circling the drain

He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow
take your own advice
cause thunder and lightning gets you rain
run an airtight mission, a Cousteau expedition
find a diamond at the bottom of the drain.

When I was about six years old, my family went to Chicago to visit my grandmother and great aunts during our summer vacation. While there, we took a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry where I saw the celestial mechanics machine — a low cabinet with nine steel balls of varying size and weights that spit out of the top and spun around and around a smooth, white plastic vortex into the hole at the bottom and then spit back out to spin around and around and do it all over again and again as a representation of the planets of our solar system in their respective orbits.

“Why don’t they knock into each other?” I asked my mother.

“Because they represent the planets. If the balls bump into each other, the planets bump into each other,” she replied.

I was horrified. I was convinced that the fate of the universe hung in the balance in that museum display. I stood there hovering over it for ages, afraid to blink or look away for fear I might miss the coming apocalypse. Sure that Jupiter had it in for Mars or that Saturn would lose control and careen wildly into the Earth and end us all right there on a carpeted corner of that museum on Lake Michigan.  Convinced that by watching the pot, it would never boil. That the simple power of my very gaze would fend off disaster if I could just stay there and watch forever. Of course, I was eventually pulled away from the display to go look at an old steam locomotive and tour the replica of a coal mine where my wise-cracking uncle made my mother laugh so hard she wet her pants, much to my father’s chagrin.

I didn’t forget that vortex, though. Didn’t forget the way gravity sucked everything downward into nothingness only to spit it all back out again to run the constant race back into the gaping maw of sure destruction at the bottom or how it left each piece to spin and whir while evading the others — avoiding contact that meant sure destruction. The idea was to know your place and keep it. Stay close but just far enough for self-preservation. To understand how your little steel ball affected the gravity of all other others around it as you tumbled into the void. To know that if your little ball was destroyed or knocked from the playing field, all the other pieces would lose their way. Their orbits would degrade, and they would eventually crash and burn and come apart as well. For me, the celestial mechanics machine has always been a metaphor for and a lesson in life, one learned at an early age and never far from my mind.

I’m forced to think about the celestial mechanics machine a lot lately as my Mom has gotten sicker. The long and the short of it is that her condition is terminal without serious intervention and soon. She developed atrial fibrillation back in 2004 and had an ablation done to treat it in 2005. It started back up in May, and she’s been on a lightning fast decline ever since. She was hospitalized in July, and brother and I went out to be with her. They have tried cardioverting her back into a normal sinus rhythm, but it won’t stick. She had a cardiac catheter two weeks ago that found that she is in full, systemic, and advanced heart failure with pulmonary hypertension. Both of her valves are shot, there’s fluid in her heart, and both atria are hardened and enlarged from the a-fib.

The most sickening part is that she got this horrible news alone. Neither brother nor I were there to help or support her because she didn’t tell us she was having the procedure done until it was too late for either of us to get out there. Part of her was in denial, and part of her was trying to protect us. And all of her was being stubborn. As frustrated as I am, I understand, though. Having us there just makes it too real. Either way, though, it only made things worse, because it meant we weren’t there to ask questions, get them answered, and head off the resulting delay in treatment at a time when every day counts. Over the past two weeks, she’s gotten much, much worse. She’s had to stop working. She can’t do anything. Her resting heart rate has been around 150 bpm and her blood pressure is through the roof. No meds seem to get a lasting handle on it. My brother flew out last Tuesday and is still with her. Together, we bulled her cardiology practice to put her back with her old doctor and then bulled him into seeing her on Thursday. He spent three hours with her and scheduled an esophageal echo-cadiogram yesterday morning. The echo found that she’s declined even further — flirting with the point of no return — in the past two weeks and that her atria are even more enlarged than previously thought. She’s in really bad shape. They admitted her immediately, and she’ll be in the hospital indefinitely. I’m flying out this weekend to relieve my brother so he can get back to Utah and start classes on Tuesday. I will be missing my first week of class to be with Mom. I might have to take the semester off if this gets much worse, but I don’t care. My family is my everything, and my Mom is the center of that universe. I love her, and I’m happy to be with her. I might not be able to do much more than sit next to her bed and read journal articles while she sleeps and play cards and work crossword puzzles together to keep her company while we wait to talk to doctors, but that’s what I’m going to do.

I am trying to be positive, and we’re fighting to get her the best care possible. She’s fighting now, too. And to say my brother has been anything short of amazing would be completely inaccurate. He’s blown me away with the way he’s taken charge of the situation. I’m endlessly grateful to him for picking up all the balls and running with them when I couldn’t. We don’t accept that a terminal condition means the end. Mom is still very much herself. Scared and sad, but herself. She’s up and talking and laughing and completely with it. She’s as mobile as she can be, although, being in the hospital inhibits that. And she’s finally getting the care she needs. She’s being monitored. She’s medicated. She’s got trained emergency staff right outside her door. She’s in good hands. They’re looking for answers, and I’m hoping we’re going to find them. I have to believe that my mother is going to get better. I can’t afford to lose another parent right now. I can’t see another ball bounced off the vortex only to not return again at the top of the chute. I’m fresh out of armageddons. She won’t run marathons, but just like I wanted to use my mind to control those steel balls and save the universe, I believe that I can will my mother into recovery. Of course, logic tells me that my powers are limited, but really — fuck logic.

That said, I have little tolerance for any bullshit at all right now. I am just impatient with anything I find to be a petty concern. If it’s not life and death, I can’t be assed to care. It makes me a terrible person, a bad friend, and overall not very good company. And so, my current hermitage. Dealing with Mom’s situation takes all of my energy. I couldn’t be less enthused about this coming semester. I can’t focus, and my heart’s not in anything. I’m tired and distracted all the time. I’m exhausted but can’t sleep. I fall asleep for a few hours and wake up ready to fight. Everything I eat just comes right back up. I am bracing for what might the inevitable impact, and the cumulative effect of the real possibility of losing Mom on top of losing Dad is just building up and taking its toll. I feel like I’ve hit the surface and gone limp as I sink to the bottom like a stone. Like all the neighboring balls are crashing into me. Like the ones who kept me in orbit — the ones with the gravity upon which I relied — have been scattered and lost and soon I will be, too. There’s nothing to hold me in place anymore. I’m degrading.

When I do get it together enough to be slightly social in person or online right now, it, quite honestly, is an act. I force myself to do it. Force myself to smile. Force myself to do a performance of myself. It takes every ounce of energy I have to communicate and connect. I’ve given up the phone, for the most part. Emails are getting harder and harder for me. I definitely don’t want to talk. I read a story last week where one of the main characters had his vocal cords severed. In the plot, it was supposed to be a punishment — an instrument of horror. For me, it sounded like the most beautiful gift in the world. I am obsessed with the idea. I crave it, really. To have my voice taken for me so I no longer have the onus to use it. So that no one would expect me to speak up. To say anything. To respond. To have any answers. To make insufferable small talk. To be a person. I could just sit mute and stare at my hands and contribute nothing. Be led around and just fade into the background and conserve my energy. No voice means no power. Means not making any sounds, and that appeals to me, because right now

I WANT TO SCREAM ALL THE GODDAMN TIME.

home by the sea

I should be packing a bag tonight. I should be getting on a plane tomorrow. My fragile and shrinking little family planned a vacation together this summer for the first time in 15 years. I should heading home to my Mom’s to pack up the car and head to our favorite house just down the road on the Outer Banks. Kitty Hawk, to be precise. 4.5 mile post. On the other side of the pavement from the beach, but the house across the way washed out to sea in a hurricane (Gordon? Bertha? Fran?) years ago, so we have a clear view of the water from the front deck. We always had a clear view from the crow’s nest on the roof.

It was going to be a week of quiet relaxing together. Of sunrise breakfasts wrapped in blankets on the porch. Of mornings picking a sun-dried suit off the railing and pulling it onto my ever-blackening body to spend the day wearing as little as possible and absolutely nothing on my feet. Of afternoons spent reading and drinking cheap beer in the sun, sleeping face down in the warm, stoney sand, and wearing myself out in the rough surf. Of long walks hunting for shells and sea glass at sunset. Of sunset swims and moonlight skinny dips. Of showering outside in the rustic, wooden shower stall and tripping up the back stairs wrapped only in a towel. Of sitting at the picnic table in the kitchen picking bushels of crabs for hours. Of quiet evenings silently working puzzles and playing cribbage with Mom. Of evenings at the cheesy pirate-themed miniature golf course with brother and sister. And margaritas and gin and tonics. And fried seafood dinners complete with hushpuppies. Of a day trip to Ocracoke Island. And a night at “The Lost Colony.” Of tucking into bed and falling asleep listening to the rhythmic pounding of the surf outside my window. Of the smell of the fresh, salt-sea air. Of endless hours of just being quiet together. Of endless hours of talking and laughing ourselves silly. Of inside jokes that would forever put their stamp on the week. Of family.

I am a beach girl. I was raised up throwing chicken necks into the waves to catch crabs for dinner, brown as a berry and barefoot with little more than a bathing suit covering the bottom I let hang out of the hem of a WRV or 17th Street Surf Shop t-shirt. I may be a gypsy, may move hither and yon to cities and mountains, but the salt water is in my blood. The ocean is a part of me, and it is where I go to recharge my soul. The same holds true for my kin, and so to have both of them together is the ultimate luxury — and just what I needed this summer. Needed to take long walks alone or with my sister and stuff myself full with fresh ocean catch or pancakes with mom and laugh at old episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and new episodes of “Archer” with brother and just generally let the four of us be the best of who we are together in our favorite place. It would have made us all better people.

We’re probably idiots to cancel, but we have good reasons for not going. Mom isn’t well, and we don’t need her to push herself. She couldn’t enjoy it as she’s currently feeling. All of us are taxed by demands our schedules put on our lives. The real world encroached weeks ago to make escape impossible. It’s for the best, really. We can shove it all down and muddle through for twelve more months. It will make the getaway all the sweeter next summer. Please, dear God, let us all still be there and let it happen for us next summer. I know it’s a risk we’re taking to expect nothing to change in a year’s time, but I’m banking on it.

dark star

I’m a sun that doesn’t burn hot. I’m a moon that never shows its face. I’m a mouth that doesn’t smile. I’m a word that no one ever wants to say.

I flew through Dulles Airport a few weeks ago. In and of itself, this fact is hardly momentous, given that I fly through there constantly. This time was different, though, because my walk from gate to gate involved a trip into the past and back to the scene of a crime.

There’s a little seating area in the middle of Concourse C that serves as the lobby for the people mover that shuttles travelers between terminals. I spent an afternoon sitting there two and a half years ago in the middle of a blizzard of epic proportions that had DC at a standstill and agonized over one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. It was back when my father was in the hospital and I was shuttling back and forth from Colorado to the East Coast to be with him and help care for him. It was only a couple of weeks after his accident, and it was my second trip out to see him.

My father’s car rolled across that field at least nine times, and the impact had broken his back and neck in three places, crushed his sternum, and cracked all of his ribs. These injuries greatly compromised his ability to breathe. I had consented to intubating him and putting him on a ventilator shortly after his admission to the hospital because his blood oxygen levels were dangerously low. That meant medicating him into a coma with the intention that it only be necessary for three or four days in order to give his lungs time to recover enough to stave off pneumonia and gain the strength they needed to function on their own, at which time we’d bring him back around. Three days into the coma, the ICU doctors called me to tell me that my Dad had slipped down deeper than they’d intended — slipped completely through their fingers into a natural coma that medicine was no longer inducing and couldn’t break. They had pulled the drugs, and he wouldn’t wake up. No matter what they tried, they couldn’t get through to him. They were no longer in the driver’s seat, and there was no guarantee that anyone was home, much less ever coming back to us.

Now, it’s necessary to bring a player into this little drama that I’ve left out of the narrative up until this point in time, despite the fact that she was in nearly every scene. See, at the time of the accident, my father had a girlfriend — a widow his age he had met a few years before and had been living with for a little more than a year. Despite the fact that she was strange and ostentatious and a little too clingy and didn’t really seem his type, I had been supportive of the relationship and accepting of her. Dad seemed happy and I didn’t want to see him lonely. She wasn’t who I would have picked for my father, but hey, it was his life, so who was I to judge?

I had built a relationship with this woman, and she was the one who called me when the accident happened. Things went downhill and fast shortly after that phone call. When I arrived at the hospital directly from the airport hours later, she was livid about three facts: that my mother was at the hospital with me (she saw my mother as a threat despite the fact that my parents had divorced nearly 25 years prior), that my father had listed me as the primary decision-maker on his medical advance directive rather than her (an act that I have to say took a lot of guts on his part with her standing over him broken and bleeding in the ER), and that my father’s checkbook hadn’t come into the hospital with him. All she could do was worry that he hadn’t sent off a check to cover her homeowner’s insurance payment before the crash. The first issue I blew off entirely. The second I thanked my lucky stars for. The third I found odd and disquieting, to say the least, but I chose to back burner those concerns.

My brother arrived the following night and the two of us exchanged baffled and concerned looks across the hospital cafeteria table as we listened to this woman prattle on endlessly about that damn checkbook and numerous other inappropriate, non-Dad topics over dinner — mutual bells and whistles galore sounding in our heads as our eyes locked and carried on a silent conversation about the crazy woman right in front of her without her notice. Nonetheless, there the two of us were out in the cold rain the following day combing the crash site beside the highway for clues for what had happened to our father and searching the totaled car in the junkyard for that goddamn checkbook. Never found the fucking checkbook, but I sure as shit found a million other things that broke my heart and laid my hands on what was left of the bottle of rum that did the damage still in its brown paper bag complete with receipt inside my first minute in that Toyota. I paid the salvage man his fee to crush the car, and brother and I dragged ourselves back to our mother’s house defeated, chilled, and soaked. We were also equal parts confused and enraged. For her part, Mom took the bottle of rum from my hands, cursed my father under her breath, and held me. Later that night, she poured the cheap brown liquid down the drain and threw the bottle in to the woods back behind the house, listening as the glass shattered against a tree trunk in the darkness.

As the weeks wore on, I worked as hard to keep my family and Dad’s girlfriend informed of Dad’s condition on a daily basis as I did to care for Dad himself. If I wasn’t on the phone with a nurse or a doctor, I was on with one of the above — usually the girlfriend. She slowly began to take up as much of my time and effort as my father. It quickly became apparent that she was neither bright nor emotionally balanced and that I could never miss a phone call from the hospital lest they call her for consent as second in command per the advance directive. An ICU intern made the mistake of calling her first once, and she made a disastrously uninformed and emotional decision that almost killed my father. I was only able to undo it because a well-meaning nurse put her job on the line and called me behind the doctor’s back to tell me what was happening and give me the chance to fix it  From then on out, I became obsessed with the phone and lived in fear of missing its ring.

A week after Dad slipped into the coma of his own making, the doctors asked for my consent to perform a CT scan of my father’s head to determine whether or not he was brain dead. Gotta tell you, that’s a call you never want to receive. I said yes and called the family and girlfriend to tell them what was happening. The calls then came in every twenty minutes from the girlfriend demanding a status update without regard for my own anxiety level. I took the dog for a walk in the park to try to calm myself, and still my phone rang. I left the park and drove to my boyfriend’s house where he was sleeping after his graveyard shift. I slipped quietly in the door, put the dog out onto the patio and crawled into bed behind him, put my arms around him, set the phone to vibrate, and tucked it into his hands so he would wake if it buzzed and screen any further calls. I slipped into a couple fitful hours of sleep before he woke me to say the doctor was on the phone with the news that my Dad wasn’t an empty shell. I called everyone with the good news and left a message for the girlfriend. We celebrated with bourbon-laced root beers and Italian sub sandwiches from the corner deli I picked up wearing his giant shoes like a little girl playing dress up and ate them in front of a Simpsons marathon until I fell asleep curled up in his lap on the futon. When I woke the next morning, I looked at the phone and saw that Dad’s girlfriend had never returned my call.

