Darkest Hour

I remember walking into the house with my newborn daughter in my arms for the first time.  My husband, tall and strong and handsome, hovered nearby in palpable fear that the baby would explode upon contact with the April air.  I was sore and weary and full of uncertainty but mostly I remember the swell of relief in my heart.  “Finally,” I thought to myself.  “Finally I have done what I was supposed to do. Now all I have to do is not screw it up and all will be well.”

There was another baby, a boy this time, born at the perfect interval after the first, and we decided that this would be the last. Very soon after that I found myself suddenly, desperately ill and spent 4 terrifying weeks in a Chicago hospital waiting to see if I would beat the 50% odds that the doctors had given me.  At 29 years old, with an 11-week old infant, I found myself staring down the barrel of mortality.  Only a few memories from that time remain: my father calling from Oregon every morning at 3:00 a.m. Pacific Time so I could hear his voice before the residents came in to prod my painful belly and look askance at the noisy, humiliating electric double breast pump that sucked me dry so I could pour the sweet, creamy, narcotic uselessness down the drain day after day.  The stack of old Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines that a dear friend stacked at my bedside and I devoured as I swabbed my dry mouth with damp cotton and watched the continuous bags of artificial nutrients drip into the tube that fed directly into the superior vena cava, the nearly-inch-thick vein that feeds the heart. My mother sitting next to the bed, still and pale and quick to smile and take my hand every time my eyes opened until the worst was over and she went to take care of my terrified husband and the children.  Those were days whose ache has not faded, full of fear and loneliness and grim, bitter determination not to let despair close over my head.  After my mother left, I was alone, 260 miles from home.  I had almost no visitors and almost no calls beyond the lifeline of my father’s daily calls and the awkward, terrified attempts at conversation from my husband. I didn’t see him or my children for nearly a month. When they could finally come to see me, right before the surgery that freed me to go home, I was forever changed.  In the 17 years since, not a day has passed that the cold hem of Death’s garment hasn’t brushed my cheek, taking me back for a moment to that completely neutral room with the window that let in light but no air.

Time passed, we moved and moved again, and the children grew and thrived.  My husband seemed unable to find contentment at work, but he was able to find work when he needed it, and I was able to stay home and bury myself in domestic tranquility.  But then we went out to visit my parents for Christmas one winter, and the bottom dropped out again; my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer which had very nearly killed him before we even got there.  Jaundiced, nearly immobilized by pain and painkillers, unable to eat or laugh or raise a glass, he had to tell his children that his race was run.  The two of us sat alone together in the little living room filled with books and mementoes of 35 years of my parents’  love and life together, and he told me that he would never get better.  And I sipped my coffee and looked at him, and he looked at me, and there were no words.  I remember the tears rolling down my cheeks and the icy pain in my chest too deep for me even to sob.  We celebrated Christmas two days later with my sister’s family, taking turns ducking into closets to weep, wiping our eyes on our sleeves and returning to the festivities, knowing we would never have another chance.  I have not seen so much love or so much courage in one place before nor since.  My mother had made him a photo album from the slides taken on their Irish honeymoon; they had come back from their latest trip to Ireland only a few months before; the trip that would now always be their last. We left before his first chemo treatment; within days I was called back across the country to sit vigil while we waited to see if it had been given too late.  He lived—barely.  For another 9 months, the chemo bought him time—time to see grandbabies born, time to sit in his velvet robes among the faculty one last time at graduation, time to attend a retirement party held years too soon, time to accept the overwhelming tributes from former students, family, colleagues and friends who had been touched by his enormous generosity of mind and spirit. I called him every day, in return for the calls that had been my lifeline less than 4 years earlier, I was able to fly out a couple of times, and we all went to see him at the very end, just before he refused further treatment.  We picnicked in the park in July, and the children played on the playground while his eyes shone with love from under the layers of clothing that kept his tall, gaunt frame from shivering in the summer heat.  At 61, he moved like a 90-year old man, cautious and faltering.  There was no time to experience pain; it was swallowed up and redefined in the unspoken, ironclad compact that drove us to make every moment as sweet for him as it could be made.  And after that there was only the last trip: the two-sentence phone call, the hurried trip to the airport, the friend who offered a bed and a meal between flights, someone (who?) picking me up at the airport and depositing me there, in that same room where he had warned me this would happen.  He recognized me that night, but by the next he thought I was my mother, and by the next he was in his final coma.  There was no sign of pain or consciousness, only his slow, breathing in the quiet room where my mother, my sister and I sat and talked and waited.  His younger brother came in from across the country, to bid farewell to his childhood bed- and mischief-mate, his oldest friend.  The last night, my mother left me alone with him while she went to shower.  I knew she would not leave his side again.  He had not responded to anything around him for more than a day.  I climbed onto the bed beside him and wrapped my arms around him and told him there was no need to stay one minute longer than he wanted to, that we would manage somehow without him and that we would meet again.  As I laid my cheek against his, he picked up his arm and flung it over me—in my years as a nurse since then, I have never seen or heard of such a thing, but there it is.    I stayed in the house that night instead of with the friends who had offered their hospitality, and was awakened in the wee hours by my mother who asked me to come and listen to his breathing, which was far shallower than it had been.  Phone calls were made, we gathered in the dark around endless cups of tea to see him through, telling stories and playing one after another of his favorite records.  Last of all my mother put on his favorite Schubert trios.  Somewhere in the midst of it his breathing changed again and we rose as one to stand around his bed, each of us touching him, offering our warmth, our love to help him on his way.  And as the aching high violin note of the last movement of the B-flat piano trio peaked and held, his breath caught and held too—and there was no exhalation—and he was gone.

