Category Archives: Reflections

Better than a Bag of Smashed Assholes

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.

 

Boring Shoes and Good Housekeeping

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.

“Earth Day” Still Exists!

“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.

The Absence

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:

April 4

Drank beer. It was a nice day.

April 5

Extra beer lying around. Drank that.

April 6

Another nice day. Drank more beer to celebrate our tax return.

April 7

Drank wine.

April 8

Brunch with J and Bloody Marys.

April 9

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.

April 10

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?

America’s Next Top Something or Other

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.

Peace through poetry?

It’s a new year. I spent a quiet Christmas Eve with my dad, endured nightmares in the haunted guest room. On Christmas night, I visited my brother and his family—my sister-in-law, their three kids, my nephew’s wife, and my niece’s boyfriend. I woke up many hours later still drunk with a bruised knee on the futon in my niece’s room, my last memory of the evening before was looking up into the crying face of my nephew’s wife. I don’t know why I was looking up. I don’t know why she was crying. I don’t know what kind of advice I gave her and if she remembered it. Probably not. I hear I fought with one of my nephews. Asked him what about the next morning as I teetered on my own two feet in the kitchen, my shaky hands cupping my coffee mug.

“I don’t know,” was all he replied. No one knows, cept for maybe my sister-in-law, the one person in the room who looked really pissed that morning. My dad was pissed, too. He’s a weaker man this season—weak, sad, and confused. He didn’t even know how much I drank right in front of his nose the day Mom died, never noticed that my coffee mug was full of red wine. He never knew I replaced his Jim Beam twice, once getting a speeding ticket while rushing home to shove it in the cabinet before he returned from a doctor’s appointment. So when he noticed I wasn’t in the house on the morning of December 26, he called the cops.

“Sir, was she drinking?” asked the 911 respondent.

“She doesn’t drink,” he said, right before I sent him my text message that I been done-in by whiskey. It certainly wasn’t the first time, but this time it was public. He was so shocked.

“And a HAPPY New Year!” my mother and her friend used to sing over and over, especially after they’d been drinking, on every New Year’s Eve that I can remember while growing up. My parents have spent every New Year’s Eve for forty years with the same couple. I and their daughters enjoyed the freedom of doing whatever we wanted—playing with candle wax, sampling the sweet liquors, snatching food, and playing Atari games into the wee hours—while our parents got drunker and drunker. This friend died in May, Mom in October, so Dad and the remaining widower spent New Year’s Eve together last night, just the two of them going through the motions—shopping for snacks in the morning, eating out, retiring to one house or the other to watch a video. It was the saddest evening I could have imagined for my father, but he wanted to do it. And he even told me today that they had a good time, he and his friend of forty years, eating out and watching a movie by themselves and mumbling from time-to-time “and a HAPPY New Year.”

This is how 2017 ended for my father is his long-time friend. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

A friend sent me a poem today, and I realized, as I read it, that poetry is the thing I need to keep going. I haven’t sought refuge in poetry since I was in my twenties. There’s something about it, about how it explains the inexplicable. Although the theme didn’t capture my sadness entirely, this poem fed my soul today:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48597/burning-the-old-year

I think tomorrow, or later, I will try to write one. It’s been decades since I wrote a poem, but during these days of loss and sadness, I think it’s the only way to find peace.

Love now; look forward; live with grief

I canceled today’s visit with my shrink because I didn’t want to pay him. He kindly offered to meet with me now and bill me later, but that would have defeated my intent to not spend money at all. I rescheduled our appointment for next month. In the meantime, our new insurance will kick in, and I’ll go and find a psychiatrist who can prescribe my meds at a fraction of the price. He’s a great guy, my psychiatrist—old-school shrink and counselor all rolled into one. Four years ago, the old man put me on the right path. Now, I’ve outgrown him.

I outgrew many things this autumn. Amidst the grief and the sadness, opportunities have presented themselves. It just took me some time to read the signs.

My husband and I take “signs” quite seriously. The week after I met him, I sent him a goodbye email on a Saturday morning, only to run into him later downtown on his way to a free concert. Ten or eleven blissful hours after that, I warned him not to read his email. We’ve been together ever since, thankful that, at that time, he didn’t have an internet connection at his place, and I didn’t go out of town that day like I had planned. What would our lives be like now if he had read that email, if I had left town? I shudder at the thought. These are the signs we reflect upon when life doesn’t work out as planned.

