Boy, Were You Wrong

All through their childhood, there were days when you would hide in the bathroom or the bedroom and try to imagine the day when they were grown, out of the house, and no longer causing your ulcer to flare. When there would be just a moment of peace that didn’t end with a wail or a crash or a scream or a slam or a “MO-OOOOOM!”

You cannot imagine your life without them. You know they’ve only been here for a finite time, but it’s so hard to remember what life was like with just you and your spouse, when it was two against the world, and the future seemed so possible. 99.9% of the time, you thank god for the chance to know these beautiful children and you try your hardest to make sure they know how much they are loved. You realize that while you would gladly die to protect your spouse or your parents, you would gladly kill to protect your children—without a thought or a blink.

You can’t count the hours of sleep you’ve lost, or the meals you’ve missed, or the tears you’ve shed, or the words you’ve shouted, or clothes you’ve discarded because they no longer fit post-partum. You don’t know how you still have any teeth when you know how hard you’ve had to grit them to keep the angriest words inside, whether they’re trying to slip out in fury towards your child or their friend or their teacher or their ex-boyfriend. You really don’t try so hard on that last one, but you do try.

You wonder if you’ll ever actually see the floor in their bedroom again, or be able to fully close their closet doors, or drive anything other than a minivan, or ever not have chicken nuggets in your freezer and fruit roll-ups in your pantry. You’re amazed when you realize you are can throw around terms like pas de deux and bicycle kick and negative space and the infield fly rule, and actually know what you’re saying. You’ve gotten really good at gas chicken and can internally calculate the miles between home and school and soccer and dance and the gas station. You’re happy to know all those elementary and high school math skills are still buried somewhere in your brain, and even happier when you can shake them loose during homework time at the kitchen table. You thank god for Google when those skills appear to be forever lost to college happy hours or pre-partum all-inclusive romantic getaways to Cancun.

You’re overwhelmed with how much they rely on you until they hit third grade, then realize they’ve started pulling away sometime in the last year when you weren’t paying careful attention. You’re seeing evidence of the person they are becoming, not just your child, but a real, whole, independent person of their own. By the time they’re in high school, you’re starting to worry that you may actually get your wish for that quiet house. You find yourself having to grit your teeth more and more, because even though you have an abundance of advice to give, there is no one willing to listen, and you remember how you, yourself, preferred learning by doing. You thought it would get easier as they got older and less dependent and less time-consuming. You thought you were looking forward to the time they didn’t need you maybe quite so much.

Boy, were you wrong.

You start to realize that, while you will always be a mother, your time for being a parent is quickly coming to a close. All that time you spent pushing and prodding and teaching and explaining how to be responsible for your own actions is coming back to bite you. This is also about the time you start apologizing to your own mother daily, in your head and in your heart. Some of her pointed comments now make sense, the “I could’ve told you that” and the “but what do I know” and the “if you would’ve listened to me.” You remember thinking she just didn’t get it, and you now realize she got it all too well. You want to go back and ask her now, but you also want her to think of you as a competent adult. It will be years before you understand that she has always thought of you as that adult; she just wanted the chance to help you as your changing roles develop with age. It is when she is gone and just a memory that you wish with all your heart you could ask her some questions, maybe about a million, and wish you could curl up next to her and let her be your parent one more time.

Because once your children leave home for the first time, your role has changed. You can keep the label of ‘mother,’ but you have to set down the ‘parent’ one. If you’re lucky, you may be able to eventually replace it with the label of ‘friend.’  But first, they need to figure out how to be as independent as they think they are. They fall, and get up, and fall again, and get up again, and you sit to the side feeling every one of their hurts, wishing they would let you be a parent just one more time. Usually not, but you have to remember that you’re still their mother. So you’re there when they finally decide they need their mom, even just long enough to get back on their feet. Upright once again, they use those feet to keep walking further away. You try to remember they are not walking away from you, but to their own future. Your head may get it; your heart still remembers when they were your future. 

The years have slowly moved you from the center of their universe to the outside orbit of their life, and you didn’t quite fully get that your independence from their needs equated with their independence from yours.  You really do understand that this is the way it’s supposed to be; they have to be prepared to live without you in the same house so they can be prepared to live without you in the same world. You want them to carry on. You want them to be happy. You want them to have everything they need.

You just didn’t realize it would hurt so much. You thought childbirth was painful.

Boy, were you wrong.

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Guilt is Good When It’s Time to Sleep

Every now and then, I feel guilty for locking the cats out of my bedroom at night. Maybe I’ve been gone too long during the day, or for a weekend, or I’m going to bed almost as soon as I get home. They meow pitifully and wrap themselves around my legs and look at me with those dewy, kitty eyes and I cave. I leave the door cracked so they can come and go as they please.

What a mistake…that I won’t make again for a couple of months, like twelve. It’s been a while since the last time I felt this guilty, so I’ve conveniently (for them) forgotten why there is a no-cats-in-my-room-at-night rule. It doesn’t take long to remember.

Clint, the orange tabby, insists on being on top of me at all times, and likes sleeping as close to my nose as possible. If he has to climb onto my chest to do so, so be it. He also likes to be petted as he dozes, and uses his front still-with-claws feet to gently remind me…unless I try to ignore him and actually sleep, myself. Then he becomes not so gentle, snagging the nearest forearm to attempt to drag it to his head in a subtle hint. When I put my hands under the covers to avoid bloodshed, he resorts to rubbing his head on any part of my face that he can reach. These love rubs become increasingly aggressive until his teeth are scraping across my skin, probably his idea of a gentle warning. He’s the first one pushed off the bed.

