Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens, Five Years On

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The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do –and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

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O’Connor and Coltrane: Saints of American Art

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i.

I never, until this year, made the explicit connection between John Coltrane and Flannery O’Connor.

Why should I have?

One was an introverted white woman, a southern writer who tackled the Big Questions with a mordant élan and irony that’s seldom been surpassed. In her short stories, the themes of identity, religion and salvation get interrogated by and through a series of characters that are, by turns, innocent, evil and grotesque. Above all, they are fallible: whatever their station in life, the issue that obsessed O’Connor was Grace and whether or not we could get good with God, regardless of where He placed us or what He put in our pathway.

The other was a quiet but prolific black saxophonist, a man born in North Carolina who migrated to the cultural center of the musical universe, New York City, where he then participated in some of the most beloved recordings of the ’50s and ’60s. In his songs, the quest was salvation through music: initially celebrated for his famous “sheets of sound”, Coltrane continued to expand and grow, incorporating Eastern elements and extended improvisations. His live performances became legendary endurance tests, for the audience more than the performer. Coltrane was restless, but not because he was otherwise preoccupied or tortured; indeed he was the rarest of artistic breeds: focused and serene, uncomfortable only when he was unable to practice. By all accounts, his dedication to his craft remains unrivaled.

As Coltrane’s masterwork, A Love Supreme, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary in 2015 (and has just been reissued, again, with never-before heard material), and I finally found the time to read O’Connor’s journal entries, collected as A Prayer Journal (first released in late 2013), the question became: how could I not have made the connection between these two icons?

While reading (and then re-reading) A Prayer Journal, which obliged me to revisit (again) O’Connor’s selected prose, best or most easily found in Mystery and Manners, I could not stop thinking about Coltrane in general, A Love Supreme in particular. Considering them side by side, I was struck by one thing above all: these were artists who, due to circumstances as well as compulsion(s), cultivated an almost monastic approach to their art. Perhaps because illness claimed both of them entirely too soon (Coltrane died of cancer in ’67, aged 41; O’Connor of lupus in ’64, aged 39) theirs is a kinship forged in tragedy. Perhaps because they are both undisputed masters of their respective crafts who lived during roughly the same era it’s easier to associate them. But it’s their aesthetic sensibility that links them in ways few other artists of any genre can claim.

 

ii.

One need not be intimately familiar with O’Connor’s oeuvre to appreciate the exceedingly brief but extraordinary—and revealing—meditations contained in A Prayer Journal. Of course, anyone who has read, and savored her work will find the material, written in 1946 and 1947 while she was studying at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, at once affirming and revelatory.

O’Connor’s unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s monk-like commitment to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise—electronic and digital—distracting us. There’s also the fact that her work is inimitable: the style; the substance; the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.

I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, but if any American writer of the last century could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She didn’t manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had she been given even a few more years), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It’s the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import. As a remarkable point of fact, it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).

What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, with “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is lay bare the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) succinctly expressing our fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the darkened heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.

As a reader and especially a writer, one can learn a great deal by studying her stories. Has any other writer so consistently applied mechanical precision with such emotional heft? Has any other author wrestled with the so-called big issues without using stick figures or preachy didactics? Take “Revelation”, for instance: O’Connor fits notions of class, the dilemmas of southern identity, religious fervor, old-school bigotry and redemption into one story. In fact, she pretty much pulls it off on a single page (and that last page not only invokes, but obliges the use of such otherwise unforgivable words as “haunting”, “chilling” and “moving”). More, the concluding image of “a vast horde of souls rumbling toward heaven” that includes the disenfranchised leading a troop of so-called respectable citizens—who of course have assumed their station by luck of the biological draw—whose “virtues were being burned away”, might achieve the impossible, serving as an allegory to satisfy both the devoted and the faithless. Consider that. This type of writing, needless to say, is inspiring but is also intimidating. My initial (and in many cases, ongoing) reaction to reading an O’Connor story is to ask, in awe, How did she do that?

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Yet aside from the singular example she sets, what should (can) one, living today, take from her hermetic life style in terms of practical application? Probably the same thing one might take from any worthwhile practitioner: whatever one can. It’s that simple, and it’s that unfathomable. For starters, one should be heartened (or, more likely, devastated) by the fact that even our greatest artists often struggle, and realize that the life they embark upon is likely to be painful and unprofitable. “What first stuns the young writer emerging from college,” she wrote in 1948, “is that there is no clear-cut road for him to travel on. He must chop a path in the wilderness of his own soul; a disheartening process, lifelong and lonesome.”

In her journal, she implored God to “give me the courage to stand the pain to get to the grace.” O’Connor was not granted nearly the time she needed—or deserved—to continue perfecting her craft. But we are all fortunate she had the years, not to mention the fortitude and faith, to leave behind her unique, inexhaustible bounty. Her work is like her life: full of beauty, full of pain.

iii.

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he’s among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and the skills he developed in their simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact. Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Jimmy Heath once recalled. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unsurpassed proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument.

It’s worth quoting, in full, these observations by drummer Rashied Ali, (from an interview with Howard Mandel), who played with Coltrane in the last years of his life.

He never stopped playing. When I used to go to hear ‘Trane, he would always be playing. He would be playing in his dressing room. He would be playing before he got to me. Just like a fighter would warm up in the dressing room, he’d come out in the ring and he’d be sweating from warming up, he would do the same thing in the dressing room. He would just play and play and play. He would break a sweat in the dressing room and then when he would come out on the bandstand, he had all that — I don’t know where he got that energy from. He was relentless.

He always had an instrument in his hand.  He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people…the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, has likened Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there; too much for the human ear. Coltrane contained multitudes, but his music, after 1964, was often uncontainable.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he couldn’t quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarked that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary, but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space) was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

To understand the trajectory that took Coltrane from sheets of sound to A Love Supreme, it’s instructive to consider his composition “Alabama”, recorded in 1963. Inspired by the disgraceful 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Coltrane said of his elegy: “It represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me.” It is one of his enduring and devastating performances wherein Coltrane, already considered amongst jazz music’s most emotional and sensitive players, manages to articulate the grief and the rage the occasion called for. A deeply spiritual man, Coltrane conveys the immutable senselessness of violence instigated by ignorance, but also hints at the redemption of peaceful power through unified awareness. As only he could, Coltrane crafts a solo that is angry, somber, and somehow hopeful; a subdued epitaph for the innocent dead, but also a rallying cry for the not-so-innocent bystanders who needed to join the cause. The Alabama bombing was a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and Coltrane captured that moment where confusion and rage inspired an outpouring of solidarity.

