Thomas Hardy vs. Grief

In Tenebris

Thomas Hardy

Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum.” —Ps. ci.

Wintertime nighs; 
But my bereavement-pain 
It cannot bring again: 
Twice no one dies. 

Flower-petals flee; 
But, since it once hath been, 
No more that severing scene 
Can harrow me. 

Birds faint in dread: 
I shall not lose old strength 
In the lone frost’s black length: 
Strength long since fled! 

Leaves freeze to dun; 
But friends can not turn cold 
This season as of old 
For him with none. 

Tempests may scath; 
But love can not make smart 
Again this year his heart 
Who no heart hath. 

Black is night’s cope; 
But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

Long long ago in a dormitory not so far away — five hours — I was confronted with this poem. At the time my dad was in a nursing home in Colorado Springs, his life suspended between a reclining wing-backed chair and a coma. Most Fridays I got on the Continental Trailways bus which I caught at the terminal in downtown Denver. Thinking about it, I can still smell the winter air and diesel wafting from the cold garage into the bus terminal waiting room with its chrome-armed benches and light green plastic upholstery from which the original pattern of pale ice cubes remained only on the sides where no one sat. $1.85 to get to Colorado Springs. I always had that, whatever expenses the week brought.

I stepped up the three steps with my little blue suitcase carrying homework and underwear (backpacks hadn’t become “the thing” yet), and handed my ticket to the conductor and took my seat by the window. Sometimes there was someone sitting beside me with stories to tell, often not. I wondered if my boyfriend would meet my bus or my mom. Usually it was my boyfriend, a man I later married, but that’s a subject for a blog post that will remain unwritten.

“Go see your dad,” said my mom when I walked in the front door, as if I needed to be told.

Whatever I found at the nursing home, I stayed. If he were lying in a coma, I did homework. If he were sitting up, we talked. By that time his speech was very garbled and he often used a Ouija board (imagine!) as an alphabet board to spell out the words he wanted to speak. He would point with his finger — spastic though his hands were, frustrating though it was for this short-tempered Irishman — and we would talk, sometimes for hours. He would tell me what to buy my mom to give her for Christmas, birthday, anniversary from him. His gifts to my mom were always something lovely. I would go to the new mall, The Citadel, filled with importance, carrying the checkbook that was our joint checking account, make the purchase and buy a mushy card on which Dad would scrawl what he could of the words, “I love you, Bill.” I always hoped that a gift would fix everything. I wonder if my dad hoped that, too.

Then the day came when I learned once and forever that hope is not enough. That paradoxical human thing without which we cannot live, but which cannot, in itself, keep anything alive, except itself. Hardy’s poem, which had been completely incomprehensible to me when I studied it the year before my father’s death, suddenly made too much sense, but it had a message I’ve retained all my life, “Twice no one dies…” followed by, “

… But death will not appal 
One who, past doubtings all, 
Waits in unhope. 

I spent the next three months pretty much alone at school, avoiding friends, studying, trying to make sense of life without my best friend. My dad’s death was a rocket that shot me into a universe none of my peers seemed to inhabit. I could see them from a distance, but I couldn’t hear them.

It took a L–O–N–G time to understand hope, and, again, Thomas Hardy (whose poetry I had in a HUGE book, The Poems of Thomas Hardy, by that time, not just in my even HUGER anthology of Victorian poetry) spoke to me in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush”

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.

Featured photo: Bus station in Colorado Springs back in the day… My dad had multiple sclerosis, diagnosed when he was 27, died when he was 45. I was 20.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/10/09/rdp-wednesday-tenebrous/

“Multiple Sclerosis, Vikings and Nordic Skiing”

As I was writing my post yesterday about my sweet ski “adventure” I remembered a rune of a Viking on skis with a bow and arrow and I wanted to put it in my post. I googled it and found it, yay! (should I end this here?) I also found a program on PBS that caught my attention, “Multiple Sclerosis, Vikings and Nordic Skiing.” How could ANYONE not be caught by a title like that? For me it was especially provocative. My dad suffered from MS and, beyond that obvious hook, who isn’t fascinated by Vikings and, yeah, Langlauf. ❤

Wow.

I already knew that MS is more prevalent among people from Northern Europe. It has a much higher incidence in Scandinavia and among those of Scandinavian descent. Science has now tracked it across the North Atlantic, a disease of the central nervous system carried in Viking Ships. My dad’s mother was from Sweden, and Ancestry tells me I am mostly Scots, Irish and Scandinavian, all parts of the world where MS is comparatively common. Yay Vikings!

