Wishful Dying

I wouldn’t say I was a sheltered child, per se. I was, however, regularly threatened prior to social engagements to be on my best behavior or else I would be beaten/ have something taken away/ left somewhere. Only one of those three things ever happened.
It was a weird dynamic growing up in a home with a chain smoking, functioning alcoholic, successful real estate broker and an emotional eating, workaholic, manic depressive father. My parents lacked consistency in regards to their raising techniques; they loved my brother and me, no doubt, but their words of encouragement were generally masked with negative reinforcement and body image put-downs as a motivator to want to be the best we could be. Modern child psychology would argue that telling your overweight child she is a pig and looks like a sausage in her pajamas has the opposite desired effect of being a weight loss inspiration.
Although the under-the-roof pep talks were seething with backhanded compliments and flat out insults, my parents were known to defend me to the death in public settings, especially in regards to my intelligence. When I was in the second grade, my teacher had me placed in remedial math under the impression that I was, in some way, developmentally disabled. Hindsight being 20/20, I don’t entirely blame her. Almost every morning I hid underneath her desk and scared her when she sat down. I challenged kids to water chugging contests in between lessons. I was horrible at math, and I wrote with my book on an almost vertical angle. I did, however, excel in art and writing.
I spent days and days in the library of the elementary school with other autistic children, utilizing coloring books and bright worksheets, listening to stories, and frequently occupying space in the form of circles. I thought I was having a good time, that is to say until my mom received a progress letter in the mail praising how much I excelled in the remedial class that the school transferred me into.
This was the first time I heard my mom use the word “fuck” in all its forms.
“How could you fucking… why the fuck… put Mike on the fucking phone…” Mike was the principal. Mike was also my mom’s boss at one point. Before she made it as a real estate broker, my mom was a waitress, a stay at home mom, and a secretary in the special education department at the school. Even though the door to the kitchen was closed, I watched in awe as she reamed into this man about me, my education, my abilities, and the lack of faith the school had in my performance simply because I was a little eccentric as a young child; I couldn’t act out at home, I never acted out in church – where was I supposed to truly express myself? Where else, other than school, was I going to play pranks on my educators and challenge students to chugging contests that would be the precursor to my college chugging abilities?
Once the conversation ended, by my mother’s own discretion, I was promptly removed from the special education class and put back into the “normal” class, where I resumed my learning sans pranks – by fear of death by parent. I couldn’t help myself at times, though, wanting to be smart and wanting to be funny. Nothing ever added up in my home, so why did it have to add up in my head? I spent the entirety of the second grade with a backpack full of beanie babies and a pink shoe box in my cubby filled with classic rock tapes I stole from my mom’s car. I had Zeppelin, AC/DC, David Bowie, Aerosmith, and Pink Floyd to name a few blasting through my headphones each morning before we sat down to practice cursive; I knew the words to “Another Brick in the Wall” before I knew how to write my own name in the allotted cursive guidelines. My parents didn’t want to limit my experience in life, but there were certainly points where they shielded my experiences with death.
I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere on Long Island. We always had animals coming in and out of the house that my dad would save – baby birds, rabbits that the cats tried to eat, an adult quail. My brother and I had pets as well that were full-time, not just save, rehabilitate, and release. We had a large mutt, and two outdoor cats. The cats always got into trouble with other wild animals around the property. They would chase moles, bunnies, stalk birds, or even harass our dog when we took him outside for a walk. The interaction with the animals was never really a concern, until one afternoon my mom spotted a raccoon outside in the backyard.
“That’s weird, it’s the middle of the day; raccoons don’t come out until nighttime.” We sat in the bay window of the kitchen and studied the animal, weeble wobbling from side to side as it wandered closer through the high grass towards our house.
“I think it has rabies.”
“What’s rabies?” I was standing behind my mom, trying to peer out the window with her and observe the animal.
“That means it’s sick. If it’s sick, it could get the cats sick. If the cats get sick, we have a problem.”
“Oh.” Seven year old me didn’t quite understand the complexity of the situation. I thought of rabies as some kind of cold, like what kids got, except only animals could get it. My mom picked up the phone.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police station. We can’t have a sick and wild animal on the property.”
“Are they gonna take it to the hospital?”
“Probably not.”
Within a few minutes a cop showed up to the house and met my mom in the driveway. Cops were only needed for bad situations, I thought. When we watched the show Cops as a family, it was always a bad guy trying to run away. I wondered what the raccoon did to be so bad that the cops had to come. It was only sick, right? Sick people go to the hospital to get better.
My mom walked back down the driveway to the bay window where I was standing, but not before I noticed the cop reach around to his waist belt, slowly approaching the animal. She tapped at the window, “Close the blinds. Don’t look.”
“Why?”
“Kaitlin close the blinds or so help me…”
Anything ending in the words “or so help me” never needed to be finished. I knew what she meant. I closed the blinds and waited for an eternity.
A gunshot is a lot scarier when you don’t see where it’s coming from. My ears rang for a second as I stared long at the cloth curtains of the bay window, little birdhouses lining the trim. I thought it I looked hard enough I’d be able to see through them like magic, but even at seven years old I knew what I’d see. I’d see a cop, standing over a dead raccoon, or my dead mother, with his gun drawn.
When my mom walked back inside I let out a sigh of relief knowing that she didn’t do anything to get herself killed by the cop.
“Where’s the raccoon?”
“The raccoon is dead.”
“Can I open the curtains yet?”
My mom looked over the top of the curtains, past my line of sight, “No.”
“Why did he have to kill it, though?”
“Because it was sick and suffering. And sometimes when animals are sick and suffering, it’s better to put them out of their misery.”
I didn’t want the raccoon to feel misery, but I didn’t think it was fair at the time for it to die. As a child, I lived almost zero; I experienced almost nothing. I knew I wanted to do things, I knew I had dreams. I thought the raccoon, too, had a full life left to live, I didn’t want it to die because it was sick. I wanted it to keep living.
It wasn’t until I was 20 years old, sitting in the bed next to my mom, watching an oxygen mask push air into her otherwise lifeless body that I prayed to whatever god I didn’t know to just take her out of this world. I was exhausted and my head was pounding, and she just lay there, most likely unaware of my presence in any form, her body so frail I could see her carotid artery pulsing in the side of her neck. I counted her breaths, wrote her eulogy, and cried until my head hurt so bad I had to consciously prevent myself from crying. All that existed in those moments was the suffering of life; the lack of living, the suspension of consciousness where I had zero control and just wished for her to stop breathing. I didn’t want her to die, but I knew she would never live again.

