I noticed it right away. My heart beat faster and my thoughts proliferated out of control. Every twinge of muscle, of intestine, of nervous skin was magnified. I wanted to run, to turn back the clock, to un-make this reaction. I struggled to assert my Rational brain. “Emotional reactions are not the Truth. They are a human phenomenon, but they are not Right or Wrong.” How do I act, what are my choices, given this rising tide of Fear? I immediately decide on Function. I later decide on Communication. I notice that when I begin to dismantle the wall of Function, I feel very vulnerable. My nose prickles, my eyes moisten. I entrust myself to a Listener. I dare myself to be Honest.
Fear is at the dinner table, and we let it talk. It is mostly about The Unknown. What will happen? What will my options be? Will it hurt? I am uncomfortable. I squirm. I weep. I want to flee, but I stay put. I keep talking. Memories of pain join the conversation. I don’t want to return to that place. I realize that I can’t return to that place. Each place is different. Life moves forward; we flow with it. Now that my emotions and thoughts are freed from repression, I feel movement in myself. It is comforting. I am unstuck, calmer. And exhausted. How much energy it takes to be afraid! I will sleep, and use my energy differently tomorrow.
I’m posting a piece that I wrote for a Memoirs class in November of 2011 for Victoria Slotto’s prompt, but before I do, I must post a joyful Happy Birthday message to my daughter, Emily!
Happy 23rd, Baby Eyes!
On the day she was born, it was pouring rain in California and CNN was reporting the end of the Gulf War. Does that mean she’s special? Well, of course!
Okay. Now my memoir piece. Not surprisingly, it is visual-heavy.
Sluggishly wiping the drool from the side of my face, I rose from the floor and went down the hall to look in on Jim. He was not in our king-sized bed. I found him in the master bathroom, weak and sweating. He was sitting on the mauve vanity chair, his massively swollen torso slumped over the toilet. He had been throwing up. I knew this meant another infection somewhere, and another trip to the E.R.
“Becca! Em! You kids are going to have to find a ride to the high school,” I called out. “Your dad’s got to go the hospital again.”
“Aw, Mom! Can’t you drive us on the way?”
I mustered that stern, guilt-inducing look that I imagined would silence them until their own anxiety took hold. Was there a better way to tell them that I needed them to grow up and parent themselves so that I could take care of their father? “Save it for therapy,” I told myself and bundled my shivering husband into the passenger’s side of his car.
My own remorse was beginning to gnaw on my conscience. I had spent the night hiding out in my college son’s empty room, Seagram’s gin in hand, crashed on a bare mattress, convulsing in tears and bitter anger, muttering aloud my rejection of the realities of my life.
“This is not right! This is not the life I deserve! Why have you failed me, God? Just make it all go away!”
In the master bedroom suite, Jim was already medicated with his 15 different evening prescriptions and hooked up to his nightly round of technological prophylactics: his insulin pump, his peritoneal dialysis machine, his CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask and the flat screen TV. His dark blonde head was propped up on several pillows, puffy blue eyes straining in a vain attempt to clear the haze of bleeding retinas. There was no way I could sleep with all that whirring and beeping and blinking of light. I wanted to slip into oblivion for just eight hours, escape the strain of appearing sane while chaos, stress and fear overwhelmed me. I figured that if I went into suspended animation and let time go by, things would have to be different when I surfaced. And different could be better. It could hardly be worse. I lay back and let the world spin.
We had arrived on the block 15 years earlier, The Golden Couple from California, high school sweethearts who married right out of college, refugees from the cinder block crack yards of Pomona, eager to raise our four above-average children in the economically stable Midwest. Our baby Emily had been hospitalized with bacterial spinal meningitis just a week before, but miraculously survived without a trace of brain damage. I unbuckled her from the car seat and held her up to see our new four-bedroom house. The moving van driver pulled up, squinted at the August sun, and looked around the neighborhood. “Good move,” he said wryly.
I thought we were finally safe, ready to live out our American dream unscathed. That winter while Jim was shoveling snow for the first time in his life, he felt pain radiating from his chest to his jaw. His doctor said “Mylanta”, but the cardiac stress test said total blockage in two main arteries. How does this happen to a 31-year old, tennis-golf-bowling athlete? We discovered he had diabetes and probably had had it for a decade or so. He had gained weight during our first year of marriage and during my pregnancies, but we never suspected anything. But again, we were saved from tragedy by open-heart, double-bypass graft surgery.
