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.

Summer drives

I spent a long weekend at my mum’s with the boys, where they played with their cousins and created an aura of general pandemonium. Driving home last night the two and a half hours was actually wonderful: the day had been beautiful, weather-wise, breezy and dry, and as we drove down the highway towards the setting sun, Aidan slept a carefree sleep and Vincent sang along to this song. Over and over. Which is how he likes it. Whilst wearing his blue goggles against the solar glare. (Try listening to him say the word “goggles” sometime and not have a good day remembering. Just try.)

Digging out from Under.

Have I ever neglected my blog this long before?  Apologies!  At last I have my beloved iBook back — well, a refurbished clone of my beloved, actually, but it will most certainly do — and I’m so backed up and behind that I’m simply choking out here in the weeds.

It was an interesting couple weeks without a computer.  I didn’t care for it.  I read some novels I’d been meaning to read (The Magicians — enjoyable, despite the protagonist being a bit of a whiner; The Codex — same author, also fun, again despite a lackluster protagonist; The Anthologist — I loved this: the poet-curmudgeon-narrator really grew on me, the po-biz barbs were well-shot, and Baker has some true insights into form; now reading Freddy & Fredericka, which I resisted, though I love Mark Helprin, because I have a hard time sympathizing with privileged characters, but I’m glad I gave in because I’m being swept up).

And of course I read tons of poetryThen, Something (Tupelo’s fall books, so different from each other, are so great in their various ways: Pat Fargnoli’s Then, Something gorgeously meditative, Joan Houlihan’s The Us strange, new, yet accessible, and the lush language of Jennifer Militello’s Flinch of Song).

So far, so good.  However, being cut off from my computer meant being cut off from my poems, all the things I hadn’t yet printed out in hard copies, my manuscript-in-process, the revisions I was working on.  In short, my writing was stymied.  I didn’t write a single new poem during my sojourn in laptop-limbo.  No Draft of the Week this week, I’m afraid.

That said, I still shuffled around with the print-out of the MS I had, and came up with an organization and order and even section breaks that please me, and spent most of last night working on the computer adjusting the file, and just printed out the new version a little while ago.  Flipping through it in its little black spring binder, table of contents and all, is almost as delicious as my chocolate birthday cake.

Yes, I’m a year older now, with vastly more wrinkles.  The sweetest, smilingest part of the day: the boys’ birthday card to me, as dictated by Vincent and transcribed by Lance: “Happy Birthday to the best old Mommie we’ve ever had.  We’re going to share your birthday cake.”  And we did.

Lastly, if you’ve been waiting and wondering, I just received word tonight:  Hunger All Inside shipped today! So look for your copies to arrive in the mail next week — hooray!  If you didn’t order and would like to, you can either go here to order from Finishing Line Press, or contact me directly at mgauthier [dot] hunger [at] gmail [dot] com.  That goes also if you’d like an autographed copy.  I’ve picked out a proper writing implement and am practicing my signature even as I type…

Wood Smoke & S’mores…& Frog Legs.

My brother took our nephew camping not too far from Shelburne Falls this weekend, to a campground where we spent most of the summers of our childhood, so we went to visit them on Saturday.

Vincent went out on a canoe, splashed around in the lake, toasted marshmallows for s’mores (which he then spit out, deciding he prefers the ingredients individually, leaving me to eat the remaining s’mores alone, alas), watched fireworks, and ran his little legs off.

The boy was literally unspeakably exhausted by the end of the night: when he tried to tell me something as we were driving away, his words came out garbled.  He was asleep before we turned onto the road.

The day was a wind-swept sunny gift.

I reconnected with one of my oldest friends (and Vincent made a new friend in her sweet-hearted daughter).  We had lost touch when our lives flowed down separate streams.  Well, my life flowed.  Hers was always more akin to whitewater rafting.  But now, a confluence, an even keel.  Our re-meeting was perfectly timed.

Lance finagled a few stories from her about our youth — old friends seem to be an endless repository of memories you’ve forgotten, or wished to forget — and it reminded him of his own boyhood summers.  S’mores did not figure.

His family stayed in a cabin off the coast of New Hampshire, or Maine, [Note: in a cabin on an island in a lake in Maine.  “Off the coast? There aren’t any frogs in the ocean, Sweetie.”  Details, details.] and his father hunted frogs with a bb gun.  But the frogs sank.  Ever resourceful, his father then began to shoot the frogs with darts devised of bicycle spokes on a wire, which he pulled in.

Then he sat at the end of the dock and cut the legs from his bucketful of frogs for that night’s dinner.

Little Lance wouldn’t go near them.

He didn’t want to go near that dock, scene of the carnage, ever again either.

I guess it depends on where you stand in life whether you find this story horrifying or hilarious.  It reminds me of “The Triplets of Belleville”, whose plot also features bicycles and frogs.  In a word, hilarious.

Milestones.

Happy Birthday to me -- I'm 3, I'm 3!
Happy Birthday to me -- I'm 3, I'm 3!

Vincent turned three on Saturday, so I baked him a cake.  From scratch.  You’ll note I have not posted a picture of said cake.  Oh, it tasted quite wonderful, actually, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, and Vincent adored it.  Which was a big relief, because it looked like crap.  I wish I was joking.

Because I find it mildly embarrassing how truly awful that cake looked, and because such things feel like a challenge from the universe (“En garde!”), I have resolved to bake another cake today.  My sister, whose birthday was also this weekend, is arriving with my mum for a visit some time this morning, so another birthday cake seems in order.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the first cake is completely gone.

Can you dig it?
Can you dig it?

Praise.

