How many bandaids have you got?

I am broken. And I’m strangely at peace with it.

I was cracked before the events of December 28, 2020, when the ground disappeared underneath my feet. Just over a month prior, I’d checked myself into a psychiatric ward because I was absolutely positive that if I didn’t, I would commit suicide. Too many changes had occured in tandem with being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and OCD. My self-esteem was subterranean. I hurt. I felt that I hurt others just by existing. I wanted all the hurt to go away.

Looking back, I am absolutely certain that, had I not gone to the hospital and had instead somehow managed to avoid death that week, I would have died on December 28th, or soon after. I survived – made myself survive – because those 5 days in the hospital had armed me with coping skills that protected me when the stakes were as high as they could ever have been.

There was a moment, in that little waiting room where the ER staff had led the husband and I to when we arrived in tandem with the ambulance, where I am positive that I could have just dropped dead from the trauma. It was after the serious discussion we’d had with the doctor – whose name I don’t remember – about how to proceed. We had entered the eye of the hurricane at that point, and the room was quite still around me, but the back wall was quickly advancing toward us. I had to verbally tell him what I wanted him to do – or more correctly, not to do – and by that time, I was being tossed around by the force of the absolute storm of terror that was pummeling me.

I could barely get the words out. I cowered, my head between my knees, sobbing uncontrollably. I raised my head and looked into my husband’s eyes. “How,” I asked him, “how do I do this? What is happening? Why do I have to be the one to do this again?”

I was referring, of course, to a similar room in a different hospital, just over 8 years ago. In that room, we sat, in stunned silence, while my mother’s internist and a nurse explained to me that my mother was leaving us. It was a matter of time. And as she had no advanced directives or living will, how to proceed was going to be my decision. And that decision broke me, back then.

And here I was, at this terrible, horrific fork in the road again. Intellectually, I knew that the road might fork now, but that all roads led to one eventual destination. My head dropped again. I laced my fingers over my skull. The doctor asked me again. “Okay,” I choked out. “Okay, what?” he asked, urgency in his voice. “I’m so sorry, but I need to hear you say the words.”

I said them. Bleak desolation filled my entire being. I actually felt my soul trying to detach itself from my body. The pain was searing, like being electrocuted. I threw my head back and wailed. I ripped off my mask and threw it. I threw my phone. I threw my glasses.

I have never experienced a pain like that before.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with things that I knew would probably happen. Remembrances triggered by an image, a sound, a scene, a person. We all do this when we are grieving; this, at least, is a familiar phenomenon. I saw a man walking one day while we were out, and something in his gait and the way he wore his baseball hat was familiar. For a second, I forgot. I forgot, and nearly exclaimed, “There he is!” Realization washed over me and I couldn’t breathe. The pain that arrived with my sobs was excruciating. I felt absolutely terrible. How? How did I forget? I spent the rest of the day feeling lonely and wretched.

And then nearly shouted his name the next day, when I was laughing at something silly that Goose was doing. I wanted him to come see. Except, well, yeah.

What in the actual fuck is going on? My Covid-addled brain may be shorting out, but it’s not this bad. Again – intellectually, I know that these things happen. It’s just that it hurts. Good Christ, it hurts. It makes me want to crawl out of my skin to get away from it. We are nearing 6 months. Why is the grief AS painful as it was in the beginning? Why is it like a million little cuts all over my body? Why am I not bleeding? How the fuck am I not bleeding?

Grief has no timeline, I know. I don’t cry as much as I did, but it doesn’t take much for me to feel that gut-clenching, full-chested, searing feeling welling up from somewhere inside of me to erupt into a torrent of inconsolable sobs. Yes, inconsolable. Because no one has the right words. This is uncharted territory, Covid death grief, and only others experiencing it really understand how it feels. They have no consoling words, either, because there are none.

I guess we, the millions of people who have lost someone – or many someones – to this virus, who simply try to get through the days after our loved ones were brutally stolen from us, will need to come up with new words that can convey the desolate wastelands inside of us. We’ll come up with words, because although we know that it still cannot transfer the experience of pain that we are feeling to an unknowing person, that’s exactly the point. We don’t want anyone who hasn’t been thrown into this maelstrom of “It’s been (fill in the blank) days/months/a year; why am I still so sad? Why isn’t it feeling any better?” We are legion and we don’t desire any more members. The fact that the US alone is still logging 300 deaths a day, despite the vaccines, is excruciating to us.

I know that someday, I’ll laugh without that sinking feeling that immediately follows. I know that I won’t always feel guilty for taking pleasure in certain things; in the joys that life can bestow. I will be able to think of him without wanting to rip my heart out of my chest and offer it as tribute if I could only bring him back.

But right now? I can’t do any of that. The world is gray, despite all the colors. Telling me to look for the gifts, the signs, the blessings, and telling me that he will always be with me; those words are heartfelt and loving and I am sure that someday, I will be able to do all those things. I dearly love every, single person who has offered advice, or consoling words, or related their experience with the grief journey. It’s just that, at this moment, nothing truly helps, and it’s becoming difficult to put the mask that I wear to trick people into thinking that I am doing okay.

I’m doing my therapy. I’m taking my meds. I shower every day. I put on clean clothes. I brush my teeth. I rearrange furniture, plan projects. I hold my Goose, and dote on him. I think of little ways to show my husband that I care. I keep up appearances.

But – yep, there it is – I am not okay. I am afraid that this is all there is. And I am afraid that this body of mine, this fucked brain, the loss of words, the memory loss, all of the fuckery that Covid has wrought upon me? What if this is as good as it gets?

Don’t answer that.

There are no stages of grief.

Five months.

It’s been five months since you went away. Were ripped from my grasp. That’s what it felt like, and it’s what I see in my mind’s eye, when I think about that day; that memory (Memory? How the fuck is it so quickly a memory? How can YOU be a memory when you were overflowing with joyous, exuberant life?) is something that I revisit far too often for it to be any good for me. It’s true, though. It’s as if I was holding onto you fiercely, for 45 years, the undeniable fact of a big sister’s love like a fortress around you. It protected and cradled you from the forces that might try to harm you: unkind people, dangerous situations, dark and scary paths. I was as sure of my superhuman ability to shield you and care for you as I was that I knew my name. Nothing could harm you as long as I was there; nothing could break through my love for you.

Until Covid.

Covid: a virus of truly unknown origin, despite the earliest claims that it originated from a bat eaten by a pangolin that was then sold in a Chinese wet market. That it came from a bat is still more than likely true; how that bat came to be in Wuhan, despite its kind only being found in a cave some 1500-2000 miles southwest of Wuhan, has yet to be explained. Whether or not the virus existed in its potentially deadly form within that bat – or if the stuff that could make a person dead were actually laboratory engineered – remains a mystery that might never be explained.

As I watched the pandemic unfold, it struck me, in the earliest days, how unpredictable this virus was. I didn’t worry very much until everything began to shut down. Even then, I reasoned with myself that this was just an overabundance of caution that would dissipate quickly.

When the worldwide death toll began climbing, and leaked photos and videos from Wuhan hit social media, I checked myself. This wasn’t just a cold or a flu, and it was a danger to you.

You know the rest – how we stayed home, stayed in, were socially distant when we absolutely had to go out, and how I made us masks way before the CDC advised it and the mandates went into effect.

No one could deny that we were extremely careful. No one could find fault with how diligent we were. Throughout everything that would happen from the day we began, we persisted in keeping each other – and you, most importantly – safe. When the vaccines were announced, we all breathed a sigh of relief. We were nearly there. The few weeks it would take to get those shots in arms were going to be a cake walk after what we’d endured so far. I did something very much out of character for me: I fell for that false sense of security. I gave myself a little pat on the back; I had protected you from an invisible threat because that’s what I did and no one could do it better. While I did not let my guard down, I felt we had turned a corner.

