Hung in Memory

Three Christmas trees stand in our house, each trimmed with memories old and new.

The oldest tree is a fiber optic tree I bought in my years at boarding school. Its motor to change colors is as loud as a washing machine, but Blondie loves it. She decorates it with all the Peanuts ornaments Bo has given me since we first started dating twelve years ago. The boys have a tree Bo bought during his year of ministry internship. We keep its ornaments mostly unbreakable, as the garland is often pulled off to be rope.

The family tree is a collection of Christmases past. There are ornaments Bo and I have made or received over the past thirty-some years.

My grandmother made this one by hand. The time, the patience, the steady hand to wrap the thread just so, to pin the pearls and sequins.

20161222_050449

When I was young, our ornaments were all packed in a giant stove box. At some point my elder brother and I started a contest to find this glass dove. Some years it was in the first layer of ornaments; other years the fifth.

20161222_050150

Some ornaments hang in memory of those who’ve died. When my mother’s parents died, I received their Christmas angels. They always fly just beneath the star.

20161222_050308

When my father’s parents died, I received back a few ornaments I had bought them years ago.

20161222_050600

Christmases had more family then. More life.

Not so much these days.

Last Christmas, my sister-in-law tried to kill herself.  This year our relations with Bo’s side have been tense, but nothing…out there, into the darkness again. And for that I’ve been thankful. They even wanted to come to our house last week for Blondie’s Christmas service and my birthday.

In the hours before they arrived, my mother called to sing happy birthday–a tradition. One hour later, she called in tears.

“It’s…it’s Aiden. Oh, Jean, he’s…he’s not with us anymore. He was so despondent, his partner…” sobs.

I stopped breathing. My cousin was just a couple years older, a sweetheart. When Mom faded after “partner” all I could think was, What the fuck did he do to my cousin, I’ll fucking–

“His partner found him. He…he hung himself, Jean.”

The kids screamed for more peanut butter waffles.

The washing machine honked.

The oven declared something, I don’t know why the fuck that timer was even on, just so much God damn NOISE. Fucking NOISE when I all I could do was huddle up in the hallway and cry.

I managed to call Bo. He managed to get out of work just before his relatives came. My sister-in-law takes the coffee I offer her and asks, “So, how’s it going?”

Part of me just wants to punch her.

“Not great.” And I find I’m physically unable to make words. Do I just flat out say, “My cousin hung himself, so I’m pretty shitty right now because the last thing I want to do is celebrate a birthday or talk to people. I want to walk outside in the below-zero snow and fucking THINK, and cry, and let the tears freeze my face because I fucking failed my family.”?

I don’t say it.

Bo tells them later.

No one acts like anything happened. They carry on just as we were directed to do last year: lots of plastered smiles and talk without substance. I cringed inside and cried outside while they all sat around the Nintendo or the snack table. After the tenth worried stare I told Blondie that my cousin had died. “So now he’s with Jesus!” She tells me with a hug. My sob shakes her bones.

~*~

My elder brother wants me to ride with him across the state for the funeral. I decline. I wanted to sit in silence…or noise, if I wanted. I want to control my environment, however briefly. To have ONE thing under my control.

Why, Aiden?

20161220_161011

The obituary barely mentioned depression. Was his depression like my own postpartum depression? Bo knew I was sad, knew I was depressed, but he had no clue just how bad it was until I put it into writing years later. He looked at me like he didn’t know me.

I learned as a child to live two lives: the life locked away with The Monster, and the public life of the Preacher’s Daughter. I learned to smile and joke and shrug and separate the pain and confusion so it felt like an other-life, like it couldn’t possibly impact the world outside my bedroom. Did Aiden live as two selves?

And it never even occurred to me to get it out, to really talk about it, until these past couple of years. Between the writing and the reading of Zoe Zolbrod’s experience as an abuse victim, I hadn’t physically felt just how deep that pain had saturated me. It’s been a long, nasty time, working the poisons out. And until The Monster agrees to family therapy, the poisons will never be out completely.

What kept the poisons in Aiden? Or did he not even know he had been poisoned at all?

When pain is all we know, we don’t realize there’s an alternative. The toddler of a friend of mine often tires of walking because she’s a problem with her hip my friend can’t afford to have surgically handled. The girl’s not a fan of walking or running, and who can blame her? She’s never known the movement to not hurt. Was that life for Aiden? Did life just never not hurt?

