Sunday, March 18, 2012

haunting, part 3/3

reflection on upper grassi lake, canmore, january 2012


Haunting, 1/3

Haunting, 2/3

I suppose it’s the very nature of death itself that confounds me, unknowable to anyone, perhaps even as it is happening to you (and then perhaps its very nature, its essence is rendered utterly irrelevant, at the only moment it would be possible to know). And it’s really silly, because again – how can you ever really know how it feels for anyone else? Ever, about anything at all? Perhaps it hurts because it is the incomprehensibility of death mirrors the true understanding of anyone other than yourself (and even then, it can be tenuous).

A few weeks ago I sat through a seminar about Emmanuelis Levinas and how the lecturer wanted to use him in creating their new vision of anthropology; it didn’t sit well with anyone (do not tell social anthropologists that objectivity exists, e.g.) but I was happy that it reminded me about Levinas who I hadn’t really thought about in years.

Levinas wrote of our solitude of Being, and about the Other. How we can only know through the Other (in that they are a sort of mirror), the Other can never be completely known. We do the best we can to comprehend other beings; like yet like Simone Weil (another philosopher-friend of my soul) noted, every separation is a link. We come into Being and until we die (de-create) we try to reach out through that space between to understand. We do this through language, through speech, as Levinas wrote it “brings the world to the other, thereby creating a common world”. Speech is “the offering of a world to another”. I wrote in my journal last fall, in scribblings for a poem, that ‘death reveals the failures of language’; and it was such a comfort to see this feeling reflected in his words.

Our deaths are not really ours, thinks Levinas, but our consciousness comes from how we are haunted by the other’s death. And death—death makes you feel so helpless, it seems to me, because it others the Other; that is, in destroying the Other it destroys all hope of understanding. You no longer have a mirror to help you understand yourself; you no longer have your conversational partner with which to gift the world and receive a certain comprehension.

But we have to live with this, these hauntings, and by expressing, acknowledging them, I think we can free ourselves, if only partially, from these places where language, where everything we rely on to make sense of the world breaks down.

haunting, part 2/3

willows on water, upper grassi lake, canmore, january 2012


Haunting, 1/3

And I am haunted. I don’t know how to express this, sometimes. How it still stops me in the middle of the day, and I am overcome by it, how it catches up to me just before sleep and I cannot because of thinking of him.

Mostly I am just struck again and again by the last day I spent with him, how we did not expect that it would happen so suddenly; it is the knowledge—and that I must ultimately accept that knowledge—that I will never have any idea what he was thinking or feeling when he did pass. Or if he even knew he was passing; a ‘massive cardiac event’, they called it, occurs so quickly you are often dead before you could even become cognizant anything is happening to you.

It’s not about being there when it happened; unlike my mother, I am okay with the fact I did not witness his death because I do know he would have wanted it that way. He was very private in his suffering; my mother and I (and one day, my sister) were the only ones he would allow to come see him in the hospital. He would not want others to be there to see him go.


In my notebook I wrote a few weeks after my dad passed (Sept 15 2011):

It scares me when I can’t quite remember those individual last days, the little details of the time I spent in the hospital with him. All I can distinctly feel is the ache of it, of seeing him too fatigued to even speak much, of his confusion, and the helplessness of knowing there was so little I could do. Bring him another blanket, take the water glass and tilt the straw up to his lips, adjust the oxygen tubes, remove his glasses and carefully fold him onto the nightstand before he fell asleep again.

I try to remind myself my being there helped him; I would think of how indignant I was initially when I came home from Scotland the first time and he didn’t have much to say to me, but feeling better when Mama told me that it just made him happy I was there, he just appreciated my presence there, with him, being silent together. I know it helped him, but that too makes me ache. How he would call me to help him walk up the stairs when he was still at home; then, the afternoon before he was taken by ambulance, to just sit in his room with him, because he felt so anxious, his breath was short, and he was afraid.

