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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Love Letter To My Valentine

My love,

I’m well aware of your rare but genuine lack of sentimentality, and me addressing you on Valentines Day, one of those Holidays that makes all the whites of your eyes show when you roll them, is at least a little funny to me. I didn’t buy you one of those trinkets we often laugh at together. A “Blessed” keychain or one of those wooden picture frames with the non sequitur adjectives sketched in, meant to communicate love I guess. Love. Family. Hope. Frying Pan. Coffee Beans! Maybe we’re too young to be such skeptics. Maybe it’s our hiding ego, projecting superiority that we don’t need kitschy picture frames to allude to what’s real and shared inside of us. I’m in the card aisle at the pharmacy looking at a criminally large sized teddy bear holding a heart. It says I wuv you on it. It’s similarly tacky, but I consider purchasing it just for the laughs I know we’d have due to the scale alone; I actually don’t think I could carry it on my own. Then we’d feed it to Monty and watch him go straight for the eyes, as always, and fill the room with the cotton candy innards of a fifty dollar bear. But I hear your words play out in my mind “Don’t ever waste a dime on crap like that for me.”

I could lament about the commercialization of Valentines Day, but I think it’s all been said before, and I already know you’d agree. In fact I’d bet the farm you wouldn’t even bat an eye were the whole thing eradicated. You might not even notice! You’re funny. It’s not that you’re distracted, unaware. I’d suggest it’s the near extreme dedication to living a life of unwavering, powerful love, that is a fireworks display of a spectacle to watch. But for a lucky few, myself included, it’s a humbling miracle to be the recipient of. It sounds so dramatic to say, but I stand by that belief. It’s not hard to do. There have been plenty of reasons for your heart to have closed shop by now. To crack and break and crumble; call the whole thing off. And yet I’ve witnessed it come to the edge and never truly break. Instead I watch it explode like our day lilies in the spring, I watch it grow, astonished, in times that might normally make a person very small. And still yours expands, stretches, finds strength somewhere far in the depths and suits up for another day, knowing well the many things at stake when we agree to live a life. When we agree to love deeply. I don’t know exactly how one attains the capacity to love like this. I can only speak to the immense gifts of wisdom and friendship and compassion it has provided so many lucky ones, and me, knowing too well that ‘thank you’ isn’t large enough a phrase. I think how redeeming and salvational some of its outcomes have been. We’ve all experienced the pang of loneliness, and these last few years have shown me with unbridled truth just how far off and away we can feel, whether in a crowded room or a self-made island. Illness lends itself to its own kind of solitude, that can swallow you up whole if you aren’t prudent. Never have you let me drift too far down the rabbit hole. Sometimes sitting in a room with you, watching The Voice or Scandal or something I have no particular interest in, I feel wrapped in a sanctuary at the center of cupped hands, protected by the thick walls of a steadfast love that I know can never die. For two stoics like us, I can’t help but think ours is a Fairy Tale love, without an ending. We both know there won’t be one. Maybe I’ll submit it to Disney.

