Friday, May 25, 2012

My Memorial Day

Somehow it is fitting that Kelsey's 26th birthday is taking place on the Memorial Day holiday.  She fought her own kind of war, was a casualty of it, and all we can do now is memorialize her and help in whatever we can so that others do not suffer the same fate.

I wrote once, very early on  in this blog - just a few posts in, how I would become frustrated with Mother because she fixated on the anniversaries of things involving my father, as if that was her cue to grieve.  That frustrated me because I was moving a million miles per hour and would forever forget to stop and contact her on his birthday or the anniversary of his death and let her tell me the same old things I had heard for a dozen or so years, and then I would have to deal with the fallout because her feelings would be hurt.  I felt at the time that I carried his memory with me always and didn't need to stop on a specific date to think about him.  I am much more sympathetic to my mother's position now, which probably doesn't surprise too many people.  What I wrongly assumed is that those particular days were the only days she marked in grief.  I know now they weren't, but as she moved on with her life, they were the days that tended to be particularly steeped in memories and got the best of her.  Well, Mom, wherever you are, like with about a million other things, I owe you an apology.  Because now for us there are just those certain days that will always be a little harder than all the others.

So, with that said, May 28 is one of them.  I vacillate between contemplating what life would have been like for Kelsey had she survived to thinking that is a ridiculous waste of time.  I also think about where most parents would say they want their child to be at 26.  No longer a child I know, but I also know now that it is incredibly hard to stop thinking of them that way.  I think most of us would hope that our now young adults would be out of college, working at something that smacks of a career, and if not settled into a permanent relationship already, on their way to one.  I think the parent population is probably split on the subject of grandchildren.  I would like some, sure, but I am more interested in making sure Marissa is established and comfortable in her life and has a little time to explore her own identity and have some freedom first before turning herself over to the role of Mother.  I would guess I would feel even more strongly about that in Kelsey's case because she had so much catching up to do.  They both did.  What I mean by that is that ED takes so much of you that you don't progress.  Physically or mentally.  Kelsey at 19 (when we really thought for a time that she might have beaten the disease) was a beautiful young woman on the outside and hyper-intelligent, but really had the maturity level of someone several years younger.  I was told this is not uncommon.  She didn't get to experience a lot of what "normal" teenagers do (I know, normal and teenager is almost an oxymoron, but hopefully you take my meaning), so she never learned the life lessons that most do during that time period.  Marissa had an unusual journey through her teens as well, but she's been on the road to recovery for a while; Kelsey never had a long time apart from The Beast to really experience life.  She did make a mess of things when she tried just honestly, but I think that was because the disease was always, always in the way.  Therefore, trying to picture her at 26 is hard because you don't know if she would still be sick or if she would have finally found a way out of that nightmare and be trying to move on with her life.

Even in the best case scenario she had been so sick for so long there would have been long term consequences for her emotionally and physically.  Her body had taken a beating for a long time.  So too, quite frankly, had her brain.  The hope I always clung to is that survivors of attempted genocide who had been starved and abused in horrible ways are known to recover, many of them, to live long, healthy lives.  Maybe that sounds awful to compare the two, but it's honestly what I would hang my hat on.  You grasp to what hope you can as a parent.  But, whatever the case, even if she had suddenly awoke one day three years ago and said, "Okay, I'm cured!" she would have some challenges now at 26 that her peers don't have.  If I'm honest with myself, I realize that she probably always would have.  Yet, I think about her piercing intelligence and her incredible artistic talent and I truly believe the world would have been a better place with her than without her, and that's what, at the end of the day, I'll be thinking about on this Memorial Day.


