Sunday, September 27, 2009

The truth is

I didn't really understand what love meant until I lost Jesse. I don't think I can explain it to anyone in a meaningful way, except to say that you never really know a thing until you've been enveloped in it and then lost it, like water, or air. It's a horrible thing to say, I suppose, to tell people that love is nothing like what you think it is. That's it's a scam of nature. A great, important scam. A dirty trick nature plays on us: you love a person or thing because that's what makes you protect it most fiercely, that's what makes you willing to stand in their place and take whatever comes, past death. You feel the payoff, love makes you feel good, you seek it out, you nurture it. You look for ways to make it even better. But the payoff of love is not entirely for you. You may think it is. You think love is a positive emotion, that it makes you happy, it makes your loved ones happy. You think it's good. You think your bargain with life is that if you love someone and protect them -- if you're good, so to speak, you will be loved and protected too. Those you love will be part of your tribe, support you, that among the people you share love with, there will be some kind of comfort and perhaps even happiness. You don't think about what will inevitably happen. You can't really. If life lifts the veil of contentment (you may not call it that or experience it as that, I'm sure, but believe me, it's a relative term) from your eyes for a moment, and you see what's coming, how will you go on? In a sense, you only torture yourself if you try to cheat nature and see the world for what it really is.

The payoff of love is that some of what we love so flagrantly, heedlessly, intensely, that some of that will survive. Whatever causes us to love doesn't care if not all our babies make it. It doesn't care if we die from losing love. It cares that somehow, love makes some of us survive. It is designed to make us keep loving no matter how horrible and ugly it gets, because love is the bridge between now and tomorrow. It's the only way that human beings, for example endure. You don't believe that, you counter with the example of insects, bacteria, viruses, all these things that live and survive without love and how many more of them there are than us, you think of what propels their races forward. But it's because we aren't those things that love matters most for us. You think it's because we're smarter or faster, or stronger, but it's love that keeps mothers tethered the whole mindless scheme that brought you here, to read these words.

So that trite analogy of humanity to something insectlike, or microbe-like on the planet is wrong, in a sense. We're something else. Think of how the cells in your body all pitch in and divide the labor of keeping you alive, live and die in some forgotten corner of your body, for the sake of you walking around the earth, to whatever purpose you think you chose. Or those parts of you go to war with you and you die.

Human love is nature's way of stepping up the game.

There's a song I can't listen to without crying.. I've had the cd for years, and never knew the words because it's in a Portuguese dialect of Mozambique. I always thought it was a lullabye and you can see why from the sample. I wanted so badly to conquer that reaction of misery to this song, so that I could listen to it and enjoy it without breaking down. So I tried googling it, free translation sites, Web sites that mention the singer and the band, just blindly feeling around for some clue as to the meaning of this song beyond what it means to me inside. Today I read a brief translation of it that goes "Whenever I think of lazy people, I think of Cecilia."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Something about the end of the world.

It ended before I knew it with a phone call in the kitchen just back from my first trip to the Caribbean, that was supposed to be a surprise birthday trip but a buddy had spilled the beans back in March. The phone rang at say 6 pm, it was July 10, 2004, a Saturday and I don’t ever have to check a calendar because you always know where you are when your world ends.

I picked it up. My college son, Jesse was on the other line. “Mom, don’t freak out.” And I knew it was bad, but college bad, not the other kind, right? “Okay, I’m sitting down,” I said. Mom don’t freak out but I have leukemia.

So that was the beginning. I was on the next plane from New York to Chicago. When his girlfriend’s mom took him to the ER there it was for a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. Nobody hit him. It just wouldn’t stop bleeding. I thought of him in cargo shorts and low rise sneakers lugging bikes up and downstairs at his job, bumping himself, bruising. How easily he could have bled to death just doing his job.

They wouldn’t let me near him without a mask and gloves. He was livid that life threw this at him, right before his senior year. Wry, ironic in his suburban hospital room with nice carpets and a view of a lawn he would never walk on and a tree he would never touch.

We moved him downtown, the local hospital didn’t have facilities to treat APL. It was pure luck the admitting doctor recognized it in his blood, had seen one case before, once, and never forgotten. Another day, week, he’d have been dead. Chicago gave him two more years. He went back to school that fall. Chemo tube in his chest, he went to class. They let him use a handicap sticker for his car so he didn’t have to walk far, but the insurance didn’t consider this a disability that would let him stay insured and off his feet while he fought for his life.

But he did it.

And the rest of the end came later. After he moved in with his girlfriend whom he’d loved since freshman year, after they went to Europe together and nearly starved trying to stick to their vegetarian diets (in Paris, by God). After they skydived together and had the sense to take pictures so even now I can see the shot of him apprehensive at the door of the cabin, the shot of him holding in his terror as the plane climbs, and the wide grin as he leaps out into nothing.

The world doesn’t end in a split second, see. It rolls around a while before it comes to complete stop. So Jesse got to graduate and he got into law school furious it wasn’t the one he wanted but he’d try again later after he could get off the oxycontin for the endless pain in his back that no doubt started with the bone marrow samples they drilled out of him with an ice pick while I watched. He got through the first semester. Everyone loved him because he made law funny. Don’t ask me how; this is what they told me at his funeral.

Yes. He had all that before the world ended. When the nurse at the new hospital called me to come in even though I was sick and not allowed to be around him because he had no white blood cells, and I thought they needed me to sign some papers and she said no, just because you need to be here. And I knew and didn’t know what exactly she was saying. The world is a juggernaut that must destroy everything in its path before it can stop.

