Pain

Photo Credit: Raúl Hernández González
Photo Credit: Raúl Hernández González

First it is bad gas and ear aches; the crack of the skull on a coffee table. At 6, 7, 8, it is skinned knees, imperfect spelling tests, being picked last for kickball teams.

At fifteen, there is acne and shame and unrequited love. At 18, the moment when you part ways with everything familiar and enter the unknown, alone.

Personal failure and public failure and betrayal follow.

Then, the moment when childhood dreams become not only improbable, but impossible; the times when faith is diminished.

There is grief and a bad back, insomnia and bitter disappointment.

But there is always a salve. Almost.

The Day After

Photo Credit: KFDL
Photo Credit: KFDL

How was it that life could bear to continue after the world had ended?
And yet, in the face of great tragedy, the question remained: “What’s for dinner?”

Equal parts numb and raw, Elaine meandered the aisles, staring at beans and milk and leeks and lettuce; seeing nothing.

A friendly clerk eyed her, asking, “And how are you today?”

“I’m—“ she began, but nothing more emerged. There was a reddening, a sudden wetness around the eyes.

“We are how we are on days like these,” he said–not unkindly–and he made his way back toward check stand five.

How to Survive the First Night in Hell

Photo Credit: www.ua2a.com
Photo Credit: http://www.ua2a.com

Turn off the TV.

After crying uncontrollably for an unspecified amount of time, sit down and talk with your kids about why we have three branches of government.

Pick something small that is annoying—like mismatched Tupperware, or a lost retainer–and throw all of your ire and frustration and hopelessness and devastation in that direction for a while, so you don’t have to think about the greater tragedy at hand.

Hug everyone you can find.

Have a glass of water and a sedative.

Contemplate the stars. Think of things that are true and good and will outlast this calamity.

 

(**Special thanks to Andi P.**)

R.I.P.

©2011 Beret Olsen
©2011 Beret Olsen–Not Piranha. I couldn’t make myself photograph a frozen fish.

 

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.

Ice Cream

Image from www.reddit.com
Image from http://www.reddit.com

Last year, I went home to watch my father die–though I didn’t know it until I landed.

We gathered round him to sing and reminisce; to hold his hand and each other.

Twelve hours later, we were arranging logistics, designing a bulletin, planning the memorial.

One by one my siblings hopped their flights to head home, but there were still a few hours before mine.

Raw from crying, my mother, brother, and I ran out of things to say. We found ourselves in a booth at Dairy Queen, eating a Blizzard, a Buster Bar, a slushie, wondering, what next?

A Shout out to The-Bomb-dot-com and all the Small Stuff that Saved Me

Where I didn't go.  Photo credit: National Geographic.
Pictured above: where I *didn’t* go. Photo from National Geographic.

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.

My Father’s Compass

newspaper2010 sm
A few priorities: the newspaper, a snack, and a view of the lake.

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.