“In the uncertain hour before the morning Near the ending of interminable night” ~ T. S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding”
In the first part of the dream, the surgeon cuts out a small piece of my mother’s heart, about the size of a quarter. He hands it to me and tells me to pump it whenever she dies, and it will bring her back to life. I take the small piece of flesh and examine it, see the striations, wonder how I am supposed to do this. I awaken to the phone ringing.
Somehow, I go back to sleep, and the dream continues: My mother has come back to life, even though she died, even though she has been cremated (but in the dream she has been buried next to my father), she is back, and she knows that this is just a temporary pardon. For some reason, I go to a city official’s office. I don’t think it’s for a job interview, but it might be. He likes me. Not like that, but in a professional admiring way, says that he might be able to find a position for me in his government. I leave and go to a room where employees can rest. An old friend from high school is there, and she is still playing games with my head. We see a pile of shoes that someone has delivered as give-aways. I see a pair of sandals that I would like to get for Alexis, but I am not interested in the pumps with spiked heels as I no longer need to wear heels to work, but then I think that I might get this job. Someone comes to get me, tells me that the boss is waiting for me. I find out that there is a huge meeting of all the employees, and I’m late. I get a phone call at the last minute, and I find out that Corey is at work with a female co-worker, has no intention of taking care of my mother because he’s decided to stay with this woman, and I realize that my mother is at home alone, and I know that she is going to die soon. I have to decide between making the telephone call or going to the meeting. I take my phone into the meeting. My friend from high school is supposed to help me with the presentation, but she keeps messing me up on purpose to make me look stupid. I walk out, finally get my mother on the phone. She has walked down the block. I ask her why she has left the house as she knows that she is dying. She tells me she cannot sleep, and cannot stay in the house forever. I find her on the neighbor’s lawn. She is not dead yet. I put my hand in my pocket looking for the part of her heart that the surgeon has given me, but I cannot find it. I realize that no one is going to help me.
I am awakened once again by the telephone ringing…………………
Music by Andy Shauf, “Comfortable with the Silence”
Go Ahead; Goodbye; Good Luck; and Watch Out
You get to Gilead, let me know. That balm,
supposed to be so good for human hurts
—all wounds, holes, hollows, hungriness—
you tell me if it’s there, and how it works.
Till the time comes, I’ll look for further ways
with the old lack, the void, push it along
ahead of me in the only way we have
to carry this luggage of ours of hungriness
like an empty bag. You look, though. Let me know.
“And you refuse to cry. Smart move, you hear a voice say quite distinctly. You might need those tears someday. And you have been telling yourself the same thing all your life.” ~ Franz Wright, from “The Lesson”
Saturday afternoon. Cloudy and cold, 41 degrees.
Two weeks. Two weeks since I’ve done more than played spider solitaire and shopped my way through grief via online shopping for makeup, nail polish, and books. I won’t apologize. It has worked for me before, and until yesterday, I had managed to hold in all but the smallest of tears.
But yesterday was the killer. Alexis and I were doing more cleaning out at my mom’s house. I was going through mountains of paperwork, some from as far back as 2000, when I came across an advanced directive form that my mother had filled out at some point. It was undated, but it was a shock.
You see, I had told the doctors that my mom wanted a no code, a DNR, that she did not want to be kept alive on machines. Well on this form she had checked that she did want CPR. I have no idea when she filled out this form, and it didn’t quite jibe with what she had said to me, but still. Had I made the wrong decision? Did I do the wrong thing?
It was all too much, and I finally broke down, irrevocably, loudly, lost it, in front of my daughter and granddaughter, and I couldn’t stop it, as much as I tried. The ugly, snotty, loud keening.
What if I did the wrong thing? I will never know, and once again, I have been placed in the position of making THE decision for someone I love, and once again, I have no idea if I did the wrong thing at the wrong time.
It is quite literally tearing my heart into small pieces.
