Iris

I should start by saying I know very little about Alzheimer’s disease except for what I witnessed in my uncle who passed away some time ago. I am a writer, not a man of medicine. I know nothing about the neuro-chemical processes that brings on the disease. What I do know are words.

Tonight I saw a preview on demand for the movie Iris, a bio-pic about writer Iris Murdoch and her eventual succumbing to Alzheimer’s. I was about to rent the movie when I remembered that Something Special, a short story by Ms. Murdoch, drove me to write a long story of my own which eventually became my first novel that I was proud to have written. Two other novels I wrote prior to that were rather sophomoric attempts at the craft. I was young, really young, less than half as old as I am now when I completed both of them seemingly back to back. Those manuscripts were type-written long before I could afford a computer of my own. In those days I was one of the tech-dewy nay-sayers, a veritable rustic who believed the jury was still out on whether or not the word processor would replace the time-tested typewriter. I am the first to admit I was wrong. Ultimately, the long story I wrote after reading Ms. Murdoch’s story I workshopped in an undergraduate writing class. My professor told me to shelve the story I had written. “Let it simmer,” she said. “This is more a novel than a story.” She was right.

One night after having completed that novel (and making the ill-advised decision to self-publish it) I remember my uncle visiting my mother’s house. He still seemed to have all of his wits about him. However, he had wetted his pants and when he realized what was going on he began to cry. My uncle was a veteran of WWII, having served his country in the army. When the war ended my uncle returned home and purchased the home his father had rented. In old photo album my mother kept pictures of her wedding day; more than a few taken in the house my grandfather rented and later my uncle bought from the man who owned it.

My siblings and I have many fond memories of going to Southwest Philadelphia to visit my uncles (my mother’s two older brothers who lived there until each of them passed from this world). After the war my uncle worked and, perhaps ahead of his time, invested in IBM. When he passed, he had made considerable money in his investments which surprised my mother. I mention all of this because by the time my uncle died he no doubt had any recollection of his former life. Toward the end I would make the trek from New Jersey into Philadelphia to visit my uncle. With each subsequent visit my uncle always asked me “How’s the army treating you?” The first couple of years I explained that I had received my honorable discharge and was attending college at the time. But my uncle kept at me, believing I was still in the service. Soon, I caved and played into his deteriorating memory by assuring him that the army was treating me fine.

Over the years, like so many other people, I had my fair share of fears. Some unfounded; others completely grounded. Fear of sharks as a boy after the movie Jaws came out: unfounded. Fear of being sent to some shit hole country to fight Soviet soldiers: grounded (though me and my peacetime brothers in arms never saw combat and were grateful in that respect). Fear of flunking out college: unfounded (unless I completely gave up studying and handing in papers). Fear of being alone as I grew older: unfounded. No one is ever truly alone. Fear of ending up my like uncle: grounded, to be sure.

I used to think I was afraid of being alone. I used to think that I needed a woman in my life to complete me. For many years, especially after I gave up drinking, I was envious of those guys who studied hard, landed good jobs, bought homes and had families. Then I went through a spell where I thought property was a crime; and if not a crime to own a home I used to think that people were hoodwinked because I saw no difference between renting and paying mortgage. I was a fool. Somewhere around my 40th birthday I started seeing the light of day. I still don’t own a home; but my plan is to have one soon so my first home won’t be in a 55-and-over community.

What I fear these days is Alzheimer’s. It has taken me decades to become comfortable enough in my own skin to consider myself a writer. Sure, I work a full-time job. But now when people ask me what I do I tell them I write. Poems, stories, novels and for a long stretch I even tried my hand at screenplays (a dozen in all). The best part about writing screenplays that were never optioned or bought (though I did land an agent for one year who fought effortlessly to hawk one of my scripts) was having a story outlined and complete. Everyone of those screenplays could turned into a novel…not page for page, mind you. But you get the gist.

Anyway, back to my fear. I was thinking about Iris Murdoch tonight and how utterly horrible it must have been to create the body of work she did only to get older and no longer have any recollection of doing so. Is it enough for someone else to tell us what we have accomplished if we suffer from the disease? More than that, are we responsible for the lives we have led if we no longer possess the ability to recall memories of that life? I don’t know that answer. What I do know is that it would be terrible to one day no longer recollect having written the poems, the stories, and the novels I have written. But then I wouldn’t know it is terrible because I would no longer remember having done so. All I would have left would be manuscripts and computer files; each one as alien to me, perhaps, as the names of loved ones.

