Life can be pretty damn cruel to some of us. Maybe, for some, it strikes infrequently, while for others, it’s every damn day. From what I’ve observed, when life starts pounding a person every single day, it is opening the abyss, the rock bottom ending.
I’ve always been a little too sensitive when it comes to cruelty, be it human or other. My father kicked me out of the family room one night when I was a teenager because I couldn’t handle Platoon. It was that scene when the raged-out soldier shoots at the feet of a one-legged villager, forcing him to hop around in terror. That scene prompted in me an uncontrollable crying jag, out-loud weeping, so woeful that my dad told me to “get out,” to go upstairs and find something else to do. He never talked to me about that incident, just kinda acted like it never happened. Maybe I scared him. Hell, if one of my boys did that, I’d sure as hell be scared. But we’re living now in the age of mental illness, when parents are finally beginning to acknowledge potential problems in their kids and get them treated early. I think Dad was just dumbfounded, or annoyed. Who knows. Think I’ll ask the next time I talk to him.
Anyway, I once again thank Prozac for fending off my potential to go through life in a permanent state of bummed-out. It, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have provided me with the serenity to function, even thrive. But I still dedicate a great deal of time observing and thinking about the neighborhood downtrodden.
There’s the white-haired man who lives in his car. He parks it in the afternoons in the Safeway lot. And if it’s a cold day, he keeps it running. I worry that the car will eventually give out from being run nonstop for such long stretches of time. I am not entirely sure he lives in his car, but all the signs seem to point to that. He’s always there, just reclining in the driver’s seat, with the radio on and the engine running. He wasn’t there tonight, though. I looked for him like I always do. No late-model silver Subaru sitting in a pool of its own coolant or whatever is dripping out of it from constant running. I admit I’m a little frightened. What can he do without that car?
The white-haired man is a new one on my radar. He seemed to emerge with a whole group of people with cardboard signs who have stationed themselves on all the busy medians in recent months, distracting me from the old guard:
There’s the prostitute who used to walk up and down the highway, and hang out in parking lots, smiling at everyone going by. She had a big, welcoming smile. Her features and her demeanor led me to believe that she might have been West African. For about a year, I watched her stroll about. She started out beautiful with her flawless coffee-colored skin and her dazzling smile and her bright, revealing little dresses. As time went on, her skin lost the glow, her hair matted up, and her smile started to look a little simple. Last time I saw her, she was jaywalking through traffic at a stopped intersection, her right breast hanging out of her top. I don’t think she noticed. I stopped seeing her around, and I like to think she found a better place to be, a safe place. But who knows?
And there’s the other lady who I also suspect to be West African (my metro area has the largest African population in the U.S.). She sits every day–in a long, black dress and a white cap—on a bench at the bus stop outside my gym. On hot summer days, she sits on the nearby bank under a tree. She’s there every day except when it’s raining or snowing. And she’s gone by evening. I don’t know where she goes. I hope she has a bed to go back to. She piles loaded shopping bags all around her. Once, I saw her speaking to I-don’t-know-who, maybe the cars going by. She was animated that day, looked like a preacher delivering a sermon. Most of the time, though, she doesn’t say a word to anyone, just watches them as they walk by or wait for their bus.
And I can’t forget the old couple, the one my neighbor got kicked out of the tent they had been living in behind the nearby Walmart. I can’t really begrudge my neighbor. There was an entire colony of homeless people and transients back there for awhile, and their trash was everywhere. What do you do when you don’t have sanitation facilities? Well, you know. My neighbor told me that the man had refused to go to a shelter, but his wife went. So they got split up. I have never seen them together. I used to call him “Homeless Santa” because he had a big white beard, and he wore so many layers of clothes that he looked kinda pudgy and wobbly. He wears a lot of fatigues, and a yellow bicycle helmet. He seemed to get a lot of his meals or coffee at the Wendy’s on the corner because I often saw him sitting there on the grass embankment by the parking lot. Then, sigh, the Wendy’s closed down to make room for more condos that we don’t need. I only see Homeless Santa once in a while now. Last time was in the pouring rain, he was just trudging down the sidewalk, bent over, definitely looking like the elements had taken their toll. He’s a tough old guy to live on the streets at his age. He must have been fierce when he was young. Somehow, he and his wife ended up living in a motel that got torn down to make way for more condos that we don’t need, and that was beginning of worse, the abyss.
