April 22, 2010

April 22, 2010

Two days after the oil from a mile deep British Petroleum well began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate so voluminous that nobody seemed to have the first idea how to quell it (remember the dumping of old tires and tennis shoes onto the leak?), and two days after a shotgun wielding man (in local Wichita Falls news) dispatched the doorman at a night club then took off for the local Hastings bookstore where he shot and injured seven others in pursuit of a former girlfriend before putting the gun to his own soon-to-be-lifeless self,

Mom died.

She had been wheeled in on her bed to the Serenity Room at the Christian Care Center in the same town where all that gunfire had occurred two nights before- a tastefully furnished, subtly lit room where people living at the Alzheimer’s Unit at the CCC were taken to breathe their last breaths. There were several Bibles in the room and the de rigeur book of Helen Steiner Rice poems (Oh, God, please don’t let anybody read HSR to me as I lay dying. Read to me from Mary Oliver instead, or Rumi, or Rilke, or Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, which made me laugh harder in 1972 than I have ever laughed before at anything in print, or since. )

I watched her breathe those breaths knowing that she was down to the last thousand or so of them, maybe less. Each breath was a separate, distinct, and instinctual breath now, a gasp- short, shallow, and separated by increasing seconds. At the beginnings of life, our breaths- the first ones- are reluctant ones, forced on us by organs within over which we have no control and which are a damn sight more harsh than the gentle liquid flow of oxygenated blood passed to us through our abdomen in the deep rhythms of our mother’s interior thumping and whooshing heart and lungs.

That  first mother- made music we hear has a great beat, is easy to dance to, and is never forgotten. We’re rarely conscious of it, until those times when it speeds up, misses a beat, or finally crescendos , then stops. Mom’s interior music had now become a pianissimo staccato. As I sat in front of her, about a foot away so she see me clearly, I could  feel  my own breathing beginning to match hers in either an unconsciously sympathetic rhythm or a prevenient rehearsal of my own someday swan song. Or perhaps both.

I thought incongruous thoughts as we breathed in strange tandem:  1. If the whole Gulf bottom rose in a massive methane burp (as some wild pundits were punditing) and engulfed all of the Southern states and Mexico and Cuba in a lethal greenish cloud, Mom would- hallelujah- be spared the burning, choking death the rest of us would suffer. 2. Please stop knocking on the door, Care Center workers, to see if I need anything. No. “I am watching my mom die, what could I possibly be in need of?” I didn’t say, but thought, each of the ten times it happened. 3. If I try to call Robbie, my brother, the kids, what will Mom hear me say to them (on the very off chance that she was still able to put words and thoughts together), and if I left the room and she died she would have died alone, so I went to a mirror in the room and angled it so I could see her even though my back was to her and called Robbie and my brother, the kids could wait.  4. And..

The time we stood on the corner in Akron waiting for the bus and I was holding her hand and her purse strap was in my hand and I thought I’m holding it and she’s holding it and then the bus came and she lifted me to the first step.

The time some young woman came to the front door and wanted a drink of water and I stood peeking around the kitchen doorway and the woman was crying and my mom held her hand even though she didn’t know who this woman was.

The time she fainted and fell under the dining room table after, earlier that day,  having some dental work done. I ran outside and found Dad but my mouth opened and I couldn’t say anything.

The time there was a note on the kitchen table when my brother and I got home from school. It said, “Dave and Denny” and “Dear Boys” but those two greetings had been crossed out and then this one: “My dearest sons” followed by the words “Grandpa died this morning..” and there was more and I can quote every word of it but fifty years later I can still cry remembering the utter poignancy of the words (and am).

The time I handed her one month old grandson to her at the airport.

The time she brought intricately decorated Santa Claus cookies to my fourth grade classroom and Grandma was with her.

