Ars Moriendi

1

Intimations           

            Old age takes small, deliberate steps, aided by limbs and digits. Trying, at sixty-nine, to bring my aging into focus, I hit a wall.  I have been writing and thinking about aging for over a decade.  I have read books and written one, and gone to lectures.  What in life is more important than “doing” this last phase richly and right?  But what is the “doing?”  It’s not like these subjects – aging, dying, death – were on offer at the family dinner table, or encouraged at Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio.  Regarding the latter, quite the contrary.  It was 1966, and high tea was still served in the Blue Room, where we – the wives and mothers in training – would gather, formally garbed and gloved, learning the arts of Mingle, Small Talk and Self Effacement. 

            So I watch, staring; I watch the delicate, old woman having tea in my neighborhood coffee shop, sitting at a small, window table.  Lifting pastry to lips, she chews slowly.  All of her movements are slow, each function addressed with keen attention – lift, chew, swallow – and each followed by a pause, a recovery, a restoration. 

            Finished, she rises and walks across the table-littered room, without an aid, but cautiously.  Her eyes pull her forward.  She deposits her empty plate and cup into the tub, glancing up at the bulletin board that signals with its clutter of informational debris.  

            Arms raised, she returns to the table; her hands reach into space.  Who is she?  Where will she go, now?  To the small, neighborhood grocery store down the block?  To a car?  This seems unlikely. 

***

            When in her eighties, my grandmother collapsed into the losses and vicissitudes of her future.  She sat weeping on her nubbly, ivory-colored couch, convinced she’d been abandoned, imprisoned in The Home, betrayed.  Her daughter, Betty, my mum, flayed by Grammy’s paranoia, could only say, “I’m sorry, Mother, no,” as she begged repeatedly to live with us.  There was no spare room to spare in our family home, but more importantly, my mother, foreseeing herself the beleaguered target of her mother’s disappointments, froze at the prospect, dread-filled.

            Once I believed my grandmother to be Wise and Kind, and so was puzzled by her bitter noncompliance.  Of course, I would come to see that she was exceptional at neither – just a person shaped by circumstances, imprisoned, as are we all, by the flaws she could neither articulate nor master.  Once I loved her fiercely – her clever Easter baskets piled with Hershey Kisses and onion skin dyed eggs; her tawdry, albeit beautifully executed crafts; the astonishing plethora of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and extravagant holiday dinners, her occasional eruptions of “Scheisse!” were a dish found chipped, or a puff of dust discovered on the kitchen floor.  She had an appetite for life, and from the physical realm, drank deeply.

Egon Schiele

            But her last phase unfolded on the ivory-colored couch.  In a beige frock with lace strained over the bodice, and only half zipped up in back, she dwelt in a space between specific losses, and the fear of dying.

***

            If the final task in the life span is, as Erik Erikson believed, one of ego integration, then our culture would be well served to regard this final phase as an apex, an enrichment, and welcome the voices of those on this frontier.   The elderly, celebrated as guides and sages, would call out, Here is news you can use.  Gone would be the crippling belief that sustaining the efforts of our middle age constitutes “successful” aging.  To perceive aging only as a dwindling and a decline misses the entirety – birth to the final wrap – and all is cheapened. 

Vanitas

Vanitas

***

2

Practice

            In his thirties, Gotama, the Buddha-to-be, suspicious that life inside his princely, palace walls was too much like an endless party in the Suite of Denial, asked his chauffeur to take him for a ride.  Evidentially, he had never been outside the palace walls before this.  Sprung, Gotama encountered human suffering for the first time – the trajectory of birth, old age, sickness, death.  These were a shock to his conditioning and insularity, and he could not return unchanged to his cush, albeit unbearably false, life. 

            Old age, sickness, death – the tools of our awakening.

Bodhi Tree

Bodhi Tree

 

            One day in early summer, Bee, our dog, fell ill, and because she had been living with a cancer diagnosis for two years, we feared that we were close to putting her down. 

            “We’re looking at her last days,” my wife said, as we waited in an exam room at the vet’s, our affects stricken. 

            But the dog revived, and months passed, and we reverted to having the dog back with us forever.  Denial had weathered the scare, and the crisp reminder that Bee’s days are numbered began to fade.  It’s autumn, now, two full years later, and once again, my old dog is doing well forever.  I have retired my awareness that she is being taken out by her disease; that she is even now in transition from a lovely, uncomplicated consciousness sheltered in the body of a dog, to the next phase of her journey.  How keep awareness trained on each present moment; how banish the pother of hope? What faith this requires, what practice. 

***

            Medieval Christians plied their faith by practicing the Ars Moriendi, two Latin texts from 1415-ish to 1450-ish, that offered protocols for a good death.  These practices evolved as a mitigation against the horrors of the plague, and the subsequent social upheavals.  Eleven woodcuts illustrate six chapters that render the battle between angels and devils for the soul.  The first pair of illustrations shows the devil presenting one of the five temptations and its opposite virtue, or remedy, and so on through the remaining four.  The final print shows the dying man, having overcome the barrage of temptations, ascending heaven-ward as the devils, baffled and chagrined, scatter back to hell.

With over one hundred editions, the Ars Moriendi had wide circulation throughout Europe.  To die well was to resist the five temptations, and flip them – from faithlessness to faith, despair to hope, restlessness to patience, spiritual arrogance to humility, and from greed to generosity.  Dying was a moral activity.

Ars Moriendi panel

Ars Moriendi panel

***      

 

            One day, I took a walk without the dog on the walk we take almost every day.  The memory of her frequent pause on the parking strip outside Parson’s Park signaled to me her absence.  It tugged at my heart, the sensation, that of a small weight hanging inside there, an apricot, maybe.

            It stuck me that this walk without the dog was practice.  I was practicing for when I would not walk with her again forever.  Those terrible, resonant words in relation to my friend – no more again forever.

            I practiced my walk without the dog, a heaviness, palpable.  It was the weight of future sadness, for the time ahead when walking with Bee will exist in memory only.  So I made it a walk without the dog to commemorate the things we see each day together.

            I passed the overlook, a sweeping view of Puget Sound, spectacular in all weathers; behind me loomed a black, steel sculpture entitled, “Changing Form.”  Our itinerary describes a giant square, and I turned left uphill on the second arm, past the Ribes, festooned in early spring with green-tinged, pendant flowers.  Across the street, a row of towering poplars undulated in the wind. 

            On the third arm of our gigantic square, I turned left again toward the block of wide parking strips with two horse chestnut trees, their trunks as big around as an elephant’s middle.  Last week, we stopped to chat with a woman in a winsome cap, squatting before a cavity at the base of one these trees.  She was fashioning an entry way of twigs and bits of moss and crystal pendants.  Looking up, she put a finger to her lips and whispered, “Fairies,” explaining that she was building a home for them.  If we were lucky, she noted, they would feel safe enough to take up residence.

Fairies

*

            Eleven years of this. Imagine.  Almost every day, five days a week.  Eleven years.

           

***

                 There is a traffic app called, WAZE, who talks in an authoritative, lady librarian fashion, while retaining a great enthusiasm for the journey ahead.  Designed to navigate car and driver through perilous, intransigent traffic, she seeks the least congested route.  In Seattle, now, with thousands of people relocating every minute, WAZE has become as indispensable as toilet paper, and unimaginable to live without as tequila.  However, WAZE has a way of teasing.  For example, the tried and true route – the one way you have taken from A to B, so engrained in mind as to have obliterated even the possibility of an alternative – must be discarded, and so she will tell you to go left instead of the customary right, and several blocks north instead of south, where you need, eventually, to be headed.  If you are rigid and literal, as I pride myself on being, and always in some snit about promptness, this can feel thoroughly upending.  Disobey, however, at your peril.  WAZE knows – always.  You must give yourself over to her higher knowledge.  WAZE has become, thus, a spiritual practice.  I get into the car, type in my destination, buckle up, and surrender to WAZE.  She will take me left and right, up hill and down, in entirely baffling and new directions.  After an initial several moments of insisting on my way, enduring her stern corrections, I simply surrender, letting myself free fall into a trustful not-knowing.  At some point, I shall arrive.  If I’m a little late, so be it.  Others also late will be, having encountered similar snags and frustrations.  We are all in the traffic heap together.  Why not treat it like church?  In this surrender to WAZE, I find parallels and analogies.  Bee in her final days.  Resist.  Wrestle at one’s peril.  Adore. Surrender. 

***

3

Still

            But in our perusal of aging, let us not discard absurdity and poignance.         

1.

            Two old men, related by virtue of their offsprings’ marriage (one, the father of the wife of the other man’s son), both fragile with age and disease, are –   unbeknownst to each other – sitting side by side, diminutive in large wing chairs, both there for a family gathering.  Suddenly one, pitching forward, recognizes the other, and cries, “Bud, you’re still here?  I thought you were dead.  I thought this was your memorial!”

            This is a cartoon moment.

            Bud was, indeed, still with us.

2.

            My wife and I were at a wedding.  It was a Saturday in June on a wonderful island in Puget Sound.  The ceremony, performed outdoors beneath a festooned chuppah, had ended, and familial clods were dispersing toward drinks.  The lawn, ‘though manicured, was full of bumps and divots, and fell like a picnic blanket among ovoid beds, planted with flowering trees and blooming perennials.  My eyes fatigued with all the color.   Cocktails floated by on trays.  We partook, even as the sun herded us in clusters toward shade.  Useless Bay glittered in the distance.  A crackle in the loud speakers cleared to song and The Rolling Stones emerged – “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” It grew louder, and suddenly across the uneven lawn bumped an elderly woman in a wheel chair, the hem of her emerald-green gown flapping.  Her companion, bent double with the effort to keep them both upright, pushed her in a ragged trajectory.  With her cocktail gripped like a torch before her, she was pitched forward to behold the view. Out they lunged, toward Useless,  “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” the perfect caption.

***

            I have heard voiced an objection to the use of the word, still by those who are persuaded that aging can be “done well.”  Still is believed to set an expectation;  behind still, collapse hovers:

                         I can still hike for hours; I can still schlepp forty pound bags of     compost (I can not, without aid, that is); I can still walk without fear of falling,         and the most desperate entreaty of all: I can still drive. 

            Initially, I was thrilled for the reframe: language re-commissioned encouraged such.  But I find myself inclined to disagree. 

            I think about honoring my stills, knowing that my losses will begin to announce themselves more fiercely and pile up, like emptied mussel shells.   That which I do now, that which adds richness and value will not always be.  Can one rehearse for when still applies no longer?  You do not catch the peony resisting petal drop, or the great blue heron conniving not to die.  And Bee will soon be sprung from her wooly chassis.

