Sunday, September 22, 2019

Un-combed

My friend is in the unenviable state of medical purgatory.  Many of us have been there; more of us will be, as the years accelerate.  While she anxiously awaits a full diagnosis, she must contend not only with perceived symptoms but with the unperceived.  Then there are the additional pains and discomforts brought on by torturous probing and exploratory protocol, because when you are helpless and punctured, they 'bring it on' irregardless.  All, presumably, in the name of an appropriate treatment-- a cure-- which is several steps more complicated than simply naming the disease.

Despite our compulsive identifying and classifying of things, we do not all fall into a simple solution box.  We sit in hospital waiting rooms with hundreds of bodies and faces that do not much resemble one another.  Besides obvious crutches and bandages, we know little of what ails our neighbors.  Sometimes our neighbors do not even know what ails them.  And behind the physical manifestations there are our emotional labyrinths-- our panics and anxieties, our deep childhood wounds which fester or recede only to assume center-stage when we feel weak.  All of the self-help and proverbs--  even religion-- are suddenly not enough to guide us through a sleepless night of crisis.

When I grew up in the 1950's parents weren't as 'hands-on' as parents of the 21st century are expected to be.  They left strollers outside the supermarket; we walked ourselves to school as small children, and played without supervision in parks.  Things happened-- even relatives spoke and handled us inappropriately, but no one mentioned these things.  We were cared for, but I never had that sense that I could talk intimately with my Mom about things that bothered me... yes, we had our friends, but few of us had that sense of emotional safety.  We grew up and music was like our confidante; many of us used sex and substances for comfort.

I raised my son with attention to a parental safety zone.  I wanted him to be independent, but I also wanted him to feel confident that his needs--emotional and physical-- were being met.  Yes, there were rough patches of infancy-- colic, bad phases-- but he was a relatively easy baby.  He spoke words at 12 months and expressed his needs as best he could.    As a 24/7 single parent this made a difference; I had no help and worked most nights doing gigs, while he was sleeping.  He rarely woke to notice I was absent.  One night a neighbor was sleeping over while I worked... he woke up... she gave him a water bottle and put him back to bed.  But he kept calling-- asking her for a comb.  "Comb.  He needs a comb,' he implored-- using the third person, as he did.  So my neighbor kept taking his little blue baby comb out of the drawer and fixing his hair.  But he would shake his head and repeat.  When I called during break to check in, I could hear him crying.  She put him on the phone --'Mama-- COMB'... he was saying...  At last it occurred to me... we had a bedtime ritual, after I put him in the crib... I would read him some rhyme from a huge old coverless anthology of verse... so I recited on the phone some things I knew from Robert Louis Stevenson-- the Swing poem, the Land of Counterpane...  and immediately he calmed and curled up with his little finger.  Poem, not comb.  It was comical... but also I realized it was his little bedtime 'need'... his comfort.  Fortunately I figured that one out.

My baby girl was born with a fatal heart defect.  Neither the doctors nor I were able to diagnose and repair the hole through which she disappeared.  Her needs, unlike those of her brother, were unreachable.  They haunt me still, because when we love someone, we adopt their pain.  She and I had barely been separated; I grieve daily not only for her angelic soul, but for my failure to provide her comfort.

My son is a man and his needs are a lot more complex.  Tonight we spoke about Antonio Brown and the dissolution of his once-promising career.  I always feel so much empathy for these athletes-- knowing how much they put in day after day-- the sacrifices, the sweat and training.  Then they are thrust into a spotlight, showered with sums of money that are almost beyond their ability to manage, preyed upon by media, women, fame parasites.  And once they taste this kind of celebrity-- well, there is no normal. What are his needs now? He is in the midst of meltdown mode.

Our needs change as we grow older-- they increase, and then in ways they decrease.  As adults, we figure out how to provide our own needs-- not to depend on partners, friends and children. But when we are ill, all bets are off.  A day without pain is a gift; a successful treatment is a reward.  We paddle upstream hopefully toward some version of recovery.  But first, this requires a proper diagnosis-- for someone to really listen to our symptoms and complaints, and devise a medical course.  For this, we are at the mercy of professionals whom we pray are astute and on point. As for emotional symptoms-- I have friends who have been seeing a shrink for decades.  Some have regressed into childhood memories and early trauma to encounter their younger, less damaged self.  Does this help?  At this age, no one is going to rock us to sleep or read us nursery rhymes out loud.  Still, we can try to listen.  Loneliness is easily diagnosable; fear and anger less so, but we can check in and listen and offer not to deliver our signature brownies or cookies, but to see what they need--  a clean stove or some menial errand or maybe to simply hear a caring voice tell them how much they mean to us-- that we are not just who we are, but who we have been-- with our canes and limps and aches and scars.  This life is a package deal and we all get our unraveling at some point.  So share the wealth, whatever that may mean, with someone who needs it today.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

And Justice For All...

This September-11th week I'm called upon to fulfill my official civic obligation and serve possibly my last stint of jury duty.  This time it's Federal Court-- where the jurors' waiting room with its high ceilings and wall of windows is way cheerier than the claustrophobic quarters of civic and criminal court, as I recall.  The rule in Federal Court, unlike the others, is no-technology-- no laptops, phones or tablets. You'd think this would encourage socializing among the juror pool... but besides rustling of newspapers and the occasional roll-call or announcement from the desk microphones, there was nearly no conversation.

