Lust

What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear or read the word “lust?” Something lascivious, perhaps, something sexual and out of control? Not me. I think of the biography of Vincent Van Gogh by Irving Stone, “Lust for Life,” which was probably my first exposure to the word “lust.I was in a biography-reading phase from about age ten through my early teens. I wanted to know everything about famous artists, athletes and political figures, people who were known in the world. This book was more a novel than a typical biography. Stone did his research, but his style was decidedly vivid and sensational, his imagination embellishing the facts he’d uncovered about his subject. I loved his writing style back then and went on to read his books about Clarence Darrow, Michelangelo and Abraham and Mary Lincoln. I interpreted that word “lust” to mean deep passion for being alive, for needing to paint, to sculpt, to improve a country, absent the more commonly accepted subtext of sexual intensity. I didn’t know anything about sexuality at that early age and had no concept of lust as one of the “seven deadly sins.” Those are not part of my world view, at least in the religious sense. I thought the “sins” were biblical, at least until I did some research about them. I discovered that they appeared in the lexicon sometime around the fourth century.

How the Seven Deadly Sins Began as ‘Eight Evil Thoughts’

The idea of listing the vices began in the fourth century. In the fourth century, a Christian monk named Evagrius Ponticus wrote down what’s known as the “eight evil thoughts”: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sloth, sadness, vainglory and pride. Fast forward to the 13th century, when theologian Thomas Aquinas again revisited the list in Summa Theologica(“Summary of Theology”). In his list, he brought back “sloth” and eliminated “sadness.” Like Gregory, Aquinas described “pride” as the overarching ruler of the seven sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s current capital sins are basically the same as Aquinas’, except that “pride” replaces “vainglory.”

I have a personal moral code and consider myself a spiritual being, but I operate outside any organized group of believers. Whatever your values, I think it’s clear that we can agree that ultimately, we humans are all mortals, with different limited amounts of time we’ll spend on this earth, and that how we spend that time is highly diverse.

Mass grave area – Mariupol, Ukraine. Reuters.

What I also know is that while ultimately death is the inevitable end for all those born into this world, there’s no rhyme or reason to much of it. Happening every day, everywhere, we don’t often dwell on death unless someone we love, or someone we know personally or through the public eye, either is close to death or has died. Thinking of how ephemeral life is too heavy a burden for daily contemplation. In these pandemic years, when millions of lives have been snuffed out, along with all those lost in conflicts unseen, or ones like Ukraine, when we watch bodies tossed hastily into mass graves, we are reminded of our fragility. We are so delicate. Who knows what gifts to the world vanished with a sudden last breath?

And so here I am, thinking about lust. Lust for life. Lust for learning. Sexual lust. All the types of lust, so easily extinguished. What’s this all about, this little word that has multiple meanings to different people. How does it work? I have my own ideas. But I decided to explore both dictionary and encyclopedia definitions so I could make sense of this term.

Michael and me -1972. Lust or love? Both?

Definition of lust – Merriam-Webster dictionary

1: usually intense or unbridled sexual desire : LASCIVIOUSNESS He was motivated more by lust than by love. 2a: an intense longing : CRAVING: 3a: lust to succeed: 3b: ENTHUSIASM, EAGERNESS : she admired his lust for life.

The dictionary definition covers a lot of ground. Starting with the sexual connotation, it then moves into what my impressions of lust were from my first exposure to the Van Gogh book. No one ever likened the words passionate, enthusiastic or ardent as sinful. But look at the dictionary definition of passionate.

Definition of passionate:

1a: easily aroused to anger- a passionate but not a vicious boy— H. E. Scudder b: filled with anger : ANGRY; was passionate in her defense of her cub, and rage transformed her— G. D. Brown; 2a: capable of, affected by, or expressing intense feeling a passionate performance, a passionate coach b: ENTHUSIASTIC, ARDENT is passionate about basketball.

A lusty Louisiana farmer? – Reuters

Things get even more interesting when you simply add a “y” to lust to create the word lusty. I thought it would be reasonable to assume that lusty would fall into the same sinful category as lust. But no. Here is the first dictionary definition I found for lusty.

Lusty – adjective – healthy and strong; full of vigor.”the other farms had lusty young sons to work the land.” (Really??)

I can’t tell how many definitions I might unearth if I keep looking for them until I found no different nuances. But I can say how I’ve personally chosen to view lust and why right now, I’ve been thinking so much about it.

Me “reading” at about 14 months old

In the nature versus nurture debate, some people line up in favor of one philosophy or the other. I’m sure those individuals have an easier road than me. I think it would be simpler to believe that everyone is born with the traits that will determine their futures regardless of their environments, that nothing external will change their destinies. That ideology has produced some of the worst prejudices on the planet, in my considered opinion, prejudices that to me are utterly repugnant, like eugenics. On the other side of the debate are the people who believe that given the right environment, everyone is playing on a level field and that we all can be anything we want if we have the same advantages. I don’t think either of those premises are right. In my life experience, albeit its limits, I think we all fall somewhere in between, in the murk between nature and nurture. We all carry genetic traits that are handed down to us through our DNA. Certain external variables, environmental, physiological, nutritional, societal, economic, educational and so many more factors, influence how those genetic traits may manifest themselves over time. Pretty complicated stuff. But that gray area is where I place my beliefs, although sometimes I wish for absolute certainty so I don’t have to ask so many unanswered questions, as I have for most of my life.

This April will mark 50 years since I moved in with Michael. The end of May will be the fifth anniversary since his death. These are the kinds of numbers that are cause for reflection. We both knew long ago that there would never be enough time for us to be together on this planet. We were one of those fortunate couples who lucked out with each other. We grew up together, always going in the same direction. Of course we had our towering battles and disagreements, but our fundamental connection was unwavering, growing stronger with time. As his death grew closer, Michael encouraged me to find new companionship after he was gone. I had no idea what I thought about that, a topic for later, in my mind. He said I had too much life in me to wind up on my own. He didn’t want me to be by myself. Not long after these conversations, he was gone. The time came for me to recover and to consider how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Which is why I consider the meaning of lust.

I think Michael was right about me having a lot of life left in me. I’d actually call it lust, the kind that doesn’t exclude sexuality but that embraces it as part of the deeper more existential lust I think was in me from birth. The lust for reading that’s kept books in my hands since I could hold them. The lust for learning about nature and science, psychology and philosophy, history and archaeology, geology and geography. The lust for immersing myself in water and expressing my inner aquatic self. I lean toward dolphins and octopuses if I should wind up swimming. The lust for learning about birds and thinking I’m part albatross, which can fly for thousands of miles without landing. The lust for words that makes me subscribe to dictionaries so I can receive a new word a day,while also playing forty Words with Friends games daily along with Wordle and any other mental twister I can find.

After Michael died, I was exhausted from our five year ordeal. I knew that the many times I’d been a caregiver in my life had been eclipsed by this most painful, wrenching experience and ultimate loss. I knew I was permanently changed and that the self I’d been seemingly forever had left the building. I still believe that for the most part. But what stunned me with its resurgence was my lust, my primary characteristic that continues to bubble up, even when I’m sad or deeply lonely. That powerful drive surprises me constantly, wiping away gloom and despair as I thrill at the sight of a new bird at my feeder, spy a place of spectacular beauty and immediately try to see if I can get there, or when I discover some random fact that fits perfectly into a hole in my education. And weird though it may seem to some, I lust for Michael, the person I still love so deeply, despite the fact that his corporeal being no longer exists. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve stared at a photo which emphasizes his gorgeous biceps for a long time, filling me with a desire I didn’t know I’d sustain just this side of seventy-one. It’s still all about him. No substitutes required.

So yeah. Lust. I understand it’s darker implications and how bad they can be in this scary world. But that’s not for me. I’m taking my interpretation from Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life.” I feel glad I still have some lust for living. Michael would be glad, too.

This Old Home

33867462-1CC2-4C78-BC57-51C4F18299AAThis is a photo of my house which was taken in 1916. The people standing in front of it were the original owners who built it in 1893. The wraparound veranda is gone except for one small portion over the entry steps-the numbers above it are still here and made of wood. Along with everything else about this place, I love them.

I acquired the picture one day when a man who was about my age now, knocked on the door and told me that his father, who’d lived here as a boy, was near death and felt the photo should stay with the house. What a generous act on the part of a stranger. It’s been hanging in the living room ever since that day. When Michael and I started looking for a place to buy in 1978, the market was tight and interest rates were high. What became our house had been used as three apartments since the 1930’s. When the depression hit hard, no one could afford to take care of such a large place. The current owner was involved in settling an estate with the heirs of his business partner who’d recently died. He needed to sell three of their jointly owned houses to pay off the heirs’ shares. When Michael and I went to see the house, the renters of the first floor weren’t home. We climbed to the second floor and walked through the two units upstairs. I still can’t pinpoint the reason I knew we had to have it. There was nothing particularly attractive about the rooms or the shared bath-rather it looked like a lot of work with faded wallpaper and dingy floors. But I wanted it desperately and Michael, always indulgent,  went along with the utterly irrational idea of making a bid without ever having seen the first floor. Inspections? Bah!