Brother took a week off from his job to be with Dad. He arrived at the ICU early each day and sat at the bedside talking and reading articles from The New Yorker to the motionless figure in the bed in an effort to draw him back to the land of the living. Three days later I missed my red eye out to join him and spent the night sleeping in the airport. I caught the first pre-dawn United flight out the next day only to land at O’Hare for my connection and pick up a voicemail message from a nurse telling me that my father had gone into cardiac arrest and died. I sat slumped in a chair at an electronics recharging station tucked in the back corner of Terminal 1 unable to process the news or do anything but stare at a closed hot dog stand across from me wondering whom to call first. I chose the girlfriend. I got her voicemail and hung up without leaving a message. I don’t know how many more minutes passed before the phone in my hand rang with another call from the ICU telling me that they had revived my father.

“How long was he gone? How long did you work on him?” I asked.

“Almost 20 minutes,” the nurse replied.

“Jesus. What came back? Do I even want to know?” I wondered aloud.

“Probably not,” she told me. “I’m sorry. And I have to warn you, the Medicaid counselor wants to meet with you about your Dad’s finances when you get here.”

“Great. I don’t know anything about his finances.”

“You’d better learn quick, then.”

I hung up my phone, put it away and boarded the plane without making another phone call.

I walked into Dad’s room later that morning to find my brother keeping his faithful vigil. Even in his jeans and plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows he looked impossibly grown up. A fresh, stalwart pillar of strength that was a sight for my sore eyes. He rolled the magazine he was reading up into his hand and unfolded his tall form to greet me with a hug. The nurse at the other side of the bed stopped fiddling with the IV pump to turn and smile at me. “Hello, Dad!” I forced myself to intone cheerfully only to be met with my father’s first movement in weeks as his head jerked immediately in my direction, his dazed, lifeless eyes searching for the origin of my voice. He wasn’t awake, but he was suddenly aware. I stopped in my tracks, dumbfounded. My brother’s face fell and he flung his arms into the air in resignation.

“Seriously?!” he asked. “I’ve been sitting here for days talking my head off to him for hours on end, and nothing. Absolutely no reaction at all from him. You walk in the door and say two words and he snaps to.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, at least we know somebody’s home in there,” the nurse said. “Congratulations. Nice work.”

Dad immediately returned to staring at the ceiling, like a dead, expressionless fish with the ventilator taped to the corner of his chapped mouth like a hook.

The girlfriend arrived a few hours later and was immediately threatened by the news of my father’s breakthrough with me. We decided to give her a little time alone with Dad and head to the cafeteria for a bite to eat. On our way, the nurse pulled me aside to express her concern that the girlfriend would get into my father’s face and yell at him to wake up during her visits, which was not only counterproductive for my father but disruptive to the other patients on the unit. She warned me that they might have to have her banned from visitation if it continued. I witnessed that frightening behavior firsthand when we returned from the cafeteria.

We worked to change the girlfriend’s focus and asked her for any information she might have about Dad’s finances in the face of my approaching meeting with the Medicare counselor. She claimed to know nothing, said she was going to go make a few phone calls, and then promptly left the hospital. She didn’t return our calls all weekend, which brother and I spent agonizing over the possibility that she could face financial ruin with Dad’s bills if they had mingled their accounts. When we weren’t at the hospital, we were home online looking up the laws on the subject trying to learn as much as we could. We were constantly either in rescue or research mode and completely exhausted.

The day before we were both slated to leave town, we picked up donuts for the unit staff and arrived at the hospital early to spend the morning with Dad. There was a rule limiting the number of visitors in the ICU rooms to two at a time, so we figured we’d get our few hours in with him and then let the girlfriend have the afternoon at his bedside while we did our financial homework and spent a little time with Mom. We’d called and left her a voicemail stating this plan the night before, but not long after our arrival, the girlfriend darkened the doorway and began grilling us about his condition and doing her yelling-in-his-face act again. And again, she swore she had no information about his finances and said she was insulted that we were accusing her of meddling in Dad’s accounts, which was in no way the case. It was clear that our plans for a peaceful morning with Dad were shot. We decided the girlfriend wasn’t worth the fight and that conflict in the hospital room was in no one’s best interest, so we decided to cede our ground and let her have the day with Dad. When we had arrived that morning, however, the doctor had pulled us aside to lay out the reality of the situation for us.

“We think you should know that we don’t know what’s going on with your Dad,” he told us. “We don’t know what to expect from here on out.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“This could be it,” he answered. “He’s really deep under.”

“Are you saying that he might not wake up?” brother asked. “Are you saying that this could be as good as it gets…indefinitely?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

And so, brother and I asked the girlfriend if we could have a few moments alone with Dad to say some things we each wanted to say. We didn’t state as much directly to her, but we felt we needed to say our last words to him – just in case. Throughout the visit, each of us regularly gave the other a wide berth in this regard – one often going out to the car for something, to the lobby to make a phone call, to the cafeteria to get snacks for us both – but what we were really doing was each giving the other time alone with Dad, because we each had our own relationship with him, each had our own issues with him, each had our own things to say to him and him alone. It was an unspoken agreement that we both honored without need for discussion. All it took was a look from one to the other for one of us to just take a breeze for a little bit. No harm. No foul.

So, we expected nothing but support and understanding from the girlfriend when we politely asked if we could have a few minutes alone with Dad to say our goodbyes before leaving town. Instead, she angrily huffed out of the room. We didn’t think much of it because such behavior was getting to be commonplace from her, so we spoke our piece and then went to the lounge to look for her. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t in the lobby. She wasn’t in the cafeteria or chapel. She didn’t answer her phone. We shrugged it off and went home, sad and exhausted. We didn’t say much else to each other for the rest of the day, and we never heard back from the girlfriend.

The following morning, brother drove me to the airport on the way out of town. The atmosphere in the car was heavy and tense. He reached over and squeezed my hand as I stared out the window, incredibly uncomfortable with the fact that we were leaving with Dad still in a coma. We both had jobs to get back to, and I had a dying cat who was in fast decline waiting for me at home, but none of that mattered. We were taking off with nothing to show for our visit except bad news and stress. We had gotten nowhere and there was no end to nowhere in sight. He pulled up to the curb. We stepped around to the tailgate. He pulled my suitcase out of the truck bed and extended the handle. He hugged me. Gave me a kiss and a reassuring squeeze. I told him I loved him. He replied in kind. I headed into the terminal. When I boarded the plane, I followed what had become my standard operating procedure and called the ICU before they closed the doors to let them know that I’d be out of reach for the next couple of hours and gave a blanket pre-approval for any procedures that Dad might need while I was in flight. A nurse named Kenny answered the phone.

“Wait. You’re leaving?!” he said.

“Yep. On the plane getting ready to take off as we speak,” I replied.

“Oh my God. No one told you?!”

“Told me what?”

“Your Dad is awake.”

“What the hell? Are you kidding me?! Why didn’t anyone call us?”

“His girlfriend was here. She said she was going to call you. That was over an hour ago. We thought you knew! We thought you were on your way in here!”

“No. No one called us. Where is she now?!”

“We don’t know. She just came in, saw he was awake, said she wanted to be the one to call you and walked out the door. We haven’t seen her since.”

“So, you’re saying my Dad is awake and alone? No one is with him?!”

“Yeah. He’s awake and alone. And he’s pretty confused. You’d better get in here.”

“Godammit. I have to go. I’m sorry Kenny. I have to go fix this. I have to get off of this plane.”

I tried to get up and get off the plane, but the doors had shut and we were starting to taxi to the runway. The stewardess told me to sit down. I opened my phone and dialed my brother.

“Ma’am. I need to you turn off your phone and put it away. The airplane doors are closed.”

“Yeah, I get that, but I have to make this phone call.”

“Ma’am. Turn off your phone.”

“I will. After this call.”

“Now. Turn it off.”

“No. You can throw me off this plane if you like. That will only be doing me a favor, but the only way I’m turning off this phone before making this call is if you get the TSA on board and arrest me. Your move. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

I made the call and reached brother right away. I explained what happened. He immediately turned his truck around and drove back to Dad’s hospital room. When he got there, there was still no sign of the girlfriend. He settled into the chair next to Dad’s bed and held his hand. Dad was awake, but his mind was a storm, and he was in a frightened limbo.

The flight to Dulles was less than an hour but felt like an eternity. The moment the plane was on the ground, I had my phone powered back up and started making phone calls. My first was to the girlfriend. Again, I received no answer, so I left a voicemail detailing the situation and asking her to call back and explain her side of things. I wanted to know where she was and why she hadn’t called brother and me to tell us why Dad was awake. As soon as I got off the jetway, I collapsed into that chair in Concourse C and called brother. I asked him what I needed to do. If I needed to get back on another plane and go back to the hospital. He reminded me that I would be lucky to get a flight out to anywhere in the DC snowstorm. He laughed when I suggested renting a car and driving through it back to him. I knew he couldn’t stay there. Knew Dad would be left alone soon. Knew Dad responded to my voice. And yet, I didn’t know what to do. He held the phone up to Dad’s ear to let me talk to him, and then told me Dad was looking around for me. All I could hear were increasingly agitated grunts and whines on the other end of the line and alarms going off on the machines monitoring his vitals.

“What should I do?” I asked my brother.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do here at all. He’s awake, but he’s not,” he replied. “Here, talk to Kenny.”

Kenny talked me down off of the ledge. Assured me that what Dad needed was some quiet time to come around. That I needed to go home and take care of my business and let them take care of Dad. That it was ok for both brother and me to head home. They’d have our backs. Nonetheless, I sat there in agony with my face in my hands, breaking apart and trying not to bawl my eyes out in public. Felt panicked and caged and furious. Knew we’d been betrayed. I boarded my flight back west, and by the time I landed four hours later, I was seething. By the time I listened to the girlfriend’s voicemail explaining that she purposefully had not called us to let us know that Dad was awake as petty payback for excluding her from our goodbyes to our father and as insurance that we would indeed leave town and stop poking around in his financial affairs, I was in a full-tilt murderous rage. I was ready to get on a plane and fly back east with the express purpose of stabbing that stupid bitch straight through her baggy, wrinkled neck just to watch her bleed out on my shoes before kicking her lifeless body down the stairs and out into the street so I could back over it with my car twenty times before roadhauling her broken corpse to the bay and throwing what was left of it into the briny deep to be some bottom feeder’s dinner. My wrath was off the charts – inhuman — and it was a good thing that thousands of miles separated us, or I would be doing hard time for first-degree homicide right now and wouldn’t regret my actions one teensy bit. I was in a dark, dark place and capable of black, black things. Instead, I cooled down and gave her the pimpslapping of her life in an email that reminded her that I was in charge – so very much so that I could yank visitation privileges and set legal action into motion – and she fell back in line. Or so I thought.

One month later, I discovered that she’d gotten the better of me and started emptying tens of thousands of dollars out of my father’s bank accounts (the joint accounts with my name on them) within hours of his accident.  At that point, all bets were off. I peeled off the gloves, lawyered up and spent the next year kicking her ass all over the court system first as my father’s conservator and later as the administrator of his estate. She sued me. I threatened to sue her ass right back. I kept her out of the hospital so my Dad could die in peace with his family. I fought tooth and nail and got the money back and got her out of our lives for good, and I did whatever it took to get there. I lost sleep. I lost my livelihood. I lost friends and relationships. I lost countless hours I could have spent with my father in his last days instead meeting with lawyers and bankers in an effort to do my court-appointed duty – a duty that was only made necessary by her theft. If she had not been in the picture, there would have been no pressure to be away from my father. I am only grateful that my brother was able to be there with him when I was not. Two heads were better than one. But after five to seven hours of sitting in banks and law offices each day, I would go and spend another five at the hospital taking care of Dad, helping him to get off the ventilator and speak again, feeding tiny sponges of water into his parched mouth for him to suck on so he could slake his thirst without choking, suctioning the tracheotomy hole in his throat, massaging his hands that had been balled up in giant mitts that kept him from pulling out his feeding tube, cutting his toenails and scraping thick, dead skin off of his feet, giving him sponge baths, cleaning up his shit from the bed, and helping the nurses change his sheets all while making pleasant conversation about college basketball or any other topic that had nothing to do with his dire situation or the drama with his finances and his girlfriend. There was no need to stress him when he needed all his strength to get well. Why bother when I was using all of my strength to fight the rest of the battles for him?

In the end, I won. The girlfriend signed the papers, tucked tail, and ran away broke and in ruins. She would occasionally show up at my bank and make threats and a scene shouting about her impending marriage to some new beau only to have them call the cops on her. She would call my lawyer and try to intimidate him with promises of new lawsuits, but he only hung up on her. She eventually gave up and went away.

In the end, I lost. The girlfriend made my father’s death so much harder for me. Fighting her while fighting to keep my father safe cost me my energy, health, and well-being. And, for a large part, my sanity. I was never a bright and happy-go-lucky little soul, but I discovered darkness and depths I didn’t think I had, much less could sink to. I had to live in anger and hate and at a state of constant battle-readiness to deal with her. I had to be constantly ugly and hard and conniving and one step ahead. It was war. I was manic. I was on edge. I was gritty. I was spiteful. I was sharp. I never, ever let up. I was fucking scary. I was not able to grieve until the fight was over and I could lay down my sword knowing the job was done, that I no longer had to protect my family from an outsider who had no business complicating our lives in the first place. When I was finally done exploding and the dust settled, I found that I was no longer me. I was irreparably changed. Infinitely spent.

When a star reaches the end of its life, it goes supernova, destroying everything around it and, ultimately, itself. In the aftermath, one of two things can happen to it. It can become a super dense neutron star that eventually collapses onto itself to become a black hole that sucks everything, including light, into its gravity well with no hope of escape, or it can lose most of its mass and become a very small, very hot white dwarf. A white dwarf continues to burn intensely, giving off a great deal of heat as it quickly spends the last of its fuel, but it is a shrunken shadow of its former self that gives off precious little light compared to how it used to shine. It’s still warm and breathing, but its days of giving life and leading the way are over. Eventually, it burns out and becomes a cold, dark rock – a black dwarf – that just floats alone and useless in space.

When a beloved mentor of mine died at the start of 2009, a dear friend sent me a sympathy card that I still treasure. It had an old Japanese proverb on the front: fall down seven times, stand up eight. After Dad died, I spent nearly two years piecing myself back together, with varying results. While arguably my biggest and most taxing loss, he was hardly my only. I lost 16 people and an animal companion in the past four years. Each time, I pulled out my friend’s card and looked at it and got back up for more. Each time a little wobblier, a little more blurred in the vision and unsure of my footing. Landing fewer and fewer blows each round just waiting for the bell to send me back to my corner so I could just. sit. the. fuck. down. for a minute. Eventually, I fell down eight times twice over. I don’t know how I kept getting up.

I’ve battled depression. Wrestled it for most of my first thirty years. I spent four years on meds and the therapist’s couch doing the hard work necessarily to finally get the drop on it and figure out how to manage it. I’ve had a few flare ups since then, but I never lost the high ground on that demon. I know all her moves now, and I can anticipate and out-maneuver her pretty easily. Now, no offense to others battling that very real and very horrible and very dangerous affliction, but grief makes depression look like a case of the sniffles.

