Zombies

Zombies

I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?

Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.

“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions. 

“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.

“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.” 

“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.” 

They left.

I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home. 

The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair. 

I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.

My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth. 

I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone. 

The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class. 

“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.

All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.

That was the first time I really wanted to die. 

I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive. 

I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad. 

Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.

“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.

I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.

“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.” 

No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.

Love on a Leash

The thing I liked most about Small Craft Brewing Company is that when I told friends I was drinking at the Small Craft Brewing Company they’d say, “Oh yeah? What’s it called?” Brian and I waited for his husband to show up. I had a flight in front of me that I drank down in order of color – light to dark – and he had a lager. A young boy walked through the brewery with a tub of candy bars and said he was raising money for his after school programs. 

“How much is it?”

“Six dollars.”

I handed him a ten, told him to keep the change, and split a candy bar with Brian who proceeded to drag me for giving a kid ten dollars for chocolate. “Whatever,” I said, “it’s for his school program. It isn’t a big deal.”

“I don’t know who let kids peddle candy in a bar anyway,” he replied.

The truth of my generosity was that I wanted to do nicer things – let go of control, man. Two months out of my break-up and I just looked for a sense of normalcy. I was so madly in love with my ex when we were together that every red flag looked like a regular flag until I took off the rose-colored glasses and saw a damn minefield of warning signs. I recounted the time I had to remind him to brush his teeth before bed, his unkempt car – the day he gave me back a week-old tupperware container, lined with the chili I hand delivered to his job. I should have broken up with him then; He couldn’t respect my kitchen wares, he couldn’t respect me. Bastard.

It was nice to be with Brian and his husband. I drifted into a nice buzz with only one beer in my flight left, pet a couple of the brewery dogs that hovered around for open hands and fallen snacks, and settled a little further into my single-ness. I was truly alone for the first time in years. My dog died seven months earlier at almost 15 years old and I had him since he was just a puppy. My grandfather died in January and it absolutely ripped my heart out. And then, I guess, my relationship died in February when the man I loved turned out to be a large, red-headed pile of crap. 

“I don’t want you to leave my life,” he said as he recounted the relationship he had on the side for months. I got my house key from him and didn’t look back. There were no second chances. Instead, I started therapy, didn’t eat for a week, ate too much for a week, went to Maine by myself, and sold the concert tickets I bought him and booked a trip to Georgia alone to research my grandfather’s war history at a museum in Savannah. When I wasn’t working or in a brewery I was in bed or wrote from the couch. I wanted to be alone. I wanted isolation. I didn’t want new people in my life.

“I can’t believe no one can take him home,” Brian said as he looked down at his phone.

“Who?”

“This puppy. He was surrendered to my friend in the fire department who works for the Brooklyn police department. His name’s Major. The person who gave him up said he was too nice to put in a shelter. No one can take him though. I accidentally sprayed him with a hose during drill last night and he wasn’t even mad about it.”  

Brian went on to tell me about how this puppy was passed around three or four places, but no one wanted him – or could accommodate him – and he didn’t know where he’d end up. He was a friendly dog, but still very much a puppy. He was a pitbull mix, probably. He was big

“Show me a picture,” I said. 

He took his phone out and showed me a single, head-on, blurry photo of what looked like a baby cow. I saw the eyes, though. He had very sweet-looking eyes. 

Damn.

“I’ll take him home.”

“You don’t know anything about him, though.”
“I don’t care. Where is he?”

“One of the girls has him at her apartment right now but she isn’t allowed to have dogs.”

“Can she bring him to the firehouse?”

“Kate, are you sure?”

“No. Yeah. I’m sure.” 

Maybe it was the flight of beer, or that I unconsciously crossed hairs with alone and lonely – or maybe I couldn’t stand to hear about a life that had no control over who wanted him – but I knew I needed to take the dog home. First, though, I knew he needed a name change. I Googled generic names and settled on Randall. 

“His name is now Randall.”

I slammed the rest of my beer and we piled into our respective vehicles and drove two minutes up the road to the firehouse where Randall would soon meet us. I was terrified, but I’m notorious for commitment so I sucked it up and waited to meet my new puppy. When he arrived he was exactly as I expected – sweet, clumsy, a little stupid, a couple of scars, and incredibly trusting. Honestly, he reminded me a little of myself.

“Hi, Randall.” 