***

Reflections on "my" Climate Change

            In trying to bring the enormity of climate change into focus, I look to the garden.  It’s spring as I write this, as colorful and glorious a spring as I remember, and while delighting in the specifics, I cannot bear in mind the looming threats of climate change.  They feel abstract, and huge, and although The Enormity portends catastrophe, I feel no immediate impact on my today.  Along with most people in the U.S. (69% by one count of a 2014 March Gallup Pole), I do not doubt that climate change will harm us, but I cannot make it real.  And while I cannot ask myself to rally, and help solve, I can learn how to pay attention.

            I start by thinking back to my college days in Painesville, Ohio some fifty years ago.  Occasionally, a friend and I treated ourselves to dinner at the inn, and one time its waiter, ancient, long-faced and solicitous, said in the saddest voice ever, “There is no perch.  There are no more perch in Lake Erie.”  How we laughed as he slipped from the dining room to fetch us warm buns and salads. 

 

Perch of Lake Erie

Perch of Lake Erie

Why, then, we wondered, were perch still accorded their place on the menu?

 

            Lake Erie was declared dead in 1969, the result of billions of gallons of untreated industrial and agricultural wastes and human sewage dumped daily from Cleveland and Detroit, and from an additional one hundred and twenty lesser cities. The lake was dying of suffocation. That same year brought the burning of the Cuyahoga River, and we would joke about that, too, albeit uneasily. That image of that river, emptying into that lakeprovoked outrage, and the great advances of the early 1970’s –  the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts – were set in motion.  I had begun not yet quite to realize, but to observe that things in my industrial corner of Cleveland, Ohio were slightly off.

***             When does observation become realization?  Even prior to my “moment” of the perch and of the burning river was The Steel.  In Bethlehem, PA, where my 1950’s childhood unfolded, there was a silly-sounding thing called, polyps, which everyone shared.  In all moist body parts, polyps democratically gathered.  Emissions from Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces explained the polyp population, the ubiquity of plugged sinuses, and hacking coughs. Black particulates, like miniscule shrapnel, could be seen to advance upon the laundry that hung outside on warm, spring days.             But the Steel was god, and panacea. 

***

            When does observation become realization?  Even prior to my “moment” of the perch and of the burning river was The Steel.  In Bethlehem, PA, where my 1950’s childhood unfolded, there was a silly-sounding thing called, polyps, which everyone shared.  In all moist body parts, polyps democratically gathered.  Emissions from Bethlehem Steel’s blast furnaces explained the polyp population, the ubiquity of plugged sinuses, and hacking coughs. Black particulates, like miniscule shrapnel, could be seen to advance upon the laundry that hung outside on warm, spring days.

            But the Steel was god, and panacea. 

              Our steel made the New York City skyline, and built Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf Astoria, the Golden Gate Bridge,  Alcatraz, the Hoover Dam, the U.S. Congress’ Rayburn Building and the Supreme Court. 

 

            Our steel made the New York City skyline, and built Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, the George Washington Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, the Chrysler Building, the Waldorf Astoria, the Golden Gate Bridge,  Alcatraz, the Hoover Dam, the U.S. Congress’ Rayburn Building and the Supreme Court. 

            Bethlehem Steel was thesecond largest steel producer in the country, and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world.  

            Bethlehem Steel was thesecond largest steel producer in the country, and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world.

 

     

 

 

 

            I am a child of steel.             I was born in 1948, and first travelled to Europe with my parents in 1955.  My father, then the president of the International Welding Society was, with engineers and scientists from many parts of the world, helping to rebuild Europe.  I was the beneficiary – philosophically and psychologically – of this feat of international cooperation, and the order among nations that would ensue.  But, on that trip, I encountered pollution for the first time.  The towns in Belgium and Holland, treasured for cobble-stone streets crisscrossed by canals. . .  

            I am a child of steel.

            I was born in 1948, and first travelled to Europe with my parents in 1955.  My father, then the president of the International Welding Society was, with engineers and scientists from many parts of the world, helping to rebuild Europe.  I was the beneficiary – philosophically and psychologically – of this feat of international cooperation, and the order among nations that would ensue.  But, on that trip, I encountered pollution for the first time.  The towns in Belgium and Holland, treasured for cobble-stone streets crisscrossed by canals. . .

 

 stank.              Water ran, if at all, turgid. Mattresses and garbage and the carcasses of fish and rodents floated on brackish water between ancient parapets.  Warned of the stench, hotel guests were urged to book rooms not overlooking the canals.  These impressions would cast a slight pall over that first trip to Europe, so recently over the war, although barely over the devastation.          ***             The conditions – polyps and pollution – would begin to require a pause.  Why were progress and profit the heroes of the story, and not the woundedness of nature?  Could not consequence be factored into it?  Even the argument in defense of nature, posed today – that clean air and water are human rights – suggests our remove from nature.  Would a deer consider access to the sparkling stream her right?  When you have to instill right into the sentence, it is already too late.  It suggests that we’ve taken ourselves out of nature in order to have a right to consume it. ***             Looking back on my Bethlehem, PA childhood, I’m curious, both about the resignation to polyps and pollution, but also about what was known.  What quantity of particulates was released by the five blast furnaces across the river?  Beyond the polyps, what impact did such air have on the dwellers in the Valley?    

 stank. 

            Water ran, if at all, turgid. Mattresses and garbage and the carcasses of fish and rodents floated on brackish water between ancient parapets.  Warned of the stench, hotel guests were urged to book rooms not overlooking the canals.  These impressions would cast a slight pall over that first trip to Europe, so recently over the war, although barely over the devastation.         

***

            The conditions – polyps and pollution – would begin to require a pause.  Why were progress and profit the heroes of the story, and not the woundedness of nature?  Could not consequence be factored into it?  Even the argument in defense of nature, posed today – that clean air and water are human rights – suggests our remove from nature.  Would a deer consider access to the sparkling stream her right?  When you have to instill right into the sentence, it is already too late.  It suggests that we’ve taken ourselves out of nature in order to have a right to consume it.

***

            Looking back on my Bethlehem, PA childhood, I’m curious, both about the resignation to polyps and pollution, but also about what was known.  What quantity of particulates was released by the five blast furnaces across the river?  Beyond the polyps, what impact did such air have on the dwellers in the Valley?

 

 

***             The question that grabs my attention is one of when – when do the warnings that peek through the familiar leap out of the frame?  And where am I in the picture? ***               Seattle, a proudly green city, incorporates climate change concerns routinely in its discussions about growth management.  Thirty-year projections of the changes to our climate posit torrential downpours as the new norm, and subsequent flooding, landslides, hurricane-force winds, and increased avalanching.  That rings a familiar bell, but an odd and differently alarming scenario is also projected:  surges in population from climate change refugees, those relocating to our comparatively benign region.   As the globe warms, the Pacific Northwest will be relatively protected from the scourges of extreme weather.  Seattle’s infrastructure cannot even now catch up with the needs of our burgeoning population. How will the city prepare?  

***

            The question that grabs my attention is one of when – when do the warnings that peek through the familiar leap out of the frame?  And where am I in the picture?

***  

            Seattle, a proudly green city, incorporates climate change concerns routinely in its discussions about growth management.  Thirty-year projections of the changes to our climate posit torrential downpours as the new norm, and subsequent flooding, landslides, hurricane-force winds, and increased avalanching.  That rings a familiar bell, but an odd and differently alarming scenario is also projected:  surges in population from climate change refugees, those relocating to our comparatively benign region.   As the globe warms, the Pacific Northwest will be relatively protected from the scourges of extreme weather.  Seattle’s infrastructure cannot even now catch up with the needs of our burgeoning population. How will the city prepare?

 

~ the good old days . . . ? ***               The earth’s warming is a scientific, data-driven phenomenon, and again, what does this have to do with me?  I am un-inclined to march, to join, to rally.  There are,  I believe, many ways to engage with these issues so much beyond the self, the family, one’s neighborly relations, even though it feels that direct political action is acclaimed the most powerfully effective.  But I require a jolt of a more personal nature, and this has to do with innocence and beauty.  I am a complete pushover for these – the giant golden spruce that did not request its meeting with the chain saw; the magisterial black-maned lion that did not ask to be shot with both cross bow and rifle, before being skinned and beheaded.             A very small example of my affinity for innocence and beauty would be this:  a few springs ago, I watched two baby squirrels navigate their entrance into the larger world of tree and sky.  They were tiny and perfect, and completely open to the baffling All around them.  But I also recognized the courage required to negotiate their way out of their nest high up in the hollow of a snag and down the stout trunk toward the relative safety of the branch below them.  It took time and patience for the mother to teach them their claw work and clinging, and ease them toward the perilous descent, head first.  One caught on faster than the other.  The more timid baby darted in and out of the entry, and it took much maternal chatter to persuade the baby to stay outside and keep to its lesson.  I assumed that the lessons progressed accordingly, and that the collection of pests in my garden was happily augmented.              Then in late summer, when plant life withered and crisped, I came across the flattened body of a baby squirrel, and remembered that early spring morning when the baby – tentative, exposed to the challenges of her climbing, leaping life – was given her first lesson.  I assumed it to be that baby squirrel; perhaps it wasn’t, but the wave of sadness that came over me when I discovered the small, desiccated body was disproportionate both to the size and the import of the creature.  She hadbeen, mere months ago, so willing in her innocence, and perfection and beauty, and this is how I connect with human-caused climate change: it is my sorrow at the loss of innocence and beauty.            ***             The notion to connect The Enormity with beauty first came to my attention through film.  I found myself moved and mobilized by Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, a stunning documentary about James Balog’s multi-year photographic project, recording the melting of the great ice sheets and glaciers across the Arctic due to climate change.  His is a beauty-forward approach, so to speak; a record of the catastrophic changes through images of harrowing beauty.  Years of the great melts are packed into seconds; ancient mountains crumble and melt.   The images convince; we need no further polemic.    

~ the good old days . . . ?

***

 

            The earth’s warming is a scientific, data-driven phenomenon, and again, what does this have to do with me?  I am un-inclined to march, to join, to rally.  There are,  I believe, many ways to engage with these issues so much beyond the self, the family, one’s neighborly relations, even though it feels that direct political action is acclaimed the most powerfully effective.  But I require a jolt of a more personal nature, and this has to do with innocence and beauty.  I am a complete pushover for these – the giant golden spruce that did not request its meeting with the chain saw; the magisterial black-maned lion that did not ask to be shot with both cross bow and rifle, before being skinned and beheaded.

            A very small example of my affinity for innocence and beauty would be this:  a few springs ago, I watched two baby squirrels navigate their entrance into the larger world of tree and sky.  They were tiny and perfect, and completely open to the baffling All around them.  But I also recognized the courage required to negotiate their way out of their nest high up in the hollow of a snag and down the stout trunk toward the relative safety of the branch below them.  It took time and patience for the mother to teach them their claw work and clinging, and ease them toward the perilous descent, head first.  One caught on faster than the other.  The more timid baby darted in and out of the entry, and it took much maternal chatter to persuade the baby to stay outside and keep to its lesson.  I assumed that the lessons progressed accordingly, and that the collection of pests in my garden was happily augmented. 

