The Ramp

It didn’t rain on the day of the funeral, which was unexpected. Rather, it was a crisp, cool day with a brisk breeze. The sky was still laden with clouds, but the sun peeked through from time to time. It was a perfectly acceptable day, all in all, despite the giant hole in the ground, my father’s body in a box, and the social demands of a hundred or so gawking well-wishers.

My mother had insisted I bring a windbreaker, but I refused, and we bickered as we prepared to leave the house. I had driven up from Louisiana with only a light sweater in tow. I packed hastily, and managed to forget that spring in New Orleans and spring in North Carolina are two completely different seasons.

She had a coat for me, but it was three sizes too large, and looked terrible with my black fit-and-flare dress. I refused to put on another layer, because my outfit was perfect for a funeral, and I wanted to look my best as I met with family and friends. He deserved well-dressed representation. It was a way to prove to the world that he’d done a satisfactory job raising his only child. I would be proof of his good works, if only through my refusal to wear an unattractive piece of outerwear. In the end, I took the coat to assuage her, but left it in the car.

We took separate cars, and on the drive to the cemetery, I turned the stereo up and sang along to Donovan’s “Atlantis.” He owned the record as a teenager, and when I stole his records in high school, he sagely advised me to give that particular tune a listen. We talked a lot about ancient legends when I was a girl, and the song has always made me feel close to him. I needed to know he was with me still, that peculiar, stubborn, restless old man. The Spotify channel was on shuffle, and the next song to play was “Trude” – a song I remembered rocking out to 15 years ago or more. I’d forgotten the name, and had been looking for it ever since. It was my sign that he really was there. He gave me a song, and I sang along to it at top volume as I whipped my rental car into the driveway behind his hearse.

The funeral was. People were there. Hands were shaken, stories were shared, hugs were given. I endured the “Oh, how you’ve grown!” and “What do you do now?” and “Are you still in New Orleans?” with what I felt was great patience and restraint. He taught me that. My mother, of course, was late. She didn’t want to be there, she hates funerals, and she wasn’t afraid to let the general populace know her true feelings on the matter. She doesn’t like black, so she wore a navy suit and black sneakers. She received unfortunate news regarding my father’s estate (or lack thereof) before arriving, and had he been alive, he would have been quite amused at her indignation. In a stage whisper upon her arrival, she angrily told me that she was going to pee on his grave. It was the highlight of the event, as far as I was concerned. I sat next to my paternal grandmother, my Nana. I couldn’t cry. The priest was ancient, and lost his place several times. Afterwards, I talked with my cousins, all grown up and lovely. I felt lucky to be with them. We noticed that he was buried directly across from the only guy in town with whom he’d always had beef. That seemed appropriate, since it was April 1st. Our family shares a love of schadenfreude, and we snickered there between their graves.

Then we went to lunch, my mother, my maternal grandmother, and my uncle by friendship, my father’s best friend. So funny, the four of us sharing tater tots and cheeseburgers, a wheel missing its spoke. It was a nice lunch, though, all things considered.

The next day, the rain fell in sheets, and the temperature dropped another ten degrees. I was unprepared, but stoic. He taught me that, too. We had somewhere to go, though I can’t remember where that was anymore, and my mother needed help taking things out to the car. I’d brought three pairs of shoes with me from the Deep South – black cloth heels, scuffed up black TOMS shoes with no tread, and black flip flops. None were appropriate, but after some deliberation, it seemed that the flip flops were the smartest choice for the weather.

At the front of a house stands a wooden ramp. It was built for my father by a charitable organization in the year following his amputation. The structure is sturdy and adequate for its purpose, but it takes up a large swath of the front yard, eliminating access to the house’s front steps. There’s no choice but to use the ramp to enter the house, but the organization failed to add traction to the ramp. In short, it’s good enough for a wheelchair, and dangerous for pedestrians. I expressed this concern to my mother the first time I encountered it years ago, and then again upon arrival this trip. By now, the wood had grown slightly slimy from falling leaves and other debris, making it even worse. She brushed me off as being dramatic.

Walking out of the house in the rain, noting my flip flops, the standing water, and the already slippery ramp surface, I held on to the railing and walked very cautiously. Even so, I fell. I was shocked, and angry. Despite my precaution, I’d failed. Even worse, I told her that it could happen, and it did! Bruised and shaken, I got up and went to the car, then came back up the ramp and into the house. I told my mother that I’d just fallen on the ramp. We should take it down. She’s going to fall one day, and no one will be there to help! She looked at me like I was a lunatic, and walked away to finish whatever she had been doing.

