I’m just so tired of feeling small. I’m exhausted with trying to affirm my own worth, even (or perhaps especially) to myself. I am trying to approach things differently, though. I insist upon being kind to myself, even in the face of failures and shortcomings so glaring it’s like looking into the face of a giant failure-sun. When I feel like crying, when I feel misunderstood and misjudged and belittled—as I often do, by my friends or my boss or basically anyone with any kind of power over me, which is probably a direct throwback to my relationship with my mother, and is probably why I do not have very many friends—I just try, try, try and set my nasty, spiky, hurtful, tricksy inner voice aside, and look at my heart, my core, my soul, my self, and I look for the beauty there. I decide that I am not evil, that I am not bad in my innermost parts, that I am wounded and vulnerable and desperate for love and tenderness, and that there is also my strength. My strength is that I can still love, that I can and will continue to open myself to love, even if it wounds me again. This is the whole point of life. This is everything. This is my big risk, my big gamble, every day—that I will try again. I will do something good or creative or positive, even if it is something insignificant like planting pansies or making dinner for my family or cleaning out the closet or going for a walk or doing yoga or blogging or painting or drawing or telling my daughter how beautiful she is and how much I love her. I will do something, even if it is a small thing and even if it is ultimately lost on the cosmos. Because it is not lost on me. It matters to me. And I matter.
Ugh. Who invented stepmothers? I was one, once. I played the role of Wicked Stepmother in our fourth grade production of “Cinderella.” I still remember my first lines, as I strode imperiously onto the stage: “Cinderella, Cinderella, what’s this?” …and then I don’t remember anything after that, except that Prince Charming was played by Mark Brown, the boy I had a terrible crush on, and Cinderella was played by a pretty honey-haired girl named Missy, who was also Mark’s girlfriend (if girlfriend is the right term for fourth-graders). So I played my part with relish, especially considering that I had to watch them kiss in the final scene. I genuinely hated this Cinderella and by golly I would make her feel it.
The following year, I was the Grinch in the fifth grade production of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Ooooh, I loved the baddies. If I were to be in Peter Pan, I’d want to play Captain Hook.
We love to hate stepmothers, in literature, in movies, and many times in real life. (See how easily the descriptor “wicked” slips in front of “stepmother”?) I have mighty ambivalent feelings about my own stepmother, although I don’t even consider her a stepmother. I use that term to refer to Kaye when I am talking with people who don’t know me very well, because this word makes it clear that she is not my mother. I never say “parents.” I say “Dad and Kaye.” Kaye is not fulfilling the role of mother for me. She is simply the person who Dad married. At most, she’s my friend, although that’s stretching it as I do not feel particularly friendly towards her.
There are very particular reasons why I feel the way that I do, and I like to think that they are not influenced by the fact that Kaye is alive and married to my father while my mother is not. Kaye once asked me to pray for her, that she would feel less guilty about her happiness, because it came about as the result of so much sorrow. I think this shows how utterly self-absorbed she can be. Clearly, in marrying my father this was precisely the arrangement she agreed to: dead first wife, grieving husband, grieving daughter, big house in the woods full of my parents’ possessions and memories collected over 40 years together. Did she not understand that? Then she was foolish, and I absolutely don’t feel obligated to petition God for Kaye to suddenly not be bothered by all that.
There are other reasons, too. Let me tell you about them.
First of all, I hold her at least somewhat responsible for the absolute mess that is her adopted daughter’s life. Kaye’s first marriage to an emotionally abusive (possibly physically abusive) man was absolute misery, and yet Kaye would not divorce him or even separate and take her daughter someplace where she could grow up in a loving environment instead of in the middle of a battlefield. So Kaye’s daughter, as she grew into teenagehood, responded how lots of kids would in that situation: she snuck out of the house, she drank, she did drugs, she committed petty crimes. When she was fourteen she slipped out of the house to go to a party where she got drunk and was raped by an older schoolmate. None of this, absolutely none of it, is her fault. But what happened next cemented, I think, her future path: when she eventually came home, she told her mother what had happened and made her promise not to tell her father. So the rape was never spoken of again. Kaye did not take her daughter to the doctor, did not get counseling for her, did not bring charges against the rapist, who was guilty not only of rape but of raping a minor. This is not only wrong, it is wildly negligent. It is, if you’ll pardon my Swahili, seriously fucked up.
A couple years later, Kaye’s daughter was pregnant. She now has three children by three different men (all ex-convicts, somehow—where does she meet them?). Her first child, a son, she gave up for adoption—an open adoption where they remain in regular contact. Her second and third children, both daughters, she is raising herself. But I can hardly stand to be in the same room with Kaye’s daughter when she is speaking to her oldest daughter. She criticizes and berates and belittles and yells—and that is all in front of our family. What does she do when no one else is around? She also compares her oldest daughter unfavorably with her youngest daughter. And when you get the first husband, Earl, in the same room, it’s like watching lions tear apart a frightened gazelle. I hosted Thanksgiving at my house this year, and Earl had no problem full-on yelling at his granddaughter in front of everyone. I should have kicked him right out of my house then, but instead I followed Kaye’s granddaughter out onto the front porch, where I held her while she had a good cry.
The awful thing is, Kaye is not an advocate for her granddaughter, either. She criticizes and berates her as much as everyone else. And Dad? Well, he just agrees with Kaye about everything she does, because he loves her, and anyhow her grandchildren aren’t really his responsibility to discipline.
The not-unexpected result is that Kaye’s granddaughter has tried to commit suicide several times, with the last attempt on Superbowl Sunday (which I wrote about). Here’s the thing: Kaye’s family is a hot mess. I’m sorry for that. I feel like I can’t breathe when I think about that much sorrow and pain in a single family. But I also instinctively want to keep my own daughter far, far away from it. I don’t want to be connected to it AT ALL, I don’t want to have these ugly domestic situations spilling over onto my family. I hate that I even have to think about it or spend emotional energy on it when I have so many other things that are demanding my full emotional attention right now. But the bottom line is, Dad chose this, and I didn’t. I can leave when things turn nasty, and I will.
