Monday, November 28, 2011

The Chapel That We Crave

"Happiness is absorption, being entirely yourself and entirely in one place. That is the chapel that we crave."

That's my favorite passage from a really nice essay called "Chapels" by Pico Iyer in this year's Best American Essays. I read it today while sitting in a little garden off Dupont Circle where in-the-know people bring their lunches, or just themselves, on a day like this in late November when the temperature lolls in the 60s. Beyond the garden gate, you can see and hear the life of the city, but it feels like nothing more than a sheer, rustling curtain waving in the near distance—non-threatening, even pleasant—while the greenery of this boundaried space holds you.

Even as I sat in a kind of outdoor chapel, reading the essay made me realize I need to spend more time in those places, physical and otherwise, where I'm entirely me, not split off in shards.

One of the things that make the Iyer essay notable is that he's talking about literal chapels as much as figurative ones, but he never mentions the word God—doesn't need to because that's not what his story is about.

He admits, "For all the years of my growing up, we had to go to chapel every morning and to say prayers in a smaller room every evening. Chapel became everything we longed to flee; it was there we made faces at one another, doodled in our hymnbooks, sniggered at each other every time we sang about 'the bosom of the Lord' or the 'breast' of a green hill."

I can relate to that feeling, having spent a fair amount of time in this musky chapel as a preteen and teen, even having acted (badly) in a 15th-century play within its walls:

As idyllic as it looks here, I don't miss it—almost never, in fact, think about it.

essay is about the quiet spaces, sometimes but not always walled, that allow us to recharge. And maybe you have to be an adult to do that with intention.

"Chapels are emergency rooms for the soul," he writes. "They are the one place we can reliably go to find who we are and what we should be doing with our lives—usually by finding all we aren't, and what is much greater than us, to which we can only give ourselves up."

Call that God if you want, but he's not writing about religion, at least not to me. I have no interest in religion. Yet it turns out that this is the wallpaper I chose months ago for the computer on which I'm writing these words:

Hard to say which is the "chapel" in that picture—the space where I took it (on the way up the tower of the Freiburg cathedral, on a 50th-birthday trip to Germany with D. this summer to revisit some important parts of my life, in this case the site of my junior year abroad exactly 30 years ago) or what my eye was taking in.

Or was it where my mind rested at that moment as I held the camera, paused on the bridge between who I was and who I am now?

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Five Cents, Please

I think this will be the first Thanksgiving ever that each "unit" of my family will celebrate separately—which is to say the first when nobody is having our parents over. My local sister, who has usually hosted dinner for whoever is available, may stop by their assisted-living facility (where now are both in memory care), may bring them a bit of turkey or pie, but she'll have her own celebration, like each of the rest of us. (D. and I are going to see friends of his in Lynchburg, Virginia.)

Dad moved into memory care about two and a half weeks ago, and neither he nor Mom even remembers that it's Thanksgiving or much cares (I mentioned it to him tonight, to little response). They'll be served a holiday dinner by staff, and after that Dad will go to bed and Mom will sit up in the common room with her neighbors. She's up most of the night, I'm told (one of the caregivers has her sit beside her and help with her "paperwork"), catching up on sleep during the day.

We've been reading Dad Winnie-the-Pooh, and he seems to enjoy it. (He's actually doing remarkably well in general under the circumstances.) The other day I bought him a book of Peanuts comics, which I thought would be interesting and possible for him to read on his own. Tonight I couldn't find it.

Lucy: "Follow me. I want to show you something. See the horizon over there? See how big this world is? See how much room there is for everybody? Have you ever seen any other worlds?"

Charlie Brown: "No."
Lucy: "As far as you know, this is the only world there is, right?"
Charlie Brown: "Right."
Lucy: "There are no other worlds for you to live in, right?"
Charlie Brown: "Right."
Lucy: "You were born to live in this world, right?"
Charlie Brown: "Right."
Lucy: "WELL LIVE IN IT THEN! Five cents please."

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Sunday, November 06, 2011

Fragments, a Return

This weekend my siblings and I started hospice for Dad.

It's been almost a year since I wrote in this blog (I'm a little shocked but not totally surprised to see). In that year, my mother's condition has remained mostly stable, which is to say that 13 years of dementia quietly rolled into 14, with no major changes from one to the next. Tonight when I was talking to D. and my brother and sister, I described her conversation as a bagful of disconnected words, sentence fragments, gestures, expressions, questions, phrases, and moods all shaken up and spilled out. I just ride the wave of what emerges— "Oh, no—not that!" "Really?" "I know." "Yeah, I'm Billy." "Don't cry—be happy." "Want to sing a song?" When I'm with her these days, I rarely feel anything but loved.

On Friday, we got a report that Dad was drooling and going in and out of consciousness at lunch. There was more to it, but that was the most alarming development. Most likely, in retrospect, he was probably having an ischemic attack, one more of the stealth mini-strokes that both he and Mom have experienced over the years, she for a much longer time.

He has declined markedly in the last four to six weeks, sleeps most of the day when left to his own devices, eats little and irregularly, and rarely converses at all except in single words. We'd already been taking the initial steps of moving him into memory care (the wing where Mom has lived for the last year and a half), but this turn of events sealed the deal. Among other benefits will be better monitoring of his diet and hydration, although the accompanying loss of independence makes me sad.

Hospice quickly entered the picture, and at this stage it seems essentially just another level of care, one that's more sensitively attuned to his weakened condition and making him more comfortable. It will start out at least once a week but will probably increase somewhat from that according to his needs as the hospice personnel get to know him and us. Nowhere near round the clock . . . yet.

As D. put it recently, my father is winding down. It's very hard for me to look full on at what that means.

When D. and I were falling asleep and talking about Dad last night, D. said, "I'll miss him." That brought tears to my eyes because I really believed him—he's been a great friend to my father—and it made me think about how much I'll miss him, too.

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