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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.

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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.

On Becoming Invisible

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sometime in 2013…

When I realized what was happening to me, I wanted to use elegant-sounding adjectives such as diaphanous or gossamer to describe the process or the outcome. Becoming diaphanous sounds so much more lovely than the reality of feeling myself disappear in dribs and drabs until I look like a moth-eaten cheesecloth or the elbow of my favorite sweater. I might even come to resemble the seat of my daughter’s Speedo after too many seasons of sun and chlorine.

This process had been stealthily underway for a few years before I stood up and took notice. Here, I am primarily referring to the fading and thinning, which is gradual and not, therefore, immediately noticeable. This gentle decline is unlikely to induce trauma.

I don’t care so much about the loss of color—skin lightening, lips fading from pink to beige, hair showing tendrils of white—or the miracle migration of hair from scalp to chin. The loss of skin tone is manageable. And so much for the loss of childbearing potential. I have three wonderful, healthy daughters, and I feel complete.

The loss of muscle has been a little harder to manage. I have always thought of myself as an athlete, a vigorous person, despite the fact that my exercise routine now generally consists of early-morning strolls through suburbia. This is par for the course, I tell myself, as is my diminished visual acuity and what may be the start of hearing loss. Oh, and who cares about that half inch of height? My daughters are thrilled to be taller than I am. They absolutely gloat. So let me be happy for them! It is well and good that they should wax as I wane.

No, I had expected all these developments. It was the disappearance of some of my actual substance that stopped me in my tracks. I went to look in the mirror, and whole chunks were not reflected back.

You know by now that my relationship to Germany, CityX, in particular, holds all kinds of powerful meanings for me. The years I spent there were critical in shaping my identity and my way of viewing life. Present during my formation and beyond, through the constant of our friendship, was Hanna.

As I aged and became further and further removed from those early days, Hanna validated that I had, in fact, existed in that time and place and had lead the life I recalled. The power of this type of shared memory, a kind of witness bearing, is truly a living thing. I think of it almost as blood.

Into my 40’s, this humor kept me firm and supple. I have experienced this phenomenon with other friends as well. My friend Anne, for example, knows my whole life starting with the first day of ninth grade. While our talks always contain new thoughts and happenings, part of what makes the friendship life giving is our holding of each other’s memories. The holding of each other’s substance, I’d say. For only certain people can recall whole swaths of us in this sacred way, keeping us alive and real as the pressure of time bears harshly down upon us.

My oldest friend, Hanna, routinely held up the mirror to me and told me the story of myself. I did the same for her. “Look in the mirror, Jane, look! There you are!”

“Look, Jane!” Yes, young Jane, you are still in this world. Even now, you exist. You are walking to school in your blue Kickers and wearing your green windbreaker. I see your pigtails swinging as you lope into the schoolyard with your red leather Schulranzen (bookbag) on your back. You are planning to collect horse chestnuts on your way home. Oh, there you are, kicking Peter Bachmann in the shin (again!). And remember how happy you always feel in the botanical garden? You are forever wandering the pea-gravel paths and rowing in the lake….

It went on and on, often wordlessly. I saw my story recited in her eyes.

I was unprepared for the blow which severed our friendship. It came in the form of a letter and carried with it the agony of death. The bitterness of Hanna’s denunciation left no room for reconciliation. It was as though she had died at her own hand and left a note saying, “I just want you to know you did this to me.” Terrible, unbearable, waves of shock, grief, self doubt, anger. It is hard to put into words, and trying to do so can still overwhelm me.

In the aftermath of her rejection, I began to notice the deflation. Parts of me began to sag and hurt. More gray in the hair, more hair in the brush. Hanna had withdrawn her holding power and denied a part of my fabric. I am smaller now, diminished. The fading has accelerated, and whole pieces are missing when I look into the mirror.

