Nurse: I just wanted to be sure you didn't fall.
My Mother: Well, when I say I can walk, I can walk... I guess nobody told you that I am a member of the Flying Wallendas.
Nurse: I just wanted to be sure you didn't fall.
My Mother: Well, when I say I can walk, I can walk... I guess nobody told you that I am a member of the Flying Wallendas.
My grandmother called at 7 A.M. asking if I could come over right away. She said her husband Herschel wasn’t doing well. That he was dying. Not as in one day soon, but as in today.
About 14 months ago, his body stopped producing white blood cells and they gave him a year to live. Last time I was in town, a few months ago, his face was covered in scabs. One of them was bleeding when I went to kiss him hello, but I didn’t think he was really dying. After all, he was still playing golf and driving even. But a few weeks ago, he lost control of his car and sideswiped a tree. Then, the other week he fell. No one knows why or how, but he knocked a really beautiful lamp into a million pieces and bled all over the living room floor.
My grandmother’s corgi was on his couch jumping and barking when I knocked on the door. I heard my grandmother yell, “Quiet Max!” and a minute later a woman with cornrows and an apron answered the door. My Aunt Karen told me there was a new weekend caretaker. (My grandmother fired the last four.) She introduced herself as Toni, and in her eyes I someone kind, thoughtful, and not in the mood for any bullshit. My grandmother was sitting in her chair, wearing what’s become her uniform—the long pink satin nightgown with poufy sleeves. Her hair was wild, like a storm cloud, and her eyes looked sad and worried. In her lap was her phonebook, the pages as disheveled as her hair, exploding out every which way.
“Hello, Darling,” she sang.
I bent down to give her a hug, and her arms lifted around me slowly, covered in brown spots, blood spots, and band aids. She kissed me a bit longer than usual. “I don’t know how much longer he’s gong to be around,” she told me, her voice deep, hoarse, and slightly panicked. “He can’t decide whether to go to the hospital or not.”
“What does his doctor think?”
“He was very rude to me the last time we spoke, so I’m not going to call him. I’m trying to get a hold of one of Herschel’s sons, to see if they’ll call. Oh, Jess, it’s a damn mess.”
Toni passed by with a bucket of cleaning supplies.
“I don’t like her,” my grandmother whispered loudly.
I headed to the kitchen to kiss Hershel hello. He was sitting at the table, hooked to oxygen, practically curled over a plate of toast, like his body was forming back into fetal. He looked so skinny, his face covered with scabs and silver stubble, yet he was wearing brand new baby blue flannel pajamas.
“Hi Herschel,” I said, walking closer.
With his hand, he shooed me away.
I walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, my face flushed with the shame that someone didn’t want me near them. My grandmother was on the phone with Herschel’s son. “Well, I think he should be admitted, Marty. He’s been very demanding. And I’m disabled. I can’t get him everything he needs… Ok, I’ll let him know...”
“That was Marty,” my grandmother told me. He said he’s going to call the doctor and have Herschel admitted.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Toni!” my grandmother yelled.
A second later, Toni was standing in front of my grandmother’s chair. “Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
“Tell Dr. Allen that I spoke with Marty and that if he would like to go to the hospital, Marty will arrange it with Dr. Kasakov.”
Toni walked back to the kitchen.
“Honey,” my grandma says to me. “Do me a favor, would you?”
Her arthritic finger pointed to a large vase sitting on top of the TV. “Divide those flowers into two vases. Michael brought them yesterday, but they’re so cramped, you can’t even see what they are.”
“That will look pretty.”
“Ok!” I say louder.
“Make sure you take enough leaves off.”
I carried the flowers into the kitchen where Toni was washing some teacups. Her nails were long and red with little rhinestones at each end. I set the vase down on the counter and smiled. “My grandmother wants me to put these in two vases.”
Toni moved away from the sink.
“It’s ok. I can wait. I don’t think it’s an urgent matter.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Thank you for being here,” I said softly so Herschel couldn’t hear. “I know it’s got to be difficult...”
Toni smiled, and I felt relieved to connect with someone. I’ve always felt most comfortable around people who are being paid to clean up other people’s messes.
At the sink, I peeled the leaves off the stems. Then found some scotch tape and crisscrossed it over the top of the vase, which I learned how to do from interviewing a florist last year for the little newspaper I sometimes write for. I could hear Herschel around the corner in the little sitting area. He was moaning, “When am I gonna die already?” Toni was checking his oxygen. “When the lord is ready for you, Dr. Allen, he’ll let you know.”
I peeked around the corner and saw him at the kitchen table, still slumped over his toast, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to eat it or not.
When the bouquets were finished, I had the bright idea to set one on Herschel’s table, thinking it might make him feel happier. I walked around the corner with the vase knowing better than to smile. But as I was setting it down, he shooed me away again. I felt my face flush. Jesus, I’m an idiot. Of course he wouldn’t want flowers. What dying individual wants to see anything blossom? Have the decency to wait for the funeral.
In the midst of a quick 180 headed back to the sink, I heard him mutter, “I love you.” I looked back at him. “I love you,” he said again, and then he shook his head, wincing, “But… no flowers.”
It might have been the first time he ever said I love you to me. And I felt relieved. My biggest nightmare, besides being gang raped, has always been being unwanted.
It was several moments later when I realize something horrible- I hadn’t told Herschel I loved him back. I should have said, “I love you too, Herschel,” but I had been too concerned with eliminating my presence from the room. I debated walking back to say it, since I knew I’d probably never see him again. But I decided not to. I figured he wasn’t thinking about me. He was probably busy enough thinking about not being Herschel anymore.
Even though he’d been a fixture in my life, I’d never exactly known Herschel. Our main conversation for the past 30 years has been, “Hold on, Jessica. I’ll go get grandma.”
The only thing I knew for certain about him was that he didn’t like to drink water. Only black coffee, tea, and an occasional tumbler of gin. And I think the most lively thing I’d ever seen him do, well besides begging for God to let him die, was the time he set some bananas on fire after dinner when I was a kid. I remember he drizzled some liquor on them and lit a match. Other than that, I know he loved golf and musical theater. I used to love when he’d sing with my grandmother during dinner, with a Bing Crosby voice, and then argue about who wrote which one. Maybe it was easier for him to experience emotions when they were accompanied by a big band, tap shoes, and a vibrato.
I was still standing at the sink throwing away leftover stems and leaves when he started moaning again. “What should I do, Toni,” he asked. “Should I go to the hospital?”
I’d never heard Herschel ask anyone what he should do about anything.
“I don’t know, Dr. Allen,” she said, sponging off the table. “That’s up to you.”
“Well, if I go to the hospital, I won’t be able to commit suicide.”
Toni smiled with commiseration and shook her head disapprovingly, “Oh, Dr. Allen.”
She took the toast off the table and started to walk away.
“Don’t leave, Toni.”
“I’m right here, Dr. Allen. I have to get lunch ready for Mrs. Allen.”
“Oh Christ,” he moaned. “I wish I would die already. Why can’t I die? Why can’t I just die?”
“It’s just not your time, Dr. Allen.”
It was so strange seeing these two sides of Herschel- the one that wanted to die, and the one that was scared to. He always seemed so sure of everything.
Then the phone rang.
“Oh, shut up!” he said to the phone.
Maybe that’s why he wasn’t dying. How can you die when you’re so angry?
