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Doors and Portals in a CircleI suddenly sat upright, noticing for the first time that the room had no door. It was odd, because I had logged many hours sitting next to my mother's bed with little to do but stare at every fixture in the room, and I had never before noted the absence of a door. How curious. My mother floated in a coma nearby and I told her about the door; I spoke to her often, preferring to feel she was listening deep down inside and appreciating the distraction. The alternative was a silence made more oppressive by the sighs, whirrs and beeps of hospital machinery filling it.
I wondered if all the rooms in the Intensive Care Unit lacked doors. Probably. There is no such thing as privacy in the ICU (a curtain serves the occasional need). People came in all the time, checked the readings, nodded at the readings and at me, then left again. My mother's state was an open book; they even monitored her vitals around the clock from the nurse's station. Who needed doors?
But while I sat there and stared at where a door should be, I thought about literal doorways and portals, and the figurative ones too. Here was my mom about to make the most major transition of her long and wonderful life; she was about to walk through that final door and leave us all forever. We knew it was coming, the doctors had told us so; it was only a question of time. Her kidneys had shut down, she wasn't breathing on her own, and her heart kept seizing. It was a full month since she went though the doors of the operating room, and on into a coma from there. I hadn't looked into her eyes in years.
Ironically, I had stepped through a door myself, quitting my job and moving my family across country to spend more time with my parents in their golden years. The moving van had just delivered our worldly goods when my cell phone rang with sudden news from my brother. Mom was in the hospital and would need an operation, and someone had to take care of dad. What do you mean, I asked, take care of dad?
Mom's latest heart attack opened the door on dad's true state as well. He had seriously advanced Alzheimer's, and they had chosen to hide this fact from the rest of the family. He could no longer remember to pay the bills, take his medications, or be trusted to drive somewhere and find his way home again. We kids had no idea. That door had been shut and locked on us - until now. I became his chauffeur and his cook, and his rememberer of the hospital visiting hours, too. One afternoon we had just returned from the hospital when dad entered the living room, ready to pay mom her first visit of the day. Our just-finished visit had completely slipped from his mind.
As mom ebbed ever lower, we realized the door was firmly closing on this chapter of their life. Dad had to come home with us, and it was now up to us to make the funeral arrangements, sell their home, pay what needed to be paid, and set up a trust fund for dad's future needs. First, we needed to locate and decipher their records, but we couldn't find the door, let alone the key. Where do we begin? I started with whatever was kept in their house, in-between visits to the hospital.
Life is a complicated business, and possessions grow slowly but inexorably like a stop-motion film of seeds sprouting into full-grown flowers in twenty seconds. There's just so much of it, in every nook and cranny, in boxes and desk drawers, in the back of closets and under socks and underwear. We had to find it, and sift it, and dispose of most of it but not until we were sure we wouldn't need it again.
I knocked on physical doors, too. My folks had lived in a retirement community in Florida for over twenty years and had made a host of friends. I paid their closer friends a personal visit when my mom had passed away, and told them we kids were taking dad north with us to take care of him. No one batted an eye - they were in on the secret. It was they who had insisted one of us come down immediately to take care of dad. His condition was obvious to all who lived daily with our folks, and they were good people, all. I saw in their eyes their realization that someday their own children would be determining the settlement of their own precious lives too. Today was a trial run of that inevitable day. We shared an unspoken but mutual concern and sorrow.
Change had come for my mom and dad without any advance notice. From one moment to the next, everything was different for them, even if neither of them were able to experience it as such at the time. But with all we had to respond to, I don't think my brother, sister or I realized that dramatic change had come into our lives as well.
Change is a constant, of course. It comes with every second that passes on the clock. What is present today is morphing into something new, while the unexpected is lining up in our rear-view mirror about to overtake us and mess with our sense of stability. Nothing stays the same, no matter how we feel about it, and that is neither good nor bad. "…for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so…" (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)
The Buddha once said that life is suffering, because even if we have everything we want we will eventually lose it, and we suffer from that as much as suffering from not having what we dearly want. I suppose that leaves us with a simple philosophy, to simply make the best of what presents to us in the moment. Easier said than done, of course, but until we have the power to orchestrate the universe to our choosing, it will have to do.
Mom passed away and I am sad. Dad is halfway missing, and I mourn for him as I mourn for me, and all the moments I had hoped to have with him and now never will. Life may be both suffering and glorious in the same moment, and our only power is how we choose to feel about it now, and now, and now, and now.
