Friday, April 22, 2016

The vending machine: A true story

Hungry. Again. Sitting in the vending room at a flimsy metal table on a wobbly chair. The vending machines hum and whisper. Don’t ask me what they’re saying. I don’t speak vending machine.

I scan the options for desirable snack choices. One machine holds normal vending noshes: candy bars, potato chips, cheese puffs. The other machine boasts “Healthy Options” but apparently it’s the loosest possible definition of “healthy.” I can choose from potato chips—baked, not fried; tiny bags of nuts, granola bars, Twizzler bites, and—healthiest of all—Cheez-Its.

I am nothing if not health-conscious. I choose the Cheez-Its. One dollar for a one-point-five ounce air-puffed cellophane bag of golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth squares. I would literally sell my soul for a Cheez-It on any given day.

As an aside the other day a man and a woman were browsing the cracker aisle in Target, and I heard him say, “All of a sudden you’re against Cheez-Its?” and she said, “I haven’t had a Cheez-It in like six years.” Under her breath, but loud enough for the Cheez-It-despising sociopath to hear, a woman who ate a whole box of Cheez-Its yesterday (me) said, “Communist.”

I poke the edge of my George Washington face-up into the cash slot. The machine sucks it out of my grasp, like a pre-schooler snatching a candy-bar from a stranger in a white van, or like Toni Taxwinkle (props John Kass) siphoning tax dollars directly out of my bank account.

I double-check the item code and press G-5. The silver coil turns, slowly advancing the red bag of yummage to the edge of the shelf. The bag starts to fall, and I hold my breath, anticipating the first crunchy bite of cheesy goodness.

But the bag catches and holds on, braced between the side of the vending machine and the ledge. It mocks me.

I pound fecklessly on the glass, but the crackers don’t budge. I try shaking the machine, but it weighs as much as a Hummer.

I refuse to be daunted, and I know exactly what to do. I’m going to double down. I pull out another dollar from my wallet and square off against the thieving apparatus. The working theory is that the second bag of Cheez-Its will knock the first bag down as it falls.

Everything goes great: the dollar slides in, I press the buttons, the silver coil turns. The red bag slides forward. As it reaches the edge, I hold my breath. The package starts to fall, encounters its brother—and the first batch gives in to the gentle push from behind, dropping into the bin.

The second package continues to move forward. For a brief moment, my heart floods with hope, which quickly turns to bitter disappointment. The bag hangs up in exactly the same location as the first, and I almost give up on life.

But I like to think I’m a problem solver. I stare at the window of row after row of delicious “healthy” snacks. I ponder how to get the stubborn package of cheese crackers down from its perch where it clings like a squirrel on a telephone wire: it looks like it should fall, but it stays put, defying the alleged law of gravity. I lean down and try to reach my hand up past the swinging plastic theft guard. (I’m only guessing that it’s called a theft guard, because there’s no way to reach past it to the first row of snack items, let alone three rows up where my crackers levitate.)

I look surreptitiously over my shoulder like a person getting ready to tell a racist joke, then try another shake, another feckless glass pounding. Nothing.

Crazy idea pops into my head. Maybe if I select the item above the crackers, it’ll knock the bag down as it falls. I check the stash to make sure the snack option one row up is worth the investment. I’m not going to waste a whole dollar on sugar-free vanilla wafers for crap’s sake. Bleah. But I’m in luck. It’s delicious, chewy Twizzler bites.

Dollar in. Buttons pressed. Coil turns. The chewy twists fall, and I swear Time has slowed down. It’s like watching an outfield play in slow motion, the ball heading toward the wall, the outfielder leaping, arm outstretched—and the ball ekes past the open glove by a millimeter. The Twizzlers bounce against the Cheez-Its, knocking them slightly out of position, but falling uselessly to the bottom of the tray. Well, not completely uselessly. I still get to enjoy some tasty Twizzler bites.

But now I’m mad. So far I’ve spent three dollars just to get a tiny bag of cheese crackers, and I’ll be damned if I will let the Machines win. This is probably what a steam-punk hero feels like. Courageous, facing unbeatable odds in a harsh, futuristic mechanized world. “Leave no snack behind” becomes my rallying cry.

I know it doesn’t make sense to keep trying the same thing over and over again, but I’ve pretty much decided to spend every dollar in my wallet if I have to—one dollar at a time. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I give it another try? I could end up one dollar poorer still, with only two bags of Cheez-Its and a pack of Twizzler bites to ease the sorrow of this journey we call life.

I go for one more bag of Cheez-Its. For a terrifying moment I think they’re both caught in vending machine limbo.

They teeter.

