Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Posts tagged “dying

Humiliation and Grace

I register something I haven’t thought about before: freedom means you can have vices and bad habits and can reveal bad thoughts. Life here is pent up in ways that multiply as I make my way in. How conscious is the goal to punish through the humiliation of hundreds of small, meaningless rules and through an endless denial of all indulgences? (more…)


What Fixing a Piece of Furniture Up Has to Do with Anthony

I have an update on my chairs. They belonged to my great-grandfather, my mother told me, and are at least 75 years old. She’s going to do some checking with my aunt to see what she knows and remembers about them. And it’s not just the chairs – the drop-wing table I’ve got and the buffet with no legs (my mom cut them off in the 70s) are all part of the same set. Huh.

Four of the chairs have been stripped and re-glued. I’ve given them two coats of an oil finish, have given them all one coat of sealer, and sanded one of the four down (400 grit). Three more chairs need to be sanded, then they get one more seal coat (top and bottom), and one more sanding (400 or 600, we’ll see), then they’ll be done. Then once I’ve saved up the money, I’ll re-do the same process with the last two chairs.

There are a lot of ways that I could choose to re-finish these chairs, and each of those methods requires a bit of patience. The thing that I loved most about taking my furniture-making class at the technical college over the past three years was learning patience. It’s not that I’m a terribly patient or impatient person generally speaking. I’m more patient in some circumstances and less in others. What I learned from the carpentry – more true, what our teacher taught me – was respect for the process. Whatever process I had to do took a certain amount of time and if I cut any corners there was an immediately visible (and typically not desirable) result.

I’m a much better carpenter all around now than I used to be because of that particular lesson. Respect the process.

So here I am in Minneapolis, watching HGTV with Anthony and occasionally holding up a glass of water so he can drink, thinking about the people I know who are dead. My brother. My father. My aunt. My friend. My dog. My uncle. My grandfather. My grandmother. There are others.

Lisa and I put one of our cats down a few years ago and kept our hands on him when he got the shot, fell asleep, and didn’t wake up. We wanted him to feel us with him. The worst part about finding the second cat last October was not his stiff body, but hunting for it. I knew he’d died when I got up and he didn’t show up for breakfast, but I didn’t know where he’d gone to do it. Was he happier, dying at home in a spasm of pain? Or was the first cat happier, a moment of what’s going on boy do I feel woozy…

We’ve got all of these role models in life. Sports figures. Parental units. We learn how to act in relation to other people. How to be a good parent, a good child, someone who plays fair.

When are we supposed to learn how to die? I’d love to respect the process. If I had a clue at all to what it is.

Assumed Mortality

My grandmother was in a full-care facility. As long as I can remember, she had troubles with circulation in her legs, and in the middle of the night she’d go pound pound pounding around the house, waking up a couple of times a night it seemed, to get the blood flowing to her legs. Eventually both of her legs were amputated. She was in poor and failing health, and no, neither of my grandparents indulged in any obviously bad vices. My grandfather had smoked at one point, I think. They were both partial to the occasional beer or wine, so far as I can recall. They were just getting old is all.

So there’s my grandmother, fretting away in the euphemistically-named retirement center, and my grandfather is on his way out to see her. He’d do this a couple of times a day, driving his giant, gleaming, white boat of a car with matching white (leather?) interior. How the man kept that car in such good condition in the state of Colorado is beyond me. It probably got about 5 miles to the gallon on the highway and its frame was probably real plate steel, before they started compromising materials in the interest of profit. The thing was a well-built, well-maintained tank. And my grandfather was a good, conscientious driver. As I remember the story, he goes out to the garage for the car so as to visit my grandmother. Maybe he even drives around the block, but he certainly remembers something he’s forgotten, and he goes back to the house.

And dies on the front walk. Heart attack.

My grandmother grieved honestly, which is to say selfishly. “I thought I’d go first.” We all thought she’d go first, really.

Lisa and I have expressed the selfish hope to one another that I (she) go first. Because neither one of us wants to imagine what being without the other is going to be like. (Is it in bad form to joke about a suicide pact?)

There are no guarantees. There are never any guarantees, but when we connect with each other, we don’t think, we just assume that we’ll be together for a long, long time. Is this different with military families? Police? We don’t work in dangerous professions, so yeah, barring an accident, we’re going to be with each other.

