Please forgive me or I’ll give you another lizard for Christmas

Looking back on it, of course I bumped into her at the craft store. My heart was still pounding with the memory of texting her just minutes earlier from the parking lot. “I’m sorry,” I wrote. The thought that I might see her there at the craft store even crossed my mind as I walked through the door and lifted Nate into a cart. Usually it would be a good thought, but this time, no. It breaks my heart to admit it.

“Hi,” she said halfheartedly as we met at the end of the aisle near the cake decorating supplies. I maneuvered the cart around a large metal stepladder; we may as well have been in city lockup together.

“Hi,” I answered, knowing full well that she was angry. It felt strange to have my best friend angry with me at all and the week before Christmas it felt surreal. “What are you buying?” I asked, trying to sound lighthearted.

“Scrapbooking supplies,” she answered.

“I’m getting decorations for Anna’s birthday cake,” I announced unasked.

A minute later we parted, still uncomfortable, still in a fight. It’s funny that we bumped into each other just then, how the universe keeps bringing us together like that. Did I ever tell you that I first met her weeks before my mom suddenly died? At the very moment when I needed a friend the most, she appeared.

When I was a kid, I never wanted a best friend. Something about the idea of having one freaked me out. Now I try to forego labels at all, instead just trying to be the best friend that I can. I think it’s worked. I’ve done such a good job insinuating myself into her life, supplying the ingredients for fun, that she trusts me to be there all the time, not just for the everyday get-togethers, but for the birthdays, the holidays, all of it. Our friendship is such a success that she can believe that her semi-Jewish best friend will come to Christmas dinner at her house unannounced and without an invitation.

And when I can’t be there? Well, this friend who never fails to surprise me, who had a whole secret life before the one she has now, who has had adventures, who has messed up and fixed herself, and who even used to own a pet lizard, well, she surprises me yet again. She stops speaking to me the week before Christmas.

 

Life and death

When Geoff’s grandma calls me, I never answer the phone.

No, wait, it’s not what you think. I love Geoff’s grandma. For simplicity, let’s call her Grandma. Grandma is everything that my Bubbie wasn’t. She’s loving, kind, friendly, funny. She’s delightful. I’ve felt close to her since Geoff and I started dating. Honestly, she inspires me with the way that she loves her kids, grandkids, even her husband. She’s a great role model, and I’ve told her so.

But something about her scares me.

Grandma is pushing ninety. She’s been in good but not perfect health for the last ten years or so. About seven years ago, Grandma and Grandpop were in a car accident that left them each with various ailments. Still, they hang in there, and they are always, without fail, happy to hear from us and ready to welcome us for a visit. They both adore the kids. Grandma still gets down on the floor to play with them.

A couple of years ago I started shutting her out.

We were at her house for a visit, and Grandma started to feel dizzy. She went up to her bedroom to lie down and a little while later she called me upstairs. Me, not Geoff, not Grandpa, not even her own grown daughter. I found her lying on the bed next to her blood pressure machine. Her blood pressure was too high, she told me. She didn’t want to go to the hospital, and she asked me to stay with her. I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and put my other hand on her shoulder. We took deep breaths together.

I was scared.

I told her that she would be alright, and after about half an hour her blood pressure returned to normal. The next day she paid a visit to the doctor. She made a quick recovery and the rest of our visit was just fine. You’d never have known anything had happened.

But I did.

When I was sitting with Grandma up in her room, I had the strangest feeling. With my hands on her and us breathing together, I felt like I was giving her some kind of a transfusion. A life transfusion. I could feel the energy passing between us, even though I didn’t understand it. In the moment, I could only think in dichotomies. If I was giving her life, then she must be giving me death in return. I didn’t want death. I still don’t.

From then on, things were different between us.

When she calls, I don’t answer. I tell Geoff to call her back. I still love her, and we visit. The kids send her artwork. Still, I’ve been stingy with her. I haven’t let her hear my voice, I haven’t given her any more life. I’ve closed myself, as if life were a special gift of mine and death a curse of hers, rather than both being realities that we share.

I’ve been wrong.

I hope that I can find the courage to be open with her again. I hope that I can do the small things that she requests as she gets closer to the end of her life. I hope that she will trust me to help her.

Spoilers suck

elysium-movie

I watched a movie with my in-laws this weekend. The movie was Elysium, with Matt Damon. Sci-fi with a tense, emotional plot. Good, but a bit predictable. Overall, you’d like it.

Now, watching with my in-laws is a different story. Geoff’s mom gets pretty emotional during movies. Within the first few minutes, she started up a chorus of “Mmm”s and “Oh”s. By the midway point, she was hiding under a blanket because of the violence. Near the end there was a minor twist that seemed obvious to me, but she clearly didn’t see it coming. “Oh my god!” she screamed when one character was stabbed, as if she had been hurt herself.

