strange bedfellows

Did I see you walking with the boys, though it was not hand in hand? And was some black face in a lonely place when you could understand? 

Did she wake you up to tell you that it was only a change of plan? Dream up, dream up, let me fill your cup with the promise of a man.

My first year in graduate school for my first master’s degree, I parted ways with my long-time roommate and moved in with complete strangers. I arrived at my new digs a little worse for the wear because of the circumstances under which my friend and I had divorced. Her drug-addicted boyfriend had made a pretty aggressive pass at me and then crawled uninvited into my bed while I was sleeping one weekend when she was out of town, and the truth of it made living together awkward to the point of untenable. We’d talked it over, but it was getting no better. We hated where we were living anyway, so we took the opportunity to get out of the lease and go our separate ways in an effort to try and get some breathing room and save the friendship. We valued each other greatly and thought constantly rubbing up against each other in that grubby little basement apartment was stunting the healing process. We decided to give the friendship some light and air, but I felt neither light nor airy. I felt dirty and cheated and used and, above all, sad. I did agree with the proposition in theory, though, and I definitely needed some space, so I signed a lease with strangers in a building that sat on a busy corner of Main Street just a few blocks from campus. I could walk to class and work and the bars, and I thought a fresh start might be what the doctor ordered.

So, I moved in with a guy and a girl I had never met before. The guy had lived in the apartment for a couple of years. Like me, the other girl was new; she was never around and not all that charming, though, so it really was just my male roommate and I occupying that second-story flat. The building was a friendly place. Not part of any complex, it had nine units — three on each floor — with patios that looked down onto the gravel parking lot and the intersection below. It was a bird’s eye view onto the hub of activity for our little college town, and the residents would often hang out on the balconies and greet each other coming and going or stand down on the sidewalk or shout up to each other to make plans for barbecues or happy hours. It wasn’t unusual to be reading or napping on your couch and hear your name yelled from below only to get up, grab your bag and run out the door to ladies’ night or dime drafts or karaoke only minutes later. And if you came home on Friday afternoon and found the big green trash can on your porch, that meant it was your apartment’s turn to buy the keg and host that Saturday night’s party. It was a good system. They were good people, and we all enjoyed each other immensely and took care of each other beautifully.

We had our own version of Lenny and Squiggy living directly below us. A sweet couple of guys who were like the Three Stooges minus one. They were inseparable, had a penchant for using the word “bozak” (they were from Long Island), and would suddenly appear your apartment ala Kramer any time they saw food of any kind going up the stairs. I learned fast to always cook or order enough for their appetites, too. Across the hall lived three girls who were always good for a night out, an afternoon of sledding down the hill at the elementary school behind our building, or the Chinese buffet on a Sunday. A good friend from high school lived upstairs. We belonged to the same fraternity. He and I had fallen into a brother/sister bond years before, and he doted on me. A charming and funny pretty boy alpha male with disarming good looks and a bad habit of sleeping around on his girlfriends, he was exceedingly loyal, protective, affectionate when it came to me. He craved my company more than I deserved, and I could always count on him to want to spend time together. We shared a “little sister” in the fraternity. We tooled around town and up and down the Valley in his Jeep with me ever riding shotgun. We coordinated Halloween costumes. We volunteered together. We had a regular date to fall asleep on his living room floor in front of the tv watching Law and Order in the dark together holding hands. Even today, I can picture his big, soft, tanned hands with their perfectly square nails — always impeccably clean and trimmed with smooth white moons and edges. I’m not sure what that was all about, but it was sweet and reassuring and very, very comfortable. It wasn’t something we discussed with each other, it just was. I would just go upstairs, let myself in, turn off the lights, and curl up next to him. Sometimes we’d move to his bed to sleep at some point in the night, but often we’d wake up still on the carpet in the middle of the night or early morning if I didn’t get up and stumble downstairs to my own apartment at some point.

The year before, I had arrived at the crummy seaside Panama City Beach motel my travel companions had booked for spring break already tired of the sight of them after 15 hours in the car together. I immediately discovered this friend of mine and his three buddies were in a room a few doors down, and at their suggestion, moved in with them for the week. It somehow seemed less “gay” to have me in bed with them, I suppose. While everyone else hit the clubs for body shots and wet t-shirt contests and hook ups, my friend and I spent mornings on the Gulf’s white sand together with the beach to ourselves, the afternoons at local seafood dives watching sports on the TV and drinking Miller Lites, and the evenings with activities like entering an oyster eating contest that involved me sucking them down out of the shells blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back (I came in second place) or making mac and cheese in a thin, dented up aluminum pot on our room’s barely functional stove to go with the fish his roommates caught during the day and grilled on the little abandoned hibachi we’d found in the alley. And playing Spades. Lots and lots of cutthroat Spades rife with lively smack talk.  We’d nap and watch soap operas and take turns reading the chapters of a Stephen King book to each other laying in the sun or in bed at night. It was comfortable and restful and in no way your typical college spring break, but it was everything we believed a beach vacation should be, and when I moved into the building the following year, all three men quickly absorbed me into their family. Sharing a shitty motel room for a week while surrounded by loud, drunk idiots has a way of doing that to people, but the boys never did anything short of pampering me. I was spoiled.

