I can’t believe September has reared its cool, crisp, leaf-changing face already. Where has the summer gone? I’ve participated in road races, had company, visited a friend in Colorado for a few days, taken photography classes, avoided cleaning my house, and spent four memorable days in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my cousins. During one of our numerous adventures, my cousins and I were so fabulous and beautiful that one young comedian performing in the Blue Whale Comedy Festival at the Inner Circle Vodka Bar referred to us as the Golden Girls during his set. As he pointed at us, clearly the oldest patrons in the bar, the young crowd managed a few laughs as they turned to look at us and make sure none of their mothers were in the bar. At least I think that is what they were doing. Well, Mr. Comedian, let me take the microphone now and tell you a bit about us. You should only be so lucky to sit at our table.
First of all, we are a force to be reckoned with. Among the group, we’ve battled breast cancer, a brain tumor, the loss of a child, and the deaths of our parents due to various types of cancer, MS, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses. If the worst thing that some punk comedian can come up with is to refer to us as “golden” because of our age, well, there’s nothing worse than the scorn and ridicule from one of those very “golden” girls. I won’t hold Mr. Comedian’s young age and lack of experience against him. I know it’s his job to insult people, but it’s my job to write about an experience and figure out what the hell happened. I admit that when Mr. Comedian walked past me with a smug little smile on his face at the end of the evening, my initial instinct was to slap him upside the head. It did cross my mind that assaulting a comedian in a bar might be something he was hoping for! Since I don’t remember ever watching an episode of the Golden Girls in my life, I wasn’t sure if I might be playing into some episodic fantasy of his. I sure wasn’t going to provide ammunition for his next comedy shoot out. My cousins and I walked out of the bar with our heads held high, and our tongues razor sharp with insults about comedians who aren’t particularly funny.
My cousins and I are all over the age of fifty. Perhaps we do resemble the Golden Girls of television lore. I have never watched the show, and I refuse to watch it now. I do know that as a collective group of cousins, we rely on love, our family history, a sense of adventure, and a glass of wine or bottle of beer at the end of the day as we celebrate with each other. A little vodka might be called for now and then, and a comedian that might actually be funny. As cousins, taking a walk down memory lane and telling true stories about our own mothers can be a lot more fun and entertaining than any joke or story Mr. Comedian would ever imagine or invent.
Margaret Lyn (my mother), Barbara (LouAnn, Amy, Audrey, Julie, and Sybil’s mother), and Jean (Teena’s mother) all raised some very fabulous women. My cousins and I miss our mothers terribly. They put the spine in our backbone. They created the funny for our funny bones. They taught us to love from deep within our hearts, and insisted on kindness to others as a ruling principle. My mother had a wicked sense of humor, and I think she might have taken that microphone from Mr. Comedian and said something truly witty and funny as a rejoinder to his weak attempt at insulting us. I realize that the television show the Golden Girls was fiction. Hell, I grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, and people still ask me if I knew Dorothy. Well, no.
I have lived in Michigan now for almost forty years, but my Kansas roots and my family were the foundation for the person I have become. When I get together with my cousins, we laugh, cry, and honor our mothers and fathers. We all have a great sense of humor, and we will laugh if a joke or story is actually funny. If the best joke telling that Mr. Comedian can come up with is to toss a weak Golden Girls lob at us as an insult, well, he might want to think of another line of work to help him survive his golden years.
“April is the cruellest month…”—T.S. Eliot
The ice smothering the inland lake where I live melts slowly some winters as if not merely a body of water, but a human body slowly dying, exhaling slowly as if mist rising or fog lifting, before gasping for one last breath. April’s cruelty reveals itself in other years by forcing violent winds to wreak havoc upon the shoreline. Broken ice floes creep steadfastly up the rocks, their push and pull give birth to small bergs of diamonds grinding and moaning towards the sandy beach. With the promise of spring, hidden in the bones of cold artic air, we speak of daffodils, tulips, and death.
Ten years ago in April, my father-in-law, Carl, died.
Eight years ago in April, my friend Laura told me she had a Stage IV glioblastoma.
