The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Sad Planet November 15, 2013

What a bittersweet and frustrating planet this is to live upon. Please know that I do realize I don’t by have it particularly hard by the greater standards of the world, yet in just the past few hours I’ve come to feel at the absolute end of my patience with this stupid place (or, if not out of patience, perhaps one might say ‘beyond disillusioned’ with this silly existence.) Just what the hell kind of joke is this world?? I’m done with trying to understand, trying to justify, trying to learn from it all. I’m fucking done. And the scary thing is, I have hardly begun the real adventure. I may not like the jowly face that stares back at me from reverse-camera skype images, I may not be able to casually drop a couple of dress sizes without much effort anymore, and simply tossing off situps or running a half mile may not be such mindlessly easy activities as I remember them to be…. But BAH! This sort of stuff is nothing! These things, however surprising or abhorrent they may have seemed to me at first, they don’t begin to approach the level of personal challenges that lay yet ahead. Losing one’s looks, yeah, that sucks. Losing one’s physical prowess, hard on the ego. But losing one’s parents – and then having it happen ever so slowly – I think that sucks a whole lot more. And experiencing it all with that quintessential, ‘keep-up-the-appearances-at-any-cost’ vibe of last century’s generation is just plain exhausting.

Things in our family changed tonight. I’ve been around for half a century, and during that time I’ve only seen my mother cry twice. Tonight was one of them. And I can’t even say she was crying really, but her eyes filled with moisture, and for the first time I can recall, I could actually feel a breach in her defenses. For just an instant I saw her, as a woman, as a wife, as a person about to be left terribly, irreversibly alone. It was the first time I’d seen any honest emotion in my mother in perhaps decades. Well, emotion other than outrage or anger (granted, she laughs sometimes too). As any student of spiritual life may recognize, anger (outrage being another manifestation of the same) is simply an expression of fear. While I myself had learned of that years ago, I don’t think it truly sank in for me until I came to live here, and was forced to re-examine my own personal habits and history in the wake of my ‘great life change’. I too had felt a good amount of rage at the world throughout my life – at my partner, at my circumstances, at many things – and had never thought twice about expressing it. In other words, I expressed myself just fine (and often loudly), and without much editing. And I never stopped to wonder at the origin of such rage. I guess it never struck me as something that needed any examination. Yeah, I’d read about it before, but until I put it into the context of my own personal experiences, I didn’t really get that rage came from fear. And being afraid is, well, understandable. This is one goddam scary place to live. Yeah, I can say that I sympathize with those who live in fear. In fact, I think you’d have to be fairly dull-witted not to be impressed with the opportunities we have here for some truly fearful situations. Having said that, I’m usually the first to be chill in the face of true stress; from surviving a broken neck as well as a handful of other life-heavy episodes, I’ve fared pretty well in the face of crap. Doesn’t mean I welcome any more of it though. And it sure doesn’t mean that I’m still not pretty goddam angry about things.

My mother too has never ruminated over the reasons for her emotions (that I know). Thankfully, the study of one’s own psyche and emotional world had become a practical and accepted life skill by my generation’s coming of age, but regrettably, my parents never had such tools on their side. Hardly. Instead, a stoic attitude, stiff upper lip and general disdain for everyone else kept a person moving successfully forward in life (glaring wounds and flagrant injustices be damned and ignored; keep your eyes looking ahead, pay no mind to the nasty reality…) And so, nearing her eighth decade here, my mother still does a yeoman’s job of keeping it all inside and pretending nothing’s wrong. That it’s all business as usual. (Btw way, I borrow ‘yeoman’ from my mother. A great word; her generation’s gift to me.) So I can’t blame her for any of this. Of the crazy, ‘it’ll be fine tomorrow’ kind of talk. It’s a strange new world now, because my mother still seems to me like the keeper of all answers, the ultimate knower-of-all-things, and in spite of more and more evidence that shows otherwise (in no way downplaying the immense amount of shit she really does know!), I just can’t seem to get it. She’s the sane one in the house, the one who keeps it together. The one who does things right (or as my ex would have half-joked she’s ‘white and right’), and she’s the one who lets everyone else know that she knows. Ok, so maybe she does that with a 1950’s vintage passive-aggressive sort of flair, but hey, at least everyone knows what’s up. Well, so that’s the way it’s been for the fifty years I’ve known her. But now, in quick, minute little steps, the relationship seems to be changing. The power dynamic is shifting, just a bit. It’s not that I need or want to be right, or on top of things, or taking charge, no. I don’t need more stuff. It’s challenge enough just trying to keep up with a simple life. But mom cannot do it all herself, and as I began to interject myself into the equation tonight, lifting dad off the floor, moving furniture to barricade him safely into his bed, I realized things had changed.

