horizon vertigo

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

— Isak Dinesen

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

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

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

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

And then, I lost my damn mind.

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

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

“I’m freaking out,” I replied.

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

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

“Feel what?”

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?”

“Pull over.”

“Pull over? And do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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turn the page

I have a friend who likes to say “good writing disturbs.” I happen to agree with her. As to whom it should disturb — the author or the reader…or both — is up for debate, but good writing shouldn’t pull any punches.

Now, as a Ph.D. student, I read a lot. I mean a LOT a lot. So much so that you’d think the last thing I would want to do at the end of an academic year of cramming upwards of 1,000 pages a week into my brain would be to read more, but hey, I’m a glutton for punishment with a thing for busman’s holidays. As a result, all I’ve done since the spring semester ended two weeks ago is pour myself into as much pleasure reading as I can possible absorb. I’m reading voraciously. I can’t get enough. What can I say? I’m a bookworm. Guess that’s why the academic lifestyle works for me. Maybe the school habit is hard to break, because, right now, I spend most of my waking hours — and more hours awake than I should — ripping through everything I bought, checked out, and downloaded for my summer reading list. It’s been a mixed bag, and I often have more than one project going. It’s not all that unlike school.

This weekend was different, though. I narrowed my reading to one thing only, and I find that was a mistake. The exclusivity wasn’t the problem, although, it probably intensified, and therefore exacerbated, the situation. The issue was the subject matter and the fact that I never should have touched it — or strayed within 50 square miles of it — in the first place. I certainly never should have spent three days alone with it and the inside of my head with nothing external to ground me. I wish I hadn’t done that. I really really do.

If you’re a reader, you can probably relate to how a good book can suck you into its universe. Pull you under to the degree where you have to think to discern between your every day reality and the engaging fictional story while you’re in the midst of it. It’s almost like being infatuated. You think about it when you’re not reading, and you have a hangover and disorienting withdrawal symptoms when you finish the last page. You mourn its loss like a break up with a lover. Usually, the ride is a good and exhilarating thing — escapism at its best…erotic and gratifying — but I’ve been feeling a growing sense of unease over the past 48 hours. In fact, I didn’t sleep at all last night. Couldn’t. The night before, I had nightmares. It’s almost 1:30 am, and I can’t sleep tonight, either. Yesterday, I was ansty. Withdrawn. Irritable. Today, my skin crawled like it was electrified below the surface. My stomach was in knots, the pit of it leaden and nagging. I had no appetite. I cried — BAWLED — spontaneously. My chest felt tight, and I was short of breath. My mouth dry. My throat felt an invisible hand closing on it. My heart locked in a screwed-down vice. By late afternoon, I found myself in the midst of a full-blown panic attack I should have seen coming but didn’t anticipate. I didn’t piece the symptoms together to recognize the building crescendo, probably because I didn’t realize how I was being affected, by what, or why and so didn’t stop to analyze and address the obvious warning signs. Ironically enough, despite being a writer myself, I didn’t give the power of the written word enough credit.

I should have known better. Should have not only seen all the warning signs, but known to stay the hell away from the story in the first place. Should have known it was too personal, too close, too real and visceral, and that it would push every button and flip every switch I’d worked to bury over ten years ago. It had “TRIGGER” written all over it in tall, neon letters, but I ignored the obvious warnings and sallied forth anyhow. It took me back to a dark time in my life and someone I let in as a result. To a chaotic, reckless, self-destructive era where I had a taste for danger and a greater propensity poor choices than self control. When I felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to be responsible for everything. Was tired of always being so structured. Tired of making decisions and caring for everyone without feedback or reassurance. Didn’t want to be in control. And I let in someone that I really shouldn’t have. That I wish I hadn’t. And when I got out and left that part of me and my past behind, I shoved it down so deep that I forgot it — forgot him. So much so that I not only suppressed his name but his memory completely. Until this weekend, when he slowly got a grip on the edges and hauled himself back to the surface to take me completely by surprise.

