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The Night Will Always Win March 3, 2011

Posted by monty in personal.

Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

It seems harsh to say she’s dying, even though she certainly is.  And I don’t mean that in the existential, “we all start to die as soon as we’re born” way. And I don’t mean it to be melodramatic or hyperbolic.  After battling cancer since 1995, she decided five days ago to forego any further treatment and turn herself over to hospice care.  I know I need to prepare myself for what’s going to happen – soon, much too soon – but I still feel the need to soften the blow.

Her story, briefly:

In 1995, shortly before I moved to California, she was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer.  It’s uncommon, but similar (as I understand it) to ovarian cancer.  Her doctors discovered it when she went in for routine hernia surgery, and they found it at such an early stage that everyone was hopeful for a full recovery.  She had surgery, followed by chemotherapy.  Distance afforded me a sort of comfort: I was on the other side of the country, and I don’t think I ever had a complete picture of just how difficult this treatment was for her.  Hair loss.  Nausea.  All the usual suspects.  But within a year or so it appeared she had beaten it.

And that’s the way it continued for a dozen or so years.  Cancer was a spectre that hovered on the periphery, an unwelcome guest that lurked just outside the door but never quite crossed the threshold.  There were semiannual checkups with an oncologist, but the results of her bloodwork always came back looking just fine.  A lot happened in this time.  My brother got married and went to grad school, then to law school.  I taught high school, then returned to grad school myself.  My mom and dad both retired and began traveling regularly, around the U.S. and to Ireland.  They became obsessive walkers, going out once or twice during the day, and always making sure to find time for it on their travels.  They volunteered through their church, doing immeasurable good for people in their community who were without family and resources themselves.  If possible, they were busier in retirement than they were when they were teaching.

A little over two years ago, though – just as I was finishing up my Ph.D. and looking for teaching positions back east – my mom suddenly found herself suffering from shortness of breath.  It first manifested itself during her walks with my dad.  She couldn’t go as far, had to stop and sit for a while. Soon, even walking from one room to another required that she sit at the midpoint to recover.  After a trip to the emergency room, it turned out that her hemoglobin levels had plummeted, and she had to undergo the first of what was to become a dozen or more blood transfusions in the next 18 months.

As it turned out, there was tumor growth in her intestine causing internal bleeding.  The situation was dire, and the prognosis wasn’t good.  She went back on an aggressive form of chemotherapy, and, amazingly, it worked.  She had to alter her diet substantially, and her plans now had to constantly revolve around her chemo schedule, but for most of the last two years she’s been in decent health.  She and my dad were still able to do some traveling – to California to see me receive my degree; to Atlanta a couple times after I had moved into a new place and taken a new job; and, most significantly, to Zion National Park in Utah, where she was actually able to do some hiking.  My nephew was born a little over a year ago, so my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved to a condo in the suburbs of Columbus so they could enjoy being grandparents.  I was just a drive away, and in a good relationship of my own with a girl my parents adored.  The family was as close as it had been in 15 years.

Two weeks ago, she started suffering from symptoms of jaundice.  My dad immediately took her to her doctor, and we got the kind of news that we had been dreading all this time.  The cancer had spread to her liver and become more deeply entrenched in her intestine.  There were things she could do – emergency stomach surgery, some hyper-intense form of radiation – but it was made pretty clear that it would only be a stopgap, a temporary way of prolonging the inevitable.

Four days ago, she decided that hospice was the best route.  She’s tired, and I understand her decision.  She’s lived with this for years, had several different abdominal surgeries, done the bloodwork regularly, endured the transfusions.  She’s tired, and I think the prospect of subjecting herself to another surgery or as many as 15 debilitating radiation sessions is just too much to bear.  I can’t be mad at her.  It would be selfish.  But the hurt – the sense of loss – is just starting to seep in around the edges.  Day to day, my biggest task is just holding it together.

