More Sketches from “The Here and Hereafter” now “The House of Tomorrow”

March 30, 2014

This is how you check for a pulse . . . Place two fingers, preferably the middle and index finger, on the carotid artery. I had seen it done many times in movies and on television. Police detectives did it, and doctors, murderers, and loved ones. Now I did it. I placed two fingers on my mother’s carotid artery. Her death rattle had ceased, but the throes had taken so long it was hard to tell if her dying was truly over. And my psyche is waiting for the next thing and cannot quite come to terms with permanent cessation, with an ending. My mother’s face is frozen, the eyes fixed in a surprised gorgon’s glare. Check . . . two fingers . . . is there a pulse? Check again, to be certain . . . yes, there is no pulse . . . the energy, the life force, spirit or soul has dispersed, vacated, flown off somewhere, leaving a husk. The body is now much like an abandoned dwelling. “The Remains” takes on a double meaning. There is a palpable sense, and perhaps a vague but mildly guilty relief, of having nothing more to do. The pulse stopped beating only moments ago, belonged to the person who’d made my life possible 56 years ago. I would not be here if it had not been for her, and now she’s not here, and I think of holding each of my children seconds after they were born, and there are no words that adequately limn these passages into and out of being—into here and gone. This is the mirrored other end. That much is clear.

Back on the web site on Spaceship Thanatos®, I discover more of Bud Wood’s creative thoughts, and mine too, kind of like rummaging around in a flea market. Some thoughts flash up from the depths momentarily and allow themselves to be weighed, pondered, contemplated, examined while being rotated under brighter light, the light of plausibility, and they will then be dismissed with further analysis and scrutiny, many simply unworthy of jotting down in a notebook to be filed for future reference. This process usually takes no more than several seconds, occasionally a little longer. There are too many of them to enumerate. Then there are the thoughts that are possibly seeds or kernels of something grand and larger, and they compete with others and demand more of your attention. These thoughts are not blown away like so much chaff scattered across the golden prairie because they are not permitted to escape, though many unfortunately still do, usually because the process needed to nurture them beyond the initial burst is interrupted in a social setting or through some other distraction like work or paying bills or having to drive kids to the dentist or a little league game. These grains, these germs of something more important, are truly meant to be seized, pinned down like a butterfly on a sheet of foam core, and in the giant flea market of our browsing we will encounter them often, possibly written down and filed and periodically revisited to be mulled over, perhaps more than a note, maybe with a sketch or two—a mental fragment, a scene or character, some dialogue . . . and most of these are also never realized, they are lightly toyed with and then forgotten, left in gestation, permanent fetuses never aborted, or embryos or stem cells. We file, we forget, we work on something else, but we also know that some of these embryos are worthy of more development and maybe of being born. A few will be delivered, or at least delivery will be attempted, and the selection of which ones to bring into the world is often torturous and elusive, but not always. Even when engaged in a single creation for a long time, a creation that consumes you and requires slavish devotion, you may still look back at some of these ideas with regret that you had never tried them, and you vow to spend time on one of them as soon as you finish what you’re currently working on—that is if you ever finish what you are currently working on. But then the selection process can be much simpler when one of these seeds persists, will not settle for being an idea in a notebook, but instead new and wonderfully strange rings or layers will begin to form around it, bringing early mass or shape or a rich and varied tapestry that will start to slowly weave itself from a random thread or two, and you will follow, at first intrigued or merely amused at the new life blossoming inside your skull, but then becoming obsessed with this life, with this world, agonizing over it, and perhaps ultimately confronting the monster head-on in the forge of creation. And sometimes the work, however completed in the mind will never emerge to fuse with the real world, to be judged, praised, adored, mocked and laughed at, dismissed, reviled, banned, or any combination of these, or hopefully a lasting magnum opus whose bones are picked over for years to come and provide material for countless theses . . . but without skill the most compelling ideas may wind up feces.

The day of the surgery to remove half his lung, I drive my father to University of Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s a Thursday and Thursdays are heavily scheduled for lung surgeries, a kind of lung surgery factory—albeit in a highly reputable university hospital. As I am leaving the hospital that morning, the nursing staff informs me that I’ll contacted when my father is out of surgery, probably around dinner time. But I don’t receive telling me he’s out of surgery until around until around 9:00 PM. It is mid-June. I drive back to the hospital and step into a scene of human wreckage where patients have undergone major surgery to possibly extend their lives. I see good being done here, lives being saved, but at what cost? Movable beds and gurney, IVs’, chrome and stainless steel, lines, but I am most stunned by the smell and especially the sounds: groans and pleas and anger and shock and fear and talk thick with morphine and the big hum and bleeps of monitors and saline solution drips. (He’s not coming back. I’m not coming back. None of us will ever come back).