And then there was my roommate — a gentle boy with glasses and an impish grin, sparkling eyes, and a ubiquitous baseball cap covering his receding fine, blond hairline. He appeared shy upon first glance, but still waters ran deep and included a wicked sense of humor and a great deal of creative talent. He was soft-spoken by day but headed up a punk band by night. They weren’t a very popular band, but they shouted really loud and broke their instruments — which I helped to tape back together after gigs — so I guess they were punk enough to serve as an emotional outlet for him. He also shot video for the ROTC and would often spend long evenings in the edit bays on campus, where I would bring him bologna sandwiches for dinner.

We fell into easy step together pretty quickly without becoming too involved in each other’s day-to-day lives, but we were always happy to come home and stumble over one another for a chat over breakfast or a pizza and beers. A huge music fan, he turned me onto Ween and Green Day (the latter of which never stuck), and I played his Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains CDs over and over again at top volume until they broke. In return, I introduced him to Star Trek: The Next Generation in the waning weeks of the last season, and we glued ourselves to the couch under a blanket to dork out together for a weekend marathon the local UPN channel aired before the finale while living off of shrimp fried rice take out from Yee’s Place and Gus’ Taverna delivery gyros. I brought an old Nintendo NES back after Christmas break, and I would come home to find him playing Mario Brothers at all hours. Sometimes I’d fall asleep on the couch to find that he’d propped my legs up in his lap so he could sit there and play that damn game around me. We’d hit a rotation of townie bars on Sunday and Monday nights to hustle pool to help pay our rent. I’d lure in the mark and we’d sandbag them with my lousy play and his awkward nervousness, and then he’d eventually run the table and we’d grab the cash and shag ass for the door. It was a quiet, comfortable partnership that worked.

My roommate had one major drawback, however: he was a terrible slob. When I moved in he was already fighting to open the door to his little bedroom — the smallest in the apartment — due to all the stuff he had piled up in there. I was pretty sure his disgusting bathroom was starting to develop new diseases. Darling guy. Filthy mess. By spring semester, his junk was kicking him out of his bedroom, and he started to sleep on the couch. Worse yet, his dirty laundry was starting to pile up in the living room, as he’d just drop his trousers and step out, leaving them in a puddle in the middle of the floor. I’d kick them to the edges of the room, but they eventually started to stack up. It was nearly impossible to get seriously angry with him, as he was about as harmful as a baby bunny, but I was starting to get a little annoyed. Still, I tolerated it because I worked long hours at the campus catering operation and so was rarely home.

Also, he had grown up without a mother — raised by a single father who was a three-star general and a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite being an Army brat with his own military training, he had zero self-discipline when it came to anything for which he wasn’t passionate. Music and film? Sure. Chores? Forget it. The bachelor existence with which he’d grown up didn’t lend itself to a clean house either. His father was a dear man — sweet and gentle like his son — both of them a little broken from losing their wife and mother and not sure what to do or how to act around one another. When Dad came to visit, I was always included in their plans as an ad hoc sister of sorts — once again that warm, soft female buffer body in the middle that made it ok for men to be in a close space together without really having to be together. I greased the skids and did a little mothering of both quiet, lonely men.

Then came the night I rolled in the door from work around two a.m. and found my roommate in my bed. His shit had finally taken over the living room to the point where it was no longer habitable, and he had retreated to the last clean refuge in the house — my room. I was so exhausted from my day that I didn’t even turn on the lights, just peeled down to my panties and crawled into my bed to find that there was already a body warming it. I shrieked and hit the lights, sitting up in bed with the sheets clutched around me looking down at his drowsy, heavy lidded face struggling to the surface of consciousness.

“What the hell are you doing in my bed?!”

“I needed a place to sleep. The living room’s too dirty.”

“And who’s fault is that? Out. Get out.”

“Aw, come on. You have this big queen bed. There’s plenty of room for both of us. Come on. I’m tired. Let’s just go to sleep. I won’t bug you. I promise.”

“You snore.”

“Not too much.”

“*sigh* Fine. You can stay. But just for tonight. And I’m putting on a shirt. But tomorrow you’re cleaning up and starting to move back into your own bedroom — starting with the living room. Got it? This is ridiculous.”

“Sure, sure. *yawn* Sorry. I’m just…so…zzzzzzzz”

“Christ.”

I turned out the light and went to sleep. He was good on his word. He didn’t bug me and barely snored. He did not, however, start cleaning the house the next day. Or the day after. Or the day after that. A week went by, and the place was still a wreck. And he was still sharing my bed. I just didn’t have the heart to refuse him anything, and really, I couldn’t see the harm. The longer he slept there, the more normal it felt.

And then, about a week into this weird little arrangement of ours, I was out at the bar down the street with a couple of girlfriends, including my former roommate. It was an ok enough time. We were watching basketball and having some laughs, but I didn’t really have my heart in it. I was tired, and everyone was drunk, and I was getting sleepy. Sitting at the bar staring into my beer, I felt a presence sidle up next to me. I turned and found my roommate on the next bar stool smiling his little knowing, lopsided smile at me.

“You look beat.”

“I am.”

“Come on. Let’s go home and go to bed.”

