Hope is a thing with feathers That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all. Emily Dickenson
Imagine being told that you have to spend a year inside and not see your beloved friends and family.
Oh that happened to you too!
It has now been a year and two weeks for some of us. Maybe you as well. I have an underlying condition called old age. I didn’t enjoy those news stories out of Italy last year, when they had to triage hospital patients with Covid or pictures of the ice arenas and churches full of bodies. I didn’t enjoy the stories from New York City of bodies in freezer trucks, or even just in trucks. I got hot under the collar when politicians suggested I was old, so I didn’t count when measured against the economic loss. Having said that, I hand-wrote an addition to my will, opting out of ventilator treatment, with the hope mine would go to someone younger.
Spring did not cheer me up. I was having my groceries delivered and I had finished watching Tiger Joe. Even Schitz Creek couldn’t pull me out of my slump. I had been writing a third book, a second mystery. I couldn’t figure out who the murderer was and I didn’t care. On Twitter, I followed other writers who wanted to encourage me by challenging me or telling me what they were accomplishing. I thought they hadn’t caught the bus, that they didn’t know we were dying in great numbers and nothing else mattered. Summer! Well who cares? It was like the summer of 1914 or 1939. Australia and California were burning as well. Nobody cared. The leader of the western world certainly didn’t.
I wrote blog posts titled by day, as in Day 36, etc. I could think for the hour and half that took me. Then I was gone.
Finally, my province allowed me to see one other singleton household. I saw my sister up the road, and once we knew we could trust each other, my niece, her daughter. I could not go to the U.S. to see my daughter or even to Barrie, an hour and 15 minutes north to see my sister’s large and boisterous family as I usually did at holidays. The three of us soldiered on at our small feasts, with or without video feed.
Then – drum roll please – everything changed. I had written a number of posts about Global Warming and the end of civilization as we know it and suddenly, an entirely new and paradoxically warm and even funny story started writing itself in my head.
The upshot is that I have to get it down before I forget it, so I don’t have as much time to write blog posts. I apologize for that and also for feeling interested in life again, especially if you are still not loving it and not writing or whatever. Rumi says, “There is one thing in this world you must never forget to do,” ( Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks p.181) What I am learning is this is not a puzzle for serious study and introspection. It is a matter of learning how to play.
(Also I’m so old, I was able to get the Pfizer shot two weeks ago. I apologize for that as well.)
A few days ago, I posted my first discussion of Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climatechange(2015). In it, I talked about the first essay in this small book “The Mind of the Wild” by Robert Bringhurst. He said that in order to remain sane in this tumultuous time, we need to calibrate our minds by going into the wild. In the second essay, Jan Zwicker recommends practicing the Socratic virtues. Roy Scranton in his Learning to Die: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015) depends on cultural narrative (see earlier posts 115journals.com) and practicing a thoughtful pause before re-tweeting or otherwise passing on hysterical news., contemplative practice and compassion
Most of us, even if we have not had to read Plato’s account of the life of Socrates, know that he administered his own execution by drinking hemlock, subsequent to being found to be an enemy of the state. Jan Zwicker calls her essay “A Ship from Delos”. This ship is, they say the tribute ship that Theseus sailed to Crete, which sails in memorium of the saving of Athens. It sailed away decorated for celebration and no execution can take place until it returns. It has been sighted. Socrates must die.
Zwicker says, “Humans collectively are now in Socrates’ position: the ship with black sails has been sighted.” She goes on to detail facts that show no adequate preparation has been put in place to avoid the ‘catastrophic global ecological collapse ..on the horizon’. (43) Zwicker does not advice ‘duck and cover’ or even ‘shelter in place’. She recommends we each become an ‘excellent human being’ by cultivating Socrates 4 virtues, amending the list to 5 to be clear. As Zwicker interprets them, they are knowing what’s what – with humility, courage, self-control, justice and compassion. Roy Scranton would certainly agree with self-control, while his cultural heritage idea encompasses the others.
IMO as they say on Twitter, knowing what’s what has been a bad problem here in the U.S. and Canada for the last several years. And, yes, sorry, this small country to your north has sheltered Trumpers and anti-maskers, Proud Boys and Jordan Peterson, although they may not have done the same degree of harm. We have only about 24,000 dead of Covid and no assault on the Parliament Building in Ottawa.
The common theme, I have found in the 2 Learning to Die books and in The Mushroom at theEnd of the World: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015) is that they require not more recycling or technical progress, but more character building, more attention so we can endure the future with a measure of grace. (The mushroom is the matsutake, Japan’s favourite.)
The heart of Plato’s portrait of Socrates is ‘How are We to Die?’ Socrates is affable and ironic and demonstrates the 4 -really 5 – virtues that make an excellent man. He is not grieving, although he has compassion for the students he is leaving behind, who certainly are. In the David painting above, Socrates is reaching for the poisoned cup willingly despite his unjust conviction.
The virtues are those that we need at this moment as a pandemic and a serious threat to democracy need to be handled. Of course, global warming needs to be handled as well but this book, like the others I have mentioned is based on the idea that climate change is like Covid-19 in March 2020. It is already too late. The trend is downward toward catastrophe. Our feeble actions may produce some improvement but, as we know 550,000 Americans and about 24,000 Canadians have already died. It is possible we are facing a third wave from variants. Similarly, civilization as we know it is doomed and possibly the race itself. The earth may survive without us. These effects are approaching more quickly than we thought they would. How are we to die?
We die well when we have cultivate the virtues: sophia– wisdom but better translated as knowing what’s what, having the savvy of a person of affairs, yet recognizing there is much we do not know. It is the robust willingness to question belief, to pause as Roy Scranton advised us before we retweet the latest scandal and take the time to question before we magnify an ill-founded lie.
Courage is not just manly spirit. It is the morality and strength required to be aware and not let opinion pass as understanding. We will need physical courage to handle the pain and hardship of civic strife, civil wars, mob violence, death tolls from disaster and pandemic.
Humility is a deep unconcern for the fate of the self. Self-control means not wanting more than enough. Some of us in the economic downturns, such as Covid is giving us, have had that thrashed out of us by events.
Justice, living with the hierarchy of the soul in mind: intelligent governing, warrior safe-keeping and skilled application of virtue, a workmanlike excellence. Contemplative practice works to make us aware of the world and our self.
Compassion is other than a contempt for fear, which leads to denial and and anxiety. Compassion listens and provides companionship in suffering. Awareness of grim truth does not preclude hope. (As I advance into old, old age, which starts at 85, I see that wallowing in despair is not a saving grace. A 95-year-old retired priest once assured me, he felt as if he were going to start kindergarten any day.) Hope involves humility: earth is prodigious and in many ways still very much alive. Our present beauty might fade, but there are other kinds of beauty.
The writer quotes from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace,”The poet produces what is beautiful by fixing attention onto something real… Love, awareness and the desire to respond: these are the distinguishable but inseparable aspects of genuine intelligence.” Later, she is quoted as saying that “prayer is nothing other than the absolutely unmixed attention.”
I never watch CNN now. I gave it up because I can now see such intelligence at work, but for over four-years, like many other Canadians I fixed unmixed attention on the failing democracy to the south. Now I have time to look at Global warming with clearer eyes and to acknowledge responsibility. Weil tells us that our refusal to do so blocks our grief at what’s to come.
“Mourning returns the soul to the community… When we point with our hearts to what we have destroyed, to our addictions and to our self-deception about our addictions”, we are freed into a cleansing grief.