Jim had lived to see his children grow into troubled teenagers, and they had lived to see him grow sicker each day. Which was the cause and which the effect? And why had I failed to be able to pray another miracle into our life? Were we being afflicted for some extraordinary purpose? Driving to the hospital, I kept trying to make everything fit into a positive outlook suitable for our fairy tale life, but a nagging skepticism kept surfacing. We had lost our magic. We were no longer charmed. The dragons were winning, and I was mortally terrified.
Two days after my alcohol-induced escape, I rode the hospital elevator up to the fourth floor, cynically noting how routine the trip was becoming, how familiar and sad the décor seemed. I stepped into the room and saw Jim in the first bed with a tube sticking out of his neck. Betadyne colored the surrounding skin a bruise-like orange brown. Flakes of dried blood speckled the area. A dark-skinned male nurse was applying bandages to the wound.
“Oh, hi! You’re the wife, right?” he greeted me and began his instructions again. “Let me show you what we’ve got on him now. This is where he’s catheterized for hemodialysis. You can’t get this wet, so no showers while he’s using this port. Just sponge baths for a few weeks, okay? If the bandage gets wet or bloody, you’re gonna want to change it. Use gloves when you’re putting on the gauze, and cover it over completely with this plastic patch. These tubes can be taped together and then taped down on his chest like this. Careful of the caps. They unscrew to hook up to the catheter. If you take them off, you have to wear a surgical mask because, you know, this jugular vein goes directly into his heart. Any infection at this site is gonna travel swiftly in a life-threatening direction. Got that?”
I breathed deeply and felt as if I were still on the elevator, dangling by a cable. I then became aware that I had missed the last instruction.
“Um, hold on. I don’t think I heard that last bit. Actually, I’m suddenly not feeling too well. May I sit down?”
My semi-conscious brain was frantically sending warning messages. “This is not sustainable. You are not going to be able to keep him alive.” Jim’s ever-friendly and imperturbable countenance looked meekly on in an odd juxtaposition to this feeling of dread. It seemed like he could take any amount of medical abuse and be grateful for it. “Better living through technology,” he always said. I wanted to cry out, to interrupt this surreal charade, but I felt like I was under water. I realized we had no endgame and had avoided discussing it entirely. Platitudes and prayers were not addressing the issue adequately. Death. Mortality. It wasn’t supposed to be part of our story, and I was woefully unprepared. I blinked dumbly and swallowed.
“Okay. How do I do this?” I finally asked. The nurse blithely continued, never noticing that I wasn’t talking about the bandages.
© 2014, essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
The challenge for this week is Future Tense. I admit, thinking about the future often makes me tense, anxious, sometimes panicky. I have a vivid imagination and a lot of irrational fears. And I’m working on breathing, living in the present moment, all those Buddhist practices that address those thought patterns that Western Pragmatism put into my head. The OMG! your children, your finances, your health, your retirement….you must have a PLAN for the future, you must be PREPARED, if you’re not anxious, you obviously haven’t grasped the situation!!!! There are DANGERS out there in life!
Do you think life is something to be feared? Do you think life is a wonderful adventure, naturally unfolding, peaceful and harmonious and without judgment? How do you want to live your life? You have a choice.
Last night, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal”. There’s nothing like hitting a gray mood smack on the head with a black & white film about Death! Yargh! Into the breach, mates….
First of all, the photography. Beach scenes, faces, clouds and silhouettes, clean, stark, intense. They just put me in a mood to ponder dark and light without looking away. Bring it!
Characters. One of the questions Steve always asks after we watch a film together is “which character do you think is most like you?” The characters in this film are icons of human stereotypes, in a way, but rather like the roles in a medieval morality play. The knight is questing, always. He wants to know and understand; his intellect is never satisfied. Steve has a lot of that in him. Jof, the juggler, is a childlike observer. He is easy-going and happy, and he has visions. He sees with his heart and doesn’t understand why others don’t see what he does, but he doesn’t preach about his visions, he writes songs about them. I think Steve has some of that in him, too. I identify with Jof myself. The squire is shrewd, ironic, confident and direct. He seems very grounded in his ego. There are some other players, more simply drawn: the actor, the cuckold smith and his loose wife, Jof’s young wife and their baby, a silent girl who attaches to the squire, a witch and of course…Death.
