Thursday, February 28, 2013

About love, paraplegia, and assisted suicide

Jojo Moyes’ recent novel Me Before You is most often described as a modern love story.   I enjoyed that aspect but it intrigued me for another reason.

The setting is England where 26-year-old  Louisa Clark has recently lost  her job in a cafĂ©. She is desperate for income.  So with strong encouragement from her family, all dependent  on what she brings in, she accepts the position as caregiver/companion to Will Traynor, a paraplegic because of traffic accident.

Will, a former successful businessman, an angry man, is bitter about the  accident  he did not cause that has determined  he will be without feeling from the neck down for the rest of his life. Forever in a wheelchair. 

He tells Lou: “I loved my life. Really loved it.  I loved my job, my travels, the things I was. I loved being a physical person.  I liked riding my motorbike, hurling myself off big heights.  I liked crushing people in big deals. I liked having sex.... I led a big life.”

He is determined that the “rest of his life” will be short. He plans to travel to Switzerland where, with the help of the organization Dignitas, he will take the final action to end his life.  

Over the weeks, as Lou cares for Will, she learns to love the person he is, not what he can do.  She accidentally becomes aware of his “due date” in Switzerland and determines to make him to see that even without mobility life is still worth living because she loves him.

On the other hand, as Will learns to know Lou, he  recognizes that although she is physically able,  she is paralyzed in other ways.   Though 26 years of age, she has never had any goals other than earning money.   Intelligent, she has never read books, heard classical music, or traveled.  Her boyfriend, a physical trainer, provides her with sex, nothing more. Life is a dead end for her as much as it is for Will. 

Even as Lou  is determined to keep Will alive, he is equally determined to bring her to life  and  see the possibilities of a rich, full life outside her little space. 

While I enjoyed the love angle, I kept comparing Will’s determination to end his life to my brother’s efforts to stay alive though also a paraplegic for the last decade of his life. He died in 2010 at age 83 of a stroke.  

My brother, Jack Funk, had multiple sclerosis, first diagnosed in the late 1960s.  When life was getting too difficult without more assistance, he and his wife Patricia moved from their home on the bank of the beautiful Battle River in Saskatchewan, outside Battleford, to Saskatoon to a care facility. 

He took up residence in a room with all the equipment needed to hoist him and look after his needs, she moved into an apartment in an adjoining  building. They left behind 18 years of significant living:  a comfortable lifestyle with hot tub, breakfast on the deck, weekend trips, and visits from family and friends. 

Behind him was a 23-year career in education followed by years as a senior official in the Saskatchewan government and then assistant superintendent of education for the Department of Indian Affairs.  As he researched this group of people he grasped the depth of their oppression and became a voice for telling their stories. 

In Jack’s book If You Wait Someone Will Come: Life in Interim Manor, he admits the move was traumatic, because such moves are an admission of failure, for him  caused by a combination of “ill health, frailty and circumstances.”  They  couldn't  carry on alone any  longer.  A cure was not in the future. Now what? 

His book, a mixture of satire, humor, and information, looks at life in a care home from the viewpoint of a careful observer.  His insights into life with paraplegia  merit wider distribution. The cartoons are priceless, the humor without equal. “There’s a  lot of nudity around here, but don’t expect Madonna,”he comments.

Jack’s  openness about his condition did not come about readily. For many years he wrote me letters, often weekly, with never a hint about his health. He edited an occasional Funk family newsletter, with news provided through emails from family members scattered worldwide.

His computer was his lifeline.  He described wonderful restaurant meals, concerts, lectures, and more. He valued visits from children and friends.   But his condition deteriorated until he could  move only his head and speak. He dropped the newsletter from his self-assigned tasks.  

He became depressed when he could no longer communicate with others at will. But then he turned to voice recognition software, which once again gave him an opening into the world outside his small universe.  He wrote books, with Pat, his faithful wife, helping with editing and aspects that needed footwork. 