Pooki, the grayish black memory-impaired cat, then takes his shot at being on the bed. He starts with these pathetic little mews and not-so-pathetic head butts into my arm, then my boob, and then my head. He will rub himself under my hand and will chase it under the covers if need be. If he can’t find my hand, any part of my body will do, and he starts rubbing along the entire length of one side of my body, mewing the whole time. He’s the second to be pushed from the bed. Pooki has accepted the limitations of bed-sleeping, and will jump back up at the end to curl up by my feet. It’s an acceptable compromise.

All is well for a couple of hours. Then, 10 Second Tom forgets the bed rules and the entire process starts all over. If the mewing directly into my ear doesn’t wake me up, the subsequent head butts will. The ones to the nose hurt the most. At the renewed commotion, Clint comes back to try his luck. Sometimes Clint avoids the rush and will climb back on the bed to begin Pooki’s bath time, which annoys Pooki, who then decides it must be playtime. So begins the growling and the rolling and the biting and neither one distinguishes between a feline appendage and my feet. There goes both from the bed again.

After several bouts of how-much-can-we-annoy-mom (which is a LOT), it starts to get light outside. Both cats decide it is now breakfast time and so it must be time for me to get up. Pooki tries the head-butting routine, which is never successful. Clint has always been more resourceful in his wake-up methods. First comes the sitting-by-my-head-and-staring contest. If that doesn’t do it, he’ll reach out one recently-been-in-the-litter-box paw and start tapping me on my cheek. The claws make a gradual appearance if I don’t take the bait. After he deftly avoids my flailing hand, he waits a bit before climbing delicately onto my chest so he can not-so-delicately begin kneading my boobs with his front claws. Once he gets back on the bed from where I’ve once again shoved him off, he tries one more time on my chest, but to purr in supplication for food…loudly. Initially, I forget the typical sequence and feel too guilty to push away a purring cat. As the purring gets louder and the cat creeps closer to my nose, I begin to recall this particular attack and no longer feel so guilty about pushing him off the bed again. Eventually, they give up and go looking for more agreeable amusement or the alarm goes off.

What kills me in all this “it’s breakfast time, get up” routine is that they have an AUTOMATIC FEEDER. There is ALWAYS food available on regular intervals, one of them being 6:15 am. When I do finally get up in the morning, they meander out to the other room, jump up to their feeder, and nibble. I have tried over and over to explain to them that I do NOT need to watch them eat. They disagree.

One night of these shenanigans and I remember why they are not allowed in my bedroom at night. I have no guilt shutting the door the next evening.

While this doesn’t completely deaden their attempts to interrupt my sleep during the night, it helps. With the door shut, they sit right outside, mewing or scratching gently until they are sure I’ve either died or crawled out the window and escaped. I have learned to ignore the various thumps and bumps and even crashes that occur on and off from beyond my door. If I go to investigate, they sneak into my room under cover of darkness and wait for me to get back in bed before attacking. Whatever has fallen can wait til morning to be picked up. I need sleep. When the door opens in the morning, they are both sitting right in front, patiently waiting for my arrival to observe their phenomenal eating skills.

I (mostly) love these critters during my awake hours. When I’m lying in bed, trying to avoid bleeding from their abundance of affection or listening to them destroy my house outside my bedroom door, I start to wonder about the sanity of adopting two cats. One wasn’t good enough. I thought two would be more apt to entertain themselves. I was so wrong. Two just means they are co-conspirators. I now realize I have adopted two very intelligent, sly, needy, furry toddlers.

I really should have just waited for grandchildren.

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Doors, cont.

When my daughter became a widow, I was shocked. I never expected to have so much in common with her so quickly. I lost my husband very unexpectedly after 23 years of marriage. She lost her husband after 3 months. Both passed in the same ward of the same hospital, ten years apart.

I started learning how much my daughter had hidden from me in the past decade, starting with her first husband and bleeding into her second. Her first husband was a high school sweetheart, and they’d been together for 13 years when he walked out. They started out young and in love, even if he was a little critical and never-wrong. They went off to college in another town together when he graduated a year after her, and she has never returned home. They lived together after two years of college, and she supported him for a year after she’d graduated and he went on to grad school. She had a terrible head for finance, and instead of helping her learn, as would any other dedicated partner, he simply walled “his” off from “hers.” He put off marriage for just over a decade, but finally caved when she  grew adamant. By this time, I was not his biggest fan or anywhere close. He was lazy and critical and cold towards her. She bent over backwards, then tucked and rolled when she fell over, and went right back to bending over backwards.

She was extremely jealous of any female presence in his life, which I didn’t really understand, because while he was a nice, funny guy to others, he wasn’t what I would consider “a catch.” I guess he just wasn’t “a catch” towards her. Seeing as how she’d inherited her jealous streak from me, I tried to counsel moderation. She didn’t listen. I wouldn’t have either while her dad was alive. I trusted him. I also thought he was pretty fantastic and just knew other women would figure that out and felt my jealousy would be justified. It never was.

I moved back to my home state just before they moved back here. Both found jobs quickly, his in marketing and hers in online writing. She bonded with one of his female coworkers over shared distaste and distrust of another of his women coworkers. Her new-found friend was newly married and fairly shy, and my daughter would consider it her duty to draw her out to a  more comfortable social presence. One December, my daughter and her husband drove up for Christmas dinner. She stayed the weekend; he went home the same day to work. When she got back that Sunday, he told her he was leaving. They were divorced in a matter of months, and he was in a public relationship with her “friend” from his work not long after. It’s anyone’s guess when the private relationship began. I now know her jealousy had some foundation.