I am trying to construct a narrative of his last day. Of talking to him that morning; he was sitting up, sort of staring at the newspaper when I came in. How he asked me if Jack Layton had died, and I said, yes, he had. “That was fast,” he whispered, eyes widening. I told him I was going to postpone going back to Scotland right away, to stay home for a bit and help him when he got out of the hospital. How he got alarmed, and annoyed with me, told me to go hurry up and finish my PhD, but then softened and told me how much he appreciated me offering to stay. He slept a little while, and I did the millionth crossword puzzle I’d done that week.

Mama came, we found out it was not amyloidosis causing Dad's present state. Good news, yes. I left, went to meet Jason after work and cried on the sofa in SUB because despite the supposed good news I was realizing something I couldn't even begin to articulate. Went back to the hospital, to see him while he had his dinner—I cut the chicken parmigiana into tiny little morsels and fed them to him, his last meal. My heart was breaking at this, into tiny pieces at the full circle I felt had been turning since he got sick, the slow turning that I was already parenting my parents. But I made jokes about airplanes. I promised I would come early and be there to feed him his lunch the next day.

And Mama and I came, and we rubbed cold, swollen feet together, covered them in more warm blankets. I kissed his mountain-man whiskers, told him I loved him. He said it again to me, thanked me as I walked out the door. He waved to me, a slow opening and closing of his palm, the way he always did lately, too tired to move any more.

I need to remember these things. I need to because it just pains me so much that I will never know how it was when he died. I woke up the next morning to Uncle Ron throwing pine cones at Jason’s window and I was struggling to understand why I heard his voice and put clothes on and see him standing there with Mama telling me that Dad had passed away.

And it pains me so much that I will never know. I want to know, I have this need to know because if there is anything that ever comforts me it usually involves knowing. But I will never know his last moments, whether he was even conscious, if there was any struggle or raging, of if it was just a sleeping exhale, a ceasing unaware.

And what he told Mama after I left, about the brightest light he’d ever seen, earlier that morning while sitting in his chair before I came, there with the curtains drawn and through the window the most striking whiteness. Was that extra love and goodbye he sent to me as I left the room his way of telling me he knew? Did he know it was coming? Did he understand that light as a premonition? (Mama told him he was dizzy, needed to eat more)

I just want to know if he knew, and I know I won’t, I can’t. These narratives we construct are just ways to try to convince ourselves, comfort ourselves. I know death has little to do with the one dying, really.

When it all comes down to it, I am relieved, relieved I could be there, could say what I needed to say. Deeply honoured that I was close enough to him for him to allow me, ask me to care for him in those last days. I cannot convey, as much as I try, how much this means to me. To be there felt sacred. He gave me life, and he gave me so much in my life that has made me. I wish I could have given so much more, but I am thankful I could give this much. It was all that could be given. I know this.

But still, I just cannot bear the thought of him hurting, that he may have suffered in the dying, because I know he was suffering before. I can’t stand that. Can’t handle that. Cannot. Haunted by that.

haunting, part 1/3

birchbark, layered and peeling, north sask. river valley, edmonton, end of november 2011


From Barthes ‘Mourning Diary’: “Mourning: not diminished, not subject to erosion, to time. Chaotic, erratic: moments (of distress, of love of life) as fresh now as on the first day…” – Nov. 29th.

It’s been six and a half months since my father passed away, and I still haven’t written a letter to his main treatment physician to tell him that I think he is an incompetent asshole and that his treatment (or lack thereof) of his patients makes him a terrible human being.

But I am working on it; there is just a lot to still truly comprehend, in its most literal sense, to grasp, seize, take into the mind. There will likely be many letters to write; numerous versions exist already in my journals, my head, but many of them are too slanderous to send out into the world. It might be nearly seven months along but in many ways I am still not coherent enough to express some of my anger and anguish with regard to how things happened. They are particularly potent because they go beyond this one separate incident and speak to the ways illness is viewed in our society, western medicine’s mechanicalization of the body and its functions, and health care as a business (even if it’s not privatized, yet!) They speak to a lack of compassion that I frankly find terrifying. And so some of these things are yet to find their expression in words; I can’t yet do justice to what I want to say about them.