I keep thinking of this moment. A grey morning in December not long ago, I was more sick than usual. My central nervous system inflamed to a point that I could hardly tolerate sound or speak. My skin was buzzing, my hearing hurt, my thoughts and words felt and emerged mangled, and I couldn’t exactly articulate what was wrong. I felt like a shaken up liter of coke, hardened and about to fizz out everywhere, but there was no outlet. No where for the ‘fizz’ to go. My nerves felt inside out. When you came in the room, I tried to express what was happening but had trouble; honestly I hardly understood it myself. You didn’t look away, or demand answers or try to immediately “fix” the enigmatic pain I was in. You only said a couple words to me as you sat down on the couch and cupped your hand on the back of my head. “It’s going to be OK Mary,” and your voice cracked when you said it. My body felt as if it collapsed inside, calmed with this soundbite of peace, and the pressure slowly eased from that liter coke bottle. Tears came streaming down my face. I wasn’t that sad, truthfully. Certainly, all of this has been a trying time, for all of us, but there was a lot happening at once, my mind and body both being pulled and torn in different directions, and your very simple words allowed me the outlet. Permission. It’s pretty common for the tears to come when I feel so overwhelmed, overtaken physically. But it wasn’t your words exactly that moved me and conveyed your love with such depth. It was that your voice trembled when you said them. Just barely, and you’re not a crier, I know. I believed you, too, that it would be OK, but in that moment, you saw me. Accepting there was no quick answer here, no advice or platitude that could lift my heavy burden, you did the bravest and most beautiful thing a love can do: You sat down next to me, you put my hand in yours, and you shared what would normally just be my burden, my pain. You didn’t take the pain on, but you faced it with me. If only the world knew they didn’t need perfect words or answers to comfort and relieve us when we’re in the thick of pain. If only they knew that Love listens far more than it talks. A shoulder can mean more than a mouth. Love shares, it communes and confides. In joy and in pain. This is love. Our love. You helped carry the parts that I could not, and turned on its head what felt like momentary hell into saving grace. Just the memory of it strengthens me now.

This made me think of Nepo’s definition of Love. One I come to again and again, the most eloquent I’ve ever heard, and I often find myself reciting the words in my head: talking with friends, watching birds, kissing Monty. Somehow through your small action made with great braveness, your love materialized in a way I could not only feel inside with warm intensity, but could touch and see it, feel it in your hands. His definition for love is only this: Sudden Oneness. How perfect these two words capture what We shared that mangey morning. I warred with my same broken body, but I was also slipping into the outskirts of doubt and hopelessness; a place you know but helped lead me out of. His words so perfectly explain why when you love someone deeply and true, that when they cry you cry. When they’re happy you’re happy. Their joy is yours and vice versa. This is the beauty and brilliance of the oneness from love: lightening burdens and multiplying grateness. My tears continued but something about your unconditional nature made them begin to carry new truth in their waters. Hope, I think. Surrender. Reassurance.  But it was this small gesture that mattered most; allowing me as the mess I was, seeing and hearing me and not turning away or trying to quell it with empty phrases. I know how hard it must have been for you– the only other soul in that dark room, while mine laid strewn on the floor like a discarded garment. It’s not that you saved me, necessarily, but you saw me through the darkness. You stayed. So many fear that stillness of pain, enduring the murkiness of life when there aren’t easy answers to offer someone. You helped see me through it, bring my tired heart back into the light, ready to try once again. But first you let me die a little. Shed a skin I didn’t need anymore. Another testament to what brave love can do. Little deaths prevent big deaths. That was Nepo too.

It’s interesting, but when I recall this whole ‘event’ now, we seem to be alive inside a pocket of timelessness. There we are, the two of us, enduring what we did, frozen in an exchange that felt unearthly, and I can’t for the life of me feel or remember the passing of time. The moment is still alive. The lessons are wide awake, and they pour through so much of me: My fingers when I write. My soul when I’m discouraged. My intellect when my respect for the novelty of life drifts– I think of you and our moment and I know that there is meaning behind the pain, but it requires seeking. And luckily we don’t always have to do this alone. The Oneness that enveloped me, I think in fact may have been my first real glimpse of Forever. Or Eternity. Whatever the word for that otherwise incomprehensible concept is, for a fleeting moment I caught it, like a fast grab of a buzzing fly, followed by thick silence. In this excessively brief lapse in spacetime, I glimpsed the two of us–we were not just not apart, we were the same. We were one another. And the comfort was greater than a reunion you’d imagine would bring great joy. It comforted me. Humbled me. A powerful experience no doubt, but mostly mom I’m just plain grateful to know and learn from you this way. You’ve mastered a difficult and necessary art, and expressed and given it the way that you do, it’s something that will last far after you. And me. And my children too. Perhaps like Einsteins theory come to life one hundred years after the fact, that little ‘blip’ on a device recording an explosion a million years old, your love ripples will be felt long after you’ve gone. This is the miracle of true love. It’s so huge and yet it can be easy to miss. Like looking for mustard in the fridge tirelessly and finally coming upon it on the middle shelf in plain view, right in front of your eyes.

