Heading East

Way east. I’m back in the airport — my wonderful little airport, with the free wifi (though it’s behaving like free wifi, I’m afraid — flashing on and off, four bars, no bars, three bars, one bar, three bars, like a little strobe in my menu bar). Waiting for the red eye. And man, are my eyes going to be red.

What of July 15 I’m going to experience will take place in the air, and in the airports. Arrival at IAH at 5.30 am, where I’ll spend just over three hours waiting for my parents. The three of us will get on a plane for Newark, where we’ll spend another three-plus hours waiting for my sister. And then the four of us will board a plane for Rome, where it will be July 16 when we arrive.

Two nights on planes. I’m a little alarmed about it, but my parents have promised to pump me full of Ambien once we take off from Newark, and given that I almost certainly won’t sleep tonight, I’ll hopefully zonk out tomorrow night.

I’m hoping for nearby wifi in Rome, and if it’s there, you’ll hear from me. The batteries in the camera are fully charged, and the little powerhouse Powerbook is at the ready.

In the meantime, I’ll probably wind up posting from IAH and EWR, just to pass the time…

Moving On

As evidenced by yesterday’s meandery post, I’ve been trying over the last few days to face my sense of directionlessness, thinking through it as something other than a crisis, or a cause for alarm, but nonetheless trying to get at its roots and figure out how wandering might resolve, at some future moment, into organized movement.

This has not been an ideal moment for such introspection; the weekend just past was my last weekend in DC, and so R. and I had a bit of an overflow of festivitizing, or at least a bit more than allows for unclouded thinking on the following day. But I’m pretty sure that some portion of my fogginess is a hangover from the BR trip, as well. There’s nothing like dealing close-up with a parent’s pain to cast the shadow of mortality over everything.

Oddly, the story I’m spending this summer gearing myself up to tell, in whatever form I wind up telling it, is in part about the death of a parent, and yet it seems that the intimations of the someday-way-into-the-future death of my own actual parent have so overwhelmed the fictional urge as to make it impossible to concentrate.

Some clarification is perhaps in order here: my mother’s surgery was elective, but left her in completely incapacitating pain, pain into which, for the first day, serious meds knocked only the smallest of dents. The meds left her extremely disoriented, though, and thus further incapacitated. And despite the fact — the fact, I keep reminding myself — that she was never in any mortal danger, never even close to needing further medical attention, somehow the combination of her pain and her delirium seriously Freaked Me Out. It was like seeing the leading edge of that tidal wave that you know is coming — given the general histories of women in my family, it likely won’t hit for at least a couple of decades yet, but it’s coming nonetheless, like it or not.

And it’s impossible not to begin asking, when that wave hits, where will I be, and where will I be left? My father is still alive, but we’re hardly in touch — I’ve taken to joking of late that he’s off in the desert, stockpiling canned goods and waiting for the end times. (A joke, I now see, that originated in the post to which I link. Well, at least if I’m being derivative, it’s myself I’m deriving from.) More seriously, for at least the last fifteen years, whenever I’ve referred to “my parents,” I’ve meant to signal my mother and stepfather; my father does not figure in. (Indeed, one of the last times I saw him, I freudian-slippingly said something about how I resembled “my side of the family” rather than his.)

So there’s that. And then there’s my stepfather: though he and I get along quite well now, there have been some exceedingly difficult moments between us, things that keep us from ever really being close. The sheer fact of the matter is that, given his own family history, he’s likely to die long before my mother. But even putting that aside, the end result of all the interpersonal subtraction is clear: my mother is, for all intents and purposes, my only parent, and when she’s gone, what’s left?

Despite the enormous jumbled mess of folks that I casually refer to as my family (mostly steps of various sorts), my actual family does not stretch far beyond her. There’s my sister, of course, but she and I do a lousy job of keeping in touch — we’re always happy to see or talk to one another when we do, but we don’t do so very often, and so aren’t in some basic sense on one another’s radar screens. And there’s R., my perfect love, but given the difference in our ages, it’s almost certain that someday he’ll be gone, too.

