Go Gentle or Rage: two ways of saying good night

And you, my father, there on that sad height
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Many people visit this blog –115journals.com – for one reason to get some help understanding Eleanor Catton’s enigmatic novel, The Luminairies. Ms. Catton has not expressed an opinion on my interpretation, and if she decided to do so now, I would probably not get it, just as I can no longer answer questions about the book itself. https://115journals.com/2018/09/08/what-i-once-knew-anglo-saxon-algebra-and-the-luminaries/

Others of the 300 followers catch more recent posts in their Reader or by email. Some have become familiar with my family and its ups and downs. The cast of characters include my sister Georgia here in the western suburb of Toronto and her tribe of children, my Brussels’ brother, my California daughter – she of the differential diagnosis, https://115journals.com/2018/11/08/all-is-well-differential-diagnosis/ and, of course, Blake, my ex-husband. https://115journals.com/2018/09/07/good-eggs-john-burt-and-me/

The bottom line is that Blake’s losing his grip on his perch.

Blake still perching

Returning from my recent sojourn in the Kern County Mountains of Southern California, I found him mostly confined to his third floor bedroom in downtown Toronto. It had come on him suddenly, he confided. He hadn’t had time to see to things, do that Swedish death-cleaning thing, for example.

It’s a religion to me, constantly weeding my possessions, my unworn clothes, books I no longer read, geegaws that never see the light of day, papers. I spent a morning shredding as I tried to get oriented back into my life here in Mississauga.

Blake mentioned this because he is going to leave me, his executor, to deal with a house crammed full of stuff.

I refrained from pointing out that he had had stage 4 cancer since 2010. On the other hand, he had been sailing and cruising and zip-lining through jungles and zooming down water slides until this last summer. And he has always expressed the desire to live forever. He has that optimistic turn of mind.

It appalls me. But then I have grown old in spite of that. https://115journals.com/2018/12/27/when-i-get-older-the-hundred-year-old-man-who-climbed-out/

Turns out, he’s been so busy and then so suddenly sick that he now needs a small army of relatives to clear enough space and clean enough space for him to enjoy what’s left of his time on his perch. The troops are rallying. Just don’t suggest cleaning crews. It’s more piecemeal and personal. “What is this pile?” is the current question. Could be important. Could be wash.

Then there’s the pup, a sheba inu. “Say goodbye to her,” Blake advised, implying she might be gone next time.. I thought to myself, “I said hello and  got no sign of life.” I bent down to bid the pup farewell.

Today we got the vacuum working and took up the worst of the animal hair and the autumn leaves and pet food around the bedroom. (Yes, there is a balcony.) We changed the sheets. Do many people store their sheets in tightly wound balls in linen cupboards?

Our son Daniel has pledged to install a grab rail over the tub/shower and hand rails on the steep, narrow stairs.

Our daughter and our younger grandson plan to fly out of LAX as soon as his expedited passport comes through.

Blake’s step-daughter beat us all by getting there last week and pledges to carry her weight.

Blake is very grateful to me and happy when my brother Facetimes from Belgium, but he is grumpy with his companion. He was only moderately pleased when the U.S shutdown ended today. He would be happy if only he could outlive Trump’s reign, which he sees as a threat to the world order established by the Second War, his war, the war he was refugee-ed out of at the age of 5, without parents.

In our 25 years together we were intellectual snobs. Orphaned and outsiders, we said, “Living well was the best revenge.” Then after Europe and the energy crisis, “Eating well is the best revenge.” In the 40 years since we parted, our paths diverged apparently.

I said earlier in the week, you’re going to get to go home. You haven’t been home for a long time. No, he didn’t believe that. Dead was dead. “And you a physicist!” I said. “A physicist who believes that all this loving energy can be destroyed?” “Well,” he allowed, “it is an unbelievable miracle that the human race evolved out of nothing.” “I always thought that about our children,” I said. “They came out of nothing but love.”

They are still coming, fourth generation beings who will carry us into 2100.

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The One Thing You Must Never Forget to Do: contradicting despair

The Talmud tells us, You are not obligated/ to complete the work/but neither are you free/to abandon it.

