Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl: a personal response

Reactor 4, Chernobyl, under its protective sarcophagus

“With every lie we tell, we incur a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt will be paid.”

These lines are spoken by Valery Legasov, in Craig Mazin’s five-part series Chernobyl. Legasov was the nuclear scientist, who was instrumental in saving the world from the nuclear holocaust that the meltdown of reactor 4 on April 26, 1986 could have been. In doing so, he exposed himself to doses of radiation that would have eventually proven fatal if he had not killed himself on the second anniversary of the disaster. He left behind an oral account, which circulated among scientists and revealed the lies that caused the explosion and the ensuing coverup.

As it turned out penny-pinching, ambition and fear of humiliation were the root causes, but none of these would have endangered Europe or cost so many lives – as many as 100,000 – if not for the lies.

We are living in an age of lies. As of the end of April 2019, Trump is reported to have lied over 10,000 times . His staunch supporters don’t care. Even now, that Fox News is beginning to admit the fact, they don’t care. This week, he has denied knowing E. Jean Carroll, who writes that he sexually assaulted her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, even though a picture has been published showing them talking together.

Hitler followed Joseph Goebbel’s advice that if you told a big enough lie often enough, everyone would believe it. Thus he was able to resettle six million Jews.

I remember. But that may be because I am so old that I was alive while he was doing it. A friend of mine, who is even older, on the other hand, does not. Or only partly. She voted for Trump, but may be having slight second thoughts now, at least about his sexually morality. Still, what does sexual morality have to do with GDP?

I also remember learning from George Orwell’s 1984 that it is possible to hold two contradictory ideas to be true at the same time. This he called doublethink, a key principle of government in Oceana.

I was glad to discover there was a name for that kind of thinking. Doublethink was the default mode of the Family. My family – lower case – belonged to the Family. In the great tradition of other arch Families like the Mafia, we were more or less owned by the Family and stepped out of line at our peril. And no, we didn’t live in a walled off commune, we lived where everybody else did. We were indistinguishable. We didn’t wear red robes – except at night, but only if we were high up on the hierarchy. Initially, the goals of the Family were quite admirable. Or at least, some of its members, most of them women, believed in a higher purpose and even eventual enlightenment. Unfortunately, others believed that children were sexual beings and that kidnapping and murder were justifiable instruments of order.

Our father, who had been nurtured in the bosom of this cult, turned out to be a sociopath of considerable stature, who helped himself to cult power for status and extra cash. His alliance with the actual Mafia was helpful in both regards. He was a dab hand at body disposal and much worse criminal mayhem, seemingly unhindered by empathy. He was considerably ahead of the CIA or even the KGB when it came to torture techniques and he practiced on his children and grandchildren.

So why did I keep returning to the family home for family celebrations, thus enabling such abuse.

In my day to day life, I carried around the idea of my family as respectable, hardworking and honest. A little raucous, noisy, prone to shouting matches, but fundamentally good, even God-fearing. We didn’t even speed or run red lights. We became teachers. We served the community.

And because…

My father had threatened the life of one of my children and offered convincing evidence that it was no idle threat. And, of course, he had violently abused me to the point of near-death.

Terror initiates trauma, a feeling of helplessness -“There’s nothing I can do. I’m done for.” The connections in the brain get ‘messed up’. Adrenaline and cortisol release into the body. Adrenaline helps to formulate memories, but cortisol prevents the integration of them because the hippocampus  responds to cortisol by shutting down. And the hippocampus is the part of the brain that links ‘separated areas of implicit memory” and integrates experience. The wires are down between the the conscious and the unconscious. (Quotes from NICABM “Treating Trauma Master Series, session 1, The Neurobiology of Trauma.)

Traumatic memory gets locked there as Dr. Ford said at Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter”.

After my father died, flashes of memory and dreams began to release these bits, along with the original terror. My sister and I both had to stop teaching for several months. I shook visibly, which wasn’t a good look at the front of a classroom. We went to lawyers, psychologists and the police. We learned that it was not a crime to witness a crime. We learned that none of our allegations could be proved. We learned that telling the truth could cost financially and socially. We learned that our family was split into truth-tellers and deniers.

And that was that.

But no. As time went on, other hippocampuses flashed information into higher brains and other people, who had stood aside from our truth, found themselves dragged into it by their own dysfunctioning minds, their own despair and rage.

