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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 68 (final chapter)

My Ghost

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

This memoir, a very long ghost story that is now ending, began with my first phantom encounter back in 1974. The year before, I’d won an Oscar for best documentary feature, but recognized that female directors seeking a spot in the film business faced high walls and deep moats. Turning about, I parlayed my five minutes of fame into a recording contract as a singer-songwriter with RCA, which issued my first two albums. Working late into the nights, I spun my music on a gleaming mahogany grand piano that had belonged to my paternal grandfather, a composer who died when I was 7. Though exhausted by the time I collapsed into bed, my sleep was troubled. I was woken by odd inexplicable noises, or someone gently stroking my hair, or impatiently yanking my toes.

I had come down with a ghost. This might as well have been an illness, as nonbelievers believed. Nowadays I don’t care what they believe, but in those latter times I hid my problem, being unsure myself if I’d made the leap from mere weirdo to psycho.

It was when the music came that I knew who my ghost was: my grandfather Marshall, the composer who wasn’t done composing. In me he had a pair of hands on his piano. In me he also had a temperamental granddaughter who hated authority and disliked taking orders, especially from ectoplasm. I was easier to coax when in a vulnerable state: asleep. In the blue hour between night and dawn, between dreaming and waking, I would receive brief bits of melody and lyrics, repeating over and over, with the silent directive Remember this. In the morning, before the memory dissolved, I would pick out the tune on the piano and set to work on the new song. Though I had received the music fragments from my unseen houseguest, I went my own way with them, because that was the only arrangement I would accept.

Before long I put a stop to working with a collaborator, which has never suited me; I do not play well with others, alive or dead. Marshall stuck around anyway, showing an unsettling interest in my sex life and substance abuse. I received messages and warnings. His best trick was breaking glass: lightbulbs, ashtrays, picture windows. (That was his roguish side. I did not appreciate having to sweep up.) Although our relationship was sometimes contentious, I grew fond of Marshall, feeling I wasn’t alone, that he was always there to talk to out loud. I had a protector.

More, he opened the world wider than I thought possible. It was made up of more than meat, twigs, fire and stone, more than dirt and rain, the tangibles. The overlaid world of Spirit came into focus, as when we shift our vision to see the limpid shapes like protozoa that constantly drift by in the fluid over our eyeballs. I wanted to know, if a ghost was real, what else was true?

Until this memoir, I’ve told very few people about my adventures in the ethereal, which have continued up to the present. Readers now know of my wrestling horny poltergeists in Morocco, my jiffy exorcism in Haiti; my struggles with the demon Harvey Weinstein. They’ve followed my drug-fueled escapades with Harry Nilsson and John Lennon, and later, my lessons from Harry’s ghost. They’ve read about the making of my two documentaries, one about a faithless preacher on the evangelical circuit, the other about an American dervish channeling the music of a nonexistent land; and the winning of Academy Awards for both. They know about my rescue by a mysterious dog in the Andes. I have been rebirthed on a bed in a West Hollywood hotel; have received an infilling of pure Spirit while in trance; explored the mysterious act of creation and co-creation; stood awestruck in the weather of rampant divinity.

The one constant was Marshall, although he disappeared from my life for a few years while I got married and dove into motherhood. I was happy, no longer needing Grandpa’s protection and guidance. I reckoned his mission was done and he’d gone to glory. He was not a ghost in the sense of being trapped in a state neither here nor there; he was not unaware of being dead, or unable to locate the exit. He could freely come and go, and for a long time he went. I was busy on earth and he was busy in eternity.

Marshall may have been content with not being needed but he didn’t like to be forgotten. Ghosts’ backs are never turned to us. They don’t have backs, for one thing, being disembodied. When they show themselves to mortals, they conceive and project their forms from their habitat in the great consciousness that infuses everything. Since they are blended into this limitless awareness, they can be everywhere at once. Marshall had accompanied me all over the world, until he withdrew.

He chose to stage his comeback on Martha’s Vineyard.

The Big House

When our daughter was a toddler, we started spending summers in Marshall’s beloved beach house. The “Big House” as we called it, two stories and six bedrooms plus servants’ quarters, stood on a low bluff above the ocean. In the 80’s, my parents built the one-story “Little House” next door, which was better suited to my handicapped mother’s crutches and scooter.

My husband and I slept in the master bedroom of the Big House. Marshall’s furniture still adorned the room, and when I stood at the bureau I pictured him there, attired for a night on the town, mustache freshly trimmed and cufflinks fastened, lifting a snifter of brandy to his lips and glancing at his image in the bureau mirror in time to catch his look of surprise before he collapsed to the floor and died. I saw the glass fragments scattered in the pool of brandy.

Marshall’s return to form started with doors opening by themselves, lights blinking – innocuous stuff. Then one night I lugged some groceries from my car to the servants’ entrance. The flagstone path was lit by a bare bulb mounted under the eaves. Suddenly the bulb leapt from its fixture and crashed into smithereens at my feet.

“Marshall!” I yelped. Who else? A lightbulb does not unscrew itself and launch five feet. It took me an hour with a dry vac to get all the sharp pieces out of the grass where children ran barefoot.

Many summers passed, my parents’ health deteriorated, and they no longer came to the Little House. Needing money for their care, my siblings put me in charge of renting out the Big House for the whole summer to strangers. Of necessity my husband, daughter and I transferred our effects to the Little House. On two occasions Marshall manifested to the renters so I knew he wasn’t done lurking. Over at the Little House, I rather missed him. So he exploded a lightbulb there, too.

My husband woke abruptly one night to the sound of a mysterious pop! He got up to investigate the other rooms but found no cause of the crash. In the morning I went outside and discovered myriad glass fragments littering the ground under a lantern fixture The light had been off all night so there was no question of overheating or faulty wiring. As I fetched the dustpan, my husband, who had never been fully convinced of this ghost business, shook his head and sighed: “Marshall.”

I don’t mind the shout-outs. I do mind the clean-up.

After my parents’ death, we bought the Little House. The Big House, too expensive to maintain, was sold. Its new owner loved the property, with its widescreen panorama of Nantucket Sound. He did not like the house, with its too-small rooms, filthy attic, and schizoid plumbing. My elder brother and I cleaned out its contents before it was due to be torn down. I wondered why the old place seemed so passive about its fate. Strolling through its empty halls, I asked Marshall why he hadn’t simply scared off the buyer, as I knew he was capable of doing. Didn’t he want his cherished home to endure?

The answer came immediately, and not from Marshall but from the house itself. Here is what it had to say:

The Big House was meant for our family alone, the generations that stemmed from Marshall’s seed. The house had watched over his descendants, and they were now departing. New families with irrelevant bloodlines were at the door. With the Kernochans gone, the Big House preferred to end: its story was told, and whatever it had to teach had been taught.

It was an answer I could accept. It gave me the fortitude I needed to stand over the horrifying oblong cavity in the ground after the demolitionists had left.

The Big House gone

The Big House is gone, in the way of earthly things. The ocean remains, a reminder of eternity.

The new owner has built a very large house, the Bigger House; his family only uses it for a few weeks every year, so peace reigns as before. Next door, on the other side of some woods, we have remodeled the Little House so it’s a Little Big. Our daughter has become a writer, like my husband and I; sometimes we three write all day, in different rooms but with the same view of the sea.

When alone, I still talk to Marshall, particularly to thank him for our beautiful spot. I still demand out loud for him to return objects gone mysteriously missing. His portrait hangs over my piano, and his war medals and baby picture hang in the entry. He can’t complain he’s forgotten.

He knows I am ending this story, but it is not done. He made that clear a few nights ago, when he began again at the beginning. Asleep in our bedroom in New York, in the lacuna between dreaming and waking, I received a short 10-note melody. Remember this. I played it back again and again while I struggled to lock the sequence in memory – whole step up, then up a half step, then down a sixth, key of F, never resolves…But my memory is not what it was, and the tune kept slipping away. I forced myself to wake up so I could set it down. Stumbling past the clock reading 5:30, I went to my study and sang the tune into my iPhone, then returned to bed and sank back into sleep.

Upon waking at eight, I couldn’t recall the fragment and at first didn’t even remember that I’d received it. When I checked my phone for emails I saw it was set on audio and had recorded something. I heard my sleep-furred voice faintly dah-dah-dahing a ten-note passage. Turning on my electric keyboard, which I hadn’t touched in years, I picked out the melody. Chords were next, and soon I was working again, as I had in 1974.

