Monday, August 13, 2007

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part VIII: Nora

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

Somewhere, buried in a file cabinet in this house, is a news clipping about my family, a human interest story about the Pagan extended family and group household that we became within a year or two of my marrying Peter... Call it 1993 or 1994. What I remember best about the piece is scene the photograph tried to capture, a regular one in our home:

Peter sits in one chair, the latest in a series of Terry Pratchett novels in his hand. He is reading aloud to us all. In a matching armchair, cup of tea beginning to dangle from her hand as she slides from listening toward sleep, is Nora, Peter's 90+ year old grandmother. Felicia Hardy and Two Bears are nearby, Felicia playing with her cat and a feather toy as she listens. I am in a rocking chair, my eyes still up to the task of the cross-stitched sampler I'm working on. My daughter is surrounded by a wrack of toys and art supplies, or perhaps she has joined Aunty Felicia in playing with the cats.

This is who we are, at that period in our lives. Sometimes we call the house "The Bug Zapper" ("We lure our friends in... and fry them," as Felicia's slogan goes) because life is so often hectic and pressured, yet intensely social. And if the name is a stressful-sounding one, it captures at least one aspect of life, because there is an awful lot of flat-out work involved. It's fulfilling and rich--mostly--but it is definitely work. Because sometimes we feel like intentional community, and sometimes we feel like extended family, but always, always, we are the nursing home for one.

Caring for Nora is becoming more and more difficult--blind, almost deaf, permanently on oxygen, and with advancing Altzheimer's, she takes a great deal of care. Her heart is warm and loving, which helps, as do the anti-depressants which, eventually, are suggested as a way of taking away the bitter nihilism she feels over her lost independence. But she is losing her independence, and to some degree, life revolves around that.

Felicia, whose room is on the ground floor and nearest Nora's, takes the night shift, answering any calls from her that come up in the dark of the night. (To Nora, of course, night and day look exactly alike. We keep the radio on at night to help her stay oriented; we used to use the television, but she began to conflate the news reports of train crashes and earthquakes with our lives together, often fearing we were missing in some terrible disaster.) This, together with secretarial work and temping, pays Felicia's bills.

Peter takes one day off each week from his job as a WIC Nutritionist, to do Nora's books--complex now that payroll for Felicia and himself, and the various Medicare, Medicaid, hospice and home-health agencies (public and private), are part of her finances. This is easier than the old arrangements--frantic rushes home to feed Nora lunch, and then bolt back to the office before the end of his own lunch hour. His evenings include an ever-lengthening ritual of helping Nora to bed each night, and by the end, Norah's bed-time routines will absorb about two hours every night and entail the use of a Hoyer lift.

Home health aides arrive on weekdays to reverse the process, dressing Nora, helping her onto and off of the commode, getting her fed, and settling her (at first) into her armchair... then, eventually, when her needs dictate it, her armchair with the built-in electric lift... and, finally, the wheelchair, which initially gives us all the freedom to take Nora downtown on a clear autumn day, and eventually, gives Nora the ability to join us outside of her bedroom at all.

Two Bears works a series of temp jobs, not yet having found his career as "a pusher", as he put it when he eventually did discover his vocation: a pusher of swings full of small children, a rare male face in a sea of feminine day care workers. At home, he listens, brings us strange toys from his days working at Toys R Us, and teaches us all how to play Magic the Gathering. Sometimes he, or Felicia, will watch my daughter for an hour or two in the evening, so that Peter and I can snatch the time to walk downtown and listen to jazz or blues records while we drink strong coffee together, and browse the bookshelves of The Haymarket Cafe.

I am in and out of the house, doing paperwork for my private practice and per diem psychotherapy clients, bringing my daughter to and from day care, working through the lingering sibling rivalry issues she and Nora had when they first met. And always, always, the cups of tea for Nora, exiled Brit that she is. The house is always full of laundry in need of a wash, phone calls that need to be made, new aides in need of training, recycling that's overflowing, a yard that looks like a vacant lot filled with clutter...and then the phone rings again, and it's a new crisis: home health aides who quit, immunizations for my daughter or Nora to arrange, last minute changes to visitation schedules or summer camps or perhaps a client emergency, ringing through on my professional line.

