Illness, loss and words of comfort

New York Times Personal Health writer Jane Brody last week noted another chapter in the wrenching drama she has shared with readers, first with the cancer diagnosis of her husband, lyricist Richard Engquist, and later following his death on March 18. In the new essay Brody tells of condolences received from friends and strangers. The writing, she says, has been therapeutic.

But one piece of therapy I never expected was the feedback from readers, friends and acquaintances: many hundreds of condolence letters, e-mail messages and comments on The New York Times’s Well blog.

Whether in a card, note, letter, phone message, hug or pat on the shoulder, some people seem to know instinctively how to show they care and will remember the deceased. What stands out most in these messages is their deeply personal quality. People who knew my husband in various walks of life (especially his advocacy for his beloved Prospect Park and his career as a writer for the musical theater) saw him in ways that had escaped me, because I was too close to have their perspective. By sharing these details, they have rounded out my memories of a life shared and separate from his — memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Brody gives examples of the many messages about her husband that brought comfort, and offers thanks for the fact that those unwanted messages — “Surely you’ll meet someone else;” “I know how you feel, my dog died last year” — had not arrived.

There’s one thing often of great comfort to someone who’s suffered a loss that Brody doesn’t include and that doesn’t occur to everyone. It’s the reminder of what the survivor meant to the now-deceased, one of the easiest ways to write a quick, meaningful condolence note. I learned it many years ago from someone I never met. Her Army officer brother, to whom I’d been pinned (an emblem of commitment in those olden days; I’ve no idea if such customs still exist) was killed in Korea. I could not travel across the country for the funeral, all of the sympathy and support was rightfully going to his family, but I felt bereft and unconsoled. Then I got a two-line note. “Dave said you could always make him smile,” she wrote; “and that will always make us smile.”

Thoughtful people have reinforced the knowledge of how much such a thought can mean. “Your mother was so proud of you because —.” Happily, in this fast-moving world the snail-mail sympathy note seems to survive. And I suppose even the e-mail condolence is better than nothing. If you’re stumped for a note you could be writing, try it this way.

Sitting with Marina Abramović: MoMA event invites art study and self-study

You have one more week to run over to the Museum of Modern Art — this will necessitate a quick trip to Manhattan if you’re not already there — to sit with Marina.

That would be performance artist Marina Abramovic, who has been hanging out in the atrium at a bare table in the middle of a huge, white space with itinerant visitors every day since late March.

She doesn’t move, she doesn’t speak. You can do the same, seated across the table, for as long as you like, if you’re willing to wait in line. One sitter sat for more than a day, incurring the wrath of the sitters-in-waiting, but a large, soft-spoken guard and the general tradition of gentility at MoMA keep the lid on things.

When I visited the site recently — I would happily have sat for a few moments, but the sitters-in-waiting told me they’d been sitting in line for close to three hours — the scene raised a whole bunch of questions. Being more Mom than art critic, I couldn’t help wonder about the toll this has to be taking on Abramovic. She spoke about it with James Westcott of guardian.co.uk at the beginning of this saga:

“I have to be like a mountain,” the artist told me a couple of days before going into her “big silence” for the performance. She will go home every evening when the museum closes, but, in order to sustain her meditative state, she will not speak until 31 May. “The atrium is such a restless place, full of people passing through. The acoustics are terrible – it’s too big, too noisy. It’s like a tornado. I try to play the stillness in the middle.”

While I was talking to her, Abramović was anything but still. Her habitual anxiety and jovial hyperactivity – so different to the formidable power and placidity she has demonstrated in 40 years of extreme acts of endurance – were in overdrive. “People don’t realise it is pure hell sitting so long,” she said in her thick Serbian accent, while fidgeting. Cramps will set in after an hour or so. Her bum will begin to hurt. But she will ride out the pain. “The concept of failure never enters my mind,” she insists. To insure against it, a masseuse, a nutritionist and a personal trainer will visit her apartment before and after each day’s work.

She will undoubtedly need all of the above, and possibly a long soak in a hot tub. Visitors, though, get off easy and certainly are never bored. For the rest of the show, a retrospective of her work including some fifty pieces from four decades, visitors are invited to galleries upstairs. Entrance to those galleries involves squeezing in between naked people standing in the doorway (Abramovic trained others to replicate her original creation of the standing-in-the-doorway piece, when she and her partner were the standers-in), but the squeamish can go through an alternative entryway.

It is the contemplative aspect of the seated Abramovic that most strikes this viewer. Sitting motionless, speechless, for extended periods of time suits some of us better than others. My gentle therapist friend Sue, for example, leaves this weekend for a vision quest. Part of it, she explained, will involve four days in the wilderness, alone. “No books?!,” I said? She gave me one of those patient, indulgent laughs. I think that means you just sit with yourself, possibly speechless, motionless.

