Thinking About My Dad

Sunset

I don’t think about my dad that much, these days. I don’t know if that’s sad, or healthy, or both. I can bring him up in a conversation with my mom and it doesn’t make us both sad. There’s a moment where I worry that it will, because I remember when I could hear the tears in her eyes over the phone whenever I mentioned him.

I could bring up some funny memory, and we might both laugh, but the tears were there. The moment fogged with a dull blue. It didn’t ruin it. She didn’t burst into sobs. But they were there. And I felt a strange thing in my chest. Something like longing, something like hopelessness, something like desperation. A hand, tightly grasping just above my heart, slightly to the left.

It’s a feeling I get when I think about things that were beautiful but now are gone forever. It could be a person, or it could be the ruins of a castle in the mist. The part of me that exists only to laugh and hurt doesn’t know the difference.

That doesn’t happen any more. Now we can talk about him like something from the past. I don’t know when that happened. I think it’s probably a good thing because it means there is less pain. I have enough pain in my world. Everyone does, and my mother has far more than her fair share.

We can talk and laugh about the dumb jokes he used to tell, mention things he enjoyed, bring up a saying that he used to say—and he had a million of them—and it’s just like talking about anything else in the world that isn’t around anymore. Joe DiMaggio. The Roman Empire. My great grandmother.

Just another thing, and if there is pain, it is the memory of a sting. I can feel how it used to hurt, and that feeling is still unpleasant just like any unpleasant memory. But it doesn’t hurt anymore. Not really. It doesn’t burn. That’s probably better. I think it has to be better.

I know that, but right now, right here, soaking in the thoughts and memories, I’m not so sure. I feel some strange ache, impossible to describe because it lives in the same places as other things that shouldn’t be real because they don’t make sense. It can’t be a bad thing that I can think about my dad without hurting inside. It means that I’ve let go of the hurt. Let go of the pain. But the problem is that once you let something go, you don’t have it anymore.

Things that only live in the past don’t hurt. You can’t get cut by a knife you haven’t had since you moved away from your childhood house and didn’t take it with you. The things that still hurt do so because never move into the past. They’re still inside of you right now. Still living, still breathing, still edged. Some people have jagged fragments of memory that flow through their bloodstream and never stop cutting them. They spend all of their time bleeding. But that’s not the past. Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it has passed. Not for you. Not if it still cuts you. Not if it’s still sharp.

The opposite of sharp is dull. When an image is dull, you can’t make out its features. My memories of my dad can’t cut me, anymore. Not most of the time. But that means they’re losing their edges. Losing their clarity. When someone won’t move on from the death of the loved one even though it hurts them, they know this. Inside of them, they know this. To lose the pain is to lose the immediacy. The now-nesses of it. If someone can still hurt you that means they are still in your life. They still exist. They aren’t just a series of photographs, a little more faded with each year.

And they still have cancer. And you still get that phone call at work telling you that, despite the fact that you thought he was getting better, your father is dead. It happens so quickly that it’s hard to believe. He seemed fine when you saw him a month and a half ago. Too skinny, unable to eat very much, but fully himself.

Fully alive, and fully able to complain that he can’t eat bbq ribs with everyone else, but with that amazing and effortless humility that someone makes the rest of us feel okay eating them in front of him. You can live in the happy memories as much as you want, but if you want him to still be here, still in your life, then you have to relive that phone call. Over and over again.

Nothing is ever all good or all bad. There is no way to move on without giving something up. Everything we do means we didn’t get to do all the other things we could have done. It’s a cliché to say that loss is important because it makes way for new things.

New things are important. Moving past pain and tragedy and sadness are important. But so is remembering. And if the full memory–the rich and intense and sensory memory where our loved ones are, for a few impossible moments, still with us—if that memory is painful, then pain is important, too.

If living without the sadness of my dad’s loss means thinking about him less, then that’s what I’m going to do. But if the only way to feel him still in my life is to sometimes leap into that pool of sadness and let it soak into my clothes and weigh me down for a while, then I’m going to do that, too. I never want the pain to go away completely, because I never want to lose him completely.

Sometimes I have to hear his laughter and see that goofy grin and feel my own tears sting my eyes because he’s there in front of me right now, but I can’t touch him. It means the pain will never be gone. Not completely. But then, neither will he. He will never be just a photograph.

