birds and water

When my mom died I went to work the next day because I had just started a new job and didn’t know their policies or what people normally do or anything. I put on headphones so people wouldn’t talk to me but I couldn’t handle any emotional triggers brought on even by seemingly benign songs, so I listened to this instead. All day:

I share it with you now in case it helps.

Advertisements

you were there, but you weren’t

hello

Throughout my childhood, when seeing a place in a movie or hearing mention of it in a newspaper or news clip, there was a constant litany: you were there. It wouldn’t matter if I had been ten years old or three or a newborn; the reminder would come. Always from my father, and always with the implied expectation, sometimes joking but mostly not, that some place memory, some shred of the experience, would remain. Somehow.

I’m sure most parents attempt to do this once or twice at least. I can’t imagine how it feels to hear that so much of your shared life together — moments you congratulated yourself on being able to achieve, for your child, whether that was a first sight of the ocean or a first trip to an amusement park — is, in fact, forgotten.

Actually, well, I can imagine it, too well, but that’s not where I wish to go today.

But I bring it up because, above and beyond parental reminders, there is another far more benign source of chronological insistence we encounter every so often: the age at which whatever alcohol you are drinking was bottled, casked or distilled. For much of my alcohol-drinking life (I know, I know, I am a late bloomer in all things: I never snuck a drop of anything, and reviled what I was given to try at holidays, until well past most people had had their first headsplitting hangover) the years meant little to me. Namely because, if a date even appeared on the bottle or the menu, it was at most maybe two or three years ago, a time which blurred into the stress or college or post-college Trying To Make Ends Meet which, in large part, lacked definition.

This whisky, though, pictured above in my incredibly classy Daiso mug? This whisky was bottled in 1998. 1998. That is a year I remember. A year when I was an actual child, versus the child people say they were when they were teenagers or in college — old enough, in so many ways, to know better, even if not about the things on which their adult selves will judge them. No, in 1998 I was:

  • Two years into well and truly disliking school, having loved it up until the fifth grade when we moved to a prestigious and self-righteously competitive school district that sucked most of the joy out of being a kid among other kids,
  • Two years into having a dog, and realizing that yes, they can tell when you care about too many other things besides them, and thus that our dog was in fact my father’s dog more than anyone else’s, and that was okay because I loved her anyway,
  • Tasked, for the first time, with not crying in the face of a parent’s undoing, as my father broke down trying to read, at his mother’s funeral, from the Northwest Passage, which she’d read to him as he lay abed with scarlet fever as a child,
  • Three years out, still, from being shadowed in some form, and from organizing everything (lampooned though the practice is and probably will be, now, until something worse happens) into a pre- and post- attack landscape, geopolitically but also internally,
  • Terrible at choosing friends, since my latest attempt had resulted in a girl writing my name on an orange and throwing it into her fireplace, to see if I would die a slow and horrid death as per the curse in a book she’d found prescribed,
  • Entranced at the swift advance from the MUDs I’d played for the previous few years to their visual successor, EverQuest,
  • Reading every Steinbeck book but Tortilla Flats, because, like how I next to never finish a TV series, I prefer there always being some scrap remaining, waiting.
  • Just beginning to learn Japanese, having no idea how out of place a foreign woman would be. Imagining I could disappear there. Oh you foolish, hopeful child.
  • Just beginning, it seems, to want to disappear. Not realizing yet that there was a rim of sunlight beyond the dank discomfort of looming adolescence.

You were there, you were there. The litany always made me feel guilty if I couldn’t actually remember being there, wherever there was. I like to tell myself I wouldn’t then do that to a child, but of course I would — like everyone else, with only the best intentions in mind. You want to know that you built a solid foundation of good and lasting memories, I assume, for your progeny. So you try to make sure they hang onto those. But the result of trying to conjure those memories up, time after time, and of being so easy to read, and so clearly disheartened, when your child can’t recall “being there,” is that you encourage them to horde memories like Reese’s peanut butter cups, long past the point where tiny pinholes made by tiny worms pockmark their surfaces. Long past the point at which anyone can savor them anymore — their value has been reduced to a simple pile of shiny foil-wrapped worm nests. But, as the child, you hang onto them anyway, in case someone wants to see your horde. You want to make sure you know how much you have, so you can brag reassuringly about their worth to interested parties.

1998. I was there. But I also wasn’t. Not the me of now, who can look back and cluck her tongue at the naiveté of the twelve year old Japanophile, or wince at that child’s determination not to cry at her grandmother’s funeral — as if anyone thought her better or stronger for it; as if it staved anything off. Not that grandparent’s death, or the next or the next, or the long slow march into dementia-laced oblivion of her own mother. Why not cry, little one? You’re twelve.  You’ve got a long life of crying ahead of you. Get in some practice before you’re the one delivering the eulogy.

(I have, in fact, attempted to write my mother’s eulogy several times in recent years, when her body was with us but her mind wasn’t. But I dissolved into tears each time, and never produced anything worthy of her.)

