It’s been six months, as of today, since my mother died. I feel like I’m in a Greek myth-Freaky Friday mash-up: I’m Persephone waiting for Ceres to come back after her half-year in the Underworld. It ain’t gonna happen, but I still rather expect Mom to show up and want to know why we haven’t finished fixing up the house.
To mark the day, here’s one of my mother’s favourite poems, “One Perfect Rose,” by one of her favourite authors, Dorothy Parker:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met. All tenderly his messenger he chose; Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet – One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret; ‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’ Love long has taken for his amulet One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose.
To all our veterans, wounded warriors, first responders, their families, and others who serve or have served: thank you for your sacrifices and dedication. I can’t pretend to understand what you have given or given up for our country, but you have my gratitude and respect. If any of you care to write about your service, I will read your accounts.
Many years ago, I sent my uncle and aunt a notebook and a pen each. I wanted to know about their lives, to learn the stories they hadn’t told. My uncle had been trained as a medic in World War II (he went on to become a fantastic optometrist), been captured by the Germans almost as soon as he arrived, and, like many of his generation, had refused to talk about his experiences. I hoped a notebook might elicit some more of his history.
I didn’t hear back from either my aunt or uncle about the package until I was visiting my parents and my dad called his brother. And here let me mention that my uncle was from New Jersey, and he exemplified almost every stereotype about denizens of the Garden State that is known to humanity. Generally speaking, anything that popped into his head, popped out of his mouth. Once, when he and my aunt were on vacation with my parents, a tour bus pulled up and let out a group of Japanese tourists. In a move that made my father want to sink into the earth, my uncle took one look at the new-comers, marched over to the nearest visitor, held out his camera, and demanded to know if it was a good one. Fortunately, none of the group seemed to understand English — or my uncle’s version of it anyway — or were polite enough to pretend they didn’t. And now you know why my father moved away from “Joisey.”
So that day at my parents’, I got on the phone with my uncle, who lit right in: “LISTEN! WHADDYOU SENT ME THAT NOTEBOOK FOR? Nobody wants to read about my life. Nobody wants to hear about that stuff. Nobody wants to hear about…” and he then spent about an hour telling all the “stuff” nobody would ever want to hear. I was completely unprepared, had no paper, no writing instrument, no way to record all the personal history he rattled off at warp speed.
The central story of my uncle’s war is that of his capture. It happened within a few days — maybe even the first day — after he was sent over. When he and the other POWs were brought to the prison camp, a British officer was helping process the new arrivals. When my uncle approached the table, the officer asked for his name, rank, serial number, and, as was usual then, his religion. My uncle said, “Jewish.”
“No, you’re not,” the officer told him. My uncle wasn’t stupid, but he was young, and didn’t understand at first. So he replied,
“Yes, I’m Jewish.” The officer looked at him hard and repeated,
“No, you’re not. Lose your dog-tags!” That officer saved my uncle, and I suspect a lot of other young men, from dying in a gas chamber.
I wish I knew that officer’s name. I wish I knew what happened to him. I hope he made it home and managed to live well and happily. My uncle did. (Despite his foibles, my uncle was a decent guy. He and my aunt lived a few blocks away from my grandparents, took care of them, raised a daughter, ran a business, and was gregarious and out-going.) He died a little less than a year ago at the age of ninety-six. I wish I had managed to write down his history that day on the phone.
Anyone wishing to support and honour those who serve or have served might consider writing a letter to one of these folks. An e-mail from Endless Pens reminded me about Operation Gratitude, an organization that collects letters for deployed troops, veterans, new recruits, wounded heroes, caregivers, and first responders. Read the instructions carefully — there are rules — and if you write, maybe you’ll get someone’s history in reply.
In my last post, I wrote that my mother’s story became mine, and that is true. But it is not mine alone, not by a long shot, and I am beyond grateful for that, for having family with whom to navigate this odyssey. However, I do not have permission to share their parts in this story. I have not even asked for it because I am not ready for the suggestions and censorship that would inevitably ensue. So I’ll restrict this posting mostly to what pertains to my mother and myself.
In early February — on the first of February — my mother fell ill and wound up in the ICU. The expectation was that she had only days left to live. She told me later that she had gone to the hospital thinking, hoping she’d die there.