It was slightly amusing but distracting to watch with her. I kept thinking back to when I was a kid and my mom used to promise me that nothing on TV was real. “It’s all just pretend,” I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. I actually felt way more sucked into the movie because of her reaction to it.

Then we had Geoff’s dad, the analyst, who about halfway through the movie announced the sequence of events leading up to the end. No, he’d never seen it before. But he totally called it. He was unaffected by the violence, not emotionally engaged with the plot at all. Cool and clear-headed—you should have seen him.

My in-laws have been married for a long time, 37 years this month. They are a great couple. Before this weekend though, I’ve often thought that they couldn’t be more different. They have different interests, different hobbies, different friends. They have completely different attitudes about most things. Watching the movie with them, it all clicked. They balance each other. One is emotional, the other intellectual. One is rational, the other irrational. Together, they complement each other. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and they experience life as a team.

Are all marriages like that? Does each person play a role, filling in for the other’s weaknesses, benefitting from their partner’s strengths? Is that how mine works? Maybe, but it’s more subtle than my in-laws’ relationship. I’d like to think that Geoff and I are a team, but we are also pretty good on our own.

I’m going to give this some more thought. And if you ever watch a movie with me, do not tell me how it ends. I hate that.

I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

I like to get messy too

Anna has been hiding her dirty laundry.

Every morning lately she’s been melting down when it comes time to get dressed for school. “Mom, I can’t find any pants!” she yells, like I’m keeping them from her. Usually she finds some, never mind that they are too short and seasonally inappropriate – or on the third day of wear. The important thing is that she learns to fend for herself, right?

In the evening, while I’m watching reruns and folding laundry, everyone ends up with a stack of clean clothes. Except Anna. Without fail, her pile will have just a pair of socks and a t-shirt while everybody else’s clothes tower over me. Against my better judgment, I checked her closet last week – maybe she shoved her dirty things in there. But no, the closet was relatively clean. I should have worried, but I didn’t.

Anna has always been hopelessly, even hilariously, disorganized. When she was a toddler, she would fill every available tote bag with her toys and hang them all on her toy stroller, carting it all over the house. We used to call her the bag lady. Last winter, one of my new year’s resolutions was to help Anna learn to organize her toys. I bought her a bunch of cute little colorful bins, and made chalkboard labels for each one. She had so much fun labeling and organizing her toys. It worked great for about two weeks, and then we promptly forgot all about organizing. Honestly, I’m happy when the toys make it into any bin at all. I don’t mind if she makes a mess when she’s playing.

So this morning, I was trying to find a few more items to fill up my laundry basket. I wandered into her room, thinking that I would grab her pajamas from the floor. Then I noticed a bin on the floor by the window. It had a pair of dirty leggings in it, along with some doll clothes. So, I grabbed the leggings and peeked in another bin. It looked like it was full of trash. I pushed the trash aside and underneath I found a bunch of dirty nightgowns. Then I turned and noticed a gift bag, full of dirty t-shirts and even a piece of my jewelry!

Needless to say, I am really glad that I checked her bins. God only knows where all of her toys are. And I was just about to buy her some new pants.

 

Did you know that I used to live on a mountain?

You might not believe it, considering that I now live in the Midwest, in flat Plains territory, where my kids think that the sledding hill is a mountain. Oh, they have no clue.

Way back when, before the kids were in the picture, Geoff convinced me to move to a log home on top of a mountain. We lived in Virginia back then, where there are a few respectable mountains. We had some friends who lived on top of one of them. The first time we visited them was an initiation. We grew up in suburbia. I, for one, had never seen a switchback. Have you? Well, that first time, armed with our friends’ instructions, Geoff finally got to test out the low-four-wheel drive on our new SUV. He was psyched. I was scared – no, terrified – on the way up, and I threatened to get out of the car. But we made it up the four switchbacks, found our friends’ beautiful house, and spent the afternoon admiring the view of the fields below.

Then it came time to leave. Going down the mountain frightened me even more than driving up. We literally could not see the road in front of the car. I’m pretty sure that I kept my eyes closed the whole way down. By the time we reached the main road I was glad that it was all over.

Less than a year later, we bought the house across the road from our friends. We made the decision to move impetuously, for us. We sold our townhouse and bought a log home, and the whole thing happened in just a few weeks. It’s a blur, but I remember that Geoff wanted it and I wanted it for him. I wanted it for us. It was the beginning of a six-year-long adventure.

That first day, that afternoon when I followed the moving truck from tidy suburbia past the horse farms, past all signs of civilization, to our new home in the woods, I took a deep breath as I reached the bottom of the mountain. I was scared but I did it anyway. I can clearly remember the adrenaline rushing through my body as I steered the car up those switchbacks. I reached the mostly flat gravel road at the top. I drove slowly, the view my prize for risking my life. Then, just like that, I was home.

