Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Death, Dawn, Driving, and Discovery: Four Weeks In Five Parts

I. Mourning to be Rescheduled At Your Convenience

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My grandmother died last Thursday.
We never called her “grandma.” She was Oma. A German endearment.
Opa died the year I was born, so I never met him. But Oma had a longer ways to go. She passed away in a hospital bed at 2:30 in the afternoon, with my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Jerry in the room with her. She was 87.
She died on April 10, 2014 in Greenwood, Indiana, but really she died to me a long time before that.
It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t mean for it to happen.
But she was an old woman, growing increasingly frailer, and her world was becoming consumed with the everyday battle of fighting off pain. She had friends in her nursing home, and I could have asked her about them. (I didn’t.) She was often too tired to write letters, but I could have still sent her messages or postcards like my Dad did (other than thank yous at birthday or Christmas, she never heard from me). Mom spoke to her weekly on the telephone, and I could have asked to have a few minutes to say hi (I never did). When I did talk to her, it was awkward and stilted, like I would talk to a stranger. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to ask. I knew I wanted to know things - about her day, about her life, about her past - but when I was around her (or on the phone with her) it always came up a big blank. I filled her in on some of the things in my day, my life, my hoped-for future. They were selfish, self-centered conversations, and quite brief. Like the letters I sent as thank-yous, the expected phrases of greeting and thanks and farewell taking up the bulk of the text with little of substance left over.
She died to me years ago because I let her. Because in a way I died to her too.
The last time I saw her in person was two summers ago. I was the thinnest I’ve been since childhood after a successful weight loss regime, and I had a terrible self-cut hairdo (too-short bangs and a shoddy attempt at layers). That’s the last picture she would have had in her head of me. It was the Dows and the Sandoz and Oma, nearly a family reunion, with the exception of the Price clan who couldn’t come. We all ate in the dining room at Oma’s nursing home, and then retired afterward to a little courtyard outside where we sat in the sun and talked and took pictures. Before we left that day I spent a little time with Oma alone in her room. I hugged her. I said goodbye, and when I said it I spoke like someone who knows they’re saying it for the last time. So I have that at least. She didn’t let on, but I know she understood that I thought this would probably be my last time to see her alive.
When the call came I didn’t cry. I saw two missed calls from my parents, within 15 minutes of each other, and I just knew. It made sense after having heard of her decline these past weeks, the hospitalization, the erratic swings between clear thinking and dementia, the hallucinations, and the nervous, violent outbursts at her new nurses - not to mention the pain. THE PAIN. I don’t even know the specifics but I know Oma was a lot like me - (okay, well, vice versa) - and we have to feel a lot, a lot, A LOT of pain before we finally let it show. If they could tell she was hurting that badly, it had to go deeper and wider than I think anyone could understand.
So I didn’t cry. Because I think I was glad she wasn’t hurting anymore. And I think I knew in my heart that I had said my goodbyes long ago. It may not have been fair, and it may have been a real jerk move, but the truth is I had already given up on her. So she was gone, absent not only in terms of something calculable like miles (Monroe, NC to Greenwood, IN… crunch the details, come up with a nice solid number) but now separated by a distance far larger.
I felt sorrow for my mom. And I felt a hollowness, not really sadness, but this feeling of frustration, because one of her last wishes (Oma’s, I mean) was that her body be cremated and that instead of an immediate funeral, we all gather at a later time that’s convenient for everyone and bury her next to Opa in the graveyard in Pennsylvania. And I knew I didn’t really have a right to feel this way after how I had treated her there at the end, but it still irked me a little, the thought that we weren’t all being asked to stop doing what we were doing, to interrupt our ordinary lives for just a day or two, and to gather together, and to miss her together, and to say goodbye. I know we’ll do that later, but this whole “Oh, I don’t know if I can fit you into my busy schedule” mentality is so disrespectful, and such an indicator of misplaced priorities. It made me sad, and a little mad. Even though I couldn’t cry for some reason, I wanted to have to stop and realize she was gone. So even though there wasn’t a funeral, I called into work at Target and lied and said there was, so I would have the weekend off to grieve.
It didn’t end up happening that way. Not exactly. If I’d known what would go down Friday night I would have just worked as scheduled. I would have just gone on with my life, which I guess is the point of what Oma was asking.
But I called in and explained that she had died and that I would need the time off. The manager who took the call expressed condolences, but something in his voice made me think he didn’t believe me, that he was going along with what I was saying because what kind of horrible person lies about their grandmother dying? But that really, even if he would never call me on it, he thought that I was the kind of horrible person who was lying about my grandmother dying. It was there in my voice, I think. A nervousness. I hate calling out.
But whatever. I did it. And I can’t take it back.
Which brings to me to Friday.