Of course, I understand the order of things. It is far worse to no longer remember the ones we love than it is to dismiss a body of work because we have no memory of writing it. Still, as any writer knows, it is more than putting words down on paper. Writing can be, at times, akin to skimming the surface of the divine, stirring the collective memory out there beyond what we see, think, feel, hear, etc and transmitting some self-discovery that carries with it a universal truth either experienced by the reader or at least one with which he can empathize. Worse than not being able to remember what one has written would be having no memory of those moments of self-discovery, of communing with something larger than our own selfish egos, at least temporarily, of having created something genuine.

A Moment’s Peace

How often do we think about light? It happened to me the other day at work. Winter light in the early afternoon looks different from light in the summer.

Recently, I found myself staring at a floor graced by light shining through a ceiling window. For several seconds, maybe a whole minute for all I knew, I remained in a trance, staring at the floor, observing the light there. My coworkers would have considered me crazy, but then most of them know I am easily entertained. I think a cloud passed and that drew me out of my trance. That day I began to think about light; how it plays such an important part in our lives. And I am not talking vitamin K (is it vitamin K we get from sunlight, right?). I mean light itself.

Way back when our biggest worry was nuclear fire and who might press the button, us or the Soviets, I attended a county college. While I was there I took a few art classes. A drawing instructor asked us students to sketch someone we knew. I couldn’t find anyone to sketch so I drew someone from memory. When I returned to class the instructor, we will call him Dave, took one look at my drawing and mumbled something about me being a cartoonist. My rendering wasn’t life-like enough for him. Once Dave finished bashing everyone’s work he told us that the only common denominator in our sketches was the use of solid lines. The true artist, he told us, and I am paraphrasing here, knows how to use light and shadow to form edges. The lesson: never use solid lines because, in Dave’s estimation, there were no solid lines in real life. People, buildings, animals, plant life, etc all took their shape because light allows each to do so. This little lesson was probably the reason why I moved toward more abstract expression in my artwork. I was never good at portraits and the like. And ultimately I changed majors when I transferred to Rutgers University. Since then I never looked back. However, I never forgot Professor Dave-Not-His-Real-Name’s lesson about light.

During my little trance at work (I often zone out on the job…which is undoubtedly not a good thing since I am sort of responsible for the safety of others), I recalled an image from my childhood growing up Camden, NJ. It’s more like a continuous loop rather than a still photograph. In it I see a neighbor’s white garage door across the street from where I lived. In the summer, whenever there was an afternoon shower, I used to sit in the dining room staring out at that garage door. The white paint held the slightest shade of gray when the clouds were overhead. But the moment the sun broke out from behind the storm clouds, often miles away to the west, the garage door brightened. It was about this time when I would start hounding my mother: Can I go outside? It stopped raining. Can I? Can I? It usually worked. As a child with five siblings, and being the second youngest, my mother was usually at her wit’s end and happy to empty our domicile for, as she so lovingly put it over the years, a moment’s peace.

Light and memory play so much into our lives that often the two are inseparable. I know for me that of the memories I can recall there is always some quality of light in them; even in the dark there is always the slightest source of light–stars, street lights, the moon, fireflies, headlights, windows in houses lit from within (these also appear differently in summer and winter), dawn, dusk, and even phosphorous roots that gave the Pinelands where I once lived an otherworldly quality. And who could forget how each passing year meant a different light coming off the candles on a birthday cake? Does anyone remember what the light looked like the first time they walked home from school on their own? How different it appeared when you got lost versus how it comforted you when you arrived home after a long trip? How about the light when you first made love? What about every time after that? What did the light look like with light coming through a window, or from beneath a closed bedroom door? What was the light like when your first child was born? How about the first funeral you attended? On your wedding day? The first time you kissed someone?

Light in memory plays tricks on us, however; like so much else in the past we tend to see through what the poets call rose-colored glasses. It was like the lesson Dave-Not-His-Name taught the drawing class I took at county college. The light is always best in the here and now.

One last thought: I am 45 years old. And when the clouds are right and bright sun rays are reaching down from the sky toward the ground on some distant horizon I still find myself scanning those sunbeams, perhaps hoping to see angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder. The point here, I think, is not to actually see physical manifestations of angels, but to pause and savor that light broken into rays that stream through the clouds. All of us look for eclipses, shooting stars and the like, but how often do we calculate just how many variations of light we will see in our lifetime? It is something that we take for granted; this light that graces our lives.