Monday, December 28, 2015

The tortuous route to not-being...

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My father’s gone now, too. According to recent family lore, he was aiming for All Saints Day, and almost made it. He died late on Halloween night. When I saw him at the hospital, his eyes were rolled back and his mouth was open, and he was breathing irregularly. I don’t know if he could hear me telling him I loved him, or if he could feel my hand on his, or feel my hand stroking his head with its sparse white hairs. My gestures were sincere, and I vaguely hoped he would pick up the feeling and take it with him into wherever, but then I remembered that I don’t believe in any wherever, and neither did he. If he wasn’t even conscious at that moment, what would be the difference a few hours later when he was dead?
My sister had driven me back to the cluttered homestead around 8 pm, and I was on my second or third beer when my brother called with the news of my father’s passing. I immediately called my high-school friend in Maine, Janet. I was still under the decades-long illusion that she cared about me and my family, and she seemed suitably sympathetic. I had called her a year-and-a-half earlier, when my mother died. She said she felt “privileged” that she was the one I called, but I couldn’t tell if she said it with irony or not. She hasn’t written to me in the last few years except for one postcard. I know she’s retired, and spends a lot of time with her brother and sister and their families. Her parents are both gone; that happened some years ago. She had said then that she felt like an orphan. I was so sorry for her at the time; I didn’t know that was something everyone says. My overseas sister later told me not to say that about myself, though. My overseas sister feels she contains the best of what both our parents taught (or inadvertantly gave) her, and therefore, she will never be an orphan. I am urged to feel the same way. But all I feel is a bit angry.
My bedridden father had only gone to the hospital for oxygen. He knew he needed oxygen because he was hallucinating, he’d said. While there, they discovered he had pneumonia in one lung and his heart was failing. After oxygen, antibiotics and a few other things, they put something in his mouth, maybe nitroglycerine. It caused a bad reaction, and things got worse. I wish I knew more about this incident, which occurred the day before I got there. My brother had been by his side most of the time, but had been away when this thing happened. After this thing happened my father was unconscious, and that’s the condition he was in when I saw him. I am angry that this happened, and angry that death hasn’t been “peaceful” for either of my parents. My mother died as she was being cleaned by the hospice nurse. She yelled in pain, my sister said, as she was rolled onto her recently operated-on hip to facilitate the nurse’s actions. Then suddenly, she, uh, ceased to exist.
Why couldn’t my parents have died peacefully and painlessly in their sleep? The whole process, so long-drawn-out and pain-filled, is not a good conclusion to a life, however that life was lived. It isn’t fair. I am angry. I am not looking forward to my own demise. I used to think that being dead would be fine, since it would be the end of obligations and responsibilities. No more worries! However, if the last part of life is just a horrible mess, regardless of how long or how well you lived, then it’s just a destructive sensory weight crushing any pleasant memories or thoughts that might be drifting through one’s mind. In fact, it seems “designed” to cancel out everything good about life. I am angry. And I suppose I have been naive.
About two months after my father's death, a good friend died of ovarian cancer that she’d “battled” for two years. She was in her fifties. I saw her two weeks before it happened, on Thanksgiving weekend (a time I’d already planned to visit my family, thinking my father would still be alive). I drove to upstate New York from Massachusetts to see her for half an hour. She was skeletal, weary, unable to swallow, teary. And yet she was putting on a brave (British; she grew up in the UK) face, trying to be sociable. We stared at each other. I almost cried, but the tears remained behind my eyes. I haven’t cried for years. Something is wrong with me, I guess.
This is all very depressing. I strongly feel I need to concoct a new approach to life, a new attitude to take me through my remaining 20 (maybe) years. But I don’t know what notions to pursue, or what resources to gather from within myself. Spirituality is not working for me. But neither is materialism (that is, science). I think I need some good experiences, but right now I’m just trudging through the same old daily experiences. Where could I possibly find the energy (let alone funds) for any new experiences when I can’t even cope with the usual ones?
Happy New Year!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bridge over the river whatever...