Much of my father’s family fell out of contact with Aiden when he opened up about his homosexuality. My uncle didn’t help much: while a kind and funny man, he was also very selfish, much like his wife. The two split not-amicably, leaving Aiden and his sister with their mother in the North Woods while he moved to Florida. Even Aiden’s funeral wasn’t enough to bring him back.

No wonder, then, when I went to the visitation and studied the pictures hung about the room and saw near nothing of our branch of the family. To my shame, it’s only right. The stills of his past were filled with those who were there for him in the present. While I can look back on the warm glow of childhood Christmases spent together, we only saw each other a handful of times in the past fifteen years: I had gone on to school, marriage, and motherhood. I only caught snippets of his struggles with alcohol, relationships, and relations with his own mother and sister. The last time I saw him was at our grandfather’s funeral. We spoke for a long time about faith and love, the insanity of kids–he had been helping raise his nephew. The last I heard of him he even had custody of one because his sister continued to struggle with drugs.

20161222_065608

How I wish I would have known of his love of the 80s. Of writing. Of him. Because for all that philosophical and nostalgic talk we never really talked about each other. We never reached for each other.

I have to live with that missed chance now, but I’m not going to let that regret ferment into another poison. NW Filbert once shared this quote from Wendell Berry to me. It’s never fit more than now:

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Reach for those whom you love this Christmas. Hug them. Plant a big wet one on their foreheads. Christmas glows not only with light, but with hope. May that hope shine as you call them out of their inner darkness.

Click here for more on the American Federation for Suicide Prevention.

Advertisements

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman II

91ufkP71uyL._SY355_Long, long ago, one of my mother’s favorite stories was turned into a film (again): LITTLE WOMEN. She and my father decided to do a family movie outing, where he, my uncle, and my brother would attend one film, and my mother, aunt, and I would attend another.

I was seething the entire trip. Why couldn’t I see the boy movie? HIGHLANDER III sounded loads better than some girl movie. (May the snickering commence.)

Looking back…well, I never did get to see Highlander III, so I still don’t know whether or not I came out ahead. (Yes, I’ve been told I have, many times over.) No matter what I thought of the story or the film, one element stuck with me, hard: the music.

Newman’s theme to Little Women still surprises me with its versatility. The opening sequence shines brightly through the brass and strings. Splendor, light, joy–all this comes through in “Orchard House.”

The theme depicts a strength you can’t help but associate with Jo and her sisters. They’re a source of life for the brooding and sick surrounding them.

But then they grow up, part ways. It takes a death to bring them back together.

Now Newman could have written a special sorrowful theme. He could have devised something simple for the period, with, say, a violin or a flute. Lord knows I was familiar enough with the lone violin playing “Shenandoah’s Theme” every time an important person died in Ken Burns’ documentary THE CIVIL WAR. But Newman didn’t. He used his life-light theme again, but not with an orchestra. This time, the theme comes to us on piano in “Valley of the Shadow.”

A piano still has the feel of the period. It was the beloved instrument of the character who died. The theme comes to us in chords, without fluid arpeggios or connections: the notes move together, as these sisters must now move forward together.

I cannot think of another score where the main theme moves from triumph to mourning with a mere change of instrument.

Stories, at least the good ones, do not follow the easy journeys. They take the mountain trails, pass through all those shadowed valleys. Face the monsters all around.

Within.

Only then can a light of triumph shine upon that final page.

Click here for more on Thomas Newman.

Click here for more on LITTLE WOMEN.

 

Mrs. Fix-It

20151021_170034

My living room is a perpetual kill-floor.

“Mommy, fix Windlifter’s tail-fin?”

“No, it’s broken.”

“Mommy, fix the ladder truck?”

“Fix Dipper’s wing?”

“Fix the picture?”

“Fix it?”

“Fix it?”

“Can you fix it tonight?”

“No, it’s BROKEN.”

Bits of car, shards from a thrown plane. Train tracks strewn everywhere. Torn pictures, colored and blank. Books, stepped on, slid on, and therefore ripped.

Of course, this all comes from having twin boys who think biting and clawing are typical play. If something CAN break, it SHOULD, and because it is theirs it MUST be fixed. To accept something’s broken is to accept they did something wrong. Not the easiest task for a three-year-old.

And who is expected to fix whatever “it” may be?

