writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

The estranged and the dead

The last time I saw my mother’s sister and her family was at my first wedding, 19 years ago today. My mother wasn’t speaking to my aunt, not that there had been any real fallout or fight, just the accumulation of the unresolved. She threatened to boycott the wedding because of her sister’s inclusion. In the end, they both were there, the aunt with my uncle and cousins in tow.

I was proud because I had somehow finagled this entré into a wealthy, uber-WASPy family despite my impecunious and somewhat low-rent upbringing, a shameful teenage pregnancy at its nadir. I was a statistic made good. For my mother and Kevin, however, it was as if I had chosen sides and landed on the wrong one. By the time my second marriage rolled around in 2003, I wasn’t speaking to that branch of the family either.

So 19 years ago this evening, surrounded by near-strangers, I married a now-stranger. Nine years ago this week, my husband, the boy, and I left the District for our brief foray into Virginia. And 29 years ago yesterday, my first son died before he was born. Thanksgiving used to be a large family around a table and then it was somebody else’s family, and then it was just a few of us. I remember the dead, the dissolved, and the estranged, the family who used to be, thankful for their former presences, missing the connections that once existed, even if they turned out to be false in the end.

The boy has grown up with small Thanksgivings, our meal often provided by a restaurant. He has never experienced a holiday table filled with the murmur of charged intergenerational conversation. He has also never watched a Thanksgiving Day football game or navigated a plate loaded with turkey. His holiday pattern is the three of us around a small white-clothed table, eating a vegetarian feast prepared by people who are forgoing their own family gatherings. It was a tradition I didn’t even know we were creating, one I have mixed feelings about: where is his Normal Rockwell experience, the one that doesn’t really exist?

This year involves a changeup, a car trip down to the Los Angeles area, a dinner out with his grandfather, and a trip to visit an elderly great aunt. That very same aunt made a too-big-for-the-crowd turkey for many of my husband’s childhood Thanksgivings. The year his mother died (the same year we started dating), he returned to California to eat the holiday meal with his father and brother, the aunt’s turkey day reign over.

Nothing gold, or even tarnished silver or brass, can stay. This is all temporary, every step of it. People come into our lives and they slip out of them, and all I can do is say this is what I am doing right now, knowing that what happens in this moment may never happen in the same way again. I intend to enjoy it as much as I can.

Happy (early) Thanksgiving.

Image by Rina Lino. This is her family, with a deceased family member cut out. I added a watermark to the image so that it will not be easy for others to claim on their own (though it’s on the small side).

Half of what I say is meaningless

Side two of the White Album played on repeat, “Martha, My Dear” through “Julia” and back again. It was dark and my bed was small, and I knew you loved her once. Still, it was me you were with. You hovered over my thin form and pressed yourself against me. We were lost in the moment of being young and perhaps in love, our bodies and hearts singing.

I know now I will never experience anything like it again, will never get tangled in early love and its embodiment. The palpable heaviness that symbolizes intensity, a portent of inevitable heartbreak, will remain a memory, a theory, of the person I used to be, incarnate almost against my will, the phantom in the works lost to the chemistry of two.

The truth is overwritten by rose-tinted nostalgic romanticism: I had no voice. I lay waiting for you, passive as the door you eventually walked through. I defined my value in terms of your interest or lack thereof. And this was my first experience of love, apart from the examples of the disappeared, the crippled, the abusive, or cruelly silent, men I had watched through doors cracked just enough to allow a glimpse of candlelit shadows, their voices cutting through the fog of night and interrupted sleep. These were the narratives that imprinted upon me.

Show and don’t tell, goes the writing maxim. So I take you to a child’s twin bed with a pink plaid bedspread and then to the child herself, old enough to be considered fair game, her fashion taken from thrift stores, her summer wardrobe consisting of boxers and t-shirts she buys from the Elkton Acme, to the ambiguous mix of love and hate that burned into her in the room with the TV always going and the electric heater switching off and on, grey, then red, then fiery orange and eventually back to grey again.

There is an emptiness. I have attained to it, allowed the voices of the past to echo and take the space they need, to experience this new, hopefree age, where there is no rescue, no excitement around the corner, no lies that await discovery. Just life, where the sweetness of a memory can intermingle with the ambiguous story surrounding it, the past webbed to the present, all of it neither here nor there but allowed to exist in the infinite space of my internal life.

Yes, I know I used the lines about emptiness in the last post. They are from a poem by Kevin, probably written around the time in question.

Title taken from the first line of “Julia.”

Image: Me, the summer between 15 and 16.


