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.

strange bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You snore.”

“Not too much.”

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

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

“Christ.”

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

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

“You look beat.”

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dark star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost 20 minutes,” the nurse replied.

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

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

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

“You’d better learn quick, then.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

“That’s what I’m saying.”

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

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

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

“Wait. You’re leaving?!” he said.

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

“Oh my God. No one told you?!”

“Told me what?”

“Your Dad is awake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am. Turn off your phone.”

“I will. After this call.”

“Now. Turn it off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can relate.

 

mourning has broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” I choked out.

“I have to call someone!” she responded.

“Who?!” I demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My grandmother would be so pleased.

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.

it’s not over

The last moments of AIDS activist David Kirby in 1990. credit: Therese Frare, LIFE Magazine

I really want this post to be intelligent and eloquent. To not be just one long string of the f-word (per usual). To be ruled by logos rather than the pathos brimming over from every pore of me. Given that last sentence, I think you can guess how this is probably going to go. Oh well, here’s nothing.

So, while reading The New Yorker yesterday, because, as a Ph.D. student, I have tons of time for leisure reading, I came across this article called The Changing AIDS Epidemic. It’s fair to say that my blood pressure has been through the roof ever since. I will say this once, and once only, people:

AIDS is still with us. It is not cured. It is not a Third World disease only impoverished people in Africa get. It is not over. People still die of AIDS here in the United States every day.

How do I know this? Because I feel the absence of the friend I lost to the disease last fall every day. I am still haunted by his decline. How he had more than 60 pounds fall from his already-slight frame in a matter of months. How his drugs made him sicker than the disease. How he became unable to work. How he stopped eating. Stopped talking. How he became pale and dry like a piece of chalk — quickly dehydrating and slowly bleeding internally from God knows where in his gut. How it took a toll on his partner’s health, and I started to watch him waste away from stress and worry and lack of sleep and a broken heart. How I helped to care for him in his last weeks as he died of a simple stomach flu. The norovirus. That’s what killed him. Something that usually puts most of us in bed for a few days with nausea and diarrhea killed him. No amount of Pedialyte and bed rest could save him. The doctors didn’t pay attention to what was happening. They didn’t care. They’d give him IV fluids and send him home with us. Ignored our concerns until his electrolytes became so unbalanced that his heart suddenly gave out in his bedroom at home one night. His partner called 911 and performed CPR until the paramedics came crashing in his door and dragged his spouse up the stairs and pounded on his poor, broken, empty body on the living room floor for almost 20 minutes before pronouncing him dead and walking out the door leaving him there for his loved ones to cover him and sit with him until the coroner came to pick up his body four hours later. His death left a hole that affects me and everyone else who loved him on a daily basis. I can’t even begin to do his memory justice here. Or describe the chaos left in his wake. Our lives are forever changed by his passing, and it didn’t have to happen.

It happened because we don’t talk about AIDS anymore in this country. We act like it’s some artifact that killed a bunch gay guys in the 80s and was somehow cured by Magic Johnson in the 90s or caught a plane to the Congo in 2000 and was never heard from by straight, white middle class America again. Bullshit. It doesn’t matter where you are — there are people in your community living with it every day…and some of them are dying.

What really killed my friend wasn’t AIDS so much as silence about it. Even in 2011, he wore it as a personal badge of shame. He wouldn’t openly admit to having it, for fear it would cost him his job. He was afraid it would still be seen as a “gay disease,” and so his health care suffered — partly because he was afraid to advocate for himself, partly because he was the victim of cut-rate managed care under his employer’s HMO, and partly because his doctors honestly didn’t give much of a crap about the two middle-aged gay men who went to them looking for help. That’s not the kind of health care everyone with AIDS gets, but it is the reality for others. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s still 1985 for some of us here in America, and I’m here to tell you that’s not ok.

To make things worse, I downloaded a copy of Outkast’s song “Roses” on Spotify earlier this week, not realizing it was some cleaned-up, uber-Walmart censored version. About a third of the words in the song were bleeped out because they were deemed offensive. Words like “bitch,” “prostitute,” and even “bra.” Because women’s foundation garments make them dirty whores like that. I was shocked to find that among the offensive words omitted from the song was “AIDS.” As in “AIDS test.” That’s right, a lyric about responsible sexual health was bleeped out of a song in 2012. Because AIDS is offensive. People with AIDS are offensive. Because it’s dirty gay disease you get from anal sex. If you don’t talk about it, no one can learn about it, and then no one will catch it. And those who do catch it can just slink off to the margins of society and feel they have to lie about who they their whole lives are even though they’re beautiful, loving, kind, gentle, contributing members of society who do important, undervalued, and thankless jobs like teach bilingual special education kindergarten classes and die quietly in their living rooms and no one can be the wiser. Whatever you do, keep whispering the word “AIDS” in the second decade of the 21st fucking century so no one ever gets their hands dirty. So no one ever learns anything. So ignorance can reign free. So we never cure the disease, because who cares about a bunch of black Africans and aging fags?

