Monday, May 31, 2010

Delayed Reaction?

As Marissa and sat in the Tick-Tock Diner at the corner of 34th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, just the two of us alone in the most crowded city in the country, we discussed how she seems to be the one who has handled the death of her sister the best.  Her response to my declaration was to tell me it was because she hasn't dealt with it.  She said this matter-of-factly.  She followed it by saying that she may end up having a nervous breakdown in three years, but that's just the way it is for her.  When traumatic things happen, she doesn't process them immediately.

I pondered what she was saying, as I watched the ebb and flow of the city passing by the diner windows, and hoped she was under-estimating herself, but not sure but what she was telling the complete truth.  Her actions and reactions over the last year could be argued as either an acceptance that her father and I lack or complete and utter denial.

So it is with her forays into reclaiming the upstairs bedroom once more.  We are not the kind of people who want to set up a shrine to our missing family member by never touching their things.  However, it sort of happened to an extent because we just could not bring ourselves to expend the emotional energy it would take to sort through Kelsey's things, determine what to do with them, where to put them and then actually take them all away.  Marissa forged her way back in, with her myriad of clothes, books, supplies, shoes, and God knows what all, spilling it all into the hallway, the odd walkway off the hall, the spare bedroom she had been occupying, but mainly into the room that had last been Kelsey's.  I was originally impressed by how she did it.  She didn't take all Kelsey's things down of the walls, although she did remove some. Rather, she incorporated her own things in and around Kelsey's.  She had a bit of her sister mixed in with mostly her own personality.  She did the same with the books on the shelves.  I sat with her as she determined what should go and what she wanted.  As I watched her intertwine her things with her sister's, I was impressed with how she managed to keep Kelsey alive without sublimating her own personality.  And then I thought how she had been like that for a while.

Greg doesn't seem to be able to talk or even think about Kelsey without a bone chilling sense of loss.  I am sort of all over the place.  I could bear coming across pictures or mementos of Kelsey in my mother's things in doses.  Too much of it in a single day, and the next day would send me into a dark spiral.  Sometimes I can have someone say something that strikes me as thick headed or out of ignorance of our situation, and I can shrug it off.  Sometimes I fly into a rage if someone simply looks like they're thinking the wrong thing.  But Marissa seemed to be able to talk about her sister comfortably.  She went through pictures with me, laughing at our fashions, or what we were doing, reminiscing about what she remembered of the occasions with veritable ease.  I would marvel at this, thinking that she was where her father and I should strive to be.  She had gotten to the point where she could accept her sister as being a pivotal part of her life and celebrate that inclusion, rather than shy away from it or be ashamed that she continues on.  I can't do that.  I can't celebrate the fact that I had a daughter.  That past tense "had" keeps it from being anything more than tragic for me.  Yet.  But, I would like to be there someday.  I would like to remember the days before The Beast came and be glad for them.  I think I should be.  I think I should be able to think of Kelsey as the sweet little girl she was once and be glad for her.  I think I should even be able to remember the glimpses of the true Kelsey that poked out from behind the cloak of the eating disorder, but I'm not there yet.  Greg really isn't.

Marissa has completed a full year of college with a 4.0, is managing her adult relationship, is conquering her own demons, and is reclaiming the forgotten/forbidden upstairs, all while coping with the loss of her much loved sister.  So, I have held her talents in grief management in the highest esteem.  But, as I picked on my chicken with goat cheese sandwich and sweet potato fries, I wondered if she was right.  Maybe she can do all these things because it simply hasn't hit her fully yet.   I hope that for once, lately, I am right and she has processed more than she thinks she has.  I hope that Life allows to her to have a softer landing than her father, who couldn't even get through a work day, or me, who looked in the mirror the same day as that conversation and realized I looked like I had aged a decade in the past year.  But, you realize, whatever the case is, that when someone young dies an untimely, unnecessary death, there are always more casualties to follow.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bad Karma

I want to interrupt my tale of Marissa's bravery to face the evil dust bunnies and looming memories of the upstairs to pout a little.  I just can't help myself.  I am officially a sore loser.  But, I should get used to it:  in the last year and a half, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs, the Pens got knocked out of the playoffs much earlier than expected, Santonio Holmes decided to let his asshole flag fly, Big Ben became a Big Butt, Adam Lambert lost last year's American Idol and just a few moments ago, Crystal Bowersox got beat by a nice guy, but not nearly her vocal equal.

Dude, if I am your fan, you should run for cover because bad things are  sure to happen.  It's as though my Black Cloud is so large and intense it spills over.  So, I am angrily frustrated that the single mom who loves her kid so much and is so talented is not the new American Idol.  I know she'll be okay and that her future is secure, but still I wanted this immediate gratification for her.  She worked hard and sacrificed a lot of time with her son to get to that moment.  She reached for the dream, I believe, for the right reasons.  So did What's-His-Name, but whatever, I'm pouting and being gracious does not go along with that activity.

I did, however, get my letter to the editor published in Sports Illustrated.  I seem to be the recurring voice to be reckoned with if you are an NFL quarterback doing bad things.  I was published the first time when I wrote about Michael Vick.  That was sort of fun to find out today, that I have a mild moment of fame.  But, it does not lessen the frown on my face right now.  I mean, c'mon America, what were you thinking?  Crystal is amazing.

And where was David Cook tonight?  The thought of having DC and Casey James on the same stage was every Cougar's dream.  Keep on dreaming.  Fantasizing, more like.

With a heavy sigh, I'll put my pout away and know that the really important thing is that Crystal Bowersox will still be with us tomorrow.  Her talent has been found, it won't be lost now just because she didn't win some schmaltzy talent show.  I will buy her music, I will see her perform, and she will raise her son, with all the joys and sorrows something like that entails.  She will have experiences my daughter never will, and I will be happy for her with each step she takes.

