Reflections

I scan the crowded room for a familiar face. It’s a big room, outfitted with the type of couches and chairs that swallow you whole, heavily ornamented light fixtures, and emotionally neutral paintings. At the front is the box surrounded by floral sprays on stands. Nestled between blooms and leaves are little white cards delivering personal messages. Some of the bouquets have gold and silver script letters labeling the deceased: dear father, beloved husband, dear son.

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Beloved. Why is that a death word? Do we ever say that in life?

Is it the flowers or the picture collages that make it hard for me to swallow? Here before me is a Cliffs Notes pictorial of the parts of a person we will miss: the chubby cheeks lacquered in pureed yams, the diaper-clad butt and dimpled knees of babyhood; the gap-toothed smile of elementary school portraits, the sand castles and sunburns of summer days at the beach; the parade of sports team pictures and scouting banquets; the proms and weddings; the chrome-wheeled muscle car parked in mom and dad’s driveway; cheesy tourist shots; hugs and kisses, suit-and-tie days, and, oh, that dear sweet first-born child. We gather like flowers the good parts that happened before the end days, when only scraps are left. Absent are pictures of the medical clinic waiting rooms, the son and daughter crying themselves to sleep, the unhealthy habits, the bar fights, the bad tattoos, the post-chemo haze, the last days in hospice care.

We die and if we are lucky, no, strike that, luck has nothing to do with it. We are born and we die. No one knows why the bastard molester alcoholic chain smoker lives to  100 and the selfless sweetheart is hit by a bus at 22. If we live our lives well, and by that I mean we give from the heart, and give all we have, and think of others before ourselves, and let our lights shine, we will touch lives. Maybe many lives. Maybe millions. Maybe only one. When it’s our time, maybe we blow out of here on a cyclone blast so powerful it brings our survivors to their knees. Not that we want to hurt anyone. But with loss comes pain. If you do nothing in life to make anyone miss you, you miss the point of living. The goal is to love.

And that right there was last Friday’s lesson.

Out of this world is another good person who touched my life and so many others. A person I’d long forgotten until I heard the news. As I left his funeral, I remembered another service many years earlier:

This time a small room, no bigger than a vestibule, with furniture slightly more stiff than the people. When I approached the survivors, I said what we usually say at these things. They said in return, ”Don’t be sorry. We’re not. She was a miserable old shrew every day of her life and now she’s gone.”

Mortified, I didn’t know where to direct my eyes. I looked toward the full box of tissues on the table, the chairs which bore no weight, and the lone basket of carnations.  How could anyone say such a thing at a funeral? Eighty-something years on this rock and all she gets is an unattended wake arranged by duty-bound, bitter survivors?

Forgive me if I sound preachy; it’s not you I’m telling this to but me. As I hurtle toward 50 my biggest fear is that I’ve not lived enough, not loved enough, not done enough of anything with 100 percent of my self. I dole out small portions, saving the best for something in the future.

My second biggest fear is coping with the increasing frequency of funerals of my contemporaries. Apparently I am at that age.

LIfe and death remain a mystery to me. One is a gift. The other a lesson.

 

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Up and down

I watched as a sizable limb cracked free from an elm and plummeted to the earth with a shuddering thud. It was a busy day in a fast part of the city. I think I was the only one to see it.  Who looks up?

Days later, standing on the sidelines of a bustling outdoor market, I watched a bouquet of  mylar balloons bob on the current until they entangled themselves on power lines. The resulting blast vibrated my ribcage and sent the overhead wires bouncing like jump ropes. Again, no one else saw it. I had to point up to several worried folks clutching their chests and looking around in confusion. Someone even called the police.

I don’t know what makes me notice these things. Perhaps some small movement, or a shift of air pressure, but at just the right moment, my eyes shift skyward. I’m a daydreamer, a thinker, and I’m prone to studying even the smallest of details. Sometimes I see things no one else does and miss the obvious.

The severed limb jarred me the most. Something about its limp form splayed in the parking lot, long green fingers enveloping the car next to it, seemed apologetic. I looked up at the tree again, to what seemed a healthy and whole entity. How freakish, I thought, and yet totally the way of nature. Unpredictable, deadly, awesome.

