With a Little Help From My Friends

1 Comment

Challah2Today marks four years since my mother died. I’d planned to spend it cooking and writing, alone in my house. Oh, and did I mention moping?

My writing buddies had other plans.

I still cooked – matzo ball soup and home-baked challah, since it’s the Jewish holidays and these were my mom’s favorite comfort foods – but I wasn’t alone.

“Make me a pot of coffee and I’ll vacuum your place,” Pam said, after I protested I couldn’t have guests because of the cat fur tumbleweeds.

“I’ll bring chocolate and snacks,” said Rebecca, and boy did she ever. (Trader Joe’s has the best EVERYTHING, and I’m pretty sure she emptied the shelves.)

And before I knew it, the glum, grim day I’d expected turned into a party of dough punching, chocolate-almond munching, and writing at the kitchen table with some of my very favorite Santa Fe friends. A day of sorrow turned into one of gratitude, and laughs, and productivity. A day that reminds me life goes on, and brings with it unexpected joys.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Challah

Advertisements

The Ugly Dishes

Leave a comment

Today is very likely the last day I will ever spend in my parents’ house. Months after my father’s death, the apartment is in contract and I’m getting it ready for the buyer to take it over. I’m at their dining table right now, the same table around which we ate so many meals, preparing to say goodbye to all the things of my childhood.  Preparing to let my parents truly go.

I find it’s the little things that get me right in the heart. The dated blue light fixture that hung in my brother’s childhood bedroom. My mother’s battered old food mill, with which we made so many batches of Thanksgiving applesauce. The seventies-style coffee cups rubbed raw from decades of spoons stirring in sweetener. Even the utterly atrocious paintings that have hung over the living room sofa since I can remember.

I’ll be taking these things with me. They will uglify my own home now. They’ll look at odds with everything I own. One day perhaps I’ll be ready to part with them. But right now they’re the last pieces of the people who raised me, the last tangible link with the things they touched and imbued with meaning.

So much is changing. My time in Santa Fe may be coming to an end soon. I’ll be finishing my new novel before long. Leaving some friends behind, reconnecting with others. I’m not the sort of person to find change exciting. I dread it. I fear it. But here it is, and I hope I’m up to the challenge. Because like it or not, life goes on. And so, perchance, will I.

Of Breath and Boys

2 Comments

When my first love died, I learned a lot of things. Things I didn’t ever want to know, things that have changed my life, crashed and burned my life; even, eventually, bettered my life in small but significant ways.

I was twenty two and he was twenty six, and we weren’t together when it happened. We weren’t ever officially “together,” though there’d been a decade of intense and passionate connection between us. Of secrets, and sex, and infatuation, infantile and otherwise. He died in another girl’s home, in a fire, and she died too. I never asked if they were together. I never asked anything, except How am I going to live without the one person I could never imagine the world not containing?

I don’t think I have ever answered that question quite to my satisfaction, though it’s eighteen years and several loves later.

I wrote poems after he died. Book dedications. Had near-constant dreams where he came back to me, kind and generous as he never was in life, wanting to be my husband. I could smell his scent, and then, after a while, couldn’t. Remember the way he said my name, sweet, or cajoling, or even reproving as the mood took him. The way sweat would bead on the top of his nose when he drank or got up to no good. The booming sound of his cough, the wild and ferocious gleam in his blue eyes when he got an evil idea in his head. These things I haven’t forgot.

The whole first year after was just me, poleaxed, trying to breathe and not scream, not tear aside walls with my fingernails until, somehow, I might find him.

And for seven more after that, I sought him in bottles, and strange beds, and bulimia.

I didn’t find him, but I did, in pieces, find a greater understanding of life. I understood true unfairness for the first time, and powerlessness, and, in a certain way, strength. You survive the loss of something you think is impossible to lose, and yet, there you still are. You are, whether you like it or not. You stand on two feet, however wobbly, and your blood still sloshes around your body and your lungs still billow with what passes for breath.

My lungs, my lungs. Somehow, with loss, it is always about the breath.

After he died, I was able to quit smoking. I just told myself that cigarettes were dead like him, and nothing could bring them back. I could mourn, and ache, and sweat it out, want them fierce like nothing else, but they weren’t coming back and I had to live without them.

