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Last week I removed the tub in Grandma’s bathroom and replaced it with a full walk-in shower. This setup will accommodate her better in her declining years. It wasn’t a big project. My work required four days to complete, and I needed extra help only when removing the old tub. The entire remodel went about as I expected. I told Grandma that in the best circumstances I would finish in three days, so four days means it went about average. A remodelling project in an old house always has issues that new construction does not.

I am experienced at dealing with the vagaries of old construction so I adapted to deal with the problems that cropped up–and those weren’t as bad as they could have been. In the end most of the remaining issues were neatly covered up with trim and caulk. The only points that remain to irk me are, firstly, that I would have bought a new faucet fixture because the old one was showing its age but Grandma wanted to save money with the reuse. Second, there is a minor trim issue but if I didn’t mention it perhaps your less critical eye wouldn’t even notice, so I’m not going to point it out. When that is the sum of what stands out in a really negative way to me I consider that pretty good.

I found the project a nice change of pace. I had the feeling while I did this bathroom project that there were a lot of other things not getting done that I ought, and needed, to do–but if I just ignored that sensation then I enjoyed the work. For many people that would be a very odd statement indeed (bathroom renovations can be a deep mine of horror stories), but I enjoy working with my hands. That reality is one of the difficult truths for me as I follow a writing career.

Creative work is nebulous and my conscience struggles with that vagueness. I like concrete, countable, results from my daily work. With a ledger to tally up I can quantify what I’ve done and give myself a congratulatory pat on the back. I can feel good about myself. I’m not proud of that craving for self-congratulations, but it is true.

Hard labor feels more morally simple. Every day I see what I have done, and I know I have worked. But with creative work often much of the creation is done within my mind with nothing visible to the world. A lot of that secret work–uncountable, without any quantification, can feel like wasted time. How can I prove it was anything but selfish daydreaming? even when I move on to writing in its concrete form it is a long time before those words reach an audience–months if not years before my words touch and perhaps change someone. Even good hours of writing can feel like wasted hours because it seems to have accomplished nothing. When those words finally reach someone I’ve forgotten about the labor of the writing.

In writing there can be a huge disjunction between labor and reward. They don’t exist in the same space and this leaves me constantly struggling with the thought that I am just a lazy person lacking in diligence who is pretending that his delusions have meaning. It is a constant struggle in my mind. It is there, somewhere, every day. I can never get away from it. But when I replace a tub with a shower stall–for just that brief time–I don’t feel delusional, I don’t doubt that I have accomplished something. My labor doesn’t feel vaporous and nebulous. I can look at what my hands have done, and I can see that I have changed the world. I have done something tangible.

I often think to myself how in a different life I could have been happy as a laborer. Wealth has never held an appeal to me, and I make a good ditch digger. I am an adequate carpenter and roofer. Unlike many people, I can enjoy those labors. Life could have been so much simpler if I had taken the route of working hard, and thinking less. I wouldn’t have all these doubts that gnaw at me when the day closes and I wonder how much I am living the delusions of someone who imagines his words have impact and meaning.

But that shower stall, that house, does not live and breathe and feel. The deepest impacts are often the most unseen–and that is the truth that draws me on, a reality that has helped shape my life. If, at times, for a moment I think about the different lives I could have lived as a tradesman–well, the thought doesn’t linger long. I deliberately turned away from that life path years ago, and I know why. Words breed in me, and stories are like a fire in my bones. I can’t escape writing, even when I can’t defend it, or make logic of it. Perhaps I am delusional, but I hold that the best things, the most meaningful works, are often not seen for a long time. The intangible can be the most meaningful, often seen only by what is left in their wake and felt the unseen wind. Perseverance is like that. It is one of the hardest lessons of life, and I know I still need to learn that secret, for it is the secret for both writing and knowing its worth. Ultimately that finds root not in the work of hands, but in the work of the heart.