The poet Rumi tells us, There is one thing in the world you must never forget to do.

Aunt Mae told me, Joycey don’t take it so to heart. She said there were millions of people of goodwill and they were all working hard. Then she cackled her uproarious laughter, she who could see the future and pronounce, “It ain’t much.” no matter the disaster. But then she said the same about death itself.

So now I near the end of my time here in the California mountains with Patient # 1 and Patient #2. https://115journals.com/2018/12/04/what-the-candle-said-caring-and-melting/ Both declare they are well and self-sufficient. One is certainly on her way there, but the other is probably on a down-bound train. No matter, I have my marching orders.

As I prepare to take up my own life again, I am doing what Mae said not to. Taking it all to heart. Taking myself too seriously. Midnight, i.e. 3 a.m., January 1, 2019, found me sleepless and full of grief and self-loathing. What did I have to show for my effort and expense? The feedback had not been encouraging. And I was as tired as an 82-year-old awake on top of a dark mountain in the bleak mid winter.

I know that the wise drag their wisdom up out of the darkness. I have watched my dear Patient #1 do this literally, coming back from unconsciousness many times, one a particularly long and perilous journey. I have done so myself. And, my elderly friend, Patient #2, is facing it daily, as age limits her senses and her scope of activity.

I have written about my grandmother in her old age wondering why she was still here. https://115journals.com/2018/12/27/when-i-get-older-the-hundred-year-old-man-who-climbed-out/ For two months, I have not had cause to question that. I was here to help. I always knew I had to stay alive in case of contingency. I’m not sure how many more contingencies I have left in me, but then I could have sworn I didn’t have the wherewithal for this one either.

My life on the 14th floor in a Toronto suburb feels distant and unreal, the desk in front the floor to ceiling window, a writer’s desk, the walls vivid with my sister’s paintings, the bedroom, curtained and warm where books wait to be read, the little kitchen where alchemy occurs. The silence.

All those shortened lines of energy, the physical bonds that are so present here will have to stretch across a continent. Technology makes it easier.

At first, I will have to catch up on all those appointments I cancelled in October and go gathering and hunting to fill the fridge. I’ll have to relearn how to sleep in a light-filled city. For a while, I will have to be Patient #3. She needs my help.

                     

Mother on Broomstick Coming into Los Angeles

Air Canada 791 leaves Toronto at 8 a.m. On a Tuesday, it is usually quiet. Today, the third cabin, with its excellent access to emergency exits, is all but empty. I have 32 H, J and K to myself. A little more sleep. I got up at 3:30 a.m.

A youngish blonde woman (to me that could be mid 40s) with a black, long-haired boa sits in front of me. A young couple with a new baby and a toddler, behind me. The baby begins to cry and the toddler joins shriekingly in.

Okay.

I can do this.

Been a mother. Been a grandmother. Been a great aunt. Am a great, great aunt. Am a great grandmother. I’m not one of those! You know who you are – complaining to the steward and changing seats.

Or maybe not.

Earbuds. What will drown out those excruciating high notes? Let’s see Bruce Springsteen? The Stones? Glass’s Kundun? Gould’s Goldberg Concerto? Various Artists: a Special Christmas?  WHAAAAAT? Ok. Nicola Benedetti: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

I fall asleep, head full of symphonic music and wake, drooling and head lolling. To peace. The kids are asleep.

So, let’s get comfy. Put up all the arm rests, undo the seat belt, lie down, with purse as pillow and cover legs with a purloined blanket.

Two hours to go.

I wake as I woke once at Camping Krioneri on the Gulf of Corinth to the braying of a donkey. I lie contemplating this latest upgrade to the Boeing 787-9.

Listen, I can deal with this. I’ll just sink back into delicious unconsciousness where I don’t remember the pain and trouble waiting down there in Lotus Land – the on-going battle with the American health care system as it strives to diagnose a rare disease in someone I love and since it bankrupted them long ago, figure out how to provide treatment ASAP.