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The Weird One

Headphones

Another 37, Day 27

The girl who wears the pink jacket. In my head I call her the Weird Girl. She used to sleep in alcove at the bottom of the stairs where they put in a couple of leather couches in an attempt to make our breaks more comfortable. Upstairs in the break room it kind of works. But the alcove is a strange spot; employees are always rushing through there on their way to and from places, and every entrance to the alcove comes from a blind spot.

When I see people there, which I usually do, it always feels like they’ve just jumped out at me. Jumped out and then sat perfectly still. I know it’s not just me. I get the same kind of looks from passersby when I sit there. “Where the hell did you come from?” Adding the couches ramped this effect up, and so it made the alcove, if anything, more uncomfortable.

Weird Girl used to sleep down there before her shift. Her shift is the same as mine: ungodly early. The couches are soft and spacious. They would make a lot more sense in the champagne room of a strip club that wasn’t quite nice enough to have a champagne room. I wonder if that’s where they came from. They look pretty new. She used to sleep in the morning on the couches, and so did I. I still do, sometimes, but I choose the break room. The lighting is better, and the couches are off in a corner. It’s much better.

Weird Girl was always the only one down in the alcove in the morning. There are two couches down there. The other one was always open. I passed it by and slept upstairs. Upstairs was prime real estate, and those couches were sometimes taken by the time I got there. Sometimes someone was sleeping, and sometimes, much, much worse, people were talking loudly. Too early for that. If the upstairs couches were occupied I’d sit at one of the dining tables. But they were uncomfortable, and that early I have no patience for anything.

So one day  I decided to sleep downstairs. In the alcove. With Weird Girl. I went down and there she was, just an enormous, puffy pink jacket covering up her tiny, sleeping form. I laid down on the adjacent couch and closed my eyes. That’s when she started snoring. The moment I laid down, making just enough noise for her to notice. The snores were loud, and inconsistent in that way that makes it impossible to get used to. I stubbornly put it up with it for for about three minutes before I could no longer stand it. I got up and went upstairs. I don’t know for sure if she was doing it deliberately. But I don’t know her, and so I’m free from the burdens of empathy and familiarity that bind me from seeing her as a complete person. And so I decide to believe she did it on purpose, to drive me away. It worked.

That was months ago. Weird Girl doesn’t wear the puffy pink jacket anymore. She ditched it for one much more dignified, even before it got warm. I’ve heard her speak a lot more. She doesn’t sleep in the mornings anymore. Maybe she gets there later. She also doesn’t sit alone in the lunchroom anymore. Not every day, at least. She’s made a group of lunch friends.

I haven’t. I’ve made some friends on the floor, but I don’t eat with any of them. There are a few large groups of people who all eat together and have lively conversations. I don’t know whether or not I’m envious of them. I tell myself I’m not, that I’d rather take time during lunch away from people to do some reading. I do treasure that time. On the other hand, I know myself. I know that I come alive in groups of friends sitting around, discussing nothing, laughing and making them laugh. The time would go too quickly, but maybe I’d treasure it. I haven’t tried to make those friends.

Instead I sit alone, listening to my audiobooks with my enormous headphones. The kind that make you look isolated and ridiculous. And I eat my strange little bowls of meat and veggies from home, and when I’m done I rinse out the ceramic bowls in the sink and plunk them down in my bag. When I walk back to the floor it sounds like I’m carrying dishware around in a reusable grocery bag through the halls, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. And I still sleep on the couch in the morning. For a while I didn’t, but I’m back to it now. I pull my hood over my face and try not to give dirty looks to anyone who comes in and turns on the light. The light needs to be turned on eventually.

I know that these strangers who I see every day but have never spoken to have an impression of me. That’s what people do. It could be anything, free as it is from the restraints of empathy and familiarity that would make them think of me as anything but a feature of the environment. A semi-fictional character in the backdrop of their own story, who can be extrapolated as much as he needs to be from the obvious traits. What’s the harm in that? It’s what we do.

Some of them probably think of me as Headphone Guy. The headphones probably make me look strange, with my sweatshirt full of tissues, and the way that sometimes when I haven’t shaved in a day or two some tissue fibers stick to the bristles under my nose without my realizing they’re there. Maybe some of them think of me as the Weird Guy. The guy who does Tai Chi in the middle of the break room seems to know and say hi to more of them than I do, so if there has to be a Weird Guy, it could certainly be me.