            Then in late summer, when plant life withered and crisped, I came across the flattened body of a baby squirrel, and remembered that early spring morning when the baby – tentative, exposed to the challenges of her climbing, leaping life – was given her first lesson.  I assumed it to be that baby squirrel; perhaps it wasn’t, but the wave of sadness that came over me when I discovered the small, desiccated body was disproportionate both to the size and the import of the creature.  She hadbeen, mere months ago, so willing in her innocence, and perfection and beauty, and this is how I connect with human-caused climate change: it is my sorrow at the loss of innocence and beauty.           

***

            The notion to connect The Enormity with beauty first came to my attention through film.  I found myself moved and mobilized by Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, a stunning documentary about James Balog’s multi-year photographic project, recording the melting of the great ice sheets and glaciers across the Arctic due to climate change.  His is a beauty-forward approach, so to speak; a record of the catastrophic changes through images of harrowing beauty.  Years of the great melts are packed into seconds; ancient mountains crumble and melt.   The images convince; we need no further polemic.

   

***               I look to the garden again, and think of the spring arrival of migration species – the swallows, the grosbeaks, thrushes, among many more.   When will the butterflies come?  What have I put in the garden to attract them?  Nothing that I know of.  I reach for the catalogue, recently come ~ Buddleia (page 74), “ ‘Little Angel,’ Butterfly Bush and Pollinator attractor.”  Ah. The Enormity recedes in the vibrancy and variety within the catalogue pages.  The order’s placed.  A small step taken.  

***

 

            I look to the garden again, and think of the spring arrival of migration species – the swallows, the grosbeaks, thrushes, among many more.   When will the butterflies come?  What have I put in the garden to attract them?  Nothing that I know of.  I reach for the catalogue, recently come ~ Buddleia (page 74), “ ‘Little Angel,’ Butterfly Bush and Pollinator attractor.”  Ah. The Enormity recedes in the vibrancy and variety within the catalogue pages.  The order’s placed.  A small step taken.

 

May 2017

May 2017

Inspired By . . .

Inspired By . . .

Several months ago, I was asked by She Writes Press, my publisher, to contribute to their monthly blog, "Inspired By."  This is modeled, I believe, on The New York Times Book Review's  "By the Book," a weekly series the point of which is to coax authorial minutia --  of interest only to us book geeks -- from their featured authors.  In that spirit, I offer my own. Disclosure:  I had nothing to do with the questions.

 

 

The Flying Lesson

 Our older daughter (or more accurately, my wife’s.  I am the putative step) is pregnant with her first child.  This, for me, invites a flood of complicated issues.  I was a bastard; am.  Spawn of Phyllis Esther Giammatteo and Edgar Nehemiah Osborn – Bristol, Connecticut, coupling somewhere, sometime in August, 1947; child as scourge, bearing the taint of parental sin.   I emerged, baffled, the product of ambivalence, at best.  All I know of my mother’s feelings attaching to my father’s memory is this eruption, shared thirty years ago in her small car:  What do you want to know about him for?

About the baby, I want to be glad, unequivocally.  Among other reasons, this:  it’s become an adage how healthy it is to gather children ‘round one in the twilight years, and believe this.  I can imagine the good and natural fit of an infant in my arms, and delighting in the interplay of teensy toes and giant fingers.  A kind of primate interdigitating might be the fortuitous term.

 I used to feign revulsion, revile the insane silliness of the word – babyBay-Beee!  Having begun unwelcome in the world, how could I say, “Welcome?”  I can still feel myself tottery in the world, my attachment, haphazard and flimsy.            

 I feel bad about this, and captious.  The idiosyncratic torments stop me in my tracks.  I rush to the internet for answers.  Is there a baby venue in which to volunteer?  The first thing that pops up is:  No, you can't actually volunteer to be a baby cuddler; sorry.

***

 I did not have it in me to make another person.  A circumstance might present itself in the form of a steady boyfriend, a stint of casual sex, a near rape, but the ultimate threat to my good girl standing would always be averted.  I have been disinclined to relate at all to the whole regenerative, messy miracle forever.

***

A Little Naturalist’s Interlude

 Yesterday morning, I looked out through the French Doors into the back garden as a blur of jays swooped back and forth from low hanging branches, randomly, it seemed. Of the birds visiting our garden – the finches and swallows; flickers and crows; sparrows; chickadees and robins – Steller’s jays stand out as the guests most badly behaved and raucous. They overtake our yard with the  entitlement of an occupying army.  Their “songs” are especially combative.  It can hardly be said that they sing.  Even crows are more possessed of “song.”  The Steller’s jay exhibits pure, histrionic reactivity, a barrage of “Hah!  I see you, you are there, The Terrifying Other, and I'll get you for that!” 

 

 

 

 One broke from the blur and landed on the splintered, weathered deck, and wobbled.  Was it injured?  It blinked and hunched.  Its feathers, not mature enough to imbricate distinctly, had the texture of down.  The tail, foreshortened, was speckled with white, like snow.  The crest remained a soft gray, not yet the hard and clownish cone sported in adulthood.  It was a soft, diminutive pompadour, a “practice” crest, a check mark of a thing.  It was a juvenile, a fledgling.  It hopped closer to the French Doors behind which, I, too, hunched.  It hopped crookedly, a hiccough sort of gait.  Each hop tilted it off balance; it had to correct – hop-tilt-correct – and then, because it had no notion of the thing, it hopped against the window, and fell back, stunned.  I peered over the doorframe; again it self-corrected, and I placed my hand on the glass to indicate that this invisible substance against which it had knocked itself silly, was, indeed, a barrier, a wall, to not attempt to fling itself through.  It blinked, holding steady in the reflection of my hand; did not cower at my bigger being looming through this invisible substance, although the parents (for now, I recognized the squawking, swooping jays as such) set up an even fiercer racket, which the young bird seemed happy to ignore.  We looked at each other.   I realized that as yet without the association of human with harm, it expressed mere curiosity.  I was as neutral as the star magnolia, the snag, the lovely medium of morning air, and this made me happy.             

Clearly what was unfolding in the yard was a flying lesson, and according to my human sense of time, it was not going well.   At least, it was not proceeding in a linear fashion.  The young bird could not get the hang of flight; it would flap and flutter, managing to scrape itself across the scabrous plane, and then stop, wings asymmetrically outstretched as if trying to make itself a tent under which to huddle.  There it stalled, panting.  The parents taunted and scolded in a didactic way, while their adolescent, thus harangued,  glowered`.  I could tell it was wishing for different parents.  If only they would go away, its posture seemed to say, let it commiserate with its infinitely cooler friends, peck at what wanted pecking at,  experiment.   I wanted to warn the parents: “You will regret this, looking back – your shrill carping, your cloying imperatives.  You will find out, too late, how terrible it is to be a mother.  Look at all the brokenness and blame.”

These projections come too quickly into mind, and suggest myquandary – is this how I would parent?  Grandparent, I mean, although, as a verb, that’s not yet in the lexicon of nurture.

            And what is it to be a grandparent, when:

                        one has never been a parent?

                        one is adopted, without kin?

                        one is un-sibling’d, and thus has not learned to play nicely with others?

                        one is frightened, unsure that the gift of one’s love will fit.  Is it a pretty color, or     even really wanted?

The next time I looked out, the young bird had gotten itself up onto the rim of a tall, ceramic planter.  Its hop would have had to be mighty.  Had it managed to fly up there, instead?  It grasped the rim firmly.  It was not counting the minutes, judging its progress or performance against any set notion of time – “I will perch here for the next three minutes, then try to fly again, and if I don’t make it to the lower branch of the maple in the next ten minutes, I’ll go get a burger.“  The young bird would hang out on the rim until, seized by whatever impulse, or inner knowledge or parental prompt, it simply would move on.  Then I caught sight of another, and another.

 The next morning, I observed that progress had been made.   A clatter in the branches revealed blue wings slicing the air, and there followed the assault of parental scolding.  A little further up into the tangle of the Western red cedars, three young jays practiced flight with equanimity.  Startled by my presence, they fluttered toward the ground like leaves.

***

I haven’t seen them for a week now.  Engaged observing led me to attach, and then, they disappeared.   I had hoped to woo them with peanuts;  had imagined courting one of the babies, getting it to land on my finger.  But gone they are, and with them, my engaged observing.  So I will offer you some jay bird facts instead.

Steller Facts

 Among the crew of Commander Captain Vitus Jonassen Bering in 1740, was the birds’ namesake, Georg Steller, avid naturalist and surgeon.  He first encountered his jay on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Steller was said to inflict his naturalist’s enthusiasm on a crew hostile to it.  Crew was loathe to slow for science, and science’s love of obsessive collecting and elitist observation.  Scientific folly, crew thought it.  Progress would soon be halted, however, by forces greater than disdain.  The ship, the St. Peter, partially wrecked by winter storms, foundered and all were marooned on a barren, rocky island later named for the captain, who, alas, expired on it.

Come spring, the crew lashed together a sort-of vessel from their broken ship, forbidding Steller to bring his samples.  About jays, these observations have been made. 

They do not play nicely.   They will steal eggs and the cute, tiny babies from everyone else’s nests, and shoulder away their competition at the feeder.  They will attack and kill smaller adults.  The Pygmy Nuthatch.  The Dark-eyed Junco.  Their vocal repertoire is a-sonorously virtuosic; they mimic a wild assortment of unrelated things –  other birds, squirrels, cats, dogs, chickens, and mechanical objects.  The latter they reserve consistently for me.  They will eat what a dog will eat -  small animals, eggs, and nestlings; insects, seeds, berries.  And like a dog, they will go for your garbage and your picnic.  Despite their piggy bullying ways, they get along with each other, unlike humans, and happily join mixed-species flocks. Like a particular neighbor of mine,  they keep up a running commentary on people, places and things in enthusiastically negative tones.  I always feel keenly critiqued in my garden when the jays are about:  “Look what she’s wearing now,” or “I hate the way she chews with her mouth open.”   They will mob other bullies, and like humans, self righteously self-exonerate.

***

Glad Conflation

 When I skied, I’d sometimes go off trail, in amongst the hemlocks and the pines and in deep silence.  Sometimes I’d pause and absorb the softness all around – sky above, a little snow might be falling, and white below, snow sleeving the many boughs.  The muffled sounds of skiers and lifts created the illusion of an acoustical gray.  Out of this might grow a soft muffle, which took shape and sharpened – a mountain jay crafted out of  the white and the gray surround.  Its flight made gentle, swooping arcs.  It dove gracefully, swooped up, and landed on the grip of my ski pole.  In silence we studied.  I was the more startled. 

This graceful swooping, this riding on invisible waves of the air is how I will, or might approach the role, now, of parent – no, of grandparent, which I am told, is different.  Swoop – up and a little away:  I receive the news.  Swoop – closer, but with caution: I make contact with the news, attempting to land on the grip of my planted pole, touching the cold resistance.  Swoop – closer still: I join in the preparation for the baby.  What finer attention can be paid than a joyful preparation? 

