The Immense Heart and Mr Death

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

Then we said goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MrDEath

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Mortality and Christopher Hitchens

In his recently released book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens tells the story of how British journalist John Diamond chronicled his battle with cancer in a weekly column. Hitchens confesses like many other readers, he quietly urged him on from week to week. He says,

But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, 
miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No neither of those would work as endings.
Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this?- a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end.
Hitchens’ own story was more elegantly structured. He told it in 7 essays published in Vanity Fair and now collected posthumously in this small book.

Mortality describes his initial collapse in a New York City hotel room during a tour in support of his latest book, Hitch 22, in early June 2010, saying of the emergency responders:

I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much backup equipment, but now I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle but firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.

He dislikes the use of the metaphor of battle, fight or struggle to describe what ensued after he was diagnosed with metastatic oesophageal cancer. He says

Myself I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of being a gravely endangered patient.

But sitting “while a venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.” And yet his dispatches from the Land of Malady are full of his customary wit and irony. His wife, Carol Blue, reports in the book’s Afterward that he wrote the jottings now collected as chapter 8 in bursts of energy and enthusiasm, his computer perched on the food tray of his hospital bed. He continued to hold court whenever he was hospitalized, “making a point or hitting a punchline for his “guests”, whom he treated like “participants in his Socratic discourses”. He had always been a great raconteur, as well as a bon vivant. He had an encyclopedic knowledge and a rapier-like intelligence. And he could hold his liquor. After an 8 hour dinner, he would rise to toast the assembled motley crowd with “a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry, limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause and jokes. ‘How good it is to be us’, he would say in his perfect voice.”

I started reading him in Vanity Fair, after many years of avoiding his work and like many others, I was immediately won over. I avoided him because he had betrayed me. For many years he had espoused causes dear to my heart, workers’ rights among them, what might be called leftwing views, but then after 9/11, he made a sharp turn right and supported the war in Iraq, believing the now disproved weapons-of-mass-destruction premise. Not to mention, he dissed Mother Teresa and rounded on Salman Rushdie, when Rushdie, under fatwa pressure, published “Why I have Embraced Islam”. I read the rebuttals that his friend Martin Amis wrote and imagined, in my innocence, that Amis was actually alienated from Hitchens. I was wrong. Amis remained his great friend, Rushdie was at Hitchens’ memorial and Mother Teresa – well that goes without saying.

Hitchens was a famous atheist, author of god is Not Great, and on his last Thanksgiving Day in November 2011, he was in my town, Toronto, debating his point of view with Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Hitchens arranged Thanksgiving dinner for his family and friends here and by all accounts carried the day in the debate.

His reaction to the Christopher Hitchens Day of prayer on September 20, 2011 involved wondering exactly what was being prayed for – his survival, his redemption? He examined the nature of prayer -the importuning of an omnipotent being to suspend His laws of nature for personal benefit- and found the practice specious. He noted that certain religious zealots had pronounced that his illness was God’s punishment and in short order analyzed the ill-logic and cruelty of that by citing blameless children suffering from cancer. He said there would be no deathbed conversion and told of Voltaire being badgered as he was dying to renounce the devil, whereupon the great thinker replied, “that this was no time to be making enemies”.

The best gift that Hitchens gave me, besides many good laughs, was the realization that I can listen to a point of view I don’t agree with, indeed that I might find contrary and wrongheaded although, of course, he said much that I found true.

He concluded an essay on The Great Gatsby by saying, “It remains ‘the great’ because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism and finds the defeat unbearable and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly”.  He died on December 15, 2011 at the age of 62. HIs unflinching voice goes on.

Easter/Passover and Journal 108

Every Easter, my mother outfitted me in new clothes, a coat she had made, a new hat, new shoes. Not to do so, in spite of our poverty, would have been shameful. Eventually, this led to a good deal of work as the family expanded. The clothes were to be worn to church of course. Today she would have shuffled us off to Walmart no doubt, but the closest she could get to that bazaar of economic necessity was the catalogue. That’s where the hat and shoes came from.

For Easter breakfast, she would fry up a dozen eggs and my father would tackle the lot.  The hens had started laying again by then, whether Easter was early or late.

Quaint customs that indicate advanced age.

We moved away from that rural community and found ourselves more or less lost in a city. The rest of the family gave church up, but I kept on, partly because they didn’t. I sang in the children’s choir in a long black skirt and a brilliant white surplus that had to be washed and ironed far too often. On Good Friday, I went to the somber morning service and on Easter Sunday, I rejoiced at all three services, Matins at 8 a.m., Eucharist at 11 and Evensong at 7. I found the experience beautiful, calming and comforting. Little by little, I found myself thoroughly assimilating the traditions of the “high” Anglican church I attended.

At a certain point, I stopped attending church. It was shortly after my children were born and baptized. My husband had started tutoring on Sunday morning and could no longer do childcare.

Yet the habits of that background persisted: Good Friday inevitably lead me to self-examination and grief over my shortcomings, while Easter Sunday was filled with light and grace.

Time moved on. The family grew, broke in pieces, reformed, grew again.

Some years, I found myself at a table where we were asked,”How is this night different from all other nights? I listened to the Passover story, which was not entirely new to a Bible reader after all, but now I was seeing it from inside, so to speak. And eating different food.

One year, when I was on my own, I read Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ in which he documents the parallels between Christ and the pagan sun gods to urge us to regard the story in a more metaphorical way. Toward the end of the book, he mused that we will never be more dead than we are now. By that, he meant here in what we call life, we are so thoroughly emersed in the material world that we are deeply alienated from our spiritual selves.

This is a time when we instinctively ponder questions of death and resurrection if only because nature is modeling the latter. (Well, not the poor magnolias here in TO. They got carried away by early March warmth, burst into bud and then got frozen by a cold night. The fruit trees ,however, are setting a blooming example.)

I don’t consider myself an Anglican nor even a Christian at this point, much as I respect the tradition. Buddhism and Taoism also seem to have much to teach, as does Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. But the Easter child lurks within and wants the holiday honored.

This year, oh my goodness, the odd bits of family we can still gather has chosen to gather on Friday. A party on Good Friday! What would Aunt Mae say? Actually, she’d probably say she wouldn’t mind a bit of that brandy and settle down to enjoy herself.

So this leaves me rattling around by myself on the big day. What to do? Last year, journal 108 tells me I went for a walk down through the park to the river and then cooked up a rack of lamb and asparagus. This year, I will take myself out in my best duds to my favorite restaurant for an early dinner.

And eat chocolate.