When you buy a purebred dog from a breeder, the puppy undergoes a battery of reactionary tests to determine its placement suitability. An umbrella is suddenly opened to see if the pup is easily startled. A shaken jar of coins simulates noisy outbursts and challenges the dog’s confidence or potential anxiety. Lastly, the pup gets its ear pinched, enough that the pinch elicits a yelp. It’s a sneaky love/trust test. Most pups will sulk for a mere moment, and then rebound with seemingly apologetic licks for their behaviour.
I’d like to try this test on women. First date, ear pinch. If they respond with affection in less than 10 seconds, they are keepers. More than 10 seconds? I would safely gather that the relationship will be based on resentment.
But then there is that love as deep as the Baltic, and there is no test for that. You are instantly submerged and it’s paralyzing, sucking any iota of previous independence out of you in a cosmic flash.
I went to see Tom Ford’s The Single Man on Saturday night. Given the title and trailers, there is no spoiler in saying that Colin Firth plays the single man, devastated by a love that no longer exists. He keeps the company of a ghost and wobbles through life with a greater memory of loss than anything else.
The human condition is rather tragic. We spend most of our time trying to forget people, places and things—only to remember them will incredible clarity. The powers of forgetting seem to lend to increasing the memory. And then we reach an age where we are desperately clinging to any bit of nostalgia and faded memory that we can: How our grandmother’s hands looked, how the dog’s feet smelled like corn chips, how sweet cotton candy tasted on a July day with grubby fingers and grass-stained knees. That first kiss with so-and-so and the awkward, sweaty slow dance to “Stairway to Heaven.”
Earlier in the year, prompted by the strong urging of Rona Maynard (some people have personal shoppers, I like to think of her as my personal librarian), I read Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I am still uncomfortably disturbed by that book, but in a way that makes me cling to life a little closer. In Still Alice, Alice, a Harvard professor, learns that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s. Watching her life and memory unravel was like reading a verbal nightmare.
Alice tries to re-read all her favourite classics only to realize that it’s all too late. She can’t even remember what cream cheese is called anymore and can only compare it to “white butter.” She realizes she has to urinate, but can’t find the bathroom in her own house. Finding reassurance and grounding on her daily runs, Alice soon loses her way on the route she has jogged for years. Everything that was at once familiar and comforting collapses like a house of cards. Alice becomes a ghost of herself.
Lisa Genova, author and neuroscientist, accurately traces Alice’s path to the inevitable point of her not remembering that she doesn’t remember. I found some solace in this—at least there is saving grace, the Alzheimer’s completely consumes Alice’s vulnerable mind and takes that terrifying awareness away. She was still Alice to everyone in her life, but herself.
In The Single Man the human memory is equally cruel in gripping Colin Firth so tightly to his deceased partner. He leans into the car of a stranger who has a terrier like his partner had. He inhales the scent of the dog and in that familiar “buttered toast smell,” he is taken back to the arms of his love.
Robert Frost said, “The height of happiness makes up for its length.” Does it?
As I ran down Carlton this afternoon, I saw an elderly woman slouched over her motorized scooter, bumping along the sidewalk at a fair clip. Her dog was a small, mixed breed, sodden from the rain. He had one of those ridiculous post-surgery lampshades on his head and kept his focus on his owner while he cantered along beside her. I wondered what she was trying to remember. What did she want to forget?
I found myself in Indigo Books in the evening, as I so often do. I leafed through Wallpaper and Vanity Fair and eventually picked up Oprah’s O. The December issue is gushing about happiness and where to find it, or what products, shiny boots and pearly clutches may channel it. The back page described Oprah’s latest Aha! moment and a mini-confessional about how she hadn’t achieved a lot of what she had hoped to this year. She failed to exercise every day. She didn’t take enough time for herself. She got sloppy, as we all do, finding comfort in avoidance, laziness and chocolate.
