11.30.12 That's Life

Hands 790 xxx
It has been a challenging week. My husband had surgery on his leg on Tuesday, to remove the steel hardware that repaired the shin bones he shattered in a motorcycle accident in Indonesia in April of 2011. Compared to the original surgery, this was nothing, though the surgeon did take an hour to scrape away at the healed bone in order to retrieve the 7 screws and one long plate from G's tibia. So I have no recipe for you today. Instead what I have is a heavy scarf of mixed emotions that I knit while waiting in the hospital, striped with painful memories and fringed with hope. I'm sorry to grieve you but I must unburden myself.

Hospitals fill me with a sickly dread. As I packed my bag in anticipation of spending a couple of days in the city, I knew just what clothes to bring. During the many months that I was in and out of the hospital with my husband who died of cancer in 2003, I had to be a warrior and I dressed accordingly. Warm, forgiving, efficient clothes. Sturdy boots. You have to be tough and prepared to fight on all fronts. There are no comfortable chairs in hospitals. The food is toxic. The lighting is fluorescent. There are strange smells of plastic and ammonia and death. Indifference is common. The beeping of machines, quiet but constant, will not give you a moment's peace. G's condition wasn't life-threatening but I was still afraid.

In the admitting room, our first stop on the long journey to the OR, we sat together on an aqua leatherette loveseat, morning news blaring from a TV hanging in the corner. People were strewn about the other seats like refuse, arms and legs akimbo, some asleep, others staring blankly into the middle distance. A harried guy about our age was doing his best to wrangle his parents, both of whom seemed shellshocked and very old. The father was the patient but the mother, deaf and talking much too loudly, was clearly suffering more. When the son took his father upstairs to surgery she stayed behind, absently touching her fright wig of a hairdo. "My husband was never sick a day in his life," she shouted at a young black couple sitting across from her. "An ox. He could lift a building. Now look at him." A toothless smile cracked her wrinkled face open. "That's life," she said, but we all knew she was talking about death.

Later, we ascended to the "Pre-Op Suite," a long, shabby room with a row of hospital beds divided by thin yellow curtains, where patients await the trip to the OR. G and I sat there immersed in the worlds of our iphones for what turned out to be way too long (his surgery was ultimately delayed for 7 1/2 hours due to a fight between the hospital and his insurance company), but we couldn't help but hear the tragedy quietly unfolding next to us. After many phone calls and doctors and nurses rushing back and forth to her bed, an elderly woman had been given to understand that she might not live through her emergency surgery (something to do with her liver). Finally a relative arrived and signed the consent forms. As she was being taken into the OR, the woman asked for 5 minutes with her niece. The nurse looked dubious and they agreed on 1 minute. In that time, the old woman conveyed to the younger one precisely how her belongings should be divided and what sort of funeral she expected. "Cremation is fine," she said in a low, even tone. "Nothing fancy, just do what you can." There were no tears, no protestations. And then they wheeled her away.

I thought of my father and how his body curled in on itself like a tiny, dessicated shrimp as the stomach cancer consumed him. I remembered how he put all his waning energy into dying and how that infuriated me until I finally understood it was his right. I thought of my husband who stroked out on our bed and was left lying on a gurney in the hallway of the ER, his last meal of spaghetti bolognese vomited up on his t-shirt, his one working hand clutching mine with a madman's grip. I remembered how he fought for his last breath like an enormous fish on a line. I thought of my mother, who also died in 2003, just 4 months after my husband. My sister was with her and she called me and held the phone to my mother's ear so we could say goodbye. I remembered the sound of her breathing, as rough and roaring as a washing machine, and the few silly words I mustered: Thank you for being such a good mother. There is no summing up of a lifetime; there is only the moment. The tears come even now as I write this, and I feel that familiar tightening in my chest, the constricting that reminds me that the heart is a muscle. Mine is criss-crossed with scars and stronger than ever.

For years I have held onto an image that I ripped from a magazine of an old woman's hand. There's a caption: Can you let go without regret? Letting go of others, letting go of your own life—can you do it? If you want to be conscious up until the end—your own or somebody else's—you have to be willing to face it, think about it, work at it. Like everything else, it's a struggle but there are rewards. And that's life.
 
Tagged — health, aging, life and death
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33 Comments