Then, the what ifs began.

What if someone had been in that car? What if a small child had run up to the parked car? What if we had picked that parking space? I’m always asking what if?

Sometimes I don’t see what’s right there. One of our cats has an inoperable tumor.  Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t there at all. One of my girls discovered it as a small lump and called me tearfully when I was in a meeting.  I dismissed her worries. What did she know that I did not? Today that smallish mass that felt like a gummy bear it is now a heavy rock crowding the cat’s pelvis. It grows and grows and there is nothing to be done, the veterinarian says.

Our finances are, as they have been for a while now, like a slowly filling balloon. Letting the air out of the balloon is a careful, discriminating process. Who or what will make the cut? Years before, when we had lines of credit, we maxed out a card trying to save this cat’s brother. All the IVs and shots we could afford, all the tests we could manage did nothing to save him.

Make him comfortable, the vet says. You’ll know when it’s time.

There are a few things on life support around here. Things that even a few years ago I thought were rock solid, like a tall, seemingly healthy tree with strong branches and full leaf cover. But inside, like a tumor, a slow rot devours the core. One day, which seems like all the others, something crashes within inches of your skull.

I’m wide awake, but I’ve numbed a part of myself to imminent loss, to the threat of loss, to upheavals. When pressed for answers I can’t give any. At the same time, I’m making flip-flopped choices.

I spent a month saying yes to every invitation I received at the expense of my yard and gardens and personal affairs. Why not? There’s always a reason to say no to living life.

I spent a month seeking my happiness. I loved it. I felt closer to myself than I had in years. Now, I pick up the rake and shovel, I prepare for another good-bye, rub the healing balm between my palms and massage what is fixable.

I’m easily bored. I’m also a bit of a thrill junkie. When things get boring — or scary — I need something to divert my attention. I had an old tattoo modified, made it about four times the original size.

I welcomed the cutting, stinging sensation. I can deal with this, I thought. This pain has a beginning and an end. I can breathe through it, manage it. The tattoo artist was young and good-looking and he bought me cookies from the bakery next door (because I admitted I hadn’t had much to eat that day.) It was not lost on me that although it was part of his job, he was leaning into me for more than an hour. Pleasure for the price of pain?

All week, the sting at the site, the healing throb and itch, kept my thoughts away from the inevitable. It’s the free-floating emotional pain, at sea without land in sight, that is unbearable. I’m not so good with that. Is anyone? Is that why so many of us don’t look up?

Who carries the seeds of a fast-growing tumor? What heavy limbs dangle over our dreams?

What can we do to make the most of every day?

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade
Edenland has resurrected her Fresh Horses Brigade meme. In it she asks: Who are you? I wrote this a few days ago while trying to make sense of recent happenings. It says as much about who I am as anything else on this blog.

 

The D word

This is my contribution to Edenland‘s Fresh Horses Brigade. She asks: Are you terrified of death?  What is your funeral song?

I’m learning that the only truth is impermanence. The moment something unfurls, it begins to wither. Death, dying, spirit energy, that gauzy space between life and death, ghosts, haunting – these things fascinate and scare me.

I remember as a very young child going up to a body at a visitation and touching the face. It was as hard as the sidewalk. I remember being scolded right away for doing so. I’ve thought ever since that our culture has it all wrong about death. I like the cultures that throw raucous parties, that allow mourners to wail, that say the word dead instead of all the flowery euphemisms.

During my stint as news reporter, I was the paper’s obituary writer, which put me in constant contact with all the local funeral home workers. I got to know some of the men and women who handled arrangements. This was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the places between death and burial. I asked questions. I wanted to know details. When I felt comfortable, I expressed interest in viewing behind-the-scenes work. One of the guys, let’s call him Brian, was open to the idea and invited me to visit the inner chambers of the funeral home.

Oddly enough, around the time I was to visit,  my father died unexpectedly. When we met again, it was as my father’s casket was going  into the back of the hearse. Turns out we hired Brian’s company to do my dad’s funeral.

