Thursday, June 20, 2013

Foreground, background


On Sunday, December 23, 1973, as he lay dying of cancer in a hospital bed, my father filled 37 pages of his journal with notes! At 12:05 AM he notes that his face is 12 inches from the side rail of the bed, he hopes for sleep, and his water pitcher is empty. Almost 24 hours later, at 11:58 PM, he records "Chet has gone to the washroom" (it was my turn to spend the night in his room), a "degas" (flatulence), and a drawing of the positions of his legs, rendered with an engineer's precision. In between, 37 pages of mostly trivial details, the sorts of things that are usually the unconscious background of a life. As his foreground life recedes into a fog of pain and medication, the background moves forward. Reading these 37 pages is a reminder of how much our foreground lives are sustained by a background that runs more or less on autopilot.
3:01 AM. Can hand roll both legs to maximum position, 5 degrees from horizontal.
Family. Work. Play. The tastes and aromas of a good meal. The mellow daze that comes with a stiff drink. News, sports, books, entertainment. A pretty woman, or handsome man. Sex. A sunset. A starry night. These are the things that fill our foreground days. The background fades. Heartbeat. Breathing. Digestion. Elimination. All utterly crucial to maintaining the foreground, but they require not a single conscious thought. Until. Until death raps on the door.
7:06 AM. Nurse came in to read temp & pulse. She said "What time do you want me to make your bed?" I told her I could not even think yet.
Our brains are separated from the world by the permeable membrane of our senses. Attention flows outwards. Impressions of the outer world flow inwards. Of this two-way traffic -- attention, awareness -- we create a soul. My father was aware. He paid attention. Everything was of interest. And now pain and immobility had scrubbed away the world out there beyond the membrane. Now everything became focused on what was previously background. Even the marrow in his bones calls out for attention.
10:20 AM. It is quite a feat to log roll whole body from middle of bed to right rail and hold for 2 or 3 minutes then roll back when you are in the UP cycle or DOWN cycle of the "ENERGY CYCLE"
Continuous awareness: It can be exhausting. Which is why, I suppose, we sometimes wish for the mind to go blank, for the windows of the soul to close, for darkness to fall. Fortunately, the one thing we don't have to attend to is awareness itself. The brain does its thing without the least bit of conscious control on our part.
4:04 PM While wait for Up cycle I was rock head side to side. Shooting "pain" in spine right behind navel. I feel sleepy but I am not. Degas.
Continuous awareness when displayed on the screen of a scanning brain monitor can look like a grass fire exploding across a prairie. As I read my father's journals, I know I am in the presence of continuous awareness, but it's an awareness that is profoundly unnatural, inward turning, examining in excruciating detail what shouldn't need examining.
8:28 PM End of energy cycle. Called Mom. Explain next energy cycle to her. Since tomorrow is Christmas Eve Chet will stay with me tonight & Mom tomorrow night.