However, my mother came from tough pioneer stock and her body held on despite her intentions to die. The doctors put a tube through her back, between her ribs, and into the lung that had been filling with fluid for longer than anyone could guess. Until this procedure, my mother had endured all the poking and prodding, imaging and invasiveness without complaint. But the drainage tube was painful, painful enough that one night it gave her dreadful nightmares of confinement and torture. She thrashed around and dislodged the tube and her IV and woke bloody and wracked. We had no idea then that the pain would never go away.
After almost two weeks in hospital, we took Mom home. Different doctors gave us divergent prognoses: two weeks, a few months, a year. We struggled to make plans. Was it time for hospice? A nursing facility? Could we handle what to come ourselves?
Mom seemed frail beyond belief, almost skeletal, nearly translucent. She had no appetite, no energy for eating. She kept the thermostat at 78º F; in the middle of a bitingly cold Winter, I wore tank tops and shorts and, if the neighbours hadn’t such a clear view through the family room window, I probably would have worn even less.
When the cold drove the cardinals to gather near the patio, my mother perked up. She and my dad, dead these dozen years, kept binoculars by the glass door in the kitchen to watch the birds, and we got them out to watch the red creatures flit through the bushes. (The neighbours never did anything interesting enough to warrant spying, so there was no Rear Window-ing.) My husband, back after a few weeks home, bought some bird seed for the small feeder — an up-side-down stone turtle dish — and the cardinals came and ate, one pecking at the turtle’s up-turned belly as its mate kept watch. (It was all rather Promethean, but I didn’t mention that.) Eventually, the cardinals nested in the bushes lining the patio and in the hedge by the back bedrooms abutting it. It was hard to get a true count, but there were five or six nesting couples. My mother was delighted.
In years past, turtle doves had nested in a flower pot by the kitchen door. This year they flew in, but didn’t stay. I did what I could to coax them back with bird seed and by transplanting some soft ground cover into the pot, but they would only stop by to visit rather to set up house-keeping. They had always been so calm, so trusting, so unfazed by Mom’s comings and going, that she had found their confidence enchanting, and was disappointed that they abandoned her this Spring. I still haven’t forgiven them.
As the rains poured down, as the thunder welled and the lightning flared, Mom grew stronger. I cooked real meals, and she ate just enough to gain some energy. Eating wore her out, though, and she would head to bed to sleep for a while after dinner, always re-appearing just as I finished cleaning the kitchen.
In the hospital, Mom had been put on oxygen and, once home, tubes tethered her to tanks, but the oxygen sharpened her mind marvelously. The forgetfulness we had attributed to age, we now realized had been induced by how little oxygen had been making its way form her lungs to her brain. Nevertheless, Mom would still ditch her tubes to smoke in the greenhouse, sitting there in peace, looking at the yard, the birds, the sunset, and Hamlet’s undiscovered country drawing near. She ate more; the thermostat started to edge down. But the pain from the drainage tube persisted and increased. Meds took off the rim of the pain, but never made Mom comfortable. When others were around, Mom would pull together and push aside the pain, but it would come roaring back and she inevitably paid for her efforts later, panting panting panting from the pain. Despite the on-going agony, Mom was kind and grateful, though being so was patently a Herculean labour.
As Spring came on, the pink-bud bloomed. Bright buds of mauve and purple lined the branches; bright green leaves unfolded; bright cardinals and subfusc wrens perched on the limbs. We enlisted a home health nursing service, but time and again they could not apprehend what Mom needed. They came with pre-conceived beliefs that physical and occupational therapies would strengthen Mom when all they did was wear her out and exacerbate her pain. When we asked for guidance to help with Mom’s anguish over not being able to work, we were told to have do whatever made her happy, but it was being useful, feeling she had a purpose, running the family business that made her feel content.
When we had to make the shift to hospice, the doctor and nurses promised that they would see to it that Mom wouldn’t suffer, but her pain and sense of uselessness were equally anguishing. She felt betrayed by every effort to keep her alive; she wanted the hospice folks to speed her on her way, but state laws forbad such relief. “They promised,” she kept saying. “They promised I wouldn’t suffer, and this is suffering.”
Sitting in the kitchen, looking out at the yard, Mom found herself longing for more colour. I planted such flowers as I could find at the nursery and scattered seeds to bring more blooms later. The rains coaxed out more leaves, more flowers, more growth as my mother flagged and diminished. I intended to go back when there would be more plants available, but Mom started to decline and it was hard for me to leave the house for long.
