Sketching is one of the ways I process grief. So. Uncle Stan.
Uncle Stan never really understood that his movies had become cult classics. Friends of mine, meeting him for the first time, would fan-boy over Ice Pirates or Krull, and Uncle Stan would just… kinda nod and smile and move on. Or look confused.
After a holiday dinner one night (I want to say it was Passover, but can’t swear it) we somehow got onto the topic of Ice Pirates. Probably me trying to convey to him how many people loved it (even though it was cheesy).
Uncle Stan: Ice Pirates… I think it had a different name once. What was it…?
Me: The Seventh World.
Uncle Stan: Wonder why I named it that?
Me: Because, back then we still considered Pluto a planet, and if you were coming into our solar system from the outside, earth was the seventh planet in.
Uncle Stan: Huh. That was clever of me.
This is Gracie, our latest foster. She’s about 3 months old, fearless, wriggly, happy, and absolutely determined to pounce Ragnar at every opportunity. She hides under the coffee table and waits for him to walk by so she can nip at his feet. At which point he, of course, flops down on his stomach and lets her chew on his ears and try to fit her mouth around his skull. She fails at that one, but they both seem delighted by it.
I… am feeling overwhelmed. Not by the puppy. A few weeks ago my primary care doc noticed something funny when I swallowed a sip of water. So she sent me to get an ultrasound of my neck. Which took a rather long time. The impression I got was that it was longer than it should have been, but I don’t know how long these things normally go. I knew better than to ask the technician what she saw; she wouldn’t be allowed to say, anyway. And the results came back. And I saw them before my doctor’s office called. Because I’m the kind of patient who *always* logs in to PAMF’s MyHealth Online service. And I saw that there were a lot of nodules. Which worried me.
But it wasn’t until the nurse called to tell me I needed to set up an appointment with endocrinology to get the nodules biopsied that I really started worrying. I think it was her tone of voice. She sounded very uncomfortable. Very solemn.
It could just be that she’s used to patients freaking out at all sorts of things. I don’t know. I’m not prone to freak outs when discussing medical things. I think my father would have disowned me if that were the case. Well, not really. But I’m his kid. I’m not afraid of needles, I want to see everything (like my tonsils once they were removed–they were each the size of a golf ball–or my intestine pictures after they did the celiac biopsy), and I don’t freak out at test results. Also…. I have a spreadsheet where I’ve kept all of my test results going back to 1984. Which, let me tell you, sure helps with getting a diagnosis. I’m the gal who, when the ER doc asked me, “I don’t suppose you happen to know what size your ovaries normally are?” said, “Oh, yeah. This is how big they were when I was 19, and this is how big they were when I was 25, and this is how big they were two months ago.” And I showed her my spreadsheet.
So I have a bunch of nodules in my thyroid. Both sides. Both have a large main nodule. One side also has a lot of smaller ones spread throughout. People can get nodules in all sorts of places. Most thyroid nodules are benign. Even most cancerous ones aren’t a huge concern when it comes to the thyroid. When I talked to my dad his mode of reassuringÂ me was to say, “If you have to get cancer, thyroid is the one you want.”
And maybe, at a different time in my life, it wouldn’t stress me so much. But in a year when Jay died of cancer, when my mother is still recovering from the chemo she got for her breast cancer… And I feel guilty for not doing enough for either of them… Some lizard brained part of me feels like that would be appropriate punishment.
I get that I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I get that it’s superstitious and counter-productive and my guilt has little basis in reality. But. Yeah.
I am stressed. A little scared. A lot overwhelmed. I go into shutdown mode when that happens. Kinda numb. Flat affect. I see the endocrinologist next Tuesday. It’s an hour long appointment and they’ll probably do the biopsy right then.
And I keep thinking about that Edna St. Vincent Millay line. “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s one damn thing over and over.” And I’m very glad I have a puppy around.
One of the things that infuriated me when Carolyn died when I was a kid was the feeling that everyone else had forgotten about her. Within weeks, days.
We don’t actually forget that quickly. Not those who were close. Not those who cared deeply during life. The ones who forget are the ones who didn’t know the person. Who didn’t know Carolyn, who didn’t know Jay. When they express grief, it’s real enough. But it’s at a remove. The grief they’re feeling is for us, not themselves. They didn’t have a hole ripped in their life. They didn’t have a part of their soul torn away. Their world didn’t change. But they know ours did.
So they offer sympathy. It’s what humans do. We see another person in pain and our mirror neurons flare and we offer what comfort we can. And if those people move on and don’t remember the loss next week, that’s fine. That’s normal.
