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90837

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I have known Avril for precisely 203 hours. I have known Avril for 8 days and 11 hours.

I have known Avril one hour at a time for 6 years and 8 days. She was barely out of childhood when we started our secret meetings. She had to sneak around so that her grandma wouldn’t learn about me and kick her out of the house. Now she is a career woman, a single parent, and a home owner. I am her therapist.

Today when Avril left my office, I dashed for the ladies room in the darkened part of the building. My swollen heart was near bursting. I drew a few quaking breaths, grabbed it in both hands, and wrung. When just enough of it had squeezed out my eyes to ensure that it would fit back into my chest until lunch, I allowed myself one luxurious minute more. Maybe two. Another client was on her way. I dabbed my kohl and returned to my post.

I was not sad. The culprit was gratitude. It had been welling and swelling all morning, and Avril’s face had set me off.

Four weeks ago, Avril had returned after a six-month break. She was aware she was starting to falter. I had held up the mirror and shown her how far she had come. She had curled into herself:

“Stop!” she had cried, “Stop it now!”

Two weeks ago, she knew was flirting with disaster. She was scared because she had stopped feeling scared. Would she grasp for the help she needed before she was all used up? Avril had been taught that depression is not real, that medication is an affront to Jesus. She had gutted it out before–but the stakes had seemed smaller back then.

Avril was but a nub that day. Her face was stony, her voice a near monotone. I thought I spied a spark of “Fuck You” simmering behind her eyes but I couldn’t be sure. It both reassured and alarmed me. The starving, the cutting, all those games.…These had been her tools, both comforting and despised, to secure her care. They had been friends once upon a time. Now they fit her like a too-small skin. Weary from trying so hard to embrace her new size, she sought solace in the familiar. She panicked when she realized she couldn’t go back, and this made her strain even harder. In trying to force matters, she had nearly done herself harm.

She had not yet become small enough for me to intervene. I was worried but I would not mother her. Avril had become a woman, and she had to choose for herself.

Today, Avril arrived with a gaunt face, a giant mug of tea, and no hello. She started talking and left me to fill in the blanks:

“The medication is making me really tired. But I stopped trying to avoid food. I know my appetite will come back if I wait.”

Her face was soft and almost shy.

90837 is the billing code for a therapy session lasting 53-60 minutes.

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America’s Breadbasket

Mom's bread drawer May, 2015

If you want to solve world hunger, look no farther than my mother’s bread drawer. This is what it looked like after she and my stepfather hosted four of us for the weekend. I don’t think this photo could possibly do it justice. We must have looked underfed because Mom sent my stepfather out Saturday afternoon to buy dinner rolls.

In preparation for our brief visit, my mother had done a little shopping. In other words, there was enough food to feed every creature on Noah’s ark.

I haven’t decided if I’m joking. My mother has the best-fed critters around. She lives in the country, and I bet her neighbors love her. Especially the ones who hunt. The birds and squirrels are fed year ‘round, and the deer get corn in the winter. Her “pet” chipmunk eats Cheerios on the front porch. Have you ever seen a fat Greyhound? Me neither. We try to get to her before she gets to our dog. This is a hereditary condition, apparently, and I will have to manage my risk factors. My grandfather used to hand feed racoons from his back yard. His neighbors loved him too.

I try to tell my mother to take it easy. Another part of me loves that I still get to wake up to the smell of coffee and a Mom bustling around the kitchen.

I can offer to plan the food, shop and cook, and she will say yes, but somehow we always end up doing things her way. I don’t think she entirely trusts me. She still hovers over me while I cook.

There was a time when I experienced a certain Shadenfreude but I have good-naturedly surrendered it. I no longer try to coax–or corner–her into eating curries and Korean pancakes. The last really naughty thing I did was about two years ago during one of her visits to us. With a straight face, I asked her and my stepfather to join us for dinner at the Pakistani restaurant down the street. I just wanted to see what would happen. My mother once sent back a plate of pasta at Ruby Tuesday because it was too spicy.

On this weekend visit, I did bring a bag of quinoa thinking it might help me stay on my [insert expletives] low fat diet when everyone else was eating lasagna and hamburgers and the four containers of ice cream in her freezer. She wasn’t sure about that “quinola.” Mom concluded she needed to round out our dinner with rice. She stood over the stove concentrating on those Uncle Ben’s boiling bags, skimming the froth from the pot with a very serious expression. The rice would not have cooked if she had not done this.

