It’s supposed to be spring here in New York but winter didn’t get the memo. There’s been a weird tug-o-war going on between the snow and the sun. On March 8th my trees looked like this:
Snow covering everything is lovely to look at. The world gets quiet and almost cozy while it’s falling even though it’s cold. This time of year some of the charm has worn off and this lovely sight wasn’t very welcome. Within two days almost all of the twelve inches that fell were melted away. Then it snowed again. Then that melted. Then it snowed but only on the grass because the pavement was too warm. That snow is gone now too. As I write this it’s sunny, breezy and warm but the forecast is for snow flurries in the morning. :::sigh:::
But the motherwort is poking her head up and growing in small clumps all over my garden. The magnolia has buds and patches of the grass are greening. I heard birds singing this morning. These are the landmark things I look for each year. They are the signs of life among the gray, muddy, end-of-winter landscape that let me know the sun is coming back. The heavy coats can go back into the closet and I can open the windows. It’s reassuring and in a way there is a relieved feeling. I suspect it’s some primal part of us that feels like we have survived another winter.
Last year, the night before Mom’s birthday, her best friend, Joanne, died. Mom was devastated. They met when they were fourteen and had been best friends ever since. For nearly sixty years they were there for each other. She was part of my life from the first day and it was like losing a beloved aunt. For Mom it was like losing a sister. Eight months later my dad died. We all kind of went into hermit mode. That’s easy to do in winter. It’s too cold out so you stay in, bundle up, drink tea, eat cookies, sleep, cry and watch old movies. Somewhere along the way Mom’s birthday this year became one of those landmark things. It was bittersweet as you can imagine.
My sister and I took her out for afternoon tea the day before her birthday. We made it through lunch without a single tear. I was surprised by that. Joanne would have enjoyed this tea room and that thought was on all our minds. We actually laughed a few times and talked about things that would have been too hard just a few months ago. Mom spent the night with me so she wouldn’t have to wake up alone on her birthday. I made her my version of the big breakfast that Dad always made for her and we had a nice but subdued birthday morning together. She left after church to spend the day and night with her sisters down in the city. We survived.
I realized this morning that something has shifted. It’s one of the little adjustments you make in grief; it’s a step toward being OK. There is no clearly defined turning point or deadline. There are gradual changes that happen little by little. It snows then it’s sunny. I cry then I laugh and Life goes on.
Thursday was my father’s seventy-third birthday and I spent part of the afternoon, with my mother, checking out the hospice suite where he is going to die. To say it was a surreal moment doesn’t even touch it.
In August my dad went to the hospital for a cardiac catherization because he had a stress test at his cardiologist’s office that didn’t go very well. Dad walked into that hospital under his own steam hand in hand with my mom. He’s been there ever since. The test found blockages that led to bypass surgery where there were complications that caused the six hour surgery to last nearly twelve hours. A few hours later the surgeon had to go back in because there was bleeding. All the blood thinners Dad has been taking for years had done their job so well he wasn’t clotting properly. Then there was the pericarditis that no one knew about before the surgery that kept filling Dad’s chest with fluid. That required another heart surgery. By this time he was so bloated and his kidneys were so fatigued they shut down. The doctors started dialysis to fix that issue and give his kidneys a rest. His breathing was labored and his oxygen levels were low which resulted in a ventilator. Somehow he ended up with a tracheotomy so the ventilator goes right into his neck. This means he can’t speak, eat or drink. To compensate he has a gastric feeding tube. He is now in bed almost all the time except for an hour or two that he spends sitting up in a chair and machines are performing all his bodily functions. It’s astounding how his condition has snowballed. He walked into that hospital under his own steam and now he has to deal with all this and a dozen other indignities I prefer not to share with the internet.
Dad is a big man. Always has been. As a young, healthy adult he was six foot one and two hundred thirty pounds; his fighting weight. He liked to drink, loved a good meal and smoked like a chimney. He stopped drinking forty years ago. Stopped smoking thirty-five years ago. He and good food, however, have a life-long love affair. Not surprisingly he packed on the pounds and was eventually diagnosed with type2 diabetes. He’s been battling that since the late 80s.
When I was a little kid he was kind of scary. He was a US Marine once upon a time and studied to be an Irish Christian Brother for a while. He’s big and loud and honestly he’s complete crap with little kids. He never got the knack of dealing with them which sucks if you were one of his kids. By the time we each reached an age where he knew how to interact with us we were all done trying to deal with him. He did have his moments though.
I have a lot of fond memories mixed in with some misery. When I was in kindergarten he taught me how to play cards. By third grade we were playing chess together. He helped me study for the Richmond County Spelling Bee and thought it was funny that I was a Catholic School student and got eliminated for misspelling ‘religious’. I forgot the second ‘i’. In high school I would stay up late discussing philosophy with him. He loves Thomas Aquinas. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Merton. He loves baroque music and specifically Bach and gave me an appreciation of it. The night after his original surgery I was in my parent’s home keeping Mom company. I went down into his office to get her some batteries. His space is the same sort of organized chaos that I have in my art studio here in my home. I realized that he and I have a lot more in common than I would have wanted to admit when I was younger. The house is filled with books. There is a stack next to his chair just like the stack next to my bed. There is usually a New York Times crossword puzzle on top of his book pile and he usually finishes it. I prefer other puzzles. We both love a good mystery and get a sense of satisfaction when exercising “our little grey cells.” He’s an introvert and so am I. We both experience and observe things at the same time. If you aren’t an introvert it’s hard to explain that. If you are an introvert you know exactly what I mean. To think of his agile mind trapped in his deteriorating body is almost too horrible to contemplate. I think it would drive me insane to be in his position right now.
