Friday, June 21, 2013

Roof Landing

Himself is packed up and headed off to the Palisades for a week. My alma mater is hosting an alumni seminar on Death in Philosophy and Popular Culture. Himself isn't an alum but as the husband of one and the father of a current student he is welcome. Himself's dissertation was on the subject of purgatory in Middle English literature. The professor emeritus who's designed the program writes to tell me that he can't wait to discuss purgatory. Bully for him. I planned to attend myself, as some of the less arcane content (the popular culture as opposed to the philosophy) is quite up my alley, but I am unable to leave town due to my ongoing real estate negotiations. The final schedule arrives this week. For the first sessions participants will discuss their own personal experiences with death. “At length” is emphasized. Another session is devoted to Derrida and Foucault. Hours on the phone with the realtor suddenly doesn't look so bad. Himself will be gone for our anniversary and his birthday but celebrating these occasions a few days late is no real hardship. It's been a while since we've had a break from each other. The dynamic changes when the household shifts from four to three and it will be nice to have some time myself with the kids, especially with Spuds outbound in fewer than six weeks. Himself and I are both so beaten into submission it's nice once in a while to have a few days apart and reunite reminded anew of why we got married in the first place.

Richard, one of my closest friends, is a necrologist, keeping careful records of celebrity deaths. He scrupulously maintains a Last Gasp list of movie stars over age ninety and those rumored to be terminally ill. My competition has dwindled over the years, down to just me and my own kids, but anyone who is the first to announce the demise of a personage on the last gasp list earns a prize of one dollar. This week I leave a message regarding Slim Whitman. Joe College texts me in a panic. “James Gandolfini died and I can't get in touch with Uncle Richard!” Neither Whitman nor Gandolfini are on the Last Gasp list but even when there is no dollar on the line, the glory of being first informant, in and of itself, is gratifying.

I believe that death is the end of consciousness and the potential to experience joy or suffering or anything at all. I am afraid of experiencing pain. I am afraid of inflicting pain on loved ones. I am afraid that unlike my meticulous mother, my own affairs are in nightmarish disarray. I won't know what I'm missing when I'm gone but I feel obliged to get it together and make preparations to insure that aftermath of my demise is as uncomplicated as is possible for the sake of my survivors. I am devoted to postponing this inevitability in any way that is in my power. But my power only goes so far in a mercurial and random universe. It especially unsettles me when someone younger than I, to wit Gandolfini, suddenly drops dead.

My mother referred to her own death constantly and in a threatening manner. “You better treat me right or you'll be mighty guilty when I kick the bucket.” I think she would have been felt dealt a short shrift with the amount of guilt I actually did suffer when she passed away. Four years of navigating her dementia balanced out my youthful cruelty a bit. I never did have a chance to tell her that I understand now about the constant worry a mom has about her kids. This doesn't really diminish with age. I always felt her cautions implied I was incompetent. Now however, when I remember my young adult hubris and know how much lousiness there is out in the world, I get it. Writer Sylvia Boorstein, Zen practitioner/Jewish mother describes how easy it is to become wildly uncentered when there is a call on in the middle of the night and the quavering voice on the other end begins, “Mom...”.

I chastised Mom for being hung up about tidiness and the Joni Mitchell line, “Papa's faith is people. Mama, she's always cleaning,” played on a mental endless loop during my adolescence. Now I understand how much more time I have to stretch out on the couch and watch crap TV when things are put back where they belong and I don't have to waste time tearing up the house looking for stuff. I appreciate how nice it is to return to a pleasant and orderly home. I return from a workday to a living room strewn with shoes and empty glasses. The TV is cranked up and summertime kids loll on the couch. My own mother screamed when after working all day she returned to find me lazing around, having trashed the house. I say nothing, remembering the deliciousness of teenage summertime chill. The kids will have many years to clean and fuss. But honestly, what is it to put your friggin' shoes away or rinse a glass and throw it in the dishwasher? And Joni, I also have less faith in people.

Rover approaches my desk and pats my thigh to announce it's time for his walk every morning at 10:30 sharp. It takes him about a week to adjust to Daylight Savings Time but then he gets right back on schedule. He will keep patting me until I take his leash and follow him to our research area. He approaches a researcher and then pats his thigh. Then Rover turns around and waits for his butt to be gently scratched with a pair of scissors. Sometimes the boys can't lay hands on the scissors and will use a letter opener or screwdriver instead but this is not acceptable and Rover stands glowering until the scissors are located, he is scratched properly and we can head out on our way.

