I arrive at Timberwood Court carrying our wedding album. It’s our twenty-fifth anniversary. I sign in, punch the code, and walk into the activities area. Fred is sitting on a sofa in the front row of the residents listening to an accordion player and a guitarist. He’s leaning forward, neck muscles straining as he sings along, making sounds that aren’t exactly words but close.
He looks at me, then looks away. An aide brings a chair and I sit next to him, but he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, even though I smile, say hello, and kiss his bristly cheek. He continues to focus on the music, occasionally glancing at me with a look that seems to say, “Who are you and why are you sitting so close to me?”
My husband lives in a memory care facility in Albany, Oregon, seventy-two miles inland from where I live on the coast in the house we bought together twelve years ago. He has Alzheimer’s disease. We’d been getting along at home with occasional twenty-dollar-an-hour aides until he fell and hurt his back. Suddenly he couldn’t stand up on his own, and all the doctors said I could no longer take care of him. He dominoed from one institution to another until he landed at Timberwood Court. He can walk now, but he shuffles and stumbles. His cognitive functions have deteriorated to the point where even if he could run, he could not live with me.
He doesn’t know my name anymore. For a while, I wore a nametag. But it was just a collection of letters. It didn’t really matter as long as he still knew we loved each other.
The first time he didn’t recognize me happened a few months ago. He looked at me with the eyes of a stranger. I bit my lip and pretended to be cheerful, struggling to find funny stories to tell him about the dog or something that I saw on the road. He thanked me for coming as if I were someone he had just met. I held my tears until I got to the parking lot.
The following week, he knew me again, but I can’t count on it anymore.
Now the activities director hands me a card that Fred’s son sent to him. I show it to Fred. He traces the words with his stubby index finger. They have no meaning for him. I explain that it’s our wedding anniversary. He seems confused.
“Yes. To me.”
It doesn’t register. He goes back to singing while I fight to hold back my tears.
The music seems to go on forever. When my thigh touches Fred’s, he moves away. I stare at his left hand on the arm of the sofa, the ring that matches mine shining gold in the soft light.
“Hang down your head, Tom Dooley…”
Pauline, who spends all day wandering like a ghost, brushes past me and walks straight toward the musicians, easing between them like ectoplasm. Sometimes she’ll lift a foot in a quick dance step as she goes by, but most days she’s like a windup toy that goes until it hits something, then turns and goes again.
“I been workin’ on the railroad…”
Usually I sing along, providing harmony to the guest musicians and to Fred’s rich bass voice. Today I can’t move any sound past the lump in my throat.
“Roll out the barrels…”
Finally they finish. Fred applauds while I nod at the musicians and watch them fold up their music stands. Now what should I do?
I tell Fred I have something to show him, and we go to his room. Sitting in his mother’s old mauve easy chairs, I open the photo album and start going slowly through the pages, explaining everything.
“This is our wedding day. Remember, we set up canopies in the back yard? See, here’s your folks.”
He nods, yeah.
“Look, here we are.”
He points to me in my white dress, a crown of white flowers around my curly hair. “She’s pretty.”
“That’s me,” I whisper. He looks at me, disbelief in his eyes.
I keep turning the pages. He puts a finger on my mother’s picture. “How is she?” he asks.
I swallow. “Honey, she passed away.” Eight years ago. He was there.
The hours here are dog hours. I thought about bringing a cake, creating a party for everyone, but now I’m glad I didn’t. When an aide brings us plastic bowls of vanilla ice cream, I’m grateful for the distraction. Snack time. Halfway to dinner and my escape.
Fred glances at the anniversary card I picked out for him but shows no interest. How different from those years when we would exchange cards, softly kiss and promise another year together, when we would dress up and go to a fancy restaurant, feeding each other bites of lobster and chocolate cake, so in love it was disgusting. One anniversary he picked me up at work and took me to a posh hotel where he’d filled our room with roses and photographs. We made love… Oh God, I can’t think about that now.
I just want to go somewhere private and cry. I’m about to leave when the woman who runs the facility hands me a form to fill out. POLST: Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. In English, it’s the form that asks what we want done in case of a medical crisis: CPR? Transport to the hospital? Tube feeding? Life support? Of all days to make me answer these questions. Struggling to control my hand, I try to remember what Fred wanted when we filled these out before, right after his diagnosis. He was only sixty-five. I had just turned fifty.
I leave the form at the desk and hurry out the door. Usually I make it to the car but not this time. Sobbing in the car, I startle as the director knocks on my window. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” she says. I missed a question. I don’t care what I write. Pull the plug. Kill me, too.
I cry so hard on the way home I’m afraid I’m going to crash the car. I feel as if my chest is going to crack from neck to crotch, as if I could not possibly survive this, as if I ought to park and call 911. But I can’t stop on this mountain road. It’s getting dark.
Returning a week later, I see Fred long before he sees me. I see his balding head, his white goatee, his neck stretched awkwardly forward as he sits on the couch watching a black and white TV show from the ’50s. Beside him, Jean is slumped over sideways, sleeping. On the next sofa, Rachel babbles to herself, shaking her massive bony hands at me. From one of the bedrooms, a woman cries, “Help me! Somebody help me!”
I ease into the empty space beside Fred, saying, “Hi.”
He looks up, blinks for a moment. I hold my breath, praying he will recognize me today. He smiles and begins to laugh. He holds out his hands like a child wanting to be picked up. I lean into him, kissing his soft cheeks, putting my arms around him. Heat comes at me from the thin undershirt he wears. I can feel bumps on his back. He smells of sweat, urine, and decay. But for this moment, I sigh and let myself fall back into being Fred’s wife.
He introduces me to his new friend Beverly. “This is my wife, Ann.”
That’s not my name, but I guess it doesn’t matter.
SUE FAGALDE LICK is a writer, musician, and dog-mom living on the Oregon Coast. Her books include Childless by Marriage and Unleashed in Oregon. A former newspaper reporter and MFA graduate from Antioch University, Los Angeles, she is working on a memoir about her journey with Fred through Alzheimer’s. Fred passed away a few months after she wrote this essay.
My grandfather Woody occasionally picked up hitchhikers. We only knew about it when he mentioned it in passing. He certainly never did it when my sister or I, his only grandchildren, were in the car with him. This is not to say he was overly conservative in our company. A swig from an airline bottle of Smirnoff while driving was on the acceptable end of his personal scale of safety around kids.
Woody would drop news of his latest lift into casual conversation as if it was no big thing, because to him, a child of the Great Depression, it was no big thing. The two defining stories of his personal mythology were both Depression-related and he told the first one with tremendous pleasure at every family gathering. It was the story of how he, along with his parents and siblings—Burl, Vernyl, Leonard, Pauline, and Helen—headed west from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl along a wood plank road in a used hearse. Mistaking them for a funeral procession, other cars on the road would stop, the passengers doffing their caps. The other story is that he picked cherries for a penny a pound when he eventually made it to Redlands, California. He told this story less often and, when he did, there was no nostalgia.
In the intervening years of the mid-twentieth century, he achieved the American dream that still exists today, even if it’s largely unattainable, rising to middle-class wealth as a salesman for the gas company. His childhood of grinding poverty stayed with him, surfacing in the stories, his pleasure in growing his own food in his backyard vegetable garden, and the combination of fearlessness and empathy that occasionally led him to stop and pick up a stranger on the side of the road.
My grandfather’s circumstances when I came to know him were a world away from those when he arrived in the Golden State; my own experience at that age overrode any knowledge I had of his past. That experience, as a child of the eighties, was hysteria over mall kidnappings that had ingrained into me to never get into a car with a stranger. The thought that someone would actively solicit getting into a car with a stranger and that my grandfather might be such a stranger was wildly illicit and dangerous and strange. I wanted to know everything.
I would, however, learn nothing. My grandmother Willie’s dagger-eyed distaste for my grandfather’s disclosures always cut the conversation short. Her reaction was not one of concern for his safety, although that may have been the pretense, but rather a cool disdain for his violation of bourgeois norms. She had also come from severe hardship, first in the panhandle of Texas where the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 orphaned her before she was one, then in Oklahoma before finally making it to California. She was a career woman, working her way up to head the San Bernardino County DMV, and, together with my grandfather, had achieved a standard of living that included flocked wallpaper in the guest bathroom and membership at the Arrowhead Country Club. Willie, understandably, had no interest in behavior that lacked alignment with this hard-earned status.
Both my grandparents have been gone for years now, but my husband’s recent foray into driving for Uber reminded me fondly of my grandfather’s predilection for providing transport to strangers. When Doug first broached the idea about a year ago, I reflexively resisted. Surely our insurance wouldn’t cover it—a drunk person would vomit in the car, think of the wear and tear! Hiding just under the surface of my purposefully reasonable objections was a smidgen of my grandmother. My protests turned out to be unnecessary. Our 2004 Volvo was too old to meet Uber’s standards.
This was not the first time my own bourgeois hang-ups had led to discomfort about my husband’s job. Early in our marriage, after a decade working in the entertainment industry and the heady early days of the internet, he had turned down a non-optional work transfer to Dulles, Virginia so that we could stay in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of that decision, he bobbed around some start-ups before landing part-time work at Los Angeles International Airport, employed by an acquaintance who had a contract to maintain the airport police’s computer systems. One of his jobs was cleaning out the keyboards in airport police cars. He had no qualms about his menial tasks, although he did find the depth of seriousness exhibited by one of his colleagues amusing. This colleague, who had been charged with training my husband on his first day, had presented him with a PowerPoint in which he declared with characteristic post-9/11 American earnestness, that, armed with tiny canisters of compressed air, their mission was to “save lives.”
We bonded over this joke, but the subtext for me was that he was working with losers and, well, you are who you surround yourself with. To put it another way, at this point in my life I was unclear on the distinction between who you are and what you do for work. (Fifteen years later, it’s something I’m still teasing out.) My husband seemed less concerned about the potential for disastrous Svengali-ism at the hands of Mr. Saves Lives. In fact, he was downright relaxed. Much to my annoyance, I often found him in a state of repose on our couch when I arrived home from work. He had been in full-time employment since he was seventeen, he occasionally reminded me. He deserved a nap.
Late last year Uber relaxed their rules and our old Volvo, affectionately known as Virginia, was in. Deterred by my earlier reaction, Doug didn’t tell me about his first drive until after it was done. He need not have been concerned. My qualms had subsided, which I attribute in part to the life-changing magic of not giving a fuck—to borrow the title of a bestseller—that comes with every hard-won year of my middle-age. My ease was also a product of our financial security relative to the position we had been in when my husband worked at the airport. This time we didn’t need the money, a fact that served as a psychological buffer. It was an updated version of my grandmother’s flocked bathroom wallpaper, only this time it gave license to take the stance opposite of hers. She and I were two generations apart, bonded by our adherence to two sides of the same snobby coin.
It also helps that Doug dabbles in other more conventionally middle-class pursuits, most recently interning as a marriage and family therapist. He’s a Gen-Xer, but he has a millennial’s predilection for the gig economy which is handy, since apparently, we’re all going to be working multiple part-time jobs till we die. In addition to Uber and the intern hours working towards the therapist license, he does freelance project management and offers his services as a pet-sitter on Rover.com. Sometimes the dog he watches semi-regularly, a pit bull/Australian cattle dog mix, comes along with him when he drives Uber, which has gone down surprisingly well with his customers. I think there’s more potential synergy to tap between my husband’s varied vocations: micro-therapy sessions for the length of your ride, uberPOOL as group therapy.
