Tag: death

The Things That Time Steals

(An essay reflecting on the losses of things through time.)

There are no machines hooked up; no devices beeping in a periodic rhythm sustaining life. The room is sterile, as in “not productive of youth,” but the collection of dirt built up in the corners of the room do not suggest sterility, as in “germ free and clean.” I crinkle my nose slightly, in disgust, at the run-down, very aged hospital room.

“What’s a matter?”

My nose uncrinkles at the run-down, very aged looking countenance of my fifty-two year old dad staking claim on the only bed in this tiny room. A smile is my response to his question, not quite reaching my eyes, and a slight shake of my head accompanies the half-hearted smile. I haven’t cried yet, and I’m not going to, because crying would mean admitting- would mean accepting- and I much prefer burying my head in the sand; “If I can’t see you, then you can’t see me” kind of approach to unpleasant things I don’t want to deal with.

“Am I dying?” He asks this question, but there is no fear in the question, no quake to his voice, in spite of knowing the answer already. Fearless.

I huff, rolling my eyes to stunt the growing, burning pain of the buildup of tears pricking the corners of my eyes. With a shake of my head I swallow the lump of bile that feels like it’s blocking my airflow, and keeping my eyes averted from him, I stare blankly at an “unsterile” spot on the wall. Dad’s eyes are closed, but I know he is not asleep. We listen to each others’ breaths for several minutes.

“I just…” I break the lullaby of our mixed breathing. “I just wish there was more time.”

Dad’s eyes stay closed, but he responds with strained words. “The more time there is,” he takes a slow, strained breath, “the more things are stolen from us.”

I don’t have anything productive to add to the conversation, so I just don’t. After a few minutes more, the side of his face relaxes against his shoulder, his breathing evens out, and I know he has fallen asleep. Sitting virtually alone, my thoughts become screams and echo in the silence of the room as I consider the things that time steals.

First love

“Look,” my dad had said on a long, low sigh, trying not to let his frustration with my teenage irrationality get the best of his compassion for my situation. “I know this is rough on ya, kid, but it’s only for six months, then you’ll turn eighteen and can go your own way if ya want, but for right now, I am still responsible for you, so where I go, you go.”

I sniffled, snorted through my nose, and swiped at my tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand, never daring to turn my eyes from the nothing out the window I stared at as he drove. I had been petitioning for weeks to be left behind while the rest of my family moved across the country, but all I kept being told was some rendition of, “You’re my kid. Where I go, you go.” I was sick to death of hearing it.

“If he loves you, he’ll surely wait six months for you to come back,” my dad spoke of my high school sweetheart. “And if you don’t come back, then he’ll fight for ya. And if he don’t, and you don’t, well, then… there’s that,” and he shrugged, as though that was just the cut-and-dried of it.

I was angry, and I resented my parents for having so much dictation over my life; to have the power to completely uproot my existence when I was within months of being legally my own person. All I needed was time… six months of time, to be precise.

I got those six months, but I did not get them in the space of the place I thought I should get them in, and when those six months turned into a year with new responsibilities, new people, and new experiences, I never quite made it back to the place I started from. I didn’t make it back, he didn’t wait, nor did he fight for me, and that was just that.

“This is life,” my dad had said; a reminder that it was quite the norm for nothing to end as expected. An unavoidable matter-of-fact that Time steals expectations, mangling our hopes, remolding them into other dreams, and instilling within us an infinite supply of out-of-the-blue guilt, wonder-ifs, and remorse. A reminder that, just when we think we can make our way back, we can never go back.

Ignorance

“Remember when you wore that shirt to school that had a rainbow on it, and you came home from school that afternoon mad as an ole hornet because some girl teased you about being a lesbian even though you aren’t a lesbian, but the part you were so mad about was because if you had been a lesbian they’d have been bullying you and that was just not acceptable?”

I had remembered, so I said so. “Yeah, and you told me, ‘Never let ‘em see ya cry.’”

On the other end of the phone I couldn’t see my dad nod his head, but I knew by the pause in his response that that was exactly what he was doing. Then he chuckled. “Yeah, I said that. Your ole dad’s pretty smart, ya know,” he congratulated himself.

I grinned into the phone, “Yeah, you are, I guess. What’s that have to do with the price of eggs?”

