In the Time of COVID. Day 38
April 25, 2020
Walter’s Last Encore
There is an imposed isolation when people get old. Friends die, drift way, and then there is the issue of vulnerability. When the phone rings it’s a hustle, grifters trying to scare the hell out of you so you give them your money. It’s a constant barrage. It’s hard to be trusting when you are treated as a target. It’s difficult to go out at night because your eyes make one point of light into clusters, not good for driving. This COVID thing is easier on old folks if they stay away from people. They are used to being alone anyway.
Our kids have called from afar over the last few weeks. They worry that we will ignore the precautions and get infected. We worry the same thing about them. We all want to make it through this. We are cautious. Mostly we rely on our friends. We try to help out where we can.
That brings to mind a phone call I got in 2002. It was from Mary Cole. We made friends with Walter and Mary when we moved to Cambria, 35 years ago. They were 5 years older than our parents but, man, were these folks energetic, creative and compassionate. Mary was a gifted watercolorist. She taught a generation of aspiring painters in her time here.
Walter was a jazz musician . He played drums and vibraphone. He founded the Morro Bay White-Caps, an amateur band of old and young that loved Swing and Dixieland. For decades they played from flat-bed trucks at all the community parades and festivals in our county.
In 1930 Walter was traveling with a small band through the upper mid-west when they had a gig at a Minnesota Normal School where Mary was a student completing her teacher courses. She fell for the drummer. They were married 72 years, through good times , and hard.
That phone call wasn’t easy for Mary to make. “Stan, can you help me with Walter. I need a break. Can you come over and sit with Walter for a few hours?” She started to cry. “Sure Mary, I’ll be right over.” Walter had been slipping away in his 90’s. I hadn’t seen him in a few months. I grabbed my shaving tackle, brush, mug and safety razor and headed over.
Walter was at that state where he faded in and out of consciousness constantly. He hadn’t recognized Mary in a few months. It was really hard on her. His head drooped. He was running old memories in his mind. Half sentences about a boatyard they owned in Balboa / Newport Beach during World War II. He would seem to fall asleep, mid-sentence, then rise up and speak another cryptic half sentence. Off in the clouds of memory.
Mary took off with a friend, for a lunch break. She had been doing everything herself, to proud to ask for help.
I got Walter showered and changed and sat at the dinner table. I heated some water and lathered his face and gave him a shave. He had an angelic smile when I did that. For a man, a hot-lather shave is a wonderful thing.
I fed him some soup and then bundled him up and got him out on their front deck. That deck over-looked the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek where it enters the Pacific Ocean. A beautiful view. He continued his half sentences. He was peaceful but totally out of town, if you know what I mean. Into slumber and then mumbling. Dementia was racking his mind. He was my friend, but he was unaware I was there.
It started to get chilly and I needed to move him back into the house. Bone-skinny old guys can’t take much cold even if they are semi-conscious. I went into the living room to figure out what to do next. There in one corner was his stereo and his vinyl collection. I fingered through it. Pulled out Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. I rolled his wheel chair over by the stereo. Nice and warm now. Across the room was his drum set, dusty and unused for a few years. Next to it were his vibes, just as lonely.
I cranked the music like he was a teenager. The oddest thing happened. His fingers started to move. His chin started to rise. His eyes opened up. His hands started to tap to the music. “Stomping at the Savoy” and “ Sing Sing Sing” were vibrating the walls. Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson were right there. Walter started grinning. Right then, Mary walked in the door. He looked at her and said “Hi Sweetheart”. Mary said “Oh Walter…” she started crying. She went to him and they embraced.
As quickly he came, he went back into the fog of time. He passed away two weeks later. But, Walter and Mary Cole got one more sweet embrace.