Monday, February 2, 2009

Death as a woman

by Chris Moses

We shit our way into this world, and we shit our way out.

A year after watching my mother die from Alzheimer’s disease—the anger, the sadness, the guilty pleasure of the word after, of measuring time since, of my own power to break the world into then and now—this is the best I can do by way of a conclusion.

Crass, yes. But the sort of honesty I believe a mother deserves from her son.

The strength we apportion to teachers, especially parents, disappears completely in this beginning- and end-of-life helplessness. We learn so much in weakness. It’s no surprise then that we spend so much time trying to avoid it.

Who wants to be born, and who wants to die? Choice enters little.

Vulnerability means need and in the receipt of help no reckoning can segregate from good will the self interest and righteousness and masked insecurity that everyone contributes to charity. Clarity of this kind comes only with the true inability to say no. Patience replaces the pick-and-choose divisions of emotional acceptance. Take. What. Can. Be. Gotten.

To romanticize birth and death misses the point. Revelations of human character, the acquisition and loss of language, the dreamed of essential, distilled aspects of being—come whatever they may be shit reminds us in its stink and repulsive, revolting nastiness that an uncontrollable urge to vomit can at any moment replace whatever selfless will to nurture we imagine ourselves to possess.

The truth is messy. Or unexpected or unwelcome or all three, pleasant only as it disappears.

The truth is that old women die as old women, passed sexual desirability and a nuisance in their odd smells and fickle, at best imaginative attempts at recreating past moments of relevance. Even those most sympathetic and caring nurses draw on reserves of pity, secular indemnity against what for them, too, is next and in some cases as a way of religious reassurance in pious, abstinent, timeless matronly virtue. Though neither excuse the most troubling question: if you can’t even remember who you are but still want to get fucked, or at least acknowledged, hand taken and smiled at by whatever man appears single and charming, does that make you a slut or a person or merely a woman?

Guys just slap asses and make passes with little worry about whether or not they’ll be recognized. An old flirt is the only cute flirt, levity to counter the de facto wisdom that accrues to men as they age.

The best a woman can hope for is to dissolve Mother Teresa-like into devotion for anything but herself. Where is the reserve of exemplary, older women in possession of contemplative fulfillment balanced with an open pursuit of physical satisfaction? No Socrates-like lady has been gazed upon to reveal a vision of the gods.

However equally naked we may have been born the images of gender in which we are made carry us to our graves obscuring however slightly the neat circularity of shit into, shit out of. I wonder if this is a mark of strength or weakness. Or for solace do we avoid the issue so that virility and vitality can remain free from shittiness?

To ask the question another way: knowledge brought shame to Adam and Eve and caused them to cover their nakedness, so is it beyond knowledge to see shamelessly your mother naked, fearful, incontinent, paranoid about going the bathroom?

Avoiding the muck obviates a deeper question of pleasure. Oddly amidst the extreme feelings operative at the end of life—pain, solace, grief, forgiveness—no space is given to pleasure. So close to the sexual liveliness we create through near constant efforts of appearance, thought, conversation, anticipation and reflection—so close to that for which we live, it cannot trespass the innocence of birth or the absence of death. Endless magazine covers’ youthful promises of lust fulfillment to the contrary, pleasure may be farther from these day-to-day yearnings and closer to the poles of our existence than would ever make us comfortable.

The basic power of touch can reassure a sense of being in even the most desolate emotional landscape. Literature is rife with examples of words spoken or heard as dramatic counterpoint to life in extremis, so large a bounty because no utterance has yet been found to express the soft touch of a hand, the encircling arms of a hug or the warm, gentle feel of parting lips left from a kiss on the forehead. Even language depends more on the warmth of breath, care gestured upon the face and the mere noise of love rather than any reality signified by words.

In the rare pockets of lucidity that interspersed my mother’s speedy departure from consciousness she would hold out her stuffed cat and invite me to pat it, complimenting his softness. He was more alive that anything else in her world.

How does sex hold pleasure hostage? Power, passion and control define the prowess we imagine as necessary to culminate the deepest urges and greatest reaches of satisfaction. Even fantasies of conquest require an animated innocence itself a gesture of coercion and dominance.

Worse, birth and death capitulate to this quarantine of pleasure by claiming pain for their emotional quota. Yet from sublimity and sadism alike we known that the two are not mutually exclusive and in fact cannot be taken apart.

At the beginning of life the rush towards responsibility, maturity, and independence acts similarly to disavow the mingled experience of injury and enjoyment. When do we learn that laughter and tears should be considered opposites?

I spent the last portion of my mother’s life as her legal guardian, an oddly placed twenty-something male, eyes opened widely to the unpleasant process of dying as a woman alone, destroyed by dementia, at once the object of prejudice and protection. From this and future posts I hope my experience will speak across generations and subjects that too often remain hidden from each other. Matters as mundane as life and death deserve as much attention as those more visible or extreme forms of gender discrimination and sexual difference that occupy most cultural commentary. Behind glamour feminism must ensure a fullness of being from beginning to end.


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