Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Letter To Grams With Shades of Hope

(If the video isn't playing, please click here: A Letter To Grams With Shades of Hope to view on Vimeo.)

At Lit Crawl 2008 in Clarion Alley during Litquake, San Francisco's Literary Festival.

Dear Grams,

It’s been five years since you died and I had an itch to write you an update, much like the one I would have given you in your pale yellow kitchen once you waved me in from the window. I’ve been theorizing about the dead for a while anyway, particularly whether or not you all look down to see what remains to terrorize the rest of us.

I envision you dressed in pink cashmere and pearls, your hair perfectly coifed, while gay men, like your best friends Ernie and Alan, flank you on either side. Did you hear their 30-year business and relationship went bankrupt? What a shame. And were you able to catch a hazy glimpse of that garish arrangement Ernie delivered the day you left us? I imagine if you had been there, you would have pursed your Lancome lips around your half-glass of bubbly, and asked Dad to turn up “Unforgettable” on the stereo. Wherever you are, I’m certain you’re still smiling, and I wanted you to know that after two years of hell, I’m finally smiling myself.

I use that bit of wisdom you wrote me on the back of a lined note card as my life’s mantra now, the one from your Christian Science reader that said, “Always do the nearest right thing.” It stuck so that we went ahead and etched it on your gravestone (next to Ernie’s arrangement, which we agreed would be best if it just went with you.)

A lifetime has happened to me since you passed. I finally turned those emails I sent during my two years in Asia into a book, became a writer with an agent, and met the man you always said I would meet. Yes, he took care of me as you had hoped he would, even supported me while I wrote that first book. Bryce was his name, and he could have graced any cover of a Patagonia catalog by kayaking a Class 5 river or skiing off a thirty-foot cliff. He grew a five o’clock shadow after one night sleeping under the Idaho stars, fixed anything that required his keen brain and two hands, and slipped a Gerber knife into his pants pocket with his change every morning. You would have loved him for completing household projects you’d assign him ten minutes after you met. I loved him because of his sensitive heart and the fact that he was a perfect 50/50 mother-father blend, because Bryce favored a brooding dark side. His pupils grew black, taking his green eyes hostage whenever he decided I was in the wrong. And while he loved to cuddle to make amends, he ended up spending more time curled up on the Thai green silk triangular cushion I brought back from Bangkok than he did spooning me. He’d sit on it at the window, for hours silent for days, until the green in the Thai silk worked its way back into his eyes and a smile might just get him standing. When the green returned, that meant his heart might soon follow, and “might” was always good enough for me.

If I knew now what I knew then, I may not have spent weeks, months, or four years trying to get him off that cushion and back into the realistic ebbs and flows of life. Or sulked whenever he got on Craigslist to search the Men Seeking Women once he hit his dark spot, which led him to question his love for me. You see, I never could understand how he couldn’t love me. I was your granddaughter for Christ’s sake and my name even meant “worthy of love.” I also would have refused my role as Bryce’s lifesaver had I known that I came from such a long line of lifesavers. Grams, you always expected me to wait for the man that would adore me, but I lay my excuse at your feet and admit here that I merely followed suit. No man ever adored a woman in my family. My male role model was a loving father who I saw for three days twice a month and the occasional Hush Puppy salesman whose move to win over my mom was to lure me into his catalog of white sandals. And even I knew at age nine that white sandals were tacky.

So at thirty, with a live-in boyfriend, I used my childish antics to survive.

Once Bryce’s moods and attitudes stopped becoming easy targets to pin my blame, I took a two-week trip to rehab this summer, and learned that I could let go of being his lifesaver if I let the love in for me for a change. But don’t worry, Grams, I didn’t just go to rehab this summer, the whole family did.

Sure, most families reunited over cattle on a dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains in order to get that Christmas card photo while wearing matching Polo shirts. The one that makes me puke and others feel envy. Well, Mom, Dad, Laura, Dave, their three kids and I decided to take the dysfunctional family vacation. We traveled deep into the heart of Texas, where the cattle herd only to become slaughtered on a platter as a Porterhouse steak and the families only reunite in order to get their shit together.

And Grams, we had five, 8-hour days to get our shit together.

But let me bring you up to speed as to what exactly brought us there.

