NOTES FROM THE CAFE FIASCO
Marshall T. Spriggs
Volume 19, Number 0, Winter Solstice 2012
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” -- Carl Jung
It’s been a warm, wet, and gray winter so far in Boston. More times than not I’ve found myself standing at the commuter rail station in Roslindale Village waiting for my morning train to work searching for the sun over the spire of Sacred Heart church and I’ve seen nothing but a diffuse lightening in a light gray sky. The best parts of the winter – those cold bright invigorating days - have abandoned us so far it seems. Things are dark here at the end of December, but I suppose that that is appropriate since, after all, it is the Solstice – the nadir of the year.
And it’s been a tough year in the Spriggs/Wallace household – big highs and big lows – the roller coaster of life being a little more Six Flags than the usual Paragon Park this year. Lots of passages - both good and bad.
The biggest lows of the year concerned the seniors in the family.
Lydia Touloumtzis, my foster mother, passed early in the year after a slow debilitation brought on by old age. Lydia was very much the independent person we loved all the way to end – making decisions about what she was going to do as her body failed her and finally refusing medical treatment when she determined that she had had enough. She left as she had lived. I miss her independent spirit, the calls at odd hours with equally odd questions, and her plain eccentric Yankeeness.
Another heart breaking loss was the passing of Bill Wallace, Denise’s father. Bill had been battling Parkinson’s disease for the past four years and I don’t use the word “battling” advisedly here. Toward the end, Bill’s day pretty much consisted of doing things that would allow him to function independently, whether that be sorting pills or doing exercises.
One day in February, brother-in-law Kevin came to check on Bill at his apartment and found him incoherent on the floor. Kevin rushed him to the hospital where they eventually diagnosed him as being dehydrated (from a misapplication of certain drugs he was prescribed) and as they pumped water into him he started to come back until he was okay.
But there were other problems. In doing the workup to find out what was wrong with him when he was admitted, the doctors found that he had an undiagnosed aortic aneurism – a very large aneurism that was extremely life threatening. Being who he was, Bill elected to go through some very risky surgery in order to repair it because, even at 74 and with Parkinson’s he thought that he had some good years left and he wanted to live them. Anyway, he went though an amazing seven-hour “procedure” where they actually replaced his aorta, the main artery out of the heart.
He was then in the hospital for three weeks recovering and he finally made the transition to rehab in a center on the South Shore, where he continued to do well. He was working hard so that he could get home. As it turned out, he was working a little to hard. Moving from the bed to the door of his room one afternoon he failed to use his cane and he fell and hit his head. He hit his head so hard that he suffered a massive and ultimately fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He didn’t die immediately, but was kept alive by machines for a few days until the docs said that it would be a miracle if he were to come back from the damage to his brain. All that work only to end up on a ventilator.
Luckily, Bill was very clear about what he wanted should anything like this happen, so this made the family’s decision about shutting off the machines easier than it might have been. But it was still a horrible experience and is not one that I’d like to replicate.
One of my biggest regrets is that I only got 4 years with him. I miss him a lot, but it seems that his spirit has not left us. He seems to be hiding around different corners our both D’s and my lives only to pop out and say something stupid and endearing just like he always did.
The third person of elder status who is struggling, but still with us, is my old Aikido sensei. He was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s in the spring after a long period of having memory lapses (and quite effectively covering them up). At this point, he’s still with us, but slowly fading out. In a way, his case may be the saddest of them all for me as it continues and continues. He knows who I am when I call, but I don’t know how long this will go on.
Somewhat of a counterbalance to all this grief was the joy of D’s and my wedding in June. As my sister said to me the night of the rehearsal, “I never thought that I would see this happen.” To be honest, at the age of 62, I had my doubts as well.
At Bill’s funeral in April many people came up to us and expressed their opinion that Bill would want us to go through with it, despite the events of the winter and spring. It was a hard decision, but we decided that this was right – Bill wouldn’t have wanted us to postpone it for him – so we plunged ahead.
But the whole thing came off just as we wanted (and how often does that happen?). The day was hot, but the frozen margarita’s seemed to cool folks down and the focus was on the communities that we both have been a part of over the years. And members of our families (biological and functional) all came though like champs – helping with everything from food to transportation logistics. Essentially, we outsourced our wedding to our guests and, being who they are, they did a brilliant job.
From my admittedly skewed perspective, it seemed like a great multi-hour piece of art and we are both very appreciative to everyone who came and the vast number of people who helped pull this off. And yes, pictures are still coming – I know that there is a great demand for pictures of me in a Brooks Brother’s suit since sightings of me in any suit are so rare.
My health is good enough that I can again pretend that I never had cancer. But then, I’ve always been good at that. Denial of health problems is one of my main skills.
The PSA test is good (1.1, down from 8.4 BS – before seeds), but we now enter a period of a couple of years where the PSA numbers don’t mean much and we’re flying blind. I may have a recurrence; I may not have a recurrence (there’s somewhere between a 15% and 30% chance of a recurrence happening). No matter what, I can’t worry about it – anyway I don’t have that much more hair to lose so, for the time being, I can probably go back to worrying about dying from a heart attack like most 62 year old American males.