At being reminded about the start of the conversation, he had continued. “Oh yeah! Well,” I heard the crinkling of a package. “I was just going to say,” the phone clattered across the floor followed by muffled muttered words before his voice is back, ‘Sorry. Dropped the damn phone… When I was headed into the store this afternoon, that girl handed me a flyer asking me to vote for marriage equality.” Dad’s words had been mumbled, mixed with chewing sounds. “Ain’t that somethin’?” he had mused.

“That is.” I had agreed, then it had been my turn to nod at my end of the phone. “That is something,” and I had marveled how Time is the uncovering of valid truths and invalid untruths; how it is the force that drives the progression of the ever-evolving human, and how sometimes, just sometimes, it surprises us all with something worthwhile.

Friendships

“I just…” I had sighed at the start of this melancholy recap of an impromptu visit with one of my oldest friends who I hadn’t seen in several years. “It just felt like I didn’t even know who she was anymore. Like,” I pause, searching the right words to describe the new void in the pit of my being. “…like we had never really even been friends at all. Like it was something we’d made up in our minds, but had never actually ever existed.”

“Welcome to the real world,” Dad had said, matter-of-factly. He had offered no words of comfort, no softening of harsh edges, nothing more than a blatant, concise statement of truth. There had been the unmistakable tinge of regret in his tone, but being no amateur to the things that Time steals, it had been nothing more than a brief interloper piggybacking those five words.

The funny thing with Time is that it changes the people we are, the people we knew “back when,” and the places that nostalgia insists on not losing grasp of. Time steals those things, and it replaces them with new perspectives for ourselves, and new people which Time will steal from us later.

Pain
“What hurts worse? That? Or, sliding down a hill of razors on your knees and landing in a pool of alcohol?”

True, it hurt worse in my mind than it actually hurt physically, but I had hated to admit as much. For as long as I can remember, Dad had been asking that question. When I was younger, I heard it as words of indifference- uncaring, and callous, but as I got older I had begun to hear the realism. Dad used those words to put things into perspective when I could not see for myself. Eerily enough, what dear old Dad’s reminder of perspective could not heal, Time most certainly would.

Health

“So…,” I had trailed my word, disbelieving that all there was to the story was that Dad “might have had a mini stroke.” “So,” I had repeated. “You don’t know, know? Or… like, what?”

Dad was irritated, and though he growled his response, I knew his frustration wasn’t intentionally directed at me. “I don’t know, honey! I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV!”

I pinch the space between my eyebrows with my thumb and my middle finger, trying to mini-massage away my own frustrations. For every question I had ever asked my dad, whether he knew the answer or not, if he didn’t want to answer, that was how he had always responded: “I’m not a [insert professional related to field of question], and I don’t play one on TV.” As Time would tell, it hadn’t mattered what the circumstance had been, only that it had occurred, and Time had stolen from my dad, from right underneath our noses.

Faith

“Ya know,” my dad had paused in speaking his thoughts. He had pursed his lips, slowly nodding his head, encouraging himself to continue sharing with me what he had begun to. “The older I get, and the further I get along in my life, the more I’ve about decided that maybe we don’t have it all figured out.”

I had known exactly what he had been referring to, and while I absolutely agreed with his sentiment, and he knew my thoughts on “God,” it had saddened, and almost frightened me, to hear him denouncing his beliefs. For all of my life, he had been a “literal heaven,” a “hell-fire-and-brimstone,” a “ten-percent tithe,” and a “rapture-like-a-thief-in-the-night” kind of guy. Eighteen years of my life were subjected to religious teachings, moral training, and then here he had told me: “I’ve lost my faith. I just don’t believe God actually cares. I just don’t think we are significant enough in the grand scheme of things.” He had then pursed his lips again, and shook his head slightly, and we had sat in silence, watching the traffic pass by on Main Street, like ants passing busily on a mound of dirt.

**********
I am brought back to current awareness by the doctor’s intrusion into the tiny, unsterile, but private room hospitalizing my dad. Dr. What’s-His-Name smiles at me and lifts his hand slightly in acknowledgement as he moves to stand beside Dad’s bed.

“So what do we know?” I ask, wanting answers now, not in a minute, after he exchanges faux pleasantries with my dad who would not be pleasant after having his nap interrupted anyway.

