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.

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dc sleeps alone tonight

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. — John 13:34-35

“Precious child,” he intoned, needling me with his teasing British accent.

“Father.”

“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”

And with that, he pulled me into his warm open embrace and wrapped me in the heavy folds of his stiff chasuble.

With his hands around my back and my ear pulled close to his mouth he whispered in a gruff voice the crowd of priests surrounding us in the small hallway couldn’t hear, “Welcome back, my lamb. You really must stop wandering off. Stay here with us where you belong or we will hunt you down and bring you home. And you know I don’t make idle threats..”

“Yes, Father.”

And that is how this year’s Lenten journey began for me. Later in the Ash Wednesday service, when the time came for the imposition of the ashes, I knelt before him at the altar rail. He paused to consider me. He fixed me with his eyes before I lowered mine as he ground his thumb forcefully into my forehead making the sign of the cross with extra pressure and soot so as to make a forceful impression with his mark as his low, serious tone admonished, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I haven’t forgotten. In fact, it’s been all I have thought about for the past forty days. Today marks two year from the day I made the decision to end my father’s life. Two years since I got the phone call from the doctor telling me I was defeated. That I’d fought the good fight and lost. That the perfect storm of the injuries from the car wreck and the cirrhosis and the cancer had joined forces and licked me but good. That they had tag-teamed pneumonia into the ring and Dad was on the ropes and what did I want to do?

“Pull it,” I said. “Pull everything. I’m getting on a plane.”

My decision was unilateral and final. No one else will ever have to answer for it. It’s was all me.

I called my brother and told him to drop what he was doing and drive south right away. By the time he got home from work to pack his bags, he found that his fiancee had beat him to it and they were on the road.

I called my mother, who immediately walked out the door of her unit and only called the floor to tell them she’d left work and was going to her ex-husband’s bedside — his deathbed — once she was in the car so that he wouldn’t be without family for a minute more than he had to be. From the moment she got to him, he was never alone, never without his loved ones until he exited this world the following day in peace and surrounded by all three of us.

Neither of them questioned my decision. Neither of them asked any questions at all. They just did as I said. They dropped everything and went. Good soldiers who weren’t going to let loneliness stand between Dad and his fast-approaching end. When I finally arrived in the middle of the night almost 12 hours later, exhausted and numb and completely strung out, I found the nurses had left the last tube — my father’s feeding tube — for me to pull myself. So with that and the series of decisions I made over the 18 hours that followed, I ended my father’s life. And as I leaned over his comatose body and drew the painfully long length of rubber from his stomach through his dry, raw nostril, and finally set him free from all the machines except the IV that unflinchingly pumped the morphine into his veins in ever-increasing doses, I whispered to myself, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

That’s the funny thing about grief. You don’t process things in any logical, meaningful order. You’d think I’d be done, but I keep discovering I’m not. I’m so very not. Not even close. Last year, the anniversary of his death didn’t faze me in the slightest, but Father’s Day came out of left field and knocked me for a loop that lasted months. And despite the fact that my Dad has been gone for two years now, his death has been raw for me this spring, as the warm weather came early and the light and air felt and smelled like those horrible, painful, stressful weeks of 24 months ago. The PTSD kicked in in mid-March, and things haven’t been the same. I’ve been breaking down. Slowly coming apart more and more daily ever since. Hiding it well, but unraveling. Shutting down and pulling inward. But it’s good. It means I have been conserving my energy for other, more important work. It means that my psyche is finally digging deeper into the dirt and taking a torch to the bones of a ghost I don’t want to live with anymore. That I might not be forgetting, but I’m forgiving myself for all the things I did and didn’t do. Not that that makes it any easier.

