Sunday, August 30, 2009

No Happy Ever After

Facebook is a new tool for me. I was dissuaded from joining for a long time by Marissa, who was pretty adamant that it was a tool for college students or recent graduates, and I was too old for it. I got the definite impression that my joining a social networking site would embarrass my daughter to the core. On the other hand, however, was my friend Francine, who had her own page and had invited me to join, encouraging me not to be intimidated by Marissa. Finally, not too many weeks before I left for the fateful trip to West Virginia, I capitulated and set up my page. The irony is that Francine no longer has a page, while Marissa and I are Facebook buddies. However, I harbor no illusions that I am too old school to use all the bells and whistles; the first time someone engaged me with a live chat totally threw me for a loop. I managed to figure out how to respond eventually, but it was another couple of days before I learned how my friend knew I was logged in. The birthday thing totally got me. Marissa had to explain to me how everyone knew it was my birthday. There are some downsides to it, primary among them the problem with spyware I've had since joining. But, what it has done for me outweighs that issue so far. I am "friends" with a Steeler page that puts me in immediate touch with hundreds of my fellow fans, which is fun. But, mainly I love that I've managed to re-connect with some old, old friends who I'd let slip out of my life. Some of them are friends I've known since my first real career job with Martine Properties some two decades ago, but recently some of my old high school friends have found me, or vice-versa, many of whom I haven't seen since walking out of the Montana State University field house on graduation night. Others I lost track of gradually, but still, for whatever reason, allowed to drop out of my life, only to find myself wondering what became of them from time to time. We have been catching one another up on our lives during the interceding years in short one and two paragraph bursts. My friends are scattered all over the country doing all kinds of work. One woman actually lives in Texas. But, for all the myriad directions we managed to go, I was gratified to find that, if I liked them when I was 17, I like them now. We are, at our core, the same people. We vote the same party, we read the same kinds of books, watch the same kinds of movies that we did three decades ago. Some of these new-old connections have picked right back up as though no time has past at all, others have been a little more tentative, but I am grateful for them all.

As I gradually read their stories unfold in our little messages back and forth, I am struck by how many of us have experienced something deeply traumatic already in our lives. Cancer is a common thread, but others have lost spouses or siblings. Some are out of work and on the bitter edge of bankruptcy. I don't discount the stress that brings, having been there myself before. If I were 20 years older, this wouldn't surprise me so much. If I lived a century ago, it would be expected. But, come on, we all live in the dawning of the 21st century. It seems that the old statement, "In every life, a little rain must fall." is pretty true. But, why does the rain have to be so acidic? I was in no way expecting the level of loss and pain that has visited most of the people I know. I've been trying to process that; trying to find some meaning in it. Would anyone around my age find the same thing in a sampling of their friends and acquaintances? Or am I somehow sadly unique? What is it that we are supposed to learn from tragedy, and is that why Fate makes us endure it? Couldn't we learn the same lesson a less painful way? Why, in short, is life so damned hard?

I try not to compare my own situation with anyone else. Everyone is unique, as I've said before. All their trials are painful to them on their own individual level. I try not to allow my own pain to swallow me up and not allow me to be present for my friends, old or new, if they need a virtual shoulder. That's a work in progress, I have to confess. But, I like that most people have gradually felt comfortable enough to make me aware of their own situations and trust that I would not belittle it by stacking it up against my own and telling them it doesn't measure up, or at least I think they have. For, if there is anything all of this has taught me, is that I want to be a better friend because I would not have made it out of the first hard week without mine. I am sorry that is still a goal that is for my future. I am still a little too tender to be much use to those around me.

Still contemplating Senator Kennedy's life, I would like to have asked him if, after so much loss and hardship, did he find the sunset out over the ocean more beautiful or less so? Maybe we have to face real hardship to appreciate what we do have. I actually don't doubt that's true. But, why is it then none of us were told to expect this level of chaos in our lives? We all grew up, on some level, to believe the fairy tales our mothers read us at night. Wouldn't we have been better served to have been prepared not to live happily ever after? When I think about it, my friends and I grew up during a unique time. Too young really to be touched by Vietnam (we knew about it and some of us lost family to it, but none of us would have served), too old for the Gulf War, we were a generation raised in relative peace and prosperity. We were called the Me Generation. I always thought the recreational drug use that was rampant during our disco days was a way to enter some drama into otherwise uneventful lives (that wasn't my way, I have to confess, but I found other outlets, trust me). We watched Leave it to Beaver re-runs and Happy Days. We grew up believing we would go off to college, have great careers, healthy children and 1.5 pets. We would sip wine or drink beer and watch football on the weekends and never grow old. The reality is shockingly far from the vision, and I wonder if our parents did us a disservice allowing us to grow up believing the Kennedy's were somehow cursed and nothing like that would ever happen to us. Because it has and does. Now, can we teach our own children how to expect that rain to fall without dashing their hopes for a happy, fulfilling life? How does one reach that balance? I don't know, but I believe it is ultimately kinder than empty promises of a life untouched by sorrow.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Senator Kennedy Gave Me Today

Summer of Death. That's what the morning DJ I listen to on the way to work coined it the day after Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. Little did he probably think that a very short time later her more famous brother would join the long list of famous names who have passed on since Memorial Day. I won't try and list them all, but if you think about it, it has been a rather long list of famous names, some old, some not, who we wake up to read about everyday. Of course, in the shadows all across the nation are small and unnoticed additions to those departed titans. For me personally, I have been to two funerals just since Kelsey's. After the last service, for the mother of a friend, I said to myself that I'd have enough for a while and unless the person was very close to me, I was going to let the next few go on by. Well, I didn't exactly do what I said. I've been glued to MSNBC all day watching Senator Kennedy's funeral. I'm not sure if that counts as attending one, but it felt as though I were there at times.

Of course, for me and my "liberal nut" ways (a quote from the parents of my daughter's boyfriend), Senator Kennedy's passing was a reason for great sadness, but not surprise. We all knew that he was facing an imminent death. He handled it with a grace and acceptance that long suffering had taught him. He was no stranger to Old Man Death, having watched it take so many of his siblings and try to work on his children. And of course, there were the other controversies he had endured, the drinking, the divorced Catholic and the big one, Chappaquiddick. If you don't know what that refers to, then that just illustrates that he overcame what would have doomed almost anyone else. Even I remember his public statement as the first real memory I have of him. He led a full life, but it was full of troubles and sorrows as well as joys.

I sat down to watch the funeral this morning a little battered and bruised by the events of the week. I had walked out of a staff meeting earlier in the week, my first staff meeting since going back to work, when they showed a rather sensational video from YouTube to try and illustrate how serious they were about employees not texting while driving. It shows a car full of young women get into a wreck because they were texting rather than watching the road. The wreck is over done and like a scene from Final Destination. I even joked about it. But, then the girls in the car begin screaming. I don't know why, but I immediately could not handle it. Sitting in the far corner, I got up and quickly left to go back to my desk. I had to pass by absolutely everyone. I have no apologies for doing it, but it put a light on my circumstance that I had not wanted. Since then, I have been treated a bit like something made of sharp glass, even by people who know me fairly well. The job I was grateful for because it took my mind off the weight of my circumstances for chunks of time is no longer that haven. A group was planning a happy hour yesterday that the man who sits closest to me was very excited about, encouraging everyone to go. Everyone but me. No one spoke to me about it. I wasn't interested in going, but the lack of mention was noticeable. Suddenly, I have made everyone uncomfortable when all I wanted was a place to work. And then there was the death certificate, which was finally ready. At first, that was actually a lift. I described it to our grief counselor as putting a period on the end of a very long run on sentence. But, it began a new sentence, which is how to process what it contained. And, that sentence was punctuated painfully by the reaction that my daughter had to it when I told her about it. She had already had a hard week, really missing her sister. No one, she explained to me, knew her like her older sister, and she could tell her absolutely anything and have her understand it. I can't replace that for her, I didn't even try to tell her that I could. She's right. They shared a common upbringing, had struggled together, overcome together and then struggled again. They fought like crazy, but there was never any doubt they had a deep and abiding love for one another and now that is lost. To make it more poignant, Marissa moved into her dorm and began college classes, something she knows her sister will never do. She was carrying some guilt around as a result, and I came along and crushed her with the news of the death certificate. The final nail in this week's coffin came for me, however, when the night of the infamous staff meeting, I got a call from Mother's nursing home. A flustered male nurse wanted me to come up there because Mother wouldn't take her medication. I tried calling her room, and the same nurse picked up the phone. She refused to speak to me, but I could hear the exchange. She was belligerent and uncooperative. He was clearly flustered and afraid of getting in trouble if she wouldn't take it. I refused to go, having had a drink. I probably could have made it the two miles without getting pulled over for one adult beverage in my system, but what I worried about was how I would react once there. I doubted I would calm the situation. All of these things together made me feel hopeless, tired and ready to throw in the towel, Terrible or otherwise.

