Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Surreal Summer (or Suddenly Single)

The summer of 2009 after we lost our daughter was and always will be the most bizarre, surreal and awful season I have ever endured.  A lot of it is a blur actually that I recall at all because I was blogging incessantly, but when I wasn't stumbling around in some sort of odd thin-skinned trance or pounding away at the computer, I was often trying to cope with these overwhelming feelings that this actually could not really be happening to me.  I would just be hit like a beach in a Tsunami at the oddest times (at a stop light, standing in line at a store and so on) by this sense that the whole thing was some sort of really bad dream and surely I would wake up from it soon.  Or I would just know that some sort of horrible mistake had been made, and the real Kelsey would be found somewhere.  I dreamt about that a lot that summer and into the fall actually - not always happily.   I guess if you're trying to label it, I was in a dissociative fugue a lot of the time.  I just could not accept that "this" was really happening to me.  "This" kind of stuff happened to other people, fictional people - like on Law and Order.  

But of course it did happen to me, and gradually that surreal - almost dizzying - sense of unreality faded and acceptance began to settle in.  And I guess I thought that meant nothing would really stun me again.  Granted, I have had, and do have, weak moments.  I would often find myself mildly, almost disdainfully, surprised when bad things would still happen, sort of like you don't have to go back to the Hunger Games if you survive the Hunger Games once already, that's just not fair.  Or if I lost my temper or acted badly about something, I'd be sort of surprised at myself that I hadn't reached some sort of loftier outlook forged from the fire of my loss.  And, of course, the occasional shock when I might perceive someone as being mean to me because "don't they know" what I've been through and they should cut me some slack.  But, aside from those weak moments and thoughts, which sound selfish because they are, mostly I kind of expected from myself that I would and could endure anything else Life threw at me because it had thrown the biggest curve ball of all already.  Well, whoever is on the mound currently is pitching one hell of a mean game and trying really hard to strike me out.

I mean, it would be a brutal summer under any circumstances - which, if I were to write it all down and send it in to Tina Fey and request that she write me a screenplay about my life this summer, could actually be amusing to an outside observer, I'm sure.  But it's happening to me for real, so I'm not laughing.  Just as one potential comedic example, both TV's going out at once, Greg fixing them both and then the main one in the sports cave going back out the day before he leaves.  Great comedic potential there, right?  Ha ha.  So, there's this sneaking sense of the unreal back again already now added to the fact that a few minutes ago my husband of 29 years pulled out of the driveway and - boom - I am not sure exactly when I will see him again.  Just like that.

And I not only agreed to this.  It is in large part the seed I planted.  And I do support it.  All the stuff I said to him when I was trying to convince him I was okay with it is still all very true.  I reasoned with myself long before I said it to him that my mother lived without my father for years.  Every moment of every day she was not really sure if someone would roll up to her curb in an official government vehicle to tell her she'd just become a widow.  So, if she could endure that, then I could and should be able to withstand a couple of years of a spouse living in relative safety 1,400 miles away.   Yet, inevitably, when that spouse tells you he's choosing to go, there is a virtual punch to the stomach that you take.  That's sort of natural.  If you didn't feel that, then it would mean you don't care, right?  But your job is now to support the choice like you said you would and swallow all the hard feelings, which will run the gamut:  anger - sort of in general at the situation, not really focused in on any one person or thing, fear - a lot of that actually and about everything from how the leaves are going to get raked to how to handle loneliness and support oneself and a household, and even a bit of excitement to see if you can do it.   Like an adventure, can you live completely on your own when you've been part of a couple for a really long time?  It's a messy potpourri of feelings and emotions as someone packs up their life to head away from you, and you have to realize that, while the plan is for you to see them again, you might not.  Things happen.  So this whole sense of surreal begins to wash over me again in a way I never thought it could again.  I am sure for Greg it is the same.