And in my acceptance that I am dust, I just deepened my handshake with Death and how she comes for us all. The gift she gives and how she gave it to my Dad. The gift that made me her instrument. The Angel of Death. The Angel of Mercy. My sword terrible and mighty. The gift she’ll one day give me in what I hope will be a brief, blinding flash I won’t even see coming. Maybe it will be peacefully in my sleep. Maybe something violent and bloody like a plane crash or a headshot from the burgler I’ll mistakenly walk in on one night. I’ll gladly take either rather than languish ill and tied to a bed, devoid of my dignity in the in-between days like I made my father suffer. I kept him in a needless Purgatory for months, and if I knew then what I know now, I would do many things differently. I can’t be bothered with regret, though. It’s a useless waste of energy and emotion. I did the best I could at the time. I did what he asked me to do. All I can do is make my peace with Death and my partnership with her and prepare myself for what I hope with be the quick and merciful inevitable for me with all of my intellect and faith unchecked and intact. I hope that I can have some power over when I shuffle off my mortal coil and be accepting of the fact. Possibly even run to it with my arms open wide. We all have to go, so why not rush to it when the time comes?

And so, in the processing of processing, I didn’t follow my Ash Wednesday instructions. I pulled back again. Didn’t attend Sunday services. Dropped off the map. Disappeared from the parish. Spent Lent largely alone, both with in worship and in general. I needed the time apart to deal with things, a pause from the life around me, and so I took it. God doesn’t need me in church to see, hear, and feel me. Wherever I am, God is there, and we holed up together this Lent and got some important work done. I might have appeared to be solitary, but I wasn’t.

Last night was Maundy Thursday, though, and so I crept back into to the Cathedral to make my Holy Week return. I arrived late and slipped into my regular seat in the back on the left-hand side of the sanctuary in the pew beneath of the blue stained glass window depicting the appearance of the angel and his revelation of the Resurrection to the women at Jesus’ tomb. As before, everyone was glad to see me and welcomed me with open arms. Former co-workers, vestry members, and parishoners alike all greeted me with smiles and winks and held me close with hugs at the Peace, reminded me that I do indeed have the church home here that I’ve been seeking. At communion, the Dean nodded at me when I wrapped my hand around his as he passed me the wafer. No admonishment. Just a silent, subtle hello. Just the message that I am more than dust. That I am marked as Christ’s own and that the flock is always waiting for me whenever I see fit to return. That He knows his sheep and his sheep know Him.

The funny thing is that I didn’t want to be there at all. It took every ounce of strength I’ve had all week not to book a last-minute flight to DC and run away to worship the Triduum with who I still consider my priest and “home parish” back in Arlington. I have been feeling weak and scared and fragile and like the only place I could gather my strength was in the Christian routine I built there when I was young and my father was still alive. In the before-time when I was still “me.” There, where Maundy Thursday means the priests wash every foot in the parish while we sing “Jesu, Jesu” surrounded by our loving neighbors. Where I see grandparents wait in the aisle with their arms around the grandchildren I have watched grow up from tots. Where beautiful, familiar ice blue eyes look up at me from the bowl on before the chair after she kisses my lovingly washed foot. Where I could be sure I would hear the exact sermon I needed to hear at the exact moment I needed to hear it from The Best Preacher In The World. Where I later sit the dark midnight hour in the chapel with Jesus alone in prayer and meditation and exit into the night at 1am to find that, without fail and regardless of the date on the calendar, the dogwood trees surrounding the church have bloomed while I kept my watch in Gethsemane. Where I know what to expect with every service, know every face in the pews and welcome the company of the familiar, of those who know me intimately and support me unconditionally. Where I could await the inevitable celebratory Easter brunch at the Diner, complete with a crabcake deluxe sandwich. Where I could wrap myself in the comfort of routine and nostalgia. My urge to flee was serious. I even priced flights and considered paying the asking price. I was sure I was going to pack my bags and bolt. That I would darken the door of St. Michael’s, suitcase in hand, on Maundy Thursday. Even told my friend, my priest, to half expect me. To have my room at the rectory ready for me in case I showed.

I didn’t show, though. I gritted my teeth and gutted it out and stayed put. I white-knuckled it and dug in. I almost didn’t go to church at all, until a friend scolded me. Reminded me how important my faith is to me. Reminded me how much Holy Week is a crucial part of who I am. “I think you need to go,” he warned. And he was right. His words rattled around in my head all day, and come the evening, my car steered its way to the cathedral. To the place where they only wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation, most of whom are members of the vestry (and men). To the place where a random guest preacher, usually a bishop of some sort, gives the homilies during Holy Week. To the place that doesn’t sing “Jesu, Jesu.” To the place where I was sure I would be a face in the crowd. In the town where there are no dogwood trees at all. And yet, despite all of this, the Maundy Thursday service was precisely the experience I needed.

