***Check me out over at The Washington Post. I wrote an essay about a day when I was a super grown-up.***
I was once told that I was the reason that stepmothers get such a bad rap in Disney movies. My crime? I’d written an essay about my complicated relationship with a divorced father of three, and in it I’d admitted to the occasional bout of jealousy in the beginning of our relationship. I wrote that sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out of the things I wasn’t allowed to participate in yet: vacations, the kids’ sports games, birthday dinners.
In the comments section, one reader said that if jealousy was a problem for me, then I was responsible for all the bad PR stepmothers get. Then she used some very colorful language to tell me to grow up.
I was just trying to be honest: As someone in her mid-30s who never planned on having kids, being the girlfriend of an older man with three teenagers is a challenging place to be. And in the beginning, it could be a lonely place.
Then last month — three years into our relationship — my boyfriend Kevin received a text from his ex-wife: I’d like to have coffee with Dani.
Oh what I wouldn’t give for the days when I felt left out.
*So I’m going to stop promising to post on any kind of fixed schedule. Clearly, I can’t keep those promises. But I will try to do better than I have been—I’m aiming for a post every two weeks. Not that anyone asked.
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. -Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
A few weeks ago, my mother’s maternal aunt—my 98 year-old great-Aunt Sara—came down with pneumonia, became disoriented, and was admitted to the hospital. And I saw what dying looks like.
When I walked into the hospital room the first time, Aunt Sara—frail and bone-thin—was moaning in pain while her children and grandkids sat all around her and tried to make her comfortable. And I was immediately struck by how both ugly and intimate death seemed to be. Her sallow face and bony chest and missing teeth. Different hands taking turns holding onto her. The shrill, bird-like noises that came out of her as she asked repeatedly for something to drink, only to push it away whenever anyone brought one to her mouth. The not quite knowing what she wanted—thinking something would help only to realize that it didn’t.
That disorientation that life is full of, death is full of too.
Growing up, whenever my sisters or I would have an overly dramatic reaction to something—a loud gasp or high-octane oh my god—we’d say to each other: “whoa, you just Aunt Sara-ed that one.” Of course, my sisters and I were just engaging in adolescent drama— spilled milk and all. But for Aunt Sara, those audible reactions—sometimes heart-attack-level sounds for skinned-knee situations—came from a primal place of genuine concern. She just loved everyone around her too damn much, and didn’t like to hear about bad things happening to them. And so, in my family, Aunt Sara became a verb.
And I don’t think Sara worried about anyone more than she did my grandmother—her younger sister Molly. Sara helped raise Grandma when their mother died when they were both very young, and the two sisters lived together for over 50 years, raising their children on different floors of the same two-family house in Elizabeth, N.J. And Aunt Sara was so concerned about her sister that she fought her kids for years on moving out of Elizabeth—how could she abandon her little 90 year-old sister like that?
And even when Aunt Sara was finally convinced that it was time to leave, and her kids helped her sell her portion of the house and made arrangements for her to move, she gave it one last shot: she told her son and daughter that she’d “reconsidered” and wouldn’t be leaving her sister after all. (Her children promptly told her that the time for “reconsideration” ended when she sold her part of the house.)
She just loved everyone too damn much.
I’m smart enough to know that I don’t have anything original to say about death. It just is, waiting for every one of us. And seeing Aunt Sara’s whole life crowded into that small, hospital room with blank walls and padded chairs and LCD screens displaying all the information her body was giving away—I didn’t know what to think. I wanted it to have this immediate, revelatory effect on me. Wanted it to teach me something profound about life. But the truth is, I walked away from all of it with just a few “simple, unprofound scraps of truth,” as Tim O’Brien said in If I Die in a Combat Zone: Life is short. Family is important. Seize the day. Nothing is permanent.
I often forget how impermanent it all is. Well, not so much forget as much as allow all the things in my life to crowd out that knowledge: Deciding whether or not to keep the kick-ass pair of winter boots that I just spent too much money on. My machinations to get to someplace warm next month for a few days. Ideas about decorating my study. Questions about when I’m due for my next oil change and how long it’s been since I published a blog post, and has my boyfriend remembered to exchange that velvet blazer I got him for Christmas.