Does that make me uncomfortable? Do I care? Honestly, I have no idea.

Good Reasons to Argue With Your Brother

Lightning

 

Another 37, Day 24

“You just love to argue,” my brother yelled at me, his hands in the air. “You don’t even have a fucking point, you just want to be right.”

“No, I really do think exciting is the word to use here,” I said, in a voice that I’m going to assume was exactly as serene and collected as I remember it being.

“You think Lightning Crashes is exciting?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”

We argued a lot, my brother and I. This particular argument was about the song Lightning Crashes, by 90s alternative band Live. I think they were my favorite group at that point, but I might have moved on by then. As you can tell, this was an important argument that was highly worth having. It started because he said something like, “It’s a fine song, but I wouldn’t exactly call it exciting.” I, of course, had to elucidate him just how wrong he was.

“It’s exciting because it starts out so quiet. So small. It implies that something dramatic is going to happen, but it doesn’t let you feel it. Not at first. It’s like the air before a storm, and the tension accumulates. It takes its time, starts to crescendo, and then finally explodes into action and consequence.”

I didn’t phrase any of it that well, of course. I didn’t even know what the word “crescendo” meant except in the broadest sense. This is all filtered through the lenses of both memory and fiction, which work together like a telescope to let you see things that are very far away.

“Fine,” he said. “Whatever. You just can’t let anything drop. You have to just pick apart everything I say.”

“I’m just making the point that you said it wasn’t exciting, and I think that excitement is one of its particular qualities.”

He said something like “argh!” Except people don’t really say that. But it gets the point across. He was getting very angry while I stayed calm. That meant I was winning. That attitude also meant that I was being an asshole, but it took me a long time to learn that particular lesson. I’ve only mostly learned it.

My brother and I had what had to be thousands of arguments over the years. This particular time I was about 18, although when I view it in my mind I’m much older than that. I’m an adult, and so is he. But it happened in his bedroom on the Cedar Avenue house, with its Insane Clown Posse posters and the schizophrenic graffiti from his friends scrawled across the angled ceiling. I was back from college for the summer, and he was still in high school. Roughly 150 million years ago. There may have been a plesiosaur.

We had a lot of arguments, but I remember this one for a very specific reason: I won. Not just then, of course. Not by a long shot. He probably said something like “fuck you” and stormed off. Which lacks verisimilitude because we were in his room, but if you went with me on the plesiosaur I’m going to assume your capitulation here.

It was a couple of years later, when we both really were adults. I was visiting home again. I can’t remember if this was before or after he took his trip travelling around Europe, staying in hostels and hooking up with exotic Swedish women. That’s something I always said I wanted to do, but I never would have. Not really.

“I’ve been listening to your music lately,” he told me. “The old CDs you had. Remember that conversation we had about Lightning Crashes?”

“Sort of.”

“You said it was an exciting song, and I said you were wrong.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

“I’ve realized that you were right. The way it builds up and then launches into the important part. I’m not saying it’s my favorite song, but it is actually pretty exciting.”

My brother comes out the winner here, in this analysis. It’s not me for “winning” the argument. It’s him for allowing his view on something to evolve. And it always makes me think on why I’ve always loved to argue in the first place.

There are a couple of different reasons that people love to argue. Some people argue because they are unyielding in their viewpoints. Some people argue because they love the intellectual back and forth of discussion, and the puzzle-solving nature of debate. There’s definitely some of the latter, for me. But the main reason that I’ve always gotten into a lot of debates with people—and the Lightning Crashes argument is a perfect example—is because I love to examine things from every angle.

My brother and I got into a lot of arguments when we were little. My wife says that’s what we do when we get together, even today. We’re two clones with very different worldviews. His psychological flaw is that his view is too narrow; he sees things from the inside of his perspective and his opinions on the way the world works.

My flaw is exactly the opposite. I see far too many angles and elements of every situation, and I give them all equal weight. Even the irrelevant ones. It muddies up the waters of understanding. But it also means that with almost anything anyone says I can find something wrong. And not only find the mistake, but take it seriously. It will seems significant to me because every angle is significant.

I’ve gotten a lot better in my advancing years. I don’t argue nearly as often. It turns out that people don’t like it. But picking things apart, tearing them up into a million different perspectives that all feel equally valid, that is something that I still do.

