After This Death, There Will Be No Other

A friend and I talked last night about the themes of our lives, and he mentioned that a theme of my life seems to be taking care of the dying. First there was my mother (though I was not her principle caregiver, I did help when I could). Then there was my life mate/soul mate. And now there is my father. It seems as if I’ve been fighting with death for more years than I care to remember, but this final fight will be ending sometime in the not too distant future. And after his death, there will be no other — no other that I am responsible for, that is, except my own.

heavenMy father signed up for hospice yesterday. (He is strong enough and mentally alert enough that he was able to sign all the papers himself.) It seems like a big step, but the truth is he is no better or worse than he was the day before. Actually, that’s not true — he says he is doing worse, but to my eyes, he is doing better, thriving on the attention of nurses and home health care workers. I haven’t seen him so charming or jocular in years.

Hospice is not just for the actively dying, but also for those who will never get better, so just because he is now on hospice, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is close to death. I’ve talked to people whose parents were on hospice for five and even ten years. Although there is no way of knowing how long a person has, I don’t think my father is in any danger of dying soon. Getting older and tireder, yes. Dying? Not so much. He just doesn’t seem that much worse off than he was six months ago. He eats less than he did, but he drinks more Ensure. (I think he’s the one person in the world who actually likes the stuff.) So the calories add up to about the same.

This latest step is, strangely, more of an adjustment for me than it is for him. Even with my dysfunctional brother gone, we’ll never go back to the quiet days when I first got here to help him. There will be people coming and going, deliveries of drugs and other paraphernalia, reassessments and new schedules. And, of course, there will be visits from siblings who are suddenly frantic at what they think is the imminent death of our father.

I’ve gone through this so many times before, where I thought he was dying, and he proved me wrong, that I’ve learned not to make plans for when he’s gone. So, whatever the rest of the family thinks signing up for hospice means, I’m just taking things as they come.

Still, he is ninety-seven. One day his life will be finished, and so will this particular theme of mine. And then? I’ll just have to wait to find out what my next theme will be.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Hunting the Wild Moon

Last night I walked a mile out into the desert to watch the moon rise. 7:32 pm — the scheduled time — came around, and no moon. I stood for a few minutes wondering what could have happened to it (a moon is a pretty big thing to lose), but then I saw a hint of light behind a hill. Over the next few minutes, the diffused light grew more pronounce, and several minutes later, a huge orangy-yellow moon with a bright aura climbed over the top of the hill.

moonrise

I watched for a while, then headed back the way I came. Before I got very far, I received a phone call I had to take, and so I stood there, bathed in moonglow for at least thirty minutes. When I told the caller where I was, she got worried. Apparently, this is black widow season — as if Mojave green rattlers weren’t hazardous enough. I tucked my pants into my socks figuring if I stepped in a nest, I’d at least have some protection, and I got back safely. No rattlers. No black widows. Just a very poor picture of that bright harvest super moon.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Sunrise? Sunset?

It rained yesterday, bringing a bit of needed coolness to the desert. Last night for just a few minutes, the clouds lifted long enough to brighten the sky and I was able to take this photo.

moon rise

No, it’s not the setting sun. It’s the rising moon. Truly a super moon!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Next Step — Hospice

My father’s nurse came and discharged him from the nursing service today. It’s not so much that he’s doing well but that they can’t do more for him — they are a temporary service to help recently hospitalized people learn to deal with their infirmities and the various aids necessary to keep them going. My father really doesn’t have any such aids except oxygen, which he’s been using for several years, and a pacemaker he’s had for six years. He wasn’t interested in physical therapy or any other services they offered except the nurse’s assistant who cleaned and groomed him. He is capable of doing it himself, he just doesn’t want to because it tires him. (When he forgets that he’s old and tired, he romps around without his walker or oxygen, sometimes for more than an hour at a time. )

So the next step is hospice. I didn’t know anyone could apply to hospice — I always thought the patient’s doctor had to prescribe it. My father’s doctor has been uncooperative, insisting that my father isn’t dying. Perhaps he isn’t dying, but he’s losing weight, nursedoesn’t want to eat, doesn’t want to do much of anything except sleep and pray. (Personally, I think he’s bored, but it’s almost impossible to get someone interested in doing anything unless they want to.)

My sister went to talk to hospice today, and when she explained the situation, they said our father was a perfect candidate for hospice. Apparently there are other ways of getting on hospice than having your personal physician prescribe the service. The people at hospice said that if his doctor didn’t release him, they would send a doctor to examine him and sign the prescription. Like with everything medical these days, it’s a matter of hurry up and wait, but still, we’ve got the ball rolling. (Do you think I should have added another cliché, or is that enough to get my point across?)

