Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A moment of sincere (mostly) gratefulness.

Every year, despite the fact that I hate Thanksgiving (not the idea, but the execution), I like to pause and list some things here that I am thankful for. Because I think it's important to do that more than once a year, not just on that one day when some poor sap who drew the short straw has to work her butt off preparing a huge meal and cleaning up a huger mess and then sending everyone out the door with just enough goodwill to keep them from murdering someone in a Wal-Mart over a Black "Friday" deal on a TV made in a factory employing foreign children working for pennies an hour.


So here it is. What I am thankful for in the closing days of 2013.

That we sold my mother's house. And put that whole chapter of grief and "closure" in our rear view. Finally.
And that the young woman who bought it was happy with her purchase and did not ask if someone had died in the house.

Ten years cancer-free.
Technically, I'm cured now. Technically. My body, I think, knows this, and is just waiting for my brain to accept it and stop worrying so damn much.

A healthy daughter who is bright, kind, and the hardest-working kid in the pool at swim practices.
No matter what becomes of this "dedicate your late adolescence to the Swim Gods" thing we have going on, whether she pursues it in college or someday leaves it in her wake, she's learned a lesson about the value of hard work that I never could have taught her.

That, in a nation with an increasing wealth divide, I'm part of the few. The proud. The middle.
We're two employed people who live in a modest house in a safe neighborhood and, when we wish, can afford to buy the good beer. My thankfulness for this, and my awareness that it could all change in the blink of an economic downturn, cannot be overstated.

Not having to put my hand inside a turkey cavity at 6am on Thanksgiving day.
My sister and I are dining out, and one of Jason's sisters is doing the turkey for his family gathering later in the week, so I get the year off from fondling livers and giblets. Woot.

For the tall guy.
I'm sure it doesn't shock you to know that I'm not an easy person to live with. This year was worse than most; I spent too many free Sundays in my mother's house cleaning out 35 years worth of memories, and then came home with both literal and emotional baggage that made me weepy, angry, and a touch temperamental for days afterward. Thank God I have someone who puts up with me. And who has the good sense to know when I'm lingering on the ledge and calls me down for Dewey's Pizza and a Breaking Bad marathon.

That's it. What are you thankful for?

Now, go beat someone up for that TV. 'Tis the season!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Santa, The Boogeyman, and a Shooter On the Grassy Knoll

When I was eighteen, I believed in a much more interesting world.

Magic was real. Miracles happened. Aliens had crash-landed in the New Mexican desert and sometimes hovered their super-cool aircraft above populated areas.

And Lee Harvey Oswald was only a patsy in a vast conspiracy that took out a vibrant, charismatic leader.

These things were certainties. I knew them to be true in the same way I knew that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It never crossed my mind to doubt; I had seen evidence on the TV and in books. I was young, innocent, and impressionable. Anything that I couldn't grasp in the context of what little experience I had gathered in my short time on earth had to have a dramatic, if not otherworldly, explanation.

Then life happened.

The girl who sat enthralled by her high-school government teacher's unit on the Kennedy assassination and possible Cuba/mob/CIA connections, who wrote a 5-paragraph persuasive essay that Oswald was not the only person with a gun trained on the President that afternoon in November, who believed that a dark contingent in our own government wanted this man out of the way due to a cold war agenda, is now a woman who no longer believes in fairy tales. A woman who watched the towers fall because a handful of men successfully hijacked commercial jetliners in a plan that should have gone wrong. A woman who learned first-hand how fragile life is and how easily it can be taken from even the most youthful and vigorous among us.

On this, the 50th anniversary of the "Where were you when..." moment of the generation before mine, even the teacher who taught me so much about that day is gone. Good men are taken every day by illness, by accident, by bullet, by cruel act of terrorism. It doesn't take a conspiracy. Sometimes it's just a tragic alignment of the stars that places a person in the wrong place at the wrongest of times.

So, at 39, I no longer believe a well-trained, well-camouflaged government agent fired the fatal head shot from the grassy knoll. Though we will probably never know if someone in a position of power encouraged an angry, unstable young man to head up to the book depository that day, I no longer believe it matters. I believe that Oswald sighted the President through his scope and pulled the trigger. And that's the part of this tragedy that really matters. That decision in that moment contains all the blame and all the tragedy of this murder most foul that we ever need to know.

As unfair as it seems, the power of one person to do evil can change the world. And take away a father, a husband, a leader of a great nation. I understand the need for so many to see conspiracy; it's comforting to think that it takes a tangled web of organization, coercion, and cover-up to kill a man who was larger than life. That a single person can't possibly bring a nation to grief.

