strange bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You snore.”

“Not too much.”

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

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

“Christ.”

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

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

“You look beat.”

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dark star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Almost 20 minutes,” the nurse replied.

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

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

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

“You’d better learn quick, then.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

“That’s what I’m saying.”

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

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

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

“Wait. You’re leaving?!” he said.

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

“Oh my God. No one told you?!”

“Told me what?”

“Your Dad is awake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ma’am. Turn off your phone.”

“I will. After this call.”

“Now. Turn it off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can relate.

 

i’ll take potpourri for 200, alex

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

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

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

horizon vertigo

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

— Isak Dinesen

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

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

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

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

And then, I lost my damn mind.

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

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

“I’m freaking out,” I replied.

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

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

“Feel what?”

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?”

“Pull over.”

“Pull over? And do what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

turn the page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to be or not to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

progress & evaluation

Spring is an exciting time of year for academics. Well, exciting if you’re not the one having to write comps, defend comps, finish dissertations, defend dissertations, and generally just try to graduate. Granted, there are always tons of semester deadlines and conference deadlines, but for first and second year doc students, spring is a time when we get to observe and celebrate our more advanced colleagues’ milestones. We can bask in the glow of their reflected light, as it were. Life’s real easy out here in the cheap seats. Still, it’s a time of nervous energy and lots of good and exciting news for people we care about. It’s a time when we generally all get to cheer each other on and be happy for one another.

In this vein, I was honored to attend a friend’s dissertation defense this week. It was the first one I have observed, and it went really well. My friend was the epitome of cool and handled her committee with grace and aplomb. In short: she’s my hero. I took notes on everything from her demeanor to who she had on her committee, to theories they discussed, to suggestions they had about turning her work into a book after graduation. It was thrilling to be there at the inception of her new life as a “Dr.,” and it was a generally eye-opening experience for me that has had my wheels turning ever since.

As we gathered at a local Mexican joint to throw back good tequila and passable cervezas to celebrate her victory, several people around the table remarked on something I too found exceptional at the defense: more than one committee member described the dissertation as a “page-turner.” Wow. What an amazing compliment. Praise for your writing — any writing — doesn’t get any better than that. We were all blown away by that comment and in unanimous agreement that it made our brilliant friend’s achievement a resounding success. I decided to use it to set a personal standard for myself. I decided to write a dissertation that would be worthy of the same assessment from its readers, because, really, no one wants to read a boring dissertation. Or a boring anything. And God know, I certainly don’t want to write one. That just sounds onerous.

And so, I’ve chosen a subject to research and write about that I really like. It’s a topic that’s been a glaring whole in the academic conversation for almost 30 years now. It’s painfully obvious and big enough to drive a semi through, and yet, amazingly enough, no one has touched it. They’ve touched every aspect of the general subject around it for decades, and yet nobody has wanted to go near the bullseye right there on the lid of Pandora’s box. I’m not sure why, but the low-hanging fruit of sorts was sitting right there waiting for me to pluck it. And pluck I shall. It’s a fun topic, kind of a sexy topic, and it always makes people laugh and lean in to hear more when they hear what I’m working on. They want to know more. They have opinions on it. They want to get involved. It’s become my identity now, and it suits me just fine.

I take all of this as a good sign. I am encouraged by the compliments I get on my papers about it. I am even more encouraged that my work is getting accepted at conferences and even winning awards, although, truth be told, the latter comes as a bit of a shock to me. A welcome shock, but a shock no less. People corner me or strike up conversations about my work in hallways and elevators at conferences. I get emails from people who attended my sessions — or people who talked to people who attended my sessions. Or people who attended whole other conferences I didn’t attend where they heard about my paper in other sessions. It’s mind boggling. I’m sure it happens to lots of people, though, and it’s just new to me. Still, my research has groupies, and I have barely even started. To be perfectly frank, though, it’s not like what little I’ve written is world famous or anything. It’s just gotten a little bit of attention in a very small, dark corner of the tiny island my area of academics occupies. Perspective, please. And really, part of it is the title of the paper (I’m good with catchy titles), and, truth be told, part of it is my name. It’s odd. It’s unbelievable to people when they first hear it. It gets remembered. It gets attention. It probably doesn’t matter what I’d scribble in dull crayon on the back of a torn paper bag, if my name was attached to it, people would still sit up and say, “Who? What?” And that is by no means an achievement or anything that speaks to my skills as a writer, researcher, or…anything at all, really. It’s just a testament to my parents’ ability to give me a great, funny, slightly goofy, and quite honestly, pretty porny, name. I’m sure people are totally let down when they actually get to put a face to the name, because I’m just not that interesting.

