Scene: The Spy family dinner table. AJ has just had some rather nasty oral surgery that involved rather a lot of anesthesia (The anesthesiologist: “We just kept giving him more and we’d think he was asleep and then he’d say something like, ‘My nose itches,’ and we’d say ‘Yes, that’s because we just stuck a tube of oxygen up it.’ And we’d give him another hit.”). We were discussing how some people we know take September 11 off work because they don’t want to be in a different boroughs from their children.
Mr. Spy: Can you imagine if you were having your surgery during September 11?
AJ: [Shakes head gingerly]
Harriet: But there must have been surgeries happening and babies being born.
AJ: I wonder if you got braces and the Apocalypse came, would you have braces forever?
* * * * *
Catholic school and anesthesia: do not mix them lightly!
[The patient is resting comfortably, by the way.]
Do you remember that time when you were a kid, maybe 8, maybe 10, and your parents kissed you goodbye, locked the front door behind them and went to the neighbor’s house for a cup of sugar, a chat, or some mysterious thing called “cocktails,” leaving you home alone? Do you remember that moment where it seems like the bottom has fallen out of the universe just for a minute, where you think,”But what am I supposed to DO?” And then how you realize you know exactly what to do? That’s pretty much been the last three weeks at work for me. Everything’s changed and nothing has changed. It’s an odd combination.
My boss is gone for a few months and my other boss is gone for a week. The inmates are running the asylum. But we’re well behaved inmates with an excellent work ethic, so it’s mostly okay, as long as we don’t remember to stop and think, “Do I really know what I’m doing?”
* * * * *
In case you were wondering, Mr. Spy is in the next room playing his third straight cover of The Vertebrats’ “Left in the Dark.” I wasn’t sure who it was (it turned out to be Uncle Tupelo) at first and because I am lazy and didn’t want to walk 12 feet to his computer, which would have involved, you know, standing, I opted to google the song name. The first two hits are 1. Meat Loaf, and 2. Barbra Streisand. They are singing different songs, but it made me desperately want a Streisand-Meat Loaf mega-concert. I am costuming it in my head. And also wondering whether Babs would address him as “Mr. Loaf” or “Meat.”
* * * * *
My second full time job at the moment is navigating high school admission season, which is in full swing. There are spreadsheets involved. And books. And did you know you need tickets to go to school open houses? And sometimes they sell out faster than a Broadway show (although they’re a lot cheaper). Insanity. If the open houses are this hard to get into, what about the schools.
This will take a lot of wine. And maybe a massage or two. And possibly a shrink. Welcome to New York. This seems to be how most people deal with living here.
And how is your September?
I am having a stellar vacation by the sea, which is where all the best vacations are. I have kayaked every day but one. I have seen a bald eagle, swum in a lake, paddled a canoe, drowned my cell phone (see aforementioned canoe), eaten lobster and fudge and lobster and saltwater taffy and lobster and oysters and lobster. Because this is Maine and this is what you do.
One thing to mar the trip — Scottish folksinger Jean Redpath died. Her voice has been a fixture of my life for some time. I’m feeling quite sad about it. In her honor, please read a blog entry I wrote a number of years ago (8?!? Is that possible?) based on a crazy evening and a song I once heard her sing: “The Secret Chord.” And if you’re interested, I talk a bit about the song and how it got into the story I told and also about memoir and the perils and importance of what is fact and fiction in the subsequent post, “True or False.”
Wow, has it really been nearly a month since I’ve posted? My apologies. I will try to reform. It’s happened because I’m doing a lot more writing at work, which makes me want to step away from the keyboard when I get home. But I miss this space and I miss the kind of writing I do here. Work writing is interesting in its own way, but aggravating too. I explain a lot of the writing I do like this:
When I was in sixth grade, we had an assignment to write out instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich. The goal was to teach us to be specific. On the day the assignments were due, our teacher brought in several jars of peanut butter and jelly an a whole lot of bread. She then had us read our instructions aloud and she followed them, taking care to do something ridiculous if the opportunity arose. You got to eat the sandwich made according your instructions at the end. Most people were handed sandwiches dripping jelly from the outside, bread shredded from being spread with the wrong end of the knife. One person got a plastic bag covered in peanut butter, as he’d neglected to mention the importance of removing the bread from its packaging. I was one of two people in the class who got a perfect sandwich. I’d thought it through. I’d put in such an insane amount of detail that people laughed as I read my recipe, but I’d left no margin for error. I’m not sure if this says good things about my character. But the sandwich was delicious.
There aren’t too many writing assignments I remember over the years, and this teacher was not a particularly inspiring one overall, but this was actually a pretty useful lesson to learn, and one I use nearly every day, probably to the annoyance of my coworkers. It’s essential in dealing with outside contractors, often based overseas, who don’t fully understand what we do. But it’s mentally exhausting to work this way.
This week’s assignments are different though. They’re more like term papers, requiring research and a more analytical bent. One is an assignment I get every summer, and deals with planning out the next year. The other happens much less frequently and requires me to analyze what we’ve done over the last five and me projections and recommendations for future long-term development. In another kind of job– say, manufacturing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — I might find this work tedious. But because what I do is intimately tied up with the things I love best, it’s a lot more like writing an academic paper on my field of specialty. And I’m finding my writing procedures to be similar. I’ve already written a complete draft that I tossed out the window altogether to start over with something completely different. I never seem to learn the lesson that if I start too early, I do twice as much work. It is my process and after this many decades, I fear I am stuck with it.
