Saturday, April 25, 2015

wild fennel

Your mother sounds skeptical when you mention you're going out with him again, after one too many nights of seeing you come home sad, mad, or on the verge of tears. You tell her it's only trivia at the bar, don't be silly, you're just friends now. You tell her you're pretty sure you won't be crying over him anymore.

She was right, of course, as mothers so often are about stubborn, foolish daughters. And so you find yourself walking home alone again, vision blurred with angry tears, wondering what the hell you're doing in this tiny little town, house key gripped painfully tight in your left pocket.

But there's a picture from earlier, taken as you walked out to the pavilion alongside this man you've loved for years. There was this moment of grace somewhere out there by the harbor, a moment of bursting light and the scent of wild fennel wafting along the path, a moment in which you wanted to take his hand -- even after everything, even after all of this.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

waking

The waking-up noises here are vastly different, of course, from those I grew to know so intimately during the twelve years I lived in my beloved little apartment perched on the northwest edge of Manhattan.

I've been in this little town -- this tiny city, if you will -- for four months now as of last week and have only recently really begun to listen to the early morning. I've begun, it is true, ignoring my quarter to six alarm, lolling about in bed until six, six-thirty, sometimes even pushing on towards seven.

Sometimes the Llama-monster jumps up on the bed, curls into my neck, soft and purring, drowning out the almost-silence, lulling me into forgetting where I am, and how it is not where I've been for so long.

Other times she doesn't, and I find myself lying there quietly in bed at first feeling guilty about not immediately getting up and on with the day. But then I've been falling into the silence, feeling the weight of bed and sheets beneath and above me, the feel of hair tickling my ears, the sound of my breath. I've begun noticing the quietly sporadic symphony of early morning bird songs, the cresting waves few and far between of the traffic over on 12th Street, muffled by the houses between there and here. If I let myself linger long enough, I start counting the different birds, the increasing traffic as early commuters start coming in from off the ferries, and the noise begins to swell into full day.

Sometimes I miss the cacophony of the pre-dawn garbage trucks in Washington Heights getting it city ready for its day. But I think I could get used to these meditative hours or half-hours, here in this tiny city, counting bird calls and cars passing by, one by one by one.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

another april eighteenth, relocated

Marking twenty-two years today since losing Dad, and the first time I've spent the day as a resident of the state he grew up in and loved so much. The day was beautiful, and filled with warmth and sadness and anticipation: a morning coffee walk & talk with Mom, an afternoon spent with a new friend generous enough to come over for a photo shoot for my latest shawls, and now a quiet evening with the folks.

There is something to be said for quiet days spent with loved ones, surrounded by gardens and the ocean air. And also something to be said for hording these old pictures that Mom and I have been sorting through these last few months. Just look at that face, decades before that warm, sunny, gut-wrenching April 18th twenty-two years ago. It's enough to make me smile no matter the day, and reinforces this strange sense of maybe finally being home.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

the sea, again

We spent an afternoon last week having one of those long, meandering, utterly heartbreaking conversations that seem to never want to end. We perched for hours on a bench overlooking the Salish Sea, our words laced through with rage and loss, resentment bubbling up before receding back into tears.  I tried to explain, as we sat there in the salty ocean wind, how I had imagined breathing this air with him, here on the edge of things, thousands of miles away from the concrete and noise of New York City. And I tried to hear all the ways in which I have let him down, all the ways in which we have failed each other. He, ever the optimist, said there is plenty of air to go around, even in those moments when it feels like we just can't breathe.

Eventually, though of course not really, there was even a quiet peace, perhaps born more out of emotional exhaustion than any real denouement.

The sun had long since passed its zenith by then, glaring down on us from the western sky, dulling the chill of an early-April breeze. And the following morning, an angry red sunburn encircling my neck -- but for a glaring white stripe where my necklace had been.