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Sometimes, the odd intersections catch me. The moments flash, like glimpses into some mysterious and profound story, something I fail to grasp. Today I drove to the dump and as is my habit I watched the country houses, fields, and farms as they slid past. I drive the same route often–it was the same houses, the same farms, another day. Then I saw the man in camo military fatigues standing in the driveway, shutting the car door. He had the look of a soldier fleshly home.

Yesterday evening I had spent too much time watching video clips of soldiers returning home to their families. I don’t normally watch that kind of video, and equally it is not common to glance out your truck window on a country road and see in that fleeting moment a lone soldier returning home. The oddness of the intersecting events caught me, as if the strange confluence couldn’t have come together without meaning.

Homecoming stories, videos, are viscerally compelling. They are the tales told from antiquity, and remain as gripping today. But the modern age has made the capture of such moments easy, the sharing so simple that there overflows a glut of naked emotional manipulation. I don’t know how a warm blooded man can not be moved by the sight of a young daughter running to greet her father, in tears of joy at the meeting. So what then of this great digital sea called the modern world where people trawl the electronic tide and string together long clips of such love-meeting. One moved you? How about twenty in a row. And we have more. You can watch them until your eyes cross.

Then comes the loss of orientation, the dizzying internal feeling when the emotional compass has lost all bearing and the inner self staggers. What started as a heart’s recognition of the raw emotional honesty and vulnerability in homecoming and joy becomes a cynical recognition of manipulation and being manipulated. There is a reason the videos are collected into montages. We know what the moment does, and so in blatant moves we gather and replay. Let us feel it again. And again. What was first a unique meeting, a special moment, is gathered in the dozens and one marvels at the creeping feeling of numbness. What is has been before, and yet again. In its surfeit does it have meaning? What before seemed so special begins to almost feel alienating. Is it not, in the end, a sea of people?

Have we found yet another way to spoil what was special, to render to our hearts utterly mundane what was meaningful. We have those brief moments of tears, screams, smiles, laughs, and long hugs of what it means to be loved, to be longed for, and to bring joy and meaning into the life of another. We take that and do what–make it mawkish?

It meant something, everything, and now nothing. Wine first tasted is fine, then dulled in consumption, and finished in drunkenness. There is no greater thing to witness than the reunion of love. Surely, it is what all creation longs for. But do we unintentionally mock and trifle the longing of hearts with the powers we have today? Is the society of our time wallowing in emotional drunkenness, filling ourselves with the dregs of over potent emotional cocktails? Watch enough homecomings in fifteen minutes, feel yourself undergo a strange inside-out where the special becomes crass. There the thoughts circle.

If we are emotional sots, what does that mean and what is the consequence? Surely the right path is not coldness, but what is feeling truly and honestly? How do we not make a profane show of the deepest things in a human heart?

I can say with fair certainty there wasn’t a camera waiting for the soldier I saw today. I caught him in a glimpse, not even a full moment. He was alone, a young man in sunglasses and boots, with a sure stride. Then I was gone, the road a ribbon running out, and he won’t be a social media video sensation. Maybe today he didn’t have someone run screaming into his arms, and maybe he never will (but I hope he does). Yet, for all that the homecoming today he lived as himself, and was his in truth.

Maybe there is a lesson in that.

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The day had lengthened to that time when evening begins its fade into night. The dusky light reminded me of the walk I had intended to take, and I finally pried myself away from the computer. My usual short route took me up to the farm on the hilltop, the road there winding through the trees. The sun had already slipped behind the distant hill as I began my ascent.

Evening birds gave occasional calls from the deeper shadows of the trees, but otherwise the journey was quiet. As I approached the hill crest everything opened up, the trees giving way to fields and distant hills. There I saw the storm.

The clouds hung in the distance, directly above the advancing road but far beyond my path. The last rays of the sun struck the outer edges of the mass so that it appeared as undisturbed evening clouds. Then I saw the flashes of a brighter light.

