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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Good people

[posted by risa]

Well, tomorrow gets to be officially Fall, I suppose -- I've been away on a journey, and am ready to go up and tar some seams on the roof, and here comes the rain. So I'm doing applesauce and spelt bread, with some apple and tomato and rye and oats and buckwheat and chives and a leaf of shredded Bok Choi thrown in -- which should make me happy, as I've had to be away from it too long -- and it's turning out well -- but I'm fighting depression and I have an almighty limp.

The limp can't be helped -- part of the cartilage below my left kneecap seems to have separated a bit when I caught my 245 pound offspring, as he fell off the roof -- like any mom -- like my own mom, who had to do it several times -- I would have caught him had I known it would kill me, let alone pop a kneecap -- but it does put a crimp in my remaining roofing work.

The depression thing is a bit more complex.

My mom and dad can no longer legally drive. He's 91, has, among many other things, including a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer's, serious glaucoma. My mom's 80, has had all kinds of heart issues, leading up to a major stroke followed by an aneurysm in one eye. A friend takes her shopping, and my dad helps her with stuff around the house -- when his blood pressure is high enough to let him crawl out of bed.

We all saw this coming, and I, their only child, tried, back in 1999, to do the obvious thing -- bring them here while they could still move. They picked out a place, put their stuff in a moving van, sold their place on the canal in Florida, and I drove my dad across the country in their car and my mom flew out as soon as the van was unloaded.

They gave it two years. But they've been Southerners for, like, forever -- and could not forgive their strange new neighborhood for being a bedroom community in which no one bothered to get to know them. Our house was five miles away, and they couldn't spend all their time here, nor could we spend ours there -- school, work, work and school intervened. I was able to mow their grass and paint the house and pop in every couple of days for an hour or so, most weeks, and that was about all. Plus, and this is so true of so many families -- we were incompatible.

So they moved back to Florida.

It was a tougher trip than the first one, because the twin towers in New York had just fallen, planes were gingerly testing the waters under much stricter travel rules, my dad had no intention of flying and so she went by air and he went by train, under really tough conditions -- the train had to stop and be searched for terrorists every few hundred miles, seemed like -- while I packed their stuff into the moving van, and saw it off, and then tried to sell the house, which took two years.

I had, in days gone by, called them once a month or so, so I stepped it up to once a week. Visited when I could, which was seldom. And then, one day, my life began to change in ways they could not really fathom. I was clearly not outlasting them, and had something I needed to do, which might estrange us entirely. I was fifty-four, and it was past time for me to begin my own life, which would involve taking on a hormone regimen, getting a new name, and surgery.

That story is told here. And my personal journey did make some trouble, but really not as much as I expected. They deserve a lot of credit for hanging in with me as well as they did ...

But on with the current story.

As I said, they can no longer legally drive, and they called me up and asked if I'd like to visit, on their dime, and talk a bit,-- and to sweeten the deal, asked which vehicle I wanted.

The choices were: a bulging new SUV that I had begged them not to get, with 2,000 miles on it and wretched gas mileage, and a 1999 Ford Ranger pickup with 50,000 miles on it, and so-so mileage.

So Beloved and I went into a huddle and concluded that, global warming and peak oil notwithstanding, having three paid-up vehicles on hand meant not having to buy one for a long, long time (if no one broadsides us in any one of them), and a chance to allocate more resources to the homesteading program. It would even help us stay on the accelerated retirement schedule. Also, lots of free stuff that we really need has been passing us by on Craig's List, and a pickup could change all that. We added a third week to my vacation, with my bosses' blessing, and I would spend the first two hobbling around on the roof, then the third hobbling around the United States.

So we opted for the Ranger.

Now to get it here.

I flew red-eye from Eugene to Daytona Beach via Portland, Phoenix,and Atlanta, running in the wee hours from terminal to terminal. Rough way to travel but it only cost my folks about $340, one way.

I spent three days with my mom and dad, and gained a lot of weight on their enticing and deadly Southern Fried cookery. We talked about their plans (hardly any) and options with which I could help (even less). I fixed the DVD player and showed them 3,000 family photos on my laptop. They have a very short attention span nowadays, but the photos enthralled them and they took turns doing chores and watching the slide show, cup after cup of their watery instant coffee in hand.

