Birthdays of the Dead

Iceland 1430

I wrote this post five years ago, while leaning on one of many pairs of crutches (the coolest among them, with built-in reflectors) I accrued as I quite literally fell to pieces as a half-decade younger widow.  Back then I had all our beagles by my side and underfoot; now Rufus and Brady have joined Jim.  It is one of my favorite posts, though I could not say why, and now something of a birthday tradition for him.  He would have loved everything about Iceland….

 **********

Earth-smoke and rue. Ashy gusts burst and thin and billow again, like those trick candles that can’t be blown out.

Today is Jim’s birthday.  Our birthdays, in different years, fell only ten days apart, both feeding into holidays our family now celebrates more in miniature.

We now live in a small house on a postage-stamp lot. My vehicle has shrunk considerably, the mighty mom van traded out for better gas mileage, fewer seats, and barely enough space to contain a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Even the beagle has downsized.

The Lilliputian scaling is apt for a surviving spouse of my fairly petite dimensions.

Jim was at least a foot taller than I. His mark on the world remains large.

I just had follow-up x-rays at the hospital where Jim worked and was a patient. The orthopedist was checking on the status of healing bones (a story for another time, having to do with the cliff-side tail end of the adventure during which I took the photographs above and below).

Iceland fall 1827

 

The hospital receptionist, whom I did not recognize, asked me about the daughter who accompanied me on my recent adventure. My husband’s name came up.

“Oh,” she smiled.  “I was wondering if you were related to our Doctor Glennon.”

English does not seem to have a word for a smile accompanied by tears not of the happy variety.

Our Doctor Glennon.”

He wasn’t just ours–mine and our children’s–and I am glad for that. He was a loving and loved friend, a brother and son and uncle and cousin, a physician, a sharp wit and a gentle prankster, a masterful photographer, a musician, a Little League coach, a Boy Scout troop leader. Nearly five years, unfathomably both compressed and vast, since he died I am glad to know that he belongs to others as well, and that they still think about him too.

When you go to bed, don’t leave bread or milk
on the table: it attracts the dead--
But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he
beneath the mildness of the eyelid

mix their bright traces into every seen thing;
and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue
be as real for him as the clearest connection.

 

As a transitive verb, “rue” occupies the same bittersweet ground as regret–which, like guilt, seems to me to lodge grief’s emergency brake into place: things not done or said in time cannot be done or said.  Unasked questions will never be answered.

I am not without regret.

But I like to think I am also more capable now of viewing the other side.

As a noun, “rue” is a yellow flower, a medicinal herbal balm–calling to mind the “secret belief/in perpetual spring“–the faith that “for every hurt/there is a leaf to cure it.”

 

Rilke’s native German provides a homophone shared by “eyelid” (Lidern) and song (Liedern).  His roses’ folds are like closed eyelids, the sleep of death, but also luminous and unending.

Like the resurrective rose in Rilke’s self-authored epitaph, like the pairing of death’s earth-smoke with rue of the healing variety–perhaps even something like Schroedinger’s cat–the dead are at once two seemingly opposite things: seeing but unseeing, dark and bright, buried and wandering.

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

icywindow

I wait in my driveway in the morning dark while ice crystals on my small car’s windows melt into swirling aquamarine waves. Days earlier I had watched towering blue ice calved from a glacier and shadowed by coral sunbeams.

Get out there and look around. It doesn’t have to be across the ocean; just pick up the crutches and go out the door.” I can still hear him, uttering words he never spoke.  “And next time listen to your daughter: hiking shoes with traction,” he reminds me, not unkindly.

Sulfurous earth-smoke and yellow healing herbs.  Snow dust and storms.  Dark gray skies and heart-shaped clouds. Sunlight and a perigee moon.  Your bright traces are everywhere.

Happy Birthday, my dear.

 

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Deaf Stone Alone

“Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that’s the way it is here.   And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head….”

— Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star

Simmering, solitary, stone alone on rocks half jutting from the Atlantic, facing bottomless sky.

I feel most at home now in these vistas, the same settings in which I felt overwhelmed to the point of fear as a child.