It devastated her. He was her life. I was beyond furious on one hand at how he had hurt her. On the other hand, I was dancing a jig. She never would have left him…never. She needed to leave him years before, or he should have had the balls to admit he was no longer in love with her and at least forgone the wedding. He verbally corrected her constantly in public. He belittled her constantly in private. He ridiculed her writing, her job, her appearance. I was starting to see that my confident, outgoing high-schooler was now a self-conscious, anxiety-ridden woman with no self-esteem, a gigantic need for confirmation, and a habit for drinking.

As she could not live without male affection in her life, she immediately turned to a high school boyfriend who had moved back into town sometime in the year before all this happened. She had been head over heels for him; he had used her and then verbally put her down as he broke up with her to move on to his grand life in New York. He was off to be a great director; he was sure she would remain a small-town nobody for the rest of her life. I detested him then. I was no fonder of him now. They both knew it. It didn’t matter; she needed him to rebuild her heart and he needed her to rebuild his life. He came back just as pompous as ever, but with a cemented status as an active alcoholic. While he did appear to love her in his own way, it included a healthy dose of manipulation. She moved him into her house in January, regardless. I tried to bite my lip, and we grew even further apart.

She let me know they were getting married in September. I went, with my youngest and my sister. I was determined to be happy for her. They did seem so happy that day. She looked better than I had seen her in quite some time. Him, not so much. They came for Thanksgiving but didn’t stay long. I was surprised they even came.

Then came the late night phone call from the hospital in December. When I got up to the room, I was again in shock. He was in a coma. She was dirty and either drunk or hungover and babbling constantly. She was hearing music, at first, and then voices talking, and then voices saying terrible things to her. She had a seizure in his room and was taken to the ER. As she was coming back around, I had to explain why she was there, why her husband wasn’t, and why the hospital staff wouldn’t just let her get up and leave. She became very angry and said some very cruel things to me. Even the nurse was shocked and tried to steer her anger towards the hospital. I knew she had no idea what she was saying, and only got angry when she just wouldn’t shut up. I was still trying to process who this person was that used to be my daughter; the words coming out of her mouth were incidental.

He passed away the second morning, and I took her home. I actually bought her vodka on the way, as she said she really needed something to help her sleep. I wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to cause a scene in Walgreen’s. I’ll never forget her reasoning that “the 750 is a better deal here so let’s get that one, that way I won’t have to leave the house too soon.” Alarm bells that were already shrilling in my head just grew louder.  The mental and physical exhaustion just wanted to get her home so I could get some sleep.

Her house was a mess. The dog was a mess. She casually explained that she didn’t get around to cleaning because her husband wanted her to spend time with him when she was home, not working around the house. As we sat on the couch while she medicated herself towards sleep, the rest of the news started filtering out. He hadn’t worked for months. He’d been on house arrest for awhile. The car was wrecked. The key fob was broken. The staff at the ER knew them personally. It wasn’t unusual for the ambulance to be at their place to take him in. She drank right along with him so he wouldn’t have quite so much to drink. He’d gotten her to start smoking cigarettes a few months before. She didn’t have hot water. The boiler had stopped working that winter. The kitchen faucet was broken so no dishes were done. There were mice running anywhere they wanted. She hadn’t bathed in a while because she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stay upright that long. I could barely stand to sit on the couch.

I called my youngest then, due to exhaustion and shock, and some well-hidden idea that maybe I should be better functioning before I opened my mouth about any of this. She stayed the night, and I’ll never forgive myself for putting my youngest in that situation. It was a nightmare of a night, with my oldest drinking steadily, falling steadily, and eventually trying to push her sister out the door at 3:00 am because “You’re not my sister; you’re wearing her face but you’re not my sister. Who are you?”

My animosity towards her late husband grew daily. I felt nothing but sympathy for his family, especially his parents. I tried to feel both sympathy and empathy for my daughter, but I could feel nothing but relief, personally, that he was out of her life. The funeral was a place for her friends to reveal more and more of the hole in which she was literally drowning. I gave my phone number to her neighbor in case something happened. It was used several times. I met her coworkers, which was  helpful when I talked her into going into rehab about a month later. She had stopped drinking only because I got to her house at 10:30 one night in January. By the time she was admitted to the hospital the next day around 12:30 pm, she still blew over the legal limit on the breathalyzer. She was sweating vodka out of her pores. She stayed a week, came home to a house I had cleaned from top to bottom, and stayed sober for almost ten days. Then she took right back up from where she’d left, and lost her job.

As I said before, she never had a head for finances. Her dad and I supported her financially throughout college, and I continued after his death, partially due to guilt at being the parent that lived. Also, I just couldn’t let her drown if I could help it. We, then I, paid for college. I paid the odd bill here and there. I paid the house rent now and then. After her divorce, I paid the rent more often. After her husband’s death, I paid it even more. I bought her a car right after her dad died, then the uninsured car they wrecked, and at least had the presence of mind to take it back within days of his death. I started getting tickets from around the area where she worked, as she had never transferred the plates from the first car to the second, over a year prior.  Both her sister and I had been getting calls from collection agencies for years. They had quieted for awhile, but they returned with a vengeance.

I started attending Al-Anon meetings, sporadically.

I knew this problem was bigger than me, and I knew I couldn’t fix it for her or even help her fix it because she simply refused to listen to me. I learned one of the worst parts of having children was when you were still the mother but no longer the parent. I tried to accept that this was completely out of my hands, and I tried to practice detachment. I failed spectacularly.