We had a rule. Don’t tell until the other person remembers. But after a certain number of close calls, we broke even that rule. It turned out to be a good thing.

If you can ever say that letting a person understand the hidden horror in her past is a good thing. It’s not as if we can replace the graphite tips of the control rods in the brain or replace the AZ 5 emergency shutdown device. The Soviets eventually did both.

So that is what I’ve learned about the truth. I can’t even swear to its exact nature. I know only that it cannot be denied. It catches up to you and its interest rates are astronomical.

On the other hand, partial though it may be, it heals like love.

 

 

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Aftermath: executing Blake’s Estate

This is Blake’s house. Still Blake’s house, although you can’t see him sitting on his third floor balcony, reading the Toronto Star and drinking coffee.

To be precise, it is the house of the estate of Blake Durant, one good reason why you can’t see him sitting in his lounge chair with his coffee near at hand, cursing Donald Trump and angrily refolding his paper

It is, in fact, the house that I have just sold. For the full asking price, modest enough when you consider it is on a Cabbagetown street full of million dollar houses, but large enough to make my eyes bug out. From it, you could walk to work in Toronto’s financial district. You could park one car in the attached garage and another in the driveway. You could enjoy a private backyard deck with lovely small trees.

First, you would want to spend another $150,000 redoing the floors, installing HVAC, including duct work and upgrade the two four piece bathrooms. You might want to redo the windows and the kitchen. But the people who bought Blake’s house have that handled. The family just bought and reno’ed the almost identical house attached to the south.

I got just under $900,000. Blake and I had owned two houses as a married couple and we struggled to get $180,000 for the last one in 1979, the one under the hill, with the pool and the big family room, the gardens, the dry stone wall, the den, and the finished basement, on a cul de sac in leafy Scarborough. An ideal place for children to grow and a brisk walk to a commuter train downtown. You get the picture – our dream home, rendered mausoleum by divorce and teenagers who pissed off in its wake.

And yes, I am both ex-wife and executor. I even volunteered. Frankly, I didn’t trust Blake to protect our children’s interests and he didn’t have any friends that I trusted either. The other thing is that I loved Blake, indeed I love Blake.

That’s a problem.

Having sold the house, I feel as if he’s died all over again. When the deal closes at the end of August, I suppose I’m in for a third Blake death.

A few weeks before he passed, he confided that he was leaving me a terrible mess. He cried. He was in bad shape then, wasting away, wracked with pain and on heavy meds, but Blake always cried easily. He wasn’t exaggerating either. The mess both physical and financial was spectacular.

Five of us set about clearing things up, six if you count Alice who took herself bag and baggage back to the apartment Blake had been paying for for years. With our encouragement. After she left, the place was somewhat less like a hoarder’s paradise. It took six weeks. Waste Management sites in Toronto and Mississauga saw a lot of us, as well as Value Village. Much furniture changed hands at the curb. Some valuables on Kijiji. From time to time, one of the other of us lost hope and had to be invalided out for a few days.

“That place sucks the joy out of you!” one of us declared.

Plus it smelled of pee. It smelled badly of pee. There had been cats. There had been a very old dog. And there had been an incontinent patient. It took a professional, an industrial cleaner, an ozone machine and $3000, not to mention 11 Febreze units to get the air to the point where we could be there without every window and door wide open.

The garage was a horror show all on its own. Got Junk wanted thousands to take its disordered contents away. The only male member of our quintet threw himself at it with all his pent up rage at his father. Weekend after weekend, he dragged stuff out and off-loaded it. One guy, much to his wife’s chagrin, became the new owner of 8 bookcases and a teak table with four chairs. The childhood train set – Blake’s really – fetched $200. The last thing to go was the Bhau Haus sofa which Habitat for Humanity insisted would never go out the door – although it had come in there 25 years before. Blake’s son got it out. Like his father, he understood leverage and angles. He towed it to the curb and it went away.

Afterwards when there was nothing left to do, he found himself grieving.

Grief is a bitch. It ambushes you. Just when you think you’ve got it handled, it smashes you back down. Just when you think you’re too annoyed and overwhelmed by Blake’s lack of responsibility to care that he’s gone, you discover that your heart feels different.

 

 

Blake in the Bardo

Blake as Child #2

Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel by George Saunders has popularized the bardo concept. Lincoln, having been shot to death, spends a single night -spirit-wise – in the graveyard where his son is buried, to the consternation of its ghostly residents.