“I gave you sorrow to hang on your wall Like a calendar in one color.” ~ W. S. Merwin, from “The Nails”
Last night I had a dream that I have during periods of great sadness and stress. My former high school/college Catholic boyfriend has come back, and I have to tell him that I do not love him any more, that I love Corey. And the pain that I see on his face just kills me because I know that I have caused it. Many more things happened, like a ship takeover, and people removing their skin, but his face is what haunts me. I haven’t seen this person since Caitlin’s funeral, but he represents a different period in my life, when I was a different person.
So I forced myself to stay in bed for hours, tried to sleep more, tried to sleep away the memory of the dream. It did not work.
So here I am finally, on the day that I had decided that I would try to come back to this forum, this place of confession and reflection, that I would try to resume my relationship with words and images in attempt to creep back into some kind of normalcy. Perhaps I chose the wrong day.
What I am about to tell you might better be left unsaid, or kept to myself. Who knows. I only know that these words must come out else I go back into that place of complete lost control, back into the moment of sheer terror at feeling too much.
For those of you who chose to subscribe in the past few weeks, if you do not really know what I do here, I apologize in advance.
“I live with regrets—the bittersweet loss of innocence—the red track of the moon upon the lake—the inability to return and do it again” ~ John Geddes, from A Familiar Rain
No one prepares you for how it will feel when you lose your second parent. Most people live with a kind of trepidation as their parents age or become ill, live with a sense of dread at how it will play out in those final days. But how many people tell you how to prepare for that second loss, for the moment you enter the classification of orphan?
Okay, I know. Not really an orphan in the true sense of it, but orphan, no parents, nevertheless.
Let me back up a few paces. I had the same two parents my entire life. Today that is a rarity of sorts. No divorce, no steps. None of that. And even though my parents’ marriage was troubled in so very many ways, they were my parents, my touchstone to family, and when I lost my father, I was cast adrift in a way that I cannot even begin to explain.
I’m an only child. Sorry. I was an only child. The loss of my father wounded me, tore at me, left me feeling not only sad, but scared. Now I had to take care of my mother, and I knew that I would never be able to do it in the way that she needed, and honestly, I failed her in so many ways. But back to the original point: When you lose that second parent, and you are an only child, there is no one else left to tell embarrassing stories about you at family dinners. There is no one else to remind you of things that happened in your childhood. There is no one else left to brag about you, about the things that you did, about how you participated in the Dances of Asia as a young child before the Queen Mother (found the original program in her closet), about how you wrote for the Norfolk Compass (found an old copy also in her closet) or did that thing or whatever.
There is no one else.
“Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow holds the land in its fierce embrace. It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier. Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now with the gift of your left life?” ~ Carol Ann Duffy, from “Snow”
What I found out after my mother died is that she talked about me all of the time, said wonderful things about me to neighbors, friends, whoever would listen. I had done this and this and that.
And I know that I have complained, lamented that she did not share this sense of pride with me, that I had it come to me second hand, but does that diminish it? I cannot tell you as I honestly do not know.
I can only tell you that after my father died, my mother become my albatross, which is a terrible thing to say, but I am trying to be honest here. Listen, this is the woman who said to me on the phone one time that she wouldn’t help me any more if I was dying. I am not making that up. She really said that to me. This is the woman who would get mad at me or one of us and would stop calling for months. The longest time was four months. I waited to see how long it would be.
When I was in a bind and I went to my cousin for help, I begged him not to tell my mother. He couldn’t understand why I was so afraid. I realize now that he never saw the woman that I knew, the one who could be absolutely unforgiving. He knew the funny woman, the one who was sweet and caring, and I’m not saying that she wasn’t, just not so much with me. I’m only saying that if she knew I had borrowed money from someone because I was in a complete bind, she never would have forgiven me, one for doing it in the first place, and two, for embarrassing her.
