Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Eagle Has Landed

Sunday afternoon I was in the kitchen washing up the little pile of dishes that tend to accumulate during the day, and I happened to glance up.  There he (she?) was, straight out the window from me.  Perched in the large tree in my backyard.  I blinked.  Was I really seeing this?  It was the largest bird I had ever seen outside of a zoo.  It was literally breathtaking.  He slowly turned his head this way and that, watching for prey, unconcerned by the smaller birds that seemed to be fluttering around him, almost as though they were like me, so awed by the sight of this magnificent creature, they longed to be close to him.  I blinked again.  This is no hawk, I realize.  I'm looking straight at an eagle.  A Golden Eagle, as best as I can tell.  I hesitated:  I desperately wanted a photo, but if I moved what were the chances he would stay in place?  I finally decided I had to try it.  I ran upstairs, grabbed the camera and opened the narrow shade in the upstairs bathroom to get my shot.  That did it.  He must have caught the movement, and he spread those powerful wings and swooped down low over my house and let the air carry him across the street to the neighbor's chimney, where he took up vigil once more.  I could only get a far shot of him with his back to me.  I stood in my doorway transfixed and watched him until he saw what he was after and swooped into their backyard to capture it, and he was gone from my sight.

I pondered the amazing fact that I just happened to decide to clean up my mess at the exact time he graced my lot with his presence.   I grew up in the mountains after all and have been wandering around this planet for a few years (or more), and I have never before seen an eagle in the wild (or not-so-wild, as the case may be).  I think I've been hanging around Pow-Wows and listening to old stories being told just long enough to conclude that this was no coincidence, and I was meant to see him there.  But what is the message he was trying to bring me?   So, I looked it up on, which said, "Eagle represents a state of grace that is reached through inner work, understanding and passing the initiation tests that result from reclaiming our personal power. Eagle Medicine is the Power of the Great Spirit. It is the spirit of tenacity. It is the gift of clear vision with which one can truly see the things one sees. It is the patience to wait for the appropriate moment. It is to live in balance with heaven and earth. Eagle reminds us of our connection with the Great Spirit. It tells us that the universe is giving us the opportunity to fly above our life's worldly levels, or above the shadow of past realities. Eagle teaches us to look above in order to touch Grandfather Sun with our heart, to love the Shadow as much as the Light. Eagle asks us to grant ourselves permission to be free in order to reach the joy that our heart desires."

I really like that.

When I first got here the roller coaster ride I have been on for the last few years took a dip down.  I was alone with my thoughts and what remains of my daughter's things a lot of the time.  I was stuck in my tiny little house in a strange new environment, held in by fear of getting lost, the weather, the giant mess that needed to be unpacked and smashed somehow into this small space, and it is probably small wonder that I got slightly maudlin from time-to-time.  More than that, I think I finally had the time and the head space to process the events of the last couple of years.  I was not in the heat of the battle trying to care for my mother, work, support the household on a single salary (well, there is still that, only now it's two households - no one ever said I was a genius), and be strong for my family.  I was allowed a little room to grieve.  And I took it.  Freaked the dog out a few times, I can tell you.

Those moments were countered by surprising moments of joy.  Deer greeting me in the backyard in the morning, or wandering by at sunset.  The feel of the crisp spring air on my face as I walked Cheyenne around the block.  My lovely Philly friend's adventures with me into the city, including meeting Al Vento, Sr. (of Franco's Italian Army).  At those moments, the roller coaster would wind its way back up, and it was becoming quite the wild ride.  There were times I pondered that this must be what it feels like to be clinically depressed:  wild highs and lows that you somehow feel you have no control over.

But gradually, the track has begun to even out.  I am not quite what I would call adjusted to my surroundings yet, I am still very much the new kid in town.  I am in that odd sort of phase where I am shedding the Texan skin, but can't really call myself a Pennsylvanian.  There will be lots of days ahead of me where I feel like a stranger in a strange land, but there is a gradual lessening of my fear of the path I am on, both physically (I drove all the way to the Strip District over the weekend, I was so excited), and mentally.  It's a sense that I can maybe begin to forgive myself, and that it is okay if I do.  There is a gradual awakening, much like the slow oncoming of spring, to the idea that it is not wrong to reach for and maybe even find contentment.

I haven't found it yet.  That I think will be a longer journey yet.  I was reduced to tears last night watching a YouTube video that was supposed to be funny.  And it was; a wedding where the bridesmaids and groomsmen danced down the aisle to a Bobby Brown song.  I lost it when the bride danced her way down the aisle. I'm tearing up now actually.  They were awesome, and it devastated me.  That freedom, that unbridled youth, that love for life and for one another, that quirky individualism.  I grieve for the idea that Kelsey had that potential, and that is forever gone.  Yet, I am somehow learning that it is okay to grieve, but also to live.

