What other way can one threaten if not with death…..

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Powerscourt, Ireland (c) Carole Craig

What other way can one  threaten if not with death? The original, the interesting would be for someone to be threatened with immortality.”    Jorge Luis Borges        Biografía Verbal by Roberto Alifano,

[“¿De qué otra forma se puede amenazar que no sea de muerte? Lo interesante, lo original, sería que alguien lo amenace a uno con la inmortalidad.” ]

My mother has begun to talk of dying.

A litany of distant deaths:  the nurse  at the Farm Security Administration took a day off work sick, ‘They found her that day but she died.’  Her friend Malvina Reynolds in hospital, ‘I told everyone Malvina would get well, but she died’;  her sister at a nursing home, ‘We left and twenty minutes later she died’;  a neighbor who fell down dead,  ‘Can you imagine?  Just like that, she died.’

My mother has known other deaths.  Why these? They were all so unexpected.

‘I was thinking I was in control of my dying situation,’ she says.  ‘I would be able to say when to myself and die when I said. I don’t feel it any more’  My mother keeps her eyes on the corner of her room and clutches the bed rail.

At the end of the week she is calm.  ‘I was thinking I might die last night but then I thought it wouldn’t be fair to Alex.’

Her love for my daughter is worshipful.

Alex will miss you very much, but she won’t be surprised.  

Why hasn’t my deep grief begun?  Is it because our relationship was difficult? My mother in a moment of crisis told me it became difficult for her when I was five (that was not her word but it will do).  I thought it was nine when the babysitter came to live with us.

It has been painful, but I don’t think we’ve had the worst of relationships.  We liked to do things together.  She introduced me to the summer-traveling, life-changing circus.  I took her down the Amazon in a bird cage boat and across the Sinai in a taxi to Palestine for Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.

She put me through college and when I had to have money because my daughter was so desperately ill, I spent hers.  She needs me now and I have packed my Irish life and come.

I don’t think it is  the relationship that has stunted my feelings.  It seems to me that my mother is  trapped in a zero sum game.  The longer she lives the worse living becomes.

My mother tells me another story about death.  A friend was with her mother when she died.  “She said she saw her mother’s soul leave her body.  It flew around the room several times, so she went to the window and let it out.”

THE JUNK MAN

Carl Sandberg

I AM glad God saw Death
And gave Death a job taking care of all who are tired
of living:

When all the wheels in a clock are worn and slow and
the connections loose
And the clock goes on ticking and telling the wrong time
from hour to hour
And people around the house joke about what a bum
clock it is,
How glad the clock is when the big Junk Man drives
his wagon
Up to the house and puts his arms around the clock and
says:
“You don’t belong here,
You gotta come
Along with me,”
How glad the clock is then, when it feels the arms of the
Junk Man close around it and carry it away

Found in the folder with my mother’s will

Now it’s high watermark….

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Memorial Gardens Dublin (c) Carole Craig

Now it’s high watermark and floodtide in the heart and time to go.― Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Somewhere in the complicated canon of Irish mythology there are stories in which the island of Ireland can hide itself at will, fading into the sea like a Tir na Og or a Hy Brasil.  Present, but unseen.

The week I leave Dublin, the poet Seamus Heaney dies.  He was my lecturer the first year, a humble bear of a man, a dear friend of friends; we went to the same parties then; heard the same gossip, shared tea in the university cafeteria. His death, too soon as death is, wounds.   Ireland is not more distant, merely less visible, its weight is felt.

The first week back with my mother: her face is round, her skin pink, her smile cherubic. It seems the flow of reports that she thrived, even somewhat recovered, are true.  Except it is rare now for her to leave her bed and sleep pulls at her constantly.  Behind the closed door she cries because it is so difficult to stand.

A hospice nurse telephones me.  He wants to discuss medication. She wheezes when she breathes.  Are these decisions about life or death?  ‘No. She’s fading,’ he says, ‘but not quickly.  Maybe she hasn’t decided it’s okay to let go.

We’re going to need more money.  My two dogs, my one cat and I are living in the spare basement room; it keeps us out of other people’s way.  I will have to rent my mother’s room.  I want, gently, to talk to her about her things: what is precious? what is dear? what goes to whom?

‘Why are you asking her?’  someone says.  It is heartfelt,  concern for her is profound.  ‘She’s at peace, leave her alone. ‘

If I don’t ask, it will feel like revenge.

I start with her clothes because they have never mattered much to her, I haven’t liked many of them,  I think that will be easy.  Almost at once I come across her things for stage: the Palestinian dress we bought in Jerusalem, the Guatemalan one we bought in Mexico, the one that came from our friend whose husband died in this house and who died herself soon after.  There are shorts and shirts my mother embroidered and the ones that people embroidered for her.  I feel like a ghoul and only gather enough for a small bag.

