Why are all the real things, the important things, so easily mislaid underneath the things that hardly matter at all?
— Jeanette Winterson, from “Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days”
Over the last year I have undergone advanced study of the really important things as I spent fall 2015 through December 2, 2016, helping my mother take care of my father.
Daddy was hospitalized in October last year when his weight was a mere 134 pounds–a meager weight indeed for a man who was 6 ‘2″ in his youth. He was refusing to eat much and the outlook was grim, so we talked to the hospital’s counseling staff about our options which included hospice care. However, to our surprise and delight, Daddy responded to a change in his medication, and he began to improve, gain weight, and engage life in a more full way despite his dementia.
Although we needed to place him in a memory care unit of an assisted living facility, Daddy was able to join us for Christmas 2015 at our house and was adorably able to be best man at my son’s March 2016 wedding. Over the next few months–as many dementia sufferers do–Daddy’s ability to walk diminished and in June he fell, broke his hip, and needed hip replacement surgery. The surgery was successful, but Daddy’s strength was never quite the same.
We knew we were on borrowed time and were grateful to have Daddy as long as we could. He was fragile, but he was still “in there” with his bright eyes: blowing me kisses, urging me to get home before dark, and occasionally saying something so amazingly on-point that we would wonder at his still playful and adventurous spirit.
In August he asked me, as he always did, where my husband Kurt was. When I said Kurt was in New York on business, Daddy said he would love to travel with Kurt to New York and added conspiratorily, “Talk it up with Kurt. See what he says.”
“I will, Daddy,” I answered knowing travel was not possible, but pleased that he still had an adventurous spirit.
A minute later, he said, “But I guess I don’t feel up to traveling.”
“Well that’s ok, Daddy.”
I tried to be there every day I could manage for my precious extra year of Daddy. He continued to remind me what was truly important: people, not things; love, not jealousy (which he thought was the root of most destructive behavior); enjoying life through music, movies, and sports; spending time with family, not participating in self-destructive behavior; and standing up for what you believe is right no matter what other people say. And he always encouraged me to be me.
The things that didn’t matter in Daddy’s personal tally was how much money you had, whether you drove a fancy car, or what you did for a living. He was more concerned with substance not surface, inner fortitude not flash.
In early November Daddy was hospitalized again for an opportunistic infection and an open bedsore that would not heal. Then he was released to a rehab facility for transitional care. Again. Bless his dear heart. He was making good progress, loved the food, and was able to join us as we brought Thanksgiving lunch to him at the facility.
Although my intuition and all the evidence had told me he was dying–and I had said so to a few of my friends–I suppose I thought perhaps I was wrong, and he would live on. But I will remember 2016 as the year with the biggest losses of my life, as Daddy’s death on December 2, during a physical therapy session, shocked us all. We thought we were prepared, but his sudden death while on the facility’s exercise bike was a shock all the same. According to his death certificate, he died of a heart attack and “failure to thrive”.
As our family waited for the funeral home guys to come and take Daddy’s body, I sat by his bed and placed my hand on his chest. He had been dead about an hour I guess, and it was comforting to feel that his shirt was still warm. I wanted to as my Mamaw would say “love on him a bit”–although I knew he was gone. By rubbing his shirt, I hoped somehow to communicate to him that he was ever-so loved and not alone.
A month and half before his death, Daddy had been sitting at the dinner table of his facility. He seemed agitated and uncomfortable so I tried to soothe him by repeatedly touching his back. He said, “Stop doing that, Anna. You’re making me nervous.”
Perhaps since Daddy’s mother died when he was 4 months old, and his grandmother (who cared for him as young child) died when he was 5 years old, he was not accustomed to being touched. It was sad to think that Daddy had been a lonely wee child without a mother. I couldn’t go back in time and hold him when he was a baby, but in death I could sit beside him and telegraph with my touch that I loved him–and, thankfully, he would never be nervous, agitated, or in pain ever again.
I am also thankful that Daddy will not live through the next four turbulent years as an unprepared, temperamental, petulant, unstable, selfish, ever-Twittering man-child becomes our country’s President. Daddy had voted for the candidate of his choice, “the woman”, he called her, who he said was the smarter of the two candidates. After the election, I hoped Daddy would not find out that Trump was elected over Hillary Clinton–despite the nearly 3 million more votes placed for her. But one day he asked me what I thought of the election and I answered, “It’s very upsetting, Daddy.” He said nothing, but shook his head with a look of utter disgust.