I probably always will.

Why I’m Scared of Twitter

Brain Bot

 

Another 37, Day 15

Fear serves an important evolutionary function. Some things deserved to be feared, like Godzilla. If Godzilla shows up in your neighborhood and you aren’t at least a little scared, that will probably be a very bad day for you. On the other hand, just like a craving for beer-battered bacon wings, our modern brains are very stupid about knowing when to use this particular tool.

I’m scared of a lot of things because I’m a regular person. I don’t like either of these facts, but there you are. Also Spider-man is scared of a lot of things and he’s an extra-awesome person, so at least I’m in good company. Many of the things I’m scared of are quite reasonable. Like the thing from It Follows, and also sea monsters. Neither of these are unlikely to come up in my life (or so I keep telling myself), but if they did they’d be genuine threats.

So even though imagining how utterly helpless I would be in the middle of the ocean with a giant tentacled beast I couldn’t see that wanted to eat my bone marrow swimming beneath me is definitely a waste of my damn time, I’m still putting in the “reasonable fear” pile. That gives you a lot of information about the other, much larger pile. One of the things I am unreasonably afraid of these days is Twitter.

I really should join Twitter, since it’s currently still an important platform for writers and for networking in all of those fields and circles I want to get involved in if I can ever get off my ass. Some of those circles I’m already involved in, but I have limited exposure because I don’t have a Twitter account. Plus, it looks like mild fun, and I think it would help me check Facebook less often.

But I haven’t gotten one, because it scares me. This is not terrifying, looking-the-basilisk-in-the-eye kind of fear. It’s much milder. Just enough for me to put it off. And I have very good reasons for being afraid. Very good reasons that are also a pile of crap.

The more psychology books I read the more I think that human cognition is a set of extremely capable controls with staggeringly fiddly calibrations, like Surgeon Simulator. Most of the more usual kinds of neuroses are just like fear: useful mental features with the dials turned up too high or too low.

In a highly rigorous study that I conducted whenever I thought about it around my friends and acquaintances, I found that people who are punctual are always nervous about being punctual. You can’t be consistently on time to things unless being late makes you uncomfortable. There is no intrinsic reason this should be the case. It’s easy to imagine a person who manages their time carefully such that they always leave when they need to and take traffic into account, but who also stays calm and detached about it. But I’ve never met one.

Likewise, people are almost always either too confident or not confident enough. Almost everyone who doesn’t compulsively worry about whether or not they have their keys on them will, from time to time, lock their keys in their car. You might only worry about this a little and still be consistent. If so, good for you! This is not one of your particular neuroses. But there’s no reason you should have to worry at all; it’d be easy for Reed Richards to create a robot who never locked her keys in her car but also didn’t feel any particular way about it. He probably wouldn’t since robots in superhero fiction always seem to have emotions for some reason, but the fact remains that he could.

But, alas, the human brain wasn’t designed by Reed Richards. More like, say, Egghead. We aren’t robots. We are more like a blindfolded person walking through a room full of obstacles, assisted by sighted people who can only communicate with us by slapping our faces if we get too close to the buzz saw.

Example: you see a dress that you like in the store that you’d really like to buy, so you check the price tag. It says $1900. Chances are, your brain doesn’t calmly say, “Oh, that’s out of my price range. I’ll move on.” It’s much more likely to be something like, “Gah! Nineteen hundred dollars? Jesus fucking Christ! I’m not selling a kidney to Donald Trump for this damn thing! That dress made of my neighbor’s curtains will have to be good enough. I wonder if they’ve changed the code on their security system.”

There’s no reason to react that strongly in order to change behavior. Or rather, there probably is, because the urge to buy a dress you like is also badly calibrated. You might buy it for $200 even though that means another month of plankton-flavored ramen for dinner. The image of how damn sexy you’ll be in that dress just releases too much dopamine to resist.  Lucky for you and your plankton-oriented future your grandmother was part blue whale.