Denise has come out of her surgery last year for cysts in good shape. So, both of us can, at least for the time being, go on to focusing on the fact that we aren’t going to like all that nagging health stuff that goes with getting old. You know, normal, cranky, old people stuff.
The Marshall Arts
Of course, I couldn’t stay away from doing some sort of martial art now that the health situation has leveled off. But my back still won’t deal with bouncing off the Aikido mat, so I’ve started studying Iaido, a type of Japanese sword art.
I’ve known for a long time that my friend Don Laliberty has been teaching Iaido, but I needed some time to think about if I really wanted to do it. The art is super-Japanese (every thing is done in a very particular, programmed, and technical way that was thoroughly thought out by some Japanese guy in the 12th century and then worked on by hundreds of swordsmen since then) and it’s not something that you just jump into to see if you like it – mainly because its going to take years before you become even competent in it, never mind good. But I’m a sucker for these things that, as Paul Keelan says, have a beginning but no end and I knew Don to be a very good teacher. So I’m back in the dojo on Saturday mornings, this time wearing a funny skirt and trying, with a great deal of difficulty, to get my sword back in the scabbard. It’s fun in a masochistic sort of way.
The visual arts took a backseat to the chaos of life this year with not much production of bad art (which means virtual no production of good art). I took a technical course in figure drawing this summer at the Academy of Realistic Art, and it really was a “technical” course. I probably got something out of it, but not as much as my instructor hoped. I’ll probably go back to some sort of looser art stuff later in the winter and we’ll really see if I learned anything.
Since I graduated with my “terminal” degree (at least for me) from Harvard a couple of years ago, I have not been even slightly tempted to do anything formal in terms of education. In fact, I haven’t thought of it at all. For Denise however, it’s been another story.
D wants to expand the amount that she’s teaching and, given the fact that we may not live in Boston for the rest of our natural lives, a Master’s degree might be a handy thing to have. So she’s now hip deep in a Theater Production Masters program at BU. She likes it, but the amount of work, as with any graduate program is a killer. I’m getting a little jealous of the jacket that she’s been tailoring for months, since it seems to see her more than I do. But she just finished that project and we may be able to re-establish connubial bliss yet again – at least until the next course she takes.
MIT is a very odd place. It sits right in the crack between Big Business and Big Science, and it seems to lean cyclically from one side to another over time. Since the big financial panic of a couple of years ago, the balance has shifted over to the people who tend to view the Institute as a place that produces “knowledge products” (primarily scientific) as opposed to it being a school who’s purpose is to educate scientists so that they can do research. Of course, I am, and have always been since my days at UMass, very much in the later camp of this dichotomy and this increasingly puts me into conflict with the ethos of the environment in which I work.
Plus, with the more corporate atmosphere we have the phenomenon of more people telling me what to do. I don’t like this. I never did. And my personal tolerance isn’t getting any better as I get older. Since I have managed to get this far doing what I do, I expect that the higher ups should trust me to do my job, but people want to “manage” me and have me document every little thing that I do for the higher ups (since, I guess, they have no reason for existence without going over “data” about my and my colleague’s activities). Not to put too fine a point on it, but this sucks. The only question is if I will get so sick of this over time if it doesn’t stop that I will have to find somewhere else to do the act for a few years until I retire. At this point, I don’t know the answer to this question.
Well, it was nail biter up until the end in November, but, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Americans will always do the right thing, right after they’ve tried everything else.” Am I ecstatic that Barak Obama is again going to be President of the US for four years? Given the record of the past four years, not so much. But then there was the alternative.
It was hard to gauge what sort of President Mitt Romney would have been since he changed his position on everything every 5 minutes, but I have a feeling that I wouldn’t have liked any of it. It was clear that he owed much too much to the big corporations (who are people according to Mitt and probably should probably have been able to vote), people like him who have very large checkbooks, and the Delusional Right who still wants to drag us back to either the 1950’s or the 1850’s depending who you talk to. Though I missed the 1850’s, I do remember the 1950’s and they weren’t anywhere near as cool as these people seem to think – especially if you were not white, middle class, or male.
Or maybe Barak will wake up to how bad things really are (especially on the environmental front) and we’ll actually take on some of these issues before the whole country looks like the recently climate-changed Jersey shore. We’ll see how bad things have to get before Barak wakes up and whether we have a chance to pull out of the downward spiral before it becomes a crash becomes inevitable. Stay tuned.
So, it’s been a year of transitions – good and bad. It’s been a gray and hard time for us this year, but not without it’s bright moments. Of course, the truly amazing thing is that I’m still here and still, after 19 years, reporting that I’m still here. I’ve got a new wife and in a few years, if I get there, I’ll be retired and I’ll have a new life of some sort. I remain a grateful man. Thank you to all who helped me get to this point.
Of course, everyday is a new life and the Solstice reminds me of this. Things go down, but they also come back up. The gray skies do clear and the light always returns, as long as we take care of one another.
Have a great Solstice season and take care of yourself and of others.