As the ice begins to shed its skin each April, loons’ cries echo across the still water in the damp morning air. We search the lake for their small black heads, and then watch as they dive deep into the clear water seeking minnows or perch to feast upon. Mallards promenade up our neighbors’ boat ramp, before waddling towards our yard, seeking refuge under our bird feeders as they devour seeds dropped by chickadees and goldfinches. At the slightest intrusion, the ducks quack loudly and begin their awkward square-dance moves before strutting off in indignation or taking flight. Robins build nests under our upper deck. Deer and foxes stumble through snow-free lawns along the shoreline searching for sustenance. Raccoons and skunks sneak into our yard at night to scavenge what others have left behind.
I keep waiting for Carl to walk down the hill from his house to ours and tell us about the project he plans to work on that day.
I keep waiting for Laura to step out on her front porch and tell me a story as the two of us ease into our morning run.
On May 1st this year, I ran 7.4 miles, a distance I had not run in a very long time. After suffering a grand mal seizure during a road race in October of 2011 and finding out that a brain tumor—a meningioma—would completely change my life forever, I could not run, could not form clear sentences, and could not remember if I had done something the day before. My world went gray as if I, too, had been covered by a thick layer of ice. The first time I went for a run, my husband followed me. I ran ahead of him until I finally turned around and ran back to him. Before long, I knew I could run on my own and not be afraid.
One day I saw Laura’s parents as I ran past their house, and I told them about my brain tumor.
The lake, as smooth as glass, reflected their sorrow and my guilt for being alive.
April holds us taut in its grasp, and we run towards May with heavy arms.
Running on the icy/snowy/slushy roads near my house recently, dodging the snow plow truck guy who most likely thinks I am ridiculous, I realized how dealing with my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) for the past two-plus years has affected every aspect of my life. The drama of the grand mal seizure during the Zombie Run in Traverse City, Michigan, in 2011, learning I had SBT, undergoing Gamma Knife surgery (radiation to blast the tumor), and dealing with memory problems, emotions (“Cry Me a River,” indeed), and language issues (*^#^*) seemed to be a story I was ready to shed or at least shred into little pieces. As I listened to Hall & Oates’ words on my iPod, “Where do you dare me to draw the line? / You’ve got the body, now you want my soul,” I thought, hey, whoa, “I can’t go for that.” I needed to rethink my running strategies, face my fears, and set goals for running another 5K, 10K, or half marathon and not worry about waking up surrounded by Zombies at the side of the road. Time for a new game plan.
My one-year MRI in November 2012 showed that the tumor had shrunk a bit, but the edema was nasty and creating balance issues. My two-year MRI in November 2013 showed that SBT had shrunk a teeny bit more and the edema had “markedly decreased” since 2012. Since I had been feeling much better, I convinced my new neurosurgeon, Dr. Ma, to cut back on my anti-seizure medication since the dosage seemed to keep me in a perpetually stoned state and not in a good way. He scheduled me for an EEG, and on January 2nd, my son dropped me off at the hospital for my date with Angie and her electrodes. I sat in a very comfy lazy boy chair, feet up, blanket on, and waited while Angie dressed me up like some modern day Medusa, and she promised that the gel she used to stick the electrodes on my head would wash out easily. Two days later, I still felt like Cameron Diaz’s character in Something about Mary.
After a long series of tests to determine if I would have a seizure or perhaps slip into an alternate universe, Angie said she could see exactly where the radiation had zapped my head. Of course, I would have to wait for Dr. Ma to explain it all to me. I wondered if my brainwaves took a little detour around SBT as they guided me through my daily tasks. Was there still a possibility that I could have a seizure while running or watching NCIS? I anxiously awaited the results of my EEG.
My husband and I settled into the examination room and waited for Dr. Ma. Before long, he walked in wearing a very sharp suit. He informed me that I had passed all of my tests. The EEG did show electrical activities in the left frontal area of my brain that indicated the slight possibility of a seizure. Because of this, I would have to stay on my anti-seizure medication. He agreed to reduce the dosage even more than he had at our last meeting, so I felt this was a huge victory.
I asked Dr. Ma how those brainwaves work around the area where SBT is located and where the radiation burned a bit of a hole in my head, so to speak. Imagine a heart rate monitor where the blips of lines go up and down on a regular basis if your heart is in good shape. I had certainly seen enough of these as I dealt with my late father’s issues through the years of hanging out in the ER with him. Dr. Ma said that the EEG showed a distinctly different pattern when the brainwaves churned through the “damaged” zone. He then said something that made me want to stand up and cheer: “Live life. You can’t go back.” I can go for that.