In the end, ultimately, what I think every parent wants when they think about their offspring at 26 is for them to be happy, healthy and safe.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

America's Sweethearts

At the risk of sounding really weird, I sometimes think Kelsey keeps in touch with me through my iPod.  I think I've told you before, but a fair share of the music on there is stuff that she or her sister brought to me anyway so it shouldn't really be a surprise when a strange song pops up now and again, but sometimes it's just a little too strange what comes on and when. Both Kelsey and Marissa would download songs onto my iTunes randomly and I would unknowingly sync them to my iPod, set it to shuffle and eventually whatever tune they had purchased would pop up.  Some of it I heard for the first time after Kelsey died.  Most of it I like actually.  Kelsey had an oddly eclectic taste in music that defied any kind of definition.  She listened to doom metal a lot, but then loved bands like the acoustic-pop trio Guster and a lot of lighter indie stuff.  As long as it wasn't too, too popular, she was open to just about anything.  She liked that about herself actually.  She used to get mad when she would "discover" a band only to have them find success and a mainstream audience later on, so she would abandon them as sell-outs and move on to the next anti-big thing.  And I was her primary litmus test for claiming a band had reached intolerable blandness, or so it seemed.  She would introduce me to it, force feeding it to me almost and then, when it took seed, claim they were done artistically and abandon them almost in a huff.  It was both amusing and infuriating.  When you lose someone, it's that little stuff that haunts you probably the most:  the quirks and habits that you either made fun of someone for or got irritated with them about.   I think the tendency is to kick yourself for squandering your time together in such petty disputes.  How stupid to have argued about whether or not Green Day lost their integrity because they gained a wide audience and general popularity (my contention being that if a band has a message they try to convey through their music, the more people who hear it the better, hers being that they stop being serious about the craft and more about the marketing - neither of us had a corner on the truth of that argument, but we sure did argue the point)?!  But whether it was stupid or not, it's what we humans do.  Your loved one probably wasn't a saint, neither are you, and it was that push and pull that made you dynamic together in all likelihood, so I tend to say let it all go as you can't change it anyway.  I have a hundred little regrets like that, but, if I'm right, and she somehow is in touch with us in some metaphysical way, then she knows I'm sorry anyway.

Anyway, very long way around to say, the true part of Kelsey, the part that wasn't swallowed whole by The Beast (although likely influenced by it - hence the mournful heavy metal) was her love for music, her love of books and her art (and of course, her love for her sister and Tum-Tum), and it seems logical if she somehow is able to reach out to us from wherever she exists now, it would be through music.  I'm logically well aware that I want to believe this and that is why I do, but I'm just here (or should I say "hear"?) to say that sometimes it's just too spooky to be ignored.

I've been pondering this for a few days actually:  wondering what it is about the human psyche that we want so badly to keep a hold of our loved ones that we'll believe in ghosts and contacts from beyond.  For my part, I happen to accept that as real, but I also am logical enough to accept that it might just be because I want to, not because it is so.  I never felt anything akin to a tingle after my dad died, after all, but then again he was not the kind of personality in life that would have subscribed to such stuff, and we were not related by blood as it turns out, so maybe that factors in.  I also don't get a sense ever that Mom is watching over me either.  Which is okay, because I tend to think she'd be upset that I moved back to Pennsylvania without her, and it would be small consolation that a lot of her things have come full circle and have landed close to where they were when she got them.  I miss that actually, so it's not like I'm blocking it.  When we were in the first couple of years of fighting Kelsey's bulimia and weren't very sophisticated about what we were doing, I fell into despair and prayed for guidance, specifically to my dad because he was so strong, having lived through depression, war and grievous loss that I will never understand (hopefully).  I never got an answer.  Or, maybe, I got my answer and it was, "Figure it out yourself."  Who knows.  All I can say is I've never felt either Mom or Dad, I've never seen any sign of them or had something happen that led me to believe they were close by.  So, why then do I feel that Kelsey is?  The argument could be made that it is because I need to.

Regardless, since I can neither prove nor disprove my theory, I take it on faith.  And, just lately, what got me thinking about it is my iPod's insistence on repeating a Fall Out Boy song with eery and inexplicable regularity.  There are a few versions of it in the playlist (acoustic, original cut, sort of a dance number), but still in a playlist that numbers in the thousands, the repetition with which this song has rotated defies logic.  If I accept I'm being sent this for a reason, then they next question is why?  What am I supposed to learn from it and act on?  That still has me puzzled.  Finally I thought, if I throw it out there, somebody might see something in it that is meaningful.

