15: Time to Relax

My stomach is cramping and my eyes are teary. I can’t get out of the fetal position and every time I try to speak, I’m gasping for breath.

It’s like that, with me and my brother. We laugh so hard we cry, and hurt, and can’t move and can’t speak and can’t do anything, but keep laughing.

We’re in a motel room, during a rare moment of downtime, blocks from the entrance to Disneyland park. We’re watching Patrick Ewing being interviewed on T.V and making ridiculous jokes about the Main Street Electrical Parade. It’s the summer before seventh grade and my family is on the last vacation we ever took together.

None of us know how the next two, six, fifteen years, will change us.

We never do.

Every year of my childhood my dad planned an elaborate, intellectually enriching, family vacation. He had the same two weeks off every year, the last week of July, and the first week of August. They were the only consecutive days, all year where I saw my dad for both breakfast and dinner.  The only family movie nights and daytime adventures and father-son time spent without the yelling, and the homework.

We traveled for exactly ten days and covered between five and eight thousand miles, depending on the destination. We’d fly somewhere domestically, then put as many miles on the rental car as the company allowed, before we outright owned the thing.

We visited a museum dedicated to the artwork of Salvador Dali and another showcasing swords from a spectrum of historical eras and geographic locations. We walked inside Louisa May Alcott’s house and the one with the Seven Gables. We learned about the Salem Witch trials and how Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem. There were dinosaur remains and scientific phenomena and alligators, eerily close to us, in the Florida everglades. Exotic fish and rare, northwestern mega-fauna, and every Smithsosonian there is, in a single day.

All before I was 12 years old.

In high school, when most of my friends failed it,  I got a “5” on the AP history exam for no reason other than I walked all two and a half miles of Boston’s freedom trail, in size 3 tennis shoes, during the summer of 1995.

We worked for the time we spent at amusement parks, and lounging on the beach. The activities and imagery that define most families’ leisure time, amounted to mere footnotes on our rigorous itinerary.

Every meal had meaning, and every minute had a purpose, and beginning on our visit to Lancaster Pennsylvania, my dad woke us up at Sunrise, every morning with a quote from the movie “Witness.”

“4:30, time for milking.”

Back then, all I knew about my dad is that he had a demanding job and a rare, eccentric personality. I figured our hyper-scheduled family vacations were more a product of who he was, rather than how he did things. To me, the bizarre destinations, long driving stretches and multiple lodging changes were an expression of his uniqueness, more than anything else.

In my adulthood, I spend more time with my dad. We talk and email and share meals where I learn about his life through stories and reflection. I’ve pieced together my childhood memories of him: cleaning car windshields while our extended family is gathered inside around coffee and donuts and the Indianapolis 500; inviting my brother and I to accompany him to the hardware store, plant trees in the backyard or pick weeds from the garden on his days off; fixing appliances or building new toys at my grandparents’ house while everyone else is napping on Christmas morning; and, of course, his relentless pursuit of activity during family vacations.

My dad can’t relax.

He is constantly engaged in a project or challenging task. He only sits when he’s sleeping and he’s uncomfortable with small talk and casual conversation.

He lives to work, even when he’s not working.

Three months ago, when I left my own demanding job, I assumed everything in my life would slow down. I thought the free-time and the deep breaths and the lazy Sundays would show up, automatically. I was exhausted, and over-committed and in a constant state of fear that I was forgetting something important. I was answering emails, in my mind, on my yoga mat and rushing out of class with my head down, determined to avoid any conversation that would delay the checking off of the next item on my to-do list.

I was living to work, even when I wasn’t working.

Anytime I share something about my dad with my friend Parker, he has the same response:

“That nut didn’t fall very far from the tree, did it?”

And sure enough, two weeks after I stopped being a lawyer, I was still running, and running, at full speed. I was measurably happier but still incapable of rest and relaxation. I worked fewer hours but filled the space on my schedule with things to accomplish and energetically aggressive activities.

I mapped out each day with a rigorous,  ambitious itinerary.

I still do.

What I remember most about my family vacations are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Cracking inside jokes with my brother while we both rode patiently in the back seat; curled up on the floor of the hotel room, re-capping the days events; important life-talks at the edge of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, with sandy hair and half-zipped wet suits.

The uncontrollable laughter and the quiet comfort of recovering from an adventurous day.