After all, people love to talk in an Uber. (I know, I’m one of those folks recently lampooned on SNL who always asks my Uber driver how long he or she’s been doing it.) The company may go down in history as the poster child of the on-demand economy, but that is missing the more interesting sociological point. Uber may be a smartphone app, but the experience it facilitates feels like one of the last places left where strangers still speak to each other. I’ve never been on either side of the hitchhiking equation, but I imagine the dynamic, assuming nobody is committing murder, is more akin to Uber than cab.
In just two weeks, my husband’s Uber stories top anything I’ve heard at the corporate watercooler in twenty years. His first passenger’s boyfriend packed parachutes for people about to skydive solo for the first time, a stranger’s life literally in his hands. His second was a neurosurgeon from Ecuador who lives in North Carolina, with whom he discussed the convergence of psychology and neuroscience. Then there was the wheel-chair bound young man who declined assistance as he folded up his chair, explaining that six months earlier the hydraulic lift had broken while he was working on his car, paralyzing him from the waist down. In Santa Barbara, a Manhattan couple got a ride to an anti-Trump party in a mansion in Montecito. On inauguration day, a military man on his way to Port Hueneme explained he would be watching the ceremony because “I voted for him.” That afternoon two gay Latino brothers, both high as kites, got a lift to the TGI Fridays in Oxnard to meet up for drinks with friends.
My husband claims the part of Uber he finds most interesting is the technology, fascinated by the algorithms of supply and demand. But every day that he drives he tells me his best stories with obvious relish, and I listen to these tales of strangers with vicarious delight. These are the stories I never got to hear from my grandfather, the ones he took to his grave.
JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her husband now drives for Lyft, and she’s yet to convince him to pick up a hitchhiker. Find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.
They say the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. Ironically, it even has a cute name: The Year of Firsts. The first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first baseball season—everything is the first time without him. The first birthday without Alan brings a picture to my mind of the candle-less pile of his favorite donuts that I strategically arranged on a plate into a circular cake shape. (Even as I write this I know memory deceives me. If I dig back hard enough, I remember our friend Grace made Alan’s cake that year. Carrot, his favorite. I was too numb to have been so thoughtful.) Then there was the first time I went in for a teeth cleaning that fall: the way the entire staff looked at me, how certain I was they all already knew without my saying a word, how I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze, how I was grateful for each scrape of the dentist’s scaler to distract me from the weight that pressed into my sternum. And there was the first time I tried and failed to talk about Alan using past-tense verbs, the sound of them ringing too final in my ears.
What no one tells you, though, is that the firsts don’t end after those twelve months. In terms of frequency, they start loosening their grip, but still they come, slow and steady. Sometimes when you least expect it.
I should have known another first was happening when something I saw on Instagram made me cry. A man I’d never met before was getting married. He had kind brown eyes and she had a wonderfully proportioned face. They could have been in a teeth-whitening ad. They were young, around thirty, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, did your typical around-thirty-year-old things. Except they seemed to do it better. There were pictures of her twirling in the sunlight in front of a vintage car and drinking a milkshake alluringly at one of those diners that are so old they’ve become hip again. I saw him, too, on the other side of the camera, laughing because he’d been too caught up watching her, missing the moment, and accidentally taking a picture of the table. Of course, I didn’t know if that’s what actually happened. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. But we did share something. I saw it in his profile. One word that didn’t match the happiness I saw in his face: widower.
I clicked on the link in his profile, searching his personal blog for clues. How did he get his eyes to twinkle like that? Over the course of two hours, my phone casting a glow in the otherwise dark room, I uncovered the life-bones of the brown-eyed man, using them to build a person with a past, a present, and a future. He’d been married to his best friend and the love of his life for close to eight years. She was an artist with curly brown hair and a ready smile. Her funeral was standing-room only. Everybody who met her loved her. Reading about her and looking at her pictures, I loved her, too. She looked like the type of person I’d want to share my fries with. She’d been sick, though, and then suddenly, as it sometimes happens with sickness and young people, she was gone. Four months later, her husband started dating. Soon after, he met his current fiancée, and their smiles have been gracing dental-office posters ever since. Somehow Brown Eyes had managed to hit the jackpot. He had found not just one true love, but two. And he was marrying the second in a month.
For having never met the guy, I didn’t know why I cared. All I know is that I did. I pictured Alan in Brown Eyes’s shoes and me in the role of the artist wife. I imagined him going on dates a few months after I’d died: him wearing his favorite button-down shirt, her in form-fitting jeans. Dim lighting. Sangria. Furtive thoughts and shy glances. My face felt hot. If Brown Eyes had really loved his wife, how could he move on so quickly? He was wheeling past, rushing to forget. I felt betrayed by a man I didn’t know, on behalf of a woman I’d never met.
But I knew that wasn’t all. Reaching that conclusion did nothing to quell the spring of emotions welling up in my chest. I turned my phone off and lay back in bed, letting the darkness of the room seep in and swirl inside me. And then, before I could stop it, it happened. It was just for an instant, but it was enough.
I am Brown Eyes out on a date. Feeling not-Alan’s arm around me. Letting myself be drawn in closer.
The guilt sliced me in half. I shook the image from my head, and hot tears slipped down my cheeks. Of all the things I’d felt in the past year and a half since Alan had died, I’d never felt anything like this. It was a string waiting to be pulled. Thinking about finding the loose end made me feel sick, so instead I climbed a mountain and looked down at Brown Eyes from my perch. What kind of widower wanted to find someone new to share his milkshakes with? To go on adventures with? Who wanted that? Not me. I didn’t want any of it. And neither should he. Clearly, he didn’t love his wife as much as I loved Alan. It was an awful thing to think but it was easy. He was a stranger who couldn’t tell me otherwise. But that’s what made Judgment Mountain so great. It was a place where I could focus on assessing other people’s lives so I didn’t have to think about my own.
I was still up on the mountain, deluding myself, when I met up with Eddie for dinner a few weeks later. He sat across from me, smiling. I tried to read his eyes to determine if it was a real smile or the kind that hid things that hurt too much to think about. We most often exchanged the latter in the short time we’d known each other. We had met at a now defunct Kaiser bereavement group for young spouses. Most of the people in the group, including Eddie and me, had partners who’d been on hospice. Alan and Eddie’s wife Jeannie had had cancer. Paul Kalanithi described it best when he wrote, “Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.” They both had the all-caps kind, one of the main commonalities in the intersection of the Sobrina-Eddie Venn Diagram.
“So how was your holiday?” I asked reflexively. I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Holidays sucked. “Sorry, dumb question.”
“You know, it was surprisingly good. I spent it with my friend and his family. His little girl made it her mission to make me smile. She even waited for me to get there to open her presents. It was really, really sweet. How was yours?”
“I visited the park where we scattered Alan’s ashes. I hiked up to the bench at the top of the hill, and it hit me for the first time how nice it was that he chose that spot. I never realized until then that he probably did that on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go visit some sad arbitrary plot somewhere.” My words caught slightly in my throat. Then I realized that Eddie might visit Jeannie at a cemetery, and I kicked myself again.
“I still don’t know what to do with Jeannie’s ashes,” he said. His eyes misted over, and I could tell he wanted to say something. A moment passed and he shook his head, changing his mind. “Leave it to you to make me cry.”
I laughed. We both cried at every single meeting.
We studied our menus in silence, and I debated between my usual chicken biryani and trying a new fish dish.
“I decided to make some changes,” Eddie said, smiling. It lingered in the corners of his lips, revealing a side of Eddie I’d never seen before. So it was a real one. “I’ve been exercising more. I’m up to doing an hour and a half on the elliptical machine every day at max resistance. And next week, I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee with people a lot younger than me. I hope I don’t break anything.” He laughed.
“Wow, that’s great.” When I first met him, he couldn’t walk or do the elliptical for more than ten minutes. I closed my menu but not before silently picking something to order for Alan: the lamb shank. He would like that. Another reflex.
“Oh, and I asked a woman out.”
“You did?” I put my menu down. Now this was news. “Who?”
“A woman from my sci-fi book club.”
“Wow.” My vocabulary was very impressive tonight.
“She said ‘no,’ but that’s okay.”
“Still, that’s huge. And you felt okay doing it?”
“I did,” he said. “I mean I did then, at the time. I might not the next time. Who knows.”
He looked back down at his menu, while I did the math. Jeannie had died in January. It was less than a year later. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown him down the mountain already, but Eddie was different. I knew for a fact how much he loved Jeannie. I could see it in him, full, whole, and remarkably intact. And I realized, after the initial shock faded, that his asking another woman out did nothing to change that.
Dinner with Eddie gave me hope. I thought about coming down from the mountain, even if just a little. But when I told my sister about Eddie starting to date again, she texted back, “Whattt!!! Do people just not fall deep in love anymore?!?!?!?” And it put me right back up on the summit. It seemed that’s where everyone else thought I should be. I didn’t dare tell her how I’d found him brave.
It took a while before I found the courage to tell anyone else, until one day it came up in conversation with my friend Angela. We’d met at the same grief group that I knew Eddie from. Her husband Raymond didn’t have cancer; he had died suddenly in June from a blood clot after surviving a stroke the previous month. We were both in our early thirties, and I knew she knew what it was like to walk around in the world like a ghost, only to have that feeling subside and be replaced with the sensation that your skin is turned inside out. She texted to ask how dinner was with Eddie, and I texted back about how he’d started dating again.
“I swear men move on so much faster than women,” I said, dipping a toe in to test the water. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.
“Who did he ask out?” she asked.
“A woman from his book club,” I said.
I waited for her to blast him, but all she said was, “I’m glad he’s doing well.”
Her reaction emboldened me. I ventured further out up to my knees.
“Are you surprised about Eddie asking someone out already? It hasn’t even been a year yet,” I said, holding my breath.
“I used to be surprised by it, that people find other people so quickly. But everyone deserves to be happy.”
And then she told me she had started dating, too: a really great guy who made her happy. He was a friend with whom she had lost touch over the years and recently reconnected with.
In true Angela fashion, she worried immediately after telling me that she had hurt me.
“No, you didn’t at all. I’m truly happy for you.” And I really meant it. I expected to feel the surge of emotions as I had with Brown Eyes, but all I felt was relief. She loved and missed Raymond deeply. We talked about it all the time. And now she was seeing someone new. She was proof those two things could coexist. The realization radiated through me.
Judgment Mountain began to crumble, and as it did, I recognized it for what it was: a place where I judged myself. I judged people for moving on too quickly because the truth was I was afraid I was moving on too fast. I wanted things to stay the same for as long as possible, to live in the world that Alan still lived in. But that world didn’t exist anymore. Could I still love Alan forever and simultaneously want to find someone new to share my life with? I hated myself for even wanting to ask. As if asking was somehow an admission that Alan’s love wasn’t enough. That I was replacing him. That he was even replaceable. It was out of the question.
But Eddie, Angela, and Brown Eyes helped me understand that it wasn’t the question that I had wrong—it was the answer. I wasn’t asking because Alan’s love hadn’t been enough. I was asking because it had been more than enough. It had lifted me and filled me and carried me gently when I didn’t even know I needed it. I could feel it when he watched me sleep in the morning, by the patient way he answered my questions on everything from foreign policy to the way last night’s movie had ended after I inevitably knocked out.