I shook off my irritation, grabbed a second load to go to the car, and walked back outdoors again. This time I went even more slowly, holding fast to the railing, one firm step after another. But at the same place in the ramp, I completely lost control. It felt like the ground was being pulled out from under me. No matter what I did to hold on, this was not something I could stop. But still, I clutched that railing for dear life. My feet flew in front of me, my arm scraped down the wooden railing, and I landed square on my tailbone, the jolt shocking the breath out of me. My raincoat hood slipped down, and there I sat, in a puddle of water, arm bruised and bleeding, chilled to the bone, all the things I’d been carrying flung across hell’s half acre, down the ramp and into the yard.

And so I screamed into the rain. God fucking damn it. Fuck this. Fuck you. You stupid piece of shit ramp and this stupid fucking yard and this goddamn rain and all of this fucking shit go to hell and…

Then I sat there. I sat there until I was soaked through and shivering, and I wailed into the storm at the top of my lungs. Eventually, the front door opened, and my mother was beside me, checking me over like I was a Little once again. She told me she was sorry, so sorry, and she didn’t want me to hurt, and she’d do anything to make sure I was OK. That she was talking about more than a fall went unspoken.

So I got back up, and together we gathered all of the things I’d dropped, and took them to the car together. On the way back, I took the ramp barefoot. She walked with surety in the same ugly black sneakers she’d worn the day before.

Later, she blamed my falls on my shoes, which sounds logical, but isn’t true. I live in a rainy town, and walk around in those flip flops regularly. That ramp is dangerous. It’s going to hurt someone. It already has. But even now, I don’t have the strength to argue. That was his job, and now his time has passed. We have to let the world tilt as it will, and spill us across hell’s half acre if that’s what it wants to do. It doesn’t do a soul good to hold on too hard. I have to learn to let go.

A Terrible Loss

I am a mess. I need someone to hold me, a friend to hear me out, but really I’m in search of comfort that I cannot name. I am alone, and I don’t have a way to adequately explain how deep this moment of nothingness goes. There is no one to hear my story. I have run through the mental list time and again, and come up short. I am so tired of living so far away from all of the women I count as my sisters, and so tired of trying to explain to myself how this will all be OK.

The doctor told me that I was anxious (with a touch of depression) a few years ago, and it’s true. I am nearly always anxious, and only sad every now and then. But when I am sad, I usually also know there’s no real reason. It’s easy to see that there must be sunshine on the other side, since the shadow is so flimsy, really. The feeling remains, but the hope is not diminished in its path.

Today, though, I experienced something. I’ve been turning it over and over in my head, and I believe that it might be best called trauma. I was at the doctor’s office. I was seeing my gynecologist for a regular procedure, an IUD insertion. We’d discussed the fact that there would be pain and cramping, and before going in, I read many, many stories from women who experienced everything from no pain at all to severe cramps and faintness and nausea. Not one story mentioned flashbacks or panic attacks in conjunction with the procedure.

I did not receive an IUD today; I’ve been scheduled for an insertion under general anesthesia next week, instead. Apparently my uterus is tiny and my cervix will need a lot of help dilating, and the pain I was feeling as my panic attack started was only about 10% of what I was going to feel. So if I go ahead with it, I’ll do it while I’m knocked out, and wake up with a prescription for pain pills and a weekend to recover on the couch. I’m not so sure, though. If I’m going to have anesthesia, why not just schedule a sterilization and be through with this whole thing? I don’t want biological children; why think about any of this anymore?

The problem here isn’t that I felt pain, or that I was once again feeling ashamed to have my feet in stirrups at the doctor’s office (though it is a source of deep, deep shame, thanks to my good ol’ Southern Victorian upbringing). The problem certainly isn’t the doctor, who held me as I sobbed, and offered me tissues, and assured me that this happens all the time. The problem is that the thing that set me off wasn’t physical or even related to my body. It was related to love. A lack of it. A loss of it. The feeling of having it physically stripped from your body. Of feeling like you aren’t worthy of love, and will never deserve it, no matter how much you try, how much you give.

