Not to dwell

My response to turbulence in airplanes disturbs other passengers.

It’s not what you probably think. I don’t go white-knuckled or green-faced or breathless or limp. I don’t jabber or skulk or pray. The opposite, really—though my response may be born of the same awe. When I see from my window the tremoring of wing tips, when I hear the rattling of loose luggage overhead, I laugh. The more violent the tremor, the louder the rattle, the harder I laugh. Come now, I think. Is that all you’ve got?

My father has accused me of having a T-type personality. On the surface this would appear not to be the case. I have never broken a bone, whether in the pursuit of a thrill or through plain clumsiness. I’ve not jumped from an airplane or off a bridge or gambled with anyone’s money or partied harder than my body could take. I have avoided most drugs. I speak softly.

But when my house nearly burned down two years ago, I was thrilled by the prospect. Earthquakes, like turbulence, make me a little manic. I like to drive too fast, swim too far past the buoys, sprint down hills until my ankles wobble and the wind whistles in my ear. I like to fight. And in affairs of the heart I have made enough reckless choices to last us both a lifetime.

I am thinking of all this now so as not to dwell on other regrets that may last a lifetime. I am sitting in the waiting room of the Ronald Reagan Surgical Center on the UCLA medical campus, where my mother is undergoing an open-heart procedure to correct a “severe mitral regurgitation exasperated by atrial fibrillation,” drinking lukewarm coffee and failing miserably at not dwelling on it.

Something, anything, else: The lights lining the runway at the Las Vegas airport are green, not blue.

In the past two days I have made: a large pot of chicken and turnip soup, a pork roast on the bone, three pots of quinoa, two of collards and spaghetti from scratch.

Yesterday on the phone with you I described the wind-battered palm trees as “curtsying,” but that was ungenerous. Bowing at the waist, I should have said.

The air in West Los Angeles before sunrise smells powerfully of jasmine—even, dissonantly, in the concrete muscular parking structure of UCLA’s medical campus.

So here we are again.

Severe mitral regurgitation, meaning more than sixty percent of her blood leaks from the left ventricle every time her heart beats. Probably, if you believe the electrocardiograph readings, more like 75 percent.

And when you press your head against her chest, it sounds like someone is squeezing a wet sponge.

That pretty much says it for me. But perhaps you would prefer the words of my father: your momma has an achy, breaky, leaky heart.

Despite all the turbulence, there’s of course no laughter, only this dread that comes in waves. I once had a neat theory about disaster: that contemplating big loss is one of the last foolproof ways to feel alive, if you can survive it. Now I am not quite ready to put the theory to bed — I think it has its truth — but I would complicate it: it is a way to feel alive if the loss has nothing to do with the woman from whom you derive everything (I mean everything), all your life and strength and story.

All my best stories start with her. Every moment we wait to hear the next chapter feels like a little death. If all had gone as planned, she would be coming out of the procedure now. But we weather the moments here in the sunshine, think about all the work and loves and unwatered plants we left behind. We think of turbulence on airplanes. And there’s no thrill. I don’t tempt fate. I don’t ask if this is all there is. This is enough.

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11 responses to “Not to dwell

  1. Your mom is a truly beautiful person. I have adored her for the nearly 13 years I have worked with her. Everyone here at Buckley-Merced is thinking good thoughts for her and your entire family!!!

  2. theotherlayer

    Thank you, for this:

    “I once had a neat theory about disaster: that contemplating big loss is one of the last foolproof ways to feel alive, if you can survive it. Now I am not quite ready to put the theory to bed — I think it has its truth — but I would complicate it: it is a way to feel alive if the loss has nothing to do with the woman from whom you derive everything (I mean everything), all your life and strength and story.”

    In my thoughts, Angela.

  3. I love your mom – I hope the surgery is smooth and successful.

    Your note on the jasmine smell brought the scent right back to my nose – the UCLA campus has jasmine all over it.

  4. Your words are deeply personal yet universally evocative – the hallmarks of a great writer. I’m hoping for your mother’s recovery, and that this experience will bring forth more words for you to share with us.

  5. This is so poignant, Angela. Beautiful. I hope your mom has a speedy recovery, and know that you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Peace to you.

    Namaste,
    Rachel

  6. Kathryn (from West Valley Occ Center)

    Angela:
    Your words are touching, your photographs wonderful and your heart is so open. I’m so glad to hear that all went well. Your dear mother will be in great hands with you and your dad surrounding her with beautiful energy and love.

  7. Angela! How is it that you leave me wordless with every post? I am wishing for the best for you and your family.

    This post is so touching and painful… In a way, I want it to be a movie so that there isn’t any true, lasting sadness associated with it all. I hope that doesn’t sound odd or belittling in any way – I just want things to be better :(

  8. I can feel the weight of your heart from here…thanks for sharing about your mum’s current situation and I am keeping her and your family in my prayer tonight (that’s usually my response to turbulence and many other things ;))

    I haven’t visited with you for sooo long now…I miss your beautiful thought provoking writing and photography!! Hope everything else has been well with you :)

    Thanks for passing on my details for the Flavor Forecast :) I had wondered how they came to know my blog! Was such a fun event to be part of and I’m still in the process of trying out more of their recipes!

    Btw, such a beautiful photo with your mum :D

  9. Thank you, everyone, for your beautiful words of support. A quick update on her condition: the procedure was completed sucessfully, though it took about twice as long as expected. She is slowly recovering in the ICU… not walking or talking yet, but very conscious and gaining strength every day. Please keep us in your thoughts & prayers as she continues to heal.

    Much love,
    Angela

  10. The measure of a life is the same as the measure of a pilot’s skill: How well do we handle the turbulence?

    You are weathering it with grace, though it’s not easy. My heart is with you, my thoughts and prayers with those close to you.

  11. Your opening paragraphs evoke the unnamed narrator in Palahniuk’s Fight Club: “I was tired and crazy and rushed, and every time I boarded a plane, I wanted the plane to crash. I envied people dying of cancer. I hated my life. I was tired and bored with my job and my furniture, and I couldn’t see any way to change things.” Given the circumstances with your mother, I certainly don’t mean to imply that you harbor the envy he feels for the ill. I think this is confirmed when you say “it is a way to feel alive if the loss has nothing to do with the woman from whom you derive everything (I mean everything), all your life and strength and story.” Furthermore it would not be my place to suggest you at all hate your life. Nonetheless your thoughts sometimes suggest you may agree with the last sentence from that passage and I felt it would be undue censorship to cut out the middle.

    Forgive me if I’m off base. I appreciate what I’ll call the honesty of darkness and doubt in your posts. Equally, I am pleased to see you end with “This is enough.” There may be no better feeling than that. Wishing you and your family the best.

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