Magical Thinking

If I’m mired in grief, it’s not for Mum’s death alone. Since March there have been so many losses:  four mothers dead, and only one of them mine, and another just 42, just last week.

This will surprise no one, but it’s not my grief that’s the most difficult, but the anguish of these bereft others. Because I know that anguish, down to each exquisite, excruciating detail, but I’m as helpless as anyone else to carry it for them, or even to get them to the other side. How can I? I’m not there yet myself.

And anyway, I don’t believe there is another side, just a coming-to-terms with the gaping lack that will forever lie at the center of your life. Learning to run like a three-legged dog — from certain angles others could forget what’s missing. The miracle that maybe a few times a day you will, too.

I delayed reading The Year of Magical Thinking a long time, thinking I might not be able to bear it.  But I found Joan Didion a kindred companion. It’s not so much that she’s unflinching — she flinches plenty, with plenty reason — but there’s an austerity to her tone, a matter-of-factness that refuses to apologize for itself:

‘I had done it. I had acknowledged that he was dead. I had done this in as public a way as I could conceive.

Yet my thinking on this point remained suspiciously fluid. At dinner in the late spring or early summer I happened to meet a prominent academic theologian. Someone at the table raised a question about faith. The theologian spoke of ritual itself being a form of faith. My reaction was unexpressed but negative, vehement, excessive even to me. Later I realized that my immediate thought had been: But I did the ritual. I did it all. I did St. John the Divine. I did the chant in Latin, I did the Catholic priest and the Episcopal priest, I did “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past” and I did “In paradisum deducant angel.

And it still didn’t bring him back.

“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. “Seeing it clearly” did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need.’

— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

From the descriptions of her husband and their marriage that she laces throughout the narrative, you see that their lives were deeply intertwined, that they loved each other’s very thoughts. Didion relates the wild weavings, the unspoken beliefs we harbor in the backs of our minds, with an understatement that only serves to underscore the depth of her loss.

Grief comes to us all, but every grief is as unique as the one grieved. There’s no way around, only through. Didion’s book is more than a chronicle of a year’s grief, but a critical delving of that journey in 226 taut pages.

I borrowed this book from the library, and renewed it once already, though I’ve finished reading it, because I find so much in Didion’s emotional experience and her delineation of that experience that resonates for me, so many passages I want to return to.

Knowing it ends before the death of her daughter, I found myself wanting a second book, wanting the tribute to her husband that this book truly is be given to her daughter as well.

And so she has: Blue Nights is being published this fall.

*

CREDO / Ariana Kelly

When I say loss, I mean loss.
Blue is elaborated by the blue jay,
black by the black fly,

but loss only licks the wounds
of more loss. Likewise,
the sea does not equivocate,

nor do the trees hesitate
in their implications.
Wind moves through the leaves,

italicizing them.

(from Poetry Northwest, Vol.VI, Issue I, Spring & Summer 2011)

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Emperor of All Maladies hastens The Long Goodbye

But first: The Massachusetts Poetry Festival begins tomorrow! The poetry world will descend on Salem and it will be awesome. (Aside: I was researching parking etc on Google, and, as I began to note the many paranormal/witchy shops, wondered, What’s up with that? Yeah, that’s me, just a little slow on the uptake.) Saturday is the small press fair, my favorite event of all. If you’re planning on being there, be sure to stop by and visit me at the Tupelo table!

*

I read The Emperor of All Maladies in the fall, but never talked about it after, though I meant to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to The Long Goodbye. The first is a fat compendium of all things cancer — the history of its discovery, the evolution of our understanding of it as a varied disease, the progress and perils of cancer research, as well as the stories of researchers, doctors, and patients themselves. The second is a memoir of love and loss of a mother to cancer, intimate, exquisite, and painful. Both are essential reading.

Cancer is a topic you’re only allowed to discuss within a certain framework. You must be positive, talk about fighting it, be plucky. What we don’t consider by blithely subscribing to this terminology is how doing so proscribes a value judgment on the way patients handle their diseases. Every cancer is different, and while being optimistic may be a good way to get through a shitty day, it’s not the liminal factor in survival. A patient who receives his diagnosis with depression and despair isn’t weak, just realistic. My mother was cheerful and determined, but that didn’t keep her alive; her handling of cancer was an extension of who she’d always been, and we should accept that of whoever is dealing with illness, not demand that a life-threatening diagnosis suddenly effect a personality transplant, and then blame the patient when that doesn’t happen. Folks are dying, the last thing they need is our expectations, or worse, directions, on how that should proceed.