II. The Ernest Hemingway-Lonely Island Mash-Up I Never Saw Coming, Or: The Sun Also Rises On A Boat

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A drunken man stripped naked and exposed himself to me last night.
Okay, well maybe by that point it was this morning. The sun was rising, these pretty pink and purple stripes behind the grid-like silhouette of the power plant structure next door. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The day my Oma died was also my friend’s 25th birthday. But no one goes out late on a Thursday night (at least not many of her friends who are still in school) so she pushed the celebration to Friday. Normally I would not have been there, with work at 4am the next day. But Oma had died, and I had called out to allow time for mourning, and the idea of drowning my sorrows with this girl and her friends sounded therapeutic to me.
It started out okay. I met her at a restaurant and sports bar combo, where already a large group had gathered. Several of them I knew and liked from previous parties my friend had thrown. One by one people had to leave. By the end it was just my friend and these two guys she’s been friends with for a while, but has become increasingly more attached to since her graduation last December. The problem is that she’s convinced herself she’s in love with one of them, a guy who - I will give him credit - is trying not to hurt her or maim their friendship, but obviously does not want to make it anything more than that. This guy and his roommate are probably around the same age as my friend - mid-twenties. They are alcoholics.
I do not use that word lightly.
I have known people who drink abundantly and regularly but have control, could stop if they wanted. These people know their limits and just often choose to surpass them, but if called upon to be responsible and kinder to their livers, they could immediately cease that lifestyle.
These two guys are not like that. They’ve gotten to a point where they couldn’t stop if they wanted to. Not that they want to. They talk about this with pride. They still function in society, going to their (well-paid) jobs, but going out at every lunch time and having three or four beers with their food. There’s more to be had with dinner, maybe five or six, and that’s just leading into the evening hours. And it’s not always beer. They have cabinets upon cabinets filled with various hard liquors. In fact, so many cabinets that I seriously wonder where it is they keep their food. One of them (the one my friend is in love with) has the bladder of an elderly man. In fact, many of the old men in my Oma’s nursing home probably have less kidney/bladder issues than this guy, and they’ve been around at least 50 years longer. He jokes about this, my friend’s crush, like it’s a silly - nay, cute! - little problem. His roommate, the one who would later expose himself to me, has packed on such a beer gut in the few years since graduation and has let personal grooming go to such a degree that he looks like a mix between a Tolkienian dwarf and a pregnant woman. No, I take that back. Dwarves actually take care of their beards. More like an old homeless man with a hairy pregnant belly.
Yeah. Gross. And I know about the belly, all its folds and protrusions, in detail.
We were left with these guys. I’d had one margarita, but my friend was already blazing a trail to glory in the alcohol department. Though she’s spent many an evening like this with these guys on her own, I felt wrong leaving her on her birthday. So I continued on with them to a pool hall and we played a few rounds. I’m terrible at pool, but the place was kind of nice. Very simple. Come in, go to the bar to get your rack and pool balls (and drinks, if you were the trio I was with), and play as many rounds as you want. We stayed until last call. I had a cider. They shared a few rounds of shots and the guys had some beers. I was grateful I had driven myself there.
The alcoholics sobered up enough for one of them to drive (their call, not mine, and I was very unhappy with it), and I followed them back to their house. My friend has passed out many a time on their couch until morning, since she is currently living with her parents and they do not approve of the consumption of alcohol. This seemed like a perfectly acceptable plan. Come back. Sit around until we’re sleepy. Everyone goes off to bed, and my friend goes to sleep feeling that we loved her enough to stay with her the whole night long. (She is the sort of person who thinks like this. In fact, that night in her tipsy-verging-on-drunken state, she confessed that she felt like the people who hadn’t come didn’t really care about her, and that some of the people who were there but left early were just going through the motions of being friends. I don’t think this is at all the case, and I suspect that when she’s sober she doesn’t either, but it made me realize that possibly the best birthday present I could give this girl would be to just stay with her until dawn.)
