Dear Mr. Rosenblatt,
This is the first fan letter I’ve written with the intention of actually sending it. I wanted to tell you how much I love your book, Thomas Murphy.
I care for my mother, who was—is?—very beautiful, very brilliant, very talented. She was a champion ice-skater at Rockefeller Plaza in the 1940s, an actress on live radio and television in the 1950s, a dancer in a Pulitzer-Prize winning Broadway show in the 1960s, and an actress (again) on television in the 1970s.
Now she’s in assisted living. She is seventy-six. She is far too young for this crap. She bled into her brain eight years ago because a neurologist with a Fifth Avenue address forgot to ask her if she had hypertension or a bleeding disorder (she has both) before putting her on a drug which is contraindicated in people who have hypertension and bleeding disorders. Whoops!
So she hemorrhaged badly and was never the same—although she did manage to scare the hell out of the attending physician in the I.C.U. of Washington Hospital Center when she woke up from a near three-day coma and demonstrated all the exercises of a ballet barre for his astonished residents. They took notes and it pleased me greatly because he had delivered his expectation—that she would never wake up—with full-throated misanthropic joy. He was an insect of a man who had to eat crow in front of his students while my mother—my hand to god—recited the first eight lines of Longfellow’s Psalm of Life.
By now it should be clear why I’m writing.
Your title character, Thomas Murphy, is losing his mind. Well, he’s losing his memory and that’s the same thing, isn’t it? Is your book a novel? A memoir? A dissertation on memory? Wouldn’t we like to know. Not since the great William Goldman impersonated the great S. Morgenstern has a book so thoroughly charmed me by messing with my head. (Please tell me you read the introduction to The Princess Bride, and you know what I’m talking about. The introduction is the best part. It’s the part where he pretends there’s this guy who’s a famous writer back in Florin, this country that doesn’t exist, and he wrote this really dry book, called The Princess Bride? So you read it and think, wait, this is a joke, right? William Goldman wrote this whole thing. And by the end you are 100 percent sure he did make up the whole thing about someone else writing his book and he’s just edited it to make it more fun. Well, you are 99 percent sure. Why am I telling you this, of course you’ve read the introduction to The Princess Bride.) Anyway, Mr. Rosenblatt, are you an Irish poet or a Jewish essayist? Both, somehow? I won’t quarrel with your stroke of genius except to say it’s a hell of a nervy thing to be unclear in a book about dementia.
Still, Thomas Murphy has been a balm. That’s why I’m writing this letter. I call my mother in assisted living and I read the book to her. Then I call her ten minutes later and I read her the same passage and it isn’t until the fourth time I call that she tells me it sounds familiar. She’s enjoying the book immensely, by the way. Every time I read it to her. One thing about dementia: you get a lotta bang for your buck. I can regale my mother with the same paragraph—it never gets old!
As for the form Murphy has to fill out? The one from the neurologist? The How Well Are You Thinking form? That is a scream. It is two kinds of scream. It is funny scream and scream from the depths of my soul scream. I fill out loads of those forms for my mother every year. They are great fun if you enjoy things like removing your own eye with a spatula.
There’s a special place in hell, though, for the bureaucrats at the pain clinic, which is a hop, skip, and cab ride from the memory clinic. Filling out those forms! Circle where it hurts! It hurts bloody everywhere, you nitwits; my mother is a seventy-six year old former ice skater with two hip replacements and a daughter sitting next to her forever asking her to peer through her drugstore reading glasses at a picture of the human body so she can circle where it fucking hurts!
I love the signs up at pain clinics.
We are NOT here to help you with a habit.
We are NOT here to supply narcotics.
We are NOT here to be empathetic, kind, or civilized.
I made up that last one, of course, but it’s true. Maybe the next time my mother and I visit the pain clinic I’ll write it on poster board and stick it on the wall with masking tape. Perhaps that’ll get them to notice we’ve arrived for our appointment and then actually speak to us. We’ve tried everything else.
When we finally do get in to see a doctor or some sort of lab-coated person, they look at my mother as if she has a crack pipe dangling from her mouth and a heroin needle poking out of her vein instead of as if she is a tiny, seventy-six year old dancer wearing red lipstick and bellbottoms, who happened to forget how to open the bathroom door, and happened to forget that the cup was for collecting urine, not for collecting it and then tossing it in the sink. She isn’t organized enough (anymore) to be a drug addict, you numbskulls. She’s in assisted living, anyway, so her supply is controlled by a tight-lipped, tight-hearted staff of weary people who administer medication whenever they damn well feel like it and that’s not often. So what’s the big idea interrogating her about why she wants some pain relief?
I love how Thomas Murphy fills the form out in purple crayon. I tried that once at the pain clinic, but ended up circling the whole body.
“It hurts everywhere?” asked the astonished clinician.
“We’ve been waiting five hours, so yes,” I replied, and then I lost my mother’s Vicodin for a month. Well-intentioned daughters looking after your best interests will frequently get you sent to the naughty chair.
