Gerda keeps busy to make the time to her surgery fly. Doña Quixote is a fly in Gerda’s hoped-for absinthe
Featured image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
How do I make the time go faster before my pelvic floor prolapse surgery on March 21? How do I take my mind off my crowded pelvic floor, where too many organs are rubbing each other the wrong way? Psychologists from the National Institute of Mental Health to life coaches advise that “‘staying active’ [is] a healthy way to cope with stress/trauma” because when we are doing some challenging activity and we [can get] so focused on it we lose our sense of self, we don’t feel time at all.” So I decided to get busy.
Here is sampling of things I have done to make time fly until the the Spring Solstice:
- Pulled the most of the pilled fibers off my sweaters and pants by hand, then took off the remaining fuzzies with a garment shaver.
2. Resumed translation from Afrikaans to English of the autobiography of Peter’s South African uncle, known as Oom (which means “uncle”) van Rensburg. He was born in a Boer War concentration camp in 1900. I came to known him in person, in legend, and now through his memoir. Since I need work, his biography was a good opportunity for me to convey to our grandchildren the sensibility of South African farm life in Peter’s and my childhood, mine when I lived on on our Marikana family farm, and Peter’s in his frequent farm vacations on the farms of some of his recent ancestors. Some of Oom’s experiences are an earlier generation’s versions of my and his own “back in my day we had to walk to school in the snow uphill both ways” meme. I want to let them know that tough things happened in their grandparents’ and earlier ancestor’s formative years, albeit in different forms than their own 21st century, and that enduring them as gracefully as possible was one’s only option. While Oom tells stories of strife and war between the Afrikaners and the supporters of a British way of life, I’m here going to merely tell an unprofound tale of a bad day in the life of a 14-year-old farm boy. In the words of Stephen Marche, “There is a deep longing in me…to make these words for you,” my children, my grandchildren, and for you, too, who read my meditations on this blog. “I want to be with you somehow” (On Writing and Failure). My friend Kirstin—herself a brilliant writer—recently sent the clip to me that I just quoted:
In Oom’s words, “When there was no urgent arm work, I had time I to shoot birds or hares ( Afr. “hase”) or go fishing. One day after school, I was making a fishing leader by tying a strong piece of string, the kind my father uses as a plumbline for bricklaying, to the hook. After threading the string through the hole in the hook, I held the hook between my teeth, barb inside, so I could use both hands to make the proper knot. As I moved through the house to the outside, the line got caught by a door and pulled the hook into my upper lip. It was in just enough for the barb to be inside the lip, so that it could not be pulled out again. My lip immediately started swelling. My father was in the lands and my brother-in-law Piet in the shearing shed. Our kitchen maid (Afr. “meid,” now regarded as pejorative) fetched my brother-in-law. My sister Liza, cousin Hester who then lived with us, and two of the orphan girls my mother had taken in after the flu epidemic held me down so I would not pull away while my brother-in-law pushed the fish hook barb all the way through my lip so that the hole-end of the hook could be cut off and the hook-end removed from my mouth. After the procedure, my brother-in-law was worse off than me, though both of us gladly took a swig of Rooilaventel” (“Red Lavender”). [Ouma Gerda’s footnote: Rooilaventel is a Dutch “medicine” that contains lavender oil and ethanol, as well as extracts of nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon. Ethanol is the alcohol found in wine, beer, and liquor. Rooilaventel can still be bought today, as well as numerous other alcohol-steeped herbal liquid formulations, marketed as dietary supplements or “over the counter” (OTC) medicines. A large number of commercial products contain up to 70% of ethanol. As a toddler, Oupa Peter’s grandmother, Liza, became addicted to Chlordyne, of which the principal ingredients were a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), tincture of cannabis, and chloroform].
In a different section of his memoir, Oom had this to say about Liza, when she was 6 years old when she and her children were taken to the concentration camp: “My sister had been weak and sickly all her life, and would be until her death at age 29 (1923) during an operation in Pretoria. In the camp, she often had a stomach-ache, for which she was given chlorodyne (Afr. “Klorodyn”] the sweet taste of which she loved. There was so little sweetness in the camp! She would often come to my mother and complain about a stomachache. To which my mother would answer, ‘Go get the Chlorodyne so I can pour some out for you.’ Liza would then whip the bottle from behind her back where she had been hiding it at the ready.”]
