Wednesday, April 30, 2014

If I knew the way, I would take you home

    Yesterday was my forty second birthday; I spent most of it in solitude, reflecting on my past birthday celebrations. I thought of the pain my life has brought to me, both physically and mentally, over many challenging years. I thought of my ninetieth birthday, in particular, as I have on each birthday since that birthday twenty three years ago. I was a heroin addict, on the brink of total submersion into a dark world of heavy addiction. My mother met me at a local diner, one we used to go to when I was a little girl. She placed a single chocolate cupcake with white frosting in front of me. I stared down at a thin green candle, the wax piling onto the little doily on top of a cream white plate.
     My mom then asked me how I wanted my funeral.
     She spoke to me through tears, and quietly told me the story of my second birthday. This story was significant for her to share with me that day because back then, when I was two, she could still fix my pain. She could comfort me and know that what she was doing was eventually going to make me better. Now she was sitting across from her detached, drug addicted youngest daughter, and couldnt fix anything. Her daughter was still in pain, but it was a different sort. On my second birthday, I broke my leg in several places. How I broke my leg no one really knows. It was, however, necessary to keep my legs hanging in traction for thirty long days rather than risk a disability of having one leg shorter than the other. The injury occurred on the only day in my entire life that I was ever left at a daycare center. They told my mom that I tripped out of a sandbox. The doctors claimed it would have been an impossible feat to break the femur bone by tripping on anything.
   My life has been comprised of a multitude of episodes of intense physical pain. I have broken many bones, suffered migraines, survived freak accidents, as well as life-threatening illnesses. Along the way, I have acquired not only a tolerance to pain, but also have developed many coping mechanisms to get through that pain. In my forty two years, I have learned to dig deep and find my inner strength, and to stay connected to myself. I am grateful to be able to see and hear that voice in me, when many other voices are muffled by my own insecurities.
   Today I ran a slow jog in the April rain, feeling the cold against my face. I felt sadness and apprehension from the usual culprits. I drove to the local coffee shop after deciding to go out into the universe and look for a bit for inspiration and gratitude. While ordering coffee I received a call from the nurse from the school where my son attends. She was panicking, reporting that my son, Elijah, had smashed his finger at his play practice. Elijah is in his middle school production of Willy Wonka. He was cast as an Oompa Loompa. The play has required commitment since early October. After weeks and weeks of late night practices, this was the day of the first dress rehearsal. When I arrived at the school I was buzzed in and walked down the long hallway that smelled of hot lunches and sterilization. I saw Elijah and at first was startled at his face, clad in full costume make-up. He was upset, though I wasn’t sure how much was fear-based. To me, his finger didn't look any worse than the many times I had seen my own father smash his fingers with a hammer when I was a kid. Despite Elijahs sometimes risky circus arts activities, he has been fortunate to come out of the last twelve years of his life unscathed. I often find myself telling my son in the face of minor injuries to toughen up, and then relay my own stories of injury.
   On the advice of the nurse, we headed to the urgent care office across the street from the school. I tried to decipher what was really going on with Elijah. He smashed his finger so badly that the doctor had to place several small needles into the top of his nail to alleviate the pressure. It was a tough scene as I watched him in intense physical pain. He lay on the examination table wincing, tears streaming down his face. His eyes were glossy and red, swollen with tears. His green eyes were piercing out from behind a face that was a bright orange Oompa Loompa color with white painted eye brows and red lips. As he lay there, I felt him becoming unreachable. At that moment, I saw him as a separate person from me, starting his own journey of life; his own passage into love and the unknown, into places of pain and fear. I felt his hurt deep in my gut, but I had the awareness that it will be worse at many times in his life. I tried to calm him down and remind him that he would be okay. I sensed that fear was making the physical pain so much worse. He tightened up and shut down. So I yelled to him, my face barely hovering an inch from his, looking deep into his frightened little body. I told him to go inside of himself and to find the comfort only he could ever really give himself at this moment, and all the moments to come. He closed his eyes tightly. Sweat beads sat on his upper lip, as he pursed them tightly together. He started to take fast, deep breaths. Then with each exhale, he started to slow his breathing and un-crease his brow. I felt him find his strength without me.   Several more minutes went by before the doctor was finished. Elijah made it through and while I may have been standing there above him, he made it through those moments alone.
