That Year the Universe Sh*t On My Family: A Six Part Series

Part 1: No Big Deal

There is no shortage of platitudes and sayings, bumper stickers or posters inside of cutesy frames meant to remind us how fragile life is. How fleeting. How fast it can all go upside down. How fast it can all go, altogether. Live Life to the Fullest, You Never Know How Many Tomorrows You Have Left. I hate this phrase, and I can’t totally say why. A cliché, true, but I can deal with clichés. I even love them sometimes. It might be that I see this and similar phrases on decorative pillows in Stein Mart, on picture frames holding happy photos, etched onto a wooden clock piece in my doctors waiting room, but I rarely confront people who actually seem to live this way. Except Monty of course- he does everything to the fullest. At that doctors’ office with the clock, for instance, the women at the front desk are really mean. All 3 of them, mean. True story. It seems like people who are conscious of how devastatingly short our time is here wouldn’t be so mean, particularly to sick people. But hey, maybe their boss is a jerk. Or they’re having a hard day. Or how about Hey, there are a lot of good excuses to be really mean. Doesn’t mean you have to be. 

I know, I’m writing as though I live this way and sadly I don’t. I forget all the time. I let petty things get to me, forget to be appreciative, or simply fail to treasure the life I’ve been given. Nobody gets away with a pain-free life. It wasn’t a part of the contract that we’d come here and it would be easy. That it wouldn’t hurt sometimes. But you know what other phrase I like? Don’t waste pain. What an auspicious, novel idea it is, to see pain not as a punishment but simply as part of the program. A piece to the puzzle, the plan. It doesn’t mean it won’t hurt, but maybe it doesn’t have to be so bad. In hindsight, it’s been the more painful and tough experiences that have taught me the most, made me dig deeper for purpose, made me kinder, more aware, grateful, better. It’s not that they aren’t terrible experiences sometimes, because damn, sometimes When It Rains It Pours. But what can you do other than pick up the pieces and keep going? If you’ve suffered a long time, you might as well redeem the coupon and see what’s on the other side of it. If it’s more suffering well, maybe you’re missing something. Or maybe you’re cursed. Either way, at least you have experience, so you’ll know how to do it. “I’m really good at suffering.” I should put that on my resume.

It’s easy to feel sometimes like you’re getting an unfair deal. And you probably are. I confront stories and realities everyday that are gut wrenching, heartbreaking, and nearly impossible to explain. Watch five minutes of the news, explain that. But I’ve also encountered stories and people who have suffered immensely, endured incredible pain,  and emerged as better people for it. They didn’t just survive their experience, their loss, but actually came out happier than they were before-not bitter. Fair or unfair, they kept going. And it’s almost a miracle to observe what some people have faced in one lifetime and not given up in the process. These people are generally pretty awesome, and hearing their stories are encouraging and important. Maybe their stories should make the news more often.

Anyway, this one year, two thousand and shit, I mean six, 2006, was a really tough one. For every member of my family, life roared its ugly head, respectively. But we survived it and it’s encouraging to remember that, particularly when it’s pouring. I also find it hilariously tragic, if that’s an acceptable phrase. Our lives did turn upside down, but we emerged standing. OK I emerged sitting but the rest of them, standing strong. So, here is our story, in six parts, of the year the Gelpi’s were shit on collectively. Just remember, it all ended up OK, even though at times it felt definitely not OK. Maybe that’s the cliché platitude to take away from that year. Everything is OK, even when it isn’t.

***

On a Tuesday morning in 2006, I can recall certain details with complete clarity; each of my senses awakens and remembers with a concrete ease. I am brushing my teeth in my college apartment surrounded by beige everything: carpet, walls, countertop. My boyfriend is watching TV on the couch waiting to give me a ride to class. Media Law 2030— my favorite course, taught by one of the best professors I’d ever have at LSU. Professor Freeman, the Man. On the first day he passed out a syllabus and guided us broadly through the timeline we’d follow through the semester. In bolded font halfway down page 1 it read: If you are going to miss any day of class this semester, make sure it’s NOT February 6th. It was February 6th.