After a 14-hour day yesterday, I’d knocked off an acceptable draft of the annual document and made it about halfway through the other. It’s coming on vacation with me, alas. But I almost don’t mind. It’s an interesting thing to think about, at least to me. The first one was the bigger concern, as unlike previous years, instead of handing it off for my boss for approval, I’ve got to sign of on my own work (and that of a few others). And everyone knows what a hardass I am about deadlines.
But the first morning of vacation is sacred, so this is the only writing I’m doing today. There will, however, be a lot of laundry and packing and cleaning. Probably some swearing and arguing too. But tomorrow morning, we will be pointed toward the ocean, where I always find redemption.
When I am stressed, I clean. This morning, when I should be packing and showering, I have already removed everything from one of our banks of shelves, have washed them down, reorganized, thrown things away. I have done two loads of laundry and have washed the dishes. I emptied the vase on the mantel and refilled it with clean water, cutting back the dead stems. My house smells like reconstituted lemons.
Somewhere in my head, an observant little voice is reminding me that this is therapy. That the fact that I’m having trouble unplugging from work is because that’s where I feel competent and in control. I’m conjuring emergency scenarios in my head about work that won’t happen until October just because planning to prevent emergencies means I can prevent them. When facing an emergency that I was utterly unable to prevent, it’s what I need to get by, I think.
This has been the longest week. Last night I told my mother Andrew had been gone for more than a week and I didn’t realize my mistake until AJ looked at me like I was crazy. Since Monday feels like a week. I’ve completely lost track of what day it is. Alarms and reminders are getting me through the day. Alarms and reminders will make sure AJ and I are on our plane tonight. I’m counting on being swept into the family orbit when we arrive. There is safety in numbers.
It’s over and it’s just beginning. Some families fly apart when crisis strikes. Ours winds tighter than a top. It’s feeling very strange to be on the East Coast with AJ while everyone else is back in Chicago.
Plans are mostly made, tickets bought. Tomorrow we sort out the things we need to wear. I left the office midday today to come work at home, but I was too scattered to get much done, instead pacing around the apartment, not sure what to do with my hands.
Mostly it’s about lists, but occasionally the sadness hits, when trying to figure out how to end a phone call, while walking up tenth street with the Weepies’ “Can’t Go Back Now” shuffling onto my headphones.
This song was sent to me by a friend who died a few years back much too young. Violet would occasionally suggest songs to me that she thought I would like and ask if I might learn to play them. The first Weepies song she sent me was “The World Spins Madly On,” which she gave me, I think, for safekeeping. It had been one of her favorites but now it reminded her of someone she was trying to forget. And I learned it and play it, but, at her request, not for her, although she sometimes asked to hear things. “Can’t Go Back Now” was the second, and I never took to it as much as the first. But I kept it on my iPod because she gave it to me a couple of weeks before she died and it makes me think of her when I hear it. Hearing the song this afternoon felt like a haunting, like a message I needed to hear. When I started crying in the middle of Fifth Avenue, I wasn’t entirely sure why — it seemed like a purely physical response, turned on by a musical switch. But I think it was for both of them. And I was grateful for my sunglasses.
There are so many lists. Things to bring. Things to do. People to call. Meetings to cancel. Our whole lives are revolving around this now, so it’s odd to be out in the streets where people are oblivious to the center of our universe. It’s why Auden’s “Funeral Blues” always hits home. When somebody you love dies, you want to everyone to notice that the world is now a different place.
For those closest to her, though, the worst is, I think, over, and they are coming out on the other side, now concentrating on plans and arrangements and learning to readjust their rhythms. We are grateful for rules and the people who follow them. We seize the templates that we’ve heard all our lives as if they are liferafts — I’m sorry for your loss, She was a lovely woman, It’s so lucky her children were with her at the end — and learn that while they’ve always felt like empty words when we’ve said them, they are anything but. They are a lifeline, a comfort, a pattern that holds us up as we nod and say “thank you” and mean it with our whole hearts.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying.
It helps to say it, that thing we all know to be true.
Really, we are all dying. She’s just closer to the jumping off point. She’s the one who reminds us how it is.
I am watching from afar as Mr. Spy goes back and forth to hold her hand, each time wondering if it will be the last. Probably thinking about how many times she was the one who grabbed for his hand.
Dying is a messy business, made only more so by our inclination to prop it up in an out of the way corner with a screen about it to tidy it up. We are afraid to look at it, afraid of what might be looking back at us. And yet, as with many things, it’s less terrifying to stare than to hide your eyes.
It could be days, it could be weeks. No one knows for sure. It’s not really any different for the rest of us, which is what makes it so unsettling. We like to pretend that we’re safe, that it is different, that we are different. We don’t want to know how it’s going to be.
We are oddly comforted by the plans we make. We order plane tickets and rental cars. We research hotel rooms and bereavement fares. We review our wardrobes to make sure we have something to wear in case of a funeral. It should seem morbid, but it doesn’t. Instead, it brings dying into our home in a way we can process. It’s a practical thing, a real thing. It’s something to do.
Mr. Spy’s mother is dying from a million small things and nothing at all. Her dying is utterly ordinary except to those who stand around her, not knowing quite what to do and to those who stand around them, not knowing how to comfort them. The doctors have taken over doing what they do, which is to try to make the dying stop. But is that the best thing? No one wants to be the one to say no. And who can blame them?
The doctors are discussing things. The doctors are saying there’s nothing they can do. We should be sad, but it is more of a relief. We are released, absolved, almost. But there is still the waiting and the holding of her papery-thin hand with its transparent skin.