Monday, October 5, 2015

Time Passes

There’s a section in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse called “Time Passes.” It’s somewhat jarring compared to what comes before, because the people who filled up the novel’s pages are suddenly mere echoes; their deaths—a mother, a daughter, a son—are relegated to brief parenthetical commentary. Things, once beloved, lose their luster and light. Dust accumulates on surfaces. And, indeed, time passes. Emptied out of human form and filled to the brim with inanimate objects, these pages capture so profoundly the quiet vacancy of death. Take this passage, for instance:
What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coasts in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
The absence of these individuals is magnified in relation to the spaces they filled, the clothes they wore, and the objects they used. In this second year of grief, as disbelief has been replaced by the new realities which have taken root, I keep finding myself face to face with the various things that have been emptied out, both literally and metaphorically, things once “filled and animated” by my mother’s presence: a salt container, a sweater, my kitchen. I feel her absence most, however, with my son. While he talks about my mother now more than ever before—he’s always questioning, narrating and elaborating on “Halmi”—I suspect that he does so increasingly as he remembers less and less. She is an absence around which he walks.  He understands that she is, somehow, important, but to him she’s little more than myriad things that she has shed and left behind: this picture, this table, this uncle, this aunt, this mommy. And though, perhaps, his coming-to-be was initially a difficult thing for her to grasp (because it fell so far outside her comfort zone and understanding), watching the two of them love one another became one of my greatest joys and deepest sources of healing. Appropriately, I suppose, watching him reach for memories that are little more than "Halmi" shaped objects has been a source of profound sorrow.

As we find in To the Lighthouse, however, the dead don’t disappear easily. Yes, different rhythms spring up, the house is aired out and new characters move into the foreground while others recede. But those who are absent continue to haunt the pages of the novel; they fill in the gaps; they lie at the center of various visions, motivations and excursions that the remaining characters experience and undertake. And so it is that even in death my mother continues to compel and constrain me. The work of disentangling ourselves from the ties that bind us to one another apparently doesn’t end with death as I naively thought it might. Those cords are still drawn taut across time and within me. And though I am in some ways a little freer to undertake the knotty work of undoing those ties, the loosening and unbinding is still a painful and laborious endeavor. Because, after all, we can’t be chained to the dead forever (Unless, of course, you’re Michonne. Sorry, folks, a little nod to The Walking Dead). Even as we’re loving them, missing them and grieving them, we also move beyond them, like the characters in Woolf’s novel who finally make the trip to the lighthouse sans mother, brother and sister. 

Here, at the end of year two, I understand how people who figure so enormously in our lives slowly become parenthetical; we fill up the hollowed out space (              ) of our lives with these reminders of their human shape. They are too vast to be contained so, paradoxically, we shrink them down to make them manageable and deliverable: “This,” we attempt to say, “is my mother. This is your grandmother. This was a  woman—flawed, difficult, beloved and alive.” As life tumbles by relentlessly, they become the narrative asides, the how-to-explain-this-thing-about-me-or-you, the anecdotal evidence of the ways that we were lashed together and how, inevitably, we find ourselves lapping at the shores of life again—present and past, ebb and flow, together and alone, moored and adrift, “rising and falling with the sea."

Monday, March 16, 2015

Burn me up, Scotty.

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, then you’ve heard about the migraine. Saturday was a beautiful day—sun, blue skies, mid-sixties. It was the kind of day that makes everyone feel alive again. I know, because I found all of Bloomington at the park where Bennett and I choose to spend a big portion of the afternoon. He played happily while I chatted with other parents from around town. But here’s the thing, I never know about sunglass etiquette. It was really bright out, but I always feel like it’s so rude to hide behind dark glasses when you’re talking one-on-one to someone, so I took them off. Bad choice.

It got too late to cook dinner and Bennett asked to go to the only fast food place he knows—Chipotle. I said yes. I felt fine until we got inside and suddenly it happened. I had one of those pre-migraine auras. Everything was shiny and slippery in my field of vision. The sunlight that had been such a welcome source of light and warmth all day became too much to bear. I don’t know how to explain it except to tell you that things felt reversed; the sunshine came, instead, from some source inside of my head and burst outward through my eyes. It was blinding. And that’s what I thought, initially, as I stared at the shadowy Chipotle employee who was asking me what I wanted: “I’m going blind. I wonder if my eyes are as fiery right now as they feel. I’m dying. I’m obviously dying. I’m going to die in this Chipotle, of all places, with my son at my side asking repeatedly if I can transform his toy back into a truck.” I couldn’t decide if it was tragedy or comedy in the making. Then the pulsing began. It was quiet at first, just a tiny “tap, tap, tap” in the top of my head, but it signaled what was coming. And I panicked. What if I didn’t make it home before the tapping became a hammering? What if I stopped being able to see enough to drive home? What would I do with my kid? What if my son didn’t cooperate? I knew I had somewhere between 20-40 minutes before I was completely incapacitated. We made it home. I took the ibuprofen/Benadryl cocktail that Kim gave me last time (I don’t know the science, but it works) and then I curled up into a ball on the couch and only moved to start the next episode of Bennett’s show. He was quiet and gentle, worn out from the park but also concerned because he’d never seen me like that before. “Don’t worry,” I mumbled, “I’ll be okay soon. I just need to close my eyes and be still for a little while.”

