Friday, October 24, 2014


Gary is gone. This was the day.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Not today

The doctor told my cousin this morning that her husband Gary would die today. Her sister sent that out as a Facebook message, and everybody rushed to the hospice to see him. My cousin, a Buddhist, was chanting at his bedside, his hand in hers, for hours. Some people joined in, others sat silently, and the minister who came offered a prayer. When my cousin stopped chanting the mood in the room was almost festive for a short while, then one by one people left, and it was just my cousin and Gary and my husband and me. My cousin seemed buoyed by the chanting, and more reconciled to what is coming than I've seen her so far. She says Gary is dying to us but he is being born to something new and wonderful on the other side. She says she is attending a birth and the labor on this side is hard. I don't think Gary will die tonight, even though a groan accompanies each shallow pushed-out breath. I looked around the room this afternoon at the people gathered, such a varied assembly, and I thought Gary is doing a great work. He is still bringing people together, allowing us to act in with grace and love. The photo is of the ramp Gary helped build that allowed my mother to roll her rolling walker into the church to which they both belonged. The church is a landmark building so the ramp had to be a removable structure, not a permanent one. It has been there for years now. I think of him every time I walk up it, and I think of my mother and how much easier it made life for her on Sunday mornings.

Thoughts on a rainy morning

It's rainy and grey this morning and I have lots of work to do, and how grateful am I that I get to do it from the comfort of my home. I am sitting here at my desk looking out at the rain brushed trees, the light inside my room cozy and warm.

Yesterday would have been my dad's ninety-first birthday. He died in 1996 when he was 72. For some reason, the memory that played in my heart all day was of him calling me all manner of nicknames. He was famous for bestowing nicknames on everyone, their inspiration mostly defied knowing, or maybe you suspected the origin, but it never had any sting. I had the most nicknames of anyone. My brother and I were Box and Pan. One cousin was Mummy Dumpel; she called me yesterday to tell me how fondly she remembers my Dad calling her that. Another cousin was Pieface. And so on. Among my other names, Patty Pan, Digger (I was always rooting through his things), and my favorite, Maria, from The Sound of Music song "How do you solve a problem like Maria." My dad heard that song and immediately decided it was talking about his daughter, and I loved that, loved the idea of being a problem, especially one who was beloved. I enjoyed the notion that I could be elusive and difficult and wild and disobedient and my father would love me anyway.

Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her
Many a thing she ought to understand
But how do you make her stay and listen to all you say
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

My father was a judge, but he could have made his living as a writer, such a brilliant wordsmith he was. His judgments were compelling reading, and his use of language in every day life was thrilling. Continuing in the vein of wayward children, I remember once he scolded me for something, I don't remember what, I just remember that I was soaking wet because the day had been rainy and bits of dirt and leaves clung to my bare feet and even my cheek, and my sense in the moment was of complete and utter freedom. But I must have done something untoward, because my father scolded me, and I talked back, trying to explain my position, and the whole point of this story is what he said next. "Good God, child, why must you be so dogmatic and pugnacious?" he exclaimed in exasperation. I didn't know those words, I think I was eight or nine at the time, but I looked at him quizzically, deciding I loved the sound of the words and the idea that I was them. My father's discipline completely went over my head, so enthralled was I with the words he used, so distracted was I in my eagerness to get inside the house and find the dictionary and look them up.

So the memory of my dad that was with me yesterday was that he loved me no matter what. No matter that I was chubby and unruly and smart mouthed. No matter that I dug through his dresser looking for treasures. No matter that I talked back when disciplined, and couldn't be pinned down. My father loved me through all of that, and the feeling he left me with in life is that I was worthy of his love. No matter how the world might view me, I was loved. I feel as if he spun a cocoon around me when I wasn't even looking, and now here I am, protected. Not that there aren't some problems, some hard things coming up for me and mine. But I've got good perspective this morning, and a strange comforting feeling that my dad has my back, and always will.