I miss the blond hairs on his arms. I miss his smell. I miss sharing life with him. The yearning to find someone new isn’t a way of replacing him as I’d feared. It’s a testament to how wonderful I know life can be with someone. And it’s because Alan showed me that that kind of love exists that I want to find it again. I don’t fully know what that means, but I’m ready to let myself find out.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
It starts with a song. Maybe it’s on the radio, maybe on TV. It could even be the artwork on the cover of an album. Or it could be an interview.
Initially I’d not even liked the band, and the first time I saw them play, I left the all-ages music hall early—it was a sparsely attended weeknight lobby show—and fled with a friend to a scuzzy bar a few blocks away. I’d moved to Sonoma County because I wanted to be a wine writer, but that all went out the door when I discovered the area’s extensive indie band scene, complete with its own tabloid-sized free magazine published cheaply on newsprint with ink that left telltale smudges all over readers’ hands. Something about it all resonated with me, this hidden but vital world of scrappy bands thriving among the vineyards and bucolic golden hills.
Later, I shoehorned myself into working as the magazine’s managing editor for free. The editor gave me a copy of the band’s demo and after listening to it once out of duty, I was surprised to find I couldn’t stop. I played it every morning, usually twice in a row. The songs were soundscapes, heavy with blissed-out distortion, and I liked how they set the tone of the day I wanted to have. At one of the magazine’s weekly editorial meetings at a mediocre coffeehouse that also served beer and sandwiches, we decided to run a short profile of the band in the next issue, and they dispatched me to interview them.
The house where the band rehearsed was on a poorly lit rural road, easy to miss. Like many dumpy rental houses that play host to various band members over the years, it had a name: The 116 House. Inside, it was dim and there were about five old couches in the living room. They guys welcomed me in and we all sat on the couches and did the interview. I recall little else about it, though I still have the microcassette recording.
It was the night I met my husband. Joe was the band’s drummer, and he’d said just a few words that evening. He still has a drummer’s predilection for staying in the background.
We liked a lot of the same bands, as it turned out. Joe and each I had Ride CDs separately before we coupled, and our devotion to Ride is still such that we can’t bear to part with the duplicates. I shelve our CDs alphabetically by artist, and the Rs—I also love The Ramones—are disproportionately gnarly. In its purest sense music does not take a tactile from, but in a practical sense I adore the plastic and vinyl flotsam of albums and their colorful sleeves and inserts. Even if the music isn’t on the stereo, I like knowing it’s there twice.
Some of the guys in Ride were still teenagers when (to deploy a trite phrase of music journalism) their band exploded onto the British music scene. It’s almost criminal how fully realized their sound was at such a young age. Listen to Nowhere, their first album proper, and it’s still fresh and epic. Their music was noisy and angelic and gorgeous but always had a solid pop sensibility at its core. Unimportant to Joe but very notable to me, they were also really fit. That, my friend, is arty chick bait. I was an easy mark.
Even so, there was little evidence of Ride’s physical deliciousness on Nowhere, the cover of which is a blurry image of a cresting ice-blue wave, so the songs themselves had to be the heartthrobs. I got into Nowhere my freshman year of college, hijacking my roommate’s copy and eventually listening to it every single morning twice in a row, blissfully existing inside of it the same way I would with Joe’s band’s demo years later. On an opposite coast, a world away, Joe was nowhere, too.
Music was everything to me in my teens and early adulthood. School, jobs, responsibility: these things made no sense. Music did, and by first channeling a real-life situation through the glorious prism of a band, it came out as something I got.
I saw a lot of rock bands back then. They spiritually realigned me, helping me function the rest of the week. Everything else was planned around their shows. At a release show for a compilation CD Joe’s band was on, I got drunk and gave Joe my business card. A few days later he actually called me, instantly distinguishing himself from all of the other guys I kept tabs on at shows. We had our first date. And then we kept on dating.
I liked Joe because he was sincere, and I liked his friends and the other guys in the band because they were fun and not mopey, self-obsessed weirdos. Joe and I liked a lot of the same bands, too. We saw bands together, plus I tagged along to almost every one of his shows. For a four-piece, they had an insane amount of gear: a Farfisa, a Moog, two drum kits, assorted amps and amp heads, a few suitcases full of pedals and cables, and a film projector (I know, I know). It took a long time for them to load in, but it took forever for them to load out. Joe may be sincere, but he had no hustle. I grew adept at lugging bursting-at-the-seams drum hardware bags up and down narrow club steps and onto filthy San Francisco curbs. All those dingy clubs, all those pints of Lagunitas IPA, the residue of the stamp on the back of my hand giving away the cause of my next-day grogginess at work. I lived for it.
One of the most disappointing things about being married to a drummer is that, no matter how mind-blowing their playing might be, it gets to a point where the person practicing on the kit in the garage is just making an unbearably loud racket. At least I appreciate Joe’s drum kit. It’s a set of vintage Ludwigs in a coppery sparkle wrap called Champagne. I see them glimmer every time I bring in the groceries. Those drums have traveled quite a bit, in the backs of vans and then in moving trucks. They’ve spent years in their drum bags, and then in the basements of friends, and then, finally, in our basement. Now that we have space for them, Joe does not have anyone nearby who jives on the kind of music he’d most like to play, and at best he sometimes does shuffle beats at casual jam sessions with friends. But he never gets to really wail.
We have a Ride poster that’s the cover of their 1991 EP, Today Forever. The poster was Joe’s initially, and for some reason he got it laminated when he bought it, and that’s probably why it’s still around now. I love that EP; the cover is a photo of a shark baring its teeth and RIDE is superimposed in capital letters and it’s cryptic and badass. I tried to put the poster up in the basement to remind me that we used to be cool, but no matter what kind of tape I used, the combination of cinder block walls and humidity conspired to make the poster fall down. It bummed me out. I think I was hoping it would spur Joe to play his drums more often.
I’m still plotting ways to hang that poster. Loving a band is like having a crush. Simply saying their name out loud feels gratifying, almost illicit. This is perhaps why music journalism has decayed into an endless stream of lists: assembling and deconstructing them allows you to handle the names, the bands, to build them up into a gigantic consolidated tower, an epic hypothetical luxury condo of rock and roll exclusivity that’s just to your liking. Even just typing certain band names now gives me a rush: The Charlatans. Sonic Youth. Dinosaur Jr. The people from these bands are officially old dudes now but not to me. Rock music is commonly thought of the music of youth, perhaps because only in youth do we have such an abundance of potent feelings in need of a vessel.
You’d think music would take energy from you, but that’s not how it works at all. It only gives. What a privilege to have that in your life, a special thing that’s all yours to obsess over.
When my appetite for new bands took a nose dive about a decade ago, it disarmed me. Who was I if I didn’t care about current music? I wound up getting into really square stuff like Henri Mancini and Dionne Warwick and Johnny Mathis—the kind of music I used to make fun of. The albums were plentiful and affordable; I could get a whole box of crappy vinyl at the Goodwill for a dollar, pick out the good stuff, and turn right back to re-donate the rejects.
I missed leaving a club feeling both spent and entirely filled up. Live shows stopped doing it for me. I was tired of standing in a crowd on dirty floors in my impractical rocker-girl black vinyl boots, tired of sitting at a cocktail table in a sparsely populated club, tired of scoping out a spot to pee in an alley off San Pablo Avenue because the toilet got clogged at the artists’ loft party. The toilets at loft shows always got clogged.
Going musically frigid changed me, or I changed and then I went frigid. To care so much seems petty, but the emotional significance of a single song can run so deep, like a fissure in the ocean floor. Some people find God. Others find bands, and their music fills a void. Listening to a song is at once completely universal and profoundly individual, and the people who made that song you come to carry in your heart because they created something that lifts up your life and articulates this roiling feeling you either have or yearn to have.
“Ride’s getting back together!” Joe said right when he came home from work. “They’re touring and will be in Cleveland.”
This was huge. “When?” I asked. “Did you get tickets? This will sell out. We need tickets.”
“But what if your mom can’t watch Frances?”
“THIS IS RIDE. Get the tickets.”
He got the tickets. I arranged for Mom to watch Frances, and we booked a hotel not far from the venue, because Cleveland is a bit of a trip for us, and I’d done enough drowsy post-show drives in my life to know how stupid it is to get in a car with your ears ringing and a body full of adrenaline and blood tinged with alcohol, only to later doze off going 75 on the interstate with still over an hour left to go, thinking, “Crap, am I going to make it home alive?”
Neither of had ever seen Ride, who broke up in the mid-1990s. They hadn’t played together formally in over twenty years. Joe and I left for Cleveland in the afternoon, and when we got downtown, the traffic was outrageous and Joe nearly had a panic attack. It turns out there was an Indians game that night, and our hotel was blocks from the stadium, so by the time we checked into our room, we’d weathered a nightmarish hour of gridlocked rerouting and impossible parking.
Key cards in hand, we got in the elevator. Joe was surly, swearing under his breath, and I had to give him the kind of wifely “get your shit together, man” look reserved for public situations.
But something quickly drew my attention away from my irate husband. Right before the elevator doors closed, a man rushed in and stared intently at his black rolly suitcase. In the understated dark clothing of a traveler, he didn’t look like any of the garishly dressed Indians fans we’d just seen by the bucketload, and he was giving off a powerful vibe I recognized but couldn’t quite place. The doors slid closed, and the typical awkwardness of a crowded elevator ensued. I thought about asking the intense guy which floor he needed—he was cute, a good excuse to be polite—but opted not to because he was actually closer to the buttons than I was.
I spent the following impossibly long elevator seconds mulling this over, and then bing! the doors opened to our floor. The intense dude quickly scooted out before us to the opposite wing. Once we got down our end hallway, Joe turned to me. “I think that was Loz.”
“What?” I said. Loz is Ride’s drummer. It’s short for Lawrence. I think there’s a rule that all British rock band percussionists need to have nicknames with a Z. Joe’s always admired Loz musically. He’s not the kind to idolize people, but he’s told me a few times how the song “Leave Them All Behind,” which is crazy-full of drum fills, had been one of the things that motivated him to start playing drums in the first place.
“Yeah—in the elevator. His suitcase had a luggage tag that said OXF.” Ride is from Oxford.
I was dubious, because Ride was a distant thing from a mythical realm, one that did not include blasé, overpriced rooms at the Radisson. “Let’s just figure out where we’re having dinner and relax a bit,” I said. But I was not relaxed. I’d suddenly slipped back into the old Sara, a person who was impulsive and excitable. We headed out and kept our eyes peeled.
Dinner was awful. Ride was fantastic. The reunion was not at all a pandering or opportunistic. I always wonder about this, the motivation bands have to reunite. Every person has events that define their lives, but for a band who achieves renown in their youth, that becomes—to the public, at least—the defining thing in their lives. Joe had certainly not spent the ten years of our marriage being nothing but the former drummer for his band, though they never exploded onto any music scene.
We go through the years, and ideally become more sorted-out and mature. There are jobs that don’t involve musical instruments or amp heads or tour vans that stink of farts and t-shirts in bad need of laundering. There are relationships and families and prosaic things of incredible, meaningful depth: homework on the refrigerator, walks with the dog, lopsided birthday cakes spattered with droplets of pink and blue wax. But there are also the lingering fumes of four guys who were on a stage together and did this incredible, transformative thing, and while other life events can eclipse that in significance, nothing can duplicate it.
Pop culture holds such a mighty sway over our society that we tend to define ourselves by what we like, not what we do. Those filters—favorite bands, favorite books, favorite movies—are handy, but they’re not airtight. I might meet a person who agrees with me that Ejector Seat Reservation is Swervedriver’s best album start to finish, because duh, it is. But you can love Swervedriver and be an asshole. Joe and I can relate to each other over somewhat obscure music, but that’s not what makes a relationship endure. I’m not sure what does, actually. Maybe not knowing is the key.
