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You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be. (Chuck Palahniuk)
As I write this, a family stands in a hospital waiting room, forced to make a decision — the hardest decision. As I write this, a young man who I knew lies in a hospital bed, his chest moving up and down only because of the air forced into his body by machinery. His heart beats because of that same machinery.
Last night, while Jeremy and I enjoyed a quiet dinner, a young man stood in his kitchen, faced his wife, and handed her a note. Apologizing. And then he put a nail gun to his head, and shot himself with it.
Today, they will unplug the machines which breathed for him, which beat his heart for him. Today, he will die by his own hand. His mother and father, his siblings, his nieces and nephews, his wife, will suffer and grieve. His children will suffer and grieve.
The only one whose suffering has ended (presumably — since I cannot know what follows this life), is him. For the rest, a new suffering has just begun.
This young man was troubled. He had a difficult childhood. The people who should have loved him and cared for him either could not or did not know how. He suffered abuse. He suffered. He went without — food, education, health care, love.
He carried this into the rest of his life. He took drugs — bad ones, and a lot of them. I saw him powder narcotic pain medication and snort it up his nose. He drank. He had affairs, recklessly and with the kind of abandon that tells you he’s using them as another way to drown all that hurts him.
He had trouble with the law. And then some more. He did time. He got out, and picked up where he left off. He chased oblivion with the determination of one who’s bent on getting there, come what may.
He fathered a son with one woman. He was not a good father to this son. He was not a good partner to the mother. He left them, and sired a daughter with another woman. Before her pregnancy even started to show, this woman left him, recognizing finally, the danger inherent in the relationship. He found another woman, one who already had three children. They married. And then yesterday, he put a nail gun to his head and killed himself in front of her.
I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me feels relief. Part of me feels sorrow. Part of me pity, part of me compassion. Part of me condemnation, part of me understanding.
I suppose that my feelings about this should be simple, but they’re not. The daughter he never met, and the woman who left him before her pregnancy even started to show? I know them and love them both deeply — they have permanent reserve on some of the most tender parts of my heart.
There was always a shred of hope that one day, he might see what his choices were doing — to him, to everyone around him. Now that shred of hope is gone, and all that remains for the rest of us is the walking forward.
Even before he knew what it was that he attempted to do, he was working to kill himself, in bits and pieces. Even as a child not yet in middle school. He had a nice smile, warm chocolate brown eyes and rich dark hair. And a hole inside him that no amount of pills, or booze, or sex, or danger could ever quite fill.
And someday, I will sit with the woman and the girl. I will try to explain why this man, who should have been a father to her, was not. Where he went. Why he chose what he chose. Why she will never have the chance to know this part of her ancestry, this part of her beginnings. I will try to help explain the unexplainable.
All of that is yet before me, before them. Today, all I can do is pray. That he feels the peace that eluded him his entire life, at last. That he is at rest. That he is finally cradled by someone who feels nothing but unconditional love for him. That he can finally lay down his burdened heart, and know that no matter what has happened to him or because of him, he is beautiful and precious and always was.
From my earliest memory, autumn has always been my favorite time of year. There’s something about the world as it prepares itself for rest, for sleep, that just resonates deeply with who I am. There’s a different quality to the air, a crispness, that wipes the scenery clean and allows me to look at the familiar and see the fabulous.
It’s a season of enchantments, of trees blooming afire, of streets sporting carpets of foliage. It’s a season that seems to evoke the market stall atmosphere that somewhere in my soul is remembered – the season of the harvest.
Last night as I sat journaling in the half light, I watched the thin branches of the birch tree whipping in the frenzy that only a still autumn wind inspires. I loved the feeling of the wind rushing into the living room where I sat quietly, sweeping even the air in the house clean. Inspiring quietude.
And for me, it’s not just the natural world that lifts me to heights and flights of fancy in autumn – it’s all the human traditions, all the small things that get repeated year to year.
I love watching neighborhoods transform sculpted lawns into graveyards and landscaped gardens into mausoleums and treacherous paths of spooktacular delight.
