The Feeling that Will Never Have an Explanation

I’m writing this on February 28, 2021, and I hear a train a mile away as the crow flies. When the wind blows a certain way, its whistle is as loud as if that train was passing through the valley that is my backyard.

On February 28, 1983, two weeks before my due date, the last episode of M*A*S*H aired. It was a Monday, and I was curled up on the couch (as much as a nine-months pregnant woman could be) when an overwhelming fear crept over me. Something terrible was going to happen to someone I loved.

The baby was kicking, so I didn’t think it was her. No, it was my husband. I knew it, like you can feel rain coming when there’s an ache in your knees.

Bruce was at play practice, then he was going bowling because it was league night, so I called my aunt first. Practice was at the high school across the street from her house and Bruce always parked in her driveway.

“Hi, Mavis, it’s Lynn.” I tried not to sound as panicked as I felt.

“Hi, there. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Hey, is Bruce’s car still there?”

“Let me go look.” She set down the phone. A few seconds later: “No, it’s gone.”

“OK, thanks…”

“Is everything alright?” she asked.

“Yes, yes, everything is fine. I…I just need to ask him something is all. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye!” I hung up before she could ask any more questions.

The feeling wouldn’t let go and I started shaking. I called the bowling alley. Another Mavis answered. She owned the place. Kindest woman you’d ever meet.

“Hey, this is Lynn Bouwman. Is Bruce there yet?”

“Hi, honey, how are you? Yeah, he’s here, I’ll get him.”

I heard the fryer frying French fries, bowling pins knocked around, and muffled voices laughing. I wished I was there, at a place as normal as life gets.

A minute later, Bruce picked up the phone.

“Hey!”

“Hey…I know this sounds stupid, but would you come home?”

“What’s wrong? Is the baby alright?”

I started to cry. “Everything’s fine, just…please come home.”

“Sure, I’ll be right there.”

Five minutes later, I heard a train whistle.

A year before, we were driving home from a wedding dance. It was so foggy we couldn’t see the ditch on either side of the dirt road. Bruce stopped several yards before the tracks and rolled down the windows to listen for a train. It was unlikely he’d see an engine light, he explained. After several moments of quiet, we crossed safely, but I sensed something; something similar to what I felt now, like the tracks had a dreadful power.

I paced the living room. Bruce would be crossing the tracks at that exact moment. I was convinced that, acting on my obtuse feeling, I had killed him.

Soon, headlights shined on the garage door.

I was a sobbing mess when he walked in. I told him about the inexplicable chill and how frightened I was and he chuckled and hugged me as tight as he could.

“Honey, I’m fine,” he whispered.

We finished watching M*A*S*H while I lay with my head in his lap. He stroked my hair and I tried to make sense of what I was feeling. Afterwards, we talked about death and what we would want for the other if one of us died because, you know, that was never going to happen. At least not for a long time. He said he’d want me to move on. I told him he wasn’t allowed to marry any of his former girlfriends. We laughed, but that gnawing in my gut was still there.

Three weeks later, Bruce’s tractor was struck by a train as he drove across those tracks. He was killed instantly.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about that feeling I had watching M*A*S*H that night, and I’ve considered its purpose. Was it some supernatural force preparing me, trying to soften the blow of what was to come? Was it there because I was nineteen and pregnant and predisposed to being afraid of my own shadow? Or was it just the spaghetti I had for dinner disagreeing with me?

I’ll never know. Or maybe I will.

What I do when I think about that night is remember seeing the headlights on the garage and the relief of that moment, the feeling of his fingers through my hair, his reassuring voice, and his love and normalness. Bruce always kept me in the present. And I will forever miss that.

A random photo of Bruce.
Not a great photo, but this is the couch I cried on and where we watched a lot of cartoons in the middle of the night while I nursed very baby Carlene. That blanket on the left? It’s on my bed. I will forever love that blanket, that baby, and that man.

Why I Love Rebecca Pearson (“This Is Us” spoiler alert!)

I can melt a bowl of ice cream with all the tears I cry when I watch “This Is Us.” Sad tears, happy tears, a-thousand-other-emotions tears. “This Is Us” opens cages I locked up years ago; cages I didn’t think had keys anymore.

Didn’t I move on from ______? Apparently not.

