Thursday, February 25, 2016

Reality bites

The process feels so familiar that it's almost seamless, like stepping back into a room that I only just left a few minutes before.  I walk into the house and it's filled with the same people who were there last time.  They all know me and they hug me tight and whisper, "I'm so sorry."  I hug them back and we say some words about how awful it is, and maybe crack lame jokes about how "we've got to stop meeting like this."

It's surreal.

There's food and beer, and we sit around and tell stories, some of them relevant to the situation, others more random and organic, as if we all just got together on a Wednesday night to hang out. Politics.  Gossip.  What the kids are up to.

But then it's the day of the funeral, and as the time grows closer and we're dressed and heading to the funeral home, that's when the walls really start to close in.  I look over at my brother and see that the strength that he's been projecting up to now is starting to crack.  He's such a rock, but he's hurting.

In the room where the service is, there's a slideshow of pictures, playing in a loop.  Pictures of Lori from all different points of her life, looking vibrant and happy, her bright blue eyes shining.  It's so fucking sad.

But what's even more heartbreaking are the pictures of her and Emma.  Emma as a baby, as a toddler, as a teenager.  Seeing them together is a punch in the gut.

Josh has kept it together so well, but when it comes time to eulogize his wife, whom he loved with his whole heart, that's when the pain he feels becomes so obvious.  That's when everything shifts from surreal to utterly fucking real.  He cries and tries to speak, but has to stop to compose himself, until finally his older daughter joins him at the podium and reads the words that he can't bring himself to read on his own.  It's an extraordinarily moving moment, actually.

He lost his daughter and then his wife in the span of a year and a half.  His daughters lost their sister and then their mother in the span of a year and a half.  Plus a few weeks ago, one of their dogs died when she was hit by a train.

It's beyond tragic.  If someone were writing a fictional story with these facts, an editor would be all, "ehhh, it's too much. Too melodramatic.  Not believable."

Later, back at the house, everyone gathers again for beer and deli and coffee cake and condolences. And eventually, the youngest daughter, my niece who is Zeke's age - who has been remarkably composed in a way that's hard to fathom - finally falls apart.  And I find myself sitting in the bathroom with her on my lap as she sobs uncontrollably on my shoulder.

I hold her as she cries and cries.  I can't say anything except, "go ahead and cry as much and as long as you need to, honey.  We can sit here as long as you need to."  I rub her back and stroke her head and hug her to me.

"I want my mom," she wails.  "I want my sister back, I want my mom back, I want my dog back."

I bury my face in her hair and start to cry as well.  The depth of her loss and her grief is overwhelming.  How is an 8-year-old child supposed to deal with something like this?  How is her sister, a 13-year-old child, supposed to deal with something like this?

What I do know is that if anyone can guide them through, it's my brother Joshua.  His strength, his decency, his integrity, his commitment to doing right by his girls - all of that will be their saving grace.  He will lead them and protect them.  And his family and his friends and his community have his back - being here and seeing the extent of the support he has, the amount of love and respect he has among his friends and family, is awe-inspiring.  He's such an amazing guy, and everybody sees it and loves him for it.  It makes me proud to be his sister.

But damn, the road ahead will be long and bumpy.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

I am weary, let me rest

Bad luck, I guess. It floats around. It's got to land on somebody. It was my turn, that's all. I was in the path of the tornado. I just didn't expect the storm would last as long as it has.
- Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

At this point, all that keeps running through my head is a question.  "When is it enough? At what point does the universe recognize that one person has shouldered enough of his share of tragedy, trauma, heartbreak, loss?  How much does one person get saddled with before the fates decide, 'yep, we've tormented him enough, let's move on?'"

That's all I can think of today, ever since I learned that my sister-in-law Lori - my brother Josh's wife, Emma's mother - went to sleep last night and never woke up again.

She had been battling demons for a long time.  Emma's accident, and then her death, devastated Lori beyond imagining.  But I spoke to her a few days ago and she sounded good.  There was a lightness and clarity to her voice that I hadn't heard in a long time.

But when I asked Josh what happened, he said that she died of a broken heart.  A part of her could never conceive of continuing to live in a world without Emma in it.  And now she doesn't have to. I can't make any sense of it. It is beyond the capacity of my brain to accept or justify, under any concept of the cosmic forces of fairness or justice or decency that might exist.

