Tick

Tick tick tick tick. Stay this moment, you are so fair.

The clock ticks along the rhythm of life, the same measured amounts, eternally portioned out one at a time. That is all we have really. This second. It’s a cliché, I know, but how often do we all forget the obvious?

Some years ago, a woman at my church lost her husband. He was a tender, kind man, happy and loved by many. She was very little of those things. She was well loved, but not for any soft qualities. He had cared for her, treating her like a princess for all of their life together but it was not until his illness that she learned to care for him. She learned tenderness by force; learned to tend to someone else by sheer necessity of human need. But she learned well.

He died. We all wept. She was lost.

She, too, was sick and it was only a matter of months before it was obvious that she would not live much longer. Leaving worship one Sunday she said to me. “What is that song, Preacher? One Day At A Time Sweet Jesus? Well, I can barely handle that.” “Sometimes,” I said, “it’s just one hour at a time.”

But I was over generous really. It is only this unforgiving, forward charging minute, this tiny second in which we live.

The day she died I was there along with her entire family. She lay in the bed right next to the big picture window. I had my hand on her head and arm. We all prayed. Her breaths so slow it seemed that time arched out between each one, barely holding them together. I lifted my hand from her head. She breathed out one last time.

We had never gotten along. She had never been sure of “lady preachers” and she wasn’t the sort to temper her tongue with sugar for the sake of peace. I was half acceptable because of my paternal Madison County pedigree. But only half. Her words were often sharp and cut me more than once and, to be fair, it is possible I was not always as kind and gracious to her as I could have been.

And yet here I was, right here at this last second and that at her own bidding. All I could think was to hold tight to these little moments right here. This tiny second. And this. And this and this. And say: stay this moment, you are so fair.

 

‘Stay this moment’ is a quote from the diary of Virginia Woolf. More importantly to me, it is also the title of a book of photography by Sam Abell, my life long favorite photographer.

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Only When It Is Done With You

The truth will set you free. But only when it is done with you.–David Foster Wallace

I love David Foster Wallace. Truly. I read his essay/review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time  called ‘Certainly the End of Something Or Other One Would Sort Of Have To Think’ (Consider The Lobster), and I was hooked. Wallace begins the essay applying the word ‘solipsist‘ to Updike–in my opinion quite appropriately, I might add– and noting that those who hold such a world view feel a particular and rabid fear of death since, from their view, when they die the whole world dies with them. At the conclusion of his lengthy description of both the novel and its parallel to Updike himself, with particular and well nuanced commentary upon the hollow and pretty much pointless misery depicted therein, he remarks again about the main character’s base unhappiness. He concludes with this sentence: “But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”

And that was it. I was in love with David Foster Wallace from that moment on.  Any man who can write an essay using fabulous words like solipsist and also spot and name an asshole when he sees it will win my heart and devotion every time.  It was shortly after this that I found out that Wallace was dead. Not that he had just died, because he committed suicide in 2008 and I read that essay in 2011. But after I had pledged undying adoration to this amazing person I found out that he was already dead and there would be no more writings published from this brilliant mind.

Now, I tell that story not so much because I want to talk about David Foster Wallace but because of something I came across that he said.

“The truth will set you free. But only when it is done with you.” — Infinite Jest

I’ve always believed that first part about the truth setting you free. I really believe it does. The majority of problems I’ve had in my life, and I suspect that I will have from time to time into the future due to the simultaneously delightful and debilitating fact that I am a human being, stem from either telling or believing a falsehood. Not just a lie either, mind you. I’m not just talking about something that is factually incorrect, though that certainly falls into this place as well. I mean all the untruths that we believe, are told, tell ourselves, and others.

I think many people might see a difference between fact and truth. Most of the time, I think of truth as being something that is comprised of facts but is in some way more foundational, more meta, far-reaching, and of greater impact. Truths are communicated in a variety of ways including parables, stories, fables, poetry, art and, of course, facts.

