Over dinner last night here in London, without warning my mother-in-law observed that she believes the week over in France helped me a lot. She remarked that she felt all I’d gone through with my mother’s and my uncle’s deaths in October and the weeks after in the U.S. trying to cope with the aftermath, particularly with my dad’s grief over Mom, had naturally tired me out. She believed that stress had been showing on my face (in a weariness), but felt I now looked better than I’d had in months.
Naturally only others really know what I “look like,” but, yes, I said, I’d loved last week; that I like France goes without saying, but that visit had been a true distraction. It had been fun, restful, and taken my mind largely off the sadness on the other side of the Atlantic. Relaxing lunches like this certainly played a part:
We’ve had a great deal of sympathy since my mother’s October 26 death (and my novelist uncle’s two weeks before – who I especially miss as a friend and a mentor). It has all been much appreciated. But there’s always others out there lurking, aren’t there?
You may unfortunately know the type yourself too: relations who are easily insulted, who are always stirring the pot, and are also always demanding – like overgrown children – to be the center of everyone’s attention, and if not given their way seek to create still more trouble, and often do their “stuff” in a deviously and underhanded manner so as never to get the entire family offsides. Divide and (try to) conquer, so to speak. (Please excuse the coarse language that appears in the following.)
I had been planning to keep this private. But given this post, and everything I’d written about him here over time, I felt I should share it here. The “story” needed an “ending”:
A pat on the back is wonderful, but that’s not why I posted that. It’s because I can’t believe that brief message marked the conclusion to the roughly two decades’ long correspondence between my novelist uncle and myself – first by email (when he was on something called “CompuServe” and I was on something called “America Online”) and then mostly by Facebook. That October 3rd Messenger note was the last one he fired off to me just before he went into the hospital for what we had all thought would be a “routine” procedure.
This morning I’m driving my now widower father, and my 44 year old sister (she lived with my parents, and so now lives with my father: let’s please not go there right now), up to our (my wife and mine’s – and I know that’s ungrammatical, but I don’t care right now) place in the Catskills for a few days.
We probably don’t have to do this, but I desperately want to. Dad agreed. He needs a different view and I think he knows that.
And I have to get the hell away for a while from this (my now late mother’s) October 26 place of death. Increasingly, I can’t bear this f-cking house. I never wanted them to move here to Pennsylvania (it’s not about PA itself; but let’s not go there either right now), and my late mother is “everywhere” here still, of course.
I received an encouraging and sympathetic email recently from the woman who forms the character basis for “Mrs. Hall-Surrey” – and had laughed aloud when she first “spotted” herself (and her husband) on the pages in Frontiers. (“The little so and so! Darling, he’s written about us!”) I wrote her back that I was relieved I had essentially finished Distances before my uncle’s death and my Mom’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Had I not, I don’t know I would have been able to summon up the mental strength to have done so anytime soon.
Naturally I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline. However, as I’d written here a couple of weeks ago, some of what’s in it is shockingly prescient and unexpectedly relevant to where I find myself in my life right now. Frankly, I can’t believe the number of similar touchpoints.
With publication just days away, time again for the dedication.
Her death was, insofar as we could tell, peaceful. She had deteriorated rapidly in recent days, and we were sensing the end was approaching. It came mid-afternoon: I was messing around on my iPad, sitting at the kitchen table feet away from her (her hospital bed had been set up in the dining room), and my Dad was in a chair next to her watching television. We had thought she was sleeping…. then we realized she wasn’t moving at all….
Little new to report on my mother’s cancer. The hospice people come in and out of my parents’ house, checking on her, and offering what help and support they can. I don’t think I need to say that it is emotionally devastating to be able to do nothing but sit by and watch your mother – in a hospital bed positioned in her former dining room – so sick and slowly fading away before your eyes.
The best way I can describe how it feels to care for someone you know inevitably will die? It is a sense of being completely trapped. You know that no matter what you do, ultimately it will be futile.
Yes, sometimes there are smiles, but all you see ahead of you is darkness. Your days are spent knowing you will be clearing up urine again. Or you will try to get her to roll over on her side to avoid bedsores. Or you will slip the nebulizer mask over her nose to try to help her breathe a little easier. Or you hope she’ll eat something.
You look for a way to divert your thoughts when you can manage it. I happened to notice that my mother keeps some of my late grandfather’s books shelved in a lounge cabinet. He was an avid reader and had a wide collection I’d always admired. I have a few of his books already, but what I don’t have is the series of “great literature” that was beautifully hardback published in – wait for it – 1936:
Among the 20 volumes is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. I had never read Emerson extensively, but find I spend the evenings with it. Reading works like those causes you as a writer to sit back and lament, “What could I possibly hope to write about anything that would even fractionally add to, or build upon, the likes of this?”
My dying mother lies in a hospital bed set up in the (former) dining room. We have no idea how long she has left, but it won’t be long. We’ve made her as comfortable as we can.
There is nothing to do now but wait. We take turns at her side – my father, my wife, and I. (My sister *tries* to help, but she’s, well, f-cking hopeless on a variety of levels I can’t even start to begin to detail here. So there’s sometimes another tension that no one needs right now.) My wife has to return to England in a couple of days, but she will fly back here in a week or so. (We were supposed to go home together, but I’m staying here in the U.S. until my mother passes. My father needs me.)
A hospice nurse comes in every other day or so. To escape the drone of the oxygen machine that rumbles constantly in the house, when I get a break from my Mom I retreat to the guest room where we’re sleeping and stick in headphones. Besides reading the net, about the only escape I’ve got is tinkering now and then with the 99.9 percent finished Distances.
While sitting here in Pennsylvania, going back and forth to the hospital, trying somehow to deal with my mother’s deteriorating condition, we received another devastating blow: my uncle (my mother’s older brother), the novelist, died yesterday in Rhode Island.
He was 75. He was also my godfather. (Although, as I learned only in my early twenties, organized religion was not exactly his thing.) He had been in declining health for some time, yet somehow also seemed “indestructible.” His end came quickly and unexpectedly.
On Wednesday, it was discovered that my mother, who had recently developed hypothyroidism that was being treated, had something far worse that had gone totally undetected: what appears almost certainly to be cancer, likely lymphoma.