–Photo by Andrija Bloom
You remember too much,
my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
I’ve had a lot of strong feelings this week. I’ve tried to allow myself to feel them, to feel the full extent of them, to let it hurt as much as it hurts. I haven’t distracted myself with any of the things that can typically provide escape–exercise, work, food, substances, texting, relationships, touch. I’m not running away. I’ve sat alone with the pain and the darkness. It started with hours. It’s turned into days.
I had no idea how many layers of strength this would take. I had no idea the pain went that deep. Each time I thought I had hit bottom, there was a trap door that opened and there was more underneath.
Maybe there is still more. Maybe I have not yet hit bottom.
But I am staying here until I do.
The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is exemplified by the custom of celebrating cracks rather than discarding the cracked object. If a container is old and worn, cracked and leaking, an artist fills the cracks with gold, showing the broken places, rather than hiding them. In so doing, the container is made distinct and useful again. In this tradition, over time, the vessel takes on a new beauty, and is honored and prized because of (not in spite of) its obvious flaws.
The culture of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the wisdom of the experiences that break us. When the cracks are filled in with gold, they are highlighted rather than hidden, celebrated rather than denied. An untrained eye might think such an object is garish or embarrassing, but there is a perverse beauty in dramatizing imperfection. Wabi-sabi embraces this.
I am broken and scarred, but my cracks are where the light gets in.
I like being prepared, so everywhere I go, I carry bags to compartmentalize the clothes and tools I need for the numerous jobs I do. I am a person who over-schedules, over-exercises, over-plans, over-commits, and I have a messy car that dramatizes this. When I’m working on something I believe in, I go all in, focusing so intently, I forget to eat, forget to rest, neglect my friends, push people away, lock myself in a sort of solitary confinement. Sometimes I get physically ill.
But I am more than my worst traits, more than an amalgam of my annoying flaws. Most of the time, I give people my undivided attention, even if it messes with my overbooked schedule. Most of the time, I practice yoga and meditation and peace-making, slowing down, becoming present. I send handwritten notes to loved ones, tend a garden, share the harvest. Most of the time, I follow my heart over my head and actively defy the social barriers of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and age, loving boldly and courageously. I stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s threatened by something more powerful, even when I know I can’t win. And if what I’m fighting for requires me to go up against something stronger than I am, I step into the ring anyway, and go down swinging, to the very end.
When I lose, sometimes someone will reach down, take my hand, and sit with my brokenness.
Maybe this time, that person is me.
I am loyal, loving, chaotic, dramatic, and broken.
“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
Photo by Andrija Bloom
Gayle died when we were fourteen. We were roommates in the Hematology/Oncology ward in Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles the spring of our thirteenth year, both theoretically in the eighth grade, though neither of us actually went to school.
We kept up a constant chatter about blood counts and needle marks, bone marrow tests, cafeteria menus, diet soft drinks, jealous siblings, and the trials of our wayward hair, even as hers fell out daily in clumps, while mine grew curly and unkempt. We discussed what our chances were of ever growing up, whether we would get to go to high school, whether we would ever get to kiss a boy.
People said we could be sisters, twins even. We kept our window shade open, grateful for our tiny corner view of the mountains, the television conspicuously off, our dialogue dramatic, until one day, after multiple blood transfusions and an experimental splenectomy, I was discharged with high hopes of a full recovery. We waved goodbye, said our girlish goodlucks, and I tucked her picture into my wallet, her cursive writing wide and smiling on the back, dotted with purple hearts: here’s to a happy high school.
We wrote to each other with devoted regularity, until she died nine weeks later. I secured her letters and picture in the back of my makeup drawer and moved on. I didn’t like to think of her in the months or years after that, of why God apparently wanted her next to His side, certain that she was more of an angel than I would ever be, but not daring to question that line of reasoning. I closed that chapter definitively, turned away from the memories, tried desperately to acclimate to a life where people didn’t talk about white blood cells or platelet counts. My drive to be normal (fueled by what I now recognize as survivor’s guilt) kept me from contacting her parents, from offering her letters to them, from ever acknowledging their perpetual grief. I left her and them behind, sprinting toward what I assumed would be an early finish.
