15 October 2009

Poor Uncle, Poor Poor Uncle

Yesterday I was making myself a very large stew, which required I cut a very large butternut squash, which took me a good hour to cut because my knives are such crap – until the cutting became a kind of battle I was having with the squash, a battle I ultimately lost by throwing a quarter of the thing away because it damn near wore me out. I felt a little sneaky when I tossed the final quarter, but then I remembered I was alone and that no one but me had to know I'd wasted food.

But this isn't what I want to write about.

While I was cutting that butternut squash, I remembered a dream I had had the night before. Dreams, our souvenirs of the subconscious, break the skin of our consciousness this way. When the body is deep within a repetitive, knowing action for which we've developed muscle memory, the mind can achieve such a marvelous slack that gems come forth to reveal themselves. This is just the kind of state a writer hopes to achieve when writing a first draft: that state of thinking but not thinking, the state in which you allow your thoughts to meander, trusting they will lead you to where your story is meant to arrive.

My dream came to me while cutting the squash. It had been a very disturbing dream. A man I've known since high school was in it. I was a guest in his house, sleeping in the top bunk of a bed in a child's room – I think it was his room when he was a child. In the dream, I had that guest mentality, where you don't know what to do with your dirty dishes or whether it's okay to make your own coffee in the morning. But these details aren't why the dream was disturbing to me. The dream took a bad turn at a certain point, at a moment when the man took pity on me. He said something like, “OK, I guess I'll have sex with you.”

I think that was when I gave up on the final quarter of the squash, when I remembered that part of the dream.

But this is not what I want to write about, not exactly. I want to add, because I think it is connected to the dream, that my uncle died on October 11th. My uncle was institutionalized for many, many years. At the end, he lived in an old folks' home even though he himself wasn't that old. The home was in Iowa, in a town so far out in the country that even country folks consider it 'country'. He lived in a sparse room and received very few visitors. At the end, my uncle did not eat for over two weeks, which is how he finally died.

My uncle's life was not a happy life. Is that fair of me to say? It might reasonably be described as a lonely life, certainly an unfulfilled one. My uncle, who was also my godfather, had severe epilepsy, a condition that had been treated over his lifetime by various medical means, which is to say with various psychotropics, depending on whatever med was considered “state of the art” by Iowa's psychiatric standards. While he was not institutionalized for the first many years of his life, the majority of his adult years were spent toiling inside state-run mental facilities. From about junior high age (just when one becomes acutely aware of one's relatives) onward, every time I visited my grandparents, I visited my uncle in a mental institution. The people he lived with fascinated, disgusted and frightened me in equal measures. I felt terribly sorry for them, but not enough to want to get too close to them. I think I felt the same way about my uncle.

That sentence was very difficult for me to write.

He had to wear a Styrofoam bicycle helmet for a long time. I remember being about eighteen years old and wondering whose big idea it was to use a pen to poke in a smiley face in the front of my uncle's Styrofoam helmet. But later, he had to wear a motorcycle helmet. By this time he was in a wheelchair and I remember so well seeing him at a family event, and how that motorcycle helmet weighed his whole head down, how his skinny neck looked so awfully strained by the weight of the thing, and how my grandmother kept on him, saying, “Keep your head up! Head up!” and just how intensely you could feel the wave of disdain gush from my uncle's withered body, directly toward my grandmother who was completely impervious to its tide. My poor uncle.

The motorcycle helmet was a sad story in and of itself. He'd been upgraded to it because the bicycle helmet wasn't enough – so bad were his convulsions, so severe his epilepsy, and so poor his care. He had had one massive epileptic attack that caused him to go into a coma for weeks. The state facility offered differing reports as to whether my uncle was or was not wearing his bicycle helmet at the time of the attack; there were even conflicting reports as to whether he'd had his attack in the cafeteria or if he was alone in his room. Regardless of the location, it was clear there was no medical supervision present, and in neither cases could it be possible that the bicycle helmet had been affixed to his Fabergé head. If it had, he wouldn't have had the coma.

Why am I writing this? What am I trying to say? Whose business is any of this? What kind of person writes this shit in a blog?

The way my uncle died, which was the only way he could possibly have exerted any agency over his own life, was perhaps the only rightful end to the life he'd had.

Poor Uncle. Poor, poor Uncle. I said that for years. A lot of people who knew him – not everyone, but a lot – said that for years, too. Poor thing, his poor life. My disturbing dream? The horrible insult I felt, the absolute indignation? The big ole fuck you? Nothing but a fraction of the pity my poor uncle received almost his entire life.

Is this where my story is to arrive? Where is my central event? Does my form follow my content? Is there poetry in my language? Oh who gives a poop about writing anyway.

I hardly know. Right now, this late at night, my clock ticking on my desk, my throat throbbing, and a plane to catch in the early morning so that I can go to my poor uncle's funeral – well, I hardly think anything matters.


Jonathan said...

Sarah. Quite the statement: " I hardly think anything matters." Unfortunately - or fortunately - I've possessed that same perspective for the better part of the last year. A relative's death didn't spur what I now refer to as my mid-life crisis (a crisis I wish I had encountered fifteen years ago), rather a series of life changes. Yes, I am still swirling, reliant on, yet content to let the October wind's whimsy determine my path. For now. Looking forward to your next post.

Jonathan R.

Sarah said...

Jonathan. I haven't much but everything to say. It's cliche, but the older I get, the less I know. Fine. I used to think that life was about doing -- and I still think this, often (ever the German).

But I also think we're largely determined by what we do when we're not "doing" -- when we're not working, not thinking, not even riding our bikes or hiking a mountain or baking a cake or reading or watching TV -- none of that. What we do when we simply rest -- sit with nothing preoccupying or distracting us.

Although grounding, 'rest' can really terrify me. It makes me face myself; makes me less reactionary; stills the 'wind's whimsy' as you've so poetically put it.

Thanks very much for reading Und You Vill Like It. But thanks mostly for your contribution, for turning my monologue into a dialogue.


Jonathan said...

Too bad so many are afraid to admit those trite words apply to them! If only they knew how liberating such an acknowledgment can be!

I have a hard time believing that you (Sarah, the individual) are ever truly static - mentally or physically. Sleeping? That static existence - so powerful but so undervalued. I do agree that it can be frightening . . . it re-engages me with reality (whatever that is), the predicament of man, earth, this country, my life. But it's also enlightening . . . forcing me to develop my own opinions regarding what is true and what is happening. Sometimes it's easier just to go on in the minutiae of everyday.
As far as I am concerned, "not doing" is what makes the "doing" worth . . . well . . . doing.

Dialogue is good. But monologues serve an important purpose too.

How can I get ahold of your previous writings?

Jonathan R.