I am grateful to still have a home and a job, and be able to give to those who do not have such safe harbors, yet I cannot think of another physical space that is not fraught. I cannot believe it is cost-free for any of us to see our communal spaces, inside and outside, as places we no longer comfortably occupy together. Danger lies in merely breathing the same air; different wounds lie in not being able to.

I first noticed the transformations by day, as my professional community began to identify ways to minimize what must be done in human company and ascertain what can be accomplished alone and at a distance.

It quickly became apparent that it is hard to physically separate the humans who carry out a process or purpose from each other without eliding the humanity of what they do.

This is not restricted to our occupations and avocations. What do we all lose once it may be lifesaving not to sit in sustained silence with someone who is grieving, bereft, not prepared to speak? When the colleagues are missing from collegial problem-solving, the give-and-take of people with different life and work experiences at a pace that permits contemplation before setting course? How do our responses change when we do not have time to envision less immediately-evident possibilities, or even lighten a discussion with humor, when we do not have the luxury of letting our minds wander as far as they need to in order to regroup as an experienced team to tackle what is at hand? What do we lose when we need to come up with answers whose critical feature has been elevated to contact-free speed?

What do we all lose when we can no longer offer a hand or shoulder or an unbarricaded face to someone in physical or psychic pain? When we can only offer up an electronic voice to be held up by a stranger to, at the mercy of an internet connection, whisper into the ear of a dying parent? When a frightened pediatric patient cannot read the kindness of the shrouded caregivers trying to assist her?

Without the noise and energy of the sheer presence of more than a handful of people, now spread out like thumbtacks in spaces meant to hold connected communities, it is not just the people who are absent. And when we are reduced to action, to business itself, to the in-and-out tasks we must still perform, we are forced to contend with our unadorned selves. How we proceed is limited by the absence of comradery, of the shared history and understanding and burdens of traumatic work and other collective pain.

Into this continuing, exhausting breach, we may be accompanied by our own insufficiently tended demons, cast into excruciating relief because they are now our only constant companions.

******

Given the existential perils the world faces, my losses are of little moment. Still, they limit what I might have been able to put out into the world. I realized, for example, that I seem to have lost the capacity to write non-fiction about loss, which at its best someone else might then identify as communal, not something that need always be suffered alone, as I do now, adrift from communion and companionship among those whose earthly presence I did not understand I had grown so much to depend on.

Now I am only relatively confident of my identity as the green eyes above the mask and suit jacket. But even on those occasions when we physically assemble in some form, usually somewhere on the spectrum between resignation and terror of attendant risks, masks allow us to conceal so much.

Sheared off from the corpus of each of these communities, I have discovered it is nearly impossible to understand my omnipresent self. My capacity for memoir, such as it ever was, seems to have escaped me this year–problematically, because that is the stuff of this blog.

(If you have been with me here for awhile, first, thank you from the bottom of my still aching heart. And second, I apologize for the exponentially increasing spaces among posts.)

There seems no point in writing about life apart from anyone else. In retrospect, it seems telling that the last time I was able to write about my family immediately followed the small, masked, stringently-separated gathering of family members at my father-in-law’s September funeral. There I finally could share space with family, although I could not hug, or even closely approach, my own son after his reading for his beloved Papa.

Yet in these same strange times when non-fiction seems incapable of being instructive, writing fiction has become so easy as to be unsporting. Unreality composes itself at the keyboard. I am but the fingers which hunt and peck, rapid-fire, to generate stories.

At the age of nine I lived an isolated life as a less-than-welcome American in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine, where I read Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe and tried my wee hand at crime fiction, very loosely speaking. I used blue felt tip pens to replicate rigid typeface within brightly-colored fabric-covered sketch books. My inspiration was tertiary: fiction by authors who, as far as I can now tell, had no professional experience, and possibly no significant life experience, with violent crime and its detection and consequences.