The time I fell from the hay mow in Grandpa’s barn and had the air knocked out of me. Some cousin ran to the house and I looked up and saw Mom, Grandma, and Aunt Betty running- running!- to the barn. I remember their hair, their aprons, their dresses, their arms moving in..

almost a dance, a flurry of fast-moving color against the gray shingled house behind them..almost a dance, more like a furious rhythm, a crescendo of communal heartbeats, almost a dance..

like this one in the Serenity Room which came to an end about 10 p.m., just before many people would be watching  the latest news about the book store shootings and the disaster in the Gulf.

I sang “Amazing Grace” to her because I knew there would be – please?- some part of her that remembered, and then the breathing was down to the last three..two…….

one.

Since that night three years ago there have been  two grandchild weddings, and three great grandchildren: Charlotte, Robby, Ike, and another coming in July. A sister has died.

 And there have been many more oil leaks and spills in places all over the Earth.

Bernice Weber, center, with sisters

Bernice Weber, center, with sisters

One year ago, right now: Sitting, Singing, and Watching Mom as the dying finally came to an end

It was obvious by the time that Robbie and I got to the Care Center in Wichita Falls that Mom had physically moved to the final level of life before there is nothing left to do, but let go. She was moved to the Serenity Room, a pleasant room, quietly lit and furnished, and set aside from the other occupied rooms of the Center.

After several hours of being there together with her, Robbie left to drive the sixty miles back to Jacksboro, expecting to come back in the early morning. I planned to spend the night with Mom; we both thought, based on the guesses of the hospice nurses, that Mom had probably another twelve hours or so to go.

Inch by inch, synapse by synapse, Mom had begun dying at least eight years before that day. Friends from Ohio would call my brother and me and tell us they were concerned about Bea. Finally, Mom called me in the Spring of 1994 to tell me herself that she thought it was time that she stop driving a car. In itself, that was a great gift; I’d helped several families in the past with the tumultuous decision, sometimes necessarily involving deception, to get the car away from a mentally failing parent. Mom was making that part of the journey easy for us, but since I didn’t want her to change her mind, I flew to Ohio the next day, made arrangements there with her friends to watch over her, and drove the car back to Texas.

Several months later my brother and and me and our families moved Mom out of the house she had lived in for fifty years, five of them alone. It was a time of mourning for a great old homeplace for all of us, and we “left our mark” by burying a box full of momentos in the front yard. My brother buried a baseball bat, and I buried my high school graduation tassle, along with stubs of pencils and tractor tire valves Dad had carried in his pockets and a Christmas brooch mom had been given by an old friend (Mrs. Byers, for those who remember her).

We moved mom to an assisted living center in Alabama, but after two years there she began wandering into other people’s rooms, and could no longer be depended on to turn off the stove, so we moved her to more affordable assisted living apartments near Robbie and me in Texas, where she lived until July of 2009. She spent her days there walking the halls, looking for her hearing aid, and singing to herself in a strange guttural but rhythmic groan which she claimed was old hymns she remembered (“Mom, you’re singing too loud, shhh!” And would shhh for about 15 seconds and then begin again). We’d pick her up and take her to church, to restaurants for lunch, and to our house for gatherings when our children would visit. We tried so many times to help her make cookies or a pie or cakes, but finally gave up when we admitted to ourselves that that great passion of hers had ended. (I have dreamt about her rhubarb pie, and can even make a reasonable facsimile of it, but it is not hers.)

She liked our dogs a lot. (Who wouldn’t?)

But each day more and more of Mom was going away. She would ask about the “nice preacher” at church (me) and she would wonder when her mom (who died in 1990) was coming. She would call me “Ike” (my dad), Robbie was always “Karen” (her other daughter-in-law), and the pictures of six beloved grandchildren on her wall became the pictures of six strangers. She sometimes sat all day by the window looking out at the grass and the trees and the skies and I am grateful her mind moved into that particular mode of rest.