In the first moments I was sorry I hadn’t brought a camera. But a camera relieves us from seeing, from pondering the moment around us, and in us. Instead; Click. Picture. I’ll look at it later. And we move on without thought. But now, if I wanted to remember this, I had to stop and see. Really see. So I did, and I was glad I did.

The late July corn field on my left–not yet fully grown, but getting there–stood witness to the night like a regiment on parade formation. In the sky on my right reached the last shreds of pink dusk. and below that lay the cow pasture. A few distant bovine settled for the night, the silo towers in sentinel watch, the farm at rest. Ahead, the crest of the hill, the far distant horizon, the sky. Faint peach reflection in its highlights, the cloud bank faded to grey. Then it changed, flashing bright with lightning. Above all this hung the moon, high enough I had to tilt the head to encompass it in the picture. There it floated, suspended over the scene, serene–as if to say, “The world–that storm–rages, but it can’t touch me.”

The moon observed, and how safe, comforting, and sure it seemed. But the storm–oh, the storm!–how it raged. Lightning flickered in the clouds, erupting deep within. The storm was so distant I couldn’t hear the thunder, but I could see. Sheets of lighting would strobe, like some glorious beast stirring in the depths, like God was there. Then a striking bolt etched line from cloud to earth, dancing.

Perhaps most marvellous was how it all played out so silently. I saw the distant world pummelled, and not a breath of wind where I stood on the brow of the hill. Perhaps there is a picture here for how heaven’s host watches the show on earth. I wanted a chair and a porch on which to sit and watch.

I walked slowly, and stopped a bit to watch. From dawn to dusk, how much we miss between the span of  our horizons. We’re down here with our faces pressed against our screens, caught up in our own glowing visions, and He is up there putting on a show that we’re all ignoring. Our eyes strain from the looking and still we haven’t seen.

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I could probably make a thousand different video introduction to my book The Sea is Wide: A Memoir of Caregiving. Well, maybe ten. Point is, there are so many different important things I want to share about my book and they can’t all fit in one video. And there are some ideas that I could present in several different types of videos. This is a long way of saying I had to restrain myself and pick just one idea, and one way of presenting that idea, for the first video introducing my book.

It turned out mostly how I wanted. Give me a couple of months and a better version of software and it could be tons better, and more polished. But I don’t have all the time in the world, and I don’t have better software. So with what I have–yeah, it got across what I wanted to communicate.

And what was that? In this case I wanted to convey more a feeling than information. I tried, as best I could, to make the person watching the video feel what I felt caring for Grandpa. I wanted them to feel the feelings I tried to convey in my book. I think I managed to do that. Watch, and tell me what you think!

 

 

 

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I’m being a shill for myself, but since this is my blog I get to do that…

Right now we have a special sale going on for the Kindle version of my book The Sea is Wide: A Memoir of Caregiving. From July 29th to August 2nd the kindle version of my book is available for free. Get a copy and you will have it forever (well, for as long as Amazon exists). You will be able to lend this book to other people who have a kindle, so even if you don’t have a kindle device get yourself a copy. It is something you can share, and it will help give me exposure so I would really appreciate it.

As of this moment, in the Kindle free list I am #15 in Memoirs and #3 in Alzheimer’s Disease category. Get your copy and help push me to number 1: http://amzn.com/B00XWGSB3C

Ranking as of: 2015-07-29 14:35:12

Ranking as of: 2015-07-29 14:35:12

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When discussing the writing art one can argue that all fiction has basis in fact. No matter the smoke and mirrors–or flights of fancy–fiction is always in some way a representation of the author (a factual thing). True enough, but a tad too pendantic. When we commonly talk about non-fiction or fiction we are speaking about whether the stories themselves are presented as having really occurred, or not.

As regular readers know, I write both fiction, and non-fiction. Until this time my factual and fiction writing have existed in completely different spheres. My fiction has been outlandish–fantasy and science fiction far removed from life, with characters larger than life. By contrast, my non-fiction has been very grounded. My non-fiction includes the poignant, thoughtful, and funny (and, rarely, all three at once), but there are no grand adventures. I have long been content with the great separation between the content of the two writing forms–but I have felt a shift.