I think the eagle was sent to tell me that.  I hope so anyway.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The Ties That Bind

I called my aunt in Wisconsin the other day.  She is my Dad's sister.  We have intersecting sorrows, in that her daughter died just a few days before Mother did, so I wanted to check in with her.  My aunt will be 94 soon, and in her long life she has suffered daunting loss (she lost an older brother as a young adult, her son was killed in Vietnam, my grandfather was at her home when he fell down the stairs - not her fault, he fell down our stairs too, he seemed to have a thing with stairs - and went into the hospital never to re-emerge, she's buried her husband and now a daughter).  She's struggled with handicaps (she was legally blind at one point, and had corrective surgery).  And she's done it all with a joie de vivre that is amazing to me.  And that's just the Reader's Digest version.  Life has handed her other struggles as well.  She has weathered them all and remained in place to do it.  She still lives at home, although one of my cousins lives with her.  I always adored their house, but to imagine a woman her age navigating it, it amazes me more.

Speaking of their house, most of the living took place in their basement - not all that surprising, I imagine the same will be said of us here in our little house.  But, I really loved their basement, and always looked forward to visiting there.  My aunt and uncle had (have, I guess - I assume it's still there) a wet bar down there, a television, a bathroom, comfy couches, and the basement spilled out into the garage where the real parties were held, and where my uncle held court.  Life happened in the basement.  The upstairs my aunt always maintained as a showcase, her German discipline showing in how copiously clean it always was, the antithesis of my mom and her constant clutter, but it seemed cold and uninviting.  Even the color schemes were that way:  upstairs was whites and pastel blues, the basement warm yellows, browns and orange.  No one spent any real time upstairs that I am aware of except to sleep and eat.  The basement was the place to be.  There was always something about their house that smacked of fun.  My uncle was the reason for most of that I think; it wasn't actually the basement by itself, it was his presence and what he created inside of it.  He was always good natured and kind to me. A Wisconsin farm boy who delivered milk for a living before going to work for an environmental engineering firm that, purely coincidentally, I would work for as well for a while (different states obviously), he had a sense of fun that maybe only hard working blue collar men can truly have.    Whenever I talk to her now, I picture her in her basement.

However, I digress.  The reason her call has been on my mind was that this was how I found out that my dad's other sister had died.  I assumed probably that she had (I believe she was older than my father) but I really didn't know for sure.  I still don't know how or when; I didn't want to ask because the way the topic flowed from my aunt, it was pretty clear she expected that I knew already.  I guessed that she had told my mom at the time, and Mother, who despised "Gladdie" as she was known, never would have bothered to tell me.  But, I didn't want to say this to my aunt.  I'm not sure why, other than she was the sister in the middle of a horrible family feud, and I didn't want her thinking about what is past and unhappy.  I suppose I could try and find out by looking for Gladdie's obituary online, but I don't even know her married surname.  I'm sure I did at one point.  I remember being in her house after my grandfather's funeral, but within a few weeks of that occasion, my dad and his sister were in a bitter feud over the will and my grandfather's railroad watch and ring.  It had been left to Dad as the surviving son, but Gladys wanted it - or so I was told - and all hell broke loose, never to be boxed away.  I remember thinking at the time that this was a pretty stupid thing to be fighting over.  The watch (which I may have mentioned before) sits in a bell jar in my china cabinet.  It's the gold watch Grandfather got when he retired from the railroad, so it was sentimental to him and, by now, quite old.  However, it's just a watch that doesn't work, and I couldn't believe as a girl of 11 that families would split over something like that.  I failed to see the deeper meaning of the feud:  it was really over who was loved more by two parents who were not demonstrative loving people and the sense of insecurity that left these two siblings with, and their fight for the right to be the patriarch of the family.  The watch was really a symbol of position within the family:  like passing the torch, so to speak.  Sort of ironic that I have it after all of that (if it's genuine - Mother had a conspiracy theory about that), and I'm not actually really related.

