Thursday, February 1, 2018

Facing the Blows of Fortune

When I was fifteen, a favorite uncle died suddenly, drowning in marsh waters while he was working cattle with his father, his brother-in-law (my father), and several other men. I can still recall details of that day and the days that followed, the disbelief I felt as I received the news and the images that the word "drowning" conjured in my mind (the smooth, clear waters of a swimming pool rather than the opaque waters of a Texas Gulf Coast marsh), the sadness of being separated from my parents and sent to stay with members of my dad's family while my mother and her family absorbed the tragedy of losing a young brother and son, the absurdity of daily activities (I remember being determined to get some pantyhose to wear with the dress I was to wear to the funeral and then feeling ashamed of focusing on such trivial details in the midst of our grief). 

The stories of that drowning haunted me for years: my uncle kicking himself free from his horse in the swirling waters, my father and grandfather in a boat rescuing another cowboy in the water, my uncle calling out to my dad, my dad turning around to rescue my uncle--too late. In my mind, I always see a hand reaching out and another hand disappearing under rippling waves of muddy water.

Death, I knew then, can come suddenly to those in the prime of life, and rescue impossible.

About this time, I also began reading the Roman and Greek Stoics: Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor; Epictetus, the Greek slave who won his freedom; Seneca, the tutor of Nero sent into exile and then later required to take his own life. The Stoics, I thought, seemed to have a better understanding of life and death than the fundamentalist Christianity in which I was reared; it was clear to me then that the hand of God did not always reach out to touch the hand of man.

"It is not that we have a short time to live," Seneca writes his friend Paulinus, "but that we waste a lot of it." And later in the letter, he advises, 
[t]he greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today....[T]he whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately...So you must match time's swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.
Later, Seneca in exile writes his mother: "No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours."

The Stoics taught me that the best way to live is each day at a time,  recognizing that tomorrow could bring calamity with little or no notice. They also taught me that I could choose how to react to life's vicissitudes.

I haven't always adhered to those lessons, but most of my life experiences have taught me the truth of them again and again.

In 1987, my husband and I stood with the rest of his family, watching his 54-year-old mother breathe in and out the last air of her world. Mary had been diagnosed with cancer--melanoma--just a few months earlier. She had noticed the symptoms long past the possibility of any medical remediation available at the time. I remember looking out over Houston from the window of the hospice where my mother-in-law was dying, listening to her rasping breath in the background, and thinking of the similarities of birth and death, the labors in this case of the person dying rather than the person giving birth.

And so we leave life as we enter it, taking our last breaths of the amniotic fluid of the familiar present into an unknown future or annihilation. 

Three years later, Tom and I were standing in a funeral home in Baytown, Texas, discussing with a local funeral director the deteriorating state of the body of Tom's father. What remained of my father-in-law, George Nystrom Greene, lay in an open casket before us. With some precision, the funeral director described to us the process of that deterioration, speculating on how possible it might be to mask decomposition enough to have an open casket funeral the following day, which was Thanksgiving. 

Ten to eleven days earlier, on November 15th, George emerged from a dive in the Cayman Islands and took his last breath of air before collapsing from a massive heart-attack. It had taken several days for the body to be flown back to Texas, during which time my husband and his sister had to attend an inquest on their father's death in Cayman Brac.

Listening to the mortician describe how the embalming could not eliminate the decomposition which had already occurred and how he could enclose most of the body in plastic to prevent any noticeable effects, I felt as if there were two of me standing before that open casket: one the daughter-in-law, numb with grief, the other a detached observer noting the macabre situation with a dark sense of humor.

My father-in-law was 57 years old when he died.

This second death in Tom's family, coming so soon as it did after that of the first--and Tom's parents' being so young when they died--had a profound effect on me as we went through all of George and Mary's belongings. I remember opening up the bag that contained the clothing George had taken with him on his trip to the Cayman Islands, the material suggesting the living body that had just inhabited it. I remember how items in the house revealed George's expectations of return: the Christmas list with presents purchased and names of those for whom the presents were intended, the pistol loaded and tucked carelessly beside the bed, dirty clothes left in a hamper. All these details--and more--were melancholy mementos of life's fragility.

Just a year before she died, Mary's aunt Mary (Mimi) Ophelia Nugent Armstrong had died at the age of 90, and not long after Mary died, her uncle Baker White Armstrong had died, leaving with George and Mary what remained of generations of Robbs, Armstrongs, Greenes, and Nugents. Going through their belongings was like an exhumation. People came alive briefly in the hundreds of letters we found and which I slowly read over the years. 

I was determined, myself, to ward off regret and to be aware always that the unexpected could occur. I kept diaries and journals and wrote long, descriptive letters of my own in which I actively attempted to alleviate my own intense emotions with records of observation and reason. Every trip I took required attention to detail--to the leaving and to the going. The plans I made might have seemed exercises in predictability, but they were actually acknowledgements of unpredictability: plans were meant for keeping one on a course that could, nonetheless, change unexpectedly. I meant to be in control as much as possible.

Before departing on any trip, I made sure every bit of clothing was washed and put away, the house tidied. My goal--and I recognized it as such--was to ensure that anyone having to go through my things would be spared as much grief as possible if all my plans went to hell.

Today I carry with me a well-marked paperback text of Seneca's three letters, "On the Shortness of Life," "Consolation to Helvia" (his mother), and "On Tranquility of Mind." When I am home, the text is in my desk or on the bookshelf beside my desk. I know that Seneca was flawed, as are we all, but his words ring true to me and to my experience: 
[The wise man] has no reason to fear Fortune and will never give ground to her. He has no reason to fear her, since he regards as held on sufferance not only his goods and possessions and status, but even his body, his eyes and hand, and all that makes life more dear, and his very self; and he lives as though he were lent to himself and bound to return the loan on demand without complaint....
Should it surprise me if the perils which have always roamed around me should some day reach me?... [quoting Publilus] 'What can happen to one can happen to all.' If you let this idea sink into your vitals, and regard all the ills of other people (of which every day shows an enormous supply) as having a clear path to you, too, you will be armed long before you are attacked...
 Know, then, that every condition can change, and whatever happens to anyone can happen to you.
 The consolation of philosophy cannot prevent grief, ward off evil, ensure a regret-free life, or promise equanimity in all situations, but it certainly helps. I think if it as a ballast in a ship. The ship may list terribly, but the ballast can be shifted in order to right the ship....steady as she goes.

These days, I vacillate between grief and hope...but I hold on to the idea that "no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it."


Theresa said...

I understand.

Susan Cummings said...

Ballast, I like that.