I’m feeling lucky, and I am ready to get my running game on and get this body into a much sleeker shape. More miles and less beer ought to take care of that. SBT might be in charge of what my body can or cannot do, but I refuse to let it take my soul. As long as I can move this body forward, I am heading out the door into the unknown.
If a runner falls in the road and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound? Does swearing count as sound? Ear porn for anyone listening? Recently, as I cruised along at my slow ten-minute-per-mile pace, I tripped on road debris and fell hard. I have a photograph of my right knee to prove it. My left hamstring and adjoining gluteus maximus are now speaking in tongues every time I sit down, stand up, squat, or stretch. I am tired of straddling the white throne as if it is a temperamental old horse just so I can do my business. Despite the ugly knee, the pain in the butt (and elsewhere), all I can think about is running, which is obviously something I should not do until I heal. I am a very impatient person.
I was out for a short 3.5 miler, and I needed to work off my massively sore car butt. After five days on the road that included stops in Peoria, Illinois, to visit my uncle in the hospital, stopping in Olathe, Kansas, to visit friends, and continuing on to Eureka, Kansas, to visit another uncle before turning the old car around and heading for home, I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. The only real exercise I had within that time frame was a walk in Kansas with my friend Gretchen where the wind blew so hard that I wondered if we might actually be blown into Missouri.
Back home, I headed out on one of my usual routes around Higgins Lake. Sunny skies, 20 degree temps, and my “Summer Run” playlist on my iPod® provided me a sense of calm and relief. I glanced to my right towards a hill I had run up during the summer, but decided I needed to get my hill-legs back before tackling it again. As my head swiveled back towards the road, my left pink running shoe found a groove in the rough pavement and stuck. My upper body propelled itself forwards. My left hamstring pulled itself into an unnatural braking system that failed miserably. My upper body kept going. My arms became turbine-like, speeding up as if an out-of-control windmill. I was “Freefalling” as Tom Petty famously sings, but my landing would not be similar to the one depicted by the skateboarder in the music video. I reached out with my gloved hands and fell onto my right knee before the rest of my body slammed into the road.
November at Higgins Lake is a quiet and peaceful time. Spring, summer, and fall vacationers are nowhere to be found. Locals are at work or inside their homes keeping snug by the fire. Ducks outnumber people. Deer, always facing you with that startled look, turn and run back into the woods upon your approach, but turkeys give you the evil eye before forcing you to turn and run into the woods. On this day, the only witness to my folly was a pileated woodpecker who continued to amuse himself about thirty feet up in a dead birch tree. I yanked out my ear buds, and I listened to him laugh at me.
I sat on the pavement for a few minutes wondering if I could even get up. I was mad. There were no cars on the road in either direction. I finally figured out that if I rolled towards my left side, I could perhaps pull myself up. This painful move involved a lot more swearing. I noticed that my favorite running pants were torn where my knee had hit the asphalt. My gloves had tiny bits of gravel buried in them. I reached for my cell phone in my Armpocket® and thought about calling my husband to rescue me. I realized I was only a mile from home. Damn it! I would walk if it killed me. I tapped the icon for MapMyRun® and switched the app from running to walking. I did not want to miss out on the rest of my workout.
I started hobbling along the road, and about an eighth of a mile from where I had tripped the light fantastic, or something like that, a man walked out of his driveway and headed down the road away from me. I eventually caught up with him. He looked surprised as I passed him. “You came up fast,” he said. Was he being ironic? Sarcastic? An asshole? Or was he just some old guy who had not seen my tumbling routine in the middle of the road. I wondered if it was too early for a beer.
After an excruciating mile of limping home, I opened the door and walked into my house. I must have looked worse than I felt. As my husband looked at me, the concern on his face obvious, I said, “I’m hurt,” as I pointed at my ass. I then pulled up my torn pant leg to discover I was bleeding. I had wondered why my knee felt so warm. As I pulled the torn material off of my injured knee, I felt the material rip the skin off of my leg. I almost passed out, as I began swearing in an even louder voice than I had used on the road. After counting the imaginary stars in the ceiling, I grabbed my cell phone, turned off my mileage app, poked the camera app, and snapped a selfie of my knee. It was time to update my Facebook status.