After a torrential few months the watch remained on our mantle, my father and his sister went separate ways, never to speak again, and rarely to be spoken of again (at least on my father's part).  I heard stories occasionally about Gladys and her husband, but mainly from my mother.  Mother always told me the husband, whom I recall only vaguely but seem to remember him as a jovial man, was Mafia.  I discounted the story for years, although she said it consistently.  Mother had a way of fabricating things about people she really did not like based on the thinnest of rumors she may have heard once, and, even before the feud, she really did not like this man.  Finally, not so many years ago, someone else in the family verified the story.  He really was I guess.  They lived modestly, so I'm sure he was a street solider wise guy type or whatever they're called, but not much more.  Once I realized that was the truth, I was always fascinated and wanted to know more.  But, I don't think Mother knew more or she surely would have spewed it.  After all, isn't that how people like that survive, by not talking shop?  I thought when Dad died I might try and reach out to that branch of the family, but when no one bothered to call my mom to express their condolences, I decided against it.  If they weren't willing to bury the hatchet as we buried my father, then I had no particular use for them either.  Yet, it was an odd feeling to realize that Aunt Gladys had died, and that I did not know.  Even if I wanted to now, I would not be able to reach out to her children.  And even if I could somehow, would they know who I was?  By my name, I guess, they would see how we were tied, but they neither need nor want anything from me or I would have heard from them long ago.  I feel I have more connection with the hockey players I watch on TV every night than I do with the people who share my father's family tree (Go, Pens, Go!).

This got me thinking:  what makes a family?  And, what ties them together?  Does anything?  If blood ties can be severed over a broken old watch no matter what it symbolizes, what possible hope did I ever have to remain joined with Greg's family, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that things turned so bitter between me and his oldest sister.  And what hope do I ever have of holding all of us together as a family here in this strange land where Greg will be so far from all the things he loves?  Will he hate being away from what he knows more than he loves us?  Maybe it's just my family, and we're an anomaly, but then I think back to Yevgraf in Dr. Zhivago, about to meet his half brother Yuri:  "Perhaps it was the tie of blood between us, but I doubt it. We were only half tied anyway, and brothers will betray a brother. Indeed, as a policeman, I would say, get hold of a man's brother and you're halfway home."

I'm not particularly upset over any of these musings.  That's just what they are.  Musings over how tenuous life's relationships are.  I have no answers currently.  Questions I got.  Like, how can we carry on without our support systems?  We rely on our friends and our family to sustain us in times of trouble.  And often they do.  But, when they don't - or we're not there for them - how does everyone pick up the pieces?  The easy answer is:  it's really inner-strength that gets us through each and every day.  And I think that's true.  But, I don't think that's the whole answer.  I think we do need others and have to be able to trust in them.  Yet, how can I believe and rely on that with all I've seen of family relationships in my life?  Still thinking about all of that.

For now, I would say to my daughter that my ties to you are stronger than the steel this town was built on.  So you, at least, can trust in that.
Dr. Zhivago, MGM Studios, 1965

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal

March comes in like a lion and leaves like a lamb.  So the saying goes.  Growing up in Montana, I never saw the lamb part really.  Winter still held firm that early in the year, and as a girl I used to be confused by the concept of the beginning of spring.  I didn't realize that in other parts of the country, Texas for instance, spring actually had already sprung.  Once I did see that first hand, I lost the lion.  The lion gives up his hold in February for all intents and purposes and March, while prone to sometimes violent thunderstorms (which I do miss terribly), is mild and pleasant, albeit fraught with allergens.  Here, in western Pennsylvania, however, the lion and the lamb wrestle with one another for control, and the lamb is gradually winning the battle.  This is one more step in my cultural education because I'm experiencing the budding of life in the 'Burgh as well as the sprouting of all these plants in my beds that I have no idea what they are, hidden beneath a year and half of weeds and leaves.

I can now say that I understand on a deeper level why the Packers and the Steelers have such a fervent fan base:  there seems to be the concept that winter is a season to be endured, not embraced.  The sting of the Super Bowl loss followed by the lock-out (don't get me started on that subject) just served to throw the fan base behind the Penguins - or maybe it's always this way this time of the year, but people seem to somewhat literally lock themselves away in their homes and obsess over sports.  I guess I fit right in then, because that's what I've been doing as well.  Of course they go to work, to the store, run errands, etc. year round, but for the most part, I am suddenly discovering neighbors I had no idea I had.  Like sleepy bears, they are, as the days warm up, gradually gravitating outside their caves.  I have been here almost two months and just discovered that the white and light brick house across from me is occupied by a house full of long-haired hippy types.  I was so excited.  And I don't mean a bunch of young people who smoke a lot of weed and listen to the Grateful Dead.  I mean a family whose genesis probably actually was in the counter-culture of the 60's:  the "father" (assuming, having not been formally introduced) has long white hair pulled back in a ponytail and wears Birkenstocks over his white socks. I've seen a sullen teenage girl and a younger long-haired man who yelled hello across to me the other day, then proceeded to tell me he'd introduce himself to me another time because "he was too busy at the moment".  A few moments later, a friend pulled up, looking as though Kevin Smith in his early days was his fashion idol, and they spent the next several hours, well into the next morning, outside smoking and working on one of the household cars.  If they had wanted to, they could have probably joined the gathering at the end of the block, who also sat outside, gathered around a small fire, worked on cars and smoked, just a little more boisterously both Friday and Saturday nights.  As I walked Cheyenne around before bed at midnight on Saturday, there was a string of cars lining the long driveway and spilling into the church parking lot next door, and the party seemed to be in full swing.  I wondered what the quiet couple next door, whose lights were out, thought about all of that.  And then I smiled.  Because, no matter what at this point, my little family will not be thought of as the oddest, liberal-ist wing-nuts of the neighborhood, the way we were in Texas.  We can settle in to our new lives with a level of anonymity for a while (at least until my dog inventory becomes the talk of the town). Yet, I've lived here almost two months, and am out walking every day, and it's taken me this long to catch a glimpse of any of these people.