I had to, and I did. And eighteen years later I still don’t smoke.

And I still miss that boy, who died around this time of year.

Now I’ve lost another love, though this one to sanity and circumstance rather than death. The loss isn’t the same scream of disbelief; it’s not the cry of shocked anguish (everyone and their brother saw this one coming), but it’s again a rent in the fabric of my breath, my sangfroid, my fantasies of a future together. I can long for this live boy, it seems, every bit as deeply as I did for the one who died.

Somehow knowing I survived this and worse once before is no comfort. I had forgotten what a wound it is, how a thousand times an hour you can find your breath stopped in your chest, a bargain with the universe brewing behind your lips to make it just not true, just not today, just please, can’t I have what I want this one more time?

And when the answer is no, you can’t?

There’s no air left when you know that answer. It’s all turned into a fist inside your throat, a stranglehold that suffocates and makes you think, no, this time I won’t survive.

Or worse, you will, but it won’t get better. It’ll always be this loss-loss-loss-loss-loss.

But that’s silly, says the voice of reason and time and experience. Take a deep breath. You’ll survive.

I know I’m looking at long weeks, or months before I’m totally okay. And maybe “totally okay” isn’t even what it will be. I met a man recently who told me he’d had his heart broken not that long before. I said, “How did you get over it?” and he said, “You don’t get over it. You just find a way to carry it with you.”

It wasn’t the answer I wanted. I wanted, “Take two of these and call me in the morning,” or “The fever will break in a couple of weeks, and you’ll be back to yourself in no time.”

You’re never back to who you were, though, are you? You’re someone new, with a life that took a left turn and isn’t going to look the way you expected it to, not ever again.

Yet it’s not the expectations I miss. It’s those blue eyes, then those brown eyes, that each in their own time made me catch my breath.

The Gravity of Grief

Leave a comment

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (more precisely, in Life, the Universe, and Everything), the great science fiction humorist Douglas Adams had a bit about flying that I love for many, many reasons. In my experience, it speaks to the process of writing, and, quite frankly, to just about everything important in life. I paraphrase here, so forgive me if I don’t get it exactly right, but in essence it is this:

“There is an art to flying,” he says, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

(If you Google around, or, better yet, take the time to read these spectacular novels, you’ll find the longer explanation of this, which is both hilarious and poignant.) Here is a link to the author reading it live. http://youtu.be/W_gz3YHYmMU

What helps you to miss, he says, is to be distracted at the crucial second so thoroughly that you completely forget to hit the ground, and gravity, in turn, forgets about you. Adams’ protagonist, Arthur Dent, discovers the knack of it when, as he is being chased across the hellscape of a desolate planet by a vengeful creature he has karmically wronged, he suddenly, impossibly, catches sight of the tote bag he lost a decade earlier at the Athens airport, back on an Earth which no longer exists.

Today, for me, that glorious bit about flying applies to grief, and the avoidance thereof. Just when I was supposed to hit the ground, bottom out on loss after my dad died and my husband and I split, something came along that was so surprising, so compelling, that instead of smashing face-first into the dirt as was right and proper, I swooped up to dizzying heights, “bobbing and floating,” as Adams put it, “floating and bobbing.” I forgot the ground entirely.

It was amazing. I felt like I could soar forever, dizzyingly happy. I felt I’d got hold of something so giddy I could just spin with the air currents, and laze about on clouds, and laugh at earthbound mortals.

I tried really, really hard to ignore that this was, patently, impossible. Because the problem is, the minute you start to believe in gravity again, gravity believes in you. And you plummet back to earth.

Yeah, that happened.

So now I’ve finally taken the splat I should have taken two months ago. There’s dirt in my teeth, my elbows and knees are raw, rashy scabs, and the wind’s all knocked out of me. I have landed in an unfamiliar country and I don’t know the landmarks. I’m still feeling my limbs to make sure nothing’s broken, and I’m not 100% sure nothing is.

I’m angry at myself for taking this detour when what I needed was to slog through the grief like any sane human. Had I done so, by now I might be in a headspace to write the rest of my novel, or go on cautious, careful little coffee dates, laugh and pull rueful faces and enjoy twilight barbeques with friends on a long summer night.