How each of these folks engage with Death is fertile ground for the imagination. If you’re questing, trying to find answers, strategically engaging Death in a game of chess, what is the lesson you are likely to learn? That Death doesn’t have any answers, but he’s going to win the game. And how would you take that? It makes me think of my younger days, when I was in the throes of religious fervor, convinced that I was learning the big answers to the most important questions. I wrote terribly pretentious poetry and harbored judgments about everything. I thought I was going to “figure it all out” eventually. That was after Death’s first visit to me, and before his second. I had a few close calls in between that made me think I might be on the right track. His re-appearance convinced me that I wasn’t really onto anything. So, the questions remain. I like how the knight gets increasingly comfortable with inviting Death to sit down and join him. He learns a few things, he postpones the inevitable, he diverts Death’s attention away from his friends for a while, and he even shows Death that he can be happy while they play. I am learning from his example.
The scariest part of the film is the depiction of fear itself. The wailing and flailing and pleading for mercy is utterly desperate and triggers all kinds of panicky feelings in me as I watch. I do NOT want to slide into that. That’s the worst evil in the film. Those people are being tortured and destroyed from the inside out. It gives me the shivers! This is a great example for me, too. I don’t have to engage with Death in this manner. I have other options.
The storm scene reminded me of a camping trip we took one spring. After a balmy evening, a thunderstorm rolled in from across the hills to the west. The sun had set and it grew quite dark, but just over the ridge, the lightning blazed up like bombs in a great war. It was like watching a WWII movie, all black and white explosions in the distance. And we were the only campers in the park, in a little nylon tent. I was kind of scared. I thought about doing the “safe and prudent” thing, striking camp and driving away. Steve asked me, “Why?” Well, because something bad could happen! Bad like what? We could get wet. We could get hit by a falling tree or lightning. We could, but it’s not highly likely. We could just watch it and see what we learn. And we can always get in the car, too, if we want.
So we stayed. We did get wet. We eventually went to the car. We went home the next day. But we saw the most amazing light show and felt the wind and heard the rain fall on every surface with a different sound. And we experienced it together, present, honest, alive. Take that, Fear! Check!
My very astute sister once pointed out to me that all stress is not created equal. There’s daily stress, the normal result of a body functioning without rest for 16 hours or so, which is alleviated after 8 hours of sleep. There’s distress, which gives us the feeling of being overwhelmed or upset by the amount of stress we experience, and then there’s eustress, which according to Wikipedia is “a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye which is defined…as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feeling. Eustress is a process of exploring potential gains.” Examples of eustress could include climbing a mountain, running a marathon or sky-diving. Or surviving a nautical disaster.
I was intrigued by a comment I read from one of the survivors of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that sank in the Mediterranean this past week. ABC News reported:
‘Australian miner Rob Elcombe and his wife, Tracey Gunn, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun Newspaper they booked a spot on the Concordia as a last ditch effort to save their marriage. Instead, the couple found themselves trying to save their lives when they boarded the very last lifeboat to leave the ship with survivors. “This has made our bond much, much stronger,” Elcombe told the paper. “Who needs couples counseling, when you survive a Titanic experience?” ‘
An adventure. Stress worked into a feeling of gain. Is it possible to turn your distress into eustress?
Another news story I ran across came under this headline: Wife Slips Into Madness As Husband Dies of Brain Tumor. (ABC News) Catherine Graves wrote a book called Checking Out: An In Depth Look At Losing Your Mind describing the distress of caring for her husband. The headline rather sensationalizes an experience of overwhelming stress that is shared by a lot of people who find themselves in the role of caregiver. I can relate. I went through depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome during my husband’s illness and after his death. Like Mrs. Graves, I was widowed at 45. But did I lose my mind? Not irretrievably, I don’t think. Maybe what I’m doing now, being unemployed, slowing down, is my way of turning that distress into eustress.