If depression is a demon, grief is fucking Cthulhu. Grief snaps depression over its knee, eats it for breakfast, calls for seconds, and then demands to know what’s for lunch. Depression is a soft little black cloud or blanket-like companion that follows you around and gently and gradually insinuates itself into your life until it’s wrapped so snuggly around you it’s all you know to the point of altering your reality. It becomes a part of you, and comparatively, it’s a spa vacation.

Grief is the jackbooted thug that suddenly breaks down your door, grabs you by the throat and rips you from your bed, your life, and your sanity. It kicks and beats you mercilessly until your insides are nothing but bloody soup and then throws you into the mud, grinds its heel into your neck, and holds you down with your face in the filth as it brutally rapes you repeatedly on a daily basis in full view of the family and friends who stand watching on the edges of the normal and happy life you used to have. Grief remains an external force. You can tell the difference. You can still see the world going on around you, know the sun is shining but that you are no longer part of it no matter how much you miss it. You know you’re a hostage, and your captor will either Stockholm syndrome you into accepting him as your new reality or just break you entirely. He doesn’t care which. Fighting it is futile. He likes it when you struggle. It gives him satisfaction, a reason to taunt you. Makes it better for him. He just laughs at any of your attempts to get away as he jerks you from the sound sleep you desperately need well before dawn with a quick intake of breath, a shock of adrenaline, and opens floodgates to the reality of your loss that rushes in to fill the space you thought you’d reclaimed in dreams where your loved ones are still with you in places where you were once happy and whole. Grief starts your day with trauma. Rips off the scab to reopen the gaping wound, and then shoves you out the door into the light to watch you stumble through your day bleeding all the while and then places bets as to whether or not you’ll collapse completely before the sun goes down. It doesn’t like your odds and roots for you to fail. And then it does it all over again the next day. And the next. And the next. And the next…

But I’m a survivor, see? I got away. I started this year with the determination that my grieving days were over. That I was going to hold my head high, smile a smile – even if it was a slightly deranged one – and be happy and free again. And I did a pretty good job of it. Even if I have been letting some things slide on the backside, up front, I’ve felt better and lighter than I ever have. I’ve been ignoring the fact that I’m no longer the person I used to be in many ways and just choosing to enjoy myself. It’s come at a price, though. I’m more placid and pliant than I’ve ever been. I’m less responsible. I’m needier and more selfish. I voice my desires, ask for what I want without shame and usually get it. And it feels better to have someone hold me. Feels better to have space when I want it. Feels better to breathe deep in the sunlight. I don’t try to hold onto anything anymore, because it’s just going to go away anyway. I can only worry about me, and even then I don’t care that much. Not only do I have no fight in me anymore, but I’m absolutely tame — almost to the point of being helpless mush. I let most things wash over me. I’m happy to let others decide for me, tell me what to do, even lead my around by the nose. Even when I should fight back, I often don’t. It takes a great deal to get my hackles up, and even then, my heart’s not in it. I don’t just pick my battles, I rarely fight any of them at all, which is odd, given the fact that I used to fight others’ fights for them and then go out picking some more of my own. Now, I wander more or less aimlessly. I let others make the plans, decide where I’m going to go when, choose what I eat, dress me, undress me. I stand there docile and smiling, my glazed-over eyes watching things – even my clothes – slip onto me and fall away at others’ will. Because, really, what difference does it make if I’m happy and nothing hurts anymore? I beat my swords into plowshares. I’m retired. Others can make the hard decisions now. I’m not going to make any at all – not even for myself. I’ve seen the in-charge version of me, and she’s an instrument of torture — the embodiment of self-harm. She hurts me. I’m tired, and I don’t want to have to think about the hard and dark things anymore. I paid my dues and then some. I’ve cashed in my chips. I’m done. I’m just over here being a small, warm star giving off as little light as possible and enjoying my new, downgraded status immensely.

And so, as I walked through Dulles and passed the chairs in Concourse D, I paused and looked at my ghost. I could see her sitting there in her boots and jeans and down vest curled into a ball with her face in her hands and her head between her knees in an effort to calm her breathing and forgo passing out from the pressure and pain. Watched her struggle with rage and indecision trying to figure out how to be the Best Daughter She Could Possibly Be. Making battle plans. Donning her armor and moving her armies into position. I could see her swallowing it all, shoving herself down, and bracing herself for an impact that was still months – years in coming. Witnessed the very moment she moved from damage control to force of nature, switched from defense to offense and hurtled herself over the cliff. And she looked so wan and sad and small. I felt sorry for her. I was sickened by her. I wanted to hold her tight and stab her to death simultaneously. And I couldn’t help but feel shocked by the contrast. There I stood in my light cotton summer dress and sandals, feeling tall and light and carrying almost no literal or figurative baggage, breezing through the airport on my way home from a fun vacation abroad. Traveling by choice and for myself. Only answering my own call – my greatest concern being finding the Auntie Anne’s and getting a yummy pretzel and some lemonade. I felt like a completely different person. Looked at my ghost like she was a dream I’d once had as she faded to nothing and I turned away and bounced down the carpet toward my gate and my flight home giddy with gratitude that all the pain was behind me.

Or so I thought.

My mother’s dormant heart condition flared a few months ago, and her condition worsened exponentially while I was overseas. Within days of my return home, she couldn’t manage enough breath to carry on a phone conversation with me. She was on leave from work and at home struggling to get her vitals under control with medications that weren’t doing the job. She spent July 4th in the emergency room only to be sent home with more medications that didn’t help. The following morning, her neighbor called 911, and an ambulance spirited her back to the hospital, where she spent several days. My brother was immediately on a plane here to meet up and fly together out to be with her. We had gone through this with her 6-7 years ago and thought the ablation she’d had back then had put the genie back in the bottle. The fact that this beast was back scared us, and we knew it wasn’t something we could wait out, especially with talk from the doctors of impending cardiac procedures.

I was immediately reassured to see him standing on the curb at the airport waiting for me to swing up and collect him for a night at my house before we flew east together the next morning. Tall and solid and capable, he greeted me with a tight hug and readiness to be my teammate again in Operation Take Care of Sick Parent. Having a sibling who has your back makes the hard times so much easier. Even traveling together, we quickly fell into our same old familiar pattern, dividing the labor of getting packed, planed, and to the hospital without even having to discuss much. We each know our roles, and we can communicate our next moves with a simple look. It felt good to slip into the plane seat next to his, order our bourbons, fire up his laptop, each take an earbud from my headphones and get lost in season 3 of The Venture Brothers together for a few hours. I just leaned into his strong shoulder, basked in his warm laughter, and felt supported amidst the chaos. Secure against my genetic other half – the only person with whom I never have to try, the only person with an equal investment in our family, the only person I trust to get it done, the only person as scared as I am. In many ways, he is my family entire sometimes, because I know that, in the end, we will be the last ones standing and that he needs me to be there as much as I need him.

Brother gets me like no one else. Not all of me – in fact, most of me leaves him shaking his head, I think – but he knows me, knows what to expect even if he doesn’t always agree or know the whys and hows. But he’s got the institutional history. He’s the only one who was there for the backstory. He’s the only one tapped into the same frequency. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, know how to operate in a way that covers our flanks in a crisis. We perfected our teamwork with Dad, and when we’d heard from Mom that she’d written up her legal plans to put him in the lead as the medical power of attorney rather than me, we both freaked out. Mom’s concern that I had already carried that weight with Dad was valid, but what she didn’t understand was that brother and I had come to an agreement about what worked for the two of us and agreed that that job was mine. Not only is it the only one I can do, but I have an uncanny predisposition for managing the big picture of a situation and understanding and tracking medical information. I have dealing with doctors and hospitals down to an art and grasp the medications and procedures with expert aplomb. I’m the front line. The faceman. The starring lead. While usually the pathos to brother’s logos, I have a disposition that allows me to set everyone’s emotions aside and gather and process all the information needed to make the tough decisions in a medical crisis. I have a robotic emergency mode, and it came right back to the fore the moment Mom’s problem began. I almost felt bad at times when I had to tough love her long enough to get the necessary information down on paper before I could let anyone’s feelings – even hers – enter in to the picture. I go full-on taskmaster, and it’s kind of scary, but it’s what needs to be done. That’s just it, I do what needs to be done, and brother knows I do it well. Whereas I know what he does well is EVERYTHING else in a way I cannot. He is the logistics man. He keeps the eye on the clock and remembers who is where and what needs to be done when. He’s the one to keeps the files and packs everything up and gets us to and from the hospital. He’s the wheelman who runs us to the drug store, the grocery store, you name it. He’s the morale officer who always has a joke ready and makes sure I take time for a little mental recreation with him at the end of each day. He’s my handler — he makes sure I get up, get dressed, eat, and get in the car every day – all on time. He’s the one who ensures I’m where I need to be to talk to whomever I need to talk to and then makes sure I get home and in bed again. He handles all the hundreds of little details and takes care of me (and keeps me laughing) so I can handle the few big things and not be cluttered with anything else. I’m like this thing he wheels around and props up and hits a switch on, and when the show is over, he powers me down to conserve my batteries, packs me up in my little box, and puts me back away until I’m needed again. It’s a weird little process, but it works for us, and we convinced Mom that our system was how it needed to be. As hard as it would be to do all over again, to alter our operation in any way would only create more stress for us than it would avoid.

This time was different, though. Brother did all the heavy lifting. When he unpacked me and propped me up to do my thing, my batteries were dead. I mostly just stood there spinning my wheels. I stared off into space. I was prone to fits of punch-drunk giggles. I was more morale officer for Mom than medical expert. I was still the faceman, but man, did I not put my best face forward. I was phoning it in while brother was stepping up. I felt like I was moving in molasses, outside of my body watching the scene unfold – a scene where I was mostly just sitting there until brother would come over and physically lift me up out of the chair and get me moving. It was bizarre and surreal to feel so ineffectual. Granted, I was endlessly impressed by how capable brother was. He truly manned up and took expert care of Mom – but he was also taking expert care of me. I was baffled by what was happening until he went home and left me with Mom.

On the day he left, I found myself standing in my mother’s little walk-in bedroom closet looking for a photo album. As I looked around me, I realized that Mom had more possessions in that closet alone that Dad left behind in the sum total of his estate. While Dad went out with a bang that was rife with tragedy and mess and gut-wrenching existential decisions and a messy legal battle that all brought me to my knees, he had no stuff. In the end, his whole life fit in the back of brother’s little Ford pick-up. There was no memorial. He had no friends, and with the exception of his lone brother in Los Angeles, all of his family was dead save for brother and me. We cremated him and settled the finances of the estate and the lawsuits and that was that. Chapter closed. We grieved quietly on our own terms and alone. Standing there in the closet, the full enormity of Mom bore down onto me. For as close as I was to Dad, Dad was a difficult person to love – only I really found a way to do it. Mom, on the other hand, is our everything. She’s the parent who stuck with us, the one we love most. Our friend. Our rock. Our alpha and omega. Our rod and staff. She’s home, and we love her immensely – and so do countless other people. She has a career. She has extended family. She has innumerable friends – some of whom have known her since childhood. Mom’s life is full, as is her home. Her house is a special place – a refuge for us. It’s a modest townhouse, but every room is nothing but her personal touches of décor and decoration, all hand-chosen by Mom and a comforting reflection of her.

When we lose her, not only are we going to be devastated by the most difficult loss of our lives, but we’re going to have to share it with others who we will have to notify and comfort all while having to dismantle our family home – the physical manifestation of who she was and who we all were together. We’ll have to shut down our base of operations and finally work without a net. We’ll have to give away parts of her and then pack up and go home without her. We’ll be orphans. We’ll be on our own. We’ll be wrung out and wasted and lost.

And I realized I wasn’t ready. I will never be ready to lose Mom, but I’m really not ready now. I’m all out of fuel. I spent it all on Dad, and I haven’t recharged. Maybe I never will, and that scares me, because if any family member deserves 110% from me, it’s Mom, and I’m going to fail her. I’m already failing her. I’m distant. I’m pulling away so I won’t feel it. Like it will hurt less somehow when it actually happens if I detach and put some space between us. And really, who am I kidding with that? But there I stood in that closet as the walls closed in on me. I panicked. I opened my mouth to scream, but nothing came out. I just doubled over with my mouth hanging open and panted and hyperventilated in silence – back to being that same girl in the airport on that winter’s day. The light, free, happy girl in the sundress shattered and flew apart and completely dissipated. She only existed for six short months. And here I am, right back under grief’s boot heel preemptively. Aware of how terrified Mom is. Aware of how terrified I am. Aware that any goodbye could be our last. Painfully aware that I left Mom to weather a procedure and get a painful diagnosis alone this week when I should have been at her side – I was just too tired and weak to do my job. I’m already wrenched from sleep with that shocking kick to the gut every morning. I get that brief moment of confusion before the reality of what’s happening comes rushing back into my mind. The reality that Mom is in heart failure. The reality that I’m not able to be there for her like I should be. The reality that I’m going to fuck this up. The reality that I already am. Try as I might to pace myself for the long run, I’ve already blown my wad, and Mom deserves better. When (not if) the decline happens, I will be worthless. I swam out too far and didn’t save anything for the trip back. I’m stranded at sea and no good to anyone.

Everyone’s watching me from the corner of their eyes. They know that something’s wrong. They don’t know what it is, but they don’t trust me. Mom and brother are especially concerned — treating me like I’m fragile. Taking care of me. Waiting for me to crack. Only one person on the planet has any clue about how bad it really is. She’s the only one I can trust with it. It’s kind of her job to know these things. She’s known me so long, and she gets it. She knows how awful I am, and yet she still loves me. Even with her own burdens, she gladly piles mine onto the pile and carries them. I just can’t explain this over and over. I won’t go into details. Don’t know how to tell everyone that the fight has gone out of me. That I’m already dead inside and just going through the motions. That what I’d gained this year — my comeback — has so quickly slipped from my grasp. That I’m grief’s bitch yet again, and probably for good. I know this feeling all too well, and I’m just relenting to it. Sometimes the devil you know is easier. He’s won. Swept my legs out from under me and scrambled my guts. I want to scream all the time and nothing comes out. I’m so tired, and I just want to sleep. I’m on ropes and slipping fast – and now when it looks like my family will need me most.

I’m trying to dig deep. Trying to get it together, but I’m so tapped out. I am in a place where I can’t even take care of myself much less anyone else. Much less the woman who needs me most. I just want to be left alone to curl up in a ball and be quiet. The storm’s coming, and I can’t stand out in it again. There’s no substance to me anymore. I’ll just blow away. I still have my first dead parent’s ashes sitting on a shelf in my bedroom. Dad’s not even scattered, and now Mom’s sick. I turn 40 tomorrow, and I’m not ready to lose my favorite parent, the only one I have left. Especially when I just got her back. Especially when I know I don’t have what it takes to save her. The test isn’t even here yet, and I’ve already failed. I’m not even a dim little star with a last burst of heat to tap. I’m already the black dwarf — all bled out. The cold, dark rock floating alone through space with no heat or light for anyone.

There was an item in the news this week that the universe won’t end with a bang or a whimper but rather a giant rip. That, thanks to dark energy, ironically enough, it will continue to expand to the point where everything just flies apart. Stars, planets — even the atoms — won’t be able to hold together any longer. Everything will stretch to the breaking point, and then it will shatter and come apart completely and dissolve into nothingness. All known existence will violently rend itself asunder, and faster than expected, it seems. The world will simply spread itself too thin. This is how things come undone and have their ending.

