“The tongue like a sharp knife . . . Kills without drawing blood ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

 

“Pandora,” by John William Waterhouse (1896, oil on canvas)

“The evils of the body are murder, theft, and adultery; of the tongue, lying, slander, abuse, and idle talk; of the mind, covetousness, hatred, and error.” ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

I’m sitting here in a white cotton sweater that is probably sixteen years old. I love this sweater, even though it is torn. It is soft and comfortable, and it reminds me of my friend Mari, who gave it to me one Christmas.

"Pandora and Her Box," by Warwick Goble

I have a lot of things that are this old. I’m not complaining, just noting. Why? Well, I’m a tad upset, actually more than a tad, and once again, it has to do with my mother, the woman who can cut me down in two sentences and never glance back.

Today Corey stopped by her house to use the fax machine. My mother had a bone to pick. She asked Corey if we (more specifically, I) had made any big purchases lately. He was, understandably, confused as our purchases are limited to groceries and shampoo. My mother told him that she had heard we had bought a new big bookcase for the living room. I know where she heard this from—my other m-i-l, whose visit I mentioned a few posts ago. My other m-i-l noticed the large wardrobe that is sitting in the living room, the one that is supposed to go in the bedroom, but the bedroom has yet to be painted or carpeted.

This piece of furniture is very large and heavy. Moving it is not simple or easy; hence, we have not moved it into the bedroom. We purchased this piece of furniture four years ago with cash from our tax return at a time when money was not a concern as we were both working in good paying jobs. That this furniture is still not in a bedroom is a reflection of the state of our life right now. However, it is not a reflection of careless spending on our part, or extravagant purchases.

Try telling this to my mother who got the information from my other m-i-l, who lives in a constant state of confusion. Corey explained this to my mother, who informed him that he needs to keep me in line. Corey told my mother that I don’t buy anything, that he pays the bills and does the budget and that I don’t even go shopping, all of which is true. I have been shopping on my own once in the last 12 months—at Christmas—and even then I was very restrained and made no purchases for myself.

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.  Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.” ~ Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Pandora's Box," by Arthur Rackham

Now let me pause here to interject a bit of history, and I apologize if I am repeating myself. After Caitlin died, I shopped my way through my grief. I have admitted this and owned up to my mistakes many times over. I worked very hard to overcome the need to shop to fill the emptiness in my life. I still like to shop, when I have money, but I do not have a fierce need to shop, and there is a big difference.

I no longer go out every Saturday and buy things just to buy. I no longer go from store to store to store, picking up things indiscriminately simply because I can. I no longer do this not because I don’t have the money. I no longer do this because I realized why I was doing this, and I no longer have the deep well of emptiness inside of me.

I have moved on. My mother, however, has not. She still thinks of me as that person who shopped and shopped as if my very life depended upon it. I don’t know about life, but definitely sanity. I have tried to tell my mother repeatedly that I am no longer addicted to shopping (and yes, it is possible to be addicted to shopping). I have tried to tell her that I do not spend money without any thought of the consequences.

She, for whatever reason, does not believe me. Hence, the snide comment about a recent large purchase on my part. Why does this bother me so much when I know the truth?

Well consider: How would you feel if you had made a mistake many years ago, and you had learned from that mistake, and you had taken measures to correct that mistake only to have said mistake thrown in your face at any given opportunity?

I can tell you. You would feel like a failure, an abysmal failure.

“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.” ~  Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Psyche Opening the Golden Box," by John William Waterhouse (1903, oil on canvas)

I truly believe that I will never really understand my mother, no matter how long either of us lives. She can be loving and generous and kind, but mostly with anyone but me. She will talk trash about me to just about anyone: my spouse, my children, my friends. She will believe anyone else before me.

There are so many little stories from my life that exemplify this, far too many to bring up, but one in particular illustrates my point: The homes in my parents’ neighborhood had septic tanks before the city installed sewage throughout the area. One time, the tank became clogged, and my parents had to call one of those companies that specialize in fixing such problems. My mother told the workers, my father, anyone who would listen that she was certain that I had thrown a bottle of nail polish down the toilet, and that had led to the clog. I was about 9 years old.

