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Category Archives: memoir

Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

Wintergreen

Wintergreen.jpg

Photo credit here.

Feb. 2, 2016

For some time I’ve toyed with writing about my grandparents and the magic of the Island but I haven’t known where to start. I’m not sure I have a cohesive story. It’s more a collection of memories and impressions.

Today, I have been thinking about thimbleberries. I guess I’ll just start here and see where I end up.

My grandmother Luisa grew up in the North, on an island attainable only by water (or ice) until sometime after WWII, when an airstrip was cleared. Luisa went on to teach grades 1-12 in a one-room schoolhouse on the mainland. Harry, who was predestined to become my grandfather, barnstormed his way north with his best friend; and you can guess what happened next.

Luisa and Harry moved to the East Coast and raised their children near Harry’s extended family. Whether Luisa was more intent on moving towards adventure on the East Coast or away from heartache on the Island is not entirely clear to me. An old maid by the standards of the time, she had been ripe for the picking. I believe she loved my grandfather. I also suspect that, rather than fight for what was hers, she had grabbed at her chance to flee.

Death and scandal had left Luisa in the position of family outsider. When it came time to lay claim to her Papa’s possessions and exercise her rights concerning the family home, she chose to withdraw her claim without fanfare. I am certain she felt bitterness at the time, though she later chewed it to softness. I know this because empathy amplified this bitterness in my grandfather and extruded the excess in comments and gestures which caused my grandmother to blush and squirm. I know this because I can taste it in my own mouth. It has the flavor of unripe persimmon.

I can say with confidence that once she determined to do so, Luisa continued, until death, to work at positive relationships with those who had wronged her, and, in time, with those who had innocently benefited from those wrongs. My beautiful grandmother was a gentle woman–and a gentlewoman–who did not want to hold a grudge against her much younger sister. It was not Darlene’s fault that she was cosseted and petted even as Luisa settled into the role of poor relation. Still, I imagine my grandmother’s kind and circumspect behavior provided both the warmth of kinship and a thorny poke to draw a bead of guilt.

I can also say with confidence that tensions remain to this day. As a young child, I felt frustrated and puzzled at our short, well-managed social calls. We kept a polite distance from the family so as not to wear out our welcome while visiting my grandparents at the house they eventually built for themselves on another part of the Island. It was not long before I grew into self consciousness and entered the awkward games myself.

As did her German father before her, my grandmother endured her losses silently. Her reservoir was, nonetheless, full enough to leak into us. My mother; then my sister Gwen and I; and now my daughters Lindy, Bec, and Claire; have received and transmit Luisa’s melancholy and unfinished business in ever diminishing waves and often without benefit of conscious awareness.

I have lost touch with that branch of the family. I do not doubt that they continue to summer in “the Old House,” as it was called, with no thought of us, as they enjoy their little beach and look across the street any time they please to smile at the Church of Christ, which Papa’s capable and calloused brown hands helped build.

I used to grieve. I had grown up with stories of Papa, and they had become as my own memories. I loved him. He was quiet and good and honorable. He worked hard, felt deeply, and suffered without complaint. His presence echoed throughout the Old House, silently beckoning me as a daughter. He whispered that I belonged there, that I should curl up under the eves at night with cookies and Charlotte Brontë.

As I write this, I know that my grandmother never fully recovered from the loss of Papa Karl. He had been lost to her too many times for it to be otherwise.

Young Luisa lost a part of her father when her mother died. She lost Papa again when she was farmed out to an aunt and uncle in another state. A widower with small children had few options in those times. Her relatives had wanted to adopt her but Papa had said no, he would not give up the “cream.”

My grandmother returned home to lose another part of Papa to Anna, the beautiful, sharp, and too-young woman who dazzled Karl at a time when he desperately needed a helpmate. No shrinking violet, Anna made the home her own and raised their daughter Darlene to be a princess.

Luisa lost Papa twice when his final illness took him. She had not been informed that she should come one last time, and she grieved from a distance without any of his belongings for consolation. He would never know his granddaughter Carol, my mother, or her younger brother. As if these injuries were not enough, Luisa lost her brother, Karl Junior, to Anna as well. Having lived under the same roof as mother and son, they wasted little time on their way to the altar to seal their covenant as husband and wife. I try to imagine what this meant for Darlene.

Generations after Papa’s death, I begrudged my relatives the family property and the stilted cheer which held me at arm’s length. By the time I arrived on the scene, the wagons had long circled Anna and, by extension, Darlene, whose emotional fragility and need for protection were understood as fact.

If there were villains, they are no longer. I say these words, and the taste of persimmon lingers. In truth, the high-strung Darlene became a devoted spouse and the loving, capable mother of four. I suspect now that she was without guile. Her childlike heart, so carefully protected by spectator pumps and silk blouses, was revealed the moment she arrived at the Old House each summer. Her first act, always, was to drop everything, put on her swim suit, and baptize herself in the clear and frigid Lake. I witnessed this ritual several times myself. Her face was unguarded.

This (his)story has grown as wavy as an old window pane. It is as true as I can achieve without stirring up old hurts. Though I experience longing, the longing I feel is rooted in a time which can never return. If I possessed the Old House, I would not have money for regular visits and necessary upkeep. And by this time, the family tree has branched so widely that any gain on my end would spell upset to whole families who have grown numb to the degree of privilege they enjoy. If the tables were turned, it would be my cousins telling this tale.

