Watching the Breath: listening to the light

Day 93: Yes, I know there are other people still locked down. Steven Colbert was last week. Possibly, my region can be opened up this week, but the last I heard cases of Covid-19 were still going up, especially in my suburb. Although, honestly, it won’t make much difference to me, given my advanced age and the nearly 20% chance that it will be fatal if I catch it.

For the first three weeks, I didn’t leave my apartment, but then grocery delivery stopped working. You could order a large number of things and sit up until 12 a.m. to get a delivery slot, four nights in a row and never get one. Conclusion – I had had too few children, the two I had were wanderers and I would have to scuttle out before daylight and buy my own.

So for three months, I have been staring out my high windows at the sky, my feet touching earth once a week to hunt and gather. The good news is it’s now daylight at 6:50 a.m.

I know everyone has had different stresses and pressures. I’m grateful I wasn’t shut up with the man I married nor our children who needed the challenge of strenuous exercise to keep from killing each other. We were both teachers, and good at it, except with our own offspring, who tended to run screaming from the room when their father tried to teach them algebra.

So there’s that to be grateful for.

I also know there are many, many single people who have got to the end of their rope, like me, around 9 p.m. when they haven’t heard another voice all day. Except of course on television. I am proud of the fact that so far I have had only one real panic attack caused by a sudden vision of burning cities and gunfire. We had already had some of that, but this was worse and involved Trump’s rally in Tulsa. I called Georgia my sister, who was puzzled because I couldn’t speak. Finally and with no sociological reference, I managed, “I can’t breathe.” It was a doozy combining all the symptoms of suffocation, heart attack, food poisoning and seizure-like spasms.

Georgia said in a kindly, scolding voice, “You know we all signed up for this. Every last one of us. We made an agreement to take on these roles – victim or killer or Covid patient. We came to do these things, to learn a certain lesson. Anyway, it’s all already happened.”

Now you may not agree with Georgia’s view of destiny, which we undertake pre-incarnation. I’m not altogether sure that I do. At the time,  it seemed a wise idea, although I nearly drew the line at it had “already happened”.

Half an hour later I had calmed down.

Next day I checked in with my daughter in California and she seconded everything Georgia had said, despite the fact that the two of them have barely spoken for forty years. I still want to nail them down about the simultaneity of time. Certain times I absolutely do not want to ever encounter again.

Such as this one.

Thank goodness for household chores that ground me, thank you for Face Time and video calling and even telephones, thank you for television – for  news channels and Netflix and Acorn, thank you for e-books and library loans by internet, thank you for socially distanced chats in Georgia’s backyard and drive-by birthday parties and thank you for the strange experience of being a monk in a mountain cave.

I had read a lot about these chaps in my study of Buddhism and Taoism. I knew that they depended on routine. That seemed an odd way to organize nothing, but I leapt to the task. One of my first daily tasks is to put my hair in order. It was last cut in late January. I wear it short, very short, usually. Now it is half way down my long neck and curling up in an awkward reverse pageboy. This morning I found myself saying, “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear..”

Both Georgia and my daughter are fond of reminding me to breathe. I, of course, always respond in my robot voice, “What is breathe?” “Watch your breath,” my daughter says. “And listen”.

I can see about 50 miles of horizon out my floor-to-ceiling windows. The view’s horizon is the shore of Lake Ontario. The photo above does show a line of darker blue that is the water. In the east, I can see the C.N. Tower in downtown Toronto and in the west, I can see the height of the Niagara Escarpment, the only height in this flat land. I particularly love Rattlesnake Point there and longed to go there for the long weeks of shut-in.

I used to live in a ground floor apartment in a triplex. There were bushes and flowers, trees and birds at my level. Now my view is of doll house roofs and tree tops. And sky. I have taken to noticing the change in light throughout the day. At the moment the ground is all green kodachrome while the sky is light blue fading to white over the lake. I have watched a line-squall suddenly tear through with floods of rain and tree-bending winds. I have watched its darkness leave just as suddenly to lash the city. I have remembered the names of clouds from my sailing days and the weather they presaged.

I have sat in absolute stillness listening to the quiet.

