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.
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.”
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.
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.
Laugh all you want at the inexplicable prospect of finding a roll of tp to purchase in your town. I know I did, last Friday, when I saw nearly bare shelves. “Do all of these people think the virus comes out of their asses?” I mused. People cling to those comforting things that they buy when there’s a snowstorm coming, or hurricane. They buy the things that have been drummed into their heads: milk, bread, toilet paper. The herd mentality is always present in times of natural disasters looming on the horizon. Is this a natural disaster, though? None of us has ever lived through an actual pandemic in this country. The last worldwide killer that affected the US in large numbers was in 1918; my long-deceased Gram was 6.
The shuttering of nonessential businesses in my state does not really affect my day-to-day life. I don’t frequent bars or go out to eat a whole lot. We do take-out or delivery, if anything. When I joke that I’m a hermit in a hobbit hole, you laugh. Don’t, because I’m actually telling the truth.
The closure of nonessential, community-based centers DOES affect me in that now, The Male Sibling Unit has nowhere to go to 1) express himself socially, and 2) get out of my hair during the week.
He cannot close himself up in his man cave like his hermitish Elder Female Sibling Unit; as much as I might crave solitude, I also recognize his need to be around someone. That someone’s going to be me.
He also does not understand the words “social distance,” “quarantine,” or “flattening the curve.” In his world, these things do not exist. You get a cold? You (very reluctantly) take some medication and sniff, sneeze, and cough your way through the day. The Male Sibling Unit has an extremely high tolerance for pain and discomfort; I have mentioned this before. He has had
a fractured ankle
a fractured wrist
Shingles all over his torso
Two testicular surgeries
along with a host of childhood viruses and disease; when he got chickenpox, he was so covered in pox, my mother bound his hands with mittens and tape. He was a walking model for full-body Calamine lotion – a pink nightmare.
Every time, he has taken, at best, Tylenol. Throughout all of these maladies, the only time I have ever known he was definitely sick, it has always been 5 seconds before he’s vomited all over the toilet. My cue to shout, “GET TO THE BATHROOM!!!” is when he stands, motionless, in the hallway, whimpering forlornly/urgently.
At this utterance, I feel my blood going cold in my veins.
The Male Sibling Unit finds it inexplicable that I am insisting that he tell me if he isn’t feeling well; even just a bit warm, and tired, or a runnier nose than normal, given his seasonal allergy situation. He finds it laughable that I am urging caution, and that something “like a cold” could be dangerous. I have to describe COVID-19 this way because he cannot comprehend the intricacies of the virus. He was young when he had pneumonia; he doesn’t remember what that felt like. He fails to understand contagion, and that this new coronavirus is much more contagious than the flu.
All he understands is that he doesn’t get to see his friends. He can’t go to work. We can’t lolligag at stores, looking at things. Going out to dinner anytime soon isn’t going to happen. That it could get exponentially worse is not even something his brain can make room for. The whole world may be grinding gears and halting, and we all might be experiencing varying levels of unease, fear, uncertainty, and stress, but for him, this means fuck-all. His WORLD has changed drastically. And he is not going peacefully.
I’ve spent the evening, once again – for what seems like the thousandth time – trying to explain things to him. The call from his rehabilitation center, where he works, was expected after the Governor announced stricter measures to flatten the curve. It didn’t lessen the blow; when I told him, his face just fell. He asked, in a little boy voice, “Why?”
He has asked at least a dozen times since. He has raged, talking to himself and saying, “FUCK the virus.” He’s made pointedly miffed Facebook posts, his displeasure on full display. He waited until the husband left for work to begin needling me; he knows that if he blows my cool and I erupt, his brother-in-law will be all up in his bidness.
“When will I go back?”
“Why did that Governor do this?”
‘When will I see my friends?”
“Why can’t I go out?”
“What do you mean, no Mexicannextweek?”
“But I’m not sick.”
“I’m pissed off.”
“When will I go back?”
If this continues as long as experts are warning, I may not make it. I won’t be a COVID-19 victim; I will have a stroke.
I wonder when I should sit him down and explain exactly what it was like to watch our mother die, swiftly (for us) but agonizingly slowly (for her) of pneumonia. I wonder if I could then apply that scenario to his girlfriend, who is 63 and has advancing COPD. Would that be too traumatic?
Sometimes, shock and awe is all that works. It may be all that stands between my sanity and simply acquiescing to his maddening questions and incessant prodding.
By the way, watching someone die of pneumonia sucks. Being told their brain has died, along with their kidneys, their digestive system, and their respiratory system, is horrifying. Knowing that their heart is choking, gasping, and wheezing as it attempts to pump blood to organs that lay, deceased, on the open plain of their body’s hemispheres is actually heartbreaking to ponder. Having to make the decision to shut off the respirator and other machines is surreal.
Now, imagine having to do that all because someone decided this social distancing was hyped, people are overreacting, it’s “not as bad as it sounds”, it’s “just a cold,” or the worst: “a hoax.” They thought one, some, or all of these things and then in turn infected your loved one, who is elderly or immunodeficient. They did this because COVID-19 inconvenienced them.
I get that the future seems uncertain. I know that people are frightened. Will we be able to work? To pay our bills? Will someone we know get sick? Will we get sick? I know that we all cling to the things we know: familiarity and routine; routine being probably the most important thing. Right now, a virus has forced us to reconsider those routines, and nothing looks familiar. We’re watching our own lives unfold like an apolcalyptic thriller. This month was written by Stephen King.
If you’re refusing to see the danger of a virus that is, at the moment, defying assumptions, I think maybe I should sit down with you and describe what my mother’s death looked like, and how it broke me in small increments until I was in pieces. I’m still gluing them back together.
In the meantime, wash your fucking hands, order a pizza from a small business, and cue up Netflix. It’s going to be a looooong, hot summer.
Oh, and….Happy St. Paddy’s Day! Drink a pint or twelve. It won’t stop the virus from marching on, but at least you’ll be shitfaced for a day. My people have elevated suffering to an artform. ☘
That title is true, by the way. Look it up. I’ve got one more story about Childhood: The Teen Years to tell.
I promise you, my life hasn’t been one sad situation after another. I haven’t been victimized from start to finish. There have been beautiful times of love and happiness and camaraderie and acceptance. There are, as a matter of fact. Every, single blessing that has come my way has been set upon my altar of gratitude and acknowledged. Some, I didn’t realize until they were long past, but the point is that I did celebrate and give thanks, after moving obstructions out of the way that made it impossible to see. I am fortunate to have what I have, to know what I know, and to be loved. Luck hasn’t anything to do with it.
So, onto this last story, which has been something I’ve wanted to write about, but has proven difficult. However, with the recent, worldwide furor and concern shown a young Australian boy, Quaden Bayles, who has been relentlessly bullied because he has a form of dwarfism – you can read his story HERE if for some reason you haven’t run across it – I want to share my bullying story in more graphic detail. Do I think it will help stop bullying? Not for a single minute. Am I going to trot out the hope that “if this story moves one person, one parent, to begin teaching their kids that kindness and acceptance is the right way to be, I will have done my job”?
No. Fuck no. I don’t want one person to get the memo. I want thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Everyone.
I wrote about my suicide attempt in the 7th grade in This Blog Post and gave the vaguest of details about the situation that drove me to it. Now, I’m going to elaborate, and change some names not to protect them, but to protect me in the extremely rare instance that those who know who they are and what they did want to call me a liar. It’s doubtful, but in this age of lawsuits and people crying “fake news,” it’s necessary. Okay.