I walked around for a while and tried to avoid the inevitable: I knew I was going to have to clean my bloody knee. I stripped down and entered the shower. Later, Jim said he could hear me in the other room as I swore and moaned when the water hit the wound. I managed to clean out the gunk, apply an antibiotic ointment, and wrap it all in some pretty gauze. Something oozed through the gauze in a pale-ale color. Even though it was twenty degrees outside, I put on a pair of shorts. I could not find a chair to sit in that my ass didn’t hurt and my hamstring didn’t screech like some sad violinist on Quaaludes. Freefalling…not.
Two days later, I told the nurse I was a bit sore as I climbed up onto the bed that would soon be slid into the open MRI for my two-year checkup. It was hard to believe that it had been two years since my Grand Mal Seizure during a road race and a freefall I have no memory of. I do remember surreal voices whispering “brain tumor” as friends and family circled my hospital bed. Weeks later, I had Gamma Knife surgery and imagined the radiation killing off the ugly thing that affects language, memory, and emotion. Months passed. My dog died. My father died. Other people I knew and cared about died, and I began to feel caught inside a spiral of death and despair, and yet my family and friends were there to catch me, forcing me to stand up, to get over myself. Deal with it. I began freefalling into a world of unconditional love and support. Faith. Mercy.
One week after my two-year MRI, I watched a bald eagle soar high above me before it started its graceful and pure freefall towards the lake as it swooped down to catch a fish. I ran inside to grab my camera. The eagle was too fast for me, and I missed the shot of it flying almost straight towards me before veering off and landing softly on a branch of a barren maple tree some two-hundred feet away. The eagle began the work of eating the fish. I watched through a kaleidoscope of trees, seemingly hundreds of arms and legs protecting the eagle from voyeurs or predators. After the freefall comes sustenance. Patience brings its greatest rewards.
And isn’t that what literature requires, really, for the writer to feel like her life depends upon it?
I am not certain when I first realized I had a problem with language. Memories six months prior to my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) seem to come and go, and some memories are nonexistent. If not for stories from my friends and family, and the writings in my journal, some so strange they fail to make sense, it seems as if I ceased to exist in mind and spirit while my body lay in wait for embalming. I felt as I was a stranger in a new country, and the language barrier made me invisible.
Instead of displaying the gift of gab that my mother would accuse me off having when I was young, I began hesitating over each word, fearing some dreadful malapropism or simply using the wrong word (like dock) when I was actually describing the hoist. I had to walk on the dock to get to the hoist which held the boat, but for some reason, my brain now found ways to avoid the logical sequence of events or find the correct word. As the Beatles famously sang, “Say the word and you’ll be free.” Well, damn, I wanted to be free, and I felt as if my life depended on it. I began to retreat more and more into my home office, lie down on the couch, and watch television. I became hooked on NCIS and the character Ziva David.
Ziva David’s character, played by actress Cote de Pablo, is a former Israeli Mossad agent who becomes an NCIS Special Agent. Ziva’s malapropisms, called “Ziva-isms,” are well known to NCIS viewers. As Ziva adapts to American culture and its plethora of analogies, idioms, and slang, she also shows her fellow agents that she doesn’t take crap from anyone. As I became addicted to NCIS marathon days, watching five or six shows in a row, I felt as if someone was “jerking my brain” (chain) as Ziva said in one episode. The NCIS family became my family, and I gave up reading books and writing.
Time passed and my frustration grew with my inability to comprehend anything more complex than People magazine. One day, as I stood in my office, staring at hundreds of my books, I noticed Laura Kasischke’s book of poetry, Space, in Chains, sitting on a shelf, by itself, as if waiting. I began rereading her poetry, and when I finished each poem, I sat still and listened to the quiet. I decided I was in language rehab.
