Wet Earth and Dreams
A Narrative of Grief and Recovery
By Jane Lazarre
Duke University Press Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Self That Self Restrains
In the spring of 1995, the condition I seem to have been waiting for all my life finally struck me. I was trying to keep afloat after three difficult years full of crises and disappointments. I knew I had to move to a new stage or phase of things, to unencumber myself of old, tiresomely repeated themes, and especially to liberate myself from the anxieties and fears of disaster that stalked my days, as they had off and on for more than a decade. I thought I could face whatever network of defenses and distortions had held these fears in place so long, but I was losing the battle for a sense of control and becoming increasingly depressed. A surprising characteristic of the depression was my ability to go on functioning in the world at a level of ordinary competence so that only my very best friends, or those who were for some reason interested in being especially observant of me, noticed. I taught my classes, mentored my students, remained extremely involved with the lives of my grown sons, and was even engrossed in the writing of a book about the dramatic changes in my perspective on myself and my society as a result of living for more than twenty-five years in an African American family, the white Jewish mother of Black sons. Yet there is no question that I was seriously depressed, if that overused word continues to suggest a sense of unalleviated, bleak hopelessness, chronic physical fatigue, sadness with seemingly no end, loss of sexual desire, and, at times, the wish to die.
I felt like two women: the one everyone knew—teacher, writer, mother, provider, attentive wife and friend; and that other one, as I began to call her. The girl/woman who above all was constantly afraid, at least some part of every day subject to visions of disaster destroying me or those I loved, especially Adam and Khary, my sons.
I'd be away on vacation with a close friend, and as I walked home from a lovely day at the beach, a "vision" would come to me that local police were waiting to tell me my family had met with a terrible accident and were all dead. I could see the faces of the police, careful and worried; I could hear their solicitous voices; I could picture myself packing, rushing home to identify the bodies. My heart would begin racing as we neared the little cottage where we lived for a week or two in idyllic peace and remote beauty. Whatever conversation I was having with my friend would fade into the background as I struggled to argue against myself, trying to dismantle the ineluctable reality of my sudden fear. And I could not relax into normality again until I had made a call home, ascertained that all was as I'd left it, not suddenly, irretrievably lost.
Or, lying in bed in the middle of the night waiting for one of my sons to come home (if they were visiting, or home for vacations during their college years, or living at home for a time while in a transition between college and the next stage of life), I'd be attacked (it felt like an attack from the outside which instantly permeated the deepest recesses of my inner self) by the conviction that they were hurt, either by gun-wielding cops or sociopathic young muggers, and I'd have to get up and pace the apartment, drink water, sweating and crying, sometimes for hours, until I heard the key in the door.
Over the years I tried to convince Douglas of how much I needed reassurance rather than anger during these bouts of hysteria. But anger—because I could spark his own anxieties and because nothing disturbs him so much as people being out of control—was always close to the surface of his reactions. And it was not until that spring of 1995, when I got breast cancer, and its six-month aftermath of painful and frightening treatments, that he came to believe in my inability to control my panic at times, despite honest and strenuous attempts to do so.
Whenever I was subject to these bouts of fear, and they came more or less often depending on many factors, it felt as if all order, design, and predictability were gone from the world and everything in it. Chaos reigned, an evil chaos, like a curse or supernatural punishment, incomprehensible to ordinary consciousness yet making some terrible sense. An explosion might occur suddenly, blowing my or some loved one's body to fragments of unidentifiable tissue and bone. A car rilled with drive-by shooters might murder one of us for no reason, any time, any place. A subway could be derailed and all its passengers killed. Any and all natural and man-made disasters seemed not only possible, which the nightly assault of local and national news broadcasts assured me they were, but imminent. Even the character of my children could fall into a chaotic world where nothing was known or reliable. They are both stable, strong young men, neither of them at all self-destructive. Yet, I could suddenly have a fear of one of them committing suicide, tortured by some torment or despair utterly hidden from me.
When I look back now, feeling stronger each day and having been given a very good prognosis, though always frightened of the recurrence of cancer, I understand that my life is changed forever by the diagnosis, the lumpectomy and removal of lymph nodes that permanently changed the feelings and capacities of my right arm, by six weeks of daily radiation, and five months of chemotherapy. I recall my first visit to the surgeon who would determine the recommendation for treatment. I was frightened, of course, but steeled myself to a bravery I knew I couldn't do without. Hysteria, of the sort I was used to during my nightmare visions, seemed almost as dangerous as the cancer itself. I asked in a fairly controlled tone of voice, I think, what the long-term effect of surgery on my breast would be. How deep would the cut be? Would it look like half a breast, or just a breast with a hole in it? The young woman surgeon, who was immensely capable and immensely busy, felt around for a few minutes, trying to distinguish the original lump from all the surrounding swellings that were the result of the various biopsies, then stepping away from me she said: "The breast [the medical people always said "the breast" and "your cancer," a choice of vocabulary that tended to reinforce a sense of guilt for having cancer in the first place] will look somewhat though not dramatically different. But you," and she pointed at me somewhere between my face and my heart, "will probably never be the same again."
