Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Black and Gold Christmas

What is it they say?  If life hands you lemons, make lemonade?  Well, in Pittsburgh my guess is that the saying goes more like this:  if Mother Nature denies you a white Christmas, have a Black and Gold one instead.  But, I don't think they've had to say it all that often before this year.  It's as though we brought some of Texas with us and spoiled this winter wonderland.

Greg, who has to pay close attention to the weather since he drives out in it every night, reported the other day that Pittsburgh was headed for an all-time low in snowfall for December, with that total being essentially none.  There have been a few days when snow danced around the air like little white fairies, teasing the locals, and once or twice an actual dusting of white remained on the ground for a few hours, but in terms of measurable snow:  nada.  Part of me is okay with it.  I've worried about Greg driving on winding, narrow streets covered in black ice hidden under a blanket of snow for months now, and I have to confess it was challenging enough sitting on cold, hard plastic at the last two Steeler games I went to despite three layers of clothing and some natural insulation in the posterior region without adding moisture to the mix.  But, let's face it, if there is no snow, then there are no scenes like this one:

Varykino, the Gromeko's dacah from David Lean's Dr. Zhivago
Of course, with no snow there are no scenes like this one either:

Blizzard in Boston in 2005
Life is full of trade-offs.  Do you want to shovel your car out from under a mountain of snow in sub-zero temperatures every so often to be able to stand outside in the morning after a night of fresh snowfall and feel the crisp air on your face and see the blinking of thousands of tiny diamonds hidden in a blanket of white under the winter sun?  And, truth be told, twenty-six degrees in snow feels a lot warmer than twenty-six degrees without snow.  There is just something almost insulating about the snow.  Twenty-six without it is just gray and depressing.  Bottom line:  snow is both wonderful and terrible.  A lot like life itself.  I was hoping to embrace its wonder on my first Christmas here.  Alas, it was not meant to be.

However, if the weather was a little Texas-like, that was about all that was.  Whatever our absence meant for the family left behind, it also meant a major change for us, no matter how much of the old trappings I had placed around the house or how many customs I tried to replicate.  And that seemed evident at first.  We - maybe just me - seemed a little lost as to how to begin without the familiar structure and pattern that had long been established in Greg's family - whether at his boyhood home or once things shifted to our house.  There was an order that was followed, a menu that was presented year after year, and always an incident or two of family dysfunction - someone was horribly late, or having a meltdown, or simply sick- that threatened that order, as though it were as much a part of the tradition as anything.  But, for us, this quiet little family of three plus a mini-zoo, the slate was completely clean now:  we could do anything and on any pace.  We had no one else to answer to but ourselves.

Sometimes it's hard to know how to begin the story when confronted with a blank page.  And whatever awkwardness was caused by being characters in this unwritten story, it was - and likely always will be - complicated by the individual not with us as much as anything.  Greg in particular wears his grief like a heavy cloak, and it can feel uncomfortable and almost disrespectful to experience any happiness in the face of it.  Whether this will always be the case or not, who can say, but it is a larger elephant in a smaller room when it is just the three of us; that seemed evident early on in the day.  Everything seemed in doubt at first.  Do I serve breakfast first or let Marissa open her stocking first?  Do we do that in the living room and then move into the sun room where I had set the tree?  Do I clear the dining room table, which seems to be the natural collector for all manner of this and that, and set up the china, or do we just grab plates from the cabinet and balance them on our knees around the tree?  And where do we all sit in the crowded little sun room anyway?  How is Greg, tired from a night of work, going to handle all of this?  Sounds silly, but it's all the things you just naturally do in a family with strong traditions - you don't think about it really.   Now it's completely up to you to begin anew, and that can be a little daunting.  What you do when writing is just set the pen to the paper and begin.  Write anything.  You can change it later, but just get started.   Because once you do the words will tend to come, eventually flowing and forming into a story.  And so it was with us.  A little trial and error to be sure that will be refined with the next year's event, but once we just got moving, psychics took over and we remained in motion.  Presents were unwrapped, cider was consumed (by me), pictures were taken, the mess was made and then cleaned up, and we retired to the basement to watch Star Wars on Blu-Ray, not worried any longer by the lack of snow because we were transported to a galaxy far, far away.

All in all, if you try not to focus on the acting, Episode I is not all that bad - certainly worth the viewing for the pod race and the duel at the end with Darth Maul if nothing else.  And so it was with us.  Not a perfect day.  There may never be a perfect holiday again - there will always be that void.  Always.  But, a day in which the balance of this little band of travelers were together as a family.  That was worth the price of admission.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Steel Gray

The sky is a steel gray, a fitting cover for the city nicknamed the Steel City I guess, but it is the harbinger of more rain, not snow.  It's not the kind of sky that gives you snow.  It's just the kind of sky that presses in on you, oppressive and dark.  For those locals I follow in social media, either on Twitter or Facebook, the atmosphere seems to be getting to them, the stress of the holidays made worse by a midday sky that casts long shadows in homes and offices.  Of course, most of these individuals are people I have connected with as fellow Steeler fans, so we're all licking our wounds from a horrendous walloping on Monday night and they would be surly in any weather.  We all hope the team rebounds on Christmas Eve Day or else it will likely not be a Merry Christmas in the 'Burgh.  For all the times I've tried to tell myself to gain some perspective and accept that it's just a game, I can now rest assured that I am far from alone in taking this sport way too seriously.  As a matter of fact, I'm on the sane side of the fence compared to some of the Steeler Nation.  It's one of the many things I've learned in my time here.  But, I digress, because the Steelers, while always on my mind, are not what are weighing me down this day.

This will be the third holiday without Kelsey.  We have others who aren't with us:  Greg's father, whose birthday was on Christmas Eve, and both my parents.  But, let's just face the truth of it, there is a cycle of life that one accepts, perhaps with sadness, but with a stalwart determination to continue on in the face of losing a parent because that's what they want and would expect of us.  I expected my children to survive me and maybe spare a thought about me on the anniversary of my birth and on the big holidays maybe.  I hoped that they would carry on my memory by baking pumpkin cookies at Thanksgiving and spritz cookies at Christmas and teaching their kids how to do it, telling them stories about baking in the little narrow kitchen back on Applewood Drive in Austin when they were little.  I envisioned that my two daughters would get together around one of their kitchen tables, drinking strong coffee, maybe something stronger altogether, and tell stories about me.  Some I know would be critical ("Remember how loud she snored!?"), some hopefully endearing ("I remember the first time she took me to see Star Wars..."), some a mixture of both.  I hoped that they would be able, with a little distance, to see some of my failures as a parent not for lack of love or intent on my part, but just as a result of my being all-too-human.  Like my parents, like Greg's dad, and like most of us, I would hope that they would see me for a flawed, but well-intentioned individual and remember me fondly to their children.  That is how we all live on, through our progeny - taking little pieces of the traditions we have taught them and having them in turn teach their children.  Are they sad that we are no longer with them?  Yes, but we hope that they mix that with the gladness in their hearts for what we gave them, and we trust that they are able to carry on.  And, so, with my parents, that is the case.  On Sunday, I will take out Mother's china and finest tableware, I will set them on linens Greg's mom has given us, and I will prepare food that mixes a little of what both Greg and I grew up with.  Mother will be on my mind, as will Dad - he was such a child around Christmas, this serious veteran of two wars reduced to such innocent wonder - but, all would be well and natural except...

