Monday, December 28, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here?

The holidays behind us (New Year's doesn't really count, it's always been a day to sit around and watch lots of football and not much more), my finances in a shambles thanks to a combination of five months out of work and six months of self indulgent activities meant to distract me, football season drawing to a close (it will take a fairly major miracle to extend the Steelers season past next week), we finally come to it: what in the hell are we supposed to do with ourselves now? How do we make sense of all of this? Or do we? Is there a meaning to what happened, or is just a random act in our random lives? If we find some meaning out of what happened to our daughter, does that matter to anyone outside of our family? And, if not, then what is the point? If I personally learn some lesson from all of this, what difference does it make? My other daughter seems to be on the right road (thank God), so one child gone, and one moving on with her own life, does finding the answers to any of these questions even matter? How do I carry on? I look at my mother and know that I do not want to be in her shoes (or slippers, as the case may be) someday. I don't want Marissa worrying about whether I need my adult diaper changed. So, how do I find a reason to carry on past my obligation to tend to Mother's affairs? Do I have anything at all to offer humanity having failed at the most sacred of obligations?

I realized that I was distracted by first the initial shock of our loss and then by the impending horror of that first holiday and had never stopped to consider what came after. Which is, simply, the rest of our lives. I mean, I did to some extent initially, as I gazed across the street at my neighbors who lost their son all those Decembers ago, but not in a concrete, now I have to start dealing with it kind of way. Now I have to deal with it. I feel a little lost actually. There is the art auction in February that will feature Kelsey's art designed to raise funds for an eating disorder awareness group. That will be good, and I am glad to be involved with it. My desire is to create a network for parents who ever find themselves where we did nine years ago. Scared, confused and feeling alone. But, past that involvement, is there really a reason for us to have gone through all of this?

I may be freaking some people out right about now. I don't mean to sound quite as fatalistic as I probably do, but all of a sudden these questions have risen up and shown themselves to me. I no longer have an excuse to avoid considering them. Think of it as the age old meaning of life debate. Do we have a purpose on this earth, or is our existence just a meaningless blip in the onslaught of time? That kind of thing. I would kind of like to have the answers handed to me, but I have a feeling I'll have to do a little more work to get them than that.

The good news is that American Idol starts back up pretty soon. That should prove a bit of a distraction from contemplating the meaning of life.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Christmas Story

All along I have had this odd sensation, as though I have somehow landed in a parallel universe where things seem primarily the same, yet off just enough to make you suspicious that you're not where you're really supposed to be. That's the best way I can describe it. Everything has been cloaked in a vague sense of the unreal. While I no longer have the overwhelming sensation that this isn't really happening, and that I will wake up at some point soon, I know it's happening, I just can't quite believe it. Given that, when I sat down to reflect on Christmas Day, it was no particular surprise that I went through it almost as though I were having an out of body experience. I wasn't floating above my body watching the scene or any scenario like that, but it was almost as though someone was running me from a remote. I was going through all the motions, but was never quite all in the present. I am fairly certain this sensation was a sub-conscious protective move on my part. Not that we were under attack from Greg's family, but we were likely to be hit by the tidal wave of memories I wrote about yesterday. I wasn't sure how we would hold up in the wake of it, so I can only suppose that my inner mind took over and handled things for me. While it worked by keeping me buffered from the onslaught of the day, it also kept me apart from any real enjoyment the day might have yielded as well. I know I smiled and joked along the way, and those were sincere reactions, but they still seemed to be reactions that were having to be dialed in from somewhere else. And really, it's sort of too bad that it had to be that way because it likely would have been one of the most pleasant holidays I had experienced as an adult. As I suspected, without the presence of The Beast, things were more relaxed. Greg's sister Cathy and her daughter drove down from Ft. Worth to join his mother, brother and my mother as our guests for the day. The Veldman siblings played board games, bringing back a long lost tradition, while my mother sat fairly docilely and watched, only bringing up money issues early in the day.

As an aside, Mother's stamina was amazing, and actually posed the largest problem of the day, in that we didn't anticipate she would want or be able to stay the entire day, so we weren't properly supplied. Putting is as delicately as possible, someone in Mother's condition who is going to be away from home base for any length of time needs what is tantamount to an infant's diaper bag. We failed to bring a change of briefs or clothes, both of which she needed by the end of the day, but she seemed unaware and fairly content. Hopefully, in the larger scheme of things, that's all that matters.