Every family has sayings of wit and wisdom: “Is this where your cookies live?” 3-yr-old English boy, “Not my guinea pig,” one small girl to her sister when their pet dropped dead, “Gee, Lenny, it’s all f—ed up,” 2-yr-old gazing into the engine of a stalled car. I have a new one my family will have to learn. It is at the end of “A Ship to Delos” (71). It is the answer to what did the pilot say as he realized his plane was going to crash?
Many years ago, my mother-in-law, who was not aging well, came for Sunday dinner – roast beef and mashed and brussel sprouts, her favourite. She choked. I leapt to my feet, seized her under her ribs and jerked with all my might. No luck. Her son leapt up and walloped her on the back. No luck. He picked up her tiny body, yelled ‘call the hospital’ and raced for the car.
An ER doctor somehow tweezered out the sprout leaf and she breathed again after 10-minutes, fifteen (?). Whereupon she kicked him.0
I happened upon Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the end of a civilization (2015), advice about how to live in its waning days. The title intrigued me for several reasons. It is outrageous, for one, of course, but it just so happened that a 92-year-old friend made a run at leaving the world at the same time. She got such good care from her daughter-in-law and her son for the next 6-weeks, that she got much better, but the care was killing the carers, and it was 5000 ft. up a mountain in winter. She had a crisis in the middle of a bad snow storm, hours from a hospital, so she had to move to a long term care home in Bakersfield. She calls this $6000 a month accommodation, a prison.
This coincidence lead me to write a number of posts, 115journals Nov 2020- Feb 2021 the first six about learning to die as I observed it and what compromised a good death. The last two posts dealt with the book itself. Scranton like many others, who understand climate science, holds out little hope that our race will survive, but he recommends that we take refuge in our culture, the narratives that have sustained Homo Sapiens throughout its 200,000 year history. Since I had built my life on the study of literature and philosophy, it resonated with me as did his experience as a private in Baghdad. I didn’t serve, except in the private army that was my father’s family. We had spies, assault and defensive units and despite indications to the contrary, we four children survived and grew old. Believe me when I say that we practiced dying every day. We had seen what our father could do.
I was surprised to find there was another book called Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climate crisis (2018). It is a very small book by two Canadian academics, Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky. It contains three essays, the final one is part of the footnote section and refutes the optimism of Steven PInker’s Enlightenment Now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress (2018) by pointing out its logical flaws and use of questionable science.
Bringhurst, Zwicky and Scranton are not ghouls smirking and rubbing their hands at the bad news. They have looked at climate science and seen the obvious conclusion: it is already too late to avoid disaster. Yes, it’s good to eliminate plastic from your life, stop flying off to Mexico for the fun of it and driving a gas guzzler, but do you really believe ‘they’ are turning your recycling into new products. Might ‘they’ be sending a lot of it to the third world on barges. Canada has had one such barge returned lately. Oddly, when I surveyed my friends – not a large group, to be honest, but informed and intelligent, they all admitted they also thought it was too late. Seven billion of us and another billion every decade.
Bringhurst advises us to seek grace in the wild in his poetic essay ‘The Mind of the Wild’, first given as an address in British Columbia, Canada. He begins by referring to Mark Twain who said, “It was wonderful to find America, but would have been more wonderful to miss it?” He goes on to tell us that the sailors in 1492 carrying their Bibles with them, like even the best scholars, did not hear the Hebrew text laughing to itself, weaving… puns, reversals and half-rhymes to tell us hubris and pride are a widespread disease. ‘But in translation, no one hears the laughter.’
My first experience of a synagogue was, – these fleeting thoughts are almost subliminal, arising from habituation and actually a profound relief and source of joyonce I’d dealt with the shock -‘Why don’t they sit down and stop chatting and act respectful in a house of God?’ Even if the service hasn’t started yet. Not like Church of England people. The synagogue people are jovial and outgoing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, maybe funerals, I never went to a Jewish funeral. A joke in the Bible?! Bringhurst has just quoted the bit where humanity is exhorted to ‘be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it’. Oh, unhappy choice of words for ‘upright’ ears. I have spent a 35-year career speaking in public, but casually ask me to speak at Passover dinner.’But I’m not…’ I manage to do as I’m asked but only just. To me that is a kind of wildness, such as I see in African American church services – on TV. I haven’t been lucky enough to have family like the latter, although I’m grandma to a bunch of Rosenbergs.
But even a White Anglo-Saxon can love the wild. When the government took a few feet of my grandfather’s farm to widen the dirt road, he acted as if they had abused his soul. One family lived beyond him and they didn’t want or need a wider road, but look. ‘They’ve moved rocks. ‘They”ve gouged out the slope.
Bringhurst describes the wild as ‘various and rich’ although at least 98% of its species is extinct, ‘so the wild is not only rich and complex but at the same time economical and lean.’ If our species followed its model, there would be fewer than a billion of us.
I have driven across most of America three times, once by myself, once a few weeks after 9/11. Driving west, I got a sunburn on my left arm. And every single day, even on the throughways, I was goggle-eyed at its immensity, its density, its numberless vehicles, its ‘wealth’ of consumer goods. I drove to Chase County, Kansas to see what William Least Heat Moon describes in Prairie Erth as the centre of the county. In the grasslands, I saw crowded pens of cattle getting fed fat and had a delicious steak dinner. The wild punished me by locking my steering wheel. I sat in pitch dark with the light on, reading the owner’s manual for the Toyota Tercel and rereading it until I figured out how to unlock it. (Reef like mad.) Then into the desert. I knew this desert, having come several times from LA to a hot pool near Victorville, so I started out before dawn. I came finally to Fourth St. in Santa Monica and the left turn just before the Pacific Ocean.
I got to know the partially wild ridge trails near Los Angeles – Topanga Canyon, Malibu State Park, Will Rogers, but it was not until 2014 that I found myself in the wilder, forested mountains of Kern County where it abuts Los Angeles County. By then I was flying not driving and requesting wheelchair assistance. I could walk the edges of the wild, but that was all. Fortunately, my daughter could hike the wilderness. She tells me when she is setting out, but since I am stuck in Toronto these days, she also tells someone there and checks in when she gets home. She hikes up to 18 or 20 miles a day, gives me detailed accounts and sends me pictures.
Bringhurst says that in order to stay sane, we have to calibrate our minds by going into he wild. In winter months, I have to settle for ‘virtual’ hikes. Soon I will be able to drive up the Niagara Escarpment to Rattle Snake Point and do the relatively easy climb along the edge, letting the green energy of the woods bring me down to earth.
America is a miracle to me, so huge, so various, so resourceful, so adaptable, so resilient. I really never believed it could be taken down until 2016. In 2020, I knew it could. Because it could be taken down politically, economically and by disease, I lost that faith. My faith in the wild was more resilient, but government was stripping so many protections -both mine, Canadian, and American – that I finally began to get it. Just as Covid testing and Covid protection was too late and too little when it began, it was already a done-deal in mid-March 2020. Nearly 600,000 Americans have died as well as 24,000 Canadians. Before the vaccine and herd immunity can control it, the total for the two countries will be well over a million deaths. So too, our recycling, our pathetic ‘promise’ to keep temperature rise to just over 1 degree centigrade, our efforts to control global warming are doomed. The human body cannot survive a wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees celsius, (Wet bulb – bulb thermometer wrapped in wet cloth for humidity.) no matter how much water is consumed. Sure you can do it one day and maybe more with cooling stations, but not as a matter of course.