Another quote from O’Connor: “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to you.” It’s clear that, for O’Connor, the journey was as important as the destination: being a good Catholic, she not only accepted that she’d have to suffer, she expected it. Coltrane’s suffering, for some time, involved the self-imposed heroin addiction he finally kicked in 1957 (years of alcohol abuse undoubtedly contributed to his eventual liver cancer). The liner notes to A Love Supreme, written by Coltrane and addressed to the audience (Dear Listener, they begin) leave little doubt what the album was “about” and exactly what inspired its creation—and its creator:

ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD TO WHOM ALL PRAISE IS DUE. Let us pursue Him in the righteous path. Yes it is true; “seek and ye shall find.” Only through Him can we know the most wondrous bequeathal. During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It might be suggested we’ve never seen, in modern art, more abundant or eloquent evidence of Art leading to God than A Love Supreme. (And, if we can collectively embrace the notion that “God is Love”, no ecclesiastical concerns need sully the discussion.) It serves as a consecration of sorts, a personal yet intensely spiritual expression: finally, Coltrane was able to filter all that intensity into a perfect chalice, never before, or after, was his vision so focused yet peaceful. The music—and message—is a force of nature the listener must let wash over them, while repeated listens will refresh and renew.

O’Connor wanted to jolt you with the violent shock of recognition, and achieve some type of artistic if not spiritual consecration; Coltrane wanted to transcend the insanity altogether, altering consciousness through a profoundly moving colloquy. That he attempted this is remarkable; that he was able to achieve it remains miraculous.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/9/15.

 

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Five From Frank Zappa (Revisited)

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December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) twenty-two years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

BONUS BLISS: “Muffin Man”, live and REAL.

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What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Dying (Revisited)

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MY MOTHER EVENTUALLY became acquainted with the white-walled world of procedures and all that happens—before, during, after and beyond: Hope and fear, faith and then despair, the nagging need to believe in men and the magic of machines. Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

***

Finally, we asked: What should we expect?

Well, we can’t know for certain, they said. But at this stage you should probably begin to consider end-of-life options.

And can you point us in the right direction?

Certainly, they said. After all, we literally deal with this every day…

This is a conversation that never occurred, and it’s one entirely too many families won’t get the opportunity to have. Having not had the pleasure, I feel I’m in a safe position to suggest that, tempting though it may be, this predicament cannot necessarily be placed on doctors or even the system. Certainly, some surgeons and oncologists are better equipped than others (on human as well as professional levels) to conduct helpful—or at least honest—discussions regarding options, percentages, and prognoses.

How much time have I got? That’s the big one, the most crucial, if feared question each patient eventually, inevitably asks. And if they can’t—or won’t—bring themselves to give voice to the concern that rips like a current through every part of their consciousness, it’s up to the family to make the inquiry on their behalf. We didn’t want to know, but we needed to know. We had the right to know, we felt.

Questions: Were we prepared to process it, whatever the verdict happened to be? Wouldn’t the doctors tell us, finally, when it was time to confront the final stage? Isn’t it our obligation to provide care and distraction, and let the professionals do what they’re taught to do?

And so on.

Naturally, these questions have no definitive answers. Or worse, the answer to each one is—or can be—yes and no. Depending on the patient’s age, or situation, or the doctor’s preference, or competence, or conscience, there is probably never an adequate formula for combining truth with commiseration. Speaking only from personal experience, the worst news you can receive is not the bad news you abhor, but a deferral disguised as an alternative.

It would be too easy to insist that our doctors were negligent or, at least, woefully indifferent. The reality, I suspect, is even worse than that. Obviously doctors don’t want to give false hope or obliterate any remaining optimism, but the rationale for their institutional code of silence may in fact have more to do with us than them. Our country’s capacity for denial is well documented; it’s more likely our ever-increasing penchant for litigation that gives them pause. When the going gets tough (and the going is always tough in cancer wards), we pray doctors can perform tasks far beyond their human abilities. Even after the surgery (successful or not) has occurred, we expect these people to become priests, social workers, and saints.

Still: you want answers. Aside from comfort and serenity, those are the hardest things to come by when you’re dealing with terminal cancer. No one knows anything and you get the sense that even if they did know—especially if they did know—they’re not going to tell you.

***

You learn not to talk to the stars, or you eventually realize it’s senseless to hope they can hear you. Yet enough people need to have their actions explained that we made a science of sorts out of animals in the sky, lit with meaning and the ability to govern our affairs the way the moon turns the tides.

Many of us are taught to talk to God, and some of us actually think He’s listening. Those one-way conversations are enough for enough people that we sanctify that shot in the dark, that wish upon a star. Enough people need these mysteries explicable that we invest the sky with spirits and wish them into being: They make sense out of what we can’t explain for ourselves, and suddenly the senselessness yields salvation.

If all else fails, enough people come to understand and possibly take comfort in the fact that you can always talk to yourself. You know who you are, and you’ll always hear your voice, even when you don’t want to. Even—and especially—when you’re not sure what you can tell yourself, when you’re not at all certain what you can or should or may say.

***

Question: How could I know that dying of cancer was my mother’s worst fear, the thing she dreaded most?

Answer: Because she never said so.

It was one thing she never talked about. It is, I suspect, one thing even families unaffected by this disease tend to avoid, equal parts dread and superstition. Cancer still retains its awesome sway on our collective consciousness through successive centuries, in part—or mostly—because of the impunity with which it has extinguished humans of all ages, races, and creeds. Cancer is always capable of getting our attention, so much so that it’s something many of us do anything we can to avoid even thinking about.

My mother talked about her mother. I vaguely intuited then, and fully understand now, that she was also talking about herself. Not just the ways her mother’s death affected her, her family, and her future, but the ways the disease might affect her, her family, and her future. She spoke about the suddenness with which her mother’s illness struck, so little time to prepare, how unspeakably voracious it became once it was inside her, how quickly she had to grapple with Death and living without the person she could never imagine Life without.

She never had to say anything directly, because every time she talked about her mother’s death she was telling us exactly what frightened her the most.

So: did she come to expect the worst? I don’t know. I think when she was first diagnosed, at fifty-four; she was shocked that it had come so soon. It hit her before she even had time to begin preparing for it, even if she acknowledged, on some level, that its presence was more a reunion than an inevitability.

***

Yes, you were almost in the clear, we would tell her, and each other.

Yes, the cancer did come back, but we knew that was always a possibility.