The man who owned the place was a dapper, diminutive European man who wore seersucker suits with a handkerchief in the front pocket and beautiful two-toned shoes. He was reluctant to let the house go as he’d hoped to demolish it one day and build an apartment building on its large double lot. Though not a coffee drinker, I must’ve met him to have a cup every day for a month, to listen to his life stories and frustrations, using all my persuasive powers to melt his opposition and sell it to us. And eventually he did, on a balloon contract at an exorbitant interest rate. He was quite annoyed when I filed the contract with the County Clerk-he scolded me for not accepting his handshake as his bond. And suddenly we were homeowners. When the tenants’ lease on the first floor expired, we finally got to see the first floor which was our apartment for the first three years we lived here.

We scraped wallpaper, painted, stripped, sanded and varnished floors. We were thrilled. The walls seemed to exude warmth and good feelings. We spent long hours talking about what might’ve happened within these rooms, trying to understand what made the atmosphere so homey. 

Three years after moving in, we got pregnant and took over one of the upstairs apartments to make room for the baby. We rented the remaining unit to friends – when baby number two came along, we took over the entire place.

We spent a lot of time learning the history of the house. I have the original title which dates the land back into the 1700’s. The title includes the original owners’ wills which surprisingly,  show that their personal possessions were auctioned off to their children. We met the man who added indoor plumbing and two bathrooms in 1918. He said they cost a full year’s wages.

We knew his children, two of whom were local lawyers and one who was an Olympian. When their family sold the house, the local candy shop owner was the next purchaser. We found the names of renters, too. All neatly compiled in directories in our local library. Microfiche revealed  newspaper stories about who fell down the cellar stairs and how all the residents died. We found out that the original name of our street was Market-the residents petitioned the city council to change it to Broadway because they didn’t like the implications that “market” brought to mind. One day, a man who came to our garage sale told me he’d attended a beautiful wedding in our parlor.830EC811-454F-481D-B807-6A9B4990EBCC

And so our relationship with our home became more fulsome and complex. We were sharing space with everyone who came before us and began to compound that history with our own contributions. Our children grew up here and after leaving, came back to the place where so many of their life events happened. Learning to walk, playing in the yard, nuzzling pets and sleepovers were regular events. So were fighting and laughing and crying. The ball banged off the basketball hoop in the driveway. A hammock was strung between the apple and pear trees. Michael built a tall multi-level climbing structure in the backyard which we turned into a big planter until our grandkids showed up to climb it as our own kids had done years before. 

Listening to music and watching movies and taking furtive steps into the adult world everyone is so anxious to join happened under this roof. Our kids’ friends called our home a refuge space where comfort, treats, a sympathetic ear and big hugs could be found. A house of acceptance and no judgment. The people who came wore many colors and no one thought about it. Michael, whose childhood home was a cold and empty place, reveled in the warmth which I know has seeped into the walls and floors. We enriched the surrounding ground with trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and herbs. An ecosystem happened outside that meshed with the inside. A home with many flaws, not for everyone, but perfect for us. Every time I drive down my street and see it waiting for me, I’m always happy to go inside.

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The stairs are harder for me now. The house is too big and too much to maintain on my own. Suddenly I have hired helpers. I’m toying with ideas about how to manage as I age along with this stoic refuge that’s weathered so many years. Such a sturdy, reliable place. I hope to stay here until the end of my life, in the space where the walls continue to send out the vibe that drew us here. Where in certain lights at different times of day, the ones that I love still appear in the shadows and years of memories play in images on these wondrous walls. 

Postscript: The soul of this house has grown since I first wrote this post. My mother lived in the parlor for period during her elder years. Then the room was transformed into a playroom for my grandsons, the first of whom I cared for during his first three years. When Michael got sick I was sadly unable to provide that care for my second grandson. After Michael’s five year cancer ordeal, he died in our home with me and our children by his side, a testament to the depth of the family we built together. In recent years, when my traveling biologist son was home, he worked from the comfort of that beautiful parlor.

This past Tuesday my son married his lovely bride at a ceremony in the parlor, officiated by my daughter. His best man was his childhood friend whom he’s known since they were toddlers in day care together. That guy spent countless hours growing up in this old house. There is something magical about being married in the house where you were born. I brought a photo of Michael into the room although that gesture was hardly necessary. His presence is still here as I assume mine will be when I’m gone. I’m so glad to have spent my life in this old home, built to last in 1893. Lucky us.

Just an Honest Disconnected Mess

Mischievous or a little crazy? You decide…

So here I am in my usual daily mode, mostly by myself, headphones in, listening to music which generally helps me keep the lid on my busy brain. And occasionally, on my unpredictable emotions. For days I’ve been trying to draw some threads together for a blog I just decided to set aside, about two minutes ago. I think that one will be provocative. Its title is “Lust,” which in and of itself, is likely to pique some interest. Despite that, I’m trying to address more complicated issues than the word implies. Unfortunately, I’m utterly distracted right now, too much to give the topic the attention it deserves. Writer’s block? Kind of. I suppose that professionals can sit down and write their way through these moments. They know how to do their work no matter how diverted they become. I could do that when I was working at my job. But this writing I do, albeit challenging, is supposed to be my pleasure. In recent weeks, I haven’t been feeling it. So I thought I’d just let myself unleash the stream of thoughts I’ve been muddling through, if for no other reason than to keep myself from getting stale. And so, in no particular order, I’m spilling some of the aches in my brain.

About the music. For as long as I can remember, music has been an integral part of my daily life. Although I never played an instrument, I grew up in household where there was always singing. Someone gave me a little transistor radio when I was eleven, which I pressed against my ear at night, listening to Chicago’s WLS radio throughout my adolescence. And then one day, my dad brought a record player home from Polk Brothers where he worked in the credit department. I don’t know where the early albums came from but they were a diverse bunch. I listened to Mahalia Jackson, The Brothers Four, The Vince Guaraldi Trio, Joan Baez and Mantovani. As a teenager I got Beatles records, The Supremes and The Temptations, The Byrds and the Monkees. Most people who love music have special songs that are reminders of good times and bad ones, the songs that elicit all the romantic, wistful feelings along with the toxic ones. I met Michael in the summer of 1971 and moved in with him in April, 1972 at age twenty. In the almost 50 years since then, we spent the first 45 sharing too many songs to name. When he died almost 5 years ago, there were a few I wasn’t able to listen to without crumpling in grief. Because I can identify a song at the first note, I could quickly fast forward through my music app to avoid those. But I couldn’t predict that Danny’s Song, released in 1971, a song not in our meaningful catalog, would have a devastating emotional effect on me. Killer lyrics. So the other day I was busy in my kitchen, preparing a farewell feast for our dear friends who were departing for Canada to live near their only son, his wife and their baby granddaughter. Our boys have been incredibly close since they were only two years old, well over thirty years now. And that damn song started. I thought that maybe I could get through it but I was wrong. The hostess sobbing over the kitchen sink. Yep. Music really works for me.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to listen to these three CDs Michael made for me before he died.

Then there were these stunners I found last year when I finally got around to clearing out his computer. In December, 2013 when we were surprised by a dreadful relapse from his cancer remission, he started a few playlists under one of his nicknames for me. Maybe he forgot about them during his chemo. What a fabulous find, years later. Michael remains the gift that keeps on giving. I don’t know if I can listen to them but I can read his private messages to me forever. Ah, I digress.

My 17 year old Honda

So then there’s my car, a seventeen year old Honda. Maybe that seems pretty old but actually, it only has 129,000 miles on it. My last car, a Camry had been driven 217,000 miles before I finally gave it up. I don’t really care about cars as anything other than a way to get me where I need to go. Years ago my dad told me they were wasting assets and I agreed. But in the past few months, I’ve been going to my mechanic on a pretty regular basis with one problem after another. I know a certain amount of maintenance and expense is normal but some of this crate’s issues have been scary, leaving me powerless in an intersection, unable to shift any gears, for example. Right now I have a mystery problem which is unresolved after throwing more cash at it. And I really trust my mechanic who’s done well for me even though he is mystified by my laissez-faire auto attitude. I really don’t want to buy a car right now. The supply chain issues have created a seller’s market. At my age, and as not a member of the rich widow group, I don’t want to spend a ton of money that’s basically like flushing equity down the drain. So I waver and stew, irritated that something this irrelevant has taken up space in my head. People who were living an average life in Ukraine are fleeing devastation and death, with no clue where they’re going, who they might lose and where they’ll wind up with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs. Cars? Really?

