Monday, January 23, 2017

#SOL17: Calvary

Calvary (M.A. Reilly, South Dakota, 2010)

We must be tender with all budding things. 
Our Maker let no thought of Calvary
Trouble the morning stars in their first song.  
                      -- WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, The Land of Heart's Desire


It's the absence of cohesion that most confounds me. Being fine after Rob's death could be considered possible only by someone who did not know this loss, who did not wear this sorrow. It is fragmentation that best defines me.

I am scattered pieces.


Years ago, Rob got enamored with John McPhee's works and spent the better part of two years reading work after work including the one I still have on a kindle, Annals of the Former World. At that time the compilation hadn't been written and four of the books that would later be joined to form Annals were available as separate titles. Rob read all of them. And so it wasn't surprising one afternoon in early spring when Rob asked if I wanted to hear McPhee. That night we left Fort Lee and traveled to Princeton University to hear the lecture. It must have been in the mid-1990s. I can't tell you what McPhee said, only the excitement I felt at coming up against big ideas and discussing these with Rob. This is what life with Rob was so often about. He was all energy and thoughts and passion. At the time I was a doctoral student at Columbia and I had gone there to learn how to write theory.  These discussions with Rob fueled so many ideas I would later work with when it came time to write my dissertation.

Years later we headed west on holiday. We had no destination in mind. This is how we most often went on holiday. Get in the car and drive somewhere. I was most often making images, Devon was lost in Harry Potter, and Rob was experimenting with sound. On this trip he strapped an audio recorder to the front of the car with the idea of making sound collages. Rob insisted that we read, at the very least, the first book from the Annals before setting out and so we did. This text chronicles the geological history of New Jersey. After reading parts of the first book I knew driving through western New Jersey would never be the same. Reading McPhee helped me to see landscape differently. We wandered west then south, then west and north until we got to the Badlands in South Dakota where our too-old car broke down.

This is what life with Rob was most often like.
Part adventure. Part meditation.

Imagine then, that just a mere six years later, Rob would be dead.


Some days I feel as if my heart belongs to someone else. Even the beat of it feels off.  I look in the mirror and stare. I wonder at the image of self I see reflected.

I hardly know her, I think.

Is this the woman who Rob knew? Who Rob loved?


There is no one I have ever met who interested me as much as Rob did. We shared such deep, abiding interest in the power and grace of the written word, the spoken word, the stories we tell and witness and how love rises up alongside the stories we make while living.  My husband was a remarkable intellect, a kind and passionate man, a master teacher. He was most often comfortable telling a joke, throwing back his shoulders and head in laughter. That is how I mostly remember him. He was a generous man who loved to laugh and loved to tell a good story.  He was a man who loved his son and who loved me like no one else.


Nearly a year after his death, I know only one thing: the measure of loss, like love, is iterative.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

#SOL17: Half Song, Half Mourning Cry


After the death, in the months that follow, a sudden and lingering sorrow reforms the body.

Whose arms are these?
Whose legs?
Whose heart beats here?

We are not who we were. We will not be again.


It was nothing less than shock and terror that I felt as Rob and I waited for my older brother to bring Devon to the hospital. We waited on that too-cold, too-blue Wednesday in mid February after hearing that Rob's prognosis was now terminal.

Terminal. Nothing could be done to prolong his life, save hooking him into machines that would breathe for him--a pathway Rob rejected immediately. No machines.


While we were learning that his dad had but a few weeks left of life, Devon was 20 miles away moving through his regular morning classes at high school. Moving through the routine of school. That morning I had arrived at the hospital after dropping Devon at school and was surprised when I ran into the oncologist as he had been away on holiday and was not supposed to be back until later in the week. He asked to meet with us at 8 in Rob's room. In the step-down unit it was quiet. Even the attending and residents who moved from room to room seemed more of a murmur than the loudness that typified such teaching. We waited that morning in the narrow, undersized room. Dr. Gallinson arrived with another doctor and told us quickly that the cancer had spread and that Rob's prognosis was now terminal.

What about immunotherapy? asked Rob.  He had been scheduled to receive his first treatment the week earlier but could not because he had been running a fever.

It would not be effective as the cancer has progressed, Dr. Gallinson told us.