Oh, I cut off the flow of money. I refused to buy cigarettes or alcohol, but I would get groceries when she needed them. I’d given the car back to her at one point, when she’d gotten a new job, but that was faltering, she had not insured it or gotten it registered in her name, so I took it back. I’d opened a joint checking account with her so she could have her paycheck deposited, and ended up closing that when the balance went negative. I stopped paying her rent. We communicated almost exclusively via FB messenger or text. This way, I couldn’t hear if she was drunk or hungover, and she couldn’t hear my anger or disappointment. I tried not to talk to her when she was drunk; she was rambling and irrational and mean. I would try to stay calm, but one barb too many would send me into overdrive. It was better not to talk at all. I sunk into a great depression that summer, and spent days on the couch in the same pajamas, only moving when I absolutely had to. I was sure I would be burying my daughter before the year was out. While my heart screamed I could never survive that, my head knew I would have no choice. I’d already done it once before.

Even though I was really bad at it, the little detachment I could manage did help. While I did pull out of my depression, my adrenaline spiked every time my phone dinged. She would cycle between sobriety and binge drinking. We rarely saw each other. She started dating almost as soon as she had hot water again, once I’d paid the bill. We had lunch on her birthday, where she detailed the three guys she was currently dating. Two were exactly her type: fun-loving and out for themselves, due to no fault of their own other than youth. The third was way too nice to be someone she would usually have chosen. I’m not sure how they actually started, but there was some part of her that felt pulled toward him. I silently, or maybe not so silently, cheered for him from the sidelines. The more time they spent together, the more I heard from her.

My husband had been a recovered alcoholic for 13 years. It saved our marriage. He started drinking “a little” right before his death. While it would eventually have become a big problem again (I have no doubt), I’m glad he had the chance to try it again before he passed. I would never begrudge him that. Had he lived, I would have drawn the line in the sand one more time. I lived with active alcoholism for eight years before his drying out. I knew the signs and the excuses. I knew the sleight of hand maneuvers and the subterfuge and the outright lies. I also knew the absolute transformation that occurred when he stopped drinking.

I have discussed all this with my daughter over and over. She insisted she wasn’t an alcoholic, and she couldn’t stand the thought of never, ever having another drink. She didn’t see the oxymoron-status of those statements. She got better at controlling it, but I knew it was a cycle, at best, until she admitted there was a problem. She has yet to admit it.

They are now exclusive, and I am starting to see glimpses of my daughter reappear. By last winter, they were moving in together, and she was finally getting out of the house from hell. By this summer, they were buying a house and planning for their future.

I am happy for her; I am happy for her chance at her own happiness. I am thrilled she has found someone who loves her and respects her and supports her for who she is. She is learning that she deserves that kind of man. There are doors opening for her right and left. She has choices upon choices upon choices.

I also know that not all doors lead to good things. Bad things know how to hide themselves very well until the last possible second, slamming their own door shut with you on the wrong side.

I also know those doors don’t usually lock. If you can’t get that one open, you can always look for another one. There are any number of entrances and exits along the paths of our life, but you have to be willing to look.  While I am really hoping that my daughter understands the power of looking, I am well aware of the doors along my own path. I have opened many right ones, and many wrong ones. I think I have more right ones opened at this point, but who knows?

My lesson appears to be, at this moment, learning that if I’m watching too closely which doors my daughter is contemplating, I run the risk of slamming my own hand in the wrong door. On the other hand, if I completely ignore which door my daughter is wandering through, it can be exhausting to be pulling frantically on that wrong door that’s trying to shut her in. I’m still going to be pulling on it, until it either shuts completely or I can drag her through it backwards.

As a mother, I know I’ll never stop watching. As a parent, I’d prefer to take the damn doors off their hinges and be done with it.

 

Doors

My oldest daughter  was once my only lifeline. When she was young, just before she turned four, she was the only reason I made any effort at all to remain sane. It seemed the older she got, the further away she went, until one day, she went away to college and never came back.

She was an almost-perfect baby. She slept when she was supposed to sleep and ate regularly and gurgled and babbled and smiled and giggled and was just the cutest thing most people had ever seen. We took her everywhere because she was so accommodating: to restaurants, to movie theaters, to motorcycle races. She saw it all.

The first seven years of my marriage were pretty volatile, and she was the solo observer for five of those years. She doesn’t remember much of that time, thank god, but I do. I still feel guilty about making her so much of the center of my life that she had to be the axle that kept us going. The months her dad and I were separated were hard, and I didn’t see him at all for that time. I was angry about that, but what made me absolutely livid was that he also didn’t see her during that time.  I have no poker face whatsoever, so everyone was very much aware of how I felt, including my daughter.

Somehow, we managed to somewhat reconcile our differences and add another daughter to our family at the same time.  It took another two years before our issues were completely laid to rest and we became a really solid family. She became her daddy’s princess and I think he spent years trying to make up for those four months of our separation and his voluntary silence.

She was razor smart and beautiful and creative and, luckily, had dad’s eye-hand coordination, so actually grew to like sports. She made friends easily and loved to play outside and had somehow started learning to keep her hurt inside where I couldn’t see. Her first 5-6 years of life had been so tightly entwined with mine, and everything we did was together. Now, she was creating a life separate from mine, and I was busy enough with her sister and just educated enough to know this was how it was supposed to happen, like it or not. We were still close, but suddenly there were doors that were shut to me.