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It’s difficult these days for me to feel comfortable writing anything that’s not part of a welter of comments and posts; to write something that’s not tied by however slender a thread to some fuzzily defined consensus of my friends on Facebook. Well, that’s not exactly true—I do write contradictory or curmudgeonly posts, but only when I know I might have secret support. I might, for instance, gently mock some absurd “New Age” idea, especially if it’s just a “meme,” and not actually composed by a Facebook friend to express her deep convictions.
Facebook aside, there’s this huge VOID. Yes, the void. The abyss. But it’s a very foggy one. For all I know, the drop could be about five feet into some mud. Or, it could be infinite and cold and full of meaningless stars. There’s not much within me these days to get me motivated; and I can tell that what is there is merely intellectual—a few thoughts to keep me clinging to future possibilities of interest. But there is no real emotional need, yearning, repulsion, or discernment between one or another activity, or even between one or another person. Well, that’s not exactly true—I do have my preferences. Even when I’m just “hanging out,” I rarely do it with more than one person, or for more than two consecutive hours. That I can be with my husband for days is a given; it’s a condition, not a challenge. Yes, I take him for granted, and I am grateful to be able to do that. I do try to occasionally show him I care.
With retirement envisioned to happen in less than a year now, I’m no longer invested feelingly in work. I have neither the bursts of compassion nor muffled fits of fury that I used to have. I just want to get through the day. This is not really “me” anymore.
And my body is slow and achy; it’s no longer eager. It wants to lie down all the time. It wants to eat, drink, and be slothful. My mind wants to avoid stress or focusing.
I have a hazy sense of “unfairness” regarding my mother being gone, just when she was beginning to mellow, and to offer loving that wasn’t conditional (nevertheless with religious admonitions attached). It took long enough! I supposed I’d become a little more receptive, too. One of the last things she said to me was, “You guys were an interesting bunch.” Faint, but welcome praise, at long last.
I have a lot I can do. I can watch pretty-good new series on the computer. I can take up Scene Study classes again, and am trying to do so without paying by just being involved in the one scene from “I Love You, I Love You Not” with 14-year-old Sue. I can think about my collaged-artifacts art project that I hope to do for next spring. I can consider starting that book about my mother that I so wanted to write immediately after her death. But these days I don’t have any strong feeling of wanting to do anything. And that makes me worry. I hope it will come back—some kind of wanting—however ludicrous or inappropriate it might be. Better some crazy, rickety bridges across the abyss than just standing on its edge, staring and wondering, and ultimately being utterly bored by the fog with which it’s apparently filled.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My mother and her sort-of legacy...


It’s been about nine months since my mother died. The tides that have turned in my mind since then aren’t significant in themselves. At first I felt she was watching me from above, but that lasted one afternoon. I don’t really “believe” in an afterlife, so the sense of being spied upon faded quickly. Now I must figure out why she DID believe, and I don’t— despite her best efforts and prayers. Is it something I lack? Or did she lack something? Was there a void she had to fill?
After the first purging of junk mail and papers from the boxes in her room (my task upon my first visit to the old house after her death) I had second thoughts. Wouldn’t it be amazing to compile a list of all the Catholic charities that had solicited her contributions (sometimes successfully)? The list would read like a found poem. I could still throw out the envelopes and papers, but I could write down the names of the organizations— “The Society of Saint Gertrude the Great,” for instance. But I didn’t. My task would have taken too long, and I was in a hurry, although I’m not sure why. I guess I wanted to make my visit fruitful by at least eliminating all the cardboard boxes from the room, leaving just the dresser drawers and file cabinet (also filled with papers and junk mail).
Then my brother Michael came in (the one closest to me in age, who was my pal when we were young). I gestured to papers, correspondence, hand-written diatribes in half-filled journals about changes in the Catholic Church. “It was her life’s work,” he said. That statement horrified me, as if I had been throwing out my mother’s personhood. I ended up stuffing my backpack full of the more interesting correspondence and journal entries, and bringing it back to Alabama with me. I am thinking about writing a book.
What I can’t get a grip on is the distance, the discrepancy, between my non-belief and her belief. She was a person who lived every moment (apparently) wishing and hoping that Christ and/or God (the Trinity is a puzzling doctrine) would punish all transgressors ASAP. And transgressors included not only the usual violators of all Ten Commandments, but priests and popes who had changed Catholic rituals she’d grown up with. In one of her writings, she is aghast that wooden pews have been replaced with cushioned pews, and bowing substituted for one-knee genuflection. She called it “anathema.” She abhorred change. The 1960s was not a good time for a person like this to be raising children. All of us must have, at various times, terrified, tortured, and deeply disappointed her simply by being who we were, and by falling under the influence of "modernism," aka "Satan."
I apologized to her on her deathbed (she couldn’t talk back intelligibly, probably because of a stroke) for putting her through all that. And I thanked her for helping me out of a few bad situations. But just as it had been at my Aunt Josephine’s deathbed when my aunt turned to me and asked, “So, what about religion?” I was unable to reassure either of them that I believed in God or Jesus or Mother Mary (although Mary is a pretty cool figure to contemplate). To my aunt I could only repeat, “We really can’t know, can we?” I don’t remember what I said to my mother, who was unable to ask. Probably nothing. But I couldn’t lie. I'd told her my views in letters. I couldn’t pretend. Why couldn’t I at least pretend? And, digging slightly deeper, why couldn’t I actually BELIEVE? I don’t even know whether I’m GLAD that I cannot believe, or profoundly sad about myself in that respect.
So many people believe, or say they do. However, I've not met anyone who believed like my mother did. My mother refused to attend my brother’s wedding--even though it took place in a church--because it wasn’t Catholic (neither was his bride). My mother refused to allow the father of my sister’s children to stay in her house, even though they’d traveled all the way from Spain to introduce her grandchildren to her (they weren’t married at the time).
My mother walked a multi-strand tightrope of religious principles all her life. She welcomed suffering of all kinds (refusing to have a gallbladder operation that would have alleviated months of ensuing pain (the gradual cessation of which she called a “miracle” although it might have been her gallbladder simply ceasing to function).
My mother, the good Catholic woman, refused to use birth control, and thus had many children, some of whom I'm sure neither she nor my father were ready for, emotionally or financially. My father did not share her beliefs, although he went through the motions, something for which she never forgave him; he was a deceiver.
No one but a saint could have believed as firmly and deeply as my mother did. I think she WAS aiming for sainthood of a sort. But she left me a puzzle. And I need to solve it. I’ve already thought of a title for my book: “Momya: The Story of a Believer and Her Wayward Daughter.” What do you think? Catchy?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

