like you

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Three years ago marked the anniversary that my dad had been dead longer than he’d been in my life. Anniversaries are weird and so I “celebrated” that one by decoupaging a wine bottle with his autopsy report. As one does. I’m not sure how to top that today–the 20th anniversary of his death–seeing as how I neglected to collect his toenail clippings and a vial of his tears. We’ll make do with writing, shall we?

Three years ago I sought knowledge. Today I avoid it when I can, though it sneaks up and screams “SURPRISE” in my face every time a celebrity overdoses on their drug of choice. The rhetoric flows one way or another, seeking to lionize and villainize in the same breath, blowing my ever-smoldering ember of grief into a bright flame without my consent. My opinion feels uniquely qualified, though I am loathe to offer it because it means I have to further examine how exactly I feel about my father. And as any stripper worth her body glitter will tell you, daddy issues aren’t allowed in the champagne room.

I came across an essay about addiction written by Russell Brand and  it has helped me separate the addict from the person that he was. The only thing I really have left to do is figure out which I remember more; which had a greater role in influencing the person I’ve become; which do I carry more in my blood; which is my father?

The person and the addict were certainly not diametric opposites; both favored long hair, tight jeans, and leather jackets. Both were immensely talented, oddly humorous, and endearing to all. Sparky the person gave me Barbie dolls with Alice Cooper makeup, Steppenwolf lullabies, evening prayers whispered to Stevie Ray Vaughan. In acrobatic guitar solos, I hear him in those spaces between chords, fingers rasping over strings on their way to something else. He was raw talent and rawer anxiety.

Sparky the addict gave me fear. The ability to speak the lie that everything is okay. The urge to escape when things are bad and even sometimes when they are good. The anxiety native to our genes that serves as a giant “self-destruct” button and never when you want it to. Talent as natural as breathing and the inability to make anything of it. The uncertainty of my worth.

I can’t cherry pick what pieces of him I claim, but I do have to finally acknowledge the good with the bad. I got his great bone structure, but also his weird teeth. I got his sense of humor, but also his tendency to use it as a shield. I got his talent, but also his anxiety. And the inheritance I am scared to speak of that finds me slapping on a nicotine patch and dumping my secret wine bottle.

Sparky didn’t like me very much. This was generally accepted, common knowledge in the family. For years I believed it was because I was too smart and too different; he just didn’t know how to relate to me. Now I know it’s because we were too much alike.

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I breathe her in as she sits on my lap. Her hair is smoky with ghosts of last night’s fireworks and her breath is still as sweet as a baby’s even though she’ll be 11 this year.

“Hey Avery! Next year you’ll be 12!” I say in my best kindergarten teacher/hostage negotiator voice, trying to distract her with my favorite New Year’s game that always makes everyone feel super old. I’ve got bags o’ distraction tricks and I’m desperate to drag her from the pout she’s been in since I picked her up from her dad’s. It was just going to be a quick, fun overnight visit at Grandma’s before I left to go home: black-eyed peas and cabbage with the family, playing outside with her cousins, visiting with all of the family. But her aunt has been gone for hours, the novelty of the cousins has worn off, and the comfort of Grandma’s room lends itself to nostalgia and eventually tears.

“It’s not fair!” she wails. I rest my cheek against her forehead and feel the warmth of her grief, consuming her wholly.  I reflexively rock her on my lap and she gives in to the tears.

I want to make her feel better. I try reminding her that she has 5 more days to enjoy here in Texas, but I know 5 is a small number compared to the larger one that will go on her whiteboard at home. The girls keep a constant “Days Until We See Dad” countdown in their room. It’s a cheerful endeavor with bubble letters and bright colors. Like the time Allie wrote her first curse word in her diary and doodled hearts and flowers around it. But it’s much more fun with the numbers are getting smaller. Plus this time, I don’t even know the exact number they’ll be able to put up. Whatever it is, it will be written with the stoicism of a prisoner etching tally marks on his cell wall.

I mentally shake out my trusty tricks bag and find a gleaming quarter of an “Authentic Coping Strategy” from the therapist, instead of my tarnished pennies of “Look! Squirrel!” I remind her of everything she loves about Indiana: her friends, her school, her awesome Girl Scout troop, her teachers, her art classes, snow, kittens, the ability to buy vodka at CVS at 10pm on a school night. She finally cracks a smile.

“You know where home really is?” I ask.

“Where the heart is,” she replies with a flat eye-roll, disappointed that I’m trying to pull a cliche out of my bag.