For me, this is incredible news! I half-knew already this was true. Losing and still knowing dad, our love somehow still growing, I knew it had to be real and not just the stuff of voodoo or fairytales. So I rest more assured now. One day you’ll die, and if life is good to us, it will be before me. But I don’t fear this occasion the way I once did. I know it will hard. The pain will be deep, as loss is not a one-way street. You lose more than a person, you miss a piece of who you were with that person. But like my clearly favorite Nepo says, Grief is a sign we loved them well. It’s in living this life, that when we give and receive love in its pure form like this, unconditionally, that it sustains and lives on. It works miracles! And it removes the sting and surprise of death, a thing we treat with pretty odd behavior in my opinion. But anyway, I can’t lie. I’ll be a mess. A sobbing heap on the floor. A shaken up bottle of coke. And where will I go? How will I recover? As I was taught of course–I’ll remember that moment of your bravery, to see your kid in pain once again and have to surrender; to be at peace with the mystery of these things. Just as you saw me through that, I learned that these moments actually do pass. That life does go on, the pain isn’t forever, and we wipe up our mess and keep going. I learned that because you lived through it with me, not because you sent a card with a bow that said “This too shall pass! Call if you need anything!” You are living love, in a beautiful form, and you are doing incredible work in the world because of it.

Perhaps by now it’s become apparent that I’m single. (Haha) But I can’t think of a more deserving Valentine, a bigger barer of gifts who never seeks out recognition or accolade for loving this well. You seem to perform the duties of love effortlessly, and I’m not only grateful to have you around and receive them, but I’m happy and feel lucky to learn what love is through you, how to give it and accept it from such a master as yourself. You’ve been through enough pain for 10 lifetimes, but I’ve never see you throw in the towel or give way to bitterness. Sure, you’re still a human being and a mother and you’ve made your mistakes. We all have. But you’ve never faltered on love and it seems to grow larger and more powerful in happy and hard times. Perhaps this is what the pain of experience does for us. I don’t know. I’m still learning. But watching your resilience and continued faith in life, in things bigger than you and me, in good things, in eternity, I know I’ll never stop seeking the answers. I’ll never stop trying to find the good, the value, the meaning in every kind of experience. Including the dark ones. Perhaps especially those. Thank you. For all you’ve done and continue to do. I don’t know how you’ve not collapsed yet of exhaustion, but maybe all that loving you do is an energizing force. It certainly is for me. Thank you. Keep going.

Oh yeah, Be Mine?

I love you.

Health, Happiness, Modern Romance

7caojdadi

P.S. I extend this letter to Marc, Doug, Nick, Amelie and their significant others for pitching in in all kinds of ways, helping carry me through the crap times, and loving me so well. You are all my angels. Thank you.

You Don’t Have to Understand It (I Don’t)

About a month ago, my dad appeared at the doorway to my bedroom. He was smiling like usual, wearing his favorite striped terry-cloth robe. It’s still hanging in my closet. I was happy to see him; I’d been struggling with something and whether it was with words or a hug, his presence is always a help to me. He entered the room quietly and sat on the edge of my bed. I began speaking and started to cry. The grin he was wearing didn’t waver at all, he he waited and listened with total attentiveness, the kind you rarely find. His calm demeanor and ease despite my tears comforted me, as though he knew something that I could not. When I paused he said “Be strong Mary,” like some kind of Indian warrior, but less warrior-like. He continued to smile as he spoke and reminded me, “You want to make sure you’re loved for the right reasons.” This felt like both a question and an answer. It sounds a little vague, but I could feel distinctly that I was heard and he understood me. His words were minimal but powerful; they gave me what I needed. I felt lucky to have him. Then, it was over.

