Autumn nipping at my heels

How on earth did it get to be October already? Georgia is five months old, Vincent’s in first grade, and middle child Aidan is universally praised as sweet and gentle and photogenic as hell:

Photo by nature & nurture

The lateness of the year terrifies me — intimations of mortality etc. — but I love autumn. Kicking leaves on the way to school, woodsmoke billowing from my neighbors’ chimneys, the backyard bonfires of friends to keep cool nights at bay, pumpkins and apples, cinnamon and nutmeg. Each new season shakes up the order of our days, forces rearranging and revisioning, and many days I’d like to just request time to stop now please, I’m not ready for this. But it never does and it never will and on we go, and every day is an improvisation on the one before.

ODE TO AUTUMN / Susan Browne

Thoughts are mist. I’m restless,
yet tired as an old leaf. I yell at the yellow trees,
I see you! See me!

The light going to dark, a friend in the hospital, surgical
saw slicing his cranium, then what, radiation, chemo.
Pour another glass of wine, cook that salmon, it’s fake,

farm-raised, good although something dangerous in it,
you could investigate but why
be completely clear about semi-edible poison?

We’re cleaning out our basement, gleaning
for the holidays, searching the furrows of ornaments
for the cardboard skeleton to hang on the door.

Things multiply, ooze out of their cells. Plenty more
to replace everything. Have you noticed the ripening
of drill bits, cars, jeans, medical plans

few can afford. O, we go like leaves,
a wailful cliché however it happens,
lost cricket in the hedge-row, bleating lamb.

I glare at the mystery until I imagine
sitting on death’s branch, gazing out on rooftops
hours by hours, the rosy-hued peace,

the sky reflected in the neighbor’s pool.
Climb down through a melancholy choir
of gathering gnats and pow, it’s blue,

sun igniting water. Then cool cement,
and drowsy perfume of woodsmoke, just-cut
grass. Close your brimming eyes,

hear your heart’s soft treble,
until you’re lifted like a rain drop in reverse
into the tattered pearl of a winnowing cloud.

(from Zephyr by Susan Browne [Steel Toe Books, 2010])

Auld Lang Syne

I don’t want to let the year end without saying that, for all of 2011’s sorrows, I am deeply and heartfelt-fully grateful for my family — my boys, my husband, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, etc. — and all my loyal and loving friends — virtual and otherwise. You remind me of what’s true and dear in life, and hold my hand on days when I don’t need reminding but just need a hand. May the new year bring you all and mostly good things.

Baby @ 20 wks
Our new edition, due to be released May 1, 2012...

The Writing Blues

Aidan at work on his magnum opus.

My children are ever so much more productively writing than I am. Vincent’s discovering the discoveries and challenges of reading and writing, and Aidan is doggedly working on his own mysterious pages.

I, on the other hand, have written exactly two poems since my mother died. That Salamander will be publishing one of them in their next issue is some consolation, but I’m feeling the pull and tug of the writing bug.

After Aidan was born, I buckled down and wrote a poem a week, and kept at it consistently, for a long time. Not all were worth keeping or working on, but the regularity of effort kept my mind chugging.

But now, sometimes, a lot of times, I just feel stymied. What to say that’s not about my mother and how intensely I miss her? (Which is responsible for the silences here as well.)

I’ve reached that stage where I’m weary of talking about my grief. I miss her. It hurts. Nothing helps, nothing will help, because she’s not coming back. Emotionally I accept that, but I’m just bored with myself.

I’m not unaware of my life’s many blessings, not least of which is a plenitude of love, my dear family, this unexpected gift of a new child in the spring.

I’m also grateful that I live a life saturated in literature: Tupelo Press, the Collected Poets Series, the support and love of poet friends — it’s a financially precarious life, but I love it and am thankful for it.

Which is to say, I love my life. To paraphrase the film, “Super 8,” (which I also loved), bad things happen, but I can go on. I can live, and can live happily.

I guess I’m just trying to find a way to write about this abiding sadness that doesn’t feel maudlin or self-indulgent or tedious. It’s one thing to bore myself; it’s unforgivable to bore others.

