Sailfish

“If we tip over, make sure you stay underwater and swim away from the boat.” 

My mom emphasized away with her left hand as she unconsciously maneuvered the rudder of our old SailFish with her right. I looked up nervously at the twelve-foot high sail, pulled tight and bowed to the breeze. I held onto a piece of rope she handed me at the beginning of our little excursion.

“Don’t let this go, alright? If I ask for some slack, give me some slack.” I nodded. 

 It was my first sailing lesson with her, and the most time I’d gotten with her that summer of 2002. She was a busy, up-and-coming real estate agent and most days were spent at Nan and Pop’s house by myself or with my brother until she got back from the office. When she asked if I wanted to learn how to sail I jumped to the occasion. It wasn’t more of a question, but rather, “Get in the boat or don’t but I’m leaving the shore either way.”

“If you do come up too close to the boat,” she continued, “you can get stuck under the sails and you’ll suffocate and drown because you’ll be panicking the whole time. Try not to panic, okay?”

I nodded cautiously as she squinted at the reflection of the sun as it bounced off the creek. I absorbed every warning she gave me – she did know best – and spent the rest of our sailing lesson in fear of the sails that could very well kill me. She gestured at me to move to the far side of the eighteen-foot boat and her hand relaxed on the ropes. Wind caught in the sails and all at once we pitched to one side. I braced my feet in the middle of the boat and held my breath. My mom sat in the back and effortlessly guided us through the strait of the creek, wind blowing her box-dye hair and messing up her usually tamed hairspray bangs. She had no fear in her eyes. In fact, they were closed. She had sailed the creek for thirty years before I joined her that day, so she didn’t need to see where she was going. She was the creek. She tilted her head up towards the sky and I watched her open up to the world and be in love with the moment. I felt myself ease my grip from the side of the boat. As the wind let up the boat slowed down, she looked at me and smiled, refreshed and new.

The creek was supposed to heal us. I believed it was magic for so many years because any time there was something wrong, the remedy was to simply go swim in the water. If there was too much sand on our feet, we’d dip them in and shake our legs around until it dusted off and floated gently home to the bottom of the creek. If our feet were scuffed up and calloused, we soaked them silently and patiently, and waited until tiny fish came up and ate the dead skin from between our toes. If we were injured while playing around the neighborhood, or if we stepped on a broken clamshell – or if we got splinters the size of posts stuck in our hands – Nan would send us away to the water’s edge.

“Go sit in the drink,” she said. “Go soak in the salt water. Salt water will clean it out.”

I took my cut up foot, or my splintered hand, and waded out into the brown-green drink, the drink that made the pain go away after a salty sting first met the wounds. And Nan was right – first the salt water would burn and then it would soothe. The cuts would turn white and after a few minutes of soaking I would study the depth of them and bake on the dock until my skin pulled tightly around me in a hug.

The water was iridescent on top and impossible to see beneath at a depth greater than a few inches. Sometimes I would cannonball off the float at the end of the dock, or off the back of the boat, and let all the air out of my body once I was submerged. I tried to remain tight and balled up, suspended in the black and the silence – away from everything except my thoughts and the fish below me. Then I’d pop back up eventually and break the surface, and stretch out on my back and float along the creek. I listened to what the water had to say, muffled and slow in my ears. I took in the drink. Calm and heavy from the salty thick water I paddled my way back to the dock and dried my skin again until it was too hot to sit still.

The adults floated in the drink, in different ways. Nan was self conscious so she would dip her toes into the water; I only saw her swim in a bathing suit a handful of times before she died. She had breast cancer and lost her left breast to a mastectomy. She stuffed the left cup of her bra with tissues or padding if she had to venture out into the world, or go to Bingo Tuesday, or go to church. The mastectomy scar was never visible in her bathing suit, but her radiation scars were tendrils that crawled out from underneath her straps and made themselves a part of her bold floral swimwear. When she did go take a dip in the drink she would go alone at sunset, as if she had a pre-arranged date with the water. Her intimate encounter left us kids as well as Pop in the house or on the deck so she could enjoy the solitude of the brine and converse with nature or the sun or God. She dipped under once or twice, a baptism. Pop didn’t mind sharing her with the creek – “My girl,” he always called her. He and Nan had been together since 1936, or 37 or 38, so he knew he’d never lose her to another.