Lily

And then there’s the dog. After months of wavering, after being petless for 10 months, the longest time I’d been without a dog since I was 18 years old, I got a five month old puppy. I really had mixed emotions about taking on a baby. It’s been over twenty years since I trained a young dog. After the dog of my life died in 2015, we got a twelve year old rescue which reminded Michael of his favorite childhood dog. She had all kinds of issues and died shortly after he did in 2017. I was too lonely then. I went to a shelter and adopted another old dog, almost nine, who’d had a tough life. She knew nothing about being a pet. She was more a project than a companion; in our years together she never licked me once, even when I covered my hand in peanut butter. But we had an amicable life until she died in early 2021. I sat with my ambivalence for months, unsure of whether I had enough emotional bandwidth left in me to love anyone or anything new. Periodically I checked the shelters and when Lily appeared, I made my move quickly, certain that she’d be scooped up fast. She’s really smart and very sweet. However, she urinates whenever anyone enters the house. Her excitement is attached to her bladder control or lack thereof. Worse than that, so far she’s proving to be an inveterate digger. I’ve lived in the same house since 1978 and have poured my love and energy into creating a pollinators’ paradise in addition to an herb and vegetable garden. As we aged, Michael and I planned defensive moves which would spare our tired bodies from excessive and unnecessary work. This little dog who’s supposed to provide my comfort, is digging huge holes everywhere. Her favorite pastime is plowing her way through the mounds of mulch I’ve spread to control the weed population, until she gets to the fabric that’s my first line of defense. She tears the cloth into strips and rips through the yard, gleefully strewing them everywhere. Each day I pick them up, go to the garden shop, buy eight two-cubic feet bags of new mulch and hurl them onto her latest area of destruction. With the warmer weather and softer ground, she’s way ahead of me. We play a lot of fetching games with sticks and balls in an effort to keep her occupied. Do I need to put some sheep out there so she’s always busy? I hope I don’t sink into a terrible case of buyer’s remorse. I want this to be easier. Plus the people who’ve mowed my lawn for the last five years just quit, saying that they needed to trim their commitments, pun intended. My family offered to take over that piece of my yard work but I declined. I can’t think of how terrible I’d feel if they were too busy to get to my job which might lead to annoyance or resentment between us. Busy young families have their own stuff to do. Having managed my mom’s life during my own years in that time of life stalks me, a constant reminder that boundaries are important. I think that being used to living in a partnership wherein decisions were made together is one of the worst parts of being alone. That buck always stops here.

National Cancer Institute logo

Then there’s the huge stuff like cancer. During the Obama administration, then Vice-President Biden was focused on finding a cure, driven partly by the loss of his son who died of the dreaded brain cancer, glioblastoma. I have a family member going through the dismal and ultimately failed treatment for that dark disease right now. We all know her time alive is coming to an end. I’ve already gone through several cancer deaths. Currently I have several friends coping with cancer treatment which can buy more life, albeit no total cures. Biden has reintroduced his Cancer Moonshot initiative during this administration. But despite some progress, there’s a long way to go. As I age it feels like every day someone I know is getting diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. That’s how life works if you’re lucky enough to get older. For those of us still relatively healthy, it’s hard to watch and hard not to wonder when your turn is coming.

Of course all my niggling problems pale in comparison to the horror unfolding in Ukraine. I was born six years after World War II ended. My education about that history is seared into my brain. Vietnam was a major construct in my view of war in the world as a young teenager and young woman. But it looked nothing like these current images that, absent modern architectural accents and vehicles, are still shockingly reminiscent of the ground war photos I remember so well from WWII. I find it difficult to turn away from the news, partly because I believe in bearing witness and partly because I’m so fearful and uncertain about where this nightmare is going. I think it informs my lack of focus. But it makes me feel terrible to try writing my philosophical ideas and my autobiographical tales when so many lives are being devastated. I feel helpless. Except for sharing my opinions and throwing small amounts of money at relief organizations, it’s hard to know what to do. Since this war began, I’ve been posting a painting by Ukrainian artists every day on my Facebook page. A reminder that there is beauty and power in art. I’ll close this ramble with one of them. Perhaps the venting of my daily woes will free me up to go back to my intent for this blog. I hope I can get back there. Otherwise the bad people win.

Baking Sun – Geneva Pavlenko

Dreams, Psychic Bonds and Other Mysteries

Painting by Iranian artist Alireza Karimi Moghaddam.

I’ve been having trouble focusing on writing. My thoughts seem so trivial in comparison to the continuing apocalyptic events piling on top of each other. How did we jump from Covid to Ukraine? I was thinking about Gil Scott-Heron’s powerful poem published in 1971, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” wondering as I sat in my living room chair how it was that indeed, a world change can erupt while I can only watch. And throw only a teeny bit of help at it. Staggering.

Loss – Kay Walkingstick

The other day I was lucky enough to spend some mental time away from everything by going to my local art museum. I hadn’t been there in a long while and was grateful to quickly immerse myself in some beautiful paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts. The piece in the photo above was acquired by the museum in 2020 when I was holed up in my house avoiding the virus. The description of this work is the following: “Loss” is part of a series WalkingStick created in response to the loss of her husband while she was teaching at Cornell University. The waterfall depicts one of the famous gorges of Ithaca, N.Y., and she developed the abstract forms as a reflection on Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader who resisted removal by the American government in the 1800s. For WalkingStick, the two sides represent a duality of the spiritual and the tangible, and she painted the abstract forms on a bulkier canvas, which stands out several inches from the wall as a way to emphasize the greater and more lasting power of the spiritual. This powerful meditation on personal loss reminds us of the capacity of art. News-Gazette.

Art is powerful and suggestive. In only a short while away from the news, I was able to turn my attention away from the daily terrors to other topics of interest that stem from some online classes I’ve recently taken through the Smithsonian Institute. In addition, I was reminded of some different provocative news stories that aren’t as dark as the brutal war.

Medici family
Spanish Inquisition – Heretics in a marketplace by Linton

Seas The Day: Life Lessons from Cephalopods : Sarah McNulty for Atlas Obscura

During the past few weeks I’ve taken classes on Antietam, the Civil War battle known for having the single bloodiest day in American history and on the Medici family who were power brokers in 16th century Florence, Italy. I took another class about the Spanish Inquisition. These three dives into various periods in history bear out the concept that brutality and treachery are certainly nothing new. My class about cephalopods is the most marvelous – a five part lecture series with a question/answer component which focuses on the fascinating strategies of marvelous sea creatures who lead complex lives which are still being interpreted by biologists. My previously unknown tidbit which I’ve learned so far is that the cuttlebones which adhered to the birdcages of my life as a source of calcium for my parakeets and cockatiels, were actually the buoyancy bones of cuttlefish. They are considered among the most highly intelligent cephalopods, along with octopuses. Three more sessions to go in that class. I’m glad I’m continuing to pour more information into my ever-hungry brain. I feel like I can continue growing myself instead of sliding into the aging abyss. But ironically, the bit of news that piqued my interest most, between the awful images of war and the political jockeying about fossil fuels and climate change, was a story about the death of an elderly man.

An elderly epilepsy patient unexpectedly died during a brain scan, revealing bursts of activity associated with memory recall, meditation, and dreaming.

Science – Does life flash before your eyes? Brain scan of dying man suggests it’s possible – The Guardian

For anyone who has kept a bedside vigil beside a dying loved one, often in long periods of little communication or silence, there is the wondering. What awareness is still happening in the mind of the person still breathing? Are senses still operating during their waning connection to life? In my three most powerful experiences with death, as I sat with my father, my mother and my husband, I’ve pondered those questions. Most health care professionals told me that hearing is the last connection to go between the dying and the companions witnessing the end of life. I didn’t know what was true or not but I found myself singing significant songs of comfort to them all, whispers in their ears, hoping they felt comfort somehow. The only person who acknowledged that music was my mother whose ability to speak lasted longer than the others. And it was with her that my mind churned with the most questions. In the hours preceding her death, as she grew silent, she lay with her eyes open, repeatedly extending her arm in front of her, seeming to sweep aside a curtain, looking beyond that invisible barrier. What was she seeing? The white light I’ve heard described by those who’ve had near death experiences? Did she actually see anyone or anything at all, or was she dreaming? Until her last breath, her eyes were open. When she went still, for one brief moment, she furrowed her brow in what looked like a classic puzzled cognitive expression. I sat there, thinking, “oh no. I’ll never be able to understand what transpired in that instant, so different from what I’d witnessed before.” A thought, a dream, a reflex? Who knows? Except maybe now, with just a small amount of measurable data, maybe one day, the mysteries about death will become more explicable. Research on lab rats at the University of Michigan showed increased electrical brain activity associated with consciousness for a brief time after the heart ceases to function. Does that always happen to humans as well as animals?