I remember walking back to my friends’ house through an impossibly clear and warm September midmorning. The air was heavy with the smell of apples rotting under a tree, and the hum of the yellow jackets fighting and feasting on the sweet juice was loud enough to compete with the birdsong.  I felt entirely drained, untethered and curiously at peace.  I had never known death intimately before, and was new to the wrenching relief that the pain was over, that the devious, futile window of hope was finally closed, that the time of helpless watching and waiting had finally given way.  There is euphoria in that relief, and it carried me through the end of that day, through the meal garnished with sprigs of rosemary (for remembrance) and quietly laid out by the neighbor for us all.

After that loss, I was changed again.  My world no longer contained my anchor, my keenest critic and my fiercest advocate.  My armor was gone, my faith that I would weather the storms of the world was crushed.  And I rebuilt myself anew with a thick protective layer—I knew that nothing would ever return me to the peace I’d known and I needed a cocoon in which to curl into myself and ripen into whatever I was going to become next.  For there is no resting in grief like that. 13 years later, after a wild series of heartbreaks that are, cumulatively, only a shadow against that one, I am finally peeling that cocoon away and looking at what is left.  It is still me, and that is enough for now.

©Mary Braden 2014

Starting Again

It’s been a while since this blog showed any signs of life, but the hibernation has been fruitful.  Upheaval in the peaceful land of Farandwee has required my full attention for several months, but order has been restored and the journey continues. 

This new chapter finds me single and living alone, after the remarkably uneventful termination of a very brief marriage.  I’m still trying to understand it all, but I’ve learned a good deal from the experience so far.  The most important lesson seems to be that I am no longer willing to assume responsibility for anyone else’s happiness or success, after decades of defining my personal worth in terms of my ability to do exactly that.  This can make me a disappointing partner, a characterization that I find myself able to accept with equanimity.  

Since the restoration of peace and solitude in my private life, I’ve experienced a sort of inward blossoming that I did not expect.  It’s almost as if this recent relationship were the final gasp of my old self-definition, a lunging, last-ditch clutch at my old ways of relating and engaging that had already proven themselves so useless—but were so comfortably familiar.  Entering into it, I remember noticing that familiarity and thinking of it as a sign of compatibility; now I believe I was drawn to it as a refuge from the daunting hugeness of rebuilding a life grounded in freedom and autonomy.  Turns out that hiding didn’t help, it inflicted more damage than it avoided and proved unsustainable.  I had grown too much to turn back.

