The Morning Call

I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach.  Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.

The morning calls began in February, 2008.  My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed:  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas.  He said, “You’ve got ALS.  Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”

Carla died in 2013.  My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse.  From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future.  A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.

I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut.  Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time.  I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank.  I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.

I thought about this possibility:  maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD.  2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals.  Starlight comes to us from eons ago.  Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.

Another possibility:  I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual.  My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.

One last possibility:  fear is the ground of existence.  I fear death.  I fear pain, emotional and physical.  I fear conflict and failure.  I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained.  I fear dying alone.  Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering.  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.  It feels more like fear to me.

Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature.  As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.

Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light.  That sounds pretty good to me…

But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence.  Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable.  If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously.   Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.

Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying:  a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss.  Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

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“Great Grandma Died. She Got Better”

My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday.  Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh.  We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom.  Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.

I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption.  Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her.  She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks.  He told us to buy a gift for our little darling.  Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.

We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement.  But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral.  A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?”  Judy told her that Alma had died.  Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?”  My wife made a quick decision.  She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks.  She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span.  So Judy said, “No, Annie.  I’m not going to die.”  Then she asked, “Am I going to die?”  “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.

That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter.  Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner.  Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.

Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person.  During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily.  Annie said, “Great Grandma died.  She got better.”

 

 

Two Weddings and Three Funerals (This Has Nothing to Do with Hugh Grant)

My family drove to a country church in a small town southeast of Dayton. Sonny, my father’s boyhood friend, had a daughter who had chosen to marry young. The arrangements for the wedding had been rushed, and she may have been pregnant. At any rate, we were all aware that Sonny was not pleased, and the bride walked down the aisle with her eyes fixed on the planks of the wooden floor. The priest took his place before the couple and began the wedding Mass. He opened his sermon with these words: “The divorce rate in the United States is fifty percent. Half of the young people who stand before me to take their vows have chosen a doomed path.” The priest smiled, pleased by the shocked reaction of the crowd, then explored the pitfalls of wedded life in detail. After the service, I asked a regular congregant whether the priest always spoke so rudely. He told me that the man was known and loved for his direct manner.

A young priest married my nephew Dan and his bride Rachel. I had trouble paying attention to the ceremony as my eye kept drifting up to the mural painted on the wall behind the altar. Jesus crucified gazed up to heaven with one eye, and down toward Mary and a disciple with the other. These two suffered from a similar ophthalmological disability. Although they faced away from the cross, each attempted to look up and over their shoulders at Jesus while also gazing forward at the clouds above them. Lazy eye, according to the artist, was a common affliction in Jesus’ time. The priest stumbled along during the sermon, and pointed up at the mural and said, “Marriage is just like this painting.” He might have meant that a good relationship involves sacrifice and putting your spouse’s needs before your own, but I assumed he meant that marriage and crucifixion (a slow death so painful that one’s eyes no longer maintained unified focus) were equivalent. I shuddered as I repressed a laugh, and my wife gave me a warning glare that promised suffering long and hard if I failed to maintain proper church decorum. “By God,” I thought. “That idiot’s right.”

My grandmother died when I was nine, and the unfamiliar funeral rituals shocked me. I remember sitting in a pew in a dark Catholic church reeking of incense and flowers. Grandma rested in the wooden box before the altar. I studied the service bulletin as I listened to the priest intone, “May perpetual light shine upon her.” A narrow beam of light shone from the middle of the printed cross and split the blackness of the bulletin’s cover. I suddenly saw my grandmother’s soul trapped in a dark place. Only a thin glimmer of light offered her meager comfort. And then a wave of fear washed over me as I wondered if there was any light at all, or if my grandmother existed in any form anywhere.

My great uncle Norby died when I was about twenty. I had become accustomed to memorial services and could follow the proceedings with more detachment. The monsignor celebrating the funeral mass had a pale, waxy complexion, and when he spoke he sounded as if he’d never had a moment of passion in his life. His monotone delivery gave away his underlying boredom, and he said nothing specific about the man who had died. Instead, he told us that Norby looked down from heaven and prayed for our sinful souls. If he had bothered to learn anything about my great uncle, the monsignor would have known about Norby’s wicked sense of humor, his occasional sarcasm and irreverence. If Norby witnessed this funeral, he would have laughed at us as we sat in the hard pews and endured the cold observances.