Here is her picture. I still look at it from time to time, at the frozen child she will always be in a world I have long since outgrown.
I remember her blonde wig, designed to look like Farrah Fawcett. I remember Gayle’s father kneeling at her bedside, his trembling prayers to our Heavenly Father, uttered aloud, prayers that ultimately would go unanswered. Can I still be angry at that God, even now?
I spent so long repressing anger.
When it comes to hospitals, I have no idea what is normal. But I know what is true.
I didn’t earn my life. Gayle and I were interchangeable. There was no method to the madness of our illnesses, no reason why I got better, why she did not.
We didn’t kiss, but the first boy who held my hand did so in Children’s Hospital when I was 16. Since the veins in my inner wrists and the inner creases of my elbows were blown out, he curled his fingers around the needle taped onto the back of my boney hand. I let him, because he was the only one there.
In the hospital, we were a number. Our wristbands dictated what could and couldn’t be done to us. Gayle and I had no agency, no ability to rebel. We weren’t integrated into a school or class or pop culture. We thrived on imagination and hypothesis. Gayle talked of love and I told her we would have it. We wanted out of those lonely twin beds. We wanted someone to love us enough to invite us into their world, to be introduced to their friends and family. We wanted to know we were real.
I am still fighting to be real.
During my first year of college, I received a registered letter in the mail from Children’s Hospital, suggesting I get my blood tested immediately. The blood donated in the eighties was not screened for AIDS. Some children from those months in those wards were now HIV positive. The letter informed me about testing options and recommended I seek appropriate counseling.
This didn’t frighten me in the least. As a virgin, I felt no stigma. I went to the clinic with barely a thought of the past or of the future. If my luck had run out, I had lived more years than I had once hoped for. I had made it out of the hospital, into college, and I trusted in all my youthful naivete that I had already lived a bigger life than Gayle.
Now I know how finite life is. Now I know there are things I haven’t done, things I hope to experience before its my time to leave this earth. There are things Gayle and I talked about that I still haven’t done. There are ways I still want to grow.
As grown up as we thought we were, I know now that our lives had barely begun, that the decades since have changed everything we once knew. I see my son and my daughters and my heart crushes the air from my chest for Gayle’s parents.
I have four adult children older than I was when I got the call to get tested.
I answer a new call, now. And no matter what the outcome, I know my death would do more harm to them than it would to me. There are milestones in their future that would be tragic without the presence of the woman who bore and raised them. I may be easily and immediately replaceable as a lover and life partner, but I am not replaceable to them.
Gayle has no children. Gayle has an eternal adolescence looking back at me from her angelic photo. Is this any consolation to her father and her mother, for whom she will always be a child, their beautiful and innocent teenager, stuck in a dated hairstyle, without even the luxury of hair?
I don’t know what my next hospital stay will include, or whether I will ever have the integrated life she and I dreamed of. But I know the memory of Gayle will be with me, and I know if she were in the room, she would hold my hand until the very end, and she would say, with her sweet demonic smile, “at least you got to kiss a boy.”
“When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible.” Brene Brown
Several years ago, I began practicing yoga at a local gym. I was a busy woman, juggling a full-time ascending career and a burgeoning bundle of children’s activities. I was battling chronic back pain, so I conceded to what, at the time, was a gargantuan gesture of self-care. I signed up for a yoga class. I rushed into the gym once a week to get my stretch on, and then I would rush out to proceed with the obligations of my overbooked schedule. When it came time for the final resting pose at the end of class, I would roll up my mat and leave. I didn’t have time for savasana.
In a gym, you can do that without seeming inordinately rude.
Or, at least, I thought you could.
At the time, I would have told you I didn’t make room for stillness in my chaotic days because I literally couldn’t find the time to squeeze it in. And that was certainly part of it. But the larger truth is, I couldn’t live with the pain that came up in the quiet, so I avoided it at all costs.
