“The worst of it is over now,

kensal angel
Kensal Green (c) carole craig
“The worst of it is over now, and I can’t say that I am glad.   Amy Hempel, BG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP 

I don’t know how to grieve. Perhaps I lost the knowledge when my daughter was very ill and there were times, many times, when it wasn’t clear if she would live or die.  I would come back from the hospital, lie on the bed, and wrap my arms around the dog.  After awhile, I would get up and go on with the inconsequential tasks of living. I believed, egotistically, and probably erroneously, that if I went down into the pit, fell into the abyss, if I didn’t keep going, my daughter wouldn’t either.

With my mother it is different, of course.  My daughter lived, my mother died.  Since her death I’ve filled time with the things to be done: papers to find, papers to sign; her cremation and her wake (yes, in that order),  papers to send, papers to examine, her garden to save, her house to repair, her memorial to plan, her plants to water, her friends to find the right words for. “It was a good, long life, a triumph,” I say.  “She was herself until the very end.”

It is not that I don’t recognise that something is wrong.   I talk too much. I don’t call my friends. I say the stupid things and have to apologise often.   I take the dogs on the short walks only.  I can’t sleep.  I don’t play with the cat. I can’t clean my mother’s room. I sleep too much. I can’t clean my own room.  I almost remember my dreams.   The basement is full of dust.  I don’t cry.

I hoped the Day of the Dead might me teach something.  In the Mission,   people whose faces have been painted white like sugar skulls follow Choc Mool.  When the line arrives at the square, brimming with its alters, its photographs, its candles, it as though some darkness has been conquered, the zombies smothered in a blanket of love. Next year, I think, maybe, I can put something there for my mother there.

But I don’t feel any different and I get on with the jobs.

There is a meeting to plan my mother’s memorial.  We discuss the tickets and who will perform.  What is needed and how to get it.  These are intelligent, competent people.  They loved her. She will enjoy her memorial and I can leave it in their hands.  When the meeting is over I walk out into strange, dark Berkeley and realise that I have now done everything for my mother I had to do.  There is nothing left.  For the first time I am profoundly empty. I am bereft.

Hold on to my hand…

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Holyhock (c) Carole Craig

Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.
  – Pueblo

My mother liked to live in denial and found life comfortable there.  There were no final farewells from her, no imparting of the wisdom earned by  98 years of hard graft. Ten days before she died, when she was bed bound but still afraid of falling, she insisted that if I would just let her get up and exercise,  ‘just walk in front of the house’, she would be fine.

We couldn’t live in denial with her.  My daughter, her dearest friends, and I all knew what was coming.  The hospice nurse told us.  The nurse, a tall man of  indefatigable good humour and a love of Impressionist art, took her blood pressure and listened to her heart one afternoon and said it won’t be long now, perhaps hours, at most days.  I had grown so used to the way things were: the sanctuary of  the hospice, the visits and the visitors, leaving after dark and walking along Castro Street with its blast of libido driven life force.  The news came like a bucket of ice.

A friend was there to chant Buddhist prayers; she changed to gospel songs and had a lovely voice.  I emailed some others, another emailed me and three of us did vigil by the bed. We held her hand, rubbed her feet, stroked her hair and told her it was okay to leave.  We went through the list of everyone  she loved and told her the ways in which they would be all right.  I called my daughter and held the phone up to my mother’s ear. Late evening we were hungry and had a small feast of my mother’s favourite food.  We sang some more and sometimes I cried.

The evening nurse found my mother improved and we decided it could be days, perhaps even weeks, and everyone else went home.  I sat by the bed and read to her:  poems and prayers from all the religions I could find  — Hindu, Sufi, the Lords Prayer, some Psalms, African, Native American.  I slept on the floor wrapped in a comforter.

In the morning her breathing sounded like an ailing machine.  Others came back and a fourth person joined the vigil.  We touched her, held her hand, sang, told stories and laughed until late evening.  Someone found Pete Seeger’s version of How Can I Keep from Singing and played it.  I think it was the last song she heard.

Her grip on living was so strong, so firm, we thought that she would stay through another night, so only two of were there.  Half an hour before midnight a Filipino nurse came in.  He felt her feet.  She was growing cold; it was staring.  Open the window, he said, turn on a light and don’t let your tears touch her. At midnight, my daughter rang.  She was telling my mother how much she loved when my mother’s breathing stopped.

A nurse,  bless her,  found a large purple hydrangea – I don’t know where at two am in the dark – and put it in my mother’s white, folded hands.

Hold on to what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.

Hold on to what you believe
even when it is a tree that stands by itself.

Hold on to what you must do
even when it is a long way from here.

Hold on to life
even when it is easier to let go.

Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.

– Pueblo –

I am of the nature to die.

Faith at her 98th birthday party (c) Carole Craig

Faith at her 98th birthday party (c) Carole Craig

I am of the nature to die.  There is no way to escape death.   Buddha

Faith died at midnight on the 24th of October.  It is a date she would have liked.  When I was ten years old she took  me from school  for half a day because someone had given her tickets to the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the official founding of the United Nations —  24th, October, 1945.

It was held at the San Francisco Opera House.  In the way of many UN functions, individual countries got up and made speeches nominally about the subject at hand.  Such speeches  are usually small or large shots of propaganda about that particular nation’s own way of doing things.

And here I need to pause in this story to emphasise that my mother was in no way a Stalinist.   She wanted justice for everyone — her life is a testimony to that.  From the great distance at which she lived it was still possible to think the Soviet Union might be a good bet.   

When the Soviet representative got up to speak the name Vlaldimir Lenin appeared.  In the dim auditorium, among the official representatives, well dressed power brokers, and those who had obtained tickets because they believed,  in the middle of McCarhyite America, there was the sound of someone clapping.   It was my mother.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.

There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings.

I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

  • Buddha –
    – Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh

Note:  There are two more posts to record the arc of Faith’s dying.  One I had roughed out before we were told she had hours or days and another to describe how we spent  the last times.

Then, I presume, there will be more about the contours of loss.

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)