Despite it all…

…I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I was born to a great mother, that I loved her and told her so all the time. That I was able to be there for her and that she let me care for her was a real blessing. A critical illness has a way of burning away all the inessentials. The pain I’m in now is because I love her so much — my grief is the best tribute I can offer.

I’m lucky that I have so many sweet and thoughtful friends who thought of me and how difficult Sunday would be for me, and reached out with comfort. I know there will be many such hard days ahead, but I confess I didn’t handle this one very well.

And I’m lucky I have these boys, and their patient father, all of whom look stricken every time I go out “for poetry,” but let me go nonetheless. The poetry is returning — a new poem last week, another brewing — but nothing could happen if they didn’t give me a little space to maneuver.

And I like to think they’re discovering the exhilaration of creating for themselves…

Beyond any notion of a beginning

When we talk about love, we go back to the start, to pinpoint the moment of free fall. But this story is the story of an ending, of death, and it has no beginning. A mother is beyond any notion of a beginning. That’s what makes her a mother: you cannot start the story.

But, oh hell, you keep trying.

— Meghan O’Rourke, The Long Goodbye

I’m back to stories again; they’re inescapable. The thing is, more than ways of making sense of your life, they can be companions, ones who’ve been there before you. Maybe they can’t show you the path through the dark woods — because there is no one true path, is there — but they can keep you company as you go. It’s an unspeakable help.

I was lucky enough to receive in today’s mail an advanced reader’s copy of The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. I will write about it when I finish — I’m 40 pages in and find it painful and exquisite and necessary. Reading about her parents’ courtship reminded me of the story I learned from my mother just a few years ago —

At 21, my mother went on a double date with her best friend, Estelle, and her beau. This was in Georgia. Dad was a yankee, only there because he’d joined the Navy and was in training at Fort Benning. My dad was a mate of this beau, and he had a car. They chose my mom’s date, my dad, because he had a car.

They hit it off: engaged in 4 weeks, married in 6. Can you imagine?

How our lives can be hinged on the most random details.

One of my brothers tells me that they had a rough patch in the 1970s, but I don’t remember that. I remember him giving her a kiss every day before he left for work — actually, it was more like a series of kisses — their goodbyes were always long.

But his leaving was abrupt. A massive heart attack at 49. It never occurred to me that my mother would remarry. Some do. But I knew — he was her all. She’s never stopped missing him.

A critical illness brings you up short any number of ways. Points a finger at you and asks, What do you believe, anyway?

I was brought up Catholic, but aside from various ceremonies haven’t been in a church in a decade. I think of myself as agnostic/borderline atheist. I might allow that there might be creators up there, but if so they’re much too busy to bother with us and our insignificant lives.

And yet it appears somehow I’ve harbored the hazy half-formed belief that the universe owes me for taking my father so soon. As if the universe has ever been an entity that bargained. Or apologized.

My mother’s universe is shrinking to the size of two rooms.

She sleeps in a recliner, and has for months — stairs are simply insurmountable. Neuropathy in her hands and feet cause her hands to shake so much that she needs her meals cut for her, can only drink from cups with handles.

The bathroom is but a few feet from her chair, but it’s still too far these days. She has a walker, but her every movement takes an infinite amount of energy, leaves her depleted and exhausted.

She’s sleeping much more than she was just two weeks ago. She’s not as alert as she was, becomes confused easily. Her pain meds haven’t significantly changed. This isn’t morphine brain. This is cancer, on the march.

Among other things, she’s on oxygen, fentanyl patch, oxycodone, several steroids, and a diuretic — her feet have swollen to the point where the skin has cracked and become infected. No more chemo until it heals.

And she didn’t have chemo last week because her platelets were low. Chemo was interrupted earlier to try radiation on the metastasis in her spine. And during these necessary interims between chemo her cancer counts have sky-rocketed.

Her legs are weak. Tomorrow she’s having an MRI to see where else the cancer’s traveled.

But she still wants chemo. She may be dying, but she’s not ready to stop trying to live.

I may never be ready to live in a world without my mother, but it feels like some sort of grace that we’re being given this long goodbye.

(Who’s doing the giving? Don’t expect consistency from this quarter.)