Brian leaned into the limousine behind the hearse, put his hand on my shoulder and offered his condolences, said he was sorry things didn’t go as planned.   No, having my father die at 58 was not part of the plan.

Yet, how could the plan be any different? We don’t have access to the mighty blueprint.

It took me a full year to collect the courage to call Brian. He pulled some strings so that I could be part of a tour of the newly renovated county morgue. On the tour, I watched three autopsies in progress and watched a slide show by a forensic pathologist.

That slide show was unlike any other I’ve watched. I cannot tell you of these things here because they are pale, eyeless things curled up in the darkest corners of hell. Horrible things done to babies, young women, street people, drug dealers, mothers, fathers, uncles, grandmothers. These pictures were evidence in criminal trials. You can complain all you want about violent images in movies, but nothing compares to real pictures of death. Nothing.

When my father died, I went into that room at the hospital where he lay prone and I looked death in the face. It changed me. From that day on I began hugging people and telling them I loved them.

After that slide show, I remember going home, calling off the rest of the work day, crawling into bed, pulling the comforter up to my chin, and just staring at the ceiling. I needed time to process.  I needed time to get the smell of meat out of my nostrils.

It’s all a great mystery. We won’t know until we’re there and then who can we tell? Only  those who already know. Do I fear death? Of course I do.  Do I fear old age more or less than I fear death? Do I fear the death of one of my children or my spouse more than my death? Do I fear outliving everyone I’ve ever known or loved? Do I fear dying before I’ve fully lived?

I fear impermanence and I suffer because of it.

So, if I were to die today, I’d ask that “Apparitions” by The Raveonettes be played at my funeral. How appropriately funeralesque is this song? In fact, the album has a mournful beauty to it.

 While searching YouTube for the song, I discovered they covered The Stone Roses’s “I Wanna Be Adored” which was my funeral song of the ’90s.

Somewhere in the program, you’d have to play The White Stripes’ cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Replace Jolene with “death” and my man with “my life” and the song makes perfect sense. After all, we can beg and we can plead with death, but in the end Jolene, with her flaming locks of auburn hair and eyes of emerald green, will always take your man.

Make today a good one.

 

 

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Gran Torino, belatedly

Gran Torino opens inside a shadowy church. It’s the kind of place inspired by the soaring gothic cathedrals of Europe. It has vaulted ceilings, niches, an endless symmetry of archways, and stained glass windows depicting scenes of sainthood and martyrdom. Inside, every tentative footstep or stray whisper bounces off the high ceilings and amplifies to a thunder-clap of Catholic guilt.

Well, that’s how it was for me anyhow. I know that church. The one in which Clint Eastwood’s character stands next to his wife’s casket as he scowls at his family.

Photo via Movie-locations.com

Fifteen years ago I was the one sitting on those punishing wooden pews, alongside my family, facing my father’s casket.

I haven’t been back to the church of my baptism, of my youth, of my own departure from my family’s faith since that sweltering August morning in 1995. So it came as a shock to rent this movie, which I knew was made in Detroit, and to see this opening scene, which brought forth a strong physical memory of that day.

This movie robbed me of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t even think I’d like it.

“Mom, did you see ‘Gran Torino’ when it came out?” I blurt over the phone the next day.

“Oh, it was violent.”

Yeah. Do you remember the funeral scene? At your church? Wasn’t that weird?”

I don’t know about weird,” she says.

Well, you know, dad’s funeral. It was eerie to see it replayed in a movie.”

“It wasn’t his funeral.”

“I know, but still …”

“Oh,” she says, her voice trailing off. Conversation over.

Am I just morbid? How could she NOT make the connection?

I felt bad then, digging up a long-buried memory. She goes there every Sunday. A decade and a half of memories have wiped away that morning awash in the blues, purples and reds of  filtered sunlight and propelled by thunderous organ hymns. That morning is the only recent memory I have of the place.

This movie stirred a long-buried pot of memories.

Walt Kowalski reminds me of my grandparents, who often spewed bigoted slurs and who were pulled kicking and screaming from their spotless Detroit homes long after the neighborhood deteriorated.

Kowalski’s disconnect from his children and their offspring also sounded familiar notes in my extended family.

