Four Years of the Fourth

It’s been an unacceptably long time since my last post on this blog. Truth is, I’ve been putting it off for a while now – so much has happened in the last six months that I think it impossible to capture it all at this point. I’ve also been attempting (unsuccessfully) to rebrand this blog as something new. It occurred to me that I am no longer “Writer Kid”; I’m eighteen and moving off to college in a month. That need for reclassification has served as an excuse for not blogging, by my own admission.

Though the past few months have presented lots of opportunities for self-reflection and for deriving all sorts of sappy symbolic meaning, one incident this past weekend really hit home for me in that respect.

Four years ago, as I was entering my freshman year of high school, I wrote a post on this blog entitled Through the Eyes of a Child, inspired by the Fourth of July I spent watching fireworks in my backyard with our close friends, the W family. At the time, the Ws were looking for a house in our area and staying with us during the search. Then as now, the daughters of each family – P and myself – shared a sister-like closeness.

The W family has since moved into a home about 40 minutes away from ours and made a tradition of setting up lawn chairs in our backyard for the Fourth of July fireworks. This year was no different – a cookout gave way to Frisbee tosses and cornhole in the backyard as the sun set. The W’s son, K, goofed off with my brother and his friend, and the three of them shot off a few smoke bombs and bottle rockets and admired the neighbor’s orange Lamborghini. The dads manned the grill and the moms got to talking. P and I were two peas in a pod, giggling over nothing and poking fun at aforementioned moms.

Yet this year was different. Last summer, a young family moved into the house whose backyard runs into ours – a mom, dad, and three kids, ages 5, 3 and 1. I often visit and play with the little ones, so when P and I spotted them playing outside catty-corner to our party, we strolled on over and spent the rest of the night entertaining the kids – pushing them on the swing, chasing them around and tossing balls, catching fireflies, tickling and hugging and high-fiving.

As the night ended, P and I found ourselves sandwiched between my 5-year-old neighbor, S, on a picnic blanket in the grass. S’s head was nestled on P’s chest, her arm slung around P’s body as she laid in awe of the fireworks. I looked over over at my friend P, all grown up now, it seemed, at 14 and mustered a smile.

It was four short years ago that she was 10 and I 14, that I was the one bringing her fireflies to cup in her palms like trophies, tossing my arm around her shoulder and imparting my wisdom. Yet now, here she was, tag-teaming an unofficial babysitting gig with me. Here she was, struggling right along with me to answer our young friend’s existential questions (“Why do we grow?”) and politely informing our young friend that she can’t just go grab a star out of the sky. Here P was, singing the chorus of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and making up games and jokes to entertain the kids.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was the kid? That she was the one naming each firework as it burst in midair and not the one grinning at me over the head of the neighbor, who was promptly listing off each color she saw exploding in the sky? The moment struck me as surreal and impossible all at once. Am I now qualified to reminisce about the “good old days” and the innocence of youth? Suddenly, at eighteen, I feel like an elder statesman witnessing the work of the generation succeeding his own, an old geezer who annoys the masses with wistful proclamations of “Remember when…” and “Those were the days”.

I know I’m not that. At least not yet. But there’s no denying the pang I felt in my chest watching P wrapping my little neighbor in a hug. It wasn’t quite jealousy or regret or sadness or melancholy or happiness or pride – perhaps a mix of all of those. All I know is that in that moment, my heart surged in a way I don’t think it had before.

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Mapping a story, shaping a life

Windows of thought

As a student, Kurt Vonnegut proposed a thesis on the Shapes of Stories. In the fully-developed argument, there are 8 overall shapes. In this 5-minute YouTube he reveals to the audience 3 or 4 of them with the grumpy panache only he could project.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

Here’s a synopsis. Vonnegut proposes the “y” axis (up and down) on a graph as the level of relative fortune/happiness/s/fulfillment, versus misfortune/sorrow/tragedy of any given fiction plot. The horizontal “X” axis simply takes us from beginning of plot to end. Thus many western stories begin in the lower, (unhappy or misfortunate) left, zig upward with adventure, then fall sharply down with a series of accidents or obstacles, only to end strongly in the upper far right through miracles, hard work or revenge. “Cinderella” or “The Odyssey” are examples. Other plots like Romeo and Juliette would do nearly the opposite, with two well-born teens starting at…

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On Aging: Revisited

A little over two years ago, I made mention of my Grandma L on this blog, in the post On Aging. I must confess that the subject of that post has been on my mind constantly the past few months; so much so that I took a few thoughts from the entry and fashioned them into this descriptive essay of the same name I wrote for my Advanced Composition class.

