May 12, 2013

The Post I've Feared Writing

In the few years under my belt as a hack writer, I’ve read a lot of posts from a lot of other bloggers, hoping to pick up on the things that make a piece great or gripping. This nonprofessional research has turned up one thing: honesty. Honesty, as in Are-you-sure-you-wanna-say-that-out-loud honesty. Yeah. That. The great pieces have always been from writers who speak from their hearts and say things that are ironically funny, sometimes painful, but always glaringly, transparently, and sometimes embarrassingly, true.
 
Bare. Truth. Transparency. That takes courage akin to walking on a frozen pond during the spring thaw.  Think about it: we’ve all got stories that could make us great writers – even the hacks like me, but it’s all a question of courage: what are we willing to share? Are we willing to bare some uncomfortable things?
 
In my case, it’s missing my mom. Oh, the coward in me will casually refer to losing her at a young age and wax philosophic about, or bring out the funny about her sayings, or admire her for being a great and wise woman.
 
But broach the pain of missing her, and of losing her? Well, that’s a lot. Too much.
 
I fear the three people who read my words will become depressed. After all, who wants to read a sad post when all they have to do for sad news is turn on the news, read AP’s Twitterfeed or open the first two pages of the local paper? I fear the three people reading my posts will flood me with referrals for bereavement counselors to help me deal with this loss. I fear the three people reading my posts will feel sorry for me.
 
And that’s not what I want. None of it. SeriouslyI’ve weathered the five stages of grief at least eight times and talked to professionals about it, and cried on more friends’ shoulders (and probably a few strangers) about it throughout the years than I’m willing to admit. So, I’m not stuck in the grief, but sometimes…just sometimes, it pops up and taps me on the shoulder to remind me that it’s here.
 
I guess I just miss my mom. Yep. At nearly forty-four years old, with a grown-up job and a mortgage and a husband, child and dog, something deep within this perimenopausal woman still. Wants. Her. Mama. And I guess the way in which death took her is still a tender spot – even twenty-five years later.
 
Cancer. She talked to me about it even before she was diagnosed. She just had a feeling. After a few weeks of just not feeling “right” she called me to her bedside. With a heavy sigh, she said “I think mom’s got cancer.” Just like that. Like, “Hey…I might be coming down with strep.” Naturally, wordlessly, silently – my tears started flowing. Realizing the weight of her words, she first tried her hand at bolstering my confidence while assuaging my fear: “Oh, Babygirl – no -- no tears. You’re my strong one. And besides..” now quoting the Bible “… all sickness isn’t unto death.” A week later she was admitted to the hospital, and the biopsy found what she had sensed all along: it was liver cancer. Beyond chemotherapy. The doctor sentenced her to seven months to a one year; and four weeks later, she was gone.
 
That hurt’s never scabbed over completely. But I’ve learned to look for the bright spots and cling on to them, because they are there. Couldn’t survive without them.
 
Like her honesty in talking about the unpleasant. She could’ve lied to spare my nineteen year old feelings, but would that have changed the size of and growth of the tumor and the inevitable truth? So now I’m a painfully truthful person. Probably to a fault. Ask me if that dress makes you look fat, and I will tell you “Yes, that dress makes you look fat” if it does. Not to be mean, but because even if I lie and say “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat,” the truth is that you still look fat in that dress. And you probably know it too, otherwise you wouldn’t have asked in the first place.
 
Throughout the four weeks as she grew sicker and more distant, I learned that sickness is personal in the truest sense of the word: My dad, my brothers and sister and I could hold her hand, talk to her, play tapes of music and church services, but in the end, it was just her and her sickness and impending death. So when my friends grieve, I don’t “comfort” them by saying their loved ones are in a better place, even though I know that’s the case. Because honestly – they aren’t crying for their loved ones. They’re crying for themselves. And I get it. Sometimes, there just aren’t any words: at that moment, they are alone in their grief walk. The best I can do is to be there, hold a hand and say “I’m sorry. I know it sucks, but I’m here.” 

When mom was in and out of coma, I learned about the mother and child bond. The only thing that could wake mom from her limbo into the briefest moment of clarity during her final days was me saying “Mama?” in my little girl voice. (And yes: once I realized that worked, I might have used it a time or two or three or four...or five or six or seven.)

That little girl voice? Mom snapping back from death’s door and responding with a “Yes, Babygirl?”
It was the Forever Bond between mother and child.
One that cancer or the threat of death couldn’t even break.

It's why that same bond crops up every now and then, and works its way into these posts sometimes.

