Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Whispering In the Reeds

My dad holding Oliver in 2002
Sleep has gone, in that dismaying way you know it has gone when you wake up at 3 in the morning and all of a sudden your mind is racing and you're thinking, "Where's the melatonin/Hypnos, already?" I've been losing abysmally to a sudden and vicious head cold over the past two days and have to hope that being awake now is some kind of resurgence of energy on my part. We'll see. I'm here writing because of where my mind was racing when I awoke. Disclaimer, as one must: this is all very personal, though of course I do wonder about the experience and understood causes of insomnia in the Middle Ages. Upon awakening, then, I immediately realized with a vivid force just how much I used to worry about my dad getting a cold these past five years when he was so much weaker. Yes, it was because of the fear of pneumonia, which he'd had to endure twice already by then, but mostly, it was the idea of his suffering without resource. Colds come and go and you know they do, but when you're in the thick of it, you feel miserable, and I realize now that I used to worry every time one of us had a cold about giving it to him, and putting him in this state, and his not being able to think his way out of it (because of the brain injury, because of his dementia, all of it). It was the strangest feeling, to wake to realize this, and to feel a truly strange sense of relief that he was safe from even such a small thing as a cold.

Ian Bogost has a post up about Object Oriented Ontology and suffering that I got to through Levi Bryant's response to it. (Because yes, I was reading these before I was writing this). It's really just two things that I would pull out for this space: the first is Bogost's idea of attentiveness to all things, the second is Bryant's idea of relation and/over content. Bogost and Bryant are ultimately talking about the human/post-human debate in philosophy and how OOO operates, but here, in the wee hours, I'm finding their thinking tremendously helpful in framing my own life/death debate in my thinking about my dad. It's a debate because here I am rethinking these worries I had in his life, which somehow are leading me further into my own living with his death. I remember thinking about bacteria, about their existence, about how if they were to develop into what we would call pneumonia, it wouldn't be personal - it wouldn't be intentional or moral. It helped, at the time, in that worry, to remember that my dad was part of an enormous web of living things, thriving and pulsing, emerging and receding. I fully understand that these thoughts were easier to have because he was in his late 80s - it's much harder to see that web making sense if you're thinking about someone young. But this attentiveness to that which I feared was a place that made sense to me. (It also relies, to a certain extent, on the idea that philosophy is there to ease human suffering - but that truly is another debate.) I recall a New Yorker article of many, many years ago in which an oncologist wrote of a young woman coming in to look at her cancer cells under the microscope. He described her quiet and the time she took, and I've always thought about her, her attentiveness to the thing that was causing her suffering. This is where Bryant's comment about Lacan and relation over content comes into play. (Again, he's talking about discourse, I'm talking about memory, but this is my whispering in this set of reeds). The content of suffering and of death, too, is at once much too personal and much too universal to contemplate. I cannot describe my father's suffering (at any time in his life), I can hardly describe my own. And yet everyone does suffer, and see, it's almost equally trite and painful to say that death comes to all. But the relation between self and suffering, and between multiple selves around suffering, can be articulated, it can be honored specifically: in memory, especially - in the stories we tell, the pictures we keep, in what we wake up thinking about at 3 a.m.. Worry, love, fear all mingled together in this memory of past colds - but it recalled a primary dynamic in the relation I had with my dad during his last years: to watch over him as he'd watched over me.

The second thing I realized vividly and absolutely in this night was just how much love this man had shown me. I remembered all of a sudden in a way I haven't thought about in probably thirty years, how he would soothe my childish qualms, his hand covering my forehead to check for fever, his thumb stroking my temple to say it was going to be ok, his telling me a story. I just lay there thinking "Wow! That was a lot of love." It's why I put this picture of his holding Oliver ten years ago (probably close to the day, actually!). This picture was taken before the brain injury, and I just love to know that my dad was talking with our friends, all the while holding Oliver who was so comfortable in his arms. I love to see my dad's hand there on Oliver's back, holding him safe. A photograph is a relation that philosophers (and everybody else) has delighted in for well, close to 150 years now. It's related to the relationships that Baxandall talks about in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy - it's a repository for those relations. But you don't have to be a powerful Florentine banker any longer to enjoy it. A snapshot, even more than a photograph, can acknowledge even that most mundane of relations and make it wonderful. For the time it bridges, and the intervening events it ignores, patiently waiting for you to enter into relation with the event it holds for you.


  1. Anne, I'm constantly in awe of your ability to weave abstract thoughts together with true human sentiment. Thanks for it.

  2. Thanks, Ben - it's definitely in those still moments (which are all too few and far between) that I can see things come together and hover in a new sense for a while.

  3. I love how you describe the comfort your Dad gave you and LOVE this picture.