We moved, and she had to learn to make new friends and find a new niche. She went into middle school, still smarter than most everyone else, and then learned what it meant to be smart at that age. Things started changing, and more doors started closing. Some things I could let go as a part of growing up. Others, not so much. Closed or not, I was going through those doors and we were going to deal with whatever was behind them. Sometimes, it worked, and she’d let go of that “friend” who did nothing but use her and make her miserable when I’d convinced her that she deserved better. Sometimes, it didn’t, and even though I opened that door, she’d immediately close the one behind it.

She was extremely, extremely, creative, and writing was her passion. When she discovered limited fame from blogging on the internet, she was hooked. It took many hours of me dogging her steps and censoring her writing to convince her that some things should remain private….or maybe just taught her how to be sneakier than I am crafty. For awhile, as soon as I found one TMI blog site and insisted she take it down, another went up before I even went to bed. The problem was, it was almost impossible to determine if what she was writing was truth or fiction. She was seamless in transition from one to the other. She was a phenomenal storyteller; I was just afraid of which parts of the stories were non-fiction.

At the same time in middle school, she discovered boys. It became imperative to her that she have a boyfriend. This emotional need, I am destroyed to say, has never abated in the two decades since its beginning. She cannot be without a male admirer in her life. I have been widowed for a decade and have yet to even attempt to date. Even married, her dad and I were still our separate individuals and that, I believe, is part of what has gotten me through the last twelve years. Her absolute emotional reliance on a man is foreign to me.

She met her first husband when she was seventeen and a senior in high school. They went to college together, and lived together, for the next 11 years. She wanted marriage in the worst way. He was content with their current arrangement. He was also an overbearing, never-wrong, critical, willing-to-let-her-support-him asshole, but that wasn’t how he started out. It really was love initially, but gradually devolved into a toxic environment where he destroyed her self-esteem piece by piece. They had a wedding when she finally insisted it happen, and I will never forgive him for that. He knew at that point he wasn’t sticking around for long, and it lasted two more years. He didn’t have enough of a backbone to tell her the truth before he lied over the vows. By the time he walked out, she was broken…and I didn’t know the extent yet.

She immediately turned to a high school boyfriend I had detested back then, and still didn’t like. He was freshly returned from New York, a place he’d run to after graduation, and after he’d raked her over the coals for being a small-town nobody who wouldn’t make anything of herself. He thought he was off to become a big-name producer. He came back a defeated alcoholic. He needed someone to take care of him, and she needed to take care of someone, because she refused to take care of herself. It was a match made in Hell, and the Devil moved into her rented house very quickly. 

He lost his job. He was arrested and wore an ankle bracelet. They wrecked the car. He was either drunk or in withdrawal. They became familiar to the staff at the emergency room and the ambulance drivers. They got married. She started smoking. They never stopped drinking. And I knew none of this until after he died.

My daughter had closed all doors to me about the time her first husband-to-be started nailing them shut on her. She never told me anything she endured, anything she mourned, anything she felt. She never told me anything. She used texting to keep the changes in her voice to herself. She instant-messaged so I couldn’t tell if she was drunk or hungover or tired or heartbroken. She only contacted me when she needed something, otherwise I was contacting her and she was replying via text.  I was dealing with my sudden widow-hood and a suicidal teen and I completely dropped the ball with her. I’ll never forgive myself, yet I still don’t know how I could have opened ANY of those doors. She had very good locks.

She finally opened one at 3:00 in the morning. When the phone rang in the middle of the night, I knew something was wrong. What other kinds of calls come at that time? When I got to the hospital, I was absolutely floored to see the state to which she had deteriorated, and to see her second husband in a coma in the same ward where her dad had died ten years earlier. It was a very long night into day into night into day. She was dirty, and scared, still somewhat drunk, and hearing voices. She had a seizure right in his room during the second night and ended up in the ER. It took almost an hour, me explaining why she was in the hospital to begin with and where her husband was, and her getting downright ugly with me before we were able to get back up to his room. He passed a few hours later, and all I felt was relief.

When I took her home, I started seeing what was behind all these doors she had closed on me. I was in shock. How had she gotten to this state without my knowing anything? I mean, I knew she was pulling away and not letting me in, but….this? She was an alcoholic. She chain-smoked. She didn’t eat. She didn’t clean. She didn’t bathe. She didn’t wash…anything. She didn’t throw out ANYTHING. I thought I walked into an episode of Hoarders for Beginners. I was appalled and sick and exhausted. I called my youngest to come sit with her and went home to sleep, and to process.

What happened next was the beginning of the worst living nightmare of my life. I had lived with an alcoholic for seven years. I had survived all the worry and pain and anger and fear that went with that relationship. We had worked it out, and laid our demons to rest. And here I was, opening a door to something worse than knowing your husband was an alcoholic. Something way, way worse. I wanted to slam that door shut and never go back, but when it’s your daughter…

I took a big breath and stepped inside. I have yet to find the door out on the other side. This nightmare is never-ending.

(To Be Continued)

Reflection of a Decade

On June 26, it was twelve years since I last saw Randy breathing. I’ve come a long way in my life since that day, although Grief does its best to dismantle everything I’ve done. It doesn’t get better or easier; it will never be better or easier that Randy is gone. It just becomes the New Normal. The pain has become a dull ache that sits in the corner of my heart and waits for the right moment to strike. I know I should expect it; I know it still happens at the odd moment. The mistake is forgetting it’s there. The forgetting just makes its reappearance all the more jarring, and no less painful.