Homecoming album

She'd had a hellish week leading up to homecoming, papers, internship applications, landlord drama and roommate issues, but she got through it. She says homecoming this year was low key and perfect. She looks happy, which makes me exhale.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What breaks us

That bedroom, with its wrought iron bed frame, wooden plank floors, pink cotton curtain at the window and pitcher of fresh picked flowers on the dresser reminds me achingly of my grandparents' house in the country, the room where I slept with my two girl cousins, the ones closest to me in age, the three of us horizontally across the bed so as to fit more easily. Looking at that picture, at the distinct arrangement of the furniture, the floral bedspread and delicate white rattan chair, I could be standing at the door of that bedroom now, feeling the air in there, always chilly and fresh in the hills above Mandeville, where the tropical heat gave way to a surprisingly temperate clime. 

The only thing different is the ceiling, which instead of wooden beams was constructed of pressed tin. Also missing from the picture are the fat Sears fashion catalogs that my cousins and I used to idly leaf through each evening as we chatted before bed, before Grandma came in and turned off the lights and admonished us to go to sleep. She never worried about our bare feet hanging off the side of the bed, still dirty from a day spent roaming the farm, playing hide and seek in the woods behind the water tank, picking oranges off the tree in the grove whose fence we had to climb while dodging pigs. In my memory, how simple those days were, how stretched out before us in sun-drenched dreaming. That photo took me back there.

I had dinner with three friends on Saturday evening. (My husband graciously did the hospital dinner run while I did the social thing. Just one more reason I adore him.) One of my friends, a therapist, had just returned from an all day psychotherapy conference, and she was telling us about a presentation she had heard there, by a colleague who said that the whole cause of depression is the fact that we have not adequately mourned. He proposed that unless we mourn our losses, letting go of that which mattered to us or somehow indelibly marked us—from childhood events to people we have loved to compromised health to aging parents to a time when everything felt charmed and the death of dreams—then we will remain stuck, unable to move forward, desolate. He said that people often fail to adequately mourn; we push away the feelings that attend loss because it is just too painful, but that it is so important to say to oneself, this broke my heart, this broke me

I asked my friend: "So let me get this straight: Unless we mourn, which is intensely painful, then we become depressed, which is intensely painful?" Yes, she said. But mourning, truly mourning a loss is finite, a passage we pass through and come out the other side, while depression comes to stay—at least until we can excavate and mourn its root cause. I didn't fully understand the whole thing. I suppose you had to be at the conference or be a psychotherapist to really get it. But I'm still thinking about it days later. And when I saw the picture of that room, I mourned the passing of those long ago summers with my cousins at our grandparents. I think I had no idea that the loss of that time was still an ache in me. It makes me wonder: What else have I failed to mourn? 


Postscript: My friend Isabella, the therapist, sent me this important clarification by email this morning: "While there is this distinction—based on Freud's paper Mourning and Melancholia—mourning actually never ends. It is activated throughout life and evokes deep sadness but does not inhibit us the way depression does."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Place of Love

Last night at the hospice, Gary was breathing in great deep gasps, the oxygen mask over his face, his chest scooping with each exhale. My cousin was beside herself. She only wants him to be comfortable. The nurses told her that this was "normal," and I could see in their eyes that there was more they could have said but didn't know how to say it to my cousin. She asked to see the doctor on duty. He came, a young man of Sri Lankan descent. He calmly and kindly explained that this was end-stage breathing, caused by carbon dioxide build up and something about the brain stem, and liquid pooling in his throat, and so on. My cousin pleaded for Gary to be sedated and the doctor said he was in fact fully sedated, and that to raise the morphine any more would be to stop his heart. "He is not is distress," he told my cousin. "Or rather, he is in distress because he is dying, but he is not in pain at this moment. See that his face is relaxed, not grimacing?" It helped my cousin to hear that he was not suffering in the way she thought. Essentially, he is unconscious.

The doctor, whose gentle beside manner we all appreciated, likened the labored and intemittent breathing sounds to snoring, and that clicked for all of us in the room, my cousin, my husband and me, and two friends. He said that perhaps moving Gary's position would help a bit. My cousin begged him not to do that, that moving him caused Gary too much pain and the doctor repeated that he would not feel it now. Presently two nurses came and asked us to leave for a moment while they moved him. Always, standing outside the door, we could hear Gary moaning and swearing when they moved his position, which they did several times a day. Last night, he was completely silent. But his breathing did seem less labored after. His eyes are sunken, and he is shrinking before our eyes. His hair fell out on his pillow last Saturday and his once ruddy complexion is now completely grey. Every morning when I wake up now, I am surprised that Gary made it through another night.

