Category: death

perception: part one

per·cep·tion
pərˈsepSH(ə)n/
noun
noun: perception; plural noun: perceptions
  • the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.
    • the state of being or process of becoming aware of something through the senses.
    • a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.
    • intuitive understanding and insight.
    • PSYCHOLOGY/ZOOLOGY
      the neurophysiological processes, including memory, by which an organism becomes aware of and interprets external stimuli.

 

(For the purposes of this blog post, I am concentrating on the second part of this definition, the mental impressions we have of ourselves and the world around us.)

I have been pondering this term perception for quite some time. It crept into my brain during the elections, most specifically to explain the outcome. I began to realize that it didn’t matter what Hillary Clinton did or did not do, the perception that she did something wrong (or even illegal) was strong enough to stop people from voting for her.

Perception is much different than reality or truth. Perception is based on all sorts of factors, some of which have nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with our backgrounds, our experiences, our morals, our wishes and our desires. It is not quantifiable, nor is it something that can be predicted on an individual level.

There are many ways that perception has been wandering around my thoughts lately. I had actually planned several other posts about it, but I think they will have to wait. This morning there was an image on facebook that hit me squarely in the gut.

The image was of a lion lying dead among the rocks.

Considering how many images flash before my eyes as I scroll through facebook, it is fair to ask, why did this one catch my eye? I don’t have a pet lion, I don’t go to the zoo often enough to get to know the lions personally. I can’t say I have even seen this lion.

Here’s the thing. Tullamore was a part of a (now) rare group of lions. Most of the time we see lions living in the savannah, moving through the grass, showing up around waterholes and hunting the plentiful game. The lions of the west coast of Namibia are desert lions. They live in some of the harshest conditions, little water, little vegetation and little game. They have lived in this area for a very long time and once were pretty plentiful. Then came man. And cows. And other livestock.

In an area that is short on game, it makes sense that a herd of cows would be seen as a gift to a predator. It would also make sense that the owners of the cows would take great offense at having their livelihood eaten by a big cat. Here is where the perception thing comes in.

I am a rich American. I take a trip to Africa, stay in a lodge in the middle of a dessert for three days. I hear about these animals and I see the beauty of them. That is, after all, why I am there. I am a woman from the east coast of the US where there are no predators and I get to stand in front of a cheetah, or a rhinoceros, or to get close enough to practically touch an elephant and it seems like a dream. In the safety of my vehicle or standing beside the tracker with his gun, I am allowed the luxury of “being with” the animals, seeing them walk, run, play and hunt. I come home to watch countless videos of animals in the wild or Planet Earth or read books about how many species are going extinct. I view, from afar, the devastation of man around the world. And I judge. And I grieve. My perception of the death of a lion is based on my need to pet the fox when I was three (my mother nixed that idea quickly). My heartache comes from knowing that “Tullamore” was the last of a group of five male lions in the area (they were called the Five Musketeers). His four compadres were shot or poisoned over the last few years by farmers. I grieve because I met the guy who has has been studying these proud animals, a man who spends much of his life in isolation, and loves it. Unless someone kills an animal.

So what would be my perception if I were a Namibian farmer who does not see any monetary gain and many deficits with the lion population? What if I wanted to send my children to a good school, or build new fences, or dig a new well and a lion started to eat my profits? What if I am of a generation that grew up killing predators without judgement, in fact was rewarded with a pat on the back from my fellow farmers? How would I perceive lions then?

I don’t know. That is the thing about perception. You can’t always tell how you would react if you were in someone else’s shoes. I can only hope to feel compassion for this person. It is tough, it is a stretch for me, at least until I stop feeling so very angry and sad. Until I stop feeling. But right now, my perception of the person who poisoned this lion is that they are not a good person. I don’t know them, I will never meet them, but at this moment I hate them.

I will end by showing three photos. The first two are of cubs in the sand dunes. The last is of Dr. “Flip” Stander monitoring the lions. Despite the setbacks of the last couple of years, he continues to work with the growing population of lions, as well as finding ways of connecting with the surrounding human population. Looking at these pictures makes me smile. Life includes death, even if it doesn’t feel good. But for now, I want to concentrate on the living…

cub3dune2

 

Namibias-desert-lion-Flip-Stander

dscn5541

 

Tatay, part 3

It’s taken me a while to sit in front of the computer with the time and inclination to write this last post about Tatay. If you haven’t read part one and two, then I suggest you start with those to make sense of what I am writing about.

