29 October 2013

On the Banks

Peace and All Goodness.
I realise this whole post is a bit more New Historicist/Reader Response/narrative theory meta-meta-meta-nerd than I usually get in this blog, but bear with me here. I’m trying to get at something that is not easy for me to express, or even to admit. 

Everything in this life is story. Maybe that’s odd coming from someone whose primary lens for viewing the world has always been poetry—especially since I tend to be more of a lyric poet than a narrative poet—but that is one true root that has been given me. We are the stories we tell. To each other, to ourselves, to the rivers and rocks and tree limbs. We are the stories we map in the stars at night, even when those stars are hidden from view and the hoot of the owl terrifies rather than reassures. The rivers themselves are stories.

The stories we tell ourselves are not always true ones. Honesty is often painful, especially in the dark, alone with ourselves and our worst fears and anxieties and memories. We remember how things should have been but weren’t. We get so caught up in what we think we wanted that we forget to be grateful for what is. We tell ourselves our version of the story so often we get confused between truth and fact. We forget that we can change our story, that maybe all good stories change over time.

Sometimes the best thing we can do is quietly hear the story out from someone else’s perspective. Just because right now, in this chapter, in this scene, we might be our own narrators, we forget we might be a part of someone else’s story—and it might be about something else entirely. And it might not be as scary as we thought. I was reminded again last night, while in the presence of beloved friends I don't see enough of, how much this becomes instinct over time, this forgetting to hear the stories of others. One of the most powerful things my friend Dan has ever said to me was this:

Stop being so afraid. We do so many awful things out of fear. It seems like most of our moral, ethical, and even religious tensions are bound to a need to control what we are afraid of or do not understand. To know this about ourselves might lead us to a different response, maybe even err on the side of love.

I don't think Dan knew just how close to the marrow he came when he said that. I think he was thinking about his own story, how it gets interwoven with the lives of others. I don't think he knew how much it was also my own story. Those aren't the words we use with each other most of the time. And I know he wasn't thinking of an internal picture of our skeletal structure, with a rotten broken heart and no lungs, barely breathing, concerned, confused, feathers launched like arrows through the dark to sprout directly from our fragile chests.

Stunned, but still breathing.
It might turn out that Emily Dickinson was right, that hope is the thing with feathers. It might turn out that what we thought over and over again was the hammering home of loss was actually a story about rebirth. It might be time for the story of us to change. It might even be that the story to which we thought we were doomed was no more than the prologue to the enduring myth of love. It may just be as simple and as inexplicable as that. Maybe our whole lives here are one big tangled love story.

23 October 2013

Twenty Thousand Hearts

Monday morning, everyone started their week as if it were any other: most people went to work, others dropped their kids off at school, I overslept...so, the usual. I got word of Deb's collapse the way a lot of shitty news seems to spread lately--via Facebook. I've known this family since 1980. Joel and Lauri adopted my favourite of our first batch of kittens--and let's not even discuss how I felt when their mom insisted they change his name from Hot Rod Kanehl (one of my mom's favourite baseball players growing up) to the more innocuous,  dare I say even emasculating, Sunshine. We lost touch for a number of years when their parents divorced and their dad married Deb, but Joel and I reconnected when I moved back home after grad school (the first time). Joel was the first person I asked for when I woke up from my cancer surgery, since I'd already been wheeled past my dad who was pacing by the elevator, and that morning when we'd checked in, his dad was already parked in the chair in my hospital room. Remember when I got stranded in Denver (the first time) last winter when Ruby was dying and suddenly had no ride home from the airport at ridiculous o'clock p.m., and somebody's dad saw the Facebook post and drove all the way out to Newark past midnight even though he had to be at work at 5 the next morning? Yeah. That was Bob. They're that family. They always have been.

I knew they would bring Debby here to Doodlehem because we have the nearest Level One trauma facility and at that point they weren't sure what was happening to her or if she'd hit her head on the way down. I can hit the hospital in six minutes at a dead run; the only reason it took me twelve was because I detoured to Dunkin' Donuts to get Bob a cup of coffee the way I know he takes it: milk, sugar, from Dunkin' whenever possible, and in the largest size possible. The only other person waiting with Bob was the coworker who had performed CPR until the ambulance arrived. Joel was on his way up from Virginia and Bob's siblings hadn't gotten there yet either. I knew I was going in as the anchor, but I still wasn't really prepared to have to be Bob's. He had always been mine. Bob's a former Marine. He served in Vietnam. He also suffered a (non-military) traumatic amputation of his right arm when Joel was about a year old, the divorce from their mom, Deb's treatment for breast cancer the year before my own cancer, and his own bout with lung cancer surgery, and his courage and sense of humour never so much as wavered outwardly in the face of any of that. So I can't imagine the hell he must have been in for him to reach blindly for my hand the first minute we were alone and gasp out, I'm so damn scared.

