This boy, that dog, our afternoons together…kind of an on-again, off-again thing, for ten years or so. Makes my throat tighten, to see all that white on Rocco’s face, how tall that boy is now, an impressive thatch of chestnut brown hair under that hat, too. Hard evidence of how much time lives between these photos, feels both like a flash and someone else’s long-ago life I’m remembering.
Nearly ten years ago, when Jill returned to teaching after Otto was born, shortly after Bob died, I watched Otto a few days a week for Jill and Jade. I sometimes wonder, if they knew how precarious my entire being was then (or, how precarious my neighborhood was, for that matter—like, that one afternoon when Otto and I were having lunch, and I watched a St. Paul police car swoop in and slam to a stop outside my front windows, followed by another, and another, and another, and another, until my street was dammed up with squad cars and a swarm of bodies with SWAT emblazoned on their backs poured out the cars, down my boulevard, pooling around an abandoned house a few doors down), they might have thought twice about leaving their baby with me.
But, every time that sweet little face showed up at my door, my deep sorrow eased back just a bit, to make room for him. I didn’t stop thinking about Bob while Otto was there, not for a second, but when Otto was with me, Bob wasn’t the only thing I thought of. For a while, my head got a little break from its incessant looping, and my heart stepped in to help out a bit. Thing about grief is, you’d give anything for that to happen more than it does those early days, weeks, months, hell, even years following such a great loss, but there’s not a whole lot you can do to speed up the process, or get out of it. That’s not to say I didn’t try, lord almighty did I try, short of literally molting out of my own skin, I tried so so hard to escape dying-on-the-inside. That little boy, for a long time, was my only reprieve.
Ten years ago, Rocco took a liking to that little boy who’d come to visit twice a week, and I’m sure it’s in part because there were traces of yogurt or mashed potatoes on his face. Otto would just sit there and let Rocco bathe him with his tongue. It became a constant battle, every time I’d turn my back, Rocco would sneak in for a lick or 28; I’d separate the two, then go to the kitchen for a snack and come back to find Rocco snacking on Otto’s face again. I like to take credit for Otto’s spectacular immune system.
Ten years later, same cast of characters, but this time, instead of a myopic, singular tragedy, the whole wide world is sharing a precarious state, global crises piled on in thick, dense layers, impressing deep sorrow into each our beings, so much gone in the past year, it’ll take years to tally up the losses, if it’s even possible…I’ve started hanging with Otto once a week, so Jill can get Amelia to tennis lessons in the cities (which is why I never excelled at sports, just for the record—not because I wasn’t any good at them, I just didn’t need or want the hassle that goes along with supersportsstardom, okay?).
We had a busy night last night, Otto, Rocco and me. We walked a big bag of organics waste down to the compost drop-off site, stomping through puddles and throwing snowballs along the way, I was feeling kinda lazy and offered to get takeout from anywhere he wanted for dinner, but Otto was unimpressed with the choices I tossed out; when I suggested I make a roast with veggies, his eyes lit up as he exclaimed, “That’s my favorite!” So roast it was…I made dinner while he read a book—he forgot his at home and most of my books are still packed away, but I handed him a slim volume of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe, by Rebecca Elson, an astronomer and poet (I can’t imagine a more perfect coupling of passions than that), and asked him to read a few poems.
“‘What If There Were No Moon’ Jenny?” he said to me, then began reading: There would be no months A still sea No spring tides No bright nights Occultations of the stars No face No moon songs Terror of eclipse No place to stand And watch the Earth rise.
I think of how many nights I’ve kept the moon in close company this long year of losses, how I’ve come to know her waxing and waning shapes, native names to her fullness at different times of the year (we’re approaching the Full Snow Moon, or Full Hunger Moon, on the 27th), how she gives form to night branches, and glows in my living room window in the evening and greets me in the early morning hour through my kitchen window on the other side of the house), how sad it would be if there wasn’t a moon, we both agreed. And, already we were able to cross off two squares on his Reading Bingo card without even trying: read a poem, and read something someone has recommended to you.
I looked at the card to see what else we could x off. “Write a poem,” I read. “Hey, have you ever written a poem, Otz?” I asked. “No,” he said, “I don’t even know how to do that.” I said, “what if you used the poem you just read as a guide? What was it about again?” Right away, he said, “What if there wasn’t a moon?”
So, we decided to contemplate what would it be like if there wasn’t a sun. I asked, what would happen, do you think? Could you write five lines about it? He got right to work as I finished making dinner and by the time I had our plates served up, he presented me a poem that was even longer than 5 lines that I’d asked for. “What If There Wasn’t a Sun?” he asked, answering his own question: Oh, if the sun was gone, No solar energy no sunlight no daylight no bright ol’ sun No more asking if it’s light or dark out oh what a shame it would be if the sun was gone.
“It’s not very good,” he said. “Are you kidding me?” I said, “That’s a wonderful first poem, Otz—it makes me really sad. A good poem makes people feel deep feelings, Gramma Kathy would be so proud of your poem!”
We then made a list of 10 homophones (hair, hare), another list of 10 alliterative sentences, like “Mom mowed the meadow on Monday!” and x’ed off two more Bingo squares, made a few passes at trying to tie his shoes, an exercise in torture for him, an exercise in patience for me. I’ve decided there’s no teaching how to tie shoes—I swear, it happens like magic for every one of us, because I was even confusing the hell out of myself trying to break it down for him. I thought he was going to break down in tears, so I shared with him one of my favorite sayings, “Hey, bud, in order to be great at something, you have to start out sucking,” and I asked him what is something he’s really good at, “I’m really good at math,” he said, so I said, “You weren’t always really good at math, were you ?” (Actually he’s been a math freak, since practically his first day out of the womb, but I hoped he wouldn’t remember this detail.) “I mean, when you were in preschool, you didn’t know how to do math like you do now, right?” “No, I probably thought 3 x 10 was something like 845, that’s how bad I probably sucked!“ he said laughing. “But then at some point, it just clicked, right? And you probably don’t even know when or how it happened, but now it’s so easy for you, and you just keep on doing harder and harder math! That’s what’ll happen with tying your shoes,” I said, “one day, all the pieces will fall into place and you’ll be so surprised when it does and you won’t be able to explain how or when it why or maybe even when it happened, but it will…” It didn’t happen last night, the shoe tying; instead, he fell back onto my bed, which was Rocco’s invitation to jump up and resume their decades-long lick-fest.
This boy, that dog, our afternoon together…as I cleaned up after dinner and Otto went to call his dad, I though about those long sad days ten years ago, how every day, I thought I sucked so terribly at this grief thing, I was never going to get better, I was always going to be stuck, like a fly in amber, and wouldn’t you know it. Here we are 10 years later, a flash and lifetime later, smack dab in the middle of an epic crisis, the whole world so precarious, we’re barely holding our shit together, but I feel a little better prepared, this crisis-go-round, like at some point the things I did ten years ago, overandoverandover again, began to gel, stick, hold me together, and there’s no way I could break it down and tell you the recipe…while I would not say I’m nailing this pandemic, I will say that I think Brene Brown nailed it when she advises to “embrace the suck.” After a 10 year residency in sucking big time, I can honestly say embracing is a far better strategy than railing against it, both are insanely difficult, but for vastly different reasons. xo.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you, it would be enough.”
Recently (as in yesterday), I came upon these words from mystic Meister Eckhart, imbedded in an interview with the late holyman/poet/theologian, John O’Donohue, and I’ve not stopped thinking about them since, maybe because Eckhart’s words come on the heel of another recent (also yesterday) re-discovery of words—a copy of a letter I’d sent to a neighbor, years ago, when Bob was in hospice, which set flight a barrage of forgotten memories and emotions, which got me thinking about all the ways I’ve keep so many people alive in my life, for better or worse—mainly by preserving their words. Many have entered my life using written words in infinite, expressive, artistic, memorable, life-altering ways—they may not even realize they’re doing it—that become holy imprints of their souls on mine. Of course, there are those whose words give a secret away, that they are utterly void of anything resembling a soul, but those words are still valuable. I keep them for evidence, should the need arise—as in the case of an unscrupulous landlord—or perhaps as a writing prompt for an essay or, who knows how they’ll show up again in my life.
Since Bob died (it’ll be ten years in May, which launched a whole new series of thoughts—maybe that’s the source of the thick sludge that’s settled in-between my cells of late, along with the weather—which is on an upswing!—and pandemic fatigue), I’ve been engaging in a decade’s long process of purging and simplifying, paring things down to make my way back to the essentials. Marie Kondo would likely still tsk-tsk all the things I hold onto, but in my defense, most of my hoarding is now in the form of words—books, old letters, journals, emails, text messages, scraps of notes—if you’ve ever written to me in any way, shape for form, it’s likely I still have your words and your soul imprinted on me. Thank you for your gift of words, a lasting presence in my life.
In true Jen form, I started wandering down a path following the word “prayer,” to see where it would take me…if I am able to make even a shimmer of sense out of the thoughts that I have wound around, that have wound around me, over the past 24 hours or so, it will be a miracle (another strange, highly misused and abused word that I’ll have to leave for another wandering time), thank you for indulging me.
When my husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, for the second time in his life (he was a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, as a young boy in the late 70s), I began a blog, simply as a means to keep family and friends in the loop about what was happening. In a very short time, Bob went from being the most annoyingly healthiest person I knew, to the sickest I will probably ever, so intimately, know. It was like he suddenly disappeared from people’s lives—he wasn’t able to work, or attend family gatherings or outings with friends. He could barely sit upright or stand or walk, consumed by acute, chronic pain that never fully abated in spite of ungodly amount of opioids, the result of a massive bone tumor that had invaded his body, taking up residence on his sacrum. For about a year and a half, I wrote like a motherfucker, to quote the venerable Cheryl Strayed, on my blog, a living, breathing, raging, sobbing, bartering, begging, pondering, scathing, tender meandering real-time testament to a horrific time of our life together. I know now, that if I hadn’t had that outlet, I may have very well imploded. Thank you, Blogspot, for giving me a release valve to for the toxic things that may have otherwise pressurized me to death.
My blog wasn’t even a real blog—I had no intention of sharing or promoting our suddenly myopic world with the whole wide world, only with family, close friends, colleagues (who ended up sharing it with more people than I will ever know, since I didn’t set it up to track such statistics. I’d occasionally receive random messages from strangers around the country, which was both odd and comforting). Thank you, for tying me to others at a time when our world was severely disconnected…
When Bob’s secondary cancer appeared, I was simply going to resurrect the Caring Bridge site that I’d created for him a few years prior, when he had his first massive heart attack—the hazing, I called it, into the fucked-up world of cancer survivorship, another meandering story for another time—see how complicated this is, why it takes me so long to write this, why nothing ever gets done around this joint? Everything is related, it’s all connected, sometimes chasing threads is far more compelling than laundry, sometimes it’s the other way around, when revisiting these memories becomes too much for my heart to hold… but Bob was a private man and felt Caring Bridge was too public; that, and he said I swore too much, I’d be kicked off Caring Bridge for sure this time. So, what started out as our own personal take on Caring Bridge became a dumping ground for me, to empty the deep pockets of my head, heart and soul onto the page and sort through the mess that accumulated beyond capacity every day…most people who read the blog were nothing short of breathtaking in their support, reverence and respect for what we were going through; to them, I am so grateful. Our world had become so painfully tight, we were essentially living at the U of MN for nearly two years, battling an onslaught of crises without reprieve; the internet became a lifeline to almost everyone I knew and loved (which is why I begrudgingly stayed on facebook, when up till that point, truth be told, I think I had deleted my account on at least 3 separate occasions, I was so repelled by it; still am most days today, more truth). Thank you, emails, text messages, cards, even the godforsaken wasteland of Facebook, for keeping me connected to my loved ones, in such a brutally disconnected time.
Bob was in hospice for nearly 5 months, which is a damned long time in hospice years (did you know that you can “graduate” from hospice, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve defeated death; it mainly means you’ve overstayed your welcome. You get booted out if you don’t wind up dying within the predetermined time set forth by insurance companies, which is usually about 6 months. True fact. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, everything always is, but that’s the basic gist and wasn’t that fun little side trip…welcome to my brain, not even on drugs).
Hospice itself is a trip, especially if it’s one you’re ill-prepared to take, not when your husband’s doctors have tossed out words such as “battle!” and “curative” and “survive!” like candy at the Fight Cancer! parade, that you madly scramble for, hoard and hold tight to, because you’re in it o win it, this fucked-up game, you are strapped in for the long haul. When you watch as your husband is brutalized by not just cancer but barbaric curative treatments prescribed by the doctors you though were on your side, when you witness him survive the unsurvivable, time and again, you may be tricked into thinking he’s immortal—there’s no other option but to survive!, which makes suddenly shifting gears, from “cancer, you picked the wrong bitch!” to “whoah, wait a minute—after surviving all that, he’s still going to die?” a monumental effort, if you’re even able to. I sure as shit couldn’t do it.
