A Year and A Half (or Thereabouts)

Last post April 2017.

I should have known the year was going to be a doozy when I ordered this coffee.

Oh dear. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I have excuses. Some of them are good ones. Others, maybe not so much.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been forever. It feels as if just yesterday I was waxing rhapsodic on this very blog about my yellow flats (who are still in my closet, unlike their blue fraternal twins which fell to Hippo’s patient watch a few months ago).

See, the year of 2017 had started rough. Adam’s grandmother passed in February and the timing meant I needed to cancel an event that was really, really important to me — speaking at my alma mater as a “Real Author” type. Hippo was recovering from her first knee surgery. And then things really started to roll. There was illness and weirdness and chaos and travel. Dutchess had a cancer scare. A close friend’s life fell apart and I tried to be closer to help. I felt useless and hopeless.

And so 2017 teetered awkwardly onward, the revolting political climate darkening any horizons of escapism. I traveled more than I wanted to. I was tired. I was burnt out from my second novel and the demands of editing and nonprofit were at least finite, so I threw myself into them, hoping I could still call myself a writer. I took teaching gigs on the off weeks I managed to be home.

By June I’d managed to wind up with a nasty case of pneumonia, diagnosed at a walk in clinic when I finally got scared of not being able to breathe. But Adam’s family was incoming for a visit and Hippo’s second surgery was in the hopper. There wasn’t a ton of time to rest.

My grandmother went into the hospital around that time, saying she had something stuck in her esophagus. The ER docs said it was steak and sent her home with orders to see her doctor. She didn’t. In October I flew home to take her to the doctor myself, but she’d already been admitted to the hospital with extreme blood loss. She was stable and happy to be waited on when I arrived, but it wasn’t long before her doctor pulled me aside to show me that her cancer markers, which are normal under say, 45 or so, were in the 300s. We didn’t have much time. We needed to make her comfortable. She was very, very angry when I finally managed to explain it to her. She threw me out of her hospital room.

Mama’s dogs, Leo and Nova, at her bedside. They were adopted by old friends in GA.

I moved home to Billings to live with her, leaving Adam and the dogs behind. Those of you who’ve nursed cancer patients don’t need me to go into the mud and blood of it all. The palliative care was fair, although she didn’t want hospice and the clinic was not understanding of that decision, asking me to lie to her that I couldn’t take the burden. She was feisty and active until the very end, and there weren’t any problems that were rocket science save controlling her nausea and pain. And that we managed eventually.

My relationship with my grandmother was (and is) complicated. She was a beautiful woman with many gifts. She was also abusive and narcissistic and cruel, turned so inside of herself that she was unable to trust love or friendship, believing there was a finite amount of both. She gave me the gift of raising me, though she never stopped reminding me of what it had cost her. She kept my mother and I at odds in ways small and enormous. She pushed away so many of those that wanted to say goodbye.

And yet. I wouldn’t trade those three months at her side for anything in the world. I wasn’t angry at her anymore for her lies, her insults, the slaps of her bejeweled fingers, her ability to twist the truth into a narrative that made her at peace. She was also human, frightened, angry, dying. And maybe it was the opiates, but she seemed to have a larger capacity for love in those last days. Not that it was a picnic for any of us. But she did hold our tiny family close in the end and she loved us in the ways that she could.

I am thankful for her motherhood and her loyalty. I am thankful for her mistakes, too, so that I can love those things within myself and grow them into something else.

The grief has been complicated, too. As was the estate. As was taking guardianship of her brother. As was paying the bills and selling the house and sorting the possessions. All of it eating away 2018 as if there’d been no break between this year and the last. I’ve been mildly sick a lot. I’ve been away more than I’ve been home this year. In all this year’s chaos there’s been a kitchen remodel that tested the bounds of sanity, sickness and emergency room visits (yes, plural, no not mine), and more death and more cancer and a septic tank disaster and subsequent impending basement remodel. I lost my editorship at my magazine because the publisher decided we didn’t have a clear vision and wanted a hiatus to rethink.

The shoes don’t stop dropping from the skies. Perhaps they won’t. Maybe this is just how life works and before this I’d been lucky. Perhaps this is my Jobian test (which I have most assuredly failed.)

But, in the last week or so, I feel I’m finally emotionally able to get back to the table. I’ve managed not to drown so far. So I must be able to try again to put all this into words. Not these words, but story words. To write, like Adam says, “back when you were happy.”

I go through this, dear reader, not to bore you with the mundane details, but more for the selfish reason that I must account for a year and a half of my life that I misplaced in a maelstrom. I did that. I own the responsibility, or perhaps the blame. And what I can do now is move ahead. Write more passionately than before. Take back my own artisanship. My time. My space. Try again. Anything else is giving up.

That, I will not do.

I will not do that because in part, I did not go through this time alone. My network of support and friendship is deep and wide and for that I am at a loss for words. Grateful does not begin to describe the swell of whelm when I think about who showed up: in person, virtually, on the phone, through the mail, in ways tiny and ways I cannot repay. Each and every time, I was stunned into humility. This was love I might not have deserved then — or ever deserve. And yet, love isn’t a meritocracy.

My relationship with my remaining family grew in unexpected ways, as well. Adam’s family showed up in sisterhood and parenthood and constant care. From Germany, my cousin Valeska gathered up a miracle of resources to bring her four children to say goodbye to their great grandmother and be at her funeral. Mama was reticent about visitors until those children walked into the room and she could not help but love them.

Adam’s sister Sara and Hippo, February 2018.

My mother and I are healing in ways I never dreamed… I’ve always known she loves me, but there was a point when I had no idea if she’d ever like me, like my company, like who I was. That fear is mostly gone. I’m so proud of her and us and the ways we’ve begun to grow as a mother and daughter, even though we weren’t left much for blueprints. Likewise with my uncle, artistic, hilarious, beautiful Bruce, who I adore, but worry I am too much for sometimes. He was there the night Mama died and so many other nights when we went through things words don’t work to explain. We had to rely on each other in ways we hadn’t before. And I love him even more, if that’s possible, and I no longer wonder if that’s mutual (even though I’m sure I periodically work his last nerve).

Living apart from Adam had its own set of challenges when we reunited. There was sadness like molasses that had to be warmed. There were misunderstandings and resentments, choices we’d made with the circumstances at hand that hurt and festered. I’d made a choice to deprioritize our life, and had to make amends. But that, too, ultimately found us in a space for more empathy, more understanding.

All of us, we came out okay — broken, for certain — but like the cliche, certainly stronger, with love not exactly bigger, but a different shape. One that encompasses us and allows us to trust. Those lies, the animosity, the unsure-ness of it all. It’s gone now. What’s left is raw soil for us to cultivate.

And me, I have this garden of a life. These people, these dogs, this blank page, and this cup of coffee. It’s time to put them to use.

See you soon.