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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reel estate


Love Is Strange is strange—it's more about the tragedy of New York real estate than it is about love. A pair of longtime partners get married, and in a twist on the term "marriage penalty," one is fired from his job teaching music in a parochial school. The loss of income forces the husbands to sell their apartment—to little gain because of a surprise, severe flip tax (how they could reach final sale without knowing that penalty is bemuddling). Separated by the need to couch-surf with space-straitened friends and relatives, they are nearly reunited by a miracle—the sudden, not-bloody-believable offer of a spectacular $1,500-a-month rent-controlled apartment on flossy Morton Street! No matter how false the details, the movie's overarching aching message rings with sorry authenticity: New York eats its old.

Next up: My Old Lady, a real-estate comedy set in Paris!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Handwriting

"Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader's eye. Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is as intimate as skin."
—Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Filling in the blanks

Since her stroke a few years ago, my mother's speech has been like a game of Mad Libs where she'll put the darnedest things in the noun blanks. Apparently that's the magic of some strokes: they wipe out precise parts of the brain. Who knew there was an area devoted specifically to nouns?

But the weird thing about her aphasia is that it doesn't affect her handwriting. It's not that she can write a sentence that makes complete sense (though she comes closer on paper than in speech). It's that her handwriting is still the beautifully embellished copperplate of her youth. This is no labored Palmer penmanship or quavering elder scratch. Her writing is like a rollercoaster with swooping ascenders, dizzying loop-de-loops and thank-you-ma'am descenders. 



See that little squiggle above the loop in the y? That's actually a SECOND loop, with an air drop. 


Look at a whole page of it, and you are dazzled—and a bit dizzy, as if you were looking up at the spire of a skyscraper from below. This is the writing of a woman who is larger than life—even when life has taken seven inches off her height and reduced her sphere of influence from boundless to a room or two. It's also fatiguing to even think about reading page after page of that beautiful crashing script.

*

Though graphology as a key to character has been discredited, it is hard to dismiss some obvious correlations—neat handwriting with a general penchant for tidiness, say. Graphotherapy, or changing handwriting to change mental processes, is similarly unsupported. Despite all that, I am drawn to the happy optimism of such titles as "Change Your Handwriting, Change Your Life." And who would not want to know more about a technique vended by someone with the name Vishwas Heathcliff, who warns that so powerful are the tools of graphotherapy that "you are NOT supposed to try out any handwriting exercise without consulting a graphologist because if you undertake a wrong exercise, it can backfire. For example, if the self-esteem of a criminal is raised, he will just become a better criminal. Now you know what I mean." Yeah.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence that penmanship predicts personality, it's interesting that so many little girls tinker with their writing in much the way that they try on different mannerisms and clothing styles. I clearly remember my own activities in that area. After I failed to win first prize in the penmanship contest in third grade (I remember little from my childhood, but I can clearly see the name and face of the paragon who edged me into second place), I changed my pretty good Palmer script into a lefty back slant like that of an admired friend. I continued to fiddle with it—consciously—into my college years. Each tweak was in response to a new friend crush. Admiration of a person was not enough to inspire me to emulate her handwriting though. The handwriting itself had to have some engaging quirk or fillip. I was briefly flattered that my daughter seemed to be examining my hand and aping it when she was younger—until I realized she was forging notes to her school to excuse her lateness.

Heart-shaped i dottings and knotted t crossing are long behind me now. I have a hand that is legible but with a studied disregard for neatness. I'm stopping there. In any case, I rarely write anything but shopping lists, and even those I often peck into my iPhone.

There may be little evidence that penmanship predicts personality, but recent research suggests that writing cursive helps you learn and remember—and generate ideas of your own. Typing and printing, not so much. I wonder if there were time enough left in her life, could my mother lay down new neural pathways and recover her lost nouns by actually filling in the Mad Libs blanks—by hand?

*Second sample is from 1990. The first is recent.

