From the Bottom
I’m writing this from the middle of it—somewhere close to the bottom, I hope—but I won’t publish until I’m at least far enough through that I can look behind me. So if you’re reading this and it seems heavy and you feel like I need professional help or as though you must urgently tell me something to rescue me, know that I appreciate you and also that I’m okay. If I’m not okay then I won’t publish this. It will be published posthumously, by either Gabe or Beth, whichever one finds this funnier first. I’m having what I can only assume is some kind of long form anxiety attack. I say that I can only assume because frankly, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but the paramedics and the emergency room doctors say it’s not my heart. They were very confident when they said this. The way an adult might be confident to a child on a sinking ship. Or the way people who know what they’re talking about are confident. Who can say, really. Not me. I fainted almost a week ago after several days of heart palpitations and since then I have not felt better. And on paper I understand that it was something like a perfect storm: not enough nutrition, a change in exercise (meaning… doing it), some pretty intense therapy, a couple specific traumas being touched on at the same time, possibly even a mild virus my kid had and BAM. Lights out. And to add insult to unconsciousness, it happened in the middle of an event decidedly not about me or my problems. I was attending as a support for someone else and then I collapsed. Fan-fucking-tastic. So I’m writing this, a week later, from under a weighted blanket with my comfort food nearby after having to leave my van in the parking lot of my kids’ speech therapy office because it almost happened again and I couldn’t drive home. And despite allllll the tools I’ve gathered in therapy (and from the hallowed internet), I cannot convince my body it is not dying. I can say out loud what I’m afraid of and I can imagine another version of me talking to this one in a calm, compassionate tone that is very unworried and understands that this is not the first time my body has felt these rather specific and terrifying things over an extended period of time. But this version of me, who is experiencing it, cannot listen. I can hear and I can nod, but I cannot make myself feel okay. I cannot make the thoughts stop. I cannot make my heart slow down. I cannot lift the panic from my chest or the tingling in my head. And all of this is more frustrating than I have words for. I just looked up the word “frustrating” to see if it really is the right one and a better synonym is discouraging. It is the opposite of imbuing courage. It is cutting it down. Dis-ing it. If you will. I have done everything I thought I was supposed to do—I’m in therapy, I’m trying to be more embodied, I’m paying attention to my capacity, I’ve rekindled a particular relationship with God, I eat good food, I’m exercising (sort of), drinking water. Still. Here I am. So I cried nice and hard, good and long (that’s what she said) until my sobs turned to sighs. And then I watched a movie with my family. And went to bed and started writing this. My body feels a bit broken right now. Or just… vulnerable. A bit weak. I grew up in a house on a lake. Well, a cabin. Some might call it a large shack. It was not up to code and certainly not designed for a family to live in year round. But we did—16 years round all together—and I didn’t care that the doors let in a draft or that the roof leaked and I was rather fond of the hump in the floor next to the fireplace. It was my home. I loved it. And it’s how my body feels right now, which is a comfort. A little drafty maybe, a little leaky. But it’s my home. And I love it. It’s a few months later now. Those symptoms lasted about 8 weeks. Which is relatively short for me. It’s not the first time something like that has happened and while it’s hard for me not to think I did something wrong to bring it on, I’ve also been given the gift of another perspective. Perhaps it is so that my body—my home—is an active agent acting on my behalf. Like the house in Encanto, maybe it is full of magic and will do whatever it can to help me and protect me, even sacrifice itself to bring my attention to what really matters. What matters, my beloved Beth said to me the day I fainted, is me. I have much to say about this… I am waking up to the fact that for my entire life my body has been trying to communicate with me and I—a person enamored, enthralled, entangled in the art and necessity of language—still don’t fully understand what it’s trying to say. And I don’t want to rush to conclusions. I’m still listening. What I will say is that I am grateful—beyond grateful, I’m not sure there is a word for what I feel—for my body’s allegiance. I have felt betrayed by it, but I’m seeing now that it has been when I’ve betrayed myself that my body signals the alarms. When I have not behaved as if I matter, my body is faithful to remind me that I do. I am also grateful—beyond grateful—for the people in my life who agree with this and insist on it, too. For the embarrassment of vulnerability met with an embarrassment of riches in the form of their kindness, their patience, their understanding, their laughter, their hours-long phone calls and flowers at my door. This latest episode was more public than other times have been and I think I expected people to be annoyed with me. To roll their eyes at me. I expected dismissal and instead was brought in, to warm hugs and belonging. I don’t know how to end this because actually, this isn’t over. I have a lot to learn and I’m eager. So I won’t end it, I’ll just pause for now.