What I remember most about my life are the sounds and feelings in the spaces between the scheduled events: Delirious conversations with my best friend, right before bed; sprawled on the floor with my college roommates entrenched in an important feminist dialogue, then suddenly wondering whether Foster’s Freeze is still open; circled up with my camp kids, reliving beautiful moments from another unforgettable summer. Sitting in the dark in Nick’s living room, laughing hysterically at each other, for no reason at all.

The tears. The silence. The long, deep hugs.

Most days it requires my patience, and focus and renewed dedication.

To live fully in the spaces between the demands of my life. To soak up the beauty, the value, the memories, created in the time to relax.

6: Dance it Out

I am personally responsible for the choreography of no fewer than five hundred dance routines.

In the early nineties, I was the foremost creative force behind countless memorable productions, set to the iconic music of the “Dirty Dancing” and “Top Gun” soundtracks, showcased at 1633 Gary Way. While my brother was doing all that reading, I was behind the closed door of my parents’ bedroom, planning and executing a series of breathtaking performances for an imaginary audience of critics and friends.

I preferred sound tracks over single-artist albums because of their musical variety. To think what I might have been capable of with access to an ipod. Or Spotify.

I offered my fans an up-tempo jazz performance, followed by a slow, melancholy solo, danced gracefully by a dramatic ballerina. The excitement always climaxed during the show-stopping-rock-anthem-ensemble number, right at the end.

When I felt deep and emotional, I chose “Dirty Dancing,” and focused on my technique. I’d make beautiful, sweeping movements with my arms and big, impressive leaps with my legs. I always imagined sharing my routine with a strong, confident partner. He’d lift me effortlessly to the ceiling and twirl me, with one hand, high above his head. On days where I wanted to go hard, bust it out and kick some ass, I’d throw on Top Gun and spend twenty minutes with “Danger Zone” on repeat. I’d always start off stage and burst through the invisible curtains to the pounding beat of the introduction. It was epic, every time.

Occasionally I’d feel nostalgic,and reflective, and throw on “Beaches” to shake things up.

It’s funny how our behavior patterns change in expression.

It’s funny how  in all other ways, they stay the same.

One of my spiritual teachers, Martha Beck, insists the key to unlocking our adult happiness is re-discovering the activities and experiences that filled us with joy as kids.

Dancing my ass of is that, for me.

It is a no-fail solution to all of my, many, spiritual ailments.

When my best friend and I lived together, we’d unwind on a Friday night. After a long-week of public school atrocities, idiotic district-wide emails and multiple failures to save the world, we’d turn up the volume on my “dance party” playlist, open the door to our apartment, then glide, spin and shake, up and down the second floor.

Once in a while, in the early morning, if our summer camp staff felt sluggish and stale, we’d take them out to the parking lot, open up the doors of my mini cooper and teach a new generation of young people the important lesson of moving bad energy out and away.

During my third year of law school I lived alone in an old apartment with a giant living room. One, entire wall had floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The view from my couch looked like the dance studios I’d grown up in. Three or four times a week, I’d turn down the lights, burn a few candles and play out the lead role in “Flashdance,” the musical.

One time a neighbor knocked on the door to ask me a question about the “parking garage” and, as he was leaving, slipped in, “Is someone singing in there?”

He sounded humiliated for me.

“No,” I lied.

Unphased, and undeterred, I resumed “what a feeeeellinnng,” before the door even clicked shut.

My friend Parker used to complain about the absence of a coffee table, and felt particularly inconvenienced when trying to both watch the Nuggets and consume a meal. I can’t remember whether I ever fessed up to why I needed the extra space.

I knew my career as an attorney was doomed when I couldn’t even shake my hips to Rihanna while cleaning the kitchen sink. I dug out “Hey, Mr. DJ,”  by the Backstreet Boys and “I Want You Back” by NSYNC. I’d manage to press my feet to the floor but didn’t have the energy, or inspiration, to do anything with them after that.

The nail dropped squarely in the coffin the night I couldn’t help myself off my bedroom floor for Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits.

As a karmic reward for the years of  hard-work and dedication spent honing my craft, I found a job where I can perform a new routine, on a beautifully polished wood-floor, any time I want.

Each time is still just as satisfying as the last.

Damn, it feels good, to dance it out.