MS is an autoimmune disease that most often shows up in young adulthood, but people can have it for a long time without knowing it. The film goes into detail about the diagnosis and the science behind the progress of the disease. It can now be accurately diagnosed with an MRI, which didn’t exist when my dad was alive. My dad’s MS was diagnosed with certainty in an autopsy. If you’re interested, you can learn about MS here, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society webpage.

Dad, me, Aunt Martha 1963

The program followed six people in the United States and Norway who’d been diagnosed with MS. One of the points of the program was how exercise can help people with MS. The problem with exercise is that heat — even a rise in body temperature — can be debilitating, causing fatigue and a relapse of symptoms. The obvious sport for a person with MS is the national sport of Norway; Nordic skiing.

In 2012 and 13 (I believe) the American Birkebeiner worked in partnership with the National Multiple Sclerosis Foundation to raise money for MS. Three of the skiers in the program did the American Birkebeiner race. At the same time, three Norwegian women skied the Norwegian Birkebeiner.

Both American Birkebeiner races drew Norwegian Olympic champion skiers to Wisconsin to race and raise funds. One of those champions has a mom who suffers from MS.

As I watched them race, I was lost, thinking, “Birki WHAT?” I had no idea…

It started in 1206. Birkebeiner skiers, so called for their protective birch bark leggings, skied through the treacherous mountains and rugged forests of Norway’s Osterdalen valley during the winter of 1206, smuggling the son of King Sverresson and Inga of Vartieg to safety. The flight taken during the Norwegian Civil War took the Birkebeiners and prince from Lillehammer to safety in the town of Trondheim. Inga of Vartieg never became queen as the prince’s father was killed before he could return for her in Vartieg. Norwegian history credits the Birkebeiners’ bravery with preserving the life of the boy who later became King Haakon Haakonsson IV and forever changed Northern Europes’ history by his reign.

The story and painting of the flight were the inspiration for the first Birkebeinger ski race held in Norway in 1932. To this day, Norwegian skiers still carry a pack, symbolizing the weight of an 18-month child, in the Worldloppet’s Norwegian Birkebeiner Rennet race from Rena – Lillehammer. Thousands of skiers commemorate the journey with annual Birkebeiner races in Norway, Canada, and the United States.

The race known today as the American Birkebeiner began in 1973 as the dream of the late Tony Wise. Thirty-four men and one lone woman were on the starting line clad in woolen sweaters and knickers for the 50-kilometer race from the Lumberjack Bowl in Hayward to Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wisconsin. Nineteen more women and juniors would ski a shorter race from “OO” to Telemark. Few knew they were going to make history. There were no U.S. Ski Team members or foreign skiers, just a handful of enthusiasts from a couple of midwestern states, out to try something new. Many of the entrants were on cross-country skis for the first season – some for the first time.

Today, over 13,000 skiers of all ages and abilites and 20,000 spectators fromaround the world gather every February in the Cable-Hayward, Wisconsin area to celebrate “The Birkie”, a race which has become a legend in the cross-country ski world. We look forward to you joining us!

https://www.birkie.com/about/history/

The six racers with MS all made it. One of the Norwegian women said she hadn’t expected the race to be fun. “All along the way people cheered me on, gave me coffee, water, food. My time was better than I thought it would be, and I never felt alone. I had so much fun!”

Another Norwegian woman said that the race kept her training every day, even when she didn’t feel like it. When race day came, she was nervous, but ended up having a great time.

A young Wisconsin racer, a former competitive skier who’d been dismayed by her diagnosis (naturally) explained — as the camera followed her awkward little pink tight-clad form around the 25 mile course, “I stopped worrying about my time or competing. I was there to have fun and to make it all the way. It was wonderful. I hope I can keep having fun like this way into my 80s!”

A young man whose main symptom was arm weakness, said, “I felt my arms going about half way so, for a while, I just poled every other stroke.” He stood beaming with the Birkebeiner medal around his neck.

Mitigating​ Factors

I’ve known this tree since I was 16 or so. The first time I saw it, my friend Kathleen and I climbed up the cliff face. Back then the “Bluffs” was a quiet, seldom visited, mildly wild-and-woolly place. It was Sunday afternoon after church. Kathleen and I went to the same church, lived in the same hood and went to the same high school. We walked to school together every day and hung out on weekends. She had a horse named Irish Luck and a great dog, a Border collie named Ronco. We had a lot of fun rambling around up there and life was (mostly) good.

