Saturday, December 31, 2022

Letting Go (Life and Death and Life, Pt. 2)

(Meandering long post below. Either settle in or come back to it. - jrr)

 It's New Year's Eve, 2022. We're fast approaching 2023, which means that a noticeable segment of many media channels will be filled with self-proclaimed pundits bemoaning the past year based on their politics, aesthetics, social life, financial situation, or what have you. But I'm okay with giving 2022 all the time it needs.

My mother died this year. 

This was an unexpected turn. My mother's side of the family has been blessed with longevity for generations, particularly its women. I fully expected that Mom would live long enough to see her potential great-grandchildren. At least another ten years, with fifteen seeming utter reasonable.

Then she started having a pain in her side. It's important to note that my mother had quite an extensive medical history, and hearing about various maladies was just part of the territory. I don't want that to sound cold or insensitive (although maybe it is; I'm still working through that), but merely that a doctor's visit wasn't a particularly big deal on its face. And then suddenly it was...kind of.

Her examination revealed a mass by her liver as the source of her pain. Even then, I still wasn't particularly worried as they scheduled a biopsy. This would be another in a history of problems that weren't as big as they could have been. Life would continue.

The diagnosis said otherwise. It was bile duct cancer, stage four. Google it. It's not good.

How bad? The best case scenario at her age was chemo and radiation, with a fifty per cent chance she would be around an extra six months. But six months from when. Her oncologist said it would be a coin flip on whether she would see Christmas.

We received this news in July. She didn't see Halloween.

I wrote a post in September about the act of burial. Obviously, my mother's remaining time was weighing heavily on my mind, and I wrote that piece with a plan to follow it up here. QED.

Today is my mother's memorial service. I will eulogize my mother, as I did my father. I may or may not bury my mother. She donated her body to science, and my sister and I haven't fully decided yet whether to intern or scatter her remains when they're returned to us. So I can't really extend the burial discussion I opened in my September post, at least not yet.

I have a bias toward profundity. Words mean things. They have always meant things even before they were a meme or a slogan or t-shirt or coffee mug. I grew up with an acute understanding of this concept. My father reinforced this concept throughout my childhood. That's probably another post worth of material at least. I say this to emphasize the effort and precision with which I choose my words, and to underscore the personal importance I place on communicating in a very deliberate manner. Particulary when I perceive the stakes as high. Like now.

The remembrance I wrote for my mother has to serve a number of purposes. It's intended to honor her, and celebrate her as a person. But there's more going on. It's meant to comfort, and explain, and contextualize, and clarify, and synopsize. And then get delivered both in written and oral form. For audiences who both knew her and never met her. It's meant to be sufficiently respectful, considerate, honest, and reverent. It should hold the interest of the audience, but shouldn't be self-serving.

People use words for lots of reasons. They use them for attention, for release, for reward. They use them to encourage, to harm, to incite, to calm, to explain, to obfuscate. They use them to record, to entertain, to agitate, to heal.

I wrote my mother's eulogy to say goodbye. And I failed. Because there was no way I could succeed.

Time marches on, whether we participate or not. I can't keep 2022 around anymore than I could accomplish any other feat of futility. And I can't have my mother alive anymore than I can have my father or the other friends and family I've lost back.

But I can say the things I'm saying for all the reasons I've stated. And as a testament to a point in time.

I want to have just a little more time in 2022. A little more time with Mom. A little more time before goodbye. 

But goodbyes are inevitable, just like time. And I'd rather say goodbye than miss the opportunity to do so.

I was lucky to actually say goodbye to my mother. Some people don't get that chance. If you're one of those people, my heart goes out to you. That's a wound that's hard to close. I know. But as time continues apace, we need to close those wounds. We need to apply balms and ointments and bandages, and heal. We have to prepare ourselves to bring joy and happiness and love and mercy to the other people who are still here, who need us, who deserve smiles and hugs and laughter. And that has to start somewhere. 

And what better time than New Year's Eve?

May your day be full of celebration and reflection. May you lay down old hurts, and reach out for new joys. May you be filled with gratitude, and released from regret. I'll join you in the effort. Tomorrow. 

For today, I still have to let go.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Micro Graces

 Friday afternoon, and I’m on my way to do something I’m conflicted about doing (that will be another post). In a moment of weakness, I stop at a convenience store and grab a soda.

I’ve largely cut out soda from my daily life. I was once a mass consumer of Diet Coke, but I stopped (mostly). Partially out of health concerns; partially because of the cost; and partially because I lost my taste for it.

However, when we’re under stress, we’re often prone to falling back into old habits (at least I am, more often than I care to admit). One soda won’t kill me, I reason. And if it gets me motivated to accomplish the task before me, so much the better.