Without further ado…


The wrinkles on my grandmother’s face are just a little bit more delineated each time I see her, her once rosy cheeks just a little more sallow. The smile that once shone on her face is just a little more wan each time I see her; the lilt in her voice lingers a little less. The passage of time is marked in every step she shuffles. A cane rests in the shadows of her meticulously cleaned kitchen, while a walker gathers dust in the garage, parked alongside the car her vertigo rarely allows her to use. These aides, these crutches, look out of place next to her cigarette butts and copious documentations of phone conversations, birthdates and doctor’s appointments, grandchildren’s varsity volleyball schedules, and work trip itineraries of her sons and daughters. The cane and walker materialize in her house as if by magic; surely not placed there of her own volition. Presumably, they have been dug out of some well-meaning son or daughter’s basement. No doubt she balked at seeing them, would barely let these signs of weakness over her threshold, knowing that picking up a cane would be as hurtful to her pride as it would be helpful to her gait.

Her body labels her as a veteran of this earth, but her mind condemns her to old age even more irrevocably. An hour after agonizingly deciding on which restaurant to go to for dinner, she asks – innocent, childlike, in a whisper to me, her granddaughter, so her son won’t hear how far his mother has fallen – what it was she’d just finished eating. Always she has had a habit of calling people by the wrong names, but these days her children and grandchildren understand that in their matriarch’s mind, their names, ages, and lives are interchangeable. The events of yesterday and time spent with family are soon forgotten, sacrificed to time, that omnipresent beast that grows hungrier and hungrier as the days blur by in her addled brain. I know, each and every time I start a conversation with her, that she will forget my words within minutes. I know, each time I field her phone call, that I will be fielding the same questions I did two days ago, two weeks ago, two years ago. As bad as I feel about it, my mind will go on autopilot during these repetitive, monotonous conversations.

Her running line is, “I can tell you all about things that happened back when I was a child, seventy years ago, but I couldn’t tell you what I did yesterday.” So I try to focus on the positive, get her to tell her memories from the good old days. What I’ll get in return is, like clockwork, another recounting of the nuns, in their sweaty black habits, teaching at her extraordinarily conservative Catholic grade school. How ruthless they were, how quick with a slap on the wrist from the wooden rulers they always wielded, yet how miserable those poor women must have been, to her mind – perhaps the same emotions the now-wizened student now experiences. “Tell me more,” I will say, and invariably the response will be a wistfully contented sigh, drawn in the same breath as the weary admission: “That’s all I remember.” “What’s my name?” she asks me every time we meet, and we, her family, all know the day will soon come when it isn’t a joke anymore.

This identity crisis is as inevitable as death itself, and she seems haunted enough by its specter to realize she is not invincible. Yet she does not dread the day of her death, discussing funeral wishes at birthday parties and taking every chance to show the valuables scattered around her home to visitors. “I lost my balance getting out of bed,” she will say, “and my head missed the dresser by this much,” indicating an impossibly small distance between her lean and mottled index finger and thumb. “I wish I hadn’t missed. Then I’d be dead,” she declares with not so much as a trace of humor in her voice. She has overcome so much in life – raising five children, a divorce – that death seems just another step along the way. In a twisted and depressing way, the woman seems to seek it out, seeing death, perhaps, as a sort of sweet relief from years of what she must perceive as earthly torture.

This morbidity is incomprehensible to the generations that succeed her: how could someone bring herself to long for, anticipate, even desire death, that eternal eraser of identity, personhood, humanity? How could she perceive her life as being finished? How can she not see the promise each new day brings with it; how can she not want to soak up every second she survives? I find it incomprehensible that she sees nothing else worth living for: not her children, not her grandchildren, not her great-grandchildren, her family, her legacy. If that is indeed her reality, I, at seventeen, am not sure I can fully understand it.

Moreover, how are those of us caught on the fringes of death’s shadow supposed to stand idly by and watch as that ethereal darkness inches inward? We are not its target, not just yet, but must bear witness to the fact that someone we love is. Dreams, hopes, plans, relationships – all are vanquished totally and immediately. The sun sets as surely as it rises, and we – the leftovers, the living – are left to wonder at the beautiful havoc it wreaks, knowing that one day ours will be the souls ascending into the sky.