I snapped this photo as we were cleaning up and heading out. Oh, we were cleaning up, all right. We scored two giant Ziploc bags of her famous chocolate chip cookies.

My mother knew I was having a laugh at her expense, and she was a good sport: she obligingly offered to rearrange the drawer to give me a better picture. I wonder what she would say if she knew I was going to talk about her on my blog. Oops, wait. She doesn’t know I have a blog. And don’t you tell her!

I’ll be taking a break from posting for a while. My children are coming into town, and I’ve got to go stock up on bread.

For other posts on Mom, click here and here.

Mommy

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Last month, I was more than usually harried as I worked to close up my therapy practice for a few days of fun and rest. I had upped my caseload a few weeks earlier when I realized I was going to come very close to qualifying for an end-of-year-bonus. I knew I would be very upset to miss it by a few client-hours.

Some of my best gals and I were going to the shore for a long weekend. We had planned it many months in advance. I wanted to return rested to a clean desk so I was busy catching up. Plus, being the mom at my house, I felt that instinctual tug to clean up a bit and stock the kitchen. It is the fear of mothers everywhere that a few days away will cause the family to starve or the earth to stop rotating on its axis. I used to cook their meals in advance. My family felt cared for and I felt less guilty at abandoning them so callously.  This also made it less likely they would spend two weeks of my grocery budget on one weekend of eating out. Oh look! I am both grandiose and controlling.

Ha! But this time they had to fend for themselves. This particular week so hectic that I bought two cases of Udon and some fresh produce at the Korean grocery and left them to their own devices. Perhaps a future post should be devoted to Mom Guilt but it won’t be this one.

My dear Mom reached me in the car on my way to the office. Hearing the urgency and fatigue in my voice, she wished me a good trip and said she wouldn’t keep me. She sounded concerned.

I checked my phone as I left the office to run errands at lunch. I felt worried when I saw two missed calls from my mother. She is not one to blow up my phone. I went through my messages and found one from her. She had decided that if she couldn’t lighten my load, she could at least make me Princess For A Day.

My mother starts every message the same way. If I I saved them all and played the tracks simultaneously, we’d have a well-tuned choir: “Hi, Jane! It’s Mom!” She asked for my account number at the credit union we share. She had thought and prayed it through and wanted to give me some money to go out and by myself “something pretty” while I was at the beach.

I don’t do “pretty” very well. In fact, I struggle to maintain an appropriate selection of clothing for work. After my husband and I tied the knot, he groaned when he realized his bride’s wardrobe did actually consist of jeans and a collection of fraying road-race tees. Then he threatened to make them disappear. He didn’t follow through; and here we are, three kids and 27 years later.

I called back and got her voice mail.

“My Mommy!” I blurted without even thinking. Where had that come from? I am 51 years old. I haven’t called her Mommy since I was very young.

My mother is slowing down. I fear she is turning into a little old lady. She carries a cell phone but doesn’t turn it on. She is afraid of it but won’t admit it. She regularly forwards me emails which would make Snopes cry. She is starting to become cute, and we all know what that means: I’ve started to feel tender and sentimental. And protective. Do not ever mess with her. Ever.

No way was I going to let my mother spend her money on me! If anything, it should be the other way around. I was moved by her offer but this was not happening.

“Mommy, I love you so much! You are so, so sweet to me. But I am not taking your money!” I hung up and chuckled, a little dewy eyed. That was that.

When I finished work that day and went through my messages, there was a second message.

“Hi, Jane! It’s Mom. Take the money. I’m not taking no for an answer. Give me that account number or else. And I mean it, buster!”

She got the account number, and I got a succulent scallop dinner at the shore. They were very pretty scallops.

Rule # 16: Sing When You Feel Like Crying

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

My father taught me to sing as a cure for a disturbing condition–a condition disturbing to him.

I’m surprised that I never developed a distaste for singing. On the contrary! I have loved to sing since I was tiny. I sang songs when- and wherever I felt the urge. And I contentedly tried out funny noises just to hear how they sounded. One day, while riding home in the back seat of our station wagon and looking out the window, I caught myself vocalizing and felt sudden shame. I looked around furtively to see if anybody had observed me–whew!–and I made a mad grab for a fig leaf. The seeds of adolescent self consciousness had been sown but singing remained joyous.

