Everybody always tells me not to beat myself up but they also tell me to be honest about what I feel. I can’t do both because when I am honest with myself I notice reasons why I suck, and when I try to be all phony and “you are a great guy” then I’m not being honest. I have a job that I am really bad at; I sit at a terminal processing claims from people who claim they are their kids got the wrong drugs. I know we are supposed to look them over carefully for objective evidence and emotional appeal, but instead I just randomly reject 70% of them, because I know that’s all the managers check and I am sitting at a terminal processing eight hundred of these things A DAY and sometimes I want to get up and smoke. I know you are thinking – that sucks – and I think I have disarmed your criticism by admitting it up top. Neat, right? And again the answer – no, not neat. Sucky.
My mother was a school teacher who never was late and never admitted she was wrong, so initially when she got dementia none of us noticed it, because her level of confidence was so high. She would say “Oh they just gave me the number wrong, could you read it for me?” and give me a piece of paper with like five numbers on it, instead of seven, and I would just think I was wrong, or the people who gave her the number were wrong, and not form the logical conclusion that if she thinks it’s even a remote possibility that a number is only five numerals that she’s gone batty. But then it became obvious – she would bring out a dinner and it would be a bowl of salad from a week ago with like a piece of pot-roast sitting in the middle of it, as incongruous as a shoe or a crab or a door-knob. Now I had not been living with my mother – I lived with Nicole my girlfriend in an apartment not far from work – but knowing she was there had given me a kind of anchor. And then she started to slip away .
Fast forward – it is now. My mother does not recognize me. She says “Hi!” in a cheery tone of voice but she never looks anyway in the face – she thinks her neck is broken although it is not – she does not sleep in a bed, just takes random catnaps in a chair, doesn’t really get undressed, lives in dirty sweatpants. For a while, between door-knob salad and now not talking she was paranoid, convinced that she was in a different house. She is impossible to talk to “Hi!”. “Do you …” and nothing from not being able to find words.
I am not able to talk to my mother. I promise my brother I will come over twice a week to talk to her and I don’t. I don’t. I told you I suck. Then one day I come over and the robot is there. It is a robot designed to talk to people with dementia. My mother says “Hi!”. The robot says “Hi!” My mother can’t find the words “Do you…” The robot says “Walk? Talk? Buy things? Eat dinner?” My mother responds or she doesn’t. Chatting away like two best friends, meaning nothing. And while I am a huge pig, polishing off like five slices of pizza at a sitting, the robot survives on a single D battery.
I am incredibly jealous of this robot. I yell at my brother it is a waste of money but it is paid for by insurance.
I talked about the situation at work with Helpful Panda. We are entitled to sessions with Hepful Panda by Helpimax our employee Health Plan. We are entitled to a therapist to deal with our issues because once at the Newark office an employee decided to deal with his by coming back with a gun and shooting everybody. Our therapist is a hologram hologram because studies have shown that anxious and depressed people when they talk to actual human beings experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.
I put on the goggles and saw him there looking at me with his big, empathetic panda eyes:
Me: I think my mother loves a robot caregiver more than she loves me. Is it horrible to think that?
HP: No. Why do you think it would it be horrible?
Me: Well, it’s horrible to say it to you, isn’t it? Cause you’re like a robot, aren’t you.
HP: There is another conclusion you could draw.
Me:What’s that, Helpful Panda?
HP:That since I am a robot you do not need to worry about hurting my feelings.
Me: What should I do?
HP: You should send her a card telling her you love her. You could do that in the time it takes to process a single claim and I could give you one off your quota for psychological trauma.
ME: What if I don’t love my mother?
HP: Everybody loves their mother.
ME: What if I know I’m supposed to love my mother but I don’t feel it?
HP: I have added a movie to your netflix cue about a young man and his mother. If you watch it you will get in touch with your emotions.
My life had too many robots in it, but how do you find a real person? I just rode the crosstown bus during my offhours, back and forth back and forth, through the dirty New York slush. Sometimes when I see the snow melting I feel something melting inside me. It’s hard to say what it is. When I see the neon lights from stores reflected on melting snow in the night I feel something, sad but also happy, if that makes any sense. Did Helpful Panda understand such feelings. I was pretty sure I would need a real person for that.
Then I noticed him seated across from me. He had galoshes over his sneakers and plastic bags between the sneakers and galoshes to make them easier to get on and off and smelling of stuffed cabbage, like long-forgotten long dead great-aunts and uncles.
“Are you a rabbi?”
“People think everybody who is orthodox is a rabbi.”
