“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”  

Say it and mean it: I’m proud of you

I wonder if we ever reach a point at which we feel that we have finally made our parents proud, that we have finally gotten enough A’s on our report cards, made enough touchdowns, earned enough certifications, learned enough skills, gotten enough degrees, painted enough masterpieces, won enough statues . . . or is it just a completely hopeless task? For me, I know that it will never be enough. I lost my father before I could redeem myself, and I know that with my mother, I will never quite pass muster.

This is not to say that my parents do/did not love me in their own way. But I remember standing at my father’s casket after almost everyone had left on that terrible night that they call “the viewing” and just keening (a word that my friend Kathleen gave to me years ago) and apologizing for not making him proud. It was an intensely personal moment, and one that I had not planned on, and I wish to god that everyone had left me alone until it had passed, but of course, my mother sent someone over to keep me from making a fool of myself, and so, it was left unresolved because it was an apology that I truly felt that I needed to make. My father never saw me dig myself out of the hole that I had fallen into. After my divorce, I went through a succession of short-lived jobs and he despaired that I would never find myself, but I did. I went back to school. He never had the chance to get to know my second husband, a man who stepped in and really was there for me and my children when we needed someone, a man I really think that my father would have respected and liked. My father never had the chance to see any of this. So much was left unresolved.

My mother, on the other hand, has been around for all of this, and still doesn’t quite know what to make of me. She still believes that I’m the same person I was ten years ago: lost, irresponsible, guided by my twofold grief. That I have changed she is unwilling to acknowledge for it is easier to believe otherwise. And so we have reached an uneasy existence: One in which I try to do my best by her with her many ailments and failing memory, and I promise myself not to be impatient when she makes remarks that could be construed as cutting. This is my only parent, I tell myself. I have no idea how many years I have left with her. She is not outwardly loving, and I remind myself that she is a child of the depression, that perhaps they did not have time to say “I love you” to one another in a family of 12 children, that hugs were probably sparse in a family in which the mother died young, that my own mother did not have a mother after 8, and was sent to live with sisters and so, while she was cared for, perhaps outward signs of affection were not passed out generously.

So I have to be content to know that deep in my heart, I am not a failure. I received many A’s on my report cards. I supervised a newsroom before I was 20. I finished graduate school at 21. I’ve done some pretty cool things in life. But that doesn’t stop the deep-seated insecurity that I carry with me to this day. Was my father proud of me? I hope so. The not knowing is a wound that pierces me. And this brings me to the second part of my entry: the fathers who are alive and have no concept of how they wound their children no matter how old they are.

I have tried to teach my children since an early age that they are all valuable people, yet I sense in each of them insecurities of different sorts: deep personal insecurities in one that come from a sense of abandonment, emotional insecurities in another because of a sense of not understanding the concepts of the give and take of love, and basic social insecurities in another because of a feeling of not understanding society and his place in it. Luckily, these insecurities can be worked on and there is still time for some parental love and understanding to help. Granted, motherly love can only go so far, and it is only a balm, not a curative, but if accepted, it can help. But in spite of it all, the one thing that we all give to each other freely are these three words: I love you. Each and every day. I’d like to think that that helps.

But what about the adults in my life who I see still hoping for recognition from their parents without ever getting close to acknowledgement? How much will it take for some parents to realize that their children are successful adults, living, working, and succeeding in a hard world that is actually not tied to their parents any more. The truly awful reality here is that some parents will not allow for that one moment of pride to slip between the overall facade of disappointment and bless their child with acceptance for being who they have become, choosing instead to hold onto the disappointment, whether that disappointment is leftover from a decade or even two decades ago. These individuals cannot let slip the noose of supposed injustice done to them, some wrong on some slate that has been tallied and memorized by only that person, while everyone else has moved on, happily ignorant through the years, thinking that yes, perhaps the purported love and forgiveness were genuine, not given with an unspoken caveat, i.e., yes, I forgive you, but only if you behave as I would have you behave.

Put that fatted calf back in the freezer. You haven’t lived up to my expectations yet. Well, sure, you’re a successful adult by everyone else’s standards. You’ve put yourself through school? Great! But it wasn’t the school I wanted you to go to. You own a house? Great! But it’s not where I want you to live. You’re married with children? Great! But it’s not to the person I chose for you, and those aren’t really your kids. You’ve expanded your horizons to learn about new ideas and concepts? That’s wonderful, but they aren’t in the approved curriculum. You’ve traveled to far away places and seen new things? My, my how you’ve grown, but was that really the best way to spend your money? You’ve become politically active? Well now, you know we don’t believe in voting for that party in this family. Actually, I don’t know who you are any more. I really think that you need to come home and spend more time with your real family. We have more work to do.

It’s been going on since Mars fought Jupiter. Since Antigone stood up for what she believed in. Those darned kids, always getting into trouble, not following the rules.  But seriously, I wonder how many of us have run out of time and let our pride get in the way and not said what we should have said. I swear it will never happen to me again. I will never stand before another coffin and realize that I haven’t said everything that I needed to say, as a child or a parent. Nothing is worth that moment of pain, that realization that that moment is never going to end.