I was not a face in the crowd. I was among family. The sermon was eloquent, beautiful, and powerful. A truly lovely and moving surprise. There were no dogwoods, but the scent of the early-blooming cheery blossoms all around the grounds wafted into the cathedral through the open doors and windows and greeted us as the entire congregation walked en masse under the bright, full moon across the grounds singing and carrying the reserved sacrament to the chapel where parishioners would sit vigil with it an hour at a time throughout the night.

Moreso, I had a true religious experience. Per usual, I attended church alone, but I found myself in the company of two other single women roughly my age sitting near me. One was tall and willowy with her long, dark hair bundled into a bun at the top of her head revealing a long, aristocratic neck and sweeping bare the fine features and alabaster skin of her face. The other was a petite African American woman with flawless light brown skin, beautiful, noble-looking features and her hair wrapped in a colorful scarf. Both women had angelic voices, and the three of us boldly sang each hymn together in harmony, basking in the vibrations of our joined voices filling our chests, calling each other to rise to the occasion and sing out for everyone to hear. The effect was particularly pronounced when the parish sang “Now My Tongue, The Mystery Telling” as all hundred or so congregants followed the sacrament across the grounds in the night from the cathedral to the chapel with the men and women taking alternating the verses of the ancient hymn.

As we walked and sang together, at times the only women singing in the back of the crowd, we finally had a chance to look each other in the eye. We watched each other as we sang and walked — three single women attending church alone, three women complete strangers to each other, three women who had never spoken to one another except in that moment through song — connected by music and faith. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how it was for the women who followed Jesus. If they found each other like this on the road to hear Him preach. If they met and traveled together and kept each other safe on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and search for the young rabbi everyone was talking about. If they locked eyes with each other in dumbstruck horror when they arrived there and found the terrible scenes of the Passion playing out on the streets. If they shared a mute communication of sisterhood as witnesses at Golgotha. If this is how it was for the three Marys at the foot of the cross. For the women at the tomb on Easter morning. If this is how it felt for all the women who followed Jesus, who were his truly loyal disciples, who never forsook him. We were the three Marys in our dress, our silk blouse, our khakis and jean jacket as we walked the moonlit path across the grounds and knelt together on the cold, hard stones in the aisle of the chapel, the edges and mortar biting into our skin. We were the three Marys as we bowed our heads and belted out the final stanzas and then fled into the night. When I returned to the cathedral for the stripping of the altar and final psalm, the women were gone. Disappeared like a dream that slipped from my grasp upon waking.

It wasn’t a dream, though. It was a miracle. A miracle that when I’ve been so hoarse and asthmatic, I was able to sing loud and clear and strong without so much as a single cough. That my chest finally felt unbound and loose. That I felt relaxed. That my head felt clearer than it had in weeks. It’s no surprise that singing did that to me, for what is singing except controlled screaming? The ladies and I screamed it all out at the top of our lungs, and what could be more appropriate on the evening when our Lord was handed over to suffering and death? What better way to fulfill the new commandment given to us on Maundy Thursday to love one another than to join your voice with strangers in songs of mourning and remembrance? It was like sex; catharsis in its purest form.