The brash sunlight in my bedroom bursted in through my blinking eyes as I left one world and awoke firmly in this one. It’s bizarre but it usually happens the same way: In the first moments of consciousness, the dream plays out in its entirety in reverse, in maybe one or two seconds. But this recollection doesn’t seem to happen in my mind. It’s as though it comes from the center; my gut or chest. Then, it arrives in non sequitur bits and pieces and my mind immediately begins to reassemble them in order. In those first moments of wakefulness, the experience feels so entirely tangible and fresh, so within reach, I’m convinced if I close my eyes tight enough it will all come back to me. But most of the time there’s no going back. While the dream itself is sacred, there is something Holy in waking from it too. I have felt God there. It’s as though dreams give access into the eternal, and in those first blinking moments, the human mind hasn’t caught up yet. In this little pocket is where we can sit with the phenomenal before our thoughts flood in and diminish it into something digestible; something that makes sense.

The dream visit is like the Cadillac of post-death interaction. It’s a chance to see and hear and feel someone that you don’t have physical access to anymore. I feel extremely grateful when I have dreams with my dad. Beyond the refresher for my senses, there is power in them. I was given advice and comforted yes, but I felt actual love through that dream. I drew strength from it and I’ll treasure it among the other great memories I have of my dad. And that had me thinking. I’m always hearing people say that dreams “aren’t real” or shouldn’t be examined because they’re just imagination or a meaningless summation of random events and mostly just aren’t true. Of course, this has roots in pragmatism. A dream that your best friend is living in your refridgerator doesn’t mean that they are, hopefully. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately of dreams I’ve had with my dad, especially this most recent one. I’ve been recalling it, as though it were a real memory. And I’ve been trying to discern what the difference is between an actual conversation like this and the one we had in my dream. Didn’t it really happen? Isn’t it now a real memory? When you read the first paragraph, did you have reason to think it wasn’t real? It did happen. Not in our dimension but in some dimension. However unorthodox, there is still meaningful interaction between us. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I know it is true. It feels as real as a phone call with my brother last week, or the heat of the sun burning on my neck.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated his 67th birthday. We always cook his favorite meal and group-text photos of the food like a bunch of nerds. We caption them with the funny things and phrases he always said. It’s happy. It’s a chance to remember him and hear his stories and the awesome things he did or the weird songs he sang on his guitar. It’s all an opportunity not just to celebrate but to know him better, which I’m perpetually trying to do. For a long time I didn’t allow that to happen. Since I didn’t truly grieve him until college, I entered my twenties still knowing and remembering him as my 12-year-old self. There was a chunk of time when I shied away from talking or hearing about him, afraid it would make me cry which I hated to do in front of other people. It pained me to see other people cry over him too. Grief was something I had to learn, it didn’t come naturally. And whether I had cut myself off intentionally or was just too young to process it all, I had also cut myself off from getting to know him further. I unknowingly stunted our relationship, which I assumed was something that couldn’t grow once he was gone anyway. I was wrong, as it were, and so occasions and stories were just reminders he was gone.

It wasn’t until after facing and enduring the big parts of grief that things changed in a big way. I could finally begin to know my dad as my older self, not as a 12-year-old. I began understanding and appreciating him in new ways, and my love for him grew. It was then that our relationship began to evolve past sentiment and allowed for interaction. He existed as more than just memory, which was so fulfilling in my life. I found myself looking forward to any occasion regarding my dad. I love(d) to hear peoples stories about him and the wide open way he loved and lived. New stories and photographs all offer another glimpse into his life and who he was. I’m still putting the pieces together. Even the stories I’d heard before took on new meaning, because unsurprisingly, you process a story or memory much differently as an adult. I allowed other peoples sadness and I allowed my own because I knew it meant we loved him well, and that was in itself a comfort. A connection. All of it, including the dream, reminded me that he was still my dad and some part of him wasn’t gone, he or it was still there somewhere, maybe in that pocket between life and the dream.

I know that enduring the pain of losing him and reaching out to him again as though he could still hear me is what opened up our “line” where things like the dream happen. But truthfully the contact is not always so blatant.  Most of the time I have to look in the minute, the subtle, in things that are easy to dismiss. And I find him there. In heart shaped leaves. In a fly that won’t leave. In being so unconditionally loved and taken in by my family, including my stepdad, who my mom says my dad helped arrange. I find him in my nieces and seeing my brothers as fathers. In the morning. In rain. He loved the rain and was always reminding us that it was a sign of balance. Since his death he has continually shown up to special occasions with rain, if even a two minute shower. It’s raining now.