Life in my family wasn’t so good. My dad’s abilities were deteriorating quickly from his MS, and I was scared about losing him. There were family fights almost every night. I avoided home as much as possible by doing lots of extra-curricular activities at school and getting a job.

So anyway, one Sunday afternoon Kathleen, Ronco and I went up to the bluffs, found a trail, took it until it petered out, saw the sandstone cliff, climbed up and arrived at this amazing tree. I was stunned. Out of the ‘dead’ trunk of this Rocky Mountain Juniper rose a straight new tree, back then about 18 inches tall.

I grew up with poetry and the whole thing of metaphors and symbols. I immediately saw in that tree a metaphor that was useful to me. The tree grows in sandstone. There’s no soil or anything from which you’d think it could derive sustenance. It’s hundreds of years old. Where it looked like it might have been on its last roots, it wasn’t. Right then and there I took the lesson. Whatever’s going on around, you don’t let it defeat you. You just quietly and according to your nature, keep growing. It may seem strange, but that tree became a kind of surrogate mother to me.

2

From then on, pretty much every time Kathleen and I took a hike, we’d visit the tree for a few minutes unless it was our destination and then we’d go there and hang out. Today, you can drive to it if you want, but back in the late sixties, that wasn’t the case. Also, we walked from home. I’d pick up Kathleen and we’d trounce across a then nearly-deserted Academy Boulevard, run across a hay field, and into the thickets of scrub oak of the lower Bluffs, the neighborhood wilderness. That world is gone.

The day before yesterday, I saw my orthopedic surgeon. He X-rayed the hip replacement, examined me and said, “No restrictions. Go run up a mountain. Go ski. Where will you ski?”

Yesterday, my friend Lois (who grew up in the same neighborhood and also rambled around in the Bluffs with her brothers) and I went to see my tree. I had a lot to tell it. I can’t say I went up the hills like a mountain goat, but I did OK. My only struggle now is a lack of confidence in my footing. I will have to relearn the confidence I once felt on rocky slopes and sharper hills. We got near the tree and noticed a small one, pretty much just like my tree, but younger — maybe only fifty years old! It could easily be my tree’s daughter. They are the only two Rocky Mountain Junipers in this immediate area.

1

Young Rocky Mountain Juniper

At my tree, I did what I did as a girl. I wrapped my arms around her. I cried, releasing all the emotion of the past several months, and I told her everything. Then, my feelings spent, I looked at her and saw how well she is doing. She has secreted sap and she was loaded with juniper berries. ❤

Have you seen God in His splendors,
heard the text that nature renders?
(You’ll never hear it in the family pew).
Robert Service, “The Call of the Wild”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2018/09/30/rdp-sunday-secrete/

“Life is an Overcoming”

“Life is an overcoming,” said Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra 

I was sitting at one end of the sofa. My very crippled and messed up dad on the other. I was “dad” sitting. He was watching TV and occasionally suffering a leg spasm. I was in high school, going through my sophisticated phase and reading “forbidden” or questionable books. Nietzsche was questionable to my teacher, Miss Cohen for reasons that I think are now obvious. We talked about the book and in it, she explained, came Hitler’s idea of the ‘Übermensch’.

That isn’t what I found at all.

From the first chapter, it’s clear that he has a different view of things, a human centered view. One of the first things he says as he prepares to walk down to the village from the mountain is directed at the sun, “Oh great star, what would you be if not for those for whom you shine?”

And down he comes.

Still no “Übermensch.” I found all kinds of ordinary, simple people and a half-mad oracle. I got the impression that the oracle was a little out of his mind, still, he brought a message of stoicism and hope to the village people (YMCA!) who were struggling with misery and darkness that was, in Zarathustra’s mind, mainly in their heads.

“You tell me your lives are hard to bear, but if it were otherwise, how would you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the afternoon?”

My dad had a more severe spasm and nearly slid off the sofa. I was there to catch him. He motioned to his urinal. I said, “No problem, dad.”

He said, “Errrrwwa errr eading?”

I said, “Thus Spake Zarthustra,” handing him his urinal.

“Werrr ooo ike it?”

“So far.”

My dad finished. I took the urinal to the bathroom, flushed the contents, rinsed it out in the tub. Back in the living room, “Listen to this, dad. It’s beautiful.”

“K.”

I read the beginning, the prologue.

WHEN Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake

of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed, and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went be- fore the sun, and spoke to it thus:

You great star! What would your happiness be, had you not those for whom you shine?

For ten years have you climbed here to my cave: you would have wearied of your light and of the journey, had it not been for me, my eagle, and my serpent.

But we waited for you every morning, took from you your overflow, and blessed you for it.