We sat around the alcoholics’ living room watching YouTube videos on the enormous big screen TV they’d hooked up to one of their laptops. They were playing country music songs (not my favorite, but I’ve lived through far worse) and kept wanting to find more songs to show us when they realized we hadn’t heard them. Since we were in for the night I opened a bottle of red wine, and drank most of it myself. By this point Johnny Cash and alcohol were making the hollow feeling of not being able to cry seem even more hollowed and pronounced. I was stuck in this room with these people I really didn’t like that much, but I’d drunk too much to be able to leave, so I just gave in to it, and the “it” I mean was the contagious feeling of “Oh, I’m drunk but not nearly drunk enough. I need MORE.”
They brought out absinthe. I love absinthe, but it shouldn’t be drunk the way I had it that night - chasing a whole bottle of Malbec, and full-strength, not at all watered down. That was when my friend crawled to the couch and passed out, and her crush gave up and went to his own room to sleep. I was sitting on the kitchen floor and somehow talk turned to travel (as it sometimes does with me), and the other alcoholic brought me photo albums of the trips he had taken to visit his family in Germany and France. I oohed and ahhhed at the pictures, some places I’ve been but many I haven’t. I marveled too at how different this guy looked in all the photographs. They had been taken only four or five years ago, but that was before the drinking and it showed. In the pictures he was thin and young and healthy. No paunch. No blotchy, ruddy skin. No homeless man facial hair.
(I know I’m focusing a lot on the looks here, which is very shallow of me, I understand. But it’s more than that. There are some people who may look average or even downright ugly but are made beautiful and lovable because of who they are. This guy is like some warped inversion of that. I mean, I never knew that younger version of him, so I’m just guessing. But to give you some perspective: this was a guy who, earlier that evening, while watching a YouTube video listing top songs by Disney villains, had protested at the inclusion of a song by Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. “He’s not a villain!” he insisted. “In fact, he wasn’t an altogether bad guy. It was Belle who was the bitch. Nothing was ever good enough for her.” Yeah. A near-direct quote, and not at all surprising to me, since this guy is very much like Gaston. Pompous, loutish, falsely confident, close-minded and ignorant, lashing out at what he can’t understand or control. Was his younger self like that? Maybe not yet.)
I guess maybe the guy mistook my marveling at his photographs as me expressing admiration toward him. It was nearly six in the morning by then. The app on his phone estimated that sunrise would be at 6:50am. I said I thought it would be cool to stay up and watch it since we were so close anyway and he agreed. He said he had some things to show me in the meantime - a cool 1950s truck out in their barn, the barn itself which was made mostly out of old doors, and a boat that their father had bought and parked next to the barn, and which would never be usable because already much of the floor had begun to rot away. There was even a small tree growing up between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. We foolishly, drunkenly, climbed up into the boat, careful to test for where the floor seemed likely to give. He made his way up to the front of the boat (I’m no expert, but perhaps it’s the prow?). I stayed toward the back, near the boat’s ladder. By that point my own bladder was behaving like a geriatric’s (I blame the absinthe), and I told him I was going to the bathroom but would be right back. I stressed this last part, that I was coming back, that I wouldn’t miss the sunrise, because for some reason I didn’t like the idea of coming out and finding him gone (perhaps back to his bed to sleep) and facing the morning alone. Maybe it was because I was drunk and feeling very much like my friend had about her party guests, but it seemed like I needed to do this with somebody, to welcome the new day. It didn’t matter who so much, just that someone was there.
I went into the bathroom. I came back out of the house and crossed the field to the boat. As I was nearly there, I looked up, and realized he was stripping off his clothes. I was at the boat by now and he was right there above me, his pale, flabby, hairy body on full display, his (okay, let’s be honest) very unimpressive member dangling there feet away.