No, there’s no reason to worry it will come back again. The surgery was successful, and this chemo should make sure it stays gone.

No, I don’t think it will come back, we told her, and each other.

No, I don’t know what to hope for or believe, none of us ever said out loud.

***

He could feel the tears coming and he stared down at his hands. One drop clung to his eyelid, holding on for its life. Finally, reluctantly, he allowed himself to let it out. He saw his son watching him and before he could stop it, he heard himself speaking…

It’s alright, Pop. We still have our family; we still have each other.

Yes, we do, he said, embracing his son, the boy who was not quite a man, but close enough. We have each other, and that’s all that matters. I love you…

This is what he wished to say. It was what he could almost hear himself saying. But such things are seldom said between fathers and sons.

***

Where does it go when you won’t let it escape? Does it work its way out at night, in dreams? Can you kill it with beer, or enough TV, or the ultimate antidote, religion? Can you pray that pain away, and ask God to cast a benevolent spell, transporting those concerns you can’t afford to release? Do you just cover your eyes and close your mouth, forcing those feelings to suffocate slowly, with no chance to abscond?

***

It will be okay, I finally said. And when she finally fell asleep I watched her and remembered all the times she told me, patient and comforting, that it would be okay. When I didn’t want her to leave my sight in a shopping mall. Or the times I got nervous before a grade-school field trip. Or when I was sick and needed to take medicine, back in the days when it actually tasted like medicine. Or when I woke up in the middle of the night, not old enough to know what a nightmare was but young enough to call out for the one person who always came. It will be okay, she always said, and I always believed her.

My mother always told me what I needed to hear and I gradually came to understand—and appreciate—that none of these things were a matter of life and death. Eventually I acknowledged—and accepted—that it would be okay, because when your mother tells you this, she knows it’s the truth. She wouldn’t say it unless she believed it, so I believed her.

You each get older and learn to recognize the things you can control and the things you can’t. You gain perspective and experience and grasp that life goes on no matter how you wonder and worry. You might get sick and you might need reassurance but that’s all part of the process, another step in your journey. You adapt and endure because it always gets better. You remind yourself: it’s not a matter of life and death.

And so on.

So what can you say when, one day, it becomes a matter of life and death? What do you do when the person crying in the bed is looking to you for reassurance? How do you proceed when the person who always calmed you down is shuddering with fear and afraid to be alone? What else is left when actions have failed and, for the first time, even words are incapable of offering consolation? You tell your mother it will be okay. You do this because there’s nothing else left to do. You say it will be okay because you know it won’t and you still hope she’s able to believe you.

***

He looked upward at the uncommunicative sky and remembered what he had once read, ages ago: that the light from some dead stars, once it actually reached the earth, was millions of years old. At that moment, this seemed to signify everything awesome and immutable, all that he could grasp, but neither rationalize nor reconcile. All the things there were no answers for.

***

It gets very quiet while time and place and the guarded feelings that enable us to function all fall away and you concentrate every thought into one simple, implausible objective: peace. You think it and you will it and for a moment that might be forever you become it in ways you’re never able to talk about later, even if you are inclined (and you aren’t, especially). You shiver but are calm; you are entirely in the present tense yet you are also somewhere else, somewhere deeper inside that, somehow, connects you to everything else you’ve ever known.

It will be okay, you whisper, actually believing this because it’s not even your own voice you hear. You don’t know if this is you, or your mind, or the actualization of that other place (you are hazily aware) you have managed to access, understanding it’s not anything you can anticipate or comprehend even though you’ve been preparing for it (you realize, abruptly) as far back as you can remember.

It’s okay, you say, and maybe your vision is blurred or your eyes are closed, or probably you’re seeing more clearly than ever before, but now you recognize this voice and, as you look down at eyes that can no longer see you, understand, finally, that you’re talking to yourself.

***

All things being equal, I may be more willing to succumb to the strength or the obverse infirmity that made total belief or nonbelief an option. If there is a God then there could be order, and solace in the notion that there’s a plan that I cannot (should not?) comprehend, and that I will be reunited with my mother—with everyone—eventually. Or, if there is no God, then the universe is senseless, random, not particularly malicious (neither justice nor punishment) and the only Truth is the type that man and Nature provide: one could just move on, secure to drift into the darkening distance. But I have neither privilege: the refuge of the faithful or the freedom of the faithless.

What I have are questions. The ones I ask and the ones people ask me:

What happened to your mother?

She died.

What did she die of?

Death.

Any way you describe or explain it, it’s ultimately part of a larger equation that now equals nothing.

Life without a mother leaves one with no option but to answer questions with more questions.

Questions:

You know that woman you saw in the grocery store, stocking up on frozen vegetables and paper towels, tissue and toilet paper for her family? That was my mother, too.

That woman who waved at you when you stopped to let her cross the street in front of you? That was my mother, too.

That woman who cut you off on the freeway, then flipped the finger when you laid on your horn? That was my mother, too.

That woman on TV sewing a blanket for her first grandchild, or bringing out pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? That was my mother, too.

That woman who carried you in her womb, raised you and then sent you off into the world, smiling beneath her tears? That was my mother…

Do you see what I’m saying? My mother isn’t your mother, but I see a part of her in every mother I see, just as you may see yours all around you someday, if you don’t already.

All things being equal, I might never say or even think any of these things. But all things are not equal. All things are never equal.

***

When you hear voices, or find yourself talking to people you’re not sure can hear you, you should cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been there—or will be at some point. We’ve all, on occasion, looked up to the clouds and wondered if there was a kingdom beyond the skies, the place some of us were told our dearly departed looked down from. Haven’t we all taken comfort from a one-way conversation we forgot to be self-conscious about? Aren’t we all, at times, unable or unwilling to entirely abandon the idea that someone else is listening?

And so: You talk. And maybe, someone listens. Anyone might be listening up there, and that’s more comfort than anything you could ever find in a church. And so: You talk. Say something, everything. Say anything you need to say to survive.

*An excerpt from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, kindly published on 3/26 at The Weeklings.

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Five From Frank Zappa

frank-zappa

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, Frank Zappa passed away (yet another casualty of the Big C.) twent-one years ago, today.

Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to The Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike The Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding and likey to be dissected several generations from now.

Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ’70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ’70s.

Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he undersood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.