So I do not feel completely relaxed when Annika is with them, even when Kaye’s daughter and oldest granddaughter are elsewhere, because a “situation” may erupt at any moment. I also do not feel relaxed because Kaye’s grandmothering is so far removed from my mothering that we might as well be on different planets. Kaye is simply not attentive when it comes to the children. She pays little notice to where exactly they are and what exactly they are doing. She loses track of them in public places. She took them to the park last month and instead of getting out of the car to keep an eye on them, she stayed in the car and panicked when she looked up from her cellphone or whatever and they were GONE. (Don’t worry, she found them. But still! WTF?) She takes them swimming and buries herself in a book and closes her eyes and turns her face to the sun or maybe walks away from the pool area altogether without telling them, which is fine and dandy if you are alone, but not OK if you’ve got three youngish girls in the pool, even if they can all swim. She and Dad put them in cars with other people or take them places and then let us know after the fact. They don’t call, they don’t check in, they never let Simon and I know what is happening. One time Dad wasn’t paying attention while Annika was getting into his car and he BACKED OVER HER FOOT. And this is just the stuff that I know about.
Lastly, Kaye has the very annoying habit of talking right over me. I begin a sentence but before it’s halfway out she’s busted in with her own thoughts and opinions which frequently aren’t even relevant to what I was saying, but how would she know because she never bothers to listen to me? Talking to her is one of the most frustrating experiences in the world. Especially because she believes she is so full of wisdom and special, even telepathic, insight.
Which is why I bloody well don’t want to go to lunch with her. I don’t mean EVER; I just mean in the near future. I haven’t seen her since the fateful Superbowl party, and I’m not really ready to see her yet, but she’s called several times and Dad keeps bugging me about it. So finally yesterday I texted her and asked if she could get together for lunch today, but no, she can’t because she’s got a massage appointment. Jeez. She wanted to set a date next week but I put her off. I’ll have to see her on March 8, when we’re all going out to dinner for Annika’s birthday. And I know I’ll eventually have to go to lunch with her. I mean, she is my father’s wife; it’s better to get along with her than not get along. But oh, it costs me.
The most important life skill you can learn isn’t how to balance a checkbook or how to scramble eggs or how to start a fire with two sticks and a rock, or even how to curb your temper or act polite when you feel like biting someone’s head off, or how not to burp and fart in a crowded elevator (although, frankly, farting is OK as long as it’s silent and then afterwords you wrinkle up your nose and glance sideways like someone else farted). The most important life skill you can learn is how to handle disappointment. And by that I mean, handle it well (or at least well-ish). You need to learn how to be incredibly disappointed and not take it out on the people around you by criticizing or snapping at them for no good reason. You need to learn how not to stomp around and slam doors, or, if you’re DWD (Disappointed While Driving), you must learn not to drive recklessly and run the red lights and turn corners too quickly, thus making the passengers in back feel like puking.
I read something interesting the other day that struck me as not exactly amusing but certainly true. Almanzo Wilder—the real-life husband of the real-life Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House on the Prairie fame—is quoted as saying “My life has been mostly disappointments.” Of course, since he was a real person and not a TV character, this is, I’m sure, completely true. He may have married the woman who wrote (or wrote in partnership with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as scholars currently surmise) some of the most influential books in American literature, but he was also a farmer who repeatedly lost his crops and moved around a lot and didn’t have enough money and whose house burned down and whose baby boy died a few days after birth. He tried things and they failed, and he kept trying and kept failing until a whole life passed and that’s the end. Of course, not EVERYTHING failed. He married the woman he loved and he raised a daughter who grew up to be a successful writer in her own right. He built a house that’s still standing. He kept his family together. He loved farming (or maybe I’m conjecturing, here—maybe he didn’t love farming, he just did it because that was the only things he knew how to do). So it wasn’t all disappointment; just mostly.
So why should my life be any different than Almanzo Wilder’s? Except for the farming and the being a different gender. I suspect that everyone’s life is mostly disappointment. Or mostly everyone’s life. Are there people who mostly get what they hope for? Who mostly succeed? Who make plans and they mostly pan out? I can’t know for sure, but I imagine that those people, if they exist, have had severe head injuries so they don’t know that they’re disappointed. On the other hand, they don’t care, so that’s a bonus.
(Which reminds me of one of my favorite questions: Would you rather be happy but not know it, or stupid but not care?)
But let’s just stop right there. I’ve had loads of joy and success and happiness and plans coming to fruition. So I am not necessarily complaining. I just worry that all my successes, such as they are, are behind me. There’s just been SO MUCH disappointment in the last few years that I wonder if my life has gotten all out of balance with the usual 75%-disappointment-to-25%-success ratio, and it’s so heavily weighted on the disappointment side that I can never get the success side to float again. Like if you prick a nice fat buoyant balloon and all the air leaks out, you can never get the air back inside the balloon again, and it’s good for nothing except chewing on if you’re too poor to afford gum.
I see Annika learning to cope with disappointment. She’s getting better at it all the time. When she was little, she absolutely could not tolerate it and would rage and scream and cry and demand to go back in time and fix whatever went wrong. If she spilt her milk, she didn’t want a new glass of milk; she screamed because she wanted THE VERY SAME GLASS OF MILK. I actually created a “time machine” out of an old plastic box with a clock on it so that when she spilt her milk, I could put the empty glass in the box, take it out of the room for a couple minutes (so the time machine could “do its work”), and when I came back in, voilà! There’s her original glass of milk inside the box, which she would consume with glee, declaring that it tasted even better than the first glass because the time machine not only replaces things, it improves them in the process.
She believed in the time machine until just a couple weeks ago, and she’s almost 12 years old. I think she found it comforting. But at least now she’s old enough to handle her disappointment about the thing I created to help her handle her disappointment in the first place.