And she was completely right about that. The immediate result was that I was no longer depressed, absolutely certain that I wanted to live as long as possible. The fears not only remained but became even more intense and with their increasing intensity, my increasing desire to escape them by facing them once and for all. Having a life-threatening illness not only changes perspective, as everyone says, but pattern. The relations between things seem to shift. Previously veiled or disguised connections are suddenly exposed, and as in fiction, it is the connection between seemingly disparate experiences that penetrates defenses and promises lucidity. Perhaps, that is why so many writers who undergo such an experience must write about it before they can resume writing anything else. Just as, despite great inner resistance, I do now. It seems absolutely necessary to name the change, and to do so, one has to become clear as to what led up to it, what came before.
Perhaps I had feared breast cancer even more than most women because my mother died of metastasized breast cancer when she was thirty-eight and I seven, and this experience, of witnessing her illness, decline, and death over some years, as well as the particular aftermath of the death constructed by a fairly insane family, had literally determined the structure of much of my life. Although I often felt embarrassed by the recognition that this period of childhood still influenced me forty-five years later, I know for certain now that every important experience I have ever had, everyone I've loved or hated, every central choice I've made—my marriage, my mothering, my friendships, my worst faults, my steadiest virtues, and certainly my writing—has been affected by this incident at the heart of the narrative of my life.
Years ago, I came to believe I had resolved old feelings about my mother through a combination of psychotherapy and writing, that I had transcended the legacy of loss, grief, and the threat of madness I knew as a child. I had written books about mothers, including myself, and books about daughters, all of them, according to Gloria, a therapist I worked with for about twelve years, written in part to bring my mother back to life. All of them, in that sense, were failures to me; yet all of them also were stepping stones away from her influence, each book like a stone across a rushing stream that periodically rises to overflow the banks, but each stone solid in its hard, flat existence.
After about six years of therapy and two more books, Gloria told me she thought I had finally buried my mother, and she had reason to think so. Strengthened by Gloria's kindness, frankness, and the carefully honed intuition of one who has made listening into an art, I had come to understand that I suffered from a sense of guilt for my mother's death, a guilt constructed of false but apparently typical childish beliefs about the omnipotence of wishes and the dark attraction of desolation and longing, if those emotions are all that continues to connect one to what has been lost. Death was a place, I had decided as a child, where my mother still lived, and I had grown into my forties when I understood that my love/hate relation to death, and the need to relive and relive my early powerful emotional ambivalence toward my mother's memory as well as her absence, had influenced my entire life story, rubbing it, slowly scraping away at it, polishing it at times to a magnetic and scintillating shine—just like the rushing stream upon those flat, safe stones. Achieving this understanding, I lived through periods of exhilarating well-being, the strongest sense of confidence and ordinary happiness I have ever known. I had finally buried my mother, in a way. What I did not fully appreciate then, but know for certain now, is the inevitability, with certain bedrock mythologies in a life, of periodic resurrection, or, to sustain the previous metaphor, of storm and flood.
Stories of our lives often happen by accident, and these stories provide the conditions, if one so chooses, to reexamine the past in a new and deeper way. Having breast cancer was such an experience for me. It followed a period during which all my central stories seemed to be about loss. The stories of loss began when Gloria herself died from metastasized breast cancer; continued with the slow dying and eventual death of Douglas's brother Simeon from AIDS; with immense work disappointments for both Douglas and me; and with an experience of prolonged anxiety during a trip Khary took to Jamaica that included a short but complete breakdown in myself.
I am sitting in Glorias office, in my old chair, only this time I am the only one in the room as Gloria has been dead for some weeks. I have been here for over an hour, thinking and writing, and finally I close my notebook, get up, and for the last time walk out the double doors into the tiny garden that leads up the stairs to the street. I feel no sense of closure or resolution. Quite the opposite. I realize it will be some time before I comprehend what I have lost or even clarify what I may be able to preserve.
After the funeral, I had called her husband, also a therapist whose office was at the other end of the basement level of the brownstone they shared, and made an appointment to see him to talk about our mutual loss and get his advice about seeing another therapist, possibly someone Gloria herself might have recommended if she'd had the time. He and I decided I would put off the decision about entering therapy with someone else until I had thought about—in his words—what I had accomplished with Gloria. After all, I had "terminated" the first, long cycle of treatment some time ago, and now came back only for periodic epilogues, lasting months or weeks, motivated either by crises I needed help with, or simply by the desire to see her and engage in that special sort of conversation about the self that is possible with a long-known and beloved therapist. Her husband, who was obviously deeply bereaved, made a generous and surprising offer that day. I could, he said, come to sit in her room whenever I wished over the next few weeks. I could just call ahead and let him know I was coming, and no one would disturb me.