His wife is a slight and lovely lady with long gray hair that she wears loose. She, too, wears a lot of layers, always dresses. Her presence is so unobtrusive that she can hang out in places where her husband can’t—Panera Bread, Starbucks, the Safeway.
I can’t help but wonder about this couple. I see a flower child and a Vietnam vet. I have nothing but speculation, but that’s what I see.
I heard recently that more Vietnam vets have committed suicide than actually died during the war. And I wasn’t surprised.
So these are a few of myhomeless, just a few. I call them mine because they are as much of a part of my neighborhood as the homeowners and the apartment dwellers and the Uber drivers. I knowthem. They just don’t know me. I don’t go and sit with the gray-haired lady when I see her in Panera. There are rules, unspoken rules about how we should interact with people who have fallen into the abyss. And I think those rules are there for our own emotional protection as much as they are to protect our delusion of personal safety. Life doesn’t get easier.
It’s only been about ten years since I would have admitted that my biggest fear, beyond spiders and torture and the like, was financial destitution. There were years when I could see it on the horizon. The whole pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, self-made man bullshit is just that, bullshit. So many of us, of my peers, have done what we thought we were supposed to do—work hard or go to college, buy a house, get a credit card. And despite all that, some of them right now are on the verge of homelessness, of living in their cars.
So many desperate people are outside my window. I don’t know what to do with them at the moment because I’m still trying to secure my own future. So many of them just got buffeted with life’s cruel jabs and didn’t know how to fight back. It takes resources, savvy, a warrior mentality, and a whole lotta luck to make it to the end these days. No one is “blessed” as the vanity plates on gaudy Lincolns I see on the highway try to claim. Go on, tell the world you’re blessed. See what happens.
The closer I get to turning fifty, the more absurd the idea that I could ever recreate my thirties becomes to me. In the early forties, there’s still that glimmer of hope. The body still holds some elasticity. Arthritis and the uncoolness of raising teenagers hasn’t set in. I can still go for a jog without regretting it for days afterwards.
I’m sure that with a great personal trainer, a LOT of conviction, and refined habits reflective of those people we read about in magazines whose lives depend on looking good, we could recreate some semblance of youth as we age. Hell, look at Laura Dern, Julianne Moore, Julia Roberts, to name a few. These women are older than I am, and they look a heck of a lot better. And the women in their early forties, like Reese Witherspoon? Well, forget it, they might as well be thirty. Us? The women in our forties who aren’t driven by a spotlight and acting roles? We know what comes easy, and we know that emulating the health and youthful glow of a woman half our age is NOT easy. We know there are a lot of creature comforts we have to give up, a lot of lifestyle adjustments we have to make, and a lot of professionals we have to consult, if we want to go there.
These days, so close to my fifties, I’m at a crossroads about “going there.” Sometimes I think that accepting my size ten and forgetting about being a size six ever again would be my healthiest route of least resistance. I would free up so much room in our cramped closet; I could move forward again and start building a decent wardrobe that suits me instead of wearing thrift store clothes that I bought with the idea that I would someday be able to fit back into my other wardrobe, my “real” wardrobe. Well, it’s been three years since I could squeeze into a size six. My favorite outfits from years past just take up space in an already limited closet. They’re like tombstones of another me—“here lies the jeans she loved so much when she didn’t drink a drop of alcohol, didn’t take hormones, and wasn’t in her late forties.” Is it time to just let it all go?
