Category Archives: Grief

Mercy and reflection

In one of my sister’s closets, I found two bundles of letters, postmarks dating back to the early 80’s. There were: Easter cards from Sharon, all manner of holiday cards from Dot, a couple of letters from my father in his distinctive engineer’s script, lots of postcards from my brother as he traveled Europe as a young man. Many, many letters from me.

It was the letters from my mother that undid me — forced me to box it all up and stow them for another day. Maybe another year. Maybe never.

What a hearty correspondent my mother had been! Did I, too, receive so many missives over the years? Probably. But I don’t really remember and unlike my sister, I didn’t hang onto them.

There were letters from Provence full of exclamation points (“perfect tomatoes! perfect green herbs! perfect bean cassoulet!”), letters from Florida full of encouragement, letters acknowledging weight loss (more encouragement), letters enclosing checks, letters of explanation post-misunderstanding, letters of apology.

“My dear sweet Valentine, Noreen… ”

The letters reminded me how distorted and corrosive my sister’s narrative about my mother has been, never elastic or truthful enough to include the good, the positive, the well-meaning.

One letter came on the heels of some disastrous trip to Washington. Why had they gone? Was it an art-related treat offered by my mother, some attempt to connect?

Oh god, the paragraphs about my sister’s explosive response to some fairly innocent remark read like a summation of my last nine years. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I didn’t think it was THAT heinous…”

And then, my mother scribed these stunning words: “You give me too much power and offer up too little mercy.”

Here’s Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” which has been one of my anthems of grief.

The letters reminded me that at one time, my sister seemed poised for normalcy. Just one more infusion of cash, one more sorting of twisted emotion, one more round of diet supports, a car, a business, and she’d be fine, right?

Retroactively applying new understandings, it’s been clear that disorder showed up at every stage. How harmed she was by ignorance about mental illness! And how effectively her chaos was camouflaged by the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A rebellious phase, nothing more, surely?

As I rejiggered history, I lost sight of the younger, better version of my sister. Sorting her things has brought it back. Her flashes of brilliance, her capacity for understanding literature, her iconoclastic spirituality, her intuitive and stunning art. I remember that there was a time when I felt eclipsed not just by her shadow but by her strengths, too.

Family legend has it that my sister spoke in full paragraphs by the age of two, while my speech was so garbled only my mother could understand me until after the age of three. There was my sister’s nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT. Her voracious reading and gigantic vocabulary.

My sister read the LOTR every spring for years. As much as I loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, too (another of her favorites), I could barely get through the trilogy once and anyway, who’d want to read “The Two Towers” a second time? She devoured sweeping historical novels — Leon Uris, for instance (she may have read “Exodus” three times) and Michener (have you seen how long “The Source” is?) She adored the romances of Mary Stewart and the mysteries of James Lee Burke. Bindings gave way, covers taped and worn. I brought “This Rough Magic” to the nursing home, but it stayed in the drawer. She was going.

A lot to unpack here, but for now, not the letters.

Have you saved any correspondence from over the years? If so, why and do you ever look at it? I have the letters that K and I exchanged early on, which are precious but clearly not for the boys’ eyes.

In closing, let me leave you with the idea of things undone. A friend reminded me that in the Tibetan tradition, survivors attempt to tie up loose ends for the deceased over a period of 48 days. What, has my sister left undone? And if the better question is, what didn’t she leave undone, is such a pursuit futile?

What will I leave undone? And you?

 

 

 

 

The Clip Files, Intro

The support and love that readers offered here moved me profoundly. Thank you! I’d considered turning comments off for the announcement that my sister had died and I’m glad I didn’t know how! Locally, friends have stepped up with legion acts of generosity. Flowers. Dinners. Errands. Packing up the apartment. Prayers. The word that I hear in my head this week to describe friendships is: MIGHTY.

My sister had many compulsions, all of which added up to a disordered life and her premature death at 64. She’d been incapacitated physically for most of the last ten years and morbidly obese for nearly the entirety of her adult life.

Her need was bottomless, her rage explosive, the triggers countless. There were many times over the last nine years when I didn’t think I would survive her. But I offered up a battered loyalty.

Relating to my sister was so crushingly difficult that the demands placed by her remaining mess feel very nearly trivial.

Her clip file, however, poses special problems. For one thing it’s huge — the equivalent of ten banker’s boxes? Fifteen? It’s hard to tell yet, because I keep finding more.

