Category Archives: Year to Live

Fourteen Years

This posts marks the second time in less than a year that I’ve had cause to use this particular title; last time regarded Sir Duff’s continuing sobriety. This post is about my father; another male figure of some importance, one might imagine, in my life.

That both anniversaries would call to mind the same title and, as it happens, song, is unsurprising, given that we are dealing in anniversaries, one from a life (though not mine)-changing event in May of 1994, and the other was life-ending event from January of 1995.

On the 21st of January, 1995, I was 19 years old, a mother of a 9 month-old son, a nanny for three boys, and a full-time college student, though I can no longer recall what courses I was taking…possible this was the General Psych, Child Psych, Marriage & Family, American History Semester, but I don’t really recall. It may have been American Lit, Advanced Comp, and assorted other courses. None of that is particularly important, save that I dutifully attended all of my classes in the week after the 21st, a fact that has occasionally made me irritable with students who disappear after local deaths. Just keep moving.

Anyway, by the time that Saturday rolled around, my father had been dying to one degree or another for at least 4 years. He was diagnosed with a nasty, slow-growing brain cancer, Astrocytoma (grade II, I think–but it may have been Anaplastic even from the get-go of his awareness) when I was about 15; he had surgery to remove what they could and radiation to retard further growth. His chances for long-term survival were never particularly good, though I wasn’t completely aware of that at the time, I think. The first surgery and rounds of radiation did the job, and, to his oncologist’s great surprise, the damn tumor began to shrink. Doc planned to write this one up of a journal, according to my father, because the shrinkage was out of left field. As it happens, we can better understand what the tumor was doing as a temporary retreat, because two and a half or so years later, while I was pregnant with Tough Guy, the bastard came back fast, massive, and lethal.

We had not had a good relationship in years, owing to my bitchy teengirl antics, his own discomfort with fatherhood (realizing this 11 years into fatherhood is a bit problematic; later telling his 13 year old, high strung daughter that he didn’t want to be a father? Seriously bad news), and some classically bad divorce politics. Let me put it this way: you know how when people mention the death of a parent, many folks respond with “I can’t imagine what that must be like”? Well, I still have that response even now, largely because he’d not been around for so long before then; I have to remind myself that I do have some insight into the matter. Anyway, he had seen Tough Guy when kiddo was 6 weeks old, and Dad was already looking rough and having serious balance problems by then, but I don’t think I saw him again until 1995, when he asked me to join him and my stepmother for New Years Day 1995 and to bring Tough Guy along; I was a bit fearful of the encounter–what might transpire, but I did join them.

When she extended the invitation, Peggy was quite matter-of-fact. Dad was dying and this was a last opportunity to spend time with him. He had asked her to contact me as a matter of a final request of sorts. The end was nigh, and he had a few things he wanted to say (none of which do I remember–other images having become the most poignant from that day), an item to bequeath, and photos he wanted taken with me and with Tough Guy, who was now walking and beginning to yammer.

Dad looked awful. My Navy Officer father, never a great dresser when let loose from his uniform, looked sallow in the long-sleeved, stained white shirt, the brownish corduroys, and the awful mustard yellow suspenders, which have remained a focal point for me for my last memories of him. He was slow, weak, barely able to hold Tough Guy or to move across the room. His only moments of absolute clarity were in showing me the new trash compactor and the in-ceiling Bose speakers in their newly finished house.

I heir my geekdom honestly.

He died on the 21st of that month, after apparently lapsing into a coma about a week before. My stepmother, perhaps fearing an outburst or some histrionic behavior, did not contact me. I found out only because my grandmother happened to call my father’s house, and his mother-in-law spilled the beans. I saw him on the 21st, there in the VA Hospice, hours before he died. I said my goodbyes, cried while holding his hand, tried to at least maintain a modicum of composure in the face of Peggy’s anger at me and his impending death, and then went home. I wasn’t in the house more than five minutes, when Tough Guy’s paternal grandfather ushered me to the study to answer the phone. It was my grandmother; Dad died while I was driving home on I-64, a road that has tied together so many peculiar moments in my life. I even wrote a poem about the damn thing once upon a time.