That’s what we assume, until we get old. My mom still gets cranky with my dad for not being around, and he’s been gone, well, it’ll be 30 years this autumn. I’m sure these assumptions change as we age, and our mortality comes into closer focus.

But what we never expect, what the math doesn’t generally support, is outliving your child.

She didn’t sound bitter, or angry. It came across as more puzzled and sad. As Anthony’s mother hugged me, she whispered, “It’s not fair.”

Thank You

I’m heading up to visit Anthony next weekend – another round of movies are on docket. Return of the Dragon is high on the list, as both Anthony and I were deeply disappointed that Enter the Dragon did not have, as both of us mistakenly remembered, a showdown between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.

Guess who wins.

Anyway. A note about the visits. I want to emphasize that while I may be a good friend in this regard, I am often a failing friend in many others and with many other people. At a certain point, it’s a zero-sum game. How much time do we have? How many waking hours, how many vacation days, how much energy, how many friends in crisis? I have the luxury of being free-lance, of having an understanding spouse, of having my own wheels, a credit card for gas. Not everyone has these things, and it makes me a good candidate to be a guy who shows up periodically to Hang Out.

Of course, being a good candidate doesn’t mean that I would necessarily do it.

A brief divergence.

Last summer I worked on this baby-indie film in Milwaukee heading the construction crew. I divvied up work, checked in with the production designer (money quote from the production designer: “I snapped. I went all hillbilly on him.”) several times a day, was the buyer-driver for my crew, made sure they had water and snacks. I hardly ever put on a tool belt, so much so that when I did it was cause for remark. I prototyped a couple of key props and told my crew how to build them. And on our last day of load-in before our first day of shooting, me and my two carpenters worked nearly 19 hours straight. I had a less than five-hour turnaround before I had to be back on set Just In Case Anything Happened (for the record – nothing did, which is good because I wouldn’t have been able to do much other than to watch the catastrophe unfold). Brutal. It was a brutal start to the week. What made it not just bearable, but worth it and almost pleasant even, was the enthusiasm and appreciation we got from our bosses, the art director and the production designer, as well as from the director and executive producer. They could have just thanked my boss the hillbilly, but they thanked him and us. Every new location, they told us how good it looked, that they knew how hard we were working. They made a point of telling everyone on the crew, up and down the food chain, thanks.

It’s remarkable how much we were willing to do for a thank you. Sure, we were paid, but a certain point you don’t want the overtime. You want to go home and sleep and not take the turnaround or meal penalty. Overtime is a disincentive for employers and it’s an incentive for workers only as long as you’ve got the stamina, will, and homelife that allow it. We were paid to do a job, but we did extra just because our bosses were nice to us.

It’s so much easier to visit Anthony and Steph because they appreciate it. They don’t take my visits or my time for granted.

And it’s a fine line. If they were as happy to see me as my dog is every time I walk through the door (seriously – every time), it would be harder to go. I mean, that level of enthusiasm from another person? Creepy.

It’s not easy to ask for help (a sign of weakness or helplessness?), and it seems equally hard for a lot of us to express our thanks. Because I didn’t deserve to get cancer, so I do deserve the support? Because an expression of thanks feels like an admission of indebtedness?

I think friendships have to be reciprocal, but not necessarily equal – so my visits are returned in thanks, but not with a return visit.

Steph and Anthony are, in fact, much better at expressing need than I am, and better at saying thanks as well. We may die alone, but we don’t go have to go through the dying that way – or, for that matter, any of the rest of the living.

And for that lesson, which I hope to remember when the time comes, thanks.

This Wasn’t in the Job Description…

I stabbed myself on Friday.

Our recently sharpened kitchen knives cut through all kinds of things much better now, including the skin at the joint between by thumb and index finger. I took ibuprofen for the pain and put on some neosporin for the disinfecting angle. I wore a bandage to prevent Stuff from getting into the 1/2″ to 3/4″ puncture wound. I drank another beer for the pain.

That’s not necessarily the “job” for beer, but it’s the application to which I put it.

There’s a carpentry maxim that you should use the proper tool for the job. There’s a theater corollary that the proper tool is the closest one at hand, but anyone who’s ever tried to drive a nail with a crescent wrench knows the mechanics just don’t work out as well.