Another visit with my mother:  Three people have died in the hospice.  They bring the bodies along the side of the building and she can see them pass.  She is not upset.

Do you think about dying yourself?

‘I prefer not to   She stares at a corner of her room for a long time, one hand holding the other.  I’m afraid of turning it off…

What off?

An uncomfortable smile.  ‘I don’t know, I’ll think of it.‘

I wait.  Silence.

Again. ‘I’m afraid of turning it off…‘

I wait.

She closes her eyes and sleeps.

“Now it’s high watermark

and floodtide in the heart

and time to go.

The sea-nymphs in the spray

will be the chorus now.

What’s left to say?―

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

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.”

.

.

…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 then 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.  A smear of blood marks the door 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)

If you cannot teach me to fly…

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Faith at Free Folk Festival 2013

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.”   attributed to J.M. Berrie, Peter Pan

For a while now it has seemed that my mother’s firmly held belief that she would recover from old age might have something to it.  This upward swing came after a concert in her honor followed by a standing ovation from the folk music club of which she was chief protector, organizer and bottle washer for decades.   Music and admiration: her elixir vitae.

My earliest memories of my mother as a singer is the feel of coats. Rough, outdoor coats laid high on beds where I slept.  Prickly, but wonderful to burrow under when tired of adults talking, in all senses, over my head.  My mother took two things to parties in the early days: me and her guitar.

I remember only one song from that time and that not for the music:  Goodnight Irene by Leadbelly, blues guitarist extraordinaire.  My mother knew Leadbelly in New York, was better friends with his wife and somehow mixed with the singing of his song was the story that Leadbelly’s wife taught my mother “you could lead any man in the world down the street when you had him by the balls.” I spent a great deal of time under the coats trying to form an image to match that piece of information.

When I was older I sang some songs with my mother;  I had taught myself to read music at the age of five and was told I was a good singer with natural harmony. When I was nine my mother replaced me.  Nothing explained, not a word, just my babysitter was always asked to sing and not me.  I never carried a tune after that, don’t sing and every instrument I touched put something in front of my mouth.  When the folk music club began to meet at my mother’s house every other week, the relationship, as one might imagine, was somewhat strained.  Not only did they treat our home as though it was a public amenity, but they were a reminder that I had been weighed and found wanting in what mattered to my mother most.

There were still advantages: backstage passes at festivals, a few encounters with the famous. The one I remember best was Kris Kristofferson (newly coming to fame) and Ramblin Jack Elliot (friend and student of Woodie Guthrie, friend and teacher of Bob Dylan) spending the night because the toilet backed up and they were ones who unplugged it.

It was only after my mother broke her hip last year that I began to see the club in its constituent parts, the help and affection for her from its members.  And it was at this last concert, the one that pushed her uphill, that the outpouring finally touched me.

The last song of the set was Carl Williams’s It’s a Pleasure to Know You  which has been her signature farewell since she started letting go of parts of her old life.

My mother is in a wheel chair at the front, someone is holding a mike for her, everyone in the room is standing and singing.  Not just people from the club, but people who have been a part of my life: people I travelled in the circus with, people who supported me when I discovered I was pregnant, people who were there for me when my daughter was ill.  And there are tears running down my face at the sweet sadness of my mother’s good bye.  And I’m singing.

(link my mother singing It’s a Pleasure to Know You 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbVeyG0DH_A)

They set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light,

 

 

Golden Gate Park, evening

 

“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” Cormac McCarthy, The Road

My world, like my mother’s, is shrinking. Each of us orbits three points.

Hers: bed, bathroom and bright sunlight in a lion-footed chair. In truth, the time in the chair is short.  A few vertical minutes and she wants to go back to bed.  She is most comfortable in a world that is largely horizontal if not quite flat.

When she arrived, San Francisco was to be first stop on a trip around the world; my mother planned to find a ship and sail West.   Waiting, she hung out at the Black Cat Bar on Montgomery Street.  It was frequented by writers like Saroyan and Steinbeck, a scene of Kerouac’s On the Road is set there.  Bohemian San Francisco enfolded and held her.

“It was five cents a song.  Some one gave you a quarter and you only played four.  The juke box gave you back a nickel. When you had a twenty five cents you went to Chinatown and bought dinner.”  The story was always told in a restaurant where Beijing ducks hung in a row by the cash register, the menu was written largely in Chinese and our chop sticks were poised over something sweet and sour.   Choosing to stay made perfect sense.