I like my grandfather’s tune, and I’m pretty sure where to go with it. I should be doing other more pressing things with my time, but an assignment is an assignment, and he will not let me go.

Back in the day, I stopped Marshall from channeling any more music for the sake of my sanity. Since then, I have shed all doubt for belief. I am grateful for my ghost: he made belief unavoidable, and I’d rather not conjecture what my life would be without it. Once you accept the afterlife, belief expands past the border of death into a welcoming stratosphere that throbs with energy. I’m looking forward to passing away. The adventure will continue, and being incorporeal will be so cool.

Thus I owe my spiritual fortune to my persistent companion, my grandfather, born 1880, a pampered only child, World War I veteran, a composer of songs, a music publisher, a mischievous wit, a remote husband; and a dedicated Freemason. Embracing the mysticism of that occult brotherhood, he came to believe in eternal life, in spiritual bonds lasting beyond death. And then his own death came: Marshall Rutgers Kernochan lay near a pool of brandy and broken glass, his body deceased and his spirit rushing ecstatically toward the eternity he always believed, he knew, awaited.

I know he will be there, offering an aperitif, when I pass over: the moment when I leave to arrive, when goodbye overlaps hello. I will receive the glass, unbroken, from his hand.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 65-67

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Mom always found a way.

Handicapped as she was, my mother faced a life of limitations. She just didn’t recognize them.

Obstacle? What obstacle? Show her a barrier and watch her barrel through; or, recalculating, she’ll take backroads around it. I suspect she was a defiant character even before the polio. After all, she’d been an equestrian rider and had urged many a horse over gates and stone walls.

Watch her get into the ocean. If the sand isn’t too soft, she can get herself to the shore’s edge on her crutches. Another very careful step puts her in ankle-deep water. Now, in one continuous motion, she twists at the waist and flings her crutches behind her onto the beach, then turns back and falls headlong into six inches of water. You must assume her nose isn’t broken because she is already swimming away. The disease left her without the musculature to raise her arms much above her head, so her stroke is weak; she cannot kick her legs, so her progress is slow. But she does move forward without any aid, and she is weightless in the salt water. Both are bliss.

See Mommy drive – only don’t ask me to explain how she does it. She refuses even to try out a handicap-equipped car. Her method involves crossing her legs and wedging an old cookbook ripped in half under the brake. I still don’t understand how this works, but she is a speed demon; a favorite game is testing how fast she can fly through a toll plaza and still hit the toll basket with her quarter.

Observe her driving from Connecticut to the United Nations where she works as a consultant. She wears a nice suit and silk blouse from Paris, and the little car is French – √©videmment! – with an open sunroof and no airconditioning. The heat is merciless inside the vehicle. No matter: she has her own method of staying cool. She empties a bottle of water on her head. By the time she pulls her Renault Dauphine into the UN garage her hair and suit will be dry. She has a quick bite in the car before going up to the office. Lunch is in a repurposed yogurt container, one of many littering the car floor. Most are empty, smelling of meals past; the lids are caked in mold. The Dauphine reeks of banana peels and sour ferment. I call it “the scow.”

None of her UNESCO colleagues has any idea that this lovely, gracious, heroic lady travels in a rolling landfill. They don’t see her at home, typing her teaching plans and articles outdoors on the porch – topless. They don’t know that her unusual filing system consists of sticking papers and magazines in old purses and shopping bags piled on the floor around her desk where they are easy to reach. She remembers perfectly what each bag contains. It’s a method doomed to failure; the bags multiply over time, spreading to the walls. As her papers spill into other rooms, she loses track of what she put where.

She dismisses the housekeeper/cook who had labored in vain to dust the piles of papers. To Mom, this means she is finally free of live-in help, after twenty years of dependence on servants and no privacy. She doesn’t need help. Now, to keep the floors clean, she cruises the hall in her wheelchair with two feather dusters tied to the back. Dust collects anyway. My father keeps to his study with an air purifier.

In her sixties she decides to ride a horse again. She has it all figured out. She will ride sidesaddle, which, back when she was young and her legs were strong, she sometimes did for fun. On a sidesaddle the horsewoman hooks one leg over a pommel to stabilize her weight in the center. Mom wants to lash one knee to the pommel for extra security.

Judy Richter, a friend of mine with a horse farm, happens to own a sidesaddle. She can get my mother up in the saddle, but she is worried about the horse part. What will happen to Mom once the horse starts to move? Worse, if it spooks at something, Mom could lose her balance and fall, her leg still attached to the saddle, whereupon the horse gallops off, dragging my helpless mother around the ring like Ben-Hur.

Nonetheless, my compassionate friend is willing to try and fulfill Mom’s dream. To ensure a slow, calm ride Judy chooses her most-trusted, chillest horse and gives it a double dose of tranquilizer before Mom arrives. (Owners often tranquilize their steeds at horse shows so that crowds and sudden noises won’t faze the animals.)

The saddle goes on; the grooms lift my mother onto it. The horse stands passively, lids half-closed, as alert as a junkie. One back hoof is cocked, a sign that the horse is dozing. The men tie Mom’s leg to the pommel. Judy unclips the lead rope from the horse’s bridle and steps away. My mother straightens her back proudly, testing her stability, then takes the reins, clucking to the horse to move forward.

The horse wakes from its reverie. It doesn’t move. Judy gives it a light whack on its backside. The horse sinks to its front knees. We suddenly realize that it is preparing to roll over on its side with my mother tied on top. The thoroughly stoned animal has decided it would be more comfortable nodding out on the ground, unconscious of the rider crushed under its tonnage.

Judy frantically grabs the bridle and jerks the horse’s head up, hollering. Somewhere in its drugged-out brain the horse remembers to obey the smaller animal. It scrambles back on its feet; Mom lurches off balance and is caught by the grooms, who unlash her knee and pull her off.

Mom’s dream will stay dreamt, never to be realized. She of course wants to try again. Nobody offers to help.

She yearns, too, for her own helicopter to park in the backyard; too expensive, alas. Instead she waits for that rotary one-man flying machine – a sort of stool with a pinwheel – that futurists keep saying is just around the corner and soon everyone will have one. Mom will be the first to lift off. Because independence is the great thing. Dependence is the bitter end.

In her seventies she is diagnosed with a brain aneurism. The surgery will be precarious; she may not survive it. In case the worst happens, Mom and Dad say a tearful goodbye in her hospital room the night before the operation. They watch a beautiful sunset bloom outside the window. The color fades slowly; in silence they share this exquisite day’s end, the last of life’s wonders she may ever see.

My father shivers. The window, as usual, is open. Mom must perpetually have air, even the very cold air that flows into the room on this late autumn evening. There’s no use in anyone shutting the window; she will only throw it open again. The air, the sky, the weather – they are breath and freedom.

Dad leaves so I can go in; she wants to see me privately. It’s my turn to stand in the chilly breeze while she exacts a promise from me. She has assigned her medical proxy not to my father but to me. She doesn’t trust anyone else to keep this vow: that, if she survives but is incapacitated in some way, even if she cannot speak but can indicate her desires, I will make sure her will is done and no one else’s. She must have her way in everything that concerns her freedom. If that choice is taken away, then life as she values it is over. I must keep everyone, doctors and family, at bay while she goes her own way.

I promise to protect her independence.

The next morning, after reviewing more tests, the doctors decide the operation is too risky after all. They surmise the aneurysm has been there a long time; perhaps it will never burst. Since she has been living with it unawares until now, she might as well continue, if she can somehow manage to ignore it.

What aneurysm? Mom has no problem forging ahead heedlessly. She drives herself home.

In their seventies, my parents move to a retirement village. Mom installs an endless-current spa pool in their bedroom so she can continue swimming. It’s her lifeline, to keep the circulation flowing in her legs. My parents sleep in a cloud of chlorine, somewhat dissipated by the draft from the window Mom has insistently left open. She now has a snazzy red scooter to replace the wheelchair, and speeds contentedly around the building complex. Once in a while the battery wears out and she must be rescued.

As they enter their eighth decade, Dad starts mentioning that Mom is crazy. He says it good-naturedly, with a helpless shrug, and we the children nod in agreement. We take it to mean she’s eccentric and stubborn; she’s that brand of crazy. This is old news. When we were growing up, Dad would quite often shoot us a secret look behind Mom’s back and point to his head, twirling his finger. He decided long ago in their marriage not to take her seriously, a source of considerable hurt to her because it isolates her. He refuses to engage; instead he tunes her out, stepping aside to let her have her nutty way.