Imagine being attached to a retractable leash, but free to roam anywhere you want, as far as you want, in any direction you want. The leash is invisible, and you can’t really see what it’s tethered to, so you tend to forget about it. You go about your daily life, being happy, or sad, or bored, or exhilarated, or expectant, or any number of ways that mean you’re alive. Except, at odd, unexpected times, that invisible leash snaps you off your feet and in the space of a heartbeat, you are a thousand miles away, curled in a fetal position from the intensity of your memories, wondering what the hell that was all about. After you’ve gotten your breath again, you dust yourself off, check for injuries, realize it’s just your heart that hurts, and continue on. Cautiously, you go back to making this new life, gaining courage and confidence the more space you put between you and the whatever-the-hell-THAT-was and…WHAM! There goes that damn leash again, snapping you right off your feet. It is unpredictable, it is fast, and it hurts.

I have learned quite a bit about myself in the years Randy has been gone, and about judging the people in my life. I have found out just how truly human we all are, no matter how hard we try to rise above that. We handle pain in so many different ways, and we should never assume someone’s pain is less just because they don’t wear it on their faces like a neon sign. Judging someone else’s journey is not only useless, it is monstrously egotistical, and while we are all harboring varying degrees of monstrous egos (because we are all human), we also each have our own invisible leash.

I remember when I was among the “newly widowed,” how I would look to those further out in the grief journey, needing to be sure I could survive this. I wanted assurances that I would be able to weather the absolute agony that my life had become, that there was a reason to keep breathing. Now that I am further out in the whole process, I avoid giving any advice to the newly widowed. I have no assurances to give, because I haven’t survived it yet. I am still surviving it, each and every day. I have no idea when it’s supposed to get easier or, god forbid, better, because it has only become different.

On the positive side, I no longer feel like The Only One. I don’t have that Why Me? feeling so much anymore, because there are too many versions of ‘Me’ I’ve met along the way to feel particularly special. I can think about Randy without doubling over in pain, and he’s no longer on that pedestal where I first planted him, on his way to heaven. I can remember his faults right along with his best qualities, knowing they all made the entire package, and I loved him just the way he was. The sharp pain of seeing married people, happy couples, intact families has lessened to a subtle twinge, and the selfish whine of “why not us?” has faded to a wistful sigh. It is what it is.

I did adjust to this new life. There were challenges I really liked, and memories that still give me secret smiles, and possibilities that I seriously want to explore. Somewhere along the line, I found that by pretending to be a positive person, I became more positive. By putting a daily smile on my face as the last act of a morning makeup routine, I started smiling more easily throughout the day, even when the makeup was gone. I returned to enjoying the speed of my thoughts and ideas zooming around inside my head, grabbing one as it flew by, releasing it back to the melee to chase after another. I always enjoyed the organized chaos of my mind, and I lost it there for quite some time. Thinking was not only a chore, it was painful, so I just didn’t do it. I once again enjoyed creating whole worlds in my imagination, and the possibilities of those worlds kept me moving forward. I found myself heading into the future with small steps, and then with longer strides. I am pleased to feel as though I’m actually finding my way through the new normal that is my life.

That is, until a certain memory intrudes at an unpredictable time, and the leash snaps.

Once again, I am back on the ground, bewildered and broken, wondering where the hell I am, and how I got here, and Where is Randy? The grief comes roaring back, consuming everything as it scours me with heat and fire. It takes my breath away, and it takes my thoughts away, and it tries to take my hope away. I have learned to stay curled up, protecting my heart from the fire, and just wait for it to burn itself out. It doesn’t take long these days; it is more of a flashfire than an inferno, but it still leaves scars. It still leaves me shaken and unsure in the immediate aftermath. It leaves me tentative, and I so detest the fact that it has once again taken some of my confidence and reduced it to ashes.

At one time, I was a self-confident, assured, whole person. I was married to a man that pushed me to be my best, who loved me despite my challenging ways, and who taught me to stand up for myself. For the first several years after his death, I felt like I was so much less. I had earned my confidence through life and love with him, by believing in him, and being amazed that he also believed in me. Without him, my confidence lost one of its architects. While I have built it back somewhat through determination and hard work, that damn leash takes its due each time it snaps. I try to believe in myself, but Randy is not here to believe in me, and so there is less mortar holding those bricks together. Grief crumbles another brick here or there, and I am more tentative, and I do not like it.

People would ask me “How are you? No, really, how are you?” The truth was, and still is, this: I am sad; I am happy. I am stuck; I am hopeful. I am bewildered; I am curious. I am tired; I am grateful. I am…me, whoever that has become, whoever that will be. My grief is never completely gone, but I have learned to build around it. It is what it is. I am what I am.

The only thing I know for absolute certainty is this: I really, really, hate that damn leash.

I Love My Daughter

I’m sure we’ll get into my journey with  my oldest daughter a little more later…I’m still recovering from last year and so is she, so we’ll just move on for now.

Suffice it to say, she is making better choices and turning her life around and I’m very, very proud of her. She found a good job WITH benefits, found a good guy that has some of the same qualities of her dad (FINALLY), and moved out of the House-of-Nothing-Good-Can-Come-Of-This in order to make a home with her boyfriend and his daughter.  The heights she has climbed in the last year would make any mountaineer dizzy. In order to accomplish that last part of her plan, I’ve been in possession of my Grand-pup since March. Buster’s a good dog—a spoiled dog, for sure—but a good dog. The problem is that he has two feline aunts that are NOT happy with his presence. It’s been a fur-filled–I mean, fun-filled–couple of months.