Every day in hospice, for nearly five months, I’d bolt awake, gasping for air (did I ever sleep? I often wonder) with the thought, “Is this the day he’s going to die?” quickly followed by, “how will it happen?” and I’d start imagining all the ways it could play out, and those thought would stick to me, like a jagged shadow all day…there’s a price to pay, operating with a constant, electrifying undercurrent of terror running through your veins, there is no doubt.
Yet, there was also a strange grace to hospice; typically, anything done in hospice is purely palliative in nature, meant to provide comfort and quality of life, not quantity, which if you think about that long enough, and I did, you may become highly suspect of the fight cancer ruse and become consumed by guilt that you went whole hog into the game, at his expense, not realizing you’d thrown yourself into the fire, too.
When Bob’s oncologist finally called a cease-fire on the cancer treatments and sent him home to die, Bob’s 24/7 critical state quickly leveled out, exhibiting false evidence of recovery: his appetite returned, he gained weight (much of which was ungodly amounts of fluid dammed up in his body, one of many consequences of the inhumane surgery he was subjected to), his hair filled in so thick and curly, color stained his cheeks again. But, I’d read the hospice manual thoroughly, repeatedly—vigilance was now my default setting—and unwittingly, became a soothsayer of death. I could detect subtle, barely perceptible changes that told me he was not getting better, as his parents desperately wanted to believe, but in fact, was truly, slowly dying, right next to me. There’s a particular heaviness that comes with acquiring such a skill set, that becomes more a liability than a benefit, if not well-managed, though I don’t know how one could truly effectively manage witnessing watching your best friend die. The blog was the only way I had to diffuse the pressure that continually built up inside of me in this strange state, the only way I could dispel this strange knowledge I held.
A few weeks before Bob died—signs were becoming more pronounced, the inevitable was unmistakably close—I’d posted a long, rambling rant/diatribe/lament on the blog (that today, I’d unequivocally call a form of prayer), apologizing for not updating as frequently as I had been… we had moved into a space that felt so sacred and precious, I was fiercely protective of it and wanted nothing or no one to penetrate it or bastardize it in any way…being in hospice is an unfathomably disorienting space—even breathing takes on a new quality. We were here because my husband was actively dying, there was nothing anyone could say to me that would help or make me feel better; more than likely, it would only gravely offend. Nothing personal, it’s just where we were at; I couldn’t bear platitudes, well-wishes, or stories about someone’s 88 year old grandma whose hospice experience was so beautiful, I didn’t have the bandwidth for that, anymore.
April 11, 2011….I know I’ve been so sporadic in updating the blog in the past months and I apologize for that, after all, the whole intention of this blog, which goes back to ancient times, a year and a half ago, was to have a “go to place” to keep family and friends up to date and informed on Bob’s situation. But man, on this leg of the journey, it’s sofa king hard.
But, when it rains, it pours . . . I’m warning you, this blog entry might be a deluge of diarrhea of the keyboard, a whole lotta venting, too much “sharing,” a desperate act to get some shit out before I implode. Then again, maybe I’ll reel it all in, hit “delete” as I have too many times lately, and keep it to the bare minimum, because it’s a helluva lot easier, less confusing, less rambling, less everything.
Since Bob came home from the U in December, our whole perspective, our entire way of being has shifted, a complete 180 or something more complex, which makes it difficult to regularly post. Hospice has added a surreal dimension that I still can’t embrace, I just don’t get, probably never will. There’s nothing beautiful, precious or infinitely special about caring for my beloved 44 year old husband in hospice…he’s been dragged through hell repeatedly, fought so fucking hard, so much of his life left undone, each and every day of mine is spent watching him get through each and every day, with humbling, courageous strength, in spite of excruciating, debilitating pain and endless other issues . . .he never complains, that’s all I do is complain, it seems . . .to have gone through all he did, only to be told, this is how it ends? I have no words to describe what this feels like, but I feel like I need to try, for endless reasons.
This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it’s the best job I’ve ever had, a job I would never give up. Ever, ever, ever. His hospice nurse keeps telling me CNA’s can come out and help Bob with showers, meals, whatever I need, to give me a break, give me “respite” from my duties. I look at her like she’s nuts. Seriously. Would a CNA know how to give Bob a shower the way I know he likes it (or allow Rocco in on the fun and make the bathroom a sloppy wet mess that I’m always ecstatic to clean up because I so rarely get to hear him laugh anymore)? Would a CNA know how to change his surgery dressing and give him a relaxing little back massage afterward, like I do every time? Would a CNA kiss his feet every time they’d wrap his legs or put his compression stockings on, or apologize profusely and cry even, for causing any additional pain while wrapping his leg or wrestling to get the stockings on? Certainly a CNA wouldn’t climb into bed with him and wrap around him as tightly but gently as possible, to feel his breath, his heartbeat under her hand, the only thing that calms my own breathing these days? Would a CNA lie awake next to him, waiting for his sleep-sticky voice to call out to her, to help him to the bathroom? I think not. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s almost insulting to even suggest it—I mean, who will come in and give Bob a respite from the shit he deals with all day, every day? No one, that’s who. To suggest giving me a break is offensive beyond words.
It’s so hard, to try to define, to write about, put into words the simple, yet insanely complicated world we’re living in these days. Simple, in our daily activities, insanely complicated, the emotions entwined around those same activities. . . endless waves pummel us relentlessly, throughout the day, the multifarious nature of those waves . . . sticky, messy, intricate tangle of thoughts and actions and emotions we wade through, all day, every day . . . I am able to speak only selfishly, in a self-centered way, about myself and what I’m thinking and feeling; I would never be so bold or presumptuous, so arrogant, to speak for Bob; I so wish he could jump on and take over for a while, to speak for himself, but unfortunately, all you got is me.
I try to share what life is like here at Wrenwood, but wind up exasperated in my attempts and usually end up deleting everything I spewed forth and simply resort to reporting the daily mundane, sanitizing, sugar-coating with a cheerleader’s touch, which is a helluva lot easier than trying to delve into the deeper issues. . . but even reporting the mundane is misleading, at best. For instance, to say Bob’s having a “good” day is an insult to all he deals with on a constant basis, without reprieve. Everyone gets so excited to read that, but the reality is, he has mostly shockingly shitty days; once in a while, he has a day where the shit is infinitesimally less shitty for an infinitesimally shorter time; the bizarre, elusive alchemy of pain management might nudge in his favor for a blessed, short time—barely a blip on the screen—to see him savor that tiniest crumb of reprieve is excruciating, because I know it will not stay, it manages to slip away again, quickly. He never complains, which grips my heart deeply; all I can do is simply observe, try to translate as best I can, sanitize and make what I witness palatable for the masses.
Though things have stabilized, every day is so hard for Bob, every single day has been an exercise in torture, for a year and a half, and maybe I haven’t been as forthright about that as I should have been, articulating this truth. . . maybe because this has become our life for the past 18 months, it has become “normal” and “acceptable” to us, I’ve assumed those who read the blog do so hanging onto my every word, every detail, are adept at reading between the lines, that somehow, even if you’ve never been through something like this, my words make you instantly, wholly understand. I realize there’s no way I can do that, with my words. It didn’t occur to me to be even more blatantly, brutally honest and detailed about all Bob has to face, each and every day, because I think my heart knows the impossibility of that. I’m always taken aback when people act surprised or put out, when I say Bob’s not up for a visit or can’t return phone calls or e-mails, I feel deeply responsible for not being more clear in how fucking sick he really is.
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent endless hours recently, perusing Bob’s vast collection of photos in the past several weeks, which have been a bittersweet journey, mixed with harsh reminders, evidence of how achingly vibrant, strong and full of life Bob was just a mere eternity— a year and a half ago . . . maybe it’s that a few e-mails and phone calls I’ve recently received from friends and family, brought to my attention that I haven’t been clear enough in relaying just how sick Bob really is, that there is so much he simply cannot, will not ever be able to do, any more; it doesn’t matter how much you’d like something to happen when it simply can’t be done. . . maybe it was that so many people saw Bob at the benefit and caught him on a very rare good day (I believe in my heart, it was your energy that buoyed him that day—his spirit knew it would be the last time he would see most of you—and that knowledge, not a magical combination of opioids or anything else, is what sustained him that day), you saw him looking so good, so engaging, so gregarious, that you were mislead into believing he’s doing better than he really is. I’m not trying to be negative or a downer, I’m being realistic, which is not my usual state; anyone who knows me knows I tend toward dreamy more than reality. Maybe it’s all the thinking I do on the long walks with the dogs that gets things stirred up and boils to the surface, and needs an outlet, lest it kills me. . .
To be going through Bob’s vast photo collection lately as I have, is dredging up a lifetime long gone, a renewal of reminders of a beautiful life that has been so cruelly, violently, endlessly altered, 18 months and counting . . . he told me that seeing his photos is like a journal to him—all his senses light up, he can feel the ground as he lay in he grass taking that sunset phto, what the air was like on his face when that deer stopped in front of him, how the sun felt on his skin when shooting pasque flowers…to watch someone I love suffer so intensely, without a day’s reprieve, is some days, more than I can bear. I push past my own feelings of horror, fear and immense sadness—get over myself—and try to help Bob, be here for him, as best I can. I find myself stopping mid-sentence when I start to complain about a backache or waking up with a stiff neck, or a mild sore throat, because the instant the words leave my mouth, I realize who I’m talking to, and that’s enough for me to shut my f’n pie hole. . .
Some friends invited us on a camping trip at the end of April. It was so thoughtful to include us in their world—Bob’s old world of camping, hiking, kayaking—for the weekend, taking great care to tell me how they would accommodate for Bob, that the campsite is wheelchair accessible . . . another friend just asked us when we were going to visit them in Tennessee. Remember, if you will, so many months ago, when we were all talking about renting a Greyhound bus and heading down to Memphis for some real BBQ, once all this shit was done and behind us . . . “what would it take to get you guys down here?” our Tennessee friend asked me. The weight of such questions bear down so heavy, how can I even begin to answer them?
Pain is a constant, relentless bastard of a companion, always just around the corner, if not bearing down his back. The drugs he has to take to get relief turn him into a drooling zombie, picking invisible flies from the air…mobility is difficult for Bob—using a walker around the house is the only way he can get around, even then, it’s painstakingly slow, he can only travel a few feet with a walker, not much farther, he’s so weak; if he’s just taken his pain meds, I have to be extra vigilant that he doesn’t try to get up without me at his side . . . he needs my assistance with all his personal cares—showering, bathroom duties, getting dressed, in and out of bed. . . he wears a diaper, I have to cath him so he can pee, he can’t just get up and go to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich should the mood strikes (which is not much, these days). The best he can do, at rare times, is get up and slowly shuffle to the kitchen to fish out a popsicle from the freezer, that’s the extent of his independence these days. It’s so hard to write these words that feels so untrue about a man who, not that long ago, yet at the same time was he ever? so robust, so independent. But they are true, today.
He has an open, gaping gruesome wound on his back, a huge, ugly tumor protrudes from it. I see it every day, twice a day, when we do his dressing changes and wound care . . I’ve been watching the tumor changing, growing since his Bethesda days. . . both lower limbs are edemic, swollen to over twice their normal size with fluid, like thick, sodden sandbags that must add a good 25-30 extra pounds of weight to Bob’s normally feather-weight frame. . . heavy and cumbersome, it takes all of my strength to lift his legs onto the bed, or for him to heave them up the three steps to the bedroom, or down to the living room. I get so mad when he tries to get in or out of bed on his own, which he does, often . . . stubborn Polack (I‘m so bad at stereotyping, I don’t even know if Polacks are stubborn, just sounds like they would be. Maybe we’ve been watching too many All in the Family reruns . . .I fucking hate TV, btw, a mocking reminder of what our life has been reduced to)
All this and more, has been our “norm” for four months . . . almost daily, I vacillate between bartering with God or whomever is responsible for our being, that I would live like this forever, taking care of Bob like this, doing all this and more, if only he wouldn’t be taken from me. . . then, when I see how hard everything is for him, how much pain he’s in, even with copious amounts of opiates, how little quality of life he has, I know my pathetic plea is so selfish. . . last night, Bob said to me, once again, “I can’t do this much longer, Jen, it’s too hard, everything hurts too much…”
So, we’ve sold four sets of cards through our Etsy shop already, our first week in business! How cool is that?!? An abrupt change in topic, it seems, but there is a connection, if you choose to continue to follow me . . . so, my initial intention was this very lofty aspiration to use the proceeds of our store to help fund efforts to educate the public as well as the medical community about the late effects of childhood cancer treatments. . . that was my intention several months ago, when we first started kicking this idea around. . . as time has gone on and as I’ve thought long and hard about that commendable ideal, our experience (which includes countless encounters and conversations with doctors upon doctors along the way) along this journey in life has convinced me that the “war on cancer” is a farce. . . preventive medicine is a joke . . . cancer is too profitable for anyone/any institution in the medical community to really be serious about finding a “cure. . .”