WTC


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Calm domestic stability

How could I have forgotten Charles Lamb's background? Here, in the words of Phillip Lopate (To Show and to Tell):

"At the age of twenty, Lamb witnessed a horrific family tragedy: his beloved sister Mary, under a great nervous strain from having to attend to her ailing parents and run the household while taking in needlework, stabbed their mother to death and wounded their father ... Mary was spared prison by the courts and remanded to the custody of her younger brother, who took care of her (as she did him) for the rest of their lives ... Periodically Mary would suffer relapses and have to be readmitted to the madhouse ... In general, however, his sister provided a calm domestic stability that allowed Charles to persist at his tedious clerical job and hone his craft after hours as a writer."



Should I be worried?



A man handed me scrap of paper on Broadway and 42nd Street yesterday. Here's what it says, in part (all sic): "A Lithuanian Terrorist Organization installs a chip in peoples eye and now they hear voices in their head (3 people screaming nonstop at them). They are currently stalking 800 people in an organized manner like this. They follow people around, cuss them out and have even punched them, besides robbing valuables and cash from people's apartments. The Lithuanian Organization introduces themselves as the CIA, NSA, or the FBI ... On August 4th, 2016 gay people will be convinced by voices to start destroying stuff on 9th avenue in Hell's Kitchen, NYC starting at 11:00 pm. Next the German gang will be sent in to kill gay people. Next the black gang will come in and kill whoever is left. The same thing will happen afterwards in Washington D.C. at Dupont Circle on September of 2017. Then it will occur in San Francisco on the Castro in February of 2019 ..."

Friday, June 27, 2014

The stupid life

"This is stupid," she says. 

"What's stupid, Mom?" 

"This," she says. "All of this is stupid."

And I have to say I agree with her. There we were crammed into her room with her personal caregiver in the skilled-nursing facility where she was stuck for two months. My father, to whom she'd been married for 68 years, had died in February at the age of 90. My 88-year-old mother had come down with shingles in March and, weakened by the virus, fell and broke her hip in April. My brothers and I were now tag teaming to be on hand to keep her spirits up. Despite our best efforts, it felt pretty stupid. 

Even before her latest fall, even before my father's death, it had been fairly stupid. My deaf, nearly blind father, stressed out by the demands of living in the modern world—bills, medical forms, scam mail, which he pored over with a hand magnifier in front of his thick glasses—would accuse my mother, who was already hobbled by earlier falls and a stroke that addled her brain and robbed her of useful language, of misplacing a letter or bank statement or checkbook. Unfairly accused, and never one to sit still for insults, she would punish him by refusing to speak to him. Not that her speech was entirely intelligible when she did speak to him. It would have been funny if they hadn't been my parents.

By the time doctors told my father that only extreme interventions could prolong his life, he was practically racing toward death with open arms. He'd had enough—not of my mother but of a life that was largely burdensome. Tragically, he and my mother had been engaged in one of their protracted skirmishes when he breathed his last. He had been begging her for forgiveness, and she had been withholding it. Then he died. She had the last word—or really the last silence—but regret is what she is left with now. So I'm pretty sure that's part of the vast stupidity she's referring to. But it's also stupid to be living beyond any expectation of usefulness or pleasure, maintained by a retinue of doctors, nurses, home aides, and well-meaning aging children who travel great distances to keep her company. 

It's really stupid that my last words to my father were "Don't worry, Dad. The bills are paid." It's stupid that those are the words that allowed him to finally let go. He died a couple hours later.

It's stupid that my quirky-smart father never got a chance to write down his curious thoughts and stories. He was too busy paying and losing the damn bills. It's stupid that my whip-smart, vivacious mother is crippled by a brain that is literally dammed and a body that doesn't really work, though "she has the vital signs of a teenager," as the nurses tell us brightly. It's stupid that when we remind her of the PhD she earned at a time when other women stayed home with the kids, her brilliance as a teacher, her stunning success as a financial adviser, she has not a flicker of memory for these accomplishments. 

My mother is right. All of this is really, really stupid.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Koons in Rock Center


The coolest thing is how the white daisies in its eyes sway in the breeze.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The thing with feathers

In the world of breast cancer, hope is a sacred word. "Don't give up hope," women tell each other, even in the most hopeless circumstances. "Here's hoping," they say before a friend goes in for a mammogram. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul—and sings the tunes without the words—and never stops at all,” Emily Dickinson wrote (though not about breast cancer).

Hope is supposed to be a good thing. So I was startled the other day when a friend reported that a support-group leader had told her, "Hope is a waste of time."