There is a divide between the orderly grid of the old city center, the reach-across-the-driveway-to-knock-on-your -neighbor’s-window closeness, and the labyrinthine subdivisions of suburban McMansions. It goes beyond economics. I understand those neighborhoods. I cannot fathom the sterility of some suburbs.

As the mother of an Asian daughter, it pained me to see such hateful racism in this movie, although I’ve been watching the black/white one play out all my life. I’d almost forgotten the horror of what happened to  Vincent Chin. It saddened me at the time but not in the way it would today. I look into almond-shaped eyes and see family.

As a Detroiter who has dreamed of leaving this Rustbelt Utopia for years, Gran Torino made me realize that no matter where I bury new roots, I’ll have the grit of Detroit in my soul. No matter how free thinking I think I am, how open-minded, how much of a tabula rasa I think I can create for myself, after 45 years, some things are engrained.

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Ghosts

photo by Sean McGrath via Creative Commons

Last summer I came out of the closet about my preoccupation with ghosts and hauntings. Now that spring, too, is out of the closet, talk at the dinner table once again turns to our annual visit to the cabin in the woods, the one Girl from the East now calls “our other house.”

As always, I have mixed feelings. I must temper my desire to witness the raw beauty of the land with the growing body of evidence (suspicion, paranoia) that something paranormal lurks in the cool shadows of that deep-woods shelter. Each year as we discuss when we’ll go, an inner voice, as if watching the thin plot development of a horror flick, screams: “DON’T DO IT!”

Yet, we plan, pack and go. Every year we come back with another piece of evidence to tuck in the dossier of the unexplained.

Ghosts.

Truth is, I don’t have to go far to see ghosts.  At a red light a few weeks back, I glanced in my rear view mirror to see my dead friend sitting in the white Toyota behind me. She was checking her hair and makeup.  The light turned green and I didn’t notice at first. I was still gaping at my dead friend primping in her compact car at a busy city intersection. I closed my eyes and shook my head to dislodge the vision. A horn honked, my eyes snapped open and she was gone.

Ghost friend.

At parent-teacher conferences in March, I sat in a hard plastic chair in the high school cafeteria waiting my turn and staring at my dead father. He strolled into the room as if he belonged there, as if he wasn’t dead 15 years. His pinstriped suit was as neat and pressed as the day he was laid out. Unlike the last image I had of my father: prone and embalmed, this ghost was hale and hearty.  As I stared at this apparition (It wasn’t really someone else’s father, was it?) reading the conference schedule and studying the teacher station map, my heart bounced in my chest like a caged raccoon. Crazy thoughts crashed around in my brain: He didn’t really die, he just went into the Federal Witness Protection Program. It’s all been a big misunderstanding.

The resemblance was uncanny. Down to the last details: the body shape, the facial structure, the mannerisms all were my dad. Yet, obviously not. For a moment I imagined a world in which my father still roamed among us. Would I truly recognize the 73-year-old version of my father?

Ghost dad.

I don’t see ghosts of everyone I know who has died. I’ve never encountered any of my grandparents, aunts or uncles.

I have a theory: I see my father and I see my friend who died in January because I didn’t get to say good-bye to either of them. Unfinished business. I held my grandmother’s hand in the days before she died. I had a chance to thank my grandpa for all he had done in his life. In all cases except these two, I had the opportunity to  make some final connection.

Ghosts.

On a final note, a few years ago a visibly shaken stranger stopped me in a pharmacy, declaring me to be the spitting image of someone dead. Not that I looked like a corpse. Rather, I looked like the soccer coach at her daughter’s school who had recently died of cancer. This is why I’ll never approach anyone who looks like someone I know who has died. Awkward.

How the story ends

Too little, too late.

Or, I did all I could and it wasn’t enough.

Or, this is life sometimes.

Take your pick. My head is spinning with these three phrases, deciding which one to apply to my Saturday morning. Here’s how it went: A friend and former co-worker arrives at my house so that we can carpool to the nursing home where another former co-worker and friend is in hospice care. It’s been a long few weeks trying to find this dying friend. Just when I had given up hope of seeing her, I received an e-mail with her address and the advice: Hurry.