Over the years, more signs came our way, inspiring bold decisions. Big changes in our lives came in clusters. 2011 was a pivotal year. During that year, we moved to a new city, thus solidifying fifty-percent custody of his young children who had moved there with their mother three years prior. I became certified to teach ESL, opening up a new path of career possibilities for me in this new city. And I got my Master’s degree in Nonfiction Writing, something I didn’t necessarily need in my field (most teachers went for the subsidized M.Ed.s), but something that I wanted, and something that allowed me to teach at the college level. It was a big year, marking a complete shift in my lifestyle and my thinking—I became a parent, for real, not just on Wednesdays and every other weekend; I set myself up to leave public school teaching for good (big sigh); and I made peace with the suburbs and a quieter life.

Just as everything changed after 2011, this year looks like it’s gonna be another big one.

In the fall, four things happened: my mother was diagnosed with and quickly died from pancreatic cancer; my husband started a new job; we bought another house; and I was offered a full-time position at my college.

My husband’s last job was going south quickly. He was unhappy, and he took a risk with another company doing work outside of his comfort zone. Because he knew that the first six months of this job, at least, would require tons of travel and training and meetings, he told me he was thankful that I had a light and flexible schedule at the community college where I teach ESL. He would need me to be around more often to help him get the kids to one of their many lessons, practices, games, or activities. I was secretly happy to put off looking for a full-time teaching job to help out at home.

When I taught full-time, I did it because I needed to. I didn’t want to arrive at work at before the sun rose and stay until it went down again. Even when I could get out of there on the earlier side, I paid the price by taking the work with me. While a full-time community college position would not demand as many physical hours of my time as a public high school, I’d been part-time too long to appreciate the difference. Some people, when they’re underemployed, don’t feel busy enough or whole enough, or (I don’t know, I’ve never felt that way)… something… when they’re not immersed in their career. I’m not one of those people.

Then there’s the house. We didn’t buy it to move into it. We bought it to be an investment property. For nine years, I have been stalking real estate as a hobby, watching prices rise, noting flips and changing values. I tried to get my husband on board with the real estate thing after we moved, when the prices in our expensive suburb were comparatively low, but he thought real estate was a fool’s game. Suddenly, over the summer, he became obsessed with real estate investment (Note on his personality: He has two extremes—all in or all out and nothing in between.). I won’t go into detail on how that happened, I’ll just say that now, he relies on my time and my interest to legitimately pursue this risky venture.

These days, when I’m not teaching or cleaning, working out or cooking, or writing, I’m learning about licenses and inspections, tweaking leases, new software for landlords, value-estimating spreadsheet calculations, gleaning private money. And I like it. My work with this house, with establishing new social networks of real estate investors, and with researching the business has felt like earning another degree, except this one is hands-on, complete with the debt and the with the potential for financial growth that come with conventional degrees.

Finally, that opportunity I had thought I always wanted came my way—a full-time teaching position at my college. Full-time positions at the college-level, even non-tenure-track positions like this one, are rare these days. And even more rare is one invited into the position. I’ve spent four years at this college demonstrating my worth. My students respect me. My colleagues respect me, and for at least the past two of those four years, they have encouraged me to try for full-time. That is why I got the TESOL degree—it was the one last step to a full-time position in this field. I was finally getting what I had said I wanted for six years. Except I didn’t want it anymore.

For twelve years, I worked long hours and lived for a paycheck. Then I moved here, and I began to explore life outside of constant work. The new path that I have chosen by reading the signs this fall is a riskier one. I’ll be doing all kinds of work from now on—teaching, raising the kids, writing, researching investments. I won’t have a single career to point to when people ask me “what I do,” which I think is a stupid question to begin with. So much more defines us than our careers—the opportunity, for instance, to watch our oldest disappear through neighbors’ yards on his way to the bus stop as the sun rises; or to drop our youngest off at school in the morning because his cello is bigger than he is, and he can’t manage it on the bus. That’s what I signed up for years ago when we moved away from my urban life as I knew it, to this quieter, slower suburban life. No more excitement, no more regular happy hours and foody hotspots with tattooed waitstaff and disturbing art on the walls. And no more road rage, no more anger and prejudice, no more living only for the weekend, and resenting the kids for ruining it. These days, I look forward to our weekends with the kids as much as I look forward to those weekends without them. I just look forward to being here, period.

When I received that full-time job offer and realized that I had the opportunity to turn it down, to pursue anything that made me tick, I felt very, very fortunate. Since then, I’ve gone to bed sober every night and awakened every morning without a headache, feeling optimistic instead of rundown. Because I can be happy.