I can taste the mintiness of that toothpaste still– I’m tapping the toothbrush on the rim of the sink, releasing the excess water. When my phone buzzes in my back pocket, I see “home” on the screen and think twice about answering. I know that conversations with my mom were often pretty long, so I consider waiting to answer it; call her back after class when you’ll have more time. But that thought quickly vanished and I pick up instead. On the other end, a very weak, unfamiliar voice emits from the phone–a voice that I know belongs to my mom yet sounds nothing like her. Mary? Shit. She could barely get my name out. I was standing by the bed now, looking at the ridiculously bright orange of my duvet; I’d bought it at Target because it seemed like happy bedding. Mom? I couldn’t know what she would say next, but hearing just one word in that crushed voice, I brace myself for the verbal equivalent of a car accident– that moment after the screeching breaks, just before the collision. Through palpable pain and shock, the words emerge just above a whisper. Roger died last night. …Crash…

Roger was my stepdad, my moms second husband. My dad had died of cancer when I was 12, and despite whole heartedly believing she would never marry again, in walked Roger. Her second chance at love. Something called grace, I think, seeing her happy that way again. Roger was the reassuring ending I could give people when they asked where my dad lived and then grew visibly uncomfortable hearing the answer. I’m sorry they would say, and I knew that they meant it and this was the standard response, but somehow its never quite felt right to me. Unfitting. Square peg in a round hole kind of thing. It’s OK, I’d comfort them. She fell in love and is remarried. She’s really happy. They’d loosen up, their shoulders would relax. I’d make some joke to break the tension. Better. It was OK.

What my mom was telling me didn’t completely register– it didn’t feel possible. That exceptionally human thought circulated: This was not supposed to happen. And yet in the same instant, something deep within, the intuitive part that knows things but not through cognition, knew with an aching certainty that it was true. Of course it was possible. These things happen everyday, except that they happened to other people, not to us. Four little words, nothing the same.

Goodbye It’s OK. Hellooooo cruel world!

I can’t remember if I sat on the bed or stayed standing, but I remember that orange of my duvet suddenly taking on a very harsh shade. A ridiculous color. I momentarily gasped for air and caught my breath. What? But I heard her, I knew what. You just figure, we already lost a husband/father, we should be safe with this next guy, right? All at once the universe revealed its impartial nature, the lawless reality of our life here. Fair, unfair, it didn’t matter. No one got a free pass. After shock, losing it, then regaining composure all in a breath, I tell her I’m on my way. I’ll be there in an hour. I hear her lose it again. Her weak voice, now with a noticeable outer concern. Your sister is getting married in a week! The cherry on top: one week until Amelie’s wedding–the already postponed wedding thanks to Katrina–at the same venue where Roger and my mom were married less than 5 years ago. Awesome. Cool. No big deal. I’m frantically throwing random clothes into a bag that will later turn out to be socks, a sweatshirt, pajama bottoms, and zero shirts. But I try to stay steady on the phone. Don’t worry about that. Who’s with you? She tells me our neighbor and two family friends are there. Still, in the midst of basic horror, she is heartbreakingly maternal. Are you alone? Don’t drive here by yourself. I tell her I’m fine. I’ve got the dog. I’ll be there in an hour.

We havin’ fun yet? :)

By midnight I was shuttling the last of my siblings from Louis Armstrong, across that long bridge, back to our house. They came from every direction, Amelie with a wedding dress packed in her suitcase. And what did we do? What the Gelpi’s do best: weddings and funerals. Oddly enough, it’s not just logistics. Although the fact that Roger died in another state complicated things only slightly. He was in Florida on business. When he didn’t show up for work the second day, they found him in his hotel bed. Something heart-related. Tragic to say the least, although not a bad way to peace out if you’re not into long goodbyes. With my dad there was time. This sudden-death thing was a whole new ballgame. What else can you do but step up and play the best you know how.