And where did all these people with their dogs come from?  Suddenly, walking Cheyenne around the neighborhood is a real problem because I cannot find a time where I am not bumping into unsuspecting people walking a pet.  I say this because Cheyenne seems to have determined that our entire walking radius is her territory, and any four legged thing within it is trespassing.  She's become threatening, pulling hard against the leash to lunge at whatever crosses her path.  She seems to really have it out for one dog in particular who lives at the end of the block and is usually out sunning himself when we go by.  Even if he's not out, I'll see her look at the yard, wanting him to be there so she can try and pick a fight.  Over the last few days, I've even noticed her try and lift her leg to pee like a male, marking telephone and mailbox poles as her own.  I told my other across-the-street neighbor (the wife of the nosy man) that I assume it's because she's being protective of me, but it's still annoying and disturbing, and I'd rather avoid it.  But, I can't.  Fences are not the norm around here.  Some people have them; I will soon.  But, more often, dog owners chain their dogs outside for a while during the day to allow them some fresh air, or have Invisible Fences. So, even when I'm not meeting fellow dog walkers now on the street, there is a whole canine population sitting outside in people's front yards, just enticing Cheyenne to utter distraction.  Where did all these dogs come from?  Didn't they have to get walked and pee at some point even when it was snowing?  Because, Cheyenne sure the hell did.  Yet, for the first several weeks we were here, I had the streets to myself, which I think helped create the monster she is now.  She just assumed all of this belonged to us.

But, in actuality, we share it now with joggers, walkers, dogs, cats, birds, squirrels, bunnies and motorcycles (another thing I'm noticing:  the younger population seems to love motorbikes - really, really loud ones - that they are pulling out from winter storage now that the weather has improved), which means that I'm struggling a little with the noise level of it all.  Mornings remain quiet to where I can hear every little creak and groan of the house, but weekends and evenings are full of voices, barks, radios, engines, everything.  The sound of life in the city.  I'll get used to it and probably grow to love it even - like I love the sound of a football stadium during a game - but I confess that at the moment, it seems jarring, having come from a rural area where I think I was the loud one because I blared my iPod whenever I was outside.

Yet the lion and the lamb continue to grapple for control of the city, winter not quite sure it's ready to let all these fine folk out of their houses for good.  The swings in temperature keep me guessing. My house is strewn with coats:  I never know what gauge of outer wear I'll need to walk the dog, so I keep a bit of everything at the ready.  Friday a week ago it was snowing.  The following Friday I took my computer outside and sat out on the deck in my shorts to work.  Weathermen probably really earn their pay around here.  Or maybe they just flat out guess every night, because that's probably just as good as trying to figure out what Mother Nature is going to throw at us.  I was told early on by a native that I would hate the weather here.  Yet, on a clear spring night as the sun begins to give way; song birds in full throat, mourning doves accompanying them,  the air crisp and cool with no hint of a steel mill past, the late day sky as blue as a sapphire, you know this is a little corner of heaven.  I don't hate it at all.  I embrace it.  Maybe in this spring I will find my way to make this my home.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Necklace

There is a moral to this story.

A few days ago, I realized with a palatable start that I was coming up on the first year marker of Mother's death.  I was literally stunned for a moment, thinking it could not possibly have been a year.  But, it has.  On March 24, 2010, as I had just arrived to work - literally still waiting for my computer to come up so I could clock in - I got the call.  I was so shocked, I remember, that it happened that quickly.  I never would have imagined that to be the case.  All the turmoil of the past year and a half was over like someone had waved a wand and went "poof".

