Tuesday, April 30, 2013

new jersey

. . . a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

-- Macbeth V. v.

When I came to see her again she was sitting as before in the armchair by her window, looking across the river at New Jersey's bluffs.

She was glad to see me, but she was discouraged.  She didn't see the point of going on.  "What kind of a life is this?"

The are others worse off, I could have said.  She was sitting upright.  She was alert and sharp.  Not in pain at the moment.  No tubes running out of her body.  But if she had been worse off she wouldn't have known her grief, couldn't have described the difference between the live body and the wasting soul, couldn't have brought her crisis into focus.  This is where she was.  You meet them where they are.

"I never wanted to be a burden to others."  Proud and autonomous she was.  The time still to be lived seemed a mockery of everything precious.

We looked across the river together.

I named it.  "You're grieving," I said, "for who you were."

We think grief is for those left behind, but the ones who are leaving grieve as well.  They anticipate the end of loves, the disappearance of possibilities, the finish of tunes whose cadences they will not hear.  The mask won't stick to the face, the body won't perform the old theatrical tricks, and they don't know who they are.  They can't take care of things, and they watch themselves become a thing to be taken care of.  We can assure them it's not like that, but that's how they see it.

The social worker came in to say it was all arranged, the patient was leaving the hospital.  She would go this evening to one of our residences.  "We call it the penthouse.  You can order a filet mignon if you want."  (Clinical irony there, which we usually keep to ourselves, but this client was one of those who crave it.)  She was quite literally going to a better place, with nurses round the clock but with amenities and decor more human than those of the hospital.  And better food.

"Any day you leave a hospital," I said, "is a beautiful day."

"I don't want my money spent," she said, "just to keep me alive."

It was a beautiful day on the bluffs of New Jersey, across the Hudson River.

Here's the hard thing, the thing you have to keep learning.  You can't bring the good news with you.  Not in a book, or in a prayer, or in an exhortation to faith.  You can't bring the good news unless it has already arrived.  You can only, with grace and skill and good fortune, sometimes reveal it.

You want to make things better.  Of course you do.  Anybody would.  Friends and relatives often try.  You say, cheer up, it's not so bad.  You say, have faith.  You say, God doesn't send you more than you can bear.  You can't stand to see them suffer, so you argue.  That's your role, you think -- to vanquish their suffering.  If they don't cheer up, you feel offended and futile.  And your militant cheer defends you from infection.

And this is the simple thing we keep learning, over and over again.  If you're gong to help, you have to enter their world and walk the road with them.  That's where the good news is to be found, somewhere on their path of fear and grief and regret.

"That money was for my niece.  I love that girl more than . . . "

She couldn't finish the sentence, so I ventured.  "Perhaps she already has a gift from you.  Perhaps she wants to give you something in return."

As clouds shifted shape over New Jersey, I thought, I've put my foot in it now.  How could I so lose my nerve? Why commit myself, so soon? Why was I arguing with her?

She didn't know how to own the life that remained to her.  And I couldn't tell her.

That's the rule.  That's what we're supposed to know, and must learn again every day.  It's not a sermon.  It's a revelation, a discovery, an apocalypse.  She says the life ahead of her has no meaning, that it signifies nothing.  But it's not as if there is a something, a significance that should be brought to her.  She doesn't need something; what she needs is negation of the nothing.  If she knew what there was to do, what the next step might be . . . 

"You haven't given up yet.  You love that young woman.  You want to make her life better."

She thought about this.

"We call it generativity -- that as a person nears the end of life, they take care of the youth.  You care about the world that you're leaving.  You're pouring your love into the future."

From a picture window on the ninth floor of a Manhattan hospital, you can see the sun set over New Jersey.

"You've helped me," she said.

I was stunned.

"I feel better than I did when you came.  You didn't argue with me.  You let me live in my sadness.  You didn't try to talk me out of it.  And I feel better."

Can I believe this? it's too good, I thought.  I've talked too much, and been too smart, and now she's seen my vanity, praising me in the tropes of our textbooks, seducing me; -- or else she's saying the things that will get me out of the room.

"We both have places to go," I said.  "You have a new place to live, and I have to go home."

"Be sure you wash your hands on the way out.  Mustn't take any unexpected gifts home from the hospital."