But no. The new arrival has the loudest laugh known to sound engineers. She’s in an excellent mood. So funny that my silent blonde neighbor laughs ever more loudly. The new arrival does physical humor  too, standing and twerking, then demonstrating the proper way to seat oneself for dressage. Or so I imagine. The seat back threatens to land on my head.

I sit up. I bring Nicola back up on the device -set to Airplane mode, of course.

What in heaven’s name is this laughing woman  taking? Something more than our recently legal Canadian marijuana surely.

But, at least for now, it’s only that dreadful boxed white wine they serve up here. She asks the male attendant at the beverage cart if the female attendant is his work wife. He pretends to blush. She invites him to her daughter’s wedding in Palm Springs. A hundred guests are coming.

In fact, I saw the bride schlepping a head high white garment bag, looking grim as brides do.

I remember that. Happy days. My girl’s wedding was in Vegas. The bride wasn’t grim until the city turned off the water to our rental house as she was getting ready. It was the last day of 2008, an auspicious time to get married.

Fortunately, I do not remember that someone from Texas brought in one of the first cases of H1N1 and we all spent January bedridden with flu.

Packed in that enormous bag of memory, 8 decades worth, I find a toddler sorting out a cupboard, every pan on the tiny kitchen floor, shrieking in joy at her newborn brother while she throws the newly folded pile of cloth diapers everywhere, a preteen glancing up as she realizes he has outgrown her, a mother in a skimpy nightgown nursing a baby on a floor futon in Venice Beach. Seventy flights like this, most of them on AC 791. Never crashed once. Be there soon, Baby.

Coming into Los Anglees/ Bringing in a couple of keys/Don’t touch my bag if you pease/Mr Customs Man

 

Interlude: between two all-is-wells

This post is an interlude or intermission between my last blog post “All Is Well” and my next one “All Is Well: part 2”.

https://115journals.com/2018/10/06/all-is-well-another-contradiction-to-despair/

So Edgar comes on stage in Act 4, scene 1 of King Lear, disguised as the mad beggar Poor Tom. He is all but naked and covered in mud, a disguise to prevent his capture and execution. His illegitimate brother Edmund has framed him, convincing their father, the Duke of Gloucester, that Edgar is plotting to commit patricide.

Let us note that Edgar actually loves his misguided father very much.

Edgar is out on the heath, the treeless moor, as a vicious storm gathers. He says a few words reconciling himself to his abject state, when suddenly an old man leads Gloucester into view. Gloucester is blind. His eyes have just been gouged out by Cornwall, Edmund’s ally.

Edgar says, “Oh gods! Who is it can say ‘I am at the worst’.? I am worse than e’er I was.”….
“And worse I may be yet. The worst is not/ So long as we can say ‘This is the worst’.

The Old Man wisely hands blind Gloucester over to Poor Tom, for in aiding the Duke, the Old Man is risking his own life.

Gloucester observes “Tis the times plague when madmen lead the blind.”

(Let’s ignore the relevance of that remark to our own time.)

In other words, in my earlier blog post “All Is Well: another contradiction to despair”, I got myself all wound up about what seemed to be the worst possible circumstances. It took only a few days for life to teach me otherwise.

It will take a few more for me to process this new insight enough to write “All Is Well: part 2”.

As usual, I will draw on my sister Georgia’s support. She is gobsmacked by events as well, but no less convinced than she ever was that, to qoute Hildegard of BIngem, “All shall be well. And all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

The #%*$ universe is unfolding as it should.

All Is Well: another contradiction to despair

Sirroco,

“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Hildegard of Bingem

“No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
The Desiderata

Faithful followers have already met my sister Georgia. Not as funny as my Brussels brother, but then she doesn’t smoke pot.* Georgia’s more into the wisdom market and she lives closer, just up the street here in westernmost TO.

I was weeping to her on the phone this morning and she started quoting Aunt Mae. I hate that. She said that Aunt Mae predicted I would be very unhappy for a long time, but that it would lead to ….enlightenment. At least I think she said ‘enlightenment’. By then I had my fingers in my ears and I was yelling, “Yabba dabba dabba dabba”. She’s such a good sister that she didn’t hang up.