“Well, we know his kidneys are failing. We know that, often, what happens when a person suffers a major stroke, it takes years before the effects are seen in many of the organs. Unfortunately, the kidney loss, as well as – there are some other issues going on too – are all the result of the major stroke he suffered years ago. It’s just…” the doctor looks from Dad, to me. “It’s just taking its toll now. I think,” Doctor pauses, considering his words carefully before continuing. “There’s nothing else we can do for him here. It is my recommendation that he be moved to hospice. I’ll put the paper work in for a transfer,” and he leaves the room just as he entered it, with a fake smile and a slight lift of long fingers in acknowledgement.

“So that sucks,” I break the spell of contemplation the doctor left us in by stating the obvious.

Dad closes his eyes again, nodding as he responds. “There it is,” speaking of the elephant in the room. “Just never enough time, is there?”

“Time is a thieving bastard,” I say angrily, perpetuating the past hour of private reminiscing, and picking up our conversation where it had left off from earlier.

Dad smiles, eyes still closed. “Maybe it is,” he concurs. “Maybe it is…, but it can’t steal what you don’t have, and more time is something I don’t have. It can’t take it from me if I don’t have it to start with.”

I breathe out a heavy sigh on a huff. Contemplating this, I swallow another lump of anxiety built up in my throat, but I don’t say anything in response for fear that the dam of tears I’m holding back will break, giving away my place of vulnerability and disbelief.

“I go on my own time,” Dad mutters, turning his head to go back to sleep. “I go on my own.”

The Living

I was sitting in the back seat of my grandmother’s car a day later. She occupied the passenger’s seat while my husband drove us across town to find “real” food to fill our bellies with for the first time in days. We were all exhausted, worn out and weary from the days spent in the hospital and hospice with Dad. Being out and about, breathing the fresh air of outside felt more “sterile” than the medicated air of hospice house, and we tried to keep our conversation light and on anything other than Dad’s failing condition.

“Hello?” My husband answered the cell phone that had begun to ring in his back pocket. “Oh. I see. Yes.” His voice was even, untelling; giving nothing away. “They’re with me right here. I’ll let them know.” Pressing “end call,” he returned his eyes to stare straight ahead at the road. In all of twenty seconds, I watched his eyes crease in the corners as I studied them in the mirror; I watched his throat work as he swallowed the first batch of words almost formed on his tongue before settling on, “He’s gone.”

An involuntary gasp sucked into my lungs swiftly at the shock of the realization of the horrible truth I had refused to believe was coming. That gasp, ferociously deafening, inflated my lungs with what felt like the last bit of precious air I would ever inhale. For a fraction of a fraction of a second in Time, my eyes blinded, and my mind blackened. The muscle of my heart froze mid-beat in the pumping of my pulse, and every ounce of life in my veins receded into some unseen recess. An immediate numbness, the involuntary coping mechanism of my nervous system, swept my body in its clutches before slowly surrendering to the inevitable creep of pain, and as I wept heavy, leaden tears trailing down my scorching cheeks, I resented Time for being the thieving bastard it was, while the daily traffic whizzed around and passed us as though the world had never stopped spinning in that moment.

Spit Wads and Bullets

Thwack! The spit wad squishes in its landing on the Spanish textbook sitting open on my desk. We pause our anticipatory talk of upcoming prom on April 24 – exactly one month to the day. Not at all surprised at this par-for-course behavior of the boys in my sophomore class, I roll my eyes in faux annoyance as I turn to look back over my left shoulder. A group of them, sitting purposely too straight and proper in their chairs, grinning like a herd of Cheshire cats, point at one another in a haphazardly organized effort of deflecting blame. Shaking my head and exhaling a sigh of annoyance, I turn back to the group of girls gathered in the same circle as myself and we resume our chatter.

Thwack! Another spit wad breaks the barrier of our “girl circle,” this time splatting into one of the girl’s shoulder before rolling down the front of her shirt and landing in her lap. Quickly she brushes the slobbery wad of chewed paper off her leg and into the floor. “Grow up,”she seethes at the boys.

“Don’t you talk to Billy Idol that way,” a disguised male voice from the back row quotes a line from Adam Sandler’s new movie, The Wedding Singer.