The experience shook me to the core back then, and the echo of it did no less this weekend — it was only shorter, lightning fast in its inception, and more intense. See, he changed me fundamentally. I’ve never quite been the same. I’m less trusting. Less carefree. Where I once was a girl with almost no neuroses or phobias, I now have several. He is the reason I can’t stand to wear bracelets or watches anymore. Can’t stand to have anything on my wrists. I only make the rare exception for my heart rate monitor, and even then I take it off as soon as possible. I’m claustrophobic. I panic in tight, crowded spaces, especially if they have low ceilings. Elevators are uncomfortable. Put more than a couple of people in there with me, and they’re a nightmare. Crowded open spaces like box stores — even the grocery store — are hard for me, too. I avoid them and often freak out and leave halfway through the errand. It means that I pretty much hate to shop. Like a Mafia don, I can’t sit in a public place with my back to the door without my skin itching and my nerves on end. I don’t like my back exposed. I simply don’t trust what people milling around me might be doing — can’t stop thinking about how I can’t control or anticipate their actions when I don’t know and trust them and can’t see them coming. Usually, I mask these fears pretty well and compensate or orchestrate situations to avoid them, but they’re there. I’m strategizing without it even registering on a conscious level. To be honest, it’s probably more exhausting than I realize, but it functions on a subconscious level most of the time, and not every situation calls for it.

It’s so subconscious, that I didn’t know it was happening to me today. I underestimated the power of what I was reading — of reading in general. And now, I feel like shit. Like I drank too much booze and ate too much junk food when I didn’t do either. I’m dizzy. At sea. My chest is fluttery. I’m tired and achy. My skin feels too tight. My head buzzes and my tongue feels too big. I have a metallic taste in my mouth, and I keep clenching my jaw. I’m upset and nervous and tense. Sick and exhausted. Strung out and needy just from something I read. I feel like I need aftercare. I wonder how long it’s going to take for me to come down and rehab from this. Until then, I’m going to wash a Xanax down with a glass of wine, take a hot shower and pray for sleep. Until then, I’m trapped by something someone wrote. Captive to simple words on the page — nothing more. Words that had the power to bend time and resurrect a ghost or two.

And so, I suppose you can say that’s some good writing. I applaud the author, really, because, right now, you can certainly say I’m disturbed.

a season in purgatory

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

Yeah, it’s just that bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I sure wish you were here.”

“I know, Dad. I love you.”

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

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

These things do not help the situation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gone where?”

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

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

And that is dying.”

phantom limb

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

I died two years ago last night.

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

table for one

There’s a great scene in “The Lonely Guy” where Steve Martin’s character arrives at a crowded, posh LA restaurant to dine by himself. The snooty maitre’d greets him with an armful of menus and asks how many are in his party. When Martin replies “I’m alone” the entire restaurant stops their eating and conversation to watch him do his walk of shame to his seat under the unforgiving scrutiny of a spotlight. Martin is so discombobulated that he orders a “todka and vonic” and is further embarrassed by the coterie of waiters who noisily clear the extra settings from his table.

Tonight, I guess that’s me. Only it isn’t me. I’m currently well-ensconced at the bar of my favorite neighborhood sushi restaurant — alone, but not the least bit lonely. See, dining alone is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. It’s right up there with going to the movies alone, only better. It’s an extravagance I normally reserve for travel, but my last two trips haven’t allowed for it, and, well, truth be told, I’m out celebrating. Celebrating the fact that I didn’t die Nick Cage-style in a shitty motel room in the fucking shithole that is Las Vegas a week ago.

See, when I get sick, I get sick. We’re not talking “whoa, I feel crappy, better take some Ny-Quil and pray I don’t have a hangover in the morning” sick. We’re talking weeks-in-bed, battle-for-your-life, fighting-for-air, coughing-up-blood-from-the-scars-in-my-lungs, take-me-to-the-ER sick of epic, Biblical proportions. Ny-Quil is for pussies. Amateur hour.

Thanks to an utterly horrible combination of a virus (most likely influenza, according to the ER doc — which my body can fucking eat for breakfast, at this point), my soul-crushing asthma, and the warm, dry climate of Vegas that was the worst possible place for me this time last week, my body’s ability to cope completely bottomed out seven days ago. To say nothing of the fact that Vegas sucks balls. I could have driven through that craphole one night on my way to the coast and just called it good. That dump has absolutely nothing for me.