Well, okay, I'll put my pouty face away in a minute anyway, I'm going to stomp around a little bit longer first.  In the meantime, congratulations Mommasox on being true to yourself and for coming so far.  You are just beginning.  And you are just too good to be mainstream.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Moving Home

I know I've talked about when Kelsey moved home before.  That period was stressful for Greg and me as parents because it was one of those times when whatever you do for the one child is going to be detrimental to the other one.  I don't know if the parents of boys go through that as much - I'm sure some do - but girls are just primed for it.  Because everything is so emotionally charged in a house full of hormonal women.  But, in our case, it wasn't just someone's resentment or jealousy, Marissa really was better off mentally and physically without Kelsey in the house.  Kelsey, for her part, was triggered by her tiny framed sister who had eating issues of her own.  (As a side note, I was at an AFED volunteer meeting Saturday where someone declared that they hate the word "trigger".  I laughed a bit because I use it a hundred times a day because, for us, there was never a more fitting word.  Things happen that cause one or the other of us to flare up like we are a loaded shotgun.  At times, no matter how therapy-trained we are, situations simply explode.)  Yet, what were our choices?  We were financially tapped out after years of treatments and paying Kelsey's rent, she clearly wasn't at a place emotionally where she should be living all alone, and she truly had no where else to go.  We reasoned too that Marissa would be leaving for college soon.  She had already applied to and been accepted to several colleges across the country, none of them in Texas, so she would be making her escape soon enough.

Kelsey met with her father and me at a centrally located Starbucks - sort of like neutral territory to negotiate a peace treaty - to discuss the move home.  When you look back on it, you realize that she called for the meeting as much to convince herself about it, as it was for us to discuss ground rules on both sides.  I know this probably isn't true, but I remember it as being the last truly rational conversation we had with her.  After that, it was almost always The Beast who was pulling the strings.  But, that's a little off topic.  Anyway, the real topic is to explain about how she got her old room back.

She told us, and herself, that the move was temporary.  That she needed some time to re-group and save a little.  She admitted that she was not doing well with her bulimia, but she wanted the space and dignity to try and handle it on her own, and if she needed help she would ask.  She didn't want us to put locks on the cabinets or padlock the refrigerator.  She knew what she needed to do and she committed to us that she would do it.  All of it seemed reasonable and very adult.  Of course, by the end, I was hiding coffee and peanut butter under the doggie stairs next to my bed, and she was attacking us with her best Linda Blair impression asking why we weren't doing anything to help her, while at the same time countermanding anything and everything we tried.  I know Kelsey, my real daughter, was trapped in there somewhere and it was The Beast doing all the ranting and raving, but that did not make it any easier to handle.

The first conflict was over where she was moving back to.  She clearly had one mental picture in mind, I had another, and we were both so sure of our own images, it never occurred to either of us that they were different.  For my part, I hung onto the word temporary.  So, sort of like a guest.  She had taken her bedroom furniture with her when she moved out, so I had set up her room as a guest bedroom, indulging my homesickness for the mountains by decorating it in a wildlife/forest theme.  There were lots of portraits of rugged mountain peaks shrouded in fog sharing space with little wolf figurines, and the vanity sported actual deer antlers left behind by the deer herd I share this property with.  No one but me liked it, but I thought it was cute.  Dismantling it again after lovingly collecting the things that I had used to decorate it with wasn't really what I wanted to do.  And she didn't seem to be asking that of me.  She said she'd put her things in storage.  Of course, she had it in her head that she would move back into Marissa's room and use Marissa's furniture.  I totally didn't pick up on that until a particular phone call shortly before she was set to move in.

That call did not go well.  She was dramatically upset when she thought I was relegating her to a guest in her own home and forcing her to stay in a room that looked like a second rate small town motel room (those were not her words, but that was the gist).  She wanted to have her own things up and have her own sense of space.  And she wanted the best room.  Which I explained was Marissa's room, and I was uncomfortable pushing her out of her own space.  I understood wanting your own stuff up, and I could concede that, albeit with some sadness for my antlers, wolves and little cabin-like flairs.  But I was not okay with shoving Marissa around - particularly given how jam packed her room was.  What a logistical nightmare.  And, I saw during that call that "temporary" was a relative term.  I realized Kelsey was settling in for longer than a three month stay, or even a six month stay.  On the other hand, Marissa was about to leave for dorm life.  So, in the end, Kelsey got her way.  She moved back into the room at the end of the hall.

We painted it a mutually agreed upon color that, at some future date would compliment a full array of Steeler black and gold (I had ambitions of making it a sports themed room when I was a legitimate Empty Nester), but also allowed her collection of art to be tastefully displayed for the time being.  And so she went to work and created her own space.

And it was well done.  She had a definite eye for decorating.  An artist's touch.  Not too busy, not too sparse.   Tasteful, yet young, like she was. But, the Beast messed things up even in there.  I cannot get the carpet completely clean, despite shampooing it more than once.  She threw up too many times, and it's permanently stained and vaguely sticky.  I could not look at the space without seeing  both the best and the worst of my daughter on display.  If I did go up there, it was as briefly as I could possibly make it.  I got what I needed and practically raced back down the hall and down the stairs, as if I was being chased.

