I’ve recently gotten myself into the voluntary loop of listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, recomposed by Max Richter. I do this thing with a good friend of mine: we find songs that we love and can listen to upwards of 100 times in a row, until there’s nothing more to hear in the song. And then, without realizing we’ve moved on, we simply never listen to it again.
We started it in the library in law school, when we needed music that could act both as background noise and as a stimulant when cresting hour eleven of staring at the same caselaw. Thirteen years later, we continue to share songs across the country. The outbound text will consist of a song share from Spotify, with the promise that this one, in particular, could be the next contender. I never know what she’s listening to, and she never knows what I’m listening to. I have to assume that our loops sometimes sync up, and that for a few hours, we internally rotate to the same rhythm, on the same day.
I don’t usually fixate on entire classical-esque albums, and the point of this post isn’t this album. I am linking for you here though, because if you’re anything like me, you loved Succession and its score, and this version of Vivaldi’s music lets you feel like you’re alternating between a sweeping autumn day and the creeping rot of a wretched family empire, all within a few moments.
Aren’t we already feeling that way these days? Well yes, collectively we are. But my emotions got stuck last month. In early October, I found out my mom is palliative. Her brain tumours have advanced to a point described by her doctors as “extremely severe”. At first, I cried. For a week, I cried while working, while brushing my teeth, while putting on face cream, while cooking, and while eating.
I flew home to Vancouver, and when I arrived, I walked into a house where my mom, who used to attempt to outpace her previous time on the Grouse Grind, couldn’t walk, couldn’t use her left hand, and couldn’t hold the memory of who I was through a conversation with me. The tumours were pushing on too many parts of her brain. What had been an experience of shock and grief, became a demand for action.
In the course of one week, she had gone from an independent person with no obvious signs of cognitive or physical impairment, to someone who needed to be fed, bathed, and dressed, and coaxed, cajoled, and directed. There were oncologists on the phone, palliative care nurses at the door, occupational therapists at the bedside, and shower bar installation personnel in the bathroom. There were hospice pamphlets, and phone numbers scrawled on ripped sheets of paper, and business cards left behind by social workers on the kitchen counter, and forms - forms about how to die, and where.
I consulted a grief counselor through the program at my mom’s palliative care dept. I relayed to her my fear that I was not engaging enough with my own sadness. That I was perhaps ignoring the reality of the situation - looking at what needed to be done, rather than all that would be done to me, by her passing. I explained this to the grief counselor, in her sunny Zoom room, while squeezing a sizeable lump in my throat. I had the idea that I should not cry to this grief counselor. That of all people, a grief counselor was the person I shouldn’t cry to, from my parents’ spare bedroom, while sitting on the chair that I have since realized is decorative, as it had me hovering a few inches off the ground and rendered my face a bodiless, vibrating orb.
But the snowballing pace of change in 2020 has granted us a previously inaccessible trick of time: the ability to examine last week from the emotional distance of next year. For every day that we’re awake, it feels like we experience a month’s worth of 2008, or 2012, or 2015, emotions. I can now look back at the person who spoke to the grief counselor and realize how surreal it was, for me to hold in the lump until I felt like a snake that had swallowed a raccoon, mistaking it for a shrew.
That raccoon is now a moose, because I haven’t cried since. I don’t know what for. I don’t know to what end. I don’t know how long we will live in this state, and the sadness has calcified into a constant irritation, that shape-shifts at will into guilt, rumination, and a dogged sense of clench.
You know, I had an experience like that in Vienna. I was trying to get to Oma, before she died. I arrived to the hospital, and that hospital was big! It had so many floors, and these different wings. And I had come from overseas, so I had my coat with me, and my luggage. And it was winter, so my coat was heavy.
I stopped chewing.
Anyway, I tried going to the floor I thought she was on, but she wasn’t there, and I tried asking someone, but they sent me in the wrong direction, so then I was even more mixed up. And I ended up taking all these elevators, and rushing up and down flights of stairs, and I had to carry all my things, and I was stressed, you know, because I knew I didn’t have much time.
I set my cutlery down, raised my hand to my chin, and listened.
I mean Oma was dying, and I knew it was dire, and I wanted to get to her! So I started running, and I was sweating, and people were looking at me as if I was crazy. And you know the Viennese, they’re not exactly helpful. But eventually a nice woman did point me in the right direction.
My mom was telling my story.
Two years ago, I flew across the ocean to see my Oma on her deathbed, and got lost in the hospital, frantically running from floor to floor, exhausted after a red-eye, carrying my Toronto parka and my luggage, the work emails pinging as my phone automatically joined the hospital wifi. As I shuffled down the pea and peach corridors, the exhaustion and physical frustration rose in me until they burst forth in hiccups of tears when I eventually did find my Oma, and she squeezed my wrist in her warm, puffy hands, saying, Nicht weinen, mein Mädchen.
My mom had gotten it all right. She had heard my little story from that day - just some corridor confusion that ended up being of no consequence - and wound so tightly into it along with me, that it had coiled onto her own loop of consciousness.
Well that must have been very stressful for you, I said. Trying to get to her, when you knew she was dying, and feeling so utterly unable to reach her.
It was, she said to her plate.
I looked at my plate, and for a few seconds, we internally rotated to the same rhythm.