One of the other girls in our circle growls in response, but again, this is mostly for show. Daily we are annoyed with their antics, but this same idiocy that annoys us also partially endears them to us as fellow classmates and friends.

“Where is Ms. B?” I ask only out of nosiness. Ms. B’s is our second-to-last class of the day, and though time spent dodging spit wads is far more pleasurable than conjugating verbs, half the class period is nearly over.

Pop! One of the boys who had been standing in the doorway on “teacher watch” duty (so as to alert the others when to stop misbehaving) pops one of the girls’ bra straps as he hurries back to his seat. “She’s comin’!” he squeals in a high-pitched, mock voice, purposely trying to heighten the excitement in the room. We all heed his warning then, shuffling our desks back into less than tidy rows.

When Ms. B steps into her classroom, red-rimmed eyes and slumped shoulders evidence of her weariness, we are composed and orderly, no sign that anything amiss has been taking place. I assume that her lack of notice means we’ve been successful in our façade, but as she stands in front of us, head down and very obviously collecting her words, I know it has nothing to do with our successfully hidden shenanigans, and that, instead, she is preoccupied in her thoughts.

We shoot sideways glances to one another, eyebrows raise, shoulders shrug… none of us know what to say or do. After all of our eyes meet each others’ and a silent consensus is reached that none of us know anything, Ms. B lifts her gaze from the worn industrial carpeting and focuses intently on the sheets of student artwork plastered along the back wall of the room. I wonder if she is assessing the plethora of spit wads littering the room.

“Mr. Green got a phone call from a colleague of his in Jonesboro.” Her voice quivers as she references the principal of our school. “We don’t know any details yet, but…” she pauses, again, takes a breath, then begins again. “We don’t know any details yet because it just happened, but… someone took a gun to a school in Jonesboro and… I don’t even want to imagine…” Ms. B voice trails off. She cries, heartbroken. Amongst my peers there are some small gasps, a sniffle, and a couple of classmates squirm uncomfortably in their seats.

Someone sucked all the air out of the room. The tick of the clock on the wall above the chalkboard, the hour hand holding steady at “1,” pushes the minute hand past “27.” How strange time is, to continue on in spite of ourselves. I think about time for a minute; about how, in the very same minutes – seconds, even – while we were dodging spit wads, terrified students at Westside Middle School, just three hours away in distance, were dodging bullets.

I stare intently on the spit wad stuck to the chalk board behind Ms. B’s head, marveling over how mundane the silliness is. I wonder how many mundane spit wads witnessed the horrors that had taken place at that school not even an hour earlier.

We sit in silence; some watch the clock, others close their eyes. We don’t know what any of this means. We know it is sad – the loss of human life is sad – but we cannot fathom it. Our lack of experience has not fully developed our aptitude for empathy yet. Our perspective is skewed; incomplete.

Realization of the implications of what Ms. B has just told us finally dawning, we slowly look around the room at one another, beginning, for the first time, to consider each other in new light – in suspect light?
Yet…
No. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in places like this.
Thwack! The spit wad that had been trailing a slow descent finally loses its grasp on the chalkboard, and we all startle as it falls, sloppily, in a collection of dust onto the chalk tray.

About this essay:

I was inspired to write the essay, “Spit Wads and Bullets,” by a prompt in a college textbook asking the writer to recall a national event, using his/her senses to re-create this memory. As I’m sure would occur with most people, several national events came to mind, but this one in particular unfolded effortlessly in my mind, begging to be penned. It tells the story of the Jonesboro, Arkansas school shooting which occurred on March 24, 1998, subtly and indirectly, by employing the parallel of what myself and my classmates were doing at our own school three hours away, in the very same minutes as the tragedy in Jonesboro.

My use of italicized “sound effects” throughout the essay were implemented as a “startle” technique, to prompt a sort of “mental jolt” in the reader. Similarly, my ending is intended to leave the reader with a leaden feeling as the heaviness of the essay begins to sink in.

Disclaimer: Names have been changed in this essay.