Triple V

Victory. Vindication. Validation.

Those are the emotions I cycled through when I found out this week that I was elected by my peers as the president of my high school’s National Honor Society chapter.

Social stigma has dogged me my entire life, and so I went into elections knowing full well that I was going to lose. I would have three competitors, all of whom have more friends than I do, and thus I would give a speech and try my best, even though every election I’d experienced at school had been a popularity contest. I was convinced this one would be no different.

So I prepared a speech and campaign, and a blog entry about how it was good to know rejection, to get my name out there. I thought about the three times I’d been denied for amazing opportunities this year – first being passed over for a big journalism conference my friend was sure I’d win, then missing the final callback to a local public speaking event, and now, perhaps the biggest kicker of them all, losing the NHS election to someone more popular and more suited for the role than myself. I started to get used to this idea that these three failures, all of which would be very hard on me, would strengthen my character. After all, one of the side effects of being an “inspiration” was never getting turned down, for anything – or so I’d found in my previous experience – and, as many adults have told me, that’s just not realistic in The Real World.

My parents warned me to handle this election loss carefully and considerately. In bed the night before I would find out the results, I prayed for the grace to handle this failure and and agonized over the right words to use to congratulate my fellow candidate on his or her victory.

But then I walked into school the next morning, and the NHS advisor called out to me from down the hallway. “Congratulations,” she said, “you’ve been elected.”

I admit that my reaction was a bit inappropriate. My head grew three or four sizes in the fifteen minutes of euphoria that followed, and then the doubts sank in. The advisor had told us that “this is NOT another popularity contest”, that “the person who gives the best speech wins”. But did I believe these words now that I’d been elected? Had this been a sympathy vote by my fellow academically-minded students? Had the advisor fixed the ballot so that I, the feel-good story, the one who did her due diligence in making a campaign flyer (which “showed incentive”) and in being one of three officer candidates to show up at an optional Public Speaking 101 cram session, would win?

Now, I knew such thoughts were absurd, yet somehow I paid them attention and brainpower regardless. Why?, I wondered. Was my self-esteem truly that shamefully low? Above all others, one thought crowded my mind: Had society tricked me into believing I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, outgoing enough?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

What I do know is that I did, do and will consider being named to what is arguably the highest elected class office position at my school of two thousand people one of my greatest achievements. Sure, being elected secretary or treasurer still would’ve thrilled me, but the fact that I took a gamble, ran for president and won – seemingly against all odds – tastes even sweeter. Best of all is knowing that my classmates trust in me, believe in me, accept me, and want me to represent them.

On the Essence of Time

Just a poem that’s been percolating in my head for awhile:

time, time
the inscrutable rhyme
heads cock,
always the clock
minutes, hours
our time on earth sours
days, years
the grim reaper appears
ages, centuries
locked in earth’s penitentiaries
what lies beyond, mystery
meanwhile, life? history
life eternal
or hell infernal
fate, destiny, remains to be seen
all the while, time ticks away in the earthly machine
eternity, forever
earthly bonds sever
can we be infinite?
no, for death is indiscriminate
wishing to undo permanence
yet taking solace in a life’s metamorphosis.

Crimes against Humanity

This is a preemptive apology, Internet, for the rant I am about to go on.


 

I realize I’m blowing things out of proportion.

I understand that there are problems out there much bigger than my own.

I know that I am blessed in so many ways, and have had opportunities that most people only dream about.

But…

I’m a little disillusioned with the ways of the world right now.

It’s the simple things that get me. Like the notion that when someone contacts you, you should probably reciprocate. Or the idea that other people’s decisions and actions may in fact hinge on your own, so sitting on your hands is not just impolite, but outright rude and irresponsible. Is it really that hard to pick up the phone or turn on the computer to let a fellow human know they’ve not been forgotten?

As irritating as that stuff is – who wants to take their first whiffs of the smelly, stinky business world at age 17 and find out how “life works”? – I think my disillusionment has its roots far deeper.

Specifically, the way we as humans don’t think twice about lying to others, and, more importantly, to ourselves. Let me explain.

How often do you get asked some variant of the harmless enough question, “How are you?”

Think about it. Seriously. For me, it’s got to be somewhere between 1-5 times on an average day at school.