Pop was unashamed of his body. His back was covered in broad white zig-zag scars from World War Two, and his belly was old but not fat, also folded over with many large scars that met at his belly button and went up and across, down and to the side, all from surgeries he had since he got home from Germany in 1945. He frequented his opened button-down shirt – or would forgo the shirt altogether – and place himself in front of an ancient oscillating fan. He sat quietly and patiently, his specialty. If he could no longer take the heat, he’d walk out to the dock until he reached the end like someone walking up the aisle of a church, and he’d submerge himself into the water – one dip – and dry off and come back inside. 

The adults took in a different kind of drink as well, and often. One of the first words I learned to read was Scotch, another Whiskey, another Bacardi, and another Glenfiddish, which I frequently mispronounced as Glen-fish and Glen-finch. It smelled awful to me, but Nan and Pop drank it everyday after dinner. A couple of ice cubes in a fancy crystal tumbler – it wasn’t a glass, it was a tumbler, I was told. Nan would mix hers with water and it reminded me of pee. Pop would sometimes mix his with water, or just sip it straight. They sat with matching drinks, in matching chairs, with matching coasters that were plastic and had green felt circles in the middle. The fan whirred between them, the tumblers sweating together. I never knew what time they went to bed even when my brother and I slept there; they were always frozen in those chairs, in my eyes. Relaxed, sailing along in the evening, healed. 

My dad rarely drank the liquor in Nan and Pop’s house. He was more of a beer person, with tastes varying from German to American, light or not. My mom, known for her room temperature glasses of blush-colored boxed Franzia wine, fancy in its long-stemmed glass and always accompanied by a cigarette, traded her pinks for a tall glass of Bacardi rum and Diet Coke. I was not fond of the smell of Bacardi either, and I didn’t entirely favor the taste of Diet Coke – but she drank from the moment she greeted my grandparents until my brother and I put our shoes on to go back home for the evening.

I noticed those nights, she looked different in her drink. We were mostly only at Nan and Pop’s house on Sunday night for dinner – maybe two or three more days a week during the summertime – but her eyes were not the same on those days. She didn’t have the slow, relaxed, cat-like glances with her shimmery green eyes peering the reflective black creek water. Instead she was foggy, frosted glass and tension. The wind was often either out of her sails, or too much in them and she would return home with us just to fall asleep curled on the couch, or become combative with my dad. I didn’t know this is what being drunk was, or that my mom often was drunk around me.

The adults were able to imbibe as often as they wished on the spicy-smelling drinks. Always with or after dinner – maybe it was for digestion, or maybe as a grown-up I would want a drink instead of ice cream. All I wanted to get my hands on was a glass or two of Coca Cola or off-brand Root Beer from the sale aisle, and I often had to wait for Sunday dinner to do so. For Sunday brunch, though, I watched with equal parts repulsion and intrigue as my aunt mixed together vodka – “Shhhmirnoff,” she joked – with tomato juice, horseradish, ice cubes…celery? Each pour was calculated, almost scientific. She stirred with the celery, licked the end and then took a large bite before placing the stalk back into the tall crystal glass. 

“What is that?” I cringed and looked at her as she took a deep drink of her beverage. I hated pulp in my orange juice, I thought as I watched her down tomato and vodka with horseradish. Horseradish pulp, I thought. I cringed some more. Horseradish was good with ketchup for cocktail shrimp. It wasn’t a drink.

“It’s a Bloody Mary,” she replied. She pursed her lips and then smacked them together as if the drink was not good but also necessary to her, like medicine. 

“D’you mean like Mary, Mother of God?” I was learning about these people in my Catechism class and Sunday school; we were Roman Catholics and it was generally taken very seriously. 

“Yeah, but Bloody because it’s alcohol.”

“So it’s a sin?”

“No, it’s vodka,” she said.

I thought about the Blood of Christ, wine we had to drink at Sunday mass (I wasn’t allowed to drink it, though), and wondered if a Bloody Mary was the home version of that. I then decided to stop asking so many questions and go drink my pulp-free orange juice and wait for things that were good, like bacon and Pop’s scrambled eggs. If we stayed long enough, my brother and I may have gotten in a glass of soda,  or an Oreo if Nan felt generous with her personal stash of cookies. On these mornings, my mom drank only coffee with sugar and milk. She told me she also thought Bloody Mary’s were gross. She also waited until a certain time to partake in things that were indulgent.

