It has been three years since I wandered the hospital hallways, watching medical personnel fill out paperwork and answer calls, carrying on as if nothing had happened.
It is also one day short of another sort of anniversary: the discovery of a betrayal that left me so raw, I forgot to serve cupcakes for my youngest’s birthday. When I finally arrived–red and swollen–her teacher asked, “What happened to you?” There were no words.
Today is the anniversary of an anxiety attack I had while hosting the same child’s party several years later. To avoid making a scene, I hid in my closet as the guests arrived, giggling, downstairs—until I hyperventilated and passed out on top of my shoes.
I have witnessed life begin and end, graduated several times, ruined a relationship, lost a couple of pets and a friend. Even in years when nothing of much importance happens, early May is a time when issues of mortality, trust, achievement, love, and the great unknown hog pile me until I cry, “uncle.” It’s when my crust is thinnest.
For some reason–the gift of repression?–I’m blindsided each and every year. You’d think I’d have the foresight to write it on the calendar or something—though, what to call it?
This morning, the first thing I encountered was a short story which began: “I call my mom once a year, on the day she died.”
And that’s when I remembered–all at once, mid-way through my daily decaf. Life is short, people we love come, go, and disappoint, jobs are lost, goals may or may not be achieved. Somehow, it is possible to carry on despite this knowledge; that is what makes the sweet moments so very sweet, and the milestones achieved so precious. In the meantime, I will hold my loved ones close, listen more attentively, and stop worrying about things like jobs and dishes.
I have never parked in a disabled parking space, but I have looked longingly at the empty ones. They are always so tantalizingly convenient–right by the front door of wherever I need to go. I have caught myself wondering why places like Safeway and Home Depot have set aside two, four, or even six spaces, when they often sit there unused. Just look at all that prime parking real estate!
Hey, I think. I’ve been circling for eons and I’m in a ginormous hurry. Or, I grumble about what a pain in the ass it will be to lug the crate of water/shop-vac/propane tank to or from the car. Life would be so much easier if I could just park in one of those geographically desirable spots.Thoughts like these may be accompanied by a twinge of something inappropriate, too–jealousy? resentment? Hopefully not “going to hell”-sized bad feelings, but enough to make me feel a little ashamed.
Likewise, I’m no tri-athlete, but I have occasionally rolled my eyes at the slow movers of the world. The I-need-a-scooter-to-meander-through-Target types, the ten minutes in the crosswalk folks. You know. Those people.
Then, six weeks ago, I leapt off a rock and significantly altered my worldview. I felt a horrible rip and shock in midair, knowing before I landed that the next 24 hours would be spent lying on top of a bag of frozen peas–instead of hiking and frolicking in paradise as I had planned. So much for my trip to Wilson’s Promontory.
It was time to drag my torn calf muscle home. Stubbornly refusing a wheelchair at the airport, declining the boot from the doctor, and hiding my crutches in the hall closet, I started to wonder what my problem was. Weeks passed before it dawned on me: I don’t want to admit that I’m middle aged, let alone mortal. And now that I’ve got the gait of a pirate crossed with a slug, there is visual evidence that both are true. In the frenzied ebb and flow of urban life, I am a visual thorn, causing people to stare before rushing past.
Walking into a store the other day, I heard the greeter say, “How’re you doing today?” Before I could answer he added, “Oh, my.” He grimaced. “Want a cart to lean on?”
No, I don’t want a cart to lean on. I want a new friggin’ leg. This one sucks.
At the crosswalk, people wave for me to cross…then scowl as they realize how long they will have to sit there. At the store, on the street– everywhere I go–I’m the one making you all wait, and I can tell I’m driving you crazy.