He was already gone when I got there. Induced coma. I called to him anyway as they wheeled him from the single room he’d had to fight them to give him, that he’d only spent a weekend in, while the drugs made him hallucinate he was anywhere else, back in the semiprivate. Watching a movie. The one weekend I couldn’t be there because I had a cold but now that didn’t matter and it would never matter again that I wasn’t there when he looked up from the toilet seat at the nurse and gave her his wry grin, his ironic take on his own death happening already in his brain. What I called to him was, I’m here Jesse. I won’t leave.

And still the world wasn’t quite done with us. They wheeled him down to the ICU and everyone who knew him or me flew in or drove or took a cab or somehow found us and we slept on the floor of the unit like gypsies. Kids from his high school, his law school. Generations of my family. None of us knew what to do, least of all me, the unofficial leader. And we believed in everything that couldn’t be true, that his brain would stop bleeding, that he could hear us. That he could wake up. That this could end any other way than how it did. I was a terrible leader. I wouldn’t leave him. I didn’t care if he came back without a voice or brain. I didn’t care if it took him months to die. I wouldn’t leave him. I threw away all my stupid voodoo healing amulets. They meant nothing anymore. Then I retrieved them from the garbage and tried to put them back together as if that somehow would reverse this. Nothing does. Because next the doctor with her pleading eyes comes to me as if it’s somehow my fault Jesse’s heart is still pumping and she says I’ve got to stop this. And I let her.

She won’t let me stand with him while they pull the tubes out of him, but compromises and I stand on the other side of the curtain and hold his dear swollen foot without seeing what his body is subjected to. I hold onto him like Thetis knowing there is only one end to this awful bargain of a world. They clean him up and let me back in and his heart is still pumping. He hasn’t got enough in him to breathe or even know he isn’t breathing, but it still beats. Slower until it fades. And that is the last of him and my world.

I sometimes wonder what life is beyond this one. Or how or in what fashion one might find his way there.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You never really know a person till you share an inheritance

My Memere used to say that all the time, but she was from an old New Orleans family where any will was both an admission and denial of blood. When Jesse died, he had no will, what person that age would? I was the next of kin. So it was up to me to tie up the loose ends and settle everything. Relatively simple if you don't take the emotions into consideration.

Now though, my Indiana grandma's will is on the table. Different but just as ancient family: on her side no one had traipsed through the wilderness driven from the wintry flank of Nova Scotia to the low savage swamps of Louisiana. Nor had they sailed from war-torn Alsace looking for a teaching job in the French colony. No, her people had come with the rest of the early country, fought in the Revolutionary war, escaped hanging in Germany, or migrated from Ireland at the famine. A different strand of the European vine.

My grandma had five children, including my dad, who passed away at 45, when she was in her late 60s. I wear her shoes, I guess. My dad was the oldest, the stubborn, the loyal, the one who left, but came back and stood by my grandparents ever after.

The remaining siblings had been our surrogate parents when we were kids. We spent summers together, on weekends my dad would drive us to Grandma's and we'd spend at least a day with everyone, share meals, some ritualistic farm chores almost as ceremonial as they were practical. We bonded with our farm inheritance by tilling, planting corn, gathering berries, milking cows, pulling weeds. Work was love, was family. I don't remember much fighting then, just sharing of work and play, but I was a kid and there was a kid's table in that house. There was also an outdoors we were sent to, during which times some of these long-term resentments must have been laid out and fondled and honored and brandished and cradled and nourished, like another set of kids themselves.

Must have been my parents and grandparents protecting us, they were the ones sending us outside. The uncles and aunts careened more or less through life, didn't finish college, got into debts, premarital pregnancies, scrapes with the law and life, before settling down in the more or less forgiving but never forgetting landscape of southern Indiana, where their family had been for so many generations that our names appeared in history books simply because we were still there.

But there were always resentments and rivalries, regardless of what Dad did to corral them before or after his death (they would all say, if your dad was still here none of this would happen, every time they feuded). Because when Grandma died, even though in her will she split everything equally and admonished them not to fight over the inheritance, they had already started the war. They'd started it before she even left the farm for the old age home. And it got worse every year, until it threatened to swallow my brother and sisters and me up in it, and the few cousins I could still call friends. And now, four years later, the thing those uncles and aunts have been nurturing in their hearts has reached us.

They think we're going to let them use our share of Grandma's money to pay for their feud over it.

They've forgotten that we're my father's children.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trying to be rational.

Not a good end to the summer for me. Problems on the home front that I can't resolve because they're not, in the long run, my problems. It's harder to look in the mirror and fix what you're missing, than it is to see what others are doing wrong, but you have a lot less control over the latter than the former.

I wonder if that's why I blamed myself so much for all that went wrong between Jesse and me when he was a teenager: if it was something I did wrong, then I could fix that. I was the grownup, so no matter what Jesse did, thought, heard or was told, no matter what, it was up to me to figure it out and fix it. But the clock ran out before we could sit down and make sense of his teens. We were just at the beginning, him still angry, but willing to put it aside, to live in the same house with me. Me still scared, angry a little myself, but able to talk to him a little, trying to feel my way toward reconciling. And Mr. Nomist so positive that we would work it out.

Fall is coming. The beginning of his end. This time, in his last year, we were trying to get him and his girlfriend to come to dinner on us. He would have none of it, no matter how we tried to make it work out; he would barely talk in the hallway. But we ran into each other-- at the grocery store, on the street, and we would talk as intimately as if we were sitting around a table together, close, sweet, hopeful. He had a hard side, that kid.