The problem was, there was a stillness. I didn’t recognize it at all, but it was there: the stillness that precedes a bad storm; in this case, a massive, mile-wide tornado. It was one of those monsters that forms in the middle of the night. If one peers out into the inky darkness on such a night, all they will see is the reassuring shapes and shadows of their surroundings as the the gravid, tumescent air surrounds and envelopes them in a wet sheen of sweat. The wind may begin blowing and the sirens will go off literally a minute before it roars through, destroying everything in its path.

The morning of December 28th, I was Dorothy, swirling violently in that tornado. All that which I loved swirled around me, and you were there, gripping my hands. We held on tightly, and I kept screaming to you, “It’s going to be okay! We’ll be fine! I’ve got you and I WILL NEVER LET GO.

But then, the twister whipped with deadly force and I looked into your wide, brown eyes that registered alarm and cold fear and you were ripped away from my grasp, swirling so quickly that I barely had time to realize that my hands were empty when I was slammed into the frozen earth, the wind knocked out of me, my lungs deflated. The tornado was gone as quickly as it came, escaping through a tear in my sanity. And there was no dead witch underneath my house, and there sure as fuck was no good witch to guide me, nor were there ruby slippers for me to click together, taking me back home to where you were there and everything was fine.

Sorrow. All I feel, with complete certainty, is sorrow. It descends down upon me like ash after an atomic bomb is detonated. Nothing can live through this nuclear winter. It extinguishes those moments of levity, of delight, and quiet joy. How dare I feel hope, when you can’t feel at all? What right do I have to those feelings, when the one thing that I was absolutely, 100% sure of – my ability to protect you from anything that blocked the way – was irretrievably broken by a pathogen, this microscopic, destructive, insidious, Russian Roulette of a virus?

Rage. Rage descends upon me with a ferocity that leaves me breathless with the desire to inflict pain upon someone, something, extinguishing that life force as definitively and with a finality in the same way that your death slammed into my soul.

Numb. I become numb, seeking to escape from those two states of being, desperate for some peace from the pain of my grief and the turbulence of my anger. I close my eyes and sink into a cold, anesthetized state of outward calm that acts as a mask that reassures those around me that I am accepting my loss, and coping with it, and inching along in tiny, incremental steps. “How are you?” they ask. “I’m okay,” I carefully lie.

It’s so odd to me, how the world keeps moving. How lives just simply go on. How those friends who, in the early days, frequently checked in and assured me of their love, have become mostly quiet. “We’re here for you,” they promised. Well, okay; your intentions were pure and I can’t fault that. Family, circling the wagons and just letting me be a sodden lump of raw agony. “We’ve got you,” they crooned, in those earliest days. Too soon, they’re now urging me to “not disappear, don’t fold into yourself, do the things you enjoy.”

I don’t know how. I try, but the result is nothing. No feeling of accomplishment, no pride, no payoff of confidence. I just shuffle through my days, doing things, hoping to throw them off the scent so that they won’t discover my treachery. Anything to avoid the inevitable waves of grief that turn me back into that sobbing mess that they aren’t sure how to deal with, or find it uncomfortable to have to see. Look, I really am trying, but there is no fucking roadmap, no book, no memorandum that details how to successfully recover, both mentally, emotionally, and physically, from a global pandemic that has killed millions – one of them being you, my little brother. I’ll figure out how to arrive at a kind of peace, but there are no stages to grief. That shit is a lie. They were developed for people with terminal illness to accept their fate, not for those grieving the loss of someone they loved. Somehow, it was appropriated, but not by me. Not for this.

Five months, though. Five months have passed by so very slowly for me, and everyone who was there with me in those earliest, darkest days is doing their best to move on. It’s what they have to do. Well, I can’t. I’m not ready to live in a world where you aren’t there. I’m not ready to move on. I’m watching everyone get on with the business of living, of rediscovering life without a mask and fear of a virus, of resuming the doing of all the things. I’m not envious, or resentful. Not of those who are treading carefully, but nevertheless relieved that the monster has been beaten back from their doorstep with the jab of a needle.

I reserve the resentment and yes, the rage, for those who politicized the pandemic; who denied the science; who refused – and still refuse – to be a part of the solution. I blame them for killing you. For your murder. That fury boils just underneath the surface of my skin, and when it is triggered, I feel as though anyone standing nearby must feel the heat radiating from me. The sorrow will extinguish it soon enough, a warm shower of salty tears. And then, the numbness will creep in, replacing everything with its icy calm.

“How are you?”

“I’m okay.”

The anger stage is, by far, the most enduring.

Sometimes, I follow popular trends. Taking selfies with bunny ears on Snapchat, seeing if the broom will stand on its own, guessing that the sneakers are pink and white and the dress is blue; I have taken part in all of these.

A current trend I will not take part in is putting a frame on my profile pic on Facebook, advertising that I’m vaccinated. I’m seeing it frequently now, but it just doesn’t seem like something I want to announce to the world.

I’m so happy that the gears are turning, and millions are getting shots in arms every day. I’m thrilled that the elderly are getting vaccinated, so that they can see their families again. I’m relieved for the frontline workers, healthcare personnel, and educators, because they’ve been our superheroes during this pandemic, and they are our heroes EVERY day. I’m grateful that our special needs and immunocompromised humans are getting protected from the Russian Roulette that is exposure to COVID-19. 

But, well…I’m not jumping up and down for joy.

113 days ago, my little brother sat before me, while I recorded him, and talked about how relieved he was that vaccines were rolling out. I’ve related before that he was absolutely terrified of needles. As a young child and into adulthood, he had to have frequent labs done, because of medications he was on; later, needles became a daily thing when he was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes.

Up until about 10 years ago, a visit to the hospital lab was reason enough for him to melt down. Individuals with the challenges he had tend to have extraordinary strength, and he exhibited Herculean reactions when he was panicked. Up to six healthcare personnel had to restrain him, throughout the years, whenever blood needed to be drawn or a shot needed to be administered. Even after learning to give himself insulin, he would be fraught with anxiety for weeks leading up his quarterly lab visits.

He was not, however, terrified by the prospect of having to get two vaccinations in order to be safe. He welcomed it. There was zero anxiety; only a fervent wish to just go get it done, already. As hard as the last 9 months had been for him, and the countless times we had found it necessary to explain to him why he needed to stay home, to wear a mask, to social distance, he understood that those two, little jabs to his arm would signal great protection – insulation from serious illness and possible death. He’d be able to work, to socialize, and to stop living in fear of an invisible enemy.

He LOVED his nieces and nephews and missed them so much.

I never told him what I thought about the “antis” out there: the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, anti-government, anti-intelligent people waving their Trump signs, with MAGA hats on their heads, shouting about rights and freedoms, the flag, statues, pedophiles in pizza parlors, the Satanic powers of Hillary Clinton, Jesus’s love for the Orange Menace, the microchips in the vaccines that would allow Bill Gates to control their thoughts, and how it was unconstitutional to have to protect others from the possibility of exposure to “just a cold, or a flu” by wearing masks in public.

Go back and read that. Tell me these people aren’t completely, totally whackadoodie-batshit-fucking nuts. Come on. Try to convince me that all these “antis” weren’t his enemies. Assure me that those “antis” aren’t my enemy now.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

This is the core of the anger I experience every, single day. It began about an hour after the husband and I returned home from the hospital, after Charlie had been pronounced dead. As the husband stood near the french doors in our apartment that look out onto our balcony, I sat, in desolate silence, on the couch. I had seen him cry more that morning than at any other time in the 20 years that we had been together. He was trying to get it together now. I felt made of stone. At my core, white-hot fury was gathering itself into a mass of nuclear pressure. “Burn it all down,” I said, quietly. “I want to burn it all down.” The husband looked at me, and couldn’t think of anything to say other than “Yes.”