So the ongoing question becomes how to nurture that growth into the next chapter, whatever that proves to be.  Solitude and plenty of it seem to be essential for me, although I find myself paradoxically more open and willing to engage with people when I have a quiet haven to retreat to betweentimes.  I find myself more interested in the larger world than I’ve been in many years, from current events to social justice to politics.  I hunger for intellectual stimulation:  ideas, conversations, analysis.  With the dissolution of the emotional bonds that shaped the last couple of years, inner space has opened up, ready to be filled with new and resonant connections.  The most surprising aspect of all this is that I don’t miss those bonds.  I have loving and interesting children, fascinating friends and family, a rewarding career and reasonable confidence that the doors of romance are not forever barred to me.  The old conviction that I require a husband and a wife-role in order to justify myself in the world appears to have simply evaporated, a consummation devoutly to be wished.

It’s been several years now since the seeds of this transformation were sown amidst the chaos of loving and living with someone with profound mental health and addiction issues  Those experiences taught me that love is all too easily confused with self-protection. I was so eager to define myself as a martyr in those days, to surround myself with the intolerable so that I could point to my heroic self-sacrifice as the measure of my strength.  During the long awakening from that dream, I realized that entangling my self in the anguish of a soul torn apart by fear and guilt was a way for me to hide from facing my own demons, that in essence I was using someone else’s suffering as a way to mask my own.  Fortunately I found that idea so repellent that I was able to address it and find a way to move forward.  Unfortunately, I was unable to hold on to my hard-fought gains well enough to avoid one final attempt to be the “good wife.”  I’m not proud of that mistake, but I’m hellbent and determined not to repeat it.

This is a watershed time of life, these halfway years, and I feel very lucky to have the mental and emotional wherewithal to embrace it, and to throw myself 100% into the adventure. The goal is no longer to present an approved face to the world but to present THIS face, the one that is mine.  I hope to steer between (or upon) life’s shoals with my eyes and mind wide open, so that I don’t miss a moment of what happens next.  Freedom is all.

 ©Mary Braden 2014

Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving isn’t about politics for me.  While I recognize that it has a historical grounding in the ethnic cleansing and cultural oppression of Native Americans, that isn’t what or why I celebrate.  Thanksgiving in my world is just what its name implies:  a day to stop and reflect upon the blessings and triumphs and lucky breaks from which our happiness springs, and which are all too easy to overlook in the bustle of normal life.  It’s a time to pay attention to what matters most—the people we love.  It’s a time to serve one another with kindness and laughter and food and wine, and to rejoice in one another.

It’s a time to revisit the bittersweet longing for the ones I love who have died and left me before I was ready to let them go.  It’s a time for singing the joys and inexpressible worth of decades-old friendships and unshakable family bonds.  It’s a time to remind myself that even people who are no longer a part of my life once brought blessings into it, and deserve to be remembered with gentleness, as I hope they remember me.  The rituals of preparing the feast are suffused with this peaceful internal monologue, a silent chant of names and memories and faces that have shaped my experience and touched my heart.

I love the way that cooking on Thanksgiving creates a tangible outlet for the warmth and tenderness that fill my internal landscape on this day.  The feel of knife and spoon in my hand, the fragrances of fruit and spice and onion and roasting meat, the familiar textures of sauce and salad, these are the milestones that anchor my inner litany of thanks.  The dance of preparation demands extra care and deliberation on this day, and rightly so.  Every cut, every stir, every taste and adjustment comes from a place of deep, wordless grace—the act of crafting a meal can feel almost sacramental when all the pieces fall into place.  I’m not gifted at telling people my deepest feelings, but I am completely sure that the love my hands put into the meal is received and understood by those who eat it.

The older I get, the deeper and more evocative the webs of friendship and love become.  So much water under the bridge, so many weathered storms, so much disappointment and renewal and courage and inspiration.  My friends have faced so much tragedy and shown so much grace, I am filled with awe.  I have been blessed to witness and even to participate in a small way in so many forms of re-birth, growth and re-invention that my mind is boggled by the bravery, imagination and sheer toughness of spirit that abound in my circle of beloved friends and family.  I’m simultaneously inspired and humbled by the depths and heights of what we can do when life requires it.  This Thanksgiving I am particularly grateful for being able to see and admire the greatness in those I love, and full of hope that I may prove capable of following their example.

I love this holiday more and more as time goes on and I realize how central a role gratitude plays in my life and my pursuit of happiness.  A moment of being grateful for being conscious, alive and capable of reason and insight can re-align almost any frustration or sense of entrapment.  A moment of being grateful for a beating heart and expanding lungs can clear mental ground for a stabilizing step back when the waters seem about to close over my head.  I try to spend time every day being aware of my blessings and articulating what they are; today is the day when I feel moved to pay even more attention.

