FRIDAY, JUNE 2, 1995
The sun skips from cloud to cloud, turning the manzanita leaves outside Tangren’s living room window from gray to bright yellow-green, to gray again. The climate inside this house is similar, as Tangren moves through these days of grief, and hope, and hopelessness, of responsibility and blessing. One week ago her mother fell, injured her spinal cord, is paralyzed from her neck down. The doctors say now that there is no hope for recovery anywhere near approximating the life Jessie wishes for herself. Tangren, her three brothers, and father, have been vigiling in the intensive care unit at the hospital for seven days, struggling with decisions, with fear and despair. Now they must all decide if the machines keeping Jessie alive, keeping her breathing, keeping her lungs from filling with fluid, should be removed. Tangren asked Jessie if she wanted the family to make that decision, and Jessie’s nod has given them permission to do what they believe is the truth for them, a truth these women and men have discussed many times together over the years. They have all promised each other many times not to keep any of them lingering before death by the use of “life-preserving” machines. And they have all made out living wills to declare this strong intent. So tomorrow, after Tangren’s daughter has joined them from Portland, they will go forward, and the doctors say Jessie should die within a few hours.
My dog Muphin and I have been here since Monday, coming as soon as I could after getting a message from Tangren on Sunday, via a mutual friend at Writers’ Group, asking me to be with her. I took care of the essentials at home before I left: got all my house plants watered, the hens’ food hopper and water trough filled, and wrote out instructions for my land partner. She’d have to take over the daily tending of the cats and hens, watering my many flower beds, as well as the work I had planned to do in our large all-season vegetable garden, work that would now fall to her shoulders in addition to her own chores and projects in our forty-acre isolated home. I packed enough kibble for Muphin for a week, staples for myself, and to share with Tangren, threw a variety of clothes into a duffel, boxed some paper and pens, a book, my journal, and set out for the two-hour drive by midmorning.
Here in Tangren’s house that nestles on an Ashland hill, I feed Joe, her big black cat (bigger than Muphin’s fourteen pounds), water the flower boxes on her small deck, take out the trash, clean the kitchen, make sure there is food prepared, answer the phone a lot, this last a stark contrast to my country life where there are no phones, not even a neighbor for three miles. Here the phone rings a few times each daytime hour and I bring callers up to date with the information Tangren gives me, gently break the news about Jessie to people who did not already know, connect people with each other. A lot of the time I am just hanging out, keeping my time open to be with Tangren whenever she is home from the hospital for good food and rest, and needs a listener. I give her my thoughts and try to ask helpful questions as she works her way through this moral and emotional dilemma, hold her while she cries, and just generally be here in whatever ways are helpful, including trying to be invisible when it’s clear she needs some solitude.
And, yes, this is a stretch for me. Ashland is a lovely town, but it is a town, and some moments I feel pared down to too little of my reclusive country-living self. But this house sits above the town, with its back to it, in fact, and the canyon in front, the roar of Lithia Creek far below, snow-covered Mt. Ashland visible to the south, the paths I can drive to for long walks amidst beauty, Muphin’s constant company … all comfort me, ground me, remind me of who I am.
I am honored that Tangren asked me to come, glad to be useful, glad to use my skills. A couple of days ago, when she was thanking me again for coming, she said there was no one else she’d want to accompany her right now. I was a little surprised at that for I think of Tangren as having lots of women friends, including ex-lovers, nearby. While we have been knowing each other for close to a decade, our friendship has not included the intimacies of family or relationship crises, though I have given her time as a co-counselor a couple of times. I’ve been a guest in her home maybe a dozen times in these years, sometimes making a weekend of it when Writers’ Group meets for a Sunday here. At those times I have luxuriated in the comforts of this town house, and given myself a break from being so busy with the work at home, laid abed way past my usual hour. I read and wrote to my heart’s content, and enjoyed Tangren, who appreciates and reflects my instinct for solitude interspersed with stimulating conversation. We share space easily, are comfortable with each other’s habits, preferences, and proclivities, without any romantic entanglement. Maybe it’s just this combination of connection and detachment that makes for the perfection of my companionship now when what is needed is my availability as well as my selfsufficiency.
I don’t know how much longer I will be here- what day it will finally be easy enough for me to leave, for Tangren to be essentially on her own. There are other Lesbian friends who leave phone messages that they will be glad to nurture her if she calls on them. I shall certainly be here through tomorrow, when this story takes a dramatic leap and the hurdle of death and loss is cleared. Then there will be the ritual with the body, and the funeral. Perhaps once the death is done Tangren will feel free of much of the anguish of this week, and her usual solitude in her home will be more appealing than my company, however grateful she has been for my presence here.
