Suffering and Loss

Samain                              Moon of the Winter Solstice

My cousin Leisa, second youngest of all the Keaton cousins (mom’s side of our family), has had an aneurysm found, repaired and then slipped into a coma as a result of a stroke.  Part of her skull has been removed to reduce pressure on the brain from swelling and a second aneurysm has been found, too small to repair right now.

This is eerily reminiscent of Mom’s stroke back in 1964.  Mom was 46, though, younger than Leisa who is in her late 50’s.  Here’s the link:  Mom had two congenital aneurysms, one just below each temple.  In 1964 stroke care and aneurysm repair had no where near the sophistication, armamentarium and clinical experience available today, 47 years later.

Mom might have survived her stroke, might even have had her aneurysms discovered before one burst, with 2011 treatment.  Leisa’s fortunate in that regard, though no one ever wants to test the standard of care.

Even sadder and more distressing my friend Jane’s daughter, Em, 42, died this week of lung cancer.  Never a smoker, a runner, a healthy lifestyle in place she never really had a chance.  She received a diagnosis of stage 4, meaning metastatic, in 2008.  She rallied and did well for a time, but the disease had become too well established and finally overwhelmed her.

Death and suffering are common notes in the symphony of each of our lives, bass notes, struck down in the resonant lower registers of our souls.  No matter how common, how usual or how expected both reverberate, clang around in our depths.

Reading Em’s Caringbridge entries brought me to tears, the anguish of a younger mother’s death; one I know, know too well.  Loss can throw us down a dark well; it did me, one it took several years and a lot of help to crawl up from.

The hope we all can share and that those who will grieve us can, too, is the multiple ways in which our lives continue to ripple out through our children, our family, our extended family and friends, through our work and our works.  As far as I can tell, this legacy is our immortality.

Growing Up

Lughnasa                                        Waxing Harvest Moon

Mark’s (my brother) days here will end on September 16th provided the Saudi visa process works and it’s on track, though a track with a terminus very near his flight date.  He flies from Minneapolis to Chicago, Chicago to Amman, Jordan and onto Riyadh.

He will spend a few days in Riyadh in an orientation program for new teachers at the English Gate Academy after which he reports to his teaching post.  He asked for Hal’in, but his assignment is not yet certain.

We sat on the couch tonight, after having watched some TV, and did a favorite family thing, trading memories of when we were young, especially memories we did not share.

I told him of climbing up on a chair to find, to my dismay, a door knob above a shelf I could not see over at age 3 or 4.  It looked like a big eye looking back at me.

In the basement of the same place, an apartment building where I lived with Mom and Dad, there was a coal chute. (“Coal?” Mark asked, a bit wide eyed at this ancient heat source.) The coal room connected to the big pot-bellied furnace through an augur that would turn on whenever the thermostat called for more heat.  In other words unpredictably.

When I was down there with Mom while she did the laundry, I would play.  Until the coal augur came to life.  It was loud and came on with surprising swiftness.  The furnace would hiss as the new coal fed the fire.  Made me think of a dragon.

Mark remembered sleeping in Mom and Dad’s bedroom until he was 5 or so, then moving upstairs in our house on Canal Street.  When I went off to college, he took my corner room, the one with a window facing west and another facing south.  Out that west facing window, at midnight, a Nickle Plate train would rumble down the tracks, and sound its warning signal for the crossing on Monroe Street only two and a half blocks from our house.  Mark remembered the train, too.

I’m not sure why I recall this and I don’t know if it was true, but I believe the last steam engine in US pulled its train through our town, sounding its steam whistle every midnight.  Right there on Monroe Street.

Fall-ing

Lughnasa                                                  Waxing Harvest Moon

As August slides away and the sky shifts its colors toward deeper hues, an inner barometer detects higher emotional pressures.  The atmosphere weighs more, cuing those momentary pauses, breaks in attention.  It may signal a storm ahead, but more likely the prediction carries gray skies and mist, perhaps early morning fog.

Melancholy comes calling this time of year, an acquaintance, maybe a friend, of long standing.  Mom died in October, 1964, 47 years ago, a year longer than she lived.