“Nope. It’s right here on my lap. In my arms. Stuck with me. I’ll always make sure you’re safe. I’ll always make sure you can see and talk to your dad as much as possible. And I promise we can always talk, even if it doesn’t help.”

She quiets and curls into me, finally believing me. I keep kissing and rocking and hoping that I’m telling her the truth.

 

Farewell

I stepped out onto my back deck and relaxed muscles I hadn’t known were coiled and tense.  My subconscious had expected a chill in the country dark of my backyard and responded by contracting my shoulders inward as if that pitiful closed parentheses could hold in all of my body heat.  But the air that greeted me was silky and familiar and I settled into the crook of its arm as it cradled me and promised all would be okay.  I knew then this was farewell.

At the very least it was a farewell to summer — a loss I’m learning to grieve every year. In Texas it’s easier to pretend. In Texas, Fall is more of an idea, a styled image, a middle child who might get a moment or two of attention in between the persistent, sticky summer and the lackadaisical, half-assed  winter. In Indiana, Fall is an actual thing with corn mazes, apples on trees, and cold weather. The leaves actually change color and you can’t hide from the proximity of winter. Winter will come early and stay late. She’ll ruin your favorite shoes and try to act like they were already broken. She’ll smack when she chews, mispronounce “espresso”, and never ever EVER use a coaster. You’ll like her once or twice by accident, while in the throes of holiday cheer. You can forgive and forget for a minute, faking idyllic and pretending you missed her. Winter. That bitch.

But for now I have this farewell. I anthropomorphize the scene without its consent. Katydids and crickets music is surely a mournful lamentation. The tree is surely caressing the wind in return, pleading for it not to go.  I hear a rustle, a crack, a bleat but don’t bother trying to find the source. The darkness is so complete it’s the same as closing my eyes.  Sitting on the bench that outlines the deck perimeter, I rest my chin on the splintery rail and stare across the creek.   I wonder how the long e becomes a short i in the pronunciation. I wonder what it means that I’ve started to say “crik” without even being a smartass about it.

I don’t think this farewell is for summer. I’m don’t know if this farewell is sad. I don’t know what to make of any of it. I don’t want to go to sleep or stay awake. All I know right now is the comfort of this breeze and the certainty that it’s leaving.

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Sisters are Cheap

Well, they are when your dad was a musician.  In the 70′s.  With feathery hair, tight jeans, and a shark-tooth earring that brought all the girls to the yard.  I’ve yet to learn how to master that awkward silence filled with mental math and the twitching of fingers when people ask me how many sisters I have.  Said aloud, it sounds more like I’m making up some sort of white trash word problem, with 2 halves from first and one from second and a fourth from third, carry the one, solve for ex, and wash it all down with a jug of moonshine.

One February, three years ago, my husband had dragged me to a dinner at some blogger’s house which I was mostly dreading. Misanthropic extrovert is the best way to describe the love/hate I feel about socializing with new people.  But there were going to be fish tacos and I love fish tacos more than I hate people.  By the end of the night, Shannon and I had moved beyond the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, getting-to-know-you bullshit and were squeeing over Hitchhiker’s Guide and Tori Amos b-sides, and then there was somehow an offhand comment about a half-sister from her musician dad and it was done.  It was like, in her eyes I saw my future in an instant.

When I met Shannon, I was estranged from my own little sister and mourning that loss in unspoken ways.  I had other sisters of course, and other friends.  But sometimes, when you’ve lived a certain kind of life, you need someone else who has also lived that kind of life.  Someone else with daddy/mommy issues. Someone else who knows that surviving tragedy and desperation can make you really strong, but more importantly it can make you really funny. Someone else who recognizes that the truest, purest love can only be expressed with imaginary press releases.

It seems impossible that I’ve only known Shannon for 3 years. She is the best friend I have ever had — making me laugh when I thought I couldn’t, letting me cry when I didn’t know I needed to, loving my girls like they were her own, giving me so much and letting me give back in my own way, showing me that blueberry lemonade malt liquor is thicker than blood.  She’s given me advice, love, BFF necklaces, vampire candy, strength, faith in humanity, a future husband for my eldest, Times Square, the best mashed potato recipe on earth, confidence, and so many eyeshadows.  She’s given me sisterhood and I will hoard it and covet it and cherish it always.

