Saturday, October 29, 2011

Quiet Ms. Kubler-Ross…..

My father died yesterday.  His house is eerily quiet now.  Dead quiet.  The only noises heard are the unrelenting slow staccato of a distant wall clock, the occasional passing car and, off in the distance, the horn of a commuter train.
Grief kept me up last night.   When he was here, there were also many fitful sleepless nights.  He had nocturia, the waking up to go to the bathroom, which was often followed by the wafting of cigarette smoke drifting underneath a closed bedroom door.  The smell and noises would awaken me. I would deny it at first, then it would anger me, sadden me, worry me then gradual sleepy acceptance.  I don’t think Elizabeth Kubler -Ross anticipated that her stages could last of all of three minutes at 2 am and involve these circumstances. Somehow I would drift back to sleep.
I have slept here alone before but it’s different now. There will be  none of my father’s noises anymore. No clanging of the walker he used in his later years.  No hope of him returning to his bulky but squeaky favorite kitchen chair. No more TV at the highest volume. No more war movies. No more Bishop Fulton Sheen. But most of all, no expectation of him yelling at me and I yelling back. Our arguments were almost a sport. The typical fight would last only about three minutes too. Words would explode. Expletives would fly in my adult years and then fist pounding on the table usually accompanied by a loud “Jesus Christ”.   He would say, “If I didn’t yell it would mean I didn’t love you.”  Boy was I showered with love growing up.  We would get out our grievances, all of them, deny they ever existed in the first place then accept whatever small compromise we could muster.
“Jesus Christ”, I pound now in my grief, Ms. Kubler -Ross was a genius.
There will be no more yelling now.  No more smoking either.  (Thank you Jesus!) No more loud fist pounding.  Just the staccato of that ticking clock, the passing car and the train.  But the memory of the yelling, fist pounding and many “Jesus Christs" would never fade. Nor will the love.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Last Rights

I was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church: mass on Sundays, doilies on the head or tissues with bobby pins when the doilies weren’t available.  It was the 1960’s Catholic version of the 2011 Muslim chador.  Women were supposed to cover their heads. I don’t know why religious men think hair is so forbidden.  Most of the time mine is spent in an unkempt ponytail.

I cannot say I follow the Catholic Church anymore.  The restrictions and dogma are too great.   Layers upon layers of expensive education and its resultant reasoning have made me question all that.  I am not sure I am an atheist; I am in the religion of the “I don’t know”.  Me and Heisenberg together with all the uncertainty. What I do believe in is the power of humanity.  After all is said and done, that’s what we all share in common.

I called a priest last night to administer Last Rites to my father. I don’t think my father will last the weekend.  Although my birth religion has lapsed, my father’s hasn’t.  Although he is no longer a churchgoer, in recent months I have found several prayer books in his house.  They are old ones.  One was dated 1938 and must have been given to him at his Holy Communion.  Others I know were my grandmother’s since they have Polish side notes.  Friday nights you could not call my father recently.  Some network (EWTN?)  broadcasts “The Bishop Fulton Sheen Hour”.  I happen to catch it once on a Friday night spent with my Dad. Sheen would scare the bejesus out of anyone.  Part old time preacher, part priest and part General Patton.  Yikes I thought.  I was surprised the good Bishop with his commanding voice, over the top hand gestures and fingerpointng wouldn’t collapse into speaking in tongues and writhing on the floor with snakes. Inspiring? No.  Friday Night Fright Night? Maybe.

My sister dismisses the whole things as “mumbo-jumbo”.   My cynical side agrees with her but my more rational side tries to explore deeper. We are all human.  The various religions I think just tried to control all that into some system of understanding, eventual fear and ultimate control.  The Catholic Church like other religious institutions through centuries of power, history and money, just tried to formalize human life through the sacraments.  We all need one another at time of great joy and times of sorrow and pain.  At a baby’s birth, everyone should come to celebrate what a marvelous thing that has happened. What could be a greater gift to humanity that a newborn baby?  At the coming of age in adolescence, yes people should come together and witness a young girl or boy entering into adulthood and reconnect with family and friends for guidance, good food and a good laugh or two.   Marriage, if it’s a good one, should be celebrated as two people start a new life and family together. And yes, death should be a time when people should comfort the dying and try to ease the pain of loss in the family and friends.  These should be the last rights not rites.  No holy water necessary.

Father M. will see my father today. I will see my father tomorrow. I have a right to be with him probably for the last time.

