“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” ~ Coco Chanel

boreas-by-waterhouse

Beauty Depicted in 
“Boreas” by John William Waterhouse

“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~ Harriet Braiker

We just returned home after having dinner at our favorite sushi restaurant. I tried a couple of new rolls tonight: a volcano roll and another roll that I cannot remember the name of for the life of me. It was just the two of us; we only do this about once every two months.

I always feel very superior and healthy when I eat sushi and drink green tea. I can just feel those bad cells being replenished with Omega 3 fatty acides from the fresh fish, and an overall detox of my system from the green tea.

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A Young Elizabeth Taylor Before Her Roller Coaster Weight

I don’t know how much of this is true, but it’s what I like to believe, especially in light of the fact that I seemed to gain at least seven pounds while I was on that new headache medicine, this after noticeably losing some weight. I hate this weight roller coaster. It makes me feel so bad about myself, as if I am just some lump, a bad representation of my former self.

To make things even worse, I was reading a story today about movie villains, and it included a picture spread of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter next to Sharon Stone, as the ice pick killer in Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone, with or without airbrushing, looks fabulous. I am overcome with jealousy when I see her pictures because she is one of those women who just gets better with age.

I know. She has the money for a personal trainer and probably a personal chef, but the fact is that at the end of the day, it’s her body and her face, and I hate how these pictures of beautiful women make me feel.

“Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, a good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-dressed, well-groomed, and unaggressive.” ~ Marya Mannes

I also know that I am not the only normal woman who feels this way. Society has conditioned females to be in a state of constant anxiety about their bodies, their faces, their conversational abilities, even their choices in shoes. Just peruse the magazine section of any store: the covers are graced with luminous women who look as if they have never gotten up in the morning with crust in their eyes, and hair that looks as if gerbils nested in it.

But what really pisses me off is that after all of these years and all of my women’s studies courses, I am still a victim when it comes to society’s socialization of females.

On the other hand, men do not face nearly the same pressures as women when it comes to looking good, dressing well, and always being outstanding at their jobs. Granted, the whole stigma associated with not looking your best all of the time is starting to infiltrate the marketing aimed at men, but not nearly as profusely as that aimed at women. Yet women still feel a need to be wonderful mothers, sexy spouses, and fearless in the workplace, with each role being a contradiction of the next.

Advertisers in general bear a large part of the responsibility for the deep feelings of inadequacy that drive women to psychiatrists, pills, or the bottle. ~ Marya Mannes

gwyneth-paltrow-advertising-estee-lauder
Gwyneth Paltrow Advertising Estee Lauder

Don’t believe me? Just watch one evening (let’s say three hours) of prime time television. Count the number of commercials aimed at women versus the number of commercials aimed at men. And notice just exactly how these commercials aimed at women are focused. An Applebees commercial in which the men are enjoying hot wings does not fall into the socialization of which I speak; more, it’s just a reflection of how commercials aimed at men focus on enjoyment more than anything else.

Women are assaulted in magazines, on television, on the radio, even on line to get rid of wrinkles, eat yogurt that helps them to be more regular, whiten their teeth with new, better fitting whitening strips, and to end their affairs with their old mops and brooms. How many men are targeted in commercials about replacing brooms and mops with Swiffer Wet Jets? How many men are cautioned about eating more yogurt ? How many men are asked if they get bloated, moody, and crampy every month?

Do you see my point? Men are depicted in commercials as having fun: wearing big Number 1 foam fingers at football games, having beers with a bunch of friends, using the latest portable machine to make their abs rippled like washboards. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a commercial in which a man is bemoaning how awful his kitchen floor looks. In one commercial, a group of men are at the bar, ordering premium vodka or tequila or something while some stylish woman in a black dress has her arm draped around one of the men. She is literally arm candy, while the men are incredibly intelligent for ordering this premium liquor. At least, that’s what I get from this commercial.

Do you ever see a commercial in which a man is complaining to his best friend being bloated? How about one in which someone tells him that he should be wearing better underwear, the kind that gives him more “lift and support”? Now that would be a commercial worth watching. 