I've mulled over what the support-group leader could have meant. And I think she may have meant one or more of a few things:

1. Hope implies that our own illness or someone else's is under our control, and that if we just hope enough we can sway the outcome. Like the blame-the-victim admonishment to "think positive," hope suggests that if we get sicker or die, it's our own fault for letting go of hope or failing to maintain optimism.

2. Hope is another name for fear, its inherent dark side. When we hope, we're really dreading whatever it is we hope won't happen. 

3. By focusing on a future outcome, hope takes you out of the here and now. And really, you can mostly bear what is in the present. It is the future that scares us silly. But if we ask ourselves, "Are we O.K. now? ... And now? ... And now? ..." the answer is affirmative. 

4. Hope is passive. If you really want something to happen, and it's under your control, you can take the actual steps to ensure it. Otherwise, it's just an empty word. And who needs empty words in times of crisis?

Ram Dass once said in an interview that a Tibetan Lama told him that the best place to stand is halfway between hope and hopelessness. Which is probably somewhere in the here and now.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The wackiness of happiness


I'm sure academe has a theory to explain my experience. My basal-mood temperature is a degree above "depressed," my "pessimism" reading is higher than my cholesterol, and I'm deep into the double digits of "anxious." Yes, my emotional vital signs are poor to middling, but it doesn't take much to make my spirits soar—at least briefly. And it helps if a little something has recently gone wrong. 

Take this morning. When I reached the library, I realized I had lost the small zippered bag that holds the ear buds and power cord for my iPhone. Immediate downtick in mood. After retracing my steps, I found it right where I had left it—next to the yoga ball at the gym. My sense of elation was out of all proportion to the event: my worldview changed from a slightly-below-baseline "Everything sucks" to "Am I not the luckiest woman alive?" I believe I may have uttered those precise words to the deskhuman as I left, holding the little yellow bag aloft in victory. (And I'm pretty sure she totally understood.) Simply remembering to pick it up when I got off the yoga ball in the first place would have been a non-event. But losing it and finding it was epic—even though it cost me time and concentration at the library. 

On the other hand, a major loss, the death of my father, caused little change in my mood-o-meter. In fact, there might have been a tiny uptick in the "relief" department. After all, his final illness had triggered stress, guilt, pity and fear. And those feelings largely vanished when he did.

Perhaps the answer is to lose a little thing every day, just for the exultation of finding it.

You can't make this sh*t up





The cardboard-carton mattress of the homeless man who sleeps on my block. Was he the writer or the recipient of this message? I don't know.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

Comma yoga

In my long career as a yoga practitioner, I’ve been a slut—a one-night stander, a two-timer and a serial monogamist. For an hour or a year, I’ve done PE yoga, gym yoga, power yoga, restorative yoga, flow yoga, Lyrical yoga, hot yoga, cold yoga, Ashtanga, Integral, Sivananda, fusion, Anusara, Atmananda, Jivamukti, kundalini. While others dived in deep or quit the water entirely, I splashed in the shallows.

Forty years in, I think I’m ready to take the plunge into copy editor yoga. That’s what a colleague aptly called Iyengar yoga when I described its attentiveness to detail and precision. There is a right way and a wrong way in Iyengar, just as there is in a respectable grammar manual. Sloppy writing, sloppy yoga—why bother?

It has been said to me by some writers that they have no patience for the pickiness of copyediting. They’re more interested in the creative process, they say. But grammar is the sinew and bone of writing. Without it, words are mere disgorgement.

I once had no patience for pickiness in yoga. Handstands, headstands, forearm stands—I was a thrill seeker who let her limbs fly. But for a while now, I’ve been tackling yoga’s grammar through Iyengar. And there’s a thrill as ecstatic as inverting heels over head in getting a simple pose precisely right.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sisterhood of the bell-bottom pants


 Back in the early 1970s, I attended a college that had a student body of about 1,200 men and fewer than 100 women. We women were all beauties because we were not men. We were all smart because our thoughts represented the “female point of view.” But there was one among us who was smarter and more beautiful than all the others. When she graduated in 1971 along with six other women and 300 men, she was valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa.