I love eating candy corn and those sugary pumpkins that ought to come with warning labels and a required trip to the dentist.
I love candy apples, and apple cider.
I love watching the trees each day, and marking their progress from green to gold, orange, and crimson.
I love taking shuffling, shambling walks through town, kicking up swirls of leaves with each step.
I love knowing that it won’t be long before I’m curled up before the woodburner in my dad’s shop, basking in the heat of a fall fire.
I love the apple pies with the sugar-crumble crusts that dad makes this time of year. It never fails – he gets a taste for it, and we all come home to splendor.
I love sweaters, and jeans, and boots, and hoodies. I love the comfort clothes that I can finally wear again.
I love sliding my smooth legs into autumn-crisp sheets, and pulling out the extra quilts, and sleeping with the windows open to the night sounds and night air.
I love that school is in session – even if I’m not enrolled at the moment. I love the feeling I had buying all the supplies on the list, and new pens, and new paper. I love remembering that feeling of starting off on another new adventure each year.
I love pumpkins and gourds. I love the market stands stacked full of ripe produce. I love zucchini bread.
I love the palette of autumn – one of the times when I feel most at ease in the world around me as it mirrors the way I feel inside. I love the fading greens, the flashy golds, the warm oranges, the passionate reds, the sumptuous browns all around me.
I love being reminded now, more than any other time of year, that people once believed in magic. That they saw the evidence of it swirling all around them. That the once gave homage to gods and goddesses. That they once had good reason to rejoice in the harvest, and to count each moment precious.
I love being reminded of the mystery of it all. For me, autumn has ever seemed the season that required the most faith – to rejoice in the beauty and bounty around you, while knowing that the world prepares for sleep. Knowing that winter’s on its way. Knowing that you have faith enough to believe that spring will come again, and set us in motion for another cycle of sleep and rebirth.
I’m savoring these days, knowing their briefness makes them precious. I’m allowing myself to be enraptured, to enjoy this latest tryst in my long love affair with autumn.
That’s where I’ve been lately – in the trenches, digging, digging, digging. So much of what I’ve been up to lately isn’t exactly “blogworthy.” I’ve been doing a lot of writing in my journal – a sign for me that what I’m dealing with and muddling through isn’t ready for public consumption, or is about as clear as mud to me and even harder for someone not inside my head and heart to figure out.
I continue to wade through the piles and piles of books in our apartment, assessing, logging, discarding. I am trying to return our living space to pre-Hoarders-esque status. It’s slow going, and there have been days when I haven’t felt up to doing battle with this self-imposed behemoth. The past few days, I’ve been able to “keep my eye on the prize” and keep thinking about what it will be like when it’s finally finished, and I’m grown up enough to be able to admit that the times when I stall out are really because I don’t want to have to make the decision to part with some of it. That’s not a good time to get going, anyhow. I need to be in a clutter-clearing mood, or I won’t purge enough of it to matter. I’ve realized that even under the most optimistic of circumstances, I’ll still need to add at least two more tall bookshelves – and even then, that means getting rid of half of my books.
My new obsession with art has caused clutter, too. My dad brought over this awesome dresser from the 1800’s that he had as he was growing up. My parents willingly went through its contents (some of which had been in there since before they were married) in order to give me somewhere to go with all of it – not a small undertaking. It’s been helpful to know that I’ll have somewhere to go with some of this stuff.
I’ve been making lists and planning how I’m going to attack each area of clutter and disorganization in our apartment…in our lives. Getting it all down on paper helps me see the way through it, and makes the task seem manageable. First, the books. Then, the art stuff. Then the hall closet (eek). Then the bedroom closet. I want to live lighter, and move lighter. For now, the only one pleased with this arrangement has been the cat – because it gives her plenty of places to hide out and ponder all the mysteries that cats ponder.
All of that is just the physical disorganization of my life – and the home is the outward representation of what we feel inside. I’ve been giving serious thought to actually doing that exercise that we’ve all gotten email upon email about using the mason jar, the ping pong balls, the pebbles, the sand. I know that my tendency is to go all out in one direction, abandoning or letting slide the things in so many others. There’s something to be said for that kind of passionate pursuit of what’s on your plate, but it’s also out of balance.