Time is not the healer of wounds. All time does is allow you to figure out how you are going to live with things, to let you accept and incorporate yourself into a new reality. At this point I feel less like I am living in an alternate universe, yes, time has helped with that. But that doesn’t mean I still don’t feel pain at his death just as acutely as after it happened.

Barthes: It is said (…) that Time soothes mourning. No, Time makes nothing happen; it merely makes the emotivity of mourning pass”. --March 20th.

I still hurt from my grandmother’s death over 6 years ago. I will always miss her fiercely. However, I feel less pain from her passing. It’s not because of distance in our relationship; we were incredibly close; but I was able to understand and accept her death much more swiftly and easily. She was nearly 91 years old; just over a month before she passed away (before she was hospitalized for a haemorrhage deep inside her brain) she stated to us that she wasn’t going to live another winter. She commented that this cheered her, because she was missing her mother (who died nearly 50 years prior) and she looked forward to seeing her again. She was tired, she was done. And there was grace in that. But my father wasn’t near finished. And I ache not only for the fact I don’t have him around anymore—

(though I constantly remind myself I am lucky, his own father died when he was 21, my mother’s father when she was just 10)

but because there was so much more he wanted in life. Yes, he was 63, but he was not ready to be finished with this just yet. And that will always break my heart.

I don’t believe loss, and mourning a loss, is something to ‘get over’. It is something that has changed you. Like having cancer, it is something you do not fight to be free of, it’s something you must simply learn to live with.

& I get frustrated sometimes by the subtle disbelief and frustration people show if I mention I am still grieving. I don’t even know if they realize they do it, but I can feel it sometimes flickering in, a swift dismissal, a lack of engagement. I try to be understanding, knowing that losing a parent (regardless of your relationship with them in life) is not something that’s easy to imagine outside of experience. But I think because people who are not well acquainted with grief and mourning are also terrified of it, and therefore they would like the bereaved to hurry up and go through it, you know – gnash and wail for a bit but get on with it. They don’t want to know that it haunts.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

dear yakutsk

Dear Yakutsk, I miss you. I didn't think I'd be having these feelings a year later from when I was still wandering your slippery February streets, waiting for them to melt into the morass of mud as the earth heaved into spring. But I do. I think about you a lot these days, when I'm writing my dissertation, and since I am basically always writing/thinking about my dissertation these days, you are never far from my thoughts.

(The ice cream stands and those pomegranate-champagne popsicles and how children eat ice cream on the street even at -40C. Strolling with friends through the Park Kultury looking for first crocuses, glimpsing the berry-red breasts of bulfinches, sitting on benches the first jacketless day basking in wind and sun)

You--as a city, a centre, a place people move through--are becoming pretty important as a concept in my writing, because of what people consider you to be and what you do to their language, or perhaps more accurately, what their language does to you. Because place is never a background, no mere scenery -- place is an actor, an interlocutor, it is something more.

(Tea with Fenya at that little café named after Mister Livingston Seagull for no apparently reason, weeping until our heads ached after seeing the play 'Taptal', eating cabbage pirozhky, nimbly walking through the flooded streets, around the riverine roads and their ice floes, time to gulyat', to ramble and wander, nowhere in particular but eventually home)

I am talking about mobility, and movement, about people moving and being in places and referring to places, and speaking in places and from places, about things taking place. And Yakutsk, you are important. You are a mecca and a temptation, a place of possibility and a necessary evil. You are a strange collection of pebbles along the banks of a very large and powerful river, ruins and transformation, and people hate you and people tolerate you and they also love you, both purely and begrudgingly, because you are home for so many, at least temporarily, and it is people that make you, really, and it is those people who (grew up within you, came to you later, wandered back and forth) who hold you together.