Getting to know my dad so many years after his death is a surprisingly positive and treasured experience for me. It’s been a privilege, really. Death is mostly talked about in hushed tones and at the risk of sounding morbid, which I’ve been accused of once or twice. But my dad has made death feel less serious, somehow.  When someone dies we label it as “bad” and when someone young dies we call it unfair. And while losing someone you love is one the hardest experiences in life, grief is not stagnant. Nothing stays the same, including the pain. And when you endure it, you also open the door for incredible things to happen. You’re brought intimately close to the lifecycle and there’s a sacredness there too. I don’t think it’s over when it’s over. I also don’t think people die and stick around to play with light switches. But I do think the line of communication is still there. It just involves reaching for it and experiencing someone using a new kind of language. It means being open to things you don’t completely understand.

I’ve always been aggressively curious and sometimes the weight of life and the worlds mysteries become too heavy and I get discouraged. Even mad sometimes. But getting to know my dad after his death and developing our relationship and talking with him while he sits on the edge of my bed…it superseded the comprehensible a while ago. It left me with far more questions. It’s made me an implicit part of something I don’t fully understand and for that I am so grateful. Because that’s most of life, anyway. We don’t actually know why we’re here or what happens to us when we’re not, but we go after it and love people and try to have a good time anyway. Knowing him has been a humble reminder that life and love and the infinite universe unfold despite our human comprehension. It reminds me that we don’t always need the answers in order to experience the fullness of life. Sometimes we get so caught up with thought, intent on answers and knowing that we limit ourselves from the phenomenal. Some things are beyond the realm of understanding, beyond words and category, and these are all but reasons not to embrace and cherish them as the miraculous treasures they turn out to be. I am looking forward to more. The rain has stopped now.

Happy Birthday to my Dad: THE ORIGINAL HIPSTER!
Happy Birthday to my Dad: THE ORIGINAL HIPSTER

This post is many weeks late. Chronic tardiness was my beloved dads only vice and he passed that on to me. So I’m sorry dad, but also I blame you. -Love, Rudy

Health, Happiness, Happy Birthday!

How To Come Home

I’ve just made it home. My suitcase is still lying in the center of the kitchen floor.

It’s crazy how good home feels after you’ve been away from it, even when you’ve completely enjoyed your time away. Somewhere between waiting in line barefoot among rookie fliers who somehow forgot about the jug of water in their carry-on and the captain shouting God knows what into that fuzzy speaker, I start to feel my humanity slip like some kind of sock with lazy elastic hovering at the ankle.

Once upon a time, flying made me feel like a celebrity. The whole experience was a novelty and a privilege.  And somewhere in my jaded depths I know that it still is. The mere idea of humans taking flight on a bus in mid-air is still mesmerizing and I’m lucky to have access to it. And yet somehow,  the only celebrity I ever feel like is Ben Stiller in Meet the Parents. I’m all eye rolls and discouraged sighs, which sometimes emerge as a laugh–the kind of laugh you let out when nothing is actually funny. I try to keep my moans of discontent in, even when the automatic toilet flushes while I’m still on it and I’m sprinkled with fresh public toilet water. I try to breathe through the frustration of then not getting that same toilet to flush when I actually want it to and there I am dancing like some kind of monkey on fire trying to activate the motion detector that says just wave your hand to activate. It lies. I exit, I don’t care. I hate the toilet now. All I want to do is wash the Ebola off my hands and possible STD’s off my thighs, but the faucet requires the motion. And the soap requires a motion. And the dryer requires a motion. And what happened to handles? If I went on Shark Tank I’d reintroduce handles to public bathrooms. Anyway there is more dancing. More erratic behavior from inanimate objects. More laughing when it’s not funny. It’s like the DMV in there; the threat level of a Stage 5 freakout is just one toilet flush away in any given stall. You can sense it.