Get out of the box

There isn’t much to be said about this bullpen. It’s plain, encased in brick, and unassuming. The ceilings are illuminated by OSHA regulated fluorescent lighting, and the only windows I open are on one of my three computer screens. There are constant echoes of doors opening and closing all about the building, like industrial breathing. Our standardized morale boosters come in the form of a free popcorn maker and complimentary bulk-bought coffee. The walls are a uniform blue-grey that seem to gain inspiration from Orwell’s 1984 (the two minutes of hate scene in particular) and I sit here until 7AM, observing a symphony of airplanes as they cross the Atlantic airspace.

My commute to work is laughable for someone who lives on the island. Before moving to my current residence in 2016, my drive averaged a very, very long-feeling 25 minutes, which is still modest compared to the rest of the populous; my father drove an hour or more each way for my entire childhood. I remember seeing him leave before sunrise and return well after dark donning a sullen, angry look on his face that showed his unwavering need to be a workhorse and keep food on the table. He had strained, sunken eyes with dark encapsulating circles – sometimes a frown, sometimes not. Every night he would retire to a La-Z-Boy recliner with the television remote and eventually slip away into sleep, HBO playing dully in the background; my brother and I learned young that it was important to invest in a decent recliner. After a couple of hours, he’d make his way to bed where my mother already lay in a drunken slumber, harboring an unbearable snore that made the bedroom smell of stale cigarettes and wine. As a result, my father would resort to spending most of my childhood on the couch. He would wake to the sound of his 5AM alarm and the smell of preset coffee, prepare his belongings, and trek once again into the darkness of morning.

As of 2016, the average car commute time for Long island was 33 minutes. For train, an hour. But 33 minutes, each way, five days a week undoubtedly beats down the human spirit. That’s 33 minutes of creeping traffic, skipping music, spilled coffee, and maybe a little road rage. For me, 11 minutes on average (six if I don’t hit any lights) gets me to my gate at work. That’s 22 minutes of less stress, fewer distractions, and generally zero coffee spilled.

The drive home is equally zen. Where I live, most commuters head west. I, however, miss all of the congestion and essentially reverse commute – facing the sunrise. Driving towards the sun each day as it rises has given me an appreciation for the varying colors, intensity, and energy is expresses, especially in contrast to the box I crawl out of each day. It shows me that my job may be the same, but every morning begins differently. I go to bed around 7:30, eventually tackle my afternoon, and make it in again well after night falls over the east coast to check in on my orchestrated airplanes.

Each night, tiny green triangles crescendo and decrescendo along calculated global routes, and suddenly the earth looks so insignificant. I monitor different sectors to ensure everyone is going where they need to go, while passengers sit oblivious to my existence. Sometimes, I’m technical when asked to describe my current profession; other times I refer to it as glorified babysitting. Either way, I watch thousands of lives cross the water, like a modern Charon. They are hopelessly unaware of my job, and I am continuously reminded of how important and how equally miniscule I am in this world. Each person is visiting, returning, working, or escaping. They all carry their own personal agendas and reasons for travel – they all have their own mini missions of life.

Since the Spring of 2015, I have been an overnight shift worker. I don’t mind shift work – it’s actually the only real type of work I know, minus a year-long stint as a Monday through Friday secretary in an insurance agency. My uniform is street clothes, except for pants with holes in them or flip flops (for whatever reason). I report at 11 each night and make it to my front door a little after seven each morning. My days off rotate; my social life has kind of taken a toll in regards to making plans and going out. If anything, working overnights has given me an appreciation for naps and breakfast at three in the afternoon. Living my life like a vampire – while detrimental if I don’t take care of myself properly – frees me up to write in a more relaxed, almost library-esque setting during the twilight hours. I also have a greater appreciation of my personal health, knowing that if I don’t listen to my body, take my vitamins, and eat relatively healthy I will suffer more over than someone who works during the day. And while the job can be boring or monotonous, it gives me times to reflect.

