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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.

Maybe.

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New Mom

I haven’t written much lately. The hours of my days seem to be sucked into a vortex of duties. They are not unpleasant, and I begrudge nobody, but there are times, whole hours, whole days when I want to raise my hands palms-out and stop it all. I want to say, in the kindest way imaginable, “please just let me breathe. Let me grieve my loss. Let me absorb the continuous blows that, maybe a year ago, would have killed me but which I now accept as my daily bread. Permit me to abandon all pretense of grace and ease and charm just long enough to be the selfish beast that I am right now, the bottomless pit of need, a motherless child facing down the red and green barrel of everyone else’s Christmas spirit.” It’s not pretty, but it’s real. Right now, it’s real.

Last night, though, I had a moment. It was the kind of moment that reminds me that life is still out there bustling with promise and energy and goodness. After a very long day of work, I sat down to talk to a little girl who is a regular guest at the dinners I cook on Wednesday nights. She comes to the meals with her mother and her grandmother; her brother is in the Christmas pageant, and when he goes upstairs to the Church’s sanctuary to rehearse after dinner she stays at one of the round tables and colors with her “Grammy.”

It’s clear that she has an impairment of some kind. Although I was never sure what it was, and whether it was organic or traumatic in origin. It didn’t seem polite to ask her mother or her grandmother, and it really didn’t make any difference. I had started a Wednesday pattern of hanging out with her for a while, watching her find Waldo, or tell me about what she was drawing. She has the gentlest little voice, and radiates a kind of Buddha-like acceptance of everything around her; ten minutes with her soothed the beast within.

Last night, as the three of us talked, her grandmother volunteered the information that the girl had suffered a brain tumor, and that the treatment had severely diminished her brain functioning. As the older woman talked, I noticed that the child was drawing a rainbow with the colors in their proper “ROYGBIV” order. “How does she know that?” I asked, pointing at a rainbow-covered sheet.

“It’s something she remembers” her grandmother explained. “When you lose parts of your brain it’s hard to predict what will work afterwards.” The girl looked up from her drawing, focusing her big, dark brown eyes on mine.

“Do you have a mom and dad?” she asked. I hesitated. I didn’t want to upset her, but it would be odd to say that I just had a father without explaining the reason. I looked to her grandmother for guidance. She knew I had only recently lost my mother.

“You can tell her,” she said. “It’s very important to her that everybody has a mom and dad. We aren’t sure why.”

“I have a dad,” I told her, “but I don’t have a mom anymore. She died.”

“Your mom died?” she said, selecting a handful of crayons. “I will make you a new mom.” She started to draw. “Eyes,” she said, drawing two circles, “and legs,” she continued, adding arms and hair and other necessary mom parts. She was calm and workmanlike, as if it was no big thing to fill a gaping hole in someone’s life. When she was satisfied, she looked up at me.

Image

“Is it okay if I take it with me?” I asked. She nodded.

“I made you a new mom” she said. I nodded again.

“Can you write your name on it so I remember who made it for me?” She nodded again. She formed shapes on the paper, in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Well, as close as she could come with the crayons at her disposal. “Thank you” I said. She was on to more rainbows, and didn’t look up.

And there are a million corny things I could say to end this – things about the triumph of the spirit, or counting my blessings, or the mouths of babes. I could say things that might make me gag a little, things that might diminish the power of a moment of true grace.

But I won’t. You get it, right?

Raw

I am alarmed by suggestions that I am handling the loss of my mother with anything approaching grace. I worry that there may be people reading my words and thinking that they should be all philosophical, and find silver linings when they are doubled over in pain. I worry that I am, by shaping my stories to reflect the highest and most presentable of my thoughts, creating guilt in fellow sufferers.

So this time, I will try harder to tell the truth in its most raw and unfiltered form. This is just a report from the trenches. There is no tidy wrap up at the end. If you are looking for that, for some kind of reassurance, I am not your girl today.

Five weeks ago tomorrow, my mother died. Last night I found out that my father’s cancer has returned. There’s more, but the other stories are not mine to tell. These are heavy things, and by last night I was crushed by their collective weight. I went to work when I should have taken the day off. I went to work because I’m worried about losing my job, and because there is always this brisk, loud and unwelcome Puritan in my head prattling about bucking up, doing the needful, and being a Good Girl. I should have throttled her. I should have taken the day off.

So after work, physically exhausted and not really in my right mind (assuming that such a thing exists) I decided that my situation called for certain numbness. Food usually works, but I was absolutely not hungry. Besides the which, my refrigerator is filled with leftovers from Monday’s memorial service, and there was an irrational wrongness in using that food to throttle the Puritan and numb my grief. This grief, you see, refused to be contained any longer by the benisons of lovely manners and native stoicism. It leaked every time I had a moment’s pause, tears flowing, breath ragged, pulse racing.