“It matters more what’s in a woman’s face than what’s on it.” ~ Claudette Colbert

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The Always Suave Pierce Brosnan as James Bond

Understandably, I am more than a little cynical about this great disparity between the sexes. I mean come on. To look good, a man has to shave and shower and throw on a tuxedo with some clean underwear and shoes that aren’t scuffed.

A woman getting ready for a black tie event needs to shave, shower, pluck, depilatory, put moisturizer on her face, a different moisturizer on the rest of her body, paint her finger nails, paint her toe nails (after using an abrasive skin slougher on her feet to make sure that they are extra smooth), add mousse and gel to her hair, come up with some kind of hairstyle that is flattering, put on concealer, foundation, loose powder, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, lip conditioner, lipstick and gloss. Not to mention finding just the right jewelry and trying on 10 pairs of shoes before deciding on the first pair that she tried.

Bollocks.

I left out at least ten steps in the above, and then after all of this primping, plucking, and preening, I’ll bet you that there isn’t one woman who still isn’t sure that she picked the right dress, or the right shoes, or the right shade of lipstick. And as she is walking to the car, she’ll look down and see what is supposed to be the natural curve of her belly and immediately think that she needs to put on another Spanx to hold in her grotesque fat before she lets anyone see her in public.

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.'”  ~ Shirley Chisholm

We females are socialized from a very early age to try to look pretty whenever possible. We are taught table manners, and the proper etiquette for what to do in a stranger’s home.

Boys grow up to be men who belch and then laugh about it, compare body odors, consider cleaning up to be changing yesterday’s t-shirt, and make it a point to use the decorative soaps in other people’s bathrooms just because they know that they shouldn’t. And all of this is considered to be absolutely hilarious.

I know that I’m generalizing, but I just can’t help but remember earlier in the evening as I was putting the last piece of my volcano roll in my mouth, that I looked down at my stomach and thought to myself, “ugh, I am so fat. I can’t stand myself.” You can bet that when Corey put the last piece of sushi in his mouth, his first thought was probably that he wanted more sushi.

“The test for whether or not you can hold a job should not be the arrangement of your chromosomes.” ~ Bella Abzug

No, not all men are boors, and not all women are preoccupied with their physicality. But the chances are far greater that most of the women you will meet during your life will have said at some point: “I hate my body. I wish that I looked like X.”

alexis-headshot
My Lovely Daughter Alexis

I always wanted blond hair, and my hair is very dark brown. My daughter always wanted dark hair, and her hair is dirty blond. My oldest son, on the other hand, comes into my room and looks in my mirror and says, very confidently, “God I’m sexy.” And then he walks out like a rooster getting ready to take a stroll among the hens. We all have the same genes. But my son has the one thing that Alexis and I will never have: a Y chromosome. And that makes all of the difference.

That Y chromosone is a free pass. It allows the holder to ignore social signals, be completely confident about looks, and to dare anyone to say anything negative about the holder, even when something negative could be said.

Socialization is a bitch, but genetics make socialization moot. No matter how far we’ve come “to get where we’ve got to today,” and even though we have our own cigarettes and razors, it’s going to be a long, long time before someone’s daughter struts into the bedroom, looks in the mirror and says, “God, I’m sexy” without being sarcastic about it.

So let me close with the following:

“I am beautiful as I am.  I am the shape that was gifted.  My breasts are no longer perky and upright like when I was a teenager.  My hips are wider than that of a fashion model’s.  For this I am glad, for these are the signs of a life lived.”  ~ Cindy Olsen, co-owner of The Body Objective

There will be more later. Peace.

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Buying Silk Flowers

cherry-trees-in-bloom-kyoto-japan

Cherry Trees in Bloom, Kyoto, Japan by Q. T. Luong

“Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul.” ~ The Koran

Bringing Beauty Where None Exists

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Blooming Cherry Trees, Akasaka, Japan

This afternoon I created a new floral arrangement to put on Caitlin’s grave. I had hoped to put it together yesterday, but I still did not have everything that I needed. I used to perform this ritual every year, twice a year. I would buy silk flowers and make an arrangement for spring and summer, and place it on Caitin’s grave on her birthday—March 26.