Generally when the traffic dies down, and 3AM rounds the room to tell us that it’s time to kick the chairs back a little further, crack open a book, and unwind, I begin to reflect and record the events of my life. For years, I tried to run away from everything. I recall attempting an ass-backward approach of making it out of my own life – well – alive. This lasted about six years before I realized everything I had endured up until this point was a test of strength and mental stability, and I somehow managed to survive while maintaining a crippling fear of ending up like certain members of my immediate family.

My childhood revolved around a sense of urgency and busy-body activities that kept me either out of my often turbulent household, obligated to my computer in my bedroom, or absorbed in a book. I had goals, and academic mile markers to not only prove to myself that I was worthy of great things, but also to give my mother and father one less thing to fight about.

At the age of seven, my school deemed me developmentally disabled, because I had a tendency to play pranks and wrote with my notebook on an extreme angle. After taping my books down to my desk proved ineffective, I was pulled from class and placed in a remedial room with coloring books and children on the spectrum. My mother was not notified of this, however, and when she discovered that I was doing “just wonderful” in my new environment, she cursed and screamed and had me pulled back out and put into the “regular” class. I was explicitly warned to stop playing pranks, and I feared making my mother that angry in academia ever again.

The ultimate drive became college, and when I was accepted to several universities in 2008 I thought things would eventually calm and settle at home. Being one of the only people in my extended family to receive a bachelor’s degree gave me a great sense of pride and a pedestal with which I could be better seen by my parents. This only improved in the summer of 2011, when I prepared to go to the University of Oxford and leave New York for a little to study English Literature. I remember it being something I wanted since my junior year of high school after hearing a story by my English teacher, Mr. Stahl, regarding him being accidentally locked inside the walls of one of the colleges while visiting a friend. He went on to describe ancient stonework, the smells, the stars at night hanging over old chapels and perfectly manicured grass. I fantasized for years, and when I finally got in, I told my mother to the response of a sigh and, “That’s going to be a great bill to get in the mail. Don’t tell your father yet.” I was determined to make her proud that summer; she died two months after I returned home due to liver poisoning from extreme binge drinking.

2012 onward was an era of attempting to find myself by essentially giving up and losing who I was entirely. Like people who gain wisdom by admitting they know nothing, I learned who I was by reflecting on the idea that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life not really having any sense of identity. I don’t mean “identity” as in what I wanted to do with my future; I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I stuck with my major all throughout my college career, and knew in my heart of hearts that I was a storyteller. Rather, I had no identity in the sense that I lived my life in a mode of survival for so long that I never looked at anything (with the exception of writing) and reflected upon it from an internal standpoint.

I spent so many years in chaos and alertness that when I moved to my current residence in 2016 – realizing no one at the time knew my address – I broke down crying. For the first time in a long time, I was completely alone. Not lonely, just alone. I was given the chance to be selectively introverted, and to answer to only myself since the day I watched my mother die in 2011 and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I imagined it’s what retirees felt when they finally didn’t have to wake up to an alarm clock after 40 some-odd years of answering to another; it was equally freeing as it was crippling.

It can be quite baffling to spend so long living a life of chaos – of constant emotional turmoil – and then to come up from the bunker one July morning and see all is calm, not knowing if you’re in the eye of the storm or if the storm itself has finally passed on. I like to think of my childhood as being raised in a life of coins, where every situation and family member had two completely opposite sides. My family grew up in the suburbs, yet under the roof lay an active volcano. My father was a man I idolized and feared. My brother and I shared the same sense of humor but ultimately grew up to be fundamentally different people. And then there was my mother – the woman who became my first friend, and my first bully.  
I only recently came to the admittance that my mother put me down in a very memorable way. For me, there existed a line I didn’t want to cross for the fear of insulting or demonizing someone who was unavailable to defend herself. Saying something like, “My mother was responsible for my compulsive overeating,” places an air of blame but – ultimately – the truth, and when the truth is put out that way, the power is taken from the things once feared. I however, was afraid to take away power from someone I idolized so much when all I had to go on were memories. I had to know in my soul that admitting to my mother’s harshness on me was a projection of where she thought she failed. She only wanted me to be a better version of myself but never conveyed it properly due to her horrible self image. The projections were magnified, of course, by her decades-long battle with alcoholism. Her ups and downs of affection peppered with vocalized disappointment of how I looked moulded a self image that became the two sides of my own coin: Mentally excelling in almost any subject, while never mastering myself. To learn who I was – to chase me down and finally meet myself – I decided to record the happenings. I began to write my life down. Writing, for me, became cathartic in the way that I was able to see everything I’ve done, gone through, or felt, and grow from it. After sharing some of my writings, I learned I wasn’t alone, and chose to be a storyteller, rather than hold my words to my chest.