Except for me... somehow I struck up a temporary rapport with a young man behind me in the building security line, and we stayed together, like newly orientating freshman, for the entire first day. We talked-- we shared-- drank coffee,  amused ourselves-- spoke about family and children-- college, musical taste, films, sports-- and stayed awake throughout an uneventful long day of waiting.  Seven hours with a stranger, minus lunch, when I suggested we separate to give him a break from my company.  We ended up ironically running into one another and sitting out the final 30 minutes of lunch at an outdoor table, talking.

Scanning the motley crowd of New Yorkers, I am struck by the irony that by mere coincidence of place, it is we who may decide the fate of an individual or group who happens to be on the weekly docket. What qualifies us, besides citizenship, to pronounce and determine this way?  Do we suddenly sprout ethical wings and rise to some occasion?  We flawed and imperfect humans who make errors of judgment every single day, order the wrong sandwich, forget to phone friends, miss appointments?

Standing in the middle of Foley Square at lunch, I am a little nostalgic.  During my first experience as a juror, the defending lawyer was 30-ish (old, in my eyes) and developed a mad crush on me... he'd look my way and blush as he gave his depositions.  In the court elevator he handed me a note asking me to have dinner as soon as the trial ended, explaining he wasn't permitted to speak otherwise.  I guess it was flattering-- looking back, I had my own agenda then, and my own constantly shifting plans. The whole experience was like a party--  a group of us formed a little clique-- we shared ideas and music during lunch;  I had a little walkman in those days and headphones... we were all happy about missing work and went out to a bar afterward.  We joked about being on the right side of the court barriers, at least for now.  For years, these people came to my gigs. Today I can't remember a single one of them-- one was Jose-- I'd have to look back in my ancient phonebooks.

Less vivid were my pre-marital registry visits to the adjacent civil courthouse, and one divorce.  I remember climbing those stairs, the two of us, to mutually agree to our failure as a couple-- no argument or litigation... Today a funny couple dressed in street clothes was pinning cheap white veils to their heads and taking selfies... a marriage of love or convenience. Who knows?  'I give them six months' a friend used to pronounce every time he saw a wedding party.

Maybe these civic marriages are taken less seriously... or maybe moreso because they lack the distraction of pomp and party.  I personally was way young and made hasty decisions.  I had slews of boyfriends along the way and never really considered or even knew that each of my two young husbands had summarily dumped a decent partner when they met me.  What kind of future did that predict?  My version of commitment was at best under-done.  I somehow knew I hadn't mated for life.  Still, the disintegration of these relationships is painful and familiar.  Our Prince Charmings grow weary and bored; one difficult night-- or you are late from a gig-- they go out and drink and blink their eyes at flirty women who do not inspect their hands for rings.  I, too, found myself inappropriately bonding with band members and artists who confided and begged.  My role as a wife never acquired the habit of fidelity, the ritual of one-bed/one-mate. What wrecked me was the aftermath-- the reality that this person who'd been your absolute intimate-- the left hand of your pair of gloves-- was becoming a stranger, was whispering into a new pair of ears, walking down the aisle with someone else.  Love is the prize of life; then the death of intimacy is lethal and cruel.  Many divorce cases mitigated in these courts are the sad attempts to punish one another for the loss of something that can never be regained, only recalled.  There are pre-nups but no real insurance for the missing emblems of love; there are designated thieves and burglars, but the real culprit is time-- familiarity, lack of trust, resentment... failure.

If I knew then what I knew now... most likely I would have made the same poor choices.  In four years-- my next jury-service date-- they inform me I will be old enough to opt out.  I now know this will pass all-too-quickly.  In my twenties, four years was a virtual lifetime. Coming out of Federal Court I wonder if I am any wiser or more qualified than the young people in this room. One thing I notice-- they don't seem to be having nearly the fun we all had back in the 1970's and 80's.  They are all reaching constantly for their absent phones like an involuntary reflex rather than exploring the experience-- or trying to be cool.  As I said, my friend and I were the only 'talkers' of note... even in the bathrooms on a break, no one spoke; no one laughed.

Today I miss my friend a little-- they placed us on different panels. Still, Monday we bonded and shared.   I am old enough to be his mother, but we exchanged small intimacies and anecdotes and a few laughs and it punctuated the enforced boredom of waiting.  Jason from Irvington-- I never asked his last name, paid little attention to the roll calls... although I know how he liked his coffee and what little league position his son played, his little girl's favorite Disney songs.  The irony of New York-- the five degrees thing-- he might end up somehow reading this blog and thinking I'm a crazy old bohemian bassist-stalker.  Forty years ago we might have exchanged numbers-- or not.  It was like a two-act play, complete with intermission.

These days most of my acquaintances are past not future... here as elsewhere I am among the oldest in the room-- only one or two others, with canes, are close.  No lawyer will ever notice me on the panel, no one will blush or wink or smile or hand me a note in the elevator.  This suits me now somehow... as though the relentless justice of time is finally served.