Yes, I still burst into tears at random when I, say, look at the Christmas gift list that I had started for my mother, or even when people ask me about her. I still can’t keep it together if I really think about her. But grief can’t define life, just affect it. And while it affects my life every day, I believe I can live with that. I wouldn’t want to forget mom, and I wouldn’t want to stop feeling that sense of loss. It’s a tattoo. And while my father would think I was crazy for turning down a full-time job, security, benefits, to be a part-time housewife, part-time teacher, part-time writer, and part-time investor, my mom would toast me with one of her special alcoholic drinks that she only drank on cruises or on New Year’s Eve, a “Dark and Stormy” or something else that’s more sugar than booze. She never had to articulate it. She was always in my corner.

The New Forties Means our Parents are the New Sixties… at Least.

I interrupt my grief mantra to resume this blog’s original flavor—the 40s are the new 40s. This blog is about the forties, for better or for worse. Last week introduced my 46th birthday. I am finally the age that I have been calling myself for the last year. For some reason, I never even acknowledged forty-five, that middle of middle-age that you’d think I’d want to cling to for as long I possibly could. Instead, I immediately thought ahead, to the years beyond forty-five. I don’t know why, but I have a hunch—I spent my forty-fifth year preparing for THIS.

What is THIS? This is the forties, the real forties. I woke up on my forty-sixth birthday in the same clothes I’d worn the previous day, and the same jewelry, some of which was my mom’s. Like many black-out nights before that one, I hadn’t brushed my teeth because I hadn’t been in control of when I went to bed. On my forty-sixth birthday morning, I completely missed the kids before they caught the bus for school, and my husband both spoiled me with every cooking gadget I’d ever asked for while also reminding me of how much I am slipping.

“Happy birthday,” he said, and he hugged me. Then he said, “Maybe not today, or this weekend, but maybe we can talk about your drinking.” Happy birthday to me—I am a concern to my family.

I guess I am a concern to myself as well. My experiences and memories are sort of pixilated. Sober days are high-definition days. If I take off a ring to put on some hand lotion, I remember to put the ring back on. On a low-tech day, that ring is anybody’s fortune. I never wore rings until my mother died, so if I lose a ring on a low-definition kind of day, that ring is just gone, as is another piece of my mother’s history.

But I didn’t start this blog to talk about my mother exclusively.   However, I have a lot of friends my age who know this kind of grief. It is, in many ways, a product of the forties. I am certain that my focus on the themes of the “new forties” will eventually stray from loss and grief and return to all the other experiences that make this decade so meaningful. For now, I am a skipping record. And if you know what that is, then you know why the forties are NOT the new thirties!

It’s hard to honor a loved one’s wishes when they were gleaned through a medium

I left my students with a sub, once again, in order to attend my uncle’s memorial service last week. My uncle was my mother’s high school classmate, my father’s younger brother. My unreliable memory tells me that she had dated him before she met my father. Small towns in the fifties, you know? I guess I’ll never get the whole story now because there’s no longer any first party to ask. Within a month of each other, two more members of the class of ’59 vanished, leaving the living plagued with distorted memories and random mementos. I say “plagued” because I have very little control over what will trigger my emotions–maybe a sock, maybe a billboard. I cry when I cry, and that could be in the car or before class or when an old friend of my uncle’s or my mother’s cries in front of me.   No matter where I am or who I am with, I am reminded that I no longer have my mother or my uncle. I can’t even begin to imagine how my dad feels about this.  Yesterday was their 57th anniversary.  Today is my uncle’s birthday.

While Mom was dying, I cried over all of her stuff, like pairs of shoes she’d kicked off in the landing a couple of weeks earlier when she could walk. I cried over those shoes because it was just dawning on me at that time that she would never put those shoes on her feet again. I cried over shoes, bathrobes hanging on the bathroom door, half-empty tubes of cleanser, and Walmart receipts.

The week after she died, I hardly cried at all. I had my husband to keep me company and my family all around, and I was busy writing obits and making preparations for her viewing. I felt some kind of temporary high of relief that lasted until I walked through my own front door, after.  When there was no one to nurse, no memorial preparations to make, no family to joke around with, all I had was this feeling of “after.”