I went twice. The first time I sat in her chair, hoping to experience in some immutable material form the idea, which she had voiced on the occasion of various separations, that she would always be with me. I found her glasses on the windowsill near her chair where she always kept them, half-glasses to put on so she could read, and for a few moments, I put them on my own face. Then, her presence became very strong, as if she still inhabited the room—with her wide skirts, paisley button-up blouses, her flat shoes ?as if even now she was shifting heavily in that chair, beneath me. She would look off into the distance, trying to find words that did not always seem to come easily to her, although insight did, as if she were able, like a painter or a dancer, to know things without language. The first time I began by just looking around the familiar place where I had undergone a transformation in my character, a sea change, Gloria called it, that began with a breakdown in my thirties when I reached my mother's death age. Twelve years later, sitting in Gloria's chair trying to comprehend the loss of her, a strange feeling overtook me. First I felt a heavy warmth, a heaviness that suggested an anchoring, or a sucking down, a hypnotic and familiar fatigue that threatens both consciousness and capacity, making me want to stop, give up, relinquish, retreat, a feeling I had described many times to Gloria of wanting to die. Then, as often happened, anxiety replaced fatigue, and I thought she was in the room and wanted me to get out of her chair. Bereavement. The wish to die to be reunited with the one who has been lost. The dangerous and compelling retreat from energy. And then the fear that such a wish might be granted. "She," or what I kept of her, protected me. I got up and resumed my old seat, opening a small black notebook in which I began to record all the feelings I'd had up to that moment. A feeling of calm returned, a sense of belonging.
The second time I visited her room, I decided to write a careful description of all its details so that in years to come they would not be lost to me. I sat down immediately in "my" chair, in reality the one I shared with many others, and as I had done hundreds of times before, I looked around at the peaceful yet provocative space she had created.
Each week there would be fresh flowers in a vase on her desk. Now there were dried flowers in the vase, purple roses. Perhaps she had put them there before she left this room for good, and here they remained, drying into another sort of beauty.
On the polished floor are two warm rugs, one brown tweed, the other green, brown, and yellow patterns of branches and flowers, a pattern I studied for many hours over the years when I regularly visited this room. The yellow couch I never lay down on because I always wanted to face her was behind me as usual, and I got up and lay down on it then, just to feel what might have been. Rising, I felt, like a blow to the chest, the emptiness of her black leather chair, the chair now filled with her absence. I recall the same odd, powerful tangibility of absence in my father's chair after his death. For months it did not seem ordinary, but always empty, as if emptiness and absence were things you could touch, be touched by, embrace, and, if you had nothing else, preserve.
On her chairside table are her old, scratchy notes in two spiral notebooks. I remember her picking them up and beginning to write only when I was reporting dreams, as if she could recall everything else adequately but needed notes to remember the intricate images of the unconscious. If my dream was short and clear, as some dreams are a perfect distillation of a broad pattern of feeling, she would write only the beginning, then take her glasses off her nose and look at me. This would happen each time I had the recurring dream about the heart in the cave. I was walking down a windswept, desolate but peaceful ocean beach and I would come to a large cave. Inside, I was burying something, packing it down with sand. When I was done I said aloud, I have buried my heart and I will never take it out again. So, what exactly have you buried there? she would ask each time, making a note on her page, then staring into my eyes.
On the table on the other side of her chair are the objects I have studied so often, whenever I needed to look away from her. A small sculpture I believe I have seen somewhere else, known in some other place, of a woman's face with a beaded headdress in bronze. A tiny man in coat and hat, head down, running, escaping from something. An ancient Hindu goddess raising her many hands. Over the fireplace, with its magnificent Mexican tiles, an old rabbi with a long white beard and a cap painted black looks eternally into his open book. On the wall, a woman made of white stone swings freely in a hammock—or she is the hammock—her arms raised behind her, her body a V shape as she swings. And framed in gold, there is a detail of a Reubens, the very same portrait I had on my wall as a child, which still hangs in my study today, reminding me of the inexplicable connection I felt to this woman whose heart was remarkably open to the stories of mine. Occasionally, we meet people who seem like lost kin or spiritual siblings. Some might say we'd known each other in a past life and were destined to know each other in successive lives as well. A very comforting story that both recognizes the mysteriousness at the heart of certain unlikely loves and suggests that terrible loss is not irretrievable, that there are future meetings with lost beloveds the nature of which we cannot imagine. "What is death like?" I asked another close friend who had recently died and then came to me in a dream. She responded, "near, very near." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wet Earth and Dreams by Jane Lazarre. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.