5. The Ashes
Chris Garcia: I, uh, I moved three years ago, I moved down to LA. My dad got a little sick. He has dementia, Uh, don't tense up. Uh, we love him. We're taking care of him. He's making the best of it. Life handed him a lemon and he's using it as a remote control.
My mom and I have become very close, I’ve become her rock, and I love it. I feel like it’s a privilege. And my mom tells me everything now. I was like, “Mom call me whenever you want, in the middle of the night, whenever. And she takes full advantage of it. And recently she was like, "Hey, so um, Papi was very horny today." [Laughter] I know. So I said "Noooo!" [Laughter] She said, "I can't tell people from church about this, motherfucker. So listen." "Fair enough, I’ll listen."
She's like, "Papi got very horny. He got very aggressive. He picked me up, he pushed me up against the wall, he was leaning in to kiss me and he stopped himself and he said 'I don't know if I can do this. I have a wife and two kids.’" [Laughter] My dad tried to cheat on my mom with my mom.
Chris: This is Scattered, Episode 5.
Pretty much all I knew about Alzheimer's before 2007 was that Ronald Reagan had it and it makes old people loopy.
Then my dad was diagnosed with it, and I learned a lot more.
I learned that Alzheimer's is a form of dementia that eats away at the brain. It messes with the protein that supports our neurons.
First, it would go after my dad's hippocampus, which deals with new memories.
Later, it would attack his cerebral cortex, which handles language, reasoning and long-term memory.
And it would get worse from there. He would stop talking to people. He would become incontinent.
Then he would lose the ability to swallow properly, and so he might get some food or water in his lungs and that would cause an infection, like pneumonia, which would probably be the thing that kills him.
But when my dad was first diagnosed, that seemed far away. Because he was mostly like his old self. I mean, yeah he’d forget he already told me that story already. Or sometimes he tried to eat yogurt with a fork. But the idea that my dad would be erased, bit by bit until there was, like, almost nothing left? That seemed very abstract.
So I went on with my life, doing standup and working as a writer for a comedy start-up in San Francisco.
Whenever I’d call home and ask how things were going with Dad, my mom would always say the same thing, “Todo bién.” “Everything’s fine.”
Then one day my dad went missing. My mom called me and wasn’t sure what to do. I was like, “I don’t know mom, call the fucking police?” And she was like, “Hey, don’t cuss.”
Meanwhile I’m 350 miles away, googling, “missing man Redondo Beach,” praying my dad didn’t get hit by a car, or drown in the ocean. Turns out he got on a bus and took it all the way to South Central LA.
When the police found him, he was disoriented but alive.
My dad got worse. I started flying back home to Los Angeles more often. Finally I was like, I think I need to move home.
But I was dating someone in San Francisco. Her name was Valerie. She was 6 foot 2 to my 5 foot 9. And together we looked like unlikely animal friends. Like she was a giraffe and I was a baby koala.
We’d go to Whiskey Wednesdays at Benders bar, and we played on the same softball team together.
I was in love.
One day, on my front stoop, I told her, “I’m moving home to Los Angeles. And I’d love it if you came with me.”
She said yes.
And right away she started pitching in. That first week home, me, Val and my mom traded shifts watching dad overnight.
He had entered a phase called sundowning. That’s when people with dementia have trouble sleeping and at the same time, get more confused at night. It’s like having a two-year-old wandering around unsupervised.
I remember the first time I was on the night shift, dad began crawling around on the floor like he was Golum, pointing and talking gibberish. Then he took a doorknob apart and tried to put it back together.
Just a few days later he slipped in the kitchen, and banged his head on the floor. Mom called an ambulance, and they went to the ER.
He got violent there, started swinging at nurses, and they had to restrain him.
My mom had always been anti-nursing home. But after seeing him strapped to a gurney that day, she said it was time.
On his first day, dad threw some drapes over another patient and started punching, until an orderly pulled him off.
So they kicked him out.
We found a new place, in Long Beach. It happened to have a bed available in a shared room, and my dad’s pension from Rockwell would just cover the cost. Dad moved in a week later.
Chris: Hi, how are you?
Chris: I’m back at Brittany House for the first time in two years. Walking in, I’m hit with memories of my last visit here. My dad was in bed, really skinny, and coughing constantly from the pneumonia.
Eunice: Yeah. You're Andres Garcia’s son, right?
Eunice: Oh okay.
Chris: Do you remember him?
Eunice: Yeah. I remember him and you. How's your mom?