However, it now becomes apparent that the kind of crazy he means is something new. She doesn’t remember what you just told her. In fact, she’s indignant that no one saw fit to inform her of these things. How dare we claim otherwise? She would remember if we’d told her and she knows perfectly well that we didn’t. We tell our father everything, but not her. She feels ignored. Everyone is acting strange.

She’s tired, needs increasingly long naps. But the thrum of the pool’s self-cleaning mechanism in the bedroom keeps her awake. She takes to sleeping on the sofa in the living room. Her scooter rolls over bits of food on the carpet, the sink overflows with dirty dishes; she won’t let the housekeeping staff in anymore. She struggles to write the same article for the UNESCO magazine over and over, in a study piled with papers in plastic bags and purses. She collects her urine in repurposed yogurt containers because it’s too much trouble to transfer herself from scooter to toilet. The containers sometimes spill; often they’re shoved under the furniture and forgotten. The apartment now smells of chlorine and pee.

One winter night, after my father retires to the bed in the pool room, Mom goes to sleep in her usual spot, under a blanket on the sofa. Outside, a huge blizzard rages. Though she has left the windows closed for once, there is plenty of fresh air in the room because she forgot to close the front door and now the frigid wind has blown it wide. Snow hisses in, creating drifts on the carpet. Early the next morning, a maintenance man shoveling the walkway notices the open door. The temperature is freezing inside. He finds my mother fast asleep on the sofa with one leg sticking out from under the blanket. The leg is blue. When he touches it, the flesh is cold as ice.

Chapter 66

Mom: here but not here

My mother cannot understand why all these hospital doctors are so alarmed. The leg she had exposed to the winter wind and snow while she slept seems fine to her. Since contracting polio when she was twenty-four, she doesn’t have much sensation in her legs anyway. She glances suspiciously at the director of the retirement village – what is that dragon-woman doing here in her hospital room?

The doctors explain that Mom’s leg had been frozen; they were able to thaw the leg, but she just missed requiring amputation. Oh pooh, she says, just release me.

The director tells her that a community van with a wheelchair will come soon to pick her up and take her back to the village. My father hurries to the apartment, taking advantage of Mom’s absence to let the housekeepers in. They clean the place as best they can. But my mother never shows up.

Instead, the van delivers her to the retirement facility’s dementia unit. Deaf to her objections, an aide steers her wheelchair inside; the door clanks shut behind her and locks.

Hysterical, she calls my father from her cell phone, but he is unable to bring her home. The director has blocked him. Though Dad is a law professor, when he originally signed the contract with the retirement village corporation he did not notice the clause that states they have the power to transfer clients into Alzheimer’s care whenever they see fit; the client has no part of that decision, and no recourse. The client has dementia, after all, and so cannot evaluate her state. Thus the managing director makes that call. And clearly my mother has crossed the line. Why, just recently a resident complained that my mother had peed on her scooter right in front of him, while they were talking, and then laughed it off. She’s unruly, contentious, disdains social norms. And now, with Mom’s latest, throwing a door open to a blizzard in her living room, clearly she is a danger to herself. It’s the director’s legal right to lock Mom up where she can’t wander at will.

At will. They have robbed her of it. She calls me in New York, weeping: why is she here? What has she done? She has no memory of her offense, and when I explain their position, she forgets it ten minutes later and I must answer her question all over again. She begs and pleads in a heartbreaking manner: please, get her out, please. They are controlling her.

Be patient, I say, it won’t be long. But you mustn’t make things worse for yourself. Don’t make a fuss, do whatever they say for a couple of days while we work on getting you home.

Nevertheless, even after Dad offers to hire round-the-clock supervisory care to keep Mom in line, the director still refuses to turn his wife over to him. Weeks go by as his attorney wrangles with the director, threatening a lawsuit and adverse publicity. At last an agreement is reached: Mom may go free if my parents pack up and leave the community immediately.

My father moves into a hotel room. My four siblings and I convene there for the crisis. My oldest brother gets busy scoping out other retirement places. Meanwhile, Mom is released. She emerges from the hell of airless incarceration, of having her wishes ignored, of being treated like a recalcitrant child. Where before she was eccentric and forgetful, in just a short time they have made her a lunatic. Her rage is scorching, it spatters on everyone in her vicinity. Out of my way! she snaps. Arms pumping on her chair wheels, racing so fast across the hotel lobby we have to chase after her, she flees us all. She doesn’t know where she’s going except away from everybody. She needs no help! Leave her alone! Where is the god damned pool? She wants to swim!

At last my parents are accepted in a new facility in Boston. The directors there are contrastingly nice. In spite of Mom’s dementia, they will allow her to stay in the assisted-living building with my dad as long as my parents like – to the end of their days, if need be. We hire caregivers for 24-hour shifts. My brother supervises the combining of three units into a spacious apartment, complete with a desk area for my mother to pile up her plastic bags and continue her work.

But she does not calm down. Her fury only increases at finding herself in a totally unfamiliar place. She hates the caregivers – they infuriate her by touching her, cooing, wanting to help her. She does not need help, even though she does. She bites anyone who tries to lift her into the shower. There is a local pool, but she refuses to let people help her in. She loses more muscle mass without that vital exercise. The scooter sits abandoned and she is now confined solely to the wheelchair, except at bedtime when the caregivers endure her yelling and thrashing as they stuff her into a hydraulic sling to lift her into bed.

Nailed on a cross of anger and depression, a thorned crown of confusion encircling her head, Mom fights on for freedom. Her physician prescribes anti-depressants and a strong anti-psychotic. She quiets down, stops resisting. Steeped in a pharmaceutical miasma, her memory shrivels further. When she speaks, she becomes lost in mid-sentence. When we visit, she tries to keep up her end of a chat with a few stock phrases, the most common being: “Not particularly.”

But she always recognizes us, her children, and her face lights up when we drop by. And every time, at the sight of her, I drown in guilt.

I did not keep my promise to her. Her existence has become everything she most dreaded: she is fettered and caged, at the mercy of her jailors, and her will is broken. Ten years before, I had vowed to ensure she could rule her life to the end, that her choices would prevail and her wants be heard and honored. But when the moment came to defend her, I found it impossible. When we made the pact, we had both imagined a stroke or some physical impairment might subject her to the will of others. We had not envisioned a mental catastrophe like dementia: that her mind might betray her, and when she insisted on her own way it would be the wrong way. That she would drive, as she did once, on a one-lane high-speed thruway transition road and suddenly come to a dead stop, pausing to figure out if she’d taken the right turn, ignoring all the cars screeching behind her. That her will, the very core of her personality, would become her enemy.

Dad parks her wheelchair in front of the TV most of the day, tuned to the Animal Planet channel. He has no idea if she’s interested in the doings onscreen because the drugs make her unintelligible. In any case, if she doesn’t like watching puppies and crocodiles and killer sharks, she cannot change the channel, turn away or leave the room of her own accord. Every four hours, the next meal is delivered and she is rolled to the dining table. Her arthritic hands are so gnarled she can’t hold a fork. She is fed by helpers, sometimes by me if I’m visiting.

She is aware, even through her stupor, that she is bored to death.

I am unaware, as I view her with sorrow and self-recrimination, that the day will arrive when I will get another chance to make good on my promise: to free her.

Chapter 67

My father rarely leaves my mother’s side, planted in his recliner next to her wheelchair and reading the newspaper while she faces the TV. This would be a remarkable display of devotion except he doesn’t talk to her. He assumes, as others do, that her mind has retreated into gray mists and she is incapable of real conversation.

It’s true she cannot initiate a conversation, and if someone questions her, the response sputters into incoherence after a few words and she gives up, marooned in uncertainty. Thus she has little interchange except for hovering caretakers, strangers who want to know if she is ready for a snack into which her meds have been crushed, and when she replies her two default words “Not particularly,” they do whatever they want with her anyway. Being inert is one thing, but being ignored must carve a deep wound in her spirit, or so I imagine.

I’m told that Alzheimer’s patients sometimes respond to music from their youth. I buy a Best of Fred Astaire CD. She must have been a teenager when his star rose. I play “Cheek To Cheek,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Night and Day”…and suddenly she’s beaming with happiness, swaying her head. What else does she remember from those years? Excited, I drag out the scrapbook my grandmother kept for her, photos and mementos from babyhood to wedding.