Regarding the jays, I might have gotten it wrong.  Maybe they’re saying, “Joi.  Joi.  Joi” – you know, with a French Canadian accent. 

Baby anythings look baffled, a little tipsy, open to astonishment, that harbinger of terror and of joy.  To live like this,  unfiltered must once have been my provenance.  Perhaps that’s why one gazes, with longing and a kind of healing wonder, at baby anythings.

Swoop.  Have you seen them fly?  They are graceful fliers, not ragged, like crows, or like the thrush, swift, strong and direct, or like finches, rowing themselves through turbulent air.

Whatever

 

A FACE APPEARED

I was volunteering at Town Hall. The event was Diane Rehm onstage, in interview about her recent book, On My Own, a memoir of her husband’s dying. Because for her – for them – the dying transmogrified into a preventable ordeal, she’d become an advocate of choice, the choice, if faced with chronic disease and subsequent dissolution, to end one’s life.

The small space teemed and emptied, teemed and emptied as the crowd found its way to the reception or the stairways up to The Great Hall. The process, in spite of my oh-so-not-an-Apple-product was going smoothly, when into my frame – the upper right quadrant – appeared the crooked face of a very old man-cum-stork – bent and beseeching. The teeth contributed to the crooked aspect of his face, the lower jaw, thrust forward as if off its hinge, revealing a line of teeth, unsymmetrical and some were missing.

I recoiled, sad to say.

He was not badly put together – navy blue London Fog; clean shirt and a properly knotted tie. At the same time, mental dishevelment had landed in his body.

“May I scan your ticket?” I asked.

Confused, he said, “Where can I get the hand-outs?”

“Hand-outs?” I replied.

“They said so in the paper. And then I heard on the radio today that I could get the information here, tonight, about . . . something, oh, I can’t remember – compassion and . . . I think there was an and . . . compassion and, well, about choosing to die, I think.”

“Diane Rehm will probably address that, but I don’t know about the hand-outs,” I said. “You can get a copy of her book over there, on that table,” I pointed across the lobby.

“Oh, books, I don’t need more books,” he waved an imagined cloud of gnats away from between our faces, now disconcertingly close. He did not smell, and, sad to say, this I had expected. “I could write as many books about that,” he said.

I put down my scanner.   “Would it be Compassion and Choices you mean?” I asked.

“Why, yes, I think so.”

“Death with Dignity?” I continued, and his face brightened.

I indicated the table, festooned with piles of information about Town Hall membership, programs and the like. “Let’s go see if there is more of a description of what she’ll be discussing,” I said. “And if there will be hand-outs.”

“Who?”

“Diane Rehm.” I took his elbow and we shuffled to the table. He was very old. I wondered that he was unaccompanied. Still agitated, he pointed to the picture that appeared in Town Hall’s calendar.

“Yes, that’s her,” he said accusingly. “That was the picture in the paper, damned paper. It said there would be hand-outs and flyers about Compassion . . . with . . . Compassion . . . .”

“And, “ I said, “and choices.”

It struck me that we were having some kind of significant moment, about which what to do remained unclear. I reached for a piece of paper, that I might write down the names of those various organizations I was familiar with in the area of death and dying, and instructing how to do the latter with intention.

“Do you have a computer?” I asked.

“No,” he said, fumbling with a flyer.

I paused, defeated. “Do you have access to a computer?” I asked, knowing better.

“No.”

Well, here it was – his need confronting the event that would talk about the need but not fulfill it.

He had no computer. And no companion. But he had the need of a flyer, a hand-out on how to execute a choice, the choice for what remained inferred, and unspoken.

“Is there an elevator?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and re-claimed his elbow and we shuffled back across the lobby.

That he did not have a ticket ceased to matter. I pressed the button, summoning his ride. He turned, then, his stork-tall stoop straightened, “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for your help.”

Touched, because I had given so little – a bit of attention; the effort my words made to enter his lowered ear – and because his need had propelled him out on this late-February evening, alone, confused, in search of hand-outs. Would he find, in this onstage interview, anything of use?

I hoped so.

I wondered how further I could have helped him. His Thank you settled in my heart for a little while. I returned to my station.

 

 

The ARC OF MY ARCS

My manuscript, after many months of working with the publisher, the editor, the team, now mostly fledged, has arrived in the form of bound copies, called in the business, ARCs – Advanced Readers’ Copies. I was certain that seeing my book in genuine, legitimate print would be a high point among my various satisfactions, but when the box arrived, slightly before or after Christmas, and slightly smaller than expected, I slid into an odd indifference that bordered on disgust. Placing the box on the dining room table, I muttered to my wife, “The ARCs have come” – not my ARCs, but the. For weeks, the box remained unopened. It could have been that my mood was bad, I don’t recall; the holidays from Thanksgiving through the New Year are a vicissitude – the worry that follows routines, suspended; the bitter grief, again, of too little money; memories of my father’s stunning demise several years ago, keeping dreadful company with every major holiday from Thanksgiving to MLK Day, and the parts we, my wife and I, played in it; the gathering and drinking and feasting and basking in the gratitude for family; the suffocating phases of the familial press. Maybe the timing was off for the happy receipt of the ARCs, because there the box remained, unopened, uncelebrated, uncertain.

From time to time, I’d glance at the box with a tremor of anticipation as if it were a great hen about to hatch her egg. I might even have patted it as I made my way from couch to kitchen. It did not occur to me to fetch the box cutter and slice through the tape. Finally, tuning into the oddness of this indifference, I willed myself to slice. Under layers of merry bubble wrap they lay, stacked crisply, the ARCs

“Look,” I whispered to my wife. She produced a gratifyingly sincere enthusiasm, and I resumed my mood.

Weeks later, the box remains on the dining room table.

My life has not changed

I thought it would.

This is gonna change your life!

 

What could I possibly mean by that? What do I think I wanted? Was it my

expectation, upon receiving this glad bundle, to feel a joy associated with motherhood?

Birth metaphors attach to creating a work of art – the long gestation, the prolonged disciplinary phases and parental ministrations as the work matures; finally giving birth. One had presumed this satisfying and neat trajectory, and with the birth, a turning toward the balm of welcome and celebration. But what of the mother who turns, instead, away from her newborn, unable to attach or celebrate?

I am thinking of a cat I once tended. She was not mine, but the care of her fell to me, as my partner then, so very many years ago, was a pet owner for whom benign neglect described her caring. This cat had become pregnant once again. We lived, then, in an ugly, unkempt, little house that squatted in a damp valley. Inside, the cat had found a drawer hanging crookedly from the frame of a broken bureau, and there, amidst scattered socks and underclothing, she expelled her litter. It was the mewing that cued us into the new life that had just occurred. She had them, and then left them – hairless, cold, too tiny even to mew correctly, their mouths, pinholes at the end of undeveloped jaws. We had to drown them, and that was not an easy thing:

. because life, even in this premature, pre-born-born-anyway state runs fiercely;

. because they were creepy to the touch – cold, hairless and squirmy;

. because a drowning vessel did not come easily to hand. We had to scavenge  an old pressure cooker:

Remember the days?

She, Puff, the mother, disappeared for a couple of days. When she returned, matted and gaunt, she had about her an aura of despair and hopelessness.   I did not love this cat, but I appreciated the honesty of her emotions.

What of the mother who turns away from her offspring, her infant, her work? That is what my relationship to the box of the/my ARCs suggested. Their arrival did not change my life, only revealed what I had hoped they would accomplish for it –my legitimacy, my welcome in and to the world, my place at the table.

 

 

***

The indifference that borders on disgust constitutes a defense against rejection; I discovered, therefore, being drawn to the preemptive: I will get there first with my disgust; I will be the first to reject this, my thing, my work, nearly fledged. I will reconfirm its/myplace outside the circle, before the world can sink its talons.

Oh, dear god.

I tell myself, “This is my table. I can set my place.”

There is work still to be done.

 

 

 

 

 

IT'S A VERY SHORT TRIP

I have a friend approaching eighty, Phyllis, of over thirty years, an artist, an artist of life, as well, the sort of person who enters a room on high alert, esthetics-antennae a-quiver. Without bothering to ask, she will, to your horror, rearrange your living room, and then to your surprise, you will feel grateful. She sees the possibility of the tablehere, in the improbable middle of your room; the brightly patterned throw not there, (it is bunched up in a sloppy corner), but here, lending the sofa new warmth, and a draped elegance.

 

 

Phyllis once offered a strategy for aging.

When she turned thirty, she began to ask older friends what the salient insights and episodes had been, in recollecting the decade she had just entered.

Thirty brought the giddy realization that people might actually listen to what you had to say.

Forty brought the thrill of being sexually vibrant.

Fifty brought the freedom from having to prove it.

Sixty brought relieving self acceptance.

Seventy finally brought the acceptance of others, specifically, one’s spouse.

She has yet to receive bulletins from the frontier of the eighties.

This made me wonder if my aging might be approached in a spirit similar to rearranging the living room.

For several years, my subject has been aging. The subjects of my study, whom I chose, provided myriad negative examples. I was struck by the surprise they expressed at finding themselves old.   Believing themselves without choices or agency (and at their ages, and in their states, they mostly were), they had ended up suddenly in The Bog of Loss – the car keys, the friends, the physical strength, the mental sharpness.

Great Bog of Loss

 My grandmother, in her eighties, sat weeping on her nubbly, ivory-colored couch. She believed herself to be abandoned, imprisoned in The Home, stuck there, and betrayed. Her daughter, Betty, my mum, flayed by Grammy’s paranoia, could only say, “I’m sorry, Mother, no” over and over each time she begged to come live with us, with no spare room to spare, in our family home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Once I believed her to be Wise and Kind. Of course, I would come to see that she was exceptional at neither – just a person shaped by circumstances, imprisoned, as are we all, by the flaws she could neither articulate nor master.

On her ivory-colored couch, in a beige frock with lace strained over the bodice, only half zipped up in back, she wept, in some horrid, transitional space between the keen realization of what was lost, and dying.

 

It was a humid Pennsylvania August.   Even a jog up a pleasant country road offered no relief from that, or her leaden sorrow, which did not lift, but lowered and grayed like the storm clouds that finally broke through. Once I loved her fiercely – her clever Easter baskets piled with Hershey Kisses and onion skin died eggs; her tawdry, albeit beautifully executed crafts; the astonishing plethora of Pennsylvania Dutch foods and extravagant holiday dinners, her occasional eruptions of “Scheisse!” were a dish found chipped or broken, or a puff of dust discovered on the kitchen floor. She had an appetite for life, and from the physical realm, drank deeply, unlike her daughter, who took shallow, wary sips.

The vibrancy did not sustain; does it ever?

What would have kept her vibrant? Not her intractable desire, nor her losing pact with change.

