The Shark

dinnerI inherited from my grandmother a dishtowel. I think she called them tea towels. It is illustrated with sparkling, smiling, strutting tea kettles, cups, saucers, creamers, and sugar bowls. It looks like a thirties or forties animated Disney version of what happens in your kitchen while the household sleeps.

“Kitchen Parade” is printed around the four edges of the red border that frames the parade.

I don’t use this tea towel. And I didn’t inherit it in the sense that it was written in her Will, “Give my granddaughter Karen the Kitchen on Parade tea towel.” It was more that I was there when my mom and I cleaned out her apartment and I knew I wanted to keep it. Like the Doll that Hid The Toilet paper—it was an iconic remnant of her life as the Domestic Dame she was.

What I kept of my mother’s domestic icon was the trivet that says, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.”

Then there was my mother’s sister, my Aunt Lucille, who, after sending my brother’s out to play after Thanksgiving dinner, told my cousin and I (we were 11) that we had to do the dishes (no dishwasher—greasy pots, pans, and dishes from a dinner for eight) because it was time to start getting used to the domestic drudgery that was our inheritance—our lot in life.

These three women formed a legacy of domesticity that was problematic for me—particularly that message from my aunt. It took me years to develop my own relationship with being a homemaker—to discover and embrace my voice, as it were, when it came to creating a home.

About three weeks ago, I bought a Shark vacuum cleaner—the Rocket. It’s awesome power in sucking up dust and the other detritus that accumulates from daily living is matched by its design. Without turning it off, I can detach the handle from the base and use it to suck up the stuff that lands in nooks and crannies, then reattach it to continue the sucking of the wider swaths of dust and detritus.

My grandmother had a state-of-the art thirties Hoover vacuum, that while powerful, was heavy and clunky and had a belt and bag that had to be replaced occasionally. You had to push the thing, sometimes with great effort, across a carpet.

Meanwhile, the Shark Rocket almost glides by itself. There is no bag to replace, and as far as I can tell, no belt. It is lightweight and compact. A well-designed tool for the task at hand.

The Shark helped me get through the weeks of terrifying uncertainty that started with a note about Tom’s high PSA count and ended with the course of treatment that has given us a sense of safety.

Cooking also got me through. I combined buttermilk and cream to make crème fraiche, made cinnamon ice cream laced with chopped pistachios, olive-oil poached tuna with olive and caper vinegarette, coq au vin, savory chicken, and leek and spinach soup topped with my homemade crème fraiche. Just to name a few.

I looked up a definition of cancer (because that’s what I do when a word overtakes me). The one that resonated was: an evil thing or condition that spreads destructively.

Home became the force against that evil thing. I wanted to make it a place that was nourishing, delicious, and free of detritus. A place that could banish the evil.

Homemaker. I embraced it.

Years ago, around the time that Jaws was in theaters scaring the peewadun (that’s my grandmother’s expression) out of audiences, I read about a skin diver in Tamales Bay who was paddling along on the surface when a great white shark came from below, grabbed him in its jaws, pulled him out of the water, shook him like a dog shakes a toy, then spat him out and swam away. The skin diver swam to shore. I believe he had only minor injuries if any at all.

I remember thinking at the time that that must have been a life-changing event for that skin diver—that there was the time before the shark, and the time after the shark.

From the moment that Tom got his PSA results until we heard the treatment plan, we were in the jaws of the shark. It spat us out when we got a plan for his treatment. This past week was the beginning of our after-the-shark life. A new normal now that we have been spat out.

I don’t think of the shark as death. I think of the shark as life, a reminder of our mortality, our vulnerability—a vulnerability that connects us to each other, as well as the living system of which we are a part.

Mortality is not only about recognizing our own lives have an end parenthesis, but about loving and the risk we take by loving—losing who we love. Grief is also the shark. It grabs us in its jaws without warning and holds unto us until it spits us out. Humans are famous for loving again after being in the jaws of grief. It is, perhaps, our greatest virtue.

Great white sharks became the villain that summer of Jaws. Everyone was interested in them. Sometime that summer, a great white shark (a baby one), was caught and sent to Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It did not survive. Its body was put on display.

I visited the aquarium (this was when there was no entry fee). As people gathered around the body of this baby shark, I found myself feeling bad for it—that its dignity was being violated by the gawking curiosity. There was nothing villainous about it. It was just what it was. A being on the home we call Earth that was no longer a living being.

Someone somewhere wrote that humans aren’t learning to be spiritual, but rather spirits learning to be human. That’s what I believe. And that we become the most human when we are touched by our mortality—and that it is in our mortality that we find our immortality. Our lives are at the same time important because they are unique and a part of something larger than our individual lives. The grain of sand that makes the difference in the composition of the beach.

We find compassion through our mortality.

I want my country to embrace that compassion. To hold together the uniqueness of individuals while recognizing that we are a part of humanity, which is a grain of sand in the ecosystem that is the planet we inhabit.

Earth. Our home. We are its homemakers.