Goodnight Irene

Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene I'll see you in my dreams
Last Saturday night I got married

Me and my love settled down 
Now me and my love are parted 
I'm gonna take another stroll downtown
Irene goodnight, Irene goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene I'll see you in my dreams
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
Irene goodnight, Irene good night
Good night Irene, good night Irene I'll see you in my dreams
                  -Huddie 'Lead Belly' Ledbetter

Today is the anniversary of my Aunt Irene’s death.  She died exactly five years ago although it just seemed like yesterday.  She is so sorely missed.

My aunt was my surrogate mother, surrogate grandmother to my children and confidant.  As a child she lived just down the street from us and we were always at her house.  She did not have any children of her own so, by extension, my siblings and I became her extended children.  Weekends were always spent at her house.  Every holiday was also spent at her house.  She was a wonderful cook whereas my mother detested cooking, so we escaped to her kitchen for something decent to eat.
She always had goodies, like cakes and cookies, whereas my mother restricted them. I especially loved the “Horn and Hardart” chocolate chip cookies that she always picked up in the city where she worked. “Have them”, she coaxed, “They’re not going to kill ya.”

She also had an encyclopedic memory of her life.  She remembered cousins, cousins of cousins, her childhood neighborhood, past friends, places, etc.  She was invaluable when it came to our family’s personal history.  My father would tell some longwinded story of his boyhood only to be corrected by her fine urban vernacular.  “You're full of shit, Billy!” she scolded her baby brother and she proceeded to tell the story again with the facts straight.  You always believed her stories because she was always right.

She was bawdy too. With her perfectly coiffed, always dyed blonde hair, dripping with gold jewelry, and flashy clothes, she could tell an off color joke even in the presence of children.  We would pretend not to understand, but we eventually got it.  Aunt Irene explained it to us after the real adults left the room.

My aunt always represented possibilities.  She never said no.  In her mind, life was one giant opportunity and sometimes, despite inconvenience, you just had to go for it.

I fiercely remember as a kindergartener, I was not allowed to go to a certain field trip.  I have no idea why my parents never let me go. My parents were funny like that.  One of those mysteries of life you never get the answer to.  I pitched a normal 5-year-old fit.  It was my aunt  who eventually took me to that zoo.  All alone we went and it felt wonderful.

A similar scenario happened when my daughter also at similar age wanted to go to NYC to the “The Pokémon Store” near Rockefeller Center.  I hemmed and hawed at the inconvenience of the travel.  But not my aunt.  Despite her age (81) and illness (Chronic Myelogeneous Leukemia) at the time, she lead the way, taking two trains and walking the 12 blocks  so my daughter could realize her dream.  “You can’t deny yourself all the time”, she would always say.  She was always the "Why not?" to my parents "Why?"

For those of you who think I speak in metaphors, the picture above is a visual one. This was the tree in front of my house. For years it has been dying, slowly but surely.  One side obviously dead while the other had strange hues.  I had wanted to cut it down for years but never quite had the will. Hurricane Irene felled that tree with one thunderous crack.  There was no damage to the actual house or surrounding trees.  It was a clean act of a powerful storm.  I “got a guy” in to cut it into logs that I will split myself for those cold winter nights.  Today, I took an ax and a chainsaw to the remaining roots. I like axes.  I like chainsaws. A powerful cleanup is needed for this mess of a hole.  Next week, the October Glory gets planted.

In fine Eastern European superstition, I took the accidental falling of the tree to symbolize my marriage.  Dead in one half and suffering on the other. You are right Hurricane Aunt Irene.  You are so right.  No more denying. And Goodnight.  And I hope to always see you in my dreams.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Primum non nocere

I just received a call from my father’s assisted living facility.  He is refusing all normal intervention such as taking his blood pressure, his pulse oximetry, his respiratory rate, etc.  He wants to be left alone.

I am three hours away.  I am debating whether to drive up there but am seriously questioning whether that is really what he would want me to do.  He expressed on our last visit, “I just wish the pain would just go away.”  I cannot blame him. He was not talking about a physical pain.  He is already on morphine.  I knew he was talking about the pain of suffering.  Medical science has nothing to offer him.  He was always a private man so I am not sure what my presence could offer him.  I know he would shoo me away.  

Physicians are taught to be active fighters of disease. They throw medicines at patients like spears targeting specific infections, disease conditions and now even genetic faults.  But what can medical science offer when there is no specific target? 

He is already under hospice care.  Comfort is the cure.  And sometimes, in some people’s minds, comfort means to be left alone.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bus People

I am a former city kid.  I grew up knowing how to cross streets at age 5, taking city buses with a group of friends by age 11 and walk, yes walk, to stores even miles away.  It was a necessity, for my mother, in typical urban 1960’s fashion,  did not drive a car.  She always boasted that she had a license, but I never saw her behind the wheel.  A mystery of life I guess. It certainly reduced the families' car insurance rates.