In July of ’09, Mom fell, with a broken hip, and here is where the story takes me into the only episodes of personal regret I have about the end-of-life experiences with Mom:

I gave her over to the “System” which is different, far different than what I call the Way. The Way is the way of the universe, the way of nature, the way of God. It the way that life is affirmed as life is meant to happen- a beginning born of love, a life lived in reflection of that love and other loves, and then a death, when the living/loving part of life is finished. The System, oppositely, has evolved from our human and demented notions of death as an unnatural state of ultimate illness, which is shaped and enhanced by a medical system full of many kind and skilled people, all of whom need paid, and are paid by a digitally-fueled power plant of insurance, Medicare, and- can I get a witness?- greed.

I gave her to the System when I should have had the calm, the sense, and the advice to allow her to step onto the Way. On the way of the Way she would have gone to a hospice, been bedridden, cared for, and allowed to experience the reason that causes poppies to grow on the earth: morphine. There would have needed to be no pain as infection would have set into the broken hip and eventually spread to her body, which, in all likelihood, would then have caused her to die of pneumonia. It would have lasted about a week to ten days. She wouldn’t have known what was happening. Robbie, my brother, Karen, or I would have been with her constantly.

But, she was in the hospital for about seven days instead, during which she twisted, and turned, pulled at her catheters and I.V.s constantly, got angry at me, Robbie for hurting her, trapping her, doing things “my Lord Jesus would never do to anyone!” Ancient religious fear, learned from shouting evangelists as a child, rose in her consciousness like an infection, and broke. It broke through a lifetime of unselfish service service to others, through years of Sunday School teaching with young people who loved her, through countless visits to older, forgotten women in the community, through so many hymns sung around the piano with her mother, Pap, and sisters, through a lifetime lived in the love of God, and it broke my and Robbie’s hearts. “Is the devil doing this to me?”

She went from the hospital to an Alzheimer’s care unit nearby where she lived the rest of life- eight more months. She walked around there, all day, every day, looking for her young brothers and sisters and her mom and dad. She would eat a little, lose more weight, remember almost nothing, walk some more, fall often from her bed near the floor surrounded by pads, poop in her clothes, complain (but kind of nicely) about much, and then the phone call, and the move to the Serenity Room.

Where she was, at last, serene again. For the final eight hours of her life she was awake, on her side, still, and without pain. Her face was no longer confused and I stayed in front of her as much as I could. I knew she was dying and I wanted more than anything for her to be with one who loved her. I talked to her about who was waiting for her, about Dad, Denny, Robbie, Karen, Joshua, Darcy, Sarah, Emily, Lizzie, and Bob (the last grandchild she remembered). I drew pastels of her which are too difficult to look at and I sang to her- “Amazing grace.”

“It’s Ok, Mom, go now. I love you, I love you, we love you. Dad is waiting, Grandma is waiting…go.”

And, one last breath..eyes still open, seeing me, seeing others..and she was gone. Almost exactly a year ago, to the hour as I write this.

Yes, I wish she could know her great-grandaughter Charlotte was born a couple weeks ago and that her great-grandchild in Australia will be born a few weeks from now, and maybe she does know. Charlotte and the still-unnamed child are the Codas to Mom’s life well-lived.

But such is life, and such is death, and she was on the Way once more, as we are on the Way..

Obituary

(this is a poem because I say it is. I don’t know why I wrote it, so don’t ask. In fact, don’t read it.)

Obituary

TSINGWALLER
HAROLD EVELYN “Jack” of MontMichel, Texas was born on a batting-filled mattress covered by a white, unstarched, 100% cotton percale sheet, from the womb of his mother, the former Jessica T. Southington, of Bryson, on the 17th of September, 1931.

He died of complications: too much beer, too much fear, and a genetic code born of innumerable impregnations of various women over the last several millennia.

He graduated from West Stovall High School in 1948. He is survived by everyone alive today. He was a member of the Siddartha Baptist Church, the Downtown Club of the MontMichel National Bank, and was the last active member of the Texas Communist Party. He worked briefly in the early 1960s as a file clerk in the offices of Sturm and Drang, an accounting firm, before entering oblivion through the doors of obscurity. He had several dogs and was known to have enjoyed medieval erotic literature in his later years.