Zappa was, in the final analysis, the rarest type of artist: simply incapable of writing a note (or comitting an artistic act) he did not fully believe in. This was not always a good thing. His propensity for juvenile hijinks is one reason he was easier to dismiss (although it’s fair to suggest that Zappa anticipated backlash from both the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-assed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton). On the other hand, even if he was deliberately taking the piss out of himself (semi-literally in the case of a song like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”) as a sort of pre-emptive strike, his sense of humor –which enabled him to “keep it real”– was an inextricable part of his acumen (resulting in more serious songs with titles like “Dog Breath Variations” and “G-Spot Tornado“).

One of his great statements (musically and otherwise) is entitled Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar. He was, of course, talking to a variety of culpable parties, from the smug art-rock political activists to the hit-hungry hair bands whose increasingly vapid treacle was beginning to surface around the clock on MTV. Yet, it seems fair to suggest, he was also speaking, however sardonically and self-deprecatingly, to himself. He knew he was at his best when he let the music do the talking. It continues to sing, cry, coax and confound, and successive generations of adventurous and discerning listeners will be able to experience the wonder and joy that infuses almost every note Frank Zappa wrote.

“Peaches En Regalia”:

“Little Umbrellas”:

“Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula”:

“Opus 1, No. 3, 2nd Movement, PRESTO”:

“Watermelon In Easter Hay”:

BONUS BLISS: “Muffin Man”, live and REAL.

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Ars Moriendi or, The Art of Dying (American Style)

a.m.

This post takes some excerpts from my memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

While this project is an attempt to commemorate –and celebrate– my mother’s life, it also concerns itself with the often uneasy interstices that comprise the before, during and after of how we die. More, it is a (hopefully, sufficiently subtle) call to arms, a (hopefully, sufficiently humble) petition to combine insight and compassion for collectively waging a more effective assault on this –and by extension any– disease. More still, it might function as a (hopefully, sufficiently altruistic) j’accuse documenting all the things my family and I struggled against: ignorance, apathy, lack of understanding, etc. The essence of the story –the essence of any good story, the imperative of art– is to share perception and accrue knowledge, admit what you did not know to help someone else recognize what they should learn, and communicate awareness through empathy.

In my family’s case, we never had the proverbial moment of truth, a benevolent intervention by the professionals who are paid to tell us how and how long. From a chapter entitled “Fairy Tales and Feeding Tubes” (recently posted in full on the site), this awkward confrontation with reality –a situation that arrived when alternatives ceased to exist– is depicted:

She could not have known her life would now be measured in weeks instead of months. None of us knew.

Here’s the thing about acceptance: we all had time to prepare and adapt. My mother, finally, after opening every door and stumbling down every last alley, had no other choice but to accept. Sometimes the choice makes itself when there is nothing left but a choice that will make itself. She finally accepted where we were and what was coming.

Even with the best of intentions we waited too long to bring in hospice. We did not understand that at a certain point even a single day is too long. In shockingly short order, her body had deteriorated to the point of its final betrayal: she could no longer digest food.

“Your body can no longer digest food,” my father said as we all stood around the bed, confronting the moment that, after all denials, medical interventions, and best wishes otherwise have failed, arrives at last. The only comfort is that at least it’s not a doctor telling her; at least she is in her own home.

There is an extended section of the memoir, covering several chapters, that honestly, if unflinchingly describes how we gained the knowledge we now have, and how hard-won it was to acquire. These brief chapters are a bit more didactic, albeit infused with (hopefully, sufficient) artistic import. In some regards, although the impetus throughout is on recounting and exploring the story of one woman’s life (focusing, inevitably, on how it ended), the so-called takeaway –at least in its author’s eyes– is that anyone who encounters this material might be a bit better informed and therefore equipped to do what they can, with kindness and charity, to ease the transition with a minimum of needless suffering.

***

Eventually, we asked: What should we expect?

Well, we can’t know for certain, they said. But at this stage you should probably begin to consider end-of-life options.

And can you point us in the right direction?

Certainly, they said. After all, we literally deal with this every day…

This is a conversation that never occurred, and it’s one entirely too many families won’t get the opportunity to have. Having not had the pleasure, I feel I’m in a safe position to suggest that, tempting though it may be, this predicament cannot necessarily be placed on doctors or even the system. Certainly, some surgeons and oncologists are better equipped than others (on human as well as professional levels) to conduct helpful—or at least honest—discussions regarding options, percentages, and prognoses.

How much time have I got? That is the big one, the most crucial, if feared question each patient eventually, inevitably asks. And if they can’t—or won’t—bring themselves to give voice to the concern that rips like a current through every part of their consciousness, it is up to the family to make the inquiry on their behalf. We didn’t want to know, but we needed to know. We had the right to know, we felt. Questions: Were we prepared to process it, whatever the verdict happened to be? Wouldn’t the doctors tell us, finally, when it was time to confront the final stage? Isn’t it our obligation to provide care and distraction, and let the professionals do what they are taught to do? And so on.

Naturally, there are no definitive answers to any of these questions. Or worse, the answer to each one is—or can be—yes and no. Depending on the patient’s age, or situation, or the doctor’s preference, or competence, or conscience, there is probably never an adequate formula for combining truth with commiseration. Speaking only from personal experience, the worst news you can receive is not the bad news you abhor, but a deferral disguised as an alternative.

When they were unable to successfully operate, in July 2002, we knew it was no longer a matter of if but when. How long have we got, we asked in direct—and especially indirect—ways. It was apparent, then, and even more obvious, now, that the issue was not how much they knew but how much they didn’t know. For all they knew, it could be a year or it could be six months; there could be a miracle, my mother might make medical history. And so, they declined and demurred and filled my parents’ heads with words like “quality of life” and, unbelievably, chemotherapy. My mother, not knowing the truth and my father, not yet wanting to confront it, began to embrace this potential course of action as one last bulwark against the unimaginable. As long as we are in motion, we are still in control: this is what I heard every time I looked at my father’s face. None of us, including the doctors, could know that in little less than a month the most important question would answer itself.

It would be too easy to insist that our doctors were negligent or, at least, woefully indifferent. The reality, I suspect, is even worse than that. Obviously doctors do not want to give false hope or obliterate any remaining optimism, but the rationale for their institutional code of silence may in fact have more to do with us than them. Our country’s capacity for denial is well documented; it is more likely our ever-increasing penchant for litigation that gives them pause. When the going gets tough (and the going is always tough in cancer wards) we pray doctors can perform tasks far beyond their human abilities. Even after the surgery (successful or not) has occurred, we expect these people to become priests, social workers and saints.

Still: you want answers. Aside from comfort and serenity, those are the hardest things to come by when you’re dealing with terminal cancer. No one knows anything and you get the sense that even if they did know—especially if they do know—they are not going to tell you.