There’s an old hymn that I’ve affectionately heard referred to as “The Playtex Hymn” (after the girdle). The first line is “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word”. It was written by John Keith in 1787. My favorite verse goes like this:
“When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”
For some reason, singing that verse always causes me to choke up with emotion. I know how it is to feel like I’m drowning. I have a gasp reflex that reminds me of this almost daily. It shows up lightning fast in moments when my reptilian brain senses danger. It first became noticeable when I was trying to teach my kids to drive. I would gasp and grab the handle above the passenger side door at the slightest correction of the steering wheel or touch of the brake. It happened to me again just this morning. I was stacking packages on the table and the tower toppled over. I gasped. “I must be drowning!” I laughed. It’s probably a rather annoying habit for those who live with me. I appreciate their patience.
There’s another hymn that follows this theme. “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. The story behind it is quite amazing. In brief, according to Wikipedia:
“This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.”
And here’s the lyric:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
I am trying to re-train my brain to believe that my deepest distress can be sanctified. I don’t think this is an exclusively Christian perspective at all. The Noble Truths of Buddhism are all about addressing the suffering (distress) of this world and how we think about it. I hope that as I “explore potential gains”, my drowning will become floating, and all will be well with my soul.
Saturday night we went to see a movie: “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors”. This silent movie from Germany was accompanied by a live band from St. Louis called The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which features Wurlitzer electric piano, theramin, vibraphone, electric guitar, two violins, viola, trombone, trumpet and one percussionist. The theater itself is an old relic. Typically, the front rows of seats are replaced with old couches and sofas and end tables. For the crowd on Friday, though, there were rows of seats and cafe tables on the side. It was a pretty funky set-up, with lots of young people in attendance, and a few old fogeys like myself and Steve. The theramin player was fascinating to watch. She also played a violin part. Her intonation was better on theramin, unfortunately. It was good creepy, goofy fun, though. German expressionism is interesting. How would you stylize fear or death or love? Silent horror film stars don’t scream. Their eyes widen; they grimace; they gesture, but they don’t scream. Make-up and background heighten contrasts. Here’s the iconic image from the film.
Steve likes the childlike exploration of a basic emotion – fear. It’s not deep and philosophical, really, nor is it very clever or contrived. I tend to find the old horror films funny. I mean, here comes Count Orlok walking through town with his coffin under his arm. Seriously? I won’t even go to a modern horror movie, though. I get too tense. It’s not good for me.
On Friday night, I finally watched “Citizen Kane”, which we borrowed from the library. I’d never seen it, although the ending had been spoiled for me many times over the years. I got hooked by Orson Welles’ genius. The way he pieces together the story, the radio-inspired musical effects, the dialogue and writing, the visuals and directing, and his acting are just brilliant. Did you know you can buy a T-shirt with his picture on it that says, “I made Citizen Kane when I was 25. What the fuck have you done?” His creativity is evident, and was technically ground-breaking at the time. I mused about the psychology of the story for hours afterwards. Agnes Moorehead’s portrayal of his mother was just eerie. Issues of control and freedom and power squeak out in each scene. So, I’m in total agreement with everyone who says it’s possibly the best American film ever made.
One more thing: what do you do with leftover movie popcorn? Feed the squirrels. I put it out on the old wicker chair. It’s already gone. Now it’s snowing. Food is going to be harder to find. I might need to see another movie.
…and so many writers. I was preparing shipments for our online book business (Scholar & Poet Books – available on Amazon, Alibris, ABE and Half.com books; pardon the Christmas season advert, but it might help!) this morning and thinking about “being a writer”. I am planning to enter a Memoir/Personal Essay contest at the suggestion of my teacher. I had a dream that probably relates to this idea a few nights ago. I dreamed that I was in a dance studio with gym mats on the floor and a wall of mirrors. I was in line to attempt a splits leap. I had a press photo of David Hallberg in mind, and I wanted to see if I could look like that. Of course, I know I can’t, but I wanted to try. So I got to the front of the line, and all the others are turned to watch me go, and they totally blocked the runway. I kept asking them to move, but they were still in the way. And then some of them started pulling up the mats. “Hey! I still haven’t had my turn yet!” I was trying to put the mats back and move the people and all chaos was breaking loose, and I woke up. So I told Steve about my frustrating dream and how I just wanted a chance to try, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it well. He responded, “You know who those people are in your way, don’t you?” Of course. Everyone in your dream is you. The people getting in the way of me attempting my big leap are…me.
