In the Raw

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death.

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.

At least for a day or two.

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You Gotta Have Art

Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.
Watercolor by Janet Mach Dutton.

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.

 

 

 

The End

I had waited for this moment for years.

First with dread, of course–the inevitable fear of the inevitable.

Then I began to pray for it.

I prayed for some relief, some closure, a chance to worry about something completely different.

I punished myself for spawning such blasphemous thoughts, but they came all the same.

 

When it was time, I was ready.

I sat there all night, watching, breathing, waiting.

How did I miss it?

When had the last puff of air passed her lips and dispersed?

In the end, it was impossible to tell when it was. It just was.

Why did I wish for this–

this hole of nothing? This abyss?

****

Random stab at fiction inspired by artist Sophie Calle (long story), and A Night of Writing Dangerously.

 

 

personhood vs. parenthood

Last year, I was feeling so smug, because I watered my orchid stick for six months and it bloomed on Mothers' Day. This year, it's just a stick.
@2012 Beret Olsen     Last year, I was feeling so smug because I watered my orchid stick for six months, and it magically bloomed on Mothers’ Day. Sadly, this year it’s just a stick. Oh well. Happy Mother’s Day anyway.

One summer day in my early teens, my parents and I went on a long drive from our woodsy cabin to Lands’ End.

Though we had hoped for a sunny day on the coast, the fog was so thick we could barely see the sea from the shore. We meandered along the water’s edge in our own little pocket of cloud, quite separate from the world beyond. I thought I would say something nice for a change–perhaps even express some filial gratitude–when I noticed an odd look on my mother’s face.

She raised her arms, laughed out loud, and launched her sprawled limbs into a cartwheel in the sand. It was so astonishing, so completely unexpected, that I suddenly realized how little I knew about her beyond the character she played at home. Now I might consider her as more than my mother, someone whose inner life might be rich and complicated, someone who had lived a lifetime before she made me.

Not that she ever turned another cartwheel, but still. I continued to wonder about her, too Scandinavian to pry.

The only clue I had to her younger days was a doll she called Judy, which she had lovingly arranged in a child-sized rocker facing my bed. She was eerily beautiful, despite a crack across her cheek, a worn petticoat, and misshapen, yellowed socks. Judy had stared at me tight-lipped for years, never spilling the secrets of my mother’s childhood or beyond.

I imagined my mother quarantined on her parents’ plastic-covered couch, hands folded primly, dreaming of play; dreaming of siblings.

Did her parents have the same ancient hard candies back then–the ones at which I stared during my visits to Grandma’s– arranged in the same fancy china dish?

As an adult I get little glimpses of her as a non-mom. Like the night my spouse got her a little tipsy, and she dropped the f-bomb telling a joke. How lucky for me, that there are still opportunities to hear my mother’s stories.  Now, to find the time and the courage to ask.

I look at my kids and wonder: when will I suddenly appear to them as more than a purveyor of fine snacks, a laundress, a driver, a shoulder to cry upon? What will I do or say that will alert them that there is an actual person in my shoes? Chances are, they’re already clued in. I haven’t played the role quite so gracefully as my mother.