Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Grief notes: on my mother's upcoming birthday
My mother would have been 94 years old this coming Tuesday, October 25. The anniversary coincides with the final wrapping up of her estate. I spent 10 minutes on the phone this morning with a woman named Valerie who works in Survivor Relations at a bank, talking paperwork. They have the death certificate, but they need a letter of instruction. They require my attorney's original document of certification that she is executor of the estate; without the original, they lack the stamp. The woman-who relates-with-survivors and I had a good laugh about my lawyer's last name, Wildhack ("she's a very nice person but her name is kind of scary," I told her), but the rest of our conversation transpired in deep breaths. She offered her "personal condolences" and wondered how I am doing. She empathized with me, if only in the fuzzy quality of her speaking. No doubt she feels for me, to the extent that she knows me as a function (the survivor), rather than me as the person who wields a particular personal pronoun. I pulled up short of resentment. It's her job. She probably had breathy voice training. There's no good way to do this. "I can refer you to an investment adviser," she said at one point in the conversation. I said no.
It's the point at which analogy (the mind as an economic system) becomes fact (the financial sector as grief adviser) that what seemed a nagging sense of loss recovers the anger stage. I'm occupying the Wall Street of my mind, hearing a cacophony of voices confusing loss of mother with loss of income, inheritance of a parent's assets with investment advice by yet another stranger on the phone. Another stranger who would act like a friend because what else can she do? It's only humane to care, and besides, it brings in revenue.
[Someone calls now from Hawaiian Tropical Flowers to say that my delivery date of Tuesday would void their guarantees and would I like to pay more to ship over the weekend? I'm sending flowers to my mother's Alzheimer's home, because I don't know how else to memorialize her. I say no, it's after the fact, whenever they get there . . . she thanks me and we say good-bye. Another business transaction attached to a point of time that is also a point of grief.]
And now, with my cat's assistance, the blog post just "published" itself, while I am in its midst. The post does not yet have a title, though I will soon get title to my mother's remaining assets. Title, deed, account, certificate, letter of intention. I feel awash in a Shakespearian field of metaphor. I need his sonnets to wash this all down. Wit is at least not a term in economics. The other day I found myself telling the story of how my mother, after she earned her M.A. in Drama & Speech from Iowa, worked for a stern older Dean of Students at Grinnell College. This was where she got in trouble for helping to hide student's pets (in Iowa, a farm state, chickens and pigs counted as pets to be hidden in a dormitory basement). When my mother left on one of her wanderings (Girl Scouts in California or Red Cross in North Africa, I don't remember the itinerary), the Dean gestured loudly, said, "But Marty, you could have had THIS." Meaning her job, her station, her authority. Decades later, my mother would say, she heard that the Dean had finally retired. She must have been younger than she looked.
Wit is the thread that holds us together. My children, who do not look like me, or like my mother, carry her wit with them. My daughter's year of what I called Sarcasm Boot Camp (how to tell when to use scare quotes, when to change intonation to mark deep irony) should have been performed in my mother's name. My son's eager plays with words, too, bear her trace, though he did not know her well. A woman who left so few memories behind (her friends are dead or vanished, and I am her only child) leaves that thread of humor, at once guarded and a little bit wild.
At my Alzheimer's talk in West Virginia, where I argued that the person writing about a loved one's Alzheimer's should keep herself out of it, someone asked me how it is possible to do so. How can you keep your emotions out of this story? he was asking. It seems counter-intuitive, a bit odd. The hard part is actually more surprising, I found myself saying. Now that I am my story's subject--in the aftermath of my mother's death--I find it difficult to write about myself, reduced (or aggrandized?) at times to a confabulation of emotions. The Objectivist view of my mother's last years, the sense that it was her story not mine that was important, no longer works so well. And while, as a man in a bright football jersey in Boise told me, there is plenty of me in my Dementia Blog, it's layered in the descriptions, the meditations, the process, rather than a matter of content, theme, subject matter. I cannot describe myself seated at a desk, orange cat splayed over papers and a nearly orange volume of Jack Spicer, and have those details carry any freight. It strikes me that the subject of grief is as real, as crucial, as that of Alzheimer's (if more frequently trodden over), but it's not easy to approach obliquely, if the grief is one's own. Ah, ownership. Vexed subject in this era of capital (see above), of occupying Wall Street, de-occupying Honolulu, owning up to one's feelings. The metaphors betray the real ethical lapses, when Goods and Values meet up and call each other by the same names.
Where I was my mother's signature for nearly half a decade, I am now what follows her. I have my own signature back (even if it's an unreadable scrawl). I have her wit and her things. (Though if wit be an asset, what then?) And I have the occasional sense of being overwhelmed, not just by my loss of her, but by the loss of her memories, memories of her. Before these past few years, I did not realize that loss is such a complicated word. I am faced now with the loss of losing her. It's the finality of it, as someone said to me. Even when I felt that I had lost her to Alzheimer's, I was still living a gerund. There was losing yet to be done. But the loss no longer moves; it's static. I've also lost her "home," the many people she lived with, caregivers and fellow residents, those with wits intact and those without.
Gaye Chan put a page of my mother's date book on the title page of Dementia Blog. The date was Monday, 18 July, 1955. On that calendar page, my mother had written: "Get married--OK." She had underlined "OK" several times. Evidence of her wit: of course she would not have forgotten her wedding day. Yet on the title page of a book about her later forgetting, the writing on that page changes its effect, alters my affect. What was funny then is still funny, but a mixed state, mingled with irony, sadness, the hollow drum-like feeling loss installs in the body. When my students write, "I feel sad," I demand to know where in their bodies they feel it and what it feels like.