Tuesday, March 22, 2005
FOR THE WIDOWS IN PARADISE
Well, here I am, four months later, and things aren’t really any better. Not that I expected them to be, but I was kind of hoping that they wouldn’t be significantly worse.
Which they are.
The holidays came and went, and were just as excruciating as you might guess: I ignored the approach of Christmas until the evening of the 24th, which I spent decorating my Charlie-Brown-style tree with my late lover’s ornaments, in between crying jags.
You know, “lover” isn’t quite right, nor is “girlfriend.” I would have been deliriously happy to call her either one while she was alive, but in the end, I think I’ll stick with “friend.” Or just plain Barbara.
So, I slog along, filing insurance papers, writing letters to creditors (who get really testy when someone dies with nearly $25,000 in credit-card debt; somehow, though, I think CitiBank can handle it), and then I get a call from my mother. My older brother has had a minor stroke. Bad news, obviously, but it could be worse. Which, in fact, it turns out to be; the stroke was caused by a brain tumor the size of a golf ball.
I suppose some background’s in order: this brother — I’m the youngest of six — was mentally disabled since an early age due to brain damage. He functioned at roughly the level of an eight- or nine-year-old. He’s been cared for at home for most of his life, but went into a nursing home about a year ago because of some behavior issues (which were, in retrospect, probably caused by the incipient tumor).
So, here he is in the hospital, not understanding what’s happening; I’m doing what I can to help my mom, translating the doctorspeak for her, holding her hand while he’s in surgery for the biopsy, and all the time my gut’s cramping and my throat’s closing up because this routine is WAY too familiar.
Of course, the news isn’t good; the tumor’s malignant. They can operate, but he’ll be unable to walk or speak afterward, and then he’ll die anyway. My mom takes him back home, we get her set up with hospice, and he passes away peacefully two weeks later.
Digression: if you have to die of cancer, you could do far worse than three-and-a-half weeks from start to finish, with no pain along the way.
I took care of the post-mortem formalities (funeral home arrangements, cremation, death certificates, etc.) because, after all, I’ve had practice.
Is this divine retribution for past transgressions? An unfortunate but impersonal turn of the Karmic Wheel? Some kind of ineffable Celestial Smackdown? Maybe, but does it matter? I could spend all of my time cursing the heavens, asking “Why me?”, and doing the whole sackcloth-and-ashes gig, but what’s the point, really? I’m coming around to the point of view that shit just happens.
A friend of mine, the unlikeliest Baptist minister around, says that this is all part of God’s plan, that he’s using this to draw me closer to him. Huh. Odd way to go about it. He might want to consider dropping a winning lottery ticket in my lap, or a cure for cancer along with plans for a working time machine.
What’s next? Well, assuming that another loved one doesn’t die on me, I’m leaving for Europe in a two weeks’ time to fulfill a couple of Barbara’s last wishes. After that, who can say? There’s not really anything keeping me here in Texas, and any number of reasons to leave. I’d rather not keep designing Web pages until I reach retirement age; perhaps I’ll receive an out-of-left-field job offer while I’m abroad. I’ve always wanted to be a train conductor on the London Underground.
But I know now that worst-case scenarios can materialize out of thin air. I may not come back from this trip, contracting ptomaine poisoning in Paris or falling off of a mountainside in Italy. Or an anticlimactic freeway crack-up on the way to the airport.
Regardless of what the future holds, I want to thank you for providing more laughs than I can readily count and for that rare commodity, good advice that really helped.
Out of the blue, into the black,
Dear Black and Blue,
When life is impossibly hard, it makes you wonder why you ever assumed that everything would work out just fine. It's been a long time, thankfully, since I was in that Armageddon land, where everyone seems to be wearing their mortality on their sleeves, and a rainy day isn't just a rainy day but a reflection of the supreme sadness of human existence, and a sunny day is a desperate attempt by Mother Nature to make the pathetic little animals of the earth look like they're happy for a few hours.
These days, I forget that place exists. As long as I'm getting enough sleep and working out occasionally and not PMSing, I assume everything will work out just fine. I guess it's too hard to make it through the world otherwise, assuming that everything will fall to pieces. But every now and then, when I'm in a bad mood, I get angry at myself instead of just allowing the heavy, dark, sad, wilty, drained, hopelessness of life to seep in.
And then, on a day like today, the dark clouds gather (ahem, literally) and it rains hard, and I drift around town, first to a cafe to write, then to lunch with a long lost friend, then to a cafe to write some more, where I get your letter, and I'm reminded that everything could fall apart at any minute, and that feels good. It fits the day, somehow, and it works with the music I'm listening to ("For the Widows in Paradise," Sufjan Stevens), and it fills in some gap in my experience lately.
