November 25, 2012

That Smell


That smell. That sour-sweet-earthy smell paired with the bite of the mid-fall wind puts me right there on 52nd street on the north side of town.

Even as I write this, I can smell it: it's October, and I can almost feel crabapples from the Grady’s tree pop with a thud under my feet.

These were all harbingers of winter – the smell, the bite, the pop. It meant things were dying and temporarily ceding their place to make room for blankets of snow.

The dying never bothered me. In fact, I looked forward to the smell and this natural cycle that meant backyard igloos, “face washes” (courtesy of my brother) and snow days off school were on the way.

Two years after mid-October of 1988, that smell was a punch in the gut. Tears started streaming from some internal well unknown to me up until that point.

Evidently, my mom’s diagnosis of liver cancer, her struggling through it for weeks and her death one week before Thanksgiving had tied that smell to that time.

That’s when I started to hate – hate that smell and the natural cycle. So I let that smell beat the heck outta me for about five years. Then I learned to ignore it, and then finally came to live alongside it at that time of year, albeit with a muted dread.

Look, I'm no anomaly. There are plenty of folks struggling with the loss of a parent, child, spouse, marriage, job, you name it. So here’s what I know: The triggers – be it smells or songs or food – sneak up.

They choke out the tears at the most inconvenient times and you may find yourself welling up at a board meeting…or at the mall…or in the car, and before you know it you and the steering wheel have a little secret.

But the triggers also lessen as the years go by because life moves on.

Between working, raising a child to be a decent human being, nurturing a marriage, fighting off the ever-present 800lb pound woman who’s continually trying to claw her way out of me, and figuring out what day I’m supposed to be in what room wearing what clothes, life hasn’t left a lot of time for breathing in that mid-October smell.

And that’s a good thing.

The anniversary of any loss is a hard and rocky road to travel. Holidays can make the road seem even harder. But all roads lead somewhere, whether the loss happened five, ten or even twenty years back.

The road I’ve traveled since losing my mom at nineteen and then my dad in the same year Georgia was born has brought me to a place where I’m healed a little bit more.

Now I can breathe in that smell, and it doesn’t hurt as much, but most importantly, I can appreciate the aroma…and look forward to the natural cycle once again.

November 6, 2012

Do the Right Thing

It’s beginning to become uncomfortably routine: disaster strikes by either an act of God or deranged person, and then we see them: the better angels in all of us. Celebrities hop on fundraising bandwagons for humanitarian organizations, “everyday heroes” do valiant deeds to sustain people in the hour of need and rival politicians beat their swords into plowshares as the rest of us look on and wonder why it takes a tragedy for people to simply. Do. The Right. Thing.
At least I do. I mean, why is it so hard to help? To really look someone in the eye who’s in distress – even a little distress – and help? It’s not for lack of people who are hurting, that’s for sure.
Just go to the store. Park your car in the first open space. Grumble to yourself that the space is ten miles away from the entrance and that you’re stuck hauling groceries alone. After working all week. Again. You see her, a woman about your age. She’s crying.  Weeping. It’s that familiar cry as if she’s just found out about a loved one’s death. And you know that gut wrenching cry because you’ve cried that way before. You’ve heard your own sobs that seemed to have been coming from someone else. Only now it is someone else. You start to run over because you want to say really, it’ll be okay even though you don’t know what’s wrong, or if it’ll really be okay…but that cry. You remember that cry and how all you needed to hear was that it. Would. Be. Okay. But your mind sees two other older people, maybe her parents comforting her, and you convince your feet that her parents are helping her, and that they should just head toward the entrance. Your feet obey, and even though something within you is relieved, you never forget that woman or her cry.

Years later, a different parking lot at a different store. Jamie, Georgia and I were piling in the car on our way to the next Saturday thing when I saw her. A different woman. “Jamie, she’s crying…” as if he could fix her situation just as easily as he fixed our vacuum cleaner. He swung the car around and caught up to her. “Honey, are you okay?” even as I was still halfway hoping she’d say she was fine, but she didn’t. “Between sobs she answered “I…have…to…get…my baby!”
You know, there’s something about a panicked, pained voice. “Where’s your baby?” She told us that he was less than six blocks away, and even though she was walking fast, she was still walking. Jamie and I looked at each other and in two seconds, she was in the front seat with him, and I was in back with Georgia. She stopped crying, but hadn’t really calmed down, and to be honest, I blanked out on what to say. But Jamie didn’t. Like a first responder, he calmly asked some critical questions: Is your baby in danger? Are you in danger? Can we call 911? Is your husband going to hurt you or the baby?” All her answers were negative. We pulled up to the house, and Jamie waited until she was in safely, and took careful note of the address.

And then we went onto the next thing. But I couldn't help but think...
People who need us are messy. That woman was sobbing, breathing hard and near hysterical. It was messy. Maybe we just like our messy-people-in-need at arms-length, far enough where a check will help them – or at least out of earshot. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
Even if we help, everything won’t be okay. We can’t always make the crying stop or make everything magically okay. Maybe deep down, we know the only thing we can do is help someone limp along. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
We’re not gamblers. Look, I know some people would say we took a gamble by loading up a complete stranger in our own personal space and going into an unfamiliar situation. They’d be right. And even though it was the right thing to do, it was a hard thing to do because of that. But leave it to Georgia to remind me why we we get messy, accept that we can only do so much and take the gamble -- and just do the hard things when she said:
“Well…we did the right thing, and God knows about it… right?”