Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Last Sunday's Brunch, or "You Ever Been Crossed by a Black Cat Like That?"

Ah, Sunday brunches at Karen's on 25th with the select elite: my favorite musical theatre folk.  We gather, never quite sure how many of the gang will show up, but always quite certain we'll have a gay old time, full of gossip, dirty jokes, Jenn's effortless grace, and, of course, the the coffee, carbs and grease.

I walked in late this last week, after having stopped at school to pick up some scores for a collaboration coming up next spring.  Not sure where my group was sitting, I listened for the corner of the cafe broadcasting the most vibrant laughter and choruses in various shades of witty sarcasm and mimicry, exclaiming things like "Oh no, honey!  Professor So-and-so is more like this..." or "You know s/he's got the best [insert any explitivie or noun here] of anyone in the department."  I spotted Phil (a fabulous friend and fashionable mentor), my lovely Tiara (she lives up to the name, but you'd better not say it like the fashion accessory!), the divine Miss Jennifer P. (yes, she really is divine) and the ever-welcome and -welcoming Jean-Louise (our own kind of Mary Poppins, but with a Sewing with Nancy, punk-rocker chick mix), and sat down at their table, expecting as uneventful a brunch as we ever have.

They had all cleaned their plates, so I ordered a glass of water, and took up the tail-end of the conversation.  Soon, it was time for everybody to grab their tickets, walk up the the ancient stove-top sagging next to the cash register, pay for their meals ("I had the Fisherman's Breakfast.  Shouldn't have, but I did."), and bid adieu.  I offered to drive Phil -- who was uncharacteristically ill and rather a bit flushed following a lovely bout of surgery-- home.  He had some fabric he wanted to show Jean, so she decided to meet us at Phil's place.

Upon our arrival, we met a Jean-Louise who was trying to avoid the mangiest, sickliest black cat I had ever seen.  I thought it was a sort of early Halloween prank some kids were pulling.  You know, drug a black cat and leave it on somebody's porch -- see what kind of bad luck they could wreak.  But nothing of th sort: the cat, having decided Phil's porch was a sunny little spot upon which it could convalesce, sat directly in front of the front door, bending its nose awkwardly to the porch floorboards, breathing heavily and trying to die while at the same time blocking the path we all needed to take to get inside Phil's cleverly decorated and richly furnished house.  Phil grimaced in disgust at the animal's black muzzle, strung with foamy saliva and (with me following closely behind) took the intrepid step to join Jean on the other side of the ill-fated feline and unlock the perfectly shabby-chic, distressed front door.

As soon as the key was in the lock, the cat started yowling.  It was the most terrible sound I've ever heard.  Jean put her hands over her ears, I began nervously giggling, and Phil, drugged with expensive pain-pills, groggily whined, "Ugh!  I can't handle this today!  Do something.  Well, do something after you see this gorgeous fabric for Piazza."  Trying to ignore the death-cry comgin from the wailing cat on the porch, Jean and I admired the shimmering fabrics and spectacular lace overlays  (they really were "gorgeous" with exceptional italics) and then set to work trying to find the number for local Animal Control using Jean's iPhone apps.  When that didn't work, we just 4-1-1ed the number.

I called Animal control while Phil and Jean tucked their heads in the curtains to watch the black cat on the porch.  The phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing.  Phil gasped -- I thought he'd ripped a stitch or something, but he said, "It'''s convulsing or something.  Oh, God, this is awful.  Oh, oh God!"  I walked over to the window to see, and it was awful.  The poor cat shuddered, its ears folded back, eyes half closed and its tongue hanging out its mouth.  Jean looked horrified, and I was impatient for someone from Animal Control to pick up the phone.

Finally, an answer, "Thank you for calling your local Animal Control Center.  Our office hours are Monday through Saturday, nine to five.  We are closed Sunday..."  What?!? I'm thinking.  How can animal control be closed on Sunday?  What are people supposed to DO when they are experiencing an animal emergency?"  I looked at Jean and Phil and told them the office was closed until Monday morning.  Their reactions, deflated at how local civil agencies had again let them down, were exact copies of my thoughts.

"So what do we do now?" Phil asked.

"I guess we try calling dispatch or something?" I offered.

"Yeah, that sounds good," Jean-Louise confirmed.

Dispatch:  "Thank you for calling local dispatch.  What is your emergency?"

Nic:  "Um, we have a dying cat stuck on our front porch.  We think it's a stray.  What do we do? Can someone come remove it?"

Dispatch:  "Animal control tells us that they're closed on Sundays.  They can't come out until tomorrow morning."

