Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mid-Year 2018: The State of My Mind in "Survival Mode"

Here we are, halfway through the year 2018.

On the one hand, time flies as usual in this period of my life. But, on the other hand....

A lot has happened.

Just six months ago, we spent the early part of New Year's Eve at my parents' condo in Arlington (which is ten minutes away from the Washington Monument).

They lived there together for nearly 30 years. Arlington had become home for them in later life, and the place where they became "Papa" and "Grandma" to their five grandchildren. The kids all have happy memories of many visits, weekends, and holidays in Arlington.

On New Year's Eve 2017 we had our "traditional three-way birthday cake" for Agnese (December 21), my Mom (December 29), and me (January 2). I remember noticing my Dad struggling a bit to eat his piece of cake, seeming lost and confused and unusually tired (for him). I knew he had been having some trouble, but this was the first time it really struck me, though I put aside the momentary flash of alarm that had gone through me.

We knew that my parents' long-settled life was changing with the fragility of their years. Be we didn't expect it to happen so suddenly.

So much has happened this year.

In the past six months, our son John Paul spent a semester in Rome, had a tremendous experience, visited other places in Europe, and is now back and getting ready for his Senior year in college.

Agnese successfully and very happily completed her Freshman year. Lucia graduated from High School and will begin college in the Fall. Teresa is co-directing four week-long horse riding camps this Summer, and is acting in a local community play.

The Washington Capitals WON THE STANLEY CUP!!! (I still gotta write a blog post on that whole thing.😊)

We still look basically the same as we did six months ago.
I have been reading, studying, forming ideas, writing about "technological ecology" (we need this), the philosophy of communications media, art and music, East Asian history (especially recent history of China, Indochina, Japan).

Not surprisingly, given the events of that history, I'm seeing in a new way the human capacity to live in "survival mode" in the face of enormous and persistent trauma, but also the long term psychological damage that it inflicts, that manifests itself later on.

I wonder how widespread the experience of trauma is in our tumultuous world. How many of us live much of our lives in various forms of "survival mode" with its streamlined priorities, strange acuity, and almost unnatural capacity for endurance? We stay focused on surviving, but with our humanity diminished in various ways. We are afflicted by all kinds of stress. It is a persistent affliction that breaks us again and again even as we find temporary bandages and cover our wounds with big scars.

So much has happened this year! Almost more than I can bear.

As he approached his 83rd birthday, my Dad's health collapsed. After a lifetime of strength and capability, he suddenly tumbled from what seemed to be mild forgetfulness and confusion last year into the advanced stages of dementia, a state of physical and mental incapacity and helplessness.

Our primary preoccupation in the past three months has been moving Dad to an Assisted Living Home. We were grateful to find a lovely place in Strasburg, Virginia, which is only a 20 minute drive from our house. At least we are nearby and able to be a regular part of his life in these new and difficult circumstances.

Arlington, Virginia: Bright lights, big city.
For the present, however, my Mom remains in Arlington. Though she is still able to move around the house, and can manage to care for herself, she is much too weak to make any kind of trip. Through various arrangements (and help from us and others) she gets the assistance she needs right now. But she can't visit my Dad. She can't really leave the house.

Dad is mostly incoherent, but not entirely. The capacity and focus he has left in his mind centers mostly on the sorrow of not being with his wife of 58 years. He has very little day-to-day memory, but he understands (sometimes, to some extent) that she is still in Arlington and she is getting the help she needs (from us, the neighbors in the condo, etc.) but that she's also home-bound.

She can't move in with him, because the Strasburg home is only for people with memory problems. Insurance would not cover her in that context. Every part of this life-changing process, in fact, is swamped with bureaucratic complexities.

We want my parents to be together, to be near each other at least. We want all of us to be near one another, as near as possible. But everything we do to move forward requires solving ten thousand puzzles and untying ten thousand knots. My brother has been an absolute hero in taking on so much of the nitty-gritty of this stuff.

Maybe living in the wonderful "First World" is not as easy and carefree as we have been led to believe....

So what about me? I'm a wreck. I'm barely holding on physically and psychologically. There's nothing terribly new about that, except that in certain ways it has gotten harder.

Part of the Assisted Living Home in Strasburg, Virginia.
But I am holding on.

My intellect is strong, thanks to what I call that-one-part-of-my-brain-that-always-keeps-working no matter what else is going on, no matter how sick I am in other ways.

As long as that part-of-my-brain keeps going, I will keep studying and learning and communicating. If nothing else, I'll study myself.

I'm inspired by people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who began "writing" the immortal chronicle of The Gulag Archipelago in his mind and memory even as he labored through his days in the Soviet prison camp system that denied him the use of pen or paper.

I'm inspired by people like Dr. Takashi Nagai, the great scientist of Nagasaki who—after initially surviving the atomic holocaust of August 8, 1945—studied himself and wrote about the effects of radiation on himself when he was slowly dying from radiation poisoning.

I'm inspired by people like Haing Ngor and Dith Pran and Loung Ung and other Cambodians who have shown us their brokenness, who have told their stories and allowed us to see in themselves the pain of the past and the ongoing suffering that millions of their compatriots still carry to this day. Through them, the survivors, even with all their scars, we are given the chance to have compassion for millions of our fellow human beings who endured the imposition of monstrous, incomprehensible violence.

I want to write more about them too.

These people humble me. I have so very little to bear, and I don't have their honesty. I hope I can learn to be more humble and more transparent.

Suffering is personal, and yet there is a kinship in the common experience of helplessness, exhaustion, being overwhelmed and afraid, being wounded, and so many other human factors. That's why we have to tell our stories, share our sorrows, be patient with one another, with our weakness and frailty, be compassionate, try to accompany one another.

"Survival Mode" may seem like a kind of death, but like a seed sown deep in the earth it can also bring forth mysterious and abundant fruit.