Shoot, I’m driving myself crazy. Everything I do takes three times as long as it used to, so I’m doing less and less. Forget something upstairs/in the car/at the store? Oh, well. Can’t find my phone? Make calls later. No shoes handy? Drive carpool in slippers. I make decisions based on how long I might have to stand or how far I will have to walk. If I need milk, I go to the market with the dairy closest to the door. If parking’s tough, I go early and circle like a hawk. And you should see the strategies I’ve adopted for unloading the dishwasher. Thank goodness I work at home, so I can ice and elevate whenever I need to. Theoretically, anyway. Sometimes the freezer just feels too far away.
After my daughter’s piano recital last week, I had to walk from the performance space to the reception. Noticing a couple behind me, I lurched to the side. “Go ahead,” I offered. “I’m terribly slow.” “Not to worry,” the man replied warmly. “We have issues, too.” I saw, then, that his wife had a pronounced limp. We exchanged smiles and hobbled along together for a while–not talking; just understanding. It was a relief to know that at least these two people would not get annoyed or leave me behind.
The past six weeks have felt like an eternity. Despite my frustration, however, I need to keep in mind that while I will start physical therapy next week, some people may never be able to run around. I’m fortunate and I know it, and this injury has given me a lot to think about. What’s been my hurry, anyway? In a hundred years, will anyone care that I had to wait an extra 15 seconds for someone to cross the street or get into their car? I won’t. I’ll be six feet under.
There. I’ve admitted it. I’m mortal.
So, if you need a little more time in the crosswalk, that’s ok by me. I have nothing but empathy for the slow folks out there these days. And don’t worry; I won’t be encroaching on any of those disabled parking spots until biology dictates I must. With any luck, I’ll be getting older and slower someday, so prepare yourself. I’ll be needing your patience and understanding.
Yesterday I found one of our goldfish in the freezer, nestled between the breakfast sausages and a pint of mocha ice cream. She lay awaiting proper burial: a tiny coffin, a moment of silence, a cozy hole in the yard.
But Piranha has been stuck in purgatory for two or three weeks now, while her surviving compatriot circles the tank and gives me the stink eye.
I briefly consider her stiff corpse–recalling her five-year sentence of dry fish flakes and fake plants–before tossing her regretfully into the compost bin. Here’s hoping she doesn’t haunt me for too long.
Recently I spent 25 hours trying to get somewhere–and it wasn’t to Bora Bora, either. Flying from San Francisco to South Dakota shouldn’t be hard.
But it was.
On what I hoped would be the last leg of my ridiculously interminable journey, I found myself thinking about the saying:
“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s ALL small stuff.”
While I understand the spirit of this aphorism, let’s be real. Some stuff is big.
The previous two times I had made this journey were for my father’s death and funeral. Both times I got hopelessly stuck in Denver, succumbing to anxiety attacks that were likely suffered by airline employees and passengers in a four-gate radius. Apologies all around. I wasn’t aware it was possible to feel grief-stricken and humiliated and helpless, all while standing in line, praying that someone could help me see my father one last time.
A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to a memorial event on the near anniversary of his death. I was excited to go, to see my mother and brother, and especially to revel in my dad’s memory and legacy at the college where he had worked for decades. But I grew increasingly anxious as the date of departure approached. Though no urns or gaping holes awaited me on the other end this time, the path was already loaded. And I carried a little hole with me.
How strange it would be to see my mom standing there to greet me, without the stooped kindness of my shrinking father at her side. Despite nearly 365 days without him, it can still feel so fresh, so foreign, in the midst of the most mundane of tasks. In an email, say, where the invisible “and Dad” looms next to my “Dear Mom” like a phantom limb.
So I was a soggy mess from the trip’s inception.
I now officially despise United Airlines for the constant delays, itinerary changes, and last minute flight cancelations, which made all three of these trips unbearable. And a thousand demerits to the Denver airport for making every single passenger and crew member—domestic and international–crawl through one clogged security portal. Upon arriving at 5:52 am on a Saturday morning, there were nearly 800 people ahead of me, with only three agents to review passports and boarding passes. No wonder the folks in Colorado have legalized marijuana. Anxiety attacks must be a dime a dozen there.
Lest you are wondering, “Why can’t this woman book herself a direct flight?” let me assure you: none exist.