But of course, the problem is, there are no cosmic forces of fairness or justice or decency.  It's all bullshit.  There is no god, no inherent benevolence or goodness at work. It's all random and arbitrary and unfair, whether for good or for ill.  Horrible things happen to good people, and great things happen to horrible people, and that's just the way it is.  So fucking get over it.  Be happy or don't.  Hug your kids closer today or don't.  It doesn't make a goddamned bit of difference.

Because otherwise, what could possibly explain or justify my brother Josh being the one to suffer this kind of tragedy, again? After everything he's already been through? How can my nieces lose their beloved sister and then their mother, in the span of less than two years?

When Emma died, the power of the shock, in addition to the power of the grief, was overwhelming. It was unfathomable.  How could this happen to her, after everything that had already happened?  I felt like my heart was bursting with every imaginable facet of grief, but also with every imaginable facet of love as well - love from family, love from friends, love sent from well-wishers from across the globe.

And now?  Now I am numb. I am furious. I cast a narrowed, jaundiced eye upon the world and think, "et tu?" at everything I see or encounter.  

There are little things that keep popping into my head.

Like the particular tone in my father's voice that is now instantly recognizable as Barry's Vocal Inflection for Announcing Death and Destruction.  "Wendy, Emma was hit by a car..."  "Wendy, Emma was killed in a car accident..."

Today I answered the phone just as the kids and I were heading into the car wash.  "Wendy, Lori died last night..."

I love my father, but I am weary of that endless loop of his voice that I hear in my head, announcing the various tragedies that befall my brother.

Then there's the fact that this kind of horrible thing always seems to happen when my mom and dad are apart.  When my grandma Ruth died, my father was white-water rafting in Idaho and was totally incommunicado - he didn't even know about it until days later.  When Leo died, my dad was in Denver.

When Emma died, my mother was in Brazil on business.  When she found out from the embassy duty officer that my father was trying to reach her because of a death in the family, she thought to herself, "it must be one of the kids or grandkids, because the old people are all dead." She spent the long flight home crying on the shoulder of her coworker.

And this morning, my mother had just arrived in South Africa on another business trip.  She got the news, talked to my dad and then to me on the phone, and got on another plane to come back.
What do these patterns mean?  Nothing, undoubtedly.  None of it means anything.

Once again, we will head to New Hampshire and circle the family wagons. We will try to provide each other with comfort, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to fathom the unfathomable.

We've gotten depressingly good at it.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

#TBT: I get a peaceful easy feeling, and I know you won't let me down

My dad was always big on photographing the family - my parents have dozens of photo albums at their house, chronicling their (and our) entire lives, from the time they themselves were children.  One of the Thanksgiving traditions that my brothers and I have is to go through old albums and remember all of the wonderful and interesting experiences we were fortunate enough to have growing up.

And as the first-born, I had a dedicated baby album, complete with the pink and blue cover that said "Baby."  

But the album is old and and the pictures are getting brittle and faded.  So a few years ago, as a gift to my parents, I took the album, scanned all the pictures, and created a photo book that exactly duplicated the pictures and the layout of the original. 

This picture above is from that album.  That's me, probably around 6 months old, give or take. We're at Kyrenia Harbor in Cyprus, where I was born (Cyprus, I mean - I wasn't born in Kyrenia Harbor). The shirtless dude in the picture was named Costakis. He worked at the harbor, maybe as a fisherman or something. I don't know how my parents knew him - maybe my nanny Christina (the one who had me baptized in the Greek Orthodox church - it never hurts to cover your bases) knew him. And what am I doing there with him? Is he babysitting me?

In any event, this is one of my favorite pictures.  There's a lovely peacefulness about it - the scene feels carefree and full of joy.  Costakis seems to be such a gentle, sweet guy with a way with babies. I feel comfortable with him. It's a beautiful sunny day by the water. Life is good.

Plus I love the relaxed (and very dated) casualness towards baby safety - that rickety baby seat perched on a tiny, rickety table -- near water, no less! -- would not fly in the helicopter parenting world we live in, with hyper-emphasis on how car seats must be constructed and how and where they may sit (not on a tiny table, that's for damned sure).  And there's a full ashtray on the table next to me. If this were a recent picture posted on Facebook or similar, the hysterical mamas with nothing to do but lecture other people on their shortcomings would be commenting furiously about how my parents or caregivers should be reported to CPS because I'm clearly in danger.  