Anyhow. So my husband did not get the job he recently interviewed for. And I’m disappointed. I don’t know that he is—I mean, he sort of is and he sort of isn’t. He had some misgivings about the job and worried that he might, in the long run, be more unhappy than he is now. And the disappointment is mitigated by the fact that yesterday he interviewed for another job. And in the meantime his own business is still (sort of) booming.
So here’s how I handle disappointment: I hear the information with my ears and my brain, and then I wait for my heart to catch up. When my heart feels it, I acknowledge that I’m disappointed, and say the first few indignant things that come to mind. But then I try to shut up and not say anything because I might hurt people with my words. I do something distract-y like read or play Candy Crush. When I don’t get distracted, I try to do something else: tidy up, go for a walk, work in the garden, do the dishes, work on some piddly project that I’ve got going. If I have work to do, I’ll go sit at the computer and get it done. When my work’s done, I’ll run errands or go shopping or visit my grandmother and tidy up her place and pay her bills. If that’s not effective, maybe I’ll eat—something not too naughty, a carton of yogurt, a cup of coffee, a tiny bowl of granola. Leftover bits from Annika’s lunch that she refuses to eat. Then I’ll get to work cooking dinner, and then I’ll wash up. Later on, I’ll watch TV and have a cup of tea. Then I’ll brush my teeth and go to bed. My secret weapon—which I don’t often deploy, because narcotic addiction blah blah blah—is one tiny Xanax which puts me straight to sleep and keeps me that way for eight hours. In the morning, the alarm goes off and I start all over again.
Hey, you know what? A day of dealing with disappointment is EXACTLY LIKE EVERY OTHER DAY OF MY LIFE. Basically, you just live until enough time passes that the disappointment doesn’t sting quite so much. Or maybe you combine all your disappointments into one big constant feeling of disappointment, and thereby treat every disappointment, big and small, exactly the same. Either way, time passes, and things happen, and every day is a new day and offers at least the possibility of non-disappointment. And that’s called hope.
Let’s talk, for a moment, about funerals. When my grandmother dies, she will be cremated (at her request), her remains put in a biodegradable box, and dropped into the Columbia River. When she breathes her last, the hospice nurse will call All County Burial Services, and they will immediately come and collect her body and do everything that needs to be done and that will be the end of it. I won’t later get her remains, there won’t be an urn or a niche or a mausoleum, there will be no container full of coarse gray powder and bone bits at her memorial service, and I will not keep her ashes on my fireplace mantle at home.
I understand that this is comforting to some people; one of my dearest friends in the world keeps her mother’s ashes in a beautiful blue-and-white urn on her dresser, and when I go to visit her I sleep in the same room with the urn and don’t pay attention to it other than to think it’s pretty. My father had my mother’s remains put in an urn—we chose the urn together on the day she died—and then it was placed in a niche at Evergreen Memorial Gardens and Dad intends to be cremated and placed in the same niche someday. But I don’t visit the niche, or care about it, because to me it has nothing to do with my mother. I’ve also never visited my other grandmother’s grave, even though I loved her more dearly than any other family member, because she’s not there.
But my dad is doing research for an article (or maybe a book? I’m not sure) about funerals, and when I told him what my plans were regarding Nanny (cremation, burial in the Columbia, a very casual “celebration of life” gathering at the assisted living facility with some cake and punch and whoever wants to say something can, and I in fact will probably get up and say a few words because it’s only fitting), he told me about his research and said that studies show that the best (what does that even mean?) funerals have the deceased’s remains present in either whole or cremated form and include a brief message or sermon touching on eternal themes. And Dad also told me that some people from our old church might want to come, even though they hardly knew her, because that’s what old church people do.
OK, I can see that: I can see how people find it comforting to have the physical remnant of the person they loved in the room, and how being reassured about an afterlife would cheer you up a bit, give you something to hope for and cling to as you wade through the dark months of grief. And if it were Simon or Annika who had died, I might feel differently. I would want to keep every little bit of them close to me, even though I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or emanations, even though I think that there’s nothing more or less special about their ashes than a pile of rocks or a bunch of flowers. At some point, I might scatter them, or—I don’t know, is this legal?—add them to my garden where they can feed the soil around an apple or pear or plum tree, or become roses or hydrangeas or camellias. I would make their former molecules useful.
But with Nanny, I don’t find the idea comforting in the least. I find it kind of ooky. I felt the same about my mother—I had absolutely no wish to see her dead body, and I absolutely did not want her remains at the funeral. Two and half years later, I’m still glad that I never kissed her cold cheek or had to stare at her ashes while delivering the eulogy.
To put it bluntly, Nanny’s funeral will not be about her, because she’ll be dead and I guarantee you she won’t care. Her funeral isn’t for Dad or for church ladies. Her husband, if he is still living, will not be there because he is in a nursing home in California, which doesn’t bother me in the least because he and Nanny did not love each other. So the funeral isn’t for him. And it’s not for my mom, because she’s already gone. It’s for her friends at her assisted living facility, and for the staff who cared for her. Most of all, it’s for me. It’s to comfort me and allow me to say good bye, to talk about her with the people who knew her best and spent the most time with her in her last couple of years. And since the event is for me, I get to do things the way that I want to. It sounds selfish, perhaps, but I am relieved (“looking forward” probably isn’t the right phrase) to be able to do grief my way this time.
When my other grandmother died, I was with her. My dad was, too. It had been a long death—two weeks without food and water while she slowly slipped away. I talked and sang to her, rubbed lotion on her dry skin and applied lip balm to her dry lips, I swabbed out her dehydrated mouth with water. I changed her diaper when her body continued to expel its sickly-sweet waste. And when she stopped breathing I left the room, went outside, and roared and sobbed and howled. But I did not need to see her again after that. I did not attend the open-casket viewing before her funeral. Because what would be the point? What would that tell me? What would I learn? I didn’t need to “pay my respects” to her dead body, because I’d already paid my respects to her by loving her and serving her while she was alive.