As he’d no doubt point out, my greatest terror, the one that most clouds my judgment and interferes with my rational decision-making processes, is that of being left. And I’m beginning to suspect, as I write this, that what I’ve spent the weekend drinking away, what is preventing me from thinking and working today in the way that I’d hoped to, is last week’s snapshot of the future, an inevitable future in which everyone I love is gone and I am, in some terminal sense, on my own.

Part of me has spent my entire life preparing for (indeed, making way for) this future: I moved out of my parents’ house at 16; I’ve moved across the country, away from R., three times in fifteen years; I keep friends and colleagues at a distance — all of this as if to ensure that the alone that I find myself in is an alone of my creation.

And here enter the maudlin strains of Simon and Garfunkel. Sigh. It’s just flat hard to take oneself this seriously.

So the basic gist: mom’s pain, visions of mortality, fear of abandonment, I am a rock, I am an island. The question becomes what to do with all that. To quote John Barth (though on a very different kind of anxiety), “one way to handle such a feeling might be to write a novel about it.” Another might be to write a whiny blog post, to get it out of your system, and to move the hell on.

MSY to BWI

The return, thus far, is going more smoothly than the venture out. For one thing, this is perhaps the first time that I’ve traveled at entirely reasonable hours — neither getting up well before dawn nor getting in after my usual bedtime — in years. I’m awake and mostly well-rested.

Mostly. This was not a restful jaunt home, alas. Marcus’s opening last night was fabulous, if attended by a very odd segment of the population. The best part, aside from hanging out with him a bit, was that I bought a big-ass painting, which you can find on his website via the “paintings” link — the image on the resulting page that provides the link to “free-hanging canvases” (and the first image once you follow that link) is my new baby: Un travail sur la matière. The painting itself will remain in the gallery until the show comes down in early July. Once it arrives, and is hung, I’ll have to take a new round of condo pictures, to update my own gallery.

Anyhow, that was the fun part of the trip. Less fun was that my mother had some pretty intense surgery the day after I arrived — really intense, leaving her in enormous pain, but not so intense that it wasn’t done at a freaking ambulatory surgery center rather than in the hospital. There was absolutely nothing ambulatory about her condition, an hour and a half after being stitched up, when they rolled her back out to the car and waved goodbye. I’ve accordingly spent the last three days in various aspects of caring for her, some of them icky, some of them alarmingly intimate, some of them back-breaking. The result was both that I spent less time with Marcus than I’d hoped, and that I’m now quite wrung-out, and need a bit of rest. I foresee a day tomorrow of sleeping-in, going to the gym, and lying around reading novels.

Merry Merry

Hear that?

That is the sound of the complete absence of my family from the immediate vicinity. Let’s all just enjoy it for a minute, shall we?

Ahhhh.

I’m sitting in the President’s Club in the Houston airport, soaking up the free wi-fi and eating as many peanuts as I could possibly want while I gorge myself on all the blogs I could only glance at for the last eight days. Said glancing was done on my parents’ Wintel, which just gives me the screaming meemies every time I have to work on it. So it’s nice to be able to open up the old PB again, especially since there isn’t somebody looming over my shoulder asking what I’m doing, accusing me of being anti-social, or just plain insisting that I drop whatever I’m doing to (a) run an errand, (b) eat yet another meal, or (c) just come sit in the living room with the rest of us.

Christmas was, on the whole, a success: no major emotional outbursts, including the one evening when I was this far from screaming that everybody just needed to leave me the fuck alone and stop treating me like I’m twelve already; no illness or injury; no bloody snow. (Who knew, incidentally, that that was one I needed to be worried about? Houston Intergalactic is completely devoid of the white stuff on the ground, thankfully, but not far south of here, things are blanketed.) As to gifts, I got one of these, which I didn’t even know existed, but which is wholly appropriate.

