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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Cure for PTSD Terror: you’re soaking in it

This post may trigger PTSD sufferers.

In our search for mental health care, we once sat in a Kern County, California, mental health clinic listening to a psychologist exclaim that our patient could not have PTSD because she had never served in the army.

In fact she had been conscripted at birth as all the rest of the family had, and our sergeant major was a bat-shit crazy man, known initially as daddy and later as grandfather. His sadist attacks were so traumatizing that we dared not reveal them even had we been able to remember. So it was that the patient had been repeatedly taken back to that house of torture by her mother, the author of this blog.

(To be fair, mother could not recall that her own life had almost ended when the b-s crazy man raped her as a child. And she has spent the last 30 years since b-s crazy man died and she did remember, in profound guilt and grief. But enough of personal angst.)

Suffice to say Dad could have given the North Koreans or even the CIA lessons in torture or a 2.0 course in mind control. He himself had rather an unpleasant death, which I describe at the end of my e-memoir, Never Tell, recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater. joycehowe.com

That’s the back story as to why the patient developed suicidal impulses and then intractable insomnia. For most of her life, she was able to repress the trauma, going so far as to contend that the rest of us experienced it, but she didn’t. This was lucky, because by then we had put in years of dealing with it, worn out therapists and come to realize that terrifying as it is, the past is dead and gone.

As, by the way, were quite a few people outside the family, who encountered our very own psychopath. And, no, a million dollar police investigation, involving three police forces couldn’t prove that.

How to deal with such insomnia? Even the strongest drugs couldn’t put her to sleep for long. In one 5 day hospital stay, five other drugs were tried. The fifth one precipitated a heart attack. So we cast about for other methods.

Finally last April, I concluded she couldn’t sleep because she was afraid to dream.

At one point, she fled to Toronto and her loving mother’s arms. I would sit at her bedside until she fell asleep, sometimes for 90 minutes. It is a moving experience to sit in the dark beside someone you love as she does her best to sleep. Going to sleep for her isn’t easy, but it is easier than staying asleep. I wasn’t up to being there at 4 a.m. when she usually comes wide awake. Or 3 am or 2 am. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep at all, just lies in a semi-conscious state, which surprisingly can generate bad dreams.

While I was studying the NICABM (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine) Treating Trauma Master Series , I came across the idea that therapists don’t do their clients any favours by trying to make them feel safe. That is a technique that Grandad and hosts of his fellow abusers use. Trying to make the trauma survivor relax is an immediate trigger – they want to run a mile.

Our patient came at the idea from a totally different angle. She watched a terrifying movie, went to bed late and slept like a baby.

We reached the conclusion that, instead of avoiding fear, she (we in fact) had to soak in it – like that Palmolive dish detergent commercial years ago where the woman is in the nail salon -“You’re soaking in it”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bEkq7JCbik

We are in the research phase. Our patient has spent the last several months reading about psychopathic serial killers and watching shows like The Mindhunters. The Mindhunters interview serial murders in prison in order to understand them. Patient reports that the single scariest scene so far was one in which the woman on the mindhunter team was at home in her apartment at night wearing only a long  man’s shirts and pouring herself a glass of wine at the kitchen counter. She was at the left of the shot. The right side showed the rest of the kitchen and hall, an empty floor. An absolutely terrifying space. Into which something could suddenly come. I myself found the next scene where she goes down to the building’s laundry – still dressed only in the shirt – and while the washer starts, hears a cat meowing outside the open basement window and decides to feed it her leftover tuna. I will not divulge what eventually comes through that window.

Who says recovering from PTSD can’t be fun?

I’ve always hated Hallowe’en and horror shows, but now I begin to see their value. We can’t evade our terror. It may be buried, but it’s there, so we might as well face it, embrace it as far as possible. We don’t need to defy it. We can acknowledge it and even say this is what made me who I am. We can say, ‘I have been to the edge of death more than once, but I can still permit myself to sleep’. At least six hours most nights.

And of course, we can refuse to put ourselves in real life situations with people that scare us.

