Category Archives: death

The Horror of the Shade

life after deathLast week I elected to republish a blog originally entitled A Sense of Foreboding, with a new title this time – Impending Doom. This choice of title was hardly accidental.   Ten days ago I had a biopsy; from that point until today, when I received the cheerful news that all is well — full catastrophe averted! — I have been in a fine old lather. As it turns out, I do not want to die. This came as something of a surprise to me. I thought I would be more philosophical about it. I was dead wrong.

I would describe myself as sunny, but not particularly optimistic. I would prefer to be happily surprised by an outcome than devastated by it. My immediate reaction to the biopsy was, therefore, to assume the worst. The absolute worst. After all, there was that chart on the mammography clinic wall pegging the rates of breast cancer in women in their sixties at one in twenty eight – odds I did not like. When I was thirty, a case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome left me paralyzed and on a ventilator. Ever since then I have viewed my internal workings with unease: what was going on in there that I didn’t know about? Because I know some damn thing was going on. Was this it? Had the other shoe fallen?

The next thing I did after assuming the worst was to go underground, pending, you know, the Apocalypse. I told my husband, of course, and a few of the more sympatico women with whom I work – largely to explain the fact that I kept walking into walls and had become, all of a sudden, unable to form complete sentences – but no one else. Not my kids. Not my sibs. Not friends, with the exception of one and then only very late in the game. I didn’t want to worry them.  I didn’t want them to tell me, you don’t know, it could just be Stage One, Cancer Lite. My ex-mother-in-law, a nurse, was fond of informing appalled dinner companions, “They opened her up and she was FULL of cancer.”   What if they opened me up and I was FULL of cancer? No, what I wanted to do … what I planned to do was to determine the full extent of my predicament, then conduct myself with sublime mindfulness, in the manner of Ekhart Tolle.

invictusWhat I, in fact, did do was to alternate between nanoseconds of zen-like acceptance of the things I cannot control and explosions of sheer terror, punctuated with flashes of anger –“Why me? Why not a smoker?” — and bargaining: “What if I never indulge in schadenfreude again?”  “How about I stop fantasizing about a lone gunman shooting up an NRA Convention?”

I am fond of saying  that I cannot imagine a time when I was not nor imagine a time when I will not be and that, therefore, as far as I am concerned, I am immortal. A nice theory, but it didn’t stand the test of contemplating what poet William Ernest Henley rather turgidly described in his poem Invictus as “The Horror of the Shade.”

As it turns out, I can imagine not being. I can imagine my husband’s terrible loneliness without me; we are joined at the hip, after all. I can imagine not being at my son’s upcoming wedding and what that would be like for him or for my youngest daughter when she marries. I can imagine not being there for my grandchildren . . .  and I dearly want to be there for my grandchildren.  And I can imagine not finishing this damned novel.

The reprieve is temporary. I know that.  The shoe will fall sometime.   Just, thank the Universe, not today.

My mother. The conversation continues.

Mom's last head shot. She was beautiful at every age.Five years ago today (October 14, 2009), I wrote the following post.  It’s as true today as it was then … perhaps even more so.  As my dear friend Catherine Leggett observed,  “Death doesn’t end a relationship. The conservation continues; it’s just that it’s a little one sided.”  Every day I look into the mirror and my mother looks back and there’s not a day that goes by that I am not in constant touch with the woman who was . . . is my touchstone.

Martha Nell Hardy

Four years ago today my spectacular mother, Martha Nell Hardy, died. I was with her when she passed away, for which I am profoundly grateful. She was unconscious; she had been for several days. Perhaps she didn’t know I was there. I hope she did, but I can’t be sure.

Mom and the second dog my Dad gave her, Ughy

Mom and the second dog my Dad gave her, Ughy

We are not a religious family and I have come full circle from ridiculous Roman Catholic convert steeped in studies of doctrinal development (my graduate school experience) to avowed and crusty pantheist, by which I mean that I revere creation, but do not put any credence whatsoever in the existence of some single entity that invented and now micromanages the universe according to some cosmic game plan. Sorry, guys, but no. So I don’t think she has gone to Heaven. I think she has gone to me. She probably has gone to other people as well, undoubtedly my brother Peter, but I can’t speak of their experience. I can only speak of mine.

