14 years

Fourteen years ago today my father died.

Which means that he has been gone for more than a third of my life. Functionally it is more than that, as he has not met my husband or my children, seen where I lived, the things I have created or dismantled.

Thinking of him has gone from every painful minute to daily to weekly to monthly. At least in a prolonged way. His preference for a certain candy bar comes up when shopping with the boys, but it is fact more than his presence. Like a memory triggered by a picture the story conforms the the boundaries of the information in front of me.

I wonder too, how much my memory of him is shaped by exactly that…memory. I revisit the same stories more frequently wearing a path in the sand. The other stories are somewhere over the next dune…hazy, inexact, blending in with the landscape.

His character though is like a first love perfectly preserved in the golden memory of youth, not having to deal with the monotonous bumps and bruises of life today, present for the transformative moments of that transition from girl to young adult, and then gone to be romanticized.

It feels disloyal to have him fade in places and sharpen in others. And inevitable. So I look into the faces of my boys and seek him there, telling the genetic code to be damned. Show me more than a quarter. And it is in a leg cross, and the crook of a finger. Leo asks if we can build a rock garden in our back yard because they are such a good place to think. I see him in the face looking up at me instead of the one I looked up to. I don’t want to ask, but I do, and Leo explains they have been studying gardens in art class. But for a moment he was standing right in front of me.

I seek the double helix in my children and remember how much he loves spirals and fractals. Patterns of nature. His art was supposed to elicit questions of what is natural and what is manmade. I realize there is 50%of those same spirals in me. Nature and nurture both, just like his art.

When I lament the loss of sweat pants for yoga pants and it turns into a performance rather than a conversation I feel his righteous wrath running through me. I see the slightly charmed slightly alarmed faces surrounding me as I rail on and I feel like him. The pull of home and the magnetic repulsion of the bank feels like him. Leaving some of the irritating details of life to Steve, like bills and cooking has echoes of him. Checking out the folds in the side of the tree, following the folds down to the root system instead of up to the leaves brings images of him, large calloused fingers outstretched to stroke the bark with characteristic gentleness. Relentless sports talk was his soundtrack, and is now mine. First to help keep him with me, now because he still teaches me in his death.

Mostly though he is alive in shadows and echoes instead of his huge brash technicolor self. Who didn’t wear socks, who would trace my face with his sculptors fingers, understanding my features as planes of a whole instead of disparate parts to analyze in a mirror. Seated at the head of a table challenging everyone around him, eating white rice. Leaving to pee before every single dinner, although each second of the day outside of this one was his own to manage. Sending my mother the message that her time didn’t matter, and me the message that his time was too magical to interrupt.

Maybe he knew it would be short.

Happy Valentines day to my first Valentine.

And yours.

 

Storm Brewing

The biggest most pervasive threat of all is HELL. I am not a Christian, but I am pretty sure that some version of hell shows up in most organized religions in that umbrella and basically nudges you in the “right” direction by painting a gruesome picture of burning hot eternal death.

Then there is Santa, watching you all year to determine whether or not you deserve presents. I’m not sure how effective that tale is, but I have heard parents, servers, and bell hops remind kids of their need to be .

We all have the end of our lives to look forward too, and even though it is absolutely inevitable the threat of a hastened death, or death caused directly by our choices, is a factor in lots of decision making.

In a way these universal, or broadly communal threats are less frightening than they might be. The collective fear, and dealing with fear makes it tolerable.

This week I read about a girl whose mother consistently threatened suicide. Imagining her as a small child, then an adolescent and then a mother herself I think how lonely it must have been to navigate a threat cloud alone. How much more effective it must have been to control her behavior, and instill guilt and fear than a song about Santa Claus’ list.

I’m glad to know that they both made it through.

Probably visited by Santa regularly.

—————–

On a totally separate note I would like to trademark Storm Brewing if 280 people have not already started that business.

Shadows of you

I haven’t thought of him in years. Maybe decades. He used to be my constant internal companion.

When my parents took me to China, now a story of adventure, then a time of aching loneliness, he was with me every day.

