At Twilight

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Location: Midwest, United States

Monday, July 24, 2006

Blinded By Suffering

I've spent approximately 25% of my life roaming the halls of nursing homes. That’s a big percentage of my life. Too many of my years have been spent in the company of infirm, incontinent, wailing, frightened, incoherent, drooling, shattered, angry and abandoned souls.

Those days are over for me now. I will never set foot in a nursing home again. I would rather die than do that ever again.

I have been transformed this past week. Although I have cried copious, searing, blood-streaked has not been a bleak week.

I have been transformed.

The fog of pain that has enshrouded me for (far too many) years has finally burned away. My eyes are clear again. I had been blinded by suffering, but now my eyes can see. At long last, I can see the world and all its promise and its beauty again.

It wasn’t my suffering that blinded me. It was the suffering of all the poor souls I met in the hallways of those nursing homes. One cannot behold another hurting human being without suffering some measure of their pain. The forlorn would grab my arm, a desperate grab at human contact. The incoherent would stop me in the hallway, trying desperately to communicate…fear and frustration filling their eyes. The abandoned would sit down beside me with an awkward smile. I could sense they were not comfortable sitting with a stranger, but I guess a stranger is far, far better than no one at all.

I’ve seen naked women in their eighties fleeing down hallways, running from demons I could not see...demons I could only feel. I’ve seen…and felt…their frustration, fear, anger and despair. My ears have been filled with incessant, horrifying screams…and countless, garbled pleas for whatever it was these tortured souls craved, whatever it was they needed as they agonized in their private, living Hells.

Those days are now behind me.

I have been transformed, in ways I never expected. I have experienced a miraculous rebirth. There is so much I have to tell you, so much that I’ve experienced in this past handful of days. My head and heart are bursting, so much so that I am momentarily struck dumb.

* * *

I am reborn.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My Healers

Sooner or later, we all need a doctor to cure what ails us. We revere the surgeon who excises a cancer, sets our bones straight again, restores sight. Rightfully so. We turn to doctors of many specialties, learned masters in the whys and ways of every specific organ, bone or tissue. They are expert in their respective crafts so that they may assuage our pain, stop the bleeding, and restore us to health.

Today I give thanks for the soul-healers. We need them as much, or more, as the medical practitioners.

I am grateful for those who came rushing to my side, the friends who offered to jump on a plane to perform triage, the kind hearts who took the time to jot down a word or two of sympathy or comfort. I’ve been surprised by some who came forward (and saddened by some who did not).

* * *

What I Learned from My Mother
By Julia Kasdorf

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

* * *

Today, and forever, I thank all the angels with the power to heal awful pain.

* * *

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Their Song Remains

At approximately 3:00 AM my Mother breathed her last. Miles away, I was alone and wide-awake in bed, just as I have been each night for weeks on end...waiting. Still, the phone call came as a rude shock.
I stared in disbelief as it rang.

I took the news calmly. There were arrangements to be made, forms to be filled, protocols to be followed. Most could wait till daybreak. The brain did what it had to do, will do what it must do.

Then I sat in darkness, and allowed my heart to do what it must do.

I had honestly thought that my tears had all run dry by now. After all, it had been such a long, long good-bye, a seemingly endless travail awash in tears. I had been saying good-bye to my Mother (grieving all the while) for years on end as I watched her slowly disintegrate before my eyes. I was wrong about the tears, though. It appears the heart's well of sorrow has no bottom. The tears came. Slowly, at first…and then in torrents. I am now an orphan, and I cried an orphan’s tears, suffered an orphan’s pain.

* * *

My sister and I will commingle my parents’ ashes and bury them in the Lithuanian cemetery. It is only fitting that these two passionate lovers spend eternity together, holding each other in perpetuity in their most intimate embrace. I am glad for them. They were always meant to be together.

And I will carry on alone now…never again seeing their smiles, hearing them answer my questions or having them quell my fears. Never again will I feel their embrace or their kisses.

They live in Song now.

Though both are gone, their Song remains. I will carry it forever within me, for they were the ones who created, then fashioned, my heart and taught me to listen. Through them, I came to hear the Song of Love and Life...the Song at the heart of everything.