Flying didn’t help. The minute we gained altitude a week ago, I knew I was in big trouble. I’m an expert flyer. Usually asleep before the wheels leave the ground. But not that trip. Between the perfume that doused my seatmate and the air pressure in the cabin, I went from sick to critical the minute I landed. Completely unable to draw oxygen. No sooner did I walk through the smoke-filled casino to get to my room did I know I needed to place an immediate and wheezy call to the airline and get on the next flight out of town after my conference presentation the following morning. Sadly, 6:45pm was the best they could do. Still, I took it. It was a cheaper flight, too. Not that that mattered. I just wanted the fuck out of Dodge ASAP.

I woke the next morning fighting for air. The kind of fighting that a drowning person does. The frantic clawing through the interminable darkness for the surface and the oxygen and light it promises that says HOLY SHIT I’VE STOPPED BREATHING. Panic. Gasping. Shit your pants terror. The fight that fills you with adrenaline as your wake up call. Let me tell you, it sucks. I started my day on three hours of sleep sure I was about to meet my end before dawn alone in a Vegas motel room that had a 30 year-old phone and cigarette burns on the nightstand. I was terrified. Not of death. She and I are old friends now. I was terrified of the place and time. I know I’m probably going to die young and drowning on my own phlegm in my sleep one night soon. With these lungs, I wager I have ten years at the very best. I know I might deserve a lot of shitty things. I might even deserve a lot of shitty ends, but buying it in a shitty Vegas motel room isn’t one of them. I knew my mother would never get past that, and so I fought like hell. Fought to the surface and to the air. Fought through the panic. Knocked the crappy lamp that was older than I am off the scarred table in an effort to turn it on. Sat up in the dark and hacked my lungs clear and exhaled. Sat there breathing dry, ravaging air into my raw throat, praying every second.

Then, I burst into tears. I laid there hugging my lumpy pillow under my thin blankets, quickly calming myself because I knew that the panic and the snot that came with crying would only make it worse. Hating the crying because I didn’t need or want to do it. It was an innate, instinctual, involuntary response, not an emotional one. And crying was is bitches. I was better than that. I capped the well and dried my eyes. Got up. Splashed cold water onto my sleepy face in the moldy bathroom sink, got into bed with my iPad, and got back to work preparing the presentation that I had to give in a matter of hours.

This wasn’t my first sick “business” trip. I had a similar experience going to New York for the first time when I was 24. I was a new acquitions editor for a publications company that Lexis-Nexis had recently purchased. I was learning the ropes at the public library there. I had been battling tonsillitis for months, and my fever (and infection) flared again the night before my trip. Being young and eager to please a boss who didn’t like me much, I boarded the train that morning regardless of how bad I felt. I was immediately sorry. I suffered the entire day under the hateful eye of the boss who resented the fever that wracked me with chills as much as the short skirt of my hounds tooth spring suit despite my best efforts to shoulder my share of the workload. Finally, at 5:00pm, she told me, “go home.” Meaning home to Washington. Sent me out into the cold spring rain to try and catch a cab to Penn Station at rush hour when there were none to be had. I walked the mile in the ice-cold, pouring rain in my short sleeves and stockinged legs with my suitcase dragging behind me. I got to the ticket booth only to be told that a train was leaving for DC RIGHT THEN from track 11, and that I should run to catch it. And run I did. Ran like hell right to the end of the platform chasing that train as it pulled out of the station, my little legs carrying my petite frame as fast as they could in heels. The conductor egged me on every step of the way. Leaned out of the door of the caboose yelling at me as I hauled ass alongside as best I could. Swooped down and scooped my bag out of my hand and onto the train. Swooped down and scooped me up around my waist and onto the car as the platform ended below me, my feet dangling above the tracks as he hauled me, one-armed, onto the train like something out of a scene in a movie and summarily dumped me, soaking and shivering, into a seat next to an incredibly large, incredibly handsome bald, black man with the order to take care of me. I remember the incredibly large man laying me out across a row of seats and spreading his expensive camelhair coat over me as a blanket before I passed out. I woke up outside of Newark with a raging fever and noticed that my hero was sporting a Super Bowl ring on his left hand. I deliriously asked, “Is that what I think it is?” only to have him tell me, “Yes, child. Hush. Sleep now,” before I passed the fuck back out. I only came around again outside of Philly when he reclaimed his coat before disembarking. At that point, I slowly pulled to consciousness, stripped naked in my seat in the nearly empty car and changed into dry sweats from my overnight bag. Four months later, after the doctors told me they had no antibiotics left to save me, I had my tonsils out. When I came out of the anesthesia on the operating table, the doctor was inches from my face saying, “Oh, those HAD to come out.” To this day, my throat is still a big, uneven hole from where they had to carve out all the black and silver necrotic tissue. I lost 15 pounds in one week and it took me months to learn how to swallow again without choking. Still, I love New York. Every trip I went back was better than the last. I don’t think that will be the case with Vegas. Fuck Vegas. I’m never going back.