The cancer had spread to Rob's spleen and liver, ribs and sternum, and both lungs. It was aggressive and nothing more could be done. He then explained about palliative care and we agreed that being out of the mainstream hospital would be better. The goal, however, was to bring Rob home. As he was hooked up to a high flow oxygen machine we learned that he would need to be taken off of that before he could leave. That process took another week. On February 17, 2016 Rob came home.

But on that Wednesday, we waited in the undersized and narrow room uncertain what we might say to our son. What words might we find that could somehow explain to our just-turned 17-year-old child that his dad was dying and had a few weeks left?  What words were there?


To this day I don't know what we said or who spoke first.  What I do know is that my brother, Jack, Jane and Rob's mother left the room so that only Devon, Rob and I were left. What I mostly recall is the awful keening sound Devon made as he collapsed onto his father.

Half-mourning song.
Half-mourning murmur.

More breath expelled than wail.

To cry loudly, deeply requires a strength none of us had. We were worn, tired and so sad.


After great sorrow, we are never what we were. We are stories--stories that we must tell.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

#SOL17: Only, Say, A Gesture

Winter Tree (M.A. Reilly, 2014)

In the winter I am writing about, there was much darkness. Darkness of nature, darkness of event, darkness of the spirit. The sprawling darkness of not knowing. We speak of the light of reason. I would speak here of the darkness of the world, and the light of _______. But I don’t know what to call it. Maybe hope. Maybe faith, but not a shaped faith— only, say, a gesture, or a continuum of gestures. But probably it is closer to hope, that is more active, and far messier than faith must be. Faith, as I imagine it, is tensile, and cool, and has no need of words. Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer. - Mary Oliver, p 147, Upstream: Selected Essays 


The last week or two I have felt out of sorts. Restless in my own skin. Unsettled. Sad as definition. I have been waiting find out if the chest x-ray the ENT required shows illness and this afternoon I learned that it does not. It is these tense times that I feel Rob's absence all the more.  My confidant, gone. The intimacy we knew so well, no more. 

But it isn't only the anxiousness of test results and steroids that find me off-kilter. I look back at the calendar to see what exactly was happening a year ago--to see if my body remembers what my mind seems to have forgotten. 

What I mostly recall is darkness. 


Most mornings I entered the hospital so early--daylight was more memory than fact. And it was cold, dark night by the time I stepped out--so late that even the parking attendants had long left for home and the remaining silence was so acute that the coldness was its own sound. In a matter of days, Rob would be returned to the hospital from the Kessler Rehab center. He would be transported the night after a blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow because he was too sick to be cared for at the facility. We would learn in the matter of hours in the curtained-off ER room that another staph infection--the third in four months--was undermining Rob's health. Hospitals with all of their human neglect are hell on the body. Seven weeks later someone who had stolen Rob's debit card number from him while he was a patient at Kessler would buy $800 of musical equipment from a store in Nashville, Tennessee, but by that time--Rob would be dead.

It's strange how memory works, fails to work, and how distance allows for new ways of naming what I want to tie up neatly and call the past. If only. And yet, these days, I think of the past more as folded space-time than linear chronology. Invention, like heart ache, is more Möbius strip than orientable line. 


One evening a friend tweets a link to a video of John Berger in conversation with Susan Sontag. It's an exchange about story telling.  And I tune in carefully when I hear him say: 

"Somebody dies. It's not just a question of tact that one then says, well, perhaps it is possible to tell that story. It's because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes readable.”   

At first I think, Yes. Yes. And there is comfort in these words. The readable life offers a neatness--a slight gesture that might help to situate pain and grief and possibility. If only Rob's life could be held in the palm of my hands--carefully--then I might be able to know the whole of it--the extent of what I feel. 

But such knowing is not possible. It's similar to what Mary Oliver says about winter, "The sprawling darkness of not knowing." That's what living is largely about. We are so extraordinarily vested in knowing, in naming, in codifying that not knowing remains unrevealed.


In some ways, it is comforting to think of Rob's life as a familiar narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end. But that is more story than not. What I fail to first account is how longing folds space-time like a worn linen handkerchief unexpectedly found at the bottom of a drawer he always used. There it is. 

No, not waiting

It simply is like any number of other unexceptional things that will be found and lost and recalled as the days refold, come round again. Now that there are moveable borders, the stories seem to have more weight, seem to have less weight.  Each memory is so often (in)formed by the context that gives rise and permission for that recollection to have formed.  Make no mistake here, though: I am not an author in these accounts--at least not yet. 

I am a gap finder. 
A gap filler.
A framer of light.
A bear-witness to what forms when breath is lost.