So, with that attitude, I sat down to watch a the lead "liberal nut" be laid to rest. The service touched me, of course, but seemed to speak to me in a way I was not anticipating. Throughout, there were references to how much he had suffered and lost,and how he had carried on, at times because "he had to". There was no choice. And I ruminated on those words. Because that is very true. I get up every day and function because I have to. I have obligations. But, I had began to feel resentful and overwhelmed by them. Today, I was reminded that others have suffered as much or more than me and not only survived, but overcame. For some reason, all of that was more to me than just words. I believe in what I heard. Maybe because I admire Senator Kennedy, but I never saw him as more than he was, which was a flawed human being. For him to overcome all of that to achieve what he did is all the more amazing. If he can do it, then so can I. It doesn't mean I won't have more bad days. As a matter of fact, it doesn't mean I won't struggle to get through them. But, the gift he gave to me today is the strength to tell you that I will.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I don't think I can really tell the tale of Kelsey's life and my part in it without telling you something about my father, even though he died when she was five, and was always, except for a couple of visits back and forth, over a thousand miles away in more ways than one. But, I am who am because of him, both good and bad, and I made decisions based on how I was raised that impacted my family. My father brought me up based on attitudes and values he had learned from his father, and so it goes. Even though his blood doesn't flow through my veins, I realize that I am a part of him and his legacy lives on through me and how I live my life. The results are, like the man himself, complex.

My father, Graham Labin Bleiler, worked all my childhood to teach me three things: to work hard, love football and love the outdoors (specifically to love shooting and snagging things in the outdoors). Well, two out of three isn't bad. I do like being outdoors, but I don't hunt or fish. As a matter of fact, as many of you know, I support a herd of deer, some of whom come when I call their name. However, it's that first lesson that was the most tantamount. Mom and Dad came of age at the height of The Great Depression and spent the best years of their lives during World War II, separated by continents and the constant threat of death. A lot of what we all whine and complain about in our daily lives now would seem completely foreign to my dad. Too much work to do? Just be glad you have a job. Don't like your job? Ditto. He would not have understood or had any patience for any of the struggles my children went through. When my attitude very early on was, "Just snap out of it!" I thought it in his voice. And even later, when my outlook was a little more enlightened, I still would wonder whether my children wouldn't be better off growing up during the depression because they wouldn't have the luxury of worrying over their inner turmoils and would have to concentrate on the more rudimentary tasks of just staying alive. Some time back I decided it was useless to ponder such things. But, for my parents, that was the life they led. Whatever issues they had, such as my mother's feelings that her own mother did not love her, were small in comparison of what the world was throwing at them every day. Out of that global turmoil came my dad's belief that his number one task was to provide for my mother and me. As a matter of fact, only a few years ago, my mother's comment about my dad was, "He was a good provider." It was the only good thing she came up with to say about him, but I think it was the most important thing to her. Good lover? Probably not really. Good companion? Definitely not, they fought like cats and dogs. Supportive helpmate? I don't really remember him saying much to her that was meant to buoy up her ego. But, we had a nice house. We had all the food we wanted. She had her china and crystal and silver. I know she felt she married well; it was the core of the famous fight she had with her sister Merle that caused them to stop speaking to one another in the mid-90's.

There was no doubt for me what my primary role as a parent was: to provide for my children. To work hard to make something of myself. And, boy, I did do that. I worked really, really hard. Both of my daughters have said at various times, in no uncertain terms, that they would have rather had their mother than the things they had. And, in the most ironic twist of all, treating their illnesses and addictions drained us of most of what I worked so hard to gain. But, I still can't quite figure out what's wrong with a strong work ethic. Clearly, there needs to be a balance between home and work. But, how much is too much of one and not enough of the other? How can one fully live up to the responsibilities of one part of your life while not shirking the other? I don't know. I've never done it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Private Ryan's Mother

Greg bumped into someone today who works near him who lost his four year old son a few months before we lost our daughter. He shared with me how awkward the meeting was. He said he thought they would be able to talk to one another, sharing such an experience, but neither man apparently felt comfortable, and after a few awkward exchanges, it was clear that they only wanted to get away from one another. I explained to him that this didn't surprise me really. No one can know what it's like to be that man. Just as no one can understand what Greg and I feel, not completely. Our pain is unique because our experience with our child is unique. But, ever since that conversation a few hours ago now, I've been pondering which is the more painful loss generally. Losing a child so young or to watch them grow up and then lose them. Was that other man resentful of Greg because at least he got to see her high school graduation and take pictures of her in a prom dress (neither of which we did, incidentally - she was too sick to attend prom and graduated from an alternate program because she had been in and out of treatment so often that she could not attend regular high school classes the last two years). Or did Greg think his pain was more intense because of all the time, effort, hope and despair over all the years that the other man didn't have to experience, only to have those memories dashed. I don't know really. I do think the guilt, which is bad for us, must be crushing for someone who loses a child so young because your instinct is protect them from harm, even though sometimes you just can't.

That got me thinking about the scene in Saving Private Ryan that I have always found to be the most poignant. Much like the most dramatic scene in Brokeback Mountain, there is no dialogue, or in this case, direct dialogue. Body language says it all. It's the scene where Mrs. Ryan receives the news of her sons and collapses on the porch. For me, that scene alone always drives me to tears. Long before Kelsey was even sick, I couldn't get past that scene without crying, and not just tearing up for a second, but real shoulder shaking tears. I have always put myself in her place and flashed to all the nights she sat up when her sons had chicken pox or the flu. All the stories she read to them, the pajamas she buttoned up, the scrapes and cuts she cleaned and bandaged, the tears dried afterwards, all to raise them to adulthood only to have their lives cut short half way around the world. For me, the first time I saw the film, I remember thinking bitterly, "That's not what she raised them for. To send them off to die." And this from a woman who believes sincerely that World War II was a necessary war for the Allies to wage. I remember when the movie first came out I read a review that was critical of that scene, calling it unnecessary and a distraction. I was angry at that reviewer, whom I do recall was male, and assumed he didn't have children. Spielberg has kids. He gets it. He knew that was a critical scene to illustrate why it was important for the mission to happen, and why the decision was made to send other men into peril to find the last Ryan brother. That loss, that horrible loss for that poor mother who loved her sons and always expected to have them bury her, not the other way around, was so poignantly illustrated by her sinking wordlessly to the ground. Even if your child dies for the most noble of causes, it's still a hole ripped totally and completely from your heart. With two wars being waged by the United States now, there are a lot of bleeding, wounded hearts out there. But, I don't think that makes the loss of a little boy any less tragic. That father has a large, gaping hole in his heart too.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Few Updates

Wondered what became of Tum-Tum? Wonder if Mother is still around? Or if I abandoned her? And, what about the dog who was lost while I was pondering sewage pouring into the yard? Unfortunately, I realize with my rather scattered patterns of thought these days, I tend to leave some hanging threads. So, I thought I should pick some of those threads up and try to mend the holes I've left.

Working my way backward through the list: yes, the dog was found. Greg came to my rescue. After calling me to check in and listening to me tearfully tell him about Cheyenne, he headed home and was able to find her (they all mind him better than me, I'm the soft touch, he's the disciplinarian).

