Friday, October 26, 2012

It Just Got All Serious Up In Here.

Here is a sample conversation I would have had with the kid last year right before one of her swim meets:

Kid: I'm nervous.
Me: Don't be nervous. Just go out and do your best. Your coaches want you guys to go out there and have fun and do your strokes right. You'll get beads for your swim chain if you do!
Kid: What if I don't win?
Me: Don't get too caught up in winning. Just see if you can get better times than last year. Remember, you're only competing with yourself.
Kid: I'm not nervous any more.
Me: Good! Now go kick some butt.

And here is the actual conversation I had with her before her first meet of the new season, also her first meet in her new age level with her new coach.

Kid: I'm nervous.
Me: Don't be nervous. Just go out and do your best. Try to have faster times than last year; that's all we ask.
Kid: That's not what Coach says.
Me: What does Coach say?
Kid: That we should go out and win our heats.
Me: Oh. Okay, then. Do what Coach says. It's about winning. Apparently.
Kid: I'm still nervous.
Me: Yeah. Me, too. Kick butt though, right?

It's a new game, you guys. And things just. Got. Serious.

It was a nice two years of award beads, encouragement, praise, "fun practices" where they played tag in the water as reward for surviving a swim meet, Halloween and Christmas parties, and lots of that self-esteem-raising "Every kid is special!" stuff. But Ainsley aged up over the summer and left the fun behind. Now the prizes are real and the points do matter. Yay?

Participation ribbons are a thing of the past. Welcome to the real world, kiddo. If you want a ribbon, you better touch the pad before the kid next to you. May the odds be ever in your favor.

This will be a new world for all of us. It will not just be an adjustment for the kid, but for us as well. Swim meets are not fun for parents, but for two seasons we could rest assured that we at least wouldn't have to stick around for finals. And the season would end earlier for us than for those poor suckers whose kids made state junior olympic cuts, who I am sure were super happy for their litle overachievers, but who always shuffled around every swim meet looking like zombies and who might as well have been pitching tents in the lobby of the natatorium for the hours they kept there. We had a nice existence of being able to show up at meets, cheer for a few hours, and still make it home in time for margaritas, waving excitedly to the zombie-parents as we left.

 I have a feeling those days are over. We've been bitten, and will soon run fevers, and then the zombies...they be us.

For our child still loves the water, even with a more serious coach and more serious expectations. She has risen to the challenge. I'm not bragging when I tell you she did shockingly well at this first meet, because everyone on her team did; nearly every girl in her new age group got within striking distance of a state J.O. cut, or heard her name out loud as a top-ten finisher, or walked out with at least one ribbon with a number on it instead of the word, "Participant." Between events, Ains studied heat sheets and time standards and lane placements as thoroughly as an Olympic color commentator. Not because that was part of her team expectations, but because she suddenly realized..."I'm kind of good at this." And without the help of any self-esteem chat, no words to the effect of "Everyone's a winner," she felt like a champion. Hard work pays off, kids. Who would have thought?

Last week, she told anyone who listened,

"I really, really, really want a Furby."

This week, she tells anyone who listens,

"I really, really, really want a J.O. cut. And a Furby."

By Christmas morning, I have a feeling both will be in her possession. And life as we know it will never be the same.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All Over Again

In case anyone was wondering, this whole grieving thing does get easier. Until suddenly it doesn't.

I should have seen what happened yesterday coming. Through the entire first week after Mom died, my sister and I searched for contact information for one of Mom's dear friends who we knew simply as "Donna." We could not remember a last name, but remembered that she had recently moved. We had both heard Mom say that their contact over the last couple of years, since Mom developed a boyfriend, had been limited to marathon phone conversations two or three times a year lasting upward of 3 hours. I hoped she read obituaries and would see the news of her friend that way, but after she didn't make an appearance at the funeral, I sort of forgot that we were supposed to be looking for her.

Turns out she found me.

While in the area for one of her foster kid's soccer games, she ran into a mutual acquaintance of my mother's. According to Donna, the conversation went like this:

"I've been trying to call Joan for months. I know she went to her boyfriend's a lot; did she move in with him? I really need to catch up with her."

"I don't know how to tell you this, but...Joan died in April."

And that's how someone who once called Mom her "Other Mother" found out she was gone.

Donna couldn't remember mine and my sister's married last names, either, but she found the obituary and did enough cyber-stalking to find me. So at 5:30pm yesterday I re-lived the pain of losing my mother all over again as someone she loved and who loved her had to hear it all from me for the first time.

