Hospice. I can’t seem to make sense of it in my head. Hospice is for people who are dying; for a beloved uncle who suffered for years or my Pop who was struggling to breathe at the end or my residents who have outlived their families or most recently, a friend who was nothing short of heroic to the end. Hospice means saying goodbye. Hospice does not belong in the same sentence with my Grams. Not her, who is still walking and talking; who just last week was cursing out cartoon characters and busting my chops. Not her, my lifelong source of comfort, my safe place. She loved me when I was unlovable. She knows every nook and cranny of my soul. She walked with me through the ugliest parts of my life. My world will not make sense without her in it.
The rational part of my mind says this is a good thing. She will get the help she needs. The adult part of my psyche knows that she has dementia. The part of me that does not shy away from a hard truth knows that we all have a limited amount of time and she’s leaving an incredible legacy of love and perseverance; that she hated what her own mother had to live through at the end. The grown up me knows that. But the child in me is having a tough time accepting it.
“Corey Anne, you and Colby always said you wished me and Pop lived on the same street as you. Now you get your wish!”. That was 1987. I did get my wish and my life was infinitely the better for it. She made me feel loved when I felt invisible. She told me I was beautiful when I felt ugly. She saw through my smiles when I was in pain. Where I saw weakness in myself, she saw sensitivity. Even when I was my worst self, when I was a walking example of all the wrong choices, I was still her girl.
This is not to say that Grams is anything as vanilla as perfect. She has had to fight tooth and nail for everything in her life and she’s lived with incredible loss from a very young age. Those sorts of experiences and wounds formed a dynamic personality, fiercely protective and nurturing, determined, with a penchant for applying just the right amount of guilt in order to achieve a desired result. Her deep capacity for love could both heal and cut you at the same time. She is loyal, almost to a fault.
I have heard her stories, colored perhaps by time but vibrant in her memory. Through her eyes, I know people I’ve never met. Her sister, Caroline, who died when she was just a girl and her brother Pat who was shot down in WWII both live so brightly in her memories that I feel I know them through her stories. I know about Chip, the love she sacrificed so he would go to college. I know that despite the initial pain, she never regretted that decision because it paved the way for her true love,Pop, to walk into her life. I know about Gumba Aldo, who carried a torch for her throughout WWII. I know about how she dropped out of school to help support her mother and sisters when her two older brothers went off to war. And while she never regretted doing this, there has always been a sadness about not having obtained her diploma; a feeling that she was somehow less because of it. As if intellect and acknowledgement of intellect are the same thing. I know this because I know her and when you’re willing to listen to the stories, even when they change in little ways with each telling, you pick up on those idiosyncrasies.
“Corey Anne, do I have any holes in the back?”. Never a hair out of place. Four of those torturous devices in the front and two on each side. You know, the rollers with the spikes and a cover that snaps them into place. A tiny curling iron to reach the back of her hair. She has had the same style for as long as I can remember. Matching pants suits in a variety of colors. Jeans that she still calls dungarees. Emeraude perfume. Always Emeraude, nothing else. It’s a scent that will always mean Grams. When I first moved to Wilmington to get my life in order, she gave me a bottle. I would spray it on my pillow just to feel her near me. I was so scared and broken at the time, that the scent of Grams and the feeling of her love was the only thing that brought me peace some nights. I was thirty-two, in a recovery house and I wanted my Grams.
One of the greatest blessings in my life is that she has lived to see me in sobriety and living my life with purpose. Of course, that comes with the price of time. It takes time and effort to rebuild yourself from scratch. At first, every fear, every small achievement, every struggle was a phone call to Grams.
“Corey Anne, I’m so proud of you. I knew you could do it. You can do anything you put your mind to. I miss you”. And I would feel that ache, because I missed her too. I missed her, but I was walking everywhere….But I was working two jobs…But I had countless obligations…and all of that was true. I saw her an average of once a year. And that’s being generous. Oh but I talked to her daily. After a few years, the daily phone calls became weekly…and this last year, it has been once or twice a month. I would like to say that I did not realize it at the time, that somehow in the busy business of my life, my phone calls to Grams accidentally slipped through the cracks, but that would be a disingenuous. The reality of it is, the phone calls became so hard for me that I chose to let them slip. I made the choice that was easiest for me because it hurt so much to hear the comforting familiarity of her voice juxtaposed with a defeatism that is so foreign to who she is as a person. I can’t make her feel better so I don’t want to hear her pain. That is the hard truth. It lacks nobility and is not my proudest hour, but the only way I can do better about it is to own it and move forward while there is still time.