And of course, that's a big exception.  How does one carry on, even after time has passed, when the natural order of the world has been so egregiously torn asunder?  Here we are, in this new city, trying to establish new traditions, and we circle back to the same old place, which is there is a member of our family that should be here and is not.  One would think it gets easier over time, and undoubtedly it will. But now is not that time.  As I baked dozens of cookies over the last few weeks, trying to build up a stockpile for Greg to take to his co-workers, I was struck by the thought that Kelsey would have been the age I was when I had her and realizing my loss includes not only my daughter but any grandchildren who I might have had at my side, being able to teach them to bake, having them wait to be able to lick the beaters, like I had done, like my kids had done.  I would never have those kids to introduce Star Wars or Willow to.  I will never read Kelsey's children The Hobbit.  I will never have the chance to sit around a table with my daughter and tell stories about Mom or Christmases at the Veldman house as her children listen and learn about their heritage.

Grief is a selfish emotion, I guess.  And it's a lonely one.  For Kelsey's relationship with each of us was unique, so the loss of her means something different to each of us.   Therefore, speaking strictly for myself, what I struggle to work through on this particular holiday is how to step across that big void and reach out for what I have remaining, which is quite a lot.  I'm guessing the parents who lose a child and are "successful" at piecing their lives back together do so by focusing on that, not getting lost in the vortex that is our grief.  I think it takes a little practice and a lot of patience.  So, while I had hoped, in the grand scheme of things, to put together a post around this time on tips to help parents cope with grief and loss at the holidays based on personal experience, I realized that I'm not there yet.  Unfortunately I feel as gray as the sky.  The best I can do is to tell you this:  hug your family tight, do not take them for granted.  Remember the holidays is not about getting Star Wars on Blu-Ray (although that would be nice...), try and celebrate what you have, even as you grieve over what you do not.  Every year I want to tip that scale a bit.  That's my personal goal.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Musings on the Importance of Family

So, my hopes and plans to go to Pirates Fest dashed by my husband's exhaustion, I find myself with a rare quiet moment.  Marissa downstairs asleep, Greg upstairs asleep, I sat down in the sun room to watch the last of the snow dance around the air as the sun chased the last flakes away and began working on dispelling those bold enough to try and stick around.  Finally, albeit very briefly, I can look outside my window and see wintry white in the trees and on the rooftops.  I better enjoy it while I can, as the temperatures climb back to balmy mid-40's with a chance of rain, and it seriously looks like my hopes for my first white Christmas since I was in my teens may be fading.  Of course, on the other hand, it is a lot easier to drive around when it is like this than when the roads and bridges are covered in snow and ice, so I won't whine too badly.  On the other, other hand, I don't drive around too much as it is, which is why I was looking forward to going to a mid-winter event about a summer sport put on by a team who hasn't had a winning season in two decades (I mean, why else would I?!).  It was somewhere that was not here.  I may love my little cottage, but the walls can tend to close in on you when you spend as much time inside of them as I do.

However, as far as that goes, I've actually had a fairly adventurous weekend.  Greg and I went down to Washington, PA. on Friday to my cousin's Christmas party.  It was a lovely time.  I like her home no matter the season, but it was resplendent in its holiday attire, and she had a full dinner - which I didn't expect - that was beyond excellent.  But, more than that, the party was populated by good people.  A mixture of relatives, some friends of hers dating all the way back to her school days, neighbors, ladies from her book club and co-workers.  Some I knew, some I didn't, but it was a mellow, easy time and conversation ran freely.  But, what you notice in the threads of the conversation, as I have observed in the past, is the sharing of memories and experiences.  There are always funny stories to tell because, let's just face it, in a family with such strong personalities, those personalities will generate some tales.  Gradually I thread together pieces of my mother's life that I never knew - some because she didn't want me to (and I realize more and more how editorialized what she did share actually was), and some because she just never thought to share it - she wouldn't have seen the humor in it that the rest of us do.   And that makes me so sad that I could not get her back here to share her last days with this family around her.   These are good people and they all love one another.  They loved her.  And I didn't really appreciate the full extent of those statements until I moved here and began to see them more.

I don't feel guilty about the choices I made at the end for Mom.  It's not the same thing as being sad about it.  There really was no realistic choice to bring her home to end her days.  Even if her doctors in Texas would have released her, no one here would have taken her.  She was too sick, too demented and too fragile to be moved.   No, I may not have been an ideal daughter at the end, sick with grief and short with patience, but I sleep easy at night knowing I managed her care like I had to.  But, I know now why she wanted so badly to be back among these good people.

It makes you wonder why she ever moved to Texas in the first place, and I have my suspicions about that.  She fell back in the mid-nineties and broke an ankle.  I couldn't take off work to come back east - I had just taken a week off to see her right before it happened and there was no allowance in our little company for emergency leave.  But it made me realize that she was becoming more fragile and the distance between was us was becoming more problematic, so we offered to move.  She refused to accept it.  She told me there were no jobs here.  I told her all we needed were two:  surely we could find something.  But, in the end, Greg was committed to Austin and didn't really want to move, the kids were little and had their friends there, Mother didn't want me to come, and I didn't push it.  And she did okay for a few years, with some help and support from the family here.  But things began to erode.  She was less steady on her feet, she wasn't able to care for the condo on her own, and my Aunt Ginny was no spring chicken herself and less able to watch over Mom.  So when Mom announced her decision to move close to me, I thought it was a concession to her physical condition.  And, to a certain extent it was, but she remained fiercely independent once she got here, refusing help and wanting her own space and friends.  I have wondered more than once, but really wonder it more and more, if she was just that adamant that I not be too exposed to the family lest the secret of my adoption leak out.  She seemed completely committed to me going to my grave being none the wiser.   There are a hundred questions I would like to ask her about all of that, but instead, she was able to go to her grave never knowing that this closely held secret had ever been leaked, and as a result of her own hoarding tendencies to boot. (Makes one wonder who exactly my birth parents were and if I should Google serial killers named's probably about time I find out, but more on that later.)

As we drove home from the party, I thought about all of that and how I wished I could have assured her that it didn't matter.  Whatever it is she didn't want me to know would not change how I felt about her, and she should have been allowed to stay here among her family where she belonged.  Then I realize that the man in driver's seat next to me is clear across the country from his.  And I've been thinking about that since.

But for now I'm off to troll the Internet for nefarious McGuigans.

Mother and all her siblings

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Bi-football Couple

Courtesy of
Oh.  My.  God.  I have been listening to fall out from Thursday night's Steeler game for days now.  I am so sick of hearing about it, both from inside my own house and from the media and various fan bases, that I cannot even begin to tell you.  The outside chatter is whether James Harrison deserved that suspension for a hit on Colt McCoy (pretend you hear angels singing at the mention of his name).  Not surprisingly, most Ohio residents are calling for his head and think he got off easy, most of us east of the border are incensed that he even got flagged for the play.  The rest of the country is sort of split depending upon how badly the individual hates or loves the Steelers.  The inside-the-four-walls chatter is about that plus just in general what thugs we members of the Steeler Nation are.