The entire time we had been at the hospital – 120 minutes – ER staff had sequestered us in a small, waiting room. It was a bad room; I’d been in them before, and nothing good ever came of sitting in those rooms. During those short, 120 minutes, I’d frantically, tearfully talked to family and friends, gripped the husband’s hand, and listened to him as he calmly talked to our kids, telling them what he knew. The room was still, quiet, sterile and falsely welcoming; but it was also like being in a tornado. Chaos, being whipped around, violently, by emotions and terror, grabbing onto anything I could to keep from being swept away; roaring, deafening noise in my head.

In the midst of that storm, horrible things happened. The nurse, who kept us informed, checking in frequently and asking questions, and then the doctor’s notification that this was Covid, and what did I want them to do?

To do? What did I want? With all due respect, Doc, I want you to be the short, little old lady psychic in Poltergeist and to tell me that we could save him. I want you to tell him to stay away from the light, and send me in; I’ll be JoBeth Williams and I’ll go into the danger and I’ll bring him back. That’s what I want.

But of course, this was not a scary movie. It was reality, and it was so much worse. No, they didn’t “send me in” to coax him back. Do I think I could have? What I think is that he was scared, in pain, and alone, save for ER staff swarming around him. I probably couldn’t have coaxed him back, but I could have been there with him, so he would not have been afraid. I could have fulfilled the promise I’d made, when he was a baby, to be his protector. And in this way, the way things ended, I could have held his hand as he was guided to the light. This would have been some closure. For me. I’m not being selfish, wishing for that. Neither are millions of other Americans who experienced their own tornadoes.

So, when I read the conjecture of others, stating that getting the vaccine signifies an “end to all this awful business” and that “finally, we get our lives back,” I want to puke on them. When I hear people say that it must be a relief, to have that protection, after surviving the virus, I want to gut-punch them. When I see jubilant selfies shining out at me from profile pictures framed in “I’m fully vaccinated” banners, the urge to comment, “Bully for you” or hit the 😡 reaction is strong.

I resist, though. I resist, because I know they are relieved. They trust the science. They want to avoid the game of Russian Roulette, and they want to ensure that others avoid it, too. And they were there for me, a lot of them, in my darkest hours, when the urge to blot out my own existence was the strongest it has ever been.

Yes, I am fully-vaccinated. Getting Covid again is less of a worry, but since I don’t yet know what permanent damage having had it in the first place could have caused, the worry for my own well-being is really negligible. I don’t want to give it to someone else, though.

I’m not celebrating it, though, because 113 days ago seems so recent. How did we go from there to here without him? And how do I go from here to, well, 200 days, 300, 500 – without him? That remains to be seen. But while the rest of you are salivating at the prospect of vacations and pool parties and fairs and amusement parks and crowded bars, try to remember those who will never again experience those things, and the people they left behind. We are not okay, no matter what we tell you. We’ve been through a war; our loved ones lost were casualties, we Covid survivors are the walking wounded, and we have all suffered a terrible trauma. We want to be seen, our losses acknowledged, and for everyone to do their part to make sure this never fucking happens again.

Do I still want to burn it all down? That’s complicated. Just know this: if you ever supported Donald Trump, or said, “It’s just a flu,” or thought that wearing a mask was against your Constitutional rights, or claimed that masks don’t work, or referred to it as the “China virus,” or believed that hospitals were putting Covid as cause of death for EVERYONE that has died, so far, in order to make more money, or believed the election was stolen, or blamed “the illegals” for bringing the virus into the US, or supported border walls, or claimed that the January 6 insurrectionists were “patriots,” or uttered the words “snowflake,” “libtard,” or “not my President” about Joe Biden?

I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.

What I do know is that I don’t know, at all.

Some days begin hopefully. I’ll think I have it all under control and be going along just fine. I’m coping, I will tell myself.

Take yesterday, for example. I had been dreading the first big holiday. I didn’t want to do anything, or plan anything. Traditionally, I detest Easter and can’t wait for it to be over. But he was like an innocent child, tickled by the idea of a rabbit delivering candy (sugar-free, of course) and a plushie to him while he slept. He would become giddy at the prospect of a big, baked ham and hardboiled eggs galore. And I loved him, and I enjoyed his delight, so I did it. Every year. For 45 years, I got to see him hum with excitement at holidays.

It was so nice to see the kids, after a year of photos and videos and furtive drive-bys. It was nice, actually, to not have to adhere to specific plans. I enjoyed a trifecta of pleasant surprises when the husband brought home our McDonald’s dinner: not only had they remembered the straw, but the fries were FRESH and HOT and they weren’t out of apple pies! Hallelujah and can I get an Amen?!?

But then my brain did its thing – the thing it does best. It delivered to me a bleak dose of reality. It said, “You’re awful for enjoying not cooking, and dyeing eggs, and hiding an Easter basket. You suck for not doing all the things. Oh, sure, you made and decorated cupcakes for the kids, but you should have made them baskets since you couldn’t make him one. You’re a terrible Nana.”

And then that crashing, nauseating, black cloak of sorrow fell over me – the one that says

“Can you BELIEVE that this fucking happened? ALL YOUR CAUTION.

All those times he wanted to see people, go somewhere, and you said no.

All the days where there was nothing to look forward to and he sat in his room or wandered through the house and you told him, “It won’t always be like this,” and you meant it, you felt it, and when the vaccines were announced, you patted yourself on the back and told yourself, “We did it! We kept him safe!” And you felt bad for all the millions who had lost loved ones, but you had done your job!

Yay, you and

You go, girl and

Kudos!

It was worth it, all of it; worth being sent DMs from people in your community who you didn’t know, calling you a cunt because you wanted to know where you could go and safely take him – where masks were mandatory, and social distancing was enforced.

It was worth having your face put on a poster adorned with swastikas by a local businessman and hung in his locales, declaring you ENEMY NUMBER ONE and “banning” you from entry.

It was worth the death threats, and the social media posts in local groups, wishing nothing but misery and failure and bad luck for you because of your heartless (non-existent) campaign to destroy the livelihoods of struggling businesses. It was worth the lies they made up about you and the slander and the hate. All of this outrageousness was perhaps disappointing to behold, because you desperately wanted to believe that people could be good, but it was also something you suspected would happen, because this place of your birth had been rejecting you since your mother brought you home from the hospital.

All of this outrageous, public outcry because you needed to keep him safe was worth it, even though you, and the thousands of other immunocompromised, elderly, and cautious humans in the community weren’t interested in public opinion or rhetoric. You all just wanted to know where you could avoid possible contact with an infected person. In a perfect world, everyone would see the mitigation efforts as a shared responsibility, a community effort, and yes, a patriotic gesture of solidarity.

This world was not perfect, however, because this country spawned a society that decided that an unqualified, bloviating, failed businessman with zero moral compass, a narcissistic core, and a greed like no other, was competent enough to lead our nation.

We’re In This Together, my ass.

You got sloppy. You patted yourself on the back a little too soon. You never once truly thought that he could be exposed, because you and everyone you permitted him to come into contact with were so careful. All the sacrifices had been worth it. You went into Christmas day with a feeling of quiet satisfaction and relief. You were gonna come out on the other side of this with shots in arms and a renewed sense of hope. Just a little while longer, you told him. And he believed you. You believed you.

Never in your wildest nightmares would you have predicted that your life would become a tragic, Shakespearian tale of woe and sadness. Never. You’d been through awful things throughout your life and weathered storms that had altered you chemically as a person, but this? This horror? This walking, talking, nightmare of consciousness? It felt as if the Universe was punking you, laughing and saying, “You didn’t actually think I was gonna let you get away with it, did you? Who told you that you could be happy? Who said that you were doing everything right? How DARE you be confident? Here – get in this big pool of black suck. Sink. Swim. Drift. I don’t give a shit.”

Easter. A day of hope, and renewal, and beginnings. A day where the world rejoices because a man died for them, but then he was resurrected.

A fucking fairy tale. People don’t die and then magically live again, three days later, because if they did, I wouldn’t be writing this. If they did, the best, purest, sweetest, most innocent soul would have come back to me. “The Son of God,” he wasn’t, but he was a gift to the world. My brother was my light and my way.