But. There were a thousand tiny kindnesses along the way. And it was the very lovely, very small stuff that made it possible to weather a combination of emotional free fall crossed with an airline’s egregious ineptitude.
Thank you to the stranger in first class who stowed his bag in the flight crew closet so my suitcase could come on the plane. Because of your gracious offer, I had pajamas and a toothbrush for my surprise deportation that night. You’d be surprised what a difference that made.
Thanks to the perky mother of eleven who sat next to me on one of many (wrong! stupid! delayed!) flights to Denver. We sat hopelessly upright in the last row, cheek to cheek with the lavatories. Too anxious to read or sleep, I was grateful for her easy flow of conversation. We swapped travel horror stories, discussed the drought, my dad, her son’s recent car accident, and her tiny grandmother, four rows up.
She revealed a few of her management secrets for the eight kids still left at home. She showed me photos of her twenty-year-old son, cautiously slurping cheerios from a bowl balanced on a cardboard box because of the halo he now wore for his broken neck. This woman could somehow see the humor in this, while honoring the fact that he was lucky to be alive. I was in awe.
She also reminded me that the 6’7″ man in the window seat needed my aisle seat more than I did. Since I am claustrophobic and poorly engineered—my thirst and metabolism unmatched by the puny size of my bladder–I don’t easily surrender the aisle seat. But watching the graceful, generous way she looked out for everyone in her wake, she made me want to do the same.
Thanks to the customer service agent who got me the last hotel voucher of the day.
Thanks to the Delta agent, who made a conspiratorial disparaging comment about United, and proceeded to clean up a lot of the mess they had put me in.
Thanks to my spouse back home, for calling the overbooked DoubleTree Hotel, arguing my case, and securing a room for the six hours I had between airport stints.
Three hours after being bumped unceremoniously from my itinerary yet again, I limped through the hotel lobby toward the face behind the counter. When I said, “I think my husband might have spoken to you…” she leaned across the counter and smiled. “Your husband spoke to ‘The-Bomb-dot-com.'” Then she handed me a room key and two warm cookies.
After a good cry, I laid on the bed listening to the slurp and sizzle of the coffee maker brewing a bag of chamomile tea. It was the best sound ever. Even though there were only four hours to sleep, and lots more flights and assholes and anxiety to follow the next day, I suddenly knew I was going to make it.
It’s not that I think my travel woes are worse than everyone else’s. I know people who’ve been stuck in Denver for four days, and I know people who didn’t make it home to say their last goodbyes. In some ways I’ve been lucky. It was just a hard day, and a lot of little things made it better. I’m grateful.
With the exception of my husband, I don’t know the names of any of the people who made sure I ended up in the right city eventually, and chances are, our paths will not cross again. What I hope to do is look out for distressed travelers along my way, and return a few favors to the karmic universe.
For future reference, though, I should probably arm myself with Ativan before entering the middle of the country. And maybe a paper bag, just in case.
For years, my mother kept a button exactly like the one pictured above tucked in a secretary desk in her bedroom. The desk was quite small and finished in country white, with an old-fashioned brass keyhole which was never locked. I would sneak into the room and unfold the desk, revealing all its odd treasures. My mother’s address book was kept there, bulging with notes and corners torn from Christmas card envelopes–so many that she held it shut with an oversized rubber band. There were also cubbies filled with neat little piles of precious papers, an empty jelly jar of dull pencils…and that button.
I looked at the button a lot. I remember its exact size and weight, the sharp barb of the pin. It was not the safety pin sort, but the kind that always protrudes, stabbing mindlessly at curious fingers.
When I consider it now, it is strange how much attention I paid to the little knick-knack. I suppose it looks impossibly mundane, but I loved it. You do gotta have art, I knew. We all knew. Between four siblings, we have studied modern dance, ballet, and theater, violin, piano, painting, photography, string bass, electric bass, viola, clarinet, drums. We got that message. And I loved the pun–“you gotta have heart”–another message taught repeatedly. But the pin’s motto had yet another layer for our family; my father’s name is Art.
