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Seven years

WordPress just sent me a delightful canned anniversary notice. Congratulations! I’ve been blogging for seven years!

Dang.

That’s a lot of writing. 1,097 posts.

I started this blog to heal wounds. I had low writer-esteem. I was desperately lonely raising a baby in a strange land. And I had so much to say, but only a few poor souls to talk to.

And they needed a break from the details.

I wrote, and a few people read. And a small percentage said they liked what they read.

At that I was heartened. I felt connected and I felt heard. In fact, once or twice, someone told me that my writing really helped them.

Good gravy, isn’t that all anyone on this planet wants?

I talked to the Internet’s kindest people about homesickness and how hard it was to choose a miraculous and ridiculously confusing creature over the PhD I could have handled much more easily. I talked about deaths that rocked me over and over, friends who abandoned me, the relationship I completely failed at, and wonderful days of joy and light.

I wrote about books I loved and problems I couldn’t solve.

And I have so much more to write. I have a list in my phone that is, currently, nine posts desperate to be written. Those of you who’ve been to this little corner of the Internet before know most of my posts are 2,000 words or so, and that 18,000 words ready, in my head, must create quite a bit of intracranial pressure.

But as I struggled a few months ago with four part-time jobs, two bickering children, one divorce, and a blinding case of I Must Do Better on All These Fronts Even If I Never Sleep because I’m Nothing If I Don’t Excel, a wise friend told me that my to-do list is too long. That there’s enough time. That the stuff with real deadlines should come first, and then I should feed my soul. Do things to feel good, and put off the unreasonable 40+ “to do this week” things I genuinely rewrote on my list every week.

Because there’s enough time. The posts will still want to be written in a few weeks. And the words will come.

Later. Because as much as I love this community, and as much as I need to be on this space, I’ve been here for seven years. And there’s enough time to write a great post later.

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Yin and Yang

Writing on the circle of life is trite and cliche, but here I am again, a year later, with another birthday/deathday post.

Last year my friend died on my youngest son’s birthday. The end of one life at 44 and celebration of 4 years for another offered a roller coaster of emotion that forced me into hyperawareness. I took 450 photos at the beach that day, and kept 85. I can recall the physical position of my body for each of those 85, and how many tears or deep breaths followed each.

This year my eldest is having a birthday on the same day we bury my grandmother. The morning included giggles and chess and special treats. The midday involved tears and reciting prayers, hugging and trying to tolerate loved ones. And traffic. Jesus Farnsworth Christ, the traffic. Then laughter and french toast dinner and gifts and a long chapter book.

My brain almost shut down with exhaustion that night, having stimulated every single part of my neuro-cognitive-emotive mind, from memory to emotion to quantum physics and stifled Church giggles. (Seriously, if you tell a group of Irish Catholics that the response to the interstitial prayers is ‘Lord, have mercy,’ you can’t help but laugh when, by the fourth round, they’re all saying, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’ Such is religious Pavlovian response, and I reserve the right to laugh out loud, even at a solemn event, when my brother shrugs and says, ‘Lord, hear our prayer and also have mercy.’)

The nature of life is death. We know this. But there are quite a few days of full-blown glorious life before we reach our eventual death, even if we die, as my friend did, painfully young. The counterbalance to joy is sorrow. And exhaustion. My sorrow on this birthday-deathday was keenest at the point in my reading where I said, “look at all she has left.” Because I was lucky enough to have a grandma whom I adored, meet and love my children. I don’t know that life gets better than that. I really don’t. Accomplishments and glorious food and wondrous sunrises and breathtaking hikes…these pale beside the knowledge that my beloved lived long enough to love what I made. To forgive me my tresspasses as I forgave those who trespassed against me. To offer a sign of peace.

Peace be with you. And also with every single person on this planet, amen. Please. Every single person, forgetting none. Genuine peace. Thank you. Amen.

Of course it’s hard to have a memorial, regardless of circumstance; and it was particularly hard to have a memorial on the day my amazing baby turns Nine. I felt I couldn’t fully mourn because I had a cake to make, a boy to cherish, a life to live. Nobody is fond of death. We rarely talk about it, except when we need a cathartic release of all the stress and pain woven into our daily lives. You can’t cry about a tough meeting, but you can cry about your grandma’s stroke. You can’t cry about the pressures of co-parenting with a person with priorities so completely different you wonder why you ever made it past the first date, but you can cry that your friend died too young, leaving his children irreparably altered. This sorrow, though, is always tempered by the joys of life. Nobody’s death is all of another person’s life. We all have parts of ourselves untouched by even the closest loves. I feel guilty that part of my life are seemingly undisturbed by grandma’s death, just as I feel guilty that parts of my life don’t change just because my children live, thrive, grow, and blossom.