I’m not so sure about myself, but Marina Abramovic could handle it.

Performance artist Marina Abramović – ‘I have to be like a mountain’ | Art and design | guardian.co.uk.

Abortion foes winning with fear tactics

This is the way abortion rights end (apologies to T.S. Eliot): not with a bang, but with something worse than a whimper. The steady, relentless chipping away of those rights, state by state. And where a straightforward denial of women’s rights might face opposition, abortion foes are stooping to emotion-twisting, privacy-invading, fear-inducing tactics the likes of which have not been seen in a half century.

The “pro-lifers” (which is to say, the people who worry about some potential, unwanted life but don’t give a tinker’s dam for the lives of grown — often just barely grown — women) want abortion absolutely banned in this country. They are pushing closer to that goal every day. They like to talk about “protecting the unborn,” but the big losers in this dangerous game will be those who most need protection: poor, disadvantaged, un-empowered women.

New York Times editorial writer Dorothy Samuels offered a sharp overview of the dangerous times ahead for women’s rights, after reporting on a recent lunch celebrating the 40th anniversary of New York’s becoming the first state to fully legalize abortion. That law, Samuels notes, “began to reduce the death and injury toll from back-alley abortions and set the stage for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which made abortion legal nationwide and recognized a constitutional right to privacy.

But abortion-rights groups are newly anxious about new assaults on women’s reproductive rights, including a fight over abortion that snarled the last days of the health care reform debate. Anti-abortion groups are newly emboldened.

The health care reform law contains advances for women’s reproductive health care, including enlarged access to insurance coverage for maternity care, contraception and other services. But President Obama and pro-choice Congressional lawmakers made abortion coverage vulnerable as part of the effort to secure the measure’s passage.

Kelli Conlin, head of Naral Pro-Choice New York, told guests at the lunch that “anti-choice forces are mobilizing in every single state to limit a woman’s access to abortion in more insidious ways than we can imagine.”

As Ms. Conlin was speaking, members of the Oklahoma House were getting ready to override vetoes of two punishing abortion measures. The state’s Democratic governor, Brad Henry, rightly viewed these intrusions into women’s lives and decision-making as unconstitutional.

One of the measures, which seems destined to spawn copycat bills in other states, requires women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion and further mandates that a doctor or technician set up the monitor so the woman can see it and hear a detailed description of the fetus.

The other law grants protection from lawsuits to doctors who deliberately withhold fetal testing results that might affect a woman’s decision about whether to carry her pregnancy to term.

Several states have either passed or are considering bills that would ban abortion coverage in insurance plans sold through the state exchanges established by the federal health care law.

A new Utah law criminalizes certain behavior by women that results in miscarriage. Embarking on a road that could lead to the Supreme Court, Nebraska last month banned most abortions at the 20th week of pregnancy based on a questionable theory of fetal pain.

About two dozen states are looking at bills to increase counseling requirements or waiting periods prior to abortions. About 20 states are considering new ultrasound requirements. This is on top of an already onerous regimen of state restrictions that has drastically cut down on abortion providers and curtailed a woman’s ability to exercise a constitutionally protected right.

Draconian laws will not stop unintended pregnancies. Once abortion foes succeed in eliminating a woman’s right to privacy and ability to make her own, often difficult, choices the lucrative business of back-alley abortions will once again thrive. And women will die.

Editorial Observer – A Spreading Peril for Women’s Privacy and Freedom – NYTimes.com.

Dementia: stories and sources

The post about dementia sufferers and their tendency to wander (May 6) evoked a host of stories about temporarily lost parents, grandparents, friends and relations. Almost everyone, it seems, has such a story — and unfortunately, those who haven’t may collect one or two in the future.  Reader Cathy Jensen sent a poignant tale of a friend who went wandering in his pajamas during the pre-dawn hours, but was found by the garbage collectors and brought home on the back of their truck. And reader Tom McAfee, en route to see his own mom and hopefully jog memories of children and grandchildren with photos, sent a link to a podcast aired on WNYC in March.

An offbeat idea, the WNYC piece explains, turned out to be a good solution for a nursing home in Germany from which residents were wandering off. Administrators created a bus stop in front of the home, complete with bench and a painted sign for a bus that never came. It provided a place where many wanderers could sit and wait until the urge to go back home, or elsewhere, melted away. Might not work everywhere, but it worked in Dusseldorf.

And reader JTMcKay4 sent, in case you missed them in the comments section, links to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “Safe Return” program and to a source for a long list of related documents. State-specific advance directive forms can also be downloaded, free, from the “Caring Connections” site maintained by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association site, and this space remains committed to the support of the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, from which forms can also be downloaded.

