A Tale To Tell: Of Death and Dying

June 7, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

I forgot the joy of gum. For a long time. Years actually. The neat little package. The double wrapping. The fragrance you get just before popping it into your mouth. The wish that the flavor would last longer. I became a grownup, I guess. Cigarettes for a long while. Not gum. Later there was that partial dental plate to deal with, don’t ya know. Might pull the damn thing right off and glom up my mouth.

Then Mom was sick in the hospital and I kept asking over the phone, before I did the daily three times drive, if there was anything she wanted. One day there was something. Gum. Gum? OK gum.

Arriving at the store I realized I hadn’t bought gum in years. Bunch of different flavors and brands. Didn’t recognize anything. So I bought five packs. Finally spotted Doublemint. Hey, I know that one. Took the pocketful of packs to her room and dumped them on that tray on wheels they put the inedible meals on. Sick as she was Mom laughed at that. In the end, I probably chewed more of it than she did. I’m back. Gum junky for life.

Mom never had much more of anything after that day. Not gum or coffee– she loved coffee. Or food or much of anything. Not even medication, except for the one that kept the pain away.

I came in the second day at the hospital and she had told the staff no more IV, no more anti-biotics. No more treatment. No more anything. Could Dr. Kevorkian be called in to assist. She actually said something like that.

She was incredibly brave. Not sure I wouldn’t call for EVERYBODYYY like Norman Stansfield in The Professional, before Matilda said hello. And I knew, I just knew the young doctor was proud of her. Mom knew without knowing the full diagnosis. A lot more than persistent pneumonia which in a 92 year old woman was bad enough.

What he really wanted to know was if I was going to throw myself across the bed and sob for every treatment and test they could give my mother or was I going to show a little courage myself. He seemed almost relieved when I said I’d comply with her wishes.

He didn’t want to hurt her at the final stage. First, do no harm. That’s the credo, isn’t it?

So now Kath and I are slowly cleaning out her place, finding photos and stuff I haven’t seen for decades. It’s a form of time traveling, of circling above places and events and sensations when anyone else who ever shared them is gone. A strange feeling.

And I keep wondering what day I should call Mom to go for groceries. Did I call yesterday? No, oh damn, she’ll be annoyed. My sister in law Linda, another only child, told me she still does that two years after her mother died.

I wonder if Mom’s mad at the cable company again. Do they know it’s her by caller ID and fight over who has to answer. And she was never completely satisfied with my explanation as to why the money in her bank account wasn’t kept In Cash right at her branch. Not happy either that the bank statement was mailed from another state.

Unlike Camus, I know when mother died, to the minute. Like Camus, I’m not sure how I should feel. A piece of you gets cut away and it’s not coming back. Still, the sun’s coming up over the hill behind the house this morning. And they’re still making gum.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.



Stories To Tell: Farewell to the Winter Olympics

February 26, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

He came off the ropes like a cobra attacked in its den. His opponent stumbled back across the ring as much from the pure energy of the counter assault as the force of the blows.

Brian Arsenault

Brian Arsenault

A moment ago the opponent had sensed victory, punishing his less skilled foe with well placed blows. But then something deep exploded in the hometown fighter and he claimed back the night. Left, left, right. Roundhouse right. For fifty bucks, win or lose.

I think the hometown guy won the fight that night decades ago but I can’t be sure. In my memory I want to make it so. And by knockout.

He was a Hurricane, oh not the Hurricane made famous by prison and Dylan. Just a local storm, dubbed Hurricane because of the ferocity of his approach to a real sport, the only sport really. The others all have balls (but no balls mostly) and gadgets like skates and skis and helmets and too many rules, contested on grass or ice or water.

No, mark off a small area with rope, bring two contestants and a third to eliminate unfair advantages and fouls. See what brains and blood and guts and gumption will produce this night where the only lights are over the protagonists. We watch in darkness knowing that we see the essence of things, rare as that is.

No problems of wax or aerodynamics. No fawning analysts or boorish coaches and politicians. Just the two, toe to toe. Three minutes a round. 10 -15 rounds.

They did away with 15 round championship bouts some years ago and cut much of the heart out of the sport. Backed off to 12 for the “safety” of the boxers. There is no “safety” in boxing and in the late stages of a 15 rounder, men were sometimes lifted to another strata. To a higher ground where gods did battle and diminished all else by their presence.