Me.

~*~

My father was a Mr. Fix-It. Called away to the hospital to stabilize an uproar between family and staff. Between family and family. Called merely to sit, and to listen to those whose families act like they’re dead. Called away to sit, and to listen, and to attempt a bridging between those determined to tear their own families apart.

The demands on fixing didn’t stop with his vocation.

My aunt’s husband died a few years ago from excessive drinking and smoking. Surgery after surgery, warning after warning, and he never stopped. Many of us saw his death as inevitable. Not my aunt.

Life wasn’t quite so insane for me back then: Biff tucked himself quietly away in the back of my womb while Bash somersaulted to his heart’s content. Toddler Blondie loved to be with her Grandma and Grandpa, so we often visited on weekends. After a particularly busy morning outside Blondie crashed in the guest room; the rest of us settled for a quiet read/work time in the basement.

Then my aunt called. Mom put it on speaker, because apparently no phone call was private in that house. “I just got the autopsy report, and…” sobs.

This is my mother’s sister.

My mother hands her off to Mr. Fix-It, and goes to the laundry room.

I get up to go, but no–stay, Jean. You’ll wake Blondie.

So I sit, and listen to my aunt go on and on about why no one told her it was this bad, why her husband didn’t say anything. Dad all the while gently telling her no one could tell Uncle D what to do, Uncle D always had a strong faith, and on and on.

My mother occasionally comes by the phone, but doesn’t take over the conversation until my aunt’s sobs have died down. Until the fixing’s done.

Dad looks at me, shakes his head. Goes back to writing his sermon.

~*~

Being the stay-at-home-parent has made me the Mrs. Fix It of my family. All the ripped/cracked/frosted/peed on items are brought to me. When Bash gets over a tantrum, he comes to me to “clean his face.” Even if Bo is home, I’m the one sought. And if I plan to leave the home, Bo seeks me out to fix up the children’s schedule for him so he knows what to do and when.

~*~

Every family has a Fixer, the one who maintains the connections, is sought for improvements, changes.

Somehow, Dad’s death put his duties on me.

I didn’t feel it at first, overwhelmed by my own grief.

Then came the phone calls from my mother.

Grief counseling was a waste of time, she said. She wouldn’t talk to another pastor, because no one else was Dad.

I have two brothers: one who lives near her, the other a pastor elsewhere in the country. My mother and I have never been bound with more than the ties created by Christian duty.

Yet she talked to me. Sobbed to me. And I never, ever had the right thing to say.

Some souls are so…so rich with love and faith that when they are removed, it is a literal chasm in your emotional and spiritual self. I don’t know if, being my father’s daughter, my mom expected me to somehow replace Dad. I don’t know if, now that Dad was gone, she thought we could finally have a relationship. I don’t know. I’ve never known my mom, and in all the talks in tears I still don’t know her. Every attempt I made at comfort or encouragement was not what she wanted to hear, at least from me. So eventually, she stopped calling.

Then came the messages: friends of my parents, relatives of my father. At any given family gathering or run-in with friends I am the one who’s asked: “How’s your mom? Is she seeing anyone?” And all I can give are platitudes: “up and down.” “good days and bad days.” Facebook messages pop up from people I haven’t seen in years, wondering how she is. I am sought to maintain the connections. I am expected to Fix This, All of This.

~*~

I sit on the floor in my sons’ room. Shades still drawn. Dark, quiet, since the boys are happily watching their favorite trains.

Quiet but for my sobs.

There came a point where all I could see were expectations unfulfilled. Of progress dumped out onto the floor, and broken, again, to be fixed, AGAIN, and how come you can’t fix it why can’t you mommy FIX it Mommy FIX IT

And there’s nothing I can do.

Tomorrow I will leave the house, schedule neatly written and left on the kitchen counter for Bo, and pull up to an office building. Walk in. State I have an appointment.

Tomorrow I will go up to someone who’s never met me, and lay it all out. All the broken pieces, the twisted old bits that used to work until they were trampled one too many times.

Tomorrow I will ask someone else to help Fix It.

Me.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman

lemonysnicket_soundtrackNewman’s work throughout this album fulfill several needs for the children’s writer: you have the quirky theme for Olaf (a personal favorite). A quiet, music-box like quality for children. Crazy and proud themes for the different relatives the orphans meet. Newman’s got a delightful uniqueness for every setting the Baudelaire Orphans encounter. I was torn one which track to write about, actually, because Newman’s score has helped me with character development and plot drive. Today, I will focus more on the plot angle.