Yet, through everything, I felt like the real me was somewhere offsite and dialing it in. It was most noticeable when I was playing games. Trying to shake that remote feeling and concentrate on the strategy of the game was a feat to say the least. I managed it, even winning the second round of Scrabble, but it was then that I really knew something was afoot.

I wonder if what I experienced is typical for people in my situation. Do survivors of a trauma get through it by using similar self preservation tactics? I don't know, but am interested to research it and find out. While effective on the one hand, it did seem to slow my reaction time down - it took some time to get the instructions down the pipeline after all - so I could see that being an issue. Of course, I wasn't being chased by Nazis or locked in a Gulag, so speed was not of the essence. However, there was still an emotional toll to be paid. And now, in the waning hours of the holiday weekend, I am drained and exhausted. I suppose I need to go back to work just to get some rest. I literally have nodded off three times just writing this. It's funny how the human body and mind work. I'm too tired to delve into that any deeper than that.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ghosts of Christmas Past

At long last we came to it. The day we had been dreading for weeks. Christmas. On the one hand, I wonder why this particular day was so much harder than all the others we have spent since June? This was no different in that we woke up in the morning to a house void of one of our daughters. Everyday we are subject to being assailed by memories of our daughter when she was young, healthy and seemingly happy. Everyday we are subject to the memories of times when she wasn't healthy and happy. She wasn't here the day before, she won't be here the day after. Yet, it seemed to be a huge mountain to climb that at times we didn't think we could. As testament to the anxiety it was causing, my left eye had twitched off and on, mostly on, since Thanksgiving. Oddly, in Pittsburgh it stopped until the Pens game (my last night there), then it resumed. When we landed back in Austin, both eyes started twitching. I don't know if casual observers over the last few weeks could tell how tense I was, but that was my physical tell.

The thing that sets Christmas apart from all the other lousy days is that it's set up to be the ultimate family day. Whether you like your family or don't, there is an expectation that you have to come through and spend some time in one another's company. So, without a key member of that family, the day feels wrong. Of course, with all of us together in years past, there are a lot of wrongness. I have always been leery of forcing a divergent group of people together and then putting pressure on them to all get along and have fun. Kelsey had her anti-holiday moments over the years. She loved her family, that wasn't the problem. She loved her cousins in particular, but she was so self conscious she occasionally felt judged by them. Comments that meant nothing other than some casual observations would send her off in a crying jag. That wasn't anyone's fault particularly. We lived with her disease and still managed to say and do the wrong things all the time. So, people who were exposed to it only three or four times a year were almost certain to step into the muck The Beast trailed in its wake. On the other hand, she had been known to paint the bulls-eye that was on her own back, like the year she was two plus hours late for Christmas morning when her Ft. Worth family members had to be back on the road later in the day for work. Then, of course, there is the food aspect of the holiday. Like probably most American families, the holiday season for us centers around traditions that center around food. I've written about that before. The difference for our family at Christmas as opposed to Thanksgiving is that the formal meal is on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day begins around a breakfast and a casual midday meal. But, in both cases, the food is rich and highly caloric. And for someone like Kelsey, very threatening. And, the tradition of having lots of grab and go snack items between those two meals doesn't help. These are the triggers it's hard to understand if you're not in her shoes. So, as I have mentioned before, there is the conundrum of whether you try and protect her from them, or do you go with the majority rules concept and let everyone have their holiday feast? I never knew the right answer. What I did know was that The Beast caused a level of tension that I know everyone felt, even if they didn't understand it. Without Kelsey, there is no Beast; therefore, as with Thanksgiving, there are some things about the present situation that are easier. That reality just makes it all the more awful actually. There is a lot of guilt that is brought to bear when planning events now. It's so much simpler, but I'd rather have my daughter than the simplicity.

However, I think the biggest hit for me is the memories of holidays past. Not the recent ones, where there was worry and dysfunction (well, there's always a little of that in any family), but the ones when the girls were small and asked for Barbies and Beanie Babies, and loved pretty much anything we got them in addition to that. The memories of the times when hope sprang eternal. I looked into my daughter's bright, shining face as she played with her new things in her holiday dress and saw endless possibilities there. What would she be when she grew up? She was bright and empathetic with a stunning talent as an artist. She could have been anything. Those memories are all wrapped up in the season. Yet, the really hard part is the idea that there will be no new memories. What I have now is all I will ever have. That and the thought that her last holidays were hard ones. That somehow we couldn't make it better for her. Those things were the kill shots for me.