Then I would make another arrangement around the end of October for fall and winter. I would put this arrangement on her grave near the anniversary of her death—November 7.

Eventually, I stopped this ritual. I don’t remember exactly when, but I think that it was near the time of my father’s death, which also occurred in November. I cannot remember why I stopped or what was behind my thought process.

But this year, I decided that I really wanted to make a new arrangement and go to the cemetery. My desire probably arises from my recent series, Vale et Memini, in which I chronicle Caitlin’s illness and death.

So I purchased silk flowers again, and it took me back to those days gone by in which the actual ritual of selecting the flowers was enough to set me back for days, sometimes weeks. I would walk the aisles of Norfolk Wholesale florist for hours, putting together flowers, and then putting some back because I did not like the color scheme. Every choice that I made was personal and instigated by my need to bring beauty to a place that is not beautiful.

I remember that after we buried Caitlin in the infant cemetery, I was so depressed by the lack of trees and fresh blooms in that particular section of the cemetery.

Most of the older sections had beautiful maples and oaks surrounding the periphery, but not the infant section. Consequently, I approached the groundspeople about purchasing trees for the plot. Based on their recommendation, we purchased five Chinese Yoshino Blooming Cherry trees. They planted four along the back of the lot, and one on the end of the row where Caitlin was buried.

This was a family project. Everyone in the family contributed money towards the purchase. Then, about four years later, we purchased one more tree to be planted on the other end of Caitlin’s row.

Now, every spring when the trees bloom, the infant cemetery is surrounded by beautiful pale pink blooms. It was the best investment that I ever made. Other parents hang wind chimes in the trees, and for the most part, the groundspeople do not remove them. At first they thought that I had hung all of the windchimes, but I had not. I was content to have just the trees and the blooms.

The infant cemetery has unwritten rules of conduct for visitors: if someone is visiting, most people will wait in their cars until the parent or relative or friend has finished with their visit so as not to intrude. Many people who visit there do not just clean their children’s gravesites, but will pick up stray trash and set right flowers that have fallen over.

It’s a horrible fraternity to belong to, but at the same time, there is comfort in being with people who are just as devastated as you are and who can truly understand what life has become for you.

On that note, I will close with a few poems from the vault that reflect my varying states after Caitlin’s death.

“Each flower is a soul opening out to nature.” ~ Gerald De Nerval

From the Vault:

cherry-twig1

Cherry Twig by Rose Siegl-Ibsen

On buying silk flowers
for my daughter’s grave. A ritual I have created for myself to prepare me for the anniversary of her death, the logic being this:  If I can take her beauty that I have made, then I won’t have to dwell on the painful truth that brings me to a grave in an infant cemetery on a Monday afternoon in November.
 

 

 

Norfolk,Virginia in

Forest Lawn Cemetery,
among the stone faces of the cherubs
and the silent marble lambs
I have finally come to know
that it is all here, you see,
that no matter how far I travel from this place,
how hard I try to rebuild with what is left,
the piece of me that was you
will always beckon me to return here–
to this soil, this cold earth,
which cradles but does not comfort.
Nothing is nurtured here.
where renewal is as lifeless
as the silk poinsettias,
lovingly placed, then forgotten
left to fade beneath a late winter sun
warm as April, but without the glory.
In this most solitary of places–
crowded with souls long gone
and those newly taken–
here in this small plot of land,
lie the lost dreams
of too many fathers,
too many mothers,
who buried their hopes with their children
in this ground, fertile with sorrows.

 

 

Last Possible Second

Do you have any idea what it is like to hold someone you love until she dies?  Until that last second when all sound is gone and you are sucked into a void—complete nothingness.  And then the monitor doesn’t make that steady beep any more, and all of a sudden, you hear all of the sounds that had been there all along, but you had just stopped noticing them:  the footsteps, the nervous coughs, the sounds of the other monitors attached to other patients.  But most of all, you hear your own heartbeat.  It starts somewhere deep inside of your gut and pulsates relentlessly within your ears.  And you would give anything if the sound would just stop.  If your heart would just stop.  If all of the noise would just stop.  Because if it did, then you would never have to move into that next second when you know for certain that all possibilities have ceased to exist and that the pain—a pain that you have never felt before, are unfamiliar with, are not used to assimilating and reacting to—that pain has only just begun to consume you.  So you wish most of all that your own heart would stop, just as hers did.  And then neither of you would ever have to feel the pain again.

