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. 

Possessed

You had rage that engulfed

your body and flooded your eyes

and riddled your mouth with foul promises

and wronged threats.

I placed my hands on your shoulders

to exorcise the demons that ravaged

your heart, my eyes met yours –

But they weren’t yours.

You grabbed my wrists

and roared back in my face

and shoved me with the adrenaline

of a cornered animal.

 

The touch of your hands remained

like a burn,

as I sat in my car and listened

to your screams from the house.

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 am Grateful

Recently, I encountered a piece of writing – about 70 pages – that I scribbled out in 2012, eleven months after the loss of my mother. It encompassed the dark, secluded, depressed state that I was in for so long after she died, and I read it for the first time since I wrote it. When I wrote this particular novella (I guess), I did so out of anger. I took my insomnia, my fleeting thoughts, my questions, my hate and confusion, and poured them out of me like hot lava over the course of about two weeks. I remember, when I finished this piece, not feeling angry any longer, which is exactly why it stayed a mere 70 pages or so. It hurt me to read it. It rubbed back over all of the emotional scars that I spent the past five years allowing to heal while I tried to figure out how to trudge through the hell that was the death of my mom. The writings were so raw and painful to recognize – to see it as myself, as I was. I cried throughout the Intro (released onto my blog before this post itself). I cried for the girl who I was and for the amount of hurt and loneliness she experienced. The entries lashed out at the world around her; at neighbors, at family. They were paranoid, twisted, irrational ideas, but they were natural and real for someone who feels like they have everything ripped from them at once.

It’s certainly difficult for anyone to lose a parent, no matter what way, or at what age. Loss as I have observed simply within my own family is perceived, absorbed, and handled, dealt with or otherwise, differently by each person. It is a relative experience, felt on a varying scale. I do not share my stories – my loss, struggles, and personal insight – with the idea that how I coped is the right way, or how I survived is the only way to do so. However, I share the stories I write with the hope and intention that someday, somewhere, someone will read what I went through and actually feel like they aren’t alone. In the end we are all looking to feel like we belong, and I know for myself, the hardest time to feel like you’re part of something is when you’re torn apart.

I am grateful. I am grateful to have a passion for writing. I am grateful for the small community of individuals I know who tell me that the things I write about helped them get through something. I love when someone tells me I made them laugh, and I have a mildly sadistic joy inside when someone tells me I made them cry. I love telling stories, and other people’s stories, and I am grateful I can tell them. I lost fear of judgment for writing and being read because, in the end, my writing is my feelings and no one can feel those feelings except for me. The goal now is to have others respect those feelings, or relate to them in some way. If someone feels less alone, then I feel I’m doing something right.

Intro

 

Wake up. I glared bright-eyed into a thick dark nothing while the oscillating fan breathed life back into me with each methodical pass. The outlines of my room became more apparent as the urge to get up increased. I fought my way through the queen-sized down comforter. It’s August. My feet touched the carpet; dirt and small objects imprinted themselves gently into my heels. Although rough and calloused from many summers trudging through sand and gouging on broken shells, my feet were still so sensitive. More sensitive now even after the profession I had taken up in this small, shallow town. I searched helplessly for the light and as it illuminated my room, my eyes momentarily flashed back to darkness with the shock. My graduation tassels hung delicately on my wall, shadows dancing with the fan, ebbing and flooding like a tide that relentlessly touches upon shore.

My door creaked open as I switched up to the balls of my feet on the grainy wooden floor. With each step the panels moaned as the seemingly forever trip to my bathroom became more hurried. I slipped passed my grandfather’s open door, unaware of the conversation he was having with Death, as the invisible cold black figure took his unconscious hand into the moonlight, preparing him for his own end. Then I heard my grandpa snore and roll over and Death shook his fist to the sky in defeat.

The only thing awake besides Death and myself were the crickets – insomniacs that lulled me to sleep with their chirping and chiming ever since I was a little girl. The toilet seat was cold for an August night. I pulled the blinds shut and stared down at a helpless spider I thought I killed hours earlier when I was brushing my teeth. It crawled and crawled up the yellowed siding of the bathtub while its weak threads clung to nothing but soap scum and history. This bungalow had seen better days and so did the people living in it. If walls could talk they would shout through the paper at guests and residents alike, warning them of the death that happened, of the unrest, and of the religious excuses for the actions of others. The fresh coat of paint and new half bath were mere distractions, like a woman reapplying her make-up so people wouldn’t notice that new pimple or her wrinkle she got from fighting with her husband the day before. As each horrible thing happened in my house, we kept fixing it and adjusting the tapestry.