I was crying because
-someone I love has realized there should be no more chemo
-a sailboat I love should, therefore, go to the scrap yard
-a sweet boy, who came to swim in my pool in 1975, and who has spent 25 years in solitary confinement for two murders and 14 rapes, is back in the news because he is applying for parole and I want him never to get out
-Donald Trump mocked Dr. Blasey Ford
-Brett Kavanaugh is going to be a Supreme Court Judge.

Now Georgia and I learned long ago that, despite what seemed like gross deficiencies, and even though one of us did not entirely accept it, that our lives were perfect. They were exactly what they needed to be.

Reasoning that out could be diverting but also unbearable. Better to retreat behind the ‘mystery of God’ or personal destiny. It’s just too hard debating the role of ‘evil’: how could there be a Jesus if there wasn’t a Judas. No one wants to go down the road to Hitler’s positive contribution to spiritual development.

Earth is a planet of pain. There must be others that aren’t.

It’s been a while since I could take comfort in God the Father. Not sure Georgia ever did. But I do believe very profoundly in Supreme Goodness, a divinity that we all embody, whether we let it shine or not. Even if we are drunken, 17-yr-old sex abusers. Even if we are sweet boys that turn into rapists and murderers. Even if we seem to have no redeeming quality.

And I believe, as does Georgia, that she and I chose this path we’re on, one we are stubbornly sticking to into old age. Why is a bit of a muddle, but not much. It’s about love.

In other news, my new glasses finally came and things are clearer.

* Georgia’s deadpan one-line stingers don’t hit you until long after you could have made a come-back.

 

 

 

Drunkenness: probably NOT a contradiction to despair

It’s quarter after 3 and there’s no one in the place
‘cept you and me
So set ’em Joe
I got a little story I think you oughtta know….. (Harold Arlen/Johney Mercer)

(Frank Sinatra,melancholy, on a bar stool -the apotheosis of melancholy, too romantic to be despair. Tears in my beers).

It was quarter to 4, when I woke up. It’s inching toward 5:15 dawn now. No big deal. A friend of mine hasn’t really slept for six months. I just logged 4 hours. She sometimes gets only 2, although there are signs she’s moving out of Winston Churchill territory. Five hours seems doable to her now.

What better time than the tail-end of the night to contemplate drunkenness.

For the past few days of global chaos, I have been reading Ken Bruen’s last two Jack Taylor crime novels, The Emerald Lie and The Ghosts of Galway. When I say ‘last’, I mean adieu Jacko, at least that’s what the author has implied in interviews. From the condition of the man, it’s no wonder. He has suffered so many vicious attacks as a Guard and a private eye that he is a physical wreck -lame, deaf, with mutilated fingers, and a heart full of grief. All of his friends and even his dogs meet dreadful ends because of him. Well, not even Bruen is heartless enough to eliminate every last one. Maybe there is a short story that will clear up the oversight. Jack drinks! He likes a Guinness and a Jameson chaser. He likes the Guinness built just right. In the right mood, he can lose months of his life to these libations and then months more to the aftermath.

He can’t go into a bar without someone, usually a woman, with a wad of cash, sidling up to him and saying, “You’re Jack Taylor.” It may be a simple job, like ‘find my lost brother’ -who is entirely fictional, but more often as time has gone on, it has been ‘Look what this bastard did to my girl. Get me some payback.” Payback gets gotten, although not always by Jack. Jack’s a hurley stick man, but others in his orbit use more lethal means.

Jack is a good man, his landlady says early on and his good friend, the outside nun, later on. He is a keen man for justice, humanized by reading and music and his love of dogs and swans. He has been hardened by his “walking bitch of a mother with her tame priest”, by the corruption of the church and  the government, by the miserable poverty attendant on the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and, perhaps most of all, by the water tax.

Suffice to say Bruen knows from PTSD.