Grief is a funny thing. Like all the oil that washed up in the Gulf oil spill, you might think you've got that mess all cleaned up, but then along comes a tropical storm and tar balls unearth themselves on your once-recovered beaches. Shit washes right back up on your shores, and you stand there, gritty and blackened, and realize the clean-up never, ever ends.

So many of the things Donna said to me over the phone took me right back to April 2nd, sitting in a quiet office in the hospice center, making phone calls to her closest family and friends before driving home and letting myself begin to grieve.

I loved her so much. I can't believe she's gone.

She was one of the most caring people I've ever known.

At least I know she's in a better place.

I'm sure you'll be fine. Joan always said you're the strong one.

A few minutes after we hung up, I didn't feel very strong. Jason came home, saw that I wasn't doing great, and offered to take me out for wings and beer.

"Good, because I don't think I can do this."

And by "this", I mostly meant the dinner I was half-heartedly starting to cook. But also "this" as in putting one foot in front of the other, keeping my chin up, and soldiering on. I'd been doing so well; for the last week or so, I've been feeling like maybe I turned a corner. Like I had moved from the darkest room of grieving into a place where I could see a little pre-dawn light in the eastern sky. Like maybe, just maybe, I could feel joy and hope and wholeness again. And yet some, if not all, of that progress came crashing down at my feet with one phone call. The person on the other end was living my mom's death right there in that moment; by proxy I was, too.

There will be other moments like this, I know. There's more tar beneath my feet, I can feel it. I will learn ways to cope over the years and as time goes on, maybe these storms won't make me feel quite so weathered and worn.

In the meantime, I guess Jason will just have to keep taking me out for beer and wings.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dear Class:

Dear Class of 1992:

Twenty years ago and some change, I stood in front of you as one of three valedictorians giving a three-part speech we wrote together called "The Three L's: Life, Laughter, and Love." I took the "love" chapter and cried a little at the end, just enough to make my voice break and embarrass my poor mother. All in all, I think it was a good speech we gave and we hit just the write chord between looking back in nostalgia and looking forward with anticipation. High off of achieving my dream and graduating at the top of my class, I filed past my classmates to go back to my seat.

"Who's that?" I heard someone whisper just as I walked by. And that was my first important real-world lesson: being one of the smartest people in the room sometimes doesn't mean squat.

This weekend you will be reuniting and celebrating twenty years out of high school. Some of you met the goals you set for yourselves that sunny day in June, 1992; some of you took a different path carved from disappointment and necessity. But the fact that you are able to dress up, drop your adult responsibilities for one night, and have a beverage or three with your former classmates is a good sign that you are at least a functional member of society. Congratulations! You're not dead, completely broke, or homeless. Success doesn't always mean a private jet and money hidden in the Caymans.

I am sad that I can't be there with you this year. I am the mother of a swimmer, and instead of toasting you I will be toasting in a heated natatorium having a nervous breakdown over whether or not my kid finds her way to the correct lane for the 100 IM. But I am lucky in that a few of you are close friends who I get to see or talk to whenever I want. And I am Facebook friends with enough of you to know who's gone crazy, and who's gained weight and who's lost weight, and who married well and who divorced well.

Even though I can't be there, I am sure you and I will share these two thoughts over the course of our Saturday evening:

1. I can't freaking believe I've been out of high-school twenty years; and
2. Beer is awesome.

If anyone were to wonder, "Whatever happened to that one girl? The one that ugly-cried during her speech?", here's what you should know.

I went to college, graduated, started a career, got married. Went back to college, got a job in a related field, moved back to northern Kentucky. Had a daughter, got cancer, beat cancer, did not beat the daughter. Yet, anyway; the teen years are still ahead, so there's always that possibility. Lost some people I loved, learned to hold on tight to the ones who are left. Started writing a little, discovered craft beer, became a founding member of a fake video-game-based rock band, found that I'm a pretty good cook. Travelled a teeny bit to locations mostly coastal, and plan to explore the world more. I live a fairly quiet, happy life, and though I'm not quite where I thought I would be when I stood in front of you, I have no valid complaints or regrets.
I finished my speech on love all those years ago with a quote from Les Miserables: "To love another person is to see the face of God." I am still moved by this line, and when I look at my child, I know that it is an absolute truth. But today I am going to leave you with another quote I've come to love from yet another musical (some things twenty years doesn't change.)

Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.

(From Wicked, by the way.)

I know you can't see me, but I might be crying a little.