And just like that, my brain goes on repeat and my heart sinks, dipping down into my toes. I am so tired.

Can you BELIEVE that this fucking happened?

Yes. Now, I can.

Ashes

Long time, no blog. I know. Life has been having a locksocking, blanket party with me for the last 6-8 months. If I decide to stick around and write some more, I’ll fill you in. For now, only the subject of this essay matters.

We’ve reached a particularly dark anniversary in this country. You cannot escape it: it’s in the news, on social media, and the subject of lots of conversations. A year ago, the United States effectively shut down due to COVID-19. It was the right thing to do, the experts said. Having never experienced a pandemic – the last one of this magnitude was over 100 years ago – this was undiscovered territory for us all. Despite that fact, we tried to remain optimistic. We had top medical scientists who were on this, and our elected officials assured us that they would take care of us and that the virus would be brought under control. That proved to be our first mistake, but you don’t need a rehash of the rest. Over 520,000 deaths later, I think you’re aware.

The gravity of the pandemic situation was not lost on me from the very beginning, a year ago this week. I felt, right in my gut, that this country wasn’t prepared, based upon the federal government’s response early on. We “went to ground”: my husband, my brother, and me. It was crucially important: my brother was autistic and intellectually impaired, as I have noted in many blogs before, and he was seriously immunocompromised. He had an extraordinarily high tolerance to pain; a 10 for you might be a 2 for him. This was the guy who walked around and went about his business with a horrific case of Shingles once, taking only the occasional Tylenol. I worried that I would not know he was sick until it was critical.

It was pretty hard, right from the beginning; he had been so used to being a social creature, and I had to be quite firm with him to make him understand why he had to stay home. I may have chronicled his attempt to understand here; I’m too wiped out to look back. He took to using Facebook to hold live “Dance parties” to encourage and entertain his friends, because he desperately needed the human connection.

The months passed, and we would drive him to the bank when he needed money, and very occasionally, mask up with our pocket hand sanitizers, and get groceries. We were largely insulated in our rural, Pennsylvania county, until about October, when Covid began to spread from larger, metropolitan areas to our community. We mask-wearing, mandate-following people were also in a disproportionate minority, and we were harassed about it constantly. Super-spreader events, like Trump rallies and fundraisers at local VFWs and bars, did not help matters. There was nary a mask in sight at these gatherings, and as the case numbers rose and the deaths began happening, going out became both worrisome and an exercise in the most extreme measures of caution. We regretfully isolated my brother once again, during the most joyous, social time of the year. There would be no shopping or parties, no dancing, no family get-togethers. When the vaccines were released, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. My brother was terrified of needles, but on Christmas Eve, he went live on Facebook to talk about how excited he was to get his vaccine. It meant freedom for him, and not having to be afraid.

By 10:42am on December 28th, he was dead; his routine lab appointment on the 23rd is where we suspect he was exposed. He, in turn, exposed me, and I tested positive the day he died. My husband was negative, because he spent a large amount of time at work that weekend. My brother displayed barely a symptom: sniffles, some fatigue. That was it. That morning, he was basically unconscious; I roused him enough to test his blood sugar and he was able to respond to the paramedics. He coded enroute to the hospital, and his heart continued to stop every 5 minutes for 2 hours. His test was positive and his lungs were consumed. It was a horrific maelstrom of terror and confusion and sorrow. He did not have an advanced directive; I had to make the call. Who, at 45, has one? I felt my sanity bend and nearly snap. I have not been quite sane since. We did EVERYTHING right. And we were so close.

Everyone else has moved on. That is expected, after all. If it were me, responding to the death of a friend’s brother, I would have gone back to my routines and my life, too. The outpouring of love, kindness, and the hundreds of condolences bore me aloft, in those first bleak days, upon a soft cloud of compassion. I had a core group of friends around me for those first horrible weeks, but most of them have faded back into the woodwork of their lives, and I am pretty sure that many of them actively avoid me because I am such a downer. I don’t blame them at all; I cannot stand myself 95% of the time. That 5% that I can stand is who I am when Goose makes me laugh. Thankfully, he does that every day.

I spent the first few weeks bewildered, in shock, and sick. Now, the grief feels very fresh and yet, the lessons I have learned in therapy – to reach out, to trust that those who said they were here for me meant it – well, I’m failing those lessons because I don’t want to bother anyone.  And the brain fog, a lingering symptom that won’t abate, keeps me from talking much, because I sound like a stumbling idiot who forgets words and even whole phrases and who has to look up words to write sentences. It’s fucking embarassing for me, a writer who has always had the wonderful world of vocabulary at her fingertips.

I have to put a timer on to remind me that food is cooking, because dinner has burned one too many times; I completely forgot that I was cooking it. Laundry gets started, but then forgotten until 2 days later. I have things I want to tell people, but then, a week goes by, and I remember, and it’s no longer relevant. It’s terrifying and it also feels like a penance to be endured until all the wrongs in my life, ending with my brother’s death, are righted.

I received my second vaccination on Tuesday. It was a watershed moment. The trauma of the day Covid stole my brother from me lives on in my memory, refusing to dissipate. 2021 began, for me, with illness and a broken heart and a soul filled with rage. It began in isolation, with no comfort, or even a hug, for two weeks. Even now, I have had exactly one repeat visitor since December. I mean, I get it. I absolutely understand. I had the plague, and I am an open wound now. It’s best to avoid me. And I still don’t know how I feel about a total immersion back into daily life. I had no closure; my baby brother – who I swore an oath to protect when he was born when I was 8, and who loved and trusted me the most in the world, who I was rarely apart from – died alone, amongst strangers. I feel so hopelessly bereft when I think that he must have been so frightened, and that he must have wondered where his big sister was and why she had abandoned him to a reality of agony as he died, over and over. The thought of this haunts me nearly every moment of the day. I wasn’t allowed to hold his hand, or kiss his forehead.

Very few people really understand the bond between my brother and I. I was his sister, and I was also a maternal figure. We didn’t have much, growing up, but we had each other, and I can say, without any doubt, that I was the most important person in his life, and the one he loved the most. I felt the same way, that first, magical moment that I held him and counted his 5 day-old toes and wondered at the strength of his grip around my finger. It is almost like losing my own child. To a virus that could have, should have, been mitigated.

The very last contact I had with him that morning was to rub his arm, stroke his forehead, and say, “Charlie….buddy?…you’re gonna go for a ride in the ambulance, but everything’s gonna be okay.” This beautiful soul, the heart of my heart, went into the darkness not cradled by love and comfort, but by fear and violence and pain. There is no escape from this nightmare, except to join him. And yet, I know that’s my grief talking, and so I have my therapy appointments and I take my meds like an obedient child. I don’t want to join him. But I feel nothing. No joy. No hope. I feel gray. This is not depression, and it is not a symptom of my mental illness. It isn’t even a part of the PTSD that I have recently been diagnosed with; this is no shell shock. It is something deeper and darker than any sorrow that I have ever experienced. And I wonder if this is all there is. Because if it is, it is not acceptable or survivable; not for me. And it is unfair to the people who love me.

So, I don’t reach out, even when the sobs erupt from the black pit that is my center and I sink into a quiet despair, and wonder if anyone can tell that I’m dead inside. I hope not; I try to mask it. Who would want to have to deal with that kind of negativity? Not me. So I don’t bother with doing that to them. But, it is very lonely.

I am also very angry, and I would gladly see the world burn when my thoughts are blackest. I have survived COVID-19, but the unnecessary loss of my brother, who was absolutely the best of my mother’s two children, may be the thing that takes me down. I don’t want it to, but no one has come up with a plausible scenario where the sun shines and the wind blows through my hair and I think, life is beautiful – and I feel it. Everyone assures me that a day will come when I laugh more than I cry, that I will remember all the good without the horror of that day crashing through my consciousness. They promise me that there will be peace.

And so, I’m waiting.