***

At sixty-seven I know I’m not old; I’m just setting out on the journey. I pay attention to my health, following rules of omission and commission. Like: don’t smoke; like: do meditation. I maintain a cautious outlook regarding panaceas. I do not like, or believe in, for example, kale. Of course, there is the exhortation toward healthy exercise and diet. Fitbits and kale; hot Pilates and Nordic oils. The more I try, however, to focus on this, the experience itself – my aging – the more baffled I become. What is it to age well?

I haven’t been forbidden this study of aging, dying, death, but it’s not exactly like those subjects were on offer at Moravian Prep in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or hot topics at the dinner table, or encouraged at Lake Erie College for Women in Painesville, Ohio. Regarding the latter, quite the contrary. It was 1966, and high tea was still served in the Green Room, where we – the wives and mothers in training – would gather, formally garbed and gloved, learning the art of Mingle, Small Talk and Self Effacement. The Arts of Death and Dying were not among the offerings.

No, at sixty-seven, I am hardly old. I worry that how I go about my study, with assiduity and zeal, will cause me to prematurely age, that tomorrow, for example, I’ll wake up an actualized seventy-eight-sixty-seven-year old.   Where would that stop, once started? Would it be like that awful Gilford Progeria Syndrome, only existentially, not genetically triggered?

 In the nomenclature of elderhood, there is, phrase – Aging in Place. A noble concept: let us, as we creep toward Elderhood, do so in the comfort of our homes. But the phrase sounds calcifying, as if one will turn incrementally into a pillar of salt. We will feel ourselves freeze; our joints will lock, our eyes grow marmoreal, our feet become one with the floor. Stolid but upright, we age in place.

Seriously, when I try to think about aging well, my mind draws a blank, and I struggle to find or define a formula: age-appropriate exercise plus community engagement, minus isolation and tequila = brain health and the postponement of Depends. We are all different, and so your formula will be unique to you. But we are all moving in our individual paces toward death, the victory of our animal carcass over our mental recoiling.

There is a delicate, old woman whom I see, who takes her tea and a pastry in the neighborhood coffee shop. I study her as if I’m pulling on aging’s character and features. I notice a fastidiousness of gesture, which I will come to recognize, upon closer observation, as a tentative holding of herself in space. She sits at a small, zinc topped table, facing the street. It is early fall and she is dressed for the weather – beige trench coat in the style of a London Fog, creased, wool slacks, scarf. Her hair, snowy and kempt, is up in a chignon. She is pink and white, blue eyes in a lovely face, sweet; alone, an elderly woman having tea and a pasty by herself, not reading, not keen, it seems, to engage or draw attention to herself.

She lifts the pastry to her lips and chews slowly. All movement is slow, and each function takes its turn under the scrutiny of attention – chew, swallow, breathe, lift cup to lips, sip, bite, chew, swallow. Each act separates into an autonomous gesture, and after each comes a pause, a recovery, a restoration.

She walks without an aid, but cautiously. Rising to clear her cup and plate, her steps are deliberate and tiny. Concentration is required to stay upright. Her eyes pull her toward the goal, a side board across the table-littered room, where patrons deposit spent napkins and emptied vessels and plates into tubs, or help themselves to water, and above which a bulletin board signals with its clutter of informational debris.

 

An elegant, old woman, takes herself to tea. She walks back to her table slowly and with determination, arms raised before her, bent at the elbow, hands reaching out into space, pulling her toward the next goal, her table, where her purse waits. I am tempted to insert myself and address her; break through the barrier between observer and observed so that my impressions can land in the actual person.   Who is she? What is her experience?

Her fragile launch from table to pastry counter, which she leans on, choosing among the goodies. Will the brief communication with the counter “girl” or “boy” afford her meaningful social contact? Where will she go after? To the small, neighborhood grocery down the block; to a car? This seems unlikely.

The slow, deliberate movement through space, aided by arms and hands; the gaze, like her extended arms, in the service of drawing her forward. This is where we’re headed. For many of us, there has been revealed no path. And so, this is how we practice.

***

I am afraid of growing old. I am afraid of dying.  There are Tibetan practices to help with this, to transform this small minded, ego-imprisoning view into one of liberation. This requires study and skill and finding the right teacher and a belief in reincarnation. But when I think about it, what in life is more important than “doing” this last phase richly and right? And what is the “doing?”

Maybe this: talking about the experience; sharing concerns; taking up time  and space, and staying visible.

***

 If the final task in the life span is, as Erik Erikson believes, one of ego integration, then the culture in general is well served if this final phase is seen as apex, and enrichment. That shifts the image away from walking the plank toward accomplishment of tasks unique to this phase of our living.   But many whom I know of lead their lives in the erroneous assumptions that successfully continuing the tasks of the first half of life is “successful” aging.

Those various elderly clients I worked with both as a companion and later, with a bit of training, as a C.N.A. gave me pause. They were not succeeding at the tasks of aging. They had not successfully continued with their first-half-of-life-busyness, and so they had no ground left to stand on. My over-wrought investigation of “how to age” stems, in part, from witnessing catastrophe, much the way our highly trained earth quake preparedness team leader, Byron who, lucky for us, lives up the street, sees everything as a precursor to natural disaster.

Does it matter that we hydrate and eat healthy? My father did not “believe” in the benefits of drinking water; eschewed green leafy vegetables; if allowed would have lived on pork chops dowsed in pale, thick gravy. His relationship to fresh food consisted of a daily, half-banana or apple sauce or fried onion rings.   He lived to be almost ninety-eight years old, so as far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out when it comes to an absolute causal relationship between an excellent diet and salubrious longevity.

***

Trying to think about, or get inside aging is like trying to get ready for Byron’s earthquake. The Big One. The 9.+ that experts say is just a matter of time. On a recent trip to Boston, I had packed an incongruous assortment of reading material – among which was an article written by Kathryn Schultz published in The New Yorker,entitled “The Really Big One: an earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.” I live in Seattle. It is about Seattle and its surrounding fragility. I forced myself to read it. The details describing the coming quake, defined as the Cascadian Subduction Zone, were graphic and harrowing. The seismic history of the region connected me with my acute puniness in the enormous geologic scale of things. That’s okay. It’s important to understand your speck status in the universe. The article was riveting People moved away. A friend of a friend picked her family up and moved them to Spokane.

I have been writing and thinking about aging for over a decade now. I have read books, taken trainings, created classes.   I have put my experience of aging in the context of spiritual practice, or tried to, and all of that is just not the same as actually living it, getting it down into the strata of tissue and bones. While reading Kathryn Schultz’s piece, I found myself profoundly unsettled. It made me picture the force of the catastrophe, its devastation, and touch the terrible truth – at least the fringe of it.   There is no solid ground, and I cannot control any of what happens. I am toast, tossed, a fleck – pounded, broken. I am so upset by this that I can’t even keep my images and verbs coherent; this terrifying scenario is on a par with what I feel about my aging. It is my body’s earthquake and reading Schultz, I rattled around in the womb of my devastation.

Disturbance has much to teach me.

***

Do not squander your life, the Zen Night Prayer cautions. I have knocked tenaciously, repeatedly, figuratively at these temple gates in order to learn how not to squander, or to recognize when I do. As I approach seventy, though, I feel an intensifying panic. One cause is my aging; the bigger one, my death.   In the time left, I’d prefer to excise my panic.

 

 

My panic is predatory, a panther that has stalked me forever, so I may be straining to correlate panic with aging, panic with death. It may be really just what I contain: panic with its meaty breath and menacing paws – a part of me, like my crooked incisor, widow’s peak, skinny wrists and ankles, excess energy. Something bequeathed early in dark infancy, between the mothers.

A couple of years ago, I found myself looking at friends who were older than I by a decade – women who had been stunning in their younger years, and thinking, “Sexy. Still.” Not like thirty, of course; their appeal had to do with being wonderfully comfortable in their skins, merry in the evenness of their gazes. There had been won a freedom from the construct of femininity. They were women in their seventies, these friends. I can not say that such confidence and evenness of the gaze will follow into the nineties. Maybe this is a panther fear; loss won’t be warded off for much longer.

Aging, when perceived as dwindling and decline ruins the whole trajectory. Birth to the final wrap – all is cheapened.   It’s surely not enough to shrug and assign mystery the larger meaning, although there is much that we can’t know. My friend, Phyllis says, “I honestly don’t think we’re supposed to know. I only know that it’s a very short trip.”

Ars Moriendi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WE HAD TO KILL THE CAT

Meulogy

 

The cat’s head is a knob sheathed in velvet; she is all boney hips and shoulders, her tail, now pulled behind her, parallels the floor as she walks, no longer that marvel of punctuation.  We love her and she’s dying.  This is wrenching, trivial, the time and tide of things.  It is Kitty’s last day, Miss Kitty Mitten’s.  Of course, she doesn’t know it.  Who would want to know?  She has no idea what separates one day from any other, drivenby habits and needs.  When the vitality or will with which to satisfy them diminishes, we will know it’s time to let her go.

The vet has interpreted the sonogram;  various organs show “thickening.”  The diagnosis is lymphoma.  It’s decommissioned her eating/drinking apparatus.  She dwindles – sweetly, it appears, does not complain, seems not to suffer.   But something looks off.  She props herself, rests her chin on a pile of folded laundry.  Noting that, we see that she’s having trouble swallowing, just sitting there.  Her curious positions suggest that she’s trying to settle her organs around pain.   Although lifting the small tuft of her, she doesn’t resist or cry, we know by her curious repositionings that comfort eludes her.

Today is the day we have determined for two reasons.  The first is love.  With our untrained touch, we keep fiddling with her discomfort.  The ambiguity of when to put her down is awful – put her down – a conflating phrase, as one puts down the baby for a nap.  Whenever I hear that said about the baby, I want to say, “No, don’t’ do that.  Please!”

Oh, the second reason:  it’s when the vet can do it.  Today is Thursday, euthanasia day.

I will miss my cat.  I already do.  Yesterday we said good bye many times together.  She would appear from a shady patch in the garden, and hop up onto my chair and hold on.  Today is Kitty’s last day.  Her eyes seem a little slower to respond to light and movement.  Her spine feels like rigid hills and sharp divots.  My old cat, who even in decrepitude looks fresh and young, sniffing this and that, decorously entitled.

There is a tiny smile

***

There is, of course, a kinder way of saying it, but in the end, this is how it felt –  that we had to kill the cat.

I will see her in so many places – turning from the hall into the living room her now boney saunter.  It would not occur to her that she would be unwelcome. There is no hurry in her step.  Her place is never questioned.  She does not enter a room in a fit of social un-ease, looking around for the drinks tray, worried that there will be nothing to add to a conversation.  She turns the corner like a precision instrument, tail once again erect, and approaches the couch and her place beside me.  Up with a slight launch and a soft landing.  We called the plush fur plumping her haunches pantalones, because they looked like little puffs of pants atop the slenderness of leg and ankle.  Departing a room, the tail might twitch, as each hip paused between steps so that she looked flirtatious, as if issuing a seductive dare to rise up from the couch, and follow.  I would always regard Kitty’s exit from the room with awe.

