Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

A tie is not just a tie

Recently, when picking out a tie for a formal event, I was overcome with sadness. So many of the ties are gifts from my mom. She always knew what I might need to look professional, and she kept at that for decades. She was mostly right all of the time. She knew my taste—basic but proper. Now, she can’t even remember a conversation that happened five minutes ago. I wasn’t ready for that. I still feel that well of feeling when I see my ties hanging in my closet. It’s not just a tie. It’s a connection to a relationship that has been disappearing now for years, and that journey is not over.

Why We Embrace Traditions of Denial and Sacrifice

Tonight is Ash Wednesday. It is an important date on the traditional Catholic and Protestant church calendar. It marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter. The period mirrors the reported 40 days Jesus of Nazareth spent  fasting in the desert.

Observant Christians mark the season attending Ash Wednesday services. There, they will have a cross marked on their head with the ashes made from palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebration. The marking of an ashen cross on the forehead is often accompanied with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Catholics will practice fasting, repentance, and abstaining from some foods, like meat. Protestants, like the Lutherans I grew up with, would focus on self-denial or charity work. Most Christians are supposed to contemplate on the coming of Easter and its meaning.

Tonight I attended my first Ash Wednesday service in more than 35 years. I needed the quiet time, in a quiet place, with quiet and thoughtful people, to contemplate my life and sacrifices that some people I know are making for others.

The sermon by the Rector at the Episcopal Church I attended focused on the importance of not running from our grief and contemplating on the world’s problems and the individual’s relation with God. Though I am not a true believer in any faith, I found these words comforting, and I had a few tears because of all that is happening with those close to me.

For those of us who have far more than we need, the idea of purposefully sacrificing something and denying one’s self pleasure seems incongruous. What would you do if you had to give up your smart phone? Your email account? Your morning coffee? What about something more radical, like running water or medicine?

We live in a world where many don’t have these luxuries, and yet we who have them are even afraid to consider life without them. So let those thoughts stay with you as we head into this period of Lent. It is one of many religious traditions that demands sacrifice. There is a good reason to practice this to think of others and not ourselves.

An Unhappy Birthday, Celebrated Apart

My sister and I, taken in August 2008 at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri

Today is my sister’s birthday. She is celebrating it in a sick bed, in a large hospital in St. Louis. I am 1,800 miles away in Portland. I wish I could be there with her.

It must be scary to be alone in a hospital, not knowing what may happen tomorrow, knowing that your health is bad. Maybe there will be a respite, but things could get far worse. That is a heavy weight to carry for my older sibling.

My sister and I have now shared more than five decades of birthdays. This was the saddest I can remember. We perhaps had six happy years together, until that tumultuous time when my parents divorced and our worlds turned upside down.

After that things never were quite the same. There were good times, yes. But I never saw my sister smile the way she used to when we were young and far more innocent. She still smiled, but it was not a child’s carefree smile of joy. It was a little different. I changed a lot too. I don’t really talk about that stuff.

There were times in my life when she was the only person who had my back, particularly after the divorce. We were alone, in situations I refuse to share as stories with others. They are my secrets. They were terrifying moments, and not in a “make you stronger” way, but in a “wow, this is pretty damn bad” way.  Because we were a team, we pulled through, many times. I can’t ever forget those days. I guard them as treasures.

Those memories have kept me invested in the bond we have shared over the years. It hasn’t been the gentlest of rides. In the end, the journey was not as easy on my sister, I think. A series of decisions led to forks in the road, and then other decisions, and then, finally, a visit to the hospital.

My sister and I, when we laughed and had few worries as kids

I wished her a happy birthday today. I had sent her a card. It probably didn’t arrive before she was admitted. It was a way I expressed love, as much as I can in a card. It was a strange feeling, wishing your sibling the best as they faced uncertainty over the days ahead.

While we were talking, I could still hear her laugh with the hospital staff. Machines and monitors attached to her made noises in the background. Nurses popped in her room to check on her. I asked if she was aware she could contact a hospital chaplain if needed. She said she was. That comforted me. I don’t know if she would do that.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, the day after, or the weeks ahead.

I tried to remember our youth, and all I could find were a few pictures of our innocence. That seemed like a different life. We are different now, and we lost our innocence a long time ago.

I realized that I too will one day face the end. I realized that I too may not be ready. I realized that I too need to change while there is still time. This felt like a paltry consolation prize, and nothing compared to my sister’s experience on a cold, February day.

With time, we may find greater meaning

Sometimes you have a to wait a long time before you find a good outcome.

In my case it took nearly a decade. It involved a woman, who I met in Alaska. She did not share what I felt for her. This is an old story. It has happened likely millions of times before, so it was nothing special.