***

Terminal illness –and how best to process it– is not remotely an easy to discuss, describe or resolve dilemma. The primary issue, it seems to me, boils down to awareness (which, come to think of it, applies to virtually every situation): it might be easy to blame the doctors or the system, or even the families, but we are currently ill-equipped to have open, honest discussions about treatment options vs. realistic scenarios, and in America especially, our one-two punch of denial and deference to authority leads to many well-intended instances where pain and suffering is prolonged in the name of hope.

***

Doctors talking about death are not unlike priests describing the horrors of hell: there is the air of presumptive jurisdiction, but also an aloof conviction, almost pitying, that affirms it’s not a place (death, hell) they’ll ever find themselves. We cannot despise them for this: without these affectations that eventually become ingrained, they could not conceivably perform their functions. Their comportment suggests that they have seen many of the things we pray to avoid, and have become intimate with horrors we can hardly imagine. In order to acclimate, they must first fortify themselves.

Physician, heal thyself?

It is understandable that so many of us assume doctors, who have more of everything—knowledge, money, connections—are able to take care of each other in ways their patients cannot conceive. If this were indeed the case it would be comforting in a way. At least we would have irrefutable evidence that solutions do exist and we might look forward to one day employing them ourselves.

But the reality, if less polemical, is nevertheless enlightening. According to a growing field of first-hand testimonials, doctors do in fact tend to die differently, but not as a result of special or preferential treatment. The ultimate, paradoxical disparity lies in an intentional demurral of treatment. Less last-ditch cycles of chemotherapy or illusions of a few extra months—itself a proposition that begs the complicated question: does more time with more adversity (physical if not mental) seem in any way appealing?

This phenomenon, which could simply and accurately be described as acceptance, illustrates several things. The most revealing might be the consequence that doctors see enough avoidable anguish they are disinclined to die in denial when their own diagnoses stare back at them in black and white. Aware of how little can be done, and able to measure the difference between best intentions and bottom lines, some prepare accordingly. In the process, perhaps they are able to provide a measure of peace—and not the opposite—for themselves and their families.

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Stuart Scott: Winning

Stuart-Scott-Accepts-The-Espy-popstoptv

All of us are winning by virtue of being alive. By fighting.

But we too often frame discussion of cancer with the now-obligatory martial themes: fighting, battling, winning, losing. Etc.

I appreciate and am encouraged by the way(s) we are, collectively, getting better about discussing cancer. Certainly we are also getting better about detecting, treating and beating it.

But for people, like Scott, very much “in the battle”, it’s nice to hear him acknowledge the help he needs, from his family; from his friends. That he is brave enough not only to get up every time ready to do what he can (even when he can’t), but acknowledge the times he is too tired, sick or simply unable to do anything other than draw another breath. And, as he points out, even on the days he can’t “fight”, there are others who do: the doctors, nurses, and the aforementioned Friend & Family Network.

This is inspiring stuff, on so many levels.

And, as Stuart seems to genuinely understand, it’s not about “winning”, per se. Cancer may get him. And even if it doesn’t, death will get him. It will get all of us, eventually.

It’s not merely about fighting the proverbial good fight; it’s about how you live and how you go about your business. Because Death is always there, waiting. We all know how our personal story ends, even if we don’t want to look or read or hear about it. It’s going to happen, and that awareness should not fill us with dread or paralysis; it should encourage and admonish us to do anything and everything we can to savor each second, nurture each friendship, do every possible act of kindness and above all, be aware.

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Some Thoughts on 5Ks, Colon Cancer, Charity and the Redemption of Friends

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I ran my first 5K last Sunday.

Anyone who knows anything about me will likely have two reactions, in this order. One: no chance. Two: anything is now officially possible, not excluding world peace.

I’m here to tell you, it happened. And now that my body has finally stopped aching, I can talk about the experience.

First and foremost: I had the type of epiphany one might expect or at least hope for during a state of heightened consciousness. Mine was simple: I’m not a runner and never will be.

And yet. I’ve already signed up to run another 5K. Soon (as in: less than two weeks soon).

Have I gone insane?

No, I have found a way to get more involved with fundraising and awareness. As anyone who follows my blog or has attended one of my readings will know, I’ve made an effort to engage with cancer-related organizations. Indeed, every one of my readings doubled as a fundraiser, and I am thrilled to have raised a few thousand dollars for some very worthy folks, including Hospice of the Piedmont and The Lombardi Cancer Center.

It was, in fact, while speaking at The Lombardi Center’s annual cancer symposium in December that I met the leadership team from Chris4Life. In short order, I happily associated myself with this incredible group of people and am donating books that they can sell, with all profits going directly to the organization. I also look forward to reading/speaking at future events, and doing pretty much anything I can to endorse and assist them in their work.

Which brings us to the 5K. Every spring Chris4Life sponsors the Scope it Out 5k. Everything about this event is special: the participants, the volunteers, the locale (the run occurs in downtown D.C.) and, of course, the cause. I had modest aspirations, both in terms of the funds I could solicit and actually finishing this race, at least without walking. Against my own most optimistic projections, I did in fact complete the race (an 11-minute mile pace; I’m not going to threaten any Olympians but this is respectable, I reckon, for a 43 year old non-runner), and much more importantly, I raised over $4.5K.

This spectacular amount is entirely due to the generosity and support of my unbelievable network of friends and family. Period. It became almost ludicrous, watching the donations pour in, a stream of solidarity one dollar at a time. And while every penny counts and it’s not appropriate to name names, suffice it to say that some folks truly went above and beyond: I was humbled to the point of being staggered by the generosity on display.

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And this gets to the heart of why I wrote the memoir, why I hope to share it with as many people as possible, and how I’ve (mostly) been able to turn my despair at losing a beloved mother so young into an outlet for positive action. Annually, I have the same message to share on New Year’s Eve, and I’ll repeat it here: Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate –and savor– the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

There are myriad reasons I’ll never resort to cynicism; life is too short and there are too many good people and reasons to remain engaged, active and positive. But seeing the marker on my website climb to $7,080 raised means two things: my goal of $10,000 by end of 2014 seems suddenly reasonable, and doable, and that I can’t—and won’t—stop here.

And so: more action, more fundraising, more…running.

Speaking of the run, I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to think about much, but of course many things ran through my mind as I busied myself running. Foremost, what I was there for: my mother’s memory, certainly, but also the other people we’ve lost. And the people who are presently fighting for their lives. And for the amazing people who have literally dedicated their lives to eradicating cancer, or at least fighting it more effectively, more efficiently. The doctors, oncologists, nurses, scientists, and especially the folks who felt the call: the people who work with Hospice or at organizations like Chris4Life. Raising money, getting out of bed early on a Sunday and running a few miles seems, truly, like the least one can do.

