Story Time

It is the longest night of the year. Our planet leans away from the light, and we lean with it.

At the same time, it’s THE HOLIDAYS, an inescapable set of events, obligations, rituals, colors, sites, sounds, smells, and stories. As I’ve explained before, I don’t love it. With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back, I suppose.

And forward.

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The Atlantic examined our tendency to anthropomorphize the year in a recent story.

People have been complaining about how awful 2016 was, and I don’t disagree. But in many ways, I found 2015 much harder. Lots of bad things happened in 2016, sure, but I was just a witness. In 2015, bad things happened to me. This year, not much happened to me at all. Which is, in its own way, a problem. Sometimes I feel like I am in a story that has no plot.

Here is what happened:

I taught two classes in the spring and another in summer. One went well, one went ok, and one was a disaster. I continued my administrative responsibilities and managed to negotiate a pay increase for my troubles. Unfortunately, that means I have to keep doing it, which exposes me to the toxic hysteria of academia-in-decline. I took a few short trips, one to an academic conference, one to an invited speaking engagement, and a few to my grad school home town to visit friends and enjoy the pace of country life.

This fall, I was on “research leave,” which has been unproductive in the traditional sense, but very productive in other ways. Basically, I figured out definitively that I do not have a second book in me. I had all the time in the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. For the time being, I will continue to pretend to colleagues and supervisors that I am making progress, but now I can stop lying to myself. That’s something!

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How beautiful is that!

This year, I picked up three more nursing prerequisites and had a wonderful time doing it! I got to dissect a fetal sheep brain, a fetal sheep kidney, a fetal pig, and a cow’s eye. Tapetum lucidum, the blue-green shimmer coating that allows animals to see at dusk, is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remain confused as hell about my path forward: Stay in academia and find a way to make it work? Quit my job and go to nursing school full-time? Split the difference and go part-time? Find a different job altogether? With just three more classes to go, 2017 will deliver me to a crossroads.

My personal life is pretty dull. My friend got married, which was wonderful, and I have enjoyed getting closer to her and her husband as a couple. They are family to me. Other relationships have proved challenging, with four friends doing the friend equivalent of taking a shit in my purse. The common denominator is me, I know. But it’s also my ability to pick friends. I am hardwired to put up with other people’s shit. Figuring that out took 40 years. It will probably take another 40 for me to put a stop to it.

My family drives me crazy. That’s really all there is to say about that.

The last date I went on was back in January. I am just…done.

In terms of what happened to me this year, probably the worst thing is that I sprained my ankle. That phrase really doesn’t do justice it, though. The initial injury was excruciating, and I still question whether I don’t actually have an avulsion fracture. The night it happened was beyond depressing. I could not walk, and efforts to find someone to help me gather my things and go to urgent care were fruitless. A neighbor I barely know finally came over and helped me into an Uber. I spent a Saturday night at urgent care, getting wheeled around by various medical personnel who parked me in a series of empty rooms. The room where I waited for the radiology tech contained enormous trash cans for medical waste, compounding the feeling that I had been discarded. The next day was better, so much better, as two friends helped out with groceries, meals, and comfort. But it was a hard two weeks, carefully planning each trip up and down the stairs and timing the long, arduous trek to the toilet. I contemplated peeing in a jar in my kitchen but cut back on my water consumption instead. Almost seven weeks later, I am still in pain and wonder if it will every fully heal.

Probably not.

But I am lucky, right? Because that is the worst thing that happened to me this year. On the other hand, I bore witness to a lot of bad shit.

My dad’s eye exploded during a “routine” cataract surgery, leaving him partially blind and unable to take care of my mother for several weeks. My sister and I filled in, and we have decided to take a more assertive role with their medical care (to the extent my dad, who has serious control issues, will let us). Smash cut to me, my dad, and my mom conversing with a very frustrated gastroenterology nurse practitioner about the consistency of my mom’s poops. (My mother cannot effectively participate in her own medical care, but she rages if we treat her like she can’t. It’s tricky.) My father also recently purchased his first smart phone and a new laptop, and I am his on-demand tech support. It has not escaped my notice that my sister’s interactions with my parents consist of game nights and apple picking, while mine consist of Apple tech support and discussions of my mother’s bowels.