Coke on the Sink

My grandparents were less proud of their property and more pleased with being able to afford a small home on the water for my family to enjoy. The farmhouse was where I lived but we didn’t own it. We rented it from the neighbor next door who knew about the lightning tree. My parents lived in a condo until I was about a year old and then they decided they wanted to raise us closer to Nan and Pop and in a better school district. I remembered the moving truck that took us east, and I recalled helping my mom paint the interior of the coat closet before we left.

“Like this,” she said, as she moved her wrist up and down in gentle, dramatic sweeping motions. 

I took my little paint brush she gave me and tried but ended with swirling the brush in haphazard, rough circles all over the place. She took the paint brush back and told me to go play and that I could try some other time. I was awful at interior painting, but I couldn’t have been more than two at the time.

The farmhouse had small bathrooms. Tile ran halfway up the wall and was pink, then black tile separated the pink from the wallpaper. I couldn’t reach much, but everything was aligned on the sink – Dad’s razor, Mom’s reusable toothpick, the toothbrushes, her hair brushes – everything was on the sink. I was fascinated with her toothpick. It was metal and had a rubber pointed end and it looked like something far too important to be used for getting things out of teeth. It should have been a magic wand, I thought, or something of importance. She found me with it more than once and scolded me the same each time.

“That isn’t yours,” she said, and tore the metal pick from my grip. My magic was gone again, until I went back into the bathroom and stole it from the sink.

Nan and Pop didn’t have golden-colored magic wands in their bathroom. They had large, heavy brass ducks all over the house, and Nan had a large collection of colored glass jars and bowls and vases. 

“Cranberry glass is my favorite,” she said. When she babysat my brother and me she took us to the church-run thrift stores in search of her treasured glass. She could tell the difference between cranberry glass and a fake, but anything red and glass I found I brought to her anyway just to be sure. 

I was less interested in the glass and more interested in the metals. The brass ducks were barely movable but they were shiny and solid, strong and smooth. I ran my hands over the heads and bodies and tried to figure out how they were made. I speculated that the ducks just came that way, duck-shaped, and Nan found them in her journeys like the cranberry glassware. 

My dad kept his razor on the sink. It was heavy and metal, and I spent many mornings watching him shave his face in the mirror before work. He filled the sink halfway with hot water and carefully released a palm-sized amount of foam from a can. With his left hand, he dabbed white all over his face and then used his pointer finger to scrape the remainder into the sink where it floated on the warm, murky surface like the foam on the creek. Effortlessly, he dragged his razor along his face, removing the white and leaving smooth olive skin. I loved the scraping sound the razor made. He left a little bit of hair around his mouth and under his nose, to cover a scar above his lip. I asked where he got it and he told me Mom was giving him a piggyback ride and Nan sprayed them with a hose on the walkway. He slipped on the slate and landed on his face. 

When he finished shaving, he released the drain plug with a loud gulping sound and the foam and cloudy water disappeared with it. He replaced the razor back on the side of the sink and finished getting ready for work. I stayed for a moment to marvel at the razor. 

I couldn’t get the vision of the razor out of my mind and returned to it that evening once my dad was home from work and he and my mom were watching television in the living room. I went into the hall bathroom, just off from the kitchen and turned on the light. The razor waited for me. I couldn’t reach the can of foam, or the faucet to get the hot water to fill the sink, but I thought my dad would be impressed with me nonetheless for showing him I could also shave my face. I figured out the proper way to hold the razor – it only took a couple of moments since I saw my dad do it so many times – and brought the blade to my skin. A sharp pain hit my chin. The blade dug into the flesh just between my bottom lip and the top of my chin bone. I looked down and saw no white foam in murky water, only hands covered in warm red. Warm red on the blade and on the smooth white sink. I screamed and ran to the living room, razor still gripped tight in my palm and my parents both jumped up at the sight of my face. 

Pop hid his razor from me, or at least I decided he was intentionally keeping his razor from my grasp. He stored it high up on a shelf I couldn’t reach so I wouldn’t try to shave my chin again and instead shave off a piece of it. When my brother and I went for a sleepover, the sink in their bathroom was cleared off. Nan made sure we thoroughly brushed our teeth and then tucked us into the old bed in the spare room adjacent to hers. 

“Goodnight. I love you,” she said, and kissed us both on the forehead. “And if you get thirsty in the middle of the night, I left a glass of Coke for you on the bathroom sink.”

