January 22, 2018: The Hanged One by Tania Pryputniewicz
The Hanged One sat behind glass in my Polish grandfather’s desk in my bedroom all November, December, and into January during the months of caring for my mother (her cancer returned) in her final days. “By suspending time, we can have all the time in the world,” writes Joan Bunning of the Rider-Waite-Smith Hanged One (Learning the Tarot). And I think of the way time slowed caring for my mother in the reverse stages you experience watching your children gain mobility and freedom, only this was witnessing my mother lose both. It triggered a physical pain in the middle of my chest that hasn’t left yet.
“The Universal symbol associated with the repetitive patterns is the labyrinth,” writes Angeles Arrien of the blue squares within squares Lady Frieda Harris puts in the background of her version of the Hanged One. The central figure hangs upside down by one foot just as we see in the Rider Waite version. A crowning light pours from the head, a nod to the body’s physical reality: blood rushing to fill the head and the senses. It doubles as a spiritual metaphor: golden halo of illumination or awareness earned in moments of forced stillness. This was the case for me and my siblings after seeing the black and white image of the cancer’s snow falling through my mother’s throat, lungs, and torso, when the doctor wouldn’t yet say it was certain she would die or when, something they wait as long as possible to admit is inevitable with that kind of a resurgence of cancer cells. But we all knew.
Hanging suspended but able, caring for her in the two months she’ll have left, we watch her steps slow until she needs to be steadied by a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair. And then, just like when I held my husband’s hand and crushed it in time to the contractions of our first child, when my mother was no longer able to swallow or talk, her hand clung to mine with a pulsed grip, waves of faint but present life force coming through her fingers to mine and we had to guess just as we did with our babies when she was hungry, when she was tired, when she was cold.
And time nearly ceased, remember? Just like the kindergarten hours. All the time to notice the sidewalk one square at a time, to come to know intimately the block around the house, the steps of each of the neighboring houses: one set painted purple, the next set yellow, the next blue, then a darker red set, peeling. We knew each garden. And where the rosemary lived. I’d stop the wheelchair and we’d crush a little between our fingers and proceed, lifting our fingertips to our faces. Our favorite garden sat behind a lattice brown fence we called, “The Roses” with its six different rose bushes and one bright red soft-petalled rose that persisted the last two weeks of her life.
The day she decided to ask for end of life meds, she named the rose Gabriella after her hospice nurse and I cried with her as I pushed her in the wheelchair to the flower stand on the corner where we could buy Gabriella a “thank you” rose as red as the one we’d named after her and left alive in the garden. Mom picked out a card meant for congratulating a new mother in which a pink fairy godmother rains stars from her wand into a pink baby carriage. That’s Gabriella, she said, of the fairy, and I took solace in the metaphor of the baby in the carriage as a harbinger of hope, a symbol of my mother getting ready to cross into whatever rebirth there is in death. As she moved closer to her time, I felt the incredible grip on my body—my husband and children pulling on me at home to return—Christmas, my husband’s birthday—against my mother’s request that the three of her children come to her bedside again since she’d decided she was done. I wanted desperately to be in both places. But the Hanged One visited us all—even my mother—when the hospice nurse read her vitals and said, You might be ready, but your body is still strong. It might take longer than you want. And it did: ten days longer.
And so we took her daily to the roses. After the slowed gaze at leaves stuck to the sidewalk squares and the frantic tracking of every bench that Mom might need to rest on when her ankles swelled and her knees began to buckle, we reveled in the sweet relief of the wheelchair, its rolling peace, Mom drifting to sleep, her neck tilting back as we passed the gardens we’d formerly only been able to shuffle past.
On her last trip to the coffee shop, our favorite, named Timeless, where my sister-in-law introduced us to Oat milk Cappuccinos, Mom could only swallow a quarter bite of the triple layer chocolate cake I bought for her. A little two-year old at the table next to us stood on his chair, his father’s hand gripping the back of his shirt. He stared in that little child way, continually: at mom’s wheelchair, at her half-open eyes, at the way I held the fork to her mouth, the tiny cup of coffee to her lips, watched me wipe her chin as his father did for him.
And the Hanged One visited at night in the hours, when, finally I fell asleep, only to startle awake to hear Mom sliding back out of bed, asking for soup, to talk, to paint on her Buddha board, soft black lines of her brush strokes of water fading as we talked. One night the mirror on the inside of her bedroom door disoriented her. She so gradually slipped into the hallucination wreathe of the pain meds I nearly missed it, except for when she sat looking at the book titles on the shelf across from us, swinging her little bunny-eared slippers back and forth, and she said, “Oh how shiny those book spines are,” and when I said, “Which books?” and she replied, “That Viking Knitting” books, I realized she was drifting…for the book spines actually read, “Vintage Knitting.” The Hanged One visited as we sat pinned still, watching our mother change while we remained the same: her children, of sound body and mind, while she morphed and slid into changing realities, and then, the third day before she passed, into the coma of sleep.
“When the Hanged One shows its serene and secret face, it is time to connect and explore the mysteries only you can scribe and decode,” I read on-line (pyreus.com). But I was at a loss to scribe and decode that first night of sleeping alone in my brother’s house after they came for her body. We’d finally turned off the Celtic music that had looped through her room all hours of the day and night the last four days but I couldn’t bear to turn off her bedside light we’d also taken to leaving on for her. The house felt thick and full and there was no cheerful Hanged One’s halo of light to be found. I struggled to find peace, to feel calm, but the air was just thick and heavy. Some crossings are made in the dark and alone. I know in the days to come, light will break through whatever this darkness of loss is and unpack the gifts of my mother’s life locked in my memory and in the memories of our large and loving family, and those of her friends.
Another of the Hanged One’s metaphors is the ladder. Both labyrinth and ladder feel accurate to me. I am listening as I always have for what I am to learn. Someone, meaning well, asked if I had asked my mother all my questions, if I had had all the conversations I needed to have with her, had I had enough time. It’s probably a question I would have asked too before I lost a parent. Yes, we talked.
“No” is the other answer, because now I live past her life into each day full of questions I couldn’t have imagined I’d have for her. But as a writer, I have a lifetime of pages of memories in my journals I’ve kept since I was a child. And the solace of knowing we loved her through those Hanged One days by eating my brother’s wife’s beautiful cooking, taking our mother to the rose garden, watching the sunsets above the bay. That we fed her chocolate and coffee, binge-watched The Great British Bake-Off, that she left us a few days after one more night with The Sound of Music and Porco Rosso, that we held her hand and watched her watch the pilot flying up into the clouds to approach the glittering Milky Way, a Milky Way that turned out to be made up of the airplanes flown by pilots who had already crossed over to the other side.
*Mary will be posting again with me later this month. In the meantime, I'm including a link to a beautiful Tarot entry she wrote about prevailing through grief after losing her sister; this entry was also featured at Tiferet Journal: The Moon