Thursday, June 21, 2007

Walhydra's sadness

Back in Walhydra's teen years, when she was still a closeted sissy-boy but didn't know it yet, she latched onto this verse from the Book of Job (5:7)—though it's probably actually a line she got from Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts:
Man is born to suffering as the sparks fly upward.
Even though Walhydra's suffering had been, till then, mostly of the generic teen sort—or, more accurately, the generic teen-closeted-sissy-boy-but-doesn't-know-it-yet sort—she thought that just knowing that verse made her feel somehow more mature.

A few teen years later, Walhydra stumbled onto poet Archibald MacLeish's modern version of Job, J.B.
Fascinated by a performance of the play, she devoured the script and memorized a key verse which just leapt out at her.

The line is spoken early in the play by Nickles (“Old Nick” aka Satan) to Mr. Zuss (God):

I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even with the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could,
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water."

Granted, this verse is the beginning of Nickles’ cynical challenge to Zuss to let him torment J.B. And, granted, Walhydra didn't actually believe its despairing message.

Nonetheless, she recited the line to herself throughout her college years, as if it posed a challenge to her that her own adolescent faux-cynicism wasn’t yet up to understanding.

Looking back on this verse decades later, Walhydra now recognizes that the problem it speaks to has, in fact, driven her spiritual puzzlement for much of her life.

"It just doesn't work for me to believe that God (or Goddess, or Whatever…
) causes suffering. Or even that He/She allows it.

"I know that doesn’t make any sense," she equivocates. "But the only evil I see done is done by human beings."

"So why doesn't God stop evil?" she imagines the gentle reader asking. "Why does God let anyone hurt or kill innocent people?"

Walhydra pauses. "Why does God let a hawk kill an innocent mouse or a tsunami kill thousands of innocent human beings?"

"That's not the same."

"It's not?" says Walhydra, amused to find herself playing the Socratic role which Goddess usually plays opposite her.

Although she can't pretend to be wise or enlightened—well, actually, she pretends both all the time—Walhydra has somehow come to understand that human beings are mortal, just like other animals.

And that suffering just happens. Not as punishment. Not as fate. Just as part of the mechanics of being mortal.

"I don't mean that we shouldn't care about suffering. That we shouldn't avoid or try to prevent suffering for ourselves and others."

She glances about warily, feeling somewhat awkward about channeling Goddess.

"I just mean that it happens anyway."

Or, as a Zen precept she often quotes says:
Renunciation
is not about giving up
the things of the world,
but accepting
that they go away.
So...somewhere between the theist Jew's sparks flying upward and the nontheist Buddhist's things going away, last week on the New Moon, Walhydra called her mother, Senior Witch, early in the morning.

The faithful reader will remember that Senior Witch had relocated
to the home of Walhydra's sister in Pensacola, Florida, back on St. Padric's Day. Alzheimer's was making it unsafe for her to continue her independent, self-sufficient life in her home of forty-some years.

"I'm okay, but I'm feeling homesick," Senior Witch says, reciting the line with which she now begins every phone call.

Walhydra is feeling more than usually connected this morning, so she says without even pausing, "Yes, Mom. I think homesickness is just going to be a part of your life from now on."

There's a momentary silence.

"There's no way to feel good about losing your friends and church and neighbors back in South Carolina," Walhydra continues boldly. "I wonder who your new neighbors are?"

This gets a bit of exploratory conversation going.

The problem is that Senior Witch has declining hours of lucidity, declining hours when she can retain the mental focus and energy of an adult. That means even the best ideas—even the ones she embraces with enthusiasm when Walhydra shares them—fade into wishful thinking or forgetfulness before she can act.

What's left, Walhydra recognizes sadly, is to give her mother moments of affirmation or hope. Moments which Senior Witch will relish—and then forget.

"Mom?" Walhydra continues. "You remember that my brother drove down from Massachusetts to meet me in Columbia last week?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Well, he got there a day before me to clean your whole house from top to bottom, to get it ready to sell."

"Uh-huh?"

"And—" A lump starts in Walhydra's throat. "And he told me that it didn't feel at all like an empty house. It still felt like a warm, lived in home. Your home."

"Oh."

Walhydra is well into Quaker vocal ministry by now, saying things she hasn't even thought of.

"So...you have the sadness of having left your home behind. But you have left behind a home, not just an empty house, for the next family to move into."

"Oh. Oh. I'm so glad you told me that!"

"I thought it was important for you to know."

"Yes."
Senior Witch on her back porch in Columbia
Recalling that exchange tonight, near midnight on Summer Solstice a week later, Walhydra suspects that Senior Witch may not even remember it. She knows that she will repeat her brother's message whenever she can work it into conversation.

And the line about homesickness.

And the line about new neighbors.

Like any adult, trying through repetition to reassure a child that the world is safe—even glorious, even wondrous!—to live in, with little green leaves in the wood and wind on the water.

Even though the sparks fly upward and we can't avoid having things go away and we all die.

This doesn't feel very good to Walhydra right now.

But it's not God's fault.

It just is.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

4 comments:

Inanna said...

It seems you are wise and enlightened. This is really beautiful. Life can be so sad, can be filled with suffering, and yet you show what we can do even in the face of sadness and loss: we can comfort one another. Again and again.

Thank you, and blessings to you and your mum.

Vicki said...