I last visited the Island 20 years ago, and it was much altered. The town beach was fouled, and the naked red mud of fresh driveways marred the untamed perfection. Perhaps my island is no longer haunted. Perhaps my island no longer exists. At the very least, the ghosts are hiding behind a new face.

The Island had long attracted summer regulars, its harsh winters inhospitable to all but the locals. Aspen by aspen, its soul was sold to the well-heeled few, its mystery giving way to a sort of Newport of the North; and I was struggling with the change. This is progress, I remind myself. Time does not stand still. Surely the Native Americans, now warehoused in reservations, have much more to bemoan than I. What was my paradise if not a despoiled version of their own?

So today I will think only of thimbleberries.

My grandparents eventually returned to the Island and built a house near McDaniel’s Point. At length, Harry had convinced Luisa to return to the Island. He loved, loved the Island, it is true. But he also possessed a streak of pride which would not allow him to feel bested.

My grandmother named their home “Wintergreen,” though it also became known as “the Little Big House.” The uncanny two bedroom, one bath cottage and its detached garage cum guestroom, could accommodate any number of bodies without feeling cramped. As long as some of us agreed to bathe in the Lake. And use the Boston bean pot.

Wintergreen was situated deep in the woods, open sky visible only above the winding drive, the garage and double parking spot, the house with its postage-stamp lawn, and the patchwork series of steps to the lake below. Oh yes, and the ravine which descended along the edge of the property. Due to the climate, the deep shade, and a preponderance of creatures, attempts at traditional gardening were doomed. I recall my grandmother’s judicious transplantation of forest ferns to line the pathway to the house.

The sunniest spot on the property was right at the nose of our station wagon Betsy, stopped, as she was, on the brink of disaster. My father had to pull into the parking spot carefully lest he push past the log boundary, plow through the brush, and tumble into the steep ravine which fed into the lake.

Why tell of that wild green patch which bowed to my grandfather’s pampered Bonneville and tickled the chin of our own family car? Because that was where the thimbleberries grew. We competed for the few precious berries. Too tasty to hoard and too delicate to store, we enjoyed them on the spot, their soft flesh melting on our tongues.

Too soon gone.

Dread

silk.jpg

Photo credit here.

I wrote this on May 25th of this year but it felt too vulnerable for to me to share at the time. Today seems like a good day to post it. I’m sitting in my office with the luxurious gift of time, courtesy of Jonas and his aftermath….

It’s a holiday weekend, and I should feel relaxed. Instead, anxiety is gnawing at me; and I want to eat everything in sight.

This has been going on since yesterday. I thought that if I took care of some things I had been putting off, I would feel relief. This is how I usually manage my anxiety, and this is what I have taught our children since–sorry, girls–they have inherited some of my bits.

There are many necessary tasks I do not enjoy. I am good at my job but I am a poor housekeeper. I can bake all night long but I can think of a million reasons to avoid working in the yard.

One of my most dreaded tasks is my core exercises. These exercises are the same routine I have been enduring since my nanny days, and I am bored to tears. I begrudge the 20 or so minutes I need to do them properly. Add the extra exercises and stretches I have incorporated to to help offset all the sitting I do since I began counseling full time, and you have dread with a capital D. I tend to forget that without this discipline, I start stooping like a crone, and people start asking when I’m due. Should I be happy or alarmed that, being as I’m into my 50’s, the pregnancy question has tended to give way to inquiries about beer consumption?

I blame my father, by the way. I seem to have gotten his undiluted posture genes. I also inherited a flat chest and somebody’s tiny hips, which meant that my abs ripped further during each pregnancy and left me looking pregnant forevermore. Thank goodness, I got a decent butt and a pretty nice pair of legs out of the deal.

Feeling so anxious has had me trying to deduce which Dreaded Task I need to tackle to get the monkey off my back. I cleaned the master bathroom, dealt with the laundry, tidied the kitchen, did my exercises, walked the dog, and made sure all my agency paperwork was up to date.

Nope. Still anxious.

I had an eating disorder in the 80’s. I learned in 1987, when I decided to start being honest with myself, that I would keep eating until I figured out what was eating me. I made a rule for myself: When I get the urge to Eat, I have to immediately stop what I am doing and sit quietly until I figure out what it is I don’t want to feel. THEN I can eat–whatever I want and as much as I desire. Except, at that point, I no longer want to.

Since those early days of truth, I’ve used this strategy here and there when I’ve found it difficult to hit the off switch. I’m happy to report I have gotten out of practice.

It finally dawned on me that I needed to draw on old experience. I sat down alone with myself until one part of me spoke to the other and cleared up the mystery.

It was ridiculously simple.

I don’t want to go shopping.

Yes, really.

I don’t want to go shopping.

I have a wedding to go to next month. A Southern wedding, in fact. I think that ups the ante, and I think the itch on the back of my neck is a hive.

Knowing how much I dislike trying to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear, I had given myself a deadline: One month before the event, I was to assess my wardrobe and shop for whatever clothing I would need. I knew to put this mandate in place because of wardrobe crises past. This weekend marked 4 weeks until the event.

I have not yet addressed the wardrobe problem, and I am prickling with anxiety.