I did not abandon Mother, although at times it seems as though I have, even to me. Back to work full-time, I can no longer make it over to see her everyday, and was worried about that until I noticed recently I don't actually think she realizes it anymore. Her relationship with reality, sadly, is slipping even from what it was a few months ago. She recently announced to everyone that my daughter is attending college in Canada. This is after someone on staff printed her up a map to show her where Marissa's college actually is, which is 11 miles up the road. She calls her favorite dog, Cheyenne, Shane and calls me Cheyenne. When I was there the other day a male nurse came in to give her some medication. His name, in very large print on his name tag, is Neil. He's been there all along. She called him Carl at least half dozen times. The upside is, if I don't make it to see her on any given day, I no longer get the pouty guilt trip. She just seems glad to see me and completely unaware of the time lapses. The downside is, she called her stock broker and pulled out all the cash she had available and had it sent to her local account so she could pay for my youngest daughter's tuition. Very noble and generous thought. When it came time to fund the account so I could pay her nursing home, they had to call me and tell me they couldn't do it. When I confronted Mother, in a not-how-I-learned-to-talk-in-therapy voice, she told me she had taken a loan out against her portfolio. Not so, obviously. At that point, some weeks back now and still completely raw emotionally from the trauma of losing my oldest child, those black clouds I wrote of a couple of days ago were really swirling, and the thought of her doing something even more drastic with her money was the lightning bolts striking all around me(because, at least I still have it, now tucked safely in a savings account she can't access, but she could have just have easily spent all of that on something outrageous, like another El Diablo - God forbid). I finally decided I needed some help. I thought back to that educational consultant I didn't end up using to help with Marissa and wondered if maybe there was the equivalent for older folk. I found a service online that advertised that it connects people to senior care ( Sounds great. I filled out the form, not knowing what I would get and waited to see what the response would be. A few hours later a woman called for me, listened patiently to my story, told me she had a couple of firms she was thinking of that could probably help me and promised to contact them, which she very promptly did, and then she followed up with me to make sure they had contacted me. She was like an unseen angel coming to me from my cell phone. I have no idea who she is, I can't remember her name, and I have no idea how she makes her money, because I didn't pay her anything, but she deserves sainthood. Long story short, I now have a case manager who consults with me, keeps an eye on Mother and her care and advises me. She had me ask for a psych evaluation to see if we need to consider legally terminating Mom's ability to control her finances, which is in progress. She also introduced me to the concept of companion services. You can seriously pay people to socialize with your parents. They will read to them, play games with them, take them shopping or to visit friends, or just sit there and watch television if that's what the person wants to do. And, they are actually trained and certified to do this job. The owner of the company told me one client insisted the companion have a Master's degree. He wasn't able to fulfill that request, but does have college graduates on staff. Unbelievable. Mother's companion begins Wednesday. I am excited for both her and me. I will take the three days the companion visits "off", and Mother will have someone there who will do things willingly with her that I don't have the energy or patience to do. I am hoping that you really can have your dessert and eat it too.

As for Tum-Tum, I am happy to report she is doing fine. Her weight is back to where it was, although that was never all that much. She is a petite creature, but true to her diva attitude, she has a large voice, and she has been using it lately to tell us exactly what she wants and when she wants it. During this entire trying summer, I have been watching the animals and trying to decide what they know and how they are reacting to it. I know animals feel grief, and they definitely react to our vibes, but I don't know if they really understand who it is that is missing and that she is not coming back. Tum-Tum knows who is missing without any doubt, but what I honestly can't tell you is how long she will hang onto that memory, or if she is already lost it. She spends much of her day laying on a ledge above our stairs where I have Kelsey's urn. She spreads out and props her head against the urn. There is no way, I tell myself, she knows Kelsey's remains are in there, but the time she spends there and the proximity she stays to it is just a little too coincidental. But, she is also coming around to deciding that we all live downstairs, and if she wants to receive any attention at all, then she will have to do the same. She is taking it slow, spending increasing amounts of time in a room right off the master bedroom where we have our exercise equipment. It is closed off from the rest of the house and Charlie accesses it through a cat door. I have kept his food bowl there for years to keep the dogs away from it. So, now she hangs out there a good part of the day. I moved her litter box down there just last night. And she is venturing out to visit me in the bedroom or the kitchen more often. Problem is, as aloof as she has been all this time, the dogs are terribly curious about her. She met my Dalmatian last night in the kitchen, and the encounter did not go well, to Noelle's disadvantage. The ten pound cat kicked the 50 pound dog's butt. She has returned to playing, running back and forth the upstairs hall like she used to do. This is a new development. She always felt frisky in the mornings, keeping Greg awake and irritated. I've noticed he doesn't complain about that lately. I think he's just happy, as am I, that she is adjusting so well. We are not even pretending that we are looking for another home for her at this point. I would let her go with Marissa's boyfriend since he is a true cat person. He can hold her and rock her in his arms for long periods. I am the only other one who can pick her up, but not for long. But he has two cats who each could swallow her whole. So, she is with us probably for the duration. She is our last living piece of our daughter. In so many ways, she is like Kelsey.

So there you have it. Now go watch the game, everybody. The Steelers are on.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Black Cloud People

As I was standing in my backyard two nights ago looking over the clean out pipe leading from the house to our septic field, watching it overflow into our yard, having just come back from unsuccessfully spending an hour looking for my dog who slipped out the front door that my daughter had left open, I thought to myself, "Okay, it's official. I am a Black Cloud Person. Serves me right. It's karma coming back at me." What do I mean by that? Well, I'll tell 'ya. I coined the phrase some years ago to describe certain individuals who wouldn't have any luck at all if they didn't have bad luck, and they have it in spades. Hard breaks just seem to follow them around, like a little black cloud always hanging over their head.

The definitive Black Cloud Person worked for us several years ago. She was the one I made up the term to describe, although I've known others since. She worked as a clerk in our accounting department, which over the years employed a few people in her classification mainly because, I theorize, our Controller had a soft spot for people who had lived hard lives. She related to people who had struggled in life, because she had herself struggled early on. The difference, however, in a Black Cloud Person as I define them and someone who has seen tragedy is what they do with those experiences. As with my friend Linda, whom you may recall recently passed away, and her best friend Francine, you can overcome your struggles and rise above them or you can roll around in your sorrow, feel sorry for yourself, expect others to feel sorry for you too and, I had concluded, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. My theory of Black Clouders is that as long as they kept expecting bad things to happen, they would. With the ultimate Black Cloud personality, I suspected they secretly came to rely on a constant torrent of bad experiences because it kept people's attention and sympathy on them, more or less like a mild form of Munchhausen's. So it was with this poor woman, whom I have been pondering over the last couple of days. I cannot even recall all the calamitous events in her life, but they were never in short supply. Her reaction to whatever Crisis Du Jour she was experiencing was always just shy of over the top. Sometimes, actually, it was officially over the top. She was particularly dramatic once when she was diagnosed as having a potential melanoma on her face. I don't want to discount the seriousness of a situation like that, but she went up and down the halls of the office wailing about it, telling everyone in gasping tears what was happening, but refusing to go home. The entire office was in an uproar. Still new to the role of supervising people, I allowed it to go on, which I never would do at this point. Now I think I have the skill set to distract something like that from the workplace and still allow the person their dignity, but it took a while to learn. I also learned when to cut it off and just make someone go home for the day, which is very, very quickly. Turns out the spot was benign, she had it removed and her excuse for self pity went away. You could actually see the disappointment on her face. After that, I kept an eye on her. She didn't call in sick that often, although she often professed she was. If she called in sick she of course didn't get paid, but more to my theory, she lost her audience. She literally leapt from one bad situation to the next. Her car broke down, she couldn't pay her bills, some drama about her ex-, something would be wrong with her kids, her house, whatever. Never, ever did she run out of things to whine about, and whining, not to be unduly cruel, is really how she verbalized it. And she was very verbal. I began to suspect that her constant string of bad luck was more or less in her control. I thought that if only she would buck up, square her shoulders, announce that enough was enough, she could work her way out of her mess and turn her life around, but convincing her of that seemed a lost cause. A marginal employee at best, she would be so distracted by her life that she would often make mistakes. For me, the end of the tolerance I had for her was when she sent out incorrect statements to more than a handful of individuals, causing me to write each one a letter explaining they were not, in fact, delinquent. The damage both to the company's reputation and my workload was significant for a time, and I lost most of my sympathy for her after that. The thing about the best of the Black Clouders is that they have survival down to a science. I believe that class of individual knows, somewhere down inside, that they are always skating on thin ice, and know how to hang on for dear life. And, as clear as it eventually became to her that she wasn't Employee of the Month, she wasn't about to leave without a shove. Problem is, and generally has been with the others like her I've known since, is that she really is a sweet person. Disliking her, despite all my long list of her faults, was really not that easy. Which, of course, is part of the syndrome. No one is sympathetic to a horrible person. Everyone is sympathetic to an essentially nice guy going through hard times. She drew my name for Secret Santa one year and showered me with gift after gift, very carefully selecting them to fit my personality. It was embarrassing actually, she overdid it to such an extent. Worrying that being the boss caused her to in part over do it, I never participated again, which made me sad because that was the only part of the holidays I really looked forward to. But, her gift giving motivation notwithstanding, she was a sweet woman overall and she was kind to others in her way. Trying to force her hand and get her to move on was a miserable occupation for us. Eventually we prevailed, and she's taken her sideshow on to somewhere else, but I judge all subsequent sad sackers against her measure. She set the bar. I hope life is kinder to her these days. Sadly, I fear that it probably is not.