5: Magic

The local news can’t stop reporting about El Nino, an alleged, rare, extreme weather pattern that is supposedly responsible for three straight weeks of storms in Northern California.

My soccer team is preparing for our first visit to the association cup championship, the highest level of tournament play in our league. All season, we are unstoppable. Undefeated. No one can touch us.

But heading into the most anticipated, high-stakes weekend of competition in any of our young athletic careers, everyone is worried.

The fields are hopelessly muddy and every night, the forecast is for more and more rain. The altered terrain changes the movement of the ball and the speed of play. The bitter cold and relentless drops of water, in our eyes, and on our backs, make us more vulnerable to mistakes, and aggravates the plague of fatigue.

We are an unconventional powerhouse.

We are not exceptionally fast, or big, or otherwise spectacularly talented. Less than five percent of us will go on to play in college. Most of us maintain straight A’s and juggle a host of other extra-curricular activities. We are swimmers and volleyball players and school and community leaders. As grown-ups, we are career-minded professionals, with high-paying jobs and impressive degrees.

We joke about not having matching warm-up suits or fancy, embroidered bags.

We are full of heart and determination and because our coach believes in our greatness, we work incredibly hard in practice, and never let up during games.

Our chemistry and team work is like nothing I’d ever experienced, and nothing I’ve been a part of since.

When the morning of our first game arrives, it’s still raining. Our parents, who have only ever had to endure an entire weekend of soccer games through November, are faithfully huddled on the sidelines, after the first of the year. They are clad in REI ponchos and squeezed together under four or five umbrellas. Looking on through a blurry sheet of rain, they can barely tell us apart.

Before halftime, we are caked, head-to-toe in mud. It’s the kind of cold outside that makes your fingers tingle and your skin sting. The intense sensation seeps into your bones, lingers, then unexpectedly evaporates as your whole body goes numb. Our legs are burning, constantly. With each stride our feet sink into the deep, unforgiving muck.  The ball is sticky, our shoes are sticky, everything is a sticky, wet, mess.

Each moment is a battle, each play is a battle, each game feels like another war we barely survived.

In the end, we win the whole, damn, thing. The final whistle blows and we are, suddenly, light on our feet. We sprint towards the center line and triumphantly dive, head-first, through a gigantic mud puddle, four games in the making.

We hug and holler and celebrate. We are giddy, and teary-eyed and so, so, proud.

My coach is beaming.

The moment is instantly an eternal memory in my mind

During eight years on the River City Magic, I learned more lessons than, maybe, the rest of my life, combined. I learned about leadership and work ethic.  Straight talk and disappointment. I learn to stand up for myself, stand behind my teammates, and stand back, eventually, when I got out of line.

Where I lacked natural talent, I learned to struggle, and persist, and succeed.

My greatest lesson, though, is in the miracle of our collective achievements. Our three year winning record. Two state championships. More trophies than my parents could find space to store in my childhood bedroom. All of it came in the brilliance of how we operated, together. I used to think someone like John Wooden should write a book about us called “Teamwork over talent.” We were, as they say, so much greater than the sum of our parts.

It’s a mild winter and my adult soccer team is undefeated, for the first time. These days, I play with less fear and more muscle. I play defense, not midfield, now, and do my best to channel my inner Heather Hall. We called her, “the animal.” She was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood and on our team, was the only person we could say that about. She could have easily felt out of place and totally alone and quit after just one season of it.

But she didn’t.

She played every season, and started every game. She shared in our hugs and sleepovers and trips to Hometown buffet.

Because who we were and where we came from never mattered.

All of us, were a lot of things, without each other.

But together, we were Magic.

2: Dog Love

It’s my ninth birthday. I’m in the back seat of our station wagon clutching a fluffy, stuffed dog. I have a collection of them. I’m an anxious kid and they provide comfort and security. I bring at least one of them, everywhere I go.

We pull up to a ranch style house with dark, shaded windows. The front yard is overgrown with trees and bushes. The backyard is big, and the landscaping is limited. It reminds me of the backyard at the house where I’m growing up.

We follow a narrow dirt trail to an enclosed area in the back corner of the yard. There is a pile of black and white and brown and white puppies, climbing all over each other.

I am instantly in love.

Steps away from the pile, there’s one wobbly on her feet, getting the hang of walking, all by herself. Sniffing the ground near a collection of silver bowls, she appears to be frantically looking for food, even though it’s clear, she’s had enough. It’s one of the black and white ones, rounder and squishier than the others.