By some inauguration day minor miracle, both of my boys stopped crying long enough for me to hear the actual swearing-in of our new president, and while I’m trying to keep my expectations reasonable, to bear in mind that President Barack Obama is a man, a good, intellectual, thoughtful man, but still a man, one who’s entering office at the worst of times, I can’t help but feel elated, as if that Mighty Mouse theme song is now the new order of things: “Here I come to save the daaay!”

How moving the benediction, and Elizabeth Alexander’s poem! Thanks to Wom-Po, here are links to an article with the poem’s text and video footage of the reading itself — I don’t think the text is lineated properly, being merely centered in paragraphs, but I’d need to get a glance at the poem in Alexander’s actual hands to know for sure (we’ll get our chance — Graywolf Press will publish the poem as a chapbook in February).  But I’m a text-based visual sort, so it’s nice to read it for myself, however provisional the line-breaks or format.  And the article itself is worth reading, too.

What a day. Tomorrow, reason and reality will return. But today, we praise, and hope, and celebrate!

“The Mist”.

We did not drive to the coast yesterday — both Vincent & Lance had colds, so we went out for breakfast at Foxtowne Diner and walked to the playground in the morning, and had a quiet and restful afternoon. My idea of a good day.

Which I needed, because I woke up in a foul mood: on Saturday night, Lance & I watched “The Mist” on DVD, based on the novella by Stephen King. I don’t watch scary movies, because they’re scary movies, they give me nightmares, but Lance didn’t want to watch it alone. So I watched it with him (“Honey, could you turn that light out?” “NO.”). And as scary movies go, it was pretty damn good. Most horror flicks these days are just exercises in masochism & blood, but this was very character-driven. Which is why the ending is so awful. Not merely shocking, but wrong wrong wrong.

If you haven’t seen it, and don’t want to know the end, don’t read further, because the movie’s conclusion is different from the one for the novella, which leaves the characters driving through the mist, not sure where or if the mist ends. In the movie, after you’ve watched all the struggles & deaths of some great characters (how could they kill you, Ollie, o the injustice!) 5 characters make it to the Land Rover and drive off: the main character, his young son, a blonde school teacher, an older teacher played Frances Steenburgen, and an older man. They drive through scene after scene of wreckage until the gas runs out. This is where things go awry.

Now Lance tells me the following scene is an homage to a scene from the docudrama, “The Night that Panicked America,” which is about the airing of Orson Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” He says that part of that film focuses on a family’s reaction as they listen to the program on the radio: a father, mother, young son, and the grandparents, in a panic, flee their apartment by car. Driving down a tunnel, a firetruck approaches from the opposite direction. The father’s panicking, mistaking the firetruck for aliens, and he holds a gun in his hand — contemplates killing his family rather then letting them fall into the hands of aliens. Before he can do anything, the firetruck overtakes them, and tells them to go home, for crying out loud, this is a tunnel, what’re they doing, get out of the way. Chastened, they return home feeling foolish, but safe.

Back to “The Mist”: the father, child, woman, & older couple sit in the Land Rover surrounded by mist, out of gas, and hear ominous sounds approaching. By now we’ve seen all the awful creatures in the mist, so yes, we, the audience, are aware that they are in grave danger, stranded like that. But it’s been 2 hours, they’ve fought like hell to get that far, so when the father looks at the gun in his hand and counts how many bullets are left (“Four.” “But there are five of us.”), I don’t really believe he’ll do something so daft, especially to his sweet little boy. But the next scene pulls back to an external shot of the Land Rover — the interior flashes, four shots. Then back to the father, who howls into the steering wheel, then gets out of the car to call to the monsters to come and get him.

Instead, the cavalry arrives: the army, row upon row of tanks and soldiers with torches, and they push back the mist. The father sinks to his knees in horror. Roll credits.

Monsters didn’t keep me from sleeping that night, but outrage. And Lance, who made me watch the film in the first place, says, “But it’s only a movie.” Which is so breathtakingly beside the point.

I think this will all tie into poetry, or at least writing:

Maybe the filmmakers were going for an ironic ending, but it’s a cheap shot, and completely unfair. Let’s face it, a horror flick is not where you go for verisimilitude, and the least you should get for your time and high blood pressure is a hopeful ending. Redemption. Genre films should not be trying to buck convention, they’re all about convention. If I want bleakness and despair, I’ll watch an independent film.

That said, I’d accept the depressing nature of “The Mist”‘s conclusion if it seemed earned, but it’s all wrong for the characters as they’ve been portrayed throughout the film, the people we the audience have come to know and root for. They’d keep fighting!

Here it is: the conclusion of any piece of art is only believable, true, if it’s been earned. I tend to rush early drafts of my poems to the end, I’m good at endings. But then I have to go back and work to make those endings right and satisfying. Otherwise I’m left with some good lines, but a bad poem. The people behind “The Mist” worked to create a really compelling film, and ruined it with a “shocking” ending. This is one of those times I’d actually appreciate an alternate ending in the extras bit on DVD!

Thanks for listening. I feel better now.

*

On another topic entirely: Lance questions me every day whether I’ve posted the news yet here, and when I intend to, so I guess I’ll go ahead, seeing as he’s told everyone and their grandmothers since we found out:

Yes, I’m pregnant, due on Christmas day (poor baby), which makes me 7 weeks along. I will make every attempt to not regale you with pregnancy tales. Unless you ask. I will only say now that, as with Vincent, so far everything’s great, no morning sickness, just fatigue and ravenous, I-could-eat-my-desk, hunger. After our initial surprise, we’re very happy — I’m one of 6, and always wanted Vincent to have a sibling closer in age (his half-brothers are 20+ yrs older).  We weren’t exactly planning for one soon, but we’re excited nonetheless. Vincent is always sweet with babies, so hopefully he’ll be happy too when the new baby comes home, and not rage against being knocked from his only-child-prince’s perch. Good times.