Story Time

It is the longest night of the year. Our planet leans away from the light, and we lean with it.

At the same time, it’s THE HOLIDAYS, an inescapable set of events, obligations, rituals, colors, sites, sounds, smells, and stories. As I’ve explained before, I don’t love it. With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back, I suppose.

And forward.

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The Atlantic examined our tendency to anthropomorphize the year in a recent story.

People have been complaining about how awful 2016 was, and I don’t disagree. But in many ways, I found 2015 much harder. Lots of bad things happened in 2016, sure, but I was just a witness. In 2015, bad things happened to me. This year, not much happened to me at all. Which is, in its own way, a problem. Sometimes I feel like I am in a story that has no plot.

Here is what happened:

I taught two classes in the spring and another in summer. One went well, one went ok, and one was a disaster. I continued my administrative responsibilities and managed to negotiate a pay increase for my troubles. Unfortunately, that means I have to keep doing it, which exposes me to the toxic hysteria of academia-in-decline. I took a few short trips, one to an academic conference, one to an invited speaking engagement, and a few to my grad school home town to visit friends and enjoy the pace of country life.

This fall, I was on “research leave,” which has been unproductive in the traditional sense, but very productive in other ways. Basically, I figured out definitively that I do not have a second book in me. I had all the time in the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. For the time being, I will continue to pretend to colleagues and supervisors that I am making progress, but now I can stop lying to myself. That’s something!

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How beautiful is that!

This year, I picked up three more nursing prerequisites and had a wonderful time doing it! I got to dissect a fetal sheep brain, a fetal sheep kidney, a fetal pig, and a cow’s eye. Tapetum lucidum, the blue-green shimmer coating that allows animals to see at dusk, is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remain confused as hell about my path forward: Stay in academia and find a way to make it work? Quit my job and go to nursing school full-time? Split the difference and go part-time? Find a different job altogether? With just three more classes to go, 2017 will deliver me to a crossroads.

My personal life is pretty dull. My friend got married, which was wonderful, and I have enjoyed getting closer to her and her husband as a couple. They are family to me. Other relationships have proved challenging, with four friends doing the friend equivalent of taking a shit in my purse. The common denominator is me, I know. But it’s also my ability to pick friends. I am hardwired to put up with other people’s shit. Figuring that out took 40 years. It will probably take another 40 for me to put a stop to it.

My family drives me crazy. That’s really all there is to say about that.

The last date I went on was back in January. I am just…done.

In terms of what happened to me this year, probably the worst thing is that I sprained my ankle. That phrase really doesn’t do justice it, though. The initial injury was excruciating, and I still question whether I don’t actually have an avulsion fracture. The night it happened was beyond depressing. I could not walk, and efforts to find someone to help me gather my things and go to urgent care were fruitless. A neighbor I barely know finally came over and helped me into an Uber. I spent a Saturday night at urgent care, getting wheeled around by various medical personnel who parked me in a series of empty rooms. The room where I waited for the radiology tech contained enormous trash cans for medical waste, compounding the feeling that I had been discarded. The next day was better, so much better, as two friends helped out with groceries, meals, and comfort. But it was a hard two weeks, carefully planning each trip up and down the stairs and timing the long, arduous trek to the toilet. I contemplated peeing in a jar in my kitchen but cut back on my water consumption instead. Almost seven weeks later, I am still in pain and wonder if it will every fully heal.

Probably not.

But I am lucky, right? Because that is the worst thing that happened to me this year. On the other hand, I bore witness to a lot of bad shit.

My dad’s eye exploded during a “routine” cataract surgery, leaving him partially blind and unable to take care of my mother for several weeks. My sister and I filled in, and we have decided to take a more assertive role with their medical care (to the extent my dad, who has serious control issues, will let us). Smash cut to me, my dad, and my mom conversing with a very frustrated gastroenterology nurse practitioner about the consistency of my mom’s poops. (My mother cannot effectively participate in her own medical care, but she rages if we treat her like she can’t. It’s tricky.) My father also recently purchased his first smart phone and a new laptop, and I am his on-demand tech support. It has not escaped my notice that my sister’s interactions with my parents consist of game nights and apple picking, while mine consist of Apple tech support and discussions of my mother’s bowels.