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I want hospice here, of course. I can’t do everything my father needs (I simply do not want to bathe him, though many daughters do that service for their aged paternal parent). Besides, my father cannot continue going to his doctor — the guy makes his patients wait for several hours, and that is too taxing for an old man. My problem is that although this hospice is the one we had for my mother and so my father wants them, I was unimpressed (they and my father kept my mother hopped up and delusional on vicodan even though she had no pain, and they were rather surly when I insisted — rightly — that she be taken off the drug). And these are the same people who kicked me out of their grief support group and threatened to call the police if I returned. I do not have good feelings about them at all.

I’m hoping to talk my sister into staying so she can deal with the hospice people, but if not, well, I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Most Compelling Images

The most compelling images seem to be those that somehow mirror ourselves, or at least our image of ourselves. At it’s most basic, this mirroring is why humans buy magazines with other humans on the cover, and why the animals we most bond with have the cuteness of a human baby, with wide-set, round eyes, and generally a round face.

I didn’t realize that I was prey to such subconscious mimicry, but of course I should have known since, although I don’t always like to admit it, I am just a human. I was reminded of our subconscious fascination with ourselves when I was gazing at the tarot card I chose during a one-card self-reading, a painting by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. This three of wands card shows a woman standing at the edge of a land bridge, far above a mountainous scene with a river running through it.

I was suddenly struck by the familiarity of the image, and then I remember this photo of me on the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which I used for the cover of Grief: The Great Yearning:

There I am, standing at the edge of the world, though the altar-like rock in front of me masks that reality. If the photo had been taken from the same perspective as that of the tarot card image, you would see I what I am seeing — a mountainous scene with a river running through it.

No wonder the image of the woman standing above it all struck such a familiar chord.  She is I, or maybe I am she.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Earth Houses

I went on a field trip today to see houses made of dirt and to get an idea of how they were made. It’s not so much that I was interested in the houses, but a friend invited me, and I make a point of not turning down invitations — I never know where such an invitation could lead. And today the invitation led to a place where they teach people to make sustainable houses out of local materials, mostly dirt.

The guides claimed the houses were cheap to make, and they were, but of course, you have to buy the rolls of sandbag material to stuff the dirt into (the only purveyor of the stuff is this particular company — surprise, surprise), and if you want more than a temporary shelter, you have to add concrete to the mixture, which adds to the cost. One such house, a three-bedroom, three-bath house with an adobe look and feel, cost $138,000. That did not include land or labor costs, which would have upped the cost to more than $500,000. Unless you particularly wanted to live in a dirt house, you’d be better off buying a ready-made traditional home.

The tour was fun — I saw many interesting shapes of houses — but the lecture not so much. I get bored easily with droners and repeaters, and the speakers both droned and repeated so I kept wandering off to look at various houses and structures. Each time I returned to the lecture arena, I heard the same thing, “You can build these houses anywhere in the world.” And so I would wander off again, shaking my head. No, you can’t build these houses anywhere in the world. Maybe the low-technology is available anywhere there is dirt, but most places in the United States and in other “advanced” countries, you have to deal with zoning laws, health codes, building permits, and various other matters that make it impossible to build such a house. And of course, you can’t build an earth house in the middle of the ocean. Since 71% of the world’s surface is water, that leaves a rather small percentage of the world available for building the houses. But I’m being too picky and literal, especially since living in a non-traditional house might suit me.

My favorite structure was a dome built of straw bales with a stucco-ish finish. Mostly what interested me was the dome shape. I could live in such an airy space, as high as it is wide. I don’t have furniture, and don’t particularly like the stuff. I once had a wonderfully comfortable couch that was simply a mattress on the floor covered with a dark sheet and dozens and dozens of pillows stuffed into matching and contrasting pillowcases. Oh, the luxury! Added benefits of that couch was the ability to change the décor at whim, it could be used as a bed. That kind of non-traditional furniture would be perfect for a single-room doomed house. I don’t like hanging things on wall, so curving walls wouldn’t present a problem, either. I’d just need to make sure I had the amenities like a working kitchen and bathroom, and wi-fi capabilities.

But would I really want to live in a room that calls attention to itself? I don’t know. Though I live in clutter (a symptom of too many simultaneous projects), I prefer an austere living space where my mind can roam free, unsnagged by my surroundings. I also don’t know if I would ever want the permanence that owning such a house would suggest. Still, a domed earth house is an interesting concept, and so is being able to build one’s own house from whatever is at hand. Something to add to the stew pot I call my mind.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Dancing My Way Out of Grief

Today was a particularly intense day for me at the dance studio. I took three classes. Ballet, which wants to twist my body in ways it wasn’t meant to go. Advanced tap, where I am totally out of my depth. And advanced jazz, which wasn’t hard, just exhausting.

