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What My (Expletive Deleted) Problem Is

I see it now, as clear and bright as the crystalline drops of rain dotting the red berries outside my window. They hang there, brighter, smaller ghosts of the vivid berries, disappearing if I squint. They are, however, there whether I focus on them or not. Equally present is my anger, a constant companion of late, obscured by the busy-ness of full days and my tendency towards stoicism, but there. Always there.

I was going to beat Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There was no denial, I was not angry, and “bargaining” seemed silly – my mother was dead, and besides, with whom would I play “Let’s Make a Deal” to get her back? I would go straight to “depression,” hang tough, and swan into “acceptance” like a champ. People would marvel at my equanimity, my grace, the fact that I could endure her death, my father’s illness, my husband’s illness, and the trials of daily life without missing a beat. I confided in a few, selected and trusted friends, and when I felt completely broken I would consent to lie on the couch and watch HSN while my husband made me Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and went, on his own, to buy a Christmas tree. Because that is what People do when they are mentally healthy and having a tough time; they acknowledge the leaden weight that holds them beneath the surface and let themselves float until they can swim to the nearest raft and pull themselves up onto the solid wooden slats.

Last night, though, I could not even float. After the macaroni, after falling asleep with a dog curled at my feet, I awoke gasping with panic. I needed help, air, the promise that my heart would stop its wild beating in my chest and that my throat would allow me to suck in a slow, sweet breath. It seemed to come from nowhere. I had brought my father back from cancer surgery in much better shape than his doctors had predicted, and he was safe in his own house with his beloved dog, ample pain medication and a great sense of reprieve. I had only one real work obligation left before the holidays, and I was prepared. “What,” I said to myself at 2:17AM “is your fucking problem?”

I was not kind to my panic-stricken self, and I realized that I had not been feeling particularly kind for a few days. I hated pretty much everybody. I had a list in my head, a growing list, of every slight, every failure and every disappointment perpetrated on me by the universe. I am reading Mary Karr’s memoir “Lit,” which is brilliant and fascinating and written so well that I want to weep with envy. Also, I am bitter and angry about the fact that she writes of finding her way out of dysfunction and alcoholism by praying, “falling on her knees” and, eventually, becoming part of a Roman Catholic church community.

As I flip the virtual pages of the Kindle book, Karr grows stronger, happier, better in every way. She prays and surrenders and things begin to fall into place – a car, a book contract, the courage to leave bad relationships and parent her son with wisdom and love. I wish Ms. Karr no ill, but it seems grossly unfair to me that she, so much more damaged than I am, found a way to be functional. I liked the book better when she was a mess, sitting drunk on her back stoop and listening to music through her headphones. That, I understood.

Because I am a mess. An angry, false-fronted mess. Two days ago, I was at the hospital in Ann Arbor where my father had his surgery. I had not been there since January and February, when he had his first surgery for the same cancer. On those trips, I brought my mother. I pushed her in a wheelchair across acres of shiny floors, maneuvering her in and out of small waiting areas and on and off of elevators. I took her to the cafeteria and plied her with bagels and hot tea, trying to distract her from legitimate worry about my father’s prospects. On this week’s trip,  I entered the hospital through a section she and I had never visited, but when it was time to leave, I found myself walking past a waiting area where we had, literally, spent hours together. I was so tired, and as I caught the first glimpse of red carpet and cozy seating arrangements, I knew I couldn’t look at it, couldn’t think about it, had somehow lost my protective bubble.

I began to walk fast, looking straight ahead, and ran into a group of large women blocking my path. They were probably lost, and maybe another time I would have tried to help them, or smiled winningly and apologized for the glancing blow on the left arm of the one in a Lion’s starter jacket, but I didn’t have it in me. I said “sorry” as I altered my own path, trying to maintain my pace and get around them, away from the treacherous waiting area and into the next part of the building.

“What the fuck is your problem?” One of them said.

“…owns the fucking halls” I heard as I walked even faster. I had this impulse, then, to go back and fight with them. I wanted to tell them what the fuck my problem was. I wanted to get right up in their broad, bovine faces and spit words:

“My problem is that my mom died, and I’m exhausted, and something made me sad and I don’t want to cry in public and look ridiculous, and there is nothing that makes me feel better and people who stop suddenly in a spot where people are walking are fucking stupid and it’s their fault if someone runs into them.”