I left Tough Guy with his grandparents and returned to Hampton, where I was afforded the opportunity to see my father’s body before the cremation. I had already said my goodbyes, so this was merely a weird moment, not nearly so significant as the yellow suspenders in my memories of him.

Like many people with poor relationships with parents, I have wondered over the years whether we would have been able to come to terms with our mutual disappointments or if he would have been proud of me. I was too young and too disconnected from him to even hazard a guess, and, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter in the end, what he would have thought. Is that just my teenage angst rearing, though–to remain dismissive of his opinions?

In the throes of my teengirl years, I used to write letters to him, including lyrics from various songs that seemed especially meaningful–most of them were about abandonment and anger. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a great many years in dark places, and those letters, which I hope he burned in order to purge them from his existence, exemplified that darkness. I did not trust my own words to convey my emotions properly, so I relied on the music and lyrics of the bands I had plastered all over my room. I might have even made him a mix tape of some of them; in fact, I am almost positive that I did.

So, Dad,

It’s been a good ride so far; I hope you have had an opportunity to see the grandson who looks so much like you. He’s every bit my son–headstrong and obnoxious, and every bit your grandson, for the same reasons. I have less of a clue now on how to address you than I did then, though I believe I’ve managed to accumulate a bit more insight. I hope I have, at any rate.

If you ever have the chance and feel like crossing the mortal veil or what have you, I do have several questions for you. Would like a bit of insight into the photo album with the pictures of Bahrain, which your sister tells me you adored. I never knew that when you were alive; if you ever mentioned it in my presence, I don’t recall what you said. Would have been great if you had labelled any of the pictures, but it does make for an interesting mystery to solve someday, should I ever make it to Bahrain. It’s definitely changed since you were there…I imagine you would be gobstruck by just how much.

I thought you hated travel; how in the world did I get that impression? And Slaughterhouse-5 was your favorite book? I adore Vonnegut…I’d love to know what your take was, exactly. What drew you in?

Anyway, I hope that this note doesn’t constitute some sort of awful post-mortality interruption to whatever. I sincerely hope that where/what/however you are that “well” is a good descriptor. I’d leave with “hang in there,” but I am a child of Hellraiser, and the variety of mental images available to me with that remark tend toward the unpleasant, so let’s just leave with a “stay well,” okay?

Much love. Miss you…can’t believe it’s been 14 years already.

Peace,
k

Dirty Laundry: Anarchy, Misanthropy, Ethics and Other Fears

I have a fleet of thoughts rolling about in the ole noggin right now; I hope I can attempt to make sense of them. Many of them are personal and directly related to a particular theological struggle within my church, but I think most of them are about power.

My church is conflicted over it’s mission–are we a building or are we our missions? Where does “church” exist? G. (poor man needs a better pseudonym than that) and I were discussing such after a particularly stressful board meeting, and I posited that the older members of our church cannot delegate leadership because they do not trust the successive generations to “get it done.” In general, we do get the various “its” done, but we do it entirely differently that the “Greatest Generation” and we are therefore perceived as wrong or as suggesting that they were somehow wrong.

Not wrong–just different.

Then, another pseudonymless person sent me this link, wherein Bill T-B discusses the realities of church conversations; I think he’s right–it’s about power, not about discussion. So, let me put my cards on the table: a church that chooses a structure (no matter how beautiful it is) over human capital–and make no mistake about it, that is what this discussion comes down to–is a church that has already failed, irrespective of how many people attend each Sunday.

Speaking of which, church attendance is not limited to Sunday at 11; good, generous and worthy people show up at other times to worship in other ways and that is a Good Thing. Different is not wrong and it is certainly not divisive. It’s just different.

Were I to be able to corner the building faction of the church for a moment and rant, I might say something like the following:

Look, we aren’t making comment about you; we are simply trying to create a space for ourselves and our lives, which do not fit within the paradigm that has operated here for so long. I prefer an early worship with a focus on discussion; you prefer the traditional service at 11. That is not divisive; it’s just different. We have college students worshiping here on Wednesday nights; they may not come to church on Sunday. So what? Good for them for finding their own spiritual paths and fulfilling their own needs. What we need is not an elevator–we can have a “church” in a tent; we need to work within our community. We have a mission and that mission is about people, not wooden beams and stained glass. Why the subterfuge? Why the insistence that we do it your way? Why the assumption that if you cannot afford to give more that no one else can either? We know you can’t give any more than you do, and we aren’t asking you to. We are asking you to listen to us. We are asking you to support the mission by supporting our people. We are asking you to trust us. Trust us to be good and joyful people who do the right thing, even if it looks different.