By the way, Mr. Rosenblatt, thank you also for your 1995 send-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber in The New Republic. I called my dad and told him I wanted to buy this new book, Thomas Murphy, and he looked it up and said, “Oh, remember that piece in The New Republic about stalking Andrew Lloyd Weber and betting all his money on his horse? That’s Roger Rosenblatt!”
So I rattle around on the Internet and I cannot find the piece in its entirety, only snippets. My dad rattles around his West Hollywood apartment—picture a flying saucer filled with 15,000 books, records, and magazines that landed directly over the Santa Palm Car Wash on Santa Monica Boulevard—home to nine hundred black and white signed glossy headshots of Burt Reynolds and everyone else who was famous in the 1980s and that’s a LOT of people—anyway, picture a spaceship filled with loads of books and the blinds drawn to protect the books and you have an idea of what my dad’s apartment looks like. It’s a lightless spaceship filled with towers of books overlooking a car wash, but you don’t realize when you are in it that you are teetering over twenty just-washed and waxed Mercedes sprayed with “new car” smell, because the blinds of the spaceship are forever drawn. Books are like vampires: magical but very hard to live with.
Anyway, my dad rattles around his West Hollywood apartment and a week later my phone rings in New York City.
“Pumpkin? That Rosenblatt piece? The one you wanted? It’s in the mail.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” I ask.
“The Roger Rosenblatt. The Andrew Lloyd Weber piece about the floor dropping out from under him? I found two archived copies, so I sent you one. I don’t need two, after all.”
He hurries off the phone soon after; my dad is always attending to something on the stove when I call or even when he calls me—it’s really a tactic to make sure I can’t bend his ear with details about my day—and I am left to ponder if there’s another person on the planet who would say “I don’t need two after all” about an archived humor piece from a 1995 New Republic and I finally decide, no, there isn’t. Not one other person.
Just my dad.
So the second archived copy of your New Republic column should arrive by spring, as it’s coming via sparrow post. I’m grateful we still have the United States Postal Service, but it takes two weeks for anything to get across the country these days.
It is February now, that brittle, gray last week when we can’t believe it’s still here. February, I mean.
In the spring I’m scheduled to have my second hip surgery, something called a “P.A O.” That’s short for “periacetabular osteotomy.” Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It’s to fix hip dysplasia in ballet dancers who must do penance for a lifetime spent at the barre. I guess it doesn’t matter what sort of bar it is, you will damage something important if you spend too much time at it. My liver is fine, but my hips are sawdust.
I plan to frame your New Republic column from 1995 and put it on the wall—a gift from my father—sent to me in New York City, all the way from just above the Santa Palm Car Wash in shiny West Hollywood. They say laughter is the best medicine so perhaps it will encourage my pelvic bones to heal and I’ll be off crutches by summer, even back to the ballet barre by autumn. And if that happens, I will finally have positive feelings about Andrew Lloyd Weber, which is nice, and also impossible.
By the way, my dad bought me my copy of Thomas Murphy. I dropped several hints about not being able to afford a hardcover book what with my being an actor and my husband being a screenwriter and our having a child to raise in Manhattan which can’t be done on any human budget and he tapped out the order at Amazon (he types with his two forefingers, listening to him complete an order is like watching grass grow, except listening.) He sighed and muttered, “Pffumhff, I don’t even buy hard covers these days,” and then Amazon sent me a copy of Thomas Murphy. They’re not using sparrows, I’ll say that. I don’t think we’d gotten off the phone before the buzzer rang and the box was dropped in the front hallway of our apartment building. Oh well, sometimes waiting patiently for a treat is overrated. As Carrie Fisher wrote, “Instant gratification takes too long.” Of course, buying into that philosophy might land me in detox at New Beginnings in Culver City, which would be fine except I don’t think it exists anymore. New Beginnings, I mean, not detox. Detox still exists, thank goodness. Back when my mother was mentally able to abuse pain killers, she had fun at the New Beginnings ward. She and Carrie Fisher had the same nurse! She got sober there and made loads of friends. They all got sober, too, and I went to lots of A.A. meetings with her and everyone was really show business and funny and laughed a lot about not taking even Tylenol when a car door accidentally slammed on their fingers.
Anyway, my mother and I are really enjoying Thomas Murphy.
Which reminds me, it’s time to call my mother again in her room on the fifth floor of her assisted living facility on 46th Street. She lives three blocks west of The 46th Street Theatre, where she danced in How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying.) If my mother meant to come full circle, I don’t think that’s how she meant to do it. She lives fifty-six years and three blocks from her Broadway debut. Now she eats lunch at 10: 30 am, getting in line with people bent over walkers, shuffling toward a cafeteria. Dinner is 4: 30 in the afternoon, and by 6 pm—as golden hour dissolves into twilight—she sundowns and spirals into fitful agitation.
I’d better call her now and read to her from your book: the bit about filling out the How Well Are You Thinking? questionnaire.
Circle where it hurts!
That’s where it hurts.
Leslie Kendall Dye
New York City
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Hayley Bouchard