See also https://115journals.com/2013/10/18/the-cure-for-pain/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dark: personal response #2

After I had watched Dark with English dubbed, I decided there was a better experience to be had and learned how to set the original German with English subtitles, as I said in my previous post. Then I went to the Internet and read several blog posts about the series. I printed 18 pages from Wikipedia, including a list of characters, who they are, and plot outlines of all 18 episodes.

I began watching again, stopping frequently to check these notes to figure out, for example, how the 1986 cop, Egan Tiedemann, fit in with the others: Claudia’s father, in uniform in 1953, FYI. That lasted until I got to episode 2 when I gave in and accepted confusion. In fact, on this second run-through even in a foreign language, I began to sort things out myself. But the best advice of all is just let it wash over you. Watch it twice if you want to but accept the fact that it’s like the ebb and flow of the ocean or the inevitable cycle of repeating events depicted in the story. Incomprehensible. But fun.

I feel a certain pride because I have observed my 24-year-old grandson watching Black Mirror and other such esoteria that way.

There are a few narrative problems with the series that you will have to accept as well.

When I was a child, there was a popular country/western son which proclaimed, “I’m my own grandpa”. It detailed the convoluted mating/marriage history of the singer’s hillbilly family, not so unlike present-day convolutions of divorced and recombined contemporary families. By carefully tracing his lineage, the singer comes to this conclusion. (I myself had a great grandmother who was also my great aunt.) This relates to Charlotte Doppler’s burning question. She finally meets her father as she searches through the artifacts in her adoptive grandfather’s clock shop. Who is her mother, she demands. He assures her that her mother loves her, implying that the mother is alive. She is and actually feels very close to Charlotte, but you get a prize if you figure out who this is before the big reveal.

Then there is Jonas Kahnwald’s discovery, which puts quits to his love affair with Martha Nielson, despite the fact that they are a ‘perfect fit for each other no matter what anyone says’. But the good news is that his discovery also explains the otherwise inexplicable suicide of his father Michael.

Then there is the puzzle of how Alexander got to be a Tiedemann, when we know that Claudia is the only Tiedemann offspring and her only child is a daughter.

Of course there is the burning question of where the disappearing children and adult go and sometimes return from radically changed or altogether dead.

This brings us to the whole question of time.

Okay, so let’s suspend our disbelief and accept time machines. But FOUR different time machines! Even in 1952, someone is trying to build a transporting chair, which has deleterious effects on its test subjects, even leaving out the bad taste wallpaper on the prison bunker. Then there’s the cave, which was always problematic, but became even more so after an incident at the nuclear power plant. If you find yourself in 1921, don’t even go there. The passage isn’t ready. Then there’s the brass thingee in a wooden box, which Charlotte’s grandfather built, before he first saw it. I know. Cold compresses help. Finally, there is the GOD PARTICLE, which looks more like a hairball your cat spat up if it were possessed.

And all of the people desperately trying to traverse time have the same goal to save the one they love by, incidentally, saving the world from the apocalypse. Some of these people describe others as the White Devil or evil incarnate, and the describee returns the favour.

And who the hell is Adam? We know his disfigured visage has resulted from time travel. But how did his soul get that way? What unforgettable event warped him? Did he actually cause it himself? And how does he relate to our innocent hero, Jonas? Jonas, who’s lost his father and his girl and who’s mother was never much of a prize.

And what of Ulrich, that rascally adulterer, who hasn’t turned out to be any better at finding lost boys than Egon? Gets a little impatient with his over-worked wife and look at the karmic pit he digs for himself.

As for Mikkel, his lost son – there’s a problem getting him back to 2019 and his over-worked mother. If he returns, others will never have been.

As my Aunt Mae taught me – first rule of seers and prestidigistators: don’t try to change events that you see are going to unfold. Such a change will have repercussions, you cannot foresee.

The only way the future can be changed is by changing the inner being.

Will season 3 wise up to this?

 

Dark: a personal response to the Netflix series

screenshot from Dark

It has taken great self-control not to watch both seasons and all 18 episodes of Dark for a third time. First, I watched the dubbed version. (Avoid that.) Then I watched the original German version with English subtitles. Altogether a much better experience. It took me over two weeks and given my advancing years, I held out against wasting time by perennially repeating this experience.