In the years following her death, I have become more and more like her. I especially notice this with my children, with whom I increasingly interact in much the same way she did. And I am grateful for this, because I think I wasn’t a very good mother before, so maybe she’s helped me make up for some of the bad years.

Then there’s knitting. I’ve always knitted, but now I knit maniacally. And the way I’m going, I might even challenge her record for dying with the most yarn and, let me tell you, hers was an AWESOME record.

I’ve also taken the torch from her as regards politics. She read several papers daily, listened to liberal commentators on TV and ranted with a vehemence and clarity that I now see in myself. As readers will know from previous blogs, I listen to political podcasts all day long and am more than willing to speak my mind, loudly, and for a very long time, indeed, perhaps ad nauseum — you be the judge. Had she lived, I would have gotten her hooked on podcasts, which she would have enjoyed more than newspapers because she could knit and inform her opinions at the same time.

Some might say that it was inevitable that I become like my mother over time, not some voodoo mystery transformational experience wherein her spirit, upon leaving her body, flowed into mine. She was, after all, my mother and provided me with both nurture and nature. But no. I think her spirit, upon leaving her body, did flow into mine, for which I am very, very grateful. It means I don’t have to miss her so much, because, guess what? She’s right here. And because I loved her so much, it means I like me more.

Mom, I love you. Thank you for being my mother.

Mom in Light up the Sky ... which she did.

Mom in a production of Light up the Sky in the sixties.

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R.I.P. Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple and Bojangles Robinson

Shirley Temple and Bojangles Robinson

There are so many things I would have done, but … you know … clouds got in the way.      I would have finished my PhD.  I would have traveled more when I was young.  I would have become fluent in a foreign language.  I would not have expended so much psychic energy staying thin.  But most of all … I would have learned to tap dance.    Some people dream of flying.  I dream of tap dancing.     And I will never tap dance. Never. Look at my feet.  Then look at my father’s feet.  That’s where these babies are headed.

I was reminded about tap dancing when I learned of Shirley Temple’s death.  I have always had an almost mystical connection to Shirley Temple, if by ‘mystical’ you mean ‘largely conjectural on my part’. To wit.

Don't I look like Shirley Temple?  Kinda?

Don’t I look like Shirley Temple? Kinda?

There are photographs of me as a toddler that resemble a brunette Shirley Temple.

Shirley Temple was born on April 16 while I was born on April 26 – only ten days apart. Moreover, the words “April” and “six” figured in both our birth dates, she was the one; I was the two.  As per the logic of seven-year old me, this was portentous. Indeed, every year since then – and there have been fifty four of the suckers — the countdown to my birthday kicks off on April 16 — known in my head as Shirley Temple Day.

Film mogul Louis B. Meyer exposed himself to Shirley Temple when she was twelve and two random flashers exposed themselves to me in college.  Clearly Shirley and I played in somewhat different leagues, as is corroborated by the fact that, after child stardom, Shirley Temple lapsed into relative obscurity, as did I after publishing my first novel at age 17.  By relative obscurity, I mean that Shirley Temple became U.S. Ambassador to the UN and I became the Director of Communications at a REALTOR® association.

Which begs the question: If Shirley Temple’s dead, can I be far behind?

Lately, my husband and I have been ending many a sentence with, “and then you die.” For example, “Finally you master the art of eating right and exercising . . . and then you die.”  “At long last, you’ve gained control of your finances so that you can finally, after years of struggle, relax . . . and then you die.”   Or, in my case, “After decades of avoiding any project that involves double-pointed needles, you manage to knit an actual sock . . . and then you die.”  If youth is wasted on the young, wisdom is equally wasted on the old.

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple

A Bucket List is to the old what the Make a Wish Foundation is to terminally ill children, only DIY and self-financed.  The terminally ill child goes to Disney World; the geezer sees the pyramids at Giza from the back of a camel.   And then they die.  I don’t have a Bucket List of all the things I want to do before I die.  I am a pragmatist.  I have a Bucket List of all the things I won’t get to do before I die.  And one of them is learning to tap dance. Which makes me sad … but then I die.