I spent my Lent alone and went into Holy Week with its shared anniversary of my father’s death scared to celebrate it here in my current home for sure that I would be lonely and find that this wasn’t my home after all. I am a traditional, smell-and-bells Episcopalian who likes her safe routine. I am a coward. I find comfort in the easy rhythm of the familiar liturgy. I sit in the same pew every service. I say the same greetings at the Peace. I like the same hymns over and over. I want to know what to expect. Instead of taking the safe route, however, I stuck my neck out and gave new traditions a chance this Holy Week. I went to the Maundy Thursday service I thought I wouldn’t like. I didn’t sit watch at the vigil. I attended the evening Good Friday Mass instead of the noon service as I’ve done for over a decade. Every experience has stretched me as a person, as a woman, as a Christian, as a parishioner. Every experience has surrounded me with people and reminded me that I’m not just ashes and that I’m not alone. It has been the perfect antithesis to my solo Lenten practice this year. God has decided that I’ve spent enough time in the wilderness tempted by the Devil and has led me home again and, in the process, has reminded me that home is always wherever I am for He remolds and remakes me for the place and the moment. While I still miss DC, ache for it and the people there and will light out for the Coast the very minute this semester is over, I’m not going there yet. I will stay put and worship, and I am comforted to find what I needed right here, even if I didn’t recognize it as such. I am a different person now, and I needed new roots. The changes never erase my other homes, they just simply expand my experience and resources.

And so, I went to the Good Friday service tonight in the same manner I always do: barefaced and dressed in simple black with no jewelry except the long silver chain that holds the St. Christopher’s medal that belonged to my great aunt and the small cross and medallion I received at my baptism. We sang a hymn to the tune of one of my father’s favorite Tallis pieces, one that was used in the score to the movie “Master and Commander.” The last movie my father and I saw together. The score we played over and over again in his hospital room. One of the last pieces of music my music-loving father ever heard. It was a like having him there in church with me, and the message and its comfort was not lost on me. The sermon was on the collect of the day:

“Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen”

The message being “this your family.” For that is what we are. That is what I found this Lenten season. This Holy Week. I have spent copious amounts of time thinking and praying on what that means. What my family lost two years ago. What it’s found in the two years since. How it has grown and changed. What family I have had around me all along. What family I miss. What family I have gained. How there is the family you are given and the family you choose, and how sometimes those can include one and the same. How family doesn’t end with blood. How I’m surrounded by family all the time in the people who love me, sacrifice for me, give to me without my asking, take from me without obligation, make me smile and laugh, and come running when I need them. How, wherever I call home, I have a family in Christ to worship and love and sing with. How for every thing there is a season, an ebb and flow in my life. How, when I am shattered, the pieces might not always fit back together the same way but they’re all still always me. How there’s always a warm embrace waiting in the flock wither I may wander upon my inevitable return. How the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here; faith our outward sense befriending, makes our inward vision clear.

born under a good sign

I have a theory that everyone has a super power. Most people just haven’t figured out what theirs is yet. For example, my brother’s super power is his ability to find things. By this, I mean that he seems to come across cool and useful things that other people have lost. I all the time comment on a new t-shirt or hat or something else he’s wearing and ask him where he got it.

“Found it.”

“What do you mean, ‘found it?'”

“I mean I found it.”

“Like on the ground?”

“Yeah.”

“Wait. You just randomly found a t-shirt laying on the ground? With no one else around to own it? That you saw and picked up some random piece of clothing on the ground, took it home, made it yours, washed it, and now you’re wearing it? Something you just found in the street?!”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“What the hell, man? Who does that?”

And by “who does that?” I mean, who just spots things like clothing laying around in public, because I don’t. I never ever see those things. But then, I’ve seen his power in action. We’ve been out together at a concert, at a ballgame, walking home from a bar at night and we’ll both be cruising together down the same sidewalk, and lo and behold, he’ll spot a hat or a shirt or a scarf or something like that lying in our path that I completely missed. Like it existed on a wavelength on the spectrum that only his eyes could perceive. It wasn’t there when I looked, but it was when he did. And before I know it, he’s made someone else’s loss his gain. And it’s always something cool and fitting for him.

My theory behind the source of his super power is that it’s a zero-sum game for him. He loses things a lot, so he also finds them. Perhaps someone else is out there finding the things he loses, and he’s just cashing in on how the universe balances things out. One of the confirming factors in this theory of mine is the fact that I never ever lose anything. I’m generally pretty organized — even when I think I’ve misplaced something, I find that what I’m looking for was carefully filed away in some system that I’ve since forgotten, but there’s always a method to my madness. But because I never lose anything of my own, I never stand to gain anything of anyone else’s. There’s nothing to balance out.