I had been running non-stop since I was 17. I didn’t drink or smoke or have any recreational habits that slowed me down. I was intentional and purposeful, productive and efficient, building a secure life for myself and my family. I had never taken a nap in my adult life.
But I kept showing up, once a week, to stretch. And I started to feel better, to feel more at home in my body, to move a little differently throughout my day, to breathe a little more mindfully, to pause a little more reflectively, to notice the stresses I was putting on my body, to ease up a little, soften, slow down, to notice when I was hungry and what I was hungry for. Eventually, my commitment to my yoga practice yielded an invitation I felt ready to accept. After two years of consistent practice, I stayed on my mat for my first savasana.
It was worse than I predicted, in every way. Inexplicably excruciating. I left the gym in tears.
I tried to drive, but I was crying too hard to see. I pulled over on the side of the road, locked the car doors and dialed my mom’s number.
I was surprised when she answered. We hadn’t spoken in well over a year and I struggled to find words. Finally, from the quiet of my sealed car, I said, “Mom, I’m not blaming you, I know you did the best you could, but what happened when I was a kid, why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you try to help me when you found out? Why did we just keep having those men babysit us and live in our home? Why did you let it keep going on? It’s caused me decades of pain, mom. I’ve made so many poor choices. I feel destroyed by…”
She answered abruptly, “Michelle, what’s the point in talking about this?”
I took a breath. “Are you busy? Is there a better time?”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, “you need to get over it.”
“But I felt so unprotected. Why didn’t you protect that little girl? Why didn’t you say you were sorry? Why didn’t you love me?” I was crying audibly now, but she had already hung up. My mom hung up on that conversation and neither of us have spoken of it since.
I forgive my mom. But we don’t talk. She doesn’t reach out and neither do I. What more is there to say?
I’ve thought a lot about love since then. How to give it and to receive it, what I want and how far I am willing to go to protect my loved ones.
For me, loving someone means staying for those painful conversations, even if you don’t have answers. Loving someone means you can sit with pain and not turn away.
This week, someone I love hurt me. We all know the pain of being let down or betrayed, and we know that sometimes we hurt those we love the most.
But it hurt more than I expected.
I sat with the pain and it felt hauntingly familiar. I thought of where I come from and how nothing is ever talked about or resolved. The abuse in my childhood wasn’t personal. A celibate man in his twenties needed touch. There were limited women available. It wasn’t personal. I was just there. He took my innocence from me when I was seven because I was the one who was there.
It continued because no one noticed how much I hurt.
I thought of the years and years of covering up for my family, of saying it’s not their fault, of understanding they were trapped in their own heads, their own fears, their own flawed systems, a swirling ecosystem of unmet needs, a drama in which I was just collateral damage.
In the past, I would apologize when someone would hurt me. I would say I was sorry for being too sensitive or needy, for wanting too much, for having unrealistic expectations. I would say, “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. I’m fine.”
It takes more vulnerability and more love to say, I’m not fine. It’s not ok and I want better.
I survived this week, but I want to hold my close relationships to a higher standard than survival. In love, fine isn’t good enough.
We can forgive without an apology. But that forgiveness will be from a distance. We let the person go and move on with our lives, without wanting to hurt them or wishing them ill. I love my mom. I understand the culture she was raised in and how she was unable to transcend it. But as much as it breaks my heart, I have stopped trying to get her attention, and I have given up on closure.
Forgiveness comes easy to me. Sharing my pain makes me feel weak and small. But I’m starting to realize being honest about what hurts is less about whether the other person changes and more about acknowledging what is and isn’t acceptable. And that’s not weak at all. Apologies matter. Apologies matter because when someone sits with the pain they caused us, it honors our journey, heals our relationship, and helps us regain our self-respect.
Savasana helped me recognize there was something terribly wrong with my childhood. Savasana helped me hear that quiet voice in my head, saying, “You didn’t deserve that. It wasn’t right. She should have protected you. She should have said she was sorry. It wasn’t your fault.”
Now it’s my job to protect myself.