3. Being driven by Peter to the mall—any mall—to keep up my walking on days when it is too icy or cold to walk in our neighborhood. I am tying to walk as many steps a day as possible to be strong for my surgery. Peter and I usually walk together for a while, have coffee, and then each go our own way—our strides are too different to adapt to the other’s for longer distances. A young woman, part of a lover-couple, took the photo for us. They were about as old as we were when they started dating and are still together 8 years later.
4. Kept on diminishing my possessions. Took a large box of clothes to a consignment store, donated others to a thrift store. I’ve had to change my style quite drastically since my stomach issues seriously flared up—all of the pants I’d assembled from as many as 30 years ago—were now too tight to be comfortable over my surgery scars and often inflated stomach. I had to get rid of all my most favorite jeans! I now wear only pants with an elasticized waist. My winter wardrobe now consists of only 4 pairs of pants and a number of tops. During my surgery wait, I once again tackle my jewelry—I usually wear costume jewelry because of their bright colors—and reduced them by about a third. I still have far too many items–many of them kept for sentimental reasons, for example my mother’s pearl necklace (dating from before my birth) and a string of African glass beads that I bought before the births of my children. I spent the last two days reorganizing them on the jewelry board in my closet. The scarves and bags, as well, will soon be decimated.
5. Celebrated the completion of a companion painting to the one Lorna Anderson had painted for me after the release of our family’s dementia documentary AS A GIFT! At the end of 2022, we commissioned Lorna to do one of Peter too. At the ridiculously low price that she quoted us, this one, too, is largely gift. A day or two after picking up the painting, Peter and I celebrated it with a toast and a nice meal.
6. Gone to our grandkids’ school events or to see the latest projects they did at home.
a), Went to 10-year-old Dante’s 4th grade Science Fair, where is explaining to Ouma his project of determining the amount of iron in various fruit juices. We’d watched this project happen over the many weeks that it occupied him. He practised his presentation on us the day before the Fair.
b), Attended one of Aliya’s dance performances in which her team danced a hip-hop piece that she and a friend had helped to choreograph. Dance is a big passion in her life. Below I include a dance video that she created at home one morning when her parents were away and she was bored. She worried that she might be in trouble when they came back, because she had to download a video editing app and she isn’t supposed to download anything without them knowing. Fortunately, they were charmed by the video and she was forgiven. Aliya is 12, almost 13, and in 7th grade.
c), Went to admire Kanye’s bedroom that he’d recently painted and decorated it with LED lights. He made the walls grey so that he can change the color of the room by the changing the color of the LEDs. He downloaded an Aexa app to control his light system by voice. “Alexa, change the lights over the door to green.” The Batman-shaped object on the wall in the first photo is one of his favorite Lego pieces. On the display shelves (second photo) are some other pride possession—most of which are Lego sets for which saved up his allowance and chore earnings at various ages. On one of his walls (not shown), hangs a new acquisition, an 11,000+ piece Lego World Map that he built by counting “pixels” to place tiny Lego discs, working from a printed pattern in much the same way as one follows a template to place x’s in the weave of cross stitch fabric. One of the most important furnishings in his room is a refurbished 10-year-old computer that he bought with money he’d earned for chores and jobs, and, as he says, “the birthday money helped a lot!” He does his homework and programming on it, but what he loves best is that “it’s a way to connect with people and make new friends. Even if I don’t know the person in real life, I can still be friends with them and hang out with them, which makes me happy.” (Kanye is 15, turns 16 in June, 10th grade.)
* * *
So I kept busy, you get the drift. I filled every moment when I was not slumping or sleeping to rest my brain. Nevertheless, the time that has so far passed from the date I discovered my uterine prolapse until now has been one of the longest-seeming durations in my whole life. Plus, even when busy, I am restless and jumpy/anxious. And just in case I did not get the message that my insides are awry, the crowding of organs “down there” has made my usual constipation worse. A week ago I had one of those attacks where my body rid itself of its accumulated waste through every bodily opening possible. I was up one whole night. The incident wiped out 3 days of busyness, other than if you count runs to the bathroom or sitting on the couch too downhearted to even watch a movie. Time inched by. Also, my daily dementia mistakes have become worse: yesterday I accidentally ripped up a 1099 document after Peter had just asked me to put it on his desk for doing our taxes. A few days ago I forgot where in the mall to meet Peter after my walk, wasted time getting lost until I ended up at the wrong end of the mall, then called Peter. Doña Quixote in deed.
