Saturday, November 21, 2009

Remodeling and Renewal

             A few nights ago, Peggy went to a gathering hosted by our friends Dave and Liz to celebrate Brooke’s progress so far, precisely a year after the accident. As it happens, Dave and Liz had just remodeled their kitchen, with quite spectacular results, and Peggy was seeing it for the first time.   She was astonished by how much a simple renovation can do for a living space like a kitchen—or rather, something that that was already a living space but has become so much more so.  When she got home, she took a fresh look at our own kitchen, and realized that it would take some doing to make our fairly compact kitchen available to Brooke in his wheelchair, but that by making use of a dining area that had come to serve largely as a repository for piles of magainzes, bills waiting to be paid, and infestations of sticky notes, the area could be opened up.    There is after all a new front door that enables Brooke to get into the house—that’s already one change.  And there are new French doors leading out onto the deck, so that now Brooke can now get out of the back of the house—that’s another change.  These are both changes we’d never have thought of if we weren’t forced into it by needing to accommodate the enormous wheelchair, but it applies to the kitchen too.

In fact the accident has forced us to think about our whole house in entirely new ways.  There are some obvious changes coming:  it will have to be far less cluttered, have less furniture, have no carpet or  area rugs, and in general be opened up to make space.  The same sort of thing is true for the garden—to make it accessible to Brooke, it needs to be completely revised.

When Peggy got home from Liz and Dave’s, she got out a tape measure and a piece of paper to draw a little sketch, and it led us to start reflecting on the kinds of possibilities that Brooke’s injury and the change in our ways of living will necessitate—or, rather, invite.  It would be easy to see all of this in a wholly negative light, to dwell on the inconveniences, the disruptions, the expense, the losses and limitations that Brooke’s accident has brought in its wake.  The list of losses—loss of ability to be spontaneous, to spend lots of time out of doors, to go to lectures easily, to travel, even just to go to the movies, is of course long--but as we looked at Peggy’s drawing we started to notice some of the opportunities that this misfortune has placed in front of us.  It’s difficult to capture the spirit of a conversation that goes on between two dear, dear friends between 11 and 12 o’clock at night, when both of them should be in bed, but that conversation tried to capture the spirit of possibilities that might unfold, and there are many of those.   This blog is only one—it would never have been written, obviously enough, if Brooke hadn’t suffered his injury, and it wouldn’t have been written if the injury hadn’t been so serious.  We’ve tried to make something truthful, even sometimes beautiful, out of the suffering of the past year.  But this is true also for the more concrete, ordinary-seeming matter of remodeling one’s house.  Now, we have to think more carefully about how a house functions, what purposes it serves, how it is or isn’t accommodating both for the people who live in it and whether it welcomes people who come to it.   Lots of people remodel their kitchens, but that is sometimes just matter of trendiness or glamour; for us, it requires a complete rethinking of how we can live together in the future, not only with each other but with Brooke’s medical caregivers and with our friends and family.  We have to rethink cooking and eating from the ground up.               About cooking:  Brooke used to be the cook in the house, and he was happy to cook in a relatively modest kitchen—no granite countertops, no warming drawers, no hanging racks of copper-bottomed Italian saucepans—but now he’ll be cooking by administrative fiat—that is, we imagine, reading recipes on his voice-activated computer, telling the rest of us what to stir, what to chop, how much spice to fold in, tasting sauces as they simmer.   But this can be an opportunity too:  we imagine that people will come to cook with Brooke—a joint project, where he offers a bit of culinary experience and sensitive taste buds, and they provide their own culinary experience but also the hands to do the actual work.  The product is a joint one.   (The same goes for working in the garden.)  Already, one of the unexpected benefits of our situation is discovering what our friends eat—they bring wonderful and varied stuff, stuff we didn’t know they made.  Now,  maybe, they will sometimes actually cook it at our house.

 And about eating:   We also recognize that eating, that principal focus of many social occasions, with be transformed too—not only does Brooke have to have food lifted to his mouth by someone else as long as his arms aren’t yet functional, but we can’t go to the homes of friends for dinner because they all have stairs—it’s as simple an obstacle as that.  But while that might be seen as wholly negative, it can be viewed as an opportunity as well—now friends, we hope, will come to us, cook with us, eat with us, in a way that is more communal and close.   We can’t really just invite people for dinner in the conventional way—Peggy alone couldn’t possibly cook it all, and in any case inviting people “for dinner” conveys a somehow more formal message—but we can welcome people for cooking together and then eating what we cook.

The same goes for music.   Brooke won’t be able to go to concerts very easily,  at least at first,  but we hope music will come to us—just as people have been playing music for him in his hospital room—cello and guitar; blues bands; violin duets; classical guitar; harmonicas, and more, we hope they’ll come to us.  We often treated our house as a staging place for jumping off into exotic foreign travel; now home will become, we think, much more of a home, a place music happens, a place much more central in our lives.

