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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Room to dream

My presence here may be a little sketchy over the next couple of weeks. There's so much going on and in the midst of it I am trying to meet a deadline. Today I am imagining being curled up in that space, Macbook on my lap, drinking in all that light and color and inspiration. That's a pretty fine workroom I'd say. If I owned a writer's colony, the work/dream spaces would probably look something like this. With real flowers though. And maybe also a chaise.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Life now

Someone from my old job called me this morning, wanting to catch up and then working around to asking could I edit something for her. She offered to pay me but it would be just too weird; she and I worked quite closely together once, so I said sure, but I'd do it for free. She talked about how crazed everyone at the magazine felt, how her head was just spinning all the time because there just weren't enough people to do the work and she couldn't remember when last she actually saw a season change because she was stuck indoors at the office all the time. As she talked, I realized how happy I was to be out of it, to feel as if my life is my own. Even if I have just a bit too much work at the moment—a very happy problem for a freelancer!—it makes all the difference to know I said a considered yes to everything that is in front of me. Even better, all of it is work that I find interesting and challenging, not frustrating and soul-crushing, as was often the case at the old job, except I didn't understand then that I had a choice.

I have finally arrived at the place where I can see my job elimination a year ago as a good thing that happened, an opportunity for me to find work I might actually enjoy. I love working the way I do now. Sure, every new project is a little daunting at first; I never truly know in the beginning how I will get through it, but I always know that I will  find a way, I will teach myself what I need to learn, I will figure it out. And little by little, the curtains part and the light slips through, a sliver at first, and every day I understand a little bit more than the day before, and then the sunlight pours in and finds me eager to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work, ideas popping in my head all night. And that's another thing: I wake up in the night around three or four usually, and instead of lying there twisting with anxiety as I so often used to do, the thoughts and ideas just stream through my brain, almost like a meditation, and I often awake the next morning with a new thought about how to approach not just my work, but my whole life.

I said yes to a new project last week, even though I knew it would make everything else feel a little crunched. I'm editing a book for a woman I often edited when I was a magazine editor, and she and her agent really pressed for me to do it, and in the end I couldn't say no even though the money wasn't that great because some things, you just do because you have history with people, and that history is generous and good. All week as I waded into the project, I wondered what on earth I had got myself into, and then, at the end of the week, the smoke seemed to clear and I knew exactly what to do, how to approach the edit, and now I immersed. I feel like one of those creatures that imprints on whatever I am working on. The writer's voice gets into my head, and I fall in love with the work and want to help foster it. It's hard to explain, but I am definitely one of the lucky ones in that I fell into a field of endeavor that engages me totally. I know I've said this before, but I wish the same for my children.

In other news: My girl has a six-hour-long hospitality law exam tonight, from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., and this after a full day of classes and activities, and also her early morning job as a teaching assistant for culinary. My hat is off to her. Send good thoughts.

My son continues to work two jobs, as a track coach at a high school and as a aquatics coordinator and swim coach at a sports club, while waiting to hear from the FDNY about his EMT application. A friend of his who works as an EMT told him to expect it to take a year. In the meantime there is another opportunity in the wings, because wherever this boy works, he willingly takes on more than his job description, and they want to keep him and move him up. But there are some uncertainties. Again, send good thoughts.

The new rector of our church preached her first service this past Sunday and I was there in the pew, so excited that this is who that little badass church had called. I keep hearing more and more about her and her partner that makes me feel as if their guiding the next phase of this church is no accident. Not only are they both ministers who served early in their careers at that church, but they were also married in that church long before gay marriage was legal in New York State. They've been together 27 years and have two sons. They are a biracial couple with deep activist roots, and many members of their old church in Greenwich Village seem to be following our new minister to Harlem. I told my husband that for the first time I have the feeling that I want to be a part of what is happening there.

My husband and I continue to drive north to the hospice in the Bronx to sit with my cousin and her husband each evening. The doctor says Gary could expire at any moment, but to me he seems to be getting stronger. He's getting a lot better care in terms of hygiene at the hospice, and even though he is in a lot of pain, that must help. My other cousins (one of them is with my husband in the photo here) have all left to go back home, so it's on my husband and me to provide the family support now. My husband is such a good man. He says, "There is so much that is beyond our control but we can go there each evening and bring dinner and sit. This is something we can do." I am so grateful to him.