Or am I just making excuses for myself again, blaming my age and medication for my lack of conviction and strength? Who was I, way back when? And how did I create her? And can I—is it even possible—to create her again?
I spilled it to my Christian chiropractor this afternoon. Just spilled. He has a special gift, with his perennially calm demeanor and his seemingly accidental conversation starters. I should have known. Sigh.
But I spilled. So what? He knows my story. Maybe this Sunday in mass, he will pray on it. Or maybe he’s forgotten about it. I don’t know! I don’t know how this profession works, what they gain from making us confess. Well, duh, I guess I do—more business.
But I would have returned to my chiropractor anyway because I want to get my spinal stuff right. Before I spilled this afternoon, I had intended to return for a follow-up xray to see if my spinal stuff had gotten any worse in the six years I’d been sporadically seeing him. Thank ME for keeping journals! Six years. My GOD how they pile up. Six years of an unsolved spinal problem. Six years since I was scared sober and then scared drunk again. Six years since I wore a size six. Six years since I was in my early forties. Now, how the times have changed.
I am approaching fifty. And soon the idea that I have dabbled with for nearly a decade—that the forties are the new forties—will be obsolete. I asked my husband what I should do with 40sarethenew40s when I am no longer in my forties. Should I keep going? Should I strive to squeeze in as many thoughts as I can before I hit the magic number. He just casually replied, “Why don’t you just start calling it “Old is NOT the new young.” Heh heh. There really is no going back in the forth or fifth decades. There is just now.
This same non-dramatic husband always said—quite matter-of-factly—that I’ll do what I am inclined to do, and I shouldn’t waste time fretting about what I’m not doing. He has been right all along. I spent my first night of this past weekend, my Friday, reading and commenting on student writing, reaching out to a new class that starts next week, and tweaking my plans for that class. I stay late at work because I have just one more thing I want to do or try or send so that whatever work I end up doing later at home is purely voluntary and for the purpose of getting a little further ahead.
Work has been an adventure since I was hired full-time and given a professor title. It wasn’t bad before. But now, I think it’s extra special. It’s the kind of thing I should have in my late-forties/early fifties—a title, a paycheck, a job satisfaction that reminds me that all the years I spent working for it have paid off. I worked for this. I didn’t work for a novel or an investigative piece of nonfiction. I didn’t do it, and I’m ok with that. I have this.
I keep waiting for that old panic to set in, the kind I felt every day in secondary public schools, when every extra little thing I needed to do felt like a chore and an imposition, when I dragged my ass in every day and counted the minutes until I could leave, when the work was never done because there was simply too much all the time and no end in sight. Hasn’t happened this time around. I think I found my dream job. And I think my needs are simple—I thrive in an environment that doesn’t guarantee burnout within a year. I can’t believe I spent twelve years working under that kind of duress and not making any changes because I just didn’t know any better, because I thought that was normal, because I lacked introspection and thought any unhappiness I felt was my own damn fault. I am so far past that now, and I’m not EVEN 50.
I haven’t written a word in months. I’ve passed up so many great quips, so many interesting topics that apply to the New 40s—career crossroads, friends who make bad choices, crazy relatives, ex-boyfriends, and the perennial cycle of drinking and weight management. Ah, me.
I heard a great expression today (read, rather, on Facebook, of course—the 40-and-over social playground): “He/She looks like a bag of smashed assholes.” I laughed as loud and as long as I had when I first heard my un-PC friend tell someone to go “suck-a-bag-a-dicks.” Love the imagery, the pure crudeness. I have an affection for shocking manipulation of language.