The Irish have a reputation for enjoying a drop. I do not say drunkenness. Who am I to judge? I lived with Connor for many years. He gave up martinis every Lent. I lived in hell for 40 days each spring. I have a beloved relative, Colin, who is more sensible and less church-ridden. He says of his year-round habit, “Mostly ice,” as he pours his Bombay Gin. Vermouth doesn’t even get to breathe on the glass. Both get loquacious, even argumentative. I got many a cooking lesson in front of guests from Connor. Neither fall down or pass out or miss work.

I find it hard to read the Joe Nesbo books where Harry Hole descends into drunkenness and heroin. But then some experiences have to be first hand: sex is another one. And Harry is needed sober and strong back in Norway.

College binge drinking lost its glow for me before I got out of high school. Just that one, totally horrible, unable-to-feel-appendages experience put me right off. The stag and doe parties that I see depicted on Brit telly and which apparently happen here as well are not my cup of booze. I also had a terrible experience with a brownie on my niece’s 50th. That  limited my appreciation of getting high for good and all.

I know I drink too much wine for a person of my age and constitution. A 6-oz-glass puts me in legal jeopardy, although drinking in solves that problem. Drinking alone? Get real.

(A librarian once told my daughter never to eat while reading. My daughter was outraged, “You have to eat, you know.)

So the flaming world is falling apart. The leader of the free part is tailoring his actions to please 30% of his country. They don’t seem to be terribly well-informed about historical precedent. They don’t seem to know much geography and certainly even less economic theory than the rest of us. Which is saying something! They can’t tell a good guy (Canada) from a bad guy ( Russia). They claim to be helpless to prevent child massacres on their home soil. To them, children separated from parents and locked in what sure do look like kennels if not cages, brought that on themselves, and can damn well show up in court to coo or babble their own defense – in Spanish.

Who wouldn’t drink?

The most drunken person I ever met was my Aunt Mae. She was drunk on the love of Jesus, and joyfully swept all and sundry up in her ecstasy. Also she wouldn’t say no to a nip of brandy.

Jesus and I fell out one time.

Yet I know that what woke me up this night and what is keeping me awake is fear and self-restraint and that the answer is release.

Coleman Barks organizes some of Rumi’s poems into ‘Tavern Madness’ in Rumi: the Book of Love. The tavern is a place where passion breaks loose, an excited place where one is out of one’s mind, with others.There is the shared sense of the presence flowing through. We are connected. We are one, present and absent at the same time. I love the poem that says
I didn’t come here of my own accord
And I can’t leave that way
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.


It reminds me that something has charge over me. Whatever that is will see me safe home.When I read that, I remember I am not alone in passion or rage or goodness or hope or despair or terror. Whether what holds us together is DNA or Soul, it is universal and wise enough, drunken enough, to triumph.

In the meanwhile raise a glass – soda water with or without lemon will do. Drunkenness, O Necessarily Sober One, is fundamentally not about alcohol.

(Full disclosure: my biological grandfather, who hailed from the Emerald Isle, died syphilitic  in New Hampshire madhouse. But may have been teetotal.)

 

 

 

 

Hope: contradiction to despair #7

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings…

Emily Dickensen

It took me a while to find this poem because I thought it said, Hope is a thing with a broken wing. A Freudian slip to be sure.

I started thinking about hope when Ian Tyson’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow came up on shuffle as I pulled into the No Frills parking lot. I first heard that song at age 6 when I saw The Wizard of Oz in 1942.

We Quebec children were not usually permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a fatal movie theater fire, but more likely because the Catholic Church held sway over the province’s morals and saw movies as corrupt. An exception must have been made in this case.

I was already enthralled by the black and white footage of the coming storm when Dorothy arrived in the Land of Oz and things burst into color. And then the music began.

I had found my answer.

The tornado of my home life offered no escape, no shelter. The cellar was just another place of danger. But now I knew that over the rainbow, there was hope and someday, like the bluebird, I would fly there.

It worked. More or less.

Much later, I learned that those who had five or even ten year goals were more likely to be happy and successful. At crucial points in my career, my personal life and my health care, I was asked about such goals. In other words, ‘Articulate your hopes.’ My instant response was “Beats me’, but, of course, I repressed that and made shit up.