The collection was housed in boxes that lined the walls and spilled into her teensy living spaces. Also in cardboard lids, recycled Kleenex containers, drawers and scattered on table tops. Bills and medical statements mixed in. Foil packs of albuterol buried. While fetching her things (coffee, lunch, address book), I constantly tripped over some box or other. Consolidation, not allowed. I felt a constant, smoldering resentment of all her fucking paper.

So here’s one of many contradictions: how could a visual person, a former artist of some promise, someone still interested in images of nature, interior design, archeology, ancient religious iconography, ALSO be a person who let her living space look like a literal dump?

(For the first three or four years in Salem apartment Number One, at the outset of every visit, my sister would make the same cheery-but-shame-filled queries: “Doesn’t it look better? Can you tell I’ve made progress?”

Me: nearly speechless with disbelief, sputtering some lame agreement).

So you’d think I’d be standing at the recycling bin, chucking it all with a flourish. A big exhalation of relief. Garbage at last! But here’s the second contradiction: I’m not.

The above assemblage represents just a third of the images she pulled while at the nursing home. She couldn’t sit up. Had no scissors. Knew she was dying. But she kept at it.

As for myself, being a collage artist who also sometimes uses images as writing prompts, I view these papers as a treasure trove.

My sister’s legacy.

The second they assume an ugly weight, which might be tomorrow, I’ll recycle.

But not yet.

And she’s gone

Yesterday, holding her hand as she struggled to breathe, my sister looked up and said, “Oh look! An angel just fell through the ceiling!”

Just got the call.

It’s over. She’s gone.

Autocorrect typed she’s “fine.”

I hope she’s that, too. After so, so much struggle. Her whole life, really.

Go with the Angels, Noreen.

Grime and fatalism

After ten years of not exactly saintly but certainly thorough and effective advocacy for someone with an unfortunate cluster of problems, your vocabulary changes. Words like ‘impairment,’ ‘handicap,’ and ‘disorder’ become second nature. You may not like their clinical sheen, but since they’re far better than the words applied during a tempestuous childhood, you use them. The ugly echoes: ‘fat slob,’ ‘fucking nuts,’ and ‘impossible.’

But today, a new word supplies perspective and it is GRIME. Sorting your sister’s beads from the failed parent-financed venture in Rockport, you dump them into plastic trays, eager to chuck the sticky plastic bags. They are so GRIMY. You use windex on the storage boxes, not wanting to know the source of one lid’s ocher spatter (cat puke? ramen stock?) The tools of glass-cutting and jewelry-making offer sad testimony to squandered talent — cruddy, rusted and neglected as they are.

Restoration requires, among other things, sand paper.

I had to use a dry toothbrush to clean these three little felt gifts.

Indolence, apathy, compulsive consumption of low brow television and food, the repetitive shooing of most people away, and the manufacturing of insult and victimhood with others, it turns out, leave a grubby residue.

You will need to remember this.

When you’re telling yourself that it wasn’t enough to supply her with a brand new pack of jewelry findings — that you should’ve figured out how to get her crafting as well — you’ll need to remember this.

And you’ll need to remember the virulence of her refusals. Her knack for turning any suggestion that required effort on her part into evidence of your deeply flawed character. Recall, just for one second, her lengthy diatribes about your failure to understand. Your lack of compassion. And how the screeching had more in common with hurricanes or tsunamis than with speech.

You learned not to make the suggestion. And to skedaddle.

You have long recognized the violence of applying “shoulds” to others. Perhaps this difficult passage will teach you to extend the same courtesy to yourself.

As to fatalism: think I’m gonna start taking my social security. At 62, I am now the age my mother was when she died. I’ve outlived my father by eight years. My sister is receiving hospice care at 64.

My parents were smokers and my sister has health issues that I don’t share, but still…

The monthly payment won’t be a lot, but for someone who hasn’t earned a significant salary since the early 90’s, it seems a small fortune.

Lastly, look at this guy. With temps in the mid-30’s and beautiful sun, we enjoyed what felt like a balmy walk this morning!

How it goes

Ever have a day when everything changes, but nothing does, really?

It was cold when I drove K to the train at 6:30 this morning and still cold when I headed up to Salem an hour later. A desperate call. Abandoned coffee.

Two nurses showed up. First, the usual business of taking vitals and checking in. They know my sister. They know me.

But then, for the third time in five weeks the question arose: should my sister go to the hospital?