No Easy Way Out

posadacalaveriaFeminist criticism looks at the ways literature continues to corroborate the oppression of women, and in his story, Pedro Paramo, author Juan Rulfo exposes women’s oppression in great depth and shows some of the not-so-ideal endings to having dealt with this oppression. If it is true, as has been suggested, that Rulfo considers Susana San Juan the main character of this story, then it seems evident that his intent in the portrayal of feminist oppression is not to condone the behavior and offer a catalyst of reinforcement of its continuation, but instead to depict the varying ways female oppression is present and the limited ways it is escaped from.

The initial portrayal of women in Pedro Paramo is that of helplessness and dependency upon the wealth and power of men. Rulfo first weaves into the story of Pedro Paramo the many ways, both subtle and evident, in which female oppression is present. From the very opening of the story the reader is introduced to the last wishes of a single mother, poor and deprived, for her son to collect what is owed to him from his absent father (p.2625). The reader gets the sense that the mother is resentful of having lived such a fate (p.2647), and later the reader is exposed to the reality of the burden a single mother is on her family members without the support of a man (p.2634). The portrayal of women as helpless and burdensome is particularly oppressive as it shames the woman into limiting her self-worth and her independence. For many women the fear enables the power of men to maintain the oppression of women.

Fear presents an oppression of its own insidious value as it continually destabilizes a woman’s strength. Destabilization of feminine strength is key, of course, to the perception of worthlessness, thus allowing male dominance to continue its ravenous reign. In Pedro Paramo, the portrayal of Pedro’s expectation of Dolorita to cook and serve his needs, and yet she is never good enough in her endeavors (p.2634) reiterates this self-image of worthlessness. Prior to the expectation of Dolorita to fulfill the domestic role in Pedro’s house, her fear of not being worthy of a man such as Pedro is implied in her worry over the temporary inability to please her husband on their wedding night (p.2633). Rulfo’s portrayal of the woman as required to satisfy her husband’s needs in every way, including sexually, is an ancient expectation along with the representation of women as purposeless except for the fulfillment of a man’s needs. In the book The Shattered Mirror: Representations of Women in Mexican Literature, author Maria Elena de Valdes states that, although it is a common expectation of women all over the world, particularly “in Mexico, women have not just been cast in the role of sex object…; rather they have been taught that their purpose in life is to serve and obey their father and then their husband” (Valdes p.16).

To many women, and under many unfortunate circumstances, these sexual fulfillments end in the reproduction and bearing of children. What is potentially a great blessing can very quickly become heartache and burden on a woman who, after having been used for the man’s dominant release, has been denied not only provision from a responsible man for the life he half created, but also denied the acceptance and opportunity to make her own comfortable place in society.

On the flipside of this bittersweet scenario, is the oppression of society on the woman who cannot bear children. Valdes’ supports this with her statement that “The Mexican woman does not consider herself – nor do others consider her – to be a woman who has reached fulfillment if she has not produced children, if the halo of maternity does not shine above her (Valdes p.16). Rulfo shows his readers the incarnation of this in Dorotea who  shares with Juan her regrets of never having borne a child and dream that it was because she had been given “a mother’s heart but the womb of a whore” (p.2657). The implication of that statement is that a woman who is unable to reproduce is inadequate and therefore unworthy of any greater respect than that of a common street whore, which, in itself, carries the stigma of immeasurable oppressive allusions and issues of degraded self worth.

The issue of degraded self worth is no more evident than in the introduction of Donis and his sister. While Valdes claims that Juan Rulfo indirectly opposed sexism “through irony and the use of the autonomous fictional character” (Valdes p.52), Rulfo made Donis and his sister the culmination of direct, and should-be-obvious, degradation at the cross-center of the story of Pedro Paramo. Donis and his sister, who have been engaged in an incestuous relationship, appear to bear the shame of such very differently from one another. Sharon Magnarelli, in her article “Women, Violence and Sacrifice in Pedro Paramo and la muerta de Artemio Cruz”, states that, “…in Pedro Paramo, Donis’ sister (who apparently has no name) is blamed for their incestuous relationship and censured by all. It is she who is marked by sin, she whom the bishop admonishes, she who dissolves into mud before Juan’s eyes. It would appear, if we are to judge by the reactions of the other characters, that Donis, her partner in this transgression, is somehow less reprehensible” (Magnarelli). Interesting also that, in the end, it is the sister who continues to live in the guilt of it all from her realm of the dead while her brother, Donis, comes and goes presently independent of it in the world of the living (p.2654).