More than a decade later, yesterday I found myself having difficulty remembering Nora's face. But I can never forget the feeling of her hand in mine--a body memory as intense as that of the soft spot at the crown of my daughter's head when she was an infant. Years from now, I may have forgotten my own name, I suppose, and yet I can't help but feel that that physical memory, of the long nails and soft, weathered skin of Nora's hand, will be with me still. For me, Nora's room is a refuge. Sometimes I just sit with her while she sleeps.

I never leave the house when she is sleeping without checking that she is still alive. I do not want my daughter to be the first to find her, when eventually the breathing stops.

My daughter plays. She plays anything, everything, fiercely and passionately enough that whatever she imagines, the other children at her day care or after school begin to play it, too. And my daughter and Peter spend long hours on the rug, with Barbies and GI Joes left over from his childhood, inventing multi-installment science fiction adventures--The War With Canada! And, when play begins to pall, and the adults are reading something less entertaining than Terry Pratchett, it is to Nora's room she goes. She practices her violin for Nora, who is the only one of us really able to pretend to warm admiration of that act. She draws pictures of things Nora describes from her childhood in Ireland, and then describes them to her as she holds the paper up to Nora's unseeing eyes.

And then it's time for bed--for my daughter's bedtime story, and Nora's bedtime routines. Eye drops, Coumadin, Paxil, oxygen tank, change of clothes, transfer to bed,put on the radio, and say goodnight... each stage in the evolotion documented on video to instruct the increasingly rare respite workers who give us an occasional weekend away.

It is a wearying life. At times, I remark to Peter that I think I know how it feels to be on chemotherapy. The days seem to last forever, and the weariness seems never to leave either of us. We are building a life, but at times, the labor is backbreaking, and the emotions involved are heavy enough to bend us double.

Sometimes, for an afternoon or an evening, everything stops, and we pull out Hero Quest, a Dungeons and Dragons knockoff designed for children, which we have gradually customized into baroque unrecognizability. We watch Star Trek together. We watch Red Dwarf. We make up ludicrous puns and in jokes, and we eat together every night, Two Bears, Felicia (and often her current boyfriend), Peter, Nora, my daughter, and I.

Peter and I rig up a television and VCR in our bedroom, and it is there that the two of us watch Driving Miss Daisy together. During the scene where Hoke feeds Daisy pumpkin pie, we are both in tears. This, this tenderness and broken-heartedness is true in ways that demand art, and we are grateful to the Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman for showing us our hearts.

Afterwards, I hold Peter to me for a long, long time.

These years ache almost unendurably... but we endure, and are enriched.

Nora, like Daisy, fades away from this surface of the world, traveling far away in spirit and in time. Once, when Peter has been reading to her from Rodney Castleden's The Knossos Labyrinth, she looks up from her cooling cup of tea to remark, "You know, when I'm dead, you can earn some money giving tours of this place," and we realize that she is not sitting in our cluttered Victorian duplex, but is instead halfway around the world, contemplating the mysteries of her palace in Crete... Another day, Peter comes home from work, and Nora explains that she and her mother and sisters (long gone on to whatever comes after this life) have been exploring a waterfall; the very waterfall they once visited together in Switzerland, decades and decades ago.

This does not seem unlikely to us. Nora is going somewhere when she is not present in the here and now. Spirit world? Well, why not? Who are we to say otherwise?

It is hard on Peter, for whom Nora was almost a third parent. Just as Nora is the one to hear my daughter's impromptu violin concerts, so it was Nora who showed Peter the "fairy lights" and made bubbles with him in the kitchen sink. And the Nora he knew was an adventurer who crossed an ocean with her four-year-old on the eve of the Second World War, who learned to ride a motorbike back in the Roaring Twenties, and who read Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl in its first release, in her own sixties. That Nora gradually becomes less and less easy to find, as Nora's memories began to blur and run like watercolors.