I have a friend whose super power is the ability to make even the most common, cheap article of clothing look expensive and designer. She shops at Old Navy and TJ Maxx. We can have the exact same outfit from one of those stores, and I’ll look like it’s my laundry day in it, while she looks red carpet-ready. It’s amazing. She classes up everything she touches without even having to try. She doesn’t do anything special to them. She’s not a girlie girl. She’s a natural beauty with simple elegance. She’s sophisticated Old World and cutting-edge modern at that same time.Things just hang better on her. She puts them together better than most. Again, I theorize that there’s a source to her power. For her, it’s humility that balances her. She could wear the designer stuff — she has the body and the money, but she just doesn’t see the point. She likes to make do with the simple, and in doing so, makes a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. She’s also such a dear person, that she can’t help but wear her inner beauty on the outside. It gives her a glamour that somehow bends and refracts the light around her to create the optical illusion that those clothes she bought on the clearance rack at Target make her look like a million. She has a super power called style. The best part is that she makes everything, including you, seem more fashionable in her presence. Instead of feeling frumpy by comparison, she manages to somehow elevate the whole room just by walking into it. She’s a special soul indeed.

So, what is my super power? Well, I’ve got a couple, but my main, signature power, my golden lasso/invisible airplane/bulletproof bracelets, is my ability to find and secure rock star parking everywhere I go. By this, I mean that I will get an open parking space on the street directly in front of every and anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s popular a new restaurant, a store on Black Friday (which I don’t participate in, in reality), opening night at the opera, or the freaking U.S. Capitol on Inauguration day, I will get to park my car front and center and walk right in. Anyone who has spent any amount of time driving anywhere with me can absolutely, positively vouch for this ability. The best part is that my power has transitive properties that apply to any car in which I am riding, as long as the driver is willing to follow my driving directions to the spot. It might seem like a silly super power, but trust me, it’s handy to have, and you’d appreciate it if you were out with me. I can make your life easier and let you feel like a V.I.Fucking.P. at a busy/popular venue.

There are three main components to the source of my power, which, truth be told, is really more smoke and mirrors than a gift from the universe:

1. Patience and strategy. I am not too proud to go around the block a couple of times. I do this with the belief that a.) a space will open up and b.) I deserve to park right in front of wherever I’m going. Sometimes, I settle for walking down the block, but I almost never, ever have to walk in from another block, unless circumstances are beyond my control or I decide to settle, which almost never happens. That’s just not in my nature. At. All. The parking thing is a point of pride for me now. I also have an uncanny ability to notice people in their cars or walking to their cars and read their body language at a glance to tell whether or not they’re leaving the vicinity and opening up a space for me. That empathic sixth sense of mine allows me to read and anticipate others’ actions to be able to use the situation to my advantage. I know how to cruise and observe quickly and efficiently. I can see where the opportunities are. Too bad I can’t do the same with investing.

2. Kick ass driving skills. I am not afraid to cut across 3-4 lanes of traffic to get to a space that is open or opening. I’m not afraid to whip a U-turn on a tight street. I can react and maneuver a car with incredible skill. My parents taught me well how to be an assertive, but defensive, driver who can move a vehicle deftly and safely. I’m pretty nimble behind the wheel, and driving a stick helps with speed and agility. (Now watch — I’ll be in an accident in the next week to make me karma’s bitch and take me down a deserved notch or twenty for bragging like this. Knock wood.) Moreover, my mother made sure I was an expert at parallel parking at the age of 15. Being able to parallel park was an important skill to have in a beach town…if you wanted to go to the peace. Her philosophy was that parallel parking was a skill you had to master to be worthy of a license (used to be a part of the licensure road test), and I still agree with her to this day. If you can’t park your car, you don’t deserve to drive it. And so, between the fact that I know what the hell I’m doing and the fact that I drive a Japanese compact, I can whip my car into the smallest of spaces at the curb in record time. I can put a car into spots other people either drive right past or spend 15 minutes listening to the direction of three friends trying to squeeze into only to give up, drive on, and park six blocks away. I thank my mother for making me capable of spotting an opportunity and for ensuring that I could take advantage of it.