They fall.

Both of them.

I feel like Jack Bauer right after he disarms a nuclear bomb and saves Los Angeles, only this is real life, man. This is some real shit.

I tell this story to M. Peevie.

“Well, where are the snacks?” she asks, always a pragmatic child.

“I ate them,” I say.

“All of them?” She can’t believe it, which is weird because she’s met me.

“Well, I did give one bag of Cheez-Its to Robert the homeless guy,” I admit, blushing to admit such an act of overwhelming generosity.

“I can’t believe you didn’t save me any Twizzlers,” she says.

Monday, March 14, 2016

You Don't Know Hunger Like I Know Hunger

If you had attended the fundraiser Tell It Slant for the Lincoln Square Friendship Center Food Pantry like you should have, you would have heard this story during the open mike:

I have lived my life on the edges of survival. My husband and I were just barely able to scrape together enough money to buy a house in the whitest neighborhood in Chicago. Every other house on the block had their additions and dormers done months before we were able to take this step. The weary front lawn shows signs of insouciance, the garage door opener has been inoperable for years, and most days I don’t even know where my next minivan is going to come from.

I have experienced hunger and starvation almost every day—in the middle-class, western sense of the word, of course. I decided to keep a hunger journal to share my struggle with the world.

March 2. I first notice my hunger at 7:24 a.m. I immediately scan the bedroom for sustenance, but the Girl Scout cookie boxes are all empty. The cellophane sleeves are lying around like empty condom wrappers the morning after a fraternity party. They are the detritus of our own middle-aged version of a wild bacchanal—a night of watching the Agent Peggy Carter finale, eating overpriced, déclassé wafers with reckless abandon, and falling asleep by 9:30.

10:00 a.m. Eating my first satisfying meal in at least twelve hours—not including the Trefoils.  It’s been hell. This peanut butter and bacon on toast with Diet Coke might as well be prime rib and Chateau Margaux, that’s how good it tastes.

10:30 a.m. Medium Diet Coke, easy ice, from the Golden Arches. I know I already had a Diet Coke earlier, but every addict knows that McDonald’s has the good shit.

2:30 p.m. Store-bought tamales and leftover chateaubriand under glass fuel my waning energy early in the afternoon. When you’re dealing with this level of deprivation you don’t stop to think about food pairings.

7:30 p.m. Currently drinking domestic merlot from Trader Joe’s. Essentially I’m having fruit salad for dinner, only without the coring and chopping. The wine feels warm going down. I dig a Thin Mint and a dollar fifty-seven in change out of the couch cushions and thank the little baby Jesus for small blessings. Spending time with Simon Baker, Jason O’Mara, and my other pretend TV boyfriends will distract me from my suffering and sustain me through the night.

I hope. Sometimes I just want to give up.

March 3. I’ve noticed that I mostly feel hungry when I haven’t eaten. I decide that the easiest solution is to eat all the time, proactively, so that I can avoid the gnawing pangs of my body slowly consuming itself. It’s a desperate ploy, I know, but I’m starting to be able to see my own toes. I’m fading into a mere shadow of my formerly zaftig self.

March 4. Jury duty. This usually goes well for me. A couple hundred citizens sit through a video explaining the court process—as though we haven’t all watched seven thousand hours of Law and Order over the past twenty years.

The grandmotherly lady next to me wears her puffy coat indoors while I am seconds away from spontaneous combustion. Must be nice to be post-menopausal. She unzips her Spiderman vinyl lunchbox and pulls out two granola bars. The crunchy kind. I eye them longingly. I sense hunger lurking like a panther ready to pounce. Grandmom chews with an abundance of crunching and slurping.  She also mutters to herself and hums. Even with my earphones in I can hear her lips smacking. 

I want to kill her.

This hunger journal reminds me of something my unofficial foster son L. Peevie told me twenty-plus years ago. I’m about as white as a person can be. I had never been a parent before, let alone a parent of a teenager, let alone the temporary parent of a black teenager from the west side. It took some adjustment on both sides.

I soon figured out that teenage boys eat a lot. I could not keep food in the house. It disappeared within minutes after I got home from Dominick’s. Sometimes it didn’t even make it into the ‘fridge or pantry. He’d snatch it from my hands like a wildebeest on the plains and eat it without even removing the packaging.

One time L. Peevie was rummaging around looking for a tiny after-school snack of a few thousand calories. He rearranged margarine tubs containing a bit of chili mac, a dollop of chicken tetrazzini, and a serving of potato salad. The vegetable drawer held a few limp carrots and some sad-looking celery.

“There’s nothing in the ‘fridge,” I told him, “I’ll go to the store in a little bit.”