It’s fine.

I also went to four funerals in 2016, which kind of seems like a lot for someone in their 40s. One was for an old friend’s young son, hit by a car while riding his bicycle. One was for my friend who died of cancer the year before. One was for my neighbor/friend, who died of an accidental overdose. And one was for my cousin, who killed himself. I felt tremendous grief this year, but witnessed even more.

When someone dies, all that’s left are memories, stories. The story lives as long as there is someone to tell it. My friend’s son was just 10 when he died last April, and the story of his story is that it ended too soon. His parents have done an incredible job of hanging on to life, attending concerts, taking trips, and talking enthusiastically about their boy. Almost every day, my friend posts a “memory” on Facebook that features her son. I wonder, What will happen next year, when there are no new stories, when all she has to post are memories of the memories?

I will never understand this story.

My friend who died of cancer–there were stories at his Memorial Day service too. I learned so much about him that weekend, as friends and family swapped tales and jokes that gave me a glimpse into private facets of his life. A narrative emerged: after years of unhappiness in our shared workplace, and then a year of professional humiliation (he was denied tenure, which is like dangling from a cliff for 12 months and then falling anyway), he had one good year before he got sick, a year in which he was content and hopeful. That made the nine months of dying not so bad, I guess?

I will never understand this story.

In August, my neighbor Damon died of an accidental overdose–prescription drugs, booze, and maybe spice–in another neighbor’s house down the block. He was getting high there because he wasn’t allowed to be altered at home. A story emerged at his funeral that Damon was never the same after his mother died in 2014. The story gave his senseless death a patina of romance–a young man who loved his mother so much he sought to join her in the afterlife. But he was troubled long before she died: he had a baby at 16 that he did nothing for, and he was a high school dropout, in and out of jail, unemployed, disengaged, high all the damn time. I suspected years ago that he suffered from depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Still, he was a sweet guy, and he was always kind to me. I helped him get out of jail the last time. He was my friend. His family never acknowledged how troubled he was, so they could never really help him. The silences of his life were profound. At his funeral, a born-again Christian pastor presided over his coffin, but Damon was a muslim.

I will never understand this story.

My cousin died two days after Damon. The story at his funeral was that he suddenly died of Crohn’s disease. The truth is that he had Crohn’s, but he died of depression. He was suicidal, and he owned guns, and his wife thought she had hidden the key to the gun case. At her urging, he voluntarily committed himself to a mental health treatment facility, then snowed the clinicians into thinking his suicidal ideation was just a side-effect of medications prescribed for the Crohn’s. Once the drugs cleared his system, they released him, and maybe legally they had no choice. But they didn’t even tell his wife. He drove home, found the key to the gun case, and blew his head off. His wife found him hours later when she got home from work. In her remarks at his funeral, she shared the fiction that he dropped dead of Crohn’s. That’s her choice, and those of us who knew the truth abided by it. But the lie is not without consequence. The stigma of depression intensifies its effects and prevents other people from getting help. How powerful it would have been to attribute the death of this beautiful, successful, winning-at-life man to suicide. Who might have been helped by that? And then there’s the boy. My cousin’s young grandson has Crohn’s and plaintively asked if he might die suddenly too. But on the other hand, how do you explain suicide to children?

I will never understand this story.

I tell stories too: I am writing a second book, I am going to quit the job I hate, I am going to be a nurse, so-and-so loved me or even just liked me a little. The truth is, I don’t have anything more to say, let alone write, as an academic. The truth is, I buy new clothes at Target to avoid doing laundry, so it’s highly unlikely I will get it together to change jobs. The truth is, I have two FWBs who aren’t very nice to me. The truth is, J* replaced my friendship with podcasts, which makes me wonder whether he ever cared for me. When we broke up as a couple, I had the same feeling: Was any of it real? Some people, when they are done with you–it’s not enough to withdraw their love or friendship. They have to take your memories too.