We’ve been told, by several doctors on this long, living nightmare, that treatments for Hodgkin’s back in 1970 (when Bob was treated for his first cancer) haven’t changed much today. Which means that the long-term effects that Bob is dealing with now are a stark, very real possibility for newly diagnosed Hodgkin’s patients. We met with the long term follow-up clinic at the U several weeks ago, and were told by their “cancer survivor” specialty doctors, the same thing. . . I attended a “Cancer Survivorship” conference at the U last spring, with Penny and my mom, and sat in near horror, listening to doctors and researchers and scientists tell the audience that, when long term followup studies were started on cancer survivors, back in the 70s, they started seeing adverse effects of cancer treatments almost immediately; not years later, but a few short years after treatment. . .
Look up Hodgkin’s survivors on the internet. . . you’ll find endless chat rooms, message boards, websites, personal blogs devoted to discussing the late-effects survivors are dealing with. Not random anomalies. No, these are countless, endless, common stories. . . cure cancer, my ass.
Last year, Bob’s insurance company ponied up over two million dollars in payments to the U for his cancer “treatments;” that’s about the point I stopped keeping track, I was so horrified—everyone’s in on the this money-making scheme. Chemo, endless hospital stays, endless ER trips, literally months spent in hospital rooms at the U, enduring a horrific, disfiguring, debilitating 13-hour “curative” surgery. A “curative” surgery that resulted in horrifically disfiguring and disabling my husband, and still, the cancer returned. I watched the tumor grow, as Bob “rehabbed” at Bethesda, just a few short weeks after the “curative” surgery—after we were told that all margins of removed bone had tested “cancer free.” Fuck cancer. Fuck treatments, fuck the entire medical community and their for-profit, anti-preventive focus. Fuck, fuck, fuck…
So where does that leave us? Where does that put my lofty aspirations of sharing Bob’s photography with the world and saving it, in the process? I’m thinking I need to change my focus, bring it closer to home, closer to my heart, to our experience, to our world, to honor all of you who have been so near and dear (even if you haven’t been able to physically be near us) . . . one of the things that I’ve been beyond grateful for, in the midst of this neverending nightmare, is that, when the time came to be, I was able to quit my job to become Bob’s full-time caretaker. For better or worse, personified in me. . . we were able to do it for a long time on our own scrimping and savings, but there came a time when the shit hit the fan, when push came to shove, that we realized this battle was wasn’t going to end when I demanded it should end—that’s when our friends, family, strangers stretched out the net and caught us, carried us . . . you are still carrying us, and the enormity of that thought catches my breath, every time…how does a person express gratitude for such an act…thank you seems horribly inadequate, but it’s all I have…
So, the latest incarnation of my lofty aspiration to try to make some sense, some purpose, some meaning behind this Krazy Karival Ryde is to maybe use the proceeds of the photography sales to start a caregiver’s fund. . . to help a family in need . . . to help others organize a kick-ass benefit event, to provide financial guidance, budget advice . . . or, fuck it all to hell . . maybe we’ll take the benefit money and head to a remote island in the Pacific . . .fuck, I’m so sorry, everyone, this is so hard, everything hurts too much…
As I mentioned, the overwhelming majority of those who followed my blog were ardent, passionate supporters, often left speechless when they’d read all that Bob was going through. Still, simply knowing that people were reading my words, and holding us in their hearts brought more comfort than I could have ever imagined possible. Occasionally, however, someone, usually someone who didn’t know me well, would read my blog and feel compelled to set me and my thoughts on the straight and narrow, usually in a private oh-so-Minnesotan passive aggressive message. I’m having a hard time coming up with thanks for those people, I’m gonna need a little more time…
So, ten pages later, back to the email I re-encountered yesterday, while scrounging around my old desktop computer for another document…finding it sent me down another rabbit hole, to see if I still had the original letter from the neighbor, who sparked my response in the first place…remember, I’m a hoarder of words, anything you’ve written to me say to me can and will be used against you…I found it, in a box in the basement. The letter was from a neighbor, who had been following my blog: (dated the same day as my blog entry, she wasted no time in telling me what’s what):
April 11, 2011:
Dear Bob & Jen,
Jen from reading your blog, I suspect you will probably be angry at what I have to say, but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say it.
I just want to share with you that God, the creator of heaven and earth, loves you. He not only made heaven and earth and all that is in it, but He created you and that is why he loves you. He showed this great love for each of us by coming to earth in the form of Jesus Chris, suffering a horrible death on the cross and shedding his blood to cover our sins. He offers us eternal life if we believe in Him. All we have to do is tell Him we believe He died for our sins, ask Him to forgive us our sins and accept His gift of forgiveness and eternal life in heaven.
If down the road you want more information or want to talk about it, please call me.
I hope you accept this in the same way it is offered, with love.
This letter also came with a check—fifty, maybe hundred bucks. Generosity with strings.
My response to Carol (name has been changed to protect the guilty):
Please take your money and go buy yourself a clue. Your words were not meant “in love,” they are a mean-spirited, insensitive, arrogant and self-righteous attempt (thinly disguised behind your “Christian” veil), to try and put me in my place, to tell me how to think, feel and act in the heart of a horrific life event.
It was not only out of line and completely uncalled for, but shows a blatant disregard and disrespect for what Bob and I have gone through and continue to go through.
If the only thing you have gleaned from blog and from Bob’s experience of the past 18 months is my anger, and that it’s your “job” to save us, then you have missed the point entirely. My advice to you is to quite reading it, because it’s clear you will never get it.
I took my letter and her check, stuffed them into an envelope, marched down our country road to her house about 1/2 mile away, and shoved it in her mailbox. I went back home to care for my husband, who died three weeks later. What neither Carol nor even I could see at the time, was that every word of my blog, in its deeply messy, rambling, angry, loving, heartbroken essence, was indeed, a prayer, and it was enough.
Today marks my 400 days w/o alcohol. In the grand scheme of all that has happened in 2020, that’s spilling over into 2021, this feels so small and insignificant. What’s kind of funny-not-funny is that when I joined the live version of Annie Grace’s Alcohol Experiment in January of 2020, that was exactly my #1 reason: to make alcohol small and insignificant in my life. The reverberating energy of each of the 2000+ people who joined me in the experiment a year and some odd days ago, is permanently infused into every one of my trillions of cells, and frankly, I think that’s a pretty BFD.
I can say with full confidence that if you had asked me on January 31, 2020 if I could make it a year w/o booze, I would have given a definite, hearty, noncommittal, “mmmmm—did you say a WHOLE YEAR??!! Like, 365 days? In a row?! Lemme think about that…” If you would have had the magical foresight to also tell me that we’d be thrust ass-over-teakettle into a devastating pandemic wrapped around a righteous revolution against racism that began in my beloved Minneapolis after the brutal murder of George Floyd, set aflame by a domestic terrorist attack on our nation’s capitol, and that along the way, I’d lose both sources of income which would force me into unemployment limbo for several months, scrambling to cobble together an online existence of sorts, and the disintegration of a five-year relationship, I would have said, “Nope, not this year, I’m good, thanks!” and instead, swung by the liquor store to pick up my usual coping strategies in crisis and got the hell out of here.
I did not plan to be AF for a year, certainly not in a year of epic global crises endless layers deep—that’s when I do my best drinking, in crisis. 30 days was the best I could commit to a year ago January, it’s the best I can commit to today. But, it turns out, it’s enough. I’m not a planner—anything more than that sends me into an anxiety tailspin, so in a strange way, this has worked out in my unplanner-self’s favor. Every month, I renegotiate with myself—another 30 days? Lemme think about it…because for me, it’s not just another 30 days without alcohol; it’s another 30 days of digging in a little deeper, and shit gets a little messier, dealing with whatever new thing that rises to the surface, old beliefs, old habits that need to be acknowledge, dismantled and reconfigured to a kinder, gentler, more expansive way of being, which reminds me of that time shortly after Bob died, when I disassembled our leaking freezer because I couldn’t find a repair person willing to take on the job, and all the freezer’s guts were spread out in a jumbled mess across the kitchen and I looked around in horror wondering WTlivingF did I just do here? I eventually, painstakingly put it back together—I fixed the leak, too!—with only one mystery screw leftover. But oh, how I digress.
Digging deeper is hard, but it isn’t always akin to punishment, sometimes it yields surprising gifts, like reconnecting with nature, hugging some trees (you should see the massive, powerful, gorgeous Medusa-as-cottonwoods protecting my still-new-to-me neighborhood! I can barely even stand how joyful I feel when I wrap my arms around their gigantic waists and I kiss their deeply wrinkled skin and I know that one of these days, someone in my neighborhood is going to report the weirdo kissing treehugger, which is why I tend to do it at night, under moonlight) sometimes it’s being more physical with my body (breathing is a thing I should think about? Or my shoulder blades? Some days, I have no clue what’s going on back there behind me, or inside of me, or beneath my feet, and those are the times, I’m learning, when I need to slow down, take notice and breathe, feel, inhabit…which is not just hard but sometimes downright excruciating for someone who’s internal switch is set to “run!”), sometimes it’s journaling like a mofo, you can see smoke billowing under my pen tip as it skips and skitters across the page. Sometimes it’s support groups. Other times reading a book about Medusa or carpenter ants, or signing up for an online seminar on systemic racism, or watching a menagerie of bellydancers shake their groove thang on Zoom or taking a walk in the woods with one of my sisters, or a neighbor who also happens to be my ex, to use profane, pedestrian vernacular that tastes bitter in my mouth, an insult to the five years we were together, but a more apt word doesn’t exist (trust me, I googled it) which means I might have to make one up, or a zoom session with a client that leads to a deep discussion about the pelvis, or feet or seeming harmless societal beliefs about bodies that have done more harm than anyone will probably ever know except those bodies to whom the damage has been done. This month, I am hoping to add one-to-one therapy, which I haven’t yet done, curiously (pandemic, is the short answer). Another 30 days, collecting data points on things I want to know—can I do all the things I used to do while drinking, but without drinking? Turns out, I can. Who knew it was even possible? Or how hard it can be, given the circumstances, or how strange it is, when you discover there are some things you really don’t like doing at all; alcohol just made them more tolerable.
So far, after every 30 days, I’ve said, “Yes, please. I want more,” so I keep going. Which is the most ridiculously simplified way to say that this past year has been simultaneously the easiest and the most tumultuous year of my life, pandemic and revolution and insurrection notwithstanding. I’ve collected enough data on both sides of the debate to confidently say that overusing alcohol in crisis sucks, and being alcohol free in crisis also sucks, but for profoundly different reasons, and it’s becoming more and more clear to me why I drank during crisis in the first place. There’s a sacred kind of grace and grief in confronting that truth—we only know what we know at the time, and we do the best we can until we know more, until we have more tools to help us.
Alcohol is a powerful anesthesia, that’s its literal job. It did a bang-up job numbing me not only from pain of various crises in the past 10 years or so of my life, but also from the day-to-day life, just as it is; it held me back from handling everyday life in more nourishing, mindful ways, but I didn’t even consider it as a hindrance, because I didn’t know any other way. And I’m also learning, at the same time, it also numbed me to the joys and wonder and contentment and humor and ease of life; it’s funny, what we’ll settle for as substitutes when we don’t know much better or simply different, it can really be…the “feeling all the feels” of life can be skin-crawlingly intensely sensory overload for some of us, though; layer in crisis and/or trauma on top, and sometimes life becomes too much to bear. Drinking is just one of endless ways to mitigate the intensity when nothing else is available; there is a strange grace in finding an even stranger truth: that the very thing that could possibly, eventually kill you, is the same thing that for a moment in time, is keeping you alive.
It wasn’t always like that for me; for years, drinking was fun! Mostly… it was normal! Mostly…meaning, it’d start out fun, like the first drink or two, and then quickly slide into not-so-fun. Not necessarily bad, just that instead of connecting, I’d suddenly feel disembodied, severed from not only the people I was with, but from something deeper in me. I mean, I’ve certainly had my share of fun while drinking, I never stood out as a “problem drinker” among friends, I’ve never been the one who has to get carried out from the bar or…but…was it really fun? Or normal? Or was I convincing telling myself that and playing along, because it’s the dominant belief? Just because we say something, does it make it true?
