Sometimes within the brain's old
I hear, far off, at some forgotten
A music and an eerie faint carouse
And stir of echoes down the
-- Archibald Macleish, "Chambers of Imagery"1
Hawkwife's mother -- my mother-in-law -- passed away December 19th, 2007, at the nursing home where she had lived for less than a year. I affectionately referred to her as "Mumsie" and had served as her primary caretaker from the day Wifey and I married until the time we moved her into the nursing home. Truth to tell, I continued the role even afterward, working to ensure due diligence in her care and facilitate understanding and communications between Mumsie, the staff and us.
The house felt quiet, somewhat empty, when we moved Mumsie to the nursing home. I felt somewhat empty, somewhat relieved, and a little as though I had betrayed not just a friend but a person who had grown to depend upon me to be there to help her.
There are so many ways to second guess the decisions one makes in life, regardless of whether it pertains to something major or minor. With major decisions -- those which impact not just your life but the lives of others -- the tendency to second-guess can explode exponentially into a multitude of "what-ifs" and "if onlys" until the mind and spirit strain under the weight.
We were spared some of this.
Some of it.
We missed Mumsie, but were no longer able to care for her at home without assistance, and we didn't qualify for the assistance we needed.2 It was the best thing we could do to ensure the high level of care we'd established for her, albeit at a cost of a level of interaction that I still regret today.
In the aftermath of her passing, as days stretched into weeks and the weeks into months, we've come to believe that she gently lingers with us in both memories unbidden and incidents of awkward recognition -- her life spirit, echoing through the halls of body, mind and abode. It is a reassuring feeling, comforting on several levels even while a touch spooky and otherworldly.
A minor New England Haunting
Animals are uncanny in their ability to discern unseen changes in life around them, as well to apparently determine when one of their human family has passed beyond the veil of mortal life. Both our dogs Ember and Jack have reacted to us as though they realize that Mumsie has passed; Jack, the younger but much larger dog, appeared to sense it more keenly. Perhaps it was due to his own experience with death,3 or perhaps due to the oddly coincidental nature of his own arrival in our lives.4. Whatever it was, from the very night that Mumsie had passed, he's been spooked about going into her room, a room that he formerly always tried to get into.
He acted as though someone was there, and was freaked that he couldn't see the person. In addition to the animals, both Wifey and I have experienced a few interesting moments.
Initially, after Mumsie's passing, we'd kept her bedroom door shut most of the time. Part of this -- most of the reason, initially -- was to avoid reminding Wifey of her mom by confronting her with the open door to her mother's room, particularly at night. Now, it's open most of the time except when it's really cold outside, when we need to try and conserve heat. But the door, when shut, didn't always ~stay~ shut. Sometimes, when Wifey or I would walk by it, it would pop open just the way it did when Mumsie would apply a little strength to the knob to unstick it and pull sharply. The first time it happened to either of us, we each jumped nearly out of our skins. Sometimes, when all of us are downstairs, we'll hear someone moving around in Mumsie's room upstairs, sounding just like she did when we'd all still lived here -- long before she'd had to go to the nursing home. The first time this happened, I thought it was either Jack or Wifey, until I turned and saw Jack next to me. Ember was on Wifey's normal chair in the living room, so I called out to Wifey to ask her what she's doing, and she answered from the computer room around the corner -- thus accounting for everyone in the house, and leaving me momentarily dumbstruck about the footsteps pitter-pattering 'round up in Mumsie's room. Sometimes, we hear something fall as though it was knocked over. At first, still raw with grieving, Wifey was very upset by these events. She wrote about them elsewhere, but made an explicit reference to some of the creaking:5
My husband, the dogs, and I jump when we hear the creaks in the kitchen ceiling. Above is Mom's bedroom. Her door slams shut and randomly pops open. I run upstairs and slam it shut, wedging a chair under the knob. "What if she wants to come out?" my husband asks.6
Wifey didn't find the question amusing in the least.