The truth is, stories are so much better than the truth.

Even so, 2016 was better than 2015, for sure. And 2017 will be better still! This long, dark night will end, and we will lean towards the light once more. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

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Pucker Up, Buttercup

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Happy Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?

Today, I am thankful for anal sphincters. As we learned in my Anatomy & Physiology class this week, we all have two of them–an internal and an external–and relaxation of both is [usually] required for defecation. The internal anal sphincter is made of smooth muscle and relaxes involuntarily in response to signals from the parasympathetic nervous system. Even if your brain decides it’s time to poop, you won’t until you consciously relax the skeletal muscle of the external anal sphincter. Since potty training, we’ve all relied on this two-step method to keep us tidy. And boy, do we take it for granted!

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has this bit about a toothache, how when you have a toothache, happiness = not having a toothache. But during all the other moments in our lives, when we do not have a toothache, do we equate this state with happiness?

At 5 AM this morning, I came to appreciate Hanh’s wisdom in a new way, when I awoke with tremendous intestinal distress. I never realized the beauty of those little sphincters and the happiness I enjoy when everything works flawlessly. What a flood they can contain!

Until they can’t.

This morning I shit my own bed. Just a little, but still. It was awful and humiliating and just a fraction of the malevolence my body experienced in the grip of this…food poisoning, norovirus, or whatever. I will never take those sphincters for granted again.

I ended up spending Thanksgiving Day in bed with my dog. It made me sad, watching friends post photos of Turkey Trots and get-togethers on Facebook. I was supposed to be at my sister’s house, where the presence of her fun in-laws would have provided a buffer for our usual family nonsense. And I wanted to hang with my niece, who has finally become a consistent and loving part of my life now that she’s old enough for me to communicate with directly. I eat all but a handful of meals alone every month, and I was really looking forward to a collective dinner experience. Plus I’m a shit cook, so I was psyched about eating a really great meal.

Instead, my “Thanksgiving dinner” was an egg and some applesauce when I finally felt like I could keep something down. Or rather…in.

In some ways, though, I am grateful for the intestinal intervention. My sister terrifies me, and it was a virtual certainty that I would do or say, or not do or not say, something that would incur her wrath–if not now, then passive aggressively months in the future. I was nervous about the day going well, which probably did not help my digestion–or the terrible food choices I made yesterday, when I was stress eating. This GI situation was a blessing in disguise.

A very, very clever toilet-paper disguise.

I am acutely aware that, even with poop on my sheets, this year’s Thanksgiving was better than last year’s. Last year, in the middle of dinner, my nephew made a fat joke at my expense. His comment hurt less than the fact that it was met with stony silence from the four adults–his parents and my parents–who also heard it. Not one of them stood up for me or took him to task in any way. There was just a slight pause, then everyone went back to eating. When I consider how my sister and I were reared, and the emphasis our parents placed on manners and deference to adults, their silence was shocking. Essentially, the message delivered to my nephew that day was, “Even though you are a child, you are not obliged to respect your aunt. Say whatever cruel things you want, we don’t care. She does not have our respect, and she doesn’t merit yours.”

It was humiliating. More humiliating, even, than being sick and getting poop on my sheets and having no one to help me clean it up.

So, this Thanksgiving will not go down as the worst in my life, because there is more to holidays than dress-up clothes and savory dishes and white linen tablecloths.

Just like there is more to dignity than successfully containing your poop. Not much more, but more: I took care of myself, I took care of my dog, and I didn’t hurt anyone. I did the best I could in a shitty (!) situation, just like those little sphincters. We’ll bounce back, all of us, and contain the flood another day.

Nobody wins ’em all.

