Tuesday, April 27, 2010

death in paradise

It has been a week. I don't even want to talk about it because it's been pretty stressful, but at the same time I HAVE TO. That is what I do.

I flew about 31 hours to get here from Buenos Aires. I watched the worst movie I've seen in a while--'Did you hear about the Morgans?' Wow, what a terrible fucking film. While I've never been a Sarah Jessica Parker hater, this movie really did it for me. The movie was so bad it made me hate Hugh Grant as well. And, oddly enough, the other couple in the movie is the cowboy from 'The Big Lebowski' and Doc’s girlfriend Clara from 'Back to the Future.'

But this really has nothing to do with anything. I suppose I just don't want to talk about the stuff that has mattered these past 10 days or so. Because that shit is just overwhelming. It is so overwhelming that I wonder if I have, in these days of wandering and isolation, forgotten how to deal with shit, so much so that everything is suddenly overwhelming. But that is not really anything to decide.

I am in Singapore for the second time in this blog’s two-year existence. I didn’t feel anxious about leaving until I started to pack my things, as usual, and suddenly I felt very homeless and worthless. It’s funny—I’ve always equated homelessness with two polar extremes of poor nomads and worldly globetrotters, but suddenly I understood that homelessness is actually just a feeling that you don’t belong anywhere.

Not belonging somewhere is a reason to leave a place. And wanting to go somewhere else—or being needed somewhere else—that is a reason to go to a place. The former is typically a reason for moving, and the latter a reason for traveling. It was relatively easy for me to leave the U.S. and now to leave South America for both these reasons.

It took me three long flights it took me to get here; I felt very anxious and useless for many hours. I guess that’s why I sat through all those movies. I had made a promise to my family that I would stay with grandmother as long as she needed assistance. I’d like to say that this was purely out of the goodness of my heart, but I’d chalk that up to Fundamental Attribution Error. The fact of the matter is that I don’t have a job or much of a plan much less an acceptable reason for existence, so the least I could do was to volunteer my services. When I made this offer, I meant to stick by it, but I was still nervous because I didn’t know what it would entail. A month? A year? I’m not big on committing myself to anything, but suddenly I had done it. I was terrified. There are many worse fates than taking care of your grandmother in Singapore, and I meditated on this thought in-between movie-watching.

My parents and I arrived in the middle of the night and in the morning we went to the hospital to see her. On the way there, we stopped to pick up my uncle. There is a bit of a story behind all of this that I will explain later, but let’s just say for now that I have not seen my uncle in about twenty years, and he didn’t say hello to me when he got in the car with me and my parents.

We arrived a little too early and a nurse was attempting to administer some sort of treatment to her, and asked my father and I to give her some room, leaving my uncle and mother there. Dad and I stood in the hallway and I cried. Dad was in shock, I think, because he couldn’t even put his hand on my shoulder to comfort me. We both just kind of stood there, me struggling to pull tissues out of my purse and him just staring into a corner of his brain, searching for a solution. We’d been in the room with her for less than a minute, but we both knew that it was bad, much worse than we’d thought.

We stayed in the hospital all day, each of us searching for our own solutions in our selves and in the hospital staff. Mom and Dad are used to hospitals because they are doctors, and I am sort of used to them because of that. I have visited people in hospitals—people who may be uncomfortable but are recovering. I have never, though, sat with someone in such bad shape. She was struggling to breathe and couldn’t open her eyes because she was in so much pain. I held her hands—at first I was sort of holding her hands down to prevent her from clawing out her IV and breathing tube. She cursed me and wailed to her god for compassion. But when she removed her tube for the twentieth time, I didn’t struggle with her to put it back. It is ridiculous to fight with an 87-year-old woman who doesn’t want a tube in her nose. So I just rubbed her back and tried to cry as silently as possible. It is a bad feeling to know that someone you love is going to die. It is an even worse feeling to want someone you love to die as soon as possible because they are suffering so much.

My mother stayed with her through the night and my grandmother passed away in the morning. I was sleeping on the floor of my father’s room and I answered the phone, received the news, passed the phone to my father, and then went to the bathroom to get dressed. When I came out, I expected him to be fully dressed and on his cell phone. But Dad was sitting on the bed, his bare feet on the floor. I thought he was lost once again, in that corner of his brain where he goes to solve problems. But instead of springing to life when I told him we should get moving, he sat for a few moments longer, and I understood that he was experiencing something profound—my mother’s pain and a feeling of helplessness, two things which my father does not experience very often.

The sun had still not risen as we drove to the hospital in the dark. Dad gave me a charming yet totally unnecessary speech about death, something along the lines of “Death is a part of life; we have to be happy that she didn’t suffer; it is time to accept this and move forward.” Like I said, I am at peace with the idea of death, even my own. (I just don’t want to die in an airplane.) My mother takes care of people who are terminally ill, and I have absorbed her attitude toward death, which I agree with. When dealing with the terminally ill, families oftentimes prolong suffering in an effort to prolong life, which is not a good thing. I hope I don't die in a hospital. I hope that if something happens to me where I can't make decisions for myself, someone will pump me full of morphine and let me go peacefully. We can't live forever, but we do have some control over how we die. Dad ended his flowery speech with, “Seriously, when it’s my time to go, just pump me full of morphine, close the door, and walk away. No muss, no fuss.”

But no matter how unmussy or unfussy your death is, cleaning up after someone’s life is a different story. I didn't realize just how much stuff has to be attended to when someone dies. We contacted a funeral director, who swept in and asked us a million questions about religious rites, scheduling, caskets, cremation, all while the body of my grandmother was being prepared for the mortuary by two attendants wearing surgical masks. The following day was the wake, the next day was the cremation, and the next day we were cleaning out her apartment.

My grandmother was a bit of a head case. She was a hoarder. She kept every scrap of paper that came into her possession. In addition to boxes of receipts and newspaper clippings, her room contained jars filled with rocks, makeup bags stuffed with plastic bags, pantyhose from the 50s (still in the original packaging), about one hundred miniature locks with keys, decks of playing cards, dozens of umbrellas and fans, old calendars rolled up with mothballs. And for some reason, every item made of fabric--clothing, bags, etc--had at least one safety pin fastened to it. It was a bit disturbing. It makes me want to live a nomadic life and die, possession-less, on a raft in the ocean, just so nobody has to be bothered to clean up after me.

No comments: