No. 1/march 2017 “These days”(Joy is Deeper Than Hearts Agony)
Last weekend I sat with my Dad in the Memory Care Unit at Belmont Village and rubbed lotion into his hands. Within minutes, he was asleep; though I continued– we were peaceful. Having late onset Alzheimer’s has robbed him of most of his ability to speak and recall, and he has fallen several times despite the aid of a walker. Some years ago we would meet for lunch and one time, he verbalized that he was “losing it.” Last September he became too much for my Mom to handle at their home, and we supported the move. The staff at BV is terrific and I have nothing but admiration for them. Dad usually sits near the front door by the nurses station, along with some other residents. Mary, who always sits very upright, is prone to outbursts. One day I came down the hallway to throw something away in the lunchroom. I heard a nurse saying to Mary “…but Mary, this ice cream is very good…” and then, just as I turned and passed, Mary, forcefully, said “But I DON’T want it! …and then BEARDO CAME AND EVERYTHING WITH HIM!” I was laughing all the way back to my Dad’s room. It helps.
This morning I took my Mom to Northwestern Medical Center where they confirmed her cancer, which may have metastasized to her liver. There’s a 9mm ‘spot’ which, under normal circumstances, would be MRI’ed–but she has no interest in this. For over the past few years, she has developed chronic lung disease which requires 24 hr. oxygen, loads of pills, and leaves her fatigued and depressed. No wonder that she is refusing both radiation and chemo (she is not strong enough for surgery). In fact, she told me upon returning home that she “just wants it to be over, like Ann.” Ann is her sister, who passed from ovarian cancer last month–it runs in the family. Ann was diagnosed last Fall and I took my Mom out to Princeton, Il. for visits. It was tough. Ann, however, was strong until the very end. She had made the choice to eschew all treatments. What courage–to make the final, irrevocable choice to embrace the end. I am humbled and inspired by these strong women.
And then, just yesterday, we attended the memorial service for our friend Lisa’s father. The Dr., along with two colleagues, were the first African-American physicians at the University of Chicago Hospital, beginning back in the pre-civil rights era. This prominent man served his fellow man–regardless of income. The memorial was a true celebration with singing, tearful memories, and joy, in recalling the Dr.’s lifelong love of food and ice cream. And another mirror is held up, for me, asking “what have you done, what are you doing, and where do you want to go and contribute with the limited time you have left?”
I was surprised (read astonished) and honored to be asked to speak at my Aunt Ann’s funeral. I thought deeply about what I might say, and then figured that speaking from the heart, simply, may be the best guide. Ann always treated me with love, respect, and curiosity about whatever I might be up to. These virtues, that she modeled, only really became apparent to me upon learning that she was sick…? Why–I could YELL–is that which is most obvious, always so difficult to see? The late, great author David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address in 2005 talking about what we perceive, and choose to think about, i.e., how we relate to the world and others. Is this relation open-hearted, empathetic, and generous? Or are we led around by our own self-constructed, default, knee-jerk reactions that more often than not, leave us impatient and stressed. Perhaps, one of the lessons in all of this is what Rilke talked about when he said that “death should be your best friend.” Why? Because it shows you how valuable existence is.
These days I am thankful. Thankful that I’m lucky enough to have time to spend with my parents, and really try and learn what it means to be a son, parent, friend. Everyone single one of us have the choice to face, or deflect, our inevitable, ongoing finitude. But isn’t the point to embrace the joy 10x as hard as anything else?