Her death came at different moments in life for all of us.  Mark, 5 at her death, has few memories of her; she lingers in his past as a faint spirit, an enigma.  Mary, 12, has more, a young girl heading into adolescence, becoming a woman, missed the guidance a mature woman could give as she made that critical transition.  At 17 my life had already begun to pull away from the family, in my senior year of high school, the last, college plans in the making, I had her longest of all, only a brief time less than Dad.

When that dark angel comes, and he comes for us all, finality is the hardest lesson to absorb.  No more mom.  No more.  Memories, yes, but memories fade and change as life goes on and here all three of us are, 47 years later.  47 years.  A lifetime.

Why a friend?  How could melancholy be a friend?  Well, in this way.  As life patters on, this event following the other, we can become accustomed to its rhythms, lost in its small decisions and its casual absorption of our energy.  So lost, in fact, that we forget the Self that carries us forward, the Self into which we live and which lives itself into us.

Melancholy can turn us away from the day to day and cause us again to walk down the stairs leading to what Ira Progoff calls the Inner Cathedral.  We often forget this quiet place within, our own sanctuary, and melancholy can call us to visit it again.

So, yes, melancholy can be a friend of the Self, a guide back into the depths and resources of your Self.

Knocking on the Door

Beltane                                                                             New Last Frost Moon

There are times and this is one of them, when death seems behind every door.  My friend Bill has learned that his wife’s cancer is stage 4.  A grave diagnosis with a grave prognosis.   American’s exult in the streets over the death of Osama Bin Laden.  A friend sent out a quote from Martin Luther King* that expressed my feelings.  Today Vega, one of our younger dogs, tested positive for Lyme’s disease.  Not a big deal, treatable, unless the kidney is involved.  Hers may be.  If it is?  Difficult to impossible to treat.

Since I started today already in somewhat of a funk, all this darkness hovering around has reinforced it, made the day two or three shades grayer.

Death does not surprise us.  It lurks beside us all our born days until the last one.  Its reality, its starkness, its finality, especially that last one, passing from the quick to the dead, still strike heavy hammer blows to the heart.

Death’s most severe wounds come from the source of our greatest joy, love.  Without love death counts only as an incident, something happening to someone else, an event of little consequence.  We know this each day we read the obituary pages.  Even the death of someone we have known, but not loved, does not shake us at our foundations.  When, however, death comes to call for one close and important in our lives, the very bound of love lacerates the heart, accelerates our fear, amplifies our sense of loss. Read More

Then Bang, Things Happen

Spring                                                               New (Bee Hiving) Moon

You know how things go along for a long time and nothing happens, then bang, things happen?  Sollie and Rigel got into it again and in breaking them up Rigel bit me.  Not bad, a scrape really, but it bled, around and below the right side of my right knee.  I had been using the knee to separate the two.  This is out of hand at the moment and I’m not sure what to do next.

In addition I have a family member in crisis, a faraway crisis, so it’s difficult to tell what’s exactly going on.  That means trying to do my part from 12,000 miles away.  My family, and I may have not mentioned it here before, my mother’s family to be precise, has a history of bi-polar disorder.  One of my Aunts was hospitalized most of her life, another for several years and a third in essence starved herself.  My mother never showed signs, but she died at age 46.  Although afflicted from time to time with melancholy, I’ve never manifested the bi-polar symptoms, nor, at least up until now, has either my brother or my sister.  That’s not to say that we haven’t had struggles of various sorts, the kinds brought on by life, but deep depression, no.

This may be a referented depression; that is, one occasioned by a definite external circumstance, but it’s so difficult to say without being there.  And even then…

When I was in analysis, with a Jungian, we discussed nuclear families and John, my analyst, said, “You have an atomized family.”  It was true.  After my mother died, our lives began to spin apart from each other.  I left home first and eventually moved to Minnesota.  Mary next, ending up after a stint teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in first Kuala Lumpur, then Singapore, where she has lived now for many years.