Nail polish . . . really? Why? I never even contemplated doing such a thing, even as a child. I mean, to what end? I didn’t have any nail polish of my own, and as far as I can remember, my mother did not paint her nails. Did the polish appear by magic? I protested my innocence, but to no avail. I had already been judged guilty, so that was that.

I hadn’t remembered this incident until a few nights ago when for some reason, it popped into my head. Funny how memory works.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”  ~  Siddartha Guatama (Buddha)

"Pandora Atop the Opened Box of Evils," by Frederick Stuart Church

I know that I should not let what my mother said affect me so much, nor should I continue to be surprised when she makes these declarations. But it takes a great deal of self-confidence not to let disparaging words spoken about you affect you, especially when spoken by someone who is supposed to love you in the way that a mother is supposed to love. And self-confidence is something with which I still have a hard time.

At the same time, I know that my mother is a product of her generation, a product of the Great Depression, being the youngest in a family with 12 children, being the daughter of a mother who died when she was only eight, and the daughter of a father who drank. I realize that her life as a child was very hard, and not having her mother definitely affected her ability to show love outwardly.

I try to remind myself of these things when she does something to irk me. It helps, but truthfully, it does not lessen the hurt that I feel. I sound like a petulant child. All that is missing is the stamp of the foot and the protestation that “it’s not fair.” So of the two of us, I try to be the adult. All that being said, it would be so nice if just once I felt, truly felt, that she was not sitting in judgment of me.

All I can do, I suppose, is try to remember not to treat my own family in the same way, to let them know that I am proud of them, to tell them that I love them, and to refrain from interjecting past failures into the present. I hope that one day I do not have to read something written by one of my own children only to find that he or she sees me in the say way that I see my own mother.

Counting to ten doesn’t work. A hot cup of tea helps. Writing about it helps to lessen the sting. Time, healing, and all of that . . . scars remain forever, but my scars are the map of my world, each one a wound healed, a memory filed away, a piece of mortality tasted.

Patience. Is. A. Virtue.

More later. Peace.

Music by REM, “Everybody Hurts”

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One of Corey’s Handmade Keepsake Boxes 

“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened” ~ T.S. Eliot

Well, I tried to do a favor for my mom, and it didn’t quite work out the way that I thought that it would. Big surprise. She needs to file an amended tax return for 2007, and since I’m fairly good at taxes, I thought, how hard could it be? It turns out, pretty hard if she does not have a copy of her 1040 in the files. Apparently, my mother has been getting her taxes prepared for free at a community center that specializes in doing tax preparation for senior citizens. Sounds great, right? It would be great if they had given her a copy of her completed tax return; instead, they gave her a summary sheet.

This makes completing the 1040X form darn near impossible since I need to pull specific items off the 1040 for the amended return. Trying to explain this to my mother was almost as taxing as trying to recreate her 1040. My mother is not a stupid person by any means, but she is woefully tech unsavvy, which means that trying to explain to her exactly what I needed and why I needed it turned into a 45-minute conversation. Her response to me was that I should just get on the computer and find her 2007 return.

You see, my mother is a big believer in the permanent record, you know, as in “that will go on your permanent record,” and unfortunately, after watching the Sandra Bullock movie The Net years ago, my mother is convinced that everyone has a permanent record that looms out there somewhere just waiting to be accessed. I tried to explain that I really needed to know how they filed her return, and her response was “the computer.”

Arghh. Good grief, Charlie Brown.

“Some things don’t last forever, but some things do. Like a good song, or a good book, or a good memory you can take out and unfold in your darkest times, pressing down on the corners and peering in close, hoping you still recognize the person you see there.” ~ Sarah Dessen

Yesterday, Corey had a surprise for Brett and me: Corey has been working on a secret project for a couple of months, and he was ready to unveil his project for us. Turns out, he’s been building boxes, you know, as in keepsake boxes. He had seen one in a catalogue that he liked, but it was listed for $30, which gave Corey the idea to see how much it would cost to build one of his own. He built four, images of which are included in this post. It was hard to get a good shot of the Led Zeppellin box as it is very glossy, which does not translate well to a picture with the lighting in our house.