Chris: She's good.
Eunice: Oh good.
Chris: Yeah, she’s doing real good. You know, as best as she can.
Chris: Inside Brittany House you got the typical nursing home decor - pastel walls, paintings of fishing boats, and each wing has a theme.
My dad was in the Hollywood wing, which was the locked ward for later stage Alzheimer’s patients.
Not much has changed since I was last here. The photos of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean are still watching over the residents as they shuffle up and down the hallway.
I'd come visit my dad here about twice a month, usually on a Saturday. I'd play him some old Cuban songs on a stereo -- and for a while, he would even wiggle along to the music.
But mostly, I'd have one-sided conversations with him, trying to catch him up on my life.
Sometimes he'd smile, but I could never tell how much he really heard.
I'd also try to trim his beard, or get him to eat -- but that didn’t always go well. He'd get agitated, push me away.
And then after a few hours, I'd go home.
Moe Togafau: Oh wow. I'm on TV?
Chris: Just radio. Thanks so much for talking.
Moe: Hey, no problem.
Chris: Moe Togafau was here when my dad arrived, and on the day he died.
And Moe knew my dad in a way I never could. Over the course of five years, five or six days a week, he comforted my dad, changed his diapers, and fed him when he couldn’t feed himself.
Moe is from Samoa. He has a long graying ponytail and big football player arms with tribal tattoos.
Moe: I used to do, uh, warehouse management in Hawaii for 17 years. I came here, had a hard time, um, getting to -- 2008, the economy was down. No one wants to hire another manager.
And then… this was the only job that offered me a job when I came.
Never thought about Alzheimer's or dementia, none of that. Until I came here.
Chris: Moe started out as a caregiver here, and climbed the ranks to resident manager. Now he oversees a staff of eleven people each shift.
Moe: I deal with all the residents, with their needs. I know their background, know their history, what they used to do, what they love to do. You know the past tells you everything.
Chris: Um, what was your first impression of my dad when he first came to Brittany House?
Moe: Oh, when he first came? He loves to smile. Big smile. Nice smile.
But it was so hard to communicate with him because, uh, he couldn't respond to our questions or anything. [Bell sound] But we used a lot of hand motions so he could kind of understand, show him like here or there or hungry. A lot of motion in the hands. [Bell]
But other than that he loves to fix doors. For some reason he loved door knobs. That's the one thing he loves.
Chris: He was a mechanically-inclined person and he was a machinist and stuff.
Chris: And I was just talking about how at -- back at the house when he started his dementia he would start taking apart door knobs.
Moe: Oh yeah, see? He was always at the door knob. Like oh, are you trying to fix it?
Chris: Do you remember my dad getting violent at all?
Moe: Um, I think with another resident. Um, I'm not sure if you recall him.
Chris: Oh I remember. Yeah.
Moe: The guy gets agitated so your dad gets into his face too. The ego between two men, you've got to get into there and try to stop them.
Chris: [Laughs] The memory's gone but the ego is alive and well and present.
Moe: Because one is from Mexico and one is from Cuba and then there -- there you go.
Chris: [Laughs] The rivalry is strong. [Laughs]
Moe: The rivalries started. Yeah. But other than that, you know...
Chris: Do you ever remember who my dad would call for? Any conversations with…
Moe: A lot of times, Martha.
Chris: My mom's name is actually Ana Marta -- and sometimes she goes by Marta.
Moe: I probably saw one time upset at your mom. I'm not sure. But other than that he has a big smile every time she walks through that door or that hallway, you know, that she's here now.
But I remember there was another name he was calling. You have a sister?
Moe: Oh, Laura. Okay, that's the name.
Chris: He didn't say Chris? He didn't say my name? [Laughter]
Moe: Yes I know it's two females. I know Martha because Martha comes here.
Chris: Yeah. This interview is over. No, I'm just kidding. [Laughter] Um, how did you think he changed over time from when he first got to Brittany House to the end?
Moe: Uh, when he first came he loves to eat. When the end part, he started resisting food. Like what is going on? And that's when, um, hospice starts coming in and stuff and then I know he started going down and down is when he stopped eating.That's -- that's the difference.
Chris: Is it hard for you to see him or other people decline like that?
Moe: Most of them it's… [Crying] You tend to get attached to them. You know, I treat… like everybody, like in my family, my mom was like this for a year-and-a-half. Nothing we could do. We couldn't understand why she was -- she was like that. But, you know? [Bell] I feel the pain. Being able to not communicate what they want, what they need, is so hard to understand that part, you know?
