Crippled Wolf has been trying to help Walhydra get back to telling her story here. It isn’t easy, because they share a common grief, a common burden of seemingly overwhelming responsibilities.
Walhydra has been struggling for months—actually for several years—with the dilemma that worry and grief are difficult to turn into comedy. Through March and April, Walhydra's mother, Senior Witch, took another downturn due to a systemic infection. Walhydra has had to focus herself ruthlessly on "getting things done." No time for storytelling—except when she is crying with hubby Jim or updating family and friends.
"At least now," Walhydra says, "I usually recognize those first steps toward depression when they tempt me, and I’m fighting not to go there."
A small comfort but a real one, since she needs to be able to act.
As for Crippled Wolf, it's not that he feels the sorrow and loss any less. It's just that, being closer to the animal reality of humankind, he can be more dispassionate, more ruthless if necessary, in dealing with what happens to him.
He feels grief, feels it deeply, yet it is something which happens in the stream of moment, not something which stalls the flow.
He howls his sorrow, yet he knows he must keep acting, keep running, keep hunting, keep playing—not to avoid or deny the pain, but simply to continue being.
Recently, Crippled Wolf's younger brother, one of the bravest men he knows, told a story on himself which resonates here.
Younger Brother has always had to be more of a maker, more of a scrapper, than Crippled Wolf needed to be. Third child, he was the spiritually orphaned high-schooler who had to find his own way, after his elder siblings left for college, when their parents were withdrawing into the silence which would eventually lead to divorce.
Younger Brother is a gifted actor, writer, teacher, director, yet he hasn't enjoyed much of the reliable mentoring and door-opening by elders which have flowed his brother’s way. He has had to father himself and to become a good father on his own. His blessing is that he has done both well.
For the past two decades, Younger Brother has fended for and defended his wife and son in a progressively more bankrupt northern city, where teen gang warfare encroaches on his neighborhood, where his artist wife has lost her non-profit child development job, and where the university he works for disdains the theater program they hired him to develop.
At the start of this year, the university suddenly moved the whole performing arts faculty out of a building they were tearing down and into temporary quarters, with no promise that a new building was in the works—and with no performance space of their own!
To make things more “interesting,” this year Younger Brother is acting chair of that department while the chair is on sabbatical leave. This means that, at the same time that he is teaching theater arts without a theater, directing two community group plays, and encouraging his wife and his brilliant college-senior son, he also has to manage the administrative needs of a displaced and frightened orphan faculty.
Narrating all of this by phone one night, Younger Brother laughed almost maniacally.
“I’m finding that I just scale back my attention to the emotional distress of my colleagues when they bring problems to me. I listen, but then I set it aside and say, ‘Just tell me what you want to get done here.’ “
He laughed again.
“One program director hand-picked an associate fifteen years ago, but now they can’t be in the same room with each other. She comes to me with complaints about personality conflicts, and I just say, ‘But what do you want her to do? Make it clearer for me. What do you want to have happen here?’ ”
“Ah,” said Crippled Wolf, recognizing tactics for managing crisis from his own prison counselor past. “So you’re actually directing three plays.”
“More than three!”
Crippled Wolf came away from this call with a paradoxical new name for an old notion: compassionate ruthlessness.
There are times when caring for people means maneuvering them to get on with business. There are situations—whole periods of life—when what is happening is too fraught with mortal consequence for us to nurse feelings. Feelings are information. Acknowledge the information, then act.
“You have to cry,” he says. “You have to honor the body’s need to release the grief. But do it later, after you’ve saved whatever lives or life you can save.”
Not nice. Not courteous.
Yet perversely salutary.
So, Wednesday morning, Crippled Wolf walked into the “secure” ward in the new skilled nursing facility to which he has had to move Senior Witch due to her increased escape-seeking and oppositional behavior.
Senior Witch glared fiercely from the wheelchair in which she is restrained, since the rehab staff haven’t released her back to her walker yet.
“This is the worst place I’ve ever been!” she growled. “This is like….” She couldn’t find words to describe it.
“Okay,” Crippled Wolf replied neutrally. “Well, let’s go get your glasses and hearing aids, and we’ll go walk in the garden by the river.”
He wheeled her to the nursing station, got her things, wheeled her to the garden path, and helped her climb out of the wheelchair, so that she could walk beside him.
They walked and sat and talked and watched the river and looked at the roses. Senior Witch surprised him, when he gave her a new card from one of her stepdaughters, but immediately reading the whole thing out loud to him.
They spent an hour together, just being.
He said nothing about her anger.
Back in the ward—after he had made sure the nursing staff saw how well she could walk—Crippled Wolf helped her back into her wheelchair. He knelt beside her, kissed her, and said, “I’ll see you this weekend. I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said.
As he walked away, Crippled Wolf watched her genuine smile deflate into a forced one.
He knew he needed to get home, so that he could howl with Jim.
And so it is.