Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Six Months Under


It’s hard to know what to say or do to mark a six-month anniversary that isn’t something one wants to remember — that almost got forgotten. The human brain is, in fact, a kindly sort of friend at times, aiding us at certain moments by somehow not recalling those things that will, as our mind knows, only trigger a tailspin of emotions like grief, pain, or estrangement. But that helping hand only holds difficult emotions at bay for a while, and regardless, feelings come out one way or another. Some of us lash out at others, as displacement; some of us become reclusive or cranky; some of us turn into our own worst enemies; and on down the line of “spillovers” when we don’t take the time to remember, to mark, to sit with what isn’t at all comfortable to cuddle up next to.

What I nearly forgot careened into my consciousness this past weekend, when twice — on Saturday and again on Sunday — my dad was moved from his nursing home to an ER because he couldn’t breathe.

The first time, a sister (in Wisconsin) and I (in Brooklyn) talked our mom (still in her Michigan hometown, but now in an assisted living situation, an hour’s distance from the closest facility that can take someone in my dad’s situation) into getting a friend to drive her through an impending snowstorm on country roads to the ER, where she found my dad acting like a completely scared, frantic kid, and pulling the additional tubes out of himself. Apparently, the nursing home had forgotten to give the ambulance crew one of my dad’s “lifelines”: a worn and tattered 8.5 x 11 sheet of white paper with an alphabet printed on it, stuffed into an equally worn and tattered see-through plastic envelope. It’s how he’s able to communicate, and because of that, he’s attached to the beat-up alphabet “card” and won’t let us replace it (although he’s trying to learn how to use an electronic version of it on a tablet, slowly, with difficult success given that he has severely destroyed mobility). His other lifelines are the life-support tubes, particularly the one that keeps him breathing, that I gave permission to insert almost a half-year ago when he first landed in intensive care in a coma. The ER couldn’t really find anything wrong with him, save for the fact that it seems to me and my family — and my dad too — that everything’s wrong with him. That everything’s wrong with the picture of his life now, and how that has made the pictures of all our lives askew too. A few hours later, I got a call from the Michigan ER to me here in Brooklyn: “We sent your dad home.” Those five words felt like a 2 x 4 on my head, hammering in the reality, deeper than ever, of what is now his “home.”

The second time, just as a small group of us were closing up shop at Interference Archive after installing our upcoming exhibition Rebel Newsprint: The Underground Press, I got a text that my dad had been returned to the ER because he was “nonresponsive.” In phone calls and texts, my mom and two of my sisters and I all talked about my dad’s death, and trying to feel at peace about it, rather than guilty, knowing that he knows we all love him and have been attempting to help him as best we can — in a scenario where there really isn’t any way to help anymore, just visit, or keep in touch through nurses and a speech therapist, or tangle with mixed feelings about whether it would be better if this nonlife of his ended or if we made a mistake letting it get this far by agreeing to various medical interventions, and/or strive not to continually contemplate the stress and sorrow of it all. One and then two of my sisters wondered why, if he was nonresponsive, the nursing home and the ER had ignored the “Do Not Resuscitate” form we signed on his behalf –based on his living will — when we signed him into the nursing home some three month ago. Two hours and a bunch of diagnostic tests later on this past Sunday night, the ER again maintained that there was nothing wrong with him. He was now responsive and smiling, they reported, and they returned him “home” to the nursing home.

This worn and tattered roller coaster of a six months since one little mosquito bit my dad — likely by some beautiful lake or river on a summery Michigan day — and passed along severe West Nile — a disease likely the result of climate change induced by capitalism and its military-industrial complex — slammed into me forcefully with those two ER visits.

One tries to forget and go on with life. Or so we’re taught to do in this amnesiac society. It’s a big part of what makes the current social order so immiserating — life can’t go on when we erase memory, eradicate history. This past week, I tried to counter both forgetting and not-living but remembering to dish love out in as hugely qualitative quantities as I could. Grinding sorrow, like grinding neoliberalism, can make a person way too self-absorbed and inward, way too individualistic and needy — none of which usually characterizes or suits me, but all of which have overtaken me, along with other debilitating, emotionally induced behaviors. Much as I hate capitalistic holidays, I took the sentiment behind the crux of what Valentine’s Day could or should be into my heart: a marker to recall that we need to share and gift love, in all sorts of magnificently expansive and fabulously diverse ways, in order to have it grow in all sorts of breathtakingly expansive and surprisingly diverse ways. I was being exceptionally good at practicing that, and for a couple days, my newfound non-self-absorption (in sorrow) and exuberant outwardness toward others seemed to have brought me newfound life — even with my dad still in mind — in a way I hadn’t felt for six months.

And then I recollected, or rather viscerally felt, the heaviness. The two ER days this past weekend seemed to pull calendar pages off the wall for me, backward, toward a night in August — a perfect summer night in a perfect stretch of summer nights, in the dreamlike time I spent in Montreal participating in a social movement that reshaped the social fabric around notions of social goodness — when I got a call that my dad had fallen out of his bed and was increasingly becoming incoherent, so my mom called an ambulance, and he went to an ER. He went into a coma. Tape those calendar pages hastily back on the wall, and on this day in February, he now lives in a home that’s not anywhere near a home, by any good approximation of that word. Overnight six months ago, everything changed for everyone in my bio-family, never to go back again, just as overnight six months ago, I booked a flight and left a perfect sunrise morning in Canada to find myself in an imperfect medical-pharmaceutical nonlife lifeworld in a dead and dying Mid-Michigan town and one of its hospital.