Mom had some good days, too. My kids flew in and out to visit to see her a few times, bringing life and youth and more love into the house, and reminding Mom that she had helped shape the next generation, that part of her would live on in these quick, bright things. When the end became clearly in sight, Mom rallied a few times to tie up loose ends and legal matters. She wrote in her computer journal, committing to the machine stories of her own mother, philosophical thoughts, unresolved sorrows. She and I had time to talk, to argue politics and discuss Shakespeare. We said “I love you” a dozen times a day.
She’d say, “I hope you’ll miss me.”
I’d say, “I’ll miss you like mad.”
Her last really good day came when the neighbours came over with their grown son, his wife, four kids, and a huge, fluffy puppy. My mother, who loved animals,* especially dogs, was enthralled. She sat on the floor with the kids and the dogs and radiated warmth and happiness from the presence of the pup and the knowledge that, over the decades, her life had become so intertwined with these kind and generous people.
In the end, I think it was the pain more than the cancer that overcame her. Even the morphine she had been taking did little to ease the pain. Everything revolved around the regime of pain medications we kept hoping would bring some relief; eventually, because she was too thin for a morphine drip IV, we were giving her pills or liquid morphine every hour around the clock. I snatched occasional, twenty-minute naps and lost all sense of time. The mid-Spring days grew longer and brighter; my mother’s season diminished and faded.
And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.
And I miss her like mad.
* I always said that I never worried about my getting lost in a forest because I knew all the woodland creatures would flock to her and lead her to the nearest house of hospitable dwarves.
In a recent post, I wrote about developing aphasia and labouring to re-build my vocabulary. I am an editor and an independent scholar; both my work and my vocation depend on my ability to deploy words with attention to nuance and connotation. This post is a note of gratitude to Jaynie Royal, the person who helped me to revive my inner thesaurus.
Before I “met” Jaynie in LinkedIn’s Literary Endeavor discussion group (which Jaynie established), I had been playing “brain training” games and looking up words, writing down their definitions in tiny journals (I’ve long given up on the games, but I still keep the vocabulary journals). I read read read with a kind of desperation that alloyed almost out of existence any pleasure I might have taken in the activity. I also consumed articles and comments in on-line groups, and I did find some support and validation there, but no solutions.
And then, a little more than three years into my struggle, I started to get to know Jaynie, thanks to the magic of the Internet.* We became friends, and then, when she invited me to join her publishing house, colleagues. To keep our work and our personal relationships (slightly) separated, we started consigning our communications about editing and publishing to e-mails and using letters — the kind written by hand, on paper, with a fountain pen — to share news and thoughts about family, the weather, politics, recently read books, and recipes. (Well, it’s mostly Jaynie sharing recipes because she is a superb cook.)
Beyond the exchange of chat and epiphanies, Jaynie and I discovered just how much we share an enjoyment of playing with language, of indulging in what we think of as elegant prose and others might call florid ramblings. Since this is my blog, let’s go with elegant prose. (Jaynie’s style absolutely sparkles.)
Here was someone who laid out the riches of her vocabulary for me to delight in and who was willing to revel in the gems of verbiage I was able to unearth from the buried treasures of my verbal trove. Corresponding with Jaynie over these last four-plus years has helped me unlock rooms in my head that I forgotten were there. Letter therapy — unintentional, accidental therapy — has been what has brought me back some sense of who I am and what I used to be able to do.
I doubt that I’ll ever completely recover from the effects of the Prednisone (I am on the far side of middle age and I’m not sure of how much plasticity my ossifying brain is still capable), nor is there any compensatory silver lining nor new philosophical outlook that will make me a better person because of my aphasia. I will always resent the loss; I will always be frustrated when the right word refuses to trip off my tongue or slide down my nib. But I am relieved to have learned that I can get better. And I am tremendously grateful to my friend Jaynie for giving me the means to do so.
(I think I’m going to need a bigger box — or another one.)
*Jaynie and I have met in real life too. You know those movies where people find themselves living inside their favourite novels? Meeting Jaynie was like that, only I felt as if I had walked inside one of her letters.
Here is a relic of my childhood: Mazel and Schlimazel, or The Milk of a Lioness by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Singer tells us a story of two spirits, Mazel (good luck) and Schlimazel (bad luck) and the wager they make one day after Mazel has been boasting how happy he makes people and that everyone loves him, but no one loves Schlimazel. (And I have to say, even though Mazel is basically a good character, he is pretty obnoxious right at the start. But he quickly gets better.) Schlimazel gets understandably riled. He claims that whatever Mazel can do in a year, he, Schlimazel, can undo in a second. And the bet is on.