In grad school, I did a presentation for my “Exploring Voice in Nonfiction” class on sex columnist author Dan Savage’s crude manipulation of language for propaganda and for the practical purposes of communicating in the alt-sex scene. One of my favorites, I explained to the class, was his invention of the word “santorum,” that frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is produced during anal sex. Yes, while my classmates dissected Joan Didion’s and Truman Capote’s prose, I discussed made-up words about butt sex. Perhaps that’s why my classmates never seemed to take me very seriously… But I digress. Savage’s use of “santorum” was a direct hit on Rick Santorum, a former PA senator and arbiter of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a proposed bill that basically allowed businesses to discriminate against employees on the basis of religious principles. Santorum, the man, not the frothy mixture, wasn’t a favorite with Savage or the bulk of his readers. In his column, they used the word “santorum” as defined above so many times, that, when one Googled the word “Santorum,” Savage’s definition would appear first, instead of the senator that bore its name. Now, that’s what I can an excellent “smear” campaign!
But anyway, back to our “bag of smashed assholes.” While this term might not have the intention of making political waves, it certainly gives me a chuckle. I also appreciate the context in which I first encountered it:
One of the guys in my Facebook exercise group, the members of which have been destroying me in exercise challenges for over a year now, posted his thoughts on weight obsession. To support his claim that weight is a poor measuring tool for self-confidence, he said that two people could be the exact same height and weight, but one could look fantastic and the other could look like a “bag of smashed assholes.” It’s not about weight, he contended, it’s about fitness and liking what you see in the mirror. Thank you online exercise buddy I have never met! I can get behind that philosophy, especially since I’ve been lifting weights, running, and riding a Peloton almost daily for the past month (not all on the same day, of course), and my weight hasn’t budged.
There’s a reason for that, and that is I’m still drinking copious amounts of beer. Last weekend, while staying in a town renowned for its craft breweries, my hubby and I discussed allowing beer as my only alcohol because it doesn’t make me crazy or black out, and because it doesn’t make me wake up with crippling hangovers. That’s progress. A little. But the more I work out, I’m discovering, the less inclined I am to want the beer. All it takes with me, sometimes, is a goal to distract me. I’m going to complete a half marathon with my FB exercise group in September. This will be my first half, and my first race other than a zombie 5K, in over ten years. As I train for this race, I am happily reminded of my old running days, of those incremental accomplishments that I made out on the trails or on the pavement every time I went out. It’s a craving like no other—getting outside, pushing up a hill, sprinting down one, feeling my heart beat, sweating it all out. I crave that sleepy peace I feel about an hour after a good run, and that slow settling soreness in my tired legs. I want this, almost as much as I want to drink.
I think my progress is on the horizon. I can’t say that I look fantastic and fit right now, but I’m getting there; and I certainly don’t look like a bag of smashed assholes. Most importantly, though, I have more on my mind than simply losing weight and what I look like. I have that craving for movement and wind and sweat and sore muscles. I crave the burn, which could be my saving grace.
I’m now at this stage in my adulthood where I’m watching my younger peers grow up. The twenty-somethings I partied with when I was a divorced thirty-something are now becoming divorced thirty-somethings themselves. The ones who stayed together seem to think their seven-year-old kids are sooooo blasé (I’d have the same, querulous look on my face if my parents had tried to impress me with a “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along in the minivan en route to soccer practice). I’m watching them trying to cling to cool or trying to act progressively in the wake of the shitstorm of resentment and confusion that awaits them once the papers are signed and their new normalcy begins to settle in. Marriage, kids, divorce. It’s the cycle of American life. These days, I just watch it. My court dates are over. My second marriage is solid. My stepkids are becoming independent young men. Last week, my husband voiced a retirement dream. When you start talking retirement, well, you’ve officially entered the realm of the observer.