Two weeks later, we bring her home and name her Sallie. We picked the name on our family trip to Gettysburg, two years earlier. From the front-passenger seat of our rental car, an enthusiastic, middle- aged man points us toward a small monument, with a statue of a tiny dog. He tells us the story of “Sally” the Union army dog. Sally made her away through rows of soldiers and across battlefields, sometimes at the height of conflict. Sally searched out wounded soldiers and stayed with them until help arrived. She was loyal and brave and devoted, even in a war zone.

Our Sallie would prove to be the same way.

My belated, surprise ninth birthday present came not without effort. I dedicated many hours, of many days, over several months, to acting like a dog with my family. My aim was to demonstrate the pleasure and delight of having a dog around the house. I’d wag my tail when my mom entered the room and bark, quietly, to show my affection. I’d nuzzle up next to my brother when he watched TV.

Apparently, I was convincing.

Sallie fit right in. She was smart and eccentric and sensitive, with bursts of hyperactivity and playful madness.
For the next eleven years, she was the glue that held our family together, just barely.

She laid at my feet the night my parents left me in an empty house, during a power outage, so they could rush my brother to the hospital. We watched in horror as my dad carried my brother’s lifeless body down the front porch, then we huddled inside by the only working phone, waiting for the worst call of our lives.

She was five years old then, and I was 14. It was my first awareness of the specialness of dogs and the uniqueness of their relationship to humans. For the first time that night she saved me. And she’d come to the rescue of each of us, many times after that.

Sallie lived through the hell of my brother’s alcoholism and died two months after he finally got sober for good. She survived the screaming and threatening and hysterical crying. She endured moments of insanity and unimaginable conflict. She witnessed the worst of us, and loved us through it, just the same.

She stayed faithfully at our side on the battlefield, waiting for help to arrive.

Sallie was my first dog, and my first love and my first teacher of how it looks and feels to love without condition. She taught all of us how to be loyal, and patient, even when things got hard. She showed us how to forgive and let go. She never let old pain interfere with a new chance to be loving.

Every dog I’ve met since then reminds me of her lessons. Every dog I’ve ever met, shows me how to love.

Pick Me Up

My first car was a 1983 Toyota Station Wagon. It was turquoise on the outside. And the inside. I  took it over from my older brother in an uncontested transfer. The year I got my driver’s license, my brother lived at a therapeutic boarding school, three hundred miles north of our house. He had no place, or reason to drive. I was moderately grateful for the freedom, but deeply resentful of the vehicle that gave it to me.

My brother got his driver’s license the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Six months later, he was tasked with picking me up from middle school, while my mom was in the bay area, visiting her best friend.

Ten minutes after the bell rang, I gave him travel time from his high school parking lot. At the thirty minute mark, I assumed he got caught up talking to his friends. At forty minutes, I wrestled with the idea of disturbing my mom.

An hour and a half after it’s scheduled appearance, the turquoise Cressida rolled into the parking lot.

I was too sad to be angry. I climbed into the back seat behind my brother’s squirrely, teenage passenger. I don’t remember greeting anyone, or that anyone greeted me. My brother took recklessly to the road, and we all traveled home in silence.

That afternoon, my future first car had a particularly pungent odor. The thick, soft upholstery, smelled faintly of Hugo Boss cologne, but powerfully of something else. I was a high school senior, driving my passed-out boyfriend home from a party, before I could identify the smell.

My brother disappeared quickly into his bedroom and my mom returned later that night. I weighed the consequences of full disclosure against my desire to air my afternoon grievances and have my neglected, little sister voice heard.

I wasn’t up to the emotional challenge posed by another, fiery, family fight.

By December of that year, I was a high school freshman. I’d passed my written driver’s permit test, and my brother had been shipped out of state to the first of his many stints in rehab.

He left our house a week before my fifteenth birthday and we never lived together again.

I had my first kiss, went to my first prom, and on my first date, with my first boyfriend, all without my big brother around.

Growing up I pictured us together as teenagers. How I would come home after soccer practice and sit at the end of his bed. He’d struggle through calculus homework and listen to me complain about my friends. He’d have hilarious insight and infinite wisdom. He’d universally evaluate the boys in my life as immature losers who were good for nothing but wasting my time. We’d commiserate over the eccentricity  of our parents, and the plague of the performance pressure inflicted by my dad. We’d laugh and bond over an upbringing, and identity,  no one could understand but us.