There are many morals to the story.  The one I was most struck by this morning is that many long term couples fall into an acceptance of their life and their marriage and take it for granted.  However, Life can strike with that wicked curve ball at any time, so we ought to be grateful everyday for our companion and thank them for the fact that they keep swinging on our team every chance we get.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Home is Where the Heart Is

I think I've talked before about the genuine, if aborted, attempt I made years ago to write a novel about a young woman who had to choose between the man she loved and the place she loved (which, of course was Bozeman, MT - my home town).  I put all kinds of challenges in her path to illustrate how much she loved the man, who was a Houston native.  She lost her best friend and roommate because the roommate had a thing for him, but also because my heroine was engaged to the roommate's cousin.  Of course, there was the inevitable messy, emotional breakup with the fiance.  Bozeman is not a large enough town that these things can happen and it won't hurt your reputation personally and professionally, plus she could no longer go to her favorite restaurant, The Bacchus Pub (a real and very awesome place) because the now-ex-roommate worked there.  So, she had turned her neat, orderly world upside down for this man, whom she loved passionately, but in the end he had to go home to Houston to be with his young son.  And she had to decide whether to follow him to this vastly different and foreign place, or choose the area she also loved passionately, but realize she would be there alone.  And there I got stuck.  I just had no idea what I should have her do.  I was leaning toward having her make the opposite choice from me and having her stay put, but I just wasn't sure - I spent hundreds of pages messing up her life there for one thing, and for another, I assumed that conventional wisdom would tell you most people in American society - a highly mobile civilization - would want her to choose love over geography.  Yet, if you've ever sat out in the forest in the evenings, listening to the sound of the Gallatin River as it rushes along its journey and watching the sun cast its last golden glow over the peaks of the Rockies as deer come down from their daytime hiding places to forage only feet away from you, then you might get a sense of why it would be a difficult choice to voluntarily walk away from it.  And if you've ever laid out in an open meadow once night has fallen and looked up at the sky, simply crowded with stars, then you would probably have told my heroine there was just no way she could ever leave and give all that up for the noise, heat and chaos of Houston where the only stars she'd likely see are the ones on the state flags.

Bozeman (above) v. Houston (below) seemed to be about the most dramatic difference I could put in front of my character

Of course, there's no big surprise why I chose that particular conundrum to wrestle with on the page.  I was told many times in my days in Texas that I should be able to make my peace with wherever I was living and find happiness there.  And I did find a husband there - a native Texan with all his friends and family there.  All my dogs were also native Texans after all - before Ripley that is.  I had - and have - great friends there.  Both my daughters were born there.  Austin in particular does have great charms:  it is home to the most awesome of places to watch movies - Alamo Drafthouse, hosts the largest indoor pow-wow in the country once a year, is home to the famous Barton Springs, is touted as the Live Music Capital of the World with some good reason, and is a liberal bastion in a sea of red, among many other things.  But, as anyone can tell you, I never felt like I fit in.  Granted, I never actually tried.  I wore my other-ness like a badge of honor.  I always dreamed of going "home" and assumed that meant Montana.  I still miss Montana.  Greatly.  But Pittsburgh is my home.  This is where I belong.  Wholly and fully.  It's so far from perfect that it's not even funny, yet in some ways that just makes it more endearing.  It makes it a place worth fighting for.  None of this is new.  I've written about my love affair with this city before.  But this choice is about to be put to the test.  I'm going to have to steel myself (pun somewhat intended) for some challenging days ahead.  I'm going to have to realize that I'm leaving my husband of nearly three decades to handle one of one of the largest, hardest challenges and labors of love he'll ever face without his support system.  I'm going to have to be ready for people to judge me.  I'm going to probably spend some time judging myself.  But yesterday as we drove through the city on our way to my family's annual reunion, I gazed out over the skyline, saw Heinz Field loom up in front of us, looked off and saw PNC Park not far from it, home to the resurgent Pirates, then glanced over to Point State Park and saw the newly refurbished fountain spraying hundreds of feet into the air and knew in my heart that there was no other answer for me:  I belong here now.  I am a part of the city and it is a part of me.  And suddenly and irrevocably I can tell you what my heroine would have done:  she would have stayed put.  Even if it meant she lived the rest of her life alone.  But she wouldn't have resented her lover his choice to go back home to his son.  She would have known that was his place and his duty, just as it was her place to stay where she was.