 

This Story Is the Perfect Metaphor for Our Time

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Still image from an abcnews.com story based on video taken by David de Muelles.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it is inherently ironic. As Paul Fussell argues in The Great War & Modern Memory, irony is the “dominant form of modern understanding.” Even more so now, because: hipsters. Of war, Fussell writes, “Irony is the attendant of hope, and the fuel of hope is innocence.” But he could just as easily have been talking about polar bears. People saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” (Hope) And then we learned, “Oh, actually, a polar bear ate a helpless dog trapped on a chain, and the dude has been charged with a crime.” (Irony)

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people saw the original post and thought, “Awww.” Because dogs are cute! Polar bears are cute! Polar bears petting dogs: SOOO CUTE! People reacted in an emotional way to something that made them feel good. And it made them feel good because it affirmed their preexisting ideas about the world: that the aforementioned animals are cute, that life is like a Disney movie, that everything is going to be effortlessly ok. It is easy and convenient to think that way. Questioning the wisdom that’s before you, figuring out what’s missing, factoring in context, deferring to experts–that’s hard. Why exert so much effort when you can just anthropomorphize a polar bear and pretend that domesticated animals like to be stroked by apex predators!

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about nature. Nature is beautiful, but it is also cruel. And the cruelty is, in its own way, beautiful. Predators are relentlessly singleminded: they think primarily about food. The only thing that might take their minds off food is fucking. If you’re a predator, and it’s not fucking time, then it’s food time. That’s pretty much it. There is no such thing as “Predator Netflix & Chill.”

This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because people know nothing about animal behavior–not polar bear behavior, not even dog behavior. The polar bear wasn’t “petting” the dog; it was sizing up the dog to see whether it was food. And the dog clearly wasn’t enjoying the experience. The dog was trying to remain small and then move slowly away from the bear, being careful not to behave like prey, which would trigger the bear’s prey instinct. I’ve seen my own dog do this around bigger dogs. The owner of the dog sanctuary claimed that the dogs were left out to provide protection, but that is epically stupid, because the dogs were tied up. Dogs are vulnerable when leashed, and they know it. Anyone who has walked a dog, let alone mushed with one, ought to know that too. This guy basically set up an All-Bears-Can-Eat Canine Buffet. My first reaction when I saw the video was, “OMG!” Followed by: “Whoever is responsible for leaving dogs out in polar bear country,  and taking away their ability to run or fight, ought to be brought up on charges of animal cruelty.”

This story is a perfect metaphor for our time, because the guy responsible was, in fact, brought up on charges–in Canada. Thankfully, there are still some places in the world where laws are designed to protect nature, and you get called out for being a moron. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of those places.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because global warming is affecting northern latitudes profoundly, bringing bears and people (and their dogs) more frequently into contact with one another. The polar bears in this story were struggling to feed themselves, as evidenced by the dog sanctuary owner leaving food out for the bears. He was kind-hearted, but dim-witted. The bears do need help, but not help that desensitizes them to being around people, which will only cause them to be relocated or killed when (not if) they hurt someone while acting like predators (see above). The bears don’t need food. What they need is legislation to protect wild areas from human encroachment and to limit carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet, melt the ice caps, limit the bears’ mobility, and imperil their non-dog food supply.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it exposes how most Americans consume information: without a second’s thought. The original video went shooting across the Internet like a comet seen by millions of people. The grisly epilogue trails along behind, like dimly lit space garbage, seen mostly by grumpy liberals who like being right more than they like feeling good.

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it ends with a helpless dog getting eaten by a vicious predator. And then the predator dies, because its habitat is ruined. And then all the people that ruined its habitat go get dinner at the Arctic Circle’s first-ever Red Lobster, serving “fresh” shrimp from Thailand with cheddar biscuits and a side of mercury dipping sauce. It will be sunny and 65F at the North Pole, so we can all sit on the patio and tilt our faces to the light. Someone will say, “Remember when it used to get cold and Santa had to wear a fur-trimmed coat?” And someone else will say, “I can’t even remember the last time I saw a polar bear.” And some little kid will ask, “What’s a polar bear?” And no one will answer, because we’re all dead. (Apologies to Tim O’Brien.)