No one can prepare you for how hard that first holiday season will be. Even those who have survived their own. It's too personal an experience. All they can tell you is that it will be hard. From there, it will be unique to you. So, how was it? I'll tell you about it in my next post.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What the City of Steel Taught Me

The last time I spent any significant time in Pittsburgh I thought I was connected to it by biology. Now I know that's not true, but I still feel connected to it by temperament. It seems to be a bit like me. Getting old in sections, with an odd blend of intellect and blue collar crudity. It doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it the Steel City, or a center of academia, housing Carnegie-Mellon University, Duquesne, and Pitt? There are more high quality museums of all flavors in this city of less than 320,000 than in Austin, home of the University of Texas and a population of over 650,000. As my guides over the last few days explained, the city is so well endowed because of the two titans of industry, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. But, the city itself was built on the sweat equity of pieorgie eating, beer drinking, foul mouthed immigrants, whose descendants may not shovel coal, as my grandfather did, or work in steel mills, but have not lost that mind set. In short, the city is an enigma, and I love it. What holds all of the pieces together and makes it a community are the Steelers. Yeah, right, you say, you're just saying that because you're a fan. Just ask a 'Burgher. Better yet, go there and look around. There is not a store in that town that doesn't trade in Steeler paraphernalia; corner bodegas, museum shops, lingerie shops, even little stores featuring "country" goods. So, it was to this glorious melting pot of brain and brawn and football mania that Marissa and I flew out to, spending the six month anniversary of Kelsey's death in the bosom of the Steeler Nation in the company of Kelsey's close friend from treatment, a soft spoken, refined beauty who is the daughter of a working class dad and an academic mother. If I am drawn to the city because it reflects my crude working class with a touch of artsy personality, then she is a reflection of the intellectual, refined side with a splash of mill grit. She understood immediately that football is a salve for what ails us, and had offered to try and obtain tickets to a game of my choosing. But, as I flew out for the weekend, I worried that this would be one more failed attempt to try and set aside the reality of our missing family member, only with the stakes being much higher. What happened was totally different than I expected. I am still puzzling over it, trying to dissect it back home, exhausted, but with a treasure trove of memories and experiences.

Here's the thing: I enjoyed myself. The trip was almost magical. And really under trying circumstances. On the six month anniversary of my daughter's death, actress Brittany Murphy died under circumstances that were eerily similar to the initial cause of Kelsey's death. But, I didn't even know about that coincidental tragedy until late in the day, spending it as I did in the company of Steeler fans tailgating in gritty determination despite riding a five game losing streak. Our hostess has interesting connections, and her boyfriend, an affable man with political ambitions and a relationship to the Rooneys on his mother's side, had acquired passes to a VIP tailgating tent operated by the Steelers. I won't bore you with blow-by-blow details, but suffice it to say that by the end of the day I had sat at a table next to Mel Blount (look him up if you need to, but it's sufficient to know that a Steeler fan who reads this will be impressed), had my picture taken with Art Rooney III (now the Steeler fans are really drooling) and watched the Steelers win a hard fought game with 00:00 on the clock. And my little rookie that I like so much, Mike Wallace? He caught the winning pass, dragging his toes inbound a la Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl. I could not have scripted it better. Whatever happens, whatever course my life, my pain and my healing (or lack thereof) takes, I will have that day.

And life tried hard to tarnish it by throwing the harsh reality of life at us full force. On Monday, our hostess got a call as we toured the Science Center delivering the news that her grandfather had passed away. She gamely insisted we continue on with our day, but she was clearly shaken. Now our little Steel Angel has her own path of grief to follow. Unfortunately, I likely don't have the same magic balm for her that she provided to us, and it served as a reminder that I had not escaped real life, just put it on hold for a brief moment. But, that brief moment taught me some things.

