Thursday, May 13, 2010

Death and My Father

Karuna is a compassionate practice that sometimes calls you to drop everything and just show up. This is what my sister and I did last week, when we received the news that our 85 year old father’s wife had died. As a widow, I felt compelled to help him, although our relationship has been strained and nearly non-existent for a long time. There are many reasons for this, some of them older than I am. And while both of us might have differing positions on why there has been so little contact, a death changes everything.

This was the repeating statement in my head, moments after my own husband died. “Your life has radically changed,” said the voice. As I watched myself descend into a psychic chasm, as I watched myself sob on the floor, a calm, internal voice added, “now what?” With that same thought, my sister and I flew west at dawn, arriving at Dad’s apartment by 2 pm, Arizona time. He was waiting for us, suspended in shock, surrounded by the disarray of a recent move, his living room bare except for a couple of folding chairs, a card table, plastic bags filled with canned goods and a surprising number of small food processors lined up near the door.

“Hey, Dad,” we said. “We’ve come to help.” We started by asking him what happened. This is the primary thing to ask a person in grief; telling the story is necessary for many reasons. First, telling the story gets it out of the griever’s head, where the event of the death itself is replaying like some broken down, scratchy record on too loud a volume. Telling the story also helps the griever absorb the facts, which is particularly hard in an unexpected death. Even in an inevitable death, when you love someone, you hold out hope for a cure, a miracle or at least a little more time. When it finally happens, there is always a part of you that can’t quite grasp it, doesn't "understand." The mind goes into a self-protective denial. Telling the story of how it happened, those last moments, what you did, how you felt, who you called, what they said (if you can even remember) serves to ultimately convince your mind that Death has arrived and changed your life. There is an adage that you have to tell the story 72 times in order to heal, or as I discovered, until you can believe it happened. Telling the story until you get its reality leads you to that next question. Now what?

Initially, this is answered in small, practical things. In Dad’s case, we thought it prudent to organize the apartment he had just moved into. If he could feel like he was living in his home, instead of in chaos, he might begin to see a Now in his life, and then perhaps a tomorrow and a day after that. I started in the kitchen, and my sister started in the back room. We marveled at the amount of food everywhere; half opened bags of pasta, chips, crackers, lollipops were strewn about, neatly clamped with clothes pins. There were multiple bags, boxes and shelves of canned goods, mostly soups, gravies and sauces. A freezer stood in the corner, filled with meat, and though it needed some purging, there was enough food in his refrigerator to last a couple of weeks. As we put things away, tossed things, made a larger pile of items to discard, including the line of apparently broken food choppers, we also listened to him, encouraged him to mourn. We made some necessary phone calls, to Social Security, to the mortuary for an appointment the next day. We took a break and drove him to the bank. We sat with him quietly, on the folding chairs, nibbling chips and strawberries found in the depths of the fridge. We agreed that he and his wife loved each other over their nearly 26 year long marriage. He said, “She made me feel like my life was worthwhile.”

Two days later, after stocking his fridge with fresher things, taking him places he needed to go, arranging for cremation, cleaning up his office and finding him a source for free living room furniture, we sat on his “new” couch. In a short time, we had helped turn his chaotic living situation into something homey. Our fears that he would be paralyzed with grief, give up and die himself in short order were put aside when he hung his own paintings like a personal art gallery, during an hour when we left him alone. He thanked us over and over for coming to see him and said we had helped him a lot. When we hugged him goodbye, promising to call every day, he smiled through his tears. He said something I haven’t heard from his lips in more than 30 years. He said, “I love you.”

Death changes everything, but it can also reawaken the truth. Death can peel away the unimportant, petty squabbles, even some larger hurts and injustices seem ridiculous to cling to. Death strips us down to essentials, and love is the most essential thing of all. Since I’ve returned from Arizona, I’ve called him nearly every night, just to listen to whatever he wants to say. That’s all you can really do when someone is hurt by death – listen compassionately and say, “I love you.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The smell of Amsterdam

We’ve invented a really good form of exercise: pack two large suitcases full of clothes that are for a climate other than the one you are in. Make sure that the suitcases themselves weigh at least 8 to 10 pounds, empty. Add extras for possible trips to wild regions where little modern services exist, packets of personal wipes, first aid items, a bed sheet, some pillow cases as a safeguard against questionable laundry practices. Also, while stranded and waiting for some sense of normalcy, acquire gifts for everyone back home, making the suitcases even weightier. Drag them, push them in front of you, preferably on cobbled streets. Book yourself on a couple of trains which will also require climbing up and down multiple flights of stairs, hoisting those pesky suitcases.

We took the train to Amsterdam, just to go somewhere else. I like trains. When I was young, my family traveled through Europe on trains. We had five children, the youngest of which barely two months old, plus luggage and a collection of musical instruments. My father developed a system. The train would pull in to the station and he would throw open the window, then run off the train. My mother and I, with the help of the other kids, would toss out the luggage, guitars, a banjo and autoharp, the frame to the baby carriage and sometimes the baby herself, asleep in her portable pram. As soon as every possession was out of our compartment, we would also dash off the train to help Dad pick up all of our stuff from the platform. The windows on the railroad cars no longer open in this way, but I smiled as we pulled into stations, remembering.

The only reason people seem to go to Amsterdam is to get high. I do not know why I did not realize this. My children certainly did and probably were wondering at our choice of cities to escape to. I knew that pot is legal in Holland, but thought it was confined to special shops. I was surprised to find hippie types staggering through the streets, and that pungent, recognizable smell permeating everything. We wandered out from the train station, pulling our luggage behind us and stepped into a side street, in search of a cup of coffee. Spying a sign saying “coffee shop,” I gratefully plunked down on the bench outside while my partner went in to get me a cup. The woman inside, noticing the handle of the suitcase, mistook it for a stroller and asked in alarm, “you don’t have a baby out there, do you?” This was how I realized that the coffee shop was of a different kind. Apparently you can buy joints of all kinds of strength, color and type of high in a “coffee shop,” but you can’t have children anywhere near them.

It’s a curious thing; since becoming a mother, I have objected to pot smoking on the grounds of its illegality, coupled with fear of the draconian Rockefeller laws in New York State. I have held the same line about underage drinking, even though it is now quite clear that my children did this anyway. Yet, in Holland, where it is perfectly legal, I was still very uncomfortable. Sitting on the grass in Vondelpark with blankets of young people smoking all around me, listening to hip hop music and speaking a mixture of Dutch and English (f-ing being the most prevalent English word) I felt disturbed. I was unable to figure out why. Perhaps it is because I myself am slowly rising out of a debilitating fog and dislike seeing others consciously put themselves into one? But that is very judgmental; I don’t really care what other people do. Go ahead, have fun if you like. As I watched a heron walk by, some white nosed coot families swim near some mallards, I relaxed. I don’t have to smoke the stuff if I don’t want. Let it be. Take a deep breath and smell early spring, the loamy, sweet scent of the mud on the bank. A breeze blows across my cheek, spiced with flowers and marijuana. Should I inhale?