My sister Gwen gets upset with me and tries to boost my self esteem. I get mad back and tell her I like myself just fine. This is mostly true. I feel like a million bucks sitting here in my flip flops and battered cargo shorts. I am sporting the oversized t-shirt our oldest daughter made me for Mother’s Day back in 1997. She finger painted a portrait of me and signed it with a handprint. I feel every inch the loved and desired woman. I am showered, shaven, and deodorized. My teeth are flossed and brushed. My clothes are clean. My body works fine. What else is required?

I have come to accept dressing for work. I stick to a uniform of bland pants and interchangeable tops and scarves so I can mix and match until kingdom come. This checks the box. I am not my clothes.

But a wedding? I feel faint. I am an outsider in the sisterhood of women. Some things I just don’t get: clothing, makeup, nail care, home decorating, and talking about home decorating. I feel like an alien.

The only way to get over this is to get through it.

I have made an appointment for advising and moral support with Claire, our 17-year-old daughter, for 6:30 tonight. She is going to accompany me on a shopping trip and talk me down when I go into fight or flight. I want to honor our niece at her wedding. I love her enough to speak the language of the normal. I’m going to play dress up. I am going to shut my mouth. I am going to like it.

I’m getting this out of my system now because once I commit, I am going to hold my head high and wear those threads like a princess at a ball.

Glass slippers in size 10, please.

This is a Biscuit

Schulranzen

My red leather bookbag, shown with one of my Latin text books and one of the books assigned in my German class: Kleider machen Leute by Gottfried Keller.

January 24, 2016

This collection of words is a biscuit.

These paragraphs are here to sop up some of the leftovers now that my story about Hanna has run its course.  Hanna’s influence and tangible reminders of our friendship are grafted into my daily life and therefore unavoidable—which is not to say they are unwelcome. But they do remind me that the story can never truly be done.

And so, if you have the stomach for it, you can read this postscript. This is my second postscript, and I am certain there will be others here and there. If you are unfamiliar with the story–if you are sick of the story–stop here. I’ll be none the wiser.

Lindy, our oldest, is out of our nest and lives in a tropical climate. She still has a couple of boxes here, and some of her things hang on a rod in the basement. Among her belongings is an incredible leather jacket she scored several years ago on Black Friday. She doesn’t need it, and she can’t part with it. Both are true.

Lindy has been after me to treat it with leather conditioner. I hope mink oil is the right treatment because I just spent the better part of an hour massaging it with love. This seemed a good occupation for a snow day with nary a plow in sight. When would I get to it otherwise?

I like to touch. I like to dig in the dirt, and I don’t care what happens to my nails. I hate wearing gloves when I wash the dishes. Once I got my hands coated with mink oil, I figured I’d better make the most of it. Out came all the leather goods I could find.

As I worked, I had plenty of time for reflection…

…which was helpful, since I found, in the back of my closet, amongst my scuffed shoes, my old red Schulranzen still stuffed with artifacts from Hanna’s and my youth.

I had to beg for this bag. I wore it strapped to my back, as was the custom. I packed it so full it took all my wiry strength to grab the tree limb, swing myself over the high fence, and bolt through the neighboring apartment complex to avoid getting caught taking the illicit shortcut on my way to and from school each day. You would have done it too! I promise.

I removed the articles crammed into the bag and cleaned it with care. I worked the fragrant fat into its parched skin as I thought about the Hanna and all that had gone before.

And here is the biscuit:

In the year following Hanna’s departure, we worked hard to understand its finality. It seemed impossible that we were really done.

One evening, when all five of us were under the same roof–Henry, Lindy, Bec, Claire, and I–the girls confessed their sadness and hurt.  Aunt Hanna had stopped loving them, they quavered. They knew she had been fed up with me but they had never dreamed their aunt would cease to be their aunt. But Hanna, for the first time since their births, had declined to acknowledge them at all. Birthdays were the hardest. The girls were heartbroken and confused.

One daughter was quieter than the others.

Unbeknownst to us, she had received gifts and overtures of friendship from Hanna and her husband. The message, in short: You are the one who understands us. You are like our very own child.

Our daughter made her choice and told me later, offering little detail. Her kind but superficial responses had been calculated to skirt their need, and communication ceased.

I hadn’t figured on this spillage when calculating the possibility that time would, indeed, heal all wounds.

This is a biscuit.

For the Story of Hanna, please click here.

Candy from a Stranger

Indonesian Food

I was told never to take candy from strangers.

So I didn’t.

I took a whole lunch, and I ate every bite.

I’ve written once before about my love for the community in which I work. Today reminded me again that I have landed in the right place.

I had just returned to my somewhat rundown host church after stepping across the parking lot for coffee and was about to close my office door behind me when I heard a tentative, “Ma’am?”

I turned and saw a tiny woman I did not recognize.

“Ma’am, have you had any lunch today?”

She turned and gestured toward the battered desk which serves as the church’s Sunday reception area. There rested a half-empty platter covered with plastic.

“Would you like to try some Indonesian food? I made it for a prayer breakfast but others also brought food, and the turnout was small.”

The woman brought the plate to my door, where I still stood. This was unexpected. She appeared to mistake my hesitation.

“These are made from sticky rice and coconut milk. The dark one is sweet and has brown sugar. The other isn’t sweet, and it has tuna in it.” Almost apologetically, she added, “I come from an island. We learned to use what we had.”