Mom

For me, the brain is as much the final frontier as space. Science has come a long way in discovering its mysteries. Still, there is so much to be understood. I’m not a particularly mystical person. I like facts that are supported by hard evidence more than appealing ideas with no data to support them at all. Still, I’ve had experiences both while conscious and unconscious that I can’t explain, experiences which feel as real as a rock I can hold in my hand. I’ve always had vivid dreams that I can recall with both abstract and visceral elements. I remember some of the oldest and most powerful ones from many decades ago. One instance was back in 1988, dreaming of my death which felt incredibly real. I woke from that one, crying and inconsolable, even as Michael, right by my side, was explaining that it wasn’t real, that I was next to him alive and well. Two days after that night, I found out that dream occurred at the exact moment my oldest friend Fern was dying, miles away in Utah in the middle of the night. I’ve never forgotten that eerie dream, now approaching almost four decades ago. Was it the psychic bond between us built over thirty years which made that happen? I’ve puzzled over it for years. We’ve all had moments when we find ourselves thinking of someone when suddenly the person calls or texts and we say, “amazing, you were just on my mind.” Are those episodes coincidences or something more? Do our brains establish networks with others? Scientists are studying not only the human brain, but those of animals which for years were believed to be consciously inert. Research indicates otherwise. England recently included lobsters, mollusks and crabs in their Animal Welfare Bill, recognizing them as sentient beings. Imagine how much more will be discovered.

Octopus – Encyclopedia Brittanica

I’ve had dreams that were so physical that they’ve wakened me. With the device I wear on my wrist which measures so many biological functions, I can observe the moment when I went from dreaming to alertness, or when my heart rate accelerated. Those dreams are so palpable, I not only remember them, I can literally feel their physiological vestiges when I wake. A few days ago, I was having a complicated dream about hiking in the mountains by myself. I was getting nervous because I was afraid I might fall or get hurt. I started looking for other people to join in their group efforts as a safety valve for my current isolation. After a time, I suddenly found myself with Joanne, a friend I’ve known for five decades and with whom I worked for over thirty years. We sat on a high cliff together, resting, overlooking a lake which had a gorgeous tree with magenta-colored fruit at its edge. We talked and admired the beautiful view. After awhile, she pulled two attractive fuchsia mints from her pocket which she assured me were herbal restoratives designed to replenish energy after exertion. Before I ate mine, I noticed a little squiggle on top, the sign of where the batter had been dropped from a spoon onto a cooking surface. The details were amazing and the dream felt long. I woke after it, remembering everything. Next, I picked up my phone to check for messages at the beginning of my day. The first was one from Joanne, left fifteen minutes earlier, asking if I was awake and wanting to chat. When I compared its time stamp to my sleep record, the message was left during my REM sleep when she’d been my dream companion. Coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think so although I can’t prove anything. The psychic thread that connects us is something we’ve both felt over the years, simply a matter of course as our relationship deepened. I feel those connections to others. Even the most scientific among us now casually acknowledge the psychic bonds we can’t explain.

My lifetime friend Joanne

I’m not sure I can even begin to describe the stunning dreams I’ve had about my most intimate people who are no longer alive. I’ve had many with Fern. I like the ones in which she’s wearing red, always her best color, although the ones which show her eyes daubed in daffodil, her favorite eyeshadow, make me smile. My mother always said she was never really leaving after her death, but would continue to watch over me, whether I wanted her around or not. I’ve dreamed my cranky maternal grandmother many times, boorching, which was the family word for complaining, in her thick accent. Dad appears in his monochromatic creamy beige outfits, flicking his mustache and talking about having a plan. And of course, there are my Michael dreams. Just acknowledging them as I write elicits embarrassing electric shocks in my body. Over these past few years since his death, I haven’t had anywhere near as many dreams about him as I’d like, but a number of them have been whatever more than memorable is, jolting me awake with my heart pounding away in my chest, wondering if I’d survive the intensity of the contact. My Fitbit has registered some remarkable readings during those moments. As I’ve lain there, trying to recover, preferring often to go back into where I’d just been, I’d think of the note he left me in the pocket of a shirt sewn into the mourning quilt he had made for me, which assured me he’d be with me forever. I certainly feel that which continues to be an unexpected surprise.

So what does any of this mean? Will everyone have some shred of consciousness that goes on after their hearts stop? When you’re connected to someone in the deepest way will that tie go on forever? And what exactly is forever? What precisely is going on in our brains that rumbles below the surface, sending cues, many of which we might be missing? I really can’t say. I don’t suppose I’ll be around long enough to find out, if indeed science ever catches up with that humming machine below our skulls. But I wish I could know…just a little bit more.

Beyond The Pale

My paternal grandfather – back row, far right

On December 23, 1791, Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) signed the order restricting Jews of the Russian empire to living in what was called the Pale of Settlement. Although the borders of the Pale (the word comes from Old English, and refers to a “pole” or “stake” used to define an enclosed area) changed with time, as did the specific regulations that limited the movements of Jews, the restricted area remained in existence until April 1917 when the provisional government of Russia abolished it.- Encyclopedia Brittanica

Some time before World War I, my paternal grandfather and grandmother went beyond the Pale and emigrated from Odessa, Russia to the United States. Yes, the same Odessa that is a port city on the Black Sea, which will be under assault during the current Russian incursion into sovereign Ukraine. My grandfather’s parents and siblings also fled what I can only assume was a profoundly restricted lifestyle under the constant threat of pogroms, otherwise known as organized massacres. I know very little of their history although periodically I’ve dug into European records to unearth bits and pieces of their early life. I know that my grandparents moved to Chicago while other family members settled in Lafayette, Indiana. Those grandparents died early in their lives leaving no significant familial connections which embraced my young father. The only memory he conveyed to me was of a visit to his grandfather and his uncles when he was a boy. He recalled that his grandfather had piercing blue eyes which frightened him as he barked, “who is that boy?” Hardly what you’d consider a significant legacy. Who knows what issues may have existed between my grandfather and his family of origin? All the key actors are long dead.

My maternal grandmother, center, with her in-laws. She and my grandfather were first cousins so these people were her aunt, uncle and other cousins.

My maternal grandparents emigrated from a small village in Eastern Poland called Wysckowa. That village was wiped off the map during World War II. The ever-changing borders between Poland and Russia blurred their nationalities. My grandmother told me that her father was a tinsmith who at one point, worked on the roof of the czar’s palace in Warsaw, when Poland was still considered part of Russia. Several of my grandmother’s sisters and one brother also emigrated to the U.S. Most of my grandfather’s family vanished in Europe during World War II. I’ll never know what made my known family push across the borders of the Pale while their relatives stayed behind. As I’ve watched the destruction of Ukraine these past days, and witnessed the enormity of the current and growing refugee numbers cascading further into western Europe, I realize that untold numbers of people will simply disappear into that commonly used descriptor, “the fog of war.” Life instantly changed for millions who, for whatever their reasons, will leave their country behind, perhaps never seeing family members again, while others will stay home, maybe surviving or maybe not. History is packed with untold individual stories like this, the difference being this time’s daily televised blow by blow accounts of the new diaspora over turf that has seen more than its share of power struggles that displace so many people. Will the advanced technologies like cell phones, many filled with photos, addresses and contact information forestall the losses experienced in the past? For the sakes of all those caught in the current nightmare, we can only hope they can somehow, some day reconstruct their rapidly dissolving reality.

My maternal grandparents

Some people can trace their families back through multiple generations, going back hundreds of years. Maybe their ancestors were in the right places at the right times. Maybe they were astute enough to anticipate what disruptive forces were headed in their direction and were resourceful enough to get out of harm’s way. Or there might have been combinations of dumb luck and insightful planning that secured an orderly progression of descendants. I imagine that if I made a more whole-hearted effort to dig into the past, I might unearth a bit more of my history. Before my mother, the longest-lived survivor in her family died, we sat together, trying to identify the people in old photographs that were passed to her by her mother. Unfortunately she either never knew some of their names or had long since forgotten them. I have saved these photos, periodically staring at them, trying to dredge up a familial resemblance from certain faces, unable to discard these ghosts from the past. Who were they? What happened in their lives? Are they part of me? So many unanswerable questions.

Once again, we are witnessing a profound disregard for life and the wanton destruction of entire communities. The fearful emotions aroused by the violent munitions attacks, tangled with the potential threat of nuclear terror, astonishes me as we rapidly regress to the atmosphere of my childhood, when air raid drills were part of the kindergarten experience, as we ducked and covered our heads, waiting for bombs to rain down on our little bodies. But for the fact that my family left that part of the world and although I might never have come to exist, in my head there is some identification with these places thousands of miles from where I live. I suspect that I share part of my DNA with a certain number of those on the run, trying to stay alive. There is the historical, geographical definition of “beyond the Pale,” as described above. But there is also the more modern usage of that phrase, the one that is defined as this – “To be ‘beyond the pale’ is to be unacceptable; outside agreed standards of decency.” That is where we are right now. The horror of it, so impossible to bear. A dark, dark time indeed.