I learned that there is joy after a loss so profound. It may be a long time before I have it on a consistent basis, but now I know I can still feel it. For a while, I wasn't sure. There are other things to dissect and study about this weekend, but I am so glad to have learned this lesson at the least. Oh, and I learned that the best pancakes in the world are at a place called Pamela's. Hands down, no argument.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Home for the Holidays

You know that you spend too much time in the emergency room when the ER doctor recognizes you. That, my friends, is a sad day. Not that having a handsome doctor smile at you is a bad thing, but when he walks in the room, takes a momentary visual check of the people in the room, and his eyes register that he's aware of who you are and he gives you, the one allowed visitor, a wry little smile of clear and undeniable recognition and acknowledgment of what is taking place there, then that's not as good. And Tuesday that is exactly what happened. I have spent altogether too many hours in the Round Rock Medical Center emergency room over the last several years. I know the drill. I know how to dress (warmly, it's always cold there), I know what you can and cannot take in (they do let you cheat and use your cell phone, but don't try and bring in a meal), how many people you can actually get back there (parents can both go back, and if your patient is dying, the whole family can stream in, all rules seem to fly away), I know what they need for patient admission and the questions they will ask you (generally, they always throw one in there that catches me off guard). I know what the monitors are and what they do. I know where the supplies are, I know where the restroom is, and I can jabber about football with the security guard on duty there, which is generally a Round Rock cop, because he no longer intimidates me in any way. I am, in short, a frequent flier.

I spent this past Tuesday in the familiar Room 3, this time with Mother. I have spent more than one long night there with first Kelsey, then Marissa, then Kelsey again, then Marissa a couple of times. Marissa seemed to time her trips over the holidays, so not only am I familiar with the surroundings, I have seen them dolled up with the trappings of the holidays. When I walked in this past Tuesday morning and casually glanced the fake holly draping the cheap-hotel-wall print hanging in the waiting area, it literally jolted me like an electric shock. The deja-vu was simply too strong.

There is something really out of place with holiday glitter and lights in a place where such serious business takes place, but then again, that's sort of what our life is like right now. Our somber morale jolts and jars against the "merry" of the season. But, after a moment of taking it all in and reconciling myself to what this particular trip was all about, I began to feel right at home.

The first time we rushed Kelsey to the emergency room in the middle of the night it was summer. She had taken a couple of handfuls of Advil. Her boyfriend had been trying to reach her on the phone and when he couldn't, he came over and he and Marissa had found her passed out upstairs in the middle of the night. I was wearing Steeler silk boxer shorts, some t-shirt that I don't recall matching, no bra, and I put on slippers to drive her the mile or a bit less to the emergency room. Greg stayed home with Marissa, so what I had on and what I had with me was what I was stuck with. And that was when I learned most of what I now know about emergency room visits. For one thing, you ain't the show, so your comfort is not the staff's concern. So the fact that you are freaked out, cold, dressed like a deranged, loose clown, and bored stiff at the same time is not their concern. And, you can't just leave and come back, someone has to buzz you in. You can't call someone to bring you stuff because you are supposed to shut your phone off (although, as I mentioned earlier, I have since left it on and used it liberally in front of staff with no repercussions),and who are you going to call at 3:00 in morning anyway? That's not a test I really want to put any of those friendships through. So, you sit and shiver and wait. Long periods of time pass between your seeing another human other than the patient, who generally is not good company if he or she is even conscious. So, on subsequent trips, I've known to take a moment to gather some things. And I keep a book in my car at all times now. One just never knows.

More recently, it's Mother who has been the cause of my strolling through the automatic double doors. Sitting vigil with mother is on the one hand far less stressful, but on the other, far, far worse. No matter how frequent our trips to the ER became with Kelsey and Marissa, there is always a level of "freak out" that accompanies you when it's your child. All those maternal instincts go into hyper drive. I don't use the emergency room like an urgent care center. If I drag my child into an emergency room, I am worried, whether legitimately or not, that she is in life threatening distress, and that's just not supposed to happen to my child. To anybody's child. Mother, on the other hand, is 91, diabetic, suffers from Parkinson's, congestive heart failure and has Alzheimer's. It's actually more a marvel when we go a month at a time without going to the ER. I accept the reality of the dips her health will take. Time is trying to pound on her. She does a good job of pounding back. That is why, however, sitting with her is generally worse. She is a bad patient. Nay, she is a horrible patient. I have described her behavior before, so I won't belabor it. And then being stuck in a small space with her for hours at a time listening to her repeat the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again is enough to make you want to jump out the window. You wonder if that's why the windows that do exist are tiny and way up high.