After four years of living and loving my moody man, and then cutting the line to finally save myself, Bryce took his own life. I left two years ago this week, and two weeks later Bryce drove his father and our Volvo down a rural Idaho road at a 90 mph clip. He paralyzed his father that day, and spent the next three months bouncing from mental institution to halfway house most likely plotting his own demise until his plan worked. Later that next year, Laura’s husband, Dave, popped every ADD medication prescribed to my nephews, and whatever other pills he could scrounge from their cabinets, and lay himself on the cold cement of their laundry room floor. As I moved through my days dazed in grief, Laura tried to manage, while her family ran itself into the ground. Laura and I had stopped supporting each other, and I ignored her plea at the German bakery in Idaho that summer before when she whispered, “Amanda, get out now.” It wasn’t until we landed in the overly air-conditioned room at Shades of Hope, the best little rehab in Texas, that we realized these problems didn’t start with Laura or with me.

It took Laurie, Ms. Pat, and Ms. Tennie, the Texas therapists who kept us seated in straight back chairs, to help us weed through generations of secrets, withheld confrontations, and a box coined Pandora, which overflowed with codependency.

But Grams, you would have been proud.

On Day 1, I asked the therapists, “I just want to know where this all started?” And on Day 2, Dave, Laura’s husband, read us a letter admitting his thirty-year addiction with bulimia. Laura then read her own, explaining how she dealt with Dave’s disease by shutting down and spending herself into oblivion. On Day 3, it finally came out that Mom didn’t move to Chicago after the divorce so that we could live closer to Dad, but that she left Massachusetts due to the proverbial gun to her head, the one held by the wife of the husband that Mom was in love with. On Day 4, Dad had most of his balls back from that minor shock and happily participated in the group. He took his morning claim and our issues on the floor seriously and introduced himself saying, “Hi I’m Skip. I’m a co-dependent.” I’m certain he was the first white male Republican in Texas to do so. And finally, by Day 5, Mom stopped making jokes to cover up her pitfalls. I think it helped that she had spent the whole night before puking up her emotions (though she blamed it on the Porterhouse steak) and that I vowed to myself that I’d take care of her for the last time. You see, Grams, I found my answers in that air conditioned room, and as I took care of Mom lying on the bathroom floor. None of this started with Bryce, or with Dave, it never does. It started with Mom, and with her Mom, and with your first husband, Dad’s dad, and with his dad before that. Then it trickles down until the secrets become suicide.

It turns out Dad married Mom so that he wouldn’t have to admit to his college buddies that he didn’t think their cement hulled boat would sail them around the world, and Mom married Dad so that she could have babies that would finally bring her happiness. And I sat as a vegetarian in a catfish restaurant laughing out loud at both of them, saying, “Now those are good reasons to get married.”

It took just five days, Grams, all at Shades of Hope. There were shades of darkness and moments of light, but it took remembering your “nearest right thing,” to know that no matter what had happened in the past, there was hope to be had in my future.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My Boyfriend ’s Ashes

I met my boyfriend’s brother for coffee and walked away with my boyfriend’s ashes. As I stood waiting for my name to be called, hoping for distraction from the silence, I took a deep breath. In the last fifteen minutes, I hadn’t heard his brother once say my boyfriend’s name. You might think that made it easy for us to meet on a sunny day to talk in a crowded coffee shop, but it wasn’t. Because now that my boyfriend was gone, his brother and I had a lot less to say to one another.

I expected to talk about his suicide notes or how incredibly scary it was in those final summer months living with my boyfriend, and how I had cried myself to sleep in the second bedroom out of fear. I wanted to tell him that his parents and I had mistakenly believed the cuts on his brother’s wrists had come from a slip of his chisel. I wanted to know if he had also counted five suicide attempts from his brother’s final two-week journal entry, and how his brother could hide anything. As I sat waiting to hear my boyfriend’s name cross his brother’s lips, I wondered if his lack of questions for me meant he had known something that I hadn’t, and had known it so intimately that it would never be shared.

We put our empty mugs on the counter and drove to his house to retrieve the remaining items that I was meant to have. He asked, “What else is going on?” which had been his most probing question of the morning. Did he want to hear about any romance, or was he thinking that if I shared something then he wouldn’t have to share himself? But therapy, support groups, helpful programs, and new friends had taught me that I only had to share what was best for me. “Not much,” I said dodging a car that tried to cut me off.

