Friday, January 08, 2010

In the Garden of Memory

My mother died two years ago today. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't affected: in truth, it's been an emotional day, more emotional than usual. I've also been more tired today than all week, physically and mentally. I'm sure these are all related events. I'm feeling emotional, as I said, so I probably am not coherent to write anything that isn't a ramble or random walk, and I probably shouldn't, and I'm going to anyway.

My mother's death began the process, in earnest, of getting to where I am now. First there was six months of going through the house, through 30 years of accumulated belongings, very disorganized because my mother had had Alzheimer's for at least a dozen years at that point. There was the funeral, almost exactly seven months after my father's. There was the vast amount of bank paperwork and inheritance details. There was my need to buy my own home, and move into it, while still clearing out the old belongings from the old house. There was the need to sort through what I was going to keep, during the move. There was moving day itself, and the disruption of that; there are still a few prized possessions and books that I cannot find anywhere, and have given up for lost. During all that there was the diagnosis of and initial recovery period from my chronic illness, ulcerative colitis; which looking back through my life, I can see that I had had at least one or two undiagnosed episodes in the 1990s. There was a lot more to deal with.

And that was only 2008.

The following year, 2009, turned out to be even worse. It was the worst year I've survived recently, even worse than the preceding three or four years, during which I had given up my own life and career to take care of my parents, to move in with them and be the live-in caregiver, and make all the medical decisions. I'm able to be clinical, and I'm able to understand the technical aspects of medicine, having been around it my whole life, so I was usually the family member that the doctors and nurses liked to talk to, because they didn't have to dumb it down. That was a mixed blessing, for me.

It seems that almost everyone I know and care about had a bad year in 2009. Sure, some of that was the global socioeconomic climate of recession, unemployment, and financial and political crises. But there was more to it than that. There was something on the global level that was like the whole human race was struggling, was fighting for its survival, mostly against itself. Perhaps this is species-level adolescent turbulent. Perhaps it's the lingering Millenarian vibes from the Big Calendar Change at the year 2000, with all the attendant apocalyptic visions and fears and desires. Now the apocalypse rhetoric is all focused on 2012, when the Mayan Calendar changes over from the Fifth World to the Sixth World. (I have to say, it's one of the more stupidly misunderstood apocalypses of late, because most of the people fearing it don't even realize that it was never prophesied as be the end of this world, but as the beginning of the next. But then, most people seem to want to see that glass as half-empty rather than half-full; or are addicted to the drama of being in fight-or-flight mode all the time.)

Although I know there's no apocalypse, it's still an uphill battle to to fight against it. Too many people want it. You can see it in the national discourse whenever there's a new terrorist threat, or even an evaded event: the dumbing down happens, the rhetoric turns hateful and emotionally-driven, it becomes very Tribal with the usual "you're either with us or you're against us" rhetoric. Nuance and balanced thoughtfulness get trodden upon. Words become insults on a whole new level, words like "socialist" or "PC"—both of which have become swear-words like "Commie" or "faggot" were forty or fifty years ago. It's all about having a scapegoat to hate—anything but looking in the mirror and seeing what we don't want to see about ourselves. And we seem to be so impatient that we don't even allow time for wise solutions to be developed; everyone demands fixes Now, and never gets them, and then we turn on each other in blame and revenge. It's all so very kindergarten.

I know there's no apocalypse. i have faith in apocatastasis, which I know to be more true, always.

So why was 2009 so horrible? It's hard to say, exactly. I did feel like I was fighting an uphill battle all year long. 2009 was also the year my uncle died, after a long protected illness, and my aunt was pretty much taken over by her dementia. Probably Alzheimer's, but it's undiagnosed because she hates and fears doctors and won't deal with them or listen to any advice. I drove out to Connecticut to help them out, for awhile, and the stress and anxiety of that trip were bad enough to trigger a relapse of my chronic illness. That was October, and I've been in full relapse, feeling sick and tired ever since; and I'm not well yet. I might be recovering, finally, but I'm still having symptoms, and still tired all the time. That's the truth of a chronic illness: you don't just "get over it."