I’m in the “after” now. I guess it’s where I’ll always be. There was life when Mom was here, and now there is life after she’s gone—two distinct lives. I’m not really enjoying life “after,” if I may be frank. Something big is missing. I feel it everywhere—that absence. I know Mom anticipated this absence and wanted me to fill it up, and I’m certain she didn’t want me to fill it up with Jim Beam or become the crazy dog lady who has one-sided conversations with her dogs all day (too late). She was too vain for that. She was proud of me and my brothers because we gave her something to feel pride in. None of us are slackers, despite my self-deprecation.

At my fingertips, I hold all the anticipated clichés in response to her last wishes—things I must do to honor her daily, things that ultimately end up honoring me by cleaning up my own bad habits. Honestly, I don’t know what she’d want. When Mom was here, she’d want to take a trip or go shopping for solar-powered lawn decorations or drink some salted-caramel and vanilla something-or-other from Starbucks. She’d want to tell me all the latest news about the family that she’d gleaned from Facebook posts. She’d want recognition and a travel/shopping/gossip buddy. Now, after she’s gone, and all I can do is be sad. I don’t know how to live for her, or me. I’m just lost.

 

 

There’s nothing weirder than this…

Today, I visited my family home and my father for the first time since my mother died. I was about to explain this experience by introducing it with the phrase, “There is nothing weirder than,” but then I checked myself by remembering that nearly every experience I’ve had in the last two months could be introduced by the phrase “there’s nothing weirder than…”

There is nothing weirder than showing up at your dad’s house when it used to be your parents’ house. There is nothing weirder than the look and sound of THAT house, the dad’s house with the mom’s stuff still everywhere in it because Mom’s stuff made it the place that it is… was. Dad’s disorganization and absence of an eye for detail is starting to swallow up the neat, pastel-colored, over-scented house of my mom. There are random objects lying around that were here when I left two weeks ago. For instance, there’s a box lid that Mom had used for a tray before someone with more wherewithal bought her a portable tray. On that box lid is a plastic serving plate, an extension cord, a hanger, and one of those “grabber-nabbers” like my neighbors use to pick up trash without having to touch it. Why is that assortment of objects in the dining room?

Two weeks ago, I thought Dad just needed to get the shock out of his system, and then he would find a home for that cardboard box lid that Mom had used for a tray. He didn’t. The house is filled with things, objects with no home, like the complete Harry Potter series that my aunt bought her for her convalescence. I found the fucking thing on the buffet, still in the box and the bubble wrap, exactly where it had been sitting two weeks ago. Its presence bothered me then, and it bothers me now. There is nothing weirder than arriving “home” and finding your father in a time warp. There are things he can’t part with, and I have to decide what to pitch. Even my dogs are depressed.

But you know what else is weird? My father’s raw adoration for my mother. It’s something that he doesn’t wave around like a Facebook post, but that’s because he isn’t from the generation (ahem, mine and ours and the millennials) that can do that with candor.   He’s a vintage man’s man. This shit is hard to express. I see him struggling with every sentence. He’s a walking eulogy.

I came here this week to sort out my mother’s crammed-yet-organized walk-in closet because my dad wants to move back into the master bedroom. It’s a harder task than I had imagined. For one, her travel buddy and friend-for-decades purportedly cleaned it out last week. Before I had a chance to try on those boots I saw on the top shelf, Dad had invited her to come and clean house, and she left with three, thirty-gallon trash bags full of stuff. I arrived here today expecting a closet with one or two things left, dangling sadly among the empty hangers. Instead, I got a whole closet of clothes that I didn’t know what to do with. Mom liked her clothes.

There’s nothing weirder than listening to your dad try to express his admiration for your mom by talking about the fabrics she wore. He sat down on the edge her bed and said, “You know, the clothes she wore, all of them were soft. All her clothes were so soft.” And then he wandered off again. Dad’s in a funky place. I’m in a funky place. Her clothes, her skin products, her trinkets around the room perplex him. I have to sort it all out, separate the spring and summer clothes for the Salvation Army from the winter clothes for the upcoming church bazaar.  I set aside things I don’t really need because they remind me of moments and events, like our trip to Michigan or my nephew’s wedding. I’m taking home her commemorative t-shirts that I’ll probably never wear. I’m parting with outfits that she had discussed with me in detail over the phone. There they are, no longer relevant.

There’s nothing weirder than this: new grief.

There’s nothing weirder than watching your mother die.

There’s nothing weirder than changing your vocabulary from “them” to “he.”

There’s nothing weirder than walking into that second life, the “after” phase, and realizing that that’s all there is.

There’s nothing weirder than this.