Sunday Before Christmas, 2007

From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.

Cloudy, 32 degrees. There are about six inches of snow on the ground. Thomas and I took our walk this morning, crunching companionably through the snow crust together.

Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?

Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.

View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana
View over the Cabinet Mountains in northwest Montana, Christmas Eve 2007

 

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Field Notes from Grief Land, Entry 2: Bargaining

I’m not a poet. I don’t think in verse and I don’t typically write in verse, and I’m okay with that. I’m not a singer either, except in my car. (I’m a rock star there.) Or a painter, except on my walls.

However, a couple of years ago when I lost a good friend to a terrible illness, I began to write this out, as if someone else were occupying my head. (I’m just now remembering that the friend I lost WAS a poet. Oh goodness, more ghosts.)

Then I spent nearly two years changing words around, subtracting out and substituting, and I never completed it because I am not a poet, and poetry does not submit itself to my editing. But I’m in a new part of Grief Land now, so I dug this thing up and decided to surrender to it, along with so many other things.

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Bargaining

After you died

I began to look for your spirit in dragonflies

And once or twice in a red-winged blackbird.

If I’d seen a fox, I would have looked there too,

but the foxes are as scarce as you.

“Is it him?” I’d wonder

when the crepe paper wings you loved

lit on my canoe,

or an okalee song pierced a quiet afternoon.

But neither bird nor fly answered,

And still I felt empty.

Then one day

After a long time of enlisting your favorite animals

to host your missing spirit,

I grudgingly admitted that the dragonfly’s soul

is her own.

And again I felt empty.

But wait a minute, I thought to myself,

maybe this is not about reincarnation.

What if the dragonfly owed you a favor,

for that one time you offered some help,

a long-ago rescue from dire circumstance,

Maybe a botched landing in water

Or entrapment in a screen?

And remembering your kindness

(bear with me here)

the dragonfly agreed to convey your hello,

Just a small poke or a whisper

to one you left here

in a canoe.

Maybe?

Probably not.

But maybe.

Field Notes from Grief Land, Entry 1: Ghosts

Preface: I’ve been writing about my mother for a few months now, both before her death and after. Part of me has resisted continuing.  I think that’s because I absorbed, without thinking about it, a kind of cultural discomfort with a “protracted” grief experience. No one wants to have an extended dance with pain, but I wish we didn’t so often ask ourselves, as if there were something wrong with us, why we aren’t “over it yet” or why we feel the need to keep talking about it. So I’m going to write my field notes here, because that’s where I am. And then I’ll stop when I’m not there anymore. And if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll make sense to some of you still there too.

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I’m a board-certified agnostic about a lot of things, chief among them the afterlife.  I have no idea what, if anything, happens after we die, and it always seems odd to me when people are certain about it one way or another, having never been dead themselves. While I always appreciate a good spirituality with robust metaphor and abundant goodwill and love, I’ve always considered religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists to be two sides of the same coin.

So I can’t say I believe in anything particularly, because I don’t really have a basis to do so.  But if I’m honest, I lean away from a conception of an afterlife that looks anything like the framework of this world.  And yet, as I make my way through my practical reality, I tend to see through that prism anyway.  Put another way, my intellectual orientation doesn’t always match my emotional orientation — a perennial issue for me.

In his memoir about dealing with his mother’s death, Sherman Alexie writes that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he sees them all the time. I understand.

If you think about an afterlife as involving some part of a person’s spirit sticking around to communicate with their still-Earthbound loved ones, I would’ve expected my mother’s soul to move along quickly. She’d been described by others since her birth as fiercely independent, and to be sure, she never really seemed to need the presence of her children, or anyone, really. Tempted by the possibilities that are supposedly present in such a conception of an afterlife, surely she would’ve dropped her Earthly connections like a hot rock and zipped off post haste: Smell ya later, losers. I’m outta here.

This is how it was when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away three years ago. I was really close to my grandmother, but I never felt her around, never dreamed about her, never saw those little telltale signs, nothing. This bummed me out at the time, because I desperately wanted one more connection with her. I didn’t believe in her ghost, but I very much wanted to see it anyway.