Inside the store, I make my way back to the fountain. As is often the case, the Diet Coke is coming out oddly. I try it, and the mix is off. I go to the counter, apologize for the ask because they’re a little busy, and ask if they can change out the syrup. One of the clerks heads to the storeroom.

While I’m waiting, a lady is struggling to get lids on her drinks. She makes a comment about the universe working against her. I thought she was perhaps using the wrong size lid, and suggested a different one. When she tried the new lid, it wasn’t the right size, which then sparked her to fit the original lid on her cup. “See?”, I responded. “The Universe just needed me to come make a mistake so it could take you back into it’s good graces.” We laughed, and wished each other a good day.

A few moments later, she came back and handed me two dollars. “Your drink is on me. Have a blessed day.” 

Now ordinarily I would protest something like this. But I’ve learned over the years that if someone wants to give you something, the motivation is often more about them than it is about you. So I said thank you and accepted the gift, because I didn’t want to rob her of the desired context for her act.

I hung out for a bit and got my soda. It was still off, but the problem was likely the nozzle instead of the soda itself and I told the clerk so. I then went to the counter to pay. Behind was someone with several items. I paid for my soda with my phone and then gave the clerk the two dollars. I asked her to put it on the person’s bill behind me, and left the store.

What did the person behind me do? I have no idea. Did they need the money, or even acknowledge it? Again, don’t know and not the point.

I went my vehicle with my soda.

This was really not a big deal, but it made me consider what if we all intentionally tried to train ourselves to do and say little positive things. What if it were natural for us to do nice things, not because of what we get but because of what it might do?

You could argue that I’m extrapolating too much out of this event, and you might be right. However, I’m less concerned with my unwanted task. I feel pretty sure that the person who gave me those two dollars left in a better mood than when I encountered, and I’m thankful for that. And I’m not kicking myself over a soda.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Annual Orbit Musings, Vol. 54

First, thank you to everyone who sent me greetings and well-wishes for my birthday yesterday. Even if the "lift" of making a social post is small, it provides a nice bit of happiness to one's day. Happiness, for at least some of us, is underrated.

I don't need much of an excuse to engage in philosophical musings, as my long-suffering family and friends can attest. Birthdays have always been an occasion for me to indulge those predilections. Yesterday, though, I was coming up empty. I can always say SOMETHING, but these days I prefer to SAY something.

So today I was plugging along at work, and I circled around to a video that caught my eye yesterday that I had intended to watch. Its creator is someone I follow (I have a thing about music theory, even though I'm a rank amateur), and I assumed it would be about a figure from the music industry. Instead, I watched a very personal tribute to a man who could easily be deemed both ordinary and extraordinary.

I catch myself doing a lot of giving these days. That can be tricky, the giving biz. Sometimes we give away more than we should and save nothing for ourselves. Sometimes we give to strangers and come up short providing for our friends and loved ones. Sometimes we place the wrong value on what we give (in both directions). And sometimes we give the wrong things.

Some things, though, should be given in abundance and without reservation.






Enjoy the video. Contemplate the legacy you want to leave, then "Begin With The End In Mind". Be thankful for the people in your life: past, present, and future. And know that I am grateful for each of you.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Life and Death and Life, Pt. 1


Everyone should have to dig a grave.

This is Dolores. Dolores showed up on our doorstep one day and won over Twin One (which frankly wasn't a major achievement, as Twin One auto-melts around most animals). Twin One convinced the House Manager (aka my better half) to feed and water Dolores, as Dolores was both tiny and skinny. The House Manager, despite her toughness, has a soft spot for animals as well, so meals were rendered.

After a couple of weeks, Dolores kept trying to get into the house.

This is Lucy. Lucy was our only cat at the time. We got Lucy before she was finished weaning, so she's always been a little territorial and neurotic. Lucy was very skeptical of Dolores.

This is Jake. Jake gets along with everyone.

So Dolores is in the house, and everyone adapts quickly (except Lucy, but we were expecting that).

The neighbor informs us that Dolores used to belong to some renters a couple of doors down, but they left her behind when they moved. Somewhere along the way, he reaches out to them and tells them we're taking care of her. They then call us to arrange a time to pick her up. I inform them in no uncertain terms that if they cared about her, they never would have left her behind. She is now well cared for and quite content, so they don't need to arrange anything. Dolores will not be going anywhere. They don't put up much of an argument.

 Dolores seems to be taking to the new digs, but she likes the closet in my office, AKA "The Dog Room" (where Jake's crate stays), most of all. Then one day, there's some commotion in the closet:

Yeah, that's not a closet, but you get the idea. Six new additions. The twins are enthralled. Dolores is occupied and committed. Jake is fascinated. House Manager is hard at work making sure all the little ones are placed in quality homes. I just want my closet back.