Eventually, I began reading novels again, slowly, as if I was learning to ride a bicycle. I wondered if I had finally adjusted to my anti-seizure medication or if the radiation from my Gamma-Knife surgery had opened up a sliver of thought in my clogged head. One day I opened my writing journal, and instead of recording my thoughts for the day, I attempted to write a poem. It was horrible, but I sent it to my friend Chris Giroux. Chris and I became friends when I taught at SVSU, and we had been exchanging our writing for many years, providing feedback, ripping what needed ripped, or praising each other’s work when we got something right. I began spending less time watching NCIS and more time writing. I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain as it tried to move past language rehab and into the real world.
As luck would have it, around the same time, a former student of mine, Alie Buckley, contacted me on Facebook. She had started a blog, http://ifcoffeecouldtalk.wordpress.com/. Alie asked me how I was, so I told her about SBT. She encouraged me to start a blog and share my story. Alie became my teacher, showed me how to start a blog, and offered to read my posts before publication and give feedback. Again, I felt the jerk, jerk, jerk of my brain, and started to write for a different purpose: I wanted to tell my story. Perhaps if I wrote it, I would understand it.
I published my first blog post on June 14, 2012, and the process has been cathartic, therapeutic, made me laugh as I write, and made me cry far more than I ever imagined it would. I realize I am writing now because my life depends on it.
I am still addicted to NCIS and spend the occasional afternoon on the couch watching reruns when my headaches or balance issues sideline me. I believe I am making progress in this battle against SBT, and I am hoping language rehab will soon be a thing of the past. But as I have learned, friends and family provide the constant source of strength I need in my life, whether or not I am in language rehab. So if you see me out somewhere, and we strike up a conversation, and I pause for a moment, wait. My words are forthcoming: They are on the slip of my tongue.
*Schulman, Helen. “First In Her Class.” The Friend Who Got Away. Eds. Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. New York: Broadway, 2005. Digital Print.
I have never run in the Boston Marathon or any other marathon for that matter. I have run in countless road races over the years: four half-marathons, several ten-mile races, and so many 10ks and 5ks I can’t remember them all. My biggest concern for these road races centered on one thing: Will I finish the race? Only once did I fail to finish when I suffered a grand mal seizure around Mile 2 and later found out I had a brain tumor. That’s enough to screw up anyone’s day.
For thousands of runners in Boston, their race came to a halt because evil exists in our world, not because their bodies let them down. For thousands of well-wishers and family members, the end of the race brought death, catastrophic injuries, and broken hearts. I wonder if I will ever understand.
Although I have run only one road race since October 29, 2011, I have gone for solo runs and tried to get myself back into running shape. Unfortunately, my SBT (Stupid Brain Tumor) does not always allow me to train the way I want to. Years ago, when Jim and I trained for our first half-marathon, we would head out on the country roads and run ten or twelve miles at a time to prepare. Now I feel gratitude if I can run five miles, and I am often trying to literally find my balance. Tunes on my iPod sometimes help, but on other days, listening to the contradiction of birds singing against the thwack-thwack of my running shoes on the pavement is all I need. When I lived in Midland, Michigan, people in my neighborhood waved at me or clapped as I ran by their yards. One man offered to let me run through his sprinklers on a particularly muggy day. I loved the camaraderie.
Something spiritual happens to me when I run whether or not I am alone or in the company of others. It is as if I become one with the earth as my feet carry my body along to whatever destiny or mileage goal I have in mind. For the runners in the Boston Marathon, I can only imagine what it must be like for those who had finished, those who were crossing the finish line at the moment of tragedy, and those who were told to stop because bombs were exploding.
I remember watching the television footage that day. Various channels repeatedly showed an elderly man near the finish line, stumbling, and then falling as the first blast erupted. Immediately, people rushed to help him up, and I thought of him as if he were my own father, knocked down by something unknown, even though my father never ran a road race during his life. I could not understand why someone would want to harm this elderly man, still out there at his age, still running, his memories carrying him forward through 26.2 miles, and well wishers standing nearby to encourage him before their cheers were suddenly drowned in the abyss of grief.
We are never the same after unspeakable tragedy. We can only try and prepare ourselves for the next time, and so we run, walk, or move through our days, watching, remembering, and praying to cross the finish line, imagining the sounds of gratitude for our smallest accomplishments.