I’m not entirely sure where my writing might be going, or if I want to go there.

For many writers it has been a regular staple to take from life and weave it into their fiction. Those who teach writing instruct their pupils to do such. Fair to say this has been a hallmark of some very good writing. It has been fashionable to write fictional stories that are but thinly disguised accounts of factual happening in the authors own life. And there is an entire industry of writing fictional stories about historical events, recent and ancient.

In the early years of my writing (many years ago) this mixing of fact and fiction never occurred to me because I was convinced most of real life was boring–at least as far as reading about it. Nobody saved the world in a grand way in real life–that was for fiction, and that was the grand adventures I wanted to write. So as a young writer I wrote fantastic fiction, and my factual writing was, by and large, simply to amuse myself about my own life.

As I grew more mature I became increasingly cognizant of the fact that there is much in life that is interesting beyond just saving the world–but still I felt all of life that I had seen was pretty boring, and certainly wouldn’t make an interesting story. The interesting and real things out in the world which one might incorporate into fiction required more finesse and skill than I had. So I stuck with what I knew, what I imagined, and felt capable of–grand fictional adventures and mundane factual life.

It was only when I began writing about my time caring for Grandpa Purdy that I felt I had personal experience, and writing, which formed truly compelling factual events. But even then I found the events so compelling and weighty as pure  fact that I couldn’t see myself writing it into fiction. And so I wrote The Sea is Wide: A Memoir of Caregiving, a factual book. And I am quite glad I wrote it.

But in the process of writing the book I inadvertently discovered an advantage of using fiction to talk about factual things. It is very hard to be fully truthful, accurate, and faithful to a story as it occurs in life. As a writer you quickly discover how much you don’t know about events and motivations necessary to tell a full story. So what do you do–fill in as best as you can or leave holes in the story? Anyone who feels compelled to maintain a high standard when telling a factual story can find these limitations very difficult.

In writing The Sea is Wide I had a great advantage in that I had lived through the three years that I was primarily recounting in the book, and I had kept extensive written accounts of many of the things that happened. But even so, I was surprised at how often I ran into occasions where I didn’t have as much information as I would have wanted for writing factually. I allowed myself leeway to write from my memory and observations such as they were because I was writing a memoir “the world as best as I remembered it,” not an attempted objective historical account. But if it was hard to write a complete and factual account when I had so much at my disposal, how much harder would it be with stories I caught only in part, or saw only in a glimpse?

Writing about my time caring for Grandpa showed me very vividly how much impact the things of life can have in written form. It gave me the desire to write more such meaningful material–and yet it also showed me how difficult it would be to write such purely factual material. If I wanted to tell complete stories that were accurate and fair to all parties involved then there would be many stories that I could not tell because I would never have enough of the facts to be factual in writing.

I am mature enough now to see that everyone in life has stories worth telling, but I can also see clearly that I will never know enough of most people to tell much of their stories in a factual medium. Which has brought me to the place of contemplating how one writes fiction that draws from things heard, seen, and people known–and weaves it together in a fiction that tells truth about the world without being bound to a truthfulness of one person’s literal factual story.

Plenty of writers have done it, and done it well–with a wonderful effectiveness. But when I found myself seriously considering this form of writing I also found myself hesitating. This made me curious as to why I hesitated, which led to some inner searching.

One primary hesitation, I realized, was a concern that taking factual things and weaving them into fiction would make the facts less powerful, not more. For example I was (and remain) utterly convinced that I could not write a fictional story equivalent to the factual account of The Sea is Wide. Any fictional story would have been less powerful in conveying true things. Far enough. But (I remind myself) the whole reason I am considering weaving facts into fictional stories is because many stories I know I know so incompletely that I will never have enough to write a complete factual account. In such a situation a fictional story conveying truth about life is better than no story at all.