I relish public transportation.  Suburbia affords me none of that.  I sit in my car seemingly from early morning to late at night just driving. It’s my own little world amplified by my own iPod selection, my own  adjustable seat memory, my own temperature control, my own steering column height and my own neuroses. Too many "my's".  You are cut off, “outskirted” from the real world. You can sing, curse,  talk to yourself, fart and no one knows or even cares.  Sure you see the other “pods” driving but they are also in their own little worlds.  The only minor points of contact are accidental in the forms of middle fingers when inappropriately cutting someone off, the occasional wave when allowing someone the right of way or horn to give the heads up to someone adrift at a red light.  God forbid a real accident should happen, you might just have to get out of the car.

No wonder why suburbia boasts so many republicans.

In my suburbia, you don't have to exit the car for almost anything.  We have no neighborhood mailboxes anymore but we have a mailbox that sits outside the post office with it's height adjusted for a passing car.  We have drive through tellers for the little banking that's not done online.  Meals can always be drive through.  Peapod also delivers groceries for those of us to lazy or too busy to get basic necessities.

I got the chance to take a bus several weeks ago.  The service runs from my main city to a city up north, where I had to change to a train to reach another destination.  What a great experience for a sleepy suburban Mom.  The bus was  clean, had A/C plugs and Wifi.  Perfect basic 21st Century transportation. It’s not the amenities that I loved.  It was the people.  You don’t see bus people in most sleepy suburban towns.  There was the guy across the aisle, drifting off to sleep as his screen saver showed a naked woman peeing on a beach.  Nice.  The woman in front of me who had so much perfume on it was sickening.  The lady with the two pre-pubescent girls clinging to their American Girl® dolls who looked eerily like them.  The Diane Arbus’ picture came to mind.  And don’t forget the bus driver who announced with great surliness that this was clearly HER bus, that SHE was responsible for cleaning it
 -including the bathrooms- and YOU MUST be courteous to other passengers as they should be courteous to you.  She was clearly part mother, part preacher and part cleaning lady.  I have learned to fear and love these women.

You don’t experience this sitting in a car or a minivan that resemble some mobile living rooms.  Driving solo you miss people.  You miss the overheard stories.  You miss the courtesies of letting an elderly passenger  a little more time to board the bus.  You miss the smell of other people, their sounds, their dialects, their walks, their clothes, what they are reading, or whether they drool while sleeping.  You miss humanity.  You miss contact.

I have to get back to the city. Next challenge:  the NYC Subway system. Long story......

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dad, Lucky Strike and Me

I was his “Tootsie Pie” and “Cuddle Bunny”.  They are silly terms of endearment that charmed my three-year-old heart.  They now sadden my middle age.

My Dad is dying.  Not from something quick and definite, not from something insidious like a malignancy that will claim him silently, but something that challenges his every-waking moment.   Some 67 years of cigarette smoking have damaged his lungs beyond repair.  I only wonder what that is in “pack-years” but that doesn’t matter anymore.  The numbers are too high to count.  Every breath is a struggle.   Every movement that I take for granted is difficult for him.  I could get technical and talk of “oxygen-carrying capacity”, “lung volumes”, “diffusion capacities” and”spirograms”, but that doesn’t concern me now.  Medical science cannot undo this scenario.  Comfort is the cure now.

I detest cigarette smoking yet I have lived my entire life with it, though certainly unintentionally.  My mother smoked during pregnancy with me.  My childhood house was always in a constant haze.  My mother smoked so much that she had constant bronchitis, and often coughed so much in the morning that she vomited in the kitchen sink.  Not a pleasant way to greet your day at age 8.  Dad was just as bad. My husband smokes but that too will change.

I am a gift giver.  Always have been, always will be.  I think long and hard about my presents that might just make the day of the receiver.  One Christmas I had nothing to give my parents.  My sister and brother and I just simply forgot and certainly didn’t have the means nor transportation to get something really nice.  I took a pack of my parents’ cigarettes from their drawer and wrapped it.  I didn’t realize it was the last one.  Children don’t always think of supply and demand, but I certainly got a quick economic lesson on that Christmas Eve.  My parents ran out of cigarettes that night.  There were no 7/11s in the 1960’s and I had two addicted parents.  I witnessed first hand the power of nicotine addiction.  In fine urban vernacular, words exploded, chair cushions overturned, and cabinets were ransacked.   They didn’t think about looking under my bed where the pack of Lucky Strikes with a simple bow was hidden.