As hard as it is to say goodbye, I loved my grandmother. That’s richer than chocolate mousse. She loved me. That’s sweeter than clean, clear water on a hot day. We told each other we loved and appreciated one another. That’s better than gold. Heck, that’s better than applause. I saw her a few days before her stroke, and brought her a favorite treat that she enjoyed with marked pleasure, despite all her frustrations about not being able to read, walk, or hear as she wanted to. She high-fived my son and told me stories from her time as a young mother, a time when women had to quit their jobs once they married because employers assumed marriage was for childbearing, women were exclusive childrearers, and work was for men. It was a good visit. And it was one of hundreds.

I’d still really like one more talk with her. Or ten. Or maybe one thousand. Yes. One thousand more talk, please.

We are a miracle, my family. Your family is one, too, with all its blemishes and warts and struggles and eases. We are miraculous because of those who came first, who built, and who endured.

My grandmother did these with style and grace.

"My mom used to say, 'Am I responsible for all this?'"

“My mom used to say, ‘Am I responsible for all this?'”

And so in honor of my dear, sweet grandma, I offer a birthday card. Because life doesn’t stop, even when there is pain, even when there is sorrow. In fact, life becomes more sweet, and I pay even closer attention.

Happy next phase, grandma. May your next eternity be peaceful, restful, exciting, and funny. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, forever.

Happy, happy birthday to my incredible, hilarious, impressive Nine Year Old. May your next 90 years be full of people like your Great Grandma: kind, understanding, resilient, and welcoming. And may you bring some piece of that to the people you meet, as well. I love your laugh and hope the Universe gets some piece of it, too, forever.

Peanut, 2006-infinity and beyond.

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And

Rose 1916-2015.

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Where do I post this?

Dear Jay,

I miss you. I pick up the phone to text you at least once a week. There are so many things I want to tell you. Of course I want to tell you that I’m sad you died. But we covered that when you were alive. We were both sorry, and we had absolutely no say in the matter. So we both moved on, toward love and life and enjoying the time you had. I’ve mentioned I feel terrifically guilty for continuing on, right? No, of course I didn’t. Because when the cancer got bad and you learned the pain of how many people avoid death by avoiding their dying friend, you told me that you wanted us all to live and tell you about it and just act as though you were still the same. Because right up to the end, you were the same.

So let’s pretend, just for a while, okay?

We’re writing new software for the office. Can you believe it? What is that dreadful program…twenty years old? I’m hoping we get it done during the summer so the transition is easy. But speaking of uneasy transitions, we were having trouble with part of the old version last week and it dawned on me I didn’t have to struggle. “I’ll just call Jay,” I said out loud. And then I cracked wide open and I just sobbed. In front of everyone, with no way to make it polite or pretty or decent. I just lost my shit. I can’t call you. That is a stupid and horrible fact. And still true, no matter how much I hate it. But I do hate it.

I saw your kids a couple of weeks ago. So sweet. You know they’re sweet, but I want to remind you. I love hanging out with them. Your oldest is retreating into herself, which we predicted. She’s so unsure of herself right now, which is about her age not about missing you, it seems; but she’s strong and fierce and she’ll start to own her power soon enough. I worked with her on math and kept pointing out how well she does when she settles down and believes in herself. And she does. That’s you, right there: she believes in herself. Your life is looking pretty successful, right? Minus the whole death thing, you win at life.

You know, I should apologize for being seethingly angry at your funeral. It wasn’t really my fault, though: not one of those people at your memorial was you. And I came to celebrate you and talk with you and be with you. But there were hundreds of people, and nobody knew what you know or talked the way you talk or thought the way you might think. Jerks. It was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ll take our backyard talks over a lovely memorial any day of the week, but I don’t get to choose.

Let’s see, what else…Spouse and I finally settled down into a quiet space where we could talk, and we both agreed we need to try being apart. It’s been much better since we agreed to separate. He’s kinder and funnier. I’m more calm and accommodating. The stuff you and I talked about with the kids has gotten better. I just wish to god I could have told you all this before you died. You knew. I knew. We both said out loud we knew. But we all thought it would be another five years, at least, so he and I could see if we could make it better.  Nope. Maybe your death got me to that calm, quiet place where I could see the forest despite the trees, but I don’t think so. Either way, we decided a couple of days after you died. Either my timing sucks or yours does. Since you’re not here to defend yourself, I’m saying it’s you.

So I’m rearranging my life now. It’s nice, and it’s scary. It’s sad. I’ll bet you know what I changed first. I’ll bet you know both of the things I changed first. Who cares about closets or couches, right? I rearranged the kitchen and the books.

