Fragments of Grief, part 4

Here is the fourth of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

…it becomes a question for ethics, I think, not only when we ask the personal question, what makes my own life bearable, but when we ask…what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable (Undoing Gender, 17)?

Butler connects her theorizing of grief to the question of what makes life bearable and livable. Distinguishing the livable life from the basic material conditions that make life possible, Butler wants to think about how and when lives are and aren’t deemed recognizable and worthy of life and of being grieved (Undoing Gender, 39).

I was never afraid to lose my mom. Okay, that’s not true. Before my mom was diagnosed I couldn’t imagine how I could ever live without her. Her death was the one I feared most, even more than my own. Yet once I learned she would die soon, it wasn’t her impending death that made me come undone; it was her life and what would it mean for her (and for me) if she lived, without half of her stomach, always haunted by death, not knowing when the cancer would come back or when she would no longer be able to walk. As sad as knowing she would die soon made me, I knew I could handle her death. I wasn’t sure that I could handle her painful, yet inevitable, journey towards it.

Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).

My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.

What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.

Some questions prompted by this fragment: This idea of the livable vs the good life speaks to my interest in virtue ethics. What would a virtue ethics based on the livable life as opposed to the good life look like?

I am struck by the slippage  in Butler’s text between the livable and bearable life. What are the differences between these two forms of life? How did my mom, as she attempted to balance her medications and struggled to cope with ever-decreasing mobility, slip between the livable and bearable life?

How does thinking about my experiences living and grieving beside my mom in relation to the livable life (as opposed to the grievable life) shift my perspective on the entire process? What links can I draw between the livable life and care giving and receiving? In the context of a person living and dying with pancreatic cancer, what types of care are required for the livable life?

Fragments of Grief, part 3

Here is the third of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, aproject, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (Undoing Gender, 18)?

Central to Butler’s understanding and promotion of grief is the idea that grief interrupts life as we know it or as we think we know it. Hit by waves of sadness and loss, we come undone and are forced to recognize our own dependence on others and our vulnerability in the midst of those others. This recognition is described in relation to loss: the loss of certainty, loss of autonomy, and loss of control. Butler envisions these feelings of loss as having the potential for opening us to new ways of being human and of forming connections with others.

The social worker told us that we needed to let our mom know it was okay to let go. We needed to tell her that she had our permission to die. One of my sisters planned a big dinner for mom and the three of us readied ourselves for the painful conversation. Just before dinner I turned on some music–The Sound of Music. Spontaneously I, sometimes with my two sisters joining in, performed the entire musical. At one point, maybe when I was singing “The Lonely Goatherd,” I realized that this was one of those big moments in my life. My mom may have been dying, but she was laughing too. Well, at least her eyes were laughing. And we were all having a lot of fun. Towards the end of the album, when Mother Superior sings “Climb Every Mountain,” I hit the high note! I mean, I really hit the high note–vibrato and all. We laughed and laughed and then brought our mom her dinner, forgetting all about the painful conversation we were supposed to have.

Sometimes life interrupts grief, not the other way around. Our best intentions of properly grieving are undone. Our attempts at making sense of how grief is supposed to be are troubled by life’s persistent refusal to stop happening. To have our belief in self-mastery and autonomy be interrupted by someone or something greater than us doesn’t always just signal loss and demand that we grieve; it can also signal life and joy and invite us to laugh and to live.

My mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in mid-October 2005. I was about 18 weeks pregnant with Rosie. A few days before I drove to Chicago to see her, maybe for the last time, I had an ultrasound. I found out that my baby was a girl. When I arrived at my parent’s house, I told my mom that she was going to have another granddaughter named after her: Rosemary Judith. I was fairly certain that my mom would never meet Rosie J; the doctor had indicated that she might only have six weeks left. Six months later, my mom took a break from chemotherapy to visit us and meet her new granddaughter. From the moment she was born, Rosie exuded life and joy. Her spirit and joy of life were amazing and infectious; she compelled you to engage with her and the world, whether you wanted to or not.

There is something else that resides next to (beside) and in addition to (besides) grief as we struggle to make sense of our human vulnerability and the ways in which we are done and undone by others; joy is another “one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way” (18). While Butler briefly mentions the importance of joy, in the form of pleasure, she focuses her ethical and political project almost exclusively on grief. As I found out the night I sang with my sisters and as I am repeatedly reminded as I look at Rosie J, grief and joy reside in the midst of each other and sometimes in spite of each other.

More of my thoughts on this fragment: For the past several years now I have become increasingly interested in the importance of joy/playfulness/laughter as forms of productive troublemaking, critical thinking, and resistance/transformation. I want to think about how joy functions in the midst of struggle/grief/resistance instead of thinking about it as either: a. as something that is not possible in spaces where one is merely trying to survive and b. as something that only exists to provide comfort or a respite from intense grief and/or struggle. [note: having written and read extensively about joy in relation to Luce Irigaray, and to a lesser extent Cixous and Kristeva, I am not so interested in thinking of joy as jouissance and reading it primarily as pleasure–although I do believe that that is a valuable project/set of projects].

In the case of the night I sang for my mother/with my sisters, I want to read the joy that we experienced as more than a survival tactic or something that could provide a temporary break from the harsh reality of my mom’s impending death and the conversation that we needed to have about letting go. It seems to me that something deeper was going on, something that speaks to the significance of joy as that which can and does exist in the midst and independently of grief. This joy doesn’t happen in order to lessen our grief or to cope with it, instead it just happens at the same time we are grieving.

Addendum from June 3, 2010: This summer I am fortunate enough to have two writing partners to work with/be inspired by. Yesterday I discussed this section with one of them and they (Z) had a great critical comment about the joy section. Z said that she was missing the joy in this section. Instead of showing it, I simply wrote about it. She also asked, what do you mean by joy? These were very helpful comments.

My idea of joy is somewhat akin to Audre Lorde’s vision of the erotic in “The Erotic as Power” and Maria Lugones’ notion of loving playfulness in Playfulness, World-Traveling and Loving Perception”. I see joy as being fully present in life and living. To me, joy is oriented towards life, while grief is oriented towards death. More on this later…

Z thought I wasn’t able to fully convey joy in my Sound of Music fragment. I agree and I realized why. The joy in that passage still seems to be too much about grief–that moment doesn’t really interrupt the grief; it is a part of it and the process. My vision of life interrupting grief is much more connected to my experiences with my daughter Rosie J–experiences that are completely out of the context and not in proximity to grief. And they are connected to those experiences with my mom that were not about her dying, but connected me to her and how we lived besdie each other before her diagnosis. Maybe I need to connect the singing to my mom with the singing we used to do together and the singing I do with Rosie? Maybe I also need to add in another italicized fragment about Rosie-as-full-of-life?