It was you all Along

It’s kind of messing me up, as I sit here at 4AM, to re-read the last email I ever received from my mother in which she describes me as being the way I am from the influence of my two deceased grandmothers.
“You’re kind to others, but you don’t take shit.”
I always saw that email and thought it endearing, because she used curse words and praised me. It has since been a point of reference I go to when I’m feeling low, or want reassurance that I made her proud when she was alive, so I can continue to strive to make her proud of me even in death. Call it melancholy, call it cynical, but I noticed something missing from the email last night: her.
My mom was the person I always tried to be, not my grandmothers. While I loved my grandmothers dearly, they were not the image I saw. My mother had a razor tongue and a wicked sense of humor. She was stylish and stood tall. She was an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Most importantly, she didn’t judge others, but saw no hesitation in pointing out someone’s bullshit. I realized last night, though, that she didn’t credit herself for how I turned out as a young adult, when she was all I was trying to embody as I was growing up. At her funeral, so many passersby commented on my smile, and how it looked just like hers – but dear God let me have her sense of humor. Let me have her businesswoman prowess. Grant me her sarcastic tongue. Let me hear a roaring laugh from my friends and see her sitting in the crowd smiling at me, throwing her head back with everyone else.

Addiction – alcoholism in this case – made her lose her confidence to the point that her know-it-all “You’re not the parent” mentality eventually turned into, “Don’t judge me” as she looked down at the floor, vodka in her hand and the hot August sun showing truth against the living room walls. My mother showed me what not to be through her addictions. She showed me that I couldn’t allow the future of my existence to be controlled by any outside forces, and to only give control to myself. She showed me that even the toughest people can be small and weak. Ultimately, she showed me all the facets of a human. For all of that I hope to be her. For all of that, I credit her wholly for who I am – negative, positive, complete.

Possessed – Essay Inspired by Poem

          I remember thinking she was possessed. I remember looking at her, arms flailing wildly around the kitchen, spitting as she spoke, eyes unblinking and intentional. Thinking to myself, this isn’t her. It did something to me that night in 2010, while she screamed at my father in the kitchen, and I witnessed through the glass pane door, all the transparency and spite that flowed from her being. My brother was restricted to the couch, having come home from the hospital after knee surgery, and just yelled and cursed over his head while my mother, unflinching, continued on her rampage into the summer night.
          It was other-worldly. I grew up knowing that alcohol was a normal part of my life, my upbringing, and my mom without a glass of something in her hand usually indicated she was feeling ill. There was never an attempt to limit or eliminate her intake; she became more skilled in hiding her demons. This night, however, something came out. She emanated a nuclear reactor, doubled over in rage and hurt that poured from her lips like a poison and I witnessed it fill the kitchen and seep under the living room door. I anxiously chased my own thoughts and uncertainty up and down the stairs between my bedroom and the living room door, glancing in at the beaten down silhouette of my father and the unrelenting storm my mother became. My heart crept up into my throat as her yells persisted and, at this point, it didn’t matter why she was shouting, only how was I to get her to stop? A beast had taken over her body; her unkempt, graying hair climbed from her roots, lifted from her like static electricity and no one could escape. She raged and threw her arms as if to conjure bolts of lightning to stop my father dead and exact whatever blind revenge she was expelling from her body.
          This wasn’t my mother. This wasn’t my mother. I kept telling myself over and over while my breathing continued in erratic rhythm, maintaining silence and restless feet as my brother continued to yell through the door and react in a way that only stoked her fire further. He began to holler and curse at me to do something as crippling panic grounded me to the living room floor and he painfully forced his body upright to climb the stairs to his own room, justified in his absence of the situation with pain medication and a fresh incision. There was so much pain in that house and I felt it tear through my body and catch my hair while my eyes watered from confusion. My internalization was cut short by her threatening in a coherent tone that she was to call the police, for whatever reason she thought acceptable.
          I had to react. Move, Kaitlin. The anguish it took me to free myself from where my feet stay cemented was quickly forgotten as I pulled open the door between the kitchen and living room to a flood of hot, angry air that intoxicated me on contact and filled my head with a mix of cigarette smoke and anguish. I witness her thumb through the phone book while my father remained glued to the kitchen chair, duffel bag beside him and pleading eyes glued to his devastated face.

“Mom, you can’t call the police. What is this even about? What’s wrong? Just talk to me, please.” My voice cracked as I tried to pierce the thickened air to reach her. I knew she wasn’t there. She was looking for the number to the police for Christ sake. I found myself incapable of holding an air of authority over a the creature that stood before me, eyes unblinking and enraged, in a bathrobe, forehead moistened with sweat. She grabbed for the phone and I reached out and pulled the phone from her shaking hand.

“What the fuck do you want from me?!” She screamed like a threatened wild animal as I begged for her to just calm down – to just listen.
          Again, she reached for the telephone and this time I reacted. I grabbed her shoulders while my father remained seated, immobilized, scared. My eyes met hers and it was at that point I realized I was not staring into the eyes of my mother. I was staring into the eyes of someone possessed, wild, erratic, and unstable. She caught my gaze and I felt it shock through my body like a punch. My jaw went slack once I confirmed this unfamiliar face.

“Get the fuck off of me!” She roared in my face and grabbed my wrists to thrust me backwards. While I flung back into the refrigerator I questioned if it was her screams or her raw adrenaline strength that forced me away. In that moment, like the silence following a nuclear explosion, her arms released to her sides and her eyes lowered. What is going to happen.

