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.


Motherhood: savage longing

Robert Thurman, renowned Buddhist and scholar, and famous Uma’s father, writes in The Jewel Tree of Tibet about an unusual way to learn compassion. While you are sitting in a subway car or bus, look around and realize that everyone you see has, in the course of repeated lifetimes and in some form or other, been your mother.

But will we ever forgive each other?

Earlier this year, I bought Colm Toiben’s new book called New Ways to KIll Your Mother, a title that dismayed at least one mother I know.

Toiben is an Irish novelist and critic, who has written here a series of book reviews or essays in which he explores how we treat parents, particularly mothers, in our novels. He notes that 18th century novels rarely feature mothers. It is true that 10% of women died in childbirth then, but still, it seems unusual especially since motherhood was then beginning to be idealized. Yet “the novel is a form ripe for orphans”. He quotes Ruth Perry, a critic, who says that this “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.”

(That darned individualism, so marked in 2 year-olds, and 14 year-olds, and … oh, never mind.)

Jane Austen’s last three novels have no mothers. Her great success Pride and Prejudice has Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth’s social climbing, hysterical, embarrassing mother, whose husband escapes into his study. (Wait, doesn’t that sound like someone I know?) Aunts were permitted in many motherless stories, including those of  Henry James. They might be kindly as Elizabeth’s or autocratic as Darcy’s, or manipulative, but they were surrogates, not the real mother McCoy.

The middle section of Toiben’s book concerns Irish writers, including the poet W.B. Yeats, whose essay is subtitled, “New Ways to KIll Your Father”. Yeat’s father, an successful artist sounds almost as annoying as Mrs Bennet. He confidently wrote from New York to explain a brilliant book he expected to write and publish to great acclaim. Yeats, who had put in a long and painful writing apprenticeship, refrained from dashing his father’s hopes -and thereby presumably killing him. Instead he waited a long while, during which time no such book materialized and then responded in a restrained manner.

J.M. Synge, Irish playwright (The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea) and co-founder of Irish theatre, had a formidable mother who preached damnation at all three daily meals and organized his short life when he wasn’t escaped to Paris. Much as he disdained her ‘rule’, he followed her every summer to the family’s summer place. And much as she, an Irish protestant, abhorred his atheism, she continued to give him house-room. Despite disdain, he kept on coming back.

“Samuel Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” tells us of the author of Waiting for Godot and his mother. Apparently, she tended to be depressed. (Imagine that -the Becketts were depressed!) Beckett eventually also fled to Paris and insisted on remaining during the Nazi occupation. He wrote the following in 1937 while his mother was away traveling: (She had of course left her cook in place and Samuel continued to enjoy life good food.) “I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill. I am what her savage longing has made me….. I simply don’t want to see her or write to her or hear from her…”

“Savage longing” indeed. Sound like a mother you know?

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit that I am a mother. But, of course, you knew that.

A few weeks after I became one, I sneaked off to the doctor, leaving my newborn in the care of her father. There I sat and wept that she hated me already. Stupid man, he just laughed and assured me that soon we would be deeply attached. We were and we are – from time to time. Did I say that out loud? At present, we have entered a Pax Romana or a  long Victorian empire of peace. I have finally matured.

Her brother, on the other hand, is in a Beckett phase, although he is cordial enough at weddings and funerals. Funny how infrequent they are.

It is quite breathtaking when our beloved off-spring begin as they say to “individuate”. Humbling of course. After the momentary slights and cuts of childish insults, we endure a decade where we are ill-informed if not actually stupid, uncool, unfashionable and just generally out of date. We may or may not suddenly improve when the child is 21.

Apologies to Robert Thurman, but no wonder we have such a problem with each other! If we have all been each other’s mothers, we’ve got history.

On her death bed, my own mother had what looked like a large ruby on her upper lip. She was about to slip into a coma. She looked at me and moved her dry mouth silently. I wiped it with a wet cloth. Than she found her voice. “I need a present,” she said.

And my heart filled with compassion.