whole visit on our drive home. I’ve thought about it for days after. Yesterday I re-watched the footage while laying on the couch and I heard Aunt Jackie say again, “don’t take life so seriously, just enjoy it.”

I sat my phone down, got up and put on my shoes to leave. “Where are you going?” My husband asked as I headed for the door. “I’ve been sitting around long enough, I’mma blow this pad!”

I went for a walk in the cold air, warmed by the sun, and I simply enjoyed it.

Elderly Love Part 1

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…