I remember the first time we met. He was a shadow in his mother’s kitchen. We entered through the side door, the family door and it smelled like someone else’s dinner. Warm, spicy and not the smell of home. The room was dim, and he was tall and dark in the corner. His sister, my friend, scowled at him. He stayed and stared her down. ” Who’s this?” he asked her, flicking his hand sideways to indicate me- half intruder half crumb. “I’m Anna” I answered, stepped towards him and reached out.

We stood frozen until he turned and left.

He sister began giggling. “He likes you.”

It wasn’t quite how I thought like would feel. But I felt something. His shadow over us as we moved through the house. Would he be there? In this room? What if I got water? Would he hear the tap and make his way to the kitchen to stare at me again?

We spent the summer together, his sister and I, oddly underscheduled and free roaming. I always lobbied to hang out at her house. She knew why and teased me. She rarely said yes. One day he joined me at the table. She arched one eyebrow and left the room. I was being interviewed for something. He fixed his eyes on me and asked me questions.

Coke or Pepsi. Neither.
Books or TV. Books.
Cats or Dags. Cats.
Ice cream or french fries. French fries.
Records or Radio. Radio.

He never indicated his preference or allowed for elaboration. I worked through his checklist quickly.

“Ok.” He said at the end of it.

I didn’t know exactly if I had gotten the job, or what the job was. I reviewed my answers, questioning having opted for honesty rather than strategy and finally gave up the wondering. I didn’t see him again.

He shot himself the week school started.

I thought ceaselessly about our interview at his kitchen table. The round edges of the quartersawn oak. What it felt like to look into his eyes fringed with curling lashes. Why didn’t I see it? I had interpreted his closed attitude as aloofness, his loner status as individuality, his fierce squint as intelligence. I thought I could see into people’s minds. I was wrong.

I imagined him through high school, choosing his classes, making sarcastic comments. I pictured him roughing up my hair when he came up behind me in the hall. I tried to keep him alive, but he became an extension of what I knew rather than any piece of himself. I gave him up by college, in a new setting, walking halls he had never walked. Living longer than he had lived. Each sunset casting long shadows of the buildings on campus, another day almost complete.

Another day that he would never breathe.

Unthinkable things can happen. People can just stop living, and the rest of us go on. Mostly without them.

Just their shadows in the corners remain.

Herstory

Her slim brown arm lay face up on the table in front of me. She traced the scar gently with her fingertip. I saw muscle, tendon, hairless dark skin, and the white line from forearm to wrist. If you are serious about suicide, she tells me, this is how you do it. Not across like a bracelet but lengthwise, and it really helps to be in a warm bath.

I picture her then, in a clawfoot tub, in the apartment she has not yet moved into, head back in rest, swirls of cloud red blood, and it is almost restful.

My white arms, not yet plump, but well fed compared to hers remain at my side. It is not the scar I want to touch, but the muscle, and although she is gay and my mother fears our intimacy it is nothing like that. I want to feel her strength. My pointer to her forearm. My future to her past. She has seen so much, and I imagine so little.

Continue reading Herstory

Level Failed, try again.

When my dad switched from living to dying my mother took up solitaire.

As soon as there were computers she spent her life at them, writing books, preparing syllabuses, whatever else tenured professors at ivy league schools do. She was happy there, creating, editing, annotating. The super speedy click of her long polished fingernails on the keyboard was the constant, comforting sound track of my childhood.

In one of his last acts of rebellion in the not long enough life of a rebel my dad had refused to die in his bed in his room, instead he co opted the three room suite of kitchen, family room, breakfast room and spent December and January there receiving some visitors, talking some nonsense and smelling worse and worse.

He didn’t like light so we had the shades closed against the sun and its reflection on the lake. So my mother’s laptop added a bluish cast to the room as she flew through piles of cards.

I could always tell if she wanted me to sit and stay by what she did with the laptop screen. Tilted halfway to keep the game active was my yellow light, shut with a click meant come on in, and there were a few times when she didn’t look up, the clicking coming from the draw piles, rather than her full on typing mode.

She was in survival mode, not creative.

(For those of you without kids age 6-14 that is a minecraft reference.)