I completely redesigned the fridge and cabinets, and tossed all the spices I hated. And it still doesn’t feel like enough. I might get new spatulas. Will that make things feel better? They work just fine, but they just seem sad and old and past their prime to me. Spatulas as metaphors. What a dork. You know those mugs we loved? I kept only those four, and donated all the others. More room in life when you get rid of what you don’t want, right? Right. I packed away all the wedding photos but left the family photos so the boys know that everybody in our family is welcome. He is welcome. He just doesn’t live here. Was that weird after your divorce? You aren’t  married, but you see your co-parent all the time? I am wildly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. I like not being cut off from a part of my old life and I like seeing them happy with him. I don’t like the in between of having him over so much. I’d like a couple of weeks genuinely solo. But that’s silly because it’s not good for anybody else.

Parts of this process are nice. It’s nice to feel happy. Really. I had forgotten. And I know most people are expecting me to be troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But it feels quite good to breathe. I’m eating better, I’m sleeping better, and I’m more relaxed. Because that giant weight lifted off my family. Not just off me. Off the whole family. It feels as though a secret is out and everything is better. Did you feel that way when you came out? Or when you split up?

Even the books are now more honest. They’re not all grouped by literary period, because I’ve pulled those that I still haven’t finished (or even started) and put them on their own shelves. The unread, the Next, the “as soon as I have time” sit on their own shelves, begging to be noticed. Not posturing as part of a cluster as they would in a bookstore, hoping some day I’ll remember my intense need to read them. This is my house and these are my books, and I want the unread to remind me of what’s left to come, in a big ol’ honest FUTURE shelf. Two, really. I know you left a lot of unread books. I’m glad that was only sad to you for a little while, until you moved into that “between two worlds and unconcerned with earthly nonsense” phase.

But a few threads of silver lining the cloud don’t make the whole process of unraveling my marriage any easier. I’m overwhelmed by all the “what comes next”s and the “what have we done”s and the “what if we’re wrong”s . I wish I could ask you about how it went for you when you split up. I keep remembering what you said, though. The divorce is not even going to be a speck on the fabric of what forms your kids. Your death will be the defining event, bar none. I feel so dwarfed by the magnitude of that statement. I’m so sorry for you and A and the kids. I’m so grateful for my family. A family spread across two households doesn’t matter. Nobody’s dying. We win!

Ha.

Your manuscript is still in my desk. Your number is still on my phone. I actually closed my facebook account because they posted a message to me last week. “Jay misses you. Write on his wall!” I said a few really bad words at the computer, closed it, and went to rearrange the DVDs. There aren’t very many, but it made me smile to shift them around. They used to sit in simple his/hers piles. Now they’re John-Hughes/not-John-Hughes piles.

Jay misses me, eh algorithm? Well, he might, but I doubt it. Jay’s dead. Jay doesn’t miss me one-millionth as much as I miss him. Jay has moved on to something completely different. I’m here struggling to remember that change is good and a given in life. Most changes are good, if you find the right way to look at them. And my life now is better. And it’s going to keep heading in that direction, except when it doesn’t. Life: messy, and rarely easy.

Messy and rarely easy. Like your life, and like your death. I know those last weeks were horrible, and I’m glad you died, if only because it stopped the hurt and the sadness and the waiting. I hope your afterlife is going well. Maybe write me back, if you have a chance. It would be nice to hear from you. The past few months have been harder because I can’t talk to you. So bust out all your other-worldly tricks and give me a shout. Even if you think getting new spatulas is a bad idea.

Love,
C

Dying

Death is amazing to watch.

I went last night to visit a friend who has faced, fought, accepted, and been taken over by cancer. Two weeks ago he was still saying that he was happy when he was awake, and that his social calendar was packed because “all this dying stuff is hectic.” Soon, though, his texts grew less coherent. I went to visit and he said that he wasn’t happy when awake any more. As he withdrew into his body’s processes, life was not fun or joyful or interesting anymore. It was a painful chore and he was desperately frustrated at being sick and in pain and feeling terrible for four years.

Over the weekend he started hallucinating, wandering, and terrifying his family. He didn’t make sense, he couldn’t understand, and he wasn’t safe. The hospice nurses came and monitored his meds until he settled. So what I visited two days later was the mostly-dreaming, mostly-gone version of my friend. He looked relatively healthy, and had the same adorable, shiny red cheeks and red beard he was so proud of. There wasn’t much left to his body, but his face was still his face. And as he writhed and settled and writhed again, it looked as though he had a terrible flu and was feverish but would recover.

I sat with him and tried to talk. I rubbed his wandering legs, trying at once to reassure him and to encourage his dream of walking somewhere. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not well versed in what you say to someone who can’t reply, who doesn’t care about most of the world anymore, and who is almost across a threshold that our culture goes to excessive lengths to avoid.