So, the task before me is to create balance from the chaos I’ve created or allowed to grow unchecked. When I look at it all in one huge piece, it does feel kind of impossible. Then I sit down with pen and paper and write my way through it, list it out, create the feeling of the possible. I’m not sure why, but spring has never been my season to clean house – either physically or metaphorically (probably because I’m too busy sneezing my head off). It’s always been the fall. Maybe it’s because having grown up here in the Midwest, I have a keen sense of the fact that in a few short weeks, I’ll be mostly confined to the place where I nest, and I want that nest to feel welcoming.
Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve, for the children whose worlds have been shattered, for all whose sense of safety and security has been threatened. And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” (President George W. Bush, September 11, 2001)
Today marks the ninth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. Growing up, I had listened with a kind of awe and wonder to the stories of my parents and grandparents when they recounted where they were when they’d heard that JFK had been shot. I couldn’t imagine an event that would embed itself so indelibly in my memory that way. Now, my generation knows what that feels like, to know with utter clarity where you were and what you were doing the moment you heard about what was happening the morning of September 11, 2001.
I was at home, a young college student sleeping in on a morning when I only had afternoon classes. I was relishing the empty and quiet house. I was lounging around in my favorite pajamas – a humongous slate blue Levis shirt that belonged to my younger (but much bigger) brother until I appropriated it for my own use, and a pair of Disney Grumpy Dwarf flannel pajama pants that I’d worn so many times that they were as soft as a kiss. My comfort clothes. I’d need them that morning.
My mother called me from work, confused and upset. She and my sister both worked for the same company, and they were having a hard time getting information about what was happening. They asked me to go turn on the television. I did.
I remember sitting there a moment. My hand covering my mouth, as though by doing that, I could just keep it from being real. Confusion, disbelief. How could this be happening? Was it even real? What a horrible, horrible accident. And then the second plane hit. I called my mom to update her, and she spread the news through their office.
The awful truth sinking in further and further as the authorities got a clearer picture of what was really going on. Terrorists. Attacks. On purpose. Killing on purpose. I sat there, on our couch in our living room. Safe – but feeling my world tilt off of its axis for the first time in my young life.
I called my grandfather – he was my moral compass. Somewhere, I felt that if anyone could put this into perspective for me, he could. He could make sense of it for me. Explain it in a way that I could understand. Tell me why. Make it safe again.
For the first time in my life, my grandfather – a member of the Greatest Generation, a self made man, a seaman in World War II, a spiritual man devoted to God – failed to do what he had done for me so many times before. He could not make it right. He could not make sense of it. He himself was reeling, the same as I, and after telling me that I would be okay, asked if he could call me back later. I said ‘okay,’ and hung up, more bereft than before.
I continued to watch the perpetual newscasts, finding out about things as they were happening and relaying the information to my mom.
And then, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe. I will forever remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the moment that they announced that in order to escape the climbing flames, people were jumping off the top of the towers. One, after another, after another. I remember sitting there, poised on the edge of the couch, each muscle tensed, one hand covering my mouth, covering my sobs, and the other over my heart as if by doing that, I could hold all that pain inside. And I watched them fall.
That was the moment when I first understood what horror meant. What it felt like. In a real way.
At that moment, I lost my innocence in a way that nothing before and nothing since have managed.
And that is why, as people harangue one another over the possible construction of a mosque blocks from Ground Zero, I sigh, and I take a deep breath. That is why when some preacher starts banging on about burning the Quran, I sigh, and I take a deep breath, and I close my eyes. And I pray. I pray for all the people who threw themselves to certain death to escape the worse fate of burning alive. I pray for all those who rebelled on Flight 93, sacrificing themselves so that others might live. I pray for all those men and women who entered the Twin Towers that day, hoping to help people get out, who never got out. I pray for all those who went to work or got on a plane that morning, expecting normalcy. I pray for all the families who will never hold their loved ones again.
