Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Days After Another Shooting (Or Life Goes On, Until It Doesn't)

"Mom, why are you yelling at me?" he asks.
"I don't know. Why are you yelling at me?" I return.
"I'm not," he sulks.
"I'm not, either," I snap.

We are both lying, and we know it.


I have never missed my mother more than I do right now.


This is how it's supposed to go, they say. You and your child fight so that it's easier to separate when the time comes. I thought I would buck this particular trend.

It's dreary to be so predictable, and so often.


Meanwhile, my friends, online and off, squabble about the issues of the day. This week: Gun control. I am for it. Full stop. Those that do not participate in the squabbling are facing serious life crises - psychological, physical, what have you. The downside to my having made so many friends through blogging is that there are always some struggling, and I tend to take on others' pain, which is not a healthy characteristic, but in forty-seven years I haven't been able to change it, so let's face it: the outsized empathy, it's here to stay.


My college alumni magazine arrives, and I flip first to the obituaries. Today I asked my husband whether he knew of any people in his college class who have died, not from accidents but from middle-aged maladies like heart attack or stroke. "No," he shrugged, and then smiled. "Maybe I'll be the first?" We joke like that, he and I.


I am not supposed to write posts like this, scattered. It's out of fashion, lazy, in bad form. I ask: What if my thoughts are exactly as scattered as my form?


I am tired. I would talk a walk in the woods, but it's raining, and the rain is not supposed to let up anytime soon. Instead I eat until my stomach hurts. I can't seem to hear the satiety signal through all this noise.


Don't worry about me. If you do I will react with anger, the reaction you least expect and deserve. Worry about the people who have good reason to be hurting. Me? I am one of the lucky ones.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In the Thick of It

Lately there is something very wrong with me. I suspect that the diagnosis is parenting a high school senior. I was foolish to anticipate myself a parent who would navigate a child's leaving for college with relative grace and equanimity.

How else but by this diagnosis can I explain the near crippling anxiety I am feeling this year? I have not even begun to consider the financial implications of sending a child to university. The numbers petrify me. A complicated family arrangement means that I have some assets in another state, but they are not liquid, and I don't know how to declare or otherwise deal with them, so I procrastinate. And I procrastinate. In this I am not unlike my senior.

Money or its lack aside, because I've pushed it away, I watch the stress worm its way across my senior's face: the winnowing down of a bigger list of schools into a smaller list of schools, the teacher recommendations, transcript requests, the score reporting, the organizational finesse (never his strong suit, organization) required to handle the logistics of all this on top of enrollment in several AP courses (his choice, not mine). I want to cry for him, and for me.

Mostly, though, I want to take my son by the hand and ask him if he wants to play with Legos. Or maybe have a mid-morning snack. Followed by a blessedly long nap. And this time around I will take my nap when he takes his.


I don't need advice. This is hard, and I understand the reasons why. Here, consider this: I am in the unenviable position of nagging my kid to complete paperwork the goal of which is to remove him as an occupant of our home. Then ask yourself: Is it any wonder that I can't quite catch my breath? Yes, the diagnosis is clear. And the treatment, well, I suppose that's clear enough, too. The treatment is time. Try as I might, I cannot view this year as anything other than a year to be endured, which layered on top of the anxiety makes me grieve, for the year that might have been, the year that was, if only in my imagination.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

For Stacy, A Promise

There was this woman whose wit balanced on the sharpest part of the razor, every time. I should have remembered that comedians are the saddest among us, but I did not. I was too busy smiling.

There was this woman who was about as beautiful as anyone can be. She was thin, and elegant, and she had high cheekbones and large doe-like eyes. I should have remembered that her hurdles were no lower than mine, that her loveliness did not spare her from psychic pain any more than my ordinary looks spare me. Instead, I assumed that her life was cushioned in ways mine is not, and, if I felt anything, I felt envy.

There was this woman who could write devilishly funny, and sad, but mostly funny, because that's where she staked her claim. I laughed, and because I laughed, and the world felt just fine while I was laughing, I decided that her world must feel just fine.

There was this woman who was alive, but now is not. And while I was a friend of hers, I was never a close friend -- so although I missed many of her distress calls, I will not take that on, because I had not communicated with her in a long time, and because God knows she would not want me to take that on.

But. I will be more careful with those I love. I will try to read between the lines they speak and read into the lines written in their faces. I will probe for sadness, check to see if its flames are licking at the bottoms of curtains. No longer will I stop at "I'm fine." I will reject the stock answer.


And my taking an extra step, or ten? Stacy, that is on you. Because if you could fall between the cracks, surely anyone can.

I can't bring you back, but maybe I can help someone else stay here a little longer. Maybe I can remember not to assume anything about anyone, especially when the content of the assumption concerns the private places and spaces where sadness takes root.

I think you'd like that.