The dust gathered and the shadows loomed.  Until Marissa had the courage to say enough.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Room at the End of the Hall

The room Kelsey occupied in our house last was also her first bedroom. Then she and Marissa switched when Kelsey was about 15, I think. I can't remember the rationale they gave me, but it was a sweet deal for Marissa, and the reality I can now tell you in hindsight was that it moved Kelsey from being right on top of us. Greg was always a light sleeper; he heard what she was doing up there as long as she was directly above him, and moving her nocturnal activities away from his ears was, I am sure, the real reason for the move. But, she lost out really, because it is the better location. And, as the eldest, I chose it for Kelsey in deference to that when we moved in. Like I think is typical of sisters, Kelsey always complained that Marissa got preferential treatment. There was a modicum of truth to that. Like I think is typical of most parents, we were more uptight with Kelsey. Everything was the first time with her. And she was a more uptight individual, maybe as a result. Marissa seemed easier in many ways. She was easier going, and we were less hysterical about what to do with her. We'd been down the road before and sort of knew what to expect. That is, of course, until they both reached puberty and then all hell broke lose, and well, you know a lot of that story. However, the point of all that is to say I was sensitive to trying to give Kelsey some props as the eldest when I could. She got the bedroom at the end of the hall with the walk-in closet, two windows instead of one (even though one of them looks out onto this odd little crawlspace off the upstairs hall), and a sweet view of the side yard so you can watch the deer walk up from the creek in the evening. When they traded, she settled into a much smaller closest and a single window that is dominated by one of our giant oaks, that sort of hovers over the window like that tree in Poltergeist. But, as I said, it was a little bit of insulation from prying parental ears. If we had been smart, and there is no one on the planet who can defend our parental aptitude at that particular time, we would have refused to let the switch happen, but I still wanted to trust my kids. I still wanted to believe that when they looked me straight in the face and said something to me, particularly about something as seemingly innocuous as a room switch, they meant what they said. However, as much as I sometimes feel like a dolt now for allowing it, if I hadn't, Marissa would likely be dead from a heroin overdose. Greg heard her collapse more than once up there on the floor immediately above us. If he hadn't, if she had fallen onto her original bedroom floor, we wouldn't have been able to call 9-1-1 in time to revive her. Her heart would have stopped like her friend Kyle's. Somebody else would be wearing a tattoo honoring my daughter instead of the other way around. So, I chalk it all up to some things happen for a reason.

Yet, I'm getting off track. This isn't really the point. Well, actually, it is in a way. A lot of history happened in that room. But, kind of like saying a lot of history happened on Iwo Jima, it's not necessarily the kind of history you want to re-live on a daily basis.

The girls talked about switching back I remember. Maybe because Kelsey secretly wanted a check on herself, but I think it was more because she realized it was the better geography. But, one of the other reasons the adoption thing caught me by such surprise is that Marissa is a lot like my mom in a couple of ways. She has a lot of things. In particular, she likes to fill up her wall space and she has a lot of clothes. So, she was dug in like a tick. She has always been this way. When we moved out of the little house on Applewood to come here, hers was the last room I packed and it took by far the longest. Even the living room, with all my books and knick knacks, VHS tapes and DVD's didn't present near the challenge. By the time Kelsey decided she'd like to have the room back, Marissa had all four walls of that room covered with stuff that ranged from an errant piece of shingle off the roof to a little shrine for all her friends who had passed away. And the floor? What floor? I knew it was carpeted, but it rarely saw a vacuum because it was completely covered by clothes, books, shoes, CD's, purses, jewelry - you get the picture. So, getting her to organize all of it so she could move it out into a less appealing space just never happened.

And Kelsey, not long after, was in and out of treatment, so she was gone for months at a time. When she completed three months at the Center for Hope of the Sierras in Reno, we were strongly advised that she should not come back here to live. Like addicts are told they have to make a break with their old surroundings and friends, E.D. patients need to also break from where they are triggered the most. So, before she came home, Marissa and I went apartment shopping for her and found this older complex on the outer edge of Hyde Park. I love Hyde Park. It is an older area of Austin just north of the UT campus that is completely eclectic, but largely liberal. Many of the houses were built in the early 1950's, but some are older. Many have been re-done and are highly valued pieces of real estate. But, they will sit next to a totally run-down piece of crap house. Every one just accepts that this is the climate of the way things are there. But, again, I get off topic. That's not really the point. The point is, we thought we were bringing home our now adult daughter and establishing her so she could begin to learn who she was, what real life was like, and she could begin to move on with a life. Some days it seemed like that might happen. But, for the most part, it did not. She moved from her little apartment in Hyde Park to another complex in South Austin with a live-in boyfriend. Things went "south" in more ways than one, and she struggled while she was there. She found a roommate situation on her own and moved into a house with another couple. I never met them, and I was never there, but the situation was horrible. If even half of what Kelsey told us was true, she was trapped in a nightmare scenario. Finally, she moved to a wildly eclectic condominium complex in an area known as Dove Springs. Dove Springs is not where you want your daughter to live, let me just say that. But the complex was set off a little and everyone knew everyone and seemed to watch out for one another, even though half of those people are mildly left of center. She lived with two other people, one of whom was a new boyfriend who seemed pretty grounded, so we convinced ourselves that it would be okay and at least it was better than where she had just been. Things didn't go well there either. By then, her bulimia was threatening to overtake her again, which was a horrible situation for her roommates to be living with, and she was broke. Her boyfriend, who owned the unit, was trying to be supportive and understand, but a situation like E.D. is overwhelming for those of us who have been around it for a long time. Think how it is for a young man, still learning the ways of the world in general and now is faced with something that is like a beast, stalking your every move and pervading every aspect of your life. I never resented the men in her life for leaving her. Handling Kelsey, a complex creature in her own right, was challenge enough. Handling The Beast at the same time was more than they should have to shoulder. I am pretty sure he gave her an ultimatum, get over it or get out.

After a little less than three years of struggling to make it out in the world, Kelsey asked to come home for a while. But she wanted her old, original room back.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Going Upstairs

Okay, enough with all the feel sorry for myself because people love my money/stuff and not me crap.  (Just wish I actually had money to buy myself some artifical comfort with.  But I did get Rush tickets because I figured that for one, it's Rush and they are performing Moving Pictures in its entirety, how cool is that, and for two, if $200 is going to mean you can't make your mortgage, then you're in huge trouble anyway, so might has well rock out on the way to the poorhouse.)  But, it's time to put all of that aside and get on with things.

Wait.  What things?  What is it exactly I have to get on with now?  No Kelsey to worry over, Marissa is grown and increasingly figuring out things for herself, Greg and I are at a temporary impasse - not fighting, making passable conversation about household affairs and sports, but not much else - work is just what it always is (lots and lots of it, but none of it particularly challenging and certainly not adding anything to the state of the universe), no diabetic dog, and no Mother.