I don’t care what the memorial looks like. I don’t care where or if they build a frigging mosque. I don’t care about some ignoramus who insists on riling people up so he can have his 15 minutes of fame over the prejudicial burning of a book. I don’t care about it.
I care about the fact that I watched people dying that day. No one can ever bring those people back. No memorial will ever change the fact that they are gone, and that their families have suffered. No one can ever change the fact that my innocence is gone, in its place a knowledge of horror and hatred that I’d never thought to have.
Please, don’t forget what a day of remembrance is meant to be about. Remembering. Honoring. Praying.
My grandfather died on December 28th, 2001. From September 11th to the day he died, he apologized to me each and every time he saw me, saying, “I should have come to you. I should have come and gotten you so that you didn’t have to be alone.” I told him that it was fine, that I was okay, each and every time he said it. What I couldn’t say then, but I could now is – “It’s okay Grandpa. What I wanted you to do was fix it. And what I know now is that no one could.”
All we can do is remember, pray, and look forward in hope.
To all the victims of the September 11th attacks, may you rest in peace and may the hearts of your families be eased and comforted, I pray.
I tend not to write a lot of posts about the stuff I’m actually doing. Not directly, anyway. I tend to write posts about how I’m feeling. And as I sat here in front of the blank screen this morning, I realized that at this moment, life has been more about doing than feeling lately and that’s good and appropriate. It means I’m coming out of the funk that moved in this summer, and getting on with things.
This summer has been about reassessment, about growing into things, about taking out and looking at the pile of emotions that amassed while I wasn’t looking. And what have I been doing? Cleaning house – both physically and emotionally.
I have undergone a whirlwind of transformation in the past two-plus years, but what I realized this summer as I was taking a look at all that’s happened and the way I feel about it, that transformation reaches further back. And in order for me to look at and appreciate the scope of what I’ve done, and chosen, and been through, I have to look back at least five years. That’s when the whirlwind kicked up, and the life that I’d laid so carefully before me was swept away in the gale.
And all this time, I’ve just been grateful that the winds of change swept through my life and helped me birth a life and a self that was far more in alignment with what I wanted. I never looked back and just felt the grief that came with the letting go of what I had thought I had wanted.
And this summer, all the feelings associated with that loss and that grief and the subsequent transformation came hurtling to the forefront, insistent. So that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing – dealing with grief over all the things I’ve lost or given away. It came as a kind of surprise to me, actually – I had thought that I’d dealt with all of this in the moment and in the immediate aftermath. And I did, but not in the way I’m dealing with it now.
In the immediate aftermath, I felt the sorrow and the grief as painfully as an open wound, and I processed it that way, with rawness and the hesitancy of someone first inspecting new stitches. And I kept moving, kept growing, kept changing, kept doing.
That initial emotional processing of all that happened to me and because of me did not go deep enough, though. What I realized this summer is that in order for me to go through all those feelings the rest of the way and clean house emotionally, I had to be able to say goodbye to all the ways that I’ve defined myself because of the wounds I’ve borne and hung onto. In order for me to take this down to the next layer, where it becomes more soft remembrance than harsh grief, I need to release some identities that I’ve hung onto.
When it all happened and was fresh and new, my grief was primal and raging and raw, and I allowed myself to feel that, briefly, way back when. Then, I got up and got on with my life, because life was insistent, and because at that time, I really did think I was over it.
This summer has been about revisiting, remembering, and reassessing. About going through and feeling all the feelings that I did not let myself have between then and now – and realizing that if I’d been ready to deal with this before, I would have, but I wasn’t – I was ready now, and so now is the perfect time to go through this layer. I feel lighter, and I’m grateful to know that maybe this won’t be the last time this surfaces for me, but having been to this dog and pony show a few times now, I know it gets easier each and every time.
After reassessment comes a new outlook, a new plan – all done with more clarity (hopefully). Having sloughed off another layer of my own story, I’m ready to write a new chapter. That’s what I’m doing this week, and I’m excited.