Here's what happened:  Greg went to his first - and likely last - Steeler game in Heinz Field Thursday night.  I had gotten him tickets for his birthday so he could see his boy Colt McCoy (again, queue the angels singing) play.  I stretched the plastic on the credit card until it screamed and got us great seats!  I was a little worried about the weather - a December night game - but it turned out to be cold, but not too cold.  Crisp and clear.  We rode a ferry across from our parking space downtown ($6.00 baby - try getting parking in Dallas for a game for just $6.00!) and joined a happy throng of people milling around in that oblivious pre-game glow where everybody is happy because nobody has lost yet, and for a while everything looked like it was primed for a great night.  I had cautioned Greg that wearing Browns gear was not advisable, and he's not a Browns fan anyway, he's just all about Colt (angels on high...), so he settled for a Longhorn jersey and some people actually flashed him a Hook-'Em sign on the way to the stadium.  Others joked good-naturedly with him, but it was all fairly innocent and friendly.  So far, so good.

Well, then the game started.  And, if you'll pardon the pun, it turned out to be a dog fight (if you have to ask why that's a pun, you're not really into AFC North football, so don't worry about it and just skip to the end).  Suddenly that euphoria of everyone walking in thinking the home team was going to steam roll over the lowly Browns gave way to grave concern on behalf of the home crowd and gave rise to some actual tense hope by the few thousand Browns fans brave enough to show themselves (the woman sitting next to Greg actually was one, but she was incognito).  Now add to that the fact that the season ticket holders for the seats in our section had long ago looked at this game and said, "Oh, hell no, I'm not going to the Browns game in December on a work night," and the results were that we were not surrounded by the cream of Pittsburgh society.  Those enviable seats were occupied generally by a group of young, rowdy, mostly very drunk people who had shelled out way more than they could comfortably afford to see the Steelers and, by God, had paid to be there and would act like they damned well please, too young and drunk to know better.  Most of them had probably started drinking as soon as it hit 5:00 and were hammered well before kick off.  Those who weren't soon found themselves caught up in the mob mentality as tensions rose.  Now add to that our Pro Bowl center and Pro Bowl quarterback getting injured and things began to really turn.  You could feel it like an electric current, and Greg caught some of it himself.  What he will leave out in his version of the story was that at one point he was vehemently yelling at the Steelers.  Now mind you, I've heard the Steeler Nation say some insulting and often ignorant things about and to their own players, but it's all keeping it in the family, so the mentality seems to be that it's allowed.  Let someone else try it, one point, I turned to Greg, a bit panicked, and said, "Shut up!  Remember where you are!"  I was pretty sure if he'd kept going at that clip, we were not going to make it out of there without police protection.  To my great relief, he did shut up, but he was sullen about it.  Then, of course, came the hit heard round the world:  that high hit James Harrison put on Colt McCoy that lead to the suspension.  James touched the precious Colt (queue angels), so Greg has been all over that hit all week.  He did have the good graces to let up yesterday when the one game suspension came down.  Already devastated by the bad news about Sidney Crosby being back out indefinitely and heading into what turned out to be super bad workday, I wasn't in the mood, and I'll give him credit for realizing that and letting whatever he wanted to say drop.

But, by the end of the night we had been pelted by ice, the Browns had been pelted by our defense and their inability to catch passes, Greg was miserable and pissed, I had my feelings hurt because this was supposed to be such a grand birthday present and he so clearly hated it, our quarterback could barely walk, but we had a division win.  I'll take it.  I will grant you the Steeler Nation misbehaved that night.  I've spent the days since being reminded how much classier Packer fans are.  I have to acquiesce, they are.  But, neither the Cowboys nor the Steelers are a division opponent.  Who knows what happens when Minnesota comes to town.  I'm not proud of how the mob behaved, but I weigh it against what all my other experiences with native 'Burghers have been, and I recall how I had ice thrown on me in Irving when I was pregnant no less, so whatever.  Now we know first hand how intense the division rivalries are around here.  For Greg, he seems intent on using that night to pass damning judgment on all of us as a collective group, and I've pondered over the last several days what he's really working over in his head.  I worry that he's homesick, too deeply entrenched in the town he was born and raised in, and where his family and friends still are, to put down roots in such different soil.  I worry that he's realized that the depth of his sorrow and anger over losing Kelsey was in no way mitigated by picking it up and moving it 1,200 miles.  I worry that he'll use that crowd's bad behavior as an excuse to throw in the towel - again, if you'll pardon the pun - and go back.  And, of course, I worry that if he does, he'll find that he just picked up that anger and sorrow and moved it back across 1,200 miles.  So, ever since that fateful night, my mind has been troubled, and I'm not sure what to do to help either of us.  And, I'm struck yet again by how The Beast just can't seem to let go of us and let us have some peace.

Funny.  All I wanted to do was take my husband to a football game.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cinema Takes a Holiday

HA! What shall we hang... the holly, or each other? 
-       Henry II, The Lion in Winter

So I'm sitting here staring at my bank balance, trying to figure out the vanishing act it seems to have taken, while trying to ignore the panic attack swirling around in my chest trying to break free because I am so far behind at work that I'm practically in the next county, while thinking that if I work all weekend I can maybe get a bit caught up, but how in the world will I be able to bake cookies for the neighbors and Greg's co-workers...when it hits me that I should just ignore it all and enforce some Christmas cheer on myself.  The only way I can think to do that is by putting myself outside my own head, and movies have always been my outlet for that, so I've been trotting out every seasonal movie I own trying to convince myself that the holidays do anything more than just plain suck.  I don't own an extensive collection of Christmas films, mind you.  If you think Christmas stinks, it naturally follows that you tend to think Christmas movies do as well.  Sticky sweet, happy family oriented crap geared to make a fast buck and be forgotten for the most part.  But, there are exceptions, and even an old Scrooge like me can fall in love with the spirit of the season through the mastery of film.  I thought I would share my favorites with you and ask you to tell me yours.  Maybe I'll find a new fave among any you share...maybe you will do the same.

6.  The Alien Anthology.  What's that you say?  Those aren't holiday movies?  They are to me, brother.  Blame Bravo or Spike or one of those networks for showing an Alien movie marathon two years running when I was up at 2:00 in the morning trying to wrap what seemed like a mountain of presents.  And, trust me, after four solid hours of sitting on the hard, cold floor wrapping gifts that people may or may not like, Aliens 3's primary dialogue - a highly liberal use the "f" bomb - seems just about perfect.  So, it became a Christmas tradition.  A little hot cider mixed in with a lot of Sigourney Weaver being a bad ass, and I'm good to go.  Favorite line:  "Get away from her, you bitch!"

