Saturday, October 30, 2010

Knee deep in blood

Cayley came home from school the other day frustrated that the tormentous behavior of a middle school nemesis is waxing once again (as I predicted not ten days ago), but vowing not to succumb to her urge to put the kid in her place. 

"Yer gonna cra-ack!  Yer gonna cra-ack! Nah nah nah nah nah!" I teased her, because this general issue has has become one of comic relief for us by this time. 

Of course, that little dollop of quasi-reverse psychology made her even more determined to avoid yet another repetition of the pattern that has historically characterized their exchange: the self-centered kid affronts, Cayley rejects, and then all hell breaks loose as the kid goes overboard on the social warpath seeking disproportionate revenge.  Cayley began to formulate alternate strategies in earnest, and concluded that she should clear the path for another girl to re-establish appropriate boundaries on their joint behalf, thus getting the job done while simultaneously deflecting the heat from herself.

"Why bother with games like that?" I asked (paraphrasing).  "Just deal with it straight up.  Give her what you think she deserves."

"Mama!" she admonished, giggling insanely.  "Why are you always so impatient?"

It's a valid question and I often forget that neither Cayley nor Lawrence will ever be fully able to understand the answer to it, because neither has seen the things that I've seen in my life.  We are all products of our experiences, and they simply weren't a product of mine, so I thought I'd take a crack at further explaining that here.

Bullshit makes me impatient because I've had the privilege of seeing so much of humanity that is diametrically opposed to it, AND because I've watched so much of that extraordinary humanity die.

I've worked extremely hard in my life to maximize the opportunities I was given, but I also had something else going for me:  I got an enormous number of lucky breaks along the way. 

Without question, my luckiest breaks entailed opportunities to meet extraordinary people who ultimately gave so much of themselves to me. I can't produce a laundry list of ALL those people and their corresponding gifts in this blog, because it would make many of them uncomfortable if I told their stories out loud.  So what I'll do instead to make my point is restrict my descriptions to just a few of the dead ones, the ones whose social comforts I no longer have to consider:
For three precious years, Didi was the big sister I never had.  Our babies were born just 41 days apart and became so bonded as infants that they developed their own shared language.  As well as being second mother to my child, she was a brilliant artist and business owner, and she taught me so much about being loving and being TOTALLY REAL that I'm no longer able to tell what is original-me and what is actually HER living on inside of me.  Didi was the Terminator who was inexplicably programmed to protect me (and her other loved ones) even as she was forced to drag her severed chassis forward across the floor on her one remaining elbow: half paralyzed by an unsuccessful brain surgery and unable to speak without slurring, she still felt driven to help me develop ideas for my own business and to encourage me to network with other people in her professional circle.
Her last public request was for some of my cooking. 
Didi was killed by cancer at the age of 45.   
If I had that proverbial "one more day" to spend with a loved one who had passed, without question I would choose to spend it with my paternal grandmother Pearl.  I still have recurring dreams of being able to do exactly that. She and I were so far apart in age that I never understood her personality (which in some respects bears eerie resemblance to my own) until I grew into adulthood and, by that time, she was gone.  When I was a child, she would get so excited to see me that she would literally jump up and down.  She tried desperately to help me in ways I couldn't understand at the time. 
Pearl was killed by cancer at the age of 72.   

No other human being has had as profound an effect on my life's trajectory as my friend Graham: he was the man who brought me to America as an intern at Johnson Space Center, the event from which pretty much all else in my life has derived.  He was arguably the most accomplished scientist of his specialty in the entire world when he died, and a crater has been named on the Moon in his honor.  When I think of him now, it's not his pioneering and absolutely ferocious intellect I remember, however - it's his wit, and his depth of feeling.  Years after I worked for him, we were having a visit when he looked at me and said, "I need to talk to you about something I've got going on in my life, because you're the only one I can trust."  I don't know what I ever did to deserve the honor of holding such a great person's trust inside of myself. 
Graham was killed by cancer at the age of 52.  