This story is the perfect metaphor for our time, because it means nothing, changes nothing.

Please Hold

Today I finally awoke under my own roof, in my own bed, after a whirlwind series of emotional and travel adventures. This morning, I ventured outside to walk the dog, I made coffee, and then the three of us–me, the dog, and an enormous slab of wedding cake–promptly returned to bed, where we have been ever since. Yes, I know it’s a Tuesday. But after the ten days I just had, I am taking a Sunday instead.

As my previous post indicated, my dad’s “routine” eye surgery resulted in a catastrophic outcome that took two ophthalmologic surgeons and an anesthesiologist totally by surprise. It was like driving to the grocery store and running over an IED–devastation, horror, and total shock. Suddenly, my mother’s primary caretaker was both physically incapacitated and emotionally devastated, though he was too stoic to show it overtly. My mother is slightly more demonstrative (sarcasm!), and she swung violently between compassion for my dad, fear at an uncertain future , and indiscriminate anger at various people–me, my sister, even my dad–for various infractions–patronizing her, being disrespectful, taking the front seat of the car. That last perpetrator was my dad! Returning home after two days in the hospital as a newly one-eyed man, he had the audacity to try to take the front passenger seat. (He is 6’3″ and she is 5’3″, so where she gets the idea that she should sit up front like the Queen of France, I do not know.) My mother was so focused on her own victimhood, and also having to pee (despite my sister begging her to go before she got in the car), that she completely forgot the nature of the task at hand: driving my dad home from the hospital.

Thanks, Alzheimer’s!

It took days for the New Reality to sink into her memory, and even now she routinely forgets that my father only has sight in one eye. He can’t bend over due to concerns about the pressure in his eye. He can’t see out of one eye, so his depth perception is fucked up, undermining his ability to perform routine tasks. His meds have been changed, and his tremor is worse, so sometimes he can barely feed himself. He can’t drive. He is in pain. And for days, his eyelid and surrounding tissues were swollen and black. Not the red and purple people mean when they say “a black eye,” but LITERALLY black. The sclera (white of the eye) is still cherry red, and he literally weeps blood. And my mother looks him right in the face, without recognition of any of this, and chastises him for not being able to help her pick specks of dog food off the carpet or go to the store to get her the right kind of cereal.

Fuck you, Alzheimer’s!

My dad’s surgery was on a Thursday nearly two weeks ago. My sister called with The News about 3 PM, and it’s been crazy ever since. I packed myself in 10 minutes, drove across town to drop the dog at my parents’ apartment, then pushed on to the hospital, where I stayed with my mother until 10 PM that night. The next day, we were back at the hospital by 9:30 AM, an epic feat considering that Alzheimer’s has completely ruined my mother’s executive function. She cannot plan and complete a task, so the simple request that she dress herself and eat some cereal drifted into efforts to clean the apartment, organize a cabinet, and repair a tear to the newspaper. It’s like having a toddler, but a toddler who weighs 130 pounds, knows they are legally an adult, and can push your buttons like nobody’s business.

We took my dad home that night, and I stayed over to attend to him. The next day, my sister and I worked in shifts, which enabled me to escape for a bit. I went to my friend’s bridal fitting, and then we visited a mall to buy makeup like Fancy Ladies. We are bad at malls, and I will write about this excursion at some other point. $260 worth of makeup later (WTF!), I headed back to the loony bin to spend another night with my folks.

I spent Monday & Tuesday grinding out a big project, Wednesday I got caught up on the anatomy of the heart and blood vessels for the class I’m taking, and Thursday I had an all-day meeting in the city. Thursday night I went back to my folks’, stayed over, then left Friday morning at the crack of dawn to fly to New England for my cousin’s funeral. Two days of celebrating my cousin’s life, crying at his grave, and catching up with extended family, then back on the plane to fly home. (More on this later.) I went straight from the airport to my friend’s open house on the eve of her wedding. Then back to my parents’ apartment, where I had stashed the dog but was also supervising my dad’s care. This brings us to Sunday.