I play my friend’s funeral over and over again in my mind. How we all stood out at his graveside on that freezing early winter day. How his partner touched his casket, choking on his tears, and said, “Goodbye, my love,” before we steered him away to the car. How I’ve spent endless hours with him at the kitchen table going over finances trying figure out how he will make ends meet and keep a roof over his head on one meager income in the months since. How I held him in his driveway last week as he bawled his grief out, soaking the shoulder of my blouse after a long day of changing all their bank accounts to take his dead partner’s name off of them — feeling like he’d erased the love of his life forever in one afternoon. It’s cruel. It’s horrible. It’s all so very unnecessary. And I won’t tolerate it. I won’t tolerate the attitude that gay people don’t matter, don’t deserve health care. That sick people, regardless of gender or sexual orientation or race or class or disease, don’t deserve dignity and treatment. That people with AIDS aren’t people. That they don’t exist here in America anymore.

I won’t tolerate whispers about AIDS. I won’t tolerate a society where those who battle it feel they have to live in secret and shame. I won’t tolerate blaming people for being sick. I won’t tolerate us acting like it’s a piece of 80s nostalgia like a Michael J. Fox movie. I won’t tolerate the media perpetuating the idea that we’re somehow out of the woods and that it’s Africa’s problem now — just something we need to send a few million dollars overseas annually for in the name of humanitarian foreign aid to make us feel awesome and lily white and absolved. Because it’s right here, people. Right in front of us. The fact that you cried at Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia 20 years ago isn’t enough. Not nearly. Wake the hell up and speak up. Don’t let the media or the right wing or politicians convince you otherwise and whisper this very real epidemic away.

For shame, I say. For shame.

(ETA: I am pleased to share with you that there are some bright spots out there, and I have the incredible honor of knowing someone who works at the Ponce de Leon Clinic in Atlanta, GA. I am proud to call him my friend.

Please, do a simple Google search for local charities and clinics in your area that support your neighbors living with AIDS to see how you can get involved. They always need help and can let you know how you can work to battle the deadly ignorance that still plagues our nation when it comes to this disease.)

meet my double standard

Objects in the mirror are not as crazy as they appear.

One morning a couple of Sundays ago, I rolled over, fumbled for the cell on the bedside table, and dialed my brother before I even sat up in bed.

“I want a knife,” I told him.

“What?” he asked.

“You heard me. I said I want a knife. Like to carry with me.”

“Whatever for?”

“You know, because they’re useful. Men have them. Not all men, but lots of men have them. You always have some kind of knife or your Leatherman tool on you to whip out of your pocket and poke or slice or cut open something that needs poking or slicing or cutting. It’s very helpful. I don’t always have you or another man with a knife around, and I think it would be useful. I want one. I’m sick of trying to use my keys or some such crap to open things or whatever.”

“Ok…so why are you telling me?”

“Because I was wondering where to get one. REI? Is that a good place to get a knife? Should I go to REI?”

“Sure, uh,  yeah, I guess. REI would be fine, I suppose. It depends on what kind of tool you want. Do you want a flip blade? A Swiss Army knife? A Leatherman like mine?”

“Yeah, well…I don’t really know.”

“Can’t help you if you don’t know.”

“Ok, here’s the deal: I want a knife and I want you to buy it for me. That’s how it works. The man buys the knife, so you buy it, ok? You buy a knife for me. It has to come from you.”

“Uh…what?”

I went on to explain that I was pretty sure that Dad gave me a little Swiss Army knife at some point when I was a kid. Probably a gift as a teenager. I seem to remember that and recall him making a bit of a big deal out of it at the time. Dad wasn’t macho. He was an ex-academic who worked in retail. He came from a generation of men who were moderately handy at a minimum, however, and he knew how to do stuff. He changed the oil and tuned up the fleet of old cars we owned himself — and taught me how to do it, too. Didn’t matter that I was his daughter. He was a feminist who believed that any child of his needed to be capable. From a very young age, he would pull a Black Label beer out of the fridge for the two of us to share and sit me down next to him out on the sidewalk to watch him as he tinkered and fixed. He’d spread out newspaper on the floor every Sunday night and commence the weekly ritual of shining his shoes for the week.  I used to love to watch him work on the leather and set the polish with his lighter. I enjoyed bearing witness to how he performed a similar regular cleaning on his pipe collection. And, of course, I’d sit at his knee and watch him work his pocket knife rhythmically over a whetstone to sharpen it every month or so. Dad had all the accouterments of manhood, and he took care of them. So, it came as no surprise that he eventually gave me a knife of my own and tried to teach me to do the same. Being a snot-nosed punk teenager on the post-divorce outs with him and his alcoholism at the time, however, I paid no heed. I have no clue what eventually happened to the knife. Looking back now, I realize that I probably really hurt his feelings spurning his gift and showing no interest in what he tried to share with me. It hurts to think about it.

And that’s probably why I thought of wanting a pocket knife now. And why I thought it needed to come from my brother. Because “the man buys the knives” or some such bullshit. A pocket knife isn’t a very girlie thing for a woman to want. Then again, I’m not a girlie girl. Nonetheless, some strange gender script I had in my head kicked in and made me pick up the phone and make that request of my brother. That’s not how our family — our matriarchy, ironically enough — works. Granted, my brother’s an outdoorsy guy and so would be able to help me pick out something — it’s not as though the request was totally without merit. That’s not why I asked him, though. To be honest, it was all about asking him to be the “man of the family” for me. To ask my little brother to somehow step in and fill the father or, at the very least, big brother, role for me that I never needed filled before. While I was Daddy’s girl, I was never anyone’s princess. No shrinking violet, I. I’m a tough broad. I’m supremely capable — so much so that people tell me it’s intimidating. I can take care of myself, and I expect other women to be able to do the same.