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Firstly, I obtained both cats from a cat rescue group and they are “special” in more than the loveable sense of the word. Clint, an orange tabby, has extreme social anxiety and an obsessive need to open doors/drawers. He spent every Sunday on display at Petco from 12 to 3, which in his  mind meant he stayed under the blanket in the corner of the cage until the madness ended. He spent the first week at my house in the laundry room in the basement, all of his own design. The only time he left that room was to climb up into the ceiling tiles and subsequently fall through the bathroom ceiling next door…only to streak right back into the laundry room. In his defense, I had two greyhounds at the time. Both were nothing more than couch ornaments, but he didn’t know that. Even after he acclimated to the house, to us, and to the dogs, he was a ghost whenever we had visitors. That cat has a bladder like no other, I swear. I wouldn’t see him for days.

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He has since become very comfortable at home, and even welcomes strangers very warily. Once he knows you’re not going to take him back to Petco, he’s all over you. He also regularly turns my bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen into a scene from Poltergeist. He’s obviously male because he never shuts the cabinet doors when he’s done doing…whatever. I have two very heavy, solid oak dressers. He opens these drawers any time he wants, in any order he wants, for however long he wants. I don’t know how he does it, but I’m not arm-wrestling him. I have no idea what he’s looking for, but he obviously hasn’t found it yet.

He’s also very, very needy. He will follow you from room to room, meowing loudly, only to trap you on the toilet or the couch or in bed, and begin aggressively rubbing his head all  over you. If that’s not doing it for him, he’ll grab your hand with his two front paws and determinedly drag it to his head in a not-so-subtle hint. His favorite perch is on your chest, as close to under your chin (or maybe over your nose?) as he can get, where he starts purring loud enough to drown out the TV or whoever is on the other end of the phone. If he feels his needs aren’t being met properly, he pouts like no one’s business.

My other special cat is Pooki, a blackish-grayish furball with a hint of tabby stripes underneath. There are no words to describe Pooki that fit as well as “Ten Second Tom.” His memory isn’t very long, or even present at all. In the beginning, if I left for a weekend, he would avoid me for days, giving me the evil eye and generally exuding “who the hell let YOU into this house??” Eventually, he would realize I was the one who knew where the food was kept, and all would go back to normal. He would walk across the top of my 40 inch TV, jumping lithely away as I  was screaming and grabbing for the swaying appliance. Then he would sit calmly to lick one paw and swipe it over his head, saunter back into the room and look at me like “What? What are you yelling at ME for? Here, you must be sad I haven’t sat in your lap recently. Let me rectify that right now.” After four years, it takes him hours instead of days to remember me. His best defense mechanism against his constant follies is to run three feet, drop to his side, and mew at you. I swear he does this because he’s completely forgotten what he’s just done, and since he doesn’t remember what he was just doing, a nap sounds good. He is also very needy, but prefers head-butting as hard as he can to rubbing and will at least settle next to me instead of trying to smother me.

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The one thing these cats do very well is play. They have mastered the ability to turn any area into a race track. If you happen to be anywhere near that course, you become part of the hazards-to-be-conquered. They are not lithe, silent predators during play either. They are lumbering, loud, novice Cirque de Soleil performers who have actually shaken the walls with their antics.  They race from room to room, tackle each other into rolling balls of fur, yell at the other for not playing fair, and see how high they can jump up the door jams in a can-you-top-this contest. They leave proof of the current record in the claw marks two-thirds the way up the door frame. Their favorite time to play is just after I’ve gone to bed. And their new favorite potential playmate is….my grandpup.

Buster trotted into my house with a “well, I guess I live here now so, here I come” attitude. He was very spoiled and assumed he had another territory to rule at will, which was his first mistake.  He’s met the cats before, on various brief holiday visits, but he preferred to pretend they didn’t exist and they preferred the same, so all was good. This time around, Clint still hid from him. Pooki, not remembering who the hell THIS was, stalked him from several feet away. Buster spent the first couple of days just trying to adjust to the fact that the bed was MINE and he didn’t get a treat after every bathroom trip and staring at me while I ate got him nothing but a squirt from the water bottle. Once he realized this was now home and not a vacation spa, he began to settle in. Once the cats realized this was now his home and he wasn’t leaving anytime soon, he became fair game.

Clint still prefers to ignore him, mainly, but will now and then take after him, puffy tail and all, just to remind him that both the water bowl and the at-home daughter are feline territory.

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Pooki is determined they will be playmates, no matter how often Buster vocally refutes it. Pooki sneaks up on him when Buster’s back is turned, and bats him on the head or hind end, whichever is closest. This scares the shit out of Buster, who immediately howls in terror and then turns to confront the intruder. Pooki interprets this as “the game is afoot” and bats at him again. This usually works with Clint, and starts the whole-house free-for-all. Buster is not Clint. Buster tried flight, so now he goes into fight mode and snaps at Pooki. Pooki takes umbrage at this and the claws come out. This is the point I am grabbing the water bottle and attempting to drown them both. This only happens, once, maybe twice, a day. Pooki is nothing if not persistent. Ok, and maybe a little dense. And forgetful.

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Over the last four months, I have learned to close my bathroom door whenever I’m not in it (Buster has a taste for whatever is in the trash), pull up my bed covers when I leave (he also subscribes to the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy when it comes to the no-dog-on-the-bed rule and I detest fur on my sheets although I still refuse to actually make the damn thing), keep the animals separated whenever I leave the house (which is how my bedroom now smells like “dog”), and keep the water bottle filled and within reach at all times. My cats are really good cats…mostly. Buster is a really good dog…mostly. All together, they are chaos.

It’s a good thing I really love my daughter. And my grandpup.

 

 

Everything is Relative

 

“Everything is relative in this world, where change alone endures.”