A Visit for a Sip
I take a sip and I’m there with you in the tiny living room, in a quiet morning while the babies sleep. Before espresso and milk frothers came into my life, it was drip and some chemicals we called creamer. And it was you. Us. With stronger coffee than anyone else in our family enjoys and tired smiles. You didn’t get to see this house. The one we bought on the exact two year mark of your death—signing and dating a thousand times like taking paper cuts to my right hand. You didn’t get to see the daisies that grew wild in the front yard (or did you and Jesus put them there?) or the hundred different ways I’ve rearranged this room. You never sat on this couch with me, sipping coffee, planning our day. But I take a sip and for a moment I imagine that you’re here. The room is different, most of the things in it are, too, the coffee is less toxic, but I can still channel you. I can still feel your ease at beginnings. Whatever today holds, you’re here for it, and you don’t have much preference. Let’s do something fun, but the truth is you’ll make laundry fun. With stupid jokes and an easy laugh and delight in my babies I might miss most of all things. The truth is I find myself trying to keep up with the joy because while you can float away on a happy thought, my feet are dipped in concrete. I was telling some friends how I feel like I’ve done the heavy lifting of this grief. I’m going to the gym now, lifting weights, and at first the bar was the heaviest thing I could bench. Now I can add just a little weight—10 pounds or so— and manage it, but I can feel my muscles’ confused frustration. When you first died I was trapped under the bar. I couldn’t lift it at all. But I tried every day until I could. And it’s a good thing, because unlike at the YMCA, life adds weight over time whether you want to or not. Every new experience, every time I reached for my phone and had to put it down, every morning I woke up forgetting and had to re-remember, 2.5 pounds, 5 pounds. A birthday, 10, a new house, 15, a baby born, 50. The weight gets added more gently now and unlike my puny arm muscles, the muscles that support my grief are shaped and toned for this. I carry the missing and the aching with me and I only notice the extra weight when I have to climb a hill. But every now and then it lifts and I feel lighter for just a moment. Like sipping drip coffee on a quiet morning. Then the weight settles back in as I remember that you’re gone, but honestly? I’ll take it. I know it was once enough to press me down into the earth, take my breathe, swallow me up. And I know that if I stop lifting it on purpose it could do just that. But loving you past your time with me has made me strong and resolute. I’ll keep bearing up under this because this is what I do now. And it’s better than the alternative where I never share a cup of coffee with you anymore. Besides, you taught me how to walk with concrete on my feet.
Thank you for the wrecking, the undoing, tears and rips And the way that you committed to your most savage whims Thanks so much for craving the unmarked skin on me And leaving me with scars to keep and throb in memory Thank you for the lessons in betrayal of myself And teaching me to grovel, beg, forget to ask for help I appreciate your tolerance as I clung to remnants of my worth Your patience til the shame was set and you knew it would endure Thank you for the questions I never thought to ask And the gentle way you coated them with answers made of wax Thank you for the panic and the doubt that settled in Without them I may have never found the place where I begin Thanks for being strong—as strong as you could be And for all the weakness you exploited well in me And now that I have thanked you, I release you to the Source And I will sit here thankful while she settles the score.