I can relate.

 

mourning has broken

And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.” — Ruth 1:16-17

Tomas and Amelia came to America from Galicia in what is now modern-day Poland. They were peasants — cobblers and musicians — and two of the faceless millions of Eastern European immigrants who flooded into Chicago at the turn of the last century. They had five daughters: Helena, Veronika, Tekla, Stefania, and Czeslawa. Amelia died of tuberculosis when Czeslawa was still an infant. Tomas worked on the railroads as a gandy dancer — a job that required him to be away from his family working on rural rail lines for days and weeks on end, and he was so poor that he would tie scraps of rags around his legs to shield his flesh from the bitter cold of the Illinois and Indiana winters where his tattered pants had worn through and left his skin exposed. He was in no logistical or financial position to raise five girls, nor was such a thing socially acceptable for a father to do in that day and age, and so, he relinquished custody of his children to a Catholic orphanage. Thus, my grandmother, Stefania (Stephanie), grew up an orphan despite having a family and a father, raised by nuns who couldn’t have cared less about her. When she was old enough to work, she was given to a “foster home” where she worked as a housekeeper and nanny for the biological children of her employers. Isolated and alone in many ways, she was never far from her sisters. They bucked the odds and lived most of their 90+ years either together or in close proximity to one another. Helena (Helen) was the eldest and died first, but in their final years, Veronika (Verna), Tekla (Dorothy), Czeslawa (Jessie), and my grandmother were all neighbors in the same condo — Verna and Jessie both never married and even shared an apartment with twin beds on either side of the same bedroom. Stubborn, spirited, and the eternal hub of the family, my grandmother took care of of her sisters to the end and was the last to leave this world at the age of 94. I am her granddaughter in every sense.

Despite her fierce devotion to her sisters, my grandmother met and married my grandfather during the Great Depression. Irving came from a family of Ukranian Jews of better circumstances. They were artists — slightly educated and bohemian. He and his sister Lillian were both aspiring opera singers. He was tall and slim with dashing red hair and piercing grey eyes. He was handsome, and he knew it. The only son of a Jewish family, he was every bit the proud and entitled prince who expected my grandmother to fall for him, and fall she did. They married and had my father and uncle. My grandfather dodged the draft during World War II, ran the family uniform business into the ground, made one bad investment after another, cheated on my grandmother, left her and his children, returned to them, and cheated some more. When I was two years old, he suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead at the age of 57 on a cold February night in 1975. My uncle attempted CPR, but was eventually resigned to watching his father die in the Chicago snow as they waited for the ambulance to come. We flew out for the funeral. I remember standing on a step stool in front of a water fountain in a room that seemed to be made of red velvet trying to give my stuffed leather toy elephant a drink. My father didn’t cry. My grandmother went on to fall in love with another man, live with and bury him all while speaking of my grandfather for decades as a saint she didn’t deserve to know, much less wed.

As each of my great aunts passed on, I traveled to Chicago to meet my uncle and father to bury them and handle their affairs. Because I was the next woman in the familial line, I often took the assignment of going through their personal effects. While on my last visit there to pack up my grandmother and Aunt Verna, rendered vegetative by advanced right brain dementia, my grandmother gave me a thick, yellowed collection of writings by Kahlil Gibran. When I got it home and unpacked, and I opened it to find a tattered, typewritten program from a 1941 concert where my grandfather sang the tenor part and his sister was the featured soprano. I also found a pair of folded pages on which were my grandparents’ wedding vows in my grandmother’s unmistakable and impeccable handwriting — an excerpt from The Prophet, and the above excerpt from the Old Testament’s Book of Ruth. I was reminded of the album of keepsakes from my own parents’ wedding that my mother kept in her bedroom closet when I was growing up and how the disintegrating announcement of their modest nuptials clipped from The Roanoke Times mentioned that the vows they exchanged at the small Episcopal church in Christiansburg, Virginia also came from the Book of Ruth.

My brother proposed to the woman who is now his wife during the time my father was comatose in the hospital. In between researching Medicare and estate law and medical terms online at the end our long days at his bedside, he and I would set time aside to visit websites to look at engagement rings for his intended. We took lunch breaks and visited antique shops and jewelers, and I modeled rings for him and gave my female two cents . He settled on a lovely ring of white gold with an oval peridot set with diamonds and proposed to her while on a camping trip at a rustic cabin retreat. She said yes. A few weeks later, as we sat together at the foot of my father’s death bed at 3am on his last night on Earth, my brother asked me to stand up with him at his wedding. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Come on,” he replied, “who else is it gonna be?”

I couldn’t have been more honored. It couldn’t have been more appropriate. I adore his other half. No sooner had he introduced us two years before, than he was asking “Who’s dating whom here?” because she and I immediately took to each other and made copious plans together. We got on like a house on fire — almost intimidatingly so. I was almost as in love with her as he was. Brother didn’t know what to do with the sea change in a sister who had abjectly and vehemently hated every prior mate he had brought home. He and I are incredibly close — isolatingly so — much to the chagrin of those around us, including, and especially, significant others. Even our own mother feels insecure around us when we get together and start talking our own little language of jokes and references and thoughts and ideas and a mish-mash of German. Most people cannot abide us — much less hold their own around us — but not my sister-in-law; she fit with us like flesh and blood from the jump. She not only accepted our little dyad, but quickly jumped in feet first and enhanced it and expanded it to be a natural triangle with her infectious grin and perfect sense of humor. She never tried to neutralize the relationship my brother and I have — she just made everything we did together as a threesome better — holidays, movies, concerts, meals, festivals, baseball games, tubing on the Shenandoah — all had more laughter, jokes, and memories with her on board. We gained another sibling from the moment he introduced us. I could not love her more — she’s the sister I always wanted and what I would have chosen for myself and my brother and my family given the chance. The relationship could not be deeper or more natural, and I couldn’t wait to do everything within my power to officially welcome her to the family. There my brother was asking me to help bring her into the fold in the moment our tribe was shrinking, and we needed her more than ever.

About an hour later, after giving up trying to convincing me to come with him, brother left me in Dad’s hospital room and slipped back to Mom’s to catch a few hours of shut-eye. I ordered the nurse to turn up the dosage on my father’s softly beeping morphine pump, heaved the heavy recliner with mauve upholstery up to my unconscious father’s bedside, turned the radio to quietly play classical music from the local public station Dad loved, and held his hand as I watched the sun rise with him one last time and slipped into a deep sleep. I awoke a couple of hours later to find myself covered with a thermal blanket and my mother standing over me in her pink nursing scrubs and thin yellow gown we had to wear in the room. She held a pink smoothie of some sort in one hand and a bag with a Hardee’s steak, egg, and cheese biscuit in the other. My weary eyes never beheld a more welcome sight.

“Poor baby,” she said. I brought you some breakfast,”

“You’re dressed for work,” I noted. “Why? Dad’s dying today.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “I don’t know what made me think I was going in.”

She got comfortable and never left. Brother returned about an hour later. Together the three of us settled in for the final vigil and spent the day together as a family for the last time ever and first time in more than a decade. Early that afternoon, brother and I went down to the cafeteria to grab some lunch to bring up to the room. When we returned, we found Mom sitting in the chair I had pulled up to Dad’s bedside. He was waxen and gray and drawn — already half gone from this plane of existence. She was holding his hand and curled up into him; looking tired and sad, she had fallen asleep with her head on his shoulder. Tears streaked her face. Brother and I stopped in our tracks struck dumb by a moment of vulnerability and tenderness we had never witnessed our parents share before. Right there and then we could see them young and courting and in love and understood that those versions of them never really left. We stood together gripping each other’s hands in silence — me with my hand over my mouth in astonishment, him with a revelatory grin cocked on his face. It was the final moment of their marriage and a gift to us. I eventually came to my senses and snapped a picture with my phone. Hours later, when my father passed away as the sun set and the three of us stood together in shock at what we had just witnessed, my mother bolted from the dark room.

“Where are you going?” I choked out.

“I have to call someone!” she responded.

“Who?!” I demanded.

“I don’t know!” she cried as she ran through the door.

Minutes later, I heard her out in the lobby on the phone with her childhood friend — the one who was with her when she met my father, the one who was the maid of honor at their wedding. And I could hear my mother, sad and 20 and in love out in the hallway sobbing in little shrieks to her friend — a girl, a bride — again across all the decades. A week later, when I brought my father’s ashes home in a little black box, she snatched it from my hands and clutched it to her chest and walked into the living room and sat in her chair and held it in her arms, saying nothing. In the weeks that followed, she played the Lou Rawls album they had loved when they were dating in the early ’70s, She let the live version of “Tobacco Road” repeat over and over because she knew it reminded my father of growing up in Chicago and talked about how he had opened up new worlds of art, literature, music, thought, and existence to the provincial girl from a foundry town in Rust Belt Michigan she had been when she had first stepped into his classroom at Radford College. She talked about how handsome he was as a young English professor from Duke — impeccably groomed and dressed in his suit, sitting cross-legged on his desk and smoking as he held forth at the front of the class. She kept my Dad’s ashes with her for a year before finally bringing them to me last summer.

The night Dad died, the three of us stumbled home from the hospital empty-handed, in shock, and at a total loss. My brother’s fiancee was there to greet us with the home fires burning, my lost luggage collected, and a pot of homemade chili waiting for us on the stove. When I had called my brother the day before to tell him that he needed to drop everything and get down to Dad because the end was near, he got home to find that she had gotten there first and had their bags already packed. My father was a stranger to her, but our family was not, and, because she truly loved my brother, she was already a part of us. She was an ally and invaluable support in the hard days that followed. She proved her mettle and them some. Already his wife. Already my sister. As we said goodbye to Dad and walked away from a member of our small tribe that night, we gained another at home waiting for us, and the ship was righted.

The story of Ruth is a story of women. In it, an Israelite named Naomi migrates to the land of Moab with her husband and two sons. The sons marry native girls — Ruth and Orpah. The husband dies and then both the sons do the same, leaving the three women at loose ends in a patriarchal society that offered them few options for a livelihood as single women without men to provide for them. Knowing she has no reason to stay in Moab and no hope of earning an income or remarrying there, Naomi renames herself Mara which means “bitter” and tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their people and remarry when she packs up to return to Bethlehem. Orpah reluctantly obliges, but the loyal Ruth steadfastly refuses and insists that Naomi is her family now, and pledges to stay with her until death separates them. Ruth makes a separate marriage vow — this time to the mother, the family, of her husband. She has cleaved to more than just a man, but also to his people, his mother, his way of life, and she has no intention of reneging on it. Together, it is these two women against the world, and they form a matriarchy that is a bond beyond any legal contract. They truly love each other, and nothing will change that come what may. In the end, things turn out well for Naomi and Ruth, largely because they stick together. Others want a part of their family because they recognize the strength of their bond.

My grandmother never officially converted to Judaism, but she lived her life with her husband as a Jew and raised her sons in the faith. Despite all of my grandfather’s flaws and failings and mistreatment, she never turned from him. She treated his sister as one of her own until the very end, despite the fact that she had sisters in spades.

My mother and father did not have a happy marriage. They separated when I was 14 and divorced when I was 16. Despite the fact that my father gave my mother plenty of reasons to give up on him, she never really did. She would speak of his behavior with bafflement, frustration, and grief, but she never derided him as a man or a person. She never let go of that brilliant young professor who taught her Milton and Shakespeare. She always maintained fond memories, spoke of the goodness in him, and voiced her gratitude for all he gave her — especially my brother and me. She was there with him in the end, and I’ve gotten glimpse after glimpse of the true depth of the love they had for each other in the two years since his death. I am grateful to him for giving me a view of their relationship and a sweet, unguarded, romantic aspect of my mother I had never seen before. Our relationship has never been more open, honest, and supportive. It was his parting gift to us, and he continues to live with us all through it. My parents never stopped being family. Not in the ways that really matter.

Two generations of the women in my family made this pledge from Ruth at their weddings: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.” I have not done the same myself, because it is not my role to be a wife and leave this family. I am its archivist, its chronicler, its storyteller. I will most likely never leave it for another, because I am not sure I can make that pledge to a family that is not my own. I am not able to make that commitment. The family I’ve got keeps me plenty busy as it is. While recently reminiscing over a time as a teenager when I came home one afternoon during a visit from my maternal grandmother and aunt to receive news that my mother had taken my sick brother to the ER, I marveled to my Mom about how rude I had been to leave our guests and take off to the hospital to join her and brother. “Are you kidding me?” she replied. “As if there was ever any question what you were going to do in that circumstance. Nothing was going to keep you from us. If your family is in trouble, there is never any doubt that that is where you will be. You are the protector. That’s always been your job. That’s who you are.” And she’s right.

Just because I have not carried on the tradition of Ruth does not mean it has ended with my mother, however. When planning their wedding, my sister-in-law insisted on incorporating the reading from the Book of Ruth. She didn’t do it to curry favor or out of some kind of consolation or obligation. She wanted it. It made sense to her. It was as though she was honoring and keeping a generations-deep tradition in her own family. It was her love letter to us, and she meant every word of it. It was at that moment that I realized that she really did belong with us — to us — all along. She was a missing piece, a cuckoo’s egg, that we had been lacking. The Prodigal Daughter finally coming home to complete our little clan. She could manage to be in two families at once. That reading in their wedding was her way of cleaving herself and her people to ours, of expanding our horizons and resources, of truly pledging allegiance to us when we needed it most. It was so comforting. We needed her that day and continue to need her the same we did that night we returned from the hospital. She’s a comfort. A pillar of strength. An asset. A natural progression for the women in our family. An added value that has only made our family stronger. I talk to her and see her more than my own brother these days. We crave each other’s company. We honor each other’s roles in the family and each other’s roles in the lives of everyone else in the family. We thicken our generation and share the load of the work it must do as the one before us ages and passes away. Two women are always better than one, especially in a matriarchy like ours. We trust each other (she even trusted me to help pick out the home where she now lives sight-unseen — told people her husband’s family would find them a home in Utah and then send for her…and that’s kind of what happened). Together we are stronger. Together we are happier. She and I take care of each other. We don’t even like to use the term “in-law,” because we are not sisters by law. We are pledged to each other. My people are her people. Where we go, she will go. And so, I tell people that I’m bringing my sister with me places, and I arrive with a woman who looks absolutely nothing like me, and the two of us giggle at the confused looks on everyone’s faces. Doesn’t change what we are, though.

The day she and my brother married is one of the happiest days of my life. It’s our family’s best day. It came a few months after Dad died, and really, it was just the new beginning we needed. She did what I could not. She gave us reason to put aside our sorry and to celebrate our survival. She added to our ranks with her own. She brought smiles and song and joy back into our lives. She kept us from wallowing in grief. The wedding marked the end of the end for us and the start of something better and fresh and new. Being an early riser, she insisted on being married before noon, because, as she put it, she didn’t want to wait all day to marry my brother. She chose the brightness of the new day to christen the next chapter in our lives. And so, as I stood there at the head of my Episcopal church in Arlington, Virginia, next to my brother and before my priest watching as my beautiful new sister came beaming down the aisle on her proud father’s arm as her personal choice of processional hymn, “Morning Has Broken” played, I thought, “yeah, that’s right.” And with that, she put her own stamp on our family as she entered it. Mourning had broken, spring in completeness.