On Soul To Soul Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice growls “You can’t change it / You can’t rearrange it” on a song aptly titled “Change It,” written by Doyle Bramhall. The song describes a relationship that has suffered through its share of mistakes, “painful memories,” and “back-door moves.” The song invokes the concept of forgiveness for past mistakes and the idea that if only one could rearrange history, or perhaps have an opportunity for redemption, there might be a chance for the relationship to survive. We all make choices every day of our lives, such as what we eat, where we go, what we do, but we also make choices that impact our friends and family. There are times I have made choices to protect myself, both physically and emotionally, and there are times I have made choices I thought would bring joy and happiness to someone and found the reverse to be true. If I could change or rearrange a moment in time when I made a friend of over thirty years so angry with me that we are no longer speaking, would I? No, and I will tell you why.
As a child and a teenager, I hurt people for my own selfish reasons. Equally, people hurt me along the way. We all seemed to survive, heartbreak withstanding, and we learned something valuable. At least I did. As I grew older, I tried to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic. However, there were times when I did none of these things well, and my inner-brat reared its ugly head; I was not kind to people who really needed my kindness. I could have been a better friend, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, neighbor, mother, and wife. I made mistakes, and I figure I will make lots of other mistakes before I die. When I screw up, typically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my joke is that I have made a mistake this year (yeah, it’s only March), so I should be done for another 365 days. Fat chance.
Friendships as relationships seem to have their own special place in our history, our psyche; they serve as a mirror of the kind of person we wish to be. I am not suggesting we seek out people exactly like us, but rather that we seek people who share some rudimentary notion of life that we do and who still like us after we have done something completely idiotic.
Some friendships fade as geography, jobs, family, and life move us into different spaces. Sometimes a person’s actions break the bonds of kinship. Years ago, someone I really liked gave me used deodorant as a Christmas gift. She said it made her “pits break out,” and she thought I could use the deodorant. Seriously. If we had been children on opposite ends of a seesaw, I would have jumped off my end to hear her butt smack the ground and laugh when she screamed with pain. I threw the deodorant in the trash.
Some friendships intensify as fate deals out its cards and you find yourself at your lowest point. There’s an old Jimmy Cox song that Eric Clapton covered on his Unplugged album, and the narrator explains “then I began to fall so low / lost all my good friends / had nowhere to go… / nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” So true. I remember discovering this when my daughter Nicole died. People avoided me in public or said completely asinine things to me. One day at a grocery store, a couple my husband and I knew quite well, spotted us, and basically sprinted out of the store to avoid us. We never heard from them again. It was as if we had been given a Scarlet letter, perhaps a “G” for grief, something that many people cannot quite negotiate. On the day of my daughter’s funeral, a woman from the church leaned toward me and said tersely: “You should have prayed harder. I prayed for all three of my children.” I really would have liked to bounce her ass off of a seesaw, but the heavy weight of the “G” on my black dress prevented me from making any sudden moves.
This phenomenon of avoidance while someone is clearly “down and out” happened again when I learned I had a brain tumor. Having an SBT (stupid brain tumor) is not a subject many people can easily talk about. In fact, it can be a real conversation stopper. At first I didn’t want anyone to know I had one, and then I shifted into telling complete strangers as if by declaration I could own it and defeat it. Now, once again, I don’t like to tell anyone: I just want people to think I’m weird. It’s easy to flip the letter: M for Melissa to W for weird. Problem solved.
I thought I was figuring things out and learning how I would spend the rest of my life with SBT forever and ever stuck in my head. Negotiating what the medication and SBT were doing to my head and body, I seemed to be coming into a fairly good space. I had finally learned what I could and could not do physically. I started writing and reading again. I could remember stories I read. I could remember that my husband told me what was for dinner ten times in a three-hour period. I believed I was funny again. I started playing my guitar and singing the raunchy songs I knew and loved, most of them written by me or my band mates.
Then the sequence of events that slipped me into the “down and out” phase began: I pissed off one of my best friends; my seventeen-year-old dog died; my father died. I started wearing the letter “G” again as I stumbled through my days. My family put up with me, but drew the line at my sudden outbursts of songs I made up on the spot, typically involving their names in the chorus. My friends, but not the one I had pissed off, called me, showed up, texted me, emailed me, brought me chocolate chip cookies and beer, and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. But let me backtrack for a moment.