So, now I am like her? Has this long, hard year of constant blows been brought on somehow by myself and my actions? Did decisions I make, things I did, or more likely, not do cause the people I love to suffer and therefore, me to suffer along with them? Do I need the drama and just not realize it? Or, am I being visited with all these plagues like Egypt because I have always held people like the poor unfortunate accounting clerk in mild contempt? Maybe I was wrong about her, and she didn't actually have any control over her situation and her reaction to it? I pondered all these things, bent over the teeming, overflowing pipe full of raw sewage, but answered none of them. All I knew for sure was that this past year reminded me of my current plumbing situation, it was full of shit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Long Journey Begins

You may have some questions after reading how I "met" Brandon Boyd, such as "Wait. I thought Kelsey had an eating disorder?" or "Well, what kind of mental illness?" That's the problem with blogs: you have to boil long complicated topics down into readable bites. But, it's also the problem with grieving mothers whose memories ebb and flow depending upon what pokes at her that moment. Suddenly every lyric I listen to reminds me of Kelsey or seems to have something to say directly related to her. Sometimes in a comforting way, sometimes not. So, coupled with the upcoming concert, it led me to ponder the events I described. The next day I was off thinking about football, because - well, I love thinking about football. My thought process these days is like a leaf floating on a river's surface. It gets tossed around in the rapids, bounced off jutting rocks and nipped at by fish, only to hit a calm part of the river where it floats steadily for a moment, only to repeat the cycle. I was always a little scattered like that, but grief I think must exacerbate it. However, I also am pulling memories off my mental shelf and having to dust them off and try to see them through more objective eyes than I often times lived them, so things will be lost, sometimes probably important things. That being said, I honestly do not recall anyone putting a label on what they believed Kelsey to be suffering from that day. And that makes sense actually. One thing I did learn fairly early on in is that the field of psychiatry is a difficult one. Some of the tools other doctors have at their disposal don't work when it comes to figuring out the complex workings of the brain. You can't run a blood test or take and x-ray and see exactly what is happening. So, a good psychiatrist has to be a detective and sometimes it's hit and miss. Scary thought? Yes, yes it is, particularly when you think of the side effects of the medication used to treat mental illness. And, over time, Kelsey was diagnosed with all flavors of depression. I lost track. Compound that with the fact that we were dealing with a teenage brain, which is still developing, and things are even more complicated. As a matter of fact, it took some doing to find a doctor who would even treat first one and then the other daughter. It was a delicate process that developed over time. So, I think truly all I got that day was a general diagnosis and not much more.

The other thing I learned was that I could get people to answer my questions, but sometimes I wasn't clued in enough to ask the right ones. I got wiser at that over time of course, which is why we were able to get a better and more comprehensive care team pulled together for Marissa when we had to. But, still, I didn't know there was such a thing as an educational consultant until Marissa's junior year. Almost seven years into trying to care for two children in crisis, someone finally asked me why I wasn't working with one. What an educational consultant does, I learned eventually, is to evaluate your child and then make recommendations of alternative placement, sometimes boarding school (hence the term "educational" I guess), but sometimes wilderness camp or hospitalization. I met with one once, but I didn't like the experience and Greg wasn't excited about the expense. But I was the only Alldredge parent in Marissa's group not working with one.

There just is no blueprint to any of this, and I found that other local parents were not particularly forthcoming, which would have been welcome to us early on to provide some guidance and support. There is shame attached to a child in trouble. I regret that even I fell into that rut at first. I would avoid social outings where I would see friends with similarly aged children. They would always pull out the snapshots and tell the stories of academic, sport or social successes and then, invariably, ask "So, how are your girls?" It was easier not to go than to have to try and field that question. Alldredge Academy, where Marissa went in the spring/summer of 2007, was a great boon in that they insisted on a series of mandatory parent workshops, so parents with similar socio-economic backgrounds are all in a room together for two long days of intense work. There's no denying we are all in there because we had kids in crisis, so that shame barrier is broken and suddenly you realize that parents who are normal, well intentioned, educated people have issues just like you. But, back in my little part of the world, outside the safe bubble of Alldredge, it was different. Once I began to get past my own reticence and began to accept the situation better, I wanted to be as helpful as I could to other parents starting down the same path. In speaking with the school's crisis counselor, I knew a lot of the parents of the kids he saw were having a hard time dealing with the reality of their child's situation, so I offered to have parents call me. Not once did I ever get a call. I think until society can break down that feeling of shame, pride, ego or whatever it is so parents can share experiences and resources, bad decisions will continue to be made and young people will continue to needlessly suffer.

And, yes, ultimately it was the eating disorder that became the mammoth issue that eventually cost Kelsey her life. Dual diagnoses are not uncommon, and many individuals with eating disorders share certain traits, depression being one. But, to say which is the chicken and which is the egg, I am not sure, even after all those years living with it. Either way, at first, it was not our larger concern. We had no idea what domino to put in the front of the stack, but it was buried somewhere in the middle initially. I honestly don't know if, by the time I took her to Shoal Creek Hospital that first time, she was bulimic or not. And if she was, I no longer remember if I realized it yet or not. I know that I became aware of it some time around then, but it was just another color in a larger palette of the picture I was trying to form of what was happening to my daughter. As might be expected, we dealt with the issues most visible to us, and the ones we felt were the most threatening to her and her little sister. The wild mood swings, the plummeting grades, the increasingly rebellious attitude, the drug use were all happening at the same time. We knew fairly early on that she was purposefully making herself throw up, and I knew enough about eating disorders to call it for what it was. But, still, I was very slow to see it for the danger that it was.

I remember very specifically a spring day when I finally had a quiet period one weekend and thought I would try the pool for the first time that season. I remember having on this swimsuit that a friend had given me that was vintage early 70's. The suit was awesome (I like vintage clothing), but I looked ridiculous in it. It didn't fit right and was way too revealing for my age and shape, but I hadn't had a chance to get a suit for the season yet, and figured, what the hell, no one was around anyway. I was trying to acclimate myself to the still chilly water when I looked up to the roof line and saw something bright orange splashed across about a three foot square outside the study window. I immediately figured we had been vandalized, but could not for the life of me figure out why, by whom or with what, so I tore out of the pool and up to the study. I leaned out the window and could see it was chunks of something. I climbed out the window onto the roof and got right up next to it. That's when I saw that it was vomit, and lots of it. And I knew how it had gotten there. Kelsey had been climbing out onto the roof to sneak cigarettes for a while, so now she was using to roof to purge. I sat down on my roof where I was probably visible to just about anyone in the neighborhood, in that skimpy old bathing suit and cried. Greg came home and found me there. He washed it off and yelled at Kelsey when she got home from wherever she was for upsetting me. That's how bad we were early on. Upsetting me?! Who the heck really cares about stuff like that? We both honestly were ignorant enough to think that this an activity that she could turn on and off at will at that point. And, after that, we thought she did turn it off. We saw no further evidence of it for a long time. Those events were pivotal. We achieved two things that day, in my opinion: we caused her to commit to it more deeply than ever before and forced her to take it underground. And whether it truly was the biggest issue before, it was for evermore. As long as she purged, no medication was going to be in her system consistently enough to work, no physical or psychological normacly could be achieved when her body was in constant trauma and flux like that, and the drag it put on her body would impact every other aspect of her life from that point forward. I think that day, maybe more than any other, set some things in motion that we could never quite undo. But we didn't see that or know that for a long time.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A New Season

