Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mourning Becomes Elastic -




In Design There Is Something Called the Rule of Three


The warnings about the use of the Rule of three in all things is very interesting to to me: 

"This rule, however, does not supply a general law, but universalises a particular, the invariable observance of which would produce a uniform and monotonous practice. But, however occasionally useful, it is neither accurate nor universal, the true mean of nature requiring compensation, which, in the case of warmth and coolness, is in about equal proportions, while, in regard to advancing and retiring colours, the true balance of effect is, approximately, three of the latter to one of the former; nevertheless, the proportions in both cases are to be governed by the predominance of light or shade, and the required effect of a picture, in which, and other species of antagonism, the scale of equivalents affords a guide."

Hold on to this thought - I'm going to tell three stories. They're all the same but different. They're long.  

I'm trying to make sense of a composition in nature. 
All these words are like mixing the pigment for something that might be art. 

The First Story; but not the Earliest


Earlier this year the Perfectly Normal Husband received a call from his former Work Spouse. Or perhaps it wasn't from her but someone who told him on her behalf.  I could imagine it would be difficult for her to call.

For those who are not familiar with the idea of a work spouse, here is an explanation: 

(Actually no, never mind. When I started researching the best link to illustrate the concept I found a whole bunch of psychobabble, judgementalisim, and WARNING DANGER WILL ROBINSON!!!! explanations of warning people of the opposite genders that their REAL SPOUSES are in EMOTIONALLY INVOLVED with people who are NOT THEM, which will of course lead to cheating, because two people can never be close to each other without there being sex involved. It used to be that two people of opposite genders could never be close to each other without their being sex involved but I am now given to understand through popular media that close same-sex relationships now are also assumed to be sexual in nature since maybe someone's suppressing something. 

Grrr. I can see what my next blog update will be about . . .)

Ok here's a better idea of what a workspouse really is. It's the co-worker who has your back in the team, looks out for your shared office priorities, cares about the same priorities that you have and works together with you to try to make sure they survive contact with the rest of the company. He/She/It is your go-to person, your foxhole buddy, your safe place to vent so you can survive the innanity that ALL modern workplaces throw at employees to quantify and dehumanize them. 

(The "spouse" part comes because of the shared trust and partnership, you know like the regular kinds of spouses, I guess since everyone gets hung up on sex as the defining issue in marriage they just forget that trust and partnership is really the only thing that makes marriages anything besides a piece of paper and there are forms of love that have no-goddamned-thing-to-do-with sex. What the hell is wrong with us?)

So the Perfectly Normal Husband's Work Spouse ( whom I met, and was thrilled that she was awesome) had left the company last year because she had an opportunity to work in a way that was less crisis/based time consuming so she could spend more time with her real life Spouse. She worked with a consulting company that was the independent audit of what the Perfectly Normal Husband takes care of which means she had to do a whole bunch of things at his company AND ALSO do the independent things for her own.  There is not a whole department for what the Perfectly Normal Husband does so it really was just him and her trying to make sure their work was properly executed. ( which is massively important financially and legally)When she left he lost an experienced comrade in arms. It would be like Fafhard and Grey Mouser having to split up. 

BUT he was happy for her, he knew how much she loved her husband and how wonderful it would be for her to just manage to have a life with a little less fluorescent lighting in it,  maybe even some actual sunlight ( their jobs would be great for vampires who don't want to get caught). 

Now, not quite a year later, too soon to have even found a new ally, he got the call. He had to go to a funeral. Not hers. In some ways much worse. Her husband had fallen down a couple of stairs and landed oddly, he immediately lost consciousness and was comatose by the time the ambulance arrived. She was home. The first call was I think from his office or something letting him know about the accident, It was only a few days later that he got the call about her husband's death. 