The difficulty of the day, particularly tap, which is hard enough for me at a beginner’s level but confusingly difficult in a more advanced class, reminded me of my first days at the studio. I started out with jazz, not knowing what to expect, not knowing I would fall in love with dance and end up taking all possible classes. Since I had no background in dance, and since the group had been together for quite a while before I joined, I was more or less just dumped in the middle of a dance and told to follow along as best as I could until the teacher could find time to work with me. I tried to emulate the others, but even the simplest steps were beyond me. But I practiced. And I learned. Even more importanjazz shoest, I learned how to learn to dance, which is vastly different from learning how to learn academic subjects. (Knowing how to learn is the key to learning, as I’m sure you know.) With more cerebral pursuits, you only have to put your mind in gear. With physical lessons, you have to put your body, mind, and soul into the experience, and once I’d learned to walk, I never had to put that much effort into learning physical things for the simple reason that I had no interest in such matters.

Last summer, before I started taking dance classes, I’d gone on excursions, traveled, visited museums, and did whatever I could to get myself to look more to the present and future rather than back at the past, but I was still subject to upsurges in grief. I was happy enough while doing such things, but as soon as they were over, the sadness descended once again. Dance was the first thing I did that rippled into subsequent days, probably because it was so difficult, all-consuming, and exciting, and it brought me to life.

Learning is my talent, my joy, the thing that makes life worth living, and dance plays into that aptitude for learning since as soon as I learn one step or one dance, there is another one to learn. Even more than that, dance helped push aside the physical memories of my shared life with my soul mate.

When someone close to you dies, especially someone whose life is connected to yours on a profound level, you remember him not just with your mind but with your body. So often, when anniversaries came around, such as the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis or the anniversary of our last kiss, I didn’t remember the day, but my body did. Visiting art museums, reading, writing, walking, helped push the mental memories of him into the far reaches of my mind, but until I began to learn how to dance, there was nothing to distance the body memories.

To a great extent, dance is about body memory. If you have to pay attention to every move you’ve learned instead of letting your body remember, you lose the rhythm of the dance as well as any nuance, and chances are, you’d lose the sense of the movement itself. (For example, in ballet class a couple of days ago, we were trying to figure out why my body wouldn’t do what the steps required it to do, and at one point, the teacher stood behind me, put her hands on my shoulders to feel my movements, and told me to walk. I couldn’t move — for that moment, I forgot how to walk. I was trying to remember in my mind how to walk rather than remembering with my body.)

It’s no surprise that some of my classmates have also suffered a severe loss, whether the death of a husband or a horrendous divorce. For us, dance is not just something fun to do, but a pilgrimage to the far reaches of our new lives.

I’ve come a long way in the year since I showed up for my first dance class. I know more than a dozen dances, know all sorts of different steps and combinations, know that no matter how hard a dance is, I will learn it.

And most of all, I know I am alive.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Floral Carnage

I’m not much of a gardener, never have been. My last attempt to plant anything was a couple of years ago when someone gifted me with a Bonsai kit (planter, soil, seeds), and that result was typical — seedlings that poked their head above the soil, looked around, saw who they would be dependent on for their very lives, and promptly gave up their ghosts. I planted lights after that, and we’re all happy. Nothing to kill, just a bit of beauty when I’m feeling down.

I love flowers, and sometimes when I see bouquets in the grocery store, I’m tempted to buy the blooms to add a bit of life to my life, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to make the purchase. Even though the flowers were grown for such a use, I can’t help feeling I’d be buying death. I’ve only received flowers as a gift a couple of times, and I treasured them, but I’ve never been able to return the favor. Death, death, my soul cries out, and so the flowers remain unpurchased.

Now that I know the truth about flowers as a commodity (or part of the truth), I’m doubly glad I never participated in floral carnage.

In The World Without Us, Alan Wiesman explores the problems Kenya’s Lake Naivasha is experiencing after Kenya bypassed Israel to become Europe’s biggest provider of cut flowers. Weisman writes:

A flower, like a human, is two thirds water. The amount of a typical exporter therefore ships to Europe each year annual needs of the town of 20,000 people. During droughts flower factory production quotas stick siphons into Lake Naivasha, a papyrus-lined freshwater bird and hippo sanctuary just downstream from the Aberdares. Along with water they suck up entire generations of fish eggs. What trickles back whiff of the chemical trade-off the keeps the bloom on a rose flawless all the way to Paris.

Lake Naivasha, however doesn’t look quite so alluring. Phosphates and nitrites leached from flower greenhouses have spread mats of oxygen-choking water hyacinth across its surface. Water hyacinth — a South American perennial invaded Africa as a potted plant — crawls ashore beating back the papyrus. The rotting tissues of hippo carcasses reveal the secret to perfect bouquets: DDT and, 40 times more toxic, Dieldrin — pesticides banned in countries whose markets have made Kenya the world’s number-one rose exporter.