“Time is always with us. Time sees everything”

(Yes, you can. Go to options and opt for the original German as the language and English subtitles. Don’t have options, you’ll have something like it, the same place where you can opt for closed captions. Never did that? You have a whole new world of experience to discover. You will even be able to understand The Wire afterwards.)

Initially, I couldn’t understand Dark’s complexity. (Face it, kid, ultimately you couldn’t understand it either.) It starts with the disappearance of a child in 2019. Well, no, it starts with the suicide of a 43-year-old man in 2019.

Four different families find themselves in tumult: the Kahnwalds, the Nielsons, the Dopplers and the Tiedemans. But wait, another child disappeared 33 years before in 1986. From the same family – the Nielsons. Policeman Egon was so ineffectual at solving the mystery that Ulrich Nielson, brother of the disappeared boy, has become a policeman in order to do better. Now his son is missing.

The town of Windem is set in the midst of a great evergreen forest, but rising from its centre, far from the red tile roofs of the tidy houses, is one of Germany’s first nuclear generators. Snugged up to the guarded perimeter of the plant is a cave, which all the children are warned against, so, of course, it is a child magnet.

Windem, we are told repeatedly is a town of secrets. Initially, these secrets seem to be adulterous, but then again they could be ecological or incestuous.

Why is there a door in the cave that is welded shut? What does Sic mundi creatus est mean? And, whoops, why has another and another person vanished? Who is the man dressed like a priest, lurking near the cave and chatting with children? Why does the body of a boy dressed in 1980’s clothes and dead only 16 hours suddenly appear? What is this book that keeps surfacing – Eine Reise durch die Zeit – A Journey Through Time? Could there be such a thing as time travel? Could the question be not ‘Where is Mikkel?’ but ‘When is Mikel’?

Is Charlotte Doppler, Winden’s police chief, the key to these mysteries?

Then we find ourselves back in 1986, same town, same school, same nuclear plant, same people, just younger.

So you have home work. Get well into this series because I need to keep writing about it and there will be spoilers.

 

 

I Am Writing This For You

I am writing this for you, not for everyone, for you. I want you to know this.

I have been grieving for a very long time. I have been wracked by loss and fear, gripped by nameless terror, in utter despair. I grieved for the death of one man and the loss of another.

I sought to comfort myself by repeating the 23rd Psalm. David found protection and peace and plenty under the Shepherd’s watchful eye.

I mourned tall, thin, dark men who turned their faces and went utterly away taking all music, poetry and joy.

Then it came to me again as it had years before as I turned north off the Rosedale Valley Road. In the midst of despair. I am still in love. The shadow of what I love is gone. The one I truly love remains.

He is here.

(Mostly he and thoroughly, inevitably here.)

The poet king, the lyre player, the one who bends to wrap his cloak around Ruth on the threshing floor, the one who stays up all night talking on the roof, the far-see-er, the one who burns, the one who easily laughs, the one whose love annhilates.

No wonder I can’t find the space to be or a way to live my life. He’s hogging the room. He takes it all. He doesn’t share. We are one or I am nothing. We are one and I am nothing. Consumed by love.

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.

 

Blake No More

Blake 2 days before he fell off his perch

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me
Let there be no moaning off the bar
When I set out to sea.

Tennyson

Blake’s last day was devoted to breathing. Three, sometimes four, of us sat beside his bed listening to his breath. We told Blake stories. We laughed quietly. How amazingly, infuriatingly complicated this man had been. How persistent he was even now in spite of agonizing pain that fentanyl and morphine could not entirely subdue, in spite of his failing mind and his inability to communicate.

The nurses came often to keep him comfortable. The doctor came to talk to us. The Salvation Army Chaplain stood quietly with us. We took turns going out to eat. We told more stories.

Blake’s breathing changed. There were long pauses when we thought the worst – or the best depending on your point of view. As the light began to fade over Bloor and Church, there was one last breath. We waited. We nodded to each other. We put comforting hands on his body. We wept silently. After a while one of us went for the nurse.

6:45, Monday, March 19, 2019

There was a glorious red sunset as I rode westward home.

Other posts about Blake and his relentless efforts not to fall off his perch are available at 115journals.com

 

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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