Toni got some tuna fish from the refrigerator and some bugles from the cupboard. My grandmother always loved her bugles, those triangle-shaped chip things. Like a kid, she’d get so excited about side dishes and desert. Toni began arranging the gourmet cheese and crackers that someone had brought over in a basket, and took out some fruit salad. I left the one bouquet in the kitchen and carried the other into the living room. “I didn’t know you were a florist,” my grandmother smiled.
It seemed I was always surprising my grandmother. When I became a columnist for the local newspaper, she said, “My granddaughter, the columnist???” I hated the thought that I’d disappointed her. She’d had such promise for me when I was young. “You are so good on the piano you could be a pianist!” “You write such good stories, you could be a novelist!” “You sing so beautifully, you could be on Broadway!” But with each year that passed, I feared I hadn’t quite achieved the hopes she had for me. “What do you mean, you published that yourself? Will anybody read it? What about having a baby? Is it too late?” But I was glad to see her smile. She had such a lovely smile. Even at 87, she hardly had a wrinkle. Maybe it was the Oil of Olay, that little pink bottle sitting on her bathroom sink all my life.
My grandmother was trying to figure out the best place to put this new bouquet.
“How ‘bout on the table by the stairs.”
I carried it over to the stairs and placed it down.
“Not on the wood though, honey. Put some newspaper down first.”
In front of her chair was a paper grocery bag filled with newspapers. Mostly Plain Dealers and a few Sunday New York Times. She slowly leaned over, reaching for the edge of the bag. Her eyes squinted in pain and she whispered, “Owww. Dammit… Don’t ever get old, Jessica.”
I smiled and placed the flowers on the table. I could hear Herschel moaning again, but my grandmother couldn’t. She was too busy watching Max who was staring at us through the big window out back.
“Jess, honey,” my grandmother said. “Let Max in, will you?”
The back door was right next to where Herschel was. Herschel and his oxygen tank. My Aunt Karen told me the main reason Herschel sat in the kitchen was because my grandmother didn’t like the sound it made. “But she hardly hears anything,” I’d said. My aunt shook her head, as if my grandmother was an evil horrible woman. But the truth is, I can feel that same evil horrible blood flowing though my own veins. I can actually understand why I wouldn’t want my husband to be clicking and clacking on oxygen right next to me, even if I could hardly hear it. The idea that he needed it to live would pale slightly beneath my having to endure its irritating noise carving through my own sense of peace. I’m fairly certain I would also have to send him out of the room, to avoid bleeding from the inside out. But the difference is, I would know better than to behave like this when people were over. I’d be very nice and friendly while people were over and only after they were gone, would I send him out of the room. That way, no one would ever call me evil, and even if my husband told everyone what I’d done, no one would believe him.
I walked past Herschel and his oxygen once again and opened the back door for Max, who shuffled in and sniffed the carpet around Herschel’s feet looking for scraps. Herschel nudged him out of his way. Max was panting. “Oh would you shut up,” Herschel muttered. “God damn dog.”
Herschel was out of white blood cells and also out of patience. In all the years I’d known him, I never heard him blurt out so much.
“Toni, I think I should go to the hospital. Something’s not right.”
“Should I tell Mrs. Allen?”
“Might as well.”
Toni turned the corner and saw me at the sink. I poured a glass of water so it didn’t look like I was eavesdropping. I gave her a smile so she knew I appreciated her, and then a look of commiseration because I knew she was going to have to talk with my grandmother who was not going to like a word of what she had to say.
I followed Toni into the living room.
Before we got there, my grandmother yelled, “Toni!”
“Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother jumped, “Jesus, you scared me.”
“Dr. Allen says he is ready to go to the hospital.”
“Very well. I’ll call Marty… Did you make lunch yet?”
“Yes. Mrs. Allen. Do you still want it?”
“Well, I still have to eat, don’t I?”
My grandmother picked up the phone and looked through her mess of a phonebook for Marty’s number again. “Hi Marty, uh… Herschel says he’s ready to go to the hospital… Ok… Thank you.”
“Alright,” my grandmother winced, lifting herself with the help of her walker.
“Can I help you, grandma?”
“No, dear. I have to do it myself.”
Once she was standing, she ice-skated her walker into the kitchen and lowered herself down in her chair. “Ach! Dammit… Herschel, I spoke with Marty and he says the ambulance will be here within the hour.”
Herschel said nothing.
“Did you hear me, Herschel?”
My grandmother dished herself some tuna fish, moving so slowly.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat, Dr. Allen?”
“No thank you, Toni.”
My grandmother crunched on a bugle. “You should eat something, Herschel. Who knows when they’ll feed you at the hospital.”
“I’m not hungry, Eunice.”
There was nothing that appealed to me at the table, but I knew better not to eat. My grandmother absolutely doesn’t understand people who sit at the table without eating.
“Help yourself, Jess.”
“Toni, uh, the coffee is cold.”
“I’ll warm it up for you, Mrs. Allen.”
“That would be nice…. And this melon is old. Isn’t there a new melon in the refrigerator?”
“I’ll check, Mrs. Allen.”
“When will the ambulance be here?” Herschel asked again.
“Marty said it’ll be here within the hour…”
“I’d like Toni to come with me to the hospital.”
Eunice put down her bugle. “She can’t come with you Herschel! What about me? Who’s going to take care of me? I’m disabled too, you know!”
“Oh yes... I forgot. I wasn’t thinking about you,” Herschel said.
“Yes, I know you weren’t.”
I think this might be the theme of all the women in my family - what about me.
I think it stems from not having our emotional needs met when we were children. It’s one of those generational viruses- while the mothers were wondering what about me, the children were falling through the cracks, making promises to themselves never to be forgotten again. Being heard becomes a compulsion. And for some of us, feeling invisible for just one second is unbearable. We must make ourselves heard, even if what we are about to say has nothing to do with who we really are.
“Toni would you mind getting my things together for the hospital?”
“Of course not, Dr. Allen.”
“He doesn’t need much, Toni. He’ll have everything he needs there.”
Herschel closed his eyes, surrendering. “I’ll need my wallet, Eunice.”
“What do you need your wallet for?”
“My insurance cards, my credit cards.”
“You don’t need the whole wallet, Herschel. You’ll need your insurance cards and you can have 20 dollars cash.”
“Eunice, why do you have to argue with everything I say?”
He was almost whining. It was too much to take. I crunched on a bugle. The noise was incredibly loud.
“Jess,” my grandmother said. “There’s a green bag from the natural history museum on that shelf over there. Would you go and get it?”
I was grateful to get away from the table. The shelf my grandmother was pointing to was loaded with tons of crap-- the only bag I could see was about the size of a small pocketbook, and so caked in dust, it hardly looked green.
“This?” I asked.
“It’s really dusty, Grandma.”
“Well, wet some paper towels and wipe it off.”
In the sink I watched the stream of dust turn black and whoosh down the drain, revealing the words Natural History.
“Here you go, grandma.”
“Very good. Now, if you go look on my dresser, you’ll find a little plastic wallet insert.”
In a moment, my grandmother and her arthritic fingers were shoving Herschel’s insurance cards inside. “Dammit… Darling, do me a favor and cut these cards so they’ll fit.”
“You want me to cut his insurance cards?”
“As long as they can read the numbers, what difference does it make? There should be a pair of scissors on my desk.”
I looked at Herschel who was staring at his toast, probably thinking of much bigger issues than the size of his insurance cards.
“There should also be some address labels there, Jess. Stick one on the bag, would you?”
