Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hello, Malthus!

I always know when I'm really sick. A veil falls between my eyes and the rest of the world; I can see it but I don't care. The usual spark between my nerve endings and my vision is gone, my brain stops working beyond making complaints to myself, and my body moves as though it's made from slapped-together sludge. I don't care whether I eat or not. I don't want to read. Movies go unwatched. All I want to do is sleep and sleep, and then sleep some more.

There was no reason for the sickness that fell over me this week. I didn't have a cold and the nausea I felt was only a result of a severe and persistent headache. Almost every muscle that I could identify was in pain and moving took more energy than I thought I had. On the first day I was awake for perhaps seven of the twenty-four hours. Yesterday I walked to the supermarket for ginger tea and Kleenex and a bottle of Perrier. The walk nearly did me in and just might have if I hadn't picked up Thai takeout from my very favorite restaurant.

The special of the day was palo moo, pork chunks simmered with tofu and a hard-boiled egg in five-spice broth and served over rice with an incendiary sauce to perk things up a bit. Nothing had sounded good to eat for well over thirty-six hours until I learned that one of my favorite meals was available only steps away from my apartment. I came home, gasping a little from the climb to my three-story walk-up, put half of the food in a bowl and began to eat. I think it might have saved my life--or at least restored it.

Today I can see the damp grey-green world that extends beyond my window, and the shiny pavement that shimmers below me has an enticing cast to it. I want to go out--and I will--there will be Thai food in two more hours at Thai Curry Simple. And then I'll do what I always told my children to do when they began to feel better--I'll take a day to be bored before I leap back into life.

I'm approaching the danger bracket that is particularly vulnerable during the flu season--people 65 and over. I'm almost halfway to 65. "Did you get a flu shot?" a friend asked on Facebook when I said I was sick. No, I didn't.

And no, I won't.

In Alaska, when the wolf population goes down, the rabbit population goes up, and  up, and up. Then one year the rabbits get sick and many of them die. And then the cycle starts all over again.

There's a reason why natural predators exist. When they're stamped out, nature finds another solution to population control. It's not always pretty but it does the job.

As a country, we are living too long. My mother summed it up when she told me that she stopped living the way she wanted to when she left her seventies. Medical science has given us a vast lifespan, but it is an artificial extension, depending on far too many aids that make life irksome and truncated. I don't want that kind of life.

Gloomy old Parson Malthus had the right idea. Nature corrects population imbalances. It's no accident that influenza is becoming more virulent among the elderly. And that's not a bad thing.

When I can no longer be cured by a bowl of Thai food, it will be time for me to go to sleep. If my body doesn't take over, I hope those who love me will let me sleep forever. That's the way we were designed to go, not hooked up to breathing tubes and liquid nourishment through an IV tube. If it's good enough for the rabbits, it's good enough for me.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter Again

Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks is a route over mountains that jut below the plane like jagged, gleaming teeth. They stretch beneath the flight path for hundreds of miles and I have never felt anything but comforted by them. My father’s youngest brother lies somewhere among them. His plane was led astray by the Northern Lights and exploded in a ball of fire when it crashed into Mount Sanford. I never knew him; he was only a story that has always made me feel that these mountains are mine.

The land suddenly becomes a flat blanket, studded with lakes, with seams of rivers. In winter it is piercingly white and the dark ribbons of trees are soothing in that relentless light. Then where a river curves is an unlikely cluster of buildings that is Fairbanks, still an outpost long after the Gold Rush days.

The airport is small and the runway that the plane locks into feels like a landing strip out in the bush. When I walk outdoors, the cold air burns the hairs in my nostrils. The dry purity of it is almost like breathing bleach. Even in the soft air of twilight, when the glitter of the snow is muted into a deep blue tinge, the flat white is almost blinding. The cleanliness of it overwhelms me after twenty years of being away from interior Alaska..

It squeaks under my feet and I almost bend down to make a snowball, but my gloves are fashionably fingerless and the snow is too dry to pack into a shape. It turns the fading light into something magical; even at night the snow catches moonlight, the glow from windows, the beams of headlights and shines into the darkness.

It’s below zero but I’ve been much colder in warmer places. This dry cold is dangerously deceptive; frostbite comes without warning. Once I didn’t know my hands were frozen until I tried to open a car door and found that my fingers were wooden and useless. Unlike the damp chill of Anchorage with its knife-blade winds sweeping off the inlet, the winter cold in Fairbanks is seductive. It’s the terrain that Jack London wrote about in his classic short story, To Build a Fire. It’s beautiful right up to the moment that it becomes deadly.

I tried living alone in a little cabin with a wood stove the winter that I turned twenty. I scavenged wood from old mining sites until I’d taken all that was portable, My last fire was built from a long, thick plank that I’d dragged home. I had no saw so it projected from the small stove onto the floor. The next morning I packed my suitcase and flew home to my parents.

Heat is almost an entity in Fairbanks and people pay dearly for it. Alaska’s legendary high paychecks are devoured by winter heating bills and every place I went on my last visit was much warmer than the temperature I maintain in my small Seattle apartment. When I lived in my own Fairbanks house, I often kept the thermostat hovering around eighty. Inside nobody wants to feel the slightest hint of cold.

Outside the large window of my sister’s living room stretches a river that flows through downtown Fairbanks and off toward the mountains. In February, in town, the river is still flowing, open water. In the olden days, it froze so solid that when it thawed it often took out the bridge. Even twenty years ago, people rode their snowmachines on the ice of the Chena River. Now my sister says she won’t walk on it anymore.