Just as I screamed, just before I started sobbing and the doctor removed the tools she’d placed inside my body to prepare for even more invasion, I felt the intense desire for someone to hold my hand. No one was there. I was desperately alone, a tiny speck in a giant universe, floating lonely in a sea of forever, all the people I love being pulled backwards from me, out, out, out into their own space. This happened in my head, you see. It’s not something that I’m writing about to describe how I felt – it’s a thing that I saw, eyes squeezed shut on the doctor’s table. I recalled feeling/seeing this exact thing years before, a moment when I felt my soul cry out to the man I then loved, and heard nothing in reply. It was the emptiest I’d ever felt. I’ve never felt it again, because I haven’t given myself so fully ever again.

Also for a millisecond, as I experienced this all over again, I saw something deep in there, inside myself. I’ve built a little mental house around my tenderness, two stories, pink clapboard siding (strange, since I dislike pink), shutters on the windows, green asphalt shingles on the roof. I understood that the house was protecting my ability to love, that I’ve been trying to open it up lately, to air it out and shake the dust covers off all of the furniture. That I’m terrified of the rejection I feel coming. The house is miserable.

Tonight I’m finding myself back there in that terrible loss, experiencing this cosmic echo. And in realizing all of these things, I see now that it was just an echo of an even earlier moment. Only then, it was I who was needed, I who took my hand away when it was most required. “No,” my grandfather said, when I struggled to remove my fingers from his grip. I needed to go finish my homework; I’d come back tomorrow, I promised. It was the last thing he ever said to me: “No.” I have a strong suspicion that this emptiness I’ve seen, this great pulling away, this is how he felt, wasting away in his hospital bed, hooked up to a morphine drip, cancer gnawing away at him. His eyes were squeezed shut, too. Was he struggling to hold on to just one person who loved him, as everyone else drifted away? Will there be someone to hold my hand?

If I believed in an angry god, I would wonder if I’m being punished. Maybe I’m being haunted. Maybe I’m just suffering from anxiety and a touch of depression. I wish I knew where that guy was, the one I loved, the one who wasn’t there to hold my hand when I most needed him. I would egg his house tonight.

New York Stories

I had an idea about New York. It’s a strange thing, a story I told myself on the walk home this evening, a rumination on people that both overlapped and never met, and feelings that could never have happened concurrently, even if they wanted to, but somehow did. Anyway, I liked it, and now it’s sitting there in my brain, waiting to be told. So I’m going to tell you.

First, let me start by explaining that this story is not going to be very fulfilling to you. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. Because it’s my story, and it’s very small, but also because it’s all nestled together like little matryoshka dolls in my head. Actually, a better way of explaining what I’m seeing would be to tell you to imagine the pages in an expensive art book, the old type with three color printing and tissue paper between each plate. Look at these beautiful illustrations, so richly colored – those velvety blues, and luscious reds! Handle the pages oh so gently. Now let the sheet of tissue softly float back to protect the art, then take a moment to marvel at the change. The memory is still there, still lovely and still, but a layer of sepia and smoke keeps it just out of reach of your fingertips, allows you to worship the idea of it without getting it greasy. Welcome to my New York.

My mother was born in Queens, to my grandmother, a native New Yorker, and my grandfather, a Nebraska farm boy turned U.S. Marine. Mum only lived in NYC for a year before her family moved to Pennsylvania, then Georgia, and eventually North Carolina. To my knowledge, she’s never even been back to her mother’s hometown; she certainly carries no mannerisms that would allow people to guess her geographic origin story. When I was growing up, people always mentioned that I was lacking an accent, and I did my best to cultivate this non-accent, to make it mine. I’d explain that my father was from North Carolina, but my mother was from New York, and the two cancelled each other out. I believed that I had no accent until I moved to New Orleans, where people started mentioning my Southern drawl. It is still one of the first things that many people mention about me. I hate it with a passion. Not the accent, just the fact that it seems to mean something to people. Many men seem to find it sexy. I typically find those men repulsive.

In college, I enrolled in a work-study program that allowed students to work a set number of hours to pay for a portion of their room and board at the school. As luck would have it, my work-study job was actually in the work-study office, helping other students find jobs. It was a little like being a matchmaker, and I enjoyed it. One of the perks of working there was a boy who came by the office weekly to turn in his timesheet and flirt with me. His name was Josh, and he was an Italian immigrant who had grown up in New York City. Eventually he disappeared to spend a year tramping in Italy, working in a vineyard, but when he came back, we dated for a few weeks. He was so warm and genuine, so full of life, and I was simultaneously entranced and unnerved. It didn’t work out, but that part didn’t really matter. We remained friends.