I see her in all of the places where we accompanied each other – the morning couch; the studio in which she made her rounds – table top for kibble; under the computer desk for pats and assurance; high desk top, where she surveyed the unkempt piles of bills and correspondances, and philosophized on time as it would get recorded in the oversized Week-at-a-Glance.  We greatly benefited each other.

She could be very supportive.

I know,  so much of pet adoration is the projection of human need, or whimsy.  Did the cat need reassurance?  When, from under the computer desk I felt soft paw tap bare leg, what did that, from the cat’s point of view, signify?

I see her in elegant positions all over the place, the shapes she makes, on her pad, on the bed, one arm flung over her eyes, as if it is all too much, this experiment with humans, the shared fates, the dis-commingling needs, schedules, and agendas.  The duplicitous insult of the dog.  Humans, with their terrible, clattering machines.  But there are wonderful things to savor – sipping from a tub full of bath salts, soap scum, floating hairs, a pink, glistening human happy to share the riches.

***

Diva

 There was a neighbor cat named, Groucho, owned by a plump old woman who lived across the street.  We would marvel that he continued to show up – alive, robust – as she forgot, from time to time, that she had a cat, and thus, that he had outwitted being run over.  Groucho was a big cat, a tuxedo, with medium long fur, and personable.  He visited regularly, finding our garden and our cat of interest.  At first, because he was so big and she, Miss Kitty Mitten, by comparison, so tiny, I was disconcerted by his visits.  But they seemed fine together, content mostly to exhibit curious regard, with an occasional, decorous closing of the space between them.  He had a distinct mustache and a neat goatee, and his paws were white, like boots and mittens. 

 

 

 

 

One morning, from the back deck, I heard a cry, a loud, operatic issue. On the deck, Miss Kitty Mitten writhed, heaving herself from side to side. Her wail had a lot of diaphragm to it. She writhed, belly up, stretching her limbs in full extension, and then curled herself into a circle, and flopped herself over. She performed this many times as Groucho, formal in his tuxedo, looked on. What was the cause of this behavior? Her writhing seemed unattached to reason.

Did I see him twitch his mustache at her, and wink? Did he give some kind of cue that set her writhing?

 

 

 

 

I came to understand that Kitty was enjoying herself; that Kitty’s time with Groucho had the flavor of an assignation.  There had been an evolution – from the cautious to the curious to the sublime, like a school girl encountering poetry – first, with an aloof regard, then surrender, and then the rapture – behold!  An English Major in the making.

And that is how I learnedthat Miss Kitty had a flair for drama.

***

When putting an animal down, there is a certain movement of the head that suggests the soul exuded from the body in a long breath, gently, slowly, albeit in a second. Life disengages from the body. This is an image that stays with me, one that I regret, as it triggers the guilt of the killer, the kind that admits guilt into the circle, anyway.

In the euthanasia room, she melted into my wife’s lap, anesthetized. Humanely, she had been given a numbing potion so that we could hold and pet her for as long as we all needed, as her consciousness, but not yet life, waned. How quickly, the light drained from her bright eyes.

In four minutes she became a tiny, inert heap, and soon would come the injection to the heart.  As she lay on a light green fleece on the steel examining table, her forearm shaved, the vein pricked and entered, it took a moment for that slow arching of her head, lengthening the spine as her life departed.  And then, gone, the shell, still dear, striped richly.

Perhaps why that final moment – the head tipped back in a slow arch – is so poignant is that it is the picture of life, departing – of the particular spirit of this particular life. It will take a while to delete this image. She was out like a light on a dimmer, on that metal table, presumably at peace on the light green blanket.   I am vastly ignorant about what, if anything, awaits us on the other side.

***

 And then there is the death that comes in cartoon guises – the time Kitty played catch with a head.  I had taken down the long, bright red bird feeder to clean it for use next winter.  It leaned against a wall on the back deck.  In the morning, we discovered, to our chagrin, that a sparrow had gotten its head stuck in the bottom feeder hole, unable to extract itself.  With tiny, gentle, encouraging tugs, we tried to free it.  Guilt-sickened, we retreated to strategize over coffee.  Emerging as hour later, we saw Kitty leaping, frontpaws punching the air,

as something thudded. She rushed, and pounced, tossing. She caught and batted. The sparrow’s head bounced across the deck.

As comic was our horror, animated and instant. Upon recognizing that Kitty was playing toss with a head, we leapt backward, shrieking like little girls whose brother had plastered worms onto some exposed body part. Once again, we retreated, to recover and further caffeinate. Kitty continued to bounce her sparrow ball, the perfect mix of jollity and murder – pirouette, toss, turn, bat. A boredom suddenly descended, and shaking a paw, bringing it up for a quick, grooming lick, she tiptoed into shadow, herself to rest and recover.

A bad day for the bird.

 

***

            Miss Kitty Mitten was supposed to be a bird.

Many years ago, when we were a recently re-configured family – two women and two girls, who had bought a house together, and when some time had passed, and some adjustments made – I thought that a pet would smooth out the lingering rough edges, and bring us closer in.  This required research.  What pet?  Something exotic, I reckoned.  Why, I am not sure.  Dogs and cats remain defaults for a reason.  It occurred to me it might be fun to have a bird.  I’d been charmed by a love bird once, with rose petal pink cheeks and extravagant affection for its human. Research, however, stalled us.  The younger had entered an avid, anti-research phase.  Research, she repeated, sneeringly, as if we – her mother and I, the auxiliary parent figure – had slipped bits of algae and slug eggs into the Cheerios.  Research had become vile, something so beyond revolting, somelightening roddrawing down tempests of the divorce.

One clear, hot day in August, we drove across the water to Denise’s Parrot Place on Mercer Island.  I had floated the idea of a pocket parrot as our family pet.  The girls agreed that a pocket parrot might prove an amusing option.  There had been expressed mild enthusiasm and some cheer.

We walked into a racket and din and a cacophonic chorus.  Talking in a normal decibel range was impossible; even the humans in the Parrot Place were shouting..  There were parrots of all colors and sizes – tiny ones in dull green feathers, in stacked cages; others flashed by in slashes of harsh white or cobalt blue.  There was a terrible cry.  A door was flung open to reveal a Cockatoo the size of a spaniel, commanding and savage, and someone staggered out, bleeding.  She’d been bit, we learned.  And that this was notuncommon.

We joined the mania, the only other choice being to flee.  What bird might satisfy our needs?  We were led to the row of small, stacked cages, in which perched, demurely, the dull green pocket parrots.  Denise lifted one out and stuffed it into her pocket, subject and verb. We were puzzled.  What would one do with such a thing?  Was it capable of affection?  Would it come to its name, when called?  What was the incidence of loss regarding so miniscule a thing?  Denise thought about that, and admitted that sometimes they got stepped on.  Which led to the question of cost.  $500, she told us.

Why would anyone pay $500 for a liability, and one that might not even show gratitude or affection?  You could not hold it in your lap; would it sing, even?  Clearly parrot people were of a group, a genre.  The ten or so romping in the shop were clearly enthusiasts, even those who were bleeding.  They all seemed to be wearing bright Hawaiian print shirts.  There was a lot of hair dyed vigorous reds and brash yellows.  There were voices crying out in jubilation about the attributes of African Grays over Amazonians.  We were out of our depth, and knew it, and so we told Denise we’d think about it and thanked her and drove back across the water, and to safety.

 

We dropped the older girl off at a friend’s house for summer play, and that left the three of us to dangle in the disappointment.  We had not procured a pet, in spite of research.  This put me in the mind, momentarily, of the younger girl’s disdain for it.  I suggested we go to the neighborhood pet store for a final stab at something.  A hamster, maybe.

The pet store in our neighborhood offered cool respite from the dazzling day outside, and it took my eyes a little while to adjust, and when they did, down the shiny corridor sat the tiniest kitten imaginable with a plume of a tail curled around her front paws – a delicate, brown tabby with a diamond face and cheekbones anyone would envy.  She sat outside her cage in a delicacy of curves and stripes and paws and made eye contact with me, I swear it, and –  in this moment that so many of us share, believing that our pets, in some way, choose us – she drew me forward, no hesitation in my step.  She seemed patiently to have been waiting for us to get over the Pocket Parrot nonsense, and leave Denise’s and drive back across the water on that hot day to come and get her, finally.  It took only a moment to decide – one of us was allergic; one still nursed a grudge against research, and had to be assured that what had brought us (except for the older girl; but that is another story) to this moment was completely free of the taint of it.  We gathered what was needed for a kitten kit, and scooped up our new kitten, the first pet that we would have together.  We paid a modest adoption fee – not $500 – and signed some sort of agreement that we would all live happily ever after, which, following one or two more hurdles, we would come to do.

Miss Kitty Mitten, in April, among the

cherry blossoms

 

 

THE DISPOSITION OF REMAINS

***

I once had a friend who hated walking. This I found difficult to understand. Even with a dog, an athletic dog, a dog who favored, when excited, bounding and leaping, my friend’s devotion to the couch remained firm and undisturbed. This became fixed in my mind, a cautionary tale. I feel it’s important, as I age, to note encroaching limitations, discerning which to be submitted to; which challenged. I feel it is important not to hail each arrival of a minor plaint as the firming commitment to one’s decrepitude. So I walk and bike. And garden, and name my aches and pains, aging, that I may understand these to be not temporary and that they will not go away.

I’m thinking of my hips. The joints feel flayed after just an hour’s walking. I used to be able to garden for hours, and haul forty pound bags of this and that, and spread it over the beds, and weed, and prune and plant new treasures. Now after one hour, I stagger. I coach myself: “slow down; pace. Take a break. Drink water.” But I delude myself, believing that if I take my break, sipping water, the condition will pass, and my energy be restored. This is the lie; this, the seduction. My hips, deeply grateful, sink into the hallowed mattress on my precious bed. I lie there, challenged to accept that my full allotment has been used up, and I run the tank toward the red line, announcing, “empty.”  I detect an underlying resistance to it all, and to distract myself from these obtrusive recognitions, turned to doing, remembering my will. It had  been stashed in the freezer for safekeeping, and it was time to update it. This might deliver a nudge toward an incremental acceptance of my fate. I made an appointment with the lawyer.

At the end of the session, I was handed a form entitled, ““Disposition of Remains,” This, I realized, would be me. But the form did not inspire. It merely asked me to check a box, indicating my preference for cremation or burial, and once checked, to whom my ashes or my intact corpse-self should be released to. The form left me bereft of feeling, and implicit seemed the need to bring both thought and feelings to this final project, but how? How?