“This isn’t about you. Go.” In one short moment, I gained sight of the human I never wanted to confront in such a way. I never wanted to hurt her, but she hurt me. “Go.” She turned back to my father, my eyes followed suit. He gave me a nod to leave. I grabbed my keys from the kitchen table and removed myself to the driveway, where I turned my car radio onto old rock to drown out the screams coming from the house. I sobbed on the steering wheel and looked over my hands, where my wrists ached like burns from where she grabbed me – where she threw her hurt into me, where she momentarily regained humanity in the face of her daughter.

\That evening, in and of itself, was the beginning of the end for my mother.

Conflicted

Next month will be six years without my mom in this world, and for some reason I still find myself becoming anxious, irritable, and melancholic in the weeks preceding her anniversary. Honestly? I wish sometimes that it wouldn’t happen this way. I’ve gotten over the pangs of Mother’s Day; holidays seem easier than most other situations. My birthday approaches in November, following her anniversary, and I have found solace in spending time alone, getting a new tattoo, or just living my life as another day. It’s usually the week after my birthday, though, where I feel lonely. And now, as I approach September 26, I feel those heavy, painful reminders of what was happening to me emotionally and physically leading up until her death.
I begin to question a lot. More now than ever, it crosses my mind as to whether or not I am / have been putting my mom on a pedestal when I write about her, ignoring all of the horrors and negatives that happened to me over the course of my upbringing – a lot of which was brought on by her heavy drinking. Now, obviously, I don’t take it all too personal that she had these demons. I accepted that her drinking was no my fault, that her addictions were her own battle, and that she was the best parent she knew how to be. Then, on the other hand, I look at a lot of the emotional and personal struggles I have now with who I am, my image, my anxiety, and almost deny the fact that her words and actions towards me were what sculpted my thinking into what it was – and what I sometimes struggle with today.
I refer to them as emotional flare-ups. Like a chronic condition that never really goes away, I get these feelings that are initially indiscernible to me in origin and I spend days, sometimes weeks, trying to target exactly what I am feeling and why it’s happening when it is. All I’ve wanted to do since her passing was better learn about myself, better understand this brain inside my head; I lived the first 20 years of my life for her – trying to heal her, trying to save her, trying to make her proud of me. In reality, I should have been making attempts at being proud of myself and my accomplishments. Now, I have no problem admitting when I feel accomplished. I don’t see it as cockiness or arrogance, rather, recognition of things I’ve worked hard towards achieving.
These anxieties and insecurities were ingrained in me from a young age when my mom insulted my pajamas, because she said I was getting fat and needed to go on a diet. Her micromanaging of my image, of who I was (or was to become for that matter) was definitely a reflection and projection of her own insecurities and desires that she had when she was younger but never got to live out. I noticed that a lot of times, parents tend to blur the line of what they want for their child, and what they want for themselves to be carried out by their child. These pressures gave me a loss of identity at a young age, only recognized now when I look at the plethora of various clubs and activities I was submerged in. Partly to stay out of a toxic home, and partly because I was so unsure of what I liked, what I was talented in, that I tried everything and became a master of none.

What I’m getting to in this roundabout trip down a traumatic memory lane is, I get anxiety and questionable feelings, because I obviously miss my mother, and I would give almost anything to have her back. Alternatively, do I make her memory less ….memorable…. by acknowledging that her pressures and style of raising me were large contributors to the things I struggle with today by way of identity and self acceptance? I inquire to myself some nights: if she did make it out of the hospital that September and sobered up,  would she have remained sober? Would she have relapsed? Would she have killed herself? I wonder to myself if she lived, would she have continued on her path of berating me for my appearance, my hair, my style, my likes? Would I still be on this slow, backwards-moving path of self-undiscovery where my decisions were essentially made for me to be produced in the image of her?
As soon as I graduated college, I spent the money and took the classes to get my real estate license in order to be like her. I put so much effort into earning a piece of plastic that allowed me to sit in the desk in front of where she used to sit in order to make deals and sell houses. I quickly realized that I would never be like her, and part of me was relieved. There was something inside of my soul that reminded me I possess something unique only to me – something I ignored for so long, because I was conditioned to be what my maker told me to be. It makes me think, am I an asshole for being grateful for my circumstances? I’m obviously not happy for the death of my mother, but if she was still here, would I ever have found my spark? Would I ever have gone head-first into writing? Would I have ever learned to love myself?

Reflections on Grief

It’s all utterly hopeless. All I could hear was breathing and if I listened harder I thought I could hear other people’s thoughts. My mind was looking for an escape route, because the images and scenes playing over inside of me left no room for thoughts. It was like my eyelids were stapled open and I was being forced to watch a terrible movie over and over again. I wanted to scream but I cried instead. But really, how many people can you cry to until you get sick of listening to yourself?
Eventually I realized that tears wouldn’t save someone who didn’t want saving, and obviously didn’t, and frankly I was sick of getting headaches. I felt like by this point I was digging around in my tear ducts for whatever they would give up, like I was addicted to the salted droplets streaming down my face. I exhausted my abilities and natural rights, even, to continue sitting in the dark and crying over someone who would never come back to me in physical form. I tried to see my friends and be social, but there were still so many days when I would sit in my cotton cave of blankets, perched in the corner where my bedpost met the wall, watching Netflix and hiding in the dark. I would lay under my down comforter and hold it like a baby’s safety blanket, thriving off of the warmth that it provided to the cold hollow self I had become over the course of those few months.