And that’s how I feel about Nanny. I’m paying my respects now while my respects are still something that makes a difference in her life. I’m making sure that she’s well cared for, that she’s safe and warm and clean and that she feels as much love as I can convey. I make sure than her apartment is tidy, that her laundry gets done, that her bills are paid. I stay on top of things. I hold her hand and talk to her and kiss her forehead and stroke her hair.
I don’t need anybody telling me that they’ll pray for me. Has there ever been a more useless phrase? It’s something that makes the other person feel good while not doing a thing for you. My friend Cynthia is the most devout Christian I know, and she has never uttered those words to me. She simply finds something to do and she does it—like coming to sit with my mother while she was dying so that I could go home and eat and sleep and take a shower, or helping me move Nanny’s behemoth of a mattress.
I don’t want any messages about eternity. I do believe in an eternal afterlife, but I don’t want sappy false piousness or syrupy religious sentiment. No hugging, no learning (à la Seinfeld). No blah blah blah about God. I don’t want to be annoyed by church ladies asking me why I haven’t been to church. Basically, I don’t want to be annoyed, period. I’d like to eat some cake—actually, I don’t like cake. I’d rather have pie. I’d like to eat some pie, maybe some cherry pie since Nanny used to sing “Billy Boy” to me when I was little (“Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”) or maybe some pecan pie since that’s what Nanny always made for Thanksgiving, and pecans are a Southern thing and Nanny is most definitely a Southern gal. I’d rather have pie and coffee and exchange anecdotes. Tell me that she was special, that you loved her, too. That’s kind and comforting. That, to me, is the only fitting tribute.
Even though it’s still February, spring is sproinging into the Northwest with a perky vengeance, preceded by an unseasonably warm winter. The Indian plum trees that normally burst into bloom sometime in March are already breaking out with sprays of tiny pink blossoms. I want to tell them to hold back, wait their turn. Tulips are pushing their way up to the sunlight and daffodils are already here, right alongside the purple and yellow crocus that peeped above ground in January. I’ve got pansies in my planters and I’m starting to look at the garden with determination, noticing the winter-dead plant matter that needs to be cleared away, thinking about how soon can I plant tomatoes.
I’ve never been much for Easter, because our family didn’t celebrate it when I was a child, believing it to be a pagan orgy of fertility symbols in homage to the goddess Ishtar, the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility and sex (although the Ishtar-Easter link is spurious at best; most likely, the name Easter came from the Scandinavian Spring Goddess Ostra, or the Anglo-Saxon deity Eostre).
But these days we take Annika to egg hunts and give her an Easter basket and I’m happy to mark spring’s arrival by putting out my usual coterie of knick-knacks: watering cans, bunnies, chicks, birds, eggs and nests. And this year I’m simply mad for Easter and can’t get enough pastels, primroses, violets, and vintage Easter postcards. I bought more useless Easter decorations from the dollar bin at Target yesterday, intending to sell them in my store spaces, but they are so cute they’ve somehow migrated onto my fireplace mantle where they’ve pushed out the deer-and-pinecone theme leftover from January.
Are things changing? Is our life also following a pattern of renewal? Simon has a job interview this morning—a second interview, actually, having aced the first phone interview last Friday—for an account manager position at a local marketing firm. We are dubious about this possibility, but the salary is plump and we’re tired of scrimping and tired of the soul-crushing anxiety of living on the edge. On the other hand, just a couple days ago Simon directed the largest commercial shoot he’s ever done, shutting down an entire residential street for one day while he and his crew filmed a TV ad for a local utility company. Should he leave all that to sit behind a desk all day, managing other people’s creative projects?
Am I undergoing a sort of renaissance, as well? I’m doing yoga, I’m walking, I’m writing, I’m employed and may soon get a raise since we’ve got a big advertiser interested in a long-running sponsorship, I’m enjoying the creative aspects of managing my two store spaces, and I’m suddenly full of ideas for drawing and painting again. My dark secret is that I’m also feeling a little advance relief at the prospect of no longer having the responsibility of caring for my grandmother. I try to be easy on myself about that, I try not to feel too guilty; I know it’s not an uncommon feeling for caregivers, this relief combined with grief.
Annika is well settled in school, and I don’t see that she’s struggling the way I struggled in Jr. High. She’s not popular, but she’s not reviled, the way I sometimes was. (And honestly, I DID look hideous in those 80s rayon gym shorts.) But she seems to be past the Oppositional Defiant Disorder, if that’s what it was. We are close, affectionate, and happy beyond what I’d hoped for. The fears I had about my relationship with Annika being a repeat of my relationship with my mother are proving unfounded (although, honestly, the most difficult teenage years still lie ahead, and just last night I stayed awake worrying that Annika can’t possibly ever learn how to drive or kiss a boy or even fold her own clothes, and she’ll probably just end up living with us forever, and maybe that’s fine with me because at least I’d know she’s safe).
Human beings look for meaning in everything—we can’t help it. We look for patterns. We look for the narrative thread in our lives. We look for signs. We want things to have a reason, to make sense, to have a happy ending. My constant fantasy is that we’re turning the corner, good times are just ahead, we’ll get our miracle—even if I’m reluctant to admit those hopes to others, or even myself, because with every surge of optimism comes an equally powerful surge of fear. Just two posts ago on this blog I was talking about how close I am to the edge. I haven’t forgotten it. I’m just looking for confirmation that it’s safe to move, that luck is with us, that the decisions we’re making today in a fog of uncertainty will turn out to be the right ones, the best ones, when the mist clears and the sun illuminates the shadowy places with hindsight.
