Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Audacity of Hope

For Christmas, we all went up to Utah. The last time I had gone to Utah, I had seen MaGreen’s step-mother Helen nearly die. I spent a week babysitting BabyG while MaGreen talked with her father and sat with her step-mother in the intensive care unit. After a life of substance abuse, her liver was so scarred that her blood was backing up and bursting through some of her veins. When she wasn’t vomiting blood and being rushed into surgery, she was delirious and demented. It seemed so unlikely that she would live. The doctors performed a procedure called TIPS, which I wrote about, and she “recovered.” After a month, she was living at home and on the phone she seemed more clear headed than I had ever known her to be.

Even in the relatively short time I have known Helen, I have learned to check myself when I feel hopeful about her. Paradoxically, I feel sadder when she is clear headed. You realize what has been lost, the extraordinarily kind and perceptive person who has been lost. Talking to Helen when the “real” her emerges only reminds you of the inevitability of her decline. I know this sadness is harder for MaGreen since Helen raised her from a pretty early age.

We got digital photos of Helen by email from my parents when they were passing through Salt Lake City. She looked so much better that it surprised me. Her skin was no longer yellow but back to its Queen Elizabeth white whiteness. For several months, Helen had cogent conversations on the phone with me about the latest Britney Spears story or the weather. Sometimes a terrible and wondrous hope flickered through my mind. Maybe she will last, maybe she will stay sober, maybe she could qualify for a transplant.

When we got to Utah for the holidays, we immediately realized that Helen’s mental state had declined again. Some relatives had warned us, but you can never know for sure until you see a person face-to-face. Helen didn’t exactly recognize us. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t. She didn’t always remember our wedding. She didn’t remember dancing with me during the reception. She often thought MaGreen was Caroline Kennedy. She thought MaGreen’s dad was four different people, three of whom were living in the basement and trying to impersonate her real husband. She would walk through each room of her own house collecting objects and piling them up because they were hers. “How did this remote get here, this is my remote.” She would leave the house when no one was looking, walk through the snow in her slippers, and ask her neighbors to take her to the home she lived in before. She seemed more like an Alzheimer’s patient than anything else and my cynical, anti-hope side was clucking its tongue triumphantly.

For Christmas, Helen gave me a copy of Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I had wanted the book. I had told MaGreen that I wanted a copy on the flight over from Texas. How could Helen have known that in the few days preceeding our trip, I had started to become infatuated with Barack Obama? The gift was a reminder that even this demented person who couldn’t remember who I am still had the “real” Helen inside of her, the person who is so perceptive she knows their desires better than they know themselves.

I read most of the book between car trips to Myton, Roosevelt, Vernal, Neola, Heber, and Salt Lake City. Obama departs from the style of his first book, which was a memoir. He only makes passing references to his personal and family history. It’s also not a statement of his policy goals. The book is more an analysis of rhetoric, a call for richer public discourse. Sometimes while I was reading, I wanted to cry, and to jump up and down. Obama is so eloquent and intelligent. He puts into clear prose the kind of arguments I have only come across in heady, theoretical books like Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics. He is such an impossible figure. It’s simplistic to call his background exotic. His genotype, his phenotype, his life story, his identity, and his rhetoric – together they are like some kind of manufactured narrative that magically reconciles all of the festering histories we never even acknowledge in the US. He seems to be the beautiful person I have always felt inside of myself, but who was battered down when I was a child by little unknowing kids regurgitating the latent hatred in our society, the beautiful person I myself won’t allow to show because I am too angry and timid and petty.

Having received this gift from Helen of all people, I felt the audaciousness of the audacity of hope, which is to say I felt ridiculous and naïve and vulnerable. Here I was carrying this book with a mixed-race liberal on the cover through rural Utah. MaGreen may as well have been Caroline Kennedy and I Rajiv Gandhi back from the grave. What would that make BabyG? I do not want to be so cynical about Helen’s chances to recover. I do not want to be so cynical to think that this nation could really come to accept a person like Barack Obama as its leader, which would be akin to a deep reconciliation inside of me.

1 comment:

Laura said...

This is so lovely. I found myself wondering what your daughter will think if/when she reads this. I think she'll be grateful for all your good thoughts and caring towards her and our nation.