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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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How?

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

How do I continue this story?

When Hanna and her husband Niko headed back to Germany after their ill-fated visit, there was silence. Ok, Hanna did let us know they had arrived safely and that they would be in touch. The message was curt. I wasn’t terribly surprised.

It was clear from the outset that we had considerable work ahead of us. I had actually shown my best friend the door. That is a euphemism. After a month of hell, I had more or less pushed her through it.

Those weeks in the summer of 2011 were the most stressful I had ever experienced. Within a few days of their arrival, the shower drains began clogging with hair. We were all—literally—losing it. But our friendship was so deep and so wide. We had a commitment and history most married couples would envy. As horrible as the month had been, I rested in the belief that after we licked our wounds and got some rest, sanity would return. We would talk things through to resolution.

I was wrong.

I waited to hear from Hanna, figuring she needed some down time. I knew I did.

After a while, I sent some chatty emails. I got no response. Then I sent letters. And more letters. Too many letters.

First my tone was optimistic: “Whew, that was rough, wasn’t it? I look forward to talking when you are rested.” Then the protective numbness began to crumble.

I made rational appeals. I begged. I pointed the finger, too. I followed up with conciliatory tomes. Nothing. All the while, I believed—then convinced myself to keep believing–that after all our years “for better,” our little marriage would undoubtedly survive “for worse.” It took 5 months for the Dear John letter to arrive. It was not gentle.

I had no recourse. Hanna had cut me off at the knees. She let me know she had not read anything I had sent. She pronounced us dead without trying to see matters through my eyes.

I had no recourse, so I began to write. I needed some outlet, if only my creaky old laptop, through which to vent my regret, anger, despair. I really needed Hanna but she wouldn’t have me.

Hanna and I used to process everything together with our one big brain. She was the right hemisphere, and I was the left. Or visa versa. I was inconsolable. My husband was incredible but he had a lot of thinking to do himself. My other friends were great. Still, there is a limit to how much one can unload, even to the most loving of friends, day after day; week after week; month after month. I was clinically depressed.

Tapping the bones of this story into Petunia, my decrepit but faithful pink Dell, was therapy. She gave me the voice I needed. If you’ve been reading my blog, you may understand the desperation I can feel when I am unheard*.

It’s been a few years since things blew up, and I think I’ve worked through the experience thoroughly enough to share it.

Here is my concern: What if I discover, in stirring up and fleshing out the story, that the embers are not as cold as I believe? I could end up with a flash fire. I have worked through all the predictable stages of grief, but feelings have their own logic and are rarely processed to completion. I know better than to believe they will remain quiet after a firm jab with the old poker. Yes, that concerns me.

I don’t hold out much hope that I will hear from Hanna again but I can’t know that. I still think of her often and consider her and Niko friends dear to my heart. I still love her so much. She never did tell her family anything, and I have occasional contact with her parents. I’ve known her brother Torsten since he was about 5, and he is a good friend, a brother. Maybe, just maybe….

I want to write as though she will read these words. I must do it this way or not at all.

This is a tall order, and I hope I am up to the task.

This is the second installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here for the third installment.

*This post and this post deal with not feeling heard.

Growth Pains

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

This is the first installment in The Story of Hanna

October, 2011

I’m still feeling a bit wobbly following my surgery this summer. It was unexpected, it was rough, and it happened without the benefit of anesthesia. I lost an important part of myself, and my wounds have not yet closed. As a counselor, I’m always helping others deal with enmeshment and individuation. I get this stuff. I was surprised at some things I learned when I had to look in the mirror.

“I knew as soon as I saw your hair and clothes.” Hanna had said, unable to fully articulate what had begun to go wrong between us the moment she and her husband arrived from Germany for a month-long visit. This was their first visit in five years. I had finished my graduate work and taken a job in my field. I wasn’t sure what taboo I had broken. What had I done to trigger such feelings of loss and betrayal?

Hanna and I met when we were assigned to the same fifth grade class in XCity, Germany. We were classmates for four years before I returned to the U.S. I was the pig-tailed American girl with the Ranger Rick backpack and the bad John Denver habit. She was the quiet, white-haired kid who wore traditional leather pants and carried a pocket knife. I thought she was a boy. It wasn’t until our early teens that our best-friendship became firmly cemented.

By ninth grade, Hanna had become a star athlete and a Beauty. Her looks and effortless air of mystery caused boys to pine and become irrational in her presence. I, on the other hand, had followed my family blueprint to become a gangly, pimple-faced Nerd. In my presence, boys experienced…nothing. They didn’t notice I was alive unless they needed help with their homework.

Steadfast through the decades, we visited back and forth and were in frequent touch in between. Despite our outward differences and our geographic separation, we were, as Hanna’s father often joked, “ein Kopf und ein Arsch.” A head and a tail. A single creature. Though he meant to tease us, he had hit upon the truth: We were so close that we hardly knew where she ended and I began.

Hanna and I understood one another intuitively and profoundly. Our enmeshment worked unbelievably well. In fact, I believe it saved us from childhoods which could have undone us.

Hanna came from a family in which feelings were poorly tolerated. She grew up without hearing the words, “I love you”; and when she showed emotion, she was criticized as mentally unstable and threatened with boarding school. Invalidated and undervalued, she could easily have gone for broke and self destructed.

My family was equally dysfunctional. We were just as well versed in passive aggression but it was located within a larger arsenal of weapons intended to help us bite and scratch ourselves to the top of the family heap. Punishment came frequently and unpredictably, and nobody wanted to be the one in the crosshairs when Dad was in one of his moods. I became observant and stoic. I distrusted and ignored my own feelings. I could easily have gone on to become an abuser or else continued to withdraw until I lost touch with myself altogether.

