Monday, February 20, 2006

Archival notes: December 2004

In yoga practice several days ago, the teacher called, as she has often done, for natarajasana ( Dancer's Pose. After cueing the pose, she encouraged us to let the pose create the perfect balance of stretching forward into the future and stretching backwards into the past. When she mentioned the past, I toppled out of the pose, as it was perfectly clear to me that to some extent, I have tried to put my past behind me.

In reflecting a bit on what I've written here, it occurs to me that while I want to use this website as a journal of today, sometimes what I experience is not accurately described without reference to the the context of the past.

From that thought, I jump to thinking of the right context to frame my experience with the cadvaer lab.

From there, it occurs to me that I should share with you the following items -- notes I wrote in December 2004:

December 1, 2004

It seems strange to think that sitting with what’s left of a woman who second-mothered me most summers and for two school years of my life is yoga, but it was the most heart-opening practice I’ve done.

What’s left? A bag of bones, draped with a thin and mottled fabric of skin. Bits and pieces of the sharp-tongued intellect, the manipulative middle sister, the telecom executive mind, the loving aunt to a dozen or so nieces and nephews.


She’s stuck in the middle of a word, intoning it until the breath of the word runs out. She looks at me, confused – unsure of whether it’s the word or her mind or my presence that is out of place, not right.

Eyes look out from deep hollows in her skull, the upper lip drawn up, exposing the greyed and yellowed front teeth. The eyes seem to have shrunk, eyelid skin disappearing under the ocular orbits of her skull, a bottomless crevasse, reappearing hugging the round eye.

How can an eye look uncertainly? Is it the shape of the eyelids? The brows? Hers never moved.

A sentence about the dogs she cared for 30 years ago comes out clearly, intoned with the wry sense she used when managing us as kids, telling me of a white dog trying to hide in the greenery of her backyard.


She gets stuck on another word; runs out of breath. Stops to inhale.

Yesterday, the daylight from the window at the head of her bed cast artists’ shadows across her face, framing her skeleton head in a silver halo of clean, frizzy hair. Despite her complaints, the room is clean, the temperature is pleasant, she's only ten steps from the nurses’ station.

She tried to get out and about on her own a week ago and fell. The scabs and bruises mottle her skin even more than age. She’s got a clear adhesive bandage on a wound on her wrist, too tempting a target for the hen’s pecking instinct, the unwatched fingernails’ primate-picking-grooming instinct.

Yesterday, she was sleepy, drifting off, startling awake when a door closes in the corridor. The light was really perfect for drawing. I had a sketch book in my bag, but I was seated beside her bed, her cool fingers holding my hand. Once when she drifted off, I thought to slip my hand from hers and retrieve my sketchbook. But even a millimeter of movement brings her back awake in a moment. I resisted the sketching urge and hold still. I was the one posed.

Today, the light is more muted, as the advance guard of a snowstorm moves into the valley. I can still see the bone shapes in her face, the drooping cloth of her skin lying across the skull, her front teeth protruding from aging, drawn back lips, the weight of her skin draping toward her ears. With a sketch today, I think I could capture the light I saw yesterday.

What’s with this urge to sketch? Just to free my hand, my self from this diminishing biome? Create distance from her, to turn her into an abstraction of darkness and light? Or maybe a desire for the intimacy of drawing someone, my eye touching each edge, each curve, probing each shadow of her face, an intimacy we once shared through words, an intimacy that too many strokes, each cutting off blood to a different fragment of mind, now deny us?

She reaches for my hand again. I receive hers.

She articulates as carefully as she can, “I would find it quite pleasant if you would remove this bandage,” lifting her bandaged wrist. I tell her that the doctor would be unhappy with me if I did that. We repeat this conversation five or six times during the hour. Sometimes I defer to medical expertise. Sometimes I lie about doing it later. Sometimes I look her in the eye and tell her that I think she’d pick it raw without a bandage. My responses seem to matter more for the sound of my voice than the content of the words. Do I mislead myself that the actual words don’t matter?

I pause to take a breath myself. It doesn’t bring me back to center, but it does stretch, then relax more deeply the intercostal muscles. I’m reminded that I’m the mind of a body. I rest, holding her cool fingers in mine.

Walking back to my car in the parking lot, my heart feels strange, entangled, alive.

December 15, 2004:

One event, one thought, though a grisly one.

Yesterday, my mother-in-law died, 18 months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

My brother-in-law, unable to reach my wife, called me in my office to advise me. I returned home, as my wife would likely be there shortly. In the meantime, I thought for a minute, and decided that I ought to eat something, in case the rest of the day and the unmade contingent plans that were doubtless forming would prevent it later.

So I went to the fridge to see what there was. I found a ziploc bag with some chunks of steak that my youngest son and I had grilled the day before. I opened the bag, sprinkled the meat with salt. As I speared one of them, I had an odd feeling of equivalence between the beef muscle before me, and my mother-in-law's body, now meat.

I finished eating the leftover steak, never quite shaking off the feeling of relationship.