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.

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.

 

turn the page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a season in purgatory

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

Yeah, it’s just that bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I sure wish you were here.”

“I know, Dad. I love you.”

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

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

These things do not help the situation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gone where?”

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

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

And that is dying.”

phantom limb

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

I died two years ago last night.

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

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

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

“Hello?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How soon can you get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

table for one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, tomorrow is another day.

fever pitch

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

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

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

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