I know Hanna’s love and support made me more resilient and allowed me to hold my head a little higher. I conjured her presence to help me when I felt clumsy shopping for clothes, and I imagined myself in her skin to give myself the courage to take risks. I later learned that she had carried me in her heart in much the same way. Admiring my dispassion and logic, she imitated me when she needed to think her way through difficulties without becoming overwhelmed by her emotions.

Our outward experiences were always very different. I was a goody-goody; she experimented. I accepted Christ; she remained skeptical. I went to college and became an athlete at about the same time she retired from athletics and moved to a small town to apprentice as a goldsmith. I dated little, married young, and couldn’t wait to have babies. She traveled the world and dated a series of colorful characters. Nevertheless, we always shared intimately and without judgment.

We each made an important decision around the year we turned 40. I returned to school to pursue my M.S. in Pastoral Counseling. After making progress towards an undergraduate degree in Psychology, Hanna dropped out of college to become partner to a man with a serious and chronic health condition. We did not realize that the cord which had kept us connected for so long was about to fray.

My grad school experience was arduous and protracted. Family responsibilities resulted in my taking over six years to finish; but stretching out the timeline had gifted me with the opportunity to deeply contemplate and assimilate the material. The program required more of me than the memorization of facts and the writing of research papers. I was challenged at every turn to reflect with honesty upon my faith and my life, past and present. I experienced anger and sadness, joy and gratitude as God used this time as the crucible for a work of healing and enormous growth.

It was suggested this summer that I had changed, that I had become “other.” It was hinted that I had become less. Less hospitable, less authentic, less available. I disagree. I know have become more.

Somewhere along the way, I grew my own head, heart, and lungs without even realizing it. My brain thinks clearly, my heart beats confidently, and my soul expands with every breath. I love Hanna, and I want her friendship just as much as I always have. I simply no longer require her. In time, I believe I will be able to feel the profound beauty of this truth.

We are not yet at the end of the story, and I do not know how it ends. What if I survive the surgery, and Hanna does not? What if we both survive the surgery but the friendship cannot be resuscitated?

The wait is painful and uncertain.

To follow this thread, please click on the tab for The Story of Hanna or find second installment here.

Good Friday Gone Bad

rainy night stadium lights Grant Frederiksen

Image courtesy of Grant Frederiksen

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night. He was the best man I had ever known, and now I’d never see Him again.

Good Friday is the one day in the year when I sit quietly next to His lifeless body and weep. I weep because I miss Him. I weep because He suffered. I cry hot tears because He is dead, dead, dead, and now the unfinished business between us can never be put right.

I know how the story ends but I need to feel the loss of my Lord and reflect upon His pain. Pain I should rightfully have borne were justice served. Feeling the loss of Him prepares me to feel the joy of His resurrection. Not only is He not dead, He still likes me and is glad to see me even though I helped to kill Him.

I went to Jesus’ funeral last night and discovered that someone had scheduled seven other funerals at the same time. One funeral for each of the Last Seven Words of Jesus. Services were held for the victims of ISIS and Ebola; Robin Williams; Brittany Maynard; and Eric Garner. There were others I cannot now recall, and that is a shame because all of those mourned last night deserve to be recognized, grieved, and laid properly to rest. The daily news is full of sadness, injustice and horror, and we are called to hear and act.

But I went to Jesus’ funeral last night.

I could not get to Him to say goodbye. One after another, the funeral processions crowded by, forming a continuous throng of mourners through which I was unable to pass. Here and there, I caught a glimpse of Him before He was eclipsed. Finally the crowds began to dwindle, and I began my trembling approach.

The service ended before I made it to Him. The music stopped. It was time to go. The man in front of me began talking about a movie he had seen. There were bright lights and friendly chatter.

I sobbed it out in the car on the way home. My husband was lovely to me.

The sermon had been thoughtfully crafted and intended for good. I knew that. But it had gone terribly awry, and I felt cheated and bereft.

Now that my tears have dried, I wonder: Maybe I got the point after all.

The Big Red Robe

The Big Red Robe

My big red bathrobe is 100% cotton and should smell like a clean towel. Yet for some reason, it has always been a little stinky. Laundering doesn’t help. But according to one daughter, the robe smells like love. Kids are funny that way. And scents are evocative. So I guess I’ll go with that compliment and try not to invalidate it by recalling that another daughter once publicly declared that my armpits smell like heaven.

My Dad died in Feb. of 1990, over a year and a half before our first child arrived. The Christmas before his death from cancer, he and my mother went on a grand shopping spree. I believe he sensed he would not recover.

One of his gifts to me was this red robe. I appreciated the robe but I never liked it. It was so thick, so heavy, so ENORMOUS that wearing it made me clumsy and sweaty. The sleeves were so long I could never roll them up far enough to do dishes without getting them soaked. Mostly, the robe hung in my closet and awaited its true calling.

As our children came into the world, the robe started to come in handy. I wore it as I nursed them. I rocked them in it when ear infections kept them up at night. It was big enough to wrap us both cozily within its folds. When the girls were a little older, we’d sit together inside the robe, each of us taking one sleeve and closing the robe around us. Claire wore it at breakfast so she could smell the love. Wearing it when they were sick helped the girls feel better.

I will never be able to get rid of that smelly robe now. And I no longer want to.

Thank you, Dad.

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

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