Nan was no stranger to the sweets. I woke up the next morning to see the Coke untouched, since both my brother and I slept through the night. I went to the bathroom and took a couple of deep, cool swigs of flat soda and made my way to the kitchen where Nan and Pop were already seated. The smell of instant coffee – very distinct from a drip coffee –  filled my nose. It was mixed with the scent of hot bacon and scrambled eggs. Pop made scrambled eggs in such a way that I only dreamed to duplicate for myself. 

Nan and Pop rotated their breakfast. Every other day they had bacon and eggs, and the days in between were filled with cold cereal or oatmeal. Regardless of Nan’s main course, though, she finished strong with two cookies. Always two. Mallomars or Oreos, neatly placed on a folded napkin on the upper right corner of her plate or bowl, waited for her to put down her utensils and dunk them for a sweet ending to a nice meal. 

I followed suit more times than not. She tried to enforce good eating habits when we were there, especially when my brother and I spent a couple of summers gaining an unbelievable amount of weight (our babysitter at the time took us to McDonald’s anywhere from three to five days a week for lunch. She was fired). One afternoon Nan replaced what would have been my normal lunch – grilled cheese and tomato soup, her specialty – with a small dish of creamed spinach.

“You kids have to start eating healthier,” she warned. 

How could I possibly want to eat healthier when the second drawer down to the left of the sink was filled with ginger snap cookies and Oreos and Mallomars and graham crackers? How could I stray from a cookie with breakfast? How could I avoid the giant dish of Hershey kisses, placed obtrusively on a table between the kitchen and the main hallway? She asked the impossible of me, surely.

The sweets were my drug. Ice cream floats and warm backyards were perfect for each other, and Nan couldn’t tell me otherwise. Nighttime Coke on the sink was expected, not anticipated. I looked forward to maybe having to get up and relieve myself in the middle of the night for the promise of sweet, flat soda in the bathroom after I washed my hands. The lackadaisical observation of my movements by my two favorite senior citizens; it freed me up to grab a cookie or two, or three on my way out the door. I was outside all day, I justified. Two cheeseburgers were not uncommon for a child who spent all day kayaking against the currents. Root beer was in the fridge because it was on sale, not because it was healthy, and my two Depression era companions never said no. They said, “I love you,” and sent me outside to play some more.

I baked in the sun until my shoulders turned purple and I felt myself shrink and shrivel up. The salt air made its way into my mouth and left me with a desert thirst all over as my skin tightened and stretched on my bones. I crawled onto the boat to jump off of the bow into the water. The creek was like a bath and I disappeared under the cloudy top and hung for a moment, suspended where she held me. 

I ran back across the dock planks to the float so I could repeat my dive. I placed my foot on the bow of the boat once more and it shifted away from where my other foot was planted. I slid forward into a split until I couldn’t hold on any longer and plunged between the boat and the dock. I felt a sharp burn as my back scraped against a rusty nail. My head went under for a moment only to see the side of the boat come back towards the dock. I scrambled out of the water and ran into the house, screaming for Nan. 

She took me into the bathroom and pushed aside the empty plastic cup that once had Coke in it, and replaced it with a bottle of clear liquid. 

“Hold still this will clean it out.” 

I turned my back to her, the space between my shoulder blades pulsating. Then came a cold touch of the liquid followed by an immediate burn, as if she went outside, found the rusty nail, and put it into my back. I screamed and ripped the curtains off the bathroom window.

“What is that?” I began to cry.

“Rubbing alcohol,” she said, panicked at my reaction.  

I sniffled and dried off, unable to see the damage she had done but certain the wound on my back was massive. My grandpa came into the house and sat down, his old man belly proud and shirtless, his knees sticking out from under khaki shorts and his feet decorated in white calf-high socks and loafers. 

“What’s the matta!” He put his arms out to me and gave me a hug. 

“I cut my back on a nail and Nan put rubbing alcohol on it and it hurts!” I was a pathetic mound in his arms. 

Pop shuffled me off his lap and stood up. “Oh wow! Is it like my back?” He pointed his thumb over his shoulder and turned around to show me his back. Although old and faded, I could see the deep white, jagged lines – scars. My injury was nowhere near as bad as his. 

“How did you do that?” 