I am stuck in my own personal House of Usher as Poe laughs at me from a higher bookshelf next to my empty diploma case. I feel like my grandpa is nesting; like a woman does for a newborn, except he’s doing it for Death. He tells me almost every night that he isn’t ready to go yet – “The window people are coming tomorrow.” I suddenly became lost in my own thoughts.  I flushed the toilet that would be cleaned tomorrow and washed my hands lazily. The mirror gleamed back at me with pale lights as I stared into my tired eyes, purple bags slouching below them. My hair stood up on many frozen ends like they were trying to escape my thoughts, too. I looked so tired. I always looked tired nowadays. Sleep is for the weak and the dead and I was told I couldn’t be either of those things. I could only think about those in my own mind. My mother, for instance, was always on my mind, and now that she was separated in jars between two dressers and a mantle piece, was more apparent these days. Only she knew how much I thought about just never waking up in this world only to wake up to see her again in the afterlife. This kind of talk warranted my therapist on several occasions to question my mental stability and she always approached with, “So…are you suicidal then?” I always replied with, “No, I’m Catholic.” I had to applaud her boldness in asking me, though. No one really ever asked me how I was doing, especially these days. I returned to a town and a house that boasted wealth but those dwelling inside it were poor in spirits. The stench of the decaying elderly mixed with plug-in air fresheners gave the appearance of a funeral home in this once enjoyable abode. The floral carpeting, spotless hardwood and prescription pill bottles would suggest an older crowd, and I was thrown into the mix as a twenty-one year-old college graduate, waiting on her diploma and her big break.

I, instead, live with my grandfather who is well into his 90’s but still insists on driving and cooking and giving himself the false identity of someone much younger than he is. I have been living here since last November, originally in a room sizeable to a closet with a closet inside of it. I only recently upgraded to the room my mother used to sleep in; the one my Aunt Eleanor died in, and the one next to the room my grandmother took her final heaving breaths in. My mother almost died in this room as well. It was bad enough that I slept in the bed she slept in for almost a month, but that isn’t what bothered me. She actually attempted to die in this bed. I was away at school, and she refused to tell me that she was sick, or dying, or killing herself slowly, and she just expected to expire, engulfed in old floral cotton sheets, head resting on stale pillows that were never replaced, without a care for dignity or admiration or acceptance. She wanted to end it and didn’t care who witnessed it. She wanted to beat her father in the race to Death’s door and rang his doorbell multiple times before he finally answered. And because she didn’t want to die like a dignified person, she unfortunately did not get to choose the manner in which she’d go. This manner, however, was chosen by doctors, and by family, and this was the only decision she was not allowed to have the responsibility over. And because of her, I am now battling a combination of depression and the automated Weight Watchers online guide in a room next to a man who talks to Jesus in his sleep more than I have in my entire life.

 

It’s on nights like these where the August humidity seeps into the blossoming September evenings and attempts to choke you in your sleep that I sit up and contemplate just what in the world is going on. I sit in the dark on top of my sheets and stare at a ceiling poorly lit by the blind moon as he throws around his light carelessly through trees, peering into my window. He imposes on me like a nosy neighbor, like the many we have in this town. My night vision kicks in after a long and tumultuous battle with blackness and I examine my room in its dark form, as if that’s any different from what it looks like during the day. Nothing looks that appealing in the dark except for bodies, and the expansiveness of the twilight hours seems to push my room in on me. My bed is too large. My room is too small. My closet is too close. This mirror is too close to my bed. All of these things impede on my personal space and crowd my body like my thoughts that push against the barriers of my skull. I stare and stare until night takes me away and pushes me into the throes of my dreams where I must be alert in order to see the morning again, no less allow them to take me over.

 

My dreams have been abstract and unpleasant for the past eleven months, where torturous situations place me in the kitchen I grew up in with my mother standing at the stove. We talk about current events as she drags on her cigarette and fries eggplant. She throws each fried circle, crisp and bubbling, onto a paper plate lined with paper towels and I eat them as fast as they touch. Her smoke is comforting and sticks to my body along with the heat and grease of the summer cooking. She tells me she should have never left and that she’s sorry I’m stuck with everything and that I should have the house left to me. She tells me that she never really wanted to kill herself and it spiraled out of control towards the end. I get several apologies, thanks for not judging her, and remorse for not being able to remember what her hug will feel like in the morning. I tell her it’s fine because she’ll stop in on my dream in a couple of weeks again. Things turn fuzzy and incoherent after that hug, and every time someone crashes a car, or I wind up being chased, or I step out onto some weird endeavor that really has no end until I wake up to a buzzing alarm clock. I fight to remember her hug, and her cigarettes, and eventually give in to the morning sun and my full time job. The monotony kicks in and it’s not the pleasant monotony I was hoping for after my mom died. I was hoping for a full house of family; for bonding; for summer days simmering on the beach under the hot July sun like the eggplant in the pan. I prayed for silence and peace and a belonging where everything suddenly and perfectly made sense. But then I wake up again and realize I work seven days a week. I crush my own spirits down to prevent the environment in which I enter everyday from doing so. If I’m anything like my mother, it’s that I would never let anyone but myself bring me down. I lowered my expectations of this summer and the future so much that indifference is the deciding factor in everything that happens. This leads to everything playing out like a radio song on repeat and I can’t change the channel. I just go with it. I’ve become sucked into a routine of work work work and then going home to clean clean clean and then sitting in the black black black dark until I pass out.