When your parents die, you don't just "get over it." I've had to break off contact with some people I used to care about a lot, because they were acting as if, by now, I should have just "gotten over it," and resumed my life at full speed. Well, you know, I was just about ready to do that—when October happened, Connecticut happened, and I got sick again. I felt like I was just beginning to get back on track—and then I got derailed again. That led to some serious depression—let's call it situational depression rather than chronic—and for now, I'm doing what I need to do to recover from that, as well.

You don't just "get over it," when so many blows happen in such a short time. It can take years to recover. There have been times when the suffering was so bad, I didn't care if I lived or died anymore. I spent a lot of time burning out what little energy I had, in 2009, struggling to find a reason to go on living. And I was also drained by some of my friends, who have also been in crisis, dragging me into their soap-operas, or needing a shoulder to cry on. Well, I'm happy to offer a shoulder to cry on, but my own diminished resources have forced me to withdraw from those friends who never offered a shoulder in return; in other words, reciprocity, which is what real friendship is all about.

In 2009, therefore, I've learned to marshall my energy, and be more "selfish" about where I spend it. I've learned to keep to myself when I find other people draining; even people I like can be draining. That's why it's a chronic illness, that's why it's depression, that's even why it's grieving: you don't just "get over it." You have to own up to it, and admit that sometimes you just plain feel like shit, and be honest about how you feel every single day, and then decide what to do next. And when you energy budget has been reduced, you start to prioritize. You do get a little impatient with the apparently clueless, but you also discover in yourself a lot more patience for your own process of recovery than you ever imagined was available to you. And so it's been: I've learned patience with my own process, and that some days I really just genuinely have to sit there and Do Nothing. That wasn't always an easy lesson to learn; but the physical limits imposed on you by a chronic illness force you to Pay Attention, and slow down.

In 2009, I learned to understand and share my father's lifelong love of gardening as a form of personal therapy. I spent a lot of time in the garden this summer; it's a small garden, and I've focused mostly on flowers and perennials, that need little care, when I'm traveling. I planted several new rosebushes, many lilies. This fall I planted a lot more bulbs for spring, and made a few new landscape art sculptures in parts of the garden. It was a big part of my return to life—and will continue to be, in future.

I’ve spent a lot of time this holiday season Doing Nothing: napping, watching some movies, a little reading and writing, okay a lot of reading, and taking it quiet and mostly easy. I haven’t gone out of my way to overdo things, and I’ve been taking extra naps, sleeping in late, storing up energy and trying to recover my strength. The past week or so my stomach has been upset and touchy, but overall I’m feeling okay, neutral or slightly better. I haven’t been trying too hard. I’ve been waiting. Waiting for the calendar year to change, for the holidays to be over, for my health to rebuild itself (assisted by lots of Reiki, etc.), waiting for life to come back to me. It feels possible, now, this deep cold winter night. It was full moon on New Year’s Eve, a blue moon. The sky was clear and bright, and the moon was beautiful. Now, a few days later, after more fresh snowfall, the snow is still blue and cold and bright under the waning moon, the air still and cold and clear, and filled with stars.

I don't do New Year's resolutions, for two reasons: I think it's stupid ritual that most people use masochistically; and I celebrate the new year on Samhain, by the old calendar. A few years ago I started doing annual Gratitudes instead of resolutions.

I’m having a great deal of trouble writing my annual Gratitudes this year. I haven't been able to do it. The glass has felt half-empty for so many months, it's hard to remember things to be grateful about. 2009 was a terrible year; in some ways, it was even worse than the bad years just in front of it. It’s been hard to find things to feel grateful about. I’ve had no problems making a list of troubles that happened in 2009, which I’m grateful to put behind me, but for which themselves I can’t generate much gratitude. I want to keep to this annual self-invented discipline of writing Gratitudes alive, and active; it’s a good discipline, and a good annual clearing and releasing. I may have to work into it even more gradually than before, however. I am really struggling against all those black crab thoughts trying to pull you back down into the bucket. It’s been a deep bucket this fall, really a black hole, and climbing out of it has taken more than I had to give. Assistance has been required. And even then, the outcome is not certain.

There are some lessons learned in the past year, things I’m grateful to have learned, though each came out of a process painful and difficult and ongoing. Some of these lessons have rooted themselves in new changes in my life, probably permanent changes of direction and attitude; although changing an attitude is a matter of changing a bad old habit into a new good one, and takes practice and repetition. Some of these don’t translate easily into words; and even those that do would require too much background to make much sense of, to anyone but me. And not everything need be told. Some things need to be kept silent, and private, for releasing them into the town square dilutes and diminishes their power.