There are the truths that our parents and friends tell us. Some of those are correct and some are not. You probably aren’t truly the smartest kid in the class and you also probably aren’t the fattest girl in town, either. Then there are the truths that we tell ourselves. That everything will be ok if you do everything right. That there is, somewhere, out there, the perfect person for you and if you just keep looking, you’ll find them. Also, that the same holds true for the perfect pair of shoes, car, whatever. That if you breathe into your own hand you can tell if you have bad breath. That Spanks really do make you look two sizes smaller. That this time the direct deposit into your checking account will get there before the last check you wrote. That from a distance no one will notice the cat fur on your clothes. That good people don’t have to suffer. That your parents will live forever. That friends will not break your heart. That Christmas and Easter and birthdays and evening phone calls and great weekends will always be just like this. Forever.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come face to face with some real truths. Everything isn’t always going to be ok even if you did everything right. There is not the perfect whatever out there somewhere because people and things are not perfect, but it is certain that there is a pretty damn good chance at having a really good whatever right here. It’s better to carry mints than wonder and it does not matter how much slimmer Spanks makes you look if you still feel fat. Sometimes checks bounce and sometimes they don’t and yes, they will notice the cat fur. People suffer and that’s the good and the bad people and everyone in between and while some of it can be avoided, none of us can avoid it altogether. Your parents don’t live forever and if you think that you’ve come to grips with the reality that some day your parents will die I suggest that no one really comes to grips with that until they are actually dead because it is never what you think it will be. Not only will friends break your heart, you will break theirs, too, but if you’re lucky you figure out how to still be friends. But there is no guarantee. All of the good things in life never stay the same forever. But neither do the bad.

The truth is, TRUTH is often hard to swallow, much less live with, and it has this annoying way of changing everything it touches. It can sometimes seems better to stick with our not so true truths. But the little fictions we tell ourselves are like blinders that keep us from seeing the real picture of our lives; the flawed, broken and sometimes painful but truly beautiful life. Things are not always what I would like for them to be but there are large swaths of my life that are just running over with joy and it is entirely possible that things could be really good if I let them. Plenty of people have hurt me and broken my heart, but I’ve done more than my share of the same and most of it I wouldn’t undo for the world. David Foster Wallace is dead and, far more importantly, so are several people who meant the world to me or made very significant impacts on who I am. But here’s another truth: I am not dead and every day is a new day.

The truth will have its way with you, like it or not. But it does set you free.

ICU

There is a sort of romanticized myth that everyone is tragically tense, alert and faithfully on the verge of tears when waiting for the recovery and healing of, answers and resolutions for a beloved struggling in the Intensive Care Unit. Reality is that life is far more like Neapolitan ice cream. Multiple flavors in one box….nay, in one scoop….and even if you wanted to, you can never get just the chocolate. There’s always a bit of strawberry in there somewhere, infecting the purity of the chocolate. Such is the nature of the world! All is mixed together and comedy and tragedy dance their respective choreography upon the stage simultaneously. Side by side.

Such was the nature of my world as I sat in the ICU waiting room. My family and friends had departed and the room had been blissfully abandoned save for myself and one other young woman in her mid twenties who had been hounded by her family most of the day. We guarded one another’s precious solitude by brief eye contact and knowing smiles but no conversation. Our mutual respite from chaos was jolted by the addition of three women who were sort of poured into the room together by a police officer. All loud. All upset. All…. Well…. Colorful.

The mother and older of two daughters were blonde. Very blonde. Smelling of cigarette smoke (an aroma readily detectible by one who was in the ICU for her mother with COPD) the two blonde women spoke in raspy, tired voices that sounded as though they had been rode hard and put up wet a few too many times. Immediately, the blonde daughter determined that coffee from the machine in the corner of the room was most vital to the continuation of life and began her best attempt at interpreting the ever so cryptic picture instructions designed so that an illiterate person who does not even speak the language can discern how to make a cup. These well crafted images apparently had not, however, taken into account other types of impairment. Giving up on her ability to lean over to see what to do for fear that she would topple over, she finally just dropped to her knees in front of the machine to see the pictures more clearly and make herself a cup of espresso.