Her name was Joan, and she was the queen, worshipped and feared. I can still see her—slim and tall, sauntering across campus, her thick black waves pulled loosely back like a pre-Raphaelite maiden's. I can hear her too—her voice a husky melodious rumble. 

Her combination of competence and confidence offended chauvinists, of whom there were many on campus, but endeared her to the rest of her peers. 

For some reason, she chose me as a protegee. She arranged for me to inherit her wonderfully appointed lodging, which had once been the library in a professorial manse. It had a working fireplace, oak paneling and a little toilet-and-sink closet, as well as a "Lay Lady Lay" brass bed she had purchased. She negotiated for me to be the first female member of the college honor society, which acquired members by nomination, not grades. And she gave me insightful but largely unusable academic and personal advice—unusable because I wasn't her and shared few of her attributes. And finally, she bequeathed to me her trademark bellbottoms—lovely, flowing, russet—that she wore virtually every day. I had admired and coveted them. One day she handed them over and said, "You wear them."

I tried. And actually, I think I looked beautiful in them. I too had long curly waves, though mine were blond, and like her I was tall. But the bellbottoms were so closely identified with her that when I wore them I became a wannabe, a pathetic fangirl. This was made clear to me when one of the young men who was in her thrall came up and said, "Why are you trying to look like Joan? You're not anything like her." So I gave them back. Because that's what I really wanted—to be like her. I wish I had kept them though. Ever since then, lo these 40 years, I have been trying to replace them. I know I look silly, a 64-year-old woman with severe gray hair tripping over wide hems. But it's to recapture an image from my youth of a truly splendid woman who embodied all I admired.

A couple of months ago, I read an obituary for Joan in the alumni magazine. All that googling could unearth was that she died in October of a brain disease and was living in an assisted-living facility. What happened to my beautiful, brilliant friend in the fabulous pants?

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Monday, April 7, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adult-onset anxiety

Parents are supposed to protect their children from all pain at all costs, and God knows I’ve tried. But recently I got a thrill from my daughter’s mental anguish. She told me that the last time she housesat for us, it rained one night, and she was unable to sleep worrying about whether the outside drain was clogged with debris. It just made my day!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A life in checks and balances

I'm bored by math, can't balance my checkbook without a full-time handholder, and struggle even to write checks (so many steps!). Yet it has been revealed to me through the deaths of various relatives that one of the most interesting ways to get to know people or to learn their secrets is to have your nose rubbed in their financial affairs.

In the wake of my father's death, my brother and sister-in-law have taken responsibility for writing paper checks for my mother’s bills. I’ve been tasked with monitoring my mother’s bank account and paying the two "V" bills online: the Visa card and the Vista condo monthly dues. But here's the thing: even with this minimal involvement in my parents' financial life, I am learning and being reminded of interesting details about my father:

In addition to being hospitalized four times in the last month of his life, which I knew about, my father required three visits from the fire department to get him back on his feet after he’d fallen. My father was a big man: 6 ft. 4 in. He was slender at the end, but too difficult for the tiny home aide to maneuver. The touching thing is that he never told me about these falls and apparently forbid anyone else to do so, even though I called every day or two and visited frequently, so there was ample opportunity. He didn’t want to worry me. I feel guilt now, a form of retroactive worry I suppose.

My brother was finally able to cancel my parents’ paid AOL account yesterday. I had often suggested it, but my father insisted that it provided “security” and refused to let it go, even though it cost him $29.99 a month in return for absolutely nothing. My mother’s verbal skills declined after her stroke, and my father was deeply paranoid about electronic media. He was convinced the CIA was collecting information about him for his anti-war work in the ‘70s and his trips to Egypt in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Could be true.

My parents put their money where their beliefs were. Every month there were donations to the Unitarian church, Amnesty USA, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Mendocino Music Festival, the ACLU, Compassion & Choice, Doctors Without Borders, Viet Veterans of California, and the Multiple Sclerosis society. The last was in honor of his dear friend Wally, who died of pulmonary fibrosis, a diagnosis that somehow got transmuted into m.s. in my father’s mind; when I pointed out the real diagnosis to him, he insisted they were the same thing, and anyway, Wally would have liked having money donated to m.s. too.