A second concern I felt was the fear that if I started combing factual things that I knew with fictional things that I’ve made up I might become confused about the facts of life that I know. I’ve had dreams where afterward when I woke I had to think very hard to separate dream from reality. In this fear I may not be giving myself enough credit. Doesn’t an author always remember their own writing? I’m not entirely secure in that. I remember years ago pulling out a scrap of writing stuffed away somewhere, reading it, and thinking “Wow, that’s pretty good writing–I wonder who wrote it.” Maybe thirty seconds later I remembered I had written it.

I don’t want to go back in twenty years trying to sort out my actual memories from the stories I invented. For this reason there was a certain safety in all my fiction being larger than life fantastical stories. The boundaries felt safe. Obvious.

But I realize my concern in this regard is only legitimate (if legitimate at all) if I attempt to wholesale take factual events and simply lightly skin the story with a veneer of fiction. For example, it has crossed my mind to take all of the funny country-life events that have happened to me (along with some that have happened to others) and combined them into one condensed hilarious country-living novel. That could be pretty funny, but with just a few names and bits changed and a bunch of true things otherwise stitched together I can legitimately see how I might, possibly, have problems in thirty years sorting it all out (if I should want too). However, I think that concern is not real if I am merely taking the substance of things I have heard, seen, or experienced and working them into a different narrative, completely unlike their birth. I don’t have such a shaky of a grasp on reality that a completely fictional narrative would cause me to become un-anchored from my own life narrative.

At least, I hope not.

In my dreams I would like to know the stories of this world so well that I could write them as straight factual accounts. But in the reality of my life I know only bits and pieces of true stories, and events, and they provoke thoughts in me about life that I cannot share as accurate factual accounts because I don’t have enough to be that kind of witness. I simply can’t. So I can either not share the thoughts, and the bits of life that I’ve seen which speak about larger truths of life, or else I can take those bits of me, and the world, and weave them together into fictional stories that speak to the larger truths of life.

I’m still not sure if I have the skill to do that, or exactly what stories I would make. But I give myself permission to try.

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So much of life is routine, but there are the times when it is not. Like regular clock-work, I take three bikes each week–same days, same route. All year. But on Saturday I rode off into the countryside. It wasn’t a day I normally ride, and it was a route I had never taken before. Twenty-five miles later, with several dirt roads explored, I made my way home.

Adventuring bike rides across the countryside is one of my favorite things to do, but I don’t do it very often. I guess mostly because of the weekly routine–I don’t have three hour chunks of time is lying around waiting for a bike ride. If I go adventuring on back roads something else isn’t getting done, and so the adventures rarely happen. But whenever I do head off for unknown hills and valleys I regret that I don’t do it more often.

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The rides give me a quiet peace, and a joy in the natural world that I don’t get in my normal life. And I think it does me good.

I find in the rides a metaphor for life. They are hard (you should see the hills around here) and they require perseverance. I don’t know what is coming around the corner, I don’t know how the road will play out, but I do know the end (home). There are so many interesting things to see, and unexpected beautiful sights. The expanse of the world can be breath-taking, exhilarating. It’s never boring. But it is solitary. It is just me, struggling along, the world sliding by. Occasionally I’ll see someone, maybe there will be a wave, and then they are gone never to meet again.

I guess the rides capture something that I don’t know if I’ve found anything else to capture so well–the experience of aloneness with a faint hint of melancholy held in the perfect balance with the realization that there is more than that–a beauty and grandeur to all that is which says that as alone as we might ever seem we are not so alone as we think we are. And whatever trials we might have, in the sweating and struggling of this moment, there is a radiance that spreads beyond what we can see.

It isn’t the perspective I normally have on life, or my troubles.

And after I finish the ride I can sleep really well too.

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It is easy to trust God,
until there is something
you really want or truly fear.

Then you find it might not,
surely is not,
God

How deceitful we become to our very selves,
the lies we so quickly believe,
what we prefer more than truth.