This morning I found (or rather, noticed afresh) a half-finished school project on Annika’s desk. I think it was something to do with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s a red, white, and blue construction paper heart with cut-out word fragments on it, like a ransom note. I asked Annika about it, and she said she got halfway through but didn’t have time to finish it, and now it was too late to turn it in. I didn’t pay too much attention and didn’t want to argue with her because frankly I have bigger fish to fry and larger questions to wrestle with. So it’s been sitting there on her desk for a couple weeks and finally, this morning, I picked it up and really looked at it. The words on the heart say:
despair will be changed
Let us not wallow in NEVER
I sort of wish she’d finished the poem, but in the event, I suppose those words are quite enough. I like them. They speak to me, in my state of semi-despair. Despair will be CHANGED! Don’t go around saying things like, “This will never…” or “That will never…” because you don’t know what’s around the corner. Never is a long time. “Never” never actually happens. Change—whether immediate, next week, next year, next century, or somewhere in the farthest reaches of geologic time—will occur. This too shall pass.
Annika thinks our family has bad luck. She is only repeating what Simon and I have said, and what we are thinking all day long every day. But I cringe to hear her say it. I rush to contradict her, pointing out how lucky she is, how lucky we are, to have each other, to love each other, to live in a nice, snug house with a pleasant menagerie of old and new and interesting things, to have our sweet cat Clementine who amuses us every day and gives us affection when she feels like it and doesn’t when she doesn’t, to have friends we can count on, to have the whole beautiful Northwest to soothe our eyes and calm our spirits, to have everyday pleasures like tea and chocolate and the occasional ice cream cone, that Daddy and I both work at home so we can spend precious time with her, that we have things to look forward to and people who would help us if we got into a jam. And then I end with another reminder of how lucky we are to have each other and our love for each other, because that is something that other people spend whole lifetimes looking for and some of them never, ever find.
There’s that word again, Never.
Despair will be changed! Let us not wallow in NEVER!
My grandmother never, ever—in her lifetime—found the love that she was looking for: a husband’s love and lots of children and a cozy home and happy times together. Instead, she had two husbands who didn’t really love her and a daughter (my mother) who didn’t really love her either. Of course I love her and she loves me, but that can’t make up for her lack of family happiness, which was her dream.
I don’t know if my mother ever found her greatest love or achieved her dreams or even what her dreams were, but I know she attained a manner of contentment with her lot. She never resolved her complicated relationship with her own mother, or found a kind and interested father figure to take the place of her own father who died so young. She loved my father and she loved me and she loved her dogs and that was pretty much it.
My own fondest dream (a home to call my own) has not happened and I don’t see how it will, and my husband’s dreams have certainly not come true and he has not been able to fulfill his life’s passion. He has not been able to make a living doing what he loves, creatively speaking—a fact that neither one of us forgets for even a second, and which casts a great and constant pall over our lives. But as for me, being married to Simon and having Annika eclipses all other dreams, and if I died tomorrow I would be a bit wistful about the house but satisfied that I was granted the things in life which were the most important to me.
In spite of my profound cynicism and my professed lack of belief in a benevolent God, I still believe that there is a life after this life, and in that life we are made whole and healthy and we get to have all the things that, in this life, we longed for so desperately. My grandmother will be flush with love, have a joyful home life, and get to raise her many children and be adored by the man she loves. My mother will be slender and energetic and ride horses and run around with her dogs and not need to question that she is loved, and she will be reunited with her father, who will also be his best self. My husband will finally be free to tell stories, to move people, to elicit an emotional response through whatever creative means he chooses. Will there be movies in the afterlife? Why the hell not? And he’ll get to make them, and he will be fulfilled.
Me? I’ll have a little stone cottage with deep-set windows and roses climbing around the front door. Or maybe I will have an angular beach house with weathered wood and lots of windows and a deck and a loft and skylights. Or maybe I’ll live in a temple with pillars and porticoes and a reflecting pool in the courtyard and a sunken bathtub with turquoise tiles and a bed on a dais in an open-air room where the moonlight can kiss me as I sleep. Or maybe I’ll have none of that and I’ll just get to live my life over with Simon and Annika, watching them be happy and healthy and fearless and full of wild joy because they are safe and can do and be and make whatever they like. That would surpass all other dreams and desires. Or maybe I have that, in some measure, right now.
On Friday, my friend Cynthia and her husband Terry came to help me move Nanny’s giant mattress and box frame out of her room, to make way for her new hospital bed. This mattress is so heavy I began to wonder if it wasn’t filled with lead instead of rubber and foam and springs. It is also very bendy, so that when you pick it up and stand it on its side, it immediately flops over like a piece of lettuce…a 300-pound piece of lettuce. So I and my two friends—who are both in their mid-sixties and probably wondering what the hell they’d gotten into—wrestled and wrangled and sat on it and scooted dollies under it and eventually folded it in half like a hot-dog bun and tied it with heavy nylon rope. We rolled it down the hallway and slowly lowered it down the stairs. We jiggered it out into the parking lot and heaved it into the back of the pick up truck. All in all, it took an hour to get the mattress from my grandmother’s room into their truck, and then we drove it to my house where it sat in the garage for a couple of days before Simon and I could work up the energy to haul it up our stairs.
Now it’s all in place, on our bed frame, with the box springs underneath and an abundance of pillows on top, completely sheathed in an anti-allergenic and waterproof cover because the idea of sleeping on top of my grandmother’s dust mites is somewhat abhorrent to me.
The thing I was most worried about is that it would smell like her. She’s always had a very strong personal odor, and I don’t necessarily mean bad, although in the last several months it’s usually included top notes of urine. She’s always smelled like Evening in Paris—her signature scent—undergirded by a musky fragrance that’s not exactly pleasant but neither is it unpleasant, just a combination of skin and hair and breath and clothes. I have a complicated emotional response to this smell. It reminds me of my earliest childhood, and probably it reminds me subconsciously of my infancy, since she’s one of the first human beings who ever held me close. I spent many, many hours in her company and in her apartment when I was small, and this smell is the smell of all the places that she’s lived and of all her belongings. The smell brings to mind good, safe, warm, happy memories. But then, my relationship with her is extremely complicated. She’s loved me completely and selflessly, but she was also a person toward whom my mother had violently warring feelings of love and hate, and I absorbed that yin-yang emotion. However, I also had tremendous pity for my grandmother because I knew how my mother felt about her, and I knew how it hurt.