The lovely, moist rectangles were plated on banana leaves.

I was overwhelmed by her simple kindness. I hurried to get a tissue to use as a plate. A tissue? Well, I am a therapist, after all.

I thanked her profusely.

“Let me think if I have something I can give you,” I said stupidly.

“Oh no,” she said. “You don’t need to give me anything for them. Please—take as many as you want.”

I hadn’t been thinking to pay her, only to share a part of my self in return. I had been visualizing my sandwich, orange, and hardboiled egg. Who would want those? It’s ridiculous, I know. But that was what popped into my mind as I scanned my brain for a gesture of communion.

I ate the rice cakes at the desk where I am now writing. The savory one was a type of tuna sandwich which hinted of ginger. The sweet one was a gooey delight. Without the banana leaf beneath them, the fragrant cakes had become hopelessly grafted to the tissue. I ate them paper and all.

Rita is no longer a stranger.

A Sip of Heaven and a Nibble of Bliss: A Postscript

Ira Rott Koala hat image copy.jpg

Image and hat design by Ira Rott*

This is part of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name for the story in its entirety. The prior post can be found here.

January 6, 2016

The past few months have been a real grind. Today started as a grainy blur. But it got better.

I heard from Torsten today. He is Hanna’s brother. He is a brother of my heart, if not of my blood.

It’s been nearly five years now, and I’ve had not a word from Hanna. Her family has heard little more than I.

Torsten wished me a Happy New Year. He wanted me to know that he and Sophia are expecting a baby girl in May.

He still loves me, and he’s glad I’m in his life.

As I nudged down the road this evening, on the way to my daughter’s orchestra practice, I was suffused with joy, traffic be damned. In the car with me were two of my best girls. I sipped my milky-sweet Earl Grey and savored a cookie baked by my mother’s aging hands. A handmade scarf, the Christmas creation of a beloved niece, encircled me with love.

All will come right. In time. In mysterious unfolding. In winding wending waiting. All is coming right.

I’m going to be an auntie. Or maybe a grandma.

I hope I still remember how to crochet animal hats.

*Ira Rott’s patterns are awesome. Please visit her page here.

The Last Time I Saw Hanna

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

October 20, 2015

I do not believe I have it in me to write this with eloquence. I am just going to tell it. I am weary this week, and relating this ending draws on scant reserves. Please view my friends with compassion. I will put some links to prior posts in blue in case you have not been following along and want to read this in context.

As Hanna and Niko packed to leave our home for good, Hanna made one final request:

“On the day of our flight, will you drive ahead of me to the airport?”

She was afraid she would get lost on the way to the airport and cause them to miss their flight.

I agreed.

Since our friends would be returning after all, they packed only what they needed for the next 10 days and left the rest of their belongings in our basement apartment.

Hanna and Niko pulled out of the driveway with the dream of salvaging their vacation. They had wised up and escaped our false friendship and the “jail” of our basement.

I breathed a bit easier.

A few days later, Henry and I realized we all needed to get away for a few days of rest. We decided to visit my mother in the country, three hours away. I reminded Henry of my promise: I had to be back by 11:00 a.m. on Sunday to make sure they got off safely. We drove separately.

I returned early as planned. I waited in the ancient green wing chair, trying to avoid feeling the horse hair poking out of the arm rests.

Hanna did not come. Noon came and went, and still no Hanna. By 1:00, I was pacing. Hanna had no phone, and I had no idea where they were staying. I am not entirely ashamed to admit that while I was concerned for their well being, by this point in the summer, I was most terrified by the possibility that something would prevent their return to Germany; and we would be left as their only financial, emotional, and logistical supports. I knew their financial resources had to be perilously low.

Around 1:15, I heard a key in the lock. The door popped open, and Hanna nearly fell into the entryway. She was frantic. And this is a woman who always keeps her cool.

“I forgot what day it was.”

Niko had tried to tell her their flight was that day, and she had shushed him. Why? Because he was psychotic. She had assumed he was confused. Hanna had known it was only Saturday. At least, until she had left the hotel room to buy milk. She had happened to look at the receipt as she was putting it in her wallet.

Hanna ran down to the basement and began throwing things into bags.

Here is what I learned about how they had spent the last 10 days of their much anticipated vacation. (These are the days they had tacked onto their visit to our home, against our express wishes, in the certainty that 10 more days would enable them to do all the sightseeing which had not been possible in the first 32 days due to my refusal to loan Niko my laptop. I am uncertain how they could have been so sure of their plan, if the success of their vacation indeed hinged on the matter of the computer, as they had left our home with the same number of electronic devices they had had when they arrived–zero. I don’t know why I even mention this as it is, by now, clear that many things about that month did not make sense.)

Our friends had left our house and headed to a Best Western in a nearby town. In no time at all, Niko had completed his disintegration into psychosis and had been unable or unwilling to leave their room. His unrepentant chain smoking in a non-smoking room had not gone unnoticed. The consequent eviction was troublesome but in the end, Hanna managed to get Niko to leave without out (much) police intervention. I am ever thankful he complied, which you will understand if you are familiar with some of the ways things can go wrong when the police are not properly trained in working with the mentally ill.

And so Hanna and Niko finished their vacation in a small, smoke-filled room. Hanna ran out quickly for food now and then, but that was her only relief. Niko hadn’t really been sleeping, and Hanna had stayed up nearly around the clock to keep an eye on him.