I spent the months of April and May last year dealing with my father’s illness, his subsequent move to a nursing home, and the additional task of emptying out his apartment. My dog’s health also started to decline. Three of my dear friends decided to come to my house for a few days to cheer me up and go visit my father at his nursing home. We got the bright idea to visit another friend, the one I would deeply piss off. We had all known each other for years. Although my soon-to-be-ex-friend seemed out of sorts with me that day, I didn’t think too much about it. No one else seemed to notice anything. Several days later, I called her to invite her to dinner with some mutual friends. She gave me a verbal smack down I will never forget. If we had been on a seesaw, my ass would have hit the ground with a sonic boom. I started crying as she continued telling me everything that was wrong with me. I guess I prefer small doses of being berated and reminded of my faults. My husband, fully aware of whom I was speaking to, watched me carefully. The crickets in my head, a condition SBT is teaching me to live with, started chirping, and I could no longer hear what she was shouting at me. I said to her: “I can’t understand what you are saying, and I have to hang up.” I did. The next day, I received two emails from her itemizing everything I had done wrong within a three-day period. Several weeks after the initial emails, I received a very long email deconstructing my faults. I wondered why she hadn’t included the past thirty years, since I was fairly certain I had screwed up at least a gazillion times in the past.
She needed her “space,” and she felt as if I had her “under surveillance” even though she lived miles and miles away from me, and I had been dealing with my father’s issues in a different town over eighty miles from my home. Apparently she thought I had one hell of pair of binoculars in my possession, or perhaps she thought I had a drone hovering over her house. She also accused me of not saying the right things, which I agree I am darn good at. Even before I discovered SBT, I had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother would have called it “foot-in-mouth disease.” As my list of sins grew longer, I became more and more flummoxed. Flim-flammed. Flabbergasted.
In addition to my grief over the loss of my father even before he was dead, I knew it was only a matter of time before my dog would die. I admit I was a walking nightmare during these months with death knocking at my door. My SBT also decided to rear its ugly head and create balance issues for me. The only thing that kept me going forward and not climbing into the back of a hearse for my own ride to freedom was the mercy my family and friends showed me. Mercy. Oh, and a lesson I was about to learn.
In one of my ex-friend’s emails to me, she explained that she had certain friends she did certain things with. I did not find any categories in which I comfortably fit. The thought of category friends deeply interested me. I considered my running friends. We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, and helped each other out a moment’s notice. What about my teaching friends? We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, or helped each other out at a moment’s notice. What about high school friends? We travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, oh, you get the drift. It seemed tedious to me to think I had to categorize my friends, but what was more upsetting to me was to realize my ex-friend had excluded any categories in which I could fit unless I had some sort of extreme makeover. Why was I just now finding out I was no longer good enough for her or her friendship?
It’s awkward now. People who assume we are still friends ask about her. When I answer, I feel as if I am in high school, and I have to explain why my boyfriend broke up with me. “Well, you know, he liked someone better than me.” Typically, I just say my ex-friend is busy, and I haven’t seen her for a while. The lie slips easily off my tongue.
I wish I could ask my father for advice. He was more of the “to-hell-with-them” kind of guy if someone didn’t like what he had done. My mother’s response would have been more nuanced. She would have told me to “kill [my friend] with kindness.” Was she really suggesting mercy? How do I show my friend/ex-friend mercy? How do I show her kindness when all I can feel inside myself is a year filled with so much loss and grieving? I know now I could never be myself around her again, because I would always be afraid of screwing up the friendship. I would fall out of some imaginary category I fit into. I must have misunderstood the friendship all of these years.
On one beautiful spring day last year, I walked into her house with several other women intending to embrace friendship and accomplishment, when, instead, I ignited a slow-burning fire that must have been waiting to ignite with just the right amount of kindling. If there is regret on my part, I shall focus on not seeing the warning signs in the decline of our friendship. As for mercy, I do not ask for mercy from her; rather, I seek mercy to forgive myself. The poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Sometimes we are so busy in life seeking forgiveness from others, that we forget to forgive ourselves for being human. I continue to be a work-in-progress, understanding that my next mistake is just around the corner where I might just find myself on the wrong end of the seesaw.