“The Letter that Never Came” is a beautiful balance between strings and piano. It portrays hope and apprehension all it once—just the mix one experiences when watching doctors move about a child’s sick bed. I write this scene from the human pet’s perspective; she stays close to her troll master while they work, desperate to hear good news of any kind.

When a writer kills a character, it absolutely must happen for the sake of the story, and not just for gut impact. I’ve had enough people die on me in real life to have an inherent need to keep all my characters alive no matter what explosive battles they endure. But in my story about trolls who keep human children as pets, I knew I had no choice. The trolls have made their world toxic, but they refuse to admit it. It takes the death of my main troll child to push the human pets to fight against those hiding the cure. “The Letter” helps me combat the emotional drain and stay on task, forcing my characters to face the inevitable loss and inescapable future.

 

Click here for more on Thomas Newman’s LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Kiss the Corpse…or the Fish, Take Your Pick

Bo and I did not know of the fish until we opened the funeral home doors. A large framed poster read: “Frank Varinski. 1920-2008. Gone Fishin’.” Half a dozen easels lined the walk up to the coffin, presenting countless images of the man fishing: from the back. From the side. Maybe three or four actually showed his face. It was not a unique face for an elderly man, especially one who fought Parkinson’s for the last ten years of his life. What struck me was Bo’s grandmother, whose body appeared in many pictures from the neck down. From the neck up we could only see a book. An umbrella. A jacket. This determination to not be photographed ran back through decades. Even at Bo’s baptism, she managed to hide behind her son who, at that point, was already wide enough to make that easy.

“What is with that woman?” I dared not whisper her name. Why? Because Grandma Varinksi scared me shitless. Frankly, I cannot imagine how Death had the guts to enter her house. Oh, she can look all sweet, baking Christmas cookies and canning her grape jelly, but the moment you infringe on family business—as I apparently did in marrying her grandson—or set her down to a card game her entire self transforms. All feebleness vanishes in those talon hands, and her dark irises click as a camera lens shutter closes in to focus so her pupils are dots fixated on you. Her mouth shrivels in upon itself, and when it opens language pours out the likes of which make you think you’ve entered a Quentin Tarantino movie. Thank God I never learned canasta.

“Hey, here’s a nice one. Out of a thousand.” Bo pointed to his grandparents sitting together on the pier, backs to the camera.

“Yeah, I had to sneak that one,” Bo’s uncle saddled up alongside us. The lenses of his thick glasses were spotted several times over with dried tears. “You know your grandma. Now that’s the only picture we’ve got of them together in the last ten years.” He started to say something else, but a loud slurring voice stopped him. “Oh god, it’s Kenny. You two go by your grandma.” A nondescript suit by the doorway turned up the Vivaldi, glared at us, and returned to staring straight ahead. Clearly, Grandma Varinksi wasn’t going to allow anyone or anything to interrupt her mourning.

My fingers twisted through Bo’s. Do we have to? Bo squeezed back, and walked us towards some tables instead. At first I thought these were some extravagant parting favors for those who came to the funeral—Frank’s gone fishin’, now you can to with your own pole and set of lures, complete with commemoration! Nope. These were all Frank Varinski’s. These were, according to his family, the culmination of his life.

His aunt came up then, face doughy and wet. “Aren’t they pretty? We couldn’t find his favorite, so we just put them all out. Did you want one?” I was about to say yes, a lure would be fine, but she wasn’t pointing at the lures. Propped up next to the lures stood heavily shellacked plaques. Each plaque was lined with fish heads: innards out, skin and bone stretched so mouths gaped with tiny teeth. The skin was nailed down millimeter by millimeter all the way around. Yellow-black eyes stuck in a stare wherever I bobbed my head.

Bo grabbed my shoulder and flashed a smile. Stop that! To his aunt: “Dad’s coming.”

She nodded vaguely. Bo’s dad had never left the limbo between approval and loathing in forty years. “Have you said goodbye yet?” We politely followed her to a coffin with fish leaping forth from every corner. “We get to keep those after the service,” she said, “to keep Dad close.” She bowed over and kissed the corpse. I could see the faint reflection of the epoxy holding his lips together, not to mention the heavy flesh-tone powder coating his skin. When Bo’s aunt lifted her head, tiny pools of tears remained trapped in the sands of face powder.

