Archive | June 2014

Thank You, Jim Morrison! Living to Die

Everyone, at some time in their life, is going to get “the call.”   Maybe it will come in the middle of the night, sometime after midnight but well after debaucherous folk are out and about and well before the decent human beings arise for their day to commence.   Maybe it will be during rush hour traffic.  Nevertheless, everyone will get the call.  No one, at least no one that I know, will be prepared for that call to come.  No matter what you hear on the end of the phone line, the words “dead” or “gone” or “crossed over” will forever be married to the scenery around you.  “I was in my car driving to work and I got the call.”  “I will never forget it, I was staring out the window and my cell phone rang and I just knew it was the call.”  Indelibly marked, like a deep scar, into the moment marking the time that stood still in that millisecond when the news would be delivered that someone you loved had breathed their last breath.  Then comes the list of lasts…the last time we spoke, the last time I saw him, the last beer, the last holiday, his last birthday, they all come flooding in before the synapse fires completely and the message reaches your heart and opens up a hole where loss begins to flood.

This call came for my husband last week.  His Uncle, the one man who actually meant something to him, the one male figure who represented positive memories, the one who tossed a baseball back and forth, who taught him his own rogue rules of Rummy 500, who laughed and shared a beer and a cigarette with him…was found alone in his bed, where he had lain for what was presupposed to be at least 6 days and later turned to 12, in his own bodily excrement, near death, in apparent agony.  He was taken to the local Bronx hospital, where his 6’1” frame was nothing more than a sheer sheathing of skin holding bones together in a 70 pound body.  Malignant lung tumor so large it fractured his spine, liver metastasized, bleeding from every orifice, dehydrated and holding on for one last second.  My husband called me, a shattered man asking me without asking (as men are prone to do) to meet him at some unknown hospital – saying only that “it’s bad, it’s my Uncle.”  I immediately got the picture in my mind’s eye of a 12 year old dimpled Italian boy waiting with his baseball mitt for Uncle Frankie to come outside and toss the ball back and forth, cigarette dangling from his mouth and a cold Bud Tall Boy on the porch step.  Uncle Frankie was going to make him wait now.  He never did that before.

When I reached the hospital, I found my husband surrounded by his mother and one of his sisters.  They really blended into the background for me because all I could see was my husband, staring at his hands which were rifling through Uncle Frankie’s wallet, looking through the photos, one after the other of my husband as a small boy, as an adolescent, and then our wedding photo.  My man looked a thousand years old when he caught my gaze and I never felt more in love with him than at that moment.  Years of compassion flooded through me and as he stood up and buried his head in my neck, hot tears trickled down the fold of my neck and down my shirt.  I have never seen him cry, this Italian man who is so proud of being the backbone of our small family.  I’ve seen his eyes well up, but never a tear spill.  I have never witnessed true agony and turmoil or loss in his eyes and on his face.  His brow furls, his eyes shut, his lips pursed tightly as the lump in his throat gives way and he releases only a small fraction of what he has pent up inside.  When I ask the news, I am given the usual “it’s very bad” “dehydrated” “not going to make it” and then the blah, blah, blah of supposition, which I promptly tune out.

I pull the curtain back and see a man who looks nothing like our vibrant Uncle Frankie.  He is in a fetal position, his thigh barely as large as my wrist, and he is mumbling.  When the orderlies took him for testing and scanning, the doctor asked us to go to the cafeteria and advised that he would call us.  He advised that there was severe dehydration and complete renal failure, but stated that perhaps they could hydrate him and bring him around to a moment or two of clarity and lucidity but that plans would have to be made for his final resting.  We did as we were instructed and went for coffee.

An hour later, we returned to the Emergency Room.  When I walked in, I witnessed a miracle, Uncle Frankie was propped up in his bed, all the way down the hallway at the other side of the Emergency Room.  I could see him speaking to the nurse, he raised his hand in gesture and I called my husband’s attention to the scene and we both proceeded down the hallway.  Uncle Frankie’s eyes lit up with a glimmer of acknowledgment as my husband said “This is one hell of a way to spend your 74th birthday Uncle Frankie.  What’s going on with you?”  He chuckled, rolled his eyes and put his hand up in the Italian gesticulation for “ah! Whatever” and then began asking about a light, pointing up to the light above the CT Scan Room door, asking what it was.  I asked if I could give him a kiss and he said “Yeah, sure.  I was in my apartment…” and his voice trailed off.   He mumbled a moment and I couldn’t make out what he was saying when the nurse said she was bringing him for a full body scan.  He raised his voice enough to say “Hey, it’s cold in here, bring me my robe from my apartment.”  And off he went.  This was the first and last moment of lucidity that we would receive.  His sister, my husband’s mother, was to receive the last bit of vitriol left in her brother’s body when she approached him and announced herself, he closed his eyes and said quite clearly “I don’t have a sister, you aren’t welcomed here” and when she turned to announce to us all that he didn’t know her, he used what little strength he had to lift his right leg to kick her.  Hatred is a funny bedfellow; running deeper than the human condition and more acrid than any substance I can name.