Tattoo’s viewing and funeral were this past week. I was unable to attend the funeral but I did get a chance to attend the viewing. Once again, I am super aware that customs are different across families and cultures. This was evident at the viewing which was more like a celebration and music recital than a viewing. Yes, Tatay was on view, but the family was more interested in sharing what he was like and their love for him to the people who came out of love and respect.

I will admit, I have had a fantasy of telling the story I told in the last post at his funeral. So  when we were asked (while they were trying to figure out a technical difficulty, something about showing the myriad of pictures they had of him) whether anyone had any memories of Tatay, one of Fe’s sisters poked me from behind and said…”Tell your story”…

So I did.

And it was wonderful, lots of laughter, lots of warm feelings. And in true Nieves fashion, another of Fe’s sisters told me Tatay needed a ride home after the viewing.

There are lots of little memories I could have shared…standing in the garden pulling weeds and looking up to see Tatay through the window of their house while he was  painting something beautiful. Tatay sweeping the driveway every day. Tatay saying “Eat”…before I had even taken my coat off. Imagining Tatay in his red scooter that his son-in-law got him so that he could drive the mile through neighborhoods to see his wife. Tatay laughing and smiling…always. Tatay sticking around at every party until the end…often lasting longer than I did. Tatay sitting in the living room listening to his grandchildren play the piano, the flute, dance, sing…whatever they were doing at the moment…and clapping.

Tatay saying, when I asked him how he was, saying “Well…I am still here”.

But I think that the image that I remember the most, is the yearly event, the birthday party. The numbers kept climbing. The grandchildren got older. The balloons for 105 had to be pulled together from a one, zero and a five. But the smile and the twinkly eyes stayed the same. He was surrounded by the people who meant the most to him, his grandchildren. They kept him young, he said. And I believe him.

IMG_0738
with a small portion of grandchildren…and Nanay, of course.

IMG_0743

Oh, yeah…this was the year that the person who took the cake order didn’t quite understand that the name was Tatay, not Tangle. Instead of anger, exasperation and annoyance, this was met with gales of laughter by the whole clan…yet another Tatay story to add to the list.

 

IMG_0732.JPG

Tatay, part two

I am sad to report that Sotero Nieves, aka Tatay, died last night at the age of 107 and 10 months. He was two years and two months shy of his goal. While I am sad, I am also happy. Happy that I knew him, happy that I learned from him and happy to be a part of his large, loud, funny, multi-generational family. I am an honorary Philippino (yes, I have actually eaten bagoong, the traditional fish paste). I will share more snippets of memories in the next post. For now, allow me to tell you a story.

(FYI, Tatay was married to Nanay for over 70 years. For a while she lived with one of their sons very close to where we lived.)

The day was a stressful one from the moment I woke up. I was super worried about a family member, had several errands to run including a dentist appointment, and then had to be in downtown Baltimore for a meeting in the afternoon. I was driving home from the dentist, and needed to stop at the food store for a couple of things. As I approached the entrance to the market, I came up behind the local county bus dropping off some passengers. I waited patiently until it was finished, then realized that two of the passengers were Tatay and Nanay. I honked my horn and waved, then prepared to continue driving to the store. The next thing I knew, Tatay was walking over to the car and getting into the front seat. I hastily moved stuff out of his way (I have a tendency to live in my car). Nanay, paused outside the car, not quite knowing what to do at this point. I turned and moved stuff off of the back seat so she could have a place to sit as well.

All this while, there was a running commentary going through my head…”Damn, I didn’t mean that I would give him a ride, I have so much to do. I can’t tell him to get out though, he’s 90 for God’s sake, how rude would that be? Will I go to hell if I just drive away really quickly before he gets into the car?”

Needless to say, I acted with grace and poise.

“Tatay, I need to stop at the store before I take you guys home.”

Yes, I was hoping he would say that he couldn’t wait…no luck…

“Oh good,” he said, “I have a prescription that I need filled.”

It seems that I had been trumped. But I tried again.

“I can’t sit around and wait for it, I don’t have time”.

Nope…that didn’t work either.

“It’s okay, you can just give it to the pharmacy, I will have my son pick it up later.”

I was truly defeated. I went into the market, leaving them in my car, then drove them to their respective homes.

I learned two things that day. One is that the culture in the Philippines is a much more welcoming one. Families are connected to each other like a spider’s web. If you aren’t related, you are friends with the relations. People give each other rides without thinking twice. Tatay had no idea that it was considered rude to just get into someone’s car without being invited, in his mind it was an unstated invitation the minute that I honked and waved.

