My Mother’s Day is About Me.

This is my fifth Mother’s Day without a mother to celebrate. I am bombarded with advertisements, telling me to buy her perfume, a new dress, a purse, or a gift card. Nowadays, though, I’d rather buy some more time. I’d love to buy her voice and play it over and over again. I’d give anything to be selfish with time. Five years, 60 months, somewhere around 1,800 days that I have lived and she has not. Her last two breaths are frozen in time in my head, as I scroll along websites and am force fed advertisements, telling me to buy her perfume, a new dress, a purse, or a gift card.

This Mother’s Day, I request my mother come back and make her delicious roasted chicken. I implore the universe to interlock her fingers in mine, her rings securing a fit that insures, at the end of the day, I won’t have to let go. I would rather fool Death and God and the Universe and risk my own judgment to hear her say “I love you” somewhere other than my dreams. I would make her listen to my day and my months and my years and everything she missed. I want to celebrate her ears and her eyes to hear me and look at me while she’s listening to I know she’s there. I want to celebrate her smile as she laughs at my jokes. I want to hear her heart beat. This is my Mother’s Day.

 

 

Sixteen.

Sixteen days were all it took for me to be forcibly thrown into the world of adulthood. Every time I look at myself in the mirror I see a little, scared child, when I’m now expected to be a twenty-one year old adult with a handle on things. I’ve taken a year off from applying to graduate school, I’ve decided. I just finished registration for my last semester of undergrad. My life is successful, and yet it feels meaningless now that my mom isn’t here anymore.

The two most cliché phrases you can ever say to a grieving person are, “Are you OK?” and, “She’s always with you in your heart.” No shit. I appreciated all of the condolences, and the openly caring people, who said these things; because there really isn’t anything someone can say in a situation like mine. I shook so many hands, and reacquainted myself with multiple unfamiliar faces that loved my mother like a sister and cried the same salted tears that fell down every last cheek, but they had no idea how those tears felt to me. Those burning, pained, tears of remorse and longing that retreated from my eyes because if they didn’t my head would explode. In a way I feel like my mom just abandoned me in the brightest moment of my life, but I know I cannot allow myself to think so selfishly. The most beautiful, shining light that guided me through almost every step of my existence was blown out in the short course of two weeks. My days were spent in a hospital, not as a patient, but as a person patiently waiting for a woman in a coma to finally take her last breath.

When my dad called me and told me my mom had been admitted to the medical center thirty minutes from my house I immediately collapsed to the floor. I was at school in Massachusetts, entering my first week of classes in my senior year. Everything that I had felt was normal and on the right track, and everything that I thought would never happen to me was skewed and twisted like a train flipping off its own tracks. Never in my entire life had I thought this woman would be so careless with her body and her own health. I asked my dad why. He told me they were continuing to find bottles of vodka hidden between the two houses; my mom was sleeping for fourteen hours a day, eating next to nothing, and her stomach was distended. She had quit drinking cold turkey roughly ten days before they took her in because her skin started to jaundice. She was violent, screaming, and avoiding everyone by driving back and forth to go sleep in my bed, or her own. Who was this woman? This was not my mother. This was not the woman who raised me to be the individual I have become.

I was so sick to my stomach I couldn’t attend classes that day. I booked a ferry and packed, and spent the afternoon hiding in my room, blinds drawn, crying. I felt so powerless to know that I could do nothing to help her now, nor could I have done anything to help her before. That was the odd thing about my mom – she did everything for everyone else, yet took nothing in return. My mom paid for three years of my college tuition in full behind my dad’s back without him knowing. She hosted dinner parties, holidays, family reunions, and get-togethers. She taught me how to spell my first name with a song, how to sail, how to drive, how to cook, and how to give myself the credit I truly deserved. She instructed me to never settle for less, to always push myself, and believed in me. My mom accepted me for everything I was and loved me for everything I wasn’t. She was my hero.

 

I arrived the following morning in New York in a complete and utter tear-filled haze. As I passed the house I grew up in, still inhabited by my brother and his girlfriend, I noticed that it looked as if the essence and life and memories had been sucked out of it. The yard was barren and the gardens overgrown, the flowers were wilting and her irises were brown and dried up. It looked like no one had lived there for years. I felt as though even my memories meant nothing now.

