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Saturday, March 19, 2005

Endings come in many forms ...

and the probability that I may be experiencing the end of my formal work life is gradually dawning -- and with it comes confusion and depression. I'm not ready, but it's quite clear that I might never be. My identity is so much defined by my work - and my work has been defined so by me. I will go on, surely, for some time yet, but in a different relationship to the world around me. It may take months to untangle the web of uncertainty and gain a redefinition of purpose. I'm not at all sure that I can live without intentionality but that may take new forms, I suppose. I'm not used to drifting -- something that may be quite appropriate to these years. I believe the RV crowd would call this freedom, and they may be quite right. Maybe this is what my contemporaries have discovered, and what I speak of as drifting might be quite different from what that word suggests in the old context. I also suspect that my answers will more than likely be found now more in poetry than in job descriptions, mission statements, or how-to manuals. But that should speak well for the long dormant poet, Betty, finally being released to simply "be." I wish I knew ... .

I've finally allowed the batteries in my Palm Pilot to die. The faint alarms are now silent. What entries there are on my dance card are more social than work or social action related, so the change is already happening. Why don't I feel that the social dates are worthy of Palm attention? Still there's that commitment to speak at the educator's conference on April 3rd, the one I agreed to do for the National Park Service. Other than that ... .

I do wish that I could feel more of a sense of completion ... but I don't, at least not yet. Maybe this is the rationale for retirement dinners and gold watches to mark the time, and honorary degrees that put a period at the end of one's career. Without those milestones, there's nothing to mark the time and allow for the formal withdrawal and transition into whatever-the-hell-the-next-step-is!

Instead of fading quietly into old age I find myself fixed on getting tickets to see DJ Spooky's Birth of a Nation presention next weekend (Friday and Saturday) at the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco. His work is so exciting and the intellectual edge that it creates for Hip Hop culture must not go unnoticed or unheeded. He is about as cutting edge as Ken Kesey was to literature and John Cage was to music years ago, though his art will surely find greater recognition in this more eclectic world culture, and more quickly. Heard an interview yesterday where he gave the reason for his adopted name. "Music is the invisible art. There is something magical about that -- and I identify with that concept." He holds graduate degrees in both philosophy and english literature. His web site suggests that this is one to watch for future greatness. The rate of change will work in his favor, as the arts begin to catch up with technology, hopefully.

But would it be far more fitting if I took out a membership in AARP and fired up an interest in geriatric policies?

Dylan Thomas may have been right. I probably will not go quietly into that dark night!

Friday, March 18, 2005

Whose right to die?

The Terri Schiavo epic rages on. Just heard the latest news flash about the removal of the feeding tube. I felt a wave of relief -- a feeling that I had no idea I was experiencing. Found myself wondering how many others have been waiting to exhale on this one? And, when the news came, did they feel anger, despair, or did they share in my sense of relief? Have no idea how many have had occasion to deal with this or a similar situation? I faced it, alone, with both my parents.

My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, was blind and pretty much bedridden for the final ten years of his life. He survived to his 95th year, and though always tall and thin and seemingly frail--he actually had faired pretty well, overall. Toward the end there was diabetes to deal with but he had been fortunate to not suffer any amputations, only the blindness that results from hemorraghing behind the eyes that eventually destroys sight. This was particularly cruel since he'd always been very productive, a leader in his Catholic church, and a constant putterer around the house -- fixing and mending, hammering and measuring. I recall watching him (now almost blind) fixing something that had gone wrong with one of the doors in their home. He had determined at some point while still sighted that the space between the end of his 1st finger and the crease of the first joint was precisely one inch. He went about his work handily after adjusting to this "tool."

In the final year, after having suffered a number of minor heart attacks, a pacemaker was installed. I watched him -- when his busy life had been reduced to lying in bed monitoring his own heartbeat as recreation. He'd become obsessed with his approaching death. He said little about it, but I was aware of his preoccupation. His conversation was now sprinkled with instructions. He never used the words, but death was always a presence in the room.

