Cutting Loose ~ A Sotol Story

Big Bend National Park at sunset, Copyright: Leong Kok Weng 

“I thought y’all were in a cult,” she said.

She’d wandered up to us in the middle of Big Bend National Park under a scorching midday sun. Despite her misgivings, thirst drove her to take the risk. “Hey! Y’all have any water?” Her name was Sarah.

We were in our early twenties and made friends with Sarah over the course of the next several sentences. We stood there in the semi-desert, sun bleaching out the curves and valleys of the Chisos Mountains in the background, chatting. Sarah said she and her friend, Clay, were crossing the border to Boquillas later that evening. “Have you ever heard of sotol?” she asked.

Surprisingly, as well-versed in cheap liquor as we were, we hadn’t.

“You should totally meet us over there and try it!” she said before waving goodbye and continuing her hike, empty Camelbak slung over one arm.

It didn’t take much convincing for Javier, Trey and me to go to a bar, even if it was across a stagnant section of the Rio Grande and nestled in a dusty cluster of buildings with no electricity. Later that day, we happily paid a few bucks to be rowed 50 feet across the still, mud-brown water and just as happily declined their offers to sell us coke on the opposite shore. It was the late ’90s. There were no border patrol agents, no gates, no checking of identification at that deserted bend in the river, just a handful of locals running a rowboat service.

We found the bar, indistinguishable from the rest of the modest buildings, except that it had a counter inside with a guy selling liquor behind it. We started to order a shot of sotol each, but when we found out a bottle was ONLY SEVEN DOLLARS, we pooled our money. Curiously, the sotol came in an old tequila bottle.

We were several shots in when Sarah walked through the door. “Hey, y’all!”

“Sarah!” She was our newly long-lost Norm in a perky, blond package.

We were already well on our way to being drunk, so Javier offered Sarah a shot.

“Oh, I don’t drink,” she replied.

One of us said something like, “But you said….sotol…”

It turned out Sarah was a recovering alcoholic, and she had only heard of sotol, not sampled it herself. What we had taken as a personal recommendation had only been an uninformed, whimsical suggestion, one we would pay for later. 

We were there long enough for me to need to use the outhouse. The back jutted out over a cliff, so everything you deposited in the hole went spilling down into the canyon, which was a handy way to avoid having to clean it. At some point, Sarah left, we finished the bottle, and it was time to go back.

It was dusk. We stumbled back toward the river, through rocks, dust, prickly pear, and mesquite trees. Halfway there, I stopped to pee again and fell into a cactus, impaling my butt cheek with spines. At the moment, thoroughly numbed, I thought it was hilarious.

When we came to the river, we saw a boat moored on our side and a pair of sad mules tethered to a hitching post, but no rowers. They’d promised they’d be there, but since we were communicating in both broken English (them) and broken Spanish (us), we could have been mistaken. Instead of considering this, though, we were drunkenly outraged.

The boat had a slow leak in it, so we decided David, Javier’s younger brother and the lightest person in our group, should row us across one at a time to prevent sinking. As our one-brother ferry made its way back and forth, Trey began to get more and more irate.

When he and Javier were the only ones left on the Mexico side, Trey managed to get Javier’s blood up as well. It wasn’t hard; the two of them together and under the influence almost guaranteed madness, which is part of why I loved them. They made me laugh and sometimes pissed me off, but they were loyal as hell — to each other, to me, and as it turns out, to two sad, strange mules.

It’s unclear whether the source of their irritation was the absence of promised rowers or the ill-treatment of the emaciated-looking animals tied to the post, but it culminated in this (loosely remembered) inebriated exchange of words:

“You know what, man. We should cut their mules loose.”

“Yeah! Yeah, we should! Serves them right.”

“Yeah, they should be free. Look at them. They’re starving!”

And then the two of them untethered the two beleaguered animals, at which point Trey slapped one on the ass and yelled, “Yah, mule! You’re free!” Like some sort of vigilante Yosemite Sam.

Said mules glanced curiously at the loud, stumbling gringos behind them but made no move whatsoever to “yah!” When David returned to retrieve Javier and Trey, they gave up trying to cajole the mules to freedom and got in the boat.

Finally, with all ten of our feet planted firmly back on U.S. soil, we surveyed the quiet, mud-colored river, the sedentary mules, and the leaky boat in the moonlight. Then, someone suggested, “We should push the boat down the river!”

And someone else said, “Yeah, serves them right!” (Middle-aged me is SMH in embarrassment at that group of naive, ineffective, self-centered white kids.)

So we pushed the boat down the river, and it went scarcely farther than the mules. I say “we” a lot in this story, but aside from falling in the cactus, I can’t take credit for most of these shenanigans. Not because I’m above such drunken ridiculousness (I once picked a bar fight over a stolen novelty condom), but more because the impulsive behavior quota was already filled, and there just wasn’t space for one more bad decision.

After the anticlimactic boat launch, we heard two people approaching from the Mexico side — our rowers, pushing through the brush. We panicked. Someone whisper-yelled, “Let’s GO!” and we all hopped in David’s waiting Jeep and sped off, gravel spitting out from the churning tires, just like the hardcore hooligans we weren’t.

Young, entitled assholes, maybe. Hardcore? Definitely not.

The rest of the evening was par for the course. We made dinner around a fire, talked and laughed. Javier and Trey got in an argument, and then I got mad at Javier and stomped off into the desert darkness. But only a little way off, because I was scared of getting lost. I was probably crying because that’s what I do. Aside from the fact that were were in Big Bend, it was a typical Saturday night. Javier and I were dating at the time, but it often felt more like the three of us were buddies. We acted more like family — there was closeness and trust, but fairly often, we annoyed the hell out of each other.