My world now is not much larger than the points my mother was able to walk to three months ago:  her house, the row of shops around the corner and Haight Street, two blocks from the famous Ashbury intersection.

I was here for the Summer of Love, but missed it, being too busy with a never-completed philosophy Ph.d or working in a topless bar to fund same, I can’t remember which.  So the current parade down Haight Street is a little lost to me.  Mostly young, they wear layers of clothes; the girls frequently have corn cob hair and the boys usually don’t have beards. They have backpacks and dogs and congregate in Golden Gate Park, but don’t make their own music, there are no fields for dancing, no signs saying “Make love not war.”  On the surface, it is more post-apocalypse The Road, than Hippie Neverland.

Perhaps deeper down as well.  I meet Benjamin who dreams of moving on.  Tall, with light red hair a few inches below his striped knit hat, good teeth and a great smile.   “My father was a Vietnam Vet.  When I was 9 he flipped out.  He wasn’t very nice to me,” he fondles his hair, “because I look like my mom.  I went to the Vets Administration to try to get help for my problems.  They helped him because he is a disabled veteran, but not me, his spawn.  Sometimes it is very hard.”  He has a list of cities where things will be different: Seattle, Vancouver, London.

I’ve lived in six different countries and been around the world twice.  I think he might be right.  Sometimes new, strange places, feet on the open road, wind in your hair work a cure.  I wish him luck and complete my tight little circle.

When I get home my mother is in bed.  Eyes closed.  Not sleeping, she says.  I wonder what goes on in her mind.

A visitor has brought her a tea towel.  Embroidered on it:   “I live in my own little world.  It is okay, they know me there.”

The past is never where you think…

Cimarron County, Oklahoma 1936

The past is never where you think you left it — Katherine Anne Porter

 In San Francisco I keep my past in a trunk.  The trunk is old and barrel-topped, bound in copper patterned like crocodile skin, with a lock that has no key.   Each time I come back, I  pick the lock and rummage to see what I’ll find — a tray from the President of Mexico, given to me and every other foreign journalist there that year; my grandmother’s crocheted lace;  a necklace from Yasir Arafat’s sister (this is a personal gift); a blue vase made by a college friend in hospital after she tried to kill herself — fragments for which there is no present place but without which, mysteriously, I would be bereft.

The trunk has a past of its own — a fantasia of theft, requited love, and honour with a coda of small triumph.

It was given to me my mother’s friend S., a Dust Bowl refugee, an Okie,  whose life lay somewhere among songs by Woodie Guthrie and a Steinbeck novel.  “I thought chickens were only necks and wings ‘till I was about twenty,” he’d say.

He was a big man, married to a big woman.  They made their living “buying junk and selling antiques.”  The lot with the trunk contained, among other things, a three sided mirror, an 1890s book of pressed flowers, an old stove, $350,000 in securities, $42,000 in cash, and it sent S. to jail.  He’d bought the contents of a house where an old man had died without heirs; a bank had been given control of the estate.  While S. loaded his two tone Chevy pickup someone from the bank, in a grey suit as I remember,  searched everything for valuables.  The searcher skipped the stove — I think  he didn’t want to  get his hands dirty — and that was where the money was.

S. kept the money, feeling he had as much right to it as the bank. Enough people on  the jury agreed with him to deliver a hung verdict on the grand theft charge, but had to find him guilty of perjury. They’d all heard him lie about what he’d done with the cash.  When S. was led away to start his year in prison and we, his friends, were crying, the prosecutor walked across the courtroom, shook S.’s hand and smiled. “See you again,”  he said.

We hated him for that.

My mother and I visited S. every weekend and when S got out he wanted to leave his wife for her.  I think it was difficult, but she refused.  “I wouldn’t be as good a wife as the one he has.”

In the end, though, she did do something for S.  She humiliated the prosecutor.

I spent my last week of high school sitting-in to protest atom bomb testing in the Pacific.  We camped out in front of  the main post office, Joan Baez sang to us, and I missed my senior prom.  After a  week we were arrested for trespass. In those days peaceful protest was a right, arrest was optional and juveniles were routinely released.

My mother showed up at Juvenile Hall to reclaim me and was told I had to stay in jail.  The U.S. Attorney, the same man who had prosecuted  S. and by then  the first African American U.S. Attorney in the continental United States, had decided to charge us with a felony.   My mother was  so incensed she tracked him down, had him summoned over the loud speaker out of a San Francisco Giants game and got him to rescind the order.  We were freed that night, but I’ve always thought it was the victory for S. the Everyman.