Hospice means still breathing and where there is breath there is life. There is time. There is time to make different choices, difficult choices rather than look back at those moments with regret and wistful thoughts of what I could have done differently. So I am trying to do better.
I started writing this because I needed to untangle my thoughts and work through my emotions in order to see clearly and what came out was as close to a living tribute as I am capable of writing. I see her legacy in my Dad and Uncles. I see it in how they have come together in their dedication to their Mom. It really is a sight to behold; to be reminded in the most challenging times of the close ties of family and of how vital those bonds are in the best and worst of what life has to offer. I know from personal experience that it is those sink or swim moments that teach us who we really are and who we want to be. I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to be a member of my family as we face this together and I can’t think of a legacy that Grams would value more.
I was attacked by some sort of prehistoric flying bug monster when I was driving to work a few nights ago. The beast bitch slapped me right in the face with its gigantic wings of terror. For a second, my life passed before my eyes as I imagined this catastrophic freak of nature bug eating my brains. Dear God, NO! This can’t be how it goes down. Woman’s brain ingested by genetically modified death moth. Now, in other news, the mean lady from the Apprentice takes down the duly elected president, from the Apprentice. News at eleven.
What a gloriously absurd moment of history we are witnessing. I guess I should be scared, but I’m not really. We’ve survived worse. Maybe not as embarrassing, but then again the internet wasn’t around when Warren G. Harding and Grover Cleveland were doing their shady stuff. “Anonymous vows to get to the bottom of Q-anon”…this was an actual headline to an article. My super secret group is better than your super secret group. Your super secret group is a snowflake. Did Pecker leak?…wait, WHAT?! That doesn’t even sound right and yet there is the headline, it’s words screaming ridiculously across the page. I mean, clearly we are not in the age of dignity.
If the news or Facebook or the internet is to be believed we should all be clutching our pearls in abject horror of what’s to come and most importantly we should find the appropriate group of people to blame for this mess, because blaming and finger pointing is far more important than solving problems. And God knows we have collectively created enough problems to solve. Had we not allowed ourselves to become lazy, angry, apathetic and reactionary in our thinking, I don’t think we would have gotten into this mess. Maybe people just like being angry. In any event, I have no doubt we will pull through these growing pains. Once we wade through our own insanity, the ship will right itself and the center will hold. Until then, I think laughing at this absurdity certainly beats crying over it.
I was attacked by some sort of prehistoric bug monster while driving to work the other night. Had I reacted to that first thought by jerking the steering wheel, my car would have ended up in the wrong lane headed into oncoming traffic, potentially causing permanent damage to myself and others. Instead I paused, took a breath and realized it was just a big ugly moth; jarring, unexpected and unpleasant but in and of itself, temporary and not life threatening. So I opened up the window, it flew out and my life went on. History is full of ebbs and flows and as long as we don’t stay in panic, all of this will pass. We may even learn from it.
Life is what life is; it may be the single most valuable lesson I have learned from my experience. It is completely freeing in its simplicity. I don’t waste my time on the “should be’s” or the “not fairs!”. I do not feel entitled to ease or immediate satisfaction, which makes it all the more worthy when those rare seamless moments occur. The hand you’re dealt each day is the hand you’re dealt, but how you choose to play that hand is entirely up to you.
Early in my career, I was punched in the face by an eighty year old man living with Lewy Body dementia. Hard (Old people are frail, my ass) but I didn’t quit. I learned how to adapt and approach him another way and it got better. I learned to be a better caregiver from the pain of that punch. It was a very literal reminder of my favorite quote from one of the best movies of all time:
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done”.
My Pop used to tell me I needed to grow a shell. I was a self destructive wreck at that time in my life and I couldn’t see past my thoughts and emotions to the truth beyond the fog. He didn’t live to see me survive the worst of myself. If he were still here, I’d tell him that I haven’t grown a shell. My heart still bleeds all over the place, but simply by surviving, I’ve developed some grit. I’ve had to. Life without it would be a miserable affair.