When I finally got to my dad and saw the incredible mess he was, I tried to hold it together for the two of us. However, this obviously failed miserably. My grandpa (Mom’s dad), was suspiciously chipper for such a horrible occasion, considering his daughter was in ICU at the time, but his smile made me feel a little better as I was greeted by my aunt and uncle and dog. My dad tried to explain to me that she looked bad, described her eyes as the color of egg yolks, and said her speech is slow but coherent. I felt like I was visiting a stranger.

The car ride was incredibly silent for the first twenty minutes until I mustered up, “I’m scared.” I had no other way of describing my feelings. Sadness was there, so was love, and it was all overpowered by a crippling fear. The real life horror movie I was stepping into yielded no promises and no plot, and had no hints as to who would make it out alive. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking, and next thing I knew we were in the hospital parking lot. Everyone piled out as if we were going to dinner together – all dressed nice, and happy-looking under the shining sun. I grabbed my grandpa’s arm and went to the ICU floor. We rang the entry bell where I then switched gears and entered with my dad.

Her room was the corner room. The view was that of a 7-11 convenience store and the rotary below. When we got to the doorway, the lights were off and the furniture was pushed outside of it. Oh God, I thought. It looked like the scene after my grandma had died. I whipped around to face my dad and immediately started crying. The nurse told me they were only changing her and I could go in momentarily. I still couldn’t stop crying, though, as my dad threw tissues in my direction. I heard some machinery move behind me, so I turned around. There, yellowed and thin, was my mother. She extended her arm towards me like an angel, opened her mouth and said in a voice the opposite of her delicate motions, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I let out a forced laugh as I went into the room. She took my hand in between her frail fingers. Her voice was kind of drawn out and whispering, but it was certainly her accent. “I’m so sorry, honey. You shouldn’t have come down here. I’m fine.” Yeah, definitely mom.

“You honestly think I wouldn’t be down here? Real nice.”

My mom rolled her eyes at me and told me to sit down. My dad then proceeded to go about this routine checking of her edema swelling, which had gone down, and told her of all the things the doctor said to make sure she understood. She quasi-blew him off and proceeded to talk to me of things I can’t remember, due to the shock of what I was seeing before me. All I remember her saying is, “I feel like I’m seven months pregnant,” as she poked her distended belly, full of fluids her liver didn’t process.

 

The following few days were those of trial and error, trying to figure out how bad the damage to her liver was, and to find some out-patient rehabilitation clinics on Long Island that she would consider going to. I knew she wouldn’t ever go, though. I knew from the moment when I saw her in the hospital that she had been beyond the point of repair. When the doctor told us that she fought with the psychiatrist, that’s when I knew she couldn’t be cracked into realizing what she did to herself.

“Mrs. Oster, when did you start drinking to the point of giving yourself liver damage?”

She blankly looked into the man’s face, her thousand-yard stare going past him, and replied, “My liver started to hurt after my mother died.” Then everything hit me in the face. She never cried, because she drank it away.

I tried to talk to her about things other than the shit condition she was in, because I knew she would appreciate it. Instead, the only moment I got alone to talk with her, she did all of the talking, and it was about nothing I wanted to hear.

My aunt had just stepped out and I stayed at my mom’s bedside, holding her hand. “Kate, you’ve never done anything, anything in your life to…disappoint me. I’ve always been so proud of you.”

“I know, Ma. I love you.”

“I love you too sweetie. And…I’m sorry…I’ve disappointed you so much.”

I choked back sobs as tears still ran down my face. “Mom, you’ve never disappointed me. I’ve never judged you. I always will love you. You’ve given me everything I ever wanted even without my asking. I just want you to get better.” With that, my aunt walked in, and the conversation ended.

I left her that Sunday, looking better than she had all weekend, with the intention of not visiting for another two weeks. The doctors said she still had a 50/50 chance, but her health seemed stable. It wasn’t until that Wednesday night that my dad called me and told me they had to put her on a full-face oxygen mask to help her breathe, because the fluid they tried to drain from her replenished within a day and got into her lungs. She tested negative for pneumonia, but they wanted to keep an eye on her.

Thursday afternoon rolled around, and my dad called me again, telling me that my mom said she wanted to see me because she missed me. My red flag of concern went up on this one, considering the woman just told me a week prior that I shouldn’t have spent the money to come home because she was “fine.” After heavy internal and external debate, my friend convinced me to go home that Thursday, just as a surprise to my mom. I packed an overnight bag and booked my ferry and just like that, I was headed back to the island.

