Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vignettes of Sorts: Beginnings, Endings and In Betweens


Tonight I sent my parents off to Indy; their plane leaves in the morning and the transition from Bloomington would have been too early and too difficult for my mom. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  Of course, there are plans for us to visit them and plans for us to Skype, but we all know that there’s a chance that this is it.

My mother and I spent time alone today before they left, and we said our goodbyes. I don’t know how to describe that moment. Nothing has ever felt so unreal and so present. We had nothing left to say. We had everything left to say. I felt the magnitude of the moment—filled up with my mother’s love, filling her up with mine, sending her off with words that I hoped would stay with her and comfort her, as she did the same for me.  I ached for myself, for my son who will grow up without her, for my family. Mostly, I ached for my mother. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it must be like to hold your child, with all the heaviness of that moment’s finality.

As they drove away, I was viscerally reminded of a moment in my childhood when I felt such loss and fear at my mother’s departure that I ran crying down the street after her car until I couldn’t see it any longer. Today I held myself back as that same panic rose up in me. This time, I felt love and longing stretched between us like a tether. I let her go, as she has let me go so many times before, because it’s what’s best for her…even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. What else can I say? Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to cover it today. I’m not sure we have words for moments like this. It’s something beyond language—something primal in the torrent of tears that I don’t have time to cry. Not now.


Tomorrow morning at precisely 7:25 am, I’ll begin my new job at Bloomington High School North teaching English. I know, crazy, right? Well, it is. The whole process took a total of two days. They called on Wednesday of last week. I interviewed on Thursday, and they offered me the job an hour later.

When I considered whether or not to take the job I had a lot of really sound, really strategic reasons why it would be a good idea. Those things still hold true. But, well, have you ever seen an episode of Thomas the Train? Unless you have kids, and maybe even then, you probably haven’t. (Let me tell you, you’re not missing anything. I have A LOT of issues with the show, but my son is obsessed with trains right now so I’m making some concessions.) The trains are always concerned with being “really useful engines.” They derive their sense of self-worth (okay this is getting ridiculous…bear with me) from how useful they’ve been on any given day. Well, yeah, you see where this is going. I’ve always liked being useful, liked feeling purposeful about my life in the grand scheme of things but also on a day-to-day basis. I have a hard time being idle. So when we made the decision to send my mom back to Korea, and knowing that we’d already transitioned my son to full-time care to give him space from the sickness in the house—I freaked. What would I do? So I said yes.

Here we go. Six classes. 160 students. Perhaps thankfully, it’s a temporary contract for now, though there’s potential for something more long-term. On one hand, I’m excited to share my love for literature with these students (don’t worry, I’m not harboring any Dead Poet’s Society illusions). I often hear a lot of “ughs” and “yikes” about high-schoolers, but I’m pretty fond of them; I like them whether they’re earnest or belligerent. But on the other, I’m anxious about a lot, too. For the first time in two years, I won’t be with my son for substantial portions of the day, and I’m going to miss him enormously. I don’t know if the trade-off will be right or worth it for us. Luckily, I get to try it on, see how it feels. Either way, it’s happening—ready or not, here I come.

In Between Things

Can you feel it? The emotional whiplash? I feel wrecked. There’s no time to breathe, let alone process what I feel about semi-closing a chapter and, simultaneously, semi-opening another.  Here I am, in between. I’m flailing. I’m frantic. I’m uncertain how I’ll do any of what’s to come.  But I know that it all still has to be done. And somehow, I always manage.

One day at a time, right? That’s what people say. Except one day at a time is impossible. There’s always what-came-before and what-comes-after. Those things are inextricably bound up in the present. When I think about it that way, this in-between feels a little less terrifying. We’re always in transition. We are always moving away from and moving toward something. At some point, of course, there’s finality; there’s no more in between. Death, that is to say, is inevitable and we are powerless to stop its approach.  But until then, this flux is what ensures us, I suppose, that we are still caught up in that process of living, in the “do not go gentle…” and in the “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Good or bad, that’s something to hold on to. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Comings and Goings

I hadn’t anticipated writing again so soon, but over the past day or so we’ve made some big decisions regarding my mother and her care: we’ve decided that she will be more comfortable in Korea for whatever time remains. I know…it feels big and shocking. At least it does to me. I guess I hadn’t anticipated this happening. But nothing is easy or predictable about watching a loved one die or, for that matter, being the one who’s dying. It’s hard to foresee what the needs—be they physical, emotional, spiritual, etc.—will be.