I wasn’t worried about saying anything wrong. And I wasn’t worried about trying to comfort him. I just wanted to talk the way we usually talk if only so he felt normal for a moment or two.

I talked about his kids and what kind of people they might be as adults. He made faces like he was talking. I talked about how Spring has walloped us, even after a month of warm and sunny, with that flawless Berkeley wall of sunshine and wisteria and star jasmine that makes me feel like a honeybee skittering around telling colleagues about the best pollen sources. He winced. I asked about the garden: what his wife might plant and whether he was glad he’d done all that work to build their raised beds. He kicked as though he were walking.

I told him about a school project my son had done, and how adorable it was. He grew agitated. I asked if he wanted quiet. I guessed from his relaxing that he did. He rested fitfully and I watched.

His breathing is surprisingly smooth for someone with a lung tumor so large it forces his ribs aside and creates an A cup on one side of his chest. Weird. About five inches above his mastectomy scar.

His wife came in and smiled at me. I told her how agitated he seemed. “Pain meds,” she said, “are due.” She talked to him and asked about his pain. “Does it hurt?” she said in a regular voice into his ear. “Yes,” he mouthed. “Is that a yes? Yes. It hurts. Hang on, baby.” She told him about each medication before she placed the tiny veterinary syringe in his mouth. I gave my cat morphine with an identical plastic syringe last year. Now the morphine is for my friend, with whom I can no longer share anything. No calls, no texts, no visits. He is mostly gone and that is permanent and that is normal and that isn’t strange but it’s unfolding rightnowrighthere. A few other meds, including the one she warned him would taste gross. He made an angry face and kicked at that one. I rubbed his legs.

He began wiggling and wincing. She asked if he hurt. He tried to say something but made no sound and his lips seemed only to say, “vipp.” She asked if his back hurt. He looked as though he’d cry. His back has been terribly painful since the lung surgery that required removing three ribs, 5cm of chest wall, and a baseball-sized tumor. The one the first oncologist missed while treating the rectal tumor, both of which grew because two physicians in a row misdiagnosed him.

“Do you want to roll on your side?” He nodded. We took the sheet and maneuvered him onto his side. It seemed to help. I pulled him over as hard as I could while she jammed a large pillow behind him. Only nurses know how firm and decisively you have to handle an adult patient. Most of us know only nursing teenie tiny newborns with no muscle tone who are relatively easy to position, reposition, and relocate, even if they’re just as hard to understand as an adult who can no longer speak. Getting a full-grown man into position takes so much oomph it seems rough, but I worked to seem just as competent as his wife. Repositioned, he settled a bit. She asked him if that was better, rubbed his shoulder, kissed him repeatedly across the face.

We talked with him a while, and he seemed to settle.

So we went downstairs to let him sleep. Two hours later, I left with a smile, a hole in a deep part of me, and three bags full of empty food containers from mutual friends who’ve cooked for the family over the past two months.

On the midnight drive home I thought about my kids. I thought about his kids. I thought about logistics and seeing their family often. I thought about work and geography and weather and Crimea. I thought of car crashes and cancer and bombings. I thought of gummy bears and law school and literature PhDs.

I can’t tell you that watching my friend die week by week has made me more aware of how lucky we all are to be alive. I’ve had my fair share of close calls, of fire and car crashes and cancer and earthquake, and I’m not one to take the day for granted. But I think more about how a fair percentage of the world’s population wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to be alive. Starvation and illness and lack of clean water and tyranny and abuse and slavery and rape…we all live. And we all die. And none of death is fair or fun, and none of it’s predictable. The fact that my friend is dying way too young is also a part of life. And often, it feels as though none of life itself is directable. There’s a fundamental lack of control to being human that belies most of what we tell ourselves about choice and free will and possibility.

But then there’s love. And there’s a thoughtful couple facing death together. An open, honest, loving family that does their best and makes it work and grieves together and hopes together and plans together and fights together and mourns alone and together and alone again. There is grace in watching a woman love her partner fiercely and love their kids fiercely and stumble and get up and get more fierce…and do it all day every single day for YEARS.

How we die is a microcosm of how we live. And those who panic and claw the walls of their death-bed die in fear. And those who dream of all the wonderful moments of their lives, hallucinate huge family gatherings where those linked by affection for each other cuddle babies and encourage children and jovially engage  each other? They die bathed in the disintegrating brain that is full of good memories and love and joy. When all that crumbles into their body, really, it’s rather sweet to watch. Dreamy sleep eating, incoherent laughing, planning joyful events with beloved touchstones.

Which way will we go? Will our dreams at death’s threshold be painted with the vivid memories of happy, communal gatherings with good food and joyful moments? Or will our death be a nightmare of fear and regret and longing?

Death is interesting to watch. Why does our culture teach us not to dare?