“The disturbed mind and affections, like the tossed sea, seldom calm without an intervening time of confusion and trouble.” ~ Charles Dickens on grief and how to heal a mourning heart in a letter to his younger sister
My mother reminded me frequently that my credit was shot, that I had run up a bunch of debt after Caitlin died and shopped my way through my loss for three years. She never forgot, and she never forgave. She said to me more than once that she just knew that the bank had closed my account (they hadn’t), that the city was coming after me (they weren’t). She really believed these things of me.
But this is also the same woman who would drive up in my driveway, honk the horn three times, and give me bags of Russell Stover candy eggs for Easter, or bags of Riesen because she had bought too many, or pork chops. Whatever . . . The same woman who used to take me to lunch when the boys were young and I worked at ODU and had a schedule that allowed me to go to lunch with my family. The same woman who bought me a purple Coach purse.
My mother loved through her gifts. It is a trait that she passed on to me, but I told myself early that I would always say I love you to my children, to my spouse, frequently, and without hesitation. That a gift was good, but a hug was better.
I don’t know if my mother’s inability to hug and to say “I love” you stemmed from her childhood, from days of not having a mother, from the times when her father drank away the family money. I don’t know. She never told me, and I never asked. It’s not the kind of thing that we could talk about.
“But to write is to dignify memory […] revives the unremembered” ~ Allan Peterson, from “Footnotes”
Let me pause here. People in general loved my mother. The guy at the Honda dealer who sold her her car told me that she used to call just to talk to him, and the woman in the finance office said that my mother was “so sweet.” Relative strangers loved her.
I suppose I reached a point at sometime in my life at which I no longer expected hugs or declarations of love, but that does not mean that there was not a hole there. She was better with my kids. Sometimes when they said, “I love you Oma,” she would say it back. Sometimes.
As I’ve been working on her house several neighbors have stopped by to tell me how sad they are at her death, to tell me how wonderful she was, how she would do anything for them. I know that they are not just saying this to make me feel better.
Do I sound heartless or just petty? I don’t know. Perhaps I am both. Perhaps I am neither.
In the last few years I knew that my mother’s mind was declining, that she couldn’t remember names of things, that she was becoming more confused, and Corey and I had had the discussion more than once about what we were going to do. My mother would have hated being in any kind of assisted living. About five years ago, maybe a few more, I had an ongoing conversation with her in which I mentioned that I thought it would be a good idea for us to sell both of our houses and to buy one with room enough for all of us.
I was willing, but I don’t think that she trusted me enough to try, so it never came to naught.
“What did Time smell like? Like dust and clocks and people. And if you wondered what Time sounded like, it sounded like water running in a dark cave and voices crying and dirt dropping down upon hollow box lids, and rain. And, going further, what did Time look like? Time looked like snow dropping silently into a black room or it looked like a silent film in an ancient theater, one hundred billion faces falling like those New Year balloons, down and down into nothing.” ~ Ray Bradbury, from The Martian Chronicles
As I was going through the papers, I would come across things on which she had written notes to me, things like “Call them as soon as I die to let them know so that they don’t send a check.” That stops you short, I have to say. I came across a note in which she wrote just her name and her telephone number. Was it to remind her? I came across a card she had written to someone saying something along the lines of “I don’t know you. Don’t send me anything like this again.”
In the last couple of years my mother, who had been in an ongoing feud with her last living sister, would say that Hilda was hateful, that she was mean. And then my mom would declare that she (my mother) was nothing like that.
I don’t know if my mom remembered that she had told me she wouldn’t help me if I was dying or if she conveniently forgot it. I know that for a while I conveniently forgot it because it was just easier. I was her only child, and like it or not, I had to be the one to take care of things.
So now I’m doing that in the best way I know how, and I have to tell you that at the end of each day for the past four weeks, I have closed my eyes with a sense of failure looming large. I should have . . . I didn’t . . . I wasn’t . . .
“but the rain Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply; And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay, from “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”
I know what I’m doing. I am aware of the pain I am causing myself. It’s how I operate. I run full steam on a full load of guilt. It began with Caitlin, continued with my father, and now it is here with my mother.