I don’t want to join Twitter because I think it’ll make me look like a jackass. We are way, way past the time when anyone who wanted a Twitter account should have already gotten one. I might as well start wearing parachute pants—which by the way are crazy comfortable. I’m afraid people will judge me. No, that’s not it. I’m afraid people will identify me. Most people like being put into categories to some extent. I’m a Star Trek Fan. I’m a South Carolina Conservative. I’m a member of the Cherokee Nation. You get the idea.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this; being part of a group or a label gives people a sense of belonging. But my brain doesn’t work that way. Oh, I love to belong as much as anyone, but I want to be unique. In a less charitable interpretation, I want to be seen as being unique. As much as I life Firefly I’d never wear a Firefly shirt because people might identify me as a Firefly fan, and make all sorts of assumptions. For some reason that doesn’t make any sense to anyone but me (also not to me) that terrifies me. It’s a form of social anxiety, and I’ve never met anyone else with this precise flavor.

The thing is, I mostly don’t have social anxiety. I don’t even mind looking like a jackass. In fact, I would say that on balance I deliberately make myself look like a jackass more often than 99% of the population. But certain things trigger it. Being seen as part of a thing that people are collectively doing is the biggest, and it often paralyzes my ability to change. It’s why it took me so long to get a cell phone, why I put off joining Facebook, and why for years I always waited until I looked like a homeless man-goat before I cut my hair. That last part hasn’t actually improved, it’s just that I shave my head now and so when I inevitably put it off I just look like a balding guy with short hair. I think it’s an improvement.

Society is more and more tolerant of the level of neuroses that are big enough or defined enough for doctors to diagnose. I say more tolerant, but obviously there is still plenty of social stigma in being depressed or anxious or taking medication for anything without obvious physical symptoms. We have a long way to go, but we have gotten better.

But there’s a lot less sympathy for the harder-to-pinpoint conditions that still screw up our lives. The kind of bluntness about them that I’m exhibiting in this article in talking about my neuroses is comparatively rare. There are pretty good reasons for this. We need to take neuroses and psychoses into account, but at the same time we also need to have a function society, and ultimately people need to get back to work.

I do think we’d be collectively healthier if we recognized how much we are defined by the ill-tuning of our psychological drives, but we’d have to find the happy medium between coddling everyone and insisting we all man up and ignore the problems that define us. As with individual human cognition, society-level calibration is a bitch.

Meanwhile, I need to recognize that I’m already a jackass, that people are already judging me, and get a Twitter account. It’s so easy.

It makes me nervous to even say it.

Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne's lace, July 30

 

Another 37, Day Two

“Kids, wake up. I have a great idea.”

My dad was a morning person, and he just didn’t get that there was never a good reason for waking up. Sometimes there was a good reason for being up, but that came later. Somehow he expected us to be enthusiastic. My brother was better at that than I was, but not much. My mother was, if anything, worse, which I loved because she understood. But she wasn’t there, this particular morning. She couldn’t have been, because this was about her.

Once we were awake enough to care, dad explained what we were doing. It was a good idea. A really good idea. Perfect. That’s how we ended up on the strip of tattered grass in the median on the highway just outside of Pier 1 Imports. And along other weathered, neglected patches of greenery usually only traversed by kids jaywalking across traffic, or work men in orange vests and just the wrong among of stubble on their perpetually surly faces. But the patch outside of Pier 1 was the best. A diamond mine.

And we were searching for diamonds, rare and precious, uncut and indistinguishable from common rocks unless your eye was equally rare, and you knew how to spot that which was precious. We were spice hunters, sailing to the places on the map marked with dragons, looking for the nutmeg trees but harvesting only the mace. We were in the wilds of the South Jersey suburbs, and we were searching for Queen Anne’s Lace.

“What’s Queen Anne’s Lace?” I remember asking my father once.

“It’s a weed,” he told me, “but don’t tell your mother.”

“Maya, what’s Queen Anne’s Lace?” I asked her. I called her Maya, because I liked to play with words, and because “mom” and “mommy” were too prosaic, and she was too special to my child’s eyes.

“A flower,” she said, in that far off voice she sometimes had, the voice sprinkled with faerie dust. “The most beautiful flower in the world.”

Maya could talk about flowers for hours. With the voice of an expert, and the passion of a poet describing her children. Whenever spring bloomed she spoke of nasturtiums and hydrangea and bleeding hearts, how they grew, what they needed, their personality quirks and their deepest fears. She had a story about every one.

“Impatiens are the most dramatic of all flowers,” she used to say. “When you haven’t watered them they sag and droop,” here, she would sag and droop her arms down herself. “’Water us!’ they say. ‘Water us or we’ll die!’ And then when you water them they spring up and spread out, and say, ‘Look at us! Aren’t we beautiful?’”