Live Like Jay

We don’t get many slumber parties as adults. It’s not every day that grownups get to talk openly and honestly about life, just curled up next to a friend, shifting now and then to get a better look at each other’s eyes as we ask or answer probing questions. One reclining and responding easily and thoughtfully, one lying belly-down on a pillow and making almost constant eye contact, pausing occasionally to find the best way to say things. Pause for a sip of soda, pause for a bathroom break. Then talk some more. About dreams, kids, plans.

I did this as a teenager with one of the few people on the planet who understood me and accepted me for who I was. It’s rare that adults take that kind of time to connect, and more rare that we’re willing to.

Maybe it’s because my friend is dying that we spend our time together this way. And I don’t just mean because he doesn’t get out of bed much anymore. Perhaps because we knew it might be the last time we’d talk together that we were more open and honest.

Or, more accurately, maybe because he’s dying we fast forwarded through of every possible conversation. Talk of work covered the short-term and long-term in about two sentences. Discussion of marriages spanned breadth and depth within a minute.

“How are your kids?” moved quickly beyond this week’s antics to directly answer the implied “and how do you think they’ll handle becoming adults without you?”

“How are you?” skipped the annoying niceties of “fine” to a frank, detailed discussion of what meds are working, which aren’t, which tumor hurts, and where the bed sores will likely start when he’s no longer able to get up and down.

All of this is expected, since we’ve never been shy about the ups and downs of our lives. But some of the moments surprised me because they were so casual. No tears, no shyness. Very clear “I’m glad I know you and I’m glad I saw you today” exchanges that were everything soap-opera death-bed moments are not.

On screen, people make every talk with a dying person seem like a dramatic moment fraught with the most intense human emotions. But in real life, when a friend is almost four years past a cancer diagnosis, discussions aren’t heart-wrenching, sob-inducing epic battles for truth and meaning. There is no portentous music when a friend asks you, “Why can’t I just die? I’m ready. I haven’t felt good in years and years, I’ve said my goodbyes and I’ve done them well, I’ve learned a ton and found grace and moved beyond this world already, so why can’t I just die?”

And there’s no emotional, poignant swallow or gasp or lighting change.

You just answer.

“I don’t know why you can’t just die.  I don’t know. I personally don’t believe that you only get to go if you learn enough, because plenty of people die without learning much at all. And you’ve learned a lot, but that doesn’t mean you’re on hold for something else. I think it just means your body isn’t done yet. Your spirit might be, your mind might be. Your heart might be. But you have no control over what your body does. If you did, this cancer wouldn’t have taken hold. If we could get our bodies to do what we wanted, life would be a whole lot different. So would death. But we get no say. I’m sorry that you don’t.”

There was no fade into another scene after that. No swell of music and dramatic pause for tear-slicked eyelashes. Just mutual shrugs. We talked a bit more about what we believe. Then we talked about our kids again. From the beginning of our relationship, our talk has been about our children, with brief tangents for partners, food, work, and friends. But mostly, children.

His daughter wonders if he’ll live until her birthday. Three weeks.

He hopes not. Because he wants her to grieve and then begin the rest of her life unfettered by his passage out of this world.

I mentioned that her birthday will still be affected by his death, whether it’s recent or impending, so he should do what he needs to do.

His son wonders if he’ll live until the Muppet Movie. A week.

Maybe.

Again, do what you need to do.

I’m a big fan of drama. I want life epic and grand and meaningful. I want something big in every scene.  Especially now. My friends have to leave each other: one on this side of the Great Divide and one on the other. I can’t help them bridge that gap, and it can’t get anymore meaningful that it already is. It’s not about me and it’s not about grand gestures. Life at its most important is powerful and moving and deeply meaningful without aphorisms or orchestral music or pithy goodbyes or garments rent and torn.

All that is for the movies. My friend is not dying in the movies. He’s dying with his family, in his house, surrounded by the goodwill of 99.9% of every person he ever met. That’s the real in this. Real is lying on the bed near him tonight, answering and asking. We listened to each other. We smiled. We made plans.

It probably wasn’t our last conversation. But it was as high-school-slumber-party-with-your-dear-friend as final-days conversations go, and I think that’s about as cinematic as life—and death—gets.

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.

Oh.

And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.

IMAG4729

If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.

 

Lack of Grace

Facing death is challenging regardless of how it comes. Humans, as the only creatures aware of their mortality, deal not at all well with death. Impending death, malingering death, looming death, recent death, distant death. I’m sure that there are anthropological examples to upend my theory, but in general we don’t tend to speak honestly and openly about death. And I wonder if that’s because each death, like each life, deserves something different from us.