But multiple sclerosis is relentless, if slow-moving. . Only when I read his book did I sense fully that at times he must have felt like Will Traynor—ready to give up.  He yearned to be listened to, to be seen as still relevant.

He wrote that the  task of  helpers and friends  is  about letting residents  know they are “people of value, that they are needed, even in their family. They need to experience that they still have a contribution to make, simply by being here.”

Simply being there. 

What do you do when you’ve been  pushed into a spot in the care home and forgotten?  You’re there, but does anyone else care? Do you watch the grass grow? Count the flies buzzing in the room? Guess the number of feet one fly flies in 15 minutes? He can’t scratch an itch. 

His  only operative muscle was  in his neck which allowed him to nod, turn his head, and push buttons with his chin. But when you’re “parked” you’re  away from your television and computer and your  call button gets no response. Help is hired, and most helpers are wonderful people, yet it is hard to synchronize body functions when you are paralyzed with a worker’s schedule. 

So for a while each time he waited he made note of what was said in response to his call button, pushed with his chin. He tabulated the responses:  “Did you want something?” (12 times) “Wait, someone will come” (18 times), “In a minute” (15 times), “Your girl went for supper,” (14),  and others.  

 If he waited long enough, someone would come. Yet he acknowledged the wonderful people, often overworked, on the staff. He trusted his life to them. 

Moyes’s Will doesn’t want to live without sex, a major part of his life before the accident.  Jack describes what for him is “conjugal time,” a poignant but tender description of intimate times with Pat though helpless.

Read Me Before You for a great modern love story.  Read Jack’s book for realism about life as a paraplegic.  

Jack’s other books are I Was Younger When I Was a Boy and Outside the Women Cried (available online) written with voice recognition software. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Coming to America: A survey of immigrant novels and memoirs

Here is a reading list of books  I discussed recently in a class at LifeVentures in Wichita.   My topic was  Coming to America: A survey of immigrant novels and memoirs. I enjoy reading and discussing these books because my parents were immigrants to Canada in 1923 from the Ukraine. I was an immigrant to the United States with my husband and family in 1962.  With immigration much in the news these days, we could all benefit by learning more about why people leave homeland for a new unknown country.I am adding a new book written by me:  My Emigrant Father: Jacob J. Funk, 1896-1986.  It is the story of my father's side of the family beginning in Prussia to their death in Canada, always emigrants, always leaving, never quite arriving.

Questions to consider when reading these books:
1.      Where did these people come from?
2.      Why did these people leave their homelands?
3.      What did they bring with them?  Leave behind?
4.      What did they hope to find in their new homeland?
5.      What obstacles did they face in achieving their new goals ?
6.      What did they eventually  gain?
7.      Why were several of these books rejected at first by their own community?

Roelvaag, O.E. Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie. Sell also Peder Victorious and Their Father’s God.  Husband and wife Per and Beret Hans come from Norway to the Dakotas to face snowstorms, fire, locusts and their own fears and superstitions.  One of the best in this genre.

Moberg, Vilhelm. The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers, Last Letter Home. These four novels depict the struggles of the Swedish Nilssons’ early years in the northern states.

Grove, Frederick Philip. Settlers of the Marsh. Swedish settlers come to southern Manitoba. Grove also wrote Fruits of the earth, Over Prairie Trails, A Search for America and others. His first book was banned for a while because it was considered too explicit.

Lagnado, Lucette.  The Man in the White  Sharkskin Suit. A Jewish family leaves Cairo for the New World. In  this memoir the  main character  never quite makes the transition from being somebody in Cairo  to being nobody in America.

Luxenberg, Steve. Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret. A memoir about a Russian Jewish family and the terrible secret they kept hidden while living in Detroit during the Depression, a secret that might have prevented their entering America. 

See, Lisa. Shanghai Girls. A historical novel about the difficulties faced by Chinese to gain entrance to America. It describes  the reality of a “nightmarish immigrant experience.”