Because with all the pressure I’ve been under lately, I might as well put it to good use.

How It Turned Out

[Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.]

My father remarried soon after the divorce, married the woman he’d left my mother for (this piece of information my mother does not deny, nor does my stepmother, through my father denies it, vigorously). They tried to have children in the ensuing years, but were unable. I assumed that the child-bearing parts of their lives were over. Fourteen years ago, when my father was 47 and my stepmother 42-ish, they had S. The next year came H.

There was something weird about all this, something I either couldn’t put my finger on or didn’t want to question too far. When my stepmother told me in February that she was pregnant with S., she said that the doctors had no idea how far along she was. They did some calculations and decided that the baby would be due in early August. S. was born in April, on Palm Sunday, and looks like she’s three months old in the picture I have of her taken on Easter. H. was born almost exactly nine months after S. My mother, who kept up with the story like she was watching a soap opera on TV, told me over and over that something wasn’t right about all this, that S. was not a newborn in that picture, that a 43-year-old woman could not have two babies in just under nine months with no complications. I was shaken, horrified, infuriated. I thought I had finished putting all my past problems with my father behind me, and now there was this. I finally made up my mind that there was no good reason why my father would lie to me, nothing that made sense at least, that S. and H. looked a lot like their parents, and that stranger things have happened.

But then, one September, when S. was four and H. was three, my sister ran into a friend-of-a-friend whose father used to work with our father, who asked my sister what she thought about the new babies.

My father had packed up wife and kids and moved to Saudi Arabia two years before. He and I had communicated sporadically at best when he was in Texas, and that had dramatically fallen off since his move. My sister, who was still having crawling trouble when our parents split, had even less of a connection to him than I did. Neither of us had heard from him in months. And neither of us had heard anything about any new babies.

But according to this distant acquaintance, my father and stepmother either had had or were about to have twins. Someone in the crowd of girls standing around my sister asked her, with just the right note of horror, how she could not know something like that. D. and I, after a panicked conversation, decided not to do anything, to wait and see how long it took the story to get to us.

Two weeks later, D. ran into our stepmother’s sister’s son at school. He asked her about the babies too. He’d talked to my father on the phone the night before and had found out that my father and stepmother were adopting two newborn Australian girls.

This was in October. In early November I finally got a letter from my father, announcing the arrival of R. and R., born in September. They weren’t sure it could happen, medically speaking, he said, so they hadn’t told anyone. But the babies and my stepmother were doing fine. No mention of Australia. No mention of adoption. No real mention of my stepmother actually giving birth, though that was the implication.

A few days later, my stepfather’s father died. At his funeral, a woman who had worked with my father before he left my mother came up and asked me whether the babies were girls or boys. “He told us she was expecting last time he was in town,” she said, “but I never found out how it turned out.”

I spoke to my father briefly at Christmas that year, and didn’t mention any of this. I didn’t tell him how furious I was that he did tell his colleagues about the impending babies, that he did tell his in-laws, but that he simply failed to tell his daughters. I didn’t tell him how much it upset me that I had to question everything he said, that there were always multiple stories surrounding everything he did, that I couldn’t even be sure that his four youngest daughters were his children by blood. I didn’t tell him how hurt I was that I was clearly not part of his family, and hadn’t been for years. I just lied and told him that I was in the middle of a letter to him, a letter in which I intended to make all of my feelings clear, a letter that ten years later I still haven’t written.

I’ve never met R. and R., who I think are now ten, and I haven’t seen S. or H. since they were in diapers. Who they are — much less who my father is — is something that, as it turns out, I’ll likely never know.

Memory

[Part 2 in a series. Part 1 is here.]

I have erased my father from my memory. Or memories. My mother tells me that when I was a child, quite young, he was the most important thing in my life, and I in his. We were devoted to one another. I have no memory of any of this. It says horrible pop-psychology things about me, I’m sure, but all I remember is being left. There are big black holes in the past where my father used to be, like he’s been cut out of all my mental photographs.