At dawn this morning, I dreamed of a man who loved me when I was young, a tweedy grad student who smoked a pipe and wrote me love poetry. I liked him well enough, and spent time with my roommate in the house he lived in with other grad students. It was good to get way from residence food and rules. We laughed and pretended to be intellectuals. After I left university, he called me to invite me to a cousin’s wedding Friday night two days hence. He had tracked me down at Blake’s home. I said I was sorry I couldn’t go. He said, “I suppose you have something important on.” He could be snarky. “Well, yes,” I said reluctantly. “I’m getting married.” I may have named my son after him, although I spelled it differently and reasoned it was my grandmother’s maiden name. He died young, in his forties, of a brain tumour. I didn’t learn that until years later, by which time I was divorced.

“I thought you knew,” my ex-roommate said when she told me. “We thought you were the woman in the veil who came late to the funeral and sat in the back row.”

Last night, he turned up in my dream. We were both still young. He was working in a hospital in Toulon, he said. That was odd, considering he had studied physics.Then he enfolded me in an enormous hug. His body was more substantial than it had ever been and he held me tightly for a long time. So thank you, Brian, after all these months I needed that human touch.

 

 

 

Nothing Arrived: day 64 of lockdown

 

Nothing Arrived: the Villagers (heard in season 2 of Big Little Lies

This blog post uses black humor and talks explicitly about death from covid-19. It may trigger some people, so give it a miss if you think you are one.

What day are you on?

Saying I’m on day 65 is actually inaccurate. I was stuck in all of February with persistent vertigo. I solved it at the beginning of March by taking the advice on my medication bottle. I stopped drinking. They weren’t fooling around about that. I stopped being dizzy and nauseated almost immediately. So this is actually day 93 of being house-bound and day 73 of my sobriety.

For a period of two weeks, I actually did as the leader of my province told us 70-year-old pluses and did not leave the house. That fell through when grocery delivery became impossible. And please! I failed to have enough children to get my groceries. The two I had either got out of town or might as well have. My sister had lured me to her neighborhood with the promise that she would look after me as I grew demented. In the meanwhile, she has aged. But thanks to the magic pill that must never be mixed with alcohol, I have got stronger. Once a week, I gird my loins, cover my nose and mouth and sally forth, bare-handed at the early senior hour to buy the necessaries of life.

I remember that the brave are not fearless. They just move through their terror.

I learned to be afraid of covid-19 by listening to reports from Italy where the octogenarian old dears were dropping like flies. If flies can experience drowning. The lucky ones got shot full of morphine, intubated, and hooked up to a ventilator. Every day the percentage of them dying grew until I stopped paying attention around 25%. What a way to go, you were rendered unconscious and in that state, you passed over, puzzled no doubt and in urgent need of the familiar soul on the other side.

No point, revisiting your mortal coil. You’d have to sort which of the many coffins in the church was you, or where exactly you were in the repurposed ice arena, or which refrigerated truck your body had been stacked in. If you were lucky. If not, you might have found your shell in an unrefrigerated back room or moving van.

This is not my idea of a good death. And yes, I understand it’s not like a good landing – any landing you can walk away from.

A good death involves a degree of consciousness at least initially. The protagonist has to have a clear idea of direction. Window dressing helps, a person or two bedside, holding a hand, smoothing a brow, reminiscing and laughing, reading a poem or even praying. Saying at just the right moment, “You can go now.”

And you’d have to make do with those on the other side who had come to greet you. Those you left behind had been ordered to leave you behind. And they wouldn’t even be gathered in a healing group to urge you lovingly on. Except virtually.

So I didn’t want that death. I wanted even less the DIY, at-home version drowning with fluid in my newly leathered lungs. And such a waste. My death probably wouldn’t even get counted.

Eventually, it came to me that most people my age who died were in long-term care. I am outraged and grief-stricken that society has not chosen to value these lives enough to save them.

I suppose I realized that about day 50 when I wondered just how that sneaky virus was going to get me. All I had to do was carry on like this, totally alone except for scuttling at a social distance into a grocery store, washing my hands 6 or 7 times a day, cleaning the door knobs and my cell phone.

It began to seem that I was likelier to die of anxiety or pop a stroke watching the leader of the free world or just fade away, not with a bang but a whimper out of sheer, utter boredom.

And so I started hearing “Nothing Arrived” in my head.

