I am a Speck

FB_IMG_1457514094169    Often times, as tiny people on a big planet, the world seems unjustly overwhelming. We get so bogged down with problems, and snags, and hitches, and tragedy, that we feel like there is nowhere to go except under our covers. We bury our heads in the sand, we isolate, we brood, and we wait it out to try and make that feeling pass. I recall overhearing conversations between my dad and grandpa,

“She’s depressed. She needs to see a therapist.” They would agree and I would just listen, never going to therapy and never wanting to speak about my problems. As far as I saw it, what was a third party going to tell me that I didn’t already know? I was depressed, I missed my mom, I had PTSD, I wasn’t suicidal, I was binge eating, I was sad, lonely, frustrated, emotional, numb, regretful, angry, grieving. I knew everything that was going on inside of my head, inside of my soul, and the last thing I wanted was to hear it repeated back to me. I was twenty-one years old, and less than two months earlier, I watched my mom succumb to the damages of alcoholism. I grew up only to watch her suffer more and more, year after year, and feel increasingly helpless and she became increasingly more destitute of hope.

After her passing, more than anything, I wanted to escape. I was living between Massachusetts and New York, driving countless miles, finishing my bachelor’s degree on time, and wondering if life was worth it anymore. I felt singled-out, small, and useless. I felt like I was out of my body, floating above my friends and family, jaded and undeserving of the “normalcy” they all seemed to possess. It was like the sensation of drowning, without being granted death. I longed to just run away, back to Oxford, back to an unfamiliar place to make me find myself again, and as if it were an omen, my best friend Candice entertained the idea of traveling to Portugal.

Eighteen hours of travel and limited sleep mattered very little when we arrived at the empty resort in the empty resort town. I liked the isolation. I liked the solitude. I was with my friends but part of me wanted to stay alone. I wanted to get lost in the streets, and sit in cafes and exchange eye contact with people I would never see again. We walked up and down the piers and beaches, drinking cappuccinos and eating traditional food. Quickly, we were acclimated to the slow and steady drum of that coastal ghost town.

One morning, walking towards the beach, we noticed a sign, and a beaten down foot path. When we could have gone straight down to the water, three of us hooked a right and, single file, began walking. We didn’t know where the path was going to take us, and we didn’t know where we were going, but we could see the whole oceanfront from where we were, and the sun was high and the breeze was inviting. We passed old leaning trees, towering succulents, and rigid dips in the cliff-side. The view was amazing. The ocean – so blue – and so massive from where we were. I strained my eyes as far west as I could, but I only found the bend of the horizon. My friends and I stopped to take photos, inspect the flora, and snoop around fences of houses lucky enough to line the cliff. We walked for what seemed like hours, as if we were headed towards that bend I kept looking to. Red clay dust kicked up, and the earth switched from dirt to grass to tree covering. On the far side of the trees was a large opening, and a sign warning us of where the ocean tore into the cliff, telling us to stop; we didn’t have to go further.

I looked at the midday sun illuminating the world before me. Seagulls perched along the rocks, and I was jealous of them to not have the luxury for myself. I breathed in the salty air – the air that tasted like home. In that moment, I felt like a speck. I was so overwhelmed by the size of my surroundings, I was so far away from home. And yet, I was breathing in the same salt air, and standing under the same sun.

When the Dead Rise

The day my mom died was not the worst day of my life. It was surprisingly freeing. In a win-win sort of way, her last breath ended her suffering, and ended my suffering. The worst day, as it was for me, was being told by a short haired lady in a long white coat that my mom would never wake up again. I went completely numb. I looked at her writhing around in pain, unable to open her eyes, unable to look at me ever again, and that’s when it hit me. That finality, that sinking reassurance the woman in front of me wouldn’t say “I love you,” ever again. That, was the worst day of my life.
I went through the process of blacked out rage, punched a wall, experienced crippling shock and a nauseating headache. The doctor said it was only a matter of hours before she died, and suggested the best course of action was to unplug everything except the oxygen and move my mom to a quiet corner room, make her feel at home, and wait it out. We met with a grief counselor, a social worker, were already pawned off to a laundry list of trauma therapists and told PTSD was common in these situations. I couldn’t think straight. Wasn’t PTSD for war veterans? Is this a life war?