What am I talking about really here?  Greg has made the hard decision to go back to Texas to be with his brother.  I am staying here.  The difference between us and my long ago fictional couple is that he isn't planning on this being a forever move, but it's couched in years, not months.  And we've got nearly three decades of marriage under our belts.  We're not young lovers in the prime of our days.  And there are some practical reasons for me staying here - we own a house here for one.  I've got elderly dogs who really shouldn't be subjected to a lot of trauma (we took Luke and Cheyenne to get their shots today and that was traumatic enough - moving them back across country would be very hard on the three seniors).  But even without all of that, I have to confess that I realized as I looked out over the city yesterday, I just wouldn't be able to pull up stakes and go without my heart ripping in two.  My heart may be here, but my love will travel back to Texas.

In parting for today, I can you tell you, that no matter what I would have had my character do, I would have had to acknowledge that there is a price to pay for her choice.  And it's not cheap.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Miracle (noun) \mir-i-kel\:  an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment

- Merriam Webster Dictionary

I just have to tell you right from the start:  there are no answers embedded here, only questions.  This has been a tough few months, as you may have gathered if you've read any of the recent submissions.  With a lot of challenges messing with my psyche and sense of well-being - up to and including the bedroom television crapping out this week, the basement fridge having crapped out a couple weeks before, still having a broken oven door, not feeling very confident or happy with my work performance, and a dog I'm pretty sure needs a trip to the vet - my attitude is still in the gutter.  I can't see past all the bad stuff happening to try and figure out how to resolve all the bad stuff happening, if that makes any sense.  But there was the little respite when Marissa and I traveled to Cincinnati to see Rush.  I almost didn't go.  I almost sold the tickets.  But, like they've done so many times before, they seem to show up in my life right when I need them most, so I decided to not worry about things for once and go have a good time.  And good it was.  Great in fact.  Cincinnati fans are the best Rush fans, I've decided.  It was magical.  Which brings me to my point, if there is one.  It was such a magical oasis in this sea of despair, it was almost as though somewhere somehow a little guardian angel knew I would need that boost when I did.  And so, since I got back, I've been wondering:  do these things really happen for a reason, or is it just a coincidence?  And if they do happen for a reason, then why would I get a Rush concert to help me along when some people are tortured, raped, killed, starved, beaten and so on every single day?  Why wouldn't the same little guardian angel who put Alex, Neil and Geddy in my path watch out for the little girl in Pittsburgh a few years back who was so abused by her father she killed him with a hammer one night to stop the horror?

I grew up believing in miracles because I thought I had been witness to one.  I admit I was skeptical at one point in my very young life.  I watched The Ten Commandments in awe and wondered to myself, "If God used to do things like that, why doesn't he still?"  And I concluded it was because He never really did.  But my parents took me on a camping trip through Alberta when I was six, including to Banff National Park, which truly has to be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Yet, for all the stunning beauty I was exposed to during that trip, there was one thing above all else that happened to me that would stay with me for years.  While we were stopped along a roadway in the park - one of those traffic jams that happens when wildlife clogs the road and eager tourists stop to gawk and take photos - a fawn, still wearing her spots, appeared on her own out of the woods, looked around tentatively and then walked up to our car where I eagerly was waiting with the window rolled down and my chubby little hand held out, I am sure a face just full of pure rapture and childlike anticipation.  I can remember clearly being almost breathless waiting to see if she would walk up to me.  And she did!  Straight up to me.  And me alone.  And touched my hand with her nose.  Her wet, sweet little nose.  Our eyes met for a moment, and I'm sure I was just too amazed and enthralled to draw breath, but we were communicating in a way only the young and innocent truly can.  Then her mother walked up out of the woods, looking at me as if to say, "You screwin' with my kid?", nudged the fawn, turned her around and the two disappeared back into the woods.  The whole encounter probably lasted only two or three minutes, but I know I gushed the rest of the day, probably making my parents crazy talking about it relentlessly.  But I'll give them a lot of credit, neither of them ever told me what it would take me years to figure out, which is that park deer like that are moochers, and that fawn walked up to me because I was holding out my hand, and she was learning that often meant food.  Of course I would think of that fawn years later when surrounded by my own hoofed moochers, trying to force their way into my feed bucket and wondered if she was upset that I was in fact empty handed.  But for all my childhood, I lived in happy ignorance of all of that and thought that I had somehow been singled out by a divine force for an amazing experience.
An example of what stops traffic in Alberta