One of the things I love about The Long Goodbye is how honest M O’R is about her and her family’s flaws as they fumbled through her mother’s illness. The mistakes, the flares of pettiness or just plain selfishness. Because we can’t always be our best selves in the best of times never mind the worst of the worst. Illness is hard work, caregiving is hard work. Brutally elementary and elemental. This is life, this is death, and while there are moments of amazing transcendence, losing your mother is permanent, final, and nothing less than awful.

Raina Wallens has a piece over at The Rumpus that wonders why 5 grief memoirs in a few years is considered so notable. For those of us in its grip, these memoirs of grief are vital:

Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?

Live long enough, or not! — death touches us all. And, statistically speaking, cancer as well. The Long Goodbye hurts to read. It should, the story it tells is deeply human. But it’s funny, too, and anyway, isn’t reading about opening ourselves to the wider experience of what it means to be human? M O’R marshaled her inner resources to tell this story, and in the telling, honors her mother’s memory. To read it is to lose her mother with her, and your own as well, the emotion is that palpable. But what a mother she was, and how glad I am to have met her, even though that meeting was in the pages of a book. And the conversation M O’R has started about grief is long overdue.

The nature of cancer is as protean as the nature of grief. If you take only one thing away from The Emperor of All Maladies (though there’s so much more), it should be that there can be no cure-all. This is a critical shift we need to make in our thinking about cancer — we’re so obsessed with magic bullets. But cancer is wiggly, and adaptive, and endlessly varied. Cancer isn’t even cancer, but cancers. The most we can hope for is cancer as something we live with, but don’t die of. Cancers as chronic diseases, akin to diabetes, or COPD. Not curable, progressive even, but treatable, not immediately fatal. Not any more of a death sentence than life itself.

*

I’m not afraid to remember my mother as she was at the end of her life, weakened and frail. She wasn’t less just because she was sick. Any moment more was precious. Her smile still lit her careworn face.

I mention this because many people said to us that they were sorry they hadn’t visited my mother as she became ill, but they couldn’t bear to see her “that way.” I understand, but.

But.

They lost out. They lost their chance to be with her and be there for her.

And I want to urge you (all three of my readers): if you’re ever in that position, go. Go often. You’ll be needed, in a thousand little ways, and you’ll be making memories, memories you’ll draw on in a thousand little ways later, after.

As I’ve said, critical illness has a way of burning away the inessentials. Visiting someone you love, someone who’s dying…really, what could be easier?

Mum with her oncologist at the cancer center's St. Patrick's Day party, 6 days before she died.

The Big Poetry Giveaway 2011 Winners!

Thanks so much again to Kelli Russell Agodon for putting this whole shebang together, and thanks to everyone who participated. National Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of the year, but this year I’ve been otherwise occupied. Thanks all of you for coming on by and helping me keep my head on straight.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for. Remember, if you don’t win, that lit journal subscriptions are the most affordable ways to sample a wide array of poetry. The winners, as chosen by the Random Number Generator (and you’ll note that the numbers run from 1 to 45 — while there are 47 comments, 2 are trackbacks):

Winners, look for my email announcement in your inboxes — congratulations and enjoy!

Beyond any notion of a beginning

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.

But, oh hell, you keep trying.

— Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye

I’m back to stories again; they’re inescapable. The thing is, more than ways of making sense of your life, they can be companions, ones who’ve been there before you. Maybe they can’t show you the path through the dark woods — because there is no one true path, is there — but they can keep you company as you go. It’s an unspeakable help.

I was lucky enough to receive in today’s mail an advanced reader’s copy of The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. I will write about it when I finish — I’m 40 pages in and find it painful and exquisite and necessary. Reading about her parents’ courtship reminded me of the story I learned from my mother just a few years ago —

At 21, my mother went on a double date with her best friend, Estelle, and her beau. This was in Georgia. Dad was a yankee, only there because he’d joined the Navy and was in training at Fort Benning. My dad was a mate of this beau, and he had a car. They chose my mom’s date, my dad, because he had a car.

They hit it off: engaged in 4 weeks, married in 6. Can you imagine?

How our lives can be hinged on the most random details.

One of my brothers tells me that they had a rough patch in the 1970s, but I don’t remember that. I remember him giving her a kiss every day before he left for work — actually, it was more like a series of kisses — their goodbyes were always long.

