Do I have to be all the Johns at once?

It’s entirely possible I’ve been spending too much time indoors. We are dealing with the fringes of Hurricane Florence and, though the storm hasn’t had nearly the impact we feared, it’s been raining steady for over a day now and schools have been closed since Thursday. Despite my best efforts to orchestrate activities for the kids, we’ve been homebound a fair amount of the hurricane-lengthened weekend.

So, with that cabin fever caveat, I’ve been thinking about the emergent nature of life (my life, our lives…right now I’d just like to emerge from my house). I’m savoring the last twenty pages or so of Edgar Morin’s The Method, Vol. 1: the nature of nature, where the author concludes by summarizing his development of the concept of “complexity” and complex systems – from stars to human societies. Rather than trying to wrench an abstract, objective truth from scientific study, Morin wants to incorporate both the observed phenomenon and the observer into our understanding of the complex system as a whole into which “science” or “knowledge” emerges. We can’t just pay attention to the signal, we have to look at the noise, too. We can’t focus solely on the organized parts of the universe, because they arose from – or more accurately emerged out of – the diffuse, chaotic, disorganized bits interacting.

It’s not just original building blocks of the universe, physical or societal, that “emerge” from chaos to form a timeless order. Our world is continuously engulfed in and permeated by chaos, even in the relatively organized structures of our societies and social lives, and we are constantly emerging as relatively stable, well-ordered beings. But we’re not timeless.

Humans have established some pretty well-defined emergences – being born, reaching physical maturity, finishing school, having a family, retirement, death, etc. But these are really just abstractions from a continuous cycle of being and becoming — big moments plucked from a constantly shifting, contingent, fact and circumstance dependent set of conditions. We are not the same from one milestone to the next, or even in-between, despite the strong human narrative we generally follow – the neat path from cradle to grave.

We only have to look at the end point of our narrative — death and dying — for analytical grist. Montaigne wrote that whatever life we enjoy it is stolen, lived at ife’s expense. Morin’s more scientific view is that we are alive for whatever time we live in defiance of the very laws of thermodynamics our highly developed human brains have deduced. Living beings are machines that emerged from a once-chaotic universe and, at a relatively highly advanced stage of bio-development, somehow gained the ability to reflect on the conditions of their own emergence — thank you, cerebral cortex; this, somewhat ironically, allows us the ability to discern that our very existence violates the laws of thermodynamics: we do not dissipate, in fact we self-generate and regenerate – that is until this very self-generation uses up our scarce resources and we die.

Alive, we are never static. We never simply are. There may be no better description of living things than Heraclitus’ ancient, well-worn “you can never step into the save river twice.” Whatever we are, we are always becoming it. There is no part of our lives in which we are not engaged in the battle against our ultimate dissolution, and this means constant regeneration and renewal – it’s what our bodies are designed to do. They become until they cannot.

Grief and loss are one of the big events in the human narrative – we tend to think of them as the conclusion, in fact. Grief and loss themselves are often divided into specific stages thanks to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the mid-century mania for neat abstract analytical categories. There’s some utility in a framework for things so endemic to human experience – the reason the stages work is that everyone recognizes something in them. But the stages also mask the emergence of grief, make it appear neater and more orderly than it is. But, if we are constantly hewing out our bodies’ delicate homeostasis until we can’t anymore, why would grief – the aftermath of that process’ final stage — be any more fixed or neatly discernable?

It isn’t. Grief is the noise and the signal, the message and the static. In the minutes and hours after Nina died, I had some important decisions to make. I made them with what now seems like remarkable clarity, or at least decisiveness. First, I had to tell the kids. In order to do that I had to get to the kids, who were staying with friends while I was with Nina in the hospice facility. Then I had to decide whether to take them to see her body. She died early in the morning, so they were still eating breakfast when I arrived. Nina and I had discussed whether they should view her body briefly before she died and we’d agreed it wasn’t necessary, but we never finally decided, she said to use my best judgment at the time.