Bringhurst uses long term futures to alleviate the reader’s angst. But as my daughter is threatened by California fire, an in-law is flooded in New Jersey, my grandson lives a few blocks from the tsunami line in Culver Ciity/the Marina, the other hunkers down under the stairs in Dallas until the tornado warning lifts and even in Canada, the summer heat keeps us indoors, I have little faith in global warming measures.
The essay tells us that the myth of constant human progress cannot be supported by the wild. We are already asking too much of it and our demands are going to double in a decade. I remember being able to handle that world in the 1950s when we were a billion. Only just. Moving back to a country village 33-years ago, seemed to cool things down for me, but at the cost of a two-hour-long commute every day and fenced-off, tamed wilderness. I could hear packs howling at sunset and peepers singing in the spring, but economically, the hundred-year-old house ruined me.
The author doesn’t think we can save the world. Only the wild can possibly do that. What we can do is save our self-respect. He concludes, as MLK did, that we have a moral obligation, not only to cooperate with good, but also to resist evil and extend civil disobedience to cultural and biological issues as well as unjust laws. Invading the sanctified halls of democracy on trumped up, disproved pretexts doesn’t pass the test of justification.
If we start thinking like an ecosystem, we can go down singing.
Next a post on ‘A Ship from Delos’, an essay on the Socratic virtues as a saving grace, the second in the book.
Roy Scranton published his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the deathof a civilization in 2015 before Donald Trump was elected and Steve Bannon, his disrupter pal moved into the West Wing. Scranton predicted that working and middle class electors facing economic stagnation would react violently to the “cruel optimism” of the system, which never fulfills its promise. Willy Loman’s Death of a Salesman was solitary and self-destructive. Like many Americans, he had put his faith in sports and particularly his son’s success in football. That didn’t work out. Willy got fired instead of retired and the fridge broke down just as they made the last payment. .Like other teachers, I taught the play to seniors as the death of the American dream. Scranton predicted that once the angst of these classes could not be contained by sports, the social fabric would tear and the U.S. would be subject to rioting, rebellion and civil war.
He saw that the daily transmission of feeling, the instant and constant feedback system of television and social media would heighten fear, rage, envy and hatred while not providing the political leverage to effect change. And so President Donald Trump and his groupies, senators, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, serving military and police launched their assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, otherwise known as Epiphany -coming of the Wise Men – or St Nicolas Night. The immediate gift was the desecration of the building sacred to democracy, even to non-Americans like me. Five people died that day, 140 were injured, many law enforcement people, and two police committed suicide in the aftermath. All of this to support the entirely debunked lie that the election had been stolen.
To stop the destructive domino effect, we have to stop. Scranton turns to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who says, “we must let the stress conductor die in us by refusing to pass it on. Instead, we can interrupt the stressor, quietly seeking to understand it. Such an interruption practices dying.
Philosophers from Cicero to Montaigne have said that accepting our end is the beginning of wisdom. Being wise comes down to not being afraid to die.
I began this series of posts when my 92-year-old friend nearly died on Christmas Eve. https://115journals.com/2021/02/13/learning-to-die-5-practicum/ She was incoherent, unable to move and praying vehemently in tongues. Clara practiced meditation and belonged to a humanistic religion, but hadn’t attended church in years and her religion did not practice speaking in tongues. In previous family emergencies, she had arranged for thousands of believers to pray for us. My daughter Julia concluded that all we had ever needed was Clara. In the morning, Clara slept. Waking up, she asked what was for breakfast. She was hungry.
Thanks to six weeks of round the clock nursing in her home and good food, Clara began to sit up, walk and eventually to move to a long term care facility when her care proved to much for her son and daughter-in-law. https://115journals.com/2021/02/14/learning-to-die-6-practicum/ Her outrage at that indignity and the long, boring halls have got her up and walking. At present, she is not going ‘gentle into that good night’.
Dying is easy. Dying well is hard.
When I registered at MacMaster University, I chose Philosophy and English, one to earn a living and one to help me understand why bother. Coincidentally, for the next three months, I was Joyce in the daytime and Anouilh’s Antigone in the evening in the tower room where we rehearsed. The chorus began the 1944 play by introducing the characters. He said of Antigone, “Another thing she is thinking is that she is going to die”. True to form, I got roughed up by the guards and King Creon every time and walled up in a cave by the end. Antigone lived and died for her principles. Nothing futile about that life.
Hannah Arendt is quoted from her book, On Revolution: “the inherent futility of life is negated by the study of certain concepts, certain guideposts for sheer reference which arise out of it”. That has been the lasting effect of my education, which continued as I taught, and read for pleasure. Hundreds of lines of poetry are, for example, at the ready to spring forth for strength and comfort.
Scranton uses the ancient narrative poem, Gilgamesh to illustrate this point. It is an encapsulation of the race’s progress from hunter-gather to agricultural and the rule of the tyrant. It is about the taming of the wild man and yet the need for him. In Baghdad during his service there, Scranton met an Iraqi rock group that eventually made an album called Gilgamesh. By doing so, they used mutual support and decency rather than aggression to connect Iraq and the United States.
By my last year, we philosophy majors had dwindled to 8, 7 tweedy, pipe-smoking guys and me. They had been chortling about Hobbes’ idea that “life is nasty, brutish and short” since we were freshmen. I didn’t get the joke. Our last semester was devoted to Logic. Every single time, the prof called on me, they swiveled in their seats and stared, “What IS she doing here anyway?” I finished the exam in record time and fled to the Dean of Women. Who made me lie down in a darkened cubicle. The professor graded my paper as the men finished writing theirs. The Dean brought back the news. I got 66%. But I didn’t get joke until just lately.
As I enter my old old age at 85, I find I am living in what Scranton calls the photohumanism era. Homo Sapiens as a race passed through the clay tablet era, the papyrus, the paper, the printing press and the powered printing press era until now I can sit at my desk, write and print. And send what I write far and wide. Instantly. With pictures. I can follow the thoughts of important thinkers and respond – if I dare. The trouble is that we are like the horses I knew on the farm, “biologically reactive, easily panicked, all to easily stirred to hate.” Horses will run as a group back into a burning barn. So we read something outrageous, deeply troubling, unjust, abhorrent and we retweet with comment. In short order, we have a large number of people believing that a decent, courageous, educated CNN reporter, who has just introduced his new son to the world, actually eats babies. We live in “networks, webs and hives” (not to mention pods and bubbles.), so that we become vulnerable to the sudden, dangerous empowerment of the hive mind”
This happened in the early days of radio, when Hitler was able to harness the hive mind and its attendant madness. Trump had a much more powerful instrument, Twitter.
To prevent the inevitable hysteria, riot and social breakdown, according to Scranton, we must learn to die. In other words, stop. Don’t react. Don’t amplify your own reaction by passing it on. Suspend the stress chain by pausing, taking time to assess the information, to question the source, to debate, to place it in the framework of cultural history, to “rework the stock of remembering”, to let go.
Well, sure, that pause might prevent another assault on the Capitol, but what does it have to do with the death of a civilization? Scranton isn’t promising a rose garden. He told us in the beginning that we are past the point of saving the world from global warming, although he acknowledges that some of our race may survive the end of civilization and whatever tyrant arises from it as long as we don’t “abandon the memory of the dead”.
To echo James Baldwin, we need to negotiate our passage through life as nobly as possible for the sake of those coming after us. How should I live and die to honour the dead as well as the unborn?