After the first month mark of my mom dying I called my social worker, Lisa. She told me to reach out to her immediately following everything but I couldn’t bring myself to extend my hands to anyone, considering I missed a week of school and had to get my academic life back on track before anything else. I was so incredibly distracted in what was going on that I forgot who Lisa was, I forgot that I spent the past few weekends moving out of the house I grew up in, and I forgot that my mother was gone. Then one random day, I picked up my cell phone, and I called Lisa.

How are you feeling?

Surprisingly, I’m feeling OK.

That’s impressive, but you know, it’s just beginning.

Yeah, I’ll be fine.

We spent almost an hour talking to each other and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized, moments after I hung up with Lisa, that I wasn’t fine. I became very reclusive over the next few days, and I began to sink into this dark pit within the pit of my apartment. Nothing sunk in, and the emotional gunshot wound I received was becoming tangible at last. I was assessing the damage of what happened to me over the past month and I realized that I wasn’t going to die, but it sure hurt like hell, and that made me wish I were just out of my misery.
You get a purple heart for injuries protecting others and sacrificing your body. But when the person you’re trying to protect doesn’t want help, and they hurt you emotionally, that just gives you a stone heart, weighing your chest down and pushing you back into bed when it’s time to get up. The stone heart makes you teeter and totter on the edge of your emotional stability. You shakily walk a tightrope, hoping you don’t slip and hit rock bottom. I kept my chin up and kept looking forward, disregarding the danger and blatant signs of depression around me. But, like walking a tight rope, there’s no telling what would put me over that edge… until it happens.

I was sitting in the back of my sociology class, minding my own business and clearly not taking notes like the professor advised. I wasn’t in the right mind that day, and I knew it. My rope was feeling a bit on the unstable side but I went to class anyway. My teacher put up the same drab PowerPoint slides except, today, it was about death and taking care of the last wishes of your family.

How many of you have lost a parent?

I was the only person who raised my hand. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. Her eyes darted straight in my direction and with that a cue was given to every other of the twenty-eight or so students to look behind at me.

Anybody else? No? Alright, then.

The first thing I thought was how could this woman do that to me? Just earlier that week I was sitting in her office, telling her about the pains I was going through and discussing the work I was going to make up, and she takes such a bold poll question like that. I blamed her for making me raise my hand like that, and then I thought again to myself. A probing, horrible digging inside of me like the dirty fingernail of guilt forced me to begin blaming myself for all of the horrors that happened to my mother. There was no preparation for the death of her, like the professor said, however the death that she faced was so seemingly preventable. I began to cry silent tears down an unquivering face that went unnoticed by the room of people who were staring at me shortly before. I buried my face into my scarf while the slides clicked one after another, methodically reminding us of how to prepare for death when I was already beyond that point. She emphasized on comfort and insurance and not blaming ourselves. I couldn’t stand the thought of preparing for anything other than the unknown yet ever-impending torment and fears that would return to me regardless of how prepared I was for it.
I glared down at the chicken scratch notes on the poor-smelling paper and began to question everything. What was I even doing here at school? All of my friends were right, saying what they did when they saw me. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought.

Oh my god it’s so good to see you back. I can’t believe you came back; I would’ve never come back.

Excerpts from 2012

What can be expected of someone who has no expectations in themselves? Apparently everything. I have been on this uphill attempt to extinguish all expectations from my life and just go with the flow in some sort of spiritual ohm-induced cleansing, however that does not work how I initially calculated. It is more challenging to consciously expel things from my life than I anticipated. I have Catholic Guilt syndrome where I feel responsible for the faults of others even if they aren’t my doing. I feel morally obligated to everyone I encounter. I am the product of an equation roughly twenty-two years in the making. I am a defect that kept running forward and now am dealing with those consequences. I’ve tried to expect nothing could hurt me, but then it does. So now I expect nothing could get worse than the worst – so far so good.
Next week will be a year since my mom died a very slow and arduous death – one that I would not wish on even my worst enemy. She is currently floating above this circular and monotonous purgatory that I have acknowledged as life cursing her misfortunes and apologizing for leaving me here. And although it’s been roughly a year, I still seem to feel all of the pain and anger that I encountered when I watched her take her last, laborious, and unwilling breath. I sat across from my grandfather eating a boiled pork chop with beans and spinach, pushing my food around my Chinet paper plate as tears rolled down my face. He was oblivious to my pitted heart and I didn’t expect him to notice, considering he’s been calling my brother and I completely incorrect names for the past month and a half. I felt a familiar, boiling sensation deep within the pit of my stomach indiscernible from the food I was blindly consuming. Although I was not hungry I kept pushing and eating, and pushing. My brain kept lurching forward to the front of my head every time I bent down towards the plate to inspect the spinach, and make sure that there was only burnt bacon in the beans and not dead bugs. A thought in my head kept ticking and festering as repetitive as the crickets outside my window, forcing through the haze and relentlessly taunting me. The idea that I have been dusting my mom’s urn on the mantelpiece and taking care of my grandfather for the past year made me nauseous. It was a decaying reminder, a repetitious mental sickness that pointed signs at me. It told me that I had no mother and for some reason I felt at fault yet again.
I wiped my face and my grandfather muttered, without looking up from his plate, “Take things with a grain of salt.” Confused, I just replied with “OK” and continued to push my food around for several more minutes. He lifted his head to drink his fourth or fifth beer, spinach stuck to his chin. I was going to tell him, but what did it matter? It was just the two of us. I ate the rest of my beans before I had to excuse myself to go sob in my room. And I did just that. I felt an overpowering hold that pushed my feet down and froze me in front of my mirror in my bedroom. I was magnetized to the earth, incapable of the flight my mother gained. I didn’t think that was fair. I felt like she killed herself and she should have been forced to stay with me for trying to and slowly succeeding in her attempts. I labored over my thoughts and cried and listened and hated and stared into the sky wondering where my turn would come from. I did that for so long; and now all I could do was collapse onto my down comforter, floating over my full-sized bed. The only attainable flight I would ever achieve. My grass green sheets swallowed my face as I rained salt tears into them.
I continued to sink into a self-loathing until worldly obligations prevented me from doing any further reflection. I sighed into my pillow, saving it for later, and rolled out of my bed to answer a text my friend sent me.