My recently-divorced friend has decided to share the family house with the kids while she and her ex-husband take turns entering it once a week and being single parents. Somewhere outside of that house, they have dwellings that they occupy during their off weeks. They pay for a mortgage, and they pay for rent, all so the kids can grow up in one house. Seems a wholesome idea on paper until you consider the human element of such a compromise—the adults, the parents, in this scenario have denied everyone the right to move on. First, divorce has always been a financially-crippling institution, at least for one of the parties involved. Now, the parties have grown progressive enough to financially cripple everyone. Who’s saving for college when you got two rents to pay? Additionally, these kids will grow up in a far less idyllic environment than their parents think they will because they will have no idea what kind of lives their parents lead outside of the shared house. Traditionally, when parents divorce, the kids grow accustomed to two households—Dad’s and Mom’s. They might like one more than the other, or they might dislike the back-and-forth, or they might figure out the perks in each, but they will always know that their divorced parents lead different lives and that they are a witness and a part of each of those lives. How’s that work when the kids live in the “family” house and Mom and Dad live elsewhere? What’s the scenario? It could be one of total deprivation, or big mystery. Their parents’ “home” lives could become big secrets to them like the lives of headmistresses at boarding schools during weekends and vacations. And let’s not ignore the elephant in the room—thirty-somethings will marry AGAIN.
Yes. Divorcees tend to do that at any age, but especially in the wild thirties. I remarried when I was thirty-eight. I didn’t have any kids of my own, but my new husband had two. He never asked me to spend half of my time in his apartment and the other half at the family house. In fact, I only entered the house where he and his ex-wife had started their family twice. Why should I have lived there half the time? With her pictures on the wall, and their utensils in the kitchen, and their mattress in the bedroom? How else you gonna do it when you rotate shifts into the family house? My friend… is fucked. I wish she had been a closer friend now because I then I could have been there from the beginning. But she wasn’t. She’ll just have to figure this all out in the upcoming decade. Hats off to the new divorcees. Hats off to my friends who still have kids in car seats. I’m gonna sit back and watch and maybe say my piece (if I think it’ll make a difference), and the rest of the time I’ll keep my eye out for tricked-out travel vans that my husband and I can live in while we explore the highways, post-retirement.
I spent the coffee portion of my morning reading the May issue of Good Housekeeping, a subscription that my mother had bought for her mother until Grandma died and then passed on to me. There was a lapse in between of about fifteen years when only my mom received the issues, and whenever I visited her house I read them with a sense of guilty pleasure. Now, I just read them. There’s no sense of irony or guilty pleasure. I’m not out of my league here. In fact, I am solidly in the demographic that considers GH’s reviews on anti-aging products and foundation that clears up skin blotching. This morning, I even checked out an ad for super-comfy sandals with the pillow-type soles. I never would have considered these shoes six months ago, before I inherited a pair of my mother’s Sketchers On-the-Go loafers in a conservative tan color (Tan really does go with everything.). These shoes have become my go-to pair. I wear them with skirts, leggings, and jeans. My husband’s ex, whose fashion choices have always had that tired “mom” look to them, recently complimented me on my very comfortable pair of tan Sketchers with the white marshmallow soles. They’re like walking on air.
I own ten pairs of wedges and nine pairs of heels. In the past six months, I have worn wedges or heels exactly two times—a pair of stilettos for my mom’s viewing, and a pair of wedges for her memorial. And I have some wedgey boots that I wore from time-to-time, but certainly not often. In part because I gained a lot of weight in the last couple of years and don’t fit into most of my clothes, and in part because I’ve started to value comfort in a way that I never valued it before, I tend to wear a lot of yoga pants, t-shirts, and sweatshirts these days. Sometimes, I even find a way to dress these items up enough to wear them to work.
What is happening to me? Was it really that long ago that my writing professor suggested I submit my work to More magazine, and I hesitated because I didn’t think I was old enough to share the perspective of the More-reading audience? Sigh. Yes, it was. I long for More magazine these days; but unfortunately, that sophisticated periodical that applauded older women—their second acts, their successes and struggles, their graying hair—is gone, and I’m left with reading material like Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens instead. They’re not so bad—I’ve gotten great recipes and decorating tips from these selections—but they’re not More. These magazines have the sophistication of a tan pair of Sketchers On-the-Go. And, I’m afraid, at the age of forty-six, I do as well.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” –Ray Bradbury
Happy Earth, day, Darling. We love you very, very, very, very, very, very, VERY much.