I know the only way I was physically able to leave Texas is because she was leaving too.  And it still feels gross to have her so far away. I love that the West Coast is full of the promise and love she deserves, but I wish we could magically have a pretend 30 minutes in Houston today, sitting on my back porch, the little girls playing in the sand, the older kids finding the line between playing/flirting. We would make awesome guacamole and mediocre Melonades (because we never have the right ingredients), and eat store-bought cake with melty vanilla ice cream. We would laugh and cry and laugh again and yell at kids and sigh deeply and watch a movie and look at old photos and eat some more. Hey, it’s my pretend 30 minutes. I can take whatever liberties I want with the space/time continuum.

Happy birthday, my sweet Shannon.  You have given me so many gifts, but the best one is you. I love and miss you and hope you have a beautiful day.

bestiesnyc 

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foundations, real and imagined

While you were still growing within me, your heartbeats were lead by my own. Every part of me wanted to be of instruction to you, but your hearts found a rhythm of their own. They galloped so fast, exhaustingly fast.  Even after you were born, you raced ahead – my rhythm of protect, guide, nurture overpowered by the steady beat of trust, explore, discover. 

Your enthusiasm for experiencing the world was equal to my determination to protect you from it. I didn’t want to hide you away from every single bad thing – skinned knees, bruised egos, and the occasional concussion are great character builders.  But I wanted for you the greatest luxury of all – the opulent and sumptuous paradise of never knowing true loss, grief or pain.  I wanted you to believe that bad things could never happen to you, that you were safe, that death and disease happened to other people. Basically, I was super-realistic.

As you continued racing forward, you left behind my decadent fantasy world in which nothing could harm you. I tried to drag it along with me, to throw up walls for you when I thought you needed them. But I also tried to teach you to build your own walls. Walls you could climb on top of and scream from if you needed to make your voice heard, walls to keep you safe from people who would hurt you or take advantage of you, walls you could retreat behind and decorate with your own delusions when the path ahead got too scary.

You taught me this week that walls aren’t always the best strategy. When faced with a mean girl, Avery you kept being nice and nicer and nicest, despite my recommendations otherwise.  You didn’t see a mean girl, you saw a hurt girl.  Because of your kindness and unwillingness to give up, you became a friend to her and helped her during a horrific and terrible time in her life. 

Allie, you’re trying and I’m trying to get out of your way. For the first time ever, I don’t know how to counsel you. When faced with someone who doesn’t like me, my reflex has always been to not like them back even harder, or to just not care.  My reflex has been walls, the construction and defending thereof.  My defense is turbo-charged ennui. Deep down, I know I want to be liked, so that I then have the option to not like them first. I’m super-emotionally healthy, right?

The point is I had to build my walls because my life circumstances necessitated them. They kept me from getting more hurt than I was, they helped me section off compartments of my life so that I could function, they made me stronger than I should have been.  I know now that you don’t need those walls because you have your heart.  Your heart that is guiding you to the right choices, made from a place of love and safety that is more luxurious than any fantasy I could have built for you. Please continue to listen to that heart.  If you need a wall, I know a girl, but your heart is stronger and more beautiful than any wall could ever hope to be.

 

Baby Sister

On December 22, 1981 my mom had been gestating about three weeks longer than planned. She was tired and anxious and in an effort to rekindle the Christmas spirit, she decided to take me for an impromptu drive around Tahlequah to look at the Christmas lights.

“Mom? Is my sister going to come out of your tummy soon?”

“I sure hope so, Ashaleah,” she answered. “But you know, it’s possible you might be getting a brother.”

“Nope. I’m getting a little sister,” I said, with the unwavering confidence native to four-year-old girls.

Lindsay Christine was born the next day.  Children weren’t allowed as hospital visitors back then, but Grandma made sure Mom got a window room.  We crunched through the winter grass outside of the hospital and Mom was waiting at the window with Lindsay. 

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“It’s a girl! You have a sister!” Mom said through the glass.

“I know, Mom. That’s what I kept telling you!”

I peered through cupped hands at the little baby wrapped in a red Christmas stocking. She’s still the best Christmas present I ever got.

We weren’t always best friends growing up – four years is a big age difference when you’re young – but I was always proud of her. She was the pretty one with golden curly hair, aqua eyes that smiled, and long skinny legs. I was the smart one with unfortunate hair and questionable fashion sense. When she was into ballet and Barbies, I was into brooding and books. Despite that, we managed to connect and understand each other and shared a private humor and hidden language that holds true even now.

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We rode bikes together while inventing code names for different places in the Oklahoma countryside near the Illinois River. We dressed our sweet, longsuffering Cocker Spaniel in baby doll clothes. We played dress up in Mom’s clothes and made up dances in our tiny living room. She screamed “OW!” pretending that I hit her, even when I was across the room, just to get me in trouble.