My grandmother would be so pleased.

i’ll take potpourri for 200, alex

narrative aside for this one, folks. capitalization and grammar, too. most likely cohesive thought, as well. enjoy.

i spend a lot of time alone. it’s a conscious choice. i like, even prefer, my own company. over the years, my myers-briggs scores have taken a steady slide out of the staunch “e” territory into a more “i” realm, because i need more and more time away from people to recharge my batteries drained by the time i spend with them. this personal trait plus the whole turning 40 next month thing means i spend a good deal of time in my head lately to consider myself, the world, and all the ways i fit in it — and don’t (mostly). and so, here is a grab bag of random completely, self-centered observations i (and others) have made recently:

  • i could probably eat popcorn every day. especially the delicious, buttery air popped stuff my friend makes
  • i constantly crave cantaloupe and cucumber. probably because the aforementioned popcorn makes me thirsty.
  • i’m addicted to water. if i don’t have a bottle of it near me or in my hands, i get twitchy.
  • i like to sleep outdoors in public.
  • i sleep better with someone else in the room. even better with someone next to me.
  • i like to curl up and take platonic naps with other people but generally want no part of cuddling after sex. don’t touch me. i’m tired and sticky and sick of you. it’s time for sleeping now.
  • i think maybe the above secretly makes me a man.
  • i still think “friends” is funny.
  • closet george michael fan. only, like george now, not really in the closet.
  • i take the words “all you can eat crab legs” as a personal challenge. and one i am yet to lose.
  • words most likely to come out of my mouth in response to something: “i know, right?!”
  • sushi and salad are my favorite foods. but not together.
  • i would give up meat again, but man, i make the best freakin’ burgers on the planet.
  • manhattans in the winter, martinis/gin and tonics in the summer. beer all the time.
  • i’m addicted to [good] gay porn and tumblr. one of them can make me laugh for hours on end. i’ll let you guess which one. and i’ve got links, if you want ’em.
  • i love songs that are more than one song in a song. examples include:
    • layla
    • bohemian rhapsody
    • a day in the life
    • band on the run (three songs for the price of one!)
  • i love iced tea, but i have to sweeten it myself.
  • nothing’s better than clean sheets.
  • all my towels are white. it makes me feel like i’m at a hotel.
  • i’d secretly love to give everything away and hit the road and live out of a suitcase.
  • in another life, i could probably be barefoot and pregnant and very happy. just not this life.
  • i have to watch “dune,” “heavy metal,” and “wrath of khan” any time they’re on tv.
  • don’t fucking talk to me when i’m swimming. i don’t care if we’re friends and we came to the pool together. it’s time for swimming, not talking. serious business.
  • i hate all things willy wonka. effing creepy.
  • i don’t get the big deal about “the princess bride.” cute enough movie, but cult favorite? why?
  • “seinfeld” really isn’t funny anymore. most of it probably never was.
  • i’m not really that good at riding a bike.
  • the older i get, the less i like bread.
  • nobody ever expects the religious side of me…and then i quote chapter and verse. it’s probably the functioning brain and open mind and all the swearing and drinking and the fact that i like sex and people think those things and religion don’t go together. they’ve just never met an episcopalian before.
  • remember when bravo used to be a television station that thinking people could watch? yeah, me too. i miss that.
  • i love disc golf. i miss disc golf. with margaritas and no pants. in the rain. you know who you are. i’m looking at you.
  • i will never not find farts funny.
  • sometimes i just miss digging a big hole in the sand and then sitting in the sea water it collects like a private pool at the beach.
  • i can’t seem to follow more than one tv show at a time anymore.
  • one of my favorite memories of my dad is staying up late one night with him watching “conan the barbarian” when i was about 10.
  • one of my favorite movies to watch with my mom is “close encounters of the third kind.” she always let me stay up to watch it when they showed it on ABC once a year when i was a kid. weird, huh?
  • every time i hear the ice cream truck, i have to resist running out there to buy a popsicle. especially the red, white and blue rocket pops.
  • i recently realized that i was born in appalachia. i come by it honestly.
  • i thought i had a wart once, but i cut it out of my hand with a knife, and it didn’t grow back, so probably not. gross, i know.
  • i don’t like drinking coffee, but i love coffee-flavored things.
  • i tried my dog’s jerky treats recently, and it turns out they’re pretty good.
  • i love going to movies.
  • if we each all get our own blue heaven when we die, i will spend all eternity at a baseball game with my friends. eating hot dogs and peanuts and drinking beer. that is where and when i am happiest.
  • my favorite flower is the iris, but i never buy them anymore.
  • i hate feeling rushed.
  • i hate feeling scheduled.
  • i do what i want.
  • the family comes as part of this package. deal with it.
  • i think my current default setting for most things is “whatever.” unless, of course, you’re messing with my boys or my family, in which case, it’s most likely on.
  • i like cereal, i just wish it was more filling.

horizon vertigo

God made the world round so we would never be able to see too far down the road.

— Isak Dinesen

I had a bizarre experience at a recent conference I attended. As always at these out-of-town things, people kept asking me where I am from as a typical conversation starter. For the first time ever, I didn’t know what to tell them. It’s like my brain momentarily ceased to function and couldn’t comprehend English every time this happened. I wasn’t even sure what they were asking. Where do I live? What school do I attend? From whence do I originate? Worse yet, I couldn’t even think of an answer to any of those questions. It’s not as though it’s an unusual question or I’m a complete social retard. And yet, in a place where I was supposed to be a brilliant academic, simple words, names of places utterly disappeared from my blank mind. I was so disoriented that I couldn’t imagine myself ever existing in a time or place other than that very moment. All the edges around it blurred and filled with dissipating images like waking from a dream. I was suddenly an amnesiac with no history — not even the past that existed 24-48 hours prior when I was in my house in the town I’ve called home for almost four years. Nothing but the then and now existed for me in the moment that question came up. I couldn’t remember my city, my state, my school — even my own name. I just blanked out. Couldn’t fathom what was being asked of me or why. Why would anyone care? And more importantly — what was the correct answer that kept eluding me?

I grew up on the East Coast, an Easterner and Southerner to the core. I’m Virginian by birth and grace of God. Mother of Presidents, blue blood of the South, blah blah blahdy blah. Atlantic salt water and iced tea run through my veins. This made me tough. Raised me up a no-nonsense girl. A straight shooter who didn’t suffer fools at all, much less gladly. I have a dear friend who tells me I’m “too hard on people.” Ha. If she only knew. But, while she probably knows me better than anybody, she’s not really familiar with what I am or where I come from, so I get that she doesn’t get it. Doesn’t really know why I am who I am. Doesn’t realize that I come from a dog-eat-dog culture where everyone has high expectations of each other, living up to them is job one, and laughing at those who don’t is a source of humor for the rest of us. I come from a place where snark is the native tongue, every gathering is a battle to be the Smartest Person In The Room, and cynicism is a bonding ritual. Expectations are a form of symbolic interactionism — semiotics that allow us to communicate with each other through signifiers of success and failure. And you’re either one or the other. It’s a culture that bitches constantly. It’s a tough room, and I like it that way. Gotta have standards, right?

Now, I’m a perfectionist and an overachiever. A constant competitor, mostly with myself. In command of all things. The alpha. The architect. The nursemaid. The warrior. The angel. The hammer. Lord Protector. Butcher. Baker. Candlestick maker. Or, at least I used to be. I lived most of the first 40 years of my life wound tight and ready to spring. Either in constant action or coiled in anticipation of it. A bundle of nerves always ready to take action on my own or others’ behalf. Pushing things to make them happen. Reveling in self-defining competence. Getting things done and done right before anyone even knew they needed doing. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Straight A’s, top of the class, award winner, never failing at anything — at least in the perception of others. In my own mind, everything I did constantly fell short of the mark, while at the same time I never trusted anyone else do to them right. Never trusted anyone to do anything for me. Nobody took care of me but me, and I was going to take care of you and everyone else while I as at it. I got it. I got you. I’ve got it all under control. Ran myself into the ground. Made myself insane. Stubborn and invulnerable and independent and willful, I was tight and hard and all edges. Edges people, especially men, threw themselves against time and time again, getting themselves bruised and bloodied but never getting anywhere with me.

When I made the conscious decision to move out West almost four years ago, it was my intent to leave the East and the only way of life I’d ever known and broaden my experience to include other lifestyles. I wanted the change, the space to grow. I wanted to have my cage rattled a little bit. As my brother and I drove across the country, we bemoaned the fact that the landscape hadn’t changed much by the time we reached eastern Kansas. Everything around us was still crowded with familiar trees and peppered with suburbia and the occasional city. It all looked like everything Eastern we already knew. I remember him voicing his frustration at the monotony and expressing that he was gonna want his money back from American lore if he didn’t see some Great Plains action pretty soon. And then it happened: the interstate took a turn up over a small rise in the road, and the world opened up before us. The trees all fell away to reveal a rolling ocean of golds and reds and greens and black in patchwork below. A vast, empty expanse for hundreds and hundreds of miles in every direction and nothing but endless blue above. I looked to my right up into Nebraska and to my left down into Oklahoma and out into the ever-retreating horizon before me.

And then, I lost my damn mind.

To say I freaked out would put it mildly. Within ten short minutes on the plains, I went into a full-blown panic attack in the passenger seat. Agoraphobia to the nth degree. It was all too much. Too big. Too wide. Too open. My heart raced. I hyperventilated and started to giggle hysterically. Like a prey animal searching the skies for death from above, I hunched down in my seat trying to make myself as small as possible and fade into the gray upholstery as my eyes searched the blue for some phantom attack.

“What the fuck is your problem?” my brother inquired from behind the wheel.

“I’m freaking out,” I replied.

“Yeah, I can see that much. What’s going on? Are you ok?”

“No. No, I’m not ok. Don’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“The dizziness. It’s like the landscape is moving. I can’t focus. I can’t make my eyes rest on anything. My heart is racing. I’m panicking. You’re not having this?!”

“Uh…no. What the hell? Why is this happening?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Everything is just too much. Too exposed. We’re too exposed out here. It’s too much to take in all at once.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Pull over.”

“Pull over? And do what?”

“Find some cover. We have to find some cover. Now.”

“Are you freaking nuts? Look around. There IS no cover. Not even a tree. There’s no place to go. This is it. Hundreds and hundreds of square mile of fuck all. There’s nothing out here.”

“I know. I know. I just…God. Oh my God.”

“Are you ok? You’re seriously starting to worry me. I don’t know what to do.”

“I’ll be ok. Just….drive. Just keep driving. I’ll get past it.”

And I did. After another twenty minutes or so, the panic subsided, but the feeling of looking at the world through a fish-eye lens didn’t abate. We drove through Kansas in awe at its alien beauty. Cruised along I-70 through the dozens upon dozens of towering windmills dominating the landscape like giant invaders from a 1950’s B-budget sci-fi flick as we passed through the Smokey Hills Wind Farm. Completely taken with and, as irrational as it was, a little frightened of them as they spun lazily at different rates and different directions as the afternoon slipped by and the daylight slowly waned. We marveled at the diversity of early autumn crops that whizzed past the car, wondering what the bizarre low-growing red-tasseled plant we saw everywhere was (it was sorghum, which we learned by asking around at a truck stop, but not until after I leaned out the window of the car and shouted our question at a farmer driving a slow tractor on a dirt service road we passed at 75 miles an hour, my unheard words ripped from my mouth and hurled behind me by the wind only to be replaced by gales of laughter on both my behalf and my brother’s). Long story short, my anxiety receded, and the drive became a fond family memory — my weird prey behavior included.

The fish-eye lens feeling didn’t leave me, though. It stayed on the rest of the drive and through my first few weeks out West. Any time I spent on the open road, I felt disoriented, like I was watching the world in high definition 3D. Like I was in an stereographic projection. It was hard to get my bearing and judge distances. I felt as though everything was a mirage and that the horizon, including the huge Rocky Mountains in the distance was both constantly moving away from me and close enough to touch. I was sure there was something wrong with me, and then a native explained that what I was experiencing was a very real condition called horizon vertigo. It’s so real a condition that the U.S. military sent soldiers from places like Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado and Wyoming to fight in the North African theater during World War II, because they knew those boys wouldn’t be prone to its disorienting effect like troops from places like New York, Georgia, and Virginia would be. I could understand why. The East is a much more claustrophobic place with huge, lush trees constantly embracing you from every direction and limiting your scope of vision to a matter of yards, for the most part. A few miles at best. Back there, your perspective is smaller. You can never see to far ahead of you, so you focus intently on what is right in front of you. Your immediate environs are your entire universe. You’re not seeing states away. Not able to envision the world on a grand, macro scale of time and size in epic proportions.

My vision eventually adjusted, as did other perceptions. My first years of living and working in the West were a constant internal battle of wills with my straight-laced, buttoned-down East Coast professionalism. The office culture here was a challenge, as I was constantly stood up for appointments and forced to suffer through staff meetings where our karma was discussed. Karma. At work. Fucking hippies. I hated it. Hated them. I still do. Get a haircut, you losers. But bitterness aside, this place has slowly become my home through a process of internal compromise and negotiation. I let the freeze and thaw crumble parts of me and round off some of the sharp places, adopted a more “que sera, sera” mantra, let some laid backness creep into the cracks in my Type A personality until it was almost nothing but cracks. In the end, I’m happier, even if I don’t have the sharp focus I used to and walk around a little more often with a goofy gait and a blissed-out look on my face. Some aspects of the East and the South will never leave me. I prize intellect. I demand the use of proper grammar. I still expect people and organizations to generally have their shit together. I use my car horn with extreme prejudice and want to blink people who can’t merge on the interstate or parallel park right out of this plane of existence — if you drive like you got your license out of a fucking bubble gum machine, get out of the goddamn car. I still read the Washington Post for my news (and listen to NPR, but, given who I am, that goes without saying). I can finish the New York Times Sunday crossword in an afternoon. I would cut a bitch for proper fried chicken and a mess of greens. I love me some Patsy Cline. I will never not say “y’all.”

More has changed than has stayed the same for me, though. I sit back and wait to see what will happen rather than trying to force a result anymore — and I find that things tend to work out in my favor that way with little or no work from me now. No wonder underachievers are so happy. More of my mind power is devoted to sports than politics. I’m more about the grand scheme of things. I take long, meandering walks with no destination, no aerobic goals. The house is a bit of a mess. Sometimes, a glass of wine is dinner. Not everything always gets done perfectly, or even at all, and that’s ok. I accept and even embrace some of my flaws and those of others. I’m happy to fold up into someone else’s arms and let them take control and care for me for a change. I crave help — even ask for it. When choosing my battles, I often choose not to battle at all these days — most conflict isn’t worth it — and that’s probably the biggest change of all. I just let things slide. When I do get up in arms about something now, it means it’s something that really matters. I recently got fed up with having a certain professor hurl character assassination my way and stood up for myself and set the record straight — consequences (and they will be myriad and long-term given her pettiness and position of influence) be damned, because I’m no pushover, and I have to look at myself in the mirror. The only person more shocked than her that I finally let her have it was me, I think. I wasn’t sure I still had it in me,  but damned if I don’t. The lion is just sleeping. My choice to speak up may not have been prudent, but then, the East Coaster in me has never given a crap what others think of me, especially when it comes to speaking truth to power, and she’s not going away.