I took away from those few minutes the inviolate belief that there were forces at work in the universe greater than me, and I had been touched by them/Him (label it what you will) for some reason - call it a Destiny or Fate (remember, I was a nerdy child and read a lot of fantasy novels).  I just had to figure out what that destiny was - that was my quest.  That belief also helped my child's mind reconcile that pure, unsullied moment with the horrors of the world.  Because while I was reading all those fantasy novels, I also read a lot about the Holocaust and grew up with Vietnam being splashed across the television screen.  I had to somehow make sense of the clash of purity that the fawn represented with how ugly the real world could be. 

Of course, as I've said, I would eventually (but a whole lot later in life than you would think) learn and accept that there was nothing particularly miraculous or even notable in the fact that a deer approached a human along a roadway in a tourist destination.  Still, I tell myself to this day that a rather interesting set of circumstances had to set themselves up for that to happen exactly as it did...

So, do miracles exist?  Or do some things just sometimes happen at the right time for the same reason somethings happen at the very worst of times - pure chance?  I don't know, I really don't.  It's interesting to ponder though.  All I do know is, once again, Rush saved the day.  Sing us out Geddy...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

News from the Zoo

My posts recently have been downers, I freely admit.  It's been a trying time.  We all go through them.  Most of us privately and with grace and endurance.  I throw my angst out there on a public canvas for all to see.   That's great if it helps someone - that's the point (along, admittedly, with allowing me to get it off my chest) - but even I can find my own distress hard to take in large doses.  It's time to lighten the mood a bit with some updates from the ladies and gentlemen who help keep me company every day:  my office mates, my helpmates, my burdens and my deliverers, my pets.

Ripley in a rare quiet moment
First of all, I should tell you a bit about Ripley, our tricolor rough collie because when I last left her she was still a cuddly pup full of energy and carefree abandon.  Well, she's still full of carefree abandon, just now it's packaged in 55 or pounds of adult-sized dog!  I took her to puppy classes trying for once to curb a young dog's enthusiasm in the correct way.  She did okay.  I've got a diploma in my office to prove that she learned enough to graduate.  And she'll still sit on command if she thinks there is a treat involved and she'll still give you her paw when you say "Let's Go Pens!" if she feels like it, but some of the other lessons - like not bounding up to greet new humans with a great bear hug - is completely lost at this point.  She has, however, learned that small children are off limits in terms of jumping.  They are not, however, immune from big sloppy collie kisses.  She's never met a small dog or child she just didn't immediately fall in love with.   The funny thing about Ripley is that, despite being my life long dream dog, she's been Greg's ticket away from long despair.  He loves her.  And it's mutual.  He takes her to the dog park multiple times a week and delights in her antics, recording her playing with other dogs on his phone to bring back to me.  He'll often say how anti-social he's become, yet I see him talk about her enthusiastically to total strangers, his eyes lit up like a proud pappa.  He carries photos of her in his phone to show her off.  She sleeps by his side as Cheyenne does mine.  Funny how things work sometimes.

Cheyenne meets Charlie Batch
Then there's Cheyenne.  Who is begrudgingly becoming used to her constant companion, but only because she has to.  When I take one of them someplace, I generally take them both.  At first, when I tried to keep Ripley up in my office with me during the day, blocked off by a dog gate, Cheyenne would crash the gate - no gate would hold her for a long period of time - just so she could get out of the same room.  If I tried to walk them together, Ripley zig-zagging rather than actually walking, Cheyenne would at some point just have had enough and take a snap or two at her larger sibling.  Gradually, however, she's realized that Ripley isn't going anywhere and there's a certain resignation that she has to learn to co-exist.  You can see it on her face:  it's tolerance, nothing more.  Ripley in turn no longer is trying to make Cheyenne her bosom buddy and playmate.  She watches what she does and often tries to emulate it, I've noticed, so there is recognition of Cheyenne's clear alpha status, but she seems to have accepted that she'll have to treat her like the cranky matriarch she is, with a lot of respect and a bit of fear.