My cousin sleeps every night in a cot next to her husband's bed because she doesn't want him to die alone. I suggested that maybe Gary would prefer not to die in front of her, and if in fact that happened she should not feel guilty, she should see it as his choice. She said the chaplain at the hospice had told her the same thing, that some people simply cannot die in front of a loved one. My cousins and I all marvel that we are being asked to make these life and death decisions. We have all had such powerful mothers—the six sisters—and have been so used to their stepping into the breach in times of crisis. Now all our mothers are either already dead or, like my own mother, too frail to travel. We try to imagine what they would do if they could and emulate that.

In Ithaca two weekends ago, my daughter and I were in the candle aisle in a home goods store and she picked up a container of candle wax that was called "Old Time Elegance" and she said excitedly, "Doesn't this just smell like all the sisters? Every time I come in here I have to stop and smell this because it reminds of Grandma and all her sisters, every one of them, their perfume, their talcum powder, all their smells." And dear God, she was right. The smell just took me right back to hugging them and being enveloped in their various wonderful scents, and so we bought a container of the wax and I have just smelled it with the thought that I would describe it to you here but I can't even begin to do it justice.

I keep thinking recently how life is just everything at once, the good and the hard, the laughs and the sorrow, the love and the dwindling down, and it just keeps right on trundling along and we better hang on for the ride.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

While baking cake

My girl was royally pissed off while mixing the icing for her brother's cake. With good reason. An unsettling thing happened to her yesterday. She had given out a pair of boots to have the zippers fixed in the morning, and dashed out at 5 pm to pick them up. She was in a rush as she was still in the midst of baking her epic cake for her brother's birthday, so she planned to take a taxi there and back. As she stood on the corner of our block, looking for a cab, a van drove up next to her and two men, middle aged, started calling out all manner of vulgarities to her and yelling, "How much? How much?" She ignored them and eventually they drove off.

But when she came home, she was steaming. As she came through the door, she said, "Some people in this world are just assholes." I asked her what happened and she told me. My heart skipped a beat, because I know all the stories of predators grabbing women and throwing them into the back of vans never to be seen again. I said urgently that if a van ever stopped next to her like that again to put a lot of distance between her and the van, and she said, "Of course, Mom, I know that. But why is okay for those assholes to speak to me like that?"

It's definitely not okay, I said and tried to suggest she not take it in. But she persisted, visibly upset, her eyes welling with tears. "Why should I even have to deal with that?" she insisted. "Why is it on me to not take it in while they go on doing that horrible shit to women?" And then she said, "I'm not crying because I'm sad, I'm crying because I'm just so angry!" I stopped trying to offer platitudes and just went to her and put my hand on her shoulder, knowing I didn't have any words that would make this feel remotely okay. She went back to mixing the cake frosting and presently she said, "The thing is, I knew not to say anything to them because I knew they might be really crazy assholes and it might make it worse but why should women even have to deal with this!" She was really, really furious, more so than I've seen her before.

Late last night, as she sat on the bus back to school, and as I waited for her to message me that she was safely home, she texted me that I wasn't to worry that the men in the van had made her feel in any way differently about herself. "I still know my worth even among all the assholes," she said but added that it was the helpless feeling that made her so angry, the sense that she had no choice but to take their despicable behavior. I wished so hard that I could do or say something meaningful but the truth is I have no answers, no idea how to frame this to make it less upsetting for my child. I realize that she has become more conscious of and politicized about these issues of late and is increasingly less willing to shrug and say well that's just the way the world is. And she is right—it isn't okay and it shouldn't feel okay.

Here is a bitterly funny link on the subject at hand that a dear friend sent me this morning.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Birthday Boy

My son is 23 years old today. He went to work this morning and won't be home till early evening. My daughter is in the kitchen baking him a cake. We went to breakfast on this rainy blustery fall morning, then did errands and got ingredients. She travels back to school late tonight while he has birthday plans with friends. Before all that, we will sing and eat cake and I will silently give thanks for him in our lives, this boy who made me a mother and made us a family, who keeps us laughing with his antics and who is surrounded by loyal friends.

Update: My daughter wasn't too happy with the way the caramel drizzle and cinnamon cream cheese frosting turned out but the birthday boy pronounced the cake to be "epic."

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