Something has changed since Dad’s accident and death, though. Keeping everything together, holding back the Devil and his ever-rising tide of constant disaster night and day for a year just took it all out of me. I used it all up, burned through the reserve tanks. I don’t want to have to do everything myself anymore. I am ok with letting go and letting others handle things for me. I am especially ok with letting my brother step in and shoulder some of the load — he was my partner in all things he could be during The Crisis, and he did it all beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for a better sibling and other half. We were one well-oiled machine. A force to be reckoned with. Being a small family means that you need to band together to take care of business, and boy, did we ever. One of us was on research while the other beat the streets at the hospital with Dad or talking to bankers or lawyers or doctors. We took shifts. Took turns playing good cop to the other’s bad cop. He was the Mulder to my Scully. The ever-logical Spock to my emotional, take-charge Kirk. Everyone knew there was more than one of us to reckon with, and they took our unified front seriously. It helped. We were a traveling roadshow of awesome. At the end of each day we’d collapse on the couch together — out came the laptops as we put our heads together to process what medical and legal information we’d collected and map out a plan of attack for the next day. I’d fall asleep on his shoulder, and he’d put me to bed. Then, he’d get my poor, deflated corpse off the mattress to do it all again the next morning. Propped me upright and pushed me out the door for more. Kept me from curling up in a ball and just staying there. Leagally speaking, I was the one who had to do all the heavy lifting, make all the big calls, but I couldn’t have done it without him. I was, for all intents and purposes, completely out of my mind. We’re talking stark raving mad and screaming inside my head. Just going on adrenaline and automatic and a lot of Diet Coke. It was a pretty impressive pretense that I don’t think even he saw through, despite being up close and personal with it like no one else. I put on a good show. I would have gone under completely and ended up in an irretrievably dark and broken place without his help, even if it was just to be the body in the seat next to me, someone to pick me up from the airport in the in the middle of the rainy night, someone to make sure I ate breakfast, someone to drive me around so that my tired, distracted, and overwhelmed brain didn’t cause another tragic accident, someone to eat shitty, cold pizza and chicken fingers with in the hospital cafeteria at 1am, someone to keep me laughing so I didn’t go completely and forever batshit insane. He knew his job and he did well without me having to ask for anything. He was just there. Doing it.

As we’ve both aged into our 30s, the seven-year age difference has dropped away, and it’s now blissfully impossible to tell who is the older sibling. Two heads are better than one, and I am more than happy to let him take the lead and be the capable one and put his skills and life experience to good use. To let him take care of me from time to time. He does it so skillfully, and releasing control to him makes me a happier and better person and sister. It’s been healthier for both of us. Having me be the boss all the time sucked and did nothing but breed resentment on both sides. I stepped aside and made some room for him, and he stepped right on up. He seems to suddenly know my needs intuitively and how and when to be by my side and bridge the gap. He also needs no help when it comes to gift giving. He never fails to knock it out of the park when buying presents for me, and he needs no suggestions. Some of my most prized possessions are gifts from him, from my heart rate monitor to the beautiful gold earrings he gave me for standing up with him at his wedding. I wear them every day. If the house burned down, those would be the one inanimate thing I would grab on the way out the door. He amazes me. He’s not only a fantastic brother, but I can confidently say that he has grown to become The Best Man I Know. I breathe easier knowing that he’s my kin and looking out for me.

It is this confidence in my brother that made me want to ask him to play this bizarre masculine role and let me somehow be…helpless? Feminine? Is that even the right word? Why is a knife a masculine thing? Is it because it’s a tool? Is it the potential violence of the blade? Is it that women aren’t supposed to be sharp or have sharp things? In any case I suddenly developed this bizarre gendered double standard and called the male in our family to ask him to be all head of the household for me and channel his inner hunter/gatherer and buy me a knife — a gift that also goes against my superstitious nature. You don’t give a knife or a pair of scissors or anything with an edge to a loved one, lest its sharp blade sever the bonds between you. If you do receive something like that as a gift, you give the giver a penny, so it’s not totally a gift. Money exchanging hands diffuses the edge. I’ve always done this with my brother when he’s bought me good quality cutlery in the past. He knows his kitchen knives, so I let him get them for me.

In any case, I hung up the phone thinking, “Well, good, that takes care of that,” with one side of my mind and a feeling of having sold out, being a fraud with the other. A voice in my head nagged at me for days after, telling me that I was a fake. A big, fat hypocrite. That I had no business teaching and writing about feminism when I would call up my brother to ask him to buy me a knife. You’re a big girl. Buy your own goddamn knife! the voice told me. Eventually, I put it out of my mind. I even had to laugh at myself a little when I remembered the way my ex and I used to stay up late drinking and watching “The Knife Show” on the shopping network wondering who cared enough about knives to buy all that stupid shit. Who was I that I was suddenly one of those losers?

Last week I was away at an academic conference where I presented my first paper as a Ph.D. student. My work was very well received, and I even won a little award for it, which both shocked me and made me proud. It was so nice to get a plethora of encouragement and feedback from so many people in varied fields. In the end, the whole week read like a coming out party of sorts for me, and I felt empowered and encouraged by the experience. I felt really capable — almost like my old self — again for the first time since Dad’s car left the road flipped over nine times in that scarred, muddy field and came to rest a twisted wreck in a ditch on that cold January day two years ago. I ended that week finally feeling back in control of something again. And that’s who I was when I strolled into the little shop selling local handmade Native American arts and crafts on a side street in Old Town Albuquerque a week ago. That’s who I was when I saw it sitting in the glass case waiting for me.