One of the most annoying things about Blake’s dying days (https://115journals.com/2021/02/11/learning-to-die-4-practicum/) was that he wouldn’t stop giving loud diatribes about how we had to change the world’s economy a.s.a.p. We had to pay each human being a living wage and not depend on capitalism to trickle one down. In other words, choose Bernie Sanders as a candidate. Elect Bernie Sanders. While we – his children and I, his ex-wife – were desperately trying to achieve a level of sanitation in his home that would avoid charges of elder abuse, he was reforming economics for future generations. He wasn’t wrong. He was just very distracting. His job, in our minds, was to leave, to end his unbearable pain and weekly emergencies when it overwhelmed him. But he was steadfast. If anyone ever comes back, reincarnated, it will be Blake. And maybe Bernie Sanders.
Blake was forming a new philosophy, a humanistic way to deal with our evolving world.
Roy Stanton describes the argument of his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: we have failed to manage global warming and capitalist civilization is already over. “But that humanity can survive and adapt if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths and work to nourish the variety and richness of our cultural heritage.” He goes on to clarify that learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispositions and fears, while learning to die as a civilization means letting go of a way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success and progress.(24 in e-book)
Blake and I were the first of our working class family to go to university. We became high school teachers. We had worked our butts off to get there, but we assumed life would be like that from now on. We would do better than our parents. We bought our starter house in our late twenties. I went back to teaching because we needed the money. For a few years, maybe 8, we had a comfortable life with a pool, a sail boat and long trips to Europe. When we split up, Blake still had the boat and the Corvette. As the economy ebbed and flowed, I gave up owning. I rent. I lease. I shop at Walmart. Blake left a house worth nearly a million and an old sail boat that I had to give away. I settled his debts and divided the remaining $400,000 among the 3 children. One of them settled her debts.
Yes, there is a disaffected class of those who slipped down. I am not one of the slipping disaffected set. I may have nothing but I have a pension. I am disaffected because I thought that morally and spiritually we were evolving. Then along came the U.S. election of 2016. The pandemic was more of a scientific failure until it changed into a contest between those who were caring and dying and those others. The latter are still advocating the moon is made of green cheese.
Stanton quotes German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, “It is a characteristic of being human that human beings are presented with tasks too difficult for them without having the ability of avoiding them because of their difficulty.”
On a personal and less universally significant level, I once became allergic to almost every food and most of my environment. My condition baffled doctors and limited my life so that I became increasingly weak. I ended up having to have an oxygen tank for severe episodes. It became clear to me that I had to find my own way out. First I began walking around the block. I did that repeatedly until I could walk around two blocks. Then I adopted a macrobiotic diet. I had gained enough strength to be able to cook a pot of brown rice and steam vegetables like seaweed and kale, which I had not eaten previously. Once I was able to return to work, I continued walking for half of my lunch break and for several years I continued the macrobiotic way of eating. Very gradually, without ever having been diagnosed, my condition improved until I more or less back to normal. I remember clearly that when I first began walking, I felt that it was an unsolvable problem, which I had to solve.
Stanton outlines the evolution of the human race starting in Africa 200,000 years ago when average temperatures were 61 degrees F., 3.5 degrees F. lower than now and went even lower. At 135,000 years ago, average temperatures increased +5 F, leading Cromagnum humanoids to flee to more temperate regions. Fifty thousand to 10,000 years ago there was a cultural explosion in the Euphrates valley – cultivating, herding, as well as hunting and gathering went on in the villages, which grew into great cities like Uruk. This civilization ended with a 300-year drought. Five thousand years ago, a series of other civilizations – Greek, Roman, Tang, Mongolian and our own arose.
Human civilization thrived in the Halocene period, the most stable environment in the last 650,000 years. Carbon has ended it.
Because my early life was lived in remote hill country, it was still based mostly on biomass energy. We had no electricity, telephone or indoor plumbing. We did have kerosene lamps, although we still remembered how to make tallow candles. We could hear the hoot of the steam engine across the woods and from time to time a gas-fueled vehicle appeared if the dirt roads were passable. As an adult, I got used to thinking my past was unusual until an immigrant pointed out to me, as he wired my cable, that it was like his own and many other immigrants’ who had come from the middle east.
Stanton considers the possible solutions to global warming that is cutting back carbon emissions. One of the problems of managing the electrical grid is that electricity has to be produced at the moment it is needed. In the week I am writing this, we have seen black outs in southern states, such as Texas, brought about by extremely cold temperatures and correspondingly high demands on the system. These were compounded by the fact that Texas has opted not to link to the federal grid to avoid federal regulations. The governor tried to convince us it was the entirely the failure of solar and wind power. In fact wind power here in Canada is not affected by cold because it’s engineered that way. Texas fired most of its power by natural gas anyway.
One by one, the author deals with possible strategies – sequestering carbon dioxide, nuclear fission, carbon tax, cap and trade, a sulfur blanket in the stratosphere. Grid managers are reluctant to go above 27% of production by wind and sun, since they are variable with the weather, complicating the other variable, demand. The other strategies are either too expensive, potentially harmful – burying nuclear waste, sulfur blanket, impossible to implement as one and in a timely manner. The problem requires the global community made possible by carbon energy to act as one, but economic fallout prevents action.
“The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is us.” (68)
Another post will follow, reflecting on the second half of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
A psychopomp is a conductor of the soul of the dead and mythology pictures it/they as an animal or even a bird. In our hill community, Aunt Mae was a midwife for birth and death. When Georgia, my sister and I were small, we called it a ‘sick-pump’. Most of us still walked to the spring to get a pail of water on the farms, but we could imagine a sick-pump. Aunt Mae roared with laughter.
“I just want you to be ready, so you won’t be scared when you see your first dead person come back. Just treat them real polite and tell them to go to the light.”
“Are they ghosts?” Georgie whispered.
“No, no, girly. They’re just confused at first. Maybe don’t want to leave their people behind. The main thing is we have to keep loving those who pass. It comforts them and gets them pointed in the right direction.”
“What is heaven like?” Georgie.
“Oooh,” Mae sighed. “It’s just whatever you’d like it to be.” She was smiling to herself and her hands were raised to her mouth like prayer steeples.
“Is there hell?” Georgie asked.
“Only here. Only here on earth,” she sighed deeply. “In heaven, there is no judgement.”
“That’s not what the Bible says,” I said, not defensively, just curious.
“Can’t help what some ignorant old ancient wrote. Those old coots surely got a lot wrong. Not the part about Jesus’s love though,” and she was chortling again.
So your country community didn’t have a designated psychopomp? Probably didn’t have gowns with hoods either. You let those burdens fall on your minister/pastor/priest – whatever.
As a child, having no playmates, I explored the corners of the fields and the big rock piles that had been cleared from the hay field. I saw fairies there and small brown creatures in the woods, so I was not alarmed when the odd dead person turned up and sat in the rocking chair. For a while, when I was an adult, I could count on the family dead showing up at least once. Now they seem more likely to visit Georgia. One sat in the middle of her couch for two days, in December. Curiously, I was able to describe what she was wearing, although I hadn’t been there. She wanted to know who had killed her. And she wasn’t even a relative. Georgia had worked out who had done the deed, but she was too tactful to say. It seems as though eventually the departed one figured it out as well and simply vanished.
When people started dying of Covid, I felt their great sorrow and loneliness at being ‘abandoned’. The greater the number of the dead on any given day, the heavier the weight. As I extended my love to them, I knew that many thousands of others like me were doing the same psychopomp work and I could imagine the hosts of angels guiding them home.