When I got to the kids that morning, I still put the matter to them. Freddy demurred, Benny immediately refused, but it wasn’t really a fair question. Somehow I’d already decided they shouldn’t see her and any of their normal doubts were probably enhanced by whatever subtle or obvious cues I was giving.

As I look back, it’s still not clear. Should I have taken them to see Nina’s body? Would the object permanence of that have been more valuable than the potential trauma of seeing their mom’s dead body? They saw their grandma’s dead body lying in state for a couple of days in her bed, so it’s not like death was a totally foreign concept, even at their ages. How was I so certain? Was it just the overwhelming circumstances that allowed me to decide? Sheer necessity? I don’t know, but I concluded not to quickly and decisively.

It wasn’t true clarity. I recall being very certain about a lot of things that morning and in the ensuing days and months that seem arbitrary or ambiguous 19 months later. Should I have stayed with Nina’s body longer after she died? Might that have been better for my own sense of permanence? As soon as they took her away to be cleaned up, I hurried myself (and poor Charlie and Pete) into breaking camp in the hospice room, which was full of our things that people had brought from home to make it more familiar during our stay — a surprising amount of things accumulated in that short time. Maybe I should have spent more time among them, transitioning from the room with Nina in it, to the same space with only her corpse? Was it a bad idea for me to be organizing the memorial service, given how overwhelmed I was and did this perhaps lead to a painfully long memorial sermon that I submitted to no one for editing but subjected many to? Yet I was very clear for no readily apparent reason on all these decisions at the time.

I don’t know, and I’m not overly wrapped up in whether or not I made the right decisions (except maybe the final forty five minutes of the funeral oration – if you outdistance Pericles, you’ve gone too far). Nina died and I’m pretty sure I did my best under the circumstances. I’m just trying to reckon with the sheer contingency of it all and contrasting that with the fixity I felt for my convictions at the time.

In the midst of what felt like sharp a break with prior experience – the world with no Nina – I was emerging and becoming with what felt like an urgent, desperate rapidity. Every moment, every decision, every greeting card unanswered and each casserole consumed felt like a palpable flake of the chrysalis. I had a keen sense that Nina’s emergence had ended, her still-unfolding wings frozen, dessicated in the hospital style bed in the facility where I kissed her still-perspiring forehead for the last time, then quickly emerged into the pale, drizzling daylight of the first moments without her, launching into memorial services, book events, childcare searches, school lunches, weirdly without hesitation.

Although I thought about the aftermath of Nina’s death in advance, planned for it, discussed it with her, I was a grief pinball — all oblique angles and crazy carroms. One moment I wanted to hold Nina’s hand until the last possible moment before cremation, the next I couldn’t wait to leave the hospice building behind. I wanted to shelter the kids from pain and I wanted to scream whenever one of them needed anything from me. I gave what were probably impossibly conflicting and unmanageable directions to the aggrieved people around me. I confused powerful impulses for strong principles. I was a study in the throes of grief. Still life with flailing man (though in this instance the French “nature morte” rather than still life might be more appropriate?).

There’s still no fixed, objective view. I’m unable to disentangle all that was happening around Nina’s death. I know the kids never saw her dead body, but I’m not aware what that they did experience that day, or most of the other days. I’m sure not all of it was bad. They played video games, ate dinners and desserts, got showered with attention. I know from talking to the boys that they remember that morning too and see it as a break. But what emerged for them when Nina died? And what’s happened since? Those dudes are constantly emerging too! You can’t step into the same stream of Benny’s consciousness twice. Or rather, he may mention the fennec fox every single time, but each time it’s a new fennec fox, a fox imagined and articulated as Benny’s small defiance of the laws of thermodynamics – never mind normal human discourse.

Benny’s only experience to date with a real fennec fox. 

The other day in the lobby of my psychologist’s office I saw an unfamiliar couple in their fifties or sixties. The man looked care-worn, the woman was emaciated and had a portable oxygen concentrator – the exact model Nina and I rented for a trip to Turks & Caicos, our last trip before Nina died. I looked at the oxygen unit (the Inogen G3, which rode under the seat of our Vespa in T&C, I guess I recommend it?), and listened to the familiar hiss and catch rhythm of its pulse dosing.