But a single person can.

I have made peace with the lone gunman. For there is a flip side:

One bad human in the right place at the right time can create tragedy. But one good human in that same place and time can stop it. If you believe the one, you have to believe the other.

And, in the immortal words of Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

When I Fall

I've been thinking a lot about fathers and daughters.

It started when the kid tackled her dad last night as soon as he walked in the door from work. Before he could even put all of his stuff down, she grabbed him from behind and wrapped her arms around his waist in a ferocious and genuine display of affection. It was such a moment of pure adoration that I had to turn away; my heart hurt to see it.

I'd always heard about the special bond between fathers and daughters, but didn't really get to experience it myself. At least, not while I was a child. Just when my father and I began to truly know and appreciate each other, and just when we began to see the world from the other's point of view, I lost him.

In the years after I lost him, and especially after I lost my mom, I had moments of revisionist history where I could only see the good in my parents. Ask me about them, and they had suddenly ascended into sainthood.

But I also had moments of intense anger where I blamed them for how screwed up, to put it delicately, my sister and I are in our own distinct and colorful ways. They were both severely dysfunctional people who didn't always put forth a great deal of effort to live normal lives, and a lot of that crazy rubbed off on their children.

It doesn't help that my father was really two different people, and my memories are colored either "good" or "bad" depending on whether it involved "Sober Dad" or "Drunk Dad." I'd like to think that had "Sober Dad" been the only one I'd known, our story would have ended very differently. And more peppered with stories of me tackling him as soon as he got home from work.

I believe this is how it would have been. I do. Because no matter what, my dad was ready to catch me when I fell.

One night when I was very young, not even in school yet, I was awakened by a horrifying nightmare. A cartoon bear had appeared in the window above my bed, and as I struggled against the awareness that it was just a dream, I saw its massive claw break through the wall and reach to pull me out of my cozy bed.

I screamed a scream that my mother remembered and talked about for years. A scream that made her knees weak in the tub of warm water she was soaking in and made her not immediately able to stand up to see what was killing me.

Still screaming, I tore back my covers and took off out of my room and down the hall so quickly that my dad hadn't even gotten out of the living room yet. I found him in front of the couch, crouched, both arms open. It was the position you assume when you are about to catch something vaguely the size of a small human. I didn't stop until I was safe in his arms.

"Someone in the window!" I said. I have no idea why I said that. It had been a something, not a someone. And I had dreamed it. And it was wearing a hat.

My father's protective instincts and adrenaline in full force, he so aggressively took off out of the front door in search of the assumed peeping Tom that he ripped the nail clean off of his left middle finger. By the time he searched the yard, my mother had removed herself from the bathtub and learned that it was not so much a person I saw as Smoky the Bear.

We laughed about it later. Not at the time. But later.

My mother would always remember how Dad tried so hard to protect us that he painfully injured himself. I would always remember the pose he struck--part Johnny Bench, part firefighter catching a kitten falling from a tree.

I would see the pose one more time. This time I was an adult, living at home (but not for much longer; Jason had put a ring on it), finishing up my first year of teaching. I was experiencing a bout of the worst insomnia of my life and had taken a dose of melatonin given to me by my future mother-in-law. It was a Sunday night, and as we always did that year on Sunday nights, my parents and I were watching a rerun of Cheers. I felt a tickle on my bare leg and looked down to see a rather large, black, hairy spider on my leg.

I screamed loudly. And stood up and shook all my limbs in the most frenzied Hoky-Poky of my life.

And as soon as I starting shaking, my father got up off the couch, crouched, and held out his arms to me.

After the pandemonium had passed, after the spider was searched and destroyed and a Silkwood shower taken to remove all the spider cooties, I had to ask my dad a question.

"Why did you get up and hold your arms out when I screamed? What did you think was wrong?"

He puffed on his cigarette for a long moment. "You had just taken one of those sleeping pills, and you've never taken one before. I thought you were having a reaction. A seizure or something." Another puff. "I thought I might need to catch you."

That was the last time my father physically caught me. But he saved my ass from hitting the ground in other ways. When I was in grad school and my car needed a new transmission. When a long lapse between pay periods while Jason was still in school and I was working at EKU threatened to keep us from buying groceries during the holidays. When I was going through cancer treatment and taking unpaid days off from work.

And every time he wrote me one of those checks, turning the money over without a lecture or reproach, knowing that I would be good to my word and pay him back, I saw the same picture in my brain--my dad, arms out, keeping me from hitting the ground.