But his leaving was abrupt. A massive heart attack at 49. It never occurred to me that my mother would remarry. Some do. But I knew — he was her all. She’s never stopped missing him.

A critical illness brings you up short any number of ways. Points a finger at you and asks, What do you believe, anyway?

I was brought up Catholic, but aside from various ceremonies haven’t been in a church in a decade. I think of myself as agnostic/borderline atheist. I might allow that there might be creators up there, but if so they’re much too busy to bother with us and our insignificant lives.

And yet it appears somehow I’ve harbored the hazy half-formed belief that the universe owes me for taking my father so soon. As if the universe has ever been an entity that bargained. Or apologized.

My mother’s universe is shrinking to the size of two rooms.

She sleeps in a recliner, and has for months — stairs are simply insurmountable. Neuropathy in her hands and feet cause her hands to shake so much that she needs her meals cut for her, can only drink from cups with handles.

The bathroom is but a few feet from her chair, but it’s still too far these days. She has a walker, but her every movement takes an infinite amount of energy, leaves her depleted and exhausted.

She’s sleeping much more than she was just two weeks ago. She’s not as alert as she was, becomes confused easily. Her pain meds haven’t significantly changed. This isn’t morphine brain. This is cancer, on the march.

Among other things, she’s on oxygen, fentanyl patch, oxycodone, several steroids, and a diuretic — her feet have swollen to the point where the skin has cracked and become infected. No more chemo until it heals.

And she didn’t have chemo last week because her platelets were low. Chemo was interrupted earlier to try radiation on the metastasis in her spine. And during these necessary interims between chemo her cancer counts have sky-rocketed.

Her legs are weak. Tomorrow she’s having an MRI to see where else the cancer’s traveled.

But she still wants chemo. She may be dying, but she’s not ready to stop trying to live.

I may never be ready to live in a world without my mother, but it feels like some sort of grace that we’re being given this long goodbye.

(Who’s doing the giving? Don’t expect consistency from this quarter.)

And in the grand and small scheme of things, it’s not about me. Because with or without her, I’ll get to keep on living.

Too True

The 4 truths and one lie about myself, with the lie revealed:

  1. My tenth grade teacher called me the Emily Dickinson of our class. When I showed him my next poem, he took a friend aside to inquire about my mental health. I laughed. “Poetic license, dude!”  **TRUE. My first lesson that readers often confuse the speaker of the poem with the poet herself, that poetry occupies a middle ground between fiction & nonfiction that the average reader finds challenging to navigate.
  2. While working during the Thanksgiving weekend as the manager of a mall store in my early 20′s, I gave directions to one of my favorite soap opera stars. I didn’t act weirdly or ask for his autograph, just smiled big so he’d know I knew, see how cool I am?  **TRUE. My introduction to soap operas was my grandmother, who lived with us the last couple years of her life. The soap she never missed, which became the soap I never missed (until I moved away & stopped watching soaps) was “Another World,” and my favorite character was Cass Winthrop, a smart-ass lawyer played by Stephen Schnetzer. He apparently had family in the area that he was visiting for the holiday weekend, and they came to the mall. I can’t remember where I gave him directions to, but indeed I smiled a mile wide. I’m smiling now. I love that guy.
  3. I have a heart-shaped uterus. Is that TMI? **TRUE, due to a small septum.
  4. My twin brother was born 4 minutes before me. My mother didn’t know she was having twins until after he was born. “Whoops! Guess what…!”  **FALSE. I have a twin, and my mother didn’t know she was having twins until the first one was born, but the first twin born was ME.
  5. I haven’t written a new poem since December.  **TRUE, sadly enough. Between trips to my mum, AWP, and illness, nary a poem has been written. I’ll amend that soon. I hope.

There you have it. So the winner is Donna! And the runner-up, for her kind, if  misplaced, benefit of the doubt, is Victoria. Both of youse email me your snail mail addresses ( mgauthier DOT hunger AT gmail DOT com ) and I’ll send you something wonderful next week.