7th grade was a nightmare, from beginning to end. Not only was I in a new school, with new structure, and being instructed that “this is how you learn to be responsible,” but my home life was a shitshow of magnificent proportions. My grandmother’s dementia was progressing, and coupling that with her rapier-sharp tongue, it was really ugly when she got going.
My mother was deep inside herself at this point, being dragged down by the daily skirmishes with Gram, as well as coming to terms with the fact that she now had a severely handicapped child, in the form of The Male Sibling Unit, who she must advocate for.
The late 70s were still unchartered waters where advocacy was concerned; children with mental and physical disabilities were relegated to group homes and institutions and sequestered in classrooms away from “normal” children. Mainstreaming was not yet a thing. Not only did she have to come to terms with the finality of this thing, but she was also mourning the breakup of her covert relationship with our father. She couldn’t blame The Male Sibling Unit for our father’s removal of his affection, so she picked me. At the age of 9, I was informed that I had ruined her life. It was a heavy burden to carry after assuming, until The Male Sibling Unit’s diagnosis, that I was loved and cherished. In any event, she needed a target for her anger, hurt, and fear, and I was the closest one available. I made it easy for her with my dogged attempts to change her mind. I remembered a mother who had once loved me. Maybe, if I tried hard enough to make her smile, she would be that mother again. It never worked. But I still had to try.
So, things were really ramping up at home, and our financial situation was, as always, perilous. We lived on Gram’s tiny pension, her Social Security, and public assistance programs: cash and food stamps. The Male Sibling Unit was not receiving SSI just yet; that would come soon. The summer before 7th grade, there was some sort of government crisis or strike, and no one in Pennsylvania was receiving their public assistance. When the checks were held up in August of that year, my mother told me there would be no new school clothes. She simply didn’t have the money for us both. The Male Sibling Unit was beginning a preschool program, so he came first. She did acquiesce one afternoon at a local retail store, and bought me a gauzy peasant blouse and a kelly green vest because they were on clearance and the total for both was only $4.50. I would at least have them for my first day. My jeans from 6th grade were still wearable, but they were unwashed Wranglers with slightly flared legs. The straight leg, designer jeans fashion movement was in full swing at this point; you wore them tight, and you rolled them up (pegged them) right at the ankles. My old jeans could not be rolled up and even if they could, I had grown taller that year. They were decidely high-waters now. There were no new shoes, either. I had a pair of clogs my Gram had bought me the year before at a discount store for $7.99 that still fit.
What a sight I was that first day, in my mauvy blouse and green vest, my high-waters, and my white socks in those cheap clogs. I don’t need to talk too much about how important it is to try and fit in when you begin at “the high school” – this was quasi-high, since we still had “junior high” and not the middle schools of today. This was the big audition for how it was going to go at the big school, when you became a sophomore. You’re with your little class from elementary school, the same 20-30 kids you’ve known since kindergarten, but now, you’re mixed in with a half-dozen other classes of kids your age who don’t know you. You’re not in one classroom, but a whole series of them, moving from room to room. You don’t get much one-on-one from teachers, who simply have too many kids to keep track of.
You’re on your own, and friendships are important. You need others to cling to in those first days and weeks, while you navigate semi-independence. A class system begins immediately, too, and you might find that you were a sort of big fish at your elementary school, but you’re plankton now. You’ll sink or swim, depending on a whole list of variables: how you look, sound, smell, act. Sight is the first thing 12 year-olds used to judge back then. Were there other kids in the same boat as me, or worse? I am certain there were. I can only relate my experience. And it was not great.
I made a few new friends in homeroom. There were some very nice kids who chose to look past my sorry state and to get to know the person I could let them know. My homeroom teacher was, at first sight, a beautiful lady who dressed elegantly, and emoted with a restrained grace. She was a cool cucumber. Her husband had been my art teacher the year before, and he was a lovely man, so funny and kind and talented. He let us listen to music on Fridays and even swore sometimes. I was eager to impart, to my homeroom teacher, that I had loved taking her husband’s art classes. She shut that down immediately with her initial appraisal of me. You know that way some people have of looking you up and down and finding you wanting? This is precisely what she did to me, and continued to do, the entire 3 years of junior high. I mean, I was no prize: dumpy, bad hair, awful skin, bad clothes, and likely reeking of my mom’s stale cigarette smoke and fried food from home. She would only speak to me when she wished to put me down. Other kids loved her, and she favored the kids of privilege. I was relieved to never actually have her for English, which is what she taught.
As an aside? When my daughter was in high school, she had this teacher for a class. She adored her. This teacher adored my daughter. They had dozens of positive interactions on Facebook and after my daughter graduated. My hope is that maybe she evolved and became a nicer person. I know she was young when I had her, and she went on to have her own kids and then go through a divorce from that cool art teacher. Maybe she learned some empathy. That didn’t stop me from wanting to post hateful, childish shit whenever she was praising my beautiful daughter, and showering her with compliments. “Remember me? You couldn’t stand me from 1979 to 1982. You treated me like garbage. You belittled and dismissed me and I almost died because of it. You were a contributing factor. As an educator, you failed me. Cunt.“
I never spoke up, and now she’s retired, and only occasionally shows up in some local social media. I still dislike her. And so, I dismiss her from having any importance, the same way she did me. When a person shows you who they are the first time, believe them.
The details of the events leading to my suicide attempt in early May of 1980 are chronicled in the blog I directed you to. The relentless bullying, over months, not days, had taken their toll.
One classmate was especially cruel. I became his target early in the school year. He was a little guy who looked like a cherub until he opened his mouth, and then it was all loud joking and sarcasm and outrageous behavior. He had a compadre who was as diminutive and blonde as he was, and who had the same first name. They usually got into trouble together and we referred to them as “the two Toms” (name has been changed) and they did everything together – including harass me.
“EWWWW, you are so fucking ugly. Why are you so ugly?” Tom would say to me on occasions, like lunchtime, when I couldn’t escape and we ended up at the same assigned table. He would then detail and amplify the ways in which I was so physically abhorrent for the whole group. His wit was sharp and his words were vicious. The other Tom would agree and snicker. Sometimes, other girls would defend me and tell him to stop, but usually, they just giggled while I sat there, red-faced and ashamed. “Why is your face like that? If you were my kid, I’d have put you out of your misery.”
Shortly before things completely imploded and I went off the deep end, he leveled me. “I don’t know why you don’t just kill yourself. Please, just do it and make the world a better place.”
After committing the capital offense of making a joke at the expense of the most popular girl in 7th grade, life became an exercise in futility. Every day that I went to school that late Winter and early Spring, I was either ignored or taunted. If I asked a question, my classmates would say things like “Don’t fucking talk to me, you ugly loser” or tell me to go away. The couple of so-called friends I did have were embarassed to be seen with me because then they’d be taunted, too, and it was just so important to fit in and be accepted. When a ship is going down, you get as far away from it as you can. The teachers didn’t intervene; were they even aware that my life was being torn limb from limb? I doubt it. I never confided in any adult, not even the one teacher who was kind to me, Mrs. D. The adults at home, who were supposed to love and protect me, did not. Why would I think that strangers would extend that kindness? I was alone. And being alone was unbearably painful. I have never felt that exact pain with quite the same intensity since, although I have struggled with suicidal thoughts all my life.