Decades later, I have become more immersed in the memories of such transgressions than I apparently can bear to process. In a handful of sleep-bereft early pandemic months and in the particular solitude of winter’s enduring darkness, some 70,000+ words of what I would have described as crime fiction materialized on my computer screen. The story might just as easily have appeared full-blown as I slept, were I a far more gifted sleeper.

It took a third-party’s eyes on the draft to illuminate this mystery, explaining that she recognized missing pieces of my life–that it was not crime fiction at all, but a biography of intergenerational trauma, still writing itself forward.

It was not that I could no longer write about lived experience but that solitude has made it easier to write from memory’s reservoir, in a different voice that extends it to a heartbreakingly whole cloth, which includes the invisible brothers and sisters who share some of the harsh experiences which transform truth into stories we can live with, in some measure. This non-fictional fiction has become the only way I can bear to commit some truths to words, to expose them to daylight in whatever ways mere language can.

Seachange wrought by the ocean’s battering force can make sharp-edged glass bearable to touch; it can subdue the razored edges of the immense cantilevered stones and jagged rocks I navigate as incoming waves present me with tidepool offerings of reflected pre-dawn light.

Living creatures are different. They may harden against onslaught, or the risk of it. Shock and tumult and the fear of their future repetition, particularly when a traumatic event was impossible to see coming, can elevate the apprehension of another impact into an immobilizing force. Embedded pain may condition our brittle, wounded selves to brace against a next blow, to hold ourselves far too rigidly together, trying not to let the fissures show. But those stress points still change the shape of what comes next.

I am learning that the steeling itself, feeling utterly alone to confront what comes next, can facilitate the next breaks, if not the next breakdown. A greenstick bone fracture heals quickly and leaves no traces precisely because the site of the injury remains so pliable that its residue disappears in the healing. A child’s bones can snap clean through, as one of my daughters’ forearms once did in a short fall from a piano bench when she was three, yet heal so completely that within weeks an x-ray will reveal no trace of the trauma; these greenstick children mercifully will not be imprinted with an expectation that the pain will revisit them.

The pandemic has taught me that all too often I remain on high alert, particularly fearful of the one thing I consciously still fear: harm to the people I love and, who, unlike their father, are still here. “Here” now means out and away, out there. The daughter whose bones healed so seamlessly is on another continent, and I have no idea where and when I might be able to see her again. I cannot hug her or her siblings any more than I can touch my ghost husband’s shoulder.

I find myself incapable of cushioning lesser discomforts by taking care of myself; I push myself until a first wave of percolating back pain becomes something immobilizing, as if ignoring what pains me is mastery and not its opposite: surrender.

Only when I am outdoors at off hours, taking stock of the gloriously unending shore and heavens, do I let myself settle as the waves cycle in, without steeling myself and my aching, surgically-rearranged spine against a next terrible blow.

In these months of transformed community, my subconscious seems to have rewritten catastrophic experience as fiction. In this maelstrom, perhaps the superficially non-biographical has become the comparatively safer place to which my wounds and memories have fled and disguised themselves as something other than my life.

Maybe this is simply a fleeting new voice for ancient communal experience that merely feels like it springs from one’s own lived years. As poet Louise Glück wrote:

I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

If at the beginning of this endless year your hope; your belief in justice, or love, or redemption; or your faith itself had fissures, then like score marks on paper they may have left you–like me–more vulnerable to being reshaped in unwelcome ways by outside forces. Without the palpable presence of the multitudes of fellow beings most of us used to walk and sit with and otherwise be among, distractions and self-protective filters of the metaphorical (non-N95) kind are hard to maintain.

But we can still safely breathe in and out to unseen others from where we find ourselves–in love, in any art at all, in service, in food, in flowers, in fiction and non-fiction, pictures, spoken and sung words, old-fashioned written letters, fabric, and photographs taken when the rest of the world is asleep. Even when it deeply hurts to put something out into the world still out there, it may speak to someone who feels equally unseeable.

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Family Calling

My father-in-law, who was the youngest of five sons, married the Lady in the Red Dress.