By the time I got off the ferry and to the hospital it was already eight at night, just thirty minutes before visiting hours ended. I ran up to the third floor and got into the ICU to see my family sitting in the dark; my brother and his girlfriend quietly side by side in chairs, eyes red and swollen, and my dad off in the corner by the window, hiding his sobs with a towel. There my mom was, heaving breaths, disorientated staring, and then we locked eyes. I went over to her and held her hand. She said, “Your hair looks nice,” And proceeded to go on, very slowly, about how she wanted the dog. There was some silence, since the oxygen was so loud, and her voice so muffled. She pulled me in close to her:

“Kate, can you…stay…with me tonight…? Just…in case…” Again, she sarcastically rolled her eyes, but I knew she was so scared, so scare. And I was so scared too. I told her I would, even though I knew visiting hours were almost over and I would have to go home. 8:20 came around, and my mom had been persistently calling out for her dog, delirious, oblivious to what was going on. She kept pressing us how badly she wanted to go home, and how badly she wanted the dog. We tried telling her we couldn’t bring him to ICU, and with that she said “Goodnight.” We all gave our kisses and goodbyes and left.

The following morning began with a phone call and my mother was in a coma. By the time we reached the hospital she had been given twelve hours to live with necrosis of her liver, and my family and I stood around in shock, unable to think, unable to do anything. Hearing something so final, so horrific as “I’d be surprised if she lived another twelve hours,” completely numbed my soul. It’s something out of a medical show, something people watch on the television. Hell, it’s something I’ve watched on the television. Yet never in a million years would I ever suspect to hear those words uttered to me as a precaution to prepare myself the best I could and wait for her final breath. I don’t really remember what happened between me hearing the prognosis and me finding myself in the hallway outside of the ICU. I paced back and forth, everyone was walking around like lost little bugs – making circles with their feet, sitting on the window ledge, looking across the street to the 7-11, and making more and more phone calls.

A priest was called in to give my mom her last rites. I remember thinking how pissed off she probably was, that we called in a priest to tell her she was forgiven. She was the type of lady who didn’t go to church, and she always told me whatever she did was between her and God and there was no need to present herself in a room of people to prove her relationship with the guy upstairs was sincere. We followed this man like death camp detainees, single file, shaking, worn out, and scared. He began to speak, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” My mom began to shake her head back and forth with a wrinkled brow, like a person trapped in a shell. Her brain was screaming “No! Get this man out! I’m not ready.” My dad, brother, and brother’s girlfriend stood with me at the foot of the bed with our heads down and hopeless tears streaming. I wanted her to open her eyes and tell that priest to fuck off, and then say she was fine. I wanted her to yell at me, so I could say I was sorry one more time. I tried not to let out the sobs that I needed to get rid of, because I didn’t want to scare her.

After her last rites were given, we met with the social workers to arrange to have all of the machines taken off my mom. We went in for another visit with my grandpa, a ninety-one year old World War II veteran. He took off his hat and all was silent, save the scratching of the chair across the floor. He started stroking her hair as her brows wrinkled her yellow infected skin, “My baby. It’s all right my baby.” He let out these half-chuckle, half cries as he told her she was going to be fine. My dad leaned in and kept telling her, “It’s fine, babe. We’re all going home. We’re going to go home. And your Duffy dog will be there. Don’t worry.”

I remember so much pain, and a headache that lasted the five fucking days that stubborn, pig-headed woman lasted in a coma while I slept on the floor and in the bed next to her along with four to ten other family members at a time.

Make shift beds and mats were provided the first night; we used chairs and spare blankets and the hardwood floor to support ourselves. The hospice and palliative care people managed to snag a double room for her and even allowed our dog to visit her one last time. He crawled up alongside my mom and began to lick her face and cry as he nuzzled his nose under her chin. That was the last time she opened her eyes, and that was the last time she made a sound.

 

It’s pretty damn difficult to describe what someone feels when they’re waiting for their mom to take that permanent and final exhale. We all went through our own private motions, some of us crying in silent heaves with our backs turned to her, thinking she knew that she was the reason we were crying. My relatives brought comfort food and coffee the first night we were all there. Mom spent the night lunging her arms forward for my dad, as she moaned in his ear and I held her legs so she didn’t fall out of the bed. I sat there, crying on her leg, and I remembered the summer when I was four years old: We were in a chaise lounge in the backyard. I was resting at the foot of the chair, lying on her legs. It was so warm and sunny, and the grass was so green. I remembered the smell of coconut sun block, and the feel of her stubble on my face. I don’t know how long I slept for that day, but I just remembered it meant a lot to me. I spent the next couple of hours living that memory down at her feet, as her brain, writhed with sickness and ammonia poisoning, fought to stay there, and fought to try and see my dad one last time.