After the concert, Joe and I agreed it was for sure Loz in our elevator that night. While the show itself had been the main attraction, this one fleeting non-encounter gave the whole weekend a symbolic significance. The Pope had just concluded his North American junket, but screw that. Loz stayed on the same floor of our hotel.
That following week I spent electrified, floating in a heady altered state. Joe and I dug up a documentary about Creation, Ride’s record label, and it included this offhand home move footage of Ride from back in the day—they couldn’t have been any older than twenty-one—and they were just these totally hot little shoegaze babies peering out from a lost window of time that held so much promise. What was I doing when that was filmed? What was Joe? I couldn’t even fathom it. I wanted to go back and re-watch that snippet about fifty times, which is exactly what I would have done in 1991.
My body surged with my own teenage fervor, churning with pheromones long unused. The intimacy and immediacy of all the music I’d ever loved came rushing back, and my ears were receptive in a way they hadn’t been in years. I daydreamed a lot and was not terribly productive with work, instead going on runs more frequently, the pace brisker and the route longer. Joe sat at his drum kit in the basement and played it hard, like he used to before we learned to automatically default to common respect for our neighbors.
The world nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos—“pain” and “return home,” respectively. The pain isn’t from the past itself, but the impossibility of fully experiencing that home again. I was afraid I’d feel pained from what I’d see up there onstage, that the reality of a middle-aged Ride today would maybe squelch a vision of the past I cherished, a time of dewy skin and dreamy faces. But I didn’t. (It certainly helped that the band’s members have aged well—hiya, Loz!)
I could listen to the interview I recorded at the 116 House in 2001, but do I even need to? Part of the 116 House lives here. Home is dynamic. At its kernel is the eternal awe of youth, embers that you can’t let die. We move artlessly though time, as dumb today as the day we were born, and the day we skipped class to go flip through the bargain bin at the record store, and the day we drunkenly handed a drummer a business card after that show at Bottom of the Hill, and they day we put our kid to bed for the thousandth time. Every morning we wake up again, and it is today forever.
SARA BIR is a chef and writer living in Ohio. Her book Foraged, Forgotten, Found: Rediscovering America’s Abundant Wild and Unusual Fruits is forthcoming from Chelsea Green Publishing.
I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.
After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.
I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.
As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”
When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.
KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.
This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.
Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.
That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.
Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.
The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.
Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.
After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.
Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.
After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.
Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.
From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.
On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.
A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.
That was twenty years ago.
Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.
“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”
I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.
I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.
KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.
I first see him as I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on a Sunday afternoon in August. I’m taking a break from composing syllabi for the approaching semester when I see the professional photos the Humane Society has commissioned for him because they want him to get more attention.
He’s ten years old. His name is Remi.
He’s a black lab mix who isn’t getting a lot of attention because of his age, but these photos ought to do the trick. In the photos Remi is stunning. He is out in a field of wild brush and wildflowers, staring at the camera with soulful eyes, the white hairs on his muzzle granting him a look of distinction. One is a profile pic, Remi’s tongue lolling lazily out of his mouth, his face lit up with happiness and contentment. Remi is clearly a happy, beautiful dog, and my heart can’t help but ache for him having no home at ten years old.
I call Steve over to the computer so he can see the pictures. Steve is a bigger softy than I am, and I know that all I have to do is give the slightest hint of a suggestion that we adopt him, and he’ll be in. He agrees that Remi is beautiful and he says, in response to my despair at Remi’s not having a mom or a dad, “We can adopt him if you want. But can we afford it?”
“No, of course we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”
Thinking the issue is settled, Steve goes back to the living room, where he had been reading. “But honey,” I call out. “He’s ten. And he needs a home. And he needs two sisters. And we can name him Remington Elizabeth.” My mother had a habit of giving all pets, regardless of gender, the middle name Elizabeth, also my middle name. When I was growing up, I was never just Amy to her. I was always AmyElizabeth—one word—or just Elizabeth. When I asked her why she named me Amy, she said, “Your father and I liked the name.”
Steve responds with something I cannot now remember but which was probably perfectly reasonable, and I continue to think about Remi for a good two hours. Over the next week, I tell my friends about him and I show them the beautiful professional photographs the Humane Society commissioned of him. And always I end by saying, “But we can’t. Three dogs is just too much.”
Our home is full with the two we have. Wrigley is nine and a half and Essay is six. Both are black lab mixes, and while we’re pretty sure that there’s Beagle somewhere in Essay’s ancestry, we’re not sure what Wrigley’s mixed with. Whatever it is, it has made her coat softer than a typical lab’s, her ears smaller, and her disposition as sweet as honey. Wrigley is just a good dog.
Before we lost Annabelle, my soul-mate dog, four and a half years ago, Wrigley embodied her role of the younger sister in a way that most young Labradors will. She was, in a word, a nut. Energetic and playful and beside herself with excitement at times. Blinded by the love she had for the special people in her life. More than once we had to put her in time-outs to calm her down. Once Annabelle died, it seemed that she calmed down nearly overnight. She matured into what every dog owner dreams of when they adopt a crazy puppy. Wrigley will sleep in and snuggle as long as you want her to. She’s a dream on walks. She wants nothing more than to please us and, as a result, we want nothing more than to see her eyes light up in happiness.
In early October, the Humane Society reposts the professional photos with a note saying that sweet old Remi still doesn’t have a forever home. I mention it to Steve again and I show the photos to a couple of friends who hadn’t yet heard me talk about him. They take this moment to ask Wrigley and Essay if they want a big brother. They get down close to the dogs’ mouths. “They say yes,” they tell us.
That was on a Friday. On Saturday, Steve and I are sitting in the living room together, each of us reading while the dogs sleep between us. And Remi pops into my head again. “Honey,” I say. Steve looks up. “Remi.”
“I know. We can adopt him if you want.”
“But we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”
“But maybe we can just go look at him,” I say.
“You know that if we go look at him, we’re gonna take him home.”
“But he’s on some kind of medication and we can’t afford that.”
“Maybe they’ll pay for his medication if we adopt him. Why don’t you call and ask?”
“I’m scared to.” I take out my phone. “Here, I’ll look it up.” I go to the Humane Society website and look again at the photos of Remi. His description says he’s on Thyrokare. I type Thyrokare into Google and see that it’s a relatively inexpensive medication. “It’s cheap. Like eleven bucks a month. We could manage that.”
Steve picks up his phone and calls the Humane Society. Tells the woman who answers that we’re interested in learning more about Remi and asks about his medications. He’s not on any others. Steve also asks if we should bring our dogs with us when we come to meet him.
When he hangs up, he tells me that she said it’s best if we just come alone. “We can always come back and get the girls later,” he says.
“Honey, you told her we’d be there shortly.”
“I’m scared. Three dogs is a lot. How’m I gonna walk three dogs?”
“You get one of those harness things that hooks two of them together.” He puts his sneakers on. It’s nearly noon.
“I’m scared that we’re gonna fall in love with him.”
“We probably will.”
“I need something in my stomach.” I grab a banana as Steve gives Wrigley and Essay each a cookie. He tells them we’ll be back soon, maybe with a brother for them.
I feel sick to my stomach. I’m shaky. I’m afraid that I’ll love him. I’m afraid that I’ll love him and then lose him too soon. “Honey, this isn’t a long-term commitment. What if we take him home and he dies in two months?”
“I know. I don’t know.” He shakes his head.
“What do I do if I need to go somewhere with all three dogs? Can I handle that?”
“Good question. I don’t know.”
“Where will he sit in the car? Is there enough room back there?”
“In the middle. It’ll be fine.”
“Remi sounds a lot like Amy. When we call him, it’ll sound like we’re calling me.”
In many ways, Steve and I are a good fit. We love so many of the same things, and two of our biggest passions—dogs and the Chicago Cubs—give us plenty to do and to share together. We’re both smart, sarcastic, and empathetic. We both love reading and are not just content but happy to stay home and read together, our dogs snoring between us. We love the same foods, hate many of the same foods, and split the housework fifty/fifty. Our worldviews are similar though not the same, leaving room for productive and sometimes testy discussions about current events.
The biggest difference between us is the way we respond to potential bad news. I immediately think the worst, catastrophizing even the smallest bump on Essay’s leg, playing out the entire scenario in my head, from hearing the terrible news to putting her down to the dreadful task of telling others about how our girl died. Pain in my side is automatically some form of incurable cancer. I learned early in life not to expect much and so this has become one of my primary defense mechanisms. I expect, always, to be disappointed or even crushed.
Steve, on the other hand, hopes for the best, often to the point of dismissing my concerns. When I worry about Wrigley not putting weight on her leg after her knee surgery, Steve assures me that she’ll be okay. She’ll come around. When I tell him that my pulse is fifty, he says that that’s the pulse of an athlete. That means I’m really healthy. Or, I say, it means I’m dying.
All of this is to say that, in Steve’s mind, there’s always room for another dog.
As we drive to the Humane Society, I say, “We’ve never had three dogs before.”
“Sure we have. We had three when we had Annabelle and Scully and Mulder,” he reminds me.
“Yeah, but that was different.” When Steve and I met, I had Annabelle, and Steve had three dogs: Kylie, Scully, and Mulder. Kylie died before I moved in with him, and then the two of us had three dogs together. But I told him before I moved in that eventually I wanted us to get to two. Three dogs is a lot, I’d said.
The drive to the Humane Society is not a long one. There’s not very much time for me to either calm down or to become more worked up, so I’m basically in the same state I was at home when we walk in and tell one of the two women behind the desk that we’re here to meet Remi. She hands us a three-page application to fill out. “There are pens on the tables,” she says. I take a pen from my purse and Steve gives me a quizzical look. “Germs,” I whisper.
For the next five minutes, I complete the form, answering everything from what kind of food we’ll feed him to how many walks a day he’ll get to which veterinarian we’ll use. Answering concrete questions with certain answers helps me feel a little better, though the young woman crying at the front desk about not being able to film somebody answering questions about the facility for a course assignment does more to distract me than the form does. I realize later that her crisis—she had come there on the only day she had access to transportation, and if she didn’t get this documentary done, she would fail her assignment, and this is why she hates living in Illinois—gives me a focal point for my own anxiety. It feels better to worry with her about this problem—one I could at this point in my life solve so easily—than to feel the nervous anticipation of meeting a dog I might fall in love with only to lose within a year.
When the worker finally opens the door to the room she’d just shown us to and Remi comes barreling in toward us, my heart sinks. I look at him and then look right back up at the worker. Steve asks her to tell us his story. “Well, he was part of an investigation—”
I interrupt her. “What does that mean?”
“It means we were called out to investigate because his owners could no longer care for him or they chose not to care for him.” She sighs. “We tell everyone who meets him that he’s old. We say ten, but we think—” and her she does the thumbs-up gesture and motions upward toward the ceiling. “He’s probably older. We’re not sure if there’s anything wrong with him or if he’ll live for two months or two years. We just want him to go to a good home for his golden years.”
“What about all of these lumps? Have any of them been tested?” Steve asks.
She shakes her head. “No. We’re not sure about them.” She’s closing the door behind her as she leaves us. “I’ll give you some time alone.”