We lived in that home until our daughter turned one. I drove up and down the mountain hundreds of times. Yet I never got used to it. For years, as I drove the winding road leading to those switchbacks, my heart would race. Every single time those switchbacks made me nervous. Every day the mountain was new to me.

dscn2963
The view from our deck
The flat part of the road
The flat part of the road

Thanks, Samantha, for inspiring me last week with your post about adjusting to change.

If she could do it, so can you

My mom used to be afraid to go out. When I was a kid, until I was eight, she mostly stayed in the house. We lived in a small, suburban apartment, a short walk to a shopping center. We didn’t have a car. When I was really little, the farthest that my mom would go was a fire hydrant that was maybe 100 yards from our door. We used to call it the yellow thing.

“Want to walk to the yellow thing?” my mom would call.

“Yeah,” I’d say and jump up to get my shoes on. I remember being really excited about it.

That went on for years. My mom would need another adult to accompany her to the grocery store, drugstore, doctor’s office, or wherever she needed to go. We didn’t go out much.

Until I was about eight, my mom knew that she had a panic disorder, but I don’t think that she saw a therapist or took any medication for it. I do remember her keeping a jug of wine in the hall closet and having a glass whenever she did have to go out, any time of day.

As a kid, I didn’t think any of that was strange. I didn’t have much comparison, so I just accepted it. I even liked walking to the yellow thing.

One day, out of the blue, when I was about eight, my mom asked me if I wanted to go to Rite Aid to get a candy bar. “Really?” I asked. I couldn’t believe her. I skipped along beside her to the drugstore, practicing my whistling.

A few days later, my mom began seeing a doctor and got a prescription for Xanax. Now I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it was a wonder drug. It wasn’t. She traded her fear of going out for a habit of falling asleep anywhere – on the city bus, at a school assembly, even at the dinner table. I hated it. But my mom’s decision changed our lives. She was suddenly able to take me places – to the mall, to the library, on trips downtown. All of a sudden, my world expanded from the limits of our small apartment.

If my mom were around now, I’d ask her why she decided to change. Did she do it for me? What was it exactly that made her want to be different? What gave her the strength? As a kid, I was thrilled when my mom started venturing out. But now, as an adult and a parent, I can appreciate her choice so much more. It was hard, but she did it anyway. Thanks, Mom, for the great lesson.

I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

Maybe I should be a receptionist

She had four different bottles of perfume in her purse. She used to do her makeup at her desk first thing in the morning even though she was pretty enough without it. First, she’d pull her long dark hair into a ponytail. She bubbled. She was recovering from a bout of lung disease and had given up smoking a few months earlier, but can’t you just see her sitting cross-legged at the end of the bar, a glass in front of her and a cigarette in her hand?

She was, what, maybe five years older than me? She hadn’t been to college but was thinking about starting. She was an excellent receptionist and everyone – lawyers, paralegals, clients – liked her, even me. She wasn’t my first girl crush, or my last. I never admitted anything to myself, just kept an admiring eye on her and took a lot of mental notes.

I worked hard that summer, the one after my sophomore year. I earned the money to buy my first car. I had just moved in with Geoff, into his crummy college apartment, and I was thrilled. I cleaned up that slovenly law office. I set to work in May determined to earn enough to buy myself a car by August.

I used to get to work before anyone else. I’d wait outside, reading, until the office opened at 7:30. Subtracting time for lunch, I worked ten-hour days, five days a week. I received time and a half for overtime. I milked every minute out of each day. I started out organizing and relocating all the files that lined halls, which made a good impression. I made a lot of progress in the first few weeks. I wanted everyone to know that I was doing a good job, and it worked.

By the third or fourth week, I slowed down. I bided my time, I chatted with my receptionist. She had a lot of first dates, and she did hang out at the bar. She was interesting. Sometimes she let me fill in at the phones for her while she went to lunch. I wish I could tell you that I did as good a job as her, but I didn’t. I was shy and uncomfortable. I didn’t bubble. I still wore the wrong clothes, had the wrong hair.

Nevertheless, I stuck it out. I worked my ten-hour days until August when the office manager told me that they couldn’t afford my overtime anymore. By then the office was immaculate. I was fine with it – I had $3,000 in the bank and a waiting boyfriend. I cut back to four days a week and bought an ‘83 Toyota Tercel with a manual transmission, which I learned to drive in one day.

The last few weeks, I put some money in the bank for gas and insurance payments. I bought some cute outfits and took some long lunches. A few of the lawyers asked me to stay, to not go back to school, but I refused. I liked my receptionist and as much as I wanted to be like her, I didn’t want to end up like her with a dead-end job and no degree. Do you know what I mean?

