The Decay of Living
Did you ever have one of those days (years, lives) when everything breaks? The one where you look at the pot handle lonely in your hand as the pot you wanted to fill with water clangs onto the kitchen floor, and you scream, “I’m so glad this is hard.” Dumb tasks that should take a second become all-day quests on the scale of Don Quixote. The other morning one of the little plastic doohickeys on the collapsible plastic tube that keeps the toilet paper attached to the porcelain thingy on the wall snapped off when I tried to replace the roll. My first instinct in cases like this is to try and fix it. So several squirts of epoxy and some duct tape later I realize, “For the love of god, Lisa, stick this in your bag and go to a hardware store.” $2.99 + tax later, all was mended. But the cost to my day? Priceless.
Everything, it seems to me lately, is breaking. The existential stuff, sure, but what about my parents’ yard? The other week when I visited Virginia, brother Jeff and I pulled into our parents’ driveway, and the first thing I noticed was all the chickweed in the flower beds. By this time of year, those beds are cleaned out, mulched, and planted with petunias, but ol’ Bernie in his 89th year has a hernia and was waiting for surgery, so all the planted beauty was on hold. Upon surveying the rest of “estate,” I noticed piles of oak tree spooj, er, “catkins,” in pond form on the driveway and pea gravel patio; periwinkle out of control; a dead dogwood. So after days of rain, during which I cleaned their house, stocked up at the grocery store, and did whatever other daughter stuff was needed, I set off for outside to pull chickweed and sweep up the driveway.
Within ten minutes of using the outside broom—mended at the bristle-handle connection several times over with Gorilla (TM) tape—it broke past repair. The handle coating was cracking in strips. The third time I used the dustpan it literally crumbled in my grasp.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
I just turned 59, so you’d think I’d just roll with all this, but in truth I got weepy, not because of the broom and dustpan, though sure, it was an inconvenience (I texted Jeff to please buy one at Lowe’s while he was there picking up a new latch for the 50-year-old front storm door, the one that caused our father to get locked out the previous morning while out getting the paper at 4:30 AM—fortunately we are all early risers and I heard the knocking while Jeff was in the bathroom and our mother still in bed with her coffee). It’s that all this infrastructure breaking down mirrors my parents’ physical and mental deterioration; inevitable though it is, and tough old birds that they are, it’s not something you can just smile through. Though we do, often as not.
Couple this personal existential stuff with the coming end of the democratic experiment in America—and forget that, what about the EARTH?—and I have to ask, how are we all not losing our minds?
This spring, everything bloomed a full month early. (New York City—a city of subzero winters and months-long snowpack when I moved here 20 years ago, had the warmest winter I can remember, and sadly will probably never know such cold winters again in my lifetime; my co-op doesn’t even bother to order salt anymore, and we used to order a dozen bags a winter.) I do not celebrate this. Lilacs, a mid-May flower, were here and gone in early April; so were the daffodils, tulips, and azaleas (a late May bloom), all at once. I don’t know if you follow bloom schedules, or enjoy the unfolding of seasonal changes as I do, but last spring’s walks were simply miraculous, helping me emerge out of my Covid coma, spring taking its sweet time moving from crocuses, to daffodils, to tulips, to blossoming trees, to irises, right up to honeysuckle.
This year, it’s like the whole bloom gang showed up drunk to your spring party and passed out as they handed you their coat.
My friend Tom, a Virginia native, retired English teacher (mine, in high school), and avid gardener, called me from his Arlington home a week or so before my visit, freaking out about this seasonal disruption. “What is happening? Everything bloomed for a split second and was gone! I can’t keep up!” He was also freaking out because of the steady and unstoppable decline of his partner and spouse of fifty years, Ron, who was dying of cancer of the bile duct in a nearby nursing home. And as passionate about politics as he is about poetry, Tom was also having apoplexy over the Republican Party’s transparent policies to unapologetically end democracy. Death was in his garden, in his home, in his country. It was all just too much to handle all at once, and yet there he was, handling it.
Before I could visit, Ron died shortly after I arrived in Virginia, peacefully but still unexpectedly around noon on May 2, right there with Tom. It happened the day after the 50th anniversary of their meeting. EMTs, police, inquest, courthouse, death certificate, phone calls to insurance and Medicare and Social Security and Dominion Power and the bank…and not a second to grieve. Our whole American system is hurry-up heartless. Tom only spoke to one actual human, who was so kind, while the rest was AI simulation voices or operators from overseas reading from a script of “How can I help you today?” to “I am sorry I could not fulfill your request.” Fuck them all.
Today is Mother’s Day, and so far Lynne is hanging in there. On Thursday, May 18, the good lord willing and the creek don’t rise, my parents will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. On June 5, my dad is scheduled for outpatient hernia surgery. Meanwhile Jeff is cutting the grass and trimming out the lawn; we bought a hanging basket for the backyard while I was home. And Tom is trying to figure out a good time to have a gathering to remember Ron, at their home, maybe this June; and Democrats still use their elected offices for governance of and for the People, bless ’em.
Our Earth continues to warm at a beyond alarming rate. Republicans are breaking democracy. Declines happen. But the death of the Earth, the death of democracy, unlike human death, is not inevitable. We don’t have to lose them. We don’t have to annihilate all life as we know it just because a few people are having, I guess, really bad days (years, lives) and are taking it out on all of us.
This week I sent money to Biden to stop fascism and Brady to stop guns. At the farmer’s market on Saturday, I bought plants for the porch pots on my little deck over the trash alley here in Queens. Every little bloom counts. It has to.
Somehow, we persist. You persist, too.