But not everyone confronts the airport bathroom circus. The old lady next to me doesn’t seem to have problems with her soap. I bet she’s been spared from the toilet water too. What is your secret, old white lady in the brown velour pant suit? What am I doing wrong? But there’s no time for philosophizing, I have to get to my gate. Guess where my gate is? Guess if it’s nearby or at the very far edge of the airport as in it has a separate zip code and everything. Guess.

Is it the tragedy that is modern American air travel that makes home feel this good? Maybe. Probably. I guess this account of flying would suggest I’m a young, old curmudgeon who has lost sight to how lucky I am.  But it’s always temporary. I am either going somewhere great or coming home to relief and love, and it’s just the in-between antics that can get a girl down. Once home nobody shouts the temperature and the toilets flush WHEN YOU WANT THEM TO. Of course, an 80 pound furry beast running around you in circles then through your legs and back, shoving every toy in the box in your lap and wagging his tail with enough vigor to knock over small children and feeble adults, well, that helps too. That’s the best.

I celebrated Thanksgiving with my best friend big brother Nick and Company in Miami for a week. Mostly I felt like death, but I was excited to go and the change in scenery did me good. It’s been a rocky few months. My health declined from mediocre to poor without discernible reason, and that’s just the name of the game with illness like this. I can’t pretend I’m not discouraged by it or tired of feeling really shitty when I didn’t overdo it or change anything, as if a person deserves bad health anyway, but I’m trying not to wallow in it either. I saw the specialist in Miami and there are a few changes we are making, but we won’t know more until the results arrive from the copious amount of blood I gave to test. Aside from that, my progressive boyfriend and I broke up. Ew, breakups.

It’s interesting that a decision you’re sure of it’s the right one to make can be just as painful as the wrong ones you’ve made when you didn’t know any better. And by interesting I mean shitty. We did the adult thing and “called it” at the appropriate time. We saved ourselves the tragedy of letting it slowly burn and die until it ended in hatred. I guess ultimately, even an amicable breakup is still a breakup. It’s an end. You grieve for them and you grieve for who you were with them. I experienced a whole new pain this time around that stemmed from not being my whole self in the endeavor. I pretended and concealed when the truth was ugly or getting a less than desirable response. I don’t think Id ever done that In a relationship before, but I’ve never been under the circumstances I am now and had to introduce someone knew to a world that took so much explaining, and defending in some cases.

It’s weird, I actually wanted to keep my illness out of the whole thing. (I wanted to live in Neverland, is how that sentence should read.) I had this fear it would interfere with things before they ever had a shot to develop. I feared it would be difficult and unbecoming; It would suggest I was someone inferior. I was even afraid it might be the demise of the relationship. And then, it kind of was. The weight of it became too heavy, it’s unrelenting nature became too repetitive and it’s lack of a solution wore out the seams and we broke. There were other reasons, of course. But my being sick was up there, it messed with things, it was a big a part of the end. And for a while that was a really crushing thought. It made me feel small, made my life feel lesser. I push and work to live my life in spite of this invisible force trying to take it away, and yet sometimes, it still comes out on top. It wins.