We planned a funeral. Prepared for a wedding. And in between we crowded around my mom protectively like a pack of elephants. We would cry a lot. Give a shoulder for others to cry on. We’d allow the silence when there was nothing to say. And we’d make ridiculous and morbid jokes when we needed to laugh, which we needed a lot of. People who attempted to explain the pain away or fill the silences with quips like “Everything happens for a reason!” or “God has a plan!” weren’t invited to our epic dinners. Not because these phrases weren’t true or even inappropriate really, but because it wasn’t about fixing it. Something tragic happened and it was going to hurt. We’d have to allow that. More than anything, that week was just about being there, being together, picking up the pieces and doing what we had to. I remember my boyfriend Gabe being nervous about coming over. “I know I’m going to cry when I see your mom.” I could sense his angst. But I laughed and reassured him, “So what? That’s what we’re all doing!” And that’s just what happened; when he saw her he cried and she did too. They hugged and felt it. And it was OK. We all took turns.

Friends and family would trickle in and out, and at night we’d have these big, loud dinners. Eat, drink, and tell stories about Roger late into the night. There was crying and hugging and crying and kleenex and relived shock every time we had to tell someone. But there was also a crazy amount of joy and laughter. My brother Doug laughed so hard he cried. So many people showed up for us in many different ways–food, room and board, help with funeral, help with wedding, never asking for a dime. It was truly an intimate and precious time, and we saw how lucky we were, how much love we were surrounded by. Roger was extremely particular so we’d have to make this funeral right. And I know he would’ve approved. The service was outside in the garden that he created, around the pond he’d dug himself. Lot’s of people spoke, including my mom. I can’t remember all of what she said, but I do remember her saying “To love is to be vulnerable to loss. And I’d still do it over again.” What a badass! We grieved. We rested. Then three days later, we had a wedding.

Correction; we had an epic wedding. Once again, the same people showed up plus a bunch of Californians from Keegan’s side. They said “I Do” and the celebration of love and life continued. A beginning after an end. Conceptually these ceremonies seem opposite, but they aren’t so far apart when you drink whiskey and get philosophical. OK there are many differences, but the biggest was the insane amount of dancing we did. And that would’ve been inappropriate at the funeral. I think. ‘Appropriate’ is a hard word for the Gelpi’s to understand, but I like it that way. It means throwing out the rules and embracing the moment, doing what you have to. Talk about a cliché. That week was an intensive life course in The Show Must Go On. And I have to say, I think we aced it. You might say we Danced Like No One Was Watching. That night when I looked over and saw my mom dancing among everyone, a week after tragedy and unspeakable loss (for the second time), I knew anything was possible. A lot of people might say we had really terrible luck, and they might be right, but celebrating that night, seeing my mom dance anyway? I felt really, really lucky.

I also had this strange feeling that big things were in store for her, good things. Turns out when I have strange feelings, I’m usually right. Stay tuned! .

Health, Happiness, No Big Deal

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Saturday Night, Live.