Different isn’t wrong. Different is just different.

I was called (and it isn’t formalized yet, so perhaps this is the shotgun to the foot approach) recently to serve as an Elder in our church, and, for several reasons, I feel simultaneously called to and unworthy of the task. So, I find myself (following the pseudonymless blog sender above) wondering: Why do we need leaders? To whom do we grant authority, and what ends do we provide to that authority?

Were this an ideal world, I’d be an anarchist. I strongly believe that were we inherently responsible folks, government oversight would be irrelevant. But, while I am a self-confessed idealist, I am also a bit more realistic than open advocacy of anarchy would allow. I believe, as Craig O’Hara suggests, that “anarchists must become ‘teachers’ to others without, of course, becoming leaders” (84).*

First of all, I work for the state, and, as such, absolute advocacy of anarchy would amount to shooting myself in the foot (Houston, we have a theme). Second, I don’t believe that there is anything inherently wrong with a government system, except for the whole human factor. Yes, I am indeed an idealist misanthrope. Third, with respect to say, my church, leadership is needed, because there are people who, whatever their reasons may be, are willing to make choices that are not Good Things and often for very Bad Reasons.

One of the first lessons one learns in AA (or any of the other 12-step programs) is that one cannot face addiction on his or her own. Now, this does provide a delightful self-perpetuity to the whole cause, but I am not so cynical as to believe that is why such remarks exist in the AA canon. As befits a person who is a professor and college administrator and therefore must speak to strangers all the time, I am extraordinarily shy. Making a phone call is a serious production for me, often involving far more time than you might care to imagine. This would include, by the way, calling church ladies about communion bread (though, if you’d ever met some of the church ladies I mean…Ah, see remarks above). Nevertheless, I try to do at least one thing every day that scares me (you’d think I would have run out by now), so I do manage to get through most calls and meetings.

For the record, I took almost 30 days into sobriety to go to AA, because of the whole stranger-anxiety thing. Also, I failed with the AA-sponsor bit. I can mentor people (and have, with some success), but asking that of someone else? When I finally got up the gumption to ask someone, she was too busy, which happens with sponsors who are worth their salt.

Sort of like major professors, now that I think about it. Grad School as the 12-step program intended to cause addictions. I rather like that analogy.

That said, I do understand the philosophy about not going-it-alone, a difficult prospect for many situations, and a nearly untenable one for sobriety (especially in the early days). My personality being how it is, I struggled with this tenet, but I do get it. See, teachers of all stripes are significant, and not necessarily because of the subject-information they impart. The best teachers are guides, not just information banks (though, reams of information are terribly cool too and often come packaged in leader-types, such as Dr. Bill Carroll, my American Lit prof at NSU, who was one of those incredible people who had clearly forgotten far more than most of us will ever hope to learn…gads he was great). Brad, over at Hardcore Zen, has wrestled with the importance of teachers in the context of religion:

In my case, I’m absolute certain that had my teacher not told me how utterly dorkified my little “spiritual awakenings” had been, and how I was hardly unusual, let alone unique, for having had such and experience, I could have easily decided that I was the latest incarnation of God. (Warner 55)

We need leaders and guides, especially when we are stuck, scared, or beginning again. With respect to sobriety, several recent events have made it clear to me that having a local guide or touchstone is a very Good Thing, and that having a teacher is also a Good Thing in all things–someone who can point out, gently one’s dork moments. So, I am a teacher-guide of literature, but what of becoming a spiritual teacher–guide (I’m struggling with the right words here–leader? Who am I to lead? Insight–sure; guidance, maybe–but I see my role within the church as one of support staff for the professional we hired–they who teach and guide me). Clearly, this is a scary time–the economy has tanked; I am hopeful about our president-elect, but I recognize that there are many who are not. So be it.

But scary times are not the times to make the easy choices; scary times are not the times to cut missions and to fail to protect people through those missions and through our choices. We must make hard choices and they need to be creative ones. They must be creative. They must be thoughtful and they must look toward a future that is not ours but that of successive generations. That creativity will demand change and demand difference–and that’s okay.