The first year after Rob's death finds me well acquainted with the incompleteness of gesture. With widowhood there is more suggestion, than codification. It is as it must be. 

What is hard to name reveals a partial language. It is what I cannot seem to tell here--at least to story-tell with any clarity that gesture best connotes. Bearing the loss of my husband is eclipsed only by bearing this new life I am composing. It is this claiming that disrupts the narrative. 


And so we beat on.  

Nick believed in that orgiastic green light, a beacon of hope.

It is this heartache that forms me. 
It is this courage that rises alongside the pain that forms its own alphabet.
And I want to read what is being made.

Everything I have forgotten burns like cold, hot fire against a too-dark January night.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

#SOL17: Talking Race

The Whiteness of America (M.A. Reilly, March 7, 2012)


Last week I sat opposite my nearly 18-year-old son and we talked race at a neighborhood restaurant. Dylann Roof's sentencing was the catalyst of our conversation. My son strongly supported the sentencing decision, while I did not. The jury who found the 22-year-old guilty a month ago, spent three hours that day in deliberation before handing down the decision that Roof should be sentenced to death. Although Roof's hateful crimes are more than reprehensible, I still do not support the death penalty.

I asked Devon what he thought might have allowed so young a white man to go into a church and murder 9 African American people. What prompted such an action?

His environment. What he learned at home. From his community. 
What would we think if someone came into this very restaurant and killed based on race? 
Devon looked at me and said, Well most likely I'd be the only one killed. 
Look around. Everyone here is white. 
I do look around the restaurant and see he is correct. I hadn't notice. I hadn't had to notice. 
I'm the only one who's not, he adds. If anyone is going to get killed? It's me. 
He must see the alarm that crosses my face and then adds, Look, I know there are good people who are white. Not saying there aren't. But, as a group, white people here in the US? They're the meanest.

I have seen this meanness firsthand. I'd like to think that I would have understood white privilege in the same way as I do now had I not been Devon's mom, but I don't think that's true. The sense of privilege that is inherently provided to and only for white people here in the US is insipid and largely goes unnoticed by many white people. I may have been aware, but I know I would not have known it as heartfelt, as heartsick as I do now. Being Devon's mom has altered how I know, how I name, how I feel.

And as I looked across the table at my beautiful son, I thought, he's right. White people, especially those with unchecked power who hide behind the cloak of their religion, are the meanest.


Neither Dev nor I come from the United States. We are immigrants. He is Korean and I am Irish and after the rhetoric of this last election we know welcome when we hear it and not. We used to kid that only Rob was home-grown as he was born in Brooklyn and now our one link to the States is gone. For me, the United States is home. For my son, it is not.

During this last week Devon has told me he is determined to find a pathway to leave the United States and live elsewhere--Switzerland, Japan--places where he has friends and is privy, in some small way, to how well they live. He will leave the States I suspect. He will leave when he is well educated and I imagine he will find or make a career pathway that allows himself more options than just remaining here. This is how Rob and I raised our son. He is independent in the most important ways.

I try to quell the panic that rises each time I hear him talk about leaving. We have lost so much this year already and more losses seem impossible to hold. But I understand why he wants to go. Why he feels not welcomed here.

My friend, Jane, explains this weight that Devon carries so clearly. She refers to W.E.B. DuBois's notion of double-consciousness. In the first chapter of DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he writes:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (from here)

Here, in New Jersey--30 miles outside of Manhattan, we live in a town that is 92% white. My son has never just been a kid or teenager, here. Rather, he has always had to be Korean (other) and American.  

And frankly, we are all the worse for it.


Tonight, I am thinking that the beliefs we harbor, unchecked, can grow into truths that become foundational. These homemade certitudes allow us to think that we are acting justly when we share our poison. The stupid racial jokes we hear and our silence affirms the racial insensitivity that accompanies the punchline. Our silence affirms the belief that otherness is radically different from us.

Years ago, in a classroom at Columbia University, a fellow doc student threw a hissy fit when she heard that Rob and I were adopting a child. She told the small group assembled that we were in a mixed marriage. She was offended by us and that we were going to be adopting a child--a child from another race--offended her even more. I had little idea what she was speaking about until she explained (unprompted by either of us) that because I was Roman Catholic and Rob was Jewish, we should never have married. Now add to that strange mix, a Korean child, and well she was unable to stop herself from speaking aloud.