All kinds of noises, some more stupid than others.
And it occurs to me, especially at this time of year when we’re all so busy making enormous resolutions to be better and thinner and healthier, that the hardest part of things is often the middle—when you’re right in the thick of it and it’s so easy to get lost.
I’m sitting here in my living room in the middle of January—when mild temperatures have long since disappeared, and they are nowhere on the horizon. I’m 35, which is on its way to being some kind of midpoint. I’ve been writing a book for two and a half years now, and, though approaching the skeleton of a rough draft, I’m still many many cycles of revisions and rewrites away from a finished product. I’m a few years into the best relationship I’ve ever had. I’m in it, all of it—right in the middle of this big, messy, brilliant, baffling, surprisinglife of mine. And that’s a hard place to be, I think.
It’s a place where there are no enormous resolutions for me to make—where all there is to do is keep going. Keep doing what I’m doing, keep showing up to my life. Keep writing and editing and re-writing. Keep caring about the kind of person I am and how I choose to treat other people. Keep being honest and flawed and spoiled and selfish and scared—and keep trying to do it all with a little more grace than yesterday.
How do you keep pushing yourself when there’s no big payoff right around the corner? When the end is (probably, hopefully) too far out to be either the carrot or the stick?
I find it all quite difficult, especially right after seeing a life shrunken down to its bare essentials: a woman in the middle of a hospital room with all that florescent sadness and love and fear—just asking for a drink and a little comfort on the way out. It makes me want to change everything, Right Now: get closer to everyone so that my hospital room will be filled with people one day; finish my manuscript tomorrow, see the world, run for days, spoil my nieces and nephew. And while those are all admirable goals—and there’s nothing wrong with reaching to be better—I think the real heroics are in the grit and muscle of the daily grind. I think trying to conquer the world all at once is naive and self-defeating.
I think that if I want to honor Aunt Sara’s memory, I just have to keep showing up, keep caring about people—and keep gasping wildly and dramatically with them when the need arises.
The true mystery of life was not that we are all going to die, but that we were all born, that we were all once little babies like this, unknowing and slowly reeling in the world, gathering it loop by loop like a ball of string. The true terror was that we once didn’t exist, and then, through no fault of our own, we had to.
-Dan Chaon, You Remind Me of Me
A few things have recently conspired to get me thinking about beginnings:
Two people who are very special to me had a baby last week, and while they did not deliver on my request for a dramatic, blog-worthy water-break when we went out to dinner a few weeks ago, it hasn’t been a complete waste. I’ve been hanging with the new little nugget quite a bit and she’s melting my badass right off me. I’m smitten. That newborn-head smell. Those tiny frogger legs. Her wobbly little head, and eyes that speak of equal parts confusion, intrigue, and suspicion. So this is all pretty interesting, but please tell me that soon I’m headed back to that dark, warm place I used to live in—hey c’mon!—put that blanket back on me!…wait, where are you going with that boob?…oh you’re not really about to dunk me in any water, are you?That’s the vibe I get from her.
I’ve also been struggling with a piece I’m writing about my relationship with my mother, specifically how decisions that were made long before I was born came to shape the person I became. How my parents’ expectations about who I’d be—about what they needed me to be—affected the person I actually became.