My “normal” drinking escalated into problem territory with my husband’s cancer and subsequent death in 2011, but my baseline “normal” has never been normal, or maybe it always has been, when stacked up against the rest of the world. Drinking, in my world, has been dysfunctional from the get-go—it’s a variation on the theme of running, which is another form of numbing—when dysfunctional is literally what everyone else is doing, it’s hard to see it as anything but normal. But I swear, my heart as always know this truth. As a teenager, it was “drink to get drunk!” because that’s what the adult drinkers in my life did and we kids couldn’t wait to get in on that brand of fun; in college, more of the same, only now it was legal. When I got married, my husband worked in the wine industry, I simply swapped college keggers and bar hopping for the more refined versions of “wine tastings,” microbrew festivals, whiskey flights, and now I had language and grown up culture to support ad at the same time camouflage my habit—red wine is healthy! Whisky makes this chick badass! Everything in moderation—even my doctor agrees! Wine with yoga! Beer after fun runs! Wine themed baby showers—bring wine to the new mom in the hospital, we gotta get her back on track with us again! Drink to celebrate, drink to mourn, drink on vacation, because work is stressful, because I got a promotion, because it’s Friday, because Hump Day…as prevalent as drinking was in my life then, it was always within the context of what other people were doing. Binge drinking is an acceptable norm in our culture, I did not stand out better or worse than anyone else in my life. Which means when I finally started questioning it, I ran into unexpected obstacles along the way, which was a big factor in me not doing anything sooner. External voices can easily drown out the quiet voice of our heart.
I never thought to drink alone, not even in college, not until my husband got sick. Overnight, our world turned into a living nightmare, I suddenly became full-time caregiver and health care advocate for my best friend, who used to be the healthiest, most take-charge person I knew, who fast became the sickest person I will likely, so intimately know, who would endure gruesome cancer treatments, the stuff of nightmares, that eventually killed him and nearly did me in, too. During his ordeal, colleagues sent us cases of wine, beer, spirits, well-meaning, of course, but Bob couldn’t drink, so I wryly joked that I was now drinking for two, the truth of that punchline breaks my heart today.
Drinking is normalized, expected, in the grieving world, in the widow world, as it is in mommy culture, as it is in the health and wellness world, as it is in writing circles. I watched with strange fascination this summer as a celebrated author got hammered on Twitter and the entire world cheered her on. I was simultaneously as entertained as anyone but at the same time, filled with a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), thinking “shit, now I’ve become reigning sanctimonious Queen of Dullsville,” a super-common phenomenon, FOMO, so strong a force, it has the power to dethrone even the best efforts.
None of this is to say that I didn’t accomplish much other than drink a lot in the wake of Bob’s death, or that I drank only to drown sorrows, or that I was falling down drunk all the time. There’s tremendous mythology around alcohol and addiction that I feel keeps a lot of people stuck and prevents people from doing anything sooner, it sure as hell did me. If you’re not of the epic variety, then you’re not “that bad,” you’re fine, you’re like everyone else, there’s no problem here folks, move along please. There is no hard line to gauge alcohol addiction, no confirming blood test, no MRI or CT scan. What if “not that bad” is, for a lot of people, actually pretty bad? I’m astounded at all I did in the wake of Bob’s death, in spite of drinking far more than I ever have at any point in my life. I started a new career as a Pilates and restorative movement facilitator, I went to grad school and earned my MFA in creative writing, I traveled, I dated (kind of), my first published essay was nominated for a Pushcart, I was awarded writing grants and scholarships, but I also grieve for so many lost opportunities while living behind such a thin but immobilizing veil. If I didn’t have a bad case of impostor syndrome already, it surely settled in deep into my cells soon enough. I presented myself to the world the picture of health and wellness, an emerging writer, a “successful widow!” rebuilding her life after devastation, the bigger, messier picture behind thin veneer. The tension of such dissonance has a shelf life, it can only be sustained for so long.
I was awarded a Minnesota state Arts Board Grant for 2018, the same year I was about to graduate from Hamline. I almost didn’t complete both the Arts Board project or my thesis. I write almost exclusively about very difficult topics—death, cancer, being a caregiver, a widow—what I didn’t realize is that every time I went to write a story, I had to relive the gruesome story of my husband’s cancer and death againandagainandagainandagain. Repeatedly traumatize myself for the sake of what? Art? At the sake of what? My sanity. At the time, I did not know that I should have been doing something intentional,something compassionate and mindful, to protect myself from this repeated thrashing as I wrote. Something like tandem therapy, perhaps. I didn’t know that. Instead, I continued to write and continued to thrash. The body can only withstand that kind of instability for so long before something has to happen, something breaks. In my case, my writing came to a screeching standstill, my keyboard wouldn’t budge. At the time, I thought I was cursed; today, I think it was my heart finally stepping in and telling my head, enough. Enough. I read somewhere once that our souls love us so much, it will use our bodies to get our attention. I fully believe my sudden drought of words was one such instances. Strange grace.
That same year, around Thanksgiving, I sat in my mom’s living room and told her I thought I had a drinking problem. She looked at me, startled, before saying, “YOU, have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem,” and that was the moment I was sharply cleaved in two. One half of me breathed a sigh of relief. “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem—I don’t have to change a thing!” The other half, a little more meek, sort of whimpered, “If my mom, who knows me better than anyone in the world doesn’t think I have a problem, then maybe that’s the problem.” I knew, deep in my cells, that if I was going to do something about it, for real, it was going to require a lot more work than I could even fathom. Did I have it in me? Did I even want to?
I started going to 12 step meetings, because that’s what you do when you think you have a drinking problem, right? As I sat in the shadowy church sanctuary on the east side of St. Paul, in the shadowy community room of an apartment building in south Minneapolis, I listened as everyone went around the room sharing stories of disaster and destruction and praying for strength to not mess up the family holidays this year, it came my turn. “Don’t worry Jen, we’ve heard it all, we know how it is…” I stared at my hands in my lap, tears dropped onto my sleeves. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have any stories of disaster and destruction. Once again I was bluntly cleaved—one part was immensely relieved. “Thank god, I’m not that bad—I don’t belong here. I’m fine.” The other side quietly asked, “Is that how it works? That I have to collect such stories before I can find the help I seek? All I have is an incessant, gnawing decaying sensation in my tissues, like I’m slowly dying from the inside out, and I don’t even care. Isn’t that enough?
A month or so after that conversation with my mom, she died unexpectedly after the world’s shortest bout of cancer; I have a hard time even saying she had cancer, it happened so fast. For as gruesome and profane as my husband’s death was, my mom’s was something of the divine, the holy. What cancer took from him, it gave to her ten-fold—it was like my quiet, unassuming mom was directing the final scene of her own life, telling her medical team she wanted no heroics, quality, not quantity of life was her wish. Two days later, as we were waiting for discharge orders to bring her home for hospice, she fluttered for a few moments (which were probably more like few hours, but my mind sees it in time lapse), then died, encircled by all five of her kids. We toasted her memory any chance we got over the next year—it’s what she would have wanted, right? Until I couldn’t lift another glass because that inner decaying was now slowly eating and blistering through to the surface of my skin.
I finally said, enough, and I started going to therapy, though I still didn’t say “alcohol is kind of a problem here. I know, deep in my cells, it’s why I can’t sleep, I know it’s why I don’t care about anything anymore, why I can’t write, I know it’s why I am stuck. stuck. stuck.” Instead, I spoke in code, using words like “disconnected, lack of community, isolated, so alone” repeated over and over in my sessions. Never once, did my therapist ask pointedly about alcohol in my life. The blistering became more intense, anything that bumped against me burned raw, I clawed at my skin, wanting so desperately to tear it from my body, and begin anew.
It would take another several months to stumble upon the AE after another few disappointing 12 step meetings, after a handful more fruitless therapy sessions. I don’t mean to disparage the 12 step programs, or therapy—if I could find a group like what Veronica Valli, founder of Soberful and a powerful 12-step advocate, describes, I’d be all for it—but like finding a good therapist, they are hard to come by; the effort is daunting and exhausting, and sometimes it’s easier to just stay in place than move.
But. BUT. long story even longer (this is why I don’t post much; I have so much to say, half of me says, “oh shut up, no one cares,” but the other part says, “say it, say it, say it!” and once I begin it’s so hard to stop, it’s like these words have been building up inside of me since before I was born…), really, all of this is to say that when I began a little experiment a year and some odd days ago, my only goal was for alcohol to become small and insignificant in my life, as it had gotten too large and in charge, and stayed that way for too long. To say that I got more than I bargained for is a gross understatement, and yes, at the end of January, 20201 I said, “Yes more please, to another 30 days.” I read somewhere recently that the decision to be sober is not about deciding not to drink, but rather, learning to live a life that I don’t have to numb myself from. Far easier said than done, I’m fully aware, but at 400 days, I am also fully aware that that a bad day AF is still infinitely better than any good day with alcohol, hands down. Today, that’s more than good enough for me. 30 more days, please. xo.
If there’s one thing we all can agree upon, it’s that Trump has always been, is, and will always be transparent. Living proof that all the money in the world can’t buy depth or brains or class or self awareness, or kindness or empathy or compassion or a heart. Even before his disgraceful term in the WH, he’s never hidden the fact that he’s a petulant, vindictive, thin-skinned, privileged, corrupt, criminal piece of shit who will shit on anyone and anything to get what he wants. His history is one big shitsmear of evidence.
Still. In spite of the indelible stain he leaves on everything he touches, Republicans, from top officials down to individual voters, blatantly, willfully ignored all that, and chose him as their candidate, then pulled all stops to make him their president, then catered to his self-serving agenda (or their self-serving agenda, is probably more accurate), encouraged him, pandered to him, coddled him, excused him, justified him, apologized for him, saying shit like, “he’s better than the alternative,” and “oh my god I could never vote for Killary!!!’ or “we can’t have a SOCIALIST running the show,” or “well, I don’t really agree with his policies but I really like his tell-it-like-it-is personality!” admired and envied him, and probably hoped a little of his shit would rub off on them, if they got close enough. What happened last night, what has happened over the past 4 years—let’s be real, what’s been happening for far longer—speaks more about Republicans, as individuals, than anything. They have shown the world exactly what they’re made of. Shit. And got exactly what the bargained for—a shitshow of epic proportions.
I am so filled with rage and hate and disgust and fear and a damned lot of cuss words right now, tinted with a mild bit of amusement—what the even hell were some of those bizarre costumes? A Renaissance festival gone horribly awry? Were the Patriots playing? A Furry convention? A historical reenactment? NO. It was a failed couindignant, wronged white supremacist terrorist insurgents thinly disguised as patriots, attempting a hostile takeover of our nation’s capitol. Because they are “sick of it, and we’re not going to take it anymore!” but when pressed, couldn’t (or don’t want to, on camera) define what “it” is. I’m going to guess “it” is the very things the people in Georgia fought so hard to gain. GA’s first ever Black Senator, without a doubt, has something to do with the terrorists’ unnamed “it.”
I used to tell my sisters that the first and only question they ever needed to ask a potential suitor was, ‘Who did you vote for in 2016?” because the answer will tell them everything they needed to know. Now, it feels like an applicable, necessary question to ask anyone we meet, from here on out. But a lot have already outed themselves with their MAGA hats and banners and yard signs and bumper stickers, and social media posts, and right now, I’m wondering how do we ever move forward and begin healing as a nation? Will we ever? Maybe not, but we can’t ever stop trying…tonight, every. single. thing. feels daunting…futile…impossible…imperative…
As I sat in my living room last night, and again, this morning, listening to the coverage of the terroristic shitshow in our capitol, I had to do something to dispel some of that toxic waste surging through me…I kept going back to stories about Georgia, and reveled in the contrast of the two events playing out at the same time. I know these feelings are going to surge and recede, swell and release, ebb and flow. breathe… my anger today is huge and centered around Republicans, it’s an easy target, their transgressions are huge and violent and so damaging, but I know the answers that matter lie deeper…answers to the question: how am I connected to these events unfolding? That’s the harder piece to decipher, to confront…
I was compelled to break out my sketch pad and pastels, which I’ve dragged from move to move over the past 25 years, but haven’t used in almost as long, and began drawing the monster trees in my neighborhood from memory, which moved me into a meditative mind…the ragged old souls I’m in love with, that I hug every chance I get, gentle giants clustered in parks like gangs of Shel Silverstein sketches come alive.
I often wrap my arms tight around these monsters’ waists and press my ear against their chest, to hear their heart beat and the hum of their cells, and run my hands along deeply cracked, rough skin. Sometimes I sit at their feet with my back pressed against theirs, especially at night, and look up into their charcoal limbs exploding against the blue black sky, and breath in deep cold air, and I believe that trees are always in communication with the world, which includes us, and it doesn’t take much to stop and feel what they have to say. It really doesn’t.
I learned last night that I can invoke this energy by drawing them, too, as my hand swept across the paper, I felt the trees’ energy seep from the air to the page to the crayon to my hand and into my veins and my breath, swirling in with the hate and rage and disgust and slowly began to take the shape of something new…all of this is to say, it’s more than okay to be enraged and disgusted and yes even hate what’s going on right now, but it’s also imperative to do something productive with all that, whatever it means to you, or it’ll eat you alive. I suspect I’m going to be drawing giant cottonwoods for a long time to come. xo.
