Once, many years ago, when I was wondering what to do with all my many vulnerabilities, I was given some advice: share them. It’s a hard piece of advice to follow, especially these days when everyone is full of spiritual sayings and uplifting poems. Amidst pictures of spring growth and rainbows arcing above death sites, I hesitate to share my darkness. This journal, however, has much of that, and each post, it seems, seems to come to some wholesome conclusion – usually the same one, since there is only one. So here I am, during this pandemic of 2020, sharing my vulnerabilities. May it do some good to someone. Or at least to me.
This month has been a mix of many things. Much gratitude, quite frankly, for the quiet that has descended upon the world and on me. I was a little desperate before, running from thing to thing in a completely unbalanced manner. I knew it at the time and, when it ended, I was aware of how much good it would do me to relax into this end of all movement.
I live alone. I have seen offspring and partner for a few days each, but I spend my days in a one-bedroom in SF, alone. I work online. I talk with friends on the phone. We are running out of things to say to each other. Not much angst to share these days. None of us wants to talk about the political nonsense playing out in the country, and everything is tinged with that. Sometimes, I wonder if the sorrow and rage I cannot feel now will come bursting out of me when things go back to “normal.”
SNL had a great sketch about all the clichés we are using these days. I’m trying not to. I feel a little nauseous when I hear one. Stuck in a time warp, we go round and round in the same conversations, using the same words, in the same tone. Silence on the phone is nothing at all and, in this larger silence, would be a terrible acknowledgement of how over things are, so we babble on. I do my share until I can’t anymore, grateful that people still want to talk to me. I have been a very connected person. I love people. I miss them now. I miss their hearts, their laughter. Their sarcasm. Their fear. Their different sentences. Their faces and hands. I miss looking into the eyes of someone with whom I am talking and seeing there, so beautiful, something else – soul, heart, divinity, whatever.
Last December, during some healing work that I do, I came to the understanding that it was now time to work – almost exclusively – on my relationship with myself. This isn’t new, of course, it has been a theme for years. But now it became more – more real, more urgent, more possible. Es tiempo ya. I have tried, since then. On March 16, I was given the time and space to focus.
I have had time to mull…over and under and in between.
One of the things I do – for better or for worse – is evaluate and re-evaluate my mothering capabilities. As in the case of my own offspring. Thanks to the work I do, in both my work spheres, I am given the opportunity to see myself as mother. I have no idea if my recollections of being a younger mother are true or not – we color our memories with our narratives about ourselves. But I have come to this, and it feels true: As children of some really bad parenting, younger baby-boomers and older GenXers have tried really, really hard to not make the mistakes our parents made. Umpteen hours of therapy and a zillion hours on the mat have gone into making sure that we don’t torture our children as we were tortured. Yes – a strong word. I have realized, however, that while we have been careful not to treat our kids like our parents treated us, we didn’t realize that we treat our kids in the same way we treat ourselves – we talk to them, touch them, respond to them as we talk to ourselves, touch ourselves, respond to our own needs. It wasn’t, then, my relationship with my children I needed to work on, it was my relationship with myself. That would have translated to better parenting. That would have helped me avoid some of the mistakes I made. The lack of gentleness when it was needed. The fierce drive to be better all the time.
Yikes. Is it too late?
I feel as if I am changing in this alone time. In the space with my partner, I feel stronger than I have ever felt before. The change is happening deep inside. It has to do with living alone in the midst of this silent chaos and breathing in and breathing out without opportunities for deflection, transference, or projection. This sudden nowhere to go and nothing to do – I would still exchange it gladly, but I will miss it a lot, as well.
I hate to admit it, but I have been terrified of getting the COVID-19 virus. It’s the weirdest thing – how afraid I have been. When I talk to others, I say, “Keep an eye on all things scientific.” Which I try to do. If I have not been exposed in the last few weeks, and I probably haven’t been, then I most probably don’t have the virus. (The amount I say I would pay for a good test keeps going up. It’s in the thousands now. :)) When all this began in the middle of March, I got extremely tired. It frightened me so much that I was light-headed and in serious stress for a while. I had a headache for two days this week, and it totally freaked me out. It hasn’t stopped. On and off through the weeks, I have gone to this place. At other times, I’m fine. Walking, writing, singing, working. But now and then, this terrible fear.