I never understood beauty. Not really. I understood ideas, words, the wild, frayed colors and sounds at the edges of abstract imagination. But not pure beauty, purely for it’s own sake. Sometimes I’m staggered by it, but even then I over think it. I try to tell a story, but sometimes you don’t need a story. Sometimes beauty is wine, and a story just waters it down.

Both of my parents were artists, but for my dad beauty did something. The most passionate I ever saw him was talking about some scientific breakthrough, or some revelation about how things worked. For Maya beauty just was. Powerful and intense and meaningless in the most meaningful of ways. I never understood beauty, all by itself, and that means I never understood perfection. I never touched it. But she did. To her it was everywhere.

“Do you think we have enough?” Dad asked. We looked in the back of the Suburban. It was full of clods of dirt pulled up from the ground, a dozen flowers and their accompanying roots. It was a hot day, and my brother and I were both dirty and sweaty, and neither of us had realized we were going to have to give up our Saturday for this. We looked at each other. We looked at the flowers. We both agreed; we didn’t have enough. Time to get back to work.

You couldn’t buy Queen Anne’s Lace. Of course you couldn’t. It was a weed. It grew wherever no one paid anyone pluck it up and make things more presentable. Did that make it more beautiful? I heard once that most people who visit the Louvre only look at the Mona Lisa and then leave. What other works of transcendental beauty line those halls, that everyone walks past? And what might be growing in the cracks between the pavement just outside, torn up by the gardener every morning, that could be just as beautiful?

As a teacher, Maya would sometimes get into arguments with other teachers about some of the students. The bad kids. The ones who spoke too often and too harshly, just so someone would see them. Maya loved them, not just because she could love everyone, but individually. For who they were. For the way they flowered. Other people saw weeds; she saw Queen Anne’s Lace.

Her face when she came home to see the flowerbed full of white flowers was as wondrous as we could hope for. More wondrous than you are probably imagining, because she had no filters in moments like this. She was always everyone’s favorite person on Christmas Morning, because you could hand her a present, watch her open a bottle of the kind of $4 perfume little kids think makes a fantastic gift, and watch her explode into joy. She might not like the present, she might never use it, but her joy was utterly genuine, because the moment was genuine. Because the act of giving her a gift filled it with magic, to her. You could hand her a package of weeds, but she always opened Queen Anne’s Lace.

She ran up and hugged us and exclaimed and bubbled over with joy. It must have been Mother’s Day, because her birthday would have been too cold. But I don’t remember what day it was. I don’t remember the details. I just remember her face. I’ll always remember her face.

I have no idea if all of this is entirely too sentimental. But sometimes you have to not care about that kind of thing. Sometimes you just have to blossom when someone waters you, and declare to all of the world that you are beautiful. Sometimes you have to tell the woman who raised you that she’s amazing, that she taught you about beauty and love and art. And about how, sometimes, there aren’t any weeds. There’s only Queen Anne’s Lace.

The Procession of the Angels of Memories

Neurons, In Vitro Color!

I can see my friend’s face, her white skin and her hair dyed coal-black. It looks natural on her, just as the black clothing, and the frustrated smile. It looks natural because it is the only way I know her.

“She’s the most grounded person I’ve ever met,” she says about someone in her orientation group. “Just an amazing person.”

I believe her, because that is how I am carved. I believe people about things. I’ve met this person she’s talking about, just once. Just for one conversation. Her name was Pearl, and we talked about smoking and veganism and how she cheated only once in Spain when she was drunk and the tall Spanish waiter brought out a mountain of gorgeous, quivering flan. I could not tell if Pearl was grounded, but now, hearing this other friend about it, I believed her.

It was the first week of college. An intense, magical, impossible time. When I think back, when I picture the white skin and the black hair and the lyrically formal way her High New England accent formed the words, I don’t see an 18 year old. I see a person. A full person, developed and intelligent and strong. Like the people around me, now, at 33 years old. I don’t see that when I look at 18 year olds. They are so young.

