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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-No

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

While access to a computer had been a nicety in 2006; by 2011, it had become a necessity.

Not only was the computer the best way to research and plan travel, but it had become Niko’s main source of companionship apart from Hanna. Unable to work and frequently apartment bound, Niko had come to rely on their laptop for entertainment and as a portal to the outside world.

You know by now that Henry and I had thought about our computer situation in advance. We had agreed that it would be very difficult to deny Niko use of my laptop, especially after having previously given him carte blanche. We had also agreed that it would be best to do so.

For some reason—and I suspect some fuzzy-minded state of denial and avoidance—I had not connected the dots. If I had, it would have been evident that a month-long visit sans computer would pose problems for anyone visiting a major metropolitan area. For Niko especially, computer access had become crucial to his sense of wellbeing and mastery in a sometimes hostile and often overwhelming world.

Maybe you have had this feeling too…when one half of your brain, red faced and breathless, brandishes a red flag in your face; and the other half of your brain responds: “Strange weather we’re having. I feel all melty and mushy,” and then proceeds to the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s followed by a food coma and a dreamless sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat…with any number of diversions.

I knew, but did not want to let myself know, that confronting the matter of the computer with Niko head on would, at some point, necessitate my confessing that I had concerns beyond those related to the condition of my laptop.

To be blunt without being gratuitous: In 2006, Niko had had trouble sharing the computer with the 5 other people who wanted time. And he had used the family computer it in ways I believe most hosts would not condone.

Shortly after Hanna and Niko departed that year, our new desktop had (terminally) failed. I wondered if his habits had played a role. Realizing his activities had occurred during prodromal and illness states, it didn’t seem right to classify them as Bad Behavior. How much true choice had been involved? And thinking it unfair to blame him for the demise of the desktop without clear evidence, I hesitated to speak. I wasn’t mad at him, and I certainly did not want to shame him. He had been so worried that his psychosis had damaged our friendship. Yet, I feared the same things could happen again in 2011.

Niko is a highly-verbal, detail-oriented, analytical, intelligent, and intuitive man. And he is persistent. He is good at debating, and he never misses an angle. To engage him on these issues at all would have been to open the whole can of worms, and I was afraid he would catch me out.

Why did it matter if he did?

I’m not sure.

I harbored no ill intent. But I was young and unsure in my attempts to prioritize my family. I knew I was making a healthy change but Hanna and Niko were unaware. In some fashion, I felt disloyal. Maybe even sneaky. For the first time, I was putting the needs of Henry and the girls over those of my best friend–and by association, her husband.

This is all hindsight, of course. In the moment, one half of my brain was sending up frantic smoke signals while the other half was smothering them with plans. Layers of plans, which were to provide insurance against ever having to have this conversation.

This is the eleventh installment of The Story of Hanna, a story of friendship, loss, and aging. Please click here for installment ten. Installment twelve is 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.

Infidelity III

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Sept. 30, 2012

This is how I broke the rules.*

Until Hanna and Niko announced their intention to come for an extended visit last summer, I didn’t realize how much peace the distance between us had accorded me. Though I missed them both, Hanna terribly, we had done well with snail mail, Skype, and email.

My knee-jerk reaction was one of dread. It was quickly followed by guilt. BIG, FAT, UGLY GUILT.

I appalled myself. My superego roiled. I had to ask myself what was really going on here. In my typically obsessive fashion, I drilled myself.

It went something like this–on and on and on:

  • Was I insincere when I called Hanna my best friend? No.
  • Was I insincere when I professed to love them both? No.
  • Was I insincere when I said I missed them? No.
  • Was I insincere when I stated that I had enjoyed their last visit? No.
  • Was I insincere when I assured Niko that we did not harbor resentment against him for his psychotic break during their last visit? No. It was not his fault he had become ill, and he need not feel shame nor fear our censure. I assured him that no lasting harm had been done.

So why was I having trouble sleeping?