Humans don’t seem to appreciate knowing we’re going to die, don’t appear to relish not knowing when, and seem rather frustrated at having a very, VERY clear sense that there is no rhyme or reason to who dies or when. The last fact—good people sometimes die horribly and too early while awful people sometimes die peacefully after inflicting the world with their nastiness for far too long—galls me.

Someone I love has Stage IV cancer. Someone I think I hate has Stage IV cancer. I’m not at all proud at how differently I’m handling their concurrent cancers, and yet we are all different in life, so I feel rather abashedly willing to scale my sorrow for the end of lives that actually add to the Universe’s limited quantity of love, rather than hoarding affection and refusing to share. I celebrate the lives of fair and decent and good people, and I petulantly sneer at the death of grotesque and mean and small people.

Is that something that I can even admit? Is that something that I should feel shame for?

A very close friend was abandoned by his father and grandparents when he was young. Starting in middle school, my friend never got a phone call from his father. Never received a birthday card. His dad was too busy with the second family he’d set up across town to bother with his old life. And my friend lived his entire adult life sure his father didn’t care.

Now, facing the news of his father’s impending death, my friend is wondering if he should call. Or visit. Or somehow try to repair the damage done. Somehow, I think, he hoped all these years that his dad would show up on his doorstep, with a giant teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers, begging forgiveness. “Please. I’m so sorry. I was so wrong. I miss you and I love you and you didn’t deserve to be abandoned.” Because he didn’t deserve to be abandoned. And friends and family tell my friend that he is loved and he is lovable.

But because his father never showed that, I suspect my wonderful friend doesn’t really accept that he’s loved.

Hearing about Stage IV cancer changes the dreams of apologies and reconciliation. That day of spontaneous forgiveness, of weeping together and embracing and swearing that you’ll make up for lost time? Doesn’t happen according to plan. And once my darling friend heard his dad was in hospice and unresponsive? The  healing moment became impossible. Asking, “why did you choose another family over me? Do you know what that did to me? Did you ever love me? Why not?” Not in the cards anymore.

And that’s a whole different kind of grieving. That’s desperately missing someone whom you have already missed for decades. That’s anger and fear and sadness rolled into the pit of your stomach where you think you’re not allowed to swallow. That’s heavy-drinking and rage grief.

And I’m so sorry. For my friend. Not for his jerk of a father.

I feel, at moments, dreadful for not caring that the callous, heartless jerk is dying. Isn’t that terrible to say? In our culture we’re not allowed to speak ill of the dead or dying, are we…we’re not allowed to cast aspersions on those who selfishly hurt our friends and family because somehow Stage IV means unassailable. Saying you hate someone who’s dying is somehow judged as mean or heartless.

That’s not fair. Because some people don’t deserve to be mourned as soulfully as others do. Which is more heartless: abandoning your kids so they forever think they’re unlovable? Or despising someone who abandoned their child? I think in our culture some people think that the rules change when someone has cancer.

I have another friend living with Stage IV cancer. A good and true and kind friend who goes out of his way for others. He makes people feel at home even when they’re relatively unknown to him. This friend who loves deeply and selflessly, who speaks ill only of those who malign him horribly yet quickly forgives if they offer even the slightest apology—his is the cancer I care about. His cancer I hate. His cancer I want to fight. This is where I put my effort, my grief, my love. I refuse to share that effort, grief, or love with the absentee father.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m supporting the friend with the dying, never-there dad. I’m listening and hugging and nodding empathetically. But I’m thinking terrible things, like how the rat doesn’t deserve a son who still actually cares, after decades of neglect and heartbreak. How he already abandoned children, so it doesn’t much matter whether he’s dead or not.

I’m also supporting the wonderful friend who puts his kids first. Who tells them every day that they’re loved; who has fought cancer for three-and-a-half years facing the scary and the toxic and the uplifting and the devastating with his children and his wife clearly in his adoring focus. Who deserves, if we ever had the folly of pretending that humans get what they deserve, a life as long as he would want.

One man, who might have loved his children but never told them or showed them or even called them, left his family years ago. And cancer will end his life.

Another man, who desperately loves his children and makes them know it constantly, will some day leave his family because cancer will end his life.

I mourn for the dying dad and I mourn for the wounded children. All of them. But I will not mourn for someone just because they’re dying. Life is much more nuanced than that.

One fine howdeedo

Let me catch you up on the past 48 hours.

One of the best people on the planet, who has been fighting cancer and winning every time the catabolizing bastard raises its disgusting head, thinks it might be back.

The boys finally agreed to ditch their beds for a bunk bed. Little guy screams a lot at night, both in his sleep and wakefully needing my presence. Turns out the toddler bed was too small and when he kicked the walls of the former crib (that kid sleeps like the kung fu master in Shao Lin vs. Lama) it woke him up. Now in a bigger bed he just screams all his dreams in their entirety. Without waking up. “No! No! I said no! Go away! Mommy go to sleep!”  [I swear on all that’s true and good that was last night at 2am.]