What God gives
we fear
because we want what we want.

And we see no life
without
what we desire.

How can poison seem
so suddenly sweet
and trust such a terrible thing.

We frighten ourselves
for we are
a house divided.

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She was the first to arrive for the talk, a senior with carefully curled hair, her demeanor neat and put together. As she walked down the center aisle between the chairs I went to meet her, offering the printed writing sample. When she sat near the front (but not in the front row), I sat a few chairs over in front and attempted striking up sociable conversation. No sense leaving her to sit there awkwardly in silence, I thought.

Perhaps she hinted at some surprise that someone so young as I was here giving a talk about Alzheimer’s and caregiving. However exactly the conversation began, it lead to a brief summary of my story. That was enough, all she needed to break the ice.

“I was a caregiver too.” She let it come out. “My husband had Alzheimer’s. I took care of him until he couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stand. Then I couldn’t dress him. I wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t do what was needed anymore, so I had to put him in a facility.”

A slight pause followed as she visibly controlled herself. “Every day I go visit him, and every day I cry and cry. I talk to him—but—he—he just sits there. He isn’t really eating, and he just stares ahead. Is he there? I don’t know if he is even hearing me. Is there anything I can do?”

The question was a mixture of fear and hope. Fear that there is no answer to the question, hope that I might give her one.

My talk hadn’t even begun and already I was handed a hard question.

There was no easy pat answer to her question, and not quick fix to her grief. Instead, I told her the story of how Grandpa would call, and even when I was sitting beside him on the couch he acted as if he didn’t hear any of my replies. I told her how since I figured he didn’t hear me I decided to say what amused me. And so when he called again I told him to shout a little louder because the Chinamen couldn’t quite hear him, and he had then stopped his endless repetition to say, “Was that a snide comment?” I used my story to encourage her that no matter how much it looked like her husband heard nothing she said—that still he did, and it mattered what she said and did, no matter what it looked like.

I don’t know if my story helped her. I hope it did. My story is all I have. But her question had reminded me that I was talking to people with heavy and hurting hearts, and lives filled with the difficult burdens they carried. In a few short minutes I was going to stand up and address a minefield of the rawest place in people’s lives—their struggles, failures, hopes, and fears of caregiving. My words would bring either healing, or hurt.

There is a balance—I don’t know how one manages to maintain it—of considering your words to speak in care, but not considering so much that every word catches in the throat. If I think too much about what all those people in the audience are going through then the words will die, and silence will seem the only acceptable course. There are no easy fixes for what such people face—and would I seem to make light of it by offering a few words?

Who am I that I could speak into the life and the hurt of someone else? It should be a humbling thing. It can be frightening. In this place, in this time, I can only trust that my story has meaning deeper than I can see and beyond what I can bring to it—that telling it truly will speak into the life-stories of other people in ways that I can’t see, and can’t even fully comprehend because life and the conveying of truth and hope is something that happens beyond my feeble efforts and in spite of the weakness of my best attempts.

The rest of the crowd began to arrive and I went to greet more people. When nearly everyone was seated, and it was almost time to start, I returned to the front of the room in preparation to begin. From there I saw the librarian helping an elderly white-haired lady to a seat. Even from my distance I could hear the elderly lady asking (in a very proper sort of way) “So why kind of experience does he have? What is his expertise? What has he done?” Thus, moments before I opened my mouth in front of all these people, I knew I had at least one member of the audience who would be watching me with a critical eye. And maybe she was voicing the thought of so many other members of the audience. What kind of expertise did I have, anyhow?

But no more time of thought for that. It was time to get started. So I opened my mouth and began speaking.