He reached out his hand, and I took it. Held it the whole walk home, neither of us talking. Just enjoying being quiet together. When we got there, we both made for my bedroom like it was ours. Like that was the most natural thing in the world. We both stripped down — him to his cotton, blue-striped boxers that sat low on his hips below his ever-so-slightly soft belly accentuated by his meek little slouch, and me to my panties…no shirt. We crawled in under the covers, each taking our sides — his close to the window and mine close to the door — and turned onto our sides. He pulled up against my back and wrapped his arms around my waist, pressing his warm, hairless body the length of mine, heating up my chilled skin as he spooned me. I tucked the back of my head under his chin on the pillow. He kissed my hair, and we both drifted off into a peaceful slumber feeling very at ease. And that’s how we slept for the next few months — cuddling and clinging to each other like two survivors in a drifting lifeboat. There were no promises, no expectations. Sometimes one of us (usually me) didn’t come home at night. There would be no problems, no questions asked. We’d pass through my bed wordlessly like ships in the night, me often coming home in the middle of the night from work and crawling quietly under the covers, him silently up with the sun for ROTC without disturbing me, but we’d spend the few hours between midnight and dawn there together in a sort of suspended state that was separated from the world and the rest of our lives in it. As with my friend upstairs, we never talked about it. It was just who we were, what we did.

There were several reasons for what we were doing, why we each craved the comfort of warmth and physical contact — or even just someone else’s slow and steady breathing on the same mattress. He was a senior preparing to graduate and accept his commission into the Army — a commission he didn’t want and a career path he didn’t choose. He was looking at shipping off to Fort Gordon to join the Signal Corps and, like most kids that age, had no clue what he was doing or why. He was living his life to make his father happy, because so much about their lives together without his mother made his brokenhearted father unhappy. He wasn’t cut out for the military, and they both knew it, but it was something they could have in common. The only way those two lost souls could relate. He was terrified of his uncertain future, unsure of who he was, feeling bullied and alone, and, in the end, unmothered. As twisted as it sounds, sleeping with me was probably more out of desire for a maternal experience than anything else and the basis for our chaste cuddling.

For me, it was a form of recovery from what had happened in my last living situation. There was nothing aggressive about my roommate or his relationship with me. His affection was consistent, gentle, and dependable. It helped me heal from the feelings of betrayal and rejection I’d suffered and, along with my friend upstairs, let me regain some lost trust in men and physical contact with them. The wordless therapy of his soft, pink, unmarred youth made me feel loved and valued again — like I was worthy of safety and affection that didn’t make demands of me. It just gave without taking while welcoming whatever I could offer in return and never told me it wasn’t good enough. Never asked for more. It saw me and accepted me for who I was and loved me for it anyway. It also offered me a form of shelter in my own uncertain time, as I adjusted to the disorienting experience of being a graduate student at my undergraduate institution. While I considered leaving graduate school for law school. While I considered doing just that for another man I loved. While I weighed the possibility of losing myself in his needs against losing that man and choosing to live for myself without him. I faced my own turning point, and it terrified me. The moment of decision was coming fast, and it felt huge and unbearable. I didn’t have to think about it in bed with my roommate, though. I could curl up in his arms and nestle against his soft, smooth skin and hide in his body. We could both ignore the fact that we were both entertaining the possibility of living our lives for other people. We could both shut out the demands and pending commitments of adulthood and stay innocent children just a little longer wrapped around each other like that — a couple of needy, terrified 21 year-olds on the brink of their beginning lives alone at an age where relationships were so intense and the world felt ready to end at any moment. At an age filled with people and fears you outgrow and move on from and forget with age, but mean everything to you and define you at the time. At an age when you feel everything too damn much.

And then, one day at the end of the semester, I snapped. The pressures in my life came to a head for me, and I suddenly felt the need to exert some control. I needed breathing room and a clean psychic space — and so I turned my anger and frustration on my roommate’s mess in the apartment, some of which was edging its way into my room mainly in the form of shorts and boxers that he would strip out of to crawl into bed and leave wherever they dropped on the carpet. And that was part of the last straw. Either Lenny or Squiggy downstairs called him in his edit bay on campus and told him he needed to come home. He pulled into the parking lot and found me flinging his stuff out of the living room onto (and over) our little patio while yelling and muttering to myself. I must have made quite the sight for all of our neighbors with my little domestic scene. He came upstairs and tried to calm me, but the confrontation only escalated into a fight. I’d had enough — I needed my space in every way. I burned our unspoken sleeping arrangement to the ground, packed up and stormed out the door to work. I spent the night on the sofa in the office and didn’t go home until the next evening when I walked through the door to the shock of my life. My roommate had spent the entire weekend cleaning the apartment from top to bottom. Not only were all of his things cleared out of my room and the joint living space, but he’d cleaned up his room and bathroom, too. He’d scrubbed everything down and had a homemade meal and flowers waiting for me. I walked in the door late from a long two days of work — exhausted and sweaty and greasy in my smelly purple polo shirt and filthy khakis — and burst into tears when greeted with that scene. He came over to me at the door, took my bag from my shoulder, hugged me and led me over to the dining room table where he pulled out a chair in front of a plate and guided me into it. Neither of us ever said we were sorry. We didn’t have to. As always, we communicated without speaking. All was fixed. All was forgiven.