When my mother died, I didn’t believe in her ghost and I didn’t expect to see it, because – well, I don’t know why. But it probably had something to do with the fact that she was deeply averse to vulnerability, to needing anyone or even, sometimes, wanting anyone. She was often unwilling to do things for others if those things made her feel exposed or insecure, and she could be uncomfortably blunt about letting you know it. Given a choice between doing afterlife-y things and sticking around to help us feel better, I expected to be on my own for self-care. I expected her death to be, I suppose, an immediate and wholesale break – almost, to my old lizard brain at least, an abandonment, even. And yet, it hasn’t been.

There are subtle things, but not so subtle ones as well: How my dog kept opening, with his nose, the books I brought from her house, even days after they’d been sitting on the hearth, as if there was a treat in the pages he couldn’t find. There are vivid dreams, the tapping on my back when there is no one around to tap me on the back. It’s how when my husband got up to go to the bathroom one night, he grabbed my foot and tickled it – except he didn’t. (But my mother would’ve relished framing him for it.) It’s the fact that I still just feel her around.

I get that there are explanations for these things that comport with the laws of physics and science. The books had my mother’s scent on them, which my dog had come to associate with getting treats after years of her bringing him goodies. Hypnogogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, is fertile ground for hallucinations and lucid dreams. And feelings of her presence are, well, feelings. Our mind reaches for the things it wants to see.

But the insistence on providing “rational” explanations misses the point. It doesn’t really matter why I’m seeing the ghosts.  I don’t really care why I’m experiencing these things. If they are the product of my mind, then they are still the product of my experiences with her. And what a wonder, all by itself, that our minds produce this kind of salve to help ease us down the road of loss. It’s a connection; I’m not picky about the exact nature of it.

And if it is “her” in some sense involving her continued agency, then what? I surely don’t know any more now than I did before. Either way, it’s her. The ghosts are what they are, and I don’t need to know the details. I’ll just appreciate them, here in the comfortable space between knowing and not knowing.

 

Afterward:

I wrote this while listening to an instrumental Christmas music playlist. Two seconds after I wrote the last sentence, Clair de Lune came on. (I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s and my love for Clair de Lune that my aunt had me read at her funeral.) Was it serendipity or a nudge from my grandmother after complaining about never having experienced one from her? It doesn’t matter. She was here for a moment, with me again.

Summer has left the building

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Early-season snow near Eagle Creek park, Indianapolis

I wish I could tell you I’m one of those people who goes with the flow, who intuitively understands how to let go and ride the river, but I’m not. Too often I still find myself in a fight with the universe over the remote control of my life, and every time I lose.

As summer wanes, I grouse about winter. As winter melts into spring, I feel like I’m not quite ready to leave hibernation. What I can say is that the older I get, the more I learn, and the better I get at handing over the remote.

Winter is coming in forcefully this year. We’ve already had an early ice storm and, today, an early season snow. This morning I walked out in it, entered the stillness and the silence, and let the flakes land on my nose. I  walked through brown cornfields in the community garden, trying not to trip over the fallen stalks. I paid my respects to a deceased sunflower, its graceful curve still intact, snow gathering on the back of the long-gone blossom.

And then I went back to where it’s warm, having completed my small act of hospitality to the inevitable. Getting better all the time.

Nurse logs

While sitting with my mother a few hours before her death, I had one thought: this is what the mirror image of birth looks like. Both are ordeals, pieces of transitional work. She was exerting herself – to breathe, to get somewhere, to do something – even if that something or somewhere wasn’t quite identifiable. Then, when she became too agitated, the hospice nurse added medication, and things calmed down. The process became quieter and more internal, but it continued. It was inexorable.

Over and over, I have heard people who have witnessed it describe death as “beautiful.” I know more than one person whose experience of bearing witness to death reinforced to near certainty their belief of an afterlife. As usual, I’m an outlier.

I didn’t find my mother’s death beautiful, exactly. It wasn’t horrifying, either. It was authentic, gritty, and matter of fact – but on reflection, my mother was all of those things, too. So it makes a kind of internal sense. We are who we are as we die, as much as while we live.

More than anything, though, it reinforced my understanding of life and death as a collection of reliable, trustworthy processes that, with a few variations, mostly follow similar patterns. It’s this way from the beginning. Birth has its own logic, and its own unique script: there are stages of labor, all designed to gradually open the cervix. Pain escalates with each stage. The baby is out, then the placenta. We meet our mothers for the first time.