I've been around nine years here. Good people. Just, you know, not being able to end their life normally like some people can. I wish I can, you know, reverse the disease. This is . . . there's a lot of struggle through the family too. Some of them don't know them no more. It's -- it's a difficult thing to see, you know? When a family member don't know their family it's hard.
Chris: By 2015, my dad didn’t know who I was.
I remember visiting him at Brittany House the morning of my wedding to Val. He was too sick to come. I was crying, and he was patting me on my back, smiling, like he was trying to cheer me up.
Maybe he sensed I was his son. But he probably just thought I was someone who needed comforting.
Chris: So visiting hours are almost over and we -- they roll my dad back into his room and he's in his bed. And my mom starts praying, you know? That's what she does. She's a little old -- little old Cuban lady. She's praying. She's holding him. And my dad's just looking at nothing. My mom's -- she lost her virginity to my dad. [Laughter] That wasn't part of the story, it just popped into my head. Um, but it's true. Um, but they've been together for over 50 years. They've been married for 50 years now and that's her high school sweetheart and she's just looking at him crying.
And they're like "Okay, you've got to go." And my dad just pops out of it for a second. He like notices my mom's purse and he like grabs it and he looks up. [Crying] And he goes "Martica, Ana." And it's such a beautiful sight to see this. My mom starts crying. My sister is crying. The nurse is crying. I'm trying not to cry because my dad's a tough guy. He would hate to see me cry. So I'm like “Cool.” [Laughter] “Cool.”
My dad takes my mom's hand, kisses her on the hand. He reels her in, gives her a kiss on the lips. Everyone's bawling at this point because it's such a beautiful moment. I'm trying not to cry. So I just, like, lean over and I pat my dad on the back like a bro or something like I'm going to like, "Nice play, bro." I'm like that. [Laughter] And my dad looks over to me and he goes "Who's this Mexican faggot?" [Laughter] I mean you have to laugh at that.
I want to play for you a voicemail from my mother for you guys.
Ana: “Hi papa, te llamé para decirte algo funny.”
Chris: “Called to tell you something funny.”
Ana: “Papi está muy bien.”
Chris: “Dad’s doing very well.”
Ana: “Salí porque papi me quería hacer un quickie.”
Chris: “I left the home because dad wanted to give me a quickie.” [Laughter]
Ana: “Un quickie.”
Chris: “A quickie,” in case you didn’t barf the first time, son. [Laughter]
Ana: “See you later, alligator!”
Chris: Then she goes "See you later, alligator." Like she's got a catch phrase like she's Larry the Cable Guy.
Ana: “Que lindo está tu padre, mijo.”
Chris: “How cute is your dad?”
Ana: “No más que es el cerebro pero sigue enamorado de mi.”
Chris: “It’s just his brain but he’s still very much in love with me.”
Ana: “Okay. Tuve que salir porque me quería meter una cañona.”
Chris: “I had to leave because he wanted to give me the cannon.” [Laughter]
Ana: “Okay papi. Es para que te reías.”
Chris: “It’s so you would laugh.”
Ana: “Love you, mijo. Bye, bye.”
Chris: The power of love, everyone. Goodnight. [Applause]
Chris: Towards the end of my dad’s life, we were visiting him almost every day. At a certain point he’d stopped eating and was just totally unresponsive.
But my dad was such a fighter his whole life, we just refused to believe the doctors.
Chris: So we were all there and Wednesday came around and they're like, “Your dad has 24 hours, you guys don't want to go anywhere, 24 hours to pass.” And on, I think Wednesday and Thursday, my sister and I were like, he's going to make his birthday, which is… el birthday fue Saturday. And they were like, “Your dad's gonna, it's Thursday, I mean, he's not going to make it till night time.” And we were like, “No I think papi's going to make it.”
And not only did he make it to Saturday, he made it to the next day.
Ana: El Superbowl.
Chris: To have my dad suffer for such a long time and see him not be himself, he was able, the moment he passed, it was like a calm washed over all of us because he didn't have to, he could be himself again. No tenía que sufrir más. He didn't have to be confused anymore. He didn't have to, you know, become violent out of the blue like people with dementia become confused. And lose his dignity, and his functions, and his faculties, and his memories. Yo creo que si un poquito… Yo sé que nos dio mucho paz a ver papi pasar. It’s given us a lot of calm but it hasn’t been easy.