After a couple of hours she just stopped moving. I couldn’t move either, I couldn’t accept that her body had finally given up, and that she was officially brain-dead, technically deceased, “not too long now.” The storm that was the evening quieted down, people began to clear out, and eventually it was just my dad, brother, his girlfriend, cousin, aunt and uncle, and myself. We all sat around fairly motionless, never saying much. Dad lay in the bed next to her holding her hand, humming Amazing Grace, while hopeless tears trickled out of his empty eyes. We adopted the idea of simply passing out from exhaustion, only to sleep for an hour or so and be awoken with a jerk after realizing we were waking up into a nightmare. Nick and I were lying on the floor of the hospital room, simply not caring of sanitary things and wishing I were the one in the bed in a coma. I kept thinking that – if it could have just been me.

To this day I tell my mom I love her, and ask her for advice, and weep at night when my own shadow consumes me with flashbacks and nightmares of those last few days. Oddly enough, the last day she was alive was the first day I felt relief. We never turned away from her and we kept our promises. We told her we were going home on Friday, and we brought home to her. We even brought her 23-pound beloved shih tzu through the hospital to spend my mother’s last semi-conscious hours with her. And I kept my promise: I stayed by her side the whole time, “just in case.”

It was 9:45 in the morning. I was in the bed beside my mom, with my brother and his girlfriend sleeping quietly on the floor. My eyes were shut, and the hospital was so incredibly quiet for a Monday morning. My back was turned. Suddenly I felt a vibration under my body, and jolted up at my phone ringing. I noticed the empty room, and I looked at the clock. As I rolled over I looked at my mom’s face, looking back at me. Then without blinking, I watched her take a heaving breath in, and her bony shoulders pushing her gown, and then releasing. I counted to ten, and then twenty, and then thirty, and there was nothing. There was nothing but the hiss of the oxygen, and the sound of my own heart breaking. I stood in my pajamas, beside her, touching her still-warm hands, and crying silently like a child wanting to wake her mother up because of a nightmare, but afraid to do so. That was it. I had no more Mommy. I could never again rouse her with my own nightmare.

She is on my Mind Late Tonight

No matter how many times I tell myself that I am strong, I will always allow myself to be weakened for missing my mother. Four and a half years have gone by, my life has shifted so drastically, and she missed all of it. It bothers me to think that this September will be five years without her. And five years is a quarter of the life I lived with her in it. Five years of a roller coaster of a life, where I feel I have lived more than most people do in an entire lifetime. Some days I think to myself how tired I am – how broken I’ve been, and I just want to curl up into a ball and hide or get in my car with my dog and never look in my rear view mirrors. I just want to drive at night and not stop until I find the sunrise. I look at all the moves I’ve been through, the incredible amount of family drama, the stress with the law, police, jobs, graduating college, trying to find myself when I lost such a huge part of me. I realize now, in five short years, how little I understood of life and death and meaning, even after I watched her take her last breath.

I was raised by an addict. I am not one. Addict did not define her. She was my best friend, my confidant, my war buddy, my manicurist, my mother.

I will never be ashamed to say my mother was an addict, because it is not something to judge a person by. I slowly began to recognize her less and less as who she was as her disease progressed. It crushed me – but I never judged her. It consumed her. It ruled her life. It ripped into our beds and stole our bonds.

I will never ever try to put myself in her shoes. I will never say, “I understand,” or, “I know she was sad.” Sadness doesn’t begin to define it. I – I was sad. I was sad when she died. I was sad when I graduated college without her nine months later. She was strong. She was strong and she was scared. She tried so hard. She was so beautifully broken and put back together and broken again by her fears of judgment from others should she admit that she was in a space where she needed help.

For that, I do not judge. For that I do not try to assume I know what someone is going through. For that, I would rather understand a person’s silence then blame them for being so. I saw her silence. I saw her fear and I did not judge her. I loved my mother. I love my mother.

One …Whole Bagel?

An homage to St. Patrick’s Day in Boston. I return to you March 17, 2016.

 

This story is embarrassing.

I turned 21 November of 2011. This meant that legally, I couldn’t drink until the end of my first semester of my senior year of college. My closest friends were all gorging themselves on the bar scenes, while I wasted away in my dorm watching movies on my laptop and waiting until the next house party, where I had to leech off of the older friends for liquor. I didn’t dare try to run out for my own liquor, considering that’s what got me a night in jail my freshman year, so I swallowed my pride and sent my friends to the packy with cash in hopes of them returning with that I asked for. But no longer! I told myself, I am now legally allowed to drink!