From there, we grow. Childhood development follows its own rhythm, and after that, adolescence marches along. Everything is a process: digestion, respiration, immune response, love, grief, menopause, aging, and then death. There is something reliable and therefore deeply comforting about this.

018These processes exist throughout nature, both on an individual and systemic basis. When I was last hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I took particular notice of a phenomenon that had always interested me: nurse logs. When an evergreen tree dies and falls – or falls and dies, as the case may be – in the rain forest, a process begins.  Bacteria and fungi begin to break down the dead tree’s lignin – the biopolymer that gives wood its structure and strength – making the formerly hard bark spongy and soft, and creating holes and niches in which small things begin to grow. Mosses and tiny mushrooms appear on the tree.  Chipmunks and squirrels perch on it, dropping food and poo. A layer of soil begins to take shape, and eventually, seedlings sprout there, aided by the sliver of light created when the tree fell in an otherwise dense and dark forest. Some of those sprouts succeed and become full-fledged trees, rooted in the body of their forebear.

This entire process contains within it a kind of magical irony: A dead, fallen tree contains about five times more living matter than it did when it was alive. Death is painful and cataclysmic –like a massive tree crashing into a forest – and then, slowly, it becomes part of the material we use to grow our lives, whether we like it or not.  When a giant in your world comes crashing down, there is pain, but after awhile, there are other things, like questions, epiphanies, understandings, growth, and realizations of our own strength. It doesn’t make it somehow “worth it;” it’s just how it is.

I don’t really understand why these processes happen, or where they come from, but they give me comfort all the same. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote of a letter she received from her friend, Martha Beck, who officiated Gilbert’s commitment ceremony with her partner, Rayya, who died half a year later. In that letter, Beck wrote, in part: “Death is every bit as common as life, and both utterly baffle me.”

I nearly cheered as I read that. Finally, someone else has thrown up their hands and admitted they have no idea what is going on here. I was delighted – thrilled, even. Because I, too, have no idea what’s going on here. I do not have the certainty others do; I would feel deeply uncomfortable with it. The stubborn ambiguity of why, which is often so hard to swallow, doesn’t sting as much when I think of the reliable, inevitable, inexorable processes that appear in every corner of life and death.

Who fucking knows? Not me. So while I’m here, I’ll do my best to live well, take growth from pain and loss, and try to do some good. That’s all I understand.

The rest is a mystery and therefore the source of all wonder. And I like wonder.

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On the eve of my mother’s death, the tiny, beautiful things

I am thankful for things.
 
First, the golden autumn sun. She likes fall. And now, it’ll probably always remind me of her.
 
Second, the hedgehog socks my sister got me for my birthday last month. I try not to wear them for every day; only on days I know will be rough. My theory was that they’d last longer, as I am very rough on socks, but I’m wearing them most days now. Still, I think everyone would benefit from a pair of trouble socks. 
 
Third, crusty hospice nurses. Not too sweet, but powerfully comforting. They know dying, and they’ve seen some shit, and they use it for the benefit of others.
 
Fourth, Mary Oliver. To wit:
 
“To live in this world
 
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
 
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
Fifth: Peanut Butter. It’s just really delicious.
Sixth: My husband and my dog. They somehow have a compact on how to care for me. I don’t know the details, but it works.
There’s more. But it’s a good start.
Thought: It’s difficult to believe I’ll ever be ready to leave the world, because I love it, and I love life, even the hard parts. Even in this, there’s a feeling of privilege that I can love and feel and be here. But they tell me that everyone finds themselves ready to leave this world, and I can tell that my mother has gotten there. 

Snake Road

When I married my husband, I knew he’d been interested in reptiles from an early age. He was a bold kid, adept both at evading adult supervision and, thankfully, keeping himself just barely on the right side of the dirt when he did. That’s how he came to handle his first venomous snake – a copperhead – at the tender age of 9, while adventuring in a marshy area behind his childhood home in Houston that the kids called “The Bayou.” His parents had forbidden him from playing in The Bayou, probably because of the very thing that attracted him the most – the varied and occasionally hazardous reptile life that lived there.

Somehow, he made it to adulthood. Along the way, he owned several snakes, turtles, and lizards along the way. One summer, he worked with researchers who were bagging timber rattlesnakes for venom research. His job was to carry the bagged snakes down the mountain and back to the waiting vehicles. Fortunately, he’d learned safer ways of handling venomous snakes since his escapades with the copperheads.