My friend married the love of her life two days ago, and it was a wonderful day from start to finish. I had some drama with my parents in the morning but was finally able to extract myself around noon and head to my friend’s house to help with wedding prep. It was a day of firsts–I made my first bridal bouquet and my first groom’s boutonnière, and I did my first-ever bridal up-do. It all came together beautifully, though thankfully the bride’s aesthetic was “you tried hard, and it will look good from a distance.” The party went late, as all good parties do, and I finally arrived back at my parents’ apartment at 2 AM yesterday. I awoke about two hours later in extreme pain. The booze I consumed at the wedding must have anesthetized me from feeling the damage I was doing to my body by being on my feet in peep toe stilettos for 8 straight hours. My toes looked like sausages, my feet and ankles were swollen and sore, and I felt like I was 150 years old. As of today, the swelling is down in all but two toes, but those little piggies remain completely numb.

Bad at malls, also bad at high heels!

A few more hours of fitful sleep, and then I was up and out, Ubering to retrieve my car across town, running errands for my folks, assembling post-wedding flower bouquets for display at my parents’ retirement home, walking their neighbor’s dog, and then finally

finally

finally

driving myself and my pup HOME.

As an introvert, I need a lot of downtime after being around people in emotionally charged situations, whether they are sad or angry or exuberant and joyful. I have had all of these in the last ten days, and I am spent. The list of creatures I can stand to deal with is currently counted on one hand: my dog, a few dear friends, and another piece of wedding cake.

Everyone else: Please hold.

I will be with you shortly.

 

Twist

I was so worried about the possible return of my dad’s melanoma (biopsy result: negative) that I never saw it coming: the routine, outpatient cataract surgery.

It’s never good when your sister calls, and the first thing she says is, “Dad is still alive.” Because if that’s the metric by which you’re measuring good news, then the news is gonna suck.

My dad is a cardiac patient–never had a heart attack, but his brother has had two. My dad takes a blood thinner, blood pressure medication, and a statin for cholesterol. I learned recently that he walks around with nitroglycerin pills. A doctor I went on a first-date with described my dad’s complex of pathologies as a “ticking time bomb.”

The bomb didn’t go off, but it did start hissing and steaming right on the operating table. My dad’s BP spiked partway through the procedure, and a blood vessel burst in the back of his eye, forcing the eyeball forward and causing a bunch of delicate tissues to shift and collapse. The surgeon did something, and then he did something else, and then he had to snip some teeny ligament and stitch his eyelid closed. I can’t quite recall all the details. They packed the eye with gauze and put a big clear plastic bandage over it, like a window, so you can see the swelling and bruising peeking out behind the gauze. As I rushed to the hospital (I was on second shift, supposed to spend the night with my parents and drive them to the routine followup appointment tomorrow), I texted my sister to see if she’d seen him and find out how he looked.

“Like hell,” was her answer. She was not exaggerating.

They admitted him, and he slept most of the day. While he was sleeping, my sister mentioned that she thought no one had actually told him his prognosis. She had been there since 6:30 AM, so she left after about 13 hours, and I did the late shift with my mom. She had a million questions, and every time we told her, it was emotionally wrenching because the Alzheimer’s wiped her memory clean every goddam time.

And then my dad finally woke up, and I fed him grapes and jello, and he started asking questions too.

Today I had to tell my father that he is very likely blind in one eye and may never drive a car again. I only had to tell him once. I must have told my mom 20 times.

This is my new baseline for a shitty day, I think.

J* told me once that hospitals are full of families who never thought they would be there when they woke up that morning. Today that family was us. I am grateful my dad is cognitively ok, that he did not have a heart attack or stroke, and that he still has one good eye. That is not the standard by which I originally planned to measure this day, but I suppose it’s good enough going forward.

Plot twist indeed.