Eastern religions believe that the soul sojourns in the bardo for 49 days before moving on.

Blake left his body in the middle of March. Initially, and even before his actual last breath, he traveled about a bit, principally to my sister’s home, his ex-sister-in-law’s, where he had attended family parties, including one for his 80th birthday. He always had an eye for my pretty younger sister. See https://115journals.com/2019/03/24/grieving-for-blake-a-ghostly-affair/ and https://115journals.com/2019/03/20/blake-no-more/

He has settled down since then. He doesn’t flit about alarming the living or causing them to throw pillows. He has even given up peering solemnly over my shoulder while I try to sort out his affairs. Possibly, this is because I curse him roundly for not filing a tax return since 2016 or paying Canada Revenue what he owed.

Or maybe he has slunk away because I now owe our mutual bank nearly $9000, borrowed to cover all the expenses that I am not permitted to pay for from the estate until it is settled. I am permitted to use estate money to pay for insurance, the interest on Blake’s line of credit -to the same, rule-making bank, and Ford Credit. I plan to outfox the latter by buying out the contract. More dollars I do not have, but – hey, I’m a great credit risk.

So while I trudge from office to office -bank, real estate, lawyer, post office – clasping his death certificate, his notarized will and my ID, Blake seems to be settling down to bardo instruction. His mentors appear to be small children, mostly boys. Blake was evacuated from England to Canada at the age of 5 to get him out of the way of Hitler’s bombers. His ship was in a convoy, protected by Corvettes, a cargo of British gold at his ship’s secret centre. An earlier shipload of such children had been torpedoed with great loss of young lives. My sister Georgia believes that it is these children who are teaching Blake. I opt, as well, for children who traveled with Blake and survived as he did, but have now passed on. I include my colleague Michael who hung himself one July morning when he was supposed to be doing a group presentation with me at the Ontario College of Education.

These children were orphans of the war, despite the tender care of their Canadian foster parents.

So, Blake sits with the children. In his heart, he was always five years old, always longing to be back on the water, in the water, under the water, always unable to trust his family.

He’s still got a good few days to spend in the bardo, at least until my birthday in early May.

I can’t speak of him in the past tense yet.

But alas, we do speak of him in anger.

First, there was the problem of Alice. I defied the heirs by not pitching her out of the house at once, saying it was too cruel to show up with two cops and a locksmith and tell her to go. (TO HER OWN APARTMENT WHICH BLAKE HAD PAID TO STAND EMPTY FOR 6 YEARS) Of course, I did end up on the front porch with two cops and a locksmith after a decent interval, coaxing her to at least give us access to his papers. Surely, she wanted our co-operation and, for example, his ashes. “I don’t want his ashes,” she snarled. Heads whipped back. Sympathies changed. Documents were handed through a tiny opening between the steel door and the frame. She promised to leave by Sunday midnight. On Monday, with the same patient locksmith, we entered to an impossibly dirty, foul smelling house, but one that no longer looked like a hoarder’s paradise.

Eventually, I collected Blake’s ashes – very heavy, that boy, in spite of how skeletal he had become. Eventually, I passed his earthly remains – in a roundabout way – to Alice. He loved Alice. I tried to honour that.

I thought I was too old at 83 to lift and sort and get soaked to the skin ferrying stuff to Value Village, to battle Toronto rush hour traffic to his downtown house. So, you could say that Blake has taught me that I’m stronger and smarter that I thought I was.

We work in the house without heat – to save money. I wear a winter jacket that used to be off-while. “Is that all from Blake’s house?” asks our son Daniel. “No, I reply, sarcastically. I like wearing filthy clothes.” And I stick my head back in the beautiful fridge, bought on the hottest day last summer, and absolutely never wiped out since. There are swaths of red, sugary spills and orange spills and crusty clear ones. It looks as if they opened the fridge door, stood back several paces and flung uncovered liquid concoctions in for storage.

“Why are you doing this?” Georgia yells, as she wrestles the shelves and crispers out.

“Because….” I yell back. I am kneeling on ceramic tile. My knees are crying. My back is crying. Because, I think, I cannot let the world know what my Blake had sunk to.

He was ill. He was depressed. He was afraid. He had found a perfect woman, one who couldn’t bear to be touched, one who was young and ill-informed and opinionated, -“Are the Beatles dead?” she once inquired. – one who argued and railed and shouted and shut us out of his life for years, who abused us as we tried to clean his room before his grandsons came to say farewell.