Among the other interesting men I dated in college, there was a Quebecois named Alex. We saw each other for a few months in freshman year, and remained friends until he quite literally disappeared at some point in my junior year. He told his friends he was going home for the weekend, then never came back, ignoring all phone calls and letters. This was before Facebook, so we wondered if he was dead. It became an obsession for me, and I worried about him for years, until sometime around 2005 or so, I placed a classified ad on Craigslist in every town listed for Quebec. He wrote me a bemused email, and mystery answered, I stopped caring so much about Alex. What I never told him (or anyone, for that matter, until now), was that one of the reasons I found him so important was that I also had a crush on one of his friends, let’s call him Joe.

I will always remember Joe the way he was when I first met him, lounging at the smoker’s tables outside of Monroe Hall. It is twilight, and his face melts into shadow, his outline clearly delineated in the yellow florescent glow flooding out of the dormitory’s glassed-in foyer. He had a husky voice, and a terrible New Jersey accent, both accentuated by his propensity to talk about three times louder than necessary. He wore an interestingly awful hat. Was it a Kangol? I think so. He had piercings, and dated a beautiful girl who scared me, and since he scared me, too, I never actually talked to him. He was beloved to me, though, and a part of my circle of friends, and he still is, in a distant kind of way.

After Hurricane Katrina, I lost my mind. I did not know it then. Really I don’t think I started to understand exactly how far I’d unraveled until a year or so ago, and only now, as I fixate on seemingly unrelated points, am I understanding how this all connects. Or could connect. Does it connect? Do we care? Flip the page. Examine the illustration. See all the fine detail. Here and there it’s odd, it seems like maybe the printing was incomplete. What’s missing here? Don’t worry, let the tissue paper settle, and voila! See, the image is whole again. Where were we?

Yes, before the storm I was in a tumultuous un-relationship with a musician. He was my second love, the one that I couldn’t quite let get away after the first one cut ties and ran. This one, Luke, was sensitive, magical even. I knew the sound of his horn out of all the others playing on Frenchmen Street. You could have loosed me like some kind of musical bloodhound, and my ears would tug my heart in a straight line to wherever he was playing. It was torture. Maybe it’s why I don’t go out too much, even now, so many years later. We weren’t together, but after Katrina, everyone was clinging to whatever flotsam and jetsam they could find, and he allowed me to use him as a lifeline. I was living in Chicago at the time, but traveled to New Jersey to pick up some things he’d rescued from my house. While I was there, he wrote and played his horn and began a romance with another singer, a singer who actually had the guts to sing on stage with her own band. I was devastated all over again, and it was with swollen eyes and a voice that couldn’t stop breaking that I took the train into New York for the day to meet Josh. It was my first visit to my mom’s hometown.

I met my friend Brandy at the train station, and she took me to The Cloisters, then to the spot where I’d arranged to meet Josh. We hadn’t seen each other in years, but with his customary warmth, he immediately rushed to hug me, then linked arms and proudly showed me around his city. We looked at the empty spot where the Twin Towers had stood, then walked to a little Halal restaurant he knew a few blocks away that had a buffet lunch for less than $5. He was so full of sunshine, and even in a city so big, he made friends like it was no trouble at all. I traveled happily in his wake, feeling renewed by his optimism and positivity. We looked out over the harbor at the Statue of Liberty, so tiny in the distance. We stood in Times Square. We watched the ice skaters floating by in Rockefeller Plaza, that ridiculous Christmas tree blazing in the background. We joked about emptying a bag of Skittles on the ice, and had a nice, mean laugh, my favorite. Before it was time to catch my train back to New Jersey, we had one last coffee. I wish I…

Josh died a few years later, and I didn’t find out about it for months. His friends planted a tree for him out in Prospect Park.

About a month after the last time I saw Josh alive, I woke up one morning in Chicago in my post-Katrina apartment and decided it was time to move back to New Orleans. I re-enrolled in my Masters program, and on the very first day of classes, I met yet another New Yorker, Dan, from Long Island. We started dating a year later, and were together for almost eight years. But before that started, something else happened. Joe came to town.

Joe’s call was out of the blue. He was going on a road trip, and planned to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Could he stay with me? My first thought was to wonder how he even remembered who I was, but I quickly decided that it was probably just a fluke. He remembered seeing me around in college, found out I was still in the area through mutual friends, and took a chance that I’d have a place for him to camp out while he was in town. How was he to realize that I’d never say no? There was no way that he could have guessed that I’d had a crush on him for years, especially since my foolproof plan for not embarrassing myself in front of outgoing people is/was/will always be to avoid them at all costs. To put it lightly, I was terrified and intrigued. Who was this person now? Could we be in the same room without me melting into the floor?