It’s 10:21 on a Saturday night, and I feel happy to say I’ve progressed beyond feeling sad about not being somewhere else, somewhere interesting; a party, an event, socializing anyway. I am simply here, home, Monty nursing a busted paw and me trying to avoid the cold most of my family has succumbed to. There was a time not so long ago where being alone at this moment would have a certain angst to it, some restlessness that I should be out, I should be doing something. And I can’t say that struggle is completely over, because it’s not. Not having daily expectations and tasks is oddly work in itself, at least psychologically, if not just a certain re-education of everything I’ve learned about what it means to be important, what it takes to matter. I am still learning those ropes and how to keep a solid hold on my psyche being in one place often and for long periods of time. I imagine those kinds of feelings could haunt anyone, and I remember working full time and still encountering angst of this nature, but of another category. Yeah I’m working a 9-5 job, I’m busy and have a business card with my name printed on it, but do I give a real shiznit about what I’m doing? Am I into this life I’m living, or just numbly going through the motions. I could never be sure I was doing what I wanted or what I thought I was supposed to–taking the natural expected steps that people like me were expected to take. At times I was so disconnected from myself, I would have no idea at the end of a movie whether I liked it or not. I remember specifically feeling this way shortly after watching the movie Punch Drunk Love when it came out on rent. This was in the days of Blockbuster, RIP. My boyfriend at the time, a veritable nihilist who really only showed positive feelings for Dashboard Confessional now that I think of it,  thought it was stupid and totally forced. My brother Nick, with whom I watched the film and who I respected exponentially more than my boyfriend, really liked it. I remember thinking I might like it, but not actually knowing with certainty–I couldn’t explain with any critical feedback why I did or didn’t enjoy it. I only hoped I liked it because I looked up to someone who did. I also realized around that time that my boyfriend was a racist and that was the end of that. Big weekend for me. Anyway, I had a point here. The point is that, even if the veneer of this is a little sad– a Saturday night alone with my dog–and even if maybe one day in the future I’ll look back on nights like tonight and feel bad for my little lonesome self, it’s feels good now to be alone and also feel no pressure to be otherwise. It’s reassuring to remember I’m OK and the conditions to this state are not reliant upon anybody else, really. Sometimes I think I end up doing things or going places just to combat the opposite of that thought–as long as life is loud enough, as long as I’m preoccupied with enough distractions and expectations and tasks of mild importance, I don’t really have to face the question of whether I’m OK or not, vague as it is. I like to know that when everyone goes home at the end of the day, I’m not going to fall to pieces or lose the shape of my self completely. I’d like to know my self and my stability isn’t so pliable. I don’t say any of this with the delusion that being single or living your life alone is an optimal choice.  I guess the point is that wherever you find yourself is usually an OK place to be, it’s where you’ve ended up and usually for reasons that won’t make sense for a very long time. Rare is the gratitude to be exactly where you are and the appreciation of a quiet, without interference, with all expectations and plans and goals coming to a haunted hush of OK and evenness.  There is a lot of questioning yourself and guesswork, and there’s not always someone to tell you you’re doing the right thing or making the right move. It can be sobering to realize I am my own source of good judgment, or that I have to be, because there isn’t anyone else who will endure the consequences of my choices but me. And maybe that is true whether you’re alone or surrounded by people. But it can also be empowering and calming to know you’ve made it this far. You’re still breathing. You’re doing OK. And with so much attention given to pain and drama and the hardship of life, I just felt some need to highlight a very average Saturday, where I watched a little football and laughed out loud at SNL, and at the end of the day in the sharp stillness that comes after turning off a TV, I felt fine. Unworried. Unphased. The opposite of out of breath. And since I know how prevalent those other feelings are, and how fast and easily everything can change, I wanted to get it in writing that on October 9th, 2016, nothing great happened. But nothing terrible happened either. I’m on my own but also far from alone. Of course, I get more help than most my age and I’m often fighting for a sense of independence and self sufficiency despite the help I require and receive. Tonight I just feel grateful that during those times I have help, and during other times I have myself, and both are good things. I guess I just feel plugged into a reality in a way that isn’t exciting or new, but would usually require fireworks or drugs or people or noise, but it’s totally quiet. I’m about to get into a bed with sheets that I picked out, because I trust myself OK?! Actually come to think of it I don’t love the sheets on my bed right now, but they are clean and that’s another simple pleasure that if you’re tuned out, if you’re just moving ad hoc from one point to another, you’ll miss because you’re always waiting for something large and shiny and loud to wow you.  I’m well aware that most days aren’t like this. They’re dramatically more tilted toward feelings, good or bad, and those feelings are informing almost every move I make. I encounter moments, I react, I remember, I feel guilty, blah blah blah. Rarely do I live in the hushed middle of compliance and peace, untinkered by time. Probably soon I won’t feel this way, I’ll lose this stillness and the stirrings of my psyche will resume and I’ll make faces as my ego restarts–in the past, moments like this haven’t lasted very long. But maybe I’ll want to remember that at one time I did feel this way, which means I felt very little at all, and so here it is in writing. There is a lot happening. Hurricane Mathew just took a lot of peoples lives and demolished a lot of homes, and like most catastrophes I watch and read about it feeling disconnected and helpless and I hate that feeling. What can someone like me do but pray for the ones who need it and be grateful that this time, the storm didn’t hit us. There is a lot happening. A major political parties presidential nominee just said worse things than your racist uncle or fundamentalist father-in-law, or creepy older cousin in this case I suppose. There is a lot happening. I’m petitioning my government for 100 million dollars, and it’s not a joke at all. It may actually be possible. It is a weird time, and it will all pass. But for now I feel happy to be here, to have what I have and know what I know. Which isn’t a lot, but for tonight, it’s enough.

Health, Happiness, This