Ana: El servicio que tuvimos con papi, que cosa tan linda. Los amigos tuyos...
Chris: Yea we had a nice service and I remember, mom I was like, I'm going to go in here and this eulogy, I'm going to crush this thing. I was like: I have given a million toasts at weddings, I talk about my dad so much on stage, I'm going to go up here and I'm just going to give the talk of my life about how much my dad meant. And I ate it.
Hace cuenta que yo voy hablar y va ser muy bonito, y va a ser funny y fui y.. I was so distracted by how much I ate it because I just started crying and I lost my shit and I couldn't finish anything, that during other people's eulogy's I was thinking if I could go back up again. Like a comedian would after a bad set. My sister who is not a public speaker, goes up and she cleans up and it like, drove me crazy. But that comedian drive and stage character never goes away even at your own dad's funeral.
Chris: It’s been two years and a half years since the day I bombed the eulogy at my dad’s funeral.
I’ve rewritten that moment in my head so many times.
A single dignified tear rolls down my cheek. The crowd is hushed, utterly transfixed.
I open with a story about my dad, like how he secretly did my science projects for me, so I was the only 7th grader with a workable solution for preventing another Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The crowd laughs. Then I switch gears. I talk about what my dad sacrificed for our family, what he meant to us. People start to cry.
But then I close on a joke, so everyone can have a final laugh through their tears. Afterward, everyone lines up to tell me how much better my speech was than my sister’s.
After the funeral, I wanted to be the one to keep my dad’s ashes. They’re in my closet, in a plastic bag, inside a cardboard box.
Sometimes I take them out so I can talk to my dad. Once, I even took them to a bar to watch the World Series. I put his old Dodgers hat on the box and I sat it on the stool next to me. I ordered two beers, drank them both.
But lately, the box has gone from a comforting companion, to a daily reminder of the promise to him we haven’t fulfilled: To go to Cuba and scatter his ashes into the ocean.
Ana: Déjame ir a ver al viejo. I want to see my husband.
Chris: My mom is at my house to see the old man, and to talk about what comes next.
Chris: I am going into our closet in our spare bedroom, I guess my office and I'm gonna grab my dad's ashes which are behind this Paul McCartney record and a giant mask of Gizmo from Gremlins… Aquí está, ma. Aquí está. Aquí dice los inurned remains de Andrés García. Fecha de muerte, 02 05 2017.
Ana: Es muy triste tener mi esposo aquí. Estoy viendo la realidad que ya es una ceniza, que ya no existe.
Chris: “It’s very sad to have my husband here. To see that he’s just ashes. That he doesn’t exist anymore.”
Ana: Y por eso yo no quería que lo dejaran en Cuba, quisiera tenerlo
Chris: Por qué no?
Ana: Porque son cosas que después no voy a tocarlo más, la caja, ni vas a ver a sus cenizas.
Chris: She's scared to take him to Cuba because then she can't even see his ashes anymore.
Ana: I wanna keep him. Yo no voy a ver más a papi, tú entiendes? Entonces yo quisiera tener un recuerdo de él. Yo sé que no está con nosotros pero yo sé que está el cuerpo de él aquí, todo su vida, su corazón y todo está aquí, tú entiendes?
Chris: She says, “Don’t you get it? I want to have something of his. He might not be with us, but his body is in here -- his life, his heart, everything is in here.
Ana: Y que nunca me lo voy a olvidar y que lo quiero mucho.
Chris: But we’ll never forget him.
Ana: Lo quiero.
Chris: I love him.
Ana: Lo quería.
Chris: I loved him.
Ana: Y lo querré.
Chris: I will always love him.
Chris: Me pongo sad porque yo sé que esta caja llena de estas cenizas con un sticker aquí que dice fecha de su muerte es prueba que está muerto y que no voy a verlo otra vez. Pero todavía me siento atachado, esa es la palabra?
Chris: Me siento pegado a estas cenizas y no sé si eso es bueno o es malo.
Chris: I say, “Yes, I get it. I’m attached to his ashes, too. But seeing them also makes me sad. They’re a constant reminder that he’s gone.”
Chris: En una manera, es la última página de un cuento bonito, del cuento, la historia de papi. Pero también yo no quiero que este libro pare. Yo no quiero que el libro termine.
Ana: What do you mean?
Chris: El libro es la historia de Papi, pero no sé si importa si están aquí las cenizas o no.