You don’t believe that. You have been taught to fret over men who do not need or want your concern, despise it in fact. You need to tell others how to live but you are not truly alive. Ever.

There was smoke everywhere. The smell of beer. Hot dogs with onions, grease laden fries with grams and grams of salt. Nothing good for you, not as you reckon good. But as with Reed’s Berlin, “oh baby, it was paradise.”

Bad judge’s decisions? Sure, then as now. It’s just that no network guy had to pretend they weren’t bad, cover it blandly, even handidly. It was bad and booed and there might be a fight at ringside.

Of course the hometown guy was favored. Why not? You looking for objectivity? Go to the cemetery. The are all objectively dead.

Pistol Pete also fought that night. Hell, it seemed like he fought every week though he didn’t. Still, he did battle about once a month or so for the mythical New England Light Heavyweight title.

A title Subway Sam created to promote Pistol Pete’s fights with Jimmy from Boston. I don’t know how many times they fought. A lot. Always barn burners. Seldom decisions. At some point, one or the other just couldn’t go on. There was never a question they had given all.

We didn’t know how prophetic Pistol Pete’s moniker was till years later when he drove to the dump — oh yeah, recycling center — and blew his brains out. He couldn’t recycle.

The fight game couldn’t kill him but life did. Oh well, it kills us all and he knew The Bright Lights. It was enough. Had to be.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Stories To Tell: “The Waiting Room”

April 16, 2013

“Only the lonely know . . .”  Roy Orbison

By Brian Arsenault

I didn’t recognize him at first.  Part of my brain knew, but it took a while to float to the surface.  I was interested in my book and knew I’d have an hour’s wait for my car to be inspected.

I like to read in waiting rooms; car dealers, doctors, dentists, airports.  You’re hardly ever bothered in such places, where everyone is concerned with their own appointment, ailment, flight time.  And it’s not creepy quiet like a library.  The buzz of noise makes a nice background for reading.

Brian Arsenault

Brian Arsenault

But when I look up, taking a break from my book to get coffee and the guilty pleasure of a Frosty’s Donut, I hear him telling the same story he told me about the Renault he’d owned in Germany.  Same words, same details, same everything.

He’s ex-Army, long retired, been about everywhere in the world and what he mostly remembers are cars. Renaults, Volkswagens, Scions — drives one now so he won’t have a car payment.

Couldn’t understand soldiers who had their cars shipped over from the States. Just buy one from a guy leaving the base in West Germany and sell it when you go.

How is it that I’ve only been to this car dealer twice and have seen this guy both times. He doesn’t remember me.  I didn’t have a beard the first time.  He’s having tires rotated.

His wife is still alive, he says, but she doesn’t like him “under foot” and anyway she is out of the house nearly all the time doing worthy volunteer work. All his old army buddies who are still alive live in faraway places like Florida and Louisiana.  He’ll drive for days to hook up with them but it’s getting harder to do long drives.  His legs can’t take the journey.

He’s round. Round head, not much hair. Round belly. Round everywhere but not really fat, just settled.

He’s found a lady, also waiting, who quietly listens to his stories of cars, stories of the Philippines, of Taiwan, but always of cars.  She looks a little bored with him but she’s kind, I can tell, and she keeps nodding as he goes on. And on.

Nearby, there’s an old hippy showing a little girl his electric guitar. She is just so interested.  She knows a lot about music and asks good questions. At least until the guy with the big funny looking dog comes in.  The dog is one of those new cross breeds with a lot of curls but the color of a golden retriever.

The dog is nearly as big as a pony and is pulling the guy around but is friendly.  The girl can’t pet him without getting her face licked, but she doesn’t seem to mind.  Now everybody’s talking to the guy with the dog and the round guy looks disappointed.  He looks even more disappointed when the attendant comes in and tells him his car’s ready.

“I’ll pay,” the old soldier says in a defeated kind of way. But you can tell he wishes the car wasn’t ready.  He could tell a few more stories, stay a little longer.

He walks sullenly to the cashier window but brightens as he talks to the young woman behind the counter.  Old guys don’t get to talk to young women much any more without risking being reported.

