Perhaps home is not a place

Graves-InTheNight

In the Night Morris Graves

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition — James Baldwin

I always thought I ended up in Ireland by accident, a small mistake somewhere, a wrong turn perhaps when heading West from Japan after three glorious months as a go-go dancing bar girl.

I am forever dissonant, a daw in peacock feathers, a waterless fish, a kicker against the pricks. Ireland, where you could shock people by eating a hamburger on Friday, was a mysterious choice.

In the beginning I was entranced, as so many are. I slept in a beehive hut water tight since the Middle Ages and at the base of the Rock of Cashel guarded by a Millennium of broken churches. There was music; the green; stone walls clambering over bogy hills; the passage grave at New Grange which you could visit unaccompanied and which, in those circumstances, was as ravishing and as spiritual as Haga Sofia and the Temples of Japan.

But none of these is enough to keep anyone occupied for four decades. I have considered the hypothesis that I stayed precisely because I didn’t fit — embracing my internal otherness as it were.

An example:

I share dog walks with a woman for several years. One day she mentions grandmother. “My grandmother’s family was Protestant. She married a Catholic and she had nine children. Whenever my grandmother’s mother came to visit, she’d throw some of the children over the wall.” Meaning, it turned out, her grandmother sent them to the neighbours’ to hide until her mother left. Hiding your children from you mother because their number offends her religion is not another country to me, it is another, an exotic universe.

My grandmother went to visit my mother shortly after she graduated from college. My mother was living in Seattle where she shared an apartment with the painter Morris Graves — it was a Platonic tryst, Morris being gay. My grandmother gave their address to a taxi driver who refused to take her because it was in the heart of the Red Light district. My grandmother, worthy progenitress of my mother and myself, got there anyway. She knocked and was greeted by Morris, who was stark naked with a tea towel over his arm. He bowed and she went in. When my mother returned from work some hours later my grandmother, daughter of a Methodist minister and the wife of a Methodist minister, was sitting at the kitchen table having an amicable cup of tea with the still naked Morris.

However, now when I am leaving Ireland again — my dogs and a cat almost packed, my flight booked, my friends visited, my garden prepared for a long winter of neglect –– I am abandoning the exotic hypothesis.

It is raining, a thanks-to-global-warming un-Irish deluge. I am walking home, no raincoat, no umbrella. My hair is dripping, my shoes squish. I pass the plumbing supply shop, the only business in our row of Victorian red brick houses. Michael, one of the men who works in the shop, hails me. “Just a minute,” he says and whips out an umbrella from behind the door. I reach out my hand thinking he is going to hand it to me, but he unfurls it and holds it over me all the rest of the way home.

A friend, another American ex-patriot, understands in a way that Irish never do why I am heartbroken about leaving even if it’s only months. “The Irish,” he says, “don’t understand what they have.”

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…because although you fear death you don’t believe it

Snap Dragon Seed     (c) carole craig

…because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier — Nazim Hikmet

My mother’s upward swing, propelled by music and appreciation, has reversed.  The simplest things require the help of two people.  She is so weak she tries to sit in mid air and is sometimes afraid to move.

In fact we are all afraid. My mother is afraid of rising, turning, walking; my daughter fears her falling again.   I’m afraid of breaking faith.

There is no doubt I saw coming to take care of my mother as planting myself firmly on the moral high ground.  As the proteiform relationship with her plays out, I want a place from which I can look back and know I’ve done the right thing.  The stories I hear of the institutional alternatives – assisted living, board and care, nursing home, whatever – are more often than not filled with pain for the displaced and the displacer.  Over and over I think ‘I can’t do that’.

But I can.

The nurse from hospice at home says it might be time, the social worker is supportive and I cry with guilt.  The residential hospice has a patio with flowers, books in the common room, televisions that aren’t on all the time and the director brings his puppy to work.   It is as good as it is going to get and we book her in.

The strange thing is that even before we tell her what is going to happen, she begins to improve.  She stands –– with help, but without fear.  She walks across her bedroom.  She eats. She remembers more things.  My daughter and I wonder if we’ve made a mistake.  An ambulance is scheduled to take her to the new ‘home’ and I try to summon the nerve to cancel it.  Then, two nights before she is to go, I wake to a thump and another one.   I go to my mother’s room.  Or try to. She has fallen on the way to the toilet and lies sprawled on the floor against the door.  I have to push her out of the way to get in.  There is a smear of blood where she hit her head.  There are no serious injuries, but my daughter and I keep regurgitating that image of blood trailing down the door and don’t cancel the ambulance.

The room she is assigned at the hospice looks out on a wall, the man with the puppy is taking some time off, one friend asks if she is being held against her will and another offers to drive her home.  She will have to stay, for a while at least, I am going back to Ireland to pack my dogs.

I get emails with updates.  She is still eating.  So many friends visit an online schedule is set up.  They play music on the patio.  She starts to read.  For the first time in six months her fingers are pink and her toes don’t turn blue whenever she is vertical.

I tell a friend in Dublin about it.  He laughs.  His mother-in-law was like that he says.  For ten years.  He tells me about an evening the surgeon said she’d be dead before morning.  “Better arrange the funeral.”  My friend, a gardener, put on his suit and went to the funeral home.  With everything set up he went back to the hospital.  His mother-in-law was sitting up and eating a hearty meal.   She eyed the suit. “Out collecting money?” she asked. She outlived the surgeon by years.

I ring my mother.  “How are you,”  I ask.
“Fine.  I’m in the right place, but I’m not dying.”

(NB: blog is running 4 weeks behind real time…will catch up soon)

On Living  — Nazim Hikmet

I
Living is no laughing matter:
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel, for example–
I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
you must take it seriously,
so much so and to such a degree
that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
in your white coat and safety glasses,
you can die for people–
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees–
and not for your children, either,
but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,
because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

II
Let’s say you’re seriously ill, need surgery–
which is to say we might not get
from the white table.
Even though it’s impossible not to feel sad
about going a little too soon,
we’ll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we’ll look out the window to see it’s raining,
or still wait anxiously
for the latest newscast …
Let’s say we’re at the front–
for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
we might fall on our face, dead.
We’ll know this with a curious anger,
but we’ll still worry ourselves to death
about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let’s say we’re in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
before the iron doors will open.
We’ll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind–
I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
we must live as if we will never die.

III
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet–
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space …
You must grieve for this right now
–you have to feel this sorrow now–
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived” …

Translated from Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk (1993)