I got through it, after that one, mammoth act that robbed me of so much. I wanted the hate to cease. I felt that I could not exist in a world where there was not a single person who saw any worth in me. All of the adults in my life utterly failed me; the first adult who saw me was that ER doctor who looked at my lab results and asked me, quietly but with a kind urgency, “Sweetheart, what did you take?” and who afterward told my mother that her little girl needed help, for whatever reason.
After I had recuperated physically, I began seeing a therapist who drew out all those broken pieces inside me and fit them all together, making a scarred, but whole person out of me again. This therapist taught me how to cope, and what to do, and how to avoid letting those kids get to me. She then met with my mother, and then my grandmother, along with an evaluating psychiatrist, who spoke some very harsh, difficult truths after he evaluated us all. I was released from any responsibility for the way things were, because I was an innocent. He told my mother to pull her personal shit together and to quit taking out the choices she had made, on her own, on everyone else: especially me. And he advised her to “get that crazy woman out of your house, for the good of everyone”- my grandmother. It took her a year, but she did.
A part of me did die that day. The part that cared about what those kids thought was laid to rest. The part of me that survived was filled with hatred for them all, and so that part of me was placed into a medically-induced coma for a time. It was the part of me that could believe that people were capable of being kind and good. I worked hard, quietly and diligently, to fit in, but under my own terms. Every penny I earned babysitting and through gifts was used for my appearance; clothes, shoes, toiletries and makeup, hair. My mother never bought me another article of clothing for school even when she could have. I “looked” the part at last, but inside, I was seething. The ones who hurt me the most? I built brick walls around them and they ceased to exist. That talent I have has served me well throughout life.
A couple of years ago, I ran into “Tom” at a restaurant. He had moved away after graduation and along the way, changed his name. He lived a tumultuous life in California, was an alcoholic and an addict, and had also come out as a gay man. Through a school acquaintance, I had learned that he had lived a nomadic lifestyle, burning bridges as he went along. I had rarely thought of him and, when I did, felt nothing. I was therefore not prepared to see him when he introduced himself to the husband and I as our server. His burned bridges had brought him back home. He recognized me immediately and began effusively gushing and fawning over me. I was polite and I think, kind, but the husband could feel an undercurrent of something as he left our table. I told him, tersely and calmy, feeling a bit numb. We ate, left him our customary 20% tip, and departed. Only then did I allow myself some anger.
One day, my son mentioned him, because he rode the same bus to work as my son did to campus. They struck up a conversation, because this guy is a chatterbox and as ebullient as anything. He had mentioned to my son that we had gone to school together. I told my son how that had gone. My son went from thinking it was a cool happenstance to wanting to pummel him into the pavement the next time he saw him. I told him it didn’t matter. I could see this guy was as much a trainwreck as I had been told he was before he came back home, and I knew he’d be burning his Bradford bridges eventually. It took him a couple of years, but he managed to alienate everyone who was kind to him and now he’s somewhere down South, stacking the blocks again so he can knock them down. I wish him, well……nothing. I wish him karma, and that he has the kind of life he deserves.
Bullying is just the worst, don’t you agree? Haven’t we all been bullied by someone in our lives? That my experience included many someones doesn’t make my story any more or less poignant than someone else’s. How do we stop this kind of unacceptable behavior that causes little boys, like Quaden Bayles, to want a knife to stab himself? That causes 13 year-old girls, like I was, to ingest a massive cocktail of pills? The answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that we can’t stop trying to find that answer. And kindness, people. For fucking fuck’s sake……kindness.
For more information about bullying and what you can do, you can visit this website .
This was my bullying story. It feels good to see it in print. Now, it can fuck off. I give it wings to fly away. Bye bitch.
Did you ever believe you were completely over a past hurt, only to have it slap you in the face again, out of the blue?
I thought I was truly over the hurt my mother could cause me. Throughout life, and then after her death, when I discovered how little she really cared about how she was leaving things when she died, she had the ability to really cut me with her words.
She was always extremely ignorant about all the things I had to do in order to keep her at home; from dealing with her bills, her house, her health, diet – everything. I could have taken the easy route when she told me she was afraid to live alone, and decided she needed to be in a nursing home. She was adamant that she could still be mostly independent, and that all she needed was to be in the apartment in our first floor. She felt safe with us nearby, so I readily agreed. I wanted her to be happy, and so we did this without a single hesitation.
It was hard; she had congestive heart failure, diabetes, and high blood pressure. She was in the beginning stages of macular degeneration. Mere months after moving into her apartment, she fell on the afternoon of Halloween and broke her hip. We spent the afternoon in the ER; I raced home at 5:30 to hand out candy with The Male Sibling Unit while my daughter took my grandson trick-or-treating, then went back to the ER to sit, until they finally admitted her. That Halloween was a horror in so many different ways; we made jokes about the cliché of her breaking a hip, but deep inside, I wondered if this signaled the beginning of some sort of end.
The end would not come for 5 more years, but those years were a blur; work, work, pay double bills; attempt to get her to go out and socialize and have a life beyond the walls of her apartment and her computer; try to keep her from eating food that could kill her; policing what others brought into the house for her because she could be so persuasive, telling unknowing friends and family members that I selfishly denied her and that she was “allowed” to have things like
An Arby’s Reuben
Whopper malt balls
You name it, she would wheedle it. I have never discovered who the male culprit was who brought her beer, which my daughter found hiding in her closet underneath a pile of clothes; I suspect it was my enabling, alcoholic, piece of shite father. She would only admit, sullenly, that “a friend” brought it to her. It was a constant battle; we could not keep The Male Sibling Unit’s Christmas or Easter candy in her apartment for her to gift him because she would unapologetically consume every bit of it, forcing me to spend more money on replacements at the last minute. I learned my lesson after the first couple of times and stopped letting her have any control over it.
Throughout those years, she would act like a child, demanding her own way, fighting against my efforts to see to it that she ate right; I would buy her sugar-free candy and remind her that she needed to eat only a few pieces a day. She would agree, then promptly binge it.
Do you know what happens when someone binges on two or three bags of sugar-free candy?
There is a shit storm. A literal shit storm. All over her bed, the floor, over to her commode we kept in her room so that accidents could be avoided. My daughter was her home health aide; she was paid, by the state, to care for her and was the only person my mother would agree to allow to care for her. On those mornings after a candy binge, my daughter’s lips would press into a thin, terse slash on her face and she would be short-tempered all day. Hell, I’d be a tsunami of black hate if I had to clean up pools of shit, too.
(As an aside: I will never do that to my family. If my bowels become that loose and my ambulation so poor that 4 feet is too far to travel before I create a mudslide, put my damned old, wrinkly ass in a nursing home, please. You have it in writing on the internet, and everyone knows that nothing ever truly goes away on the internet.)
I would look, constantly, for healthy, delicious alternatives, cook recipes, buy special foods she loved. None of this was cheap and her $57 a month in food stamps didn’t get us through 2 days, let alone a month. Diabetes assures that eating is not a cheap endeavor.
I navigated the strict parameters of her finances; in order to qualify for help in the home and other, assorted medical supplies, she was not permitted to keep savings or own anything considered income. Her house? Had to go. No one wanted to buy it, and so it went back to the bank. Her car? Had to go. If anyone can explain to me how a car is somehow considered “income”, I would be all ears. She basically needed to be destitute in order to qualify for home health care, oxygen, a commode, a wheelchair, walker, diapers, and cases of Ensure Glucerna. Don’t get me started on the bullshit hoops we must jump through in this dumpster fire of a healthcare system and the care of senior citizens because you just fucking know that I will find a way to blame Donald Trump even though he was not the President in 2007; because if he can go off like a demented, batshit, modern-day King George every hour on Twitter then he deserves everything he gets. She didn’t want to be in a nursing home; this was the price.