Another year of life, love and learning under my belt, another year of being wrong and being right, stumbling towards the light and wandering off into the bushes.  Somehow I’m still standing upright and still facing in mostly the same direction as last year.  I’m thankful for that!  But most of all, I’m thankful for all the people who picked me up, dusted me off, hugged me, gave me chocolate and wine and made me laugh along the way.  I appreciate you more than I could ever possibly say.  Thank you for being exactly as you are, and for your loving assistance in helping me become who I’m shaping up to be.  Onward!

©Mary Braden 2013

One Day as a Drone

Another Monday, another day in the corporate office, surrounded by cubicles and high heels and shiny accessories.  It’s very different from my usual work environment, namely the elderly student desk in my dining room, crammed with monitors and cables and random stacks of paper.  Yet I enjoy it.  I go in extra-early so that I can run on the nice soft treadmill at the Wellness Center and then take a long, leisurely shower involving a multitude of lavender-scented body products.  After this luxuriance, I stop off at the cafeteria for an egg-white omelet stuffed with veggies and sprinkled with cheddar and Cholula sauce, accompanied by a hillock of roasted sweet potato chunks.

Surrounded by a cloud of aromatherapeutic pepper fragrance, I board the “smart” elevators, which organize themselves according to some mystical algorithm and simply appear to take me to my chosen floor when it suits them.  Hoping none of my elevator-mates have an intrinsic intolerance for the sweet nose-tang of warmed Cholula, I sally into said elevator and ride to the 5th floor, where the “hotel” cubicles for the mobile workers are located.

Those of you who enjoy the innate warmth and hominess of the office cubicle, you would be hideously disappointed at the bleak impersonal wasteland of the “hotel” cubicle.  There is no name posted in the shiny window, only the blank letters: HOTEL.  There are no personal photos, no plants, no magnets on the coat locker.  There is no cardigan hanging with nonchalant belongingness over the back of the chair, no travel mug or broken earring or box of tissues tucked tidily away on the shelf.  The hotel cube is bereft of any human touch whatsoever:  a docking station (which may or may not have a power cord, depending on the piratical tendencies of the previous occupant), a second monitor and a phone that continuously shows that there is voicemail waiting, although there is no account and no password in existence that can access it.

Into this greige purgatory, then, I am privileged to wander at 8:00 a.m., laden with my cardboard “to go” breakfast containers, my workout clothes and my laptop.  Also two phones, wallet, sunglasses, random pens and an ancient baggage claim check from a flight on which I checked no bags.  The potential tedium of this situation, however, is immediately mitigated by the sight of my favorite colleagues, who are also braving the corporate office today on the promise of a long-awaited Girls Night Out at the end of it.  There is much greeting and laughter and mutual joy—and then the work day begins.

Meetings, meetings, meetings.  These days in the office are when we cluster all the meetings that really need to be held in person rather than on the phone, so there is a great deal of rushing about.  Laptop under one arm, coffee cup gripped tightly in the non-dominant hand, we shuffle off obediently to the next corral, like well-trained and medicated sheep.  These are kindof cool meetings for us mobile workers, though, as we actually get to see and interact with real live people instead of disembodied voices or (worse yet) instant messages.  We get to crack jokes, tell stories, make eye contact, ask questions with an eyebrow or a curled lip. This is big mojo when your only normal interaction during the work day is with hungry pets or perhaps an unusually obstreperous spider in the sink.

So the work day goes.  In the middle of it, we go out for lunch, which involves a good deal of conversation and cheese-infused foodstuffs.  At the end of it, we remove all signs of personality or individual presence from our hotel cubes, stow it in our comfortably-garaged vehicles and head to a nearby watering-hole where we are able to spend a couple of hours over beers and snacks talking like normal people about the world of things outside the corporate office.  These hours are a joy, the reward for all the silliness, all the stress.  If one  is lucky, as I am, to work with people who enrich and deepen your life even outside the workplace, then the weekly Girls Night Out becomes damn near sacramental.  Tonight was no exception.  A brief stop at the grocery and a few minutes wrapping up this post and it’s time for bed.  A great day.