Daddy was big on justice and fairness and hated injustice of any kind. Knowing that the choice of the minority of the voters “won” the election incensed Daddy. As it does me. I had suffered two major losses within a month. However, my personal grief at Daddy’s death is my burden to bear, but having an undisciplined man with poor impulse control in charge of our nuclear arsenal, climate change decisions, military, and the future of health care access and Social Security is a loaded shotgun at the head of our country and the entire world.
How to go forward in these troubling times has troubled me as I see the incoming administration as the Titanic steaming toward the proverbial iceberg. The considered opinion of the early 19th century was that the huge Titanic, with the latest technology and luxury, was too big to sink. But she did, of course, killing the majority of people on board. Many of the dead were the people locked in third-class steerage as the first-class passengers loaded onto the too-few-to-save-everyone lifeboats. Since they did not believe the ship would go down and did not want to be uncomfortable in a cold lifeboat, some passengers refused to enter them so the first few lifeboats left the Titanic only partially full.
As for me, preparing for this unknown, uncharted future has become my quest. I read constantly, seek the latest information on how the politicial winds will blow, and talk to people whose opinions I respect. Should we sell the house before the heedless new President torpedoes our economy and destroys our financial nestegg? Should we batten down the hatches and hope we can outlast the storm–adding in a dash of resistance, standing strong when possible for the democratic values we hold dear?
Clearly we should give time and money to organizations that will make a difference for the people left in the wake as the rich get richer, the poor get still poorer, health insurance ever more precarious, and the middle class are left in the flotsam and jetsam to continue footing the bill. Will we need to try living in denial, burying ourselves in books, coming up for air only occasionally to excavate a bit more hope, and continue to fight for justice, equality, children’s rights and welfare, community building, education, and self expression. Many times I see through a glass darkly and cannot always make out the best path.
A few weeks ago as I was tidying the house to get ready for Christmas, I found a take-out bag with notes I had jotted down in December 2015 for my always elusive next blogpost. One of the quotes was a line from a hilarious-and-sad-all-at-once series called “Getting On”, which was on HBO from 2013-2015, and is available now for streaming. Watch it if you enjoy dark humor and incredible writing and acting.
The show is set in a startlingly realistic geriatric-care unit freighted with all the real-life craziness you find in most work situations today: bureaucratic nonsense, petty jealousies, backstabbing politics, somewhat-functioning-but-mentally-ill co-workers, and crazy plotlines that read just like our lives.
The three women at the show’s center are gifted actresses Laurie Metcalf, of “Roseanne” fame, as self-centered Dr. Jenna James; Niecy Nash as the grounded and caring Nurse DiDi; and Alex Berstein as good-at-her-job, but private problems magnet, Head Nurse Dawn. They find a way to care for their patients and each other despite their own inadequacies and the circumstances in which they work. Their lives are messy, and they sometimes make disastrous mistakes, but they soldier on together.
In the final few episodes that aired in December 2015, Nurse Dawn exaggerated her renal disorder to garner sympathy from her co-workers only to find that she really did need a kidney to survive. Despite her lies and selfish behavior, Dr. James decided to give her one of her own kidneys and save her life. In the last episode’s final scene, Jenna and Dawn are prepped in beds beside each other awaiting surgery when Dawn asks why her boss agreed to help her despite her dishonesty and selfish behavior. Jenna responds:
There is no justice, but there is mercy because that’s what we can give to each other.
— Mark Olsen & Will Scheffer, “Getting On”
There are a host of things we cannot control in this new year of chaotic uncertainties, but we can control the love, mercy, and forgiveness that we offer each other. And we can learn from the experiences of people who came before us. History sadly repeats itself endlessly as humankind refuses to learn the simple lessons of accepting those who are different whether that difference is based on religion, skin color, sex or sexual orientation, country of birth, political affiliation, class, economic status, or cultural heritage.
In this vein, we can certainly learn from the Holocaust and how fear of the “other” can lead to unspeakable crimes. In her new novel Mischling, Affinity Konar tells the torturous journey of twin sisters who suffered grotesque experiments at the hands of the notorious, German concentration camp doctor, Josef Mengele. Konar’s novel was inspired by actual accounts of Jewish twins abused by Mengele at Auschwitz. The title Mischling comes from the derogatory term Germans used for people of mixed heritage. In the book, one of Konar’s twins, Pearl, finds peace with her past by forgiving her former oppressors.
[Forgiveness] did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgment of the fact that I still lived; it was proof that their experiments, their numbers, their samples, was all for naught–I remained, a tribute to their underestimations of what a girl can endure. In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.
When we lose on a grand and terrifying scale, we can find a way to persevere and thrive. And when a demagogue ascends to power, we must learn from the lessons of the past–even if he and his enablers have not.
// Anna ~ 1/1/2017