* * *

I learned something else in the darkness. I learned that the deeper the sorrow, the hotter the tears. My eyes and face are burned beyond recognition.

* * *

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

At Dying

Saturday will mark my Mother’s 94th birthday. Imagine that. She was born into a world so utterly different from the world as it is today. There were no cars in her village, horses and cobbler-made shoes served just fine. The streets were rutted dirt, the same dirt that constituted the floor in her peasant’s cottage. Her home had no running water, no electricity, no time- or energy-saving appliances. There was no furnace and no air conditioner.

She was born in Lithuania before the “War to End All Wars.” A mere two decades later, she suffered through…and survived…the Second World War. Her life’s path has taken so many twists and turns, I could hardly begin to recount them. Along the way, she fell in love with a man whom she loved until he drew his last breath…and long after. Along the way, she gave birth to a daughter and a son.

She has come to the end of her odyssey.

Monday morning seemed to signal the end. Her blood pressure had dropped precipitously. Her limbs were blue with cold. I found her lying in bed, struggling for every breath. I could not tell if she were sleeping or comatose.

I arrived, again, at her bedside yesterday morning. Her blood pressure had risen a bit. She was awake but incoherent. I sat down in the chair beside her bed, and began to stroke her head gently.

Her eyes were open but she could not speak. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I had earlier mentioned that, in recent months, I seemed to scare her. She had forgotten who I am. Not today. Today was very, very different. She turned her face to mine. I kissed her forehead and her cheek. She seemed to smile. I held her chilled fingers within my warm hand. Mustering what little strength she had, she pulled my hand towards her lips and kissed it. I lifted her hand to my lips and kissed it in return. I bent my head towards hers and kissed her lips. She relaxed and smiled again.

And so we spent the morning together. I caressed her head, her cheek, her arms and hands. I kissed her again and again and again and again. Words weren’t necessary. She was in a place far beyond words.

Only a touch and a kiss could reach her now.

I had propped myself on one elbow, my hands enveloping her hands, my head bent close to her head. And there we stayed. For hours.

Every now and then, she struggled to lift her head. I was confused.
I could not tell what she wanted. The dying have needs of their own. I would kiss her and soothe her, and she would relax again.

With one free hand, she fumbled with the buttons on my shirt. Her skeletal fingers were in agitated motion. She slipped her hand inside my shirt, and placed her fingers on my heart. And there we stayed, a dying mother and her graying son. Hand in hand, head to head, lips to lips, and hand on heart, we remained locked together.

From the corner of my eye, I’d notice nursing home staff tiptoeing to the door to peek inside. No one disturbed us, but many came to watch. So many of their wards spend their final days alone, unnoticed and unloved, bereft of family or friends. It’s so easy to turn one’s face from death...too this “modern” world of ours.

The Spiritual Counselor came to visit. Word had spread, I guess, of our long good-bye. She is a fine woman. She and I had met and talked on previous occasions. She sat at the end of the bed, and simply watched. I would not...could not...stop kissing and caressing and comforting my Mother. She sat and watched a while, then gently asked a few questions about my mother’s life. I began to recount a few particulars: how my mother was raised by an illiterate peasant widow, but went on to matriculate with a doctorate at a time when women simply did not do that. How my parents first met on a theater stage, how they came to love, how they starved and suffered, how they struggled to raise a family in a new country. I told her that the incoherent woman lying in my arms was once fluent in eight languages. I told her about the woman who had once toured Europe as a classically trained actress, who lost her family…lost everything…in the War, who had raised two children with a loving husband and no other resources but sweat and tears. All the while, I showered kisses and caresses on what remained of a fascinating, and noble, human being.

You do her honor by remembering her” she said. Oh, she was SO wrong. I was the one who was honored to be in my Mother’s embrace. We agreed to meet again today, with the chaplain this time, for the Last Rite. She took her leave and left us in our embrace.