Legend has it he attended a dance when he was a student at Boston College Law School and glimpsed a beautiful brunette in a red dress as she swirled behind a column. When a nursing student who spoke with the French-Canadian cadence of long vowels emerged, he asked her to dance–and only then realized it was a different young lady.

They went on to marry and have five children of their own: first my husband, followed in roughly Irish twin increments by four sisters. I am told my husband displayed only the lightest dusting of disappointment by the time the youngest arrived and no brother was to be found. But he was by temperament well-suited to be the one retreating to a quiet room of his own amidst the mysterious cacophony of sisters.

Somehow my father-in-law was in complete equipoise within this very full household of little girls, so foreign in many ways to his own boyhood in the same Massachusetts county just outside Boston. Both stoic and expressive, practical and extravagant, contained and available, bound to his faith but understanding of those who did not practice it, financially canny and prone to wildly splurge (always on others), hardworking and relaxed.

I met their son when I was sixteen. At what now seems an achingly young twenty, I married into this second family: I grew up more with them than I had in my parents’ household.

When, a shade over 25 years later, my husband received a diagnosis that left me unable to speak, my undoubtedly devastated father-in-law arrived at our shell-shocked household to brave Route 128 and drive us to certain surgical confirmation of what we faced. He read my soul and said six words.

“You’ll always be my daughter, too.”

******

Two-and-a-half years after his only son died–a period that, like nearly each 2020 day, seems both intensely compressed and unending–he suffered a catastrophic stroke. My husband Jim, the compassionate and skilled doctor, was not there to help navigate his care and sooth his and the rest of our souls. It has not infrequently astonished me that my father-in-law was able to endure the extreme hardships which have since burdened him, for almost exactly seven years.

I’ve grown to wonder whether he held onto these years with us in order not to subject our children to another profound loss so soon.

I cannot imagine that he sang to his children when they were young, but I remember when my first daughter was on his knee, and he sang to her one of his customized jigs as she stared at him intently with bottomless brown eyes (“Little Emma, one shoe on and one shoe off”) before dinner. Only the first five grandchildren then graced his world, and he looked up at me and Jim and mused, perfectly content, “I’d just like to see how it all turns out for them.”

And then he was here when their father was not, for milestones when they would feel that aching absence, as they chose and graduated from schools and entered into important relationships and began to find their ways as young adults.

I realized only in speaking to my children after he passed away that, like his son, my father-in-law taught me many things I could not fully understand until looking back at his life.

Among these, he taught me the breadth and meaning of a calling.

It was so easy to see a calling in a career path, like that of my father, who was born to be a theoretical physicist. There was simply nothing else he could have been: he was called to a life of the mind that was profoundly internal, making practical things like remembering meals and rearing small children–particularly yours truly, having grown up with no sisters–far more mysterious than the mathematics of the universe. My father dwelled alone where his attention was: provisionally in his office at school or at home, as slightly more traditional family life transpired two floors away, but really in the limitless invisible of the cosmos, even as his physical world shrank down to a single bed in an overly-shaded room as Parkinson’s ravaged his body.

Since their early childhoods I’ve seen the seeds of my sons’ and daughters’ devotion to assorted STEM fields. I thought a calling was similarly evident in my own attempts to do justice within work I have never viewed as only a job.

My father-in-law ensured every one of his children could receive the education they needed to do the work that spoke to them; a lion’s share has dedicated their professional lives to teaching. They all are parents in enduring marriages conducted by a rotation of Franciscan priest uncles from far Northern Maine. Papa Dick supported his family by enduring a daily commute on the Southeast Expressway for decades, working with great accomplishment and contentment in an accounting firm, moving to D.C. for six years, and retiring back to New England when our second son was born. He and Grandma Jackie had downsized; they up-sized when they moved back. With more than a baker’s dozen of grandchildren yet to arrive, they found a place that would have space for all of them.