3. Good, dumb luck. This is the gift from the universe part, and perhaps the real super power itself. I have preternaturally good fortune. I always have. My mother was even remarking on it again yesterday. She started to attribute it to the fact that I’m observant and outgoing — that I tend to keep my eyes open and be in the right place in the right time. I get up next to the right people, win them over with some eye contact, a silver tongue, and a bit of the blarney. So, ok. Maybe I’m a bit of a master manipulator without meaning to be, but it’s really not so much that, except for the fact that I do look people right in the eye, and that tends to draw folks in. Also, I never met a stranger, so it’s easy to make strategic allies. I’m painfully outgoing. I look for relationships. No sooner had Mom hypothesized all of this that she immediately backtracked and said, “No, that’s not it. You were just born under a good sign. You’re just lucky. Everything always works out for you.”

She’s right. I’m charmed. My sister-in-law said a while back that I get whatever I want. Granted, the things I want are simple and few — like a good parking space. Pretty easy to grant those wishes. But she laid it out. I want to get into a school, I do. I’ve never been rejected from any place I’ve applied to. I want a job, I get it. I’ve never had an interview and not been offered the position. I decide I want to move somewhere, of course that’s going to happen, too. And she’s right. It does. Now, maybe I’m just aiming low. Picking low-hanging fruit. But, I don’t think so. I also work my ass off to make things happen. I bring my A game. Luck is probably 90% competence, and I make sure I have that. I do my homework. You can’t get the good parking space if you can’t park the damn car. No one was ever going to do things for me, so I made sure I knew how to do them myself. Always have.

This is not to say that that bad things don’t happen to me. They do. And when they do, they’re not just bad, they’re motherfucking batten-down-the-hatches, Katie-bar-the-door, get-in-the-goddamn-bomb-shelter catastrophic. We’re talking life and death. Fire and brimstone rains down without let-up. It sucks. I’ve had to make some really hard choices and deal with some soul crushing losses. I’ve had to live with myself in the aftermath, too. Had to live with what I couldn’t control and what I could…and what I did with that control and who or what that makes me. I can’t dwell on that, though.

But when it comes to the small stuff, the day to day stuff, I’m crazy fortunate. In the balance, I think the way the skids are greased for me on the mundane probably strikes a balance with the ugly, so I can’t complain. It works itself out. So, I don’t dwell on the ugly too much, except to process it like I do here. The good outweighs it. It empowers me. I always land on my feet no matter the height of the fall. There have been times I’ve looked down and saw the ground rushing up to meet me from a hundred stories below and thought, “oh man, this is it,” but each time fate gives me that instinct, that power of self-preservation to gut it out and twist my middle head first at the very end, and all four paws safely meet pavement at the last minute. Someone…something…me…always comes between me and disaster, and I’m thankful for it. It kind of makes my life easy. I try not to be too confident in my luck saving my ass all the time, but I have to admit that part of me does rely on it — the part that sees worry as a waste of time. I know it will all work out. It always does.

Confession time, though: I probably take my luck more for granted than I should. I’m an admitted scofflaw. For the most part, I’m a good citizen. I’m no criminal or anything, but truth be told, I see rules as bendable. Sometimes they just don’t apply to me. I bullshit my way out of things all the time — tickets, penalties, extra costs for things. I don’t lie. I just…bring people around to see things my way. I don’t take “no” for an answer. I won’t go unnoticed, unless I want to. I suppose that makes me a spoiled brat, but it’s not like I expect it. I just don’t see the harm in trying…because I know I’m gonna get lucky. My poor brother has none of this. It’s like there was a finite account of luck for our generation in our family, and I didn’t just soak up the lion’s share as my birthright, I took it all. He has zero luck. None. If he steps out of line in the slightest, he gets caught. He gets punished. I get away with murder. He’s lived a life of penalties and slaps on the wrist for doing things that everyone else does without getting caught. He can’t get anything past the universe, because I’ve somehow put his account into deficit. It kind of sucks. Sorry about that, brother. You deserve better. You’re actually a better person than I am, but I got all my luck and yours, too. Again, it’s that pesky universal balance thing. Only so much to go around.