The National Pen Company made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars from my father, who ordered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pens and flashlights imprinted with “Valley of the Kings Research,” an organization that has not existed for several years. My father gave out these trinkets by the dozen to friends and visitors. There are hundreds of them still secreted away throughout the apartment. We put out a basket of them at his memorial service, but takers—and there were many—barely made a dent in the supply.

If my father liked a book, he bought 10 or 20 copies to give away. I ordered them for him on Amazon, so I have a list of recent favorites: “Being Wrong,” by Kathryn Shultz; “I Am Malala,” by Malala Yousafzai; “Miramar,” by Naguib Mahfouz; “Shahhat,” by Richard Critchfield; and “To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure,” by Henry Petroski. 

My parents’ living expenses were modest—except for their 24-hour-home-care bill of $400 a day, $600 on holidays. They had paid off their condominium and no longer traveled. Their biggest expense outside of their home aides was food: hefty portions of meat at every meal for my farm-boy father, bushels of nuts for snacking, as well as carbs aplenty in the form of pies, cakes, cookies, crackers, cupcakes, bagels and muffins. As for the home care, it was necessary for survival. My parents had eschewed any form of institution as too confining. In the end they were imprisoned in their beautiful hilltop condo, the steep incline preventing them from setting foot outside. The isolation and tedium drove them both a bit crazy.

So there in a check register is the story of a life, or a part of one.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Remnants of Things Repast



Footnote

Yesterday in a yoga class at Iyengar, another student asked me whether I was a dancer. “No,” I said, “but I’m flattered you asked.” Then I realized she was looking at my feet and it was not a compliment.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dying days

It’s probably always a jolt when a parent dies, but I can’t claim I wasn’t warned about my father’s death. He was 90, and he’d been talking to me for the past year about dying. 

He and I spent days poring over questions like “If I am unconscious, in a coma or in a persistent vegetative state and there is little or no chance of recovery ... I would [want/not want] to have life-sustaining treatments.” That one was easy for both of us. 

But other questions were more perplexing: Would he want to have regular life-sustaining treatments like, say, dialysis if he were mentally competent but unable to communicate? It would depend. Many of the questions remained in the limbo of “it would depend.”

He was excited about dying. He talked about it constantly. He formally enlisted an old friend to be his “advance-care agent” and put her on his list of emergency contacts. In the end, though, he didn’t need her services. 

He was hospitalized four times in his last month of his life. His lungs kept filling with fluid, making it hard for him to breathe. He wasn’t expected to survive the third hospitalization, so I flew out to have a chance to see him before he died. When I arrived, at midnight, he was awake and pleased to see me. “I pulled my plug!” he announced excitedly, holding up his arm, with its new DNR wristband, in an air punch of victory. But after he had signed the DNR, he allowed doctors to remove fluid from his chest once again—which revived him. 

I spent five days at his bedside, during which time he told me that he had had a wonderful marriage, and a wonderful life. This seemed like good news, since he had been depressed during much of the past year. 

One day he greeted me by telling me cheerfully, “I’m wearing women’s pants!” (They weren’t really women’s pants, but sweatpants with an elastic waistband, a style he identified with my mother.) 

When his nurse asked him how he was, he told her, “I’m a loser. I’m an engineer, and my whole career I’ve been fighting the natural forces that eventually destroy all things: wind, fire, water, air, heat, cold. And now I’m fighting disease, and I’m losing.” 

When Other called him and asked him how he was, my father said delightedly, “I’m wearing diapers!” 

Everything about the process of leaving the living world fascinated him—and made him seem more alive than ever. It was as though he had been bored by the tedium and stress of a life that had devolved into paying bills and preparing his taxes. But dying—now that was interesting!

Shortly after he was discharged and I left him to fly home, he was hospitalized again. This time he was resolute. He demanded to be sent home. “I can’t live like this,” he told me on the phone. By the time my brother and sister-in-law arrived, he had yanked out his chest drain. They took him home to the apartment he shared with my mother and their home aide, and within 24 hours he was gone. 

Before he died, he underwent a process called “terminal agitation,” thrashing and trying to throw himself out of the hospital bed that the hospice service had set up in the living room. It took all my brother’s strength to subdue him. At one point, my brother and sister-in-law called me and asked me to try to talk to him on the phone to see if I could calm him down. “Dad,” I said. “Everything is o.k. You don’t need to worry about anything. The bills are paid, and we’ll take care of Mom.” Those were the last words I spoke to him.