It never occurred to me that my son might come to share his stepdad’s interest in reptiles, if only because the genetics didn’t seem to be there – his father has a straight-up phobia of anything with scales, and though I love animals of all kinds, snakes never really resonated with me. But he did develop an interest in reptiles. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My son is obsessed with snakes, particularly venomous snakes, but any snake will do. One day three or four years ago, he asked Travis to teach him to handle our Rosy Boa, and from there he was off. Sean has studied snakes obsessively – their habits, identification, habitats, and venom. Sometime last year, Travis announced that Sean was now his superior at snake identification.

If there is any ideal I hold as a parent – and I hope there are several – it is “feed the obsession.” (Unless it’s video games, in which case my mantra is “tolerate and manage the obsession.”) Accordingly, when I discovered Snake Road, I quickly began organizing a family trip there. If you’ve read my writing about the Silver River monkeys, you know I’m a fan of idiosyncratic nature travel. This was a destination to please everyone.

Snake Road is a narrow gravel forest service road in southern Illinois, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, sandwiched between limestone bluffs on one side and spring-fed marshes on the other. In the fall, the reptiles and amphibians that have spent all summer plying the marshes leave the water, cross the road, and head up into the bluffs to find cozy dens for winter hibernation. In the spring, they come back down again.  Because some 59% of Illinois’ reptiles — and even more of the state’s amphibians — live here, the forest service closes the road to vehicle traffic for two months in the spring, and two months in the fall, to allow the animals to migrate safely.

039-2This, as you can imagine, creates a kind of herpetological paradise. Scores of people in spring and fall descend upon Snake Road to walk its 2.5 mile length, down and back, looking for migrating snakes and other critters. We went for the first time last spring, and again just this past weekend for the fall migration. On a Saturday in the middle of migration season, the small parking lot at the beginning of the road will be full, and 4 or 5 cars will be parked along the side of the road. An informational sign and the closed gate mark the start of the road.

There is a communitarian aspect to the Snake Road experience; when you meet someone, there is always discussion of the species each party has seen, exclamations over each party’s sightings, or commiseration if no one has seen anything at all. If a snake is in a particularly interesting situation and is not moving, the news travels along this informational highway like electricity along a wire. Everyone helps everyone else out – as long as a given person seems trustworthy and snake-friendly.

051This is how we found out about a young cottonmouth that had spent the night in a tree snag last spring, and was coiled up in the morning chill. And this weekend, it was how we found out about a timber rattlesnake that was basking in a tree just off the road. A man and his daughter had stepped into the woods to look for something else entirely, and the young girl had noticed the viper in a nearby tree. News of the rattler made its way quickly along the road, and before long, everyone was talking about it.

We made it to the tree at the same time several other folks did, and we all spent a long time admiring the snake, photographing it, not getting too close, but just close enough. Everyone there knew the signs of agitation that would demand we quickly retreat, but the animal gave no indication of being upset. It seemed to regard the people standing around it as no different from the other trees surrounding it.  Timber rattlers are fairly placid snakes, which explains why our friend remained calm amid the clicking shutters and whispered exclamations of admiration.

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Timber Rattlesnake in a tree, Snake Road, Shawnee National Forest, Illinois

Sometimes, though, you can walk endlessly along the road seeing nothing at all – or at least, you don’t think you do. Halfway down the road Saturday, I was walking along, looking for snakes along the expanse of the road, when my son cried out “Mom! Stop!” And there, right in front of me, was a Cottonmouth, head perked up with interest, that had blended so well into the gravel that my gaze had passed over him. I now have the distinction of almost stepping on a venomous snake because I was too occupied with…looking for snakes.

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Unstepped-on Cottonmouth.

I was wearing heavy, high hiking boots, so the danger was probably mostly on the cottonmouth’s side. After staring at me resentfully for several seconds, the snake scurried across the road, back from where it had come, perhaps to try the crossing later. I spent the rest of the day looking exactly in front of my next step. I began to wonder how many snakes our eyes simply passed over without seeing.

Last spring, we saw eight snakes in one day and four during the next half-day. This weekend, the weather was cooler, and we saw only four on Saturday and two on Sunday (the latter being a baby DeKay’s Brown Snake, a species we’ve never seen before). That’s nothing like the estimates I’ve heard along the road of people seeing up to forty snakes a day, but it’s more than we would see walking along any other road. That, along with the cave salamanders a couple of teenage boys showed us, and innumerable frogs, made for a great weekend.  It’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the best time for maximum snake-spotting; I suspect it’s too much a matter of immediate weather patterns to plan ahead.  Perhaps next spring we’ll have more data.