I had been following the Auschwitz Memorial Site on Twitter and I began to understand that had happened then as well.
There is a whole theory of how to die, which Robert Thurman or the Tibetan Book of the Dead can teach you. I have read these, but, try as I may, I cannot memorize the stages you pass through: mirage, smokiness, fireflies in the sky, clear candle flame, clear moonlit sky, clear pitch darkness and the clear light of the clear predawn sky. (p. 42.Thurman. Tibetan The Book of the Dead.) I get discouraged. Then as I experience others dying, I know that unenlightened and miserably angry as they might have been at last glimpse, they sailed through to that clear light like Tibetan gurus.
I’m sure it is love that gets them there and I know that this love doesn’t have to be sitting at the death bed. It can emanate from someone thousands of miles away as Blake’s daughter’s did when he passed on.
My first requirement for my own good death is leaving in a timely fashion. I know lucid dreaming is possible. I have stopped a dream before and rearranged things, given myself a weapon or an ally, so I meditate on a lucid death. I very much do not want to stay making my survivors miserable and broke.
I believe a good death is also one with a certain amount of insight. Not still blaming mom and dad for everything. I believe we choose our path and so if my father wronged me terribly, I chose him knowing that possibility. One way or another he made me what I am and I do not want to regret that. Did I add to the world, make somebody’s life better by being here? Was my heart able to open to more than my immediate family? Has humanity taken even a tiny step forward because of some excellence I achieved, however momentarily? Did I create an individual self that demonstrated divinity? Did God see godness through me?
And, of course, can I let go of judgement of myself and others? A toddler trips and falls. No blame.
Next: a reflection of Roy Scranton’s book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
Jazz the cat strode to the door that night to welcome the humans in. One was missing, the important one, but Jazz took that philosophically. Before these two came, the whole responsibility had fallen on her black and white shoulders and no amount of cuddling and purring or even kneading had helped.
The next day, they set up the automatic water feed and put out several large dishes of the best cat food. Hum! Might as well get started.
Colin and Julia had taken Clara to see several long term care facilities before Covid arrived. Clara nixed the whole plan. Now they went back to their favourite and began negotiations. The problem was bureaucracies move slow and chances were that Clara was about to released from hospital. It was hard to say. The hospital was too busy to call them. Once the astronomical price per month had been settled. The room had to be furnished by the patient and a doctor had to fill out a form. Okay, she was in a hospital. Lots of doctors there. But Julia and Colin couldn’t go in. They called and pleaded. They tackled smoking nurses outside. Finally, one of those rushed back out and grabbed the form. She had a captive doctor.
I had suggested that they rent a room in our favourite hotel in Bakersfield, The Padre. It was old and historical significant. The owner had once mounted a cannon of the roof aimed at City Hall. It was dark by the time, Clara was wheeled to the hospital door and pushed out to their waiting hands. Clara was wearing a hospital gown and disposable underwear. That was all. Nights are chilly there, despite the sunny days. Julia managed to fit more absorbent underwear and sweat pants over her feet, but to pull them up, Clara had to get out of the car and stand between it and the Covid tent. Ninety two, a dignified lady.
They retired to their lovely Padre room. Clara was in the same pain for which she had been admitted. Not a heart problem, her doctor told Colin. “What about the stomach bleed is that causing the pain?” “You’ll have to see a GI specialist,” said the doctor and hung up. But Julia had slept 10 hours by now. Once they were ready for bed, Julia asked Clara if it was okay if she slept with her. Having got further permission to embrace her, Julia put her hands on the painful place and began Chi Gong breathing – into the pain and then out, down and away. Clara gradually moaned less until hours later both of them fell asleep and slept for four hours.
Breakfast room service Covid style was a series of brown bags, more or less thrown at Colin. Clara’s appetite was good.
First, they had to take Clara to see her new home. “I want to go home,” she insisted. “You can’t be at home just now. Remember what a terrible time we had getting you out last time. It’s going to snow again. You can’t be over an hour away from hospitals, especially up a mountain in the winter. The road gets impassable,” said Julia.
After she had seen the place, which looks like a fancy hotel on the website, she nodded at the room and the said, “I want go home.” “We can’t look after you, Ma,” said Colin. “We’ll get somebody,” Clara said. “I tried that. Nobody will come up there in the winter.” “Well, I’ll just look after myself.” “Do you remember you fell? Do you remember how thin you got?” Julia chimed in. Clara shook her head as if she was dispelling a flight of gnats.
Clara sat for the admission test. There was a wing, C wing for the demented. Clara didn’t need it. “Was she ambulatory?” they asked. “Well, she can walk. She might need a walker to get to the dining hall,” Julia said. “Actually, we have to put her down as non-ambulatory for B wing.” “Okay,” said Julia, “but she still has to go to the dining hall for meals?” “Oh, yes.” They all pondered that.
Meanwhile Colin was trying to rent furniture – rent to buy – until he got word that it was more or less a scam. Having heard that, he phoned the Bear Mountain Club concierge. (Concierge! Yes, why not. There were a lot movie moguls’ vacation homes in BMC.) So Monsieur Le Concierge promised two men and a pickup truck for the next morning.
Colin was also liquidating some of Clara’s money for the down payment. Monthly rent was twice what a friend of mine was paying for his wife in Canada and she had failed the C wing test and spent her time confined to a wheel chair, the operative word being confined. But this long term care home, unlike most of the others had not managed to have a single case of Covid. (The others were still decimating the elderly population. One had recently lost 50% of its residents to B.1.1.7., the U.K. variant.)
Initially, we had decided no LTC home for Clara, but we were well past that by now. We had come to the conclusion that it was just a choice of death by any other name.
I was, however, gobsmacked to learn that Jazz the cat would be moving as well.
I was consulted long distance about the decision to go back up the mountain for the night. We had all studied the weather forecasts, including the radar maps, carefully. they seemed clear of snowfall and the roads would be plowed and cindered by now.
The evening was spent sedating Jazz, capturing her in a blanket and cutting her nails. Julia was extremely allergic to cat dander and had never touched Jazz previously. Oddly, Jazz would give Julia a long, slow eye blink even when Julia was vacuuming. We were reliably informed that meant Jazz liked her.
The other task, of course was to pack. Every item of clothes and linens had to be labeled with Clara’s name. It was like sending your kid to camp.
Julia slept with Clara again and the pain was bearable.
The furniture in her bedroom ended up in LTC room at a markedly different altitude. Colin and Julia were given leave to set the room up. But after that, they could not go there. Clara would have a Covid test and a Covid shot and be quarantined for three days. Before that happened, they all went out to lunch.
It didn’t go well. Or maybe it went very well.
Clara could no longer figure our how to use a phone so she didn’t have one. Anyway she refused to wear her hearing aids or couldn’t put them and kept losing them. When they had her brought down to the lobby of the fourth day, she claimed she hadn’t had dinner the night before when her lock down ended. Someone else said she had seen her eating in the dining hall. It was indisputable that her room was in a dreadful mess – Colin had got permission for a last visit. BUT NEVER AGAIN during Covid. And clearly, Clara had not been showered. So there had to a scene in an office.
On the other hand, every visit showed a Clara who was walking those ‘long, dreary’ hallways and even going outside. She didn’t need the morphine anymore, although she could have used more attention to the incontinence aids. She was spitting mad some days, just sad on others, but she was able to go out for lunch and today she planned to have Colin take her to buy shoes.