In my case, the story was simple. She rejected my interest. This in turn inspired what I still think is a good set of poems. At this time, I also found Bob Dylan. I took long overdue guitar lessons. And, then, in 2010, I finally left the Great Land, Alaska, for Seattle.

I saw this person twice after, and very briefly in 2011. A few years later, I wrote to her with what I call my mindset of humility and said I could be have been a better person with the words we shared in private.

I had assumed that was that. But it was not quite over.

Because of perhaps fate, we reconnected online this week. I wrote: “I hope that my last words expressing my shortcomings to you mattered. I’ve been spending time the past few years contacting old contacts and sharing how I may have come up short.”

I told her about how my mindset of humility had enabled me to connect with an old college friend last winter. That reunion mattered a great deal. In fact, that friend just sent me a lovely holiday card with a picture of his new wife.

Reconnecting after decades

It was nice to learn that time can be an ally and friendships can endure over decades.

I wrote in my email that practicing honesty and humility provided opportunities I could not fully predict. Because life was short, I wrote, it was best to live each day as if truly mattered. That is something Stoics wrote more than 2,000 years ago, and I believe this in my bones.

I still have no idea what this person is doing with herself. She remains cryptic. She is now into meditation. To my surprise, she replied with a similar point of view. She wrote about no longer being that previous person I once tried to court in the north.

I am fairly certain I will not see this person again.

At this point it does not really matter. It simply took longer than I thought it would to find this point of repose. The experience reminded me of what the late writer and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had written in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl wrote that the meaning of events may change measured over years. What had once been a negative experience in our lives may later be remembered as an important event we grew from.

With time, in this case, I had matured. I finally felt free from this burden of memory and could turn my energy to what truly matters in my life now, with all of my purpose and devotion.

 

A stoic response to disasters in places called ‘home’

Scene from the devastation of the Campfire in Paradise, California, taken by the LA Times.

In the span of one month, two cities where I have lived and worked during the last 25 years have been struck by disasters.

The sobering thought that my fate can determined by factors completely out of my control has left me pondering how I am living my life and if I am living it the way I should. Those thoughts have also turned me to the writings of Stoic philosophers from 2,000 years ago, who wisely pondered the best course for living life and confronting misfortune.

The Stoics painfully remind all of us that bad luck is part of our shared human existence, as inevitable as death itself.

“You could leave life right now,” wrote the former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, a frequently quoted Stoic, influenced by earlier Greek thinkers. “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

So what would it be like if my life ended tomorrow and all I had were today to life it? What if I confronted calamity and had to start from scratch?

In November, these thoughts were not abstract mind games, but deeply personal stories I watched from afar on my computer and through conversations with friends and relatives who witnessed these large natural disasters. They also forced me to have deep periods of reflection about my life and the years I have to live it.

Paradise destroyed: a fire engulfs my former home city in California

This photo by Josh Edelson of AFPGetty Images, captures the devastation of the fire the first day it broke out in Paradise.

On Nov. 8, a wildfire ripped through the lower Sierra foothills above Chico, California and nearly completely destroyed the city of Paradise, just up the hill.

I used to live and work in Paradise as a reporter for the Paradise Post in late 1993 and early 1994. As of Nov. 26, California authorities report the blaze that destroyed more than 13,000 homes and many businesses in the hillside city. The conflagration had killed 88 people, with 203 confirmed missing. Many believe the number of unaccounted residents who failed to escape the inferno is much higher. Media report the entire town of 26,000 persons had to evacuate, and nearly all were left homeless.

A photo by the Mercury News shows an aerial view of the fire’s nearly total devastation of all homes.

When I worked as a reporter there, I frequently covered how vulnerable the community was to this very type of catastrophe that incinerated it in less than 24 hours.

There are only two ways out of town when that terrible moment came, and residents were forced to flee with almost no notice only to find themselves stuck in a traffic jam and then having to flee on foot if they were able-bodied and could do so. My cousin, who was working for a field surveying team and who went in five days after the blaze, described what he saw as a war zone. He was sure many cars he saw burned out had scorched, human remains of those caught in the fire’s path. I felt tremendous grief for strangers I did not know. I also kept wondering, what if that had been me.

Next up: the Anchorage 7.0 earthquake

With the Campfire blaze in Paradise just contained after Thanksgiving, I witnessed yet another natural disaster in another city where I lived, Anchorage, Alaska.

This image was shared globally the morning of the Anchorage earthquake, on Nov. 30.

