Who knew…

so many people wanted to do this. Always wanted to do it, ever since reading about the main character in Katherine Harrison’s Exposure doing it. Not a bad read…she did a nice job with all of the photography correlations. Better than the kiss and tell memoir that caused such a stir. Not about nothing, obviously…incest is never just nothing. But she’d done a better job with the subject in Thicker Than Water. Fiction is much more flexible for secrets.

My mother is a retired nurse. She was never more vibrant, alive and connected than that time when she was caretaking. She doesn’t say much about it anymore, but it was, I believe, her lifeline at the time. She worked pretty much straight through her pregnancies; in fact, working a shift and returning later that day to give birth to the fifth child (there were six of us…whew!). You’d think she’d have enough to do with six kids on her hands, one of them a special needs child, but I think work was an outlet and a connection to the outside world. She’d stay on a good hour later after her shift, catching up with the other nurses relieving her.

Her favorite ward, by far, was the pediatric ward. Especially the nursery. She loves babies, still does. I think she enjoyed the prenatal period up until the first year the most as a mother, and that might be one of the reasons she went on to have six kids…and wanted to keep going. Gah!

Her least favorite….was taking care of  the cancer patients. She’d get this pained, haunted look on her face when describing the expressions some of them passed away with. Which would explain everything a good twenty years later when faced with the reality of my cancer stricken sister’s fate, she went into stubborn, and sometimes even childish, denial.

My first broken heart was handed to me not by a boy, but rather, the sudden passing of my father due to an accident when I was  fourteen, at a time when the heart typically starts the elastic process of romantic elation and deflation. No boy would hurt me as much as that loss, ever, after that.

But I’ve sort of been surrounded by the issue of death since early childhood, through my mother’s  family. They have this strange and morbid fascination with death. I can remember at six or seven years old, listening in on their conversations about the specifics, and of preparations and funerals at family picnics, of all things. They’d get, some of them, this funny look in their eye that made you wonder. Every time I come home, there’s always animated conversation about recent and not so recent passings, calling hours, monument locations, and inevitablely, those  poor souls at death’s door. When I’m captive in this conversation, I can’t help imagining invisible feelers twitching atop of whomever’s head, like an insect’s, only these antennae’s signals are dedicated exclusively to the morbidity frequency. Most of the time, it’s a source of comic relief between my siblings and I…it’s the only way we can make any sense of it. I haven’t found out the defining origin of this obsession. And I don’t know where my mother fits into it, though it would be interesting given her proximity to life and death realities in her professional life.

My own experience and attitude regarding death is muddy and fluctuates, depending upon my proximity and relationship to the affected. When it came time for my mother to say goodbye to her own mother, I went into protective mode and went out of my way to assume tasks during my grandmother’s care at home in order to spare my mother as much as possible. And to my surprise, it was actually a life enrichening experience to help someone in need….and to just be there for them as they went where we all will go, when we do. I came away thinking that death  was just another corridor to pass through, not an end.

But it did little to prepare me for my sister’s passing. I was just too close. Last week, I received in my Myspace account, a query from an old friend of my late sister’s, someone she grew up with during an intense period of our lives. It’s been two years. And I still felt a full on anxiety attack coming on, just staring at the screen for a good five minutes, not even sure of exactly everything I was feeling. Deep breaths came along and numbed it all out and I spent a good afternoon contemplating my response.

Someone who knew my sister didn’t know she was gone. And I had to tell them. And with that came thoughts I had not wanted to think about for a long time. Perhaps like my mother and the cancer patients. In the end, it was a relief and a balming salve, to talk about my feelings and my sister with someone who knew her and loved her.

I am very fortunate to have carried and delivered life during the intense two years of my sister’s illness. Through it all, and especially now, it’s been a comfort and a gentle affirmation.

Still life moves.


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November 2006
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