We walk the same route every day. Usually this is a pleasant time for a bit of reflection. Lately though I am all consumed by environmental inspections and contingencies. My mother told me never to wish for time to pass more quickly. I believe this is good advice but it is difficult these days to heed. I can't wait until I can let go of all the underground storage tank and geophysical survey information that crams my brain. I am desperate not to have to think about carrybacks and triple net. Rover's pace is slow now and I have more time to chew around these problems. A helicopter hovers low and lands on the roof of the Children's Hospital. I don't believe in a God that showers me with signs and symbols. I do think that if I retain faith in and respect for whatever the heck it was that made me be, I am better equipped to make interpretations that meet my needs. Humbled, the real estate noise in my head becomes muted. There is no more potent symbol of fear and misery than a helicopter on the roof of Children's Hospital.

Nevertheless, the realtor calls when I return to the office. Strategies. Compromises. Counter offers. After over two months we are both weary. He senses how brittle I've become. He's taken to texting me, “Try to get a good night's sleep. Everything will be OK.” I know that everything will be OK but the fact that decisions being made right now will have a huge effect on our future is scary and agitating. I do try to sleep and my activity monitor has me at well over five miles walked nearly every day. My dad used to say, “The most important thing is your health,” and I'd call him an old fart. Now I take fistfuls of vitamins and supplements and walk and watch what I eat. Despite the crisis du jour I feel stronger and more fit at age 56 than I ever have in my life.

Tuesday morning I find an enormous hard lump in what I will demurely refer to as gynecological territory. Farrah Fawcett immediately comes to mind. The only thing worse than cancer I guess is cancer emanating from an embarrassing body part. My doctor squeezes me in and I drive through rush hour to Beverly Hills, mentally composing instructions to the family about managing various affairs, including the conclusion of the nightmare building sale, in case the news is bad. The diagnosis is a cyst and if my longtime doctor and friend wouldn't have teased me unmercifully I would have wept with joy at this news. Rather than face another interminable trip to Beverly Hills, I ask her to excise the lump on the spot without anesthesia. This sounds very butch but the pain is minimal. I return home and continue to talk late into the night with the realtor. The parents of the kid in the helicopter on the roof of Children's Hospital would switch places with me in a heartbeat. My own problems rate very low on the worldwide scale of woe. Nevertheless, these negotiations will effect my own family and my employees and their families too for years to come. I strive for perspective. How different tonight's Shabbat would be if my doctor had ordered a biopsy. How thankful I am not to have this to distract me from the building sale. I will, as Mom advised, not let myself wish for time to hurry on. I have both kids at home. This will be rarer and rarer. Even the most convoluted real estate deal ever in human history would make me want to accelerate the time I have being a mom with the kids, sloppy and lazy as they are, close at hand.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Just back from dinner w/ said Johnstonians, after which we introduced ourselves. All ten preceded me and all spoke with pride of J. and their mentors such as the host. I followed with duly having married into the set, so to speak, and attesting to the pride we share in our son's experience.

Being a Buffalo clearly teaches one to think with more confidence and self-motivation, and to gain (we hope) more insight. I cannot imagine a lot of alumni flocking from where I've taught and matriculated to chat about mortality in philosophy and American pop culture. The instructor's interests are very broad and this will appeal more than the "pitch" might let, albeit to a small audience. I thought of the connection this week when James Gandolfini, a few months younger than me, died, and the last episode of "The Sopranos" which I never saw but I know about: a fitting end although an unpopular one to a series, let alone anyone's life, but to me, an honest depiction. Americans don't want to confront the possibility of a blackout. "Heaven is For Real" and "Proof of Heaven": bestsellers for years now.

The fact that nearly half (some share my own bafflement how Heidegger and Derrida--let alone Freud whom I've never been impressed by) of the participants (with three more due soon to join us) express delight in tackling such thinkers and the others even if skittish trust their colleagues and teacher to guide them, is inspiring. One young man just graduated, while others are from the start of Johnston, but over generations, they affirm they can benefit from a week confronting death. I still have never seen a human die, I've reflected, while many spoke at the table of seeing their parents, siblings, or a husband die recently. One woman came to this seminar after being encouraged by a friend who now is dying after suddenly finding out she has a cancer of the brain.

I was heartened to note the teacher's wife will be discussing the death of animals too, as that is overlooked. I agree with her that watching animals suffer and die is harder, as we want to speak to them and hear them to comfort them in their own existential plight. Her own growing up in L.A. as the daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors and the fact she got her PhD from UCLA in English a few years before me (we overlapped but never met) adds to the interest I hope I can find in this seminar, among finals of my own to grade and the reading list.

The house: built 1892, moved here from L.A. 1928. Still a Methodist retreat, after the founders of Pacific Palisades who dreamed of a Christian community here until the Depression hit. Hard to believe this elegant manse once was surrounded by fields and not condos, highways, and Gelson's. I wish I heard the ocean a mile away and not the endless Temescal Canyon traffic, but such is L.A. I wonder if Buerge Chapel is any connection to the farm on Lugonia Ave. I saw, struggling to survive in Redlands as tracts now surround it too? Unlike perhaps the Inland Empire nowadays, nice air, though. Enjoy your stint with cold meals and t.v.

Shabbat me