These are themes I know Proust touches on, in the book I was warned to wait to read until my forties but which I (gee, 12-year-old self, you don’t change much!) stubbornly insisted that my advanced, unsought degrees in loss and longing deemed me capable of appreciating early. But I put Proust down. Not for the meandering sentences or the long ruminations upon the fall of light in a room or the shadows on a street, but because stories that revolve around memory as their focus are…still too sharp, for me. Like fumbling in a junk draw only to come up with bleeding fingers, I’ll stumble into stories with memory at their center and back away, reeling.

Just a few episodes ago in Critical Role — I am behind, as always — the illustrious Darin De Paul (of Reinhardt fame, if you pay Overwatch, or any of the 9,000 other characters he has voiced, if you do not) portrayed a memory-challenged gnome whose lightning-quick seesaws between tearful sincerity and forgetful cantankerousness gouged out my heart and left it in pieces on the carpet. I had to press pause and flee to the grim sanctity of a bathroom stall — again, like 12 year old me, I have no great desire to be seen crying in public, let alone at my desk on a workday. But Sprigg, his character.

Oh, Sprigg.

It is the sort of thing that happens to you, I am given to understand. My peers are too young and too lucky, by and large, to have dealt with this yet, but I do read — and this happens, as you grow older. You set out wanting to hear all the stories, sing all the songs, do all the things. And then one by one as people are taken from you, gently or not, willingly or not, the number of stories you can hear, or songs you can sing, without being hurt…shrinks. I gather that at some point you become okay with this (or not). But I am not there yet. And sudden veerings off into the territory of memory — whether those doing the veering are real or imagined; aging spouses of once-lauded public figures or gnarled gnomes in an internet Dungeons and Dragons show — these things eviscerate me. In MUDs, it would look like:

eviscerated

And it would be correct. I have no saving throw. No luck or inspiration. It’s just a one-shot to the heart, and I am down.

So that’s why I haven’t returned to Remembrance of Things Past, among other things. If you were wondering.

version control

It’s exhausting, having to turn the “around people I know and love” me off and the “alone me” on. I’m familiar with it, because I keep finding myself on jobs that pull me far away from everyone, and they come visit me because for me to return home it would be too hard to tear myself away and go back to whatever task brought me afar. But this kind of version control is neither easy nor without pain.

It’s like cutting whole chapters out of a book. It’ll read okay if you pick the right ones, but if you don’t, the plotlines will get jumbled and nothing will make sense. I have to snip out my need for human contact or conversation and replace it with the next chapter over — exercise, or writing. It works but you always mess it up for the first few weeks, and by then you may have to put your full, unabridged self back together again anyway, when you get to see someone you love again.

It’s hard.

And lonely.

I think that it’s better to do it than not — easier to be someone with holes than no one at all — but I think I am inching past the age when I want to keep doing this.

But then I think of people like my dad, who have no choice. Who will never get to return to the person who knew them best because they’re dead — and before that, years before that, she was already gone, even when alive. And my temporary loneliness seems terrible and selfish. “You have your mother’s eyes,” my mom’s best friend from college said, before starting to cry. My dad followed suit. And what do I do with their sorrow? What I can I do? I’m not her, I can’t bring her back, and the same shaped hole that is in them is in me, too. But I have someone to return to, and they don’t. So all the chapters I cut out of me ought to be less deserving of attention. Of regret.

Because I, at least, get to put them back.

random music fridays : seve

This song samples from “O Sifuni Mungu,” by African Children’s Choir. It’s upbeat, and it’s in Swahili, which my mom knew. She learned it as part of her job, rehabilitating people’s hands in Kenya after they were shredded or crushed, usually by construction or farming equipment.

I’m an upbeat person. I don’t walk around staring at my feet. I wish strangers good days and good weekends and mean it. For months after Mom died, though, I wasn’t. And now I am again.

It’s hard to recognize the clouds that hang over your head when you’re under them.

reapplying breakup songs as songs of loss

This is not a new thing. Remember Stepmom?

Stepmom

Spoilers, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough isn’t about losing your mom. I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy.

This should be a creepier transposition than it is, though. Especially in an age where the most powerful people in the world obsess over their daughters’ fuckability, I would expect us to balk at so many songs of romantic loss repurposed for…I guess it’s, what, platonic loss? Familial loss? You have to retreat from the word “love,” even, it seems like, if you want to discuss loss of a family member. We’ve reserved that word for a narrower and narrower space, as you grow older and don’t say “I love you” as much or as freely anymore; or write it in red crayon on lopsided heart cards. I think of the studied disdain of Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter, reflecting on the insipidity of the latest chart-topping hit: “an actual song called ‘I Love You.'” His distaste is that of the artist, sure, but also of the cultural critic. People, for wanting such things, are kind of dumb, is the implication. We should, I guess, want more. Or want it more colorfully.

Obviously the right lyrics — or at least the absence of the wrong ones — helps enable the transposition from romantic loss to non-. But maybe we also lend ourselves to this lyrical reapplication through a desire, both to see loss we could have fixed as inevitable, and of loss we couldn’t fix as something we could have fought, staved off, or avoided through calling back, or being more patient, or picking up.