I respect myself enough to recognize when something is terribly wrong. And I am finally healthy enough to see that it is my responsibility to set boundaries to protect myself from further abuse.
When I protect myself and ask for what I need, when I treat myself with respect and kindness, I show those who love me what love looks like to me. And this is a gift not only to myself, but to anyone who chooses to love me.
–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros
Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.
Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.
But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.
I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.
I think it’s time we redefine our gender.
The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.
And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.
This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.
I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?
If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.
As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.
Sometimes, I feel resentful.
I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.
And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.
How do I change the terms of engagement?
I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?
In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.
When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.
Where does that shame come from?
I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.
And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.
I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”
I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.
I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.
I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to.
If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.
I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.
I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.
Today I ran around like a maniac grading papers and taking the kids school shopping and buying groceries, like usual. I’m always going a thousand miles per hour, and any day or moment everything could collapse. In fact, it’s guaranteed it will. Life is brutal and we walk around in denial because it would be impossible to look at it directly all of the time. That’s not bad; it’s an important social skill, and in fact it’s kind of comforting. It connects us. Here’s one message from Patton Oswalt, currently in the center of that storm we all agree to mostly ignore in order to avoid fits of rage and despair when, say, waiting in line at the bank, or standing inside of an elevator. It just makes me want to hold the people I love more closely before they are taken away:
Thanks for making depression look like the buzzing little bully it always was. Depression is the tallest kid in the 4th grade, dinging rubber bands off the back of your head and feeling safe on the playground, knowing that no teacher is coming to help you.
But grief? Grief is Jason Statham holding that 4th grade bully’s head in a toilet and then fucking the teacher you’ve got a crush on in front of the class. Grief makes depression cower behind you and apologize for being such a dick.
If you spend 102 days completely focused on ONE thing you can achieve miracles. Make a film, write a novel, get MMA ripped, kick heroin, learn a language, travel around the world. Fall in love with someone. Get ’em to love you back.
But 102 days at the mercy of grief and loss feels like 102 years and you have shit to show for it. You will not be physically healthier. You will not feel “wiser.” You will not have “closure.” You will not have “perspective” or “resilience” or “a new sense of self.” You WILL have solid knowledge of fear, exhaustion and a new appreciation for the randomness and horror of the universe. And you’ll also realize that 102 days is nothing but a warm-up for things to come.
You will have been shown new levels of humanity and grace and intelligence by your family and friends. They will show up for you, physically and emotionally, in ways which make you take careful note, and say to yourself, “Make sure to try to do that for someone else someday.” Complete strangers will send you genuinely touching messages on Facebook and Twitter, or will somehow figure out your address to send you letters which you’ll keep and re-read ’cause you can’t believe how helpful they are. And, if you’re a parent? You’ll wish you were your kid’s age, because the way they embrace despair and joy are at a purer level that you’re going to have to reconnect with, to reach backwards through years of calcified cynicism and ironic detachment.
Lose your cool, and you’re saved.
Michelle McNamara got yanked off the planet and out of life 102 days ago. She left behind an amazing unfinished book, about a horrific series of murders that everyone — including the retired homicide detectives she worked with — was sure she’d solve. The Golden State Killer. She gave him that name, in an article for Los Angeles Magazine. She was going to figure out the real name behind it.
She left Alice, her 7 year-old daughter. But not before putting the best parts of her into Alice, like beautiful music burned onto a CD and sent out into the void on a spaceship.
And she left me. 102 days into this.
I was face-down and frozen for weeks. It’s 102 days later and I can confidently say I have reached a point where I’m crawling. Which, objectively, is an improvement. Maybe 102 days later I’ll be walking.
Any spare energy I’ve managed to summon since April 21st I’ve put toward finishing Michelle’s book. With a lot of help from some very amazing people. It will come out. I will let you know. It’s all her. We’re just taking what’s there and letting it tell us how to shape it. It’s amazing.
And I’m going to start telling jokes again soon. And writing. And acting in stuff and making things I like and working with friends on projects and do all the stuff I was always so privileged to get to do before the air caught fire around me and the sun died. It’s all I knew how to do before I met Michelle. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do now without her.