On Christmas Eve in 2020, my daughter, Julia and her husband, Colin,, found his mother, Clara, collapsed. She had not activated the alarm, which was hanging around her neck, They had taken her down the mountain to her doctor the day before because she was complaining of severe leg pain. The doctor ordered more blood tests. The urine test came to a sad end. Julia insisted that he prescribe Pantoprazole again to prevent stomach acid. Lack of it seemed to have already caused a bleeding ulcer. (For the past few years doctors had been reading a dire warning that this acid suppressors caused bone thinning. My own doctor, Dr. Joe, had scoffed, citing throat cancer, never mind stomach cancer. My sister cited Dr. Joe to her own doctor.) Clara was very unwell even then at the clinic, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t see even on her best days and was lying down on the examination table.
The obvious question -is she dying and if so, what choices should be made – did not come up.
On Christmas Eve, Julia got Clara washed and into clean nightwear in a fresh bed. It was then Clara started praying. In Tongues. Although the language was unclear, it was very clear that Clara was talking to God. Very vehemently. Very loudly. All night long, while they sat or lay beside her.
We had had a few family emergencies and always Clara would phone her prayer group, thousands, waiting for the word to start exhorting God. Julia and I didn’t necessarily believe in that kind of personal God. We were more Taoists. But you’ve heard that no one is an atheist in a fox hole. Now Julia told me on Face Time, “We never needed thousands. All we ever needed was Clara.”
In the morning, she asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
So they moved essentials from their place higher up Bear Mtn and settled in, dividing the night in two shifts. Julia who had had persistent insomnia for 9 years took the shift starting at 2:30 a.m., which was when she usually woke up. Colin sat up until then.
Christmas morning breakfast was oatmeal, not instant, bacon, soft scrambled eggs, toast and jam. Clara came to the table and put away some of each and a lot of oatmeal.
“Haven’t felt like cooking,” she said. “I was hungry.”
Indeed, she was a whole size smaller.
On the phone, I went nuts. “You can’t overfeed her,” I protested. You’ll do her harm.”
“She’s burping a little,” said Julia. “She’s sitting in her favourite chair.”
“The one that shot her onto the floor where she remained for 12 hours?” I querried.
“We told her not to use the lever. Anyway we’re here. I think she had a series of small strokes, but the clinics are closed for the holiday and the hospitals are full of Covid. I know what to do now. Keep her blood pressure down. I’ll watch the stool for blood and balance out the need for painkillers.”
“Is she in pain?”
“I think she will have some.”
Julia was an acupuncturist before she had to retire because of her health and she had worked with many elderly people and their primary care-givers.
Christmas got postponed in many family places. A Dallas great-grand-daughter was in hospital with an infection. And here in Toronto, we ate breakfast with a dizzying array of devices beaming in three other households. Usually we were at one long table farther north in snowy Barrie.
On the mountain, they had ordered Christmas dinner from a local, but closed to dining restaurant. They ate it a few days late with 25-year-old Leo up from L.A.
So they fell into a routine, Julia’s breakfast -donuts on Sunday- and yes, we know but last minute wishes and all that – and Colin’s dinners. Lunch was easy to pick up from the generous left overs or Clara had a bagel and cream cheese, The good food along with the acid suppressing meds began to clear up the GI bleed.
When a urinary bleed erupted and the clinics and drug stores were still closed, I said, “Cranberry juice.” Clara hated it. She was used to orange juice but two days later, that too was gone.
My Brussels’ brother, Rob, had had a memorable experience, finding our grandmother locked up in the bedroom of a farm house, where she was patiently stripping the wallpaper and saving it in rolls. First, he made a very angry call to his father, which brought about a quick move to a better Home. Secondly, it made him a lifelong guardian of old ladies, five in all. He put in indoor plumbing -yes, in Brussels in the 2010s, he installed water heaters, he bought roasted chicken at the Sunday market, he got them to the doctor, he bathed them, he found long term care rooms when persistent burglars targeted them. This last involved the mayor. (Oh, by the way, these ladies plunked down a plastic bag containing 350,000 Euros on the desk when they checked in.) And he saw to their burial or cremation. One of these adventures involved pre-dating a document, but that’s what I like about the Europeans … no problem.
Between us, we had lots of advice. Get a baby monitor. Get a commode. Here’s how to prevent falling out of bed.
Every morning after Julia helped Clara to shower and lather in moisturizer, they walked up and down the covered deck and wrapped in her duvet, Clara sat and looked at the mountains until she got cold. Mostly, she slept in bed or in that dangerous chair, waking up to call for tea or toast or ‘any more donuts’. When Colin sat in it, he said he felt like issuing commands.
Clara was getting better but they were exhausted. Colin changed his shifts to the afternoon. Because it was winter, even in California golf courses on mountains were not doing a thriving business. Leo came up occasionally to spell them off. But Leo like Colin was male and, unless Clara was more or less out of it, she was too modest and proud to let them help her in the bathroom.
Gradually the pain was coming back.
A very bad winter storm threatened. And threatened. Two feet of snow. Five in the Sierras. Farther north, I assured myself. Forecasts gave estimates according to altitude. They were at 5,500 ft. The other house up 2000 more. Colin made a run up for heavier outerwear and shovels. The pain got worse.
It was abdominal. It didn’t seem to be a bleed. Julia was too tired to think. Her shift was basically 2:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Later she learned that if she slept with Clara, her hands on the pain and did Chi Gong breathing, the pain diminished and they both slept 4 hours. But now it was too much and Clara said she had to go to hospital. She had done so before, but after many cardiac tests, the verdict was anxiety attack.
Moreover it was now snowing very hard.
Julia says, “Do you understand that if you are admitted to hospital, we may never see you again?” Damned Covid.
“Yes,” says Clara.
So the paramedics come from the fire hall. The EKG shows heart damage. It always does now, because she had a ‘silent’ heart attack some time that summer she and I had lived in two rooms above the Real Estate Hotel while she was moving up from Vegas.
The ambulance at the firehall can’t transport her because a truck has rolled on the mountain road and traffic is jammed – people fleeing just half an hour too late. It is arranged they will drive her in the Subaroo to the Y where an ambulance will be waiting. Another will wait at the I 5 to take her to Bakersfield. “No,” said Julia, “Santa Clarita. Henry Mayo.”
“Can’t do that mam. The I 5 south is blocked”
The medics load Clara into the front seat of the Subaroo. But no, where are her gloves. Colin sets out, driving around the slippery hairpin turns and along the edges of cliffs until, he comes to a full stop behind a line of cars. Julia gets out and begins to walk. The walking is through foot-dragging snow for a mile or more. She passes the truck on its side. A big delivery truck.There is a tarp over the cab. When she gets to the Y, she asks the CHP officer if he can communicate with the ambulance. “No,” is all he said
She calls Colin and between them, they go to each waiting car and tell them they need to pass to get a patient to an ambulance. They meet, walk back together, get back into the car and Colin pulls out into the even less passable left lane to begin the slow slip back up the hill to the Y.
While the off-loading is underway, Clara is heard to ask a medic how long he has worked at the job.
At Clara’s house, Julia and Colin sleep for ten hours.