Monday, March 16, 2015

sky

The sky was heartbreakingly beautiful this morning, half past seven, as I began the walk back in to town from my housesitting gig. So windswept and dynamic and pulsing with all that is life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

salt

I'd not been to that particular beach before.  The air was bright that day, and the sky clear as we straggled, the three of us, along the water's edge. The sun was in my eyes and I found myself pausing on the edge of things, squinting out at the sky and the sea and the islands floating there. My mother walked up to me and said, "Emily, you look so happy right now."

We left the beach with pockets full of rocks, rounded pebbles smoothed by waves and sand and the ages, perfect for holding curled tightly in a fist. Grainy sand clung to them, and then to my fingers, damp and cold, begging to be licked. And the salt of the Salish Sea tasted better to me than tears.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

outside

The stupid thing about dying is that we all go through it but we so rarely seem to understand it, and I am finding that my cavalier attitude towards it is wearing a bit thin these days.

I've wrapped this cavalier-ness around me -- and at times an accompanying near disdain for grief -- since I was sixteen years old. Once you've watched your father writhing on the lobby floor at the local Boys & Girls Club, and then watched his eyes glazing over, there's maybe not much room left for empathy.

I don't know that I've ever really gotten over it, though I've learned to fake it better over the years. I've learned to sound knowledgeable about death: about the witnessing of it and the mourning of it, about the cocooning inward that happens sometimes after it.

They say, about childbirth, that your body forgets the pain, the agony, of it all. I wouldn't know about that, but I wonder if the same is true of deep, deep grief. How else to survive the mind-numbing brutality of it, after all, than to forget?

I'd forgotten the feelings of loss behind the facts of my father's death. The closest I can come now is to the grief I felt after a boyfriend up and left in abrupt and spectacular fashion after five years. For weeks I couldn't sleep, couldn't breathe, felt the world closing in around me, kept looking for the thing that would make me feel better only to discover that the next thing never helped.

It's a silly comparison, I know, but it's the place I can look to for empathy. Adult grief is so much different, I think, than adolescent grief.

The year or so after Dad died, I found myself not cocooning in, but rather bursting out through the seams, craving attention and worry and concern, staying out late, sometimes staying out all night, or for days on end at friends' houses. I dyed my hair black and stomped around in black witchy shoes and took up smoking Marlboro reds. I curled up and cried at parties, fell asleep at the movies, cut way too many classes, sat silently and stared oh so direly into space. Some of my friends took to making sure I had someone to hang out with on certain nights. Some of them called this Emma-sitting, as in, "Who's got Emma tonight?" I like to think they didn't mind this task so much, but of course they did. We were seventeen years old.

Now I am watching this person I love going through the loss of his father. We're supposed to be grown up now, and there will be no rending of garments, no slashing and burning the world around us to the ground.

I am selfishly trying to remember that being on the outside of this is the right place for me to be: to be the person needed in the moments needed, to show up uninvited without feeling unwanted, to sit quietly over cups of tea, to not be the one needing to be held.  I am trying to learn how to reach deep into a darkness I don't quite get for an empathy that seems like it should be easy.

Friday, March 06, 2015

in memoriam: a good man

All you had to do was walk into his presence, smile and say "Hi, Harold," and his face would just light up. It was, as they say, a sight to see.

He wasn't always that happy man, and struggled for years with depression and alcohol, sons he rarely saw and women he'd left behind. I didn't know him back then, of course, but rather met him years after he had managed to settle into a life that he loved -- with his wife Andrea, whom he married back in '76, and his son Evan, my sweet man, born three years later.

To me, honestly, he seemed like a giant teddy bear -- a quiet, gentle, bearded man with the strength of an ox and the steadfastness of an oak. It's hard to imagine those earlier years of discontent, of wandering the world, of serving in the Merchant Marines, getting shot at while running ammunition up the Saigon River, leaving broken hearts in his wake. It's hard to imagine but it also explained the hints of sadness, of longing, that seemed to linger sometimes in the creases at the corners of his eyes. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, with him, between laugh lines and loss.