I remembered that, last night on the couch, and I remember it now; time has not mellowed my uncharacteristic anger. I am only glad I didn’t go back and fight with them, because there were four of them and they were very large. My uncharacteristic anger is, as it turns out, characteristic. At least for right now. The list runs through my head like ticker tape. I am angry at the people who said they would “be there” for me, but really have neither the time nor the energy to be there unless they have some unexpected swathe of leisure time during which they can make themselves feel better by checking on my welfare. It isn’t that I necessarily even want to hear from those people; it just seems particularly careless to offer a conditional lifeline to an unconditionally drowning person.

I am angry at myself for dumping my feelings onto the faithful friends and family who are there for me because I worry that I will wear them out if I do not parcel out my grieving among them in palatable portions. I am angry about the shooting in Connecticut, because the unique and unimaginable grief of a community is being co-opted and exploited by everything from news broadcasts and political squabbles to well-meaning Facebook posts. I am angry that the first Rite-Aid doesn’t have the right antibiotics and I have to drive across town to get them. I am angry that I don’t care about Christmas this year, and that everything about it reminds me of my mother, and that in the midst of the ads and the cards and the trees and the parties I am just gritting my teeth and waiting for it to be over.

That, in an enormous and wordy nutshell, is the answer to “what the fuck is your problem?” Kubler-Ross wins. I’m angry. I’m irrationally, painfully, angry and bitter and spoiling for the kind of cathartic fight that might act as a release valve. I can’t fight with Mary Karr, or strangers at the hospital, or pharmacists, and I’m still compos enough to get that it’s wrong to turn my wrath on my innocent husband and son (even though I know that they would still love me). Instead, it squats hideously in my chest, just under my sternum, rattling me awake and pumping enough adrenaline that I could probably fight five women at the hospital complete with uppercuts and roundhouse kicks.

So, Ms. Kubler-Ross, this is normal, but what do I do? You are precisely no help, being dead and all. I have this great plan about taking a hot bath and burning lavender incense, but there isn’t a full-sized tub in this house. Or, for that matter, any lavender incense. So maybe this: a brisk walk, a hot shower with sandalwood incense (which I actually have), a little Hildegarde of Bingen on Spotify, no newspapers, no TV, probably a good cry. Less junk food, more vegetables. I don’t know how to stop being angry because I’m usually not, but maybe taking care of myself is a start.

Maybe, first, I stop swearing at myself, treat myself like a person I care about, teach myself to channel this anger into something that won’t leave a mark when I move on to the next stage.


13 responses »

  1. It does get better. I promise. And I’ve never lied to you before. Sending you a virtual hug. Another member of the “missing my mommy” club.

  2. I know it doesn’t help to tell you that the all-encompassing anger you are feeling is completely normal. I know it doesn’t help to tell you I understand and that I’ve been there. But I’m saying it anyway, because there is nothing else to say. Except that I’m sorry, I know how much it hurts and I’m sorry the anger is a natural part of it that has to be walked through. One day you will find, with great relief, that the anger is starting to abate. I promise. I know this to be true. Until then, the anger is doing it’s job of keeping you out of the great sucking hole you would otherwise fall into.

  3. If there’s a hotel in town that has a hot tub and a day spa, my beautiful lady, how checking in for a day of well deserved, over-earned pampering? A massage and a hot tub and whatever you need?

    I’m sorry this is so awful. It is. It’s flat-out, inescapably awful. Even when we know rationally why it’s awful.

    Virtual hug on top of Amy’s.

  4. i love you ann……i’m sorry for your pain…..and it sounds so cliche but i really do live by this……what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger….it will get better… will be better…..and for whatever it’s worth…..your writing is always amazing, but even more so when i can feel your heart strings……so while all seems to be bad, and feel bad, something good comes of it….we get to share with you through your craft. your writing always moves me….

  5. Grieving a death is a long assed roller coaster with nasty turns and plummeting dives. I’ve found it uncontrollable and unpredictable, and it will have its way until you float above it and it slows down in frequency. I’m so sorry, Ann. Your writing reminds me of rhythms of my grief…unidentical, but familiar.. Thank you for all of it..and as more articulate folks than I have noted, be gentle with yourself all along the way. My thoughts and prayers to you in this and all journeys. …I will share this piece with a woman who just lost her nurse daughter in an emergency hellicopter accident; I know it will help her.