You may notice in the family photo Dolores has something going on with her lip. More on that later.

Soon, House Manager has all of the kittens placed but one: the run. Twin Two loves the runt (at least in part because he was undersized at the time, as was she). One of the Twins takes to calling the runt Achilles because he has a grey heel (H/T to their excellent school for the Greek mythology reference). Achilles morphed into Heelies, and then eventually into Heels.

This is Heels.

Soon, Heels began to grow. He's a little crazy, vocal, and hyper. He has a lazy eye, and he's a little simple, but he's fun. He also loves his mother...sometimes to the point of overbearance. Actually, often to that point.

Heels gets REALLY big.

This is Heels in a typical cockamamee pose while Dolores is trying to rest. Five minutes peace, Heels; five minutes peace.

Eventually things settle into a rhythm. Even Lucy eventually comes around.

Sort of.

So everyone has an animal at first, but eventually they all start spending time with everyone.

Dolores, however, is constantly trying to go outside. At first, I think she's wild. Then I think she's trying to get some time away from Heels' constant oppression. The House Manager, in her infinite wisdom, tells me Dolores just needs the stimulation of being outside. So we let her go outside, and she lets us know when she's ready to come back in, either by perching on our bedroom window sill and telling us, or by showing up on the front porch at the end of the evening, responding to our calls in a canine manner (truth be told, responding in a superior manner compared to OUR resident canine).

I mentioned her lip before along with the first family photo. After the kids were weaned, we took her to the vet to end her child-bearing obligations. While we were there, the vet informed us that Dolores had what they called a "rat ulcer". The condition is common and requires a round of steroids. No big deal. 

Except the condition never really went away. If we stopped the steroids, the rodent ulcer would come right back. Sometimes we could reduce the dosage and things would stay okay, but flare-ups would come and the vet would tell us to step the dosage back up.

No one could really explain why she had the condition, but we had to hold her and give her a pill most nights. From that vantage point, she was like a little baby, but a little baby who somewhere along the way had broken some teeth, had an encounter with an absentee father who (judging by the size of Heels) was probably double her size, and who had survived an outside existence for some time before we ever met her. Yet she was so agreeable, so smart, and so intuitive. It wasn't that she was domesticated; it's that she was savvy. Dolores was, and had always been, a survivor.

That status notwithstanding, Dolores died this week.

Today, I dug Dolores a grave and buried her. She was the second pet I've buried since our family has been in its current form. The first was unexpected and frankly a blur in my memories. This one, however, will likely stay with me.

I loved that little cat. I'll miss her deeply. But that's not the point.

Like many people, I view life and death as a continuum. Maybe it's a circle. Maybe it's a Mobius strip. Maybe it's a linear progression that just continues beyond the bounds of time and reason. I don't know. Maybe I'll come up with something actually transcendent during meditation or a dream or a drunken conversation or hallucination or while taking a dump. Or not.

But when we bury something (or someone), literally or figuratively, we are affecting a change in status. We are saying, "this person/creature/situation can never be the same as it once was." We then move (in the case of burial, literally) the remains of what once was into a new location. In the ground. In the water. Scattered to the winds. In a container. Mixed with the elements. But gone from the state with which they were previously associated.

And we move them under OUR volition, not theirs. It's an assistance; a send-off; a transference. Some might even call it a new birth. At the very least, it's an evolution, because what they once were is no more. Burial ascribes a new meaning on a being or status, and it's highly individualized and contextual.

When we attend a memorial service, we do so for a number of reasons. To honor the dead. To pay respect to a life and its contents. To support the bereaved. To meet social expectation (although this reason has sadly seemed to wane in modern American society). To face our own mortality. And perhaps to reinforce our own ideas about what happens when we die.

To actually participate in a burial, though, is more. One physically transports the remains. In a physical burial, one opens a space in the earth and places the remains into the earth. In the Catholic tradition, the burial act is part of the Rite of Committal. The body is committed into the earth, and the essence of a being's existence is committed into the hands of the Creator. There's a reason why a buried body is "laid to rest". It's a change of state, and the last thing we can do for a loved one. It is a surrender to helplessness, and yet also a challenge to continue.

Confronting the nature of "goodbye" in both physical and emotional terms is hard. Brutally hard, in some cases. At the same time, it's a recognition of responsibility. We're charged, if only by the sense of appreciation we have for the meaning of a life and the impact that life made on us, with a final act of duty and service and devotion. We put our friends, our companions, our loved ones through the door. And then we close it. And then we continue, carrying that experience with us; making meaning out of a life and the act of saying goodbye.