Stay Gold

Zack's Lake

I hit an animal driving away from Mom’s nursing home on Christmas Eve. It was dark on the back country roads, and the little one came out of nowhere, white and fast. The thunk she made on the front of my Forester was like all the animal thunks–nauseating, heart-wrenching, far too loud for her tiny size.

I circled back to find her, searching desperately in the glow of multi-colored Christmas lights strung on rickety fencing, but she was gone. All she left behind was white fur and saliva streaks on my car, and an endless stream of tears running down my cheeks.

“Please don’t let her be a pet,” I cried into the darkness. “Not tonight. Not on Christmas Eve.”

I’ll never know if she was a pet. I just know that I hit her. My car is big, and she was… so small.

I wracked my brain to find meaning in the knowledge that I killed an innocent animal on Christmas Eve, but the only lesson I found was this: Life happens. Death happens. Relationships change. Marriages end. Families rearrange. Loved ones are lost. People come and people go. Friendships. Pets, too. Even white, small, unexpected ones. Nothing stays the same. Not even on Christmas Eve.

My four grown kids bonded over the holiday over bad beer, board games, and trail hikes. They skipped stones on the frozen pond and played catch with the pups. They ate vegetarian lasagna and peanut blossoms and molasses cookies. They half-completed a puzzle of pastel ice cream cones.

They were here. And four days later, they were gone, off to celebrate a second Christmas with their dad. I cried as I washed their sheets, and I smiled as I packed up the gifts they gave. So much happiness contained in such a short slice of time. So much sadness, too.

Our lives are different now. Reassembled in a new way. Not just by divorce, but by the passing of time as well. Sam starts his new job in July after he travels through Europe. He doesn’t yet know where he’ll be assigned. The other three will be in different colleges in three different states.

My job situation leaves my own life unsteady and unsure. I, too, could land anywhere. A different city, a different state, a park bench.

So, these days together that are few and far between? I will do my best to treasure the messes and the crumbs and the smell of stale PBR cans. I will fold their clothes and listen to them laugh and yell at each other over heated games of Yahtzee. When they ask if I want to play backgammon, I will say, “Yes. YES!”

Robert Frost knows. Ponyboy, too…

Nothing gold can stay.

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By the Numbers

Christmas Ruby4: Number of months since I lost my job, my primary source of income, and my insurance.

337: Dollars left in my checking account.

3: Nights I spent in the hospital with a severe asthma incident right before losing my job.

12: Unpaid medical bills sitting on my counter.

93: Puffs left on my inhaler. (I’m rationing them until I’m insured again.)

2: Times I have looked over my ninth floor balcony and considered a jump.

4: Reasons I would never actually do it (all of whom share my last name).

1,000: A wild guess at the number of tears cried every day. But it has to be close.

3: Angels who sent unsolicited funds to help keep me afloat.

73: Number of personalized resumes and cover letters I’ve written since mid-September.

12: Days until Christmas.

0: Presents purchased.

6: Inches I cut off my hair.

1: Amount that has grown back since realizing I still don’t look good with short hair.

2: Rescue pups who love me no matter what my bank account says.

222: Pages in my finished memoir. The upside to not having a job is having time instead.

You might wonder why I’m sharing such private information. It’s this: I’ve seen the underbelly of despair over the past four months. I’ve cried myself to sleep more nights than I’d like to remember. I’ve felt the sting of rejection over and over and over again. I’ve questioned my worth, my talent, and my ability to make a difference in this world.

There are days I put Sissy in the car with me so I know I won’t be tempted to drive my pretty Subaru — the one I bought when things looked so much better — into a tree. On those days, I value my sweet pup’s life far more than mine. On other days, too. There is a sense of loneliness and despair in being unemployed, uninsured, and unable to find your place.

Day after day, I struggle to keep my head above water — emotionally and financially. In the mornings, I begin with new hope. By the day’s end, I am flattened again. It is a vicious, unending cycle.

And here’s what I’ve learned…

I am so lucky.

When I take my dogs across the street to where my homeless neighbors huddle together for warmth and companionship, I know I will never have to walk in their shoes. I have friends and family who will catch me before I fall that far.

But my homeless neighbors don’t. They didn’t. And I understand very intimately now how close to homelessness I could be if I didn’t have those who love me in my life.

How far away are we all from ruin? One paycheck? Ten? Twenty?

How far away are we all from despair? One lost relationship? Ten friendships ended?

I read recently of a once-successful business man who took his own life after becoming homeless. I get it. I do. When you are struggling to stay alive — every day of your life — you wonder if it’s worth it. If you’re worth it. And it’s easy to believe in the lie of “no.”