I helped Hanna carry the bags out to the car. Niko was waiting. As I approached the car, Niko approached me. His hair was a stringy mess, and he reeked of body odor and cigarettes. He did not much resemble my jovial friend as he shoved his fist under my nose.

“Stop trying to manipulate my wife or you will have to answer to me!”

I don’t think I answered back. I was too scared. As Hanna and I headed back to the house for one last check, I asked her, “Do you think he would actually hurt me?” I had never been on the receiving end of this type of threat.

Hanna had always insisted Niko would never, ever, hurt a fly, even when psychotic. At their 2006 visit, she had remained unruffled as he roamed the house, muttering. This time, she shrugged. She had too many worries to hold my hand. “Well, I think you never really know.”

In a very short time, I was going to be behind the wheel of a car bearing a corpulent psychotic man who had just threatened to flatten me. I knew that if I were to ask my therapist colleagues, they would advise me to keep my distance. So I wasn’t asking them. I knew I was going to bank on the history of the friendship and take my chances.

Hanna encouraged Niko back into their rental car and followed me to the car return near the airport.

I pulled over onto the shoulder of the busy access road and put on the flashers. I was afraid to follow her into the lot lest I be unable to exit without difficulty. Time was of the essence. Hanna told Niko to get into the back seat of my car and wait. He was unhappy to be left with me but she promised she would be back soon. Hanna drove through the gate, down a long drive, and disappeared from sight.

Niko, restless and uninterested in conversation, exited the car. I was afraid of him. I was also afraid for him. I loved him, and he had been a good friend. What if he walked into traffic? What if he wandered off, and got into some other trouble? As it turned out, he only wanted to heed the call of nature—in full view of passing motorists.

“Oh God,” I thought, “let him not attract notice!” We were at a major airport, after all, and security came and went every few minutes. After taking care of business, Niko took off at a clip towards the car rental place in search of Hanna. I called to him but he kept going.

After some time, he and Hanna returned. It was as though the sun had come out. Niko was happy to see me! He was very chatty as he hopped into the back of my car.

“We’re going on the Space Taxi! You and Henry and the girls are coming too, right? Where are they?”

“I’m so sorry, Niko. They are at home. We weren’t able to get tickets,” I explained, hoping to keep things light. My heart filled.

Once in the terminal, Niko continued to speak nonsense. It was was German and Greek nonsense, so nobody was any the wiser as they checked their bags. I hoped his gently-elevated mood would last until they arrived safely in Germany.

I tried to engage Hanna while we watched Niko wander here and there for a few minutes, taking in the airport. Our talk was strained. She did ask: “Tell me the truth. How bad do I look?”

I was honest. “Bad.”

“We saved for this vacation for so long. I was run down when we arrived. I can’t even imagine how shitty I look now. “

What could I say to that?

“I dread the questions I’m going to get when I go back to work,” she went on.

“Yes.”

It was time.

We hugged. I reassured Niko we would see each other again.

And then they were gone.

I felt taut for several hours after their scheduled departure time. I kept expecting a call saying Niko had not been allowed to board or that the pilot had been forced to land. Relief of a sort, came by midnight; however, I maintained a degree of numbness and denial for months leading up to my depression.

I learned later that Hanna had taken Niko directly from the airport to the mental hospital. In her letter, when it finally did arrive, she told me how proud she was of Niko, that he had still been “himself” enough to manage until she had shepherded him safely to the hospital. “No thanks to you,” was heavily implied.

You know most of what came next.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. The prior post in the story is here.

M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

Don’t even ask me why I thought of M&Ms. I was having a hard day today–after having had a hard day yesterday–when the image of an orange M&M presented itself to me. Not having the energy to fight off this tiny UFO, I capitulated. So today I am an M&M. Yes, the candy. I know it’s dumb, so save your breath.

I’m orange and shiny on the outside. I am smooth and pleasingly shaped. A perfect little pod of Happy. I create a cool and pleasant “click” as I collide companionably with all of you other M&Ms in the larger M&M community.

Except that there is brown stuff inside me. Brown stuff which is threatening to liquefy at any moment. In fact, maybe it already has. Well, and you would assume it’s chocolate and shrug it off. But what if it’s not? What if I happen to be the one poop-filled M&M in all of M. County, XX, and you just haven’t figured it out yet?

I dropped by our administrative offices today to pick up some materials. The ladies who work there are great, great people; and I look forward to stopping in. I am not exaggerating. I ADORE them! But today was difficult. My neediness scared me, and I had to get out fast, before I had an accident. I longed to join their little fun-size bag of office camaraderie even if it meant volunteering for grunt work. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. The caring and warmth of these women would have resulted in melting, and who knows where that might have lead? One little sneeze, one unintentional elbow or funny look, one chance remark….In fact, one false move of any sort would have started the hairline crack in my Happy, and poop would have happened.

Just being in the office this morning took great effort. It was hard to focus on the small talk and the task at hand because of the energy drain inherent in having to operate on Manual Override. On the one hand, I noted how much healing, growth, and self awareness I have under my belt at this ripe old age of 48. I realized, with surprise and gratitude, that I rarely have to operate on manual at all these days. On the other hand, this insight meant that today was a trip back into the familiar land we counselors like to call emotional dysregulation. Ain’t it grand? Come to think of it, that thought is probably why the M&M was visited upon me in the first place. M&Ms: pretty on the outside, crazy on the inside. M&Ms: melt in your mind, not in your hand.