Honestly, I spend so much time these days trying not to let myself think, which is how I come to be spending hours playing spider solitaire and looking for the perfect dark circle concealer. At least I don’t have to leave the house except to feed the cat.
But in those moments in which I allow my heart free reign, I feel more than a bit lost, as in what do I do now? It still hasn’t quite hit me, that my mother is really and truly gone. The other day I was in Wal Mart and I came upon the Rusell Stover Easter candy display, and I stopped short. You have to understand that this was a ritual with my mother, the bags of Easter candy, the coconut chocolate birds’ nests. And there was no one to do that this year, so I grabbed every nest they had and put them in my cart.
And then I turned around and saw the displays for St. Patrick’s Day cards, and for a minute I was brought up short again: My other mother-in-law’s birthday was St. Patrick’s Day, and my mother’s was March 15, and for just a fleeting second I thought about buying birthday cards, and then I had to try not to break down in the card aisle in the middle of Wal Mart.
“I tore a sheet of paper out of a notebook, found a pencil, and decided that this, too, would be a day not to remember.” ~ Laurie Halse Anderson, from The Impossible Knife of Memory
For me, my mother was bags of chocolate Riesen, leftover Chinese food, pancit that she used to make better than anyone I knew, reruns of “Bonanza” on the television, enough of an addiction to QVC that she had a line of credit with them, continual complaints about a water bill that was less than half of my normal one, forgotten birthdays (the calendar in her hall has my birthday circled and the word “Oops” written on it; I haven’t taken that down yet), her firm belief that her cat would only eat certain kinds of food, her love of her yard . . .
And yet she was also this short woman who seemed to get smaller each time I saw her. She was visibly fading, and there was not a damn thing that I could do about it.
I have to say, for the record, this really, really sucks.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, thanks. The words came so fast, and truthfully, I could probably write another thousand without pausing, but it’s getting late in the afternoon, and I have to drive to my mother’s house to take care of her cat, yet another thing that is breaking my heart each day that I close the door and hear his pitiful meows.
All images are by Finnish artist H. Ahtela (also known as Einar Reuter) 1881-1968.
Music by Joe Cocker, “Heart Full of Rain”
The ugliest thing in the world
is the truth.
Who doesn’t want to die
like May rain over the lilacs,
like wild carrots in a ditch?
Only fanatics don’t know
that they know this.
I fly through the January night,
low over a snow-covered Europe,
cathedral after cathedral
casting its light out onto the snow:
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.”~ Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams
Wow. Can I just tell you how good it felt to put up a post yesterday? I know that I didn’t exactly reveal any great truths or ponder any of life’s deep mysteries; nevertheless, it felt good to write something. Since my computer died, I’ve been spending more time on tumblr, reblogging other people’s pictures and quotes, which is always nice as far as finding new things, but just isn’t the same as moving some words around the page.
So much has been happening on the political front, but I’m not in the mood to castigate Neanderthal thinking tonight. Instead, I thought that I might just write and see what comes to me—open the window, so to speak, to allow whatever thoughts are drifting by to coast inside and cogitate a bit.
“You see, I am a poet, and not quite right in the head, darling. It’s only that.” ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
I found out yesterday that Brett hasn’t been taking his medication, not for about five days. I am of mixed feelings about this. I mean, he seems to be doing okay, and perhaps without the steady stream of stress from school he really is feeling balanced at the moment. However, he starts college in less than a month and a half, and if that’s isn’t a stress inducer, I don’t know what is.
I do understand his desire to be off medication, to be normal, as it were. I often think of being without medication (not pain medication, but the other kind). I know that as far as writing, creating, it is easier without medication than with. I know from times past that the highs and lows, the keen sense of soaring when things are good, and the abysmal sense of falling when they are not—these undulating moods can be like a drug to the one who is being tossed about on the waves.