The sight of a moving river in the coldest time of the year hit me hard as we flew over the Chena before landing in Fairbanks. For an Alaskan, that’s a sight as surreal and menacing as the melted watches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory. I push the image out of my mind with mental snapshots of stunted black spruce made lovely by the snow that covers their branches, of deep blue shadows caught in the tiny crevices of a snowbank, of all the beauty that I refused to acknowledge in the years that I struggled to leave Alaska.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How to Say Goodbye

The sun rose in a corner of deep scarlet sky the morning that my visit to my mother ended. Japanese tourists rushed to catch it with their expensive cameras; I stared at it wishing I could peel it away and stick it on the wall of my mother’s dark little bedroom.

Her room is narrow, wide enough for her bed, a folding chair, and an end table. A chest of drawers faces her at the end of the room, which holds her television, her Bose player, a stunning bouquet of tulips that my sister brought her, and photographs of her children. Little piles of books are on the moving shelf that’s attached to her bed and on the nearby table and a colorful reproduction of an Impressionist painting brightens one of the walls. The only window is curtained to keep out the sub-zero cold of an interior Alaska winter. This is where my mother lives.

If she could walk, she could get out of bed and sit in a living room that’s  banked with windows. Moose frequently come out of the trees to the deck and lick away the salt that’s sprinkled on it to thaw the ice. She could play with the small dog who presides over the house and talk to his owner, Marion, who’s a woman of style and opinions. In a room nearby is a woman in her 90’s who has lived in Fairbanks all of her life. My mother and she would probably find they have much in common, but they’re two of a kind, proud and private women. For each of them, their rooms are their castles.

My mother has become tiny. Her shoulders, which were always broad and strong, are little wings under her flannel nightgown and her arms have only enough flesh to cover the bones. Her collarbones protrude like little jewels and the legs she was always so proud of have become sticks, my sister told me. Her face is distilled to its essence—her glowing eyes and her smile.

My mother is ending her life not as she longed to, in her own dwelling place, able to take care of herself. But in some ways that is very fortunate for her. In her own house, she was surrounded by memories of what she could do and she hurt herself when she tried to do those things—walk to a cupboard, go to the bathroom by herself, stand at the doorway to give treats to my sister’s dogs. She is a woman of tremendous will and in her own place, that will refused to be quiet.

In Marion’s house, my mother is a paying guest. She receives tender and intelligent care, and in return, my mother does nothing to transgress the boundaries of the kindness that surrounds her. In a strange place, it’s easier to accept the limitations of her body. What is amazing to me is how lovingly and gracefully she has entered the end of her life.

My mother could choose to be bitter that only now is her family coming to her side, that during the years that she was still healthy, we all stayed away except for my youngest sister. Instead she’s chosen to radiate love toward all of her children who have come to her side when she has nowhere to run from us. The strength that it takes for her to embark upon a visit with people who have missed all of the stages that brought her to this bed, the energy that it takes for her to gleam her love toward us, the humor that glints frequently as she talks, all of this is the gift she gives to her daughters.

The largest gift is the example she offers of how to end a good, although often difficult, life. When we said goodbye, we both knew it was probably forever and my mother sent me away with a smile and more love than I deserve glowing in her eyes.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Our house felt hollow when my mother wasn't in it. She was the one who brought it to life, always. She filled it with the smells of cooking food, with the sounds of instructions, exhortations, and plans. She was the compass and the spark of our family. When I left home in the conclusive change of a marriage, I dreamed about her for months.

It took me years to move away from the force that was my mother, and just a few minutes to realize that I hadn't snapped the fierce bond that has held me to her. I'd only stretched it, but not to the breaking point.

Part of me now is still standing beside her bed, reading to her, watching for her smile.

When my sister and I went into her apartment, we were surrounded by shelves and piles and stacks of books. Without her, they all seemed like dead paper. The rooms that had been her home echoed with her absence. 

When she is completely gone, the world I know will be an empty house for a while. The places she loved, the things that made her laugh, all of the memories that I have will help to fill a space without her. And I hope that she leaves me a tiny bit of the courage that allows her eyes to shine still, even as the rest of her dwindles.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Running in Place

When a person grows up moving, motion becomes an appropriate response to almost anything. I've always carried that farther than most--up until now when I felt restless, I moved to another continent.

Age brings many realizations to slow me down a little--among them, the importance of being near people I love, because life is finite. So now when I feel as though it's time to break the bonds of inertia, I look for a new neighborhood, not a new country or even a new time zone.

A person in my hallway has made my apartment a noisy little corner of hell over the past few months, erupting into bad music and loud shouts right around the time that the moon grows full. His last outburst was more upsetting than usual and I began to mutter "Who needs this shit?" as his noise kept me awake over a period of several nights.

Yesterday I went out to look at other places to live. The more I looked, the more I realized I like where I am. It's been a long time settling in, what with the bedbug invasion and a year without furniture--but what's kept me here is the sweep of sky that I see every time I look up from my computer.

I grew up with open sky all around me. It's what I missed most when I lived in Manhattan. When I can't see clouds and space and light, I begin to shrivel.

And I love what I see when I'm out on the street where I live--kick-ass old ladies who own the sidewalk that they inch down in their walkers, little girls who always sport pink clothing and know they are beautiful, men and women speaking languages that are out of Africa, an occasional raccoon in the very early morning. Of all the neighborhoods in this city, this one is mine.

So is my odd little efficiency apartment that is finally comfortable and filled with the bright colors that the cloud-filled sky makes me hungry for. It's warm, it's infused with light from two compass points, it's patrolled by seagulls every morning, and when I open the window, I can often smell the fragrance of freshly baked cakes or roasted pig.

If anybody moves from this building, I've decided, it's not going to be me.