AT THE MOVIES, part 4
While I was in college, I lived in Northwest Portland and was within walking distance of Cinema 21. I met Jose years later, when I was in grad school and living on the opposite side of town, but that theater remained my favorite. Whenever Jose and I went to Cinema 21, we always sat in the front row of the balcony. Anyone who went there with me sat in the front row of the balcony. It’s my place; some of those seats bear twenty years’ imprint of my bony ass. I saw Eraser Head there. I sat through Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God and through Tarkovsky’s Solaris. All through my twenties I returned yearly to watch Picnic at Hanging Rock and Days of Heaven, to see Siddhartha showing with Steppenwolf, Nosferatu with Freaks. Cinema 21 is where my junior high French class, mouths agape, watched Cousin Cousine. It's where Jose took me and his mom to see Twist, a movie about the first coupleless dance and the downfall of Western civilization as our parents knew it.
Frank, Jose, and Cliff and I saw Tongues Untied at Cinema 21. A documentary, it was originally scheduled to show on OPB, Oregon Public Broadcasting, which had also aired Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City the previous year to much acclaim, but this time, OPB balked. Tongues Untied was just too much: too much about being gay, too much about being black, and most subversive of all, about being out. Inside the dark of the theater, the four of us, we felt the drum-beat-poetry, rap, snap-queen power of the movie enter our blood and dance us out into the heat of the summer evening. We celebrated Tongues Untied by going out for dessert and listening to Frank’s coming out story, beginning to end, about a skinny white kid touring with a black Southern Baptist choir. Jose never did tell his story, not really. Neither he nor I shared any ritual telling of the past. We focused on the present, and we paid attention to the past the way we paid attention to illness and the encroachment of death: we went to the movies.
In addition to the film buff's classic favorites, Jose loved the movies of South American directors. Our favorite was Santa Sangre -- Sacred Blood -- about a family of circus performers. It is a Dadaist film. Completely surreal. Completely real. Broken hearted and enraged, a man pins his wife to the red and white knife-thrower's wheel, slices her arms off at the shoulder as their son stands by helpless. The boy kills his father and spends his life being his mother's arms. When she needs to do her hair, it is the boy now who stands behind her, and slipping his own long arms into the red sleeves of her dressing gown, he raises first the comb and then the mirror to her black hair. When she wishes to play the piano, it is his arms in her white silk blouse sleeves and his manicured fingertips moving up and down the keyboard. By the end of the story, the son is a grown man desperate to escape the mother who has murdered his every girlfriend. He tries to escape but cannot: his mother is already dead. Her memory lives on in a life-size rag doll that her son slips into, his arms drawing a hug around her from behind as he becomes his own mother. In the end, it is his girlfriend, the only girlfriend his mother has not killed, who quietly leads the man to raise his arms in surrender to the police. Her name is Alma. Jose whispers to me, "Alma means 'soul' in Spanish." Under my breath I say it, "alma."
* * *
Jose wanted to die at home. Like many men of his generation dealing with AIDS in the ‘80s and ’90s, Jose assembled a circle of friends to help. First we helped him with eating. Then bathing. Then other bodily functions. A “good” night meant that Jose would get up four (or five or six) times to pee, to eat, or just to talk. With a little assistance he could use the plastic urinal, but because of the dementia, he sometimes got his signals crossed and couldn’t say he had to pee until it was right now. Or too late. After the urinal came the Depends, first at night, then around the clock, just in case. Jose could still move under his own power with the help of a walker and he usually had enough warning before a bowel movement to get out of bed and head for the toilet. But, like the Depends, we were there in case.
It was my first night to stay with Jose after he began using Depends. I was asleep on the couch when he called out. He had to go, he said, Now. So, I scramble to get him out of bed and down the hallway but halfway to the bathroom he can’t walk. Such complications happen without warning for those with dementia, and Jose and I find ourselves in a slow-motion race, he with diminished strength trying to push the walker while I pull him along with words of encouragement. When we get to the bathroom, my suspicions are confirmed. Jose’s legs couldn’t move because his bowels were. Standing over the toilet now, Jose grips the walker while I remove the Depends, and then it’s shit everywhere. Loose. Copious. Like applesauce, a quart of it. By the time I get the diaper off but before I can reach for a cloth, Jose’s bowels have begun again and it’s shit hitting the toilet seat and shit on the walker, shit dripping down his bare legs, shit on the legs of the walker and shit dripping down onto his white socks and the floor. Shit. New fathers squeamish about diaper duty got nothing on this. Eventually I think to grab Jose around the middle, the way the nurse showed me, and I slowly lower him to the raised toilet seat. I let him finish while I dispose of the diaper.
As I wrote this scene I tried making it comical and in a movie perhaps it could be, but it just wasn’t. Corey Baker, who helped hundreds of men in Jose’s situation, had arrived earlier that evening to walk me through the protocol. First I must ask permission: Is it okay for me to care for you in this way, Jose, to change you and clean you? Yes. Then I asked Jose if it was okay for Corey to walk me through it. Yes. Once I’d been shown the ropes and Jose was finally asleep, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. With Tinactin. A cream for athlete’s foot. This is how I learned that my methodical calm masks anxiety, but I was never so anxious that I forgot the cardinal rule: always glove up, clean everything with bleach.
When Jose is finished, I have gloves, and with latex between his skin and mine, I help him to stand. He braces against the walker, bare from the waist, and says he is too weak to shower. Shaking, shit covered, determined, he hunches there like an old homeless man leaning into the storm. The linen closet is to the left of the commode. I reach in. There is one washcloth, white with pale peach stripes; one. Not even a towel. So I pick up the ten square inches of terry cloth, I put my arms around my friend, press my cheek against his and whisper the only words that can be of any use: “I love you.”
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