We needed art and heart and Art.
I’ve been thinking about that button because my father would have been 85 today, and it is the first birthday to pass without him. As expected, I still need him.
I was a little tender already, then, when I took our three ailing foster kittens in for yet another vet appointment this morning. They have giardia, and though medicated, it’s not improving. One has eye infections, and one started bleeding. Caring for them has been nerve-wracking–they are so tiny, so fragile–and a pain in the neck. I never knew that diarrhea could be tracked up walls, on sinks, floors, doors, cabinets. Up the sides of the cat carrier. Matted in furry tails and feet and backs. How do you get poop on your back, my wee pals? Consequently, we’ve been laundering and bleaching the downstairs three times a day, and still can’t keep up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when the vet told me they would keep the kittens at the shelter instead of sending them back home with me. I should have been relieved.
Instead, I was shocked. My anxiety and love for the kittens, plus the frustration that I couldn’t help them, suddenly got confused with my overwhelming grief for my father, and I stood there, eyes welling over the exam table.
The vet smiled and closed the cat carrier. “Say goodbye to the kitties,” she said. “Nice and quick like a bandaid.” And that was it.
I walked out to the parking lot and sat in the car until I could see well enough to drive.
But unlike the proverbial bandaid, the sting has lingered all day.
I was up half the night for reasons unbeknownst to me, then startled early from my sliver of sleep by the odd thumps of an imaginary intruder. Heart pounding, I dismissed my fears, forcing myself to lie still as a board for another forty-five minutes.
Today, bleary-eyed and unproductive, I parceled 15 minutes to close my eyes and breathe. My plan? To reboot and arise again, convincing myself I felt refreshed and clearheaded. But the second my head touched the pillow, the strangest sound curdled in my cat’s throat. Next thing I knew, a flailing blob of black fur hurled itself across the room and a small bird began dive-bombing my eyes. Swell.
Clearly a moment of zen was out of the question. Instead, I heaved myself back into a vertical position and set about finding the bird. I had to get that creature out of the house before the cat disemboweled it on the bed.
The weird thing was, I couldn’t find it. The cat was no help, either. She was just as perplexed as I was.
How long are you supposed to look for a trapped bird?
Eventually I gave up and settled back in front of the computer to knock out some work.
After five minutes of relative peace, there was a little scrambling sound, followed by something hopping on my foot.
You might imagine that the problem was now solved–bird located!–except it can be quite a production to convince a bird to try the open door rather than flying into shelving units and closed windows. It’s like trying to shepherd a drunk friend out of a party, and they keep curling up on a pile of shoes or wandering off into a closet.
Later, I found myself ruminating on the frequent appearance of birds. They are everywhere for me these days. I hear them mentioned in a turn of phrase, a discussion of Halloween costumes, or see one staring at me while I eat breakfast. Two surfed on the hood of my car for a block or two after I stopped for coffee recently. I suppose I shouldn’t mention that the bird pictured above was killed in a brutal showdown in my bedroom and then hidden by my triumphant feline friend. I didn’t find that poor soul for a few weeks. And that’s not all. Almost every book I have read in the past few months has featured birds…including:
Little Bird of Heaven–Joyce Carol Oates
The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt (Not finished. No spoilers!)
Ocean at the End of the Lane–Neil Gaiman
Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott
Imperfect Birds–Anne Lamott
Even Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, had a chapter about a parrot that I read and reread repeatedly throughout the summer. And on my book list to read next? When Women Were Birds byTerry Tempest Williams. I swear. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also read Gone Girl, which has no significant bird that I recall).
If they were all crows, I would assume something terrible were about to befall me. I’m hoping I attract birds for a more benign reason. Perhaps I smell like a flower, or a heap of birdseed.
In any event, it’s time to get a feeder and a bell for the cat.
When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”
I never had.
How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.
But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.
Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”
I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.
Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?
This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.