My birthday party was spent at a local bar directly off campus, where my New York license was questioned (twice), and my free shot was peppermint schnapps. My roommates and I – all six of us – threw fruity drinks down, danced like cheap hookers, and took pictures that now, five years later and fifty pounds lighter, make me depressed to look back on. We stumbled back to our apartment complex at the other end of campus, Stephanie roused our neighbor at 2 AM who came over with a bottle of rum from Belize that had a piece of bark or the barrel or just a hunk of driftwood that gave it “character” and “flavor” and “splinters.” We drank it anyway. I picked my roommate, Stephanie, off the floor of my room, and tucked her in, kicked out the neighbor, and passed out.

The next morning was something likened to the Hangover. I woke up in a daze, headache present, but not overly nauseous that I couldn’t go eat the remainder of my birthday ice cream cake in my underpants in the living room. Jackets and shoes littered our common area, cabinets were carelessly left open and all I cared about was ice cream cake and Spongebob started at 10. The previous night was successful, but I wanted more. I hadn’t really ventured outside the lines of public drinking since my scare with the law and my probationary period, and I wanted to at least go out in style my senior year. I’m spending Saint Paddy’s Day in Boston.

Almost four months passed. My roommate, Catey, lived in Quincy when she wasn’t at our apartment in Bridgewater, so it only made sense to drive to her place in the morning, pre-game, and then roam the streets of Boston until I forgot I was in Boston.

I woke up with a tummy ache.

Oh no. Not today. Why does my stomach hurt?

And it wasn’t that kind of sharp pain ache either. It was that grumbly, gurgly, growly stomach ache that meant you had to go to the bathroom…and a lot. I immediately ran through all the school food I had the day before in search of something suspicious, but nothing out of the grody ordinary turned up in my mind. Maybe a shower. Maybe it’ll pass.  The shower definitely succeeded in making my hair wet, but failed in settling my intestines. Bathroom one more time, then I’ll be good.

I met Catey and her friend at a Panera, where they wanted to grab a starchy lunch before the drinking began.

“I just have to run to the bathroom.”

They ordered pick-2 meals, I, a plain toasted bagel with butter on the side. Plain bagels are good. Maybe this will be fibrous enough. My rumbles turned into pains. I was too embarrassed to tell my friends that I had to frequent the toilets, and kept it under wraps. That was, until, Catey suggested we hang out at her house for a bit before heading into Boston. She was right – it was too early to start bar hopping, and I needed to lay down.

“Before we go, I just have to run to the bathroom.”

I couldn’t be getting ill. This wasn’t fair. I had my “I *heart* Beer” shirt on where the heart was actually a mug full of beer. I waited 21 years for the stars to align and me to be in Boston on the most Irish of holidays to pub crawl around some of the most Irish of pubs in the US. I had to go to the bathroom again.

“Are you OK, Kaitlin? You don’t look so good.” I came out of Catey’s bathroom, clammy and shaken. “I honestly don’t know. I can’t stop going to the bathroom.” What I wanted to say was, I can’t stop peeing out of my butt oh my God why is this happening to me make it stop I’m scared and I haven’t had a virus in like seven years. 

I was so embarrassed. I didn’t know what happened to the bagel an hour earlier but I figured my stomach destroyed it prior to exit. Catey’s mom fed me pretzels which made me writhe in pain, and, naturally, feel like I had to go to the bathroom more. “Here’s some pepto,” in a Boston accent. I swigged the chalky bubble gum down and on contact with my stomach, a fire broke out. My body was on fire. I was freezing, I couldn’t stop shaking.

“Holy shit you look awful. We should go to the hospital.” I could see the sympathy in Catey’s mom’s eyes along with the quiet desperation of, I’ve never met this girl and she’s dying in my house. Get her out right now. “I hate hospitals.”

By the time I agreed to go to the hospital, I was sweaty, cold, laid out across Catey’s back seat, floating in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember the drive to the hospital, only that every time I opened my eyes I dry heaved and every time she hit a bump I prayed to all celestial beings to not shit my pants in front of my friends. I felt defeated as the sun went down and Saint Patrick’s Day would be missed.