I take Remi’s head in my hands. His eyes are cloudy. I wonder how much he can actually see. His ears are almost entirely white. His teeth are bad, much worse than what you might expect from a ten-year-old dog. I pet his spine, which feels bumpy. But it’s the lumps on his stomach that make it so hard for me. There’s no fur on his belly, and he has at least eight or ten black lumps of various sizes, some of which dangle from his middle. At first I had thought one of the dangling lumps was his penis, but it wasn’t. It was just an ugly misshapen lump that could be cancer or just fat, but it made me shake. Remi runs over to Steve, who is now sitting on the floor. Remi rolls over on his back so that his tummy is exposed, and Steve rubs it, avoiding the lumps the best he can. Remi flaps his tail happily.
Remi runs back to me, and I pet his soft fur. He’s such a happy guy.
“I don’t think I can do it, honey,” I say. “He’s just too sick. And there’s no way he’s only ten.”
He goes back to Steve, who rubs his ears and says, “You’re probably right.”
This I do not expect. I expect him to minimize what we’re both seeing, to say that he’s not that bad, that we can make it work, that he’ll be okay, that we can love him back to health.
He says, “He’s just going to need so much medical care, and we can’t afford it.” To Remi he says, “I’m sorry, boy.”
I call Remi back over to me. I hold his head in my hands again. “I love you, Remi, but we just can’t. I’m so sorry.”
I stand up. “I’ll go tell her.” Steve nods, and I leave him and Remi in the room together.
I go out to the main desk, shaking my head, tears in my eyes. “We just can’t.”
She’s got tears in her eyes, too. “I know. He’s a lot to take on.”
“He’s just so sick. He would need so much medical care. And he’s got to be older than ten.”
She’s looking at our application. “And you know, with your two dogs at home, I don’t know that I would trust him. I’m not sure how well he sees. He could easily bump into them and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.”
She is trying to make me feel better.
“He’s got his own huge room here with a big comfortable bed away from all the loud dogs. He gets three walks a day and he’s happy. It’s gonna be okay.”
I nod. I can’t say anything else.
I hear her go back to the room where Steve and Remi are. I hear her say some of the same things to Steve, about Remi’s bed and his walks and how he’s gonna be okay. Steve comes out looking as depressed as I feel.
We walk to the car slowly. He tells me he had a talk with Remi. When we get into the car, he tells me that he held him and told him about heaven. “I told him that there’s a place where there will be no more pain and he’ll get to see everybody he’s ever loved and everything will be wonderful and I’m sorry we can’t take him home with us.”
“Did you mention the beach?” We had taken the girls to Montrose dog beach in Chicago earlier in the summer and I had said that from that point on, whenever I imagined doggie heaven, I would think of that beach. It was the happiest place on earth.
“I didn’t get that far. That’s when she opened the door.”
On the drive home, we comfort one another, processing what we’ve just seen, each in our own way.
“Why don’t they start a GoFundMe to raise money for surgery for those lumps?” Steve says.
“There’s no way he’s ten. He’s got to be at least eleven, and maybe even twelve.” I say.
“He’s almost not adoptable with those lumps,” Steve says.
“Those lumps are just so awful. I guess I’m not the dog lover I thought I was.”
“Of course you are. We just couldn’t help him. He needs too much.”
“You told him about heaven.”
“Yeah. I told him he’d have no more pain and he’d always be happy. I need to go home and hug the girls.”
Years ago, when Annabelle was nine and we went through a cancer scare with her, I wrote about Wrigley, wrote that she would always be a baby, that no matter how old she got, she would always be young. I was wrong about that. Wrigley’s eyesight is deteriorating and she is showing signs of her age. She gets up in the night and seems confused about where she is. It’s killing me slowly.
It took me only a few days to realize that part of the reason I wanted to adopt Remi was that I wanted a buffer between me and the brute fact of Wrigley’s age. We could tend to Remi as the old one and thereby continue to distract ourselves from the fact of Wrigley’s aging. She would become young again by comparison. He would be our senior dog. Not Wrigley.
In this way she would not die.
This story has a happy ending for Remi. He found a forever home just a week after we met him.
And yet. I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be about his forever home. Maybe because I know that his forever isn’t going to be very long and I know that no matter how much love he gets, he will still die.
I think there’s a part of me that wants to believe we can out-love death.
But no matter how much we love the beings in our life, death will come for them or for us.
When Wrigley is called home, it will sound like they’re calling me.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays can also be found on The Rumpus. Wrigley does not share her last name; instead, she is Wrigley Field.
My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.
Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.
“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.
She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”
I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.
I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.
My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.
When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.
I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.
My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?
There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.
That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.
I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.
It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.
Things I love:
Brushing my teeth.
The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.
Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.
The smell of tomato vines.
Rainy October days.
Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.
The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.
My mom’s soup.
My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.
We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.
After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.
I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.
I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.
I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.
I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.
I am so mad at him, damn it.
When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.
I like that our love is so uncomplicated.
Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.
But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.
We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.
Things I want to learn to love:
An achy heart.
Being awake at two a.m.
My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?
I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.
I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.
Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.
“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.
He makes my soup his own.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin
It was May 22 when Alan died last year. Everyone around me was amazed by how well I managed, but that’s because they didn’t know the whole truth. By June, a little man had set up shop inside my chest. To be clear, the little man doesn’t live in my chest—he doesn’t have groceries in the refrigerator or put his feet up on the coffee table at the end of the day. To say he works there would be more accurate. The most surprising part of it all is when I look in the mirror: My husband is gone, my body harbors an invader, and I hardly look any different for it. I can see why people might think I’m fine.
I have never heard the little man say anything, not even a sigh, but I feel him. He’s the busiest when I miss Alan the most. I don’t know what his full job description states, but I have a good idea. His job is to ensure I feel everything I can’t show: the homesickness for a place I can never return, the crushing weight underlying the finality of it all. To get his point across, he launches intermittent campaigns throughout the day—“grief attacks,” I call them. Sometimes the attacks are big and violent, forcing me to crumple onto my couch, blinded by tears. Sometimes they are small, squeezing all the air out of my lungs. At first, living with the little man frightened me, but over the past nine months, we’ve learned how to co-exist. When he wages his attacks, I can only let him.
I alluded to the little man in the very beginning, back when people were still dropping off casserole dinners. They nodded with their mouths turned upside down and tried to imagine what it must be like. But after a while, everyone went back to their normal lives. I couldn’t blame them. I tried to, too, but nothing felt normal anymore. People stopped asking about the little man wreaking havoc in my chest. They wanted to know about my vacation plans, work, my new haircut. I brought him up less and less until I eventually stopped talking about him.
This morning, the little man is very busy, making it hard to get out of bed. My body feels twice as heavy as normal, as if long, lead bars now occupy space in each of my limbs. The bars don’t take up all the space in my arms and legs, but they don’t rattle around either. They’re heavy, after all. The little man shields his eyes with his hand, looks up, and frowns. Dark clouds are in the forecast, threatening rain. They’ve been brewing in my head over the last couple of days. I roll over onto my side, summoning the energy to get ready for work, and feel the lead weights follow a second later.
I work at a mid-size tech company in Mountain View, California, where I do B2B marketing. Mostly that means putting together PowerPoint presentations that the sales team use to pitch solutions to clients. It sounds straightforward enough, but somehow my days are full of back-and-forth email exchanges, meetings, and rough drafts. Everything takes longer and involves more people to complete than you’d imagine. For instance, this morning I am in a meeting with eight people to discuss logo designs and venue possibilities for an upcoming event. Two people present in the meeting, one person makes the decisions, and the rest of us are just along for the ride. The meeting eats up an entire hour of everyone’s day. Normally, I would get antsy thinking about the other things I could be doing in that hour, but it’s hard to care with the little man going on as he is.
It’s strange being at work in the middle of one of his violent attacks. All my Alan memories, the sad ones reserved for when I’m alone at night, bubble up dangerously close to the surface. I look around the room in a slight panic, but no one is paying any attention to me. All eyes are focused on the screen at the front of the room. I sit back in my chair and try to focus on the presenter’s explanation of this particular logo’s type treatment.
After the meeting, I go back to my desk, and, in an attempt to keep the grief attack at bay, I scroll through the endless emails that have poured in over the weekend. I delete the ones that are spam, ignore ones that require nothing of me, and flag the rest to respond to later. Some emails are marked with an exclamation mark to denote the urgency of their contents, but after reviewing them again, I decide they can wait and begin making my list. Every day I make a to-do list. First, I write down each task that I need to complete. Then I go back through the list, writing a number next to each item according to its deemed priority. Priority assignment is based on the project requester, the deadline, and the number of people depending on it. These are just loose guidelines, though. Sometimes I’ll assign a task a higher priority just because I feel like working on it at the time. It’s funny because they’re just numbered items on a piece of paper, but as soon as I finish making it, I can focus. Without it, the fear that I’m overlooking something else more important that I should be working on creeps in and paralyzes me.
I have only prioritized about half of my tasks when I can feel my resolve crumbling at the edges. I catch myself slipping and hope the little man doesn’t notice. The little man, however, doesn’t miss a beat and seizes the opportunity to make inroads on his attack. He pulls me in, and I am helpless to stop it.
I am back in our living room on that last day. Alan is lying in his hospital bed, next to the fireplace. He’s moving his arms and muttering words under his breath, as he has been for the past week. This morning his lips are the slightest shade of blue, his breathing has changed, and his knees are purple. Everyone else had missed it when they’d left for my sister’s college graduation that morning. But I saw it. I knew everything was about to be different.
I call hospice and talk to the nurse manager, explaining the changes in his condition. When I mention his purple knees, she pauses. Purple knees, I learn, are a sign that your time together is almost up. I ask the million-dollar question we’ve been asking ever since he was first diagnosed: How long? The nurse manager tells me she’ll send someone who’ll be able to assess the situation and give me a better timeframe. I hang up the phone. I don’t know what to do, so for the moment, I do absolutely nothing. I have never known Alan’s knees to be so telling.
After I gather myself, I break apart again, crying in the chair next to Alan’s bed. I’d been preparing for this moment, but I’m not ready. I don’t even know if now is the right moment. If he has hours left, I should say goodbye now, but if he has days left, shouldn’t I wait? The silence settles over us like a heavy layer of dust. I decide to say goodbye now, just in case, but everything that comes out sounds stupid. My voice isn’t my own.
Finally, I lean into his ear and whisper. It sounds better when I don’t have to hear that voice that isn’t mine. I tell him how much I love him, that I’ll be okay, that he can go if he needs to. I read in one of the booklets hospice gave me that it’s important to “grant permission” for your loved one to let go. I don’t believe myself when I tell him I’ll be okay, but I hope they might be the magic words to bring him comfort. I sit back down and stare into his face, convinced I’ll see something register. But if it does, I can’t tell. His expression is unchanged, his arms still moving—
A steady stream of people walk by my desk. I look at the clock in the corner of my computer screen. Lunch is fifteen minutes late. It’s normally served at eleven-thirty, and if it’s not served within ten minutes of that, people go crazy. That’s a slight exaggeration but not by much. Fearful that we might never eat again, people begin lining up in the cafeteria as if somehow that might help. I check the lunch calendar I keep pinned to my wall. Today we are having lunch from a restaurant named Pizza?. There is an actual question mark in the name.
The food finally arrives, and I can hear the soft roar in the cafeteria from my desk. After enough people walk past me with salad and pizza slices piled high on their plates, I walk to the kitchen to see what’s left. I place two slices of veggie pizza on a paper plate, fill a cup with water, and head to the lunch table where I usually eat with the rest of my team. At the last second, I think better of it and make a beeline for my desk. I don’t have the energy to make conversation today.