Two years ago my mother died. It was a bad death. It was not a planned-for and peaceful slipping-away like my father's dying, in which he was in charge, had time to say goodbye and tell people what he wanted, and be watched over by Hospice for his last few days. Two weeks before she died, my mother had been taken by ambulance to the hospital from the Alzheimer's residential facility where he had had to move two years before, when my father could no longer take care of her by himself at home. She had a urinary infection, which is why she went to the hospital, but it was discovered when she was there that he had developed old-age diabetes. That was sudden; it had probably come to fruition only weeks before; my mother had been physically healthy her entire life, almost never needing any serious form of treatment. But here was the dilemma: she was now too confused to understand that the doctors were trying to help her, and she thought they were trying to kill her. She screamed in the Emergency Room when they were trying to examine her; her screaming filled the entire ward, and turned heads; it took about six nurses and doctors to hold her down, eventually; i was there to hold her hand, but I had to step out of the cubicle when they were examining her, and that's when the screaming began; those screams coming from my distraught mother's heart tore scars open in my heart that will never heal; I will never forget them; but I can bear all that because I'm grateful than none of my family or friends heard her like that. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

They kept her in the hospital overnight, but they couldn't treat her, because she thought the insulin they tried to give her was poison. She wouldn't eat, or accept anything, and she wouldn't settle down. I stayed as late as I could stand, then I went home and spent a sleepless night staring into the fireplace and crying. They gave her new pills to take, and the nurses at the Alzheimer's home tried everything they knew to get her to take them; but she wouldn't. Since my father had died, it had been hard; he was the one person she still would do anything he asked her to do, and trusted. She didn't fight, she wasn't mean or vicious, she just wouldn't do it.

The Alzheimers had brought out, most days, an inner childlike cheerfulness and happiness in her. Most days, when I went to visit, she was in a good mood, and liked everybody. She didn't like anybody on the days they cleaned her room, or made her take a shower. Mom was always very independent, and never liked being told what to do. She was always headstrong. She could be hard to get along with, as a person; but as she began to revert to childhood in old age, she became often quite a bit sunnier than she'd ever been when she was of sound mind.

There was one day, the autumn before she died, before her last illness, that I will always be grateful for. It was a sunny autumn day, and for once she was lucid and talkative and present. She remembered my name, she remembered that I was a musician, like her, and we talked about music and life for a few hours. I felt for the first time in years that I had my Mom back, the person I'd always gone to talk thing over with, the person who shared my love of music and art and writing, who was my friend as well as my parent. For that one lucid day, I had my Mom back. She was never that lucid or clear-minded again, but I remain grateful for that one day. It was so good for me to have had that, so healing of my own grief. You see, you start grieving for a parent with Alzheimer's even before they've died: because they themselves, what made them who they are, is gone long before their body dies. Alzheimer's is torture on the families and other survivors; "torture" is not too strong a word for it.

At the end, a few days after going back to the Alzheimer's home, she was back in the hospital. it was clear that she was failing, that they couldn't treat her, mostly because she wouldn't let them, and she was therefore on her last legs. I went to see her in her hospital room that afternoon. She was in a coma already, and I talked to her for awhile, and held her hand, but she didn't respond. That afternoon we took her back to the home in the care of Hospice. That night, she died, in the early morning, alone in her room. We all went over there, long before dawn, to say goodbye. I wept over her body, unable to stop crying. I took her loss harder than I had my Dad's; perhaps because it was the second loss of a parent so soon in time; perhaps because I'd always been closer to her, the way sons are to the their mothers; perhaps because I was already exhausted and sick myself at this point, and just felt completely lost.

I was grateful that she had died when she did, though, because I had been afraid that her funeral would have to be held on my birthday. Instead, it was exactly a week before my birthday. Try "getting over" that one: your Mom dies between the Christmas holiday and your birthday, and misses her funeral being actually on your birthday by a mere week. How would you have felt? I'm just grateful, as I said, for the near miss.

I loved her; there are no words to say how much. Tonight, the second anniversary of the night she died, I miss her. Again, there are no words.

Her death began the year of moving, sorting, buying a house, and so forth. I was just starting to think I might be able to get past all that, in 2009. Life had other plans.