In the process of putting together the bunk bed I had to disassemble that restrictive toddler bed. The one I put together as a crib seven and a half years ago, seven months pregnant with the biggest right turn my life has ever taken. My babies are really and truly gone, the last few hex screws said.

A dear, dear friend who has been with our family for every high and low for the past 30+ years died last night. I hope it was painless and I hope her wonderful friends heal knowing what a special friendship they shared. I have lots of treasured memories and photographs and I consider myself very lucky to have had her in my family’s life.

A member of the family rodentia has apparently chewed through our emergency box and has tasted everything but the bandaids.

Two friends have told me stories tonight about their friends dying and leaving small children behind. And one told a story about a child dying and leaving parents behind.

My eldest child, whom I adore and who drives me nuts at least 50% of the time, turns seven in a few days. First slumber party.

My youngest child, whom I adore and who drives me nuts at least 50% of the time, turns three in two weeks. First real party.

Syria is breaking my heart. North Korea is breaking my heart. The frogs, the bees, and the icebergs are breaking my heart. A solid percentage of Africa and Asia are breaking my heart.

The house needs to be cleaned, furniture moved, lunches made, food cooked, feelings stuffed down and ignored, others feelings fanned out for everyone and their cat to see.

What?! Oh, you know what I mean.

I know that this is what life looks like. Life, parties, fear, death, hope, constant low-level panic, love, really loud dreams, and rats.

And there’s only so much crying I can do. Because there are only so many ineffective, preschool-made bean-bag ice packs in the freezer. And a forty-year-old woman who averages 5 hours of sleep a night and two showers a week can’t possibly be seen wandering aimlessly through her day with puffy eyes.

Because if someone asks me what’s wrong, I’m going to tell them.

Life and death are what’s wrong.

Death. And life.

I will not talk about what so many of us need to talk about this week. I just can’t. Instead, I’m going to talk around it.

Please make sure you have all of your end of life documents in order. Make sure there is a person who will make decisions for you if you can’t. Know that you need someone for finances and someone for health care. They can be the same, but you need different forms. Please make sure any important decisions are written explicitly in your will. Make sure you choose…right now and in writing…who will care for your children if you go before they’re grown.

There are attorneys to do this, and there is software. Make sure everything is in writing. Right this minute. Today. You know why. I’ve already said I’m not going to talk about it.

Did you know that 19 people a day die waiting for an organ? Only 50% of Americans are organ donors. Maybe you haven’t gotten around to registering. Maybe you are creeped out thinking of bits of you or your loved one or your child inside another person. Organ donation only happens after you’re already dead. After your loved one is gone. After your child is no more. And the choice to take parts of your loved one and give them to someone who would otherwise die is a gift that salvages hope out of death. The gift of life is one of the most generous you can make, and it beats back darkness with a pulsing, shining ray of light.

Please donate your organs. Promise to donate their organs. Nineteen people a day could live from your gift. That is how we help. That is how tragedies become about giving life rather than taking it. First responders are heroes, we say, because they often ensure life in the face of death. People who stand tall in the face of a loved one’s death and give someone else a piece of that life they will desperately miss are heroes. Because they, too, give life to someone who would otherwise fade away.

But don’t wait until you hear the news nobody ever wants to hear. Think about it, weigh your options, then Go. Right this minute. Write your will, dot your Is and cross your Ts. Designate durable power to those you trust. And vow to give your organs after your death so others can live.

Thinking about it right now is important.  Take a deep breath and consider the logistics of your death, your loved ones’ deaths, and your children’s deaths. And may you never have to think about the latter ever again. Ever.

That doesn’t completely circumnavigate the issue. But that’s as good as I can do, walking respectfully around an issue that I cannot write.

Happy, thankful, and not dead

Hey! Happy Thanksgiving!

Today I’ve officially outlived the composer who wrote “Oh, Susanna!” And Marie Antoinette. You’re luckier than several dead people, too. Check it out.

And speaking of death, thanks to the H-Net social sciences network for creating H-Death. In all seriousness, I was looking for calls for papers and journals focusing on death studies, and H-Death is just what I need for those conference papers languishing in a drawer (in a fake file cabinet on a user interface that pretends to keep things in drawers but really uses magnets to draw them on silica or something.)

Power to the living, y’all. Happy Thanksgiving. Glad you’re not dead.

maybe you’re gonna make it after all…

or maybe not.

Hey, if you’re slowing to a crawl, thanks to the soul-crushing, voracious ghouls chasing you, here’s a bit of a pick me up: a site that will tell you, based on your birthday, about all the fascinating people who died before they made it to your age.