At the time of his death on Friday night, “Jack” was folding the morning papers into a plastic bag to be deposited in the trash. A pain tore through the left side of his chest, and simultaneously, his left arm and neck. He dropped the bag and it and the papers were falling to the floor as the wall of his left ventricle burst open. His adrenal gland poured into the synaptical canals of his brain and he lost consciousness with the white vision of a wastebasket reflecting the buckle on his sixth grade teacher’s shoe, filling and defining his last moments of being.

He wanders now in the Elysian Fields just outside the perceptible dimensions that encompass Farm to Market Road #834 south of MontMichel, near the old gin.

A memorial service will be held in the chapel of Ramsbottom and Sons Funeral Home on Wednesday at 1:00. In lieu of flowers, few other things in life really matter.

 

David B.Weber, 2007

The Flapping of Butterfly Wings (connections)

November 15, 1951 Memorial Hospital, Decatur, Iowa.
Danny is born to Bob, a veteran of D-Day and his wife, Gloria,
who really did believe when she was twelve that she would marry
Clark Gable. But Bob is nice. And Danny will go to college.

November 16, 1951 Café d’soleil, Rue Montorgueil, Paris:
Ho and Nguyen gather up scribbled-upon napkins and
slip them into their pockets as Vlad, the Russian, rises to go.
He thinks it is possible, Ho says, as Nguyen’s hand trembles.

December 4, 1955 a living room floor, Decatur, Iowa:
Danny helps his mother separate aluminum icicles for the Christmas tree
while his dad is washing blood from the rocks of Utah Beach
with 2 oz. shots of Four Roses. “Don’t bother Daddy,” Gloria whispers.

December 5, 1955 in the basement of the police station, Saigon, Indo-China:
Nguyen is struck above the ear with a slug from a .32 caliber MAB pistol which has discharged accidentally during a heated and secret interrogation. The young French soldier, who has acted so belligerently during the questioning, vomits when blood and brain matter spray over his hands.

April 4, 1970 Greenwood Cemetery, Decatur, Iowa:
Danny’s flag-draped coffin is lowered into a dirt hole beside the grave of his father.
A week before, Danny stepped on a mine in a rice paddy about 50 kilometers north of Saigon. The last thing he saw was his shredded right leg as it rose in front of him.

On an afternoon in May, 1975 a temple in Hanoi:
Ho lights a candle near the foot of Buddha. He lights it for Nguyen and two million others. He holds an old and rumpled napkin over the flame and watches the smoke from it rise to the Buddha’s face.

Later that same afternoon- in an apartment
near downtown Des Moines, Iowa.
Gloria comes home early from her job at Universal Insurance, because of a headache.
She lies down while watching an an afternoon children’s show.In an hour or so, just as Walter Cronkite is signing on, Gloria will die from a burst aneurism of the right frontal lobe of her brain.

David B. Weber 2007

The Dilemma of Death (part 6 of a series)

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1973, p.26)

I watch my dogs lying in the early afternoon sun. They are on their sides, utterly relaxed into the small variations in grade beneath them. A dandelion clump pressed against a ribcage does not seem to have the power over them that the corner of a misplaced pillow might have over me. Both of them are asleep within moments of lying down, utterly at ease in a safe place with their “pack” (myself, the other dog, and the cat who will occasionally make an appearance). They sleep as if they have been very busy all morning, like they’ve been running and running and are now exhausted. But they have not been especially busy at all. This is how they always rest- wholly and completely, without a single anxious thought about the future gnawing at their psyche. What looks like exhaustion to us is, in fact, perfect relaxation, complete wholeness between the dogs’ consciousness and physical bodies, without a single thought toward “splendid uniqueness.”