It had a three-inch folding blade with a handle inlaid in turquoise and jasper, so it’s mostly light blue with tiles of gold and flecks of red. It fits in my hand perfectly. I haggled the price and even got the proprietor to agree to ship it to my home address because I couldn’t fly with it in my carry on bag. He was more than happy to oblige, although I think he was baffled as to why a woman was so excited about a knife. I started to explain the personal symbolic importance of the purchase — that I was buying my own knife rather than deferring to a man to do it for me, that I was being true to myself despite my recent and inexplicable lapse of reason — but I looked at his face and decided to just default to, “I’ve been looking for one of these.” He seemed happy enough with that.

And so, my knife came in the mail today. She was wrapped in a big wad of bubble wrap in a padded envelope, and she arrived in pristine condition. I love her. I’m calling her Jasper. Yes, I know that’s a man’s name. I’ll name my knife whatever I want. We’re breaking down gender barriers here, so it seems in keeping. And my brother can still buy me a knife, if he wants, but what is undeniable and unchangeable now is that I manned up and bought my own blade in the end. Just like the old me — the strong and capable and real me that’s still at the core — would have done. I feel good about that. I feel more honest with myself. And I have more respect for myself now, too. Funny what a $50 knife can do, huh?

Maybe I’m insane. I don’t know. All I know is that this mattered to me, and I came home with something significant that celebrates more than one personal victory for me. Jasper was my perfect prize in more ways than one, and I smile and feel proud every time I look at my little tool. My weapon. My shiny new toy. She’s beautiful, and I think she’s an appropriate talisman to remind me that I’m sharp and to stay sharp. I am a blade I can wield all on my own. Now, all I need is a whetstone.

it’s a good life

Three things truly scare me:

1. High, still places like bridges, buildings, and towers. I am afraid I’ll give into the strong, primal, and completely irrational compulsion to fling myself off of them. The urge to jump and self-destruct makes zero sense, but there it is. I can’t explain it. I just don’t go up there, and if I do, I stay the hell away from the edge lest I go completely dark side and end it all without wanting to die in the slightest.

2. Metal. Well, not all metal. Just particular kinds of metal. The kind that’s thin and matte and tin-y like cheap cutlery or the cold metal dishes sundaes come in. The little ramekins single servings of dressing and butter come in at restaurants. Stainless steel almost anything. Aluminum foil. Especially aluminum foil. It was the cause of the whole metal thing about 20 years ago when I accidentally bit into a piece of it in some leftovers from Outback Steakhouse. It made contact with a sensitive filling in a large, cracked molar in my upper right jaw, and I thought my head was going to explode. My mouth watered and ached and tasted like electricity for a week. Now, just the sight of the wrong kind of metal has the same intense effect without even coming in direct contact with me, to say nothing of the reality, much less the prospect, of metal touching something else metal. Nails on a chalkboard in Biblical proportions. Bring something like that to my table and don’t remove it immediately and

I. Will. Totally. Lose. My Shit.

Seriously.

I haven’t eaten at Outback since, and any of my intimates who spend significant time with me know all too well what the “metal thing” looks like. I make sure that few have seen the complete breakdown, but those who have know exactly what measures to take to avoid ever seeing it again. You know who you are, and I thank you for throwing yourselves on repeated grenades without even a word exchanged between us. I appreciate that you don’t want to see me have a full-on panic attack and vomit in public while in your company. The good news is that having that tooth capped has helped the metal issue exponentially. I’m now only slightly imbalanced as opposed to clinically insane.

3. Clowns. I can’t deal. The sight of them is usually enough to make me completely freak out and put me off of whatever they’re in — tv show, movie, book, you name it. It recently took me three whole days to get through a single episode of a tv series I’m watching because it had clowns in it. They terrify me. You want to know the one thing walking this planet that turns my blood to ice and wakes me up in a cold sweat? Clowns. Fucking creepy, scary as hell, can’t trust ’em clowns. ‘Nuff said.

Given my love of clowns, it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve never seen the appeal of the jack-in-the-box. How is that a child’s toy? It plays a warped, off-tune little song, and then a horrifying clown on a dilapidated spring pops up and frightens the child. Yeah, that’s a barrel of laughs. I’ve come to think of anything waiting to spring on me, anything in life that has mass and takes up space and must be dealt with but is to be avoided as a jack-in-the-box. You know a monstrosity awaits you inside and you don’t want to see it, but sooner or later you have to turn the crank, hear that awful song, and steel your nerves against the rising tension as you wait for the clown to spring forth in that moment you’ve been dreading.

I’ve had a jack-in-the-box sitting in my living room by the front door for the past month now. See, I was out of town for three weeks over the holidays. During that time, I had the post office hold my mail. When I returned, they delivered a big plastic crate full of it to my door. A quick eyeballing was all it took to tell me that it was mostly catalogs I never asked for, direct mail I didn’t want, neighborhood newspapers I didn’t subscribe to, and those annoying flyers and coupons that clutter up my mailbox every Wednesday. So, I let the thing sit. And sit. And sit. For weeks. Which isn’t like me. I’m not one to avoid conflict, but this was different. Something told me there was something in there I didn’t want to see and deal with, too, and so I let sleeping dogs lie. Walked past it every day “ignoring” it in plain sight knowing full well it was there tugging and nagging at me to roll up my sleeves, dig in, turn the crank, and take care of business. Tonight, I finally did it.