They tell me that he seemed calmer after that. He continued to mutter unintelligibly, occasionally breaking into coherence. He told my sister-in-law, “You have given me a great gift” (apparently alluding to her help in arranging for him to die at home rather than in the hospital). He shouted out at one point: “I’m going … to Death!” And at 8 in the morning, he uttered his old familiar catchphrase, “Take care, and have fun!”

I struggle to remember anything from my childhood about my father. But images of his old age and dying are vivid—and infinitely touching.

The dark before the light

There was a dark period in my life when I was a child entering adolescence. I was a loner, a reader and a raisin-eater, and I had an obsessive fear of death that kept me awake at night. My fear of death was intertwined with my fear of math. I lived in the country, in a house cantilevered over a steep hill. Someone had told me about infinity. And I lay awake many nights, projecting my mind incrementally forward “… plus one, plus one, plus one …” 

Infinity terrified me. It was logical and simple but unreachable, and propelling myself toward it felt like falling into a bottomless chasm. It sucked the air out of me. 

It was a period when my parents quarreled a lot. I don’t know what they fought about—maybe it was about me and my brothers—but the fights often culminated in one or the other of them raging into the night. A car door would slam and then brakes would screech as the car careered down the treacherous winding road toward the flatland below. So as one part of my mind was inching toward eternity, another part was straining to catch the receding racket of the car.

That wasn’t the only time math and parental anger were joined. Though it was clear that math was not my strong suit, my parents, in an excess of feminist fervor, insisted that I be placed in the advanced class in junior high school. I languished there, stupid and embarrassed, my misery compounded by my being one of only two girls in the class. My dread of math—and of my parents' sure anger—hung over me throughout the day, with just a brief respite between sixth period, when the class took place, and later in the afternoon, when I started in on my homework. On weekends, my father would tutor me. These coaching sessions would begin with patience and good will and end in fury and tears. My father, a structural engineer, could not fathom that anything but stubbornness could account for my stupidity. It was a relief to us both when the school placed me in the regular track the following year. This time my parents did not intervene.

Then there were the taxes. When I was 16, my father said he’d pay me to code his receipts for the year and add them up. It was simple in concept, but the coding was an elaborate scheme, with dozens of categories and subcategories. And the receipts overflowed a large grocery bag. It was a big job—overwhelming in scope and importance—and I muffed it. I knew I was muffing it, even as I did so. As I waited for him to discover the mess I had made of things, I swam in a sea of dread—of my father and of the IRS. When he finally began to plug in the bogus numbers I had assembled, my father reddened and roared at my “carelessness.” I called him a “swine,” a peculiar word—I have no idea why it came out of my mouth—that ignited an explosion of wrath. My father was six foot four and burly, and he seemed to swell with rage. I was scared and humiliated. His rage eventually burnt off, but its toxic cinders lingered in the air. We didn’t speak for weeks. One of the enduring residues of that episode was a deep fear of growing up and having to do my own taxes. 

But adulthood turned out to be a lot easier—and happier—than childhood. I learned that for a small fee, an accountant would do my taxes. And balancing my checkbook is about the only task I’ve ever had to do that involved math of any kind. Infinity I still struggle with, oddly when I meditate. I get that free-fall feeling when I try to let go of the past and of the future, and focus on the now. That now … plus now, plus now, plus now … feels a lot like eternity.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The swimmer

For several years in the early 1960s, before I became a teenager, my skin flaked and stank of chlorine, my eyes were shot with red, and my short hair gleamed green. As a competitive swimmer, I had a three-hour workout every summer morning and a two-hour practice every evening, except on Sundays, when there was no evening practice. My mother hired a teenage boy to drive me home from the later practices, which let out after dark. But I walked to and from the morning workouts. The long laps in the fifty-meter pool required a certain kind of courage—physical endurance. But the journeys on foot required another kind—the fortitude to be on my own in an unpredictable world.