Apart from my mother, Nanny was a very complicated woman, by turns bitter, cheerful, anxious, hopeful, paranoid, miserable, joyful, and generous to the point of absurdity. What remained in her later years was mostly the negative parts of her, although she retained her capacity for joy when something surprised or delighted her. She gave us money happily, without reservations or any strings attached, when she knew we were struggling. She was by turns kind and garrulous. After my mother died and I assumed the role of her caregiver, there was constant arguing and accusation-flinging. She made me feel awful. I dreaded seeing her. Physically, she caused feelings of mild disgust in me. She’d hork up great wads of phlegm in public, and need to spit them out. She picked her teeth. She burped loudly and without shame. She wore diapers. She stopped flushing the toilet. She stopped bathing because it was too hard to get in and out of the tub. I don’t think she ever washed her hands. I still hugged her and held her hand, but I always felt faintly icky afterwords and would slather myself with instant sanitizer.
I understood that this slow slide downhill, in a woman who had always taken pride in her appearance, was a sign of aging. I tried not to fault her for it, but nevertheless I was still regularly grossed out. I know now it was the long first stage of Alzheimer’s disease, manifesting itself in subtle shifts in her everyday habits. But I still loved her as though I were a child—or at least, I remembered that love, and I knew she still loved me.
At first, when the hospice worker said it was time for a hospital bed, I couldn’t fathom taking and using her mattress because…eeewww. However, her mattress was high quality and relatively new, and the mattress that Simon and I were sleeping on was twenty years old, thin as a pancake, and somewhat caved in. My back hurt every night and my hips ached like an old lady (ha, ha). Nanny’s mattress was high and squishy but firm. I broached the subject with Simon. He shared my initial feeling of being ooked out. But we thought we’d give Nanny’s mattress one or two nights before getting rid of our old mattress. After one night of deep sleep and no aches or pains, we’d made up our minds. We wrapped the mattress in a hypoallergenic cover and I made the bed up with our sheets and pillows and I’ll tell you what, I can’t wait to sleep in it again tonight. It’s blissful. (It might, in fact, be too blissful; after the alarm went off this morning, Simon rolled over and went back to sleep for another couple hours.)
So now I will be sleeping atop my grandmother’s dust mites and skin flakes and molecular detritus. This thought is migrating from the “repulsive” area of my brain to the “comforting” area, because I will have her close to me long after she’s gone. I will not remember the ways that she hurt me, because I know she didn’t mean to. I will remember the way her eyes light up when I walk into a room, how she looks to me for love, how she’s the last person on earth who believes I’m utterly and completely good. I will carry that belief with me, it will enter me through my dreams. She’s there, underneath me, supporting me. And I will rest in peace.
Things are very delicate, up here in my head. I am standing upright, on my own two feet, attempting to be clear-headed, when not two inches from my toes lies the deep chasm out of which I’ve just crawled and into which I might fall again at any time. Even though I’m no longer in the chasm, I can see it, so close to me, and the fear it produces in me distracts me from more productive tasks, like walking away in the opposite direction.
When I was a child, I attended church in the magnificent Ambassador Auditorium. We usually sat on the ground floor, but sometimes I sat in the balcony with my friends. At some point during the interminable sermon, my mind would wander and I would picture myself standing up, my arms flung wide, pitching myself forward and running headlong over the balcony’s balustrade with a barbaric yawp upon my lips. Once I’d pictured that in my mind, the image drew me, and I couldn’t cease thinking about it. Eventually I’d return to doodling on my notepad, but in my chest my heart beat faster, and a wild thrill shot through me because I realized how thin was the line separating me from sitting there quietly, piously, and flinging myself to my death (or at least permanent disfigurement) on the seats thirty feet below me. It’s a wonder to me even now that no one ever did this, that this doesn’t happen every day in auditoriums and opera houses the world over.
Church! How it makes daydreamers of us all! I’ve never wished I hadn’t been brought up in an extremely conservative religious sect, because I’ve always felt that it gave me a strong moral center. But the problem with being taught from earliest consciousness that God takes a personal interest in your life and will answer your prayers if you just pray hard enough and faithfully enough is that, when your prayers aren’t answered and God turns out to be as disinterested in your personal life as a rock or a turnip would be, you become disappointed. Maybe you become bitter. You certainly become cynical. If you’re me, you also get pretty damn depressed. Throw in some helpless, directionless anger and you’ve got a fairly accurate picture.
I am not without joy. I am filled with appreciation for ordinary pleasures, and profoundly grateful for the precious gift of my husband’s love and my daughter’s love. We have a home—rented, but no matter, it’s plenty big enough and comfortable and we have food and too many clothes because of a secret fear that if I get rid of anything I’ll regret it later, although I never do. We have lots of laughs. We live in the most beautiful place in the world, in an incredibly safe, attractive neighborhood with stellar schools. As I said, I’m grateful. But to whom do I direct my gratitude?
I understand that religious types—having been one myself—would readily say that the fault is not God’s; it is mine, for losing faith under burdens that, to others, would be light as a feather. The death of my mother, my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, my husband’s career and creative struggles, my father’s re-marriage into a wretchedly dysfunctional family, my own job troubles, a parking ticket, a rainy day, a broken fingernail, the thousand million indignities and humiliations of daily life—these are nothing, nothing. And I know it. By comparison, my own truckload of heartache would be another person’s happy treasure. That these things make me sad is my own shortcoming. It is because I am weak, not because God is mean. But I blasphemously believe that God is at fault. If he made me, didn’t he know I would fail even the simplest tests, if “test” is the right word to encompass all the suffering we endure and watch others endure in this life?