Behold. I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would rather give away and distribute, until the wise among men once more find joy in their folly, and the poor in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as you do in the evening, when you go behind the sea, and give light also to the underworld, you ex- uberant star!

Like you I have to go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, you tranquil eye, that can look on even the greatest happiness without envy!

“Isn’t that beautiful, Dad?”

“Es.

“That’s just the beginning!”

“Ayyyknow.”

I loved Zarathustra. I knew nothing about who or what he was supposed to have been, but I liked the idea of his going off by himself to figure out his right relation to the universe. The message of life being “an overcoming” really struck home for me given the situation we — my family — were all living at the time.

As for Hitler, all I could guess  was that he didn’t really understand it. I suggested this to my English teacher, Miss Cohen, and she nodded. “Possibly that’s true, Martha,” she said. “But what horror that misunderstanding unleashed.”

***

So this morning I revisited ZarathustraIt’s still beautiful.

You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?

Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate! We are all of us fine beasts of burden, male and female asses.

What have we in common with the rose-bud, which trembles because a drop of dew has formed upon it?

It is true we love life; not because we are used to life, but because we are used to loving.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/overcome/

Mother’s Day Gift

My mother was an anxious person. She panicked easily (and often). There were drugs in the cabinet to help her with this. Librium was the main med, I think. She was also a sad person, an envious person, a doubtful person, an insecure person, a fearful person. When things were going well and life was balanced, she was charming and funny, but it was far too easy to knock her off balance.

She did not like me very much. I think that was always the case. I don’t think it happened later in life as the result of teenage independence fights. I think it was — early on — the status quo. I was a “colicky” baby and it made my mother feel that she was a failure. Very insecure people have an exaggerated idea of their own importance (a paradox) and so my crying and discomfort were all her fault or me doing something to her. She also relied on me, from a very early age, to help her. Helping her was a thankless task, but I loved her and saw it as a privilege to step in where she felt unable. I even made phone calls for her when I visited her in Montana. Once her stove broke, and she just used the one functioning burner until I got there and could call a repairman.

When my father died, my mom broke inside. It was horrible. He’d lived with ever worsening MS for 20 years. In the last years, we cared for him at home as long as we could. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being “sent away to die.” As a kid, I had no clue, really, what was happening. Finally he went to live in a nursing home. That should have alleviated some of my mom’s burden, but it just meant she had to drive on icy streets to visit him, and that terrified her.

When my dad died, she was a tangled mix of emotions. Since she lived in her own world, in which she was the center, she was increasingly trapped. Without my dad there to need her, to praise her, to love her, she felt she no longer existed. She retreated further into Librium and Bourbon, passivity and darkness. She was unreachable for a long time.

Then, somehow, it seemed miraculously, she rallied herself. She sold the family house (built for my dad, a special house for disabled people paid for partly by the Veterans Association) insisting it be sold to a disabled veteran. She moved from Colorado Springs to Denver where my aunt lived and not as far from where I was with my husband in Boulder. She tried (and fairly succeeded) to build a life.

Still, as dependent as she was on others, the life stood on shaky ground, and as time went on, life’s normal disappointments dragged her down again to the dark place where, finally, I think, she surrendered not only her life but her soul.

Yesterday, in the process of cleaning out the garage, I opened the box marked (by my mom) “Family Photos.” I don’t have any family that will want these photos, and I had determined to throw them out. There was a plastic bag with letters in it that my mom had saved. Many were letters from me to her while I was in China. There were a few letters from my brother, I kept them. Letters from her friends. Not my business. There was a letter from the man who had been the minister to her family all my mother’s life. He had baptized her (and her sisters) in the Little Bighorn River. He officiated at my parents’ wedding in 1948, he had done the funeral for my father in 1972. His name was Chet Bentley.

Rev. Bentley had suffered one of the greatest losses any human can experience; the death of a child. His son had fought in WW II. He’d survived and was coming home. Just a few miles from Crow Agency, less than 30 minutes from home, he was killed in a car crash. My mom, telling me this story, said, “I don’t know how Rev. Bentley survived that.”

The letter to my mom answers that question. It opens with, “O Helen, what in the world are you doing to yourself?” The rest is an impassioned plea that my mom pick herself up and find meaning in her life. He writes about the importance of will. He quotes Scripture (minimally) “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” He then writes, “It takes effort, it takes a change of mind sometimes and an act of the will, as well as reliance on the Divine Power. You can do it, Helen. I believe you can. I’m praying that you will find something to live for – in yourself, in Martha Ann and in some thing to you want to accomplish…”

I have wondered if this passionate, inspiring letter was the reason, the motivating factor, behind my mom’s effort to find her feet again.