Three daughters and brothers-in-law also settled within easy driving distance and began raising their families. We would go to Papa Dick’s house every Sunday for family dinners after multitudes of cousins exhausted themselves playing games on the lawn, eventually settling in groups all over the house. Some, thumbs locked in cupid mouths between bright cheeks, napped in cribs under Grandma Jackie’s quilts; toddlers cradled newborns on the big yellow couch as parents hovered within lurching distance; some clustered around early-generation computers in Papa Dick’s new office, its walls brimming with family pictures. And above them always hung the hang-hammered silver letter “G” his own little boy had forged for him in elementary school. Many moves later, it was still on the wall of his room when he peacefully passed away earlier this week.

Once we parents were dramatically outnumbered, having had to move to zone defense against so many little people, there were occasional incidents–like the enduring mystery of the pencil-stabbing of Papa Dick’s well-worn leather footstool. (There is a lead suspect.) He would put on a stern show, but I think even the toddlers could sense the shimmer of laughter. Nothing in life delighted him like these grandchildren, and there was no greater gift he could have given them than the bonds of friendship and love they forged on those Sundays.

It isn’t, I realize, that his work was or wasn’t his calling. And perhaps a calling isn’t what we do so much as who we are.

His calling was his family.

It broke his heart to lose his son, but he never lost faith and never broke. While my husband was alive, Papa Dick’s voice never even wavered in my presence; it caught only once, as he read Psalm 23 at his son’s service and the rest of us dissolved.

And only once, on a parental radar frequency that instantly lifted my body from the couch where I sat stroking my younger daughter’s hair, did I hear what he tried so hard to contain while being strong for the rest of us. My children and I were in our living room, next to the room in which my husband’s body still lay, when two of my brothers-in-law solemnly accompanied my father-in-law to see him.

If Dvorak’s Stabat Mater were distilled to a single sustained note of abject grief, that was the sound.

But then the note evaporated. My brother-in-law told me much later that they had gone from there out onto the porch and my father-in-law was himself again, talking in his measured baritone, which was also his Jim’s, and assured that his son was in no pain and with God.

Though my father-in-law lived a generation longer than his son, they both had in common the completeness that comes with the absence of regret. No different calling would have suited either. Both their lives, long-lived and not, are causes for continuing celebration.

Neither would have done anything differently, in making any choice that mattered.

Especially inviting the Lady in the Red Dress to dance.

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Vanished Air

 

“Ibis Ascending,” Garden of Peace, Boston, Massachusetts

. . . you are much more than simply dead/  I am a dish for your ashes / I am a fist for your vanished air….

                                                              Charles Bukowski, “The Unblinking Grief

 

Ten years ago today, at 12:52 p.m., give or take a minute-without-end, the surgeon pointed to a scan I would not have looked at even could I have seen it that far across the windowless white room.

“This is your tumor,” she said to my husband, whose keen eyes would have immediately absorbed the labyrinthine contours of his inoperable pancreatic tumor.

Some of the things he did next, knowing what he knew as as a physician, have puzzled me for most of that decade.

I instantly knew there was no hope: he would certainly die within months, as he did.  But at times he seemed to think otherwise. 

I now know I had framed and answered the wrong questions.

In the past year I’ve found clues in the strangest places.

******

Garden of Peace

Within a city block in Boston, on two sides of a magnificent courthouse I was drawn to even as a kid–and in which as an adult I have for decades argued to uphold first-degree murder convictions–are two dedicated gardens.  Only one contains flowering plants.

The other is made of stone.  

I’ve never encountered another soul in either.

The Garden of Hope is dedicated to cancer patients, and to curing cancer.  Visiting it makes me feel ineffably sad.

The Garden of Peace is dedicated to homicide victims.  Stones are engraved with their names and dates of birth and too-early death.  Water circles through from a granite orb, representing the weight of grief resting with victims’ survivors.  Visiting it gives me hope. 

In the space between them I may have finally come upon some answers.

*****

Within an hour of his out-of-the-blue diagnosis, my outwardly robust, healthy husband sat in the Lahey Clinic’s expansive lobby, reading journal articles on his laptop about pancreatic cancer.

I pressed myself against an outside stone pillar far broader than I, my skin feeling as if it were steaming from the day’s heat, and wept.  I, distinctly not a physician, immediately knew there was no hope: he would die, soon.  As he did.   