Chris: I tell my mom that scattering the ashes would be a nice final chapter to my dad’s story. It’s not that I’m ready for the story to end, but I know it’s what he wanted.
Ana: Entonces, vamos a ponerlo, vamos a tener que reunirnos Laura, tú, y yo para decidir.
Chris: She says, “Let’s meet with your sister and we’ll figure this out.” In the meantime, she'd like to take a turn with the box.
Chris: Tú quieres llevarte al viejo?
Ana: Sí, para que no te quedes aquí pensando, a lo mejor como todo eso te hace daño.
Chris: She's saying she wants to take his ashes home, today. To her place.
Chris: Yo sé pero no sabía que iba a ser tan difícil...
Ana: La decisión.
Chris: La decisión a aceptar.
Chris: I am crying because...
Ana: He cries like that.
Chris: I know I cry like that, mom. Pero I am crying right now because I didn't think it would be so hard, so hard to part with these ashes even just from my place to my mom's place for you know, 40 minutes away. I don't...
Ana: Lo que decidas tú papi, yo no voy a obligarte.
Chris: “Take him.”
Chris: Yeah. Llévatelo.
Chris: “It’s okay, take him.” My mom puts on her coat, puts the box of ashes into a plastic bag, and hops into a Lyft. The driver has no idea there’s a dead guy in his car. They drive off into the famous LA traffic and I put on my Gizmo mask and weep.
Two weeks later we're sitting at my sister Laura's kitchen table.
Ana: Yo estuve hablando, orándole al Señor. Yo te dije que se lo iba a poner al señor, entonces llega un punto, que yo no soy para dejarlo en una jaula, él quiso que lo dejaran libre, no es mi derecho el tenerlo encerrado, si él quería ir al mar, tengo que dejar su voluntad.
Chris: My mom says she’s been praying on it. She’s decided she wants dad to be free. She says she doesn’t want to keep him in a cage anymore. That if he wanted to go to the sea, that’s his decision.
Ana: Ni un pedacito quiero, ni un pedacito, no, todo que se vaya. Eso fue su decisión…
Chris: “All of it has to go,” she announces. “I don’t want to keep even a little bit of him! It’s time to close this chapter.”
Laura: Sí yo creo que hacerlo en esa forma... I understood dad more when I lived in Costa Rica. Because, um…
Chris: My sister Laura did missionary work in Costa Rica.
Laura: I understood dad's wishes… [phone rings]
Ana: Ya voy apagarlo…
Laura: And what I mean by that is that you could be in a foreign country and you could love the country, but at the heart level you're not there. So I think for Dad oftentimes he would say, look, I love everything about this country, I love its ideals, love its foundations, its principles, I love it. I love it! But at the end of the day I'm not American. I'm Cuban.
Chris: My mom turns to me.
Ana: Entonces tú qué crees, papa? Qué es tu opinión? Hay dos votos a favor.
Chris: Yo estoy a favor for sure.
Ana: De qué?
Chris: A llevar las cenizas
Chris: I’m thinking, “Mom, yeah, I’m the one who thought this podcast should be called Scattered!
Chris: 100% sure? oh yeah yeah, for sure.
Chris: My mom smiles. And we start making plans.
Ana: Entonces yo lo que no quiero tener es problemas al aeropuerto con él. Eso sí que, ahí te lo digo.
Chris: We don’t want my dad confiscated at the airport in Havana.
Chris: Tu crees que hay chanza que el gobierno…
Ana: Sí, hay que averiguar papi, hay que averiguar...
Chris: She says people have told her to sneak the ashes in a bottle of talcum powder or a box of cigarettes.
Chris: That seems shady to me.
Laura: That sounds like….
Chris: It seems like it could be, it could be seen as ashes or drugs or something.
Laura: I know.
Chris: Even to leave the country or to go through customs and they find it. That sounds....
Ana: De aquí a Cuba fue…
Laura: Tenemos que, mirar mamá, tenemos que mirar entonces en Southwest cómo se trata eso.
Chris: Laura suggests that before investing in talcum powder, we see if there’s a legit way in.
I’m on it.
I call the airline to ask if they’ve got restrictions -- and I end up on hold for what feels like a century. So I hang up.
I call a funeral home in Miami that says it can handle the logistics -- but they charge $745? Not gonna happen.
I call the Cuban Embassy in DC. They email me some forms, but, original cremation certificate? Form 13-30? I gotta bring a notary public into this?
Fuck it. We’re sneaking the dude in.