That night, he went to sleep in his room, and I went to sleep alone in mine. We never shared a bed again and we never discussed it. We were over. Cold turkey. I was a little sad about it, but mostly I felt liberated, free to move forward. It was time to quit hiding and delaying. As queer and counter-intuitive as it sounds, my relationship with him was probably the healthiest, most nurturing and honest I’ve ever had. Sad, huh? Nonetheless, it was time to put the comfort of my roommate’s body, his presence in bed next to me, behind me and take action — time to step out and do what was scary. I was ready to face adulthood and all its rewards and disappointments on my own. And he had to do the same. It was time for us both to grow up.

I tell this story now, because I’m going through something similar. Only this time, I’m alone, and I’m the slob. For the past several weeks, I have done a terrible job of coping with what is happening with my Mom. The news that she’s in heart failure has completely thrown me for a loop. I’m not dealing. My house is a mess. Not as bad as anything my college roommate created, but the worst I’ve ever let it get. The disorder is epic by my standards. I’ve shut myself in and shut myself away from my friends. I’ve been completely anti-social. My diet is crap. If I eat at all — and I often go days without doing so, mostly because my gut rejects everything I put in it — it’s nothing good. My fridge is empty. I ran out of toilet paper and dog food earlier this week. It’s unsurprising for me to wear the same dress two or three days in a row. When I run out of clean underpants, I just don’t wear any. I’m not getting any work done, which only increases my stress and anxiety, because deadlines don’t move, and the work only piles up. Balls are getting dropped, and payment is going to come due soon.

The strangest part of all of this is how my sleeping habits have changed. For some reason, I moved out of my bed and started sleeping in the guest room a few weeks ago. I thought it was just that I decided to sleep in the sheets my brother spent one night on in a good faith effort to make them really worth washing in advance of my next guest. At least, that’s what I told myself at first. But little by little, I completely abandoned my bedroom. I moved my water bottle and the two prescriptions I need in the mornings over to the desk next to the guest room bed. I started moving some clothes over to the dresser in there, too. I let my pets take over the big queen bed in the master bedroom while baskets and piles of clean and dirty laundry took over the floor. The dog freaked out during a thunderstorm and broke the blinds in my room two weeks ago.  I just retracted them up halfway to disguise the damage from passersby on my street and pulled the curtains shut to hide it a little from the inside of the house. I have made no move to replace the blinds…or the torn curtains. He crushed the little wicker wastepaper basket in there, too. I let it lay there in pieces for a few days before I took it to the dumpster. There are still balled up pieces of Kleenex from the destroyed basket scattered in the corner in there. I haven’t bought a new basket. A cat threw up on the carpet a week ago, and I only cleaned it up yesterday. You would think the room belonged to Miss Havisham or was part of an abandoned house, falling further and further into chaos every day. No longer resembling the sunny, well-decorated, cherished sanctuary and refuge of rest it once was to me.

Instead, I’ve moved into my smaller, darker, but very comfortable guest room that, while warm and welcoming with its rich green walls, touches of bright red and yellow, shelves of books, and a definite decor theme, is largely devoid of personal touches. It’s not lived-in by design. It’s made to be a cleaner slate for my guests. Perhaps that’s what I like about it. Or the fact that its western exposure means the sun doesn’t reach it until well after noon, and even then, the heavy curtains shut out the light. Or the fact that it faces my quiet backyard, so the only in there to disturb me is the muffled white noise of the ceiling fan. Or the fact that it doesn’t have an alarm clock. Or the fact that the very comfortable pillow-top mattress is only a full, rather than a queen, and thus the smaller bed feels snugger and less empty. While I do not have another body in it to wrap around and comfort me, I take comfort in the fact that the edges are never too far. I’m not lost in the open expanse. I can hunker down, sink in, and let the layers of cozy covers hug around me. Being in my guest room is like being a guest in my own house. I’m on vacation from reality in there, and I cannot wait to go there and close the door (something I never do in my own room) every night. Waking up in there means waking up in a strange place away from my routine, and I’m able to stave off the real world just a little longer. It’s bad enough that I wake up with anxiety attacks at four a.m., at least I can shut myself away from what waits beyond that door and pretend I’m somewhere else for a little longer before I get out of bed each day. I just turned 40 a week ago, and here I am acting like a scared little girl again when I’ve known how to work without a net for years now.

Something’s gotta give, though, and so something has. Just like with my roommate, I suddenly and inexplicably snapped when I woke up this morning. I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Sick of victimizing myself over this. No one cares if I’m broken. No one has the patience for that, least of all me. It’s time for me to suck it up, get my shit together, clean up my mess, and start being myself again. I’m done being dazed and scared and a little crazy. I’m ready to be strong and powerful and organized and effective again. I used to be a badass — the height of competences and capability, but lately — everyone’s looking at me like I’m fragile, like I’m made of spun glass and might break any minute. And they might be right. I’m tired of hearing people tell me they’re worried about me. I’m good in a crisis and a force to be reckoned with — the one people wait to show up, take charge, and start fixing things — and it’s time for me to be that woman again. Time to support my family. Time to help my Mom find the way she’s going to live with her heart instead of die from it. Time to get up off the floor and fucking fight back.