In many ways, I’m as sad for my dad as I am for my mom.  They started dating when they were teenagers, and now they’ve been married for over 40 years.  This can’t be how he envisioned them ending up, and I can’t imagine what this is like for him – to lose someone who’s been with him for all but the first 13 years of his life.  But this teaches me what marriage is all about.  This is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road.  To care for your wife in her last days.  To see her across to the other side.  And to do it without flinching.

I talked to her on the phone yesterday.  She still sounds good, still has her sense of humor.  I don’t know how she does it.  Is it easier for the person who’s leaving than for those who are left?  I do a good job of talking to her, I think.  Keep it light.  Focus on me.  Be funny.  Is that dishonest?  Should we say the things we’re supposed to say at this time, or is it more important to try and keep the darkness at bay?  I honestly don’t know.  Nothing about it feels right; it’s all varying degrees of wrong.

And of course there’s the guilt.  One or two visits a year for nearly fifteen years.  All the times I dodged phone calls because I wasn’t in the mood or didn’t have anything exciting to talk about.  The stupid childhood rebellions and the things I said that I didn’t mean.  As the clock ticks down, I’m suddenly faced with an inventory of regret, and I realize that all the clichés are true.

Treasure the time you have with the people you love.

Tell them – repeatedly, honestly – just how much they mean to you.

Tomorrow I make the long drive from Atlanta to Columbus, Ohio, most likely to see my mom for the last time.

I’m not ready.


Paint Out the Light December 17, 2010

Posted by monty in music, personal.
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I hadn’t intended to take quite this much time off, but I’m busy here in the frozen Midwest, visiting family, opening presents, and eating way too much. Also, I accidentally asked a recovering alcoholic if he’d ever tried Four Loko, so there’s that.

Regular programming will resume on Sunday.

In the meantime, here’s #3 in my 100% arbitrary list of Favorite 2010 Albums (but it bears mentioning that if these weren’t completely arbitrary and I were ranking them in order of preference, today’s entry would be my unequivocal #1 choice):

The National  – High Violet

I’m an unapologetic fan of melancholy.  Much of my favorite music over the years (or at least, much of my favorite music since I started listening to the stuff I currently listen to) has sported a rich vein of the stuff.  The Smiths, Joy Division, Nick Cave, Elbow, Elvis Costello, Tindersticks – for me, there’s always been a strange sense of comfort in listening to music that, to other people, often comes off like a huge bummer.

And that’s why, right now, The National is my favorite band in the universe (next to Elbow, which will undoubtedly be an entry in my 2011 Favorite Albums list).  As someone who was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor with this band, it’s been fun to listen to them mature over the course of their five albums, becoming more confident and sophisticated with each release.

For fans of the band, High Violet is an extremely satisfying collection of songs that also provides a useful entry point for newcomers.  While its stock in trade are the slow-burn numbers that make up a bulk of the album (like opener “Terrible Love,” which escalates from funereal to ferocious in the space of four-and-a-half minutes and the gorgeously bittersweet “Runaway”), High Violet is peppered with the stripped-down rockers that have arguably been the high point of previous albums.  “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is propulsive, euphoric, and one of the best things they’ve ever written.

Some have criticized the band for treading water on this album (I guess they wish there was more superfluous bleeping and blooping like the new Sufjan Stevens album, or maybe a cameo by T.I.), but to me it sounds like a sophisticated and triumphant culmination of the sound they’ve been developing over their last four albums.

Here are two songs from the album.  The first is their video for “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” the second is “Terrible Love,” taken from their amazing show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  You have to watch them on YouTube – which is sort of stupid – so click Play, then click one more link to get to the song.  The extra click is worth it.


Current listening:

Rollerskate Skinny – Horsedrawn Wishes (1996)

In the Distance Fading December 13, 2010

Posted by monty in personal.
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Tomorrow I make the long drive up I-75 to Ohio.  I’ll travel through the beautiful North Georgia and Tennessee mountains, across the Kentucky wastelands (a state that is, as far as I can tell, waaaaayyyy more racist than I even imagined Georgia would be), and up the interminable I-71 corridor from Cincinnati to Columbus, where, in that two-hour stretch of hell’s roadway, I will get my fill of strip malls, barren fields, and megachurches.  This will be my first Christmas since my parents moved out of my childhood home, and I’m surprised at the lack of nostalgia I feel.