And not because, “It’s what Michelle would have wanted me to do.” For me to even presume to know what Michelle would have wanted me to do is the height of arrogance on my part. That was one of the many reasons I so looked forward to growing old with her. Because she was always surprising me. Because I never knew what she’d think or what direction she’d go.
Okay, I’ll start being funny again soon. What other choice do I have? Reality is in a death spiral and we seem to be living in a cackling, looming nightmare-swamp. We’re all being dragged into a shadow-realm of doom by hateful lunatics who are determined to send our planet careening into oblivion.
Hey, there’s that smile I was missing!
I cried once during our family vacation to Austin last week. Elliott and I were locked in the “family” bathroom stall of a movie theater. He was screaming at me, threatening to throw his chew necklace onto the bathroom floor. We had been watching Monsters U in 3D. (Side note: I hate 3D for the headache it causes me and the extra expense, but it was all that was playing at that time.) During the climax of the film, Elliott accidentally bit his finger. He roared in response. I threw everything in my lap onto the floor and whisked him up into my arms, as the whole theater seemed to turn and stare at us. He was angry that he had bitten himself. He was angry that I was rushing him down the dimly lit stairs and away from the movie. We were in the last row, and it seemed to take hours. I wasn’t worried about him. I know the difference between his screams of rage and his screams of real pain. I was mortified. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. It had been a difficult day.
We burst out of the theater door, and the ushers stared at this screaming, kicking child and his mother who had forgotten she was still wearing the goddamned 3D glasses. They seemed to find us mildly amusing. In the bathroom, I put Elliott down and caught a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the mirror. “I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE I WANT MY GLASSES I HAVE BOOGERS EXCUSE ME I HAVE BOOGERS I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU,” he screeched. As calmly as I could, I told him he needed to stop screaming or we would not be going back. He screamed for several more minutes. I considered my haggard, pathetic face in the mirror. I wondered if the people in the hallway could hear us, the horrible things they must be thinking about my parenting abilities. I felt tears well up but I pushed them away.
He finally stopped screaming. We watched the last two minutes of the movie, which no longer made any sense. He wore my 3D glasses because I couldn’t find his, so the final scenes were blurred for me. As the credits scrolled, he said, “Did you like this movie, Mommy?” as if nothing had happened. I had to put my face against the filthy, cold theater floor to reach far enough under my seat to collect all of the items I had dropped.
We stepped out into the blinding light and overwhelming heat and humidity. He demanded his sunglasses, which I produced from my purse. We walked to the car, the boys happily chatting about the movie. Meanwhile, horrible thoughts ran through my brain. I wondered if he loves me, if he has a conscience, if he will be like this, or worse, when he gets older, when puberty hits, when he is bigger than I am. Will he still kick me and scream at me? Will he hurt me? I thought about the woman I know whose autistic son nearly drowned her. He was 22 and had a tantrum in the pool. She had bruises all over her body.
My thoughts were very bleak, and I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I am not proud. As we walked to the car, my face twisted up and tears started pouring. Ben saw me and got upset. Unlike Elliott, Ben has a surplus of empathy. One kid couldn’t care less, and the other cares too much. I know I shouldn’t have cried in front of him, but I couldn’t stop.
Most of the time, I don’t feel like this. Most of the time, being Elliott’s parent is pretty incredible. Every year, every week, every day he is doing something new, and every accomplishment feels like an occasion to celebrate. Most parents are happy when their kids are potty trained, but when Elliott finally pissed in a potty chair, we jumped around the house, giddy with excitement. I felt like shutting down the streets and throwing a parade. It had taken him nearly 3 years.