I took a road trip to my home town of Mountain Lake yesterday, to visit the sites of places I lived long ago and collect inspiration for a few essays that I’m writing. My sweet 15 yr. old niece, Amelia, accompanied me for the ride. Lucky me, to have such a divine traveling companion.
Mountain Lake is a small town scratched into the topsoil of southern Minnesota, population, about 2100. If you’re at all familiar with the area, you’d be correct to guess there’s not a mountain in sight for hundreds of miles. The namesake “mountain” is a large hill south of town that once made its living as an island in the middle of the namesake lake that is no longer, because it was drained for farmland around 1905. The ghost of the lake is visible in aerial photographs, an apparition outlined in trees.
My mission would be quick—drive to the addresses where I used to live, snap a few photos, then a meandering drive through town to wax nostalgic and show Amelia the sights, which would take all of fifteen minutes, even if I drove the speed of molasses in January, to use my father’s likely only g-rated quip. We’d go by the school, the park, the lake that isn’t the namesake, on the northwest end of town.
In case you’re confused about the lake thing, let me clarify: Mountain Lake’s “mountain” had a former life as an island in the middle of a lake south of town for which the town was named, which was drained for farmland in 1905. (An aside: in 1976, an archeological dig on the mountain-nee-island revealed evidence of an ancient native dwelling, carbon-dated to be about 2100 years old, the oldest dwelling found in MN thus far.) The lake that now exists in the city limits, is a manmade WPA project of the 1930’s. This lake has what we always called the “island”—even a campground near the lake, Island View Campground, says so. Except it’s not really an island, but more a peninsula. So much more could be said about all this, but I’m going to contain myself, because I need to get to bed soon.
The first home I lived in, on 9th Avenue, no longer exists. I suspected this, but wanted to confirm it. It was the home my parents brought me to after I was born, where my two brothers were anxiously awaiting my arrival, I can only guess. I shocked my mom one day when I as older, when I told her I remember this house. “How can that be? You were just a baby when we lived there,” she asked. I proceeded to draw the floor plans of my memory, telling in great detail each room looked like, how the furniture was laid out, of things I remember happening. She stared at me, shaking her head at the accuracy of my memories. “Good lord. I’m not surprised. You were a weird kid. Still are,” she laughed.
My sister, Jill, came along two years later. Our growing family was busting out of the seams in this little home; when I was nearly three, we moved to 538 6th Avenue. This house sat on an extraordinarily huge city lot on the edge of Mountain Lake. My parents purchased, contract-for-deed, the plain white three bedroom, one bath clapboard from the original owner who had raised eight kids here. The house came with a two-acre plot of land, though it might be more accurate to say that the two-acre plot of land came with a house.
The house itself was a rather dilapidated mess of peeling paint, crumbling foundation and windows in mismatched frames. The lean-to kitchen looked like an afterthought, hanging off the back of the house by threads. That didn’t matter to three-year old me. I wandered the expansive lot with my mom, awash in awe: all of this belongs to us? This tulip garden bursting in pastels? Those lilac trees with their heady, enveloping perfume? The strawberry patch at the bottom of the hill, spread out like a blanket next to the apple and plum trees, with a fringe of currant bushes? And the sea of tall grass beyond the patchwork of fruit trees, with that little shed poking through? And this massive silver maple next to the kitchen, with a canopy of leaves spread wide like a parachute and arms are begging for a treehouse to hold up to the sky? All this? Ours? I thought we’d won the fairytale lottery and had moved to our very own land of make-believe.
It came like a punch in the gut, one day in fifth grade when a couple of classmates announced that they had compiled a list of richest to poorest kids in class, and declared my family the third poorest. What? By what authority were they able to decide this? I recall asking, though likely not as articulate. Because of your house, and the clothes you wear, I was told. Did I burst into tears upon hearing this news? Did I lash out? I don’t remember, but it might have been then that I became acutely aware of things that matter to the rest of the world. An extraordinary fairytale of a backyard isn’t one of those things. A ramshackle house is.
This house, too, only exists in my memories; it was razed years ago. Still, I had to drive by and check on our tree. I barely recognized the property—the house and garage is gone, so are the lilac bushes, the fruit trees. The pasture is neatly mowed and the maple tree is a hacked-in-half version of its former parachute self. My heart was so startled to see so much of it missing, my eyes tried to trace the space in the sky that those branches used to occupy. Had lightning struck it? High winds? I don’t know, but still, in its wounded state, its massive trunk beckoned me.
I pulled over and to Amelia’s horror, I told her I needed to go and give our tree a hug. She cringed and shrunk low in her seat, “Oh God, Jen—there’s people over there! You’re going to get arrested for trespassing!” I couldn’t help but laugh, which softened the lump that had caught in my throat. “This is Mountain Lake, that won’t happen. I don’t think so anyway,” I said as I hopped out and ran across the lawn to give my old friend a hug.
I have been writing a lot, about hard things lately, diving deep into my history (and by “a lot,” I mean hundreds of pages in a really short time, and by “history,” I mean deep, sad, excruciating, exhilarating, shocking, enlightening, staggering, funny, infuriating, the-adjectives-never-end shit). As if I haven’t done enough of that over the past ten years. But, for all the writing of my past decade, so much has been superficial, a one-dimensional reportage about what I observed my husband enduring when he was battered by cancer. Not what I, personally went through, felt, thought, endured, came through, fell back into, again and again as a result…”jesus, who needs that story?” I told myself. “Tell the good stuff—the survival story (but the short version, please!)—a little gore in to appease the masses, the polished yet edgy, MFA-worthy stuff…” Turns out, that material has a pretty short life expectancy when one’s heart is missing. As my dad used to say, “Either shit or get off the pot, Jen.” He may not have been an eloquent man, but he knew how to call it when he saw it.
This current writing began benignly enough, an homage to my twenty-five years in the Twin Cities.
Back in October, before I moved to Mankato, I drove around and took photos of all the places I’ve lived in in the cities, with the simple idea of writing a few lines of memories about each home, conveniently forgetting that 25 years is a damned long time to live anywhere. A few lines begat a few more and before I knew it, I was writing long, meandering essays about each home. As I wrote, forgotten memories resurfaced, patterns began to emerge, themes of running, hiding, numbing, camouflaging fears and anxieties, surviving, adapting, moving forward, falling back, birth stories and death stories…the more I wrote, the more curious I became and I began to interrogate further—where do these stories contained within these photos really take root?
When I got to Mankato, I drove around and took more photos of all the places I’d lived while I went to college here, from 1987 to 1992. More memories, more stories, more patterns shimmered to the surface. More dots to connect, more truths emerge, more questions to answer, more roots unearthed…more pages to write. What have I done, I wondered, when will this end?
It can be exhausting and heartbreaking, to examine a life like this. No wonder most of us don’t do it. What becomes of this exercise in torture, except torture? The truths uncovered may be startling, not at all like the family lore we might have been told and held tightly to all these years, and how is that reconciled? We can get trapped in the past if we’re not careful, or run screaming from it, if we don’t like what we find. Coming back a space that feels calm between the two is essential and a skill that takes time to develop. (That would have been helpful know ten years ago…) then, the uncovered truths become guides, converging stars, gravitational pulls that entwine past to present, present to movement forward, and suddenly, that abhorrent adage, “everything happens for a reason,” makes blinding sense. Except I’ll still bitch-slap anyone into next month who tells me my husband had to die an excruciating death for me to learn this truth, because so much god-awful work has gone into shaping this truth, it’s so much bigger than a lame adage or I can ever contain.
One enormous truth that has emerged with my current writing, concerns the birth stories of each kid in my family. It was a tradition for my mom to call me on my birthday and share the details of my day of birth—she did this with all five of us kids. I loved these calls because my mom was such a gifted storyteller—the call alone was the best birthday gift. Even though I’d heard my birth story a million times before, every year, she’d tie a new thread to my tapestry in the form of a new detail, a new memory recalled, every year, the fabric of my story grew.
I was born the day after Thanksgiving in 1967, in Mountain Lake, MN, around 6:30 am—”The only time in your life you were ever early, Jen,” she’d laugh. This was in a time where mothers stayed in the hospital for days after giving birth; my mom said every meal she had was a derivative of the turkey dinner that had been served on the holiday—turkey sandwich, turkey casserole, turkey noodle soup…she told me about the little old man in a room down the hall, who would sneak out of his room, his bare backside flashing through the split in his gown as he shuffled down to the nursery to gaze at the little redhead baby that he was determined to steal for his own…that my grandmother showed up with an armload of frilly dresses that she hung on the curtains of my mom’s room, and that my mom felt that maybe she had finally done something right in her mom’s eyes—giving her a granddaughter who might make up for the transgressions she had inflicted upon her parents. Already, my young, tender mom—she was just 19, with two other babies at home (three, if you count my dad, which I sometimes do)—was absorbing far too much blame, shame, unwarranted guilt into her body, that she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
My sister Jill, recently gave me another thread to my birth stories, one that I didn’t know, or maybe had forgotten (the ways my mom’s voice continues talking to us after death is astounding). On Thanksgiving day, the day before my birth, my mom sat at the table of her family’s holiday dinner. Only my dad and my mom’s sister, my Auntie Pat, knew she was pregnant. At one point, my grandma (in other words, my mom’s very own mother) whispered to Pat, “I think Kathy’s pregnant again.” And then, the next day, I was born, like a holiday miracle, except nothing at all like a holiday miracle—that my mom had carried me to term, like a regular human birth, yet her own mother only vaguely guessed at the possibility the day before I was born is unfathomable. This single incident speaks volumes of my mom’s life, how, even in the midst of family, alone she was, so estranged from her now mother that asking for help was never an option, that keeping secrets was the family way. Maybe the miracle is that she learned to adapt, in spite of these family flaws.
Adapting does not always mean an improvement; sometimes it’s simply a means to survive, and sometimes those adaptations are things children inherit and continue to pass on down the line, repeating the cycle, until someone finally says, okay, I’m done with this shit. I’m going in deep, diving into the shit, to see if there’s anything else is hiding in there. And maybe begin shifting, if even ever so slightly, from the family narrative that’s been in control for too long, and adapting has probably been happening since the beginning of time.
For the past ten years, I’ve tried my hand at deep shit-diving, but I did’t have the right tools to help keep me steady or safe as I went in. It’s exhausting, excruciating territory, and if you don’t have some badass self-care tactics in place, the dive will wreck you, and not in a good way. In my past, this act of shit-diving ripped open wounds again and again until they became infected and began spreading to other parts of me. It felt like repeated failed exorcism—for all the writing I was doing, the ghosts not only remained, unfazed by my efforts, they invited all their rowdy friends in, too. I employed all kinds of means to anesthetize the wounds, so I could present myself to the world not as a woman covered with battle scars, but as something less true, more neat and tidy and admirable to the world.
A month or so before my mom died, I sat in her living room and said, “Mom, I think my drinking is becoming a problem.” She looked at me sharply and said, “You? Have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem.” How it felt like to be split in two by her words: at once, immeasurably relieved. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, does’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem! At the same time, indescribably devastated. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s a problem. Of course, I went with Door Number 1, the don’t do anything about the problem option, because the familiar is far easier than the unknown, no matter how fucked up it is. And I wondered why the exorcism wasn’t working.
It took another few years to finally decide to stop the insanity, and I stopped drinking almost a year ago, January 1. It was only meant to be an experiment—30 days, alcohol free. Then assess the situation, and see how I feel. 30 days turned into 60, then 90, then six months, then…and suddenly, almost like magic (okay nothing like magic, because this too, was excruciating, this process of actually feeling all the feels, instead of numbing from them, but I’ll tell you a little secret—that pain is where the magic of healing begins), I began to like myself. A lot. Maybe for the first time in a very long time. Maybe ever. And then my writing took off. And then a fucking pandemic began. And I had no one to share this immense transformation with. But I kept at it. I kept writing, and collecting bits of insight and beauty in the midst of the shitshow. And I am learning that people will still do and say things to try to sabotage my hard work, like “Oh that’s right, you don’t drink anymore,” as though the not drinking part is the problem.
I don’t know if this is forever—another magic secret: nothing is forever. Literally nothing. but the magic truth to that is, would we really want it to? I mean, really? For now, this not drinking thing is working a helluva lot better than the alternative, especially as I navigate blindly in unchartered pandemic territory. And because I actually really like liking myself, and I no longer fear writing, but instead, see it as an exploration into new lands, I’ll stick with it for a while. Except if that mofo in the WH keeps up his toddler antics—then my resolve for all the things might soon come to a grinding halt.