This is a catastrophe such as I never thought I’d see. Thought I’d seen mine in fact – the Nazi camps, the big bomb, terrorism, genocide. Moreover, this is a slow moving disaster. The morons who gather shoulder to shoulder in their state legislature or in Wisconsin bars or on beaches won’t get the disease for 3 days or even 2 weeks. Every day that number of deaths on the CNN screen goes up.

It’s not even my country. My country has had only 5000 deaths at this writing. But it is my daughter’s and my grandsons’ and my great grand daughters. We are an anxious family, so we are careful people. We may have to be driven out of our homes in late 2021. Talk about ‘Stand your ground’.

So I’m waiting for something, and something died. So I waited for nothing and nothing arrived. “My dear sweet nothing, let’s start anew. From here on in, it’s just me and you.”

“I guess it’s over. I guess it’s begun. It’s a loser’s table, but we’ve already won. It’s a funny battle. It’s a constant game. I guess I was busy when nothing came.”

 

Who Wants to Live?:

Who wants to live to be 103?
A 102-year-old.

My point of view is not unique, but it is not shared by a large percentage of the population, so I thought I would share it.

I am 84.

It was a struggle getting here but, considering that, you may wonder why I want to stay.

I suffered an extremely abusive childhood. I barely survived my sixth year. It led to years of mental anguish and much therapy to recover. A pattern that was continued in my adult children. I was divorced, enduring not only the loss of my beloved family, but also loss of financial prosperity. I have survived two different malignancies. Recently, I have helped my ex-husband as he passed painfully on and then I managed his estate. Finally, my life seemed to sail out into an open, calm sea with a following wind.

Then covid-19 appeared.

For weeks we have heard stories from Italy and just today from Spain about how stressed hospitals are triaging acutely ill patients. Older people are going to the back of the ventilator line. I have just watched a video of a Spanish doctor crying as he introduced the audio of another doctor, describing how patients older than 65 are being sedated. There are not enough ventilators. Of course, their families are not allowed to be there. Health care workers hold their hands as they suffocate.

As my ex-husband fell into unconsciousness last March, four of us sat beside his bed, talking to him and to each other, laughing even and surrounding him with love as he made his passage. Across the continent, his daughter supported him long distance.

I am 19 years over the cutoff of 65 years used in Spain.

I have changed my care directive. It already said ‘do not resuscitate’. Now it says that I opt not to be treated by ventilator if there is a shortage. Probably unnecessary, but it may help those who have to deny it to me.

But I am not ready as apparently Glen Beck, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, 69, is to die to raise the Dow Jones or the S&P average. Talk about volunteering to be cannon fodder. The economy, like the human spirit, has resources not dreamt of in his philosophy..

I’m lucky that my country, Canada, has a sane and thoughtful leader. He and his cabinet assure us that preparations for the surge of patients that is coming is being prepared for. I have now been in self-isolation for more than two weeks as have most people in my province. I had to go out for food last week. Stores let older people in an hour early. The first store was all but empty. There was a line to get into the second one, everyone six feet apart. I am being very strict with myself, even refusing to join my sister and niece for an at-home movie and pizza. I wash my hands like Lady Macbeth and clean my devices as I’m told.

Eighty-four-years that’s enough surely. Can’t ask for more.

Well, any extra are not going to be subtracted from your allotment. I’ve made that clear. And, surprisingly, where there’s life, there’s hope. Living things do not usually want to become non-living. Some people want badly to stop hurting and confuse that with not living, but the two are not the same.

So when you hear the news that’s supposed to cheer you up that covid-19 is fatal only for the immune-challenged and the elderly, don’t misunderstand. For one thing, young people, even infants and teenagers, have died of it. For the other, a great many of us have underlying health issues and some of us are old. Curiously, we still want to survive.

Yes, we are all afraid. And bored. And under-funded. And going stir-crazy. In that we are as one. Let us carry each other.

 

 

 

Waiting for the Bullet: Diary of a Dead Man on Leave

David Downing takes the title of his latest spy novel, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave from a Comintern expression roughly equivalent to the American saying “dead man walking”, which describes a prisoner condemned to death. Spies for the Soviet Union expected to be eliminated eventually, often by their own side.

Josef, the narrator of the diary is a German national, returned from South America to Hamm, Germany to foment revolution there. He has seen the inside of prison in his previous assignment, but in Hitler’s Germany in 1938, prison is the least of his worries. Any Germans with communist ideas have learned to keep their head down or even to espouse the ideals of the fascist German Social Democracy party, which Hitler heads.