And so, the fridge is again stocked with fruit and cheese and veggies. A couple of salads are made, and the chicken I’ll roast for dinner is thawing in the sink. The animals are walked and sleeping on a clean pet bed on the living room floor again. My clothes are washed and put away. I’ve got new curtains for the master bedroom just waiting to be ironed and hung. The bedding from both beds is in the laundry, and I will sleep in my own room tonight. The guest room will go back to being ready for my guests while I live in my own home. I’m throwing things away left and right — ruthlessly so — cleaning as I go. And when I’m done, I’ll run some errands, hit the pool for a mile or so of laps, and spend the evening preparing my presentation for this weekend’s conference.

I’m done fucking around. Just like I broke the spell with my roommate and chucked his mess off of the porch all those years ago, I’m chucking out my own physical and emotional clutter now. There is no one here to hug me and hold me at night and let me pretend everything’s ok. I had my last romance with that illusory safety net almost almost 20 years ago, and while those boys were lovely, I’ve long since outgrown them. The only one who can fix this is me, so I’d better get started.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

woman’s best friend

We’ve been apart for nearly a week — me too sick and laid low to care for you. You know things are bad when you can’t even walk your own dog. I went to pick you up from the sitter yesterday. Took me two hours to shower and dress, because I had to keep stopping and laying down. Struggled to stay awake on the drive across the town. Got there and found you napping in the garage. I woke you gently and watched the recognition melt across your face as your eyes met mine. You slowly stood and moved to where I sat on the stoop. Bowed your giant head and tucked it gently under my chin so I could kiss between your big brown eyes, tail sailing back and forth behind you as I hugged my arms around your thick neck and buried my nose into your white fur…inhaling.

I let you out early this morning and then slept all day today. Stayed under the covers until past 4:00pm moving through a series of deep naps punctuated by intense dreams and bouts of coughing. You stayed next to my bed all day, your soft snoring rumbling the room around us. Reassuring me of your presence whenever I came to the surface momentarily. When I finally pulled myself into the shower and stood with the hot water coursing over me, I opened the window to see the sun already starting to set over the Rockies in the distance. You had patiently kept watch over me and sacrificed your own needs for mine.

You were so pleased as we headed out into the yard toward the car. Grin on your face, bounce in your step, trying to engage me in a long-overdue game of romp-and-chase, but quickly seeing my limitations as I fumbled with my keys and stumbled toward the door to open it and let you into the backseat. You dutifully climbed in and rode with your head out the window feeling the breeze that blew back your ears.

We reached the park and parted ways at the gate, as always. You on patrol to sniff and mark your territory, keeping all of us safe from invisible wolves and bears. Me moving toward the other people in the center of the park. The light was fading and the crowd was thin. I immediately noticed that I had forgotten to wear a hat and marveled at my stupidity. Felt the bitter wind blow through my still-damp hair giving me a chill. Knew I wouldn’t last long like that. Coughed and blew my nose with a well-used paper towel I found deep at the bottom of my vest pocket. My body ached and buzzed with exhaustion.

I lost sight of you as you rounded the bend for the far side, made no effort to track you as I stood in the middle of the park in clothes that didn’t feel like they were quite mine anymore. My ears congested, my head thick and heavy and disoriented. Facing east, my thousand-yard stare into the middle distance barely took in darkening sky splashed with gradations of dark blue and gray as my mind wandered in and out of day dreams about summer picnics on the Thames, my puffy junior prom dress, that huge wind farm that appears without warning around the bend in the road in the middle of Kansas, cherry blossoms, and that stretch of sidewalk around the Tidal Basin by the FDR Memorial that doesn’t have a railing where I worry that the crowds are going to push someone in.

I didn’t notice the way the park had emptied. That all the other people and dogs had slowly peeled away as the sun had set. I was cold. Wobbly and weak. Just as my knees swayed and buckled slightly under me, I felt your warmth. The massive, familiar weight of you against my thigh, leaning into me, propping me up. Your shoulder suddenly under my hand. You’d come back for me. Returned at the end of the party to claim your slot on my dance card. My loyal guardian. White knight and charger all in one. You were the one what brung me, and you were taking me home. I gently closed my fist around a hank of your thick, warm fur and let you lead me toward the gate, steadying me over the uneven sand as we made our way home together.

A girl and her dog.

101.5

and have you set me free, or will i wake up in the morning to find out it’s been a bad dream?

i’m sick. i ache head to toe. i’m weak and exhausted. i was hoping it was just a cold, but it’s seeming more sinister. glands are all swollen. i barely made it through my day today. fought to stay awake on the drive home, my body wracked with chills.  coughed and sneezed. nose bled. got through the door. struggled to kick off my boots without bothering to bang the snow from them. stripped my layers of wool and down and denim leaving them to drop in a trail across the floor through the house until i made it to my bed in my tank and panties. cranked up the heated mattress pad. crawled under the covers as the winter twilight darkened the room and slept for four hours.

i woke with my lower body on fire. my hips and legs throbbed and burned. even the soft flannel sheets brushing against them as i shifted under the covers made my nerves stand on end and scream. my throat burned. my head throbbed. thirst consumed me, but the bottle on my bedside table was empty, and I was too chilled, hurting, and tired to move out of the bed and do anything about it. i rolled over and dialed up my brother to complain about my predicament good-naturedly, hoping that my silly whining would wake me. it didn’t.