From the scrapbook: Mom and younger sister in Lake Forest with governess

As I point to pictures of her childhood home in Lake Forest, Illinois, she becomes animated. “Yes…yes…” she flicks her tongue between her teeth, searching for more words. Photos of horses, report cards, debutante balls, trips to Europe. Everywhere she’s on the move: riding, diving, skiing, running with a basketball.

The next time I visit from New York, she has forgotten everything, so I can open the scrapbook and she will have the pleasure of recognition all over again. One day we come upon the letter from her headmistress commending her for her recitation of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus.” I’ve never read the poem; out of curiosity, I find it on the Internet. Reading the lines to her, when I reach “…Til thou at length are free/ Leaving thine outgrown shell…” I fight back tears as I realize the poem is about the soul leaving the shell of the physical world for the heavenly one. And then I look up to see that Mom’s lips are moving. She has been shaping the words as I was reading, and although I have stopped, she silently finishes the line: “…By life’s unresting sea.”

So she remembers this long-ago poem. She is reachable, more than I knew.

The scrapbook becomes a portal, a passage to communication. Once she is on sure territory, that small island in the brain where her youthful past still lives, she regains more words and longer thoughts. Even fragments of French surface, because she learned it in her childhood. We can hold a conversation now, though I must be careful to ask short, simple questions requiring only one- or two-word answers.

My parents have only been in the new retirement home for a couple of years when I get a call from their nurse-practitioner, who reports that for the past three days Mom has refused both food and liquids. She has stubbornly locked her jaw. Short of prying her mouth open by force or inserting a food peg, there is nothing to prevent my mother from starving to death. Since I hold the medical proxy, I must decide whether to take steps to prolong her life or to request hospice care.

Hospice, I reply without hesitation. Back when Mom’s mind was clear, she had been unequivocal: if she is dying, she wants no interference to keep her alive. But now that her mind is confused, does she really understand that her choice not to eat will result in her death? Does she intend it? I will have to find out somehow.

When I arrive in Boston, I find the hospice nurses setting up camp in Mom’s bedroom. My father is freaking out: “She’s committing suicide!” He can’t stop her; she has turned the tables and holds all the power now. Propped up in her hospital bed, Mom ignores him, her mouth clamped shut, treating him to her silence. Since she refused to ingest her meds, it seems her anger has returned. Her mind, too, is sharper.

When she spots me, she smiles. Everyone leaves the room so we can visit. I sit on the bed beside her and begin by chatting about family news, mentioning all five of her children’s names. She still knows us all and takes happiness from hearing about our lives. “Really?” she says, and, “I didn’t know that.” Her tongue taps around her dry mouth searching for moisture; after four days without water, there is not enough saliva anymore. She allows me to moisten the inside of her cheeks with a lemon-flavored swab the nurses provide me. There’s a cup of applesauce at her bedside. They still urge her to eat now and then, in case her resolve has weakened or she has forgotten why she’s resisting in the first place.

“Would you like some applesauce?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“I have to ask now, do you want to live?”

“Not particularly.” This phrase is meaningless; it’s what she always says when she doesn’t know what to say. Her eyes travel over me sadly. Maybe, now that I’m in her presence, she realizes she’ll be leaving her children behind. Maybe she will change course.

“You know, this is what your mother did. She made herself die on purpose.”

“She did?” This event belongs to the part of the past Mom doesn’t remember. Her elderly mother had a series of strokes. After each, she was confined to bed. Every time, by grit and persistence, Grandma recovered enough to go for walks. The last stroke, however, incapacitated her to the extent that she would never regain her feet.

“Yes, when she knew she’d never walk again. So she started to cough – deliberately. She knew if she kept it up she’d make herself sick. Day and night she coughed, until she got pneumonia, went to the hospital and died.”

“Well!” says my mother. “That worked out well.”

I’m staggered by this remark: a cogent sentence, complete with humor, as if the dementia has briefly lifted. My mother is back. I must press on, before the fog returns.

“Would you like some water?”

She shakes her head, pressing her lips together.

“Let me understand. You won’t eat, you won’t drink. You mean to die. You’re not in charge of your life, so you want to be in charge of your death.”

Right!” She utters this one word with such venom that I know without a doubt she understands her choice and its consequences perfectly; she’s fed up with existing in a world that has piled up impediments until she is choked by life’s limitations. And now she is setting her jaw against further indignity.

Mom always finds a way. This time it is the way out.

“Then I’m going to let you do it.” I stand up to leave. “I’ll call everyone to come say goodbye to you.”

On the morning of the fifth day of her fast, when my siblings are due to arrive, Mom shocks the caregivers by uttering a full sentence requesting a shower. This one time she doesn’t fight them off, and when they dress her up afterwards she submits eagerly. By the time my sister and three brothers walk in, she is sitting up in bed, bright-eyed and overjoyed to see us all arrayed before her. She does not seem at all like a person who is busy dying. She even consents to drink a little juice when my elder brother holds the straw to her mouth.

In fact, my siblings wonder if this has been a false alarm and Mom is making a comeback. They want to encourage her. My sister brilliantly proposes throwing Mom a party. Mom has no awareness of dates so we’ll pretend it’s her 87th birthday, even though it’s still two days off. A cake is hastily procured and, when our mother wakes from her afternoon nap, it is to our happy faces and candles alight in chocolate frosting. “Happy birthday, dear Mom, happy birthday to you!”

She says little, but her delight glows. She sips more liquid, as well as, astoundingly, a small bite of cake. My brothers and sister each spend tender moments with her, and then one by one they disperse. They hope that their goodbyes are premature, that Mom has rallied.

But when the last of her children has left, she closes her eyes, and her mouth clamps shut, never to receive sustenance again.

I stay on, maintaining my vigil. The nurses give us privacy, instructing me how to administer morphine. Another day wears on. She drifts in and out of consciousness, and it is difficult to tell anymore if she is awake or not because she is so quiet. Sometimes she groans, whether from pain or a bad dream; sometimes her eyelids lift. I play the Fred Astaire CD again and again, alternating with The Messiah, which she also loved: sublime songs of birth and death and resurrection.

I believe that awareness is not dependent on the senses, and when people seem comatose they can still absorb thought and emotions from another person. They occupy a plane where communication is intuitive and vibrational. Whether I am wrong or right, whether she can hear me or not, I talk to my mother, or read to her from children’s books whose sentences are short and simple. Dad wanders in now and then, at a loss for words, and kisses her forehead.

On the sixth day, the doctor reports her vital signs are still quite good. She is still lashed to the saddle, holding firmly to life. After a week, I am yearning for my family; I decide to drive home the next morning, grab a quick overnight in New York before returning to her bedside. But, for the present, another day stretches before us. The nurses keep shutting the window against the January air; I keep opening it, on her behalf. As I turn back to the figure stretched out on the bed, I muse what a terrible burden her body has been for most of her existence, and now how heavy it must seem, and hard to slough.

I wish she could feel weightlessly light, as in salt water, and swim to freedom. An idea comes to me. I decide impulsively to try a guided meditation. “Mom, let’s go somewhere away from this bed.” No response, but no matter: I’m going to wing it.

I begin, “You’re on a beach, standing at the edge of the ocean. The water is clear and calm and warmed by the sun. You can feel the sand between your toes; the little waves tickle your ankles. You’re ready to swim. You wade out and let yourself slip into the water. It feels like silk on your skin and it holds you up because it’s salty. You make circling motions with your arms, pulling yourself slowly through the water. You start kicking your legs to go faster, because your body is whole and strong and you can swim as far and as long as you like, farther and farther from land. You’re no longer stuck in this room, you are completely free, you belong to the water and you are safe because the water will always hold you up.”

I pause, hearing her covers rustle. Her shoulders move a little. Then her hands shift on the sheet. The movement is slight but she is plainly tracing circles with her arms. The moment doesn’t last long, but I am certain now that she’s with me, gliding through water.

After she swims for a while, I take her riding. She walks into a wildflower meadow, where a bay horse is waiting. He’s so gentle that she doesn’t need a saddle or bridle. She finds a rock to stand on and pulls herself onto his back, which is broad and comfortable, and his coppery coat shines in the sunlight. She nudges his flank with her bare heels and he breaks into a lope as easy and restful as a porch swing. She can hold onto his black mane and he’ll go wherever she wishes.