Another priest displayed a similar lack of knowledge about the character of the deceased, though the cleric spoke with greater warmth and care for the mourners. He recalled his encounters with my sister during the time when she still came to Sunday services. He’d asked her how things were going, and she’d reply, “Peachy.” Apparently, he remained oblivious to my sister’s dry sense of irony, and that “peachy” could mean just the opposite if one paid attention to her tone of voice. Or perhaps he didn’t see her reserve, her unwillingness to complain about her affliction. Or her habit of offering minimal feedback to folks who had no idea what her condition was like. The priest went on for a bit, and one would have thought that Carla was the Mary Poppins of ALS. He paused for breath, and Clare, Carla’s four-month-old granddaughter, let loose a loud splutter. She gave the priest the raspberries. Dan, Clare’s father, started laughing, and the folks seated around him joined in. At the reception after the burial, Dan told me that he was sure that Clare had delivered Carla’s rebuttal.

Mortality

This winter shapes up to be a season of mortality. This year’s flu is particularly virulent, and other causes have separated several friends, relatives, and acquaintances from their dear ones.

A colleague died of brain cancer two weeks ago, and a mutual friend reported that Jackie remained calm as she faced the end. Although she was an atheist who believed that the lights went out permanently after she drew her last breath, she declared that she was unafraid of death.

My viewpoint shifts on the issue of mortality, but, for the most part, I’ve concluded that dying is a bad idea. I usually reach certainty on that point when thinking about my own demise. Wouldn’t the world be a sadder place without me? And wouldn’t my erasure from existence leave an unfillable void? And am I not a unique specimen and thus somewhat precious?

Those other folks who slipped on the Cosmic Banana Peel and slid over the edge into The Great Whatever must not have been as special. And while I regret their misfortune, I can’t help feeling that my continued efforts to remain breathing must have some blessing from the fates. I’m still here for a reason. I hope, for the time being, that my mission requires a lengthy amount of time to work itself to a conclusion.

I adopt other mental stances to push back the creeping dread. I cling to the guarantees of my faith. I recall the assurances I received from my grandfather and sister shortly after their funerals: they visited me in dreams to let me know that they were all right. My wife felt the presence of her father for a year after his death. These communications from the other side comfort me, but fear remains a stubborn companion. I am a coward, unlike Jackie, when I stare into the abyss.

I feel just like I did as a boy when I sat on top of a tall slide at the NCR swimming pool. My fingers and toes tingled in anticipation, but the height made me dizzy. The water looked way too far away, and I doubted it would cushion the end of my descent. And, as someone behind pushed my shoulders to encourage me to go, I recalled two things: I’d reached a point of no return (no way to climb through ten kids down the ladder); and I couldn’t swim two yards.

I pinched my nose and took the next inevitable step, and as I rushed downward I told myself that the water was only three feet deep. The bottom of the pool was slippery, but I hadn’t managed to drown just yet. I might make it after all.

Splooosh.

 

 

 

 

All About After

I don’t care for the aftermath.  Taking action feels a lot more powerful, and living in the moment offers less time to consider one’s regrets.  After is an ugly guy who comes for a visit, sleeps on the couch, eats up all the food in the fridge, and won’t tell me when he’s leaving.  But After gives me an opportunity to arrange recent events in a framework that makes sense.  Then I can move on.  Then I can make peace with What Is.

My Daily After is the butt end of a day, and I’m the last two inches of a smoldering cigar.  While I’m in the middle of teaching a class I’m usually caught up in the process of communicating with students, evaluating their work, giving advice and planning ahead for the next exercise.  I sometimes teach Drawing I and II simultaneously and have little time for a breather.  When a class is over I answer follow up questions and tidy the studio before making my exit.  On the walk to the parking lot I download the emotions I’ve pushed aside in class.  (An instructor must create the illusion of self composure at all times.)  As I trudge to the car my adrenaline fades, and my books and equipment feel heavier the longer I carry them.  Then I discover how much effort I’ve expended.  My mood dips, and I relive each mistake just made in class.

My Rejection After varied during my dating years.  Sometimes a girlfriend dumped me long before I was ready to call it quits, and my feelings for her lingered painfully for a month or two.  Other break ups left nothing but a sense of relief and freedom.  Time and reflection sometimes gave the realization that I had been mercifully spared.  But in one case it took me three years to figure out that the object of my desire had treated me badly and always would.