That is, until Oprah talked with Charla Nash about her days since the tragic accident that robbed her of life as she knew it. Charla Nash was savagely attacked by a chimpanzee in February of this year and found by paramedics who couldn’t even distinguish that they were looking at someone’s head. Her hands looked like they had been forced through meat grinders. Her eyes, nose and ‘face’ were essentially gone. To this day, Carla has no eyes and is so scarred that she wears a veil to protect others from seeing her “monster face.” She doesn’t know how disfigured she is, but she is painfully aware that it is awful and disturbing. A face that would haunt you forever.
Oprah was surprised at how quickly she adjusted to Charla’s appearance during the interview, realizing that there was a brave woman inside that scarred (and scared) body who was dealing with more than the guilt of eating an entire chocolate bar after midnight. Or not going to the gym at lunch and ordering in greasy pad Thai instead. Life for Charla Nash will never be parallel to the worries we consume ourselves with.
Reading that article, I was reminded of a man my siblings and I often saw in West Brant when we were young. Of course we grimaced and buried our faces into our dad’s legs when he walked by, because to us, he was a monster. He had no lower mandible and scarlet scar tissue from a severe burn marbled up his chest to his neck. My father told us each and every time that “he was in the war, he fought for our freedom,” but it did nothing to settle our naive child response. I later learned that he had stepped on a land mine and had most of his face splintered into something that could no longer be recognized as human.
But he still had the courage to walk in daylight, despite the train-wreck stares and dropped jaws that met his rheumy eyes.
Running down Gloucester, picking my way along the sidewalk and hardened ice remains, I saw Victoria for the first time today. In the gay village, she is a familiar face. Victoria looks like she is about 156 years old and is often heard before she is seen. “Doooooooooo youuuuuuuuuuu haaave a ciiiiigaaaareeeeeeeeeeettte?” The first time she asked me, about seven years ago, she was 100 feet away from me, and startled me in the darkness from her now-familiar perch on the curb. She has to start her cigarette request early, as she can drag out that sentence to a full minute. She lives in a halfway house on Gloucester, and is often in a frumpy man’s suit, clomping along in shoes that are clearly five sizes too big for her. Victoria is as wrinkled as a Shar-pei, but she is alive and is remembering and forgetting too, just like you. And me.
And there is a common thread here, between Charla Nash, Victoria, Colin Firth and Alice. And I realized the link when I read a recent post on Owning Pink’s blog that featured Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.”
The Summer Day
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Will you have the strength of Charla Nash to still enjoy the warmth of the sun on your shoulders? Will you love someone with all your might, to the depth that you can never resurface if you lose that love? Will you make sure you remember and share your life while you can before Alzheimer’s strips you of your stories and self?
Will you kneel in the grass, be idle and blessed and stroll through the fields and feel accomplishment in achieving that?
As for Victoria and the woman in the scooter with the lampshade dog, they’re connected in my mind too. We’ve all sat on Santa’s knee, put a squirmy worm on a hook and cried ourselves to sleep. We’ve laid on our backs and pointed out clouds that resemble charging elephants and turkey necks. Doesn’t everyone have a scar from accidentally sliding down a pine tree due to a poorly estimated reach for a higher branch? These women have stories too.
We all know the sun’s warmth, and if Charla Nash has the guts to get out of bed and feel it on her skin, there are no excuses for the rest of us. She still thinks life is precious.
And Alice, even with her fleeting mind, she always remembered love. Colin Firth held on to a love that left too soon, and this makes me think of the woman in the motorized scooter. Maybe her life has become a ghost too. But she has a dog with a lampshade to make her feel like she belongs and is still needed in this world.
Just be nice to someone today, for crying out loud. Something that you may forget by day’s end might be remembered by somebody else forever.
Do something dangerously memorable with your one wild and precious life.
Owning Pink’s blog (by OB/GYN, author and artist Lissa Rankin): http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2ZBmnE/www.owningpink.com/2009/12/12/your-one-wild-and-precious-life//r:t
Charla Nash’s story on Good Morning America: http://www.mefeedia.com/video/25516591
Rona Maynard’s review on Still Alice: http://www.ronamaynard.com/index.php?what-remains-when-the-intellect-is-gone
Trailer for The Single Man: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tCxRO67gyk