It’s fine.

I also went to four funerals in 2016, which kind of seems like a lot for someone in their 40s. One was for an old friend’s young son, hit by a car while riding his bicycle. One was for my friend who died of cancer the year before. One was for my neighbor/friend, who died of an accidental overdose. And one was for my cousin, who killed himself. I felt tremendous grief this year, but witnessed even more.

When someone dies, all that’s left are memories, stories. The story lives as long as there is someone to tell it. My friend’s son was just 10 when he died last April, and the story of his story is that it ended too soon. His parents have done an incredible job of hanging on to life, attending concerts, taking trips, and talking enthusiastically about their boy. Almost every day, my friend posts a “memory” on Facebook that features her son. I wonder, What will happen next year, when there are no new stories, when all she has to post are memories of the memories?

I will never understand this story.

My friend who died of cancer–there were stories at his Memorial Day service too. I learned so much about him that weekend, as friends and family swapped tales and jokes that gave me a glimpse into private facets of his life. A narrative emerged: after years of unhappiness in our shared workplace, and then a year of professional humiliation (he was denied tenure, which is like dangling from a cliff for 12 months and then falling anyway), he had one good year before he got sick, a year in which he was content and hopeful. That made the nine months of dying not so bad, I guess?

I will never understand this story.

In August, my neighbor Damon died of an accidental overdose–prescription drugs, booze, and maybe spice–in another neighbor’s house down the block. He was getting high there because he wasn’t allowed to be altered at home. A story emerged at his funeral that Damon was never the same after his mother died in 2014. The story gave his senseless death a patina of romance–a young man who loved his mother so much he sought to join her in the afterlife. But he was troubled long before she died: he had a baby at 16 that he did nothing for, and he was a high school dropout, in and out of jail, unemployed, disengaged, high all the damn time. I suspected years ago that he suffered from depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Still, he was a sweet guy, and he was always kind to me. I helped him get out of jail the last time. He was my friend. His family never acknowledged how troubled he was, so they could never really help him. The silences of his life were profound. At his funeral, a born-again Christian pastor presided over his coffin, but Damon was a muslim.

I will never understand this story.

My cousin died two days after Damon. The story at his funeral was that he suddenly died of Crohn’s disease. The truth is that he had Crohn’s, but he died of depression. He was suicidal, and he owned guns, and his wife thought she had hidden the key to the gun case. At her urging, he voluntarily committed himself to a mental health treatment facility, then snowed the clinicians into thinking his suicidal ideation was just a side-effect of medications prescribed for the Crohn’s. Once the drugs cleared his system, they released him, and maybe legally they had no choice. But they didn’t even tell his wife. He drove home, found the key to the gun case, and blew his head off. His wife found him hours later when she got home from work. In her remarks at his funeral, she shared the fiction that he dropped dead of Crohn’s. That’s her choice, and those of us who knew the truth abided by it. But the lie is not without consequence. The stigma of depression intensifies its effects and prevents other people from getting help. How powerful it would have been to attribute the death of this beautiful, successful, winning-at-life man to suicide. Who might have been helped by that? And then there’s the boy. My cousin’s young grandson has Crohn’s and plaintively asked if he might die suddenly too. But on the other hand, how do you explain suicide to children?

I will never understand this story.

