Love is not a profession
genteel or otherwise
sex is not dentistry
the slick filling of aches and cavities
you are not my doctor
you are not my cure,
nobody has that
power, you are merely a fellow/traveler.
So, I got what I wanted. I refused to be emotionally manipulated and talked into inconveniencing myself. I’ll be moving in as planned, just a little bit later in the day.
It was not easy, but as we talked, and as I (tried) not to interrupt (did not always succeed), I began to hear how different our communication styles are, how we were seeing each other as a result of our words and actions that reflected our past traumas and fears. But for both of us- neither perception was accurate, neither version was our best selves. The version of this girl that I got was not really her - and the version of me that she got was not really me.
When we engage in conflict, when we react to trauma, when we confront negativity, we all react in different ways. The conflict gets escalated when we cannot communicate. The way I tried to communicate with her conveyed anger; the way she tried to communicate with me conveyed manipulation. The heart of the issue was so simple,
I’d like to stay an extra day?
Sorry, my answer is no.
But all our words words and more words get in the way. As I’m releasing the issue and preparing to start my new life, what I need to take away from this little battle is to temper my own reactions, to breathe and think of a simpler way. And then, at the end of the day, to let everything go and start again with an open heart and a clear mind.
I just returned from ten days in South Carolina, the place of my parents and grandparents. My roots, my home place, are in dry and dusty Chester county, in farmers and road makers, in engineers and bankers, in teachers and nurses. In a small little interwoven town called great falls, where everyone knows everybody else. It’s a town, now, where the obituaries are read daily by my grandmothers and their friends, amid memento mori conversations about arthritis, diabetes and heart ailments, broken hips and knee replacements.
And this week my Mema Hilda Love Price Gladden joined the ranks of those who were ill, then quickly the dying, and before we knew it, she was gone.
Time always seems to slow down in the south, as the hours form long hot days and fade unto dusky summer nights, but I had never known the contortions time could take before now. Minutes stretched into what felt like hours as she suffered through breathing treatments that did nothing to cure her pneumonia, because there was so much more wrong with her lungs than that. Stolen reprieves outside the hospital were stretched with calls to the outside, trips to mc Donald’s, perpetual iPhone checking.
The hours between 7 am and 10:30 am last Thursday, waiting for the doctor to come and tell her the truth that all of us knew, that she had said just minutes before, “there’s something rotten inside me”. Lung cancer, collapsed and collapsing her lungs, metastasizing to her glands, compounding her irregular heartbeat, her pneumonia, her arthritis.
And then, after the diagnosis, the efficiency of the transition. The medical supply company was there by 3:30, had trained me in giving oxygen, raising and lowering beds, cleaning the various apparatuses that would make her last days more comfortable. A steady hum of oxygen is switched on, greets her when she walks through the door of her home for the last time. Quickly, we learn to use bedpans, dampen cold cloths, and lean close for her requests.
And then the time is ruled by her pain. We sit, round the clock, checking dosages by the hour. On sunday morning, the hospice nurse tells us that hourly morphine will help us keep ahead of her pain. We crush up the pills that she can no longer swallow.
We sit, we eat, we drink whiskey and beer and tell stories. At one point, my uncle ray suggests we shoot his gun, and I say, why not. it passes the time to aim, focus and fire at the plastic bottles. (we create an unspeakable amount of waste this week). I learn things about my grandparents that I never knew before, I see them through the eyes of visiting uncles aunts even my cousins, whose relationship to my grandmother is closer and less complex than my and my sister’s, tainted by a history of disapproval, coda the late, last reconciliation. Three years ago, my mothers partner was finally invited to the house. This Christmas, mema hilda asked her to sing at her funeral. We start to think about how we’ll remember her.
I’ll remember this week for the rest of my life, but I hope that I won’t only, always see her at the last. The utter finality of dying, rendered both tragic and grotesque by the small indignities, of diapers and nakedness and spittle, stands in such diametrical opposition to who she was in life, it was hard to believe it was the same woman. The small, indomitable spirit, in a turtle neck, smoking a cigarette and telling you how to load the dishwasher “the right way” could not allow such things. Her pristine surfaces are cluttered with the detritus of illness, cans of ginger ale and apple sauce, a million tissues.
After the end, which is marked by a quiet change of breathing and then, the last breath, it all changes again.
We each begin our purifying ritual - I tidy up, Hannah bakes a pie, my uncle showers, my cousin plans to make ribs. An onslaught of food begins. The plans made and left with the funeral home are carried out. Those of us who came earlier, without dark clothes and dress shoes, have to go to Columbia. There is the visitation one night, the funeral the next morning. None of it seems real.
We sit on the floor of her living room, where she died three days before, the afternoon of the funeral. The cousins, all four of us, are playing jenga on the carpet. Take us away, we are mostly adults, in control of our lives, but here in this place, this afternoon, we trash talk, we cheer, we swig beer and rejoice if our sibling crashes the tower and loses.
“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive.” Eckhart Tolle
The other day in class, we did a simulation of a crisis management situation on an exchange program between a US college and the College of Mumbai. By a random luck of the draw, I was the professor traveling with the students, and of course, in the middle of the simulation shit storm. There was yelling, students being rude, lots of questions, lots of problems, tons of drama. It was totally exhilarating, yet stressful at the same time.
It brought back all the emotions of my India year right back to the surface. The highs and lows of the semester, the boredom and excitement, the challenge of answering a million questions and demands all at once. It was so exciting to be back in the thick of things - to have responsibility, to be the expert. But there was also the return of the short temper, the pressure, the stress.
Then of course, class ended and it was done. Where, somewhat to my surprise, things have been going pretty smoothly. I have my second-year practicum lined up (headed back to CVille to work for Semester at Sea); I’m in talks to rent an adorable house for cheap; a friend’s dad has generously agreed to loan me a car for the year; and I even think I’ll be able to pay the second year’s tuition without more student loans.
And, just like the cherry on top of all this, is that I’ve got a man friend to spend the last few weeks in Vermont with - going for runs in the woods, working on papers together, you know typical grad school romance stuff. Its probably not going to go further than the end of the semester, but its been pretty great so far.
I’m even exercising regularly, meditating a few times a week. I seem to have somehow found my way out of the craziness that characterized my India year, and even last summer and my first semester of grad school. When I think about it now - where I was a year ago - it seems like a different world. There was so much emotion, so little outlet, so much energy and time that was spent on things that didn’t make me happy.
But now that I’m in this place, where I’m actually able to live the kind of life I want, moving towards these bigger goals, I can see the difference. Now that I’m here, I feel about the same level of joy, of enjoyment, of everyday ecstasy that I did back then. But the anger, the frustration, the sadness, the anxiety - that is what I’m learning to let go.
In its place, I’ve found there is room for so many other beautiful things. When I turn off the voice in my head and get on the trail, it turns out there are frogs bellowing, streams babbling, stars shining and the sound of my breath. There’s a quiet sense of being in the moment. There’s the making of connections, of serving others, of being a part of something bigger than myself.
Its not there all the time, its not there yet. The quiet sometimes scares me, as I wait for the other shoe to drop. At times, like lunch today, I wonder to myself, how did it all turn out so well? How am I so lucky? What can I do with this gift, this sense of well-being?
And I haven’t come up with an answer much better than what my friend Whitney said to me at lunch - “Enjoy it”.
So that’s what I’ll be doing this next year. En-joy-ing my life. Finding the joy.
Celebrating it, cherishing it. Taking the time to learn and grow and do things the right way. Chasing that sense of something bigger, something more. Getting to know the quiet.