To a point, the thinning and shrinking is an unavoidable part of growing older. I do wonder, however, if it isn’t easier when friends die naturally or when they gradually move out of one’s life. I imagine the parts of us they hold drift off gently with the ebbing of their presence. I wonder—is this less painful than when they reject us and yank out great clumps of us on their way out the door? When there is grabbing, there is a sort of violence from which one must work hard to recover. At least this is true for me.

The good I have believed about myself and the authenticity of my experience has been ejected from the mirror and thrown down to crack into sharp pieces. My assumptions about myself must be reevaluated, and this will be difficult. A distorted version of events has been cut with a quick jerk of the jigsaw and bolted to the mirror–to the very spot where my eye has always sought perspective. Where do I look for answers now?

I have a lot of work to determine what is true here. I search and try myself.

Oh, I am understanding the aging process better as a result. I understand why I must diminish and become smaller and paler. Fewer and fewer people will know who I was and even who I have become; and key parts of my being will slowly disappear from consciousness altogether. I expect that in time people might stop noticing me in stores, restaurants, professional circles. Perhaps I will become just one more little old lady. Unremarkable. Unremarked. Hardly worth the effort of conversation. Someone whose presence is allowed but not welcomed. Seeing this potential clearly, I know that fear and vulnerability could cause me to shrink myself down further still, until I have withdrawn into a living death.

While I do not intend to lift, tuck, dye, buff, paint or plump myself back into a spectre of youth, I don’t begrudge those who would. It is simply not my style. Rather than deny the truth of my decline, I believe I will choose to welcome it. Yes, I am deciding right this very moment. I can cry over my losses or rejoice at my divestment.

It becomes my choice, then, to send Hanna off with a gift. No one can rip from me what I would freely give. To my children, I give my once-firm breasts and belly. To Henry, I present the lips which seek his and the hands which have issued countless caresses. To Christopher and Jack, my coaches, I offer the legs and feet of my youth. It was worth the bunions and fractures to know you, to run so fast. Hanna, I give you those parts which you have attempted to snatch. I nullify your theft by my consent. I bless you, dear friend….

Please don’t interpret my words as passive or depressive.

Make no mistake, I do not intend to go softly.

I will stubbornly affix myself to these pages so that I can look back and find myself when I feel unsure. And I’ll keep writing myself into new memories and new meanings. Just you wait and see. I ache at the loss of my past. I am unwilling to lose my future.

So I’m killing off the cheesecloth metaphor and sparing myself. I am made for better. That which remains of me after each act of giving will fold upon itself, concentrating my indivisible essence into an ever purer form.

I’m going to become my finest and truest self, a single filament as sinuous as silk and as strong as steel. And when I have divested myself so fully and stretched so thinly as to disappear altogether, I’ll just keep on going.

I am thankful for an eternal perspective.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior segment, please click here. For the next segment, please click here.

And the Winner is….

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

I’m still trying to comprehend how “We’d love to have you visit but we have certain guidelines,” came to be viewed as “For years, I smiled and told you what you wanted to hear so that once you had emptied your bank account and arrived on our doorstep feeling warm and fuzzy; I could turn on you, my captive audience, and exorcise my pent up rage against you at my leisure.”

By Day 3, the trust between us had been grievously compromised. A few of us complained that stress was causing hair loss. No, this is not an attempt at humor.

Hanna and Niko said it wasn’t so much that I had refused Niko my laptop; it was that I hadn’t told him ahead of time, and now they were stuck without options. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t told him beforehand; it was that my failure to do so had caused Niko to lose face. It wasn’t only that I had caused Niko to lose face; it was that, in maintaining through the years that all was well between us, I had lied.

Three days down and 28 more to go.

No two ways about it. They had been tricked. They had spent thousands of dollars to pass their summer in jail. Jail being our basement apartment without a computer. They began to sequester themselves, eventually reversing their days and nights, in part–I believe–to avoid us. They surmised they had become persona non grata (personae non gratae??) and were the last fools on earth to learn it. This was not the case. At least not yet.