And in the grand and small scheme of things, it’s not about me. Because with or without her, I’ll get to keep on living.

Let it snow! (Baby, it’s cold outside…)

Finally, the day after Christmas, we’re having our first real honest-to-goodness snow storm! There’s nowhere we have to be, plenty of milk, cream, cocoa, tea, and coffee (covering the holy trinity of hot beverages) on hand, and thus we can hunker down and enjoy the view.

With me and the boys down with colds, visiting my mum and her chemo-depressed immune system for Christmas was out of the question. So we had a quieter sort of holiday. Which is the sort of holiday our economic reality is happiest with anyway. Though not the kind of quiet that means silent — my stepsons brought fireworks. Rather a lot, actually. Because nothing says Christmas like explosives.

I’ve packed a bunch of reading into this mini-break — I tend not to use the computer much on weekends if I (and my Duotrope addiction) can help it — while the boys have been deeply attentive to creating art and play-doh wall stucco. Where it used to be I couldn’t read more than one book at a time, I seem to have a compulsion these days to hoard a disparate pile of library books along with my usual supply of literary journals:

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (an interesting follow-up to my reading of The Emperor of All Maladies — the writing’s less elegant, the science less difficult, but the story of the Lacks is utterly heart-rending), the new issue of Poetry Northwest, an urban fantasy novel whose title I won’t mention because I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it but which held my attention, and I’m 440 pages into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I really love and I’m trying not to rush through. Without re-reading something from my shelves (which is not out of the question by any means) I’m currently without a volume of prose on poetry, having returned Mentor & Muse to the library — any suggestions, anything new out there I may not have heard about or read already?

Between reading jags I’ve baked blueberry muffins, picked up various wood blocks and legos, and joined my sons with their crayons. Vincent was drawing an elaborate series of small rectangles, something that resembled a spread-out brick wall, and then below them at the bottom of the page, he drew a single small rectangle off by itself, and announced, “This is the lonely one.”

“And why is he lonely?” I asked.

“Because his parents are gone,” Vincent replied mournfully.

“Where are his parents?”

“I think they went to the bank.” He looked up. “And then they went to a poetry reading.”

I told Lance how delighted I am that our not-yet 5 yr old’s world includes the idea of a poetry reading.

He raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And how about the fact that he equates poetry readings with loneliness and abandonment?”

Criminy.

Intimations of Mortality

Lately I’m expending a lot of effort feeling frustrated by the lagging response times of most of the journals I’ve submitted to, fighting the urge to dash off mild yet curious emails regarding my poems. I feel stymied, depressed.

Lately I’m frustrated by my failure to stabilize Aidan’s ever-erratic sleep schedule, my attempts at weaning, my formerly reliable and now nonexistent writing time. My, my, my. Stymied, depressed.

There’s more, there’s always more, especially in the fall. Lovely, the blazing migration of leaves, but I’m not ready for the morning frost. The cold nights. The days with more than just a snap in the air. The early dark.

But really, it’s all a smokescreen. Because my mother is fighting lung cancer, and who isn’t helpless in the face of her mother’s mortality? The reminder that life may be tenacious, but still as frail as cicada husks.

The use of the word cicada is not gratuitously poetic. It was my mother who taught me the correct pronunciation of cicada, who identified that constant buzzing sound for me when we visited family in Georgia.

Since suddenly losing my father in 1993 this has been a fear, because only with that loss did the possibility of further loss even occur to me. It’s not news that youth carries a nearly impossibly impenetrable sense of immortality. Nearly.

I’m writing about this here because even though I’ve been distracted, I have no intention of letting A View from the Potholes become a fallow field. My tenacious life has transformed and expanded, and retracted, too, in so many ways since that night in 2007 I began.

Grave illness doesn’t have to mean that everything else pales in importance. I think that’s a mistake. Perspective is good. Having a sense of proportion. But life isn’t a hierarchy.

In the first episodes of “Lost,” the character of Jack said something to Kate about dealing with fear that’s always stayed with me, though I missed its last seasons. He said that when he’s afraid, he gives in to the fear, allows it its full rein, for five seconds. For five seconds he lets the terror in. Then, at the count of five, he moves on.

One. Two. Three. Four. Five —