My mother is sitting in the sun at the dining room table.  “Did you love S.?”  I ask.

“I don’t know any more.”  She closes her eyes.

Paradise as a library…

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”  —  Jorge Luis Borges

In front of the house

The house I was raised in had a room called the library and it was, as befitted its name, filled with books.  The house needed repair and sat on a rutted dirt road close to the city limits.  Neighbors, few and far between, were blue-collar Italian and Irish Catholics.  They grew flowers or cut hair or worked for Southern Pacific Railroad or, these were the elite, served as firemen and policemen.   In fact, the policeman who killed the city mayor and a supervisor in the 1970s — because one was liberal and one was gay or because the policeman had been eating too much sugar — grew up just down the hill.

Our neighbors watched early television, went to mass, had light wall-to-wall carpets that were always clean, kept large ornate dolls with perfect hair and skirts made of lace spreading evenly over bedroom pillows, and had families that sat around the table at supper time facing each other.  No one lifted a fork until grace was said.  Our house was small and ramshackle; there were no carpets, TV came late, and when supper was ready my mother and I went to get our books to read while we ate.

Some  books were hidden at the height of the McCarthy hearings and I remember my mother’s fear when I found them and my fear when baby sitter said if I didn’t do what she said she would send my mother to prison and my mother saying yes, she could that.  But the books survived.

When we moved to the Haight Ashbury  — the Upper Haight it was called — on the cusp of the exuberant 60s, the library disappeared, but my mother kept reading.  Books by her bed: Native American history, modern novels, science fiction, nature studies, random essays, politics, short stories, and anything anyone handed her and suggested a look.  The books didn’t just sit, she read them cover to cover.

Recently, her reading became simpler: Carl Hiaasen, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency several times,  and whatever I brought her from the free box at Green Apple Books.

Not any more.

Ten days ago, having successfully reached the top floor after the heroic, arduous, hand over hand climb, she fell.  There were no injuries but no apparent cause. The emergency room doctor said they could do more tests or she could go home. Then he reached over and patted her hand, “I think you should go home.”

Her own doctor told us that perhaps it was time to have dessert before dinner if she wanted it or dessert instead of dinner if she wanted that, she could stay in bed all day if she so desired, but no stairs and maybe the hospice should pay us a visit.

At some point since, the reading stopped.  My mother lies in the new bed in the sitting room eyes closed or staring in front of her.  I’m not sure she understands what the doctors meant.  I want her to understand —  if she can, if she wants to —  because I would want to if it were me.

I sit on the bed next to her and take her hand.  Behind the bed is a wall of bookshelves, it has only the  books on folk music.

I look at them.  “What do you want to happen to them?” I ask.

It takes her a long time to say anything now.  Finally.  “I always thought I could take them with me.”

My mother and I are isolated…

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shipyard arc welders lunching, 1943

My mother and I are isolated, but not alone.  The very old are everywhere, scattered over the landscape, worn and scraped but going still.   Common wisdom is that it is the duty of their children to keep them running.

This is an unexpected shower on the Baby-Boomer parade.  My generation which has had so much — Elvis, the Beatles, college educations, smoking and inhaling,  Timothy Leary, jobs, Andy Warhol, the Pill, Woodstock, owning their own homes, only one war  —  finds added to this cornucopia gems like the Boomers’ Guide to Ageing Parents and agingparents.com.

I’m not sure I am a true Boomer; I was too early for that famous surge of post war euphoria. My mother’s first memory of my birth is people crying on the streets of Mexico City because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead.  Her doctor wanted to attend an important horse race and used drugs to hurry me into the world.   It was two days before she recovered enough to really know I was there.   My mother and father met in New York when she as an arc welder in the wartime shipyards.  I am the daughter of a Rosie the Riveter.  My father was an artist in Greenwich Village who abandoned her before I was born.   After that, the offer of work in Mexico seemed a good idea.

I have another story from that time, not one my mother told;  it comes from a playwright who shared our pension in the heart of Mexico City.  Paris Siete was owned by the Aranals,  in-laws of the great Mexican muralist David Siquieros and were involved with him in the first, unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky and probably the successful one that followed.  I think the assassination was a tragedy, but am impressed by my early proximity to shattering events.

The playwright befriended my mother because, although nursing me, she wasn’t given as much food as the other lodgers.  The Arenals, bless their Stalinist hearts, fed her less because she paid less.  Dear Karl Marx  (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”) must have spun in his grave.

Never mind, we’re here now.

My mother just lies on her bed or the couch most days, eyes closed or open, in the sun if it’s there. She smiles beatifically at visitors, tries to follow conversations, and drops in one liners when she can.