In another place at another time, I can see the stairwell that leads up from the library to all three floors of the school. I’ve never walked up this way before. My old classroom was on the second floor, and I am walking up to the third. For the first time in my life, I feel older. Not old, of course. I’m not wrinkly or infirm. I’m just growing up, and I can feel it in my bones. I can see it in my classmates that run past me, excited in a way that is painful and exhilarating, for the first day of school. They are in fourth grade, now. So am I.

When I look back on memories of the past I see two Jesses. Two Mes. One of them is another person. A memory that I know is my own, but it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. Anymore than a half-remembered dream. I know, because intelligent people in books have told me, that some of these memories, maybe all of them, are just whispers. Copies of copies, printed from the scatterings of story others have told me about those times, or from my own memories of remembering.

The other Me is Me. I remember these moments as if they happened yesterday, only a yesterday that was a long time ago. But the Jesse inside those experiences is the same one who types these words. The same one who is listening to meditative music in order to stay calm during an anxious period of his life. The same one who breathes in air with just the faintest scent of cat litter still on it, and who is happy that it isn’t as strong as it was before he took out the trash.

I know that this Me barely existed as I walked up those stairs to Mrs. Robertson’s fourth grade classroom. This Me has millions of sensory and mental experiences that define him that were not present in the exuberant, long-haired 17 year old who watched his new friend’s coal-black hair as she spoke, and marveled at how she stretched out the A in the word “candle” in the same way that fairies must do.

And yet, it is Me. Deep in my mind I don’t believe that. I think the self is an illusion perpetrated by a series of neural impulses responsible for the well-being of a pattern of DNA that itself has no motivation at all. A moment ago I downloaded a book about Taoism I intend to start reading later today, and still I believe that.

I believe that, but my brain won’t let me feel it. I don’t know if I want to feel it. We can see ourselves only as who we are. Sometimes I have moments where I forget who I am, and suddenly I am observer in someone else’s strange life. How much of my conviction about the lack of self is truly an informed analysis of the salient research, and how much is informed by this dissociation? I feel that I can comfortably abandon the illusion of self because I am smarter and more aware than others. But I don’t know if that’s true. I’m very, very skeptical, because this view is comfortable. Anything comfortable should be viewed with caution. It could be a trick.

I’m obsessed with the idea that we are trapped inside of our worldview, and that this is the cause of much of the world’s suffering. And yet I fall for this delusion so many times a day. I think back on my fourth grade self and I can see through his eyes. I share not a single cell or molecule with that hilariously young and unshaped person who shares my social security number, yet my brain still believes we are the same.

I have faith that there is something powerful here. Something that no one reading this can understand because it can’t be understood. Only felt. Like the Tao, only with more references to psychology journals.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve just gotten too much sleep lately. The human brain plays tricks on itself for its own subtle ends. It is Loki and Hermes, locked in a battle of dendrites and cortisol and selective myelenation, their prize control of a pineal gland that way or may not be the gateway to an infinite procession of angels.

I curse and bless how glorious this type of thinking makes me feel, and the quirk of my character that allows me to survive with the dissonance that makes me cringe and the pretentiousness and still, despite that, click the “publish” button in the upper right hand corner.

A Gift, At The End

Mango Shake

I’ve talked before about my mother in law, Mamacat, and all I’ve been through in the last couple of years with her. Ever since her husband had his stroke, I’ve been her driver, house hold helper, cook, and, since her health started to fail in the last year, her full-time nurse. It was a complex and difficult period for me, for my wife–her daughter–, and for Mamacat.

A few weeks ago Mamacat passed away. It’s been tough on her husband, tough on my wife, and tough on me. But overwhelming my response is very specific. It is nuanced and weird and tinged with various subtitles that aren’t all clear, logical, or even apparent, but overall I feel a specific way about it: I’m happy. In case that’s too vague, I’ll restate it in a more obvious way:

I am happy that Mamacat is dead.

I suspect most people will cringe a little on reading that. It’s hard not to. This is not something we are supposed to say when a loved one dies. I told one of my closest friends that I was happy. This is a friend who has been with me through every step of this whole process, who understands it deeply and as fully as anyone who wasn’t directly involved. I told him I was happy, and he said,

“You mean relieved, right?”

“No,” I said. “I mean I’m happy.”

And I do mean it. I feel joy. And other things, including sadness. But joy is the primary emotion. Joy that another human being has died. Not a bad human being. Not someone I hated or who “deserved it” in some retributive sense. If that kind of death made me feel happiness I would feel terrible. I’d feel wracked with guilt that I was so malicious.