Nic:  "Yes.  We got that from their answering machine when we called.  Isn't there someone else who could help us?"

Dispatch:  "They really don't do house calls for cats.  Maybe if it were a dying dog or something, then somebody could come out.  But you're pretty much on your own for cats."

Nic, with an increasing sense of futility: "Um, it's foaming at the mouth and we really don't want to touch it."

Dispatch, with mounting frustration:  "Like I said, we really can't do anything, and they won't come out for cats."

Nic:  "Um, ok.  I guess we'll figure it out on our own, then.  Thanks."

By this time, I can see Phil and Jean in that place where they didn't really want to keep looking at the convulsing cat, but they didn't quite know how to quit watching.  The poor dears, they were just in shock.  I decided we had to rescue Phil's porch and do something to get this cat away from the house.

"Phil," I took control, "go find us a cardboard box and a sack.  We're gonna take that cat somewhere else."

Phil rummaged in the back for a minute and came to the front room with a department store sack and a soup-stack carboard lid.  Fearless Jean and opened the door and went out on the porch to pick the cat up and put it in the box.  The cat had stopped seizing for a minute, and I stooped down with the plastic sack to pick it up.  It started moaning again, "Yeeee-ooowww.  Yeeeeee-oow."  I said, "I know, cat.  I know.  We're just gonna cover you with this sack so we can pick you up and put you in this box."  I didn't think the pathetic creature had any energy left to fight me too much; what a startle when it tried to get up as I reach down to wrap it and pick it up.

Jean held the box as I tried to get it in the box.  The box was to short -- I was nervous the cat would get out and find its way back to Phil's porch.  We must have been a sight.  "Phil," I called into the house, "can you find a taller box so this cat can't escape."  He came back a few minute later with a box that was just a bit better.  We picked the cat up and kind of scooped it as carefully as we could into the taller box.  The thing was just yowling.  It was pretty awful.  I kept laughing nervously, and poor Jean carried the cat-box and all across the street to an empty parking lot.

Jean left.  Phil was worn out.  The porch was covered with wet spots where the cat had spat up.  I asked Phil if he had any bleach and dish soap.  He directed me to the kitchen where the supplies were.  I fixed up a bucket of sani-water and commenced to sloshing the porch in hopes of disinfecting the place where the cat had been.  Finishing the job, I rinsed the bucket out and thoroughly washed my hands with hot water and antibac soap.

"I'm gonna go home now, Phil," I said.  "Call me when animal control comes tomorrow.  Get better, and stay outta trouble.  Hopefully, no bad luck:  we didn't cross that black cat, it crossed us. Right?"

I picture us, a week later now, and I have to laugh.  What a sight we must have been.  A recently stitched up convalescent, a fashionable young musician and a wicked-awesome seamstress, stooping over some dying black cat, doing everything we could to keep it as comfortable as possible so we wouldn't catch bad luck.  The silly suspicions we adhere to.

Guess our kindness didn't work.  Swine flu hit a week later  Damn cat!

Sleep is for Those Who Take Comfort in Knowing That They're Small (for my mother and father)

when sleep won’t weight my eyes with heavy insignificance,
I remember other, older nights
when my child-legs, throbbing with small pains,
led me to the cotton-counted valley
your bodies spared
for me.

            soothing oil
palmed across my aching calves and thighs

            sleep-slurred sighs
promised I’d wake to waffles in the morning

star-glazed windowpanes weep for 3 AM

I could sleep there,
in the breathing inbetween
where your bodies moved like lungs
to keep me safe,
and small.
I wasn't sure why I woke to the dark last Tuesday morning (October 20), around 1:45.  One o'clock isn't usually my waking hour -- usually, that's around 3:30, so I wasn't sure why I was up.  I mused, trying to remember if I'd had any unusual dreams or nightmares which would have unsettled my sleep. My dream-memory was as blank as the starless sky.  I did, however, remember a poem, above, which I had written for a class last semester, and I coveted the sleep of three-year-olds.  I've always wondered at how little children can sleep: there are no nagging worries steeping in their easy sleep.  They know that they are small, and fit within the borders of blankets, pillows and beds. There is a safety in that tiny knowledge, and thus, children peacefully dream.

So I was up, and questioning why.  I had been worried about Mom for days.  She'd stayed with Grandma almost every night the week before, and I had sat with both of them Sunday night.  Watching Grandma dwindle and shrink into herself had been taxing on me, and I knew that it must be as wretched as it was sweet for Mom.  I was concerned for all of us, and figured that was why I was awake.