Some of her has faded, though, as I learned very acutely on a recent trip back East to visit my friends and former home after a year and a half away. I walked the streets of my neighborhood and could feel the echo of my 25 year-old self around every corner, but I couldn’t see her anymore. She was like a sneaky little cat stalking me, but always staying just out of sight. If it weren’t for the people I know there to anchor me with memories and new experiences and a constant warm welcome, the life I’d lived there would have felt like nothing more than a dream. Even so, I’m not still convinced it wasn’t all just some movie I saw once. Things I thought were once part of my DNA — driving directions, the subway map (but not the scent memory of my commute), what to order at my favorite Lebanese restaurant — had all started to fade significantly from my mind as it cleared space to make room for new information I am filling it with in my current life. My past has been archived or even possibly erased. My bond, my feeling of attachment and need for the place was eroding and disappearing. I no longer fit, and the most obvious and outward sign of what an oddball I am there now was the way people kept staring at me — I didn’t realize until days in that it was my nose ring and chunks of violet hair that drew their gaze. I don’t look that strange and certainly don’t draw a second glance most of the time out West, but in the Land of the Buttoned-Up I stood out like a sore thumb in a bright floral sundress in a city where I used to wear head-to-toe black in an effort to blend into the background. And so, while I will always have a home back East as long as my loved ones are there, I no longer think of it as my Home.

But then where do I belong? Somewhere in the past decade, I pulled up my deep roots and became a gypsy and always have one eye on the road — wondering what’s next and where. This hybridized version of me is neither fish nor foul. I don’t really fit anywhere anymore. When I mentioned the problem I was having answering the “Where are you from?” question to an old friend at the conference, she offered an insightful reason: “That’s because there are so many answers to that question.” She was right. Ten years ago, I never would have believed you if you’d told me I’d be where I am now. I would have run like hell if you’d told me what was waiting for me around the corner. I’m glad I couldn’t see it then. I’m glad the horizon keeps retreating so I can’t see what’s waiting for me over it now. Glad I don’t really have an answer to that question, because I am no longer limited and defined by a place. I am no longer afraid of being exposed out in the open. No longer searching the expansive, empty sky for death from above. I’m without shelter. Without a net. I’m from Everywhere. Nowhere. Right here. All at once. I am not who I was. I am just who I am right now. Wait five minutes, and I’m sure to change.

to be or not to be

When I tell people I’m a Ph.D. student, the inevitable question is, “What do you plan to do with your degree?” I’m always a little astonished at this, because hey, tenure track academics. What else, right? I am so sure, so fixated on one path for me, that I forget that not everyone does the same.

And so, on Mother’s Day I find myself not wondering what I will do with my degree, but what kind of academic I will be. Seems like a strange subject for Mother’s Day, right? Not really. I have been lucky enough to be gifted not only with my incredible biological mother, but also with amazing, supportive women who have served as mentors along the way. I cannot overstate the importance and impact of a good mentor. Sadly, I lost both my professional mother and my original academic mother to untimely deaths in recent years, and for the most part, I have found myself utterly lost without them. I still don’t know what to do with myself when something amazingly good or bad happens to me. I want to pick up the phone to share the news with them or get their advice, and then I remember that I can’t. I have only their words of kindness and wisdom — and their innate trust in me and my abilities — to take with me and carry me forward. I’m out of the nest and on my own now.

The good news is that I have been lucky enough to have lightning strike a third time in the wonderful friend, adviser, and new academic mother I found almost immediately upon starting my Ph.D.. She’s very different from me, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but man, does she believe in me. She is my champion and protector, and she challenges me to do good work. She sees my success as a point of pride for her rather than a threat. Sees me as a legacy she is grooming with no plans to claim credit. It helps her to have her in my corner cheering me on and paving the way. The woman has my back, if nothing else. But there is something else. There’s the advocating and muscling behind the scenes on my behalf. There is the money to attend conferences. There are the chats over lunch. There are the extensive editorial notes on my work, telling it like it is when I can still fix and improve what I have written. The emails telling me that she’s proud of me. The phone calls to say hi, to check on me, to tell me a funny story, to let me know of another student’s award for his dissertation only to be followed by, “That will also be you, my girl. You’re next.” I can’t beat that, and I don’t intend to try. I know when I’m lucky, and I’m loyal to her. I don’t sneeze at people who pick up a sword and stand between me and disaster.

I am acutely aware that I am fortunate to have her. More importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have had every mentor I have had, and they are not easy to find. Most people never get one, and I’ve had three. And the result? The commitment it inspires in me to be a mentor myself. To shape myself to be the kind of academic, the kind of professor who reaches down and pulls students up. Who gathers talent and grooms it. Who values young minds and, even better, is valued by them in return. I have to say that I think deciding the kind of professor you are going to be is just as important as deciding the kind of research you are going to do. A good teacher specializes in more than just her subject area. She specializes in her students. Students are what last and live on long after you are gone. Their success and happiness are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s worth.

I went to a party for a new Ph.D. graduate last night. While there, I noticed something when the conversation turned one faculty member in particular: nobody had anything good to say about her. Despite her seniority and tenure, everyone agreed that, as a teacher and an adviser, she was someone to be avoided at worst, tolerated silently as a means to an end at best. Knowing and working with her was something you gritted your teeth and suffered through like some horrible rite of passage, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can always tell she is the topic of discussion in any group of students by the rolling eyes and hushed tones as though speaking her name will incur the wrath of some black curse on all present. Like a cancer you might catch. She has a reputation for being petty, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, and wickedly capricious, particularly when it comes to other, up-and-coming female academics. She puts down the research topics and theories of others — “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the sentence most likely to slip from her lips like a broken record. Because she does not know how to be loyal to her students, she assumes them all disloyal to her, and so no one trusts her, much less likes her. Everyone deems her dried up — unhappy and dissatisfied in her life. Here is this woman in middle age as her career wanes, and not a single student could speak well of her or her research, much less sing her praises as a teacher, mentor, or, worse yet, a person. I feel sorry for her. I don’t think this is what who she wants to be, or even set out to be, but, the fact of the matter is, this is who she is and how she is regarded. She chose this. She made it come to pass. She is a road map for loneliness. She is a cautionary tale.

This experience frames a stark contrast to my late, great academic mother from my master’s degree program. She gathered students around her and her husband and made us a family. Regardless of age, all of her chosen were known as her “kids,” and we wore it as a badge of honor. She took care of us, and we took care of each other and her. We felt safe, secure, and supported both personally and professionally. We knew she would go out on any limb for us, and we would all do the same for her and our brothers and sisters. We still do. We worked our asses off to produce our best in research and in the classroom as a result. Our reputations were her reputation, and we took that link seriously and treated it preciously. We felt enormous pride to have a relationship with such a good heart and a brilliant mind, and her company was warm, loving, and coveted. Students lined up to take her classes and work with her. Anyone on her team broke their necks to go above and beyond on her projects. Her sense of humor was refreshing and second to none. Being her student meant being her friend, and she took the time to know us inside out. She drove us home at the end of the day, took us to dinner, had us over to her house for parties. Knew our concerns, our interests, our competing priorities, our pitfalls, our interests, and our long-term goals. There wasn’t a mean or petty bone in her body. Utterly secure in her own mind and competency, she worked overtime to smooth the way for us and see we got what we needed to succeed. She treated us as equals, as colleagues, and we all flourished under her tutelage as ardent allies and cheerleaders for each other. She was well-regarded by students, by the college, by the university and in her field. You could tell when others were discussing her, because the group would glow and laugh and smile and bond while doing it. She inspired brilliance and love and brought out the best in us all. When she passed, we were all crushed. We leaned on each other in our grief and still do. The friendships she gifted us have only grown stronger and more committed in the wake of her life. She used to say that she viewed her relationship with her students as just a beginning. We see the time we spent with her in this world the same way. As hard is it is that we cannot pick up the phone and call her, she’s still very much with us every day, giving us strength in all we do. We still work hard to do right by her reputation and make her proud. I drop her name every chance I get because I am honored to know her. While she may not have been my actual mom, she will always have had a role in birthing and mothering the woman and academic I am. She is my hero.

And so, when choosing my path as a budding academic and future professor, I am giving a great deal of thought to what kind of mentor I want to be and how I want to lead. Long story short, I want to be a mother. I want to be generous and take the high road. I want to do right by the mentors who molded me and continue their work so that they might live and teach through me. I want to throw my lot in with other brilliant, growing minds. To bask in their glow and be inspired by their ideas and theories. To lead by example. To be a mentor people — particularly young women — trust and want to have. To remain open and supple and happy and funny. To be a port in the storm. To support without ego. To hand over diplomas and put hoods over heads with a loving smile. To attend their graduation parties and be welcome. To be spoken of with love and gratitude when I am not there. To have the honor of seeing students flourish and become my colleagues, too. Not only because I see the ravages of unhappiness in the the professor who burns her bridges, but because I see the satisfying path of love in the legacy of a woman who gave of herself. And really, what are research and teaching but putting a piece of yourself out there to join with others and become something bigger and better than yourself? Sort of like parenting in a way, right? Funny, that.

witchy woman

There’s so much in life over which we have no control, and most of what we think we control is an illusion we allow ourselves to believe for the sake of some sanity and security. This is why I love being a human companion to animals. It is the one thing I can do in this world where I really think I make other lives better, to say nothing of my own. And because I’m good at it. Really, really good at it.

My first animal companion was a sweet tuxedo kitty I named Possum. Man, he was handsome. A big tom with a black face, tons of long white whiskers, and a wide white bib on his chest that funneled down to his belly in a tornado-like pattern. We met when I was 25 and at the lowest point in my life — a quarter-life crisis of epic proportions. After a year in the city, I had just rented my first apartment of my own. It was meager and barely furnished, and I earned so little that I was working three jobs to afford it. I had no idea where my career was going, much less what I wanted out of life. I was single. I was lonely. I was severely depressed. I was on Prozac. I was in therapy. In short, I was a mess. During my visit home for Thanksgiving, my mother took me out for a day downtown. It had been a lovely afternoon, and but I was exhausted as we drove home and looking forward to bed. She had lost our family cat of 16 years earlier in the year and was finally ready to adopt a new companion and was working hard to convince me to make a stop at the no-kill shelter down the street from her house on the way home so she could look for a pair of kittens. I knew that was a fool’s errand in November, but she seemed really eager, so I relented.

There he was curled up in the back of his cage — everything I didn’t want. He had markings like our recently-passed cat. He was male, and we had always been told that male cats were a pain in the ass (where did anyone get that idea?!). And he was a cat. I didn’t want a cat. I wasn’t ready for a cat. I could barely take care of myself. I couldn’t even keep a houseplant alive, and I was convinced that I was in no position to take care of another mammal. I felt like spun glass inside, and I just knew I couldn’t handle it. But there he was. Not even looking at me in a cage with a handwritten sign that said:

Please take me home

I’M FREE

There’s nothing wrong with me, I’ve just been here too long

Something about that sign made me open the cage and pull him out. He was a big, heavy cat who immediately uncoiled his heft and folded into my chest.  I held him close and the tension left his body as he melted against me and tucked his hard little head under my chest and let out a whimpering sigh into my throat. Lightning struck. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and in that moment I knew love at first sight was real, even though I hadn’t even gotten a good look at the object of my affection. I just felt suddenly inexplicable whole like I’d found a piece of me I wasn’t even aware I was missing.

“I’m taking him home,” I told my mother.

“What? Are you serious?”

“Yes. Deadly. He’s mine.”

“Honey, are you sure? You didn’t even want to come here.”

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. This cat belongs with me. I’m taking him home.”

“You sure you don’t want to take a couple of days to think about it?”

“I’m sure. So, so sure. He’s coming with us tonight. There’s nothing to think about.”

When I took him up to the front desk, still curled up under my chin, the staff was agog.

“The doughnut cat? No one wants the doughnut cat,” the lady behind the counter told me, incredulously.

“The doughnut cat? What are you talking about? This is the cat I want.”

“Yeah, the doughnut cat.”

“Why do you keep calling him that?”

“What position was he in in his cage when you found him?”

“Well, curled up in a ball, actually. Kind of like a doughnut.”

“Exactly. He’s been in that position since he came here over a month ago. He never unfurls. He eats, but we never see him do it. We pull him out of the cage in that doughnut shape to clean in there, but he stays curled up and then we put him back in there the same way — like a doughnut. It’s why nobody’s considered him.”

“Yeah, well, I want him. I want the doughnut cat.”

My mom was the one to fill out the paperwork and officially adopt him, because I lived outside the area, but he was mine. The best nothing I ever spent. We took him home to my mother’s that night, where he spent the entire night under her guest bed. When I drove him to my house the next day, he dove under my bed and stayed there for three weeks. I called my mother crying. Saying it wasn’t going to work out. I was sure he hated me. I wasn’t going to be a good person for him. He was miserable. He would never love me. I was a failure. I was about to give up.

And then my brother got sick.

It was his first semester away at college — my alma mater — two hours south. He called me one night saying he was diagnosed with strep during his exam week. He was running a high fever and too ill to care for himself much less take his tests. He’d been to the doctor and needed to leave school. My place was closer than Mom’s, so I got in the car and drove down there that night. Found him shivering and near delirious in his dorm room bed, packed a bag, stuffed him in the car, bought him a Wendy’s frosty for his burning throat on the way out of town, and hauled ass up the Valley back to my place where I deposited him into my bed for the next week. Two days later, I came home from work to find him awake.

“Hey, you’re up,” I said.

“Yeah. And guess who came out from under the bed today.”

“No way.”

“Way. I laid here talking to him, and he came out from under to investigate. Didn’t stay long, but he came out.”

And so it went like that. He laid in my bed recovering for the next several days while I went to work, and while I was gone, he stayed there like a constant, reassuring presence talking sweet, patient, enticing words to the scared kitty under his mattress. Little by little, he earned Possum’s trust, until I came home at the end of the week to find him sitting up in bed stroking the cat curled up in his lap. As I walked into the bedroom, my brother put a finger to his lips to silence me and gave a devilish smile and a nod as he pointed to the little victory on the blanket before him. They both looked so content, and my heart just soared. It was a turning point.

Possum and I spent 12 wonderful years together. He was the chattiest boy. Constantly talking and answering me. Smart as a whip. A fearsome mouser. He took off into the swampy woods behind my mother’s house for a month during our first summer, and I thought for sure I’d lost him forever until my brother caught him and brought him back home to me. I drove down that very night to collect him, stripped out of my clothes, scooped his skinny, filthy little body up into my arms and got right into a bath with him. He laid on my chest and let me wash him, and then I wrapped us both up in a towel and crawled into bed with him still sleeping on my chest…and he hadn’t moved an inch when I woke the next morning. Both of us wrapped up together still slightly damp. Him sleeping the sleep of the righteous. He was my traveling buddy, driving up and down the East Coast together for years — long haul stretches that would take an entire night and day — and then eventually going across the country with me. He stayed in hotels. Rode in elevators. He was my familiar. A separate animal embodiment of my soul. Would do anything I asked of him as long as he was with me, and if something was stressful, he would just tuck his little face into the crook of my arm and do that little whimpering sigh of his. But he trusted me. Always always trusted me.

He trusted me when the busted vertebrae in his back — an injury he sustained as a kitten before I adopted him, possibly from someone kicking him — started to give and almost paralyzed him. He let me hold him as the neurologist MRI’d him so they didn’t have to sedate him. The vet recognized that being in my arms would calm him enough to let them do what they needed. He trusted me to care for him as he recovered from surgery with an eight-inch incision down his shaved back. He trusted me when we had to do the MRI again a year later to diagnose the cancer in his small intestine that I already knew was there just by touching his increasingly-bony little body. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what Possum had already told me himself, but still. He trusted me as I popped steroids into him daily for two months to help give him a soft landing. And, most importantly, he trusted me as I laid on the end of my bed and held him in my arms as the vet shaved his front leg and inserted the catheter to deliver the drugs that would end his life. He was a hour from a painful death, at best. His eyesight had failed him earlier that afternoon while staring at my face. His eyes just suddenly dilated and he started searching and calling for me while still looking right at me. I knew he couldn’t see me anymore, but I knew he could hear me, and so I kept talking to him softly. Telling him I loved him until the very end. Thanking him for taking such good care of me. Thanking him for seeing me as far down the road as he could. Asking him to go ahead and wait for me. Asking him to send me a message when he got there to let me know he was ok.