Some might ask, “Why not let her do as she wished? She was a grown woman.” Well, she may have been, but I was ever-conscious of her decline, both physically and mentally. When you become caretaker of your parent, it is a fucked-up, ass-backwards relationship in which you become the parent and the parent becomes the child. The petulant, stubborn, sometimes bratty child. She insisted she would behave; she wanted to. I would be transported back to the day we found her in her house, slowly turning blue, groaning and clammy and cold, and how it took the ambulance ages (2 minutes) to get there.
How I arrived behind the ambulance at the ER and made my way back to the room she was in, only to find her vascular surgeon, who was on call, slamming his fist into her chest, shouting, “Come ON, dammit!” while a cardiologist and nurses hooked her up to machines. I must have made a noise, because a nurse looked up and rushed out to walk me back to my husband in the waiting room.
How she lay, intubated, for a week in the ICU before she was stable enough to have a pacemaker implanted. She spent another week there, recovering from her ordeal.
I, on the other hand, didn’t have the privilege of recovering. What was seen could never be unseen, and for almost six years, I doggedly tried to keep that scenario from happening again.
Until it did, that day in September 2012, when I took one look at her face and her condition and knew, in my gut, that this was it. Oh, I denied it all weekend, but that knowledge in my gut was a hard, cold stone; I knew that as bad as the first time had been and how hard I tried to hold her life together while attempting to also live mine, this time was It.
It took a long time to forgive myself; I felt that I had failed her somehow. All of that sacrifice, all that hard work; it had all been for nothing. I couldn’t save her.
Learning to forgive myself and to let myself off the hook was a battle I almost lost. It has taken 4 years to get to this point of grace.
Tonight, I was looking for a couple of my old, porcelain dolls because I want to reinvent them into ghoulish, Annabelle-esque pieces of art. In a storage bin, where I was looking for a shoe that had come off one of the dolls, I found a stationary tablet.
In it was a letter my mother had been writing to a man she met online; she was notorious for her online romances and this guy had been in “our” lives for years. That he was my age was weird as shit; he lived in Scotland and came to visit once, right after she broke her hip. He apparently had never had a girlfriend and had anger issues; one of her friends related these things to me and said that he had lived with his mother until her death and that my mother represented a relationship similar to that, albeit all romantical and shit.
Creepy as fuck, huh? A true Eeeewwww factor. But, the heart wants what it wants and they seemed to make each other happy. She was happy.
Except when she wasn’t, and was telling him and anyone else who might listen that I controlled her life and that she would be much happier on her own. Reminding her that she had made the choice to move in with us and that her total of about $400 a month in Social Security and food stamps didn’t go very far with utilities, groceries, and various other expenses? It wasn’t worth the black scowl she would shoot at me before she turned her face toward her computer screen and was once again lost in the world of Yahoo Messenger. We bought most of her groceries, paid for her TV, internet, and even added a line on our cell phone plan for her. All she needed to do was profess a desire for something and I would do whatever it took to make it happen. Spend $100 on gifts for her Scottish boyfriend and then mail them to Edinburgh? No problemo.
So, in this tablet, I found the letter to her man, and, as usual, it contained criticisms of me and her musing that she could just “take her house back” and he could just “move here” and they could live together. This was about a year before she died. Now, her house was gone, and not “gettable” and living “on her own” was impossible without the loss of all the services that helped sustain her life. $400 a month wasn’t going to keep her afloat; let’s not even get into the near-impossibility of this man being able to get a visa to live in romantic harmony with a woman old enough to be his mother.
My head knows all of this.
Tell that to my heart; the muscle that contracted painfully when I saw her beloved handwriting tearing me to pieces in that efficient way she had. I read the handwriting I’ve known since birth and adored, because it was hers; it was so neat, graceful, and lovely. It was crafted by her hand, which was utterly soft and delicately feminine; the hand I held to my face after she forced me, by her own resistance to put her wishes in writing (oh, the irony), to decide to let her die. The hand I bathed with my tears that seemed to be wrung out from my heart. I felt drenched in guilt for telling them to turn off the machines. My skin fairly reeked of that sour cowardice; my clothes were dipped in its stench. Everything I had done all those years had come down to this final evening, in a hospital 100 miles away from home; away from her two cats, whose hearts were broken when she did not come home; and a Scottish boyfriend, who faded away after about two months of communication following her death. I wonder if he replaced her eventually; I wonder if his damaged heart is still broken.
In her own hand, she denigrated me again, from the grave. That the handwriting deteriorated as I read the page was telling; toward the end, her eyesight was really faltering.I doubt she even realized that her beautiful handwriting was but chicken scratch toward the bottom of the page.
I should be able to take this with a grain of salt, because I know she was not well, and she did admit that she had been extremely critical of me in the months before her death.
I should be able to get over this. And I know that l will. But right now? It hurts. I don’t want to hurt right now, when I’m crawling out of the chasm that Depression throws me into. In my head, it’s just words on a piece of paper, phantom scrawls of a narcissistic woman not in her right mind at the end of her life. It cannot physically harm me, and that tablet can be thrown away, or burned, and forgotten.
The Male Sibling Unit and I braved the mist of a particularly soggy morning today, and walked up the hill to collect small stones for my garden footpath creations. I’m making some decorative, flat discs fashioned out of concrete, and needed some interesting little stones and pebbles to decorate them with. I found a wonderful piece of slate that had been run over by a car and broke apart in a perfect mosaic of a rose. I can’t wait to paint and place it.
The Male Sibling Unit was notified, last night, that he will, in fact, be competing in the Swim Meet at the State Special Olympics next week. He had been told he was an alternate about three weeks ago, but the head of our county committee called me on Wednesday to let me know that The Male Sibling Unit would be going. I was waiting for the congratulatory letter to hand him. Ever since he found out he probably wouldn’t be going, he has made life very difficult. He lacks the ability to see outside of his own wants and desires; you might call it selfish narcissism, but I simply refer to it as The Way He Is. He can no more help it than I can make it FUCKING STOP RAINING. I blame the committee that chooses the participants; there used to be a hard and fast rule that competitors could not go every, single year; they would alternate, attending every OTHER year. This allowed all the participants a chance to enjoy three days of competition and fun at Penn State, where the State Special Olympics are held every year. It was a more than fair process. For whatever reason – maybe lack of participants, although I seriously doubt that – The Male Sibling Unit has been attending “States”, as we refer to it, every year for at least a decade. He has competed in track and field as well as swimming, and even bowled a couple of times. The past 5 years have been exclusively for swimming, because his legs swell due to the diabeetus. He’s amazing in the water, where his strongest category is the backstroke.
Nature is a funny fucking duck; she gifts in areas when she takes away in others. He may lack the ability to reason in an advanced way, but I’ll bet he can beat your ass swimming. You want him and not David Hasselhoff saving your ass if you find yourself drowning, because The Male Sibling Unit is true Baywatch material. The Hoff was probably using a stunt double.
Anyway, The Male Sibling Unit has been giddy as fuck ever since his coach messaged him, and I truly want to fart in her general direction or do something offensive to let her know that I am not pleased that she let the cat out of the bag. Not only did she ruin my surprise when the letter came, but now, instead of maybe 2 swift days of deliriously happy babbling and text messages and oral list-making and constant interjections about States into every conversation and when I say “every” I mean every – even if it happens to be about explosive diarrhea or an upcoming colonoscopy – I shall now be treated to 5 days of deliriously happy babbling and text messages and oral list-making and constant interjections about States into every conversation. Did I mention constant?