Lately, I think I'm translating sadness - which is a constant, in some form, no matter how happy you are - into 1) anger, 2) irritation, 3) nitpicking, 4) road rage expressed through spitty, unoriginal outbursts like "Cocksucker." and "Fucking idiot." as opposed to livelier statements like "Ah, very nice. Way to drive, chumpy!" or "No, you first! I insist! Tonight is your night to shine!" 4) alienated feelings, but the flat, colorless kind that don't lend you any real insight into anything. I'm experiencing sadness only occasionally, through 1) sad dreams, 2) sad songs, 2) the low moments on "Deadwood." But those experiences aren't really sinking in - they're fleeting, consumed like other transient bits of media.
I'm blocking it all out. And that's a pretty normal state of things for most people. You can't always feel everything the right way - there is no right way - or the healthiest or most complete way. When you're sad you forget that happy is an option. When you're happy (relatively), you block sad out of the frame.
Blocking sad out of the frame sucks, though, because then your negative feelings take ugly, annoying forms, like self-hatred and moodiness and depression. Comparing rich, deeply-felt sadness to irritation and vague depression is like comparing a heartbreaking Italian opera to the hollow sound of nails screeching across a blackboard.
So. When you go to Europe and contemplate an odd, lonely new life or a sudden, untimely demise, when you wander around nibbling on really good cheese and tasting good wine and thinking it's all bullshit because your woman is gone and your brother is gone and who the fuck will be the next to go anyway?, what you're actually doing is exploring a warmer palette of colors to paint with for the rest of your life. You're ensuring that good will be beautiful and so will bad, that tiny little things will always matter way, way too much and music will hit you in the gut and the sky will look very very different from day to day.
Things could be worse. If you were very depressed, everything would just look flat and gray, and there'd be no drama and nothing to care about. You care about a lot of things, actually. If you were addicted to heroin or speed or even alcohol, you'd be irritated and manic and desperate and you'd hate everyone in your path, and you would require huge volumes of bad just to feel a tiny amount of good.
Sadness puts you in touch with all of your reasons to keep living. Sure, there are no guarantees that you'll make it another day, or that anyone will, and of course that's impossibly difficult for anyone to come to terms with. How many of us have made our peace with that fact? Maybe 1 percent of us? Maybe no one has, really. But sadness is your ticket to the rest of your life. By feeling truly, completely terrible, you're welcoming in the possibility that you might feel overwhelming happiness. And the two emotions are equal - one is not better than the other. The curse of growing up American is that we're taught to feel so certain that sadness is shitty and shameful, and happiness is big and bright and makes us act like talkative, loudmouthed, chirpy anchors on the local news.
So, with that in mind, I want to encourage you to have a very, very sad vacation. I hope that you find many opportunities to absolutely bask in your sadness. Sadness as big and hefty and scary as yours really only comes around once in a very blue moon, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. So fucking enjoy it! Drink some sangria and eat some olives and look at the very small things: droplets of olive oil, that leaf on the pavement, the slightly sympathetic look on the waiter's face when he hears your crappy accent, the slant of the sun across the walls in your lonely hotel room. Collect these images: dank corners, wilted things, things that sag, things that might break at any moment. Buy a little journal and write shitty poetry in it and be painfully aware of what a walking cliché you are. Meditate on just how sad you are. Breathe in your sadness, welcome it into every cell in your body. Encourage it to stay for as long as it likes. Support its efforts to ruin your day, your month, your year. When you feel terrible without resisting it, you're honoring your complexity as a human being, and honoring the exquisitely beautiful complexity of the human experience.
God, I feel so damn good just thinking about what a terrible, soggy, hopeless time you'll have!
Friday, March 04, 2005
123 4,5 678 9,10 - 11, 12!
You know those days when your eyes won't focus, and your mind won't focus, and both keep fuzzing over and pulling you out of whatever you're working on? And you can hear the excuses in your head, and somehow they're comforting? "It's raining. You should make oatmeal raisin cookies," your mind says. "You're going to get sick. You should go back to bed. You should read last weekend's New York Times magazine. You never got to it. Another one will be here in two days. It's time to act!"
It's a good day for curling up in bed with all the crap you didn't read this week, but wanted to. It's not a good day to look at the big picture, or plan anything, or make big decisions. Something about today, something in the air is telling the big picture to go fuck itself. The big picture can only drag you down when what you really need is cookies and magazines.