My father was the last person to have big expectations for me. He asked for what he wanted. Often forcefully. Despite the fact that I lived 3 hours a way, was tending to a failing marraige, was in graduate school, and working he expected me to be by his bedside always.

I tried. I drove back and forth and only got in one accident. I was really no where during that time. But that was fine with him. If I couldnt be sentinal at least I couldn’t be engaged anywhere else.

If this makes him seem selfish, it should, he was, and also generous and loving with me. He had the gift of shining an intense bright light on whomever he attended to. At times (many) this light was the light of inquistion. Equally as common was ridicule. The last alternative was the light of life, reserved for people who surprised and interested him. So I became one of those.

So my mom took a semester off of work, I checked out of my life, and my dad became more of himself. Like they say about money and drunk people imminent death tends to make you more you.

Then it stopped. He got sicker and there was just solitaire. I couldn’t regale them with conversation about being a newly wed. My husbands drug use and my affair were topics too taboo even for me. (Then.)

But we were in survival mode. At least the rest of us.

My father died on Valentine’s day 2000. I was not home with my husband, nor was I by his side. I had moved into a crappy little apartment. Perhaps my penance for the affair, and heard the news over the phone. I remember the feel of the carpet on my knees. I had no furniture in the apartment, and I looked out the large window at the rushing river  and tried to feel my father.

This is the moment that I will know. A skeptic by nature and nurture I opened up to the possibility of him still being out there, expecting things of me.

But there was nothing. His light was gone, and the darkness felt absolute.

Then the arms of the other man, kneeling beside me on the floor, hugging my frozen self into him. And this is why I struggle not to judge anyone. I was a cheating cheater and so was he and in this exact moment he was the most and only person who could take me away from the life that I had already chosen to leave. Like a catalyst for an inevitable reaction, I know. KNOW. I wouldn’t have made it through that time. So in the midst of universally accepted bad behavior, and grief like I have never known I decided that I now had to expect things of myself. Shit.

I wanted to write about technology. My meditative/medicative obsession with candy crush. Level failed, try again. I was going to tie in Minecraft, and my mothers solitaire. This other stuff came out though. I guess it was time.

I forgive myself for cheating. I would do it again in that exact situation. But now is not then, and I am not her anymore.

I share this with you as a glimpse into how perfect moments can be contained inside layers of crappy choices and situations, and probably the opposite. Road to hell and all.

Lets judge each other a little less right now.

And just as importantly lets judge ourselves as little as possible.

Level failed, try again.

 

 

 

The Other Side

Standing beside my scorching hot mini van I squint at my friend as he lifts his hand. “See you on the other side,” he says as a farewell.

He means, I assume, the other side of his birthday, my move, something literal. But given the news of the morning, and my 5 week “Fringe” marathon a small piece of me wonders.

The text came on my drive in to town. “Did you hear about D? Died at 51 of a heart attack, working out.” No. I hadn’t heard. I hadn’t really liked him much. He and I were both brusque, opinionated, hurried, in our shared post. He was much better versed in the field, and I respected his immense knowledge. He was a bit authoritarian which was probably what rubbed me the wrong way. I imagine if I had known him in another context I would have had entirely different feelings. As it was he was chair of a board that I sat on…and as such was someone I was forced to rebel against…as is my nature. What he was most of all though, was ALIVE. He was IN IT. Whatever it was. I never saw him shrug his shoulders and say…”either way, it doesn’t really matter.”  It all mattered to him, and both the fact and the manner in which he chaired our board showed it. I was glad to have been able to sit by his side for two years.

A second text, from a friend often on the road says: “Home for 2 days, my son changed, weird.” Again, I can only suppose his meaning, but this boy is growing up, arriving in this world. Here from the other side.

One arriving, one departing.

I wonder about the other side of grief. What is it? Gratitude?

I am feeling gratitude. And hot. I am also feeling hot. Already the big meta thoughts are drifting away to the minutae. What to eat. How to get my kids to pick up their socks. How to get my kids to SEE their socks in order to pick them up. How incredibly mushy graham crackers get in the humidity.  The details of life on this side.

Thank you D for your passion, and your hearty laugh. Thank you for the time that you offered your community from what you did not know would be a too short life. Here’s to hoping there is an other side.