Don’t get me wrong: I am really happy for him. He absolutely loves participating, and as he is 44 now, there probably aren’t many years of competition left. I love that he can be with his friends, and make new ones, and be enveloped in the magic that is a Special Olympics event. It is a truly beautiful thing to see individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities shining brightly and taking part in a camaraderie with other competitors and the volunteers who are so awesome. They are stars; every, single one.
I was just hoping to not lose my shit and explode with frank and genuine exhaustion before he leaves and I am treated to three glorious days of peace and quiet; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The fact that The Husband has Friday and Saturday off is even more exciting.
We can eat steak without me having to prepare a different kind of meat for The Male Sibling Unit because he choked on a piece once, ten years ago, and is now quite adamant that he will choke again if subjected to its deliciousness. When he sees me place steaks in the shopping cart, the interrogations begin:
“What am I gonna eat?”
“I’m gonna have hamburger patties, right?”
“You could get me cube steak.”
“I don’t know what I can eat.”
We can jump in the car and take a short trip, just us, which doesn’t happen very often, and not have to worry about blood sugar readings.
We can have loud sex without the risk of an interrogation the next day (“What were you yelling about when I was in my room watching The Price is Right last night?”) or even worse, PeeWee Herman-like laughter coming from upstairs at an, ummm… crucial moment.
More than likely, we will simply spend three days breathing, with an occasional “Hope he’s having fun” interjected here and there. It will go quickly, that three days of peace, and then The Male Sibling Unit will return, triumphantly, with whatever medals he has won. There are always a couple and last year, there was gold.
So yeah, only 2 days of nervous prep was preferrable to 5, because by the end of 5, I am a gigantic ball of nervous, bajiggity twitch, likely exploding once or twice (or a dozen) times with
“Could we PLEASE talk about something else?”
“For the last time, YES you can pack your suitcase Wednesday.”
“No, I do not need to tell you what I’m going to be up to while you’re gone.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I hope you get the gold AGAIN and become THE TWO-TIME GOLD MEDAL CHAMPION.”
Time apart is good for the both of us. I use it to recharge and resolve to be a better sister, and I hope he uses it to remember that I’m the only sister he’s got.
Oh, who am I kidding?
He’ll return to interrogate me with demands for a play-by-play of our activities while he was gone and assurances we did, indeed “miss him”. He will investigate the cupboards, the fridge, and the freezer for new groceries he can plunder, and his hawk-like attention to detail will ferret out ANY addition to the house, be it a new rag rug in the bathroom or a new coffee cup from the Dollar Tree.
Finally, he will ask when his “celebration dinner” will commence – because we reward even a bronze or a fourth place ribbon with a special meal.
Alas, it won’t be steak. But it will likely be bangers and mash. At least it won’t be fish sticks or chicken tenders. I’ve successfully trained his pallet to request fancier food, even if it does come in tube-like form.
Here’s to hoping that the next 4.5555896 days don’t result in high blood pressure and an ER visit because I am sure all the blood vessels in my head have exploded.
The Male Sibling Unit has been inconvenienced AF today, much to his irritation.
*GASP* I asked him to accompany me to the post office to mail a package and then, adding insult to injury, I asked him to help me carry stuff home from the grocery store. This threw his “schedule” off about 10 minutes total (Oh FUCK, there’s a SKIP-BO tournament at STEPS today!!) The needling, angry comments persisted until – in a fit of anger as I watched my last fuck drift off, like a helium-filled balloon into the sky – I LOSTMY SHIT.
In the middle of a street. A dead one, thank Christ.
In gravely quiet tones (Clint Eastwood has nothing on me) I took my stance and warned him that if he spoke one more word – just one, or even a fragment of one – I would NOT be replying and furthermore, I would take immediate, consequential action upon arriving home. Go ahead, Punk: make my day.
The Male Sibling Unit blinked, perhaps not understanding me. “Why?” he managed to ask, uncertain as to why I would want to refrain from reacting or replying to his witty repartee and chiding banter and irritating-as-fuck declarations of obstinate fury because oh my fucking god, SKIP-BO STARTS AT 2PM AND IT IS 1:42PM.
I countered his why with “Why should I listen to you say things that just piss me off? Does it make you happy to ignore me when I ask you to stop and does it thrill you to upset me? Hmmm? Does that delight you?” Now I was channeling Jack Nicholson’s Joker and not Dirty Harry.
Something in my tone, or on my face, seemed to actually connect with him, and he replied quietly, and with mild surprise, “No, it doesn’t.”
We resumed our walk and the rest of the trip home was blissfully silent.
And then, like a light switch being flipped, he resumed with the attitude as soon as we closed the door behind us. The walk to the community center takes him about 5 minutes, so getting there on time, or maybe just a minute or two late, wasn’t going to be a problem.
The Male Sibling Unit apparently doesn’t grasp the meaning of “self-sabotage” and so he commenced to do just that with flawless execution. 10s across the board, folks! I asked him to bring his cat’s dish down from his room so I could fill it. I listened, overhead, as he walked into the bathroom at least three times, back into his room, slamming the door, and then, as I stood with the cat food mixed, and ready to go into the bowl, he came down the stairs…..empty-handed. He stood on the landing and asked, with the fakest innocence dripping from his voice that I have ever heard, “Do you need Ragnar’s dish?”
Dirty Harry returned, once again. Or maybe a combination of him and the “Get off my lawn” character Eastwood portrayed with such realism. I was getting tired of this.
“Did I ask you to bring it down?” I menaced, digging my nails into the palm of my hand so as to not slap the piss out of him. If ever there was a moment in which I deserved the Medal of Freedom – since apparently the requirements are much more relaxed now – it was this one. Tiger Woods got one for much, much less.
“Well YEAH. Duh.”
Again, I beseech you: am I not the most worthy of the Medal of Freedom? I ask this because The Male Sibling Unit is still alive; I didn’t punch him in his large schnozz or Gibbs-slap the gray matter out of his bald head. I growled at him, when he returned with the bowl, “Take this to Ragnar and then get the fuck out of my sight.” The Male Sibling Unit stomped back up to his room, shouting, “I’m NOT GOING. I’m STAYING HOME.”
This, right here, is a prime example of what I encounter almost every day with The Male Sibling Unit because of his intellectual impairment. I share with you the funny stuff, the sweet stuff, and most of you think that life with The Male Sibling Unit must be one hilarious conversation or incident after another. It must leave me feeling so blessed.
I do. I am. But days like this are the norm, and days like this, I don’t talk about. Maybe I should. Maybe I do him a great disservice by making it seem as if he is a barrel of laughs and his hysterical antics are a constant source of delight for me. Sure, there are many, but he is, after all, human. He has bad days, too. And he has less ability to cope with them than others do, and so it falls upon me to “manage” those moods, and outbursts, and angry moments when he bites his hand or hits the wall or slams a broom handle into the screen of his television (true fucking story), shattering it. Most of the time, and especially when his schedule deviates just a millimeter off course, The Male Sibling Unit is a 6 year-old trapped in the body of a diabetic, hyperthyroid-encumbered 44 year-old man. It is hard. Hard for me to remain the Zen-like, big sister who has in truth been his mother figure since he was a baby. Hard for him to control the narcissism that is as much a part of him as his eye color.
