The art of losing isn’t hard to master *
Even before I found myself parked across the street from the entrance to Maine Med’s ER in Portland watching the steady arrival of ambulances laden with the sick—East Millinocket, Norway, South Portland lettered on their doors—and trying not to cry, I’d been thinking about loss, what is already lost, what I am losing. On a walk a few weeks ago with a much younger friend, V., she surprised me when she offered the idea that the existential threat to life on the planet was, maybe, more painful for people my age because we’d been raised in a world where these threats didn’t exist, whereas her generation has always known this truth about the ailing planet. I found her empathic insight into my generation’s deeper experience of loss quite remarkable for, honestly, I’ve imagined that secretly people her age would just as soon push all of us who fiddled with their future while the planet burned off a high bridge and watch us try to save ourselves as we flounder about in the cold water below. Her generosity about my generation's role in the climate emergency somehow gave me permission to take in the whole universe of losses behind and ahead of me. Then practice losing farther, losing faster Always there is the idea that the very delicately balanced ecosystem called earth is in great peril. Add to that the once unimaginable idea that our democracy is, right now, in great peril, the Constitution declared a solemn mockery; add more: add the omicron and delta variants squirming their way into every corner and the dead from this plague approaching 800,000 here, in our country; and friends ill and dying and me here at the end of my life and Bob, seven years older, even closer. Sometimes I practice never walking out the door again up in Addison, crossing the street, following the root strewn trail through the woods, arriving at the hidden beach, taking off my clothes, plunging into the ocean, the gulls squalling overhead. I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or next-to-last, of three loved houses went. And now this week, more practice. Though I’d heard the chilling tales about people not allowed to accompany loved ones into the hospital in the time of Covid, I wasn’t prepared last Thursday to be turned away on the sidewalk as a man in a uniform, the word Security pinned to his pocket, eased Bob into a wheelchair and ushered him, now shaking violently and unable to walk, through the ER’s giant glass front doors which opened with a whoosh, then closed silently behind him. Bob had been trying to convince the family all week that he didn’t need to go to a doctor, despite his chills, his chest pain, his exhaustion after an hour of raking wet leaves. He’d looked up the symptoms of acute bronchitis, and, he declared, that was his diagnosis! That and age, “what do you expect from an 83-year-old?” The CDC, he insisted, recommends one not seek care for this first condition, otherwise known as the common cold. After the test strip of an over-the-counter Covid kit didn’t turn pink (Pink!! Really, they chose pink as the color of Covid!) we backed off. Stunned and lost after being turned away from the ER, I called our clear-headed daughter who helped me get my wits about me. “Go back Mom, you need to ask them how you can find out what’s happening with dad.” Following her directions, I walked back to the front door of the Emergency Room and plaintively asked to be allowed in. After swearing to another security man that I didn’t have any guns hidden on my body and passing through the metal detector, I found a sympathetic looking woman with dark hair sitting behind a big desk. “How can I stay in touch with my husband and his care team?” I asked her. “Call this number in a few hours and ask to speak to his nurse.” She spoke kindly, with a look on her face that I read not as indifference, but as a variety of wizened empathy born of thousands of these kinds of transactions. She handed me a white business card with instructions on it. “Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling great gobs of relief. Then I walked back across the street and sat in the car again. Though I had hours to wait before I called the nurse, I couldn’t bear to move the car, even to drive a few blocks uptown and get a cup of coffee and a sweet pastry from Speckled Ax. Leaving my vigil by the front door would have felt like too great a loss. I needed to stay by Bob’s side, even if he didn’t know I was there. I looked at my watch. I had a Zoom planning meeting scheduled in a few minutes with Bob Fulkerson, from Nevada, one of the leaders of The Third Act, which had its formal national coming out party on Tuesday night (on Zoom!). I remembered a conversation he and I had had a few months ago about how we Third Actors would need to make space for each other to take care of ailing partners or our own health. That conversation and Bob’s natural warmth and kindness gave me permission to bring this moment of worry and fear into our work instead of cancelling the meeting. I emailed him to say I might be a few minutes late because I was in my car, sitting in front of the ER where I’d just dropped my very sick husband off, and needed to download the Zoom app onto my phone. When the connection went through, Bob F’s face, filled with compassion, was entwined in the steering wheel, inches from mine. “Oh, Kathleen, I was on the phone with Vanessa (the President of Third Act) when your message came through and the two of us took a moment of silence to hold you and your husband in the light.” The trees have their fungal connections to support them in times of danger. We humans have our Zoom calls with caring people thousands of miles away whose kind faces and words nurture and support, enable us to hold loss beside love, fear beside care. Together, with kindness. This is how we will proceed in the face of all the losses facing us, this is the art of losing. The staff at Maine Medical are masters of this art. On Thursday Colin and I and Bridget were so nervous, we all put calls in to the nurse. She answered all of them, soothed our fears, shared her observations. “When we first saw Bob in the ER he scared us all to death he looked so bad, but now he’s stabilized, he’s laughing and he looks so much better. We are running a lot of tests, but we suspect a gall bladder infection. He may need surgery. His blood oxygen went down to 70, but it’s up to normal now. He’s still on oxygen. We’ve started him on antibiotics. He’s had an EKG. The cardiologist and the surgeons and the GI doctors are all consulting.” Hours before the trip to the ER, as the sun rose into a clear winter sky and I sat sipping my coffee on the couch at home, I’d opened an email from the CEO of MaineHealth, Tony Mueller, who had written to me (and thousands of other patients in his system) to say that, with Covid cases ever rising, the health care system is in crisis: the staff overbooked, surgery rooms in short supply, appointments hard to get, long lines in emergency rooms. He ended the letter with these words: “kindness matters now, more than ever.” You should know, reader, that these words were not PR fluff, not empty promises. Despite the enormous pressure on this hospital staff for the last two years, Bob’s care was administered not only with the best medical expertise but with exceptional kindness from doctors and nurses and aides. And, he reported, the staff didn’t just treat old lawyers that way. His roommate, a crusty fellow who started out life as a logger and ended up a chimney sweep, got the same fine care. I am in awe. And enormously grateful. Bob had gallbladder surgery yesterday. It went well. When I spoke to the surgeon who called just after the operation was over to tell me the outcome of the operation, I thanked him for his work under these Covid conditions. “It’s pretty overwhelming at times,” he confided. Colin made his father chicken soup and dropped it off at the hospital. Aides delivered it to his room. The grandchildren made him cards and delivered them via texts. Finn saw me passing his house while out walking the dog and came running out to accompany me for a walk in the rain. “Call me anytime if you are sad, Gigi. Promise.” Bridget fed me homemade lentil soup with coconut milk and hugged me when, for the first time, I cried.
Today, he will be discharged into a world filled with loss. And love. *From Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art”