End-of-life issues don't panic any of us; we're all realists. While watching the slide show, we could discuss things like living wills, no viewing, no funeral, donating them -- our -- selves to medical schools, and the like quite easily. No, they don't plan to move to a home soon. No, no housekeeper messing with their bedrooms, thank you! The idea seems to be to die in harness. And they've done all they can to simplify things concerning their remaining stuff and the house and bank account. None of this was depressing to go into and explore together.

These things were not problematical for us. But I am who I am now, and not who they knew for sixtysome years, and they can't catch up.

My dad is upfront about this.

He took me out to the shed, and showed me a few things he had done for the truck, and some tools and doodads we might want. As we moved through the intense Central Florida heat, I limping, and he shuffling with his two walking sticks, he said, "I have Alzheimer's, y'know, and so my head is stuck -- I can't get it about what you've done with your poor body, and I hope you will have patience with me." I couldn't fault that. He'd stopped talking to me for a year, post-transition, and here he was being my dad again, and asking for forgiveness in his way -- which in itself was a remarkable thing. I don't remember him ever asking for forgiveness for anything, in all those years. Not his style; it would be unmanly. So it was a banner moment, there by the toolshed.

Even so, there was something in the plaintive tone of voice in which he said "your body" that held a clue for me. His mental picture of the body that was mine was that of the one that had been entrusted to them. That body of his remembrance, the health and well-being of which the work of his years, had for him a completeness that it no longer has. So it's, for him, not a change, but a loss. I have become a lesser creature.

My mom's behavior is more complex, but engages the same valuation.

She was actually rather excited, at first, about having a daughter, and had fought with my dad over me, then flew out to Oregon to meet me and take me shopping. She had some trouble with pronouns but you could see she was working at it. She blamed the difficulty on her stroke: "I have squiggles in my brain, heh heh."

But now she can't do the name or the pronouns at all. She's affectionate and supportive and takes me to her closet to choose whatever dresses I might want. But every second sentence ends in the honorific "son."

"Son" is a key word in understanding what's going on here. If you have, say, a son and a daughter, try this: one week, ask your son to take out the trash:

"Could you take out the trash for me, son?"

The next week try it with your daughter:

"Emily, could you take the trash out for me?"

See what happens?

"Daughter" is a designation but it is not an honorific. To say, "Could you take out the trash for me, daughter?" is just weird -- hardly anybody does it.

"Son" has a cultural value in traditional families that "daughter" does not have. My transition, in and of itself, does not much trouble my parents. Their loss of status, in my having voluntarily lost mine -- as they see it -- does. They will mourn the death of their son, and also mourn the birth of their daughter, to the end of their days. And my mom is careful, despite her disclaimers, to remind me of this. Eight, maybe ten times a day. I have robbed them of the one thing that gave their lives meaning: a male child.

Language is full of markers like this. Notice how husbands say, "at my place," while wives say, "at our place." Wife sees a partnership but husband sees a sole proprietorship.

My mom watched closely, with her remaining vision, which is all peripheral, as these word choices struck me. At any sign of a pained expression she would assume that I was angry with her for her "mistakes," and then she would pout. And I'd have to try to find a way to smooth it over, all the while competing with the tremendous noise in the room from the ever-present patriarchal triumphalism of Fox News.

But several things became clear to me all at once. One is that the usages were not mistakes. Another is that even though these were not mistakes, they were not malevolent, simply manifestations of the grief emanating from a reality I could not share. My parents are good people, they intend me no harm but only good, and they have raised me, by stunning lifelong example, to a remarkable standard of integrity, for which I'm grateful. So I was not angry, simply trying to bear up under repeated shocks that were devastating to me inwardly, and my face has never been one that could hide feelings.

Another was that I was about to become ill under this assault from, not them, but certainly from the patriarchalism to which they had been raised. Whenever I was alone for a few moments, I'd start shaking and weeping. I was facing a 3100 mile drive under difficult conditions and a tight schedule, and the situation in the house was giving me insomnia.

Also I was finding the endless bacon, ham, sausages and grease indigestible. This was simply an environment in which I could not thrive for more than a few days. Not enough moxie, whatever.

So I proposed that I move up my departure by a day. All parties agreed this was the thing to do.

In the morning, at four a.m., I climbed into the truck cab with five days' rations, turned over the engine, and backed out of the driveway, as my dad, silhouetted in the carport light, watched what had been his beloved child away into the pre-dawn fog.



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