i managed to crawl out of bed to get some water and a thermometer. took my temperature. 101.5 degrees. no wonder i felt like shit. i had a million and two things to do, but decided “fuck it” and crawled back under the covers and fell immediately back to sleep.

you came to me in my fever dream. it wasn’t a dream so much, as a memory. a memory of the time i got the flu when we were together. i had a fever then, too, only it was higher. you were worried because i was too sick to worry. i was burning up. made no sense. the semester hadn’t started yet, and so i had nowhere to be except in bed, and that’s where you found me. i complained that morning that i wasn’t feeling well. i didn’t answer your texts in the afternoon. you came home early from your shift and called my name as you came through the front door. i heard you, but didn’t have the strength to respond. you looked through the apartment until your eyes fell on me curled up in a ball in bed, covers all kicked off onto the floor. one touch of my skin made you want to take me to the emergency room. i fought you. refused. you promised you’d be able to get me seen quickly — no sitting in hard chairs under the bright fluorescents in the waiting room. still. no. no way. not leaving this bed. you threatened. reminded me that you were easily twice my size. that you’d pick me up and put me in the truck and take me and i wouldn’t have anything to say about it. i didn’t stand a chance against your strength on my best day. what was i going to do to stop you in my weakened state? i begged you. i cried. you relented. shushed me softly as you ran your hands through my sweaty, tangled hair. comforting me, but looking helpless. deep brown eyes filled with concern as you stared intently at my flushed face and glassed-over eyes in the late day sun that streamed in from the patio through the curtains over the sliding glass door. i couldn’t focus on anything. i passed out.

you left me to sleep. went and got soup. made it and a sandwich. brought it to me in bed. i struggled to come to surface to consciousness. wouldn’t sit up. wouldn’t eat. couldn’t keep down water. my fever reached 102. your medical training made you pack me with ice under my arms and behind my neck. it felt like murder and didn’t touch the fever. you called your mother. she was a pediatrician and saw kids with raging temperatures all the time. she told you to get me up and in a cold shower immediately, which you did. you propped me up against the bathroom wall and tugged my clothes off under the bright, unforgiving lights. held my arms out away from my sides and let your gaze travel over my body, taking its time over my breasts, neck, throat. eyes mixed with worry and a tinge of lust took in the fever’s rash on my flesh. my own eyes caught our reflections in the mirror over your shoulder. my head lolled limply on my neck as i stood under your inspection. my knees buckled slightly. you paused for a moment. took in the situation, considered the options, then stripped yourself down and stood in the tub with me. holding me under the icy cold water with your arms around my waist as i moaned and cursed your name the best i could with sounds that were largely indecipherable. the water was so cold. my skin shrieked as it hit me. shrieked as you toweled me dry and combed out my hair. god, it hurt. every part of me was sensitive and on fire. you dressed me tenderly, like you were dressing a little girl. put your scrubs shirt on me, still warm from being on your body all day and filled with the smell of you. pulled some clean underpants out of the dryer and knelt in front of me and held them out so i could steady myself with my hands on your shoulders and step carefully into them. wrapped my hair in a dry towel and put me back into bed still slightly damp.  i immediately succumbed to sleep in the dark, my teeth chattering.

i woke some time later to find you kneeling next to my bed under the light on the dresser working the IV you had gone to the hospital and borrowed? stolen? from your friends in emergency into the back of my left hand. i didn’t ask. didn’t say anything. i just looked at you. fought to keep my eyes open and looking into yours. you taped down the IV, started the drip, and the cool saline flooded my veins, making me feel like ice from the inside out. i winced. you kissed me. i protested, said you’d catch it. you told me you didn’t care. told me you loved me. cursed my stubborn streak and the fact that you gave into it. turned off the light and crawled into the bed next to me. i was sprawled sideways across the mattress, leaving no room for your giant frame. you didn’t move me. just curled up into the curves of my body on top of the covers and laid your head against my stomach. burrowed under my breasts like you liked to do. sighed into the heat coming off of my limp body. rising and falling with my ragged breaths and coughs. i fell asleep with my IV hand hanging off the edge of my bed and my other hand resting deep in your thick, black head of soft hair, still slightly damp from the shower. drifted off into fevered oblivion mumbling delirium as you held me tight. let the healing saline course through me.

i woke tonight in my bed alone. midnight on the clock. exhausted, weak, and dry. head still on fire, but the rest of me cool, the bed soaked with the sweat from my fever break. i struggled upright and assessed the damage. stripped the bed. pushed everything into the washing machine. rinsed away the dream with a shower and three advil. made a sandwich and a glass of juice. wished i had you here to do it all for me. i don’t know if your memory helped me break the fever or not, but i swear i can feel a bruise on the back of my hand where the IV was.

sour girl

She was a happy girl when she left me.

I dream vividly. It runs in the family. My paternal grandmother was an avid dream journaler her entire adult life. She always kept a notebook next to her bed, and she would wake from her dreams and roll over in the night and immediately write them down when they ended. I used to love to read her scribbles. I wish I’d pocketed one of her notebooks when we packed up her place in Chicago. I found similar notes in my Dad’s papers after he died, too. Scraps of paper mixed in with his bills and other effects. He’d journal in prose. It was amazing.