One of my favorite memories of Harold, Christmas of 2001. Nathan and I flew in to SeaTac from New York and Evan came to pick us up. His car broke down before we even got north of Seattle, but we managed to get to a friend's apartment. It was late, closing in on midnight by then, and Evan called his mom to let her  know we wouldn't be able to make it home that night. Moments later Andrea called us back to tell us Harold was out the door, car keys in hand -- there was no way in hell he was leaving his kid with a broke-down car in the middle of the night, hours away from home.

Another favorite memory, July of 2009, at the barbecue Mom and Paul hosted here in Anacortes for all the west coast folks who wouldn't be able to attend Nathan's wedding in Philadelphia that September. Paul spent the afternoon working his oyster-grilling magic and Harold spent the afternoon holding trays of oysters, wandering the barbecue, quietly offering them to the other guests. There was something so sweet, such a desire to be present and helpful despite a quietness that maybe sometimes made conversing difficult for him, that I found myself wanting to just give him a big huge hug. That was a few months before Evan and I got together, but I knew by then that his was a family I wanted to get to know better.

Evan moved to New York not long after that, and for the next few years it broke my heart when it came time to say goodbye to Harold at the end of our Anacortes visits. He always looked so sad to see us go, to see this beloved son of his leaving for the far side of the country. I can only imagine his joy when Evan decided to move home again almost two years ago, and then I didn't have to imagine it when I finally moved to Anacortes a few months ago.  He wore it all over his face.

The last few months were hard for Harold after spending a lifetime building houses, sailing the seas first in the Merchant Marines and then as an engineer for the Washington State Ferries, road-tripping with friends and family, learning the banjo and the dobro and falling into the wonderfully close-knit and familial world of the northwest bluegrass scene. The last few months saw his world shrink down to a recliner chair in the guest room, the trip from there to the kitchen, to the bedroom or bathroom and back again. As his liver disease progressed his eyesight grew worse and he began struggling to follow a conversation, to differentiate at times between waking and sleep, to eat, finally to breathe.

Yet through these months of enduring this slow decline and ever-shrinking world, Harold continued to live with an almost shocking grace. We would sit quietly together for a little while most days, he in his recliner chair and me pulled up close with my knitting in my lap. The television would be playing -- old westerns or Pandora bluegrass or country music stations -- and we'd talk about random things, as thoughts rose up through the increasing muddled-ness of his mind. The merits of the Beatles verses the Stones. The surprise of watching old tv shoes (Sanford & Son, specifically) and hearing words that are no longer okay to say. Whether or not I'd like some weed with the celery and peanut butter we were munching on (I didn't). Whether or not he wanted to continue taking anti-depressants. The frustration of causing stress and work for his loved ones.

Once, when I was sitting with him so Andrea could go out for a hair cut, he asked me a couple times when she'd be back. Eventually I noticed him looking off into the distance, a sad and affectionate smile on his face. When I asked him if I could get him anything, he sort of shook himself aware and said, "I sure miss that woman when she's not here...."

Another time, I arrived at the front door to find a semi-frazzled Evan trying to clean Harold up after his breakfast hadn't settled well and he'd vomited all over himself, his chair, the floor. I ended up sitting with Harold in the bedroom while Evan finished cleaning up the mess in the other room. Harold asked where Evan was, what he was doing, kept saying what a good boy Evan is, and eventually this: "I'm so glad he's my son. Otherwise I might not have been lucky enough to know him."

Home hospice care began this past Sunday, the hospital bed arrived Monday afternoon, and though of course we all knew what that meant, I think we were expecting weeks, months, to be able to sit with Harold, to smile at him and bask in his gentleness. Not days, certainly not hours.

It was a good dying, in the end. Early Tuesday morning he took his last breaths in his bedroom, in this gorgeous house that he built, his wife and son at his side. But despite that it is still a shock, as death always seems to be, and the void in the shape of this dear man will linger for a long time, as it should.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

there was no more sleep

Woke up just before 5 this morning from strange dreams of frantically running through subway stations, missing trains, losing myself in miles and miles of concrete and the dark. The Llama-monster decided it was the perfect time for a rare moment of being all snuggly lovey-dovey, though, purring and crashing her head into my hands demanding petting, making her funny chirpy contented noises and offering her fluffy soft belly for rubs. There was no more sleep to be had.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

waves

Today, just before the alarm went off at quarter to six, it was a tsunami that was on the verge of wreaking havoc in my dreams.