Part of why I get teary is that the show pays attention to mothers: birth mothers, chose-not-to-be mothers, mothers who raise(d) their biological children, mothers who raise(d) other mother’s children, and mothers who become grandmothers.

It also pays attention to grief, and that’s the big reason I love Rebecca Pearson. While Rebecca is a mother who raised her birth children and she is a mother of another mother’s child, she’s also a mother who lost her partner and a grandmother who is married to someone who is not the father of the mother and fathers who brought her grandbabies into the world.

I understand Rebecca in ways I wish I didn’t, but I’m so glad she was written into existence.

Two episodes best encapsulate my experiences vis a vis Rebecca, and I urge you to stop reading if you don’t like spoilers because I’m about to spoil pretty hard.

In season one, we find out Rebecca’s husband, Jack, is dead. We won’t know how or when he dies until season two (“Super Bowl Sunday,” February 4, 2018). The obvious correlation between Rebecca and me is that I was widowed once, but the side-of-fries of this episode is that I also know how a house can burn because of electrical issues. The Pearsons left a faulty crock pot plugged in, and at the Haraldson’s, there was a faulty nightlight plugged in too close to my brother’s bed. While our house didn’t burn to the ground and no one died, watching that episode brought up a lot of pretty intense feelings for that reason alone.

But on to the primary one.

In the Super Bowl episode, we all thought Jack died when he went back in the house to retrieve Kate’s dog from the burning living room. (“I really love the girl who loves the dog…” No, Jack! You’re going to die!) Only he didn’t. He walks out triumphant, dog in his arms, like he’s Will Smith in “Independence Day.” At first I thought maybe I misunderstood the teaser, that Jack doesn’t really die in a house fire. But he’s burned his arm and he’s coughing (oh no) and he and Rebecca go to the hospital after they drop the kids off at Miguel’s (whose character is elevated later in the story). Jack suffers a heart attack while Rebecca, thinking Jack will be fine, is talking on the pay phone several feet from his room. She also bought a Twix from the vending machine before the doctor comes to her to explain that Jack died, and she takes a bite, which was so…I get that. I was making pork chops and watching All My Children when they told me Bruce died. Ordinary life stuff, for sure.

Rebecca goes to Jack’s room and there, she tilts her head just slightly as she takes in the sight of his body, that we see reflected in the door window. Mandy Moore perfectly encapsulates how it takes the brain a minute to process unbelievable, incomprehensible, WTF information.

I will never not cry when I watch this.

Last Tuesday’s episode affected me in a less visceral but more cerebral way (“In the Room,” February 16, 2021). In California, Kevin’s partner is in labor, as is the birth mother of Kate and Toby’s soon-to-be adopted daughter. Rebecca is at the family cabin in Pennsylvania with her now husband, Miguel. Sketchy Wi-Fi is making her anxious, and she keeps looking over to a picture hanging on the wall. What looks like a watercolor is actually the rain-ruined painted handprints of Kevin, Kate, Randall, Jack, and Rebecca, made when the Big Three were little kids. In a flashback, Rebecca is drying out the handprints, and she says to Jack about their future, “We will never miss the little stuff, and especially not the big stuff.”

Ah, yes. Certainty. It’s what bites us in the ass, isn’t it. But without the hope of certainty, can we even move forward?

I remembered how, after Bruce died, I sat on the bathroom counter, putting on makeup, getting ready for his funeral, and I said to him, “We were supposed to be married for seventy-five years. We talked about this, remember? On the couch that Sunday when your parents were in Iowa and we had the house to ourselves. It was the same day you showed me that card in your wallet, the one with the alphabet in sign language on one side and Kama Sutra positions on the other. You would live to one hundred and then you’d die, and I’d follow after a few dawdling years as a widow, watching soap operas in a nursing home. The kids would visit every Sunday, and I’d assure them I was fine, that I was just waiting for the right time to join you, wherever you were.”

We were so sure.

After Rebecca explains the watercolor to Miguel, she says, “I know it’s silly, but I feel like I’m letting down Jack. By not being there for them (Kate and Kevin) today, like I’m not holding up my end of the promise.”

Yup. As if grief isn’t enough, guilt is right there on its tail.

Then she says, “It’s OK, you don’t have to make me feel better. We never talk about this, how you have to bear Jack’s death differently for yourself and for me (ouch) and our marriage (ouch again). Thank you. I know it’s a lot. I know I’m a lot.”