I was just coming into conscious—and reluctant—contact with the reality that my giddy naiveté had been stripped away. My husband Henry had been living in reality all along, and it appeared that our children had bounced back nicely from the last visit. In fact, the kids were all for a repeat performance. They couldn’t wait to see their fun-loving Aunt and Uncle!

The real change had taken place within me. Now I KNEW what could go wrong. I KNEW what a repeat of 2006 might cost my family, my friends, the friendship itself. The feeling I had was similar to the feeling I had after my first cross country race as a high school sophomore. I hadn’t known what I was getting myself into when the gun went off. I ran like a demon and finished much faster than expected. Wobbly and green, I nearly puked my guts out. Having only begun to run two weeks prior, I limped away with a roaring case of tendonitis which made it difficult for me to train–let alone walk–for weeks. Stepping onto the starting line was much harder after that. I knew what lay ahead.

Henry and I talked. It was clear now that successfully orchestrating a lengthy visit involving a person with special needs would require more than, “Y’all come!” We weren’t sure we had the resources.

On the other hand, we loved Hanna and Niko; and we missed them. We knew what this vacation would mean to them and how they had scrimped and saved to make it possible. They continued to try to keep Niko’s illness under wraps but had not been able to avoid negative reactions. Though they lived in the heart of a city, they led isolated lives. They had often told us how loved they felt in our home, and by the time 2011 rolled around, they had named us as their only real friends. We appreciated what we understood as a sacred trust.

Saying yes was impossible. Saying no was impossible.

So, we said yes.

Unlike 2006, Henry and I worked together. We shared our concerns with one another and discussed what we believed would have to be put into place in order for the visit to be enjoyable and “safe” for everyone involved.

Working things out with Henry in this way was an important step in my consciously choosing the welfare of my family over my intimacy with Hanna. I believed this to be a healthy step. I had learned in the intervening years that it is possible to have rewarding intimate friendships without crawling directly into another person’s skin. Reducing my enmeshment with Hanna would undoubtedly result in healthier relationships all the way around. Right? Unfortunately my private discussions and teamwork with Henry were later viewed as the cornerstone of my betrayal.

Henry and I attempted to come up with some boundaries which we hoped would serve us all, and I discussed them with our friends via Skype.

Our invitation:

  1. You are welcome to come visit!
  2. You are welcome to use one of our cars whenever we are not using it.
  3. You are welcome eat all your meals with us.

Our requests:

  1. Limit your visit with us to 4 weeks duration. Spend half of those nights away on outside travel. You can use our house as home base. I’ll take any week off work to hang out with you. Just tell me which week.

This request was huge and very, very difficult for me to voice. I felt tremendous loss at limiting our contact. And I was extremely worried that I would hurt Hanna’s feelings. Still, I firmly believed this request would serve us all.

This request was made to protect Hanna and Niko. Though we had set up a reasonably private apartment (sans running water) in our walk-out basement, he had become overwhelmed by the noise and non-stop activity in our home during their last visit, and it had contributed to his crisis. Hanna, who works an hourly-wage job, is their sole breadwinner and Niko’s sole caregiver.

It was made to protect Henry and his fragile employment status as we prepared to send two children off to college the following year. The economy was still rough, and Henry was still recovering from workplace trauma he had experienced at his previous job. He had just taken a new sales job which required him to work from home. We were concerned that the noise and disruption might prove problematic while Henry was mending and trying to make a professional transition requiring his complete focus. (Henry’s office was in the basement next to the apartment our friends would be using. We knew our success in limiting our daughters’ urge to thunder up and down the stairs for visits would go only so far. Plus, the visit would take place during summer vacation, and it didn’t seem fair to require monastic silence.)

It was made to protect me. I was both stay-at-home Mom and part-time counselor now. Due to my availability and German skill, I would be the go-to person for parenting, household duties, and hospitality until about 6 or 7 each night. I had been a homemaker for many years, and I wanted to adjust our friends’ expectations to make sure I would get to enjoy this visit without becoming overwhelmed and exhausted. I wasn’t too worried on this account, as our daughters would help if asked; and Hanna had always pitched in without waiting to be asked.