L.P. looked at me and shook his head. “That’s the difference between black people and white people,” he said. “When white people say ‘there’s nothing in the ‘fridge,’ there’s still a ton of food in there.” He picked up the chili mac and shut the refrigerator door.

“When black people say there’s nothing in the fridge, the only thing in the fridge is mustard.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Drink of Life Again

Dear Aidan,

It is a cruel element in the anatomy of grief that your birthdays continue to come and go even though you are not here.

You would have turned--should have turned--18 this year.

Every day I miss you, of course. But on your birthday, especially, I miss the marking of your journey toward adulthood. I am supposed to still be parenting you, helping you navigate this beautiful and scary passage. Soon we will reach the time when you would have (most likely) been gone from our house, living on your own. Adulting, as the kids say. But for now, I still grieve for the loss of young you, growing and maturing but still needing a mom and dad to help you along.

We spent the early morning of your birthday in the ER with M. Peevie, who passed out in the shower. It seemed an uncannily fitting way to start the day. You spent so much time there during your short life that the ER staff knew your name and your face. The scary circumstances evoked an egregious flashback to that traumatic day, three years and seventeen days ago, when we lost you.

In Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl observed,

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

For a long time, I felt unable to choose anything but grief and sadness. There were distractions, of course, primarily those that involve loving and taking care of my family. But everything else had been sucked into the black hole of grief.

Nothing is permanent except change. Now my grief is composed of the constant ache of your absence. Certain triggers cut my heart, and I cry: hearing American Pie, visiting your grave in the West Portal, an unexpected remembrance from a friend. But I am learning to live with this "new normal." I'm beginning to experience feelings other than grief, sadness, and depression. I am gradually gaining the strength to set aside grief in order to pursue meaning and purpose. I'm remembering to be grateful.

We spent the evening of your birthday eating pizza with your pals Ben, Nick, Alex, and Gabriel. Being with these boys--young men, really--gave me the feeling of having a part of you back for a time. I could almost picture you sitting at the table with us, abandoning your fear and anxiety and reveling in the silliness and comfort that these friendships brought you. 

Your pal Dr. Steve stopped by, too. We were so touched that he would take a break from the demands of his patients to celebrate and remember you with us. He loved you. He told me he thinks of you every day when he sees your poem on his desk. Your case comes up in his medical conferences frequently as the team of cardiologists and cardiac surgeons continue to improve their understanding of how best to care for their patients. He said that he has started recommending prophylactic cardiac catheterization to his asymptomatic teenage patients. If the parents decline, he tells them your story.

You are still having an impact on the world. I always knew you would.

All of us miss you terribly, darling. I wonder if you are OK. I want desperately to see you again, to receive a gangly, spontaneous hug from you, to hear your voice and your laugh. I yearn for the other side of eternity where the pain of losing you will be destroyed by joy and peace in the presence of Jesus.

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must
And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
To look at the leaves uncurled
And stand in the fields where cuckoo flowers
Are lying about the world.                                            --A. E. Housman

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

To Love Him Well

Aidan with his beloved manatee, Manny, and his DS of course. 

To love him well in death
He lays blooms
Across carved stone
And kneels, weeping,
Beating the silent ground.

To love him well in death
I light th’eternal flame
And pray God his soul to take
And kneel, weeping,
Forehead pressed to unforgiving rail.

To love him well in death
We preserve a cluttered shrine
Of figures and plastic parts 
And kneel, weeping,
Clutching what is no longer there.

To love him well in death
We decipher a fantasy 
scratched on smudgy page
And kneel, weeping,
Mourning an ending unwritten.

To love him well in death
We breathe, we walk, we love.
We hope but often falter;
And kneel, weeping,
And waiting for that day.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

It could have happened

I was standing in the backyard of my brick Georgian home on Kentucky Street in Chicago. It was wide and green, dotted with maple saplings. It looked exactly like the backyard of my parents' home in Pennsylvania, where I grew up. I looked over at my neighbor’s equally spacious backyard. I could see my neighbor Steve gathering equipment for a camping trip. People kept coming into his yard and stacking up their camping equipment near his—apparently a large group was headed out together.

As I was standing in my yard, near the house, I noticed a man going into my garage at the back of the property.

I walked across the yard and followed him into the garage. I saw the man and several other people, looking through boxes, sweeping, moving chairs and other garage materiel. The floor was clean and swept. A girl about eleven was asleep, wrapped in a blanket, near one wall.