You could've knocked me out with a featherI know you've heard this all before but we're just hell's neighborsOh oh oh oh, why why why won't the world revolve around meBuild my dreams please grow a all over the streets
But I don't know much about classic cars (cars)But I got a lot of friends stuck on classic coke (coke)Down, set, hut, hut, hut, hike, media blitz
Let's hear it for America's SweetheartsBut I must confess I'm in love with my own sinsLet's hear it for America's SweetheartsBut I must confess I'm in love with my own sins
You can bow and pretendThat you don't don't know you're a legendOh oh oh, time time time hasn't told anyone else yetLet my love loose again
[ From: ]

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Peaks and Valleys

I really do want to get to the War on Women because I'm a woman and I think it's something that women should be talking about, as opposed to a lot of male politicians and political pundits.  I know women are weighing in, but the main headlines I see about it are always men saying this or that about women's issues.  It's like somebody told me once:  I'll never fully understand football because I've never played it.  I know it from a different perspective, but I can't totally relate to the adrenaline rush a player feels on the field, what his view of the play is (because I can see everything clearly and know he was an idiot for not jagging left because he was totally open) or how it feels when someone tipping the scale at 300 pounds launches himself at you.  The statement made me mad at the time, but now I know it's right.  Well, men, it's like that with my "issues" - you'll never walk a mile in my shoes.  Shoot, I can't even walk a mile in the popular styles now...  Therefore, it's not in my nature to just let the topic lie.  Yet, I'm going to defer it for now and bounce back to grief, if you will.

And here's why:  almost like it was on queue, I wrapped up my little series, feeling very proud of myself for not allowing the world to swallow me whole three years ago, ready to get on with life and, lo and behold, little things here and there just started happening to test my resolve.  Therefore, I think I would be remiss if I left everyone with the impression that, once you can honestly say to yourself and others that you have battled grief and won, with scars of course, but in general walked away from the field of battle, it's all over.  Because it is not.  You have to be able to withstand the moments that will come forward and test you.

For me, as you will recall, May's a bear to begin with for me.  Mother's Day, Kelsey's birthday, Greg's birthday only a few days before Kelsey's, and this year it hit me that my parents were married 70 years ago on May 7.  Just the little extra speed bump to slow you down long enough to remind you of all the people who are no longer with you.   I know May's coming and my game plan was just to stay busy, enjoy where I am and power past it.  The Penguins did NOT do their part and went home early from the playoffs, but I've thrown myself wholly and completely into being a hater:  anti-Flyers, anti-Capitals, and that worked pretty well for me, but now with both out, I'll need to come up with a new game plan.  But, summer movies are starting, and it's going to be a tremendous crop this year, so I'm thinking to myself, "Yes, I can do this!"  Well, then real life comes along and says, "Try this on for size!" and throws something unexpected at you.

Nothing really major, I know, in the grand scheme of things:  just life happening irrespective of my feelings.  First I'll have to be out of town on business on the anniversary of Kelsey's death.  When they asked me I hesitated slightly.  I don't want to be in Texas, period.  When I crossed the state line  over a year ago, I knew I'd have to come back at some point:  somebody's wedding hopefully.  Sadly, probably somebody's funeral.  But, this will make the fourth time this year.  It's not that the whole state is cursed for me - okay, maybe it is - but I really don't want to be there on June 20.  But, that's just me.  I have no REAL reason to say no, so I said yes. Now I'll be alone in the very state I left for a specific reason on the very date I'd rather not be anywhere.  When I broke the news to Greg, his reaction didn't help.  "Don't worry about me," he said without looking at me, his gaze fixed on the television, "I'll be fine."  And the subject was concluded.  I didn't say any of the number of things it crossed my mind to say, "Asshole," being the first one that sprung to mind.  And there you have it, a prime example of the issues couples have staying together after a loss.  Grief is a greedy bastard.  I'm worried how I'm going to get through the day, he's worried about how he is, and we really aren't too concerned about the other one.

Anyway, I pouted around for a few days until gradually the sting wore off.  The day will suck no matter where or how I spend it.  I have to work one place or another.  Might as well just be in Dallas for the day as anywhere.  Maybe it's even better:  Pittsburgh is associated with better memories.  Let Texas hold the bad ones.

