Many years ago (call it 2007) I was in the middle of one of those long stretches of hard days. My father had just died in West Virginia and my mother-in-law was dying in my family room.
I was teaching high school and Fred was teaching at the community college. He had a great schedule: all of his classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he had plenty of time to care for his mother. Part of this care involved managing the troupe of hospice workers who saved our lives every day.
They brought things Ann refused to use,
like oxygen and a hospital bed. They convinced her to do things she refused to do, like take a shower, or speak to the doctor, or sleep in her bedroom at night.
They took her blood pressure, listened to her lungs, and helped us find a good sleeping chair. Hospice workers taught me how to help with adult diapers and to apply the cream she needed for the rash under her breasts.
On good days, I’d listen forever to her stories–often fabulous tales with a recurring theme: life would have been better if only [fill in the blank] hadn’t wronged her.
On hard days I seethed while she complained about Fred or about the meal I had just made her. “I can’t eat this garbage,” she might say, on a day that wasn’t good for either of us.
That was a rough spell. Coming as it did on the heels of both my father-in-law’s and my father’s deaths, and in the midst of my mother’s worsening dementia, those were hard days. Even our dogs had started dying.
I look back on those hard days now
and can see how my focus telescoped in. Breathing and moving. Those were the things I knew. Inhale, exhale, and keep walking through the obstacle course as it unravels before you. One day you climb over a rotting fence, one day you belly crawl through thorny underbrush, and one day you leap over or (screw it) stomp through mud puddles.
Maybe you even have one day when you lie on the couch and pretend the world can take care of itself, because even the air has become too heavy for you to carry.
On one day like that, I stayed home from work. Ann must have been sleeping, because I can’t find her in this memory. The lone member of the hospice troupe scheduled for that morning was a woman named Mary.
I’d never met her before, but Fred knew her well. I don’t remember her title, but she seemed to be the “caring for the caregivers” member of the team. I put a pot of coffee on and she and Fred launched into conversation.
I hung on the fringes,
gave them some space, and poured the coffee when it was ready. Determined to be a spectator in this conversation, I wasn’t ready when Mary turned to me and said, “And how are you doing?”
What I mean by “I wasn’t ready” is that I didn’t smile and say something like, “I’m fine, Fred is really bearing the brunt of this.” Mary blew that simple trumpet, and all my walls came tumbling down.
When my mother-in-law was dying I didn’t dig; I didn’t open my heart to wonder why she was preparing to leave this world with so little affection for it. Her stories were set-pieces, polished works that I let pour over me like tiny stones.
I was afraid to pick them up and learn what they weighed. I smiled and nodded through Ann’s last six months, occasionally generous, often resentful.
When Mary asked me how I was doing, I talked and cried for a long time. I’m not exaggerating when I say she changed me forever. Her simple question gave me permission to feel what I was feeling. She taught me that I didn’t have to be strong, that I could set my little piece of sky down once in while so I could rest.
Oscar Wilde said
“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” He was right about that, but in those hard days I felt like I was being precocious in racking up so many losses. My friends were still visiting their parents for holidays and dinner parties, not going to doctors’ appointments or writing eulogies.
Lately, though, and sadly, that has started to change. My friends’ parents are receiving hard diagnoses, entering hospice, passing judgment on their own long lives. My friends are walking beside their parents, holding up the sky as best they can.
I’m watching from the other side, wondering how to be helpful.
All that comes is a line from a poem by John Matthias. “When my father finished playing dying/I began…”
The line is from a poem titled “Poem for Cynouai” that I first heard the poet himself read when I was in college. He was my teacher, and the poem moved me deeply. Whenever I forget what it means to write poetry, I read that poem and remember.
Right now, the book that holds that poem is sealed in a box in what used to be my mother-in-law’s closet. I packed most of my books a few years ago when we first thought we might sell this too-big house. We filled neatly labelled boxes and stacked them on top of one another like drawers in a mausoleum.
I can’t find “Poem for Cynouai” online (except in pieces in that review I linked to above). The words remain alive in me, but I can’t touch them. I can’t read the lines above or below the one line I remember. I can’t ask the poem questions or turn the page to see what follows.
It’s something like that, all of these losses.
I am not sure
why John Matthias showed up in my kitchen while I was writing this morning, or why Mary the hospice worker came to mind as the coffee brewed. What I do know is that a number of my friends are in the middle of things I’ve made it to the other side of.
I feel like I should have something to offer them: useful notes from the journey, maybe, or dispatches from the far shore. Instead, I feel like the friend I spoke with the other morning.
He’s in the middle of the obstacle course right now; he’s climbing, leaping, wading, striding, trudging–dealing with each hurdle as it appears. From where he stands, I imagine, there is no such thing as looking around or beyond or ahead.
“I wake up every morning,” he said, “and I don’t know.”
I remember that feeling.
In those long stretches of hard days it’s as though you signed up to run a race and no one will show you a map of the course or tell you how long you’ll be running. All you can do is put the next foot down, and then put the next foot down again.
Right now, though, I’m in the middle of a stretch of good days. Or maybe I am not in the middle at all; maybe I’m at the beginning, and these good days are going to unroll into the future as far as I can see. Or not–maybe I’ve lived through most of them already and my next obstacle course is waiting just around the corner.
In his poem “Evening” my old friend Rilke says, “It is alternately stone in you and star.” I don’t know. But if I were going to send any news from the star days, maybe it’s just that they came back. Life came to its senses eventually and got back to the business of living.
In the meantime, it’s good to have friends who help you hold up the sky.
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