Let’s go for a ride

For one whole summer, he drove me everywhere. He had a little blue Mazda that he had named the Smurf. We’d pick up friends and drive downtown to get coffee at Louie’s bookstore or to wander around Fell’s Point laughing at the drunk people. Sometimes we’d go have enormous sundaes at the fancy pastry shop, sometimes we just drove to the park and made out on the grass.

For one whole summer, I was important. I was interesting. I was fun. We had our own silly, secret language to prove it. We were “Smurfing it,” and everyone knew it. We communicated in strange, archaic, made-up words and when we talked it felt like we had always known each other. How could four months feel like a lifetime?

For that summer, we were always together but never alone. Our friends were our witnesses, they were our audience, and they created us. Without their eyes on us, we would have been boring, bored. With them, we were everything. We spoke in imaginary words and made out under blankets, and they observed us on the outskirts, soaking up our excess energy.

Without our friends, we took a few trips together. Alone, we researched obscure authors. We fought. We crammed too much into that summer. Alone, we flared and burned out.

Two decades have passed and it dawns on me. Aren’t we all always waiting for someone to pull up in their cool car and roll down the window, point a finger, and grin? “Get in. Let’s have some fun.” And we would. Aren’t we all waiting for someone to notice us, to take an interest, to make us feel special? Don’t we all want to attract an audience? Isn’t that what our lives are all about?

I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

Do you remember?

When I picked you up, you asked me not to touch you.

“I’m not a huggy person,” you mumbled.

I drove you to the mall and bought you a CD. I didn’t know that it was the wrong thing to do. How differently this story might have turned out if we’d gone to a museum instead.

Back at home, we made lasagna for dinner and watched a movie. Your laughter was like music.

You spent the night on our futon, and in the morning you refused our chocolate chip waffles.

“Too sweet,” you said.

You were what, 16? You wore girly clothes and sneakers. You already knew your limits well and stayed away from your fences. I admire your awareness.

I tried to braid your hair in a zig-zag pattern, but I wasn’t yet a mom. I had no clue how to braid. I’m sorry.

We drove you home and waved goodbye as you went inside, not touching, not making future plans.

I failed you.

Your fences felt like brick walls to me and I didn’t try to climb them. You had my heart but I was scared of your fear and your anger. Your not-hugs felt like punishments and I’ve never liked to be punished.

So years passed and I wished things were different. I still refused to learn to climb.

You’re older now and I think I see your bricks beginning to crumble. I see the glimpses of light showing through the cracks. Maybe you’re lonely inside those walls. I’m going to build a fence of my own next to yours, almost but not quite touching. I’m going to share your cracked brick wall.

Let’s not hug, just hang out. Let’s laugh some more. It will be fun.

 

A memory

This was written by my niece, my sister’s daughter. It means a lot to me to have some of her beautiful, heartfelt writing here on my blog. Thanks, S.

As much as I try to deny it and force it back, I find myself thinking about you more and more lately. I spent years suppressing any thought that had to do with you, where you might be, who you could be doing it with, if you’re even alive. What should have been my first indicator that something was not quite right.I don’t remember how old I was, because so much happened in such a short period of time, it all kind of blurs. For a lot of the time I was with her growing up, she was in bed, and I do remember times when I would try to get her up to play with me, while my dad was hard at work, because all I wanted at that time was to be with my mom, even if I was always more of a daddy’s girl. Why isn’t mommy getting out of bed? I never knew until years later, but it did upset me at the time, and I guess my brother did a good job of keeping me distracted while he could.

Either way, I did get some time with her, when she felt good enough to get out of bed. She would creep into my room in the middle of the night, and now, at nearly 30, knowing what I do, I’m not sure if she was completely sober and just wanting to spend time with her little girl, or high on something and needing a junk food binge, but she didn’t want to be alone. My brother never wanted to go, yet I was always willing to climb into the car in my night gown, windows down, music blasting. She would take us up to High’s, a convenience store that was open all night, and I could pick out the candy bar of my choosing. We would keep this secret between us, because, of course, it would upset my dad to know, and I liked keeping secrets at that age. Having the special time with my mom that no one else did.

We would sneak back into the house like criminals in the night, making sure not to wake either of the boys snoozing upstairs, and she would tuck me back into my bed, singing “You Are My Sunshine” to me, in a version she had altered, and I would drift back to sleep.

That’s one of the few good memories I cling to, because not long after that, things went downhill fast. Emotional trauma, divorce, living two separate lives in two separate homes, I don’t really know how I made it this far. Sometimes, I feel her sickness creeping into my brain, like we did on those nights, in the form of my anxiety and depression, on the days when I feel like I can’t leave the house. Does the apple really fall far from the tree, especially when the tree is withered, and the apple gets knocked around and bruised by every branch it hits on the way down? Life is funny that way.