Friday, March 30, 2012

A reunion in the waiting room

By Felix Carroll

So this is how it goes, then? Peculiar behavior becomes “symptoms.” He brings his own coffee mug to your house for Thanksgiving. He asks, “How are the boys?” referring to your children, when he should darn right know you have a boy and a girl.

So he’s forgetful. Aren’t we all? So he’s a little aloof? Always has been. But when does forgetfulness become something else — a bookmark lodged in a lifetime whose words are slipping off the pages?

I’m remembering — when he visited, he unpacked his own sugar bowl, too, didn’t he? Yes, he did. And milk. He brought his own milk. His own milk? Lord, he brought his own coffeemaker, too. We thought it was sort of funny. He’s always been a creature of habit, now more and more so, right?

But it’s all making sense now, isn’t it? And is he really taking acting classes? Where’d that come from? He was a street-fighting man from Philadelphia, fists clinched, blue eyes scanning the horizon. Let me get this straight: acting classes? Yes, acting classes.

Maybe he knows without knowing. That words and memories slip away. So he’ll memorize everything for now on. And who will know? He performs that tear-jerker scene for you from “About Schmidt” where Jack Nicholson says, "But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me?” He keeps going, a soliloquy, about three minutes long. You can’t believe it. Dad is doing Jack Nicholson. And he’s serious about it. And he’s good at it. But this is weird, right? Why that particular scene? Oh, come on, you know why that particular scene. Dad’s taking acting classes.

It all starts making sense. Maybe this is all just practice for a larger role, a starring role? He’ll play himself. He’ll memorize what he thinks he’s expected to say. He’ll play himself till he can no longer play himself?

So this is how it goes? We get a call a couple weeks back. Dad has been rushed to the hospital. He’s got acute diverticulitis. They treat that, right? Questions are asked. Does he live alone? Yes. Did you know he was crawling around his apartment for two days? No, we didn’t know that. Did you know treating the diverticulitis may be the easy part?

Yes, take an MRI. Yes, show us the results. Yes, we’re ready. You hear the doctor say “neurons” and “plaque on the brain” and “progressive disease” and “power of attorney.”

You hear him say “dementia.”

We comb his apartment. The neat freak has left a mess. We search for clues — for the profile chalk-line marking where our father once lay and dementia rose in his place. Take a look, right there. The emails. The Nigerian email scam. He fell for it. Oh, God, you’re kidding me. No, God is not kidding you. Look, his bank account is drained. Look: unopened emails. Open them. Several from a woman. She needs more money. Not just money, but “more money.”

“Chris, where are you? Please, help,” she writes yesterday, then today. She keeps adding exclamation points to her emails. “Ashley Nash” is her name. Google her. Or just go to

He has always been generous. Say what you will. When he has money, he shares it. I hope people in Nigeria appreciate that.

So this is how it goes? We gather at the hospital. We come in from hours away, by highway, by air. To stave off germs, to stave off evil spirits, we walk these polished hallways pausing to yank at hand-sanitizer dispensers. We rub our hands together, front and back, and down to the fingertips, too. We smell like hand sanitizer. You’d think we’re rubbing our hands like worried people rub their hands.

Get me out of here, he says. But where to? No clue. His doctors have suggestions. We have a meeting planned. Until then, we sit around the table in the waiting room like tired, beaten generals. He’s in his room eating Italian ice. He has put his sneakers on. The ones he has used for his spinning classes. He has tied his laces tightly. Did you notice that? But he’s going nowhere.

Families don’t stick around the old hometown much anymore, do they? The kids grow up, and they’re gone. We’re gone. Doesn’t a father deserve better? To be able to stay put in his own home? To have his children live around the corner? To stop in before work? To have dinner with him? To take him to his appointments? What in God’s name happens next? He won’t give up the apartment without a fight. You know that, right? Yes, I do.

Just look at that. He keeps photos of us on his walls — in our Easter best, all of us on a toboggan, at Niagara Falls. Look at us, will ya? Which one of us is he cradling in his arms? It’s me. No, it’s me.

So this is how it goes? He’ll repeat stories over and over? You’ll need to undergo your own private boot camp. A Perris Island of patience. Because the war is coming. Will you have the patience to listen? Up to and beyond him forgetting what it was he was going to tell you?

Till he’s far beyond that coffee mug?