So raise your glasses, class of 92. In twenty more years, who knows where this crazy roller coaster of life will have taken us. For some, sadly, all the way back to the station. But try not to think tonight about your eventual death, or the fact that our best years may be behind us, or that we are, oh yes we are, getting old. Eat, drink, and be merry. Enjoy one another's company. Change a life simply by being a friend. For, the three L's aside, that's really what it's all about.

That, and a good craft beer. Trust me on this one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


The following conversation took place in our house during a certain debate at a certain little college in Kentucky.

Ainsley: Why is Mommy hiding her eyes?
Me (from a fetal position on the couch, my voice muffled because my face is buried in my lap): I hate conflict!
Jason: I live in conflict every day at work.
Ainsley: Do I live in conflict?
Jason: In this house? Yes.

And then he looks at me and laughs, as if he has just said the funniest thing in the world.

Oh, it is on. You want conflict? I will so totally show you conflict.

(Actually, his hysterical-to-himself comment lingered with me for a while, and I realized I have been a little belligerent and hard-to-get-along-with of late [and by "of late" I mean for like, the past 20 years] and I have promised to be a kinder, gentler mother and wife. At least that's my promise for now. New promise next week when the shine wears off and I go back to being cranky.)

((And yes--I also hid my eyes for much of the most recent debate. For as much as I love to antagonize and verbally spar myself, I absolutely cannot stand to watch others do it. The only way I could ever moderate a debate would be if the candidates were okay with me asking questions while crouched under the table with my fingers in my ears during their responses.))

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Faking the Crazy

When I was ten years old, I was not a crazy person. But I occasionally played one in the grocery store.

It was partly boredom, partly a lack of parental supervision and oversight. Mostly, though, it was a way of strange and conscious rebellion. When I was in fifth grade, I became very aware that little about me was, technically, normal. My parents had just gotten back together after a separation that was supposed to fix everything but ultimately fixed nothing. I had become acutely aware that my father was an alcoholic who would probably never recover. I had also become conscious that I was different; most of the girls in my class were starting to look like pretty young ladies with maturing bodies and faces, while I had just acquired a mouthful of orthodontia and looked like this:

If you think that's bad, you should have seen me after my Christmas perm.

The weird thing was that, despite all this, I was a pretty happy kid. With low self-esteem and an occasional sense of impending doom, but overall I did not see myself as a victim or a problem child. And yet every time I accompanied Mom to an Al-Anon meeting, or every time I found myself watching an after-school special, I felt like I should be acting out. I should have been making bad grades, running around with the wrong crowd, cussing out my parents, and having local police know me by my first name. I wondered what that might be like.

One evening at our local Thriftway grocery store I decided to find out.

My father was an organized grocery shopper who went with a list and a budget and a sense of urgency. My mother was more of a boredom shopper who went with about a dozen items in mind but wandered the aisles for 2 hours looking for The Next Big Food Thing. When Mom dragged me to the store, I lost interest before we ever got to the pickle aisle (my mother spent a large portion of her 40s searching for the perfect bread and butter pickle. That was exactly as glamorous as it sounds.) So I often asked permission to roam on my own and browse for school supplies and cheap Wet 'n' Wild cosmetics.

On this one trip, I became annoyed at a family who seemed to always be in my way. It was a large family with a mom and dad and multiple children, and everywhere I turned, there they were, blocking me from the composition notebooks and index cards I liked to buy with my allowance money. Remember, I was going through a weird phase. In my annoyance, I started muttering under my breath. I was a little loud and got their attention. And I found I liked that.

I started lightly stalking them. And whenever I was near, I would mutter nonsensical things under my breath. I developed a dramatic tic of occasionally smacking myself in the forehead just hard enough to make a startling sound. My mother was way over in frozen foods at this point and had no idea I was putting on a veritable play over by the baked goods.

For my last act, I rushed up the aisle to get the jar of peanut butter I knew Mom had forgotten to grab. Just when I was in earshot of the family, I muttered just loudlyand menacingly enough that they would be able to make out the words:


They stepped aside and I hightailed it to the checkout to meet my mom. It was ridiculous, it was rude, and it was so unlike me that I just knew security was on its way.

It was also a surprisingly satisfying release from my usual straight-A, parent-pleasing self. 