Then there are the two boys:  Luke and Chappy.  Clearly beta males in a house full of divas.  Luke, at 15, is slowing down to the point where I literally have to bend down sometimes and hover over him to make sure he's still breathing.  His days are dwindling so the goal is to keep him happy and comfortable for as long as possible and let him have a peaceful end to a tumultuous life.  He can no longer get up the stairs, so he's denied being able to be in the sun room with me in the morning when I use the treadmill, which he loved, or sleep at my feet while I work.  So, he spends his days in the basement now, laying either right in front of the back door, so you have to literally slide him out of the way to go in or out, or in front of the washing machine, so you have to slide him to do laundry.  Maybe it's his way of making sure we don't forget about him.  Chappy on the other hand can still make it up stairs - he's laying on the dog blanket in my office now - but it's a laborious process.  He's slowing down rapidly as well.  This morning as we did our walk around the block he was going so slowly I was nearly at a shuffle to keep pace - I literally could not walk as slow as he was needing to.  I think he struggles with the Pittsburgh air in the summers like I do, hot, heavy and humid with traces of all the things the steel industry dumped out still floating around.  But his old bones and joints don't really care for the cold in the winter either.  He is a far cry from the athletic dog who loved to play in the pool with us.  Yet, as long as you give him treats occasionally he keeps the great good humor that has been his trademark since he came to live with us.  You know, really, all he ever asks for is our love and those treats - and for us not to use ear drops, but he's out of luck on that front.
Luke, Charlie and Ripley asleep in my office
Chappy in better health at a dog walk

And then there's the two felines in the family.  Charlie, himself no spring chicken, gave us a scare recently when he developed a urinary tract infection, which we realized to some surprise was the first time ever he's ever been ill at all.  It took a bit, even after a trip to the vet, to clear it up, but he's recovered well.  Well enough to stalk and slaughter a baby bunny the other day, dragging the poor creature into my storeroom where the dogs discovered it and him.  He's just a tad younger than Luke.  It never occurred to me that he still had that kind of hunt in him.  But it's clear he's still going strong.  I spied him out the front window the other day delighting a family walking their small children. He was putting on quite the show for them, rolling on his back, and extending his body to its fullest so the children would play with him.  He loves to cuddle.  He's an odd combination of steel-hearted killer  and warm-hearted fuzzball.

Tum-Tum believes she is a gift to us all
Finally, there is Tum-Tum, Kelsey's cat and great love.  Kelsey would be hard pressed to recognize her in many ways, but in some ways she remains the same.  Tum-Tum would, I have little doubt, take issue with my styling Cheyenne the alpha.  She believes that is her role.  Once too terrified of the dogs to come anywhere close to them, she now has no trouble being in the same room with them because they know who is in charge when she's there.  She is.  If they forget it, she reminds them.  With her claws if necessary.  But most often it's not.  That patented Tum-Tum look is quite enough most of the time.  Ripley has taken some intense training, but Tum-Tum has delighted in the lessons.  As a matter of fact, she'll follow Ripley around the house and bait her.  There is zero doubt about what she's doing.  Her favorite thing is to sit on the middle of the stairs when the dogs want to use them and cast that stare of hers with a deep throated growl and just dare them to try going past her.  They rarely do.  Yet, on the other hand, she is much more affectionate than I ever could have thought she could be.  Last night, as I recovered from a migraine, she crawled up on my chest and cuddled there for a long while.  She'll come into the office during the day sometimes and curl up in my lap, or when I'm reading sometimes.  Some days, like today, she is content to keep her own company.  She's lazing in my rocking chair in the sun room right now.  But other days she seeks us out and wants our companionship.  As long as it is on her terms.  It's hard to know if Tum-Tum remembers Kelsey, but I know she doesn't love us as passionately as she did Kelsey.  I've never had her cry out for me the way she used to for Kelsey when she would walk in the door.  But, I think she's content.  She likes her life.  She's eight now.  We realized that with a shock the other day.  Someday we'll have to face losing her.  That'll be a hard, hard day.  She's a living link to our daughter.  But that's a long time in the future and so we just keep her close for now.