But, the month just seems fraught with roadblocks meant to trip me up and test me.  I knew this would happen, it's inevitable, but I never really addressed it here.  I don't want to leave readers with the impression that once you've done the majority of the processing of your grief that you're free and clear.  Neither do I want you to think, on the other hand, that you can't get past the issues that will inevitably come up.  You can.  You will.  I keep coming back to the migraine analogy because it is something I am unhappily very familiar with and it just seems so apt.  I don't get them as frequently as I used to so now when I do they really kick my butt.  All the coping skills I had when I got them as frequently as once or twice a week have abandoned me and I'm down for the count.  However, I'd rather be in my current situation than my former one.  I'd rather be laid out with one every few months than survive six or eight a month like I did for a long time.

I took myself to the zoo on Saturday.  It was a risky proposition.  It was crowded with young families - all those young moms with their kids in strollers or in their arms, pointing to this animal or that one.  Hard not to think longingly back to when your own kids were little.  But, it's a happy place for me.  I ignore the people and I focus on the animals.  Maybe they'd be happier in the wild with open space and room to roam, but they're cared for and loved here, and I think they know it.  And it was a beautiful day.  Hard to be unhappy on such a glorious day.  So, the animals and I worked it out together.  Here we all were, maybe not in the most ideal of circumstances by far, but not so far gone we couldn't just take in this moment in time.  The house didn't get clean, the work I literally had left open on the computer did not get done, and the gardening I needed to do still is waiting.   You can't do that every time something triggers your grief, but do it when you have to.  Find the place that gives you peace and go there.  It's the best I can give you right now, it's still a new state of being for me, but here I am, still standing, so it's working so far.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Real Superheroes

Okay, the audience has spoken - or rather not spoken, which sometimes can be just as loud - so I'm departing from my planned trip through Feminism in the 80's since I laid quite the egg with the column on the same topic in the 70's.  Allow me therefore to cut right to the chase: equal rights for women is a fiction because we are not the same as men.  I'll let you pause and ponder that for a moment...

Now that maybe half of you are mad that I said that rather incredible statement, allow me to qualify it.  We're not less than the male of the species, but we are decidedly different.  For the few of you who read the last post where I pondered as a teenager how hard it was going to be to march forward as a modern woman, well at some point I realized that life was not going to be any easier for my daughters.  Now, I might actually argue that as long as babies are not spawned in test tubes and raised in labs ala Logan's Run then it probably never will be.  The bottom line is there is a biological imperative that causes the mother to be, in most cases, the primary parent:  we are the ones who gestate and give birth.  I know there are lots of cases where the mom is in the wind and the dad does the job more than ably.  There are lots and lots of cases where both parents struggle with the job, but let's just set that aside for the purposes of what is supposed to be a fairly short piece.  There is just something in our wiring as children to where we want our mommy when we're sick or sad or amazed or mad or about a million other emotions or conditions we will experience growing up.  And there is just something in our wiring that makes us, as the mommy, to want to be that primary parent.  Therefore, I tend to think we need to cut ourselves some slack and realize that the commercial I used to be subjected to back in my youth was wrong:  we can't make the bacon and then fry it up in the pan too.  Something has to give.  I walk past the urn that holds my daughter's ashes everyday - I know all too well what gave in my house.

But, this isn't really about me. What I wanted to celebrate here is about three other women I know and admire.  Now, I've written about real people in my life before without their advance permission and it's gotten me in trouble, so I do this with some risk, but if you happen to recognize the identity of these women, then go up to them and give them a hug or a high five, because they are truly amazing people.  They are not the only amazing moms I know by far, but they are clustered together in one little department for the same company, so they are not only awesome, but rather convenient to spotlight.

Here's the thing about them:  each is capable of being something way more in the workforce.  They are bright, intelligent, dedicated and honest - an employer's dream.  But, here they all are working as essentially clerks because, while they all need to work for various reasons, they have made the decision that they are moms first.  Kudos to the company for allowing them the leeway to do so and still employ them:  one works part-time, another comes in early so she can leave early, and the youngest mother of the trio has to miss hours here and there, but makes them up in the evenings or weekends.  They all make severe sacrifices not only in their careers, but in their personal lives so they can commit to the most important job of all:  raising their daughters (because, I note, all of their collective offspring are girls). 

