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Finding (the Other) Donald

Finding (the Other) Donald

October 6, 2016

I took some days off work to spend time with visiting family members. I hoped the time away would ignite a writing spark and allow a few hours to fan it. My brother Will was in from Los Angeles, and our oldest daughter Lindy had come from Maui for the week. My sister Gwen joined the three of us, and we headed–literally–for the hills. That is, we piled into my Subaru with the family dog and hit the road for Mom’s small house in rural West Virginia.

Oh, we had fun, all right. All the glorious, obnoxious, jostling sibling interplay you might expect, served with some serious and dear conversation on the side. Lindy more than held her own. It is not for me to judge whether my husband and our other daughters felt more blessed than deprived in having been unavailable to join us.

Lee family gaiety is of the raucous variety, you see. My family is intense and somewhat chaotic. We are more firecracker than briquette. Our words and personalities tumble over one another with an energy which makes the air crackle. After two or three days, we have each either been smothered in the ample family bosom or we are waving sticks of dynamite in one others’ faces and daring each other to light a match.

Even so, we are a loyal clan. Our family dysfunction is such that we can bait one another well beyond the limits of civility but woe, woe, to the unwary outsider who gives offense to one in our ranks.

Theatrics and egos aside, I can count on my sibs to defend and care for me. This certainty among us has been hard won, and it is precious to me. It is from this maddening and glorious cocoon of family togetherness, this place of teeth gnashing and warm embraces, which I will tell you about finding Donald, a man who was not so lucky.

You could say I stumbled over him.

I discovered him last Saturday. He was sitting on the floor just inside the locked double doors of the church where I see my counseling clients. A spectre of the man he had once been, he was peeking at me from beneath an information table. I’d guess his weight at no more than five pounds.

DIW sits in hallway near door.jpg

Donald’s appearance spoke of haste, neglect, and a lack of dignity. Dead over six years, he still inhabited the cheapest of temporary urns–a black plastic cube. An edge of the clear plastic bag holding his charred remains poked out from under the lid. Shrouded in a gray plastic Dollar Tree bag, Donald sat on the cold linoleum and waited.

I waited too. Surely some reasonable explanation existed for my finding him thus.

I popped my head outside the door of my office between clients, hoping to discover he had been claimed.

Once, the church secretary came upstairs to rearrange the letters on the board above the information table. I said nothing and waited to see what would happen. Yolanda slid Donald further under the table. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she looked into the open bag at her feet before pushing him out of her way and against the wall. I confess, I cannot testify with certainty that she used her foot.

On Sunday, worshipers came and went, each passing within a few feet of Donald. Did they not wonder about the unexpected deposit in the empty hallway?

Days passed and nobody came for him. On the fourth day, Donald and I headed down to the church office to sort things out. Disaster was narrowly averted when Donald’s heft caused the sharp corners of his box to pierce the flimsy gray bag. I caught him before he fell and exploded in the stairwell.

The pastor and the secretary looked surprised to see Donald. Operating on the assumption that he or a family member had once attended the church, they conducted a little research. This is what they learned: Nothing. Donald had no discernible connection to the church at all. The staff scratched their heads and began researching the proper disposal of human remains.

I had had a cancellation, so I decided to do a little sleuthing of my own.

I was curious about Donald–Donald I. W., to be exact. From the label attached to his little box, I knew when he had come into the world and when he had left it. I even knew the date and location he had been placed in the furnace. I felt somehow embarrassed to know these intimate facts.

D.I.W. Urn Photo

This is what I concluded: Donald had lived with family 1.7 miles from the church. He has surviving family members in the area, including an older brother, now 70, still living in said family home. Either his relations are terribly poor or they don’t give a rat’s ass what becomes of him. Someone had sneaked into the building and abandoned Donald just as one would an unwanted infant.

When I consider Donald’s humiliation, I am overcome with gratitude for the generosity and only slightly deformed goodness which is growing up within and between me and my kin.

Maybe I should not be quite so hard on Donald’s family. They probably deserve some credit for choosing a church over a dumpster.

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Rip Van Winkle: The Upside

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Winter, 2012

Now that my time machine has hurtled forward a few decades, ejected me onto my ass, and gone up in a thick cloud of black smoke; I am stuck at age 48. At least, until I become stuck at age 49. After which I will become stuck at age 50. And so on. Unto death. But things on Planet Middle Age aren’t as bad as I would have thought even two months ago. For example…let me share one puzzling outcome of my crash landing:

I am developing a genuine fondness for Old People.

Old People are endemic to my church, where the median age is about 70, and where, until recently, I have been a bona fide Young Adult. There are no children at my church, or if there are, they are in hiding. We had a nursery once but we closed it because no babies had turned up for the better part of a year. I’m not sure why I’m still attending. Admittedly, my Old People are the best Old People you can find anywhere; however, they are Old. Most of the other Young Adults have long since jumped ship, and the Old People are dying off at the rate of about one per week.

Each Sunday I watch from an emotionally safe distance as the Old People move about in a routine so well choreographed, it would put an NFL coach to shame—they in their Sunday finery and coiffed hair, and I in my skinny jeans and hoodies. I smell Coty face powder and Estee Lauder. I know that if I peek in the men’s closets, I’ll find pairs of white Reeboks reserved for their Saturday romance with the riding mower. Sometimes I think of the Old People as busy bees, cheerfully tending the hive, doing and saying what they always have, pitifully oblivious to their imminent demise. I don’t really want to know them. I especially don’t want to be them.

Things look a little different since the time machine crashed. Where to start?

For one thing, while I was having my protracted adolescence, my Old People finished raising their families, brought their professional lives to a close, and began to enjoy their retirement. This, of course, required significant advance planning. Most adolescents don’t plan too well, and neither did I. My husband tried to talk to me about things like savings and retirement but I didn’t listen very well. Do you know any teens who want to dwell on these topics? Me either.

Now as I watch the Old People take cruises and go south for the winter, I wonder how they do it. I’d love to go on a cruise. I’d like to remodel my kitchen, circa 1961, whose original cupboards boast a large brass medal: “Gold Medallion Home. Live Better Electrically.” At the end of the day, I thank God that I went back to school to become a counselor. As long as I can sit upright and nod my head, I can contribute to our upkeep. I don’t think I can afford to retire.

I realized, at some point, that my Old People were once Young Adults. I also realized some of them were much smarter and educated than I am. It took a few awkward and (unintentionally) patronizing conversations to set me straight. Linda can do just about anything on the computer, and she’d be the first person I’d call if I ever needed to program my VCR. (Is this a good time for me to confess that I do not know how to use my TV and have begun to stuff used tissues up my sleeves?) Despite a possible Reebok habit, Lyle is as sharp as a tack in all things financial. And don’t mess with my boy Sean. He may wear sweater vests, but it takes huevos to be a courier downtown.

My Old People include retired professors, retired accountants, and retired nurses, just to name a few. Even more impressive: many of my Old People have raised children who actually turned out to be very nice Adults. (Can you see how hard I’m working not to put the words “retired” and “Mom” in the same sentence? I think we all know Moms never retire.)

Bottom line: I think I could do a lot worse than joining the Old People. Besides–consider the alternative.

This is the seventh installment of The Story of Hanna (see also tab of the same name). For the sixth installment click here. For the eighth installment click here.

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.

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