When he leaves the cashier window, the round guy goes directly to the lady who’s been listening to his stories to give her one more detail. She tries to look interested.  Then he turns and walks slowly away, probably wondering when he can next bring in a vehicle for servicing.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

Stories To Tell: “Before the Show”

April 12, 2012

By Katia Moraes

At 6:30 p.m. I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to hide the puffy eyes a little bit more. The blush was almost at the end, so I made a mental note to buy a new one soon. My friend Marta Santamaria from Sevilla was singing next door with Mitchell Long on guitar. I thought about how fortunate I was to be in the same room with Dilma Barros from Cabo Verde, Marta from Spain and myself from Brasil together tonight. 

Katia Moraes

On the way to Torrance I warmed my voice in the car.  After singing the one song I learned at Valley College I repeat to myself that one day I’ll speak French. To be honest, I’m getting tired of these shallow promises. I know I need to act instead of day dreaming. This reminds me of the new musical project I’m creating for next year. I got a notebook to keep it in the car to write new ideas. They always appear when I’m moving.

The traffic at the 405 fwy was non-existent and I made it to the Cultural Center in less than an hour from the San Fernando Valley. Exactly two hours before the arrival of the musicians. Atsushi (the sound guy) was bringing some equipment to the George Nakano Theatre when I parked my car. He’s a shy fellow, but smiled when I introduced myself. I asked him if there was a place around the area to have a quick bite, but the only thing that came to his mind was the Carl’s Junior down Madronna Ave back towards the fwy. I was not really hungry anyway, so I stopped at a Mobil station and filled up the tank of my car while texting a friend of mine about the show time.

When I returned to the venue I looked at the set list one more time and asked myself if those were the songs I wanted to sing. “How can I expand my heart tonight? What can I add to people’s experience?” 

To step on stage is still my big passion. They say time does not exist, and that’s the feeling I carry with me during a show. I have my insecure moments when I stomp the floor so as to send my fears away, but the sound of the music always carries me back to bliss. Music introduces me to sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and a zillion senses. I guess I’m fed up with the usual senses life on earth offers, so I imagine there are other ways to experience the experience of what I do.

The host introduces us, the audience quiets down, my first bare foot touches the floor, and the rest is always history. Singing a song involves no pain. Sometimes an anxiety distracts me because I know we didn’t rehearse enough to make me comfortable with the substitute musicians. I know our sensibilities are different. I know I want those unequal personalities to listen to each other, to mix and produce an hour of magical music, but we also have to follow few arrangement cues (not always written on the charts) before flying. Patience is a great teacher that accompanies those who endure, so I breathe in to stay in the moment, with the audience, and everyone else, but not in control.

Soon the notes mix with each other forming an invisible enormous painting. The vibe takes hold of the room and guides my soul. I hold the note at the end of “Berimbau” just because it feels good to reverberate it. I don’t know why I asked everyone to solo before beating my foot on the floor like it was a drum. I felt I was an Indian on a tribal celebration and the sky was going around and around.

How can a square room made of cement, bricks, wood and plaster modify the molecules of human beings? It’s simple. Add sensibility, music and imagination.

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Brazilian singer/dancer/lyricist/writer Katia Moraes has been a dynamic presence in the Los Angeles music scene since the 1990s. Her monthly newsletter, “Brazilian Heart,” explores issues of culture, art and music following her personal whims and passions.  This is her first “Stories To Tell” entry for iRoM.  We hope there will be many more.

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Photo by Caesarphoto.com.

Stories To Tell: “Happy St. Patrick’s Day”

March 16, 2012

By Brick Wahl

I was watching Going My Way on TCM for the first time in ages a couple nights ago. It’s about as Irish as it gets…Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It so reminds me of my mom’s side, my grandfather, the whole bit. We were raised on that side. My pop was German, raised fiercely Lutheran and German speaking. Kein englisch in diesem Haus.  Immer deutsch. Even though that house was in Flint, Michigan. Catholics were verboten, too. The Thirty Years War was still being fought in those days in some places. Every German Lutheran Church was a battlefield, a besieged city.  As if the America all around it didn’t exist.