Within 20 minutes, Herschel’s belongings were neatly packed into this nine-inch green plastic bag. All the things he’d need for his final departure from Planet Earth:
A little plastic wallet, his identification cards, and a pair of thick reading glasses.
“Do you want your Zoloft?” Eunice asked.
“Your sleeping pills?”
He shook his head no. “Is the sports section in my bag?”
It was the most lucid thing I’d heard him say. How funny, where people find peace.
“I’m sorry that you’re having a hard time,” my grandmother said.
“Don’t,” Herschel said, not wanting her to talk.
“Don’t worry, darling, you’ll back in a couple days.”
Herschel muttered, this time angrily, “No, I will never be back here again.”
My grandmother and Herschel said nothing after that. They just sat there in silence I couldn’t make sense of, and I felt flooded with anxiety. They’d been notorious bickerers from the moment they were married, from the moment they left their previous spouses to live happily ever after with each other and then realized they weren’t as happy as they’d hoped they’d be. And I thought of my own husband, the way we bicker. I always assumed as we got older, we’d cut that out, that our wisdom would just show up like crows feet and varicose veins. But I guess it doesn’t quite work this way. I guess childhood issues don’t go away until you take care of them. And I prayed this wouldn’t be me one day. And then I prayed for peace and love for my grandma and Herschel.
A second later, Herschel reached for a cracker. “Why am I eating this?” he muttered, and placed it down.
I thought of my Aunt Karen and my mother saying how horrible it all is, all this dying. But to me, what’s more horrible than death is the way people die. There must an art, or at least a more elegant way to prepare for death than this. Some wise person who comes over the house and makes everyone go around the room to say what they’re grateful for. Something to give everyone meaning and closure, so the spirit doesn’t need to be artificially loosened from attachments and regrets with Zoloft and sleeping pills and the sports section.
“Toni, before the ambulance gets here, I’d like to use the bathroom.”
“Ok Dr. Allen.”
Toni helped Herschel out of his walker, and guided him to the bathroom. “I have a sister who works at the hospital, Dr. Allen,” she said softly. “I’ll make sure she checks in on you.”
“Thank you, Toni.” Herschel said.
At the table, Eunice started to cry. “It's been so upsetting, Jess,” she said. “He’s been falling apart. He’s been crying all night, I just wanna die. He’s scared. And I don’t blame him. But it’s been awful. And very hard on me.”
“I can understand,” I said, which I could.
Eunice reached for her walker and hauled herself up from the kitchen table. I walked next to her as she shuffled back to the living room. “You know what Jess, could you put Herschel’s name on his cane?”
Eunice lowered herself back into her lounge chair and a moment later, Herschel shuffled out of the bathroom. Toni helped him to his chair, right next to Eunice’s, and he slumped in. Then the doorbell rang.
“It’s them, Herschel. It’s the ambulance.”
Max started with his barking, so I rushed him outside and then followed Toni to the door. Standing there were two fluffy blonde teenagers, a boy and a girl, in EMT uniforms. It looked like they were trick or treating, but instead of asking for candy, they maneuvered a large stretcher through the door and set it up in the middle of the living room.
Herschel stood up, with the help of Toni. He looked all crooked and weak, and was having trouble breathing without his oxygen, which was still in the kitchen attached to his walker.
“He needs oxygen,” Toni told them.
One of the kids ran out to the truck to fetch the bottle.
Eunice looked so upset. “Can I give you a kiss, Herschel?”
He said yes, but he didn’t seem thrilled about it. He also didn’t seem quite completely alive anymore. My grandmother struggled up from her chair and hobbled close enough to him so that their bodies were touching. He pat her back a couple times and she managed to reach her face close enough to kiss his. Then my grandmother returned to her chair and Toni helped Herschel down onto the stretcher, which was just a foot or so off the ground. Once he was lying down, one of the teenagers pressed a lever and the bed jumped up three feet in the air.
“Please, easy,” Herschel moaned.
“Is it supposed to be tilted?” my grandmother asked.
The boy leveled it out.
Max was watching all this through the window, jumping and barking, but his bark was muffled enough through the glass not to be a nuisance. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye. Over the years, Herschel seemed to grow fond of Max. I mean, before he grew un-fond of everything. Every time I had dinner there, the first thing Herschel did when he sat down was toss Max a treat. “Don’t you want to taste it first?” Eunice would say. “Max said he wanted to taste it first,” Herschel would say.
After Herschel was laid out on the stretcher, Toni set the little green bag onto his stomach. Herschel held onto it. Then the EMT's opened the door and I watched them wheel Herschel out. They ducked under the overgrown tree, and were headed along the walkway, until just before they reached the driveway, when Herschel’s head lifted up.
“Hold on,” he said.
The bed stopped.
“What’s going on,” my grandmother asked, seeing the action halted.
No one said anything.
I opened the screen door and stepped outside to see what was going on.
“Toni, what’s going on?” My grandmother’s voice was deep, concerned, and agitated.
Toni sighed and shook her head like she didn’t know and headed past me towards the gurney.
“Toni, can you bring me my other glasses? I want both pairs.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen.”
Toni ran back inside.
“What is it? What does he want?”
“He said he wants his other glasses, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother sucked her teeth. “Oh for God’s sake. He has a pair in his bag. What does he need two pair for?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Allen. He said he wanted both pair.”
“Well, tell him he can pick one, or the other.”
Toni stared at my grandmother with an astounded expression, one I interpreted as meaning: “The man is dying. Give him his two fucking pairs of glasses.”
I was also staring at my grandmother in perhaps a similar way. He’s got macular degeneration, after all. He needs all the glasses he can get.
Toni was caught in the middle. I could see she didn’t know what to do. But a second later, she went to the kitchen table and grabbed Herschel’s other glasses. My grandmother glared at her as she passed by, and shook her head at me like everyone was nuts. “I don’t know why he would want those,” she said to me.
I gave her a look like, “Beats me.”
I stood by the front door as Toni went back outside with the glasses.
“Mrs. Allen said you don’t need two pairs of glasses,” she told Herschel. “That you could choose one or the other.”
Herschel’s eyes got wide. He now looked exacerbated on top of his dying. And he said, “I will take the two pair of glasses.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen,” Toni said.
Toni put the extra pair of glasses in the little green bag and came back inside.
“Dr. Allen said he wanted both pairs.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” my grandmother said.
Meanwhile, the gurney continued toward the ambulance again. For a couple feet or so, and then it stopped again.
My grandmother was really going nuts this time, craning her head to see out the big front window. “Oh for God’s sake. What now!”
I could tell she hated not being able to get up to intervene.
I held open the door again and Toni walked quickly back outside. Herschel was struggling to sit up. He managed to lean up on his elbow so he could reach into the little green bag. Then, he handed Toni the extra pair of glasses.
“Maybe I don’t need two pair after all. If I do, someone can bring them to me.”
Toni looked at Herschel and took the glasses. “Ok, Dr. Allen. Whatever you say.”
Back in the house, Eunice was satisfied. “I told him he only needed one pair.” And the lights began flashing on the ambulance, and it rolled down the street, and Hershel never came back again. And Eunice died three weeks later.
My Mother: And how was the wedding?
Me: Really beautiful.
My Mother: How nice.
Me: Yes, and it was rather interesting because my father's wife was there and also his first wife and also his third wife!
My Mother: Well, my goodness, I can't understand why in the world I wasn't invited... It's like breaking up a set!
My Mother: Where are you going? Me: I’m on my way to Lowes to get a new ceiling fan.