Chopping vegetables

It’s June of 2008. I’m standing at my mother’s kitchen counter, chopping onions to put in hamburgers. My husband has just left me, and I don’t yet know what a blessing that is. But on that day, every move I make is still marred by heart pain.

I’ve been staying in my mom’s guest room with my 5-year-old for weeks now, as I try to figure out whether to go back to Idaho or rent a house here, or even if I can just stay upright for more than five minutes at a time.

I’m cooking for the first time since the split. I don’t want to eat much lately – I’ve already lost 25 pounds in five weeks – but I’m feeling hungry this evening. I take stock of ingredients:  a pound of grass-fed beef, onions, garlic, and bread.  I figure I’ll sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil since the meat is grass-fed, and a bit leaner. I get to work. My mother has good knives.

She’s also into Andre Rieu right now, which is fine. It’s music without words, which is the only kind I can listen to.  Her favorite comes on: Rieu’s version of the song from the film Zorba the Greek, which as we all know, starts out slowly and builds into a feverish, captivating whirlwind. And as the tempo escalates, I’m still chopping, and I look out over the living room to the painting my mother has placed on the far wall. It’s sort of a Mediterranean scene, full of reds and yellows and a bit of green and blue here and there. And then I’m gone, out of the room, and I have no idea where I am, unless it’s possible to be inside a piece of music. There’s no pain, no sadness, just music, which is somehow now where I am. I’ve never done hallucinogens, so this experience is surprising, but not enough to shock me out of it.

Zorba isn’t a long piece – maybe three minutes, tops – and the room is silent again, and I’m back at the counter. The entire onion has been chopped, but miraculously, my fingers are still intact. I stretch each one out, marveling at their wholeness, thankful that some part of me stayed behind to work the knife.

The burgers are the best I’ve ever made. The olive oil worked. I write the recipe down under the name “Heartbreak Hamburgers.”

A little more than ten years later, mom and I are in a room together. She’s bed-bound now, thanks to spinal arthritis and a surgical injury in June from which she can’t seem to recover, and she’s been admitted into hospice. She’s eating even less than I was ten years ago, when she was constantly eyeing my wasting form and trying to get me to eat. The roles have been reversed now.

Out of the blue, she says, “I just want to chop vegetables.” I don’t really know what she means, but then again, she says a lot of things these days that don’t seem to cohere.

“You what?” I ask.

“I just want to be able to stand at my counter, and chop vegetables for a salad,” she says. “It’s such an essential part of being a woman.”

I open my feminist mouth to say it’s not about being a woman, it’s about being a human, a human who loves food and the preparation of it, but the words come out in a jumble. I’m grateful for that, because I don’t need to be arguing with her about this. Every guide I’ve read about interacting with people with dementia or cognitive impairment says to respond to the emotions underlying what they say, not necessarily their precise words.

“It’s an essential part of being a woman,” she repeats.

I realize what she means is that it’s been an essential part of being her.

I remember my own trip chopping vegetables at her counter, and and how my experience was transcendent, and hers were deeply ordinary. My chopping took me out of myself, while hers grounded her in herself, and both were indispensible to us.  I think then about loss, and the things that quietly lend meaning to our lives but remain just below our awareness until they’re gone.

018Even if I got up from the table where I’m typing this, walked into my kitchen and began chopping vegetables — if I breathed in, and breathed out, and thought intentionally about how fortunate I am to do it, I don’t think I would be able to summon the degree of appreciation that’s truly justified. It would be a quiet appreciation, a fleeting one that felt a little forced. It took a transcendent experience to make me remember a specific instance of chopping an onion. That’s okay; that’s the human condition. I don’t believe that anyone could, or should, deeply appreciate the ordinary all the time, because to do so would make it no longer ordinary. The genuinely ordinary is only fully appreciated against the stark relief of loss.

The ordinary is part of us. So to lose it is to lose some part of ourselves.

That’s what she was telling me. That she is losing herself, and she knows it. There is nothing I can do to bring herself back her, to return her to the ordinary. That is beyond her now.