We experienced good moments. We shared some laughs. We had some conversations memorable for reasons other than distress. Even so, trouble was always lurking stage right.

Everything I did and said was now suspect. Things I had said and done in the past came under suspicion as well—as though past behaviors had taken on new meanings given this epiphany about my character.

I’ve seen this response in couples counseling many, many times.

Spouse A admits to an affair long past. Spouse B, who is learning of it for the first time, responds as if the infidelity had ended just yesterday. As the initial catharsis begins to settle, the reality of the affair sinks in. Spouse B will now spend months to years poring over reel after reel of old footage, looking for missed clues. Forgiveness and reconciliation may or may not follow.

It goes something like this:

“Three years ago, you canceled our dinner plans on Valentine’s Day because of a crisis at your work. I bet you weren’t working at all. You were probably fucking your mistress!”

Hanna and Niko were looking for confirmation of my infidelity, and they found it.

In times of extreme stress, I shut down. If you do not know me well, you might not even notice. I will continue to walk, talk, smile, listen, and laugh. I will perform my roles as mother, wife, and hostess. But I will do so with clinical remove. I become prodigious in my cooking and cleaning while the person behind my eyes goes dormant.

I did not intend to vacate during that 2011 visit. My psyche made the decision of its own accord. My soul balled itself up and locked itself away deep in my belly until such time as it felt safe to emerge and expose its tears, fears, and thrashing limbs.

My demeanor was evidence of malice, or, at minimum, indifference to their feelings. Hanna had seen me this way twice previously: immediately following a brutal semester of undergraduate studies and in the weeks following a trauma within my family. I believed she would understand my absence and hold a place in her heart for me until I was able to return.

I felt misunderstood, and I was in good company. My household found itself engaged in a protracted competition for the coveted title, Most Misunderstood and Maligned. Niko, Hanna, and I were the front runners but our daughters threw their hats in the ring as well. They were much quieter in their bid but I felt them jostling.

“Uncle Niko is being a baby, and you know it. He’s got the whole household revolving around him, and I can’t take it any more! You won’t speak up but if I do, I get in trouble because he’s The Guest. Gaaaaah!”

“Mom, why are you being so hard on Uncle Niko? I’ve been talking to Aunt Hanna, and I think the problem might be that you aren’t trying hard enough to understand him. Why are you looking at me that way? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Aunt Hanna and Uncle Niko aren’t fun any more. And you aren’t either. There’s nothing good to do around here. Are you even listening?”

Henry was the only one who didn’t enter the pageant.

In the end, Niko won. Hanna stuffed the ballot box.

Some days I wonder if I am seeing matters clearly or just positioning myself for a grab at Niko’s tiara.

This is part of The Story of Hanna. The episodes to date can be found under the tab of the same name. The previous installment is here.

Plan D

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

September, 2012

As Henry and I decided on some boundaries for our upcoming visit from Hanna and Niko, I made the decision to pilfer about 10 pounds of East Coast road maps and Guidebooks from our local AAA office. OK, OK. It actually involved my membership card and a lot of eye batting.

Niko enjoys researching but does not respond well to pressure, so I sent them to him in Germany months in advance. These would help him plan while Hanna was at work. They would also eliminate much of his need to use a computer during their extended stay. This was Plan A.

We blew through Plan A within a few hours of their arrival: Niko explained that he had felt too stressed to do any advance planning. He had not even looked at the materials. He needed my computer. Please.

Plan B was to ferry Niko to and from the public library each day. He would not consider it. He had had a humiliating experience while using a computer in an internet café, and the idea made him too anxious to contemplate. He needed my computer. Soon.

Plan C called upon the generosity of our youngest daughter, Claire. She had purchased a tiny netbook, and she offered it to Niko on loan. It was too slow and cranky to be of any real use. It was actually crap. He needed my computer. Now.