“What’s going on?”

I should have said “Nothing, you?” and attempted to socialize, but instead I was overly honest and delved into the gaping sores of my emotional being and divulged that I wanted a drink and to just get away from my house. He never responded, and I don’t blame him. I would have probably done the same thing as soon as the psycho flag was flown. I sat in my room, staring at the same perforated ceiling that I constantly envision, and bench pressing my emotional baggage only to come to the sudden realization that I had been longing for an existence that was seemingly dangerous yet less destructive than the sedentary life I stared down for the past several years. Being busy and not allowing myself to stop and listen to the constant ticking reminders were going to help me move on. At least I thought.

To Die Smiling

I spend so much time thinking about my mother’s passing; how it could have gone differently, how she looked, how she smelled, how it all sounded. I remember the drumming in my ears of my own heartbreak when she stopped breathing. I remember sizzling yellow overhead lights and yellowed skin, bloodied lips and scabbed nostrils. I see her carotid artery pulsing through her neck; she was so frail I could see her body fighting through her skin. Her once-voluminous hair was matted all around her face, bangs fallen to the sides like wilted flowers. Her death itself was so anti-climactic and quick and so final, that although the end of a chapter, was not the saddest part of the story.

When I think about those two weeks of  pain and torture and confusion,  I no longer cry. I no longer weep over death, and I no longer fear it. Death itself is one of the only things that we as humans have in common besides breathing, and seeing someone die made me fear it less. What I fear now, is suffering. I fear that uncertainty when you are suffering and do not know if you will wake up again. I fear not knowing if your last words will, in fact, be your last. I fear saying something and never being able to touch back upon it.

Towards the end of her life, my mom said very little. She never wanted to discuss her addiction, she never wanted me to help, and it was hard to try and speak on anything else when the elephant in the room was the person who raised me. I remember so vividly sitting in wicker chairs on the deck, the summer sun on the creek, saying nothing with her. The world around us spoke from the grass to the trees to the ospreys in the sky and she and I shared between us a silence that deafened them. I knew she was sick. She knew she was sick. She knew that I knew, and neither of us had to say it. I watched the water while she slowly dragged at her cigarette, using her free hand to lift a glass of ice water to her lips, bracelets dangling off her wrists and ice cubes clanking the crystal like wind chimes in the dead of August. She put her glass down and, without breaking eye contact with the shore, reached across and grabbed my hand in hers. We said nothing as I maintained a steady gaze on the world before me, and we agreed in our silence that we knew.

A month later, I stood in the darkness of the ICU, looking at her while she looked around wildly, incoherent and afraid.

“Please stay with me, just in case.”

I said nothing back. I couldn’t say anything back. I stood frozen in the doorway while her bottom lip quivered in fear and she called out, the nurse telling me I couldn’t stay past 8:30 PM. “I love you.”

I love you. I love you. I love you. I don’t know if she ever heard me say it that night, because she was so beyond a steady stream of consciousness. I was escorted out of ICU. She slipped into a coma alone, in the dark, sometime in the night. And I made sure I stayed with her until she drew her last breath beside me.

I think of the fear and the uncertainty. I think of how, in that moment, I saw how much she didn’t want to die, and that her last words to me were of a helpless child, finally asking for my aid her after months of defiance and silence. When I think of her death I no longer cry, yet when I think of her last words, I fight to control myself. I do not want my last words to be those of fear – I do not want last words at all. I want my last exchange to be like the silent embrace she and I shared on the deck in August. I want to look up at my loved one, and smile. I want them to know. I want them to smile back.

Analogies to Wise Boobs

I have a painting on my wall in my bedroom. It’s from the seventies, heavy, and shellacked onto a carved piece of wood. The picture itself is faded. I remember seeing it for the first time hidden away in the shed attached to the garage. What did I see, aged no older than ten? Boobs.

I saw a woman entwined in a moment of what I only imagine at the time was sweaty, passionate lovemaking. He is holding her, his back is turned (and his bum is nice!). Her long, flowy brown hair hanging in time. Her mouth, slightly opened, expressing extreme pleasure at whatever it is he is performing on her body. And all I saw were boobs.

