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?

The 3 Judiths

If you have been following my blog recently, you may know that I am currently writing about my experiences of working through/making sense of/troubling my mom’s illness and recent death from pancreatic cancer. This entry is the third in a series (here are part one and part two) in which I document my writing/thinking process. In the second part I wrote about my plan (which was developed as I was writing that entry) to expand my manuscript beyond living and grieving with J Butler to include two more Judiths–my mom, Judith Puotinen and my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. Since then I have been writing (first in word and now in Pages on my iPad) my manuscript (to be submitted for consideration in one journal’s special issue on mothering, grief and loss). Here is what I wrote yesterday afternoon and this morning:

In many ways, Judith Butler has been a part of my living with and grieving beside my mom. It is not so much that her work has comforted me (although it has), or allowed me to fully make sense of my mom’s illness and death (what could, really?), but that her work has always been a part of this process for me. When my mom was diagnosed I was reading and writing about Precarious Life. When my mom died I had just completed but was unable to give a presentation on Butler, Undoing Gender, and the virtue of staying in trouble. And for much of the time in between those years of diagnosis and death I was reading and thinking about Butler in relation to my own ideas about making and staying in trouble.

But just as Judith Butler has been a part of my living and grieving beside my mom, my mom and her terminal cancer has been a part of my living and grieving beside Judith Butler. My reading of, and subsequent teaching and writing about, Butler has been informed in many different ways by my mom, her illness and my experiences of struggling with her impending death. When I was in the waiting room as my mom’s tumor was being removed and I was writing about the livable life, I wasn’t only thinking about how Butler’s articulation of the livable life would shape my ideas about what was happening to my mom (and to me and the rest of my family); I was thinking about how what was happening to my mom would shape my ideas about Butler’s articulation of the livable life and her larger project about grief. My mom, and her experiences living with and dying from pancreatic cancer powerfully shaped how I read and think about grief and life and the ways in which loss and life undoes us.

To complicate this even further, my living and grieving beside Judith Butler and Judith Puotinen, have been shaped by my experiences as the mother to a third Judith, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. Throughout the past four years my daughter was beside me. I was pregnant with her when my mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and while I was writing my dissertation on Butler. I was breastfeeding and staying up with her almost every night while my mom was recovering from her first round of chemotherapy and as I was teaching about the ethical turn in Butler’s work. I struggled with her frequent (and very typical for a three-year old) “I hate yous” while my mom started falling down too much and as I taught a graduate class on grief and being undone in Butler’s Undoing Gender. And I marveled at her feisty and troublemaking spirit while my mom’s weak body revolted against her almost (but not quite) indestructible spirit and as I began writing about the virtue of troublemaking and troublestaying for an upcoming presentation and on my blog.

…And here is one more excerpt from that same manuscript:

This essay is an experimental attempt at juxtaposing my experiences of living and grieving beside three different Judiths: my mom, Judith Puotinen; my academic subject of study, Judith Butler; and my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. The purpose of this essay is not to connect these experiences or my narratives of them in any easy or seamless way, but to put them beside each other in the hopes of presenting one person’s tentative and unfinished account of grief, loss, motherhood and the livable (and not so livable) life.

I will use the notion of beside to organize my juxtaposition of these various narratives. But, what do I mean by beside and how does it speak to my own experiences with my mother’s diagnosis of and death from pancreatic cancer? Perhaps the most obvious way in which to understand my use of beside in this essay is this: Throughout the past four years (the liminal years in-between diagnosis and death), all three Judiths have been a central part of my life. They have literally been beside me, and beside each other, as I have struggled to make sense of and endure grief and impending loss. My engagements with each of these three Judiths occurred at the same time, all in the span of these four years. I was reading and writing about Butler’s notions of grief and the livable life at the same time that I was witnessing both my mom’s awe inspiring display of resistance to and persistence against death and my daughter’s insatiable (and infectious) desire for life. All three of these Judiths–Judith, the author of Undoing Gender; Judith, the mother struggling for a livable life and against death; and Rosemary Judith, the daughter filled with joy and the desire to engage with life–happened in the midst of each other and in the midst of my own engagements with them.

Beside suggests more than the literal meaning of being next to or in the midst of, however. I am currently experimenting with some other meanings of beside and how they might help me to organize my thoughts and this essay. Here are a few other ways I want to think about the beside in my title, “Living and Grieving Beside Judith”:

  • to display intense or excessive emotion, to be beside oneself with grief
  • to keep vigil or persistent watchful care over someone or something–to always be beside or along side of
  • to be next to but not the same as, to exist alongside someone or something that is in proximity to you but to whom you are not reducible
  • to be in addition to, to function as a break from, to be to the side of
  • to be at the edges of something, to be alongside of it but not fully inside or outside of it