It ended up being a great visit. Joe was in town for a weekend, and was the perfect houseguest. We went to the first parade of the season, traipsed around the French Quarter, went to see live music, and had a pretty great time together. By the time the night was over, I realized that my instincts had always been dead on. Joe was not only intriguing and frightening and cool, he was solid, kind, and fun to be around. I felt at ease around him, which is a very high mark of achievement. Joe also met Dan, which I weirdly needed to have happen. In some small way, I wanted Joe’s nod of approval. They got along, the weekend ended, Joe went home, and eventually things started up with Dan.

When Dan and I had dated for two or three years, we moved to Chicago together. The move didn’t work out for him, and eventually he had to move back to New Orleans, but for the next three years or so, I lived in Chicago and he traveled back and forth between the cities. One night, I was on the Clark Street bus on my way home, and looking through Facebook. I’d been trying to call Josh for a few months, off and on, and wasn’t having much luck, but he was always in Italy for long stretches, or off on some adventure. I figured that maybe he’d changed his number, or was away again, but then I had a flash of inspiration to look for him online. I searched for his name, and a memorial page popped up, complete with his picture. I’d like to say that I started sobbing, but what really happened was that the warmth got sucked straight out of me, like all the feeling in my chest was gone. I stared at his beautiful face and wondered what cruel joke this was. When I got home, I started writing frantic messages to the page admins – where was Josh?  The call came the next afternoon. A very nice guy who’d had six months longer than I had to come to terms with the situation explained to me that they’d been out partying, Josh had gone to sleep on the couch, and he just hadn’t woken up. It was an accidental overdose. The most alive person I ever knew, dead. I wish I could put two tissue pages over this. I don’t really want to see it.

A couple of years later, Dan’s job sent him on assignment to New York, where he had a hotel room and the entire larger-than-life city at his fingertips. The museums, the shops, the architecture, the restaurants, a person can live in NYC for their entire life and never really need to leave. Comedy clubs, seedy dives, FASHION, specialty cinemas (get your mind out of the gutter), so many foreign languages being spoken, fantastic Chinese food, ohmygodBAGELSANDSCHMEAR, history overlapping and rubbed raw in places, it’s THE CITY. The one. The one with $5 Halal buffets.

He bought groceries and ate in his hotel room. He watched TV. Sometimes he splurged and bought a sub from a place down the street. He had to save money, he said. Our relationship had been dying, but this behavior hurt me in a way I couldn’t express. I had traveled long in other people’s wakes, I had stayed out of rooms just to avoid uncomfortable truths, I had stopped music all-together just to keep from hearing one specific horn. I could not stand watching him let New York City go to waste.

I came up to visit Dan and do the sightseeing that I’d wished he’d do. We visited the Empire State Building, the Met, Central Park, St. John the Divine, Times Square, and a host of other places. I walked 17 miles in flip flops one day. While there, I also made plans to meet up with Joe for a drink, since he’d moved to New York not long after college.

The bar wasn’t too far away from my hotel, and I had fun navigating the neighborhood on my own. Neither of us was familiar with the place, but it turned out to be western themed, with country music on the jukebox and plenty of whiskey at the bar. As it turns out, we both appreciate a good bourbon, and since the prices were surprisingly cheap for New York, we lingered for a few hours, sipping our drinks and having a long, interesting conversation. He was showing his age; his eyes were tired. But as he got talking, the rambunctious personality crept back. I was surprised at how much we had in common, and how much I respected the man he’d grown into. We were both thoughtful, but in different ways. Joe commanded a level of passion that I found impossible to show. He was a warrior. He was a controlled flame, waiting to envelope his enemies. Next to him, I was a fledgling monk, a placid little pool. Maybe my depths were disarming, but then again, maybe not. Many days, I came close to drowning inside myself. I wondered if he worried about burning up before he had made his mark.

As the night wore on, I told Joe about Josh, alive and working the grape vines somewhere in Italy, dead on someone’s couch, now a plaque on a tree in some park. Joe urged me to visit the park the next day. I said I would, but in the end, it never happened. I drank too much that night, a reaction to having to go back to share a hotel room with the man who didn’t want to see the city, coupled with the weird challenge of getting to share a private, completely platonic moment with a guy I’d been crushing on since I was 17, as well as a nice strong dose of sorrow for the man who’d never get to leave New York again. My hangover the next day was exquisite, to say the least.