People are making me a repository of ageing parent stories.  The vet vaccinating my dogs tells me her ancient grandmother does nothing but sit at a table all day and stare sadly into space.  The vet’s father, who must walk the length of his Spanish village to do his duty as her carer, is dogged at every step by advice from neighbours on how  to make his mother happy again.

The owner of my local hardware store’s mother is almost the same age as my own and we’ve been exchanging information for some time.  His mother had a fall, breaking her pelvis and her hip,  but has made a complete recovery.  The conscientious Irish government sent home help to visit her.  His mother’s first response was invite the visitor to have a seat, “and I’ll make you a cup of tea, love.”

The Palestinian grocer tells me about his grandmother in Nablus.  Her husband divorced her and sent her to live with her grown children.  Broken by grief, everyday she loaded wood onto her head and walked back to her old home.  “I was sent to get her. Everyone knew her, it was okay.”

The stories from San Francisco are different.    “Of course he didn’t want to go.” “It was the hardest decision my sisters and I ever had to make, to put my mother in a home.” “We had to explain that everything can’t be perfect.”  “My mother wasn’t happy there, of course she wasn’t.”  These are good people, I know them, and I may have to do the same.  Are we really such a brutal place?

Outside there is the sun and it is the day of the Bay to Breakers race.  In true San Francisco fashion, the real object is to dress up.  I see a man in a toga go into the hamburger cafe.  Spidermen, Batmen, Ghost Busters pass in droves.  On the corner a group hold long poles with bird heads painted on top, swans probably, although they look like geese.  The bottom of the costumes, for both the men and women, is a tutu and a long, blue feathered tail.  Exquisite.

Near them is a bus shelter with a sign:  “Get unfreaked out by repossession.  Call 188-995-Hope.”   A few feet away a young man is rummaging in a white  plastic trash bin.  He throws things on the ground and once in awhile lets out a cry that sounds like a cartoon “aarrgh.”   He is thin and tall and handsome, with  neat red hair and a neat red beard.  Neither his skin or his layers of clothes have yet acquired that patina of grey, impregnable dirt.  He has not been on the street long.  He stops his search finally, circles three times stamping his feet and sits down.  He lights a cigarette butt, looks at it, lights another and studies them both.

I hear Patchen again: “Have you seen the homeless in the open grave of god’s hand?”

I am going home….

water and chair

                                               dunmanway, county cork (c) carole craig

En route to San Francisco

I am going home — one of the last places on earth I want to be.  Time, like a bounty hunter, has caught up with me.  My mother is 97 and counting.  Eating, dressing, the ordinary choices of life confuse her, but she choses not to leave her home, the life she has made.   And who can blame her for that — she is so firmly rooted, so well watered by love and fidelity.

She was a singer and is beloved, in the way that performers are, by hundreds,  perhaps thousands.   And she has friends, real friends.

Her politics have always been brave.  In the 1950s when segregation was still the law our home insurance was cancelled because both black and white people came to visit; my mother was not cowed by the clicks on the phone that told us of the wire taps or visits from the FBI;  in 1965 when a white woman on Martin Luther King’s Selma to Montgomery march was murdered I thought for several hours it was her because she was also there.

There are people, I’ve met them, who feel it is an honour to spend time with her.

I am not among them.  It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, we’ve been through so much together  But to explain how I face my task I must say that  I never felt the  recipient of bountiful mother-love –– there are reasons for that, although this is not the place.  I have my scars and wounds. This is not the place.

I have come home because her heart’s desire to die where she has lived may no longer possible.  My mother can barely climb the stairs to the top floor and her single bed so she can watch the sun set over the Pacific as she falls asleep. She can barely climb the stairs to the middle floor to reach a toilet and refuses to try the commode.  Sometimes she sits in a chair on the landing and cannot remember if she was going up or down.

I have to find her a place of safety — this  a chronicle of that search.

I have had to leave my home in Dublin, my photographic projects, my cats, my darkroom, my books, my offer of an MFA and the planned cycle of short stories, my wonderful neighbors, the guiding wisdom of my writing group, the magical Irish light —  ‘ little dyings’.

Perhaps the most difficult,  I have to come to terms with America again  — the brutality, immorality, the beauty.  Re-enter dark water.  Sink or swim.  Today,  Kenneth Patchen, American of course, breaks the surface with me:

“All things are one thing to the earth

rayless as a blind leper Blake lies with everyman

and the fat lord lies next to his bastard at last

and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean what we think it does

for we two shall never lie there 

we shall not be there when death reaches out his sparkling hands

there are so many little dyings that it doesn’t matter

which of them of death