Toward the end there were several trips to the hospital by ambulance as his panic began to feed on itself. Usually the call was made by Lou, the practical nurse I'd hired to be with my parents that last two years. She was wonderfully caring of them both, and after she'd called 911 , she would call to tell me to go immediately to meet the ambulance in Emergency. Those trips became more and more frequent, and the last time his doctor took me aside and told me that Dad's time had come. That Dad wanted a new pacemaker since he was certain that the old one (the one that he knew was keeping him alive) was no longer dependable. And, that Dad needed more than anything to be allowed to die in peace in his own bed at home and not here in the hospital. The physician told me almost impatiently that -- "... if you send him here we will be forced to treat him and that will simply prolong the agony." In other words, I would have to assume the responsibility of letting him die. The hospital couldn't, or wouldn't do so.

I remember how helpless I felt as I walked to where Dad was lying on the gurney. He was here now, and obviously the doctor was no longer empathetic. "After all, he's lived 95 years, right?

What was not being put into words was that the hospital did not want to care for him. He'd lived out his time now, it seemed. The doctor was placing my father's fate in my hands. I was to ignore his pleas the next time and allow him to expire. What a frightening responsibility! What a dilemma.

That very night I lay on the foot of his bed on the third floor of Providence Hospital. I'd requested that the hospital chaplin come to give him the last rites. A lovely nun (in full habit) spent extended time with us that night. I had a long monologue to his still and apparently comatose body -- the nun and I prayed together aloud, said a rosary, hoping that he could hear us -- and exhorting him to let go now. I then settled down to wait for signs of the end ... . At about three that morning I heard that long final breath, walked out to the nurse's station and told them that my father was gone. He died of congestive heart failure.

It had been a long year. I'd spent most of it working in our little store, trying to bring it back to life -- while taking care of my parents and trying to save my second marriage that was teetering from the strain of my varied family commitments. Being faced now with the responsibility of ignoring my father's undying wish to be "undying" in the face of a resistant medical practitioner had added an element that was almost more than I could bear. I've not talked about. I'm grateful that his last trip to the hospital ended the dilemma for me in that there was no need to make the decision to allow him to die because I refused him the final trip to the hospital.

So, one might say that the medical world has continued to respond to the demands of needful patients only so long as they are spared having to make the fateful decision. There are so many ways to deal with our inability to face death short of the drama being enacted in Florida today. One has to wonder about the motivations of all those involved:

The Right to Lifers who have a passion for saving life at both the beginning and end of life while being unable to empathize with those working toward an end to capital punishment, or, all those lives being lost in senseless wars on foreign shores. The irony is inescapable.

The politicians who are probably horrified at the spectacle of the Schiavo tragedy but refuse to stand up and take a position for fear of lost votes in the next elections, so sit in their legislative glory -- high above the population that might well be positively influenced were they to express something. Those who are exploiting the situation for political gain have no problem orating on the evils of that poor husband whom I sincerely believe is right on this one. Terri's parents are being parents; that is as it should be. I do feel deep sorrow for her family who cannot let her go. Those of us who have outlived children surely know that pain.

So much talk of death. Is it because I'm falling into the spell of the Lenten season? The old pull of my Catholic childhood does tend to surface at such times. I suppose it never really goes away; those emotional holds of orthodox religion on one's psyche.

Easter will come none too soon ... .

Monday, March 14, 2005

Another voice from the past ...

She was his first love. She was fourteen and he in his mid-teens. Rick and Kris were in LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) together and forged a friendship that spanned the years. It had apparently been about ten years since her last happy birthday call, so she was unaware that he had died while she was otherwise involved with her work, marriage, and family. He adored her and always mentioned their re-connections as they occurred.

His birthday was March 11th, always a dark day for me and impossible to dismiss or re-direct myself away from the recurring pain of his loss. It was on that day that Kris called and learned from David that Rick was gone. She was shocked! She since called me. I could hear the pain in her voice -- regret that she'd allowed so much time to elapse without ...