Mazel seeks out the poorest hut in a poor village and finds Tam, a young man beset by bad luck. And here’s where I start to love Mazel. He sits down next to Tam in his shack with toadstools growing from the walls and gets to know Tam. Even though Tam isn’t really aware of him, Mazel asks Tam questions about himself and while Tam talks — to himself, he thinks, but really prompted by Mazel — Mazel pays attention. Mazel and Schlimazel is a children’s book, a short story — a fairy tale, really — but at this moment in the story the words and illustration depict a moment of genuine companionship.
From here, of course, Tam’s life promptly improves. His luck changes. He is brought to the attention of the king and the princess.
After a good bath and a change of clothes, Tam quickly rises from the court smithy to the court proper.
And while Mazel helps every step of the way, the story makes it clear that Tam is doing the work. Mazel’s presence might have prompted the king to give the young man a job, but Tam labors to do well. And Singer reminds us that “When the humble achieve success, they often become haughty and forget those among whom they grew up. But Tam always found time to help the peasants and the poor.” Tam’s kindness is all his own and not a veneer imposed by Mazel. Tam’s rise becomes a joint effort. Mazel provides opportunities and Tam earns the next chance that Mazel makes possible. Mazel and Tam build on another’s efforts. That’s teamwork, people.
Tam and Nesika, as we would expect in a heteronormative story such as this one, are in love. The king (who never gets a name and has class issues), much as he likes and values Tam, continues to hold onto hope that Nesika will find a prince she can tolerate sufficiently to marry. Nesika (and here is another aspect of the story I love), however, is no mere passive prize. In fact, when we first meet her, she has been driving her father up the wall for refusing suitors for eminently sensible reasons. One laughed too much, another would only discuss fox-hunting, a third beat his dog. The latest suitor (number seven) Nesika rejects “because his boots were foolish.”
“‘How can boots be foolish?” her father asked.
“‘If the feet are foolish, the boots are foolish,’ Nesika replied.
“‘How can feet be foolish?’ her father insisted.
“‘If the head is foolish, the feet are foolish!’ Nesika retorted.”
Nesika is one smart cookie.
But, naturally, a day comes when an impossible task must be accomplished. Tam volunteers to get the necessary milk of a lioness, and the king is so touched he says that when Tam returns, he may marry Nesika.
So off Tam goes, Mazel riding unseen on his own horse right behind him. A lioness with cubs is conveniently hanging around right outside the city, and Tam, thanks to Mazel, strolls right up, milks her, and pops back on his horse. (There is an amusing moment, one that I find a little poignant, when Tam and Mazel leave, in which the lioness comes out of her luck-induced haze and realizes what was done to her and is terribly embarrassed and angry. I don’t blame her for feeling pretty violated.)
Tam returns with the bottle of milk and presents it to the king just as the year is over. Schlimazel steps up and, in the single second that he’d said he would require, causes Tam to mis-speak a single word and the whole house of cards that Mazel and Tam had built so carefully over the course of the preceding year comes crashing down and Tam is sentenced to hang.
And this moment in the narrative is the one that has been on my mind lately. If you want to know how the story ends, you’ll have to read it yourself, which you should do anyway, because it’s a really good story.
The Personal and the Political
This pivotal moment in Mazel and Schlimazel has come back to me often as I have been struggling with both personal and political issues about speech (and yeah, yeah — I know: the personal is the political, but bear with me. I offer my distinction as point on a continuum, not as a dichotomy).
We have all seen, over and over, the harm done by words carelessly or viciously deployed, seen the way these words are making our cultural landscape into something twisted and bleak. Tam’s verbal mis-step and the consequences of a words rose to mind last month when Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court in Fort Worth declared the entire Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional. With a word (well, OK, a set of words, but ones that amounted to No), Judge O’Connor may have swept aside all the good that the ACA has wrought: coverage for young people through their parents, the slowly stabilizing cost of insurance, coverage for those of us (and we are legion) who have pre-existing conditions. The ACA is far from perfect; we need a Congress willing to pitch in and work together in good faith to argue and compromise and give a damn about the citizens of this country for that to happen.