Last of all Mark left home and moved first to San Francisco, then in 1988 took off on a round the world trip.  After crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, working on a kibbutz in Israel and harvesting olives in Turkey, he found his way to Southeast Asia, too.  Bangkok.  He has been there ever since, more or less, teaching English as a second language.  We have ended up far apart, physically, and distance imposes its own psychological barriers.  It’s just not as easy to see each other, help each other.

Now that both Mom and Dad are dead, we have our own worlds, Mary at the National University of Singapore, me here in Andover and Mark in Bangkok.  Once in a while Mary comes home, I’ve been over there once, but it’s difficult to stay really connected.

Now something is wrong.  And I’m not sure what to do in that case either.

Will You Still Need Me? Will You Still Feed Me?

Imbolc                                                 Waxing Bridgit Moon

Iconic birthdays.    Sweet sixteen.  18-old enough to die.  21–when I was young, this was THE iconic birthday.  Ok to drink.  Woops.  A few years later I was an alcoholic.  Then for my generation there was 30.  We didn’t trust anybody over 30.  Uh-oh.  That came and went.  Then, 40.  40 was a big one because it was the time you might buy a red sports car, hunt for that trophy wife and make strange vocational decisions.  Close.  I met Kate, my wife who has been a wonder and a major Valentine ever since we got serious.  I made a strange vocational decision.  Got out of the ministry and in to writing.  Yes, there was, too, that little red sports car.  Bought it in 1994.  OK, I was 47, but hey.  Still driving it.  There was another major birthday for me, 46.  My mother died at age 46.  To pass your own mother’s age is a strange sensation, I imagine, at any age, but at 46, it seemed more than strange.  Sad. Painful. Happy to be alive.

After those, 50 was not a big deal.  60 was 60.  I mean it’s a big deal in a way, but still, the only thing I felt was that I had passed into the new late middle age.

But.  64.  Now that’s a biggy.  Wouldn’t have been I suppose if not for that Beatle’s song.  It managed to set a date for a change in attitude, a time when our life and love might change, might change so much that we would ask if we were still necessary to the people we love.  That’s too grim a statement for the light-hearted tenor of the song, but I think it did capture a fear resident in many a then 20+ years old heart at the time it came out:  what can life be like when we’re old?

Those of us in the baby boom generation had created an entire culture around youth, rebellion, drugs and rock and roll.  Sgt. Pepper came out in June of 1967.  The summer of love.  Wearing flowers and heading for San Francisco.  How could acid-dropping, hard rock lovin’, anti-war, free love folks like us ever grow old.  When I’m 64 was like a time that would never come.

Of course, no generation, at least none so far, gets to re-write the rules of aging.  We passed through our 20s, then our 30s, then 0ur 40s and 50s and have now begun to crest upon the shore of social security and medicare.  We have started to hit our mid-60’s.  As iconic ages go, of course, the big one for years was 65.  The finish line.  Throw away the work clothes, grab the gold watch and go golfing, then fishing, then drop dead.  Not now.

We hit 64 and we’ve just begun to pick up speed.  It’s not an age; it’s a speed limit.

Suddenly we’re here, many of us, and we realize that the song was written by youngsters.  It expressed their and our fear of moving on beyond the wonder of the sixties.  What would it be like?  What could it be like?

I’m happy to report that it’s just fine.  Just as I told Kate, yes I still need you and yes I’ll still feed you; she tells me the same.  We have come a long ways from the days of the summer of love and the march on Washington.   Those were great days, so are these.  I’m happy to be 64.

Memorable

Lughnasa                                            Waning Grandchildren Moon

Katie slipped her hands around my arm and stroked.  Then stopped and put some pressure on.  Then stroked some more.  Katie was my birthday present from a thoughtful wife.  She learned her trade from Sister Rosalind and the Sister’s school for massage.  I’m feeling knot and kink free.  Massage clears out the mind as well as the muscles.  As Katie moved around my body, memories came flooding back.  Mom’s hands on my neck when I had polio.  The Alexandria 4-H county fair.  That afternoon in Bangkok when I let a tiny Thai woman loose on my just ruptured achilles, not knowing what it was.  Steel fingers and pain.  Lots of pain.  Then the night I stepped in the sewer grate while my body moved forward and my right foot stayed in place.  Body memories, unlocked by Katie.