(Out at Liuda's dacha on the city's edge, we rake the leaves and the long grasses, like combing the unkempt hair of the earth, tidying, readying for the spring. Call of the wagtail, flickering against the blue, blue sky. The quietest nights in the pine-scented cabin darkness, waking to the match strikes and kettle whistles. Furnishing the summer kitchen, burning herbs and making an offering to the fire--the hotplate--to consecrate this space.)

These aren't even my best pictures of you, but I like the ones I posted above, of people dancing the ohuokhai on Victory Day last May, dancing on you, because there is still earth beneath your concrete cobblestones on the Ploshchad Pobedy, and they remember that.

(Spring nights, the windows open, curtain breezes. Tea and transcription. In the courtyard, the sun lounging on the horizon, steady thump of basketballs, beat to the guitars and Sakha pop songs strummed. One day they are playing circle games, then someone starts to dance ohuokhai, these young students from the ulus, a girl is calling, they are answering and they go faster and faster over the uneven cobblestones until the vakhtërshka calls them in)

You are hazy, in the ice fog and the early summer forest fires, and sometimes you feel stagnant even though you are still growing, spilling, sprawling. Sometimes you feel like a real city, but what is that anyway, but yes, not just an aggregation of buildings and paths and things, you are a whole and a system and you work. Shakily sometimes, without water sometimes, but you function.

(The thickness of the cold as the wooden doors creak out into the bluish daylight. Every breath a blessing. Strange to see the foreign fruits and vegetables in this wasteland, chat with the bewildered Uzbek boy who never knew you could survive in this before. Frozen fish sold on the streets, in brown wooden bins standing solidly like thick iced baguettes. Cars materializing in the fog, the scurrying masses, mittened hands over their faces. Quiet except for the fuzzy footsteps, the crisp whisper of stars in your breath.)

I wish you had more trees, of course, but I understand the whole river steppe-plain thing and really short growing season. Your birches are lovely whether losing their gold early or weighted by hoarfrost, branches tired arteries, or growing their first green leaves, the ones people compare to the tongues of carp.

(The wooden houses, still standing weathered after another winter. Ice cascading over the leaky waterpump. Flocking of waxwings in Zalog, lining the telephone wires, swooping to devour the ashberries, swirling up into the sun. Shashlik on the street corner, and everyone emerging from their small stacked apartment nests to skate out March and April on the oxbows, make long lazy loops of the Green Meadow on skis after work as the sun finally starts to linger into the evenings.)

Silly foreigners will say you are not a real city, that your architecture is a shabby and cheap pastiche, your restaurants are naive and pretentious places aping the cuisine of a 'real' European city and yes, there's a lot of trash everywhere and half-wild dogs (who have their own parallel civilization), the sidewalks don't know how to lie flat on the stretching, thawing earth--but you know better than to listen to them, because it's not even worth having debates about taste. Your own citizens will complain about you, apologize on your behalf but they'll also defend you, they'll stand for you, because you stand for something, for them.

(Peeling pastel pink paint, the bright jewel-toned murals, the infinite repetition of the lyre-like folk designs--fertility, new life, fortune, light. Someone gives a blessing as earth is turned for the new hospital. Dancers pour out of the theatre into the square. Flowers for Ammosov, day of the Republic. On the weekends subbotniki gathering the trash out of the sloughs and marshes, stopping to picnic by the spindly birches. At the long-distance bus depot, men chat, joke, smoke silently, resting before they head off again, lifting up their faces to early summer sun.)

You are a place where things happen. Where people live and makes things, and they are making a lot of things and they are making them in the Sakha language and the Russian language and even the English language and they are trying to rise above corruption and loss and uncertainty and that is really something. They are trying to inspire and allow themselves to be inspired. That is what happens in places. That's really enough for me.

(Also, your sunsets and clouds and skies in the summer from my kitchen window crossed by swallows are some of the most breathtaking I have ever seen, and I've been to Hawai'i, and you win.)