five from the land of first and forgotten things

The first bell rings. There is a slam of a heavy door somewhere that echoes through the church. It's probably not part of the service, but what do I know? Everything is symbolic here. I do not understand most of the words and I do not know these songs and I do not even want to be here, no one does, but the alternative is that he would be suffering, somewhere, in a bed, staring into a corner or sedated or throwing a keychain and refusing to submit to an injection. And I do not have a choice and neither did he, so we are a few feet away from each other and he is colorless and still and bedecked in finery. I stand for hours and listen to the men sing for him, sing him home, beg forgiveness on his behalf.
Winter blew in and froze everything and it feels like Winnipeg again, cold as Mars. I forgot my gloves on Saturday. The wind blew through two layers of pants and two layers of tops and a massive parka, through my skin. It turned my bones blue. My hands barely escaped frostbite. I shoved them into my pockets and paced until the bus came. Fifteen steps east, fifteen west. I stop the processing and grief for a minute because I cannot think of anything else except the cold and how my brain has forgotten it from last January. What else have I forgotten? What was first? 
I send an email: It's kind of amazing how some things never change I say, and I know the woman getting it will hear the fury beneath those words, even though they sound almost winsome out of context. I send an email: I love you and am glad I do not have to talk about dementia with you anymore and these are true things, but I do not trust brains anymore; they feel capricious and half magic and I wonder if I even remember how to talk about other things. I send an email: I was up in the middle of the night so I have been Bowie-sad since then. It is just a further thumb-press on top of the already existing FIL sadness and I do know the difference between the two and I am the kind of person who loves to press her thumb on bruises, so here I go, pressing.
First was this: When I was little, two years old, I asked my mother: Daddy come home now? Daddy come home now? When? She was 22 and had to explain over and over that he was not coming home, what dead meant. And I would get sad and then I would ask again. When? At some point I stopped asking and maybe it was a relief and maybe it was worse, maybe it was all downhill from there.
At the newspaper office, Myron drops off the obituary and a photograph. A woman tells him that the year ahead will be a year of firsts. First Easter, first birthday. You know. The first without. And yes, she is right, but to have watched Papá change over the past years--from the first time I saw him pray, at our wedding, until he became the man who played with my hair when I stood beside his hospital bed--is to have been clocking firsts all this time. The first time I lost my temper with him, the first indignity of an aging body, the first time I was sure I knew the difference between the slipping of memory that comes with aging and the slipping of self. Each one rang their own bell. I remember their pitches and their trailing tones, first, first, first, again, first.

these are pearls

Full fathom five thy father lies; 
    Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
    Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
                   --from Ariel's song, The Tempest

That quote is too on the nose. But if there were ever a time for noseness like this, it's the last day of a long year, while I am thirty-six hours stunned, while his eyes are still so clear in my mind. I can only remember life with a dead father; now Myron is in the club

The thing, the truth, the cliché about dementia (one of so many), the one that you remember over and over again as if you're learning it the first time, is that the person you love is both there and not-there, playing peekaboo and juggling your love with a pair of fireballs. Or maybe not playing peekaboo but surfacing after longer and longer periods full-fathom-five below, not waving but drowning. When Papá showed himself after a period of not-there, I would seize on it and try to enjoy it as much as I could, because it was as ephemeral as everything else in the world is. But though these moments felt desperate to me, they didn't feel that way to him; he didn't gasp for air like a drowning man because he did not remember there were sharks circling. 

We brought him to the hospital not because of the dementia, but because he had fallen and couldn't walk. His heart, lungs, and other necessary systems were doing fine, especially considering his age. Between us and his doctors, we were planning for recovery and much more time with him. And when I say I am thirty-six hours stunned, it is because I still cannot believe that he is gone. How does it make sense that I thought I had more time with a ninety-one-year-old man? I did, though. And so another cliché, the one where I say it does not yet feel real, because it doesn't.

To face death at the end of a year is to do it with the knowledge that everyone around you is looking ahead to arbitrary freshness and possibility. (This is not my first time doing this.) Instead, I ponder the cool, quiet silence full fathom five might bring to a man whom you could believe might just have gone deaf in self-defense, to shut out the things that didn't make him happy. I ponder the pearls that were his eyes because they twinkled, blue like a baby's. I am considering the necessity of sea change, for all of us, and wondering what can possibly be more rich, more strange, than what we are already doing here, year in and year out. I am working that piece of verse like a good English major and trying to find some solace before the fireworks go off.

I hope 2016 brings you loveliness. And largeness, and wonder, and the company of good people, and laughter. I hope it brings you insight and nerve when it brings you pain, because it's bound to do so. I hope it surprises you, and brings you pearls.

about that.