Stacy Lyn Campbell, 6/22/77-9/16/15


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 1-800-SUICIDE

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

That Time When Anything Might Have Happened

When I was very young, young enough to be entranced by Sesame Street, I was riveted by a baker, a white-coated man in a tall, poofy baker's hat, who would descend some steps while carrying one (1!), two (2!), three (3!), four (4!), or more cakes, pies, or other sweets and end up falling in a spectacular and messy way. Every time. Still, I imagined that on the particular Tuesday or Friday when I happened to be watching Sesame Street, he might finally manage to make it all the way down the stairs, elaborate cake intact. It seemed to me likely enough that it could happen differently and work out better for the hapless baker. It's why, years later, this is the bit from Sesame Street that I have carried with me. 


Adults lose this, the capacity for magical thinking, which is the province most exclusively of the uneducated mind, the mind of the noble savage, as 18th century writers and thinkers spun it. Magical thinking is why childhood is at once so wonderful and so fraught: anything might happen. One's father might come back from the remote, untamed land of divorce. One's mother might stop yelling and start parenting. Images might leap off the pages of books and into one's bedroom, fictional characters might come to life to be arranged like one's dolls. Puff the Magic Dragon might not end up abandoned by his once young friend who outgrows childish things. The Giving Tree might get back more than it ever gave.


A friend of mine just moved to San Francisco. Living in a Victorian house with multiple apartments, one per floor, she had decided that getting used to her upstairs neighbor's heavy footfalls might be the price one paid for living in a world-class city. But the other day the neighbors seemed uncommonly loud, and she began to wonder what the hell they were doing. Dancing? Moving furniture?

Later she realized that her neighbors had been up to nothing nefarious or celebratory; instead, she had been experiencing an earthquake.I expect that she will file this experience into her new normal. She will do what an adult does, make sense of the event, when it recurs, by drawing upon her reason.


Childhood's ways of seeing are so privileged, and so distant to adults. Once that door is shut, it remains so, and only mental illness or extraordinary circumstance can pry it open.

Today is my mother's seventy-ninth birthday. (Can it still be said to be a birthday of a person who is no longer alive to celebrate it? I don't know. I do know that I would like to see her, or at least to call her, to wish her a lovely birthday, to find out what her plans are for the day, and to tell her about my summer of change and growth and perhaps even solicit her support as I face a doctor's appointment today.)

No longer a child I cannot muster the creative capacity to imagine her at seventy-nine, voice graveled with age. I cannot quite manage to play our putative conversation in my head; what's more I cannot snap my fingers and convert her into someone who would be able to offer support of another person, especially on her own birthday, which for her would be cause for sadness much more than for its opposite.

And that exotic land my father traveled to? Now I know it was only Washington, DC, just as I am certain that the Sesame Street baker will never escape the loss of his magnificent desserts, and his dignity.

But I am also certain that his treats could never have tasted as transcendent as they looked.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Their Bodies, Themselves

Eight looks down at his legs, made pale and shimmery by the bath water. He frowns. “See my legs, here?” he asks. And he points to his thighs, squeezes a bit of flesh. “I do see them,” I say.

“They are fat,” he pronounces, certain as a policeman who stands, arms crossed, at your car door and waits while you rummage through your things for your license.

I protest. “They are not. At the doctor’s you’re always in the fiftieth percentile for weight — just where you should be.”

Eight looks up at me. Wet, he seems far younger than eight years old. I see traces of a boy in a bath seat, a boy chortling as he swipes at the bubbles in the water. But when I flash to his eyes, I see a sorrow all grown up. He doesn’t believe me.

Now he’s patting his stomach. “What’s a six-pack, exactly?” he demands. “And how can I get one?”


I was eight, too, when I first started worrying about my thighs. I was spending a couple of weeks with my father and his wife. It was summer, shorts weather. One day my father chuckled a little, and remarked, apropos of nothing, “Wherever did you get those thighs, Sarah Bear? They certainly didn’t come from your mother.”

Ouch. For the rest of the summer I studied my thighs whenever I was sitting. My father, I decided, had been correct. My thighs were like tree trunks, thick and solid, and completely out of proportion to my stick-like lower legs.

Back at home I told my mother that my thighs were too big. She scoffed, told me that they were perfect, that I was perfect. But I looked at her rail-thin legs, and I wondered. Her words fell flat against the evidence before me.


When I bore first one boy child, and then another, I mourned the girl child I would never have. But I was comforted by the fact that there were certain parenting challenges I’d never have to face — among them girl-on-girl cattiness and body image issues.

The last few months have given the lie to my beliefs about gendered behavior in childhood.

And now I mourn anew to find that all children lose faith, somewhere along the line and through some provocation or other, in the beauty of the human form. These legs of ours, they take us places, show us the world. They enable us, and ask so little in return. They are an incredible gift.

When I looked down at Eight’s legs in the bath, I saw him running, biking, playing soccer. I saw grace and wonder there.

Why couldn’t he?

written in 2010

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Word 'Settling' Is a Most Wonderful Contronym

I have spent too little time alone. I dove straight into a serious relationship in college, which lasted through college and beyond it by three years. Four months after a messy, awful end to that relationship, I met my husband. And here we are, just after our twentieth wedding anniversary.

Although the psychological reasons for my choosing as I did make sense, I don't recommend my course. Living alone, being alone, at least for a time, is important. How better to learn that you are your most reliable and steadfast companion? How better to discover that you are strong and whole?