She's gone...the most influential person in my life...


My mother just died. Yes, she up and died. Why did she do such a thing? Well, her body was exhausted, after 90 years of living. She’d had six children, a few of them quite challenging to raise. She’d been associated with a husband (my father) who perhaps did not satisfy her needs (and I don’t mean sexual, but simply a strong, involved, male presence capable of relating emotionally). Not that there is anything wrong with my father. He was a great provider with very interesting ideas and interests. My sister quite likes him. I found him wanting. I needed his attention when I was a teen and did not get it. So I paid him back, I guess. He spent money he did not have on my counseling and etc. But, back to my mother.
I was fortunate to see a lot of her in the last five or six years. When she started inviting me to her funeral, I guess I started visiting a lot. Twice a year at least. Since I live 900 miles away, that was an effort. Not a huge effort, but an effort. And there was more affection than usual. Quite odd for our family. Maybe she actually loved me! Maybe I actually loved her!
It was a wonderful thing that all six of her children could be with her about two weeks before she died. She was on hospice care at home. I arrived about two hours after she’d been brought home from the hospital, having gone into hip surgery able to speak, and having come out not able to speak. I do not know why this was; perhaps another mini-stroke. She’d already had two. AND breast cancer. AND a heart attack. She was a trouper. She was strong. But no one is infinitely strong.
The strange thing is, I’d broken my own pelvis after a fall...just six weeks before that. My mother was worried about me. But I recovered. She did not. I was at her side when she was pretty conscious for a few days after returning from the hospital. I told her I was sorry for the trouble I’d given her as a teenager. I told her lots of things. I am not sure they were the things she wanted to hear.
The love between us seemed to suddenly come into view in the last few years. It wasn’t always visible. There was so much anger, especially on my part. She was always a lot stronger than I was, and always worried and giving advice. I remember when I came home from a car trip to Maine and back to visit friends. I had driven it straight; it wasn’t THAT long a drive. She remarked that I should have taken a rest stop. I responded with fury. That was in 1980, so long ago. Since then I’ve felt more and more tenderness for her.  And I’ve realized she felt that for me.
So, what do I do now? I think the only thing I have learned, which I suspected all along, was that everyone has a reason, and everyone is struggling. In some ways, my mother (partly because of her religion) seemed sure of herself, psychologically. When she became physically weaker I was able to give her something, perhaps. I have realized that she cared about me in a primal way; it has nothing to do with competing philosophies. At what level do I want to live and experience things? If I stick to the basic level, I was loved by her. Yes, I was. And that is good to know.