©Mary Braden 2013

Getting the Groove Back

Yesterday I wrote about the experience of powering through a day focused on tasks at hand, just to restore some kind of even emotional keel.  Today I reaped the benefits of that in spades and was able to get back in my usual groove.   I slept long and well, ate good food in quantities that made me feel nourished and satisfied without being stuffed, and ran 6 miles in a perfectly grey, cool afternoon with nary a drop of rain.  Somehow as I slept I made the transition back to being a grownup—responsible not only for discharging my responsibilities but for making sure I’m not so exhausted or anxious or just plain crabby that I’m doomed to fail before I begin.

There are a million books and articles and blogs out there about how we allow ourselves to be sucked dry by the desire to please and nurture others, and the harm we do to ourselves when we allow that to happen.  Nothing new in that idea.  What I keep coming back to, possibly because I’m a late bloomer in this respect, is that it’s actually FUN to take care of myself.  It’s enjoyable to excuse myself from the family bustle and say “I’m off to bed early, have a long day tomorrow,” and hie myself bedward.  It feels good to survey a kitchen full of the rich leftovers and desserts that my family loves and make myself some sautéed spinach or warm up some bean soup so that I feel alert and energetic all day long.  And as anyone out there who exercises regularly can attest, there’s nothing like a good sweat and a surge of endorphins to restore a sense of balance.

Even apparently trivial things matter in this context.  The quiet hour after work with music and a glass of wine, the fiercely-guarded time to knit or read or write, the early-morning coffee and the lunchtime phone call to a friend, these are the building blocks upon which productivity and commitment and devotion rest.  And they’re wonderful!  They feel great!  Unlike the endless things we do which are “good for us,” like dieting and starting new fitness regimens and putting up with rude, annoying people for the sake of getting the job done, these things we do for ourselves are actually fulfilling and pleasant while we’re doing them!  What could possibly prevent people from embracing them as a daily way of life?

Four and a half decades into a life which has been unfailingly interesting and rewarding even in its darker moments, I can’t quite explain why this is only dawning on me now.  Was I afraid that doing what I love and enjoy might be self-indulgent?  Dangerous? Disloyal?  Did I fear that the people who love me might not if I showed signs of healthy interest in anything that wasn’t them?  Did I feel so necessary to the people around me that I denied myself basic maintenance because “they needed me?”  Or did I need to feel necessary to mask my own hidden thorns of self-loathing? Every one of these suppositions is more horribly embarrassing than the last, given that I very much like to think of myself as insightful and self-aware.  But it seems that some combination of them must have been at work, and that they did a thorough job of keeping me firmly focused on the wrong things for a good chunk of my life.

No worries, right?  Better late than never, and all that jazz.  I’m still healthy, in control of most of my faculties most of the time and able to learn new things if I pace myself.  So now that I’m headed back into the groove of taking care of myself, I have to say it doesn’t take as long as it used to.  10 years ago I could wallow in hand-wringing with the best, and blame anything and everything for the fact that I was tired or conflicted or anxious.  How much less effort it would have taken just to step back and make sure I wasn’t starving or sleep-deprived or nailed to the couch for too long!  I haven’t been able entirely to shake the impulse to jump the rails when things get tough, but I can say that it doesn’t upset the applecart like it used to; I find myself getting bewilderedly back on the horse without wasting too much time or energy.   I’ll take it—every step forward counts.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

 

Powering Through

I was tired and stressed enough at the beginning of this day that I wearied early on of trying to find productive solutions and just powered through.  This turned out to be exactly the right thing.  Chewing one’s own tail gets tedious and painful after a very short while—forcing myself to focus on tasks that I could actually accomplish and feel good about was neither.  I didn’t set any records for genius or productivity today, but I put in a solid day’s work, got to the grocery store, took care of a couple financial chores, roasted some vegetables and managed to find an elusive bunch of cilantro that was lurking—clearly up to no good—in a bag of turnip greens.  At the happier end of the day, I feel very only a malingering trace of the malaise hangover that was swamping me this morning.