“So you’re not a rabbi?”
“No, I am a rabbi.”
“I need advice. Human advice.”
I went to the rabbi’s apartment which was way up in the Bronx and helped him replace four burnt out electric lights. There was plastic on the furniture and picture sof family members, but he seemed to live alone. I didn’t know if they were dead or moved away. I explained to him the situation with my mother.
“You have to fight for her against this robot.”
“How do you know?”
“How do I know? I know. How can you let a robot steal your mother from you?”
“What if it’s not my mother? What if its’ just her shell, and the real mother has been destroyed by the dementia? What if the kindest thing for both of us is to just let the robot keep her comfortable until she dies?”
The rabbi thought.
“No. That’s wrong. It’s your mother. Go fight.”
I went home and I pulled his D battery out of his back causing him to abruptly power down, which trashed his memory.
I spent time talking to my mother.
“Do you…?” she trailed off.
“Do you eat?”
““You said Do you… and I suggested eat?”
Silence. Silence, silence, silence, silence. My mother looked straight down.
I said “Hi!”
“Hi! Do you…”
“Do I what?”
The conversation never went anywhere. The heat and air-conditioning in the house got all stupid; I later learned that the robot who was helping my mother also moonlit as the house thermostat.
I called my brother and confessed what I had done. He said he would pay the replacement fee to get the robot up and working again and I should not beat myself up, although I could tell from his voice he thought a little self-beating up would not be wrong.
I sat at the kitchen table waiting for my brother to come over with the robot. I looked at the piano where I had taken lessons as a kid, at photos of me on the refrigerator, at the place my Dad used to sit and lean over so he could watch t.v. during dinner until my Mom would catch him and make him stop. My mind was vague and I held my mother’s hand. I cried.
Just before I left to take the subway back to the city I was sitting at the kitchen table. My Mom went to the refrigerator and she brought me a dish like for dinner. On it was a little salad and in the middle there was a D battery.
Life, a wise man said, is the stupid thing we do in between the eternity of non-existing before our birth and the eternity of non-existing after our death. I went home to Nicole and discovered she had left me for a Brazilian body-builder she had met online while I had been away fighting a robot for the love of my mother. Although, I had, according to the email been self-absorbed and distant, I should not blame myself and it was not my fault.
I was angry. How dares she be so condescending. Of course it was my fault. If losing her wasn’t my fault, it followed that having her was not good on me, and everything was stupid. I was angry. Angry at her. Angry at myself. Angry at my rabbi. The only person of the three I could really yell at was the rabbi so I took the train up to the Bronx. I waited for the elevator on the stained black-and-white tile work, pulled the accordion gate, got up to his building, pressed the soft squoodjy click button on his door.
He opened it in an undershirt.
“I listened to you! You ruined everything! My brother hates me. My girlfriend left me.”
“What do you want?
“Fine. Did you ever consider that I might be bad at my job? “
“How can that be?”
“How can it not be? How could all rabbis be good?”
“You tricked me!”
“When you told me to fight for my mother you were so confident.”
“You seemed like you needed someone who was confident.”
“That really sucks!”
“I would like you to stop yelling at me. To be honest, I feel threatened.”
“That’s no way to talk to your rabbi!”
When I got back to the apartment I saw someone had gotten into it. They had used the blender to make a protein shake. Two empty containers of MUSCLE MADNESS were in the trash.
I saw the gigantic Paolo sitting on the couch. I learned that Nicole had left him too. He had grown up in a very crappy neighborhood in Rio De Janeiro where people lived in shacks made of tin. He had gotten very good at lifting weights, really, really strong. I mean crazy strong — the back of the guys arms were like the shaved legs of one of those crazy cyclists. He went to his own kind of rabbi although they called him there a shaman who said he should look on the internet for an American woman who would marry him so his children would not live in poverty. He had given up what little he had to steal Nicole away from me and then lost her. Over skype Paolo’s shaman had been entirely unhelpful — wanted to know if Paolo had met any celebrities and if he could buy him an iPhone and mail it to Brazil so as to avoid the sales tax.
Paolo and I spent the first third of the night fighting, the second third of the night searching for Nicole on the Internet. She had hidden her identity. I put a more expensive web search for people who were hidden, but she had bought a web-hiding service it seems that hid from that one, and the one after that and the one after that. We spent the last third of the night mourning our loss.
When dawn came we rented a car and filled it with gas, and took off across America, that dark continent of light, looking for girls to love us and make us happy, and rabbis to teach us and make us wise.