But that is chasm-thinking. That is what draws me over the edge and down into endless darkness. And it is the small, small things that push me over. I recently took on a freelance graphic design assignment from a business acquaintance of my husband’s. That’s a good thing, right? Hooray! Money! Happy! But I did not want to do it, began to feel panicky at even the prospect of it, worried that I would fail, agonized over the hours it would take from other things that I need to get done, like looking after my grandmother and my family, or—more importantly for my sanity, my delicate little mind—the hard-won time I’ve carved out to do restorative, healing things like yoga and writing and walking, so that I can stay out of the chasm. I took the assignment only for money, only only only, because if I turned down the assignment I would feel guilty for something I COULD have done for my family but didn’t. DUH! That’s what EVERYONE has to do! But anxiety over this one thing has already made me unreasonably angry with my husband, short-tempered with my daughter, and caused me to feel hopeless all over again.
I can’t fly off the balcony. I need to stay where I am. I shouldn’t have started looking at the edge, thinking what if and why not. I cannot start to imagine falling, I’ve got to stop myself from picturing it. I’ve got to stay seated, stay quiet, keep doodling on my pad, tell people “No,” when I know I can’t do something, be honest about my own limitations (mental or physical), stop uselessly comparing myself to others who can adroitly, effortlessly carry burdens far larger than mine. I have a duty to myself and to my family, not to make money, but to stay calm and loving and, if I can’t quite achieve optimism, at least not give in to despair.
Do I really have to do this every day? Not blogging. I mean Life. Eh, I suppose it’s not so bad. There are good things, like cheese and the occasional martini. I had an exceptionally good cocktail last week called a Pink Squirrel, made with Crème de Noyaux, Crème de Cacao, and cream. Crème de Noyaux is an almond-flavored crème liqueur made from apricot kernels, which also provide the almondy flavor in Amaretto. (Does on capitalize the names of liqueurs? I say, Why not?) And the week before that I had an unusual drink called an Empire Pavilion made with ratafia, an ancient kind of fortified wine made with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, mint, rosemary, anise, and infused with fruit flavor—in this case, kumquat. It was served with two brandy-and-clove soaked black cherries, which were probably more delicious than the drink itself, although the clove made my tongue a little numb.
There’s also coffee. I’m brewing a pot right now, but it’s made with stale coffee that I brought back from my friend Shoshana’s house. My feeling is—even though I appreciate the difference between a sublime cup of coffee and a truly awful cup of coffee—I don’t really care whether it’s good or bad. If you put enough milk and sugar in anything, it’s wonderful.
There’s also my mildly depressed husband, whom I love. It’s so awful when we’re depressed together, because we are each other’s whole world, and we probably rely overly much on the other person to cheer us when we’re blue. But I would rather have the closeness than be more independent emotionally and not as tied to how the other person feels.
And there’s my beautiful, beautiful, amazing, quirky, creative, sensitive, goofy, elfin daughter, with her enduring crush on Legolas and her love of Weird Al Yankovic songs. I could not have imagined how wonderful this age could be—11 going on 12—and how easy she is to spend time with, how interesting she is to talk to, how effortlessly we get along, how comfortable and loving and affectionate our relationship is. It is very different than the relationship I had with my own mother at this age. Already I was guarding myself against her, keeping my private thoughts private and my inner world secret. I knew that my mother loved me absolutely and without reservation, and I loved her, but to open up to my mother at 10 or 11 or 12 felt like emotional self-immolation. Annika is completely the opposite and although I’m not foolish enough to think that she tells me everything, she does often read her diary entries to me, and tell me about her troubles and her dreams. She still calls me Mommy. She still seeks out hugs and kisses, holds my hand in public, and needs snuggles at bedtime. All this is like food for my hungry heart, every single day. I know it will not last forever and it is that much more precious to me because of it.
Back to my husband. He is still my best friend, even after all the awfulness we’ve been through during the last several years, after the bickering and the criticism and the outright screaming fights and wounding each other with words and small but intended-to-hurt actions. This is the truth of our marriage. Maybe it is that way in other marriages, maybe not, I don’t know. But I know that those things aren’t the norm for us. They don’t happen every day. They happen when we are under extreme stress (as we have been so often) and that we therefore forgive each other for whatever it is. Simon has a blessedly short memory when it comes to crimes of the heart, and I also cannot stand to be mad at him, so I don’t bother trying. Mostly, we talk. We love, love, love to talk to each other, or simply to be in each other’s presence. We check in with each other several times a day with a word or a kiss or a pat on a shoulder (or bottom, since we are, after all, married, and what’s the point of being married if you can’t fondle your beloved’s bottom once or twice a day?). I’m never bored with his conversation. No, that’s not true, sometimes I am, when he talks about business things or technological things, but I at least try to give him the respect of looking at him while he is speaking and nodding in all the right places. He also does a good impression of someone who’s listening while I am boring him with some story of something I saw in a shop or some kind of tedious relationship issue with one of my friends.
Neither one of us have very many close friends. I have enough friends—good friends, women with whom I can be vulnerable—to count on one hand. Simon has—well, not that many. Mostly because he is consumed by his business. Which is something I HATE about his business—it takes every last bit of his attention, his spirit, his heart, his soul, his mind, and he has to keep on doing it, and it was never something that he wished to sacrifice himself too. But even he has his limits and stops working at 9 or 9:30 p.m. so that we can have a cup of tea and watch a show on TV. Unless he has a major project due, weekends are also out-of-bounds workwise, although his still ruminates on things.
I wish he could be free. He wants to be free, as well, and forget about the business and have a job where he works regular hours and collects a regular paycheck. It is a different sort of subservience. You are owned during the work day, but after 5 or 6 p.m., your life is your own. You might be tired from work, and you might still have work-related problems that you’re thinking about, and you might have to go back and do it again the next day, but it is not like owning a business, where the pressure and anxiety is relentless, because, while working on your current array of challenging projects, you must always be getting the next client, and the next, and the next and the next, while hoping that the money doesn’t run out before you do. It’s utterly exhausting, and after almost eight years at it, he’s catapulted himself into a middle-aged type droopiness. The man I married was endlessly energetic and optimistic and hopeful and full of ideas and dreams. That man is still in there, somewhere, but he’s been tempered by a back-breaking load of bad luck, or something, whatever it is that means bad stuff keeps happening to you and your dreams and plans are continually thwarted, or seem to be. He comes out to play occasionally, that young hopeful man, but then he has to go back inside so he won’t get hurt any more by real life.
