Saturday, February 02, 2008

Strange days

Nine years ago as my mother lay dying in an upstairs room at Adelaide's Memorial Hospital, with a formal rose garden under her window and the scent of it coming in through the curtains on a warm wind, a fey Irish nurse leaned over her and gazed into her unconscious face. 'What are you waiting for?' she murmured to my mother.

It was my father's 72nd birthday, and my mother was probably waiting for midnight, so he wouldn't have to live whatever was left of his life remembering her death on his birthday. He hasn't, either; she died early the next morning, just before dawn.

At 81 my dad is still going strong, after having said over the cake and candles on his 80th last year 'Right: now I'm striking out for 85.' Last night the family was out for a birthday dinner, and we went back to his place for coffee and the cake I'd baked, and a very nice chocolate affair with silver cachous and candles it was too, inspired by the birthday cake that Suse from Pea Soup baked recently for one of her boys.

So every year it's celebratory cake and champagne with my dad on the evening of his birthday, and then waking up the next morning to the anniversary of my mother's death. I'm still not used to it.

Elsewhere has a great post here about the 'death-day', and the weirdnesses of mourning and grief. I've spent the day feeling mutedly sad and a bit ill, distracting myself by having a nap and reading Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men instead of getting on with the work novels, doing the housework, and/or preparing for the writing workshop I have to teach on Monday afternoon.

Given the death-saturated subject matter of the McCarthy novel (my friend D, who will never see the movie because she hates violence on the screen -- over the years we've seen several movies together that have made her clap her hands over her eyes and hiss 'Tell me what's happening!' -- delivered a spirited disquisition this morning over our usual Saturday coffee on the excellent press the movie is getting, and the weirdness of the fascination in popular culture with psychopathic killers and the proof it provides that America 'is a death culture'), it was inevitable that the novel would resonate repeatedly with my own personal Day of the Dead.

And in a book full of eminently quotable moments, this one from the musing, apprehensive Sheriff Bell was particularly resonant, given what day it is:

... the dead have more claims on you than what you might want to admit or even what you might know about and them claims can be very strong indeed. Very strong indeed.

He's right. I should have done the housework. As an offering.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Haven't read the novel - so far - but having seen the movie it seems to me you are very close to the nub of the matter.

Fargo always reminded me of Old Testament tales of crazy venality and divine retribution via human agency. 'No Country' is - I think - a deeper, richer movie. Interesting that so many people are more disturbed by its ending than by its violence. I suspect that this points to something fundamental, though just what that might be is elusive.

My death day comes in a few weeks. My father - who still exercises claim on my dream world - died in hospital a dozen years ago. My mother slept through his death, and was woken by nurses fussing over his body. I wish your mother's nurse had been there - she may have had the words to ease my mother's lingering disquiet.

The Feral Abacus

Another Outspoken Female said...

For my family it is my brothers death day (nov 1), birthday (dec 7) and then xmas. Those two months are littered with emotional landmines. The rest of the year just carries the odd sniper, an unexpected burst of grief bought on by some innocuous trigger. I've figured out I can't outsmart it anymore, just have to go with it when it hits and that the sadness, as much as the sweet memories, are all part of honouring him.

Reading Elsewhere's post made me spew out a lot of memories (sorry Elsewhere).

I hope the next month is bearable for you. For such a shared family and cultural experience, grief is so paradoxically intimate and lonely.

kate said...

The birthdays and anniversaries don't get to me the way the random reminders do. Perhaps because I prepare for birthdays and anniversaries, and clear the calendar somewhat. Hot air balloons flying over the city I have no control over, and they make me weepy. Except for the times they make me smile. It's a bit funny like that.

I tend to do gardening on the death days. Then there are the big family dinners, and my sister's friends all turn up to catch up with us.

What I don't like, for anyone who's wondering, are text messages from people who are thinking of me. Because they make me cry in the supermarket. I no longer read text messages in public on death days.

Anthony said...

When we finally got my dying Dad from the nursing home to the hospice for the dying, an Irish nurse said to me 'He needs to go to God' and she was right: but he was never one for quick decisions and he was going to take his time over this one. Going on summer holidays he'd spend an hour checking window locks and doors and plumbing and so on: if that's what it took to leave the house, god knows he wasn't to leave this world.

Two weeks later his breathing changed and I called in a nurse who felt his toes and said 'Yes, he's taken another step down the path' and within twenty minutes he was dead.

Two and a half years earlier I'd seen my son born and now I saw my dad die. Amazing, limit, experiences both. Afterwards I thought of the women whose job it was to oversee these experiences. After the birth I thought of the midwife going home to her shared house/family and them asking 'What did you do today?' and her answering 'I brought someone into the the world'. And after dad's death I thought of the hospice nurse going home and being asked by her household 'And what did you do today' and her answering 'I helped someone to die'. And I think my work could never amount to that.

Meredith said...

Thanks for this post, I think it's very true, especially as I've just read about Brainhell's death and feel very sad.

When my Uncle Ted was lying unconscious, a nurse came and yelled in his ear "Let go Ted, Let go!"

genevieve said...

It's tough, having two tugs on the heartstrings like that at once. Take care, PC.

Suse said...

An emotional see saw of a week.

I hope the cake helped.

Kathleen said...

Our death day for Dad is also in a few weeks - 10 years, this year - and it's the day after my brother's birthday (which, like your mum, I think my dad was sitting out). We're never quite sure what to do. So far we (my mum, my sister and I) have always taken a day off work and gone for a nice lunch up where my parents had their honeymoon. Now Mum thinks she'd rather do that on their wedding anniversary, which I can understand.

But, as you say, PC, you're still left with the day itself. It's like there's a stone weighting down that part of the map of our lives: everything sinks towards it.

Elsewhere007 said...

Moving post, PC. It's strange that consideration for partners that the dying manifest -- my father waited till my mother and his sister had left the room to die. The nurses said it wasn't uncommon, even for those in a coma, to avoid hurting those closest to them.

I really like Fargo for the Frances MacCormack (sic?) character, esp the scene when she comes home to her waiting 'Penelope' at the end. I'm yet to see _No Country_.

Cast Iron Balcony said...

I know that hospital and that rose garden.

Only time helps. I know that's not much help at the moment :-)

Bwca said...

If you did not LOVE your mother, the day would have no effect on you at all, so please think of it as a LOve Day.
On the November Day Of The Dead the families all visit the cemetery at night and picnic on the graves and have a happy time.