As one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, said, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” One Art
What are you afraid of losing? We’re all afraid to lose something — our minds, our independence, our car keys, our car in a parking lot. What about you?
The older you get, the more able you are to answer that question. In fact, I think a lot of the busy-ness we fill our days with is geared toward not only not aging but not losing. (Conversely, we might be afraid of getting something, too. Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons, cancer.) So we exercise, we eat right (do we?), we get our checkups, we take vacations (though less so since 2020), and so on. We hang on every piece of advice from the latest experts and the latest data. But we also have a stubborn streak, many of us, and we say Fuck that! and fight against all those rules that get foisted upon us. If you live long enough, you’ll know those rules keep changing. Doctors used to prescribe cigarette smoking as a way to relax and calm your nerves. Now we know those “cancer sticks” can kill us (or can make us sick enough to wish we were dead). Women used to be given Valium or Librium or name-that-drug to keep them calm so they weren’t grouchy toward their hard-working husbands – because back then you only had the choice of getting married to and depending on a man. God forbid your life become a glue trap that you would do anything to get out of.
Funny. I just described both my father and my mother in a single paragraph without even trying.
Me? I’m afraid of losing my words. It scares me when I stumble over a name or forget a word or just go blank. No one in my family up to this point has had Alzheimer’s, but my eldest brother, who was so damned smart and witty, has got some sort of dementia causing a rapid cognitive decline. Recently, we were texting with each other and he was warning me about Hurricane Ian heading my way. I had to say, several times, that it had already happened — weeks ago. Until I sent him a picture of the current radar map and a link to the Wikipedia article about Hurricane Ian, he continued to press the issue that I needed to be prepared. “It’s a big storm,” he wrote. “It turned Ft. Myers Beach into mud. I’m watching it right now.” I don’t know what he was watching. Was he watching news on the internet (because he often goes to these questionable sites he gets from our other brother)? Was he staring at a dark television set, imagining something?
He finally understood that the date of the storm was September 30. He said, “Okay, it’s October 10 now, I see.” I had to tell him that wasn’t the date either.
It makes me so damned sad. My brother hasn’t been himself for a long time. He got worse after his son died in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. Even if he had been in decent physical shape, he could not have gone to the funeral. When I was in Maryland, I was about an hour-and-a-half from him, and I offered so many times to come get him and take him out for a meal. One Thanksgiving, I was all alone. My son was with his dad (as that seems to be their holiday together) and my friends all had plans. I practically begged my brother to have a meal with me that day. He told me he didn’t want to see anyone, and that I should never come to his apartment. He wouldn’t answer the door. He was embarrassed about the state of himself, and probably of his apartment, too. He has never been good at cleaning, not even the basics. But now that I’m in NC, I’m sure that I will never see my brother again in this life. Gradually, he is going to forget any of us exist, and he’ll be alone, at the mercy of the VA. I hope they take care of him and get him into a good full-time care facility. It is truly out of my hands, because that’s how he wants it. If there is one thing I’ve learned about my family, it’s that when they say no to me (sometimes repeatedly), their stubborn streak engages, and I get nowhere with them.
So yes, I’m scared of losing — my siblings, my words, my memories, my life as I know it. I work very hard every day. I have a technical job that requires a lot of my brainpower. I play Wordle every day. I do crosswords. I do puzzles, and I play Jeopardy on my phone. I especially love the Jeopardy science categories and the anatomy categories, because I can pretty much ace those. Once upon a time, I could have gone into science or medicine. I aced every single science course in high school, but when I got to algebra, I got a little lost. I passed, but I lost my confidence. That one class and that one teacher changed the trajectory of my life. Suddenly, I saw myself as dumber than many of my friends who were taking the higher maths and were headed for college. My one and only hope for college would have been a full ride scholarship. Without the higher math courses, that was never going to happen. And when my confidence fell apart, I figured I was a hopeless case. That, my dear readers, is what happens to some kids. If we struggle a little, it can change the way we view ourselves and can derail our entire life. We don’t yet have the maturity to say, “Well, I’m not going to let this stop me!” If someone isn’t saying that for us and to us, it can be a disaster.
But I came back from that eventually. Not everyone does. In the late 80s, I tried going to college. I took two classes, one of which was college algebra. Again, my grade was average, and some other stuff happened in my life, so I left college without taking any credits with me. (I was in a car accident in another state and missed my finals.) It would be another 14 years before I would attempt college again. This time I did all the remedial algebra courses, and with the help of my husband (a math geek) and my kids (both math geeks), I finally understood all those letters and numbers! Had I had any such tutoring in high school, who knows what I would have become. Do you know how frustrating it is to ace biology, and physics, and geometry but find out you can’t understand algebra? I wish I had never given up on myself, because getting 100% on an anatomy test of all the parts of a frog, all the parts of a cow’s eye, and all of the bones in the human body was pretty stellar. I could have easily gone to medical school. My brain longed for that knowledge.
But that’s a loss I had to learn to live with. In the late 80s, instead of continuing with college, I started to absorb technology like a sponge. Starting in 1986, I began working with machines. By 1990, I began working with big machines – mainframe computers and networking equipment. By 1992, I was teaching doctors and nurses (see a pattern here?) to use those computers to enter their orders for labs, prescriptions, IV medications, X-rays, and so on. I was speaking the language of computers and math to scientists. I was leading a large team of trainers and implementation specialists at a major military medical facility (one of many I worked at during the 90s) to deliver a complex solution that solved complex problems. By 1997, I had learned network engineering on the job (before we had so many books available and before the internet was full of information). Soon I was working as the only female network engineer on Camp Lejeune. A woman I had met during my tenure there was now in DC, working on a government contract to deliver a network monitoring platform. It was right up my alley, so I picked up the family and moved north, working my way up to a directorship by 2002.
Eventually, though, the hours and the stress began to collide with my life. I wanted to find something else. I returned to college. Instead of studying the career I had already been in for years, I turned my attention to communications, but I wove in a lot of science courses – psychology, microbiology, marine biology – as electives. After my BA was in the rearview mirror, I started looking for a masters program. I spent some time at Hood College, studying thanatology, but then I moved away. They had no online learning capability. I turned to Mercer University’s school of engineering and got my MS in technical communication management.
I had found a way to incorporate my other great love (the other possibility I had explored when I was young) — writing — with my knowledge of networking and science. I wrote a book in 2001 (before the degree). And the next year, I contributed three chapters to another one. I had the distinct honor of picking my book up off the shelf at Borders (a bookstore that used to be my happy place). Since then, words have been my things — but words about science. It led me to a long career as a technical writer for software companies with a networking focus. Only recently did I move into another aspect of my career, which lets me use my communication skills, my deep knowledge of systems, and my personality – Scrum Master.
This week, probably become of stress, I stumbled on my words a few times. I find myself really worrying about that too much, maybe because of my brother.
If I lose my language, who will I be? If I lose my memory of all the wonderful things I’ve experienced and all the people I’ve loved and all the knowledge I’ve gained, who will I be?
In the end, isn’t that what we are really afraid of? Losing ourselves?
They say that the hard part about any kind of cognitive decline is for the family. You say the long goodbye. You lose the person you love while they’re still alive. Eventually, the patient is unaware, most of the time, that they have a problem. But they are no longer themselves. They lose that. Hearing my brother struggle is so hard. I wish he had back all of his words, all of his wit, and all of his awareness. I worry about him. I’m saying the long goodbye.
Blessings to you all on this November Saturday.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Leave a Reply