Many know this story.  The worst of everything was the struggle we had over the last few months where Mom was fighting so hard to hold on to some of that fierce independence that she was being self destructive.  I had engaged an attorney and was getting ready to go to court to have her declared incompetent to try and protect her assets because she kept trying to fund her jail break to flee back to Pennsylvania, and I was afraid she'd bankrupt herself.  I struggled mightily with that decision, and had met with her team of care givers and thought long and hard on it before deciding I had no choice, but I knew as soon as it happened, she'd be done with me, our relationship irrevocably ruined.  And it nearly was anyway.  As is typical with Alzheimer's patients, I have learned, the primary caregiver gets the brunt of the patient's anger and confusion over what is happening to them.  I spent a lot of time blogging about that of course; this was originally a blog started to help me cope with the stress of caring for Mother.  Her behavior made some sense really, we all do that to an extent:  the ones we're closest to are the ones we trust to take whatever we dish out.  But, always a woman with an edge to her, her anger, honed directly at me, was cutting.  It was hard not to take things personally because that is how she meant them, and it was much harder after Kelsey died and my nerves were as shattered as our lives.

Mom had been so proud of the fact that she had not been to a hospital since 1971 for a hernia (when I learned that my dad's cooking capacity was limited to grilling steaks and making eggs - we ate a lot of scrambled eggs in those few days).  As her health deteriorated, that record couldn't stand, but she fought the hospital staff every time, slinging the most awful racist slurs at her nurses, refusing medical care, cussing at me, tearing off her monitors and IV tubes.  When she was good and worked up, one could tell she was flashing back to a hospital she had likely worked in.  She would talk about specifics of the building that were not relative to the one she was in, or she'd accuse a nurse of doing or saying something she hadn't.  I remember making this observation to one of the nurses struggling to care for her one of the last times she was admitted and wondered aloud what kind of nightmare factory she must have worked in to be so resistant to being a patient now.  We'll never know.

She told everyone that Kelsey had been murdered at a drug party.  She told me that the paramedic who responded to the call came to see her one day and told her about it.  Of course, this was all delusion, but it was hurtful because it was indicative of how she thought of her oldest granddaughter.  Mom never really understood Kelsey's angst, so she dismissed her as a bad kid.  When Kelsey died, Mother seemed to have to make sense of it by making it something seedy.  I would have other residents of the nursing home say to me, "Oh, I hear your daughter was murdered."  That was not awesome.

And she wanted so to go home.  To here, where I am now - well, technically about 30 miles south of here.  That, I think, was the hardest of all.  I discussed it over and over with her care team, and always the response was the same.  To move her, with her laundry list of medical conditions, would be disastrous.  It was doubtful any facility in or around Washington (Pa.) would take her to begin with, but she wanted so badly to be back here where she began and where most of her family, including her one remaining sister, still live.  That was heartbreaking.  Knowing that we all have to die someday anyway, if I could have reasonably gotten her back here, I would have, and when she was first admitted to the nursing home, the goal was to get her to that point, but her body, worn from a good, long life, diabetes and Parkinson's, had other plans that her mind never quite could grasp.  But it became an obsession with her at the end.  She spent her entire day scheming how to get herself back home.  Distracting her from that thought process became the nursing home staff's main focus when dealing with her.

And then there was the whole adoption thing.  That always loomed a little, my wanting to know about the circumstances surrounding my birth, but realizing Mother was in no condition to tell me, and I couldn't be sure of the information even if she did.  That is still a mystery in front of me.

All of that went away like a light switch had been thrown.  As hard as those final months were for me, I wonder how arduous, scary and lonely they were for Mother.  So, I won't lie - no one who was around me during those months would believe me anyway - there was a measure of relief when she passed.  But, she was my mother, and I loved her.  I mourned her passing.  And I try to think of other things and earlier times when I think about her.   And there is so much good to recall, I have a lot of material to work with.  I hope at some point, all of that last period with Mom is hardly on my mind at all.  Still, even so, there were those moments when my mom came through the Alzheimer's and her true spirit showed through.  When that wry little smile would pop up as she was teasing one of her nurses, or when she would see Cheyenne coming down the hall with me to visit.  And finally, there is the necklace.

I was furious when the staff handed me a package from Mom's favorite mail order company, Danbury Mint.  I could not figure out how she got on a phone and placed an order, but knew she probably had some inside help from someone there (no one ever confessed to it).  I was terrified she'd go nuts and spend thousands on useless stuff she could not possibly use.  She was like an addict with that company - I guarantee their balance sheet took a hit when she went into the hospital and I began controlling her money.  The receptionist called me when the package came in - she went to college in my home town, so we had established a good rapport and she knew what I was struggling with.  I pondered what to do with the necklace for a day or so, finally ending up in the Social Services Director's office with it in my hand.  They all had the patience of saints - trying to negotiate peace between me and Mom those last few months.  The necklace was pretty, onyx hearts strung together, but it didn't seem long enough to go over her head, and that was the only type of necklace she really wore at the end - long beads that she could slip over her head and not muss her hair - which she was very particular about always.  I didn't know if I should give it to her and pay the bill, or refuse it and send it back.  What I ended up doing was sealing it back up as though I had never seen it, letting the nursing home give it to her and calling Danbury Mint to explain the situation and ask - actually demand - that they not send her any more catalogs.  They actually were beyond wonderful.  They stopped issuing catalogs to her and put a notation on her account not to allow her to order any longer.  My guess:  they've been through similar situations before.