Take Said and Done, by Nervous but Excited, which cropped up on an old playlist I’d retreated to at work and which, instead, had me desperately undoing my ponytail to hide my crying:

Bases covered:

1.) Come back home (not going to happen)

2.) We can get back to the way we were (we can’t)

3.) Try to forgive the rights that I made wrong (I’m sure everyone has lists of such things…continuing to Skype my mom regularly when I returned from abroad, as she apparently expected when she’d stay logged in all morning hoping for a call, is kind of at the top of my list)

4.) Still close my eyes to the sight of you laughing in sunlight (this verges on too decidedly romantic to be comfortable listening to but again, like with Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, the idea that memories held or promises made are concepts relegated entirely to romantic situations is a little short-sighted — and anyway, you obviously want to remember the person who knew you, laughing maybe, rather than the glassy-eyed husk with concave cheeks who didn’t know you anymore)

Again, I’ve written about people dealing with death a lot, and everything I say is salted with the knowledge that it’s very much the wrong thing, for someone. It’s either too crass (I keep saying she died, rather than that she “passed away,” because I hate the fakery of that phrase, the gentleness it implies, when there was nothing gentle or graceful or noble about this), or too narrow-minded (the President is imploding and taking the country down with him; there are bigger problems than one mother who is no longer here), or simply too much (most of the people caught in the bullet-spray of my sorrow don’t really know me that well, and certainly don’t know what to do other than take cover and wait for me to stop posting sad shit).

I am, though, among the people I do know my age, the first to have to do this. Everyone else has the luxury of parents they can still argue with, or of celebrating Mother’s Days their mothers haven’t died on. They can pose in stupid family photos still, and puzzle over bizarre combinations of emojis texted to them at 10PM, and scream and cry and clutch their mom’s hand as they give birth to their first child.

Let me help you then, all you millennials who will get to have your mothers for decades longer than I did. Let me help you do this years from now. Here is a list of do’s and don’ts for losing your mother, in no particular order:

DO Tell your boss. Even if you aren’t really that close or you were just hired like a month ago. There is probably some company provision that allows you to stay home and cry all day. This is important. It is better to do this at home than on your keyboard. Especially if your work has nice keyboards.

DO listen to sad songs, or songs that are sad to you in the context of your loss. That’s how this post came to be, after all. More importantly, even if you possess a steely reserve necessarily built up over almost a decade’s worth of dementia-driven misery, you should probably cry at some point. Music may be necessary to crack your adamantium shell. Grab those headphones.

DO eat. I mean, duh. I’ve never been moved not to eat by feelings, but I hear it’s a thing that can happen. Nutrients are kind of a big deal, guys. Get them.

DON’T become annoyed by people stepping gingerly around you. They literally don’t know what the fuck to do. This is not their fault.

DON’T snap at other people who text you happy pictures, from better days, of the person you’re both mourning. If you can’t deal with it, just ignore the texts. Your phone isn’t going to fill up, and you don’t know what psychology is driving the other person to fling these images of the lost person out there. You can’t yell (or…text-yell?) at someone loud enough to bring your mom back, so please don’t try.

DON’T expect people to say the right thing. They won’t. They can’t. There is no right thing. The right thing would be for your mom to still be alive, and she’s not. So whether you find yourself surrounded by people who pretend everything is fine, or by people who ooze religious platitudes, or who go on about karma or childhood or funeral prices or lame internet jokes, don’t expect a magic bullet. Not from a mentor, not from a friend, not from the old guy who walks his dog at 6AM every day. Literally no one will get it right. Not because they suck but because your mom is dead. It’s not their fault.

Oh, but if it is? Punch them. Just, you know. Because it would probably feel good.

still waiting, colbert

From an interview with Stephen Colbert in GQ in 2015:

He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.
“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

I’m still waiting, Colbert. This thing I most wish had not happened. I’m 31, not 35, but my mother is dead, and it has been eight years since she was diagnosed with forgetting all of us. Five since cancer took so much more of her away so fast. And it still sucks, man. She’s dead, and it still fucking sucks.

wrong number try again

book

I’m really exceptionally skilled at accumulating those “do what you love / if you are passionate about X, do it!” speeches.* The problem is I am never passionate about X; just good about towing its line to the point where people for whom X is everything think it is for me, too.

And it’s never some soul-searching moment either, because I’m not on some grand quest to find something I care about: I already know what I love doing! I just don’t do it for money because it’s not lucrative, and it’s far easier to be Good Enough at other things that pay.  Until, of course, you get to the part  where people give you what are meant to be inspiring speeches about the field — speeches which are destined never to move me as much as the speaker intended because these fields I wander into are staging areas. And I meander from staging area to staging area, because I never care enough about the grand production to take up a central a role there. And also because writers as a group can sometimes be real dicks, and people in other fields are more pleasant to be around. Mostly.

All of which is to say I suppose I should do some typing this weekend.

swanson

 

*Chris, this wasn’t your speech. This was the speech that led to me hitting you up for your advice, which was sensible and helpful. Thanks!

**Also, this isn’t about the new job; it’s about how people assume I felt about the old job.