They come in waves, these dreams of a breaking future, but usually they involve nuclear war, and winter, and ash. This morning I was in Brooklyn (in my sleep), trying desperately to get to higher ground. I and the others around me climbed up to the roof of an old stone church and listened for awhile to a crazy preacher-man extolling the coming end times. Then I was in my apartment up in the Heights, fingers crossed that it was high enough, trying to call my mother before the wave came crashing up the Hudson, frustrated because all that came out of the phone was that same crazy preacher-man.

This morning, at least, I slept through till my alarm clock went off despite the roaring water in my head. I spend more time than I'd like wrestling in the wee hours with sleep. Sometimes I think I should curb my reading habits, start reading things like Nora Roberts and Tuesdays with Morrie.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

reason number 1,359,127 i love my brother

I came home this evening to find a huge box on my doormat. It was addressed to me, but the return address was for a company I'd never heard of before. I spent a few minutes racking my brain, trying to remember if I'd ordered something and forgotten about it -- one of those things from Amazon, maybe, that come from a different seller. Finally I opened it up to find it full of snack-size packages of PopCorners. No invoice, no note, no packing slip, no nothing. Just bags and bags of PopCorners.

After having my credit card number stolen not once but twice in the last eighteen months, I had a moment of panic -- until realizing, of course, that it'd be a hilariously inept credit card thief who used said stolen credit card to send the credit card owner a box of snacks. So I looked up the company and sent them an email asking what this box was about, thinking maybe they'd made a mistake and sent an order to the wrong person.

Later, in the midst of a long catch-up conversation with my mother, I mentioned the mysterious box. She said, "Huh. Sounds like something Nate and Shanna might do..."

So later still I asked him and he said (and I quote), "They have PopCorners on JetBlue. Delicious."

And that was it. About a month ago I spent a day with Nate in Boston, and somewhere in a full day's worth of rambling sibling talk he mentioned that they were flying home on JetBlue. I said that when the basket of snacks came around, he should try the PopCorners. Because they're delicious, and I've only ever had them on JetBlue flights.

But now, now, I have 40 bags of them in all the different flavors. Because of two sentences caught in the middle of thousands of words of conversation almost a month ago. (Okay, 39 bags. Turns out the Sweet Chili ones are pretty good.)

As if I needed yet another reason to appreciate and adore that incredible brother of mine.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

fall

It felt like fall this morning, when I stepped out of my apartment building into the quiet street, and a crisp beautiful sadness lingered in the air like the scent of fermenting apples, of smoke, in the pre-dawn light.

I walked beneath the lightening sky, face turned to the sun just beginning to rise in the east, and then came home for tea and kitty-snuggling and yarn-winding. Eventually left again to meet Nick for a wander through downtown Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge and on into Chinatown for a late lunch.



The day was as beautiful as the morning, and felt less sad.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

eulogy (in which i come clean)

Kristen Purcell Fundraiser

The first concrete memory I have of her involved a sand castle and an elvish battle and her, looking quizzically at me from behind that lanky reddish-brown hair that often fell in wisps in front of her eyes.  She had let me draw her into one of my many make-believe worlds probably involving pitched warfare and dramatic chases and all kinds of magical goings-on.

But what I remember best is her 9-year-old face crinkling up into a skeptical-beyond-her-years look and saying something along the lines of, "Okay, but WHY would Roquat the Red be trapped in his tunnels if he and the fairy queen have a secret alliance?"

She was always looking for an explanation, that girl.

I was talking recently with my Ari-love about our memories of Kristen and she said that she'd always felt like there was a question mark hovering over their friendship, going back to our high school years.  I said from what I remembered of her, that I imagined she wasn't alone in feeling that way.  We agreed, though, that she had what seemed like an unusually developed sense of both fairness and acceptance for someone so young, at least for other people -- I imagine she was harder on her self.