This particular dying practice will continue briefly next time -long term care in the age of Covid- and then I will begin to write about the study of theory, including the psychopomp, Tibetan ideas and eventually Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropomycene
Hope is a thing with feathersThat perches in the soulAnd sings the tune without the wordsAnd never stops at all.Emily Dickenson Imagine being told that you have to spend a year inside and not see your beloved friends and family. Oh that happened to you too! It has now been a year and two weeks … Continue reading →
115journals.com/03/11/21/surviving-climate-change A few days ago, I posted my first discussion of Learning to Die: wisdom in the age of climate change (2015). In it, I talked about the first essay in this small book “The Mind of the Wild” by Robert Bringhurst. He said that in order to remain sane in this tumultuous time, we … Continue reading →
Many years ago, my mother-in-law, who was not aging well, came for Sunday dinner – roast beef and mashed and brussel sprouts, her favourite. She choked. I leapt to my feet, seized her under her ribs and jerked with all my might. No luck. Her son leapt up and walloped her on the back. No … Continue reading →
My ex-husband Blake and his young second wife came to visit me after I had the carcinoid surgery. That was the week before my brother rescued me. I still couldn’t eat and I was too weak to get out of bed. They had come from our high school reunion. Blake and I were high school sweethearts. Presumably, she had registered as me, since I couldn’t. They brought me my key chain souvenir and showed me pictures of the old gang, the drama club. They were very much changed. Blake had the same lean physique – see above -. He was still diving at the yacht club to check the moorings in cold early May. She was just a year older than my daughter. Very kind of them. (What am I not saying? Well, at least, I was a very thin, if pallid 65.)
Some years later both of them were diagnosed with cancer. Both of my malignancies were no longer detectable. Then, suddenly, she was so ill that we were making last visits, and then she was gone. Blake’s stage 4 diagnosis didn’t worsen even then, although he nearly walked the legs off his shiba inu pup up and down Toronto’s river valleys. My sister folded him back into her family as she had me. “Should have stuck with the old girl,” she quipped.
Blake asked me to be his executor. Here’s a hot tip: no matter how much you want to make sure your own children don’t get cut out of the will, never agree to be an executor. I did. I know.
In the spring, Blake found himself too busy to answer our invitations. Too busy was blonde and young and hung around the yacht club. They were teaching disadvantaged teens to sail. Blake and I had lunch together or sometimes dinner that I cooked, so I could keep up. I had to drive him to make a will, dividing the estate into three parts, two for our adult children and one for his step-daughter.
In 2018, I had spent several months in southern California helping me daughter, who started out with stage 4 kidney cancer. The diagnosis changed weekly with every new test. Tuesday it was cancer. Thursday it was angiomyolipomas. Or was the kidney tumour something else? This involved two surgeons, one in Santa Clarita and one in Bakersfield, wandering surgical dates and, as it turned out, a brilliant pain specialist. (Never get an angiomyolipoma in your sciatic nerve. But if you have to get a tumour, at least, it’s not malignant.) I got home after three months in early January on the last night time flight, walked into my apartment, took off my shoes, went into the kitchen and broke my little toe. (Something else: never break a toe, even a small one, in winter.)
My son, who had not wanted to worry me before, phoned to say his father was in a bad way.
For the first week, I just called Blake. Anyway, he said, I couldn’t visit him because the house was a mess and Christy didn’t want visitors. I was well on the way through a whose-house-is-it sermon before I could stop myself. Finally, I limped to the car after getting him to agree to meet me at the door when I called to say I was there. I couldn’t see into any of the main floor rooms, nor the second-floor bedrooms as we two invalids climbed to the top, his lovely bedroom with a sunny balcony. Only it was no longer lovely. There was no sun. The windows were heavily curtained. The place smelled of very old dog, territorial cats, very ill master and the remains of several meals. He had a small frig and a microwave. “Christy brings up food when I call her,” he said. the en suite hadn’t been cleaned in maybe 5 years. The self-cleaning kitty litter was in there. (Never believe that marketing line.) When I started scooping out the smelly bits, he yelled angrily, “Don’t do that. You don’t know how. Christy will get mad.” I went to the door and stared at him. Had I taught high school for 30 years and was I now afraid of Christy? Or him, come to that? That was just the beginning of the fun.
The entire house was a hoarder’s delight and beyond dirty. The second floor office was jam-packed with Amazon packages still, packed packages. “Wait till you see the garage,” my son, Daniel whispered. We crept down past the dragon in the living room. (That’s where she slept, having decamped from a perfectly good second-floor bedroom. Too near Blake, I assumed. She had declared, “Old men disgust me.) Daniel opened the door to the garage.They had dealt with recycling by standing in the door way and flinging it. There was a foot of airspace near the ceiling.
When we started cleaning, Christy yelled we were only doing it to sell the house out from under her. I assured her, we were trying to avoid being charged with elder abuse. Blake thought it was funny when passers-by intervened when Christy cussed him out in the grocery store. I asked where the clean sheets were and she thudded back up the narrow stairs and flung a lump of rolled up cotton onto the bed. Later, I saw that was how she stored them in the linen cupboard.
It was obvious that Blake was at the stage where he needed home care, but that department wouldn’t even talk to Daniel or me, only to Blake, who couldn’t remember from one minute to the next that we were trying to get him a home hospital bed and a visiting nurse to monitor his pain and pain meds.
Just when I was getting a handle on dealing with dragon-Christy, she suddenly changed and began phoning me in hysterics because she couldn’t handle a new development. For some reason, she always did this while I was grocery shopping. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to tell her I couldn’t talk. I would huddle with my face against the cereal boxes shouting ‘quietly’ to get her to stop talking. My default advice was always, if you can’t handle it, call the para-medics. She did. Often. They would carry him in a chair down the winding stairs and take him to an emergency room. Hours later, she would Uber him home. Or he would be admitted over-night. Or she would Uber him to the hospital. Having done that once and been admitted for the foreseeable future, he demanded to check out against orders. She called Daniel who showed up in a car and found himself the getaway driver.
It was the pain and Blake’s howling response that got to her. No phone call necessary.
The getaway stay had been in Toronto Western. His home hospital was Mt. Sinai. But sometimes he got stretchered across University Avenue – winter or not – for more scans – or even to Toronto General.
I was gobsmacked by how his mind worked. He muttered that he was leaving an awful mess. Well I could see that -two defunct vacuum cleaners sat in his closet blocking the sliding doors. But no, not what he meant. Later I learned he hadn’t filed a tax return since 2015. Later I learned that he owed about $40,000 in tax. Later I learned that Miss Younger Blonde – who WAS NOT a gold-digger, thank you, had enjoyed $380,000 he had borrowed on the house.
My daughter decided to come from California and her two sons, one in Dallas and one in L.A. decided to come as well. It was intended to signal to Blake that he didn’t need to hang on in misery. Blake was home that week and able to go out for lunch. My grandsons sat with him and recorded the sad story of his evacuation from the Blitz to Canada. A whole boatload of children had been torpedoed earlier. I had fallen for that hook when I was 16 and I was quite sure I was not the last woman to do so. They looked at all his photos. When the three of them left, I was devastated.
Then he finally got a place in the hospice in Grace Hospital. Christy came in waving the power of attorney for health. What were they going to do to treat him? “No, no,” I said. They had to take her away to a private area to explain what a hospice is.
Daniel, the step-daughter, Christy and I took turns sitting with him. The three of us tried hard not to overlap with Christy. She shouted at the nurses and the porters and even the lunch ladies. There was another dying man behind the curtain, not to mention the kind patient carers who watched people die every day. Blake slept more and more until he was unconscious all the time. One day, I fled to corridor to cry and Daniel came out and put his arms around me. Up until his father got worse, Daniel had not spoken to me for years. Something I had said really annoyed his wife. Now I saw the boy I had known, for in his father’s angriest days, he had quietly tended to him.