An MSN poll this morning asked me how I would rate the state of the environment today versus ten years ago. I expected my choices would be some kind of range between “catastrophic” and “meh.” I guess I expected too much from MSN. The choices offered to me this Earth Day on the state of the environment were these four: “better,” “worse,” “about the same,” and “I don’t know.” 46% of respondents think things have gotten worse, which means the other 64% of them are delusional. Perhaps they watch real news instead of that “fake” stuff. 24 fucking percent of these morons think the earth is doing better. REALLY? Out of this 64% roasted nut mix, I have the most (not saying “a lot,” just “the most”) respect for the 3% who admit that they just don’t know. Thank you. Thank you for your honesty. You, my 3%, have just admitted that you don’t make any great efforts to stay informed about the environment or the state of the world, that you probably click out of your MSN home page if the content gets too heavy, and that you’re not afraid to admit that. I’ll take an “I don’t know.” It’s the only genuine choice among those pitiful three.
I say this with no sarcasm intended: Shit like this is the reason why I became a drinker. Morons aren’t new to this earth. The Internet didn’t invent them. I thought so many people around me were tedious and annoying when I was thirteen, long before smart phone distractions like Twitter and Snapchat. I say “thirteen” because it was around that time I started swiping beers and replacing liquor with water. I think my first drunks were like revelations to me—people could be funny, I could make light of things, s’all good! I never drank to make a story (yes, I’m still hung up on the Jamison memoir). Life itself was an absurd, dark comedy.
While we’re on the subject of environmental devastation, Husband and I watched Downsizing the other night. I’ll watch anything with Jason Sudeikis and Kristen Wiig. Plus, as a kid I used to fantasize about what it would be like to be a tiny person as tall as a blade of grass. The movie turned out to be much more than a comedy about people voluntarily shrinking themselves to get more for their money. It made a pretty obvious statement, in fact, about what people choose to do with technological and scientific breakthroughs that have the power to make lives better or worse. There’s a dark side to every invention. On the one hand, you have the visionaries, those with the foresight to think globally and imagine the very best outcomes of their labor. On the other hand, you have the hustlers who seize on the rich, but short-term gains offered by the technology. Anyone with the ability to think critically can weigh the pros and cons of both hands. Our future kinda depends on critical thinkers to maintain a balance between the two.
I think today’s Earth Day MSN poll provides some evidence that the scale is off-balance. Nevertheless, I’m gonna enjoy this Earth Day—the sunshine, the smell of freshly-mowed grass, and my relative privilege in the world.
I started reading Leslie Jamison’s The Recovery and got to page 18 and put it down. All I know about the author so far is that she had attended a graduate writing program in Iowa, that she had felt she needed to make stories to tell and so she used drinking as her vehicle, and that she had rehearsed her first confession at an AA meeting. Within those 18 pages, she included other bits about adolescent insecurity turned adult insecurity and the usual stuff that alcoholics and probably everybody else has experienced in the middle class world. I could keep reading with an open mind. Maybe tomorrow, though, not tonight. At the moment, I just don’t care about this particular woman’s recovery story or about what she has unearthed on the subject through research. Alcoholism, as a topic of research or conversation or reflection, as a personal struggle and a source of embarrassment, is beginning to bore me. Tonight, I am as bored with myself as I am by other alcoholics.
My addiction counselor asked me to journal about my habits. The purpose of the exercise was to determine what triggers a binge. Since I already know my triggers, a week of journals went like this:
Drank beer. It was a nice day.
Extra beer lying around. Drank that.
Another nice day. Drank more beer to celebrate our tax return.
Brunch with J and Bloody Marys.
Met a new shrink. She prescribed Naltrexone. H went on a work trip. Drank the leftover beer. Bought more. Drank that. Bought 2 bottles of wine. Drank half of one.