I am just so darned experienced that I can (mostly) hide the craziness and (mostly) function normally until I wrangle the gerbils back into the cage. You can do this too, and here is a quick lesson. You just have to ask yourself about every 30 seconds: Am I being appropriate? What would a Normal Person do now? Then you do it. And you hope nobody sees the brown stain slowly blossoming on seat of your shorts. Afterwards, you go have a good cry and take a nap because Manual Override takes everything you’ve got.

It’s challenging to be professional at best, non-life-sucking at worst, when you crave a haven of unconditional love. Instead of unloading on the Executive Director, who is one of those Moms around whom you can’t help but feel safe, I had to try to be that normal person. Surely the chocolate-filled M&M wouldn’t throw herself on her superior, an overworked mother of three young boys (who is, by the way, at least a decade younger) and demand care. I am a counselor, for God’s sake, and this woman is my boss. Certainly Normal Me would not cry and feel left out because the director now has, as her office administrator, the woman who has been her best friend since childhood. They get to hang out together all the time! What–do I want her to be my best friend? YES! I mean, wait, NO! No offense intended. That’s the poop talking. I hope the office owns a canister of Febreze.

What is wrong with me!? Do you know that in the last two days, I’ve been doing my errands in a daze, once briefly forgetting where I was and feeling lost? This afternoon, I found myself unable to remember if I had eaten breakfast. Yes, counselors, we call this dissociation. I was in a haze like this once in the days after learning of the death of a dear friend. Same kind of weirdness.

I have friends. Very, very, very good ones! Well, yes, but they are very busy, and I don’t want them to think I’m dumping on them.

What I need most is to call my best friend, Hanna; or Skype with her; or write her a long letter. She knows my whole life. She always, always understands me, and she never gets tired of me–even when I have to process a-million-and-one iterations of the same matter, in my completely obsessive and annoying way, in order to bring my mind to rest. Sadly, reaching her is tough. She lives in Europe, and she works full time, and her husband tends to take over every conversation, but still….

Oh no! I just remembered: She fired me 9 months ago.

My direct supervisor, Tim, is very wise. Yesterday morning, I met with him to consult about a new case, a new couple I had met for the first time the day before. I was trying to figure out why worry had kept me from sleep. I was uncharacteristically distressed and felt completely stuck. The husband had assured me he didn’t have anything he needed to discuss in counseling. The wife had maintained she had come only in support of her husband. Hmmm, where did that leave me since they had asked for couples counseling and intended to return.

Part of what disturbed me about this couple was the wife’s denial. She had been alarmed enough about her husband’s behavior and the potential for violence to set up counseling. However, once she got him into my office, she had pooh-poohed (more excrement) and minimized everything. Obvious manifestations of mental illness were, in turn, labeled charming, fun-loving, rational, insightful, and demonstrative of superior intellect. Tim wondered if she had acted this way because she was scared of him. I’m not so sure. The couple owned a kennel, by the way, and spent a lot of time scooping…poop.

I lamented to Tim, “How can you know something and not know something at the same time, especially when it is so obvious?”

A long pause followed.

“Interesting you should ask that,” he replied with care….”I don’t think I can ever recall your saying a case kept you up at night. You don’t have to take this case, you know.”

It took a few moments for his meaning to penetrate. I had both known and kept myself from knowing so many things. At so many junctures. About Hanna and her husband Niko, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. My eventual refusal to collude with their reality had cost me their trust and a lifelong friendship.

“I can’t help them,” whispered. And then I just felt like crying.

I referred them out.

Later I climbed onto Jesus’ lap, curled up, and buried my face in his chest. He held me and told me I was good, and He stroked my hair.

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

This post is the latest in the thread The Story of Hanna. For the prior post in the thread, click here. For the next post, click here.

R. O. Y. G. B. I. V.

Image borrowed from this site.

Image borrowed from this site.

Objective reality may exist but I will never know it.

The Reality of the dissolution of my 37-year-old friendship with Hanna could not help but separate into its constituent realities when subjected to the Prism of Truth. The reconciliation of these fragments is unlikely, as I suspect the Prism has suffered too much damage to allow them a return trip even if it were possible to retrieve the individual rays and direct them backwards. I feel sure that, spouting from the Prism at different angles, these rays, or Opinions, have traveled too far and too wide in the time since our disastrous end ever to be corralled and re-fused into an Amen. Imagine rewinding onto a Popsicle stick the string of a kite which has ascended beyond your line of sight and perched at the top of Everest. Or being flattened by a violent jet of water as you push against it, bucket turned out as a shield, in a fruitless attempt to trace it back to its source and cap it.

Here are the players in that 2011 drama:

Myself: Jane
My husband, Henry.
My best friend, Hanna.
Hanna’s husband, Niko.
Our oldest daughter, Lindy.
Our middle daughter, Bec.
Our youngest daughter, Claire.