Even when I fear it.

May 8, 2013

About a Chicken and 9 Absent Warnings

The rush of cold air and sticky summer heat created a thick fog as I opened the freezer door. It was someplace in the back. Forgotten and alone, but still usable: the whole chicken I planned on making for supper.

At a few months shy of turning twenty, this would be my first attempt making a “mom dinner” for the family since my mom’s death a few months back. She’d buy whole chickens – fryers – because they were cheap. This last lone fryer, a rock hard frozen bird, was one of her last purchases and my inheritance. I threw it in the sink and covered it in tepid water to defrost.

Some hours later, as I cut away the now defrosted chicken’s shrink-wrapped plastic shroud and gave it an icy cold kitchen faucet shower, I could feel something shaking around inside the cavity. Instantly, my mind’s eye pictured mom’s hands going inside the thing and pulling out tiny, mushy flesh-colored baggies before cutting up the bird for frying. With chin lifted skyward and mouth corners turned down, I gulped hard, stuck my hand in and felt around. I was Jack Horner without the plum. Inside were all kinds of chicken innards in those mushy little bags: giblets, liver, heart, maybe even a neck. It was like a biology experiment gone dreadfully wrong.

Then the cutting began.

The Kmart serrated freezer knife, a gift from Mother’s Day Past when we thought kitchen appliances made excellent Mother’s Day gifts, would serve the purpose. Where to start and how? The back? The thighs? Crosswise? Up & Down? I chose all of the above. The friction from every stroke was bone-chilling in its texture and sound effect.

How in heaven’s name did mom perform this butchery all those years? How did she do this hack job -- while simultaneously smiling, singing, and having conversations with everyone in the house, including the dog -- like it was a walk in the park? My fingers were numb from the cold, and chicken was flying every which way.

The kitchen was a salmonella farm.

Then I got ticked. Not In-Need-of-Bereavement-Therapy-Ticked, but ticked about the chicken, the innards, the butchery and the nerve of her leaving this chicken for me to deal with, without any kind of warning. A simple note like “Hey, I made this chicken dinner thing look a lot easier than it is” would’ve been nice.

Now, I know she didn’t specifically leave the chicken for me, but it did make me wonder – just for a fleeting moment – what else didn’t she warn me about? Like all fleeting thoughts, it went away and I baked the chicken.

Twenty-five years later, that fleeting thought comes back on an almost daily basis. But I don’t wonder about what her absent warnings would’ve been because they slap me upside the head all the time. Things like:
Warning #1: One day your booty will no longer be the “bubble butt” you were ashamed of in high school, but flat. As a pancake. You will want that bubble butt back, but it’ll be gone forever.
Warning #2: Current, popular music will confuse you. You’ll think that everything is garbage compared to the music of your youth. It will make you feel very old-fashioned.
Warning #3: Hearing the mere phrase “Night on the Town” will wear you out and you will opt for a Night on the Sofa instead. Related: If you do go out, you will steer clear of any bar, club or restaurant that is teeming with people.
Warning #4: The very things you love about your husband, Prince Charming, will also drive you nuts. Oh, they’re cute idiosyncrasies right now, but mark my words. But if you two make the vows, he’s yours for life and you are his. No givesy-backsies.
Warning #5: Your child will think you are totally and completely clueless about boys, dating, sex and will actually turn red if you and your husband so much as kiss in her presence.
Warning #6: Bathroom privacy will be a thing of the past. Whatever you’re doing, the husband, child and the dog will find an excuse to “keep you company” while you’re in there.
Warning #7: Your husband, child and dog will only respond to what you say the third time you say it. Get used to feeling like there’s an echo in your home.
Warning #8: Your tear ducts will operate independently of your free will. Tears will flow involuntarily at the thought of: happy news; tragic news; good weather; bad weather; babies of any kind (think puppies, kittens); other people’s kids’ accomplishments; your kid’s accomplishments…well, you get it. Just count on being a blubbery mess every now and then.
Warning #9
You can’t warn your child about everything you’ve learned in this lifetime about disappointment, misplaced priorities, knowing when to speak or be silent and the difference between lifelong friends and passing acquaintances. Sometimes, you’ll have to let her bump her head a time or two to learn her own lessons. Those bumps will hurt you more than they will hurt her, but she’ll be stronger and wiser because of them.
I guess mothers can’t post all the warnings kids will need or want. So in the meantime, I’ll stop wasting time lamenting my mom’s absent warnings...

…and make a chicken dinner for my family instead.