She forgets, often, what our names are, or where we live. She sometimes calls Peter by her ex-husband's name, or calls my daughter by Peter's name or his mother's. But she never, absolutely never, really forgets who she loves--not any of us, and certainly not Peter.

One day, toward the end, I overheard as Peter asked Nora if she knew who he was.

In gentle indignation, she said that of course she knew who he was.

"Who am I, Nora?" he persisted.

"You're my...my special person," she said, with such trust and serenity. And she was utterly, utterly right.

Do we explain to her that we are Pagans? We do--as often as it comes up, and each time the conversation is the same, with Peter patiently explaining about the fact that we find the sacred within nature, Nora exclaiming, "You're heathens, then!?!" and our continuing to explain, describe, and discuss how our religion works for us. Gradually the confusion fades, and she smiles at us.

"Well, that's all right, then," she says, and the matter is forgotten again. Until the next time that our work within the Pagan community comes to interrupt our daily routines.

For while all of this is going on--the dinner dishes and cups of tea, the violin concertos and nights of reading aloud or shared videos, we are building something, a mad Tower of Babel we have the temerity to call community.

Of course, it's going to fall. The astounding thing is how much of it will rise again--and again. And how much life there is in the stones even now, and how much even the tumbled stones of community have to say, when I care to listen to them.

9 comments:

Erik said...

It's amazing, sometimes, how the train of beloved dead we carry through life gets inexorably longer - yet those farthest back in the train are really no farther than the nearest.

Thanks for sharing this - it brought my own grandparents back to me for a moment... and made me think of this wonderful, sweet, sad video:
http://www.ceark.net/ap/anim003.php

Walhydra said...

Dear One,

Thank you.

This morning I experienced again the impromptu ritual I seem to need every week or so.

I awoke with the clutch of unidentifiable anxiety and grief in my chest.

I pushed myself through limbering exercises and tai chi. Tried to sit in meditation... and could not.

Got down on my knees, forehead to floor... waiting... knowing there were sobs which needed to come out.

I don't even bother to ask "What are these about?" anymore.

I just know I dare not suppress them. If they don't come, I moan aloud until they do.

Eventually the sobs came, and--unsurprisingly--it was about Mom again.

I've just read your Nora piece during lunch and found tears welling again... but I thank you for that. You've answered a puzzle.

Part of the disconnect of grief for me is that it is my sister Margaret, 300 miles away in Pensacola, who is doing the part you and your family did with Nora.

I was the hometown son who helped Mom during the 20+ years she was independent and living alone.

She was my "special person."

Now I "know" what is happening to her. My sister, blessèd evangelical Baptist angel that she is, shares the joys and struggles by phone.

But I don't see it. I don't hold Mom's hand.

The loss is an "idea" that stirs in the pre-dawn and grabs me as I am waking... but I have to hunt for it and name it again every time.

Thank you for giving me a better clue.

Blessèd Be,
Michael BrightCrow

Anonymous said...

Cat and Peter- I wonder if you would post something about this on your site:
I've talked with Quaker Universalist Fellowship about an idea I've
had for nearly a year of putting together an anthology of essays on Quaker
Paganism. QUF is interested in discussing publishing such as book (it would
be similar to the nontheist Friends' "Godless for God's Sake") but want a
preliminary table of contents. If you are interested in contributing a
chapter of any length, please let me know a preliminary title/subject. I'm
working on one about how I define Quaker Paganism and how I see it fitting
into the larger Society of Friends and Quaker history.
Please then send the essay as soon as you can. As editor, I reserve the
right to actually edit all submissions.
Cheers!
Jen Chapin-Smith
jench1977 at hotmail dot com

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

As an aside, let me just say that Blogger garbled Wallhydra's link, above. (I don't know why Blogger is being cranky this week, but it mangled one of mine earlier in the week, too, annoyingly enough!).