But he loved her.

Oh, Bardo Boys….

 

 

 

Grieving for Blake: a ghostly affair

Persistent readers know that I have been documenting the demise of my ex-husband Blake here at 115journals. I’ve told of his remarkable 8-year survival with stage 4 prostate cancer, and lately his decline as he began to lose his grip on his perch. He passed away last Monday.

We have been divorced for forty years. We were married for only nineteen. We had two children, who are themselves middle-aged now. To protect their interests, I agreed to act as his executor. I knew it was a bad idea, but I wasn’t aware that I would be chief mourner and ghost-whisperer as well.

When it comes to Kubler-Ross’s  seven stages of grief, I’m a rapid cycler.

Saturday, I set up a little altar in the loving spirit of letting him go, or to be precise, getting him to go. He had turned up in Georgia’s bedroom at 5:20 a.m. in his hospital gown, trailing his blue hospital blanket, confused but vividly Blake. A few days later, Georgia’s daughter jumped off the floor and screamed as something brushed past her in a doorway. Admonitions to go to the light, to go find Leyla, his second wife, fell on deaf protoplasm, as did a final plea to go find his pet Sheba Inu.

In my place, his presence was more diffuse and business-like. He has left me to file several years of income tax, as well as deal with Alice, his resident gold-digger. On Saturday, that seemed charmingly chivalrous, so I set up an auxiliary shrine on the dining room table. As a Taoist, I keep a family shrine with pictures of my people, past and present, Kwan Yin, the Mother, Buddha and candles. I put a picture of 23-year-old Blake in his graduation gown, his obit, a book of Rumi poetry, a dozen tea-coloured roses, incense, Kwan Yin, Buddha and lit bees wax candles. It was the Saturday after his passing, the day we would have had his funeral if he hadn’t opted out of such ritual. I read him Tennyson:

Sunset and evening star
and one clear call for me
May there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea.

Then I got on with my own taxes.

In the evening, I sat down to finish watching The Girl on the Train on Netflix. I had read the book some time ago, and, although I had forgotten it mostly, I knew I hated all three neurotic women and especially the drunken protagonist, who just wouldn’t let up on her ex’s new wife and may have killed her neighbour. About an hour later, my mood had swung from loving a farewell to dear Blake, to get back here: I’ll kill you myself. For my lovely Blake was every bit as good at gas-lighting as Tom, the husband in the story. We – ex-wife, daughter and step-daughter – had compared notes at dinner one February night when the family had travelled from near and far to say goodbye to papa. And he wasn’t beyond blackening each of our names to the others. Then, of course, there was the question of Alice, his latest triumph, 45-years younger, who wouldn’t let us in to see him without a hissy fit, and who had been helping him work his way through the home equity line of credit at a good fast clip.

I repurposed the altar in the name of love and told Blake to get lost.

So here I am, middle of the night, suddenly awake and sobbing with grief. I knew him longer than anyone still extant. I may have loved him best. I certainly hated him best.

He’s gone. I can’t call him up to lament about one ‘child’ or the other. I can’t depend on his caring as much as me. And no, I can’t tell Blake – whatever – anymore.

He believed death was the absolute end. There was nothing after.

In that case, settle down, Boy.

 

Comedy is Easy. Dying is Hard.

We were bird people as a family. Too many allergies for furry creatures. There were usually two budgies in a large cage, with names like Pip and Midjbill. And God help the unlucky child who pulled off the cover to find that one of these beauties had fallen off its perch.

As constant readers know, my ex-husband Blake is about to fall off his perch. https://115journals.com/2019/01/26/go-gentle-or-rage-two-ways-of-saying-g

https://115journals.com/2019/02/08/place-your-phone-in-your-shoe-and-move-forward/

https://115journals.com/2019/02/23/blake-there-on-his-sad-height/

He has had an ample allotment of borrowed time. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer nearly nine years ago, at the same time as his much younger second wife, and has outlived her by eight. Now that time is running out.

I know about living on borrowed time. I am mostly grateful to have had so much of it myself. Mostly, I am grateful, but possibly, like him, I will not consider it ample when the time comes.

Meanwhile, I have a bit part in Blake’s last great adventure. The experience veers between tragedy and farce. There are heart-rending moments, followed by down-the-rabbit-hole moments, involving, for example, shoe phones.

