circling the drain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I WANT TO SCREAM ALL THE GODDAMN TIME.

home by the sea

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

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

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

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

mourning has broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” I choked out.

“I have to call someone!” she responded.

“Who?!” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My grandmother would be so pleased.

i’ll take potpourri for 200, alex

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

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

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

horizon vertigo

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

— Isak Dinesen

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

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

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

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

And then, I lost my damn mind.

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

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

“I’m freaking out,” I replied.

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

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

“Feel what?”

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?”

“Pull over.”

“Pull over? And do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witchy woman

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

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

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

Please take me home

I’M FREE

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

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

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

“What? Are you serious?”

“Yes. Deadly. He’s mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, the doughnut cat.”

“Why do you keep calling him that?”

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

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

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

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

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

And then my brother got sick.

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

“Hey, you’re up,” I said.

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

“No way.”

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

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

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

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

And then, he was gone.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I did.”

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

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

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

“Yeah. Here I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a season in purgatory

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

Yeah, it’s just that bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I sure wish you were here.”

“I know, Dad. I love you.”

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

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

These things do not help the situation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gone where?”

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

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

And that is dying.”

phantom limb

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

I died two years ago last night.

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dc sleeps alone tonight

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

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

“Father.”

“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”

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

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

“Yes, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

born under a good sign

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

“Found it.”

“What do you mean, ‘found it?'”

“I mean I found it.”

“Like on the ground?”

“Yeah.”

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

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“What the hell, man? Who does that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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