I tell stories too: I am writing a second book, I am going to quit the job I hate, I am going to be a nurse, so-and-so loved me or even just liked me a little. The truth is, I don’t have anything more to say, let alone write, as an academic. The truth is, I buy new clothes at Target to avoid doing laundry, so it’s highly unlikely I will get it together to change jobs. The truth is, I have two FWBs who aren’t very nice to me. The truth is, J* replaced my friendship with podcasts, which makes me wonder whether he ever cared for me. When we broke up as a couple, I had the same feeling: Was any of it real? Some people, when they are done with you–it’s not enough to withdraw their love or friendship. They have to take your memories too.

The truth is, stories are so much better than the truth.

Even so, 2016 was better than 2015, for sure. And 2017 will be better still! This long, dark night will end, and we will lean towards the light once more. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

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Grace

The last 24 hours have been trying, to say the least.

Yesterday, my friend and neighbor Damon passed away suddenly–accidental overdose–at age 23. Damon lived two doors down from me, just 16 feet away. He died in his friend’s house, just five doors, or eighty feet, in the other direction. I have never seen so much grief confined in such a small space.

I am friends with Damon’s whole family, though it is complicated. His mother was my friend Ana, whom I wrote about in an early post, and whose death two years ago simply gutted me. Damon, her youngest son, struggled mightily after she died, though he had struggled long before that too. Damon’s father sexually assaulted me in February of last year, and I did not set foot in their home again until yesterday. Damon’s sisters, with whom I am friends, have no idea about the attack, though I know they became aware of their father’s obsession with me. We never talk about it. Their father leaves me alone, but I sometimes catch him staring at me. The look of hate in his eyes chills me to the bone.

And then there are the girls, three of them, and the little boy–ages 14, 11, 8, and 2. They are Damon’s nieces and nephew. They help me in my garden, I take them for walks, we do crafts and sing songs. I love them. My concern for them was a large part of why I never filed a police report. (I also was under the impression the father/grandfather was moving home to Central America.)

As I said, it’s complicated. And that made a terrible day all the more trying.

Yesterday I held a shuddering, sobbing 8 year old on the sidewalk and coached her into deep breaths and a happy memory of her uncle. Yesterday I listened to an 11 year old girl tell her friend about seeing her uncle’s lifeless form, all purple and swollen, because he died alone and no one found him for hours. Yesterday I heard a 2 year old boy, a child I have never heard utter a coherent sentence before, say “Damon dead” over and over and over to no one in particular. Yesterday I watched a solemn procession of family members, dozens of them, file past my house on their way home after watching this boy’s body get carted off by the coroner, a full six hours after 911 was called. And then last night, after midnight, I walked my dog and looked up at the house where Damon died. The front window was alit, shades up, revealing the homeowner–a woman in her 70s who still works full-time as a nurse to support the ne’er-do-well, 20-something grandchildren who sponge off of her–mopping the floor where Damon’s body had lay. Her grandson stood there watching her blankly, doing nothing to help.

It was a perfect snapshot of the whole, grim situation of drugs in my neighborhood: powerless young men, overwhelmed and numb, doing nothing while devastated women clean up their mess.

Yes, yesterday was an awful day. And today is not much better.

But, like a lot of awful days, it has provided clarity in three important areas:

1] In this midst of Damon’s tragic death, I am acutely aware that I am not a sociopath, and that I am not emotionally dead inside either. I was really starting to wonder. But no. I am heartbroken. And angry. Because addiction is a vicious disease.

2] I spoke with J* last night, and it was terrible. Something broke between us this summer, and I don’t know how to mend it. I still care for him, still want him in my life, but I find myself increasingly empowered to draw lines and limits, as does he. We’ve both set so many tripwires, there is no longer any safe ground to walk.

3] My family is seriously fucked up! I get confused sometimes into thinking that I’m the asshole and that they are just nice, normal people. And mostly they are. But they have… issues. Let’s call it “emotional rigidity.” Whatever it is, it’s fucked up!