And so, here I am alone in a sushi restaurant on a Friday night. In my favorite sushi restaurant eating my favorite food and drinking cheap, hot sake surrounded by raucous families and attractive couples out on first dates. I’m wearing dirty jeans and a sweater with a hole in it and no make-up and I couldn’t be happier. Couldn’t feel more alive. I didn’t have to be here alone. Two different men contacted me to see what I was doing tonight, but I didn’t want to be with them. Didn’t want to be with anyone but myself. That’s the beauty of dining alone. You don’t have to negotiate with anyone about where you eat and when. You don’t have to make conversation. You can be whoever you want. You can even be yourself. You can sit and eat in silence and watch the 76ers demolish the Golden State Warriors on the big screen behind the bar even though you couldn’t give a damn about the NBA. You can listen to the Japanese sushi chefs argue with each other and flirt with the Mexican kitchen staff. Listen to them flirt with you, too. You can sit and read or blog or do whatever the hell you want because the owner likes you and gave you the wireless key. And how is sitting here working while downing sakes not better than spending the evening in some bullshit Starbucks drinking lame lattes that cost as much if not more? To say nothing of the two men who were old enough to be my father buying me rounds number three and four just because they were awed by how fast I can type on my iPad and wanted to talk to a pretty girl. Because men just can’t stand to see a woman out alone without hitting on her. There’s a law about that or something. I probably shouldn’t have had those last two rounds, but what the fuck? This is life. I’m lucky to be alive and well and celebrating it. Carpe diem and bottoms up, boys. It’s ok if you want to think I’m ten years younger than I am even though I can obviously hold my own in conversation about politics and law and sports and business. And after all, isn’t that what you wanted in this evening’s little geisha anyway? A brainy girl you can fantasize into a pliable idiot? Whatever gets you off. I’ll drink your booze and blog my blog and stumble home alone, but satisfied.

Because, that’s how I want it. I’m free. No one tells me what to do. I love my alone time. Crave my own company. I realize that’s odd, but there’s nothing more decadent than doing what you want to do when you want to do it. That’s what makes life good. Makes it worth living. The freedom. The being the captain of your own destiny. I don’t know how long it will last, but I cheated death again. Got paroled this week, and I’m going to drink to that. And eat at restaurants alone and anonymous. A mysterious stranger in my own town. Because I can.

Should I be drinking while recovering? Probably not. Do I give a damn? Definitely not. I’ll do what I want. Life is short. I’m self-destructive. Sick of being good. Good gets you nowhere faster. I can be better to myself tomorrow. I think I’ll have another drink before I call it a night.

After all, tomorrow is another day.

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.

like riding a bike

This is what sanity looks like.

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

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

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

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

the choice is yours

Me too, George. Me, too.

“You can get with this, or you can get with that.”

I started this blog post last night when I didn’t really have the time to write it. I was swamped with work, and I deeply wanted to get some decent sleep. I got my standard two hours instead.

I am too tired to work tonight. I am falling over. My brain shut down hours ago. My eyes are quickly following. I can’t not finish writing this, though. I have to get it out of my head and on the page. It caused me such a sudden and surprising anxiety attack last night that rose up in my chest out of nowhere. As suspected, the anxiety was unfounded, but the whole experience has been on my mind all day and demands documenting. I realize now that this reckoning has been a long time coming.

I also need a nightcap in order to write this, so hold on for a minute while I pour myself a small manhattan in a juice glass with what was left of the Jim Beam and a year-old bottle of stale sweet vermouth that had the cap glued on tight. Yes kids, liquor really can go bad if you never touch it. Not really my finest hour drink-wise, nor what I had in mind, but whatever. That’ll do, pig.