I didn’t expect my mom’s life to play out in the end like it did. She, a maintenance drinker my whole life –her whole life– began a vicious downward spiral in the summer of 2010. There were a plethera of reasons to cause depression for her, but it was so unknown to me what drove her to hide vodka bottles, glasses filled with vodka, diet coke bottles mixed with vodka, vodka waters in the morning, vodka on the beach – just vodka everywhere.
Luckily for me, and the mahic wheel of genetics, I never adopted the addictive personality of my mom. Growing up, her with a glass of wine every night was normal. If she didn’t have a glass of wine, something was wrong; that’s just how it was. There was no such thing as “addiction” or “habitual drinking” at that time. It was a known fact that a wine glass was merely an extension of her left hand, and a cigarette of her right. I’ve only dreamt her absent of both.
As I grew up, and became more aware that no, it was not normal for an adult to drink at the same time everyday, multiple glasses, and fall asleep on the couch, I began the pleading process with my mom and tried to convince her she could do without.
“You’re not the parent.”
I loathe– utterly, and truly, loathe that phrase. In four words, my power of influence over that woman was stripped of me, over and over again, each time I brought up the subject of her addictive behaviors. I couldn’t cope with her self-abuse, sunk into a solitary depression, and in the process found my own addiction – food. So as I coped, and traveled, and lived away at school,  progressively growing in size and shrinking in self-respect, my mother sat at home, selling houses, became a recluse, and began the slow process of killing herself.

We were over-educated on the process of necrosis, how the liver is killed and begins to break apart inside the body. We saw the catheter bags, filled with coffee-black urine from kidneys that ceased to work. I looked over  her deep yellow hue, bloated belly, and straw hair matted down. This isn’t her. My heart shattered at the thought of never having her again. Her quick wit, her sarcastic and brutally honest demeanor were lost to me. I lost my best friend so many times in her, and this was the last time.
The important step was to administer a numbing agent that would alleviate pain and also assist in the process of dying (quite frankly, after watching the suffering my mom endured at the end of her life, I now support case-by-case adult euthenasia). This shell of a woman lay in a hospital gown, hissing oxygen the only audible tone aside from the throb of my headache, and the quiet ghost-like murmurs of visiting friends and family. I didn’t blame my own friends who stayed as long as they could, but couldn’t handle the sight of a woman dying, while her family watched in a quasi-sickening anticipation. We all by this time settled with the notion that she would never wake again, and we said our goodbyes, countless goodbyes, and we waited.
I wrote her eulogy on the first night, next to her bed, while my family sat around.
Any minute now. I could see it written on their faces. I fell in and out of sleep, and distinctly remember being woken up by the voice of my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who passed almost four years earlier.

“Patty is in here.”

Now the dead are speaking, awesome. I jumped up and ran to her room. It was about five A.M. and she was still breathing. My dad was awake.
“She was never a quitter.” Ironic, I thought, her not being a quitter is what got us all here in the first place. I looked at her in the bed. Now you’re just being an asshole.
The next afternoon dragged. I washed myself in baby wipes and ate Lorna Doone cookies with tiny gingerale’s to satiate myself. I had no appetite, but my giant Italian family was there and insisted I throw something down my gullet so I didn’t get admitted myself. I watched and watched, her vitals unchanging, “Lord of the Rings” on the television in the background. People came and went, I stayed next to her. Tears came and went. Tears came and went again. Tears made multiple unwanted visits. How do I have tears left? Must be the gingerale.
The third day was sunny and bright. Mom lasted much longer than this twelve hour bullshit the doctor said. She was clinically brain dead, but her heart wouldn’t quit. I stood at the foot of her bed, alongside a family friend, Sue, who lived behind my grandpa’s house. I saw the shock in her face, not realizing the damage my mom cause to herself. I saw the same gutted loss of someone who wasn’t completely dead yet.
My mom started to move.
She’s fucking moving.
I caught, in the corner of my eye, her body rolling to the right. She’s trying to escape! The tone of the room changed immediately while for a shared moment we were all flooded in shock, disbelief, and a silent rage that mom was moving. Sue jumped up, looked down only to realize she was sitting on the bed controls and my mom in fact, was still in a coma, but was now on an unstoppable roll over the side of her bed, ass out, body limp.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!”
My dad and brother grabbed her shoulders.
“Hold her down! Stop the bed!”
Sue found the switch and stopped my mom from toppling over onto the floor and returned her to her original state of sleep.
We all looked at each other, in shock, and began to laugh. In a split second I went from being solemn, to in absolute disbelief my mom was coming back from the dead, to a slow, boiling rage that she put me through hell only to come back swinging. You bastard, I thought. I thought how mad she would be to learn I wrote her eulogy before she even stopped breathing, and how happy I was to think I’d hug my mom again, and she’d hug me back.