That night I got to her room, preparing to look properly gracious when she showed me her new prize.  I was not prepared for her handing it to me.  She had ordered it for me as a present for taking such good care of her.  She would die a few weeks later.

On the 24th, I will slip it on in her memory.  And I will remember the moral to this story:  whatever old age, sickness and dementia does to our parents, they are in there somewhere, deep down inside, and they know the sacrifices we make and the love we have for them, and they return it to us as they can.  Love you, Mom.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Luck o' the Irish

Horse of a different color?  From the 2008 St. Patrick's Day Parade
I am so grateful to be working, and every time I pass a gas station and look at the prices (lowest in the area is $3.45/gallon), I am so grateful that my commute consists of walking down the stairs.  However, since I worked some yesterday, and I will work some more today, it's also keeping me pinned in to a large degree, and my sense of isolation deepens because all my plans to begin volunteering and to hopefully meet some like-minded people are on hold until I can manage my time better.

In the meantime, I continue to have this sense that life is passing me by and that I am fish out of water, particularly since I have landed myself in the middle of a predominantly (and perhaps almost exclusively) Irish Catholic neighborhood, and it's almost St. Patrick's Day.  So?  You ask yourself.  It's a silly little holiday where you wear green, drink green beer and have a built in excuse to get plowed in the middle of the work week.  Not so here, my friend.  St. Patrick's Day, I am finding, is on par with Christmas in other parts of the country (I can hardly wait to see what Christ's birthday brings out in these people - some of whom STILL have their holiday decorations out).  At first, I didn't catch on to its import in these parts.  I noticed a lot of houses sported green shamrocks in their windows and doors, but I attributed it to the propensity of the older ladies to decorate for every holiday imaginable, many of whom also dress up plaster geese in their front yard.  But, as the holiday approaches, more and more houses are sporting decorations.  I am now in the small minority who does not have something resembling a shamrock or a leprechaun in sight.  Yesterday, my sports obsessed neighbor (I say that not because I know him, but because every time I see him he's dressed like me - Pens or Steelers gear), took down his Penguins banner (which I really want) and replaced it with a St. Patrick's Day Banner, and he's got two plastic shamrocks covering his garage lights.  A house down the street is flying an Irish flag below the US flag, but I noticed the Irish flag is a bit bigger.  I found a hair salon in the neighborhood, and my hair dresser came in dressed in green from head to toe, including her nails, ready to go to a party last night.  Hers was one of several, I am gathering, seeing clusters of cars at various houses as I walked Cheyenne around last night.  Today, the church at the corner is packed.  The thing I love about the Irish, having grown up next to an Irish Catholic family, is they have a robust flavor for life and aren't afraid to live it because they just go to church and repent the next day.

Then there was the parade.  The Parade, I should say.  I heard about it the night before, having already made a much needed and overdue hair appointment for the morning.  Watching the news, it was referenced several times, but always just as "The Parade" as if everyone watching simply knew what it was and no additional explanation was necessary.  Finally they interviewed the organizer of this year's parade and did a little human interest piece on it, and I was able to fill in the blanks.  Pittsburgh is home to the third largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country.  And I missed it.  But, my hair looks good, so I guess there's a silver lining there.

Yet, I spent the day feeling like a kid outside the candy store, pressing her nose on the glass, but not able to go in.  I moved all the way here to start a new life and put the tragedy of the past behind me, but I have yet to get a foothold on my new terrain.  I combated the feeling of loneliness by watching The Boondock Saints, my personal nod to the spirit of St. Patrick, and it worked for the most part.  I was amused and felt better.

What is the point to all of this, you ask?  I know I sound as though I'm whining.  And, I suppose I am to a degree and you've heard it all before, but really it's more that I truly believe there will come a day, a year or so from now - maybe more, hopefully less - when I wake up and realize that I feel as though I belong here.  I'm not an outsider any longer, I will suddenly realize, I am a true citizen of the 'Burgh.  My guess is it will come gradually, and I'll not even really notice that it's happening until it's done.  What I want is to be able to remember where I started from, these hard and lonely first days, so I can relish simply feeling at home.  In the meantime, I'm about to get dressed to go out and buy something green to hang in the window.

