Featured image: Cosmopolitan: skeleton makeup tutorial
In August 2016, I signed the contract that granted Hachette Books the rights to publish Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on my Dementia. It came out in June 2017.
During the writing of my book, I created a character, Doña Quixote, to represent my demented alter ego. On her I heap the blame, shame, anger, frustration, and embarrassment that dementia rains on me. She is the avatar of my disease, she lives outside of me. She is the culprit of all that is wrong with my brain.
By distancing myself from my dementia in this way, I can still think of myself as the former me and thereby retain my dignity and self-confidence—sometimes.
My Nurse and I or Me Suckling 1937)
Within a week after I signed the book contract, Peter came home with a very special gift for me. He’d found her at Deseret Industries (DI), the Mormon Church’s thrift store. “This is Doña Quixote,” he said.
I was so touched and excited that Peter recognized her and brought her home! I immediately loved her rattly frame, a mobile of bones the size of a two-year-old. A day or so later, I found a hat that had her name on it. To complement her headgear, I donated some jewelry—and voila, Doña Quixote was decked out in a style of which the aesthetics resonated with my own. At first we dangled her from a ceiling hook in the kitchen, from where she presided over the chaos of spilled coffee, dropped milk bottles, oven-burned hands, dinner-preparation finger cuts, and misjudgments of where the counter ends, with its resulting splatter of glass shards.
As the months passed, she gradually outwore her welcome in the kitchen: her ghostly feet mussed my hair every time I passed by her near the back door. I could care less about my hair, but what I couldn’t bear was the anxiety-laden jumpy state that her sudden gentlings provoked. My brain interpreted them as attacks, since I continually forgot that the Doña was their unwitting source. As a result, I experienced heart-stopping frights, each accompanied by a hair-raising flight-or-fight response, more than once a day. Either she or me had to go. Since my assisted death is still far in the future, it had to be her. With mixed emotions, I banished her to our back stoep, where, in the company of the quail and squirrels—I tried to convince myself—she would be as happy as those dogs in dog heaven.
The day Maria Shriver’s film team came to our house in Roberta Street. Doña Quixote is hanging from the stoep’s rafters, right above the camera.
On the publication front, Hachette was somewhat concerned at the paucity of my presence in the electronic media world. I had, by then, been on Facebook for several years but had fewer than 100 followers, most of whom I knew personally. That, Hachette’s marketing gurus declared, would not do—they’d like me to join every electronic media outgrowth, from Pinterest to Instagram. (Haven’t quite figured out Instagram…) And I needed a website. Peter and I set out at once to remedy the situation. After a long collaboration, which often strained our conjugal bonds, we launched the first version of our site. My blog found a home there too. Thanks so much to you, my readers—whether you have followed my blog from my first post or whether you came on board later—for your loyalty and support. Especially when I’m down, receiving a comment on my blog from one of you just makes my day.
My website has been up for three years now. Through the vicissitudes of broken links, human error, and advances in technology, it has been looking increasingly threadbare the last while. Peter and I finally got started on a make-over when we returned from San Antonio the last week in June. While we’re not quite done, Peter and I thought it was far enough along to start using it. Today is my first post in the simplified design. On your computer screen you won’t see a huge difference from before, but on your cell phone it should look much less messy.
In the three years since Memory’s Last Breath’s publication, my book, too, had a number of facelifts:
Above, in April 2018, the paperback came out; Peter holding the Japanese edition that recently came out. Below, Chinese edition.
Our move from Roberta Street to Wilmington Flats prompted other changes associated with my dementia-related projects: as we frantically divested ourselves of truckloads of material possessions, the bony, dressed-up figure of Doña Quixote did not make the cut. No room to swing a skeleton inside our new apartment. And the rules prohibit hanging items on the balcony. In the context of having to give away more possessions than we could take along, giving Doña Quixote the boot was not the heart-rending dilemma one might imagine. The Doña, after all, personifies everything that’s wrong with my brain. Who wouldn’t want to ditch that?
As I was about to pack her in the DI box, though, it felt that some ceremony was required. I carried her into the living room, already stripped of paintings and chachkas. Placing her in the seat of honor on the mantle, I said my goodbyes from my half of our LaZBoy couch.
Doña Quixote was not impressed. “Might as well get used to letting things go,” she snarkily remarked.
I didn’t argue. She’s right, of course. She, after all, was the entity that day after day robbed me of my capabilities. She leaves me no choice in letting go of my math skills, my executive function, my self-confidence. Heart hardened, I dumped her into the nearest box. “Out of sight, out of mind,” I muttered.
From her box-coffin, Doña Quixote quipped, “Out of mind? Takes one to know one.”
She was right. She was in my bones. Damn bones, damn bones, damn dry bones. She was my inner shadow, always with me. Her material form is still with me, I can see her swaying in the breeze out on our stoep. Her appearances in my mind leave me some regrets, for what I do not know.
Moses, Frida Kahlo (1945)
About a month ago, while we were shopping in the Mexican market in San Antonio, she appeared not just in my mind, but actually in material form: there she was, sitting in a mandorla of light in a glass case near the entrance: a dia de los Muertes figure that looked like the back-stoep Doña might after a reality show make-over. No DI rags for this avatar!
The best part about her was that she came in the the form of “a Frida,” that is, a day-of-the-dead image created with the likeness and attributes of artist Frida Kahlo: there she was, complete with monkeys and parrots.
Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacan, Mexico, July 6th, 1907. At age six, she contracted polio; a long recovery isolated her from other children and permanently damaged one of her legs, causing her to walk with a limp after recovery. At the age of 18, she was seriously injured in a bus accident. She spent over a year in bed recovering from fractures to her spine, collarbone and ribs, a shattered pelvis, and shoulder and foot injuries. She endured more than 30 operations in her lifetime and during her convalescence she began to paint. Her paintings, mostly self-portraits and still life, were deliberately naïve, and filled with the colors and forms of Mexican folk art. At 22 Frida married the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, 20 years her senior. Their stormy, passionate relationship survived infidelities, the pressures of careers, divorce, remarriage, Frida’s bi-sexual affairs, her poor health and her inability to have children.
Left, Henry Ford Hospital (1932). Right, The Dream (The Bed) (1940)
I have long felt a deep connection to the artist, which had strengthened after I discovered my own broken parts. I particularly related to her in regard to the way she used her art and clothing style to reconcile herself with her broken body. Every morning, as if in a ritual, Frida would dress herself up like like Cinderella going to the ball, arranging her costume and jewelry so as to hide the wounds on her body. Is that why I’m so interested in weird clothes?
Left, Appearances Can Be Deceiving, Frida Kahlo. Right, Installation: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, Frida Kahlo Museum, 2012.
“With a carefully curated wardrobe, Kahlo used her sense of style to define and conceal herself at will, fashioning an iconic status and establishing herself as a Mexican pop cultural figure. She used the fact that her clothes had to be customized to fit her body and accommodate her disability to her advantage. As Kahlo noted during her time in San Francisco, in a quote displayed on the museum’s wall, ‘the gringos really like me a lot and take notice of all the dresses and rebozos that I brought with me. Their jaws drop at the sight of my jade necklaces and all the painters want me to pose for them.'”
“The gringos really like me a lot…” A Frida Kahlo inspired design at the Jean Paul Gaultier Spring/Summer 1998 fashion week.
During her lifetime, Frida created some 200 paintings, drawings and sketches related to her experiences in life, her physical and emotional pain, and her turbulent relationship with Diego. Out of her 151 paintings, 55 are self-portraits. When asked why she painted so many self-portraits, Frida replied: “Because I am so often alone….because I am the subject I know best.” A Mexican critic noted that “her paintings are her biography.” (See a slide show about Frida’s life.)
Self-portrait with a Necklace, 1933.
In early July 1954, Frida made her last public appearance, when she participated in a Communist street demonstration. Soon after, on July 13th, 1954, at the age of 47, she died. Many mourners gathered at the crematorium to say goodbye. As the coffin was slid into the incinerator, her admirers’ lamentations and weeping filled the room. Legend has it that a sudden blast of heat from the open incinerator doors caused her body to bolt upright. Her hair, now on fire, blazed around her head like a halo. Her lips seemed to break into a bewitching grin just as the doors closed.
Funeral de Frida by Mark Bautch aka Satyarthi aka Marc DeBauch.
Such were my memories in the Mexican market as I stood at the display case lusting after Frida/ Doña Quixote. After tearing myself away to check out the rest of the market, I tried to remember the exact words of a quote of Frida’s I had copied down on a card and stuck to my computer at home. As I cycled back to the figure every now and then, my ear rang with three remembered words: “I heaven you.” I approached the owner of the booth and asked how much she cost. The price was enough to extinguish the candle I was burning for her. (It was not millionaire expensive, but it was extravagant for seniors-on-a-fixed-income.)
Memory, the Heart, Frida Kahlo (1937). This self-portrait expresses Frida’s heartbreak over one of Diego Riviera’s affairs. It shows her hair cropped, indicating the distance between her “real” (Mexican) self and the self wearing European-style clothes. Her Mexican clothes—her schoolgirl outfit and Tijuana costume—each has one arm only. Her unloved self has no arms. One foot is on the ground, the other hovers above the sea. The foot over the sea wears an apparatus that suggests her recent foot surgery.
At some stage during our visit to the market, Peter noticed my eternal return to the same display box. I pointed to the object of my avarice. He immediately recognized her as Doña Quixote. He asked if I wanted to get her, but I said no—she was expensive and we had no room for her in our new place.
Doña Frida, still homeless while I am still feng shui-ing for a perfect spot
Peter didn’t take no for an answer, though. He bought her. I was ecstatic. The third-generation booth owner wrapped her in enough bubble wrap to land her on the moon! We carried her with us on the plane. She made it home safely, but we are still looking for a good place to house her in our living room… Watch these pages for the outcome!
Rolling my eyes at Peter’s smart-ass remark that “she could live in our storage room,” I cradle her on my lap. But where is the Doña? See how she and I blend into one another?
After arriving home in one piece, Doña Quixote/Frida has not had much to say. The other day, though, when I moved her from the Victorian cupboard to the table to our bedroom and back again she muttered, “Poor thing, she’s crazy!”
To which DI Doña replied, “Told you so. Been there, done that.”
The Gerda part of me sighed, Be careful what you wish for. Oh, I am fortune’s fool!
Leaving the two sister-wives to trade their repartee, I went to my computer to look up the half-remembered quote from the Mexican market. Here it is:
“Can verbs be made up? I’ll tell you one. I heaven you, so my wings will open wide to love you boundlessly. I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”
Frida in the hospital painting her body-cast