On Time and Presence
“If you’re still listening, if this still means anything, please, help me to be present.” I sat on my bed, suitcase flayed open beside me as a familiar harbinger. We’d just seen the scan that showed a new and inoperable growth. Mom’s brain cancer was spreading. The clock ticked loud and cruel. I wanted to squeeze time like a lemon to get all the juice out. I wanted to stretch it into eternity like taffy, keep rolling it and rolling it to make more because she was running out and I had barely found my stride. And here I was, stumbling, racing toward the edge of a cliff after the woman I could not imagine life without. I was about to spend weeks? months? trying and failing to be a mom, daughter, and caretaker while grieving losses I couldn’t name and anticipating one I couldn’t conceive. I felt small and decidedly not ready. A mild panic sat next to me: that I’d already squandered too much time fretting over appointments and pills and possible cures in an attempt to make it all less awful when maybe I could have just enjoyed what was there to enjoy with her instead. Help. My husband drove me and our three small kids a thousand miles south. Again. I prayed my plea and watched all the familiar landmarks out the window, noting through my knotted nerves and random tears that the next time I’d see that tree or this hill, I wouldn’t have a mom on the earth anymore. The familiar sights became strange in anticipation. Presence does not come easily. I have preferred to worry myself out of this moment, thanks. Why soak in now when there are so. many. possible other nows and previous nows just begging to be examined and reexamined and planned around and shamed for. Nobody prepared me for the overwhelm and boredom, drama and banality that would come with my mother’s terminal illness. I worried that she didn’t understand how bad it was, that she wasn’t taking it seriously enough. And I also worried that the seriousness might swallow her up, that she might succumb to despair. Which, looking back, were probably projections, but at the time I wanted to take charge and get things done when there was nothing—really—to do. I’d favored concern and logistics and rationale about data when I could have deferred to her unreasonable hope and joy. I chose my to-do list over just being with her. I worried over the same disease and death that she, the diseased and dying, wasn’t worried about. I wasted time which was now running out. What had I done? Help. Really, this was nothing new. My mom always saw the silver linings where I saw the clouds. Sometimes I was scared she would get hurt and sometimes she did, but she was fine. I’m the one who worried about it. She showed off her broken leg. I wouldn’t say I’m a pessimist—her positive outlook was the soil I grew in, after all. Even when I’m sure the worst is happening, I’m also sure it’ll be okay at some point. Maybe not always for me, but in some sense that matters, I’m sure. It’s annoying even to me. My bright side is never far from the shade. But my mother lived fully in the sun, tanning oil ready. She was present. My mom should be here. I should be able to call her and send her photos. She should be at the birthday parties and holding the new babies. She should be comforting my friends who have shit moms and need her to mother them, too. I was 29 when she died and I know that means I got some time with her, but it wasn’t enough. She wasn’t done here. I feel stronger, the sting dulls, but it never becomes okay to me. And I’ve given up expecting anyone to understand the wound it left. “Parents die before their kids…” but not this before. “At least…” is still least. It’s rare that anyone gets along well enough with their mother to empathize, much more rare they consider themselves actual friends with her. I don’t know why that is, but it makes it so that people aren’t sure what it means when you say your mom died. Unless they do. It seems like most of the people I know whose mothers were also their closest friends have had to grieve them. I don’t know why that is, either. I get gifts now. I have perspective. I know what it’s like when the worst-case-scenario actually does happen. I know that it is infinitely more awful than it was in your head, and that worrying about it before doesn’t fix it. I know that time is not something we can bargain for, that its eternal and finite all at once and demands respect, presence, a little trembling. I know that love is a hard rock bottom. You will smack flat against it when the floor and foundation both give and you can stomp your hardest, but it won’t budge. I know that some people are committed to being terrible and you don’t have to be the one to save them with your compassion. I know that loss doesn’t have to be tragic, but when it is, the world goes dark for a bit. I know that the light comes back. And they do not make it worth it, but I will take them. Because presence may not be what comes easiest to me, but she taught me well and it comes deep. I got there after the long drive down. And those final months with her were hard. There was enough to do to get lost in. But not long after I arrived I sat on the couch with her and she grabbed my hand and held it between us. And all the things I could have said didn’t matter. I was there, fully, and she was, too. And we are still stretching out the taffy of that moment.