Being in relationship with someone post-loss can be complicated, and difficult, and sometimes awesome, and there will be grief and guilt feelings that seep through; they might affect your decisions and actions and words and even your concept of love. And that’s what I love so much about that scene. Rebecca understands that because she lives it every day, and so does Miguel.

“This Is Us” creator Dan Fogelman once tweeted, “My mom died 10 years ago, unexpectedly. It’s the hinge upon which my life swings. Jack’s death is the Pearson hinge.”

Bruce’s death is my hinge. That event shaped who I am today. All the decisions I’ve made, all the paths I’ve taken and abandoned. I am who I am because the person I loved most in one moment in time was alive and then he died.

Grief and love are big and sticky. Relating to those feelings – even through a fictional character – is relief, it’s a free breath, it’s a lesser burden. Shared grief can get us through the most painful parts of it, especially the thinking we’re alone part. And while Rebecca is a fictional character, she is me. She might be you. Or your mom. Or your neighbor. The woman you sit next to in church.

That’s why I love Rebecca Pearson.

Play Guitar (oh yeah…)

The callous on my left index finger has developed to the point where I no longer wince when playing C or F on the first fret. My middle and ring fingers have adequate callouses, too. All of that hardened skin is especially beneficial because I’ve moved on to learning chords, and learning chords has been…interesting.

In my first draft, I used the word “sucky” instead of “interesting”, and in a way, learning chords does suck. But that’s such defeatist language and defeated is not where I want to land in this piece.

My virtual guitar instructor says that with practice, playing chords will get easier, and in theory I know that is true, but I’m going to have to accept certain limitations. My long bony fingers can reach an octave or more on a piano, and years ago I probably could have performed the hand gymnastics to play a G7, an “easy” chord. Now, at 57, my long bony arthritic fingers do not like the G7 stretch.

So why bother?

I thought I was chill, like, I got this year, even as spectacularly weird as it’s been. Then when Dad fell in early December, every day has been like riding a roller coaster. My brother, sisters and I are now responsible for the person who was once responsible for us. We’re making decisions that – before pulmonary fibrosis, a stroke, and chronic dizziness – Dad would make himself: finding a rehabilitation facility, finding alternative income sources, engaging legal and financial transactions, and signing papers committing him to moving to a place where he can no longer putz in a garage because he struggles to walk and dress, all the while worrying if we’re doing the right thing. Multiply that emotional fallout by two since Mom doesn’t have the financial or physical means to support herself or live alone, and she’s not interested in moving. No wait, she is. No wait, she isn’t. No wait, she is. Her autonomy is slowly being usurped by her aging body and mind, and it’s hard to make decisions when you’re anxious and afraid.

Quiet, candles, and meditative breathing wasn’t calming me during these difficult times (and animal rescue videos, while helpful, only get me so far). I needed something more – if even for a few minutes every day – to challenge my brain to think in the opposite of crisis and uncertainty. That’s why, in the middle of a sleepless night, I bought a guitar.

My “music room” (aka office, aka spare bedroom)

I’ve always likened watching someone play guitar to watching hockey. I can’t follow finger movements or pucks to save my life, but I love the music and the game just the same. Absolutely I will never play hockey, but in the middle of that night I thought, You know what? I can learn my way around a guitar a little bit.

It’s turning out to be one of the best purchases I’ve ever made, even if I can only play two-thirds of a C or D7 chord right now (or maybe ever). The point, I remind myself, of learning to play guitar is not because I want to try out for the Foo Fighters. (Although I’d love to meet David Grohl.)

After I do what I can with insurance companies and phone companies and assisted living facilities and banks, I turn it all off, and for thirty minutes, I read music, not emails. For thirty minutes, I’m a guitar player. And yesterday, when I got frustrated and thought I’d not learned anything about anything, I played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Five weeks ago, I sounded like a dying goose. Now, I play it without looking at the music or my fingers. It’s a simple tune as written in my beginner’s guitar book, but the way it set free the shit in my mind was magic.

So if you’re looking for an escape, a way to take the edge off, take John Mellencamp’s advice and learn how to play guitar. (This earworm’s been in my head since I started writing this post. I thought if I share it, maybe I will be free.)