While I joke about being old here in the Dreamtime, in the Meatworld we are not that old. We are the age where people with chronic illnesses finally might give in, we are at the age where car accidents, military action, drug addiction, and complications in childbirth might take a peer away suddenly, but we have a dialog for that. As an age cohort we even a space for death through crime where there are ritualistic things we might say to each other, to ourselves.  Those things might not be true, or fair, or even within the ballpark of reality, but whether we agree with them or not, we know that they exist. And so we know that those deaths exist. 

One of the things we say to people who are not immediately part of the family is this: "How was the funeral." And the answer is very much like the answer when you ask "how was the wedding". People tell you about the flowers, the clergy, whether or not the service really reflected the life and beliefs of the participants or if it was just done for the sake of someone else. They talk about what was worn, if the speeches/sermons were appropriate, who showed up. 

Sometimes they talk about the subject of the event if it was open casket. 

But they rarely, if ever, talk about the truth. 

When I asked the Perfectly Normal Husband about the funeral the Answer more or less was this:

It was horrible. 

It was horrible because 4 days isn't long enough to go from planning what you're going to do that weekend to arranging a funeral. 4 days isn't long enough to have time to look up the stages of grief or even have time to move out of  WTF?!? to begin them.

Because while we might be prepared for individuals in our age group to die, we are not prepared for the reality that spouses can die with literally no warning. Those other things, there are either warnings or other people responsible.  You get more than a minute, or you have a cultural context for understanding it. 

So it was horrible, because it was fast - 24 hours and his Work Spouse's family only could have a few people get there suddenly on a weekday. And she was happy to see her sibling and then she was gracious and supportive for everyone else. And then at almost the end, when they started moving the casket that's when she couldn't stay in the minute-to-minute mode, or maybe that was the minute that it became real and her universe shattered. 

I don't know what happened. I haven't asked for details because it was obvious that the Perfectly Normal Husband was seriously affected by it, both because he cares for his former Work Spouse and knows what her husband meant to her, and because there was no barrier for him not to imagine it happening to me. 


I was told several times a day that I wasn't allowed to die for the first week afterwards. 



It went down to about once a day the next week.



For the next month I would only be commanded to maintain immortality about two or three times a week.


I think he just looks at me and thinks it real hard now.



I wouldn't agree to the terms, but everytime he disallowed my death, I felt his pain for his friend and the horrific empathy we all had for her. We are not at an age where we think about being widows and widowers when we're happy in our marriages.

We're at the age when we just realize what those relationships are,  and what they mean for the long haul. The idea of losing that when we feel like we just figured out how to have it?  Just the idea is devastating. The reality must be like living inside your own tsunami.

If I die suddenly before Perfectly Normal Husband, I hope someone calls him on the first Valentine's day, even if it's only a week later and tells him some stupid work thing that's funny or asinine or a real problem, and doesn't NOT call because he's in a tsunami. And if you're the one calling you don't have to mention the day, or me, or anything else. Call him because you were thinking of him because of that thing.

And if it's not me or him, but it happens to someone you know at an age you didn't really think of it happening at all, call that person. Do the same thing.

He had just tripped, there was nothing on the stairs - one minute he was there, the next minute he was not, three days later his body caught up. There are no rules for this.


The Second Story: This week


I've made a new friend. We generally see each other on Wednesday and play card games. I have not been doing well with social things lately but she is exactly the right kind of patient/impatient/irreverent to both understand and ignore the oddities.

This week on Wednesday she was returning from a funeral and she was shaken. She is not religious, but she is originally from a culturally shared ethnic/religious space with her co-worker who had asked her to attend the funeral.

The day before, my friend had been involved in negotiating a workplace problem where one subordinate was using a cultural/religious bias as a basis to intimidate and harass one of her direct reports.  The day before that funeral my friend was deeply unhappy about religion and culture and people. She doesn't have a really good place in her head for some of the multiplicity of being thinking and religious, but she's not a New Atheist either. She just doesn't understand. 