RIP, Shirley Temple.  If there’s a Stairway to Heaven, Soul Sister, I hope you’re doing the stair routine up it, hand in hand with the inimitable Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.  You really were adorable.

A sense of foreboding

The Last Resort

The Last Resort

The day I helped move my then 78 year old mother and 82 year old father into The Cedars of Chapel Hill (or, as my father calls it, ‘The Last Resort’), Mother advanced grimly into the elevator brandishing a large kitchen knife  capable of wreaking considerable mayhem on vegetables and meat alike.  It was, as she was careful to point out, extremely sharp. I’m not sure why she felt she had to personally convey it to her new home.  Maybe she didn’t trust the moving company to pack it correctly.  Maybe she wanted an assurance she’d be able to make a break for it.

The facility was new and all around us milled future neighbours, also moving in, although not, it would appear, so heavily armed as my mother.  These were not the young old you see in ads for golf resorts or Grey Power. These were the old old, the target market for walk-in tubs, stair lifts and catheters – people wasting away, all right, but definitely not in Margaritaville. Not anymore.   We were joined on the elevator by an elderly man with a black eye.  We eyed the eye.  He eyed the knife. No one spoke.  “What happened to him?” my mother asked, when we were safely off the elevator.   Then she shook her head. “They’re all so old!”

I did not personally feel old until we moved into this house three years ago.  In part that was because my husband and I stayed in our “starter home” for almost twenty years.   In that house’s mirrors I looked more or less the age I had been when we moved in; this house’s mirrors told a different tale.   “Hello!” they said.  “You’re sixty years old!  What’d you mean, you hadn’t noticed?”

This realization was corroborated by the fact that people I knew started to die. People my age.   It began with a passing acquaintance from junior high. He started to leak Tea Party sentiments onto Facebook. Deciding he was off The Team, I swooped in to defriend him, only to encounter the following posting:

“Hello, Dad’s Facebook Friends, this is Jennifer, Danny’s daughter.  Dad died suddenly last night and I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next few days.  He was my best friend and I already miss him SOOOOOO MUCH!!!”

If I were a religious person, I might have felt guilty, as though I were in some obscure way responsible for Danny’s demise.  Or perhaps  I would have felt all powerful, as if all I needed to do was think about defriending somebody, and poof!   Or maybe I would have felt vindicated, as in, “God clearly agrees with me that Danny was a horse’s ass and so He offed him!”

But I am not religious, so the whole incident just creeped me out.    I did end up defriending Danny.  It’s the only way to exorcise ghosts on Facebook.   However, his death turned out not to be an isolated case. He was followed in short order by another, dearer friend and then another.  Then a friend our junior by more than a decade had the temerity to die!  Thanks a lot, guy! (You know who you are.)

Both my husband and I began to feel what we describe as “a sense of foreboding.”  We wake in the morning and lie there for a few minutes, deep in dogs and feeling the foreboding settle on us life a suffocating blanket, a miasmal fog.  Am I going to die today?  I wonder.  Is he going to die? Will it be a heart attack?  Maybe an aneurism?  Will my upcoming physical result in a fatal diagnosis?  What about a car crash that leaves one of us paralyzed?  When will we be forced to leave this house that we love? How many years do we have left?  Is it years or is it months?

After my parents moved into the Cedars, the man on the elevator became my parents’ good friend.  Sam owned Kentucky racehorses and was married to a lively Holocaust survivor.  One day I was sitting on my parents’ balcony, looking out over the gardens when I saw Sam collapse in the roadway.  I jumped up in alarm and called out to my mother, “Sam’s fallen!”  White uniformed staff materialized as if by magic from behind the bushes and collected Sam, helping him to his feet and brushing him off.  Unfazed, my mother glanced down at the unfolding scene.   “He falls a lot,” she said.

Which explains the black eye.

Dad and his dog Poppet

Dad and his dog Poppet

Sam is gone now and so is Mom.  Then there’s my Dad,  ninety two this March, waiting out his days in Death’s antechamber like an old dog in the sun, biding the time that remains to him with remarkable equanimity and grace.  I sometimes try and imagine what his sense of foreboding must be, how it must feel to be him, to wake up every morning to find oneself, against all odds, alive.  I bet it trumps ours.