Spinning Plates: An Update

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Hello there, faithful readers. I apologize for my silence these last few weeks. My attentions have been focused on:

  • Logistics for travel to my cousin’s funeral. Must remember to rent second car! And cancel backup rooms! And figure out rides for my crazy, maddeningly incompetent uncle!
  • Helping my bestie prepare for her wedding, which unfortunately takes place the day after my cousin’s funeral. Flowers! Favors! It’s fun, and I’m loving the time I’ve spent with her. Plus I am getting REALLY good at zipping naked ladies into wedding gowns.
  • WORK, but not enough WORK. I am terribly stressed about WORK.
  • Anatomy & Physiology II, which is proving very, very tough. I currently have a C average, but not for lack of trying. The instructor’s competence does not extend much beyond the material itself. She cannot use PowerPoint effectively, her lectures lack discipline and focus, we are so far behind that she has had to dramatically revise the syllabus, and she is getting pwned by the students when she goes over test answers. I can’t blame them–the lady can’t write a coherent test question to save her life. The entire class is frustrated and demoralized. As my mom would say, “HISS, BOO.”
  • My own illness… a little upper respiratory thing that has laid me low. Like the last two colds I have had, it is sinking into my chest, which makes me wonder about the health and resilience of my immune system. Getting older sucks, you know? At least now I know that my lymphocytes and basophils are the problem.
  • My dad’s health. I am on tenterhooks today waiting to learn if his cancer (malignant melanoma) has returned, and he has cataract surgery later this week. We need him healthy for his own sake, but also because my mother’s quality of life will decline dramatically–as in, have to move into assisted living, dramatically–if he isn’t able to care for himself and for her. I am… worried.

Lots of little things. Just life in middle age, I guess. I wish I had someone to go buy me more kleenex. Or snake my bathtub drain. Or ask me how it’s going at the end of the day.

Because it’s hard keeping all these plates spinning, as I am sure you know from your own life.

Someone impugned my “independence” recently, implying that I am not an independent woman. Um, to that person, see above, because that’s just a sample of the plates I am spinning. And when one breaks, I sweep up the pieces and save them for craft projects! So, FUCK YOU, frenemy who confuses needing help with dependency. If I didn’t have a bad cold and lingering depression, I would rule this world!

 

 

Holiday

Plans are firming up to take my mom to my cousin’s memorial service next month. My father gets a pass, because he will be recovering from cataract surgery. So our party will consist of me, my sister, her two children, my mother, and my mother’s Alzheimer’s, which is so intrusive, it needs its own suitcase.

Last night, I went over the plan with my parents–well, with my dad while my mom looked on:

  • The dog and I will stay overnight with them and help my mom pack in the evening.
  • The next morning, the dog will stay with my dad, and I will drive my mom & I to an out-of-town airport (cheaper flight) at the asscrack of dawn.
  • We will meet my sister and her two children at the airport and fly to a city close to the rural memorial service.
  • We will get in about 9:30 AM, rent two cars, and drive to the beach. (My mom loves the ocean and doesn’t get to see it much.)
  • Burial service that afternoon, memorial service the next day.
  • We are all staying in an Air BnB, along with my weird uncle.

My mom really struggled with the rental-house concept. “I don’t want to stay in someone’s house,” she said initially. Later, it became clear that she understood the concept of “rooms” only in the context of “hotel rooms,” and she became confused and angry at the thought of my nephew sleeping on a couch.

“He’ll be all by himself?” she asked plaintively, over and over. I think maybe she was picturing him in a hotel lobby. Who knows.

The other problem with this plan is that we know–including the kids (ages 11 and 14)–that my cousin killed himself. But there are some relatives–we’re not sure which ones–who do not know. My cousin’s widow apparently wants to keep up the fiction that an athletic, 49 year old man with Crohn’s disease mysteriously dropped dead, out of the blue, in his own home. Among those who don’t know, and are not supposed to know, are a bunch of kids. So, we now have to have The Talk with my nephew, rather like Jewish parents do with their children about Santa: “You cannot say anything to the other kids.”