My job doesn’t define me in the way that a hammer’s job defines a hammer, but there are mental parallels nevertheless. When I was writing my dissertation, I really really really wanted the academic job that was the obvious conclusion to my education. But the job of that Ph.D. was not to get me a job, it was just to educate me. By the time I did get a job, I didn’t want it on any terms whatsoever, and when the time came to consider going full-time, I opted not to apply. And I became a carpenter, again.

It might be easier for me to disconnect my career from my person because I’ve never really had a career, just a number of different jobs. But I still wonder about my “function” sometimes. And I’m not a particularly religious person, so this is not particularly easy to answer. Is it easier if you belong to a religion? I’m partial to the existentialist statement that we’re responsible for our actions (and some of their consequences) in this world, and therefore what we should be doing is trying to make the world a better place. I believe we can do this on immediate scales of supporting one another in friendship and easing one another through pain, celebrating each others’ joys. We can do this on large scales with social programs like the one my brother administers in hospice and palliative care in East Africa. But you need both. Heartless social policy fulfills a bodily need, but not a mental or emotional or a spiritual one, depending on how you count.

The struggle for me is always balancing the long and the short term, making a sacrifice or a compromise here because that will help the situation over there. Lisa and I call it investing, even though we’re not talking about money. We invest in a community, in our relationship with one another. It’s not horse-trading, which is just a business decision, but negotiated with respect and love.

Cancer doesn’t have a long term job. It’s all short term. Grow grow grow grow grow. It doesn’t care if it kills its host because it’s not its job to care. It just wants to keep growing.

I should probably avoid thinking in functionalist terms. It doesn’t get me anywhere. Even though that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.

Everybody Dies

Death isn’t something to fight in a general sense – it’s going to happen. Individual battles against dying, those are another story.

On Friday last week, Tony Judt died. I’ve only read Ill Fares the Land, though Post-War is not far down on my reading list. Christopher Hitchens is dying. I just turned 40 earlier this summer.

Okay, that last one really isn’t in the same emotional category, but seriously, we all get older every day. A conversation with Susan recently made me wonder if I’ll freak out at my own mortality when it’s close enough to see, the same way I began to wonder shortly before my 40th if that would freak me out at the last minute.

I don’t much care for Hitchens, either his current incarnation on the right or his previous one on the left, but he’s always interesting to read if you can get past the Oscar Wilde-ean weary self-importance. His eloquence and thoughtfulness is particularly strong on the very non-political topic of his own death, which I’m thinking about because of a post from Roger Ebert, himself extraordinarily, fragile-ly mortal these days.

We’re All in This Together

Last week a wedding, this week more cancer.

I’m not a huge fan of weddings because they seem overblown to me for all of the wrong reasons, but I grabbed on to a bright spot of communal joy for the summer and embraced the kum-ba-yah that my niece and her groom put in. It was lovely. Even the overly long, ill considered and sincerely meant speech by the best man.

I put together, some years after Lisa and I got married, that we didn’t just marry each other – we married into each other’s families. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that, despite a variety of cultural differences (including but not limited to the casual use of the word “clusterfuck” at the dinner table), we get along and like each other’s family quite a bit.

And cancer isn’t a solo ride either. Sure, Eithne was the only one with ovarian cancer, and nobody but Lucie was getting chemo, and it’s just Anthony with the re-awakened tumor. But the fact is, what we do as individuals impacts everyone around us. Anthony’s cancer inflicts him one way, and it does something different to his wife, to his children. My father’s death means something different to me than it does to my eldest brother – not just because we’re different people, but because I was 10 and he was 22. I grew up with a single parent, he didn’t.

But. But but but.

I got this email today from a mutual friend of Eithne’s – Eithne, incidentally, died in six short weeks last Christmas after her tummy ache, suspected diverticulitis, was officially diagnosed as ovarian cancer. My friend wrote:

The thing I felt around Eithne was really the sense of how alone it is for the person who’s ill/dying. Really they’ve got to do it on their own and what’s difficult for everyone else is figuring out (or failing to) how to support them in it.

While we’re running around acting more like a community than ever, hopefully bringing our best game to bear, that person we’re trying to help is having his or her fundamental alone-ness reinforced more and more.

Ain’t that the shit.