Till “remote” becomes “unreachable”?

Till we are strangers?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The endangered wild child

By Felix Carroll

If you’re lucky, sometimes, you can spot them, moving in flocks, sizing up drainage culverts, flicking off each others’ baseball caps. Sometimes you can only hear them – their distinctive call, like rabid chipmunks being pinned down and tickled. Sometimes you see merely signs of their activity: maybe a wad of used gum, a homemade bow and arrow, a mud ball hardening in the heat.

Though no hard statistics exist, it is believed only a handful of these creatures remains. I am referring, of course, to children in their natural habitat, children who have not been herded up, given jerseys with numbers, and called “off sides” by scary adults in zebra stripes.

I can no longer just sit back and do nothing. Hear me out.

I was inspired recently when I came across children in my hometown in western Massachusetts playing baseball with no adult supervision. I checked my field guide to identify this activity. Anthropologists refer to it pick-up games (Latin, I think, for “leave us alone”).

I am told we are blessed here in these semi-rural regions, that the ability to form pick-up games hasn’t entirely been bred out of all of our children as it has in children elsewhere. I did a little research on this. Amazing to think that, historically, worldwide, childhood — in its natural state — had one of the largest ranges of all mammals, second only to adults. However, in North America, childhood, much like the wolf population, has been largely extirpated, leaving it, sadly, to forage for fun in food courts, the Internet, and Chuck E. Cheeses.

Which brings me to my proposal. Let’s make it official: Let’s establish the first of hopefully many National Natural Childhood Sanctuary, right here where I live. You know, protect what we have.

There’s a movement afoot to support such a proposal. As an article in The New York Times Magazine on May 31 titled “Let the Kid Be” pointed out, many parents are now seeking an about-face on micromanaging their offspring. Indeed, you could fill a shelf with the number of freshly minted books out that call for an end to the age of the so-called helicopter parent, most notably Tom Hodgkinson’s “The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids.”

I’ve done my own research on the topic and, apparently, childhood is native to my own region. Just as James Audubon illustrated birds he encountered, such as the Carolina parakeet (now extinct), we here in Stockbridge, Mass., had Norman Rockwell, whose illustrations depict what has now become rare or endangered childhood. A quick review of his work provides proof to the nation that children once flourished and had an innate ability to create fun all on their own and even engage in conflict resolutions (though they may stick their tongues out at each other and call each other “poopy face”).

The time is ripe for this. Every year as summer break approaches a flurry of news accounts informs us of how modern American childhood is now heavily managed and spent mainly indoors. For instance, in a usual week, 27 percent of children ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6 percent play on their own, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded.

We know it from experience that we painstakingly plan their lives from their first play date to their first day of college. We shuttle them from soccer practice, to clarinet lessons, to karate. We inflate their egos. We give them graduation ceremonies even when it's just from preschool. We give them a trophy at the end of the season even when they lose.

Anyway, back to my proposal.

While elsewhere in the U.S., habitat destruction has drastically reduced childhood’s range, we in the rural remnants still have what scientists say is childhood’s natural habitat. That includes coniferous and deciduous forests, mountains, swamps, streams, vacant lots, train trestles, and the occasional structurally sound abandoned warehouse.

As it is with apex predators, such as wolves, the state of the land itself is a good indicator of the state of childhood, and vice versa. This explains why childhood in suburban-clogged areas of North America has frequently run into conflicts with so many different interests — including developers, overzealous cops, proponents of SAT prep classes, and the owners of the Discovery Zone chain of indoor fun centers.

Everyone always talks about protecting children, but no one talks about protecting childhood. We could burnish our progressive credentials and show the nation that humans and childhood can co-exist. And who knows, by declaring protected childhood sanctuaries where a kid can be a kid, childhood may well expand its territory.

I can envision a day when unorganized sporting leagues will turn up in such far flung places as (dare I dream) Scarsdale! Parents everywhere will tell their children to disappear and come back just before the streetlights come on. Those kids I saw in my hometown will go on speaking tours showing off their skinned knees.

But let’s not be reckless, especially in towns where childhood is being reintroduced. We’ll have to make sure the whole thing doesn’t turn into The Lord of the Flies. It could take some extensive parental monitoring. Did I really just say “extensive parental monitoring”? I can’t believe I just said that.