Thursday, April 27, 2006

Death Takes No Holidays

This writing's a mess, but I'm tired of working on it.

There are certain themes to a person's life - tendencies, patterns, inclinations. Some of them are self-created and some regularly delivered, like the newspaper, or the mice your cat brings as affectionate offerings. Sometimes the events in your life form in unfortunate clusters - like jury duty three times in five years, or a string of mechanical failures. First the dryer goes, then the engine block cracks, computer crashes, and every time you turn the toggle on a lamp, the light bulb burns out.

I have an inexplicable history with Death and Loss. These are facts about which I have no difficulty speaking, and yet the prospect of a written record is a cumbersome task. I neither feel victimized, nor am I cut off from my feelings. Emotion is not a discrete world for me. It's not a question of residual emotion or sorrow, necessarily. It might be that growing up in a largely secular culture, and one lacking helpful grief rituals in place, one is left largely alone to deal with loss. Suffer and be still. People just don't know how to help you. Everyone wishes the problem away. So how to tell it?

My inability to write well about it may be sourced in this, too - perhaps it's simply that it revives a long period of chaos and calamity; a period when I glazed over a bit. So, even though my memory of it is clear, I can't formulate the idea of what it means. Not really. It was all too big.

For a long time, the statistics of my loss were overwhelming to me. There are plenty of people who have suffered more, but odds are against one person nearly losing nearly everyone. I have in the past felt rather paralyzed with fear, and as a child I literally felt I might be cursed. Someone recently personified Death as a robber to me, I think rightly so. Death is a thief for those left behind.

I've covered my grandmother's suicide attempt, the disappearance of my siblings, the two divorces, a boy I had just started dating in college who died in a car crash, and the death of one of my closest friends just five years ago. What I haven't discussed, and I wonder at the wisdom of saying anything at all, is the period of my adolescence. Maybe this is something to be laid out like a timeline, we'll call it "Major Disruptions in the Life of an American Teenager." Any conclusions or interpretations about what this means for me will probably have to be left for a different time.

Seventh grade, Spring. My step-father takes all of my school savings, landing himself in divorce court. The consequence to me is the loss of place at my private school for the Freshman year of high school. That is huge, as it was my place of refuge.

While in eighth grade, living with my mother and her temporarily lesbian sister (the lover of whom is terminal with cancer, and spends some weeks with us as she ails), my father gets it in his fool DT-lusional head that he should somehow legally bar contact between my aunt and myself. This comes as a major threat, for I think she is the person I love the most in all the world. I don't know if he had a leg to stand on, but it puts the big fear into our household, and disturbs me enough that I refuse to speak to him anymore.

Holiday Season, Freshman year of high school - My aunt has abandoned her relationship with the woman to remarry her second husband. It's not really working out so well, and a week before Christmas, she OD's on prescription drugs, while his three children are in the house, putting her in a coma for at least a week. I am devastated by her cruel and selfish disregard for the kids, this woman who force fed me morality. Our relationship is shattered; I feel personally abandoned by her decision to give up on her life. Later in life I will develop some compassion for the kind of suffering that leads to such choices, but I am fourteen at the time, and that is no time at all.

Summer, post-Freshman year - Two days before my 15th birthday, my father lapses into a coma, brought on by cirrhosis of the liver and kidneys. I go the hospital, our first reunion since I exiled him, and it will only be to say 'goodbye.' His body is badly bloated and jaundiced, yellowed like the acid of cheap paper. My birthday comes, and two days later he passes. The funeral at the Vet graveyard is the first time I see my sisters in years; they refuse to come to the memorial service or to our house after for "refreshments." My mother picks Pachelbel's cannon for the service, a mundane choice really, as evidenced by the fact that I will have to hear that tune perpetually afterwards. There is an insurance policy pay out, which puts me back in my private school for the rest of high school. This is a major blessing.

Six Months Later, Sophomore Year - It concerns my uncle, Brian, first husband to my aunt, a lively and brilliant psychiatric doctor, who was a concert level pianist, lively wit, and genuinely sweet man. In 1974, Milos Forman and crew went on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental asylum, to shoot One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Brian, a staff doctor, befriends Jack, and they get to carousing and, no doubt, skirt-chasing in and about Salem and Portland. Jack gets him a bit part in the film as one of his own shrinks. His one line is, "A rolling stone gathers no moss." Many years later, when I am fifteen, Brian meets his end at the hands of one of his patients, left waiting and unattended in his office. The ill man wrenches a leg off a chair, which he uses to bludgeon my uncle to death. It is all over the local and national news, and they show his cameo each time the story is aired. I refuse to go to the funeral, a fact which enrages my aunt. I can't articulate the why not of my decision, but I am completely numb to it by this time.