The Hospice Unit is in the same hospital on a different floor. You wouldn’t believe it if you were there. The energy is completely different. It even smells different. The nurses were great in how they talked to my mom. The compassion was palpable. The head of the unit was explaining the philosophy of hospice care and how they take care of the whole patient and that his comfort is the priority. While she was talking I was wondering why that wasn’t part of the regular hospital care. Why does each system of Dad’s body have its own doctor? The heart surgeon is really pleased with the progress his heart has made. The rest of Dad has fallen apart but the heart surgery was a success. His kidneys failed so he needed to be treated by a kidney specialist. His breathing was inadequate so he needed a respiratory specialist. He has wounds now that aren’t healing properly so an infection control/wound care guy is now part of the team. But they don’t seem to really be a team. They are each acting separately on different parts of Dad as if those parts were not connected to each other and to the man who’s been using them all for seventy-three years. The hospice director went on about palliative care and I wondered if that is even paid lip service in the rest of the hospital. If that had been the philosophy of care from the beginning how would Dad be faring now?
I am amazed at what modern medicine can do but I’m not convinced it should be done in all cases. Looking back over the last three months we are all pretty much in agreement that the original surgery was a bad idea. The doctors aren’t saying that. Only one of them will even hint at it. At the time, not having the surgery wasn’t even really discussed as an option. Apparently the phrase “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for you.” is gone from the practice of modern medicine. I’ve met most of his doctors and they seem like decent people. No one set out to cause pain and suffering but that is the end result. It would have been better for Dad if his pulmonary artery ruptured in the comfort of his own home than in the operating room that first day. It would have sucked for a minute or two instead of slow torture over months. It would have broken Mom’s heart all at once instead of chipping away at it while she helplessly watched her husband die by degrees.
On Wednesday he told my mother that he was tired of it all, his body is wearing out and he wants to go home to God. To watch them together now is to see what marriage is all about. They celebrated their forty-eighth wedding anniversary in September in his hospital room. Over the years I have watched them snap at each other, kiss each other, yell, curse and walk away from each other. I’ve also seen them be there for each other like she is there for him now. They really are devoted to each other. The hospice director asked Mom when she thought they’d be ready to move Dad into the unit. Mom burst into tears. She knows this is the right thing for him. It’s what he wants and so she wants it for him. She doesn’t want him to suffer anymore. She said “We’ve been together for fifty years. It’s like you’re asking me when do I want to be cut in half.”
While Mom and I were upstairs the nurses put my dad back in his bed. I came back to his room to find my husband telling him all about what our kids have been up to. Dennis tells a very good story and Dad was smiling. We all have to wash our hands and wear rubber gloves in Dad’s hospital room but I could still feel how cold and swollen his hands were when I held them. It’s comforting and unnerving at the same time to see how at peace he is with his decision to stop treatment. He has lost so much weight he’s back down to his ‘fighting weight’. His muscle tone is all but gone. He looks old and frail and nothing like the scary guy I remember from childhood. I kissed him good-bye and brushed back his hair. He told me he loved me. I have no idea how I held it together but I did. I smiled at him and he smiled at me. I left that room knowing full well that I may never see him again. I was fine until we were driving home. Dennis had the radio scan for a station and it landed on classical music. I heard Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and I started bawling. In spite of everything and as long as I live, he will be my daddy and I’ll be his little girl. It’s just not right that my cat had a nicer death than my dad.
This is my dad and me in 1966. He’s about twenty-six years old and I’m a chubby seven or eight months old. I nearly lost this photo when our water heater blew. I’m so glad the important parts are still there.
One week ago, right about now, I was in a Master Class taught by James Wells. He took us through “The Sharing Process” using deliberately chosen tarot cards to define situations in our lives. He lead us through holding space for each other while we each expressed our challenges and gratitude with the issue we defined. Taking turns and being present with love while the other spoke with honesty was a deep and wonderful way to start this amazing conference.
James went on from there walking us through the stages of grief once again using tarot. We chose from our decks the Major Arcana that we thought represented each stage as defined by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. We mixed them back into the deck and then did a reading for ourselves based on which stage showed up first. There were more questions to ask ourselves about the situation or person we were grieving and more cards drawn and interpreted. For me, at this time, grieving a loss is not an issue. When I went through my cards “Acceptance” was the first card up. (This is why I love tarot so much. It just gets it.) Over the course of my life I have lost quite a few people. When anniversaries come around this reading will be very useful to me. I can imagine it working well with a trusted client as well.
The last part of his class was to use tarot to deal with a Curveball Experience. Sometimes awful things happen suddenly and with no warning. Getting a handle on the situation and to help yourself process it James created the Curveball layout. Again, not apropos to my life right now but the genius and gentle power of it guarantees that it will be in my repertoire should the need arise for myself or a client.
Everything about this class was strong and gentle, just like James himself. His ideas and processes are very loving and brave. Digging deep into yourself in the quest for understanding yourself, your feelings and the best way to process it all is scary work sometimes. James didn’t flinch from this. He lost his beloved father just the past January and yet held space for all of us to do this work.
This class was a truly singular experience that will stay with me for a very long time. Thank you, Sir James.