Hip as a Mustang

Stories are the lifeblood of my emotional existence. Short, long, big, small, scary, happy, true or not true or, my favorite, ambiguous; told in song, on the fly, or second hand; read out loud, whispered around a campfire, or read in silence…stories help me understand who I am, how I got where I am, and, sometimes, offer a map to where I’m going.

My favorite storyteller is my dad. He recently moved into an assisted living facility, and everyone he’s met there says the same thing: “He’s a talker.” Not a busybody talker, but the kind who reads his audience and can tell a story that is sure to stick with them a while.

In honor of Dad, who will turn ninety years old in two weeks, here’s one of my favorite Dad moments. I’ll have to print it out and send it to him since he never wanted to learn his way around a computer. But that’s OK. He’s still hip to me.

The summer before my senior year of high school, Dad and Mom allowed me to visit friends in Jasper (MN), where we used to live, as long as I stayed with my aunt Mavis or with one of my grandmothers. Jasper was about 200 miles from where we lived, and the one and only time I took the bus, my grandma Signe picked me up at the bus stop in Pipestone, eleven miles north of Jasper. She drove thirty-five miles an hour on the highway all the way to Jasper with her feet on both the gas and the brake. After that, I convinced Dad to let me use the Mustang on future trips. For my own safety, of course.

By “Mustang,” I don’t mean a sleek, sweet muscle car. Ours was a 1974 bare bones hard top four-speed manual with AM radio, black vinyl seats, and no air conditioning. On a hot day, you could detect a faint smell of Wild Turkey, which Swedish exchange students spilled on the carpet on our way home from a hockey game.

This isn’t our Mustang. Sadly, photos of her are few.

My family only owned one car at a time (Mom never had a driver’s license), until one Saturday morning in 1980.

“Lynnie, wake up!” Dad called through my bedroom door.

Dad never woke me up, and especially not on a morning when I didn’t have to work.

I opened one eye and looked at the clock. Eleven o’clock? Is he nuts?

“Get dressed. I want to show you something.”

This better be worth it, I thought, fumbling into clothes.

“He’s waiting in the car,” Mom called from kitchen.

“Where’re we going?” She didn’t answer.

I walked out the front door and stopped. Dad was in the driver’s seat smoking a cigarette. The window was rolled down, but he knew I hated riding in the car when he and Mom smoked.

“Dad…”

“Get in!” he said, crushing his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.

“Are we going for donuts?” I asked, changing the radio station. When I was little, Mom slept in on Saturday mornings and Dad was in charge. He let my little brother and I dress ourselves in whatever we wanted to wear – usually stripes on plaid – and we’d eat donuts at the bakery before going to the car wash or the hardware store.

“No donuts today.”

Fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a used car dealership.  

“What do you think?” he asked.  

“’Bout what?” 

“About that.” He pointed to a red car.

That?” There was no way we’d all fit in a two-door. “Did you buy it?” 

“No,” he said. “But I’m thinking about it. Let’s take it out for a test drive.”

“The keys are in it,” yelled a salesman across the lot. Dad waved.

He eased into the driver’s seat, tucking his head to avoid hitting the frame, and in that moment, he was no longer my father, the station wagon family man. He was a…guy.

“Hunh,” I grunted and got in the passenger seat. When I saw the stick shift, I was convinced he was having a midlife crisis.

Dad moved effortlessly through the gears while I messed around with the radio. A few minutes later, he turned into a church parking lot and turned off the engine. 

“If you can drive back to the lot, I’ll buy it.”

“Why?” 

Dad looked at me, eyebrows raised, waiting for me to catch on.

“Oh,” I said flatly. “So you’re not getting rid of the station wagon.”

“Nope.”

“I…um…You know I don’t know how to drive a stick.”

He opened the door and got out of the driver’s seat. “Well, now’s the time!”

After a ten-minute lesson, I lurched, stopped, killed the engine, and lurched, stopped, and stripped the gears back to the dealership, but damn it, I got us there, and true to his word, Dad bought the car for $1,300.

Watching Dad drive the Mustang home, cigarette smoke flying out the window, he became a little more hip, a little more Rockford, a little more than just Dad.

My hip(per) dad with my kids in 1986.