Summer, Post Sophomore Year - My ass gets sent to therapy, by some very good friends of the family. Within a couple of months, my therapist will determine that my mother is unfit, and suggests that, if I've some place safe to go, I should leave home. I "run away" to live with my emotional benefactors, right as my Junior years begins. While my mother is at work, I pack my things and leave. I cannot recall if I left her a note or a phone message, but it will be awhile before we speak, and nine months before I return. My aunt is consistently unsupportive of my decision, as she will be throughout my young life. Her disapproval is rooted in her belief that "family is the most important thing."

November, Junior Year - My mother's father, after drunkenly running his propane delivery truck up through a fence and up on some lady's lawn, takes his life in the family camper with a shotgun, Ernest Hemingway style. Despite the estrangement with my mother, I agree to travel with her and my aunt to Wichita, to help clean out the house of personal effects. We work for several days. I am angered by the fact that my mother will really give me nothing of his as a keepsake, except for a silver bolla pin of a bronze bas relief cowboy, breaking in a pony. It is mine because nobody really wanted it. My aunt and I go into the chapel to see his body laid out, a fact which greatly distresses my mother. His head is wrapped entirely in gauze, making it twice as large as normal. Covered this way, he is impossible to discover; the body could be anyone's. I can't see why everybody in my family gives up. I don't understand why they don't love me enough to stick around.

Spring, Junior year - My art teacher, she and her commonlaw husband are favorite instructors of mine, falls ill with cancer. She will die within a year, and I will remain close to him for years after.

On May 12th, several kids from our rival school go up to Mt. Hood for a traditional school trip. The mountain climbers are lost in an unexpected storm, and three days pass before all the students are found; we spent many evenings waiting with groups of students from OES, hoping for good news. Ultimately, nine students and the Reverend who leads them, freeze to death. One of them is the brother of a childhood friend. When the rescue crews finally find and are able to get into the snow cave, eight remain inside the cave, barely alive, so frozen the paramedics can't get intravenous lines under their skin. Ultimately, two are found alive, probably because they laid one atop the other. One of them is a girl I've known since grade school. Then there are weeks of waiting to see if they will pull through. There is a large memorial service at the Episcopalian church that the student bodies of both schools attend. We invite them to all our parties, we share with them our prom. It is an intense time of taking care of other people in their grief. Eventually, after six weeks Brinton pulls through with some nerve damage, Giles loses both his legs. We remain tied to them throughout the coming Senior year.

Senior year - Fairly uneventful for my family, a welcome respite. I have returned home. One day I catch my mother in something I won't talk about here. Though I say nothing, she won't speak to me for a week. Then we go to therapy together, where I confront her. She denies everything, and won't talk to me for two more. Overall, I'm doing well. My grades are good, I win some writing awards, I get into a great school with a great big financial aid package. All I can think of is that I'm about to escape. To honor my achievements, I am given an hours long intervention with my aunt and the woman who recently housed me for almost a year, both of whom are high school teacher. They tell me I am being terribly unfair to my mother, to ask for help paying an Ivy League education. I wonder what all the years of intensive education were for, exactly. Perhaps I should go enroll at the Junior College? On the bright side, boys who aren't at least five years older are finally starting to pay attention, though I don't really have a first boyfriend until Spring.

Summer, post Senior year - My mother accidentally electrocutes herself. I am afternoon napping in my attic room, my friend Charlie does the same on our living room sofa. I am awakened to the sounds a dog makes after being hit - it's a gruesome moan. I worry for a second, that it might be human. What if someone's been attacked? What can I do about it? I snap out of my debate and run downstairs past Charlie, who is still sipping the waters of Lethe, and out the front door. My mother is clutching an electrical cord in one hand and pliers in the other, flattened out on the grass. She is flopping about, there is no delicate way to put this, so I'll put it as my aunt did, "not unlike a carp on the lawn." I run to her, then back inside to unplug her. She says that by the time I reached her, she was losing consciousness.

