Keep your eye on the Doughnut

I rang the doorbell three times before a nurse let me in the building, only to meet me in the hallway and tell me I was the first to know, and that my grandfather just died. What immediately followed was something I experienced when I watched my mother – his daughter – die seven years ago: tunnel vision, loss of breath, silent and uncontrolled sobs. My aunt arrived not two minutes after. We said our goodbyes to Harold in his bed, finally at rest and home with Nan, with my mom, with my family dog who died only four months ago in September. He was reunited with his identical twin, Arthur, who died in 1943 on a PT while Harold sat in prison camp in Krems, Austria.

I feel like I’ve become a professional at death and grief; the state of being dead is not what scares me, though. I am not afraid to kiss a recently-departed loved one on the hand or forehead one last time. The process of dying – the suffering, the pain, the uncertainty of whether or not that person will be around for three more days, or two – is what eats at me. Since January 9th my soul has felt heavy while my life has felt emptier. I will miss Thursday morning physical therapy appointments, grocery shopping, holding hands in the car, and singing old songs. I will miss him there in my life. It is something that I know I will get through, but I am not quite sure how yet.

I don’t even really know how to explain my grandpa when people ask. After newspaper interviews and his eulogy I still conclude that that he was – simply put – a good guy, because if I spent the amount of time I wanted to talking about him a whole year would pass before I was done. He died just a week shy of his 99th birthday, born before sliced bread and lived long enough to build the World Trade Centers, watch them fall on television, and watch Tower One be rebuilt. Harold lived long, but he lived. He lived enough for three lifetimes, and I was lucky enough to hear his stories and to commit them to memory – those moments of invaluable tales of war and love and sayings that I will write down and give life to until the day I myself am dead.

He always told my brother, cousin, and me, “As you ramble through life, Brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.” As silly of a quote as it sounds, I finally understood what he meant. Harold wanted us to keep our eyes on the good, not the bad; on love and forgiveness, not hate and grudges; on the sweet stuff, not the void. He was infectiously positive and kind until the day he died, and I always found it difficult to understand especially when our visits were peppered with war stories that – when told – would take him far away, back to 1943 and prison camp. His liberation from camp seemed like his only victory, but even in his stories, there was something positive to shed light on.

One tale in particular – and the one I shared at his wake when delivering his eulogy – has become affectionately known as the “egg story.” In March of 1945, as the war was coming to a foreseeable end, and Russian troops were closing in on Stalag XVII-B in Austria, Harold, along with about a thousand other soldiers, were forced to march along the Danube River with Berlin as the goal, in one of the harshest winters on record in Europe. He spent two years with meals that included hot water, black coffee, boiled cabbage, and sometimes nothing at all. He watched bunk mates’ faces and bodies ravaged by malnutrition, bed bugs, sores, and disease. And still, he along with many others were seen “fit enough” to march, maybe to Berlin, most likely to their deaths. The end of the war was certainly near, but the end of their lives was also looming overhead.

Harold told me one day in June of 2018 that as the men marched through fields and farmland they would pull vegetables out of the ground and eat them without washing them, simply for nutrition. They operated mostly in groups of three – one man to collect firewood, one to guard the food, one to find the food. Harold was the food finder. He would pull carrots, potatoes – anything he could find – to share with his two companions. He told me of older German women who would hide bread in the bosoms of their aprons and break off small pieces to throw at the feet of the soldiers, who scrounged and ate quickly as to not anger the SS that flanked them with guns and vicious dogs. Even in that time of horror and uncertainty, he still encountered kindness and humanity of strangers; he had hope to continue on marching. He had the belief that he would hold his wife again, his childhood sweetheart who he married on June 1, 1943, only to be captured July 30th that same year.

In his search for food, Harold came across what he described to me as “a German-speaking, Polish slave-girl.” She was on a patch of farmland that had animals as well as vegetables. He approached her and put a hand in his pocket, producing a sewing needle that he held onto from a British Red Cross care package he received earlier during his imprisonment when he had scurvy. He extended to her the needle, and told her in broken German, “Ich habe eine nadel,” which translates to, “I have a needle.” The young girl accepted the needle and handed him an egg, the first egg he held in over two years. Harold joyously returned with the egg to his two companions and split it between the three of them, a meal he described to me as “the best meal I had in two years.”

Pain and suffering is relative to each person and situation, this is a given. But tears poured down my face to see how such a simple act, and such a simple meal could bring out hope and humanity in a man who otherwise was stripped of everything. He lost his bomber jacket, teeth, weight, and yet he was so grateful and rejoiced in the tiniest of victories – the egg. He could have easily kept it to himself, but chose to share it with two men he might never see again. He ate that egg as if he knew it wouldn’t be the last time he’d taste one, and I can personally vouch that Harold had an egg almost everyday for the duration of my 28 years. The war and the suffering bore a giant hole in Harold’s future, yet he kept his eye on my grandmother, on freedom, on the doughnut.