And so, a couple of papers in, my research is off to a good start. Nothing amazing, just relatively smooth start so far, but this week came the rough part. I had a big name professor (if we have one of those) step right up and express interest in my work and in serving on my committee without solicitation. This professor has been supportive of what I’ve been doing, and I was flattered without coming right out and saying yes right away. Unfortunately, this development still lead me into uncharted academic jealousy territory with another faculty member that I didn’t expect and didn’t see coming. I was completely blindsided by it, and at a moment that wasn’t especially good for me emotionally. It wasn’t my first faculty turf war of sorts here, but it did make for a particularly unpleasant moment. Something that should have made me feel really bolstered made me feel really crummy for about 24 hours, but then I got over it and told everyone to just grow up and trust that I’m not selling anyone out or going behind anyone’s back and that I know what I’m doing with my own work. The trust has to go both ways, people. Also, perspective is a good thing. It’s just academic research. I want advice, not to be lead around by the nose, and I’m not anyone’s territory. My research is mine — good or bad, win or loose, succeed or fail. I am the one who has to live and die with it in the end.

And, while we don’t have to do comps or dissertation defenses yet, first year Ph.D. students in my program do have to create a document called a P&E, or progress and evaluation, proposal. It’s not really a big deal, nor is it a big document (mine was six pages). It’s mostly just one more annoying thing to add to your plate when you’re already busy, but it’s a little burdensome in that it forces you to assess your work and organize a statement of what you’ve done in your first year, give a summary of your proposed research, and then look waaaaaay down the road and make a degree plan that lays out the courses you want to take for the rest of your program. We’re talking years’ worth of planning. We’re talking hunting and pecking through department websites to try and sleuth out who offers what course. No, I mean who really offers what course, not what is just in the catalog but never sees the light of day. We’re talking contacting numerous professors in various departments who are complete strangers to you, your abilities, and your accomplishments to try and get a straight answer, a syllabus, and a little bit of interest out of them. We’re talking selling yourself constantly for a couple of weeks straight when you really don’t feel like it at all. And when it comes to independent study, you really have to put yourself out there on a limb and hope that someone nibbles. My P&E proposal was due today.

The process of poking at hives to see who’d come out and play with me was a little unnerving, but in the end, a good experience. I had one professor respond to my little two-page CV with a “Wow. What a great life!” Really? Ok! I had several more tell me my research was fascinating. Three expressed interest in meeting with me about it. Three agreed to do independent study with me (although, I can only do it with two classes). Everyone wanted me in their classes, but, to be honest, they probably want any warm body in their classes to make sure they meet the minimum enrollment, so there’s probably nothing to that. Still, while emotionally exhausting and time intensive, this process of feedback and exchange has been informative and encouraging. It’s also been overwhelming as I work to make strategic contacts that will please me, please my adviser, benefit my dissertation, and meet with approval from the committee that will review and approve my P&E proposal. It’s all very delicate and political with the whole chicken-and-egg, first-things-first, you-scratch-my-back-blah-blah-blah of the process. So many hoops to jump through. So many balls in the air. So many places to screw it all up. So far, so good, however. I got positive feedback from everyone I contacted, and my adviser complimented what I put together.

In the end, what’s really scary about the P&E process is the final product. I sat down and looked at it today before I sent it off and thought, “Whelp, that’s it. Your life for the next three years all on six pieces of paper.” I’ve never thought that far ahead. Never had a plan. Never felt so locked in and committed to anything, and, I won’t lie, I started to suffocate and needed a glass bottle of wine when I read it over and started to freak the fuck out. It was claustrophobic. Even more overwhelming is the way the document painted a picture of the career I mapped out for myself — of the person I was going to become. When did I become a gender studies scholar? When did I become a hardcore feminist? When did I start taking rhetoric courses? Who is this person? When the hell did I get so damn focused? Ha. I imagine from the outside looking in, most people who know me would laugh at that last statement and tell me I’ve always been focused like a laser. Funny, but I always feel scattered inside, even if I’m totally honed in with tunnel vision on the exterior. I have to admit that I was a little scared that I’m not building in enough diversity to give myself some breathing space with this plan, but, then again, maybe I need to learn to breathe with a little less room if I’m going to get anything meaningful done in any reasonable amount of time.

Really, though, I don’t doubt myself. It’s a good plan. I’m going to be happy with it. I’m pleased with how my first year is wrapping up. I know what I want and how to get it. I feel confident and powerful and like I know exactly what I’m doing and wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m where I belong. I love the skin I’m in. I’ve never been so sure in my life. I hear people out, but nobody’s voice is in my head except my own. My intuition guides me well at every turn. I’ve got good backing, and I’m honored to have the mentors I do, but I’m nobody’s bitch.

And so, I bit the bullet and turned the proposal in and figured that would be the last I’d hear of it for a while. Figured it was mostly just an exercise. Figured I could move on to grading papers and putting together lectures and filling out fellowship applications. Figured nobody would give it a second look and I’d get a rubber stamp with a couple of obligatory comments from the committee in a few weeks. Figured nobody would actually read it.

Within two hours of sending the document, I got an email in response to my proposal: “I find your topic interesting — I actually read this, rather than just glancing as I usually do. Your research is a real page-turner.”

Guess I’m on the right track after all.

dc sleeps alone tonight

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

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

“Father.”

“Come here, Prodigal Daughter.”

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

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

“Yes, Father.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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