I dealt with this phase more easily. I read Rumi poetry to Blake and recited the 23rd Psalm. Blake had pretended to be an atheist and I had told him he was in for a big surprise.
The last day was that same anguish. He had been moved to a single room. The four of us sat around his bed, reminiscing, even laughing and crying of course. The chaplain came. The on-duty doctor came. I had my marching orders from the head nurse. There was no mortuary there, so I had to notify the undertakers pronto. Blake took those last suspenseful breaths just before dinner. We sat silently crying..
When I stood up, I found I had forgotten how to walk. The step-daughter scooted around me to get the nurse. Once in the hall, I couldn’t remember how to use my phone. I leaned my weight against a wall and I heard myself report that Blake Durant had passed on at Grace Hospital. I had already signed the contract.
It couldn’t be true, I thought. It couldn’t be true that my Blake was dead, my other half even after all these years. The five-year-old on the ship in the middle of the Atlantic, watching the destroyer on the port side. The 18-year-old who rode a green Raleigh Racer and captured my heart.
When I got back to the room, the others were gone and not-Blake lay with a gaping jaw. And it wasn’t Blake and I couldn’t stay to keep him safe.
Two days later, St James Mortuary phoned to ask if I wanted Blake to be cremated in his hospital gown or some other clothes. I wish I could say I asked myself what Blake would say, but I didn’t. I died of shame and tearfully replied the gown would be fine.
That evening still in his blue gown, he made a flying visit through my sister’s living room. After that I kept seeing him back in his jeans and sweater, rushing to a physics lecture with an iPad. It seems as if he is going on to economics next semester. Bernie Sanders is going to need help with that living wage idea.
I will pass over the day I took possession of the house. Sufficient to say the police were involved. Christy went back to her own apartment, which Blake had paid for all those years and $27,000 in hand.
It took me a year and a half of aggravation to settle his estate. I paid myself an honorarium and my increased taxes took half of it.
One morning 3 years after I became a renter, I was sitting on the edge of the bed coming awake when I discovered 7 lumps in my left breast. Those days, I made it a habit to check once a month and I had done so a few weeks before. Now a little garden had bloomed, large lumps and small and at least one too small to be felt if it had not been sore.
My sister/landlady was ill prepared for my appearance in our kitchen.
We got me to the local walk-in clinic somehow “Oh, these are just cysts,” the doctor said while writing a script for a mammogram. “Don’t worry. Be calm.” I had no family doctor. He was far away near the house I had sold. I went to the local hospital for the mammogram. “Oh, these are cysts,” said the technician, “but lets do an ultrasound.” All she said after that was,”Humm.”
I more or less coerced the MD attached to my Tai Chi Club to take me on. He palpated the lumps and studied the pictures, “Probably cysts,” he said and referred me to a surgeon. The surgeon said,”Probably cysts.”, plunged a needle into the largest one and drew out an astonishing amount of fluid. Not content, he seized another needle and attacked the next biggest one. Same result. Number 3 didn’t co-operate, a little fluid, then nothing. “Probably mixed,” he muttered. “Well, we’ll have to go in and take a look but I’m 99% sure these are not malignant.” So I got a surgery date three weeks away. Terrified beyond words, I went about my days as usual, walking around our little lake every morning, tutoring high school students from Hong Kong looking to get ‘highest mark’ and cooking dinner. The mantra, “Probably cysts” was continuous in my head. It was the last thing the surgeon said as I blanked out and the first thing he said when he saw me post surgery. But I’ve sent some tissue for a biopsy.” I was making dinner two weeks later when he phoned. “We have to do the surgery again,” he said. “There were two small cancerous tumours.” I went mad. “But they’re out,” he kept yelling. “I took them out.” “Then why surgery?” I demanded. “We have to clear the margins. We have to see if it spread into the lymph nodes.”
I hated him. I hated every single person who had said, “Probably cysts”. Every movement for two weeks had hurt. Walking was like torture. The poor little left breast, half the size of its sister now, began burning all along the incision. I couldn’t stand to look at a knife. How was it possible knowing what I did now to let it be done all over again?
It got done. All over again. This time I didn’t have projectile vomiting. They had figured out a better anesthetic. The home visit nurse came back again to bind the even longer wound. And yes, 10 nodes under my arm had been invaded. Eventually, I consulted an oncologist and said yes to radiation and no to chemo. At my advanced age – 62 – chemo was protocol. The doctor said, “I would have made the same decision for myself.”
My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 59. She was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 1969 when her lungs filled with fluid. My only previous experience was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, where early cancer treatment in Soviet Russia had been barbaric. I was assured that it was vastly improved now. Must have been true. She died in 1976. It took more than half that time to diagnose the primary site -the ovaries. Most of those 7 years, she was able to drive and enjoy being unable to work, although that was the interval when my own family began to travel for respite. It had been nerve-wracking from that first unreal October, 1969 when heavy snow hung on the still leafy trees and we were one and all pulled out of our classrooms because she was about to die. At the end, she went back to the hospital on Nov. 1,1976 and passed away on Nov. 11th very close to 11 a.m. “Am I going to die, Roy?” she asked our father on the first day. He dodged his head and toyed with his fedora, “Well, I guess we’re all going to die.” I wasn’t sure if he was a coward or a wise man. I sat beside her daily as did my sisters. She had a bright red mark below her lip, which looked like a ruby. After she fell into a coma, we talked to her, read to her, sang the best hymns and love songs, we listened to that awful pause after an exhalation. And waited. Then the ragged, snoring inhale.
I assumed I knew how cancer ended and I doubted I would have seven years to prepare for it.
In fact, the terror had begun to fade three years after that when I popped in to have a clinic doctor look at a bloodshot eye. Nothing of concern. But at me age -65- I need a colonoscopy. He had a thriving business behind scenes keeping people well tested. Okay, I thought and went to my own M.D. and signed up. Turned out my intestines were in an irritated state and cameras on long prods made them way more angry. “Yes,” said the doctor. “Something there. The nurse will give you the surgeon’s information.” Cue panic. Unfortunately, the bowel had now swollen and I could consume only clear fluids and liquid morphine. The surgeon couldn’t find a time slot with his A team. I could have the B team in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t want the B team. He looked at me.” Oh, no, no,” I said on cue.
So I starved. I stayed in bed. I longed for morphine time and as soon as it came, I longed for the next morphine time. Then I walked into the kitchen one morning and saw on the tiny TV there, the first tower fall. It went on and on as I desperately tried to get hold of my Los Angeles children. I finally tracked down my grandson at his father’s. “Keep him home,” I yelled. “Don’t let him go out.” The next day I had a second colonoscopy, pre-surgery, doncha know. I lay on a stretcher watching ruined streets and replays of horror. I had the surgery on Sept. 20th and it was not a keyhole operation.”You’re lucky,” crowed the surgeon. “Carcinoid, very slow growing. It will come back in all likelihood. It will probably spread to your liver, but it won’t kill you. Very, very unusual. I’ve only ever had one other.” Very lucky. Very thin. Very weak. Very much in agony. Very convinced death would be a better outcome.
After a week of fasting out of sheer fear of further pain, my brother boarded a plane in Brussels and came to my side. He began with white rice and charmed me and made me laugh, stitches be damned. He moved me up to steamed fish. “You can have your lunch if you come down.” Next day, he took me out for lunch. I knew there was a reason I patiently fed him 2 oz. of milk while his other two little sisters adored him.