I’ve heard a lot of people saying that they’ve stopped listening to
or reading the news, that they don’t need to know how many fell ill or died from COVID-19 in the last day or the last hour. Sometimes one of the people I hear saying that is me. And that’s all right. We all have to to do what we can to take care of ourselves — though there are so many many many people now whose circumstances will prevent them from getting what they need.
So I do step back from the television and ignore the headlines that flash across the screen of my phone. I put down the New Yorker and pick up Lord Peter Wimsey. I owe it to myself and to my family, to the nurses and doctors at the hospitals, to society in general, to stay as sane and healthy as I can.
But then I start thinking about what we owe the dead.
I don’t know any of them — yet. I can’t imagine that I’ll get through this time of coronavirus and sorrow and incomprehensible loss and criminal stupidity without knowing someone who gets ill from the virus, someone who dies — without, perhaps, falling ill or dying myself.
But whether I ever know anyone who contracts COVID-19 doesn’t matter.
While this pandemic rages, while it takes lives and destroys the health, happiness, and fortunes of thousands, of millions, of (for a while) most of us, let us witness all we can stand to witness. Let’s those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to do so, take our breaks and catch our breaths, and then, if we can, let us witness as much as we can take in. Let us learn and remember names of strangers who have died without the solace of their loved ones, of the families left to gasp and mourn. Let us remember the dead in the aggregate, the inevitable deaths and the ones that could have been prevented if more people in our government had given a damn. Let’s write letters and journals and blogs to record the losses, the emotions, the unforgivable neglect by government officials, the kindnesses of neighbours, the teachers driving through neighbourhoods to cheer the students who can’t see them at school, the sacrifices of first responders, of doctors, nurses, postal carriers, store clerks, delivery folks, volunteers — of anyone who gave more than could be expected or should have been asked.
Let’s make it personal.
Let us note too, the almost eerie benefits, the way the earth has
seized this interminable moment to clear the air, to calm the crust. Let us remember the resurgence of birds and the quieter days that didn’t grate along our nerves. Let’s give thanks for the cessation of robo-calls and phone solicitations.
And when we figure out how to live with this virus, when we have a vaccine and cure, we should remember all we can and share what we remember, for no one of us will remember it all.
We are bound to hear. And that, my friends, is what I think we owe the dead.
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.
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.
I am back. I have been away because, for several months, I was living someone else’s story. And the story was not mine to tell.1
When I left, it was Winter. In the cold days of February, I thought about other topics about which I might write. There were the cardinals that came close to the houses to glean some of the ambient heat, the reds of the males flashing against the greys of the sky and the clouds, the orange beaks of the females, warmer and more welcome than the sparking males. The flock’s calls and clicks that sounded like notes from a wooden xylophone were equally bright — glowing coals of sound, equally cacophony and symphony. I could have written about the way they came close, but not too close, never venturing onto the patio, never coming under the shelter of the roof, but rather perching on the branches of the pink-bud tree that almost — almost — stretches its limbs under the overhang that shelters the patio.
I thought about telling how, years ago, the pink-bud tree on the patio became diseased and had to be cut down. There was debate about whether the unobstructed view or the shade of a tree was preferable. While we waited for the stump to decompose, new saplings twined up from the base of the old tree and flourished. After some years, it was decided that the new trees weren’t growing right, and the trio of trees were cut down. This time, stump killer was applied to prevent new growth. It didn’t work. The new shoots became a proper tree. And now that tree shelters cardinals in the cold and spills out pink and purple buds in Spring.
I thought about writing about the rain. The grey skies cast down unusually generous rains and soon there were thunderstorms with their rumbles and explosions and lightning shows. I stood on the patio, under the overhang, watching the wildness, catching pieces of lightning with the camera on my phone.
And I thought about trying to articulate the strangeness of watching the heart of one season slide into the respiration of the next in a place that was not home, in a span of time that unspooled yet held still, of seeing Winter’s snows become Spring rains that greened the grass and persuaded the trees to cast on shawls of light green, then coats of darker verdancy. The mock pears shone white with their blossoms;
the cardinals paired off and set up housekeeping in the hedge by the patio and the tall bushes by the back bedrooms. The cardinals and wood doves came for the bird seed I put out; I began feuding with squirrels and keeping an eye out for rats.
I considered describing how I went to the tree nursery and brought home blooming plants in vivid hues and stuffed them into pots along the patio.
I cast seeds wantonly into the pots and planters, along the back fence, in front of the house. The continuing rains washed the seeds into the soil and set the seeds to growing.
I thought about writing about how time morphed into strange shapes and lost meaning and days were the same day and different days and it stopped mattering and time escaped altogether.
I “wrote” in my head, but got nothing on paper, nothing entered onto the computer nor on line. I was too enfolded in other matters, in another’s life, to write anything down.
1. Jenny Lawson blogged about this dilemma too, telling readers of her blog back in January, “I’ve struggled with what to say because I don’t know what to say. I am an open book and I write everything, but this isn’t just my story and I want to respect that,“ and “Turns out it’s really hard to write about emotional things and even harder when they involve someone you love whose privacy you want to protect.”