Oh do I ever adore my husband and children. But when we are out and about, it is more and more seeming as if there are two units: the three males, and I. On vacation, every choice that's made to accommodate all four of us is a compromise. Nothing wrong with that, you say. And there isn't, except that in the compromising we risk missing the thing that might have changed our lives.


When I started blogging, some of you might remember, I was slouching towards forty. Now I am slouching towards fifty. My forties were about laying bare my past in order to overcome it. I am freer now, to say what I mean and to be the self I always was, underneath a shell formed and deformed by sadness, anger, and fear.

What I am seeing now is that my fifties are going to be about saying yes to those experiences and people that enrich me. They are going to be about me, not in the trite and narcissistic seventies sense, but in the sense that I have this one life, and I am going to use it wisely.

I will go to the beach and dig my toes into wet sand. I will race into the cold Atlantic and shiver with shocked exhilaration. I will travel, oh yes I will travel. I will not mind others seeing me in a bathing suit, no matter what the state of my body. I will try new foods. I will not return to my hotel room after dinner. I will stay out as late as I want. I will spend as long as I want at museums, bookstores, libraries, parks.

And I will do some or all of these things alone, if need be, not even slightly disappointed to do so. I like my own company, and I have earned it.

I will talk to strangers, those friends I have not yet met.


At a restaurant in a different city my family and I spy a man wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the university at which my husband is a professor. Joking, my husband turns to me, says, "Go see if we know him, Sarah." "OK," I agree, as if he hadn't been joking, and I start to rise out of my chair. "No!" my teens cry in tandem, united in this, if nothing else. "You can't, Mom," they plead. "That would be so embarrassing." My husband smirks. I look from one to another of these faces I love, and I choose to defer, this time, to the thought of their pain. 

Later, as we leave the restaurant, my older son leans into me and offers his thanks, adding, "You know why."

I smile. I am happy to spare embarrassment. But my smile lasts longer than one would expect, and if you were to look closely, you would see a secret playing across my face:

It will not be long before I am talking to all the strangers. No, not long now.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Saving My Mother, Saving Myself

On the Friday morning before she suffered a stroke, a catastrophic one that would not kill her straight off but lead to nine months of agony, her own and our entire family's, before grace finally arrived to slow and then stop the beating of her heart -- on that Friday morning in September, my mother and I argued.

It was an argument ostensibly about my upcoming vacation. On the phone with me she'd wondered why I never invited her on my trips with my husband and children. "Well," I hesitated, wanting to be diplomatic, "it would be odd for my husband, no? To have his mother-in-law along on his vacation?"

"I don't know," she snapped. "Your grandmother always came with us on our vacations."

"Right, Mom," I sighed. "But that was different, wasn't it? That was you, Mum [my grandmother], Daniel [my brother], and I. There was no husband, no father."

"I guess," she sulked, and said nothing further, except, "I have to go now."



My mother, married for all of five minutes, never learned much about the accommodations husbands and wives must make for each other. She never learned much about marriage in general, and she certainly did not learn about the ways, often tricky, sometimes downright unpleasant, that a marriage is sustained over the long haul.

But my mother's and my disagreement hadn't been about marriage, or vacations, and I knew it. She was really telling me that she was lonely and depressed. I also knew that. But I had never been able to help her climb out of her sadness, much as I'd tried. She would come to visit me and end up angry about something insignificant, finally insisting that she needed to go home -- immediately and with no regard for anyone else's schedule. Or I would go to visit her and end up spending all my time alone, because she found it excruciating to socialize, even with me, her daughter. Or perhaps I should amend that: her depression found it excruciating to socialize.

She refused to consider therapy, psychosocial or even pharmacological. "Those pills will cloud my brain, Sarah," she'd say. Unspoken but understood was that my mother's brain, it was exceptional. I countered by asking her what good such an exceptional brain was doing her while she lay in bed sleeping seventeen hours out of every twenty-four.

No, I did not say that. But I thought it, and I did argue strenuously in support of antidepressants.

She never did take them.


For quite a few years after she died, I replayed our final pre-stroke conversation, willing it to end differently, better. Because sometime during the weekend after our argument, she had a stroke, and no one knew it until Monday morning when her housekeeper showed up. Had I not been so frustrated by our telephone conversation, I would have called her on Saturday, and again on Sunday, and not hearing an answer I might have grown concerned and asked my brother to check on her.

Instead, I remember feeling just so tired of fighting with her. I remember deciding to take the weekend off from her long-standing unhappiness and my futile cheerleading efforts.

It was the wrong weekend to take off, although only with hindsight could I know it.


Things happened as they happened. If I did feel sorrow about how everything unfolded, about my role in it, I do not now.

I spent my entire life - yes, even including my childhood - up until 2009 trying to keep my mother alive. Today I choose to believe that without me, she would not have lived nearly as long as she did.

It's a reframing that benefits me, as it should. Because it is the truth, and as it's wont to do, it has set me free. I have won a victory: I did not save my mother, but I have saved myself.