My mom died quietly on a Monday. The sun was out, and it was warm and breezy for the end of September. Her birthday was in a week.
“Maybe when you come home for my birthday, we’ll do something fun and spend more time together.” She said that to me in August the day I moved back to Massachusetts for my senior year of college. And here we were, September 26 – I hadn’t left her side in days. It was just her and me present when she stopped breathing. My brother and his girlfriend we asleep on the floor and in an armchair, respectively. I answered my phone to hear one of my closest childhood friends on the other end ask how I was, and how my mom was. I rolled over to look at her, and with two last breaths, she ceased to be.

“I have to call you back. I think my mom just died.”

The Precursor to the Rest of my Life

I spent my whole life dreaming about being in college. Nerd. I used to organize the books on the shelves in elementary school classrooms after absorbing as much as my little brain would allow, until my teacher stopped me one day and said, “Kaitlin, books aren’t organized in size order.” After a year of remedial classes to try and figure out my cognitive issues, it was determined that I was suffering from a syndrome known as being an eight year old, and I was released back into the wild of elementary bliss.

Even under the oppressive hand of my third grade upper echelon, I maintained a desire to learn. The life of academia was a safety blanket for me. It was an escape into classwork – an art project, a paper, a diorama; something I could sink my teeth into and that’s how it always was. There was no coercing me into wanting to do my work. My parents never had to threaten me with bludgeoning to finish an assignment, unlike my brother who, with much struggle, would generally have to be strapped into his chair and threatened with beatings and the ultimate capital punishment of any 2000s teenage boy – no video games. My parents were wrought with polar opposite children who possessed only the same destructive and distasteful sense of humor.
They put us in jiu jitsu in an attempt to keep us calm and somewhat healthy. Sports never favored my brother and I. He didn’t play a sport a day in his life, and as for me – I scored on my own team when I won the ball in a toss up at the beginning of a basketball game. I was full contact. I would do anything for the ball and in turn would foul out of every game, cry, and wonder why I was a pre-teen mongoloid. My brother was bullied when he was younger, I, too oblivious to know if anyone was bullying me, and thus, jiu jitsu seemed to be the appropriate outlet for a kid being picked on and a full contact elementary school girl.
It proved in our favor in the long run, I suppose. Good on Mom and Dad. My instructor helped me in containing my reactive, explosive behavior and placed me in kick boxing tournaments where I landed a spot in the junior Olympics when I was 9 years old for kicking a fourth grader in the chest. I never pursued it, and to this day wonder how my life would be (and how hot my bod would be) if I continued with a life of fighting for sport. Maybe I would have been Ronda Rousey. But like any phase of a child, they flip switches overnight, and jiu jitsu became a hobby, then a lifestlye, then hobby, then absent, then a lifestyle, until I graduated high school and moved on to college. I was absorbed in schoolwork, trying to seal my fates with college, while maintaining an almost perfect GPA, playing the saxophone, learning Spanish, being in ROTC, building robots, doing community service projects, and staying out of my house as much as possible.
Mom, a maintenance alcoholic who worked as an associate real estate broker from home, Dad, a workaholic who maintained his sanity by going on fishing trips and working out everyday butt heads more and more as my brother and I aged, like as if we were old enough to start to see the toxicity around us. It was always present, but I had too close of a relationship with my mom, and I suppose I was so used to the things that happened under the roof, that it was more second nature than anything.