Tonight the situation just kinda forced our hands. When I arrived, dad was on his knees by the guest bed, too weak to sit, too weak to pull himself up. (That he had wandered into the guest bedroom and not his own presents a new level of concern.) My mother, bent over with arthritis, was not able to move him. My brother had thankfully arrived to assist, but by the time they’d been at it a while and I had gotten there, nothing was changed. Now I myself have very little core strength these days, but I was somehow able to lift dad and get him back onto the bed. From there I got him into a lying position, but he protested and for nearly an hour made efforts to sit back up – only with no ability to follow through and even walk across the room. I’m not sure how mom would have played it had I not arrived. She talked to dad tonight as if he were as well-reasoned as ever. In fact, he is markedly changed from even a few days ago. His talk was absolutely surreal, plus he was distressed, and even sometimes uncharacteristically angry, at being confined to his bed. Logic was of no gain; he had no understanding at all of where he was, or why he was there at all. He did still know us, and he did still formulate sentences, however this time, and for the first time, they began to more closely approximate mere gibberish. At one point I said “dad, what’s your favorite Scarlatti?” and without missing a beat he replied “D major”. Ah. Mom and I smiled at each other. I made a mental note to bring it up to speed again… maybe play it for him some time… Elihu and dad have had this made-up, Eastern European-sounding language in which the two speak for sometimes great lengths of time – they use gestures, crazy facial expressions and in general, sound quite plausible. And funny. I nodded at Elihu to give it a try as the four of us sat there in a dazed lull following an episode of moving dad from floor to bed. Elihu leaned in, and said something to dad. And wouldn’t ya know, dad gave it right back to him. All four of us laughed! It was the most remarkable thing – and such sweet relief to laugh like that! Elihu gave it another go, and we had another couple rounds of solid laughs. Dad couldn’t keep it going, but the thing was, he still got there. He still had that thing. Dad has always had a talent for impressions, for quirky, off-the-beaten-path humor. And in spite of how much of his life is lost to him, a spark of this remains burning. Hope, in one tiny form.

We managed to get dad lying down, tucked tightly into his covers, and I enforced the side of the bed with antique ladder backed chairs and a large hope chest. We fed him some of that crappy, over-sweet nutritional drink that old folks use to keep up their calorie intake, then we gave him half of a sleeping pill. As I sat with mom on the bed I began to pick up on a change in her spirit. I sensed the faintest beginnings of defeat. So I put my arm around her – something that just never happens in this house – and felt that it might have helped a little bit. Not a lot though. There’s just too much heartbreak here to make much of a dent in. But I told her I loved her, and that I had no idea how hard this was for her. Elihu leaned in to kiss grandpa and tell him how much he loved him. And my father, for as feeble and absent as he’s become, he simply beamed at his grandson. His eyes sparkled, and he told Elihu how very much he loved him too. This, I thought, is the happy ending. No matter what may happen, this is it.

As we were walking through the garage to our car I heard Elihu sniffling. And then I realized he was crying. Really crying. I didn’t offer a hug, or contact of any kind; it just didn’t seem the time. He needed some space to digest what was happening. Man, it just didn’t seem fair. He’s a young kid, and his grandpa such an old man. I really wish they’d had more time together. Crap. When we got in the car I said “well, you’ve had ten wonderful years together. We can be thankful for that.” We rode home in silence.

Had a nice supper, enjoyed some laughs, and we spent a moment just sitting on the couch, arms around each other, saying nothing. Mom called to say that dad had fallen right out with the sleeping pill. Mom’s life has always been fueled by agendas, by plans, goals… and now she finds herself zapped of her usual purpose and forward momentum. I can hear a shift in her voice. She sounds smaller somehow. Like she’s finally giving in. I hear it, and I wish I could just tell her that she doesn’t need to give up or give in – she just needs to surrender some things…. and other things will fill those places one day. I want to tell her this, but of course, I don’t. But I do tell her that I love her, and that I’ll call her in the morning.