I closed my eyes but my brain remained hell-bent on birthing its extravagant and excessive pain-light. I shivered and shook, feeling unbearably cold (though it was probably a pain response) and waited for it to subside. And as I lay there, I recalled the last time the sunlight had brought so much pain. It was the summer of my mom’s illness. As the tumors resumed their growth post-radiation, she’d begun getting headaches with increasing regularity. They were mostly brief, but intense. You’ll remember how full our house was then, my brother and kids driving in with regularity for weeks at a time, my own child, my sister (who has never known a quiet day in her life), my father, my partner and myself. It was unavoidably noisy. My mother had never been one to complain about physical discomfort, not really, and the effort of talking made her even more reticent about her pain. So I would watch her for the telltale signs that she was having a headache or that she was experiencing discomfort and I would go around the house shushing people, driving them outside or upstairs, snapping in hushed whispers at the kids or at my siblings. It was awful. I was probably awful. I felt how horrible and unfair the whole thing was but I couldn’t help myself; her pain was my pain. I lost weight without trying. I was more sensitive to noise, to smells, to the way the world expanded or contracted according to the time of day. I wanted more than anything to make her last few months as peaceful and as comfortable as possible, but the world and those tumors kept interfering.

But with the headaches came another particularly nasty side effect of the tumors—her body’s inability to regulate her temperature well. So when we moved from the heat of the day to the coolness of an air-conditioned building, she would become dizzy and collapse or she would get one of those awful headaches and then be sick. It was hard to predict when and where this would happen. Sometimes she was fine and other times she wasn’t. On one of the last days she was with us, she had a bad episode. We decided to go out for lunch. My sister and I helped my mom out of the car while my dad parked the car. With one of us on each side of her, we began the slow trek to the door, and I felt her legs buckle. We were too far from any bench and I knew we’d end up dragging her if we tried to go any further. So we just sat her down in the middle of the sidewalk. Her limbs sort of convulsed, but the doctors had assured us that these were muscle spasms of sorts, not seizures, and we simply had to wait them out.

I felt the heat of embarrassment as I stood helplessly by. Not for me, but for her. People stared as they walked by; one man stopped to ask if he could help. “No, but thank you,” I responded, as politely as possible. I wanted to shield her from the prying curiosity and pity I saw in people’s faces. There’s no dignity in those moments. Movies so often portray the heartbreaking but peaceful sides of death. They show us people setting off on one last grand adventure or individuals gasping out last words from the sterility of their beds. Rarely do they show the gruesome, the humiliating and the altogether too-awful-for-words parts of dying. Who wants to see that? There’s nothing sensational about the fetid underbelly of death. I sat there beside her pissed at everyone and everything. And suddenly I was enraged at the sun. The warmth was no longer welcome. It was, instead, heavy and oppressive. The sunlight sizzled, white and blinding, as it came at me from the pavement. The heat of embarrassment blossomed into blazing fear as I realized how utterly frail we were, how insubstantial. As a kid I worried about so many weird things and one of them came back to me as I sat there beside my mother.  Poised on the verge of incineration, I contemplated what it would be like to spontaneously combust into flames.

As the memory of that day came back to me through the fog of my pain, I thought, “Maybe this is how it starts.” I imagined myself as a pile of ashes on the couch, opposite my son, just like I’d seen in those books so many years ago when I’d been obsessed with images of people who’d spontaneously combusted—a mound of black char in an otherwise untouched environment. It made me almost hysterical with laughter or sadness or incredulity to imagine someone coming in to find my son still sitting, oblivious, at his end of the couch watching television. There’s an episode of the Twilight Zone for you.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, I had a migraine hangover. I felt like I’d been dragged back from the brink of myself. I felt my heartbeat more acutely than I usually do. It felt steady and sure, but that spot in my head pulsed gently, a quiet reminder of my mortality. That morning, I ventured out into the sun—fearfully, glasses on, taking no chances. But by late afternoon, the last vestiges of pain had dissipated. I watched Bennett run around the park again with his friends, so much life coursing through their tiny limbs and I remembered that the things that make us vulnerable are also the things that set us apart from those inanimate objects that will, likely, long outlast us but will never know the fly-by-seat-of-your-pants-coming-down-the-slide-too-fast rush. There’s nothing new under the sun here, folks. That we feel joy or pain, that we can be blindsided by illness or surprised by the delightfulness of our bodies, that that we sometimes heal and other times find ourselves wounded in ways we can’t always mend—well that’s life, right? Eventually, we’re all just grit and dirt again. We might as well get close to the sun in the meantime. It warms. It’s life giving. And according to fringe statistics and a handful of YA apocalyptic novels, we’ll probably combust in its orbit one day. I’m not chasing death, but maybe I’m just saying that for today, I won’t bemoan (as much) the cost of living. For now, feeling just means I’m not yet a pile of ash. That’s okay with me.