Grandma was also a lucid dreamer, a skill she taught both my father and me. I havent been using it for the past year or so, though, either out of sudden onset impotence or choice. I think I am electing to check my free will at the door when I punch my card at night lately. My brain works all day. Why work while I slumber, too? Then again, I seem to be the Sandman’s bitch these days, so the illusion of any control would be a laughable prospect anyway. When I do dream, though, they’re doozies, and the dreams that stay with me all day are truly annoying.

Last night’s was a winner. It seemed to last all night. I was attending a friend’s wedding, only it wasn’t her as I know her now, it was the college version of her. Or as I would imagine her in college, as we didn’t go to school together, and I didn’t know her then. The odd thing is that the action took place in the early 90s — my college years, not hers. She’s younger than I am. I pulled her into my timeline. So, really, it was the college version of me. Or the early grad school version, to be more specific. If you really want to split hairs, it was 1994. The year I lived in that apartment on the second floor on the corner of Main and Port Republic with Mike. The year we went to the bars every night and hustled pool to pay our rent and had music playing in the background constantly. The year that he was still there. The year I didn’t get on the plane to meet him in Greece.

The dream was beautifully lit. Sunset cinematography that gave it a mood of magical realism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez in deep golds, bronzes, and purples. Seemed fitting to me for many reasons, all of them my own. My friend’s wedding was elaborate. We’re talking Kardashian expensive, only classy. The ceremony itself was religious and someplace huge that was most definitely not a church. I never saw that part. I was there. I looked right at it. I just didn’t see it. None of this fit my friend. Her family is not wealthy. She is not religious, and certainly not Christian. And even if she could afford a big, elaborate wedding, it would be the last thing she would ever want. In fact, she had a very simple civil ceremony when she did marry in real life. A marriage I either admire tremendously or that makes me utterly sad. I haven’t decided which. I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest.

After the ceremony, I noticed a huge sign on the wall reminding the guests that they were to have RSVP’d separately to the reception at her parents’ stately mansion by a specific date. As I stood there reading it, I realized I had failed to follow those instructions because I never received them. The bride walked by and asked me what was wrong. I told her. She smiled and said, “No worries. What’s another $100 plate of food for my parents? Come on.” And then she took my hand, which is weird, because we never touch. This stands out, because my friends and I are usually very physically affectionate with one another, but when she touched me in the dream, I realized tht I couldn’t remember a single instance of her flesh ever touching mine. It didn’t feel comfortable in the dream. It was cold and hard and threatening, and I wanted to flinch and pull my hand out of hers immediately, but she held me tight, her silvery wedding gown shining in the sunset. The sun reflected from her dress into my eyes, blinding me. At that same moment, another friend appeared — this one definitely too young to be at university with me in 1994. Oddly enough, both of them are related to the same place and period in my life, but have never met. Friend #2 lurched up out of the darkeness of the pew behind me, and grabbed my other hand. She begged me not to go, tried to pull me down into the pew with her. This friend has never been married — never had a relationship of any kind — and seemed desperate to keep me from following the bride. I remember thinking that neither woman belonged there in 1994 with me. I remember thinking that it was a bad sign. I remember wondering how I knew what year it was. I remember thinking that neither woman had an agenda in my best interest.

I don’t know if I let go of my second friend’s hand or if the bride won the tug-of-war, but the next thing I know, I’m climbing up a long, wide, winding stone staircase with her. When we reached the top, the reception was spread out over a huge, sweeping terrace on a mountainside in front of a large, modern glass house overlooking the Tuscan countryside below. The bride handed me a flute of champagne but never let go of my hand. She was no longer my friend. She was The Bride, and she had me in a vice grip. It was sinister. We stood there watching the sun set. At that point, I looked down and realized I wasn’t wearing anything, which didn’t bother me so much as confused me. It was at that point, that The Bride said, “so glad you could come,” and violently pushed me over the terrace railing and off the cliff below.

When I landed, I was on a city street in front of a theater box office at night. My left side was killing me, but I didn’t seem to be injured or bleeding. The girl in the booth was glad to see me and said that “they” were all waiting for me inside. She printed out a discounted ticket and explained that she wasn’t charging me full price because the show had already started without me. I walked through the doors to an enormous red theater with the seats filled to sold-out capacity with people I know. Hundreds of people from all parts of my life. Stone Temple Pilot’s “Sour Girl” blared overhead. I couldn’t tell where the music was coming from. It was just everywhere. I looked down and found myself wrapped in a white cotton bed sheet. It was wound around me tight like a shroud and tucked under my arms. I was still naked beneath it. Halfway down the aisle, there he stood in a tuxedo with a red rose in his lapel. His dark hair slicked back from his handsome face. He hadn’t aged a day, and neither had I. At that moment, I realized that I was at my own wedding. That had been the point of the whole dream. The tug-of-war, the climb, the push from the cliff. He smiled at me and reached his hand out for mine. I was wrapped too tight in the sheet and couldn’t move. Didn’t want to. Was too terrified.

And then I woke up.