Another little girl, about age seven, skinny and lithe, was climbing up on shelves built into the side of the garage. The shelves were as wide as the garage, and went up to the roof, which seemed to be two stories high. She was about halfway up, rummaging through plastic tubs and baskets, looking for something. The man on the floor was directing her. The tubs and baskets took up most of the room on the narrow shelves. There was barely room for the little girl’s feet on the edge of the shelf, but she seemed as surefooted as a mountain goat.

“What’s going on?” I asked the man. “She can’t be up there! it’s dangerous. I’m liable if she falls and gets hurt.”

He told her to get down. She climbed nimbly down and stood next to him.  

He was sincere and rugged, about forty years old, with dark hair and black eyes. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I was mystified. A woman opened the side door of the garage and walked in. I couldn’t tell how old she was. Maybe she was his wife? His mother? She had some gray in her hair. She looked nervous.

“Are you part of the group that’s going camping with Steve?” I asked.

The man looked at me, his expression blank, and I realized I had it all wrong.

“Are you planning to live here?” I said. “In the garage?” I looked around. We never locked the service door of the garage, and rarely used it for the car. We mainly used it to store the lawnmower and lots of stuff we never used. Old paint cans and flower pots lined the lower shelves.

The man nodded. We watched as the rest of the family—there must have been six or seven kids and a couple of adults—continued to sweep and organize. They went in and out of the service door. The little one who had been asleep near the wall woke up, unwrapped herself from the blanket, and stood next to the nervous woman.

I was sad and confused. How could I kick them out? Clearly they were homeless, and trying to make the best of a terrible situation. I introduced myself, and shook his hand. I reached over to shake the woman's hand, too, and noticed that her eyes still looked anxious.

I left the garage and went back into the house. It was Easter, and the family had already sat down around the table and starting eating. My parents were both there, and my former brother in law, and my aunt and uncle. Others too, but I don’t remember their faces.

“There are twelve people living in our garage,” I announced.

The table was filled with food—ham, potatoes, salad, green beans, dinner rolls—and everyone was helping themselves and talking. The talking stopped as soon as I made my weird announcement. 

Then people started giving suggestions about what I should do about this unexpected development. Nobody seemed to be too surprised, and no one got up from the table. They just talked about it as if we were discussing something in the news.

I went outside and stood in front of my house. The sun shone brightly. Two white SUVs sped down the street and screeched to a stop in front of my neighbor’s house. The SUVs had INS logos on the side. Men piled out wearing body armor and carrying rifles. They huddled for a moment outside the vehicles. Somehow I knew they were planning their assault on the family in my garage.

I made an instant decision. I ran down the alley on the side of my house. I wanted to reach the family in the garage, to warn them. As I reached the edge of my house, I saw the man and a couple of the girls outside of the garage, in the alley.

I waved my arms frantically, telling them by incoherent semaphore to run! Run! The man saw me, and knew instantly what I was saying. He motioned to the girls to run, and then he raced inside the garage to warn the others. They started coming out of the garage and scattering down the alley.

Meanwhile, as I ran past the edge of my house, I could see an agent closing in, running down the gangway next to my neighbor’s house, holding his rifle. Other INS agents closed in from other angles. 

The family had not gotten far. The agents chased them and pointed guns at them. When they saw they were caught, they stopped and put their hands up. They looked scared.


And then I woke up, dammit.

I told my dream to Mr. Peevie and M. Peevie on the way home from Easter lunch. 

"Noooo!" M. Peevie yelled, when I got to the end. "What happened next?"

I wish I knew. I hate it when I'm having an interesting, adventurous dream, and I wake up before I find out the end.

We were headed home through our old neighborhood, where we lived in the brick Georgian. We drove slowly past the house, and turned down the alley. 

"I can see the family trying to get away!" M. Peevie said, looking at the garage and peering down the alley.

Why are some dreams so vivid? Where do these details come from--INS? people living in my garage? My former BIL?

It's all so very mysterious.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Last Enemy

I wrote about the two grief clubs I belong to, and about our vocabulary of loss, over in the blog Circling the Story.

"This grief [after losing Aidan] feels so completely different from my grief after losing Caitlin that it should have a different name. Just like Arabic has eight different words for “cousin” depending upon the gender of the cousin and the side of the family, perhaps we should have different words for grief depending upon the nature of the loss.

"This time around, it feels like the intensity of grief will never end. Now, two years and three months since Aidan died, I cannot imagine a time when his loss will not still be the most important defining fact of my life. I still cry often, usually for just a few minutes; but grief still has the power to astonish me, to knock me off my feet with its exhausting, inexorable tsunami."

Read more of this post at Circling the Story.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sorrow is the Sea

Stay strong, my friend said.

You are so strong, another friend said.