Do I sound like a good friend? Or do I sound like a patsy? Or maybe a martyr with whipped cream and a cherry on top? I was working hard to get Niko to a computer which was not mine, and part of my effort was motivated by cowardice. I dreaded turning Niko down, and all my planning was meant to minimize the fallout.

I could just have said, way back when, “We won’t have a computer for you to use, so please bring your laptop.” This never even occurred to me. This was probably due to reasons mentioned earlier.

I doubt this approach would have gone off as smoothly as one might hope. It would have tipped Niko off to the fact that the wind was shifting, and this would have precipitated the interrogation I was keen to avoid. But it would also have given him and Hanna time to set up proper accommodations–or conclude before plunking down thousands of dollars and boarding that plane that I was a sneaky, backbiting asshole who was encouraging their visit for the purpose of malice.

In any case, Niko declared he could not survive without a computer.

I declared I would not give him mine.

He was not satisfied with my no. Niko was determined that a compromised would be reached. And to be fair, why wouldn’t he? I had rarely, if ever, denied him any request reasonably within my power.

Niko pounded me with question after question about my work schedule, my home schedule, and my computer habits. He was certain he could get screen time without causing disruption to my routines. He worked tirelessly to open a loophole, and I worked tiredly to clamp them shut. I adhered robotically to my script: I need my computer for work. It is starting to fail. I can not afford to replace it.

My continued deflection, in the absence of reasons he deemed adequate, caused Niko to deduce that there must be More To The Story. The house vibrated with tension as our cat-and-mouse game escalated.

After a few days of relentless inquiry, I concluded that sticking to the script made me sound defensive and unfriendly. Niko’s illness lends itself to paranoia, and I did not want to feed it. We had always had an open give and take. I wondered if withholding the other reasons behind my refusal was tantamount to patronizing him, and that was never my intention. I concluded that our friendship deserved better. I didn’t want to come clean but…

I sought a private meeting.

Niko declined my request and then my appeals. He insisted I speak freely and that we have no secrets among us. I hoped that the intimacy and strength of our relationship over many years would suffice to remediate any damage my confession might cause.

This was not the case.

My concerns, however gentle, and my speculation, however tentative, were incredibly wounding. I spoke in German so that our children could not understand. However, they saw our faces and absorbed our emotion. Henry already knew what I was going to say, of course, and didn’t need to understand. I allowed that Niko’s behavior had taken place during prodromal and illness phases. I assured him that I was, in no way, making a statement about his goodness, character, or intentions. Niko accepted my words graciously at first. I suppose he experienced a kind of shock at these revelations. It didn’t last long.

I had not been able to protect his dignity, and we were no closer to solving the problem.

In our family, each child receives a laptop on her sixteenth birthday in anticipation of college. These are prized possessions. Two of our girls had already received theirs. As Niko’s disenchantment grew, he began to set his sights on their computers. He was a fox watching a hen house. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Did hospitality require that I “command” our daughters to hand over their nice computers when I would not loan my crummy one? Should I “allow” them to make the decision for themselves?

I had some idea of the conflict the girls must be feeling. They adored and wanted to please Uncle Niko but they had not forgotten the monopoly of 2006. They were older now, no longer wide-eyed and naive. They were starting to become disillusioned, and his behavior was starting to grate. Any generosity was more likely to be the result of capitulation than an act of heartfelt sharing.

I was buckling, and the visit had just begun. I was in danger of losing my cool with Niko but I was afraid of being unfair. I toggled back and forth. Was his behavior a manifestation of his illness? If so, I would manage compassion and fight for patience. I wasn’t eager to apply the labels “childish,” “demanding,” or worse.

I had forsworn my dysfunctional training in hospitality, and I had not yet developed another set of skills. I have replayed this scenario in my mind countless times since then, and I still find myself wondering how I should have responded. Nothing I came up with seemed right.

Since I couldn’t figure out what to do, I resorted to Plan D. D as in Deserter. Desperate. Defeated. Dumbshit.