All this diving made me pause in my thoughts, as I realized that each of my siblings has an equally heartbreaking story to tell about a profound event in our lives—our birth—that typically is anticipated, celebrated, rejoiced. The heaviness of the truths are layered deep inside of us. Each of us kids have absorbed this legacy, in our profoundly unique ways. But I’ve heard stories of grace appearing in the most unexpected sources, like finding a diamond ring deep in the lines of a clogged sewer, and I’ve known my own stories of grace, like sending a message to a friend that turns into a three-hour solve-the-worlds-problems kind of night…or just going down into the basement, alone, and living in my body in ways that I don’t know I ever have, in all the 53 years of my life. I mean, the movements might look exactly the same from the outside, but the way I feel inside is another-planet different. Like my inside and the outside are moving closer to one another, an inner-body reflection of the outer-body Saturn-Jupiter thing going up in the heavens.
Happy almost winter solstice, everyone. Feel the transforming energy around. It’s everywhere, even in the middle of a never-ending shitshow. xo
if your Thanksgiving (and birthday and Halloween and Labor Day and any old given day…) doesn’t feel weird this year, you’re not doing the pandemic right. Take your ass home, go to your room now, and think long and hard about how your actions are affecting everyone else, not just you, and don’t come out until you feel weird, like the rest of us do.
if your gratitude feels a little (maybe a lot) off this year…if your skin feels oddly ill-fitting at the same time as you laugh riotously playing Cards Against Humanity (who thinks up those god-awful answers to the questions?! And can I get a job there?) with your family on Zoom at the same time as you think if you never partake in another fucking Zoom call the rest of your life, it’ll be too soon…if all 37 trillion cells of your being ache with yet another anemic version of a family gathering, yet reverberate with curious solidarity when you buy take-out Thanksgiving dinner for five (there’s only one of you) from a local restaurant to help keep their doors open, that you split with your sister and zoom-eat with her, simultaneously choking your food down with tears and feeling the love from so many sources…if you find yourself going to the basement to switch out laundry and instead drag out tubs of holiday decorations even though for weeks you’ve said why bother this year…if you fall asleep crying into your pillow and wake with a vague dread weaving through your veins more days than not, but still find that your heart swells under an expansive blue-black 5 am sky scattered with pinpoints of light while walking your dog…if you find soothing respite in the woods, or by making something—anything—banana bread, an essay, your bed—no matter how crappy (it’s NOT) your stupid (they ARE) internal critics try to convince you otherwise, and every damned time you squash those voices and keep on walking and making, you will never not be not awash in wonder with how it all works, that somehow it’s all connected…
if you manage to get through another day (holidays add an extra uncomfortable helping of weirdness, you’ll need to loosen your belt to make room for the density of it), if it feels like barely some days, even if your phone’s “health” app seems to be giving you the finger, if every day makes you wonder will these dark days will ever end (Biden’s Thanksgiving address might make you feel cautiously maybe? somewhat? soon?…) if you wonder how much more can your poor heart take (you will continually discover, more than you could ever imagine, which usually happens on the precipice of not much more), when your only nourishment some days is coffee and the news (you should really do something about that, btw, starting with stepping away from the news and going for a walk in the woods and hug a tree or ten, or through the neighborhood and pick up some trash, or fill your senses with bird song, wind on your cheeks, ground underfoot…)
in case no one’s told you, you are not losing your mind. Everything is right with you. Everything is working exactly as it should. You are a deep-feeling, compassionate, passionate, wildly complex, sane human being, who can’t help but feel grossly unsettled in this grossly unsettling time, it’s by design. When you experience great loss—and that is what we have experienced in this pandemic, layer upon layer of uncontrollable loss—you will grieve. deeply, righteously, excruciatingly. which, in turn, sets a mysterious, painstaking, inexplicable, life-altering process in place called healing, which is where you catch shimmers of that thing called hope or growth or maybe there’s not a word for it, just a feeling that feels terribly incongruous, wrong even, next to the shit, but it will be the thing, the tiniest of things, that will will build on themselves and become stronger, in time, that will help you move forward, though at the time, it might feel anything but.
And always remember, you are in very good company, even if some days it feels like anything but. It might not look or fee anything like gratitude, but trust me, you are righteously, deservingly, messily steeped in it. xo.
Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 3 Thursday, October 29, my last night in the Twin Cities. I’ve been packing and crying and cleaning and sighing all day, wondering is this really, I mean really? good bye Twin Cities? Forever?
#1 Dayton Avenue, St. Paul, MN. May 2013 – May 2016: I love this address, I love this neighborhood, Rocco does too. It first imprinted on my cells with the drafty old Iglehart home, and became a permanent part of my DNA when I moved to Dayton Ave. Sometimes I get wistful, and drive to St. Paul, just to walk around the neighborhood. Left to his devices, no matter where we begin, Rocco will lead us to the front door of this familiar brick house.
The kindest owner/landlord—single dad with 3 teenagers—lived above me, with their wild yellow lab, Taz. The sounds of life drifting down from their upper levels into my first floor apartment was a balm for the skin-crawling dead silence of my country home on Oldridge. Inviting front porch in summer, cozy fireplace in winter, the most traumatic Forth of July fireworks antics I’d ever encountered anywhere, worse, even, than living next door to Wisconsin.
My mom stayed with me a lot here. She watched me rearrange furniture a lot here. One night, she sat on my sofa, glass of wine balancing on one knee, Kindle on the other (she told me later, she was Googling “rearranging furniture + mental health”), watching as I shoved and dragged my belongings into a new configuration.
She casually asked, “So, when are you going to stop rearranging your furniture, Jen?”
“When everything in my life feels like it fits together again,” I said.
She adored this neighborhood, too, we shared countless gin and tonics on the front porch in summer, bottles of wine in front of the toasty fireplace in winter. She adored my landlord and his family, became friendly with his mother, who often came from northern MN to help him with the grandkids (something my mom could wholeheartedly relate to).
I took a year off from grad school while living here. For all the writing, I didn’t feel any wiser, any more enlightened, any more healed. What started as an education now felt like a failed exorcism. The ghosts remained, like squatters, moving freely between my cells. Two years, then three years, then four years after Bob’s death, “All I do is write about a dead man,” I thought. I’m sick of this story, I don’t want it anymore. I don’t want to live haunted like this for the rest of my life. I despised the label widow and the pedestal that came with it. It felt unfair, a betrayal, to talk about Bob when he wasn’t here to verify, or refute, or offer his version of my stories. I wondered how healthy it is to continue to relive this experience overandoverandoveragain by writing about it overandoverandoveragain.
I traveled a lot while living here. I was diagnosed with caregiver PTSD while living here. I spent a small fortune in therapy, trying to talk the ghosts from the rooms of my bones. I went back to grad school while living here. I accumulated more teaching certificates while living here.
Three years after Bob’s death, I began dating while living here, not on purpose. I’ve never dated on purpose—it’s one of seven wonders of the world that I ever got married. I don’t “put myself out there,” I’ve never used a dating app (no judgment, just not my thing). I’m usually minding my own business, and shit just happens; I’ll shrug and say, okay fine, we can meet for coffee, but my bullshit radar is razor-sharp and sniper-accurate and most first dates are usually just that, first. This was not a new development since Bob died, and I’m not saying it’s the best strategy or that I recommend it; for better or worse, it’s the way I’ve always been. I went out with safe men, who lived across the country, who lived in other countries, who were married to other women, who were married to their jobs—men whom I knew wouldn’t or couldn’t get too close, because there wasn’t enough room for much else but me and my ghosts.
Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage when I was living here. I went on a few dates with a senior captain of a major airline while living here. We met at a roller derby match. What followed was a fascinating first-hand study of what was seeping into our nation’s psyche. On a cold winter day, we met for coffee at the Mall of America (his idea, not mine, red flag #1), where he told me about how much money he made, the big houses he owned, how much fun we’d have traveling to Japan, the Philippines, the Netherlands together (red flags # 2, 3 and 4). He rolled his eyes at my “love is love” bumper sticker. “Oh, you’re one of those,” he said with a scowl. I took copious mental notes of his actions, his words, wondering how much of my soul I’d have to sell, how much of my brain I’d have to shut off in exchange for the brand of ease he was hocking.
A constantly-professing Christian, he told stories about the good work he did, serving meals at a homeless shelter, with his men’s group at church. He rattled off percentages—how many of the men coming to the shelter could work if they really wanted to, how many did have jobs but were taking advantage of a free meal, how many were this, how many were that, and came to the conclusion that no one at the shelter actually deserved the free meal. I stopped him mid-sentence, “Hey wait a minute—you don’t get to judge the people you’re serving. I’m no expert, but I’m 100% certain Jesus didn’t do it like that.” My bullshit meter shot off the dial before I’d finished my coffee, yet a strange fascination compelled me to spend time with him, listen to his rhetoric, take note of his skewed ethics—this was something I needed to know—an echo of the politics swirling around at the time. I ended my informal study when he broke a date for a hockey tournament, which was a-okay by me; it was his aggressive insistence that I join him to watch the tournament that was especially concerning—it began with bribing then guilt-tripping then vague threats. I’ve saved all our text exchanges for an essay I’ll one day write. Maybe.
I fell in love for real while living here, with a man who wasn’t married to someone else or a job. He didn’t live impossibly far away, but still felt safe—he lived in another city an hour and a half from me. I fell in love with his huge appetite for life, the way he devoured good food, a hoppy IPA, the way he devoured me. I fell in love with the messages that we sent back and forth before we had our first real date, the messages that continued long after that date. I fell in love with the conversations we had, whether we were together, when we were on the phone. He told me he usually hated talking on the phone but we’d find ourselves regrettably hanging up well over an hour later. I fell in love with the time we spent together, whether it was going to a concert or waking up with tangled legs under the sheets The two of us together were magic, but as soon as the lens started pulling back, revealing more of his enormous life—two ex wives, two daughters, grandsons, a band, so many friends, so many ex girlfriends, it went from being a novelty to scaring me for reasons I struggled to understand. What I could only feel with increasing discomfort, what I didn’t have words for at the time, is that his huge appetite for life was showing me how severely starving I was in my own.
My youngest sister, Gretchen, came to live with me while I was living here, after she did one of the bravest thing I’ve known anyone to do—she left her husband, a big comfy home and cushy life, with nothing but the clothes on her body and whatever she could fit in the trunk of her little Kia. I cleared out the back bedroom for her.
Philando Castile was brutally, publicly executed by a police officer in Falcon Heights while I was living here; the murder captured on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, her tiny four-year-old daughter in the back seat. I consumed news coverage of his murder, which talked at length about who Pilando was, how beloved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, down the street from where I was living.
Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic to me; he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I marched in peaceful protests, I stood outside the governor’s mansion singing and chanting, I wrote to and called my representatives expressing outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, oh my god, so much catching up I have to do…though I’d lived in Cathedral Hill for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando’s funeral. It was shoulder-to-shoulder packed, his death tore the Twin Cities wide open, it had the power to rip the whole world wide awake.
The 2016 election campaigning was beginning while I was living here. I felt and saw and heard an ugliness resurfacing in our country, gaining momentum, a disorienting “us vs them” mentality spreading like a virus. What the hell is going going on here? Where the hell have I been? I wondered.
In February, I wrote to a California friend, a man I had met a few years prior on a layover in the Phoenix airport, on my way to San Diego. It was my first trip alone as a widow, I traveled over the holidays.
“I honestly get nauseous and scared at the thought of Trump being president,” I told him. “I can’t believe anyone would support a candidate who is so steeped in hate and absolute stupidity. And seriously. That fucking hair. Just goes to show that having money doesn’t also always guarantee you have good taste…But he has an unbelievable number of supporters who worship him, so it’s a very real possibility he could be our next prez, which is a pathetic statement on our country, definitely. I’m sure people around the world are just dying over our circus act of a presidential race … why, oh WHY can’t ANY of our parties come up with a young, hot, charismatic AND SMART candidate like Canada, dammit??!! I can’t even begin to imagine what our country would be like if Trump is our next president. I’ll move. Not kidding. Along with a massive exodus of other terrified Americans no doubt, and we’ll have to hope like hell other countries will forgive and forget all the awful things Trump and others have said and are saying about ramping up border control and keeping refugees and immigrants out of the US, and still be willing to take us in … I also get pissed when I hear things like if Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, Hilary supporters will vote independent, or vice versa. THAT would ultimately be what gets Trump into office. I usually get so annoyed with people take the “the lesser of two evils” route rather than voting on principle, but this is one time I’m making an exception to that rule. I’m not a huge Hilary fan, but she’s light years better than the Trump Freakshow… okay, now I’m all worked up — thanks for letting me vent! feelin’ the Bern…:)
My sister moved out, my rent was going up (the first time in the 3 years I’d lived there). That September, just before the election, I moved from St. Paul across the river to Minneapolis.