The Aching World

The other morning I was driving my car along the street pictured above. This four lane thoroughfare is one of my frequently used routes. At this particular time, the pavement was still dotted with patches of snow and ice, vestiges of a storm which passed through two days earlier. Traffic was moving surprisingly slowly before stopping altogether. In the narrow lane divider, I saw a woman kneeling over another one who was crumpled on the ground. She was trying to pull the fallen one to a standing position which was proving to be difficult. I was instantly alarmed. I didn’t know whether the limp person had simply collapsed or whether she’d been struck by a vehicle. No matter what had happened, I was certain that moving her was a bad idea. Within a few seconds, another woman got out of her car to help. Even with two people trying, the woman was too weak and unsteady to support herself. All four lanes of traffic were stopped. I pulled out of my lane into the median and approached them. I told them I was going to call an ambulance but they insisted they were going to help her onto a public bus which was in the line of stopped vehicles. I was sure what they were doing was a poor choice but the time was hardly right for arguing. I quickly pulled away, not wanting to further obstruct the traffic flow or to cause an accident. I pulled over at the first available parking lot, feeling traumatized and anxious. I wanted a little time to think and clear my head.

Women’s March – January 21st, 2017

I knew immediately that my reaction to this incident was outsized, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back kind of response. Unquestionably I was feeling the impact of the cumulative dystopian experiences of the past five years. Since January 31st, 2017, the date Michael was diagnosed with the devastating brain metastases from his Merkel cancer, I have felt the juxtaposition of the increasingly dark macrocosm over the shifting microcosm of my little life. Although I can’t imagine that there would ever have been a time when losing my beloved life partner would have been anything resembling “easier,” the truth is, living through his death and adapting to being on my own, was made infinitely more surreal, first by the utterly toxic Trump administration, and then the subsequent layer of the Covid pandemic entering the world. For virtually my entire adult life, through wretched political administrations, wars, social injustice and personal crises, I had the safe haven of my partner. I could share all my thoughts and feelings, lightening the load all of us carry as individuals. And after those purges, I could set those aside, to rest and find solace and comfort in the warmth of intimate human contact, so crucial for defusing jangling anxieties. For almost half the years since Michael’s death, I’ve jousted with the challenges of true emotional and physical isolation, the consequence of the pandemic. I’ve managed fairly well but these last few months have been especially wearing.

I was in my teens when I started using a frame-of-reference approach to life in a very big way, while trying to make sense of the complicated happenings in the big world. In 1969, I found myself in an ambulance tearing down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, my grandfather lying in the back after passing out in his apartment, my grandmother sedated after becoming hysterical when she found him. I was home from college on semester break and was the first person to arrive at their place after my grandmother called for help. I saw all the people in their cars looking at us as we sped past them, sirens whining. I remember being one of those on the outside looking in many times. Inside that zooming vehicle, I was thinking how different things felt from the inside looking out. From that point forward, when I felt overwhelmed by circumstances, I’d remind myself that at these very moments in my life, people everywhere were dying, being born, making love, getting murdered, working, sleeping, crying, laughing, warring and so much more. I’d use that perspective to get balanced, to keep going. I was knowing that yes, I was unique while simultaneously being exactly the same as everyone else, next door or far-flung. Most of my years, that process has worked for me. Now, though, having moved closer to the front of the mortality line, the problems of the world seem far less pedestrian and common, infinitely so much more cataclysmic than they once did. I think that’s because they really are, and that the trajectory of the way forward seems darker. Look at these headlines.

Humanity has a ‘brief and rapidly closing window’ to avoid a hotter, deadly future, U.N. climate report says – Washington Post

UN: 13 million face hunger in Horn of Africa as drought worsens – Al Jazeera

Ethnic cleansing’: Ethiopian allies accused of Abala massacre – Survivors and witnesses say the Ethiopian allied forces went door to door for five days straight, targeting Tigrayans.

FEBRUARY 2, 2022 – SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE Is China Committing Genocide Against the Uyghurs?

2022 begins with bloodbath for journalists in Mexico – Reporters Without Borders


Flags, rifles and fingers: ‘The People’s Convoy’ trucker protest rolls through Oklahoma – The Oklahoman Statements on the group’s website called for the lifting of all COVID-19 mandates in the United States.

Yes, there have always been dire crises. But. With the existential threat of climate change threatening to upend the planet, afflicting the most impoverished nations with the worst consequences. With millions existing under the threat of starvation from drought. With powers all over the world expunging people whose beliefs and customs are not in keeping with their own. With a totalitarian tyrant actually going there, back to the horrific land war countries vowed would never happen again. With evidence mounting that desperate refugees from that onslaught, including people of color caught in the wrong country, being pushed off escape trains in favor of native residents. With NATO countries welcoming white refugees when they closed their borders to “other.” And in my own country, when individuals construe their personal, no mask-wearing freedom as more important than the public health of their communities at large. Is it any wonder seeing a collapsed woman on the street of my hometown can feel unbearable?

Right now in my little world, I have a family member struggling with a lethal cancer. I have friends who are faced with that challenge as well. A woman I know has been living terrified as her daughter with health issues recently delivered a premature baby. That little one’s home has been a neonatal intensive care unit for weeks. The tiny person has had sepsis, surgery and more drugs than you can count. Who can count all the dramas playing out every day? This is life in the microcosm, encapsulated by the horrors concurrently playing out over the thousands of miles in the aching world. I guess there are people who can navigate their days without this constant awareness of the big picture which eats at me, nibble by nibble, as I go through mine. I’m jealous of them. For me, the aching world is not to be ignored. But, oh, I do get so very tired. How does it all end?

Winter Respite

My post-shoveling shadow

Winter can be beautiful, at least in small doses. Who doesn’t love the look of brilliant sunshine on that white, sparkling snow coating the ground, the trees and the shrub branches? Of course, in my current semi-ancient years, the shoveling part of frosty weather is not as appealing as my youthful activities of yore like snowball fights or making snow angels. I also don’t recall worrying as much about slipping and falling back then as I do now. Driving in snowy and icy conditions isn’t too fabulous either. Who needs the anxiety about sliding into another vehicle or being the accidental target of another? Plus, that glistening beauty? It turns gray and dingy pretty fast if you live in an urban area. And then there’s the necessity for piling on layers of protection from freezing temperatures. Barely being able to move loses its novelty pretty fast. Truthfully the past few winters where I live have been fairly mild, so a few recent arctic blasts have felt oppressive. During the past twenty-four hours, my part of the world experienced a weather whiplash, a fifty degree temperature change from mild to bone-chilling. A few weeks ago another major storm caused a myriad of cancellations and power outages. Today’s weather event moved faster, with fewer inches of snow accumulating on the ground but significantly more ice and freezing winds. Tomorrow morning I’ll be shoveling again. I often think about the advantages of apartment living. All this outdoor labor would be someone else’s job instead of mine. Truthfully though, I consider myself lucky to be wielding my ergonomically correct shovel as my 71st birthday approaches this spring. Not everyone in my age group can still tackle this job.

Today I stayed home, not exactly novel during the past few pandemic years. Periodically I looked out the windows, marveling at the intensity of the wind and the remarkable ability of the resident birds who negotiate these harsh conditions. Outdoor living is tough. I’m glad that my yard provides sustenance for so many species in every season, except for the relentlessly thieving squirrels whose purpose in my ecosystem still eludes me.

Squirrel sitting in the bird feeder

In the next couple of weeks, the crocuses will make their appearance in the garden, along with the snowdrops. I’m hopeful that as the cold weather wanes, this spring will bring the same colorful varieties of migratory birds who showed up at my feeders last year. And of course I always am eager to welcome the cascade of perennials that follow the early bloomers. I thought that I’d browse through my photos from last spring and early summer to give myself a winter respite. I felt like I’d taken a mini-vacation. Here’s a selection for your viewing pleasure.

Braid

IMG_3203

My mom and I had a long turbulent life together. Not much different than many people’s lives. I knew she really loved me. She was affectionate and funny and on my side. She was more like a friend than a mom. For a long time, I didn’t know that wasn’t a good thing. I don’t think there was ever an appropriate boundary in our relationship. In my teens, I took on whatever she tossed into my lap, inappropriate confessions, dark secrets and her never-ending physical problems.

I started recognizing that I was more like her mom than she was like mine in my late 20’s. My frustrations grew, burgeoning through the years and finally, becoming intolerable when my dad died at age 67 in 1989. He’d been diagnosed with bladder cancer only a few months before his death. I still remember what happened when he decided to quit his chemo after only one round. His scans were all stable, but he was a finicky guy and some of the incumbent side effects of treatment were just more than he could manage. We were outside the hospital and he sent my mom on some fake errand so he could tell me that he wasn’t going to continue what for him was an intolerable struggle. Then he asked me to make his funeral arrangements and to get the best deal possible. Damn funeral industry.