It isn’t cool to admit that I’m afraid of dying. Oh – plenty of advice about this. I won’t bother to write any. I’m probably guilty of such nonsensical talk myself. Every spiritual blah-blah has a bunch of yada-yada about this. As my mother kept saying when she was out of it on her deathbed, “ok-ok.” Not sure what she meant, but it’s a good mantra said in different voices and accents as the situation calls for. OK OK. Truth be told, nothing we say about this makes a jot of difference and it’s more respectful not to say anything at all.
Last night, waking up from a bad dream and feeling the mild headache that convinces me I have the virus, I decided to investigate. Not that I haven’t tried. But this was the middle of the night when such investigations yield more.
What am I really afraid of? Not of dying. I’m not cool or strong, it’s just that I can’t possibly imagine dying well enough to be afraid of it. The ‘unknown” is just that. I can’t be afraid of what I don’t know. I can make up stories, but I have no idea. So no – that’s not it.
Being alone and sick. Here it is. The bitch of it is that it’s going to happen one way or another, and I am fucking terrified.
I spent much of my childhood in extreme illness. I had diphtheria when I was almost 5, and was in bed at home for 6 months, after which all my internal organs and my skeletal system were a complete mess. It took me years – decades, actually – to overcome some of the fall out. It was a bacterial disease of the lungs. I don’t remember much of the “during,” only plenty of the “after.” And an aunt gave me a copy of A.A. Milne’s “When We Were Very Young,” which changed my life. Or created it, really. I have some memories of that time. Of my family having to take great precautions not to catch this from me. Of adults worrying about me. These things I remember. But somewhere in my psyche is this experience of being terribly sick. What I don’t remember is my own fight with the darkness; I don’t have even a glimpse of it. But it’s got to be there – we know this is how it works.
In the next many years, I caught a lot of stuff. Childhood diseases such as mumps. Many episodes of flu when I remember being in extremis. Very high fever, delirium, horrendous fear. Some of it, I remember. Much of it is buried.
In my older teens, I got malaria. Twice. Horrible horrible. High fevers, delirium, vomiting. Quinine – the worst. I knew that soldiers had to take quinine, so when I was vomiting in the bathroom, I thought of them and felt some comradeship. Easier to think of being a soldier and vomiting quinine than being an 18 year old vomiting her intestines.
Two things about all this. One was that my mother was the best nurse ever. She was wise, strong, kind. She fed me, bathed me, held me, talked to me when I was delirious. I remember her sitting by me when I woke up screaming. She is not here anymore to do any of this for me.
The second is that these were the ONLY times when my mother was wise, kind, comforting. The only times when she was gentle with my body and loving in her speech. I suspected, later, that I had willed myself to be sick over and over so that I could experience this mother. I am so grateful to her.
When I left home at 22, I stopped getting sick. I mean, I never got sick again. Like…at all. Maybe a mild flu sometimes, when I would take a couple of days off from work and come back bright and shiny. I see an Ob/Gyn occasionally, but have almost no other relationships with doctors. I don’t know who my primary care physician is these days – I think my insurance company has assigned one to me. I am, given my age and the stuff that has happened to me, incredibly healthy.
I don’t want to contract this virus. I don’t want to not be able to breathe, to be so tired I can’t get out of bed, to cough and cough until I’m exhausted. Without my mother to make me turmeric milk (yech??), without her arm to hold me as I walk to the bathroom, without her keeping the others out of my room and keeping the family quarrels to a minimum while I am kept quiet because of my tendency to flip into horror, I am not sure I’ll make it. Forget making it. I don’t think I can stand it.
When my mother was dying, I signed a DNR and refused a ventilator her nurses wanted very much to connect to her lungs. It wasn’t a “we” decision – I made it alone. I don’t cry about that – I never have. We make decisions as we can with the data and advice we have at hand. Life isn’t so special that it needs to be kept going by machines. I don’t know – will never know – whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do. Only that, as part of my own contract with myself, I need to be kind about it. I am. But the irony of fearing that very ventilator now is not lost on me.
In the final few days of my mother’s life, I listened to her call for her mother. Prolonged delirium – I hope it was comforting to cry out for help. I hope her mother came to her and soothed away her fears. I have little doubt that I will remember my mother’s calm caring when I am really ill again. That the illness will come – there is no doubt. I hold it off for now, masks and gloves, six feet away at all times, sitting at home with my laptop, my shruthi box, my Roku. But it will come.
These days, I have the time to (try to) make my peace with it.