It’s impossible to see the future, as we all know, though you can see that we are beginning to think about what’s involved in Brooke’s coming home.  As we are both painfully aware, it is easy to slip into depression under some circumstances, especially anxiety about a radically changed future; depression is a constant temptation.  But it is also possible to put on different mental and emotional spectacles and try to see the rich possibilities that may open up if one can only hold onto a spirit of optimistic open-endedness, and be willing to rethink some of the most basic things about how one lives—including, for instance, something as seemingly obvious as how one lives in one’s house.  



None of this is to imply that at the present moment Brooke’s physical situation is not continuingly difficult—sometimes he’s blazingly hot, sometimes freezing cold, a matter of impaired temperature regulation.  Relentless days of hard work on trach-mask trials breathing off the vent (5 hours and 20 minutes yesterday, most of it blissfully easy) are followed by a predictable day or two of collapse (only an hour today, every minute of which was a struggle to stay afloat and to stave off panic). Sometimes there’s whole-body pain, though fortunately not too often.  He’s still confined to bed while the wound from his abscess heals, perhaps a week or more to go, and longing to be able to get up into the wheelchair and move around.  Yet we can still imagine a future in which these difficulties subside at least partly and a new era of living well together opens out to include Brooke and everyone who cares about him.   The trick is how to remodel an ordinary home into one that is a source of renewal, not just for its occupants but for everyone who comes into it.  We have been talking about a more “home-based” life; but are only beginning to think through what “home” can mean.  


Claudia said...

Dear Brooke and Peggy, this post spoke to me very much...

I don't think I ever told you my Uncle Dick had a stroke nearly 5 years ago, and has been house- and bed-bound, at home, cared for by my Aunt Sue, ever since.

In his late 70s, he gets extraordinarily agitated if either she leaves or if anyone else attempts to care for him - a difficult situation that leaves HER housebound. For 5 years.

Yet, I would say she has a more active social life than I do! Her bridge group, her Mah Jong ladies, parties and celebrations, all come to her house. My mother goes up frequently to cook (like you, Peggy, Aunt Sue isn't a cook, which is putting it kindly).

Uncle Dick has been 'installed' in their dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows all around, they scatter dozens of bird feeders and suet holders for the wildlife to come and entertain Dick (when there aren't a lot of people around). He is open to their living room, around the corner from their kitchen. The sick know to not come, and in 5 years he's not caught so much as a cold.

At nearly 80, 5 years post-stroke, Dick is failing. It's certainly not a situation that anyone would hope to live. But the people come and the food flows, and I know it all sustains my aunt as much as it does my uncle.

That said, do you need another dose of super-curative lentil soup?? Just let me know!!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving,
Claudia H

Lorraine Seal said...

Brooke and Peggy

Thank you for this post. It reminds me again of the remarkable grace and courage with which you live your lives. You have indeed made something beautiful and truthful out of the suffering of the past year, and I’m profoundly grateful for your openness and honesty as you’ve shared your experiences on this blog.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you directly how much I think of you both specifically in your house. I recall its rooms and garden, its light and shadows, furnishings and paintings. This despite it being sometimes years -- decades even -- between my visits there. I recall parties and also solitary times when I was there on my own, house-sitting perhaps or finding refuge.

Thirty years ago when I was working through some difficult times, you often welcomed me there, making me feel at home and nurtured. It is a wonderful house, and I’ve been trying to picture how it will be for Brooke to live there in his enormous mobile chair. I can picture, I think, how it would be to open up the kitchen to make it a open space for cooking, collaborating on meals and spending time together, yourselves, your friends and family.

Speaking of which, we celebrated Thanksgiving Saturday, the 26th being simply another Thursday here and next Saturday being the day of family wedding. We had another ‘mixed couple’ with an American wife and Irish-born husband and an Irish couple who have travelled more often and more widely than anyone else I know, you two included. In this house, too, my husband is the more experienced cook, so he directs the kitchen while I manage shopping, cleaning and sous-chef duties. We dined formally, laying the table with my mother’s silver and with crystal -- Irish of course.

With two Americans trying to replicate cherished food traditions, we had, as it turns out, too many dishes. Finding the right ingredients is sometimes challenging. Pumpkin pulp for pie is the most difficult. This year, both the fresh cranberries and the canned pumpkin had been sent over from America. Sweet potatoes are imported and not in the best condition, and I’ve never seen a yams. Nonetheless, I managed to put together my traditional casserole.

In the heat of preparations, I said, frustrated, that I didn’t know why we carried on with this. Perhaps we should stop doing it, I said, near tears, tired and fighting my own depression. We’ll get through it and it will be fine, said my husband. And he was, of course, right, as usual. It was good evening with lots of lively talk, good food, wine and music. I wish for you an equally celebratory Thanksgiving.