Memories have a fluid, slippery existence, just like Katie’s hands as she followed the process of my spine from neck to tail.  As I write about Mom and polio, an image of stuffing tissues into hardware cloth followed.  The float for homecoming for my class, seniors at last.  Being pulled away from that by who?  I don’t recall.  Then I was in Anderson, 9 miles away, at St. John’s hospital where my mother had been taken after collapsing while serving a funeral dinner.  After that the sculpted green plastic and aluminum tubing of waiting room furniture at Riley Memorial in Indianapolis.  Mom on a gurney, now 7 days after stroke, me riding with her as they took for an operation.  She reached away from me and said, “Son.”  The last words I heard from her.  The painful early morning talk with my father, should we remove the life supports?  Yes, we both decided.  Yes.  Then the funeral.  And the days and weeks and months after where I failed to integrate mom’s death as a powerful life lesson and instead took it as an emotional blast that rocked my very foundations.

Bangkok, stumbling away from the 7-11 and the amulet stand in front of it, hurrying to get to the ATM.  Traffic making me anxious, not careful.  Blinding pain, yet running anyway because of the traffic, the cars.  All the traffic and the cars.  The night air humid as the flashing neon of Chinatown bathed the sidewalk in alternating colors, like the northern lights.

As I know, we change our memories each time we access them, so all of these events, crucial as they are to my story, may not represent the truth at all, at least not the veridical, the actual truth.  But, in a more important way, they are the most truthful of all since they are the truth that has shaped my response to all these things and the thousands more accreted over the years of my life so far.  Even my account of the massage, who knows how close it is?  Yet the feeling lingers.  Good.  Feeling.

Death Came Calling

Beltane                                     Waning Flower Moon

Yesterday death came to call.  Dizziness and nausea took over my body while my mind raced back to October, 1964, trying to inhabit, again, the mind of my mother as the stroke hit her, trying to imagine the transition from vitality to powerlessness, wondering what thoughts came to her as she fell to the floor in the basement of the United Methodist Church.  Pushing this thought back, far from me, get thee behind me death, I wondered if she had done the same, imagined that this was like all the other times, a bit more severe than most perhaps, but surely something that would lift.  It didn’t.  She died a week later.

Death had come to call on me as a reminder of the future in the guise of a dark moment of the past.  All that work on Latin, I thought.  Then, just as quickly, would you have done something else?  No.  The answer is no.  At that moment a peace settled over me, if this was my time, so be it.  It’s just fine.  If not, I’ll get downstairs and study my i-stem nouns and ablatives.

Then, today, in a lecture, Nietzsche posed a hypothetical:  What if a demon came to you and said, “You will live and relive your life.  All of it.  The pains and the sorrows, the joys and accomplishments, all of it, even this visit from me.  And you will relive it not only once, but over and over.”  What is your response?  If you can say, Thank you, oh divine one, then you have lived an authentic life and have come to rest with who you are.  Nietzsche called this the myth of eternal recurrence.

I find I’m on the Thank you side of the demon question.  Yes, I’d like another helping please.

Much of my attitude toward life seems to have its roots in Nietzschean thought.  Strange that I’m just now discovering this.

Mom

Beltane                              Waning Flower Moon

Already down to 33.  Bound to head lower.  Glad I covered all the tender plants.

Mother’s day has little resonance for me.  Mom has been dead now for almost 46 years, meaning she’s been dead as long as she was alive.  I passed her 17 years ago.  It feels strange to have lived into areas of life which my mother never experienced:  near retirement age, grandkids, dealing with the inevitable losses of friends and loved ones other than your parents.

