Some people that I love are suffering. I find myself thinking about Huntington’s disease, dementia, and places where we become less than we were. Sometimes we are children growing in the wrong direction. Away from promise and potential into private worlds where possibilities shrink like the future, fall through our fingers like sand, and torn from us with insistent hands are scattered like chaff in the wind forever.
I like to watch chickens. In all their feather finery, they are a curious and going concern until they’re not. One day they run on three toed feet, an apple slice in their beak trying to dodge the flock of chickens in hot pursuit, one day they settle determined on a pile of eggs insisting that the other girls find somewhere else to lay, one day they dart past you out the door . . . and another day, they’re gone. Nothing but a pile of feathers waiting to be buried.
Chickens’ heads bob around at the end of their necks a lot like a person with muscle spasms. All of them do it and none of them care. If anything, they’re proud of it. Now and then it strikes me that chickens essentially invented break dancing (from the shoulders up). Yesterday I found myself stalled, watching chickens again. I’d dumped some scraps in the outside run to try and tempt them out into the fresh air and sunshine. A bold chicken and two flightier birds came curious about the scraps but not quite sure. In and out an inch, and in and out an inch, and in and out three inches then back to the end of the line. Chicken two gave a smaller try then ran to the end of the line and so on. Ten minutes I stood amused although they weren’t doing anything they don’t do every day. Nervous chickens (and they are all nervous) change their minds even more than nervous people.
I don’t know how watching them helped me. I remembered a sick chicken who no longer bobbed her head at all but still knew she was a chicken. The other chickens knew she was a chicken too.
I’m not sure what separates us from the chickens is as big a space as we’d like to think. Or maybe we do know. A microscopic hair’s breadth separates us, people from chickens, well people from sick people, and that’s what hurts. Watching people suffer who were us in another life, three or four seconds ago.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote poet Dylan Thomas. But not everybody is handed the ability to rage toward nights gentle or otherwise. In a different poem, Thomas writes, “Though they go mad, they shall be sane, Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; Though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
Death shall have no dominion. I think the chickens know this.
A picture from Newfoundland for free . . . although I’m guessing it’s a lot whiter right now.
I want to move to Buffalo. All that snow appeals to me. But Buffalo is a passing fancy. As is Newfoundland (I think). Newfoundland, small foreign villages in pick-a-country (Ireland, Spain, the Philippines, anywhere in South America or Africa without the overgrown insects). Sometimes I dream of going north north. They’re always looking for teachers and nurses up there.
Sometimes I dream of cities, preferably somewhere cold. Cities with soup kitchens and streets and friends that you don’t have to drive to. Cities with vibrant churches, schools, museums, and concerts. Cities with artists, musicians, and other writers. Cities, or maybe towns, with neighbour kids and lots of people who live next door.
When I visit my grandparents, my fancies turn to the Finger Lakes. And what of Michigan, I said last year when a writer’s retreat took me that way. For a woman who likes where she lives, the near yearning for new lands is a puzzle.
Unless it’s not. Unless the restless searching is part of being here and not quite home. I’ve been thinking about that for myself, but also how it might relate to dementia. What if it’s we, the memory rich, who forget we don’t belong here. That there’s a reason we can’t quite settle in. What if somewhere deep down under what we see, people with dementia begin to glimpse in stages that their belonging is somewhere else?
My loneliness, emptiness, the hollows of my soul. Maybe we all forget that they’re not mine or yours, they’re ours. That we walk a planet full of lonely people together. It is either insanity that we don’t connect enough to fill each other’s emptiness – or it is reality that we never really can. I’m guessing it’s a little of both. That we’re put here to hold hands and help each other, but we can’t quite make it all better.
Why that makes me want to go to Newfoundland is anybody’s guess. But maybe it’s ok sometimes to feel a little disconnected where we are. To wander a bit down here in search of there.
Growing up we never lived close to my grandparents, but I felt their love all the same. Especially from my grandmother. As a small child, I sometimes wondered if my grandfather even knew my name, but somewhere in there, he started talking. He’s never really stopped since. I know entire extended families rather well through the stories of my grandmother. My grandfather and I share a love of silly rhymes.
I wasn’t sure how things would work after my mother died. Usually it had been my mother that kept us together.
My grandma called me on the phone. “I call my kids in order. All their numbers are on the wall. I’m too old to change from four to three. I’m putting you in at your mother’s spot,” she said.
She travelled up to meet my first baby. I travelled down with the other three when they arrived. She bought me diapers and tucked twenty dollar bills in my coat for gas. I sent pictures and letters I had never taken the time to write before. We weren’t forgetting my mother. We were loving somebody else who loved her. Along the way, we found a lot of love and joy between us. My mother would like that.
My grandfather doesn’t remember things now. He has cancer that he isn’t treating. Many conversations, he can’t follow. He joins in by telling jokes he thinks of.
This year we had an early Thanksgiving dinner together. My grandparents, my girls, and me. I brought one of our chickens. The girls drew turkey pictures and made place cards. We ate brownies for dessert and saved the pumpkin pie for the next day so we could properly enjoy it.
I went to bed afterwards thinking about books. How every chapter should be the best you can make it. Every sentence matters. But as good as it all is, if it’s done right, the last chapter is the best. Everything comes together. The beautiful intensifies to a level you had no idea was even possible back when you were reading in the middle and enjoying every page.
I am struck with my grandfather’s gentleness amidst confusion. His quiet trust in my grandmother is not a tenderness I could have imagined in him twenty years ago. He needs a lot of help navigating daily life. My grandmother learns what she needs to do, and does it. She does not spend her days grieving who my grandfather is not. She looks at the man who is present, figures out how to give him what he needs, and loves him as he is.
I have been reading the book of their lives for a long time now. So many different chapters. So much for me to learn. But this last chapter. It takes my words away and sits me down quiet with wonder. About love. And it never, ever being too late to become like the Velveteen rabbit. More real. More beautiful.