Diamonds Aren’t Always a Girl’s Best Friend

I’m difficult to buy for. Jim says that every time he asks me what I want for Christmas or my birthday or any other gift-giving holiday because it feels reckless to recite a list of impractical things I want when there’s an electric bill waiting on my desk. Years of narrowly navigating an often negative debt-to-income ratio will do that to you.

Jim does alright without my help, though. Over the years, he’s gifted me both practical and impractical things, like an automatic starter for my Jeep, new tires, an electric blanket, a watch, a dragon bracelet, and a pair of heart-shaped diamond earrings that I threw out the window driving home after he said he needed a break, which I assumed was forever. That was years ago and the break lasted only a few days, but I’ll never find those earrings and honestly, I wouldn’t mind another pair.

I might have hinted recently about earrings, but last week, while he lay on the couch, he set down his phone and announced that he just bought my Valentine’s gift and that I could open the FedEx box when it arrived. Probably not diamonds, I thought, and really, I can’t blame him. Once bit, twice shy and all that.

Zuzu didn’t bark a warning when the FedEx truck pulled up, and it was hours later when I spotted the box blown over in the flower bed. I fished it out and felt the contents rolling around. I opened it carefully, wondering if I could return the broken whatever-it-was.

However…

Inside were twenty four Pearson’s Nut Goodie candy bars.

The first time Jim saw a Nut Goodie, we were in line at the checkout of a Holiday gas station somewhere outside St. Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2015 while on our way to Stillwater with my brother and sister-in-law. When I saw the red and green packages in the display stand, I grabbed two.

“People are so lucky here!” I waved them in front of Jim. “They can buy these anytime they want!”

Unless you cut a Nut Goodie into pieces – and really, who does that? – they are impossible to eat without shards of chocolate and bits of peanuts falling in your lap, and you’d think, given how I crave order and things tidy, this would be an issue, but it’s not. Brush the crumbs on the floor and keep eating, I say, even if I was in my own car, which I wasn’t.

It’s not like Nut Goodies would win a prize for outstanding candy. They’re just lumps of peanuts and “maple” nougat wrapped in mediocre milk chocolate. In an attempt to look homemade, they are unevenly round, like my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. And while “maple” isn’t listed in the ingredients, fake maple isn’t a sin. I use sugar-free “maple” syrup on my waffles sometimes.

Sitting in the back seat, I let the chocolate and nougat melt on my tongue and the sides of my mouth, just like when I was a kid.

“God, this tastes like home,” I said, chewing the peanuts.

I can’t find Nut Goodies in Pennsylvania, at least nowhere I’ve been, and if I could, it would have made seeing them no more interesting than M&Ms or Snickers. Nut Goodies are Minnesota, same as Old Dutch potato chips, lutefisk, lefse, and pickled pigs feet on Krispy crackers. They are Sunday evenings in the winter when the electric has gone out and Dad’s making Campbell’s chicken noodle soup on the wood burning stove in the basement while Mom makes cold Velveeta sandwiches with butter. Later, we’ll play Rook and Battleship before I take a flashlight back to my bedroom and crawl under the covers, wearing a double layer of long underwear and turtlenecks. I’ll read another few chapters in the latest Trixie Belden mystery before falling asleep to the wind and the snow slapping my windows.

It’s going to take a while and some sharing to get through twenty four (now twenty one) Nut Goodies, but that Jim remembered that moment in time at the Holiday gas station means more to me than diamond earrings ever could.

You Can Never Unknow Someone

I had another Bruce dream on Wednesday night. Number one hundred ninety or so, I think? (Let’s see…thirty eight years times five or six a year…)

It wasn’t unexpected, given all the Bruce-centered writing I’ve done the last six months as I slowly write a memoir. But like most of the other Bruce dreams, this one left me with an emotional hangover. The difference this time, though, is that I have more to say about them than I have in other blogs and writings. Maybe (maybe?) I understand them a bit better or at least in a different context.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bruce dreams, they started several months after he died in a train crash, and they often follow a pattern: I’m living my life as it is at the time and I find out he is still alive. I can see him, but he can’t see me and I can’t reach him. For example, in one dream, his brother’s wife told me he was living in a nursing home and that he was blind and learning to speak again. I asked her if he remembered me and she said yes, that he’d asked about me and was wondering where I was. I could feel in my sleep how excited I was to hold him and talk to him again. Then, when I got to the nursing home, I could only see him from behind a window. He was alone, sitting in a wheelchair and dressed in the same red flannel shirt he wore in this photo. I don’t know why I couldn’t get around the window, but no matter how hard I pounded on the glass, I couldn’t get his attention. He thought I’d abandoned him, and I felt a deepening earnestness and anxiety. Mad with anguish, I started crying for real, and I woke up exhausted and my pillow was soaked in tears.