Maybe I don’t always handle such moments with the patience and grace that I should. Today, certainly, was not my best moment. All I could think about was that if I didn’t get him out of my sight, I might lose my shit again, and wake The Husband up with my Banshee screech. He worked all night; hearing me Channel My Mother would not be the best way to be awakened.
“The FUCK you ARE,” I shouted after The Male Sibling Unit as he stomped up the stairs. “Feed the cat and GO TO STEPS.”
He practically ran out the door, tossing a meek “See ya later” at me as he breezed past.
Glass of wine mid-afternoon? Why, I do think I will.
Last minute details fill my brain as I move about on this Friday before Christmas. It is also the Solstice, so I want to take the day to reflect and be grateful for the year and the blessings the universe has bestowed upon me. Quiet observation and reflection are needed, along with some finishing touches to some gifts I have been crafting. I also have the last wave of brown boxes scheduled to land on my doorstep, which is good timing, because most are for a certain 43-year-old who still believes in Santa.
Today, The Male Sibling Unit is off to his former place of employment to take part in their annual Christmas fete. Then, he will spend one last evening at his community center before the holiday. He was very concerned about the bus schedule because the party began at 11:30 am and he wouldn’t be actually getting on the bus until that time for his approximately ten-minute ride to the workshop.
“What will they do?” he asked me worriedly yesterday. We had been out, doing some shopping, and were lugging many heavy bags the short distance up the hill to the house. By short, I mean 2 small blocks, and I was slightly winded and overwhelmingly affected by the chaos in the stores and The Male Sibling Unit’s “butt talk”, as The Husband and I lovingly (exasperatedly) refer to anything that comes out of a person’s mouth that we deem a crock of shit. I stopped, set my bags on the ground, and eyed him.
“What will who do?” I asked, genuinely mystified.
“My friends!” he replied in an annoyed tone, as if I should have presumed this. “The workers! The bosses!” At this, I did “get it”, which both irritated and amused me, as most acts of narcissism on the part of The Male Sibling Unit do. Nevertheless, I persisted in acting clueless. It’s more fun.
“What do you mean, exactly?” I asked, waiting for it.
“The party starts at 11:30! I won’t be there yet. What will they do without me?”
“Do you think they should wait for you? It’s only ten minutes. What, are you the Grand Puba of Christmas?”
The Male Sibling Unit giggled and actually looked a bit sheepish. “No,” he answered, his voice rising as if it was actually a question. Satisfied that I had imparted a bit of selflessness into him and that this was a lesson that had penetrated his eternally me-centric psyche, I picked up my bags and we resumed the trek up the hill. I was just feeling the burn again, about three-quarters of the way up, when he shattered any self-satisfied assumptions I may have harbored.
In a quiet voice, more to himself than to anyone in general, he said, “I still don’t know what they’re gonna do ’til I get there.” I may have choke-exclaimed something unintelligible similar to one of The Old Man’s expletives in the classic The Christmas Story. Then, I huffed the rest of the way home, The Male Sibling Unit following me silently, until we were nearly home and he laughed at my death-rattle as we crossed the threshold of the porch. “Tired?” he asked mildly, a smile on his face.
I will say only this: The Old Man has nothing on my abilityto craft new swear words.
This is the face of a guy pretending to be happy as a clam, when in fact, I am sure he wishes I would drop dead right this second.
Get in line, fucker. 😂
Since returning from my glorious week in Colorado, I’ve caught a pretty nasty cold. I suppose it was gonna happen; two large airports and a 737 have to be extremely germy. The meds I have at home aren’t cutting it, so I knew I needed the big guns. I threw on clothes and a coat and made my way to the store, hoping that
A) the crisp air would do me some good and
B) they had Nyquil in stock.
I invited The Male Sibling Unit to accompany me, and off we traipsed. He was mostly good until checkout, when he said, “Get me some gum?” All while chewing away on a piece. Having just purchased sugar-free pudding, oatmeal, Manwich, and ingredients for a spiced apple cake per his “suggestions”, I was low on cash.
“Are you out?” I asked, eyeing the oyster crackers I’d picked up for some soup and thinking I didn’t need them. “No, I have some,” he replied as he made a movement to grab a pack. “Then no.” I answered. He stopped, looked at me and said, “Why NOT?” I took a deep breath, willing myself to not argue, and simply stated, “Because you still have some.”
The Male Sibling Unit’s compulsion to hoard gum goes back decades. When he moved in with me, he was carrying anywhere from five unopened packs and dozens of loose pieces in his pockets at any given time. I think he was just spitting it out the minute it lost taste. Despite having enough gum to provide a stick for every attendee of a jazz convention, he would still insist he needed to buy more. One pack is enough, and I’ll even submit to the necessity of having two, if you want some variety, but the entire gum shelf in a checkout aisle of a grocery store is excessive. Excessive and expensive, since .50 packs of gum have gone the way of dinosaurs and it isn’t odd to spend $2 on a single pack now. Fuck that! One pack at a time, Old Chap. One pack at a time.
The Male Sibling Unit was quiet for a while, as we began the trek home. But then, like a colon after a binge session at Taco Bell, he began to make noise.
“When, ” he asked, “am I done being grounded?” I rolled my eyes so hard I just have looked exactly like Marty Feldman. “This again?” I bleated, my voice hoarse from both my cold and my disbelief that we needed to have this conversation yet again, for the third time today.
Yes, The Male Sibling Unit is grounded. For a week and a day, exactly, for harassing and sending very mean texts to an individual after being warned not to. This is just the sort of drama he moans about others creating, and yet he creates much of it himself. I had simply had enough, so I confiscated his cell phone and logged him out of Facebook and changed his password. (This will be a bit of a problem when he gets back access, because I can’t remember what I changed it to.) He is restricted for a week with the understanding that he will get an extra day tacked on should he lie, heckle, or, quite simply, piss me off in any way.
Hence being at a week and a day. That’s right, jackass, I wasn’t kidding.
In the past, I would have caved by now. He’d be happily texting bullshit and posting his daily business on Facebook because, well…….he pushes my buttons and I just want a little peace. Not this time. Don’t ask me what’s different. Maybe I wanted to really test my heart medication; maybe there is not enough angst in my diet. Like fiber, it keeps the plumbing moving. Maybe I was overcome by the high altitudes and the lack of oxygen in the Rockies and I’ve truly lost my mind for good. It just seems to me that my making things easier for him, and not holding him completely accountable for his shitty behavior because he is disabled is a big cop-out on my part.
Very carefully, I tried being diplomatic instead of losing my temper yet again, because I’m convinced that a steady diet of me losing my shit has made me too predictable to The Male Sibling Unit, and he tends to feed off negativity.
“This will teach you,” I began, “that actions have consequences, and that you cannot fool me. In the end, I find out everything. People tell me when you fuck up. I have my spies.”
“WHO?” The Male Sibling Unit demanded, outraged that his friends could have betrayed him. This made me laugh, evilly; which might have sounded like Frau Farbissina from Austin Powers under normal circumstances, but given my cold, came out sounding more like a half-strangled Yoko Ono song. “I’m not going to tell you who, dumbass! I want you to be good because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re afraid someone’s gonna rat you out!”
He was quiet for a moment, his brow knitted in serious contemplation. “Fine,” he responded haughtily. “I’m happy. I’m not gonna cause drama. I’mjust fine.” Then he crouched and did a hop, stuck his tongue out at me, and pretended that his movements were perfectly normal when I stopped and asked him just “What the fuck was that?!?” Oh, he blew it off, replying, somewhat grittily, “Fosse! Fosse! Fosse! Madonna! Madonna!” but I knew and he knew. Oh, we knew. This was no lighthearted recap of The Birdcage. It was more like a dance of death, or of a guy who’s dancing on a grave. Mine, to be exact.