Pain can be addictive. Pain can make the sufferer feel more alive. Pain separates the anguished from the even; the heady ride into the unknowing can be positively euphoric when compared to notions of normalcy. The years that I spent without medication, immersed in my grief and pain were some of my most prolific as far as churning out pages and pages of angst. But really, how much of it was good, was readable? How much of it would I put out there for public consumption? I do not think that I can answer that honestly, and certainly not without bias.
“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes. ~ André Gide, Journals, 1894
Those of you who have never ridden these waves probably find me incomprehensible. How could anyone possibly enjoy suffering? Well, enjoy is not the best word. I don’t think that anyone enjoys suffering (well, almost anyone). It’s more that the suffering becomes so entwined in the very fiber of being that to be without it feel as if a hollow has replaced the niches in which the pain and suffering resided.
Consider Emily Dickinson. Hers was a life of complex solitude that led to pages and pages of contemplation about life, death, grief, spirituality, hope, and pain. Dickinson’s poems often expound on the idea of what life must be like for other people—their dreams, sorrows, etc.:
I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.
I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.
That no one found the poet’s written pages until after her death reflects her intense need for privacy. Perhaps Dickinson believed that no one else would be able to comprehend that of which she spoke, that no one else would care to share her intimate thoughts. Of course, many years later Dickinson has become a mainstay in the American literature canon.
“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” ~ Madeleine L’Engle
Does the individual need to be mad to be an artist? Of course not. Is there a tinge of madness in many artistic souls? Probably.
I think that it, this kinship with madness, comes from feeling too much, that there must be something in the artistic temperament that makes bearing witness to life and death, love and hate, elation and despair—that makes the knowing too hard to be left untold. Hence, reams and reams of poetry and prose, canvases awash with emotion, photographs that capture that absolute essence of a moment in time, songs that run so deep that listeners weep upon the hearing; sculptures, carvings, tapestries, mosaics, and architecture that reflect a connection with beauty, a knowledge of pain, a reflection of loss.
It’s all here. It always has been, ever since the first person took a finger, dipped it in blood or berry juice, and began to draw on a cave wall, ever since someone else took a rock with a sharp edge and hewed into a larger stone. The need to translate what is felt into something tangible is as ancient as time.
“The creative person is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person.” ~ Frank Barron
So, the question perhaps is whether or not to medicate the artistic mind. To what end? To allow that person to become more normal? To bring that person some sense of peace? Who decides just what is acceptable, what is normal? Can peace of mind be induced chemically?
Or is the call for medication more for those around the artist so that the surrounding family, friends, whatever, can live life with fewer disruptions caused by the shifting moods of the odd one? You know, the one who doesn’t really fit in, who has never really fit in—the outsider.
But consider this: Often when not medicated, the artistic individual will turn to other sources for calming or for stimulation. Alcohol? Heroin? All of it? How many creative geniuses has society lost to the vices employed as balms to the tortured soul?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (opium)
Ernest Hemingway (alcohol)
William S. Burroughs (heroin)
Kurt Cobain (heroin)
Edna St. Vincent Millay (alcohol)
Tennessee Williams (alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates)
Charlie Parker (heroin)
Jack Kerouac (alcohol)
Hunter S. Thompson (anything and everything)
And then, of course, are the artists who were depressed, suicidal, and/or addicted: Anne Sexton, Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, and many, many others. Would Van Gogh have painted “Starry Night” if he were on lithium? Could he have even envisioned those passionate swirls with all of their intense aching if were pumped full of prozac?
Just wondering. More later. Peace.
The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees
that burned with sweetness or maddened
the sting: the struggle continues,
the journeys go and come between honey and pain.
No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.
They don’t fall drop by drop from a river: there is no river.
Sleep doesn’t divide life into halves,
or action, or silence, or honor:
life is like a stone, a single motion,
a lonesome bonfire reflected on the leaves,
an arrow, only one, slow or swift, a metal
that climbs or descends burning in your bones.”