So, why do I bring this up? It came to mind last night when I almost finally got what’s been coming to me for a long time. I have a dog. He’s a Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog. He’s giant, white, and very, very furry. He’s kind of hard to miss. In fact, he’s an attention magnet. It’s kind of stultifying the hypnotic effect he has on people. They can’t see him and not fall at his feet. He has powers. I think he might have my charm and luck, actually. We’re a pair. But my point: He’s a breed that’s bred to wander long and far. They’re bred to be independent and stubborn and untrainable. To work on their own without human supervision or command. He’s kind of the perfect dog for me. We have so much in common. And yet, he’s an off-leash dog. He came to me at age 6 or 7 after spending nearly all his life on the streets. He was starving and didn’t now a single command. No sit. No stay. No nothing. He was baffled as to how to even walk through a door — he stood at the hinges. Windows and stairs confounded him. He’d been living outside and eating garbage. He didn’t know what a house was. Two years later, I’ve got him trained on voice command, but there’s more to it than that — we have an agreement of mutual respect.

I’m not his “owner.” We picked each other. He stays with me, travels through this world as my companion glued to my knee because he chooses to, not because I’ve attached him to a leash and made him stay close. He stays close to me because he’s my lieutenant. My second. My other half. My guardian. My 125 pounds of loaded gun I take everywhere with me. And trust me, I am what he protects. I’m his moving castle, and no one’s gonna storm it. It’s really quite impressive in action. I don’t take it lightly. That sweet, friendly, mellow, dopey-looking boy who loves to let strangers pet him and walks at a snail’s pace can turn into a wall of snarling, charging hate with teeth bared and a growl that makes the pavement vibrate if required. It’s happened more than once. Again, a word from me is all that it takes to stop him in his tracks or call him off. I speak, he freezes (this is not to say that he won’t take off and totally ignore me to chase a squirrel — all bets are off with wildlife). We trust each other. We’re a team. We both have agency. He’s wicked smart and can clearly take care of himself, same as me. Our relationship is one of conversation and negotiation. I’m the boss, but I rarely command. We can communicate with just a look. We’re in it together. That’s how I know he’d lay down his life for me. He is the quintessential man’s-best-friend kind dog everyone wishes they had. I recognize that he’s probably one of a kind, and I relish every day with him. He’s amazing. Yesterday, he came with me to the chiropractor (because, as I said, he goes everywhere with me). As the doc was leading us down the hall to a treatment room, he called my dog to follow him. My dog stayed glued at my side. I had to explain that he wasn’t going to go anywhere with him. He was waiting for me to take a step before he did. He was walking with me. My chiropractor has three huskies who are sweet and well-trained, but full of energy. He found that kind of stalwart loyalty impressive. To be honest, so did I. I constantly do. But then, like I’ve said, I’m lucky.

I don’t like putting my teammate, my friend, on a leash like he’s my slave. And so, I usually don’t. When I do, we both resent it, and we immediately turn into the two Stooges. We don’t know how to act or move or relate to each other with that rope between us. I always get it off of him as fast as I can an apologize for it. And so, I’m out there every day with nothing but our voices linking us, knowingly breaking the law. Leveraging that luck of mine. Just begging for that hefty ticket if we ever get caught wandering around the city without a leash. I’m long overdue. I keep waiting for it to happen. Last night, it almost did. See, we take a walk around 9pm every evening. Me, and the big white dog…and our two black cats. Don’t ask. It’s crazy, I know. I didn’t train anyone to do it. They just all started coming along. No leashes. Just voice command. We move through the neighborhood together like a wave of mammalia, talking to one another in our own little ways. I realize that I’d be burned at the stake as a witch in another century for this little spectacle. It gets comments. People take pictures. But so far, no police attention, despite the fact that I have three off-leash animals with me (and, come to think of it, two of them now have expired licenses, too). As we headed out last night, we got about a third of the way down the next block before I noticed a cop car on the corner checking me out. It was my incredible luck that I noticed him from that distance in the dark. He stopped. The cats immediately cheesed it — good little thugs that they are. The dog sensed the silent tension in my suddenly-alert body language and instinctively pulled up beside me and sat. I put my hand gently on his neck and scratched softly under his collar. And so it went on like that. A Mexican standoff — us standing in the yard like statues, and the cop waiting for us to tip our hand and make a move. Waiting for us to finch, for my dog to take off and separate from me, betraying me by making it obvious that he was sans leash. But he didn’t. He just sat there calmly at my hip. And I didn’t move either. Just stared down the cop, daring him to come over and check us out. Minutes passed. Suddenly, the car’s blue and red lights started to spin overhead, his siren wound into a pealing wail. I braced for his approach, but he pulled a left turn and tore out of the neighborhood to answer another call. Saved again by luck, my brood and I regrouped, turned south, and headed down the block. We concluded our walk uninterrupted, unmolested, and unticketed…yet again.