My mother: Oh no... What happened?
Me: Well, at two in the morning I decided to turn off the fan at which point the light went on full blast and it woke up Brautigan who was very upset, yelling for the sun to go down, and then the fan started smoking and I must have dropped five f-bombs waiting for Chris to take the damn bulb out which was so hot he had to use a cloth, a cloth that wound up being Bruatigan’s brand new white training undies.
My mother: Oh, no... Well you listen to me, Jessica. You need to call that company first thing Monday morning and tell them that their fan almost burned your house down.
Me: Well I would, but I can’t find the receipt, so I’m not sure what to tell them.
My mother: Oh Jessica. If there is something to worry about, I can count on you to scour the universe and find it. Here’s what you tell them... You tell them that you shoved the receipt up your husband’s ass. Jessica... You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Just tell them you want your money back. That the fan almost caught on fire. And that you have a toddler. That’s it. Why on earth do you think the entire world is your jury?
Me: That’s a good point. I suppose you’re right.
My mother: Of course I’m right. So stop worrying about every goddamn thing. Or else you’ll have me to worry about. And you wouldn’t want that, would you.
Me: No, Mother.
…And she realized she was old and alone. She wasn’t old really. And she was still beautiful if you took the time to notice but she was pretty sure most people didn’t have that kind of time. And there she was, walking down the street, holding tightly onto that tiny little three-year-old hand. How she envied his way of being alive. His other hand happily strumming along the slats of the wrought iron fence they were passing, giggling at leaves dancing in the wind. And yet she still couldn’t erase the image she’d seen of herself in the tinted car window they’d passed. So old so sad so damaged. What had happened to her? She gave herself the usual pep talk- there's only two ages, alive and dead. And she knew it was true. But still she wished for things to be different. How she envied her son, waving hello to slobbering dogs, stopping to celebrate a garbage truck a tow truck a dislodged chunk of concrete. Not needing to know there was anyone else doing anything better. And she felt ashamed for wishing things were different. It was such an old habit really. She’d been wishing for things to be different almost her entire life. Since the very first time she discovered all the other people who had so many more reasons to be happier than she did. And somewhere along the course of her life, she’d lost the ability to feel what felt good and mostly anguished instead about whatever she’d happened to be thinking about. No, not thinking. More like obsessing. Or strategizing. Well whatever it was, it rarely accomplished anything other than interrupting whatever pleasant feeling had already been there. Always reminding her of all the good reasons why she should be working harder to make things different. And there was her little boy, his little nose sniffing high into the air, announcing so earnestly how he could smell every single flower on the earth. And she was grateful for him, for reminding her to feel the spring breeze. And it did feel delicious. And she smiled. Even though in the background she wondered if anyone passing by still thought her smile was pretty. And then she no longer felt the breeze, only embarrassment and shame to still be wondering how she looked in profile to men half her age that she didn’t even care about anymore. Another old habit. To exist in the glances of others rather than through her own experiences of the world.
Her mother had told her that when she’d been her son’s age she used to say hello to everyone. Wanted to be friends with the whole world. Even she could remember being that way. Always wanting to connect with everyone, experience the beauty of life together. That was the original reason behind her beautiful smile. Not to lure the opposite sex into her bed. These people who'd been lured to her bed in the past had just been the only ones who’d noticed her smile or at least the only ones who had answered the call to connect to the best of their ability. But what she’d really wanted and still longed for was old-fashioned company. Nothing resembling the sad days of her own childhood but the kind of company she imagined from lifetimes ago when she'd laughed in meadows gathering things like nuts and berries with other women while their children happily played together nearby. Way back when, before someone introduced the idea of something better to do and ways to make life so much easier in the meantime; back before everyone had thought themselves to death.
And this is what she thought about while being dragged by the arm by her excited little boy down the stairs and into the library playroom. To sit amidst all these other moms and nannies who didn't formally know each other but who looked so very much the same checking their emails in between smiling at whatever victory their offspring had achieved, getting up only to resolve the occasional tug-o-war over some prized piece of wheeled plastic, or to rescue their little one from some snot-filled potential case of measles. She felt badly for being one of those germ phobic moms. Hated her under-the-radar messages that other people were contagious. Yet how fiercely she needed to protect him from these others- from their ways of oppressing innocent souls with their criticisms their judgments and their germs.
Her own mother had never let her play with others. Her own mother had never let her play outside for that matter. From the parking lot and into Saks was the extent of her outdoor experience. This was probably one reason she’d chose to live in the woods. In a rural area. Besides the fact that she’d found some miniscule amount of peace amidst the beauty of nature amidst the absence of people and her preoccupation with wondering whether they noticed or did not notice her existence, her potential. And she was able to appreciate her son’s love of the outdoors, digging till his nails were black, rolling down grassy hills smiling through dirt and leaves without pain, without fear of animals or bugs or their excrement. But still in the background she felt alone in the woods just as she had in the city. Just as she felt no matter where she was. Abandoned by everyone. Forever fantasizing about some grand elsewhere amongst people she felt connected to. Truly connected to. People she could sit with on a giant gingham tablecloth spread out on some community patch of grass delighting in each other’s aliveness. A dream she’d held onto for years. And yet could never get close enough to see with her own eyes. And now time was slipping away. She could feel it.
When had she gotten so old? She remembered so clearly wanting desperately to get older- longing for real homework, for her driver’s license, for college, to graduate from college. And then she’d finally entered the real world, armed with such a beautiful collection of meticulously carved out plans for her life. Plans she treasured and with secret confidence, secret assuredness, knew she’d turn into her future. But once she’d found herself surrounded by the world, she didn’t quite know how to let her secret out. And others didn’t quite have a clue it was even there. And she began to wonder and then doubt if she’d really had anything as glorious as she’d been so sure she’d had after all.
And then somewhere along the way, she realized time was passing. And quickly. She could literally feel it speeding up, the seasons spinning around and around as if down the drain of a flushing toilet. People all of a sudden began treating her differently; her grandmother who’d been so sure she was destined for Broadway was now asking how she was going to pay the bills. And then there was the time she’d mentioned to her mother how a friend had started stripping to make some extra cash so she’d still have time to do her own thing during the day, and her mother had gasped, She's too old for that! But they’d been the same age. It was the first time she’d been too old for anything. And it hurt to imagine it was true, that even something as ridiculous as taking off her clothes in public had become out of her league. And so she’d tried to slow things down, to find whatever brakes she could and screech them to a halt. But things still went faster. And there came a rush to live life. To hurry and make those secret dreams come true before it was too late.
And then she'd met her husband. Who didn’t really have any dreams as far as she could tell. But who could still feel the breeze, and didn’t need to make sure another knew he’d experienced it to make it valid or beautiful. And he’d driven her to the mountains Upstate and to the woods and they’d hiked barefoot over rocks and roots and she’d fallen in love with the wildness of her own feet traipsing along the earth and yet she’d still been obsessed, wondering if she was pretty enough charming enough. Thankfully she’d had the self-control not to ask and she laughed to herself years later when he’d told her how much he appreciated that she’d been able to quietly enjoy his favorite places with him. And then one day she'd overheard him telling a friend how he'd designed a ring. And she'd felt so sorry for him, for not noticing she’d been close enough to hear. For his inability to notice anything going on around him, really. To even see who she really was. Or that she’d been suffering. And because of this, she hated him. Not entirely. She’d eventually had a child with him after all. This little boy she adored more than anything, more than even all the glorious plans for her future. This little boy who was presently running so self-assuredly over to a crying little girl on the other side of the library to ask what was wrong, if she was ok, if someone took her ball. How she envied her son. For already being so aware, but with the autonomy not to make everything about himself. How she wished she could be more like him. More present. More content with what already was. More than anything, she wanted him to be proud to have a mother like her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to make her dreams come true after all.