But I'm obviously fine. I'm happy. I am surrounded by people who love and care for me. I'm safe.

I have no idea where Costakis is now. But I would love to be able to send him this photo and let him know how much I love it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Peanuts! Popcorn! Get your red hots here!

We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!
- Ronnie Cammareri, Moonstruck

We are doing the "ask a bunch of questions" thing, but not in a way that feels forced or awkward. More like fun questions that I like asking because it's way more interesting than, "so, do you have any brothers and sisters? where do they live?"

"Have you ever been arrested?"  "What kind of recurring anxiety dreams to you have?"  "If you wanted to run for public office, are there any incriminating photos or videos that would stand in your way?"  "How old were you when you lost your virginity?"

I love questions like that.  We chat in that vein for a while.

Then he asks, "so what are you looking for?"


What do I want?  Which should really be, who do I want?  Who should I want?

It's the question that keeps me in a perpetual war with myself.

Because sometimes I wonder if the who is less important to me than the what.

The what being that particular feeling that is so rare.  The chemistry. The butterflies, the tingles, the charge in the air, the excitement, the sense that when you're together, you're in on a secret that no one else is in on. What my eloquent friend Lisa refers to as the "red hots."  It doesn't happen with many people, but when it does, oof.

And so I find that I will endure quite a lot for the what.  Sometimes the who attached to the what - those elusive red hots - is, on an objective level, not the who you might have put yourself with, all things being equal.  The who might be a pain in the ass, or be persnickety in ways that annoy you, or be self-absorbed and infuriating.  Most of the time, it might feel like he's utterly wrong for you.

Except when it doesn't.  And when it doesn't, the feeling is intoxicating, and so hard to let go of.  He might make you miserable, but you can't get him out of your head.

Is it worth it?  Is the euphoria worth the pain?  At some point, do you need to give up the yearning for the red hots in order to achieve some emotional stability?

"What are you looking for?" he asks again.

I put on my best Mona Lisa smile and shrug.

"Let's just see what happens."

But deep down, I know.  I can't live without the red hots.  And it's always been my downfall.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Adventures in Online Dating: Good artists copy, great artists steal?

After a short period of wallowing, I have jumped back into the world of online dating.  I have a number of single friends who do it but hate it, but I actually kind of love it.  It's certainly flattering.  I get a lot of messages - most women on those sites do, way more than men generally get.  And while the majority of them are from men I'm not going to go out with, a decent number are from guys who have some potential.  So I've decided that my approach will be to play the numbers game - if a guy asks me to meet him for a drink and he seems smart, funny, nice, attractive enough and age appropriate, I'll say yes.

And really, why not?  My attitude is, most of them will only be first dates, but maybe a few will lead to second dates, and who knows?  I keep my expectations low.  At worst, I'll spend an hour having a drink and chatting with a nice enough guy who I never have to see again, and at best, I'll meet someone really cool.  There's really no downside.

The result is that my dance card is filling up to the point that I'm having to schedule dates two and three weeks out.  It's fun.

And I won't lie - my ego enjoys the feeling of being complimented and pursued.

Plus, even the ones I don't go out with provide some entertainment.  There are messages from those I call the Young Guns - guys who are a solid 15 years (or more) younger than my target market, but whose brashness and enthusiasm I find sort of charming.  Who knew that 25 year old guys would be interested in a 45-year-old divorced mother of two?  I even got a message from a guy who is 19.  If I had been remotely interested in going out with him, we couldn't have gone to a bar.

Then there's the international crew.  I have been written to by men from Israel, Canada, England, Ireland, France, and a couple of other places.  And that's not counting the ones scattered around the United States, even though I have no interest in dating someone outside of Denver (even the suburbs would feel like a long-distance relationship to me).

Another category I haven't come up with a name for, but it's characterized by guys whose profile pictures include them shirtless, or a bathroom mirror selfie, or posing in front of their car or motorcycle (or even a picture of just the car).  Dude, I don't need to see your nipples before I meet you.  And I'm not impressed that you drive a Beamer.  Move along.

But tonight I hit upon something that really blew me away.