May St. Patrick guard you wherever you go,
and guide you in whatever you do--
and may his loving protection be a blessing to you always.

- Irish Blessing

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Would You Say?

I have a topic on the other side of the weekend, as promised, just not as originally expected.  Because I did not venture out much, which was the goal.  As Saturday's rain turned to Sunday's snow, and a vague nagging headache turned into a raging pain, I abandoned all plans and potential plans and hunkered down.  I watched a lot of television; purely coincidentally choosing two movies that are both set in working class Pennsylvania towns (The Deer Hunter and Unstoppable), so I guess I "traveled" a little through the magic of Hollywood (even though The Deer Hunter at least was not shot in Pennsylvania at all).  I did actually venture out to an actual movie theatre as well.  That, unfortunately, was not a good experience.   I knew, having seen the building from the outside, that I was likely to be a little underwhelmed by the ambience, but an admitted movie snob who had her favorite venues in Austin pegged in terms of sound, visual quality and then concessions, it was worse than I expected.  Onward we go:  I'll try the next closest theatre soon and so on until I find what I need before the summer blockbusters.  Ultimately, my search for a good movie house may be what finally propels me out the door.  I just hope I find it.

But, that's not much to write about.  What happened to me of note actually was the event that caused the raging headache in the first place and has been on my mind ever since.

As I woke up Sunday morning to Cheyenne's "time to go potty, Mom" whines, I realized I had my jaw so tightly clenched I was bound to be in trouble.  As I sat up, drowsy and hazy, trying to shake off the night, I had to nearly will my face to relax and my teeth to stop grinding against one another.  And I knew why.  I had been racked with a series of vivid and bad dreams, the primary of which was that I dreamt Kelsey was alive.  Alive,  but not doing well.  I knew if I didn't do or say the right thing she would die soon.  The only thing keeping her alive, in my dream, was her art.  I dreamt she was in business with one of her friends - the particular friend shifted a few times as the dream went on - but it was her lifeline; she found a purpose in the art and didn't want to let her friend down.  But she was very sick and suffering terribly.   In my dream she was everything she had been in life at the end:  a jumble of conflicting emotions, difficult to be around and talk to, and impossible to reason with.  The families of ED sufferers know - and I knew in the dream - that the malnutrition plays ugly games with one's body chemistry and makes the person act in ways that they might not if they were healthy, but it doesn't mean that's easy to handle, and Dream Me struggled to be around her and deal with her just like Real Me had.  Yet, as will happen in dreams, I knew this was not a drill, and that she was close to dying because she had died before and this was my second, but last, chance.  I had to say and do the right things to save her.  And, in my dream, it was squarely and entirely on my shoulders.  So, Dream Me was trying to use her art to save her because I thought it was the only way to reach deep down and connect with the real girl hiding beneath The Beast.  Then, suddenly, the dream shifted, and I ended up dreaming about something that somehow involved Adrien Brody.  I swear.  (I think it's because of his beer ad that I keep seeing during hockey, which I had been watching when I fell asleep.)

I have no idea if, had the dream kept going, I would have saved her or not.  Maybe that's why my mind shifted gears on me - the disease is so complicated, no one knows if I could pull it off, least of all me.  Yet, in the breaking dawn, I was left with two thoughts:  her art might really have been the key to saving her, and if I had known somehow that she was really about to die, what would I have chosen to say to her.  If I'd invested in trying to market her art, maybe she could have found an outlet for her pain that would have given her reason to live.  Maybe all the things about life she took out on her own body, she could have poured onto a canvas.  However, it's that last thing that stuck with me as the day wore on and the headache deepened:  as sick as I knew she was, and as much as I had told myself to take it seriously because it could kill her, I never actually thought it would happen.  Not really.  I knew it was that serious on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level, I never thought it would come to that.  As I've chronicled, not only did I leave her with no final words of love, comfort or wisdom, we fought right before I left for West Virginia, never to see her again.

Most of the people I know have suffered a loss.  Some can say that in the plural.  What I wonder is did they leave things left unsaid, or were they better at telling their lost ones what they should/needed to?  Maybe more importantly, since it is too late to re-write the past, what would any of us say to our loved ones if we knew we'd never see them again.  And, what are we waiting for?  Why aren't we saying it?  I never considered that I would never see my daughter again.  But, I didn't.

So, what would you say?  And who would you say it to?

Kelsey, if you can somehow hear me/read this from wherever you are, I should have told you how much I love you, what an incredible talent you are, and how much I wanted you to live and get better to share that incredible art with the world.

The Deer Hunter, Universal Studios, 1978

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Post About Nothing

I have nothing really to write about because I'm not doing anything much.  And who's fault is that?  Mine.  And mine alone.