There is no guarantee against winding up in a memory unit. But a little preparation can go a long way toward helping if the time comes.

Drill, baby, drill?

It’s going to be a long time fixing.

The Deepwater Horizon site is pouring some 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil daily from a broken pipe into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of dollars are being added to the leak’s cost, and despite BP‘s assurance that they will pay for the fix, long-term costs are beyond estimating at this point.

PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff got differing views Monday night from Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and Sara Banaszak, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute. Asked how the current catastrophe will affect his organization’s long-standing opposition to off-shore drilling, Davies said

Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

[daylifegallery id=”1272648400606″]

Things have gone terribly wrong. But not wrong enough to change much, considering our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Banaszak seemed unshaken:

(A)t this point”, she said, “we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

It was not an encouraging interview (but worth reading the entire transcript.) Banaszak mentioned that 63% of our energy comes from oil and gas, and repeatedly said that dependence will continue for at least the next 20 or 30 years. Davies mentioned, at one point, that if a similar catastrophe were to happen off the Virginia coast, where this writer grew up sailing on a pristine Chesapeake Bay and where offshore drilling could soon begin, damage would hit beaches as far north as New Jersey and beyond.

So far, one glimmer of good news for the west coast: Governor Schwarzenegger is thinking that perhaps opening up the California coast to drilling might not be such a grand idea after all.

Abortion foes' 'Black Genocide' campaign draws one woman's thoughtful response

“Black children are an endangered species” the billboards proclaim — and they are having success. At the bottom of each huge sign is the sponsoring site: toomanyaborted.com, whose stated vision is “to eliminate abortion in America.” Eighty such billboards ran, as a campaign to attract more Black members to Georgia Right to Life; if the newly-concluded effort is deemed a success it is expected to be replicated in other states.

A thoughtful story ran in Sunday’s Women’s eNews, and was forwarded to this space by thoughtful reader Melissa. Set aside the valid physical, emotional, economic and other reasons for terminating a pregnancy, author/scholar Margaret Morganroth Gullette‘s personal story illustrates how a combination of factors can also lead to a considered choice.

Gullette tells of learning from her mother, who was then in her eighties, that she had had an illegal abortion when Gullette and her brother were very young. Unlike this writer, and thousands of others who risked (and often lost) their lives in barbaric procedures because a doctor willing to perform a sterile abortion could not be found, Gullette’s mother was able to have a safe abortion in Manhattan. Her parents were poor and her father’s employment uncertain in those 1940s days, Gullette writes, and felt it would be unfair to add a third child to the already struggling family.

I want to add something–temporality–often forgotten or undervalued in the abortion rights debate, even by pro-choice people.

It is hard to define “life” but one thing we know is that it involves time passing. Life time. If a woman who mothers lives after delivery, she is dedicating some hefty chunk of her life time to being responsible for her child. Usually, two decades. The right to decide whether to proceed with a pregnancy takes into account, and must take into account, that irrevocable pledge of responsibility.

It trivializes this life-course decision-making to suggest my mother’s choice was made on the basis of “convenience.” She decided to make my father’s life easier, to devote her maternal attention to her existing children and to study to further her own and our family’s joint life chances.

Everything proved her decision a correct one. She earned a teaching degree, then went to Bank Street College of Education and earned a master’s degree, got tenure, became a wonderful and happy first-grade teacher and earned a good and secure salary that rose every year.

She and my father together moved us up some inches into the lower middle class so that I could get a good education.

In her 80s, when my mother told me about this episode in her life, it was clear that she had never had any regrets.

The Right-to-Lifers would have us believe that no woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy, at any moment after conception occurs. That unwanted, possibly unloved and uncared for children must be brought into the world no matter what.

Suppose — just suppose — they were to quit shrieking about eliminating a woman’s right to control her own body, and focus instead on that irrevocable pledge of responsibility. What a gift to the children of the world — black, white, brown, whatever color — that would be.

My Mother’s Abortion Improved All of Our Lives | Womens eNews.

The fears behind Arizona immigration law

If immigration reform has been on the back burner, despite President Obama’s campaign promises to tackle the issue, the May Day marchers hope to move it back to the front, and turn up the heat. They turned out in New York — 5,000+ in Manhattan’s Foley Square, in Los Angeles — fired up by singer Gloria Estefan and Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, and here in San Francisco — where the basic fears raised by Arizona’s new law were evident. SB 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last week, makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

The (San Francisco) march, part of the annual worldwide May Day workers’ rights demonstrations, stretched four to five blocks and ended at City Hall, where members of the conservative Tea Party and local Golden Gate Minutemen held a counter-protest.