Now, I don’t have much time before this thing starts to work, so here it is:

During the winter break between semesters, a professor I had last fall contacted me and asked if I would be willing to do a guest lecture about public media in an undergraduate class she’s teaching this semester. I was honored to be asked and jumped at the chance to be back in the classroom. I was also excited by the prospect of introducing young minds to the joys of public radio and television. I pictured myself at the head of a room full of desks occupied by dewey-eyed 20-something converts who would find themselves rapt at the wisdom dropping from my lips and compelled to leave the miasma of commercial media and follow me into the light where Morning Edition and Downton Abbey await them.

As the date approached and I worked to put together my lecture and its attendant PowerPoint, my enthusiasm turned to something more sinister: guilt. Once, and quite recently, the love of my life, I found pubmedia had been left on a shelf in my mind for ages now. I hadn’t researched or lectured on it since 2008. I hadn’t really talked or thought about it seriously since I turned my back on it in favor of academe a year ago.  I was suddenly forced to dig back into my professional and personal past and resurrect a part of me that I had left out in the rain and allowed to rust. What had once been my constant companion, a major part of my own identity, was now a stranger to me. How could I teach what I couldn’t remember? What I no longer knew? Moreover, I suddenly had to confront the truth of the choice I had made.

Public broadcasting was my chosen career. I spent my 20s wandering through non-profits only to find my “true” calling into public radio and, to an extent, television, through disillusionment with my career, the milestone of turning 30, and the outpouring of emotion I and others of my generation felt at the death of Mr. Rogers. I realized that I really wanted what I did with my life to make an impact. That I wanted to work for an industry and organizations who did something about which I felt good and passionate. I wanted to have a hand in something that had touched me in an effort to return the favor and ensure the safekeeping of a community asset and national treasure. I walked away from a lucrative, but mindblowingly shitty, government-funded job to start over producing a local radio show. And I loved it.

I was a perfect and immediate fit with public radio. I went to work with a smile on my face every morning and still had it plastered on there when I came home late at night. I loved putting good programming I was proud of on the air. I loved being on the air myself. The best part of all is that I finally found the mentor I had been seeking in the incredible woman I had the good fortune to call my program director. She believed in me wholeheartedly, introduced me around as her new Bright Young Thing, and handed me challenge after challenge to tackle knowing I was up to the task. She fed my mind and soul, and with her at my back cheering me on, pushing me forward, I felt unstoppable. I WAS unstoppable.

My time in public broadcasting was one of the happiest times of my life. I felt good about my work, felt every day brought me something new and gave me new lessons, and I absolutely loved and adored the people I worked and volunteered with at various stations. They were my family. My big, dorky family where I could be comfortable being my big, dorky self. I spent every day at work laughing so hard that parts of my body hurt when I got home. We were all inspired by the chance to do something of value for our community. Even working at NPR on the national level, I still felt surrounded by people who cared a great deal about their work and gave it their all. I was intellectually and spiritually fed. I was home. It was heaven.

It even inspired me to return to school for a second gradate degree — this time in my new broadcasting field — so that I could work my way up the ladder to become part of the next generation of pubmedia leaders. I was going to run a station and change the world. I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted to be. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end.

I went to school and wrote oodles of research papers about public radio audience analysis and management issues. I was on a singular mission, and everyone in the department knew it. Try as they might to interest me in staying on to do a Ph.D., I wasn’t biting. I was an industry girl, and I was doing that thesis, getting out, and returning to station life. And that’s exactly what I did. I even moved across the country and tried community radio. It wasn’t a fit. The passion was gone. The family was nonexistent. The economic downturn had dropped the scales from my eyes and made my job that much harder, made everything just a little less bright. I didn’t have my head and heart in it anymore, and nothing at my new station worked to change that. And so, I was already teetering on the brink when everything happened with Dad and the bottom dropped out of my life completely two years ago.

When the hammer fell, the first thing I did was leap from the precipice and out of my job. I had to unload some of the heavy baggage and fast if I was going to survive the big fall, and that seemed to be the crate easiest to push out of the cargo hold at the time. I figured I’d do my best to keep a hand in and pick up the pieces career-wise when the dust settled. All that matter at the time was that I figure out some strategy to make sure that I landed in as few pieces as possible myself. Can’t really do the sweeping when there’s nothing left of you to hold the broom. So, I cut the cord and didn’t really look back. And I’ve never regretted leaving that job. Never. Not for one minute. In fact, I celebrate it as one of the best and healthiest decisions I have ever made. It wasn’t public radio, and I was dying there. In that regard, Dad and everyone else I lost up until that point did me a huge favor. I didn’t so much jump as let them push me. It felt so good to just be able to let go and lose my damn mind for a while there.