Yesterday I said something like "autumn is not ready to let this city go" because threatened snow hadn't shown up. It came overnight and I am doing that thing where I tell myself it is beautiful and fight to see this beauty, the way I have to when I look at art I don't understand or try to read a book that isn't grabbing me. 


My parka hasn't been taken out of storage yet so I shoveled in a waffle top, fleece, leggings, jeans, and a wool peacoat. I also put on Myron's dad's giant Soviet fur-lined hat. Desperate times, dude. The wind pushed me around and went through me so cleanly it's almost amazing that I don't have holes afterward. 

I really do talk about other things besides the weather. Or I try very much to. Today there was nothing to photograph, nothing to think about except the 2015-ness of this year, which is what the first snow really makes me think about. I get self-reflective early enough that by December I'm sick of looking back. Did I get enough done? Never. Did I do anything new, anything that mattered? I think so. I think about the way Papá used to be, how vibrant and with-it and even kind of snarky and at the same time, almost childlike in his pleasure with his possessions and his collections and in Myron. I think about the way he said by golly at the end of a sentence, when he was really and truly stunned by something, a politician or the price of a prescription or the persistence of a telemarketer. He said it like he meant it, like it had a meaning. There were times this year when I was of use to the man he is now, when I either didn't take his bullshit or when I did. He is not unrecognizable from the man who chopped down those trees. But there is so little of that man left that you can't help seeking it out, scanning for it always, the way you look at a night sky and can't process the darkness, just the scattered little bits of light.


Do you remember the first time you learned about humors? Bile and blood and phlegm. I prefer not to mess with the humors of others and would rather not be reminded of the fact that we're all just keeping meat fresh. There is nothing like being in intimate quarters with an elderly person to get you over that, quickly. It is really something to witness a body in decline, and when it comes with a mind in decline, too, well... well, I cannot say it any more plainly than it breaks my heart every few minutes and then I have to go back over and let it be broken again and again and again. And "breaks my heart" is far too trite for this pain but I can't bring myself to try to put any art in it that doesn't belong there. It's pointless to polish it. It gets sprayed with blood and any crime show will tell you it's almost impossible to wash blood away.

It feels unfair to discuss Myron's parents on a blog; they don't really understand the internet in even the most basic ways.  They deserve their privacy. And yet they are such a big part of my mind that writing about almost anything else feels shallow. I read a lot of caregiver blogs a few years ago when I knew we were moving here, as if I could prepare myself for this. It's possible that if I were more open about it, other people would find what I wrote, do the same kind of homework I tried to do. Truth: The homework only takes you so far and only the practicum matters. The practicum comes with blood, phlegm, bile. Shit and piss. Tears, Christ, so fucking many.

#scintilla13: can't take her nowhere


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 14 prompts, Talk about the time when you were younger and you embarrassed your parents in public, the one that still shames you.We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I wish my mother were still around because I would call her up and ask her for an answer for this prompt, because the truth is I’m not ashamed of any of the times I would have embarrassed her. This is not going to be a great prompt response, and no great truths are going to be unearthed within. That said:

I know we were shopping for back-to-school clothes. It was 1987, and we were in the shoe section of Horne’s, which was a department store in the mall—one of many that I think Macy’s bought out. I remember the shoes I wound up getting that day, two pairs of them: one pair of peach Chucks and another pair of Reebok high tops, the kind that didn’t have the dumb velcro strap at the top. The leather was a soft, grayish blue suede, and it matched a Georgetown sweatshirt that I loved to pieces that year. The soles and shoelaces were a contrasting gray, and there was not a bit of white to be seen on them. I don’t think anyone else had that exact variety and I so wish I could find a pic for you on Google. I fucking loved those shoes.

It was near enough to the end of the day that my mom had been carrying those huge bags full of clothes, the kind they keep at the clothes counter but are really made to hold comforters. It was the point of the shopping day when I’d start to feel guilty about how much she’d spent, especially when I usually got only one pair of sneakers a year and the Chucks were not exactly durable. (But peach, you guys, peach.) But those Reeboks were dream shoes, and I could picture them peeking out below just-slouched-enough denim in just the right stonewash. 

The saleswoman packed up the stray pieces of tissue paper and I put on my old shoes. I knew what was coming: another large total on the receipt, the way she would pull each twenty out of a white Equibank envelope one at a time to pay. More guilt! And then like the gods were saying it would all be okay, “Linus and Lucy” started playing over the Horne’s loudspeaker. And I danced.

She was probably embarrassed, but she laughed, and she didn’t tell me to stop. And years later, she would remind me of that day and laugh again every time she did. It’s still almost impossible for me to resist dancing to that silly, happy tune, and I’m warning you now that if you take me out in public it could happen at any time.