My father knocks on the door; lunch is delivered in the next room.

After eating, I return to Mom’s bedside and we go on another trip. In this one she learns to fly. This requires no strength; she only has to will it. If she wants to lift off, she can, into the fresh air, to soar and swoop, and travel wherever she wishes.

Later, following dinner with Dad, there’s time to take one more trip with her.

It’s summer. She’s standing in grass, looking up at wispy clouds in the sky. One of them detaches from the rest and floats down to where she is. She lies down in its cool, dense vapor, and it bears her into the sky. “This time,” I caution her, “it’s important that you let go of your will and let the cloud have its way.”

The cloud carries her over all the splendors of the world below. At last she comes to Lake Forest and the house where she grew up. The cloud floats her to the front door. When she opens the door, stepping into the hall, she moves through the house and all the rooms she remembers. She can see her mother and father sitting in the parlor, the cook in the kitchen, and climbing the stairs she walks down the hall; the wood floor is so long and polished so smooth she used to have rollerskate races with her sister and two brothers up and down its length.

She ends up in the nursery where the governess is bustling around. “In the nursery is a fireplace. You float up the chimney, and you pop out on the roof, and there your cloud is waiting. Lie down and let it lift you back into the sky. The sun is setting, and the cloud reflects pink and gold and then mauve as the light dims and the stars come out in the twilight, and this is where your cloud stops. You lie on your back looking up at the sky turning to night. You are like the cloud, airy and light. You’re not sealed in this body anymore: you are among the stars and you’re perfectly, perfectly free.”

I end here, dazed as if jet-lagged from our travels, and wondering where all that impromptu narrative came from. It’s time to leave, a thirty-minute drive to the friend’s house where I’m staying. I lean down and whisper to my mother, “I have to go back to New York tomorrow but I’ll be back the next day, and the doctor says you’re strong enough to hang on. But if you decide not to, it’s okay. You’ll be gone but not gone. You’ll be here but not here. And we’ll be all right.” I kiss her goodbye.

In my friend’s guest room, I set my cell phone alarm for 6 a.m. so I can get an early start for the drive home. Hours later, I’m still sleeping off my exhaustion when I sink into this dream: I enter my mother’s sickroom at the retirement facility. It’s empty. Everything has been cleared out. I’m bewildered: why? It’s too soon for that. I look through the open door into the adjoining room. My mother’s mattress is on the floor and she’s sitting up in bed. She looks younger, about 40, blonde again, her hair no longer white. She grins, waving at me: I’m fine.

When I wake up, I’m surprised to find my bedroom full of daylight. Grabbing my phone, I see the time is 7:30. I’ve slept through my phone alarm and missed a call from the night nurse. I listen to her voicemail message: my mother has died.

The call came in a few hours before, around the time I was dreaming of finding Mom in the next room, sitting on her padded cloud, her wave and her smile. She has managed to die on the day of her real birthday.

She visits me twice again over the next two nights. In each dream she is younger. The last is brief, only a glimpse. She crosses a large vestibule, swinging her arms as she walks briskly and with purpose. She looks about 16, tanned and golden-haired in a bright lavender dress, incandescent, spirited, fresh. Her athletic stride carries her too fast for me to intercept her, and before I know it she has disappeared behind a screen and out of sight.

Mom and I: facing the final swim together.  Photo © Mariana Cook 2002P

(To be continued. The next post will be the last one in this long memoir.)

Monday, September 4, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 64

5 out of 10 psychics can't be wrong

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I suffer from ESP envy. It’s said that everyone is born with this intuitive ability, but most don’t know how to access it. I’ve never had much confidence in my own intuition, since my predictions were often wrong, which can be really embarrassing. Consequently I have sought and paid for the advice of professional clairvoyants whose powers of foresight made me jealous.

Over the years I must have seen a hundred psychics. I used to belly up to the smorgasboard and heap my plate. Whenever someone raved about a new one, I shot to the phone and made an appointment. My curiosity about my future was actually less than my curiosity about their techniques, which varied widely. I’ve already written about the Marrakesh shuwafa whose divinations were based on the shapes that hot lead made when poured into cold water. Another medium relied on the pronouncements of her spirit guide, an ancient Chinese princess who was obnoxious beyond belief. Another psychic simply stared at me for an hour before speaking. I kept notes on every session and, in the years that followed, I would re-read them now and then, to see which prophecies had come true. Did I indeed have an affair with a European man, possibly from Spain, with a drug problem? Not even. Did I get chronic ear infections when Mars in Virgo transited my second house in Taurus? Wow, yes. Bang on.

According to my records, not one of these soothsayers had a higher percentage of correct predictions than about 50%. When told they were wrong half the time, they shrugged. “It’s an imperfect science,” they said defensively, “but look at the half I got right!”

My obsession with fortunetellers came to a head when I was chasing a most elusive man. I was dead certain he was tagged for me forevermore, and with my whole heart wagging I dogged his footsteps all over town. During a two-year pursuit, I polled psychic after psychic: Would he be mine? Or was it in vain?

It wasn’t helpful that half said yes and half said, just as emphatically, forget it. I decided this was a great way to rate them. Eventually my question would get answered: either this guy would spurn or return my love. Then I could stop seeing the psychics who were wrong, and only subsidize those who were right. It would thin out my Rolodex.

After I married the elusive man, I became so content with my lot that I felt no need to spy on the future as I used to. I still saw, once a year, a few psychics whom I thought stupendous, like Maria the Russian painter whose day job was reading coffee grounds for eighty bucks an hour. She would brew a very strong, topsoil-thick expresso, serving it with a cloth napkin folded between saucer and cup. After the client drank the coffee, Maria upended the cup onto the napkin, draining any remaining liquid. She would then examine the dregs left in the cup. In their configurations she picked out images that could be translated into the language of destiny.

“I see a big ‘C’,” she told me once, inspecting my dregs. “You’ll be writing about a classical composer. I hope you do. I want to see this film.” This took me by surprise. For some time I had been tempted to write a spec script on Frederic Chopin’s affair with George Sand, but decided it would be a lot of work to no avail. Though the story gave me writer’s drool, producers were not beating the bushes for a movie about the 19th century French Romantics. And I was too busy with paid assignments anyway. Nevertheless, when Maria told me I was going to write that script, I took courage and wrote the thing – because it was my fate, right? Two years later, I invited Maria to the premiere of Impromptu, with young Hugh Grant in the role of ‘C’-for-Chopin.

I don’t think it’s amazing that Maria saw a ‘C’ in the coffee grounds, which could have left any random shape in her cup. The genius was in her interpretation. Where did she get “classical composer”? The ‘C’ could have stood for colorectal cancer, or Cleveland, or coffee cup. How did she know? Once again I lusted for ESP. If only I could do that, be able to pull names and specifics out of thin air, to tell someone, “I see you’re going to fall in love with a woman who wears a sapphire ring. I get the name Marianne – or Miriam? Maybe Marilyn. My ancient Babylonian guide isn’t clear. It’s an imperfect science.”

The most gifted and accurate clairvoyant medium I ever met was Colette Baron-Reid, a singer-songwriter from Toronto who supplemented her income by reading Tarot cards and relating whatever popped up on her mindscreen. A friend told me that Colette was extraordinary, so of course I made an appointment with her when she was visiting clients in New York, in January of 2002. On the day of our session I was in very high spirits, bursting with some terrific news I’d received earlier in the morning. I told none of this to Colette. Whenever I have a first encounter with a psychic I stay quiet, giving no information about myself other than my name. We were only a few minutes into the reading when she interrupted herself: “I’m seeing you in a dry place, a desert area, with palm trees…I’m going to say southern California. It’s a city with some mountains in the background. Looks like Los Angeles? Anyway, you’re there for some award. Wait – !” Her eyes grew wide. “Could this be an Oscar?”

The Academy Award nominations had just been announced that morning. My film Thoth was chosen for the Short Documentary category. “Yes,” I said, “but I’m not going to win.”

