Sunday, April 05, 2015

Well, This Sucks...

     It has not been a good day.
     About a week ago, my grandmother called me to let me know that she had pneumonia again (for the third time since Christmas), and that her doctors had spotted a mass on her lung. This was on top of a long nursing home stay earlier this winter because of a fractured bone incurred during one of her many falls (I seriously can't keep up with her never-ending stream of injuries from falls), her tubercular-sounding coughing fits (aftermath of throat cancer a few years ago), or her lingering fatigue and general feelings-of-crappiness after several bouts of chemo for lymphoma seven years ago. The doctors all say it's a miracle she's still alive. And I'm not trying to be negative or morbid when I say this, but my grandmother was once the alivest sort of alive and whatever it is she's doing now is not it.
     Anyway, the boys' spring break was coming up, and since I hadn't been down for a visit since the summer, and she said she missed us and sounded so pitiful on the phone, I decided to just chuck my (admittedly light) spring break plans, and come down to Asheville instead. This is not a trip I take on a whim. It's about 16 hours one way, door to door. Not a fun trip alone, and definitely not a fun trip with two bored boys who are likely to bicker about who has the better kindle charger for approximately 15 hours and 45 minutes of it.
     Despite my great abiding love for Asheville in theory, I really hate coming home now. I hate the way it looks nothing like my memories. The way I never see anyone I recognize. The fact that over half my immediate family has moved or passed away. That I never feel that sense of belonging when I visit anymore. That everywhere I look I'm haunted by what was, and what can no longer be. It's disorienting and sad. My mother moved to Idaho and sold my childhood home and I was no more in the door of my Aunt's house (my grandparents' old house--another frustrating reminder of my new reality) when she asked, "Did you get my message?" I hadn't.
     After going to the hospital to have fluid removed from her lungs this week, my grandmother had been moved to the nursing home at her retirement community. Permanently. Now my aunt and I were going to be spending the 2 and a half days I was in town going through all her possessions, getting rid of everything, and starting the process of emptying the house she'd lived in for 10 years--which had, for lack of my childhood home, and the home she'd lived in throughout my childhood, become my landing pad.
     As with sudden seismic activity, my mind began to calculate the breaking of my heart on the Richter Scale.
     I wish you all could have known my grandmother in her heyday. She's a true Southern belle, who would rather self immolate than leave the house without lipstick, and could draw out my grandfather's one-syllable name into at least seven syllables on a good day. She had boundless energy, knew everybody, and even something as mundane as going grocery shopping, or a quick trip to the bank, turned into the social event of the season. She loved to plan parties, entertain, travel, jitterbug, flirt, involve herself in every committee and social event, and was constantly on the move, cheerfully chatting to anyone who would listen. She was the sort of grandmother with an always-open door. I never had to call or ask to see her. I could just show up. I could show up with 5 friends. At dinnertime. There was always enough and plenty of room for everyone. I'm pretty sure I could have shown up with 5 friends at dinnertime, in the middle of the Zombie apocalypse, and while whipping up a congealed brains and pineapple Jello salad, she would have whipped out her sewing kit and reattached our limbs and darned our socks, too. She never batted an eye. Everything was taken in stride. Nothing much has ever bothered her (besides my stubborn lack of interest in the Belk Department Store Charm School) except getting older, getting sick, and not being able to be as she always had been.
      I speak in the past tense, because she can no longer do most of those things, and in some ways this feels a bit like writing a eulogy--for her, for me, for coming home.
     It's been 20 years since high school and the thought staggers me. So much time has passed, but my soul doesn't feel it. I may have the benefit of hindsight and a little more life experience to draw from, but inside, I'm still as youthful, as fun-loving, as optimistic, and hopeful, and forward thinking as I ever was in my teens.My great-grandmother lived to be 103. She was old, but her soul was still youthful. For my grandmother too. I don't think our minds really age. I think one of the most frustrating aspects of growing older is the artificial limits an aging body places on a youthful spirit.
     The older (creaker, and more middle-aged looking) I get, the more I empathize with the elderly. How much would it suck to be filled with so much life in your mind and so little life in the body? How depressing to pack away an entire life, and then diminish yourself and your life to a single room? It's like Benjamin Button, whose life retracted in on itself until nothing substantial remained.
     Tonight, I feel sick, an unenthusiastic participant in whatever it is you want to call this. Retraction, subtraction, redaction. It's all the same. My grandmother's house is in shambles as we decide what parts of her life is worthy to keep, and what parts aren't. She struggles with us not wanting to save everything. She wants to save and save and save. And as we go through the little minutia of her life, it's overwhelming and sad to see her desperation and her loss of control.
     I think of a song from A Little Night Music...
Every day a little death
In the parlor, in the bed
In the curtains, in the silver
In the buttons, in the bread

Every day a little sting
In the heart and in the head
Every move and every breath
And you hardly feel a thing
Brings a perfect little death 

...and then this line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room. 
And I have no better words to express it. This is a long goodbye. The painful kind. The kind that has no good ending.

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