 
Small Silent Victories

I did not.
I did not go.
I did not swallow
the handful of pills on
what would have been your first birthday.
I did not allow myself to return to the emergency room
to slay the resident who said you only had a virus.
I did not allow myself to stay barren forever.
I did not let myself stop feeling things when
I could have stopped feeling anything.
I did not forget how to love others.
I have not forgotten how you smelled.
I have not forgotten you.
I have not left.
I am still here.
I am, still.
I am.

 
More later. Peace

Lives in Pieces: Vale et memini (Goodbye and I Remember)

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Yellow Roses by Michele Tramontana from Ramsey Art Gallery

Part 5: Yellow Roses

We put our daughter in the cold November ground on a Thursday. I had called Kathleen on Monday when Caitlin died and asked if she could come. She replied that of course she would be there.

On the Tuesday after Caitlin died, Paul’s mother took the two of us to make arrangements. We purchased a lot in the infant cemetery at Forest Lawn, an old cemetery in Norfolk. We went to a headstone place, and Paul’s mom said that she and Paul’s father would like to buy the headstone for Caitlin’s grave. I asked that the following be inscribed under Caitlin’s birth and death dates: “God hold you in the hollow of his hand and give you peace.”

We made arrangements to hold the funeral service in a funeral home in Ghent in downtown Norfolk. We chose this particular place because it was close to the hospital and medical school, and only a few miles from ODU. We knew that people would be coming from work and many would need to go back to work immediately after the service.

Since her coffin was so small, we only needed two pallbearers. We asked Winn, Pat’s husband, and Chris Hunt, one of our best friends since grade school.

On the day of the funeral, I was handing out Valium like they were Sweet Tarts. We did not have an open casket or a viewing. Caitlin had already been through so much that Paul and I thought that it would be intrusive to put her on display. We did request that the casket be left open before the service so that all of the family could say goodbye. I remember looking down into this small white casket and seeing my beautiful brown-haired daughter lying there. It felt as if the ground beneath me were going to open up and swallow me. Part of me wished that it would.

We had given the funeral home one of Alexis’s dresses that she had worn on her first Easter. The white dress had a very thin band of pink piping, and it had an accompanying bonnet that was very large and trimmed in white lace. Part of the reason for choosing Alexis’s dress was my attempt to tie the two girls together in my memory. They had spent so little time together in real life.

However, I did not want Alexis to come to the funeral. Her preschool teacher volunteered to watch her until later that afternoon. Perhaps it was the wrong decision, but at the time, I really did not feel that Alexis was old enough to handle what was sure to be a very emotional atmosphere at her sister’s funeral. I mean, how could a small child handle what her two grown parents could not?

Before they closed the casket, I put one of Caitlin’s small stuffed animals in the casket with her. Then I kissed her for the last time and walked back into the family waiting area.

My mom and dad had bought the spray for the top of the coffin. Paul and I also requested a vase of yellow roses be placed next to her coffin. I had come to associate yellow roses with Caitlin, but to be honest, I cannot remember why.

The minister from my mother-in-law’s church who had baptized Caitlin performed her service. It was a very personal and moving service. He recalled how when he had visited Caitlin in the hospital the few times before she went into PICU, she would smile at him. Then I read a poem that I had written for Caitlin. At first, I had asked Kathleen to read the poem, but on the actual morning of the funeral, I realized that it was something that I needed to do. I made it through the entire poem without breaking down. Then I sat down and began to weep.

So many people showed up for Caitlin’s funeral: people from the medical school, doctors and nurses from the hospital, all of our family and friends. It was amazing, actually. I remember standing in the little bathroom with Kathleen before the service and watching the people park and get out of their cars. I never expected such a turnout. I also remember hearing the organ playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the background. I turned to Kathleen and said, “That song should never be played on an organ,” even though it was one of the songs that I requested.