In the hopes it will get through this time, let me recommend the post about Wallhydra's Mom. I think it will speak to anyone this post spoke to... It certainly spoke to me.

Thanks again, Wallhydra.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Hi, Jen,
Of course I'll post your notice! I'd rather not do it immediately, as this has been a high-traffic week, and I'm afraid it might get lost in the flurry of posts back and comments forth, which would be a shame... I may see if I can create a semi-permanent area for the announcement, perhaps at The Back Page, depending on your deadlines...

One difficulty is that your email, as posted, didn't seem to go through when I tried to reply off the blog. Would you be willing to send me an email so I can get the address directly? If you go to the front/main page of this blog, the email addy is displayed just below the links to our contributors' profiles on the upper right corner. Not sure why I couldn't get yours to work this morning, but I do have a few questions for you, some just my personal interest, and some I might include in a write-up of your project for this blog.

Sounds like a great idea!

Carl McColman said...

Greetings! The name of your blog really grabbed me. As a former Pagan who entered the Catholic faith in 2005 but who strives to remain Pagan-friendly and both contemplative & earth-conscious in my spirituality, your Quaker-Pagan nexus sounds like a well from which I can expect to be refreshed. Thank you. Anyway, just wanted to stop by and say hello.

Blessings,

Carl
The Website of Unknowing

Walhydra said...

Cat,

I just linked to your "Nora" piece from the newest Walhydra post at http://walhydra.blogspot.com/2007/08/love-letters.html

I love the harmonic resonance in this part of the blogosphere.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Michael, Thank you so much for the link. Your sharing around the ways your Mom's life touches you mean a lot to me. (I know I've said it before, but it's worth repeating!)

Carl, welcome! I've been a fan of your writing for some time, and I've recommended your book The Well Read Witch to students (back when I had students!) and friends ever since it first came out. The good news/bad news is that it is, of course, already out of date--and that I imagine you will not be releasing a revised edition of it, since your path has since led you from Paganism to Catholicism!

I'll admit that finding a Pagan whose ideas meant so much to me going "over the wall" into Christianity has been pretty disconcerting... But I've also been struck by your integrity in owning the changes in your leadings. I hope to follow my own with equal integrity. Though I currently consider myself a "both/and" Quaker and Pagan, I find myself very appreciative of the stories of Pagans who have, like me, tried to do clear discernment around the boundaries of their religious experience. In addition to your example, I'm very drawn to the process I find in Ali's Meadowsweet and Myrrh--a Christian Druid blog I find remarkable for its thoughtfulness, and that of Yvonne, who still considers herself Wiccan, though not Pagan per se, since acknowledging the call of Jesus. She maintains two blogs that reflect her personal journey, The Stroppy Rabbit and Nemeton, in addition to being the genius behind Blog Elysium, a comprehensive listing of Pagan blogs.

Finally, if you haven't yet discovered them, allow me to plug Michael's two blogs, Wallhydra's Porch and The Empty Path, both of which I find deeply moving.

There is something about those who are willing to be led by Spirit, rather than dictating to Her what form She will take, that often is very resonant for me. Needless to say, that doesn't always take the form of both/and spiritual journeys, or of stories of religious conversion or convincement. But, perhaps for the same reasons that liminal zones between two or more ecosystems are often particularly fertile areas (think, tidal marsh) it does often seem to be the case.

Thanks again for stopping by. It was so nice to see your name!

Yvonne said...

Part VIII was as moving as parts I-VII.

Waving to Carl, hello! In fact it was you, Cat, who introduced me to Carl by sending me his article on Beliefnet.

I'm kind of moving my spiritual journey stuff to Prayer of the Heart where I am posting prayers and thoughts that resonate with me. Stroppy Rabbit is about stuff I find on my MA course.

I kind of omitted to mention that Kwan Yin turned up alongside Jesus at one point.

Also, may I recommend Bo & Justine's blog, Prayer is the Ground of Eternity - two lovely people on a quest for deeper meaning.

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