Future trips yielded a host of different characters I would turn into. My right ankle is double-jointed and I can turn that foot almost all the way backwards, so on some trips I walked entire lengths of aisles with one foot facing forward and one facing back, limping dramatically. Other trips I pretended to be blind, staring straight ahead like the actress who played Mary on Little House On the Prairie and feeling around for just the right glass jar of mayonnaise to almost drop. Other trips I was deaf and used my slight knowledge of the sign alphabet to sign "Hello" to confused strangers. Because I loved Helen Keller and read every biography of her in my school library, I sometimes tried to be both. But that was mostly outside the range of my acting abilities. Patty Duke forever has my admiration for pulling that off.

My favorite part of the whole exercise was when it was time to meet up with my mother and all my physical and emotional ailments were cast aside like a New-Testament miracle. The same people who saw me limp, stagger, wander, mutter, and sign were aghast when I was returned to normalcy at my mother's side. I made sure to look them in the eye and return their quizzical looks. Nothing's the matter with me; what's the matter with YOU?

For the purpose of the game was not to to convince anyone I had a physical disability. The purpose was to come off as completely bat-shit crazy and troubled. In that, I succeeded.

Once I took the show on the road and carried my mini-rebellion outside the Thriftway, the jig was up.

On the way home from the grocery one afternoon, a pickup truck cut my mom off in traffic. She cussed quietly and I decided this was not enough punishment for the driver. At the next light, when we pulled up beside the truck, I put my face against the back passenger-side window, snarled, and raised my middle finger.

The truck began to follow us home and I realized, way too late, that the driver was one of our neighbors.

There was a meeting between my mother and neighbor in our front yard. I tried very hard to find a place to permanently hide inside the house. When Mom came in, she was madder at me than she had ever been in her entire life. Even madder than the time she had on full hair and makeup to go out with her girlfriends and started to run my bath water, only to find that I had pulled up on the button to turn the shower water on when she wasn't looking.

"What...the hell...were you THINKING?!"

"Um...I'm the troubled child of an alcoholic?"

That didn't go over nearly as well as you'd think.

I was punished, and talked to, and told to never, ever use anything happening at home as an excuse for bad behavior. Alcoholic or not, my parents had taught me better than that and if I ever tried to pull that again, they would openly call "Bullshit."

Chagrined, I never again faked the crazy in public. Though I have been sorely tempted.

Saturday afternoon grocery-shopping has become the bane of my existence. I am a misanthrope with depressive tendencies and mild anxiety issues; throw me into a crowded canned-goods aisle with a bunch of assholes on cell phones taking 10 minutes to decide between Red Gold and Hunt's diced tomatoes and I feel a little mania coming on. Sometimes those manic words muttered in a fit of meanness almost come bubbling back out. Though this time, I would mean them.


If only.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Take That, Soul.

Among the non-medicinal therapies my counselor and I are talking about to help me get through the Dark Forest of Depression is the idea that maybe I need a good cry. You know, one of those cries that flushes out all the toxic waste in your soul and allows sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns to prance their way back in.

Because I have wanted to retain my status in the family as The Strong One, She Who Gets Shit Done, I have not really allowed myself a good wallow in grief. I am supposed to use the next two weeks to entertain the idea of taking a one-day vacation from life to try to initiate a good sob session and/or temper tantrum and give myself the privacy and permission to just cry it out, bitches.

It is an appealing thought. However, Jason needs to play the role of jail guard and take away all sharp objects, shoe laces, and belts. Because while purposefully trying to make myself cry, there's always the chance that it will, you know, not end well. Though I think if I just stay away from the last episode of Lost, I'll be okay.

While pacing the floor Thursday evening trying to both pay attention and not pay attention to the Presidential debate (when I am emotionally unwell, my tendency to get embarrassed for people explodes, and I simply could not watch either candidate speak despite my intense desire to be able to understand all the jokes SNL will later make about them), I started to make a list of things I could watch or listen to that would bring on the tears. I started with the first thing that ever made me cry: Snoopy Come Home. When I saw that cartoon as a little girl, I scared the crap out of Mom when I began crying so hard that I got hives and ran a fever. True story.

By the end of making my list, I got the giggles. Some of the sad stuff out there is just so outrageously sad that it becomes funny when you pile it on. There must be evil geniuses out there who sit in an underground Tear Lab and think of ways to make grown people sob until the blood vessels in their eyes break.

And then, just to make it sadder, they throw in a dog. Because if you take a sad situation and add a dog, it multiplies the depressant factor by 30. Again, final episode of Lost.

So here it is: the things I will try to watch or listen to on a future date where I can try to wring the sadness out of my soul like wringing water out of a wash cloth.

Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." It's the music that plays during that one scene in Platoon. Yeah, that one.

Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, also called the Pathetique, also called "I wrote this symphony right before I died and right after I realized life might just be a hopeless mess you can't crawl out of."

The last ten minutes of To Kill a Mockingbird, from when Scout says, "Hey, Boo." I think we're supposed to be happy at that moment, but I just want to curl up in a ball every time, because o my God Boo is misunderstood, you guys, and saved their lives and will probably get the crap beaten out of him for sneaking out of his house after Scout walks him home.

When Debra Winger's character talks to her sons right before she dies in Terms of Endearment. Of course.

When Sally Field has her tearful, angry breakdown at Shelby's funeral in Steel Magnolias. Of course.

The episode of Party of Five where Charlie is supposed to marry Kirsten, but he gets cold feet, and then when he decides he's ready she decides it's too late, and when he tells her he still loves her she says, "Maybe you'll get over that." Gah. And then Bailey talks to Charlie after it's all over in a speech that boils down to, "Yeah, you screwed this up pretty bad...but you're still my brother, and I love you." Gah. And then Vincent runs out of the woods and curls up next to Matthew Fox so he doesn't die alone. Wait, I might not have that last part right.

When Billy dies on Ally McBeal.

The dog episode of Futurama, a show I never watch, but watched that one episode online thinking, "This can't be as sad as people are making it sound," and I was right, because it was sadder.

This song.

No, wait, this one.

Stop the presses--no, really, this time. It's this song. Here's a fun game with that one--try to guess where the song is going when the second verse starts and you catch on to the pattern. And just when you're rolling your eyes thinking, "Dear God, this country song is cheesy and predictable," your eyeballs will roll right out of your head because of excess moisture caused by a tear deluge. Because that stupid Vincent crawls right up next to Momma.

Wait, I don't think I have that last part right.

If any of this fails, I have a few less-worn and non-conventional rain makers. The Casino Night episode of The Office. (Damn you, Jim Halpert.) A video I have of Ainsley at around 18 months running around our house and blabbering in a way that's so adorable it makes my heart hurt. The Wizard-of-Oz-themed episode of Scrubs. (I have never seen The Wizard of Oz as remotely happy; there's no place like home, but there was no place like Oz, either, and the Scarecrow and Dorothy clearly had something special going on.) The card Scout's vet sent us after we put her to sleep that had a lock of her fur sewn inside and a post-mortem paw print. (That thing really, really should have come with a warning.) The mound of pictures we displayed at Mom's funeral, pictures which not only make me ache because so many show my Mom beautiful, young, and happy, but because so many of them show me beautiful, young, and happy and remind me that every day I'm a little older and a little closer to my own mortal end.

I've got lots of material to work with.

If you can bear it, feel free to join me. Let's do some soul-wringing. Either we'll all feel better afterwards, or we won't, and we'll have to be hospitalized. But we'll at least have heard some beautiful music, seen some fine acting, and watched network TV at its finest.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I hear a dog barking deep in the bamboo.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Just Keep Swimming. Or Sinking. Whatever.

I don't know how good of a job I've done of hiding it, but I am kind of a mess, y'all.

Any normal person would be having a hard time 6 months after losing their mom to a short and sudden battle with leukemia. So I know part of this is normal grieving. However, my emotions have never really been normal, and I have this long personal history with clinical depression, and there are days when I see myself circling the drain. I think what I have been feeling for the past several weeks goes beyond grief and into a dark path I've walked before. I recognize the decaying tree stumps and the gloom and the monsters hidden in coves and know exactly which Dark Forest I've wandered into.

Thankfully, I also know the way out.

Don't worry, I am dealing with it. I expect I will feel better soon. The descent of fall, starting a new school year after a summer where I really took it easy on myself, beginning the process of cleaning out my mother's house and all of her and my father's worldly possessions--all these things have messed with my brain chemicals enough that I have started to get the help I need.

It's just a matter of giving myself time to heal.

I think if I tried to keep writing at this time, it would be the same kind of gloomy posts I did there for a while about my childhood but which didn't seem to go over well. If you are one of the dozen or so people I think read this thing regularly, you probably want to hear me talk about funny stuff the kid has done, or some irritation I have with the world that I can write about in a snarky way, or a story about some stupid thing I did in college. But I don't have any of that in me. Not right now. And trying to find it takes more energy that I currently have.

I don't think I will ever stop writing. I enjoy it, even if no one reads it. But I might be taking yet another break, or I might start talking openly and honestly about clawing my way out of this most recent case of the deep, intense blues. Either way, fair warning. The road ahead is dark and dangerous.

But there is a light in the sky.