The Grieving After:  My sister suffered a long decline as she died from ALS.  During a visit I presented an even tempered demeanor.  I reminded myself as I talked to my parents, brother and sister that my emotions were not the most important thing. Time spent with my family was not about me.  My true state of mind asserted itself on the plane ride home.  I took an upgrade to first class if the ticketing agent made an offer, and I ordered a complimentary whiskey before the plane took off.  I felt no shame as I gulped my drink even if the morning sun had just crossed the horizon.  As we flew south I stared out of the window at the passing clouds, and a heavy sensation filled my chest.  On the trip home from Orlando International my wife drove, and I sobbed.  I became functional after two or three days passed, but during the down time spoke little and kept to myself.  I found it difficult to adjust to the concrete realization, reinforced over and over during my visit, that dying is a process of losing everything.

My father in law died in 2008.  The kind and solicitous representatives from the funeral home drove us from the grave site to my mother in law’s house.  The man riding shotgun opened the door to let us out of the limo and quickly turned away without saying anything in farewell.  I realized that the funeral directors had finished their work, and any compassion shown at the viewing, service and interment had been part of a contract just ended.  We were on our own.  My mother in law drove us to her favorite local restaurant for lunch.  It had rained hard at the cemetery, but now the clouds scattered and weak sunlight brightened the wintry hills of eastern Pennsylvania.  The crowded dining room hummed with conversation, and the checkered table cloth and vase of artificial chrysanthemums made our table insistently cheerful.  Our group said little at first, but after the food arrived we chewed our salads, ate our bread, and told a few stories about the man we had buried an hour before.  We even laughed at a few jokes.

The Nicest Guy?

 

Trust him.  He means no harm.

I told a drawing class this morning that my goals as a professor are to teach as many concepts and techniques as possible, and to deliver the material in the most direct and easily digestible form available.  I want them to succeed.  I said that some students inexplicably believe that I’m trying to block their paths to success by making things difficult, by arbitrarily throwing up road blocks.  I countered that by saying that my life is much too complicated at the moment to take the time and energy to come up with diabolical schemes.  I’m 100 percent on their side.  Really.  I am.

But I’ve been told on a number of occasions that I’m considered to be a tough teacher who is very blunt.  I think that I’m just the nicest guy around, very kind and diplomatic, but when I say that to my adult children they snort and roll their eyes.  Their opinion is probably prejudiced by memories of a few times when I laid down the law when they were little.  At odd moments I channeled my father’s parenting techniques and gave them high decibel orders while staring down at them with a Wrath-of-Godlike glare.  They fail to recognize that I disciplined them purely out of loving concern, and never out of annoyance and impatience.  My brother has reported that one of my “special looks” is like a slap in the face, but he must be mistaken.  Sometimes folks confuse an expression of nearly violent concern as one of angry contempt.  Go figure.

When I went to Quaker Meeting several years ago I noticed that some of my more vivid stories and colorful language made my listeners cringe and withdraw.  I learned eventually through trial and error to avoid talking about traumatic childhood experiences, painful operations and current symptoms of undiagnosed diseases during coffee hour.  It’s uncouth and jarring, apparently, to introduce such topics immediately after congregants have left behind the ineffable peace of meditative worship.  Live and learn.

When I was a child my family sat around the dinner table and discussed Uncle Ralph’s bouts of alcoholism, Aunt Betty’s shotgun marriage as well as Grandpa Bob’s body odor and psoriasis.  Tales of death, misery, misdeeds and moments of tragic miscalculation accompanied dessert and coffee.  I grew up believing that folks discussed these matters frankly while in company, and that adding a few snide remarks as editorial commentary was also in good form.  Who knew that other people avoided such topics and hid awkward moments in family history in repression closets filled to overflowing?  I discovered these tactful people when I left home and Ohio, and it was as if I had crossed over into another dimension.

Now that I’ve seen the error of my ways I strive toward gentility, to an aristocratic sense of restraint and dignity.  Lord Grantham in Downtown Abbey is my role model.  Not his blood vomiting ruptured ulcer scene, of course, but the moments where he absorbs yet another blow to his standing and reputation with barely a murmur of protest.

I tell my painting students that painting is a process of making mistakes and learning how to fix them.  My life has been a lot like that, but I live in hope that one day my nature will become less erratic and explosive and more docile and tranquil.  I want to guide my ship through rough waters into a safe port.