Now that I have this painting in my room, I get to stare at it. However, I no longer stare at the boobs. I, instead, spend my time studying it, figuring out the “why” of the painting. As a child, not once did I notice the scaffolding surrounding the base of this man and woman. Not once did I take note of the dark, hooded figures pulling bricks from their legs, haulding them off down and away from these lovers. The couple is being taken apart, brick by brick, yet they stay wrapped up in each other. Then it hit me: their passion – their love – is what keeps them standing.

Today marked four years since my college graduation, where I was struck upside the head with various arduous, emotionally draining, and questionable life choices that have, and still continue, to shape the person I am evolving into. Four years ago, at 21 years old, I remember my favorite question to ask my ceiling on sleepless nights, “Why is this happening to me?” My trivial upsets were directed towards my weight, my mom’s recent death, failed relationships and why I always seemed to be hurt by bad people or – better yet – why I always allowed people to hurt me. Nothing ever seemed to have a positive turn. Nothing could bring me joy, because at the end of the day, my perspective was on one thing…the “boobs,” if you will. I possessed a very juvenile (and still sometimes catch myself) outlook on my life and my circumstances and nothing would ever change, simply because that’s how it was.

Then, one day, while thinking of my mom, thinking of how much I knew she loved me, and thinking of her passing, it came to me that I already lived the worst day of my life. Being told she would never wake up again, above everything else in my current world, was the worst day of my life. It was such, because I knew she did it to herself with her addiction, I knew she was sad, I knew she gradually saw no joy in the world around her, and the light eventually faded from her existence. I realized, then, that my mother, no matter how amazing she was to me, taught me several silent lessons on what I don’t want to be.

I noticed later on that, in relationships that failed me, lessons were placed in front of me to make me take in the affirmations of my own strength, who I am as a person, and how I don’t want to be treated. I took a step back from the two people, heartbreak, “Why is this happening to me?” cycle of thinking and instead told myself, “That is not how I deserved to be treated, and I won’t let it happen again.” The negatives that afflicted my life over the years have all been lessons, no matter how painful. And honestly, I think it’s more important to have hard lessons, because we as humans tend to remember pain more than joy. So when I look at my painting, look at my life, I remind myself that what I take away and put into a positive light will make me grow stronger, no matter what darkness tries to dismantle me at my base.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

Being 25, being young, having a good job, my own house, a car, bills paid on time, I would have expected that would be happy by now. I realized though, and very recently realized, that I am not. I continuously find myself being independent, being in a routine, and feeling a void that is constant and negates all of my accomplishments thus far when, in reality, I have done a lot (and survived a lot) to be this miserable.

I do not love myself. It is a hard thing to say when you think you should. I look in the mirror everyday and smile, but I do not love myself. I wear fashionable clothes, I laugh, I workout hard, I push myself to be better, but I do not love myself. I thought I loved myself, until I engaged in a relationship that pushed me to the edge of my sanity, left me feeling like a crazy person, and realizing that all of my effort was for nothing because, in reality, I do not love myself.

I always blame the other person, spoke of the other person and how I was taken advantage of, hurt, used, manipulated, and I had to admit that in all of these horrible relationships was the common denominator. I pick and choose individuals who either see my character flaws or take my inability to say ‘No,’ and just run with it because, in a relationship with me, people can get away with almost anything.

Taking a long, hard, look at myself, my co-dependency issues, my trust issues, and my unhealthy need to please people, I came to the conclusion that I am the way I am because of my upbringing and my constant desire to try and save my mother. My mom, for my whole life, was an alcoholic. She died in 2011 from her disease, but I didn’t notice until almost five years later that my tendencies all stem from my relationship with her. I excelled in every school activity, every class, every extracurricular. I got my schoolwork done early, I worked from the time I was 12, I did my chores, I got scholarships to college, I was accepted to so many amazing places, I went to Oxford, I paid my own bills starting at 16, and it wasn’t until I was walking on campus the day after her funeral my senior year of college that I felt a black hole in my gut, and realized that I did all of those things for her.

*********

As a kid, you always think it’s you.

I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I had it in my head from the time I was ten that my mom’s drinking problem was me, it was my brother, it was everything but her. Because, really, how could someone want to destroy their own body? It had to be an outside force. It had to be me. From the time I was very small I did everything my mother asked, and not in the sense that it was teaching me responsibility, but because I thought it would make her less drunk if I did these things. I thought that she would be less sad, I thought she would want to go out of the house again, I thought it would make her realize that she had something great to live for.

In relationships that developed after her death (because, let’s face it, I was so absorbed in saving my mother’s life that I had no regard for myself or confidence to try and date before and during college), I began to notice that every single guy I dated or went for or liked would take advantage of me, hurt me, or I would try and make it work because, “it just felt like it had to be.” Nothing I could do would make them want to stay, but I felt happy in their arms, I felt happy when I laughed, so that had to be real. I was incapable of saying no because, if they were rejected by me, they would want to run away, the same way I shut down when my mother rejected me as a kid. This led to destruction, regret, anger, mistrust, and putting myself in situations that I shouldn’t have stayed in but still lingered at the hope that there was going to be that one little thing I did to make them want to stay. But, just like my mother, you can’t change people. You can’t make people want to be a certain way, you can only change how you see things. You can only change how you handle situations. You can trust your intuition, and you can build the strength to realize when something isn’t meant to be.