   We left the doctors’ office, exhausted by what had just happened, heading towards the safety of our home. I washed the thick orange paint off of his face. I told him how proud I was of him. He apologized for freaking out. He explained to me how much it hurt, and that he had never felt pain like that before. I sat down close to him, gently touching the side of his face. I told him that no matter what pain came to him and that no matter how bad it hurt physically and mentally, he should never lose sight of himself. I looked deep in his eyes and told him through my own tears that he was so much stronger than he could know. He apologized for this happening on my birthday. I hugged him tightly, and I told him that birthdays are about growth and it was more than clear that we both have grown a year older.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Bird Song


    My transformation began with a tragedy. I have known my friend Marge for over twenty years. Marge is a tall, pretty woman, with huge brown eyes and flawless skin. She just turned fifty years old. Her short dark hair is always in place and she has perfectly applied makeup. She is a put-together woman who is often dressed in a black ensemble with a neatly tied scarf that adds a splash of color. I first met her when she worked at the local insurance agency. It was called the Auto Wizard. In the store front window, there was a nearly six foot tall dusty plastic wizard, holding a giant crystal ball that was equally dusty. It was quite a display amid the dying downtown Main Street. I first visited the store when I returned to the area after being on the road for months. I was an irresponsible twenty year old. Marge and I were from different worlds. I remember her long nails gleaming with red polish and the shine of her expensive jewelry glimmering as she sorted through my paperwork mess. I stood there in my patchouli and pot smoke soaked clothes. I wore fringe ripped jeans and a long flowing shirt. She gave me a slight and subtle roll of her eyes each time I came in and pleaded to have my auto insurance reinstated immediately. She was stern, but helped me out every time without a lecture.
     Years later, our paths would cross again. She was a regular at the Sesame Seed, the restaurant that I have worked at on and off over the years. Marge was a local girl who had been coming to the restaurant since she went to the catholic school around the corner. Marge is thick-skinned like many of us, and she has a genuine quality that allows her to see through any phoniness, almost to an uncomfortable level. She has loyalty to her friends and calls them out when she picks up on their negativity and self-doubt. Our friendship solidified, and over time Marge became a person that my son Elijah and I trusted. She was on a short list of people that I could count on. She would help me with Elijah, and provide him with rides to places. At the restaurant, She would pull me away from trying to help Elijah with homework at the start of my shift. Seeing my impatience growing, she would do what no one else had done for me in my single parenting life. She would say :"Heather, I got this. I will help him. Take a breath. Go outside. It's okay."
     Over the years, Marge also has maintained a tradition with Elijah that has such significance to me because we have so few rituals in our lives. Every year for the past five years, she has picked Elijah up before his birthday. She takes him to the toy store and lets him pick out whatever he wants. Elijah has never had this from anyone else.  It is not the act of her buying something for him so much as the commitment she has to him. It is the way she has established herself  not only as a regular at the  restaurant, but also as a stable constant in our lives. This is a rarity. Marge puts everyone else ahead of her, often to a fault. I believe our trust is mutual. Marge and I do not have the typical relationship. We have rarely gone out or gotten together outside of the restaurant. Yet she is always there, helping out when needed, lending her support in the often chaotic environment to not just to me, but to all of us.      
     We all knew that Marge cared deeply for her parents. She is a single woman who lives alone. She added to her own daily grind by caring for her aging parents in the next town over. There were times that it took a toll on her, but she was devoted to them. She organized them, helped them with tasks like doctors appointments, insurance, mailing things out, and caring for their home.  Her parents were well known in their community, and were politically and socially active. They were so much of her life.
      On a Tuesday morning in January, the couple was driving home at eleven o'clock. It was a frigid day with bright sun reflecting on the snow leading them down a road they had travelled thousands of times before. In a spilt second, they were hit twice by another car. They died together, within ten minutes apart.