He walked me through my old house, the one I had shared with him, his (and my boyfriend’s) sister, and her husband and daughter. He spoke about the new back porch that would include a handicap ramp for his father, who my boyfriend had paralyzed in a car accident just two months before taking his own life. The ramp would be removable because my boyfriend’s father wouldn’t have his oldest son’s legacy be that he had put his own father in a chair. His father knew he would move his own legs again some day, as did I, because we were both optimists, one of the very qualities that my boyfriend had envied in both of us.

We stepped into the kitchen and he handed me a rock I had given to him that I had stored in my boyfriend’s tool shed. My boyfriend had collected large rocks to build into a fireplace, a fireplace that he fantasized about with me as we lay under a tarp on sand watching moose dunk their heads into the Salmon River on our first Idaho river trip. His fantasies of the future had included me, so I spent our lazy afternoons on rock islands in the river looking for my own rock to contribute. I found a light gray rock with a solid dark gray stripe around the center, outlined on either side with two thin white stripes. An unbelievable rock that had only seen nature, but was found by a city girl. He smiled, throwing it into his handmade dory that we floated. Now I held the rock in my arms, just as I had held him that last time we were together, when we sat in spider position on the carpet facing one another. His tears soaked his neck while he questioned, “What is happening to me?” All I could muster after a year of hell was, “I don’t know,” through my own tears.

As I stood in the kitchen with the rock, I thought back to my attempts to find a container for his ashes last summer while visiting his parents. His mother had found four ceramic jars with corks to distribute a handful of my boyfriend’s ashes to his four siblings, but said that she couldn’t find a container for me. I had mistaken it as a form of silent punishment until she told me the shop where she had bought them so I could see if they had one more. I stood in the kitchen wanting to tell his brother how humorous that day had been, and how grieving sometimes did that to us, gave us laughter as a respite from our pain.

The town where my boyfriend and I had lived for the last two summers only had a handful of shops. I stood in the grocery store aisle with a strange smile, wondering who would ever go to a grocery store looking for containers for their dead loved ones. So I went next door to the shoe/outdoor wear/clothing/houseware store and crept around set tables hoping a perfect container might call me over to its shelf.

“Can I help you find something?” A blonde saleswoman asked while I tipped a container upside down to look inside.

“I’m looking for a small container with a top on it to hold something.” I figured my ambiguity might encourage her to bring options over without me having to whisper “urn” or “ashes.”

She walked me over to a fancy set of salt and pepper shakers, the kind with the glass bottoms and stainless steel tops that twisted right, exposing large enough holes for the salt to seep into boiling water or a pot of bubbling sauce.

“That’s not exactly what I’m looking for. It needs to be unbreakable, and have a top, like a cork, so whatever’s inside can’t escape.”

I wanted to be more helpful for her, until I realized that wasn’t my job. Not now, no more. My chest sunk until I smiled politely at her, “Thank you,” as I turned to leave the store. She smiled confused since she had shown me five containers that would never work. How could she know that the containers weren’t meant for dead boyfriends?

“Here, you can have my container of ashes,” his brother said, pulling me out of my daze. His mother had eventually found an empty jam jar for my ashes, but his brother was apt to keep the jar and give the other container to me. He stood at the junk drawer pulling out rubber bands and tape to wrap around his container that was now mine, the handmade piece of pottery with the cork stuck deep inside so none of his brother could ever come out. He pushed the cork in further with his thumb, wound the rubber band around the cork, and then taped over the cork four times with scotch tape.

“This is so surreal,” I said as he secured his brother’s ashes, reminding me of his brother himself.

“Oh, being here in your old house?” he said deadpan.

“No, you giving me Bryce’s ashes.” I finally said his name as if to jog his memory. “Sometimes I still can’t believe that he’s really dead. I would never have foreseen this years ago.”

“Yeah,” was all he gave in return.

I walked out to the car with the flawlessly lined rock in my arms and Bryce’s container of ashes between my fingers.

“What are you going to do with them?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I remember Bryce and I talked about flying his plane over Africa. Then he had this dream about me and a place I would build for travelers in the Serengeti, so I think having these ashes will give me more of a reason to get there someday.”

I explained to him that a part of me knew that the contents of this small container were no longer Bryce, but then another part of me felt he should go to a place where he had always wanted to go.

“But he’s just going to ride in the van with me for now,” and I smiled, climbing into my van.

I looked down at the small compartment in the console, just behind the gearshift, an ideal place for my boyfriend’s ashes in his small container. I nudged him in there securely, knowing that he would never spill out, and then I drove him home.