“Espresso,” she said, her voice just traced with whiskey. “That is coffee, right?” She was wearing what could only be described as a type of eveningwear. A spaghetti strap, ankle length number with wide black and grey stripes arranged in such a way as to form repetitive Vs down the dress’ front and back. This double knit polyester garment was completed with a slightly too high split up the side and a too deep v neckline. Certainly, it had been a very glamorous purchase from K-Mart around 1982.

I once presided at a wedding where the mother of the bride wore an almost identical dress. She had come to the wedding straight from her job as a stripper. She was what my mama used to call a “poll dancer”.  Not to worry, though, she had changed out of her work clothes and into her best dress! A dead ringer for this one.

The blond daughter managed to get to her feet without spilling out of her dress or making a face plant on the floor, which was a near miracle, and actually did accomplish getting some espresso into a Styrofoam cup. Along with about six packets of Splenda.  “Well, yeah, that is coffee” the mother responded. “But you gonna get wound up with that!” The bleached and too tan mother was gruff and grumpy but her words had a softened slurryness lent to them by alcohol.

This was the point at which the other daughter drew my attention. She wore a blue work jumpsuit, the kind people wear in a wear house, and a bright blue bandanna on her head like an old fashioned cleaning lady. You could see the very tips of black hair poking like spikes out the back at the tails. She was shouting into her cellphone at her girlfriend about abandoning her in a time of need. She stormed out of the waiting room and continued her dramatic lover’s quarrel in the hallway. The mother and blonde daughter dissolved into giggles at the daughter in blue. “She’s been a bitch ever since she turned gay,” the mother slurred. “I really need a cigarette. Wonder where the smoking patio is?”

The blonde daughter began to dump everything out of her purse looking for nicotine and, finding none, began to devise a plan to get cigarettes from her sister. “She ain’t gonna give you no more! You always bumming cigs off her!” the mom said. “You just wait! I got her number!” her daughter giggled, evidently finding herself to be hilarious.

Throughout all of this, there was no mention at all as to what had motivated their abrupt presence in the ICU waiting room. No conversation about ‘grandma’ or an accident or even a disembodied pronoun. No un-named ‘him’ or ‘her’ barricaded within the rooms across the hall to give a clue as to what brought them here. I wanted to be polite and ignore them but, as my mama used to say, when people are acting like that, they want you to look at them so why not oblige?

The blue daughter came back in, obviously still upset and her sister came over immediately to console her. After a bit of ‘aww’-ing and a few “no way!”s and even one “that little bitch!”, the blonde sister insisted that what would make her feel better was a good smoke. The blue sister played right into her hands and they got up to leave just as the cop came back to get them. “Come on,” he said in a far more patient tone than I would have expected from his expression. The blond daughter leaned over to pick up her purse, stepped on her dress and nearly fell over. The blue daughter was swearing as she answered a text message. The mom pretended to scold them both and then did her very best to stand up straight and not sway as she followed the officer, carefully placing each foot in front of the other as though the floor might be too soft or moving just a bit too much.

Just as the door shut behind them the two sisters began to bicker about how many packs of cigarettes one had given the other over the past few years and their voices were finally shut out by the second set of double doors going into ICU. I looked sideways at my twenty-something friend and we both laughed out loud for just a minute.

A brief moment of entertainment. A respite. “How is your mom?” I asked her. “Better,” she said, “and yours?”

Now, it is three days later and I’m in another ICU waiting room. This one is smaller. I am alone. My mother has died. They are preparing her body now; disconnecting the machines and monitors, closing her mouth, straightening out her legs and arms from her curled position, smoothing the sheets. The path before me looks simultaneously truncated and endless. I look at the elaborate coffee maker in the corner and all the simple pictures start to meld together in some kind of crazy nonsense. Sad and anger and tired and relief also meld together. I do my very best to stand up straight and not sway as I follow the nurse back to the room, carefully placing each foot in front of the other as though the floor might be too soft or moving just a bit too much.

In the end, when Neapolitan ice-cream melts, it’s really nothing but yuck.