“What about all the time before that?” an interview with Maria Meindl

Posted on October 15, 2012 by

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Maria Meindl’s essays, poetry, and fiction have appeared in numerous journals. Her most recent book, Outside the Box details the life of her grandmother, writer Mona Gould, through documents left behind after her death.

In Meindl’s essay “Rules,” she narrates the story of her mother’s time in a Jewish nursing home. In it, Meindl finds confusion, comfort, and even humor in the religious rituals for the end of life.

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In your essay, you mention overcrowded hospitals and an overburdened medical system in Ontario. Has the health care situation improved?

My mother was first hospitalized in 1989 after a couple of years of being mysteriously sick. From that time to her death in 2002 I saw hospitals change from care facilities into places where procedures and tests are done, and care is provided by families. This is the new normal, and we are told we are in for another round of cuts. However, this is Canada and we still do have a public health care system, which we pay for with our taxes and some user fees. When I look around, I feel lucky to have what we’ve got.

You struggle with Judaism and faith in your piece. Do you practice any Jewish customs today?

Yes. I have become an active member of a congregation. To me, it’s the most psychologically healthy thing I’ve ever done, even though I’m agnostic when it comes to faith. The community is essential and so are the rituals. I lived in a gray zone emotionally with my mother “on her deathbed” for many years. My father also had many near-death episodes. I’ve also been fortunate enough to have had much to celebrate as well. Whatever I can do to mark the passage of time through the year or through the course of a life feels essential to me. How does anyone survive without this?

How did you know when you had enough distance from your mother’s death to write about it?

Sometimes it feels like I will never have distance. I still have flashbacks, bouts of anxiety and sadness. To me, distance was not necessary to write about this situation. I was writing all along, in the form of a journal, whenever I had time. This was my way of making sense and orienting myself in the situation, and it was my way of feeling I was not being taken over. When it came to sending something out for publication I had to weigh very carefully what to say, but I don’t think this changed with my mother’s death. You still need to do the balancing act between being honest and preserving the person’s dignity. It took a while to find a publisher for the essay, and perhaps it was just as well. I might have felt too exposed, earlier. I am still writing about the subject but only in short bursts. Working on it takes me back into a dark place.

There’s a moment in your essay where an electric scooter gives your mother a renewed sense of freedom. How do you think the body and mind are related?

I learned not only from my mother’s experience but from my work interviewing polio survivors that assistive devices—including breathing machines—become an extension of the body. I’m so fascinated and inspired by technological advancements in the area of disability. The scooter gave my mother something that nature had taken away and allowed her to live more fully for the time that she had.

This piece is about your mother; you’ve also written a book about your grandmother. What draws you to family history?

In my book Outside the Box I describe the mythology I grew up with. Our family like many, I think—had a narrative which it clung to very tenaciously, even to the point of eliminating certain people and events from its history. From my earliest years, my experiences did not coincide with the stories I was being told. This left me obsessed with recording, preserving memory for others as a way of doing it for myself.

It seems caring for your mother really dominated your life for almost a decade and a half. In what ways did your life change after she died?

I feel like I’ve been making up for lost time. It was not just that I spent a lot of time on caregiving—I did, but not all my time. The problem was that repeated emergencies made it very difficult to think long term or take on sustained tasks. I have worked fiendishly on my writing career since. I also got married, which would have been very difficult for me to do as a caregiver. How could I have promised to be there for someone in sickness and health with this prolonged emergency going on? Since her death I make a point of travelling and enjoying myself in ways that I could not before. But in other ways I’ve been determined NOT to change. I saw a very sad part of life, and I saw not only my mother but others who were in the hospital with her, in a very vulnerable state. This changed the way I live. I can’t pretend I don’t have that sadness in my soul. If anything I’ve come to prize it over the years.

How would you define a “good” death?

Without pain or fear, I guess. But it depends on the individual. I am more interested in the way a person lives as they are getting old or their health is declining. There are wonderful nursing homes out there but others are like hell. People can live in these places for years, and their family members live in a kind of hell, witnessing it and not being able to provide anything better. We need to support individuals and families so that this part of life can be satisfying and meaningful. The last hours are important, sure, but what about all the time before that?

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Robyn Jodlowski is an editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction and a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s nonfiction MFA program. She tweets @RoJoOhNo.

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