So I decided that I would get drunk. This was problematic for a number of reasons, chief among them the fact that I don’t ever drink, and don’t tolerate alcohol very well. I tried, though; I mixed myself a vile combination of Crystal Light and Jack Daniels and drank it all, remembering every story I had ever heard or read about the moment when alcoholics began to feel calm, steady, and generally better.

There was no click. I did not feel drunk, numb, or better. I felt as sad as I had felt before, with the additions of nausea and a death-dealing headache. I will tell you, because we’re being honest, that in those hours I thought about how it might be okay with me if I died. Nothing intentional, nothing that would upset my family inordinately; I would just make a mistake – take some pills on top of the alcohol and slip away from this brutal, vicious mess. I’ll tell you something else: I took one of those pills you are never supposed to take when you’ve been drinking. I took it to fix the headache. I was pretty sure that enough time had passed that I would not stop breathing and die, and I was also pretty sure that more than one pill would be required to knock off a person of my size. But I wasn’t completely sure. It was my own little game of roulette, a private thing in my head as I lay on the couch not laughing at TV comedies and leaking eyeliner-black tears.

So much for grace. There’s really no need to monitor me or send me for counseling. It was one wretched evening, I’m better today, and maybe most important of all I think that what happened was perfectly normal in the course of coming to grips with a shit storm of loss, terror, readjustment and the terrible fatigue that comes from being well-mannered and stoic when the soul requires nothing so much as an epic tantrum followed by cocoa and a reading of “Goodnight, Moon.”

(That was a really long sentence – clearly part of the revolt against restraint and convention. Next thing you know, I’ll be splitting infinitives and using “task” as a verb).

I just wanted you to know that while it often suits me to portray myself as a smooth, marble bust of Calm and Hope in the Face of Grief, I am frequently more like an abandoned scarf unraveling in a puddle of dirty water. Not smooth, not calm, not hopeful, just pathetically floundering around, not showering, watching hours and hours and hours of whatever appears on the television and eating dry cereal out of the box at 2:00 in the morning.

And if that’s where you find yourself, I’m right there with you.

And, probably, I love you. Because all of us living raw need to stick together, and make each other cocoa and read each other “Goodnight, Moon.” Because otherwise, this world is just intolerable.

 

The Faulkner Inheritance

 Faulkner I

I’ve been okay all day, in that way that one is okay because it’s necessary. The illness and death of a parent are so banal, really – it happens to everyone, sooner or later. My mother has been sick for years, and I have been ready for her death more times than I can count. I have expected the phone call, rehearsed farewells, and tried to harden myself against the waves of grief and loss and confusion. She’s always been there, my whole life. She has been nurturer, antagonist, and, lately, friend. She’s been a good mother, part of an enviable set of parents. I have no complaints except for the fact that she seems to be leaving me when I’m not really quite ready.

So, as I said, I was okay until I moved the pile of books on the dining room table because the cat threw up. On the top of the pile was a Viking Portable Faulkner that belonged to my mother in college. I’ve been on a Faulkner kick this summer, and although I am actually reading The Sound and the Fury, I borrowed the book from her because it had a great map in the inside cover that showed where all of the stories took place. I bumped the book with my bottle of spray cleaner and it fell over, open to the inside front cover with her name written in her Palmer-perfect writing. “Leah Louis, ’57, Wellesley College.” I was lost.

Faulkner II 

I see her, with her shiny black hair, her Talbot’s skirt and her cardigan, sitting in the library reading Faulkner and taking the notes that fill the margins. She was pretty, feisty, sure of herself, dating Harvard boys on the weekend and having long conversations with her roommates. She had met her first, “starter” husband, but not my father, the love of her life. She went to hear the Boston Symphony when she could get rush tickets, and she had a crush on the poet Robert Lowell.

She is struggling with Faulkner’s stream of consciousness; I know this because we talked about it when I read him for the first time in high school. (My notes appear alongside hers in several places). At seventeen, struggling to separate myself from her bright, quick charisma I was horrible. It wasn’t hard to read, I said. I got it. She held her tongue because I needed, in that moment, to be my own bad self. It was hard to be the lumpy, insecure daughter of a woman who was good at her job, a fabulous cook, and a person capable of making things happen. It was hard to be me, and it seemed so easy to be her before I knew about the losses, the failures, and the humanity invisible to the children of conscientious parents.

I was ridiculously careful not to cry on the ink because it might smear. That smart, Midwestern Jewish girl reading Faulkner in the Wellesley library was someone I desperately wanted back, even for a minute. Well, not that girl, but the woman she had become. I needed to know that my last conversation with her, during which I talked and she didn’t seem to hear me, was not really the last one. I tried to remember what we talked about – was it about Sam’s scooter being fixed, or about meat for a Fourth of July dinner? Had I been short with her because she forgot that I don’t eat meat anymore and asked if my father should pick up a chicken breast for me?

I wept for her, and me, and because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t just buck up and understand that all of this happens to everyone. I’m ashamed that I considered sleeping with the book under my pillow tonight. Because that old, blue book belonged to that promising girl who became my mother, and who raised me to be another reader of Faulkner, another good cook, and another force to be reckoned with.