I’ve sensed for some time now that my mother is homesick. For the past decade, my parents have spent time building a life in Korea. Their faith community, their friends, and their possessions—all of this is in Korea. Beyond that, however, I think Korea has simply become home again for my mother in some more meaningful way. For a long time, that wasn’t the case. After marrying my dad and leaving Korea, she rarely had cause to go back. Her mother and brother followed her to the US shortly after I was born, so she spent nearly 28 years away from Korea before returning ten years ago. But all that has changed over the past decade. She is, we joke, a “real” Korean now.

When we made the decision to move her here, I think we were all in a state of panic, uncertain about what kind of time we had and how quickly the cancer would progress. And we all needed some time with her to find closure, to make her feel loved and to feel tangibly loved by her. We feel good about the fact that she has spent her most well and able-bodied time with us. She’s held her grandchildren, watched them play, and loved them. 

As she gets less well each day, I began to imagine what it must feel like to be away from everything that feels comfortable and familiar. We are limited here. My skills and resources limit my ability to provide her daily with the kind of food, the only food, that she seems to stomach well. But we are limited in other ways. I’ve given all I have to offer—my time, my home, my love, my compassion, concern and companionship. It has been, I feel, enough for her in many ways. In other ways, though, there are parts of her that I cannot feed. The places from which she derives, and has always derived, the most comfort and peace—God, church, faith community—can’t be found here with us, and I can think of no more important time than now for her to surround herself with those things.

Making the decision to let her go was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to be a part of making thus far in my life. It’s incredibly agonizing, unbearable even, to watch one’s mother die slowly. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some sense of relief that I no longer have to do that. The alternative, though, is not watching one’s mother die, and it’s an equally agonizing prospect. The fact that I won’t be there to care for her, to anticipate her needs—it feels wrong. Yet, as wrong as that feels, the decision to let her return to the place where I know she will be the most comfortable and peaceful, feels right.

There are no easy decisions here. Either carries with it some unmanageable weight. In the end, though, it seemed clear. We did our best to release her from the guilt of leaving us. She feels torn, I know, but the time for worrying about us...well that has passed. It’s our turn now to take on some of that worry. 

The week ahead feels daunting. How do you cram it all in? How does one make space for all of the past, the aching present and the tenuous future? How does one make someone feel loved enough to go? How does one say goodbye, knowing that it very well might be the last time? I want to get it right. But I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know if I’ve done any of this right. I’ve done my best, and I hope that when I look back on this moment five years from now or ten years from now, that I’ll still feel like we made the right choice. But just in case I don’t, I’m reminding that future self that at this moment in time, we made the best decision possible in an impossible situation.

If you think of us this week, we’d be grateful. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Things We’ve Carried

In Letters To a Young Poet, Rilke writes: “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” In the almost two years since my son was born, I’ve thought about what it means to love another person. In some ways, loving my son is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I look at him, even in the middle of the most frustrating and difficult moments, and I know what love is. I know it in the palpable way the air shifts between us, in the elation that springs up in me at his sweet smiles, in the gut-wrenching pain that I feel when he is hurting or inconsolable, in the way his absence tugs my mind constantly back toward him when we are apart, and in the fullness I feel when he’s in my arms. I love him, simply, because he is. But here’s the rub, loving him in that way and making him feel loved in that way are two very different things. And it’s the latter part of this endeavor that makes loving someone the “most difficult task.”  