Plan D was my escape plan. It called for me to abdicate my corner of the drama triangle. While this may have been an example of healthy boundary setting under other circumstances, the real-life result was not one I wish to repeat: I served up my children and beat a hasty retreat.

When Niko asked me if he could use the girls’ computers, I told him, “Ask them.” When my daughters asked me if they had to let him, I told them, “Do as you see fit.”

Under duress, Lindy, our oldest, refused; and she fell from grace.

Under duress, Bec, our middle child, complied. She was elevated to Confidante.

What strikes me, as I contemplate the aftermath of our weeks together, is that nobody ever even hinted that Henry give up his laptop, which was also used for work. Nobody blamed him for the way things unraveled. He was beyond reproach.

I see that the splitting had begun early on. Henry, Bec, and Claire were emerging as “good.” Lindy and I were rapidly becoming “bad.”

Hanna had begun to go M.I.A. More on that later…And Niko had begun to evaluate each of us in either-or terms: sympathetic or unfeeling, understanding or unfair, for him or against him. Hanna’s behavior, and later her words, made it clear that she and Niko were a package deal. Any “unkindness” towards Niko counted as an act against them both.

This is the twelfth installment of The Story of Hanna. The story, in sequence, can be found under the tab of the same name. Installment eleven can be found here.

The NO that Broke the Camel’s Back

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

This is the NO that ended my friendship with Hanna.

Once Henry and I had put some boundaries in place, we allowed ourselves to get excited about our visit from Hanna and Niko. Truly, it would have been foolish—and negligent—to ignore the lessons we had learned in 2006.

I had told you that Hanna is humble and independent and makes very few requests of others. I should have clarified that she makes very few requests on her own behalf. Shy and unassuming, she often neglects herself. Still, Hanna can be a real tiger when it comes to the wants and needs of others. In her immense and compassionate heart, she feels with her husband all the woes of his remarkable life; and she goes out of her way to champion him.

If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I submit to you the following: a photo taken outside my mother’s house in the summer of 2006. The pose is odd and very telling–all the more so for having been struck spontaneously, its meanings transmitted without conscious consent. It speaks of love, loyalty, advocacy, and interdependence. It tells of self-effacement, exhaustion, enmeshment, and denial. Balance—literal and symbolic, necessary and illusory—manifests itself in this image, as does sacrifice. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot share the actual photo.

I’ll do my best to describe it to you here:

Niko is the focal point. Thick and solid as an oak and dressed completely in black, he stands on the brick sidewalk in front of the day lily patch and offers an understated smile. He stands flat on his feet, which are firmly planted a short distance apart. He leans ever so slightly towards Hanna. His right arm dangles at his side. His left hand reaches down to rest on Hanna’s left shoulder, as she is has made herself very small in comparison.

Hanna, dressed all in white, is in a low crouch. She rests awkwardly on the ball of her right foot while her left foot extends forward for balance. Her pose is unnatural, as though she might topple at any moment. The top of her head reaches barely to Niko’s waist. In her left hand, she holds some sort of figurine, which she balances on her left knee. Her right arm reaches under the edge of Niko’s shorts and hugs his thigh just above his knee. She smiles broadly, the side of her face pressed up against his side.

Returning to the ill-fated denial…

I think our friendship might have survived if not for this.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, Niko asked to use the computer. I explained that our desktop had broken down, and I had only my old laptop.

I told him, “I’m not comfortable letting you use it. It’s a really cheap old thing, and it’s on its way out. All sorts of error messages are starting to pop up. And it overheats and shuts down. I can’t afford to replace it, and I can’t do my work without it. Plus, if it died on your watch, I wouldn’t want you to wonder if you had done something wrong.”

I thought this was a kind and soft “No,” and I hoped it would suffice.

I was wrong. So very wrong.

This is the tenth installment in The Story of Hanna. Please click on the tab of the same name to read other segments.
Installment nine is here. Installment eleven is here.

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