He recognizes me and I’m not sure if anyone in my life had ever been so glad to see me in that moment, and he’s my father, and it’s good to see him in post-op recovery, but he is also wiped out, exhausted, and drained in a way that’s unsettling. As fraught with relief and a guarded optimism that this moment has to offer I realize his death in the same moment. He’d been careless with his body, indulging a tobacco habit that would ultimately kill him, aided by the toxic environment of paper mills where he’d worked since his late teens up until a few years ago. Forty years in paper mills and smoking for close to half a century. He is 61. Seeing him here, groggy, disoriented, bantering with the black nurse and trying to make light of having just lost half a lung (his pact for two or three extra years), will be the official start of him dying. And I need to be here for him . . . I need to witness and understand.

I had a dream a week after he died. In the dream he was driving a black hearse and pulled along the curb on the side of our house, and ushered me in. I was ordered to sit in the back seat directly behind him, staring at the back of his head the entire time we drove. I never once saw his face. I looked at the rear-view mirror where I knew his face should be, but it was empty, no reflection. I felt shame and foreboding staring at the back of his head. The dream imagery was reminiscent (or influenced by?) a scene out of Cocteau’s Orphee’ where the chauffeur, Heurtebise, summons Orpheus into the hearse and they drive past a checkpoint at the entrance to Hades, and once in Hades the black-and-white film appears in reverse and the car radio emits cryptic repetitious messages in tones sounding like civil defense warnings.

I was glad to have taken care of my will sometime last November with my attorney Lee Oswald. In the will my literary estate was to be decided upon by four people: My wife Claudia, another writer friend and collaborator, my oldest son Roc Borja, and my brother. Not only did each one of them bring to this decision process a unique esthetic and critical bias regarding my writing and decades of friendship, familial ties and intimacy, each one also had a stake in my legacy, not that there would be any big money involved from the sale of a work, but one never knows—Life (and the afterlife) are full of strange surprises. My will contained a clause stipulating the fate of any work would require a 3-to-1 majority among the four people chosen. And there would be four possible outcomes or fates for a given work:
1. Try to publish the work posthumously
2. Save the work unpublished as a family curiosity—an “heirloom.”
3. Use the work as basis for a film or TV or internet project.
4. Trash or burn the work because it is so embarrassingly and egregiously bad that it should never see the light of day, and I would have trashed given work myself but unfortunately did not get to it in time.
A 3-to-1 ruling struck me as ideal. It would override any question of a 2-2 split, and a 2-1 majority among 3 trustees I thought a little tenuous. I also favored the idea of using those works that appear finished but may not have been publishable as a basis for film or TV, and one of these trustees was a filmmaker too. So Option 1 required line editing for publication and Option 2 may or not be edited at the discretion of the trustees and their decision as to who would salvage said work. Option 3 required something more than manuscript editing as said work would be entirely made over to suit an electronic medium, and Option 4 would only require a working shredder. The will also contained what I considered a “sentimental” clause where, if it were obvious that one of my works had been dedicated to, or written for, one of the literary trustees, then ownership of said work would by default inhere to said trustee and the 3-to-1 majority rendered null and void in that single instance of extenuation. The “sentimental” clause may understandably create a certain amount of conflict among the trustees given their interpretation or deconstruction of said text, and again the will provided a sub-clause, more loosely worded and construed than the “sentimental” clause that under no means would a trustee immediately take ownership of a work unless it was unanimously agreed upon by all trustees that said work was written for or about said trustee.

Early evenings are usually her best time. After dinner she watches TV and I watch TV with her. It is June, already too warm and muggy, especially in the high-rise apartment that lacks any window except in the single bedroom. The main room has a sliding glass door with a screen but most of the time now my mother wants the door closed because of the noise outside. When the room begins feeling too claustrophobic and I need air, I step through the sliding door and stand on a small balcony. The building is on Prospect Avenue, one of the most elevated streets in Hackensack where the Piedmont fall line runs through, and the view up here at night is impressive, maybe beautiful, with the plain of glittering lights and the illuminated bridges that press against the wall of the Manhattan skyline. But there is also a touch of alienation in the anonymous lights, a sterile loneliness not unlike the made bed in her bedroom where I will sleep because my mother has to sleep in the living room on a hospital bed. I am less than 10 feet from her the whole time, but she seems miles away, asleep mostly. The myriad lights of Hackensack, Teaneck, Fort Lee pulse and sparkle. My mother calls my name. She needs me to lift her onto the portable toilet.

In the morning I wake her and lift her near weightless body into the wheelchair and move the chair as close to our breakfast table as possible. A TV morning news show might be on in the background, or maybe not. We drink cups of weak chock-full-o-nuts coffee with whole milk and glance at the newspaper headlines and talk. Less interested in the coffee, my mother has orange juice and a piece of toast. She inhales from a small purple disk labeled “Advair.” There are pill bottles and other medications arrayed along the table. There is the wheelchair and the gurney, and linens and the bed pan. A patch of sun spills through the balcony French doors and makes a pale block on the taupe living room carpet . . . this is what the end of a life looks like . . . sometimes . . . much of the time. . .

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