It was made to protect our daughters. I was determined to give our children sufficient attention, something I had failed to do during the last visit.

  1. Obtain travel health insurance. It just seemed like a good idea given Niko’s history.
  1. Purchase tickets with a flexible return date in case Niko shows signs of distress OR Henry’s work situation proves too stressful for us to continue to host you.

We believed these were fair and straightforward requests. That didn’t make them any easier to speak. Any limit, any “no” was new to me when it came to Hanna, and I was very, very anxious. I was relieved when Hanna and Niko received our words in the spirit in which they were intended. Spending some time out of the house would be in line with their plans, they said, since they had wanted to do some sight seeing anyway. They agreed that if Niko showed signs of instability, it would be best to return home immediately; and they asked us to let them know if we needed them to leave the house. They indicated their willingness on all accounts and said they were planning to rent a car so as not to inconvenience us!

I felt relieved and reassured.

We were going to have a great visit!

This post is the ninth part of The Story of Hanna. Infidelity, Infidelity II and other installments of the story can be found under the Hanna tab.

*I broke this Family Rule! You can find other family rules and some family-related essays under the Family Rules tab.

Infidelity II

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Summmer and Fall of 2012

There are many kinds of unfaithfulness.

As I examine my failed relationship with Hanna, I can trace the beginnings of my own infidelity to a time long before things between us reached a crisis point. I hadn’t wanted to see this. I felt too ashamed.

I can explain it simply: I pushed and shoved until I got my way. I didn’t appreciate what my agenda might cost my husband and children. In some ways, I think it cost Hanna and Niko as well.

She was my oldest friend, my first soul mate. She had the prior claim. When it came to Hanna, I just couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to say no. We saw each other so seldom that I wanted to spend every moment with her. I would have done just about anything to please her. Fortunately, Hanna was modest and demanded little. It was I who offered. My husband Henry knew this when he married me. He knew it would be easier to dig his way to China than tell me no when it came to Hanna. When she visited, he played host from a safe distance while Hanna and I ruled the roost.

Whenever Hanna stayed, Henry trudged off to work while Hanna and I shopped together. We cooked together. We cleaned together. In time, we tended the children together. Our daughters adored Aunt Hanna, and the feeling was mutual. Life was a vacation when Hanna was around! Occasionally we went visiting or sightseeing. Mostly, though, we talked, and talked, and talked. We started when we got up in the morning and finished in the wee hours over a glass of wine. This worked fabulously for many years.

My husband was a real trooper. Henry is good natured and generous, and he loves Hanna. He managed these finite periods of neglect with good humor–not that we gave him much choice since all of our conversations took place in German.

Hanna and Niko married in 2004 after several years of togetherness. When they asked to come from Germany in June of 2006, it was with the intention of permanently relocating to the U.S. I know now that both parties suffered from a case of Wishful Thinking.

Our friends hadn’t properly researched what was necessary for success and were ill prepared when they pulled up stakes (and burned some bridges) to come live in our basement with their cat Schnurzel. They didn’t have the proper visas, and Hanna was unable to work. I hadn’t considered the negative potentials should their bid fail. More to the point: I hadn’t been willing to consider anything beyond the delicious promise of a visit–indefinite in length–from my best friend and her husband. Who cared how long it might take them to get established? I was all in.

Henry had examined the situation levelly and made his concerns known. This is not to say that he had attempted to bar the way. He saw how much Hanna struggled to provide, and it was clear to him that they both felt isolated and stigmatized because of Niko’s mental illness. They complained about their lack of opportunity and the poor treatment they received in Germany. They were certain life would be better here.

Henry was all for lending them a hand or two or four. They were his friends too. All he asked was that I come down from Cloud 9 long enough to participate in an adult conversation. He wanted to discuss how best to help them, to consider the pros and cons of open-ended cohabitation, and to partner in some advance planning. I refused. I bullied and stomped: Why all the catastrophizing? You’re always so negative!