Trivial matters

Oh, lonely, lovely internet! How you distract me with your news of the world and your quizzes and your trending news stories. You teach me that Ted Cruz has cited an “ancient philosopher’s wisdom” to criticize immigration reform, make me wonder at the Polish town that has banned Winnie-the-Pooh from a playground because of the bear’s “dubious sexuality.” Entire families, strangers to me, have perished in the car wrecks you document, and the allegations you pass along against Cosby stack like cords of wood to ply us through the scandalous winter. (Internet, I am with you: that man has met his doom, albeit decades too late.)

I am rapt as you wrap me with trivia and tragedy. But piffling facts do not sustain. I have taken up yoga to soothe myself, drink red wine in the evening, pretend to have a nose for the grape as I twist myself in two, chest facing one way, knees another, glass balanced on my ass as though I were a pale, clothed version of the Kardashian who broke you last week. One day I will be so flexible I will sip from that glass. But for now, it trembles as my thighs shake. Internet, I need that straw.

You give the illusion of connection, to others, to the news, to the world that flows outside my window. I used to wish you had been around for me when I was young and held hope, glassy and thick, in my nail-bitten fingers. Do not pity me because I no longer possess such a thing. Celebrate the death of the lie, the escape from the opiate. Hope was the thing that made my heart flutter. What I needed was a steady, solid beat.

There is an emptiness. I have attained to it, accepted the ambiguity of the cavernous space within. I hover over the ground --
chaturanga. I push up with my arms, torso bent back -- up dog. I send my buttocks to the ceiling -- down dog. I let the breath fill me with peace and feel my strength increasing as my thighs turn to rock.

And later, I drink a glass of cabernet with the one I love who loves me back.

Yes, internet, that would be my husband. You’re far too fickle for anyone to rely on. But I know you’ll be there in the morning, fresh facts waiting to fill the void.

Image from here.

No place for sissies

I spent a lot of time on this post yesterday. It had nice turns of phrase, sentences that made me proud, images that were hard to shake, and an underlying indirect smugness that I just couldn’t stomach. So here I am, back at the keyboard, hoping to salvage my thoughts and keep the best of it.

In the extended
wts family, there are two elderly relatives, one just this side of 90, the other a faltering step past it. The older relative has just had to vacate her home of over 40 years, while the younger one is still holding on strong. But neither of them has a real plan for what happens as they become more physically infirm which, by one’s late 80s, with many more years possibly ahead, is more a matter of when than if.

For a variety of reasons, this topic is difficult to raise. The end result is that two people who value their autonomy may lose (or have lost) it and have very little say on the next step, while the burden for making those decisions falls on people who have been given no instructions and get the strong feeling that such a discussion would be extremely unwelcome. As someone who has not yet written a will or an advance directive, I understand the avoidance of the grim facts, though they feel more theoretical than immediate at this stage in my life. The current situations and how they might play out, however, are maddening.

What do you do when the body starts to wear out and the mind is not the steel trap it used to be? Do you plan for this eventuality before it becomes actuality? Or do you wait for the cookie to crumble, for the argument to unravel, for the fraying fabric to threaten the integrity of the entire garment?

I have some years to go yet (I hope!), but I vote for planning. And, ideally, facing not only the difficult questions of what happens next, but the difficult emotions, too, which is too much to ask of anyone who isn’t ready to go there. But as I have watched these relatives experience the slow falling away of physical capabilities, I have seen up close what happens when a still sharp mind handles the indignities of old age through avoidance. Unaccustomed to vulnerability, the person who kept their emotions in a lockbox in a boarded-up room in a closed-off wing experienced emotional bleed-through. The membrane between the said and not-said, between the way they thought they felt and the way they really felt, became porous, and the unresolved past, the dodged emotions and calloused grudges, leaked out in unpredictable ways. That person dealt with the spillover by directing it at an innocent party. It wasn’t pretty.

I am hopeful that examining the story of my life, letting those emotions and grudges out voluntarily, living openly with ambiguities and trespasses past and present, will head off that sort of ugliness. That’s easy for me to say, of course. After all, I am only halfway to 90 and already comfortable with my emotions and well-trod storyline.

I don’t want to be a prisoner of the incidentals of the past, chained to my history. I do want control over my fate for as long as possible. And yet the long-overdue first step of making a will and an advance directive, with its reminders of what is inevitable, scares the crap out of me.

Maybe this stuff isn’t so easy.

Title from the Bette Davis quote “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.” Image from the same link.

In the first version of this, I kept calling it an “advanced directive.” Clearly I have some brain block here (and will be working on that and a will very soon).
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