#2 40th Ave. South, Minneapolis, May 2016 – May 2018: I moved from Dayton Ave. to south Minneapolis, into a little 2 br stucco not far from Lake Nokomis. South Minneapolis is known for its progressive leanings; I managed to find the one block that was not. I was a Bernie supporter, through and through, as the bumper stickers on my ol’ Jeep proudly (still) proclaim, and maybe explains why my neighbors let their dog shit in my yard and didn’t make eye contact and scurried into their house whenever we passed on the street. Or, maybe they were plain old assholes, who knows anything for sure? But, when Bernie didn’t get the Dem nomination, I put my dashed hopes aside and stood with Hillary. Any other option was not an option. This was the first time in my life that I felt, with blindingly, excruciatingly, imperatively clarity, that my vote was not just for me, but for those—many I knew, far more whom I didn’t—whose lives and livelihoods were in grave danger.
In tandem with the election theatrics, I had just signed a lease and paid first month’s rent and deposit for a small commercial space on the border of Minneapolis and St. Paul, on Minnehaha Avenue, to open a Pilates studio. The landlord turned out to be Minneapolis’ own small-potatoes version of DJT, a lecherous, unethical creature who was more handsy and creepy than a landlord (or anyone) has a legal right to. I kept brushing it off as me being too sensitive; he’s from another generation, he doesn’t know any better. It was a surreal two weeks, a parallel universe of the national scene, his behavior grew more brazen as the campaigning grew more aggressive. I finally confronted him and his partner (with my sister, Jill, planted as a witness/reinforcement) with three pages of documented transgressions. I broke the lease, he returned my rent and deposit, gave me two days to get my equipment out of the space and into storage, not because he admitted to any wrongdoing, but because of my two witnesses, he feared I’d take him to court.
The upside to this awful story is that I found a small space to rent at University Baptist Church in Dinkytown, which is how I learned that not all Baptists are variations on the godawful Westboro theme, but can, indeed be astoundingly progressive, tireless social justice warriors…I can’t say I because a member of the church because religion still scares the shit out of me, but I can say that I looked forward to going to church at UBC more than I did at any point in my life.
On election day, 2016, I donned my Wonder Woman knee-high socks (with little capes, even!), and with stars in my eyes and hope surging through my veins, I traipsed across the street to my local polling place to cast my vote (a Lutheran church, where I duly noted many cars in the parking lot on Sunday mornings, emblazoned with Trump 2016 bumper stickers).
I was so confident, so sure that, despite the deep chasm the year’s campaigning had gouged into our national psyche, more people than not still had the heart and mind and soul to vote—not for a crude, loud-mouth realty show host who inherited his fortune (a member of the lucky sperm club, my husband would have called him) and a history of sexually assaulting women and bragging about it on camera and degrading the elderly and people with different abilities and using other people’s money and labor to run business after business venture bankrupt—but for those who’s lives matter, deeply. Needless to say, but I will anyway, I was proven horribly wrong.
As is my nature, that’s been deeply embedded, I felt personally responsible for this, and sank into deep despair. But this despair also fueled a spark that had been burning softly, patiently in my heart, patiently waiting for me to notice.
I went to my beloved Auntie Patty-cake’s home in uptown that night, to hang with her and my mom and watch the election results. We grew sick to our stomachs as we watched the results coming in. There was something gruesomely familiar to the scene—I couldn’t stop comparing what was happening with the election to my husband’s time in hospice. We knew how it would end, not well, but we didn’t know exactly how, or when, or…I left Pat’s early, I couldn’t hold out till the bitter end. Hate and divisiveness were winning out. I crawled into bed and was jarred awake the next morning, it was still dark. I didn’t have to check my phone, the collective grief was so palpable, settling heavily into the spaces between my cells like thick sludge. My god what is happening, where the hell have I been?
The next day, my mom and I found a church service at the Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, on Macalester College campus, a hastily-organized event offering solace for those mourning the loss of America as we once knew it. It was like being at a funeral, everyone was crying, the heaviness in the room was oppressive, we could hardly breath. We lit candles, sang songs of hope and love, hugged one another tight (remember when we could do that, with such ease?), assuring one another that the fight was not over, the hard, necessary, long-overdue work had just begun.
I watched my sister, Jill’s, life unravel with the fury of a cyclone when her husband left her and their kids and a house facing foreclosure. I helped when I could—her kids came to stay with me a lot, I watched her dog a lot, I helped clean her house. I watched with strange envy as she uprooted her bewildered, fractured family from their home in Golden Valley and haphazardly replanted in St. Peter, first in my mom’s dollhouse apartment—all three of them and my mom jammed into her tiny 1 br. Through a series of celestial happenstances, she got a job with an online university (she could work from home and be with the kids) then an apartment, and a community who immediately enveloped her and her kids.
I began my thesis while living here, stringing together all the stories I’d written over five years, about being a caregiver for my dying best friend, who happened to be my husband. I had my first essay published while living here in south Minneapolis. I won a MN State Arts Board grant while living here. The Us v. Them fervor was spreading across the country like a virus. I started writing an essay that wasn’t about my dead husband, “Pelvic Floor Disorders, Explained (or, How DJT Became 45th President of the United States)” but then I got stuck. I didn’t have words for what I was seeing, hearing, feeling.
My thesis committee raved about the quality of my work, but the big question was, “We know what happens to Bob in your story—we are in love with and heartbroken over him, you’ve made him so real. But what about you in your own story, Jen? What happened to you?” I didn’t know how to tell that part of the story.
I got sick—literally, physically, mentally, spiritually—of writing, of everything, while living here, the culmination of too many things bearing down, catching up, swallowing me whole. My story came to a grinding halt, if it had ever began at all. I graduated with my Masters in Creative Writing in April, while living here. Then my landlord’s husband died, so I had to move, again.
Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 2.
#1. Oldridge Avenue revisited, Feb, 2005 – August 2011: In 2005, we moved from our beloved bungalow in Roseville to a groovy li’l ’70’s walk-out rambler in the country near the Wisconsin border, a year after I opened my salon. “The best of both worlds,” our realtor said about “country living close to the city.” And for a very short time, I concurred.
“The worst of all worlds,” I soon thought about this land of Michele Bachman and imposing, stone-cold McMansions, where neighbors kept to themselves and friends didn’t come to visit and the dreaded commute that I had so far avoided my whole adult life became a necessity not a choice, where Bob had his first heart attack, then our sweet husky, Liddy died, then my dad died, then Bob’s cancer, and then, and then, and then…
I started writing things that weren’t epic Christmas letters while living here—first on CaringBridge when Bob had his first heart attack in 2007, then on a blog, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. The blog’s only intent was to share with family and friends what was going on with Bob, who, when all was said and done, would spend more days in a hospital than in our home during those 19 months he was ill. All he ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be back at his home in the country. All I ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be anywhere but alone in that country home. After over a year of assault by treatment and disease, a few days before Christmas in 2010, I brought him home to our country house for good, for hospice.
I trailed him like a shadow those long, last days; I couldn’t leave him alone for any length of time, for fear he’d fall, he was so frail, more confused every day. But, even in such a state, dammit if he wouldn’t sit still for a moment for me to catch my breath, for me to catch a few winks—instead, he’d fumble and stumble through the house, from bed, to living room, to bathroom, back to living room, back to bedroom, round and round we orbited our small hospice universe, occasionally collapsing into bed, only to repeat the routine throughout the night. The days were mostly uneventful, though.
Shortly before he died, we were in the bathroom together late one night; I was waiting for him to finish so I could clean him and help him back to bed. The end was too close, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t stop our little universe from unraveling, I couldn’t stop him from dying, I couldn’t stop anything, but forever a control freak, it didn’t stop me from desperately trying.
“I’ll take care of you like this forever, if you promise not to leave me,” I bartered with tears.
“You say that as though I have a choice,” he laughed quietly at my words.
“Will you give me a sign then, after you die, to let me know you’re nearby, that you’re okay?”
“I can do that, as long as you quit saying I’m leaving you,” he said with a weak smile. He sat quiet for a while then announced, with surprising clarity, “I’ll send a great horned owl.” My heart sank. Great horned owls were a dime a dozen out here in the woods.
“I won’t know which one is from you,” I whispered.
“Don’t worry, you’ll know,” he said. He was so serious and so sick, what else could I do but believe him? He died a few weeks later, on May 3, 2011.
The emptiness of his absence swallowed me whole, as black holes are wont to do, nightmares don’t follow rules and didn’t leave when daylight appeared, instead, gnawing on me from the inside-out. The gouges carved into woodwork from his walker, the camping gear lining the shelves in the garage, the soundtrack from the music of his memorial service that wove in and out of my brain all hours, for days, then weeks, then months on on end interrupted conversations, kept me from sleep, never let me forget. I couldn’t press pause, I couldn’t hit stop, songs I used to love now haunted and repelled. At night, I’d stand on the cold dark deck in bare feet, where we used to have wine parties, and scream into the blackness till my dogs ran for cover and my voice grew raspy and my neighbors must have wondered why banshees liked to congregate on our property.
In the wake of Bob’s death, everything, like me, was breaking down and giving up. The washer stopped washing, the dryer stopped drying, then the freezer began leaking, the ceramic cooktop refused to cook. Our trusty ol’ lawnmower, that barely had a patch of actual lawn to mow, fizzled out. I fixed every one of those things myself, thanks to YouTube and an unhealthily-developing aversion to allowing anyone, even repair people, into my world. My mom stayed with me a lot out here, she told me later she feared for my life. She willingly (?) agreed to help me move all our furniture from the first floor to the finished basement and the basement furniture to the first floor, I was desperate to scramble the memories, dismayed that no matter the reconfiguration, they remained front and center in my brain.
She was with me when the chimney began drip, drip, dripping into the fireplace when it rained, when the garage flooded in spring and we had to shovel knee-deep water out and around the building to the ravine below. She was with me when massive tree branches from the oaks that umbrellaed our house, felled by wind, crashed onto the deck and the roof. It was as though the house was the external expression of what was raging inside of me. She had good reason to be fearful.
Things got harder, not better, on Oldridge. I didn’t cook, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I slid deeper into despair. But I did paint the kitchen, and the interior of every closet, and the vertical blinds, and I started swinging kettlebells, which sounds like an odd thing to do in the throes of grief, which was my dear friend, Lisa’s fault. Lisa, who had unexpectedly lost her beloved son, Sam, shortly before Bob, invited me to a class, “It’s a small group—everyone knows I’m the crazy grieving mom—you can be my crazy widow sidekick, we’ll be quite the spectacle. Yes, you will still bawl your eyes out in class—Roni, our instructor is so cool about it—but you will also think about not dropping a 25 lb. cast iron cannonball on your head, too…” And I got my motorcycle license, which, in hindsight, is probably the worst thing a person in the depths of grief should be allowed to do, then my kettlebell instructor’s certificate, then my Pilates teacher’s certificate and then, and then, and then…
The nightmares in the house were relentless. One sleepless night a few months after Bob’s departure, with the soundtrack of his life looping in my brain, I hopped on Craigslist, my eyes sliding down the list of “Homes for Rent” until they came to rest on a boxy old stone house in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Reasonable rent (reasonable for a crazed widow with a $2200 mortgage and no job), no garage, perfect size for me and two dogs . . . after shooting an inquiry email to the owner, after quelling the looping music with the only way I knew how, a couple of stiff gin and tonics, I slid into fitful sleep. The next day, I signed the lease for this old home, paid the deposit, move-in date set for mid-August.
I drove home afterward, collapsed onto my sofa and cried like I had yet to cry since Bob died, which was an impressive feat, because for the past twenty-two months, all I did was cry. I was getting really good at it, as natural as breathing. I was pummeled by worry: what the hell am I doing? I can’t just move—I don’t have this house ready for sale, it’s a terrible market—what if it doesn’t sell? Am I dishonoring Bob’s memory and all he went through by leaving his beloved country cottage? what if, what if, what if. . . I lay on the couch, heavy sobs wracking my body. I was so tired, I wanted my eyes to close forever, my mind to grow dead still.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a bright flash outside. I wanted to lie there, ignore the flash but then, I was standing. Then, I was walking through the patio door. Then I was standing on the deck. That time of year, our backyard, choked with towering cottonwoods, expansive oaks, slender birches, would fill in so lush and full, it was nearly impossible to discern anything else from deep layers of foliage. Sometimes, I remember, I did love this house, because it felt like we lived in the treetops. I stood on the deck, my eyes scanning the landscape. For what? I wasn’t sure. Until the thick backdrop was interrupted by a shadowy football-shaped silhouette that grew feathers as I stared. Then, the piercing gaze of a great horned owl, perched on a low branch just beyond the deck, burned through to mine. How I found it, I couldn’t say. I’m a terrible birder—they all look like black blobs to me. It was broad daylight, an odd time for a great horned owl to be out and about; sunlight couldn’t penetrate to its shadowy location, no crows were harassing it. The owl was so close, I could see its golden eyes blinking, the mottled pattern on its chest expanding and contracting with each breath, the breeze flicking at its tufted horned feathers.