“I had to jump out of a plane in the war. I was in a B-17. Do you know what a B-17 is? It’s a big plane. And I jumped out because it was going down and I got injured by shrapnel. Do you know what shrapnel is? It’s big pieces of metal. And then I landed in a tree in Germany. And then the Germans found me.” 

My story seemed much less interesting. I listened to Pop tell me about the plane crash for a while longer, then found Nan and apologized to her for making such a scene. She forgave me, of course, as she always did. 

“Here,” she said, and handed me a hard butterscotch candy.

Under the Oak Tree

I combed through the blades of grass with nubby fingers. A light breeze carried salted, marshy air up over the bulkhead and I sat at my mother’s feet and watched as the grass dusted grains of sand from my palms. She lay on an ancient chaise chair that was woven with plastic strips of different bright colors and had a permanent sag in the middle from too many rear ends taking a seat to watch the water. I could see, underneath the chair, how close her butt was to the grass. She lay still, watching me use earth to clean my tiny hands and I looked up at her. 

“Come over here,” she said, and outstretched her arms. 

Dutifully, I clambered up onto her lap, the plastic chair moaning in protest. Her legs were rough with stubble, and smelled like fruits and felt oily. Above us, an osprey flew circles. I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I woke up with my dark coiled hair matted to my face, the sun still shining. My mother was unmoved from her spot on the chair, still looking down at me. She smiled. I pressed my hands onto her belly, the slippery soft bathing suit giving way to my touch. The world moved around me as I craned my toddler neck around to observe the still-moving water, the busy birds, and the clouds that glided across the sky. Above us, an oak tree waved.

That was my first memory at the creek house.

The memories continued to follow me throughout my life and made themselves known, in the same way the salt came up off the shore – the same way the rain told us it was coming on a summer afternoon. Each time I’ve smelled warm coconut – or even the pungent decay of fish – I was reminded of my childhood on the creek. The scent of instant coffee and the familiar warm welcome of butter on a hot skillet bring me to quiet breakfast mornings shared with my grandparents in old wooden chairs. Sticky linoleum floors hold me now, just how they grabbed at our feet as we ran through the house and passed window after window, each with a view of the water just beyond the yard.

Years of turbulence and darkness led me away from the creek, lost not only in the world but also within myself. I was told I needed to find my inner child and make peace with her. I searched, but couldn’t find her. Months were spent driving down to the old creek house that was no longer mine, or to my childhood home on the farm. I wandered into the middle of the woods – and several times climbed into the bed of a stranger. She seemed gone. There wasn’t a milk carton to put her picture, nor a poster to make asking if she was seen. My life force and essence of who I was went missing; I tried to meditate. 

I’d think of the swingset my brother and I had in our own backyard where I’d pump my legs so hard in the hopes of stepping on a cloud. Or my mind would go to the trampoline we haphazardly used unsupervised; We broke every umbrella in the house trying to fly away like Mary Poppins. I thought of the spruce trees at the back of the farm and how I’d climb up the branches and sit for hours in the hopes of seeing something otherworldly. I remembered my deep bedroom closet that I cleaned out just for a space to hide. Those were my little girl’s memories, I told myself. That’s where she lived. She lived in fear and in shadows. She looked for unnatural things. She was never a little girl. 

Then one day I was talking about my earliest memories and it hit me as clear as that one afternoon I recalled. The little girl woke up under the oak tree. She rode her bike almost five miles each way over the summer and mixed the salt of her body with the salt of the creek. She dried off on the float of the dock, on her back and arms spread wide like the black loons that speckled the horizon and waterline from their bulkhead posts. Her body became freckled and brown and red and she didn’t care about her body on the creek, because the water always held her up above itself. 

Exposure

I generally peruse Pinterest when I’m at work on my overnight shift in between talking to planes, even though it’s advised that I don’t use Pinterest at work because it may be considered “distracting” or an unhealthy use of social media. Pinterest to me is not social media, rather, a drug and the only drug I am currently hopelessly addicted to. I find inspiration for new drawings or paintings, compare myself to other artists, look at outfits I’ll never buy, and save dozens of paint swatch ideas for a house I don’t own, but when I do will have 37 different rooms of different colors; it’s an oversaturation playground for people such as myself to become hopelessly lost in the world of elevated expectations.

