I want to be like this poster…
but sometimes instead my “vessel” just gets filled with fear, anger, and… congestion.
’Tis the season. And so I am. Sick, that is. and… home. Alone. Seven days and counting. Not the flu, but the worst cold ever. Being me, I easily made the leap from ah sick! — to — will this kill me? I thought of Jim Henson, didn’t he die of a cold? I googled him. It was a bit more complicated. For even contemplating the thought I declared myself Sarah Bernhardt. I may be a hypochondriac but at least I call myself out on it.
I try to write bigger, try turning my fears into our fears partly because they are, partly because I’d rather deal with ours than mine. There’s nothing you can do about mine, but together we can work on ours. No? So much more “fun”. Together. Anyway, I’m so over my personal victim story.
So… back to Death.
I was eight when I realized I was going to die. It took me by surprise and then because I was so grief-stricken, I naturally cried. I wasn’t obviously bleeding and my brother was nowhere around (he, the most frequent source of my tears). When mom saw me weeping she asked why. I’m going to die I said. This was not a normal topic in my family so she thought for a second, then said, Not for a long time, now stop crying. And, because I always tried to please, I did.
Being a good girl who did not disturb others with my unhappy sadness was important to me. However, I leaked sadness for decades.
I was trying to keep hold of the thread (sick, alone, scared) that the second paragraph (the one under the poster) started to tell. But it was darker and scarier than you’d think, so instead, I searched for other threads to inter-twine — a variety of collectively heart-breaking issues.
I want not to short-shrift the struggles of more impacted peoples and was feeling uneasy about my own personal cri du coeur.
I’d been… writing about Ram Dass and the Buddha (my best action guides), and being super careful not to use expletives, though all these things (Trump, Standing Rock, Syrian refugees, yes, but also being sick, alone, afraid of bothering anyone with my real need, which was to be — not alone) were making me frustrated and angry.
Expletives often don’t help. Except when they do. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Write like a motherfucker! and the multitude of women who echoed it. A battle cry of sorts calling on our warrior selves to be braver-than-we-knew-possible and write deeper and more honestly than some of us felt we had it in us to.
Fuck Donald Trump! When he called Hillary nasty at the 3rd debate, I wanted to defend her. Other women went fuck no! let’s embrace that word. Let’s put nasty on T-shirts! Let’s re-define it and use it for our own purpose. Like Cheryl did with motherfucker. Turn the meaning upside down and extract the essential power. You wanna see who’s a motherfucker? who’s nasty? Go ahead misogynists, test us!! We’re speaking out. I LOVE it that women have risen up. I feel wholly un-alone when I hear other women’s stories.
I was 27 when I met my first dying patient. I was working night shift on the “medical unit” at St. Luke’s Hospital. 9th floor. Making my rounds, per protocol, absurdly waking patients to take their vital signs, praying they’d go back to sleep. There were only 3 or 4 nurses and 44 patients, so we counted on most people being quiet and un-needy for the night.
I entered Mary’s private room. About 1AM. Mary was alone and awake. She looked pale,sweaty, and ill. I forget her diagnosis, probably cancer. She was young, just a few years older than me. She wasn’t in obvious physical pain; mostly she was terrified. I remember her clutching my arm, like it was one of those white canvas life preservers tossed in the ocean to save a drowning person. Like I had it in me to save her. I didn’t.
Do you believe in God she asked. I felt she needed me to. I didn’t. I’d read Krishnamurti, Mao Tse-tung, and Emma Goldman. Not the bible. For a year I had chanted nam-myoho-renge-kyo sitting cross-legged on the floor. I had briefly flirted with Judaism at the San Francisco Chabad House of Love and Prayer. The dancing was energetic and the boys cute, but I couldn’t abide the patriarchy and flat out sexism. It wasn’t like I wasn’t searching, but I never found her. God, that is.
Not wanting to lie and not wanting to say something that caused pain, I changed the subject and left Mary as soon as I could. Mary didn’t put on her call light that night and I avoided checking on her. One of my least proud moments in life. She died a few days later.
An aside: Studies have been done. Dying patients in hospitals are visited less by doctors and nurses than other patients. Unless you are hooked up with hospice, we are not a society that deals with dying.
People should not have to be alone for the hard stuff. Dying. Being sick. Or for the good stuff. Sharing meals & other happinesses. We all need opportunities to practice mudita (joy for other people’s joy) and karuna (compassion). We can’t do this alone.
I have a deep longing for community. I believe most of us are longing for it, even if one hundred other things are at the top of our to-do list. I spend a lot of time encouraging collaboration, trying to gently corral the flow of the river of people around me toward a community I want to feel connected to. It’s hard, slow work. Society’s powerful mainstream flows the opposite direction.
Maybe the dire state of our nation’s mental health this electoral season will drive us toward community in a way our individual health problems and life needs haven’t. Life is funny and sobering, wonderful and nightmarish in ways hard to comprehend. We’re all doing the best we can. I know this. I do.
*update — starting to recover. Not feeling so much like Typhoid Mary any longer, so I’m starting to get out. And btw, thank you to those who offered to help and those who did. It was all appreciated. 🙂