I am pretty sure the little fucker would be sticking pins into a voodoo doll of me if he had one. I am pretty sure that more than just my ears, nose, and throat would be aching if he had any clue of how to do magic. Yup. That’s the face of a pissed-off Unit.
Four more full days of grounding to go. If I never make another blog entry, it’s because I discovered that my heart meds do have limits, or they wouldn’t give me internet access in the institution.
I thought I’d take advantage of the Labor Day holiday to write a blog.
I’m currently unemployed. Does it count for me? Am I permitted to take advantage of all of the “perks” of a federal holiday? The sales (that I can’t afford because I’m unemployed), the barbecues, the bingeing of Netflix (or “every day”, as I refer to it), the carefree imbibing of beer for three days instead of two? Or do I need to lock myself away, hidden from sight in my shame, from the employed who got the day off? Am I allowed to say, “Happy Labor Day!” to those I meet even though I, myself, do not get the day off from having, well, everyday off?
See, there I go. I’ve done it now. I feel like such a fraud!
Except that I don’t, really. I do work full-time, at a great number of things. Anxiety is a full-time job, as is depression. Second-guessing every, fucking choice I’ve made throughout my life takes up at least the equivilent of a part-time job cleaning a bar after hours. It’s a good analogy to make, because both involve being awake after 2am, when everyone else has fallen into bed and they’re snoring away. Both involve regarding messes others have made that I must clean up, a few of my own due to clumsiness, and wide-awake moments of dismay: “Why am I where I am?”
Running a home in which The Male Sibling Unit lives is also a full-time job. Actually, anything involving The Male Sibling Unit is, indeed, a full-time job, whether it be as his caregiver, friend, or family. You know him? You’re working. This is a job you commit to 100% or else. It’s never effortless, but it is also not without great reward even when he’s doing his best to piss you off. Your take home pay is laughter and more than a few “WTF” moments, and the great thing about this job is that you get paid on demand, every day. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it does enrich your heart (when it’s not raising your blood pressure). It’s a gig well worth taking.
Anyway, it’s Labor Day, and I hope you’re enjoying it. This is one of the holidays that we share with Canada, even though Canadians seem to be much happier than us and as such, don’t necessarily need the first Monday of September off to become happier somehow. I’m sure they have annoying coworkers and I am positive that they have a rich history involving how Labor (or Labour) Day came to be, and I’ll bet it has nothing to do with having babies. Yeah, I used to think Labor Day was a day in which all babies were born. Granted, I was like, 4, but it seemed to make sense before I grasped that we all had unique birth dates. I can still remember sitting on the couch with a box of Cracker Jacks, watching the TV as some old dude shouted “Timpani!” and thinking the big total on the screen signified how many babies had been born so far.
Of course, the old dude was Ed McMahon and the total on the screen was actually money, because we were watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. It was a yearly custom in our house to watch it and, indeed, in many. My mom would switch it on at the start on Sunday night and, I shit you not, that TV would stay on throughout the night. It was as if, by turning it off, people would quit pledging and Jerry might fall asleep and wouldn’t raise more money than the year before. Mind you, we slept, but the TV (and I assumed Jerry) did not.
It was exciting to see celebrities on there, performing their hearts out, and then it would get boring and I would drift off to find something else to do. I especially hated when they would switch to the local station affiliates and their own versions of the telethon because who the fuck wanted to see news anchors we saw every day? Every year we’d do the nail bite and wonder, “Is Jerry gonna raise more money than last year?” and every year, my mom and grandma would shed tears of joy “for the kids” and I would jump up and down, clapping, exclaiming “HE DID IT!!!” because Jerry always surpassed the previous year’s totals. Always. You could bet on it and win.
After that, it was “make the final decision about what you’re wearing tomorrow and lay it out” because the first day of the school year was ALWAYS the next day. You can’t bet on that anymore because the school year now begins at least a week or two before. I don’t agree with that, really, because there are some traditions that just ought to be left alone. I know the Labor Day Telethon is no longer held, because Mr. Lewis, that saint of saints, is dead, and Ed McMahon has not been around to announce, “Timpani!” for ages. That rite of passage, though – knowing that, every year, summer was officially over after Labor Day and you’d better put your white shoes away – was a comforting regularity in an otherwise chaotic world. We could probably use that mainstay again.
Now, everyone wears their white shoes year-round and summer isn’t over until Climate Change decides it is. There are grandmas rolling over in their graves because of the white shoe thing, but as for the whole “seasons changing” thing, you’ve got to get your enjoyment out of each as quickly and however you can.
Like everything in life now, weather is extreme, and you can’t count on the leaves to begin to fall midway through October (they’ve actually been gathering on the ground for weeks now, despite the heat) and the snow to fly just before Thanksgiving. Regions that always got White Christmases can’t count on it. Spring doesn’t always “spring” when it should; I am pretty sure we went straight from winter to summer this year. One thing that is certain, though, is that it’s hotter longer, and that change doesn’t appear to be changing. The climate is changing in our region and in others; Montreal (sorry, you happy Canadians, for this decidedly unhappy discovery of the vile little tenticles of stench) now has stinkbugs. The heat is rising in politics, in human rights, and in general, every aspect of life; it is also rising on our maps, too.
So, on this Labor Day, crack a cold one and hold it against your forehead. You’ve earned it. Cook on the grill and enjoy your pools, your Netflix binges, and each other. Tomorrow, you can put on some white shoes and head off to work, where the heat is on and life will continue pretty much as it has been.
If you’re paying attention, though, you will be able to see that the light is a little different outside, and the air, while still pungently heavy with humidity, is different, too. Sightings of Basic Bitches will increase, with their pumpkin spice lattes and Autumnal colors and insistence upon wearing scarves and Uggs even though it’s still 90 fucking degrees out. I’ll be over in the corner, doing my full-time, unpaid gigs and my part-time, wish-I-could-quit gig. I’ll be the one in flip flops, cutoffs, and an old T-shirt, shucking corn because, when I asked The Male Sibling Unit if he’d like to shuck the corn for dinner, he shrugged and said, Idon’tthinkso” all in one word like he does when he is simply not having it. He’s retired, you know, but Labor Day is still a holiday and he has no intention of fighting with an ear of corn. I’ll raise my cup of black coffee to you in acknowledgement, because while I like pumpkin spice and Autumn is my jam, I am not basic. I am extra, and then some.
As I neared my fifth decade, I began to read more accounts from people of a certain age, who were taking chances and living their best lives and grasping onto really profound thoughts. They were driven by a sense of urgency and pushing past boundaries. They were attempting to live authentically and with purpose. The idea that one has less time left to live than they already have lived is sobering as fuck. I shuddered, at times, thinking that it all sounded pretty scary and daunting and more than a little depressing; as if I needed more of that particular element in my psyche, right?
Before I entered my fifties, I went through a divorce and remarried, became a grandmother, finally allowed myself to admit that I wasn’t mentally stable, and then my mother died. That event added little nuances to everything, it seemed. Forget the fact that I still had one living, breathing parent – and I use that term in the loosest sense of the word – I still felt like an orphan. Thus began two years of the undoing of my brain, when I blindly pushed forward, trying to right wrongs, do things, prove her wrong. And yet, she has been able to reach out from the grave occasionally and remind me that I was an option, not a necessity, in her life.