When I began to wake up from the nightmarish liminal space that had become my life and my life a year ago, I, of course, started knocking on pubmedia’s door again. And they were receptive, but, man it was just not the same. I had turned in my keys and had to wait in line. And it wasn’t leaving the last job that did it. It was crossing the rubicon from public into community broadcasting. I had gone off the reservation. I wasn’t native anymore. I had been the walking undead in my industry for years without realizing it. No more handshakes or passwords. Outside looking in. I felt it immediately when interviewing, but it wasn’t just them. It was me. It was mostly me, in fact. I wasn’t sure I wanted back in. I talked the talk, smiled the smile, walked the walk, but I was a still a shell of myself. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t sure I was passionate or convinced anymore. I could speak the language, but I wasn’t in the life, and they knew it. I still cared, but I was changed. I was…elsewhere.

And the elsewhere was the mistress I was already courting. I had had my epiphany that I belonged in academics seven months before. It came like a bolt from the blue standing on a college campus with a fucking gyro and a Coke in my hand. No one was more surprised than I was. The momentum from that point was lighting fast. The gravitational pull back to school was bonecrushing. I was shocked. I wasn’t going to do this. Was never, ever doing the Ph.D. You hear me? Never. Fucking. Doing. That. Shit. That was for masochists. Insane people. Societal dropouts. Hell no. Not me. I talked to friends who were doing their degrees. Who had finished their degrees. To former professors. They all chuckled at me knowingly and said, “Yes, we’ve known this for a while. We’ve always known you would do this. Congratulations on finally seeing what was right in front of you. What we all saw all along. Welcome to the Dark Side.” I felt like a heel. Felt like destiny’s plaything. Resented it a little. I’m all about the free will thinking I can do whatever I want and be whatever I want. But, they were right, I had been ignoring the voice telling me that I belonged in a college classroom that had been screaming in my head since I was a teenager. And by the time I was turning in resumes for station jobs the following spring, I had long-since sent in my application to the Ph.D. program. I was just playing the waiting game.

I started getting calls for the jobs the same time the acceptance email came from school. I had a week to get it together and decide. Things looked bad for pubmedia at the time — not just with me, but politically. Congress was battling over funding. The future of my chosen profession was in serious doubt. Part of me wanted to say yes to the work again and go charging in with guns blazing. I was so used to fighting everything that it seemed easy to just keep doing more of it. I was good at it. It was all I knew. It would be easy. More of the same. Only it wouldn’t be. I was in tatters. The battle scars of the past year just were not healing, and I had no gas left in the tank. Age and loss had changed me. Whipped a good deal of the fight out of me. It was just too hard, and I really didn’t want to do it anymore. I started to think in terms of long-term job prospects and career security, and retirement. One option yawned with opportunity and growth and satisfaction, the other asked me to squeeze back into a tight space and let everything be a challenge with no promise of anything. It was as though someone had pulled up one of those big highway signs with a blinking arrow up right in front of me pointing in the clear direction. I’ll admit it. I punked out. I cried about it for a week. Told myself it was about nostalgia and regret and lost love and a bunch of other bullshit like that that it wasn’t about at all, and then I dried my eyes and cut and run right back to school without so much as a fleeting glance over my shoulder at what was getting smaller by the moment in my rearview.

Now, here I am putting together lectures and lessons on something that I used to eat, breathe, and sleep, and it’s like it never happened to me. I could not feel more divorced. I realize that that is not really the case. I’ve consciously constructed a wall inside, and the cracks in it are what let the anxiety through. It’s where I feel that twinge of guilt. It’s that nagging little voice in my chest that says, “You fickle little bitch. You’re a fraud. School feels like it’s so perfect, eh? You’re made for it, right? Well, that other thing felt like such a great fit, too, didn’t it? Remember that? Which is it, then? How do you know? Or are you just convincing yourself to love the one you’re with?”

Am I a dilettante? A career slut?  A master rationalizer? A traitor who didn’t want to dance with the one what brought her?

Possibly.

Probably not.