Note: I said in my last post that my cousin stayed home. It really was that she worked from home to change the world.

Through the Doors of Compassion

I’ve been on blog silence for close to three weeks now.
When I was a kid I watched a lot of naval war movies because my older brother was fascinated by them and because my dad had been in the navy during World War II. In the movies, the submarine would go on radio silence when it wanted to be undetected.
That might be why I’ve been on blog silence. I wanted to be undetected because I didn’t want to turn into a ranting blogger. So, hopefully, I’ve emerged from my lizard-brain fueled rage enough that I can start addressing the lizard-brain fueled brain activity around health care.
Once again, leaders of the Republican Party are tapping into fear, ginning it up, and using it to grab power. What they want to do with the power, other than to have it, isn’t really clear.
Ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
Let me say that again: ginning up fear is not community organizing. It is inciting mob behavior.
Community organizing is about empowering. Inciting mob behavior is about wielding power to suppress others.
I’ve been a hospice volunteer and the designated spokesperson for advanced directives for two people: my mother and Jeanette, an older friend I met through the Gray Panthers.
My mother ended up dying in an ICU. It’s not so much that she wanted to die, as that she was ready to. She had end-stage emphysema when her hip broke into four pieces. She decided to have her hip repaired, but then got pneumonia three days later. That’s when they took her to the ICU.
The ICU is no place to die. The purpose of it is to keep a body alive. There is no intimacy to the place. That’s not a judgment – it’s simply the way it is. When intensive care is required for the mechanics of the body – it’s the right place to be.
My mother worked hard the last three days of her life to decide whether she was ready to let go of her body. What she feared more than death, was losing her life. And the future for her was grim. She would have had to go to a skilled nursing facility to recover from the hip operation. Here health was already very fragile, so she faced the prospect of dying in the skilled nursing facility – which is a nicer name for a nursing home.
My father died in a nursing home. He had Alzheimer’s so the skilled nursing facility was where he had to be given that my parents did not have the financial means to have the twenty-four hour care a person with dementia requires.
It was a good nursing home. Staff was caring. And, my father was less isolated in there than he had been when he still lived at home with my mother. The social network falls away when dementia sets in. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just hard to maintain a circle of friends when one becomes a widow or widower before their spouse dies.
But a nursing home is a hospital. It’s for people who are too sick or frail to go home, but not acutely ill enough to require the care needed in an acute care hospital. Or, it’s for people whose minds are no longer their own. Who require the care and monitoring associated with that of a child. I asked my mother if caring for him was like caring for a child. She said no, because a child grows while my dad declined.
My dad forgot how to swallow. It’s what happens with end stage dementia. Pneumonia set in. My mother made the decision to withhold antibiotics. And so he died of pneumonia.
It was not a question of prolonging his life – but rather prolonging his death.
She opted, as my father had asked while his mind was still lucid, to not prolong his death.
My mother was adamant about not wanting her death prolonged. So when she said to me in the ICU, “I thought I was dying last night,” I asked if that’s what she wanted. She said yes.
I intervened on her behalf. It took a bit of convincing the staff that she knew what she wanted, and by then, her advanced directive had shown up in her hospital records.
We let her life come to the end she wanted.
With my friend Jeanette, it was slightly different. She had asked me to take the power of attorney on her advanced directive because she said, she trusted that I loved her, and that my decision would be based on loving her. When I asked her what she wanted, she said, “I want you to pull the plug.”
I came to understand that she kind of meant that literally—she wanted me to tell her when enough was enough.
And that’s how it ended for her. She had end stage Parkinsons. Against her will she was taken to a nursing home. The woman who had been her long time caretaker, and who had become her genuine family, was put in the awful position of being falsely accused of taking advantage of her. Jeanette, an old time lefty who fought passionately against injustice was so far gone with Parkinsons’ that she could not stand up for her.
The thought of Jeanette lingering in a nursing home along with the injustice with which her longtime caretaker was enduring was what helped me act on Jeanette’s wishes.
Pneumonia set in.
“Pneumonia used to be called the old person’s and cancer patient’s best friend,” her doctor, who knew Jeanette very well, said to me when I sought his advice about what to do.
Within a week of her entering the nursing home, Jeanette died.
Her dying honored the way she lived.
End of life is one of the most intimate of moments. It is not something you want to lose control over. Advanced directives give you the opportunity to articulate what your life means to you – and the difference between living and merely keeping your body alive.
Compassion. That’s what’s called for in those moments.
And what the Republican Party leaders are spewing has nothing to do with compassion. It is a raw attempt to grab power by playing on people’s fear to incite mob mentality. They provoke the lizard brain.
The lizard brain is incapable of compassion.
We do not want these people, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Senator Grassley, et al anywhere near the power they want to seize. They have shown their true character.
They are willing to sacrifice compassion on the altar of their egocentric need for power.
Power without compassion is dangerous.
Putting the lizard brain in control of mobs leads to genocidal horrors.

We cannot let these people prevail.