Different isn’t bad; it’s just different.

And it isn’t just my church, which is merely a microcosm, it’s the whole freaking shebang. Scary times call for creative, ethical spirit and hope for the future, not retreating into the building and hoping it will all be okay.


*Currently have students writing on anarchy; I’m very excited about their opinions on the matter. Very astute thinkers, my group.

**I’ll say it now, before you read the works cited list: yes, I am a dork.


Works Cited

O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.

Warner, Brad. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Novato: New World Library, 2007.

Open Letter to My Stepmother

Peggy:

I realize that I’ve not seen you in more than 13 years, nor have I had any contact with you of any sort in nearly as long, but you are, to paraphrase a bad song, often on my mind. I wonder what has become of you since my father’s death: where you went, what happened in your career…who you’ve grown into, I suppose.

When I walk through major airports, I nearly always wonder if I will see you there. Sometimes, I look around, kind of hoping I will; other times, I hide my eyes, praying that I will not. A silly game, I recognize, but one that has remained constant in my adult life.

I don’t know if you wonder about me or about my son, my father’s grandson. Your step-grandson, when it comes down to it, though we never established any relationship of that sort, and I have no clue whether you would identify him as such or not. Perhaps this is more telling of our relationship than any of the anecdotes that periodically wander through my head. S. is 14 now, in 9th grade, and is a Cadet Private First Class in J.R.O.T.C. He’s a dead ringer for my father; my grandmother is quite taken aback by the resemblance. I’m 33, an English Professor and College Administrator, and I am married, though not to S.’s father. My husband, G., has two sons.

Yes, I am a stepmother. And this, Peggy, is part of why you are often on my mind.

I’ve written letters in my head before, each one full of anger and recriminations, the lingering holdovers from my angsty teen years. But, this letter is to say thank you, because I learned more from you than my teen-life would have credited you with and, perhaps, more than you could have imagined.

My relationship with my stepsons is necessarily different from the one you and I shared, including the gender differences–I imagine that teen stepdaughters are quite different from my teen stepsons, Lord knows I was. That I was a teenage stepdaughter alone necessitates apologies, just for the level of drama. Of course, I managed more drama than most, I think. Secondly, my stepsons live with me a little more than half the time, whereas I usually saw you for at most four days a month, so our lives are considerably more intertwined. I drive them to school on the days they are with us, and I am at least partially involved in the day-to-day upbringing, since we are under the same roof.

When G. and I first met, our boys were 7,7, & 5 (each of us contributing a 7 year-old); I was almost 12, I think, when I first met you. Again, a pretty substantial difference. G. & I married two years later; I think I was…16 when you and Dad married? I don’t recall, but that sounds about right…I know it was the year he had the first surgery, so maybe I was only 15.

The differences don’t mean that I don’t reflect on my experiences as the stepchild when I interact with the boys. At first, I thought I would be “Super Stepmom,” crashing in to save the day. Everyone was good with this except, well, me, in the end. I had always thought of the distance between us as part of the “I don’t want to be your mother” thing, but, I think I misunderstood what you meant by that when I was a teen. I had a mother; my stepsons have a mother. They don’t need another one. Someone else to talk to? Sure. I’ve held my youngest stepson through his first encounter with grief, when neither of his parents could be there. I’ve waited (and waited) for buses to return to the school from field trips with my oldest stepson, so that G. could put youngest to bed. So, I took a page from your playbook–step back, observe, give advice, but don’t get in the middle unless asked.

Now, that’s not to say you always chose that role. We don’t discuss child support and other financial issues in front of the kids in large measure because of the horror I felt when you chose to do so. We don’t talk about their mother–especially not in the negative–because…yes, you chose to talk about mine and to send threats to her through me. But, I thank you for this too. You were doing the best you knew how to retain any semblance of control in a terribly chaotic situation. Would I handle it in the same way? No, but I can see now why you did.

What was it like for you, when you met my mother and I? Did you realize the level of craziness you would be subjected to, given my father’s calm (at least, that is my impression of him)? You married a man with a nearly out-of-control teen daughter and an unmedicated bipolar ex-wife. Dear God, the drama you encountered. And that was just the immediates. Did he give you any clue?

