“Series SUW, Group 4, No. 1 Swan,” Hilma af Klint  (1914-15, oil on canvas)

“If you lack the iron and the fuzz to take control of your own life, if you insist on leaving your fate to the gods, then the gods will repay your weakness by having a grin or two at your expense. Should you fail to pilot your own ship, don’t be surprised at what inappropriate port you find yourself docked. The dull and prosaic will be granted adventures that will dice their central nervous systems like an onion, romantic dreamers will end up in the rope yard . . . . The price of self-destiny is never cheap, and in certain situations it is unthinkable. But to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.”

~ Tom Robbins, from Jitterbug Perfume

“Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder?” ~ Iris Murdoch, from The Sea

Barely There

                             

“What you thought you came for is only a shell, a husk of meaning from which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled . . . the purpose is beyond the end you figured and is altered in fulfillment.” ~ T.S. Eliot

Bare Branches

I finally did something that I should have done weeks ago: I went to see Jennifer, Alexis’s friend who is dying of cancer. On Sunday evening, Alexis called and asked me to drive her to urgent care the next morning because she had a sore throat that was not getting better. I drove her there and then took her home so that she could take a shower. She wanted me to drive her to the hospital so that she could spend some time with Jennifer.  

Turns out Alexis has some kind of bacterial infection, and the doctor put her on antibiotics. After I took Brett to school, I went back to Alexis’s apartment and drove her to the hospital. Jennifer was readmitted on Friday night. She was having terrible pains in her legs and could not walk. Turns out, Jennifer got blood clots in both legs, and the clots traveled to her lungs; one lung is now full of fluid.  

When I heard this, I was infuriated. Blood clots are preventable. Most of the time when a patient is going to be in bed for an extended period, the doctors will order these special hose for the patient to wear to prevent blood clots. Jennifer was sent home from the hospital without the hose, and none of the home health nurses bothered to make sure that she got them.  

Things like this make me want to go postal. I just want to find someone and scream at them, point out their stupidity, their carelessness, but it’s not my place. But I mean geez, the leg hose are pretty much common knowledge. Why didn’t Jennifer receive any?  

“Why always expect a definite stance, clear ideas, meaningful words? I feel as if I should spout fire in response to all the questions which were ever put, or not put, to me.” ~ E.M. Cioran from “On the Heights of Despair”  

Waning Sun through Trees

So I steeled myself and went inside the hospital with Alexis. I don’t think that Alexis expected me to go inside, just to drop her off.  

When we got to Jennifer’s room, she was sound asleep, that deep, heavy morphine sleep. I took one look at her and knew, knew down to the marrow in my bones that Jennifer does not have long to live. Her head is swollen and full of fluid. The shunt that was inserted in the beginning cannot keep up with the production of fluid. Her skin has a yellow tint to it, and her cheeks are puffy and turgid.  

I sat in the chair next to her for a few minutes, and then I stroked her hair and kissed her cheek, a finger kiss because I did not want to wake her. Then I went down to the first floor and into the small chapel. One of my long-standing habits is to go into the chapel at DePaul Hospital whenever I am in the building. It’s something that I have done for years, regardless of the condition of my faith.  

It’s a small, circular room with a vaulted ceiling, and it almost always brings me a sense of peace, but not on Monday. I wept hot, bitter tears, tears for Jennifer, tears for her son, tears for Alexis. And I know that the tears were also for Caitlin and my father.  

I said aloud to no one in particular, “I don’t understand.” And that, my friends, is the crux of it: I do not understand.  

I’m telling the wrong lies,
they are not even useful.

The right lies would at least
be keys, they would open the door. ~ Margaret Atwood from “Hesitations Outside the Door”

Ghost Trees (b&w) by John Morgan

Death, that I understand. We are mortal creatures, here for a limited time, dying from our first breaths. It’s a process that cannot be defied, no matter how much people try to stave off the inevitable. Sickness, to some extent I understand. People get sick. They contract diseases. They develop syndromes. They are born with genetic defects. These things, too, are a fact of life.  

What I do not understand is the lot, how the die is cast, as it were. What I do not understand is the suffering, the immense, soul-breaking suffering.  

Do not tell me that there is a plan, or that there is a reason. Do not approach me with platitudes that do nothing but sugar-coat reality. Do not attempt to comfort me with words of reassurance that Jennifer will go to a better place.  