Not every Bruce dream is that difficult. Several years ago I was able to employ lucid dreaming and change the outcome. It started with the same premise: I can’t talk to Bruce after I learn he is alive. But in that dream, I consciously realized what was happening and I forced myself to change the ending. He was in our kitchen, taking something out of the oven. I told myself to go into the kitchen and I did. I jumped on his back (like I used to) and kissed him and told him how much I missed him. He laughed and hugged me and said he missed me, too. I woke up feeling good instead of sad and drained.

Psychologists have told me it’s because I never saw Bruce dead that I have these dreams. They also attribute the dreams to the way I internalized his death. I was nineteen years old and had just had a baby. Apparently, like an old photograph, my brain hangs on to the way my hormones and emotions responded to his death, suspending them in midair like nothing changed in subsequent years.

The only way I know how to live with Bruce dreams is to live with Bruce dreams, and that’s not easy at 2 a.m. when you’re half awake and emotionally gullible. When the dark side of your brain comes out in the middle of the night, logic and proportion (to quote Jefferson Airplane) fall sloppy dead and they break loose from their chains. You can get up and get a drink of water, that’s true, but sometimes when you go back to sleep, the dream keeps going and becomes even more convoluted. What do you do then?

During this last Bruce dream, I woke up in the still early morning and I thought about it as best I could – the details and how I felt – yet part of me was still in that dream, and in that dream, Bruce wasn’t sure he wanted to get married. He didn’t seem happy to be with me. How do you convince yourself, when you’re lying in the dark, heart beating wildly, that these dreams are just your insecurities finding their way out?

Writing about him several times a week for the last six months has brought up all kinds of thoughts I haven’t thought in years, but obviously they’re still there in the back of my mind. They’re like a wall of post office boxes, each with their own combination: two clicks left, four right, one left…

I can only understand the dreams as an extension of grief; part of all the things we try to process someone’s death. Only, we can’t do it all at once, or even in a few weeks, months or years. When you’ve loved someone, spent a good amount of time with them, and suddenly they’re gone and you never get to see them again, you wonder, “What did I do to make them leave?”

Even though they didn’t leave on purpose, you still wonder.

You can never unknow someone, even if you really want to. And so you live with them. Bruce – all of him: from the day we met to the day he died – including his love, his skin, his near-bald head – is as much a part of my life as my own skin and love and children. He’s constantly in my life, and so will be the dreams.

As hard as they are sometimes.

Zen Garbage Bag Lady

I went through my closet and dresser the other day and filled a garbage bag with clothes that don’t fit. This time, they’re too big. Last time, they were too small. Too big, too small, and little time in between to wear them out.

I joke that I’ve been up and down the scale more than a stripper on a pole. In thirty eight years, I’ve not been the same weight (ergo, the same size) for more than a few years at a time.

Weight, 1983-present (not to be confused by The Alps)
The actual Alps

Like the scent of an old boyfriend’s aftershave picked up while walking through a bar, or eating scallops in butter and garlic, or listening to a song like “Separate Ways,” my weight, whatever it is, invokes deep-set memories. Looking at my weight charted this way, it becomes a timeline merging with the milestones and the minor events in my life. Pick a weight and I can tell you who I was dating or married to, how old my kids were, where I worked (or didn’t work), who my friends were, what kind of car I drove, where I went grocery shopping, how I wore my hair, where I went on vacation, who died, and who hurt me.

Weight is reflected in these events, relationships, and the simplest of everyday things because I have often let weight define me, or at the very least allowed weight to be a major player in how I thought of myself. But nowhere on this chart can I mark a moment when being a certain weight caused or solved anything. My life went on whether I ate a donut or a carrot.

Weight is tangible and can be plotted, but how do you visibly represent what’s going on inside? The self-esteem, the grief, the anger, the depression? I was thin, getting thinner, and fat whether I was happy or sad, but because it was easier sometimes to manipulate the outside than the inside, the peaks – or rather, the plunges – denote the times when I probably could have paid a little more attention to the inside as well as the outside.

