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.

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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.

i’ll take potpourri for 200, alex

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

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

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

turn the page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be or not to be

When I tell people I’m a Ph.D. student, the inevitable question is, “What do you plan to do with your degree?” I’m always a little astonished at this, because hey, tenure track academics. What else, right? I am so sure, so fixated on one path for me, that I forget that not everyone does the same.

And so, on Mother’s Day I find myself not wondering what I will do with my degree, but what kind of academic I will be. Seems like a strange subject for Mother’s Day, right? Not really. I have been lucky enough to be gifted not only with my incredible biological mother, but also with amazing, supportive women who have served as mentors along the way. I cannot overstate the importance and impact of a good mentor. Sadly, I lost both my professional mother and my original academic mother to untimely deaths in recent years, and for the most part, I have found myself utterly lost without them. I still don’t know what to do with myself when something amazingly good or bad happens to me. I want to pick up the phone to share the news with them or get their advice, and then I remember that I can’t. I have only their words of kindness and wisdom — and their innate trust in me and my abilities — to take with me and carry me forward. I’m out of the nest and on my own now.

The good news is that I have been lucky enough to have lightning strike a third time in the wonderful friend, adviser, and new academic mother I found almost immediately upon starting my Ph.D.. She’s very different from me, and we don’t always see eye-to-eye, but man, does she believe in me. She is my champion and protector, and she challenges me to do good work. She sees my success as a point of pride for her rather than a threat. Sees me as a legacy she is grooming with no plans to claim credit. It helps her to have her in my corner cheering me on and paving the way. The woman has my back, if nothing else. But there is something else. There’s the advocating and muscling behind the scenes on my behalf. There is the money to attend conferences. There are the chats over lunch. There are the extensive editorial notes on my work, telling it like it is when I can still fix and improve what I have written. The emails telling me that she’s proud of me. The phone calls to say hi, to check on me, to tell me a funny story, to let me know of another student’s award for his dissertation only to be followed by, “That will also be you, my girl. You’re next.” I can’t beat that, and I don’t intend to try. I know when I’m lucky, and I’m loyal to her. I don’t sneeze at people who pick up a sword and stand between me and disaster.

I am acutely aware that I am fortunate to have her. More importantly, I know that I am fortunate to have had every mentor I have had, and they are not easy to find. Most people never get one, and I’ve had three. And the result? The commitment it inspires in me to be a mentor myself. To shape myself to be the kind of academic, the kind of professor who reaches down and pulls students up. Who gathers talent and grooms it. Who values young minds and, even better, is valued by them in return. I have to say that I think deciding the kind of professor you are going to be is just as important as deciding the kind of research you are going to do. A good teacher specializes in more than just her subject area. She specializes in her students. Students are what last and live on long after you are gone. Their success and happiness are the ultimate measure of a teacher’s worth.

I went to a party for a new Ph.D. graduate last night. While there, I noticed something when the conversation turned one faculty member in particular: nobody had anything good to say about her. Despite her seniority and tenure, everyone agreed that, as a teacher and an adviser, she was someone to be avoided at worst, tolerated silently as a means to an end at best. Knowing and working with her was something you gritted your teeth and suffered through like some horrible rite of passage, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. You can always tell she is the topic of discussion in any group of students by the rolling eyes and hushed tones as though speaking her name will incur the wrath of some black curse on all present. Like a cancer you might catch. She has a reputation for being petty, spiteful, jealous, vengeful, and wickedly capricious, particularly when it comes to other, up-and-coming female academics. She puts down the research topics and theories of others — “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” is the sentence most likely to slip from her lips like a broken record. Because she does not know how to be loyal to her students, she assumes them all disloyal to her, and so no one trusts her, much less likes her. Everyone deems her dried up — unhappy and dissatisfied in her life. Here is this woman in middle age as her career wanes, and not a single student could speak well of her or her research, much less sing her praises as a teacher, mentor, or, worse yet, a person. I feel sorry for her. I don’t think this is what who she wants to be, or even set out to be, but, the fact of the matter is, this is who she is and how she is regarded. She chose this. She made it come to pass. She is a road map for loneliness. She is a cautionary tale.

This experience frames a stark contrast to my late, great academic mother from my master’s degree program. She gathered students around her and her husband and made us a family. Regardless of age, all of her chosen were known as her “kids,” and we wore it as a badge of honor. She took care of us, and we took care of each other and her. We felt safe, secure, and supported both personally and professionally. We knew she would go out on any limb for us, and we would all do the same for her and our brothers and sisters. We still do. We worked our asses off to produce our best in research and in the classroom as a result. Our reputations were her reputation, and we took that link seriously and treated it preciously. We felt enormous pride to have a relationship with such a good heart and a brilliant mind, and her company was warm, loving, and coveted. Students lined up to take her classes and work with her. Anyone on her team broke their necks to go above and beyond on her projects. Her sense of humor was refreshing and second to none. Being her student meant being her friend, and she took the time to know us inside out. She drove us home at the end of the day, took us to dinner, had us over to her house for parties. Knew our concerns, our interests, our competing priorities, our pitfalls, our interests, and our long-term goals. There wasn’t a mean or petty bone in her body. Utterly secure in her own mind and competency, she worked overtime to smooth the way for us and see we got what we needed to succeed. She treated us as equals, as colleagues, and we all flourished under her tutelage as ardent allies and cheerleaders for each other. She was well-regarded by students, by the college, by the university and in her field. You could tell when others were discussing her, because the group would glow and laugh and smile and bond while doing it. She inspired brilliance and love and brought out the best in us all. When she passed, we were all crushed. We leaned on each other in our grief and still do. The friendships she gifted us have only grown stronger and more committed in the wake of her life. She used to say that she viewed her relationship with her students as just a beginning. We see the time we spent with her in this world the same way. As hard is it is that we cannot pick up the phone and call her, she’s still very much with us every day, giving us strength in all we do. We still work hard to do right by her reputation and make her proud. I drop her name every chance I get because I am honored to know her. While she may not have been my actual mom, she will always have had a role in birthing and mothering the woman and academic I am. She is my hero.

And so, when choosing my path as a budding academic and future professor, I am giving a great deal of thought to what kind of mentor I want to be and how I want to lead. Long story short, I want to be a mother. I want to be generous and take the high road. I want to do right by the mentors who molded me and continue their work so that they might live and teach through me. I want to throw my lot in with other brilliant, growing minds. To bask in their glow and be inspired by their ideas and theories. To lead by example. To be a mentor people — particularly young women — trust and want to have. To remain open and supple and happy and funny. To be a port in the storm. To support without ego. To hand over diplomas and put hoods over heads with a loving smile. To attend their graduation parties and be welcome. To be spoken of with love and gratitude when I am not there. To have the honor of seeing students flourish and become my colleagues, too. Not only because I see the ravages of unhappiness in the the professor who burns her bridges, but because I see the satisfying path of love in the legacy of a woman who gave of herself. And really, what are research and teaching but putting a piece of yourself out there to join with others and become something bigger and better than yourself? Sort of like parenting in a way, right? Funny, that.

phantom limb

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

I died two years ago last night.

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dc sleeps alone tonight

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

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

“Father.”

“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”

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

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

“Yes, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

woman’s best friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

A girl and her dog.

101.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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