The phone rang at about a quarter past two.  I switched my bedside lamp on, turned to face my brother's bed and said, "Gavin, I think that's the call telling us Grandma has passed."  Mom came downstairs about five minutes later and confirmed my thoughts.  It was a relief, almost, to hear that Grandma had finally let go and passed on.  She had finally allowed herself to die-- some sort of knowledge of what lies beyond had been given her, I think. It freed her from the tension, fear, pain and confusion which balled her fists and beat her heart those last few weeks.  She had been so afraid of dying, but she held on to peace Tuesday morning and just fell asleep, taking comfort in knowing she would fit wherever it is she would be going.

I've thought a lot about life and death and faith and eternity, and I feel a part of all things and I feel a part of no thing.  I am in awe of everything making sense: my life, Grandma's death, Mom's faith, God's eternity.  The sleeping of babies.  I've slept well every night this week.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Do Not Go Gentle

That last post was taken from a Facebook note, dated October 7.  My grandma was able to sit up on her own.  She could speak and chew and eat and swallow.  She recognized us as her family, calling us by name, and she loved having my little niece in her bedroom that sublime, sacred Sunday evening.

I sit, now two weeks later, after having sat with my mother in Grandma's room earlier this evening, listening to her slow, uneven, shuddering breaths and small moans and sighs.  It is a difficult experience to describe, witnessing the weakening and darkening of the loved one who was so solid and full of sunlight and smiles.  I remember staying overnight at Grandma and Grandpa's with my cousins.  We'd record our "Radio Shows" on tapes Grandma saved for us.  Grandpa was a chronic tease -- he liked to slap our feet and spit out his teeth (and it always made me nervous when they shot out!).  We'd wake in the morning to pancakes with rabbit ears, bubbling syrup, scrambled eggs and hot chocolate made with evaporated milk.

I've watched her decline as I've helped care for her over the past few months, but tonight's visit left me reeling.  She's on morphine for the pain.  The only really noticeable response we see from her happens when we have to turn her in an effort to reduce the indignity of bedsores.  Her eyes, usually heavy-lidded anymore, open bright-wide and fish scale blue (not her eyes at all), and her eyebrows slant in a voiceless agony.  It's hard on all of us. 

Tonight, I entered Grandma's bedroom after Mom sat down on the hospital bed we recently traded with the one my grandparents had slept in for years.  Mom was leaning over, stroking Grandma's face and calling her "Mamma."  An overwhelming sense of wonder, as well as a desire to shield my own mother from the unconscious and open pain written on her mother's face flew up in front of me, and I was almost ready to weep or run or collapse.  I stepped up behind Mom, making sure I didn't step on any tubing or anything like that, and told Grandma I was there.  I don't really know if she saw me -- her eyes were so dim and milky, filmy with the morphine and fevery dehydration, I guess -- but she did turn her face toward my voice a bit, and, after a little coaxing, gave me a brief, fleeting smile.  I felt so tender I had to leave the room for a minute.

In the end, I was there for about an hour and a half.  I've cried for 3 days.  I've thought a lot about death, and the divorce that splits the body and the spirit or essence of a person when death happens.  The divorce of death is as ugly and hard and terribly powerful as any divorce I've ever heard of.  It seems to me, in seeing the struggle my Grandma is experiencing, that the body and the spirit do not want to give each other up, though their separation is inevitable.  I think our bodies are such incredible creations, giving our spirits a wonder-ful vehicle for feeling and emotion and physical sensation; I also think our bodies crave the energy of our spirits.  Can you imagine not having a body?  I believe one of the reasons death is so difficult is because we really can't imagine not having a body, even if it is weary of its 80-some-odd years.  I'm seeing this in my thin Grandma.  It's 2 AM, and I don't think I'm making sense, but that's what it is.

She's not going gentle -- she's trying to so much to stay here, for whatever reason.  I wish I could whisper to her peace and tender to her release, if not for her sake, at least for us, the heavy-hearted who have been watching.

i thank You God

You finish watching movies like "Seven Pounds" with no one but yourself and a roll of plush toilet paper plucked from the nearest bathroom (because, once engrossed in the film, Kleenexes cannot be got), late at night when you should have gone to bed two and a half hours ago, and the tears are drying in the corners of your eyes: your spirit clears, becomes a pensive pool of heavy thoughts, beautifully garbed -- like enigmatic goldfish you see swimming in black-bottomed garden ponds, breathtaking as they rise to the surface in red and white and yellow -- and you ponder the cutting divinities and sweet inbalances of your life. One thought -- one sinuous, shimmering fish -- catches you, and you study it for a moment that seems to speak for hours. And then, if your name is Nicholas Maughan, you write a Facebook note to understand it, and secretly hope somebody reads it and understands it, too.