I know that every Thursday is cleaning day, where I clean the toilets, mop the floors, vacuum, and dust everything within reason only for it to be disheveled and dirty by Thursday evening. It’s like I can’t make the dust disappear; it just runs away from my Swiffer and hides in the corners and under the couches until I leave. But, I do it relentlessly, and I do it without complaint, because I have a free room to sleep in and a roof over my head. It’s because I’m guilted into feeling like I have done something wrong to deserve the life I’m currently living. Like I’ve done nothing even remotely commendable, I am the Help. I am the live-in maid, psychologist, referee, and janitor. I mop up the sorrows, sweep away the pains, break up the fights, and diagnose the troubles. And just like the dust that is not mine on the floors that I don’t own in the house that I don’t pay for, the problems that do not belong to me resurface and I sweep them away again. And they cannot be ignored. Oh no. Because the second I turn on a fan to relieve myself from the blistering heat the dust swirls up in my face, causing discomfort and I can’t just not get rid of the dust to try and make myself more comfortable. When I get to the point of inconceivable intolerance, I put on my sneakers and walk. I walk for miles and hours in the humid and I push through it as it grabs my arms and pulls me back like everything else. I tell it to go screw and turn the corner, up the hill, make a right, pass some horses, and another right turn. Eventually my left knee gives out but I keep going because the physical reminders that I’m still alive push harder than my numb brain and next thing you know I’m up the hill and going home. I don’t mind the soreness, or the shin splints, or the sweat, because that can just go away. Things like that disappear, and it only happens when I make it happen. It’s control, and it’s all I have.

In this world of confusing monotonous chaos that I exist in the only things I have control over are my bodily pain and how much I eat. If the monotony were a pleasant array of excitement and surprises and happiness this would be different. However, I am stuck being Atlas except I eat more and exercise less. The ratios are currently off in the favor of intake, but at least I can still control it. It is something unpredictable; my feet go until they cannot, and I never know when that will be until I get a shooting pain up to my hip telling me to stop and I shrug it off and drown it out in the soupy summer heat as I pass a field that has more vastness than the confines of my own mind, where everything has become a beehive overloaded with unnecessary troubles and information. I’d rather be sick in the body than sick in the head and the lack of flare and individual input put a damper on my usual taste for excitement. I predict the conversations I have with my grandpa before they happen, I know exactly what my dad will talk about when I get out of work, and I still can’t seem to figure out my own processes. I go back to the thick, dark, soupy night in my bed that’s too big and wonder about the most unknown thing: myself.

I was in constant opposition of staring myself down, especially during those late night stints attempting to solve the crises of the world from the toilet seat. In those nights where I would stare at the ceiling asking where the fuck did I go wrong? I would pray that the answer would fall from the darkness and smack me square in the face. My eyes stay wide but tired as I heave my thoughts around in my head like heavy boulders until I exhaust myself into oblivion yet again. I would wake up several hours later and make that ever-so-familiar trip into the darkness where fear is my only friend and I stare deeply into a bathroom mirror from 1974 and see the same thing over and over again. I would never see change, and Thursday would still be cleaning day.

This horrendous and unacceptable amount of unadventurous life was starting to get the best of me, and I knew that I had to press on with my ambitions. And at the same time, I knew I couldn’t. My life had begun to play out like a sappy and stupid indie film where everything is ironic and the awkward kid gets through school and finds love. I did one of those things, and as a disclaimer my heart is as hard as a rock. I spent days just staring at old pictures and acknowledging that I allowed myself to become sedentary and fat over the past few months (years) up to and following college. Subconsciously my body gave up and decided that years upon years of learning and unbearable, unavoidable trauma needed to take a back seat while I focused on myself. I missed the memo, however, and just sank into oblivion with food and unnecessary spending. My mind would swim for hours with thoughts and ideas of what I could have done, how it could have been, and how much I was pissed off now seeing how everything decided to pan out. Seeing how people chose to take their separate paths and how they indirectly, yet so effectively, dampened my own strenuous existence. I sat undeserving in my Oxford University sweatshirt thinking of better times and the what-haves until I either got hungry or cried or just went to bed.

This unconnected and indifferent chain of events that all somehow swept in and smacked my life square in the testicles equally confused and devastated me. I spent years and months and minutes screaming why out to the ceiling until I realized no one would hear me. When I stopped screaming at the vertical nothingness I was struck with the deafening tones of rejection from the universe. No one wanted to help me, because everyone was busy helping himself or herself. Then when I actually swallowed my pride and asked for help, it was thrown back at me, and I learned quite painfully that I’m the only person I can rely on 100 percent of the time. That idea was comforting and terrifying, because I realized quickly how little faith I have in my own strengths – boasting it in public and unable to find it when alone. I needed to get back on good terms with the universe, and that is a chapter that hasn’t ended yet.