Open Handed Hope
No alarm told me to creep downstairs while everyone slept and beat the Easter morning candy rush. But my dog was on my mind and I needed to get eyes on him. If he’d died, I thought, I would want to get him outside before the kids came down. I’d want to wait until after they had their morning fun before I told them. I’d want a minute to cry with him before sharing the grief with my children. I rehearsed it, just in case (which I do a lot, but the cases rarely unfold according to my script). He’d been sick the night before. The kind of sick I’ve seen before. I’d tried to get him up for a bath and he wouldn’t stand so I pleaded with him, tears forming, to get up. and come here. Please, Ollie. Please. I don’t need to waste words now telling you what he means to me and what a loss it will be when he’s gone—or name that the cruelty of loving a dog is how sure you are that you’ll outlive them. I just need to tell you that when I found him downstairs and saw his tail flop at the sound of my voice, it felt like Easter morning. Because I know well enough that pain doesn’t wait for a kind moment. It comes with the candy and the celebration. It comes regardless of the plans you laid the night before, however carefully and sweetly, whatever hope or happiness guided them. I know there are twins of moments for all of us—Before & After—that we’ll never shake. They will tag along with us and bark or whine when you pass that hospital on the freeway or hear that song or when the dog looks at you like he doesn’t want to walk anymore. The worst things come when they damn well please, and there are too many pleas for pardon for God to answer them all—even Jesus chucked his up to no avail. The ones that do bend things only confuse the rest of us and make us wonder what hidden sin is keeping God from wanting to bend things in our favor. There’s this famous experiment where you pray to a milk jug and see how often it answers you. Apparently, just making your request known—even to a milk jug—makes a difference. It is probably the case that when you name things which you want to have happen and then they do, you feel involved and you give credit wherever you think you should so it’ll happen again. The universe. God. A milk jug. And if the focus is merely on evading pain, prayer is a depressing thing. It doesn’t seem like God cares much more about you than a milk jug does. Which I suppose could give you hope and affect toward milk jugs, but for me, makes me wonder what’s the point. The Bible says “ask” so I do and then my heart is broken twice. When we got Mom’s terminal diagnosis, I didn’t spend much time asking for a miracle. I got to work accepting it. Sometimes I let myself hope—I just read words from myself about how I had a sense she would live and they felt foreign to me—and I asked God to heal her, to keep her here, to make the tumor disappear. I did. But most of me abstained from too much hope. Stay sober. Get through. I let my mother keep her optimism, her trust, I let her carry the banner for hope and I cheered her on. But inside I was biding time. I was rational. I saw the statistics. And if I’m honest, some part of me wonders what could have been different if I had let myself assume it more. Is that what God needed? One more believer? Or would it have made no difference in the outcome, but may have given her and I more common footing, more shared experience, more time together not on a calendar, but in union with eternal things? Anyway, I asked God to heal my dog. And I think he’s going to be okay, this time was just rehearsal. I don’t know if it would have been any different if I hadn’t asked. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t, and partly because if it did, I’m inclined to wonder as I do so often, “then why not her?” I’m not really mad anymore and I am finding generous space in the mystery of hope deferred. As if God’s hope is, too, and that is a lovely, terrible thought. Like when you realize as a child that your parents don’t always get things their way either. There is also a sense (and I say this hesitant to “wrap it up too neatly,” as my friend Darin expresses frequently) in which we did get what we prayed for. Despite my best logic, I know she is okay now. Free and healthy and full of joy. Because if the worst moments come when they want to, the best ones do, too. And I swear to you I’m sharing them with her even now. And I’ll share them with Ollie now, grateful for his life while I hold all these moments with open hands. Update: Oliver passed away about a month after this post was mostly written and, maybe surprisingly, I do not feel even the slightest bit betrayed by hope—or God. 🙂
The Skeptic and the Mystic