Depression in the face of this truth isn’t just her right, it’s inevitable. It is a difficult and sad thing to lose oneself and one’s life.  It will happen to all of us, in varying ways and under a range of circumstances. Her circumstances, however those arose and whether or not they were inevitable, involve living with the slow drain of loss for an extended period of time. All I can do is be with her as it happens. That has to be enough for us all, even though we know it never can be.

It’s not enough, but to be without it would be far worse. Like the ordinary things.

Do I need a license for this?

It’s starting to sink in that I’ll have as much influence on the end of my mother’s life as she had on the beginning of mine.

The things I have to learn along the way — figuring out our Kafkaesque medical system, learning what health professionals will say outright and what you have to read from their tone, trying to determine whether she is “trending toward end-of-life,” as the current jargon goes, or whether she could regain some quality of life – all of that is vaguely reminiscent of the learning curve of parenting an infant, with its “Oh shit, I have no idea what I’m doing” overtones.

But it’s harder. The learning curve is quicker and steeper, and the inevitable loss more compressed and far more complete than the 18-year pull cord on raising a kid.

And it turns out that I am undone by my own humanity during my project as much as she was during hers. Sometimes it seems that an imperfect human can’t possibly be up to the task of making the last period of an elder’s life as positive and meaningful as it can be. Yet I look around, and I see only my sister and me. There is no one older, wiser, less susceptible to things like emotion, grief, and physical and mental exhaustion.

Example: My emotional expression is unreliable. Sometimes I can access feelings, and sometimes I can’t. Then at other times, it’s not so much that I’m accessing emotions as being mugged by them after turning a blind corner. This means that when someone else is breaking down, crying and emotional, I’m often stone-faced and locked down. I feel somehow that I should be emotional too, but it isn’t there. I’m in intellectual mode, as I sometimes must be to make judgments and ask questions. But it feels odd, and can’t switch out to be in the same emotional space as the person who is in their feelings at that moment.

But then, the first time the social worker asks my mother who is sitting next to her, and she doesn’t recognize me or my sister, I will have to abruptly leave the room to handle my tears, and my mother feels bad because she knows she got it wrong.

That one was a mugging.

And sometimes it means that when the surgical consult is next to her, and he leans in to hear her hoarse whispers, and what she’s saying is “Get out of my face,” I will burst into uncontrollable laughter, and then the surgeon will crack up, and so will the medical student, and even the nurse might crack a grin. My laughter, though, goes on too long and dissolves into sadness, because it all emotional roads lead to the same destination here.

I also have to sleep after every visit. It’s usually only a 15 or 20 minute nap, but it’s an overwhelming need. I have no idea what that’s about; I’ve never been much of a napper.

And then there are the judgment calls. What if, in my fear, I make a decision that drains her spirit and blunts any remaining meaning in her life? What if, in my desire to avoid that, I give up too quickly? All these decisions are like balancing on the edge of a knife.

Remember that scene in the movie Parenthood where Keanu Reeves’ character says, “You need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. Hell, you need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming asshole be a father.”

You mean I don’t need a license to make decisions that influence how my mother spends the rest of the time she has left? Am I qualified to do this?

It could be the perfectionism that lurks everywhere else in my life, but I’m tempted to find this woefully inadequate, much in the same way Tod in Parenthood was so dismayed at the lax requirements for fatherhood. So I’m doing what I did the last time I felt this way, in order to promote myself from “any butt-reaming asshole” status. Before my son was born, I read everything I could about parenting. These days I have Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal on audio. I consult nurse friends. I ask doctors questions in different ways until I get the information I want.

But jeez. In the end, my sister and I have decisions to make that are every bit as grave as the ones Mom made for us were, and they will be made in an imperfect environment, by imperfect people. As in parenting, the only thing we do is the best we can do, given the circumstances constraining us.

There is only what she wants and would have wanted. There is no objectively correct answer, and therefore perfection and security that we “did the right thing” will always be elusive. As it happens, I am the only “butt-reaming asshole,” along with my siblings, who knows my mother well enough to approximate her wishes. And she trusted my sister and me to do it. Her signature is right there on the document, executed four years ago. She told me about it at the time – at lunch, I think. I nodded then, completely confident in my own competence.

Her confidence, and the symmetry between the things she did for us and the things we do for her, is all we have to go on. It’ll have to be enough. It was enough for her.