Now, as an adult, I chalk up my constant desire to travel and move around when I was a kid to my subconscious telling me that I had to get out of the situation I was in. I always had a natural gypsy curiosity of the world, and immersing myself into culture, and people, and different food (which I now believe is due to my gypsy heritage; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). When I was younger, though, college was the way out. It was my chance to reinvent myself, to be someone I always wanted to be, to be in control of my life for once. I was so excited. I applied to somewhere between twelve and fifteen colleges, got into nine, wait-listed on two, denied a couple, and even got a scholarship to the Rochester Institute of Technology for mechanical engineering which I, in turn, declined to pursue my dreams to be a writer or English teacher or a scholar or something that would be marginally low-paying and give my parents a mild heart attack when they realized that I was required to pay for college in the 21st century.
September of 2008 came and I was officially a college freshman. The tadpole, the bottom of the totem pole, the sticky gum stuck to the shoe of collegiate social standings. It felt amazing. Luckily for me, I befriended twins down the hall from me who convinced me to join the local rugby team. I was excited to find an outlet for my deep-rooted and youthful anger so quickly. I had a new wardrobe, mostly because I gained weight after dropping jiu jitsu (5 foot 3 and 208 pounds. I’ll never forget that number).
The first day of class was on a Wednesday. I registered for classes per the recommendation of the orientation back in June which was everyday…at 8am…because I’m gullible and thought it was also a fantastic idea; I was still in the process of learning freedom and how to question authority figures. I had all of these wildly varying prerequisites picked out that were mandatory and also earth-shattering-ly boring. So, as a treat to myself, I opted for a night class. Each Wednesday I would walk across campus and spend three hours immersing myself in the Russian language. It was something I wanted to do, and something my mother almost killed me for.
“Why the fuck am I spending $800 so you can learn Russian? What the hell is wrong with you?”
I took the verbal abuse because I knew, someday, I would need Russian – at least that’s what I told myself. This was the new Kaitlin. This was the new new me. I was going to speak three languages and be a scholar who played rugby and was smooth like butter, cool as a cucumber, sweet like candy, and descriptive as fuck.
I even wanted to dress cool. Which, apparently, 2008 me decided was dark skinny jeans, a lime green American Eagle polo tee shirt, and clear plastic Converse low tops. This was college fashion, I told myself (looking back now, I should have probably watched Clueless a couple dozen more times and taken a hint that not only was I not wearing fashion, but my body shape and tummy girth couldn’t support the skinny jeans at the time. I tried. I hyped myself up to walk across campus when I realized I was actually going to be late for my first day of classes. Panic set in as I threw all of the books on my desk into my backpack, weighing myself down an extra and unnecessary ten pounds for one class. I grabbed my iPod off the shelf, threw my pack on in a frantic sweat, and ran out of my room.
My dorm room was located on the first floor, so I only had four cement steps to go down and it was a straight shot out of the building and I would be on my way all the way across campus to Russian. Awesome. I pushed open the stairwell door, and with the motion, hurled my iPod directly out of my sweaty little palm and down the four steps which I would forever remember as oppressive and mocking.
Ting. Clang. Thud. Scratch. Slide. There went my iPod. I picked it up. No visible damage. I went to turn it on. Nothing.Nothing. In one sweeping motion and four small steps I broke the only thing to occupy me from my freshman hall to literally one of the farthest, un-air-conditioned buildings on campus. Fuck. I choked back a tear, threw my iPod into the side pocket of my backpack and trudged out into the unbelievably humid September midday heat. Was it this hot this whole time? Am I just stressed? Oh god my feet are so sweaty.
In my too-tight shirt, my now-slippery plastic shoes, and my dark pants, without music, without hope left, I power walked with an over-sized backpack to class and still managed to be fifteen minutes late for my first lesson in Russian. Pit stains went down to my love handles, my hair was frizzed out uncontrollably but I couldn’t put it up at the risk of exposing my underarms to the other eight people who elected to learn a new alphabet on Wednesday’s between four and seven pm.
Is this what I intended by reinventing myself?