This past visit however bordered on pleasant, as those things go anyway. I was appropriately bundled, had my phone with the bells and whistles, had my book with lots of violence (always helps to have a murder or two on hand to read about in these cases) and Mother could not stay awake for longer than a few minutes at a time. Sound callous? It probably is. But, I can only ask that you walk a mile in my shoes for a while before you pass too much judgment. I did not fail to worry however that she really was in bad shape this time for her not once to say she was a) a nurse, b) would not check into the hospital and c) complain about anyone who even glanced in my direction rather than address her. Of course, the handsome doctor, having remembered us from before, knew to look at her when talking, and I just listened. Occasionally he shot a secretive glance my way to make sure I was paying attention. They called in her cardiologist; another handsome man with a good bedside manner for women like Mother. And again, he acknowledged me when he came in and then went straight to her, only daring to look at me as he was leaving to make sure I got what was said. He actually handled her like putty and told her he was admitting her without giving her much say, but made it sound like a brief visit upstairs. Again, a testament to how sick she felt, she didn't complain.

So, there dozed Mother, fluid on her lungs keeping her from breathing properly and getting oxygen to an already overtaxed heart and there sat me, her only relative in a 1,000 miles, keeping vigil. I wondered once, briefly, if it was the same gurney the girls had been on, or if those get mixed up and rotated. I had slept on that hard vinyl mattress before, climbing up with Marissa once to try and catch a few hours of sleep while they treated her. But, I dismissed that thought rather quickly. Dwelling on that level of detail doesn't really help anything. Nonetheless, the surroundings felt so familiar. Yes, I thought to myself, I have been here altogether too many times. If Mother makes it through this episode, I will be back again.

And she did. By Thursday night she was stating that they had better let her go home the next day or she "would tear the building down around their ears." I should change her name to Timex; she takes a licking, but keeps on ticking. She is, as I write, back in her room, resting from the ordeal. Marissa and I are about to head for the airport to see our Steelers tomorrow, thanks to Kelsey's friend Leslie. Greg has Mother in hand during our trip. I hope I don't have to find out what a Pittsburgh hospital ER looks like, and I hope I get a respite from the familiar surroundings of our local one until after this horrible year comes to a close. Hope, they say, springs eternal. We shall see.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Time in a Bottle

Five days after beginning this post, I'm finally taking a moment to log in and try and finish it. As I write, I am surrounded by a mountain of wrapping paper and knotted up ribbon. For not even being done with my shopping, I am seem to find myself with a seemingly endless amount of stuff I've collected to give to people. I've already spent hours wrapping, and the pile isn't shrinking!! I used the morning to bake cookies to try and have for Christmas day when the family is here and have enough for the staff at Mom's nursing home. As I was baking, I fielded two phone calls from said staff telling me Mother wants to write me out of her will and is on a hunger strike because I didn't take her Christmas shopping yesterday (I spent it at the vet trying to figure out what is wrong with one of my dogs. A few hours and several hundred dollars later, we're still not completely sure, but she's sleeping peacefully beside me stoned on pain medication, so for now anyway, she's having a happy holiday). Now I'll spend the balance of the day trying to convert the mountain of miscellaneous stuff into a mountain of wrapped miscellaneous stuff without feeling horribly guilty about what I'm doing to the environment with all that wrapping paper and ribbon and eventually have to gut it up to go deal with Mother. My back hurts, my head hurts and my football team sucks on an unprecedented level and my own Mother routinely hates me. Even if Kelsey were here with us, I might be nominating this as the worst holiday season ever, with last year being in the running and probably edging this one out by a red reindeer nose. Of course, this one now wins hands down. The bottom line to all of this is: the rest of life doesn't stop when the holidays come around, bringing with them all the extra little tasks, errands and parties. It amazes me that any adult finds this time of year enjoyable. And, once again, the actual reason for the season gets trampled in all American greed and excess. But, I know that people do actually enjoy the season. Maybe I'm wired wrong, I don't know. But, I really don't have any more time to think about it, there are presents to wrap and a football season to mourn. Anyway, this is what I wrote starting last Tuesday:

I'm just getting home from a memorial service the funeral home held for their clients. I picked Greg's mom up and brought her back home in fog thick enough to cut with a knife, spending probably twice as long on the road as we did at the service. But, it was a nice affair and, as emotional as it was, I was glad I went. However, here I sit, another evening mostly gone when I should have been here working on getting my holiday cards out. And there are gifts to wrap, and some of them need to get in the mail. Then on Friday I have to come up with a dessert to take to a dinner at Mother's nursing home. I have my own food issues (I get kind of queasy around cafeteria style food), so this feels me with total dread, nonetheless, I have to do it. And this brings me to my second night of anti-holiday rant. Think of this as my own Christmas Carol and last night we were visited by the Ghost of Greed. Tonight we are traveling with the Ghost of Time Constraints.

The holidays bring with them a lot of extra errands, tasks and mandatory social situations. Add that to the normal time drain of football season and the award season movies coming out, and time management becomes a high walk across a very tight rope. And it's just all piled on to all the normal stuff that we have to do everyday. I don't know about the rest of you, but I haven't had a moment where I thought to myself, "Wow, I'm bored." in I don't know how long. I would actually like a moment like that. I would probably use it to sleep. I don't have time to shop for gifts, let alone wrap them without something else falling by the wayside. Then I have to rearrange the whole house to put up the holiday decorations, only to face another arduous day to put them all away. And we're supposed to experience comfort and joy this time of year? Who the heck has time?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Put a Bow on It

The Mean Season. Our grief counselor coined the phrase to describe what the holidays are for eating disorder patients. Unfortunately, the phrase fits more than that particular group. Personally, I think it started kicking me around about the time I became an adult and suddenly had to buy people gifts with my own piddly income. I've been black and blue just about every year since. I've just spent the last 45 minutes staring at my bank account, marveling over how completely empty it is. Finally, I decided staring at it really wasn't helping anything. I'm still trying to convince myself that hyper ventilating won't do much good either. Scanning the activity, it's a lot of extra expenses that come with this particular time of year. And I'm not done. Granted, this is an unusual year. Most years, I begin to amass Christmas gifts in earnest around May. By now, I should be in mop up mode only. This year, I became a little distracted and did nothing about the holidays until, well, the holidays. And, granted, this year, I am coming off five months of unemployment, and have been a little more than generous with myself since going back to work in my various vain attempts to forge back into life. But, truth be told, there has never been a time when money, or the lack thereof, didn't factor into the holiday equation somehow. Our first Christmas as parents saw us so broke that we did all our shopping at Sears because we had a credit card from there. The only Sears store in town had all of two aisles of toys, so our choices were limited. I remember how stressful it was to look over those picked over shelves and try to find decent toys for my daughter, wanting so much to shower her with gifts to show her how much she meant to me and wondering how I would ever pay for it. One of the items I finally picked up for my six month old was a Cinderella tote bag. I didn't really think my infant daughter wanted or could play with a tote bag, but it was something I could give her that maybe she would like someday. And, as it happens, the tote is in use to this day and is in Marissa's possession now. My little baby girl seemed perfectly content with her lot in life that year.

Once the kids got a bit older, the pocketbook had a little more heft to it, but along with a new largess came a new level of expectation. I remember the first Christmas we hosted here, with Kelsey in full blown tween mode. That meant her wants and desires were tipping toward bigger ticket items, but she was too young to really have a concept of what things cost. What she could grasp was volume. As she watched her two younger cousins rip through present after present of less expensive toys, her expression became darker and darker. She held her tongue until later, but eventually gave voice to her displeasure at the seeming inequity. I was not shy in responding with how I felt about that. In fairness, once I explained the economics of big girl toys versus the things she wanted at that point, and reminded her of the piles and piles she had brought home in year's past, she relented. But, I knew then I had created the All American Monster. Somewhere down deep in their minds, my children knew that the fact that they had gifts at all had some tie to the birth of Jesus, but it was a cursory relationship at best. The thing that really mattered was what they were going to receive. You can say what you want, but even in families where there is a lot more traditional religious dogma going on, the children don't run down the stairs Christmas morning to sing praise to Baby Jesus. They want to see what they're getting in His name. And it better be good.