There is still the challenge of trying to jam all of Mother's things into a house already too full of things.  Her little secretary's desk that Uncle Bill and Aunt Ginny found for her is still sitting sort of forlornly in front of the fireplace because I simply cannot think of a single legitimate place to put it without getting rid of some other piece of furniture that was likely hers or belonged in Greg's family.  But, I won't get rid of it.  One of the very last things she said to me was to ask about it.  She wanted it to be in my house and repeatedly demanded that I get it out of storage.  When I would protest that there was no room, she would tell me, "Well, you'll just have to make room."  Oh, okay, Mom, I'll just wave the magic wand and make the house bigger.

Yet, it is an adorable little desk.  I actually really like it and want it.  It's just that it brings our desk total to five.  Three people live here.  I'm sitting on the sofa to write this.  When I worked at home, I actually used a desk to give myself some discipline and have an actual office space to feel as though I was "at work" even though it was likely I was wearing pajama pants with cartoon dogs on them.  I don't work from home anymore.  This fifth little desk is an indulgence of sorts.  I am keeping it to please a woman who isn't around anymore to worry over it, and because it is something that she valued.  So, it stays.  And I'm keeping all Mom and Dad's old slides and clippings and trunks and boxes full of other things that really have no practical purpose other than they give me a piece of my family.

Add to all of Mother's belongings Marissa's dorm room when she came home for the summer, and there was really only one thing to do:  reclaim the upstairs.  That dusty, forlorn part of the world we all but abandoned a year ago.

Let me begin by acknowledging what some people may be wondering:  it's been almost a year.  Aren't you over it yet?  No.  I don't think, based on what I saw of my aunt and uncle who lost their son in Vietnam, you ever get over it.  And, would I want to?  Not really.  She was my child.  I gave birth to her.  There is a hole in my heart.  I don't really want anything else there that isn't my daughter.  What you do is find a place in your head that allows you to carry on.

But, it's still fresh for all of us.  Somedays more than others.  Some of the familial meltdowns we've had lately are illustration enough of that.  Is that weird or unusual?  Not from what I have learned.  Quite the contrary.  I remember my reaction to the first book on grieving I read.  The author had lost her 18-year old son.  She makes a statement in the introduction (stop me if I've told you this before) that she noticed after four years she began to feel better.  Four years?!  I was appalled when I read that in the early days of my grief.  I couldn't possibility begin to imagine feeling that way for that long.  There would be no way to survive that.  Eleven months later I don't feel quite like I did then, but I don't feel any where close to "over it" or even passingly normal.  This is all complicated and a blog post in and of itself, but suffice it to say for now that it's been both the longest and the fastest eleven months of my life.  Bottom line is this:  the passage of time in no way diminishes how I feel about the shadows lurking in the corners of those rooms where my kids went through so much.

Yet, at some point, somebody had to have the courage to really do it.  To really say, "This is my space, and I vanquish you, bad memories."  Like I'm sort of constantly seeing lately, it was Marissa who had the courage to lead the way...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hill of Beans

Really, my little band of merry fishermen are fictional.  Seriously, if I wanted to write a thinly veiled version of myself, I would have put them sitting at a Steeler game.  The whole scenario was a) sort of fun since I hadn't done anything like that in a while and b) to set up the final conundrum, which is real.  Those are my questions, but the rest was just the window dressing to lay them out on.

I used to play this little game with myself.  Sort of a "Would I do the right thing?" scenario.  The set up for it was this:  when I was growing up, believing myself to be my father's progeny, I was intrigued by the fog that surrounded my paternal ancestory.  Mother told me most of what I know about his side of the family tree, and apparently it was impossible to trace his family back past his father, who had immigrated here before the United States was involved in WWI.  Dad never spoke much about his family as a whole.  He would tell a few select stories, but he wouldn't tell much more than that, unlike Mother who was ready, willing and able to quote her pedigree.  Add that to the fact that my grandfather, Oscar, was a prototypical German: a gruff man of few words who one could easily imagine goosesteping to a socialist beat. Therefore, I used to wonder if I had family members who were Nazis and that's why Mother couldn't or wouldn't find more about Dad's history.  Then, like a child's imagination will tend to do, I would begin to wonder what I would have been like if I had been alive in Germany during the war.  Would I have done the right thing?  Would I have had the courage to stand up to tyranny?  I always used to think I would.  Naturally, in my child's mind, things were a lot easier to define.  Now that I'm older, I see that things are much more grey than black and white.   More than a half century later, Nazi Germany is easily definable as an evil empire, but would it have been that easy to see in the moment when you were either brainwashed or frightened?  And, when it came down to it, if you thought that helping someone else would put your family at risk, would you still do it even if you saw clearly what was happening around you?  That's a harder question, I realize now.

Of course, the questions I struggle with now are hardly the same as the concept of facing down absolute evil.  But, there are some vague similarities in the concepts anyway.  And, I'm fast concluding that there is more Nazi in me than I would like to admit.

The thing I have realized about myself, or the person I am right now anyway, is that I want to choose my own battles for once.  I spent nearly a decade fighting against The Beast, various addictions and Alzheimer's.  I'm tired, and now, when I had a shot at finally at least not worrying about how many days it was until payday, that rug got completely yanked out from under me.  Does that make me selfish?  Yeah, probably.  But it's where I am currently.  It's not that I want to retire from the world and not participate or make it better in ways that I can.  But, I want to pick and choose, not be picked.  I won't dismiss the argument that this perspective makes me fail the philosophical test I used to ponder as a girl.

I am angry, I won't deny it, and I've made people angry at me. This is all fallout, I know, from the upheavel of the last year. I know this, but I just can't quite extract myself from it. In the end, what I really have learned is that doing the right thing is not easy nor simple. Heck, I can't even figure out what the right thing is! Where is Humphrey Bogart when you need him?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ode to a Daughter

What a Difference...

