Friday, May 1, 2009

Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side: A Saturday Update

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing:

I've had the Smiths song, Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side, stuck in my head for a week, brought on by reading a wee bit of Keats. Nobody likes Keats, it seems. Everywhere I look critics and academics scorn his fascination with death, his low origins, his obsession with fame. But I find him immensely comforting at times. Maybe I'm a sap. I probably am. But when my brain can't focus on a book, it's nice to read a poem here and there-- particularly one that has a narrative quality, that feels like a tiny story. I have little patience for poems that read like crossword puzzles, especially when I've gone stupid.

I haven't been able to read much in the past month; my grandmother had a series of strokes in late March and passed away a week later, and so there was the week with her at the nursing home and another week at home after she died, trying to get back to work but mostly just walking around in a fog. Then there was a week of family gatherings and the funeral in Spokane, and another five days' visit from my sister and her husband that was the silver lining of the whole affair. And since then, getting caught up on work and sleep and marriage and yoga. And just a little reading.

I was able to stay with her in Eastern Washington the week she died, and her last night many of her grandchildren were in the room with her telling stories and settling in for the long night's vigil. We younguns had reprieved our parents only forty-five minutes earlier when my cousin Johnny shushed us: she was gone. Soon her room was packed with her three children, their spouses, and all of us grandkids-- many of us with our spouses. 

It was hot in there. Nursing homes are already hothouses for the tiny tropical birds we turn into when we're on our way out of the world. But with about twenty people crammed into her room, it was sweltering. She would have loved it. The last time I saw her it was midsummer in Eastern Washington-- normally a very hot, dry time of year in that part of the state, but this visit they were experiencing record highs, so it was around 100 degrees. 

And the heat was turned on in her room.

And she was wearing long underwear and a white long-sleeved turtleneck under her grey velour sweats (Juicy Couture-style!) with an aquamarine flannel vest over the hoodie. Since she wasn't well enough to travel across the mountains for my wedding in May, I brought my wedding dress to her. And when I picked up my train and placed it in her lap so she could admire the stitching and beading on it, the first thing she did was spread it across her lap like another blanket. She kept it there for the entire visit. 

Grandma Iris was my last grandparent. I've done this four times, now-- the travel, the bedside vigil, the goodbye. You enter a different dimension when you sit with a dying person for many days in a row, one that's hard to leave after they die. Which brings me to Keats and Yeats. Or, actually, Keats and Bronte. I have nothing to say about Yeats today, except that his name keeps popping up in that Smiths song in my head:

A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on Your Side/While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and gravely read the stones/All those people, all those lives/Where are they now?

No, I've been thinking about Keats and Bronte. Charlotte Bronte, not Emily. I've never read Emily Bronte, even if I did tell people for years that Wuthering Heights was my favorite book. I have no idea why I did that. I've always been an insatiable reader, so I could've named any number of good books as my favorite. But in junior high I really wanted Wuthering Heights to be that book. I just couldn't stand reading it. 

Ah, the mysteries of the mind.

Both of them died young; Keats, in his mid-twenties, while Charlotte Bronte was thirty-eight. They both died of consumption, like everybody in the nineteenth century who didn't die of syphilis. (Although I have read that it's possible Bronte died from dehydration and malnutrition brought on by morning sickness. As if her story wasn't depressing enough, she was pregnant when she died.)

But I haven't been thinking about how they died young. I've been thinking about the fact that they both cared for consumptive family members for years before they themselves died. Keats nursed his mother and a brother, so when he started coughing up blood, he knew exactly what he was in for. Bronte lost nearly all of her siblings in one year, just a few years before her own death. Her novel Villette was written as she mourned her siblings, and the tragic, if stoic, outlook of Villette's Lucy Snowe reflects what I've always assumed to be the state of mind of her creator. 

And the crap ending of that book is excusable only because, after losing so many loved ones in a row, who wouldn't be fatalistic?

I've been thinking about these writers because I found myself utterly braindead for weeks after my grandmother died. I loved my grandmother dearly, adored her as we all did, but I wasn't her primary caregiver for many months, or even years. I was at her bedside for one week. I imagine the exhaustion, the grief, the brainsickness that came on (brainsickness being a state of homesickness for one's brain, I guess) after my grandmother died, and then enlarge it exponentially to relate to the crushing loss these writers experienced over and over again. 

And they wrote right through it. No antidepressants, no therapy, no yoga.

How lucky we are that they did.

My grandmother spent her life making the world beautiful with her music, with her effortless style. She was a tremendous pianist. She played every day of her life from the moment she learned, while raising children, caring for her parents, mourning the loss of a brother, while visiting grandchildren, even after a stroke at seventy left her frail and unable to speak. She played well past her ninetieth birthday, and on, till she was finally too weak at ninety-one. Keats' Endymion reminds me of her:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondance, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o`er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, inspite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. 

John Keats, from Endymion


Erin said...

Tiny tropical birds indeed. My grandpa was such a big man until his last years, and then all wrapped up in so many layers with legs so thin it seemed so unimaginable that they kept him aloft even the some of the time they did.

fingeth said...

I love this post so much. So touching, it made me cry.

SM said...

I have my grandmother's piano at my house, now, and it's like she's moved in or something. Strange, and great.