Here I must say that before I did any speaking events I wrote myself a nice speech. If I had even more time I would have polished it to a glorious piece of rhetoric—soaring and eloquent. However, I am a much better writer than I am speaker, and the fall back of attempting to stand in front of an audience and simply read aloud an excellent piece of writing is far less stirring than the extemporaneous act of grand eloquence. So I have the problem of being able to imagine a piece of communication far better than I am able to present. This weakness of mine meant I was very harshly critical of my own ability to present orally before an audience, and before my speaking engagements started I was very gloomy. My verbal ability simply does not in any way live up to my writing skill. As a result I faced the prospect of speaking with dread, certain I would utterly fail myself.

If I watched myself present I probably would be very disappointed. I would see all the things I meant to say, but forgot, and all of the things I said much less eloquently then the carefully written document in my head. But I can’t watch myself present (at least, not in real time) and I discovered that when I began speaking in front of audiences I have to focus so intently on what I am presenting that I have a certain amnesia afterward about what I said. When the event is all over I can tell you that I spoke, but I actually can’t remember exactly how I said anything. This saves me from the mental lashing I would give myself, but it also means I can’t really give you my own accurate rendition of the quality of what I presented.

What I can say is that I made it all the way through my slides, and the reaction from the audience was very positive to whatever they heard. After I was done speaking people clustered around the book signing table talking with me, complimenting me on the talk, and sharing their own caregiving experience. The little old lady who had wondered before the start about my expertise told me in the end that she worked in the local hospice organization and my book was certain to be widely used in their hospice. I passed that test.

Open your mouth, speak, and discover what comes.

As a beginning to my speaking career it was all I could have hoped for, and more. But it was also sobering. These people I had touched were walking through one of the hardest, and saddest, periods of life. It was not a gathering of joy, or lightness, and I was reminded of how easily, and unwittingly I could hurt the already hurting instead of binding up wounds. Is speaking on these things important? Absolutely. Do I feel sufficient? Absolutely not.

So here I stand, here I walk. Here I speak.

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My Grandpa O’Keefe always had a hard time relating to people. His social interaction mostly involved trying to win, offering his opinion (solicited or not), and telling stories–about himself. Grandpa loved to tell stories about himself. He was a man, particularly in his old age, who was easy to caricature. The teller of the same endless stories about himself.

I always wonder about the real people who hide behind what they present to the world. In some way we all do it, but some of us hide ourselves less than others, and some more. I never knew my Grandpa O’Keefe well. I can’t say I ever caught more than a glimpse of the man as he was behind what he presented. Perhaps I never had even that. Perhaps nobody really did. He was a man who had much he wanted to show the world, but I think also there was much he did not. I am not certain even he realized how much he did not want the world to see.

That I will never know.

Grandpa kept his inner life apart. He did not let people near those most tender places that dwell within all of us. So, I can’t tell you a story today about what I knew about him. But I will share with you want I think, and what I wonder.

On his surface, Grandpa appeared a very simple man. By that measure he was a man preoccupied with his success, his imagined success, and the more success he wanted. By that passing glance he was a man of utter confidence in himself. If you listened to him he was a man unto himself, a conqueror of the world.

But I have found that often a person praises themselves for the thing that deep within themselves (perhaps so deep that do not even recognize it) they fear that they are not. Grandpa blustered about himself, and I think it was vitally important for him to believe his own bluster. It is that importance which hints at what, in his own deepest place, may have bothered him. The people who are most supremely at rest in who they are, and what they have done, don’t need to talk about it. But Grandpa had to talk about who he was, and what he had done. He had to talk about it a lot.

Yes, probably just about anyone who knew him well could say he had an issue with being self-absorbed. But I think that his list of accomplishments and victories was so important, and such a key part of who he presented, because there was a little quiet fearful voice inside he needed to keep silent. And I think he became very good in his life at building a shell and a shield that made him feel safe. There behind his mask he didn’t have to be honest with himself or face the parts of himself that were uncomfortable, and perhaps frightening.

I find that sad.

He was a man who presented himself as supremely confident in his own skin. But in those deeply private places, I think he was not. And I wish that in his life he had felt more freedom to bring out who he truly was on the deepest level–both to himself, and to those nearest to him.