As I suspected, the big, rubber-banded bundle in the crate was mostly ads and catalogs. I was able to dispatch with them quickly. A tax statement from my mortgage company was in there, too. Ok. I can deal with that. Well, I need to sit down and deal with that…later. Some misdirected bills, cards, and other sundry envelopes for the woman who lives at my address one block over. Must’ve had a new guy training at the post office while I was gone. A couple of Christmas cards from friends, which were a nice surprise. My membership renewal from Planned Parenthood. A statement documenting a payment I made before my trip. And, then I saw it. I didn’t even hear the latch click or feel the tension in the spring before the clown jumped up from the bottom of the box and into my face. It was suddenly just there.

I looked down and found the last envelope in my hand had my name on it…and my father’s. Fuck. I fucking hate this. I hate that this is still happening. For a solid year my mailbox was full of handfuls and handfuls of mail with my father’s name on it. First, my ailing father’s name, and then, in an even crueler twist of fate, my dead father’s name. To make matters worse, everything with my father’s name on it was actually addressed to me, because, as his conservator and later the administrator of his estate, I legally was him. That was the year when I wasn’t myself. That was the year when I was a dead man. Eventually, the mail slowed to a trickle. Then stopped. I thought it was over, but it never really is. Now, when it happens, it’s always a shock. A clown flinging itself up into my face to remind me that it wasn’t all a just a bad dream. It was real. All of it. Every minute. It all happened. And it keeps on happening when I least expect it.

And to make matters worse, it was a statement of benefits from Medicare. I opened the envelope, slipped the stack of papers out from inside, unfolded them and began to scan the words that had become second nature to me during the crisis. It was a language that I had worked hard to forget and scrub from my mind to make room for happier things, but it turns out that once you’re fluent, you’re fluent for good.

Radiologists. They’d finally started paying the  radiologists for some of the procedures they performed on my father exactly a year ago…

X-ray of the abdomen. Another x-ray of the abdomen. Yet another x-ray of the abdomen: His spleen had ruptured and his liver had been lacerated in the accident.

Thorocentesis with tube insert. Echo guide for biopsy: The exploratory work I consented to to tell us just how quickly his cirrhotic liver was bottoming out. Then, more echos and x-rays over the following weeks as his liver got worse and completely failed.

The CT scan of his head to determine if he was brain dead from the nearly ten minutes he was without oxygen or a heart rhythm as they worked on him after the massive coronary arrest he had because I didn’t put the DNR on him fast enough. He was dead. It was over, and they pounded on his chest and rebroke all of his ribs and his sternum and further pulverized his collapsed left lung and yanked him back from the beyond while I was mid-flight trying to get back to the East Coast and him. I landed to a voicemail telling me he was gone. Sitting slumped and defeated in a chair next to a coffee cart in the United terminal starting at my phone in a state of shock and disbelief, I received another call telling me he was alive. The nurse hung up and left me there there alone amid morning rush at O’Hare to wonder what exactly had returned to us and begin the weeks of waiting and the increasing horror that whatever had come back just would not wake up. Sometimes what’s dead should just stay dead.

It didn’t, though. He lived. And I just kept saying yes to the doctors. Yes to the endless calls from the hospital every night. All night. Yes, do that test. Yes, do that procedure. Yes, keep up the efforts to get him off of the ventilator. Yes, I understand why you have him tied to the bed. Yes, I know he keeps ripping out his feeding tube. Yes, I understand that he’s dying. Yes, pull everything. Yes, keep turning up the morphine and turning up the morphine and turning up the…

And now I get bills for it all. Reminders of every decision I made there in black and white — a little keepsake diary in the mail when I least expect it. A chronicle of every step in the road. Every time I said yes. Everything I put him through. Almost two years later, “Pop Goes The Weasel” still plays slowly and deliberately in my head and my gut clenches as I tear open the envelopes, waiting for the inevitable clown to jump out at me. And something inside me snaps just a little every time it does.

I fucking hate you, you fucking clown.

revisions to a dream

Despite everything that’s happened, I’m ok. Except on the days when I’m not. Yesterday was one of those days, because I woke up my kitchen at 3:30 am the night before with a knife in my hand.

I’m not sleeping. It’s been going on for a while. Reached a fever pitch around Christmas. I’m living on roughly 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Truth be told, I feel pretty amazing; it’s a bit of a high, really. I’ve got dark circles under my red eyes, and I look a little wan, though. My memory is muddled and dull, and my concentration is poor some days. The problem now is not so much insomnia as sleepwalking, which is how I ended up at the counter in the middle of the night making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This is the third time I’ve gotten up in the night and made a sandwich in the past ten days. I don’t know what else I’m doing when I walk, but I find uneaten sandwiches just sitting on the counter in the morning. I don’t know why I am doing something so weird. This was the first time I woke up mid-spread.

First, let me just say that PTSD is a bitch. I’m more and more convinced that, while you can glue your psyche back together, you don’t get the same shape you were before. You have some pieces missing, and a few of the seams never really mend. Some of the cracks just get a tenuous scab on them, at best, and sometimes I apparently pick them off in the night. Can’t leave well enough alone, really. While I feel whole and healed during the day most of the time, my nights are still spent processing. It’s a pretty decent improvement, though, and I don’t complain. Can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good now, can we?