One of the things about how my brain works is that I have crazy recall for certain things that I read and hear - conversations, dialogue, movie quotes, text message exchanges, that sort of thing.  My brother Sam has similar abilities - he and I can hear something that reminds us of a line, and one of us will say it, and the other one will immediately get it while everyone else is wondering what the hell we're blathering on about.  What sometimes triggers it for me is distinctive or unique uses of language - a way of expressing something that strikes me as interesting, a particularly descriptive or powerful statement, a statement that seems incongruous or inconsistent with what I know about the speaker.

Anyway.  Tonight I was dicking around on my computer while the kids were playing, and I got an email that someone was interested, so I went online and checked his profile out.  And when I read it, I  immediately had a sense of deja vu - there were two sentences in there that I knew I had seen before.  So I looked back at another guy's profile that I had read about a week and a half ago, and he had used the exact same sentences.  Verbatim.  Word for word.  (And it's a distinctive couple of sentences - absolutely no way was it just a coincidence.)

That made me curious.  So I took the sentences and googled them.  My head exploded when the search resulted in at least 40 hits, all linking to dating profiles on a number of different sites, all by men using the exact same language.

I dug a little more, and that led me to an article advising men on how to write a compelling online dating profile.  The article included a number of sample profiles and talked about what was good or bad about them and what kind of message and attitude they conveyed.  And one of the sample profiles, which was at least 4 paragraphs long, was one that I had read in the last day or so - the guy had literally cut-and-pasted the entire thing into his profile, without changing a word.  There were other samples in the article that I hadn't seen duplicated in their entirety in any one guy's profile, but which had certain elements or phrases that I recognized from different profiles I had read.  I checked back at the profile of a guy I had actually gone out with once, and it was an amalgamation of different sentences and paragraphs taken from the different samples in the article.  There was not a single thing in his profile that was original.

I find the whole thing fascinating, almost like a peek into the male psyche.  I get that many people are not natural writers, and that it's hard to write about yourself.  I get doing some research on some of the dos and don'ts.  But that level of rank plagiarism seems crazy to me, if for no other reason than it's so easily exposed.

In any event, I'm not sure what to do with this discovery, but it's very amusing nonetheless.

Monday, February 01, 2016

We're boss at denial but best at forget

Yesterday I got a text message from the kids' dad, telling me that they had been on their way to the mountains to ski, but that in the bad weather bearing down on Colorado right now, the car they were in (a friend's truck) lost traction and slid off the road into a big pile of snow.  He wanted to let me know that it had happened, but also to let me know that everyone was fine.  Apparently Zeke's remark was, "that was scary but kinda fun."

I feel like I should have been more freaked out.  But the truth is, I wasn't remotely fazed or worried by the news.  Partly because I trust their dad to keep them safe, and I know he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize their safety - and hell, I've had my car slide around on those snowy mountain roads.  It happens.  But more fundamentally, because I am convinced that the forces of the Universe - forces that I don't know that I actually believe in, mind you - would not allow something as awful as the death of another grandchild to happen to my family again. That after losing Emma, it can't happen to us again.  It can't happen to my parents, to me, to my brothers, to any of us. It simply cannot happen.

It is the worst kind of magical thinking.  There is no logic to it whatsoever, especially because I am deeply, deeply ambivalent about the existence of a god or higher power or anything like that.  Plus, that kind of faith in some level of universal fairness didn't apply to Emma in any event, given that she was killed in a car crash four years after almost being killed in a car crash.  So I already know that it's bullshit.  The Universe doesn't give a fuck about fairness or justice.  My own experience makes my magical thinking more absurd than it already is, and I know it.

But nonetheless, every time I have been in the slightest bit of perceived danger, whether from icy roads, wicked turbulence, whatever, I'll have a moment of fear and then think, "no, it can't happen.  Everything will be fine."  "This plane won't crash if the children and I are on it.  Because it can't happen to my family."

Not that it shouldn't, or that it would be sad or unfair.  It can't.  It's an impossibility.

This insanity doesn't actually affect my behavior, which is the important thing.  I still put my kids in booster seats and make them buckle their seatbelts.  I drive carefully.  I make them wear helmets when they ski. I protect them as much as I should.

But I don't worry as much because in my mind, nothing bad can ever happen to them.  Which I guess isn't so terrible.  Whatever gets you through the night.