I doubt the flowers I see in grocery stores and in the hands street corner sellers come from Kenya, but wherever they come from, many of the problems would be the same. As any gardener knows, perfect roses and carnations, orchids and lilies, don’t grow all by themselves. They have become addicted to the chemicals that make them marketable.

For now, I’ll find my flower enjoyment in the blooms I see in gardens or in my potted lights. At least I know I’m not contributing to mass murder.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

For All of You Who Are Experiencing Grief

I always know when someone who is grieving has discovered my blog — the number of views increases dramatically while the number of visitors stays the same. Only an intense loss (or upcoming loss) keeps someone here long enough to read a sampling of my grief posts.

Although I am on the downward slide of grief, every day someone else encounters the shock of grief that bewilders, steals their breath, shatters their lives, and makes them question their very being.

A long time ago, long before the internet and blogs, I used to write soul-searching letters, similar to my blog posts. I never expected my friends to save the letters. I was young, changing rapidly, and the letters reflected my thoughts about life at any given moment. Once, years after such a spate of letters, my then best friend called me, told me she’d found a stack of letters. She read portions of them aloud to me, and laughed. She couldn’t understand my hurt — she’d seen how far I’d come, and she thought I’d be as amused as she was by my younger self. I tried to be a good sport, but her laughter seemed such a betrayal, I never felt the same about her again. Nor did I ever feel the same about writing letters. In fact, I never wrote another personal letter again lest my feelings linger far beyond their meaning.

Then came blogging and the loss of my life mate/soul mate. I wondered if I would ever regret pouring out my soul on this blog as I did in those letters, but I understood how important it was for both me and my fellow bereft to try to find words for what we were feeling, so writing such personal posts never bothered me. I also knew that if anyone laughed, they were more to be pitied than castigated — only profound and complicated love leads to such all-encompassing grief, and if they’d never felt such grief, well, there was nothing I could do about it. Writing about my grief was simply a risk I took.

But no one laughed.

At the beginning, my grief posts reflected the feelings of me and others in my grief age group (those who lost their mates a few months before or a few months after I did). But grief is eternal. We may not still be lost in the anguish of new grief, lost in the confusion of grief that lingers beyond what family and friends think acceptable, or lost in the maze of trying to create a new life for ourselves, but someone is.

For all of you who are experiencing grief, know that I’ve been there. I understand at least a little of what you are going through, and my heart cries out to you. People who dealt with profound grief before I did told me that someday I will find renewed interest in life, generally (though not always) within four to five years. It was true for them. It was true for me. And it will be true for you.

Until then, wishing you peace.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Standing on an Unbuilt Bridge to the Future

It’s not often a picture speaks to me. I’m not particularly visual, which is why I write and dance rather than paint. Still, I keep thinking of the Three of Wands tarot image painted by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. The picture is of a woman accompanied only by a cat, standing on the end of an uncompleted bridge arcing out over a river far below. The meaning of the card is about seeking what is uncharted, expanding one’s horizons, taking a long view, moving fearlessly into new areas, trusting that the bridge will form beneath our feet as we tread beyond what we know. (The symbolism of the cat wasn’t explained, but traditionally, cats tend to give us messages of change, flexibility, adaptability, beckoning us to realize that when we turn within to our own hearts, minds and souls, and trust in ourselves, we will always be shown the truth of matters.)

I’ve been researching various other interpretations of the Three of Wands card, and though there is some difference of opinion, generally the card means, besides just expanding one’s horizons, looking away from the past to an unknown future, dreaming beyond current limitations, trusting in oneself (when there is no one else to help, we can always look to ourselves and never be let down), and new opportunities for financial success. This card often is about traveling to actual places, but it also refers to other travels such as fresh starts, new insights, and even dance. (Bruce Chatwin wrote: “To dance is to go on pilgrimage.”)

This was the first tarot card I ever drew for myself (actually, I didn’t draw it, it fell out of the deck when I was shuffling the cards), and it will probably be the last because I wouldn’t want to dilute its power. The card hints at a visionary and creative future for me, and gives me a image of myself that I’d like to believe — strong and fearless, embracing the unknown, willing to go beyond the ordinary even if I have to go alone.

Perhaps that image of me isn’t true now, but as I continue to change, continue to be open to whatever happens, continue to believe that something awesome (in the sense of causing both fear and wonder) lies ahead, then the world will lie open at my feet.

Now that I think about it, isn’t this true of all of us? We’re standing on an unbuilt bridge to the future, the past behind us, the bridge growing beneath our feet when we walk. There’s nothing really to be gained by looking back, especially since looking back could cause us to lose our balance. So, like the woman in Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s lovely painting, we go forward, trusting, hoping, believing . . .

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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