I need to pause. I want to get to my Gratitudes, eventually, and say more about what lessons I've learned from 2009. I want to say more about my mother and father, while they're in my memory, on this sort of anniversary. And it will have to wait awhile. I need to stop for awhile—because I'm tired, not because I'm upset; and because I feel finished for the moment. I'll get back to this writing when I can.

Images are from my garden, June 2009.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Understanding is not a matter of simply accumulating facts, you know that. You can tell me all day long what happened, when it happened and how it happened but I will never understand. I can try and empathise but if I’m honest I’m not sure I have the tools required and so sympathy will have to suffice. I was not affected by the passing of either of my parents anywhere near as much as you. I couldn’t actually tell you off the top of my head the dates they died. I’m not even certain of the years; I’d have to work it out. Actually all I’d have to do is get the two train tickets from my wallet, the ones I kept the two days I was called home. I was not brought up to make a big deal of death and haven’t done. I think of them now and then but I don’t pine. This makes me sound quite callous but I’m not. I cared for both of them when they were alive and played the dutiful son right to the bitter end but that was that.

I would never say to anyone, “Get over it!” but that’s more because of my experience with depression. I never had time to get depressed when my parents died. I was too busy and then time had passed and that was that. I’ve not felt any great need to memorialise them in any way. I’ve written poems about them both and that seems to have put it all to bed for me. There was a time when I could tell you exactly when my first wife left me, right down to the hour. I hung onto that for quite a while but now I don’t even know what year she left me. You may never get to that stage and who is to say you should? People grieve in their own ways. That’s become a bit of a cliché but it’s true.

Really the book I’m not writing at the moment is me trying to come to terms will the nature of loss. One of the reasons I’m struggling with it is quite simply that I’ve never expressed my own loss in any conventional way and so my character finds herself also struggling with not so much an inability to grieve but the lack of a need to grieve. No doubt this is one of the reasons I’m finding it hard to get back into. I thought I was ready to tackle the subject but maybe not yet. Either way the book’s not going anywhere.

I am sorry that you’ve had such a rotten time of late. I’ve no wise words of wisdom to share I’m afraid. I’m sure you know all the relevant wise words of wisdom already. Well, maybe not this one: you and I are like two one-legged men hobbling down a road with a single crutch between us – we each take turns reading and commenting and then we move on a step; it’s slow progress but what’s the rush, eh?

8:42 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

Well Art, as one of my children said to my husband after his father had died two years after his mother's death: 'You're an orphan now.'

It seems odd to call a man then in his fifties an orphan but it's true, for him and for you.

I'm not yet an orphan, my mother is ninety and still going strong. She is frail of body but her mind is sound. Oh that I can enjoy such longevity.

When I was a child I thought I'd like to die at sixty; that seemed so old then. Now in my fifties, sixty seems far too young to die.

I'm sorry, like Jim that you are having such a hard time, and that the last year has been so tough for you. I agree with you - grief and mourning take as long as they take.

Don't let other people dictate the terms of your feelings. That you feel the loss of your parents, especially your mother, so acutely is understandable.

Mourning takes it's own time.

thanks for posting this.

I have not found 2009 such a great year either and for myself I'm pleased to hear that 2012 begins a new era. It's also the year I'm due to complete my PhD.

1:47 AM  
Blogger Frank Wilson said...

A characteristically fine meditation, Art. I was 60 years old when my mother died. It doesn't make any difference when that happens. You feel like an orphan.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

There's a book by Jane Brooks, "Midlife Orphan," that I was given some years ago, before my parents actually died. I didn't keep the book, because I really didn't want to read it then. Honestly, I had enough to deal with, just getting through each day, without wanting to delve into that sort of book. It was premature.

Now I suppose I'd better go find it and read it. It seems relevant. I do feel like an orphan, it's true. Sometimes it's about endurance, too: what we can endure, what we don't need to, and sorting those out.

Thanks for the comments and thoughts, everyone. They're much appreciated.

4:10 PM  
Anonymous THomas SImon said...

Counterpoint on New Year's Eve full moon which shone so bright that it was casting shadows on the ground. And running up to midnight we had a lunar eclipse: just that tiny tiny part on the rim darkened by Earth's shadow.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Indeed, that was a lovely full moon, wasn't it?


12:22 AM  

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