Or maybe that’s not the way grief works. Maybe the mind, all mischief, deposits that bag you lost on holiday in Greece ten years ago – the bag filled with cracked sunglasses, and crusty swimsuits, and that tin of good olive oil you bought at the airport – onto the ruined wastelands of a planet on the opposite arm of the galaxy (and quite possibly in a parallel universe) from the place where you actually lost it, just at the moment when you’re about to crash-land astoundingly hard on the surface. Maybe it knows you can’t cope with the gravity of grief all in one go, and it gives you the gift of distraction so you’ll have a little respite, some hope, a glimmer of happy things to come.

For Arthur Dent, once he learned the knack of flying, he got better and better at it, until at will he could take to the skies. He learned to come down gently. He even taught his girlfriend Fenchurch the trick of it, and they had many pleasant adventures.

For me, right now in this winded moment, I fear I may never savor that sweet dizzying pleasure again. I may never achieve such another extraordinary uplift. I fear I’ll be this heavy-shod, earth-shackled creature forever.

But maybe, just maybe, when the time is at hand, I might step off exactly the right ledge, in just the right frame of mind, and find myself bobbing gently, tenderly, a few inches above the ground.

Willy-Nilly

1 Comment

I have been writing, I swear. It’s just that what comes out won’t please, won’t make you laugh and lollop with llamas and fit into the mold of lighthearted fiction. What I’m writing wakes me in the morning and makes my fingers fly, roars forth, rips tears from my makeup-from-the-night-before eyes.

I’m expelling, I’m sure. Vomiting forth grief, and shock, and bemusement and fear for the future. I thought this grief would be quick. I thought the horridness of my father would make for a smooth transition to fatherlessness. I thought the equanimity of my divorce, the already-deadness of the marriage would mean I wouldn’t feel the loss.

But I guess not.

Mother’s Day approaches, and I remember how Mom liked flowers as much as any woman, and probably more. How she’d point out every bulb bursting forth from every tree planter on our block from Third to Lexington, every first forsythia cascading yellow over the grey-brown walls of the Central Park transverses, and ooh over the roses in the Conservatory Gardens.

I thought I dispelled my grief for her over months and years and therapy and trips to Kripalu to cry and commiserate and breathe deep yoga-scented breaths. But by damn, a little dose of Mom would go down smooth right now.

What to do, Mom? Buy a house and settle here, alone? Make no sudden moves, stay in my less-than-special rental, or move back to the city you loved and a love of which you instilled in your kids ‘til neither of us could imagine an identity other than New Yorker?

I still get Dad’s subscription, forwarded on to Santa Fe with the rest of his estate-of mail. And I still let it pile up, too precious to dump, and only read it for the cartoons or not at all, shameful I know. I suspect the New Yorker is the most shame-inducing, least-read periodical of all time. Even you were backlogged three issues on the nightstand, Mom.

Anyhow, I thought I’d be better by now. Ready to date, ready to commit, ready to write lovely llamas and hot tub hippies and heroes with a twinkle in their eyes. And I’m trying, I’m doing it by drips and drabs, though damn the work is slow. Only forgive me, gentle folks, if I need a moment still to let the “what the FUCK?!” flow. I’m still in it, whether I wish or no. And I guess that’s how it’s gonna be a little while yet.

My friend Pam asked me to describe my writing process. At this moment I’m in my living process, and what I write won’t be bent to my will. It just needs release, so that’s what I’m doing, whether or not the rage and pain and sadness ever see the light of day. Bear with me, friends. The llamas will come.

Death, Divorce, and Moving… On?

1 Comment

Today would have been my mother’s seventy-fourth birthday, had she not died of pancreatic cancer three and a half years ago. Eight weeks ago, my father died of lung cancer at the age of seventy-six. And just under a month ago, my husband asked me for a divorce.

Last weekend, he moved the rest of his stuff out, leaving dents in the carpets where his bookshelves used to be, and deep grooves in my heart where the little, kindly routines of our lives were supposed to intersect.

