Thursday 22 December 2011

The Skeleton Dance

Do you remember doing the Skeleton Dance as a toddler?  I remember my Mom, with her boundless enthusiasm and vibrant energy, teaching us the song.

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones,” she’d warble as my strong, silent Dad  tapped his foot along. And then, because it wasn’t all fun, but a song to teach us about the different bones in our body, she’d make us repeat after her, “The footbone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” and so on until, with gales of giggles, we’d work our way through all the connections until we had a complete skeleton and could do the Skeleton Dance (I still occasionally burst into the song, without the wiggly actions though!)

Those halcyon days of carefree childhood fun are lost for, as many of you know, over the past few years my beloved Dad has suffered a serious of strokes. He is more silent than ever, as the strokes have also diminished his verbal capacity. But he is no longer strong. 

My Mom, too, is fading as, at age 77, she deals with the hard task of physically caring for a man who is her husband and yet is no longer the same man who was the first person to love her after a sad and abandoned childhood in an orphanage. That strong spirit of hers, the one that helped her rise above so many of life’s challenges, is fading under the multiple losses she bears. 

We grieve for her too. Mainly because her joyous spirit is slowly being smothered under the dual pressure of emotional grief and sheer physical exhaustion.  We, her two daughters, are filled with anticipatory grief because everyone tells us - with morose 'comfort'? - that long-term caregivers always die first.

All we can do is be there as her support. We help in any way we can, but it’s never enough to bring either of my loving parents back to us.

Isaac & Dawn, my  much loved parents,
on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005
My Mom’s world – as it must in the current circumstances – has narrowed to the single focus of caring for this man who was her protector and lover for nearly 60 years. She has no energy left for us; I, thinking myself a strong independent woman, have disappointed myself with how deeply I have felt the loss of the unconditional support she so generously showered on us all ...until now. Although she still tries so hard to be there for us, there is just not enough of her bright star left to spread around.

My Dad’s world is...well, let's say that at times it converges with our reality. He momentarily comes back to us, as he did the other day when we chatted about death quite rationally, and he picked up my hand and said, “I’ll miss you when I go to the moon.” In his mind, with its broken synapses and lost connections, the white light of the full moon has become associated with the Divine Light of the God he so faithfully believes in. But those moments of my Real Dad are further and further apart.

As the skeleton's bones become brittle with age and use, the sinews and ligaments that connect them begin to tear and wither too. With each successive stroke that my Dad is subjected too, the connections that hold our family together are taking more and more strain.

But sometimes, other connections are formed that return to those muscles the much needed strength and the ability to somehow dig deeper and go on with a renewed sense of the power of Love.

One such unexpected connection was a book review on Patricia’s Wisdom, a blog that also reviewed my own novel. Patricia reviewed a memoir called SO FAR AWAY: A Daughter’s Memoir of Life, Loss and Love. Written by Dr Christine Hartmann, this story chronicles the author’s journey through both her parents' very different deaths.

Her mother didn’t want to suffer a loss of her mental acuity through old age diseases and so become a burden. She openly planned her death by suicide. Hartmann’s father, like my Dad, saw his death as so far away that he (and his family) were caught unawares by a series of massive strokes that (again like my Dad) kept him physically alive, but at the cost of his mental and spiritual essence.

Browsing Hartmann’s website, I found another connection: like my Mom, Hartmann suffers with glaucoma. And, of course, Hartmann’s parents were teenagers in Nazi Germany during World War II. My parents where white South Africans during the rule of the Apartheid Nationalist Government.

No wonder SO FAR AWAY has had me crying – no, sobbing – inconsolably for the past two days as I read it. I am drained and exhausted and utterly relieved that I am no longer alone in my journey of grief. Another daughter has trodden this path and she has shown me that there is a way through this loss; there is even life and love at the end of this seemingly endless road that has drained all my energy, my enthusiasm and my optimism, turning me ever more isolationist and remote from real life and unable to write a word on the new novel that is hammering away inside my head. 

And, she says, addressing one of my most painful fears, when her father's physical body eventually died, she was able to recapture the spiritual essence and memories of how he was before the strokes stole his essence and left only a shell.  For too long, it has become more and more difficult to remember who my Dad was, before he was reduced to what he is.

What makes this book special is that Dr Hartmann’s life, losses and love are mine too. Reading Hartmann’s story allowed me to cry for her that which I cannot yet cry for myself: the loss of my hero, my “pardner,” my beloved Dad.

