AUSTIN, Texas — I went to Boca Raton, Fla., to play dominos in mid August 2012. I learned a basic or perhaps a simplified version of the game, which proved to be enough to have a few games with June and Jack. I returned to Austin a couple of days before heading west through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada on the way to Burning Man.
Slumped in his patriarchal chair facing a flower arrangement and the dining room wall, Jack couldn’t grasp the basic concepts of where to place the dominos and the idea of the game continuing in a line. June, who showed me how to play, had it down.
For me during the game of bones, I had to resist the urge to yell “dominos!” while slamming a tile down on the table, breaking it.
I was in Boca Raton for a week or so and made time to go to Delray Beach, which was pretty close to where June lived. Making the short trips gave me some time to myself, some time to stare dumbly at the Atlantic Ocean and sit on the beach. It gave me an escape and reminded me of the Northeast and of my regret and feeling of self defeat for leaving. It gave me some time in damp weather and humidity and to watch impending storm clouds.
The dominos game was on the dining room table, taking up a chair at the head of the table and the opposing chairs next to it at right angles. Next to the area where the game snaked over the surface of the table was a bright red box one would most likely associate with a gift. The box was full of brown plastic prescription medication bottles and some notes about when to take them and why. My job — or one of them — was to keep this in order. Jack’s job was to make it more confusing, making sure I had a job to do.
June wanted to play some sort of board or parlor game, and I thought it was a good idea. I wasn’t interested in family bonding or anything, I was more curious about her mental state and brain activity and dominoes was the only option that seemed interesting. It gave me some insight and also confirmed some other long-held opinions I had about these odd people sitting before me.
The recent experience seems to have shaken June a little, or at least enough to force her to take a hard look at herself. People involved said having me there proved to be world of good.
A week or a few days before I arrived in Florida June was found on the tile floor of her second-floor condo unresponsive and nearly dead. It wasn’t the first time in recent memory and certainly wasn’t the first time in long-term memory.
The details of how she came to be on the floor don’t matter much, other than self-destructive behavior that had escalated during a period of decades. To me it was nothing new, but to everyone else to whom June had lied, who either didn’t pay attention to blatant reality or were inattentive or away, this was all shocking.
Her hand wobbled a bit as she placed the domino on the table. This move gave me the chance to put two down. Jack wanted to put one down on a 90-degree bend in the line of tiles on the table. I had to draw a tile while June was able to put one down. I believe she won this round.
After a few more rounds Jack gave up and hid in the corner to read some sort of disposable novel about history or a murder or something. He used to read a lot of Tom Clancy and lay in a hammock when he lived on the water in Tilghman Island, MD. In decades past, I was always the patient one, the insightful one. I read directions, fine print, signs and information so I was the one who knew things. It was also unacceptable for me to ever lose my patience or be impolite — OK, or even expected from others, but never me.
I pulled a couple of pill bottles out of the shiny red box next to the paperwork from the home health workers and the purple center piece and confirmed them with the notes before handing them to June. I refilled her water glass and added some ice.
Something was different.
Maybe nearly dying alone on the floor triggered something, maybe it scared the shit out of her. I don’t know, but she was not the same.
Her head slunk over her shoulders and some sort of small hunch was developing between her scapulae. She looks like she aged 20 years in the past five. She was falling a lot and had become delusional and forgetful. She blamed other people and thought everyone was lying to her. The day before I arrived she was still in the hospital and was yelling at the staff saying I was in the next room and she demanded to see me. A few days before she was looking for me in the airport, wandering around. She borrowed a neighbor’s car and drove there, but parked in a nearby hotel and had totally forgotten she did that.
Something was different. Amid the whispers of worry and concern from people whom June had driven away, she seemed like she left all of that behind her.
I arrived thinking I would have to settle an estate, put her in end of life care. She was a little confused and tired at first — she fell in the Walgreen’s parking lot after I picked her up from the hospital — but she was better when I left.
Brian, the physical therapist with a strong New York accent, taught her how to walk down the stairs. She liked to point out the discolored spot on the wall where she fell backwards down the stairs and banged her head on the wall. He taught her some exercises in the pool to help her get stronger and keep moving around. Marlene, a nurse and/or therapist of some sort (admittedly I got them mixed up) helped sort out medication. Other therapists and home health workers helped her out. Every one I met was phenomenal.
While June was a little cranky once in a while, it seemed like she wanted to change. She sought out help, which isn’t something she ever did. We talked about her family and other demons that have haunted her, we talked about letting go of anger and dealing with it, facing it. We talked about not worrying about what we can’t change and not worrying about what we don’t have. In reality, this was ingrained in my personality my whole life and is something she used to fight against.
This time she listened.
We played a few games of dominos while I was there. Jack never really figured it out, but June did.
My thinking was no one can have time back. We can save money, spend money, recoup lost funds or invest for later, but time is irrecoverable. She figured out there is no point wasting time or bottling up anger and self-medicating or running from problems. Why spend the last few years as angry and miserable and the previous decades?
One day while I was there, she showed me a family photo her cousin had sent. June was slowly, many decades later, reconnecting with her estranged family. She told me who the people in the photo were and a little about them. She seemed to be happy, a deep sort of calm one finds after pain subsides. We talked about our own fissures and personality conflicts.
I interrupted work in San Antonio to go to Boca Raton expecting a funeral but I returned knowing how to play dominos.