I was pretty impressed. He did all kinds of cost analyses on materials; he tried different techniques, and he came up with four versions. Corey said that he was aiming for a rustic look, kind of like old ammunition and fruit boxes. These four were just his experimental models, he told us. They are nice, solid wooden boxes that can be used to store games, or letters, or whatever. Now I know why there hasn’t been any room in the shed . . .

All of us—the kids, Corey, and I—have our own special boxes in which we put cards, awards, letters, and miscellaneous other things. All of our boxes are full. I have filled three of these over the years. Now I have the “Imagine” box that Corey made with me in mind. Brett claimed the AK-47 box.

Now that he has experimented and seems to have worked out many of the kinks, he says that he wouldn’t mind making personalized boxes for presents, which I think is a lovely idea.

“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory.” ~ Antonio Porchia 

Speaking of presents, we have three birthdays in March: my mother’s, Eamonn’s, and my other mother-in-law’s, on the 15th, 16th, and 17th of the month.  I have no idea what Eamonn wants for his birthday this year, but I do know that he may have to wait before he gets anything. That’s just how life is at the moment.

Other than those tidbits, not much is going on. The Academy Awards were on last night. I did not watch. I find the program itself to be unendurably long and boring, and the supposedly witty repartee that each year’s host engages in inevitably falls flat. I cannot imagine the combination of Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, and from what I’ve read, most people wish that the combo had not been hosting.

I will probably watch the red carpet wrap-up on VH-1 as I love to look at beautiful gowns, as well as the less-than-appealing ones. You know, the ones that make you scratch your head and say, “what could she possibly have been thinking.”

I was very glad that Kathryn Bigelow won for “Hurt Locker.” I have heard many good things about the movie, which is on my want-to-see list. It’s about time a female director won. Part of me really did not want insufferable egomaniac James Cameron to win so that we did not have to endure another “I’m King of the World!” moment.

More later. Peace.

Music by Bon Iver, “Stacks”

Stacks

This my excavation and today is kumran
Everything that happens from now on
This is pouring rain
This is paralyzed

I keep throwing it down two-hunded at a time
It’s hard to find it when you knew it
When your money’s gone
And you’re drunk as hell

On your back with your racks as the stacks are your load
In the back and the racks and the stacks of your load
In the back with your racks and you’re un-stacking your load

Well I’ve been twisting to the sun and the moon
I needed to replace
The fountain in the front yard is rusted out
All my love was down
In a frozen ground

There’s a black crow sitting across from me
His wiry legs are crossed
He is dangling my keys, he even fakes a toss
Whatever could it be
That has brought me to this loss?

On your back with your racks as the stacks are your load
In the back and the racks and the stacks of your load
In the back with your racks and you’re un-stacking your load

This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization
It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away
Your love will be
Safe with me

“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ Kevin Arnold

The Magpie Monet 1869 oil on canvas Musee d Orsay

“The Magpie,” by Monet (1869, oil on canvas), Musee d’Orsay

 

” . . . say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness” ~ From “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” by Michael S. Harper

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone you love in your arms as she is dying? All of the white noise of the hospital room dissipates in those last few minutes. The only sounds that you hear are your own heartbeat in your ears and the sound of someone near you crying. Time becomes suspended, and a part of you hopes that it will remain that way forever, just so that you never have to move into that next moment, the moment when all possibilities cease to exist.

I still remember the weight of my daughter’s body in my arms, still remember the smell of her dark hair, or what was left of it. I can recall vividly the bright overhead lights of the small room, and the way that I stared at the machine that monitored her heartbeat, willing it to remain steady so that all that was left of Caitlin would not end.

I remember how it felt as if my own heart stopped in that moment when hers stopped, and how I wished that it were true so that I would never have to exist in a world in which Caitlin was no longer a part. And then how we all left the room while the nurses disconnected her from all of the machines and removed the tubes that had sustained her. How when we went back into the room, she was lying there in the middle of that big hospital bed, so small, so seemingly perfect, and how I knew that at last she was no longer in pain.

I removed the hospital gown and dressed her in soft white pajamas, and I tried to train my eyes away from the incisions on her chest and arms and legs. I felt the scar on the back of her head where the surgeons had cut into her only two months’ previous, and then I kissed her, caressed her still-warm cheeks, and left.