Last night I received an email from my dad, of an email from my uncle, of an email from my cousin’s wife, explaining that my cousin is suicidal, he survived a previous suicide attempt, and he has been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. Over email, my sister and father decided that the “ethics” of how they learned about this situation superseded the urgent necessity of providing emotional support to my cousin and his wife. That is, they felt my uncle never should have told them, ergo they will pretend they do not know.

But wait, there’s more! In my email reply to my sister and dad, I wrote,

“It’s been a shitty day all around. My friend Damon died of a drug overdose today. He was 23. They don’t make greeting cards for this stuff, they really don’t.”

And both my sister and my father responded to this information… by not saying anything at all. Not “I’m sorry” or “that’s really sad.” Nothing. Not one word. *crickets*

What. The. Fuck.

I ignored my sister & dad’s “decision” that our family will pretend we don’t know about my cousin’s mental illness and wrote to his wife anyway. She has already replied with a hearty thanks: vindication. If Damon’s death points anywhere, it’s toward being relentless in reaching out to one another. I will regret that I did not do more to help him for the rest of my life.

In the midst of this, I am on a deadline for a relatively lucrative writing gig with a publishing house in London. I am behind, and on the brink of being fired. I got email from my editor today demanding, “Where is this? and “Where is that?” Today I wrote to Damon’s sisters, I wrote to my cousin’s wife, I hugged sobbing women, I raised money for funeral costs, I sat with a neighbor going through chemo. A young man lay on the sidewalk, weeping inconsolably, outside my house this morning.

It feels like there is a hole in the world, and all I have is words to fill it.

So I’m sorry, mean English editor lady. I’ll write for you tomorrow.

 

In Lieu of Flowers

This weekend I attended a funeral visitation for a friend’s son, who died suddenly last week. Suffice it to say, if there are Lego toys in your casket, you are gone from this life too soon.

My friend and I attended together. I was reluctant to go, because I worried that the value of our presence for our mutual but distant friends would be outweighed by the emotional disturbance it would create for us–cryers, both–in an otherwise peaceful weekend. Better to reach out to the grieving parents in a week or two, to see if they want to get together, I suggested. We can go, so we should go, my friend countered. When you’re stricken with horror and helplessness, showing up to represent the collective good wishes of people at the outer edges of a community of grief is both an honor and a duty.

She was right. We went.

The receiving line was long, which gave us time to adjust to the fact that we were going to see the body of a 10 year-old boy. I never knew him in life, except as pictures posted on Facebook, so seeing him in death did not take my breath away as it has for others whom I knew personally. But still, it was surreal and simply awful. Living children have luminous skin that seems to glow from the inside, and their cheeks and lips burst with color. There is no way to replicate those features of youth on a dead child. There is no way a dead child can ever quite look at rest. A dead child can only look dead, or perhaps like a statue. What we saw, effectively, was an artist’s rendering of a boy, composed of embalming fluid, waxes and fillers, heavy makeup to conceal the violent effects of the accident that killed him, and the boy’s own little, lifeless frame. It was strange and sad and nothing I ever need to see again.

His family was good natured and kind, patiently receiving the condolences of guest after guest after guest. The boy’s grandfather held our hands and said something about “God’s plan.” We nodded kindly in assent. But silently, I thought what I always think when someone invokes God’s plan after a tragedy: God is a bad planner. Seriously. Show me a military tactician or city engineer or marketing strategist who says, “This brings us to Step 4: Killing a Random Fifth Grader,” and I’ll show you an idiot and a psychopath. Finding meaning in a child’s death after the fact doesn’t make that death an operational necessity. Any decent, productive plan would have all of the 10 year-olds survive to become 11 year-olds. But of course, the chilling truth is that there is no plan, and no god probably either. There is just the terrible physics of car versus kid, in which a second’s difference either way would have yielded a different outcome: an uneventful excursion, maybe some broken bones, or even a different mother’s child being life-flighted to the hospital. One second.