Several hours had gone by, and I felt sharp pain shooting through the arm that had propped me all the while as I showered love on my Mother. I fervently hoped the pain I felt was her pain leaving her tortured body to enter into mine. I wanted to take on all the pain inside of her, to absorb all the agonies, the toils, the heartaches, and the tears she had suffered. She was my Mother. She had created me, brought me into this world, and had sacrificed all so that I might thrive. I wanted to hurt so that she would not. I wanted her to feel free at last. I wanted her to soar, unburdened, into the Great Unknown, somehow knowing in her soul that her son revered her.

She fell into a deep, deep sleep. I took my leave. I felt blessed today.

I felt truly blessed.

* * *

Postscript: My Mother spent her birthday in a coma.

Monday, July 10, 2006

If I Were...

Amaris asked: “…have you given any recent thought to your eternal future?”

Frankly, I had not. I’m more concerned about my Mother’s eternal future, given that her doctors estimate that she will likely expire within the next 48 hours…(or one week, at the latest). She will, most likely, confront her eternal future sooner than I shall confront mine. I am spending as much time as possible with her, for she is terrified (although she is so drugged on morphine right now, that I doubt she can feel much of anything). She no longer reacts to vocal stimulation. She is well beyond my reach. My Mother is a devout Catholic and has always feared God’s ultimate evaluation of her life and soul. I’d say she has nothing to worry about. She certainly lived by all the rules…

As for my eternal future? Well, here’s what I think:

If I were a Catholic or a Jew, I would most certainly be damned to Hell…there would be no if’s or but’s about that. I must plead nolo contendere on Judgment Day. I have violated so many Church prohibitions (and a Commandment or two) that probation or parole are out of the question. I find it strange to think that I’d be suffering along with the likes of an Adolph Hilter, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot or Karl Rove for all of eternity. If I were a Catholic, I would surely be doomed. I'll confess it's a terrifying prospect.

If I were a Hindu, I’d be assured of another crack at life. I doubt I would be allowed to return as a human being (although it gags me to think that humans are somehow considered to be “higher-order beings”). If I had any say in the matter, I would ask to return as a dog. I need to learn how to love again, to be completely and utterly devoted to a human being - to love unconditionally, to give myself up without reservation to another. I wouldn’t mind that at all. I’d enjoy that. In fact, I truly need that.

If I were a Muslim, there most certainly would not be 72 virgins waiting for me, eager to indulge me in misogynist fantasies. I’m not one to battle infidels, to be a martyr for any religion. I’m more of a “stick-a-flower-in-the-gun-barrel” type.

If I were a Christian Fundamentalist, there would be no Rapture for me. I would be left behind to face the Apocalypse. I can accept that. I’ve been living in Hell for more than a year now. What’s a few more years of that? I can deal with it. In the end, I’d burn in eternal Hell-fire…along with practically all of my fellow human beings. After all, the Fundamentalists believe that they, and only they, will be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That, alone, makes Heaven seem like a lousy neighborhood. I’d rather not live anywhere near the likes of such sanctimonious hypocrites as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Benny Hinn, Fred Phelps, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts…(my, my, my...the list is long).

If I were a Wiccan, Baha’i, Sikh, Konko-Kyo, Shinto or Sufi...well...I have NO idea what my eternal future may be. I simply don’t know enough about their beliefs to understand what may or may not befall me. I hope they’re not predicting something awful for me.

If I were a Buddhist, I’d probably be a saner, calmer, more enlightened type. Alas, I’m far from being an enlightened soul…therefore, my future shall remain a mystery.

If I were an Atheist I would simply disappear.

But, you see, I’m none of these…

* * *

(to be continued)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Tweaking Lyrics

Some thirty years ago, Stephen Stills sang: “If you can’t be with the one you love…love the one you’re with.”

Time has a way of changing one’s perspective. While I was apt to agree with Mr. Stills three decades ago (and, on occasion, followed his advice), the lyric no longer holds much appeal. Today I’m inclined to sing: “If you can’t be with the one you love…love the life you live.”

She raised the bar high, Amazing Woman did. I was in my 50’s before I met the woman with the unique attributes of heart, mind and soul that led me to forsake all others. Fifty years is a lot of living. I wouldn’t even venture a guess as to how many women I’ve met over that span. Thousands, certainly. She raised the bar high, indeed.

Just how adroit IS Cupid, anyway? One extraordinary arrow in 50 years. What are the odds that a second such arrow would find its mark any time soon? Slim chance, I’d say.