Two days ago we talked by phone and she later sent a long email that described their early innocent relationship and I am so grateful. Since he was only 16, I'm not sure that he had yet begun to understand or accept his homosexuality. He was undoubtedly in the early stages of gender confusion and would not come to terms with his true sexual identity for several years. He came out to me when he was 21 and entering into his first real same-sex relationship.

He eventually partnered with his soulmate, Gordon, with whom he would share his life in a monogamous "marriage" for 19 uninterrupted years of torment and pain; they were co-dependent alcoholics. They died about a year apart a few years ago. I wonder -- had they survived -- if today's judgement by the California courts making same-sex marriages legal might have saved them? Being same-sex, of different races, and members of a despised minority on both scores, would it have been different now?

I remember the day that Gordon died while Rick was at work. He'd been suffering from lung cancer. Rick came to my office (two blocks from their apartment) after calling to break the news. He'd called me earlier that morning to ask if I'd look in on Gordon -- if I had the time -- since "...he didn't look terribly well." We went to his place together and arrived just as the coroner was picking up Gordon's body. I'd called Gordon's physician when I couldn't reach him by phone - and was afraid to enter the apartment if, indeed, he'd died. It was awful! We then entered a nightmare when Rick called Maine to let Gordon's family know of the death . They slammed the phone down in his face! They refused to accept responsibility for the disposal of the body (we were not asking this) but also refused to release the remains to us for burial. It was dreadful!

It would be 30 days before the Coroner's office would release the body to us. Rick knew for all that time that Gordon was lying on a cold marble slab in Martinez. The law required that period before his remains could be declared abandoned, then and only then could we have him cremated and his ashes scattered as he'd wished. Rick had no legal status through which to claim the body. He never really recovered from the pain of that experience and was dead after a year from an endless drinking binge -- cirrhosis of the liver. His was a thinly-veiled suicide. He had no wish to live.

I do not know what difference it would have made to anyone that these two lovers be allowed to live out their lives as they wished -- together in law as well as in fact. I never knew Gordon's history except that he'd been married and fathered two children when very young; kids whom he loved deeply but had lost contact with. His drinking surely was in response to the guilt, the heartbreak that his gender confusion created for them all. There was his mother, a former wife, and brother and sister-in-law somewhere in Maine, but no one responded to our messages. Rick and I gathered up the few personal possessions Gordon left behind and mailed them off for his children -- in the event that they ever felt forgiving. To my knowledge those items were never returned, so maybe ... .

How much easier it would have been on that family if, as with Rick and I, he'd been able to "come out" to them at an early age. Rick was not forced to bend to societal demands for compliance with love across gender that his body could not feel. Gordon "ran away from home" to San Francisco, much later in his life -- and left a trail of tears behind him. Both their lives ended prematurely -- after the excruciating pain of rejection by a society unwilling to allow them to define themselves according to their birthright -- as gay men.

How dare we!

Kris and I will meet soon and we'll share stories and caring and I'll have the rare opportunity to get a glimpse of Rick's earliest and closest loving relationship with a girl. I suspect that she was the only girl in his life, ever. She meant a great deal to him, and the cost of following the dictates of his confused heart must have been high.

Our phone conversation was effected deeply by the fact that he's been dead for me now for several years. For Kris he died only two days ago. The loss was freshened for me through her pain. But the pain is now bittersweet as I remember how awful it was for him, and of how valiantly he tried to comply with custom and tradition, and how much self-hatred there was in both these good men.

I think of all those couples who've survived to celebrate this day, and wish them all love and peace into all the tomorrows.

Suppose Rick had suppressed his homosexuality -- that that first innocent boy/girl love had blossomed into maturity -- and at some late date, after a child or two, he'd found the lie impossible to contain? They parted with a strong friendship intact, she went on to a productive life and marriage. Were he alive today, they would have shared birthday wishes as in the past, and he would have called to tell me happily that he'd heard from Kris .. and I would have felt his delight.

How much more painful it must have been for Gordon ...?

How deeply I miss them both... .

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