I played with him, fed him treats, and let him drag me around the parking lot for a couple of hours before I loaded him into my car in the rain to drive a half hour back home. My last dog at his heaviest, was 20 pounds – lazy for his entire life; he was more like a house cat. Randall, was already at least 55 pounds and crazy. I truly had no idea what I was in for. He whined for the majority of the ride home so I rolled the window down in the back to give him some fresh air only to watch him squeeze his entire body out of the space and face plant onto the street.

Oh my god I already killed him, I thought. 

I pulled over and he was on the sidewalk, sitting, dazed, and bleeding from his chin.

“What the hell were you thinking?” I stared down at this terrified thing and he just looked up at me, motionless. I opened the car door and he jumped in again and we went home.

Aside from a gigantic dump that he took on the top of my staircase, Randall adjusted quickly to my condo. I muscled through two or three anxiety attacks at the commitment I blindly volunteered for and reassured myself I made the right decision. At the very least I can foster him, I told myself. Part of me was afraid of the life-long committal. I lost so much in such a short period of time that I couldn’t look at him without the fear of what I’d feel to lose him. I knew I already adored Randall, dysfunction and all. Maybe I was a glutton for punishment. Maybe I wanted to sleep next to something again.

 He needed leash training, vaccinations, antibiotics for the skin infection he had; He needed to be neutered; he needed command training (he was actually house trained already and the welcome home present he left me was more nervousness than anything), and I agreed to this – actually 64-pound – project. I knew he deserved love, and ultimately I knew I deserved love. My last dog wasn’t very friendly at all, and Randall was noticeably social. I nervously took him to my local coffee shop to adjust him to the public. 

Suddenly everyone was stopping me to say hi to my dog.

“Oh my god! He’s so cute! Is he friendly? He’s beautiful! Can I say ‘hi?’”

“Oh, uh, yeah, sure.” I was shocked at first but it was always the same. Perfect strangers approached me to greet Randall – who revelled in the attention – I socialized for the first time in months, and we’d be on our way. It was impossible for me to remain in isolation with him on the end of the leash. Sometimes we left the coffee shop and would get caught up in a group of passing people. Slowly but surely, he improved on the leash; he stopped trying to hug everyone he saw. I found myself making excuses to take him out and actively searched for dog-friendly establishments. Suddenly I wanted to meet people again.

Now, six months after he leaped from my vehicle in terror, Randall and I frequent shops and travel around. Together we met at least a hundred new people. He’s become a trail-hiking people greeter who rolls over for Donna the treat lady in Petco. I have to drag him out of the vet’s office because he wants to stay and hang out with all the vet techs. I, the lover of solitude, the hermit, the writer, leave my house with Randall at least twice a day to make sure he at least fills his social quota. I’ve never been so happy to see such happy innocence. He starts his therapy dog classes soon, and once he gets his Canine Good Citizen certification we can volunteer in libraries and hospitals together. He was the best buzzed decision I ever made.     

Old Souls

I call on old souls,

complex and raw.

Centuries old –

Millennia old.

Those that see the world

with new eyes and familiar feelings.

Gut warnings and wishes.

Lessons of parallel dimensions.

Learn,

or come back again.

Portugal

We took a sunset hike

up the Algarve cliffs, sincere

and ancient and strong like our grandmothers.

Red clay marked up our legs

as proof we didn’t stop climbing,

all just to see the azure 

from a new angle.

We were told secrets by seabirds,

perched on the eyelids of the ocean.

We gazed down into a cavern 

as seawater pumped blue blood into the heart

of the cliff. 

The sun, midday and sleepy 

looked bigger than I remembered,

steady.

And I stood like the seabirds – 

The beauty of how small we are.

Under here, Underwear

Today marks eight years since my mother died and I am honoring it by purchasing new bras for myself – and not just because my dog has gone on some weird, hateful, and very personal vendetta against my current collection. His kill count has reached three in three months and at this rate I’m convinced he’s a Vietnam War-era bra burner stuck in a dogs’ body. My purchase of new undergarments is strictly for the little bits of self care that go completely overlooked by so many people these days.

I used to help my mom fold laundry all throughout my childhood. We’d park ourselves on the living room floor with two baskets of clean clothes in between us and just fold away. Usually through some deeply engaging movie like The Color Purple, she and I would be matching socks and ugly crying together. I swear it would take us at least an hour just to fold a week’s worth of socks for four people because Oprah would be on screen absolutely taking my teenage breath away. I’d fold my dad’s undershirts for work, my brother’s jeans, my own clothes – and my mom would fold a little bit of everything – glass of wine nearby – but always her own underwear and bras and pantyhose. One night, she told me very indignantly, “All of my goddamn underwear have holes in them!”

