Monday, April 21, 2014

The Ultimate Predator

In Everything Cat: What Kids Really Want To Know About Cats, Marty Crisp writes that "a cat facing illness or death is aware only that he is being threatened. He cannot find the source of the threat, but the instinctual response is to hide." This is the beginning of a response to the question "Why did our old cat disappear forever?"

Crisp adds, "Unfortunately, you can't hide from death."

I considered mentioning this children's book in an intellectual setting last week. At the Festival of Faith and Writing, I moderated a session on the task of writing on trauma and loss, and this cat fact seemed relevant. In what ways do we hide from death? How is loss felt as a threat?

But memoirist Shannon Huffman Polson and National Book Award nominee Andrew Krivak were articulate panelists, and we had plenty to talk about without the mention of cats. Krivak's book The Sojourn had been described by The Washington Post as "packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone," a notion that begged questions on the role of narrative structure and tone in softening, heightening, and occasionally protecting us from the severe aspects of suffering and grief. In a masterful prologue, Krivak builds to a tragedy we know is coming, but he does so gently, with long sentences, plentiful commas, and a mother's last look at her child. The word that ends the section--strikes--is comprised of harsh consonants, and that's the hardest blow Krivak hands us as a writer; he knows that his story is painful enough. Remarkably, the plot point comes from Krivak's personal history: his great-grandmother threw her baby, his grandfather, into a river just before she was hit by a train.

Polson's mother and stepfather were killed in a bear attack, and in telling of a pilgrimage to the site in her book North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, she uses as counterpoint the story of rehearsing for the Mozart Requiem. For the last chapter, she reconstructs their last day at the camp and titles it Dies Irae, after the section which was finished by Sussmayr because Mozart had died.

There is the tragedy--there is always the tragedy--and there is what we do to manage and communicate its power, whether defeating or redemptive. Both writers saw a salvific role to loss, though Polson struggled. After singing the Requiem under Itzhak Perlman, she felt this way: "I am curiously happy, not unhappy, but I had expected more. I had wanted the heavens to soothe my wounds, and they did not. But I have internalized beauty. I have internalized prayer."

We want our healing to take as large a stage as the high drama of our suffering, but this is not always how it goes. Andrew spoke of what he calls the small act; in an email, he defined it as "a moment, a moment of choice, which happens only when the depth of loss is peered into, however briefly, and there is still visible something that will assuage that loss." He expanded on the idea further in our session, pointing to the grieving family in Raymond Carver's short story, A Small Good Thing, who show grace to an angry baker. It's a moment when a choice is made to reach through the depths, revealing a humanity when it is least deserved or felt.

Because how else does one learn to resist and surrender, if not through the persistence of love? (from Krivak's website) Sometimes the love must be extended by the one wrapped in the throes of loss.

In a session after ours, Krivak stayed on the idea of the small act as present specifically in fiction, and as reflecting faith. After, in the q&a time, a man raised his hand and said something like this: "We work so hard to fight against pain, but I'm a physician, and I can tell you: healing only comes when we embrace the suffering and enter into it."

Some old cats run off not because they want to die alone, but because they think they can outwit the ultimate predator (death) by sneaking away.

Unfortunately, you can't hide from death.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Inspiration

We met at a Mexican restaurant, her choice but she'd never been there.

"I heard it's good," she said, adjusting her pink hat and rosary necklace. The necklace was the only thing not pink about her, and I'd never seen her like this, with earrings and bright clothes. The last time we were together there was snow, and she wore five pairs of socks. Boots, knit cap, sweatshirt, all dark, drab colors, and just a hint of a smile. Today, Patty was smiling big.

Patty used to be homeless. She stayed at the homeless shelter where I worked, though not when I was there, and we namedrop like old friends. I never knew her boyfriend, who died on the streets, but I can picture her, I must admit, as one of them. And now she's in a category that doesn't have enough members.

She's off the streets. She has an apartment. She's thriving as best as someone with limited resources can.

And what she told me over her burrito and my tacos is that she's never going back. "I'm going to keep moving forward," she said, cutting off a small bite, manageable for missing teeth, with the side of her fork.


"Do you think you can help me, Amy?"

I didn't know but I couldn't say such a thing, as the man was losing hope. He'd seen his doctor and a physical therapist and yet still, the pain was there. Maybe I'd know a few exercises that could help? I thought so, until that first day came and I was meeting with an 89-year-old man and the fear settled in to suggest that maybe, just maybe, I'm out of my league here. I could hurt him in my ignorance. I couldn't live with that, but I also couldn't live with being added to the list of people who didn't help.

"Sure, we can meet."
"It's worth a try, Amy."

And so we took it slowly. I carefully managed the amount of moving we'd do within our time. We got to know each other. And what I came to see is that this older person is just a person, special not because he's older but because he has not given up. He has not accepted his aches and pains as a given. He's moving forward--slowly, carefully, but in the right direction.