(Which is OK, because people like Ross Douthat seem to want to present themselves as thinking and religious when what they are really doing is being reactionary to something they find spiritually disturbing and dressing it up as religious belief instead of conservative social belief ( not the same thing as "family values"). I try to remember that when I hear someone "speaking for the atheists" the people who claim to represent my side of an argument rarely do, so I assume the people representing that side of the argument are also probably misrepresenting the group they are described as.)

Therefore my friend was not prepared.

She had intended to go to the funeral and support the co-worker, she had intended to leave immediately afterwards. The co-worker is her (our) age.

Earlier last week, the co-worker's husband hadn't been feeling well, a stomach flu or a nausea or something, he started running a fever and feeling very dizzy or some other symptom that was enough to send you to the hospital but you expect to be sent home with some sort of warning about not overreacting.  The co-worker was at work, she got the call from her husband that there actually was something wrong, he had some kind of kidney infection. The doctors were prepping a catheter to drain the kidney ( or do whatever the medically appropriate thing is since this is now a fourth-hand story) but when they went to make the incision, he had expired.

It was less than a half an hour between Co-worker speaking with him and the call from the most likely shell shocked doctors. She was still at the office. It was a matter of minutes. He didn't even feel sick the day before.

We don't have a script for sudden death from illness without warning. Not without a pre-exisiting condition, not without youth or age being a risk factor. Just the middle. Just a morning you wake up divvying up chores, talking about schedules and in an afternoon your life is changed, different. No choices were made or options given, no outside individuals. You were part of a pair now it's just you.

This story is filled with distractions that the first one didn't have, the Co-worker is an immigrant, she faced this with no family of her own in the country, only the family of her spouse. There are two small children under the age of 5. Part of me wonders if anyone will even allow her to grieve in this world of insisting that we make children our raison d'etre. Will she get to be a widow or will she only be seen as a mother?

Although she was surrounded by people she was alone, in her tusami with only the rythms of her cultural religion to give her a framework to survive. Her in-laws were not of that culture, my friend however disassociated from the religion, was.

Their religion ( which is not mine ) requires a liturgy to be said for the departed. My friend was shocked to find herself singing along. She was even more shocked to find that she was the only one who knew to sing with the sudden widow.  Like the Perfectly Normal Husband's Work Spouse, and like my own religion, the Co-Worker would normally have had this funeral within a shorter timeframe but it was delayed due to Easter observance for their cultural group. So perhaps the extra time is not a good thing.
The Co-Worker asked my friend to come with her to the burial service. How could she say no? She knew that she was the only person there who shared the same familiar signals, the thing that gives order to the chaos.

And then after the burial, the Co-Worker asked my friend to come to the meal afterwards. The one where it would be his family that lost their son, brother, cousin, nephew, father. She was the only one who lost her husband.  There's a horrible thing that happens when you become the surviving spouse, you have to take care of and reassure all of them, but except for your children, you are now no longer an extension of their living family, you're what's left after the person they've lost.

Sometimes that will be OK if you're close, if they love you on their own, or if they love you for the sake of your husband it will be OK. But it will be too soon, and there are small children that everyone can use to avoid the raw truth of it and so spouse of inappropriate age, sometimes you'll be there on your own, unless when you reach out your Co-Worker will risk her own spiritual equilibrium to be there for you. How could she say no?

It is impossible not to see yourself in that space, if you are that age.

When my friend came over she was still dressed in what she wore to the funeral.  We are new friends so we can have the deep conversations because we are still learning each other. There's very little shorthand yet.

But I know that her husband will be told, or at least thought at very loudly that he is not allowed to die.

Religion should do three things;

  • it should give you a baseline of ways to be in the world that you can measure against and agree or disagree with ( at least it will make you choose the way you are in the world as a conscious choice instead of an unthinking one, unthinking unchosen orthodoxy is a heresy), 
  • it should give you a comfort and community to support you through very bad things, 
  • it should give you a method to express and celebrate really good things. 