If what a person talks about says something about them, what they don’t talk about says something too. It wasn’t until Alzheimer’s began to break down some walls inside Grandpa that he began to talk about his younger brother who died around the age of eleven. Before, that event had been a topic of almost complete silence.

I wonder what impact that death had on Grandpa. A year older than his brother, the death must have exercised a profound influence on his life–one he was not willing to talk about, and maybe one he didn’t even recognize. Maybe that death had something to do with his repressed fear of failure, with his need to see himself as strong.

The final piece of Grandpa that I wonder about is his need to win. The only real way Grandpa O’Keefe could interact with his grandchildren was by either talking at them, or by competing against them in what he considered games of intellect. It was important for him that he beat us. He played chess against my older brother, and then myself in turn, until we would consistently beat him. Then it wasn’t fun for him anymore. So the game switched to the card game of hearts where there was four players and enough variety in the winners so he could always feel like he was competitive and clever (even if he wasn’t).

I am competitive too, but I find it odd that Grandpa could only interact with his grandchildren through the venue of demonstrating his competitive success. In my competitiveness I certainly relished defeating Grandpa in chess, but frankly as a sole mode of interaction (besides listening to his opinions and stories about himself) it did become boring. There is more to life than winning.

I don’t know, but I can’t help wondering if the dark touch of mortality so early in Grandpa’s life somehow influenced all of these things. Perhaps as the elder son with a dead younger brother he felt insecure, uneasy, alone, and perhaps not as loved as he longed to be. In the hard blow that life gave him, in the pieces he had to pick up and put back together, he felt the need to create himself a safe shell, and competitive success, along with a safety found in distance from others. Together it all gave him a sense of security against the insecurity early death brought into his life.

But if the story I have imagined is true, then at what cost. All of us in our messy ways face life and stumble through it, and none of us have a life free of shortcomings. For Grandpa, the person he showed to the world gave him children who were more distant from him than I think any wished, and who knew him less than they all desired. He wanted to be an island fortress to himself, and now nobody will know him better in this life. He wore his mask, and kept his shell, to the end.

So at last we have come to the place where Grandpa has no more stories to tell, no more defenses to hold, no more fears to flee. The time has come when all stories end for each of us. Grandpa has told all the stories he is going to tell, and now he is told out. His final sentence has been written and we wait for the last period, the closing of the book.

All of our stories will end. Some we tell, some are written in the very days of our lives. Consider the stories you live, and breathe, and tell. Measure your choices, values, and fears–for in them you write your story. Consider the masks you wear, and the shields you hold close.

As much as we make them, so they also make us.

_______

On this blog I have chronicled briefly Grandpa O’Keefe’s decline through the first half of this year, and now the final breaths have arrived. Late this afternoon my Mom came home from her visit to say hospice had said the end was very near. So I went to be what help and support I could for Grandma. I’ve walked two grandparents through their last days already, and I know it is good to not walk alone. When I arrived at Grandma’s house the nurse said Grandpa could go at any time. I checked on him and came to the same conclusion. He lies in bed, breathing regularly, but still. His eyes are half open, fixed, and unblinking. He responds to a moistened swab put in his mouth, but that is about it.

It’s strange how that moment comes like a flipped switch. When I stopped in on Monday Grandpa was awake and responsive. When I came in his bedroom and greeted him he responded–rather incoherently, and I don’t think he recognized me, but he was still interacting with the world. Even by Wednesday morning he was still eating a few mouthfuls, still responsive. But then by Wednesday evening he had slipped into an unresponsive state. And so when Mom brought the confirming news late Thursday afternoon I knew I should go and keep Grandma company through what may be the last night.

Or maybe not quite yet. When Grandpa Purdy reached this state he lingered several days. So, we shall see.

Yet, not long now. I am glad I have no speaking events this week so that I can stay with Grandma. It is good for me to take a break from my story to be with Grandma as she closes the book on this one.

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