I’ve known this guy a little while so I want to think that maybe he was just drunk and feeling carefree and wanting to experience the morning au natural, like people in a nudist colony do. Or like wiccans who go skyclad in ritual. Just a way to more fully experience the moment, unbound by cloth and seams. Free.
But he had this expression on his face that makes me genuinely believe otherwise. He was looking right at me, and it was like he was daring me to make a big deal out of it. It’s like without saying anything at all, he was saying, “Look at me. Don’t look away. I’m not giving you that option.” I almost think that if I’d showed any kind of discomfort he would have enjoyed it, like some kind of victory. So I didn’t give him that. I didn’t react. I kept walking, as had been my original path, toward the ladder at the back of the boat.
“Aren’t you cold?” was all I allowed myself to say.
As I lurched forward into my spot at the back of the boat, he turned to face me, seeming yet again to pose himself very precisely so I couldn’t avoid the view.
“Not really,” he shrugged. Things jiggled on his body at the gesture, things I really never wanted to see jiggle. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”
The funny thing is, I don't mind nudity that much. I don't find the naked human form inherently offensive like some people seem to. I've been around it before without feeling this way. But this wasn't about him being naked. Somehow in this context his nakedness was being used as a weapon.
Don’t' get me wrong - he didn’t come anywhere near me. He didn’t make as if he intended to touch me. He didn’t seem to expect me to strip off my clothing either. (Ha! Good luck trying to make me!) We just stayed like that for a long time, and I didn’t move, and I tried not to look at him but at the same time to not avoid looking at him, because to do that - to make this a big deal, or to stand up and leave - again, it felt like I’d be giving him a victory.
I know it’s not logical. I was drunk off my ass. Logic was a distant, fleeting dream.
But finally there was enough of a gleam over the roof of the door-barn that I felt I had an excuse. I stood shakily and lowered myself down.
“I think the dawn’s here,” I said, like I was giving him a reason, like I was saying, “I’m not running away from you” even though I kind of was. I didn’t feel afraid of him, but I felt angry at him for putting me in this position, and a little sad for him. When you see someone so blatantly saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” it’s hard to not feel a little bad.
I left him behind and wandered around the corner of the door-barn. Next to their house was a giant power structure. I don’t know the proper term, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. Towers and power lines and metal beams and gratings all intersecting and crisscrossing in this amazing pattern of angles and lines. The dawn appeared behind its silhouette, like watercolors bleeding across the sky, smeared there by a huge invisible paintbrush. Pinks and purples, a bit of green even, and the light fanning out toward dark at the edges. The night receding. A blinding thing of beauty. But it couldn’t erase the images in my head.
I took one last look at him as I said goodnight. He was standing as if dumbstruck by the lights behind me, still naked, clutching his balled up clothes in a wad that he rested on the shelf of his belly.
I walked past him and up to the house, and found some cushions on the floor by the couch, and I slept a few hours, and endured a morning full of chitchat with people who had no idea of the exchange we’d had. And then he appeared, fully clothed this time, and hungover. We watched more inane YouTube videos. I drank gallons of water and gobbled up bread and waited there until I was sure I was finally sober enough to drive.
I went home and spent the day hungover and miserable, angry and sad.
I was missing my Oma, finally, but it still wouldn’t come out in tears.
I had been violated, I was quite certain. Not in a huge way, perhaps. Not raped or physically assaulted. So very infinitesimal in comparison with those things. But I had been forced into a situation against my will, and had felt unable to escape it, and so had endured it. It may have been the hangover, but every time I thought of him, I felt the acidic burn of sick at the back of my throat.
Water and food and sleep and time heal many wounds.
The next day, Sunday, I spent the day at home with my Dad eating Chinese food and watching TV.
He kissed my forehead when we said goodnight, and I hugged him close.
A reminder at least that there are still some decent men in the world.

