What does it mean to be alive?

My mother-in-law refused to die. She didn’t seem to get that simply being alive and living were two separate things. Life is more than your heart beating, your blood circulating, your breath coming in and going out like the tide. Life is more than simply existing, simply enduring.

I’m not sure what she was looking for, but I know that she didn’t find it.

The doctors had done all they could, but the cancer had done more. It had won the battle, even the war, but she wasn’t pulling out, wasn’t flying the white flag. She was held hostage to it but wouldn’t admit it. In the end, she was reduced to a sort of half-life, a half existence. A life that was the opposite of full.

She was alive, barely. She had so much pride that she didn’t ask for help even when it came to getting food. After she died, we found frozen dinners in her house and nothing homemade. We found receipts for a personal shopper from Publix. She’d rather ask strangers for help then ask her family. She’d rather hobble along pretending, trying to make do for as long as possible in adverse circumstances.

For some, this was admirable, but not for me. For me it was a sad way to die, a desperate attempt to hold on – but for what? A cure, a miracle? It was as if she thought that she was going to do the healing, that she thought that if she held on just a little longer that she would outlast the disease.

Her death was the same. So much struggle. So much fight. She lasted five days when the nurses thought she would only last five hours. It was an ugly death. It brought no grace or comfort to the family to see her struggle so much.

It had been a year and a half after her diagnosis that she finally died. A year and a half of tests and experiments, a year and a half of pain and struggle. She didn’t plan well. She didn’t budget her time or her energy. She didn’t do anything on her bucket list. She hadn’t even thought about it at all until I asked.

I don’t know if she didn’t know – if she was simply ignorant of the slow decline that cancer brings, of how it steals your abilities and independence bit by bit, piece by piece. Cancer takes all your pieces off the board one by one and doesn’t give them back. Cancer doesn’t play fair. When it got down to the very end she still wouldn’t let go. She was still fighting against this adversary. But she wasn’t fighting death by living. She was just enduring.

We don’t bring ourselves into this world, and we don’t take ourselves out. It is not for us to determine the length of our days. We have some control over how well we will live in terms of taking care of our bodies, but we have little control over how long we will live. Any moment our heart can stop beating. Any moment a blood vessel can break. Any moment we can choke on something and die suddenly, quickly, quietly.

Our lives are not our own.

If God was going to provide a miracle, then God didn’t need her to fight so hard to stay alive in the middle of so much pain, so much suffering. God gave her over seventy years of life and she had little to show for it. God gave her a year and a half after her diagnosis and all she did was hold on, in some desperate appeal for more.

More of what? Life for the sake of being alive?

If someone gives you a gift, they expect you to use it. You aren’t going to get a second gift if you refuse to open and use the first one. You certainly won’t get another if you don’t say thank you for the first one.

Why would God grant more life to someone who has chosen not to live it at all?

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Reprogram Your Self

A multi-leveled artwork, 20 x 16. Smaller canvases affixed to larger.

Text is from “Sri Isopanisad” by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Paper, acrylic paint, matte medium, decoupage glue, dragonfly wing, unknown insect wing, rhinestones, holograms from Visa credit cards, bits from a computer.

I may or may not include the words “Reprogram Your Self” at a later date on the piece – depends on if I can find a good font. Or if I feel brave enough to hand-paint it.

Background of canvas was painted the weekend my mother-in-law was dying. It symbolizes the transition from material to spiritual space.

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Please contact me if you are interested in purchasing this one of a kind artwork.

Poem – Plates

I opened the box
from my mother in law,
the heavy brown cardboard, the crisp pale paper inside.
She’d been dead a month by this time
but she knew it was coming
so there’d been time to prepare.

Every plate
every bowl
every cup
even the gravy boat
she had wrapped
herself
one
by
one

and placed carefully in this box.

She knew
that this was the last time
she would see these dishes,
these dishes that we had used
as a family
for Christmas
for Easter
for Thanksgiving
every year.

She knew
this was the end
that there would be no more holidays
for her.

We’ll continue
in our fashion
in our own new way
without her
but with her plates
so lovingly
and so carefully
wrapped.

Watch it.

There is a difference between living and being alive.

watch1

My mother-in-law had at least 20 different watches that we have found after she died. Some were separated from their wristbands. She still had them, along with the pins that would have held them together.

None of them were working.

watch2

All these watches to keep the time, and she wasn’t mindful of it. All these watches to keep time, and she still wasted it.

Her obituary was sad. It was almost shorter than the dash between her birth and death dates. The list of who survived her was longer than the list of her accomplishments. The fact that she outlasted the doctor’s estimate for her to die was prominent.

So she was alive, but what did she do with her life?

This piece speaks to my frustration with her having 70 years of life and nothing to show for it. This piece speaks to my anger that my parents died young and didn’t have time to enjoy the life of retirement. This piece speaks to my doubling-up of my activities so I don’t waste time.

I’m mindful of how short life is.

Too many people these days seem to think there is a “reset” button on life, and there isn’t. They seem to think that life is like the seasons – that there will be a spring after the winter. While I’m part of a faith tradition that believes in the afterlife, I’d like to not find out I’m wrong. I want to have a life before the afterlife.