I don’t have another 50 years. In fact, I don’t have much time left at all. The hourglass is draining towards empty. I can’t afford to waste the years allotted me (at least, I hope there are still years left to me). So, if I can’t be with the one I love…I’ll simply love the life I live.

I’ve resolved to live my dreams. While I’ll always hold that true love and intimacy are the most precious blessings that life can offer, living one’s dreams comes a close second. I don’t regret the fact that I’ve pursued love as life’s highest calling (sacrificing a great many dreams in the process). At least I know I tried. By trying, I’ve learned what I want and need. Never mind that the pursuit has left me broken and somewhat embittered. I tried. I’ll continue trying but, again, what are the odds that I’ll find true love someday? Not good.

It’s time to chase dreams.

* * *

Living one’s dreams is truly a rare happenstance. The vast majority of humanity simply struggles to survive, to somehow eke out a living. I am decidedly privileged to even have the opportunity. I am humbled by my good fortune. It is, without a doubt, a matter of pure luck to be born into privileged circumstance, to be favored by Fortune, to have the freedom and means to chase dreams. It would be hubris to think otherwise. I mean to make the best of it.

In my previous entry, I sketched out the dreams I intend to pursue. It’s a short list, but the chase will certainly consume my remaining days. I intend to die a dreamer. That shall be enough for me.

Who knows, perhaps somewhere along the way I’ll meet a dreamer dreaming the same dreams? My life would then be complete.

Cupid, are you listening?

* * *

Here’s a bit of serendipity for you: Shortly after I posted my last entry, I began reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Last night, I read “Lieutenant Mamiya’s” account of his harrowing experience in Outer Mongolia. Interwoven within that horrific account were observations regarding the character of Mongolia itself. It felt most extraordinary to find another’s words (and from a man living on the other side of the world, at that) that explain my need to go there myself and gaze upon that unique world with my own eyes. A touch of serendipity at 4 AM…it filled me with wonder and delight.

* * *

I should, perhaps, add a postscript here. I listed dying in Venice as one of my intentions…the final dream, if you will. That’s not exactly correct. Dying in Venice would be more aptly described as “making the best of it.” I’ll save the explanation for another day.

* * *

And, now, for a complete non-sequitor: I love the aroma of curry cooking.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bouts of Silence

I’m trying hard to discipline myself to sit down and write on a daily basis. Some days, the words come easily. Sometimes, though, there are simply too many...way too many...thoughts. It’s hard to craft a sentence when thoughts (or fragments thereof) clamor incessantly inside my skull, be heard. The cacophony overwhelms, and I fall silent.

That’s the way it’s been lately. Too many thoughts. Precious little clarity. I guess I can segregate the chaos this way: I’m flooded with reminiscences of my past (particularly the remembrance of those whom I’ve loved...and still love). I contemplate my future. I dwell on thoughts of Death. As for the present, well, it’s simply a matter of survival. Nothing more.

The Buddhists say to live in the Now. Not for me. Believe me, my Now is Hell. My only joys reside in either the past or the future. I feel no joy this day. My summer days are empty. I certainly do not endorse living this way for any living soul, but my life is what it is. My salvation rests in knowing that this is a transitory state...the arduous passage from one life into another. This is that awkward, disquieting pause just after I say good-bye to the longest night of my life, but before I can turn my face to greet the rising sun. There will come new dawns, new seasons, new adventures, and new beauties. They will be of my own devise, expressions of my will, my resolve, my heart, my soul...and my destiny.

I know this: my past experiences, particularly the love I’ve known, give me the will to press forward. The future beckons.

* * *

I’ve not mapped out the details of what my life shall be (nor do I really want to...not that I even can), but I’ve resolved to do the following:

Train for and finish a half-Ironman
Become certified as a teacher
Live and teach in Europe
Explore Chile (a deeply-rooted need planted by Amazing Woman)
Gaze upon the vast herds of wild horses in Mongolia
Die in Venice

As for all the rest? I leave it to Fate.

* * *

Death is omnipresent for me these days for, you see, my Mother is very near to Death. I’m trying hard to find the words.

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