We stood still for several minutes, staring at each other until the owl finally broke the stare-down. Turning its head to look behind, then back at me for one long last gaze, the owl alighting from the branch and slid into the woods, swallowed by layers of green. I wish I could say that with the appearance of this owl, the despondency that had settled heavy into the spaces between my cells suddenly drained out of my feet, through the slats of the deck, seeping into the ground below, but that would imply a fairy tale ending, and unfortunately, that’s not what happens when you let your head rule your world.
#2. Iglehart Avenue, St. Paul, from August, 2011 – January 2012: I’ve written a lot about this old stone house on the cusp of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. An awfully expensive, horribly maintained, absolutely charming drafty box of a house, with windows so sagging in their frames, my mom feared someone would slide a blunt object between the frame and window, pop it open and gain entry. I never did tell her about the time I found a butter knife on the outside sill of my kitchen window when I was weeding flower beds.
I submitted 30 hastily-assembled pages from my blog to Hamline University at the literal 11th hour, and was accepted to their MFA in Creative Writing while here. I watched drug deals outside my living room window while here. I saw a SWAT team tear across my front yard and storm an abandoned house two doors down. Nearly every home on my block, except mine, was burglarized that summer; my mom said people are going to get suspicious of the widow and her two dogs in the old house. I was only here 6 months before some of the brain fog dissipated enough for me to admit that I couldn’t continue to pay for two homes indefinitely. Which, in hindsight, was the absolute wrong decision, but again, when brains take over…I begrudgingly broke the Iglehart lease and moved back to Oldridge in the middle of winter in 2012.
Back to Oldridge, Feb. 2012 – May-ish 2013: My beloved old dog, Gaia, died shortly after we moved back to Oldridge. I tried selling the place conventionally with a realtor, I tried unconventionallly, for sale by owner, I tried renting the house out and in the process, inadvertently coaxed every shady character to crawl out from under every rock in the tri-state area and try their hand at swindling the grieving widow on Oldridge. In the end, CitiMortgage beat them to it. I waged a two-year battle with said lender, trying to prove that “death of a spouse” was an actual hardship. They didn’t buy it. I lost handfuls of hair going head-to-head with our lender (which I thought about collecting and sending to them as more proof of hardship). I lost the equivalent of ten years of sleep. I lost an alarming amount of weight, which prompted people to say, “You’re looking great! Things must be getting better, huh?” I learned that’s how others will determine how well you are doing, by your exterior, and I thought, “hmm. Maybe I need to let loose my inner shitstorm in public.”
I started grad school while back at Oldridge. I began teaching kettlebells and Pilates back at Oldridge. I finally threw my hands up in exasperation and walked away from the house on Oldridge, in the spring of 2013, back to St. Paul, declaring firmly that never again would I fight like a madwoman for an inanimate object. Another human being? Absolutely, always, every time. But a material thing, a resounding no.
#3. Detour—Park Row, St. Peter, MN. May 2011 to December 2018: My mom’s cozy living room in her dollhouse apartment in St. Peter, MN. I probably spent more time tucked into the shadowy corner of my mom’s sofa, than anywhere, for a very long time after Bob died. I probably should have paid half her rent. Of the three girls in my family, most who know us would say I am the most independent (some might say headstrong, stubborn, obstinate, whatever). I used to think this, too. Curiously, though, I have many pictures of me as a little girl, practically welded to my mom’s side. I notice this recurring theme throughout the years, me and my mom, cheek to cheek, arm in arm, squeezing her shoulders, clutching her waist, like she was my lifeboat and I was a ragged sail attached to her, flailing in the wind.
A Farewell Tour to 25 years in St. Paul, part 1. #1 Cleveland Avenue, circa 1993-94ish: The start of my love affair with St. Paul—this 3-level townhouse in Highland Park, across the street from the Ford Plant (which is no longer) and Little League fields (which still are). I’d moved into this place by way of Mankato to Winona to St. Paul (Winona? Yes, Winona, where I’d gone to nursing school for a year, after 4 years at MSU), with my sister, Jill, and Bob. Yes, my sister, my boyfriend and me, living under the same roof, like a slapstick sitcom, a melodramatic soap opera; some days, definitely both and more.
Bob had recently begun work as a wine consultant with a local wine and spirits retailer (which is how I learned to describe red wines not as “bitter!” with a scowl, but as “dry, but full bodied with a glint of raspberry and a dash of pepper” ). I started beauty school while living here, I hacked my hair short while living here, I got really into crafts while living here (everyone got puffy-painted sweatshirts, or hot-glue-gunned dried flowery/ribbony/lacy things from me for Christmas that year), my sister and I still smoked like chimneys while living here, we collected Marlboro Miles by the grocery bags-full while living here—remember that Jill? I think we smoked enough to get a zero-degree sleeping bag, a weather-proof lighter, and probably latent-cases of emphysema.
#2 Ashland Avenue, circa 1995-96: tiny 1 br, near St. Thomas University. It took me a while to find this place to snap a photo the other day, there are many similar apartment buildings in this neighborhood. As soon as I saw the window boxes, I knew this was the one; instead of flowers, Bob fed birds from feeders he’d planted in the window boxes, which attracted more squirrels than birds, which caused our landlord to ask Bob to please remove the feeders or the squirrels will stage a hostile takeover of the place. We were married while living in this classic brick building, I was still in beauty school and had converted our tiny dining room into a “salon,” where many haircuts and spiral perms and cap-highlights happened.
#3 Grandview Avenue, circa 1996-97: Hillsboro Apartments in Roseville. A gargantuan, unsightly building off Rice Street and Hwy 36 (I think everyone who moves to the Twin Cities makes a pit-stop at one of endless nondescript mega complexes in this area); it reminded me of the Pentagon, except more like a Polygon, with many odd-angled sides, a courtyard in the middle, two swimming pools—one indoor, one out. The outdoor pool I never used, the indoor one I used almost daily until my skin turned to raw hamburger and my hair to shredded wheat, and I swore off chlorinated pools for the rest of my life. I’d finished beauty school and was working my 1st salon gig where I suffered my first and only case of salon-induced hair disasters—I got tired of my high-maintenance pixie-short hair (every two-weeks haircut? C’mON. But had to be done, lest I tread into Ronald McDonald clown-wig territory), so I began growing it out. Being the impatient person I am, but now a trained professional with caustic chemicals at my disposal, I decided to straighten my hair (with said chemicals, in the hopes it would appear longer), successfully swapping The Ronald for The Scarecrow, which was also when The Rachel (from Friends) was at its pinnacle, which was what I was going for, but was not what I ended up with. The obvious solution was to put my curls back, right?
One night, alone in our Hillsoboro apartment, I broke out my beauty-school-issued perm rods and permed my straw-straight hair, and wound up with something that looked like my grandma would have requested from her small-town beauty parlor—The Classic, Sensible Wash ‘n’ Wear poodle ‘do. I wore a lot of hats and scarves for a good year after that. This was also the apartment building where I walked in on the paper delivery guy in the laundry room early one morning, who was attempting to steal all my undies that I’d left in the dryer overnight. We frightened each other equally when I walked in on him—he dropped my drawers, blew past me, I reported the incident to the management office, inadvertently solving the Case of the Missing Underwear that had plagued the complex for months.
#4 Chatsworth Avenue, circa 1997-2004ish: our first real house, a little story and a half 1940s Sears and Robuck bungalow in Roseville. The Center of the Universe, I always called the inner-ring suburb. We closed on this house on my 30th birthday, November 24th, swear to God, literally the day before the housing market took off like wildfire. Our budget was $100,000; this house was $105,000. I was sick to my stomach over that excessive $5000. As we sat signing document after document after document, my brain grew more numb and my eyes more glassy with every passing minute, I remember thinking, “I don’t think I could do anything more grown up on my 30th birthday than this.” My in-laws wanted to take us out for celebratory drinks, I just wanted to go home and collapse into bed. I loved everything about this house—the size, the yard (it was huge, for a home in the city), the neighborhood, expansive city parks, the fact that you could get to damned near anywhere in the cities in about 20 minutes.
We got our first dog, Gaia, while living here. I grew my hair back out while living here, we got our second dog, Liddy, while here, I learned to use power tools while living here, when my dad gave me a tool belt and power drill and saw for Christmas. I was diagnosed with epilepsy here, I started my salon while living here, we had our first annual Wine and Cheese Soiree here, where we packed the tiny house with bodies, booze, good food and music, turning the event into a successful little fundraiser for the shelter where we’d adopted Liddy. While living here, a client once told me, “I think you are the most self-actualized person I know,” and I was stunned by her words, but held onto them tight. For a long while, I truly believed them, because here, in this house, while my life wasn’t perfect, it felt full, alive, well-lived. Seven or eight years later, we sold the house for something like $230,000 and moved to the country.
#5 Oldridge Avenue, West Lakeland circa 2004-2013: Michele Bachmann land. “Lowest taxes in the metro!” everyone who lived out here boasted. As beautiful and serene a setting as this house sat in—two and a half wild acres near the Wisconsin border, like a petting zoo outside our windows, deer, pileated woodpeckers, a chorus of songbirds, gangs of wild turkey, a little red fox hung out in the depths of our back yard—almost as soon as we moved here, I wanted to bolt back to the city. We’d sit out on our deck on hot summer nights, beers sweating in our hands. Whenever a car would roll by, we’d turn our heads, eyeball the occupants with suspicion, were they were from around here? “Good God, can we please move back to St Paul? I’m becoming more racist by the day,” I’d plead to Bob. “But we just got here,” he’d say back. He loved the little sanctuary in the woods, his private escape after a long day at work. He’d head out to the backyard “to do chores” he’d call it, filling bird feeders, hacking errant buckthorn, snapping photos of the little red fox that would sometimes spy on him. He christened our property Wrenwood, a nod to his favorite wildlife photographer, Jim Brandenberg, who had a property in northern Minnesota called Ravenwood, I think it was.
As much as Bob loved it out at Wrenwood, an acute aloneness settled into my cells that I couldn’t shake, that now, looking back, feels like a harbinger of things to come. We lived on a dead-end road where neighbors kept to themselves and none of our friends came to visit us unless we bribed them with more wine parties (which were a complete blast, I have to admit—we bought the house as much for its spectacular outdoor space as anything—the decks seemed to double the square footage, at least in the summer months. Maybe if the wine parties had happened more often, it would have helped stave off the unspeakable sense of abandon that had seeped into my cells). That’s not to say wonderful things didn’t happen here. That’s not to say I was unhappy all the time here. They did, and I wasn’t, mostly, but when I look at this photo, I get knots in my stomach. The wonderful things that did happen are nearly smoked out by so much sadness and heartache trapped within the the walls this house. It was here, that Bob had his first heart attack, then cancer diagnosis, then second and third heart attacks, then the GI bleed, and then, and then, and then…
I spent so much time out here alone, while he was battered by cancer and treatments at the U of M. It was here, that “day drinking” and “drinking alone” started to materialize in my life; up to that point, it had never occurred to me to drink by myself. Ever. Not even in college, when you’d think the occurrence would have happened more than any time, like what had happened to an old roommate of mine. Not that it happened on the daily, not that I was guzzling legendary amounts of booze (this drinking thing is a vast continuum, not black and white, cut and dried, I’m learning), not that I even thought much about it at the time, not that it would make a good “quit lit” book. It was quite unremarkable in the grand scheme of such things. But still. It was here, in this little cottage in the woods, surrounded by birds and deer and lush trees, that the line between drinking for fun and drinking to numb began to blur. It was here that I learned, inadvertently, that alcohol is indeed a highly effective anesthetic.
Bob was in the wine biz. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he had to quit working, he had gotten so sick. The two winters he was sick were brutal (in Dec. 2010, the Metrodome roof caved); often the weather prevented me from getting to the U to be with Bob. His colleagues would send cases of wine and beer and other spirits to our house. Whether or not they realized Bob couldn’t drink, as ill as he was, didn’t matter, they kept sending it. My joke became, “I’m drinking for two, since Bob can’t,” and everyone thought it was wry and appropriate and well-deserved, and they’d often join me, because what the hell else can a person do when nothing in the world can be done to stop the inevitable, when nothing in the world could have prepared me for this new role as full-time hand-wringing-caregiving/advocate/wolverine-hospital bodyguard.
It was here, at Wrenwood, that Bob died, on May 3, 2011. It was here, where my self-actualized life dissolved. It was here, that my writing began to take root, and for a long time, it might have been the only thing keeping me alive, but at the time, I wouldn’t have said it like that. At the time, it felt like I was drowning, choking on words thick as sludge. It’s taken nearly a decade to begin the recovery from the affliction of being so alone, a sobering, heavy, hopeful thought.