This morning, I had to wake Elliott up very early to go to an occupational therapy appointment we had been anticipating for months. Elliott has been doing this for years. The appointments are generally several hours long, and the assessors are sometimes patient and kind, and sometimes not. Elliott is asked to perform task after task, often with no breaks. Balance on one foot, skip, do this puzzle, spin, close one eye, do this with your tongue, wear this cap, go into this tube, say this, etc. During the long, traffic-filled drive, Elliott and I played word games, listened to music, looked for sight words in the billboards. I marveled at him. Most kids don’t have to do the crap he has to do, and he is generally so amazing about it. During the assessment, he listened well and tried his hardest. It was over after 2 hours, and he was allowed to play for a few minutes while the therapist discussed the results with me. As he laughed in the other room, she told me everything that is wrong with him, and there were a lot of things. My face grew warm and it became difficult to swallow, but I pushed it away.
I cried as quietly as possible in the car as Elliott sang along to the Hairspray soundtrack. Somewhere inside, I already knew the things she told me, but it didn’t make it less difficult to hear. I took him out to lunch, and as we waited for our food, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and he cheated, like always. Then, he grew serious and said, “I love you, Mommy.” He almost never says this unprompted. He was immediately silly again, doing crazy dances to the music playing over the restaurant speakers. I watched him and wondered if he knew that I had been sad, if he was trying to make me feel better in his own way. Who knows.
My highs are a little too high and my lows are a little too low, and that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe it has something to do with my mother’s bipolar disorder. Or maybe that’s just what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Maybe it’s a little of both. In any case, after some time alone, during which I chainsawed some vines outside and bought a cute new dress, I felt so much better.
My friend Lashawn reminded me of Elliott’s epic tantrums last summer. He would scream and rip away his shoes and clothing, throwing each item in our direction, his face angry and red and tearful. Once naked, he’d throw his body around, slap his own cheeks, writhe against the rough carpet. This would go on for 20 or 30 minutes. This was his response to our first family vacation, to Portland and San Francisco. This went on for weeks, nearly the entire summer. I had actually forgotten about it, maybe because I wanted to. This year, he whined a little and had one major tantrum (fully clothed!), and now he is back to normal. He threatened to throw the necklace, but he ultimately put it back on.
Things still need to get better, but I need to remember how things keep getting better.
“By the way,” my father said on the phone this morning, “Diegolina died a few days ago.” He dropped it in casually, after detailing his weekend. He’d gone snowshoeing for the first time, with his girlfriend. He and my stepmother have been divorced for several years now, and Diegolina was my stepmother’s mother. I had been taught to call her Abuela. My father called her The Big A, made her a joke. She never thought that was funny.
Abuela had a hard life. She dropped out in elementary school, sold tamales wrapped in banana leaves on the street. Her home was a collection of tar paper and tin shacks. She cooked food over a fire in the dirt. She had seven children. Her husband was a drunk who beat her constantly and, once, tried to force her to drink poison as my stepmother watched. He hit her in the face with a belt buckle, and, as a result, she was nearly blind in one eye. Abuela lived with us for weeks here and there throughout my childhood. Ay dios mio, she used to say, all of the time, stereotypically. She watched telenovelas endlessly, the loud music and dramatic exclamations bouncing through the house. She cooked a red soup with chunks of shark meat floating in it, homemade corn tortillas. She cried for hours and hours. She told me I was fat. She told me my stepmother betrayed her country when she became a citizen. “Angie, Angie,” she called me. I bent to embrace her tiny frame, as I was required to do, and she’d cup my face and kiss my cheek with feathery lips. Her brown skin felt cool, and smooth, like wax. She smelled like flowers, and something else, something bad. I was expected to love this virtual stranger, whom I first met when I was 8, and whom I saw in short, sporadic bursts.
I did not make an effort to know her. I am ashamed to say that mostly, she annoyed me. I was a selfish teenager, and she sighed and criticized constantly. She took up a bedroom, and I had to share a bed with my sister. She spent what seemed like hours in the bathroom. My stepmother was even meaner than she usually was with Abuela around. I didn’t have the patience for it. My junior year of high school, she got sick, and I had to take over her job for no pay at the Wishy Washy Laundromat. Abuela was sick a lot–she had diabetes and gall bladder problems and severe depression. I was in high school at the time, and for weeks, I stayed up into the early morning hours, scraping hair and gum from the wheels of the laundry carts, sopping up strangers’ scum.