The last concrete memory I have of her involved a missed train, a frantic 19-year-old me trying to get back to the city, and her, unquestioningly willing to pick me up in Shrub Oak and drive me to the Croton Harmon station at what was probably an ungodly hour of the morning.

That would have been 1995, at the waning of the year and mere weeks before I ended up dropping out of Barnard, much to the confusion and dismay of friends and relatives alike.

She lived another nine and a half years and I have no idea what she fell into, other than brief snippets of information from mutual friends. She was having fun and being smart with her drug use.  She had a job as an au paire. She was doing great. She had OD'd. She was fine. And eventually, one warm summer afternoon in 2005, a sobbing, near-hysterical phone call with the news:  Kristen was dead, found in her apartment by a friend who had started worrying.

I sometimes wish we'd intersected during those intervening years, as we each played with and struggled over our particular demons. We both skipped along from one drug of choice to the next but I, at least, eventually skipped along to less scary playgrounds with less dire consequences. (Even then, though, it's hard to stop, and easy to explain away one's drugs when partaking mostly with friends who love you, who are dabblers, who are respectable and smart and don't quite see your desperation, the extra pills you secretly take, the light-headedness and nausea you feel afterwards sometimes for days, the miserable crashing cross-country plane trips during which you kind of almost wish you were already dead. It's also hard to stop when the most magical thing in the world is wandering through Times Square alone at 3am, fairyfied by the wonder that is ecstasy and a summer rain, feeling such deep connection to the sparkly shining air and the laughing giddy people around you that you have to stop moving just to breathe, and so you find a quiet dark stoop somewhere to write out all of this passion you are feeling, only the next day you discover that your treatise on the beauty of life is completely and utterly illegible. Not unintelligible, mind you, but actually illegible. You, with the once-pretty cursive meticulously cultivated ever since grade school, find pages and pages of toddler-scrawl and not much memory of getting home.)

The main difference between us, of course, was that I got out alive and she didn't. I was very lucky in those years after college.

I had a steady, stable, embracing job that provided a reliable paycheck and a place for me to have to go to every day -- a place I actually wanted to go to every day. I'm pretty sure my colleagues didn't know the extent of my after-hours doings, but their warmth in the face of my headaches, my sometimes glassy-eyed stare and exhaustion, was at times more than I could bare. (I imagine they knew a little, perhaps, in the face of (for example) me trying not to stare too intently at my beloved boss as she explained our next project, unaware that her hair, wonderfully curly on a good day, was spiraling and writhing around her head Medusa-like, at least to me, at least after a particularly beautiful but ill-planned night of ecstasy and acid at the same time. Because why not, if you have it.)

I also had friends who, despite enjoying the odd evening of substance-induced debauchery with me, were ultimately supportive and respectful when I finally came to the realization that even these fun drugs -- you know the kinds I mean: the pleasingly multicolored tabs of acid, the ecstasy pills with their fanciful little stamps, the dried 'shrooms that make you think of old flesh -- were too much for me.

I do not know the specifics of Kristen's story, and part of me is glad not to. But I wish, in moments, that we had been more aware of each other during those years; that we could have shared our stories, perhaps shared our burdens, a little bit.

She died alone in the summer of 2005, two years after I finally decided to give it all up, when we were 29 years old. Later this month a few of us are congregating not far from our old stomping grounds to celebrate our 20th high school reunion. It's hard to fathom not her absence at this reunion, as I can't quite imagine she'd have been into such silliness anyway, but her absence in the world  -- this girl we knew, for me practically the girl next door.

We're raising some money in memory of her own personal demons but also in honor of her intellect and inquisitiveness and desire to have everybody get a fair shot -- even Roquat the Red in his underground tunnels, even each of us in our failings, in our disappointments.

We're raising money in particular for a non-profit organization dedicated to helping those struggling with drug issues in legal and medical and practical ways.

Please take a look at the link at the top of this ramble, please consider donating. I think Kristen would appreciate that this money may not only help people get the treatment they need, but may help people get the meal they need, the shower they need, the needle they need.