But if that finally happens I may have to deal with one more problem:  my wife’s expectations.  She has become accustomed after 32 years of marriage to the vagaries in my mood and character, and any true sea change in my personality may cause her undue distress.  She may have to go through a period of withdrawal not unlike an addict kicking meth.

I remember one morning several years ago when we sat down together at breakfast and I took pains to conceal my residual anger from an argument we had the night before.  After ten minutes of polite conversation she put down her spoon and demanded, “What’s wrong?”

I said evenly, “I’m being a perfect gentleman.”

She answered, “I know you are.  That’s how I can tell that something’s wrong!”

 

 

The A-Mortal Life: The Endless Years

golfing reaper

I recently came across a startling passage in the book “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari, a historian with a PhD. from Oxford.  He predicts that by the year 2050 we will become a-mortal, that we will live indefinitely as long as we manage to avoid a catastrophic accident in an isolated location.  Our limbs and organs will be periodically replaced, and our minds rejuvenated;  Death will lose it’s capital D status and will no longer be the determining factor in our life choices.

I won’t live long enough for this to happen, but my children and grandchildren might.  Their ideas about purpose and meaning will be radically altered if this sea change actually occurs.  The main problem of being alive will shift.  Now we worry about making our lives meaningful in the short and uncertain time that we have been allotted by fate.  Then our descendants will have to choose what to do to fill up the abundant time given to them.

Contemplate an endless stretch of years to work, love, and play.  Would we have to make over our lives every fifty or seventy years out of sheer boredom?  When we have our major organs retreaded every half century will we trade in jobs, dismiss spouses, and search for new locations?  Imagine walking into a strip mall medical facility and ordering an all-in-one special:  “I’ll take the liver transplant and brain defogger along with an educated, leggy brunette and a move to Seattle.  Wait, wait.  I’ve been hetero for a little too long.  Give me a short, blond guy, kind of butchy.  I feel like being dominated for a while.”

What if we become intensely bored with accounting but have few other talents?  We can become reeducated and take up archaeology or linguistics, but what if we’re lousy at them and fail constantly?  Personal economics might force us to return to our “home field of endeavor”, and we would be doomed to learn tax law and fill out forms indefinitely.  We’d never be able to retire as our golden years would never arrive.  And even if we are gifted with many talents, won’t they be exhausted if we live long enough?  “I’ve been a painter, a writer, an actuary, gambler, judge, architect and a scientist.  Geez, what’s left?  I haven’t tried dog walking and male prostitution yet.  Hmmmm.  I more of a cat person, and I look hideous in spandex….Decisions, decisions.”

Traditional religions would most likely fall to the wayside.  Most trade on the question of whether there’s life after death, but that issue will lose a lot of potency if the fatal moment no longer looms.  Buddhism might be the exception, but I wonder if the attraction of living in the moment might fade when there’s a nearly endless supply of moments.  Funerals will be sporadic, exceptions to rule, and the mourners will be preoccupied more with judging the deceased’s folly than in wondering what will happen to his spirit now that it’s left the a-mortal coil.  “What was Bob thinking when he tried to milk his pet Black Mamba for venom while driving his sports car at 150 mph on the Blue Ridge Parkway in the middle of a sleet storm?  He was just asking for it.”

Philosophers and theologians have been fond of pointing out that death gives life its meaning.  It’s like the sidelines and goal lines in football.  The game makes no sense if there are no boundaries to focus energy and action.  Death forces us to make choices, to measure the current worth of our lives, and motivates us to improve our life’s value.  Our time here is a precious quantity, and we can’t waste it.  Death also offers us a respite from endless worry and suffering.  Freud’s Death Wish is really the hope that the shitstorm of living will finally end.

Some will argue that suffering will end once death no longer holds sway over mankind.  What is there to fear once the Grim Reaper is forced into semi-retirement?  Any injury or malady will only be a temporary discomfort.  Life will be a paradise….

But consider the possibility of having ten mother-in-laws roaming around trash talking you behind your back, or several fatal attraction-esque former mates stalking you and demanding your attention.  “I will not be ignored!  Ignored!  Ignored!”  Imagine the tangle of children and grandchildren, some of whom you like and enjoy, but others you wish to avoid for a very long time.  They’d find you eventually and demand money, gifts and favors.  There would be no escape.

I predict that a new death cult would arise.  It wouldn’t be one that dealt with the inevitability of death, but one that would tempt it.