It has been around a year since my last post to this blog, and to my readers I must offer my apologies.
My wife Margaret, whom I was with for the better part of 3 decades, recently died, around the middle of April 2011. I was her full-time caretaker for many months previous to her death, working at home nearly full time, leaving me little opportunity to blog. Although most called her “Miss Margaret,” I called her “Sweet Margaret,” because she had the sweetness of spirit common in young girls.
In the year or so before she died, she required a great deal of care. I sometimes had to carry her to bed or to a chair or the couch. I sometimes had hand feed her, help her dress, help her with personal hygiene, and supervise her medications. She nearly died around September of 2010, temporarily lost mental clarity, occasionally hallucinating, all because of strong pain medication. While this was going on, I was trying to recover from joint replacement surgery on my hand for an arthritic thumb joint, which made caring for her more of a challenge.
Before she became ill about a year-and-a-half ago, Miss Margaret was strong and vigorous. We often walked for miles, and then suddenly she could barely walk. In her last year, she lost 50 pounds and shrank 4 or 5 inches from osteoporosis, becoming almost completely housebound. Gradually, I nursed her back to enough health that she occasionally was able to walk the distance of a block to get a coffee at a Starbucks with my assistance, although I had to call us a cab to get her home. Before her decline, she had been a regular fixture there, holding court, and young people loved talking to her, confiding in her, finding her humorous tales and wise counsel amusing and inspiring.
Miss Margaret was a great assistance to me in my writing. She was both my severest critic and biggest booster. She read my drafts quite closely, making incisive comments. She asked what she called “needling questions” about my choice of words, my underlying assumptions. She was extremely analytical, a retired literature teacher of English, French, and Spanish, well read and perceptive, had a great ear for the rhythm and beauty of language.
I valued her comments greatly, even when I disagreed with them. When she read an inept turn of phrase I had written, she would grab her stomach, look pained, and said it gave her a “stomachache.” After I had finished nursing my wounded ego and grousing about her editorial comments, and when I had honed, pruned, and polished, ending up with something she considered to be a well crafted, she praised it, explaining why she thought it was better. She never said something was good for diplomacy’s sake. Therefore, her approval meant much to me, partly because she really believed in my writing talent, and partly because I trusted her instinct of language. She motivated me to polish and rewrite, to think deeply about what I had written and how I had said it.
Miss Margaret had that dry wit and blunt pithiness so many British intellectuals are noted for, and I learned much from her. I could challenge her literary criticisms or opinions, and she could challenge mine. She was humble and understated. Despite her bluntness, she was kind and supportive, never cruel or degrading, saying that at my best, I was an excellent writer. She was a true teacher, as well as a wife, companion, and my lover. Together we did some ghostwriting, making a bit of money over the years.
Miss Margaret was a very well read and educated woman, spoke 4 languages, knew a great deal about Shakespeare, history, art, culture, and was an extremely wise and supportive friend. She was an impressive and charismatic woman of great wit and charm. She was also one of the most decent, ethical, and caring humans I have ever known.
And she spoke with such a musical and cultured voice, with a British English lilt and intonation. She really impressed everyone with whom she met with her bearing and graceful unpretentious dignity.
Some of her earliest memories were of being in London’s bomb shelters during the German bombing campaigns of World War II. This affected her outlook on life. She was a vegetarian (I don’t want to eat anything with a face and a mother), a lifelong pacifist, a humanist, a radical feminist, an all-around gentle spirit, anti-capitalist, and she died a socialist. She was an implacable foe of crudity, cruelty, crassness, bigotry, bullying , and oppression. She was a rationalist and placed great value on analytical thought. She was an expert in the history of art and fashion, and she had a passion for horticulture, the soul of an English gardener. She also had a passion for the languages she spoke, especially her beloved English tongue.
Miss Margaret fell in our garden about 6 weeks before she died and fractured her hips (both of them). When she fell, it was after a long period of disability. She had not been all that mobile when she fell, although by that time she had begun to recover a bit. I coached her in exercises. She was very brave and determined to recover if she could. I had nursed her to the point where eventually she was able to get up for half an hour or so at a time, a personal triumph we both were proud of, and at the same time, a huge improvement. So breaking her hips was quite a soul-crushing setback for her.
She spent some time in the hospital, recovering from bilateral hip surgery, and then was sent to an outpatient rehabilitation center with a plan for a 4- to 6-month course of physical and occupational therapy.
On the day she died, which was several weeks into her stay at the rehabilitation facility, she had been making so much progress that they told her she would likely be able to be discharged after 3 months, instead of originally planned-for 4 to 6 months.
Thus that particular day, she was quite excited and proud of herself, and she called me to tell me this news of a possibly earlier discharge. She thanked me for being her husband, telling me how much she loved me and how eager she was to return home, to resume life with me and our cat Puss-Puss. She talked about how kind the staff were to her in the rehabilitation facility.
Most of the staff had come to the US from former British colonies in Africa, had had a British style education, and identified with her. They appreciated this genteel elderly radical lady who had so much insight into the role of British imperialism in Africa and a sophisticated grasp of history.