It was some hours later when we were told of the condition that this man’s body was in; the pain and suffering that he must have endured all of those days alone in his bed, soiling himself and writhing in apparent pain, suffering, and self-imposed solitude – it hung like a heavy curtain of smoke between us.  I was struck, during these moments of silence, by the words that were flooding my own head, the heavy feelings that were weighing down on my conscience and in my mind, and the scenes that flashed in my mind’s eye like an old fashioned reel tape on fast forward.  In the hours that followed, a fictitious scenario wound its way into my brain and instead of making up something to assuage my fears, I started to be more realistic.  I thought back and realized that my husband’s beloved Uncle Frankie had pulled away from us some two years ago, only answering the vaguest of questions, answering his phone intermittently, constantly coming up with excuse after excuse about why it wasn’t a good time to visit with us or for us to visit with him.  He stopped allowing us to bring him to Connecticut for Christmas a few years back, saying he had a “lady friend” and was spending holidays with her.  And then he shifted.  He shifted from a jovial prankster into a crotchety old geezer!  He began by having an irascible temperament, making surly responses and cutting his conversations down to  just slightly longer than it took a phone to ring three times.  Summer clam bakes were a thing of the past, no cold beer, no old school music on the stereo, gone were all of the memories we could be making and the time to reminisce was then hurled upon us – all at his devising.  As I ran all of these thoughts through my mind, sifting them to slow down by placing a mental turnstile in my brain, filtering in the memories and matching them with my thoughts one by one, I began to piece a puzzle together. Uncle Frankie died on his terms, in his way, and in his apartment.

Intermingled with this train of thought, I noticed something waxing poetic deep within the recesses of my not so undisturbed mind.  I notice that I have a fascination with death.  Not the act of a long and lingering death, per se, but the condition of being dead and the process of dying.  I noticed this when I realized that Jim Morrison was right.  He wrote a book that I read over 30 years ago entitled “No One Here Gets Out Alive!”  At the time, I scoffed at the title, thinking it was overly obvious and, as any invincible 17 year old, my time seemed to be an eternity away.  Now, nearing 50, having survived a bout of cancer, a failed and abusive marriage, a molested childhood, and numerous natural disasters not caused by my own actions, I see that immortality is only possible for artists who create masterpieces and authors who pen literary genius.  Immortality is not possible for a commoner, such as myself.

I began to run through the day’s events and the scents that wafted from Uncle Frankie’s bedside; a smell I will not likely forget in my life time.  As I leaned over his bed railing to place a kiss on his brow, the smell infiltrated not only my olfactory, but my entire soul.  Indelible.  Unforgettable.  Permanent.  They say that once you say something that it cannot be unheard; once you read something, it cannot be unread.  Well, stands to reason that once you smell something, you cannot unsmell it.  I began to understand something.  I am not the brightest star in the sky and, sometimes, sometimes it takes me a day or two, sometimes 40 years, meh never the difference, I began to recall a poem I had read in the 7th grade and I started to understand it.  On only a hand full of times in my life have I recalled this poem by Dylan Thomas and on this day, I actually remembered the first stanza quite clearly:

 Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 Death is not going gently into that good night.  It is raging.  It is angry.  It smells like something indescribably putrid.  It wreaks of regret and it longs for beauty that this world cannot nor ever will reveal.  Death is not simply the absence of life.  It is more than the rotted bud on the vine; putrid carrion; detritus; the end of the circle of life.  It is a finality to which the living have no concept or inkling.  The living have made up fairy tales about afterlives and heavens and nirvanas and lovely places where abundance flows like the collective droplets over Niagara Falls.  Yet we do not know, with any certainty, only through blind faith.

I find myself looking for comfort in knowing that when I was 17, I read a book with an interesting title; here I am 42 years later remembering that girl who scoffed at the title and turned the pages until the book was done and that girl’s worst problem was knowing she would never see Jim Morrison play live.  At almost 50, I realize that I am gearing up to rage against the machine, to live deliberately, to rage, rage against the dying of the light, even though I know now, quite intimately, that no one here gets out alive.

 

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The Art of Silence

I was recently in Japan, visiting a good friend while nurturing and growing a better understanding and relationship with her when I realized that she had given me so much more than simply a place to lay my head while I was visiting.  Diana opened not only her home to me, she opened her heart, she bared her soul, and she lived with me.  Not just lived in the sense that we occupied the same space at the same time; more like she LIVED with me, experiencing things parallel to me, noticing things that I had not noticed and pointing them out, sharing her very different and unique perspectives, and living simultaneously yet very differently.  This is the sort of sharing with another human being that I have not done in quite a long time, and I did it very deliberately while relishing each and every moment, remembering to be thankful for the short amount of time, and learning so much that I have taken a while to reduce my thoughts to writing, so let me turn back the clock and move forward from there.