5. The Bishop's Wife. Who wouldn't want to leave their stuffy husband for a suave angel who looks just like Cary Grant?  But, it's David Niven that makes that movie for me.  He does a great job of balancing what he believes is his duty and carrying himself the way he's supposed to with the inner unhappiness and loss of faith that torments him, sprinkled with a great deal of humor as the fall guy for a lot of the conflict that happens in the film.  Cary Grant just gets to float around and look wholesome and handsome, which he does very well, but it's by far the easier of the roles.  Favorite line:   "Nobody expects him be normal; he's a bishop. "

4.  The Lion in Winter.  Dysfunctional families take note:  this is the gold standard.  Everybody trying to out cross and double cross one another in a bid for power and land set against Henry II's Christmas court.  Never before or since have so many zingers been delivered in a two hour span.  Growing up, this was the perfect film as it bundled a lot of things I loved:  Katherine Hepburn, medieval history and clever film making.  Trying to pick just one line as a favorite took some time, but here goes: "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it.  We're a knowledgeable family. "

3.  The Thin Man.  Sure it's a Christmas movie.  It's set at Christmas.  Don't believe me?  Watch it and you'll see.  And you'll be entertained in the process.  What could possibly make Christmas better than a little murder mystery unraveled by Nick and Nora, aided by Scotch and Rye.  It holds a higher spot in other movie lists of mine, but for a holiday flick, it's still just dandy.  Favorite line (again, a hard one - lots of choices): "Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?" 

2.  While You Were Sleeping.  I know, odd choice for someone like me.  Sentimental romantic comedy, no one drinks too much, tries to kill anyone else with a broadsword, or have things explode out of their stomach.  But the fact that none of those things happen, and I still ended up liking it is a testament to the power of the film and all the actors.  There's something about the easy chemistry everyone has with one another that just sucks you in.  If everyone were like those people, the world would be a better place.  Elsie: "I could never make a good pot roast."  Saul: "You need good beef. Argentina has great beef: beef, and Nazis. "

1.  And the winner is...A Christmas Story.  I saw this movie totally by accident the first time.  I was pregnant with Kelsey, it was on a Saturday afternoon.  Greg was out working, so I was alone.  Not sure why I even remember that.  I had been putting around our little rent house trying to do Christmas stuff and had worn myself out.  I was in that stage where I still felt the possibility that I would lose my lunch at any given moment, but the baby had started to grow, so I was also getting the sensation of having a bowling ball inside me along with whatever lunch I wasn't losing, so I had to take a break and sat down just as it was starting.  I had never heard of it, but it looked like it was set in the 40's - maybe there would be some war references in there, so I thought I would give it a try.  Oh my Lord.  For two hours I didn't think about alien bowling balls pressing on bladders or stomach acid churning like a geyser waiting to explode.  I laughed until I thought I would cry.  And I've laughed every time I've seen it since, which has been at least once a season without fail.  Just a little B movie no one had ever heard of when it first hit the theaters and look at it now - a cultural icon.  Funny how that happens sometimes.  But, can you ever look at Chinese duck the same?  Can you hear "You'll shoot your eye out!" in your sleep?  Do you dream of wearing a bunny suit on Halloween?  Yeah, we all do.  I can't even decide on a favorite line - there are just too many.  If you're reading this and have never seen it, fix that problem right away!  Life is too short not to know the beauty of electric sex gleaming from the window.

So, what are some of your favorites and why?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Up in Flames

Courtesy of 123MyCodes
I fell asleep at my computer Thursday night.  I woke up to find that it had slid off my lap onto the couch next to me and the cat had crawled in to take its place (probably having helped its exit along).  Andy Reid was doing a post-game press conference after the Eagles' loss to the Seahawks.  He arguably had a worse day than I did, but he gets paid a lot more, so I reserved my pity, and watched him bleary-eyed for a minute, mustering enough comprehension to realize that this is what a broken man looks like.  Then I shut the computer down and flopped over sideways on the couch, unable to muster the will to climb the two sets of stairs to the bed.  My husband found me there when he got up to go to work and shoo'ed me upstairs.

This is not the first time I've literally fallen asleep at my work.  But, this week is the first week I have looked out the second story window and tried to gauge whether or not flinging myself from it would put me out of my misery.  I've stomped around in a funk all week.  Ironic, if you consider I just had four days off, but those were whirlwind days where I was up early and to bed late, actually more physically active than usual.  So, I realize I came back to work on Monday more tired than I had left it the previous Friday, so - now four days behind to boot - everything just seems particularly aggravating.  I feel imprisoned by these four walls, I am royally peeved at the husband because he has been less than my definition of helpful, my definition of helpful has been altered to where no matter what he did he would not meet it, I've yelled at the dogs, glowered at the cats and just in general been a Royal Bitch.  But, it really wasn't until this morning that I realized:  I just have a bad case of burn out.  So, I took a step back to really consider why I feel the way I do.

This is a relatively new job, I tell myself - I have only been doing it since February - hardly within a normal burn out window, so buck it up and  quit being a baby.  Truthfully, it's not really the job.  Work is just the easy thing to blame.  In my particular case, this is the end of a very long, wild year.  There have been a lot of major changes, and whether good or bad, they have turned my world on end.  For someone like myself, who would practically go apocalyptic when I couldn't get the same parking space everyday, all of this upheaval has just taken its toll.  I'm tired at the moment.  Of everything.  At the same time I realize this, I feel guilty about it because I know I am just lucky to have a job, a roof over my head that is not in danger of foreclosure, food on the table and Blue Moon in the fridge for today's game.  I would imagine I am not alone on this see-saw.  But, in truth, it is just the pace of everything over the last few months that have worn me out.

So, I sit here sort of mentally ping-ponging between feeling sorry for myself and feeling guilty about feeling sorry for myself, and decided that about the only thing to do about it is come up with an agenda to deal with it.  I did a little research to start.  I'm a lazy researcher, but it is clearly not a situation unique to me because it took very little effort to find some online sites that were interesting: (but be careful of this one, it's so long it will burn you out just to read it, but it is interesting if you can make it through)

There were a lot of others.  What I noticed about all of them is that they all deal with work burnout.  Some mention caregiver burnout.  What if you just have Life Burnout?  What if the whirlwind has been blowing around you so hard for so long you're looking out windows for fall zones or making multiple trips to the state store for libations to artificially cope.  I took what I read and came up with this blueprint:

1) Take a bubble bath.  I love baths.  I never get to take them anymore because they are the ultimate time suck.  So, I have determined that once a week, I get a bath.  Probably on a weekend, but I have to allow myself that indulgence and consider that I am killing two birds with one bubbly stone:  relaxing and cleaning myself.  Whatever your version of Bubble Bath Therapy is, consider allowing yourself a little time at least once a week to indulge it.  Cheaper than a therapist...

2) "Retail therapy" is nice until the bills come in, and, trust me on this, more stuff does not equate to more happiness.  Paying off the credit cards, now that is another story.  So, pass on that pair of Bearpaw moccasins that look so comfy just because they are on sale and use that $39.99 toward your Visa bill.  If you do that every time some tempting offer hits your Inbox, over time it will add up.  No debt:  that has to be what real freedom feels like.  I don't know yet, but I'm working on it.  I'll get back to you on that.

3) Watch at least the third period of the hockey game without working through it, folding laundry, wrapping presents or addressing holiday cards (or fill in your favorite show here).  Television may be mindless, but sometimes that's okay.  I have fallen head over heels in love with Penguins hockey for a number of reasons that I'll detail some other time (crashing people into the boards on purpose at 40 miles an hour is definitely among them), but with an 82 game season it is incongruous with my work schedule.  So, I have it on almost like background noise, and I've missed some incredible hockey that has gone on right before my eyes as a result.   Just adds to the resentment.  So, I've determined to set the computer down for the third period (unless it's a blow out) of each game.  This is my version of just letting the mind rest for 20 minutes worth of game time.  Find out what your favorite off switch is and do the same.