And so, despite how well and happy I feel and appear to be doing in the cold light of day, my mind isn’t done with me. The walking and the dreams are its way of scratching at the walls and whispering, “hey. psst. we’re still in here. it’s all still in here…just waiting. waiting for its chance to spring through the door, teeth bared for your throat, the moment you crack it open a little to see what’s in here, we’re coming for you.” Joke’s on you, though, mind. I know what’s in there, and no fucking way in hell am I even putting my hand on the knob. I hear you knocking. I don’t fucking care. I’m not the least bit curious what you have in there with you. I’ve already seen it in all its glory and horror. It’s why I put it in there. I put it away. Life without possibility for parole. You can push the door open a little in the night and give me a terrible glimpse, if you want, but that’s all your getting before I slam it shut and hope I take a paw off in the process. Make sure you get a good wiff of the fresh air out here when you do it, because you’re going to need that to sustain you in the dark and the dank.

I have had three recurring dreams that pop up from time to time (albeit less and less) since everything happened with Dad. The first, is the constant reliving of his last day over and over again in excruciating and very realistic detail. It could be worse, since, in the end, he had a much better death than I ever expected for him and a much better death than most of us could hope for. He was at peace, out of pain, largely free of the machines, and surrounded by his family through every minute until the last. He passed over with our words of love in his ears. The second dream is the crashing airplane dream. That one doesn’t visit often anymore, but when it does, whoa nelly. The third one…well, I’m not ready to talk about that one yet. Not sure if I ever will be. I haven’t had it in at least six months, and just suffice it to say that it involves a cross-country road trip, a series of shitty motel rooms, and comatose, dying father who at times isn’t really alive anymore when he talks to me and asks me for things. It’s the one that wakes me up drenched and screaming.

When I woke up in the kitchen, I woke in the middle of the “last day” dream. One minute, I was in the hospital room, the next I was in my kitchen. That day was the longest day of my life. It went on for weeks and everything happened in slow motion link and interminable free fall into the inevitable. I remember every single fucking minute of it. Every conversation, every glance at the clock, who sat where when and who did what. It’s like my mind knew it was crucial to stay on the edge of its seat taking notes for each and every second of it. It absorbed it all with thirst and gusto. It was also a good day in that I was in control. I was able to make sure my father had a soft landing counting his breaths and steadily and methodically pumping him full of higher and higher doses of morphine thirty minutes at a time. Every horrible and mericful decision was mine, and I was calmer than I had been in months, because it was finally happening. Death and I were shaking hands, and I was just her instrument. I didn’t have to fight anymore. I had lost, and I knew it. There was peace in defeat. All I had to do was gut it out and hold up my end of the bargain, and we could all go home — including Dad. I didn’t have to keep him tied to the bed anymore. I was setting him free little by little every time I said “yes” to more narcotics on the hour and half hour. I was the boss. I could stay the course. I could do it. Even though it was Dad’s day of dying, the day swirled around me and no one could stop what I was doing, what was happening. I was the one making the calls. It was my reckoning, and I made damn sure that no one would have to answer for it but me.

Each time I have the dream, I go through the same motions and emotions. The day is the same. I do the same things. I make the same decisions, give the same ascents. Mom and brother are at my side and at Dad’s, supporting us both in their own gentle and careful ways. Mom is coping, surprised at her own mourning, but is mostly concerned about me. Brother is constantly next to me, never more than an arm’s reach away. As he had for months, he props me up with his astonishingly light touch of love and laughter and special ability to bring appropriately tender levity to every situation. I’m collapsing into a singularity at never stronger at the same time. I am iron and will and swirling wind and grief and pain and hate and love. Mostly love. I’m the boxer on the ropes in the tenth round begging my trainer to just cut me and send me back into the ring. No towels today. Dad is doing is part to put on his coat, tip his hat, and quietly walking out the door. Everything is very peaceful and bathed in light. Reliving it is not a bad thing. It always sends me reeling for a day or two, but it’s more of a disorienting shift in time than anything else. I can smell the scent of hospital soap and the latex-free gloves I wore constantly in my nose the rest of the day after I have one of these dreams.  It stays with me for a while, and, for the most part, I’m kind of used to it.

This dream was different, though. I just suddenly came into being in my kitchen, knife in hand, standing over the sandwich, ready to slice it into triangles, with an epic and dizzying case of emotional whiplash and sharp, searing pain straight through my abdomen as though I had been stabbed with something large and on fire. I had suffered a literal punch to the gut. My heart was racing. I couldn’t breathe. Hot tears stung my face. I had materialized out of my bed consumed with the most intense feelings of rage and panic and grief possible rushing up at me all at once with blazing speed. It was then that I realized that the dream had been different — this time I hadn’t been me in the dream. This time I had experienced it as my brother. Like some bad sci-fi movie, we had swapped bodies for the day, and I was trapped in his skin with my eyes open and forced to watch. I went through the day from his point of view walking his walk and feeling his feelings. I won’t even go into what that was like and why. His relationship with our father was very much like mine and very different all at once. While I love my father desperately and miss him terribly, he was incredibly difficult for us both, and coming to terms was a challenge. It was not a challenge my brother had fully met before Dad’s death. His private thoughts and emotions are his own, and I cannot begin to speculate what they are in the light of day, much less if my dream interpretation was correct. Suffice it to say that it was an unpleasant experience I do not wish to have again, not only for the disorienting perspective and oh so fresh dose of horror that I had long since declawed and digested, but because in the dream I lacked the control to which I had become accustomed. I did not like my new role, and I have a new appreciation and empathy for the others in the room with me that day not only for how they felt, but for how they saw me and watched what I was doing. The outside looking in view of that was not pretty.