Pittsburgh Steelers vs Arizona Cardinals
I have to admit I was scared when the ESPY's aired. I made Greg watch it live because I figured the Steelers would figure prominently during the program. There was a modest contingent of Steeler players there, less than had shown up after Super Bowl XL, but they were key faces, up to and including Big Ben Rothelisberger (the starting quarterback for the great unwashed). After the initial shock of seeing Ben still with all his off season weight so close to training camp, I really didn't care much. I watched it almost out of obligation. Since I had put up such a fuss to watch it when it first aired over Greg's proposal to watch it later and forward through the commercials, I didn't feel I could very well tell him he was right. Of course, had we done what he wanted, I wouldn't have had to watch the inspiring speech of the small town coach who was being presented with the Jim Valvano award. I was at a low point in the post funeral period and was really close to giving up. When I listened to him speak, very effectively I might add with a dash of humor, I thought to myself, "Well, shit, I wish I hadn't seen that because I can't exactly throw in the towel now." For those of you who didn't see it, here's some information: But, almost a larger downer for me was the fact that there was a group of my favorite people winning several awards, and I really could care less. I began to worry that, after all these months of waiting impatiently for the season to begin, it wouldn't matter to me. I would be too far gone to care.

I am almost grateful for the woman who filed the baseless lawsuit against Ben, because that got my dander up, and I started to think, "Well, if I can get worked up about this, then that means I'm feeling something." I took that as a good thing.

Last night the Steelers had their first pre-season game, and I am happy to report I reacted like any good member of the Steeler Nation. I cheered, I yelled at the officiating crew, I made fun of Matt Leinert for being a pretty boy, and I was irritated that news of Michael Vick's signing kept interrupting the game or at least really distracting it. I loved watching the young players make good. That Mike Wallace made a show of it, didn't he? And he provided us with plenty of 60 Minutes inspired puns. I really hope he makes the team. I love preseason for that reason. It's exciting to watch it when someone young makes it to the big time like that. It's their own mini-Super Bowl. I always tried to imagine what that must feel like.

I feel a little like someone who wakes up from a really bad car crash and has to check to see if all their limbs are still where they're supposed to be. I think I have a pretty serious heart injury still, but at least my Steelers are still with me. Bring on Kickoff Weekend. I am ready.

Washington Redskins v Baltimore Ravens

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Music and the Savage Beast (or Brandon Boyd as Peacekeeper)

One more day that I've survived
Another night alone
Pay no mind I'm doing fine
I'm breathing on my own

I'm here
And I'm on the mend
I'm here
And I'm on the mend my friend

Wake me when the hour arrives
Wake me with my name
See you somewhere down the line
We're teathered once again

- Foo Fighters
(On the Mend)

(NOTE TO PARENTS OF TEENS: This is tale told specifically to let you know that, no matter how dark your days may get, that same child you originally fell in love with when first holding him or her in your arms in the delivery room still exists in there somewhere. And, no matter how many times or how many ways they tell you they hate you - they probably do at that moment - but they really love you deep down inside and want your companionship.)

Marissa and I have had tickets for the Incubus concert next Wednesday for months now. Long before Kelsey died, those tickets have been sitting on my desk next to my U2 tickets. We have been gearing up by listening to their entire catalog, even the old jam band material that they almost certainly won't play. Kelsey wasn't going with us because she wrote them off as sell outs long ago, but Marissa is looking forward to it, and I really am, to the point where I passed Green Day by for this one. So, how does a woman near the half century mark become a fan of an alternative band named after a demon? Well, I'll tell you. June 20, 2009 notwithstanding, probably the second worst day of my life was the day I had to come to terms with the fact that my daughter wasn't like the vision I had always had of her. She was not the bright, slightly edgy teenager who was going through a hard adjustment period. She was, in fact, very troubled and needed serious help. What made it a horrible day had very little to do with my coming to grips with her reality, although I would be totally lying if I didn't admit it did contribute to it. But rather, it was a long, physically taxing day for both of us dealing with things we had never dealt with before. We were both scared, frustrated and angry. Really scared, frustrated and angry. And, brand new citizens of this new world of mental illness and the health care system in place to deal with it, we were not very skilled at dealing with one another when we were scared. If tension really could be so thick as to cut with a knife, a buzz saw would have been needed to make a dent in the air between us that terrible day.

I had begun the day like every other. Kelsey caught the bus to high school, I dropped Marissa at her middle school on my way to work and had been buried in the day's workload ever since when I got a call from the crisis counselor at the high school. I had spoken to him a few times before at this point. Kelsey made it through the first semester of high school with little fuss, and we had breathed a heavy sigh of relief. But almost immediately after the start of her second semester, things began to erode, and she had made repeated trips to see the two crisis counselors at the high school. The kids' favorite was a kind, empathetic man whom everyone called "Mr. Bill". I am sure he would tell you that the hardest part of working with troubled teens is their parents. At the beginning, I am sure we were no different. But, he was good at it. He gently led us into the pool rather than throwing us into the deep end all at once. He had a non-confrontational manner that was effective for getting us to do what he thought we needed to do without putting us on the defensive. I think that's an art form that is highly under appreciated, because it didn't happen very often with the long line of caregivers we saw over the years. Anyway, using that careful manner of his, he had steered us to counseling for Kelsey as well as arranging for her to have Section 504 status (which is, in essence, a tool for students with various degrees of emotional handicaps to be given some leeway in their workload and deadlines). He had been trying to nudge us to more substantive steps, but he was beginning to nudge us out of the comfort zone at the point we were when he called me that particular day. Suddenly, soft mannered nudging wasn't cutting it. She had tried to hurt herself at school, and he could no longer drop subtle hints. Still careful and gentle, he told me she was in real crisis and needed an assessment for psychological hospitalization. I had to drop what I was doing and pick her up from school. Mr. Bill told me where to take her and what to do, but of course he couldn't go with us, so as soon as I left the school grounds, it was just Kelsey and me trying to navigate these strange waters. I was definitely floundering suddenly in the deep end of the pool.

We headed for St. David's Hospital in downtown Austin. Kelsey and Marissa were born there. Now I was taking her back. She was not seriously hurt, but she was very much like a wild animal who finds itself cornered and injured. There is nothing left but to turn and fight. That's what she did. Fiercely. With everything and everyone, most especially me. I know now she was scared. I know now I was scared. But at the time all we saw when we interacted with one another was the anger. White hot anger practically seeped out of my daughter. I made a comment the other day about her being Linda Blair before the exorcism, and it wasn't that far from the case. I understand how parents genuinely think their kids are literally possessed. Her behavior was truly bizarre. I remember at one point she was laying on the floor with her head under a chair spouting hateful rhetoric and threatening to make a more serious attempt to hurt herself. For my part, that made me angry. The fact that I was missing work made me angry. And, the fact that I was frightened made me angry. We were there all afternoon, an interminably long afternoon. Mostly waiting. And waiting. And watching. I remember watching other people come into the area, which was literally shut off from the rest of the hospital in a small wing, cordoned off by a long hall and heavy doors, and seeing the same looks on the faces of the potential patients and the family with them. Scared, tired, and confused people looking like they weren't quite sure what was happening to them. What was happening to us, in the meantime, was that a bevy of medical professionals were assessing my daughter and determining that she was mentally ill and trying to explain that to me. I remember specifically a beautiful young doctor with a heavy Indian accent coming to speak to me. She sat down opposite me and leaned in to me, met my gaze and told me in her lovely lilting accent that Kelsey would always be ill, that this was a condition that would last the rest of her life. Trying to absorb what I was being told was hard, dealing with the immediate guilt of realizing that she was a product of my DNA, and I had done this to her was harder. I cried, I remember. Of course, in those days I cried a lot.

