The summer light has been a progression of light, never quite dark, silvering the hills at night, whitening the sky in the early morning hours, then shooting a sunbeam directly onto my my face around 7 a.m. When I feel that stroke of sunlight on my eyelids I vacate whatever dreams I was having and brace myself for consciousness, but there is no better way to awaken.
Maybe all of summer is just one day, each hour spinning seamlessly into the next. Maybe it’s okay to be still within the spinning, to simply acquiesce.
So, speaking of stillness, I had to go in for an MRI earlier this week. Now that’s a strange experience: you lie stock-still on a table that moves you slowly through a tube, ear plugs and head set barely muffling a cacophony of loud knocking and banging noises, and you try not to breathe too deeply, not to sneeze, not to think about the very things you’re thinking about. I was cynically convinced that this was just a rhetorical procedure ordered up to boost billings and justify the medical center’s purchase of another extravagant piece of equipment, but I’ve recently gone mysteriously semi-deaf in one ear, and my doctor wanted to rule out something called an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain.
When I looked it up, my cynicism was reinforced: it’s really quite rare. But who am I to argue? I asked a lot of skeptical questions and submitted to the absurdity of it all. Afterwards, I detoured to a local nursery and bought some new drought-tolerant plants; looking at plants, smelling them, and putting them in the soil seem to be reliable therapies lately for whatever is ailing me. My mother-in-law, an intrepid gardener, agrees that I’ve stumbled onto a good solution here. She also swims, but I’ll stick to mindlessly playing in the dirt.
Anyway, on the evening of the MRI, my doctor called, sounding a little too apologetic, so I knew she probably didn’t have cheerful tidings. That rare thing they were trying to rule out? Turns out I’m one of the few….there is now photographic evidence. Hmmm. A new development. It’s not good, but it’s not urgent, and I apparently have ample time to learn more and decide on a course of action. One alternative is to do nothing, but the growth will likely get larger over time, and if it starts pushing against certain crucial areas of the brain, it can affect neurological functioning. On the other hand, the fix-it options seem to carry their own risks and discomforts.
But you know what? In a weird way it’s also kind of validating. I figured my sense of being off balance and out of step lately might well be psychological, but there has been something tangibly disconcerting about the hearing loss, and now I know its name and cause. I have research to do. This is a real thing, but I’m not freaking out. At least not yet.
Naturally, my own significant hearing loss has triggered thoughts of my late mother. (Wow. I’ve never before referred to her as ‘my late mother’.) And yeah, here we go again. But my empathy and compassion for her have grown with my ability to more clearly imagine the increasing sense of isolation and confusion her deafness must have wrought, and I realize I have been obsessing about her daily since her death, but as I’ve said before, it packs a big punch. It’s an amalgam of the miseries she endured, her hard life and pitiable end, the unexpected intensity of my missing her (instead of the almost-relief I thought I’d feel), and of course what all of it implies about the human condition.
However, I allowed myself to listen (with my good ear) yesterday to a podcast of an interview Krista Tippett (On Being) did with Jane Gross, a journalist I’ve mentioned here before who wrote a memoir about tending to her elderly mother in her final years and who is also the creator of “The New Old Age” blog for The New York Times. I know very well that I am fundamentally changed by my mother’s death and the experience of having looked after her and having become reacquainted with her in a different way through the last part of her life, but hearing Jane Gross’s reflections helped me to see that this is actually normal and understandable.
Here’s how she responded when Krista Tippett said to her, “…you didn’t go back to being the same when she was gone?”:
Well, I mean, certainly there are people who would say that still thinking about this and talking about it and all of that this many years later must prove that I’m having some unnatural grief experience. I don’t think that that’s the case. I mean, I think I fell into a subject that interested me journalistically that was gonna affect so many people that it was worth thinking about for such a long time. But it also, it’s — you find out what you’re made of if you weren’t already sure you knew the answer to that. And if there’s any advantage at all to them having this long, slow dying, there’s a lot of time to get things right that you didn’t get right earlier. I mean, it definitely changed the architecture of my family. It definitely changed what the nature of my memories of my mother are and, I imagine, will be forever. I mean, on the one hand, it makes me more scared, and, on the other hand, it makes me less scared.
See? And after all, it’s only been seven months for me, not years.
So it has been confirmed. There is something profoundly altering about this journey, and the feelings don’t just hit you and go away quickly. If anyone reading this is in the midst of it all, I hope this makes you feel less alone. To quote Gross again:
I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn’t make you a bad person. I fantasized, usually in the hypnagogic space between sleeping and waking, facing another day of ignorance and exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I’m glad that I didn’t, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”
As for me, I didn’t find my siblings (other than more acutely remembering the ones who are deceased) but I certainly found my better self. And I found my mother…I found the person she had become, and discovered there was much about that person that was admirable and endearing. Maybe this new awareness and more recent familiarity intensifies the sense of loss, but there is also a gift there. I related to her present self in the present moment, and there was a purity about that, something at times even vaguely redemptive. My siblings will never know this.
I have since rediscovered my friends too. And my constant true blue partner. And this place, ah this place of the light and the wind and the leafy treetops filled with dancing life. A bear came down from the backcountry last week to nonchalantly forage in a neighbor’s garage. Butterflies and dragonflies are darting about the flowers. On 4th of July a veritable village of young families gathered at the beach, little kids running and splashing in the surf, a couple of voluptuously pregnant women in bikinis, a whole new generation rolling in and all we can do is be nice. The benign elders, that’s us.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Doyle Hollister recently sent me an article he wrote about his aunt, Jane Hollister Wheelwright, who was very much shaped by this particular place. A lot of things in this article interested me, about the portal of nature, for example, and how one sometimes merges with the setting, fitting into it rather than on it. And how being a child growing up here (as my lucky daughter was) may imprint upon the psyche an enduring kind of instinct and wildness. But this, Jane’s musings about the cycles of life and death, particularly resonated:
Life and death, and the overall continuation of life, are what matter. Without death there could be no continuation, for there would be no opportunity for nature to promote new life. “A life for a life” is a part of this message, for humans as well as for wildlife. Were I to live forever, how could my descendants get past me and into their own lives? Even if I proved to be the greatest thing on earth, I would still be a physical and psychic deterrent to future life.
That sort of sentiment used to seem a lot more abstract to me than it does now. I’m contemplating it, I guess, as my daughter starts her married life faraway, as I chat with a neighbor and notice how sparks of ebbing sunlight are framing his white hair, as I try to find ways of being useful or justify my lack of productivity, and then evade it all by going for a walk up the canyon.
“I realized I have a lot of movement in my life,” said one of my favorite essayists, Pico Iyer, in an interview, “but not maybe enough stillness.” Sometimes it’s a struggle to be still but sometimes…like now…it feels good to surrender, as one day merges into the next.