But if it never panned out… then what? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a nightmare. She did love so much about her present life. She loved being a mother, loved that she and her son still slept together, cuddled and whispered jokes that only they could understand while her husband snored in another room. And she was grateful he was ok with this arrangement, grateful that he adored the relationship she had with their son and grateful he knew he was always included. But yet she was secretly starving. Not like the people her friend had been feeding in West Africa but starving in an American way. Stripped of her connections to the earth and to all the others who lived there until she couldn’t figure out where she belonged or who she needed to be to feel worthy of spending time with. The people she called family were all a tedious phone call away. And they never seemed in a hurry to visit, preferring to send checks or gifts instead. She couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t have wanted to be there with her. Why they so stubbornly refused to be the family she wanted and needed them to be. And yet she felt ungrateful to want more. But all she did was want more. And she hoped her son wasn't picking up any of it. Thankfully it didn’t look like he was, playing so beautifully at the train table with a boy around his age, saying excuse me instead of pushing him down as they vroomed around and around, singing together – choo choo! Perhaps his joy made him immune to all negativity. At least so far.
And in a chair nearby, sat this boy’s mother, smiling, asking how old her son was. Wow, almost the exact same age. It was so hard for her to make friends with other moms. And yet there they were, talking about diapers. How both their sons were still wearing them. She’d decided to be herself, she was too tired not to, and so she shared her horror of public restrooms and to her surprise this other mom not only laughed but pulled out of her lovely diaper bag a portable potty and then unlatched it so that it popped up into position right there. And they’d both laughed. Maybe they could be friends, she’d thought. Maybe they could get together for a weekly play date. And then she felt ashamed. To feel so desperate for companionship. Not only for her son but for herself. She was too old for these feelings. And besides, this woman used a straightening iron and lipstick. How could she be friends with someone like her? She hadn't used a blow dryer since before she'd gotten pregnant. And there she was again canceling out a possibility before trying. She did this constantly. Her best ideas took only a few more thoughts before she realized they would never work out. She was incapable of making friends. She’d become too strange, too damaged from too much time alone. But what about her son, her son who just put his pudgy little arm around this other little boy and said, You know, I used the big boy potty this morning, while this other little boy said, Wow, looking so very impressed. She had to laugh. And the other mother was also laughing. They’re so precious together, they both agreed. And then she did it. Suggested they get their boys together sometime. And she’d agreed. And they entered their numbers into their little phones they’d both still been holding onto and she felt a little lighter washing her son’s hands in the bathroom before heading back upstairs and back outside.
And her son ran down the long ramp that he ran down everyday because he loved to run. Loved it so much that he laughed out loud the whole way. And she wondered, what did she love? She wasn’t sure she even remembered. She'd long ago forgotten how to play. She had only a memory of shiny brown buckeyes, wanting to touch and gather them and bring them home, but having her arm pulled nearly out of its socket by her mother who always had something better to do. Had she turned into one of those women? One of those women whose todo list had gotten the best of her? Who became furious, almost murderous every time her husband left a mess? But who could blame her, really. She could hardly handle that her dreams had all but fallen apart; she was not about to let the one thing she did have, her home, turn into anything less than perfect. And she called out to her son, reminding him to stop before the street, and he stopped in his tracks, out of breath, Did you see me, Mama, did you see me running so fast? And she was glad that she had seen. Glad she could multi-task between the incessant narrating of her pain and her pure delight with this little boy. And she smiled and kneeled down to kiss his nose. I love to see you run, she told him. And he took off her glasses and stared so sweetly into her eyes with kissing noises that she returned. She was always happier when she couldn’t see too far. When she was physically unable to see the everything beautiful and happy out there that she was so sure she was lacking, the only frown in some giant dance of laughter. Maybe there was a reason she was born nearsighted. So she could focus instead on her son’s beautiful face, those bright blue sparkling smiling eyes that looked just like her own. And she realized she was happy. Yes, she was happy too. And suddenly her heart felt so full she didn’t know what to do with herself so she started to worry about losing him. The most terrible horrible thought she could imagine. Maybe that’s why she chose to think so much. Thinking was the cushion that protected her from the unbearable pleasure of the present moment. And she held her son. Told him how much she loved him, cherished him. And he said he loved her too. So much. And she thought about what her mother had accused her of the other day while they’d been on the phone, after she’d finished broadcasting yet another stream of worry. “You’re guilty of dissecticide,” her mother had yelled. “Off with your head!” And she smiled because she knew her mother was right, even if it was probably all her fault. And she took a deep breath and felt a space inside herself; the space she’d abandoned. And so she took another breath. And another. Until she was back beneath her flesh instead of out there, in some no man’s land looking at herself through all the imaginary critical eyes from her past. And she was grateful to remember that through her own eyes her life was beautiful. And she prayed not to forget again that she was worthy enough to be alive, to feel happy right where she already was. But of course she did forget. And then she remembered again. And then sometimes she’d forget to remember…
My Mother to Brautigan: Peter piper picked a pack of pickled peckers.
Me: Mother he did not pick a pickled pecker.
My Mother: Well what did he pick?
Me: A pepper.
My Mother: Oh.
My mother: ...Well, if he wants to come over to my place and give me a quaalude, I’ll gladly take one. But he’d have to leave me the fuck alone. Me: That’s terrible, Mother. And besides, I don’t believe they even make quaaludes anymore.
My mother: Xanax will work.
Me: Oh boy.
My mother: There’s nothing wrong with a little Xanax every now and then, Jessica.
Me: If you say so.
My mother: Darling, we live in a world where sharks are falling from the fucking sky. I think it’s the right of every human being to take a Xanax if they feel they need one.
Me: Well I think there are more natural ways to calm one’s nerves.
My mother: And I can tell they’re doing wonders for you, my dear.
Me: I’m not taking any, Mother.
My mother: Well maybe you should.
Me: Actually I was thinking of trying some kava kava.
My mother: Don’t. I read something about kava… it can be very dangerous.
Me: So you’re telling me that kava kava is more dangerous than Xanax?
My mother: Yes, I believe so. Because by the time you take enough kava to calm your nerves, you’ll probably have consumed the entire bottle, where as if I took a single Xanax, I’d be able to sleep the entire night.
Me: Maybe, somehow, you have a point.
My mother: Oh, you are so green.
Me: If you say so, but I’m at the store now, so we’ll have to continue this conversation later.
My mother: Very well. Be careful, darling.
Me: I will.
It was inevitable. I crossed paths with one of those bouncy houses. Brautigan took one look at it and nearly fell on his knees begging to go. Since he’s only three, there was no way in hell I was going to let him in by himself which meant it was going to be the two of us. We waited in line behind this six-year-old who couldn’t keep his hands to himself, kept ear-muffing the kid next to him with the palms of his hands.
Finally it was our turn. It was no big deal. We bounced for three minutes and it was over. But then he spotted the bouncy house next door. This huge thing with a giant bouncy slide. Brautigan had to go on. There was no changing his mind. So we waited in line. The guy who was supposed to be in charge was flirting with some teenage girl. I asked, ‘Should we go in now,” and he said, ‘Yeah yeah, it’s fine.’