If it isn't doing those three things then it either isn't a religion at all, it's someone else's power trip or if it's doing those things for other people and it doesn't work for you then it might be a religion, but it's not yours. Not everyone needs or has a place for a religion in their life. No religion should be substituting for the hard work of deciding, surviving or celebrating ALL The Things.

But there can be something very, very profound in supporting someone who does have or needs the religion, allowing them to access it for the very bad things. Because a religion with people in it is about connection. And if you help your Co-Worker by remembering the liturgy, singing it properly and allowing her to connect, that only means you are a good person, you don't have to rethink anything about your own beliefs at all.

It's amazing what disrupting the pattern of life can show you though.

My friends problem at work between the two subordinates was proven not to be about religion, or even culture. All of the co-workers from both groups came to the third religion's service. Six or seven cultures filling the room, with only the clergy and Co-worker and my friend representing the religion of the service itself. My friend was able to put things in their place. Religion is used as an excuse for what people want to do, good and bad, when it's not doing the other three things. It doesn't mean that it has no value, it also doesn't mean that you need to have one just because sometimes there are places where it does.

But being distracted by the spiritual thing is one of the ways to avoid the reason you are picking at the question you don't want to ask; "What would I do if this happened to me?"

It's impossible not to feel the pain for her friend and the horrific empathy we all had for her. We are not at an age where we think about being widows and widowers when we're at the beginnings of our marriages.

We are all little more careful on the stairs, we will most likely be less inclined to think allergies make us nauseous.

The Third Story is Mine - it's the Earliest


There's no secret here in the Dreamtime that my last workplace was rough. 

There's no secret that I spend a lot of time thinking about human connection, art, work, life.

We spend so many hours at work, more really than we spend at home. That's why I was so happy that the Perfectly Normal Husband had a Work Spouse, because work is complicated, people are full of the same things they are full of at home and sometimes that makes their behavior more like a family and less like "professionals" because we are forced into so much time together. 

We cannot change who we are at the base. 

I had always assumed that workplaces ran on a level of dysfunction. I rarely speak about the woman who changed my mind. She was The Best Boss I Ever Had. About three years after she was my boss I had The Best Professional Mentor I Ever Had. He taught me how to maximize my strengths and compensate for my weaknesses in professional settings. She taught me how to be. 

This story is going to be short, I can't write it for very long. 

We worked in a highly regulated field, she had been burned by people who had held the position she was hiring for, I had been burned by bosses. When we met for our final interview we broke a whole bunch of rules.  She was an artist. She was very good. Mixed media. 

It's been seven years since I got the phone call from her. 

We encouraged each other. I took over her position when she left, she was inspired to leave because I let her know how valuable her skillset was. She gave me the greatest professional compliment in my life when she let me know that if I did start the business I was thinking of she would love to work for me. When I come to any kind of ethical professional crossroads it's her voice and her example that I use to get me through. 

When I saw the poppets I thought of her. That's deeper than the sentence. It's not seeing poppets "oh I'm thinking of Dolores" it's more like "Poppets are made out of the thing that makes Dolores".  She never let me let go of the art part - even though I didn't really think of myself as an artist, especially then. 

We were actually doing that thing we say we'll do but don't do very often, we stayed friends when we weren't working together anymore. We were looking to grow our friendship over a long period of time. 

The phone call after 4 years of post-job friendship was this. "I have Stage 4 lung cancer".  It was advanced, and misdiagnosed because she was in this odd not young, not old, not really middle aged place and she had never smoked. They thought it was asthma or allergies ( there goes those allergies again). They the capital They did not give her very long. Weeks, maybe a few months. 

She did things in her own way and managed to contain the cancer without radical medical intervention for the better part of year. 

The diagnosis was sudden, we had time though, time to sort, order, be honest, be there for each other. She and all her friends were able to prepare her husband for the time after her. Her son was able to move his wedding into the time for her to be there. She found a way to be at my wedding. 