After that day in the car, I generally sang in private or with others. As a second grader, I loved to sit on my carport alone and sing from those little booklets used by carolers. I didn’t understand that music gave me direct access to my feelings and helped me to process. I just knew it felt good. Yes, it helped me to process them during periods when I was either too young or too lacking in insight to consciously address my inner state.

I was never a great singer, and at this point in my life, those muscles are shot. My singing voice is growing croaky from disuse. I could make the effort and revive it but these days I am more likely to write. Nevertheless, I can’t shake the sense that the gift of song was delivered in secret to help preserve and protect me. The idea makes me smile. A friend I didn’t know had filled my cup with chocolate milk while my head was turned. A friend I hadn’t yet met had draped a fluffy quit across my sleeping frame.

I sang in choirs as a child and adolescent. As an adult, I did a longish stint as a vocalist in a band. The feeling in my body—both the sound and the vibration—brought deep, visceral comfort. The eerie moments when surrounding voices interlocked with mine to create a perfect Summ* achieved a temporary rapture for which words could not suffice. I had to close my eyes and disappear into it.

My father never liked it when I cried. I’m going to go as far as to say he didn’t tolerate it. He never said outright that it was a bad thing but that is the message I received.

When I was upset and tried to speak to him through my tears, he would say, “Stop whining. I can’t understand you while you are crying.” His attempts to manage me made me cry harder to be heard, and this made matters worse. To have a voice, I had to give up my voice.

My father approached crying as though it were an inconvenient medical condition, such as hiccups, or a pathology in need of treatment. It was disconnected from its origins rather than treated as a symptom of a larger problem. It certainly had nothing to do with him. He decided to help me get over it anyway.

My father shared his tried-and-true cure. He declared with medical certainty that it was physically impossible to sing and cry at the same time. I believed him, and I believe he believed himself. The cure for crying was to sing. It just now occurs to me to ask how he had learned this remedy and what had necessitated it.

So I sang. And now I write.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

*I had to use this German word, which means humming or droning because the sound of word will make you feel what I am saying. Summen recalls the sound of bees happily at work in the wisteria arbor above your head. Say the s like a z and the u like the u in the English word put. Say it out loud. Emphasize the first syllable and feel the zzzzzzz. Listen to it here

Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

Christopher, Part I

Image courtesy of hdm1652

Image courtesy of hdm1652

The chime jingled cheerily as Aris pulled open the heavy coffee shop door. He smelled Cara’s hair as she brushed by him. Their chunky winter coats competed for room in the narrow opening. He was about to make a fool of himself.

Sitting now, coffee in hand, he casually inquired. “So, you’ve mentioned Christopher a couple of times…”

A month back, the two had met at the home of an old grad school professor. Dubbed “Mr. Chips,” Dr. Miles could be counted on to throw a big bash every Christmas. It served as an informal reunion for decades of students who would otherwise have lost touch–or never have met at all.

A moment ago they had been talking about hiking boots and the best places to get kebabs. Cara bit her lip and grew quiet as she stared into her mug.

“I loved him.”

Aris knew he couldn’t compete. He sat up straighter. He would listen. He would listen and then fade into the background before she could see through him.

“I gave him the best I had. Maybe more than I could afford…. I acted like I was in control but I was kidding myself. He knew me too well. He knew my strengths, my weaknesses–every contour of my mind and body. And he used what he knew. He pushed me to my limits.”

This was unexpected. Uncomfortable.

“So…he abused you.”

“No, no. It wasn’t like that.

“I don’t understand then.”

“I thanked him for it. I wanted it.” She was looking right at him now.

She wasn’t the person Aris had thought she was. He had to look away.

“I hung on his every word. I wanted his love so badly.” Her voice and expression had become intense. “I just wanted to know I was special to him. I would have done just about anything he asked. Deep down, I knew he did love me. But I was just so needy.”

She deflated.

“I can’t believe he’s gone. I never saw it coming.”

“Lovers, then.”

“No. No. God, no!” Reverie interrupted, Cara came to. She broke into an amused smile.

“I thought you knew. Christopher was my coach.”

Photo credit here
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