It makes people uncomfortable when you just sit and listen. Most people need to fill the empty space with some kind of noise. In my experience, it’s only a matter of time before people run out of things to talk about. They start asking questions they already know the answer to or bringing up inconsequential topics. I find myself repeating things I already said or feigning interest. Short of wearing a tee-shirt that says “I don’t feel like talking, but I like sitting with you,” the only thing I can do is watch more movies. Whole worlds unfold in front of me, and I don’t have to say a word. And sometimes, though not always, movies can make me forget the little man’s even there.
My favorite movie genre is science fiction, especially those of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic variety. People think it’s somewhat strange, but when your husband dies at thirty-one, the idea of everyone else dying en masse, holds a romantic allure. Almost every night, I watch a movie—sometimes even two or three. A part of me wonders if I’m abusing them, like an illicit substance. I’m sure a psychologist would ask if my movie-watching negatively affects my everyday life. I suppose it doesn’t really, except it irritates me to participate in conversations when I would much rather have them play out in front of me like on a movie screen. That might be one negative impact. But you never hear about movies ruining someone’s life, do you?
If I could only watch a movie right now, it might help me deal with the little man. But, being alone at my desk with only my veggie pizza to occupy me, I know he won’t let me off easy. As I chew, he taps around my right lung like he’s testing the quality of a cantaloupe. When he hears a sound that pleases him, he uses one hand to mark the spot and, with his other hand, removes a tiny straw from his back pocket. He raises it high above his head, then swiftly brings it down, puncturing a hole in my lung. I let out a small gasp. It’s a small straw, but I can feel the air escaping through it.
I wonder if this is how it feels to have a collapsed lung. I know two people whose lungs collapsed: my friend Sue and a co-worker’s boyfriend. Neither of them even knew it had happened. Sue found out during a check-up the day after getting a lung mass the size of a golf ball biopsied. She says she didn’t feel a thing. The co-worker’s boyfriend was in college at the time, partying at a hotel in Mexico. He fell off the third-floor balcony and, if you can believe it, was picked up and carried back to his hotel room where his friends tucked him into bed for the rest of the night. It was only the next morning, after he’d been taken to an American hospital by medevac, that his collapsed lung was discovered and a steel rod was placed through his body. Still, I think the average individual would feel something if his lung collapsed. Shortness of breath to say the least. So maybe it’s like this: You feel a collapsed lung, unless you have bigger things to worry about. Like the possibility of lung cancer or a broken back.
Speaking of bigger things, the little man has finished with the straw, content with its placement, and is walking around with an Allen wrench. I’m impressed by how much he’s able to store in those tiny pockets of his. I watch him scramble around, kneeling down to tighten screws in three separate places, knitting my ribs closer and closer together. When he is satisfied, he slips the wrench into his back pocket where it disappears with the rest of his toolbox contents. He wipes the sweat off his brow and admires his handiwork. The tightness in my chest is even more pronounced now. I swallow my last bite of pizza and it settles like a lump in the back of my throat. The combination of the straw in my lung and the bolts in my chest makes it incredibly hard to sit up. I want to writhe around, to shake the little man loose. Or at the very least, I’d like to lie down.
Maybe I will just keel over and die. You hear about that, don’t you? It happens all the time with older couples: After years of marriage together, one dies and the other, perfectly healthy, save for the usual creaks and aches that old age brings, follows shortly after. I used to think maybe I could be so lucky. I’m sure my friends and family worried for a while that I might do something stupid to harm myself, but I’m afraid of pain and suffering. I’ve seen enough of that. However, if I could somehow relay the message to my heart to just stop beating one day, that wouldn’t be such a bad deal. Nice and neat. To pull off such a feat must require a tremendous amount of trust and coordination between organs, the kind that only comes after spending a lifetime together. That’s the only way I can explain why only older people die of a broken heart. Young people just aren’t there yet with their anatomy. Even if they tell their hearts to stop beating, there’s no way for their hearts to know how serious they are.
Sitting at my desk, I can’t move around too much or lie down, but I need to do something or else I might implode. I could cry. I’ve cried at my desk before, the kind of tears that are hot and silent. But I don’t trust the character of these tears today. I feel them swell inside me, a water balloon the little man has filled too full. It threatens to burst at any minute. I throw the rest of my lunch in the trash and try to get it together.
“Sobrina?” My boss Lisa calls me from two desks away.
“Yeah?” I look up. The little man pauses.
“Can you come take a look at this?” Lisa asks.
I get up and walk towards her. Because I don’t know what else to do with it, I bring the water balloon with me, gingerly carrying it in my hands.
She whips around and smiles at me. I nearly drop it.
“I thought that meeting went well today. Do you?” Lisa asks.
“Yeah, I thought it went well, too,” I say.
The water balloon is shaking. I look down and realize my hands are trembling. I want to tell her everything—that I can hardly breathe today, that the water balloon might pop at any minute. I open my mouth, but before I can get a word out, she turns back around to face her computer screen.
“I’m just recapping the discussion in an email to the group. Am I missing any next steps here?” Lisa asks.
I swallow hard. The water balloon in my hands creates a space between us so I lean in closer to read her screen.
“I think you got it all,” I say.
“Thanks.” She smiles warmly and goes back to finishing her email.
I have one more meeting before the day is over. This one is with my marketing communications team, a sub-group within the larger marketing department. We meet once a week, usually on a Monday, to provide status updates on our projects. Sometimes we’ll show each other what we’re working on. We go in a circle, one by one. I try to focus on what my teammates are saying, but it’s hopeless. I sit quietly, taking shallow breaths in an attempt to keep everything inside.
“And how about you, Sobrina? What are you working on?” Lisa asks, pulling my attention back into the room.
A lump rises in the back of my throat.
“This week…” I trail off. I look down at the to-do list I’ve been working on all day. Just read off the list, I tell myself. “I’m working on the positioning for the new media product.”
Lisa nods and jots it down in purple ink on her clipboard.
I shift in my seat.
“And I’m working with the design team to finalize the retail brochure,” I say.
The water balloon has stopped quivering quite as much. I place it on the table next to my notebook so I can read through my list faster. I’m surprised that it stays put and doesn’t roll off the edge.
“I was hoping to share our editorial ideas with the PR team this week. Did you get a chance to review those?” I ask Lisa.
“I’ll make sure I look at those,” Lisa says, circling a note to herself.
“And that’s it,” I lie. I need to get out of the room. I can feel the little man boring holes in my chest, and I’m certain everyone can see my discomfort. When I look up from my list, though, everyone is buried deep in their laptops. Lisa retracts her pen and places it back down on the table, concluding the meeting.
Nobody can see the little man like they would a scar on my forehead. But he’s there in my chest all the time. So it’s just me and him. Me and him and the lonely thought that Alan would know but will never know. He would understand in the same way that he understood when we watched the movie about the retired couple visiting Paris. They go away together in the hopes of sparking romance in their tired marriage. It’s just a movie, of course, but watching them wandering through the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, made me feel a terrible pinch inside. I wanted to be in the middle of all those lights, walking on those streets, feeling Alan’s arm wrapped around me. I wanted all of those things I thought we would have. I hated the old couple.
I looked at Alan asleep next to me, his face and body a shadow of what it used to be. He looked so peaceful, even though I knew seething pain waited for him just around the corner. The tumors in his pelvis ate away at his sacral bones, and physical activity as simple as shifting his weight had become a burden. It hit me that we would never adventure to a new city again, at least not in this life. Bitter tears rolled down my cheeks in disciplined silence. I was Alan’s cheerleader, his eternal optimist—that was my job. He could never know about my fears and doubts.
As I cried, hating that old couple—hating all old couples—Alan’s hand reached out for mine. I turned, surprised he’d woken up, to see his blue eyes fixed on me. I tried to stop crying, but I couldn’t. He held onto my hand, patiently waiting.
After a minute, I told him, “I just always wanted to go with you.”
“I know,” he said softly.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.
Because they could not get everything they needed to get laparoscopically, they cut into him. They cut through his fatty tissue and his muscle to get into his abdomen where his gangrenous gallbladder was swollen and bloody and actively disintegrating. When Dr. Robinson tried to remove it, he told us, it fell apart in his hands. When he tried to clip off the bile ducts afterward, Steve’s abdomen was so swollen and bloody that the clips would not hold. They fell right off. Dr. Robinson used a sealant called Tisseal, and as he told us this, he swooped his hand down and back to mimic the motion one imagines using to seal off a hole. All I could picture was a driveway.
Steve had been wheeled into the operating room at one-thirty that afternoon. I had been expecting surgery to last about an hour and a half. While Dr. Robinson was pretty sure from the exam that Steve’s gallbladder was infected, he still believed he could remove it laparoscopically. After I kissed Steve goodbye, I went over to the surgery waiting area and introduced myself to the two volunteers who answer the phones. Steve’s name wasn’t on their official list of surgeries for the day, so they wrote his name at the bottom of the page and noted that I was here. “I’m just gonna run out and get something to eat. I’ll be back soon,” I told them.
I had imagined, as late as that very morning, that I’d be able to teach my classes that day, the day of Steve’s surgery. The hospital was so close to the university, and we didn’t know what time Steve’s surgery was going to be, so I’d just run back and forth, keeping my phone on me in case I was needed.
Walking the dogs that morning before we left, it hit me that my husband was having surgery and I was his next of kin and if I wasn’t there waiting for him, nobody would be. What kind of wife was I? Of course I wouldn’t be teaching that day! Later, when I told Steve’s stepmom Janet this, she laughed. “You’ve never had to do this before, have you?” I said I hadn’t. “It’s a steep learning curve, that’s for sure,” she said.
I grew up in an abusive home, and the further I get from that environment, the more clearly I can identify the characteristics of it that have had a lasting effect on the person I have become. Two things stand out. The first is that I have an overabundance of empathy. This comes, I’ve recently figured out, as a result of being told again and again that it was in my best interest to identify with my abuser.
“Stay away from her,” my mother told me.
By telling me this, my mother was also telling me that the perspective on the world that mattered was my sister’s, not mine, that the person responsible for the abuse was me, not my sister, and that the way to remain safe was to take on the perspective of the other. Your perspective—that your sister is hitting you—is not the one that matters. The one that matters is your sister’s. Appease her.
One result of this overabundance of empathy is that, for a long time, I had trouble with friendships. Simply put, I gave too much and didn’t expect much in return. I took on others’ perspectives on the world and negated my own. I gave and gave and gave until, as happens in every life, a point came when I needed love and care and found that the friends to whom I had given so much were unable to reciprocate. This prompted essential self-care work, including reassessments of more than one friendship.
The second effect of growing up in an abusive environment is that I, as all children do, built my understanding of myself based on the narratives I had available to me, and those narratives I had available were that I was nothing, a nobody, destined to amount to nothing because I was no good, not worthy, stupid, fat, and ugly.
Because of this, I developed an early habit of calculating my chances at things as basically zero, not—as popular reasoning might have it—so that others might encourage me, but because it is what I believed deep in my body was true about me. This means that anything good that happened to me—that happens to me—is essentially icing. This has always gotten me out of existential dramas. I was persuaded early that I wasn’t meant to be here, so I don’t necessarily have a need to make some big meaning of my entire life, to feel that I was somehow meant to be here or that I have a purpose, to feel like I’m here to do something good. Anything I do that is good is better than the nothing I was supposed to have done. Some may read this and characterize me as a pessimist, but I think that those who have been abused could perhaps help me articulate why that’s not quite the case. It’s not that I expect the worst. Rather, I expect nothing.