I haven’t been able to shake the images and the feeling of the dream all day. Haven’t been able to shake “Sour Girl” from my head, either. In an effort to exorcise it from my brain, I logged onto Spotify to listen to it and found, to my surprise, that I’d already done so in the night. I had added it and a plethora of other favorite Grunge hits to my playlist somwhere around 4am. I had been busy building a 90s nostalgia soundtrack in my sleep. I have no idea why. I have no idea where any of this comes from. I have no idea what this means. Probably nothing. I have no point. No punchy ending. This is just a dream journal. I just want to wake up.

the language of rice

i made your food tonight. i can’t call it your cooking because, well, you didn’t cook it. your cooking is something special, and so that title can’t be given to just anything on the stove. when you make it, it’s cooking. when i make it, it’s just food.

i miss you. terribly. i have little conversations with you all the time when i am alone. i know you do the same with me there in your studio. it’s been this way for us for years now. i think we would both go mad without our crazy little talks to each other when we’re not there. i tell you about my day. about what i’m thinking. about what i’m working on and what somebody said and what’s on my mind. i tell you about school, friends, family. i wish it were possible for me to still take a jog over to your apartment unannounced, flop my sweaty body down on your huge, comfy, sagging couch, take off my shoes, stretch out, and spend the evening sharing a pot of tea or a bottle of wine (or both) with your long form stretched out to meet my petite one and the soles of our feet meeting in the middle. relaxing into that comforting point of contact, reveling in the power of familiar touch, while we talk and talk and talk about everything and nothing for hours. bask in the intimacy of the fact that neither of us cares how we look or how the house looks or anything except what is on that couch and whether or not there are any more wheat thins in the box we’ve been demolishing, too lazy to get up to find anything better to eat for dinner. i wish we could ignore the ocean between us. i wish we didn’t have to wait for summer for more time together.

i miss you. terribly. i hate what is happening in your life, with your friends, your work. i hate the pain you feel being kept from your family and your country. i hate the rage and conflict. i hate the constant bad news. i hate how your government violates and manipulates you. i hate the lies they tell about you. i hate how they twist your words and intentions.  i hate the consequences you face for being you and and for doing what you do. i hate that i pushed you there, that i helped send you to it. i hate that you feel helpless. i hate that i feel helpless. i do not hate that you are safe and loved and empowered by your work enough to possibly effect some meaningful change. i am proud of you daily. you are my hero. you always were. the strength and power you radiate now awe me. you are tall and strong and and beautiful and unstoppable, and i try not to stand there looking at you with my mouth hanging open like a slackjawed fool.

i miss you. terribly. i putter along over the stove, picturing all the kitchens we’ve shared together. they are the basis for our relationship. food is sex you can see. food is sex you can talk about. not that we need a substitute sex to talk about. i see your hands working in place of mine. i hear your voice and laughter in my head. i thought about you as i cooked tonight. i talked to you and imagined you there with me. i marveled at how the recipes are starting to become second nature to me. i love that my house smells like you. i love food that tastes like your food. i enjoyed my cheap white box wine and played my music as i chopped and rinsed and sauteed and put everything into the stew pot without measuring — just they way you’d want it. i got a little distracted and even accidentally flung some of the herbs and rice out of their pots onto the oil-splattered stove top so that it genuinely looks like you were here cooking. our methods are so different: me with my measuring cups and constant mop-up of every spill; you all eyeballs and mess and chaos. i figure, if i cook like you, it will taste like you.

i miss you. terribly. i was doing fine, and suddenly, i was in tears. out of the blue, i started crying while on my hands and knees on the floor as i leaned over the dog’s water bowl and reached into the back of the bottom cabinet looking for a lid to a pot. the emptiness of being so far from you. the feeling of how i was just with you weeks ago and it seemed like no time had passed, no ocean had materialized. the smell of your kitchen and the image of you playing it like an instrument as you deftly moved about it working your gifts and concocting all kinds of delicious wonders for me that you laid out as a feast on your little round table every day. the warmth and hospitality of your home — a home that was really yours and no one else’s where we closed the door and shut away the world and took time out to be just the two of us. the time out from everything. the feeling of love and support that only you can give me. the way you took the wheel and i let you. how you spoiled me and pampered me and let me enjoy your company as you cooked and i sat in the armchair taking it all in with a drink in my hand, basking in the comfort and ease of us. in awe that circumstances brought us together in a world where we never should have met from half an earth away, much less become each other’s friend, family, other half.  i am not whole without you. i store everything up for when we are finally together until sometimes i think i might explode with the waiting. i stayed there on the floor for what seemed an eternity, tears of frustration and longing streaming down my face onto the mat and the hardwood below me. bathrobe barely tied around me. hair sticking to my wet cheeks. bits of dog chow biting into my palms and knees as i worked to calm myself and catch my breath and bring my sudden, unexpected emotional outbreak under control. my utter surprise at it all and amazement at how it had been building for so long. how strange that the dam should break now.

it’s all a bit of a poor imitation without you, but i do the best i can. the stew was good enough. i used lots of tumeric and lime juice, like you taught me, but i think my herbs and dried limes were a little old. i need to go buy fresh. the rice, as usual, was a bit of a disaster by comparison. i just don’t speak the language. you know me, i’m pretty fluid with language. i’m quicker on the uptake than most. i understand what you’re saying to me even when it’s not in english. rice, on the other hand? well, that’s still your territory. i’m still learning that from you. it is why i need you. why i love you. you teach me the language of rice, and it’s always better when we cook together. i don’t like to eat alone. i don’t like to eat without you.