Although I had two brothers, my habits were those of an only child. Sometimes I read a book as I trudged the 45 minutes over the hills and across the valleys between my house and the pool at the community college. Other times, I constructed an elaborate serial fantasy in which I starred as Super M, with adventures similar to Superman’s, but without Lois Lane or a day job. Alone and brave, I saved a lot of people, and they were sorry they never knew my name.

Back then the human population was sparse in Los Altos Hills, but apricot trees and horses were thick. My route took me cross-country, behind the Immaculate Heart Monastery of the Poor Clares (whose nuns I never glimpsed), and through high grasses, across orchards carpeted in fallen fruit, and down unpaved trails rank with horse dung and deer pellets.

Not infrequently, danger jolted me from my book or from my Super M reveries. Yellow jackets buzzed me, angry at my intrusion on their feast of rotting apricots. Or the dry grasses would rustle, signaling the passage of a snake, probably a harmless gopher snake, but possibly one of its lookalikes, the venomous rattlers that matched their five-foot length and diamond markings. I was never bitten, but I stood motionless for long minutes, as I had been instructed to do, waiting for the snake to make its way out of striking distance.

The most terrifying encounter of my swimward trek was with a species known for its docility. One day, as Super M was soaring through the skies toward another daring rescue, a vibration beneath my feet shook me from my dream. For a moment, I couldn’t see the source of the rumbling, which was punctuated by something like a baby’s cry—an eerie, not-quite-human baby’s cry. Then I turned.

Surging toward me from behind was a great, dirty, gray mass, almost liquid in its undulations. The mass was made up of a hundred bleating sheep stampeding toward me. I froze, as if to appease a diamondback. But the mob, moving as a single beast on 400 pounding legs, showed no sign of dividing to pass around me. Their alien yellow eyes, bisected by horizontal pupils, stared at me unblinking and blind. And suddenly I was down, choking on dust, pummeled by hooves as they roared over me like a freight train.

I was bleeding and bruised when I reached the pool, and in shock. For once I didn’t linger on the edge, didn’t put off the chilly plunge. The cool clean water parted as I dived into my lane, which was neatly separated from the next by a rope of thick beads. The numbing fear began to wash away as I fell into the familiar rhythms of kicking, stroking, breathing. As Cheever wrote, “To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition.” 

My swimming career came to an end after I reached puberty. Menstrual cramps kept me from practice several days a month, and I slipped behind my teammates. Free of chlorine, my eczema cleared up, and my hair grew out a dirty blond. My fantasies turned from Super M rescuing the world to boys rescuing me. 

New McMansions and a great expressway now block the route between the house where I grew up and the pool where I swam. The apricot trees have all but vanished, and no one keeps sheep anymore. But every year, even now, a dozen people are bitten by rattlers. Almost all of them survive.



Friday, March 7, 2014

Stimulant dreams



I’ve been having a series of nightmares about our drip coffeemaker. In one, I put the coffee in and flip the switch before realizing I have forgotten to place the paper filter. In another I put in too much water and can’t turn the machine on. These dreams are terrifying.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Designs for living


Everything I know I learned from my daughter and my bffs

My mother was a feminist. She was beautiful too. And she played it both ways. She used her elbows to get everything she could. And she used her eyebrows to get the rest. She taught me a bit about the first strategy but nothing about the feminine arts. 

Fortunately, I’ve always had a few good girlfriends. One in particular has taught me what to do in nearly every situation—from ethical conduct to what to wear where. 

Another insisted I dye my hair. It wasn’t until I reached for the bottle that I realized that everyone else was already doing it. I had always thought I was prematurely gray. Turns out I was just stupid.

It fell to my daughter C to tell me how to apply makeup and that pedicures and good haircuts are necessities, not luxuries. 

But somehow neither B nor C ever told me about mom jeans. That fell to A—airplanes. For 50 years I’ve worn Levi 501s. But when I had fly to and from New York and California three times in one month, they rubbed me the wrong way. 

Then I discovered mom jeans—they look like regular jeans, but they’re stretchy! I bought the first pair because they were on sale ($8 at Ross!), the second because it was on sale ($15 at Muji!) and third pair (I’m not saying) because I was so ecstatic about the first two.

What else aren’t people telling me?