And here is what emerged from the Prism:

Niko:
I suspected our RELATIONSHIP had become a RUSE, and I was RIGHT. But I had no idea how much you RESENTED me. It must have been due to my RELAPSE during our last visit. And yet for five years you REPRESENTED everything as being fine between us. You waited patiently for your chance at RETRIBUTION, didn’t you? You waited until we visited to RETALIATE. Now you have exacted your REVENGE, and I hope you are happy. You did wreck our vacation but you did not REALIZE your aim. You did not RUIN my marriage to Hanna. In fact, you didn’t even cause a RIFT.

Hanna:
ONLY you, my OLDEST friend would know where to insert the knife and how to twist it. ONCE, I trusted you. I came to you OVERWHELMED and in OVERT need of kindness and rest, and I was made to feel like an OUTCAST, an OFFENDER. Niko is a keen OBSERVER of people, and he warned me you had changed. I OVERLOOKED his misgivings as OBSESSIVE. Your deceit should have been more OBVIOUS to me. I regret ignoring the OMENS. Thank goodness Niko and I are ONE.

Henry:
YES, this is painful, Jane. But remember it is not all about YOU. Try not to YIELD to anger. You point out that you are not YELLING but I can feel your agitation. We don’t know for sure how this story ends–it may not be over YET. Let’s get through this crisis with as much grace as we can now and save our Ys for later.

Lindy:
I feel GUILTY if I complain because Uncle Niko and Aunt Hanna are our GUESTS. I’m GOING to stay at a friend’s house for a while.

Jane:
I know I have made my share of BLUNDERS this summer but your BRAZEN disregard for our BOUNDARIES is BEYOND BELIEF. I BELIEVED in our friendship but now I just feel BULLIED and BATTERED. I am really not trying to be a BITCH, BUT…it is hard not to become BITTER when your BEST friend BETRAYS you. I can’t wait to say ‘BYE and get this visit BEHIND me.

Bec:
Mom, Uncle Niko has a mental ILLNESS. I think you are being IMPATIENT and INSENSITIVE. His INTENTIONS are good. I’ve been talking to him and Aunt Hanna, and I have gotten a lot of INSIGHT into how hard his life is.

Claire:
Hello? Am I even VISIBLE? Tell Uncle Niko to stop acting like a VICTIM and hogging all the attention.

You see? I could not present the whole. All I could do was imagine its complements, a process which is inherently tainted. Nevertheless, fairness demanded my best effort. Because, while these fragments may never fit back through the Prism, I cling to the foolish hope that they may one day coalesce into a Rainbow.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. The prior post in the story is here. The next post is here.

Hanna Goes M.I.A.

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Niko is a good man, an intelligent man, an interesting man, and a gregarious man.

So far, so good.

Niko is also a man of great appetites, a man with high expectations, a man who insists upon his creature comforts, and a man who has trouble taking “no” for an answer.

In other words, Niko is high maintenance.

I’m not sure I would have sought Niko’s friendship if not for the fact of his marriage to my best friend, Hanna, but we had become close. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize how much I had Hanna to thank for brokering the relationship. And how hard I had worked at it because of my love for her.

When it came to Niko, I took my lead from Hanna. Niko suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What if I had not been able to distinguish personality quirks from manifestations of illness? I trusted her completely when she explained what he required; and why he could or couldn’t manage this, that, or the other. I imbibed deeply when both of them told stories of his traumatic childhood and his continued mistreatment at the hands of, well, just about everyone. Almost no one understood him, evidently. He was special. He was fragile. He needed preferential treatment. I never questioned this. It was just this way.

I have voiced negative sentiments about triangulation but in this instance, I found it helpful that Hanna could translate Niko to me and visa versa. Hanna had gladly assumed the roles of spouse and caregiver; and the title of caregiver called for stints as go-between, mouthpiece, and champion. Due to her more stable mood and reliable judgment, she was also their family C.E.O. C.O.O., and C.F.O.

It was natural for her to advocate for Niko. On the other hand, Hanna had a good sense for the times when Niko wasn’t living up to his potentials. She knew when and how hard to push. Hanna knew when Niko needed a reality check–both figuratively and literally–and when the best medicine was a good swift kick in the ass. When we spent time together, we made a nice little three-legged stool. I didn’t realize that Hanna’s leg was about to give out.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, I briefed Hanna on my decision not to allow Niko to use my laptop. She wished I had told them sooner, and she anticipated his upset. But she saw my point and agreed the decision was a fair one. I breathed easier knowing she understood I did not mean harm. I counted on her to help Niko towards acceptance and to help me work towards a solution.

Learning of my decision, Niko was quick to embark on a campaign to charm or cow me into giving over my computer. Failing to win my submission, he continued to needle me throughout the visit. Now and again he lobbed some outright grenades.

As far as I could tell, Hanna left him to it.

In past years, Hanna had made it her habit to help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. This visit was different, and I am coming to a place of greater kindness regarding what felt like an abandonment. I am more in touch with my feeling of ownership as well, that vague twinge of security in thinking that Niko had her on loan during those months and years when we could not see one another. A few years removed from our unhappy end, I am especially able to appreciate how exhausted and broken she must have been when she arrived hoping—knowing, really–that J.A.N.E. spelled H.O.M.E. She had needed a safe haven for care and recovery.

Hanna had attained middle age, and the demands upon her had only increased. I had witnessed over several years how hard she had worked in a physically-demanding hourly position to give Niko as much as she could. Her steadfast provision had taken a harsh toll. Either our friends lacked support at home or they had rejected the terms of this support; and so providing for Niko’s essentials and extras frequently meant breaking the bank, her back, or both. I have thought often about how spent, betrayed and alone my dear Hanna must have felt that summer, and I will say more about this in time.