I did it. Never batted an eye. At the time I didn’t realize that these decisions should have been between my parents, with only support from their children. I’d just turned 38. I was married with a full-time job, two little kids and a husband with a herniated disk.  But I took the lateral pass from dad, my mom being his baby who needed care, and so I became the power figure in my mom’s life, the third in line behind her mother and him. My mom never learned to drive. I called my new life “Driving Miss Dorothy.” Over the years, we had many clashes as I alternated between feeling responsible for taking care of her and my deep desire to feel parented. For 25 years we wrangled with this confusing mess, a tangled knot of love, resentment, grudges and betrayals, real and imagined. Looking back, I don’t know how either of us survived.

But then, the love always hung around. Mom always told my sister Cheryl and me that she’d never really leave us. That even after she died, she’d be hovering around, watching over us all the time. An idea truly in keeping with the little girl she was at heart, a street-smart, tough little kid who survived a tough life  against tall odds. Despite her many physical challenges, she made it into her early 90’s.

During those 25 years after my dad’s death, my mom lived on her own until her late 80’s. Then she started having scary little accidents, like forgetting to turn off a stove burner and taking the wrong insulin at the wrong time. The whole family who lived here in town held a group meeting during which we decided that she needed to move into my house. I had the most space and was getting ready to retire. And although we had friction, no one wanted to see her in a nursing home. She needed to help us out  financially to build a handicap-accessible bathroom for her, but eventually, we did it all and in she came. Downsizing her from a two bedroom duplex was difficult but we managed to surround her with her most precious possessions so she was comfortable. Sadly, we continued to clash. Then in 2012, Michael was diagnosed with his wretched cancer. Managing mom’s life, babysitting full-time for my grandson and coping with Michael’s disease proved too much for me to manage. Plans were made to move her into an attractive assisted living facility where she remained for two years.

Then in December 2014, mom got the flu after it tore through her apartment complex. She was so ill she required hospitalization. And for whatever reason, the little hints of dementia that had been coming and going for a few years, locked in place during her hospital stay, making it clear that she didn’t have the executive skills to return to assisted living.  The time for the dreaded nursing home had unfortunately arrived. It was the third, and ultimately the last move for her. The assisted living facility gave only a small window of time for us to remove all her personal things. This move was different. She’d have a roommate. Her beloved mahogany bedroom furniture would have to go, including the bed where all her babies were conceived and where she wished to die. Thankfully, she didn’t feel that loss.

This last move was the ultimate invasion of her private space. If there was ever any question of who the power figure was, who the mother figure was, that was asked and answered. Michael’s cancer was surging. I had very little time to devote to clearing away mom’s things. Stuff was stuff. I made a valiant attempt to redistribute treasures given to her by other family members so no one would feel slighted. There was no way we could all be together to sort things out. I was like one of those authors who tell you to hold an object in your hands and if you feel nothing, get rid of it. I felt virtually nothing but desperation. Until I found the one thing that could stop me from my rapid and ghastly task, discarding the memories of a lifetime in  just a few hours.

There were two mahogany bureaus which held clothing in her bedroom. They were transported from her apartment to my house to the assisted living center without ever having been opened by anyone but her. They needed to be emptied. Mostly there were just clothes in these old dressers. But then there was one of those drawers, the kind usually found in a kitchen or a desk, with piles of small random items in no particular order.  THAT drawer. I started working my way through the muddle. Handkerchiefs, nail clippers, safety pins, ribbons. Empty sachet packets, tiny address books, a random footie. But then there was an envelope labeled Gertrude’s hair. Gertrude was my mother’s young sister. She had two sisters, Norma and Gertrude. They both died. Norma was about 6 months old and may have been a SIDS baby. My mom told me she was taken out of the house in a suitcase when she died. An unforgettable childhood trauma. Gertrude had rheumatic fever and developed a hole in her heart, the type of complication that would almost never happen today. My mother adored her. she waited on her and combed her hair, brought her a cooked chicken leg, and spent lots of time with her. But eventually she weakened and died. One of mom’s most vivid memories was of her father having her kiss Gertrude’s cold cheek to say goodbye. She talked about that moment on and off for her whole life. When I saw that labeled envelope, I couldn’t believe it. My hands shook as I ripped it open. Nothing, not even a strand inside. I moved on. Suddenly I found a baggie, quite bulky. Inside it, I saw another handkerchief, wrapped around something else. Like Russian matyroshka dolls. Finally there was another envelope, also labeled Gertrude’s hair. And there it was. A long shiny braid, with curls at the end, a rich auburn-brown. The color reminded me of my daughter’s hair.

I stood and held it for a long time. I realized that for 78 years, my mom had carried this braid with her from state to state, city to city, house to apartment, apartment to apartment. I was profoundly moved. I knew about the love. I knew about how much my mom wished she’d had a sister who’d shared her life. But I never knew about this most intimate talisman that she held close from childhood. Her own mother, a truly difficult woman, must have gone mad when her daughters died. Maybe that’s why mom wound up with the physical reminder of her dead sister. And although my mom had a lifetime of terrible hostility toward her mother, a part of her must have always understood that these losses broke her. Mom always said the one thing she could never stand was for one of her children to die before her.

I display that hair, that love, that history, in a shadowbox in my home. As my mom slipped further into dementia in 2015, my brother died in April. I used all my power as her executor, to convince the family not to tell her. Having always remembered what mom said about the horror of the death of a child, I couldn’t see any reason to thrust that pain on her. A few months passed. As Michael got sicker, she said, maybe if Michael dies, you and I should try living together. I gently reminded her that we’d tried that already and she asked if I kicked her out because I couldn’t stand her. We both laughed.

She died in July, 2015, after suffering a broken hip. She’d become very sweet in her final months and I was glad to be at peace with her as Cheryl and I sat with her during her last hours. She was always afraid she might die alone, as her mother did. That didn’t happen. She never asked about any of her things, her furniture, her mementoes. She was in a very small place. When I closed her eyes for the last time, we took care of the necessary business, and then left the nursing home. Mom floated right out the door with me and I still feel her in my house all the time. When you open the door to her former bedroom, somehow the scent of her still wafts out through the walls, despite her being gone from that space for over nine years. And her little sister is here, too. Although I don’t understand any of it. Which is ok.

 

Mom with my dog Herbie

The Lost Sisters – Braid Elaboration

My mom and her little sister Gertrude

When I was growing up my mom talked constantly about the tragedy of losing her two younger sisters in 1936, when she was about thirteen years old. The only female left in her home besides her mother, she always felt that her life would have been better if only she’d had someone else like her, another girl, rather than being sandwiched between four brothers. Gertrude, who was three years younger than her, developed rheumatic fever, likely following a strep or scarlet fever infection. Mom said she had a hole in her heart. I suspect she more likely had a leaky valve. Most probably finances prevented my grandparents from having a common childhood infection like strep or scarlet treated, often the precursors to rheumatic fever. Antibiotics had been around for about ten years. Did they even know about them in the tiny world they occupied? I’ll never have the answer to these questions. I know that Gertrude wound up bedridden before she died, and that mom did what she could to help her. Her lasting memory was how awful it felt to kiss her sister goodbye, her lips on that cold cheek. What I didn’t know was that mom carried Gertrude’s braid with her for the next 78 years, from her childhood into her old age, through every move she made in her life. I found that braid wrapped in a handkerchief in a plastic bag in a dresser drawer a few months before she died at almost ninety-two years old.

I only have one more damaged photo of my aunt Gertrude. She might have been four or five. As it is undated, her age at the time will remain a mystery. I don’t know if there are any photos of mom’s other sister, Norma, who died just months apart from Gertrude. She was an infant, about 6 months old. From what mom remembered, the death was unexpected and swift. To me it sounded like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome event, a term that wouldn’t come into use until decades later. Mom also said that her eldest brother had dropped Norma on the floor at some dim point in time before she died. I hope that teenaged boy never felt responsible for possibly contributing to such a tragedy. I suppose she could have suffered a subdural hematoma from a dramatic fall. Regardless, her little life ended too soon. When mom shared her vivid memory of this loss, she couldn’t have anticipated the transposition of that memory into my mind – an image of Norma being taken out of their apartment in a suitcase. A chilling snapshot of a dreadful moment in time.

The blurry photo of my lost aunt Gertrude

Reinforcing my mom’s wistfulness for her absent sisters was the fact that my grandmother, reeling from these agonizing losses, left her home in Chicago for awhile, to be with her own sisters who lived in Detroit. I can imagine the power of that symbolism, my mom realizing that the solace afforded by those sisters was something she would never experience in her life. The power of her feelings stayed with her. I grew up knowing that having sisters were a critical component of a healthy, happy life. But is anything ever so simple? At the same time mom was shaping my worldview with this fundamental precept about the importance of sisters, she was waging a bitter campaign against my father’s only sister, Sylvia.