I’ll see her in the morning, and if she isn’t up to talking, I can read her a little Faulkner. Maybe it will turn some key in the parts of her mind that are closed to the rest of us these days. Maybe she’ll be doing better, and we’ll talk; I’ll have another chance at a memorable conversation, one I can look back on and say “I was a good daughter, I was kind and loving, and I said the right things.” Probably I’ll just sit in a plastic chair and listen to machines beep.

Whatever comes, I think I can handle it. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Maisy at the Computer 

 As I clean house this morning, I keep finding traces of her. Clumps of her fluffy, blonde hair (she was a shedder) and a plastic food wrapper she had quietly spirited out of a trash can and into a corner for private licking. I already removed her food bowl, hung up her leash, and piled things onto the armchair in our bedroom where she always slept. I look at the remaining dog for signs that he is sad, that he needs to cry, to take a Xanax, or just more time to process the death of his “pack.” So far, he seems interested mainly in his usual business of hustling me for Cheerios and napping on the couch.

Eleven years ago, I adopted the dogs. She was the one I saw in the paper, her sweet, sad face was compelling on its own, but the shelter had, for purposes of advertising, given her the name “Katie,” the same name as my childhood Airedale. I took my three-year-old to the shelter; we adopted her and the beagle-terrier puppy that kept jumping into the air in his crate whenever we walked by. I was a grown up, I had my first real house, and no one was going to stop me from adopting as many dogs as I wanted. “Lady,” said the man at the desk, “are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

I did not. Nevertheless, Charlie and Maisy became our dog people.

Within a day of bringing them home, it became clear that she had been mistreated. The shelter worker had told me that she was brought in by a family that didn’t want her, and that they later came back, took her again, and returned her a second time. She was afraid of loud noises, and sat near a door most of the time, often whining quietly to go out. The vet speculated that she had not been allowed to go out often enough to relieve herself, and that firearms might have been part of life with Family I. (Or, as I like to think of them, the Pond Scum That Mistreated a Helpless Animal). Over the years, we loved her back to mental health. She watched us through the window when we were in the yard, as if to reassure herself that we weren’t going to leave her. She finally got to the point where she would jump onto the couch with me and snuggle, sometimes falling asleep with my arm draped across her fluffy middle. One of the finest moments of my life was when our vet told me that it was amazing how much Maisy trusted me after the cruelty of her early life. If I do no other good, that may be sufficient.

She was also, lest you should think her a fallen angel, a very naughty dog. She ate underwear and dirty Kleenex, as well as the occasional squirrel. She and Charlie ran away periodically, running wild for hours and spanning township boundaries before returning home filthy and exhausted to sleep it off. We never did figure out which of them was the Alpha – she always deferred to Charlie in matters of food, but seemed to be the ringleader and guide on the Great Escapes. Their relationship was, largely, inscrutable; whatever it was, it served them well for eleven years.

Because they were shelter dogs, we were never really sure how old either of them was – our vet guessed that when we got them, Maisy was probably three and Charlie less than a year old. She had produced at least one litter of puppies at some time in her past. About two years ago, she began to have what appeared to be tiny seizures, lasting only a second or two. Next she lost her hearing, and within the past year she began slipping on the hardwood floors, landing with a “thump” and a bewildered look. She was still eating, drinking, going outside for walks, and bringing me her itchy rump for an orgy of scratching.

About a month ago, she began to have periods where she couldn’t get up for a while, and she faltered going down the porch steps. She was going to die, she was at least fifteen years old, if not older, and it was just a reasonable time for her to begin to wind down. Our visiting holistic vet had retired by this time, and we rejected the idea of putting her in the car and taking her to see a strange new doctor unless she seemed to be in pain. If she was suffering, we agreed that we would immediately take her to be put down. Otherwise, we were going to let her be. I prayed, in my own way, for what I came to think of as “compassionate release.” I wanted her to die the way I would like to die – falling asleep in my own house in the arms of someone who loves me. No doctors, no tubes, no strangers, just a gentle, natural transition from this world to the next.

Saturday night, she refused a bite of sausage and we knew it was time. She seemed so very, very tired, and I lay on the floor and held her as she took her last breaths. I wept, of course, my tears falling on her beloved, butter-colored fur, but I wasn’t really crying for her. She was going to be just fine. I was crying for myself, already leaping ahead in a kind of anticipatory hysteria to visions of her empty chair, bowl, spot on the floor, and the absence of her face in the front door to meet us when we came home. The thing is, that it was time. “Nothing gold can stay.”

I imagine her reincarnated as a beautiful girl child born into a family that will love her and cherish her gentle spirit. I think some underwear-eating can be forgiven, in the great karmic scheme of things, if the balance of one’s life was spent giving pleasure and love with an open heart. As for me, I’m honored that I could be a part of it all.