Don’t. Please just don’t.  

I am too bitter and angry to hear anything but the resounding madness (from the Middle English madnesse: frenzy, rage, and ultimately, insanity) that hums continuously within my head. I have moved past my inherent ability to be rational and calm. Within me I recognize a feral animal that has resided here before. It is a beast that will not be tamed by reason or rationality. It will remain inside, roaring silently in its fury, until it has spent itself.  

That is the unfortunate truth.  

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.” ~ Haruki Murakami from Kafka on the Shore

Black on Blue in Black and White

Beyond my own confrontation with things that have lain dormant and the collision with things that are now, there is the truth: Jennifer is dying, will most probably die much sooner than anyone expects. Her friends do not want to hear this. Her brother does not want this to be the reality. The one person who recognizes the truth for what it is—and I am hard-pressed to acknowledge this—is Jennifer’s father, a man who has been absent from her life for many years, a man who now looks on and sees only his baby girl.  

I ran into Jennifer’s father as I was leaving the hospital. The tears were fresh on my face, and I wondered whether I should say anything to him, but he saw me and began to talk. He had a dim memory from Alexis that something similar had happened in our family. That is how long Jennifer and Alexis have been friends.  

We spoke about how sweet and kind Jennifer is, and he told me that she is uncomfortable with all of the kindness she has been receiving. He reminded her that if the situation were different, she would be the first one in line to help. He spoke of the relationship between our daughters, how it has endured after all of the others have moved on, moved away.  

So I stood there under a brilliant autumn sky, and spoke with this man about his daughter’s coming death. He is the one who has been placed in the position to make the decision, the one that no parent should ever have to make. I think that he wanted reassurance that he would not be vilified for making the decision.  

I could not give him that reassurance. I told him honestly that no matter what he decided, he was going to be the villain, that most people would not understand, but I also told him that if he loved Jennifer, he would remember that she is the one who is suffering, that those who look on are suffering in their own right, but their pain should not override hers.  

“He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Enchanted Study in Black and White by Dmitry Budonov

                     

Having never met this man, I knew him intimately in a way that I did not want. I knew his suffering, and I knew his anguish. When we parted, he thanked me for talking to him and told me to drive carefully. I realized that the next time that I will see him will probably be at Jennifer’s funeral.  

I got in the car and allowed myself to weep once more. I looked out and saw him standing outside the entrance to the hospital, the same half-smoked, unlit cigarette in his hand, a look of anticipation on his face, as if fate itself were hurrying to meet him. And beneath that look lay another face: that of a man so wearied by life that it took everything within him to turn back and walk through the glass doors.  

I don’t remember much of the rest of the day. I did what I do whan I am most upset: I drove. And then when it was time, I picked up Brett from school. Yesterday, Alexis told me that Jennifer was feeling much better, that she ate her lunch and even complained about the food.  

We all take what we can get, even the most minute, seemingly insignificant moments, and we place our hopes on them with every ounce of will left us.  

This is what we do.  

More later. Peace.  

Music by Matthew Perryman Jones, “Save You”  

“Fate is nothing but the deeds committed in a prior state of existence.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

 Waves Crash Down
                    
“Midway in the
Journey of life
I came to myself in a
dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.” ~ Dante, Inferno
 
Waves on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, by Nico Nelson (Flckr Creative Commons)

Friday night now after a blastedly hot, tumultuous day. Details aren’t necessary. Suffice it to say that our lives just took yet another step down in our continuing downward spiral, the one that is taking us to the fringes of society, making us—more and more—mere onlookers. 

If I sit and reflect, which I try not to do lately, I wonder how our lives came to be this way. Which decision altered the fabric, imperceptibly but devastatingly? Was it the one that I made, when I felt that my body could not withstand the daily onslaught of full-time work? Was it the one that Corey had made a few months before that had him leave once company to return to his original employer—a decision made for all the right reasons that had all of the wrong results?Or do the threads begin to unravel long before that? Who can know really? This remark, that argument, this choice over the less obvious one? Could it go so far back as to my youth, my decisions to fall in with one group, my natural alliance with one editor over another? Not going abroad to study? Did it happen in Norfolk, Blacksburg, Alexandria, or some other city? 