The other thing I learned was that Tatay could be extremely manipulative to get what he needed. And what he needed most was wheels. He needed to get out of the house, to feel a part of society. All his family worked during the day and for a few years he relied on taxis, public transportation and the goodwill of friends to get him around to his various commitments. After his granddaughters got old enough to drive, they became his personal taxi to doctor’s appointments and errands. He was never shy about asking for a ride.


Epilogue to Part 2.

This story has prompted gales of laughter from his family for many years. I have told the story many times, and each time it has been as funny as the first. So, when I saw him a couple of days ago, I asked if he wanted to go for a ride to the store and, despite having one foot firmly across the threshold between life and death, he nodded. His family members who were present, erupted into laughter. It was a fitting way to say good bye to him.


 

Here is a picture of Tatay at my open studio in 2006, just after I finished the lion sculpture. He was 97. He was one of my biggest fans.

openstudio3.jpg

 

release

Here are some comments made this past weekend by my father.

“I think it’s time for me to come back to civilization.”

“I keep thinking I’m in Florida.”

“What town are we in?”

“Who are those people outside?”

“What is my nurse’s name?”

“Where are you living?”

“Where have you been? I’ve been pining for you. Where have you been the past two days?”

“Where are you from?”

“How far away is that?”

“Do you have children? How old are they?”

“Who are those people outside?”

“Who was that man? I know him very well but I can’t remember his name.”

“Have you seen the head woman? What is her name again?”

“I think in my 95th year I’m going to retire.”

 

I think you get the picture. Dad has stepped further along the dementia path. He knew who my sister and I were, but couldn’t really come up with our names or where we were from. His ability to track time and place is gone for the most part. And it seems that life happens in very short spurts for him, then it happens again. And again. And…

It is fascinating what he does remember though. He knew that Saturday was the memorial service for his long time friend, my godfather, Al Sly. And he was thrilled we were there so that we could go together. I am also very glad I was able to sit with him and share a hymnal and prayer book and point out which hymn to sing. As an ex-organist, I was pretty sure he would have no problems singing the hymns. The Lord’s prayer seemed beyond him but it’s possible he couldn’t hear what we were saying.

(I just read an article that said that hearing loss and dementia were linked. Duh. It is harder to be in the world if you can’t hear what is going on. But really, even if he could hear, I think his ability to take in the words, figure out their meaning and come up with a response is mostly beyond him. Although he sometimes can surprise me by coming out with some gem of an answer that shows that, at least at that particular moment, he has grasped exactly what is going on.)

So where does the release come from? It comes from the fact that in some weird way, now that he has progressed so far, I feel absolved of my duty of trying to make him happy, of visiting him, of taking him out to lunch, of playing a game of Scrabble with him. I have done my share of this over the past few years, especially after mom died (which was five years ago this week). I don’t feel the need to check in on him and make sure everything is okay. He has an army of kind, caring people taking care of him, ones whom he recognizes almost more than his children. And I feel for the first time like I can really let go of that part of him that has resided in my brain for my whole life and just focus on ME. Even as I write this I feel the guilt and shame and thoughts of selfishness that over the years have caused me to stop everything in order to help him in some way. I know I am and have been a good daughter but I will always feel like I could have done more…it’s the nature of the beast. So before you start saying that he could still enjoy my visits, I know that. The thing is, I don’t enjoy those visits, and I have done a LOT of things I didn’t enjoy in order to make him (and my mother before she died) happy. Call me ungrateful, but stick a fork in me, I am done.

So what now? Well, I will continue to explore my artistic life. That is the most exciting thing for me. In the past year or so, I have been able to develop, expand, deepen, and redefine my creativity. My plan is to continue this exploration. My experiences with dementia will, no doubt, show up at some point. I have signed up for a trip to Namibia in November, which will bring about a long-time desire to go to Africa. And I plan to spend more time simply being…but that is the start of another blog post. Stay tuned…

I’ll end with one of my favorite photos of the recent 2 1/2 foot snowstorm…Ginger always expresses my sense of tiredness better than I can…

P1110760 (1)
it is too exhausting trying to move around in this snow…but it is easier to get up on the rock!

 

 

 

different

Part of the world has just celebrated Christmas, and our thoughts turn to the new year. I have always been a bit suspicious of New Years. It seems a time for people to think that a new chapter has started in their lives, one which they have more control over than the last chapter. New Year’s resolutions are made, gym memberships are bought, promises are thrown about right and left to not go through the same pain and struggle as the previous year. There really is nothing wrong in taking a moment to relive your life of the past year and revise how you want to spend your energy and your time here on earth. But time (and by extension, the calendar) is a man-made construct and January first is really just another day in your life.