She didn’t feel well, was sleepy and lethargic. Breathing labored. Wanted to know if I was wearing a tuxedo.

The talk went ’round. Her leg would need antibiotics and if she stayed home, she would need more care. A lot more care. Time to switch to hospice.

She said ‘no’ to the hospital. She signed the pink form: Do not resuscitate. Do not intubate. No C-pap or IV nutrition. No admission to a hospital. No dialysis.

Now my sister was chatty and engaged, her relief palpable. The change in her attitude made me think she’d made the right decision and perhaps that it was overdue.

Later, yet another capable nurse arrived to explain how the new care plan would work. I ran to Stop and Shop for drugs and lunch.

I drove home in silence.

Most likely I’ll tag this post ‘private’ in the near future, but it helps to put it down and to share briefly.

Solace and tyranny

It seems a lifetime ago now but recently I was lucky enough to wander through the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. In a trip replete with beauty, this ranked right near the top. Never have I been in a crowded public space that was so serene. That speaks volumes about the healing power of trees and plants and beautiful design. Enjoy the pictures.

That’s all – unless you’re interested in two memories.

One: It was my first year of law school. Constitutional Law. I raised my hand (something I didn’t do much) and asserted that I wished Roe v Wade was better decided. There might have been gasps. This was a Jesuit school after all and I had a reputation already — the Women’s Law Center, etc. But what I meant was simple. I didn’t like how vulnerable the holding was because it relied on the fundamental right to privacy under the Bill of Rights (particularly open to attack by strict constructionists like Kavanaugh). Furthermore (even then), the holding was on a collision course with medical science, as interventions continued to push the date of viability earlier and earlier in pregnancy.

Two. It’s a panel with Ram Dass and Marilyn Ferguson. He: a Buddhist, she: a radical Christian. I think the topic was climate change. She offered her passionate hope that we get it together in time. He said, why should it matter to me that humans continue?

Or words to that affect. Omega Institute.

I’m not laying aside my rage or activism (such as it is), but here we are — entering what by all counts appears to be a period of misogynistic tyranny.

Taking Ferguson’s position, I say: we will need strategy, devious adaptation, and each other.

Taking Ram Dass’s position: get used to it. This is how it is now. (Different from non-attachment, I know– but also miles from the passionate hope for social justice and sensible government).

Still life, figures, and Matisse

The Matisse show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts takes a novel approach by displaying objects the artist collected along with some of the paintings they appear in. It’s fascinating.


Naturally, I especially enjoyed the textiles but even to see chairs, vases, and pewter coffee pots alongside the paintings they inspired was interesting.

I was shocked to discover, standing in front of the well-known ‘Purple Robe’ portrait below, that early on Matisse was ‘afraid he would never do figures’.

Lucky for us, at some point the artist figured out how to transfer the confidence he felt giving life to inanimate objects to the human figure.

With that and my unpopulated quilts in mind, take a look at the right margin of this slightly wonky tower I’ve been working on. Doesn’t that dark grain suggest a female form — staring up at a butterfly, perhaps? She reminds me of one of Grace’s drawings in its early phases. Mightn’t the nascent figure be saying something — Come on — stitch me into an empty structure! Let me enliven the yard or a room or even the attic!

Somehow this quiet and solitary day felt full. Almost too full.

Our morning walk was replete with scenes like these, peaceful and lush, but riddled with thoughts about aggression, primarily about the differences between aggression expressed from and for power and reactive aggression. They might appear alike from the outside but are worlds apart. Working with Finn has been a real lesson in this, inspiring me to quip from time to time, “Dog training’s taught me that I may be a mouthy bitch, but I’m no alpha.”

Sad, but true. Finn had a set-to right before this yard. Bark, bark, bark. My sister and I are having set-tos all the time, but this week they’re about re-configuring the distance between us. Bark, bark, bark. I can’t take it anymore. It’s amazing I’ve put up with it for this long. If she can’t accept my moving away some, I will vanish from her life. I’ve done it before. I was hoping not to do it again, but I am exhausted, tattered, and unwilling to continue at current decibel levels. Bark. Bark. Bark.

After what seems an impossibly long time without sun, out it came for our afternoon walk, so the day contained cheer, too!

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img_4552-2Lastly, the TV is all fucked up and you know what that means (wink, wink)! I may be forced to read for a spell here (and miss The Great British Baking Show?) or watch LIVE TV on the tiny shit box in the kitchen. Boo-hoo. Then again, the house is filled with good books waiting to be read.