And even as I ran with my sister and her family (by each other’s side, once again, as it’s been from the beginning) and some beloved friends, it filled me with a pride and sense of accomplishment. I have somehow managed to live a sufficiently purposeful life and have been lucky enough to surround myself with remarkable human beings. I know that has made all the difference. As I ran, I thought of the people who had taken the time to support my cause, the people who have read—and responded—to my memoir, the people who encourage me and offer me solace and inspiration. In his poem “Ulysses” Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote “I am a part of all that I have met.” You feel that when you reflect on your life, and if you’re fortunate, you are far greater a person having so many others helping comprise what you hope to become.

In my memoir I recall the difference it made, seeing so many of these people there during the darkest days:

Looking out, all my familiar faces: my father, my sister, her husband, my nephew and niece, the two aunts—my mother’s sisters—who had been with us for those awful, awe-inspiring final two weeks, and behind them the confidantes, colleagues, childhood friends, grown-up acquaintances, friends’ parents, and all the less recognizable faces I hadn’t seen in so many years. This is the closest we come to witnessing our own funerals. The same people there to support us, smile and cry with us, becoming part of the moments that become memories; an event that connects us and brings us closer, no matter how far away or disparate our lives might otherwise be.

Looking out at my family and understanding that they helped shape me, that I wouldn’t change anything even if I could. We learn to put away childish things and earn the chances we’ve been given, the responsibility to carry on the work that has already been done on our behalves. Equal parts fate and good fortune, we look at those familiar faces and understand what they have done, and what we need to do.

This past year has solidified a sense of purpose with a sense of urgency. I want to do more, because it’s the least I can do. When I think of all the gentle and gracious souls that surround me (and live on, inside me) I’m reminded, yet again, of what I’ve done, and what I need to do.

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What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Dying

momsean

MY MOTHER EVENTUALLY became acquainted with the white-walled world of procedures and all that happens—before, during, after and beyond: Hope and fear, faith and then despair, the nagging need to believe in men and the magic of machines. Or the things we say when no one is speaking.

~

Finally, we asked: What should we expect?

Well, we can’t know for certain, they said. But at this stage you should probably begin to consider end-of-life options.

And can you point us in the right direction?

Certainly, they said. After all, we literally deal with this every day…

This is a conversation that never occurred, and it’s one entirely too many families won’t get the opportunity to have. Having not had the pleasure, I feel I’m in a safe position to suggest that, tempting though it may be, this predicament cannot necessarily be placed on doctors or even the system. Certainly, some surgeons and oncologists are better equipped than others (on human as well as professional levels) to conduct helpful—or at least honest—discussions regarding options, percentages, and prognoses.

How much time have I got? That’s the big one, the most crucial, if feared question each patient eventually, inevitably asks. And if they can’t—or won’t—bring themselves to give voice to the concern that rips like a current through every part of their consciousness, it’s up to the family to make the inquiry on their behalf. We didn’t want to know, but we needed to know. We had the right to know, we felt.

Questions: Were we prepared to process it, whatever the verdict happened to be? Wouldn’t the doctors tell us, finally, when it was time to confront the final stage? Isn’t it our obligation to provide care and distraction, and let the professionals do what they’re taught to do?

And so on.

Naturally, these questions have no definitive answers. Or worse, the answer to each one is—or can be—yes and no. Depending on the patient’s age, or situation, or the doctor’s preference, or competence, or conscience, there is probably never an adequate formula for combining truth with commiseration. Speaking only from personal experience, the worst news you can receive is not the bad news you abhor, but a deferral disguised as an alternative.

It would be too easy to insist that our doctors were negligent or, at least, woefully indifferent. The reality, I suspect, is even worse than that. Obviously doctors don’t want to give false hope or obliterate any remaining optimism, but the rationale for their institutional code of silence may in fact have more to do with us than them. Our country’s capacity for denial is well documented; it’s more likely our ever-increasing penchant for litigation that gives them pause. When the going gets tough (and the going is always tough in cancer wards), we pray doctors can perform tasks far beyond their human abilities. Even after the surgery (successful or not) has occurred, we expect these people to become priests, social workers, and saints.

Still: you want answers. Aside from comfort and serenity, those are the hardest things to come by when you’re dealing with terminal cancer. No one knows anything and you get the sense that even if they did know—especially if they did know—they’re not going to tell you.

~

You learn not to talk to the stars, or you eventually realize it’s senseless to hope they can hear you. Yet enough people need to have their actions explained that we made a science of sorts out of animals in the sky, lit with meaning and the ability to govern our affairs the way the moon turns the tides.

Many of us are taught to talk to God, and some of us actually think He’s listening. Those one-way conversations are enough for enough people that we sanctify that shot in the dark, that wish upon a star. Enough people need these mysteries explicable that we invest the sky with spirits and wish them into being: They make sense out of what we can’t explain for ourselves, and suddenly the senselessness yields salvation.

If all else fails, enough people come to understand and possibly take comfort in the fact that you can always talk to yourself. You know who you are, and you’ll always hear your voice, even when you don’t want to. Even—and especially—when you’re not sure what you can tell yourself, when you’re not at all certain what you can or should or may say.

~

Question: How could I know that dying of cancer was my mother’s worst fear, the thing she dreaded most?

Answer: Because she never said so.

It was one thing she never talked about. It is, I suspect, one thing even families unaffected by this disease tend to avoid, equal parts dread and superstition. Cancer still retains its awesome sway on our collective consciousness through successive centuries, in part—or mostly—because of the impunity with which it has extinguished humans of all ages, races, and creeds. Cancer is always capable of getting our attention, so much so that it’s something many of us do anything we can to avoid even thinking about.

My mother talked about her mother. I vaguely intuited then, and fully understand now, that she was also talking about herself. Not just the ways her mother’s death affected her, her family, and her future, but the ways the disease might affect her, her family, and her future. She spoke about the suddenness with which her mother’s illness struck, so little time to prepare, how unspeakably voracious it became once it was inside her, how quickly she had to grapple with Death and living without the person she could never imagine Life without.

She never had to say anything directly, because every time she talked about her mother’s death she was telling us exactly what frightened her the most.

So: did she come to expect the worst? I don’t know. I think when she was first diagnosed, at fifty-four; she was shocked that it had come so soon. It hit her before she even had time to begin preparing for it, even if she acknowledged, on some level, that its presence was more a reunion than an inevitability.