I know I’m pushing it, though. I know my number will come up eventually. Until then, I’m going to continue to try my limits and do things my way, because I’m a brat like that. I can do it, because I’m fortune’s daughter. She arms and protects me and mine. Of all the super powers to have, I have to say it’s a pretty good one.

like riding a bike

This is what sanity looks like.

After weeks of planning and promising and talking the talk without walking a single step of it, I got sick of my mouth writing checks the rest of me wasn’t cashing and finally got my ass back in the pool today. A few weeks ago, I went over to the nice, new recreation center the city built near my house and bought an annual membership. The facilities are really top notch, fitness classes are included, and, best of all, they have a separate 25-yard lap pool. Nonetheless, all I’ve had to show for it up until now was a new tag on my keychain. It was time to take action.

My strength and stamina are wanting to say the least. I was able to work through a mile pretty decently, but it was slow and I took more breaks at the wall than I’d like. Granted, it’s short course, which leaves me feeling like I spend fifty percent of my workout doing flip turns, but those are fun, too, and your midsection definitely feels 30+ of those at the end of a workout. My kick power is also non-existent. That’s gonna take work. My stroke mechanics are, as always, iron clad. Some things just never change. I do not understand how I can be such a complete and utter failure on land and so absolutely at home in the water. I just move intuitively in it. The minute I hit the pool, my instincts take over, and my body is on automatic. I’m smooth, perfect, efficient. It’s in my DNA. I couldn’t not swim if I tried.

It wasn’t my most graceful swim ever, though. My asthma has been flaring. My lungs are full of junk. My poor little broken left wing was really bothering me today, too — my cracked rib woke me up hurting this morning, my shoulder is sore, and the injection site on my bicep from the flu shot I got a year and a half ago was really aching and inflamed, which means I need to take care if myself. I swear, I’m *this close* to going and getting every kind of protective symbol I can think of tattooed all up and down my left side in a superstitious effort to ward off the bad mojo that constantly plagues that part of me and threatens to send my respiratory health south again. Still, even a little lopsided and weak, the pool helped more than it hurt, and my rib is bugging me a little less tonight. Now, it just feels like someone hit me in the back with a hammer rather than slid a knife into my side and twisted the blade. The rest of me is definitely feeling that 200 fly I barely eeked out, though. Man, will my core, traps, and shoulders be sore tomorrow. Totally worth it. It feels good to get in the drink. Good to be back.

Lent starts this week. It’s my favorite season of the calendar. I still don’t have a church I call home here, but that doesn’t change anything. Lent is a time of reflection and re-connection with my faith that I crave, need, and love. It’s between me and God, and I can practice it anywhere. It’s the time of year when I get my shit together, spiritually and otherwise. While I do participate in some fasting, I don’t think the season is about giving things up so much as focusing and taking things on. God doesn’t want us unhappy — that’s not the path to Him/Her. He/She wants us clear, directed, happy. I always prefer to add something to my life and practice rather than take things away. That’s always a tougher commitment, in my eyes. So, while everyone else bitches up a storm from here until April about giving up chocolate, I’ll happily stuff my face with whatever I want to eat and make another pact instead: Lord, if you want me, come look for me in a lap lane. That’s where I’ll be working and praying everything out. My therapy is on the page and in the pool. Water is the baptismal sacrament, after all. What better place to celebrate a cleansing and rebirth than in my natural element?