I had a lot of good years in that house.  I lived in it from the age of 6 until I went to college at 18; summers for the next four years were spent there; and I visited once or twice a year for almost 15 years after that.  Even if I don’t feel a particular attachment to the house itself, I’m surprised that I don’t feel more wistful about the land that surrounded it.

Growing up, I’d disappear into the woods behind the house for hours at a time.  I’d tell my parents I was having “adventures,” and I’d go tearing into the woods with a stick as a sword, or else I’d cram my grandfather’s old fedora on my head, attach an imaginary bullwhip to my belt, and go make like Indiana Jones for a while.  I’d spend the afternoon dodging poison ivy and running myself ragged across the shifting mosaic of light and shadow on the ground.

Or I’d be out amongst the whispering stalks of corn in the field next to the house.  When I was little I’d wend my way out to the middle of the field and lay down between the rows and watch the swaying tassels superimpose themselves on the cerulean sky overhead. In the fall and winter, once the harvest was done, I’d go out into the field and scavenge.  I didn’t know what I thought I’d find, but I was hoping the tractors and combines would have churned up something valuable from the earth.

Lots of good bike rides started from that house.  The patchwork of flat country roads provided me with a seemingly endless number of routes to take, and I’d start off on my ten-speed Schwinn with no particular destination in mind.  When I think about how hyper-sensitive parents are now, it’s surprising to remember how I’d tell my parents I was headed out on a ride and then I’d just disappear for an afternoon.  Sometimes I’d explore roads I’d never traveled before, sometimes I’d ride the couple miles into town, sometimes I’d ride until something that was clearly demanding to be explored caught my eye.  I remember spotting a stream I’d never noticed before, parking my bike under a tree by the road, and then following the stream for an hour or more until it emptied into a marshy area in the middle of a field.  I was probably 11 or 12 at the time, and my parents had no idea where I was.

I entertained friends and girlfriends there.  I went through elementary school, junior high, high school, and college there.  I parked several different cars in the driveway’s turn-around and left the house on summer mornings for half a dozen different shitty high school and college jobs.  I raked leaves, mowed the grass, and helped my dad the high school principal clean toilet paper out of the trees.  I camped in the backyard and ran through the sprinkler and its dewdrop rainbows in the front.   I shot hoops in the driveway and hit tennis balls off the garage door, hour after hour.  I discovered that if I flooded the garden in the back yard with the hose, I could make the perfect swampy battlefield for my G.I. Joes.  I chased fireflies through the velvet dusk of summer evenings and felt the frost crunch under my shoes as I trudged across the grass to catch the bus on winter mornings.

Before too much longer I will have spent more time outside Ohio than I did inside it, yet part of me still thinks of myself as an Ohioan.  Here in Georgia, whenever I hear somebody say something or act a way that sounds or looks particularly “Southern,” part of me can’t help but think, “Thank goodness I’m a Northerner,” ignoring the fact that I spent the last 15 years in California, which has its own peculiar set of rules governing etiquette.  These feelings of “Northern-ness,” the identity I have, and the way I conduct myself – all of it is inextricably linked to that house and the things I learned there as I was growing up.  In fact, much of who I am can’t be separated from where I grew up.

But for all that, I feel no particular attachment to this house, no wistfulness or sadness that I never had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to that part of my life, the part where I learned how to be who I am.  It feels like I owe that place something.  It’s the place my parents chose to raise my brother and I, and the place where they stayed after he and I left home.  It saw us both through school, through graduation, through grad school; through my dad’s retirement; through my mom’s cancer, her remission, and the cancer’s return.  I can’t figure out if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, to want to feel nostalgic for something.  The desire to feel is commendable, but the lack of feeling seems problematic, as though I’m missing some component that other people just automatically have.  I don’t know what it means, but as fondly as I remember that place – home – I can’t help but describe it in this way, for better or worse:

My parents lived there for a time, and so, too, did I.


Current listening:

Pulp – Separations (1992)