Unfriend THIS

So I have kittens right now, who are learning to be independent, and teaching them is a never-ending source of amusement, anxiety, the fear of getting way too attached, and precious moments. Many hours are whiled away with a tiny fuzzball cuddling against my chest, or giggling while another fuzzball chews on the hair on the back of my head.

Kiko
Sully

I should be up, doing stuff, or out and about, but how do you put a precious baby down when they sigh and relax against you? Don’t get me started on how addictive their baby smells are. Bury your nose in a six-week-old kitten’s warm, fuzzy, vaguely pink tummy and inhale: there’s a very faint, almost indiscernible scent of pee, but then the warm fur/skin scent takes over, with a faint blush of cinnamon.

Intoxicating.

At least, until he or she latches onto your face with baby claws that barely know what their use is for.

Anyway, while I allow Sully or Kiko to use my dirtypillows as a soft bed, I scroll through Facebook and check out pages, or research ideas for home renovations, or read good articles (and blogs). Facebook is usually an exercise in self-control, because, as an old friend once said, opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.

This is unfortunate, because invariably, one encounters dissenting opinions from that which one holds personally. However, when one delves into the black abyss of uneducated opinions, one risks becoming caught up in a fecund quagmire.

It often mystifies me that there are so many grown-ass adults who believe blatant bullshittery and refuse to educate themselves. Here are some recent statements I’ve read, just today:

“The coronavirus is just political B.S. and NOBODY is gonna make me get a vaccine.”

“Flu shots are LIVE VIRUSES they inject into you!”

“There are pieces of fetuses in vaccines.”

Okay. Unpack those. Yes, grown-ass adults made those claims. My first reaction was to say, “The fuck outta here with that” and unfriend, because honestly, it’s a friendship that has been peripheral, at best. We met at a job, this person left said job, and moved in with the first (of my association with them) of at least a dozen individuals they have been “truly in love with” over the past couple of years. I used to feel sorry for them – everyone deserves to be loved, right? – and so I hung in there, offering support and encouragement. At about #6 of their choice in life partner, I began to lose faith in their ability to pick a decent human being. You don’t know what to say to a person who obviously neither loves themself, nor has the ability to discern good from bad. You begin to see, as a casual observer, that this person’s life has been one trainwreck after another, mostly of their own making. You quiet your urge to shout, “Are you fucking serious???” when they introduce Mr or Ms (inserted here-because-while-I’m-certainly-an-asshole-I-am-not-that-asshole-who’s-going-to-out this-person-on-the-chance-that-they-may-read-this) Right (now). You continue to reply to their self-defeating posts with inspirational memes.

Seriously, the world does not give up enough gratitude for memes. They replace the need to come up with real words and often summarize how we’re feeling perfectly. Instead of replying with some lame comment we don’t feel, we can meme a bitch with fake affection.

Anyway, I really ought to unfriend. I guess I was looking for the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I guess I’ve found it, because 𝗪𝗛𝗔𝗧 𝗜𝗡 𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗔𝗖𝗧𝗨𝗔𝗟 𝗙𝗨𝗖𝗞𝗜𝗡𝗚 𝗙𝗨𝗖𝗞 is this shit about COVID-19 being “political bullshit?” Have I been wrong, all my life, in my voracious quest for knowledge about the history of the world and the scientific discoveries that have saved the human race from all things plague-like? I mean, is it all political bullshit: measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, whooping cough, chicken pox, et al?

Image courtesy of Never Stay Dead

I’m actually grinning as I write this because 𝗼𝗳 𝗰𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘀𝗲 𝗶𝘁 𝗳𝘂𝗰𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀𝗻’𝘁.

I could have gone onto that post and replied, asking them where they went to school and if there was a history class or are they Scientologists who believe in the magic underpants, or if they were awake during a single history class throughout their education, or if they’ve ever fact-checked a single thing that, well, if it sounds like fuckery, it likely is, indeed, fuckery? I could have cited facts and articles from reputable sources, because SCIENCE.

I could have done any number of things that would have satisfied my desire to educate, to dispel rumors and blatant fallacies, to provide a moderate voice of reason. I didn’t, though; I didn’t use SCIENCE and try to educate. Know why?

Because my efforts would not have come from a sincere desire to persuade, or teach. They would have come from my desire to be right. Don’t get me wrong – I am right – but why do I need to attempt to prove that to people I really don’t know intimately and who I would definitely avoid, were they to approach me? Because even if they are the sweetest person in the world at work, they are, in fact, a Trump-loving, Confederate flag waving, ignorant, narcissistic, middle-aged dirtbag who has fucked more people in two years than possibly the entire population of some blink-and-you-missed-it town in Texas. I no longer feel compassion, or a sort of camaraderie (we self-loathers recognize our kind) with this person.

No, with that statement: “Flu shots are LIVE VIRUSES they inject into you,” my brain just shrugged in defeat. I didn’t even post “Read a book, you dim-watt doofus” or react with an angry emoji. I came here, instead, to write, while Sully snoozed on my dirtypillows and Goose looked on in disgust.

Next, I need to go find my Unfriend button, now that I’ve exorcised this particular demon. It’s almost time to feed the kittens, anyway.

Science Fiction, American-Style

Have you ever pondered the possibility of time travel? Are the fantastically portrayed ideas of alternate realities and parallel timelines something you enjoy reading about or watching at movies and on TV? Is Dr. Who and his timey-wimey stuff something you could imagine happening? I dunno how it happens: you are given a tiny, little green pill to swallow, which will send you to a future not of your choosing, or HG Wells will have built a working time machine somewhere and you’ll get to take a ride; possibly there’s a real-life T.A R D.I S. with your name on it. Maybe there’s a rip in the time continuum and you fall through the hole. I am clearly just riffing, and completely unknowledgeable about time travel. That’s not the point, though. The how of getting to this future isn’t important. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s just say you were able to.

I did. It was altogether alarming, and I almost hesitated to write it, lest it become an actual possibility. Some might read it and think, “Oh, come on! This can never happen here!” I may be told, point-blank, that I’ve got one fucked-up imagination. (I do not deny this, by the way.) I would then invite them to have an honest look at the state of the union today. Take a good look, if you have, thus far, been able to fracture your world from that which is happening all around you and affecting people you know. As an aside, if you have been able to separate your life from the dumpster fire that is the United States throughout the last 3 or more years, please: tell us your secret. We beseech you.

Really examine just the events of the past six months, if the whole Trump presidency is too much for you to rehash. Then, tell me that this scenario I offer below doesn’t at least stand a very real chance of becoming true as things stand today.

This is not for the faint of heart. Continue……

I wake up. My bed is the same soft, cozy surface. The room is the same. Everything around me is normal, the house, the cats, and, I assume, the humans. Let’s say that I forego the morning routine of looking at social media and checking out the news. That’s not likely to happen, but since this is my little work of science fiction, let’s say it does. I suddenly have a craving for a breakfast burrito, and I walk down to a place where I would normally get a breakfast burrito. Names aren’t important here. Context, people. Use your imagination.

When I get to the entrance, I don my face mask. There’s a sort of big, red, symbol on the door that closely resembles an elephant. I pay it no mind; I’m hungry, and my stomach is growling like a fucking angry bear. I get to the counter, standing the usual 6 feet away; the associate’s eyes go up, and she gestures to my face. “We don’t do that here, and you don’t have to, either,” she says. I shake my head and say, “Better to be safe.”  Then I peer back into the kitchen area. There’s one guy back there, wearing gloves and a hairnet, but neither he nor this girl have a face mask on. Pick your battles, I say to myself. “I would appreciate you wearing a mask to make my food,” I say, and she rolls her eyes. She asks me if she can help me. I order what I usually do: a breakfast burrito with sausage, cheese, peppers, onions, and tomato, with salsa and sour cream on the side.  Oh, and a large, black coffee. We cannot forget that most important item. She places the order and begins ringing it up, after asking “For here or to go?”  Obviously to go, lady. Then, it gets strange.