At a certain point we all try to re-write our past by re-writing our future. We change jobs, we move, we end relationships— and sometimes the new narrative comes in the form of a baby. I was not able to do X,parents sometimes say, so I want my child to.My parents didn’t do Y for me, so I will do Y in outrageous measures for my child.If only they’d done it the way I will do it, things would have been better for me.
christmas season is when the populace really becomes beastly.
someone once called my family the cornucopia of dysfunction, and i often think about that comment around this time of year. definitely the most festive, colorful and downright fun way that i’ve ever been called fucked up. not that i disagree—actually, the twisted competitor in me took a kind of demented pride in it. i mean if you’re going to do something, you may as well do something.
the cornucopia of dysfunction. my cup runneth over.
running cups aside, this time of year is a very conflicted one for me, made all the more so by its ever-increasing length. the holiday season (aka countdown to christmas) was once bookended very nicely by thanksgiving on one side and christmas on the other. now, it begins the moment halloween ends, and i do not appreciate it. one month’s worth of tidings of joy and idealized standards of familial bliss is quite enough, so i say we take back november.
this is how i’ve come to see the holiday season: it’s a long hallway with funhouse mirrors on either side, lined with all kinds of music boxes and chortling santas and carol-singing elves. and all of these adorable little noisemakers have motion sensors in them so that as you pass each one, it begins to ho-ho-ho or ring its bells or hum “oh holy night.”
and here’s the rub: there are no off buttons—each sound just spreads itself out over the last one, and every step you take sets off one more layer of noise, until, by december 23rd, you’re in a cacophony-induced insanity—a glazed trance lined with norman rockwell images of children exclaiming with glee as they open their perfectly chosen presents while mom and dad lovingly exchange knowing glances, and oh my god does everyone else have a perfect family except for me?? until you finally fall across the finish line of december 25th in a sweaty heap, feeling like alex from a clockwork orange, nauseous at the very thought of anything familial or festive.
but if i didn’t also love this time of year, that walk down the hallway wouldn’t upset me so much. if i didn’t see it as something potentially wonderful, it wouldn’t affect me so much when it failed to live up to that. some of my best memories are from thanksgiving, when our jersey cousins would make the trek up into the tundras of upstate new york. i remember spending the afternoon of their arrival waiting by the window, watching the empty driveway for their car. i remember long icicles dripping under the white winter sun, and our red runny noses after a long sledding session at cobbs hill. i remember clumps of snow tracked over dark green carpet, and the smell of newspaper on my fingers after my dad let me help him build the fire. i remember the smell of turkey and my mom’s perfect carving job. i remember something that felt like home.
but now, all these years later, there’s a sadness that comes with those memories, because nothing is what it used to be. people have changed and things have been broken. real damage has been done in ways that couldn’t be undone, and even when it could, the undoing changed everything anyway. and i spent a very long time focused on how i wanted things to be and what i wanted my family to look like. i pined and i wished, and as all that wishing was failing me, it was also depleting me of the strength that i could have been using to make my life exactly what i wanted it to be. i gave away so much time and so much self to those holiday images that are about to come cascading down the mountain. it should look like that, i thought.i deserve a family that behaves like this. i want them to make me feel that.
more recently i’ve learned to tell that picture in my head of how it’s “supposed” to look to go fuck itself. it’s taken a lot of work but i finally like the picture of what is. i’ve made my own family, which has taught me how to love my first one. we’re all just doing the best we can with what we have, and expecting anyone to be anything besides exactly who they are is a soul-crushing endeavor. i know this. i know this. i know it so goddamn well. and yet, the holiday season zeroes in on the cracks in my newfound appreciation for what is. i become convinced that everyone except for me is hugging in brightly colored christmas sweaters in front of a roaring fire while singing carols around the piano. in harmony.
it’s during these last few months of the year that i find it the hardest to yield up that picture of what my life should look like. i’m a stray—an other—and the holiday images that club me over my head for months on end remind me of that otherness, despite the fact that my better self realizes that my dysfunction only makes me belong more.
i know i’m not the only person who feels like their present can’t compete with either their past or the images swimming across all our screens. so i can’t be the only one who thinks that christmas should be left to december, right? don’t you want to re-claim these next few weeks and stave off the incessant prodding to prove your love by spending an ass-ton of money? don’t you want november back?
i’ve included the link to the blog’s facebook page–click over there and tell me that you’re with me on this. i want to hear your real feelings about this time of year–i want to hear about your holiday truth. before we all start posting pics of all of our perfect families, let’s do this first. stand with me, people.