Monday, March 24, 2014

One Score and Ten

Do you feel old yet?

Every year. Every damn year, on my birthday, without fail.

Well, let's see. Do I feel more exhausted? Sure. Fatter? Oh yeah. Increasingly disconnected with those around me? Definitely. Less inclined to fight back when pushed? Unfortunately, yes. If those things contribute to the aging process, then yes, of course I feel old. I've felt old since... well, is it possible to be born old?

In a way, it's a little unfair, this being born old. Young people are so fresh, so vivacious, so hungry... even when I was young in years, I was always looking for the calm place, the still place. I don't like surprises, or being shaken up overmuch. No adventure for me... though it looks beautiful from a distance. A friend once asked me at a sleepover what I wanted to be when I got older. After staring at her ceiling in the semi-dark for a minute, I answered with complete seriousness that I wanted to be a pirate. She gasped and said disapprovingly that pirates were godless. I was speechless. I had never thought about it that way. I mumbled something about "fun," I think, and changed the subject. It was impossible for me, at that moment, to describe that I didn't care one sterling shite about the relative godliness of pirates; it was the sheer lack of tether, the freedom of being on the ocean, of being part of a like-minded crew, the idea of wanting something and taking it, if you were able... those were the things that appealed to me. Pirates had their own gods, filthy and vengeful gods, and I didn't care about them. I could taste the salt on my lips and feel the boat rock beneath my feet.

Of course, it was a childish thing to say, and anyone who knows me knows I could never be a pirate, or anything vaguely pirate-ish. I have a hard time taking money from customers whose pets I have helped. But I don't regret what I said. Though I will always find the calm, the still, the safe, my mind will always long for the open ocean, where no man has rule. That, more than anything, makes me feel old.

I think most people feel this, at least sometimes. Terry Pratchett has written about it in his Tiffany Aching series: there's the first voice, which yammers all the time, and can say some damned stupid stuff; and the second voice, which hears what the first voice says and quietly critiques. The second voice is the one that keeps us awake at night repeating everything we've done wrong. Then there is the third voice, which is the hardest to hear - it's the voice that looks at everything and brings it all into focus, as long as we're looking properly. My first voice is transparently awful, and causes me to take root like a mountain; my second voice begs to be let go, to burn like fire; my third voice, as far as I can tell, knows I'm full of it and that I'm the only one holding me back. My third voice knows I'm old at heart, and has no problem with that.

I turned thirty last Friday. Three decades on this earth, not having been killed or severely maimed. I have a son, a few dogs, a lot of nasty scars, an often-decent relationship with my immediate family, a few tattoos, a hundred stories brewing inside me, a first voice that cries and whispers and keeps me still and safe, a second voice that screams and bites and berates the first, and a third voice that can't quite remember how to laugh right now, though everything is funny.

Do I feel old yet? I've never felt young, so I don't know for sure, but I think - I hope - it's possible to feel old first, then young later. I'll tell you when I find the open ocean, and the mountains sink into the sea, when the roots are burned away, and the third voice remembers what laughing is like. If it takes a lifetime, I know I'll get there.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter

This is the coldest winter we've had in a long time. It’s old fashioned. It’s angry.

I step outside and ice assaults me, insinuating itself into my nostrils and ears and behind my teeth. I have to take turns breathing through my nose and my mouth, to prevent either from freezing too fast.

Freeze, frozen, frost, ice, snow. Whoever said it was right: Hell is not fire, it’s ice. Ice never changes, and it hurts. Cuts like glass, hits like a hammer.  

The lake is frozen over. My son asked me where all the ducks went when the lake froze. I told him they went to the Caribbean on a duck cruise. I don't know where they are. In my mind’s eye, they’re just beneath the surface of the ice, wings and little orange feet all tucked up tight, eyes open, waiting, waiting. They’re all belly-up, and facing the same direction.

And, like an afterthought to the cold, my grandmother died last week, after a long and painful battle with dementia and a mob of other health problems.

I want to be honest. For me, she died a long time ago.


The song that runs in circles in my head these days is Holst’s version of “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which seems appropriate, but I wish it wouldn't, simply because the melody is delicate and beautiful, and it’s not for you.

You were a stranger to me, though whenever I look in the mirror I see two things: your face, and the face of my father, your son. I should know these parts, these familiar parts – the story behind them should be our story ­- but instead, I am a copy. Yours is a story I will never hear, and mine is a story you were never interested in hearing.

This should not be about me, and I recognize this. At the same time, though, when has death been for anyone but the living?

Your life was hard. Harder than I’ll ever know: young marriage, childbirth, poverty, drunkenness, and a certain stubborn hatefulness that you always seemed to carry on your chest like a talisman. I’d like to think you were a kind woman, in the story I’ll never know – I’d like to think you were bright and impulsive and brave, instead of vindictive and angry. You must have laughed – you must have smiled and been content in the story I will never know. I want to remember the woman who might have been, instead of the woman who was.

I wrote this five years ago after visiting you:
She said they had moved her to a different house while she slept. She thought she might have been sick – she didn’t hurt, she said, but she slept all day. And when she woke, she was in a different house. And she wanted to go home.
She couldn’t understand why her daughters kept insisting she was already home. She asked my father to give her a straight answer – he didn’t. She asked him, filling the room with awkwardness, and he made light, said as long as you’re comfortable and can find the bathroom. She gave him a Look. She hasn’t lost that.
She’s lived in that house for over forty years now. What house is she living in now?          

The repetitive young pastor said you were a determined, strong lady for living so far beyond the doctors’ predictions. They gave you four, five months; you lasted four years past that. Four incomprehensible, frightened, bed-bound, terminally ill years. You knew no one, anymore – not your own children, your own sisters and brothers, not your beloved Siamese cats, not even yourself. The Black Dog sat at your heels and beside your bed for four long years, as much as you tried to ignore him.

That’s not determination, Patricia. It’s fear. You were afraid to let go.

I know, because I would be afraid, too, deathly afraid. You claimed that you weren't, used words of faith like little shields to deflect the questions, but Patricia, I am your granddaughter. I am one-quarter you. I know parts of your story without ever hearing it. We don’t like fear, but we hold it close, almost as close as we hold our rage, and we deny that it exists.

I’m happy – so happy – that you let go at last.


She would have liked the way she looked in the casket – serene, well-dressed in a pretty pink nightgown, not gaudy or overdone. She would not have liked being put into ground that was frozen beyond solid, but she had no say in the matter.

The lake is frozen over. The whole world is frozen over, and nothing moves, nothing changes. The air outside hits our lungs like a hammer, cuts our flesh smoothly, like glass. This Hell will pass, and when spring comes, you will have always been dead.

When I hear windchimes, I will think of you. When I say hateful words to my son, I will hear your voice within mine. When I see the grainy picture of the fifteen-year-old you, smiling on your wedding day, I will believe that you were brave and brash, the way I always wanted to be, and leave it at that.

Goodbye, Patricia. Goodbye, Grandma. Go home, now. May peace find you, and may you hold it close when it does.