So I’m going to submit an entry, and I’m going to call myself a writer in my mind because that’s what I’ve been doing since my last birthday: writing. And I’m aware that I may never make any money doing this. I look at the book jacket photos of writers and handle their wares on a daily basis almost. I read blogs by published writers. I still have a feeling that they are a different breed. They have degrees in writing; they have ambition. I have thoughts. I am dreamy and lazy and I don’t “work”. And I’ve never lived in New York. It seems like any “real” writer must have lived in New York at some point. Too bad. At least I can get out of the way of my own runway and give it a shot. I am old and not too flexible and I’ve never been able to do the splits. But it might be fun to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I go leaping by. It’ll probably end with me having a good laugh.
“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately. I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and recently browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday. I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course. What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero. Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be. In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.
My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash. She and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened. My mother cobbled together connecting flights to reach me in Nebraska the next morning. She got me discharged from the hospital and set up in a hotel with her while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California. We went to the mortuary the next day. I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business. Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body. “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there. I hesitated. Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door. “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table. “No, she’s not there. She’s gone. Look here…” she began to comment on Alice’s wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future. My mom said something about all the suffering her daughter had been spared. Then she tenderly bend down and kissed that pale, waxy forehead. My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment. Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful. I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.
Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay. “Don’t be afraid. Go talk to him. He can still hear you.” She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions. I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away. It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time. I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then. We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home. By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach. I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.
In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently. I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving. Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation. My instinct was to run away. I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me. He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.
I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief. I would like to be a conduit of such grace.
Discipline without coercion. Is it possible for individuals? For communities? Dare we believe that without obligation, people will make efforts to do their best and work toward the common good? Are people who do that “heroes”?
We dangle punitive measures and capitalistic rewards in front of the masses and hope that will encourage us to be model citizens, and then we have to deal with the greedy monsters that evolve wondering “What’s in it for me?” If I am of the 1% and super-wealthy, what incentive do I have to share? And what is the percentage of the 99% who hope that one day, they will become super-wealthy also and so feel no inclination to put restrictions on the rich? How many people are likely to come to a sense that they have “enough” all on their own and turn their surplus over to others? And when will that sense of “enough” kick in? What standard of living do we feel entitled to? What would it feel like to say, “This is all I need. I am not afraid to trust that I have enough”? Would it feel like freedom?
How do you discipline yourself without feeling a sense of obligation? Do you eat healthy foods because you want to? Or because some outside influence is holding up a consequence or reward? Do you make music because some authority is telling you to practice or for the sheer joy of it? Do you do what you do out of passion or fear?
On our first date, Steve played a kind of “twenty questions” game with me. I was trying to guess his three heroes in order to get to know him better. He maintains that each of these inspirational figures have a passion for something and demonstrate it joyfully. The first one is David Attenborough of the BBC Natural History Unit, groundbreaking writer and presenter of nature programs. The second is Julia Child, The French Chef. I was in total accord to this point, and also loved that they are easy to imitate in voice and mannerism to add levity to any undertaking (and we do this frequently). The third one was rather tough to guess, mostly because he wasn’t human. “An athlete” was about as close as I got. Finally, Steve led me to thinking about equestrian athletes, and I immediately thought of Secretariat. I found that rather a head-scratcher, though. How could a horse be a hero? And then he showed me the youtube clip of the final race in the1973 Triple Crown. It still makes him cry.
A horse cannot be coerced by the promise of fame and fortune, can it? There was no whipping, no carrot on a stick. Secretariat ran for the pure joy of running, it would seem. Feeling the power of his legs, the wind in his mane, the freedom of doing what he was born and bred and loved to do that day. Did he have a reward afterward? Did he develop a taste for winning? I suppose you could debate the emotions of a horse forever and never learn anything conclusive. You could also debate whether or not his race was something that created “good”. Many people were undoubtedly uplifted; just listen to the audio on the tape. His grace and beauty are captivating. And maybe a bunch of people were making money off of it, but the horse wasn’t. For that reason, it seems rather pure to me.
So what would it mean for you and me to be the heroes of our own lives? To be the best we could be not out of obligation or fear of reprisal or for monetary gain, but just for the joy of living out our own passion and interest, for the love of it? What would it be like to allow that to be our reward, our life work, and not ask fame or fortune from it? Would we share any surplus of our efforts? What if we all lived like that? Would we be able to balance the table top, enjoy sustainability and equality, as a community and perhaps as a planet? Is this a utopian ideal and totally unrealistic?
Probably. But I would love to feel the wind in my hair, too…