By the time Joel arrived just after lunchtime they'd discovered that there had been an aneurysm that ruptured, causing a massive brain bleed, and they were trying to stabilize her for long enough between scans to find out if surgery would even be an option. Every update was worse news, and by Tuesday the decision was made to remove all life-sustaining measures and transfer Deb to palliative care. There's never any way to tell, but given the significant damage, no one was expecting her body to keep functioning longer than a few hours at maximum. Despite that, early Wednesday evening they transferred her to hospice care. Deb didn't take any shit from anybody, ever, and this was no exception. She was going to go in her own sweet time, and this wasn't it quite yet. Hospice told me later they hadn't expected her to live through the first night. Clearly they don't know our Debby.

Thursday, 12th September, was one of the most precious days of my life. Bob couldn't stand to be there anymore, and he had all manner of legal legwork to untangle and plans to start making. I had planned to stop in and sit until they returned, expecting them back any minute. One of Debby's work friends came by round supper time, and talked to her for a good hour--telling her all about Deb's favourite kids and what they'd done that day, and put sweet-smelling lotion on her hands and feet. We got a little bit to eat, but mostly we sat with her, and I listened. I'd never known Debby as well as I know the rest of her family; we probably hugged whenever we saw each other, but I felt uncomfortable touching her or holding her hand. Not because she was dying, but because it felt like an invasion of her privacy. I don't actually know whether she liked being touched, though as someone who worked for 30-something years with preschool-age kids, I can't imagine she wasn't at least comfortable with it. So part of me wondered what I was doing there. But mostly I felt someone needed to be there with her, someone she knew, in case any part of her was still there and needed us.  After Marie left, we sat some more. Sometimes I read to her out loud--from Edgar Huntly, because that's what I was in the middle of that day--but increasingly I just sat there as the unexpectedly fierce thunderstorm bent the trees outside nearly double and rain rolled down the French doors in sheets.

By ten o'clock I was done my book and needing to at least stop home long enough to feed my cats. But also, something was changing. Deb was starting to breathe differently, taking long gasps of breaths followed by shorter, ragged breaths, evening out, then starting again. I knew this was one of the last changes. It wasn't painful for me to hear, so much as worrisome. I knew she was being medicated to alleviate any anxiety she may have been feeling, and I knew her breathing patterns were simply her body trying to regulate oxygen flow to her brain as the pressure from the bleed increased and spread down towards her brain stem. I knew she was trying to let go. But I also knew--don't ask me how, since I really didn't know her this closely--that she was hanging on because I was there. I knew this was something that was between her and the God she loved so fiercely, and she wasn't going to do it with an audience. My being there was only going to prolong this.

I will not tell you what I said to her as I kissed her forehead goodbye. I will only tell you that two hours later, the spark that made her Debby was gone.

13 October 2013

A Dream Deferred

The end of August brought with it some personal and professional trials that just about knocked me on my ass. I knew I was at my breaking point when marathon training started becoming a cause for anxiety rather than a reliever of it and I found myself avoiding training runs because I was afraid they would go badly.

What can I say, y'all, I was stressed.

So after a couple of weeks of being very nearly unmoored, occasionally in front of other people (which was almost as upsetting for them as it was for me), I finally realised that something had to give. Since I was loath to part with my sanity, my relationship with Himself, or my academic career, that something ended up being Marine Corps marathon later this month. After talking it over with a couple of folks--the man I consider my running coach, the chiropractor I consider my counselor and spiritual advisor, and the man I consider my dad--and weighing my options, I decided to defer my marathon registration until 2014.

Stay tuned for other stuff. Not all of it is stuff I want to talk about on the interwebz--in fact, some of it is stuff I don't even really know how to talk about it in what a friend charmingly (and weirdly, since she's vegetarian) calls "meatspace"--but some of it needs to find its way out and home.