They decided that she needed to be hospitalized and evaluated, so they were trying to find a bed for her. So, we waited some more, our nerves fraying more with each passing minute. Finally, they gave up trying to find room for her there and sent me to another hospital nearby, and we headed off for our first visit to Shoal Creek, which specializes in mental health and addiction issues. Once there, the process began anew. We had to talk to new doctors and fill out new paperwork. But they agreed she needed to stay for a more thorough evaluation, and we were dispatched back out to the waiting room for a time. I'll never know how she felt at that point, but I would liken my own physical state by this point in the day (or early evening by now) as being like a dish rag that has just been wrung out and tossed in the sink. I was spent. We sat there lifelessly, Kelsey thumbing through a magazine, me staring at some generic picture over the receptionist's head when she shoved the open magazine and brightly announced, "Look, this is the guy I'm going to marry!" I can't remember if I looked at her first waiting for the punchline to the about face she had just pulled, but I eventually obeyed and looked at what she was holding. There he was. A full page black and white photo of a young man with large black plugs in his ears and tattoos on his arms sitting by a pool looking off at some unseen focal point. But it wasn't the plugs or the tats that caught my attention, it was that beautiful flowing hair and that angelic, wistful face. He literally took my breath away. I stared at this unknown person for a minute and then said, "Yes. Yes you are." Just like that, she was my child again. And I was her mother. And we were enjoying a magazine together. The switch was almost dizzying. She explained, in great detail, that I was looking at a picture of Brandon Boyd, the lead singer of a band called Incubus. She knew a lot about him and their music, and by the end of the conversation, so did I.

Brandon was eventually forgotten for the moment, as we were escorted upstairs and she was admitted on a 72-hour hold, but she knew she had piqued my interest, and she didn't let it go. What I remember most about the days immediately following her release from that first stay in the hospital was her trying to force me to like the band. And I didn't initially. Except for Drive. But, she wouldn't let it go. We played Incubus whenever we went somewhere, and she made me read articles about them and specifically the gorgeous Mr. Boyd. Finally, she wore me down. I learned to appreciate their music. Of course, I like the later Incubus when he learned that he didn't have to scream everything, and the lyrics were more than just bridges between obscenities. They actually were, for a time, rather deep. Now they do, admittedly, carry on about relationships a lot. But they do it so very, very well. But, that's not the point. The point is that a pattern emerged for us. She would introduce me to music, nearly cramming it down my throat sometimes, and when I would finally bite, she would decide the band in question must be too sedate for her and she would move on. But, as a result, I was introduced to The Foo Fighters, Tool, Iron and Wine, Jimmy Eat World and Mew, to name a few. She and Marissa both would go onto my iTunes and just add music with my knowing. Some of Kelsey's handiwork came up in rotation yesterday at work. A Deftones song cycled through today. I know I didn't add it. She must have. But, I think that was a way we remained in touch and "communicated" if you will. I don't know if we knew that's what we were doing, but I really think it was. This was our connection when we had no other. I am going back through all those artists she pushed me toward and trying to listen more carefully to the lyrics this time. Her voice is there, speaking to me. I wished I had listened better the first time around.

Thank you, Brandon Boyd. I will see you Wednesday.

CA : Celebrity Surf Jam

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Scenes from a Marriage

I imagine that people are curious as to how Greg and I are doing as a couple, but are too polite to ask. Maybe that's not right, and I'm just projecting what I figure I would be curious about onto everyone else, but I would be highly surprised if some of the people who have known us for years haven't wondered. Mainly because they will remember how our marriage has had more ups and downs than a ride at Six Flags. That's probably not too different than a lot of marriages, which is a safe statement to make based on a 60% divorce rate in this country. And, just to be totally honest, the fact that we aren't in that statistic somewhere is more a testament to how lazy we are (and broke in the old days) than to how committed we were to one another. At one time when Marissa was very small, we were at such a low point that I remember sitting on the couch one night while Greg was in the hallway right outside the living room talking to a friend who had come over for dinner and thinking, "Damn, he's good looking, too bad I hate his guts." At that point, it really was our finances, or lack thereof, and the fact that we had two small children that kept us together. Ironic, since it was the state of our finances for the most part that brought us to that juncture. (And, yes, I do realize that the yo-yo state of our marriage contributed significantly to our children's later struggles, just to get that out there early on.) But, stuck with one another, we managed to make it work and gradually we fell into a pattern that was comfortable, which gradually led to a relative state of contentment. And that's just where I would have liked to have left it. Happiness is an emotion, contentment is a state of being. I liked being content. But, again, things were happening outside my notice. (I just got off the phone with a friend from the old neighborhood. She said several times during the phone call that I was always at work. She knew Greg better. She had to keep asking me if I knew So-and-So; she couldn't assume I knew the other parents or even the other children because she never saw me at any of the functions.)

Then Kelsey began to struggle. That careful balance we had achieved in our marriage exploded like a stink bomb. As it became clear something was changing our sweet, smart, gentle daughter into Linda Blair before the exorcism, we did what any red blooded American couple does: we blamed each other. I was the worst offender, I will readily admit that. I have always been the fiery one. We had never really dealt with the issues that put our marriage at risk early on, so the old wounds had never really healed, they had just scabbed over. For me, with this new trauma, they re-opened and fresh slashes got added. I stabbed back. Rather than fighting together to try and help her, we just fought. I talked to Marissa about those early days recently, and she really does not remember us being in conflict. I found that interesting and don't know if it is a defense mechanism that caused her to block it out, or if other chemically induced factors caused her to lose those memories, but she was acutely aware at the time. She was the one who had to point out to us that the sound carried up the stairs and the girls could hear every word we were saying. Did that stop us? Nope. We just moved the fights out to the garage. What she does remember is thinking that her dad was having an affair. I didn't discuss it her with at the time, but I did too. I don't think he ever really did, although I do admit I have never asked, but he did withdraw from all of us. I believe that Marissa started down her long dark path as a way to self medicate and kill the pain and confusion of what was happening. Well, we did too. We both started drinking more than we ever had. For Greg, that became a crutch that he couldn't live without for a time. I think now that if he was involved with anyone, it was Jack Daniels.

By the time we began family therapy, which Greg initially was absent for, I really could care less if I stayed married or not. But, we knew that we had to stick it out for at least a while to try and help the girls. So, gradually, Greg began to show up at the family sessions. I stepped back from my career and began to concentrate on the family first. We dealt with the old issues so we could move past them, and we began to respect one another. We remembered why it was that we married one another in the first place, which is that we actually are pretty compatible and are at least empathetic with one another's interests if we do not flat out share them. In short, we worked at it. Hard. But gradually, our work began to pay off, at least as far as our relationship was concerned, and we regained our footing. The true test of any marriage is how the bonds hold under pressure, and there have been lots of tests. We still fought, we still managed to act like the children in the family sometimes, and neither of us will say that the other one is perfect, but at least we could see what we were doing and stop the behavior before it got out of hand. The biggest single factor, however, was that Greg stopped drinking. Completely. My own consumption went way down. Jack Daniels has left the building, and we've locked the door behind him.

Mother's situation strained it again, but never to the point where I felt it was in jeopardy. He tried to be patient as I went through it, but eventually he needed a little more attention from me than he was getting. That was alleviated somewhat when Mother moved out of the hospital and into her current setting, and I was able to relax a bit more. I had gotten to the point where I felt that we were rock solid when Kelsey died.