III. Yes, Officer, I'm Just Great. Whyever Would I Not Be?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

I got a speeding ticket this morning.
Going 60 in a 45.
Which I was, I totally was. And the law is the law. It was kind of a speed trap, but I should have known better. Cars aren't usually out at 3:30 in the morning unless they're cops. But I was preoccupied, worried that I wasn't going to get to work on time. The speed limit went from 55 to 45 and I didn't slow fast enough coming down the hill and - bam.
The guy was really nice, which kind of annoyed me.
Big smile, cheerful, the extra-Southern kind of polite.
"Your grandmother just died and you've had this weird unwanted sexually-tinged experience, and now here - have a ticket."
Yeah, he didn't say that. But that's what it felt like. The old "bad things come in threes" adage brought full circle.
I wanted him to be a jerk so I could hate him, but instead I just took the ticket from him (a $30 ticket but $188 in court fees!? UGH.) and continued on my way. The other annoying thing was that he pulled me over literally yards away from the turnoff for Target, so all my coworkers saw me as they drove by on the way in and made sure to mention it to me later.
         I'm at the point now where I kind of don't care what else happens to me. I don't really care about all that much period. I don't know what this all means for my escape plan financially speaking, but I'm not going to let it stop me now.
Oh yeah, I have an escape plan.
Did I not mention that?

IV. Escape Plan, Or: Thinking Outside the Career Path

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Even before Oma’s passing and the boat incident and the ticket, things haven't been great. I have spent the last eighteen months of my life feeling like a zombie, a robot, an empty shell, doing nothing but work, work, work, work, work, and drive to and from, and occasionally sleep.
Okay, slight exaggeration. There were a few happy times in there too. But on the whole I’ve felt trapped in my current situation.
It’s my own fault.
I spent the latter half of 2012 living (and spending) as if the Mayans really were right in their apocalyptic predictions. I went on a European trip with a friend who is in a lot better financial situation than I was at the time. Every time we’d want to do something that was a little too expensive for me, she’d get pouty and seem disappointed and almost a little angry, so finally I’d give in and just put it all on my charge card. But it wasn’t all that trip, and she wasn’t entirely to blame. I was the one who decided to spend the “money.” Besides, I’d established a pattern of similar (though smaller scale) behavior long before then. It added up.
Thousands of dollars of debt.
2013 arrived. The Mayans were wrong. Still here.
And so the seasonal job I’d picked up to help pay for Christmas presents became a real, second job. I accepted shifts that were ridiculous when put back-to-back with my library schedule, but the idea was to work myself to the bone for just a little while so I could pay off my debts and be free. And I paid off a lot. Got down from four credit cards to two, and got those remaining balances significantly smaller. It was enough that I felt confident in finally going out on my own and renting an apartment.
I felt okay with it because I knew I wouldn’t have to depend on my Target job to keep up with all my bills. That was one of my prerequisites when it came to deciding to keep that job, that anytime I felt I really couldn’t stand it anymore I would have the freedom to leave. And I’m at that point now. As I've already said, I’m miserable.
It's not just the hours, the sleep deprivation and state of constant weariness, the inability to have any kind of social life. Those are all definite factors. But it's more a crisis of identity, a slow and steady erosion of belief that's been going on for a while now. Adults are constantly giving little kids the idea that yes, you really can do everything. You can be the ballerina-veterinarian-astronaut if you want to. You can change and grow and think outside the box. But once you get older and go out into the world and get a job, that stops being true. This is just your life now. You've buckled yourself in for the ride and can't get off until it's all over.
The people I work with on the early morning shift are lovely, but they are the epitome of this kind of thinking. Somehow they seem to have come to the conclusion that this low-paying, high stress, mind-numbing retail job is all they're cut out for, that they'll be doing this or something very much like it for the rest of their lives (or at least until retirement). They have kids and mortgages and all this stuff I don't have to worry about yet, so that's probably part of it. But there's an attitude of defeat that permeates each conversation. Like a dog that's beaten by its owner so often it starts to just expect it, maybe to even feel that it deserves it. And when you hang out with people who think this way for long enough, you almost start to believe it about yourself.
The other huge reason I want out is my writing. One of the great sorrows of this past year and a half has been my inability to work on one of the main things that gives me joy. Oh, I wrote last year. I tried to sneak it in. But it was deplorable.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not just, “You sit down at a keyboard, or with a pen and paper, and stuff comes out.” Writing is very heavily influenced by your state of mind, and if you are in a very bad place, sometimes the words won’t even come. Or they will and they’re predictable or flat or boring or dull or so schmaltzy and stupid and gimmicky that you want to punch your hand through a wall just to punish it for having written those stupid horrible words.
(Melodramatic? Yes? Anyway…)
The point is, much like my money (which I squandered and misused until it was too late and I was already dug deep into this hole), I have been so wasteful with my writing. Back when I had the time and energy to sit down and put serious work in on this book that I’ve had in my mind for ages and ages - well, I frittered it away, I wasted it watching TV or scrolling obsessively through facebook, or I dabbled, writing a couple hundred words here or there and feeling like it was some freaking great accomplishment. And now that I have no time and energy (or when I do have time it's spent catching up on sleep), well, now is when I’m having all these ideas, and now is when I want to exert some discipline. If I had to get up at three in the morning, I’d rather do it to work on this story. It may not even be that amazing, but it means a lot to me. And I really want to give it a legitimate try.
Which is why I gave notice a couple weeks ago.
Which is why I'm going to be very, very poor this summer.
Which is why I finally feel… well, just feel again. Not numb. Not a looped repetition of "just make it through." Not threadbare with weariness and sadness. I feel hopeful. I feel here.
And in just four days I'll be free.
         I'll use the money from the library to pay my rent and very basic bills, and just scrape by until the fall. I'll use the summer to write.
         And who knows what will happen after that?