Beautiful, beautiful. I'm nodding and wiping away tears and printing out this post for future reference all at the same time. And I love the photo of your mom.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thanks for this one.

And, yeah, I think you are right. Suffering is not God's fault--it's the admission ticket for being alive in the first place. It's just how it is: no picnic without ants, no nerve endings that signal pleasure without pain, no soaring hawk without dying mouse. Some days we get to be the hawk, and some days we have to be the mouse, not because suffering is a good thing, but because... just because.

I offer this not to diminish the challenge of what you and your mom are living with, but in the spirit of comradeship, having walked at least some part of the journey you are on--though not with a mother, and that is different. Still, maybe these memories will be of use to you...

Peter and I cared for his grandmother for the last four years of her life, as Altzheimer's eroded more and more of her mental faculties. I well remember the repetitive conversations we had. (The ones around our religion were especially odd--the number of times that Nora realized for the first time that we were Pagans, and always with the same words! "You--you're heathens then?" "Yes, Nora, exactly." "Well, that's all right, then.")

Two things I want to share with you: one is how, as Nora's dementia increased, even though she lost the ability to name people or explain her world, her essential self was still there--though drifting away from us. She spent whole afternoons with her mother and sisters (long dead), coming back to tell us about them. I really had the sense that she was half in and half out of the Summerlands, and that, more and more, it was this world that was the dream to her. But some things she never forgot.

At one point, toward the end, Peter asked her if she knew who he was. She said of course she did! "Who am I?" he asked. "You're my...my special person," she said, firmly. And she was very right. She sometimes called Peter by his mother's name, and sometimes confused him with her husband from years and years ago. But she never forgot the essential connection between them: he was her special person. The spiritual tie remained, even as the labels eroded away.

The second thing I want to tell you is that many elders suffer needlessly from depression as they experience Altzheimer's. Very early on in our life together as an extended family with Nora, she was very, very depressed. She used to counsel Peter to "Go dig a hole in the back yard, and push me in." Day after day, Nora would express her despair to us. That was the low point of caring for her, not the period, so much later, when she was nearly incapacitated--at that time, Nora could still do many things for herself, but her despair and pain soaked into her whole environment.

It took some research, but we found a physician who specialized in work with the elderly, who wrote her a prescription for an anti-depressant. It took a little experimentation to get the dosage just right--the constitutional balance of an elder is very delicate--but it made a huge difference in her quality of life (and ours). It didn't take the dementia away, but it took the despair away. Alzheimer's can't be cured (yet) but the depression that often attends it can be treated, and it makes a difference.

Not saying that your mom is depressed... but if she appears to be at some point, seek help...

I have much less fear of age and dementia than I once did, actually, having been there for Nora. Yeah, it was really painful to watch this vibrant and vital woman lose so much independence and awareness. But she was happy--really, no kidding--and connected to the things that really matter, beyond the limits of any one lifetime, right up until the end. Partly that is because Nora was a very kind and gentle person; her kindess never left her, even though her memories and, toward the end, even her ability to balance or get in or out of a bed deserted her. I've consciously worked to become a kinder person, having known Nora. If my day-to-day self erodes one day, I'd like the remaining core to be as lovable and kind as the one Nora revealed.

Thank you again for sharing the portrait of your mother (both the photograph and the snapshot of her life these days). I hope you'll keep sharing with us when you can... Know that both you and she are tenderly held in the Light.

Blessed be.

Walhydra said...

Inanna, Vicki and Cat,

Thanks so much for your comments. Even when I'm affirming my own faith, it helps to read those affirmations voiced back to my by others.

Cat,

I love: "You--you're heathens then?" "Yes, Nora, exactly." "Well, that's all right, then."

I'd forgotten that part of Mom's experience now is a preparation to cross over...even though I was leading her to start letting go of places and things last winter. (Probably because, being human, I don't want her to cross over...or even to age.)

As to depression, thankfully, Mom's doctor insisted upon having Mom stable on anti-depressants last fall, before they even started evaluating her for Alzheimer's.

Meanwhile, a dear, dear friend, Randy, Jim's former partner, sent the following, which I want to share:

"I was just musing over the situation with Senior Witch and it occurred to me that you need to step backwards into your childhood about 45 years and remember what it is like to be excited and childlike.

"Remember when were excited and you would tell your parents things multiple times? It was because you were excited and that was the only way you knew to express the emphatic wonder that you felt about something YOU had just discovered, or about something that had happened to YOU-the CHILD-the center of all attention in the world.

"Now it seems it is your mother's turn to be able to share again with you repeating things again and again, so you can be able to share with her the things of your world.

"I know it is not easy to understand the jumble that your mother's brilliant mind is becoming, just keep in mind how mind numbing it must seem to her from inside her head no to be able to join synapses and get the thoughts that you know must be there.

"I am saddened for you and your mother and for the dimming of the lights of dear ones around us all. As we age we pay the price of losing the wisdom of our family, senior witches, and friends that are a generation or two in front of us that we have always been able to turn to for solace, comfort, wisdom, love and understanding.

"We now have to realize that we are the senior witches for our families, and it is our turn to be wise (giggle), to share our experience in dealing with the "world", and try not to be too gruff or pontificate too much with our younger ones.

"The 'great wheel' turns slowly but it continues always with its progress. I pray your peace and wisdom be sufficient to the grace I know you would show others in this life.

"[signed] The most blessed and irreverent senior Texas Witch."

And so it is.

Bléssed Be.