Beginnings & Ends

Will Balk Weekly Hubris Banner 2017.

“Christmas day, our mother began breathing uncomfortably, and that night we stayed up with her as her breathing became more and more labored. There has been virtually no possibility of her exposure to COVID-19, even through us, so that, perhaps oddly, wasn’t our concern. Rather, we’ve deduced that her heart valve problem has degenerated significantly and suddenly, bringing her into advanced heart failure. Our Christmas weekend, then, was spent in a frantic effort to avoid what seemed like imminent death and to try to engage a hospice provider during a holiday weekend.”—William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Two hands.

Two hands.

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—1 January 2021— The Christmas weekend has ended and the New Year weekend presents itself as I write, putting finis to a year the universe seems ready to see in the rear view mirror. There’s little point in my adding calamity and disaster and pain to the myriad stories shared or kept close to heart across the globe about the last year.

If I look forward into this new year—neither easy to do nor particularly appealing—I consistently find myself still pessimistic. The most celebratory thing I can come up with about 2021 is that it will not be 2020. The prospect of a quick end to the pandemic and its ravages looks grim; vaccine doses continue to be distributed sparely and inconsistently; care for those infected is certainly improved, but rampant spreading of the virus has already overfilled hospitals and rationed access to care.

I see that our upstate South Carolina ‘international city’ of Greenville plans a grand New Year’s Eve celebration citywide; I feel little comfort in reading that “organizers must still follow COVID-19 restrictions,” as 250 hundred-dollar-ticket holders dance the Shag all night, revel in a bar-crawl, enjoy jazz and dinner or a classy red-carpet reception and dinner for the non-blue-jeans crowd. Greenville has already reached more than 75 percent capacity for its hospital beds, 75 percent of all beds—the percentage of available COVID beds isn’t separated out. That’s the way to really ring in the new year —plan a super spreader event!

If the pandemic is the defining character of 2020, it looks like it will also be the defining factor of much of 2021.

We have a kind of bubble community here at home on the farm, centered around the care of my 97-year-old mother, who has dementia, a deteriorating heart valve, is limited to her bed, and is well looked after by her two daughters, myself, and two committed, superb friends who live nearby. All of us are following COVID protocols severely, so we suffer (or benefit) from a degree of isolation from what is going on in the world. The end of year festivities have really not been much of a factor for us, fortunately, which has significantly limited our exposure to countless well-meaning holiday celebrants.

That was our plan, at least. Christmas day, our mother began breathing uncomfortably, and that night we stayed up with her as her breathing became more and more labored. There has been virtually no possibility of her exposure to COVID-19, even through us, so that, perhaps oddly, wasn’t our concern. Rather, we’ve deduced that her heart valve problem has degenerated significantly and suddenly, bringing her into advanced heart failure.

Our Christmas weekend, then, was spent in a frantic effort to avoid what seemed like imminent death and to try to engage a hospice provider during a holiday weekend. Miraculously, we were able to do both by Sunday morning, through the compassionate intervention of Mama’s doctor, who was on holiday with her family in the mountains.

But the process of setting up hospice care seems to involve people streaming in from the dangerous outside to provide service or care, from intake interviews and data gathering, to nursing assessments, home health aides’ services, spiritual counselors, and supplies deliveries. It quickly became apparent that we needed to limit hospice’s services to unmet needs, of which there are only a few. Virtually all the care functions have been brilliantly supplied by ourselves and our two friends—we will use hospice only to support our care-giving. As for spiritual counsel, one those friends sees her years of caring for Mama as her spiritual ministry, her calling, and her strength and love have indeed ministered to us all since we began this particular journey with Mama in 2013.

Now we are a week into his new situation, attending what we have all known was to come. Our mother has through it all remained loving and kind and appreciative—even now, when there are only brief moments of aware engagement with those around her. We watch and wait with her, holding her hand, stroking her face, and reminding her of our love. Even now, she mothers us all. And waits with us.

May the promise of the new year be fulfilled for you all; may the trials of the past year be done with. May we all find ways to connect and embrace each other, and to understand ourselves and others better than we have done. And let there be peace.

Editors Sad Footnote: On December 30th, at about 3:00 p.m., the same day Will filed the essay above, Elizabeth (Betty) Fleming Balk, 97, Columnists William A. Balk, Jr. and Theodore F. Balks mother, died at the family farmhouse, near Williston, in Elko, South Carolina. As Will writes, Oddly, above all else, I was overwhelmed by her radiance, her beauty, as she struggled so hard for breath . . . .” It’s how all of us who knew her—whether briefly or for a lifetime; in her prime, or towards the end—will remember her as well: radiant; beautiful. (To read Will’s first column about Mama, please go to: “War & Peace.”) 

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state’s namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation’s capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. He has been a regular columnist for “The Lowcountry Weekly” newspaper for seven years; he is included in the award-winning book, Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy. He has assumed several new roles in recent years, including caregiver for his near-centenarian mother, advisor to the Pat Conroy Literary Center, and member of the Board of Directors for South Carolina Humanities. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk’s aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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4 Responses to Beginnings & Ends

  1. judy ann pearce says:

    If I am called upon to care for my now 92 year old mother, you will always be with me in spirit. Thank you.

  2. Will says:

    Judy, I hope you and she are both spared that. But I am with you both in any case, as you know.

  3. Diana says:

    Dearest Will,

    You never cease to astonish me. And that you were able to write this column at all when your mother was ‘returning to source’ was a heroic feat, but one that everyone should read. Perhaps you could call it ‘enduring love’ — you have often mentioned your mother and the care she receives from family and friends all these years, which are enviable and admirable in this era of ‘me first’. But you have always made it clear that your mother deserved and returned that love, even with dementia, and your line, ‘even now she mothers us all’ brings tears to my eyes. Would that we all had a mother like yours or could be like her. With love and sympathy, D

  4. Will says:

    Oh, Diana, dearest – always exactly the right thing to say. I’m silenced even more now, by the loss, by the virus, made mute and weak. But it is all a process, and we’re all a part of it. Thank you for your comfort and understanding.

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