The incestuous affair of Donis with his sister is not the only forced incest upon a woman in Pedro Paramo, nor is it the only visibly direct oppression of the women of Comala. Aside from the incest of Donis’ sister, there are implications of an incestuous relationship between Susana San Juan and her father, Bartolome. Fulgor Sedano’s statement to Pedro regarding Susana’s return to Comala that, “…the way he treats her, she seems more like his wife” (p.2669), though it is not as direct in its reference as is the incest of Donis and his sister, it is implied. The implication then explains Susana’s insistence on referring to her father by his first name, and offers a glimpse into the edge of her madness (2670). In their article, “Psychotherapy with Vietnam Veterans and Rape and Incest Survivors,” authors Ellen Dye and Susan Roth compare the posttraumatic stress disorder of rape and incest survivors with that of Vietnam veterans who “came home to a hostile America in which they felt cut off, distant from, and misunderstood by other Americans.” Similarly, Dye and Roth go on to compare, “rape and incest survivors commonly report feeling similarly alienated. Because of negative perceptions of the Vietnam War and of the pervasive existence of myths about women who become survivors of sexual trauma, both veterans and sexual trauma survivors commonly experience a lack of both social and institutional support” (Dye). The psychological claim by Dye and Roth not only offers insight into the oppression of Susana, but also supports the double standard related to the affair of Donis and his sister.

Aside from the direct oppression of incestuous actions, blatant sexual oppression of women is evident in the innumerable potential rapes committed by Pedro’s son, Miguel. Miguel’s alleged rape of Ana exemplifies the same oppression regarding rape that is active in today’s society as well. Father Rentaria’s continual probing of Ana’s recollection of the presumably traumatic experience causes not only the reader to begin to question Ana’s credibility, but also serves to degrade and humiliate Ana, the victim of sexual assault (p. 2638). Father Rentaria’s question to Ana, “So what did you do to make him leave?” and her response of, “I didn’t do anything” (p.2639), so classically exemplifies the unfounded, yet common misconception, that women who are raped do not try hard enough to stop it. The whole text around the above conversation is obviously Rulfo’s attempt at making a mockery of the ridiculousness and insensitivity that female victims of trauma typically have to endure.

It is interesting that Rulfo chose the character of a woman to be that which would be the accomplice to man’s forceful and determined oppression of women. Dorotea’s confession of having assisted Miguel by providing him access or information to the women he preyed upon is disheartening (p.2665), however, it is an eye-opening inclusion and rather clever on Rulfo’s part. Rulfo seems to use sisterhood as a means of condoning and promoting patriarchy by appeasing the powers that be. The sisterhood of women fail to support and uplift one another in the examples of both, Dorotea collecting women for Miguel, and Dolorita’s persuasion of Ediveges in plotting so that Pedro can potentially be satisfied on his wedding night even in spite of nature’s cycle which Dolorita has no control over in the first place (p.2633). Instead, of banding together to firmly stand against such degrading treatment and oppressive culture, the sisterhood selfishly sacrifice each other for a single moment of protection and/or providence by a man.

Unfortunately, Rulfo provides only three escapes from female oppression in the village of Comala: exile, death, or madness. The option of exile, as chosen by Dolorita, carries with it many sacrifices, as well as the inevitable extra burden on family members. It seems, however, that, in leaving and losing, the peace comes at least in death. Dolorita appears to be the most calm and collected of all the haunting voices in the story. For those who die, whether naturally or by their own hands, while still under the suffocation of oppression, the oppression follows them to the grave. Dolorita’s statement, “…that is, if death ever had a voice” (p.2628) seems to say that even in death there may be no escape; no voice to speak out and change something. Even in death, the oppression of women consumes.

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Works Cited

Magnarelli, Sharon. “Women, Violence and Sacrifice in Pedro Paramo and La muerte de

            Artemio Cruz.” Inti: Revista de literature hispanica (1981): 13-7. Web. 4 May.   2012.

Rulfo, Juan. “Pedro Paramo.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Vol. F. Ed. Sarah

Lawall and Maynard Mack. New York: Norton, 2002. 2625-2692. Print.

Valdes, Maria Elena de. The Shattered Mirror: Representations of Women in Mexican

            Literature. Austin, TX: the University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.