Now here I am again, stuffing clothes that don’t fit into yet another garbage bag and wondering if I should keep them just in case or bring them to Salvation Army. But what I also have to wonder is, how am I taking care of the inside?

I’m eating right, sometimes perhaps not enough, though. Why? For a scale number? Hmmm…

I bought a guitar because I’ve always wanted to learn to play. That’s a good thing, right? But I’ll learn in isolation for now, which, after nine months with little human contact, is wearing on me in ways I’ve not examined yet. Hmmm…

I published my book, but I’m not interested in promoting it. Again, why? Because it’s not good enough? I’m not worth it? I don’t…care?

So much to consider just from plotting a weight chart.

Feeling the Feels of 2020

I sometimes meditate, I sometimes “pray,” but as 2020 progressed, the peaceful breathing and quiet communication with the god-presence wasn’t enough to pry open the jammed up emotions that have piled up like dead fish on ice.

It must be a 2020 thing because I’m (too) good at feeling the feels in “normal” times. Between covid and the ensuing physical disconnection, political disparity, and overall anxiety; a minor personal health issue; and the myriad issues with my aging parents, I started to feel like I didn’t have access to any emotions anymore. I knew they were there. I sensed them. But my subconscious couldn’t let them go.

Then a few weeks ago, I stumbled on to an animal rescue video. A rail-thin dog was crying out in pain from a gutter and a team of folks calmed him, took him to the vet, and after months of foster care, the once near-dead pup was ready for adoption. I cried and cried and cried some more. It felt so good I watched another video and another. Now I start every morning watching rescue videos and crying.

The dogs and cats and goats and horses are surrogates for my unprocessed emotions, and their rescue reminds me that hope still exists even in the darkest moments. They help me feel the things I need to feel in order to feel the things I can’t.

I realize that I’m seeing the good side of rescue and that a lot of animals don’t make it. I deal with that in another part of my brain. Right now, I need good news and positive outcomes: The dog who can’t walk and whose foster parent works with him to walk again; the abandoned mama whose pups are stuck under a concrete structure and are rescued in time to nurse and grow up healthy. I need these stories! I need their sad beginnings – the fleas, the scabs, the brokenness. I need to witness their healing. I need to experience hope.

I went back to my blog post from January 1, and not surprising, it was about hope. I couldn’t know then about all the feels we’d be feeling this year (and there were a LOT of them!). But just like then, I wish the same for all of us this new year: May we find (and facilitate, when possible) hope in 2021.

Obligation

It’s been thirteen days since Dad fell, eleven since an ambulance took him to a hospital, six since he was released to a nursing facility and one since someone at the facility tested positive for covid.

Dad a few weeks ago.

When covid killed Dad’s cousin in April, I wondered how long before it affected our family again.

Between finding the right help, the right facilities, and the money to pay for everything, caring for elderly parents is challenging. The paper trail alone can destroy a small forest. Add covid to the mix and fear, concern, and frustration pile up like snowdrifts that won’t melt until spring because everything takes twice as long to do as it did before.

Dad, who will be 90 in two months, needed occupational therapy to help him adjust to chronic dizziness, but it’s not helping much. Mom, with poor eyesight and hearing, and the kind of joints you’d expect of someone nearly 89 years old, can’t care for him the way he requires. Through a million phone calls and emails, my brother and I have secured a small apartment for Dad in an assisted living facility, which he was supposed to move into tomorrow, the day before Christmas. Not exactly home, but at least he’d have people around and some presents to open. Now he’s in quarantine, alone in his room, and his world, which has shrunk considerably in two years, is even smaller.

There’s a fine line between love and obligation. Love is a living, breathing thing; hopeful, and yet can cut us all to the bone. When loves wounds, it’s counterintuitive to go back for more, although we usually do again and again. Obligation, on the other hand… There’s no emotional attachment to obligation if you do it right and don’t let love creep in. Obligation makes the hard decisions easier. Obligation, more than love, is the driving force behind why (and how) I’m helping my parents during this time in their lives.

Our family dynamic is as fragile as crepe paper. It’s mostly obligation that keeps my parents and siblings loosely tethered to one another in good times, and in this current crisis, we cobbled together enough give-a-shits to tap into our collective conscience and, with Dad as the common denominator, put the skeletons and years-old-feelings back in their closets to do what needs to be done.