...a year makes.

Last year I posted a Mother's Day blog that was subtly aimed at my bulimic daughter who was struggling just to make through each day.   But she had begun to follow my blog, which at the time was mainly about my mother and the trials and travails of trying to handle a proud, stubborn woman whose will overshadowed her ability.  This Mother's Day they are both gone, along with my friend Linda, my dog Myrna, and my cousin Sharlene (who died two days before Mother).  I know friends who lost have parents in the past year as well.  Add that to the long list of celebrity losses, and it seems to be a year just dripping heavily with sorrow.  However, I know this is really no different than a lot of years are for a lot of other mothers.  I think of the women who are mourning their sons or daughters who died in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I think of the families who have dealt with the loss of loved ones in the Twin Towers or in Oklahoma all those years ago.  Do their Mother's Days get any better with the passage of time?  I won't be able to really speculate on that one for a while.

However, after a bad beginning of the week, dreading in advance this first Mother's Day of my new life, I've decided to try and take another approach.  I've decided I need to look at what I have and not what I've lost.   I have my daughter Marissa.  And she's awesome.

Marissa bought tickets to the ballet for us as my gift.  She presented them to me early so I'd have time to think about what I was going to wear, what to do with my hair and plan around hockey if necessary.  I was so touched that she did for me what I'm going to try and turn around and do for her on Kelsey's birthday:  distract the crap out of her.  But, she's special like that. 

Marissa is a survivor. She has battled demons that would have toppled almost everyone else: addiction, anorexia, and loss. Lots of loss. Before Kelsey passed away, she already wore a tattoo around her arm that says, "God protects Old Folks and Fools" over top a green butterfly. It is a tribute to a friend of hers who passed away from a heroine overdose. I went with her to his funeral on a cold December day, and I've been with her to two others, I went to one without her when she was in Alldredge and a friend was killed after being hit by a car along the side of the road. She's been to a few without me. Friends lost to cancer, suicide, drugs or auto accidents.  Every one just as tragic as the last.  I would have worried about the amount of loss she's endured even before she lost her sister.

But, then came that hardest loss of all.  They fought and they complained about the other one, but one thing I never doubted was that they loved one another completely.  They shared a bond no one else can understand exactly.  All sisters have it I think, but the sisters who have come through the fires that Kelsey and Marissa did I think are uniquely forged to one another.  The poor trooper who had to deliver me the news about Kelsey was still standing outside my motel door when I immediately began to worry how Marissa would handle this.  I think I even looked up at the young man, so clearly uncomfortable to be there at that moment, and asked him how I was supposed to tell her.   He didn't have anything to say to that.

And she has grieved very deeply.  She has periods where I sense that she finds it almost overwhelming.  Yet, she rebounds.  She carries on.  She does what Kelsey would have wanted for her:  she is living.  Her grades are great; she just finished her first full year of college.  She has an awesome boyfriend.  They occasionally are not quite awesome as a couple, like all young people trying to wind their way around a committed relationship, and they will get frustrated or hurt or angry or all of the above with one another, but they work it out.  At their best, they clearly love one another and support one another emotionally.  They are becoming adults by trial and error, which is the only way really to do it, and it's awesome to see.

But beyond just living, she is living the right way.  She is sober, she is honest, and she is open about herself. She has had to leave some of her friends behind her to remain sober, but she cares sincerely for the people in her life and tries to make sure she shows them.  If I had crafted how I wanted my daughter to be 20 years later on the day she was born, this is exactly what I would chosen.  I just would wanted her to have a smoother road to get there.

Oh yeah, and the most awesome thing about Marissa:  she's a Steeler Fan!

I really could not be more proud.  Therefore, today, on a day that can topple me over with the weight of my sorrow, I will choose to remember the very wonderful thing I do have.

Marissa Pearl, I love you.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy Anniversary

My future mother and father were married in a rushed midnight ceremony in the basement of a Miami nightclub 68 years ago today. I have no photos of Mother in a wedding dress. I don't think there are any. I do have a photo on my wall of them surrounded by small party of service men and one other woman having drinks at the club afterwards. Mother's expression is interesting. A little afraid maybe, but protective and with a hint of, "There, I did it. He's mine now." She got the man, but this was not the wedding she had planned. I've seen the engagement announcement - it's in a footlocker along with a lot of other newspapers circa WWII that is currently residing under my stairs until I find a better home for it. The announcement touts a destination wedding in Puerto Rico some months later. But, world events intervened, Dad got his orders, and they rushed the wedding the day before he shipped out. A lot of other couples around the country were doing the same thing. Some barely knew one another, but the enticement to marry and experience being a spouse however briefly (and all that it entailed, if you get my drift) before setting out possibly never to return was too much for a lot of young couples to resist.

I like the story of my parent's wedding; it's romantic in an old Hollywood movie kind of way. But, in my adolescent years when Mother would coach me on what to say at the custody hearing after the divorce (that never happened, I should stress, she just plotted about it a lot), I thought a lot about that generation and all those rushed marriages, and wondered how the rest of them were faring.

I am pondering all of this today because of the state of my own union, and because, of course, of the date, which caused me to wonder if my parents were reunited up in heaven somewhere and what that must have been like (!), but I did seriously grow up thinking a lot about how other couples married in the same circumstances as my parents managed to keep their marriages in tact. Because they did for the most part. Of course, in that generation that's just what you did. In junior high, I knew one girl who came from a divorced home, and we all treated her with the utmost sympathy, but with a bit of distance too, like if we got too close it might be catching. And my parents came from the generation before that one! Their peers really took that 'Til Death Do You Part stuff seriously. And that's amazing if you really think about it. Try and install your own marriage into the mores of the time and realize you do not have the readily available opt-out of a divorce as a socially acceptable option. Then think about the ups and downs your relationship has taken, all the times you really hated the very sight of your spouse, or the crying, screaming fights that you've had, and then think about it. Go on. Take a few minutes and then get back to me. (Don't try and tell me you've never experienced that, because I won't believe it or I'll say you haven't been married long enough. No marriage is without its dark, stormy days.) It's sort of scary to think you're in it for life, right (Mormons are excused from this part of the exercise)? But is that a bad thing? I ask the question earnestly. I don't actually have a sure answer.