My role here is so much behind the scene of the drama. I will never even see Jessie except as I remember her: proudly showing me the details of the magnificent house on the hill just above Tangren’s house, the house Jessie planned and executed with her husband for their old age, the last of the many houses for which she was the contractor in her lifetime. She got to live in this dream house only a few months. I would like to smile to her face, to accompany her for a moment on this journey. But that is not for me, and I focus my caring on her daughter, my friend.
There are lessons for me in all this. The lesson of knowing that life can be stood on its head at any moment, that all expectations about the future can be erased in a flash. The lesson that service requires the suspension of ego, as well as the certainty of self-love, self-nurturance: if I am not well taken care of, I cannot be the caretaker I want to be, that my friend deserves. In this scene I am my own caretaker, so I take my vitamins and eat well, and get good sleep, and reach out for company that feeds me, like dinner out with Mab and Joan on Tuesday, a long sisterly phone call with Sarah Wednesday evening which sharpened my knowing of my own family, a long walk with Mab and frequent check-ins with her, and a walk with Tangren to a pond where I delighted in the birds.
Tangren came home this morning after another night at the hospital at her mother’s side, getting but little rest stretched out awkwardly on a couple of chairs. A brother came by early to take up the watch, so Tangren could bring her exhaustion home. After a few hours’ sleep, she came back downstairs and sat heavily on her low footstool in the living room. I moved to the floor in front of her, held her hand, attended her with my steady gaze as she talked about the ordeal of the night. Her words soon gave way to tears, tears that increased to fullflowing currents of her sadness for her mom, at the pathos of a vigorous and enthusiastic life cut shorter than Jessie had anticipated. Tangren leaned her head onto my shoulder and let her eyes and nose weep without restraint, without embarrassment, letting me midwife the deep release that left her feeling lighter.
After a long soothing shower, some food, and a sweet loving session with Joe, who has been missing Tangren’s affection these last days, she asked for solitude on her deck where she meditated and sang and grieved alone. When I first heard her moaning, I wondered if I should ask if she wanted me after all, but thought better of that. She was doing what she needed to, and being alone with this loss is a truth only she can comfort sometimes. She came in later looking radiant, spoke of how thankful she feels that she and her family are having this time together, that they are helping each other through this passage so beautifully. “We are doing the right thing” she said, with a new confidence.
SATURDAY, JUNE 3, 1995
Muphin and I returned to the pond that Tangren took us to for a brisk walk on Wednesday, or was it Tuesday? Anyway, I parked along the highway, near an entrance path that was closer to the pond. It was hot and neither Muphin nor I really wanted a long walk. I wanted to go back to the pond, this time with camera and binoculars, and Muphin and I gave ourselves a more leisurely pace. I stopped to photograph a wild rose, and other colorful wildflowers, and site a few birds with the binoculars: red-wing blackbirds, swifts, robins. When I reached the pond there was a man sitting on the bench near where I had thought to stop, so Muphin and I continued on the path to another access. We were both glad to find a place that had just enough shade at the water’s edge and Muphin waded belly-deep on her short little legs into the cooling water. I settled into watching a few birds, too far away to see colors or markings, then discovered that the sunwarmed shallows was busy with a school, nay a university, of minnows. I doubt they’ll show up in the photograph I made of a few contesting for possession of a pale, drowned worm. There was a story there: a worm, its clitellum developed and ready for giving birth to an egg, somehow is engulfed by the water, its own moist body overwhelmed by a liquid shroud. It suffocates and dies, soon bleached by its grave and the sun, becomes food for fish hatchlings. Nearby, there are larger fishlets, and, out in the depths of the pond, I see full-grown adults jump for insects that fly close to the surface. I suspect more than a few of the worm-eating minnows will also become food for bigger fish. And a sign along the path announces the future uses for this pond and wetland in the process of reclamation, including fishing. Life gives way to life, gives way to life, gives way to life.
The man had left the bench by the time we started back, so Muphin and I went down to the water’s edge where we had sat with Tangren. With my binoculars I could see what those two blackbirds were protecting from the intrusive kingfisher the other day: held by a tangle of grass and roots growing on the side of the small island in the middle of the pond, at the edge that stood about six feet above the water, was a nest. The less iridescent-black of the pair, the female I presume, was standing akimbo on the top of the woven twigs with her wings spread against the heat and intense light of the sun, her head nodding in staccato conversation with her young whom I spied when the mom suddenly flew off from the nest. I could see at least two distinct heads, with big open mouths, bobbing up into the empty space. The other parent perched nearby on a branch of a cottonwood sapling, his blue-black feathers gleaming, his eyes darting about in keen watchfulness. The mother returned with food pinched in her beak, and proceeded to stuff the gullets of the babies, while the male went off, presumably in search of the next course. He soon returned with his bounty and joined the family on the nest. The mother adjusted herself for a better purchase on the edge while her mate fed the young, then she made herself into an umbrella again when the male returned to his branch.