Joe walked me back towards the hotel, and gave me a big bear hug goodbye. In memory, I pressed a little closer than I should have, but I don’t think he noticed. As he ambled off to find a cab, I started to cross the street to the hotel, then realized that I was in the city that never sleeps – I should get a slice of pizza. Instead, just a block away, I happened across an all night Halal buffet – $10.

Times change.

The End of the Road

I met my friend Mark on our way over the Pyrenees, on the Camino Frances. I could hear him before I saw him; his big attitude and Kentish accent were hard to miss. He and his walking buddies were having a conversation about Shakespeare (he wasn’t that big of a fan, and was saying that “Shakespeare” and “comedy” were an oxymoron). They came into view around the next bend, and I didn’t even stop, just remarked as I passed, “What about Romeo & Juliet – that shit’s hilarious!”. I could hear him laughing for a full minute as I walked on. The next time I stopped for a breather, he and his friends walked by and he stopped to chat with me. I adored him, sight unseen, and I adored him after that, too.

Later, Mark’s path coincided with mine, Natalie’s and Claire’s again and again, and we ended up getting dinner, having drinks, and sharing bunks on more than one occasion. After our darling Claire had to move on, one night Natalie and I met up with Mark for pints and had a pretty touching conversation about why people walk the Camino. He was one of those people who puts on a big show about being a gruff jerk, but as a fellow Scorpio it was easy to get a glimpse of his soft side, hiding just far enough away to not be too easily damaged by the folks outside of his safety zone. One night I made a quip about how tasty sharks were, and I remember how quickly he reacted, telling me that he was a diver and had great respect for the majesty of sharks.

I was bummed to learn that Mark’s blisters kept him from continuing the Camino. I was a few days ahead of him, but kept thinking that we could just meet up in Burgos, or maybe at the end in Santiago de Compostela. I sent him photos of a funny Rolling Stones shirt I saw in Burgos that made me think of him. He replied to say that he was heading on to somewhere where he could find some good kush and take a load off, lol.

Tonight I found out that my friend Mark passed away. He won’t be making it to Santiago de Compostela. He won’t be figuring out a better way to treat those poor abused feet. He won’t be sampling tapas with glee, or demanding a “large” when the Spanish bartender tries to hand him a regular pint. He won’t be diving, or telling people about the magic that is the ocean. I’m heartbroken, but I must believe that his goodness and laughter live on in me, and everyone else who knew him. He was a good man, a kind man, a hilariously funny man, and he could sure hold his lager.

Mark, I love you. And to the rest of my dear, dear friends from the Camino, please stay in touch and take care of yourselves. You’ve made my world a better place. ❤

In October and November of 2015, I walked the Camino Francés, one of the traditional pilgrimage routes to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was a deeply emotional journey, with far-reaching implications for my life, and I’m slowly but surely capturing the memories and musings here on my blog. Read the entire series at Anna’s Camino.

Coated In Ashes

Bukowski

Today I’m thinking about mortality, for pretty obvious reasons, given today’s news reports about the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. I was raised in a household where I was constantly being told that we were on the brink of WWIII, and that I should be ready to fight for my survival when the time came. My father wasn’t a survivalist, but he was – and remains – quite the pessimist. He scared the shit out of me, permanent emotional scars, lasting fears of a coming apocalypse that regularly play themselves out in my dreams (no, not nightmares…my nightmares are of much simpler, far more realistic things).

In hindsight, I guess I’d rather be frightened and knowledgeable about the risks of living than to be not at all worried, and completely ignorant to the world around me. I dunno. It’s a slippery slope between being a conspiracy theorist/alarmist and being well-informed. Today in particular, I’m seeing the headlines and thinking about all the chances people have had to do things correctly. Mostly, my thoughts settle on the fact that there are entire countries full of people just trying to live in peace, but then you add a few asshole nutjobs who feel like killing kids for shits and giggles, or maybe trying to blow up a plane because they think it’ll make them seem tough, and now here we are, millions of good men, women and children who’re about to be brutalized by war for what? Nothing. Idiocy. Pride. Machismo. Religious rhetoric. I’m scared, and I’m tired. Why must it be this way? What can we do, besides keep trying, like countless generations before us, to live lightly and be good to our fellow humans, and hope that it catches on?

I find it hard to believe in reincarnation, but a tiny piece of me identifies with a spinster woman who lives in the woods, away from the village. She helps ease difficult births, and treats common maladies. She is reviled for her knowledge. She will die for her love and goodness, and at the hands of those she’s cared for during their lowest moments. I feel for her. I feel like her. I am scared that I will become her. I’m scared that I will not be good enough to become her. I don’t want my fear to beat the goodness out of me. I refuse to let it.