“I need to see your card,” she says.

“Oh! I’m using cash. Besides, I could just use the swiper you have here,” I answer, not troubled by her assumption that I would be using a debit card. Most people do, these days. She purses her lips tightly and says, “No, not your debit card. Your card.” I look at her, not comprehending. My ID? My library card? Do people still have those? My {insert restaurant’s corporate name} points card? Seeing my confusion, she rolls her eyes again and calls back to her manager. “Hey Frank? Can you come here a minute? We might have a situation.”

A “situation”? What is the situation? Why am I a situation? Is there suddenly a ban on cash, or green peppers, or sour cream? I mean, I know coins are becoming scarce, but I want to give you cash, which will help with the national shortage, at least. Clearly, I should have checked the news this morning.

The guy who is all hair netted-up strips off his gloves and walks up to her. “Again?” he asks? She gives him a look and he regards me with a sort of bland, slightly disinterested gaze.

“Ma’am,” he begins pleasantly, “she has to see your card. With the mask on and all, it’s a red flag.  It’s necessary.” 

What? Just……what?

“You mean, since you can’t see my face, you need an ID for a burrito and coffee?” I sputter, completely exasperated. What he says next in reply sends my head spinning.

“No, not your photo ID. Your voter ID.” He seems perfectly serious about this. He does not seem batshit crazy. He seems to think that am batshit crazy, though. When he sees my eyes widen in a way that must make me resemble a Bratz doll, he elaborates in a sort of bored, I’ve-memorized-this-spiel-before monotone.

“This is a Republican-owned restaurant. We must see your United States Voter Identification and Party Affiliation Card in order to serve you. Come on…. you know that. Why do you people have to be so difficult, with your masks and your shields and your outrage? I mean, we have 331,000,000 Americans in this country and only 14 million have died of the ‘Rona so far. It’s a big, fake story.” The associate next to him nods like a bobble head as he says this to me. I remain standing there, incredulous, wondering just what the hell happened while I was sleeping or if maybe I am still sleeping, and this is all a jacked-up nightmare. I take a deep, shuddering breath. Easy, my inner voice warns. Don’t lose your shit.

The manager holds his hand up swiftly. “I need to warn you that I will call the authorities. The Federal Karen Act of 2021 makes it unlawful for you to express any so-called “outrage” about any and all regulations. So please, don’t make me have to call them. No card? No service. If you’re a Democrat or an Independent, go to their restaurants. You know who they are.”  He shakes his head, clearly exasperated with me. Bobble head just keeps bobbling. Turning to her, he asks, “You got this? I have to step out for about 15 minutes to run my mom to the doctor for her test. She’s had the ‘Rona 3 times now and they keep saying they don’t know why. I mean, my uncle only had it once before he got it that last time and died. I think there’s some secret stuff going on. That Dr. Fauci might really be the descendent of the Nazi doctors.” Bobble head replies. “I hear they’re giving you the test so they can inject a time-release capsule up in there, so you keep getting sick and the numbers stay high.” He shrugs, then nods his head nervously. “I mean, I don’t want my mom having the test again, but her insurance company is owned by  Democrats.” 

I back out of that restaurant slowly but steadily, not trusting them and not really trusting myself. Outside the restaurant, I pull my phone out of my pocket. The news is easily accessed; I search words on Google. I don’t even realize that I’ve sunk to the grass in front of the store until I look up from my haze. 

Somehow, I lost 2 years of my life and somehow, I woke up in an alternate reality where Donald Trump is still President, having declared martial law back in 2020 when Joe Biden won a decisive victory over him in the election.  Biden was assassinated on December 18th, 2020, before he could ever take the oath of office. The date was horrifying: it was the same day his wife and daughter had died in a car accident in 1972. The nation had become gripped in what was nearly a civil war, and Trump had declared that it “wasn’t safe” to have another election. The borders remained closed and we were at war with China now. The United States was being funded by Russia, with Vladimir Putin having his own office in the White House for his frequent visits to “advise”. Somehow, the US was trying to function in a way that allowed citizens their simple freedoms, but also allowed racism, prejudice, and bigotry to run free.  

I learned that my assigned “times” to be able to shop at Walmart and most big box, “bipartisan” stores were from 12pm-5pm. Republicans shopped from 6am – 11am.  Independents got 6pm-11pm. The store closed from 11am to 12pm, and again from 5pm to 6pm, to restock. Small, local businesses were permitted to choose how they wanted to do business. A red elephant symbol appeared on Republican-owned and operated stores, and a blue donkey symbol appeared on ones owned and operated by Democrats. The Independents had an eagle with an “I” symbol affixed at their locations. The government refused to address the needs of Libertarians, and there was a lot of civil unrest because of that. They were lumped in with the Independents, a fact that irked both parties.

There were federal troops in every large city now, dispatched to try and stifle protests. There had been one defining protest during a week in July of 2020, in Portland, Oregon. Some women who called themselves “The Wall of Mothers” had formed in response to Federal interference and occupation of that city.

They had appeared in front of a federal building, locked arms, and stood, chanting. Suddenly, strangely camouflaged soldiers had appeared out of nowhere and mowed them all down, using rubber bullets. One pregnant woman had been hit by three bullets and had gone into premature labor, losing her baby.

Another was shot in the face and lost an eye. One had been trampled in the ensuing chaos and died at the hospital later. The rest were loaded into vans and driven away. Three were still missing “in custody”, despite pleas from their families and demands for transparency by the Oregon Attorney General and many other officials. It was said that they had been taken “where the Mexicans go.” Tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets were the rule of thumb, but there were lots of class-action suits being brought against the companies who manufactured these things. Apparently scores of Americans had been gravely injured or died as a result of peacefully protesting and being shot or sprayed by these federal troops. Trump didn’t care how the suits went; he was a big supporter of “a person’s right to sue.”

As I read the absolute chaos the country has descended into, I begin to cry.

We had lost one Supreme Court Justice in 2021, and another conservative had been named. When calls for a fair and balanced Supreme Court were vociferously voiced by both Democrats and Independents, Trump had merely answered, in a two-word tweet:

”Make me.”

The ”Great Pandemic of 2020” was called, simply, that. Most news outlets had simple, stark tickers at the top or bottoms of their pages and channels that continued to keep track of the numbers of those infected with COVID-19 and those who had died: state by state and national totals. Apparently, there was a vaccine, but it was only 45-52% effective, and a full one-third of the country refused to get it, because Trump had stated, “It’s not for me, I don’t think.” He continued to refuse to wear a mask, and only went out to golf, having completely given up on rallies and appearances over a fear that “some Left Wing Nutjob” would target him, “and very unfairly.”  At his last appearance on Fox National Television, interviewed by Tucker Carlson, he had appeared to weigh an estimated 390 lbs. He drooled from one side of his mouth and slurred his words. It was said he could not walk unassisted. He refused to address his immobility, insisting, instead, that he never be seen attempting to walk. Sources at the White House refused to comment on his appearance or health, declaring Trump to be “as fit as a 30-year-old.”

I rise to my feet. I cannot read any more. I need to get home and to make sure everyone I love is okay. The incredible reality – that I was somehow caught up in an alternate universe – has settled deep within the pit of my stomach, where it pours black terror into my veins. The how and the why don’t matter right now.  I stumble up the hill as quickly as I can, aware that I am running on no caffeine or food. It doesn’t matter; I am functioning on pure adrenaline.

 As I near the front of my house, a white ATA van pulls in front of it. The driver smiles and waves to me as the door slides open. I hear the sound of a lift, and suddenly, a figure pushing a walker slowly makes his way off the lift and out onto the sidewalk.

It is The Male Sibling Unit.

He grins tiredly at me and shuffles slowly to the front door. The bus driver calls out to me.