After twenty minutes or so in line, our friends greeted us warmly, almost as though we ran into them in a restaurant, not a funeral parlor ten feet from the body of their only child. I have never seen a woman look more tired than this boy’s mother.We laughed and made small talk. Someone said something about “under better circumstances,” and I replied stupidly, “This is shitty. This is a shitty thing that happened.” She laughed, looked me in the eye, and nodded. Because it is.

A lot of people invoked the “there are no words” trope in their online condolences at the death of this boy, but I think “shitty” is pretty good for describing a senseless accident, a tiny corpse, some Lego toys buried in a casket, and childless parents comforted only by their memories.

First-Date Friday: Hurricane J*

from-the-calm-to-hurricane-1892Two days before my first-ever online date with Col. Asshole, which was the day before I met J*, my friend died. These stories will always be connected in my mind, because they meet at the intersection of grief and hope where life is lived most richly.

Ana was my neighbor of five years, and she had been critically ill most of that time. She was in her mid-50s, but she seemed much older, having survived kidney failure, the amputation of all her toes, a heart attack, a stroke, multiple falls and broken bones, and a million other trials, including war, loss, perilous border crossings, and endless poverty. Through it all, she was mostly positive and always strong; I called her a “warrior woman.” We had very little in common, as she was born and raised in Central America, very traditional, a woman of no formal education, and had different politics and beliefs. What I loved about her was the way that she loved. Her children made terrible mistakes–teen pregnancy and fatherhood, drug use, catastrophic financial mismanagement, violent criminal activity–that would represent unspeakable, irrevocable failures in my family. And yet she loved them, fiercely and without end, no matter the mistakes they made. I loved living on the periphery of that love, like sitting on the shores of a calm but powerful sea, because every now and then I would catch its breeze. My heart sang when she would refer to me as one of her girls.

Ana died. Three days later, I met J*. And within days of that first meeting, I had come to believe that Ana sent J* to me, that somehow, in a final act of motherly engineering, she summoned a great storm to wash away the loneliness in me that worried her so.

More particularly, I believed that she had J* run over by a truck so that we could meet on Tinder. (Yes, I know how that sounds!)

Ana believed in witchcraft and spells. She didn’t engage in them, mind you, because she was a Christian and they were the Devil’s work. But she had the option, and she definitely believed in them. And when she would squint her black eyes in disgust at something that displeased her, she made you believe in dark power too.

J* believed he was just going for a bike ride while visiting his friend from out of state. He got clipped by a pickup truck pulling a trailer and was sent flying, resulting in serious bruising and abrasions that prevented his departure from the area. This happened about 1,000 yards from my house. The accident occurred before Ana’s death, true, but in my grief at her passing and amidst the great surge of hope I felt when I met him, it seemed like she must have had a hand in it.

What do you do when you’re bored and laid up after getting run over? You see who’s on Tinder. He found me! He was funny, he asked the right questions (“What are you reading?”), and his photos suggested an average-looking man who might actually be handsome if he’d been photographed at better angles. (Turns out, I was right, so don’t give up on someone just because their profile pictures suck!) Most importantly, he was recovering from his accident right nearby. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and we decided to meet for coffee an hour hence, because he was leaving for home (some 270 miles away) the next day. Both of us engaged in the mad scramble to appear effortlessly presentable on short notice. I texted something like, “Why don’t we cut each other some slack.” He wrote back, “Deal.”

We met at my regular coffee shop. I got there first, unsure of who I was looking for. I was doctoring my coffee when I heard a man cheerfully call my name. I looked up and saw him standing about 10 feet away, backlit–no shit, it’s so corny, but it’s true–by light streaming in through the windows behind him. He was literally tall, dark, and handsome, with broad shoulders, sunglasses perched rakishly atop his soft, dark curls, and he had black eyes the likes of which I had only seen once before. He was wearing khaki pants and a light blue polo shirt. He was smiling.