My niece is rock-solid, unswayed by peer pressure or a desire to impress. My nephew is more of a joiner, and I could see him divulging if he was trying to impress an older kid, but I think fear of punishment will keep him in check. The wildcard is my mom. She can’t remember anything, including, increasingly, my name. (She often cycles through several possibilities–dog, niece, sister–before remembering the name she gave to me.) She will undoubtedly ask, “What is this?” or “What are we doing here?” repeatedly (as in, every 2-5 minutes) while we are at the burial and memorial services. She will very likely forget that my cousin is dead and ask after him to his father and widow, at his funeral. (This happened at another funeral she attended. It is very awkward.) And she will likely announce, with a parrot-like vigor, “B* killed himself, right?”

She kept doing this last night, as though we were playing trivia, and she finally got an answer right.

“He’s dead, right?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“And he killed himself, right?”

“That’s right.”

The show “Roseanne” (which I LOVE) got many things about family life exactly right, including what it is like to deal with elderly relatives in times of grief.

If you have this exchange more than a few times, all of the appropriate emotions–shock, horror, grief–get displaced by frustration, irritation, and a fervent desire to end the interaction. Thankfully, I don’t think anyone has told my mother the circumstances of my cousin’s death: he shot himself with his own gun a few hours (not the next day, as I first thought) after being released from a psychiatric hospital. His wife found him when she got home from work.

(If you’re wondering what kind of psychiatric hospital releases an in-patient with suicidal thoughts into his own custody, without even notifying his spouse, when there is a gun in play, the possible answers are: A) The one my cousin was in hours before he shot himself; B) The one I hope his widow sues the fuck out of; C) Both A and B.)

When you really sit with it, the horror is breathtaking. Maybe I should thank Alzheimer’s for turning my cousin’s suicide into just another incidental detail, like who is running for president or what Mom needs at the drugstore. My mother writes information like this down on sticky notes, and we find them everywhere–on mirrors, lining every cabinet door, inside every pocket. There is no emotion with it, just cold information: “Cough drops, Shampoo, B*’s death. Suicide. Need paper towels.” And, just like a Post-It, none of it sticks.

If a tree commits suicide in a forest, and no one ever talks about it, did it really happen?

The irony here is that the silence and stigma surrounding my cousin’s suicide is mirrored perfectly by the silence and stigma surrounding my mother’s dementia. My cousin’s wife feels that it is disparaging of her husband’s memory to acknowledge that the pain of his depression and Crohn’s, braided one into the other, eventually became too much to bear. And my mother is mortified that she has committed the grave sin of contracting a fatal brain disease, while my father is in denial about her cognitive abilities. Just last night, he excoriated her for not knowing what kind of coffee–regular or decaf?–she put in the coffeemaker. Of all the things she cannot remember–who’s dead, where she lives, whether she has grandchildren–he thinks that’s information she’s got filed and ready for retrieval??? Regardless of the context, my mother’s condition is a Dirty Family Secret.

My sister is coming around to the idea that we should be more open, even with strangers, but she treads more lightly than me. I am pretty upfront about it, if my mom isn’t within earshot, because people are kinder and more helpful if they know what’s up. Like, for instance, the post-op nurse who kept giving instructions to my mom, but not also to me, about caring for my dad after his hernia surgery. Or the ladies we lunched with at a friend’s birthday party, who treated my mother like furniture because they didn’t know what to make of her inability to remember the finer details of the table’s smalltalk.

Gate agents, flight attendants, waitstaff, funeral guests…together my mother and I will run a gantlet of socially awkward encounters perched always on the edge of rage. This trip is shaping up to be one of the longest, strangest weekends of my life. Only the walk on the beach will afford a moment’s rest and contemplation, when the sound of the waves drowns out the yammering questions brought forth by my mother’s disease.

And the brisk winds focus her attention on seashells and grandchildren and the gorgeous feeling of bare toes in wet sand.

And the vastness of the sea brings all our little tragedies down to size.

 

Suicide is preventable. It should always be taken seriously. If you need help, or know someone who does, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime, 24/7. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/