“The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self consciousness that goes with it.” (ibid.) In other words, animals have no awareness of the one way journey through physical life which they, like everything else, are on. They give no regard to their own Death; they are not anxious about tomorrow. (Tomorrow? What is that anyway?) Obviously, on some level, carnivorous animals are aware that the physical death of their foodstuff is a desirable state. And it may well be that some animals- dolphins and elephants come to mind- may recognize a consciousness within themselves that is finite. But humans are the only ones who institutionalized the awareness of Death Impending. Humans are the only animals who allow “Death’s second self” (That’s Shakespeare for Sleep) to be interrupted, ever, by thoughts of Dying. Humans are the only ones who can become neurotic about the prevention of things which might be harmful enough to cause death, or who are able to be addicted to substances which alleviate- in always failing measure- their preoccupations with Death.

Every faith tradition has some dogmatic and/or doctrinal tenets that deal with the awareness of Death with which all humans live. All faith traditions acknowledge the pain- fallenness, insanity, suffering- that accompanies this awareness of Death, and the vital need for acceptance of both that awareness and of Death itself. In lieu of that acceptance, the adherents of some faiths are given the option, within their faith’s teachings, of looking beyond death, into eternity. (I’m not here in this series to judge the content of various end of life scenarios, only to acknowledge that do exist and perform vital functions in the whole lives of many persons and communities.

The commonality of our pain takes different specific forms but all of them have dirt in common. All of our lives, after Death, end up in some way, in the dirt. As ashes, or sealed within a metal vacuum which slows down but does not stop the process of decomposition, or laid directly onto the dirt which begins immediately to absorbs the liquids and fats of life, dirt is our bed, sometimes quickly, always eventually.

It is dirt over which we stand in “towering majesty.” It is dirt which contrasts so harshly with our names, our perceptions of our Selves, and the legacy we imagine ourselves leaving behind. It is dirt which covers our face to the world and finally blocks the world to our face.

Dirt is just..so damn final!

And that’s our dilemma. It is a dilemma for every human being on earth, too, and has been since the very first time human consciousness reached into an imagined future and put the 2+2 of life and death together. It added up to dirt then and adds up to dirt now, despite all kinds of conveyances, rituals, religions, and proposed alternative scenarios which have been placed in front that final “resting place.” (And note that phrase- “resting place.” It is one of many, many, many phrases and words used about Death which attempt to take a little bit of Death’s sting away.)

Elysian Fields await, beyond the River Styx, near the New Jerusalem, in the sweet by and by. We’ll visit some of those places and see what they might reveal about our fears, and our hopes.

Death? Not me! (part 5 of a series)

“[The] philosophy of exemptionalism, which supposes that the special status on Earth of humanity lifts us above the laws of Nature. Exemptionalism takes one or the other of two forms. The first.. is secular: don’t change course now, human genius will provide. The second is religious: don’t change course now, we are in the hands of God, or the gods, Earth’s karma, whatever.” (E.O.Wilson, Creation- An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, W.W.Norton & Co., 2006, p.83)

The philosophy of exemptionalism is an easy one to adopt as one’s personal worldview; in fact, we’re naturals at it! Here it is, stated in its most elementary form:

“All that bad stuff that will happen to you won’t happen to me- I’m special.”

This a belief that seems in history to just as easily evolve into a real psychosis of specialness. There are those persons who believe they can fly. And people on the sidewalk below them discover they how wrong, how not-special, they really were. There are those persons who believe they have been exempted from the side effects of tobacco, alcohol, or general slovenly living. Most of them discover by the age of 55 or so that “tomorrow” was not the best time to have waited to change their ways. And whole empires have thought of themselves as eternal when in fact, as the Holy Roman Empire discovered, they were just one angry, marauding hoard away from being a mere collection of sovereign nation-states.

And many of us harbor that deeply held and precious, but absolutely stone cold crazy belief that we will not die because there is technology just on the horizon that will save us, or a medicine that will cleanse our bodies of 40 years of smoking, or because our own ability to get out of the way of explosions, highway accidents, and gunfire. (“I never thought such a thing could happen to me!” the lucky ones say.”Those things aren’t supposed to happen in our neighborhood,” the formerly exempted ones proclaim.)

