The Driver

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Helping me through the memory ‘haunts’ of last October, a ‘new’ creative passion, needle felting. Lots of tiny pumpkins showing up!

With Halloween a few weeks away, my thoughts cannot help but think of last year’s holiday, strange as it was.

The day before, October 30, I was at Swedish Hospital. It was a dark rainy day, one of those days that never looks like day. Cancer had already been found in a lymph node a few weeks earlier, now medical personnel were looking for where it came from. Multiple breast images that day resulted in two painful biopsies. We lingered in Seattle to be sure all the bleeding and swelling would subside. Sitting in the car in the rain, the ice packs in my bra thawing, I called the hospice nurse who had seen mom earlier that day. She told me mom was stable and assured me she was not likely to die soon, though maybe in the next few days. Having seen her myself the day before, I wasn’t so sure, but we were planning to see her on our way home and I could do my own assessment.

After waiting an hour in a ferry line, having just missed the one we’d hoped to be on, we were driving off the ferry when the call came. Mom had died, the person calling was surprised I hadn’t been called. She died around 8:30. It was now after 9:00.

Stunned from the events of the day and the call, on autopilot I called the number on the little orange card I always carried with me. Mom had given it to me years ago. Since her mid-70s she had been a volunteer participant in an Alzheimer’s research study through Group Health and the University of Washington. Her brain was to be autopsied upon her death, whether she had Alzheimer’s or not. As it was, she had been diagnosed about 6 years earlier.

A woman answered the phone. She said it would take the ‘driver’ (who, it turned out, was her husband) an hour, maybe more, to get to where mom was. Okay. We would be there, we would wait.

After more than an hour (it was now past 11:00) no one had come. The staff in the care home were changing shifts and gently as possible asked me what was going to happen when. Sitting in the dark stillness of mom’s room, where she lay even more still, I called again.

head

one of my unfinished needle felted ‘heads’, though a little older looking, might be my version of ‘the driver’!

Finally, around 11:30, a young man walked in. In a black style-less suit, thin fabric, narrow lapels, with a white shirt and a thin black tie, he had no facial expression, in fact his face was very pale…no kidding, he was white as a ghost.

In a low, whispery monotone, he asked me to sign some papers. He expressed no words of condolence, there was nothing ‘warm’, or kind, about him, he barely spoke at all, he was all about the task at hand. With the most flat affect I’ve ever heard, he answered a few questions with short replies. I asked them mostly just to have conversation, but there wasn’t going to be any conversation with him. I made a comment based on a previous experience about a body bag, he said he does not use a body bag, he uses a shroud, and implied body bags were uncouth. Oh-kay.

We decided to leave, it was getting very late. As we went out the door of the care home parked in front was a Toyota van just like ours, only black. I had never seen a black Sienna, have never seen one since. I’ve looked. There was no sign on the vehicle, I thought there’d be some business name, though not sure what that would be: “Body Transport Services, call 567-4321” ? He had no one else with him, though he was a skinny, slight built person. We wondered, how was he going to do this? What if mom had weighted 150 pounds? (at 93, she was in fact tiny and light, having not eaten for a week).

The bigger question: was this guy of this world and was she really going to get to the UW morgue?

The next morning, Halloween morning, after only a few hours sleep, I received two calls. The first, very early, from a cheery doctor at the morgue who had performed the autopsy. He was done, where did I want Ruth sent? (at least I knew she had arrived.) He was chatty, upbeat, as polar-opposite from ‘the driver’ as two people could be. (that was a little strange too, she had not been dead 12 hours and this guy was talking to  me about her brain dissection. But at least he was friendly.)

The next call was the doctor at Swedish telling me they had found two types of cancer in my breast. Happy Halloween eh?

Mom's own funny Halloween face, 2010. She is much livelier here than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her dying!

Mom’s own bright eyed Halloween expression, 2010, is much livelier than the Halloween character who attended to her at the time of her  death!

Footnote:

The person at the ACT study who I knew, and who knew mom well, was out of the country when mom died. Not knowing this, I had called her cell phone that night, which she had told me to do if I needed any help or had any questions, day or night. She called me the day she returned, on my birthday, two weeks later. She told me the drivers were contracted, she did not know this guy and had never heard his name before nor a report like mine. She was a little ‘spooked’ too!