So, are we in fact rock solid? I am not sure I can say truly at this point, but I think so. I think the difference between this much larger tragedy from my situation with Mother is that we are in it together. There are some things that are not good at the moment. We have trouble being physical. Greg is a little more anxious to resolve that than I am. His anger will spill over in my direction, and vice-versa. The other day, we fought over his pulling my phone out of my purse. I hate it when he does that. Just tell me I have a call I missed, and I'll dig around in there until I find the phone. I don't have any state secrets in my purse or anything, but he always punches a wrong button on my phone and makes it harder to see who called. Small potatoes, but we barked at each other all night after that. And some days he'll be in a good place, but I won't be, and then I feel guilty that I am dragging him down. Sometimes that's reversed. But, we both know that there is no other person on the planet who will ever understand what we are feeling better than the person on the other side of the bed. Even if you have lost someone, you didn't walk our same path, you walk a different one. Maybe when time and distance has allowed us to heal a little, we will wake up one day, look at one another and decide that very reason is why we cannot be together. Who knows. All I do know is that for now, we are in this together.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

The Steeler Nation is bursting with pride today. One of ours is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I will, along with a friend of mine who e-mailed me last night, have my Rod Woodson jersey out of mothballs and be wearing it proudly. I am sure about a million other old timers will as well. For us, this is one more reason to be supremely arrogant right now: our beloved team is the defending Super Bowl Champs, the Penguins rule the ice, and we have a first ballot inductee. Face it, we kick butt. But, for a while he was a persona non gratis in and around the Steeler Nation because he didn't end his career wearing Black and Gold, so it is with some amusement that I watch my fellow fans revel today. I was thinking back to an encounter I had with another fan about seven or so years ago. As often happens, we struck up a friendly conversation about our mutual favorite subject, and he asked me who my favorite player of all time was. Now, I know full well he expected me to say Jerome "Bus" Bettis who ruled the town at the time, or one of the old timers from the Super Bowl era of the 70's. I shocked and dismayed him when I claimed Rod Woodson. He actually argued with me for a minute. At that time, no one could stomach admiring him because he did a stint with the hated Baltimore Ravens and even had the audacity to win a Super Bowl ring with them. I can tell you that was a horrible day in the Nation: how do we reconcile being happy for Rod when we were in agony over the Ravens winning anything? But, despite my understanding that particular conundrum, I stand by my statement to that nameless fan.

Rod Woodson, who played cornerback for the Steelers from 1987 until 1996, was the total package. He was a dominant defensive player on a team known for its dominating defense. He was active in the community, doing good works and starting a business in Pittsburgh. I ate at his restaurant once, and although I don't believe it's around anymore, he was admired for investing in the town at that time because Pittsburgh was still struggling to find itself following the collapse of the steel economy. He was gracious to the fans. Very. I saw it first hand. He was part of the team that included a lot of superstars in the mid-90's when they went to Super Bowl XXX. Since Mother lived just outside of Pittsburgh at the time and the Steelers came to Texas once a year to play the Oilers, I was able to see them in person more often that I get to now. A lot of the other big names, Kevin Greene most notably among them, managed to get egos as big as their biceps. Rod always was very approachable. I never could bring myself to talk to him despite having a couple realistic opportunities over the years. I always froze. But, I saw him interact with lots of other, braver fans. You may have noticed from the photo: he was gorgeous. He remains so to this day. He is of mixed race, which at long last brings me to the real subject of today's post. He shares that with some other Steeler greats, notably Franco Harris and Hines Ward. They have all spoken out about that and how that impacted their lives. With Franco, that wasn't that surprising sadly. He grew up in a time when the race divide was still pretty wide. Hines has the unique situation of having a Korean mother and works to fight the prejudice in that culture, where a child of any mixed blood is shunned. But, I remember being surprised that Rod found himself in a situation where his race was in play. Maybe because I looked at him and was dazzled. Maybe because I naively thought by the end of the 20th century that shouldn't really matter anymore. But it did. He spoke out about how players, both black and white, would taunt him across the line of scrimmage. He was not totally comfortable in either world. You could say that more than a dozen years have passed since then, and we now have a President who is of mixed descent, but I think not much has changed actually. As a matter of fact, I would toss out there that race is a bigger issue today because of President Obama and the conservative reaction to him. And that worries me. I will never understand what it is to be anything other than what I am, which is Wonder Bread white. I can barely get a tan. But, I do know what it is like to have people shun me because I am not like them. It sucks. And it breeds a mutual dislike. The natural reaction to someone's disdain is to dislike them back. Next thing you know, it's "Us" and "Them". Neither of us understands the other one, and we're not too willing to try. It is so easy to see how prejudices fester and grow. And with racism, it's easy to spot people who aren't on the surface like you and then leap to a conclusion about them. It's not just Caucasians doing this, everybody does it. I've wandered into areas where I clearly am the minority and see how people's eyes follow me with suspicion. I am different than they are, I do not belong, so why am I there? It is so easy to see how prejudice festers. Not so easy to see how to heal it. I have no answers, dear reader. But, now take someone who has a foot on both sides of the line, and I can only imagine how hard it must be. All the more reason to admire Rod Woodson for rising above that and excelling. A compulsive over-analyzer, as I contemplate his induction, I am contemplating his life situation and wondering how we go about making this a country where we can look at him and see just how smokin' hot he is instead of what "color" his skin is.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Anger Management

God, I lost it today. We have learned through our grief counseling that in our culture grief often presents itself as anger, particularly in males. My husband is a concrete example of that in action over the last few weeks, and our counselor had been working with him to convince him to allow his grief a venue at the appropriate time. I had listened to all of this with a sympathetic ear, but with no real sense that it pertained to me. I had worked hard for years to control my rather famous red-headed temper. I had grown up with a very hot tempered father and a mother who had passive-aggressive behavior down to an art form, and I had come out of it as a kind hearted powder keg. I could kill you with kindness on a good day, but put me under a little bit of stress or deprive me of some sleep and it could potentially be Katie Bar the Door. Ironically, on some level, this probably helped me in my career. I worked as a female trying to do a man's job: be the primary bread winner, earn an ownership stake in a growing company in a rough industry (property management), work successfully in an industry where we often had to face people down and tell them things they definitely did not want to hear, and supervise strong willed, independent people. A little attitude went a long way. My temper was not always a good thing in the work place, but I cannot honestly say I would have gotten where I did without it. Face it, it's a man's world still. A little attitude in working women sometimes is necessary. But, at home, it almost never is a good thing. And even in my work, I need to know when to flash it and when to put it away for a rainy day. I have worked, and worked hard, for years to learn how to do that. But I, for the most part, did it. Over the last couple of years, with a fiery exception or two or three, I have been a pretty cool customer. I had learned that biting on some jerk's bait gets you nothing but a sharp hook in your mouth. And I like being able to stay above that muck for the most part. I like who I had become a whole lot better than the person I was four or so years ago. In one swift temper tantrum all that work came toppling down. I'll save you the gory details, but suffice it to say I only have one job now. I will no longer be doing the independent contracting job. I quit in a huff. No, make that a HUFF.

Honestly, I had been a kettle ready to boil for some time. My little issues with Mother, little disputes with my husband over ridiculous things, increasing irritations over the consulting arrangement, including slow reimbursement, have all been piling up. All things that would have rolled off my back like water on a duck before June 20. But, instead, they just all floated around in my fevered brain and festered until finally a rather pompous individual raised his head, acted like the male chauvinist he probably is, and I totally popped. When the woman I do the consulting for protested about my manner, I told her, in essence, to shove it. Did this complete jackass do it do me? No. Absolutely he did not. I did it to me. Before June 20, I would have had a chuckle at how sad this poor little person is (and he is). Now I have lost my sense of composure, exploded all over a lot of people, and accomplished nothing but giving him the upper hand. Because that's what I learned during all that hard work to control myself: when I would lose that famous temper of mine in the past, I often just gave away my position and rarely won anything but some gray hair and/or worry lines. I'm not sad about losing the position, but wish I had retained my dignity and found a way to extract myself differently. And, really, what is it to me that some jerk with an attitude has to make himself feel better by belittling what he thinks is a clerk compared to what I have lost? Nothing. He is less than nothing to me, so I am furious with myself (See? There's that anger again.) for letting all that effort evaporate in a matter of minutes. I wonder who I'm really angry at. Myself for not doing enough for Kelsey? Kelsey for not doing enough for herself and making us go through this? The insurance companies for not covering her illness so we could afford to help her. God? All of the above? I have no idea. So, for now, until I figure it out, I think I'll blame Dick Cheney. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Heigh Ho, It's Off to Work I Go

I have been working very sporadically as an independent consultant since before Kelsey died, but it is very limited hours and the money I am making as a result is negligible at best. Doing it over the last couple of months allowed me some structure and a filler for my resume. More importantly, it is a job with complete flexibility so I could take care of whatever I needed to for Mother. However, like everything else in my life, things have suddenly changed. For one thing, we were already dipping into savings each month to feed and house all the occupants on our lot, both the two legged and four legged variety. Neither the house nor the occupants are getting any younger and require a bit more maintenance these days. But now there is grief counseling. I don't know how long we think we'll need it, but I wanted to give us the ability to go for as long as it takes until those awkward moments like I had this weekend don't devastate us and movies like The Sixth Sense don't choke me up (okay, bad example, the end of that one always gets me). The weight of the worry over the mounting debt added to the weight of the sorrow, and threatened to topple me over the very narrow edge I was trying to traverse. With a hint of Fate, something opened up at my old company which two of my friends gave me an insider's scoop on, and I started there again yesterday. This time I'm doing something that has a lot more flexibility, but already the stress of trying to manage work and home life rose its ugly head last night when I was trying to juggle dinner, the consulting job, spending time with family, getting ready for the next day, doing a little housework that I'm behind on because of the virus I had, paying Mother's bills, returning a couple of calls, watering the plants and finally falling into bed for a few hours of sleep. You get the picture. The working women in the audience really get the picture.

