Who Needs e. e. cummings?

January 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Last Saturday, January 12, I went to Philadelphia for the funeral of another friend, my high school classmate, Susan Donahue. I have decided to stop lamenting about people in my generation dying, though I surely miss them. What can we do? We’re getting older.

But even if I’m not lamenting, I keep on observing things, –in myself and others. And if it’s not too weird to say, I rather enjoyed my friend’s memorial service. A hundred or so people came. Susan had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur for about half her adult life (more or less–the details were vague) and a bunch of SNDs and former SNDs and almost SNDs, some of whom I’ve known for fifty years, came to the memorial. Clearly Susan had a good life, teaching school in the South and then working in a free health clinic in DC while she was a sister, and later working with the CDC on HIV/AIDS. And she had wonderful friends who testified to the enormous difference she had made in their lives. We should all do so well at the end.

One thing that kind of put me off, though, was the reading of a poem by e.e. cummings during the service; Susan had apparently loved cummings’s poetry her whole life,  so we heard one of his works, along with a passage from Isaiah, before the eulogies started.

I should perhaps confess at this point that I have ambivalent feelings about the world I came out of. Delaware County, just south of Philadelphia, was in the 50s and 60s mostly white, working class, and Republican; I put a lot of energy into getting out of there. I also love (or loved) a lot of the people I met there.

What came to me about the e.e. cummings part of Susan’s service was, “Deliver us from the poetry we learned when we were teenagers, O Lord. Surely Susan got beyond e.e. cummings!”

I did not say this out loud. Another friend smacked me at a funeral last summer for saying something negative about the deceased,  so I kept my mouth shut this time. But that didn’t stop me from thinking.

Then, a few days after Susan’s funeral, I came across a reference to Dana Green’s new biography of the poet Denise Levertov. I have been in the habit in recent years of reciting a poem to myself as the Q train takes me across the East River from  Brooklyn to Manhattan: “I thank you God for most this amazing day.” I suppose it functions as a prayer for me, though if it’s a prayer, it’s one I sort of say to the Brooklyn Bridge, since I always look at the bridge as we cross the river. Anyhow, I had forgotten who wrote the poem, and then it occurred to me that perhaps Denise Levertov had.

So I googled “I thank you God,” and guess whose name came up? e.e. cummings.

I am writing this blogpost as an act of penance for being, once again, a judgmental twit.

Susan, I hope you’re laughing up there.

The American Way of Death

December 20, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Keith and I got up very early last Tuesday morning (December 15) and drove down 95 past Philly to Media, PA, for my mother’s funeral. I had already gone down on Sunday to see her, but it was good to be with friends and relatives to tell Mom good-bye one last time.
I think maybe there were fifty people there, which was about forty more than I anticipated. The last living relative of Mom’s generation, her first cousin Howard Turner, whom we had been unable to locate, actually saw the death notice in the Delaware County Daily Times and came (in case you have ever wondered , as I have, what purpose is served by death notices). Three of the four grandkids were there; Emms flew in on the red-eye from San Francisco. And one of my father’s great nieces, Jan, brought her year old baby, making for quite an extended genealogy.
I was also  astonished to see Veronica Barbato and her sister Til Mack; Veronica introduced me to the Grail by giving a talk at my high school in 1965 and we hadn’t the faintest notion how long it had been since we’d last seen each other. My Baptist husband led the service for my Episcopalian mother in a room full of Philadelphia Catholics and former Catholics. There were lots of poinsettia.  

Grateful as I was for all this love and support, burying my mother brought home to me again the utter weirdness of the American way of death (Somebody–Jessica Mitford?–wrote a book with a title close to this decades ago and probably said much of what I am about to say, but I was young then and had no interest in such things!) My parents had gone into a “retirement community” fifteen years ago, in large part because my father had had several small strokes. Riddle Village is a “continuous care” community, which means you pay a lump sum up front and then they take care of you for life, moving you from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing as the need emerged. My parents would have gone bankrupt if they’d had to pay retail for the two years my father spent in the nursing home at Riddle as a result of the big stroke he did in fact have six months after they moved there. And the place was pretty good for Mom as long as she continued in independent living. She made a lot of friends, took painting and writing classes, baked cookies for the grandkids in her kitchen, drove herself to church and to visit relatives. 