Anyone would have agreed. I was up against two other nominees. One rival film was about Eurasian orphans, a feel-sad weeper narrated by Rosie O’Donnell. Academy members couldn’t vote unless they’d attended an official screening of all the nominated shorts; I knew Rosie would pressure her many friends in the Academy to go see her film.The other short was about an adorable children’s chorus, a feel-good weeper. The directors were a mother/daughter team. The mother was head of the Academy’s documentary branch. She knew many, if not most, of the members and could likewise urge them to attend the screening. I had no inside connections to Academy voters, and my film was a non-weeper about a weirdo in a gold loin cloth.

“Well, you’re gonna win, girl,” Colette insisted. “You don’t believe me, but I’m seeing it.”

I thought, of course she has to say that. What psychic is going to hose your hopes by saying you’ll lose? I wrote the prediction in my notebook, as I had jotted so many others from so many fortunetellers. If Colette was right, cool. If she was wrong, then my Rolodex shed another card. I would know the answer very soon, since the awards ceremony was only two and a half weeks away. And, as there was no chance of my winning, my overwhelming anxiety became about the gown.

Thirty years before, I’d accepted an Oscar in a tuxedo. This was less a fashion statement than a practical solution. I couldn’t afford a nice dress. My partner and I had not been paid for producing and directing our nominated feature documentary Marjoe. I was living with my parents to save money. In my closet there were not many clothes not made of denim. I did own a nice black pant suit with satin piping, and black patent leather boots. I borrowed my father’s cummerbund, bow tie and cuff links, and bought a boys’ tuxedo shirt. Thirty dollars total did the trick. By wearing men’s clothes I also accomplished one of my main missions in life: to stick out.

This time I wanted a real gown in which to stick out. I couldn’t see the sense of paying thousands of dollars for a single occasion; the dress would have to be a loaner from some designer. There was no question of my wearing anything but a Romeo Gigli gown. I’d been collecting his unique creations for fifteen years; my closet barfed Romeo. He was my fashion soulmate. I would never cheat on him with another designer.

However, Romeo Gigli was having business problems. American boutiques no longer carried his collections; he was down to one eponymous store in Milan. I called the shop and spoke to the sales assistant, who happened to be American. He informed me the press office people were “idiots”; if I called out of the blue, they would very likely turn me down because they’d never heard of me. He advised me to come in person.

My husband gifted me a round-trip ticket to Milan, and off I flew. My new friend the sales assistant marched me into the publicity office, explaining in Italian what a golden opportunity it was to dress an Oscar nominee. He swore I was a celebrity. After all, I’d won the award previously.

Sure enough, the press folks were slow to comprehend. Sensing their reluctance, I entreated: “Please! If I win, I promise to thank him in my speech.” With that, they relented. Which dress did I want?

I had no idea, since Romeo’s fashions were not on view in the U.S. anymore. The publicists sent me to a workroom that held a few pieces from his spring collection. My spirits sank. There was only one gown on the rack. Entirely made of ribbons, it was voluminous; I would have needed two chairs to sit in it. The rest of the evening wear pieces were out to style editors all over Europe.

The press people decided it was time to be actually helpful. They handed me the “look book” from the runway show. If I would choose a dress from the photos, and if they could locate it in time, they would have it shipped to New York before I flew to L.A. for the ceremony.

I paged through Romeo’s typically brilliant collection. His inspiration for that season was the ocean: fish scale sequins and foamy bubble patterns and lacey sea fans. I spotted an exquisite black evening dress with tendrils of chiffon hand-snipped to look like seaweed floating about the shoulders and skirt.

The seaweed dress

I’d look pretty good in that. Marking the page, I continued flipping through the look book until I arrived at the final garment in the show.

Hanging by thin strings from the model’s shoulders, the dress consisted of a double layer of black tulle, with long tatters at the hem and gleaming crystal globules of all different sizes scattered over the airy fabric. It looked exactly as Romeo had intended: water drops on a fisherman’s net.

It was also totally transparent. The model’s nipple dots and perky boobs showed clearly through the tulle. She wore black briefs to cover her pubes. I was fifty-four non-perky years old and I would definitely stick out – everywhere – if I wore this one.

The fisherman's net dress

Not feasible.

And then came the Flash. Suddenly I saw myself mounting the left side of the Kodak Theater stage to accept a gold statuette from the Academy, and I was wearing this gown. The image did not come from my always-febrile imagination. The scene seemed as fresh and detailed and factual as if it had happened mere seconds before, yet it was not a memory. Where did the image come from? Neither imagined nor remembered, it was an orphan, born in a brain place that was unmarked on my map. My flash presented itself, not as a known fact, but as a thing simply known.

Now I understood what the psychics experienced. After years of ESP-ness envy, I had my first moment of “extraordinary knowing.”

The peeps in the press office, who had been leery of me before, now thought I was mad. The dress I requested was an “editorial” piece, designed only for eye-popping runway effect and for press photos; the fishnet gown was never meant to be worn by anyone real. If I would choose a second gown, they would ship both, in case this one (insert raised eyebrow) didn’t work out (which heaven help us it wouldn’t). I chose the seaweed dress as backup.

Back in the U.S., I worried that the publicists would deliberately fail to locate the water-drop dress. As more days passed I worried that, worse, they wouldn’t send either dress in time. Then I’d have to do the black pant suit all over again.

Three days from our departure for Los Angeles, the seaweed dress arrived, a size 4. My husband thought it beautiful, though I would have to cease eating for a few days to get into it. A day later, just as the palace clock chimed midnight, a second box arrived, with the fishnet dress crumpled inside. There was no fit problem. It floated away from the body like a mist. The glass droplets gleamed on the black tulle. You could see my caesarian scar and count every mole on my torso. My husband made no comment because he knew I would come to my senses eventually.

I had 48 hours to solve the see-through problem. We commandeered a theater designer to run up a black body suit to hide my bits. The morning of our departure, the designer called from the lobby. He was dropping off the slip, but had discovered an unanticipated problem with the dress. And he had been unable to solve it.

Each of the hundred droplet crystals had a flat back, which had been glued on the tulle. The glue leached through the net, making the crystals tacky when touched. If I sat down in the dress – if, for example, I were to sit for hours through the interminable ceremony until my category came up – my body heat, pressed to the fabric, would warm the glue further. When I rose – as, for example, to collect my award – the dress would stick to my ass and the backs of my legs, producing a sort of wadded-up bustle effect. Possibly no one in the audience would think my outfit was any more bizarre than my seat companion Thoth wearing a gold loin cloth and chest chains. On the other hand, my husband and daughter would be mortified.

“You don’t understand,” I raged. “I saw myself in this dress! I won’t win if I’m not wearing it!”

“You’re being ridiculous,” my husband retorted. “The votes are already in. It makes no difference what you wear.”

Once again I faced the inevitable. The gown was not created for any event except a quick walk down the runway. Not to be sat in, nor slept in, nor wept in.

Still undeterred, on the plane to L.A. I racked my brain to find a way of fixing the problem. That evening I had to attend another ceremony for the International Documentary Association, where my film had already won an award. On the way back to the hotel I stopped off in a 24-hour Rite-Aid to buy a roll of Scotch Magic Tape and a pair of sewing scissors.

All night I stayed up meticulously cutting little rounds of tape in the shape of each individual crystal. I stuck the rounds to the underside of the tulle, covering the glue on the back of a hundred glass droplets. I then sat in the dress for thirty minutes, warming up the crystals, at the end of which I rose up. The dress swung free, swishing about my legs as I walked experimentally around the hotel room. At last I had a dress to match my fate.

Here is what happened the next night:

My husband had been right. Fishnet or seaweed, the outcome would have been the same. I couldn’t explain that, far more important to me than winning the award, I desperately wanted my psychic flash to prove true. At stake was my belief in the paranormal experience. I fought hard for that gown because I needed my instant of knowing to be accurate in every detail.

I still can’t figure out, though, why I saw myself so clearly mounting the stage from the left when, on the night of, I actually entered from the right. But it’s an imperfect science.

The next morning, as Romeo Gigli walked to his workroom through the streets of Milan, people kept coming up to him and exclaiming that someone had thanked him onstage at the Oscars. Puzzled, he asked his press staff if they knew anything about it. The fools hadn’t thought to mention my visit to him. They admitted they’d loaned me a gown from his new collection. Which one? he wondered. They answered, the last one in the show.

His mouth fell open. “She wore that?! But – it’s completely transparent!”