I feel no guilt making arrangements for Dad to move to assisted living and, in the near future, insisting Mom moves, too. Love just makes me cry over the whole thing: Dad’s loss of independence, his loneliness, and – most of all – his inability to accept any of it.

This is the point in most blog posts where I find the light, the positive, the “moral” of the story. Not this time. With all the pain around the world and especially in our country this year, I don’t want to puff up this piece with a lot of positive. That would just be phony and fake anyway. Obligation, not love, is getting me through this frustrating end to a frustrating year, and honestly…that’s OK. I’d rather feel my way through this the way it is, in all its yuck, instead of living in a fantasy wishing it was different.

Two Scenes, A Dozen Stories

Pumping gas at the Get Go last week, I noticed that near – not in – the garbage bin was an empty can of Chunky soup and its pull-off lid, a used-up Right Guard roll-on deodorant stick, an empty can of Pringles (the regular kind), and a can of Lysol.

I imagined the items were left by someone traveling alone. Maybe a male in his early 20s? Eating Sirloin Burger soup from a can seems like a young man kind of thing to do. Consuming a can of Pringles only takes a few miles, but it’s takes a lot of miles to use up an entire stick of deodorant and a can of Lysol. Where was he going? Where had he been?

So many questions. So many possibilities.

I’m nebby by nature. (The Pittsburgh definition of nebby, not the Merrian-Webster one.) Especially when I see something like a gathering of used items alongside a garbage can at a gas station. It’s not “trash” when you’re curious, and wouldn’t you be curious, standing there holding the gas nozzle with nothing else to think about?

Years ago, I acquired a box of miscellaneous paper items from an estate auction. In it was this holiday card from the 1910s:

Except for the stain, it’s a pretty little thing. It’s even got a church on it. So serene, so peaceful. Snow, stars… I place it on my Christmas tree every year. But that’s only part of the reason I keep it. I keep it for the message inside:

The sender put quotes around and underlined the words “My dear” for emphasis, and wrote, using a dip pen, “To the prettiest girl I ever knew.” Awwww…so sweet, right? Clearly the sender is enamored by the girl and wishes only wonderful things for her.

Or does he?

I’m usually on the side of true love, and every year my mind explodes with sweet stories when I dig out this card. I’ve been partial to the one in which the two – the girl and the sender – were ships that passed in the night, and that the girl kept the card to remind her of a secret love that could never be.

This year, though, the story in my head has steered me in the direction of unrequited love or maybe something sinister. This year, I paid attention to the signature, and for the first time, I compared the letter “r” in the word “ever” to the squiggle after the M and I think it’s signed “Mr. D”.

I’d not noticed that before.

Mr. D.

Hmmm…that feels weird. And it changes everything I thought of this simple Christmas card.

Unless it’s a pet name, “Mr.” infers distance or hierarchy in a relationship.

And now a Nabokov novel comes to mind…

Moving on…

“The best friend you have.” That’s a bold statement, even if it was true. I wouldn’t sign a letter telling a friend that I am the best friend they ever had.

But, OK, let’s assume things were different in the early twentieth century. Maybe Mr. D is an innocent character and is assuaging the girl’s fears and letting her know that he really is her best friend. Kind of like we used to do in junior high, maybe.

Nah… Mr. D/best friend? Now I’m hearing a Police song in my head.

Just one more step to the Stephen King Misery level. You’re the prettiest girl and I’m your best friend. Don’t forget it, “my dear.”

Yikes!

If any of these scenarios is true, why would Prettiest Girl keep a card like this from creeper Mr. D, only for someone to purchase it many years later?

Unless…

The box of miscellaneous paper didn’t belong to Prettiest Girl; it belonged to Mr. D, who kept it all his life because Prettiest Girl was his obsession. He knew he couldn’t send it, so he kept it as a reminder. A reminder of what he could never have…

OK, I’m done! It’s your turn. Be nebby with me! Jump in with your own interpretation of either story. Creep us out or create a Hallmark movie scene. It’s your choice, your imagination. (And you can keep your story to yourself, too. I just hope you have some fun letting your mind go.)

And remember, “Don’t stand…don’t stand so…don’t stand so close to me…”