If cheating mortality ain’t good enough for you, I’m not  sure what is. Thanks to the literary folk at NewPages for this one…

Dead.AtYourAge.com

Wanna see how relatively young I am?

I’ve outlived Phil Lynott by almost a week. He was a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and founding member of rock group Thin Lizzy. He died of heart failure and pneumonia on January 4, 1986, when I was 13 years old.

Franz Fanon was two weeks younger than me when he died on December 6, 1961. He was an author of “The Wretched of the Earth” and advocate of anti-colonial violence. He died 11 years before I was born.

I’ve outlived Jacques René Hébert by two weeks. He was an editor of radical newspaper “Le Père Duchesne” during the French Revolution. He died of execution by guillotine on March 24, 1794, 179 years before I was born.

Bruno Hauptmann was about two weeks younger than me when he died of execution by electric chair on April 3, 1936. He was a perpetrator of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr.. He died 37 years before I was born.

See? Fun.

David Foster Wallace

In grad school, the professors wouldn’t let me write my thesis on Infinite Jest because none of them had read it, and when they saw that it topped 1100 pages (I don’t have my copy to give you precise numbers, I just moved and don’t have anything in the fridge and need to go shopping but can’t get past a long day of running around after a toddler with a heart heavy from the pain of DFW’s death thudding around in my stomach, and am not in the best mood, so bear with me on estimates) of densely packed text and endnotes sheer rambling genius, they balked at the workload reading both his novel and my thesis would bring to their carefully balanced lives.

I resented their laziness. Then I changed topics and vowed one day to write an erudite lit-crit analysis of the text. Especially because Wallace excelled at but distrusted literary criticism. But shite happened and I haven’t gotten around to it.

I blogged about a month ago that I felt disconnected from the world when I realized Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had been dead for three days before I knew. It was as though my sadness didn’t count any more because I had missed the window.

This time, the world rotated twice before I knew DFW died. The announcement rocked me to the core but didn’t change my day. And that, itself, saddens me because it means my life is so shifted off its base that the shockingly early death of one of my top five creative inspirations doesn’t even rate a schedule change. The rest of my week, though, shuddered and sputtered as the implications of his death sunk in.

And I don’t know what to say. I’ve known for two days and I don’t know what to say. (Updating this weeks later, I’m still not done processing my grief.) His writing changed me. I saw him speak once (thanks MPB and SBB) and his speaking did not change me. The creepy cult curiously smarmy cadre of followers did not change me. I was rarely tempted to quit my job and run off to Pomona to be his student, because I didn’t feel any need to be connected with him personally. I didn’t want to be taught by him or to talk with him or to write for him. I wanted to read his work.

And now there won’t be more.

I may be silly to feel his death as a weighty presence in my life. The man himself had no presence in my life. His characters, their actions, their idiosyncrasies, their seismically surreal lives had a transient presence in my life. But all I have to do is recall the cover of his weighty novel and I can again touch the intellectual dance of reading it. I can feel my hunger for more as I read myself bleary-eyed for the entire summer of 1997 (I was busy in the summer of 1996. I didn’t pick up IJ because of the grant. I picked it up because I wanted a book that would ensure nobody would talk to me on BART, a la The Accidental Tourist. But I loved it intensely then, and would love to reread it now.) I can feel my connection and revulsion and confusion at Wallace’s characters every time someone says his name.

And I want more. I’m angry and disappointed that there won’t be more.

I loved his lobster piece for Gourmet magazine. I love that he took the job, puzzled at the pop cultural status that brought him such tangential work, and I loved his rambling thoroughness. I loved that he came to the conclusion that it’s just not okay to boil creatures alive.

I haven’t read the obits. I don’t even know how he died. (I found out later and wrote a horrible post on this blog, of which I am embarrassed but which I will not erase.) I don’t care how he died. This is not a Jeff Buckley story or a Kurt Cobain story or a River Phoenix story. I wish I knew what kind of story this is. All I know is that the woot from Sept. 16 made me feel all too keenly that nobody will take DFW’s place.

And now all I can think is, I hope all you bastard literary canon snobs will read his work, because you missed the boat the first time. When I write my PhD dissertation on his work and one of you lazy self preserving pricks says you haven’t read it, I will produce all the contemporary fiction on the shelves and say, “well, it’s better than and worse than and different than this….And it’s all we have left.”

The Macarthur grant bit always forces the genius label. I don’t know that he was genius. I just know I really love reading his writing. I don’t even know that I love his writing itself. I love the experience of reading it. And that is the ultimate compliment for an author. I don’t even love your work, man. I just love what it does to my head.

We’re all going to miss you, and our minds are poorer now that yours is silent. I hope, at least, that the pain is gone.