And then, he was gone.

I’ve never cried harder in my life. I didn’t even cry like that when my father died. He left me six weeks before I lost my dad, and it’s almost like he made his exit when he did to prepare me for the bigger job to come. He was my buddy ’till the end. And I was devastated.

Even though my wonderful vet was kind enough to come to my house to euthanize him in the comfort of my bedroom, I insisted on being the one to drive his lifeless little body the thirty minutes back down to the vet’s office. I couldn’t let someone pack him up into a box and drive off with him like cargo. Not after all our days on the road. I owed him one last trip together, and so I bundled him up into his favorite car blanket and traveled with him one last time as the sun set. I stroked his little head and talked to him, glad that I’d kept my promise that he wouldn’t leave this world without me. Without knowing he was loved. That I would keep him safe and comfortable to the very end. That my face was the last thing he saw in this world. That he left with my voice in his ears. I’d stood my ground between him and disaster for a dozen years. I’d given him a good life. I’d done my job. I’d gotten it right. And still, it took the vet almost a half hour of sweet talk and comforting to get me to turn that limp little body over to him. I just couldn’t say goodbye. I drove home alone in the dark clutching the empty blanket and slept hugging it for weeks after before I packed it away in the closet forever.

The day after I lost Possum, I called into work in the afternoon and laid down to take a nap. I was just wasted and couldn’t deal with the world. Losing my friend…my Dad in the hospital…all of it was too much. I just needed to close my eyes and leave this world for a few hours. And so, I drifted off and had the most vivid dream about my cat. When I woke in my bed four hours later, it was dark outside, and my first thought, surprisingly, was immediately of another cat. A cat I’d seen at a local shelter and fallen in love with six months before but hadn’t adopted because he was FIV+, and everyone told me he’d be a health threat to Possum. After three weeks of internal struggle, I’d given up on the kitty and adopted my dog instead. I put the other cat out of my head and promptly forgot about him. And now, here I was with my cat gone and my dog sniffing around constantly for his friend and peeing in the house out of grief and a day later my mind was already on another animal. I immediately started the self-flagellation. I expected it to be months or years — or never — before I even thought about considering possibly adopting another cat. And yet…what kind of disloyal asshole does that? But lo and behold, I rolled over and pulled up the shelter’s website on my phone only to find that they still had the kitty in question listed as up for adoption. The next day I called about him and found that it wasn’t an error — he still needed a home. I continued to beat myself up about it the next night and went to a friend to talk about it.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Didn’t you ask Possum to send you a message letting you know that he’d arrived safely? That he was looking out for you?”

“Yeah. I did.”

“Has it not occurred to you that this might be that message? That he knows what will heal you more than you do? That kitty needs a home, and Possum knows you have a good one to give.”

I went to see the cat the next day. He was just as sweet and adorable as I’d remembered — the warm, welcoming ambassador of his room. He greeted me at the door and curled up in my lap, rolling over for belly rubs from a stranger. I was instantly in love again. The woman at the shelter was thrilled that I’d come in.

“I can’t believe you’re looking at him,” she said. “He’s the most special cat, but he’s been here almost two years, and we were just saying yesterday that we’re about to give up on him getting a home. And here you are.”

“Yeah. Here I am.”

I filled out the adoption application. My brother flew out to spend the weekend with me, because he knew I was a grieving mess, and it was his turn to help me recover. He and I cleaned the house from top to bottom, and then he said, “Let’s go get your cat.”

We drove to the shelter and walked into the room where my kitty was housed. Brother set the crate down on the floor and opened the door. The cat walked right into the box, and brother closed the door behind him and walked him up to the front where I paid the adoption fee. The best $35 I ever spent. I still have the faded, barely legible receipt in my wallet as a souvenir.

I brought him home and opened the crate. Ten minutes later, he and Bumble, my dog, were best friends. I named him Kabuki and we spent the night laughing at him bouncing the house and exploring. Bumble never peed in the house again. That night, Kabuki curled up by my side and patiently comforted me as my heart started to heal, asking nothing of me in return. And so my home started to heal, too. And I petted and held him in the morning. I thanked him. I called him “Possum’s cat.” And I still do.

Ten months later, I adopted a second kitty, Humbug, while my brother and sister-in-law visited for the holidays. He was a sweet little guy dumped by his previous owners who came to the shelter as a “lost and found.” Lost, my ass. That cat totally knows how to find his way back to his people. He was lost like you lose a piece of trash you throw out of your car window in the interstate, and he has abandonment issues ten miles wide because of it. We brought him home on Christmas Eve. He and Kabuki hated each other and fought for 40 hours, and then gave in and became best friends or gay cat lifemates or something like that. You’d think they were litter mates. Both black cats, they are constantly joined at the hip during the day as they hang out in the house and maraud the neighborhood like a couple of thugs and then sleep in each other’s arms at night with their bodies wound around each other — when Kabuki isn’t sleeping in the bathtub with Bumble. I know. It’s weird. Don’t ask.

Long story short — my boys are a peaceable kingdom. All of them are seniors. All were adopted from shelters or rescues. Three animals nobody wanted. Three animals the world discarded like trash because they were too big, too sick, or too old despite the fact that all three of them are healthy and happy and hilarious and absolutely perfect. Three brothers from another mother. An unstoppable team. Unfazed by anything bad that happened to them before me. Abandonment, betrayal, starvation, even the shrapnel from a pellet gun one of them has embedded deep in his body — none of that soured them on this world or the people in it. Their sweet personalities belie none of their harsh prior realities. And for me, life with them is very different than the life I had with Possum. Different, but just as wonderful. They are loving and loyal and always by my side. I have a very unique bond with each of them, and they with each other. When one gets in trouble, the other two come running. They all sleep together on the giant dog bed in the living room — and sometimes I join them. I lay in the yard in the evening and eat my dinner and read for my classes with them curled up cuddling against me, and sometimes we nap out there in the sun like that where the whole world can see us. My little bodyguards, they sleep in my bed and next to it at night. They look at me with love and adoration, and the feeling is mutual. They hang out in the bathroom on the floor and toilet and in the sink while I shower in the morning. All three of them pile in the car for trips to the vet.

We take a walk in the neighborhood each evening (and sometimes during the day) — an army of animals following me around the block chatting to each other as we go, and nobody on a leash, and they all come when called. People look at me like I’m some kind of witch with a huge white dog and two chatty black cats with jangling bell collars in tow. An enchantress who charms pets. I am the crazy animal lady. The neighbors point and take pictures and talk to each other about me and my goofy menagerie. I hear about me from people who don’t know me or realize they’re telling a story about a nutcase to the actual nutcase in question. It’s ok, because they’re in awe really, and I can’t blame them. It’s pretty amazing. I didn’t train the boys to walk off-leash with me and together; it just happened. They decided to do it on their own, and now it’s routine. And I trust them to know what they’re doing and where they’re going. They all survived without me for most of their lives, so they’re capable. Those three animals are free to go and should totally take off, but they are with me — with each other — by choice. We are a home, because that’s how each of us wants it to be. If someone hangs back or wanders away during a stroll, the other three of us wait up or go looking for him, because nobody gets left behind. That’s how it is with me and my boys. That’s how it is with family.

Tonight, Bumble and Kabuki and I took our night walk just the three of us. Humbug was tired from romping outside all evening and chose to stay home. As we rounded the backside of the block, I noticed the shadows of a man and a dog coming toward us on the other side of the street. As I know Kabuki is terrified of dogs who aren’t Bumble and was likely to take off into the nearest bushes to take cover, I reached down and grabbed him from the sidewalk where he was winding around my legs and scooped him up into my arms. He got a look at the oncoming dog and started to struggle to get away, but I just held him close and kept walking.

“Shhhh,” I said, cradling and kissing him, my nose inhaling the soft, earthy scent of his furry head. “It’s ok, baby. I got you. No one’s going to hurt you. Relax. I got you, buddy.”

As we walked along with the dog at our side standing guard, he gave up his fight and went limp in my arms, leaning the weight of his body into my mine in a show of resignation and trust and let me carry him down the sidewalk in the cool, lilac-scented spring night. And then, he did the most amazing thing. He tucked his little face into the crook of my arm so he couldn’t see what scared him and let out a soft, whimpering sigh just like Possum used to. And I got the message.

This I could do. No matter what else the world throws at me, no matter how else I fail, my capability and capacity to love means I can hold a scared animal in my arms and instantly make him feel safe just by being me. I can’t fix what happened to them in the past before they were mine and I theirs. I can’t keep them with me forever. But I alone can chase away the threats and make it all ok during the time we have together. I alone can provide the home and sanctuary. It is the greatest privilege and responsibility and honor I could ask for and be granted. I do not take it lightly, and my companions don’t fail to thank me for it. My love makes things right for them, and being their friend makes things right for me as much as it does for them. And if that’s magic, I’ll gladly work it.

a season in purgatory

I have recurring dreams. Nightmares, actually. I had the one that scares me the most last night. The one I don’t talk about. The one I haven’t had in almost a year. It sits in the back of my mind waiting to pounce, to remind me it’s still there. Not done with me yet. And so, I woke at 5am this morning, bolt upright in my bed with tears streaming down my face, vomiting into my cupped hands.

Yeah, it’s just that bad.

Several weeks into my father’s limbo coma-like state and shortly after I became his legal guardian and conservator, I made two appointments. The first was with a long-term care facility in our old neighborhood, which, I won’t lie, was a fucking surreal experience I don’t ever want to fucking discuss. The other was with the palliative care team at the hospital. I felt kind of strange about the latter for several reasons. First, it seemed like I was giving up on my Dad to talk to folks about end-of-life decisions, especially during a week where my brother and I had actually gotten him awake and alert and weening off of his ventilator. We were working on getting him talking. He was giving it his all — what all he had. It seemed like we were turning the corner. On an upswing. Why would I be talking to the team that helps people die? The other issue I had is that I felt kind of silly — like I was being dramatic and alarmist. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening. Talk of palliative care and hospice-in-situ was for people with cancer and other terminal illnesses. For people who were really sick and dying. Not my dad. He’d just had an accident. He wasn’t that sick. Was I in for a surprise.

The meeting took place in a small conference room on my Dad’s floor. It was clean and neat and cozy. I sat at a table with two other women — the doctor who was in charge of the palliative care unit, and the unit’s care coordinator. The doctor was a small, quiet, but no nonsense Filipina in her 40s. The coordinator was a smiling, attractive blonde woman in her 30s with larger presence. A social worker by trade, she seemed custom-built to simultaneously inform and comfort. Something about her size and her face made me feel safe. Like, for the first time in longer than I could recall, I was in the room with someone who could bar the door and protect me from all the monsters on the other side who were trying to get through it and claw me to pieces. Someone who was ready, willing, and able to stand between me and It and provide some breathing space. I remember thinking that I never wanted to leave that room.

Neither woman sugar-coated anything for me. Both expressed a great deal of relief that I had initiated the meeting. Said they had been hoping and waiting for me to call on them. I was surprised. Didn’t understand. Why would they care? Why would they even notice my father’s case in that giant, seven-floor facility? My father wasn’t that sick. They opened the meeting by quickly disabusing me of that notion.

“Your father is one of the sickest people we have in this hospital. You are not overreacting.”

I was stunned. At a complete loss for words. I sat there with my mouth hanging open, incredulous. I stared at the back my hands spread palms-down on the table, thinking how ridiculous they looked, small and weak and completely futile trying to grip something solid and find some purchase as the world tilted and spun around me. Wondered why I hadn’t brought anyone with me. Why was I sitting in a meeting about ending my father’s life alone? I let their words sink in through my hard shell, my tough skin, and all the multiple protective layers I’d built beneath. I was numb — had been for ages. It made no sense. No, it made perfect sense. I knew it. Deep down, I always knew it. I knew it the moment I saw my dad’s eyes, hazel green like my own, wide with terror behind the oxygen mask while I asked him if he wanted me to consent to the ventilator and medical coma on the night of his accident. I knew it was over then. The rest was just a formality. Motions and window dressing. I had a part to play, and I played it, even though I knew the story would eventually end with me walking out of the hospital lost and empty-handed in defeat one night. It’s why I made the appointment. If I’d been in denial, I wouldn’t have made the appointment. Knew Death was stalking us. Watching. Waiting. Patiently living in the corner of my father’s hospital room, filling that chair no one ever sat in. Knew she traveled with me on the planes and laid down with me at night and slept with her limbs wrapped around my tense form only to rise with me again every morning. She was my constant companion, but I never acknowledged her. Felt her standing on the other side of my father’s hospital bed staring a hole through my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to her eyes — eyes that were my own in a face identical to mine, because, really, what other form would she take? The bitch.

My goal was to find out what options were available to make my father comfortable and maintain his dignity should the tide turn and the inevitable come to pass. What decisions could I make when the crisis wasn’t at a fever pitch and my head was relatively clear so that I wouldn’t have to try to make them on an emergency basis when everyone was a mess and Dad was already in pain. I didn’t want to wait until it was too late. I wanted to make the tough calls while in the eye of the storm, so that all I had to do was lash myself to the mast once the world started ending and ignore the sirens’ call to take useless and selfish heroic measures long after we’d crossed the Rubicon. Once everything was in place, I had only to stick to my guns and see it through. Sounds simple, right? Ha.

Along with all the other paperwork I was offered to review and sign, the women gave me a small booklet called Gone From My Sight. It had a blue cover with a simple illustration of a ship that made me think of some Columbus Day coloring sheet of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria I had done in the first or second grade. It seemed harmless and friendly enough and even though the cover clearly explained that the booklet was about dying, I wasn’t really prepared for what was inside this little manual on the feeding and watering and general care of the soon-to-be-dead. For the fact that once I had seen what was inside it, I couldn’t unsee it. That there was to be a me before I read it and a me after and that once I had the knowledge about how death worked that it would always be with me. That I would always know how to wield it — and expertise and a skill I didn’t want. For the news that death was a process. That, unlike we see on TV or in the movies, we are often dead long before we are dead. That, for people in circumstances like my father, dying takes days or even weeks. We move into a middle space where we are neither here nor there and straddle the two worlds for a piece of time even though the living fail to see it. I wanted to think that my dad waking from his coma and breathing and talking on his own was his will to live. It wasn’t. It was his death rally. For some of the dying, the rally lasts minutes or hours. For my father, it was a week. When I left him, I took the energy that fed the rally with me, and the balance between the two worlds finally tipped. He started to spend more and more time with Death, and less and less with me. She stayed in his room, in that chair whispering to him, keeping watch, inviting him to leave me and come with her. And he did.