So we crawled along this maze thing until we arrived at a little foam climbing wall. We climbed up without much trouble and slid down this little slide. Not so bad. Then, we crawled along this other maze and arrived at a big climbing wall, like 8 feet tall, and that’s when I said to myself, ‘What the mother fuck was I thinking?’ Brautigan took one look at it and turned around. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ and he said, ‘I’m not doing that.’ Little kids were coming at us, charging up the climbing wall. And I knew we had no choice but to turn around. There was no way I could heave myself and my child up that climbing wall. So we backtracked till we got to the little slide and I hoisted Brautigan up to the top without much problem but then there was me. I couldn’t climb up. I kept slipping down. I tried again and again all while holding Brautigan steady at the top so that he wouldn’t be trampled by the scores of oblivious kids siding down. Brautigan looked worried. And that’s when I realized I was in a life/death situation. So I made a growling noise and tried once more with all my might to climb up that slippery germ infested foam wall but I still couldn’t do it. Brautigan’s eyes got wide. ‘Can’t you get up, mama?’ he asked. ‘Of course I’m going to get up, my love.’
As a last resort, I dismantled a piece of the velcro foam that held the slide together and finally, heaved myself up. By this time, I was sweating and shaking but I grabbed Brautigan and finally we escaped into the sea of smiling crazed looking children at which point Brautigan saw the giant Bouncy slide again and said, ‘But Mama, I thought you said we could go down the big slide!” Thankfully at that moment an airplane appeared in the sky so I said, ‘Look! A plane!’ and as he said, ‘Oh, wow!’ I picked him up and ran him to the car.
My mother: I thought of an idea that you need to write about. Me: What?
My mother: What if… on your birth certificate… it not only stated the day you were born but also the day you will die.
Me: Mother, that’s a terrible idea!
My mother: Why? Don’t you think people would live their lives differently knowing how many days they had left?
Me: I don’t think so. Personally, I’m feeling completely anxious just hearing about your idea.
My mother: Oh Jessica. Is there any thing that doesn’t give you anxiety?
Me: No. Not really.
My mother: Well, you know what should also be written on your birth certificate?
My mother: That you will be anxious every single day of your life. That you will never know what it’s like to wake up in the morning with a sense of well-being and peace. And because you have longevity in your genes, you will be living a longer than usual life with this horrible anxiety encompassing your every single day.
Me: Now, that I could handle.
My mother: Figures. Well, my darling, I need to start heading over to St. Vincent’s DePaul’s before it gets too beastly hot. So go and enjoy your mother’s day. Because you are the world’s most wonderful mother, as well as the world’s most wonderful daughter.
Me: Aw, thank you, Mother.
My mother: Don’t thank me, Jessica. You know how very unfond I am of your thank yous.
Me: Well, Happy Mother’s Day to you too, Mother. I wish we could be together.
My mother: There’s nothing I would want more.
You know what I’m good at? Actually, let me cut the modest crap. You know what I’m a genius at? Getting out of things. I’m not kidding either. Late fees, library fines, parking tickets. Here’s a true story: I’ve had 43 parking tickets dismissed, including four tows to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I’ve been getting out of things my whole life, really. Appointments, exercise, meditation, you name it. I think it stems from post-traumatic stress, from being addicted to the feeling of sailing away from something I dread. It makes sense. For most of my life, I never liked being where I was, so I became an escape artist to get out of what felt intolerable. But the trouble is— if you get out of everything, you never really find yourself in a world you’ve gotten into. You just swirl in some ethereal circumference, zoning in and out of the past and dreaming up marvelous futures that somehow never arrive. This all changed though when I had a child. A precious baby boy who was handed to me and placed upon my breast like a little sandbag, forcing me for the first time in my life into the present moment. I think I held him the entire first year of his life. Really, I think I was afraid to put him down. That I’d start running again. And I never ever wanted to run away from my baby. To get out of being a mother.
One of the first things I noticed being present is that most of my moments were filled with this unpleasant sensation like something very wrong was happening but I couldn’t remember what. And I’d have this intense urge to get rid of that feeling. To reach for something chocolate. Something bready. The phone. Amazon.com. Facebook. All the things that pried me out of my moment but left me homeless in a manner of speaking, with only places to feel better or worse inside of, yet none to feel cozy in. But with a sleeping baby in my arms, I couldn’t leave so easily, and slowly, I started to surrender. I’d still feel uncomfortable and reach and pry for a way out, but after the 200th time checking my email, and the 200th time checking that my son was breathing normally, and the wondering if I’d ever make any of my dreams come true or if it was too late, I’d look at my baby’s sweet face and remember: There’s nowhere to go. And I’d climb into the moment with my child and stay there, and enter a richness that was too fulfilling to leave. And in that moment, my heart felt so full, like it did when I was real little, before I’d been hurt by life. When I used to feel excited to wake up in the morning, not because there was something particular going on, but because I enjoyed the feeling of being alive. And it felt so good to have that feeling back and to share it with my precious child. And I’d pray for the moment to never pass, which of course it always did. But I’d meet up with it again when I surrendered on some other occasion to the seemingly cruel truth that there was no place to go.
I’m still not present all the time. I’m hardly present at all, really. The land of right here/right now is still a tropical island that I only vacation to occasionally when I forget that I don’t need time off or any plane ticket to get there. But I pray to visit more often. Because if I can give my presence to my little boy, then maybe he will feel cozy here and never try to get out of it like I did.
Once upon a time there was an anguished cave mother who finally couldn't take it anymore. Every night, she’d arrive back to her cave after hunting and gathering all day long, ready to fall asleep on her cozy boulder, but every night, without fail, her little ones would insist on a story before bed. And back then, without a book to close, a goodnight story could go on and on until almost dawn. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for poor prehistoric mothers to miss out on sleep entirely because of little ones begging and pleading for the thousandth time, “Please Mama, tell us what happened next!!! Please, Please, Please!!” But one day, this particular anguished mother just couldn’t think of what happened next. “But Mama,” the children cried. “You have to think of something more!!! We need to hear what happens next so that we can fall asleep!” And so the mother furrowed her bulging brow and tried to imagine what in the world she was going to say, and a moment later, through her lips, a very hoarse voice uttered: “What happened next, my precious ones??? They all lived Happily. Ever. After.”
After this, she waited, saying nothing more. She dared not to move even a finger for fear of stirring these blessed creatures. She just held her breath and waited. And waited. And finally, she heard a snore. Yes. To her utter amazement, the children were asleep. And she tiptoed with delight back to her boulder and also went to sleep.
Of course, in the back of this mother’s prehistoric brain, she knew very well there was no such thing as Happily Ever After. All of her other stories confirmed that life wasn’t so simple as to be lived Happily Ever After. Not even grass lived Happily Ever After. But instead of feeling guilty, she told herself it was just a story, after all. And it put the kids to sleep for God’s sake. And everyone needed some rest. And so she did it again the next night. And the next night. And from then on. And slowly, this mother’s bright-eyed and bushy tail got the attention of other cave mothers in town. And so she began to share her success. And pretty soon the entire village began ending their stories the same way. And pretty soon, all the children were going to sleep at a decent hour.
But… there was a minor problem.