She never had any expectations of me, you see. She was unable to cope with a smart child with a high IQ who looked her nose down at this town and everyone and everything in it. I had deep emotions – so many of them! – tied to music and art and the written word and nobody got me. My singing, art, and writing was not considered important. The awards I received for essays; all the solos I was given in musical programs; prizes and accolades in art class; all were dismissed in an offhand way. I struggled to understand what it was that I needed to do in order to gain her approval. I wish that she had told me, back then, what she did shortly before she died. I had made the observance that nothing I had ever done was good enough for her. Her response was quietly honest: “No, I suppose it wasn’t.”
At least there was that mystery solved. Had she waxed poetic and told me she was proud of me, I wouldn’t have believed her, anyway. There’s just some shit you can never fake, and my mother was nothing if not totally, unabashedly disappointed in me.
I think she truly loved The Male Sibling Unit in a way she never could me. I was that thing she did to get my dad. It failed. He was that thing she did that ended up looking just like our dad. In a way, she won, that time. When his developmental delays were discovered, I really think that something inside her rejoiced, because now, she would never lose him. She could care for him in a way my father rejected. I know; this sounds like a sick, Shakespearean play, but wasn’t Shakepeare’s writing simply observations of reality, fleshed out onto the stage? Life itself is Shakespeare. I, for one, don’t enjoy Shakespeare, but I guess that’s because it’s just a little to depressingly real. The prose is fucking irritating, too. “Methinks the lady doth protest” packs much less of a wallop than “Woman, all you do is fucking bitch!”
Lately, since entering this oh-so-giving of decades (giving of new aches and pains, giving not one single fuck about anything, giving of courage, and of realism) I have wondered what it might have been like, had she loved me the way she did him. His life was fraught with so many obstacles in the beginning that we sort of joined forces to make things good for him. Education, special outings and programs, toys, foods, you name it. He enjoyed the sort of childhood every parent wants to give their child, because it was crucial that he fit in as much as possible and that every opportunity be given to him. It was important to enrich life and to show him how valued and cherished he was. There was no obstacle he could not overcome.
In his own way, he has become exactly what one wants to be: uniquely and unquestioningly himself. He has enjoyed every opportunity and lived quite a full life for someone with his disabilities. He has been fortunate in that he knows he has disabilities, but they are in no way limitations. He lives his life brazenly, out there and with no regrets. He has love, and social enrichment, and everything he could ask for, materialistically. He has a good life; indeed, he expects it.
I envy that.
When I was in the 9th grade, my best friend talked me into trying out for flag corp. This was a division of the high school marching band, which was, back then, nationally-acclaimed. I was not a “joiner” in the literal sense of the word. I did things my way, listened to my own music, followed my own beat. I had friends, but I only let them in so far. My bestie and I were as close as two girls could be, even though her family was well-to-do and mine wasn’t. She never judged me, and I learned that it wasn’t always good times just because one had a mom and dad and a nice house and some money.
I coulda been a contendah.
We sweated and worked and practiced for four days, learning a routine to Styx’s “Rockin’ The Paradise”. I was never a dancer, or graceful, and it was quite a momentous thing for me to memorize a flag/dance routine and not look like a fumbling, stumbling idiot in the process. I was taking quite a chance, socially; I had yet to make my mark on my classmates as that dark-witted, sarcastic side-talker who ridiculed teachers under her breath , but managed to be an amazing writer, singer, and artist, got good grades, and lived in the Explore Room most of the time. I was yet to be the girl just a couple of votes shy of being voted “Funniest” in my Senior year.
When the team was chosen, I was on the list of two alternates, should anyone drop out. I knew I’d done my best, mostly for my friend, because she really wanted to be a part of marching band. Did I ever consider myself good enough? Not at all. I wasn’t “one of them” and had pretty much made my peace with that. I wasn’t going to be able to go on band trips and eat out at restaurants and come up with spending money for big city excursions. I had to save every penny I made babysitting to buy my own school clothes. This was a pipe dream my secret, tucked-away self harbored; not the solitary, resolute hardass who didn’t give a fuck persona I put out there to avoid the pain of rejection. And so, life went on.
Until a day, about a week later, when the flag corp advisor called and excitedly offered me a spot. Someone had declined. I was in! Inwardly, I rejoiced. Put-away girl opened the door a crack and looked out, hopefully. Was this finally going to be the key to being accepted by someone bigger – an important entity in the community – than myself?
Then, the list of requirements arrived. Uniform prices, out-of-pocket things like certain Nike sneakers, shirts, socks, costs, and the list went on. At the time, it was about $150 in stuff. Today, that’s not a large sum, but, back then, it might as well have been $150 million. I showed it to my mom, thinking she had to be proud of me for getting an opportunity to be in the band, who had marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and gone to Disney World. I was only marginally good enough, but still! I would work hard and get better and be good enough. Shehad to be so proud of me!
“I don’t know what you expect from me,” she said. I stammered, “Well, I’ll work hard, and I’ll babysit more, and get a job as soon as I’m allowed. I’ll pay you back.” She fairly seethed at me her answer.
“Your brother has school clothes he needs. He grew out of everything. And I don’t have the money to waste on this stupid idea you have. You’ll never be able to go on trips. We don’t have the money. Forget about this. You’re not privileged like those other kids are.”
“I hate you.” I managed, and retreated to my room, where I turned the metal up as loudly as I could to drown out my angry tears.
I composed myself and called the advisor back the next day. “I’m sorry, ” I said, distantly and with a coldness I didn’t feel, but hoped to convey with my voice, “but I have too much going on at home and I’m committed to babysit nights for someone. I can’t accept at this time.” I’m sure this wasn’t the first time some poor girl had to decline, so she probably saw right through me. No matter. With that one phone call, something in me turned to ice, and stayed that way, for a long time.
Had my mom congratulated me, assured me we would figure it out, and allowed me this one chance to blossom in a normal way, who knows what might have happened for me from there? Maybe the mistakes I ended up making after that – in spending my entire first year of college drunk, and dropping out to marry a monster who scarred both me and our children, and all the years of poverty and suffering and his control, squandering my gifts and letting both my mother and him convince me that I was, indeed, nothing special – maybe I would still have made them. Maybe I was irrevocably damaged even before that flag was placed in my hands and I learned to wave it around. There is no sense wondering what if, and I always insist that I regret nothing, but that shit is partially a lie. I do regret some things. I regret not using that dark, angry, pissed-off girl as a weapon to save my children and myself sooner than I did. She resurfaced with a vengeance when I finally left, but she grew out of control because she was out to prove she was bulletproof. And she was not.
I am not.
What advice can I offer to anyone with kids, or deciding to have kids, or finding themselves totally befuddled by the mystery that is their teenaged spawn?
Don’t fucking do any of that shit to your kid. Seriously. Don’t be an asshole, and then unleash another asshole on the world. That asshole will spend decades trying to figure out why he or she is an asshole and, in the end, you’ll get the credit you so shamefully deserve. Let’s hope that, if you’ve already begun to make a clusterfuck out of your child’s life, you STOP. I mean it. Stop.
Now, a year into my fifth decade, I want nothing more than to wipe all traces of a painful past from my consciousness and to focus only on the good stuff. I want to spend my time loving who I love and welcoming beauty and grace into my life. I want to continue to make sure The Male Sibling Unit continues with the charmed life he leads, but I would like a little charm to bleed into mine as well. I can’t cast out my living dead girl; she is me, as sure as my eyes are black. But I can let her laugh. And I can let her be brave.