I wake up wanting to tell him about that weird dream I had, or an idea for how to get the cat to stop drinking out of my bedside water glass… and I stop short, remembering.

Gone.

What do I do now with all the little in-jokes, the puns, the cutesy phrases I made up just to make him smile? How could I ever again look at the dedication page of BLISS, where I thanked him so effusively for being my partner, without feeling like a schmuck?

The reasons for the split are all valid, even if the timing was awful. But that doesn’t make my feelings now any less bewildered, my panic each morning when I wake up and realize I’m on my own diminish.  No mom, no dad, no emergency contact.

Just me.

Well, me and three cats who don’t care if their person is grieving.

You better get up NOW, two-legs, and put kibble in that-there bowl. Never mind that it’s 6am and you just got to sleep at 2.

So I’m sitting in what was supposed to be my dream life, kind of shell-shocked, trying to figure out how I’m ever going to feel joy again. Trying to understand where everything went so wrong, and knowing it wasn’t the fault of some mustachioed villain, unless you want to call life itself a villain. Trying to write a next chapter, literally as well as metaphorically, and failing utterly to imagine a happy ending.

I can’t control cancer. I can’t control other people’s behavior. And honestly, right now, I can only control mine about a third of the time. I sit down to write, and I just weep. I try to be graceful or gracious about the split, and I end up acting like a twit and saying passive-aggressive crap that purely appalls me even as I fail to rise above it. I put one foot in front of the other but half the time I’m drowning in quicksand no matter how furiously I slog on.

I see the daffodils in town begin to blossom and their yellow crowns make my heart clutch. My mom was a flower fanatic, and each year around her birthday when the forsythia and the tulips and the daffs and crocuses would reemerge, she’d gloat like she was personally responsible. I wonder what she would say to me now? I think she’d be mad that I’ve managed to alienate my handsome goyishe husband. Tsk her tongue at me for hiring an accountant to do the estate taxes instead of handling them on my own.

Would she be proud of me at all in this moment? I honestly can’t ever recall her saying such words to me. (It was always, “Oh, you got an article published in the Huffington Post? That’s great… but too bad they don’t pay!)

At least I know I’ve done as much as she could have, given the same circumstances, and that’ll have to suffice.

As for my dad… right now if illness hadn’t intervened, he’d be gearing up for April in Paris with his new girlfriend, planning to enjoy some good cheese and wine and art and hobble down the left bank best he could on gimpy legs.  Instead, the new, monogrammed Tumi suitcases he never got to use sit in my closet, waiting for my next venture.

Whatever that may be.

Why I haven’t written

Leave a comment

Why haven’t I written? The short answer is, my father died a few weeks ago. So I haven’t written any blog entries, twitticisms, or posted on my Facebook page.

I also haven’t worked on Book Two.

I haven’t written, I haven’t written, I haven’t written. I have had no desire to write. I have had no desire to do anything but eat cheese and watch bad television.

So, 5 pounds heavier and no lighter of heart, I sit here three and a half weeks after my father’s last breath, wondering who the hell I am and what the hell I want in the future. In a few months’ time I must decide whether to stick it out in Santa Fe another year, or move back to New York City, or find some other thing to do with my life and some other place to do it in.  In three months’ time I ought to be delivering a finished book to my publisher.

Shit, where’s that cheese?

I still feel overwhelmed, and underwhelmed, anything but whelm-whelmed. My relationship with my father was challenging, but now that he’s not here I feel so unmoored, yet so much more expected to be an adult, like a title magically conferred without any sort of education or preparation.

I fret that the history of our family, its identity, is in danger of vanishing, and my brother and I are its only witnesses, only carriers. Is it worth carrying? Ought it all to be forgotten? Does it make me a different person to no longer have this father, that mother?

What I know is that my heart is low, my interest in llamas and alpacas and charming little fictitious New Mexico towns is nil, and yet I have to get back to the business of life, preferably before I cause an international cheese shortage. I wish it were easy. I wish I could slide into the next phase of my life. But right now that’s not the case.

So bear with me. Happier updates to come.

PS – One bright spot: I can report that Dad’s two cats are settling happily into their new home in Seattle with a loving forever-guardian who will look after them well.