~

Yes, you were almost in the clear, we would tell her, and each other.

Yes, the cancer did come back, but we knew that was always a possibility.

No, there’s no reason to worry it will come back again. The surgery was successful, and this chemo should make sure it stays gone.

No, I don’t think it will come back, we told her, and each other.

No, I don’t know what to hope for or believe, none of us ever said out loud.

~

He could feel the tears coming and he stared down at his hands. One drop clung to his eyelid, holding on for its life. Finally, reluctantly, he allowed himself to let it out. He saw his son watching him and before he could stop it, he heard himself speaking…

It’s alright, Pop. We still have our family; we still have each other.

Yes, we do, he said, embracing his son, the boy who was not quite a man, but close enough. We have each other, and that’s all that matters. I love you…

This is what he wished to say. It was what he could almost hear himself saying. But such things are seldom said between fathers and sons.

~

Where does it go when you won’t let it escape? Does it work its way out at night, in dreams? Can you kill it with beer, or enough TV, or the ultimate antidote, religion? Can you pray that pain away, and ask God to cast a benevolent spell, transporting those concerns you can’t afford to release? Do you just cover your eyes and close your mouth, forcing those feelings to suffocate slowly, with no chance to abscond?

~

It will be okay, I finally said. And when she finally fell asleep I watched her and remembered all the times she told me, patient and comforting, that it would be okay. When I didn’t want her to leave my sight in a shopping mall. Or the times I got nervous before a grade-school field trip. Or when I was sick and needed to take medicine, back in the days when it actually tasted like medicine. Or when I woke up in the middle of the night, not old enough to know what a nightmare was but young enough to call out for the one person who always came. It will be okay, she always said, and I always believed her.

My mother always told me what I needed to hear and I gradually came to understand—and appreciate—that none of these things were a matter of life and death. Eventually I acknowledged—and accepted—that it would be okay, because when your mother tells you this, she knows it’s the truth. She wouldn’t say it unless she believed it, so I believed her.

You each get older and learn to recognize the things you can control and the things you can’t. You gain perspective and experience and grasp that life goes on no matter how you wonder and worry. You might get sick and you might need reassurance but that’s all part of the process, another step in your journey. You adapt and endure because it always gets better. You remind yourself: it’s not a matter of life and death.

And so on.

So what can you say when, one day, it becomes a matter of life and death? What do you do when the person crying in the bed is looking to you for reassurance? How do you proceed when the person who always calmed you down is shuddering with fear and afraid to be alone? What else is left when actions have failed and, for the first time, even words are incapable of offering consolation? You tell your mother it will be okay. You do this because there’s nothing else left to do. You say it will be okay because you know it won’t and you still hope she’s able to believe you.

~

He looked upward at the uncommunicative sky and remembered what he had once read, ages ago: that the light from some dead stars, once it actually reached the earth, was millions of years old. At that moment, this seemed to signify everything awesome and immutable, all that he could grasp, but neither rationalize nor reconcile. All the things there were no answers for.

~

It gets very quiet while time and place and the guarded feelings that enable us to function all fall away and you concentrate every thought into one simple, implausible objective: peace. You think it and you will it and for a moment that might be forever you become it in ways you’re never able to talk about later, even if you are inclined (and you aren’t, especially). You shiver but are calm; you are entirely in the present tense yet you are also somewhere else, somewhere deeper inside that, somehow, connects you to everything else you’ve ever known.

It will be okay, you whisper, actually believing this because it’s not even your own voice you hear. You don’t know if this is you, or your mind, or the actualization of that other place (you are hazily aware) you have managed to access, understanding it’s not anything you can anticipate or comprehend even though you’ve been preparing for it (you realize, abruptly) as far back as you can remember.

It’s okay, you say, and maybe your vision is blurred or your eyes are closed, or probably you’re seeing more clearly than ever before, but now you recognize this voice and, as you look down at eyes that can no longer see you, understand, finally, that you’re talking to yourself.

~

All things being equal, I may be more willing to succumb to the strength or the obverse infirmity that made total belief or nonbelief an option. If there is a God then there could be order, and solace in the notion that there’s a plan that I cannot (should not?) comprehend, and that I will be reunited with my mother—with everyone—eventually. Or, if there is no God, then the universe is senseless, random, not particularly malicious (neither justice nor punishment) and the only Truth is the type that man and Nature provide: one could just move on, secure to drift into the darkening distance. But I have neither privilege: the refuge of the faithful or the freedom of the faithless.

What I have are questions. The ones I ask and the ones people ask me:

What happened to your mother?

She died.

What did she die of?

Death.

Any way you describe or explain it, it’s ultimately part of a larger equation that now equals nothing.

Life without a mother leaves one with no option but to answer questions with more questions.

Questions:

You know that woman you saw in the grocery store, stocking up on frozen vegetables and paper towels, tissue and toilet paper for her family? That was my mother, too.

That woman who waved at you when you stopped to let her cross the street in front of you? That was my mother, too.

That woman who cut you off on the freeway, then flipped the finger when you laid on your horn? That was my mother, too.

That woman on TV sewing a blanket for her first grandchild, or bringing out pumpkin pie after Thanksgiving dinner? That was my mother, too.

That woman who carried you in her womb, raised you and then sent you off into the world, smiling beneath her tears? That was my mother…

Do you see what I’m saying? My mother isn’t your mother, but I see a part of her in every mother I see, just as you may see yours all around you someday, if you don’t already.

All things being equal, I might never say or even think any of these things. But all things are not equal. All things are never equal.

~

When you hear voices, or find yourself talking to people you’re not sure can hear you, you should cut yourself some slack. We’ve all been there—or will be at some point. We’ve all, on occasion, looked up to the clouds and wondered if there was a kingdom beyond the skies, the place some of us were told our dearly departed looked down from. Haven’t we all taken comfort from a one-way conversation we forgot to be self-conscious about? Aren’t we all, at times, unable or unwilling to entirely abandon the idea that someone else is listening?

And so: You talk. And maybe, someone listens. Anyone might be listening up there, and that’s more comfort than anything you could ever find in a church. And so: You talk. Say something, everything. Say anything you need to say to survive.

*An excerpt from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone, kindly published on 3/26 at The Weeklings.

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Raising Awareness (and Funds) For Our “Ordinary Angels”

First, an update.

The numbers are in, and I achieved my goal of raising (at least) $1,000 for The Lombardi/Ruesch Center (more about them HERE).

