Monday, November 21, 2016

Summon Him

Aidan's birthday falls the day before Thanksgiving this year. He would have turned nineteen. 

He'd be in the middle of his freshman year at college. I'm guessing he would have chosen to take his post-secondary education slowly, to give himself more time to figure out where he was headed and how he wanted to get there. After four years of diverse learning opportunities as a home-schooled high-schooler, he would likely have already accumulated some community college credits.

I think there was some film-making in his future. His first novel would have been finished long ago. He probably would have found a publisher before me, darn him. He'd be writing poetry, and he'd have chapbooks on the shelves at Quimby's or Barbara's Bookstore. He might be starting to think about seminary.

I dreamed about him recently:

I was working a table at a school fundraiser. Papers, clipboards, and a cash-box littered the surface of a rectangular card table. 

Aidan sat on a metal folding chair behind the table. My tiny, white-haired boss walked through the door and hovered near us, flitting around like a nervous aunt in charge of the cookie table after a baptism in a small town church.

In front of me on the table, photographs and images of varying sizes were arranged on a wide poster board. Flimsy and uneven, most of the photos had been cut from magazines. Captions printed on strips of white computer paper lay with casual inelegance below the images. Some of the pictures had come loose. Others, I noticed, had not been placed carefully enough and covered portions of the captions.

As I tried to rearrange and re-attach the pictures, other pieces came loose and needed to be re-taped. I felt my anxiety building.

“I’m not old enough to help,” Aidan said. There was sadness and frustration in his voice.

“Well, you can help me fix this poster,” I said. I started to show him what I needed him to do with the tape and pictures. He smiled, but barely, concentrating with serious attention on the work at hand.

Somehow, even while I was talking to Aidan and demonstrating how to fix the board, I knew that he had died. I knew that he was no longer with us. It didn’t make sense—I didn’t understand how he could be there with me after he had died.

Maybe Kevin could explain it to me. I couldn’t make sense of it, but he would understand.

I stepped away and crouched down to dig my phone out of my purse. I briefly wondered what my boss would think about my getting out my phone to make a personal call right in the middle of the fundraising event.
 
I pressed the code to unlock the phone. The icons on the home page had been jumbled into a different order. I swiped and searched, looking for the phone app icon. Finally I opened the phone app—but I could not find the re-dial button, or the list of recent calls so I could call Kevin with the press of one button.

I couldn’t remember his phone number. I started to cry.

The phone was a lost cause, so I went off to find Kevin in person. He was sitting on the tuscan yellow leather couch at home. His dad sat on the other end of the couch, and his mom sat on a straight back chair.

“I have to ask you something,” I said. My crying turned into choking, gasping sobs that made it impossible to get the words out. I couldn’t even remember what words to use because I was so confused. 

Somehow I managed to force the words out of my mouth.

“I know that Aidan is dead,” I said. “I know that I can’t make new memories with him anymore.“ I sat down next to Kevin on the couch. His dad was nearby, and now we were all crying. “But he’s there with me, working at the table.”

Crying made it hard to breathe. I closed my eyes. In my mind I saw Aidan standing next to the table, leaning over the poster board where I had left him: cowlicky, flyaway hair; long, slender fingers; a gangly adolescent frame; his shoulders and chest slightly concave from having his chest cracked open several times.

“I don’t have memories of this—I’m making new memories of being there with him,” I said, still crying and gasping for breath. “I don’t understand how I can be making new memories with him when he’s gone.”


The dream ended. It had encapsulated a heartbreaking truth of loss: I will never make new memories with Aidan again, except in the fleeting, surreal images of my dreams.

If I could summon him to my dreams, I would sleep all the time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

For the Other

Please stop telling me how to feel.

Stop telling me to calm down. Stop telling me to get over it. Don’t tell me to relax or to stop being offended.

If you know me, and you care about me, I would be grateful if you would give me a minute; if you would really pay attention.

I am grieving the outcome of this election. I am disheartened, discouraged, and disappointed. I have just recently attained a small degree of emotional health and stability after a crushing personal loss—and this feels like a set-back to me.

You may not understand this. You probably don’t understand it. That’s OK. You don’t have to understand it in order to be empathetic. All you have to do is believe me that this is really how I feel.