Without Hanna’s help, I was hard pressed to manage my family, the household and my part-time counseling job, let alone attend Niko in the fashion he desired.

Sociable between rounds and ever in need of conversation, Niko set up court on the patio with his coffee and smokes. He loved the peace and quiet, and this is where he lived when he wasn’t in the basement—at least until relations between us went from iffy to rancid. He was without his default entertainment, the computer, and was not often able to muster the energy to leave the house.

When Niko asked, early in their stay, why I was avoiding him and why I never made time to talk, I was at a loss. As taxed as I felt, I had been making a point of spending time with him daily. In fact, I was spending more time with him than I was with anyone else, and our children were starting to grumble. He seemed to have forgotten our pre-visit talks and the fact that I was no longer the stay-at-home mother of small children.

Hanna failed to show up in my defense. There was none of her humorous chiding: Niko, don’t be an ass. She spent two hours with you this morning over breakfast. Jane has other things to do besides entertain you, you big lug.

In her absence, he pouted, hounded, and accused. And not always subtly.

One time, further into their visit, Hanna and Niko arrived home after a long night at their new favorite hangout, a biker bar in a nearby town. They had taken to sleeping until about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., puttering around the basement apartment, going to the bar until closing, and then having drinks with the owner for a few more hours. Since their arrival, Niko had not had the stamina to do much outside the house; and I imagine this outlet helped him meet his social needs while assuring minimal contact with my family.

This particular night, something had gone wrong with our refrigerator and the kitchen had flooded. Tired and seeing no effective way to help, Hanna passed through the kitchen with a sympathetic glance. The moment Niko walked through the door, however, he began bailing and mopping as though possessed. Wide-eyed and alarmingly animated, he told a disjointed story about spewing sewage. He appeared to be seeing it in real time. Worried, I shared with Hanna my suspicion that he was becoming psychotic.

The following day, when the two of them ambled up to the kitchen, Niko launched a sudden verbal assault. His rage caught me off guard. My legs turned to rubber, and I gripped the table to keep from going down.

How dare you talk behind my back? How dare you tell tales about me? How DARE you tell Hanna I was psychotic? I was recounting a story which actually happened when our building’s sewage system backed up into our apartment last year! You knew that! I had told you about it!

Where was Hanna? Three feet from us, looking quietly away.

I explained that I must have misunderstood. I tried to explain. I apologized profusely. I thought that all those years had earned me the benefit of the doubt; but they had accrued no interest, and my account was overdrawn. I knew that day that Hanna would no longer keep my confidence.

When it became apparent, not long after the flooding incident, that Niko was indeed on the verge of a break, Hanna actually spoke these words to me. They were intended as solace: Don’t feel too bad. I’ve made him relapse before too.

The hardest part may have been Hanna’s final vanishing act.

About ten days before their scheduled departure, Hanna approached me quietly: Niko wants to re-book the flight for a later date. What do you think?

My response was a diplomatic but firm N.O. I was concerned for myself and my family. I was concerned for Niko’s mental health. I was concerned for Hanna’s job. Her boss had been upset at the length of her original vacation request.

Hanna stated her agreement. She said she was relieved to have her own views validated, and she would just have to break it to Niko.

A few days later, Niko invited me to the basement apartment for a discussion. He informed me (informed) that he and Hanna had decided to extend their stay. Not having the use of my computer had set them back, he said, but he was certain that 10 more days would be sufficient for them to do all the traveling and sightseeing they had originally planned. He knew they could still make the trip a success.

Hanna was as quiet as a church mouse.

I stayed calm. I explained why I thought this idea was likely to lead to further disappointment. If four weeks had not been long enough to get him out of the house for sightseeing, what made him think 10 more days would do the trick?

Hanna remained silent.

I explained why I thought this was a risky plan.

Hanna remained silent.

I said that though it pained me greatly, I would not be able to support their plan. I told them they had to leave the house as agreed.

They extended. Hanna extended.

For several tense days, I watched and waited. There were no signs of packing. I didn’t know what to do.

On the evening of their original departure date, there was still no movement, and I was desperate. I was halfway through my preparations for a late dinner when Hanna emerged from the basement to issue Niko’s invitation for a Greek dinner out.

I can see myself standing stupidly with the pizza dough in my hands.

Niko wants to leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I declined. The situation felt surreal.

She continued: But Niko has been trying to take you guys out ever since we got here. He saved up his money for a long time to treat you. He will be so hurt.

Disbelieving, I responded: Yes. But we have had this discussion again and again. I told him several times that we would love to go but we really need to make plans ahead of time and consider whether or not it is a school night. Niko likes to start planning at dinner time to go out the same night.

She retreated to the basement to deliver the bad news.

A short time later, Niko thumped up the stairs, wronged and angry.

I can’t believe that in the four weeks we have been here, you have never once been able to find one night to take me up on my invitation!

Again, I explained.

You will never guess what happened next: Hanna remained silent.

Soon I heard the sound of showering and a flurry of packing. My best friend and her husband departed around midnight. I guess you could say I kicked them out.

I saw them one last time before they left for Germany. I’m still debating whether or not to tell that story.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

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