Dear Laura, What a lovely, heartfelt, painful, lyrical essay this is. We reach an age, right? An age filled with too many memories of hospitals. For me, there were the 80s, when friends died of AIDS or car accidents, then the 90s when grandparents died, or distant relatives, or friends of friends, diseases... then this century, losing parents and friends and young people. Indeed, that's life, and it's overwhelming at times but there are also so many reasons to be joyful. Sending you and George buckets of love and best thoughts for a speedy recovery.
Cathy on November 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm —
Thanks, dear Cathy, whose own losses and ankle tribulations breed empathy. We are home safe and the healing has begun. xo
laura on November 29, 2012 at 5:15 pm —
xoxo
stephanie on November 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm —
No words just gratitude for sharing your intimate experiences with us. Be Peace
Suzinn on November 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm —
Beautiful. Now I'm crying, sitting at my desk (in a hospital.) You are amazing as were your parents. I've been thinking about death a lot this year - with the passing of my Dad and as a close friend receives hospice care. I've been wanting to tell her that I'll watch over her partner/lover/wife (who is now 77 yo) and make sure she's okay for as long as she lives. I think she already knows but it's important for me to say it outloud. Back to work, xo mt
Mily on November 29, 2012 at 5:37 pm —
Yeah, you've been through the wars this year, old friend. Every passing teaches us a little bit more, if we are willing and able. xo
laura on November 29, 2012 at 5:49 pm —
Well, I guess I needed a good cry. Though it hurts so much to read a piece like this, beautiful as it is, it brings up feelings that I need to face every now and then. My dad died of pancreatic cancer, and it was hard to let it be about him, about letting him die how he wanted. I'm a little overwhelmed by the intensity of the feelings you elicited with just one perfectly crafted sentence. Thank you for writing such a personal and moving essay.
Peggy on November 29, 2012 at 5:51 pm —
Thanks for sharing your experience, Peggy. It feels good to get it out sometimes.
laura on November 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm —
Yes, I thought of you so much when I read that George was in hospital (assuming it was a surgical follow up to his accident), and felt that deep pang of sorrowful emotions. My father says he wants to go kicking and screaming to his last breath, none of that "he died peacefully..." and it makes me stronger to think I might just be there cheering him on even as I cry.
Ann on November 29, 2012 at 6:13 pm —
It's a rite of passage and one I wish we talked about more in our culture. xo
laura on November 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm —
It's become clear to me that I love reading anything and everything that you write. Your talent astounds me and this is just beautiful.
Winnie on November 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm —
That means a lot coming from you, Winnie. xo
laura on November 29, 2012 at 6:30 pm —
That is life. Thank you for this posting. It immediately had me reflecting on family and friends, but most specifically my mother, father and brother. I was with my parents when they died and 10 months later I was with my brother. Those three deaths made me realize that there really isn’t anything to fear. It’s like our birth, an important event, but this time we have the opportunity to be aware of it. They knew they were going and they knew when they died. I think of them daily and I too well up with sadness. But then I also realize that they were happy. My best to you and George.
Fred on November 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm —
Beautifully put, Fred. You come from a wonderful family and it shows. xo
laura on November 29, 2012 at 8:21 pm —
I cannot thak my friend Cathy Barrow for sharing this. I have no words. Except to say that your post made me weep with remembrance of my husband (d 1992) and my parents, both in 2008. The sights smells, and aura of a hospital never leave you. I am so glad that you are home and healing with your new love.
sharon miro on November 30, 2012 at 1:21 am —
Thank you, Sharon; wishing you peace.
laura on November 30, 2012 at 7:49 am —
My grandfather is nearing end of life (5 months short of his 100th birthday). Though we have been in contact, I have not seen him for many years and I have been agonising about what to say when I do visit. "Thank you for being such a good grandfather" is utterly perfect. Thank you for knowing just what to say.
carolbaby on November 30, 2012 at 4:17 am —
Your presence will mean more than any words!
laura on November 30, 2012 at 7:50 am —
beautifully, evocatively written, Laura. We lost our beautiful mother in September at 92, and it was still too soon.
judy on November 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm —
Oh Laura, you can write. No wonder you live in the world as you do. I was not prepared to sit at my desk and sob, I mostly visit your blog for a daily treat--with the exception of the chicken massacre. Glad that hunk of metal is out of George. Sending you lots of healing thoughts for the holidays.
Shawn Ouweleen on November 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm —
I promise more comfort and joy in the days to come, Shawn! xo
laura on November 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm —
Laura, this of your writings strikes me as entirely of a piece with your other work, betraying a presence, constancy, awareness and reverence for the happy accident of existence, and in this case inclusive of its most important chapter: the conclusion. For my own leaving I would hope for as much waking consciousness as can be mustered, but irrespective of how death eventually settles around me, I will hope for such eyes and ears and strong hearts in my midst as those whose passages you recount doubtless rejoiced to have in you. Many thanks.
Mac on November 30, 2012 at 9:15 pm —
You really can turn a phrase, Mac. Thank you.
laura on December 1, 2012 at 8:15 am —
You have just reminded many that the heart is a muscle. Thank you for putting into words what others have difficulty expressing. It is too true that death is a rite of passage that is not spoken of in our culture. You have not burdened us, you have unburdened us. As your words sink in, one by one, an ignored weight is lifted. Your writing speaks to and from the soul. Hear my gratitude.
alwayshungry on December 1, 2012 at 3:16 am —
I hear you and I see you. xo
laura on December 1, 2012 at 8:16 am —
Darling Lo: This is an extraordinary but redemptive piece. Love you.
Nonny on December 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm —
Thanks for sharing.
Sandra on December 5, 2012 at 12:21 am —
Dear Laura, that was truly beautiful. I remember being completely amazed at how you transformed each hospital room into a quiet sanctuary despite the hell that you were going through. I admire your ability to bring beauty to even the ugliest of times. xxoolisa
Lisa on December 5, 2012 at 1:14 am —
G-R-A-C-I-A-S. Pura poesía. Me has hecho llorar, cabrona. Besos para los dos.
Naima Blasco on December 8, 2012 at 1:47 am —
As the writer Lydia Davis says in Examples of Remember: Remember that thou art but dust. I shall try to bear it in mind. Where would we be, and who would we be, without the pain that blasts our lives from time to time. It shakes us up, and opens our eyes, and it can transform us; it does transform us. How we change is the choice we make. ...a rapid healing for George, and for you, Laura. As always, you have a splendid way with words.
Susan on December 9, 2012 at 11:17 am —
Thanks for adding these words, Susan.
laura on December 9, 2012 at 6:32 pm —
Laura, I've just spent a long overdue hour catching up on your posts and my pillow is wet with several kinds of tears. Thank you for your words, so fierce and delicate. You're a constant inspiration.
David on December 13, 2012 at 11:14 pm —
Thanks, David. I miss you guys.
laura on December 14, 2012 at 6:51 am —