“Continuous care” is something of an overstatement, though. I decided that it was more like three ways of life separated in each case by the Grand Canyon. My mother began taking falls in her independent living apartment, but nobody notified my brother and me about them because there’s some law against violating the privacy of the residents (FITO? PICO?). The fact that it didn’t occur to the staff to offer my mother the option of signing a waiver of this dubious form of privacy, tells you a lot about the whole operation.

And this was a sign of things to come. The care from then on was well-intentioned but modest at best.We ended up hiring an aide from the outside, Christine, to come in several hours a day to supplement the care my mother was getting. We were lucky we could afford it. Very often when I came to visit, there was a member of the nursing staff sitting in the hall outside my mother’s room playing a hand-held computer game.

But what struck me most forcibly were the circumstances around my mother’s actual death. She died in the early hours of December 15. Riddle telephoned my brother immediately, around 3 AM as well they should have. But a major reason for the call was to tell my brother that he had to get out to Riddle and deal with the body and get my mother’s room cleaned out. I would really have liked to see my mother one last time in her room, surrounded by her pictures and things. But there was no question of this. It would take too long for me to get there from Brooklyn. In her ethnography of religious life in Congo, Sister Joan Burke reports that when someone in a Congolese village dies, the family puts the body outside their dwelling so  people sit around and grieve with them. My mother had been at Riddle Village fifteen years, but that body had to get out of there pronto. Two people from Riddle came to the viewing that preceded the funeral. I know from experience that a proper and hygienic picture of my mother with a notice of her death…oops–of her “passing”–will be set up on  a table in the common area at Riddle. God forbid that anybody in that “continuous care” community should have to look at the dead body of a member of that community. Or consider for more than a moment, as they walk by, that they’ll be getting wheeled out of their room pronto too before long.  

Mom Died

December 14, 2009 at 9:19 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments
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Well, my mother died. Early Sunday morning. She was ninety-three  and had needed to die for a long time. Some people still have good lives at ninety-three,  but Mom, who’d been in the nursing home in her retirement community for several years, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t walk, and was increasingly demented, which meant, in her case, that  she was frightened a lot, and could hardly recognize anybody. Last March one lung filled up with fluid and she was hospitalized; we thought it might kill her then and there, but it didn’t. What the week in the hospital did do is scare her almost to death, so that when she came back to her room at Riddle Village, she was hardly there. Nine and half months later, the rest of her has followed the part that left in March.  

It’s very different having someone die by inches than it is when they die quickly. My friend Claire McCormick, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I’d known since high school, died a while back. She got a stress fracture, got pneumonia, and  then was gone, at (I think) 83. And I didn’t make it to the funeral. I suspect Claire had no interest in getting hyper-old and helpless. But once in a while it occurs to me to telephone her; part of me just doesn’t get it that she’s gone.

Mom (and Dad before her) died very slowly. And yet I’m always struck by how different a dead body is from a breathing one, even one as radically diminished as my mother’s was, with blood leaking from her deteriorating blood vessels and her body getting thinner and thinner. And Mom’s passing is the end of an entire generation, something that wasn’t true thirteen years ago when Daddy died. So I’m grieving for all of them: Dom and Poppie, (my grandparents), and Dede, my mother’s sister whom I adored. And I’m grieving for my brother Joseph and me, who are now the elders, whatever that means.

My mother’s life was very different from mine. She and Dad grew up during the Depression and suffered from it. Mom once told Emms, my brother’s oldest girl, that the saddest day of her life was the day she graduated from high school, because her education was over. And the working class world she lived her life in didn’t encourage her to change that, even years later when she might have. I sometimes think my thirteen years of graduate education was an attempt to make up for that deprivation, but of course, it didn’t.   It may have even have made that deprivation more apparent. 

The funeral is Tuesday morning, in Media. My husband, Keith, is a minister, so he’ll do the service. Mom will be buried in Chester Rural Cemetery, next to my father and her parents. Please remember us.

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