And then what of hope and trust and love and happiness? And why now am I at the highest of highs in my personal life, feeling stronger by far than I have in so very long, when the world around us seems to be more frail than ever? Do I keep living like there’s more time to get things right, or do I throw caution to the wind, and rise along with it? Is my fear greater now because there’s suddenly so much more to lose? I’m forcing myself to bite my tongue lest I say too much. I’m digging in my heels and straining against my own need to run wild and frantic, this raw emotion burning away anything that stands between us. I am the Phoenix. I am the Crone. I am terrified of what will be, but confident that I can do no more than what I’ve always done: live. At least now there’s someone to hold my hand at night, to watch over as I sleep. The villagers will have to take us both, I guess.

No Use Crying…

My grandfather died when I was 17. It was quick, though not painless. I stood in his hospital room on the night he died, listening to his ragged breath and morphine-colored moans, thinking that maybe there was still hope. Maybe he’d get better. I was young, and I know now, monumentally stupid.

The visitation was like a scene from the beginning of a horror movie. The funeral home was old, dusty and dimly lit. The smell of lilies was stifling, and I didn’t know it then, but the emotional charge of the room and its inhabitants would have been similarly overpowering for me as an empath. I felt wobbly and faint. My adult relatives stood in small groups, speaking in whispers. My cousins – all under 10 at the time – played around. The old ones were quiet and mostly respectful, but two of the younger ones ran around and yelled in the room where Granddaddy’s coffin sat.

“Anna, come look!” one little cousin cried again and again, “He just looks like he’s sleeping!”

I wanted to scream at him to stop being so nonchalant about the gaping hole in my heart. But he didn’t know. It wasn’t his fault. I hated him then, though. I hated them all, save for one. If we’re going to get truthful here, that didn’t change much over the years. It dampened a bit, became less about dislike and more about disregard. And there were other factors, general abuses on their part, personality and cultural conflicts, age differences all around. But in general, the way I felt about all but one of them at my grandfather’s funeral is how I feel now – I wrote myself out of their story on that day.

I don’t feel compelled to change my mind, either, especially when I remember how pressured I felt to look at Granddaddy there in his box. The kids were running up and down the center aisle of the funeral home, completely unchecked by their parents, as always. They were yelling at me to look, look at his face, look and see – he’s only sleeping! So I did. And what I saw was nothing. An orange, waxy mask that looked nothing at all like the Granddaddy I’d seen just two days before, alive and moaning in his hospital bed.

This thing stretched out before us was an abomination. Lips too red, skin too tan, suit too crisp, hands too plump. He didn’t look like he was asleep. He didn’t even look like he was dead. He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before, or would want to see again. This thing took my grandfather’s face away from me, in memory and in real life. In my memory, Granddaddy is an empty coffin, a silver money clip, a cheesy red white & blue polo shirt worn every Fourth of July, a toothpick clenched between grinning teeth, the juicy pink insides of a perfectly-cooked ribeye, the softness of a gold toe sock, a cheap hairbrush being dragged through my tangled curls, a perfect paper airplane that would always outfly my own rough interpretation, the first desperate fizz of a Cheerwine as the top unscrewed, the sound of a Lazyboy recliner popping back.

I fainted during the burial. They put me in the back seat of one of the limos, and when the family got back to my grandparents’ house, I was put to bed in their bedroom. There I curled up on Granddaddy’s side of the four poster bed, alternating between sobbing and greedily breathing in the remains of his scent on his pillow. My little cousin, the one that I love, stuck to me like glue that day and for many more after. She insisted that she be allowed to hang out with me, and she napped beside me on Nana’s side of the bed as I cried.

Eventually, Nana came into the room to check on us. She stood over me, looked down, and angrily spat out, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” The nicest person I knew, the woman who fell in love with my grandfather at first sight as a teenager, who threw me ice cream “tea parties,” and always had time to hear out my heartbreaks, that woman was gone forever that day. I guess to her, my behavior was just as unacceptable as my cousins’ had been for me. I don’t know. We’ve never really gotten along since that moment, and she’s gradually gotten more and more bitter over the years. It’s been a couple of years since we last talked, and that’s how this particular story ends. It’s not fair – but that’s life.

