Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Little JP - for TW and MA

I am eleven, perhaps twelve years old but I look younger. On the back porch of the house on 1st Street, balancing precariously on the edge of the railing above the 20 foot drop to the backyard of our 100 year-old brownstone, I hold a Siamese kitten in one hand, and the wand from a bottle of bubbles in the other.  Slightly out of focus, the photo looks older than it actually is.  It is the early 80’s, but my friend Shelley tells me it looks “quintessentially 70’s” due to the frizz in my hair and the earth tones in my clothing.  Straight hair had come back into style full force by then, and I’d given up battling my mane.  My mother and sister both had tame hair, and as an even younger child, I’d tried to brush my hair straight, which only exacerbated the problem. I am so focused on the task at hand that I do not acknowledge the camera, no doubt being held by my mother.  I’m wearing pink plastic eyeglasses, they are the second pair I owned – I was first fitted for glasses at age 10. 
The overalls were a staple of my wardrobe; I owned two pairs – one blue and one rusty orange, and wore them constantly. Newly transplanted to Brooklyn from an unincorporated town outside of Geneva, Switzerland, where our closest neighbors were dairy farmers, I was inexperienced with city life, or the idea that clothes might be an important indicator of personality. Tracy McTeague nicknamed me “Fannie Farmer” because of those overalls, and the name stuck.  My mother took me clothes shopping every fall before the school year began, and it would be several months before she bought me anything new to wear.

Everything about Brooklyn was foreign: the noise, the dirt, even the climate -- that first summer I developed heat rash on my neck and under my arms from the humidity, and when I started fourth grade that fall, was ostracized by my more culturally adept peers.  I had never gone to public school, and was overwhelmed by the mad crush of unruly kids, the endless lines that had to be stood in – to go to recess, to return from recess, to go to music class; the assigned tables in the lunchroom; and the perpetual wrath of the overworked, underpaid teachers who didn’t have the time or energy to take note of any new students. 

I hadn’t grown up watching American television, or any television for that matter, and didn’t understand the cultural references that my peers took for granted.  I was fascinated by cartoons and watched programs considered too young for me: Scooby Doo; Batman & Robin; Woody Woodpecker. The teacher led a discussion of the made-for-TV movie The Day After in class the day after it aired, and I was the only student who hadn’t watched it.  When the teacher asked why, I replied “I didn’t know it was on,” prompting riotous laughter. “How could you have not known it was on?” My classmates asked. 

My sister, six years my senior, went to a private high school and took the B67 bus to Pearl Street every day.  I went to P.S. 321 because it was across the street from our house, on the corner of 1st Street and 7th Avenue. My mother worked full time, and stayed at work late into the night on a regular basis; my father stayed behind in Switzerland, and our contact dropped to the occasional letters he typed on crinkly, light weight airmail stationary, and two visits per year.  

I became responsible for myself; I cooked Stouffer’s frozen and Bird’s Eye boil-in-bag meals, and became more connected to the cats in our house than to any human.  We bred our female Siamese cat with a male who belonged to one of my mother’s coworkers, and within weeks there was a litter of four tiny, blind, pink kittens – two males and two females.  They were my constant companions, following me up and down the three floors of our house, playing with my shoelaces, bits of string, and each other. We found homes for three of them, and kept one.  

This photo used to make me sad because it symbolizes everything that was lost when we moved back to Brooklyn: family life as it had once existed; the pastoral landscape of rural Switzerland and the sense of safety that it afforded; the easygoing attitudes of my teachers and classmates at the International School where my quirkiness was noted, but accepted.  Looking at it now I can appreciate it for the strengths it symbolizes: my self-reliance; my unruly, tomboyish ways; my lifelong bond with cats; and the inward-focused intensity that grew with being transplanted to a foreign place. I can’t say that I would do it all the same way if some magical being offered me the chance to do it over, but it made me who I am – my strengths and weaknesses, my dark sense of humor, my lifelong attachment to cats, my traveler’s spirit, and my constant inner dialogue.  It taught me to never feel alone, even when I am the sole human in the frame.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Me and Luke

If there’s one bar I’ve always wanted to drink in, it’s the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine, from the first Star Wars.  As a child I was fascinated by the curious assortment of aliens who patronized the establishment: the creature that looks like a crocodile in a red beret sipping from something that resembles a Molotov cocktail; the bug-eyed instrumentalists; the mousy creature asking the bartender for another.  Obi Wan Kenobe saves Luke’s ass in that bar, establishing his role as protector and mentor. Although Mos Eisley is clearly dangerous, it also serves all kinds, and I get the feeling I might like it there.