Those who think they are somehow entitled to go through life without ever being offended are every bit as silly as those who derive their pleasure by purposely being offensive. The truth of it is, such attitudes are solely dependent on each other and accomplish exactly nothing. I say everyone should put on their grown up pants and live their lives.
There is beauty and depth and joy to be had in this life, but there is struggle and pain and disappointment as well. You can’t run from the tough and enjoy the easy. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s all or nothing. What I’ve discovered is that I need all of it. Walking through the difficult times strengthens me and deepens my appreciation for the lighter days. The challenges prevent me from becoming entitled and the joys keep me from becoming hardened.
I am enough. I am enough on my best of days, when all the pieces to the puzzle just seem to fit and my wit is sharp and optimism high. On those days when the words flow from my mind and paint my emotions fluidly, gracefully onto the page. Those beautiful moments when the possibilities are endless and I’m having a good hair day and my ass looks fantastic in those jeans and I manage to make it through a shift without getting body fluids in my hair and the gnawing beast of self doubt slumbers, I am enough. The days when love dances through me, around me and lights me from within and I am tangled blissfully, spiritually, emotionally, physically with my partner in all things and all shadows slink away from the brightness of such a love.
I am enough. I am enough on my worst of days, when I have to cross my fingers and take it on faith that the nagging anxiety will pass. I am enough when the night lasts forever and whispers of all that is beyond my abilities and the only solutions seem to be buried beneath a carton of ice cream or between the brittle wafers of off-brand Oreos. I am enough when I’m crabby, bloated exhausted and aching; when the world seems yelly and cold and points of view seem limited between unforgivably stupid or unbearably smug and I have little patience for either option. When the blank canvas is staring me in the face and the words are clumsy and halting, I am enough.
This fact does not sway with outside changes; it does not grow or shrink based on the expectations of others, does not wither in the face of adversity, and is not dictated by something as fluid and changing as emotions. I am enough because I work, on a day by day basis, to be comfortable in my own skin, to think critically, to challenge my own beliefs and to not fear being wrong. The only one to whom I have anything to prove is myself. After all, it’s my own reflection that stares back from the mirror. So on my best days and worst day and everything in between, I am enough and because of this I am free.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack pretty obsessively lately. It has me thinking in rhythm and rhymes. Whether or not this is a permanent condition remains to be seen, but I figured I might as well try to create something while it lasts. This is the result. Shine on, my friends.
It’s not fair of me to expect you to open your eyes. Your world’s not filled with people trying to get by through a haze that age has placed upon their minds as they struggle to remember; as they struggle to survive.
And maybe it’s because I was once broken, a million sharp pieces cutting through the shade of a haze, the cage in which I locked myself just to hide from the truth and put my life on the shelf that I hear so clearly the words that they can’t say as they tell me their stories in their different kinds of ways. There’s a price to pay for wasting your days. Don’t wait to learn this lesson, don’t let time steal it away.
I get that you don’t get it. It’s not all around you, walking the halls of your mind, tattooing your soul with a truth you can’t shake, can’t dispel, can’t ignore, can’t forsake, can’t erase, can’t un-tell. I’m stuck with it, burning inside my heart. Inflaming me, claiming me; picking me apart until I shout it out and keep pushing forward. I can’t beg to climb the mountain and then bitch about the boulders.
And damn, those boulders can be so heavy, weighing me down, crushing out all the light as the bleakest of shadows creep out from the night. Powerless over death and dementia, addiction, other people’s choices and mental afflictions. At three in the morning, alone with my thoughts I rage against machines. It’s a hell of a cost; all this anger and all this blame, hating one another because we don’t all think the same.
A tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury yet signifying nothing and empty of the glory. But it doesn’t have to be and has little to do with me. I don’t have the luxury to get caught up in the sea, in the riptides of the fury and insanity. So I take my second chance and all the moments they have lost, and vow to make them count regardless of the cost. There is a fire that has always burned inside. I can let it consume me or I can hide or I can use it to light my way through the night. I can use it to continue to set things right.
Don’t bother with the stats. Don’t waste my time with spite. Don’t try to buy my mind. Don’t try to squash my fight. I’ve learned these lessons from those within my care. I’ve learned from their experience. I’ve learned from my own to atone, make amends, do my best, hold my own.