Doesn’t matter how it’s phrased. “How’re things?”, “What’s going on?”, or in the case of my Latin teacher, “Quid agis est hodie?”

Isn’t your answer almost always the same? “Fine.” “Good.” “I’m okay.” “Can’t complain.”

But you can, and do, complain – at least internally.

You aren’t always the same shade of okay, and you know it.

Odds are, the person you’re talking to knows it, too. We all know that we can’t physically experience the same emotion at every moment of every day – and, moreover, that everyone isn’t always feeling the exact same way all the time.

That’s actually a good thing. The old adage goes that you can’t know true joy until you’ve gone through serious sorrow. More generally, there are no “good times” and no “happiness” without the rough patches and dark days. It’s true enough. Passenger sings that “you never know you’ve been high ’til you’re feeling low”. I know I wouldn’t appreciate my good days anywhere near as much as I do had I not known the kind of day where nothing goes your way and you feel like you’ve hit rock-bottom. So in a sense, I’m thankful for the immeasurable strife I’ve already experienced. Without it, those moments of pure euphoria would be even fewer and further between.

If you’re lucky enough that your current mood merits  more than a muttered “good” as you pass a well-meaning inquisitor, then you probably say so. “I’m doing great today!” But if the shoe’s on the other foot and you’ve had a crappy day and you know it, do you blurt that out?

No way. Maybe if it’s your mom, psychotherapist, or best friend, you allow a little trepidation to sneak into the continued reassurances that, “I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be anything but fine?”

We’ve all been there. We all know what it’s like to have a day you want to last forever, and a day in which you’re counting down the seconds until it’s over.

So why do we lie to our own faces? Why do we always insist on copping a grin and gritting our collective teeth in the name of conformity, societal sameness and saneness?

Why do we commit these crimes against ourselves and our own humanity?


Rant over.

I Wish

I found the first part of this entry sitting in the Drafts folder on my dashboard here on WordPress, written a short seventeen days before the long and heartbreaking night I spent with my family at a quiet little nursing home in a sleepy suburb somewhere in southwest Ohio, an achingly unknowing eighteen late afternoons before the Wednesday in the bitter cold November when my grandmother departed this earth.

The rest just sort of happened.

Dear Grandma,

I wish things didn’t have to be this way.

I wish you didn’t have to go to the hospital.

I wish that breathing – such a natural, human thing to do – didn’t have to be so hard for you.

I wish I could undo sitting there with you this morning. You slept, groggy from pain medication, as I gently lifted your mottled, bruised, wrinkled hand into mine. I wish I could tell you how much it hurts for me to see you like this. I wish you could see the way I cried for you when my mom left the room.

But at the same time, I wish I could have stayed there with you forever. And I mean that. I wish I could stare into your peaceful smile until the sun sets. I wish I could keep vigil at your bedside in the comforting quiet, jumping every time a machine went off and smiling every time you snored, until a minute faded into an hour, until an hour faded into a morning and a morning into a day. And then, I’d still be holding your hand when today faded into infinity, somewhere off in the distance past the rising sun out your window.

I wish I could go back to that time I sat with you, only about two weeks ago now, when I was blissfully unaware of what was going on inside your body. When I thought that stint in the hospital was just another blip on the radar, another down in a roller-coaster of emotion. When I had no idea that each labored heave of your chest was among the last I’d ever see. When my mom and I would try to shake you awake because we’d driven an hour to see you and wanted to actually talk to you, and when you would jolt awake, greet us and then slip back into sleep like a child.

If I would have known, I would have let you sleep, content that my world at that moment contained only you, me, our intertwined fingers – yours short and stubby, mine growing long and slender with the promise of a million hellos and goodbyes to wave in a lifetime – and the sheets I kept draping over your shoulders like a loving mother, mesmerized by the way those shoulders rhythmically rose and fell with each breath you drew from somewhere deep in your damaged lungs.

I wish I weren’t here, with you, and that our family weren’t here with us. I wish I could forget the call made to my dad’s cell phone by my mom’s as my dad, brother and I crowded into a small booth in a fast-food restaurant across town: Come. Now. I wish I could forget the stupor I fell into as we went home, grabbed phone chargers and books and tissues – which we thought my brother would use for his cold, but which my fingers would later probe in a pocket for in the wee hours of the morning as my dad and I sped down the interstate.