4) Ask for help if you need it.  This is open ended - it can mean quite a lot of things.  For me, my martyr complex along with my spouse's limited scope of independent housekeeping skills without specific instruction have added up to a great deal of stress on my part.  He is willing to do just about anything I ask, but I have to ask.  He has specifically said on a number of occasions, "make me a list".  I have refused to do so, thinking to myself, "So, what are you - 12?  It should be obvious."  Well, I have finally reasoned that the problem is mine and by being so stubborn, the only loser is me.

5) Okay, maybe one trip to the state store so you have a nice glass of wine to have with that bubble bath.  But, moderation is the key here or else there becomes a whole other list of issues...

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Monday Blues

Blech.  Is it just me, or is everyone having a hard time getting back into the swing of work today?  I actually had no intention originally of taking all four days of the Thanksgiving break off, but life sometimes has a funny way of making you do what it wants and not what you intend, and so, here I am, all the unfinished work I had on Wednesday evening still staring up at me along with the new deadlines pressing in, trying to get my head wrapped around what I need to do, but feeling fidgety and confined sitting at my desk again after such a break, and just in general fumbling around what is normally a fairly rigid and set work schedule.  One more reason that the holidays are just chaos to be endured.  Of course, I realize that is the workaholic in me talking.  Because the family person in me had a robust and fulfilling Thanksgiving break.  Not only did we spend time with my family - thanks to not one, but two gracious invitations from my mother's family - but most (not quite all) the Christmas decorations are up, most (but not quite all) of the gifts are bought, and many (but not nearly all) of them are wrapped and ready to mail. All in all, I should be taking stock of the holiday break and feeling very, very satisfied.  But, of course, holidays for us are complicated.  And likely will be for a while.

I woke up Thanksgiving morning to the same routine I do everyday.  Chappy, Cheyenne and I walk around the block, then they help themselves to dog biscuits and watch me do a little jaunt on the treadmill while the coffee brews.  Same almost every day.  Rain, shine, wind or - soon - snow.  But, as I trudged away on the treadmill, I felt as though something was crushing on my heart.  I just couldn't quite imagine suddenly that here we were - at the dawn of another holiday without one of our children.  For a minute I thought it would overwhelm me.  It didn't, and I actually managed to push that thought to the back of my mind for the rest of the day.  I didn't mention her.  To anyone.  But it was there.  For all the days I get up, get to work, watch hockey, watch football, eat, drink or whatever else I do, there is a difference in how the Now What feels when it's on a holiday.  Holidays are, as I said myself in my last blog, about family.  It is naturally hard when when part of that family is missing.

There were other signs that all was not right as the weekend wore on.  My mood swings were wild - I was up, then very far down.  I was enjoying myself, then irritated to the point of fury.  Poor Marissa had to keep me in check.  Looking back on it, I can only surmise that every time I was having some fun trying to figure out where all the holiday things should go in the new little house, part of me would begin to feel guilty and sabotage the moment.  But, I soldiered on.  The worst moment is always opening up the ornament box and finding the Baby's First Ornament that Mother gave me.  I really should just take it out of there and put it somewhere else with Kelsey's things.  I won't hang it on the tree, but I'll certainly never get rid of it - but it's a reminder of a double loss.  A time so far removed that it doesn't even seem real:  when I had a healthy baby girl and a mother who doted on her first grandchild.  As long as I leave it with all the other silly little ornaments I've collected over the years, I'll forever feel that pain when I come across it.

For Greg it was clearly, undeniably harder.  He really wants no part of Christmas.  He helped me pull the holiday decorations down from the attic, but his participation stopped there.  He bordered on pouty at times as Marissa and I worried over where this or that would go, and he camped out in the basement, far from the melee.  At the moments I felt the best, he seemed to pull further in and down.  A little piece of me sat above it all and observed the complex melodrama our collective emotions put on over the weekend and wondered, "Will it always be like this, or will we someday actually have our lives back and be able to participate in the holidays like normal people?"  I am not sure.  But, really, what is normal anyway?  And certainly what is normal for us?

I can tell you that, for my part, I want to take some inspiration from my cousin who hosted us on Thanksgiving day.  She has had her own losses and, as I found out that day, right around the holidays to boot.  Yet, quite spontaneously at one point as she prepared an excellent feast for us, she turned to me and exclaimed, "I love the holidays!"  And I know she means that.  She has learned to honor her loved ones and not forget them while not losing sight of the remaining joys in her life - her son and daughter, her grandchildren, her friends and extended family, her lovely home.  She seems to have found that magic word that is so very elusive for many of us:  contentment.  When she said it, I thought to myself, "Wow, these Pennsylvania women are made of hardy stuff!"  And they are.  My fervent wish is that there is a little Pennsylvania stock in all of us.

In the meantime, I will do what I can.  My little cottage is, if I say so myself, adorable in its holiday best.  The one thing about cottages is that they seem ideally suited to dressing up in garland and bows.  That's a start - the rest time will have to tell...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welcome to the Mean Season

Norman Rockwell
As I have mentioned before, our family therapist coined the phrase "mean season" in reference to the holidays for those who suffer from an eating disorder.  Welcome to the Mean Season.

As we all finalize our plans and menus for the Thanksgiving holiday, we officially enter into a month and a half roughly of what is often a sheer nightmare for some of us.  So, this post is for the friends and families of the men and women struggling with an eating disorder.  Understand that I write it from a position of complete empathy, love for the people who try and support an individual with ED, and respect for the hard choices we face ourselves during this time of the year.  But, I saw a Facebook post from another mother yesterday that bothered me to the point where I really felt that I had to address this.  Because we can make this minefield better for our loved ones, or we can make it far worse.  And if you ever doubt what the consequences of your choices are, just think of Kelsey and the others like her who are not with us this holiday.  Then take a look at your loved one and imagine life without them.  Ready now to hear me out?  Okay, let's go...

First of all, read this article for some quick pointers on helping your loved ones through the holiday.  Simple advice, but, trust me, I've seen the fallout of not following these simple, straightforward tips.  Secondly, make the rest of the family members read it too.  As I've written about before, there is a tightrope many of us have to walk:  countering the needs of our suffering children with the demands and expectations of the rest of our family.  And, when you have an older individual involved - like, say, a grandmother who grew up in the Depression and thinks that having a table laden with high caloric food is a status symbol of conquering that time - it can be hard to make them understand.  But, it's important to try.  I would say that if you have someone who cannot behave themselves and not say things like, "You need to eat more, you're skin and bones," that you need to just have them stay away from your table, but how can you tell your elderly mother or father they are not welcome?  I get that conundrum.  So, have the conversation ahead of time about the delicacy of the situation.

Have foods available that are not as threatening.  I have some specialty dishes that were traditions for us at Thanksgiving, but even the vegetables were heavy.  For example, I make a corn dish that is almost like a souffle with heavy cream.  It's good, but it's threatening to someone with ED.  Kelsey specifically had to ask me at one point to also have some simple, healthy vegetables without any additions to them available.  Don't make your loved one ask.

Talk to your loved one in advance so they know you're aware of their anxiety and listen to what they have to say about what would make it easier for them.  Help them with some references they can use.  The Something Fishy site has a whole list of related articles.