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We played hours upon hours of Nintendo, coming to the conclusion that we really enjoy games where you “run sideways and jump on things.”  We watched Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs while mindlessly eating Pop Tarts. I once convinced her she had cancer just because she had a lot of bruises on her legs. She tattled on me for sneaking out when I was grounded. She drew me pictures and wrote me notes that I still have in a box in the garage.

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I tried to be a good influence most of the time. Except for that one time I took her to a club on Sixth Street when she was 14. And maybe that other time when I bought her beer when she was only 18. And possibly when we got into trouble with our compulsive shopping. And you know what? Let’s not go there. Making questionable decisions is what your 20s are for.

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I loved our nights out; we made such a good team. Always finding the bathroom first, rescuing each other from creepy guys, throwing ‘bows and pretending to dropkick short girls. Driving around listening to music, stalking our boyfriends’ ex-girlfriends the old-fashioned way, throwing lunch meat on cars, breaking bottles, making up fictional biographies to tell people. Fighting over clothes and makeup, sharing so many clothes we forgot who owned what, always being able to tell each other we were the prettiest girls ever. And the most related people in the world.

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We have been there for each other through marriages and divorces, pregnancies and aneurysms, and innumerable really bad hair days before we discovered the miracle that is CHI. We have taken turns holding each other up through death and near-death and have always found (probably inappropriate) ways to laugh through the tears. We named our eldest daughters for each other and call each other for parenting advice. We can sit in silence for hours and then speak the same random thing at the exact same time. We know what it means when we say “Let’s take Dad’s oldest daughter’s stepmom to dinner at the martini fruit orchard.”

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When she’s running late and texts that she just left the house, I know that means she’s still getting dressed and will leave in 10 minutes. When I call and she doesn’t answer, I know it’s because I always manage to call her when she’s blow-drying her hair. When I ask “What do you think I am?” I know she will always answer “Corned Beef Hash.”

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We have hurt each other in the worst ways – the ways only those you love the most can. We’ve been judgmental, hypocritical and unforgiving. We’ve ripped apart and come back together so hard and so often that the scar is tender and will likely never fade. But I know we’ll always be best sisters and best friends and even with that scar, we’re still the prettiest sisters ever.

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I don’t think this is the first birthday of Lindsay’s that I’ve missed, but it feels like it. The years we were fighting I think we made up enough to make it through the holidays. But this year I feel every mile of the 1,163 between us. My own daughters were arguing today and I tearfully reminded them that there is no one they should be nicer to than your own sister.

“Why?” they asked.

“Because one day I’ll be gone, and your spouses will be gone, and your kids will have families of their own and all you’ll have left is your sister. So take care of each other now, and always and forever.”

“That’s a cheerful thought, Mom.”

Which, okay. So I still have a problem with the brooding. But it actually cheered me up to picture me and Linz in our 80s, rolling around in our wheelchairs with a six-pack of Ensure, while I try to get our assisted living nurse to guess who was the older sister.

“I bet you think it’s Lindsay!” I’ll cackle through my tracheostomy. “Always told her those tanning beds would catch up to her!”

I tried to call to tell her the story while it was fresh in my mind, but she didn’t answer. True to form, I got a text about 10 minutes later. “Call you back when I’m done blow-drying my hair!”

Happy birthday, Lindsay. I hope you know how much I love you and how proud I am of you. I wouldn’t trade our laughs for anything in the world and I know we have many more in store ahead of us.

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Marilu

I didn’t sleep for three days because I knew the call was coming.  Actually, I take that back.  I did sleep, but not at night.  I stood guard through the night, only closing my eyes once the sun took over my watch. I know it was illogical. People die during daylight hours and the call could have come at 7:30 am during my 3-hour respite. It still would have been the same news. I still would have been rattled awake with inevitability as my unspoken ringtone.  But I knew it would come at night and I knew I couldn’t really sleep while she went through the interminable process of dying.

The call came at 12:17am on July 7.  My vigilence that night didn’t extend to remembering to keep my phone next to me at all times, so as I sat in front of my computer in the basement office, scrolling through Pinterest like a hipster automaton, I heard Ron’s footsteps down the hall and I knew. I met him halfway up the stairs. “It’s your mom,” he said and handed me my phone. 

“She’s gone,” said Mom.

“I know. How are you?” I asked. And thus began my first encounter with the death of a loved one as an adult.