But those who grieve… we often do ourselves a disservice. We become silent after the first few days. The first few weeks. We become silent and grapple with it alone. PerhapsÂ because we feel there’s nothing else to be said. Perhaps because we don’t want to intrude on others and keep repeating ourselves. Perhaps because we measure our grief and think it must be so much less than that of others… wife, husband, child, sister. But it doesn’t matter.
We leave each other alone when we’re least capable of handling it.
I haven’t forgotten. I think of Jay every day. I think of the Child and Lisa and Jay’s parents (all three) and Mother of the Child, and Jay’s sister, and Ken and Jen and everyone else hurting. I don’t want to force my grief on them. I don’t want to drag them back into pain if they’ve managed, even for a moment, to forget the hurt. I just want to say I remember.
I remember Jay. I remember what you’ve lost. I remember you.
I’ve had writers block for seven years. What I consider writers block. I realize others have different definitions. But. Largely, the joy had gone out of it. Writing was like pulling teeth. I was still good enough at it to make a living, but… My relationship with my writing had become adversarial. And I figured out why a few months ago.
Writing = Death
Oh, it doesn’t, really. It’s not a logical belief. And, when I go back and examine the events that lead me to this belief, I can even see that it doesn’t make sense. But. My internal mythology is that Carolyn’s death is what gave me my writing.
The first play I wrote was about Carolyn. It got produced. It won me awards. And all the plays that followed after–they got me the scholarship that let me go to Scripps. Hell, my career as a video game writer came out of my playwriting.
But the myth was that the price of my writing was Carolyn’s life. That I never would have written otherwise. Which isn’t true. And I can go back and look at my writing from before then. It mostly sucks, but what do you expect from an 11 year old? The play I wrote about Carolyn, yes, that may well have been my first *good* writing. Because I cared. Because I bled on the page. For the first time I was writing about something gut wrenching and emotional.
But you know what question I used to ask myself? If I would give up my writing to have her back. Because kids ask themselves stupid questions like that. Because they assume it’s their fault.
At first the answer was yes, but as time went on it began to change. And I was ashamed that I didn’t know. The more my writing became central to my life, the more ashamed I felt. And two decades after her death… there was a day when I finally realized that no, I wouldn’t give it up. I was no longer capable of giving it up…. and I stopped writing.
I neverÂ gave upÂ on writing. I just stopped being able to do it. Self defense. If me writing means people I love dying, well.Â It isn’t logical. No one person has that kind of effect on the world around them. But logic has littleÂ to do with fear.
I went onÂ a writing retreat years agoÂ with Jay and his then girlfriend, Shannon. I remember an evening talking with them about my block. And Jay telling me it was a matter of getting out of my own way. I was holding onto something, and he didn’t know what, butÂ it was keepingÂ me from writing. I just had to figure out what it was and let it go. And I remember, also, that nightÂ crying while they lay on either side of me, holding me.
The last few weeks, I asked myself that stupid, awful question again as Jay was dying. Would I give up my writing if it meant keeping him alive? Yes.
But he died anyway.
I think he would take a certain satisfaction in knowing he’d been right all along, that I was holding onto something and getting in my own way. And I think he’d Â be delighted he’d helped demolishÂ that myth of mine. But, oh, I wish he hadn’t.
I would like a year with no more cancer. No more friends, family, or coworkers getting frightening diagnoses, or dying right as they were supposed to be getting better.
No more unexpected emergencies for supposedly run-of-the-mill intestinal problems, that turn a half hour surgery into a four hour series of surgeries and require a second surgical team. No more lost sounding text messages from dad as he ends up spending his day in the waiting room, worrying, and the best thing I can do is send him pictures of puppies.
No more putting beloved pets to sleep because of money. Because the surgery that was supposed to fix the problem (and wiped out all of your savings) only bought you another two months.
No more convoluted wills designed to set all beneficiaries at each other’s throats. No more reassuring the rabbi that I really don’t give a fuck about grandma’s money and think he earned it by putting up with her for 15 years. No more talking to the rabbi. At all. (Unavoidable, though. I still need to deal with the household items she left me. Reminders that neither of us were ever what the other wanted, and her desperation to make me into what she thought I should be. Reminders of her need and loneliness… And my desire not to be dragged down into it.)
No more curses you can’t undo, left by grandfathers you never knew…
Let 2013 take those things with it.
Or at least, thatâ€™s what heâ€™s trying to do. But Iâ€™m not going to let him. And Iâ€™m asking for your help.
My grandmother died in March, leaving her rabbi & tenant of the last 15 years as her primary beneficiary. Which makes perfect sense; he was her family. She left him lifetime tenancy in her house, $50k a year that will likely last him the rest of his life, and two small dogs.
When I first spoke to her lawyer, he told me the rabbi was unhappy about having the dogs and that he was worried the rabbi would put them down. At the time, I thought my parents or I could take them. But Iâ€™m a freelancer and currently I donâ€™t have a gig. My savings were wiped out when my cat needed an emergency surgery and I already have three rescues. I canâ€™t afford it.