Today I tried to somehow mark this anniversary. Or rather, I meant to do so, with remembrances of things past in relation to my dad. But for one, when I think of him, all I can visualize is the awfulness of how he looks now and where he “lives” now. And second, life does go on, and intrudes whether we want it to or not. A string of totally unrelated (to my dad) emails this morning at first unsettled, then triggered, and then hurt me. I almost responded, breathed deeply, and then engaged a newfound practice: pausing. Not responding. Still, I watched almost helplessly as I saw how my grief over these lost six months, the losses that won’t be regained, spiraled outward to amplify things like misunderstandings or not-so-nice tones in emails. I felt that generous spirit of love and loving that I thought I’d refreshed seem to vanish, and those emotions that don’t usually characterize or suit me start trying to reassert themselves.

That’s a big worry in the loss of memory, personal or societal: that we become wholly different people and a wholly different society, for the worse, without any notion of how or why we got to such points. We take on a character, through happenstance and not being cognizant of the markers of our own changes for the worse, and begin to play it so well, we completely blank out the “us” that was there beforehand. My dad has lost himself not through his own choosing, and whenever I see him, I see how painfully hard he’s trying — fighting — to reclaim his own self. For me, and for others languishing in the land of mourning, it’s a matter of being brave and strong enough to battle the drift into becoming something and someone we don’t want to be through actively intervening, which is all about being aware of the history dogging our present conundrums — look it and ourselves fully in the face, and bring something and someone better out of it. The grief of this world can destroy; indeed, that’s probably part of its mission, and why so much of it is heaped on humanity by the structures of domination. Maintaining and sustaining our selves — and much more than that, always-becoming increasingly more of the selves we could and should be — is a form of resistance against a social system that would happily turn us all into despairing, self-obsessed “I’s” tearing each other apart from the enclaves of our separate sorrows.

When I arrived home this evening, feeling my whole body slumping toward despondency again on this unhappy of six-month anniversaries, I did what way too many of us do when we’re blue: I flipped absentmindedly through my Facebook newsfeed, sans enthusiasm. And there I ran across a post by a friend who just lost his mom to sudden death a week or less ago. He spoke of how he’s become suddenly stupid, as if 50% of his IQ has disappeared. He wondered if it was normal, and if it would be permanent, and expressed a sort of clinical curiosity about it all, even though he also mentioned being stressed and filled with grief. All the comments, gifting and sharing so much love, spoke of pausing. Of taking time — suggesting, too, a sense of us taking time back in order to better learn to mourn over the time spans of a week or six months or far longer. They spoke of how we’ve lost the rituals of grief and mourning, like sitting shiva. No one mentioned this, but I recall someone telling me how the notion of wearing black for a year as and in mourning was this beautiful public way to project a visibility and awareness to ourselves and others of what was going on inside us, so as to hopefully better acknowledge and thus process it.

A friend today, in the flurry of what felt like unpleasant emails, observed that there were invisible sorrows and stresses among us, and referring to me and my parents, and how it’s good to be mindful of that. I realize more and more I talk about it less and less, because as the days and months stretch out, it seems unseemingly, a burden, not the stuff of public or even close friendship conversation. Maybe I’m even beginning to (try to) think about it less and less. If this is my and my bio-families new normal, it must therefore be unremarkable and beyond remarking about. Beyond marking, even for myself, and especially in any sort of communal (and thus in my book, healthy) way.

I think today I triggered, talked, and troubled myself out re-marking: pausing to notice — both with myself, who I love, and with others who I love — all that I’ve experienced, practiced, felt, seen, suffered, done, enjoyed, and discovered in this past six months, and though it sounds odd to write, celebrating that, alongside celebrating my dad and my whole bio-family for all doing our best to be good, decent, loving people in the worst of situations, despite our flaws and failures.

As my computer clock strikes 12 midnight, I’m taking a big quality moment of remembrance. It’s just one minute, but I’m gonna make it count. To my dad, who taught me “to think” and think for myself, to believe in myself, but much more crucially, who taught me that life is about giving of oneself, being honest and open, always striving to care about and if needed try to help others, taking a genuine interest in everyone and who they are, having a constant sense of wonder and curiosity, and always striving to make the world a better place. With love, to my dad, on this most strange of six-month anniversaries.

*  *  *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, image from a Brooklyn wall, next to a stencil that reads, “Graffiti keeps me clean”)


One comment on “Six Months Under

  1. Elaine G. Levine
    February 20, 2013

    Cindy — this is incredibly beautiful and gave me so much to ponder and reflect on. I’m so very sad about your father, whom I love, and about the stress and grief of all of the Milstein family. Love, Elaine

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This entry was posted on February 20, 2013 by in Dispatches from Life.
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