Well, here I am, right after making a big to-do about reviewing a book by an author I know–reviewing another book by an author I know! Who knew I knew so many authors–and, happily, such good ones, too! In the interests of full disclosure, then, Meg Federico is my near neighbor here in Halifax, and while I am still only looking forward to meeting John Cotter in person, I have chatted with Meg many times, and I thought it was about time I read her book. I’m glad I did: it’s both funny and touching.
Welcome to the Departure Lounge is a memoir about Meg’s mother’s decline into dementia. Depressing as that sounds (and depressing, of course, as it actually was), the book itself is not, actually, depressing but rather finds and exploits a fine line between hilarity and pathos as Meg takes us through the chaos that descends on her family as a result of her mother’s illness. “The Departure Lounge” is the nickname she and her brother give to the house where her mother, Addie, lives with her second husband, Walter–whose Alzheimer’s is also steadily advancing. Addie’s doctor won’t declare her incompetent (“Oh, right, competence,” he says to Meg. “Like anyone is ever competent”), so she and Walter are left nominally in charge of their increasingly haphazard home, cared for by a rotating roster of caregivers overseen, as far as possible, by their children, most of whom, like Meg, live many miles away. The mounting confusion is worsened by Addie and Walter’s fondness for booze. Together, they are a defiantly loopy team:
Ornella often answered the front door to find a deliveryman with a TV set and a case of scotch. Mom couldn’t see well enough to dial the phone, but Walter could. Together, they called liquor stores and placed large orders. The stores were only too happy to oblige and took credit cards over the phone. There were fifty liquor stores in a twenty-mile radius. I called as many as I could and asked them not to take Walter’s orders. But I couldn’t get them all. If it wasn’t booze, it was TV sets. Walter was having trouble working the remote, so he thought the set was broken. And unfortunately, he couldn’t remember that he’d already placed an order, so more TV sets kept showing up. That made him very angry. “Who thinks they can send us these things?” he said. The UPS man and the FedEx lady became regulars at the house. “There’s two more TVs. What do you want me to do with them?” Ornella asked me, a million miles away in Canada. I added “Return Unusual Purchases to my list”.
That list of things for Meg and the other offspring to deal with is ever-growing, and the stress and chaos spill over into Meg’s regular life as a “soccer mom” up in Halifax. She gets phone calls incessantly about one crisis or another, sometimes with her mother and step-father, sometimes among the staff. “Astrid is putting voodoo on us at night, in your mother’s bedroom,” Addie’s helper Ornella phones to report; later on, the cook, Cassandra, calls to say “Those people are robbing your mother blind”–the supplies she lays in Friday night are gone by Monday morning, and Meg also discovers that her mother’s jewelry box has been emptied. There are falls, and worse. Through the fog of his Alzheimer’s, Walter clings to a protective instinct for his “Bride”–but because he rarely understands what is going on around him, this leads to its own catastrophes as he lashes out in what he thinks is her defense:
Walter started out the following day with his usual round of breakfast gin and tonics. Mother fell. As Ornella lifted her, Walter launched a two-fisted frontal assault. Ornella managed to duck the first punch, but the left hook caught her on the jaw. Edward [Walter’s helper] was nowhere to be found. Ornella called the police, who called me in Halifax. Walter, Edward and Ornella were shouting at one another in the background, punctuated by Mom yelling, “Stop it!” at the top of her lungs.
“Okay, buddy, calm down,” a male voice said, presumably to Walter. “Mrs. Federico? This is very confusing here.”
I heard the other police officer saying, “No more drinking. I am a policeman and you are not going to drink anymore!”
. . . The officer on the phone said to me, “Look, I don’t think you want me to arrest your father.”
I resisted the impulse to say, That would be ideal.
The police are called again later, when Meg and the staff intervene to protect Addie from Walter’s disinhibited lust. During one of Meg’s frequent visits, she gets the lock fixed on Addie’s door; later that night, Walter beats at it yelling “I want my Bride!” and eventually “take[s] a whack” at the worker trying to dissuade him. Someone calls 911, but then Addie refuses to file any charges.
In the course of these events, Walter and Mom had become united against the rest of us. “You want Walter to go to jail,” Mother said accusingly. “Why would you do a thing like that?” Walter had gone blank, as he sometimes did. Totally baffled, he followed Mother down the hall. “You better come and stay with me tonight, Walter,” she said, as they got to his bedroom door. “I’ll need help if the police come back.” “The police?” he asked. “Really?”
As Meg says, “the whole thing was absurd,” but as she’s also well aware, it has its dark, even frightening side always shadowing the comedy. Further, as she interweaves stories about her family history into the narrative of her mother’s mental disintegration, she helps us get to know Addie enough that we feel the force of her former personality enough to appreciate her loss. Their relationship was never an easy one, and the book offers no idealized or sentimental picture of the past. At one point we learn, rather shockingly, that Addie tied little Meg to her bed at night for a while, to keep her on her strict bedtime schedule–much later, when Addie takes to launching herself deliberately and damagingly on to the floor, Meg notes that “the urge to tie her up was hard to resist.” An unhappy teenager suffering at boarding school, Meg runs off home, but when she shows up at the front door, her mother “looked out through the screen and said ‘Yes?’ as though I were a stranger”:
I went absolutely hollow. If I’d thought I might be welcome, I was mistaken. Mom kept me standing on the steps. She said through the screen that she had company, and they were just sitting down for dinner. “You have to understand that now you are a guest. You come home when you have an invitation,” she said. But it dawned on her that she could not really send me away, and she let me in.
But family feeling runs deep and it takes more than a vexed history to undo the longing for a mother’s love and approval. As Addie declines, things become simpler, but not easier, as in this poignant scene:
One morning when I arrived for my monthly shift, Mom scuttled towards me, rolling her walker. . . . Mother’s blank and dull face lit up like a sunflower. “Meggo, dear!” she said, with a huge toothy smile, lurching at me, hugging me, and ramming me with the walker. She was so glad to see me, pressing her face into my shoulder, gripping my arms. To share a moment of simple uncalculated love, my mother had had to become a dependent old lady with a dismantled intellect.
During long dreary days at the Departure Lounge, Meg comes to understand her mother better, seeing her “in a new light, one that illuminated the background.” Those moments of connection are intermittent, broken by Addie’s drifts back into confusion, but they help Meg think differently about her own role as both daughter and mother.
The story moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Even then, however, in what the book urges us to see as the paradox of real life, there’s no tidy separation between laughter and grief. Addie dies even as the caterer is arriving with the supplies she had ordered herself for her birthday party, and her passing is marked, not with dignity or heartfelt tears, but with a ridiculous struggle with the EMS team that arrives to “pronounce,” who will not recognize the DNR order as legitimate and hassle the family about liability as Meg holds off them and their defibrillator. At the wake, poor Walter is brought in to see Addie in her coffin and can’t grasp the situation: “Why is that woman asleep at this party?” he asks innocently. Like so many moments in Welcome to the Departure Lounge, this one makes you want to laugh and cry at once.