On the one hand, I saw my parents go through a monumental dip in their marriage that took years to sort out and really messed with my head. On the other hand, they eventually came out the other side and grew to have a comfortable relationship that carried on through the end of my Dad's days. I wasn't there for the first 18 years of their marriage, but I know it was filled with a wealth of sorrows and loss. Any career military family probably experiences that, but they also tried multiple times to have an organic family and Mother miscarried several times. Mom, had she been mentally well when Kelsey died, would have known a lot about our current pain. To have one another through all of those rough experiences must have been a boon. Someone who knew you so well and had the same sorrow. Only someone like that could really be totally there for you and share what you feel, right? Yet, during their bad period they felt glued to one another, and I was stuck with the both of them, and we had a number of thoroughly miserable years that could have been alleviated by a nice judge signing a piece of paper saying none of us had to do that anymore.

I know that there were a lot of reasons Mother merely schemed and never actually went through with a divorce, probably not the least of which was she actually still had feelings for my dad, but I often wonder if they hadn't have come from a time when divorce was not only serious, but scandalous, their partnership would have collapsed. Yet, in their later years, even though they always still fought, I was glad they had one another. So, the debate rages on in my head: what is better? That couples feel pressure to stay together and work it out, or that they have the freedom to cut loose when the going gets tough? Because the going will get tough at some point. That's just part of the gig called life. I find it an interesting debate.

In the meantime, Greg just turned on Dr. Zhivago for me - it's on TCM right now - so I'll distract myself from these meandering thoughts by watching one man's answer: have a gorgeous mistress! (And, yes, I do know that's missing the point of the tale, but as I've said before, the whole beauty of the story is that it means something totally different every time.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What My Sister-in-Law Said

Imagine the pingy clock sound that they play at the beginning of every 24 episode.  Got it?  Okay, keep that sound in your head:  The following took place on Thursday between 10 and 11:00AM:

Cheryl sits at her desk when she notices she is receiving a call on her cell from "Home".  She answers, "Hello?"

"Hey, it's me," says her sister-in-law, followed by a slight pause while Cheryl waits to see what is coming next. "Greg told me what was going on."  Another slight pause to allow this to sink in.  "I think it's wonderful!"

Cheryl's reaction is immediate, violent and profane.  "Well, I'm glad you f*#king do.  That makes one of us!"

Cheryl can sense the surprise of the caller on the other end, but she really doesn't care.  She is seeing red at the moment.  Then, she becomes aware that she probably said that last thing a little too loud, wondering who was around her at the moment.  Great.  So, she quickly recognizes the need to compose herself, which means ending the call.  "I can't talk about this right now," she says hastily and starts to hit the End Call button.

"Well, we can talk about this later," her caller hurries up to say to try and draw her back in, "The reason I'm calling is I have lunch with [someone, I didn't catch the name, and it doesn't matter] and I'm out of clothes.  Can I borrow a blouse of yours?"

Seriously, thinks Cheryl, this is how you ask me to borrow clothes?  Whatever.  Let her pull this knife that just got buried in her heart out so she can respond.  "Yes, that's fine.  I don't care.  I've got to go," is what she says out loud.  The call is terminated.  Cheryl has no idea what the person on the other end of that call is thinking at the moment, but she is thinking, "Oh, I have got to get out of here!"  So, she gets up and confesses her verbal slippage to her supervisor so she will be armed with the information if and when the Powers That Be come to escort Cheryl out of the building.  No one ever does, however.

Nor do the two women ever talk about the call later.  When Cheryl gets home, her dog Myrna is already in crisis, and it's never discussed.  Other things crowded in.  By the time the long awful Friday was over and Cheryl drove home to watch Game 1 of the Semi-Finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Audrey had retired back to her mother's apartment.  For all Cheryl knows, she may never hear from her sister-in-law again.  She is left to process the statement without benefit of better explanation, as is Audrey with her reaction to it.  This is how wars begin, it occurs to Cheryl.  Simple little explosions.  Wrong words said in haste and without thought, and chain reactions commence.

End of episode.  Time for commercial.

I admit, I was astounded by her choice of words and took them to be said with malice initially, but I've since found that the wound was not fatal.  Mom, it turns out, was right.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will only hurt me if I let them.  And, with a little distance between then and now, I can honestly say I doubt she meant anything by it.  For one thing, I believe Greg's eldest sister sees things through her own particular world view and will speak quite earnestly from that perch.  Problem is, the rest of us do not always share that viewpoint.  For another, who knows how the information was presented to her.  Finally, she is not the only individual who has tried to congratulate me on my husband's "retirement".  So, once and for all, allow me to set my side of the record straight, and then ask everyone to not mistake me for a Happy Camper.  Ever again.  Not on this subject anyway.

First of all, I am not of the opinion that wandering around the house aimlessly with no particular goal or career path in mind is actually what someone recovering from grief needs.  For the immediate future, his focus is on trying to get some of the deferred maintenance on the house done, and that's all well and good, but then what?  What actual work is he doing to salve the wounds of his grief?  None.  Maybe every other reason pales in comparison to that one.  Aimlessness is not a cure to grief.

For me and my feelings on the matter, I will have to say it has taught me something.  I have learned that I was building my recovery on a foundation of security that was so fragile it was built on nothing but air.  For me, I now realize, the most important thing left was to protect and maintain the family I have remaining.  But, a key component was a level of hard earned trust that I felt we all had in one another.  I never counted on someone from that unit betraying that trust.  Because, let's be clear, that's how I feel about it.  I was betrayed.  I would have supported the decision to back out slowly, with caution and forethought, and we had broached that subject briefly before.  But, the next mention of it was to announce the decision to me as I grabbed my coffee on my way to work on Monday morning.  Not the level of discussion I was led to expect.  The result is that I feel shattered.  I feel bereft of one of the few people left to me because if he can do that to me, treat me with so little regard, can I really mean anything to him?  Am I over-reacting?  I really don't think so.  That doubt that I feel, that emptiness; to me, that is not wonderful.