Her husband sent us all a beautiful email. A photograph of her hand from the moment before she died.  It had a Buddhist symbol painted on it. She passed at home exactly the way she wanted to on her own terms. He called to invite us to her life celebration. They had planned it together.  It was hard but it was harder to not do things the way she wanted - she was quite commanding in her positivity. 

I only knew her husband through her. We don't share much of the same social circle although I would be happy to see him again or befriend him if that should change. But I didn't really have to worry much about him because he was surrounded by friends and loved ones who were looking out for him. He had his Work Spouse, his friends who upset their spiritual equilibrium to mourn with him in a way that gave his mourning shape and expression. 

While she was very, very important to me, I was a small part of the totality of her life. And that's the way it should be. So really my role was to share that part of her work life (10 years at that company and I was the one who represented it, the friend she had kept from that era). I had stories they didn't know, I knew about skills and talents that weren't as relevant. I was happy to share but I knew my loss wasn't the same as theirs. 

It felt selfish to grieve for her.


Which makes one wonder about the composition of grief. 


Because it is 7 years later. And I was asked to write a PSA about smoking. It is very, very difficult to say anything that has not been said before. I decided to take a secondhand smoke warning angle. Personal experience is highly prized in early college writing ( and overly encouraged) and I'd fought tooth and nail over each "write about yourself or your experience" exercise.  But I knew that I could personalize this. I lost a friend I did not have enough time with because of secondhand smoke exposure over her lifetime. 

This was a mistake. I've been crying like the grief was new every time I poked at it. I hear the grief like a drumbeat when I looked for things to use for the visual component of the PSA. I had to leave the room after we played the audio that I had recorded for the radio spot. 

I've missed her before, I feel her loss every now and then, it was in it's place. 

Now it is not. 

Perhaps the other two stories brought it into sharp relief  but the Work Spouse's husband was before the PSA made me look though our photos, and my new friends Co-Worker was the day after I'd finished it.

Dolores believed in patterns and spirituality and fate in a very different way than I do. She would be amused by my having to compose the story this way. 

If this blog were a sculpture it would be three women with figures at each woman's  base. It would be clear and evocative, you would have to move around it. 

If this blog were a dance, there would be three movement and a final composite of movement into a single image. 

It was impossible for me to imagine being in her husband's place, because the rituals and the support were there for him and at that funeral the loss was not the loss my friend and co-worker had to survive, it was the loss of my own friend and co-worker. 

But now as I'm realizing there isn't a Dolores-shaped-hole in my life, there's a space that Dolores was in that was apparently filled up with the "lack-of-Dolores" waiting for me to notice it and let me know that I wasn't done mourning. That maybe you never are. 

I hope you only feel this way with the level of loss of friend gone too soon, that the surprise is just because you haven't resolved the grief because you don't feel entitled to it. I hope it isn't multiplied with the shape and surprise of the loss of your partner. 

I hope her husband is doing OK. 



The Rule of Three


And to give the utmost force and solidity to your work, some part of the picture should be as light, and some as dark as possible : These two extremes are then to be harmonized and reconciled to each other." (Reynolds' Annot. on Du Fresnoy.)





1 comment:

Michelle said...

Honesty---That is what I value most about you and your writing. Honesty is like surgery, it leaves us exposed and vulnerable- but free. I have thought about what my life would be like if I lost my spouse and how disconnected I would be from his family, because truthfully, HE is my family and while I love everyone else, would I maintain my relationships with them? I do not know the answer to this. Certainly much would change... I am pretty sure if the situation was reversed he would probably not be hanging with mine much. Right now we face the possibility of losing a dear friend of my husband who was recently diagnosed with Stage four kidney cancer. My spouse will be taking a trip with his friend this week to visit childhood places and to tell his mom what is going on. I cannot imagine what his wife is going through right now, she is busy being a strong support system. I hope your perfectly normal spouse never stops "thinking" at you. Since I have such a small family and know how fragile having love in my life is, I "think" at mine all the time.