After finding the letter and thinking about the times I met this man, I wanted to know more about him. I “Googled” him and found this amazing bit of history. It told me things I didn’t know — such as the Crow Indians refused to let the government put the Japanese who lived on the reservation (and there were many) into the internment camp at Hart Mountain. It’s a beautiful, inspiring piece of western history in which this passionate, kind man played a large part.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/panicked/

Blue Eyes

?It’s December 1971. I’m 19. I’m in my dorm room at the woman’s college, listening to the radio. Carly Simon. I’m sitting on my bed, line by line decoding The Odyssey. I believed that all educated people could read Greek, so there I was, working on my education. It didn’t occur to me as I translated five lines a day that I wasn’t really learning Greek. I didn’t know much about language learning at that point in my life. I didn’t know how important that would be to my livelihood forever.

There were many things on the horizon that December that I could not have known precisely, though I knew they were off in the not-to-far distance. Anticipation.

I was anticipating Christmas break. Thanksgiving had been the usual. Aunt Martha came by the dorm in her Oldsmobile, picked me up, and we drove to Colorado Springs. Mom had me set the table with the china and crystal. At 3 pm, as usual for Thanksgiving, the four of us — mom, my brother, my aunt and I — ate our dutiful capon. Mom didn’t like turkey. When it was over, we sat around and then my mom said, “Fix a plate and take it to your dad.”

Dad was in a nursing home. I did this. I hung out with my dad for a while, fed him Thanksgiving dinner while my mom and aunt cleaned up the kitchen — usually my job, but this was a special day. A little later they arrived and I went home.

I had a date, after all, and a boyfriend. A guy I would actually marry 7 months later.

So there I was, decoding Homer as the snow fell outside my window, cracked open a little so a pigeon I’d befriended could perch there for warmth.

Final exams for fall semester. Filling blue books and typing essays. Erasable typing paper didn’t help a lot, but some. Sometime in my own teaching career, grading papers that had been sloppily proofread, I pitied my professors. Final editorial pieces for the semester, Merry Christmas, end of semester, summing up of the year. Packing. Closing the window completely, somewhat ruefully but sure the pigeon would work something out. Packed. Aunt Martha, “Are you ready, Martha Ann?”

“I’m ready. Let’s go.” Put the suitcase in the trunk of the Oldsmobile and off we go, catching the I-25 somewhere, probably an entry ramp that doesn’t exist any more crossing a city that doesn’t exist any more.

“I’m going to go see dad,” I say, soon after I arrived.

“OK, honey.”

Dad had been in a coma since a couple of days after Thanksgiving. I knew — we all knew — that something was going to happen; we anticipated the worst, we debated about what the “worst” actually was.

I got into the Ford Galaxie 500XL, turned the key, backed out of the garage. The winter light at that altitude is white and oblique, the sun so far south, beautiful. I knew so much less about it at that point in my life than I do now that part of me feels impatience with that girl. “Look around,” I want to say.

“I’m trying,” she’d say, and there’s no way to dispute that. It’s true. She was trying.

I had brought homework to do while my dad was just lying there in a coma. I settled into my usual chair, opened whatever book I’d be starting the semester with come January. I took my dad’s hand in mine and read.

After about an hour I felt him squeeze my hand. Thinking it was a reflex, a dream, I looked up. His eyes were open. He was looking at me, full on, as I had never been looked at before or since. For a long time we just looked at each other, unrelenting eye contact, “words” crossing the air between our minds, every needful thing “spoken” in that silent space.

“Do you want me to read to you, Dad?” I picked up Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and turned it to “Jabberwocky” which he loved.

When I finished, and could see he’d enjoyed it, I knew I had to call my mom. I had to call the nurse. There was a short litany of “have to’s” in that moment and I accomplished them. Soon there was a bustle in that quiet room; the busyness of life. My mom appeared in her long winter coat and lipstick to see her husband. The nurse replaced the IV needle that had come out. I retreated to the corner of the room knowing that a moment in my life had just ended, but beautifully.

My dad was conscious through Christmas. We opened presents together at the nursing home on Christmas Eve. My dad gave me a pen and pencil set. He’d scrawled on the gift tag, “Keep writing, MAK.” A week after I returned to school, he was again in a coma. A month later he was dead.

I don’t anticipate any more. A lifetime of discipline has brought me to the point where I know that the future is its own business. This moment, eternally-loving, blue eyes.

***

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/anticipation/