         V. In the Absence of a Road Map, Let’s Read the Signs

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I don’t know when I got so superstitious, but these last couple weeks, especially since putting in my notice, I’ve been really into reading “the signs.”
A slip of paper in my fortune cookie near the end of April told me to “treasure the transitions in life, because they will happen regardless.” Surely this is a sign that I’m right to be moving on!
Then the mess with the ticket, which – funny enough – could have been avoided had I read the road signs. This was of course a poor sign considering my upcoming financial tight spot.
There have been unexpected signs: getting a reimbursement check in the mail from my healthcare provider since I was overcharged due to some clerical error on their part.
There have been many little signs: I went to buy my coworkers some Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts as a nice goodbye, and I had just enough cash in my purse (down to the pennies!) to cover it without going anywhere near the dreaded credit cards. (I’ve been avoiding them for months now).
Then came the disappointing signs: I went in for  basic oil change and discovered I needed to get my brakes replaced. “You shouldn’t really drive more than a week without new ones. You’re cutting it really close.” So out comes one of the cards again, and down go any hopes of ever fully getting rid of its balance.
But then—sudden, hopeful signs: apparently Oma left us each a small inheritance, enough to pay off those balances after all, and maybe to pay for some of this European trip my friends and I are plotting for next year.
Signs, signs everywhere…
Or not.
Maybe these aren’t signs. Maybe these are things that just happen. Maybe you make choices and you deal with the consequences, and you understand that while you are a part of the universe, it doesn’t all revolve around you.
It's been 28 days since I first started writing all of this. It's nearly five weeks since I found out Oma was gone. And today was my last day at my retail job. I feel… weird. Like a weight has been lifted. And also this scary but thrilling feeling of, “Well, now I actually have to do this thing. No more excuses.”
I still don't have much of a game plan. A lawyer friend of my Mom's is taking my case with the ticket to get some practice (she's just starting out), so I may have a reduced fee or get out of it entirely depending on how good she is.
I'm going to spend the summer writing, sleeping, staring at the sky, and occasionally getting paid to talk about books or do science experiments with teenagers. Not bad, right? I'll be "poor," but not really all that poor when it comes to things that matter.
I haven't seen either of the alcoholics or my friend since the night of her birthday, and I'm okay with that.
My mom has brought out old pictures of us with Oma, which has had that oddly paradoxical effect of bringing the dead to life again while reminding the living of a version of themselves that has gone now, never to return. I still feel regretful, as I think I always will, about the way I let myself fall so completely out of Oma's life. But what's done is done. 
I’ve come very slowly to what should have been an obvious realization: it does little good to dwell on the past or even too long on the future. I’m not the person I once was, nor the person I intend to be, but the person I am right now. This, here and now is all we’ve got. 
So I'll move forward. I’ll be here, all here. This is how I honor her.
Mary Queen of Scots put it far better than I ever could…
En ma fin git mon commencement.

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