Stories of families gathering before or in the wake of a patriarch’s death have a common theme. Revelation. Family #1 meets family #2 and all is revealed.

We did that on such a brutal winter night that we were the only people in Milestone’s dining room. All three children were beautiful and bright, mine considerably older than the step-daughter and daughter-in-law. Once they got going, trading stories, I had to put my hand up to get a word in. Blake had changed settings, but not much else. “He did that to you too?” was a common refrain.

Since we were all now having to beg permission from his latest live-in lady to visit him we had started out a little testy. Since we had also spent a week trying to clean up the squalor of their home, we were seriously aggrieved. We didn’t want him to spend his last days like that. On the other hand, we didn’t like being screamed at to leave now, nor to contend with Blake’s desperate cries that we didn’t understand.

At least, I concluded from the family revelations that Blake had risked his step-daughter’s life less often than ours as he sailed Sirocco, the red hulled Northern 39. And anyway, we were willing participants in those cross-lake races through 20-ft waves. Or willing to risk our lives for Blake’s approval at any rate.

For a week, a kind of peace descended as Blake’s grandsons sat with him in his third floor sort of clean room.

Then they were gone. Our son Daniel and I found ourselves beside Blake’s hospital bed with his companion Alice, trying to understand proposed treatment and to inject logic into choices. Pretty much to no avail. Blake intended to go back up to his third floor. It would not be possible to equip it with a hospital bed because of the same narrow stairs that had prevented the paramedics from stretchering him down. He had had to walk down with 10/10 pain. But once his hydro-morphone dose was right, he would go back there and if he chose to, he would drive his car. This last decision led to hard feelings. Daniel and I did not agree that persons on opiates with a weakened back bone should drive.

As a result, Blake and Alice slipped out of the hospital last Saturday and ubered home. (Sans driver’s license, which the doctor had had withdrawn.) She watched him climb back up to his eerie. She reckoned he could have a few more weeks there in the company of his cats, warming his creamed soup up in his microwave and snacking on smoothies from his little fridge.

Until. Until the pain got up to 10 again on Sunday and what should she do. And he wouldn’t get off his wet bed so she could change the sheets. And he was cursing the doctors for not getting the pain meds right.

And I was saying, “Call 911!”

I was trying to shop for groceries. It was the second time in 10 days that I had tried to buy groceries while Alice shouted in my ear buds that she couldn’t handle things.

For the next 2 hours, I fielded phone calls -Alice, Daniel, Julia, our California daughter, Georgia, my sister – all of them several times, each call interrupting another. Texts dinging in as we talked. Daniel was about to go over to Blake’s home and call 911 himself when the palliative care nurse arrived at the house. The last I heard, Blake was allowed 2 more short term hydro-morphone when necessary. He hadn’t taken them. He was sitting up, his pain was 0, and the bed was only a little damp under the clean sheets.

The comic who says, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” hasn’t died recently.

 

 

 

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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.

                     

All is Well: differential diagnosis

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

In the middle of October, I posted “All is Well”, another contradiction to despair. Events overtook me and I posted “Interval”, promising to post “All is Well: part 2”.

I will begin by explaining the difference between renal cell carcinoma and fat poor angiomyolipomas, so far as I understand it. The latter, also referred to as AMLs – not to be confused with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (that’s someone else’s nightmare) – are made up of blood, muscle and fat. Ours was spotted incidentally during an unrelated CT scan. It was a 4.1 cm. mass in the right kidney.

Did you know renal carcinomas can be diagnosed visually? So three weeks ago we got the bad news – kidney cancer. But wait a minute, the real target had been a 3.8 mass in the hip on the same side. Could be metastatic kidney cancer.

Honestly did not know I was capable of howling loud enough to alarm my neighbors.

But, stat, there was an MRI guided biopsy of the hip lump. Hip tumor not cancer. Rather a schwannoma, a tumor of the nerve sheath, in this case on the sciatic nerve and, in this case, benign.

Can there be kidney schwannomas ,we asked the Google gods. Possibly.

Let’s do another scan, stat of course, to see what is going on in adjacent organs – I imagine this one as High Def – and get a good look at the kidney interloper. Two days later, a voice mail message. Not cancer, but a fat-poor AML.

We had got used to the worst – every day terror, bleak future, all that good stuff. Hearing the no-cancer news, I had to put my head between my knees. One of us fell to cursing. The patient cried.