We sat outside and talked. We didn’t have much time, because he had to fetch a friend at the airport, and it passed so quickly. It’s hard to isolate what I learned that day, because over the next year I came to be–in his words–the person who knew him best. And he came to be one of perhaps two or three people who know me at all.

Over the next year–and I mean, exactly 365 days–J* blew in and disrupted everything, in full awareness of his destructive power. He was the one who coined the term “Hurricane J*,” not me, and he did so long before we ever met. As our together-story unfolded, I imagined myself as the rock, the immoveable mass around which the storm could rage without effect. But at other times, I was clearly the poorly situated trailer park, shredded to bits by the wind and carried away by the surge. I still don’t really understand what happened, much like those sad people standing in the rubble of their homes the day after a Category 5, who grasp for metaphors to explain the incomprehensible. I don’t know what it was, I just know that–for me, anyway–it was big.

But that day, that first calm day, he was just a kind, sweet, curious man who liked listening to me tell stories. We had coffee, he departed to pick up his friend, then we met up again to take my dog for a walk. We strolled back and forth along the path, we stood in the cold waters of a creek while my pup splashed in the dappled shallows, and we lingered at our cars until long after dark. I learned that he was a former infantryman/medic turned trauma nurse–a potent mix of tough and tender that made me tingly in my bathing-suit area. He also dispensed with some pretty unsavory details: a divorce, a vasectomy (actually, a plus!), a complicated family history, and a history of emotional volatility. He disclosed the divorce last, as though that particular detail would be the most troubling to a prospective partner. In fact, the worst was a story he shared before that, about how he used to beat his ex-wife’s dogs for imagined infractions as a way of releasing his pent-up frustration. I suggested that, on future first dates, he lead with the divorce and close with the dog beating, because it really doesn’t get any worse than that.

But all of that was in the past. He was more than four years sober, and he had made a new life for himself in recovery–a life of gratitude, service, and honesty. It was such a compelling narrative; I was hooked.

This is First-Date Friday, so what happened next, and after that, and next again is a story for another day. What I will say is, Hurricane J* challenged me as no other man or relationship ever has. I grew more, I loved more, I hurt more, I loved some more again.

“What is it about him?” several friends demanded to know, their frustration and concern palpable in the query.

“He is a beautiful disaster,” I told told them. “And I just can’t look away.”

As strong as my feelings were, and as much as J* affected me, I often wondered during that year whether I had any effect on him at all.

A hurricane is mindless destruction, there is no explanation or meaning in its actions, and–unlike a tornado–it provides just enough ebb and flow to wreak havoc in your life for months: the ominous warnings in the weeks ahead, wind and waves that build over days, intermittent downpours as the eye spins slowly overhead, a devastating storm surge that carries everything away, then weeks without power or succor in the aftermath. It is no accident that J* used this term to describe himself, but it was more indictment than badge of honor. “Hurricane” was the ultimate term of self-loathing, because the storm doesn’t care about the people it affects, and it never ends so much as it just moves on, without apology and without ever looking back.

365 days after that first date, J* and I had a falling out so degrading that I’m not sure it’s a story I can ever fully tell. It wasn’t even the breakup–that was months in the rearview. It was worse, a revelation that threatened to undermine once and for all the fragile faith I placed in him. And still, I hung in there, because he was the storm, but I was the rock.

One day, in the wake of that final tempest, we were chatting happily about nothing important, and the conversation came around to the first time we met.

“I bet you don’t remember what I was wearing,” I said.

“Your little jeans skirt and a green t-shirt,” he answered correctly, without a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw you.”

I was stunned. A hurricane would never say that! Those were the words of someone who allowed himself to be affected by me, if only a little; of someone who cared for me, even if it was just once upon a time.

I don’t know if J* was the hurricane or just a man I met on Tinder who maybe saved my life. (Time will tell.) I don’t know if Ana sent him, though I love to imagine that she did, because it suggests a comforting order to the universe. There was definitely a storm. And somewhere in the storm, there definitely was love.