He knew exactly what his protein marker levels spelled out.  He knew how dire the meetings ahead would be.  He knew what the oncologists would say.   

I didn’t grasp the medical in-between, but the stand-still second I heard the diagnosis I absolutely knew the end.

When it was time to go back inside and accompany him to a PET scan he closed the laptop screen, calmly looked up at me, and said, “Whatever happens, it looks like I’m going to need an extensive course of chemo.”

Already, I had trouble computing what he was saying.  What’s the point, I thought, but did not say. 

And I continued puzzling as he subjected himself to ghastly side-effects from twelve-hour infusions of chemotherapy drugs over the rest of the summer.  He must have known they wouldn’t help.  Nurses were swathed in full PPE so as not to come into contact with the poisons they were injecting into his port,  turning his tongue to cotton with which he could not form words, leaving him nauseated and too exhausted to move, sometimes sleeping 20 hours a day, turning his hair white, casting a dark spell that made taking a sip of cold liquid like swallowing broken glass.

I would wander aimlessly around the chemotherapy wing; when not piecing together angel puzzles I would gaze at the same photographs and posts and calendars with something approaching….anger: they were always of and about survivors, always about those who would live.  Survivors’ Poker Night, Survivors’ celebratory Banquets.  Nighttime meetings for survivors of different types of cancer.  Bright ribbons of different colors, but nothing rendered in black.  

Nothing for those without hope of  “getting well.”  There isn’t even a Hallmark card for that.  

The physician-patient’s own physicians wouldn’t bring up hospice care.  When I mentioned it to his oncologist, he nearly fled the room, murmuring how good my  assuredly dying husband still looked.  Eventually, during an emergency admission when he had only weeks left, and after I’d made multiple requests to the floor staff for a hospice referral, Jim picked up the phone in his hospital room and referred himself for end-of-life care.  

Through this brutal, fruitless treatment, the tumor did not shrink.  Its cells had spread to his liver, likely before he had been diagnosed.   His pain was indescribable. 

Why was he putting himself through this?

By the time November arrived and we were hastened out a Master of the Universe surgeon’s examining room door and into the dark with a dismissive, “Good luck,” even my husband’s human and humane doctors knew no additional course of treatment was to be ventured.  He promptly, joyously, planned his dream trip with our children.  As he finalized the details he paused. I asked him why. 

“I’m wondering if I should get insurance for me.”

Again, my mind, flashing to the $82,000 bill for two vials of a single post-chemotherapy drug, did not compute.  “We have insurance.”

“In case I die there.” 

In case we had to bring back his body, I then understood.  I had to look away.

Uncharacteristically, he briefly balked after computing the final numbers.  I voted “no” on trip insurance.  He told me how much it would be to take the six of us on the necessarily short-notice last family trip–well over what my paltry public servant’s salary would  thereafter  allow.  “It’s going to cost a lot.”

“Oh yes, we are going,” I heard myself saying.  “I can always get a second job later.”  We understood what “later” meant.  

*******

It was only this winter, nine years after my husband’s death, when I began to understand why I remain so unsettled by the Garden of Hope, yet take solace from the Garden of Peace,  which takes death–almost always sudden and violent–as its starting point.  

I have far too narrowly understood what hope is, raging against reality and unable to release my own grievance against the universe for not including my husband among those who could ever have hoped to be cured.

I lost hope because I shared that narrow view of it.

Jim never once lost hope; he seamlessly and instantly recalibrated it to whatever reality he encountered. 

He was never in denial; he completely accepted not only what he faced, but what we  who have to carry on did. 

He didn’t sign up for those horrific treatments because he expected to be cured, or even feel any better, but maybe he thought it plausibly could get him just enough time to see one of his children graduate, or move his daughter into her freshman year at the school where he and I met, or climb another mountain, or take photographs of a Darwin Finch.  And he did climb that mountain, and he did take those pictures.  And as tired as he was, both were glorious.

The recalibration of hope came naturally to him, and is always possible.

But I still have a lot of work to do.

 

.  

 

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