Remember what a therapist once said to me:  it's not about you.  You're a parent first and foremost.  Most of you would tell me you would die for your child.  It doesn't need to be that extreme, but it does sometimes mean setting aside your own ego and vanity to help your child through this disease.  What caught my attention was a post from a mother about her own diet of 500 calories a day.  I know she loves her daughter desperately, but wow, what a message to send to her!  Not to mention which I cannot imagine that a diet that extreme is healthy for that mother.   The research on restricting calories to that level was controversial to say the least.  I found a lot of posts and articles on both sides of the fence while looking for a definitive response on what caloric intake someone of average height and weight needs to remain healthy.  But, just speaking as an untrained individual, I am concerned that level of restricting is not healthy, and I hope the individual consults a nutritionist to find a better way to achieve her goals.  Obsessing over one's own weight and body image is so hard not to do - we're all subject to the same social stigmas our children are after all - but we have to remember that we are the biggest influences on our children, for better or for worse.  They watch what we do and how we are way more than they listen to the words we say to them about their own bodies.  How can someone tell their child not to worry about body image when they are participating in the same destructive behavior? Don't fail to take care of yourself in the process of helping your loved one, but be mindful of how you are going about it.  Maybe for now don't worry about getting into that slinky holiday party dress.  Eat healthy, exercise and accept yourself as a beautiful woman just as you are.  If you need to lose weight for health reasons, go about it the right way.  Not just for your loved one, but for yourself as well.

Finally, let's all remember what this holiday should really be about:  family.  Oh, and football.  Not food.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, may it be Beast free.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To My Dear Little Cottage

Our house is a very, very fine house

With two cats in the yard

Life used to be so hard

- Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

My first week here, this is what you looked like
I met you, my dear little house, a year ago this weekend.  I stood in the living room for the first time two days before I was set to close and become your owner.  That term strikes me as a little ironic actually.  Who really owns who in these situations?  I was leafing through my mother's photos today looking for one to re-print for my Aunt Ginny's birthday and saw a photo of a relative's house from 1952.  It could be any number of houses in my neighborhood today, and it made me think about the other souls who have spent time in your walls and the people who will come after me.  You will stand long after I can no longer.  I am just a temporary caretaker, I realize that.  Probably more so in an area like this one, where history lives comfortably with the present.  But, for now, you offer us shelter and a place to begin this new life, and we in turn owe you our allegiance and the obligation to care for you while you are "ours".  With that in mind, I am therefore very sorry that a whole year later that horrible floral wallpaper still adorns the walls of the downstairs bathroom, but I hope you will be patient with me.  You do, after all, have a lot of time on your hands.  For us, it has been a tumultuous year, and just getting here and working to adjust to what I call the Now What has been a lot to do and process.  Hopefully, as we enter our second year together, things can smooth out and that wallpaper can finally come down.

A houseguest sleeps over
In the meantime, let's pause to reflect on our year together.  For my part, I will never forget that first moment, standing in the empty, cold house a little after sunset after a long, hard day of traveling to see what I had gambled on.  And hating it.  For a full ten minutes I thought I had screwed up royally.  Everything seemed so little.  The walls were low compared to the vaulted ceiling of my house in Texas.  The rooms broken up into little spaces, the staircases narrow.  Then, after the initial culture shock, for lack of a better term, wore off, I was able to see the possibilities instead of the drawbacks, and I would spend the next two months plotting and planning where all of our things would fit into your little spaces - all the while forgetting to take into account the floor vents, which threw a lot of that out of the window, if you'll pardon that pun.  And, then of course, I failed to think about measuring doorway widths and stairways to make sure everything would even fit inside, let alone where I envisioned it.  Needless to say, that lack of foresight meant that I had to do some mean improvising once I got here with a crammed truckload worth of stuff.   As a result bedroom furniture is in the dining room,  kitchen stuff is in the sunroom and a bunch of everything else is jammed up in the attic - which once seemed to be a cavernous space, now fairly crowded with a lot of things I swore I couldn't live without.  But, as I look around, I have to admit I get a little puffed up with pride at the work I did here alone those first few months.  If I say so myself, I made the most of your little spaces.  It may pale in comparison to the work that Greg and his friends were doing to re-hab the house back in Texas, but I think you and I have coupled to make a really comfortable little space here.  Good job, Cottage!

The Final Wave:  Marissa's Dorm Room Stuff Arrives
And we did it three separate times really.   After the initial push, you had to endure two more loads worth of stuff, including my personal little zoo.  I sometimes wonder, if walls could talk, what you would have to say about all these four-legged animals invading your space.  Or maybe the walls would just be screaming, "NOOOOOOO!"  Just think, at one point, I had twice as many...  You got off lucky, my friend.

But, you're gamely housing them as well as three humans, and, despite my complaints about the tiny kitchen (which, I am sorry, I still struggle with), the really important things are here:  which is my little family.

 You have witnessed a lot of collective angst over these months as we struggled to find our way, literally and figuratively, in this new world.  But, at the end of each day, your stout walls envelope us and keep us protected.  For that, no matter what happens going forward, I will always hold a special place for you in my heart.  And I will, as a reward, take that horrible wallpaper down.  Soon.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11 (A Life Summarized in Five Easy Steps)

I pulled my old journal from high school to open to the entry I made on 7/7/77.  I remember sitting down at the dining room table to make it.  I just didn't remember what I wrote.  Wow.  It was underwhelming to say the least.  "Note the date.  Actually nothing splendiforous happened, but I promised I'd write on this momentous date.  It won't happen again until 11 years, one month and a day - TADAH!  I'll be - [l'es] see - 28.  Aren't you thrilled?"  Then it goes on to note that I had a check-up earlier in the day and something stalkerish about the boy I had a mad crush on.  Nothing deep, nothing to hint at a intelligent person buried in there somewhere.  Certainly nothing to hint at a dark future.  Or a bright one for that matter.  Just a teenage kid being a teenage kid.

When 8/8/88 came around, I was a wife, a mother, a worker, a college student, a dog owner, and not a journal writer any longer - who had time!?  So there is no record of how I passed that day or what my mindset was.  However, it had been a heady 11 years, one month and a day.  That was for sure.  Out of high school, out of college and then back into college, out of Montana and into Texas, finding one serious, but highly dysfunctional relationship and only having the courage to break from it by leaping to another relationship.  Less dysfunctional, that one was, but I brought all my baggage with me, so still a little rough around the edges.  Nonetheless, that one married me and we brought a kid into the mix while still trying to figure all of that other stuff out.  One can look back at that time and have little wonder that our poor child would develop issues.  But in the hot summer days of 1988, that was far from my mind.  What was on my mind was trying for another child.  I remember that almost painful biological imperative was at its height at that time.  I would watch Kelsey play alone in our backyard and nearly ache to give her a sibling.  It would only be about a month from that August day that we were on our way to another family member, still trying to figure out what it was to be adults, let alone effective parents.  I am sure if I had made a journal entry on that day, I would be equally underwhelmed with it.  In all those 11 years, was I really any better, smarter, more mature than the 17 year old who spent most of her waking moments dreaming of boys she would never know?  Sort of doubting it.