As it turned out, Henry had predicted the outcomes nearly perfectly. I imagine he felt quite alone as they unfolded, one by one, before his eyes: Within a few weeks, Niko relapsed into psychosis and ended up in the state hospital hours away; and Hanna began dividing her nights between our house and the parking lot of the state park nearest the hospital. We got her a phone, loaned her a car, and helped with the cat. She mastered station wagon camping, perfected the art of bathing at McDonald’s, and tried to make the best of her unscheduled “vacation.”

I feel weepy when I remember Hanna’s loyalty, patience, advocacy, and tenderness for Niko. She was a rock. She remained cheerful and determined even when her visa ran out and she was forced to leave Niko here while she returned to Europe for a period to straighten things out.

All of these happenings were predictable and manageable.

What was predictable but not manageable was my absence during this period. It tore at the security of my family. I gave my smiling best to Hanna and Niko. I denied them nothing. I gave Henry and the girls whatever I had left over. And not always gladly.

This went on for months.

I can see this now, and I am sad. I paid lip service to my marriage, and I shooed and shushed my children when they sought me. I set myself up as the perfect friend, and I set up Hanna and Niko to expect a level of availability and care which no healthy friend could sustain. I think I did harm.

My neglect of my family was easy to justify. I was being a good hostess. I deserved to spend time with my best friend. Our friends needed help, i.e., they needed my help. Mine, mine, mine. Me, me, me. Henry and the girls could wait until after Hanna and Niko were gone.

This is how I kept the family rule—”Friends Before Family”*—and betrayed my husband and children.

Both Hanna and Niko said many times throughout the years leading up to our painful parting in 2011, that their 2006 visit had been an incredibly positive experience. They said they had felt so safe and loved and welcomed. Inclusion in the hum and rhythms of family life had warmed them. At first, I wholeheartedly agreed: The visit had been a smashing success despite the complications. It was true. I wasn’t lying. There were many beautiful things about that summer and fall. But it is also true that my mind did what had to be done in the moment. If it had allowed me to feel my stress and fear, I would have fallen apart.

Once Hanna and Niko were able to return to Germany that November, the dust began to settle. The protective anesthesia wore off. In no time, Henry and I were at each other’s throats. It became clear, too, that the girls needed help to process Niko’s frightening descent into psychosis and the fruition of our family dysfunction. We required therapy and several months to recover.

Well being was restored but something was shifting. My skyrocketing panic when our friends asked to visit exactly five years later told me we could not afford a repeat. The cost to all of us was just too high. Henry and I wanted them to come but we decided we had to approach this visit differently. Do you hear the we in this?

I’m not sure I communicated this shift to them as well as I should have, and as the politicians in D.C. are wont to say, “Mistakes were made.”

This is the eighth installment of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name to read the others. Installment seven is here. Installment nine is here.
You can find Infidelity I, a very silly post, here.

*You can find this Family Rule here. Please see the Family Rules tab for more rules.

Christopher, The Rest

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

I came to you for training when I was 18.

I was one of several young women who hung on your every word, eager for your attention, your approval, any sign of special favor. We were your first recruits–pups in a large and rowdy litter, away from home for the first time and climbing all over each other to get at a teat. The guys tried every bit as hard as we did but they would rather have died than seem eager. They acted knowing and peer-like. You tolerated this pretty well until you caught them doing things like wandering around the locker room drunk wearing kimonos and cowboy hats….

I’d stop by your office only to find I had to take a number. I wanted to be your number one! I wanted to be your top runner and your top girl. Girl, I was. And terribly innocent. My eyes grew large, and I froze when I learned that Siobhan, older, worldlier, and afraid of being bumped from top dog, had rumored that we were sleeping together.

I can see you standing on the track in your stupid reflective sunglasses. I knew it was more than coolness you sought. Hidden beneath the bravado was an introverted soul seeking privacy in plain sight. Where else could you hide? Necessity and convenience had landed you, along with a few of your charges, in a handful of the derelict rooms above the track office and a hop, skip, jump from the track itself. In those early days, you had no car and nowhere else to be. Your work was your life, and your life was your work. We pressed in, tails wagging, hungry.