I experienced a once in a lifetime adventure.  Prior to leaving for Japan, I thought that the best thing that I could do was to read up on local customs, manners, etiquette, and short polite phrases, lest I be a hypocrite demanding that everyone in America speak English while I am a visitor in another country with no means by which to express even the smallest amount of gratitude in their native tongue.  I read up on Japanese culture and customs and I am glad that I did so prior to leaving America.  The Japanese have a way of saying only what is necessary; silence is an art form.  If I have nothing to say, talking about the weather is superfluous unless I am speaking to a blind person.  I don’t know why I would fill the air with the sound of my voice, it isn’t anything special, a bit of a Southern twang when I’m tired or angry, but otherwise, a nondescript sort of whine seems an apt description.  I used to fill the air with noise pollution because I had yet to travel on a plane destined for Japan; I had yet to be on a Japanese passenger train bound for Tokyo; and I had yet to be in a Japanese “water park.”

Prior to departing from Newark International Airport, I was sitting in the terminal awaiting boarding.  I looked up from my iPhone to see the lady seated across from me with her hand covering her mouth and I couldn’t even hear the faintest whisper.  I was deceived by the fact that I could not see her lips moving, therefore, I could hear no sound.  Down came her hand and she seemed to be listening intently; back went her hand to her mouth and seated less than 4 feet away, I could not hear a sound.  Her conversation ended and she sat reading a paper until we boarded.  Silence.

Seated next to the lady on her telephone was an older Japanese couple who kept a seat vacant between them which the wife promptly filled with her carry on bag.  She opened the zipper to the bag and a tempest of flying papers burst forth from the zipper and out poured what appeared to be an entire ream of copy paper with various and sundry sheets of indecipherable characters, one of which floated down to my feet.  I retrieved the paper, smiled, and handed it back to the wife.  She bowed in her seat and diverted her gaze; I followed her lead and did the same.  The husband was quite animated as he attempted to catch wafting papers and place them in the seat between them.  This is where it gets interesting.  From his body language I could infer that the husband was angry (or at least losing patience) with his wife and from the wife’s body language I could infer that she had about enough of his attitude.  She put her hand to her mouth, covering her moving lips, she spoke.  His eyes opened wide and then narrowed to barely a slit as he put his hand to his mouth and responded.  Then silence.  Body language relaxed, papers smoothed out, folded and reinserted into the carry on bag.  Then I saw the husband reach for his wife’s bag help her to her feet, and holding her elbow he escorted her to the gate with nothing more than silence.

For 13 hours on the plane ride over to Japan, I was seated by the window, there was a young lady in the middle seat and a young man on the aisle; they were not traveling companions, although the young man assisted her in putting her carry on in the overhead compartment.  The young man appeared to be Asian, and he had a “Foder’s Guide to Japan” that he read for a bit; the young lady, after putting on her compression socks and blowing up her neck pillow, settled comfortably into her seat.  During the drink and food services, the young man and the young lady handed the drinks down the line, took the trays back up the line, and made no eye contact with each other, with me, or with the flight crew.  They were polite.  They were completely silent.  Except for one trip to the restroom, excusing myself to both of my fellow passengers, I was silent as well and I liked it.

I went to a Japanese “water park” which is as far removed from the American concept of “water park” as a mountain is to an ant hill.  In Japan, my experience at the “water park” was extreme relaxation and enjoyment at its finest.  I bathed in hot mineral springs scented and flavored with various green teas, sake, red wine, coffee, charcoal, traditional Roman and Japanese baths, and a myriad of other hot mineral baths.  There were also two swimming pools, one indoor and one outside.  During this relaxing and wonderful experience, I noticed many couples, some young and eager to be in love, others older and more there for the family experience, and a good amount of children. In all of the hours we spent there I did not witness one child having a sugar induced melt down; I did not hear one child exude any sound except the sounds of happiness, laughter, and ease and even those sounds were muted, more reserved and mindful that others are also enjoying a moment of public relaxation and enjoyment.  Also conspicuously missing from the scenery were the scantily clad, over-sexed teenagers ogling one another.  The only thing that resonated loudly within my head was the deafening sound of respect.

It does not appear to me that the people of Japan use language or, more particularly, words in a frivolous manner.  They do not cloud the air with senseless and needless verbiage.  The weather is obvious, how my day was is subjective, what is for dinner will be obvious.  So what is being said behind a hand?  What makes the hand over the mouth something mysterious?  Is it because I’m a nosy American, always wanting to get the skinny on what is being said, felt, done?  I’m pondering my own inability to be silent, to relish the silence, to stop the ever-present vomiting of words into the atmosphere.  Words that once spoken cannot be unheard.  Words that once expressed cannot be unfelt.  Words than once released cannot be forgotten.   There is an Art to Silence.  I am a child with a crayon.  After Japan, I believe that I will be studying on how to be more capable of coloring a masterpiece.