I feel guilty anyway. I’ve been torn at nearly every moment for the last three weeks about how much guilt I should feel. Whether there was something wrong with me for being so happy about it. These are not easy questions to answer. But now, after 24 very long days, I think I finally understand.

Let me explain.

I’m happy for two reasons, and we’ll start with the more selfish one first. I’m happy to be free of the burden of taking care of her. She could barely move around at the end, and her mind was going. She required a lot of attention and help with nearly everything, and it was obvious it was going to get worse. How bad it would get was impossible to say, but I dreaded how bad it could get. I experienced some of that last year when she had an injury and was bedridden. I was on call 24/7, I never got any sleep, I messed up my back and my arms by lifting her up so often, I always smelled like bodily fluids, and I was in a constant state of tension.

But more than the fact of having to help her was the sense of being trapped. Ever since her husband had the stroke my wife and I have been trapped. We couldn’t go on vacation, we couldn’t move away. We couldn’t live our lives. We are in our 30s–my wife’s parents had her when they were fairly old–and that’s a tough pill to choke down. So being free of that burden is enormous. We have our lives back.

Here’s where I need to state categorically that I’m not resentful of Mamacat for being a burden. It wasn’t her fault. People get old and they need help. It sucks, but having to go to work sucks. Having back pains sucks. Sometimes things suck, and life is about getting on with them. One of Mamacat’s personality traits was that she had a stroke self-loathing streak. She blamed herself for everything. I don’t know how many times I told her that things weren’t her fault, and that I wasn’t mad at her. I don’t know if she ever believed me, but I tried to speak it through my patience. Sometimes my patience deserted me. During this time I learned for the first time exactly how much of it I have. I have great pity for anyone who is ever forced to learn this for themselves. I spoke with my patience, and I like to think it helped.

The second reason I am happy is because she wanted to go. She was ready. Never in my life have I met someone who had so little fear of death. She faced the most frightening of human experience with total peace and clarity. She faced it with a grin, like it was an old friend she was waiting to meet once she was done with this little thing right here. She believed in heaven, and often had dreams of its bright green fields of grass where she would run under the sunlight and meet everyone she had lost. But her belief wasn’t overwhelming. She thought there was probably a heaven. She hoped there was. But it didn’t matter all that much, really. Either way, she wasn’t afraid.

She had a Do Not Resuscitate order in her medical files. “If I try to go, let me go,” she told me. And that’s what we did. She might have recovered from her stroke into a shell of herself. She was already becoming a shell of herself, and she hated it. She died 8 days after her birthday, and it’s hard not to think that she got a present she didn’t expect, but that she hoped for with all of her heart.

And that’s the thing. I got a present from her, too. Not her death. I can’t bring myself to quite that crass. The present she gave me is deep, and powerful, and it was one of the most amazing things anyone has ever given me. I have only just now realized what it was, and how amazing it is that she gave it to us. The present is this:

Absolution.

I can feel joy at her death because that’s what she would have felt. If she could stand outside of her body and watch her last few breaths, as we did, it would have made her smile. It would have been like giving her the sweetest and most delicious mango smoothie she had ever tasted. I can imagine telling her that I was feeling guilty at my reaction to her passing. I hadn’t envisioned this conversation. I didn’t want to go there, because we’re not supposed to go there. But if I told her I felt bad that she had dead and it made me happy, she would have laughed a friendly and mirthful laugh and called me an idiot. She would have thought my guilty was silly. Unnecessary.

We think that death is a bad thing because it terrifies. We are afraid of dying, and we are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a friend who has lost someone. We tiptoe around it. We freeze up if we feel or do or say something that doesn’t fit on the Culturally Approved List of Response.

Screw that. Mamacat didn’t live that way, and neither do I. Death isn’t always a bad thing. People get old or sick, and they don’t need the world anymore. If everyone just kept on living the world would be a full, sickly, and terrible place.

Mamacat was an amazing person, and death was a gift the universe gave to her in the end, when she really needed it. A reward for an awesome life. And my reward, for taking care of her and being there for her, is that I get to feel joy. She gave that to me. She gave it to me with her beliefs, and with her personality, and with her disposition. And I’m sure, with every strand of my existence, that if she could talk to me one last time, she would give me that gift with her words.