It seemed appropriate that my library hold on this ebook should come through in the first week of March 2020, given the news.

In this winter of my 84th year I have been battling chronic pain in the first place and the side effects of the medication that alleviated it in the second. Briefly, the meds worked brilliantly, except they made me seasick. I staggered about, trying not to throw up, but reluctant to quit them because of their good effect.

At the same time, news of the novel corona virus came at me from every direction. I live in Toronto, where SARs made itself at home in 2002-3 and I knew people affected. The good news being touted was that Covid-19 was not as deadly as SARs. The other good news was that it could be mild, didn’t seem to affect children and most of the people who died were elderly.

Just a minute – that’s me.

The average age of those who have died at this date is 80. Those over 80 have over a 20.5% chance of dying from it, according to WHO’s February figures. I tried to put that in perspective. Twenty of one hundred 80-year-olds who caught it died. The other one presumably became a zombie. No, no, stupid, you have to think in terms of 200. Forty one of them died. Okay. Got it.

Well, should I even bother hoarding toilet paper. The average age of those hospitalized was 60. I’d be carted out of here snappish at that rate. No problem. My apartment door is opposite the elevators. No troublesome narrow staircase.

So that’s settled. Someone else can raid my pantry in their desperation to survive the quarantine.

Like Josef, all I can do is wait for the bullet, comforted by the fact that if it’s my bullet, someone else will be spared.

I had a brief flirtation with Communist ideology in my youth, mostly to annoy Joe McCarthy, the U.S. senator who was persecuting liberal Americans. Never mind that I was Canadian. I cheered when Castro ‘liberated’ Cuba, the day that I was married. Got over that pretty fast, certainly by the fall of 1962 when the Soviets seemed bent on blowing up my babies.

Spy-wise, Josef’s return to Germany, is not a success.The first sign is that he decides to keep a diary: spies should never commit anything to paper. He has found a room in a boarding house run by a widow, Anna, who has a 12-year-old son, Walter. Walter is trying to navigate his way through school assignments, which require him to support Nazi ideas and policies and he turns to Josef for help. It is this unexpected human need that prompts Josef to start his journal.

At that time -the summer and fall of 1938 – Hitler is laying the groundwork for the annexation of Sudetenland, the “Germanic” part of Czechoslovakia. It looks as if he will gobble up the whole country. Probably he delays because, despite the armament he has built, his railway infrastructure is not yet up to the job. Josef knows this because he works on scheduling trains. Czechoslovakia will be annexed entirely in March 1939, but it will take the invasion of Poland for the Allies to declare war. The main narrative of the diary ends before that.

There are four boarders in Anna’s house, avid followers of the news. One of them Rushay delightedly recites newspaper accounts of  the latest Nazi  ‘achievements’ at the breakfast table. He is not the only boarder who is in love with Anna, but he is the most persistent.

Reading these scenes is like watching CNN today, leadership indulging in half-truths, self aggrandizement, unapologetic disregard for facts and downright lies.

David Downing lives in England with his American wife. And yes, they do get CNN across the pond. My Belgian brother gets a head start on us because he gets up six hours earlier and sometimes wakes me up with outrages I don’t yet know about. I have explained to him that my medication is supposed to be calming my nerves, which are otherwise set on maximum alert, that I don’t watch the news anymore.

Addicts lie, but you knew that.

Diary of a Dead Man on Leave alludes to the ever worsening persecution of the Jews and concentration camps, but it dramatizes the persecution of Walter’s African-German school friend, Marco, who gets called a Rhineland bastard. He was conceived there at the end of WW I and his father, who loved his mother, was shipped home, not knowing about the conception.

Josef lives in expectation of recall to Moscow and the bullet that will probably await him. He is not sure he will answer the summons when it comes and meanwhile, Anna’s family needs him more and more.

He has always put his ideals before individual needs. The good of the whole and all that. How much of conscience should be sacrificed for pragmatic personal reasons?

Like many others, I would be better off today if I had been more pragmatic and morally flexible, but I chose to defy that logic. The same defiance that brought me here leads me to say the Covid-19 bullet is not for me.

If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter.

Ah Josef, this life is a school after all.