I could cry, too, for the fading of that strong light that was the hallmark of my courageous Mom, her joie de vivre overshadowed now by the endless day-to-day caring of the physical body that houses the lost soul of her husband and my father.

Hartmann’s compassionate caring, the relentless journey to understand both herself and her parent’s emotional wounds, fill this memoir and made me realise that I have carried the burden of this private grief and double loss inside me for too long.

I had forgotten that this cycle of life, too, can be a path of mutual love and respect between special parents and a daughter they had, despite their own wounds and private griefs, always surrounded in love and support. "Autumn," said John Keats in his most famous Ode, "thou hast thou beauty too."  Hartmann has reminded me to search for the beauty in even this, a challenging life situation.

The subtitle of this book is that it’s a “memoir about life, loss and love.”  Ultimately, SO FAR AWAY is simply an Ode to Love and it has gifted me with the memory of love at its best. Whether singing the Skeleton Dance or sitting with my Dad daily so my Mom can wallow for twenty uninterrupted minutes in a hot bath filled with bubbles, I know once again that connections forged in love ever remain.

SO FAR AWAY has "soothed the ragged tears of my heart" and, for that, I sincerely thank Christine Hartmann for having the courage to so honestly share her life, loss and love with us.

You can buy your own copy of SO FAR AWAY from Amazon and other major bookstores.

And, of course, this post would not be complete without one more rendition of The Skeleton Dance:


Judith Mercado said...

Judy, my heart weeps for you. Treasure each breath of life your parents have. Theirs is the pneuma that gave you life initially and which will always sustain you, no matter their physical form. This is one of those defining moments in life. It cannot be escaped only transmuted into a different type of life affirmation. Both of my parents are no longer with us, but their influence has been more defining than ever. There is no minimizing the loss and emotional cost, only an opportunity for creation of a new you.

Light and love, dear friend.


Birdie said...

Watching our parents age. Looking on as they get sick. Preparing for their death. Dear god, it hurts.

I remember my mom and dad bigger than life, so strong and able. I am glad I didn't know as a child that it would come to this.


Lisa said...

You write so beautifully Judy. I feel your feelings and dilemma. In any chalenges I can only say, let's count our blessings.

Happy holidays and warmest season's greeting Judy and family.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

JUDY: I love the way you talk of this as an opportunity to create a new me – hopefully a wiser, more compassionate new me, one who my parents¬— in spirit or in flesh—would always be proud of!

BIRDIE: You’ve just been there…((HUGS)) And, yes, it’s such a painful part of “growing up” seeing our beloved parents “growing small.”

OCEANGIRL: One of the biggest blessings of these past few years has been that, despite my Dad’s limitations from the stroke, we have been granted the opportunity to say all those words, like “I love you”, to him that people who lose their parents suddenly don’t have. (PS I love your new profile pic! And warm holiday greetings to you and your family as well!)

Anonymous said...

I remember the skeleton dance when I was a kid. Loved to wiggle and wave my hands over my head. I showed the video to my kids who got a good kick out of it. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Lauri said...

This was such a lovely post Judy. I'm not going to say I'm sorry for what you're going through because I think you've come to the point where you can see that every part of life has its challenges but also its beauty. Your parents have been blessed to have a long loving life together. And you've been blessed to be part of that family of love. Keep strong for your mother, I think she's the one who needs you the most now.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

STEPHEN: When I was loading this video of The Skeleton Dance I couldn't resist wiggling along with it!! :)

LAURI: Yes, that's exactly where I am. If this is the "price" of having been showered with love and support my whole life, then I'm the one who got the best value! :) Mom is our bigger concern now...but trying to winkle her away from my Dad's side for some "alone-time" is Mission Impossible!

Lauri said...

"Mission Impossible"--- ha! I can imagine!

Jenny Woolf said...

I know this song as a Spiritual called "Dry Bones" & have a brilliant old recording of it made in the 30s or something.

I sympathise so much with and about your parents. For years we had a similar situation on both sides of the family but one thing I did learn was that our assumptions about our parents' thoughts reactions and feelings were sometimes so far off the mark. I learned a lot from talking with them.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

JENNY: You make a very important point - it's too easy, because of the stroke damage, to assume thoughts & feelings. Beric (my husband) pointed out that my Dad knows/understands more than what we gave him credit for and we've now started watching what we say in front of him.