“He had a really good day at work! He’ll be tired. He’s really getting around good with that walker now!” The look on my face must startle her, because she turns off the van. “Hey,” she says, compassionately, “Chin up! I know how hard it has to be to see him have to fight so hard every time he’s gotten the virus. You do all you can to keep him safe. No one could have known he’d have a stroke this last time. But look at him! He’s such a fighter! He never gets down! I’ll bet he could get it a fourth time, and a fifth. He’s a strong guy. I admire how he just says that life’s too short and you gotta live.” Winking at me, she turns the key in the ignition. “I’ll see you Wednesday! I have to go pick up a crew at the Elm Street group home for testing.” With a short beep of the horn, she pulls slowly away.

The next thing I remember, I am coming to on a gurney in an ambulance. A figure, clad head to toe in blue and with a full-face shield and mask works over me. A neighbor found me on the pavement. I had passed out. “Hey, no worries,” he says to me as I jump at the sight of him. ”Your husband gave us all your info. He’ll follow in your car. Just relax for now. We’ll be at D-UPMC Erie before you know it.”

“E-Erie? Am I that sick?” I stammer. “What’s the matter with Bradford Hospital?” He rubs my shoulder softly. “You really did hit your head, didn’t you, Dear? Remember, Bradford closed a year ago. Budget cuts on the federal level. Insurance costs skyrocketed. Everyone goes to Erie or Buffalo now, depending on their party affiliations. It’s okay – let me give you something to help you sleep. It’s just a little, green pill.”

No.

It is not okay.

*******************************

I know, I know. It can’t happen here. The thing is, we said that about a whole host of things that did, indeed, happen. Here’s a great article on how the Trump Administration is corrupting government. And here’s a Trump timeline of shame, in case you need one.

We have less than 4 months to neutralize the batshit crazy and inject some sanity into this country’s leadership. If we allow what is happening to continue unchecked, my fear is that my science fiction will become less the musings of a writer who drank too much caffeine and allowed some of her darkest thoughts to make it onto the page and more of a prediction and a premonition.

No, it’s not reality. Let’s keep it that way.

Summertime memories

When I was a little girl, the park was right across the street from where I lived. Every ward (precinct) had a playground, as well as an elementary school. Our park was huge and had a big baseball field adjacent. At the southern end of the park, running east to west, there was a creek (“crick” if you grew up in these parts) that provided homes for many forms of life: minnows, frogs, a few snakes, beetles, and the ever-present crayfish (“crabs” if you grew up in these parts) that could grow to be as big as a little girl’s whole hand. Those crabs were the ultimate “get” for a lot of kids. They hid under rocks, like alien creatures with bodies that could be muddy green, brown, or the occasional darkest blue. Their antennae wiggled intelligently and their claws were always at the ready for some unfortunate, foolish child who dared to try and touch them from the front.

5th Ward School, where I attended from 1972-1978. This photo was from many decades before I was born. Those trees on the left and right were mammoths by the time I walked up that sidewalk. The school was at one end of the block of Rochester Street. The park was at the other end.

We would spend hours on the banks and in the silty waters of that creek during the summer, overturning rocks and catching crabs. They were deceptively adept at evading capture; you’d think you had them, only to see them effortlessly piston themselves backwards, floating through the water with their tails tucked underneath. If you timed it right, and grabbed them behind their pincers and just squeezed gently, you could pick them up and plop them into whatever container you had at the ready: a coffee can, a bowl, a big, glass jar. I never kept mine for long or surrendered them to the boys, who would cruelly poke them with sticks to see them attack the wood with their great claws or try to have the crayfish version of WFF on the hot pavement of the basketball court.

No, I would always feel sorry for them, fancying myself as a sort of facilitator of TNR for crabs. At the advanced age of 7 or 8, this was my life’s work during the summer. The idea that I was “saving” them by catching them is an irony not lost on me today, but back then, I thought I was doing noble work. You see, if you creeped eastward along the banks of the creek and then through some dense trees and brush, you entered a sort of secret spot, an emerald Shangri-La where the trees and brush were so tall, the area was completely canopied. A mammoth pipe – at least 6 feet in circumference – emerged horizontally from the ground, like a giant, rusty black hole. It ran underneath High Street, which was just east, starting up in the back yard of house #237. (When I grew up, I would become the owner of #237 and raise my kids there. That underground pipe was the bane of our existence when it would become too backed-up with debris and the creek would spill into our yard.)

Not my oasis of childhood, but similar. The creek at Droney Road, 2020.

But as a child, it was a mysterious opening that none of us ever even contemplated investigating, because we knew that within these drain pipes and dark places, there were certainly monsters. The water was pretty deep, about 2 feet, where the pipe yawned, and I would take my rescued crabs and assorted minnows to the edge near that deeper water, where I would give them an urgent, stern talking-to about staying safe and not getting caught by the boys, and then release them into that calm, cool pool of water. My hope was that they’d stay there, preferring its shady depths to the perilously low waters and dangerous terrain that exposed them to capture down below.

Then, I would sit, sometimes for hours, in that canopied, shadowy green place that was alive with flying insects and trickling water. My mother didn’t like it when I would disappear into this oasis of vegetation, rock, water, and wriggling, swimming life; I think she feared that I would travel up through the drain pipe. She didn’t need to worry about that; though I have never been afraid of the dark, I am also a true Taurus, relishing places that feed my preference for beauty and comfort. This little piece of Pennsylvania paradise suited me just fine. It was a place of solace and needed solitude; a place where a handful of us would go to enjoy the calm that even a child needs once in a while. It was the destination for two of us, when we needed to talk, or plan, or even scheme.

The sun would peek through the little holes between the leaves of the tree limbs that sheltered us overhead, making prism-like light on the water in the creek. It was like being in a diamond-encrusted cave. Sometimes, I’d rearrange rocks and look for little, round, white river rocks and hunks, thick ropes, and tendrils of green glass; remnants left behind by a glass factory that had stood not far from the creek during a bygone era when Bradford was growing by leaps and bounds and people predicted that it was going to be a booming metropolis, like New York. Even back when I sat under the shelter of those trees, in 1974, it was declining, populated primarily by blue collar workers and a handful of extremely well-off families who wouldn’t even contemplate allowing their child to play in a hill runoff creek. They took their kids to the country club or paid the money for them to spend the day at Callahan Pool, where the lifeguards served as defacto babysitters.

Me?

My babysitter was that creek, and that park, and the hills surrounding us. It was old, abandoned oil derrick shacks up in the woods and piles of junk in the junk yard, where we’d find boards and old buggy wheels and all manner of parts with which to build go-carts to race down Grove Street. It was hot, dusty afternoons playing kickball and hide-and-seek and games of chase at twilight on magical, summer nights, frolicking while our mothers bellowed our names and threatened “the paddle” if we didn’t get inside right this instant.

We didn’t fear the paddle, and we knew that, aside from some irritated shouts and maybe a swat on the behind – if they could catch us as we scurried past them for the front door – the little smiles that played on their lips that clamped down on cigarettes meant that they’d enjoyed standing at the corner, gossiping about this one and that one while they waited for us to exhaust that final, burst of energy that fueled the day.

Once inside, it was bath time, because I was almost always a filthy mess, my feet covered in dust, grass stains on my perpetually scabbed knees, dried mud underneath my fingernails from making mud pies and overturning creek rocks to save the crabs, grime caught between the folds of skin where my neck joined my shoulders.

I’d sink into the tub of water and let it run until it covered me, fascinated by the rivulets of brownish muck that would color the water quickly and mingle with the bubbles from the bubble bath. I’d sink down, underneath the water, where it was a different kind of quiet than my green canopied hideaway, and stay there until my lungs signaled an urgent return to the above. Then, I’d get to the business of washing (“worshing” if you grew up in these parts) my limbs and hair and usually behind my ears. Once that was out of the way, I could just lay back in the water and pretend I was in the ocean, letting my limbs relax and go slack. I’d examine my tan lines, marveling at how golden brown I was on my face, arms, legs, upper chest, and belly, while my other parts were a shockingly pale color. I preferred the sun-braised look of my skin to that white; somehow, it seemed to be proof of my youth and vitality. I feel the same way even today; I think that I will always feel young, as long as I am tan.