Sylvia, my dad’s sister, second from left on the couch

I don’t know much about my dad’s family. Dad wasn’t a big talker. Most of what I learned came to me from mom, through her definitely hostile lens toward her in-laws. I never knew my dad’s parents. My grandfather died when dad was only eight years old, leaving his mother, his older sister and his younger brother on their own. Dad took on the classic role of “man of the house” at an early age. Because he was only nineteen when he fell madly in love with my mom, his family was decidedly disappointed that he was moving on from them to start his married life, abandoning their family unit. Mom said she was poorly received, especially by dad’s mom and Sylvia. Those two relocated from Chicago to Sioux City, Iowa at some undetermined time. During the first eight years of my parents’ marriage, they had my older brother and sister while living with my maternal grandparents in Chicago. I was born in 1951 and eight months later, our family moved to Iowa so dad could join a business venture with Sylvia’s husband. His mother had recently died there, shortly before I was born. Mom told me that dad remarked that she was carrying his mother’s name in my as yet unborn state. Her name was Rae which my mother hated – thus I became Renee, after someone I never knew.

My grandmother Rae, for whom I’m named with my father

I don’t remember anything about being with those people. All I know is that mom detested Sylvia who she felt was bossy and jealous of my parents’ relationship. Mom said Sylvia pushed her into cutting her long hair to make her look less attractive and that she couldn’t stand watching Sylvia snuggle with me. The business venture, selling water conditioners and farm implements, took dad away from home, leaving Sylvia in charge. At least that’s what I was told. After several years passed, mom was overwhelmed by being home with now four of us kids, in an environment which made her miserable. She told dad she wanted to move back to Chicago and hoped he’d come too. When I was seven we all left Sioux City. Contact with Sylvia was minimal and dad’s family life became mom’s parents and most especially her younger brother’s. His own siblings were never close again. Mom felt righteous about having driven a wedge between dad and his sister as she thought Sylvia was a terrible person. The dissonance of that attitude with her own beliefs was not addressed.

Sylvia and her husband at my wedding

I saw that side of our family at a few weddings, never getting to know my three cousins except in the most peripheral way. Mom came first for my dad and never spoke about missing his siblings. As I grew up, I marveled at the dichotomy between mom’s feelings about the importance of sisters while never thinking twice about separating dad from his family. She held on to her bitterness. When dad died, one of her first statements within minutes was telling us that Sylvia wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral. I never forgot that jaw-dropping remark. In my adult life, I’ve made a few attempts to locate my paternal cousins but after sending out a few inquiries, I gave up. I don’t know if any of them ever looked for me. Their side of the family saga remains a mystery.

Michael’s parents

The ideal sister paradigm I held as a standard was further challenged by my entry into Michael’s family. His mother, a privileged, superficial person with whom I had no synergy, was the older of two sisters. By the time I met her, whatever relationship she might have had with her younger sister was seriously damaged. Those two spent more time not speaking to each other than they did communicating. In all the decades I was with Michael, I only saw his aunt Eleanor and her family perhaps half a dozen times. When we got married they didn’t attend the wedding. The irony of so little contact was that Michael really felt more compatible with his aunt than he did with his own mother. I couldn’t find a single photo of her in the hundreds that we collected through our life. This fracture carried over to the next generation. Michael had an older sister. Betsy was a high strung person who despite her fervent wish to be as unlike her mother as possible, was in actuality, her virtual clone. She was hostile toward Michael most of their young life. As they matured, they each tried to make efforts to establish a rapport, but invariably she wound up in an adversarial posture in even the most trivial situations. Mostly they were unable to develop intimacy, each circling the emotional chasm between them. Their dad also had a sister whom he rarely saw. When she died, he didn’t attend her funeral, causing his only niece to permanently sever ties with him.

Michael and his sister Betsy
Betsy and Michael at our wedding

Their family had no role models for bridging the issues that can separate siblings. Each of them had a desire to improve their relationship but they lacked the necessary skills. I remember talking about about all these less than ideal kinships between the siblings with my mother, as I was curious about her ability to still believe that having a sister would automatically ensure a better life. She was somehow able to hang on to her childhood dream while acknowledging the more common wreckage that was happening in our families. That ultimately included our nuclear family.

Me with my three siblings – I am the third oldest.

When I was born, my brother was almost eight and my older sister was three months past five years old. My younger sister came along when I was two and a half. The gap between the older two and us younger ones grew more pronounced as we grew. Their life experiences were so different from ours. But aside from the chronological gap, I always had a sense that my older sister wasn’t thrilled that I’d ever shown up. She was remote and highly critical of me. As a child and adolescent I found this distance confusing. My approach to the discomfort was to feel helpless about her in addition to making sure that I never made my younger sister feel the same way. The truth was that she and I shared some common traits but fundamentally were the classic oil and water mixture who could never blend together. As years passed, the older two siblings were moving into adult activities while we younger ones were still just kids. My mom always said she felt like she’d had two different families.

Me and my sisters – I am thirteen.

There was never a time during our youth when we we were fully estranged but the levels of closeness between these “families”was palpably different. Eventually life took the older two into marriages while my younger sister and I were sharing our youth. While we were always in contact we didn’t experience each other’s lives. By the time I was an adult, my sister had moved away from Chicago and never returned. My brother lived closer to my parents but his life was fraught with emotional difficulties which weren’t conducive to peaceful times with anyone. Eventually my younger sister moved to the community where I lived and some years later, my parents joined us as well. Because they were aging, I organically stepped into the role of caregiver, supplanting the natural progression of responsibilities often conferred by birth order. As mom and dad’s needs changed, the dynamic between me and my older siblings declined precipitously. I always felt that each of them always had issues with me but as my parents became ill, I had no time to consider those feelings. My dad died and my mom required care. Having my younger sister was a good thing but there was distance and vastly differing views between me and the others. Ultimately I became further remote from both of them. My brother died in 2015, a few months before my mother. My older sister and I may as well have been from different planets. Our relationship essentially disappeared after my mother’s death. Despite all the divergence I’d seen from mom’s idealized sister scenario I never thought that could happen in my personal life.

Mom, my younger sister and me

For years, I’ve thought about all the lost sisters, especially the ones with whom I thought I could’ve had a relationship. I did try. But my efforts in the past brought nothing but failure and negative feelings. Both Michael’s sister and my older one have birthdays within a day of each other in early February. Each year when those days arrive, I have the urge to contact them, to try finding a way to repair the breaches. But as I’ve aged, I’ve recognized that my mom’s idyllic childhood belief was something she couldn’t practice in reality. Neither could I. Because I’ve had a lifelong successful relationship with my younger sister, I know excellent familial ties are real. But they don’t always happen, even when good intentions exist. Reality can be so sad and anyone can be lost. One of life’s harsh facts.

Primal : The Four of Us

November, 2013

I could never forget the day we took this photo. Thanksgiving, November 28th, 2013, just over two weeks after receiving the dreadful news that not only had Michael’s remission ended, but that without treatment, he had 2-3 months to live, and with treatment, maybe a year. We weren’t sure we could get through what was traditionally our favorite holiday. Ultimately, we decided that the opportunity to gather our family one more time before we disappeared into the uncertainty of chemo world was worth the effort. I still have no idea how I prepared all that food which was remarkably delicious. I guess muscle memory is real. Although lots of crying punctuated that day, the normalcy of sharing our holiday with family and close friends allowed for plenty of laughs and singing. We were lucky enough to have three more Thanksgivings as a family, with Michael miraculously outliving his dire prognosis.

I’m not one of those people who glosses over the past or pretends that my life was like one of those holiday letters which reports all the great trips and events that happened in the previous year. When I receive one of those I always wonder about the unmentioned parts, the ones that no one wants to tell any outsiders. Is it really possible to constantly have only a non-stop upside of life? In my experience, the complexity of living in groups, whether the people are related or not, always entails conflicts, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and disappointments. Thankfully, those hard parts can be offset by the positive emotions and events which form the glue that bonds individuals into their version of a family unit. In this most reflective time in my life, I’ve been pondering how my family unit got to be the tight-knit intimate crew it is, even with Michael having been absent for almost five years. Because for me, despite my kids’ partners and the fact that I have grandchildren, what will always feel primal, essential, is still the four of us.