Nor would I hold out much hope for the person who met the morning of 9/9/99.  By then, Mother had moved to Texas, but was still fairly independent and had her own circle of friends and we saw one another once a week or so, but she savored her independence, and I mine.  I had my two kids, my perfect house with a pool, a career.  I had a satellite dish with NFL Sunday Ticket and was working on the streak that still exists of never missing a Steeler game.  I had a fancy title and part ownership in my company.  I would have thought I had it all figured out, of that I have no doubt.  But, the fact of the matter is, as I was about to find out, I had my eye on all the wrong balls.

I knew that by 10/10/10.  Kelsey was gone, Mother was gone, and all my illusions of being a success at life gone with them.  Because I knew by then that being successful isn't about having NFL Sunday Ticket - it's about being present for your children and family.  I could tell you by then that I hadn't been.  And, the life I thought I had put together for all of us was shot to hell, and we were trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.  By then, we were looking to Pittsburgh as the place to start that process.  I didn't write that day.  I was busy at Austin City Limits - trying to say a fond farewell to the city I had begrudgingly called home for thirty years.

So, here I am in Pittsburgh (well, close enough) a year, one month and a day later.  So, what do I have to say about myself on this day?  Well, in some respects, I'm not that much different from the girl who wrote in her journal back in 1977.  On this day, I was all a flutter with the news that Sidney Crosby might play tonight against the Dallas Stars and crushed when I saw that he won't.  We'll be in attendance - all of my little family.  What a thrill that would have been.  So, I guess I still get sort of twitter-pated over boys I'll never actually meet, just for different reasons and with a different agenda.  And, I listen to the same music.  I all but guarantee I was listening to the Moody Blues when I wrote that journal entry back in '77.  I still do.   Just a little harder to hear it now - thirty plus years of loud rock and roll later have taken their toll.  But, in other ways, I'm so utterly different, it's hard to recognize me.  What would I say to that silly teenager sitting there at my parent's dining room table?  Besides the fact that I would someday listen to Rush, that is.  So much.  Oh so much.  I'm not sure she would listen, full of hope, ambition and dreams about her future.  Like many kids her age, she was pretty sure she had it all figured out and could handle anything.  I envy her confidence.  I regret her short sightedness.

Where will I be on 12/12/12?  The future has yet to be written.  Hopefully it will include Sidney Crosby in some form or fashion.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Geography Lesson

Courtesy of Craig Del Grande, Bozeman Broker
Several years ago I tried my hand at a novel.  I was pretty disciplined about it too.  I worked on that sucker every day, but I never finished it, and now it lives only somewhere in the innards of my first Macintosh - may it rest in peace wherever it is.  I simply couldn't figure out the right ending for it.

They say one's first novel is autobiographical, and I guess mine had elements of that.  Here's the premise:  a native Chicagoan has an aunt and uncle who live in Bozeman, Montana (where I grew up).  She grew up spending her vacations there, went to college there and when her relationship with a local boy she was expected to marry goes bad, she moves there permanently.  She loves it there - despite having to live with a roommate to make ends meet.  She has met a new man and is engaged to him, a young professional from Billings, and things seem set until she meets a handsome, sad stranger from Texas (yeah, I know - but it's where I was familiar with).  The mysterious stranger's brother is going to graduate school at MSU and he comes to stay with him after a bad episode with his wife's lover.   He has a young son he has left behind.  Long story short, of course, they meet, fall in love, but he has to go back because that's where his life and son are.  She has to choose.

I got to that climatic point in the book and couldn't finish.  I couldn't decide what she should do.  One day I would decide that she would stay in the mountains I had so lovingly described.  The next I thought she would sacrifice them to be with the man she determined was her soul mate (she of course had a nasty, violent break up with the Yuppie from Billings, the roommate ended up leaving - I can't remember how I wrote that other than I think she originally had the thing for Tex, so she felt she had been betrayed and so on and so on - all meant to show how my heroine had fallen hard for this sad, broken man).

Maybe that conundrum was the most autobiographical part.  I love my husband, I chose to stay with him even though he was firmly rooted in a place I did not love, but my heart always yearned to go home to those Rocky Mountain sunsets I spent pages describing.  So I created a character to explore that choice anew and tried to get her to make the definitive decision maybe to test my own.

I could re-write it now if I wanted to, and I think about that from time-to-time - it would give me an excuse to go back home for a while to get the local environment down once more.  The Bacchus Pub was a central location in the novel - is it still as awesome as it once was?  But, I'd probably come up against the same wall.  If you meet someone you think you love, but they aren't where you want to be, what is the right thing to do?

There is a school of thought that you should be content with wherever you find yourself and that happiness comes from within.  I follow that, but I notice that anyone who has ever said that to me is not saying it from a location that could generally be considered unlivable.  And, I doubt anyone who has ever said it to me when the ghosts of their past float around every where they go.  Sometimes breaking free of a place is the way to find that inner peace.  For that school of thought, just check in with any addiction counselor.  They will tell you that going back to old haunts is highly ill-advised.  Bottom line:  you can debate place v. person all day.  That it is an individual decision, and every decision with this much heft carries a price.

This is on my mind lately because I know two people whom I care for deeply who have called a long distance relationship quits.  And I'm trying to decide how to think about it.  I was originally extremely angry with the individual who did the leaving, but can I see that point of view?  If they are both committed to staying where they are, did they have a future?

You may think I'm asking if long distance relationships can last.  Ask me twenty years ago, and I would have said no.  Ask me now, and I would tell you it depends.  It depends on the two individuals in the relationship, their maturity, why they are apart, and their own sense of self.  The reason I would have said no twenty years ago is because I could not have done it then.  I had none of the requisites to pull it off: ample maturity or self esteem.  We all gain those things at different places in our lives - I'm a bit of a late bloomer.

Now I think they're possible:  under the right circumstances.  I think once a relationship transcends the need for physical contact and if there is ample trust on both people's part, then, with some real serious commitment, it can happen.  But, at some point, you expect to be together.  Or at least you expect to have periods of time when you are together.  However, what if it the distance and circumstances are such that spending real quality time together would likely never happen?  That is not a long distance relationship any longer really.  It is two separate lives that collide occasionally.  Where, it is fair to ask, is the relationship part in that?  So, is it better to face the reality of the situation in that case and call it quits sooner rather than later?

These are complicated questions to complicated situations.  I have no easy answers.  I only know that two young people I love were hurt because they tried to walk in my long ago heroine's shoes and couldn't find the right answers either.

I can tell you, however, that, in my mind, more often than not, my young heroine would sit out on her aunt and uncle's patio with a view of the Rocky Mountains in front of her and think about how there is only one Bozeman, but men?  Well, like fish in the sea, there are a few more of them out there.

Montana State University School of Bison Study (I kid you not)

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Survivor's Burden

"This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb or something."
- Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan

Think of Private Ryan for a minute as though he were an actual person.  What a burden he had to carry all his life:  the unrealized hopes and aspirations of all his brothers.  The guilt he must have felt that he survived and they did not, and what all that those men who were sent to find him who didn't make it back with him?  I would think about that every time I watched that movie when the older Ryan kneels down in front of John Miller's headstone and tells him, "Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me."  And I would ball my eyes out.  Not sure why, but that always really got to me.  That actor did the most with his small part, I thought, with the anxiety of trying to live a life worth saving registering even in his eyes - like maybe the real person knew a little bit about what his character was supposedly experiencing. 