That was Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were impossible. I had no child care and serious commitments all day. Saturday was the earliest I could make it.

Saturday was too late.

With the best of intentions we arrived early to a quiet facility along a busy road. We worked our way through the maze of hallways and nurses stations asking all along the way where to find our friend. Finally, at the end of the longest hallway on the top floor, we entered the hospice wing.

A nurse spotted us standing in the empty waiting room.

“Who are you here to see?” she inquired.

We told her.

Then came the look. Then the news.

“No one called you?” the nursed asked, noting that others had also showed up to visit our friend who had died the night before.

“Know that she passed on peacefully and surrounded by loved ones,” the nurse said. “She was never alone. Not for one second.”

After all that her family endured watching a mother, a grandmother, a sister slip away, the best final chapter of such a tale of suffering would be that she was enveloped in love and kindness and compassion. It was exactly how she lived her life. What she gave out in generous  portions in life: care, comfort, kindness and joy she received back doubly in the end. I’m sorry  her exit was so painful.

Now, please excuse me, I have a long letter to write.

Why can't I say good-bye to you?

Photo by MZ

One of my friends is dying.

I think.

Doesn’t that sound odd?

I don’t know what is going on for certain. I rely upon e-mail and Facebook updates. My friend is a former co-worker, someone with whom I’ve worked off and on over the course of two decades. We kept in touch after I left my job. Until she got sick. Then she went underground. Or her family sequestered her for their own reasons. Whatever the story, I can no longer reach her by phone or e-mail or Facebook or through written requests sent by U.S. mail.

At first I was hurt. Then I brushed away my feelings, realizing that I was being self-centered. What did I know about terminal illness? Would I want a parade of visitors, no matter how well-meaning, filing past my sick bed or the sick bed of a loved one? Would I feel added pressure to somehow put on a brave face, have coffee and snacks available to feed my guests, worry about my house being a mess or about how everything appears to the uninitiated? My only experiences with death so far have been of the swift-moving type. Here today, gone tomorrow.

However, I know how comforting it was to have friends and family and acquaintances stop in to visit, drop off a cake or send a card after our family’s loss. So, I project this feeling on my friend’s situation. If I were dying and  no one called or wrote or tried in any way to visit me, wouldn’t I feel even worse? Maybe I wouldn’t know. Maybe the sharp edge of pain or the dulling effect of medication would keep me oblivious.

If  a long, wasting illness is how I exit this life, it will be my call how to handle it. This is her wish, or by proxy, her family’s call.  I must accept it no matter how much it tears at me.

Cancer isn’t discriminating. It sharpens the arrow and aims it toward any moving target. There aren’t any bull’s-eyes on the bad folks any more than there are protective shields on the good guys. I’ve watched as so many good-hearted, clean-living, health-conscious people in my life have stepped into its trajectory. I also marvel how others who seem to have a death wish just chug along, dodging all of death’s fast-moving arrows.

As crazy as this sounds, I sometimes dread logging on to my Facebook account and seeing that I have a message. The last one said: “She’s in hospice. It could be any time.”

How the hell am I supposed to react to that? My urge is to find her and rush to her side, to give her hand a squeeze, to tell her how thankful I am that she took me under her wing when I was a cub reporter, that she had my back, that she played a motherly role in my life when I needed it the most, that she made me laugh harder than just about anyone else on Earth, that I think she is one of the smartest, toughest, most caring and diplomatic people I’ve ever known.

I suppose the next time I see her will be at her funeral. I hope I’m wrong.

One of my friends is dying and I’m sorry I didn’t have one last chance to tell her how I feel.

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The things we do for love/PROMPTuesday


wash

By Kokopinto via Creative Commons

I recently discovered San Diego Momma and I’m glad I did. She does some great things on her blog, including PROMPTuesday. Today is my first time participating. Today’s prompt: “What’s the grossest thing you ever did for somebody because you loved him/her/it?”