Yup, you guessed it, I am in a bad mood. I have not felt Merry and I don’t feel like ringing in the New Year with joy and happiness. It seems that this is a time of grief for me, a time of letting go of loved ones, a time of wallowing and struggling and sleeping. My godfather died over Christmas and my dad is definitely crossing the space/time continuum of dementia. I’m in pain and I don’t think a New Year is going to change that.

I could go on and on, but my words seem to be painted with mud and gunk which, from experience, I know is not much fun to read. Instead I will leave you with a few recent and not-so-recent pictures. Sometimes pictures are an easier way for me to express feelings.

IMG_1859
Mr. R. pulled out his chef’s coat to help make Christmas dinner.
IMG_1856
The chicken tortilla soup served for Boxing Day brunch with family and friends.
IMG_1857
Evidence of weather gone haywire…blooming miniature cotoneaster.
IMG_1843
More evidence of warm weather…forsythia and Christmas balls
IMG_0444
Best friends in happier times. My godfather on the left and my dad on the right.
IMG_1866
self portrait…grief.

 

contemplation

I contemplate a life

well lived,

a life full of

little things

stored on a shelf.

A life of creation,

a life of death,

a life that is no longer,

except in my head.

full view
full view
rear view
rear view

This sculpture was the result of my two week class at Penland School of Craft called Sculptural Weaving, taught by Nathalie Miebach. It was an amazing class. I finally learned some traditional basketry techniques but was encouraged to work them into a sculpture instead of making a vessel. If you want to see more pix, visit the Contemplation of a Life page on my website.

Contemplation of a Life is in response to cleaning out my parents’ house last year with my siblings. I found myself creating a somewhat loose replication of the clutter we had to deal with. My mother had difficulty throwing things out (“you might be able to use them someday”) and therefore, two years after her death, we had to be fierce and fill two dumpsters with stuff including furniture that had disintegrated. It was not a pleasant job physically, mental and emotionally. I have dedicated this piece to anyone who has had to go through this ordeal.

dying

Have you ever noticed that there is only one word for dying in the English language? One word for such a complex and multi-layered experience. It doesn’t quite seem enough.

layers
layers

I have been pondering this a lot lately as I watch my dad suddenly drop into full dementia. Two weeks ago he was still walking, still carrying on a decent conversation, going out to lunch, reading the paper, doing the crossword puzzle and watching all of his beloved sports.

Today he is so shaky that he is confined to a wheelchair, has trouble getting food onto his fork, much less to his mouth, sometimes does not know how to change channels on his TV, and is waiting for someone to take him home from “this establishment”. It was an abrupt shift, although the signs were there if one looked hard enough. A series of falls, difficulty eating, difficulty coming up with some words, especially names, and sleeping more and more.

What word does one use for this moment of decay? How does one describe the feelings that I get from watching a fiercely independent and incredibly intelligent man become a shell of his former self? How do I stop from crying when he asks who is going to take him home?

dying
dying

For the dying is not just happening to my dad, but to me as well. When he told me the other day that he felt like he was falling through the floor I could totally relate. The bottom has dropped out of my life. My giant, dragon-slaying dad is now lost in some world of his own that I cannot access. My obnoxious, demanding, judgmental, self-absorbed father is gone, replaced by a person that I must now get to know all over again. I find shards and broken bits of “dad” in this new person and feel hope, only to have it dashed the next time he opens his mouth.

The good news is that, for the most part, this new person that is not my dad is not in pain, nor is he really aware anymore that something has drastically changed in his life. He does not seem too concerned about most stuff, although it is frustrating to him when his palsy prevents him from eating his food. The other good news is that the staff of the nursing home is a group of amazing people, caring for him (and me) in such a gracious and loving way as to give me goosebumps. He has not been an easy man to deal with at any time of his life, but they have managed to hang in there with him. The joys of a small town are evident most at this moment.

Dying.

One word that must encompass the days, months and years of Self degeneration. The loss of function, the road to death, all these single moments that comprise a whole. Sometimes the dying happens in leaps and bounds, sometimes it walks like a glacier. Sometimes it even backtracks along the path and we think maybe we were wrong to think that death is coming. We know what the end of the story is, we’ve seen it before a myriad of times. But the dying part is such an individual experience, so particular to each person’s circumstances of birth, life and genetics. And there is no second-guessing, no cookbook approach on how to handle it.

And no matter how the dying happens, life goes on.