That strange night, exhausted, stressed, anticipating all that lay ahead, I called my brother as we drove home and told him the story of the driver. As we laughed about it, my brother said “he watched too many undertaker movies.” We decided he was in the right line of work. Either he got that way hanging around with dead bodies, or perhaps he had some form of autism which made communicating challenging and this was a job he could do as it did not involve much interaction with, well, living people.

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

out sweeping the leaves with her broom is a little purple witch with her purple cat

What scares you?

Scary to some, not to others, the woods offers ‘monster’ trees with branches ready to grab the imagination, screeches to set one’s hair on end, and blackened stumps posing as bears!

Halloween has yet to arrive, but thanks to face book I’ve already seen a small humanoid butterfly vampire, a ballerina vampire, and an icing-covered sweet vampire.

No doubt due to the season, I’ve been thinking about why people are drawn to scary experiences, movies, things, etc. and like to dress-up in scary costumes.  I personally am NOT drawn to being scared, I have enough trouble sleeping at night, thank you very much.  There are enough realities of my own life and in the world at large which I find disturbing without seeking out anxiety producing stimulus. But that’s just me.  I tend to dress as a clown on Halloween, though I have been seen as a not-so-scary witch.

Of course what is deemed scary by one person another might find humorous, exhilarating, or just plain ordinary.  Early in my life-in-the-woods a visiting friend, walking to the barn with me as I went to milk Daisy the cow, commented, “How can you stand to live here alone and be scared all the time?”  The implication was that being out in Nature, at night, in the dark, was a scary experience, especially alone. I loved my life in the woods and did not think about being scared; if the thought came to me I put it out of my mind.  Back then the only time I would be scared  in Nature was if I was in a campground with some weird person nearby.  Fear to me was usually related to spooky behaving people, a product of a more urban lifestyle.  The focus of the nightly news certainly reinforced my way of thinking.  Since then I have, at times, had some anxieties about life here in the woods, but mostly due to incidents involving people, (though the cougar encounter reminded me Nature also has scary, unpredictable characters).

According to my trusty Apple dictionary, the origin of the word ‘scare’ is the Old Norse word skirra meaning ‘frighten’. The flight-or-fight instinctual response to something that frightens us, found in humans and other life forms, is a hard-wired survival response to something we deem threatening.  Its purpose is to stimulate adrenalin and create the conditions for quick, decisive action in life-threatening situations, enabling us to protect ourselves or others.  It is supposed to diminish as the threat passes.  The common explanation for modern-day stress is our bodies and brains activating this response to perceived threats that don’t necessarily go away, (as the attacking lion might) or that has any immediate out come or resolution, (as killing or being killed by the lion might).  Thus, we remain in a constant state of flight-or-fight, aka stress.  The really frightening thing is what this does to our bodies, our minds, relationships, and every aspect of our lives.  Real life scares to people today are often unseen, unidentified, and not easily resolved.

IMG_1449The 1979 windstorm here in Washington brought down the Hood Canal Bridge and toppled trees everywhere, including across my porch and on my chicken-coop.  It brought a healthy dose of flight-or-fight response that came and went, allowing me to take quick, decisive actions, helping myself and friends.  (I have deep empathy for those on the east coast and their experiences the past few days). To those who lose loved ones, or homes, in natural disasters, it may not seem so, but Nature does play fair…the threat goes away, we can breath again, the adrenaline subsides along with the wind and the water, or the retreating lion.

Perhaps that scary movie or book gives folks the satisfaction of experiencing fear with resolution, unlike the often unnamed, unresolved fears of the modern world.  And if the outcome is not so favorable to the hero, it’s his or her life, not ours!  A sort of ‘have your cake and eat it too’ experience of fear, stress, and release, then close the book, the movie is over. Dare devil sports enthusiasts experience first hand fear and resolution.

pottery jack o’lanterns I made at Daily Bird Pottery workshop

While avoiding the gory haunted houses and the re-runs of horror movies, I’ll enjoy the jack o’lanterns and lighter side of Halloween, but keep an eye out for the vampire butterflies and ballerinas, though they can usually be won over and are prone to giggles… perhaps this is true of all our scary demons! Children who want to be a scary vampire, but temper it with a butterfly or dancing alter-ego, might just be attempting to balance the scary, dark side of life with the life-affirming light side.  I wish them and you a Happy Halloween!

REALLY scary is the transformation of my husband into a vampire, at least in this iPad enhanced photo!