Nina wouldn’t be photographed with the damn oxygen concentrator on, but it’s under that seat. 

I tried to gauge my reaction in real time, which is always dicey, but realized I wasn’t immediately triggered, or plunged into PTSD. I felt a more keen and immediate recall of Nina using the machine and the time surrounding time period. I remembered her being almost entirely wheelchair-bound, so that she was never even able to go on the beach at our fancy beachfront hotel, and that the wheelchair and oxygen made her feel too self-conscious to approach Katie Couric – who by happenstance was on our flight to T&C and had tweeted only a couple months before a lovely message that brought added attention to Nina’s NYT article, and who was gamely chatting up dozens of our fellow passengers, each of whom seemed to already feel they had a personal connection to her (the only upside of this missed opportunity for Nina and Katie to meet was the fantastic people watching!). Instead Nina direct messaged her while catching her breath in our hotel room after we arrived. She only went downstairs for dinner once during out stay, in fact, though she was flush with the experience afterwards – or was that the oxygen deprivation?

The flood of associative/dissociative memory was par for the course. But what I felt more than anything watching the woman’s gestures festooned with that familiar tubing, the digital controls, and also the helplessness worn like a second skin on the man in the waiting room attending to her, was being confronted with an old version of myself – one I emerged from at some point (or many) since Nina died. Maybe it’s just another way of describing the same familiar phases and stages of grief. But I don’t see anything distinct or caesuric about the past couple years. It’s all overlapping, a parting that seems unreal but absolute, a becoming in which I can’t remember the beginning and haven’t reached the end.

There are so many versions of us that get written and rewritten over the period of our lives. We are the ultimate palimpsest, except there’s no eraser and the lines are being rewritten before the last layer of ink is even dry.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and, before I even realized it, was seized by a fit of sobbing so violent I had to force myself to stop because I was having trouble breathing (how is our well-designed body included with a feature that blocks your swelling nose with snot while your mouth is breathing so hard?!). Part of me immediately thought “this is nothing compared to what Nina went through for weeks and weeks, let alone when she actually died,” (on behalf of my Tribe, I’m adding a new Guilt Stage to the Kubler-Ross model) another part of me felt searing anguish and regret for all the million ways I am fucking my kids up by not being careful enough, thoughtful enough, good enough, or soft enough around the edges, to even come close to what Nina would be doing, let alone to begin to make up for what they’ve lost (Regret: Sub-stage of Jew Guilt! Gelt?).

I ached for the guy in the psychologists’ office (though good on them for seeking therapy during what looked like end-stage cancer – growth mindset! (no cancer pun intended!)), and all the nights like the one I was having he had in front of him, and all the hospital visits and decisions, and hands held or not held, that he’d already experienced. I wondered if even then he was emerging from a bedroom, hospital room, hospice suite, out into the first morning of a world without his person in it. Bereft not only of her, but of his purposeful support and attendant duty to her, which shaped and gave meaning to his days as the reality of her condition emerged and unfolded. And of course I thought about Nina and the absence of Nina and the Nina sized hole in the sail that was supposed to head us all safely away through this mess.

What gets me confused isn’t that all this is happening all the time or that our delicate battle with thermodynamic laws will be lost someday despite our ingenious brains and bodily systems (not only in each of our individual cases, but for the universe as well – so don’t feel badly!). It’s what to do with the actual unfolding of the events in all this emerging we’re doing. Montaigne said that he studied himself, that his own mortal coil was both his physics and metaphysics. Sorry, I don’t have any answers better than that one. No real conclusions. I’m just trying to get the unfolding down the best I can in the hope that recording it gives it some semblance of order. My own little defiance of the laws of thermodynamics and the Kubler-Ross model — analytically muddy, indistinct, and unpredictable — or as I like to say, complex.

2 thoughts on “Do I have to be all the Johns at once?

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