Recently – and more aggressively – I find advertisements from Pinterest directed to me for handmade coffins available through hyperlink on an Etsy page. Each time I log onto Pinterest – every five lines of clickbait or so – is an ominous albeit beautifully crafted coffin, advertised as reclaimed wood (and, of course, customizable). I’ve never clicked the advertisement for the fear of being redirected to the page, thus creating more coffin traffic to my paint swatches and floral designs, but I thought back long and hard to what other internet activity suggested me as a potential demographic for such a product in the first place. I honestly have found myself torn between being offended, or simply impressed to see a niche market for handmade, reclaimed wooden coffins available through a craft site.

 

It was almost refreshing to see mortality advertised to me in such a comfortable, soft manner. Alternatively speaking, however, the oversaturation of craft and talent and accomplishment has bled over into the afterlife: “We’re all gonna die anyway, but make sure you stay dead in this chic, custom coffin!” Our media platform has run rampant with options and blasts of what we each can do – a lot of which is amazing – but I would be lying if I said I didn’t find myself often comparing my own abilities as a writer and an artist to the constant flowing stream of relevant social media content.

Sometimes I forget that even as a part of this huge planet that somehow functions in its own way of synchronized entropy, I exist within my own microcosm that most of the known universe will never have the experience of viewing. And even if, for whatever reason, my entirety of life was exposed, no one can truly know the wholeness that is myself.

It makes me wonder then, as an artist, as a writer – creator in general – why I often find myself feeling so pressured to live up to a standard that ultimately proves nothing in the long run. Call me a cynic, but my exposure in this world since birth has either been censored without option, or exposed without filter. The only difference as an adult it he introduction of social media, which has mastered the art of over-exposing filtered content. It’s like playing God or controlling the weather each time I post to Instagram or Facebook, showing the world only what I want it to see and then captioning it as raw and true; we’re all guilty of it. What makes me laugh in a sad way – so sad that it’s humorous type of way – is that I’ve experienced things in my short lifetime that many would consider fake, and that I am so conditioned to be used to that I don’t bat an eye at the obscurity of it all. At the same time, I’m not sure what the point of any of it actually is.

I know what the endgame is of course – death. Dying, mortality, the only one true unifying thing we as humans all have in common. The idea that we’re all going to die one day should make us enjoy our lives more, but instead many of us spend our days trying to prove to outside eyes that we are truly enjoying our lives. In reality, though, a very large number of us are blowing away weekends to make up for our 9-5 or our shift work or our multiple jobs that we need in order to satiate our desired lifestyles and somewhere along that line we lose the true value of what our lives are meant for. We aren’t meant to just bide our time until we die; we aren’t meant to prove anything to anyone.

 

What I’ve always wanted to do is simply share. I want to give my weird, outlandish life stories to people and hope they’ll laugh, cry, gain insight, maybe even hate me; at least they’ll feel something.

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.

I Dream of Anxiety

There is an indescribable feeling I encounter from time to time, where I feel engulfed in emotion and it comes in the idea of a drowning of colors that I cannot see beyond. I am unable to put into words the feeling – the over-stimulation of senses that are only agitated further by excess company or outside stresses. Sometimes I wish to curl in a ball and cocoon myself in hopes of coming out from under it refreshed. I know, however, this method doesn’t work for me, and as an alternative I force myself into the world in order to fight a wave with another wave of social activity. When I’m like this, I feel alone, regardless of the company around me. I feel vulnerable and although I am completely aware I’m not the only one who experiences this type of anxiety, I still feel as if someone who peered inside of me would run from the chaos. I try to use my words and find no solace in vocalizing something that I can’t even put an idea to. Rather, I try to identify what made me feel this way and tackle it, and regain control over what is mine.

Lately, this force has been running through my being in a way that I can’t describe. A darkness where I am sometimes afraid to reflect inward, unsure of what I will see. Anxiety comes in many forms. And this is mine.

This evening I dreamed. I was wandering amongst winding brick buildings, windows shattered, leaning from side to side, courtyards that I could only imagine were once beautiful and full of life now barren save piles of rust and junk and death. This maze was intimidating and at the same time, I walked as if being led by natural instinct; as if I already knew where I was. I knew that once the sun went down I had to leave, because the dangers in this dark place were ones I was certain I did not want to encounter. I made my way through this lonely space, gazing up at the building that gave up and were given up on. The sun began to disappear.

