Mr. Duffy

My friend Tom called me yesterday and told me about his recent days with his father, who’s just entered a nursing home. He was telling me of the sudden shifts in subject his dad would make, usually introducing a topic that he was quite certain of, but that no one else was at all aware of. For example, that he was just on a long flight.

These seeming leaps reminded me of something else I’d been thinking about lately: my tendency to fall asleep on the couch at night whilst watching a movie or late night program, and the peculiar juxtapostions which ensue. I’m certainly not alone in this tendency, and I must say, it’s not an altogether pleasant way to fall asleep. The reason being, that so much additional energy goes into: 1) trying to not fall asleep, and 2) using extra reserves to futilely maintain the appearance of being awake.

A common scenario finds my wife and me on the couch, and a movie in progress. Various factions of my psyche begin lobbying for control, with a deal generally being struck that decrees something like, “I’ll just slouch down here a bit and rest my head on the back of the couch, but this is not to go to sleep, only to be a bit more comfortable.” Yeah, right. I end up in a state of mixed inputs: the television, whatever my wife is saying, and dreaming. She catches on fast, but I try and cover by answering whatever she said, that I had in some way heard, but didn’t in any way comprehend. It’s always a failed attempt at covering up, but it’s an automatic reflex.

Other times something else happens, and this is what reminded me of what Tom was hearing from his father. I’ll be in that same state of basically being asleep, and I’ll say something. What I say won’t make any sense – “It rained on the wood chips” – but the act of saying it, coupled with the immediate realization that it made no sense, has me instantly and totally awake. Another automatic reflex kicks in and I go into immediate spin control, trying to mix whatever I’d said into either the context of the movie that I’d lost touch with, or a conversation that I’d lost track of (also losing track of how long I may’ve been asleep, though it’s usually only seconds – like falling asleep at the wheel). I of course fail at coherence, but do spout forth all manner of Dadaist prose in my flailing.

I don’t know if that’s exactly what’s happening to Tom’s father, or to anyone else in a similar condition of increasing frailty and decline. But it does strike me as a remarkable sort of precedent – an early familiarity with a circumstance that may be encountered later in life. Tom’s father’s reactions to the knowledge that he slipped into something that no one else could follow, seem to be one of calm bemusement and acceptance. He makes no efforts to explain away whatever he may have gone off into. When he gets back from it, he just moves on. His family is often shaken by this once strong and gruff man becoming a mortally vulnerable surrealist. However, his bearing, no matter how far divergent from previous expectations, is truly blessed with the confidence and experience of age. Cheers, Mr. Duffy.

– David Greenberger

(aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, 23 November, 1996)