So now I am old, not old old. I won’t be old old for 7 or 8 years, not even middle old, which I will be in 3 years. But old nevertheless. What are the possible goals of a hopeful 82-year-old? My immediate response, ‘Living to be 83’.

Until recently, I harbored a broken-winged hope that the world was evolving and becoming a better place, little by little. And that I had played a part in that.

Look what happened.

Now I’m reduced to the idea that life on this planet of pain is pendulum in nature – two steps forward, one step back. Or is it the other way around?

Really, this blog post is falsely advertised. It’s the old bait and switch. I have no faith that there is hope nor that it contradicts despair. In fact, hope of the over-the-rainbow kind is too broken to hold in hand. Yet I get up, stand up and go on, with no expectation of reward. Is it from some old hopeful habit or just an obstinate refusal to give in?

Wishful metaphors make fine poetry, but hope is a 4-letter word – patient, resolute, strong and defiant in the face of darkness.

 

 

 

Who’s your Psychopomp?

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.

 

The Immense Heart and Mr Death

rumi quoteBlake turned 80, the first one in the family to do so, so Rob, who was visiting from Brussels and Georgia threw a small dinner party. The food was amazing – baked breaded shrimp with mango and chutney, salmon Provençal en croute, lobster ravioli, champagne – rose, for a change- lots of white wine and chocolate cake.  It was a laugh fest from beginning to end. Blake, an only child and war refugee, found himself teased by my siblings and knew he was family.

Then we said goodbye.

Rob, who was going home the next day, followed Blake and I out the door in his sock feet, despite the cold. He gave me a last hug and turned away. He might as well have spoken out loud. I heard his thought. We might not meet again.

For a while, his fear was based on the fact that I am 11 years older and had had cancer twice. Now that I have been cancer free for 13 years, he himself has melanoma. His doctor was not happy that he postponed treatment of an excised patch to come to see us. Meanwhile Blake is perking alone nicely with the latest prostate cancer drugs, free as it turns out, part of a study. He had just returned from a Caribbean cruise and was happier than he had ever been.

Grandpa Munn routinely bade us goodbye by declaring mournfully that he would probably be gone by the time we made the long trip back. Eventually, many years later, this turned out to be true.

My mother died after a 7-year bout with ovarian cancer, a few years afterwards. She had been horribly ill and deserved a break from it and her psychotic husband. I expected her spirit would show up in my house the way my other dead people did, even my father-in-law. When she didn’t do so, I fell into a deep depression and suffered what I call an existential breakdown, complete with hospitalization. I recovered, but for many years, I saw death as the grim reaper and my advancing age as his harbinger. Either there was no life after death or my mother didn’t love me.

This fear was so great that I tended to drop friendships with older people. Unfortunately, my son, Daniel, seems to have caught it. The older people he has dropped are his father, Blake, and me.

Eventually, after Blake and I divorced, I had a run-in with suicidal ideation. It wasn’t really about death, just a deep desire to stop hurting. A momentary vision of the future where I would be needed, the Suicide Help Line and the Salvation Army pulled me through.

Getting cancer settled the question once and for all. I definitely did not want to stop living in my body, no matter what.

This spring, I walked into my daughter’s new home in the Sierra Mountains and clearly heard my mother say, “This is nice.” So she shows up now, 38 years later. What the….?

She hung around, apparently swooping over the pines in the company of her 43 year-old grandson who had just passed on. He seemed to be 3 now, the age at which she first knew him, and quite happy to be flying loop-de-loops with her.

I was going to write this post anyway, but then Rob called me in tears this morning at 5 a.m. He had returned to Brussels to discover that his young friend, Julian, had died of an asthma attack.

I wrote last December about Julian, whom Rob was coaching in life skills, like controlling his temper and wearing his teeth. Julian had been left to institutional care, pretty much abandoned by his parents. He did his wash at Rob’s house, carried up wood for the fireplace, helped decorate the Christmas tree and showed up at awkward times. Rob had taken back a sweat shirt for him with “Toronto Alumna” written on it. My niece’s really but new and we figured Julian wouldn’t get that it was a girl’s. What was he to do with it, Rob asked me.