Came home from work by 1:30. H still gone. Finished off the wine. Passed out. Woke up at 7:22 and thought it was morning. Made coffee, fed the dogs and went to my 8:00 am appointment with Dr. M. Didn’t realize until I got there and knocked on the door and waited around that it wasn’t morning. A new low.
Triggers? Well, where do we begin. This rhorshock splash of a journaling attempt ended two days later when I used the book to plan out a speech for my mother’s official memorial. The next morning, when the pastor asked me if I had brought a book for attendees to sign, I tore out those first few pages of scribbles and opened the diary to the first unripped page and set it on the podium. Got 44 signatures, but there were at least double that in attendance.
So, yeah, it was my mom’s memorial this weekend, six months after her death. I ended up ad libbing that speech since I couldn’t find a quiet corner of the hotel to write it out the night before. I would go to our room, and I’d find a bunch of kids in there. I’d go outside to smoke, and people would join me. I’d go into the lobby, and the front desk attendant would be watching news about the Syria bombing. So I inferred that my mom didn’t want me to go up there and read off of a piece of paper, so I didn’t. My speech began where the pastor left off.
I’ve written eulogies before. I wrote one for my grandmother, even started it before she died. I wrote one for my uncle who died shortly before my mother did. Somewhere in my files is an unfinished benediction for my father. But I couldn’t write one for Mom. I had a whole week before her service to do not much more than think about what to say when I got there, and the inarticulate scribblings above pretty much sum up how I spent that time. I thought about her a lot, but those thoughts usually ended in drunken blubbering and a long nap on the couch in my clothes with all the lights still on.
I still contend that Mom wanted my speech to be spontaneous. How do you say in five to ten minutes who and what your mother meant to you, and to everybody else? How do you defend and honor the direction of her whole life? You really can’t. The young pastor had it easy because he was new to the church when Mom got sick, and he only had one poignant memory of her. I had a lifetime. But I managed. It came to me.
Then my brother, my shy, soft-spoken brother, decided to say something. And he took a different approach. He didn’t try to sum her up or tell people something that perhaps they didn’t know. He just talked about little things that are no longer there, like dinner at 5:00. My mother’s day revolved around dinner time, and my father put it out there for her. If you showed up at their house any time between 4 and 6, you’d see the table set, smell food cooking. All the lights would be on. Dad would be busy in the kitchen, and Mom would be warm in a chair stalking people on Facebook or watching HGTV or All My Children. Since then, Dad has stopped thinking about dinner. I had to throw something together for him on Sunday when I realized that it was 6:30, and the kitchen was dark. That kind of absence is a real kick in the ass. It’s even worse than the little objects lying around in memoriam, like a beat-up pair of slides she used for gardening still sitting on the back porch or the little glass and ceramic things she collected, arranged meticulously in a display cabinet. It’s less a reminder as it is a void. A big question. What goes here now?
I’ve immersed myself this evening in episodes of Friends and America’s Next Top Model. They give me such a giggle!
First, let’s take a look at Friends. I didn’t watch the show in the nineties because I was your typical nineties nonconformist who didn’t believe in stuff like television or fiction or capitalism. Basically, I was an asshole. But now I think Friends is a pretty funny show.
Anyway, on tonight’s rerun of Friends, Rachael turned thirty, and her five peers tried to cheer her up while she wallowed—just a tad—in some self-pity. I hardly remember turning thirty. Maybe it was bittersweet. I don’t know. It was so damn long ago that my only memory of it was opening up a birthday package from my mom in the hall bathroom. I don’t know why I was opening packages in the hall bathroom. I’m not even entirely sure the package was from my mom. Might have been from my ex-boyfriend. That would explain the hall bathroom. In that package was a coffee mug that said “Yikes! 30!” which I still own.
Thirty. Hah hah HAH. Someone seasoned like the administrative assistant at my college who has been there, done that, and dealt with everything from death to illness to job loss and plumbing issues should have sat me down that night and said, “Sugar, you’re only gonna get older and older and OLDER, so open up your eyes right now and take all this in and remember it.” As it is, thirty was just a blip.