Peggy, thank you for trying to do what you could with me, despite my unwillingness to accept your overtures and my terrible case of affluenza. Thank you for trying to protect my father from the drama as he died, though, again, I disagreed with your methodology. I know you were grieving, probably frightened, and we were so overwhelming at times. I am sorry that I did not take the opportunity to learn more from you; I imagine you would have been a fantastic career role model, having moved up the ranks in the military as you did.

Realistically, you’ll never see this; I have no idea where you are, what you are doing, or even if you are still on this earth, but I waited far too long to say these things already. Thank you, I’m sorry, and I forgive you. I hope you have a fantastic life.

Peace,
Your Stepdaughter

Dark Days

One of the truisms of spiritual growth (at least for me) is that it hurts; invariably, I feel far more like I am falling backwards than moving forward. Then, one day, I realize it’s over…something has changed.

We are not there yet, unfortunately. Though, at only two weeks into this particular quest, I don’t see any reason why the dark days should have lifted yet, even if they are awfully dark this time. The bleakness of right now rivals that of the worst of my drinking days–the ones right before I quit. Unfortunately, I can feel everything now; one of the few blessings of active alcoholism is the numbness. Now, not so much.

Time was when I could drink or smoke this away (or at least into submission); I’m at a bit of a loss right now. Apparently, I haven’t gained so much insight into “healthy coping” strategies, or I’m doing a particularly poor job of applying them. So, the “vice-less” approach to darkness is goal number two in this project. I have no illusions that I can completely defeat the darkness, for I have lived with it for far too long (hell, I’m not sure what I would do without the lingering effects of the blues), but I would like to be able to more productively focus them.

I guess I should have seen this coming when I stopped enjoying reading, writing, knitting, and bass playing a few weeks ago. Takes me a while to see when my bleak buddy arrives sometimes, though. As I have mentioned before, staying busy is often the key to getting by for me.

I did call my mother and write to her, though I won’t send the letter until tomorrow morning. I’ve done a series of “scary things,” some of which are a bit silly, I suppose, but they were meaningful to me.

So, that’s where I am in the “Year to Live” project; it wasn’t really a lack of coffee that prevented posting yesterday, so much as the malaise. I’ve unearthed a fair quantity of denial in recent meditations; peculiarly, I am certain of the denial…yet not so certain what exactly it is that I am avoiding. How weird is that? If only a year to live, denial is definitely something to be rid of. Now, if I can only hone in on what I’m hiding from.

*sigh*

33

33.

Thirty-three.

thir*tee*3.

The atomic number of arsenic…so fitting.

I had a very serious post here about life, love, and the pursuit of faith, and a variation of it appears below, but before I could post, I read Facebook. In particular–the site for “The Association for Girls in Love with Aging Celebrities.” I’m sure you can imagine the horror…the absolute horror I felt when I saw this:

Enrique Iglesias Is Fit With A Great Voice And Is 33.

Yeah. So, 33.

I should confess that I stumbled across this page because of our hero, Mr. McKagan, who is mentioned in that list. He’s 44, and I probably wouldn’t have thought to list him. Sean Connery–sure. Duff McKagan? Enrique friggin’ Iglasias?

Old enough to be our fathers seems to be the trope involved here.

33.

You’ll remind me why Facebook is a dangerous place for me in the future, won’t you?

In all seriousness, I’m beginning a spiritual odyssey today, courtesy of Dharma Punx. Today is the first day of the last year of my life, at least conceptually. How would I live my life if I had only a year to live?

I intend to post on this about once every two weeks. The first thing I am going to do is contact my mother, with whom I have a wretched relationship, and see what I can do to make amends and move on. So, things to consider:

  • What changes would I make?
  • How would I live differently?
  • How would I love differently?
  • Would I travel?
  • Would I seek faith in new places and faces?
  • How can I learn to release old anger and move forward?

More questions will arise, and I imagine many will be silly, but I am okay with that. One year.

How would you live?

(And how would you deal with discovering that your age “belongs” on that Facebook group?)

The gift of that particular group? Made me laugh. Made me rethink my overweening seriousness with respect to this spiritual path. Humor is a blessing.