Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pain & Sentience: Follow-up & 4 a.m.

My last post on lyric subjectivity and Alzheimer's elicited more responses than anything I've written here, though most of them came to my facebook page. Our links between self and brain/mind, self and the pronoun "I" seem almost immutably fixed. Several poets to whom I've spoken over recent years express particular horror at the prospect of losing mind; poets are not alone in this fear of making sense. On reading the post, my colleague Jon Morse sent me the pdf of an article from the 1990s by Oliver Sacks about a man who lost his memory, did not even know that he was blind, and yet still enjoyed and remembered music (of a certain era). Ben Friedlander remarked on the irony of my claim that dementia is anti-Emersonian, reminding me that Emerson himself succumbed to dementia in later life. There is much for me to think about in these responses. Let me share a few of them as I try to tease out my own end of this conversation that I so appreciate during this time at "the threshold," as Ben calls it.

Martha Evans, who shares her first name with my mother, wrote: "But our bodies are our terrestrial home: the brain is one of its most important rooms. If that room be removed, the rest of the structure cannot mean anything at all to those looking outside it...." This is beautifully put, and in many ways emotionally true. I would quarrel with the "anything at all," though I know she was thinking out loud. Martha is a Dickinsonian and it shows; she knows that planks fall, that reason breaks.

Katherine Durham Oldmixon writes, in response to the arguments about pronouns, and to the notion that Alzheimer's patients often still remember songs:"The lyrics that came to my mind as I read your thought-provoking blog are from the Black Caribbean. I'm thinking specifically of the I in Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" ("Old Pirates yes they rob I / sold I to the merchant ships"). There seems to be a deliberate relationship of I to self that inheres in the language, and one might argue/wonder, the thought of those who speak the language." That the lines she recalls are about theft is sadly ironic and appropriate. The I robbed of its I is a self taken by Alzheimer's pirates.

E commented on the link between music and memory thus: "My grandmother had dementia so badly by the end that she didn't really make sentences; her syntax was all garbled, and thus her pronouns, all sounds, but she still seemed to like chatting and had things to say. Once I saw her & we had a garbled chat and at one point she started singing a song she used to sing a long time ago (she was a flapper in the Chicago 20's and liked to sing old show songs to us when we were kids), a few lines at least, and certainly the tune. I had a sense of recognizing her when I heard that, but then I had it before too, by how intent she was in talking, her demeanor." It is almost as if those who can no longer remember become goads to the memories of those who can. My desire to remember everything I see grows huge when I'm visiting my mother, in nearly mathematical relation to the fact that I am witness to the actions of people who can remember little, or nothing.

Maxine Chernoff wondered what we can know of another, used autism as her example of pronomial "confusion": "One wonders what others know about one's subjectivity. A child on the autism spectrum, for instance, may consistently use pronouns incorrectly ("You want a drink?" to mean "I" want one, etc.), and that this inflexibility is"proof" of lack of self, of lack of empathy, etc. Judging from the instance I've observed, it seems to be a pronoun lapse in someone with a healthy sense of self, humor, empathy, etc." Lapsed pronouns as lapsed selves. To what extent are selfhood and empathy contiguous, as they are in Maxine's comment? Surely not in Timothy McVeigh's assertion of self by way of "Invictus"--his use of stoicism as a justification for cold blooded murder. Serial killers can use pronouns without lapse. They have selves. So, surely, do those who cannot wrangle the right pronoun to make a sentence grammatically complete (or "appropriate").

But this morning I got my second 4 a.m. call from the Alzheimer's home in three months. My mother had fallen, was complaining that her arm hurt. The caller had dialed 911; my mother would be sent to the ER. Several hours later, when I finally got the head nurse on the line, she told me mom had fractured her elbow and had skin tears and sutures. She was back; they would give her pain medication; she's a tough cookie. A friend says she hopes my mother "recovers." There is no question of that. Recovers what? Her elbow? The problem of language extends to the language of empathy, as well. But I thank my friend because I know what she means.

Pain medication suggests, if not a self, then a being that is sentient. Sentient beings feel pleasure, feel pain. My cat, Tortilla, cannot say his name, nor can he use the first person pronoun. But he has a self, does he not? My mother, who no longer knows me or more than a few consecutive words of English, is sentient, has selfhood, does she not?

So my sense of my mother moves away from herself to her sentience, from her former self-assertions (her storytelling, her own brand of stoicism, her desire for control of self and others) to a self that is now posited by others, but a being who remains sentient. My mother felt pain, complained of it, was taken to the hospital, and is now medicated. And I am her 5,000 mile witness.

"The point is to try to develop the scope of one's empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness. It is a matter of defining a living organism as a sentient being." This comes from a teaching by the Dalai Lama that can be found here. My mother is a living organism. What else she may be is pure mystery.

1 comment:

Jonathan Morse said...

My daughter was born prematurely, and for the next several days I learned my personalized news from doctors. One bulletin I still remember, if only because it began with, "You've got to remember"; namely, "You've got to remember: a newborn is just a nervous system." Now, approaching terminal myself, I belatedly realize that the most important part of that sentence was the imperative at the beginning.