I hung onto it for weeks before addressing the question, walking it about from place to place – sofa, where I host my morning ponder; computer desk, where I assiduously Google the comparative merits of being buried or burned, intending to rally thought and feeling. But all I seemed able to do was dance around the edges, not able fully to engage a visceral realization that, at some point, I must undertake the project of my dying. Of course, there is a need to bring practicality to The Terrible Choice of whether to be buried or burned. This, though, gives rise to even more impossible questions – can I envision my final, fragile years? Not what will happen, but that it will, and therefore how might I prepare? And does it matter? It seems like preparing to become a stone, or an explosion into flight. Will the envisioned scenario and end-time choices accrue to preparation? Perhaps it is an exercise intending merely to coax the mind and the ego to peel themselves away from plans and worry, and to cozy up with the unknown.

Buried or burned. It sounds so Edgar Allen Poe-ish; first to be addressed, therefore and naturally, is terror. At seven, or ten, terror is solid a presence as a crow. Every night it would hover in the form of witches, gathering underneath my bed, or darting from behind the curtains. Lights off; the Amen of the Lord’s Prayer, uttered, I begged my mother to look thoroughly under the bed, and promise that there lurked no witches. Poe partook, back then, more of documentary and biography than fiction. That certainty of atavistic horror never leaves completely, even as we have managed to circumvent the terror. What forms will terror take with dying?

I look coolly at the words, burial or cremation, and try to bring myself to mind. It is I who will be burned or buried, my former I. How can my living self relate to my dead . . . what? . . . ? Does dead and self present an unbridgeable gap? A self may be gone – that is, exhibit a vacancy of attention, but there still runs electricity and pulse; the dead are emptied of everythinig that accrued to selfdom. There seems more presence in a stone; its essence remains unaltered.

The few corpses I have encountered of pets, of parents provide little guidance. My parents opted to be burned. I never asked them why. I hoped it to indicate a welcome soupcon of progressive thinking. After all, it had been generally believed the better choice regarding conservation of the land. As it turns out, burials in the U.S. use far less land each year than the construction of Wal-Mart’s – 187,000 square feet per store, excluding the astonishing acerage of their parking lots. Even if all of us were buried, it would take over 10,000 years to use up just 1% of America’s land.

I Googled on. An article in The Guardian cited burial actually to be the better choice, environmentally speaking. With cremation, numbers signify, because of the amount of energy required to burn one body – 1400 – 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which can take two to two and a half hours. The amount of gas and electricity used per cremation equals “. . . roughly the same domestic energy demands as a single person for an entire month.” Additionally, mercury pollutants from dental fillings, and formaldehyde and other toxic resins from the coffins are released to dirty up our atmosphere.

FIRE

Outside of an incalculable amount of food cooked, simmered, boiled or burnt on a variety of appliances – hot plates, wood stoves, electric ranges, gas – I do not think often about fire. This seems odd, as I watch myself gathering images and information to mount an argument against being burned. After all, in the beginning, following The Word, came light, which even though God gets more specific in the further down stanzas, suggests the presence of fire, the ultimate fire being, I suppose, the sun. Maybe in a way being burned after death is like being handed up and off to our amazing star. Being part of the sun wouldn’t be such a bad ending.

I remember gentle Pennsylvania summer evenings and the gathering of fireflies, cupped gently in small hands; placed in jars with air holes thoughtfully punched in the lids. They would glow and fade like tiny lanterns.

I remember the power lines in the mountains, where I skied. A long file of towers staggered down the backside of the mountain, strung with sizzling, crackling lines through which electricity coursed. In a blizzard, snow hurled by the wind, it would be impossible to tell up from down; thus, where to point your skis to get off the mountain, and the crackle and hiss of the power lines would orient you, and for a while you might linger, somewhat knowing where you were, and wait for the whiteout to settle.

I remember the furnace room in the childhood house on Sycamore Street in Pennsylvania. An old house, it had a coal room, a big bin of a room, with a small slot cut through the wall high up, where the coal would pour through to form a sooty, shifting hill. Someone had to shovel coal into a bucket to feed the furnace, a great hulking, roaring mass, occupying most of the room adjacent to the coal, allowing space only for a double deep laundry sink and a barrel of Fels Naphtha soap flakes. The furnace was a living thing with appetites that must be satisfied and moods, assuaged. It was a household god, with no saving graces, like kindness or beauty. In exchange for our obedience and placations, we were granted heat, but not quiet, calm heat. Blasting, moody heat that was felt like a grudge.

I like the thought that ignition means getting launched after life, aglow, but I do not want to burn. Once this seemed purifying, but I have grown afraid of fire.

***

Modern cremation began in the late 1800s. Professor Brunetti invented the cremation chamber, debuted at the 1873 Vienna Exposition. Championed by Queen Victoria’s surgeon, and driven by public concern for hygiene and health and church reform of burial practices, crematories slowly began opening in Europe and abroad. The first modern crematory in America was established in Pennsylvania in 1876 by avid pioneer of cremation, Dr. Francis Lemoyne. Operations ceased in 1901, but you could still go see it, in Washington, PA in the southwest corner of the state. The building remains beautifully preserved. Here is a picture: 

There is an interesting and exhaustive article about it, and the good doctor here:

http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/Crematory.html

This might hint at why my parents decided to be burned – for the sake of hygiene and the odd paean to Pennsylvania.   But I can’t help bringing additional, vexing associations, and images of what the flames will do to my body, as if I will be present to the horror to perform the gruesome verbs: crisping, crackling, roasting, steaming, shriveling, blazing, exploding. Will my brains bubble?

Here is how cremation is described on a science blog:                        

The body is subjected to a jet-engine like column of flame, aimed at    the torso. The heat ignites the container and dries the body, which is  composed of 75 percent water. As the soft tissues begin to tighten, burn and vaporize from the heat, the skin becomes waxy, discolors, blisters and splits.  The muscle begins to char, flexing and extending limbs as it tightens. The bones, which are the last to go, become calcified as they are exposed to the   heat and begin to flake or crumble [“How Cremation Works,” Michelle Kim on the science blog, How Stuff Works].

***

 It was the You Tube video that pointed me away from the blaze and toward the meadows. Factual, removed, it showed workers in gowns and masks and gloves. The facility looked tidy. An enshrouded corpse, wrapped like meat paddy, was tipped into the chamber.   At some point in my viewing, I connected the burning body to my life, to me consumed by flame. It might have seemed like a launch, the living helping the dead ignite toward the next great thing. It might have seemed a help, a kindness, even though the film showed the process at a cool remove, and reminded me of 6th grade Health Class and being taught sex and reproduction with the terrible, feigned remove of Mrs. Harry Trend, Health Teacher, as she droned on about eggs and sperm; penis and vagina. How could this be so utterly drained of feeling? She had to be pretending. We all did. Just like at this crematorium, performing this somber task in a posture of Ho Hum, because if with each enshrouded corpse there occurs a sacred touch, a unique caring, how long would each day then be? As long as touch and caring needed, each to each. And yet, as I watched the video of the body burning, I began to cry for the imminence of my life, gone, extinguished. Connection with this lingered for one brief moment before the image of the next procedure broke the spell – bone hunks and shards, raked from the chamber into a slot, before getting pounded and powdered.

LEAP

 I helped put a dog down. Her name was, Juno. She belonged to a friend of mine on the island, a very-all-over-the-place friend with projects that had in common a poor sense of timing, and so for example, the process of adopting her baby girl from India coincided with her decision to build a straw bale house on a slight, dry rise in a wet meadow. So, many details would be dropped in the effort required to juggle these monumental tasks, one of them being action taken on behalf of Juno, who was old, and lame and had become incontinent, a problem in Lynn’s small trailer. The stacked intensities of her plethoric projects sought some kind of release, it would seem, in a more manageable and concrete sorrow, which was the dog. Juno was a mix of husky and Other, which had been settled on as shepherd. Of course that term was code for mixed breed, only some percentage of the mix known. She was, of course, a loyal friend; had accompanied Lynn on her many peregrinations around the Pacific Northwest, together ending up on the island, where Lynn, being possessed of stacked intensities, promptly adopted another dog, Buddy – an enormous, young, badly behaved mix, which she had no time to discipline, and so remained constrained in a large, make-do pen adjacent to the trailer, Juno gloomily and with forbearance looking on.

It was becoming clear that Lynn’s attention needed to be brought to Juno’s decline; that it had gone on too long — months, really – the complaining and worrying about the stiff, collapsing legs; the incontinence (she kept running out of towels, and quarters for the Laundromat), and the time had come to help Juno die.

And so I called the vet. It was arranged that the vet, Kevorkian-like, would bring the kit to a designated spot in the meadow, where we would “help” Juno die, and Lynn, in the way of those who live among their stacked intensities with little ability to contact the feelings between or underneath each, dazed, wandered around the meadow and wove among the studs of her somewhat framed-in house. And the vet came, and it was time to get a blanket and prepare to say, Good-bye. Lynn, still dazed, not entirely in the moment, had a vacant smile and her eyes would not focus. We urged Juno onto the blanket. The vet explained, “. . . a needle to the heart; one or two injections; she will convulse but she won’t suffer; . . . the heart’s response; by then she will be dead.”

I thought, “Okay, here we go. It is horrible and sad, but we have to do it.” I assembled myself to get ready. Lynn still wore her vacant expression. The vet plunged the needle into Juno’s chest. She shuddered, and then gave a great lurch out of herself, the forearms, shoveling forward; the rear legs back, as if leaping out of herself toward the sky. I do not know about heaven, but that is where Juno was aiming.

It was then that I began to think of dogs and maybe all animals as having great hearts, stalwart hearts; hearts that would carry them forever forward in spite of exhaustion and meaningless annoyances, like Buddy.

The body in the end has its say. Will my heart be stalwart? Can it be said that the heart doesn’t know when to quit?

Juno’s heart seemed great. It didn’t quit for a while. We sat cross legged, and held her until her heart stopped, and we launched her on her journey.

EARTH

  Pondering mortality and finitude makes me restless, hungry to grab at life.   It is early

spring. The buds on pear, lilac, maple, viburnum, cherry swell so slowly they torture one’s anticipation and delight.  The bulbs pulse; push salaciously through the soils, compacted by the winter rains and snow. How tall can the blades of the daffodils reach before exploding into flower? It is difficult to bear these feelings alone, on the worn couch by the fire. The surge of life and appetite make me want to reach out and join with others.

Is it fear of my aging-dying-death that emerges as I attempt to address The Disposition? I like to think of gladdening the earth with my remains; to anticipating a joyful dissolution – skin and bones and all parts of me – leaching into soils; the matted rhizomatous irises and lilies; the entangled roots of established trees, like their crowns, upended. I like to think of dissolving into the vast network of great organic teeming.