I do not know why my mind went there. I do not know how it did it. I stood there at the counter, staring at the knife, at the sandwich, at the back of my hands that I know as well as I have come to know the dream as it usually comes to me. I felt betrayed. I felt numb. I felt nauseous. I turned 180 degrees, leaned over the sink and threw up onto the dinner dishes soaking in it.

I don’t remember going back to bed, but I did manage to sleep somehow. I woke up a few hours later exhausted, haunted, cranky, and claustrophobic. The walls all felt too close and the ceiling too low. Profound grief, rage, and panic stayed with me. Adrenaline coursed through me even as I already felt tired from the crash of its after effects. I was dizzy and sad. I felt like I’d been in a fight all night. I didn’t want to do anything except roll over onto my side, pull of the covers, and stay in bed all day. Instead, I pulled myself together and into the shower, packed the dog into the car and hauled ass toward the black and white Rockies Mountains shrouded in steel grey clouds at 80 mph with the windows down in the cold and the pounding heart-like beat of Radiohead’s “Up on the Ladder” blasting on repeat on the car stereo. I couldn’t get away fast enough.  It helped. It helped immensely.

I do not mind the dreams so much…when they are my dreams. I do not know what kind of trick it was pulling, but the beast I shut up in my mind got me good. It reminded me that I still have the wolf at the door. That I’m not — and possibly never will be — out of the woods. That’s ok. That’s the price I pay for it all. For living through it even when the worst has happened. I just wish I had some marks on the outside to remind me of the marks on the inside so I don’t get blindsided by it all. Mostly, though, I just hope it doesn’t happen again. Even more than that, I pray that it doesn’t happen again from the perspective of anyone else in that room that day. Living it through my brother’s point of view was a cake walk compared to what it would be like from my mother’s or (gulp) my father’s perspective. I’m not sure either of those wouldn’t crack me in half regardless of how strong and healed I am…or think I am.

In the meantime, I am going to rely on the sanity of daylight and take something to help me sleep at night. And the next time, I’m going to eat that fucking sandwich.

drowned world

When I was little, I loved the movie “The Last Unicorn.” While I was never much of a unicorn kind of girl, the dark story of a lonely and unique creature on a quest to discover the fate of her kind in a dangerous and magical land full of deceitful creatures that sought to destroy her innocence and rob her of her freedom drew me in instantly. It was probably the whole underlying subtext of rape threat or at least the forcible (or not, as will be explained momentarily) loss-of-virginity allegory that subconsciously fascinated the curious pre-adolescent me (the unicorn is immortal, you see, so she tempted a worse fate than death in her quest). But, I digress. That’s a blog post for another time.

In the story, The Unicorn finally finds her brethren — they have been driven into the sea by the enchanted Red Bull of King Haggard who desires to have them to himself. The unicorns live in the surf, you see. The Unicorn is magically turned into the mortal and human Lady Almathea in order to survive her initial confrontation with the Red Bull, because humans are of no consequence to the bull. Upon her rescuing transformation, she and her traveling companions move into Haggard’s castle, where she falls in love with his son and settles into a human life. It’s not long before she forgets about the bull, forgets about her quest and eventually even forgets she’s a unicorn. She’s happy to trade in being unique for being human — safe and loved. It’s easier.

Even when confronted by Haggard, who suspects her true identity, she not only denies herself but has no clue who she is anymore. Haggard knows her better than she knows herself. The very essence of her true self has been obliterated, partly through conscious choice driven by love and self-preservation but partly by the comfort of her current situation. A body at rest tends to stay at rest, even when it means abandoning the very essence of who you are, even when the unicorns are right there in the sea below your castle staring you right in the fucking face on a daily basis.

And so, I find myself in The Unicorn’s dilemma, because I have forgotten who I am. Or at least how to do something very salient to the essence of who I am. I am denying myself.

I have stopped swimming.

Ok, so I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal. Most people don’t even own a bathing suit. Hobbies fall in and out of favor. But swimming isn’t a hobby for me. It’s part of my DNA. It’s hard wired. Those who know me — or at least those who knew me when — know what a big deal this is. I can’t live without the water. I grew up in the Atlantic Ocean and swam before I walked. My mother threw me into the pool hook, line, and sinker during lessons at the Y when I was six months old, and I bobbed back up to surface and kept paddling (that’s how they did it back in the 70s). In fact, I can barely function on land at all. I’m a complete failure on two legs. I don’t have a swimmer’s build, but believe me, I was made for the water. It is my element. My blood is chlorinated. I transform the moment I hit its surface. I suppose the fire sign in me needs some temperament. The fact that I’m no longer doing it means that I am no longer me.