Easy fix. “Mom, why don’t you go buy yourself some new underwear?”

“I’m too busy taking care of the rest of you all.”
I thought that was a very silly thing to say considering she and I both shopped in the women’s section at the local Walmart or Target. Why couldn’t she just pick up a pack of Hanes and call it a day? Her bitterness towards her holey underwear and considering the time of day (nighttime meant drunk) led me to drop my questioning very quickly. And, for the rest of her life – 20 years of my own – I probably saw her purchase underwear for herself maybe twice.

Nowadays if I get an email from Aerie, telling me they’re selling underwear 10 for $27, my ass is down at the mall faster than I can screenshot the coupon code onto my phone. Some people don’t like Aerie underwear and that’s fine, but if I have some underwear at home with a hole in the lace or a stretched out elastic band I replace it. First of all, I feel like underwear just isn’t made like it used to be; Everything is on the extremes of granny panties to lace and very little in between at times. Secondly, I love the feeling of having new underwear because it’s like a little secret of self care that no ones sees daily but it’s something I’m consciously doing for myself.

My mom’s excuse of not being able to buy underwear because she was too busy taking care of everyone else wasn’t about the underwear at all. It was about the fact that she was so far gone in her own world of self care that she couldn’t even muster to do a positive thing for herself that no one else saw. When she and I had that conversation I was about Junior High/High School age, and only a few short years later, she was gone right before my eyes. Her anger at not being able to go out and buy some basics for herself was more like a cry that she had such little feeling of self control or autonomy that something as simple as new underwear was out of the question. No one could see that she was doing it for herself, so why do it? No one could see her surrender to alcoholism either until it was too late, so why stop? She hid her vices in cabinets and behind washing machines and at the bottom of hampers, but she couldn’t have a little good thing for herself hidden.

Now, makeup, lipstick, hair dye, blush – things that everyone else could see, things that she could slap on and give the illusion of taking care of herself were fair game. Except nine times out of ten she’d send me into the store to buy it for her while she waited in the car.

“I can’t go in there like this. Here, you know the shade of lipstick, Burnt Amethyst.” It would roll out of her mouth like a junkie about to get his or her next fix. She never left the house without lipstick on. She never left the house without mascara. And god forbid her ever stepping a foot outside without dyed hair and large, impressive bangs.

We can advertise our outward self care until we’re blue in the face but what are we doing in private for ourselves that no one can see or assess? This post about my mom is pretty different from what I normally talk about, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are all going to face some struggle at one point or another, and it’s what we choose to do for ourselves when no one is watching that really determine where we are in our path of self care or self help. The word self is right there. If we think we’re too busy taking care of someone else (or more than one someone) to do something as simple as buying some new under garments, then maybe it’s time to assess where our energy is going.

Today, my energy is going to a little bit of self care (hopefully on sale) that I can put on before my clothes and my war paint and face the day knowing I’m covering bases, even the little ones. No one’s care is worth having uncomfortable, worn out underwear over. And to broaden that for anyone who still thinks this post is only about underpants, take care of yourself, even if others can’t see it. You shouldn’t be in a competition to be the one who can put yourself out there for others the most; You shouldn’t burden yourself with folding the world’s laundry if yours are in tatters. You’ll only resent those around you if you enter the cycle of being the fixer and the caregiver. Love yourself a little bit today.

NYE

New Year’s Eve was mangled 

in heaps of bodies heaving back and forth

like an angry sea – 

We beat the rain

but were stopped by the cover charge.

Everyone pushed around in such a way

where some were trying to make it to the new year first – 

And others wanted to hide in bathrooms 

and corners 

and alleyways

and under lovers.

Abandon your purses under bars,

lose your identity so the spirits of the new era 

don’t recognize you and you can start 

with a new name,

a new mission.

Drowning in liquor and kisses from strangers 

we spill into the streets of Queens 

with her 24-hour fruit stands 

and public indecency.

We wake up with our IDs tucked neatly in our pockets –

Hungover – 

In places foreign to us.

But we are as we were only hours before 

when we had more time 

and less headaches.