Weâ€™ve also learned that my mother needs to have a surgery soon, which will require roughly two months recovery time in which my father will be taking care of her. Â My parents canâ€™t take the dogs.
I explained all this to the rabbi a few weeks ago. I pointed out that my grandmother, in her will, specifically left the dogs to him; clearly she expected him to care for them. I thought it was settled at that point.
Yesterday I received an email from the lawyerâ€™s office telling me the rabbi is going to have the dogs put down. They argued with him, trying to convince him to at least take the dogs to a shelter where theyâ€™d have a chance. Or put up a notice at the vetâ€™s office saying the dogs were up for adoption. He seems to have agreed.
He also left me a voicemail saying that if I want the dogs put down, heâ€™ll do that but he obviously canâ€™t keep them. Heâ€™s trying to put this on me, to salve his conscience, but itâ€™s his responsibility. Itâ€™s his choice. He *owes* my grandmother this.
Heâ€™s right, though. I wonâ€™t let him kill her dogs.
Within two minutes of searching, I found a no-kill shelter not far from the house. The dogs will be going there. But I would much rather find a home for the both of them. Which is why Iâ€™m asking for your help. Give this a signal boost. Maybe you know someone who would want them or could offer suggestions.
Iâ€™ll post a picture here of the dogs as soon as I can get a hold of one.
The dogs are in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A mini-dachshund and a terrier mix.
My grandmother used to tell me a a story about how Uncle Stan sent her 110 red roses on her 50th birthday and a card saying he hoped she lived to 110 (she made it to 95, so, not bad). She would show me the card, even. And then she would ask me what happened. How did a boy like that go from sending his mother 110 red roses to not talking to her?
She would show me the letter my father sent her–the letter that started it all–and ask me what was she supposed to do? What did they (she and Harry) do that gave my father such a horrible childhood? That letter…
My father didn’t tell her he never wanted to speak with her again. He didn’t tell her he didn’t love her anymore. He didn’t tell her to get out of his life. He *did* tell her if she wanted to be a part of his life, things needed to change. She needed to respect his rules when visiting his home. She needed to treat my mother with respect and refrain from criticizing her. She needed to refrain from criticizing him. He asked her to change, to meet him part way. He could have been a hell of a lot more tactful, but he never told her to get out of his life.
She didn’t see that. To her, it was flat out rejection. She wrote him back, disowning him. Whenever my dad tells me about this, he always notes that she hit the typewriter keys so hard, every “o” cut through the paper, leaving empty circles.
The greatest tragedy of my grandmother’s life wasn’t that her sons stopped speaking to her. It wasn’t that her daughter died young. It was that she could never accept responsibility. For anything. Every story, it was someone else’s fault. It was her mother’s fault, or her brother’s fault, or Harry’s fault, or my dad’s fault, or Uncle Stan’s fault, or my fault.
She would ask me why I hadn’t written to her when I was a child. Why hadn’t I called? Why didn’t I try to write?
The first time she asked that, it flabbergasted me. I had no answer. And ever afterward, it was something she would use to guilt-trip me. Even though I did figure out the answer in time, it still worked on me.
I didn’t write her because I was the child. She was the adult.
I was a child who had been told her grandmother opted out of her life. Which was true. If anyone was to change that, it should have been the adult. It should have been the 65 year old, not the 5 year old. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my responsibility. But if it wasn’t her responsibility–which it couldn’t be in her world–it had to belong to someone. So she burdened me with guilt I’d never earned.
She had excuses for why she didn’t try to contact me. “Oh, your father would never have given you the letter.” Except, he would have. And she could have tried, even so.
If she had ever written such a letter during my childhood… I’m fairly certain my father would have tried to reconcile. Because he still wanted to, then. He just needed her to make a gesture. Or she could have given the letter to Kathy, my aunt. Kathy wrote to me. She came to visit. It would have been oh-so-easy for my grandmother to reach out to me through her.
She showed me the telegram Uncle Stan sent her, a few years after my father’s letter. It was only a few lines and, again, it didn’t ask her to get out of his life. Instead it said that he couldn’t talk with her by phone at that time and asked her to write him instead.
She never wrote. Instead she sat back and waited for him to write to her.
You can’t change anything if you never accept responsibility for your own actions. She gave up her sons rather than admit she was responsible for raising them and she’d made mistakes. Lord knows Fang made much worse mistakes in raising her than she did in raising my dad and Uncle Stan.Â She gave up her sons so she didn’t have to admit the ways she failed them. Was it worth it? Was living the next 40 years of her life without her sons worth being able to throw up her hands and say she didn’t do anything wrong?