I remember your rapid-fire gum chewing and see your bemused smile as you punctuate your observances with that quick, trademark jut of the chin. I remember your short waist and long arms. Your square hands and fingers. The port wine stain on your thigh. The smell of your sweat after a run. Nobody else smells like that.

I stroked your cheek now and then. It sounds more intimate than it was. We all stroked your cheek. You bragged that you had been showering without soap for years, and it had left your skin baby soft. You had to make sure we believed you. Yep, soft as a baby’s behind.

You always were weird about food too—inspecting scrupulously for flaws and checking expiration dates. Milk had to be rushed from cow to carton. Only bananas firm and just-ripe need apply. I knew this. I’d smuggle a fresh, ice-cold pint of milk and a spotless banana out of the dining hall on my way over to visit. Low fat was an abomination. You liked your milk whole and your meat red.

If I could turn back time, I’d leave things as they were. This, despite the parts that hurt. I’m thinking of the gut-churning Tuesday/Friday interval workouts. You tested us, and we tested each other. And of course, there were the races themselves. These pains were short lived.

As I was leaving the track office one day, you joked at my freshman backside, blossoming under the tutelage of the dining hall buffet: “Harpoon that whale!” My relationship with food changed that very day, and I became a statistic.

I recall how angry you were when I failed to reappear after finishing a disastrous 1,500m at a big indoor meet. “Always come find me after a race,” you had growled. I had run off to ferment in my self loathing and had been running laps beneath the dome’s bleachers as punishment. I hated myself and was too ashamed to show my face, yet tears would not come and relieve me. Young Yvette–you went on and on about her potential–had just placed in the 800m and broken the school record. Your upset took on new meaning when I thought about a peer from another school, someone we had chatted with at meets, who had attempted the unspeakable.

Our running life wasn’t all fun and games, but good times were in no short supply. Traveling with you and the rest of the pack was a bit of a rolling slumber party. Chemistry homework, body odor, screaming muscles, and the pre-race shits were balanced by friendly banter, naps, shared meals, practical jokes and, ideally, victory.

Remember how annoyed I got with Coach Cook when I needed a bathroom stop on the way to the conference meet? No? I was in his van, and I just couldn’t hold it. Nobody wanted to be the person to stop the caravan before it was necessary. We lost time when people started spilling out of vans in search of toilets and Pop Tarts. Sometimes one van stopped, and the others kept going; and that caused other problems. We had no cell phones or Google Maps. No worries! Coach Cook had this problem licked. Thereafter, whenever a stop was needed, the driver of that van just had to move to the front of the queue while honking and holding a large, handwritten sign in the window: JANE HAS TO PEE!

You had your childish moments too. I remember how you leaned forward and stretched out your hand every time the van rolled across a state line. You crowed! You had been the first to enter! Ha! But then you had to go and listen to Bob Seger. My wretching sounds just made you more determined. “Keep passing the open windows,” you’d say.

Remember when I mooned you? Twice. Once, as I left the track in a petulant steam after a frustrating workout. Another time, I roped some of the other girls into joining me just for the shock value. An odd way to show affection, I know. But neither of us was good at it.

Now and then you’d wrap a gorilla arm around my neck so we were head to head. “Dearie,” you’d say. But you didn’t hug. I knew you loved me because you named me after cars: “Ford” on normal days–to make me run faster. “Chevy” when you were feeling silly. You named us all so we would belong. We came when called.

I glowed with pride when you called me “Bitch.” In our code, it was a term of highest respect. It meant I had reached down deep and come up with rocket fuel.

I was no longer a puppy. I had become a beast.

For two other posts on Christopher, click here and here. For another post related to college recruitment/running, click here.

Full Plate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.

This is one of the junctures. It’s one of the joints where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna dovetail. They lean against each other like a house of cards.

I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.

This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.

I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.

Back to the rule.

I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.

The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.

I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.

Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.