Toepfer, Amy Brungardt. Conquering the Wind. A saga of the Volga Germans who settled in Western Kansas in the mid 1870s. This book was banned for a while because it was considered uncomplimentary  to the Volga Germans.

Wiebe, Rudy (no relative). Peace Shall Destroy Many. German-Russian Mennonites struggle to conquer the land and their fears of the outside culture in northern Saskatchewan. This novel almost destroyed the peace of a branch of the Mennonite church when first published. Now studied in Canadian schools as a classic.

Wiebe, Katie Funk. The Storekeeper’s Daughter: A Memoir.  The author shows the conflict between her German-Russian Mennonite immigrant parents’ culture and the new fascinating Canadian culture.

 Yen Mah, Adeline. Falling Leaves: The memoir of an unwanted Chinese daughter.  The author moves from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States to become a physician.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

My coming out as a geezer-ess

It happened such a long time ago, I can’t remember the details clearly any more. 

Shortly before retiring from college teaching I got my first  “geezer” messages.  I am using geezer as meaning an old person,  not just  a male Englishman who likes drinking, football and violence. 

Several decades ago, as I paid my lunch tab, the clerk asked innocently, looking at my hair – or maybe it was my wrinkles, my slow walk, my something or other, “Shall I give you the senior discount?” 

I turned around to see who she was talking to.  There was no one behind me.  

I wanted to shriek: “I’m no eccentric old geezer of the female variety!”  I paid and walked out in a huff. 

For weeks when I passed a mirror, I glanced at the baggy, saggy woman reflected in it, sucked in my stomach, and threw back my shoulders. I could lick geezeritis. I was not just another little old lady-writer in pink Nikes stumbling down the hill.

For a time I yielded to the sinister message the entire culture was flooding me with  that this next period of life, being a geezer,  was a dead end and had no redeeming features. Its appearance, its non-activities, and its noninvolvement  with life shaped  the size of the ever smaller tunnel I was being ushered through. 

I was being told clearly, blatantly, that it was best to go gently into the dark night and carry a bottle of aspirin in one hand and hair dye in the other. Becoming old was a disaster.

Then, sometime during the day, a friend I hadn’t seen for several years, said, “Katie, you haven’t aged a bit in ten years."

Another friend said, “Katie, you look younger than your pictures.” 

I preened  my soul feathers.  The jowls under my cheeks disappeared suddenly  without liposuction. The wrinkles smoothed out around my eyes. The world was good.  I lapped up the compliments like Kansas soil during a rain after a long drought.
I was beating old age after all. 

I knew I would never be a geezer or geezer-ess or geezer-anything.  I would be forever coltishly young, kicking my heels in the meadow, with agile muscles and joints, slim tummy, smooth skin,  energy without measure.

And that’s the way it went for several years, my resisting being considered old as if it was some rank contagion to be avoided at all costs -- until I  realized who I was and who I thought society thought I should be didn’t mesh. I was  growing old. 

My coming out as a female geezer was slow, but with time I learned to accept a number of things about being old. Here are just a few of them. 

--It is not treason to look my age. Aging is not a social and personal disaster, a disease  nobody should admit having.

--Accepting aging does not mean retiring from life, only from certain aspects  of it. It does mean plunging into life in a different way.

--Aging is a stage in life, an important time of life for those in it and for younger people hopefully watching their elders navigate through this stage of life. They will model their own aging after what they have observed in parents, grandparents, and older friends. 
--Even though church and society may devalue its elderly, actually often  waste them by setting them aside or  encouraging them to pursue trivia, we as elders should encourage our age cohort to  pursue activities  that engage intellect and spirit.

I am convinced that in these conflicting times we need elders, especially those  who see the world steady and whole and who can offset the zeal of the young with wisdom and inner stability. We need each elder according to his or her gifts and talents. Each still has something to offer others – if they are given the opportunity despite frailties and foibles.