We’d have favorite tv shows and weekend rituals. We’d shamelessly flirt with each other’s friends.

He’d be my classically overprotective older brother and we’d be life-long best friends.

Reality felt like an empty promise. Like high expectations left completely unfulfilled. Like abandonment. And Loneliness. And betrayal.

My brother missed many of my adolescent landmarks, but the heartbreak of missing him felt most powerful in my every day life. During Sunday morning football hype and on warm summer nights. Drinking Hansen’s soda on the trampoline in our backyard. Driving to school in the morning down the route we first commuted together on bikes. I was a Kindergartner and he was in second grade. One afternoon he triumphantly escorted our first pet home from school. A goldfish, named Ed, who died three days after we got him. My brother comforted and encouraged Ed through the bumps and turns of suburban sidewalks and our narrow, tree-lined street.

“Hang in there, Ed” “We’re almost home.”

Some nights I spread my whole body out flat on the floor of his empty bedroom. I let the woven carpet soak up my tears and filled myself with his memory: Christmas morning whispering in anticipation before dawn. Keeping each other entertained during 12 hour drives on family vacations, a decade before DVDs were playing in back seats. His laugh and the way he told jokes. How it felt when stood up for me, and rooted for me, and that with him, I was always safe.

Last Saturday night I was stranded in San Francisco. Poor planning and inattention to logistical details left me without a ride from a BART station in Berkeley, to my car, eight blocks away. The night was creeping past my bedtime and although I’m typically brave and bold in the face of solo-woman night walking, something felt eery and dangerous about the plan to make the trip alone. I spent several minutes agonizing, unable to shake the sensation of risk.

Then, it hit me.

Minutes later my brother is narrating my route to our rendez-vous point. I complete his instructions by climbing the steep concrete staircase out of the 19th street station and I see his hand wave out of the driver’s side window of his big, black sedan.

Right on time.

En route to my car we talk about my dad, and my new job, and the perils of crowded music festivals. He has hilarious insight, and infinite wisdom. He walks me to my car and watches me close the door as I buckle up.

My eyes get glassy and my heart bursts. A flood of old hurt and new gratitude rush through me. Forgiveness, and healing and love and hope.

The feeling that I’m never too old to be rescued by my big brother. And that it’s never too late for us to be who we’ve always been.

I Brought My Mom

I am a fiercely independent sixth grader. Two months before my elementary school graduation, I am relentlessly determined to prove my autonomy to my mom.

My mom, who has been waiting in the parking lot to pick me up, before the bell rings, every, single, day of my entire school career. My mom, who has been to every dance recital, soccer game, swim meet, and activity in between. My mom, who has attended every parent-teacher conference, driven every carpool and pre-quizzed me for every vocab test I’ve ever taken.

My mom who has chaperoned every field trip. Every, single, one.

She never hovers, interferes or gets overly involved. I am confident and outgoing and popular. I don’t need her support, or assistance. Besides, she is preoccupied with the overwhelming needs of the saddest, most pathetic kids in my class: The girl with terrible hygiene and a complete inability to make friends; the one with the chronic motion sickness, seated at the back of the school bus, on a windy road; The kid who misses home, or his dog, or wets his pants. The kid who rips his sweatpants during a team-building exercise or burst into tears at the top of the trust fall.

In every crisis, my mom swoops in to hug them, soothe them and parent them. They attach to her immediately, and refuse to let her go.

I am facing a transition to junior high school and in the market for a badge of maturity. I convince my mom to set aside her permanent chaperone invitation, so I can spend my last week-long field trip, alone.

She loves the multi-day trips the most. She hikes and plays all day, and eats unlimited dessert at night. She gets to show off the acting skills she always talks about, and enthusiastically respond to every request of her thirty, adopted kids.

But in the name of honoring my burgeoning adulthood, she sacrifices her unpaid vacation, and agrees to let me experience my first field-trip ever, without her.

We arrive on Monday. I feel uneasy, but excited. I feel brave like Caddie Woodlawn, and sophisticated like Anne of Green Gables. I am the inspirational heroine protagonist in the historical fiction novel of my own creation. Simultaneously, I feel a rare sensation of ordinary. Suddenly, I’m just like the other kids. I have no back-up plan, or safety net, or personal medicine cabinet, in case I get sick.