The rescission of the ACA might not condemn any to hang, but it will cause deaths — slower deaths from illness, injury, despair and poverty from exorbitant medical costs rather than from the rope, but deaths nevertheless. The word of one man can take away essential care from so many — our friends, our families, our neighbors, ourselves — care that can save lives, save minds, and save souls.
And this kind of sudden reversal is not affecting health care only. We are seeing the accelerated destruction of the environment, of foreign relations, of civility, of children’s lives — brought on by ill-chosen words and inexcusable silences. We are seeing years of work and progress undone in moments.
My memory of Tam’s reversal and the degradation of political discourse and practice also connected with me in a more personal way. The personal aspect again has to do with health, my health. Several years ago, I was on high doses of Prednisone for some months. The drug messed with my mood and memory; I recall very little of those months, nothing of what was happening in my son’s life, fragmented scraps of my daughter’s college graduation. For most of that time, I had to sequester myself because I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. I felt terribly isolated from the people who were important to me and from myself. (Let us give thanks for good therapists.) I usually call my mother a few times a week. It was unsettling to go for more than three months without talking to her.
While I still don’t remember the months I was on the Prednisone, most of my memory is back. The deficit remaining lies in my ability to retrieve my words. I often struggle to get the word I want, the word I can feel in my mind, to come out my mouth. Instead, I hear myself say something that starts with the same letter but is otherwise completely unrelated or a word that has some relation to the word I know is in my head. The link might be somewhat similar in meaning to or the complete opposite of the word I want, but there will some kind of connection that makes sense to me. The result is that, often, I, like Tam, spout out the wrong word at important moments. So far, as far as I know at least, no one has died, though I often feel terribly awkward. No one warned me how drastically the drug was likely to affect me, and no one told me that the effects might be lasting. (Again, my situation is not strictly analogous to Tam’s. No one has tried to put an actual noose around my throat. It just feels like that.)
I have been living with aphasia ever since.
Aphasia. A beautiful name for the implosion of the bridge that connected me to the rest of the world.
That’s how Meghan Beaudry describes the bewildering, frightening experience of losing her words. Amy Roost, author, host of the podcast Fury, multi-talented and -accomplished wonder woman (Check out her web site. Go ahead. I’ll wait) sent me a link to Beaudry’s article, “A Brain Infection Destroyed My Marriage, But Made Me a Writer.”* Beaudry’s aphasia was inflicted by cerebritis, not medication, but like her, I had to “claw back” (exactly the phrase I hold in my mind) my ability to find my words. It’s still a struggle, almost eight years later. And her relationship to language is much like my own. Beaudry “balked at learning to navigate a new computer or phone, but cherished language, treating my words like pets and people: each with their own personalities and preferences….” Losing my words was like being unmoored. snatching at frayed threads instead of have a solid rope to secure me to my life.
Again like Beaudry, I continue to replenish my word hoard, but it is frustrating for me and for those with whom I try to communicate to wait around while I fish for words, needing the right ones with the right shades of meaning for my verbal palette. Poor Tam had a single moment of mis-speaking and was condemned for it. I live with the fear of condemnation, of being judged inadequate or unintelligent, of having people impatiently fill in my pauses and thereby let me know that I am taking up too much of their time.
Returning to the more overtly political, I wonder how many of those who claim to govern for us understand the power of their words, they way they are creating a world of flourishing hatred, selfishness, vituperation, viewed through a lens so narrow that no light seems to get through. I think most of them are aware; I suspect few of them care. Tam (though he didn’t know it) had the excuse of being momentarily beset by some really bad luck; others of us have conditions that make it difficult to find the words we need. But Tam and most of us struggling with impediments work to correct our errors, though we may not always succeed. I don’t think many of our politicians and lawmakers can say the same.
I’m not much of a fashion maven, but I suspect that if we check the footwear of many —too many — of the people in power, we will see that they are wearing dangerously foolish boots.
*Beaudry’s story is headed by a photo of a snail slinking along the page of a book. It’s an apt image: finding words now can be a slow process, one that doesn’t necessarily stay on track, though at least it’s not usually slimy.
OK, OK: I’ll tell you how the story ends, but not how it is resolved, so you still have to read the book. Tam avoids hanging, he and Nesika get married, and Tam and Mazel remain friends (even if Tam doesn’t know it). And here’s another great aspect of the story: when the king dies a timely, totally non-suspicious death, it is Nesika who ascends the throne. Tam happily inhabits his role as consort, providing advice to Nesika when she requests it. But it is Nesika who rules the kingdom.