See this? This is sex for me. Nothing is more zen than the moment when I stand on the pool deck at the head of a lane, particularly an empty one like this. I feel tall, which takes a lot at 5’2″. I feel powerful. Invincible. My muscles twitch and ache. My skin flushes. My mouth waters, and I swear to God I can feel my pupils dilate. I feel connected to the water just looking at it. Together, we are absolutely pregnant with potential. I want to slice into it and rip it apart for miles and miles and miles while it wraps around my body. I curl my toes around the edge of the wall and grip it tight — a final grounded moment where I connect myself to the earth in a farewell before I spring and snap myself through the air and into the blue, clear invitation beckoning below me. Time stops. Gravity falls impotent. I am weightless and defiant. It is my lover, mother, twin, and adversary all together all at once. I get in, and I never want to get out. Never want to stop feeling my limbs pull through the water as I propel forward. Exhaust myself to the point of soreness. Push myself to the limit, and just when I think I’ve reached it, push myself some more. Plan ahead to make it worse on the next lap. Harder, better, faster, stronger. Feel the rush of the flip at the wall as I use my core to fling my legs over my head and into the wall with perfect coordination and shove myself into a glide toward the opposing wall. It’s fluid and powerful and balletic. I’m graceful. I’m animal. And there’s nothing but my breath. My constant, heaving, steady breaths. I’m deaf. I’m dumb. The world falls away. No voices in my head. Just air. There is no greater clarity.

While swimming is the ultimate physical expression for me, just doing it isn’t enough. I live in my head, so the mental process is as orgasmic as the physical one. I play mind games in my head with every stroke, every lap. Place bets. Taunt myself. For some reason, count repeatedly to sixty over and over and over again as a meditation. Challenge my head to isolate and connect to each muscle to snap the rotation of my breaststroke kick tighter, feeling the sharp ache in my inner thighs. Will my hips to slam down toward the pool floor harder and pull my wings over and under me for a strong, smooth fly, my pecs and lats burning. Lay back into 200 yards of backstroke, stare at the lines on the ceiling or the clouds in the sky, and think of England while I wait for the flags at the end of the lane to appear. Will my obliques to lead my body into the wall and duck down the perfect push off in an open turn, knowing they will be sore the next day. Extend my short arms to impossible lengths, grabbing and displacing the water with every inch of their flat surfaces down to my fingertips. Empty myself out completely until I’m left hanging on the wall exhausted, calm, satisfied, and spent. Goofy, dazed grin plastered across my face.

So, why did I stop doing something I clearly love, clearly crave? First, the swim culture where I live now is non-existent. The pools here are subpar, and their lap swim hours are just piss poor. I’m used to short and long course pools at world-class facilities that are open until 10pm. The little rec centers here treat swimming as an afterthought and pools as splash time activities for families and the realm of lazy water aerobics classes for non-swimmers who can’t wade beyond four feet of water. I have no respect for vertical water exercise. Get in a lane or get the fuck out.

The problem really lies with me, though. The past three years have been about taking care of things and people other than myself.  They’ve been about dying rather than living. I’ve let my fitness routine slip, let time for myself fall by the way side, and most importantly, denied myself sensual indulgences. I’ve been in crisis mode, enjoying, experiencing, and savoring nothing. Running on fumes and stress and exhaustion and cortisol and adrenaline. Even now, I’m working on this entry at 2:00am, but at least this is cathartic. I’ve disconnected from my body, ignored my physical needs. Let constant motion become my substitute for love as though I no longer deserved to experience the pool as described above. I’ve stopped using my body. Stopped feeding an addiction I loved, and yes, swimming is my crack. It’s not something I can do occasionally. Once I get a fix, I need it all the time. I couldn’t bear to give myself a taste only to have to give it up for work, my dying father, my dying friends, the estate demands, my grief. I just shut myself down completely. Let my gills shrivel into sick and failing lungs. Locked the doors, turned out the lights, and shuttered the windows. When my dad died, I let parts of me die with him. Burned them to ashes and put them on a shelf and forgot about them. Forgot who I was. It seemed easier that way was just too painful to feel, and above all physical sensation had to go, because it was too tangible a reminder that I am still alive. I didn’t want to feel alive anymore. The contrast between how I would feel inside and any stimulation on the outside would be unbearable. Better just to conserve what few shreds of my health and my sanity that were left and just do my best to minimize the collateral damage. Better to deny my senses and my needs. Better to pretend I’m the lady and not the unicorn and let the spark go out of my eyes. Better to just be numb and keep bobbing and weaving and stay in motion without ever moving in order to get through it without feeling the constant blows. Better to ignore the sea full of unicorns staring up at me from below.

Now, I find I’ve changed my mind. I want my religion and my drug back. I want to watch the unicorns tumble back out of the surf. Something clicked over in me with the new year. It’s like someone hit a switch that turned me back on and all my furnaces are stoked. Even though I’m often tired from school and have plenty to do, I walk around with a stupid smile on my face all the time like a lovesick girl. I’m in a state of terminal blush that people remark on constantly. My brain just won’t shut off — I want to do everything all at once. Above all, I want to feel. Want to consume. Want to be bold. Want to taste, laugh, and MOVE. Want to feel things on my bare skin. I’m insatiable with it, like I can’t make up for lost time fast enough. I’m hungry and bottomless and humming with energy. I want to devour. I’m ready to dive back in. I’ve scouted pools. Rented a locker at the university. Bought new suits. I want to swim.

I’ve remembered that I’m The Unicorn again. Remembered what it was I was looking for. I am powerful and ready to go get it even if it means going through the bull to get there. It’s just a matter of time before I dive back in to my wet, warm, silent haven and never surface again.