On Easter Sunday of 2000, my sister and I split a list of phone numbers and sat in our respective homes, she in Boston and me in Chicago, faced with the task of calling relatives and family friends with unpleasant news. I couldn’t get anyone on the phone –most people were traveling, and cell phones were still a novelty. I left messages. I’d been at my boyfriend’s parents when I got the news myself. There had been indications that this might happen. I’d had a bad feeling the night before, while attending a concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I don’t remember who was playing, but a blanket of despair came over me during the performance and froze me in place. A thought had crept in on the fog outside and lodged itself in my brain: what would it take for her to attempt suicide?  She was miserable, disheveled, her body suffering from decades of alcohol abuse. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her wear anything besides sweatpants -- this from a woman who had a personal shopper at Rodier on trendy Newbury Street in Boston, and updated her wardrobe annually - at great expense. When my sister called the next day, I already knew what she was going to say.

I have a tremor in my right hand, it manifests when I try to raise something to my face: a glass of water; a utensil; a tube of lipstick. My husband noticed it before I did, and made me see a neurologist.  “Have you ever noticed,” the doctor asked, “that the shaking subsides after a glass or two of wine?”  “Um….no,” I replied.  “The alcohol helps to calm the nerves,” he explained.  I’m fairly certain that’s the only time alcohol will be prescribed to me. It turned out to be hereditary-- my mother’s hands shake but I always thought it was from drinking (although I’m sure that doesn’t help.) My grandfather’s hands shook, but I thought it was from age. 

It makes me self-conscious, and I do a lot with my left hand to hide it.  I mouse with the left on computers, I lift beverages with the left (what would people think if they saw me lift a pint to my face with a shaky hand?) It’s a constant reminder of where I come from, of the shaky woman who birthed me. It reminds me of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when, in a fight for Luke’s soul, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand with a light saber and says, between mechanical breaths: “Luke, I am your father.” Luke tries in vain to deny his parentage, but it’s no use; “Search your feelings,” Vader says, “you know this to be true.” In a later scene, Luke has been fitted with a prosthetic covered in a black glove. You can buy plastic action figures of Luke that have a pink left hand and a black right hand.  It is a symbol of Luke’s connection to the Dark Side, and to the fact that he cannot escape his lineage.  Like him, I have in my right hand a constant reminder of where I come from, of the dark forces in my heritage.

It wasn’t until her suicide attempt that I began going to ACOA – Adult Children of Alcoholics, in a post-war building on the north side that smells like cigarettes and plastic chairs. The first time I read the list of ACOA traits was like reading a high school detention report; revelatory, and disturbing. Listed before me were all the traits that I had believed were part of my personality, but as it turned out were just symptoms of growing up in a diseased household: We guess at what normal is; We judge ourselves harshly; and, the most damning one for me to read -- It is easier for us to give in to others than to stand up for ourselves. At night she’d come up the stairs in a drunken rage to yell at me, and I’d cower in a corner of my bedroom, silent, waiting for the moment she’d slam the door behind her so hard that objects flew from the walls. In the morning we’d both behave as if nothing had happened. 

Thinking about it makes me tired.

In my apartment, after leaving messages letting people know that mom was in the hospital and we didn’t know what was going to happen, I manically cleaned to distract myself. I took breaks when the phone rang and spoke to mom’s friends – some in tears, some curt and businesslike.  I hadn’t heard from any of them in years. None of them knew what to say to me. In fact, I haven’t heard from any of them since, except to decline invitations to my wedding the following year. 

“Well, at least it’s out in the open now,” Irene said after I’d told her this was the culmination of a lifetime of drinking and depression. Her words fell like fresh cat turds on my newly mopped kitchen floor. At least now? Was she kidding me? My mother had driven drunk to Irene’s country house in Vermont, and gotten pulled over after sideswiping an 18 wheeler and spent the night in jail.  I’d had to make a phone call to Irene that night too. At Irene’s home in Chevy Chase Maryland, at another Easter, my mother had tripped down the stairs to the bathroom and thrown up in Irene’s toilet. 

A few nights after speaking to Irene I had a dream that my boyfriend and I were looking for a new apartment and were considering renting a coach house from Irene.  The space was great, the rent was reasonable, but there was a problem – there was a woolly mammoth that charged the front door at random intervals.  I knew what it meant – there was an elephant in the room, and not just any elephant – a prehistoric one, because this issue was fucking ancient, and nobody wanted to deal with it, not even our prospective landlord.

I had just started a new job a couple months prior, and when I told my boss what had happened he asked if I wanted to fly to Boston.  I did.  Nobody knew how bad it was. If these were her final days, I wanted to be by her side, limited as she was in her parenting. I got a half-price ticket on United Airlines citing emergency circumstances (it still cost me over $600).  When I got to the hospital a curtain had been pulled around her bed, and a social worker was asking her questions.  I struggled with the ethics of listening in on a conversation that I wasn’t meant to hear, and in the end my curiosity won out – the questions were important, and as her daughter, I wanted answers.  