It’s not that I didn’t love my mom.  I did.  It’s just that home faded away for me the year after she died.  I went off to college, then got involved in the political radicalism of the 1960’s and became estranged from Dad.  In essence that meant I became estranged from Alexandria, Indiana, too.  I grew up there from age 1 and a half on, experiencing those magical years of pre-teen life when the world has not much larger compass than your street, your friends, your parents, but after age 18 I returned only very occasionally, for ten years, not at all.

Of course, Mom was important in my life.  She loved me and believed in me.  She and my aunt Virginia nursed me back to health after a serious bout with polio.

What we remember and what actually influenced us, of course, are not always (ever?) true to the lived experience, but they are true for our psychic life and I have a particular memory of Mom that was formative.  One year a garden spider built a web over the window in our kitchen, the window next to the kitchen table where we ate breakfast.  All spring and summer Mom and I watched that spider, watched her repair the web, spin up her prey, eat them.  What I recall most from that was the sense of wonder, of awe that came off Mom in gentle waves.  She also took insects outside in a kleenex and let them go.  I do, too.

I also remember times when she took to me an ice-cream parlor when I got straight A’s on my report card, which was all the time so I got a lot of ice cream, but more than that, I had the attention and time with Mom.  I was close to her side of the family, the Keatons, growing up and have continued my close connection with them over the years.  In part it was my way of staying connected to Mom, to her values and to the people and places that shaped her.

But Mother’s Day?  Nope.  Doesn’t work for me.  Too much Hallmark, too little real sentiment.

The Colosseum of the Soul

Imbolc                                                Waning Wild Moon

Fake Nostalgia for a Pre-Therapy Age Past

“I can tell you one thing,” he announced, as I recall. “Back in my day, you didn’t have young kids going around talking to shrinks, yakking about their fee-ee-ee-lings, getting all doped up on medications.”

This article in the March 8th NYT made me think, or better, recall.

In early October of 1964 my family was intact:  Mom, Dad, Mary, Mark and me.  We had extended family on both sides that we saw regularly, Mom’s more so because she was Indiana born and Dad’s less so because of his Oklahoma origins.  After my bout with polio when I was a year and a half, our lives had settled into a usual routine of those years, the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Mom stayed home, doing volunteer work for the church and being available to us, the kids.  She did occasional substitute teaching, but it was rare.  Mary and I moved our way through our small town school system where we were known and knew everyone else at least by sight. Mark was still at home.   Summers were long idylls of bike riding, game playing and lazy reading.  Dad worked at the newspaper, coming home with ad layouts from time to time, marking them up with a ruler and a thick pencil.

Of course our lives had the usual family dramas, the deaths of grandparents, an aunt’s long term confinement in a mental health facility, but for the most part things were calm, normal.

In late October of 1964 my 46 year old mother was dead and our lives would never again be normal.  Grief has its own rules, its own storm sewers of emotion and they track in and out, colliding with the needs and fears of others.  Our small family suffered and suffered a lot, both from the grief, the natural grief that follows an untimely death of a parent, Mom, and the sudden compression of the family into a new, undefined life, a life defined by loss and uncertainty.

Life happens as it does and we relate to the changes as best we can.  That was true then, true long ago in the past and will be true in the future.  I have wondered though what our lives, our mutual lives, the lives of the survivors in our family might have been like if we had access to even the most basic of therapeutic assistance.  If we could have, if I could have, for I can’t speak for Mary, Mark and Dad, grieved Mom’s loss and then moved on with my life, rather than heading toward a ten to fifteen year period where emotional ups and downs, too much drinking, too much smoking, too little in the way of sound relationships eventually forced me to do what I was unable to do in those horrible months following her death.

This is not a regret, for it is not what happened, rather it is a what if.  It is a what if informed now by many, many years of therapy, therapy that helped me see myself as I really am, accept myself and my feet of clay, feet not so different from everyone else’s. Analysis, Jungian analysis, that in the end gave me a place to stand that was my own, not a place over against the grief and the abandonment of those years.  Analysis that afforded me a chance to live into my own Self, live my own life and find, now, in my 60’s, a way of life that has a measure of peace and more than a measure of contentment and happiness.

I agree with the author of the article referenced in the beginning.  It was not a better time, those pre-therapy years.