All the kids began believing that everyone was going to get their very own happily ever after, too. And the mothers became anguished once again. Day after day, they cringed, watching their beloved little ones aspiring to such rubbish, talking to each other about what their happily ever afters were going to look like. And so these mothers decided to get together at a secret town meeting. “You know what,” one of the well-rested mamas said. “Maybe these little S.O.B’s really will figure out how to live happily ever after—why should we ruin a good thing??” And before the meeting was through, all of the other mothers nervously agreed. And so, it was settled. Happily Ever After lived Happily Ever After.
And from that day forward, generations upon generations of children continued to regurgitate this very flawed concept to their offspring, without ever even imagining it was just a great big lie to get a poor mother some rest. Little did those ancient mothers know that one day, the whole globe would be paved, often times burying whatever was already there, by people looking, with bleary-eyed hope, for some semblance of that Happily Ever After they really and truly believed in. Good night.
by Jessica Kane ©2015
Me: I’m upset.
My Mother: Why?
Me: I’m embarrassed to tell you. But I have to get it out of my head.
My Mother: Go ahead.
Me: I was in Starbucks just before and I used the public bathroom and after I had been in there a minute, I realized that the whole room smelled of vomit and that the floor was wet and now I can’t stop thinking that the person had Ebola and that I’m probably going to get it and give it to Brautigan.
My Mother: (Laughing.)
Me: It’s not funny. My Mother: I know it’s not, Jessica. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just laughing at how fucking hysterical the news is making everyone. It’s not you, ok??
My Mother: But I want you to listen very carefully. This is your germaphobe mother speaking.
Me: I know it is, that’s why I called you.
My Mother: You are not in Texas. You do not work in a hospital. You have not been on a plane. It was probably just some bulimic who ate too many pieces of cake.
My Mother: And if you really are the sort of person who cannot handle putting themselves into situations that could… not likely, but could potentially make you sick, well, then you do like me and you use the bathroom before you leave home.
Me: Well I live an hour away from civilization.
My Mother: Well, then this is what you will have to do. Go and buy yourself some latex gloves, some really large latex gloves, and every time you go into a public restroom, put one over your head, and don’t forget to cut the thumb off so that you have some air to breathe. What are you laughing at?
Me: I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in months.
My Mother: I’m not kidding, Jess. In fact, I think you should call Playtex. Well, first get it patented and then call. The thumb could even have a little filter on it with room for a little charcoal tablet. You just have to hope that nobody comes into the bathroom while you’re wearing it.
Me: Thank you, mother.
My Mother: Laughter is the most powerful antioxidant. Never forget that.
Me: I think you’re right.
My Mother: Of course I’m right. I’m always right. Now stop listening to the motherfucking news. And think instead of those poor, poor people in West Africa. I mean, can you fucking imagine??
My Mother: Neither can I. So let’s hope and pray that the angels who are over there risking their fucking lives to transform this fucking hell stay healthy, and let’s hope that all the greedy politicians and profiteers get the hell out of their way and quit convincing themselves they’re doing equally important work. And let’s hope and pray that humanity as a whole will finally realize that until every single human life is valued, there will be no motherfucking peace for any of us. Every human being deserves the right to live a dignified life, don’t you think?
Me: Yes, I do.
My Mother: Of course you do, darling. Now go and bleach your head and call me when you get home.
Me: Ok. Goodbye, Mother.
There’s this man who comes to the local general store as often as I do. I come to write. And he comes to eat, read the newspaper, and talk to people. At first, I dreaded seeing him. He is old. Wears a Veteran’s hat with pins and stripes all over it. And the way he masticates his liverwurst sandwiches is enough to make me, if I didn’t care so much what others thought of me, hurl something at his elderly liver-spotted head. He always forgets his hearing aid and is always talking about the Decline of America in a voice made for at least 30 people to hear. And he licks his finger to turn the page of his newspaper and then touches things I could potentially touch. But it’s funny. As time has passed, seeing him every day, he has become someone familiar. And the something familiar he’s become has become a source of comfort. I’m ashamed to say I used to sneer at him when I’d hear his phlegm-ridden cough with little bits of animal organs flying out in my midst. Now, I feel a softness about him. I hear his stories. Every time I’m in here, a new one. People sit with him to listen to his stories. He’s had a life. A long life. He’s got great grandkids. A dead wife. A government that never appreciated what he’d really wanted to do for his country. He’s real. He’s more than the liverwurst that could have gotten on me.
The people I get along with best are the people I am polite with. Manners almost always ensure a hospitable relationship. I used to be inclined to imagine that good behavior in general was inauthentic. Mostly because of the fact that you can be polite with someone and still despise them in the privacy of your own thoughts. But these days, I think of manners more like posture. A deliberate necessity to avoid offending others with our various forms of slovenliness. The problem though, is how to be on good behavior with someone you live with and conceivably love? It takes a lot to be on good behavior all day, but then to do it all night? When my 3-year-old finally goes to sleep, sometimes all I want to do is blob out all over the place, stand at the counter and shove whatever I can find down my throat, and give anyone who comes near me the finger, especially that son of a bitch I married.
I think that’s why most relationships end. Because most of us, at least me, rarely practice good manners with our spouses. Well, unless we’re around other people. I can understand how it happens. The whole reason I got involved with my husband in the first place is because I wanted to have at least one person in the world I could be myself with. Someone I could share everything with- all my childhood stories, my secret wisdoms, my fears; someone I could feel relaxed with, vulnerable with, comfortable being naked with in every which way. But as you get deeper with someone, how do you put the brakes on before the other person discovers that secret fierce fucking animal within who will shit in your proverbial boots if you fuck with them? I just don’t think it's possible.
You can’t live with someone for any extended period of time without this animal emerging. It’s just what happens when we take off our designer clothing (or in my case my pajamas). When we are naked, it’s inevitable that we will release unthinkable things from our depths. And it probably won’t take long before those things get flung at each other.
I think resentment in relationships probably begins when one person first bears witness to another’s beast within. We think, ‘How could they treat me like that!? Have they no manners? Everyone else gets to see them at his/her best, and I get this… monster?’
My husband and I both know we should behave with dignity towards each other. We have both attended seminars, read brilliant wisdom-filled books and articles about conscious relationships, but our animal sides could give a fat shit. When my animal within sees my husband at night lying on the bed with his computer like a side of butchered beef instead of taking out the garbage or at least asking if I’d like a massage, I’m not thinking not to take him personally. I'm not thinking, "The light within me bows to the light within you." I’m already saying out loud something like, “You are a fucking slob. I can’t believe I married such a lummox!” And then he’ll look up at me and say, “Me? I’m a slob? Let’s not forget when I first met you, you had fleas in your bed!” And I'll say, “Well, isn’t that funny. I didn’t have fleas in my bed until you started sleeping in it!!”
I think my favorite moments with my husband are the ones where we treat each other as strangers. Not passing strangers. But more like two people who maybe have been stationed at the same refugee camp. We are on the same survival team. We have good ideas for how to get things accomplished. We are resilient. We are busy. And can make each other laugh really hard recounting all the trials and tribulations we overcame at the end of a really hard day. It doesn’t happen often, but these are the moments I’d want more of, if I could figure out how to have them. When we are polite enough to give space for the animals that we are to roam peacefully.
