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.