My mother told me a story last week, about my uncle and my grandmother. She told me about the time Uncle Stan sent his mother 110 red roses for her birthday. Instead of thanking him for the roses, she complained. She complained that the roses wouldn’t last, they’d all die. She went through all 110 roses picking out the ones that didn’t bloom and went back to the florist, demanding a refund for the unopened buds, so she could get a houseplant.
(More to come)
My grandmother and I went to China the summer I was 23. During that trip, one of our tour guides stopped to talk with me. “I had heard in America young people don’t respect their elders,” he said, “but you take such good care of your grandmother. It must not be the way I heard. Or she must have taken great care of you when you were a child.”
I just smiled and thought to myself, Oh, not even close.
I met my grandmother when I was 22. The first time I saw her was in the baggage claim area of the Miami airport. She was this tiny little termagant, with dyed red hair verging on pink. The first thing she said to me was, “You don’t smoke, do you? Your parents still smoke.” The latter statement really ought to have been a question, since she couldn’t possibly know. She hadn’t spoken to my father since before I was born.
Immediately after that, without giving me a chance to respond, she pointed at my chest and said, “You got those from me.”
She was not the kind of grandmother who baked cookies, or, if she did, you really didn’t want them. She’s the only person I’ve ever known who can make chicken soup from scratch and have it taste like it came from a can. There was a story my father likes to tell about her cooking–my uncle apparently asked for a tuna salad for dinner at some point in his early teens. She dumped out a can of sardines, mashed them with mayonnaise, and plopped that down in front of him saying, “There’s your tuna salad.” And then Uncle Stan ran away from home.
I’m sure it was more complicated than that. I do know that my uncle leaving was a big deal for my father. He left for yeshiva (intense religious school, for those unfamiliar with Jewish culture). His intent was to become a rabbi. Which he never did. Ultimately, he became a screenwriter (a successful one, too). But that’s a different story.
As my father tells it, Uncle Stan left for yeshiva because it was the one place Grandma couldn’t reach him. The yeshiva he went to was so strict, they would never let her enter dressed as she was (either sleeveless or short sleeved dresses). She, of course, wouldn’t budge on her clothing choices for anyone.
If you’re beginning to get the sense she wasn’t an easy person… you’d be right.
There are other stories I’ve been told about her. My grandfather married her, according to my father and my uncle, because she was pregnant with Uncle Stan. According to her, she and Harry eloped because her mother didn’t approve of him. They married in secret and kept it hidden for three months, at which point Fang (which is what my dad and uncle call their grandmother) found the copy of the wedding certificate and kicked her out. She went to live with Harry’s family, and oh! they were so wonderful to her! They were the ones who taught her how to cook and how to keep house. Unfortunately, she lost the wedding certificate and the court where it was registered burnt down. So… Guess who I believe?
According to her, she and Harry had a marvelous relationship. He adored her and it had been love from first sight. She came home from her first date with him and said, “I’m going to marry him.” Fang apparently said something along the lines of “That shusterszun!?” (That shoemaker’s son?!) Fang was not a fan of the idea, clearly.
Uncle Stan apparently bore the brunt of his father’s resentment. There’s a story about how Uncle Stan, when he was 3 or 4, dropped an oatmeal cookie on the floor. Maybe he threw it. The details are fuzzy. Harry took of his belt and made Grandma leave the room and forever after she would say she never knew what happened after that. This is a story my father tells with a grim look on his face right before saying that he was the lucky one. His mother protected him from Harry, but no one protected Stan.
There are so many stories, like the one in which she and Harry snuck out of the house because they didn’t want to tell my father they were going out and deal with him being distressed (as only small children can be) and my father saw them leaving and ran sobbing after their car as they drove away, believing they’d abandoned him.
Then there’s the story of her catching Harry cheating on her and using that to force him into adopting a daughter. They adopted Kathy, who was somewhere between 5 and 7 at the time, I think. My father and Uncle Stan were both away in college at the time, and their parents didn’t tell them about the adoption. Instead they came home during the holidays and discovered they had a new sister.
It was only because of Kathy–because of Kathy’s death, specifically–that I met my grandmother. My father and uncle had both stopped talking with their parents decades prior, but they still talked with Kathy. Sometimes lent her money to get out of a tight spot. Other times got held at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend trying to track her down. She died of a drug overdose during my senior year of college. Dad and Uncle Stan wanted to to do something to acknowledge her death, but they didn’t want contact with their mother. So they sent the most extravagant flower arrangement they could find for her funeral. My grandmother wrote back saying that if either of her grandchildren wanted to know her, she wanted to know them.
I had always wanted a grandmother. Desperately. So I wrote back.
(There’s more to say, but later.)