After the initial phone call, the mad scramble to pull myself together and drive 30 miles to the hospital without getting into a car accident,
After the agonizing delay as we waited for the whole family to assemble in that little room pastoral care guided us to — the one with the muted lighting, the pleasant paintings and the nice chairs,
After someone figured out where my mother was and summoned her to the hospital,
After the ER doctor came in, flipped open one of those metal folders and rustled a bunch of papers, then gave it to us straight up, no bull,
After we all reacted in our own ways: hysteria, sobs, stoic sniffs, dabbed at eyes and noses with tissues and walked silently to an empty room to look at his form and say: “Yup, that’s him. There’s been no mix-up here,”
After all that, when everyone decided what they’d do next: the funeral home, the church, the suit to the cleaners, we left the hospital and I drove the 20 blocks to my parents’ house through a downpour of tears. When I got there it was empty. I set down my purse and walked to the living room, to where my father had died.

I stood over that spot and tried to process the last two hours of my life. The first thing I saw was an open medic bag left behind by a forgetful EMT. I snapped it shut and set it by the front entrance. What I wanted to do was grab that collection of plastic and metal and glass and hurl it at the wall, and watch as its useless contents shattered and scattered on the hardwood floor.
I returned to the spot, a rug of amber and burgundy patterned fabric my parents had purchased in Turkey a month earlier. The just-developed pictures of the two-week vacation were tucked in a nearby envelope. I’m sure there was a story attached to the procurement of this rug, something about a bazaar and bartering and haggling. The usual. That story was dead with my father.

That night, the rug and I wrote a new story. Because what was on that rug and the hardwood underneath was the second thing I saw when I walked in the room. I saw it and decided my mother should not come home to it.  She should not know of it, ever. So, that rug and I revised history by erasing the secrets it held. We wove the tale using a bucket of hot, soapy water and spray disinfectant and hydrogen peroxide.  We kept the secret of what’s left behind when someone dies not-so-peacefully on their own floor surrounded by helpless bystanders who don’t know what to do and those who do know what to do but cannot change the course of events unfolding.

Out of love I cleaned that mess. I straightened the askew lampshade, smoothed the afghan on the couch, restacked the logs by the fireplace that had toppled in some not-yet-explained struggle and carried the dirty bucket to the basement. I washed the secret from the bucket and rags. I scrubbed the story from my hands.

I did all that and then I went home.

What is, what isn't and what might have been

chicago

Chicago

A whirlwind trip to Chicago, the last season of an HBO series, and the death of a contemporary all have me thinking about impermanence.

As my husband and I strolled the busy streets of downtown Chicago last week, we noted the similarities between The Windy City and The Motor City. If you are from Detroit, you might agree. I don’t think residents of Chicagoland, however, would appreciate the comparison. In an up-close kind of way, the older architecture, some of the street names, the climate and geography all are similar enough to make us dream a little dream: We imagine that our home city has maintained the world-class status it held in the early 20th century, that it has continued to grow and prosper, compounding its assets rather than imploding into the decaying husk it is today. Things like this article and the reports from the “D Shack” seem edgy at best, as if journalists have been embedded in a war zone, and as the butt of a joke at worst. As much as I get angry about outside depictions of this area, a daily drive through it all only serves as a grim reminder of what is, what isn’t, and what might have been.

A day after our return to Day-Twah we attend a memorial service for a business associate of my husband. As we stand in the shadowy art gallery watching a still-photo montage of the guy’s life projected onto a wall, with tracks from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” filling the painful gaps in conversation, I realize the obvious: This is all we have. This moment. This now, with its gnawing desires to be somewhere in the future or its aches for what’s left in the past.  I watch the images loop endlessly as the deceased progresses from a pink-faced teen with a mullet hanging out with his buddies in their suburban neighborhood to a grown man with the responsibilities of a wife and two children. Unlike life, the slide show allows us to rewind time and start again. For a brief moment, we can trick ourselves into forgetting that death is why he is a two-dimensional image on a wall, that maybe he’s in the audience laughing and weeping with the rest of the group. I see the grieving cling to what cannot be held in hand; in a defining moment death bounces what is into what is not. All that remains is what might have been.

