Saturday, June 26, 2010

Déjà vu

These walls have eyes
Rows of photographs
And faces like mine
Who do we become
Without knowing where
We started from

. . . .

 And I will try to connect
All the pieces you left
I will carry it on
And let you forget
And I'll remember the years
When your mind was clear
How the laughter and life
Filled up this silent house

by  Neil Finn, Natalie Maines,  
Emily Robinson, Martie Maguire

We had a marvelous family vacation in Puerto Penasco, Mexico the week after youngest daughter Natasha graduated from law school at USD. We all just caravanned from San Diego down to Rocky Point. My mother joined us again, the second year in a row after my father's death. I'd been writing in a steady and committed way but left my books at home for the first time on a trip like that. I just wanted to be with my family and knew that I would pick right up where I'd left off when I returned. 

However, less than 24 hours after our return home, my mother took a still-mysterious fall at her home and ended up in neuro-ICU with bleeding in two places in her brain. I saw the untransformed future pass before my eyes: endless hours in ERs and hospital rooms; the emotional and physical pain that accompanies such lack of activity and the stress of both the known and the unknown; the loss of power around my declaration that I would finish my dissertation and graduate by December, 2010; and, most devastating, the ultimate loss of my mother.

Her falling wasn't a surprise. Increasingly unsteady, she'd fallen twice in the previous two months. This time, however, it became impossible to distinguish between her rapidly failing memory and the head injury. After almost three weeks, we brought her home to our house, a move we'd been negotiating with her earlier. Suddenly, living alone at her home was no longer an option and we hurriedly shoveled (yes, shoveled) out my office and the adjacent spare room, which had last been Lawyer Girl's. We culled both academic books and fiction I'd been hoarding for decades so as to empty one entire wall of shelves for her personal items, and we still don't know what to do with the large floor loom that remains in the office (now her sitting room).

Our children living locally made an amazing difference. The oldest daughters helped with this process by moving and cleaning. However, while my mother was in the rehab hospital, daughter #2 was also rushed to the ER with blood sugars over 1000, so we rotated between the rehab facility and the ICU a few blocks away, still trying to prepare the house for Mother's release. In the meantime, I spent a week in Georgia, attending our youngest son's graduation from basic training and transporting him from Ft. Benning to Ft. Gordon, where he will be doing his training in satellite communications. By my return home, David had brought my mother home.

A week later, I had surgery on my other knee.

I know, I know. I just really want to be able to be in the world with my husband, doing the things we love to do together, like scuba diving, hiking, and active travel. I live in a tennis family and I can't play tennis. From my perspective, if not now, then when?

So here I sit, with my crutch and my range of motion and cooling machines, watching Wimbledon tennis (a family tradition). Occasionally I see a black chasm open up that feels like my future. Still working out the anesthesia, I don't feel focused enough to write, and I'm exhausted from answering the same questions over and over again for my mother. Her memory has declined so dramatically that she just now asked me twice in the last five minutes who just called her on the phone (her sister-in-law, whose name she can't now remember). At least twice a day she suddenly turns to me and says, "Doe Nan, I need to go home. I have laundry to do and things to take care of." I remind her that she lives with us now and doesn't need to worry about such things. After years of not cooking and very little cleaning, I've become a homemaker again, which I didn't do very well (and didn't much like doing) the first time around. My mother is my new two-year-old, who I can't pick up and carry around when she gets into her medications and messes them up and other such adventures.

(Sidenote: I took my oldest grandchild, a granddaughter, the daughter of my diabetic child who almost died two weeks ago) to a writing workshop at Changing Hands. Because this daughter couldn't drive, her sister and I coordinated making sure her two children's needs were met. It took lots of time and effort and I loved it. It happened that a colleague from ASU had her own daughter in the workshop and we chatted for a while. When I explained why I hadn't been writing, she responded that the only students she'd seen complete PhDs were those who were willing to tell their families to take a hike for six months.)

Though it seems counter-intuitive, her observation isn't the truth. So what IS the truth?

What I know is so about writing a doctoral dissertation while also being a human being: 
  • "It won't get any better than this," "It's only going to get worse" or "I guess I'll scratch the PhD off my list; I clearly can't do it with all that's happened" are only stories that have nothing to do with what's happened and won't open up a space for action that will make a difference in my life or the lives of my mother, husband, children, and grandchildren. 
  • I will not tell my family to take a hike while I write my dissertation.
  • I can still meet my personal commitments AND manage my mother's care and be her loving daughter at the end of her life AND be an effective spouse, parent, and grandparent while writing my dissertation.
  • I am in the process of working out just how it will all happen. 
  • I am a powerful person who can do amazing things. I am unstoppable. 
Don't believe me? Hide and watch!