We walked into the emergency room where I handed my information to Catey and bee-lined for the bathroom with my sweaty self in my holiday attire, clutching an opaque water bottle filled with ginger ale. I stared at my face in the mirror as if I was looking at a stranger. I was so angry at myself. I was angry at the day. I was angry at my lower intestines. I was angry at whatever school food got me sick. I walked out of the bathroom and saw all eyes on me. The people in the waiting room, glared up and down at this dehydrated, sick girl, on Saint Patrick’s Day, in Boston, holding an opaque water bottle. Shit, I thought, everyone in here thinks I’m wasted.

“Have anything to drink tonight?” The nurse strapped me in to take my blood pressure. I could barely talk without being winded. “No,” I gasped, “I just can’t stop shitting.” Within minutes I was put in a room, stripped down, and thrown into a hospital gown. A nurse stuck me with an IV and I instantly began to cry. I started to have an anxiety attack, because I realized the last time I was in a hospital was when my mom died. I’m dying. Catey, my pillar of strength, and her friend who I met for the first time that day who was now staring at me braless in an hospital gown while I shuffled myself to and from the bathroom helped me to relax until the doctor came in.

“What did you eat today?” The lady doctor was scribbling on her official little doctor clipboard while I squirmed around on the bed.

“Well, the first real food I had was a bagel, and it just came right out the other end.” Immediately, she stopped writing. Her eyes widened as she looked me dead in the eyes, “A…a whole bagel…a whole bagel just….came out?” I laughed, and then realized that this wasn’t a joke. This woman – this medical professional who was to take care of me thought I crapped out on whole toasted plain bagel with butter. “Well no, it was very much digested.”

“Oh. Right then. I might require a stool sample.”

“I have nothing to give you.”

“Right. Well, regardless, it seems you have gastroenteritis. A little bug sticks to your intestine, your body is trying to get it out. It’s been going around. And it should pass within the next couple of days. Here’s an anti-nausea prescription. Stay on the IV until you can drink water without throwing up, then you can go home.”

“I haven’t thrown up yet today, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Catey drove me back to my apartment that night in my truck while her friend tailed us in her car. I felt much better with a body full of IV. I got home around 10 PM. My whole day was spent in pain and in a hospital bed. Saint Patrick’s Day was lost. I lay my head on my pillow. Finally, I thought, now I can get some sleep. Then it hit me. The ice water I drank before I left. It waited in the shadows until I got home. I sprang up from my bed. There’s the throwing up part the doctor mentioned. I searched for my anti-nausea prescription, only to remember it was left on the hospital bed on my way out. The defeat sunk in again. I crawled into my bed, shut my eyes, and slept for 14 hours.

 

 

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.

53 Kinds of Cow

Candice and I took our next international adventure in September of 2013 throughout the hills of Ireland and Scotland. Upon our return from Portugal in November of 2012, our flight home was cancelled and we were forced to stay over an extra night in Dublin. We fell so in love with the accents alone, that the day after returning to the states, still jetlagged and marginally broke, Candice threw a trip for two to Dublin on her magical American Express card.

“Are you on Expedia? Yeah? OK, I’ll check Kayak.”
“A castle.”
“What?”
“We can stay in a fucking castle in Dublin for ten days and it’s $1,400 each with the plane included.”
“Give me the link.”
We flew Aer Lingus on the way home from Portugal, and when they had to cancel our flight, the airline was beyond accommodating, and refunded our flights for the 600 Euro it would have cost normally to fly home. An extra $728 in the bank made us a little cheeky in our plans, and within minutes Candice and I had European takeover 2K13 in the books via Skype conference from our kitchens.
We had some extra money leftover, which is why Scotland was thrown into the middle of our excursion, as well as a side trip to Limerick, about a two hour bus ride from Temple Bar in Dublin, to have lunch with my friend Christina. She and I met at Bridgewater State when I was a junior in college and she was visiting for a semester as an exchange student. We played rugby together for a short amount of time, and shared an Irish Literature class. Christina was tough, had a raw sense of humor, and enjoyed whiskey, which made me believe that yes, every Irish resident must like whiskey. Which later proved to be true – at least at UL.
We arrived on a soggy Tuesday afternoon, tired and excited to be greeted by Christina and taken to lunch. Coffee and a lamb cheeseburger with rosemary steak fries….college food. No wonder she complained about our cafeterias so much. Candice and I toured UL – the gyms, the rugby pitch that the Munster Rugby Team practiced on. Swoon.
“Why go home? Stay here for International night. Pizzas and Jameson.”
Sold.
We sat at a table, low-light, taking turns paying for pizza and Jameson and Cokes. The wonderful thing about having international friends is, if you are open-minded, the potential for deep, multi-faceted conversation is very real. We spoke of foreign policy, student loans, welfare, and 9/11. Whiskey and genuine expression from Christina made me emotional to see how affected she, a foreigner to the United States, was when the Twin Towers fell. Conspiracy theories aside, judgments aside, lay the undeniable fact that thousands of lives were lost, and the hand of humanity reached many countries who had compassion for the families, and the victims. Brought together, and bonding with someone from a different country on a subject that ultimately affected the world drunkenly restored my faith – even if only for a moment – where I first truly experienced how good food, good drink, and good conversation united people.
“Let’s take this into town.”
The three of us hopped into a cab and met with Christina’s friends at a pub in the heart of Limerick, where the population was minimal, middle aged, and sloppy.
“It’s usually busier than this.”
It’s usually busier than this…on a Tuesday?
 
On downing what I believed was my ninth Jameson and Coke, Candice and I were soon engulfed in a conversation with a tall, portly, jolly young man, an acquaintance of Christina. No older than twenty, he smiled wide and his eyes brilliant with passion as he spoke of the farm his family had, and the fifty-three (of fifty-five) different breeds of cow he could recite. Maybe even in alphabetical order, but I was drunk, and this kid was crazy.
“Shut. Up.”
Drunken disbelief pulled Candice and I closer to this stranger. He spoke of his favorite cow, her name, what breed she was, why he liked that breed so much.
What in the….
She and I mouthed this about a dozen times over and over, ten Jameson and Cokes in at this time, while one by one this kid named cow after cow. I discern cows by color. Black, white, white with black spots, black with white spots, brown, chocolate milk…but I learned quickly my whole life-long cattle knowledge was a lie.
All of the cow talk made us hungry, and that led to Chicken Hut, AKA the KFC of Ireland, but worse. By worse, I mean worse for you. By flavor, I mean the tastiest thing my drunk self has ever consumed in my entire life.
Fried chicken with gravy that had the consistency of lard (amazing), fries, a soda, all washed down with impending regret and the continued disbelief that this kid was still talking about cows.
Drunk and tired, Candice, Christina, and I made our way back to Christina’s dorm, and arranged ourselves like drunk little piggies horizontally on her bed. I lay on my left side, facing the wall, knees tucked up, teeth un-brushed, still in the same clothes. Candice was in the middle, flat on her back, arms spread like a little drunk starfish. Christina, cocked diagonally and already unconscious lay at the head of her own bed. I tried to count my breathing in an attempt to make myself sleepy, but the Chicken Hut sat like a brick and I too, now, found myself trying to recall fifty-three or fifty-five types of cow. Candice, I assumed was dancing in a dream, because her jazz hands leaped out at my side, and my knees jerked over and over against Christina’s wall. To break the silence, Christina, in her drunken sleep, methodically ripped the loudest, yet odorless farts from six feet away from me. And thus was the night, a symphony of tickles, wall knocking, and gas, until we rose the next morning for our walk of shame back to the bus, and our hungover ride back to Dublin, penniless, nauseous, and educated in Irish bovine.

Cattle and a Unicorn

Candice and I saved a decent amount of money booking our trip to Dublin, and about three months after setting our dates and planning our excursions, I suggested a side trip to Edinburgh.

“I’ve never been to Scotland. It’s a bucket list. And Ryan Air is stupid cheap.”

“Great. And we can find a bed and breakfast or something.”

Our Skype meetings were frequent yet efficient these days. I would say “hello” to her mother in background, who never met me in person, yet knew me as the girl from New York who traveled the world with her daughter. I looked at flights, while Candice hunted down a website that wasn’t suspicious and also had low enough rates for a bed and breakfast.

“Ryan Air. We can leave Wednesday, middle of the trip, come home Friday. We’ll have a full day to explore. I want to see the Edinburgh Castle.”

“I want to see King Arthur’s Seat.”

“OK done. Booked on my end.”

Just like that, we were headed for Scotland…as if we were to become bored with having to spend ten whole days in only one country – one castle – what first world problems. We desired so much to hit as many places as we possibly could, and that’s what I loved about traveling with Candice. I had control issues with always being on time, booking trips, and Candice just smiled and trusted me to make sure we didn’t get kidnapped and there was always a pint of something in front of us. We had this strange, calculated way of moving around foreign places, where we booked the trip, but once we arrived, we had no concrete idea of exactly what we were to do. Everything in the country was decided generally the day before it happened, and we just rolled with it until we hit our next adventure. It took off the pressure of travel, and also made us feel less like tourists, and more like explorers.