My brother, my exceptionally pregnant sister-in-law and my niece arrived from Phoenix last Friday, visiting with the feeling that this, perhaps, may be the last time they will see our Grandma. We had quite a lovely time with each other: joking and teasing and arguing and eating and eating and eating and just being a family. My two-year-old niece woos me with ever more skillful practice each time I see her, and neither of us can conceal our glee at our rendezvous for very long. I loved watching my 16-year-old brother as he giggled and napped with her; I smiled at my parents, relishing their new(er) roles as proud and contented grandparents; I felt a subtle joy (and a keening for my own "someday") when I saw my brother quietly touch his wife's arm or tender some other silent affirmation of "I love being your husband."

Anyhow, the seven of us spent about an hour and a half at Grandma's house Sunday night. An uncle, who had been with her before we arrived, said his goodbyes shortly after we walked inside the door. Grandma has recently begin confusing this uncle with my Grandpa, who passed away. "Why don't you just come back after you've finished up? Isn't this your home?" she timidly asked him. I looked at Mom, who looked at me, and we both kind of smiled that smile which says, We'll get through this as gracefully as we can. And then, my happy little niece walked in the room, talking and laughing and calling for my mom, "Gamma! Gamma!" and I saw the first real smile on my Grandma's face I've seen in months as she said, "Isn't she just beautiful? She's so cute!"

We took photos of Mom, Grandma, my sister-in-law and her daughter and pictures of my brothers and me sitting with Grandma. I remember thinking that the only person missing was our own Elder Maughan, away in the Dominican Republic. But I kept thinking, too, about the strange and beautiful, bittersweet place we were in: We were a family in the middle of all the parts of life -- my niece, really just beginning her human experience; my 16-year-old brother, turning into a young man; my brother and his wife, readying themselves to welcome another soul into this world as they try to provide for the one they already have; myself, discontent and struggling through my twenties to find some peace and confidence; my parents, watching their children as we fashion our adult lives, wincing as we make choices they may not always understand, and beaming when they can sense our happinesses; and my grandma, at the end of her life. Her body is getting so small, and her mind is stealing away into confusion, but there are times when I still see her, times when she recognizes her Self. We were ALL THERE that Sunday night, in a perfect circle of life and finding ourselves present in the power of our abundant love.

I've had this particular thought swirl to the surface -- my beloved little koi-thought -- many times since Sunday: I know I was there, experiencing that, but at the same time, I wasn't. I was one who saw, a spectator. I saw everything. It was one of these moments when God gives you His eyes, and maybe you see your life the way He sees it, with the Truth, and you trust that everything is right.

I think that God gives this gift of Seeing constantly, more often than we're willing to recognize. It's too delicate and too sharp to have floating in my awareness all the time, but man, how I search for these lucid and breathtaking moments of awe infinitum.

Friday, October 16, 2009

this flower picks himself

who knows if the moon's
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky--filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should

get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we'd go up higher with all the pretty people

than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody's ever visited,where

     Spring)and everyone's
in love and flowers pick themselves
Oh, e.e. cummings!  He questions our knowledge of the moon 
and where our flights of fancy take us with such hope.  To 
think of those flowers "in a keen city," so trusting of 
their beauty that they pick themselves.  What a lovely 
confidence that must be--not to be confused with conceit--
to see your self with such truth you'd  want to pick your Self, 
not needing to be "picked" or chosen by others. 
I like to believe that the reason we, as human beings, are living
life is to learn to be divinely confident, just like cummings'
flowers, and be at peace with the Selves inside ourselves and 
also with the goings-on of all that exists outside our own, singular 
experiences.  We achieve godliness, Eternal Life, Nirvana or whatever 
name you choose to call the perfection of the Best Self when we
can confidently and honestly say, "I belong here, in this beautiful,
creative, eternal place, because I am beautiful, creative and eternal." 
I sometimes reflect on the name God used when He was a burning
bush and talked with Moses :
"I am that I am." 
The Charleston Heston version of God kind of mumbles it, 
"Ayummh tha dayummh," but that's not how I envision 
it; perhaps it was said "I am THAT I am;" with an emphatic that,
directing Moses' attention to the beauty and creativity and
eternity of God, to that statement of "I AM [all good things]." God knows
that He is all good things, and my hope guides me to believe that He
is trying to show us that we, too, are all good things.
God wants to take us for a ride in his balloon, full of pretty people, where 
we ride "up higher and higher", than all steeples and churches and creeds 
and He shows us that we are the flowers, that we can pick ourselves.