I guess it’s how I came here: carrying the questions of my ancestors and the mystic trust, too. Which of them were lawyers? Which of them shamans? Because I can escape neither. My earliest memories are of totalizing faith. Utter confidence in God’s existence, God’s love, God’s particular devotion, God’s humor, God’s sadness. I did not separate the world into what is God’s and what is not, it was all God’s. He made it. He loved it. He was never far from any of it. Now that I know me a little more, it seems inevitable that I would wring this faith through inquiry. Sometimes I wonder what took me so long. But at 14, hormones swirling through my bloodstream like paint that always ends up making brown, I finally heard the slithering voice loud and clear where perhaps it had once been a whisper: “Did God really say?” Well. Did he? My skeptic cleared her throat. What made me think God was so in love with me that he laughed at all my jokes and wanted the seat next to me in the car? Why was I so special? How could I be sure that God was happy with my petty, confrontational, cowardly attempts at being human? I could yell at my own mother and cry to get off the rollercoaster. What a mess. With this introspection, teachings about a God whose anger led his love made sense. I’d be angry, too, if I had to put up with me. I’d cycle through lots of emotions. Annoyance. Apathy. Disgust. Frustration. Sometimes pity. Probably. But mostly out of obligation. Because I promised I’d save this species after all, even if this one barely seemed worth it anymore. The more faithful I tried to be, to curry favor, to apologize to my creator, the less faith I could hold onto. I became more afraid, more ashamed, and less able to sense God with me in the car or otherwise. Why would God want to be with me at all? Even after leaving the place that taught me most about this Angry God, I struggled to feel safe which meant I struggled to believe I was loved. My new faith was—as any good lawyer would insist—in God’s contract. He is just. He won’t lie. He said he’d save me if I did x so he will. He has to. That’s what I had been taught real love was: commitment. God keeps promises so he’ll keep you, wretched worm that you are. I held God to his contract with my fists tight against his throat. Come on, you said it. Saved, but un-beloved. What an eternity that will be. I tried my best to be okay with it for many years. Messages about God’s eager kindness and delightful love met my inner skeptic whose voice had become a looping refrain and I started to believe that it was me. That God felt that way about other people—maybe even most people, maybe even every other person—but not about me. So I could affirm it in others, enthusiastically, genuinely, with passion and prose that comes from something you really know deep down. But not in myself. Every time I tried, my skeptic reminded me to sit down, this message probably isn’t for you. But I come from shamans, too. I dug myself further into a theology that made room for everyone but me and hoped that I could sneak in through the back door, but it was a pit. No doors. And my own words of affirmation etched on the walls were an insult. Until my mystic read them—she looks for her birthright everywhere. She started quiet, too. Hey, look there, didn’t God say that? Her voice felt familiar. Like a memory and a relative. In the pit where the skeptic argued her case, the mystic stood up, too and shrugged. I had to be taught that I was unlovable, but to believe I was loved just meant remembering. We don’t have to know why or how, she said, but we know. And there are annoyingly few rebuttals for a knowing. All of them are rather bleak. So up against the wall with the Good Words on them, my skeptic had to throw her hands up and say, “fine.” Turns out that’s the judgement, the free will, the burden of the knowledge of good and evil. A choice between stories—what did God say? If the fear came through my head, the hope came through my gut. They meet, then, in my heart where both skepticism and mysticism are my friends. I am proud of my skeptic for asking the questions I might otherwise be too afraid to ask. I’m grateful to her for driving me into the darkness because I always find the light is there, too and I wouldn’t know it if I didn’t go. And I am in awe of my mystic for her steadfast confidence. I’m grateful to her for being bold in her trust and keeping me pinned to the truth of my belonging. When the two of them go into a cave together I just know we’re going to find diamonds. So now I trust and I question and I know I’m being faithful. Faith—my faith anyway—isn’t an antidote to fear, it’s a wrestling, a dance. It’s arguments in pits and an invitation to sabbatical. It is timid and bold, a freedom and submission, a choice and very much not one. For lots of different reasons and in lots of different ways, I wonder What did God say anyway? and my skeptic and my mystic look at each other and smile.