Archives for the month of: May, 2014

It never ceases to reassure and to uplift me that, no matter what I am feeling or thinking, there is a poem and a poet out there who can put words and closure to my circular thoughts.

I hope to move home shortly. My daughter and I have not been here long, around six years, although they have been very important ones in terms of her growningupness and my role as a mostly peripheral witness and occasional invited guest to this most transformative and wondrous of ‘sociological processes’…

Now, it is time to move on, and we are both keen to find a different space. Yet leaving and moving are complex events and emotions are inevitably mixed, with hope sitting alongside sadness, and optimism tinged with fear and with a sense of loss.

The Irish poet Brendan Kennelly movingly considers the tensions that exist between memories and the places they inhabit, as well as the essence of memories, personal relationships, and the transient and finite nature of it all, or not…

 

We Are Living

 

What is this room

But the moments we have lived in it?

When all due has been paid

To gods of wood and stone

And recognition has been made

Of those who’ll breathe here when we are gone

Does it not take its worth from us

Who made it because we were here?

 

Your words are the only furniture I can remember

Your body the book that told me most.

If this room has a ghost

It will be your laughter in the frank dark

Revealing the world as a room

Loved only for those moments when

We touched the purely human.

 

I could give water now to thirsty plants,

Dig up the floorboards, the foundation,

Study the worm’s confidence,

Challenge his omnipotence

Because my blind eyes have seen through walls

That make safe prisons of the days.

 

We are living

In ceiling, floor and windows,

We are given to where we have been.

This white door will always open

On what our hands have touched,

Our eyes have seen.

 

Brendan Kennelly

The Spanish-Argentinian writer’s most recent novel has three narrators, 10 year old Lito, his mother Elena and his father Mario. Mario is dying, and the three contemporaneous voices tell the story of this experience from their own personal perspectives, the stories sometimes running in parallel, sometimes tangential. This is a wonderful book, which somehow manages to capture in just 160 or so pages the individuality and the heterogeneity of our approaches to life, heightened here in the face of dying and death.

We are first introduced to Lito as he embarks on a road trip with his dad. Mario wanted to do this trip with his son, at least once, just like his own father had once done with him. Mario is clearly already very ill, and just about manages to complete the journey. There are no deep and meaningful father-son chats during the trip. The opposite in fact, as Mario has deliberately chosen not to tell Lito that he is dying, or even that he is seriously ill. Later, when Mario has been admitted to hospital for the last time, Lito is sent to his grandparents. From here, Mario, at this point very near death, questions whether keeping his son in the dark has been the right thing to do:

‘you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son?, yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am, I prefer you not to see me like this…’

Instinctively, one feels that the lies were a mistake, but it perhaps easy for someone outside the tragedy within which the family find themselves to make a cold-blooded judgement call. Lies beget more lies, which become increasingly complex and entangled the longer they are allowed to continue. After his father’s death, which Lito has been told was the result of a road traffic accident, Elena reports:

‘He asks me how such a big truck could get crushed. I tell him sometimes big things break more. He asks me why Pedro [his father’s truck] looks the same as before, if he had such a big accident. I tell him his uncle did a really good job fixing him up in the workshop.’

Mostly, Lito’s voice is simply that of a 10 year old child, caught in the reality of his own day to day life, which is, at least until the moment of his father’s death, uncomplicated by anxieties for the future, and still in possession of a naivety that allows life to continue unquestioned despite the fact that the worlds of those around him are collapsing.

In Mario’s chapters, he speaks directly to his son, as if writing letters to be read posthumously. Yet, despite this direct address, Mario already seems detached, not quite present. Perhaps the lack of punctuation in his chapters contribute to this, with the text flowing as a stream of consciousness away from him, as his strength and life progressively ebb from reach. Much of what he touches on seems too painful to stay with. Speaking of the lie that hangs around the story he and Elena have concocted for Lito about his illness:

‘…I’d give anything to know what’s going to happen to this lie, what you’ll think of me when you discover it, you’ll have a few photos of me…but I have no way of seeing you, I mean will you be a nice guy or a rogue…’

Reflections on suffering and the aftermath of being given his prognosis are particularly moving:

‘…the worst of it is that I’ve learnt nothing from all of this, what I feel is bitterness, before…I though suffering was of some use…a bit of suffering in exchange for a conclusion…crap, it’s all crap…’

‘…from the moment they diagnose you, the world immediately splits in two, the camp of the living and the camp of those who are soon going to die, everyone starts treating you like you’re no longer a member of their club, you belong to the other club now, as soon as I realized this I didn’t want to say anything to anyone, I didn’t want pity…’

‘…I don’t want to touch anything that’s part of my body, everything in my body is my enemy now, this is what it is to be dead.’