I wish I could forget the anguish I felt when we drove into the nursing home parking lot and I slammed the car door and sprinted into my aunt’s hug, and finally made it to your room to find your roommate’s bed made and a hospice nurse quietly holed up in the corner.

Oh, Grandma, you’re in heaven now, so take me back to last night. Take me back to when I was surrounded by people that love me – you included – so I don’t have to be utterly alone in this moment. As awful as last night was, I wish I could still be there, so you’d still be here. I’ll never forget the jokes you told, even though you struggled to breathe, to make us feel at ease. I’m not sure how aware you were of what was happening, but I’d like to think that you were at peace with it all. It sure seemed like you knew something we didn’t, when you asked your husband, my grandpa, to fill up the birdfeeder outside your window. Sure, it was dark already and you’d seen your last sunset, but that was you, through and through: always thinking of someone else.

If you’re looking down on me now and sensing my sadness, know that some good will eventually come out of this. I have never felt closer to other humans than I did last night, as we camped out in the nursing home hallway late at night, passing around the box of tissues and supporting each other as we went into the room, one by one and two by two, to say our formal final goodbyes.

I will always remember going into that stuffy little room and leaning close so you could hear me over the hum of your BiPap machine, feeling the warmth of your final embrace as you pulled me in as best you could. I didn’t know what I was going to say – who ever does? – but I remember taking a deep whiff of the oxygen from your cannula and telling you how much I loved, and will always love, you. I told you that I’d been going through a rough time in my life lately. I’d been trying to hide that from you because I knew how you’d worry, but I figured you’d find out soon enough when you got to heaven, so I admitted as much, but promised you I’d make it through, and told you how much you’d taught me over the sixteen years we got to spend together on earth.

I’m glad I had that last memory with you, but it was so fleeting. I always thought you’d be around so much longer when I was younger. I thought we’d get to spend infinity together – and maybe we will yet – but what did I know? Infinity is but a string of numbers waiting to happen, and your string of numbers was at its end.

You’ve been gone a week now. It still doesn’t feel real. I think I should be able to drive back there and see you again. You’d be lying in the same old bed, waiting for me with a smile and a corny joke or two. I’d have a Reese Cup McFlurry in each hand, one for each of us, but I’d set them down on your bedside tray and hug you tighter than I ever had before. I’d realize you, and I, and every being walking this earth, is living on borrowed time, and I’d never make the same mistakes again.

All the images flash through my head: me sitting out in the hallway at the nursing home, sobbing like I didn’t know I could and pounding the threadbare carpet, screaming the injustices of humanity and of being alive. Eating dinner in the nursing home dining room for the last time and joining hands with my cousins as we prayed for you. Waiting for my uncle to drive all night from a convention in Chicago so he could be with us and you, and huddling around the hospice nurse as she warned us this could be hours, days, or weeks. Taking my last picture with you, and all of us cramming around your bed as they turned down your oxygen levels, then took off your BiPap mask so you could die comfortably and naturally. The way I said my last goodbye, and the way you stuck it out for eighteen hours without any breathing assistance while I paced the floors at home and waited. Tiptoeing into my parents’ bedroom late at night, waking my mom up just so I could whisper that I love her and that I want to be half the woman she is. Driving to my aunt and uncle’s house to spend the day creating a video slideshow, funeral program, poster and eulogy. And the memorial Mass, hugging your best friend whom I hadn’t seen since you’d been sick. And, most of all, the way I reread every email you’d ever sent me, the way I touched your things over and over, trying to bring their owner back to life.

I wish I didn’t have to go back to your house for my first Christmas without you. We only broke one of your traditions this year – eating prime rib for Christmas Eve dinner – because it was expensive and you were the only one who really liked it. I wish I could stop seeing you in everything in that little ranch house. I wish I hadn’t had to go through your things, Grandma, and I wish I could will the words to “Wind Beneath My Wings” out of my mind. But you’d never imagine the tears that sprung from my eyes when, sifting through your things, I found a list of funeral songs scrawled on the back of a receipt…with “Wind Beneath My Wings, the song from Beaches” as the first item. And you’d have no way of knowing how I wept when, on the day I told my mom I wished you had left me a letter, she came downstairs holding a note you’d written to me on flowered stationary, penned in the shaky cursive of a woman on her sickbed.

I wish I could forget it all. And yet, Grandma, I wish I could find some way to remember it all.

Till we’re together again, I love and miss you every single day, Grandma.

– writerkid