     Over the years I have developed an overpowering fear of driving. It began years ago on the day I was pinned between two cars in a freakish accident. For years, I would not drive. I relied on others to drive me. I think this fear may be why I stayed with certain boyfriends as long as I did. I sheltered myself from news reports about accidents because these stories would immobilize me for several days. They would trigger a state of post-traumatic stress, fueled by the text and pictures from each news story. It would take days for this horrific residue to leave me. I longed to be desensitized, and to carry on like the rest of the world does. Then I would deal with a few bad driving days, flinching at thoughts of the sound of crunching metal, and the accompanying sadness and fear. This time it was  different; this incident put me on a terrifying, spiraling descent. I came to the realization that what happened to my dear friend was my worst fear come true . It was not only the dying in a horrific and random accident a half of mile from my house, but it was that Marge's world had changed, every single part of it, in one breath, and forever.  In the first few weeks after the accident, I spun in an internal circle. I realized when I drove to therapy less than a mile from my home, and pictured dying over and over again, that the post traumatic stress disorder was overtaking me. I burst into the office and laid it out to my therapist. I tried to unravel the tight knot that was choking me. I exposed my obsessive thoughts, my fear-driven anxieties, the darkest bloodiest ones. I slowly tried over the next few weeks to piece it together and to come to terms with what was gripping me. I was short-tempered, angry and fearful. In the last few years, these emotions were nothing new to me, but now they were becoming unmanageable. It felt as though I was on the edge of my own existence or worse: being buried alive. I hit an emotional bottom, and relived it over and over again. I had no ammunition to fight back.
So I reached out for help. I spoke to several people and put my ego aside. I revealed what I was dealing with and that I could not escape the torturous thoughts that were consuming me. I was trying to put out a raging fire with a dixie cup full of water. It helped me to admit that I was powerless. It was indeed a rough few weeks. I was soul searching and fighting off the demons that kicked me when I was already down. They cackled from the side of the road, the road that I had  traveled so many times before. 
 Then something happened. On one afternoon, in the thick of one of the worst and coldest winters in memory, Elijah and I pulled into the driveway, preparing for our evening. We gathered our things from the car, and simultaneously noticed a large crow peering down on us from a very low hanging cable wire in our driveway.  We looked up at the crow who was silent and still against the stark gray sky. We walked into the house, glancing over our shoulders. The crow was eyeing us as well.  . Later that afternoon, we noticed the circling of crows in the back yard. They were noisy and disruptive. I thought that it made sense that the crows were there, they reflected on the crow moon, and the cawing signifying death of winter and the growth of spring. We sat in the window and watched them. An hour later, Elijah came into the kitchen with tears in his eyes. He stumbled on the words, telling me a crow was on the back porch, and that he thought it was dead. I took his hand and walked out onto the porch. Under the chair that was covered in frozen snow and debris was a crow sitting peacefully and still. We knew that life had just left his body. Elijah was upset, but I felt a chill of connection, a sense of catharsis. For the first time in a while, things began to make sense, and I was open to listen. My fear, and my cast of personal demons were holding me back, and filling me with dread and debilitating anxiety. They also fed my co-dependence. I saw in that death of that crow something else. Nothing would prepare me for death, but I needed to accept it, and  perhaps it would be the realest and most peaceful parts of my existence. 
I see Marge every day, and know that while there is sadness in her eyes, she is working through her journey, her life, her love, and all that she has to give to the world. The robins have begun to show up in the yard, working fast and furiously in preparation for a new season, for rebirth and for a new life. The crows circle the sky on my morning run, cawing with deliberation and intensity. I watch them fly high into the trees. They invoke those feelings again.  I think about the uncertainty of life and mourn those who have passed. I pause for a moment, like that crow on that afternoon. I think about how sad Elijah was that day, and also how there is as much beauty in life as there is in death. I keep feeling like I am waiting for something, and I am.  I am waiting for the realness of death, and sweetness of life, and like the crow, I will soar with spirit into the light as well as into the the dark.