In the spirit with which it was given

Many thanks to Karen for the Memetastic Award (which I keep reading as the Metatastic Award, but nevermind) and the sweet and generous things she said about me and my blog. This is just the sort of thing I’m terrible at — I never met a chain letter I didn’t break, never confronted a set of rules I didn’t feel compelled to vary — but nominating 5 more bloggers is the easy part, though it’s not exactly easy to limit myself to 5. In no particular order:

  1. Emma Bolden: She writes really long posts on topics as divergent as poetry & pedagogy & play-doh, and includes such awesome visual aids as stick-figure chalkboard drawings and “pirate vs. ninja” — go, now.
  2. Carolee Sherwood: Her struggles for balance between art & family, rough drafts of poems, book reviews — Carolee is open about it all, a bright light showing the way.
  3. Jeannine Hall Gailey: Health challenges, various moves initiated by forementioned health challenges, employment travails, all while maintaining an active (& fruitful! new book due this summer!) creative life. Pluck, thy name is Jeannine. Where else can you go to get a shot of Buffy with your poetry?
  4. January Gill O’Neil: Poet mom of two, MassPoetry committee member, January took the question of how to market yourself as a poet from taboo to front & center. Her packed schedule shows she knows what she’s talking about!
  5. Amy Dryansky: Her blog’s title says it all: “Pokey  Mama — Poet. Mother. Worker. Member of the slow-parenting movement.” The out-of-order chronicles of how one poet birthed a book and babies, and what happened next. Among other things.

Some of my other favorite blogs have already been nominated elsewhere. Thanks to all of you for expanding my universe and providing endless hours of reading pleasure.

The next part of the requirements is for me to tell you 5 things about myself, only 1 of which is true. Instead I’ll tell you 4 truths and 1 lie. Which is the falsehood?:

  1. My tenth grade teacher called me the Emily Dickinson of our class. When I showed him my next poem, he took a friend aside to inquire about my mental health. I laughed. “Poetic license, dude!”
  2. While working during the Thanksgiving weekend as the manager of a mall store in my early 20’s, I gave directions to one of my favorite soap opera stars. I didn’t act weirdly or ask for his autograph, just smiled big so he’d know I knew, see how cool I am?
  3. I have a heart-shaped uterus. Is that TMI?
  4. My twin brother was born 4 minutes before me. My mother didn’t know she was having twins until after he was born. “Whoops! Guess what…!”
  5. I haven’t written a new poem since December.

I’ll tell you the One False Thing in a few days. To add even more fun: The first person who guesses which is the LIE in the comments gets a free somethingorother. So have at it. AMENDMENT: only one guess per reader, but every reader who guesses correctly will get a treat. Why be unnecessarily limiting?

For those I’ve nominated, in hopes you’ll have fun with this: The rules: 1. link back to the blogger who awarded you. 2. Display the graphic from the award creator. 3. Post five facts, four of which must be lies and 4. Pass the award to five other bloggers who should follow these rules.

All good things come to an end.

I ended up spending most of my time at the Tupelo tables, which was an excellent anchor and fun fun fun, but I’m happy that the panels I attended were comprised of poetry readings. My favorites among the poets I saw: Claudia Emerson, Kate Daniels, Sidney Wade, Keetje Kuipers, Ross Gay, Paisley Rekdal, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and all the other Tupelo poets. I’m too tired to link.

Friends I saw/spent time with, and new friends I made: Sandy Longhorn, Rhett & Jeff Trull, the fabulous duo behind NewPages, Denise & Casey Hill, Nicelle Davis, Lori May, Martha Silano, Kelli Russell Agodon, Bernadette Geyer, the dynamic Adam Deutsch of Cooper Dillon, Mary Biddinger, Jennifer Jean, January Gill O’Neil… there’s more, I know there’s more, but the thing is that now I’m sick as all get-out, and my mind’s not right. I’m going to eat breakfast, check out, catch a taxi to the train station, and attempt to read & relax for the next 7 hours.

To my everlasting regret, I didn’t take many pictures, but I have this one, of Sandy & me. It was a big delight to meet face to face and talk, but we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time together. The same could be said of all the names above.

It was a terrific time. While I’ve been gone, Lance has been dealing with water pouring from our ceiling due to all the snow & ice dams on the roof of our building. He actually had to move everything out of my office. Poor dear. Going home…

The Lovely Marriott Wardman Park

I had a movie moment at 7:07 this morning, running to catch my train that was due to depart at 7:10 am. We New Englanders are accustomed to driving in the snow, but even so, it took a loooong time to drive a not-that-far distance… I’ll leave it at that, we’ve all got our traveling scars this year! I did catch my train, and I made it to DC, and my lovely lovely hotel room. With any luck, I’ll post more pictures tomorrow. Let the wild rumpus begin!