And all of that is before I address how our income has now been reduced by 60%.  Don't even get me started on that one.

No, none of this is wonderful.  Do not congratulate me for the situation I find myself in now.  I don't require you to feel sorry for me either (I'm doing enough of that for all of us).  This is a dark time, I will admit it.  But, all I ask is patience while I sort it all out and begin to rebuild again.  Just please don't patronize me.  And wash any clothes you borrow before you bring them back!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Rest of the Story

This is the rest of Myrna's story.  This is not a tragedy, at least not as far as I'm concerned.  This is a story of how dogs adapt, how they roll with the punches life throws at them with an acceptance that we could all emulate and be better for it.  But, it is also another of my cautionary tales.  Dogs can't tell us what's wrong, so it's up to us as owners to pay attention to the ways they do communicate and then not wait to act on them.  During the last decade, that has not been something I was very good at, unfortunately.

I no longer remember what it was that caused me to take Myrna in to the vet about four years ago now.  Something concerned me about how she was acting, but I can't really recall the specific sympton.  I was in the throes of trying to care for both my kids at that point, so it's all a blur.  I do remember I took the soonest appointment I could get, so I saw a vet I had never seen before, and he declared he thought she had Cushings disease, which impacts the adrenal glands of older dogs.  He was pretty sure about it.  And I can see why.  In reviewing the symptoms of Cushings in canines, Myrna exhibited each and every one.  So, he tested for it.  The test came back negative.  He sent me home with something to treat whatever symptom I was concerned with at the time, and all I can really remember is that I was relieved that it wasn't the scary, expensive sounding disease he had thought it was.  But she didn't get better, I took her back again, he was still convinced that's what was wrong with her, so we repeated ourselves, with the same results.  One of the symptoms of Cushings is diabetes, but I did not know that at the time.  Back home we went, my patient, quiet dog and I.  Then, one weekend she became very ill, wouldn't eat, was urinating liberally, had visually dropped weight in absolutely no time at all and, most frightening of all, crawled under the back porch and would not come out.   So I called the vet's office on a Sunday, scared and crying, not sure what was happening. and a woman doctor called me back.  I didn't know her, but she was very sweet and sounded concerned.  When she saw Myrna the next day, she was the one who immediately pegged it for diabetes.

By then, Myrna was seriously ill, so this new vet sent me to a clinic down in far south Austin and Myrna went there essentially to be placed in doggie intensive care.  The goal was to try and regulate her blood sugar.  But it took a while, and that means it cost a lot of money.  Most of our money at that time was funneling to try and help the kids, so Greg was concerned that I was trying too hard and spending too much on a dog who was too far gone.  But, I wasn't ready to give up on her.  We kept going, treating her with IV's at first, then they kept her for a few days to work on finding the right dose for her so I could take her home.  I made the commute back and forth every day she was there to see her as she patiently submitted to being poked and prodded.  Finally, she was ready to come home to begin her new life as a diabetic.  She would receive injections twice a day, have a special dog food, but essentially be like any other diabetic patient.  It's a serious condition, but it can be controlled and it can be lived with.

However, probably because it had taken so long to identify the diabetes, and her blood sugar had become so out of whack, she almost immediately began to lose her sight.  Within a couple of months she was totally blind.  Once again, I wondered if we would lose her.  But, she adjusted fairly quickly.  A few times bumping into things and she was able to make the adjustments and could find her way around the house.  The back yard was a little more problematic, and she fell into the pool a few times.  Worried that she would fall in when I wasn't there to help her out, she became an indoor dog, coming out front with me in the morning to feed the deer.  The deer, for their part, became so used to her that she literally bumped into them from time to time, they had stopped moving out of her way.  The main thing is that she became a creature of severe habit.  She did not like deviating from it.  If Greg tried to take her out front on a weekend morning so I could sleep, she would docilely go, but then come nudge me to take her out again because that's how it was done.

Christmas threw her off a little.  We have to move things around to accomodate the tree and that first holiday in particular caused her to have one pretty bad day learning how to navigate around once more, but then she got it down and things would be fine.  She did better on the following holidays, seeming to remember what to do.

We had one other bad scare with her back in October 2007, where she and a couple of the other dogs contracted a virus, and I had to learn how to give her an IV to keep her hyrdated and try and get her past it.  But, she, as always, submitted to the treatment without complaint.  And the sweet, concerned vet who finally identified her condition?  She remained Myrna's vet to the end.  She is a highly compassionate, wonderful woman with the ironic name of Dr. Grimm.

Dogs don't have particularly keen eyesight as it, so maybe that's why she adapted so well, but she was just that kind of personality. She knew she was loved, she loved us in return, and the rest was all just the way it was. There were sacrifices everyone made to make sure she was cared for. For one thing, not just anyone could watch her if we wanted to go out of town, so it was highly unusual for Greg and I to be gone at the same time. And, to afford her supplies, the other dogs get their shots at low cost clinics. Was all of it worth it? Yes, I will tell you that it absolutely was.

Everyone knows that Cheyenne and I have a special bond, but I think, if Cheyenne could talk, even she would tell you that Myrna was the calmest of them all.  Cheyenne would tell you she was glad Myrna was her sister, and she was lucky to have known her.  Then she would want to know if you brought any Goldfish for her.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Myrna's Story

I have known for a while that it was inevitable that Death would find our home again.  We have a house full of large breed dogs in the double digits in terms of age, one of which suffered from a chronic illness.  I have been steeled for it, taking every day it didn't happen as a bit of borrowed time.  Yesterday for one of my family, time ran out.  However, rather than recount that long, awful night which was preceded by the long, awful week, I have decided to spend this post telling Myrna's story as a celebration of a good dog who gave us much joy.