I am trying my best to not say unkind things about people who supported Trump. I think I’ve succeeded for the most part—but if I’ve said or written something that feels like a personal attack or insult, please bring it to my attention. I do not want to hurt or offend you. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I would like you to do the same for me.

You say how upset you are by the negativity—as though “negativity” on its own is a bad thing. “Negativity” is the only appropriate response to racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and violence. No matter who we voted for, we should ALL be negative when we read a story about a young Saudi college student in Wisconsin beaten to death, or middle-school students in Michigan chanting “build the wall” at Latino classmates.

This is why I grieve. This is why I am discouraged, and even afraid for my friends who are Latino, black, gay, Jewish, or Muslim.

White Trump supporters do not, as a group, I presume, feel threatened and afraid when they leave their homes. They don’t wonder if they will be insulted or demeaned or threatened just because of who they are or what they look like.

But the groups that are targeted by Trump and some of his supporters do feel these kinds of threats and fear. The president-elect of the United States has said rude, scary, demeaning, threatening things about them—and some of his supporters take this as license to bring their formerly hidden racism, ethocentrism, misogyny out into the light.

Trump’s America is frightening for some people—entire groups of people. If you could acknowledge this without minimizing it, or contradicting it, or blaming it on the media, it would go a long way to helping those of us who are grieving and/or afraid to believe that this is not the America that you want to see.

Please don’t minimize it by saying it goes both ways.

I know of a few incidents that went the other way—Trump protesters that went too far, a white man who was beaten possibly because he voted for Trump. But these, I believe, are rare events in a backdrop of rising intolerance for the Other.

Pointing out that some Trump supporters have been insulted and even harmed by Trump-opposers does not mitigate the fact that Trump’s presidency, aligned with the KKK and other hate groups, represents an increase in fear and actual danger to at-risk groups. This comparison is another false equivalence in a sea of false equivalencies. It doesn’t even come close to being the same because Trump supporters are the ones who have the power and influence of the President on their side.

I’m not in any way saying that all Trump supporters are racist or sexist or any other “-ist.” I’m not saying you are. I’m saying it’s out there, and it appears to be getting worse.

I started out by telling you about my own grief and discouragement—but none of this is really about me and my feelings. I acknowledge my own white, cis-gender privilege. My sorrow is not for me.

I grieve for the Other. For the immigrant. For the mother of young black men. For a Muslim woman afraid to wear a scarf. For a brown-skinned store owner, for a young woman getting her first job, for a queer student in a classroom.

I am grieving for America.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sixteen

Dear Internet,

Today's election day. It's also my birthday. 

l was born on election day sixteen years ago. I've read enough ancient history to know that Election 2000 was tightly contested. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George Bush won the electoral vote. (I don't really understand the electoral thing completely--but from the little bit I do know, I think we should get rid of it.)

My mom told me she voted for George Bush back then, and then again in 2004. I can't even with that. What was she thinking? Then she got her head straight and voted for Obama twice. 

I know she said her opinions have changed a lot over the years. This is another thing I don't really understand. She doesn't even get the difference between gender and sexuality--I had to explain it to her at dinner tonight. She sort of got it.

I said, "How can you not understand this?"

She said, "For fifty-five years my brain has been wired to think about it differently."


Old people. Sigh.

Now it's election day on my birthday again. It's another close one, but it looks like Amerikkka has gone and elected what seems to me to be a terrible person who says offensive things about women and Muslims and disabled people every time he opens his mouth.

I am not happy about living in a country led by a cartoonishly misogynistic serial philanderer who actually bragged about committing sexual assault. Who incites his scary followers to beat people up. Who threatens to kick Muslims out of the country.

I'm so disappointed in America. 

I'm only sixteen. I should not have to carry this burden of fear and disappointment about a whole country on my shoulders. I should have a couple more years to be carefree (ha) and lighthearted (double ha). But no. America goes and does this.

Thanks, America. Thanks for ruining my birthday.

M. Peevie, out.

Oh, I should mention my parents gave me a beautiful Andrew Bird poster for my birthday which I love. I'm giving my mom credit even though I'm positive my dad picked it out.  




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