I have no power over anyone else. If I’m whining about others, I’m not focused on myself and what I can do with this mind and this drive, and this fire that continues to burn inside. I owe a debt to this world that gave me a chance. I made a promise to myself not to sit out this dance called life. I won’t cower because of the strife. I let my actions do my talking instead of doing a bunch of squawking, yelling to the void, adding to the noise that drowns out the best of humanity, robs us all of empathy, and attempts to sell us who we should be in order to be “truly” happy. It’s all smoke and mirrors, noise and thunder to complicate, agitate, aggravate, humiliate those with whom you don’t agree behind the safety of a keyboard, so viciously. There are none so blind as those who will not see.
And I know I’ve wasted my share of moments but time is something I can’t unwind. To regret the past is to waste today and that’s not a price I’m willing to pay. I choose to live and love, grow and thrive; to hope and think and not be defined by the surge of anger, smugness and misplaced pride and keep plugging along without breaking my stride.
You don’t owe me your approval. I don’t owe you mine. We don’t have to agree, but we do have to see that we should treat each other with integrity. Be your own leader and bet on yourself, think on your feet, find your own beat, defy the odds, don’t live for the applause. And yes to thine own self be true but remember that this world doesn’t exist to serve just you. These are the lessons from those in my care who’s declining mental status in no way impairs their ability to teach those who are willing see beyond the surface and find a life that’s fulfilling.
Time does this funny trick to the mind, distorting and blurring memories into shapes that match the emotional imprint a given experience has left within us. It’s the reason a group of people will often remember the same event differently. I was reminded of this recently when my uncle came to visit. He brought with him my diary from when I was sixteen years old.
Peppered between the school girl crushes, worries about bad grades and bad poetry was a very hurt and lonely little girl with a fair amount of insight.
“If you carry a ton of rocks on your back, a few more doesn’t make a difference.”
“Some days, I just wish I were born dead.”
“Am I bad? What is WRONG with me?”
“Why should I feel stupid or inferior because I do things differently than someone else?”
Reading my teenage thoughts as an adult was eye opening. I remembered the intensity of emotions I felt, but from the safe distance of time and as I struggled to decipher my own handwriting, I was struck with several realizations. There is such a sense of permanentness in those pages. Every emotion written from the point of view of one who believes it will last forever. Experiences all tangled together. It seemed I was incapable of separating the levels of importance, heartbreak over watching a beloved uncle slowly dying entwined with normal teenage boy crush disappointment and fear of parental disapproval all crashed over me in overwhelming waves that I documented in a diary that at points seemed my only friend that year. Two things were absolutely clear: I desperately wanted to do well with life and absolutely felt I was incapable of it. Not that I knew that at the time.
Many of the entrees were attempts to talk myself out of feeling badly, minimize those negative emotions. Stuff them down and hide them behind a smile. Hide them from others. Hide them from myself, because everyone’s plate seemed to be full and I didn’t want to bother anyone. So I did everything I could to ignore the most painful and scary parts of those years…anything but be honest with myself and acknowledge those emotions in order to better deal with them. That would come back to bite me in the ass later, when those feelings came to deal with me.
As I forced my way through the more cringeworthy entrees, wincing at the melodramatic awkwardness, I realized that I was judging my younger self every bit as harshly now as I did back then. Not cool, grownup Corey. So I decided to read it again, without the judgement of a woman who has lived what feels like several lifetimes of experience in the years since and really listen to what my younger self was trying to say.
With this in mind, I read it as if I was listening to a kid separate from myself who needed a friend and this is what I discovered: I was a confused, mixed up kid with a lot of genuinely good intentions who was doing my best to muddle through a world that didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t see a lot of value in myself. I lived in my head a lot of the time and at various points sounded much younger than sixteen. There were also moments of insight that sounded much older than sixteen. I felt lost and powerless and I absolutely hated it when people said that was supposed to be the best time of my life.
Had I not taken a nosedive into the dark and twisted world of addiction in my twenties, high school would arguably have been the most challenging time of my life, if only because I lacked the life experience to know that I would not feel that way forever. I think the memory of that feeling of permanence is important. It’s the key to understanding. Our lives get full. We gain responsibilities and face consequences and life gets bigger. We forget those emotions and minimize the challenges to simply a time when life was carefree and simple…except, for me anyway, it was neither carefree nor simple. It was full of anxiety and felt very complicated.