About 9:30 in the evening on this last day of Margaret’s life, a nurse checked in on her, and they swapped jokes. The nurse then went to check another patient and returned to check again on Miss Margaret 20 minutes later. By then, a blood clot had dislodged from her surgical wound and made its way to her heart and lungs. By the time the nurse had returned, Miss Margaret was unresponsive and barely breathing. They evacuated her to the hospital emergency room, and I was with her there in the ER when they eventually pronounced her dead several hours later. But really, she was probably already dead when the nurse found her and they put her in the ambulance. After all, she had had a multi-minute anoxic (without oxygen) insult to her brain. Her brain wave monitor looked flat to me when they were giving her CPR, as I sat holding her hand, talking to her, stroking her, and sobbing my tearful goodbyes.
Miss Margaret probably knew she was dying when that deadly embolism struck, and no doubt she felt 30 seconds of sheer terror, air hunger, a sensation of a crushing heavy pressure in her chest. Then her impressively huge brain and magnificent spirit winked out, extinguishing her consciousness, snuffing out her life in any meaningful sense of the term. Her brain was dead.
I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am to have no one to be angry with. Her caregivers gave her excellent care, her doctors were on the ball, and I believe no one made any negligent mistakes that caused Miss Margaret’s death.
I’m so thankful that it was nobody’s fault that Miss Margaret died. As I do not believe in God, I’m not angry at God or the universe. I’m oddly at peace with feeling only the deep cooling tides of grief bathing my soul and not the white-hot flames of anger and rage licking at my peace of mind. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that no one is to blame for my Sweet Margaret’s death, that she died knowing she was loved and treasured, that we shared such a major portion of our lives together, that we loved and treasured each other for so many years, that her last day on our beautiful planet was so positive and happy.
I look at what’s happening in the world today, the horrible drug war in Mexico, a land with which I have so many emotional, spiritual, and cultural links. I witness what’s happening in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many other places in wrenching anguish, where daily the snapping blood-smeared jaws and jagged teeth of the war machine feasts on the bodies and souls of so many unfortunate human victims, all to sate the vulgar hunger of control, money, and power.
I am acquainted with a young woman whose husband some thug robbed and shot to death around 2007, leaving his widow utterly alone with three children, two of whom are in their early teens. Despite her grief and anger, she continues working in the local Safeway, raising her kids, maintaining her spirits and living a life of grace, without complaint or self pity. My hat is off to this very courageous and brave young woman. I don’t know if I could have gone on if I were angry at Margaret’s doctors, or if someone had killed her, or if someone were responsible for her death. The anger on top of the grief would have been too much for me to bear and to still want to go on living.
So now, I am learning how to be a bachelor as an older man. I am continuing to exercise and trying to eat right. My friends and neighbors check up on me. I have some wonderful friends who nurture me and who love me in this difficult time of my life. They bring comfort and joy to me, diluting the acrid saltiness of my lonely tears with their friendship. In that, I’m fortunate indeed. I am most grateful to my daughter, my brothers and cousin Juan, my nephew, and my friend Jan, and so many others.
Dying is so automatic, you know. We all do it. It’s living the worthwhile life that’s the challenge. If we can manage to leave this world a little more decent, a little more bearable, a little better because we walked on the face of our mother, the earth, then our lives were worthwhile. There’s not much any of us as individuals can do, not a lot, but whatever small legacy of decency we can leave behind us augments the decency that our fellow humans leave.
Young folks often go through a period of life when they ask themselves what the meaning of their existence is. To discover that, they must look inward and not to some kind of divine architect.
I think we create whatever meaning our lives have. We leave grace in our wake when we can follow the golden rule, when we act from the knowledge that we are social beings, that ultimately, our interests lie with the interests of the greater part of humanity.
We have duties to do good in this world because we are mortal, our lives are so finite, so short. To understand life’s meaning, we must begin with understanding and accepting our personal mortality, how utterly short our existence as individuals is on the face of this green and watery-blue planet.
When I was a boy, I remember the orange groves in the hot high deserts, only there because of irrigation. The orange blossoms are so tiny, and they each emit a tiny bit of perfume. But in the evening, under the desert’s sparkling starry skies, the hot wind carries the added perfumes of a million orange blossoms. Suddenly, the air is filled with orange blossom scent. It makes one glad to be breathing, breathing the perfume of life.
Let us each, by the way we lead our own ever-so-short lives, add our separate tiny delicious scent to the perfumed winds of human decency. Let a growing wave of that perfumed comforting mist of humanism float in the warming winds of change beginning to circle the globe, winds that can extinguish war, capitalism, and greed. Let our lives help extinguish and blow out the firestorms of hunger, homelessness, ugliness, of oppression and inequality, of mindless greed and inhumanity. Let our individual and ever-so-temporary presences here in this desert of capitalist modernity be a healing balm for a hurting humanity.
If any of you readers, most of whom never knew Miss Margaret, want to leave some tribute to her, let that tribute be that you dedicate yourself to being like the orange blossoms in the nighttime heat of the high desert air.
July 16, 2011