…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

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.

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.

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)

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.”