Or (we say) that Death, while important, doesn’t really matter because eternal life, with Jesus or with forty grape-laden virgins or any of a number of other scenarios based on one’s doctrinal beliefs subscribed to while one was still alive and of sound mind and body, will be the order of eternity. We SAY that, but then we pour fortunes into squeezing an extra couple months, a year, or a few years out of an increasingly painful, weakened, or dependent life.

In both ways of approaching Death (or not approaching it), fear is the prime mover. It is the fear of meaninglessness, nothingness- the bottom line fear that maybe our professions of faith are only words we have said, or that maybe technology or pharmacology might be too late for us. (“Damn the FDA!”) We don’t want the days and years to add up to a whiff of smoke or the memory of the last friend or relative left standing. So we are afraid, living our lives in a reserved but ever-present dread of the end.
The profession of faith can dull the sharp edges of contemplated death, but- for whatever reason(s)- the ‘sting’ is still present.

I think there are superficial reasons why that is so; and some deep reasons why that is so. And there are even deeper reasons that every human being on Earth shares. All of the various reasons are interesting (I think) and need to be talked about. The deepest reasons, however, are profound and- once we understand how we share them with all human beings- they can serve as areas of new empathetic relationships among various human groups from whom we might otherwise feel separated. They can further help us understand why we want to shoot over the heads of those who others are telling us to call the Enemy. And they can help understand what it is about us, and the Other, that truly is special.

Death’s War of Words


“Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy’s common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.”
(Richard Holmes, Acts of War, quoted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing)

Grossman’s book is about the military history of killing the enemy. And his conclusions are fascinating: getting the enemy killed has not been an historically easy thing to do! Soldiers don’t want to kill other soldiers and many, many of them- based on statistics and evidence gathered from all of America’s wars- have shot over the heads of enemies, or not at all.

Empathy is something we, for many years, thought we learned about in civic class or Sunday School. It may have been enhanced in those settings, but it turns out that our brains are wired for empathy- the million year evolution of our species demanded that we cooperate with each other in staying alive. Mirror neurons in our brains allow us to read, to an important extent, the minds and feelings of others. We can then match our actions to theirs, either consciously or, more often, unconsciously. It’s silly and obvious to say but, under normal circumstances, we know what the person near us (sitting beside us, or in our gunsights), we know how that person feels about their own death. We read it in their face and in their body language in exactly the same way, it turns out, that we feel it in our own body. Thus, it is very hard to pull a trigger. And thus, military trainers needed to do something about that.

And what was successfully taught beginning, Grossman documents, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, was a purposeful, dedicated de-humanizing of the enemy. Slopes, Gooks, and other such words were not only used (words like that have always been used in war), but they were institutionalized during the soldiers’ training! It makes it not so hard, at the time, to kill an old Gook, even one that appears harmless. (Those Gooks are up to no good! They’re not like us! They don’t have feelings like we do! They speak mumbo-jumbo. There are too many of them. They’d kill us if they had the chance! Etc., etc., etc.)

The empathy we feel toward another person that prevents us from killing them, is the same empathy that causes us to share food with a stranger who’s hungry, or to support orphanages, etc. We understand, without jabbering about it, that Death is also a big deal to the Other. The only way we can get past that empathy, the military has shown us, is to artificially re-shape the Other into another, lesser image.

And I’m wondering (which is the point of this off-the-path excursion into war) I’m wondering if we haven’t been encouraged by a whole line of people through history to artificially re-shape and re-make our ideas of Death into something other than what they naturally are. Have we been coerced perhaps into fearing Death in ways most of the world’s inhabitants historically have not? Have we become too eager to fight Death without knowing how or when to stop “raging against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas wrote?

I wonder if it might be possible to be able to see our present reality from a slightly different angle? Maybe in the final years we should have a greater opportunity to tend, rather than to mend; to move toward hospice rather than the hospital. It sounds cruel what I’m saying, doesn’t it? But I’m saying that these gentle suggestions of mine have made to sound cruel. We have, so many of us, been trained to be good soldiers in the economic battles, right to the end.