I’ve been avoiding writing about something that’s prominent in my life right now. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t know what to say, or if it’s because I don’t want to think about it. Or both, which seems most likely.
What’s that something? In a word: Grief.
Oddly, the sorrow that lurks around the edges of my days is not about what you might think: Richard’s brain cancer. Although that’s dominated our lives for 13 months now, I’m feeling pretty upbeat about his health, despite what the statistics say about surviving Grade 4 tumors. He’s generally healthy, his spirit is strong, and he has an amazing outpouring of love and support and positive energy in all sorts of forms coming his way. I’ve defied the odds on my own particular health for more than half of my adult life now, so it seems perfectly possible to me that he can too.
The grief that sometimes threatens to send me under is centered on two things, one which may seem superficial in the face of everything else, and another which is so implacable I can’t get a real fix on it.
The first is my winter “Words to Write By” workshop on Isla Espiritu Santo off Baja California. When I returned from last year’s week on the island where sere rust-red cliffs sprouting tree-sized cacti plunge into an azure blue sea exploding with flying fish and plankton-feeding whale sharks, arcing dolphins and dinghy-sized sea turtles, I vowed to come back and bring Richard. (He couldn’t join the group last year because he was undergoing daily radiation treatments.)
Starting my computer each morning, I was reminded of my vow by the photo above, the strait where we kayaked with sea turtles. It serves as the background for my virtual desktop. On my digital camera, eight of my favorite photos from the trip (including the cactus with wildflowers at the beginning of the post) live on as another a reminder. A small paper-mache sea turtle from a La Paz artist sits on a shelf where we keep special things, along with a dolphin carved from abalone shell, also from Baja.
Where’s the grief? We’re not going. The trip didn’t attract enough participants by the deadline for reserving Baja Expeditions’ wonderfully comfortable, catered eco-camp on the island. I agonized over the decision for a week, and hated having to tell those who had reserved spaces that it was not to be. Most of all though, I hated to let go of the dream of sharing enchanted Isla Espiritu Santo with Richard. That hurts, but I’ll get over it. And I haven’t given up hope of making it happen someday.
The other source of grief is more difficult to write about: my 79-year-old mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in early September. The disease not only relentless, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to affect its “progress.” (That’s progress in the medical sense, which usually means, “get steadily worse,” surely an ironic use of the word.)
For the past year and some, my intellegent, well-read, interesting, and loving mom (that’s her in the photo above, posing by the snowbanks at Mt. Lassen National Park on her honeymoon) has been showing flashes of confusion, forgetfulness, anxiety, and an odd kind of distance from the family she raised, as well as from the larger world she has been so passionately involved in all my life. Sometime this past spring, I picked up a novel at random in a bookstore, started reading, and felt a shiver go down my spine. I saw my mother in Still Alice, the tale of a Havard professor’s life as she descends into Alzheimer’s. Uh oh, I said to myself.
Uh, oh, indeed. My mom is still intellectually curious, eager to hear the news of our lives–over and over again, since she often forgets what she’s asked a few minutes before. I know she’s still concerned about us. But… she’s distant in some way that’s hard to explain. When we headed for Santa Fe for my birthday weekend, I fretted that she would be upset that we weren’t spending that weekend with her and my dad. Not to worry. When I called to report that we were home, she asked why we had gone.
“It was my birthday weekend,” I said.
“You had a birthday,” she said. “How nice!”
That from the woman who for more than half a century has never missed celebrating her kids’ birthdays. Who has always sent presents, cards, even checks when we were broke. Who would break out singing “Happy Birthday” in public places with no apparent embarrasment.
“You had a birthday. How nice…”
She’s still my mom, and as she’s said more than once, she’s “not gone yet.” True. But she’s going somewhere I can’t see, and may not want to know. That’s hard, and it’s probably not going to get better. No one would chose this journey, but we don’t get to choose. So here we go…