I turned to her.  "You're taking care of me.  You haven't given up."

Sitting up in her chair, she was grinning at me.  I never saw her in a bed.  The record says that an hour after I left, they moved her to the new residence.  An hour after that she died.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

familiar shape

O quam tristis et afflicta
Fuit illa benedicta.

-- Stabat Mater

There was something familiar about the picture.  The mother, holding the child at knees and shoulders, in what would be her lap if the child were smaller.  And the child a zigzag from dangling feet up to her knees and down to hips and up again to shoulders, the head falling back.  "Mami," she said.  "Mami aqui," said the mother.  Mami.  Aqui.

This went on.  "I'm here, silly girl.  Don't you know I'm here?"  Then with an eye toward me: "I don't think she knows what's happening."

That's the hardest thing, to be there for someone who doesn't know you're there.

"Do you get any sleep?" I asked.

"Not much.  She wakes up at two or three, and I'm the one she asks for."

The next day I remembered the thing I could not place, the familiar form of the picture.  This was a Pietà.

Congratulations to those who mourn, for they may be comforted.

Where is her comfort?

She said that members of her prayer group tell her to accept the will of God.  They say she should not complain, but be of good cheer and grateful.  They say there's some purpose in this, and she must pray for it to be revealed to her.

They are like Job's friends, those archetypes of bad counsel, who come to tell him there must be some good reason, you must deserve it somehow, God won't tolerate your anger -- or worst of all but true to the book, it's a test of your character, an ethical teaching.

"I don't see it," she said.  There's a Mary on the stage now in New York,* who refuses her testament to those who request it because she knows "what they want me to say."  This Mary bore the child and watched him die, and now she sees what others wish to make of it.  She doubts it was worth it.

This mother before me -- her name is not Maria, but she is a mater dolorosa, and her pose a Pietà.  Shocking in their actuality, not mere ideas or images, songs or sculptures, but an incarnation.  She holds the child, who calls for her and does not know she is there.  She speaks short sentences to the child and longer ones to me.  She says, I don't see any purpose in this.  I'm a good mother.  I stopped working so I could take care of this baby.  I have money problems.  Her father is nowhere.  I'm tired.

She doesn't have to mention the injustice to the child, or the despair of watching this part of her body suffer.  She says she knows women who gave up their children so they could be with a man.  She knows women who have sent their children to relatives, women who leave their children alone at night.  I'm not one of them she says.  I'm here for her in the morning, here in the middle of the night.

All this time she caresses the child, rocks her, cajoles her, tells little jokes in her ear.  

I am not here to correct her mood, to say suck it up and be of good cheer.  I am not here to say that this burden is fair, or that it's part of a divine plan.  If this were part of a plan, I would vote no confidence in the planner.  Unlike Abraham, if the plan requires the death of my child I'm not signing on.  It's one thing to sacrifice oneself, quite another to sacrifice the innocent for faith.

No meaning adheres to these events, no meaning at least that I would bet life on.  If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger, they say; but there's nothing good to say about what fails to kill you.  The thing that doesn't kill you is the enemy.  You get through it as you can, and you remember.  Perhaps you remember how you got through it, that you did the best you could, and it made a difference for those who went through it with you, which means that it changes your life as well.  Perhaps it occurs to you that you were the one to do these things, that you were needed there and then.  And so you come to own your past pain, knowing it is unalienable because it makes your present life possible.  In this way, retrospectively, reaching back into history, we make the meaning of our suffering.  But the meaning is not there until we make it.  There's nothing good to say about suffering, but good things can happen in the face of it.  Some day this will be over, and Mami will go on to other tasks, other loves, other stories.  When she looks back on this time, I hope she remembers that she stood fast.

So this is what I told her.  I've never had such experience thank god, and I hope I never will; neither I nor anyone else should tell you how to feel about it.  This is a hard thing that has fallen on you, the worst of curses.  You and your child don't deserve it.  There is no lesson to learn.  But you are the one who gets up at two and three in the morning, you are the one who holds the child who does not know you are there.  Your patience, compassion and humor do not run out.  The light that shines in this darkness is you.

*Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary, dir. Deborah Warner, performed by Fiona Shaw