We made it through our first Christmas without Mumsie, then the first New Year, and the end of January brought Mumsie's birthday -- the first one without her to blow out the candles.7 "The Firsts" are always hard, learning to adapt to the unexpected absence of a loved one and to retrain the body, mind and spirit to acknowledge the loss, incorporate it and continue.
I recall something Wifey had written, similar to our stream of consciousness memorial to her mother, about making it through difficult periods by operating in an almost otherworldly form of autopilot. Her thoughts, about the day of her mother's funeral:
I'm numb, but the show must go on. You get dressed in the same outfit that you wore to the wake -- black-and-white tweed jacket, fuchsia turtleneck wool pullover, black pants, black boots. You do last night's dishes. You check your websites, hoping there's nothing answer because you really don't want to deal with questions or condolences right now. The car will be picking you up in a few minutes. Your husband is upstairs getting dressed. The dogs know something's going on, so they hunker down, looking at you to make sure you're OK. Everything's ready. The car pulls up. The driver, Fred, is a neighbor, whose wife was friendly your mother. You used to play kickball with his daughters. You arrive at the funeral home. The pallbearers and secretary greet you and lead you to Mom. Guests arrive for the morning prayers. You're asked to go to the car so Al, the director, can line up the procession to church. Inside you know that somebody's closing the lid. Mom always disliked the dark, but there is nothing you can do. You sit in the back seat making random conversation. You think of premature burial and the subsequent horror, but you also know that once the mortician drains the bodily fluids, there's no way anyone can remain alive. Then you think of how comatose your mother was the last day and a half of her life and how, basically, on her last day, she was a breathing corpse. You bite your lip and stare out the window.
The show must go on. No stopping and getting off, no slowing the ride down -- just sometimes disengaging your direct conscious participation or focusing it elsewhere. Next month will be the first time my wife and I will celebrate our wedding anniversary without Mumsie. We'll have been married five years. Sometimes, "first" sucks. Nary a day goes by that doesn't contain within it some echo of Mumsie, particularly for Wifey. Her mother was a constant presence in her life for over forty-odd years; the simplest of things, from daily chores to simply crossing into the kitchen, evoke a flood of memories. Wifey was experiencing this for the second time in her life -- the first time, the loss of her father when she was only thirteen poked a hole in her routine that her mind and heart tried to wrap itself around:
After Daddy died, I used to perch in my chair at the kitchen table, turned toward the side door. I would look up at the clock above the sink. Daddy always left work by 3PM ast the very latest and be home before 4 because there was no way he'd let himself get caught during rush hour. He'd bang open the side door, up the stairs and into the kitchen, kissing Mama hello then telling her whatever deals he and Joe had done during the day.
I sat there every day waiting for him. He'd arrive in his favorite navy suit, the suit we'd buried him in. He'd look exactly the same way he did before the cancer ravaged his body. I'd jump up and run up to him, hoping that he'd pick me up and whirl me around like he did when I was very little. Of course I knew he really wouldn't show up. He was in a box metal box six feet under the surface of sacred ground in a town near where Mom grew up. But that didn't mean there was a chance he couldn't show up. Stranger things had happened...why not Daddy?
That one event -- the loss of her father to cancer -- shaped the life that she and her mother built from that point forward. It was a loss that dealt them a harsh blow, but they muddled on through it, through the pain and the loss, for each other. Now, Wifey finds herself coping with the loss her mom, an event she dreaded even with her understanding that this was how life was meant to be -- parents raise children, children grow to adulthood, parents age and pass onward, and the cycle continues across the ages for as long as there are parents and children to perpetuate it.
Of course you have a totally different perspective as an adult. You know that once there is death, that's it. Nobody will come walking through the side door looking exactly as they did in their prime. You will never hear the voice in real time again. No more hugs, no more touches (or, in Mom's case, back scritches) . You feel vaguely disconnected, as though you're floating in space like a balloon with only a slender line tethering you to somewhere unseen far below. You're somewhat comfortable with this vague space place, which even makes you more disconnected. And that big unsppoken empty place deep in your gut. It's the place some people mention, but nobody can truly describe.