My parents were out of the room when I snuck under the bed to retrieve the pack.  I hid it behind their tall dresser as if it had naturally fallen there.  Since us kids had been recruited to look for the pack, I calmly shouted “Mommy is this what you are looking for?”  Peace descended in the household along with the typical acrid haze.

Do I blame them now?  Do I blame him now? Do I blame Madison Avenue with their sleek campaigns?  Do I blame some elusive “addiction gene” which has yet to be defined?  Do I blame myself? 

Comfort is the only gift I can give now.  It doesn’t come with a simple bow, it doesn't have the Surgeon General's warning and it’s no longer hidden under my bed.  It is from my heart. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Old Friends/Bookends

When under a great deal of stress I turn to poetry, benzodiazepines and exercise.  They all work,  but only 2 of 3 are really socially acceptable.  My  choice really depends on the time of day, source of stress and intensity.  Let’s just say that poetry is a bedtime ritual, exercise best enjoyed in the morning and the benzos only as a very last resort. Relax, they are prescribed. I have used only 1-3 times over the course of a horrific summer and fall.

I enjoyed poetry as a kid.  My mother gave me my first  book at age 10 or so. It was Robert Louis Stevenson “Child’s Garden of Verses”.  It was an odd choice for my mother. She was not a particularly literate person.  I never saw her actually read a book.  She always seemed too busy with domestic chores to indulge in literature. But there it was, under the Christmas tree that year.  When I unwrapped it, I shrugged, pretending not to enjoy it in front of my immature younger brother and judgmental older sister.  I do remember the look on her face though. It was more of a connection, as if to say, "I may not have time to read this but you certainly do and should, for my sake."  I loved reading it in the quiet of my room.  I loved the pictures of the Victorian cherubic children, on the beach, flying kites or playing in a haystack .  The pictures and words melded into pure joy and peace on a lazy summer afternoon or better on a restless humid night.  I still have that book, minus the dust jacket, nestled among perhaps better poets but ones not necessarily closer to my often-childish heart.

Growing older I often denied my lyrical self.  Sure high school English with its obvious poems was effortless and interpretation was a piece of cake for me compared to my often illiterate classmates.  In the ease, I didn’t take it seriously and drifted to science where 1970’s girls were rewarded by saying that they were becoming doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs.  Science was my major, graduate school my goal and God forbid, anyone get in my way. Stealthily I indulged again my senior year of college, in an attempt to get an “easy A” (not that my particular university gave those out). I delighted in Hart Crane’s "The Broken Tower", read with intensity Poe's "The Raven" and finished with a dull textbook on "Poetic Closure".  I got the A, raised my GPA and sailed off to Grad School.

But poetry  was a hidden pleasure, hiding it even from myself for a long time. School ended, career came, training evolved and tried to evolve again, then jobs, marriage, children, etc.  I should have stopped by that snowy evening once and awhile, for I had miles to go before I sleep.

As a middle aged woman struggling with the vagaries and adversities of life, I have turned again to poetry.  I cherish Frost, like an unrequited lover sensing his moodiness, vague themes and stark, simplistic words.  I laugh at Dorothy Parker and her constant need for a man as if she wasn’t strong enough herself.  Anne Sexton’s often-overt sexuality surprises me as if her name predicted her subject matter. Gwendolyn Brooks seems closest to my darkness with her realism and sarcasm. A close friend introduced me to Marge Piercy and I delight in her earthly womanliness.

There are others in my crowd: Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, Patrick Kavanagh, Carl Sandburg, Margaret Truman Cooper and William Butler Yeats.  They  fill my nights now often marked with longing, emptiness and sadness.  But they understand.  They have been there, maybe with poetry book in hand, too.

They are my friends now when my real ones are living their own lives and are sick of my whining.  They validate my sadness, joy or frustration in love, marriage, children, career, elderly parents or life in general. With them I will conquer the darkness and never be alone-J

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"Little Boxes"

Little Boxes

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There’s a pink one & a green one
And a blue one & a yellow one
And they are all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there’s doctors & lawyers
And business executives
And they are all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
Where they´re put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry & raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same,
There’s a pink one & a green one
And a blue one & a yellow one
And they are all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

                                    -Malvina Reynolds  1962

I remember hearing this song in my very urban grammar school and thinking “what happens to the little girls?”

The following blog is what happens to that particular little girl, now an overeducated yet underemployed mother of three, and married and living in suburbia.  The real story is how she tries to undo all of that, except the mother part, of course.