For three weeks, we had followed doctor’s instructions: prepare for the worst, maybe 17% survival in 5 years, gone in her early 60s. Then, when it was just kidney cancer, not metastatic we had a 96% chance. Now, we were back to 100%, or as close as you can be, given traffic on California freeways. We should have been happy, but we went around muttering, “It’s Tuesday, it must be cancer.” “It’s Thursday, it certainly isn’t.” “It’s Friday…”

We didn’t trust any doctor and certainly not a radiologist. The current one still wanted to call it cancer, despite a visible few fat cells. What we read, and we read everything, told us carcinomas had no fat. A radiologist in 2012 had reported that a tumor of 3.8 cm appeared on the left kidney. We ordered the CD record of it. Definitely, on the right. The radiologist had reverse-read the kidneys. If he had not, we would never have fallen for this funny little trick Nature sprang on us.

Lucky us. Lots of patients have discovered only after they’ve lost a kidney that they didn’t have cancer.

This morning, the urologist assured us that the offending growth will be biopsied when it is removed. When will that be? Well, first the main player, pain-wise, has to go. Simple to cut a schwannoma off a sciatic nerve, just don’t cut too close or -bingo- a different crisis here in Kern County. Recovery will take 2 days. When the patient feels better, she can call and get the kidney surgery date.

The issue of getting something to kill the pain is another whole drama. Governments make doctors’ lives hell when they prescribe opiate-type drugs. As far as I can see their draconian rules have not made a dint in the opioid crisis as yet. The neurosurgeon breezily suggested a pain clinic. Wait times for pain clinic appointments are at least 30 days. We live near an opioid addicted town, we might get lucky on a street corner. But, no, the urologist came through for the next 5 days. Not the same effective painkillers, not nearly as effective and rife with side effects. Weeping over the phone to the pain clinic got us an appointment in 5 days. And this is a temporary need, until surgery, for someone who can’t get up off the couch most days.

I am Canadian. We have the same struggles with diagnosis and waiting for surgery. I once waited for 7 weeks to have an intestinal carcinoid removed. I could eat only fluids or runny pureed veg. Great slimming diet. I was prescribed liquid morphine. But I absolutely never had to think about cost. Not true in California, even with Medicare.

This is a wonderful country, don’t get me wrong. Driving up the I-5 from the neurosurgeon’s, I remembered that, if California were a country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world. But *#@! it, why doesn’t it take care of its people. My great nephew in Belgium had a 15 hour surgery on his brain, lived to tell the tale and got no bill.

Next up: insomnia of 10 months duration.

“All will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well”

 

On Turning 82

This was my thirtieth year to heaven, Dylan Thomas wrote in 1944 in his lyrical and joyful way. I was 30 when I fell in love with that line. That was a good year for me, 1967. It was the year we moved our young family to the house under the hill, where pheasants called in the copse above, where we planted rock gardens and shrub gardens and put up a martin house and built a dry stone wall around a pool. It was the year I got a job as assistant English head at the school down the street, where my husband was head of math. It was the year Canada turned 100. Everything was going to be fine.

Of course I knew that the poet had one last – joyful, I hope – alcoholic binge one November day in 1954 and never got to write This is my fortieth year to heaven, I also knew that he had admonished us not to go gentle into that good night, but to rage against the dying of the light. It seems as if Thomas had an ambivalent attitude to death. Or life. Like many of us.

This is my eighty second year to heaven. Too late to scan. I should have written this two years ago.

I want to say I never expected to live this long and then impress you with all the reasons why: murderous parents, malignancy, suicidal inclination, but it is truer to say I never intended to live this long. At least, the conscious part of me, presumably the part that writes, did not intend to.

I intended to get my siblings to live into adulthood. Then having recklessly brought two more souls into the world, I wanted to do the same for them. So forty two?

That brought me to 1978 and a dark time when I bought only the smallest quantities of pain killers and never looked at bridge abutments on the highway. The next thing I knew a persistent vision of a grandchild called me back. Another generation to get through childhood.

Would you believe that now there is yet another? I’m not in the front line any more, of course, and this little girl is a merry soul who faces no immediate threat.

Except the world as we know it.

My belief is that the real me always intended to grow old, She kept it a secret from me because I couldn’t deal with longevity. She was right.