Eulogy for an engineer

March 1

My father would have been 91 today, and there’s nothing he would have liked better than your coming to celebrate his birthday. So thank you for coming today and thank you for all your support over the past few years. 

When my brother and sister-in-law told me my father was dying, I was in New York. While I waited by the phone for their updates, I went through all the letters my father had sent me over the years, my journal entries, even old bills, trying to make sense of his life. I put together some thoughts, and I’d like to share them with you. 

As many of you know, my father was an engineer. And he approached everything as an engineering problem. Not just building projects but life itself. He researched, assessed, catalogued—and invented all manner of solutions. No project was too grand or too small. 

When my daughter C was 5, she wanted a bunk bed for her dollhouse. He spent days helping her design it. And together they cut the little tiny wood parts to the precise specifications, glued them and painted the result hot pink. The dollhouse is long gone, and the furniture too, but the memory of her grandfather, on the floor with her, for hours on end, will last her her whole life. 

Much more rarely, my father came up with a seat-of-the-pants solution. Like when my son J was a little boy, and my father took him to a baseball game and promised him an autograph for his baseball. But the players left before J got to the head of the line. So my dad autographed the baseball himself. 

But unplanned solutions were the exception rather than the rule. 

He even planned a memorial service for himself, though what he had in mind was a living memorial, so he could enjoy it with you. This is what he was planning. He wanted to invite 100 friends. He was going to write some remarks, print them out and put them on a table for people to take if they wanted to. Next to his own remarks, he wanted to have a box labeled “Second Opinions,” with paper and pencils, so people could write their own assessments. He didn’t wanted people to glorify him. He wanted them to tell the truth. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have his remarks, but we’re hoping that you’ll take a moment to jot down some memories and second opinions. And please be honest about his failures. Because he valued the truth and he valued his failures. 

He spent a lot of time thinking about his failures. In fact he sent me a list of them. And I’d like to share a few with you. 

1) When he was in basic training in the Army, he went AWOL to look for gold in the desert. That wasn’t the failure. The failure was that he didn’t find any gold.

2) This is a failure he was happy about: When he was sent to the front in World War II, he was ordered to shoot an enemy soldier, and he missed. Later the soldier was captured, and my father found out that he was just 14 years old. Seventy years after the fact, my father was still relieved about this failure.

3) After he got his engineering degree, he failed the state structural test on his first try—but he passed it the second time. And it was comforting to me that you could fail at something and get it right later.

4) When he was in his 40s, he ran for state senate on a peace ticket and lost. Personally, I don’t consider that a failure. I’m proud that he ran. And even prouder that he was a peace candidate.

The funny thing about my father’s fascination with failure was that by every objective measure, he was a success. He co-founded one of the finest engineering firms in the country, and he was a leader in his community.

But in his view, failure was what engineering was all about. For instance, after an earthquake or other disaster, engineers from all over the country would rush to the site to look over the damage and figure out what went wrong—so they could get it right. 

Examining failures was an essential step to succeeding. My father loved putting the whole puzzle together. And that passion to get to the truth and understand it and make the pieces fit was one of the most endearing qualities of my lovely father. 

He had a penchant for organizing and labeling, and it extended to people. He invented something called the Marja Award. Marja is an Arabic word meaning “one who should be emulated,” and he bestowed the award on people he felt were moral leaders. These included his wife M, Unitarians like DP and TS and LS and the late WC. Respected colleagues like MS and BH. And he also awarded the Marja to famous activists like Jesus and Rosa Parks. The list of Marja winners is quite long, and I can’t name them all, but I’m sure there are others in this room. 

The Marja Awards might seem to contradict one of my father’s favorite sayings, which was “There are no heroes.” But I think what he meant was that human beings are flawed, but your flaws don’t prevent you from doing heroic things. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, my father was a hero—and a Marja.

Lately, one of my father’s other favorite sayings has been “Have fun!” He ended every conversation with those words. And my father did have fun—lots of fun, all over the world, in all kinds of circumstances. I think the reason he was able to live with such gusto was that he wasn’t afraid of failure. He enjoyed the ups and the downs and the runarounds—all of it. And he regretted nothing.

My sister-in-law tells me that the night before my father died, he muttered incoherently for hours. Suddenly, he shouted with total clarity, “Take care, and have fun!”

Thank you.