The last time I heard my father’s voice was on the phone a few days before he died. I was driving to spend the evening with a friend and called the hospital. He had been too out of it to talk earlier in the day, and I thought I would give him another try. He was awake, but his breathing was labored, and he was difficult to understand. He also didn’t make much sense, as he wasn’t really in this world anymore. He spoke like someone slipping into sleep and talking to me from a dream even as he fought to stay awake. As my car climbed the overpass onto the north-bound Interstate, the post-rainstorm sunset sky an eerie purple and gold above me, his voice suddenly and clearly made sense again. Though breathy and labored, he was Dad again, just for a moment, as he said his last words to me:

“I sure wish you were here with me, Beej. I sure wish you were here…”

“I know, Daddy. I’m coming. Hang in there, and I’ll be in there in another week. I’m so sorry I had to leave, but I’m going to get back as soon as I can. I promise.”

“I sure wish you were here.”

“I know, Dad. I love you.”

And that was it. He slipped into unconsciousness while we were on the phone and the nurse took it from him and hung up. He never woke or spoke to anyone else again. Death had won. He wasn’t yet gone from my sight. But he was gone. I would have to catch a plane and take an ax to his moorings 48 hours later in order to let him fully go — to release us both from the purgatory grip that kept him out of his heaven and prevented me from passing through hell to where my waiting life wasn’t done with me yet on the horizon.

And so, the dream. The horrible, horrible dream shaken loose by recent unrelated, but traumatic events in my life. In it, I’m driving across the country from west to east. Driving from my home to the hospital, and I have my father with me, only he’s not really my father. He’s my father’s partly-dead, partly-dying body in his green hospital gown that gives him no warmth or modesty. He is cold. His skin is heavy and waxen and gray. His lifeless fish-like eyes are neither open nor closed, and his mouth gapes. He doesn’t so much breathe as air escapes him. He smells like the grave, and he’s heavy. His limbs are lifeless and inexplicably long — so much longer than my small body can wrangle with any grace. We are alone in the car — the old copper Plymouth Fury we had back in the 70s and nicknamed The Bad Penny. No other family with us. I am the only driver. The trip takes forever, and I have to keep stopping repeatedly at shitty motels where I drag him into the room myself, trying to keep him covered with the gown, trying not to bang and bruise his skin, trying to keep his body intact. Afraid that parts will stop falling off of my decaying, zombie father. The motels rooms are where it gets worse, because once I prop him up on his bed, he starts talking. Words somehow come out of his lifeless, sagging face, and they never stop. I never lay down on the other bed. Just sit helpless and trapped in the hard desk chair with my head in my hands and listen and listen and listen to the nonsense he spews while I try not to look at him. Words that don’t fit together. Other languages. Demands for things like water and food — meals he wants that he cannot eat and that I cannot give him. It’s horrifying and awful and every time I stop at a motel, I think about leaving him behind. Bolting from the room and gunning the engine and racing into the sunrise and leaving him abandoned to rot. That’s the part that’s truly horrific. That’s that part where I sit up in my bed and vomit into my hands. The part where I want to escape the gruesome specter of my dying/dead father that in no way resembles my Dad.

These things do not help the situation:

First, I still have my father’s ashes. My family needs to get it together to take him home to Chicago and scatter them. They spent a year with my mother, and now they’ve spent a year with me. They’re in a black box on the black shelves in my bedroom. At the foot of my bed. Where I sleep. Where I dream.

The other is the suitcase. Throughout my father’s time in the hospital, I kept a carry-on suitcase packed at all times. I was constantly on and off planes, so it never made sense to unpack it. At this point, it’s mostly empty, but not completely, and it’s still sitting in my bedroom next to the dresser. I have long-since retired and replaced it, as it was baggage, both literally and figuratively, that I no longer wanted to carry around with me. And yet, I still do. I think I will unpack the damn thing completely and throw it away today — along with a lot of other things.

Problem is, I know what’s inside that bag waiting for me. The little blue booklet with the ship on the cover. I know that opening the bag means seeing it again. I know it will break me. I know it will remind me that I’m already broken. That no matter how I have glued myself back together in the past two years, the cracks are there. I’m an irreparably insane person who dreams of taking her dead father’s corpse on a cross-country road trip and then throws up her dinner in bed. I’m not right. I’m never going to be. I’ll spend the day haunted with my chest hurting and my heart pounding in my throat, and tonight I’ll spend the evening alone with a bottle of red getting blind drunk to make it better. And that’s just how it is.

It’s not the dying that bothers me. Death is a friend. It’s the middle ground. It’s the process. The everything that came before it. The run-up. The knowledge that it was all rigged from the jump and that I was forced to witness the horror anyway. That I still have to witness it from time to time behind my eyelids at night. The knowledge that that’s probably not going to stop. Ever.

And so, I will do what I can to take solace from the poem in that little blue book sitting in the suitcase in my bedroom. Waiting for me. Haunting me like an old friend. The vision of the two worlds that I choose to believe, that best illustrates my real, waking relationship with Death:

“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”

And that is dying.”

phantom limb

While you sit back and wonder why, I got this fucking thorn in my side.

I died two years ago last night.

I got the call about my Dad’s accident on January 20, 2010. It was a cold, blustery afternoon, and I was in the grip of a nasty case of H1N1. Yes, I had the swine flu. Came down with it New Year’s Day and had been in bed for almost three weeks. It was up there in the top ten of the “Sickest I’ve Ever Been” episodes of my life, and that’s saying a lot for someone who’s had three months of mono, four months of chronic strep, several bouts with pneumonia and your garden variety influenza, and has gone two full knock-down-drag-out rounds with the whooping cough in the past decade. If there’s a nasty, vintage infection to get, I’ll get it. At this point it’s hard to tell if the illnesses are what have weakened my immune system and scarred up my respiratory system, or if my shredded immune system and lungs are what let me get sick. Chicken, meet egg. It probably doesn’t even matter anymore. Point is, my insides look and feel like ground beef and broken glass.

I’d had enough of sitting around the house. Fever, aches, fatigue, and cough be damned. It was killing me. I had spent the day waiting for a call from the doctor with the results of my latest chest x-ray, fully expecting the news that I had bacterial pneumonia and was looking at an in-patient stint at the hospital . The suspense was killing me. I had to get out. Decided I would make the supreme effort to walk one whole block with the dog. He’d been patiently waiting for a short stroll all day, knowing full well that I didn’t have ten good steps in me. Right before I walked out the door, my phone rang. It was my oldest friend, a woman I’ve considered a sister since the first grade, even though we hadn’t had occasion to correspond beyond writing for years. She’d seen something I’d posted on Facebook and called me out of the blue to say she could relate. I told her what was going on and that I had myself all bundled up and ready to walk out the door and if I didn’t go right then and there, the tenuous five minute window of energy I had was going to close. I had to take advantage of my momentum and get while the getting was good.

And so, I stumbled out the door and got six houses down the block when my phone started to vibrate in the pocket of my parka. I looked at the display and saw my father’s girlfriend’s name on the screen, which wasn’t unheard of, but odd, and, I knew, couldn’t be good.

“Hello?”

“Your father’s been in an accident. He’s in the emergency room right now.”

“What…Well, how bad is it? Is it serious?”

“I don’t know what to do. You need to come home.”

My father had called me the night before. I was sick and tired and falling asleep, and I let it go to voicemail. He left me a message saying he was concerned about how sick I was and calling to check on me and that he loved me. It was the last time he was ever going to call me, and I didn’t pick up.

I stood there in the middle of the street shocked and dumbfounded. Watched my labored breath make white puffs in the icy winter air. My mind whirred. I turned around and walked home.

No sooner did I get in the door, than the doctor was on the phone calling me, explaining that my father had named me as his primary decision-maker in his advance directive and that he needed consent to put a central line in my Dad. My mother is a nurse. I almost married a doctor. I knew what that meant. I knew it was serious. Before I could ask any questions, the doctor beat me to it.

“How soon can you get here?”

That did it. I called my friend back and told her what happened and that I couldn’t catch up. That I didn’t know where to start, but I couldn’t talk. She called me back five minutes later telling me that I was on the 1030pm USAirways flight home and to get my ass to the airport. She would meet me at the hospital. And so, H1N1 and all, I got on a plane and flew home and spent the next seven weeks of my life in hell.

I flew back and forth between the Rockies and the East Coast five times in seven weeks. I spent endless hours in hospital rooms. I spent even more in lawyers offices and banks and insurance agencies and a million other places talking to a million other people trying to piece my father’s affairs together all while trying to make decisions to save his life while he laid in a coma tied to a bed. When I was back West trying to maintain my life, I’d get calls all night from the hospital asking for consent on procedures. I had four lawyers, and their calls would start at 6am, at which point I’d pull myself out of my sleepless bed and try to gut it out through another day, making calls to the ICU, to doctors, to lawyers on my way to work, going to banks on my lunch hour and trying my best to maintain my own life and job and failing at it miserably.

The man I was dating broke up with and abandoned me at a concert on Valentine’s Day because my life had suddenly gotten “too real.”

I put my beloved cat to sleep a week later when he had clearly lost his battle with cancer.

Five days after that, I discovered that my father’s girlfriend started emptying his bank accounts within 48 hours of the accident.

On March 23rd, I went to court and became my father’s guardian and conservator, which, for all legal intents and purposes, made me my father. I had the power, responsibility, and liability for every aspect of his life in addition to the power I already had to determine when it ended.

I took my job seriously. I did what I had to do. Some of it moral, some of it not. Some of it legal, some of it not. When family is at stake, there is no gray area for me. Don’t underestimate the things that I will do. When all was said and done, I exercised all my powers and duties to their fullest extent and then some. If I had to be more than one person, I wasn’t going to fuck around.

When I talked to one of my lawyers the morning after I lost my Dad, he told me, “Congratulations, you’re a dead man.” I was so amused to hear that. Just the words of comfort a grieving daughter needs. And then he informed me that my job wasn’t done. My other, more supportive lawyer (the one I didn’t fire) told me what I needed to do to administer the estate, and so began more visits to the courthouse, the appointments with the crematorium, long days on the phone with Medicare, mornings at the Social Security office, afternoons at the IRS filing five returns for back taxes, conference calls with insurance agents, trips across the country to see lawyers, and late nights of paying bills and filing accounts and statements. For months and months and months. Despite all my best efforts to keep it together, it cost me my job. It cost my my sanity. It cost me everything. In short, I lived my life as a dying and, later, dead 66 year-old man for a year, and during that time, I completely fell apart.

When my Dad upped the ante on his slow, decades-long slouch toward Bethlehem by consuming half a bottle of rum and flipping his car off of the road at 70 mph and rolling it nine times across a muddy field and into a ditch on a random Wednesday afternoon, the impact lacerated his spleen, broke his neck and back in three places, crushed his sternum, broke all of his ribs, and collapsed his left lung. The twenty minutes of CPR the ICU staff performed on him when his heart stopped a week later only rebroke every bone in his chest and turned his left lung to permanent hamburger. His entire ordeal in the hospital was about trying to breathe. Was about the fact that his lungs were destroyed. Was about the machine breathing for him. Was about getting him to wake up and weening him off of the ventilator. His respiratory system became my obsession, and it’s appropriate that respiratory failure from pneumonia ultimately killed him. In the end, it was all about being caught below the surface being unable to come up for air.

And so, the irony is not lost on me that five months after my Dad died, I came home from a hike up at 11,000 feet, laid down on the couch feeling sick, started coughing, and never stopped. I spent nine months in bed and in and out of doctors’ offices fighting for my own life, coughing up blood, unable to draw oxygen. I weathered six courses of antibiotics, had three CT scans of my head and chest, five chest x-rays, acupuncture, allergy testing, and easily 50 vials of blood pulled in an effort to find what was wrong with me. All the while, I was slowly getting worse and slipping away. My blood pressure was through the roof. My hair was falling out. I vomited constantly and without warning. I coughed so hard that I lost consciousness. I was pale with huge dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t make it around the block with the dog. Even walking over the the ever-so-slight rise built into the center of the street to ensure rainwater runoff to the gutters at the curbs winded me greatly.The doctors finally settled on asthma as a diagnosis when I passed out cold in the little plexiglass booth during the early rounds of a pulmonary function test. The only problem with that diagnosis is that they still couldn’t tell me why. Why I was sick. Why I suddenly had the asthma. Why none of the treatments worked. Why, just like my Dad, I couldn’t come up for air despite being an incredibly strong swimmer both literally and figuratively. I was out of gas and going under fast.

Luckily, I have eventually managed to achieve some kind of balance within a margin that allows me to function. I have regular and serious asthma attacks still, and when I get sick with anything, even your garden variety cold, my respiratory system melts down nuclear-style. Thing is, however, that I’m never right. I’m never well, even on my best days, and I always feel it on my left side. My left lung is destroyed. It doesn’t function. I can’t get a full breath out of it. It feels like twenty pounds of gravel in my chest, and dragging it around is exhausting. When I get sick, it wheezes and creaks, and I feel like I’m trying to cough up overdue motor oil through a sack of river rocks and ground glass. I have a cracked and a broken rib in my back on that side from all the coughing, and they ache and throb on a good day. They hurt like a motherfucking bitch on a bad one. Like someone shoved a knife into my side and twisted. Hard. My shoulder on that side is damaged and often out of joint from coughing violently and constantly with my left hand held up to my mouth, and the muscles in my chest are toast. In short, my entire left side feels like it was in a car that flipped over in a field nine times, and it isn’t going away. From the front of my rib cage up across my arm and shoulder and back, I’m damaged goods.

Both my massage therapist and chiropractor call it my broken wing because I constantly stretch and contort myself in an effort to try and put the muscles and bones back in their rightful place and give myself relief, and, when things are really bad, I walk around holding that side of me gingerly with my arm curled up into my armpit like a baby bird who fell from her nest. They do what they can to prop me up and patch me back together, but everything slips out of place again and the wing inevitably falls apart with the coughing. My massage therapist marvels at the mess in my back and all the damage to my ribs and trapezius and says that it feels like more than a broken wing to her — it feels like I had a wing that someone ripped out at the roots. Given the shitty angelesque role I had to play for my Dad, it seems a pretty apt metaphor. And let me tell you, angels are an ugly fucking business. They’re warriors, and war sucks. I would say it was a good thing to turn in my wings after the whole messy, bloody affair that left my Dad dead and me in pieces, but the process broke the wing I originally had, and now I’m crippled and lopsided.

When people hear me cough or wheeze or hear that I’m sick again for the umpteenth time they always ask what’s wrong with me. It’s difficult to explain, really. I give them the simple answer, the medical one. I tell them I have asthma. They then have a million other questions about what triggers it, what I do about it, why I don’t get better, why the doctors can’t seem to get it under control, and have I tried this medicine or that treatment and blah blah blah. None of which is any of their damn business. All of the questions assume that I am somehow responsible for my illness, and the funny thing is that I am, but not in the way anyone thinks. Because what is really wrong with me isn’t asthma. Yeah, that’s how it manifests itself in the outward, concrete world, but on a more spiritual level what I’m walking around with are my father’s injuries. It’s a perfect mirror image. My destroyed lung, my broken wing is the phantom limb of my father. It’s my grief, my exhaustion, my stress, my war wound, my souvenir, my penitence, my punishment. It itches. It aches. It throbs. It wakes me up in the night. It makes me feel less than whole. It’s changed me forever. I didn’t choose it. I don’t want it. The transfer was automatic, out of my hands, but really, for me, not completely unsurprising. My father’s injuries took on a life of their own in the seven weeks he spent in the hospital. They were really what I tried to combat, manage, and heal in the end, and when my father died, they had nowhere else to go. And so, here they are — with me. The limb isn’t about missing my Dad. The limb is about missing the me I lost in the fight. The me that isn’t coming back from the war.

And so I just scratch the ghost when it itches and try to breathe and keep my head above the surface as best I can with only one wing.