My first two events brought in $1,080, and I’m beyond honored to accept the invitation to participate in their December symposium, Fighting a Smarter War Against Cancer (more about that HERE).

My last few events, and next several events, will raise as much money (and awareness) as possible for the great people at Hospice of the Piedmont.

If you don’t know or fully understand what Hospice is and what they do, I encourage you to take a moment and read about Hospice of the Piedmont HERE.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to do a reading at the almost impossibly beautiful Afton Mountain Vineyards.

One of the sections I read was a chapter entitled “Ordinary Angels”: it describes why I endorse Hospice, what Hospice does, and why I’m dedicated to doing as much as possible to support them. To put things in some perspective, here is a brief list (directly from my friends at HoP) of how a very little money can go a long way.

  1. A $90 donation sends a child who has lost a parent to our special bereavement camp
  2. A $60 donation will pay for medications for a week for a dying hospice patient
  3. A $30 donation provides supplies and a hospital bed for a dying patient in their home for a week
  4. A $5 donation provides oxygen for a dying patient for a week
  5. A $5 donation provides food for an entire day for a patient at the Hospice House

Cancer is a terrible reality that afflicts too many people (personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who has not been directly or indirectly impacted in some form or another). While I endorse and celebrate the folks (like my friends at the Lombardi/Reusch Center) who are working to discover new ways to combat and treat this ailment, I hold a special place in my heart for the remarkable people amongst us who assist and comfort people who need it the most.

 

“Ordinary Angels”, from my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone.

i.

My neighbor died, abruptly, while I was away at college. The girl across the street told me what happened: it was sudden, totally unexpected.

I didn’t even know she was sick, I said.

No one did, not even her, she said.

She simply collapsed; alive one second, dead by the time she hit the floor. No warning, no symptoms. It was like she—and her family—got blindsided by a truck called cancer. It was inside her, everywhere, engulfing her from the inside out.

ii.

After just about everything had been done, every last resort explored and found insufficient, after five years my mother finally knew (this was before the pain, the real pain, commenced). Even while we were still lying to her, she ultimately could no longer lie to herself. Her body told her, and her grandchildren—who didn’t yet know how to lie—told her. The kids could sense it, and when she saw she was boring her granddaughter, that was a sign. When her granddaughter—the one she helped raise, the one whose diapers she’d changed, the one for whom she could not buy enough toys or treats, the one she secretly (and not so secretly) loved as much as her own children—made it obvious, in ways only very young children can, that grandma was no longer as much fun, she knew.

iii.

Generally speaking, illness is cathartic. Even the worst stomach flu is tolerable because we know that however awful it feels, it’s temporary. In fact, as the worst symptoms ensue, you can take a curious comfort, knowing it can’t get worse. It follows patterns, borders, and you can almost predict the course it will take. Then, as you gradually begin to improve, it becomes slightly intoxicating: the nasal drip that made it hard to swallow and difficult to sleep now congealed and coughed up, expired demons exorcised from your system. Your vitality stumbles back, like an eager baby learning to walk, and eventually, you’re yourself again.

With terminal cancer there’s no improvement, and each time you confront the worst possible symptoms, more are always on offer, a never-ending supply promising agonies you could not have previously imagined.

iv

To hear some people tell it, angels are all around us. Lincoln spoke about the better angels of our nature, but these people believe actual angels are guiding our lives, their handiwork resulting in what we can only call miracles.

It’s certainly an enchanting notion: our departed loved ones—or unknowable spiritual beings—looking down from heaven, intervening on God’s orders, helping us do what we can’t do for ourselves.

We see evidence each day of the ways our fellow human beings make concepts like angels, heaven, and even hell seem like the only sensible remedy for the evils we inflict. Even if, guided by angels or their influence over our natures, we established a better way to exist, we would still have inexorable setbacks like illness and death—the sorts of circumstances that practically compel divine exegesis.

v.

Question: What would you have done differently?

Answer: I would have brought in hospice much sooner.

Question: Why didn’t you?

Answer: I didn’t realize it was an option.

vi.

Listen: for a country that prides itself on doing so many things so well, America doesn’t handle dying with any particular aplomb. In fact, we are decidedly inadequate when it comes to confronting death, much less embracing dying as a natural process, an opportunity to heal the living.

For more than five years, my family fought cancer. We faced multiple turning points and uncompromised choices. When we finally realized that hospice was an option—and despite the gratitude we collectively feel, in hindsight—the decision to take that step was far from uncomplicated. It obliged us to acknowledge a reality we could no longer elude: the woman we loved was increasingly close to death, and we could do increasingly little about it.

We brought in hospice. We did the research, made the choices, placed the calls, faced our fears.

The hospice nurse who visited us that first morning was calm and kind as my mother sat in the bedroom unable to control her shaking limbs, looking like a child who had been caught shoplifting. Within minutes, the nurse established a bond with my mother. Within hours, she managed to become all things to everyone involved, talking and listening to the rest of us as we sat around the kitchen table, a benevolent vessel who received—and seemingly resolved—every concern about medications, how to communicate (with my mother, amongst ourselves), how to navigate the unfathomable process of helping someone die with as much dignity and peace as possible.

Our nurse was the only hospice worker who visited us—sometimes a hospice doctor will visit as well, or a social worker, or a home health aide—and she was a miracle worker. She managed to console and reassure us at a time when we needed it most: You are doing right by your mother; you are bringing love and serenity to an impossible situation. The contrast between her and the overworked, anonymous nurses we’d dealt with to date had a profound, calming effect. The seemingly simple, heretofore unthinkable access to a consistent, reliable advocate made a difference we could not have articulated only weeks earlier.

That’s what they do, I thought. This is what they do, I say now to anyone who will listen. Hospice helps you help yourself: it’s that simple, that extraordinary.

Hospice workers are angels of death. They help us see dying as natural; they help us to see it as holy. When we’re faced with an impossible situation, we can’t afford to rely on angels we’re unable to see. No divine miracles are necessary, since beings are amongst us who provide the support, comfort, and grace many of us would pray for.

When you or someone you love is confronting a death that will be neither quick nor painless, these ordinary angels can become the embodiment of what God’s envoys usually get credit for. When even the most compassionate doctors and priests are unable to offer more than kind words and empty promises, hospice workers are waiting to step in. And that is as close to a real miracle as we can expect to encounter in this world.

vii.

My mother came into contact with several dozen medical professionals between 1997 and 2002. Her hospice nurse was the only one who came to her funeral. This is what hospice does. This is what hospice is.

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