Fortunately, we build into our lives routines and redundancy and much remains unchanged for long periods of time. Routine helps keep us sane and feeling safe. We buy homes and join clubs and spend most of our adult lives in the same community. Thrills are great on vacation, but then we gratefully return to the quiet of home once again. Most of us would not enjoy the "adventure" of living on the streets, never knowing where we might find the next meal, bed, or shower. We need stability to balance against the inevitable changes of life. But dad was soon to show us that a life of constant change was crazy-making.
Dad came north with us. He accepted the recent, radical changes with agreeable calm. I don't know if he fully tracked what was happening much of the time. Either way, he no longer had a choice. My brother was the executor of the estate and handled the financial arrangements. Since I had not even looked for a job in my new city, it was proposed that dad move in with us. Caring for him would be my full-time job; he required full-time care. Eventually we decided to rotate dad among the three households for a week at a time.
It was mistake. He could no longer read or enjoy a television show, because he couldn't follow the story. He forgot what he had learned just a short while previously. So waking up in a new bed in a new house was just too much for his comfort zone. He needed an environment that he recognized, and this could only be achieved by repeating the same experience every day until it penetrated deep enough to be available on a subconscious level.
I learned a lot about Alzheimer's and about dad during this period. His basic personality was sweet and mild, we happily discovered. When his conscious mind could not make sense of the information around him, he defaulted to his basic nature, which was at its core a nice, decent man. But he knew he wasn't tracking things well, and this upset him. Moving him from house to house was simply too disorienting. Uncertainty was terribly distressing.
Most of his minute by minute existence was filled with new discoveries. Even if it was the same meal, the same view out of the window, the same holiday sweater, it was new to him, and he commented on the newness of what he experienced every ten minutes. That's how we knew he was living a life of constant change.
Add to that an environment his subconscious couldn't recognize, and it was all too overwhelming and disturbing. He craved stability, and could not find it. It was very upsetting to realize his world was out of control, unrecognizable. But then he would forget his discovery of an unstable world, and we could calm him with some temporary entertainment.
We need our doors, to shut out the night, to keep at bay the whirlwind of change that lay just beyond the portal. We need to be able to choose who and what we let in. We need control of our environment. We need to regulate the change we let into our lives, whenever possible. We found a good home for dad in a stable care facility because that was what he wanted. He craved the regularity he could not generate for himself. He needed a familiar routine we could not provide. He wanted to be with people who shared the same memories of days long past.
We found that we could not really entertain him - it all reset in a few minutes, anyway. And our attempts to bring fun and variety into his life proved to be unwelcome distractions to a mind that cried for uniformity. He found comfort in the distant past; those memories were still nicely intact.
It was a time of adjustment for the whole family. And for my wife and me, a time of disorientation, too. Dad wasn't the only one feeling his way through unfamiliar territory. We were literally strangers in a strange land. The furniture had barely been brought into the house when I found myself flying down to Florida to respond to the crisis. We needed to locate the nearest supermarket; select a new dentist; ask our neighbor where we could buy a snow-blower like his; and all the rest of the minutia of modern life. Everything was new and unknown, and the most mundane chores became fresh challenges.
I thought about The Doors of Perception, first penned in a poem by William Blake, borrowed by Aldous Huxley, and later the original name of Jim Morrison's band. When you find yourself needing a car mechanic you hope you can trust, you open a door that feels much more complicated than simply taking the car down to the mechanic you have routinely used for years. All of our routines were gone, and needed to be replaced. Until then, we were acutely conscious of every door of perception we tried to open. Where we once entertained ourselves by watching the surfers, or strolling along the cliffs, or people-watching with a glass of wine at an outdoor table downtown, now we … what? Everything, literally everything, has to be rediscovered. Friends made anew - or not. Employment found. Highlights in sharp focus.
I began to understand dad's need for stability and security. Too much change can indeed be crazy-making. And I realized the truth of another well-worn phrase: you can't go home again. I thought I could. We came around in the circle to the beginning again, but everything was different. My siblings had college-age kids, and they had their own lives to lead. My parents… well, we were not going to have the type of cheery Christmas gathering I had envisioned while packing for the move east.
Doors open to new and exciting opportunities. Sometimes they reveal death and destruction. We may feel the need to be extremely careful before we open the next door, but we cannot help ourselves, we must open it eventually. We are very curious creatures, and we cannot remain in place for long, no matter how much we wish to hold onto the now.
Buddha was right, life is suffering, yet if detachment saved us from the pain of loss, would we really be happier choosing detachment from desire? My dad wouldn't think so. He'd give anything to experience a life of choice again, and happily accept the consequences that accompany a life of gain and loss. Unfortunately, for him that door is closed. For the rest of us, however, a long line of portals are waiting.