However, if I am to be totally honest with myself what I really get out of this is a potential cure to the lethargy that comes with grief. I noticed it even before all the company left after the funeral. There is indeed a lot to do in an aging house with lots of dogs and deer around, but I wasn't doing it. I'm not sure what I did do all day because the days went by quickly, sort of to my surprise. I was constantly thinking I would tackle one project or another, and then, poof!, the day would be gone. I am not sure what I spent my time doing really, but that hallway wall still needs painted. If I'm not going to paint it, I guess I better earn the bucks to have someone else do it. Now there is a place to be and people who expect me to both show up and perform once I do, which can keep me focused and moving forward. Forward to what, I can't say exactly, but it has to be better than the confused direction I was traveling.

At the same time, working cures the quiet. The house was just full of quiet, which was about to get so much worse with Marissa about to move into a dorm. Maybe that contributed to my feeling that I had to have something and had to have it now. Work in a cubicle is not quiet. I can't dwell on my loss when I can barely hear myself think.

Can I listen to people worry about too much work and not enough time without thinking they don't have a clue about what a real problem is? Can I meet all the new co-workers and answer the polite and curious questions about my life and listen to them tell me about their kids without thinking that my heart will just bleed out? Can I really care about deadlines and work pressures when I find it hard to care about much of anything? I'm not sure, but I don't have time to think about it because I have to go get my outfit ready for tomorrow.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Those Awkward Moments

It was inevitable. There were going to be those times when I bumped into someone I hadn't seen in a while and I would get the socially polite, almost requisite question, "So, how are your girls?" I am not sure why I had not mentally prepared myself better for it. But, I got it not once, but twice this weekend. Both times were equally awkward, hard for me and hard for the person who just felt as though they stuck their foot in something awful and aren't quite sure how to pull it out. With my friend Linda's funeral looming ahead of me, I need to be prepared for it to happen again. So how does one properly handle those moments? I have no idea. I wonder if I should wear a sign that says "Don't ask me how I'm doing or anything about my family." Of course, that would clash with the outfit, so it's probably not the best choice. Maybe an announcement at the beginning of the festivities. "Attention everyone, when Cheryl gets here..." Of course, both events were open houses, so that really wouldn't work either. The reality of it is that this will always happen to the three of us in some form or fashion. Even when Marissa goes back to a new college this fall she will be questioned about her siblings by people feeling her out for potential friendship. Even if Greg and I move a 1,000 miles away, people will meet us and want to know where we came from and what our backgrounds are. Bottom line, this is our new reality.

How did I handle it? Well, I tried to downplay it as much as possible and just move past the awkward moment as fast as possible. The first time I was hit with it was Friday evening at a wedding reception. Probably the tougher of the two settings since everything is set to celebrate new beginnings. Already a hard night for that reason and for the wonderful slide show the families had looping of the bride and groom as they grew up, including a picture of the bride as a little girl in her driveway on her new bike. I have almost an identical one of Kelsey, and for some reason every time I looked up, it was that slide I saw. But, she was a beautiful bride and very solicitous of me and careful to put me at my ease. Another friend kept a close eye on me, and I was safely about to make my exit when I ran into a woman I haven't seen in a number of years. Naturally, she asked. The best I could do was gloss over the information, and I think I left her with the impression that Kelsey's death was some time back, not just a few short weeks ago. But I still could see the shadow cross her face. It's not so much grief over a girl she barely knew, it's the panic of, "Oh no, now what do I say to her now?" I really don't want people to say anything to me about it because there isn't that much to say, particularly if you only know me casually. I don't want her to feel bad, and I certainly don't begrudge her asking, but I just wanted to be done with the conversation and be able to leave. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, with her clearly now feeling awkward about telling me about her beautiful family with her youngest daughter standing right there, but she did, and I listened and then left as the rain began to fall. I was grateful for the raindrops, they covered my own.

I woke up Saturday morning incredibly ill and had this moment of panic that I was having a reaction to the stress of the reception. I actually felt some relief when I realized I had a virus of some sort, and am not going to vomit every time I go somewhere in public. Still recovering, I ventured out to Linda's viewing yesterday and, sure enough, there came a woman I hadn't seen since she left the company some years before. This time, at least, the occasion was already a somber one, but it wasn't being held for me, and I didn't want the focus to be on me, although Linda's family were all very aware and were already treating me like I was glass. But, when the topic came up this time, my friend Francine was standing there and answered the question for me, explaining how recent my loss was. I am not troubled by that, but I couldn't brush off the event as something in my distant past, so I just smiled what I hope was a self-deprecating smile, but was probably a grimace, and the former co-worker took the hint to move the conversation along with her simply saying how sorry she was to hear it. But that same, "Oh crap!" shadow slid across her face. I will have to learn to deal with that look somehow, because I will likely see it for a long time to come.

How does Greg deal with these situations? He tries to avoid them altogether. In fairness, he's had more than his fair share at work, but he flatly refused to go to either function this weekend. I, on the other hand, felt as though these were important people in our lives. I would want them there for me, so I was going to be there for them and needed to go. Much as I would like to on my worse days, I am not able to retire from society altogether. Greg disagreed, and tension ensued because I was vaguely upset that he was sending me off on my own, and he was upset that I was putting him in that position. I saw his point of view, he saw mine, but for once, there was not really a compromise we could find. Today, however, he is a pallbearer, so he cannot avoid it. About all I can do, being the veteran of the awkward social moment now, is make sure I stay close at hand to deflect any small talk.

Happy Birthday, Myrna Loy

Parnell Set

Myrna Loy and I have exactly three things in common. We're female, we grew up in Montana and we share the same birthday. Besides that, she more or less leaves me in the dust. I always liked sharing a birthday with someone so beautiful and talented, but she was also a champion of civil rights, was outspoken against Fascism and even made Hitler's blacklist, spoke out against McCarthyism and was politically active all her life, even living in Washington DC for a time. But, like our gender often is, she was complicated. I remember asking Mother once, long before I had seen any of her movies, if she was beautiful. Mother's reply stuck with me. "Oh, yes," she said somewhat wistfully, "She's very beautiful, but she has had trouble accepting growing old." I'm not sure why that stuck with me, other than I felt badly for her and, in my childish mind, thought it would be better to accept the natural progression of life. Later, when I was totally hooked on her movies and her life, I learned that was true. She was highly self-conscious of growing older, and the idea of taking on roles where she played the mother or aunt of a rising starlet was hard for her, but she did take on some of those roles and played them with her typical grace and effortless talent. For as much as I admire her, she also lived a life where things were done for her; by her own admission she couldn't "boil an egg." So, she was a little vain and spoiled, but that comes with the territory she traveled in, I suppose. I should add that, now that I am around the age she was when I posed that question to Mother, I am much more sympathetic to her predicament. I feel honored to share this day with her.

What does this have to do with my typical topics? Not much, other than, when I consider the many sides of her personality, I am reminded that people are such complicated creatures. There is the face they show the world, there is the image the world takes from that, and then there is their private self that very few others get to see. I knew that about this woman I admired so much, but I think I lost sight of it a little where my oldest daughter was concerned. I lost the possibility that the side of herself she showed me might not be who she really was in her heart. Now, from the journals she left behind and the total strangers who have contacted me to say how she touched their lives, I know the two sides of Kelsey were light and dark. So, here I am, on Myrna Loy's birthday, committing to not judge books by their covers. I wish that I could have this conversation with my daughter, but I hope that Myrna Loy is up there somewhere reading over my shoulder and will talk to her about it.