This week, I did the driver retest mandated for the elderly here in my jurisdiction. It involved sitting in a room of mostly little, old people who found drawing a clock showing ten after eleven a challenge. The instructor pleaded with us to make a list of alternatives to driving which we would shortly have to use. As I merged into rush hour traffic at 100 k. an hour on the busiest highway in North America without breaking a sweat, I thought perhaps the rumor of my decline was premature.

Here’s what I loved: babies, apple orchards, cherry trees in blossom, the full moon over the Tioga Pass, the beach on the Gulf of Corinth, a bunch of pre-schoolers crazy playing by themselves, a teen-aged boy of a Raleigh Racer, his older self in a racing green MGB, the bridge on the Seine near Notre Dame, mountains, pine trees, blue birds, coming about on a sailboat in a good wind, a feather bed, a kite straining at its leash high above Myrtle Beach, mockingbirds, the trade wind through an open window at 2 p.m. on Maui, orange blossoms scented from high on a wall in Morocco, Venus seen from a farmhouse veranda, a brook running with thaw melt, bells rung for victory, the Warsaw Concerto, a big, old Gardenia tree, an enormous date palm, a bench in Bois Fort, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, sterling silver, barn owls, swallows, hawks. I have to stop here. There’s a party.

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com

 

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection

I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy not as a political explanation of why a crazy man is in the White House, or why a generation of white men is unemployed and opioid addicted – although it is both – but as a personal reflection.

At the age of 5 in 1941, having just moved to a small town 30 miles from the ‘hills’ I came from, I screamed, “Runaway horse, runaway horse”. My cries led to much merriment. It was the first time I had seen a horse-drawn van. When I was 12, a city classmate asked me why I talked and walked funny? I thought my difference was safely hidden inside. I set about immediately losing my hill twang and my bouncy stride in desperation to ‘pass’. The drama society helped immeasurably, although in my 6th decade, I still imagined I would drop the crystal wine glass, and somehow shatter it on the deep pile of the Persian carpet. I knew how to behave in a five star hotel, but I wanted the staff to stop grovelling.

You can take the girl out of the hills, but even in her old age, you can’t take the hills out of the girl.

J.D. Vance poses the question: how can a hillbilly develop the confidence to go to Yale, become a lawyer and write a best seller. He has always been J dot D dot, but he was born James David Bowman. After his father allowed his mother’s third husband to adopt him, he became James Donald Hamel. After that his mother, a trained nurse, went through a string of men, a lot of alcohol and a good many drugs including heroin. J.D. was saved by his maternal grandparents, the Vance’s, Mamaw and Papaw. Their house near his mother’s was a refuge.

The Vance’s had left the holler in Jackson, Kentucky when Mamaw got pregnant at 13. Papaw was then 16. They went north. She lost that child, but Papaw got a job at the Armco. He enjoyed a drink or two with the other Kentuckian immigrants.Whole families moved up to Middletown at Armco’s encouragement. Out of the coal mines into the steel mill. Mamaw eventually kicked her drunken husband out, but he had reformed by the time J.D. needed him. It was true even in her old age, Mamaw could still take down grown men and did so whenever necessary.

My family came from a northern branch of Appalachia in Quebec, and twanged and drawled more New England than southern. When the war ended in 1945, my 4H father lost his job to a returning  veteran. He moved us in a borrowed gravel truck to Ontario. My seat was in the gravel bed wedged among the furniture under a moldy tarp . I was armed with a package of Asper gum to quell motion sickness and a flashlight to be used only in emergency. My companion was a 14-yr-old Ontario boy, Daddy’s moving assistant. In those days, before super highways, the distance measured 800 miles and took all night and well into the next day. I remember only the first hour. The banging and bumping of shifting furniture and the steel gravel bed, hitting the tarp, trying not to throw up or panic is mercifully all but forgotten. The gum and the game of shadow animals had lost their effectiveness. I was convinced that my parents and two little sisters were forever gone. A gravel truck bed doesn’t access the cab’s window. The gravel never has to pee.

Thus we arrived in the much more advanced province of Ontario, Canada, in true hillbilly fashion, and finally ate sandwiches for breakfast on the grass at the side of the road.

We ended up eventually in the heavy industry town of Hamilton. Three of my mother’s five brothers arrived in due course to get jobs at Stelco and turn into alcoholics. My father never needed any help achieving an altered state. He could turn on a dime, faster than we could duck and run.