For me, the most captivating voice was that of Elena. She raises many issues around the witnessing of dying, and the complexity of emotions, which can be contradictory and inconsistent, that can accompany this experience. Elena’s chapters are a rich source of references to authors who has written around the subject, as she questions what is happening to Mario and to all their lives in the face of his dying.

Quoting John Banville, Elena speaks of the effect of Mario’s diagnosis:

“It was as if a secret had been imparted to us dirty, so nasty, that we could hardly bear to remain in another’s company yet were unable to break free”

“From that day forward all would be dissembling. There would be no other way to live with death”

Elena also speaks of the divisiveness of serious illness, how it has distanced herself from Mario, at times even alienating each from the other:

‘It drives me crazy when Mario assumes that controlling attitude of his. As though illness depended on our level of composure. Mario is brave, his brothers keep repeated like parrots. If he were as brave as all that, he would weep with me each time we speak.’

‘When I go into the room, dressed in clothes he likes, my hair styled for him, I can sense resentment in his eyes. As though my liveliness offended him.’

So much of the loss around death and dying can happen before physical death itself:

‘By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little.’

‘By caring for our sick person, we are protecting their present. A present in the name of the past. What am I protecting of myself? This is where the future comes in…For Mario it is inconceivable. He can’t even speculate about it. The future: not its prediction but the simple possibility of it. In other words, its true liberty. That is what the illness kills off before killing off the sick.’

‘For us carers, the future widens like an all-engulfing crater. In the centre is already someone missing. Illness as a meteorite.’

Inevitably, the aftermath rests with Elena:

‘If death interrupts all dialogues, it is only natural to write posthumous letters. Letters to the one who isn’t there. Because he isn’t. So that he is. Maybe that is what all writing is.’

As Elena looks at photos of Mario when he was well, she questions the truth of what we remember:

‘Looking at you again when you were beautiful, I wonder whether I am celebrating or denying you. Whether I am recalling you as you actually were or forgetting you when you were sick. Reflecting about it today…the biggest injustice about your illness was the feeling that this man was no longer you, that you were gone. But you weren’t: he, this, was my man. Your worn-out body. The last of you.’

A gem of a book, which haunts and lingers…

 

CQ

 

‘We join spokes together in a wheel,

but it is the center hole

that makes the wagon move.

 

We shape clay into a pot,

but it is the emptiness inside

that holds whatever we want.

 

We hammer wood for a house,

but it is the inner space

that makes it livable.

 

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.’

 

Lao Tzu

 

This Spanish film is based on a graphic novel by Paco Roba, and explores issues around ageing and its indignities, care homes, and dementia.

It is a gem. Utterly believable and sad, as getting old and dependent can be, particularly when afflicted by Alzheimer’s Disease, Wrinkles is also funny, redemptive and hopeful. It restores faith in the human condition, and in humanness…

 

CQ

The poet and writer Rosemary Tonks died this week aged 85. She famously disappeared from the literary scene in the 1970s and spend the following decades as a recluse.

The elusive biographical details of her life and of her disappearance have long intrigued me. But perhaps it is best to focus more on what she chose to share with us – her writing – rather on that which she deliberately kept to herself.

from Addiction to an Old Mattress

 

‘No, this is not my life, thank God…

…worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;

Obsessed first by one person, and then

(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;

These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,

They belong to the people in the streets, the others

Out there — haberdashers, writers of menus…’

 

‘…Meanwhile…I live on…powerful, disobedient,

Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,

With these people…who are going to obsess me,

Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly knew, it’s unforgivable

For this is not my life

But theirs, that I am living.

And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.’

 

CQ