One effect of this is the ingrained habit of imagining and preparing for my death. My oldest friend Hillary and I have been promising each other since we were kids that, should the other one become incapacitated in any way, the other would swoop in and take care of things. Neither of us is afraid to die. We grew up thinking we wouldn’t make it much past twenty-seven.
Muscles provide strength. We get the word muscle from the Latin musculus meaning, literally, “little mouse.” Our strength comes from what we might otherwise perceive as small and insignificant.
When I return to the surgery waiting area at two-thirty, I see that a few people are gone, but there are still probably ten families waiting for news on their loved ones. The electronic board tells me that Steve’s surgery officially started at 1:59. I settle in to a chair, take out my laptop, and begin working on revising the calendar for my rhetoric course. At about three-thirty, one of the volunteers comes to tell me I have a phone call. Steve’s nurse, Brian, tells me that things are going well and they’re hoping to be able to finish the surgery laparoscopically, but they may have to make an incision if they can’t get it all. This will mean three to five days in the hospital. “We should be done in about an hour,” Brian says. I ask if this would be a good time for me to run home and take care of the dogs. He asks how close I live and I tell him I can be back in an hour. He says yes, this would be the time to do that.
I tell the volunteers that I’m running home and I’ll be back in about an hour. They’re both elderly women dressed in baby pink hospital jackets. One tells me that they leave at four, so when I get back, they won’t be here. “You’ll have to answer the phone yourself.”
Sure enough, when I return a little more than an hour later, the surgery waiting area is nearly desolate. A man and I are the only two still waiting. At 4:45 the phone rings. I look around, as though somebody else is going to answer it. “Surgery waiting area,” I say as I pick up the phone. It’s Brian calling to tell me that they’ve had to cut Steve open and they’ll be working on him for about another hour. “Shit,” I say. “But he’s okay?” Yes, he assures me. He’s okay.
I text the friends who are waiting to hear how Steve is doing. The news that they’ve had to cut him open isn’t good, as it suggests things were more serious than even the doctor had anticipated.
This is not the first time I’ve imagined what my life would be like as a widow. Mostly when I imagine this, I think about how others will respond because I know I have the constitution to be okay. I’m self-sufficient. Icing, remember?
The hour passes without a phone call. It must be because they’re finishing up and they want to call me when they’re finished.
Meanwhile, two friends come to visit for a little while and distract me with hilarious stories about their early vacations as a family. I can’t help but envy them their stories. But they have to leave before too long.
The phone rings. I answer it, “Last one standing.”
“It’s Brian. I know your voice by now. We’re still working. We’ll need about another hour.”
Deep sigh. “Okay. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, he’s okay. Things were messy.”
I sit back down in the waiting area. It’s seven. He’s been in surgery for five hours. The lights go out in the waiting area.
I’m sitting alone in the waiting area. In the dark. My husband has been in surgery for five hours. I’m beginning to get scared.
Instead I get angry. I think about all the love and care and empathy I’ve given over the years since I arrived in Illinois. So much love and empathy. And none of it is coming back to me right now as my husband is lying cut open on an operating table and I’m all alone.
Later, with a clearer head, I’ll think back on this moment and say to myself, well, what could you expect? Your friends didn’t know you were sitting there alone in the dark.
And the answer, of course, was nothing. Of course I could expect nothing.
As he recovers, Steve needs to be reminded every so often that Dr. Robinson cut through his abdominal muscles, so things he used to take for granted are going to be hard for a while. The first time he sneezed was particularly painful. He’s sneezed a total of five times since the surgery.
Cutting through muscles is, I imagine, a gruesome task. As they heal, muscles that have been severed settle differently.
As I walked the dogs the morning before Steve’s surgery, it hit me that I could no longer rely on my own habits of thought, on my own muscle memory, to get me through this kind of situation. I couldn’t just maintain my identity as some kind of teacher hero who manages to teach her classes even while her husband is under the knife. I had to accept that, despite the earliest and most profound lessons of my life, I am important to people and that this recognition brings with it responsibilities that I cannot simply brush off with claims that my students need me. Until Steve’s surgery, when I was the one person in the world responsible for the well-being of another human being, I had never had to puncture, let alone cut, that muscle memory.
I don’t really trust myself to be that person for Steve or for anyone, really. I have never wanted to be the one solely responsible for anything, but especially another person’s life.
My muscle memory has been cut, just this once. It may not be enough, but it’s a start. The cut will send the little mouse scurrying just a bit, into cracks and crevices of my constitution that I don’t even know are there, settling perhaps the tiniest bit off-kilter, surprising even me.
Things I’ve taken for granted may be harder for a while.
AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She and her husband Steve are the guardians of two very special mutts, one named Wrigley Field, and one named Essay. They all love the Cubs.
I’m stopped at a busy intersection when it happens: My eyes close, then open, and for a few long, blank seconds, I can’t fathom how I got here. I can see the red traffic light swaying above me, the plastic flags fluttering brightly over the used car lot. But everything feels remote. I could close my eyes again, I think, and the world might disappear. I’m tempted to let it.
Fatigue presses on me like a weighted blanket. From beneath it, a thought emerges: No. I am on a four-lane street, at the wheel of a one-and-a-half ton vehicle. Soon the light will change. I need to wake up.
“Stop,” I say aloud, suddenly afraid. “Just stop this.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But at the sound of my voice, the unreality recedes infinitesimally.
I switch off the radio, stilling the soothing saxophone music. The light changes. “Turn right,” I instruct myself, clutching the wheel like a terrified old lady. “There’s the Safeway, keep driving.” I narrate myself home like this, the sound of my voice tethering me to the car, the road, the world. When I get inside, I climb into my son’s bunk bed and close his blackout curtains, but I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s the problem.
“Are you anxious about anything?” asks my doctor, not for the first time. She’s a bit younger than me, a mother; I like her. What I don’t like is this focus on my anxiety. I am untroubled by anything except my inability to sleep. Admittedly, it’s making me crazy.
“Nothing going on at home?” she presses.
My beloved grandmother died. I endured my parents’ bitter, protracted divorce. My Peace Corps journal was stolen, along with my backpack, en route from Casablanca to Dakar. A man I loved didn’t love me back. I had a terrible time breastfeeding. That’s it. Those are the worst things that have happened to me. My litany of woe is minor. My life, relatively speaking, has been a cakewalk.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “I’m a very lucky woman.”
But ten days ago, three hours after I went to sleep, I felt myself swimming unexpectedly up to consciousness. Beside me, my husband slept on. Out in the backyard, the wind stirred the heavy dark branches of the fir tree. Any moment now, I thought, I would dive down, back into sleep. Instead, I lay stranded on the surface.
We all have our strategies for this. Mine is reciting “Kubla Khan” in my head. Invariably, I’m asleep long before I get to the damsel with the dulcimer. This time, depressingly, I made it all the way to the end. There was Coleridge, ecstatically drinking the milk of paradise, while I watched the red numerals of the digital clock progress inexorably from two to three to four to five. Wakefulness felt like a door jammed open, and I couldn’t shut it.
It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.
For years now, whenever my friends and I kvetch about our kids, someone always puts things in perspective: “Yeah, but at least they sleep through the night.” There’s a collective shudder. Like our memories of labor, the subsequent sleep deprivation is still disturbingly vivid. But that was a decade and a half ago. I was too old for this. By the fourth morning, I was queasy, snappish, fumbling for familiar words like a stroke victim. After ten days, during which I averaged three hours of sleep a night, I went to the doctor.
And really, I assure her now, nothing is troubling me. I explain about my loving husband, my healthy children, the work I enjoy, our generous health benefits. Even in my present affliction, I am fortunate: I work from home, so neither my freelance clients nor my bosses at the literary magazine can see me, haggard in my pajamas every afternoon, laboriously improving sentence flow.
My doctor prescribes a sedative and tells me to take it for a week, in the hope that this will re-set my system. At home, I shake one of the tiny white pills into my palm. It looks harmless, but I regard it with trepidation. I enjoy a glass of wine, but except for that one time with the marijuana cookies—all right, and that other time with the mushrooms—I have avoided mind-altering substances my entire life. Not out of moral qualms, but because they make me uneasy. This little pill is going to do something to my brain, something I can’t predict, and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of not sleeping. But I’m desperate. That night, I take the pill and go to bed. As always, my husband falls asleep in three minutes. I wait in the dark, listening to him breathe. Fifteen minutes later, I feel an unclenching in my body. A heaviness steals into my mind. Then it’s morning.
A week later, well-rested, I go to bed without taking the little pill. “You’ll be fine,” says my husband. Three minutes later, he is asleep. Three hours later, I am not. I try again the next night. But nothing has been re-set. Like a record with a skip, my brain wakes up at one a.m. each night, and nothing I try moves the needle back into the groove.
“This medication can be addictive,” my doctor emails, when I report back to her. She tells me I can take up to three doses per week, and we arrange a follow-up two weeks from now.
“So that’s it. I’ll only sleep three nights out of seven,” I tell my husband.
“You don’t know that for sure,” he says.
I am too disheartened to believe him. But I pull myself together and try to think strategically. Which nights to take the medication? Sunday, for sure, so I can drive my son to cello on Mondays without killing anyone. Friday and Saturday, for a good weekend with my family? Or midweek, so I can work a few days with a clear head?
“It’s the Sophie’s Choice of insomnia,” I wail.
Immediately I feel guilty. Somewhere in Syria, a woman like me lies sleepless, wondering if the bombs will fall on her house tomorrow. I should think about her. But the insomnia has demoralized me with unnerving swiftness, shrinking my focus to my own exhaustion, and little else. If the universe is testing me, I am failing.
A few days later, driving home from the grocery, I nearly hit a biker in an intersection. Appalled, I register his shocked face through the windshield. After that, I stop driving. My husband drives me to book group and picks me up. He arranges to take a morning off work for my next doctor’s appointment. One evening, I overhear him telling the kids to be extra patient and not argue so much, Mama’s having a hard time. I should be grateful. I am grateful. But I’m sick of feeling so damn pathetic.
I dread going to bed now, knowing that three hours is all my brain will allow me to rest. The moment of waking is the worst, the defeated awareness that it’s happened again; and then the despair as the dark hours pass, and the sky lightens, and the birds start up. If I could just make it to two a.m., I think, instead of one. But I never do.
I get used to moving sluggishly through the days, dazed and bewildered most of the time, yet performing basic functions all the same. I make school lunches, cook dinner. I don’t feel hungry myself, though. On a hunch, I try on a dress that’s been too snug for a while, and it zips up effortlessly. I stare at myself in the mirror, at my hips and breasts, outlined by the thin green fabric. Despite my pallor and unwashed hair, and the thick, smeary glass through which my brain seems to perceive everything these days, I look hot. I’m too tired to decide whether this is hopeful or disturbing.
One night, after lying sleepless for three hours, I sit up and begin to cry with exhaustion. My husband wakes up and puts his arms around me. “Fucking Dick Cheney,” I sob. “He’s sleeping through the night. Why can’t I?”
At our house, when anyone is stricken by mysterious, troubling ailments, it is the custom to bitterly invoke the architects of America’s middle eastern wars. It began years ago, when my husband threw out his back while reaching innocently for a sock under the bed. “George Bush is killing thousands of Iraqis every day,” he railed then. “Why isn’t he immobilized on the floor with an ice pack?”
I nodded in commiseration. W. was undoubtedly enjoying robust health, the bastard.
Now, my husband reaches over and turns on the light. “Let me make you some warm milk,” he says.