I find relief in knowing that my son’s asleep now, and so is my father. But like me, I’m guessing my mother is still up late, not quite knowing what it is she should be doing. Feeling loose in the world, alone, the line to her anchor being cut away one thread at a time while she looks on, helpless…. Like me, I’ll bet she’s thinking this is all one great big let-down. All of this life, and then this is the crappy way it has to end? But she’ll put on a good show of it come morning, I know. And she’ll keep it up for a while longer yet. And me, I’ll make the best of it too. I’ll play this game as well as I’m able, and I’ll make an effort to keep humor and love alive in my small world. For the most part I think I’ll go with the half-full attitude. But for the moment, I can honestly say that I’m not thrilled to be here at all.

Tonight, this seems like a very sad planet indeed.

 

Relief October 16, 2013

Much of today I’ve spent fuming at being told just this morning – by an email I might well have missed (as it’s not something I check more that once a day when I’m super busy) – telling me that Elihu was to be on a plane to Chicago at 6:30 am the next morning. Now I realize that my ex’s dad has been terribly sick lately, and we ourselves have all been sick with worry about him, and I realize this visit is important, but with so little notice it was a major logistic monkey wrench in the week, and it’ll take another month to get back on course. Braces being put in, important lessons in school, butchering rescheduled yet again, a skipped bass lesson, not to mention a classmate’s birthday party missed as well. I’m not cold to the importance of the visit, and I don’t want to appear selfish, but I feel like there should have been a mutual acceptance of said plans first. I knew the idea was out there – but Fareed had said his dad was in ICU where children weren’t allowed, and then he said the fares were too insane to purchase one. Lastly, he said he’d get back. Ok, so he did. With twenty four hours to go before the flight. Not a lot of opportunity for me to say no, not at least without becoming the bad guy. !

First, I should take a breath and at least acknowledge the great relief that washed over me when I heard for myself Riaz’s voice on the phone recently, after so many post-surgery days of respirator, infections and fever. I kinda knew he’d make it, but a tinier voice continued to whisper to me “this is how they all go… admitted for one thing, they end up catching pneumonia and dying of it in the end…” We’ve all heard that story so many times that it’s hard to pretend we haven’t. So to know that he’s keeping alive on his own steam – and improving no less – is great news, and it positively lifts my heart. For as much as my former father-in-law may never see things from my side, he is still that beloved, goofy man I’ve known for so many years. The man with whom I’ve traveled around the world, the man from whom I’ve learned to cook Pakistani food, the man from whom I’ve learned so many things I can’t begin to recount them. A man who’s had a huge role in my life, regardless of the other, less fortunate crap that ended up happening with us all.

When things were dire for him over the past weeks, I began an emergency re-evaluation of how our lives would feel without him. First, I’m just not ready to see my ex experience that kind of heartbreak. I know he’s not my husband anymore, but nonetheless it will be very hard for me to witness his grief when that time comes. While it would be very hard on my son to be sure, my ex husband will be a profoundly changed man when his dad dies. They are two of the same cloth, and I’m sure it will feel like part of himself is gone. And speaking purely about the nuts and bolts of the family businesses, Riaz is the patriarch in charge. So upon his death one day, things will change in a big way. And I myself was not quite up to this big of a change – quite yet. (But is one ever really ready??) To know that Elihu is going to see his grandfather again allows my whole body to relax again. This is a great relief indeed.

So for the next four days Elihu will be with his father and his grandfather. All afternoon he was silly and bouncy, in a cheery mood just to know that soon he’d be with Daddy. And how happy I am for him. What doesn’t make me so happy are the cold starts and immediate goodbyes – the instant change with no time for emotional preparation. Here today, there in a few hours. Oops, sorry I didn’t confirm it with you, but you’ll roll with it, won’t you?... I always do. Friends tell me I’m a doormat to my ex. I say I’m only trying to maintain some feeling of love in the family. It’s not often a two-way street, however. I myself have had so little love or respect from my ex that sometimes I really do feel like being a bitch and just saying ‘no’. But if I back off, take a breath and re-assess things, although it still might piss me off, I’m able to handle the rescheduling and the added stress. Cuz I love my son, and want things to be the best for him.  I know that whatever shit goes down all around, the bottom line is that a child needs his parent, and the parent needs his child. There is no greater feeling of relief than to hold your child firmly within your arms after a long absence. It’s a gift I never want to refrain from giving, no matter how angry I might be. And just as it gives my mother’s heart relief to hold Elihu close, so it also gives my heart relief to know that father and son will be in each other’s arms again soon.