Michael and me, about 50 years ago and

Almost 50 years ago, in April, 1972, I moved in with Michael, after almost 8 months of being almost instantaneous best friends. We both knew that we had some magic between us. Flipping from friendship into lovers and partners was scary but we both knew whatever had happened between us didn’t come along every day. We were so young, just 20 and 22 years old. During our first four years together we plowed through the process of learning each other in the practical ways that are the underpinnings of daily life. Dazzle aside, the key to a successful long term relationship is whether the mundane is manageable. The power of our connection never disappeared but sometimes when we annoyed each other. We needed tools to address our issues and after we developed those, we got married. Neither one of us ever wanted to fall away from the other. A few years later, we started trying to get pregnant. That took longer than we expected. Michael was anxious to have a family, hoping he could build a more successful one than his original one. Initially I wasn’t as eager as he was but as time passed and we weren’t successful, I eventually went all in, hoping we’d get lucky. And we did, welcoming our daughter in August, 1981. We were so ready to share our life with this new baby. We’d had plenty of time being just us so there was little frustration about no longer being able to have the universe revolve around our needs. Our staggering love for this kid was unquestionably enhanced by the depth of the feelings we shared as partners. The two of us were besotted.

Of course we experienced all the expected difficulties incumbent on working parents in those early years. Childhood illnesses, adjusting to day care, learning to understand who our kid was and what her needs were, along with discovering who we were as parents – all that happened in our life. I guess the operative word is “expected.” We were lucky to have most of our family issues confined to a normal range. Michael and I were both pretty opinionated and known for scrapping with each other, but fundamentally, we agreed on the key issues which can become problematic as people adapt to parenting. The good news was that we really liked each other and our kid. We put family at the center of our daily life while making sure we made time to continue nurturing us. We hoped to add a sibling to this picture when our daughter was approaching age three, but that effort took longer than we’d hoped. Our son was born when she was a few months past age five. He was a remarkably sweet baby but that fact had little impact on our feisty five year old, used to being the center of the universe.

Our daughter wasn’t thrilled to give up one shred of center stage to her brother. Michael and I marveled at how much attention little people needed, especially as both of us grew up feeling we each could have used more within our own families of origin. We worked hard to be balanced about providing enough recognition for each of the kids, while simultaneously teaching them about realistic expectations, sharing and the importance of support and loyalty to each other. For the most part, kids are fundamentally me-focused. But we figured we’d hammer away at our values while they were young enough to be influenced more by us than their peers and the bigger world. Both of us felt like the early years were opportunities for us to press our values, easier to manage while we were still the key figures in their lives.

My daughter hates this photo – her brother was vociferously arguing that “I was here first, pronounced “fust,” which had little if any effect. A moment frozen in time.

Reporting that all our grandiose ideas were easily digested by the kids and that our life was idyllic would be nice. However, we were living in the real world which meant that every day had the potential for introducing complications and challenges for all of us. I’d say that generally speaking, we had an easy go as parents. Our kids were healthy and bright, funny and kind. Their sibling rivalry wasn’t as intense as it might have been because of their age gap. They liked us, which was nice, but that didn’t ensure that they were always angelic. They argued and jostled for attention. Their rooms were messy and they needed constant prodding to do their chores. They could be selfish and insensitive to each other and to us. Michael was impatient and hot-tempered. Miraculously, he was never physically aggressive, just loud. My patience usually lasted longer before all the refereeing wore me down. I sometimes felt that I shouldn’t have bothered to plan fun outings when the constant bickering spoiled my time off and reduced me to tears, an interesting situation as I was never a big crier. Parenting brings out new aspects in your personality, at least the one you thought you had before making children. But, despite the hassles we persevered. As the kids grew, they couldn’t have been more different in terms of their personal styles, but they shared similar interests. When they weren’t being annoying, you could tell that they felt affection for each other. When our four year old son missed Halloween because he had pneumonia, our nine year old daughter collected treats for him. When he was seven and weeping with empathy at the plight of The Elephant Man, she was the big, sympathetic twelve year old, piled with Michael and me on the couch, providing comfort. She said she thought he was a pest but an endearing one. He, on the other hand, wanted to do everything she did, as she was his idol, albeit a mean one some of the time. When she felt wronged by anyone during those complicated early teen years, he was her loyal supporter. Each one had emergency room visits in the middle of the night during that time, and both chose to be there for the injured one. As a family, we spent a lot of time together.

Because of their age gap, the kids were never in the same school at the same time. In some ways that was a good thing as they were never treading on the other’s turf. That also meant their lives were more parallel than entwined. We spent time talking to them about how in the future, their relationship would be the longest and most sustaining of their lives if they prioritized each other. As they got older, they irritated each other less and supported each other more. They embraced each other’s friends. As they grew, it became clear that they’d absorbed our concept of family and were truly able to appreciate the strong sense of intimacy which was an extension of the powerful bond between Michael and me.

In 1999, our daughter graduated from high school and went off to college. Our son was in his last year of middle school. These two teenagers had sorted out their childhood issues and had turned into each other’s fans. Meanwhile Michael and I were in a transitional period in our lives. He was getting ready to embark on a new career, trading in his job as music store owner for teaching U.S. history. I was going to be holding the economic fort while my entire family was in school. Despite that pressure, I think that time solidified our family unit. As life pulled all of us in different directions, we tried to ensure that we blocked out family time when we could all be together. We appreciated the sense of refuge and connection that was obvious when we were together. We all liked each other’s company. Sometimes families can feel so awkward and uncomfortable. Ours was relaxed. We were all on each other’s teams.

Of course we all had problems, issues that required attention. That’s how life works. But the relief we felt in our family bubble exceeded the hopes Michael and I had for our family. We showed up for each other and continued to grow our bond. Our son joined us when we went off to follow our daughter in her athletic career in college. When he went to Washington to compete in the National Spelling Bee, she flew in from school to be there for him. We took a short winter trip to a state park every year and another every summer to a favorite destination on Lake Michigan. We laughed, we swam, we hiked, we ate and we talked. We had the good fortune of evolving in the same directions which made the potential friction attributable to age, political and personal differences minimal, at worst. The icing on our family cake occurred in 2003 when our daughter graduated from college and chose to pursue her law degree at our hometown university. She based her decision on the fact that she wanted to spend more time sharing experiences with her brother as the age difference between them was less significant than when they were little kids. Her presence back in town provided opportunities to deepen their connection while being a huge bonus for Michael and me. He was particularly moved since his own relationship with his older sister was pretty minimal. He felt so proud that despite his difficult youth, he’d managed to get the family he’d wished for since he was a boy.

Those law school years which coincided with the last few of our son’s high school life were special for all of us. Every family doesn’t have the luxury of having their high-achieving kids make choices about their futures which include staying close to home. That’s exactly what happened to us. When our son graduated from high school in 2005, the four of us took off on a two week road trip to New Mexico where we stayed at a conservation teaching ranch with one of our oldest friends from college.

We had a fabulous time, especially sweet as our days as a foursome were coming to an end. Our daughter had already met her future husband. Michael and I wanted both of the kids to be as fortunate as we’d been in finding big love. That fall our son went off to college, just a few hours’ drive away from home. Our girl was living in town, proceeding toward her professional life. We saw each other frequently. The following year we threw a wedding for our daughter; the one after that we all headed to St. Louis to share our son’s 21st birthday. Life had definitely changed, as it should. Michael and I were back to living on our own. We weren’t sad empty-nesters. We well remembered those first ten years in our life and easily transitioned back into that couple mindset.

The world continued to spin. My daughter and her husband set down deep roots in our hometown. They have two kids, satisfying careers and a house right across the street from ours, where years ago, we brought our baby girl home from the hospital. Our son graduated from college and after a year off, came back home to pursue his PhD. Although that took him to the tropics for half the year, he was home for the other half. He made himself present enough to become a beloved uncle, an intimate part of his nephews’ lives.

We went through the scary five years of Michael’s cancer. The four of us were together when his death came in 2017.

Two days after Michael died, the three of us went out for a meal. Our son, in the midst of a post-doc, was going to be leaving soon to continue his work. We decided to take a bleary-eyed selfie as we were leaving the restaurant and wound up with an eerie white light just over our shoulders. We all thought it was Michael, making his presence known. During these past years, our son has conducted research, taught university classes and found his life partner. He joins our daughter in having the big love we wished for both our kids. Our grandchildren are growing fast and I lament how many wonderful experiences Michael has missed that he would so dearly have loved.

I am moving forward along with everyone else. I still miss Michael constantly but I’ve used all my coping skills to get the most I can out of every day, especially knowing how much he wanted to lead a meaningful life, and for me to have one as well. I have a busy mind and often wonder whether I’ll ever get through the long list of assignments I’ve given myself before my time is finished. My kids and I live enmeshed. No matter where they are, on almost every day, they touch base with me and frequently with each other. For us that is normal. I’m grateful that I’ve developed a loving relationship with my son-in-law and that the foundation for a similar one has already begun with my son’s partner. I love my grandchildren. That said, in my deepest core, I think my most primal sense of myself in the universe will forever revolve around the four of us. Aside from the cosmic connection that still binds me to Michael, we are all tumbled together in what we called the family pile. A forever gift.