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.

Psithurism

Standing between the cedar house and salty bath, I curled the earth under my toes, using each blade of grass to brush sand off my feet. The sun was hot and I felt the skin on my shoulders pull tight as the watery evidence of my day was taken into the air and white flakes of salt were left behind as a trophy. A loon, black and slick like oil, perched himself on a piling out in the middle of the creek. He outstretched his wings and we mimicked each other, basking in the summer and patiently drying ourselves. I heard an osprey call out to another, or to nothing.

At this time, sounds were what made sense to me. Everything communicated in succession – nothing of the same language, all understanding each other. The birds cawed back and forth and the water hugged the beach, taking a bit with it each time; it moved up on the dock and weaved among the beach reeds as fiddler crabs all moved at once at the vibration of human feet. I would look down from the dock and they glided across the beach like a blanket, disappearing into their homes, scratching quietly at their walls. I would lay on the dock and listen to the soft echo of water lapping up against the boat, and the boat would then rock gently into the dock, and the dock float would dip back into the water, and the Rube Goldberg of nature would respond. The summer communicated in a way that a child could comprehend, and as an adult, I would struggle to understand again.

I would sit in a wicker chair underneath the tallest oak trees in the world, and look for squirrels as acorns fell to the deck, bouncing several times before settling into place. The chair creaked underneath me while I drank Coca Cola and my grandmother coughed gently every once in a while into her tissue that she hid in her sleeve. Her systematic sips of tea were timed with her exhales as she returned her mug into place. I was the audience to the symphony of summer in the stale July heat, waiting for the finale. As the sun prepared to start its descent behind the houses down the creek, a wind would pick up and I watched as it ran its fingers through the trees which made the branches chase each other in waves. That was the most beautiful sound: the wind through the trees. My hair gently pulled like the leaves above me, unable to see the wind, only what it touched.

When night fell onto the landscape, the wind lay background to the chirps that were replaced by crickets, and the silence never came. The world never stopped, only mine. The water lapped, black and murky, among the reeds and against the boat. The birds passed the hat to the bugs and were settled into bed. Moths and beetles tapped the windows and I listened to the singing world, and the wind in the trees, and joined the birds in sleep.

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.

When Death Feels Generous

I always imagined an embargo with Death. As people prepare to take off with him in the form of souls, he grabs their wrist and leads them to a door, but they stand there in the nothingness a moment longer. He feels them pull back ever so slightly — enough to feel the tension — and turns around to face them. The soul is not looking at Death. The soul is looking back through the veil, back into the realm of fleeting love, of abandoned family, seeing it as close as they will for what may be eternity. In that moment, I imagine Death wearing a tailored suit to fit a long torso and long, slender legs. His scythe is not a scythe, but a pocket watch on a chain. His feet are adorned with the finest wingtip Oxford shoes that click as he walks, echoing into forever. The soul looks down, staring into the blackest black, suspended and at the same time feeling impossibly heavy. The only light is the window back into the existence, getting smaller and smaller with each passing second. Or is it hour?

 

Please.

 

The word feels small and impossible. It seems to be absorbed by the surrounding blackness. Death turns his head back around once more; he knows what the soul will ask before they can release another imploring whisper into the air. He releases his grasp on their delicate wrist, and places his open palm onto their forehead. A cold rush is pushed through the soul, as a piece of them drifts back into the closing plane of life, to remain with the mortal. The piece of soul — that energy — is then imprinted into and intertwined with one of the living, allowing a slice of the deceased to communicate and visit the loved one while they sleep.

 

When I fall asleep, and she’s there, I find myself unable to ask the questions I longed to ask for years and years. I lose my words from over-excitement of smelling her perfume or feeling her hair on my neck when she hugs me. Even when the dreams fall incoherent, and I lose control, and they begin to spiral into a disarray of images and colors and I can no longer tell what way is forward, I still smell her perfume. I imagine Death watching over from some distant place, calling the shots as to when the dream will end, controlling the time we spend together. Not too much, as he twists his hand and pulls her out of my head. He takes his pocket watch out of his suit jacket and double checks that he’s still running time, and he studies my lost, subconscious soul and smirks to know he can decide how long I get with her. And he knows I won’t complain, because any second longer I have with my mother is more than I could imagine after watching her die that day. After watching her breath escape her, and she was led off into the darkness only to pull back, and look through back to the living, and back to life. Please. She watched my eyes scan her body for any type of movement while the rest of me remained as still as her. In that moment Death let go of her wrist, and pushed a piece of her into me, only to visit in dreams.