Instead I feel lonely, confined to my living room and sofa, the cushion I have sat on for the six years of the sofa’s life, threadbare now, although I’ve made a fire, lit some candles, and the gray morning is still of an early enough hour to feel fresh.   I am actively, acutely grateful for the coffee, and the delivery of fire wood scheduled for mid-morning; the music – Bach’s Missa in G minor; the dog, shuffling from rug to bare floor, finally settled down, curled inside her tail. Even though it is pleasant and safe, I am saddened in this question, this process, this future: my aging-dying-death. It is better done in a group, a group of peers, sitting around a parson’s table, doughnuts and mugs of coffee or creamy tea, discussing this together, trying to imagine is it even possible to be ready to say, “Good-bye?” Even my wife doesn’t know how sad I am to die.

Disposition of remains. What remains? Who? Asked to think about where I should put my former self, I think about places, or a place I love, and envy those for whom the answer arrives quickly. For my parents, where was no hesitation. Nisky Hill Cemetery, overlooking the desultory Lehigh River across which loomed the blast furnaces that melted pig iron as it made its way toward steel. My father’s life was steel, and metals and the oaky hillside, topped by his sprawling laboratory. I don’t know how my mother felt about her spot in Nisky Hill. It might have mattered. She arrived first.

I will try to imagine where I want my body lain, my hole dug. If necessary, I will get permission. I will hope for good weather; plan for a death in spring or early fall. I will be wrapped and carried; delivered to my hole. My future self will be as compost. I am a gardener, after all. I think of a slow transition from the last breath I take to the loam I will become. I don’t care much about dignity once I’m out of here, out of my mind and my body, because it is a little funny – my shape, trussed like a mummy. Soon my linen shroud will get dirty, its pristine white will absorb the moisture from the soil, and will look dipped, like a biscotti in cappuccino.

I do know I don’t want to be alone or unvisited in my spot, although is that a projection launched from now, or some wisdom beyond the grave that I know already? I want visitors; I want to be buried with my wife. I feel strongly on these matters. But where? I do not have a Spot, a place that calls me.

Please come and visit me.

Where remains an issue. It can’t be in my garden. There will be new owners at some point, and what a disinclination for a prospective buyer to discover there are bodies buried there. How would one even approach a revision to the landscape?

When I sleep, I think of dying, or when I think of dying, sleep will come to mind. That is the archetypal image. You lie there, going, and who will have the final say? There is all we can not know, like the forceful mechanisms of the body. This is what we prepare for, the unknowable details of the body’s final aria. Will my chemistry, my physicality take over, decorum be damned? Will I flail and moan, knock my head against the backboard, slather and drool? No dignity there. Who coined that hopeful phrase – death with dignity? I have worked in nursing homes. Dignity did not reside there; was beside the point in the larger context of the warehoused elderly, their lives, many of them, anyway, bereft of love and meaning. Dignity could sometimes be found in the tender caring for the needy.

Right now, it comes to me that I am afraid of these surprises of the body in its throes. Where will “I” have gone? What is the mediating presence between the body exiting and what the mind makes of this experience?

This, it would appear, is the task – to prepare for the unknown. To greet it, unoffended, unsurprised.

“Ah,” notes awareness, “I shriek, I groan. Interesting.” The ghoulish, dissolving capriciously like the foam on cold waves, accompanies my death-bed musings.

Nonetheless, I believe in the worth of this exploration of my mortality, in spite of the finitude and limitations that are sadly revealed. In the end, respect and tenderness will be my values. However I project suffering and the body’s struggle as it clings to life, and aims itself toward The Terrible Transition, I will hope that respect and tenderness will, with ushers’ gloves, bear me out.

***

Disposition:

a) a person’s inherent qualities of mind and character

b) the way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other things

c) how do these relate?

d) I am beginning to think it is completely unnatural to focus on my death.

 Before his burning, I had asked to see – and touch – my father’s body. I requested that he be held on ice for me, so that I could say Good-bye, a ridiculous but genuine requirement, enabling me to grasp that there had occurred The Profound Transition. He had been lain out on a gurney. It was draped; the heavy folds in an Ingres painting came to mind. He looked like a king out of Shakespeare play, his dignity, unmolested; handsome in death; reposed.

There is an attitude struck in the presence of death. I wouldn’t call it holy, be cause I associate that with parted seas and the burning bush, fearsome and refulgent. We whisper in its presence, and wonder, as if the dead did not belong to us, may we touch? This old carapace, chilled, recognizable as my father, here-not-here, we whisper. The slight bulge of his closed, sunken eyes; the organs, settled. I could touch his hair, but not his skin. The profound absence of breath.

***

WHAT TO WEAR

On the living side of death, it’s become increasingly important to dress for comfort, so I will preserve that as a priority in the grave. A bit of gauze for the bra; a shroud made of softened linen. My mother wore a frayed nightie in her final year, her own mother’s white, wool cardigan always hanging from her boney shoulders. She had been fastidious in youth and middle age – outfits crafted by Corinne the Armenian; closets full of shoes and hats; an entire decade of wigs. If someone like Mother ceased to care . . . no, that’s inaccurate. She ceased being able to determine what, indeed, she looked like, growing dependent on others’ management of her hair; sponging off the efforts of dying from her racked body; putting on or pulling up clean socks.

I imagine, as I lie on the bed upon which I am to die, my bare feet touched by a breeze – I will have planned my dying in spring or early fall; the windows are flung open. Depending on which season, the breeze may be scented with Daphne, Korean viburnum, narcissi. My breasts are loosely bound; that I contain them at all indicates my willingness to greet what will happen next properly attired. I will wear something light colored, a dove-grey cashmere cardigan; loose linen trousers. Always clean underpants, cotton, please. When I move, even if just to take the occasional deeper breath, clothing will not inhibit me as my awareness turns more intensely from the outside in.

Because of now, these moments, these days of this year spent in answering the lawyer’s questions, and updating my papers, I will have gotten, as they say, my affairs in order. There is nothing more to worry about; on the other hand, it is absurd to think I’m in control. Will dying be like birth? Will some ancient memory of my birth be triggered; will this be a comfort – that an astonishing effort already has been made, which might act as a precedent? Or does the quality of one’s birth matter, and because fraught, will that follow me, as I die? Will there be this work to do in my dying?

What words can be imagined except “into the unknown?” with my bra and clean socks, after a final sip of water?   Gone; you lie there, washed clean by those you love, loving you in turn. You lie there, dressed in the clothing for the grave, that you have requested —pajamas; a fright wig; pearls; lederhosen. After the grappling with the questions on the various forms, and my final placement; the choosing of this over that – songs to be played at bedside, and the grave – there is all we can not know. Accomplishments and good manners and polish will have vanished. It will no longer matter what to wear.

***

BEYOND

I wish I had dogma by my side, or tradition, or theology, so that I could, with the aid of some authority, think about my soul. It is far easier to bring images to mind, than concepts that lead to sturdy resolve.

I am thinking about soil, and what I know of it, and, if buried, wonder how my soul might play nicely in the mix. Among much else, soil possesses texture and structure, and these are different from each other. Texture is what the particles are composed of – sand, silt or clay; structure is how they hang – or don’t – together; thus, determining the percentage of particles in the mix. I should document my soil preference. Would my soul prefer a silty loam? Do not bury me in clay. Do not bury me in sand.  Still the where remains a question.

A traditional Jewish burial, it is thought, brings comfort to the soul. The gentleness of the transition guides the bewildered soul into the spiritual realm. Cremation, on the other hand, causes the soul tremendous agony; it will cry out as its partner, the body, burns, melts, crackles. The soul, it’s believed, must then endure a long and arduous struggle to adjust to a new and puzzling condition.

Decomposition of a plant or living creature creates nourishment for the soil. The intrinsic elements of the matter are not changed, but are given back to the earth. The Talmud compares burial to planting.

Disposition; a fortuitous arrangement of limbs and hands and feet, enabling the soul to gently separate, and make its way beyond.

***

GATE GATE PARA GATE PARASAM GATE BODHI SVAHA

This is how I understand it – I am on the shore, trembling and clingy. Across the water, far away is another shore. It recedes and shimmers. I practice going there, but here, clinging to my shore, I need an aid to help me cast off and outward. From old dreads and enthusiasms I fabricate a vessel. I climb in and push off. Gate. I paddle and pant; look back over my shoulder. How far away does it remain?Gate. Gate. Now, I’m in the middle, still panting but no longer clinging to all it was that bound me to the shore. I keep paddling, and have begun to hum something sweet and soulful to myself. Para sum gate.And almost suddenly, the raft dissolves, vanishes, needed no longer. Suddenly, gone. Beyond even beyond that seemingly solid, albeit shimmering distant shore. Bhodi Svaha. The raft, all that we clung to, now no longer needed.

 

 

 

FEBRUARY ESSAY-ETTE

This month I find myself with a challenge steeper, so far, than the rest. Triggered by what seemed a straightforward enough task – to update my will, revising and deleting some details – I found myself entering disturbing territory. I was asked by my lawyer to choose between being buried or burned after my death, and I decided to grapple seriously with the choice and its final meaning. My investigation was initiated by a form. It was called, “Disposition of Remains.” Uncomfortable feelings and grim thoughts ensued.

I found myself constantly misplacing the grim form. Something will always balk in the face of this kind of business; it’s easier to plan and shop for dinner, or sweep the driveway, or finally plant the espaliered Asian pear (this must be done! As I speak, it is soaking, bare-root, in a tub of water, and has been for two days). However, it was I who opted, in meeting with my lawyer, to clean house, and prepare to enter this phase of my aging, and so to flinch in the face of this question – to be buried or burned – was not congruent with these goals. But this exploration wanted to invite more complexity than a romp through a brighter subject, and so I decided to take two months to develop it, and not my usual one.

I tried to bring into focus an image that would help me relate to the fact of my dead body. All week, I looked at images of corpses, having Googled: corpse enshrouded in linen. Interestingly, there is an entire industry devoted to funereal fashion. Below lies a live model of a lovely corpse, or the faux corpse of a lovely, live model, gift wrapped and oddly bridal. The eye is drawn to the voile mittens. What use might they be in the grave or crematorium? What exactly is the purpose of the bow? Is her head resting on a fur muff, albeit oversized? What message does this send? She appears to be reclining in a bassinette or on a bob sled. I feel betrayed as I imagine myself in her position. I would be no more ready for rot and my sepulchral future in this ensemble than I would for marriage after the highlight of the senior prom.

All Dressed Up, but Where to Go?

***

 I began to be afraid more than bravely curious, afraid of the immanent and imminent horrors in store for this fragile body, that I mostly love. The mild physical affronts at sixty-six impact my days, and loom – presentiments of old age. Along come two books on the journey, two companions: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. Reading and writing and thinking about death-my-death, however armchair my current travel, has exaggerated, for the moment, my sadness, enfeebling me rather than navigating me toward resolve and tidiness.

 When asked, do I prefer to be buried or burned, I am stopped in my tracks, or opt to be so, anyway, and I take a breath, and touch the sob underneath that breath, and release it, and touch the joy that is underneath that, and so on and on.

 I’m going to take more time and live inside this question – to be buried or burned, and its significance, and aim the next essay toward March.