When somebody has been a fixture in your life for decades, their disappearance makes you even more disconnected. I come home from work. My husband and the dogs are upstairs, but once my hand starts to open the kitchen door, I expect to see Mom at the sink or doing the Herald cryptoquote at the table. If I stumble downstairs with a basket of laundry, I first wonder why light isn't already on, then, as I descend the basement stairs -- Mom? Where are you Mom?" Oh, there you are, folding my socks! Or repotting your plants! Or rewiring one of your lamps! Mom? Mom?
At one point during our caretaking of Mumsie, shortly before we had to turn to the nursing home for assistance, Mumsie had asked Wifey if she remembered her father. Wifey answered carefully, honestly but with an eye toward guarding Mumsie's feelings. Her memories of her father were fading, and we thought Mumsie was partly concerned that Wifey's memories of her would fade too. Mumsie knew that her life was coming to an end, and she didn't want to be forgotten.
Toward that end, she also tried to convince Wifey to bury her in the local cemetary instead of the plot that she held where her mother and her husband were buried; she was afraid we'd never visit her.
In the same breath, sometimes, she'd also threaten to never leave.
As I mentally review the various and sundry strange events and incidents that have occurred since she passed on, I can't help grinning to think that she has found a way to make good on her threat -- her promise.
Music and Memories
Mumsie was always a big fan of Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals. In addition to those, she was a fan of classical music -- a big fan. One of the ways I kept her mind engaged while caretaking had involved taking an old popular song and making up whole new lyrics to them. Sometimes, the tune and lyrics were catchy enough that in spite of the advanced Alzheimer's Disease, Mumsie would occasionally break out into spontaneous bits of the tunes. Music plays a big role in life and in memory; there's mathematics in music -- structure, elegance and sweeping beauty that evokes powerful emotion and tells epic tales. "Fearful symmetry" and the "Music of the Spheres" combine, often stretching to the limits of the extreme and the sublime. When I write or tell a story, I often tie certain key, complex scenes to a piece of music so that I can assist my ability to remember it whenever needed. This has helped when I've lost all my paper and electronic backups of stories, and had to recreate from scratch. It has also helped me with regard to my memories of Mumsie. I composed a play list for this piece, in fact, that helps me recall aspects of my life, interaction and observations of life with Mumsie and Wifey. Different parts of the different songs each called out to a specific set of memories of Mumsie, of Wifey and of the life we shared or the life they'd shared preceding my arrival. Here's the playlist:
Unwell by Matchbox Twenty
Mother by Pink Floyd
Nobody Home by Pink Floyd
Ice Cream by Sarah McLachlan
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Hold On by Sarah McLachlan
Speak To Me / Breathe by Pink Floyd
Angel by Sarah McLachlan
Here With Me by Dido
Someone to Watch Over Me (written by Gershwin, performed by Sinatra)
Silent Lucidity by Queensryche
I Will Remember You by Sarah McLachlan
Elsewhere by Sarah McLachlan
Is There Anybody Out There? by Pink Floyd
Learning to Fly by Pink Floyd
Fly Me To The Moon by Bobby Darin (and sometimes the Frank Sinatra version)
The words in the lyrics and the melody of the music, taken together, evoke memories and build a picture of Mumsie's presence and her life that -- from my perspective -- will always help me to remember her with warmth and a smile. The playlist now serves as my own personal invocation to a stir of echoes close to my heart and soul. End of Part I. Please continue with Part II: Musical Deconstruction of a Life's Worth of Memories, for a breakdown of the playlist and the memories associated with each song.
The quote comes from a phrase used by Archibald Macleish in Chambers of Imagery, which appeared The poem's title, itself, is an interesting allusion to the whole concept of self-delusion, illusion, imagery and hidden truths and falsehood. It comes from the Bible:
Ezekiel 8:12 -- Vision of Abominations in Jerusalem American King James Version Then said he to me, Son of man, have you seen what the ancients of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the chambers of his imagery? for they say, the LORD sees us not; the LORD has forsaken the earth. Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Then said He unto me: 'Son of man, hast thou seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in his chambers of imagery? for they say: The LORD seeth us not, the LORD hath forsaken the land.'