O-kay.

“Your turn.”

I opened my mouth to decline, but Bo squeezed my hand. Not a word. We stood awkwardly next to the coffin instead and watched the tear pools dissipate.

“Oh my, this is so lovely!” Enter Bo’s Grandma Hold, a widow for decades. “Well isn’t this something? What pretty hummingbirds! Oh my god, what happened to these, are these fish? Well that’s disgusting. Oh hi, Bo! Well it had to happen sometime, right?”

Bo maneuvered Grandma Hold and his father as best he could towards relatives and not fish heads. I fled the corpse kiss and found myself in the far corner of the parlor, away from all the pictures and lures, with Grandma Varinski. She sat alone watching a film of her wedding. The transfer company had been good enough to add a soundtrack of light jazz piano.

When it came to the Varinskis, nothing mattered more than family. If Bo’s mother hadn’t left the house to, of all the foolish things, get married and start a family of her own, then she would have never died of cancer. See Bo’s aunt and uncle? Never left the house, and nothing’s happened to them in fifty-some years. Healthy as horses. Mildred Varinski made sure of it, just like she would never let anyone mess with the family blood in her grandson, the one good thing out of her daughter’s mistake.

And then I showed up, the preacher’s kid who still rather liked God despite His antics.

Now the two of us sat together on a couch that smelled of lost Kleenex and potpourri. “Hi, Grandma.” (I was allowed to call her that.) She nodded stiffly, her lipstick a shade brighter than a stop sign and already smeared. “Who’s laughing at the camera right now?”

“That’s Fuzzy.”

“And her?”

“Lorraine.”

“She’s certainly enjoying herself.”

Grandma Varinski let out a quiet chuckle. “No kidding.” And on she went about relatives I had never met, planning the wedding, their first apartment above the deli and how the smells drove her crazy during pregnancy. “Never gained a pound because I only ate salami and watermelon. And pickles,” she added. Her talons remained tight on her handkerchief, wringing whatever life was left of its torn stitching. We sat together there for most of the visitation, with only brief interruptions by relatives. Her other children remained near the coffin, while Bo took in every picture and fish head with his father and Grandma Hold. “That’s him, right? He looks so good!”

A new nondescript suit glided over, paused to say, “We’ll be gathering the family for the procession now,” and rolled on through the parlor as if on skates. I held out my arm. The talons never let go of the handkerchief, but they sort of perched on me, too, like she was okay to touch me, so long as she had a buffer. We shuffled together passed all the photographs and fish heads in silence. I gave her to Bo’s uncle and continued with Bo and other relatives, some almost recognizable from their polyester selves sixty years ago. A syrupy version of Wind Beneath my Wings and the colored windows depicting doves and lilies made me feel like I was walking into cotton candy.

I clutched Bo and exhaled for what felt like the first time in hours. I survived.

“Maybe you two are finally good now,” he whispered to me as we sat down. Bo had never made his family a condition of our union, but there was no denying he cared for them and there was no denying Bo stood in the center of his grandmother’s universe. No matter my actions or words, I was The One Who Took Bo Away. Maybe now I could be The One Bo Brought In.

The music paused, I think, because Death decided to take one final jab at Mildred Varinski. If you aren’t familiar with Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna,” I suggest you put it on now, for this is when that masterpiece made its mark on the day.*

The chaplain signaled us to stand while the Varinskis walked down the aisle, audibly crying, cymbals and choirs hollering overhead. Who made this music loop? Where was that bouncer with the volume knob? To further prove Death was having fun, the choir shifted into its hushed staccato just in time for each Varinski to kiss their dead. I could see the tear streams on his face from my place, and I knew they were hurting, but dammit, this song and the fish and Good God one of them is actually putting a pole into the casket. I bit my lip, hard, DON’T SMIRK. The choir swelled as the casket closed. Gongs resounded as Bo’s uncle and aunt slumped towards the pew.

But not Mildred Varinski. She did not slump. That woman walked tall and alone. Her make up may be smeared in grief, but no one, not even Death, could ruin this moment. She looked upon her husband’s legacy within her children, her daughter’s legacy within her grandson.

And that woman narrowed her eyes on my face and knew I was not holding back tears.

Shit.

*Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”