  6. I don’t know the answers. I lean towards you’re getting through it — as messy as it is, as scary as it can be; you’re feeling your anger, you’re feeling your pain, you’re talking about it, you’re writing about it. I lean towards letting yourself do this because looking for shortcuts and taking them may lead you in the opposite direction you truly need to travel so you can find the wholeness you’re looking for. The wholeness you need in order to heal.
    Like I said, I don’t know the answers. I don’t know because when I went through tremendous loss of someone I loved, I didn’t let myself feel any of the anger or the grief, or talk about it, or write about it. I buried it all, and in the process, myself. And that burial came at great cost to myself and my family.
    We’re here for you. We love you.
    I love you.

  7. So many things said to touch anyone who is, or has been, where you are now. That is your gift, Ann. You can ‘say’ so well. I read this several times and was gifted with a different bit of wonderful each time. I identify with what you say — more than you know. Always have. Keep saying, Ann. You are exactly where you need to be, feeling what you need to feel. There is a path to walk, and macaroni-n-cheese stops on the sofa are essential. We have to stop — for rest, and nourishment of all kinds, on all of our long, long walks. Keep going honey. You are that much closer to wherever it is you are going with every step you take into this grief and mourning. Take it all in. It’s there for your benefit, not your detriment. Love you.

  8. “…it just seems particularly careless to offer a conditional lifeline to an unconditionally drowning person.” Oh yes. I LOVED this bit of writing – no truer words could be said.

  9. This sounds so, so painfully familiar. Four years ago, my mom died within spitting distance of Christmas, her very favorite time of any year, ever. None of us, that year, knew What To Do About Christmas. Mom was the family host, and I sure as hell wasn’t up to stepping into her shoes. I could’ve tried to make it more festive, more make-the-best-of-it, but…I wasn’t having it. No tree. No dinner. No cookies or fudge. Almost no presents. (I did have a nice picture of her home, where we grew up, put on canvas for my brother and for myself. But that was more a peace offering, because I knew we’d have to sell her house and he was having a harder time dealing with that.)

    I was quietly angry–angry at the lawyer and the realtor and the dude who plowed her driveway, angry at my grandfather for his (entirely characteristic) behavior before and after her death, angry even at a beloved cousin for initiating a toast to Mom as if we were all feeling exactly the same loss at the same time in the same way. I wasn’t sad at Christmas–I was PISSED.

    It does dissipate, in time. There’s no remedy for this part BUT time, as far as I can tell. But time does work, in the end.

    Wishing you peace…(from a stranger, I know, but heartfelt, I promise.)

  10. Grief is not a fucking problem, not a situation to be corrected or made right. Nothing is wrong. This is how it feels to lose the most important person in your life. Grief issues an official pass, a license to burst into tears at the sight of red carpeting, or to push past a group of people blocking your way and not say excuse me. Then, the next time someone pushes past you without acknowledgement, you think, perhaps that person is grieving someone.

    I imagine every single human alive misses someone beloved at a particular holiday, knitting us all together into a giant holiday sweater of loss. This will be my second momma-less Christmas, and it feels almost as achy as the first (you probably don’t want to hear that). I’ve pretty much accepted that the missing will never ever stop, that Christmas and especially Mother’s Day, have been redrawn as momma-missing holidays.

    Wishing you a tender holiday, and free indulgence in a few moments of stomping around the backyard or stabbing the ham.

  11. I just discovered this blog and what a find it is.(it was in a search result for ‘syliva plath wordpress’.) I feel as if the posts pull me right into your head. Your writing style is straightforward yet sparkling with surprizing and delightful turns-of-a phrase throughout.
    Sure wish I could write like that !
    ‘your new fan’ KateQuinn.

  12. I know nothing about losing your mother. In fact, she is so with me due to my illness that this post scared the hell out of me. But Annie, all I know about grief and shadow is that when I go through instead of around (huh, that’s easy for me to say isn’t it?), when I get through that so-called dark night of the soul I have aged like whiskey. Not wine, that is smooth, but whiskey, with still a bit of bite but the same me. Someone or thing that runs this place designed it that way, for some unknown reason. Or so it seems. I just hope I can follow my own advice when one of my parents goes.

  13. This is amazing. I am so glad you put my anger into words.My mother is dying ,is at home in hospice and I change her, feed her and am now the guardian of my mentally handicapped brother. My anger seems to seep from my pores and I have no time for fools. I thank you for this essay.


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