There is a long-term risk to choose the path they are taking:  once their daughters are grown and gone and they might be in a mental and physical position to pursue a more "career-oriented" position, they have to realize the reality that the door may be shut on that possibility.  My observation is that women have a smaller window of opportunity than men to advance their careers.  It's one of many inequities in the workforce between the genders that I've seen over the years.  Look at a man at 50 and he is seen to have maturity and hard earned knowledge, picture a woman at the same age trying for the same position, and we're seen as over-the-hill who probably will not work hard (I have heard as much come out of people's mouths).  The short-term risk is mothers are seen as a liability as employees.  If something happens to our company and these three remarkable women were forced to look elsewhere, they would have a challenge, whether it is legal or not.  I know because I've been on both sides of that ledger.  I know full well that, whether you're supposed to think this way or not, you cannot help but try and field your staff with people who are not going to have outside distractions that pull them away from the desk you mentally want to chain them to.  Now ask for special considerations, like an alternate schedule, and you're really putting yourself behind the eight-ball. 

Now, let's talk about the social sacrifices they make:  when you come in hours before anybody else in the office, you're losing that social outlet, but you have to go to bed early every night so you lose another avenue for socialization.  You don't really fit in with the moms who are not working outside the home because your schedule is so off from theirs, so you give that up for now, along with expensive shoes, manicures, lunches out and vacations to anywhere fancier than the coast every so often.  You do all this gladly when in fact you have the moxie to actually have a high level position somewhere because you're that capable.  Some people might think it's a waste, but it's not, it's selfless.

Now, granted, they get a big assist from the spouses who make a choice of any kind even possible.  Like every company, mine is populated with women who are working in more career-driven positions because they have zero choice.  They are single moms many of them.  Life is not easy for them, nor the choices and sacrifices they have to make every day.  But, here's the thing:  I, like a lot of women my age, got propelled almost into the workforce feeling like we owed it to our gender to prove we could work like a man and shatter the glass ceiling.  Mother once said in my earshot that I liked working and wouldn't stay home if I could.  That wasn't true.  I would have loved to be stay-at-home mom, but that was not an option.  However, once I was in the workforce, I was all in.  I worked punishing hours and had burning ambition.  It never occurred to me to make the choices these three ladies make.  They are all younger than me.  They have the courage to make tough choices that I didn't.  It makes me feel some optimism for the children of this generation.  You know, the real bottom line is, you cannot have it all.  There is no scenario where you don't sacrifice something.  Life is hard like that.  I didn't believe it when I was a young mother.  I certainly do now.

So, anyway, in the summer of superheroes - The Avengers, Spider-Man, and my personal favorite, Batman - all the moms I know are my real superheroes.  I hope their children feel the same way I do.

One thing I'll leave from my originally planned post is the video below - let Cyndi Lauper sing you out because every so often girls do need some fun...

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Hear Me Roar

Silly me.  To think that about a month or so ago I was considering setting this blog aside, thinking its work was done.  I wasn't taking into account the general election and all the crazies that come out of the woodwork (maybe myself included) during that time in the American process when we actually think we have a say and get to elect our President.  This cycle lacks some of the comedy of a Sarah Palin, but it has the serious drama of a still lagging economy, gas at $4.00 a gallon and two individuals squaring off who are both, from what I know, earnest enough people with good intent, but radically different viewpoints and constituents to please.  And it's got The War on Women.  I'll tackle that directly in a later post because, as it turns out, the biggest interaction I've been having with Pittsburghers lately - whom you'd think I'd be all warm and fuzzy with all the time - is over an article about Mitt Romney and women's issues, and suffice it to say, I'm not making friends fast, but I do have some staunch supporters, and I was highly intrigued by how the lines were drawn for and against my opinion.   But to really understand why I feel the way I do, or anybody does for that matter, you have to look at their background, so here's a little bit about mine.

I originally thought I would write about growing up female in the 70's, which I am, but I envisioned it as a collective experience.  Then when I sat down to actually write it, I realized that was hubris on my part.  I can't really speak for all women around my age.  So, this is my personal experience and observations about what was taking place during that crazy decade.