Even within the bastions of so liberal a university, these foundational ways of marking difference and antipathy rise. Not far from Columbia my mom grew up. Her father, I am told, would have abhorred my marriage to Rob. A thick-headed Irishmen if ever there was, my mom would say about her father--a man she knew to be racist. I never met my grandfather as he died decades before I was born. Fortunately for me his intolerance, his stupidity did not become truths my mother taught me. She knew a fool when she saw one, even one she loved. When I first met my husband's family and some of their extended friends, I too learned the uncomfortableness of other. My being Catholic was not appreciated. I can remember one Thanksgiving when the differences were so magnified. I learned that night that because I was not Jewish, I would remain situated as other.  My mother-in-law would be quick to tell her son that she would never welcome me as a daughter. And so she didn't. Rob and I went on to live well, to love deeply, and to raise a most wonderful son. There is a loss to this and sometimes these losses bear weight.

I think these beliefs that pit "us against them" represent nothing more than a cowardly way to live. Racists are fundamentally cowards. Frightened souls who find comfort in a crowd of like minds. They insulate their ignorance with a tired dogma and try to sell it as something novel.  It is not novel, just, or clever. Just tired. Just wrong. Just banal.

Friends, we can do so much better.  We can live so much better. We need to be willing.


As I listened to President Obama's Farewell Address, I was struck by his comment that our racial differences represent a threat to our democracy. President Obama said,
There’s a second threat to our democracy – one as old as our nation itself.  After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America.  Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic.  For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society... All of us have more work to do.  After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.  If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children – because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce.  
Some days the talk of racial differences, the us-and-them tensions, the "they don't look like me" nonsense leaves me feeling worn and tired and older than the decades say I should feel. The false belief that being white is akin to some god-given greatness is destroying the very republic we profess to love, while harming the psyches and bodies of young people, like my son and perhaps yours as well.

Can we do better?

I think it begins with a self-inventory and a naming aloud of our public commitments to one another. I think it begins by understanding racism not merely as an interpersonal affront, but also as a deep institutional presence.

I want us to be better than our history suggests we are. I want my son and your children too to live in a place where each is not seen first as other. I want whiteness, that festering illness, to be put down. I want us to become other(wise).

#SOL17: The Featherlight Touch

rom my art journal 10.22.16 (gesso, ink, Tombow paint markers, acrylic paint, tissue paper, found papers)


The first year after the death is a murkier time. Some days I hardly l know myself, hardly know whose name I answer to. Other days, my life seems infused with an intense clarity and truths are revealed some times at alarming rates. In between these swings are moments of sweet, sweet grace.

Resting places.


In the last month I have sensed Rob as if he was embodied once again and existing just beyond the reach of my fingers. I imagine his lips, and nearly feel the featherlight touch of his to mine. Love lives beyond the confines of our bodies and yet we crave what our bodies crave.

Touch. Weight. Corporeal bliss.


The veil between him and me, there and here, thins. I am body restless and wake more than I seem to sleep these last few weeks.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#SOL17: Sunlit Absence

from my art journal

There was a sunlit absence. 
 - Seamus Heaney


A year ago Rob was transported from the hospital where he had undergone neurosurgery to an acute rehab where he was to learn how to stand and walk again. This transfer would mark his end.

Six days earlier the neurosurgeon had told me that a sizable space had opened between the metastatic tumors that were compressing Rob's spine and the affected vertebrae and that this movement looked promising. More promising to me were the oncologist's words when he explained that Rob would not have been allowed to undergo the spinal surgery had he not at least 6 to 12 months to live. I clung to the one year mark, quickly dismissing the mention of 6 months and this new calendar became a truth. 

A year felt indulgent. 
A year had my giddy.

Because Rob's health had deteriorated so quickly, we had spent the months since the diagnosis responding to crises.  We had not lived in ways that were familiar. And Rob had passed from his very able self in late August to a man who first needed a cane, then a walker, then a transport chair, to not being able to move his lower torso and legs at all.  All of this in less than 4 months.

But on that Friday in mid January the prognosis gave us a small measure of peace. A mere three weeks later we would learn that time was not so gracious and Rob would die 20 days beyond that. 


In the weeks preceding Rob's death, love became more pure, more of a singular impulse. It was as if love was equally a centripetal force binding us together and a centrifugal force that revealed defining differences. 

Cohesion and discordance.