My heart rate increased as I turned on my heels and attempted to make my way past the weaving piles of discarded, unwanted items that once served purpose in lives of those who were no longer around. The silence was only interrupted by the sound of my own heart in my ears and the occasional tipping of trash as I stumbled and stumbled and then became completely engulfed in the darkness.

Seeming to give up on myself in the current predicament, I stopped running. I now carefully treaded as I made my way to the exit that I seemed to already know, when a dark figure stepped in my path. Tall, thin, and imposing, it reached out and wrapped its arms around me and pulled me with it up against a brick wall. I felt my face press into this black shadowed figure and thought of all the other times I was haunted by beings similar to this. I tried to reason with it, to convince it to let me go. I said I both knew what we were capable of, and that if it let go of my body we would both run, and no one would be hurt. It released me. I didn’t stop to look back, and didn’t have to, because I could hear this thing running at me with a gait twice the size of mine, so I pushed twice as fast to escape it and get out of this maze of darkness and death before it caught up to me.

I ran into a lit hallway and took shelter in an alcove and waited. The being, now exposed to the light, made me embarrassed and sad. It was yellow. It was completely yellow, non-threatening, and I now thought that it was embracing me not for malicious intent. Rather than face it, I blended into a crowd and continued on.

****

I woke up and concluded that the maze and the darkness was my anxiety, and I maneuvered it so well, because it is something I have stood up against over and over throughout the years of my life where all of these colors and emotions would swallow me into a black nothingness, and I’d have to find my way out. The yellow figure was hope. It was positivity. It was a shred of myself that came into the darkness to embrace me and protect me and I ran to escape it, because I couldn’t see it head-on for what it was. In life, I can’t always see head-on the things that will protect me in my darkness. In life, if I embraced that darkness, rather than try to escape it, and calmly step through what is seemingly ruins, I might be encountered by the things that will save me.

Hair, There…

I stopped brushing my hair completely in 2013 after years of systematically running through it with a wide brush and then styling it into a fluffy mess and ultimately praying for the best. Since I ended this, my hair has become incredibly healthy; it grows out fast, it’s shiny, and by simply and gently finger-combing my hair in the shower with conditioner, I have almost zero tangles. I find it funny that although I was constantly combing through and separating my curls, I was coming out the other end with dread locks and rat’s nests and dull, crazy hair. This is what I was used to, though, for my entire life. My mother, with her straight, blonde hair, would rake my head every morning until I was old enough to rake my head on my own. She would pull and tease and get a round brush stuck in it one time (where we learned together and after a haircut that round brushes were no longer to be used). I would cry and moan and fidget hoping she would just get sick of my knots and give up, until I became the one to accept that this hair abuse was just how it had to be. No matter how it hurt, no matter how many tangles, I had to brush it out. Every single day.

I began to apply this process to my life: Hair being the situations, the brush being overthinking, conditioner being rationalization, and my fingers representing normal thought. Each coil on my head is something I cannot control. It is something that happens to me, that has always happened to me, and that will continue to happen to me.  For years, I would obsessively pick apart each curl, each occurrence. I would separate, strand by strand, trying to pull everything away to see if I could see it better. What I was left with, each time, was a mess. This mess would fly around, unmanageable and insane-looking and I would hide the mad scientist under a hat or pull it all into a bun behind me so I didn’t have to look at it anymore. And although each day, I would have the same outcome, I would still wake up the next morning and comb through the same dead hair, knowing it would be futile, all for that brief moment in my day when everything looked momentarily managed.

Every time something happened in my life that I couldn’t control, I would dig it apart trying to understand why I couldn’t control it, rather than learning how to control myself. Instead of nurturing the situation, letting it run its course, and allowing it to exist, I would cause myself a lifetime of grief trying to alter what occurred naturally. I don’t know exactly where it clicked in my head that this was a bad idea – being insane and constantly picking apart my life – but part of me thinks I was simply sick and tired of the constant stress and disappointment of things I couldn’t control. After almost 23 years of disappointment with the outside forces and I just gave up. I gave up on trying to understand what was around me before understanding me. 

Unfortunately, it only took me long enough to realize that I wasn’t the only one in the world with wild, curly hair. I wasn’t the only one in the world with problems. I also wasn’t the only one who constantly tried to pull apart things I couldn’t control. It didn’t make me a bad person or wrong for learning to obsess over things, but it was beneficial to learn how to live in harmony with these things – to let it exist with minimal interference and, when necessary, to cut dead ends for growth.