I am bowled over by how we four siblings, children of an extremely abusive home, all of whom nearly died at one point from that abuse, turned out to be so concerned with the welfare of others. We learn to give what we need, apparently, and Rob was a good “father” to Julian.

I don’t think of passing on in terms of Mr. Death, anymore. (Well, not for the moment anyway. Get me in a hospital room, I may revert.)

At present, it seems more like an approaching holiday, like Christmas feels ten days before, something glorious approaching. A very old priest I knew told me he felt like an excited kid about to start school. The old pictures of heaven are totally irrelevant to me. “Heaven” is just dwelling in love and being without a physical body will mean no opposition by space and time, more opportunity to look after loved ones. Sure growth happens in the body, but we can take our achievement with us.

I got over the angst of farewell by sitting down to begin writing a book I had in mind. We are keeping busy. Death will have to interrupt us.

As a family, we are scattered across two continents. Some of us don’t even speak. Yet we found each other across time and space. We have a long history with each other. We came together because of our long term love for those two outrageously dysfunctional people who were our parents. I think we saved them from what the church would call damnation. Not everyone agrees with me, but I feel my father’s help these days.

No force, not even that guy in the black top hat and tails is powerful enough to overcome love. It holds the stars in place.

MrDEath

Saving a Life: losing a friend

jim and IMon Frère et moi en Bruxelle

I feel like Dante after his epic journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. True I got to see the face of Grace and then to return home. But I’ve been spoiled. The paradise bit was full of light and love and joy. Once I got there, I was able to lift my eyes and love the pine-clad mountains and the pure light and air again. Home in TO sees a couple of hours daylight under gloomy skies. Something is always falling from the sky and the streets are slick with decaying leaves.

That’s not the worst of it. Two of the people I had counted on to welcome me home, to rejoice in our triumph and to console me for our ordeal are no-shows.

One is my son, whose sister’s life was just saved and who is on her way to being able to live a reasonably good life, if not to being cured. What we accomplished, in spite of MediCal and general incompetence, was a miracle, something to be celebrated. But this half of the family in Toronto is hived off into individual units. It begrudgingly pulls itself together for a funeral, if the relative is close enough, not apparently, for a good, boozy party of celebration.

The other is my friend, Sophie. Sophie is given to observing that she is glad she had cats instead of children, particularly since mine are so troublesome. What can anyone say to that? A cat can’t be Shakespeare. No, but listen, those children are unique and beautiful creations. They have made themselves who they are over decades. They have made many people’s lives better for knowing them. I don’t say any of that to her. I sympathize when an elderly cat has to be put down, as if it were an actual person. I inquire about the surviving feline, which drags its hind quarters.

In the midst of the worst or hellish part, Sophie suggested on the phone that it would be better for our patient if we let her go. A slip of the tongue I thought. But then she discovered that I had taken psychotropic drugs to survive the ordeal. “I wouldn’t speak to you, if I’d known,” she said. I’m still taking them of course. She has read a stupid book that maintains they don’t actually work and, despite her education, she believes it.

So she hasn’t called me back and that makes me sad.

Tomorrow, my brother, Rob, arrives from Brussels. “I thought I needed to come and cheer  you up and help you get back to your life,” he told me on the phone. I will pick him up at terminal 3 and take him to Georgia’s, where we will all have a sleep-over, along with two of my nieces. He will call me his little sister, even though I am older and make me laugh. The two of us have a reputation in Brussels for our comic routine. All we have to do is be in the same room and we’re off.

On Thursday, back on the mountain in Kern County, California, my son-in-law will turn chef again and make Thanksgiving dinner. Besides his recovering wife, my erstwhile house-mate Clara, my grandson Leo, his father -that would be an ex- and a friend will be there to raise a glass in glad thanksgiving that she lived, that she is thriving, that some doctors really are brilliant, that faith and dogged persistence and the odd temper tantrum can save a life.

PMC