essays kaddish in two-part harmony

reasons for staying alive

We were signing papers. Getting them notarized. It was a jocular moment. I was trying hard to keep it that way. I was giving him complete authority to take over my affairs should my brain start to melt and/or body start to fry its circuits. For that time, in other words, when we cease to be able to make rational decisions that matter.

We finished all the paperwork and were leaving the little FedEx/Notary shop on Fillmore Street. Done. Good. Check that off the list. I get so proud of myself for taking care of stuff. Any stuff. And this was a big chunk of stuff. Since my dad’s death I’d been fairly frantic to make sure everything-would-be-in-order when my own time starts playing itself out. OCD? Perhaps. Just being responsible? Somewhere inbetween? Dunno.

We were leaving the shop.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Does this mean that if you die, I’d have to take care of your mother?”

I could see the panic rising.

I looked at him. It hadn’t even crossed my mind until he uttered those words. So I added this to my list of reasons for staying alive: keep that panic and horror out of other people’s eyes. Poor reason, I hear you say, but it got added to the list nevertheless.

And I’ve been brooding about it ever since. That responsibility to stay alive and keep myself absolutely safe — so that she will be safe as well.

“It’s raining,” she’ll say. “Don’t go out. You will slip. You could fall.”

“It’s going to rain,” she’ll say. “don’t go to work!” Real panic in her voice. It’s more than maternal concern.

“You’ve got a cold…”

“You might get a cold…”

Have Rh walk the dog for you. Don’t go out on those cliffs!”

Tell T to make you soup. Lots of lemon.”

“You must take a spoon full of honey before you go to bed.”

“You are not to go to work today.”

I don’t remember any of this stuff from when I was a kid. Maybe because she would just make the soup, or just stick a spoonful of honey in my mouth, or just order me to not go out. All very hard to do to a grownup who lives across the bridge and is known for having a mind of her own. A woman you can’t trust will follow any of your orders. I mean, wow! What if I’d taken every day off from work that she insisted upon? I’d probably be out of a job right now, right? But safe? Healthier? I’ve never bought it.

The panic in her voice is only in the past year or so. The year of slow recovery from a massive brain injury. The year of suddenly slipping into ever increasing dependence after a lifetime of authoritative fatwas. But now there’s pleading in her voice.

Even when I had babes in arms I didn’t feel quite this essential to the functioning of another human being. Even nursing babies. It just felt like we were one organism — one organism in love with ourselves. Quite literally feeding off each other’s essences. Babes in arms don’t feel like separate entities requiring caregiving. No. There was no separation at all. We functioned as a single unit. Weirdly, even with my kids grown and living in Brooklyn, it still feels like that. They know what to do. They know what I would want for them. They are of the body. I know they know how to survive.

Why don’t I feel that way about my mother?

I watch her slip away. I watch her try to reclaim herself. I watch her awe that I’m there for her.

The fact is, she’d probably be just fine without me, just as my kids are just fine a phone call away. Someone would step in. Someone would take charge.

Oh. And that would be him. And thus, his panic. He is by far one of the two or three most decent people I have ever known in my life. He would do it. Take over. Get her settled in a viable —sustainable, even— abode, where everything would be taken care of. Still. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s another reason for staying alive.

This isn’t a personal statement. This is a generational one. As we ourselves begin to drop dead, those of us who live are charged with caring for our own aging and declining parents. My own concerns are echoed by almost every friend and colleague I have and know. Each tale is unique in its permutation, in its own particular form of suffering. Our elders are suffering. They don’t know how to do this.

The pundits are all wrong about our generation. They don’t have as much to worry about our survival as they think. We’ll be gone in the flash of a flash. But in the meantime, we are the ones taking care of our own aging parents. And we’re a large enough cohort to learn from each others’ experience. If we’re good at anything, it’s creative thinking. We’ll probably do our own demise the way we did our own rise in the ’60s — filled with shifts in consciousness, filled with new ways to make it work (without a lot of cost). Maybe we’ll choose fewer interventions. Or more ways to serve. Fewer golf course mentalities. And more of us working until we can’t.

Reasons for staying alive: we’re pretty good at figuring stuff out… and we find it kind of fun. But hold on, I’ll get back to you. The soup is almost done…

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

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