“What did you take?” The disembodied voice of the social worker asked.

“Half a bottle of Tylenol, and half a bottle of Advil.”

“Did you realize that this could kill you?”


“Knowing now that it could kill you, do you think you would have done it anyway?”  

There was a pause of maybe fifteen seconds, and then: “Yes, I think I would have.” 

Having completed her interview, the social worker pulled back the curtain, and my mother saw me sitting in a chair by the door.

“My God,” she said, blinking behind her glasses.

“Hi mom,” I said.

She behaved as though this was something that had happened to her, rather than something she’d done to herself. The details were nauseating; she’d taken the pills just before meeting a friend who was in town with her 8 year-old daughter.  They went to dinner and mom began to act strangely. Her friend asked what was wrong, and she confessed to what she’d done. 

In the hospital, she’d been prescribed what looked like a fast food shake to combat the effects of the pills.  She aimed it toward me, the plastic straw pointing at my face and playfully said: “Would you like a sip?” “No, thanks,” I said, and she laughed, as if it were some kind of inside joke. 

She reveled in the attention of her visitors, regaling them with tales of what had happened: “I felt a strange feeling in my stomach…” she’d begin, as if this were an adventure gone wrong, as if there were a different reason for us to be here.

I slept like a rock that week in my sister’s apartment; sleep is my go-to habit when faced with stress.  I can sleep through anything – I once slept through an earthquake.

There were conversations: with doctors, psychiatrists, aunts, family friends.  The pills had damaged her liver, no one knew how much. It was possible that she’d have to be on medication for the rest of her life. “It upsets us because it makes us think about our own drinking,” one family friend said, “was this a real suicide attempt or just a cry for help?” asked another. Suddenly I was the expert, fielding questions I couldn’t possibly know the answers to, soothing the fears of people coming out of the woodwork.  “It must be so hard knowing she’s in the hospital,” they said, misunderstanding the most basic tenant of the child raised in an alcoholic home: the time I least worry about my mother is when she’s in the hospital.  “I’ll keep you posted,” I said. “Posted” was implicit for bad news – funereal news.  I’d brought a black dress with me just in case.

We cleaned her house – me, my sister, and my two aunts. There were piles of unread New York Times and New Yorkers clogging the place up and giving it the feel of a recycling center.  Her ageing cat that I’d grown up with, who was now missing an eye and required a special low-ash diet for his urinary tract health did his best to distract me. My aunt Jean talked about her own struggles with alcohol; she hadn’t touched the stuff in years.  My aunt Donna filled the empty spaces with conversation. She offered to cook for us, to give us wake-up calls in the morning, and I welcomed it.

At the end of the week we met with the doctor, there was no permanent damage – she wouldn’t have to take medication, and there were no complications to her already compromised liver.  The cosmic unfairness of it hit me hard – she had cheated death, or at the very least, cheated permanent damage.  Meanwhile, much younger people in my life would be culled too soon: Lisa, who died at 25 of a congenital heart defect, leaving behind a toddler; Brad, who died of cancer before his 30th birthday; Dara, who died a few months ago at age 40.  Death, like violence, is random – you can minimize your chances, but you can’t eliminate them. 

ACOA was useful up to a point – about a year and a half into my tenure a couple showed up who weren’t actually Adult Children of Alcoholics, but insisted on attending meetings.  “My name is Judy,” one of them said, “and I’m an Adult Child of a Child Abuser…” Being a room full of ACOAs, none of us was able to stand up for ourselves and tell them that while their problems were real and terrible, the help they needed was not in this room. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so pathetic. One by one the core group of people I had come to depend on began dropping out. The last time I went, Judy was running the meeting. I haven’t been back since.

Luke Skywalker and I have more in common than I first realized; we were both born with one foot in Dark Side and the other in The Force.  We are both survivors – children without real parents, cobbling together our own families from the Wookiees, droids, and occasional Ewoks that we come across over the course of our lives. We are human children from another planet, and do not know Earth customs first hand.  Like Luke, I cannot control where I came from, but I can try to steer myself towards the future of my choosing. If I could, I’d buy him a drink at the Mos Eisley Cantina. We could talk about Leia’s attraction to bad boys like Han Solo, I could ask if Lando Calrissian likes to drink Colt 45, and what the real reason is behind Yoda’s syntax. He could ask me about life on Earth, what it’s like to use a toilet (I never once saw a bathroom in Star Wars,) and we could compare right hands. I think we’d have a good time.