I talked to Mom for a bit while I fixed myself a diet Coke and rummaged in the pantry for the emergency box of Marlboros. I hung up, went to my back porch, and cried so much I could barely smoke the cigarette that I knew I shouldn’t be smoking. The grief surprised me. Grandma’s health had been failing steadily over the past few years and she’d been in hospice care for several months. The hospice nurses (who are truly a discrete class of earthbound angels) had told us weeks previously that she was “in transition” and that it “wouldn’t be long.”  I knew this was coming, was relieved for the end to her suffering, had a wonderful last conversation with her — though I didn’t know it was my last at the time — and I thought I was ready. I was ready, but I suppose I expected an inverse correlation of preparedness level to grief amount.  Even now, math is not my strong suit.

I talked to Grandma while I was on the porch. I told her to say hello to Grampsy for me. I apologetically stubbed out the remaining half of my tear-soaked cigarette.  I went back inside, back to the basement office, back to my computer, and I looked at pictures.  I cried again, of course. But gradually I smiled and even laughed.  And finally, I went to sleep.  At night.

The next week went by in approximately 5 minutes. I volunteered to make a photo montage for her memorial service.  I volunteered to write the obituary.  I volunteered to give a eulogy.  I volunteered to help with every single thing I could possibly help with — then apologized to my mom and her sisters for offering to do too much and promised them I didn’t want to overstep. I apologized for apologizing (as one does) while they thanked me for helping so much with everything.  “You are a part of this too,” said my Aunt Janet and I finally settled. I shopped for funeral dresses for the girls and answered their questions as honestly and completely as I could.  I cooked dinners, made travel arrangements, designed magazine ads for work, tracked down Grandma’s friends on Facebook (Facebook!!) and when Ron tried to slow me down enough to make gentle and loving inquiries regarding my mental health, I promised him I was fine.  Just fine.

Do you know what I did when my dad died when I was 16?  How I helped get ready for my Grampsy’s funeral when I was 17?  In preparation to bury my father and then my father figure, I did exactly 3 things.  1) Shut bedroom door.  2) Played CDs of The Smiths/Nine Inch Nails/Tori Amos at louder-than-normal volume. 3) Wore more black eyeliner.

In the middle of my 5-minute-long week, I neglected to write Grandma’s eulogy.  Well, I neglected to write it on paper anyway.  I’d been writing it in my head and rehearsing it aloud all week, so I knew about 90% of what I wanted to say.  As we drove from my sister-in-law’s house in Arkansas to the funeral home in Oklahoma the day of the memorial service, I wrote it all longhand in my notebook.  I wanted to capture my Grandma in words. I wanted to tell everyone what she was to me and my sister.  I wanted them to know that yes, she was an amazing nurse, missionary, mother, musician, teacher, artist, sister, and friend to everyone.  But I wanted them to know that she was always my Grandma above all of that.  That she loved each of her grandkids in exactly the way they needed to be loved.  That she was the strongest, smartest, bravest woman I knew and I owe so much of my own strength, intelligence and bravery to her.  

You know what I said instead?  To a room full of fellow missionaries, elderly ladies, and many many conservative family members?  That my Grandma made me a liberalish feminist.  Oops.  Not quite how I meant that to come out.

I said the other stuff too, and I think they heard that more than anything. I hope they saw my love for all that she was and my gratitude for all that she taught me. Because of the example she set for me, and for my own mother, I grew up believing — no, KNOWING — that I could do or be absolutely anything that I set my mind to.

There are a few things I didn’t get to say.  A few things that seem so little but are such integral pieces of who she was to me.  She knew absolutely every species of tree, flower and plant on sight. She and my Grampsy would snore in unison. She always drank Earl Grey tea at breakfast. Once, when I was in the midst of my infatuation with Chanel Vamp and insisted on wearing the nail polish and lipstick and mascara and blush at ALL times, she put on the red black lipstick in an effort to show me how ridiculous I looked.  She had amazingly strong hands and arms from years of playing the accordian, but her hands were always so soft.  She taught me how to be loud and quiet, hard and soft, an opinionated woman and a proper lady… and how to do it all at the same time with grace. 

Eventually, my grief caught up to me.  Once the service was over and we drove back home, I didn’t have my to-do list to distract me.  I cried at inappropriate times and talked to her in my prayers.  I shared stories with the girls and found even more pictures to dig through.  And — of course — I put on a little more black eyeliner and created a Spotify playlist that my 17-year-old self would be proud of.  

I love and miss you, Grandma.  Thank you for being imperfect and beautiful and brave; and for showing me how to do the same.

 

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