For that is at the heart of every decent father-daughter relationship. And what makes them so special. Even with his faults, I knew, deep down, that my father would always catch me. It's what the good ones do. And as much as 50% of the time, he was one of the good ones.

(That sounds sad and self-pitying, but it's not. I work in education. Some kids' dads don't even break into the double digits.)

All this to say that I understand why my daughter adores her father. Why she throws her arms around him so unabashedly.

A mother's job is to raise her daughter up as high as she can go.

A father's job is stand beneath, crouched, arms outstretched, waiting. Just in case.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

But that's so much less interesting than my ghost theory.

When my mother started having what she called her "spells," I, of course, started to have them too. I've never been one to let a loved one suffer a medical condition on their own.

When I first experienced the same strange and horrifying nocturnal freak-outs my mother had been complaining of there in our little one-bedroom apartment in Knox County during our lost year, I knew that this was different from the time my sister broke her foot and I developed a limp. This was no sympathy pain or attention-seeking behavior. My mother, for once, took me seriously. And it was decided.

The only logical explanation for what we were experiencing was supernatural. Possibly demonic. Either we were being haunted, or our souls were leaving our bodies nightly. The light of day always made this sound ridiculous and we smiled and shook our heads and made jokes.

But when it happened to us at 3am, it was no joke.

Upon our return back to northern Kentucky, Mom went through a battery of tests. She wore a heart monitor for a month, submitted to a stress test, had a brain scan, and spoke to someone who I think may have been a psychologist. All was normal. Our old family doctor shrugged it off, and as the years went on we had fewer of these episodes. Though they did not go away entirely. Since it's rare to have one of these episodes now, years have gone by since I last thought about them. Until I read an offhand comment left on my favorite blog last week, and I realized what so terrified my mother and me has a scientific, medical name.

Sleep paralysis.

Basically, it's a moment of mental wakefulness but physical paralysis early in the sleep cycle. You have all the crazy brain activity and dreaming of REM without being fully asleep. You also have the physical paralysis associated with REM sleep, which doesn't bother you so much when you're deep in slumber.

It bothers you a lot when you're not in slumber and are hallucinating that there's a demon in the corner of your room.

Trying to give myself a good scare on Halloween, I read the comments section of a blog post where readers were asked to talk about the most terrifying thing they had personally experienced. One responder mentioned sleep paralysis and the hallucinations that come with it. I gasped.

So that's what that was. Huh.

Further research reveals that some people feel a presence pushing them down into their mattresses. Other people feel themselves levitate. Still others see nightmare creatures that, of course, aren't really there. My mother and I experienced all three.

The worst was always the nightmare creatures.

Mom frequently sensed a dark male presence just at the foot of her bed and once saw horns sticking out of the shadowy figure's head. I usually saw ordinary objects transform into terrible apparitions.

The first time I experienced what I now know was sleep paralysis, I was snuggled with Annette, my knock-off homemade Cabbage Patch doll, sewn by a friend of my mother's to tide me over until the real thing was easily available and affordable. I relaxed under the covers and in a lightning flash felt the world shift. There was a buzzing noise inside my head. My eyes were transfixed on Annette and I realized I couldn't look away. I couldn't move my eyes, or my head, or my limbs. I willed myself to scream but could not. Annette's face then began to change, turning monstrous and evil and alive. You know the clown in Poltergeist? Annette became that clown. And I was powerless to escape.

I know, right?

Having a name for this still doesn't explain a few things about it. Why, for instance, my mother and I suddenly started having them at the same time. And why any time we travelled together after I reached adulthood I would have a "spell." The last one I remember having, in fact, was one of the last times we went to Barbourville together and shared a guest room. In that one, I hallucinated that she morphed into your traditional large-eyed, oval-headed, pale-skinned Roswell-ish alien.

When I was finally able to move, I woke her up screaming, "Your face is white! Your face is white!"

We had a good laugh the next morning over coffee. I can't say she found it as funny that night.

Like many that have these, I've found ways to get myself back to reality-world when in the grips of an episode. Knowing that what I'm seeing (probably) isn't real helps bring me fully awake, as does concentrating on one body part that I'm trying to make move. If I can move a finger, I can break out of it. As a tired mom, I sometimes just will my eyes closed and hope for the best.

On rare occasions, though, I still freak out whoever happens to be sharing a bed with me by watching his face turn into a monster's and screaming myself awake. What can I say, it makes the hubby's life more interesting. Fall asleep next to me and expect the unexpected.

Now, at least, one of my problems has a name that isn't "crazy" or "mildly possessed." I'll sleep better at night.

Or not. But either way, I'll know any clowns I see in my bed are hallucinations.

(Insert joke here.)