“I tried that last week. It won’t do anything. Just go back to sleep, one of us has to feel normal around here.”
“Nope,” he says, undeterred by my grumpiness. “You’re my partner. If you’re awake, I’m awake. I’m going downstairs, and you can’t stop me.”
Five minutes later, he returns with a mug of milk. It is sweet with honey, and I tear up again, grateful to be married to such a mensch. Then I lie awake the rest of the night.
Who pays thirteen dollars at the hippie mart for a tiny bottle of organic passionflower extract? People like me, that’s who, desperate people who’ve heard that this elixir will make them sleep. Dutifully, I dispense forty drops of the amber liquid into two ounces of water and down the mixture at bedtime. It tastes grassy and unpleasant, but that, I tell myself, is a small price to pay if it works. It does not work. Neither do calcium and magnesium, melatonin, multivitamins, sleeping in a different room, napping during the day, hot baths, or staying off the computer before bedtime.
“Maybe you need to relax,” says my husband. “Come on, let me just…”
That doesn’t work, either.
One morning, after my usual three hours of shut-eye, I pause in the doorway of my twelve-year-old’s room. He’s reclining on his beanbag chair reading Origami Yoda, his floor littered with dirty socks, old Spanish worksheets, a couple of remote controls, a hot glue gun, and innumerable bits of other detritus. A surge of annoyance slices through my fatigue. “For the love of God, clean up this damn mess,” I snap.
The insomnia has produced two regrettable side effects: Everything irritates me, my children most of all. And while those children have long been forbidden to utter even the words “crap” and “suck,” in my presence, much less their saltier four-letter brethren, I myself now curse like a motherfucker. At first, the boys are impressed by the impact of sleeplessness on my formerly prim vocabulary. But soon enough they become amused, and then—to my aggravation—patronizing.
Now, my son looks up at me pityingly. “Did you forget to take your pill last night? Jeez, you need to chillax.”
If anything is more infuriating than intractable insomnia, it’s being told to chillax by a sixth grader.
“Don’t you say that to me!” It’s the wrong battle to pick, but I can’t stop myself. “Chillax? That’s not even a real word. Goddammit, I’m an English major! We have standards around here.” (I actually say these words.)
My son waggles a reproving finger at me. “Don’t be a swear bear,” he says sweetly.
A what kind of fucking bear? I am way too tired for this, but getting mad at him makes me feel less catatonic. “Clean up your room,” I shriek. “Now!”
He regards me solemnly. “Anger and hatred to the dark side only lead.”
Because I know exactly how suggestible I am, I do not seek advice from the Internet about my insomnia. Until the day, a couple of months into it, when I do. And there, buried deep on the fourth or fifth page of results, I find it: proof that this was indeed a terrible idea. It’s a reference to a New Yorker article I read fourteen years ago but have forgotten until this moment, the story of an old Italian family, some of whose members lose the ability to sleep in middle age. For generations, no one has been able to predict who will be stricken by the rare condition, and there is no cure. After several excruciating years of sleeplessness, each victim dies.
I try hard not to dwell on this horrible story. It’s a very unusual condition, I remind myself. Also, I am not Italian. Although I am middle aged. And sleepless. When I tell my husband about the Italians, a look of mingled alarm and unease appears on his face, an expression whose specificity, after eighteen years of marriage, I have no trouble interpreting: He thinks I am losing it. I need to get a grip.
I tell my doctor that I’m depressed. She perks up. “Oh? And was this a problem before the insomnia?”
Patiently, I explain that I am depressed because I can’t sleep.
“We could think about an anti-depressant. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether insomnia is a symptom, or the main issue.”
Do I really have to explain my perfect life? Again? I take a breath. She’s trying to help, she wants a fix for me, and I want one, too. But depression didn’t make me stop sleeping.
Maybe I’m cursed.
My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.
“That’s great,” says my husband, when I tell him about the psychiatrist. “You’re in the big leagues, now!”
“How can you be so damn cheerful all the time?”
“I’m sorry, did you want gloomy? Let me try again: A psychiatrist. Whoa. There is definitely something wrong with your brain.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I see that smile.”
At four in the morning, three weeks before my appointment, it occurs to me that this hopeless, unrelenting misery is what people contemplating suicide must experience. Suddenly, I cannot bear lying awake in the dark any longer. I get out of bed and email my doctor: “Three nights of sleep a week is unendurable. When I don’t take the pill, I lie awake all night in despair. I can’t work. I can’t write. I nearly hit a biker with my car.” (The biker was weeks ago, but what the hell.) “I cannot go on like this.”
My email must have struck the correct note of desperation. Four hours later my doctor writes back, instructing me to just take the pill every night until I check in with the psychiatrist.
At my HMO, doctors work out of small gray rooms with florescent lighting, the only décor a queasily pinkish illustrated chart of the human body. Despite this, I cannot help picturing Dr. Sleep—as he is quickly dubbed in our house—behind an imposing mahogany desk. I’ve never even been to therapy, let alone a psychiatrist. If the pop culture of my formative years is to be believed, Dr. Sleep (aka Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People) will want to unearth some long-buried trauma that wakes me at one a.m. every night. Or he’ll want to put me on drugs. Neither prospect is appealing.
As it turns out, Dr. Sleep operates out of a windowless gray room, just like everyone else at Kaiser. He has sandy hair and an air of mild-mannered bemusement, reminding me forcibly of the hapless Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Dr. Sleep evinces little surprise as he takes my history. “And tell me about your mental state when you go to bed,” he says, tapping at his keyboard.
It’s been over three months since I have slept soundly without pharmaceutical assistance. Surely a bit of drama is permissible. “I feel like the Titanic heading into that final night,” I tell him. “Doomed.”
Dr. Sleep looks up from his keyboard, taken aback. “Oh, dear. That’s not good.”
I wonder what he expected me to say. His other patients must desperate, too. Or am I an extreme outlier? I renew my resolve not to mention the Italians.
Dr. Sleep scoots his rolling stool over to face me. I prepare for an inquiry into my murky past, or perhaps an evaluation of drug options. Dr. Sleep pursues neither of these avenues. “Do you bake bread?” he asks benignly.
I stare at him. As a matter of fact, I bake bread every Friday. But what can that have to do with anything?
“Think of your sleep as a ball of dough,” Dr. Sleep says, cupping his hands as if he’s holding one himself.
“Okay,” I say hesitantly. I imagine my challah dough: warm, heavy, eggy. Is this some visualization mind trick?
“You want your sleep to be compact, like a ball of dough,” says Dr. Sleep. “You want it to be compressed into just eight hours.” He moves his hands, as if firmly shaping the dough into an eight-hour ball. “When you stretch it out”—he moves his hands apart—”going to bed early, sleeping late, it’s like stretching the dough too far. It gets thin, full of holes, loses its integrity. That’s what you’ve been doing.”
Dr. Sleep is going to put me on a behavioral plan to compress my sleep, he tells me. That will fix everything.
“But I barely have any sleep to compress,” I protest.
He waves this away and explains the plan. Its main point involves breaking my mental association between wakefulness and being in bed. I am to stay away from my bedroom, except between the hours of eleven p.m. and six-forty-five a.m. At night, I am not to lie awake longer than twenty minutes at a time. After that, I must get up, go to another room, and engage in a “non-stimulating activity” until I feel sleepy. Then I can return to bed again. I am to repeat this as many times during the night as necessary. Also, I will cut my medication dose in half. The plan sounds implausible and exhausting, but I nod as if Dr. Sleep is handing me into a life raft, because maybe he is.
“You can read during your waking periods,” he tells me. “But nothing engaging. Do you have any boring books?”
I picture my biologist husband’s shelf of science texts. Yes, I tell Dr. Sleep, I certainly do.
That is how I find myself in my office at one-twenty a.m., headlamp shining on Mammals of the Pacific States by Lloyd G. Ingles. The first section of this heavy tome is devoted to teeth. I read about the tribophenic theory, which posits that our ancestral reptiles had molar cusps that migrated somewhere else in the jaw. I wait to feel sleepy, but even though this is possibly the most boring material I have ever read, I am wide awake. Eventually I yawn and go back to bed. I lie awake for another twenty minutes, then return to the office, and Ingles, and his damn teeth. This goes on for the rest of the night. By dawn I have gotten up and down a total of six times and advanced to the marsupials.
That morning, I fill in the chart Dr. Sleep gave me to track my progress: time in bed, number of times awake at night, final morning wake time, and so on. “This is the one you want to watch,” he told me, pointing to the space on the chart marked: TOTAL minutes/hours awake during the night. I pencil in four hours, forty-five minutes. In the box for notes, I scrawl: depressing and pointless.
But what else do I have? Half the medication is not enough to knock me out, so every night I follow Dr. Sleep’s plan, waking at 1, reading about mammals (Pacific shrew, vagrant shrew, dusky shrew, water shrew, marsh shrew, Inyo shrew, masked shrew, ornate shrew, pigmy shrew, gray shrew), not allowing myself to lie awake more than twenty minutes, scribbling my notes in the morning.
That first week, I run into an acquaintance in the park. We don’t know each other well, but I find myself telling her about the sleep plan. “More like the Guantanamo plan,” I grouse, demonstrating yet again the effect of sleep deprivation on my sense of perspective.
To my surprise, she confides that she, too, was prescribed this technique for insomnia. “It took a while, but it absolutely worked,” she says. “You have to hang in there.”
For the first time, it occurs to me that the plan is not some quixotic regime cooked up by Dr. Sleep, but an actual thing. A thing that might work.
On the sixth morning, I record something startling: although I got up to read four times, my total time awake was only two and a half hours. Even with half the medication, I got an astonishing five hours of sleep. By the end of the second week, my time awake has shrunk to one and a half hours.
My acquaintance was right. Dr. Sleep was right. Over the next month and a half, my sleep steadily improves. I go down to a quarter of a pill, then to no medication at all. By the end of June, nearly six months after the insomnia struck, it has vanished. The sleep plan was a life raft, after all, and now, incredibly, I am back on the mainland, with its rested, cheerful inhabitants, the weight of exhaustion lifted at last. This outcome is the result of science, I realize, in the form of a proven behavioral therapy. But it feels like something else.
It feels like luck: as random and inexplicable as the sleeplessness was.
I will never know why I suddenly stopped sleeping, just like I’ll never know why cancer struck my grandmother, or my parents’ marriage ended the way it did, or why my first baby wouldn’t gain weight, no matter how much I nursed him. Possessions are lost, and love is sometimes unrequited, and we don’t always get to know why. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, not in the cosmic sense, anyway. If I did, I might conclude that insomnia was supposed to teach me something. Or maybe I would be less troubled by my knowledge that the Syrian woman is still lying awake.
I think about her now. I think about her every day. I think, too, about all the people who manage to meet hardship with dignity and grace and courage. Maybe the Syrian woman is one of them. Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s more like me. Because when it came right down to it, I wasn’t one of those people. Confronted with adversity, I was irritable, profane, despairing, and self-absorbed. In a real Guantanamo scenario, I would never be the gutsy captive, steadfastly refusing to betray her comrades. Deprive me of sleep, and you can have the plans to the Death Star.
But then, no one expected me to be a hero, least of all myself. I’ve stood on the other side of that line. I’ve been the one to hold it together, to carry more than my share of the weight. This time, someone did those things for me. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s facing, awake or asleep, I’m wishing the Syrian woman the same luck.
KATE HAAS is a senior editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have most recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, and the Washington Post. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.