The Last Conversation With My Grandfather

Granddaddy and my cousin, Crystal. I took this photo when I was around 12 or so, with a new 35mm camera that he'd just bought me. His love of taking photos was the beginning of me taking snapshots of anything and everything in my life.

Granddaddy and my cousin, Crystal. I took this photo when I was around 12 or so, with a new 35mm camera that he’d just bought me. His love of taking photos was the beginning of me taking snapshots of anything and everything in my life.

I remember the last time I talked with my Granddaddy. He had gone into the hospital a few days prior, something my father explained to me as being “just a precaution.” My father’s father had emphysema, and was also going blind from macular degeneration.

Funny that this would be the case, because my memory of the moment is from the point of view of someone who is going blind, herself. I see the crisp, white hospital room, the gangly teenager, the frail old man, all through a mist, like a cataract clouding my mind.

I walked over to the hospital from my family’s upholstery shop after school one afternoon. My high school was 15 minutes’ drive from the town, so I’d driven in and parked the car in front of the shop, checked in with my father and dropped off my bookbag, then walked the couple of blocks over to Pungo District Hospital to keep Granddaddy company. I thought he must have been bored there, waiting for tests, taking a break to rest, whatever it is that people check into hospitals to do when they’re just a little too sick to stay home in bed. I had no concept of “sick.” I’d never missed a day of school, broken a bone, or been seriously injured. No one around me had ever been sick, other than Granddaddy, but he just seemed in need of a tune up, really.

His room was private, and in a wing of the hospital that I’d never visited. It seemed pretty swanky, and at first the gloss and shine of the facility overpowered how odd it was to see him stretched out in bed in a hospital gown. When I walked in, he didn’t know it was me automatically. There was a bit of fear in his expression as he called “Who is it?” but I quickly introduced myself and saw the sweet smile I had expected brighten up his face. He sat up in bed and arranged himself proudly. This was a man who, just three months before, had driven me across town on the Fourth of July when my glasses broke and I couldn’t see to drive. Even in July, his eyesight had probably been worse than mine, but this aspect of the blindness seemed new, like he’d lost another layer of sight here in this unfamiliar place. I was shocked, but tried to keep my voice light and my face neutral, just in case.

We talked about nothing, really. What were my college choices, what was happening in school, was I dating anyone, all of the little things a high school senior knows to talk about with her favorite grandparent. I asked if he was feeling well, and he told me that it was just a few tests, and he’d be out in no time. I took it at face value, and we continued to make small talk for a while longer. Eventually, though, it was time to let him get his rest. But first, a hug. He gave the best hugs.

Granddaddy swung his legs out from under the covers. He was wearing gold toe socks, those soft cotton blend socks that my Nana washed with more care than any piece of her own lingerie. When I was a little girl, I’d sit with her while she repaired the heels and watched late night TV, the two of us drinking endless cups of coffee (mine with enough cream and sugar to kill a horse). Other times, she’d enlist me in making fun of him for wearing a pair where a toe or two would poke out. Complex relationships, seen from the eyes of the most devoted of young fans. Those socks were as much a part of him as the ugly ceramic dog face that held his glasses, the ever-present toothpick gracing the corner of his clever smile, or the cameras – always a camera in hand, always a smile or a pose expected. I was always happy to provide one.

That was probably why I was able to hold my composure so well when I saw his legs. White and withered, with large veins and the knobbiest knees. They were just the legs of an old man, but there was more to it, somehow. My bold, bigger-than-life grandfather had shrunken. I gave him a hug, and we exchanged words of love. I told him I’d come back to see him soon, and he said he’d be out in the next day or two. He was always such a smooth talker.

I held it together for a few seconds after I left his room. My uncle’s ex-wife was a nurse in the hospital, and though we weren’t on speaking terms, when she met me outside of his room and pulled me into an embrace, I didn’t fight it. The first sob was a primal thing, from depths I didn’t know existed. It felt like a black hole had opened up just under my heart, and was simultaneously sucking me into it and spitting out anguish and dismay.

No one ever came out and told me that my Granddaddy, the light of my life, was dying. Not even he did. It was his knees that shared the secret.

Shortly after, the family was informed that he had an advanced form of cancer, and had six months to live. He never left the hospital. He died two weeks later, the morning of my senior year Homecoming Game. We were together twice more before he passed away, but this is the memory that sticks with me. The next two visits were full of pain, Morphine, no smiles, no hugs, just fear and sadness.

It’s probably fitting that the man who defined my childhood would also create the bridge that forced me, sharply and suddenly, into being a grown woman. I miss you, Granddaddy…so very much.