My cousin said that if Gary had known this is what it would have been like, he would have gone up into the woods and shot himself through the head. I want to tell my cousin she has to release him, tell him it's okay to go. He is probably in his twilight world still worrying about how she will be when he leaves her. She will not leave his side. She is obsessed with his not dying alone. But she had a dream the other night which at first terrified her, and then when she thought about it again, she felt great comfort. She dreamed that Gary was reclined in a taxi cab, looking as he does now, and her father, an esteemed doctor in The Bahamas, was beside Gary, and as the cab went by, he looked out of the window directly at his daughter, and then the cab drove under a bridge. The bridge in the dream was the highway underpass that is just beyond the gates of the hospital. It looks a little ghostly, as if it leads to nowhere even though when you come out the other side there is bustling city life as usual.

My cousin at first thought the dream meant she was going to lose both her father and her husband at the same time. Both her parents are in their high eighties and are very frail now. Her mother (my mother's baby sister) is struggling with Alzheimers. It has been one of my cousin's heartbreaks that her parents are completely absent as she faces this. She knows they cannot cushion her this time as they have helped to cushion every hard thing she faced in the past. In fact, she and her sisters are doing their best to cushion them. But as she considered the dream again, she had a new thought. It seemed to her now that Gary was in the cab with the angel of death, who was wearing her father's face to let her know that she can trust the place where Gary is going. "My father's face was the divine manifestation of trustworthiness," she told me the evening after dream. "I think he was in that cab going under that bridge to tell me Gary is going to a place of love."

The photos here are from my cousin's wedding to Gary, which included a Buddhist ritual of binding the couple together (top) and a ceremony to honor the mothers (above). My cousin said finding these pictures made her dream make so much more sense to her. It also made her feel that even though her parents are far away in The Bahamas, they are doing this walk with her.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Under my window this morning

Children from the nursery school downstairs serenaded me as I worked this morning. My own children went to this nursery school. I used to love leaning out my window, watching them play. My son was always surrounded by friends, two in particular to whom he remained unshakably loyal, and they were the same toward him. We saw early on his great capacity for friendship and the fidelity he inspired in his friends. One boy pushed him one day and his best friend, a Japanese-American boy named Eugene whom he used to call "Newjean," became a whirling dervish, arms windmilling in his defense. My son, who was a pacifist, pulled Eugene off the boy and they walked away from him, Klignon style. I saw all this from my upstairs window. Yes, I have been overly interested in my children's life away from me since the beginning.

My daughter, unlike my son, was usually alone on the playground. My heart hitched in my chest as I watched her lying on the slide by herself as the other children swirled by. And then I realized my girl was gazing up at the sky, daydreaming. Or she was twirling round and round in her own little world, arms outstretched, eyes closed and face to the sun, coat tail flying. My son had many friends. In time, she had one, a girl as quiet and dreamy as she was. They would play next to each other, not talking but seeming to understand each other perfectly.

I remembered all this as I leaned out my window this morning, listening to the children sing. It didn't seem as if almost twenty years had passed since my own two were in that circle.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Keeping the sun in sight

"Some painters transform the sun 
into a yellow spot, others transform 
a yellow spot into the sun."

—Pablo Picasso

Happy Birthday Nana


Your son did the flowers for the altar on Sunday, just as you showed him when he was a callow youth. He did them in honor of your birthday today, and because we all miss you so, not just your firstborn, but me and your grandchildren in New York, and your beloveds in Antigua, too. This year, he also held his dad in his heart as he arranged the tropical blooms. I gazed at the flowers in their gleaming silver vases on the polished wood of the altar, and I imagined you both together, looking down, smiling.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

This makes me happy

Childhood friends, attending different colleges, 
spending fall break together, traveling around.
I love these beauties and their joy.

Lots to tell, but if I start I'll be here a long time and 
I can't do that today. Heading to the hospice now.
My cousin from Boston is back in town.

See you soon.
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