First, however, I should say this:  losing a pet is a special kind of hard.  It's not comparable to losing a daughter, of course, but there's something uniquely painful about it, and I think it's because dogs are so completely yours.  They love you totally and expect modest things in return - food, water, some kind of shelter and a bit of love in return.  The rest is gravy on top.  And they are also completely your responsibility.  They never have the free will and choices a human does.  You even often choose their ending.  While that is dictated by their suffering, and it's a humane thing to do (for most of us not named Michael Vick), it is still your decision when the final moment will be, and that carries with it a burden.  Therefore, I will never question the depth of someone's sorrow at losing a pet.  No one I know will need to be embarassed around me because they think I'll scoff at their mourning in light of my heavier loss.  Because I will understand it.  I have been there before and will be there again, probably fairly soon.  I feel it now.  How I counter it, however, is to remind myself over and over until I actually believe it that my pet lived a good life, and hopefully I helped give it to them.

This is my baby's story.

Myrna is named after Myrna Loy, whom I have blogged about here before.  I got her on Myrna Loy's birthday in 1996, which just so happened to be my birthday as well, so it seemed fitting, even though I spent her lifetime spelling her name to everyone too young to know the reference, which meant almost everyone I came into contact with.  The story of how she came to me is Veldman family lore.  Greg is rightfully proud of pulling it off.

His sister Cathy, who lived in Ft. Worth at the time, worked with a woman whose Dalmatian had a litter of puppies from a Lab daddy and needed to find homes for them.  Cathy, knowing us to be suckers for anything on four legs, made that fact known to us and Greg decided a puppy would be a good birthday present.  He was still working at night back then, so after I left for work that day, rather than going to bed, he made the approximately 400 mile round trip to pick up one of the litter.  The drive back, with a six week old puppy in the car, was an adventure.  He had prepared a box lined with towels for the return trip.  She very immediately had destroyed that theory with a bout of nervous puppy diarrhea.  So, he had to sacrifice one of his Statesman t-shirts (the one with the bats on it, I'll never forget, because it was a cool shirt, and I had one too that I had to gladly surrender over to him to compensate) to re-line the box.

In the meantime, I had no clue what he had up his sleeve, but I was having quite the work day.  It was a Friday, I remember, and my boss had to be out of town, but another manager had to deliver a budget to a client that day, and he was worried about it.  So, he asked me to make sure she did it and give her whatever help she needed.  Well, that meant, essentially, I did it for her.  The woman in question could absorb her own blog post, as could the psychology of why I allowed her to manipulate me into doing her job, but suffice it to say that I had a client expecting something, and so I had to get it to him.  She, on the other hand, ended up leaving!  Actually leaving work with the deadline not met, knowing it was my birthday.  I was astounded, but what does one expect from someone who has a full length fur coat!  So, as I was scrambling trying to finish this thing up and fax it over, Greg was calling and calling, wondering when I'm coming home.  I became irritated.  I knew he wanted to give me my present, but for crying out loud, it could wait!  I don't actually remember when I finally left, but it was after dark in the middle of summer, so late...  I trudged home, madder than a wet hen, and walked in to find out why he was anxious.  There was this adorable little puppy he had worked so hard to get to me!  I was instantly in love (and madder than ever at the horrible woman who had kept me from this little delight for so long).

Myrna was like a little Dalmatian that had black paint poured over top her.  It didn't quite coat her belly and the tips of her paws, where the white spotted fur still poked out, and she would grow to have the sleeker build of a Dalmatian, as opposed to a Lab, but not the nit-witty temperament they can be known for.  But, at first, she was just a puppy like any other, playful, whiny, needy and requiring some potty training.  I can remember sitting out on the back porch with her in the middle of the night reading The Green Mile, which was just coming out as a serial novel at the time, waiting for her to do her business, hoping it wouldn't take too long so I could go back to bed.  Occasionally I would get caught up in the novel and we'd stay out there for a while, causing me to have to go to work a few times on precious little sleep.

And, despite my having had multiple dogs for multiple years, she was the first dog I had obtained young enough to have puppy breath.  And she did, believe me.  That awful smell that is at the same time so wonderful.  She would wriggle in my arms and try to reach up to my face to lather it with kisses that would nearly gag me, but you know it means you have a real-life puppy who loves you, so it becomes appealing in its own awful way.

I have a photo somewhere of her in those early days, maybe even from that night, curled up in her dog pen next to my cat Merlin, also black with just a touch of white.  She is smaller than he is in the picture, two black dots on a white blanket.  She didn't stay that way long.  But, as she grew, she mellowed.  Summer turned into fall, and I remember one day deciding to splurge and order the Penn State-Michigan game on Pay Per View, and she cuddled with me on the floor in front of the television most of the game, simply content to lay there and have her belly scratched.  And that is how she was most of her life.  She was gentle and sweet, wanting to love and be loved, not really worrying how to get in the closet to chew the shoes, or breaking out of the fence to explore the neighborhood.

I think I have mentioned before that having this many dogs causes them to behave more or less as a pack.  As such, there is a heirarchy, and there is always an Alpha.  Myrna spent some time as the Alpha, but I always got the impression she just stepped into the role because somebody had to do it.  She didn't object, there were no fights, or even growling, when Cheyenne became old enough to assume the position.  During her tenure, however, she was a gentle Matriarch who cleaned her charge's ears and eyes, nudged them along if they mis-behaved and watched demurely over her flock.  She continued in the role of nurse all her life - even after she was blind, she would seek them out and clean them off.  Then, at night, after a long day of caring for the group, she would climb into bed with me, lay her head on my pillow and stretch out like a little human.  I would drape my arm over her, nuzzle my nose against her fur and drift off feeling secure, loved and comfortable.

Then she became the one who required nursing.  That tale tomorrow.