When I was asked to say a few words at Larry's memorial service, I totally bunged it up.  I couldn't begin to explain what he meant to me then, and I can't do it now either.  Factually, Larry was my graduate thesis advisor and the leader of our research team at Washington University in St. Louis.  I doubt if anyone would argue that he was one of the finest scientists who has ever lived, of any discipline; the scientific community was not content simply to name a crater on the Moon after him - they had to dedicate landform on Mars in his name as well.  In the photo above, you can see eyes that are kind yet absolutely uncompromising; a piercing, exacting intellect who taught me through and through that I need to be myself, regardless of the cost or degree of nonconformity.  The last time I visited Larry, he openly mourned the fact that I was not able to bring Cayley with me (she was in school); just days from dying, he was not concerned with his own situation or comforts - he just wanted to be able to reach out and contribute to the people he cared about. 
Larry was killed by myelofibrosis at the age of 70.  
I didn't know Cayley's first cousin Arun well, but I knew him enough to know that he was wise beyond his circumstances, and that he was destined to be the future leader of their family generation.  I can still hear the echo of his strong and hopeful voice as we would talk on the phone, fighting ten thousand miles of ocean and the howling winds of cultural disparity, but still able to communicate.  Arun and four of his classmates were killed in a car crash when they were all around 21 years of age.   
This is an eerie picture to me now because it shows Cayley flanked by the ghosts of two Uncles.  I can remember a day long ago when Gil (right) cut fresh roses and put one on the bed of each child in his home (where I spent many of my holidays).  Roy (left) was so dedicated to my Aunt that he refused to leave her alone on this earth even as his body failed.  I flew home to spend a bit of time with the family as they were dealing with his illness, and I couldn't believe the dedication that I saw in him.  When all hope of recovery was gone and medical intervention ceased, he still continued to fight like nobody I've ever seen before.  A human being is not supposed to live for more than about a week without water; I believe he held on for nineteen days. 
Both Roy and Gil were killed by cancer well before their natural ends should have arrived.
Many people only see stuff like this in movies, not in real life.  I could describe additional people without even getting around to those who are still living, but seven stories are enough for now.  I'm getting finger fatigue here, and the rest of the day's responsibilities are beckoning. 

I get impatient with people because I've been privileged to receive extraordinary gifts, the very best that humanity has to offer, both intellectually and emotionally.  When I see people acting in stupid, vindictive, or self-absorbed ways, it doesn't strike me as being an irritation or an inconvenience - it strikes me as being an obscenity.  It's just such a vulgar contrast to the unimaginable generosity that I've been lucky enough to receive in my life and the remarkable human courage I've witnessed that I simply cannot deal with it. 

I've watched people struggling to do justice to their loved ones even as they were sucking in their last breaths.  I've watched incredibly loving, extraordinary human beings dying horrible premature deaths in front of me without a single thought to their own needs, their excrutiating pain, or their unfulfilled potential.  And I'm supposed to feel some degree of patience or sympathy toward people who act like self-centered idiots?  Not too f*cking likely to happen, I'm afraid.  I don't have it in me.  I don't want to have it in me.  I just want to get away from that kind of stuff as fast as humanly possible.  It no longer sounds like a cliche' when it's dying people who are teaching it to you:  life is too short and too precious to waste on intractable situations. 

Anyway, that's a portion of the short version as to why I am routinely impatient with people.  Contrary to our social and cultural doctrine, patience is not automatically warranted.  Sometimes I need to save it up for the people upon whom I really need to be expending it: the extraordinary people who are still on this earth, who bless me with their genuine love - the ones I struggle to do justice to, whose gifts I'll never be able to repay.

"I just want to hear stories about Cayley,"
a ninety-pound Didi murmured from her hospital bed.

Me too.

Mama Didi Stuart:  The Ghost of Halloween Past.

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