Friday, December 5, 2014

Lost in the wilderness

Penelope Lively writes in Moon Tiger, "Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms ... I control the world so long as I can name it. Which is why children must chase language before they do anything else, tame the wilderness by describing it, challenge God by learning His hundred names." 

I’ve read and reread this passage because it so eloquently expresses the plight of my mother, who several years ago had a stroke that caused little damage to her body but impaired her ability to speak. She often starts a sentence but loses her way before she can finish it. In particular, she finds it almost impossible to find the right noun or to recognize that she has used an inappropriate one. She can say “rabbit pellet” in place of “grape” and wonder why her listeners are surprised.

It seems especially cruel for this particular affliction to befall my mother, who had a way with language. She didn’t speak the way I imagined other mothers did. Her language was arch rather than emotive, allusive rather than specific, abstract rather than concrete, stylized rather than direct. But she was articulate, she got her point across, she held the floor, and she was proud of it. So it’s interesting to me to examine the few complete sentences she has uttered recently.

During my last visit, she complained repeatedly, “I don’t have any money,” and asked again and again, “Where are my keys?” She has no need for cash or keys these days. She never goes out on her own and never makes a purchase. Her only outings are to doctors, always in the company of her home aide. And my sister-in-law and I write checks for the few bills that are not on auto-pay. I think it’s not cash or keys she wants but the autonomy they represent. And autonomy—the reality or the word—is something she’ll never have again. I can’t give her that. So I fetch her keys and put a bit of cash in an envelope for her to keep close by. It’s not what she really wants, I know. But it’s what I can give her, and it seems to appease her, for the moment.

Recently she told her home aide, “There’s something coming out of my body.” What she meant was that she was having a bowel movement. She didn’t used to be so delicate. Perhaps she does not call a thing by its name because she can’t remember how to say it. But perhaps she doesn’t want to acknowledge the specifics in a life that has been reduced to the simple acts of survival—eating, pooping, sleeping. 

And she sleeps a lot. She used to spend her post-retirement days reading: at least two daily newspapers front to back, plus Time magazine and the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books every week, plus books. But her attention, or maybe it’s her eyesight, has weakened. So she’s bored, or maybe depressed. So after a 12-hour night, she sleeps an hour or two after breakfast and often some more after lunch. Her sleep life is livelier than her waking life, and she sometimes finds it hard to differentiate between dreams and reality. One day on my last visit, she told me excitedly, “Someone came into my room last night while I was sleeping and offered me chocolate.”

Lately many of our conversations betray a wish for things to be different, mostly for her children to live with her. The other day, she asked me on the telephone, “Why do people take showers?” To keep themselves clean, I said. “Do you take showers?” Yes. “Why don’t you come here then and take a shower?” Referring to her kind and competent home aides, she told my younger brother that she was spending her life “with strangers.” And sometimes a little bitterness creeps in. One of her aides and I were discussing things we wish we had done differently as parents. I turned to my mother and asked her whether there was anything she wished she could change, and she replied, “My children do not comply with my requirements.”

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Meditation on meditation

When I was growing up, there was a rule that we three kids had to sit at the dinner table with our parents for an hour every night. There was probably a rationale—to discourage us from bolting our food? expose us to adult conversation?—but the result was pure pain, certainly for us kids and I suspect for our parents too. I didn't have much of a relationship then with my two brothers, so there was no comfort in their company. We weren't even on familiar enough terms to kick each other under the table. And my parents droned on to each other about boring things and scolded us for fidgeting, slumping, grimacing, chewing with our mouths open. 

The food was pretty dreadful for a kid. My parents, transplants to California from the East Coast, had sophisticated palates. Then too seafood was cheap at the time and we were poor. So there were many evenings spent staring into bowls of tentacles and eyeballs and unidentifiable iridescent blobs. There was eel. There was squid. There were oysters. If you didn't eat it for dinner, you'd get it again for breakfast. 

But it was the sheer sitting that was the most painful. The burn up and down my spine. The grind of my sitting bones against the oak chair. The scraping of my thighs against the rough edge of the table apron as I crossed and recrossed my legs. The bloat in my belly. The buzz of rebellion in my brain. Maybe I didn't get waterboarded in my chowder and maybe my shackles were invisible, but it was torture, and I felt rage and despair—and fear that I would go mad if I were not released.

After I graduated from high school and from the dinner table, the fetters fell away and I was free. For many, many reasons, adulthood seemed easier than childhood. I remember savoring the great delirious freedom when Other and I had a "naughty dinner"—gigantic cookies as an entree—as we walked from the bakery to our apartment near Golden Gate Park. What made the moment so good was as much the not-sitting-down as the not-eating-by-the-book.

But in my mid-50s I began feeling the strictures of captivity cutting in again, as I shouldered responsibility for my elderly parents, watching them both age, my father die, my mother linger in a kind of twilight. I want to love doing my duty, much as my parents must have wanted us to love sitting together over a meal, but I don't love it. It is painful to sit by bedsides—or at the dinner table again—for days at a time. Not just psychologically but physically. 

Many people have recommended meditation to assuage the stress and sense of imprisonment. And I have tried it. But it doesn't help. In fact, the other day I realized it made me feel worse. And here's the reason: meditation is a whole lot like being trapped at the dinner table. Maybe the tentacles aren't there, but the confinement and discomfort and the neverendingness are the same. So I'm giving it up. But perhaps I will bring the techniques of meditation to the bedside vigil. Focus on the breath. Gently put aside thoughts of past and future. And most fundamentally, the suggestion of an old friend who’s a veteran preschool teacher: Take my shoes off.