Figuring out what to do with myself when crankiness and general misanthropy are the order of the day is an ongoing and meandering journey.  Some days I wallow in it, warning my close friends to avoid me at all costs and drowning my sorrows in tea and cookies.  Other days I fake it til I make it, making sure I am loaded up with social engagements and other challenges that restore my faith in my ability to cope.   In particularly severe cases I have been known to practice my own peculiar form of retail therapy:  cookbooks, iTunes downloads and knitting yarn.  This is not for the faint of heart.   Fighting off the demons of self-absorption and grumpiness takes all the fortitude I’ve got; my strategies are battle-tested and refined in the crucible of decades of experience.

Today was a textbook case.  I let myself get caught up in anxious mental hand-wringing about things entirely beyond my control and ended up frustrated and exhausted and still unable to find a useful path to straighten anything out.  So powering through is what I did instead.  I paid attention to the things I can control, like whether I chew my own tail.  I did the things that need to be done to the best of my ability because that’s what grownups do.  I let go of the rollercoaster and let careen on without me.   Every issue will have its own time to be resolved, and I might as well be well-rested, well-fed and decently exercised when the time comes to be part of the solution.  Those things I can control, and at least I won’t be at my anxious, bitchiest worst when my best is required.  Small victories, right?

I’m getting better at this over time and even starting to gain a little perspective about the value of keeping on an even keel regardless of what life or people or a given day throw at me.  This is probably long overdue, but to me it is still an active source of growth and insight.  This notion that I can choose when to deal with life, that I can choose to square off against problems or issues when I feel confident and comfortable rather than being blown about by them willy-nilly is still pretty nifty.  I’m starting to see that lasting peace of mind may have more than a little to do with this nugget of knowledge, and I’m hoping that the rest of my life will have a lot of that in it.

©Mary Braden 2013

 

 

 

 

Blessings Abound

Today I was shaken out of a good blue funk by countless reminders that I actually have it pretty damn good.   For one thing, I slept well.  Really well.  For enough hours.  That would almost have been enough to make the day a stellar success, but by some miracle it was almost immediately followed by a real adult conversation that didn’t concern work or children.  O Frabjous Day!

When work finally reared its ugly head, I was fortunate enough to have a day both relatively stress-free and surprisingly interesting.  I got to interact with some of my favorite colleagues and to make suggestions to my team that appeared actually to make their jobs easier.  And I got paid handsomely for it to boot!  Not to mention that working from home meant I could do it in my robe and slippers with no one a bit the wiser.

My college daughter wanted some Mommy time today, so we had a couple of splendid texted conversations at different times.  My son, the inimitable Joe, deigned to exchange a message or two as well, although we’ll do most of our talking when he comes home from boarding school for Christmas.

I had two kinds of leftover soup in the fridge plus veggies to roast, so I didn’t have to torture myself about designing a gourmet supper.    The fact that my husband was working over the supper hour, one child slept through it and the other was busy on a baking project for school tomorrow didn’t keep me from dining with gusto, accompanied by a lovely glass of wine.

The weather is cold and clear outside, but I figured out that I could satisfy a deep-seated instinct by bundling up in a long leather coat and warm gloves and pacing the sidewalk while I talked on the phone.  There are advantages to living in a neighborhood where no one raises an eyebrow, for sure.  And it was a great conversation.  Thank you cellphone, thank you thrift store (for the coat) and thank you comfortable shoes!

I had a challenging day yesterday, so today’s flood of blessings felt wonderful and healing.  I really enjoyed being in my little house, warm and cosy in the chilly day.  I couldn’t help but think about the times—not so long ago as I think about it—when it wasn’t certain that I would be able to keep it.  Through all the ups and downs since I bought it, I haven’t stopped planning to fix it up and restore it.  I’m really looking forward to those projects still…no matter what kind of day I’m having.  In fact, tomorrow I’ll be meeting with the electrician to get the garage rewired.  Step #1 of many!

This day is drawing to a close now, and all the urgency is over.  Soon I’ll make the coffee for the morning, snuggle up in a flannel nightgown, turn on some music and fall asleep for another long night.  I don’t have a single thing to complain about, all my needs are met, and the myriad shortcomings of my fellow man can be forgiven very easily.    Today I was lucky enough to connect with many of the people who are kind and loving enough to forgive mine and to go out of their way to make me feel loved.  That is the very greatest blessing of this day, and perhaps of all the days, when I am wise enough to keep my eyes wide open to see it.

©Mary Braden 2013