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary 12. every man in . chambers of . imagery-The elders ("ancients") are here the representatives of the people, rather than to be regarded literally. Mostly, the leaders of heathen superstitions laughed at them secretly, while publicly professing them in order to keep the people in subjection. Here what is meant is that the people generally addicted themselves to secret idolatry, led on by their elders; there is no doubt, also, allusion to the mysteries, as in the worship of Isis in Egypt, the Eleusinian in Greece, &c., to which the initiated alone were admitted. "The chambers of imagery" are their own perverse imaginations, answering to the priests' chambers in the vision, whereon the pictures were portrayed (Eze 8:10). Lord . forsaken . earth-They infer this because God has left them to their miseries, without succoring them, so that they seek help from other gods. Instead of repenting, as they ought, they bite the curb [Calvin].
Note that the more things change, the more they stay the same with regard not only to ordinary, everyday mortal life but also to the hypocrisies inherent in religion, politics and power.
The reality was that we couldn't re-work the office -- her office -- into a substitute bedroom for her on the first floor to eliminate the stairs. We'd started to look into it, but she was deteriorating too quickly, yet not quickly enough to simply keep her at home. She needed 24/7 care, and I hadn't slept -- at all -- for the preceding month prior to her move to the nursing home. Sure, I must have slept ~some~ in order to still be alive -- people can't survive more than two weeks if they are denied dreams, for one thing. But my body and mind were fast deteriorating given the random nature of her spontaneous wandering. I couldn't lay down for sleep even for a chance at a brief respite until she had gotten up and meandered about her room. Then, I'd intercept her and bring her downstairs for tea and cookies, then put her to bed. I could sleep, then, for an hour or two before Wifey had to get up. Invariably, her work schedule always had her early-morning shifts set to coincide with nights where I knew Mumsie would get up after midnight. After Wifey would go to work, leaving on those early mornings at 3:30 or so, I'd get another 3 hours of sleep and then have to rise to get Mumsie ready for day care. When the folks at day care said they could no longer adequately watch her, we needed to investigate nursing homes. We didn't qualify for enough aid to enlist Hospice, and couldn't afford to pay for additional caretakers.
As noted in You Don't Know Jack, his previous owner -- the only human owners he's had over the course of his short life other than us -- committed suicide and started him on the long process process of coming into our lives. Jack was home with her at the time, unable to rouse her and unable to leave until the ex-husband and son returned later. As a result, he now has to check anyone who falls asleep on a couch, the floor in front of the fireplace or in a chair for signs of life.
Jack's arrival in our small family was recounted in Someone To Watch Over Me.
Wifey wrote and posted a piece touching on some of the stuff going on here and within her after Mumsie's passing.
I'm known for making "interesting" (different) comments and observations, particularly when others are under duress. I'm told that it keeps people guessing. As long as they don't come at me with an axe or a hammer as a result, I'm ok with it.
Mumsie used to wryly tell me that I had an answer for everything; she saw it as an opportunity to always try to one-up me. As a result, our playful banter sometimes annoyed Wifey.
I'd teased Mumsie on her birthday last year -- she'd chided me for trying to ensure that she ate food instead of candy, and said "Are you trying to keep me around forever?" She asked me how old she was, and I told her. "Eighty four? That's older than anyone else in my family. How long do you expect me to live?" I told her with a wink and a smile that I was shooting for another thirty five or forty years.
She told me she wouldn't live to see her next birthday.
She's probably chuckling wryly that she was right -- she loved to prove me wrong. She was always trying to one-up me in zingers and sarcasm; Wifey says it gave Mumsie a challenge, and helped forge the strong friendship that we'd developed during the course of her caretaking.
She won that one; It's one of the few losses I truly regret.