Freshman year, First Semester - I break up with my high school boyfriend. We are fully in love, but he is a year younger, and left behind in Portland. He is torturing me for it. I don't know how to handle my immense fear of all the changes happening in my life and take care of him. In a couple of months, he will send me a letter, a "suicide note." About how he wants to die so much he has been going through the motions of it. His sister had tried and failed a year or so before. It's a thing the family has kept from him, but that he already knew. This is a source of his despair. I left him, this is another. I call his father, the Rabbi, something I am utterly terrified to do. I felt he should know.

Two weeks before finals, my mother phones and tells me she wants to put my dog to sleep. I've had this dog since I was five and a half. When I was fourteen, we moved to a new house, and my mother decides that after nine years, Amber will now be an outdoor dog. She is not allowed in the house. The damp winters are hard on her, and are making her arthritis worse. My mother thinks she must be put down. I argue with her with a force I rarely exhibit, and buy just enough time to get home for winter break. Just to see my dog one last time. My mother will have a new indoor Golden Retriever within the year.

I am coming unglued. I cannot study, I cannot concentrate. I go to Psych Services, tell them about my suicidal ex-boyfriend, tell them about this particular history in my family. At the end of the session, the counselor says to me, "Well you seem to be handling this all very well, what do you hope to get out of this? I mean, I can give you a referral, if you want." I stare at her in stunned silence, then excuse myself. I take incompletes I will never amend; I ditch a final.

Christmas Break, Freshman year - I am back home. My mother kills my dog. I resume therapy with my God-given psychologist of two and half years. She tells me that this will be our final session, she is terminally ill, this woman who has been like a mother to me. She asks me not to let the occasion of her death, which comes the following September, be an excuse to give up on my own life. I cannot help but think that my world has been reduced to a joke in a Woody Allen movie. Whose therapist dies?

I had another therapist, after college, who urged me to write my memoirs. I guess it was because she couldn't quite account for why I wasn't crazy. Actually, what she said was, she didn't know why I wasn't "locked-up somewhere." But she assured me repeatedly that I was not, in fact crazy, just grief-stricken. "You have an extraordinary constitution, you are well socialized, you try as hard as you can to do the right thing, but you are depressed." She convinces me to take medication for two years, an idea to which I am strongly opposed, because I don't want to rely on substances to fix my problems. Her rationale is that I have spent a lifetime in pain, I am conscientious and good-natured, but there is no value now to my suffering. I am not learning anything new, I simply suffer. Under her guidance, I get well again. Later on, a regular yoga practice smoothes the residual rough edges, and leaves me brighter and happier than ever. As for the memoirs, I thought it ludicrous on three primary counts - 1) I felt absurdly young to presume such a venture. 2) No matter how "deserved," I didn't want to publicly skewer my mother (a bit guilty of that already, although what I've said is mild compared to the actual history). 3) I wanted first to be able to write a happy ending. Nobody really needs stories without some kind of redemption.

So why write it now? I'm not sure, except that it is making me write. I am finally gravitating back towards the things I love with discipline and commitment. I don't have so much trouble committing myself to others so much as I do to me. Maybe it's because I'm no longer sad. Maybe it's just time. If there is someone, somewhere, that it will help, that would be reason enough. Whatever the reason, I'm tired of justifying my every move. It wants out, perhaps to clear the way for other stories, better stories to tell. They need the room.

1 comment:

kissyface said...

the following comments (along with the original posting), were removed then reinstated by me, for personal reasons.

Sgt. Aytch said...

It makes me very happy to see people who, battered by so many personal storms, emerge from them with that kind of commitment and optimism. My personal trials, while not so wide-ranging as yours, put me through several months of counseling two years ago.

I had a tendency to bottle everything up, especially during my father's long fight with liver cancer. Long story short, I had mended fences with him only a couple of years before he was diagnosed, and sadly the times we got along best were his six years of steady decline, and I felt robbed. After he passed I could no longer pen in everything that had been held in and I could not function. My work performance went down the tubes, I ended a cherished three-year relationship, and I ended up in counseling while the rest of my unit deployed. The psychiatrist put me on a course of journal-keeping and expression, and I emerged with an ability to finally let things go vice holding everything in only to blow up calamitously at intervals. Seems to have worked for the last couple of years.
7:29 PM

Anonymous said...

your life so far = John Irving Novel
8:16 PM

GrizzBabe said...

Whew. You have lived a thousand lives in one lifetime. And you have lived to tell the story. That's a good thing.
8:58 PM