When I hear people baffled and horrified about the Palestine-Israel situation, it makes me think of that expression, they are the way they are, because I am the way I am. It makes me think of my own much smaller scale Israel-Palestine conflict. The wars I wage on a much more local level. Where words and grudges and judgments are bombs. Where secret moments of dishonesty and manipulation are my strategy. I think about how long my own peace treaties last. Not long. And I wonder if I had more resources at my disposal, and more people pissing me off, if I could be capable of sending larger bombs, if I could be capable of figuring out more complicated ways of burying people. Peace is easy for me to imagine on a global level, but it’s hard for me to mandate in my immediate vicinity. I see myself protecting what I’ve fought for years to claim as my own, spiritual and psychological and emotional things that mostly exist beneath my own flesh. And I’ve been an emotional terrorist, secretly wanting to wipe out everything about another person that is getting in my way of being free. Even if my battles involve the people who share my blood, or the roof over my head, it still prevents peace from happening. And if there isn’t peace in my own home, or in my mind, how can I expect there to be peace in the world?
Last night, I fell in love with myself for the first time. I’m convinced that this falling in love with myself had to do with a suffering, near-corpse of road kill that I passed by earlier last night.
It was on the Northway, this large black furry object, with a heartbeat so terrified, that it moved the whole furry thing up and down like someone was pumping air in and out of it like a balloon. And my thought about it was sadness. Because I realized that he didn’t want to die. And as cars were roaring past him, laughing, and throwing their McDonalds out their windows, this single creature on earth, on the side of the road, was struggling to survive, to catch his breath, and his life.
And the surge of this something that I was feeling became embedded deep within me. I’m not sure it was embedded physiologically... but certainly into the meat of my spirit. So that perhaps now, I have, as part of my core, the remaining fire of the black-furry-corpse on Interstate 87.
But anyhow, late last night I was in bed when it hit me, this profound experience of falling in love with myself. And it wasn't one of those conceptual experiences that I’ve had while eating chocolate croissants and drinking coffee. It was one of those profound experiences that shifted my perception and the colors of the room. It began with a realization: Oh my God, I’m not going to get to be with me forever!
Previous to this moment of falling in love with myself, I had spent much of my energies hoping other people would take on this vocation. (And spent hundreds of hours shedding tears when I wasn’t successful in these endeavors.) But last night, when I was alone with me (and perhaps the fiery remains of the soul of the large black furry corpse) I realized I had never tried to get me to fall in love with me before… And I had to chuckle.
And it was at that moment that I became to myself like a wife of a soldier going off to war. I wanted to hug myself and appreciate myself and be there for myself before something horrible happened and I’d never get to ever again. And I exclaimed to myself, I love you! Never have I said such a thing! And don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t out loud so that my husband could hear. But I exclaimed it inwardly and felt myself sink down into myself, till we were resting under what felt like an apple tree on a beautiful breezy spring day. And yes, I loved myself. And generously shared space with myself. And I am still sharing that space with myself. At least I think I am… It may have worn off just a bit at the moment… Perhaps because I’ve always kind of thought that to love oneself is a silly and indulgent thing to go on and on about. Better to talk about loving thy neighbor instead. Perhaps, though, this is because I never really understood the importance of loving thy self. But maybe it’s as simple as this: “Love thyself, because one day thoust won’t have a self to love.”
I’m at Starbucks, where I occasionally find myself when my husband has a day off to play with our son. And everything was normal. The air conditioning was on. It was cold. I was working on a section of my book. Trying to get creative assistance from chocolate and almonds and green tea. Basically, I was one of several people doing what we usually do in our status quo Starbucks moments. When all of a sudden, there was a siren. A loud siren. The fire alarm. Suddenly everyone’s realities were interrupted and we all looked around at each other, smiling in a way we wouldn’t have without this sound of emergency. We had curious eyebrows, wondering if it was a test. But the alarm wasn’t going off. And it was loud. Everyone was covering their ears. And then, we were all asked to leave the café right away. And I wondered if this really was an emergency. Immediately I felt more grounded than usual. I imagined this must be common for people when something very important is about to happen. Not important like an email sent on accident or a business opportunity gone awry or a toddler running like crazy instead of sitting still. But really important, like the difference between living and dying. I thought about the man who’d been in front of me in line while I was waiting to order my green tea. He’d been talking to his woman friend in a really serious tone about how the last time he’d been in another Starbucks, there’d been a woman in front of him who’d asked for a ‘medium’ instead of a ‘grande’ and that the barista said to her, “Are you kidding me?” I wondered who this guy would be in a real emergency. If he’d finally have something more substantial to use his seriousness for. I imagined he’d probably be the one covering the small toddlers with his big belly to save them from falling debris. Now we are all outside. The manager is panicked, trying to explain to new customers who want lattes that the Starbucks is temporarily closed. The crowd is growing. People’s conversations are meandering away from this potential emergency and back to real estate, stubborn husbands, and the weather. And now it’s just been confirmed. There is not an emergency. The manager has just explained that one of the baristas accidentally leaned on the fire button when she was reaching to throw away her leftover chai. And that the fire department should be turning off the alarm any… ahh, now it’s off. He has unlocked the door. Everyone is getting up, ready to return to their seats.
Now I’m back in the air conditioning. And I kind of miss the siren. By all means, I’m not saying I wish it had been an actual emergency. It’s just that sometimes, it’s refreshing to imagine being called forth toward a larger purpose than just having a good attitude amidst all this American status quo.
There is no wrath like a mother discovering mouse poo in her child’s car seat. Living in a rural area, having mice in one’s car is nothing unusual. They can fit into a quarter-sized space and can smell a leftover puff or piece of dropped banana a mile away. We used to have all these wonderful owls on our property and I hadn’t had a mouse in my car since before I got pregnant. But for whatever reason, those owls flew the coop and those pesky mice came back. I was so upset when I found the little black dollops of their presence. I shook my head in disgust and my two-and-a-half year old asked if I was sad and I said, “Yes, I am a little sad, my love, because mice were in our car.” “Mice? What did they do in here, Mama?” “Well, if you really must know, darling, they poo poo-ed.” “Poo poo-ed? They should wear diapers!!” “I agree!” Though I have never been a fan of killing my enemies I would have had no problem setting as many traps as could fit in my car, but after some research, I learned that killing mice rarely solves the problem, because there are always more mice. But I learned there is a way to keep them from your car or home: mice despise the scent of peppermint. So, I bought a bottle of peppermint essential oil, dripped some on some cotton balls, scattered them all over the car. The following day, there were only a few drops of poo, by the floor vent in the passenger side of the front seat. And sure enough, the following day, it was the same thing. And I realized that’s where they were coming in! They must have been entering in their usual way, and upon smelling the peppermint, shit their little britches and about-faced! I can’t count too many things that have given me as much satisfaction. And, since then, all I do is dribble some peppermint oil right on that little floor vent, and we have been mouse-free. So far.
Do you ever have one of those moments when you inadvertently disturb your own child? A man at the park gave my two-and-a-half year old a stuffed animal. It was in our small town so nothing disturbing there. Except when we used it a short time later to dry a wet swing and noticed it was missing an eye. My son got so upset and so I said, “I know he only has one eye, but I think that makes him special!” And my son looked at me with curiosity so I continued, “He’s special because he’s got a story to tell! Don’t you want to know what happened to his other eye?” He nodded, still looking curious so I went on and this is what came out of my mouth: “Who knows what happened… maybe a mouse came and ate it!!!” Poor Brautigan, he immediately dropped the toy, held his own eye and looked horrified beyond belief. I tried to tell a better story to fix the first one but nothing redeeming was coming out and I kept laughing at my own stupidity which I’m sure only made the situation even more confusing to my poor boy, but thankfully, a low flying goose came by and I was able to divert his attention.