I don't know how you do it, they said. I admire your strength.

I know they mean well. But what does being strong have to do with anything? And what does being strong look like? Sometimes it feels like people who tell me I'm strong have failed to see the real me--or that I have successfully hidden the real me from them.

Aidan died. We observed his memorial day, the two-year anniversary of the day he died, on November 11. Since that day two years ago, we have disappeared.  We have tried to relearn how to breathe, battled the demons of PTSD, and grappled every day with the changes that made everything both easier and harder

This is the real me.

There have been weeks when I felt I was past the worst that grief could throw at me, and I was finally beginning to be able to do more than just put one foot in front of the other. But in the past few months, I have been reminded that recovery from grief is not linear, and that anniversary reaction is a thing. 
Aidan, C. Peevie and M. Peevie, September 2010

One day on a long car ride several months ago, American Pie came on the radio. Aidan's favorite. I started to cry, and couldn't stop. I cried for three straight hours. 

Does this qualify as strong?

Sometimes still I cry so much that my eyes don't stop being red and puffy all day long. One day I started to cry at church, and cried off and on for three days. On the third day, Mr. Peevie came home and asked me why there was a roll of toilet paper on the couch next to me. 

"Because we're out of tissues," I said. We had started the day with a full box.

Is this staying strong?

I'm a different person now. I used to love parties and gatherings with tons of people. I enjoyed meeting new people, and could always strike up a conversation with a stranger. I would always go for the joke. I loved to make people laugh. I tended to be optimistic and positive. I think I was fun to be around. 

Now I'd mostly rather stay home. Occasionally I'll go out for a quiet dinner with one or two friends. I have little energy or inclination to socialize. I feel like grief is written across my face. It feels like an infection that has the power to suck the joy right out of a room.

In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote 

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that. 
Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.

Every second of every minute of every hour of every day I feel the loss, the absence, of Aidan. It never, ever goes away.  

This is not being strong. This is surviving.

November is the worst month for anniversary reaction. We have many significant family dates, each with its own unique sorrow. M. Peevie's birthday is a time for celebration--but at the same time, it's a reminder that she is growing up, and Aidan didn't get the chance to do that. She turned fourteen this year--the same age as Aidan when he died.

November 11 is the day we will always remember as the day Aidan died--his memorial day. A week later we observe Mr. Peevie's birthday, which also happens to be the day we buried Aidan. Mr. Peevie deserves to be toasted and celebrated, with festivities and presents and badly-decorated cake. But now his birthday is inexorably tied to the second worst day of his life. It's a terrible incongruity. 

Aidan's birthday comes next. Every year I wonder what he would have looked like as he grew into adulthood. On every birthday, I mourn the passing of another year in which our celebrations, vacations, and new memories don't include him. On Thanksgiving, the family gathers around the table, and there is a gaping hole, the glaring, excruciating absence of a goofy-grinned, crazy-haired boy.

I am changed, weak, broken, sad, feeble, distracted, fearful, untrusting, and unproductive. I keep searching for evidence that I am doing this grief thing right. That I'm not crazy or unstable. That though I'm broken and messed up, I won't feel this bad forever. 

I keep getting up in the morning. I keep doing what I need to do--although some days it's just the bare minimum. 

Is that what they mean by strong?

"Why is it so important to act strong?" Wolterstorff asked. 

I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault, wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?

I cling to faith because of what I know about Jesus. I can't not believe. I hold the hope of the Resurrection close, and I don't "grieve as others do who have no hope."* But I struggle to participate in the communal, emotional aspects of worship. I can barely sing at church, unless the song depicts the "not-yet" part of the "already/not-yet" equation that represents the work of the gospel. I cry during communion, because I remember how seriously Aidan took the purpose and promise of the shared symbolic meal.  

We're well into the new year. I used to love New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. I loved the feeling of the clean slate, the opportunity to start over, to set goals and imagine a new world and a new me. Even though I knew that resolutions were made to be broken, I still felt optimistic and hopeful. I might not be able to make all the changes I hoped for, but I would be able to change some things some of the time. I could learn to do new things, make different choices, travel an untrodden path.

I think there is a still a tiny kernel of my original sanguine nature buried deep inside me; but the new me, the Aidan-less me, is so different now that the seed is dormant. Hope is covered with a permanent shadow of sadness. The heavy weight of this grievous loss dilutes my optimism.

Sorrow is no longer the islands, but the sea.

I will go to bed tonight thinking of Aidan. Tomorrow I'll get up again, and my first waking thought will be about Aidan. And maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, or next week or next month, the scale will tip slightly over to hope, or peace, or joy.

*I Thessalonians 4:13