(To be continued.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 63

Thoth in prayformance (Photo courtesy HBO)

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

He wasn’t half-naked this time. Though he still sported the headband, red feather and Egyptian-deity makeup, the chill of late November had forced Thoth out of his customary gold loincloth and into black tech pants and windbreaker. Surprisingly, he could still move his fingers on the violin neck as he played, danced, stomped and sang in his multiple voices – all at the same time.

The sun dipped behind the buildings surrounding Central Park; cold shadows slid across Bethesda Terrace. He’d begun promptly at 3 pm (his time slot by arrangement with some other buskers who shared the tunnel). No passersby gathered to watch. On weekdays at this time of year, the few people still in the park by dusk were hastening to warmer places, too rushed to stop and appreciate the whirling one-man opera in the Arcade. Yet Thoth performed full out, to the point of exhaustion, as if to a crowd instead of an audience of one.

That one, a tall blonde bundled-up woman in a felt hat, leaned against a pillar and watched him for two hours, even after darkness fell and the tunnel’s ceiling lights switched on, along with the park’s sixteen hundred streetlamps. Whenever Thoth took a break to drink water from a camelbak, the woman moved off, walking around the terrace briskly to keep warm, then returning when she heard him tune his instrument for the next aria. She did not applaud, nor drop money into his violin case; whenever he glanced at her, she looked away.

I didn’t want to engage with him in any way until I had observed a complete “prayformance” from beginning to end. When I chanced upon him the month before, I’d only witnessed the opening prayer that convoked his invented gods in his invented language. Now that I was experiencing the whole work, I was even more astonished. People have to see this, I thought. Lots of people everywhere, not just parkgoers and tourists.

His was a unique feat. So many gifts had to exist in one person to accomplish it. The imagination, composing, fantasy writing, an extraordinary voice, impressive musicianship, foot percussion in complicated meters, all had to combine and work simultaneously. (You try singing Wagner while jogging.) There might be only this man in human history who could bring it off; hence it would live and die with him. A phenomenon of such fragility could collapse at any moment, with no record that it had ever occurred, except for the snapshots and videos that tourists brought home, describing how they’d witnessed an only-in-New-York freak show.

Thoth belonged on film. Should I take the next step and make it happen? That hefty fee I’d just received for my ill-fated script would cover the cost. He was a great subject. Even for an outsider artist, he was way, way out on a limb. Yet his commitment was unwavering. One could feel his faith; it altered the air around him. Speaking in tongues, he had his own Holy Ghost infilling him. The sight repelled some, captivated others. Thoth moved me. He reminded me of all the sacrifices artists make, in ways small and huge, and the loneliness of our endeavor as we inch out on the limb. A documentary would show audiences not only what he could do but what it cost him to do it.

But I still didn’t approach him because I hadn’t decided if he was nuts in a bad way.

There is clinical-crazy, and then there is artist-crazy. The latter doesn’t frighten me, because I have my own seat on that spectrum. I love the company of wild and weird creators and visionaries; they’re my family…as long as they have some measure of self-control. It’s the ones who slice off their ears that I step away from.

I checked my watch nervously: five o’clock. The park was now too empty and dark for my comfort; I wanted to leave. Thoth had paused to rest again. If there was more to come, I would have to miss it. And I still didn’t have my answer on the subject of his mental health.

An old man with a cane shuffled into the Arcade. Thoth evidently knew him. The man stopped and they chatted quietly. Suddenly Thoth busted a laugh so big and loud the entire tunnel vibrated: a barnyard donkey laugh. Someone else, like you perhaps, might hear it as the kind of crazy bray common to the funny farm. But I went the other way.

That’s it, I thought. He’s sane.

Arriving home, I sent Thoth a message on his website: I was a filmmaker, wanted to make a short documentary about him, contact me if interested….

As I grew to know him over the seven months I shot the film, Thoth proved to be only slightly more wacky than I, and otherwise was as centered and responsible a person as one could hope, the opposite of a prima donna. He lived with his mother in Queens, though he kept as aloof and ascetic as a monk, striving to improve and purify himself as a receiver and transmitter of messages from unnamed sources. Unsure of his ethnic identity, as a mixed-race son, Thoth believed he was channeling the spirits of his ancestors, who had originated in every part of the world; accordingly his music sounded as if it came from many cultures, though so commingled they were no longer identifiable. He channeled the words as he played, later figuring out their meaning, as we pick up any foreign language in a strange land, and he was compiling a dictionary as he went. It was a neverending project because the spirit communications never stopped flowing. He was a fully open flume.

This was his full-time work. He lived off contributions from audiences in the park. Some days they gave nothing. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up. Rather than become incapacitated by age, he hoped to die while prayforming.

The subject of my first documentary, Marjoe Gortner was a prevaricator who kept much of himself hidden – even from himself. By contrast, Thoth was always striving to locate the truth that defined his being. This involved constant and rigorous introspection, a dismantling of walls within, so that in my interviews I was able to probe as deep as I liked. He was familiar with his own complexity. However, there was one wall that did not yield to my pressure, a mystery that he’d lost interest in solving, or so he said. Yet it was the very thing that drove him onto the path to mysticism.

It was easier for Thoth’s sisters to identify as African-American because they were quite young when their white father divorced their black mother. The family never saw him again. On the other hand, Thoth (or Stephen Kaufman as he was then known) was older and had been very close to his dad. He took the sudden abandonment very hard, bewildered by it, and also left bewildered about his racial identity. Bewilderment led to depression, and depression to withdrawal. In college he stole sleeping pills and tried to commit suicide. Before he was found and revived from his coma, he experienced a voice telling him to go back: “You have more to do.”

A long period of self-emancipation followed. Ethnically, and sexually as well, he found freedom in being ambiguous. He rediscovered his many creative gifts. Financially, he made do by playing Bach for handouts in San Francisco’s subway stations. And ever since the near-death voice sent him back to life, he sought to find out: what was the “more” he was meant to do? He took the time to be quiet, and listen for answers. The other-world revelations began; the art of prayformance was born.

Thoth was 46 when I started filming him. He had long since put away the matter of his father’s disappearance; he rarely thought of him. I, however, was not satisfied to let it lie. A reunion of father and son would be so dramatic on film – if I could find Dr. Kaufman. I began with a simple internet search. What came up was a death notice.

Thoth’s father had died only six months before. All along he had been practicing medicine in Rockville, Long Island, a mere half-hour’s drive from Queens where Thoth had grown up and was living now. And it was my duty to deliver the news.

As I paused with my hand on the phone, I suddenly felt an inward urgency from an outward source, an insistence so strong that my own self seemed crowded aside. It was a message I didn’t understand, that was meant for Thoth. I recognized it as the same feeling that had overcome me when I delivered a message to my dad from his dead father (see Chapter 15), a message that was not to be denied.

When I reached Thoth, he received the word of his father’s death in neutral silence. Either he felt nothing or didn’t know how to feel. I tried to keep quiet out of respect but the inner crescendo forced me to stand down and let the message come out. “There’s something else,” I said, “and please forgive me for this, I don’t know what it means, but I’m supposed to say your father wants you to forgive him for something.”

Another silence, a long one. Then Thoth spoke up: “I think I know what that is.”

He had never told the story to anyone. In fact, he had utterly forgotten it, buried and blocked it, until this moment when his dad’s message broke through. As if shot from the depths, memory burst its secret, as fresh in detail as when the young boy Stephen had sealed it inside.

For a little while following the divorce, Dr. Kaufman faithfully visited his children, sometimes taking his son out for a spin in his little red sportscar. He always drove too fast, and this particular day, with nine-year-old Thoth buckled into the passenger seat, was no exception. As his dad’s car approached an intersection, the traffic light was changing; he sped up, just as a boy stepped out on the crosswalk. “He hit the boy, and the boy bounced up and against the windshield and fell off to the right. It was horrifying, it was the worst thing…The boy died at the scene.

“When the police questioned my father, he said the light was green. But I knew, and saw, that the light was yellow turning red. And it was a really hard thing because my father, being a doctor and the most moral person that I knew, he was lying, and I couldn’t believe it. I was not able to understand.

“My father stopped contacting me after that and I never saw him again.”

Opening up to grief was a difficult passage for Thoth. The tears simply weren’t there, until he saw the finished film and witnessed the scene where he visits his father’s grave, and speaks to him at last, and cleanses them both of the past. There in the editing room, he finally cried.