I remembered to breathe deeper again after I had been intensely focused on this scene for several minutes, and with my breathing came moisture to my eyes. I have never before been privileged to such intimate witness of a family on their nest, to see infant birds in their beginning of life. As Jessie lay dying, with Tangren as a loving witness, a balance came in the form of bald heads with big gaping mouths, reaching for sustenance and life. I watched the birds as they continued to shelter and feed their young, then gathered up my things, and Muphin and I headed back to the car and the vigil I was keeping at Tangren’s side.
SUNDAY, JUNE 4, 1995
Tangren called early this morning, still at the hospital though she assumed she would be coming home last evening. Yesterday, at around two P.M. the life-support systems for Jessie were stopped, all except the water apparently. The family had been told it would only be a couple hours before Jessie would die. Tangren seemed at peace when she left here yesterday afternoon, ready for this next and final step, grateful for these days she has had with Jessie, with her family. But she was in tears when she called, needing to be held by at least my voice as she cried deeply. Jessie does not die. Her body holds on to life, her vital signs strong. So the waiting is a long, slow crawling, a dying that has its days instead of hours, a process in the opposite direction of the baby birds as they fledge.
Sandra called from California, feeling her own grief as Tangren, her former lover, and still dear friend, loses her mother. I was able to tell her what I have learned of Jessie, and Tangren, today, as well as comfort her a little in her own sense of loss of Jessie. Toward the end of our conversation she asked how I am doing, and it was good to talk of that for a little. I am doing all right really, though I have my moments of loneliness, of missing my isolated home, my work on the land. I do not give myself permission to be away from the house now, because I want to be here for Tangren, though I know she does not want me to deny myself. I will stay close in, be nurtured by this sweet little house and the birds and the views and Muphin’s unconditional love.
After Sandra’s call, I phoned Sarah, left a message on her machine that I am still here and would enjoy a call if that would be good for her. Not urgent. She did call later, around noon my time. Oh, how sweet to have this sister with whom I can talk so candidly, who can talk to me about the goings-on in her life, calling to me a sense of my own life larger than this house, this story, this family, and who loves me so dearly. She is there for me in such a solid unquavering way.
Tangren came home early in the afternoon, exhausted, needing sleep. Her mother was still alive, though seemed not to be suffering. Tangren thought to sleep as long as she needed, then would go back to the hospital. After a few hours, a call came from, I assume, one of her brothers. He asked me to awaken Tangren and tell her “Jessie is gone.” I went quietly up the stairs to where Tangren lay asleep, though she responded immediately to my gentle rousing, and gently spoken message. Though this news had been anticipated, waited for with some agony during the long night, it was nonetheless a blow that I could see on Tangren’s face as she grabbed my offered hand and held on. Perhaps half a minute passed in silence before Tangren said, “Come lie beside me” as she abruptly released my hand and pushed the bedcovers back. Then I, who at fifty-six have never lain in intimate caress with any woman other than whoever was my lover, gladly stretched myself belly-to-belly along Tangren’s body, wrapped one leg over hers, one arm under her neck, the other around her shoulders, enveloped her exploding sobs with my softness. Her head lay on my breast and I tenderly stroked her hair, murmured little encouragements for her wailing.
A shower, a renewing of spirit, and she was off again for a last scene at the hospital.
Hours later: a phone call. I recognize the ex-husband’s voice by now, which is good because he no longer identifies himself, just barks some question or another. This time it was “Has Jean (as he calls her) gotten home all right?” Out of the blue. But, no, she hadn’t walked in yet, though maybe I just heard her car. That seemed to satisfy him and he was gone, like he had performed some duty. But Tangren did not appear and because of his bolt, I got worried. Then waiting for Tangren was an anxious pulling on her to get home safely, which she soon did, having stopped to pick up some special coffee on the way.
So Tangren walks in the door. Her mother has died, this part of the story is finished. As she puts her things down she looks at me and says slowly, ponderously: “It sure is a rite of passage when your mother dies.” Pause. Her eyes look childlike and yet impish. “I feel more grown-up.” The combination of innocence and imp set me laughing, and laughing, until I am wide open with uncontrollable laughter, Tangren right with me. Both our vigils have reached their climax and the denouement flips us momentarily from sadness to hilarity. Our laughter ebbs as she comes around behind my chair, sits on the adjacent couch and leans to me; reaches around my shoulders to place her hands on mine on my chest, lays her head on my shoulder, and we breathe together, slow and deep, slow and deep.
Tomorrow, Muphin and I will go home.