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March 30, 2015: We are Family

We all have families, or are born into them. Some hold together nicely and some fall apart. My family fell apart when I was eight or so. My brother Matthew was born retarded, and at age two he was sent to live at Newark State Hospital. My parents separated soon thereafter; my sister and my mother and I moved from Williamson, to Rochester, New York. My mother and father spent a lot of time in court. My father had visitation rights for many years.

All of us have been in really good health – but I foresee dark clouds on this particular horizon. My mother, who is 85, will soon be moved by my sister from her Portland apartment to an

assisted living facility. El says this is the hardest thing that she’s ever done, and I can believe it. She has been my mother’s caretaker, confidant, and friend for over 40 years. My mother and I aren’t close, but we now get along okay. My father lives in New Ipswich, New Hampshire, in the home he and his wife Carol have occupied since 1972. He’s 82, says he feels very old. He seems to have it together when I talk with him on the phone.

Today I got a call from a doctor at a New York State hospital (I didn’t think to ask which one). He said that my brother Matthew (who I think is in his early 50s) had a throat obstruction, which led to pneumonia. His condition has subsequently gotten worse – the ICU doctor said that I’d be getting a call from a surgeon, requesting permission to put in feeding tubes.

The doctor was very kind, empathetic, and caring. I thought as he was talking that it must be difficult talking to me, who lives in Alaska, about this. And too, he is dealing with a patient who is severely retarded and non-verbal. I wonder what that’s like for him, and for other doctors. That he was so concerned about a supposedly non-productive member of society made me feel good about the medical profession.

I’m feeling like I need to brace myself for what’s to come, which is the not-too-distant death of my parents and Matthew. It’s like a house of cards that could topple at any moment. I don’t know how I will be affected by their individual and collective passing. If our family unit had remained strong, I suspect that I’d feel even worse about things.

Death is akin to the analogy – you can run but you can’t hide. I’ve managed most of my life to distance myself from it. I won’t be able to do this forever. I will undoubtedly feel the loss and considerable sorrow, and I’m not looking forward to this. My sister, when my mother passes, is going to feel like one feels when they lose a spousal equivalent. I already feel bad for her.

Most of us who move to Alaska come as expatriates. Then we’re faced with the fact that we’re literally thousands of miles from family members. No, I can’t be at any of my family member’s sides at the blink of an eye. I used to think that this was a good thing. Now I think that it’s a bad thing. The best I can now do is keep poet Marvin Bell’s line from “Gemwood” in mind, which is “the heart must expand to hold the losses that are ahead of it.” Indeed, I have this hunch that my heart is going to expand in the months ahead.

Next: 83. 3/31/15: A Conversation with Jenna

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