******

Our flight to Scotland was booked for the part of the morning where it’s blacker than what nighttime should be. We didn’t sleep at all the night before, and thankfully the hotel was accommodating enough to book us a car to the airport, so all we had to do was make sure we had enough euros for the cab as we slumped into the back seat, and a very pleasant older gentleman zipped us off through the chilly morning.

Wow. We were so very tired.

“We should have slept.”

Candice gazed at me over a cup of coffee while we sat on the floor at the gate, putting our shoes back on, watching equally exhausted people wander like a herd of cattle, disheveled and regretful of their time choice to fly. Suddenly, I saw a unicorn among the cows. Tall, thin, wild curly blonde hair, his face looked like a Ken doll – almost perfect – and his style was amazing. Donning all black everything, wearing heavy black boots and a black jackets with spikes on it, Candice and I turned to one another and had a telepathic moment of recognition. How did he get through security with that jacket?  I could see it across as I struggled to figure out how this man was so well-dressed for 4:30 AM. He was so much his own style, so strange, so pretty.

Get a load of that guy. With our luck, we’ll be sitting next to him on the plane.” We both shared a laugh, and deep down, we both knew we so wanted to sit next to this man on the plane.

The cattle and the unicorn and the only two American people were herded down across the tarmac in the dark and up the stairs onto the airplane. We were told the flight would be about forty minutes, a first for Candice and I, who were used to anywhere between six and eighteen hours of travel to get to our destinations.Walking hurt. We were so unbelievably exhausted from not sleeping the night before, that our tiny airplane seats were the La-Z-Boys we longed for. People trickled in slowly, sleepily placing bags above them, slumped over in walking comas, when the unicorn stepped onto the aircraft and bee-lined for our row. Candice and I both tensed up and screamed a little on the inside when he sat beside us, gave a half smile, and we were sent into an immediate bout of giggles as she and I narrated the emergency instructional photos on the seat in front of us.

The safety demonstration began and a pleasant Irish girl unconsciously moved her hands along with the audio instructions of what to do in case of emergency. I could barely pay attention as Candice held back her slap happy laughter and the unicorn looked about like he was about over with us and with the emergency instructions. I leaned forward to my backpack on the floor, and in the process smashed my face into the seat back in front of me. I grabbed my forehead, and Candice, no longer able to contain herself, burst out in laughter. It wasn’t the hearty har-har type of laughter when a good joke is told, but rather a desperate wheeze of a person trying not to laugh at an obviously inappropriate time. Her face was changing color. I began to cry. The unicorn looked over the both of us, and chuckled.

Yanno, I’m doing this for your safety, you best not laugh.” The flight attendant was moved from her demonstration to scold us, threatening our removal from the aircraft, and I fought through my own laughter to explain I wasn’t laughing at her, I just hit my face into her close-quartered seats. Candice affirmed that I really did, in fact, hit my face, and we passed through the rest of the demonstration like elementary school children who were caught doing something naughty.

The plane took off, and Candice passed a comment about how these types of things only ever happened to us, which caught the attention of our unicorn, who began to engage in conversation. We learned he was called Nikolai, and was a hair stylist from Dublin. His family, originally from Russia, lived in Chicago at one point, and now settled in Ireland. His carry-on was filled with hair styling equipment, and he was heading to Scotland to visit his aunt, which he did every two or three weeks. Soft-spoken and polite, Nikolai engaged us in conversation for the short duration of the trip, and as we parted, the herd of sleepy cattle, the only two Americans, and the unicorn shuffled off the plane into customs.

“Nice meeting you.” We trudged through the automatic doors of customs for the only two American people traveling that morning into Edinburgh, and came across an empty white room. There were no employees, the computers were off, and there was no one to stamp us into the country.

“Where the hell is everybody?” Candice looked around, I peered in corners thinking maybe it was a surprise party, and we stood listlessly in this room for about ten minutes before making the decision to exit. Half-upset at the fact that we didn’t get a Scotland stamp for our passport collection, we passed through the next set of large automatic doors, only to be greeted by a large poster of an old man offering up a lobster, and Nikolai! Our unicorn waited for us! He waited as we gave our Facebook information, and said he would request us, but we weren’t able to tell until we reached another Wi-Fi hotspot, so we went on faith that we would hear from our new friend again. Nikolai wished us luck, as his aunt alerted him of her presence outside the arrival gates, and we watched our unicorn disappear into the harsh Scotland rain.