Jim Homer, a business manager for Local 216 of the Laborers International Union of North America, whose 100-member group led the march, said many fellow construction laborers fear Arizona’s SB1070 will spread to California and create cultural hostility toward foreign-born workers.

“The immigration system is set up to blame the workers who come here,” Homer said. “There needs to be reform of the immigration laws that put more focus on the employers and their responsibilities, not just on the people who come to this country to make a living.”

The two primary sides to the immigration issue were in sharp focus on the west coast:

(W)orkers and immigrants at the San Francisco march – and others like it in Oakland and San Jose – said the law will give police the right to check for immigration papers of any brown-skinned citizens.

At the Civic Center counter-protest, Elizabeth Kelly, an Alameda resident who supports the Golden Gate Minutemen, said she also wants immigration reform. The Minutemen are a local branch of the controversial national group that voluntarily patrols the border, trying to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

“Close the border,” she said. “I want to see them go back. That’d be my immigration reform.”

The Golden Gate Minutemen, whose Web site features some scary stuff (May Day! May Day! Invaders Coming!) is part of the fear factor for a number of recent immigrant — some legal, some not — friends of mine. “They’re not going to ask questions first, they’re going to send you to jail or out of the country, and ask questions later,” said one.

Most reports say Obama won’t do much beyond tightening border control in the near future. A lot more is needed. Until we get real reform, including some reasonable guest worker provisions and amnesty for those who have proved themselves good citizens already, we’re going to continue to be a nation not just of immigrants, but of fear. Not a very comfortable social system for anyone.

Big S.F. protest of Arizona immigration law.

Moving Mom & Dad: 8 months later

“The best thing? Well, there are only three rooms to look for my glasses in.” Nearing the end of her first year after a final move, my sister reports a whole bunch of pluses and only a couple of minuses in her housing choice.

Like millions of other older Americans, my sister Helen and her husband Clare faced the multitude of questions that come with aging in this country: where to live, how to stay active and independent, how to get necessary health care, how to finance it all. After a lifetime in academics and music, they had good friends at home and around the globe, but were beginning to feel isolated in their 4th floor Boston condominium because of limited mobility (Clare has Parkinson’s; they had long since sold the car…) and knew that changes had to be made.

First issue: Housing. Staying in their home was not a good option; though it had plenty of spare room, no family member was available to move in and help. They were far from needing (or being able to afford, for that matter) regular in-home help. Their children were scattered across four states, with families of their own.

The answer for Helen and Clare was Kendal at Ithaca, one of a growing number of retirement communities offering “lifetime” or “continuing community care” in almost every part of the U.S. and many other countries. They chose a two-bedroom, two-bath “cottage” within an easy walking distance of the main facility and its dining room (they have one meal a day there), fitness room, crafts room, library (a large and very well-stocked area where Clare spends most of his disposable time), swimming pool and meeting rooms (where Helen quickly found ways to be useful on multiple committees.) They made the move eight months ago (as reported on this page along with a running bunch of posts on senior housing choices then and since then); I visited again this weekend to see how things are working out. Pretty well. The winter wasn’t all that bad, though April in Ithaca seemed about as cold and ominous as June in San Francisco to this San Franciscan, and they have had no second thoughts.

The bad point: they miss their Boston friends. The good? Not having to worry about home care or upkeep, having a regular cleaning/household helper whom they greatly like, door-to-door transportation to cultural events at nearby Cornell University, Ithaca College and elsewhere, plenty of activities and new good friends, good food (“the desserts are desperately attractive,” Helen says) and health care (mostly right there on the premises.) On this last point, Clare lists one great attraction he sees: “They can’t throw me out.” The crowning bonus, for this fairly happily aging couple, is the proximity of their physician daughter and her husband, who relocated from the west coast to be near their parents, and who are in daily communication and assistance.

Kendal communities are not cheap. Nor are most of the others that offer independent living, assisted living and nursing care in assorted facilities, along the can’t-throw-you-out principle. Helen and Clare paid a hefty lump sum (being able to sell a home you’ve had for decades is the way most people swing this) and their monthly fee, which covers meals, transportation, doctors visits, drugs, etc, etc and etc, is also substantial. They are, though, a good choice for many. One college friend now in such a spot refers to her South Carolina retirement home as “our little corner of paradise;” another very close friend is delighted with her Virginia apartment in a community where her husband now lives in a “memory unit” a few steps away.

If you Google “retirement communities” or “continuing care communities” or similar phrases, literally hundreds of choices pop up. The managers of those facilities can spell out the costs and the benefits; for the pitfalls, it’s a good idea to talk with those who live there or whose loved ones are/have been there.

My demo couple in Ithaca are in the right spot.