Final words: Do not go gently into geezer-hood.  It can be one of the most rewarding times of life.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

We're all immigrants of one kind or another

We are all immigrants, everyone of us  
Last week I gave a talk at LifeVentures surveying immigrant novels and memoirs—not to draw attention to the present political situation but to help my audience better understand what it means to be a newcomer in a foreign land. All of us at one time had an immigrant in our background.  We all came to America from some place else. 

For any of you who don’t know,  LifeVentures is an organization aiming to enrich the lives of people my age through a weekly day-long event consisting of lectures, lunch, entertainment and lots of socializing.  I did my thing in the “What have you read lately?” section. Join us if you are in the area. 

I gave that lecture to acquaint my audience with what newcomers to any land experience as viewed through the eyes of novelists and memoirists.  My interest is personal: My parents were immigrants from Russia in 1923 when they joined about 20,000 other Mennonites to flee the turmoil in their homeland for Canada.

Immigrants depicted in these books came to America for a better life and the freedom to choose their own destiny.  They come in search of the American dream –streets paved with  gold, money growing on trees, a chicken stewing in every pot, and clean underwear every morning.

They left behind relatives and friends, sometimes never to lay eyes on  them again.  My mother never saw her parents again after leaving Russia with my father and two older sisters.  She saw only one of ten siblings left behind  again -- after a separation of 53 years.   

These immigrants left behind church, community, nation and a way of life they were familiar and comfortable with.  

They left behind prejudice and class consciousness, sometimes to find it sneaked in with them to the new land, hiding in inner baggage. They left behind criminal backgrounds and a disreputable reputation. However, family secrets didn’t always stay secret.

They left behind war, revolution and political upheavals. They also left behind the soul-wearying poverty of the Old Country, to be faced with it again during times of drought, prairie fires, and grasshopper plagues. 

Many brought with little in terms of actual artifacts to help in this new beginning – many were quite poor, and, in the case of my parents,  came to Canada  on borrowed money they promised to repay.  It took them about ten years.

However, they  brought with them what couldn’t  be packed into a suitcase or trunk:  dreams and hopes, values and customs,  religious belief and faith,  especially the courage and willingness to start over. 

In this new land they faced the big hurdle of communicating in a new language and handling new currency.  New weather patterns and a different terrain challenged them.  Change faced them every time they tackled a new task, whether it was plowing the land or baking bread. Isolation, especially for the women, was a huge barrier. 

In this new country they often lacked spiritual and religious leaders.  No minister was available to baptize a new infant and marry a young couple.

Fears were as abundant as houseflies: What if their children became too Americanized?  Some of the characters in the novels grew anxious about losing their former identity or social role, for all were strangely on the same footing and only time and new experiences would create new social levels.

I was born in Canada, yet in a sense I am an immigrant in another way. I feel it every day. In era of fast change, we are all immigrants.  Change is coming at a fast rate, especially technologically, politically, socially, morally and theologically. People move, change professions, change spouses, change allegiance to value systems, which requires us to make sense and order out of each change.

Sometimes several times a day I have to say: "I don't understand  what's going on when you use that app," or "This file won't open for me. I am stumped."

Years ago at an English conference, literary critic Alfred Kazin, himself an immigrant, told the large audience of English teachers something I never forgot:  “Language is the salvation of the immigrant child who must reorder his or her existence by means from within. One writes to make a home for oneself on paper – to find a place, a ledge. . . .”

The immigrant, or refugee, has only language by which to pass on to children values and truths, he said. The past is gone. Heirlooms and artifacts are few. Physical furnishings and clothing have been left behind.  The territory is new.

Children need their ancestors who came from another country, another time, to navigate change and identify what is important.   They  need us, the older generation, the ones who once lived in another era without cell phones, air travel, email, Facebook, Twitters, blogs, and much more  to help them sort through changes and challenges in this brave new world.