Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Big Chill




It’s a greyed out Tuesday. Although my husband (the truly magnanimous dog-walker in the family) tells me that it’s not so cold, just wet and foggy outside, somehow no matter how many layers I layer on, I cannot seem to warm up my extremities. Perhaps it has something to do with the presence of illness and death hanging just as heavy and pervasive around me as the fog.

Last Friday, on the second anniversary of my own Dad’s death, my cousin Carol died. She has been released from the unbelievably upbeat struggle she waged against Cancer over the past two years and the pain she endured during the last months and weeks. Of course we must agree that this transition is a blessing for her. But her death leaves a pain in my heart and lays a fog on my brain. Carol - one of a pair of twins; one of three sisters, an amazing wife, mother, grandmother, friend, educator, community servant…. I know the same trite labels can be attached to so many, and I assure you that the fullness and commitment that Carol brought to her everyday actions and relationships cannot be expressed by any common adjective or simple noun.

I think by now Carol’s funeral has concluded and family and friends are gathered at her home to support her husband and sons as they begin the seven day Jewish mourning period known as “shiva”. (Ironically, the Hindu god “Shiva” is at once a fearsome destroyer and yet also a calm, meditating spiritual seeker, but in this context “shiva” comes from the Hebrew word shiv'ah, which literally means "seven". The Jewish tradition was developed in response to the story in Genesis 50:1-14 in which Joseph mourns the death of his father Jacob (Israel) for seven days.) On Carol and Larry’s street in White Plains, NY, today there will be trouble finding a parking place. But Mike and I are not there.

We made an ill-fated attempt to get up there from Asheville this weekend, beginning Saturday, right after being confronted first thing in the morning by Carol’s younger son’s Facebook tribute to his mom. We made hurried arrangements for the dog, the house and the mail. We packed and bought sandwiches to avoid making any lengthy stops en route, borrowed books on CD from the library and a wheelchair from the nearby assisted living facility so we’d be able to transport my immobile mom to the services. I fell flat on my back trying to load the car in too much of a hurry, and perhaps that in itself should have been all the omen I needed. But Carol is the first one of our generation of cousins (“the Lucky 7”) to be lost, and although my original plans for Saturday were to sleep off what seemed to be an impending head cold, I wanted to – needed to - be in New York.

By the time the car was loaded and all the errands were run, we’d lost half the daylight and then some and learned that the funeral was not scheduled until Tuesday, so we decided to fortify ourselves with another night in our own beds before setting off on the two day drive. Leaving early Sunday morning we were able to reach Maryland, the halfway point, in time to catch a sit-down dinner in the mall nearby the motel.

After Sunday dinner I contacted my brother on Long Island who was preparing to return to work Monday for the first time in two weeks, dragging himself there in spite of residual flu fatigue. I knew Josh would not be able to take time off and assured him we’d be in Bellmore on Monday night in time to transport Mom to her orthopedist appointment on Tuesday morning and to the funeral on Tuesday afternoon, as previously discussed. That’s when he told me he wasn’t sure we should stay at their house or be around Mom, who was sounding more and more like she had caught at the very least a cold, hopefully not the flu, herself. Mom probably wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral. He would work out arrangements to get her to her doctor.

Shift gears. Call my friend Roz, another White Plains resident. Leave voice mail, “Can we stay with you before and after the funeral?” Monday morning I got a call back, “You are welcome to come, but I have come down with some kind of virus myself, and I don’t think it would be wise. You know, the governor has declared a flu epidemic in New York. Are you sure you should come at all?”

Because I am a transplant recipient I take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection of the liver that has settled so symbiotically into relationship with the organs I was born with. In the six years since my transplant I have had my share of “ordinary illnesses” and while recovery is sometimes slower than for the “average” person, thankfully, I haven’t faced any challenges that took a turn for the worse. I lead a normal life, but am vigilant. I wear a medical mask on airplane rides. I sometimes even slip one on once the lights go down at the movies. Mike’s poker buddies kindly beg off if the game’s at our house and they are or recently have been sick. I made careful choices at the recent holiday buffets and pot lucks, selecting only food that likely had been handled by few people (no peanuts, nothing that might have been “double-dipped.”)

I had a flu shot in early November, and now suddenly was wondering if it was still viable. I thought about the crowds that would be in close quarters at the synagogue and at Larry’s home after the burial. I thought about the hugging and hand-shaking that, no matter what my intention, I would not be emotionally able to resist. I even thought about how my body reacts to baptism by sadness. Some say I am “too sensitive” – whatever, it’s me and it’s not gentle. Thank goodness for a supportive, flexible husband. I made the difficult decision to obey my gut rather than my heart – we called to make our apologies to the family, turned around and drove eight hours south rather than north.

The universe would not let me be.  Not five miles down the interstate we passed a truck proclaiming the good work being done by, “The Heart of Hospice.” After dinner at home in Asheville last night, Mike went down to the den to catch up on sports scores. I went into our bedroom to stretch my car-weary back and distract my mind with an HD Net Movie. The feature presentation, “The Big Chill.”

It’s late afternoon on Tuesday. I am wondering how everyone in New York is doing. I am wondering if my self-protective decision was sensible or cowardly. I am wondering what I will do if and when my mother, husband or brother is acutely ill and/or hospitalized. I am struck by the way attitudes and actions interact and the cascading consequences of our decisions.

Dad is gone two years. Carol is gone three days. Other losses past and future echo in the cold cavern of my consciousness and suck the warmth from my toes and fingertips. It’s a greyed out Tuesday in mid-January. I'm praying, "Let this pass too."