When I wasn’t annoyed with her, I made fun of her. I have a photograph of her wearing a black t-shirt featuring a huge, fluorescent green marijuana leaf. It says, “This bud’s for you.” She had no idea what she was wearing. She poses for the photograph, stony-faced, somewhere in San Bernardino. None of my stepmother’s Mexican family smiled in photographs. It was only after she lived here for several years that my stepmom began to smile. When you think about it, the constant smiling is goofy, for people who don’t know true suffering, who expect everything to work out. For Americans.
It was cruel of me to make her into a joke. I make jokes all of the time, about everything, even when I shouldn’t. I didn’t want to deal with the guilt of knowing about her life and the lives of all of her family back in Mexico. Were they my family too? Who was she to me? Who were they? My stepmother didn’t seem to care, then, or now. Abuela was sick in a hospital in Mexico for awhile, and my stepmother didn’t visit. Her family will call her for money, and she will send it, like she always does, and she will do so begrudgingly. She will not go there to face all of those hungry and angry faces, all of the chaos that will surely result from this death.
Once, when I was maybe sixteen years old, Abuela sang a birthday song to me in Spanish, in front of my family and a few of my friends. She had tears in her eyes. I know it took a lot of courage. I didn’t love her, but sometimes I think she loved me.
My friend Lisa shared this today on Facebook: “You’ll meet the perfect person, who you love infinitely, and you even argue well, and you grow together, and then you get old together, and then she’s going to die. That’s the best-case scenario.” –Louis C.K.
Last night, Ryan and I were talking about time. I had read this Angelica Huston interview and she says that no one can tell you how quickly time passes. I know this is true. I also know it is cliche. But when I think about it too hard, it is still terrifying. It is just like no one can tell you how fucking tired you will be when you are caring for a newborn. They try to warn you and you think, yes, I know what tired is. I’m in graduate school and I work 3 jobs. But this kind of tired is in your bones, your skin. It permeates everything. I remember that I felt that way, but I can’t actually feel it anymore. And I can’t explain it to people who haven’t experienced it, either. I just know that when a person without children tells me he or she is tired, he or she does not know what they are talking about. Unless they are, like, a P.O.W. That kind of tired isn’t real to me now anymore, so I don’t know what I’m talking about either.
Anyway, we got to talking about how you have kids and you love them so fiercely it almost hurts and then as they get older, they move away from you physically and emotionally. They become independent; they are supposed to. You work their whole lives for them to become relatively happy, functioning, independent humans. That’s your job, and theirs. But it’s like someone scraping your heart out of your chest slowly, over time. I have done the math. In approximately 1 year, Ben won’t sit on my lap or let me carry him. In another year, no hand-holding in public. In another, no kissing and hug resistance. That’s what he should be doing. Again, that’s the best-case scenario. He could become a drug addict or get cancer or punch me in the face and then my heart would break more. He will be 8 on Friday. He will be 18 in 10 years. And 10 years isn’t anything at all.
My friends and Ryan and I shared two pitchers of sangria tonight, so I am in no mood to write a thoughtful post. But I’m committed to posting weekly. I was going to post about how we had a house cleaner and I felt very guilty about it and about so-called “white guilt” and how I think it should be reclassified as “socioeconomically advantaged guilt” and all of the complications. But I’m tipsy and pizza is on the way. So I will save that idea. Enjoy your weekend. I love you, but it’s just the alcohol talking.
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The Collected Poems of Dennis McHale: 1981-2016
Transracial Adoption from one black girl's perspective
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Thoughts and rants from another angry woman
Faulkner said, kill your darlings. I say, put them on the internet and let strangers read them.
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This is my blog. I write a lot about autism, raising boys, and my own alcohol consumption. I also tend to cover topics like poop and toothpaste. You've been warned.
about all things human
About Mental Health, Daily Struggles, and Whatever Else Pops in My Head
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essayist, poet, college prof, hubby, dad, Queen fan
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"To hold a pen is to be at war." -Voltaire