I will get to the other side of this. It may not be pretty, and I may lose everything in the process, but I will persevere. That stubborn little redhead who used to hold her breath until she passed out is still inside of me.

I’m not afraid of starting from scratch. And I’m not afraid of doing whatever I need to do to survive. I watched my single mother work three jobs to keep food on our table. I know what survival looks like.

But there are others who don’t.

So, in this season of giving, please remember them. When your office asks for donations of clothes and gifts and food, please contribute. When a homeless neighbor asks for help, please reach out. And if you can’t give money, please give your time. Or at least give a smile.

It’s easy to feel invisible when you’ve lost everything.

See them.

Hear them.

Love them in any way you can.

After all, as Ram Dass so beautifully says, we’re all just walking each other home.

 

 

 

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Life at 49

RubesI am trying to stay positive. I am trying to remember everything that remains rather than dwelling on what I’ve lost.

But so much has been lost.

Much of that is my fault.

Much of it is not.

Much of it is simply life.

Choices. Consequences. Paths that twist and turn and diverge. The unexpected. The known. The glorious highs. The gut wrenching lows. This is life for all of us. This is what it means to be human.

But without a job, without money, without insurance, I am struggling to keep my head above water–emotionally and financially.

How does it come to this? Nearly 50 years of trying to live right, to raise good kids, to be a kind and loving mom, to be a supportive wife, to be a good friend, to build a business, to work hard, to write your heart out… and to feel so alone, broken, jobless, penniless, with medical issues, and threats of small claims court by one who used to love you.

Of course, I’ve made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. There are words I wish I could take back, hurts I wish I could heal. There are situations I wish I’d handled differently, pains I wish I hadn’t inflicted. But every day, I try to do better. To be better. And I feel like I’m getting worse–like I’m turning into someone I hardly recognize, someone I don’t want to know.

Someone no one wants to know.

There are days that I feel I can conquer the world. Like I am a phoenix about to rise from the ashes. Like these past three years of pain and sadness and reclamation will have a happy ending–the one that comes when you live your truth and share your story and claim your own path, the one you denied yourself for so very long.

And there are days like this. The drowning. The tears. The hopelessness. The overdue bills. The waning checking account. The shooting back pain that takes my breath away. The heaviness of friends who weren’t really friends. The Lonely. Lonely. Lonely.

“You’re so smart,” people say. “You’re so good at what you do. Something big is coming your way–I know it. The people who have left weren’t really your people. This is all temporary.”

But the temporary feels like forever when every day is a struggle.

This is my life at 49.

I thought, somehow, that it would be different.

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Meeting Indiana Bones

animal-beautiful-animal-black-dog-2742261

It’s no secret that the past couple of months have been challenging in every way–emotionally, financially, medically, professionally. And on the heels of a few extra challenging years, I wonder sometimes when I’ll get to take a breath again. One that feels more like a restorative exhale than a sharp, anxious intake.

Today wasn’t that day.

I left the house for a late lunch because I had to get out. When the darkness pulls on me, my bed is far too alluring. Productivity often has to happen outside my door, or I can easily sleep the hours–and the days–away.

Walking back home, Taylor Swift’s “This Love” was playing a private performance in my ears, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. As I waited for the light to change before crossing the road before me, I noticed a small black lab and his owner standing on the other side. The pup and I made eye contact, and he began to wag his tail wildly.

When the light changed, the owner and her dog waited for me. “I’ve never seen him so excited to see a human he doesn’t know!” she said.

“Maybe we knew each other in another life,” I said as the dog gently jumped up and wrapped his paws around me.

“He’s a hugger,” his owner said. “He’s a trained emotional support dog. He knows when someone’s having a bad day.”

My breath caught deep in my throat as I leaned over to hug my new friend, tears falling freely into his thick, black fur.

“He knew,” I agreed. “He definitely knew.”

I wiped my snot away with the back of my hand.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Indiana Bones,” she replied.

I leaned down to hug him again.

“You don’t know how much I needed to meet you today, Indy,” I said. “Thank you for noticing me.”

Sometimes being seen is all we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Thank goodness there are furry friends offering unconditional love to remind us.

We don’t deserve them, these magnificent, loyal, soulful creatures. But I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

Good boy, Indiana Bones. Good boy.

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The Chapter Formerly Known as 35

Chapter 35I’ve been looking for silver linings lately. It’s a bit of a necessity when you’re unexpectedly unemployed and uninsured.

The biggest, most profound silver lining for me right now is the time I’ve had to work on completing my memoir.