Here I sit:  watching the Pens in a tight one against the Toronto Maple Leafs about to go to overtime.  Seems like only a few days ago I was doing the same thing.  Oh, that's because I was.  Same teams, same location (Toronto), same Bat Channel.  Only difference is that I had a migraine the other day.  I think it's official:  I'm a real hockey fan if I'll struggle to stay up to watch a regular season game when my head is going nuclear.  They don't play tomorrow.  That's okay:  the American Idol results show is on.  Friday night I have to juggle Fringe AND a hockey game.  Oooh, Ms. Excitement!

I've been considering my situation here lately.  Whatever courage I managed to pull together to make this move has seemed to abandon me.  I leave my little house only under very specific circumstances.  Twice since I've been here my lovely Philly friend has driven all the way across the state to rescue from my seclusion and take me around the city.  Twice I've taken the leap to try and drive down to my cousin's in little Washington (and twice I've gotten horribly lost in the process).  Other than that, I venture out when I need groceries or something for the house.  And now that most of the unpacking is done, that's really only for groceries.  And I look like I'm stocked for Armageddon.  I tend to stock up to such a degree that I have to store things in the garage.  I literally went two weeks without going to the grocery store before I had to break down and get some things last Friday.  Trust me, if you knew our shopping habits back in Texas, you would be amazed at that statement.  If I can order it on the Internet instead of going out for it, I totally do it.

It's weird.  I haven't been this way since Kelsey was born, when I went through this variation of post-partum depression which made me afraid to leave the house.  Once I was out the door, I was fine, but getting me there was not so easy.  This isn't exactly the same, but close.  I don't have an issue walking Cheyenne around our area, and I take some relish taking different routes daily to peek at houses I haven't seen before.  But, I always am a mile or less from the house; it hardly counts as an outing - it's walking the dog so she can pee.  It's like washing the dishes or scrubbing the toilet, it's a task that is required.

With someone else leading the way, I'm fine.  I loved my latest outing over the weekend with my lovely young friend and her boyfriend, who wanted to try Vento's Pizza.  For anyone really deeply steeped in Steeler lore, that means something to you.  And I had the absolute thrill to meet Al Vento himself, who is an utterly charming man.  Then, the next day, I had fun with my cousin watching the Oscars.  Always a big deal for me, the woman who once dreamed of being a movie critic, it was amazing to find someone in my own family who feels the same way.  I've had some memorable moments already when I do leave the house behind.

This is an incredible city.  Yes, it's got some incredibly bad aspects, but for the most part I picked it carefully.  There is so much that is waiting for me out there.  So, what's the problem?

I cannot find my way out of a paper bag.  That's the problem.  I am so afraid of getting lost, I'm nearly paralyzed.  I drove all the way here, yet I sometimes wonder how I did it.  And my complete and total lack of direction is coming face-to-face with what has to be the most confusing city on the continent.  It's old, it's built around three rivers that flow around winding foothills, and it seems to have an aversion to street signs.  When your GPS is telling you to head northwest on [Fill in Blank] Street for .7 miles and you look up from your spot in the gas station parking lot and don't see anything that says [Fill in Blank], and as a matter of fact don't see anything remotely labeling any street, it's hard for someone like me to cope.  And then there's the famous case where the GPS told me to go east on a street the other day that runs north and south.  I was warned that GPS is markedly unreliable in the area.  It is.  I can attest to it first hand now.  But without it, I'd probably be somewhere at the bottom of the Ohio River right now - eventually it helps me out of whatever jam I've placed myself in.  So, God Bless Google Maps.

But, getting lost is very stressful for me.  There are a lot of reasons for that.  Some are stupid, some are a little more realistically prudent.  Suffice it to say, I hate it almost more than anything.  You would think I would develop some tools to avoid it in that case, but my head just doesn't seem screwed on in a way that I can grasp any sense of direction, despite having a compass in my rear view mirror and a GPS equipped phone.  To avoid that stress, I've tended to hold up in the house, watching lots of hockey and working.  In the meantime, the city teems around me.  Museums, an amazing zoo, parks, ferry rides along the rivers, unique shopping areas, etc. and so on.  All the things that drew me here are going on without me.  Pardon me, but it pisses me off.

I don't mind doing things on my own.  I was an only child of older parents.  I am used to keeping my own company.  I just would like to know where I'm going while I'm doing it.  But, how can I ever learn my way around if I don't get out there and look?  How can I ever top meeting the co-founder of Franco's Italian Army - like maybe meeting Franco himself - if I'm watching television in my basement? I can't.

I am determined that, on the other side of the weekend, I'll have something to write about.