― Leon Trotsky

As a widow, one of my least favorite sayings is “you’re so strong.” I’ve heard it a lot since Randy died. It always confused me before it started to anger me. Strong? Because I can’t will myself to stop breathing? (Believe me, I tried—no luck.) Because there’s only so many days I can wear the same clothes before they crawl off to the washer, themselves? Because eventually I have to get out of bed to pee? Because once the fog cleared, I realized that the earth was still turning and my children were still here and that meant I still needed money and food and shelter and my job? I don’t consider that strong. I consider that life. You do what you gotta do.

I read something (on Facebook, surprisingly) about how people try to downplay their own pain, which hampers the grieving and the healing processes. It really spoke to me at that time, because I felt there were people in my family who didn’t quite get what it meant to be a widow and a mother, and expected far too much of me. Since I was raised to do what I should, it was hard to put my own needs in front of their expectations. While I may not have had the energy to live up to those expectations, I simply exchanged that for guilt at not being enough and anger at not being understood. Guilt and anger: what a lovely, isolating, self-destructive combination.

What I got from that article was this: everyone’s pain is relative, because everyone’s history is unique. What was my “worst” could pale in comparison to someone else’s “worst.” Conversely, someone else didn’t need to experience my “worst” to have their own version of “worst.” I have my unique moment that is the lowest point and others that represent the high end. It is my relative scale against which I gauge all other moments. It is ok for me to feel pain at my worst moments, even if I can objectively see that others have had moments that may be worse, because this is the bottom of MY scale. And it is ok for others to not quite get my own worst moment, because their scale may not go down that far. It doesn’t make their scale “less than” mine; it just means they have a different scope of experience.

I have always marginalized my own experiences. The bad is never as bad as others act like it is. I have the curious ability to pooh-pooh my own memories. I wouldn’t exactly call it sexual abuse by a neighbor’s son, but if it had happened to one of my kids, I’d be screaming sexual abuse. I definitely call it years of physical abuse from a sibling, but I survived it, so let’s move on. It’s an amusing story now about how I was left at a store when I was 4-5 years young as my parents continued with their Saturday errands and how I remember every second of searching the store and sitting in the window staring at the parking lot for an hour or two before their car raced back into view. I didn’t know it was ADD and just dealt with the “stop daydreaming” admonishments my entire life. I can laugh about being 6 or 7 and watching my dad steal a hubcap from a car in the bowling alley parking lot and then the harrowing ride home at speeds up to 70 mph on winding roads after a Friday night Men’s League (which meant lots of drinking on the Men’s part). I know I was leaning strongly towards alcoholism, myself, in college and have many, many things to regret there, but so do many others, right? That’s just college. And yes, I lived with an alcoholic for 7-8 years and dealt with car accidents and DUIs and screaming matches and separation and at least one incident I will never ever ever talk about, but he became a Recovered Alcoholic and things improved phenomenally for the next 13 years. He was everything I knew I would love about him after that and gave me a life & family I could only dream about before. So he started drinking right before he died, and we’d already had one major argument concerning the drinking, but I never got a chance to find out how that would play out because, well, he died suddenly. And yes, he and my heart died when he was 48 in the span of 3 days from leukemia. I’ve since met many widows/widowers with stories much sadder than mine. My experiences with childbirth may be others’ visions of hell, but they’re all I know about bringing my children into this world, and I wouldn’t begrudge their entrance for anything. My youngest may have spent 4 days in a psychiatric hospital and for years suffered from extreme anxiety and depression and bipolarism, but just look at her now. She’s healthy and happy and working full-time at a job she loves. And the oldest daughter distanced herself for over 10 years, just so I wouldn’t be able to see how her boyfriend/fiance/husband was whittling away her confidence and self-esteem. And I’ve had to watch her go through a divorce, a new romance with someone I really disliked, and then become a widow, herself, after less than a year of that marriage. And I had a ring-side seat as she descended into alcohol and depression and refused to let me be a parent again. And even though I jumped into that ring to battle it out more times than I can count, she has found her way back to life and love and I can breathe again. And yes, I packed up and moved across states to be closer to a family that never seemed to understand me, but I figured it out after 5 years and my mother’s death and moved back to my friends. And ok…it’s been 12 years and I have yet to work up the courage for even a first date in spite of the daily loneliness that permeates my life. I won’t even address the years of pain and “oh, you’re too young for that” related to arthritis and other health ailments, or the laundry list of surgeries to try to correct joint and stomach issues. Everyone’s life is tough. Suck it up and move on.

I don’t want people to think bad about people who I feel may have wronged me, because that’s just my opinion and I’m sure they had good reasons and I’m sure it’s not as bad as I remember and I’m sure I played a large part in what happened to me. Seriously, I am responsible for my own actions, and reactions, and the consequences of both.

I know what my worst moment is, and I can rate all the moments from that point up. It’s amazing how the “best” is not one single moment. “Best” appears to be relative, also, within my own experiences. There are moments that are “best” as a child, and “best” as a sibling, and “best” as a wife, and “best” as a mother of this child and then mother of that child, and “best” as a professional, and “best” as a friend. This scale appears to be an inverted triangle, with many points along the top of the scale whittling down to one single point at the bottom. I’m going to assume that means I have had more happiness than sadness, and so it is harder to pinpoint one single moment of extreme happiness.

I don’t consider myself stronger than the next person. I don’t consider myself weaker than another person. I only know that I have catalogued my worst moments and my best moments. As long as I’m breathing, I’m hoping the upper end of that inverted triangle continues to expand faster than the lower. I’m not strong. I’m just balancing as best I can, just like anyone else. After all, everything is relative, including triangles.