But hiding it was like doing a monkey dance in a cramped bathroom stall. (Kind of) It was stupid on top of exhausting, and I don’t know how I expected anything authentically good to emerge when I wasn’t being true to myself. I am not my illness, I know that. But it’s there, it’s changed virtually everything in my life the last four years, and nothing good has ever come from denying or dismissing it; from pretending it’s not there. And yet, sometimes I can sense that people want me to pretend it’s not there. They want to hear that I’m better, and no one understands that fantasy more than me. But pretending makes me feel like I have to hide a part of my life that I can’t control, and that’s not a healthy place to be. I don’t want long conversations about my illness. Ive had enough of them for 20 lifetimes. But I do need an honest atmosphere that doesn’t require apology. I need to be able to be sick when I’m sick and well when I’m well and not judged inbetween. It will always take patience, compassion and effort in order for my life to be understood and loved from the outside. It will always be hard in my relationships. But hopefully if I am really seen, my external circumstances won’t take up so much space. And that was half the problem, I never really felt seen. Instead I felt sorry, and that’s because I betrayed myself. By not putting it all out there, I made it nearly impossible for my life to make sense.  I am not jobless and living in my parents pool house writing on a blog called Twenty Five Pills a Day because of lifestyle choices. And that’s an attitude I confront a lot. I’ll work like hell my whole life to turn lemons into lemonade, but I didn’t pick the lemons, so I don’t think I need to apologize for that anymore. The weird thing is that in glossing over and skirting around this small part of me, so much more of who I am was stifled. Good parts! Fun parts! It doesn’t feel good not to bring your whole self to a party. In fact, that hurt the worst, and I did it to myself. I had a need that wasn’t getting met, and instead of accepting that once I knew it was true, I tried to do away with the need. Surprise surprise, that didn’t work. It’s OK to have needs. Love enjoys needs.

Now I am Stella getting my groove back. I see my health in the distance: a ship in flames slowly sinking into the ocean. Haha. That image makes me laugh. But this will pass. I’ll get better. Or I’ll get worse, then I’ll get better. It doesn’t matter, because I’m going to keep trying. I’ll attempt to transform all of this– pain, pleasure, toilet water– into something useful. Something fun. Because despair is boring and I’m seeking a creative life. The world doesn’t need more sad stories so I will find the good ones. I’ll trust what I’ve been given and let it fuel all my endeavors. Mostly I’ll breathe easier because I am who I am and I’ve made it home. I’m back. And I have so much to do.

Stay tuned.

Health, Happiness, Home.

Push the Boys Into the Ditch; My Grandma’s Perfect Love Advice.

Do you ever go through something that is both presumably necessary but incredibly hard and subsequently feel the weight of the world baring down on you as if the gravitational pull changed and it was all on account of you doing something possibly stupid but possibly necessary? Me either, life is easy and fun!

While my health has to continued to sustain for reasons I can’t entirely know for sure, I’ve had some personal experiences which are difficult and painful and every time these things wash over me I examine why life has to be hard (as if I actually expected it to only be easy) and then I wonder does life actually have to be this hard or am I just doing it wrong?  I don’t know the answer to that one. I guess we can only learn as we go. I find myself telling Monty to never fall in love because it leaves a mark on every part of your life and ultimately it changes you, whether you wanted to or not. But then I watched the neighbor dog humping his owners leg and considered that obviously the alternative isn’t so much more grand. Though there’s an appeal to that leg–it’s not going to keep you up at night with heartache and strife. Or maybe I’m too quickly assuming here, maybe I should ask the dog.

Yeeeeah Legs!
Yeeeeah Legs!

Of course this fantasy that life would be easier and less painful without this or that is just that: a fantasy, a slight rejection of reality. But maybe more detrimentally, it presumes that somehow as humans we know better, and we know the answer to what would make life easier or more tolerable. As if life isn’t some ridiculous, complex mystery that has an infinite amount of working parts we as finite humans can only momentarily grasp, if ever at all. And I’m not struggling with an idea that every human for thousands of years hasn’t experienced pain from and questioned the value of. We’ve all been through it. Wondered if the pain in the end was worth the utopia in the beginning. I like this quote about it: “Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear.” by e.e. cummings. Would I really choose an option where falling in love wasn’t part of the equation? Duh, no. That’d be insane and cowardly and boring. Love is a remarkable gift, with perhaps its best quality being that of illumination. I like how sometimes it picks us, even when we’ve turned our backs on it or given up on the idea. I like that it takes us places we wouldn’t go on our own. I like that it makes even a worn-down curmudgeon feel giddy and silly and do things he thought he’d never do. I’m thinking of my grandma now, who at 86, has a man named Harold (a few years her senior) who is madly in love with her. I saw it with my own eyes. They would marry if only she’d accept.