As I was driving the other day I began to wonder if it was possible to love other people in this way—without condition or expectation. I’ve been programmed, like many of us, to believe that the terms of love are conditional. Parental love or divine love—at least in the way I grew up understanding them—can be costly at times. So the version of God that I like most to believe in, if I’m in a believing place, is a God that loves and values people simply because they are. I like to believe in a contract between the Divine and human that is unburdened of those hidden clauses and rigorous demands that we are likely not to meet. I like to imagine that grace, mercy (and all these other buzzwords people like to throw around) are offered to us freely and abundantly, not tied like a carrot to the tip of some proverbial stick. I like to hope for an extension of love that is disentangled from our pettiness, small-mindedness and brokenness and is marked by its unlimited capacity for compassion and understanding. I’ve been fortunate enough, lately, to find some loving and kind people who help me believe (or at least believe, themselves, when I’m feeling skeptical) that this version of God exists.

In this process with my mother, I’ve sometimes struggled to find compassion. I’ve been alternately angry, frustrated, heartbroken and numb (I know, I know…the K├╝bler-Ross model and all that).  But it’s more than just the grief of death. I’ve spent a large part of my adulthood coming to terms with and working through some deep woundedness. Those things feel so thoroughly entwined with who I am: I grew up around them, pushed through them, made space for them, and perhaps, eventually, even found some comfort in the familiarity of their weightiness. I suppose I’ve been waiting a lifetime to hear certain things from my mother. Naively, I thought that hearing those things from her would ameliorate my wounds. So, recently, when she returned from a week away and began this very conversation, I braced myself. Anxious and uncomfortable, I waited and listened.

Once upon a time, when I was younger, when I was angrier, when she was healthier, when everything wasn’t what it is right now, I might have felt some sense of satisfaction. I might have felt validated or vindicated. I might have done I-don’t-know-what. I probably wouldn’t have been able or ready to receive what she had to say. Instead, what I heard her say simultaneously changed me profoundly and made no difference at all. I discovered, as is so often the case, that the cycle of woundedness hadn’t begun with me, or even with her. As I sat across the table from my mother—who was broken not only by her own wounds, but by the fullness of the knowledge that she had replicated and allowed those cycles of pain and loss to be repeated in me—my anger slipped away.

I think that so much of my mother’s reluctance to acknowledge her approaching death is grounded in her deep sense of regret and her desire to go back. It’s not that she’s afraid of what’s to come. I think she does have a sense of peace about that. She doesn’t, however, have peace about what was. It’s an impossible place to be in because, of course, there’s only going forward. I recognized myself in that moment with her. I’ve spent years trying to go backwards, scrambling over the debris of time, digging until my fingers were bloodied, to undo what was done, to rewrite history. I used to think that healing could be found back there somewhere. But it can’t. There’s only more pain—the pain that comes from the frustration and futility of that effort.

What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t find the healing that I imagined I would over the course of our conversation. Instead, I found the kind of compassion that allows me to love my mother simply because she is. For the moment, she was more than just my mother. She was also a whole person: a person with her own scars, regrets, and untold stories; a person with her own life; a person dying her own death. I suddenly felt like a bystander, like someone passing by who’d just discovered deep pockets brimming with compassion that I could offer to salve her wounds a little. Whatever we’ve carried between us all of those years, well...the tension went slack. I felt her putting down her end of the rope that we’ve held tautly between us. After all, in a short time it will be mine, alone, to carry. I wish I could say that I laid it down on the table as well and didn’t pick it up again when I stood up, but that’s not the case. No, I found that my own wounds were unchanged. They were still there tangled up in who I am.  But I realized that it’s my job to find healing for myself somewhere in the here-and-now or in the what’s-to-come; I can’t foist that responsibility on her any longer. So I let go of my anger and loved her instead. Because there’s only going forward.

As we got up from the table my mom looked at me and said that she felt such a deep sense of relief when she watched me with my son: “You aren’t like us. You’re doing it better.” I’m not perfect. Some days I’m short-tempered and impatient, but I’m ever-aware of that old cycle spinning its wheels in me. I wake up every day vowing to listen more closely, to show my son that he is unconditionally loved, and to be as fully present for him as possible. Indeed, loving someone is a difficult task, but I think it’s like anything else. Practice makes…well, perhaps it doesn’t make perfect, but it certainly makes us better. And maybe in the attempting-to, we find something divine.