Violent, alcoholic, check and check, but did we have the Kentucky code of loyalty to family. I don’t think so. J.D. got in early, clobbering boys who said as little as “Yo Mama.” If anybody needed clobbering around me, well – I was the oldest, girl or not, and my weapon was mainly a loud, nasty voice. Once, all four female family members jumped on his back and took down our father as he whipped the smallest Then hurled his belt into a hay field. By the time he found it, he was sweating and not in the mood anymore. I want to say he was giggling, and perhaps he was, but my father’s giggle was just another danger sign.

In short, our family home reverberated with loud verbal and physical violence as did Vance’s home with its serial father figures – he said living with his mother and one ‘Matt’ was like witnessing the end of the world- as did the homes of hillbillies in general.

Vance’s grandparents still had strong ties to Jackson KY which was only three hours away and they visited often reinforcing the values of family loyalty, hard work and hard play.

As a 9-yr-old, I was convinced we could never go back to the hill. I would never again see the great aunt who had taught me to love Jesus. She had also helped me become a friend of an older cousin. His mother was ‘the teacher’ at the one-room school, and he was going to university himself. Never again see the ‘rich” and educated woman across the street I had befriended when I was five.

My mother grieved as though she could never go back. On the hill, she had had all of the women she had known since childhood, no matter how annoying, as backup. In the small town, she had had her cousin from the hills at the other end of our rented triplex. Now she had no one and she lost her mind. She locked me in a trunk. If not for my 3-yr-old sister, I would have stayed there until my father came home from the gravel pit in Orangeville the next weekend.

Still I did well in school. I was determined to. It made my father proud.

Vance was not such a good student. It was hard for him to find a quiet refuge to study, except at his grandparents. Fortunately, my father worked two jobs. After supper, I could count on the time until midnight to quietly study.

As well as his more or less stable grandparents, J.D. had his Uncle Jimmy Blanton who flew him out to visit him in Napa Valley. These visits and trips with his grandparents expanded his possibilities. When J.D. graduated from high school, he knew he was absolutely not ready for college. He joined the marines. In three years, including a stint in Iraq, he learned an altogether different code of living – disciplined, orderly, self-controlled,   He came back to do three college years in two, and to get admission to Yale law school. He credits one of his professors for mentoring and guiding him. And most of all the woman he fell in love with and married.

The boy I fell in love with came from working class Yorkshire, England, but his mother worked as a secretary in a law office and was a terrible snob. I was way beneath her son, but caving in to the inevitable, she took up my education, lending me books I hadn’t found in libraries, introducing me to English eating, gin, sherry and trifles. Then I escaped my violent home by insisting on living on the university campus. There the dean of women and all the middle-class girls continued my training in social niceties. I even ended pouring the tea at one of our white gloved afternoons. The manager of the retail department store which had given me money for tuition, was fond of asking me to pour tea for his guests. Much to my humiliation, for I had to sit still while he praised for 5 minutes. Hillbillies don’t cowtow.

The coal mines in Kentucky shut down. Armco and Stelco went steadily downhill as car manufacturing turned from solid steel to steel frame and plastic. My mother, who had worked in an aluminum plant, and the two uncles who stuck it out in steel, died young of cancer. My father stayed on as a mechanic at Ford, Oakville until he retired.

The three girls in my family earned degrees and had careers. Our dyslexic brother got his education on the road -Europe, India, Afghanistan, Turkey. He married a Belgian French girl and made a career in film and antiques. He never in his life borrowed money until a few months ago. In the 3rd and 4th generation, most have college degrees and all have jobs, although one is caught up in the gig industry. Economic downturns have left some of us the worse for wear. I no longer own my home, for example, but I am constantly surprised that we didn’t end up homeless addicts considering our impoverished and abusive beginning.

J.D. Vance’s book is called Hillbilly Elegy, a song of lamentation for the dead. In this case a whole class of people, without cohesion or identity. Gone. The hillbillies had valued family loyalty, hard work, God and the American Dream. They moved north in large part to give their children a better future, as our father did. When industry failed and they couldn’t get work, they continued to pay lip service to industriousness, even though they never worked a day in their lives. Vance says they practice avoidance and wishful thinking, living on welfare, addicts and alcoholics, like his own mother and her string of boy friends.

Vance regrets that.

Our hill culture has been assimilated. We live in Ontario, California, Belgium and Boston. The hill itself is nearly depopulated. The fields, so laboriously cleared, are going back to trees -plantations and wild woods. I keep a picture of our mountain on my computer. I do not think I will see it with my own eyes again.