Truth is, I’m most likely a good person with several talents and her heart in a lot of “right” places. I won’t beat myself up about that part. The voice can try, but that isn’t what bugs me. It’s the detachment. The fact that there might not be a wall at all. The numbness might be actual and real. Maybe I cut it out of me along with a lot of other stuff that had to go, and only an empty space is left now. After all, I watched the industry I love chew up and spit out a lot of people I loved, too. And I had to stand by helpless. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t want to watch it happen to those I care about or to watch it happen to me. I’ve had enough to be sad about it. I just didn’t want to be sad anymore. Still don’t. And I’m not. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not sad, and a big part of that is because I made the right choice. I am a consummate survivor with the singular gift of re-invention, and those are good things. I know who I am, and I won’t apologize for her. I won’t feel bad about doing what it takes to get by and thrive. I am doing something I am really good at, and it’s something that empowers me and gives me a voice. I do find it telling, however, that I’ve completely changed my research focus so that it doesn’t involve pubmedia at all anymore. Ok, so I lied. I am a little sad about that.

I still love pubmedia with all my heart. I look back on it like one does on a good marriage that ended in an amicable divorce. We’ll have lunch from time to time to swap stories about the kids and always speak fondly of one another, but I think we both know it’s over.

There. I said it. That was really hard to admit.

The lecture went beautifully. Felt good to be in front of a class talking about a former lover I was once lucky enough to take for a brief spin around the floor. I dipped into something deep down in me and drew from the well, and my audience had no idea what was happening right in front of them. I played the role to perfection. Most of the students just sat there dutifully taking bored-looking notes, and the 75 minutes zoomed by. I did have one kid come up to me after and ask for my card. He wants me to help him work on getting a job in public radio. “Gladly,” I told him with a big grin on my face. As I handed over my card to him, our fingers brushed briefly. And I swore I felt a spark.

fever pitch

I have something to tell. It’s been needling at me for weeks. All this year, in fact. It keeps coming to a head, bubbling up in my throat, threatening to spill out and over and into the world. And just before it gets past my lips, my fingers, I ball it up in my hands and cram it back in as fast and hard as I can. And it stays there…for a while. But then, others write or say things that remind me that it’s still there. It’s amazing the way they play on it like an instrument. It’s almost like they know. They bring it out with visceral clarity in a way that makes my blood fire, my chest tighten, my teeth clench. It’s ugly and it’s painful and it involves so many other people. I tell myself I’m protecting them, but that’s a lie. Save one or two, they don’t need or deserve my protection. The truth would be closer to say that they don’t deserve my attention. But, whatever.

I can’t bring myself to sit down and spit it out. It’s stubborn. Locked down tight. Even the safe confessional of boozy strangers in bars and hotel rooms in another city couldn’t tease it from me last week. If the security of such distance and lubrication couldn’t do it, I’m not sure what can. Part of me should be thankful for distractions and this targeted case of writer’s block, but I really do want to unload and be free of it. To admit what I got myself into and my part in it. To air the choices I made. To be rid of her, even if she causes more damage on the way out. And she will. She always takes her collateral and lays waste. She always has, and it’s why it’s so tempting to just let it ride lest it cost me the peace I’ve finally earned in other parts of my life. Truth be told, I’m not terrified of the consequences so much as I am of her her. Of me. Of us. Of what we’d do together again if I breathe life back into her by speaking her name. Again, what’s dead should stay dead…only she doesn’t. And so, like the rising tide, it’s coming whether I want it to or not. That much has been clear and out of my hands for a while now.

Exorcism in print is the only way, though, and I have to declare and settle all accounts in order to move forward as a person and a writer. It’s something I also have to make some people understand as they urge me to put my toe back into those waters where it could start all over again. She’s always there waiting in the shallows just beneath the surface. I need to have the story out there so I can point to it and say, “See? That? That’s why I can’t go there again.” Like an addict, I had to give up the junk cold turkey. There is no recreational use. It always ends up bloody. There are dangers in going there again, even under the veil of fiction. Possibly especially under the protection that veil offers. Too easy to cheat. Too easy to draw the wolves back to the door.

The momentum is undeniable. I need my testimonial given and witness borne, but telling the truth isn’t so hard as facing it, especially when it’s about yourself. You have to tell the truth to yourself before you can tell it to others. It’s the first things first part that’s the problem.