Beyond the first floor of our home the world faded. After almost 6 months of rush and response and 100 days in hospital stays--there were no appointments to meet. No hard hospital chairs to wait in. No pulse and spit of breathing machines. No last attempts to save my husband's life. 

The facades that had insulated us from the knowledge of Rob's mortality were lifted. Here, in the sunny corner of our family room, there could be no denying that Rob was dying Each day his body curled more and more into his center self revealing ever widening spaces between here and there, life and death. The sheer love we had made across the decades rose up around us. A trellis of good intentions. 


My memory of these days is mostly unreliable. The details are a mix of what might have been and what I most wanted or could bear. What I best recall a year later is more impressionistic, more translucent.

Color and heat.
Stasis and movement.

Nearing death is a paradox: part mystery, part old friend you have forgotten--a transfer of energy between the known and the unknown.

It was as if the very molecules that made up Rob's body were in transition--a visual ballet I somehow could sense--even as the emotional distance between Rob and me became more acute. My husband was busy with matters I could not see, do not know. Now and then he would partially narrate what life beyond the confines of this mortal world was like. But these too became less and less until there was only breath. And then not.

Friday, January 13, 2017

#SOL17: Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Cancer and Financial Ruin

Earlier tonight, I'm reading before finishing  preparations for dinner when I see a notice from The Guardian flash on my screen with the headline, Congress approves initial measures to repeal Affordable Care Act.

from The Guardian

Take a minute to study the self congratulating smugness that defines these House Republicans. They appear quite pleased with themselves.

Or look at this image of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from this past Monday.
from The Guardian

After six years of vowing to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act,  these callous clowns are moving ahead. Full steam. No stopping. No plan.

But I'm not here to talk about health care as much as I want to say few words about cancer, grief, and the unnecessary burdening of those who already are bearing too much.

Please listen.


A year ago this February I was wondering if Rob, Devon and I would lose our home. I was wondering if the staggering costs of health care and the loss of income would make living where we do impossible. Our health care payment concerns were tempered, in part, because we had pretty good coverage, amazing family and friends who helped us.

And we needed help.

Cancer treatment is expensive. Neurosurgery is prohibitive. Home care can break the little bit of bank you might still have. My husband could no longer work and had stopped earning any income the summer before and by February, I too stopped working completely so I could care for Rob who had come home to die.  Our health care no longer provided any services and my husband could not care for himself. He required round the clock care.  He could not move his body, sit up, stand, walk, turn himself. He was unable to take a sip of water without assistance. I had no idea how I would care for Rob and pay our bills once spring arrived. It was only my husband's death that saved us from financial ruin.


I think about those dark days when I look at the jubilant faces of Speaker Ryan, his merry cohort of legislators, and Senator McConnell. I wonder how it is possible for them to be so out of touch with the sharp and unnecessary pain their careless actions are causing.

When faced with the imminent death of your husband, the financial ruin of your family, and the understanding that on your slim shoulders rests the financial responsibility of a teenage son who will soon be fatherless and is just a year away from college--and frankly the last thing anyone in such a space needs to worry about is what Congress is going to do to screw them over.

They, like me, are deeply hurt already. The surviving spouse has enough on his or her shoulders without having to now worry if the bit of cushion their health care plan provides is also going to be yanked away.

Adding uncertainty to such injury is nothing less than cruel.


Right now in the United States there is a husband, a dad dying of cancer.  There beside him is a wife who is facing what I faced a year ago.  That heartbreak alone, that immense loss is more than some can carry. At least I didn't have to worry that the multi-million dollar medical bills that were piling high as Rob's treatments failed one after the next would also be my sole responsibility. My health care insurance paid the majority of those bills.

Now, I would not know that.
Now, I would add worry as I could not know what the irresponsible GOP in Congress would be doing as I cared for my husband in his last weeks of life and comforted a young son who would no longer have his dad.

Why anyone would want to add to that grief, stress, and fear is impossible for me to understand.


Fix health care?

Revise the Affordable Care Act to make it better for consumers?

But do it reasonably. Not irrationally.

Shame on Paul Ryan.
Shame on Mitch McConnell.
Shame on all who support this recklessness.

These are little boys who have been tossed a new ball to play with and have no sense about the damage their actions are causing. I imagine these men might think differently if they were faced with the ordinary struggles you and I carry each day. I imagine they might pause a bit if they did not have the finest health care plan for free in their own back pocket.