Now, however, I can feel for that poor man on an even deeper level because I know individuals who have the burden of being survivors.  No one trudged through wartime France to rescue them, but they know about carrying the weight and responsibility of not being quite able to live their lives for their own sake.  There is always that little extra thought creeping into almost anything they do.  If you have a great day, a little voice inside your head needles you and asks, "So, why am I allowed to be here for this great day?"  If you get a unique opportunity, that same voice comes back around and whispers, "You got this and your [sister, brother, father...] didn't.  Are you sure you deserve it?"

And, then there's always the burden to account for yourself.  Any where from the teensy-tiny little details about not freaking your family out by not being late for anything, to the larger issue of not screwing up and placing yourself at risk.  I've mentioned before, I get paranoid when I don't know where the rest of my family is at any given time.  Greg, who works in the middle of the night, has to text me if he's going to be late after a few tense days when he wasn't back home at the usual time.   For Marissa, the burden is harder and larger, and I recognize that and try so hard not to add to it, but I think it's always right there, bubbling below the surface.  She is young, and this is the time in her life where she's supposed to do young people things and make young adult mistakes.  It's how you learn.  But, when she inevitably tests that water, the anxiety for everybody shoots through the roof.

What you realize is that not only do you have to fight through your own personal grief, a family dynamic naturally shifts and there is an added intertwining responsibility that everybody has to shoulder and figure out how to adjust to.  Suddenly, there is no illusion that life is anything more than horribly fragile.  You look at your children or your spouse and know that at any moment, one of them could be gone.   You knew it before on a purely intellectual level.  But, now you know it deep in your heart and in your bones.  You feel it like a painful ache every time one of them walks out the door without you.  So, how do you react to that?  What is the right way to react to that?  Hard, complicated questions to answer.

The irony is, the increased concern over the family strains the family dynamic, so you have to guard against over-reacting.  I've read so many stories about surviving children being estranged from their parents, which initially struck me as odd.  Now I get it - the parent maybe gets too clingy and the child can't take that added to the natural survivor's guilt, so they break away.  And, from the parent/other spouse perspective, it's easier when they're not right there.  When I came up here alone for the first few months, I worried constantly, but I wasn't right there to needle them, so Greg and Marissa had some breathing room to live their lives.  Ignorance sometimes really is bliss.  I'm sure there are other extremes:  those cases where the parent can no longer parent at all - too lost in their own grief.

For us, the best way I can describe life as it is now is that someone came along and shook our world like it was a snow-globe.  And they shook that sucker hard.  When all the little flakes finally settle back down they are in different places from where they were before.  And we can't change that back.  So, after that major shake-up we're left a little dizzy and disoriented for a time, and getting that balance back is a constant challenge.  This is one more aspect to that challenge:  how to allow each of us to live a life without guilt and shame because we carry on and Kelsey does not.

To my mind, it's not fair to add that burden onto your loved ones.  They don't owe you anything extra because they are alive and another family member is not.  For whatever reason.  But, on the other hand, if you're a member of a family who has suffered a loss, be gentle and understanding with them and understand the depth of their concern and be careful to check in a little more often than you otherwise would.  And maybe take it easy on any bungee jumping, snowboarding or Nascar racing for a while.

Saving Private Ryan, 1998 (Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chipmunk Face

After Kelsey died, I spent quite a few posts ruminating over our history with her eating disorder and trying to look at the mistakes we made as parents.  After I exhausted that topic, I have spent a lot of my energy of just stepping through the processes of surviving a deep, shocking grief and the daily challenges we've faced trying to square ourselves with what happened and what happens next.  But now I'd like to step back into the past a bit once more and look at an aspect of the whole thing that I didn't address, which is taking care of yourself as parents in the process.  This is unabashedly meant as a cautionary tale for anyone who is a caretaker of another individual:  young child, ill family member, aging parent, etc.  And the lesson is simple:  don't do as I do, do as I say.

Going back to the body image issues I'm struggling with and blogged about recently, there are some other issues I'm contending with that are directly related to how the last few years of my life played out.  And, after a while, the hole you dig for yourself is so deep that it is hard to climb back out.   What brought it to mind was that I woke up yesterday morning with half a chipmunk face.  I've got a bad tooth that I've had for a while and it causes me issues.  It got that way because I grind my teeth at night, which I've been doing a lot lately for some reason.  Finally, I just aggravated it so badly it is swollen to the point where it looks like I'm storing nuts for the winter in half my face.  If you try and touch me, bad things are likely to happen.  To both of us.  My body seems to be screaming at me that I need to go back to the dentist, but I am fairly adept at turning a deaf ear to my body's messages, so I'm trying to ignore this and hope it goes away before Saturday when Marissa and I are supposed to go to the ballet.  That would be fun - I'll scare all of the rich socialites.

The biggest issue I have is my own fear.  Not of doctors or needles or even pain.  It's the fear of walking in to a dentist or doctor and having to say to them I haven't had a check-up in ____ years and not being judged.  Because I tried to right the ship after Kelsey died and went to a dentist.  Let me just say it was not a good experience.  And what am I supposed to say?  Look, I took care of two daughters through their troubled teenage years and then my mother in her final years, so back the [bleep] off?  I know they mean well.  But I don't need their sanctimonious humiliation.  I need their help.  If I can't get the one without the other, I can't deal.

I am not alone.  Far from it.  I found this on

Nearly three quarters (72%) of family caregivers report not going to the doctor as often as they should and 55% say they skip doctor appointments for themselves. 63% of caregivers report having poor eating habits than non-caregivers and 58% indicate worse exercise habits than before caregiving responsibilities.
Evercare Study of Caregivers in Decline: A Close-Up Look at Health Risks of Caring for a Loved One.
National Alliance for Caregiving and Evercare. 2006.

I could be their poster child.  And it happens without your really realizing it.  It's not necessarily because you're being a martyr (although I have that personality), but it's because this is rarely how you envision your life going, so you don't have a life plan that includes handling a family in crisis while finding time to go to the gym each morning and get your hair and nails done each week.  Instead, it comes upon you like a Tsunami that lasts for years and you're so busy trying not to drown in it, you don't think about anything else.

Speaking just for me, there were days where we'd have as many as three doctor's appointments in one day.  There was never a week where they weren't at least a few.  Doctors, therapists, nutritionists.  Inpatient treatment.  Outpatient treatment.  I spent so much time in various waiting rooms that I just sort of lost sight of the fact that none of those appointments were for me.  And, had I really thought about it, I would have said that I could not take the time to go.

When it does suddenly hit you that it's been a while - like when you wake up with a face that's twice the size it was the night before - you really don't know what to do about it.

I may have said this before, but one of the things a therapist said to me early on is, "It's not about you."  And it's not.  But, I probably took that a little too far.  Because at some point, the tide turns and someone will have to take care of the wreck that I could potentially become, and that is not my intent:  for myself or for whomever is unlucky enough to have to deal with my adult diapers.

The moral to the story is two-fold:  taking care of yourself while taking care of others will benefit your eventual caregivers, so remember to take some time out to change your own oil occasionally.  Secondly, don't touch my face!