I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.

Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?

Well.

Yes.

It just took me decades to complete the process.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.

This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.

Rip Van Winkle: The Downside

Rip Van Winkle- public domain

Winter, 2012

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Somehow, it did.

Hanna and I had been friends since 1974. We met when we were assigned to the same Gymnasium class during my four years in Germany. We became the very closest of friends in the summer of 1979, when she somehow convinced her parents to let her visit me in the US. Time and distance could not diminish the intensity or rewards of our friendship.

My dear friend and her husband Niko came for a five-week stay last June. Just as that first lazy summer had marked the beginning of something magical, the last summer had signaled its end. The visit went irretrievably wrong despite good intentions on all sides.

I had made a few attempts to process this with Hanna through letters, and I had gotten no response. It is true that I had expressed hurt and anger but I had also expressed remorse over mistakes I had made, along with the hope that we would, with time and perspective, work things out. In the meantime, I continued to observe birthdays and Christmas. I wanted Hanna and Niko to know that, while I couldn’t fix or even explain the summer, I loved them.

I knew Hanna was struggling. In June, we had sat at my kitchen table, desperate and holding back tears, trying to figure out why things were turning out so badly. From almost the first moment, tension had begun to build; and Niko’s paranoia had hinted, here and there, at a slow smolder. It is hard to say if one precipitated the other. Maybe no causality existed. Maybe we don’t need to know.

Normally we would have been able to discuss any and all matters but Hanna wouldn’t let my mind attach to hers the way it always had. Was I was denying her as well? This was the first time Niko had viewed me with suspicion, and Hanna seemed unsure of me. She had always bragged about his instincts.

My conversations with Hanna were becoming fewer and shorter. For the first time ever, they were becoming stilted. Niko sat in the basement apartment counting the number of minutes Hanna spent with me above, anxiously awaiting her return. If she and I spoke for too long, he began to fear she would choose me over him.

I held fast to my belief in our friendship. We were bedrock. But after several months, I felt malaise. No word from Hanna, even at Christmas. I pushed my fears away.

In January, two days after my 48th birthday, my heart leapt at the sight of the thick envelope. I knew that sorting things out between us would be an arduous task, and I surmised that Hanna’s letter contained her initial take on our summer disaster. Her silence on my birthday had been especially acute. She had never before neglected to call or write. But the hefty packet proved I had not been forgotten, and all would be well.

My knees buckled as read her letter. It was a list of grievances and hurts announcing the end of our friendship.

Happy Birthday to me.

I see a different person in the mirror these days. My skin is turning a soft, papery white; and my lips are thinning and losing their color. The flesh around the sides of my mouth is sliding downwards, forming a rubbery Fu Manchu and forcing my default face into a frown. This must be my reward for decades of smiling. Grays sprout like miniature fountains from my parted hair–noncomformists with the audacity to stand at attention no matter my efforts at calming them.

Everything has begun to sag and become pendulous: I have the beginnings of what one friend terms “mommy arms.” Even my knees—my knees, for heaven’s sake!—are starting to resemble bunched-up nylons, scooched down and slid off after a long night of dancing. I can no longer ignore the fact that the ache in my right knee keeps me up at night. And why does my left hip keep trying to slip out of its socket? This is not supposed to happen to me.

Hanna’s letter ended more than just a friendship. Our shared history kept the lines between youth and middle age comfortably blurred and conferred eternal youth. I didn’t really age; I was just Jane. I was suspended forever with her in the continuum of our relationship. If not for that letter, I might still jump out a second story window with her in the middle of the night to explore a forbidden barn. Or find myself shooting spitballs at Manni’s head to keep myself awake during Latin class. Or gossip with her about what has become of the rest of the prep school crowd. If not for that letter, I’d still be able to run a kick-ass mile. And travel the world. And become any number of things when I grow up….

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

I am not invincible. I am growing old. I am on the downward slope of becoming, and my days are numbered. And in the meantime, my bones ache.

This is the fifth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here for the fourth installment. Click here for the sixth.

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