20 November 2014
But They Did
The home I grew up in did death at a half-time rate. Dad, the Jew, talked about it. Mom, whose father's life was cut short by a murder in 1939, plowed under her grief, buried it out in the yard, as it were, and kept it very much to herself. Like the plants she kept cultivated on the window sill of the kitchen and living room, there was a solitary, lonely and dark, unresolved, tragic beauty to her suffering that burst forth into bloom once a year when I'd catch her crying at the window, a distant gaze in her eyes out into the yard and beyond--to her own childhood, unredeemed. A mysterious gift, this grief; like a present you don't ever really want to open, I carried it with me throughout my own life until Dad died of a heart attack in 1983, leaving me at the crossroads of a road less traveled. I chose to talk about the loss (at times even to him) to express it fully, to go, however haltingly, toward death; and to discover what I wished Mom could have known--that staring it in the face has its own redemptive power.
Anyway, there were the girls, on the phone with their Nana, she in a bed in Milwaukee, at the precipice of the valley of the shadow of death; they, in the full bloom summer of their youth in Brooklyn, saying goodbye, with love.
"What did you have for lunch today, Nana?" one asked.
"Uch," she began. "A bland turkey sandwich and some really shitty pea soup. I don't know how you can screw up pea soup but they did."
Laughter. Thus a memory is born. And along with it a value laden lesson in facing death, in grieving together, in laughing at the absurdities of the time we're allotted in this world.
Last spring I buried a man who had stopped eating for the two weeks before he died but then, to celebrate the resolution of a family conflict over funeral and burial plans, was fed frozen chips of Pinot Grigio--his favorite five o'clock drink--raised his brow in one last mischievous gesture of agency before the Throne of Inevitability, and days later expired.
I shared these stories with a friend who called it "eating into death," a new way of thinking about the desire for dignity at such moments. It made sense immediately. I remembered the back and forth to Wisconsin during those two years of Mom's dying; the plane to the car to the apartment and then to the hospice.
"How you doing, Ma?" I'd ask.
"If I see one more bottle of Ensure I'm going to shoot someone," she'd say. She'd add a big eye roll for effect. And then I'd poach her some eggs, roast some potatoes and asparagus, dole out the medical marijuana to get the appetite started; and she'd eat and wax rhapsodic about pulling up wild asparagus at the roadsides of her youth. Comfort food.
Someone recently told me about how, back in the 80s during the AIDS crisis, he was working in a hospice for homeless men with AIDS which lost its funding and was shut down. In an act of uncommon and unheralded heroism and generosity, the six men were divided among six homes where each man went to die.
"If my guy didn't like what I'd cook for him, he'd really yell at me!" he said. "And when I protested that I was doing the best I could, he'd say, 'This is the last bit of power I have in the world!' It was powerful."
Maybe it was yesterday's cold weather in the City; or the catastrophic snow in Buffalo; or the incessantly disturbing backdrop to our lives of the least fortunate, digging through the trash for food, quietly suffering in hunger in cold apartments on cold nights, losing taste and losing hope. We barely notice them, almost gargoyle-like in the social architecture of our cityscape. You have to really stop and look. And take note.
That's the moment. Terrifying because it's evocative of the death we all avoid but in the engagement, it's reifying, hopeful, even redeeming, if we choose to act.
In families the act of feeding can heal. In communities it can shatter the frozen, glacial anonymity between those who have and those who lack and scatter the darkness of despair with light.