When much time had passed and my mother and grandmother had decided enough is enough, one of them would call up the stairs and tell me it was time to get out. Begrudgingly, I’d towel myself off and put on fresh panties and a summer nightgown or filmy, nylon pjs that were usually some pale, washed-out color, threadbare at the knees. I’d run a brush through my hair and then meander downstairs in my bare feet to eat a snack and watch some tv. Occasionally, there’d be an inspection of my efficiency in the bath, and nails – fingers and toes – would be clipped. “Look at you! Shriveled up like a prune! You were in too long,” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree. My ears would be cleaned with Qtips. “You could have potatoes growing in these ears!” I’d be told. Silently, I’d disagree again.

At bedtime, I would crawl underneath a sheet because it was still too hot, and listen to the droning of the tv downstairs and the crickets and peepers outside my window. The faint aroma of my mother’s cigarette would waft up the staircase, and I would feel that heavy, exhausted weight of a day played well and hard carry me into the depths of sleep.

Wash, rinse, repeat, until 1975, and the arrival of The Male Sibling Unit. Life changed then, and was not so carefree. Instead of crabs, there was a younger sibling to save, who needed my protection and vigilance. This was truly when childhood ended for me, but I am so glad to have the memories of what came before. What came after made me the tough nut with scarred shell that I am today, but what came before reminds me of who I would like to be: the sweet, soft, unmarked flesh inside of that nut.

It’s encouraging to know that she still lives within.

Glass EVERYWHERE

Look, I’m jaded af, okay? Very little surprises me, because I think humans are, well, human, and many of them have no business living in glass houses.

But today….color me whatever color “Holy fuck, I had no idea just how many skeletons could fall out of a closet” is.

I had a big family of great-aunts and uncles. My grandma had 9 siblings. One great-aunt, in particular, was perfect. I mean, she portrayed herself as such. Perfect home, perfect job, well-respected. Churchgoing. Educated. My great-uncle (my grandmother’s older brother) was cut from the same cloth. These were the people you “had to behave yourself” around. Their home was pristine, and beautiful. My grandma called her “uppity” and “a goddamned snob.”

They came to blows once, when my aunt and uncle were newlyweds and my aunt got a little too snarky with my grandma. At least, the blows came from my Scots Irish Gram, while my aunt cowered and whimpered. Grandma – she of the strawberry-blonde hair, fierce temper, and no-nonsense countenance, who would go on to attempt to murder my grandfather (you can read about that Here) with a butcher knife before leaving his deadbeat ass to support herself and two children and then marrying another dumbass who was mean to her kids so she had to take the piss out of him before leaving and deciding to use men as playtoys henceforth – did not take kindly to being poked with a stick. My aunt picked the wrong person, on the wrong day. She learned, quickly, but their bickering back and forth was the stuff of family legends. I’d never seen two women love/hate each other quite like them.

I was my aunt and uncle’s chosen favorite. I was showered with gifts, they babysat me, doted on me, and let me do things no one else could. I could go into their guest bedroom and touch all the pretty things no one else could touch, like all my aunt’s dolls and stuffed animals from childhood and her crystal decanters and fragile, porcelain figures. I was my uncle’s designated “train assistant” because their basement was a model train wonderland. They purchased special occasion dresses and shoes for me – expensive clothing my mother could never afford. They let me drink pink catawba at Christmas. My uncle adored me, but he smoked a pipe, and it both comforted/scared me, so it was rare that I even sat on his lap. My aunt spoiled the shit out of me, so much so that my mother was very jealous. She told people that “She has her sights set on my daughter. She would take her away from me if she could.” My grandmother agreed.

I wondered why such a loving couple, who obviously could have given children anything in the world, had never had kids of their own. I asked, and was told that they never had kids because they “couldn’t.”

Well, today, I know that answer to be false; at least partially. My aunt was actually able to have kids; so able, in fact, that she had a daughter in 1944, who was given up for adoption.

My aunt lived in a house absolutely filled with precious glass.

I received a letter, with proof, from that daughter today. She is 75 years old now, and wants to know her mother. She found me courtesy of my family tree on Ancestry. One of her relatives had contacted me about the possibility through Ancestry many months ago, but they were sort of vague so I forgot. She has since done her homework.  She sent me a photo of when she was younger. She looked very much like my aunt. She also sent her pre-adoption birth certificate, unsealed by the state of New York. I will, of course, gather my wits about me and provide her with everything I can; remaining relatives are far-flung and may not have the info that I do. And much info, I have. And photos.

My cousin, left. My aunt, right.

I feel conflicted, of course, given my close relationship with my aunt. Will it hurt my newfound cousin’s feelings to know that my aunt lavished so much attention on me, born when my cousin was 22 years old? Or will she realize what I did, almost immediately, after reading her letter: I was a surrogate daughter, given all the love and affection that she could not give to her own child, who she named “Becky,” a name very similar to her own. In any event, I will dig out every photo I can find, and I have a lot of writing to do. I would prefer to give her all the stories I have accumulated, all the memories, in person, but she is 75 years old now, and COVID-19 has effectively fucked up a heartwarming meeting with her.

It’s really depressing to know that I have this information now, when the cousins are scattered to the four winds and all the old people are long gone. I am about 99.9% confident that this was not something anybody, except possibly my uncle, knew about. She was living and working in Buffalo, New York, which was 100 miles away and a major trip back then. She worked in a Defense plant during the war, so her family may not have known, either. She either met soon after, or already knew my uncle (who was also stationed in New York State) because they were married 11 months later. I don’t think he was the father, because why wouldn’t they have married then? Given that we both did DNA tests and do not link as blood relations, he simply could not have been.

If this skeleton had been known, I would have already known this and not have been completely smacked upside the head with this information. This is the stuff that tenuous and volatile relationships, like my Gram’s and my aunt’s, feed upon. Would she have been looked down upon by our family? Certainly not; my mother, uncle, and I learned, the day of her funeral, that Gram herself had given birth to a stillborn daughter at age 16. The birth was attended by my great-grandma at home. I can only guess that the baby was buried, with no real ceremony, by my great-grandfather, who oversaw the cemetary grounds in those days.

However, my aunt’s family put on a lot of airs; they weren’t rich, but they did well. She tended to look down upon her sisters-in-law; she worked in offices, while they were housekeepers, factory workers, homemakers, and farmers. She had the grand, ranch-style home; they lived in apartments, trailers, or worse: still at home with great-grandma.

Still, my uncle was the salt of the earth and devoted to his family; he and my Gram were particularly close. Another family legend had them fighting, as teenagers, in the back yard. The next door neighbor was having a church-type meeting, and the attending minister was leading the guests in prayer. Suddenly, my Gram shouted, “GOD DAMN YOU, Forrie!” and my uncle shouted back, “God Damn YOU, Rhea!” At that point, the minister said “Amen.”

Funny stuff.

My aunt assimilated. She was a Rose. She, therefore, belonged. She was ensconced within a sacred trust. Even when a Rose daughter married, she did not become a Smith or a Covert or a Barr or a McKinney; her husband was now a part of the Rose clan. As Mando would say, this is the way.

My aunt and uncle in the late 40s or early 50s

No, if this was knowledge shared within the family, it would have been imparted to me to illustrate that “no one in this family gets to put on airs.” They didn’t know. That was her right. But now, everything about her genuine devotion to me makes so much sense.

I want to impart the fact that she was capable of such love to her daughter, my newfound cousin.

My aunt lived in a really thick, glass house. It did shatter, but at the right time: without anyone of importance knowing about it. I find that I respect her courage and her ability to keep such a big secret. In these days where everybody knows every fucking thing about every fucking body, right down to the ingrown hair on their butt cheek, it’s refreshing to know that I come from a family that knows how to really keep a secret. I’ve learned from the best.

I am looking forward to knowing my new cousin.