It’s a glass of Cabernet in a local restaurant with Sam Cooke wafting through the speakers and smiling servers who compliment the haircut you’re seriously regretting while you work your way through editor’s notes–the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It’s words that remain and words that must go.

This writing has been so good and so cathartic and so hard. Recording the story of sexual abuse, the demise of your marriage, the rearrangement of your family, and the reclamation of the true you is not a task for sissies.

But the radical truth-telling is, in itself, a silver lining as well.

It’s freedom and breath and an exhale that’s been held in for far too long.

And another silver lining? Pockets of prose that didn’t make the final cut.

I’d like to share one with you today… a chapter that met its fate on the editorial chopping block. It didn’t fit my narrative, but that doesn’t negate its importance.

The message: If you need a break, take it. If you need medication, take it.

The world needs you in all your messy, beautiful glory.

Just you. Only you.

The only you this world will ever know.

~ ~ ~

Chapter 35

It waxes and wanes, the sadness. I was on meds for twenty years to combat it, to keep the demons at bay, but those little green and white pills left me feeling dull, uninspired, dependent. I’ve been on again/off again for a good chunk of those double decades. I’m the worst kind of depressive patient—once I feel better, I take myself off the medication. Then I spiral into the abyss and put myself back on. It’s similar to the way I run my life in general—highest of highs, lowest of lows, a little bit reckless, more than unbalanced.

But for twenty plus years, I’ve also tuned in a little more closely to what my body and mind tell me, what they warn is inevitably coming. I can feel the dark, wet blanket of sadness itching around my neck, and if I catch it in time, I can sometimes—sometimes—eat the right foods and move my body in all the right ways and get more sleep and take a few things off my plate and keep that monster at bay. At least for a while.

I’ve been off my meds for a year now. Most days are great, and I’m able to feel whatever it is I’m feeling, fully, completely, without inhibition. When it’s happiness, I can be almost a bit manic. And when it’s sadness, I have learned to sit with it, to lean into it, to learn from it.

But today, I didn’t sit with it, I fell into it.

Head over heels, tumbling, tumbling, like Alice.

I know I’ve lost control when the tears come and the irrational thoughts make a home in my brain—the everyone-would-be-better-off-without-me thoughts, the tentative plans to make it happen, the pull of the lake bottom beckoning me, the pills in my medicine cabinet a well-stocked back-up plan.

I remember Katy pulling me aside at a weekend long party and saying, “We need to talk.” She led me to my bathroom, threw open the cabinet doors and said, “Fess up, sister. What’s going on? Are you dying of cancer? Are you a pill hoarder? An addict? Tell me now.”

And I laughed then because the sight of all my leftover pill bottles—and Chris’s and Sam’s and Gus’s and Mary Claire’s and George’s—was ridiculous in the light of the sunshine, friend-filled weekend.

But when the night crept in, the fear of throwing them away was real.

What if I someday needed them? What if the Sirens’ Song got too loud? Too insistent?

I could not let them go.

On days like today, though, when money—as always—is as tight as it can be, when deadlines loom and book reviews are scarce and the memoir is writing itself badly and you feel like a fraud and you’re tired of working three jobs to make ends meet and you just want a little breathing room and your life isn’t nearly as glamorous as you thought it would be by now and you’re worried about your marriage and your kids and your most beloved friendships and people you thought were forever have walked away and those who’ve stayed seem distant and cold and your geriatric dogs are sighing at your feet, giving into their final days—this is when the pills and the lake bottom are at their most dangerous. This is when an ending seems more logical—and much easier—than another beginning. This is when you know you’ve reached a critical juncture: ask for help or lose yourself to the dark.

This is when you call your therapist.

This is when you weep with wild abandon.

This is when you consciously make the next choice: to eat, to hydrate, to look into your children’s eyes, to really look.

This is when you say, this too shall pass.

This is when you breathe. And breathe again. And breathe again.

This is when you decide what’s more important: to be alive or to be drug-free.

This is when you know you’ll refill your prescription as soon as the pharmacy opens in the morning.

And so you sleep. Deep. Restless. Grateful for the reprieve.

 

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#WhyIDidntReport

TreeWhen I reported my rape at age 21, two weeks after–in a cold, sterile, eerily quiet room; with the smell of him still, forever, in my nose; after my concerned sorority sister called my mom to tell her; and after all the viable evidence had been scrubbed away repeatedly, obsessively in scalding showers–the male police officer required me to take a polygraph test to prove my story was true.