At around 8:35 a.m. Alaska time, on Thursday, Nov. 30, a massive 7.0 temblor shook the Cook Inlet region, including Alaska’s most populous city. The epicenter was 8.5 miles from downtown Anchorage, where I worked for six years at the Consulate of Canada. My home was just 1 mile away, built on soil that I had learned was likely prone to liquefaction during a major earthquake. I immediately thought of who might be in that apartment now and if they were OK.

The KTVA newsroom was heavily damaged by the temblor; this shot was taken shortly after the first earthquake, and many more aftershocks followed.

Like many, I was glued to the footage of roadways broken apart like twigs, cellphone videos of buildings shaking as if  freight trains were plowing through them, and the terror and panic in people’s voices as the feared their lives would end at those very moments.

I began seeing messages on Facebook, where colleagues had checked in to tell their family and friends they were alive and well. I contacted Alaskans I knew out-of-state, and as far away as Tacoma, Maryland, and Hawaii. All reported damage to their homes, but not to the ones they loved.

A shot of the Seward Highway, south of Anchorage, after the temblor. The highway was closed due to landslides and damage.

I wrote this to share with my colleagues: “I just heard from an Anchorage friend how powerful the quake was. Power is out for her/home. She described the house shaking like it was dancing on stilts. Reportedly 911 in Anchorage is operational. The good news for Anchorage is people plan for this, they have a world-class emergency ops center, a robust plan, and a major military base next-door that can also provide logistical support, which happened during the Good Friday Earthquake in ’64, one of the biggest ever in North America.”

My other concerns in life today seemed completely inconsequential to these distant human connections.

CNN fed video from the destroyed newsroom of KTVA and covered the many breaking stories of schools closing and some homes having small fires. NBC compiled video footage as well, showing how people reacted in their homes, at school, on roadways, and at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The New York Times compiled a summary shared with me by my Alaska friends.

Remarkably no one appears to have died, even with more than 15 aftershocks, according to CNN, some as strong as 5.8 on the Richter scale.

The Municipality of Anchorage was reporting more than 10,000 without power, which can be a severe and life-threatening hazard, with temperatures of wintry Alaska at 20 Fahrenheit and colder this time of year. It is remarkable there weren’t gas line explosions or other fires sparked by downed lines and combustible materials being ignited in many damaged structures.

Critical facilities like airports were damaged during the initial temblor.

The earthquake’s effects will be lasting. There likely is severe structural damage to countless buildings and homes. It is not clear if the critical infrastructure, like the Port of Alaska, where most food supplies are delivered by container ship from Tacoma, has any significant damage. The airport was reportedly operating by the end of the day. It had sustained damaged like many other pieces of critical infrastructure.

Later in the day, I shared this with friends on my Facebook feed: “Sending all of my Alaska friends goods thoughts as you recover and deal with aftershocks. I have every one of you in my thoughts, even if we haven’t spoken in years!”

As I was writing this short summary, a friend who I have not seen in years took time to reply to my email earlier in the day that expressed my concern for her and her family. Her words capture of the meaning of these tragedies poignantly: “The upside of the earthquake is hearing from old friends. … I went to Victoria yesterday for a long weekend. My husband … was at home. The house is a mess, but there appears to be no structural damage and the utilities are all working (many people in Anchorage have no power so we are lucky.”

The Anchorage area experienced damage to many roads and buildings.

All of my friends who were there or away report the exact same response. When I chimed in with comments that may have seemed flippant that I was simply happy they were alive, they did not turn to sarcasm. They gave me a thumbs up and seemed genuinely positive they were able to enjoy another day alive with the ones they loved. They were cleaning up and, I imagine, counting their blessings.

Making sense of misfortune and using that opportunity wisely

As I look back at this month, the theme connecting me to the tragedies impacting thousands in my former communities is that our lives, and all we plan for them, may be incredibly temporal exercises in futility. A single day and a single event can change anything. Perhaps that’s why the Stoics from two millennia ago urged their peers to contemplate purposeful living in the moment, focused on living virtuously and with the full power of one’s mental energies.

Ryan Holiday, a writer and promoter of Stoicism who I follow online, runs a website called the Daily Stoic.

A section of his writings seems particularly meaningful to me today as I exchanged my short, but touching emails with friends who I care about but no longer see or share words with.

Bust believed to be a copy of Roman Stoic Seneca

To introduce newcomers to this school of thought, Holiday provides learning lessons. His first essay concerns misfortune. He quotes the famous Roman stoic Seneca, and then offers some sage advice and urges his readers to consider the Stoic virtue of practicing misfortune as a tool to strengthen one’s capacity to focus on what really matters:

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” -Seneca

Seneca … suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you cannot just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.