Now, what if you throw rage into that emotional cocktail with its feeling of permanence? Or anguish? Or abuse? And add a dash of the internet where there is a cobwebby corner for every thought that desires validation and toss in a society that doesn’t differentiate between fame and infamy…mix all that together for a mixed up kid who is surrounded by adults telling him or her that these are the best years of their life and peers who make life hell for anyone who is the least bit different and what you have is a recipe for disaster. Suicides, addictions, school shootings…adults scratch their heads, wonder what signs were missed, offer prayers and condolences and then argue about mental health and guns and who’s to blame. It’s not that I don’t hold strong opinions on gun control. I do. I just wonder if we shouldn’t tackle this from a different angle. By the time “signs” are showing, a kid is already in the danger zone and by the time a gun enters the picture, it’s game over.
It is always always easier to prevent a mess than to clean one up. Maybe instead of looking for signs, we adults just assume it’s hard as hell to be a teenager and they are all probably lonely and dealing with life in a way that we have long forgotten. Set boundaries without minimizing how challenging it may be for them to understand why. Maybe we can recognize them as individuals without lumping them all together as if they were the same. And most importantly, we can listen to what they have to say. Not just when we think there are signs that something may be wrong, but regularly. We can listen with empathy and try to remember.
I’m no expert; just a woman who was reintroduced to my sixteen year old self. Life is so different than anything I could have imagined at that age; so much more nuanced and vibrant and I am not who I feared I would be. If the ghost whispers from the pages of my past could teach and remind me of lessons long forgotten, I wonder what we could learn from listening to the teenagers today. Quite honestly, I would rather hear their thoughts on the struggles they face daily than a group of adults offering condolences after a catastrophe. I would rather hear their ideas on solutions to the issues that directly impact them than more “debates” on guns or drugs or mental health by adults that lead nowhere. I think any successful solution is going to have be a collaboration between the adults who have the power to legislate change and the kids that will be impacted by it. That has to start with us listening.
Due to a combination poor math skills, an irregular sleep schedule and a general lack of focus, I have been blessed with a rare opportunity. I get to relive a year of my life. I spent this last year fully convinced that I was forty two years old and it was with great pleasure that I realized I was in fact forty one.
So I get a re-do of forty two. This got me thinking, what WOULD I have done differently? After some reflection, I realized that the answer to that was…nothing. I genuinely believe I have done the best I could with what I’ve got and would not change a thing. This is not to say that I haven’t made my fair share of mistakes over the past year. Of course I have, but none of them landed me in jail or rehab or a mental institution or caused me to run into fences while in a blackout and that has not always been the case. Any mistakes I’ve made during my false forty-second year have taught me and therefore were not wasted.
What a freeing moment of clarity! Sometimes I get entirely too wrapped up in all that I want to do; that I want to accomplish. Sometimes I forget to breathe. I should write more. I need to do a post for the other blog. I haven’t painted in two weeks. Maybe if I juggle my meetings and give up some sleep I can help more women in recovery and pick up the meeting at the behavioral health center again. We are short staffed at work. They’ve already rearranged my schedule this month and there’s no way I can get off for the meditation retreat. I’m crazy in love and couldn’t be prouder to be with him. Am I supportive enough? Am I doing enough? Am I…enough?
Strange how all that self-centered fear can sneak up on me. Stranger still the moments that allow me to see how all of those worries are a truly useless form of mental masturbation. There was a time in my life when I was just waiting around to die; when the only two choices I had was whether I was going to wallow in self pity or wallow in self loathing. Those days were endless and empty and lonely. And not one time during that dark period did I care about whether or not I was doing enough. It’s nothing short of a miracle that my life is so full, challenging, rich, whimsical and full of love and color. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I have people in my life who believe me to be dependable.
I get to be forty two again and I am doing just fine. I am comfortable in my own skin and I would not trade my life for another. And while it’s nice to have a do-over, for the first time in my life I don’t feel like I need one. I give my best every day and that is good enough. So I look forward to this year and all the experiences it may hold and I look forward to sharing it with you, readers…you friends. Shine on.