Brick Wahl

Brick Wahl

My Dad, though, met my Mom. It was at a party at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey; he had a new blue Buick. She had blue eyes, a hint of a brogue and was lovely and Irish Catholic to her very bones. The laugh, the temper, the father who drank a wee bit. Old Germans had listened to Hitler on the shortwave, while the old Irish boys hung out in bars and sang. Can’t you meet a nice Irish boy? he grumbled. But he didn’t mean it. They never did. Didn’t even mind he wasn’t Catholic. The kids were going to be going to Mass, don’t you worry Pop. They’d all be confirmed by a priest. He drank port to that and sang and a little bit of heaven fell out the sky that day. So my folks were married. In Ankara, Turkey. And then Istanbul. It’s complicated. NATO and all that. But they found a priest somewhere over there and the neighbors threw them a big wedding party. Dad had a zillion photos of it, racked up in slides. A local Roman Catholic priest pronounced them man and wife. Martin Luther spun in his grave. A black lamb was slaughtered, as if it were still ancient Greece. The blood was vivid red in the photo. Dad said some of the kids got the eyeballs. It’s a delicacy. All us kids went ewwww. Mom just winced. That poor thing, she said. The poor little lamb. The party went on for days, everyone in the village was there, plus some. Hundreds of people. Those were the days. They thought they’d never end.Fifty some years later Dad was long dead (and died Catholic, and got a wake), and all of us were hanging out with Mom. We’d driven out to Arizona to see her. The nuns had said if we want to see her one last time we’d better get there as fast as possible. We left at four or five in the morning, driving across the Mojave as the sun was rising over it. Desert dawns are the most beautiful things you can ever see. Pastels and shadows. Birds. A zillion butterflies. Rocks in crazy piles and jagged mountains promising no water at all. Buzzards smell sweet death in the air.

The party began as soon as we got there. Five of the six siblings, a couple wives, an energetic swarm of grandsons. Plus dogs, birds, turtles, fish and a cat. The piano was played, some guitars, a saxophone, whatever made or tried to make music. We talked and talked and talked. The food was endless. We joked and talked and ate and mom, riddled with bone cancer, talked and joke and even ate. Her imminent death was just a given, something to be discussed, even kidded about. It was normal. Sad but normal. The order of things. Not much you can do about it she told me. And laughed. Her kids were there, their kids were there, there could not be a better way to go. At one point the priest came by and all became solemn as he delivered Last Rites. We all stood around her bed. The ceremony was ancient and beautiful. Two thousand years of beauty. You could see the worry released in her face. Afterword he switched to his civvies and joined the party. Everyone talking, looking in on Mom, letting her sleep. Eventually it broke up. Mom was awake. I said so long, we’ll see you tomorrow, and kissed her on the forehead. She smiled.

She died the next morning. My brother Jon was in  the room with her, playing Mozart on the piano. She slept uneasily. Mumbled about home. Home, home, home. Then she let out a little gasp, breathed hard for a minute, and was gone.

The wake began immediately, just a small wake, her kids, her brother, the wives and grandsons and nephews. It was sad, but it was nice. We had the bigger, boozy wake later, after the internment. This was just the family hanging out. The priest came by. The sisters. She just decided it was the time to go, one of the sisters told me. She worked in a hospice. We thought Mom’d hang on for weeks, she said, a slow horrible bone cancer death. But she decided it was time, with all of you out here. She smiled at the thought. That’s the way it should be. I nodded.So now it’s a couple years later and I’m watching Going My Way. At one point Bing, the young priest, is trying to get Barry Fitzgerald, the ornery old priest, to fall asleep for chrissakes. So he sings the old Irish lullaby “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.” Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing me off to sleep with it. The melody sways in the breeze, the words loll, and sometimes it sounds like the most beautiful tune you ever heard.

And it took me back to the morning Mom had died. She was still in the bed, looking peacefully asleep. We had each of us slipped in alone throughout the morning to bid her farewell. No one made a big deal about it, we’d sort of break off from the chatter and walk in for a few minutes. At some time that morning I entered and there she was sleeping, looking beautiful. Just like you want the dead to look, just how we want ourselves to look. I gazed at her a minute, and began singing “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral” in a hushed voice, so as not to wake her. Just a couple choruses. Then I said Goodbye, Mom, kissed her forehead one last time and stepped out again to join the living.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day is the first entry in “Stories To Tell,” a new iRoM platform that will feature reminiscences, fiction, tall tales and short stories with musical references. 


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