This is why I write, and create. This is why I wake up early. This is why I take classes that are hard and read books to learn how to help. I don’t want to just have been alive, taking up space. I don’t want to wait until I retire to live.

These watches remind me to be watchful.

The artwork is made using an 11×14 canvas, acrylic paint, matte medium, decoupage glue, five watches, and 11 color copied images of watches, all from the collection of my mother-in-law.

Who you gonna call?

When my father died there wasn’t a list of all his friends. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to memorize everybody’s address and phone number. But that didn’t do me any good when it was time to call them after he died. I had to go by the Christmas card list that my mom had. From that, I was able to look up some people’s phone numbers by calling directory assistance. This was 20 years ago.

Now of course you can look people up online. But sometimes that comes with a charge. It’ll get you near where you want to go but it won’t get you all the information. Perhaps there are privacy issues. Perhaps it is greed. Either way, it is annoying.

Now that my mother-in-law has died we have a list of all of their friends and relations to contact. But it turns out their list is not up to date. We can’t ask my father-in-law what the numbers are because he has dementia.

We don’t have some of the correct numbers because people have dropped their home phone line and gone to using a cell phone. And those you can’t look up online. We’ve even thought of using the cell phones of my parents in law to see if they had the new numbers saved there. No luck.

I’m starting to think that if they didn’t have the right phone number then maybe that person wasn’t that close.

Perhaps it is a good idea for me to start writing down my list of all the people I would like to come to my funeral, or at least to know that I have died.

It may seem strange, but sometimes the only way I have found out that someone has died is through Facebook. It’s the modern way of telling people what’s going on. Nobody reads the obituaries anymore. Nobody subscribes to the newspaper.

We have constructed our lives with emails and texts, and our computers and phones are password protected. How is anyone going to know who to call? Bills are sent electronically to email inboxes, and paid online with passwords and log-ins. How are our survivors going to know how to take care of our estate?

A difficult situation has become even harder because of modern conveniences.

It is hard enough to grieve. It is almost impossible to grieve and handle an estate at the same time. Nothing is normal, and then there is something really hard to do on top of that. Unraveling someone’s life is weird, and strange. It is like you are erasing a life, account number by account number.

Poem – middle

I hate the middle bits
the in-between
the waiting.

I like starting school
and graduation
but not all the days
of work
in between.

I like getting a tattoo
and having one
but not the middle bit,
the healing time.

I hate this waiting
for her to die
from her cancer.
Each phone call, each text
could be the one
to say
she’s passed.

Life on pause,
in the middle,
isn’t a life
at all.

But it is the middle that
gets to the end.

It is the middle that is
the reason
for the beginning.

It is the waiting that
seasons the sauce.

Babies take
nine months,
not just for them
but also for us
to get ready
in body, mind, and soul.
If nothing else to make a room
ready.

We need these transitions,
these spaces between,
these middle bits.

They aren’t in the way.

They are the way.

You have to ask.

I don’t want to go to the hospital to watch my mother in law die. I will if I have to. I will if I’m asked. But I’m not going to second-guess my husband. I’ve spent ten years trying to guess what he wants, and doing things for him without him asking because it seemed like he needed me to. He seems to appreciate it, but I don’t think it is doing him or me any favors.

I’ve stood on this one.

Now may not be the nicest time to insist that he “use his words” but now is the time. He has to learn how to find his own voice, to know what he wants, and to ask for it. He also has to know how to say no to people and make decisions.

Part of making decisions is making bad decisions and standing behind them.

He’s made a hard decision recently, and we all supported him. Now it seems like he is going back on it, so he’s losing ground. Waffling, second and third guessing himself is part of his family inheritance. He’s going to lose face over this, and that is going to crush him. Yet another failure to add to the pile. I’m afraid that he’ll never stand up and make a hard decision again.

In part I’ve stayed away because I don’t want him to lean on me. I want him to stand on his own and make the hard decisions. I want him to grow up. I want him to become an adult. Having to ask other people’s opinions and approval all the time is not a sign of maturity.

This was going to be his crucible, his make-it-or-break-it moment.

I feel helpless, waiting around the house. I’ve done rituals and said prayers. I’ve done what I can to process this experience in a safe way so that it doesn’t hurt me. It is bringing back some memories from when my Mom died.

It has been since Wednesday night. Chaos, crisis, upset. Panic mode, emergency time. It is Sunday now, and she’s still alive, barely. I’m a little angry at her now, and I feel very selfish about it. She’s wasted our long weekend off together. Sure, there is some kindness in all this happening during non-work time, but it is still vexing.

This isn’t kind to say at all.

And it is very honest.

This isn’t life, her hanging on. It wasn’t life before, either. Home decorating isn’t giving back to the world. Vanity, selfish, image conscious – both of them. They just amplified each other’s narcissism until it became pathological. There was nobody to say “No”, so the psychic disease grew.

Her sons have spent more time with her now than she ever spent with them when they needed her. They’ve made sure she was better treated than she ever cared for them.

She wasn’t bad, or evil, but she wasn’t good either.

What an ugly death, and a bad situation. What a terrible legacy to leave.

And I’m angry at the medical establishment – we show more mercy to dogs.