We walked out into the bright November afternoon, and I thought to myself that it was impossibly cruel that the world outside could still be moving on as if Caitlin had never been a life force among those moving about, completely mindless of her life and her death. After that, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember the car ride home. I don’t remember walking into the house that had been mostly empty for months. I don’t remember getting into bed that night or waking the next morning.

My next memories are of minutiae: picking out a headstone and deciding what to inscribe, taking a dress and bonnet to the funeral home, renting a carpet cleaner and cleaning the carpet and living room furniture, even though they did not need it. I remember my mother-in-law bringing Pizza Tuesday night so that we would eat, and I remember that it tasted of cardboard. I remember Ann going with me to find a dress for the funeral, and how I obsessed over finding finger-tip towels for the bathroom.

I remember the day of the funeral, passing out Valium like it was sweet tarts, standing in the tiny bathroom of the chapel with Kathleen and watching the people pulling into the parking lot, walking up to the podium and looking out at all of the faces of people who had been so much a part of our lives—nurses from the hospital, our friends from the medical school, people with whom I taught at the university, and I remember not being able to distinguish faces.

I remember the ride to the cemetery in Kathleen’s car, and looking behind us at the long line of cars that followed. I remember the late morning sun and the cool breeze. I don’t remember what was said, nor do I remember actually being there during the service, only the moments after the service concluded, when friends began to come up to me and hug me, how surprised I was. I remember looking up and seeing Johnny and collapsing into his arms, sobbing openly in my dear friend’s embrace.

Afterwards, I remember sitting in the Bentwood rocker in which I had held my daughter, drinking wine, and listening to people talk to me. I don’t remember what was said or everyone who was there. I remember that Sarah wore red. And then as people left, I remember pressing food into their hands because the idea of a house full of food made me physically ill.

Awakening Bessie Pease Butmann 1918

             “Awakening,” by Bessie Pease Gutmann (1918):            This is how Caitlin looked with her dark hair and chubby cheeks.

 

“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t undrestand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

These are the things that I remember about those four days in November, remember still even though so much time has passed. And while I know that I have forgotten as much as I remember, it’s the memories that continue to cut so sharply, reopening wounds that have never healed completely.

I know that it is a cliché to say that a part of me died in that room that day, but that does not negate the statement’s truth. A part of my heart closed off completely the moment that Caitlin’s heart stopped beating. The part that had belonged to her grew cold and has never regained its living warmth. I can live with that. I have lived with that. I will continue to live with that.

Death is not a gentle journey for anyone, for those who die or for those who are left. Death is insidious in its ability to weave its way into the sinews of existence and memory. What those of us who remain must do is learn to take that loss and incorporate it into our daily lives. If not, it would be impossible to go on, to move through time with any kind of peace or hope.

The memories of the day that my daughter died and the hours that followed are stored away, and I dare not retrieve them too often lest they break me. But sometimes, it is necessary to open the box in which they reside, even if the doing feels like bloodletting. These memories are not the totality of my daughter, yet they are as much a part of me as the cells that give me life. I have incorporated these memories into my lifeblood, and there they will remain, along with the memories of my father and all of the other memories that make me who I am.

I have come to realize that the ability to recall such intense emotion helps to make me stronger, even if it feels like a little death each time that I do so. It may not seem to make much sense, but embracing every part of the tapestry of my life—the beauty and the pain—affords me my humanity, and given the opportunity, I would not choose to have traveled any other path.

One of my favorite songs from that time: “Cristofori’s Dream,” by David Lanz

More later. Peace.

                                                                                    

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past
     for Josh

How can I explain to you
what it is to hold someone you love
until she dies?
I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—
     it is something so unspeakably personal
     that to watch it, to intrude upon it
     almost cannot be forgiven.
If I try to tell you about the silences
that enclose and isolate,
     you will not understand
     until you, too,
     have felt them.
I cannot describe for you
     the desperation
     with which you will try to pass
     life
    from your arms to hers,
    but you will come to know this as well
    as I once did.
When the moment comes,
     you will not be ready,
     but you will recognize it for what it is—
     that last instant
     in which possibilities still exist.

L. Liwag