But then, my memory plays tricks on me. I know this. I remember things that can’t possibly have happened. Things that my mother denies.

There are the crawling lessons, for instance. I remember quite definitely that my sister had a very hard time learning to crawl. Many of the particulars escape me, though, and when I last asked my mother about this incident, she denied it entirely, denied that D. had ever faltered in her hands-and-knees coordination. But like the few other flashes of my childhood that I retain, I take it as real, despite the fact that it doesn’t fit in with everything else I know.

D. couldn’t, or wouldn’t crawl. Take that as a beginning. Mom was worried about this, afraid that if D. walked before she crawled, it would produce some insurmountable developmental disorder. What this specifically boded for a child, I’m still not sure. I was six or seven at the time, and I was convinced that walking before she crawled would leave her permanently confused, without any foundational support.

This was the year that we went to New Jersey for Christmas. My parents were in the beginning stages of what was ultimately a very bitter divorce, and Mom had brought my sister and me to stay with my aunt for the holidays. She was determined to get my sister to crawl before the trip was over.

Which is where the memory begins to fall apart, as all of my memories eventually seem to. My sister was born on October 2, 1973. If this was Christmas 1974, my sister had greater problems than that potential walking-before-crawling confusion. If this was Christmas 1973… well, why would my mother be worried about a three-month-old child who wasn’t crawling yet?

Somehow two memories have gotten intertwined in my head. Maybe this was the following summer, during our usual visit. Maybe that Christmas passed uneventfully, except for the absence of my father. I can’t speculate too far on the actual events surrounding the crawling lessons. There’s no one to compare notes with since no one else remembers it at all. I have no choice but to treat the memory as whole and true, if contradictory.

I sat watching as my aunt and my mother crawled around on the floor, my pudgy little sister looking on bewilderedly. They tried everything. At one point, my mother had my sister by the wrists and my aunt had her by the ankles, and they’d alternate picking them up and putting them down, moving her around the room, hoping she’d get the idea. D. went along with it, but once they’d let go and sit back, waiting to see if she’d do it on her own… nothing. She’d sit there on her hands and knees, rocking back and forth slightly as if revving her engines, but she wouldn’t go anywhere.

Finally, either my aunt or my mother (I have no memory-sense as to which, and if I did, I’m not sure I could trust it) bought a mouse. A small grey wind-up mouse, complete with long felt tail. I don’t remember how it was introduced, whether they let her see it or touch it or anything at first. But then my aunt or my mother, whichever it was, wound up the mouse and let it go, right in front of my sister. She took off like a shot, hands and knees flying, chasing after the mouse.

That’s the moment I remember, the mouse skittering along the floor and my sister trying to catch it. I also remember thinking that she just hadn’t had anywhere important to go before that.

The rest is too slap-stick, too colored by my later knowledge of my mother, loving and wildly attentive, but always much too concerned about precisely the wrong thing. It’s too filled-in, as though my memory is creating a patch-job, hoping that I won’t notice the mismatched fabric and the holes underneath.

The Most Recent Incident

[Part 1 in a series. Read Part 2 and Part 3.]

While in Prague this summer, I got the following email message:

From: [DLB]@[company].com
Subject: [GF]’s Address & Phone Number
Date: June 5, 2003 1:53:35 PM PDT

If this is repeat information, please forgive me.

If you would like to stay in touch with [GF], you may
contact him at the following address and number:

[GF]
[address deleted]
[suburb of Salt Lake City], Utah [zip]
[phone number deleted]

Thank you and God Bless.

In Him, Sincerely,
[DLB]
[company]
[phone number]

The shortest distance between a problem and a solution is the distance between your knees and the floor….

I have no idea who DLB is. GF, on the other hand, is my father.
Continue reading “The Most Recent Incident”