Thoth seemed to never shy away from the truth, even if some of it came from invisible ancestral spirits. Whatever he held inside, he was addicted to putting it all out there. And I do believe that truth is rewarded, when we make the effort and sacrifice to find it. There may be no recompense but only reprisal in one’s lifetime here, but the eternal Elsewhere is all rejoicing. For Thoth, his reward was 39:58 minutes of fame, the length of our film Thoth – two seconds under the maximum length required for submission to the short documentary category of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

When we got the nomination, Cinemax bought the film. Between cable TV and YouTube, and his presence onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony where the film won, Thoth and his work would eventually be seen by over a million viewers. I’d told myself, People have to see this. I’d fulfilled my promise to the universe. As for my own reward, helping Thoth brought me more satisfaction than anything I’d ever created for my own ego.

I must add, the Oscar did feel really, really good. Thirty years earlier, I’d shared the Feature Documentary award with my older male partner. Overlooked was the fact that I was the first woman director to win an Oscar, and it was further assumed that my partner had done all the work and that I was just the cute young tagalong. Thirty years later, winning a second award as a solo filmmaker told everyone, “Yes, I was always more than the girlfriend.”

It almost didn’t happen, though. Making a good film was not the only hurdle to clear on the way to an Oscar. The other necessary was finding the right gown.

(To be continued.)

Here's the full film:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

At Home With a Ghost - 62

The Artist Known As Thoth. Photo by Jennifer Leigh Sauer.

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

These days, whenever a social conversation lags, usually in the lacuna between entr√©e and dessert, someone asks “What shows are you binging on?” This is the dessert topic, and thank god for it; otherwise people would lapse into embarrassed silence. In a recent era, the question was, “Did you see [insert movie title]?”; and once upon an ancient time they asked “Have you read [insert book title]?” Folks turn gratefully to the topics of art and entertainment, even if they disagree; they compare and argue but remain friends; the same cannot be said for mine-filled subjects like politics or religion; and money is just plain ill-mannered. Art performs the invaluable service of keeping people talking. Artists don’t merely communicate, they fertilize communication.

All the same, I view my profession as wankery. Mind you, I’ve never doubted that I was put on the planet to write. It felt like a perfect fit the moment I settled into that chair, the heart-shaped dent waiting for my ass, as if the cushion had been broken in by centuries of self-absorbed scribes before me. Nevertheless, over the years I felt I was enjoying myself too much, sitting alone and spinning stories and not contributing a jot toward world peace and understanding.

“Use me,” I urged the universe. Show me a good thing to do, that will help. I waited for a sign. Meanwhile I wrote and directed a movie that I hoped would empower young women. It went straight to video. I took a few assignments I thought would make a difference, including a biopic about Alfred Nobel and the genesis of his Peace Prize. The films didn’t get made; the universe, indecipherable as ever, withdrew its backing. So much for lofty intentions. I stopped waiting for a sign.

In 2000 I took on a project that had no redeeming value, yet would give good dessert topic. I pitched, sold, and wrote the script. It was fiction, based on the true experiences of a living individual, a madman who downloaded all his fury and psychosis on me, day after day, as I sat and took notes. At times I thought I was going crazy by osmosis, but I hung in there because it was too great a story. The studio agreed, and officially greenlit the picture. However, when they attempted to renew their rights agreement with the maniac, he refused. He’d read the script, and flew into a rage (his normal state). To placate him, I was fired off my own project. The green light went red, and remained red despite the efforts of many more writers. For the umpteenth time, my father said, “You should get out of that shitty business.” Now, this was odd advice, coming from a guy who taught entertainment law, and whose former students included several studio heads. But he had a point, namely “What’s the point?”

In the end, the only point was the luchre. Stuffing the fat script fee in my bank account, I felt both demoralized and relieved. Now I was free of that madman’s negative force field, and free to figure out how I’d lost my way as a writer. What did the universe want? I renewed the request: “Use me.”

On a Sunday autumn afternoon, when I was hurrying home from a quick walk in Central Park, I heard a distant strain of music on the air that intrigued me: a violin droning on open strings, serene and meditative, joined by a soaring soprano voice. There was no time to track down the source, but I paused anyway, turning my head to listen. Though unamplified, the violin-soprano duet cut through the chattering and noise of the park throngs, as if close to my ear.

It was then I sensed a pressure like a hand between my shoulder blades, urging me to move toward the music, and, as I complied, I felt somewhat weightless, a sensation of being conveyed without effort. The music drew me down a flight of stairs and into a tunnel, the Bethesda Arcade, which passes under the 72nd Street transverse. There I found the soprano: a small tawny man of uncertain ethnicity, with waist-length dreadlocks, gold loincloth, chains across his bare chest, body covered in twinkling gold glitter, eyes lined black like a sphinx, a red plume stuck in the back of his hair. Singing in a high countertenor register, he accompanied himself on the violin, kneeling as if in prayer before a gathering crowd of tourists.

Abruptly the man leapt to his feet and launched into a violent tarantella; his voice now a thundering baritone, he beat out the rhythm on a manhole cover with his sandals, the bells and shells tied to his ankles rattling for emphasis. And then he was dancing, twirling like a dervish – while playing and singing simultaneously. He had been soothing before; now he was fierce; the crowd recoiled a little. The music was both primitive and sophisticated, seeming to come from all cultures and none. The words gave no clue what language he was singing in; I couldn’t place his accent.

The dervish dropped to his knees, returning to the long droned notes of the prayer, his voice low and quiet. As he ended, the audience applauded. A few people dropped crumpled bills and loose change into his violin case, which was propped open for contributions. Some paused to pick up one of the yellow brochures beside the case before moving on. He nodded silently as they passed, but no one dared talk to him, so he busied himself biting off some horse hairs that hung loose from his bow; he’d sawed the strings so hard during the dance that the strands broke. He appeared resigned to having frightened people. They had witnessed a kind of controlled madness. Even if controlled, it was madness all the same.

Yet, madness wedded to extreme talent is spellbinding. And if this phenomenon was a busker, then he was the most extraordinary I’d ever seen.

I grabbed a brochure and rushed home. I tried to recreate what I’d seen to my husband but gave up in frustration. It was like trying to describe last night’s dream; the experience was yours alone, in a private reality, and fast fading in the daylight as you turned to your morning chores.

I glanced through the brochure before tossing it on my cluttered desk. The man called himself Thoth; he termed his act “solopera.” He didn’t perform, he “prayformed,” Tuesdays through Sundays in the Arcade. He was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. He had a website. I had to make dinner.

In the weeks that followed, the yellow brochure disappeared under piles of books and papers while I prepared for another studio assignment. When the time came to clear my desk, I discovered the brochure I’d forgotten. On the verge of throwing it out, I remembered the ghostly hand at my back, and the peculiar energy that suffused me when I watched Thoth prayform. I took a moment to check out his website, in case it would answer some of my lingering questions: Where was he from? Foreign, of course, but what nationality? What culture’s indigenous songs was he singing?

The website was elegantly designed. The homepage invited visitors to click on a portal to enter the realm of Thoth. I went straight to his bio, where I found some surprises. He was born in the mid-50’s and raised in Queens, a biracial child back when mixed marriages were a lightning rod for hatred, even illegal in some states. His mother, Barbados-born, was a tympanist and the first black person to become a principal player in a major symphony orchestra. (This accounted for his classical training and foot percussion.) His father was a white Jewish doctor and civil rights activist. Their son eventually became a street musician in San Francisco, then moved to New York after changing his name to Thoth, after the ancient Egyptian messenger-god.

The bio offered no explanation of what had transpired to cause a child of relative privilege, now a man in his forties, to embrace life as a nearly-naked busker – for what gain?

His site did offer CDs for sale, of his self-composed three-act solo opera, “The Herma.” So the music was his own. What about the accent? The language? I read on.

He had based his opera on the legends of a place called Festad. I’d never heard of it. Then it became clear that the land, its map, its tribes, its myths, its melodies, its customs and costumes and mother tongue, were all invented. Thoth had created an entire world from top to bottom, in such confident detail that, at first encounter, one would not suspect that the unknown words, the unplaceable accent, the weird clothes and alluring songs were from no country but his own mind.

In a short statement Thoth claimed that, for him, “prayforming” was an essential spiritual practise that helped him to “be.” By helping himself, he hoped to help the universe.

Then I knew what I was meant to do. I was going to help him. The universe had a job for me at last.

But first, caution dictated that I must find out: was he a madman? I could not afford another one of those.

(To be continued.)