Harold had been living at her facility for a few years when she moved in. He has a military haircut I imagine he’s had for 50 years. He speaks concisely and says what he means. There is density to both his physique and his words but a subtle softness you pick up on behind it. Harold had been sitting at the same table in the cafeteria for years, often alone, seeming annoyed by even the thought of socializing and especially at watching others partake in it. Sometimes he looks like he wants to press mute or fast forward on the whole charade; a sentiment I’m familiar with. He eats and drinks the same thing at his meals every day in a very particular order–part of the routine involving peeling his fruit and sharing half of it with my grandma. The ending involves hot tea with a lemon at a very high temperature that if not fulfilled, as sometimes happens with new employees or forgetful old ones, gets sent back. He waits. Sometimes he scoffs, others he sits in silence. I ate with them a few times last summer and couldn’t help but think of Jack Nicholson ala As Good As It Gets, with a little less show but just as much intensity.

Harold would be the last guy you’d expect to get all doughy-eyed and follow a girl around like a love-sick puppy. And yet, here he is. Three years in to my grandma’s stay at The Atrium, Grand Junction’s finest assisted living home, and Harold has fallen over in love with her. I’d like to say I’m exaggerating for literary purpose but truly I am not. I saw it with my own eyes. It started as a joke in the family– OOooooh Grandma! Hanging out with Harold again?! Grandma has a boyfriend! Hehehehe! And then slowly it was revealed to all of us that for him it wasn’t some crush, he’d truly fallen for her. He switched tables to sit with her. Even thought that meant there’d be a certain amount of socializing. He comes over all the time to watch Westerns at her apartment. He on the couch, she on the recliner. Of course half the time they fall asleep 10 minutes in, but no matter. The man has it bad. And something about it completely excites and inspires me. It turned the tables on rules I had stupidly self-made on love and life and age. Very stupidly. I am constantly discovering how much I don’t know. But I love this story. I love that the employees there asked my grandma what she had done to Harold. What happened to the old crotchety man rolling his eyes in the corner? Now he was partaking in group activities? Calling her on the phone? Feeding the ducks? Switching tables?!! While my grandma tries to insist they’re only friends, (oh my God life never changes) and that she finished that phase of her life after my grandpa died, it’s clear she’s enjoying the time with him as she should.  Albeit rejecting his proposals and insisting he partake in more bridge games. I love it all. They’re is something truly hopeful in all of it. Anything that flips our predefined notions on their head can only be a good. It’s illuminating. I imagine it’s that way for Harold, too.

Harold, My Grandma, and her best friend Myrtle, playing cards on a wild Friday night last summer.
Harold, My Grandma, and her best friend Myrtle, playing cards on a wild Friday night last summer.

Maybe it’s different for her. She clearly likes him being her friend and enjoys the companionship. Perhaps in this last stage of their lives, my grandma’s old stoic German ways will prevail and she’ll reject the romantic advances and they truly will be just friends. At 90. And that’s fine too. Of course I’m secretly hoping that one day she’ll weaken, she’ll let him sneak a kiss. Maybe she already has. I don’t know. But watching this all unfold fills my heart up with something good. Something hopeful. My grandma’s advice to me has always been that boys like girls who are mean to them; that she hardly ever let a boy get too close or too much from her. To work on your own life and don’t design it around some boy. And I knew as a young woman she had a lot of interested suitors and broke her share of hearts. In fact she pushed her first boyfriend into a ditch when he tried to kiss her, which she said of course, only made him try harder. And that’s been her advice to me; to push the boys into the ditch and watch what happens. Honestly I take her advice to heart. I love listening to her old stories. Her simplicity about life. She is a very happy person who loves her life, and so for me her advice carries a lot of water. I know they don’t have the internet at the Atrium, but Grandma, if you’re reading, give Harold a kiss for me. (I mean you can’t push the man into the ditch–he’s 90!!) For whatever reason watching the two of you, and specifically him, has been a very good thing for me, and I’ll probably always carry it with me.

Health, Happiness, and Boys In the Ditch

Grandma Selfie Yeah!
Grandma Selfie Yeah!