The drive to the cemetery afterwards seemed to take forever. Kathleen drove Paul and me. I sat in the front with Kathleen, and Paul sat in the back. I rambled on about inconsequential things, but Paul was silent.

The service at the graveside was short. And then afterwards, kind of spontaneously, I stood to the side so that I could be in the sun. People started to line up to talk to me. We hadn’t expected this, and Paul had already walked off a little to the side to speak to a few of his friends. I just remember hugging so many people, and then, out of the blue, Johnny, my former Catholic boyfriend, was there.

He took me in his arms, and I began to weep uncontrollably. I hadn’t expected to see him, but when I did, I was overwhelmed.

After the funeral we went home, and many people came to the house. My uncle ordered an entire spread of Chinese food, on top of all of the food that other people had brought. I ate nothing. Instead, I sat in my Bentwood rocker holding Caitlin’s bear, and drank wine.

As people left, I pressed food on them, assuring them that Paul and I did not need the extra food. Pat and Winn stayed until the end. Chris and his wife also stayed a long time. Sarah was there, and people from work. After the final guests left, Kathleen told me that she was going to drive back to Alexandria. Part of me really wanted her to stay, but another part of me just wanted to be alone.

Finally, when there was no one left in the house, Paul went for a long run, and I laid down on the bed with my black Lab Mokie and wept. I was certain that I would run out of tears, but it was as I had suspected in the hospital: my tears were endless. You see, while we were still in the hospital those last few days, I was on the verge of tears all of the time. Different people, doctors, nurses, friends, would tell me to go ahead and let it out. I would tell them that I was afraid that once I began to cry that I wouldn’t be able to stop.

The next morning, Paul and I realized that we could not stay in the house a moment longer. I packed hastily, and we drove to the mountains. We stopped by the cemetery on our way out of town, and I pulled a carnation from the flowers that still surrounded her grave. We ended up on Skyline Drive. It was our first time there together. At one of the scenic overlooks, I tossed the carnation over the side, but the wind caught it and blew it back towards me. I had wanted to give Caitlin to the mountains symbolically, but my attempt had failed.

We drove and drove and ended up in Front Royal, Virginia, the other end of Skyline Drive. We stayed in a horrible hotel because we couldn’t find any other lodgings. When we got up, we headed for home and uncertainty.

We picked up Alexis from my parents’ house, and we drove home.

I went into the girls’ bedroom and ritually touched everything that had been Caitlin’s. I was trying to absorb her into my body in any way possible. Some of the clothes that we had brought home from he hospital still smelled of her. I took the outfit that she had been wearing when she was first admitted to the hospital and put it in a sealable bag. For months afterwards, I would open that bag and inhale deeply.

I slept with Caitlin’s bear at night. I moved through the days as if I were surfing on quicksand. I honestly don’t remember very many details about the first couple of months after her death.

I remember finishing up the semester at ODU. My students, some of whom had attended the funeral and sent cards, were incredibly kind when it came time to do my evaluations. My colleagues also very gentle with me.

Christmas came, and it was all that I could do to force myself to make merry for Alexis. Somehow, we managed. I had only bought one present for Caitlin for Christmas, and this was early in September when we all thought that she would be coming home. It was one of those baby gyms that an infant can lie under and kick at and pull on. It remained under the bed.

Our lives had been forever changed. We had no idea how to move on except to move through the days as best we could. We went to one group therapy session for parents who had lost children. The pastor from the hospital had invited us. I spoke; Paul did not. After it was over, Paul looked at me and said that he never wanted to go back. We didn’t.

For parents who have lost a child, life becomes a task of mere survival. Some people are better at it than others. Most marriages do not survive such a loss. Ours survived another 10 years and two more children. We really thought that we had beaten the odds, but in the end, we became another statistic.

Next: The final chapter: A Time for Keening.

                                                                                                 

Part One: Young and Seemingly Immortal (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Two: Anamchara, My Soul Friend (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Three: I Dream of Oranges (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Four: When Life Was Forever Changed (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/15/)