The Absinthe Drinker, Picasso, 1901. Picasso painted this work at the start of his Blue Period (1901-1904), a time during which he experienced unusual and emotional turmoil and financial destitution, state that seems to be reflected in the painting. One of the drinker’s over-long arms attempts to hold her body together, the other props up her head. Her dejected posture and joyless facial expression could be understood to refer to the artist’s own depression and alienation. The thick black line that runs behind her around the wall, divides her head and torso. Though her body is present, her mind is in a dark elsewhere. Absinthe, which is capable of creating blackouts, pass-outs, and hallucinations, represented “a ticket to Charenton,” the insane asylum outside Paris.
If busyness is supposed to make time go faster, what happens in the brain of someone with serious memory loss? According to a 2016 study of adults ages 50 to 89 found that greater busyness was associated with “better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.” However, it is still unknown whether this relationship is causal—that is, whether or not being busy causes preservation of cognitive abilities, or if the relationship was observed simply because people with better mental function are capable of living busier lives (“Busyness, mental engagement, and stress: Relationships to neuroactive aging and behavior“).
First, we have to look what busyness means: it is defined as the perception of the density of events and tasks per hour or day, that is, the density is great when a great deal is happening. That is when time flies. “Very often, when time passes very quickly it’s an indication that we’re in a positive flow state – we are doing some challenging activity and we are so focused on it we lose our sense of self; we don’t feel time at all.” When we we are children, a great deal of our daily experience is new and exciting. We pay a great deal of attention to butterflies, a crack in a wall, the movement of ants. We can never believe it is bedtime already. When we are adults, though, almost everything we do each day is familiar. The density of experience is low. Time drags—at work, for example, even if one is lucky enough to have a job you like: familiar routines do not challenge the mind.
Salvador Dali, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1952-4
“The density of experience,” however, “can be equally high when there is almost nothing happening (as in the case of solitary confinement) because that seemingly “empty” period of time is actually filled with our subjective involvement in self and situation: we’re concentrating on our own action, thoughts, or surroundings, thinking about how stressful our circumstances are or even obsessed with how slowly time seems to be passing.” I think this could be one explanation for the fact that time is trickling by slowly for me. Given that I am in not in solitary confinement or waiting for the bus, there must be additional reason for why my time seems so hum ho. I think this is where Doña Quixote comes in.
Gwen John, Chloë Boughton-Leigh, 1904-8. The book in Chloë’s hands remains unread.
People with dementia have a limited attention span because our executive function is shot; that is, we cannot do a series of steps in a logical order, even if we write them down and have the list in front of our eyes. Our minds are constantly drifting, even though all our equipment might be set out around us for a task, or even when we have one of the needed tools in our hand. Our minds are not engaged so we keep returning to the contents of our heads—as in waiting for a bus. By the time your mind “comes back” and takes note again, you cannot believe that only a few minutes had gone by. In addition, our short-term episodic memory—or the recent memory of autobiographical events—has fallen apart. In order to feel that you have been busy, you have to remember the tasks you have been doing. For someone who can’t remember what she had for breakfast, or what movie she is watching whenever she feels like sitting down, the day feels empty even though you go through the motions.
But all is not lost: a), one of the busyness tasks I listed above was the translation of Oom’s memoir. I am engaged in the task all the time, researching background information that my grandchildren would need to understand the story and using my English-Afrikaans dictionary all the time, trying to find English words for Afrikaans concepts that are are foreign to the way life works in the USA. Time flies. b), Hanging out with my grandkids or going for a walk or coffee with Peter always lifts me up and the time goes fast. c), Working out my feelings in this post and discovering how time flashes by or trickles, was far more engaging than doing all that household busywork. Tempus fugit. According to Peter, at times when I am enjoying something I’m doing, I “smile in real smiles rather than the fake ones[he gets] on bad days.”
Joie de Vivre (Antipolis), Pablo Picasso, 1946.
March 6, 2023 @ 12:42 am
I love the photograph of you & Uncle Peter!
You two are an inspiration to all of us💕
March 6, 2023 @ 9:18 am
Hello Gerda! First I wish you the best of luck with your surgery! And secondly I LOVE LOVE LOVE the portraits of you and Peter! Are they hung in your home, I couldn’t tell. I love you my friend and hope all is going well for you two! You’re always in my prayers! XOXO
March 6, 2023 @ 10:12 am
That op is life changing AND I know it will go well because it is on my birthday!!! I will be thinking of you…my best friend
March 6, 2023 @ 2:05 pm
All the best Gerda for your surgery.
I had the same surgery just before we moved to USA. I recovered quickly and all was well. If you get tired rest, don’t over do it, take it easy till you’re fully recovered.
Love Vicki xx
March 8, 2023 @ 12:34 pm
Love love love Peter’s portrait!!