Don't get me wrong. I love buying gifts for people. Actually, let me amend that. I love it when I give friends or family members gifts that please them. I try pretty hard every year to make that a slam dunk. But, there are the inevitable misses. The fallen faces, the slightly insincere thank yous, or the lack of a thank you at all, later to have a friend of a friend let it "slip" that so-and-so wasn't overjoyed with what you gave them. I think my track record is fairly good with some occasional strokes of brilliance, but I've been stung by all of that. Mostly, I am stung because I don't like the idea that I've disappointed someone I think enough of to actually get a gift for. If I had unlimited resources, that would be less likely to happen. I would imagine Donald Trump generally pleases people with his gifts. And, wouldn't you like to see what Tiger Woods gets his wife this year? My guess is, whatever it is, it could resell for a large chunk of the national debt. Anyway, for my part, hopefully all the people I've ever given a lousy gift to were at least able to re-gift it and get some good out of it that way.

But, that's just the tip of the gifting iceberg my not-so-luxurious ship is heading for. There's the politics of gift giving: do you get a gift for your spouse's boss just because he's the boss? And, if so, how much do you spend? And what do you get since you know nothing about him, and you know your husband's going to be no help at all? I could go on like that for hours. I'd sound like I am whining, but it's the same kind of debates that are repeated in households all over the country. I'm just ungracious enough to verbalize it. But, there's no point. Time's a wasting, and I've got more shopping to do!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's Ornamental My Dear Watson

If you look at a family's Christmas tree, you can see clues about them. You see a lot of what they want to present to the world at any rate. My tree, for instance, is peppered with a lot of black and gold, dog oriented ornaments, a lot of Star Wars themed baubles, and a few Cowboy ornaments just to pretend we're giving equal time to the man of the house. Like me and my life, my tree is a loud, random collection of colorful stuff.

That was not my initial intent. Originally I thought I would have a tree that was very formal and built around solid colors. I started out not wanting the cornucopia of ornaments I have now, and built a tree around white lights and two colors of glass ornaments. The white lights survive, but, I realized today as I dressed our tree, not a single ornament from that first tree is still around. I'm okay with that actually. The random collection that adorns our tree is really more indicative of our lives than the sterile, formal tree I once envisioned.

Like many trees dotted throughout the world, my tree sports a history of our family, dating back to our wedding. We were married at Christmas 25-years ago, and some of the ornaments that Greg's mom used on the little tree that was at our reception now adorns our tree. From that point forward, most of what hangs there now are actually gifts over the years. Every year, Mother gave the girls and myself each an ornament. I long ago lost track of which ornament was which, and that used to worry me, thinking at some point I would need to split them up to allow the girls' a start on their own trees. With a heavy heart I realize now that it no longer matters. Marissa can have what she wants, if she wants any of it. As I hung each one today, however, what I could still tell you was who gave it to us and roughly when it came into the fold. The ones that do not really connect to us in any real way are generally from my mother. She was fond of Hallmark ornaments. I have a Garfield ornament, a few Currier and Ives inspired ones and a few Peanuts ornaments. She also provided us with lots of teddy bears. Not that I don't like any of those things, mind you, but I probably would not have picked them for myself. Not to worry. My friends have supplied me with the Steelers this and Steelers that, Darth Vaders and starships that dominant these days. My husband even lent a hand and added Han Solo to the mix. They are the harbingers of better times. Of times when my children were young and starry eyed about the holiday. Before it became a time that they dreaded because of all the food triggers and stressful family dynamics.

And that's where the story a tree can tell you stops. As I glance over at it now, it sits there all dressed up in its wild array of colors, trying to send a cheerful, hopeful message to the world about the family who lives in this house. But it doesn't say anything about the hole in our hearts, or the pain that all of us experienced throughout the years that led to this, the most painful year of all. Someone new who walks in now would think we're just a family of sports fans with a sci-fi nerd in the mix. Unfortunately, we are that, but we are more than that as well. Would that we were not.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Diva's Day

Well, I've ridden the express train to Bummerville long enough, I would imagine, so it's time to switch gears for a bit. I am asked from time-to-time about Kelsey's cat, the famous Tum-Tum (would should have been named Celine). She is her owner's prodigy, of that there is no doubt and in her Kelsey's spirit lives on for us. And, as such, not every day with Tum-Tum goes all that smoothly. She can keep things stirred up.

