Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mortality, Craftsmanship, and Heidegger

Yesterday afternoon, some time between my reading of Being and Time and my work on the soft blue-green quilt for the bed in my study, my mother died in her sleep.  My sister had gone in to meet potential hospice workers, had arrived early, and so sat by my mother to smooth her sleeping forehead.  She got up briefly to look for something to clean Mother's wheelchair, came back, stroked her forehead again and found it already cool.  So I can add the words "died peacefully" to my mental obituary.

That is, until the emergency team arrived and attempted to revive a nearly ninety-six-year-old woman because it's the law and because the care facility couldn't find the Do Not Resuscitate orders until after the apologetic emergency guys had given up.  There have been times of late when I've watched the university become more legalistic, and observed "we have more rules and fewer principles."  Now I see this isn't simply the university; I'd known about litigious American society, but this was the time it really meant something,

Now I feel as if I'm left with blocks for an unfinished quilt, unread Heidegger, countless questions about what happened when, and my mother's favourite expressions.  My job is to find a form for all this.

Just this morning, I read Heidegger's analysis of how we come to understand being-with:  "This understanding [of co-existence], like all understanding, is not a knowledge derived from cognition, but a primordially existential kind of being which first makes knowledge and cognition possible.  Knowing oneself is grounded in primarially understanding being-with."  I understand why he wants "being-with" almost a priori, but Heidegger is perhaps only partly right here; knowing oneself isn't primordial unless parents and other caregivers are.  I was born in 1950, so knowing myself probably began with my mother.  More heartbreakingly, Heidegger talks about those moments when Da-sein loses itself, something my mother regularly did.   I know I'm reading Heidegger through the lenses of grief, but it's oddly as if grief allows me to see things I might not have noticed before.

It also feels like something has happened to history, as if it's been pulled from the straight, gone cattywampus.  While my mother only sometimes recognized me during my visit for her 95th birthday, all my unanswered questions were only theoretically unanswered.  You've got them too:  what happened the time when...?  What happened to so and so?  Who did you leave me with when you...?  (I don't think I ever saw them again.)  How did you feel when...?  And the big one:  "What's it like now?"  I've been teaching postmodern historiography in my Sixties class, so I've become aware of what Hans Kellner calls "the scandal of general discontinuity."  Kellner is speaking of our belief, on the one hand, that every person and event has left some historical trace that we can find and interpret; we like to believe in this continuity.  The lived reality is that a lot goes missing and never gets found, much less interpreted or interpreted "accurately" (whatever that might mean).

Like a lot of mothers in the fifties (and perhaps like all parents), mine was a mystery.  She had times of extraordinary joyfulness and playfulness and times of significant and debilitating depression which seemed to become worse the older she got, particularly once she and my father retired to Florida, worse again when they moved to Georgia in 2001.  Sometimes, in her anger, she seemed beyond reach, but then she could be suddenly enchanted by the sound of frogs in the Georgia night.  "Come listen" she would say, taking my hand--I who had two minutes before been the enemy who was exhorting her to take her anti-depressants.  Here is the paradox of parents:  on the one hand, they're the stick figures we know completely in our childhood and adolescence, people who are so simple we can read them like a book.  Later, they become much more complicated, but just as we are finally old enough and generous enough to finally ask "What is it like to be you?" they are gone.  When they die, our parents' complexity becomes multiplied like a smiling weeping puppet in a hall of mirrors.

Perhaps because I'm teaching a historical methods class, and because my reading of late has been so preoccupied with memory (see "Literature and Memory" post), my mother's death seems like a synecdoche for all the unobserved and unsung moments in our lives that, like the butterfly in the Amazon, might have led serendipitously to something more important.  Or like all those lives cut short by wars, violent acts, accidents--lives that we will never quite understand.  There's a theorist I quote in my article on Woolf's first experimental novel, Jacob's Room, who talks about the way the language of elegy dissolves around the edges because the place we want to get to--on the threshold to where the loved one is--is beyond language, much less experience.

What has been lingering in my mind and for some time (for I knew this was coming, though not how soon) are my mother's favourite expressions.  She often called me a mugwump, which was "a bolter from the Republican Party in 1884." Where she got the expression I'll never know; she probably liked the sound of it.  When I spent the day in bare feet or went outside without shoes, she would always ask "What are you doing frogging around in your bare feet?"  She talked about bad drivers who took their half out of the middle of the road.  She answered the phone "Joe's Bar and Grill" when she was pretty sure it was my father; sometimes she was wrong.  She called herself "Charlie's hand laundry" and "Chief cook and bottle washer."  She'd give you a Werthers from her stash in the car "To keep the starve-to-death away."

So here's the task I've been avoiding all day today, reading Heidegger, dashing to Golden Willow because I'm almost out of the raw silk I'm making my Crystal Leaves shawl out of (see Woolgathering post--I'll put up a photograph when it's blocked), writing a blog that I hope is not  opportunistic:  I've got to find the poem somewhere that manages to take these words that linger around the edges of my memory of her and manage to get them to articulate the mystery that was her experience of being herself.  In part, it's the perennial challenge of form and content.

Thank you for listening.  It's helped.  At least now I know what I'm supposed to do.


  1. Dear Kathleen - I'm so sorry she is gone, and so glad that it was gentle (at least as long as she was aware). KA

  2. My heart goes out to you at this time.

  3. This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for setting these thoughts down and sharing them. I am thinking of you.