The 60's largely passed my little part of the world by.  Bozeman, MT was a college town true, but I remember one peaceful sit-in to protest the war in Vietnam and that's really it.  There was probably more going on than a six-to-nine year old girl really knew or cared about, but it was not the hotbed of radical change, that I can say with assurance.  However, change was happening and we saw some of it on the news.  We may have thought we were insulated from it, but my general impression is that by the time we hit the next decade, the social fabric we had all known was different and we were going to have to re-configure how all of us fit into this new world, most notably women.  Because the protests of the 60's hit all the markers, nothing was left out:  civil rights, the war, the environment, poverty, social mores and sexual freedom, and women's rights.

The Dick Van Dyke Show
I remember thinking at some point when I was around 17 that I was not particularly looking forward to being an adult because I was going to be part of the generation that had to hold the torch and define the rights the women before me had fought so hard for and I somehow knew, even then, that it would be a hard, messy process.  In thinking back on it now, it was our moms who probably really felt the jolt.  They began their journey as adults being told that Laura Petrie, the cute and perky wife of the main character on The Dick Van Dyke Show, was the ideal woman.  Smart, funny, and pretty, but dedicated to her man and raising their son.  By the time the next decade rolled around, the ideal woman was personified as Mary Richards, the never-married independent career woman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Ironically, they were played by the same person.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show

How hard it must have been for those women, who were raised to believe that they should attract a husband who could take care of their economic needs and that their role would be to manage the household and raise the kids.  Suddenly that must have seemed like it had been devalued.  Add to it a significant recession that forced many of my friend's moms back into the workforce to help make ends meet (my mother among them when my father was laid off when I was 11), and it must have been a confusing, stressful time.  My bet too:  many of the men in those households weren't too adept at changing their expectations about things either.  My dad didn't.  Mother still cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, the grocery shopping and was the primary parent.  All on top of working full time.

Nonetheless, I think she liked it.  I know she did actually.  She never left the workforce again until she officially retired, even though Dad once complained that she essentially made enough money to cover their taxes and economically it would be a wash if she quit.  It gave her a social outlet that she didn't have taking care of me (which was not a real challenge until I hit high school:  my nose was generally in a book and my largest sins at the time were constantly attracting stray animals like I was the Pied Piper and not wanting to clean my room).   Nevertheless, nothing came off her plate, things only got added.

For me, as the 70's rolled on, I noticed that, of all the doors that were trying to be opened for women, the people my age seemed to be walking through the door of sexual freedom most often.  It was easy, it was fun, and it all seemed harmless until the AIDS epidemic came along in the 80's and scared us all to the core.  I was reading articles in Glamour about how to handle your roommate when wanting to bring home men and in Cosmopolitan about the etiquette of the one-night stand.  And lots or articles in every women's magazine about increasing your sexual pleasure.  What I don't recall was a whole lot of articles about building lasting relationships.  That seemed secondary during the time known as the Me Decade.

I may sound like I am critical of that.  Not really.  I'm just kind of neutral actually looking back on it.  Getting to be the aggressor in sexual conquests and racking them up like we felt men had been doing for centuries may have made us feel empowered, but power in the bedroom wasn't translating necessarily to power in the boardroom, and economic parity, I would say now, is what we should have been focusing on.  And some women were.  There was a growing female presence in the halls of power:  women I grew up admiring like Barbara Jordan with that commanding booming voice of hers and Bella Abzug with her odd hats that I'm sure made men all over the country snigger, but everybody certainly knew who she was, so it was highly effective branding.  And other women were wielding a lot of power or at least becoming a real presence in all circles:  Gloria Steinem,  Leona Helmsley (who became notorious in the 80's, but was powerful and wealthy by the 70's), Jane Fonda (as activist, not sex kitten), Ursula K. Le Guin (if you don't know who she is, you're probably not a fantasy nerd like me), Yoko Ono (again, as activist - not the person who broke up the band), and so on.  And of course there was Princess Leia.  I may have dressed like Annie Hall, but, like most people my age, I wouldn't mind being an ass-kicking space princess like Leia!

You would think it was a heady time to be a woman.  And it was, but it wasn't necessarily easy either.  More on that next time...