She is a very attractive creature, delicate and fine boned. Even before she became ill, she weighed in less than 11 pounds. Now, even totally healthy, she does not possess a voracious appetite. This seems odd to us, since our other cat, Charlie, believes he is a panther and stalks prey and never wastes an opportunity to eat it, whether it is a bird trying to catch a little rain water out of the bird bath or my left over milk in the cereal bowl. I watched them dine together the other day; Charlie dug in without much regard to decorum. Tum-Tum watched him for a moment with what I swear was a look of disdain, finally settling in to take some delicate nibbles of her own.

How she got to the point where she is eating in the same locale as her larger, much heavier housemate was interesting to witness in and of itself. When Kelsey first brought her to the house, she made a few tentative trips downstairs to satisfy her feline curiosity, but I think she decided that with eight large, strange beasts anxious to meet her, curiosity might just kill the cat, so she retired back up the stairs and her interaction with the rest of us was limited to us hearing her loud cries from the landing when Kelsey came home or when she clearly felt Kelsey had been gone too long. She would occasionally lean through the stair railings and allow us to pet her momentarily if she'd get particularly lonely, but for the most part, we weren't the ones she wanted to see, and she didn't mind that we knew that. Problem for her once Kelsey was no longer there for her, she was upstairs all alone. What's a diva to do with no audience? So, with deliberate care, she began working her way down the stairs. First, she began hanging out on the landing most of the day with occasional forays into the kitchen when the coffee was brewing. I moved her food there. Not too long after she made her way into the room where we keep Charlie's food. An odd kind of space that appears to have been originally built almost like a greenhouse, it now houses my exercise equipment. Walled mainly by windows, it is accessible by a cat door that the dogs cannot breach. It catches a lot of afternoon sun, so she took to stretching out on the treadmill during the day and curling up on the weight bench at night. Eventually I moved her food bowl and litter box there.

She could see us from there and we her, but she still was isolated for the most part and, it would appear, lonely. Gradually she made tentative trips out of the exercise room. She would wait until the dogs seemed settled and then, with great stealth, sneak out and jump up to the back of Greg's chair where she could curl up on the back of it. Then, one night she crawled down into his lap and snuggled with him for a while.

She got bolder, deciding that visiting me in the morning as I brewed coffee, and following me into the bedroom, leaping onto the highest pieces of furniture to be safely away from the dogs. At some point, however, she learned that she could intimidate the dogs. All of them. No matter their weight or their station in the pack, with a swipe of her dainty paw and a guttural growl, she could send them packing. Once she discovered that talent, she moved into the main part of the house and she has reigned there ever since.

This dainty little thing has a vicious streak however. She will lure an unsuspecting human over with her plaintive cries, leaning into their strokes for a moment, then will suddenly grow tired of the fawning and take a swipe at him or her. Offended or shocked, the person will pull away, only to have her then decide she wants the attention again, and she will follow the person around mewling loudly, only to repeat the process. Personally, I've learned to watch her tells. Her pupils dilate a little more right before she turns deadly, in addition to the twitching tale. The long and short of it is that her mood turns on a dime. Hard to say what will swing the pendulum, so you just have to stay on guard when dealing with her.

One thing we learned early in the football season is that she does not like chaos. One night Greg invited several people over to watch the Texas game, and her reaction was violent. Literally. She used that "woes is me" cry of hers to pull the guests over to her, whereupon she would swat at them. Without fail. Good thing her swats and bites barely scratch the surface.

Now she is the Queen of the Castle. She roams the downstairs, causing the dogs, almost all of whom could swallow her whole if they had a mind to do so, to give her a wide berth. She is highly vocal, making sure everyone knows exactly where she is at almost all times, not always at the most convenient times. Open any kind of door, she is right there, ready to slip in. She has a real penchant for tight spaces.

A couple of days before Thanksgiving she seemed to be aware that plans were in the works because her mood turned dark and she sulked around, striking out at the hapless humans with more force than usual, drawing blood for the first time since she decided to interact with us at all. She made a complete nuisance of herself, draping herself all over wherever and whatever I didn't want her to. And Charlie, not to be left in the dust, followed suit by being uncharacteristically obnoxious, as supported by the photo of him draping himself over the china.

Tomorrow I will unpack the Christmas decorations. I am interested to see what her reaction will be. I know it will be notable whatever it is. She knows no other way.