The real question of life after death…

 

The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Statues, Berlin, (c) Carole Craig

 

I am waiting for my mother’s ghost. So far, she has failed to appear.
Do I believe in ghosts? Yes. Whether they are of our own or another’s making is not important.

My mother, proudly atheist, would have said she expected to disappear, a that’s-all-there-is view of life. She was the daughter and the granddaughter of Methodist ministers; neither were good men. When I was still young enough for her to sit beside me as I fell asleep she would tell me about lying in her own bed as a child and  praying every night not to die in her sleep because she knew death would bring her straight to hell. Oblivion was the safer option.

Can anyone really wish for that?

Among my mother’s papers (myriad, obsessive, revelatory), in a folder with the poems about death and the quotes about living well, is an interview with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, she of dying’s five stages fame. The interview is not, as one would expect, about those famous stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — but about life after death and Kubler-Ross’s late life conversion to a firm belief in same. As a scientist, Kubler Ross’s words, it was the empirical evidence, the near death experiences that did it. Later, Kubler-Ross would speak of contact with ‘afterlife’ guides in a manner which would have done any19th Century Spiritualist proud. Before her own death, hobbled by strokes she was asked what stage she had reached. “Anger” she answered and said she would be making no return.

I wonder where my mother was on Kubler-Ross’s list. Certainly not  acceptance, she didn’t die with that. Depression? Perhaps. If so, it seems unkind to ask her back, but among her things I find so many questions.
Love letters. dozens of them, from a man I’ve never heard about. Who was he? Did you love him back? Things she wrote about me that were unkind and seem unfair. Is that the way it really was for you? Terracotta tiles she painted with frail blue fish; they are beautiful. Why did you stop making things with your hands?

The more residue of her life I encounter, the more she becomes like smoke sliding through my fingers. A ghostly form sitting by the bed would be more corporeal. Who were you? I’d ask. I’d like to know.

 

That’s why I came here, bringing nothing.

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

Stones back garden 885 Clayton Street (c) Carole Craig

 

“That’s why I came here bringing
nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.” Ken Smith — Possessions

The eyrie that was my mother’s room has been visited by disaster – drawers open, clothes scattered, papers sliding to the floor. It is as though she died in a cataclysm, not peacefully, in bed, sung to, cared for, loved. I should have foreseen that death, even quiet death, is catastrophic, cyclonic uprooting and displacing the familiar and the known.

I travel through like a rescue team sifting debris. Triage: what from this life can be saved? Not the carefully coiled lengths of string, the dry ballpoint pens, the bits of paper cut into squares for notes no larger than ten words, the calendar pages so handy for making envelops decorated with the sticker that admonishes the receiver to “Save Trees!”

Grey areas are harder. Who will want the pile of unused Christmas cards, a tape recorder, two plastic kites, the tangled and never worn strings of beads, the fifty, at least, tee shirts, stamped with organizations joined, festivals attended, trips taken, politics engaged?

“I grew up in the depression,” my mother said. Waste not want not.

There are things less easy to explain: Christmas lists beginning in 1954 and going on for every year thereafter, the presents given and the cost, the receipts in an envelopes attached with decaying paper clips; a box with a folder for every significant illness endured; monthly outgoings 1954 to 1965 and for Mexico in 1945; carefully inscribed lists of cards received; the complete contacts for a tour of England 1980; twenty unused covers for the San Francisco Folk Music Club Directory, 1971; the minutes from a PTA meeting, 1952.

Why? They seem a burden. If she didn’t keep the evidence would the life itself disappear?

On the ground floor, behind the hundred year old leaded glass, among the clay figures from China and the miniature Mexican children’s toys, are open necked bottles that in the 1960’s and 70’s held cheap wine. Did they hold memories for her?

In the basement are drawers full of shells, in the garden jars of stones. The jars, metal lids rusted tight, sit on wire shelves hung on the fence. There are more jars of stones under the sink that serves as a potting table, so green that their contents have disappeared; other jars sit precariously on the wooden cross beam of the fence. The stones in the jars are grey, white, red, brown smooth, rough, broken, whole; there are abalone shells, fracturing rainbows, whole sand dollars and the plain shells of clams, oysters, and mussels. Nothing is valuable or rare or even arrestingly beautiful.

The picture of my mother on my wall in Dublin is of her sitting on a rock at Stinson Beach, palm open, head down, looking for pretty pebbles. The stones and shells I understand.

In the days before she died, my mother’s time was filled with dreams, knotted memory and fear. She was on a cliff, afraid of falling. Once when waking, she was puzzled. There were people at the bottom. She was worried about them. We had to discover who they were. One was once dear but from the long past, the other a friend who had disappointed her. “I still feel responsible for them,” she said.

I think this is the heart of the stones and shells. She had gathered the stones collected the shells, touched them and altered their course. In her moral universe it would have been wrong to discard them because they had become inconvenient or dusty and took up too much space or because she had too many. She was responsible for them. A moral imperative: you must take care of what you touch.

Several years ago, tired of so many, I made her a rock garden with some of them. It was not a success and now I am planting flowers there. The stones and shells have become mixed with earth. To find them all, I have to sift the soil and it takes a long time. Carefully, I put stones and shells in empty pots until I find them the right resting place — my mother’s daughter after all.

Possessions — Ken Smith

They spent my life plotting against me.

With nothing to do but cultivate them,

but to be there, aligning their shadows,

they were planning to undo me,

wanting to own me completely.

They have marched through the rooms,

their presences litter the surfaces

close at my elbow calling attention.

When I sleep they being with their meetings,

when I leave home they hold a convention.

The minutes, the notes, the chairman

calls order, the lamps signal aye. When I die

they’ll start in on another,

easy at first learning his ways.

Now they’re gone, taken from me, good luck.

IIf I kept them I’d never be free. I’d die


and have to begin picking everything up,


all the waste paper, baby teeth, beards,


I’d have to go back for the fingernails.

So I’m shut of them, all the gossip and malice

the tables, the chairs with their jokes on me.

All the prying, the scanals. The telephone

stored it all up, the books lied to me.

Thats why I came here, bringing

nothing. There was nothing to do but leave things.

I saved only a few smells of tobacco

and blankets, a dream of a waterfall,

a length of ribbon, my name, my number,

the holes in my suitcase.

Ken Smith

“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