On the other hand, we got news today that our bankruptcy is final and official. We are debt free. Hooray! We’re bankrupt! A Pyrrhic victory indeed.
But back to the beginning…to the things that counteract our feeling of defeat. In the plus column of life, so far I’ve got cheese, coffee, cocktails, Simon and Annika. I think that’s a pretty complete list, and right now, it seems that’s all I need.
Yesterday my mom would have been 67, if she hadn’t died from ovarian cancer. (How cheery is THAT for an opening sally?) Simon asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate and I said, “Have a nice day.” I know—rather anodyne as emotionally fraught days of remembrance go. But really, that’s all I wanted. OK, and I also wanted to have a drink and do a bit of shopping. These are all activities of which my mother would have approved.
We were going to have afternoon tea at Lady Di’s British Store and Tea Room lovely Lake Oswego, but alas, this establishment is closed on Sundays. Amazingly, there’s not another British tea house in Portland, although there are more than enough pubs to go ’round. We figured one Cornish pasty is as good as another, and decided on County Cork Public House instead. (Yes, it’s an Irish pub; what gave it away?)
The tables were sticky and there was lots of wood and many things painted green, but by golly, the place could do fish and chips like a…well, like a person who makes nearly perfect fish and chips. You know what? Forget the nearly. The fish and chips were perfect. Simon had a cider and I had an apricot ale and Annika had a ginger ale and we joked with our waiter, who in quirky Portland fashion was wearing a houndstooth-patterned sweater and a fedora. I had a ploughman’s lunch with lots of Irish cheddar and soda bread and apple slices and these amazing house-pickled beets. I do love a beet. And pickled things.
Would Mom have liked it there? I don’t know. I decided she would have. She would have ordered Shepherd’s Pie, and not had anything to drink, because she didn’t generally drink except on rare occasions when she’d order a Manhattan or a Margarita.
We drove ’round the corner to Beaumont Village which wasn’t quite as charming as it sounds, at least not in the pouring rain. I made Simon stop at an antique store called Found on Fremont, where I browsed around until Simon and Annika started getting antsy. I found the bargain shelf and got loads of amazing stuff for $1 each—a quilted Lily Waters tote bag, a silver plated cake set, crystal servingware, mercury glass votives—which I can now sell for ten times as much in my own vendor spaces at Camas Antiques and Main Street Vintage Home.
Would Mom have enjoyed shopping there? Absolutely. And she probably would have bought me something, too, and Annika.
Then Simon needed a cup of coffee to counteract the effects of the cider he’d had at the pub, so we found a coffeeshop (not hard to do in Portland; there’s approximately five coffee houses per Portland resident) and Simon had a mocha and I played Candy Crush and Annika made goofy faces and pretended to hit herself with her purse. Good times, good times.
Would Mom have enjoyed that? Maybe. She wasn’t discriminating as regards hipster coffeehouses, but she did love her frou-frou espresso drinks, and she would have enjoyed being with us and she would have laughed at Annika. I’m imagining her laugh right now—I can almost hear it.
The Annika and I decided we wanted frozen yogurt, which was just fine because there was a froyo place next door. It was empty except for us, because who wants froyo on a cold and rainy day? We do. We sampled all the yogurt and Annika got more toppings than was necessary and we chatted with the man behind the counter, who said business was slow. We talked about oh, I don’t know what all, and laughed and decided it was time to go home. Mom totally would have enjoyed that, and she would have had vanilla froyo with maybe some hot fudge or butterscotch chips.
After we got in the car and were headed home, I remembered that we’d driven by a place that looked interesting—a giant old Victorian house with a wraparound porch and turrets and bay windows and balconies. There was a plaque outside saying “The Lion and the Rose,” and it looked like it might have been a bed and breakfast. Could we go take a look? Simon didn’t really want to since it was pretty far out of our way, but I was the one who was trying to have a nice day in honor of my dearly departed mother, so it was an quarrel he knew he was going to lose. And he did (but good naturedly, mostly). We drove back through all the old Portland houses whose lights were coming on in the gathering dusk. We managed to find a parking space beside The Lion and the Rose. The innkeeper answered the door and invited us in, and asked us if we’d like to see some of the rooms. OF COURSE we would! So we had a mini-tour of the 10,000 square foot house (!) which was built by Gustav Somethingunpronounceablygerman in 1906. It was suuuuuuuuper Victorian with rose-colored carpet and lace this and ruffly that, but it was beautiful and plush and cozy. The innkeeper said he came up to Portland because he lost his job in San Francisco during the dot-com boom; however, he still had enough money left over to buy this house with all the antique furniture and silverware included, and now he and his wife run this bed and breakfast in their “retirement.” He offered us a homemade cookie and some apple juice and we took a brochure and left just as a churchbell was ringing down the street. Annika took our hands and said, “Imagine you’re walking down the front steps of a great old mansion in London a hundred years ago,” and we did.
Would Mom have enjoyed that? Oh, she would have loved it.
Not too long before Mom died I asked her what she most wanted if she were to be suddenly free of the cancer. She said, “I just want to feel good.” At the time, I thought it was a boring answer—rather feeble, and without imagination. I wanted her to say something like, “I want to travel around the world!” or “I want to open my own veterinary clinic!” or “I want to raise chickens!” Now that she’s gone, I appreciate the wisdom of her words: how precious it is just to feel good, to be without pain or nausea, to walk down the street, to enjoy good food and drink, to have a satisfying conversation with the people you love. How beautiful everyday things are, how sweetly thrilling are small pleasures.
I don’t think I need to do great things with my life to honor my mother. I only need to take pleasure in birdsong, a piece of apple pie, soft jammies, a lazy Sunday morning, a cup of coffee, talking to my family, reading a book, an occasional Manhattan, a bit of shopping, and every moment when I just feel good.