Our thoughts shift to a friend we lost to suicide a few years back. He was an avid fan of  HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” We never watched it during its original run, but have been working our way through all five seasons on DVD. We are a half dozen episodes away from the finale.  I have grown so attached to this show, to these characters, that I agonize over the fact that it will end. We’ve decided not to rush through to the final episode, but rather we’ll watch a few each week and let the story marinate. We watch the show with added interest, knowing our friend often discussed the characters and plot lines with us, even though we were clueless at the time. Now, we look for clues in a show that suggests a thousand different ways to die. We now understand what attracted him to the characters and story lines. We hope we don’t see the way in which he chose to end his life at 40.

In his death and in the closing of this show I realize I cannot get all the answers.  I cannot make something go beyond its expiration date. Maybe I’m more Detroit than Chicago, not fully realized yet, but with some seeds of hope for bigger and better things.   Like the real Detroit, the one a visitor or embedded reporter may not know, everything has some element worth knowing, some reason to stick around to make what might have been or what is not into something that is.

detroit

Detroit/credit umich.edu


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The stinging truth

Thirteen years ago our family had to wait two excruciating months to get one simple question answered: What killed dad?

And when we finally had our answer we didn’t know what to do with it. Turns out it wasn’t the heart attack we’d suspected. It was a random act of violence.
One that he had brought upon himself.

In all losses, there are lessons to be learned. Some are buried in symbolism. In this case, it’s obvious: If you have serious medical issues, it might be a good idea to let at least one other person know. If privacy is a concern, wear a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace.

Concealing a chronic condition serves no useful purpose. If the idea is to spare others any fuss, the purpose is defeated when you die. Funerals, wakes, estates and grieving are all fussy and messy.

I’m sure my brother has his own thoughts about that sweltering August evening when my father stumbled into the house mumbling something about bees. My brother thought dad was having a heart attack. He did what any of us would do: he summoned an ambulance. But it was too late.

My brother punished himself for a long time afterward because he didn’t now CPR. We later learned CPR doesn’t do much for someone in the advanced stages of anaphylactic shock. What does work is epinepherine. But we didn’t know what anaphylaxis was or that dad was deathly allergic to insect stings.  And we didn’t have an EpiPen in the house.

If we had been told of his condition, advised on what to do in the event of  a sting,  we could have at least tried to save him. 

Instead, we all fumbled around like fools, blaming the EMS workers and second-guessing every second of the 30 minutes between his cry for help and the hospital staff telling us he was dead. We alternated between  thinking it was a heart attack and theorizing that he encountered a swarm of bees. There had been reports of such attacks that summer.

Three months later as we prepared for our first Thanksgiving without him, we were stunned to read in the just-released autopsy report that he died of an allergic reaction from one bee sting. Medical examiners found a single puncture — not visible to the naked eye  – on dad’s left wrist. He died so fast his skin didn’t have time to swell. We were told that this type of reaction is a buildup over time. Death doesn’t generally come with the first sting. No doubt he was warned of this outcome and advised on preventive measures.

My father knew and didn’t tell us.  Why? 

We knew that dad wasn’t one to remember things he didn’t want to remember.

We knew he abhorred illness/weakness of any kind.

My mother knew that dad had once sought medical attention after an incident involving a hornet’s nest. But nothing more was said of it.  Mom tried to get answers from the doctor, who declined citing patient privacy laws. 

I wondered if in those minutes before he lost consciousness my father welcomed this hasty exit from life. Was it part of a grand plan? Who thrusts themselves into a bee-infested garden when they have deadly allergies? Or did he have a last-minute regret for being secretive, foolhardy? Perhaps he overestimated his ability to save himself.

I was angry with dad for a long time. I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye or to say how sorry I was we quarreled the last time we saw each other. He barely had a chance to bond with his first grandchild, my now teenaged daughter who was only 18 months old at the time. How quickly Girl from the West forgot her “gampa.” Within a few months, she no longer recognized his image in family photos.

I’ve finally forgiven my father for this final oversight in a long line of omissions. But I can’t help but recall his own words of advice to me:

A man gets to be an expert on survival in the wilderness. He gets a little cocky. He makes a fatal mistake. Nature wins.