Then, there’s ANTM, another show I never watched, not til this season. This season, we got big girls and old girls and hairless girls in the mix. I can’t stop watching. There’s a 42 year-old woman competing this season, and here’s how she deals with the twenty-something hormone drama in the model house in LA: she doesn’t. She keeps her mouth shut, and she stays out of it. Smart woman. That’s my forty-something girl. Tonight, she wore a very stupid outfit to elimination, some gold coverall shorts with a frilly white blouse—very Goldilocks—but I will forgive her for that because she hasn’t modeled since like 1996, and she’s still a little confused and has a tough experience ahead of her.
My forty-something–the only woman on the show who doesn’t make me cringe or giggle with her imaginary insecurities. At our age, the shit that makes us cry isn’t imaginary.
OK, my cousin is temporarily staying at her sister’s house where she can play with a baby, and where her puppy can interact with another dog, and where she can be around other people and their normalcy for a time. I’m satisfied that she’s taken care of, at least for a week.
Babies are living antidepressants. The day my Mom died, a ragtag group of people descended on the house. There was my brother, of course, and my aunt and my nieces and my nephew and his wife. And there was the guy who owns the auto body shop down the road, the one who has been friends with the family since he and my brother took auto shop together in high school in the seventies. He’s plowed my parents’ driveway in winter, fixed their cars whenever they hit a deer or a traffic cone on the highway. Sold my oldest brother more refurbished auction cars than I can count on my hands. He’s always been there. And so there he was, at our house on the day my mom died, with his wife and his daughter and his little baby granddaughter.
This guy. This guy is one of those people who doesn’t have the words. He’s kind. He’s affable. He’s witty. But he doesn’t do speeches or drama or serious. A week before my mother died, when I first got to town, I stopped over at his shop to say “hi” like I always do. He just stood there and looked at me. No dumb jokes, no silly banter. I would have found it awkward, except that I’ve known this guy, literally, for as long as I can remember. So we just stood there in his shop for awhile, amid the dirt and oil fumes of gutted cars that brings me back to my childhood, hanging around my brothers while they tried to resurrect vintage Chevy products in our driveway. And then I left. This guy only has one channel—friendly and light. If he can’t be tuned to that channel, he just slips into quiet. And I am grateful for that.
I told my cousin this story. Because sometimes there are no words for tragedy and grief. I’ve told my cousin she’s young, and because she’s young, I’d like to see her feel better, eventually. But I never assured her that it would get better. I never told her to get back out there and start over, or to start dating again. That’s absurd. In the face of grief, you have to choose your words carefully, or just don’t say anything at all, like my brother’s loyal friend, the guy with the auto shop down the road, and the cute grandbaby that he brought to my parents’ house on the day my mother died.
There we were, a distraught family that was feeling some weird kind of relief and release because the suffering was over, at least for Mom. And then there was this baby, a little thing in a tutu and a bow with big brown eyes, a child who was just beginning to comprehend the world around her. She didn’t know any of the yucky stuff—sadness, grief—she just responded to sounds and lights and color and smiles. Her granddaddy made goofy faces, and she smiled and laughed and shrieked, and he imitated her shrieks. And I enjoyed this baby, and I got FUCKED UP.
Later, after everyone left, my dad said, “I never understood how people could laugh and have fun in the face of tragedy. Now I think I get it. It’s a release.” It’s catharsis. It is. It’s like taking a long hike in the woods. It’s like hanging out with a baby. It’s like being with people who want or need nothing from you. They’re just there, like they’ve always been, with nothing new or profound to say.
My poor cousin. My cousin who gave up everything—her community, her friends, and even her family—to follow this dreamer (or maybe con artist) into the wilderness. She needs something. She needs the guy who owns the auto body shop down the road. She needs community, and she needs a baby. I hope this week she gets it.