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Wintergreen

Wintergreen.jpg

Photo credit here.

Feb. 2, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So today I will think only of thimbleberries.

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

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

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

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

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

Too soon gone.

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The Last Time I Saw Hanna

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

October 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

I agreed.

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

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

I breathed a bit easier.

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

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

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

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

“I forgot what day it was.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was honest. “Bad.”

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

What could I say to that?

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

“Yes.”

It was time.

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

And then they were gone.

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

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

You know most of what came next.

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

M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long pause followed.

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

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

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

I referred them out.

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

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

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

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.

The Balloon

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

What do I do now?

April 6, 2012

A few weeks ago I got the idea to write an essay about myself as a balloon. I put it off, and I find I am no longer able to do so.

I had been tied firmly to my moorings and, despite dancing in breezes and being bullied by gales, I was confident that I’d hold fast. Popping was out of the question. My sense of security had made me a regular punch ball.

Thus grounded, I had even forgotten I was a balloon. I had continued in this state for decades without a second thought. I was so accustomed to my attachment that I no longer contemplated it. My connection to Hanna had become like breathing, I suppose. It was necessary for life, and yet it went on largely outside my conscious awareness–until a disruption of my normal rhythm reminded me I was doing it at all.

After an unsettling fall in which Hanna did not return my communications, I became keenly aware of my tie to her, my umbilical cord. Undernourished, my robust skin began to dull and thin. I began to feel deflated, and I wondered how much longer the silence would continue.

Hanna’s January letter cut me loose.

I bounced and skidded across the ground as the moaning wind compelled me across the gray winter landscape to an uncertain fate. Fragile, I was in danger of puncture. Sharp pebbles and brittle grasses clawed at my sides. For nearly two months, it was all I could do to keep myself intact.

Sometime in March, the winds started to abate. Spring seemed possible. The sun reemerged and began to warm me with its golden rays. I felt myself growing stronger. The beams whispered love to me. I ate and drank them. I began to grow fat and round once more, my skin taut and strong and shiny. Yes, Spring was on the move.

Warmth curled itself around me and within me, and I began to rise in fits and starts. Unattached, I couldn’t stop myself. And as I got over my fear, I began to enjoy my new perspective. I was no longer safely tethered, it was true. But my uncertainty was eclipsed by a burgeoning joy at this unexpected freedom.

I wanted to say all that–but I can’t. (Here you have to imagine the sudden ripping of a phonograph needle across a vinyl record.) I can’t write all that because just as the balloon was beginning its steady rise, a second letter came.

Hanna stated it had not been her intention to end the friendship but merely to put it on hold.

At that exact moment, the balloon snagged in the branches of a tree. It is stuck there still. The balloon is unable to continue its ascent until a further shift of the wind releases it. Meanwhile, the string dangles within reach, leaving open the possibility of its recapture.

What comes next is up in the air. So you see, I am unable to write about myself as a balloon.

This excerpt 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.

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