A person could go mad, well and truly mad if left for too long with unanswered questions in the silence of an empty house. 

“Her career of ups and downs had rubbed most of the hall-marks off her, so that it was not easy to guess at her age, her nationality, or the social background to which she properly belonged.” ~ Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie 
California Waves by Isolino (Flckr Creative Commons)

Serendipity: “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” appears on the playlist. “Fear is the heart of love, so I never went back . . .” 

Is it fate or is it free will? Joss? Karma? 

When I was about six-years-old, and we were still living in London, I told my first big lie and broke a big rule. I remember spending the evening in my bedroom imagining god with a slate, marking infractions. I prayed fervently that night. The prayers of the innocent are almost, dare I say, angelic in their sweetness. 

Another memory: A few years older, watching some program on television about people drowning and how the rescuers needed to take care not to be pulled down in the panic. Flash forward a few years, and my father is diving into the water to rescue a woman whose raft had been sucked under the Lynnhaven Bridge. I watched in fear and amazement as she latched onto my father’s neck and clawed at him as he tried to prop her against the beam of the bridge until more people could assist. 

Afterwards, my mother chastened him for jumping in, saying that he could have died. He replied calmly, “What should I have done? Watched her drown?” That was my father, a man of such clear intentions. He always knew what decisions to make, or at least, that is what memory tells me. So many years later, and I still immediately think of my father whenever things go terribly wrong, and I am glad that he did not have to see all of the messes that I have made, all of the wrong turns and brick walls. 

But another part of me thinks that maybe my father would have understood better than I think. The survivor of three wars, he has seen the worst of people. He has seen want and deprivation. Saw. Perhaps he would have been impatient with me for still failing to grow up and become a productive member of society. I will never know. 

 “i’m not sure what we’re running from. nobody. or the future. fate. growing up. getting old. picking up the pieces. as if running we won’t have to get on with our lives.”  ~ Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
Rocky Shore of West Point Island

Trust me when I tell you that tonight is not the night for rationalizing, for telling myself that so many other people have it worse than I do, than we do. My brain knows this, but my heart? My heart is too heavy to be rational. 

So much in one day, like the echoing blasts of cannonade being fired in sequence. Here’s this. Oh, and here’s this. Oh, and just for good measure, here is this and this. Have a nice day . . . 

Oddly enough, just the other day Corey told me to cheer up, that one day we would be middle class again. It was an epic statement. I wonder how much of the middle class is left, really? How can an entire classification of people survive amidst such societal turmoil? 

I could not watch the news tonight as I have learned that it takes just the right frame of mind to be able to stomach the constant assault on the sensibilities. So much is wrong in so many places. So much want and need. So much fear-mongering. So much hatred and intolerance. It’s miraculous that 90 percent of the population isn’t surviving on mood-altering drugs, legal and otherwise.   

“What does it mean to know and experience my own ‘nothingness?’ It is not enough to turn away in disgust from my illusions and faults and mistakes, to separate myself from them as if they were not, and as if i were someone other than myself. This kind of self-annihilation is only a worse illusion, it is a pretended humility which, by saying ‘I am nothing’ I mean in effect ‘I wish I were not what I am.'” ~ Thomas Merton, from Thoughts on Solitude
 Rough Waters of the Adriatic Sea Beating Against the Rocky Shore

                     

It is impossible to prepare for these moments—the moments when fate and fortune ally at the worst possible point in time, to conspire against everything that makes life seem to make sense, that makes it all worthy of entering the fray yet again. 

And so it comes: The onslaught—the waves of sorrow and fear. Trepidation and uncertainty. Relentless wave after wave, so powerful and unrelenting that existence becomes reduced to how much can be withstood. The forces of fate, much like the forces of nature, toss about lives like unanchored shells, sometimes resulting in a beautifully-scoured creation, sometimes resulting in anonymous pebbles and stones which cannot be distinguished from anything else. 

Sometimes, this road that we’re on reaches a point at which a veil of thick fog obscures everything, leading us to believe that the path has been completely erased. Can it be any surprise then that the point of arrival in the distance seems unreachable? 

If I do not leave this house soon, I will truly lose my mind. 

“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing . . . We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”
~ Rainer Marie Rilke

Music by Katie Herzig, “I Hurt Too”