On Wednesday morning my hiking group is crossing the peanut butter river on a narrow, wooden plank. I am thoughtfully gazing across the horizon when I see a one-of-a-kind vehicle pull up. My mom’s minivan is the most recognizable family car in all of northern California, maybe the world.

When we meet-up at lunchtime, I pretend to be miffed. I dig into my arsenal of inherited acting skills and express a convincing feeling of betrayal.

Deep down I feel grateful, and relieved.

She sees right through it, but indulges me in an explanation, just the same.

Her mid-week appearance is a compromise. When my mom broke the news of my epic-solo-heroe’s-journey to my sixth grade teachers, protests ensued. Apparently, my commitment to self-sufficiency is equaled in intensity only by my teachers’ obsession with my mom. The success of the week, their school-year satisfaction, possibly the outcome of their entire careers, hinges on my mom’s presence in Marin Headlands, this week.

I can’t blame them. She lives up to the hype.

My mom is vibrant and fun and loving. She laughs openly and loves deeply and makes everyone around her feel special. Even at a young age, I see the way people light up around her. My classmates tease me because the male chaperones have schoolboy-crush googly eyes, whenever she’s around. She is the most loved human around the campfire, on the trail and especially in the dining hall. The teachers love her, the kids love her, even the on-site instructors favorite her obviously and immediately, every time.

And so it was, on that trip, just like the others.

What was supposed to be my first one alone, became our last field trip together.

A year later, as a gawfky, self-determined seventh grader, I spend a week in Ashland Oregon, by myself. During bus rides, and down time, and especially dinner, I feel sadness and emptiness, and longing for the past. I stare hopelessly with envy at a stranger who would some day be my best friend of fifteen years. A girl who had the courage to bring her mom.

My mom and I revive our spirited mother-daughter traveling antics during the summers between my years in high school. We spend multiple five day trips park hopping in Anaheim, CA, luxuriating at the Disneyland hotel. We conquer every attraction on the map, become experts in line movement and crowd management, and eat more main street ice cream sundaes than most people consume in a lifetime.

Even many years and travel miles later, our days together in Disneyland are some of my best.

My mom moved me in to my first dorm room and my first adult apartment. When I got sick my first quarter of college, she spent three days in a Westwood hotel. My first year as director of Mentorship, she left Sacramento before sunrise to share the most memorable sunset of my life.

During law school, and twice as much while I was studying for the bar exam, my mom talked me off the ledge, and out of a personal crisis, multiple times per week. For countless hours, she waited patiently on the other end of a phone call, when the only thing coming through the microphone, were tears.

My mom is my best friend, and my inspiration. She is a daily reminder that the value of life is measured in laughter, and hugs and kindness towards other people. She is as silly and fun and spontaneous as she was two decades ago, serving as the greatest field-trip chaperone, that ever lived.

Two months ago, after a 14 hour work day, I landed in the emergency room on a Wednesday night. I felt pain, and fear, and panic and dread. My mom remained calm and comforting as I spiraled into the emotional space of the neediest kid at the back of the school bus.

When the doctor, with whom I undoubtedly share a birth year, comes in to check on me, confusion is evident across his face. I watch him piece together the why behind the wrinkles in the creases of my eyelids, and the adult chaperone in my room.

To ease the mounting tension, I point out the obvious.

“I brought my mom.”

He nervously shrugs his shoulders and sympathetically narrows his eyes.

When it’s all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My mom is my sanity, more than my rock.

At thirty, I need her as much, or more, than I did at thirteen, or twenty, or eight, or five.

I bring her with me when I can, and call her when I can’t. When separated by long distances, we exchange doggie paper cards, and heart shaped emojis. When I can’t see her, or reach her, I close my eyes and feel how she would hug me. Soothe me. Parent me, in person.

I can sense her arms around me, and hear what she has to say.

That was a tough goodbye

A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years,  two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated.  Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.

My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned  covers of tracks from  Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”

I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.

For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.

I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.

Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.

I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.

Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.

A week passed, and nothing.

I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic.  I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.

Blanky was gone.

I was heartbroken.

It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.

Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.

The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…

Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.

On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.

In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.

On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.

It sure was.

Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go.  I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”

I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.

That was a tough goodbye.