04 August 2012

Good to Tell

Mom didn't really give up until the last six days of her life.  Prior to that, she had a keen ability to combine denial of her predicament with the hope that one of her doctors would barge into her room at the Jewish Home, pronounce a newly discovered cure for her cancer, and release her to prance through the garden outside--on the way to her car and back to her apartment in Shorewood.  Her ability to be in denial is how she overcame personal tsores* most of her life; if it worked, why change?  In six years of cancer, she never thought she'd actually die.  Except for her last six days of life, which seemed to make all the difference to her psychological condition.  Not really a wrap up of things as much as a quick glance at the clock, a recognition that time had run out, and a sportsman-like walk off the field.  Finish.

I return again to her father's murder.  The flash of a gun; the bullet's efficient and immediate death trajectory; the trauma's echo absorbing a child and reverberating throughout the rest of her life.  Denial eased the pain and paradoxically, perhaps, compounded its effect.   Death couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't happen again.  Growing up, I always knew Mom was thinking about her father's death when she'd stand at the kitchen sink, stare out the window into the orchard of our backyard, and watch her cry.  "What are you crying about Mom?" I'd ask.  "Nothing," she'd say.  Plausible deniability.  Not.

I'm the opposite.  Obviously.  I figure there's more to learn by staring the ugly truth in the face and talking about it.  Images float down the river of my mind:  Mom staring out the window and crying; Dad's mom throwing herself on Grandpa's grave and screaming, "A dead man!" Grandma hospitalized so soon after Grandpa's death (suicide attempt); Dad and I and that fight in December 1982 (I insisted on jeans and a sweater to a holiday party where he wanted me in jacket and tie) where the look in his eye, unspoken, was "I'm mortal, son."  By March a heart attack, at age 58, and he was gone.   For me these experiences were texts, no different from what liturgy may ask us to consider during the Days of Awe:
"Thou appointest the measure of every creature's life and decreest its destiny.  On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away, how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who shall complete his years, and who shall not complete his years, who shall die by fire and who by water, who by the sword and who by a wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by pestilence, who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall be at rest and who shall wander, who shall be serene and who shall be disturbed, who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exulted.  But repentance, prayer, and charity annul the severity of the judgment."  
Annuls the *severity* but not the judgment.  Did you catch that?

Sure beats what's on television.

On Friday July 13 I buried a 102 year old man in Brooklyn.  The next day, on Saturday the 14th, I flew to Milwaukee and when I kissed Mom on the head upon arrival, she said, "Are you finally going to call my doctor?"  I held her hand, reminded her that she had stopped treatment.  "Oh yeah," she said, and turned to the wall to sleep.  "Can I get some morphine?" she asked.  By Tuesday it was administered in small doses and by the following Sunday, the 22nd she was gone.

That's what the end of denial looks like when you can no longer outrun it.

In The Anatomy of Hope, Dr. Jerome Groopman talks about walks he used to take with his dad.  "When I was entering my teenage years, on weekends my father and I would take long slow walks in the early evening around our neighborhood in Queens.  We often spoke about school, or world events, or the family.  But on occasion my father would talk about death--specifically, his death.  These were frightening moments for me, but I knew he did it for a reason."  He goes on to write, "Uncertain of God, he looked to love and how it would shape the future of his family.  Uncertain of an afterlife, he believed in the persistence of memory to make his presence palpable when he was gone.  Was he preparing himself by preparing me?"

I'm so grateful for Dr. Groopman's candor here.  It's a great model for all of us in this unavoidable life event known as death.

Six years after Grandpa died, we buried Grandma on a freezing cold January day in Wisconsin.  By then I had my Learner's Permit and so was able to drive to the cemetery for her burial.  Feeling slightly guilty over my anticipation, I asked Dad if my enthusiasm was appropriate, given that I was getting in my first highway driving by following my grandma's hearse.  "Life goes on, son," he said.  "You don't want to dwell too long on the sad stuff, otherwise you'll be a sick, morose character."

Dad brought this stuff out into the open.  His disillusionment with God and Man following his service in the Second World War; his biting analysis of craven politicians; his acid pique at those who talk in movie theaters.  He even used to say, "You'll likely go bald, son.  You know if he'd have lived longer, your mother's father would have been bald; and this trait is apparently inherited through maternal grandparents."  In his complexity, he was always funny.

Last night I had a dream where Dad picked Mom up for a date.  They were in a metallic blue convertible, just the two of them, and though the car was from 1958, the year they got married, they were the age they'd be today if they were still alive:  Dad 88 and Mom 79.  They looked really happy--despite their troubles, their divorce, their illnesses and their deaths, they were really thrilled to be out together.

In the introduction to his work, the Periodic Table, Primo Levi makes reference to a Yiddish proverb, "Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseylin--Troubles overcome are good to tell."


*tsores=Yiddish for "trouble" or "sorrow"

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