As if my nightmares weren’t enough. And the shaking that wouldn’t stop. And the tiny, little death behind my eyes. The one that has yet to be resurrected 28 years later. Nearly three decades since he held that knife to my throat in the elevator that took me home, to my college apartment.

When I disclosed my childhood sexual abuse in my 40s, I thought it was solely for me. For my healing. For my heart. I knew no one would ever be prosecuted for the things I was made to do at age 10, 11, 12. I also knew I could not go through the questions and the polygraphs and the vivid, detailed recalls again. The sketches. The eyes that suggested a hint of disbelief. The scribbled notes. The remembered smells and sounds that woke me in a breathless panic at night, year after year after year.

But this truth I could not hold any longer. Not in my hands, not in my heart, not in my words. It was toxic within, eating away at me bit by bit.

Silence so often is.

I had to let it go.

What I now know is that the telling wasn’t just for me. It was for all of us who have first been harmed, then silenced.

It was my cry of solidarity.

#metoo

At 48, I still sleep behind a locked bedroom door, and Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” makes my palms sweaty. The just-right blend of body odor and the perfect, thick heat of a summer night makes my stomach churn, the bile rise. If someone playfully pulls on my ponytail, I am paralyzed.

I am not “fight or flight.” I am “play dead.”

Play dead.

Play dead.

It’s easy because a tiny piece of me already is. I have been well-conditioned by men who greedily took what was never theirs to have. At age 10, 11, 12. At age 20.

One man, I trusted. One, a stranger.

There are reasons why we don’t come forward until we can no longer be held back.

Or be held down.

Literally, figuratively.

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Mauve Sheets and Almonds

GeorgesRoom_0445This weekend, George was invited to play in a Mendelssohn octet at the Toledo Museum of Art. I had just moved a state away for my brand new job, and I made the first of what will be many decisions to not drive back to Ohio. It was not an easy decision. It will never be an easy decision. But life requires making hard decisions sometimes. We are all learning that lesson.

I watched the recording and cried–my handsome, talented boy playing his violin with such grace and passion.

I unpacked boxes and made his bed in my new apartment. I stocked my pantry with almonds and quinoa. He’s a vegan now, my boy. Except when there’s ice cream. Then he’s “low key vegan.” But that’s okay. Life often comes in shades of gray. Black and white is hardly ever sustainable. And ice cream is good.

He had requested gray sheets for his new bedroom in Indiana, a gray quilt. Just gray. But for now, his sheets are mauve. They are the only twin-sized sheets I have, left behind by his big sister, his best friend, who will fly far, far away to college in less than 30 days.

Less than 30 days.

Within that time, my three oldest will be in three separate states, living three different lives. They need so little from me now, and my needs continue to expand: My need for them to be safe, to be smart, to be kind, to make good decisions, to eat some vegetables, to give to those who have less, to care for those in need, to hug, to love, to never leave a man or woman behind in a drunken stupor, to have a heart that breaks so they can learn it’s capable of mending, to be good humans… the best humans they can be. And to answer their mother’s texts. At least most of the time.

And my fourth. My baby. The last to form beneath my skin and under my heart. His mauve sheets are waiting. His almonds, too.

You expect the hard goodbyes when your babies pack up and move to college. You have time to prepare. Time to reminisce. Time to look through baby pictures and smile and remember. But this goodbye was unexpected, and I am missing that boy with every ounce of my being. He was always the one at my feet, talking incessantly, all up in my business. He was the caboose who clamored for attention, and he preferred his Mama’s attention over the rest.

He reminded me recently that he loved sitting on my lap when he was little, but that he often remembered me saying, “Sit still, George, or you’re going to have to get up! Your bony elbows are stabbing me!” And he admitted that he would sit until his tiny feet and legs fell asleep, trying to soften the points of his elbows, afraid that if he moved, he’d lose my lap.

That lap is empty now, taken only occasionally by a small, skittish puppy who is still learning to trust me completely. She misses Lucy, her alpha, who stayed in Ohio with George because Lucy’s old canine hips can no longer handle the twelve stairs up to my second floor apartment. I miss Lucy, too. But they have each other–boy and dog.

And I have this ache in my heart to touch them, to hold them, to have a squirming, precocious, golden-haired boy on my lap just one more time, to have a brown-eyed Lucy pup panting at my feet. “I think she loves me,” George said when we first saw Lucy.

And she does.

As I recently heard Steve Almond (his name so… serendipitous) pointedly proclaim on a Dear Sugar podcast, “The price of an examined life is a certain amount of sorrow.”

I examined.

I examined hard.

And I feel it… this exquisite sorrow.

But there is, of course, the happiness, too.

Life often comes in shades of gray.

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