We all made up in the early dark hours of morning when the moonshine sotol hit our intestines. We were forced to stumble out of the tent, dig quick holes and pass around the toilet paper in the dark. Nothing brings people together like a shared case of the runs. The next day, we woke up late and hungover and went hiking because that’s what you do when you’re young and invincible. 

Twenty-some-odd years later, I’m married with two kids and living in the suburbs. Trey lives in San Francisco with his husband; I keep up with him on Facebook. David got married, had a kid, then got divorced. Sarah had a kid, too. I lost track of her after that. Javier died about a year ago after a battle with prostate cancer, survived by his wife and two young sons.

I look back on that time in Big Bend, and it makes me smile as much as shudder. Unfortunately, I never could take anyone else’s word for it; I had to discover first-hand that it sucks to wake up hungover in the desert, that turning a good friend into a boyfriend into a husband is sometimes a bad idea. Some of those mistakes were fun to make, others more painful, more lasting.

At a time when I was emotionally volatile (she says, as if she’s not now), Trey and Javier reflected my sometimes violent feelings with their intensity, their humor, their arguments. Around them, I didn’t feel like such a mental misfit. But it wasn’t just that. I loved both of them. Still do. And after writing that, I can hear Trey’s theatrically nervous laughter followed by, “awk-ward!”

Novel Coronavirus Transmission: Keeping Our Cooties to Ourselves

Disease Spread
Copyright: lightwise

“I feel like crap,” I said matter-of-factly. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, talking with Jason, who was lying in it. We were discussing logistics. He had just gotten off the phone with his parents and was planning an impromptu trip to Houston. His father was having surgery.

It was Tuesday, February 18th, and we had just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York the day before — stayed with my sister, saw a Lumineers concert at Barclay Center, went to The Met, saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway in a tightly-packed theater. Flew in and out of JFK. Opened a lot of doors, touched a lot of stuff.

Jason traveled to Houston, where he stayed with his sister and her husband and daughter. He went to MD Anderson for his father’s surgery, walked the halls, was there to support his mom. I stayed in Austin and drove the soccer carpool with our oldest and four of his buddies. The youngest and I ate pasta at an Italian restaurant while we waited for practice to be over. Wednesday morning, Jason texted me and asked how I felt.

“Not great,” I said. A full-blooming oak season in Central Texas was upon us, and I had worse congestion than most years.

“I don’t feel good, either,” he texted. I’m coming home.”

He didn’t go to the hospital that morning, because he was starting to feel really sick. He didn’t want to expose anyone at MD Anderson to his illness. He sped back to Austin down the highway, through Katy, La Grange, and Bastrop. He may have stopped at a gas station or two. He got home before he started feeling really terrible.

“It’s so weird,” he said. “My body aches all over.”

“You have the flu,” I said. He’d never had the flu.

“If you go to the doctor now,” I said, “You can get Tamiflu, and it might help.”

He glared at me and did not go. Our insurance isn’t great, and it would have cost a small fortune.

Over the next ten days, he ran a fever. He stayed in bed. He developed a bad cough. At the end, his ears were stopped up and painful, and we thought they might be infected.

During that time, I went to a PTA board meeting and took notes. I attended a school STEAM night, noting conversationally how bad my allergies were to the principal who commiserated with me. At the event, I helped my youngest kid create circuits, handing him the plastic and metal pieces that were configured and reconfigured all evening by many sets of hands, big and small. A day or two later, I sat in a coffee shop with friends and noticed my back hurt in a weird way that suggested something other than muscular issues. I hugged both of them before we parted ways.

I began to suspect it was not allergies. I developed a cough that kept me awake at night, one that could only be quelled by falling asleep with a cough drop in my mouth. I suspect I had a mild fever. I felt weepy. I wrote and edited things from my couch, alternating between working and napping. I was so very tired.

It seemed to take forever, for two people who are rarely sick, for Jason and me to feel better — not days but weeks. My energy slowly came back, but the sleep-disrupting cough lingered. Jason became hard to live with when he was well enough to be irritable about not feeling well. His ears still haven’t completely recovered.

“It’s funny,” he said. “I keep thinking I feel better, then it hits me all over again, and I have to go lie down.”

The kids didn’t get sick. We were grateful.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic. And as I read people’s accounts of their symptoms — those confirmed cases who had recovered — I began to suspect. Our symptoms were eerily similar. Other facts:

  • A woman I met with for work on Wednesday, February 26, said she had been sick and was having ear problems identical to Jason’s. She was concerned it would be problematic on her impending flight to Colorado.
  • One of the friends I had coffee with subsequently got sick, mistaking her symptoms at first, as I did, for allergies.
  • Two days ago, our youngest child said he didn’t feel well. His eyes were red and irritated, so I gave him some allergy medicine. Then, his right eye got really goopy. I thought, pink-eye. But when I took his temperature because he was lying on the couch listlessly and felt hot, the kid who never has a fever was running 100.3. I wondered where he could’ve gotten whatever he had since we’ve hardly been around anyone but each other for the past two weeks. Now, his fever his gone, but he’s got a snotty nose, a cough and a sore throat. And he says everything tastes weird.

I’ve been on the internet a lot lately, and here’s what I have learned:

  1. Several reports indicate that conjunctivitis (pink-eye) is a Covid-19 symptom in some people.
  2. Symptoms can appear up to 14 days after exposure to the virus, most commonly, though, around 5 days.
  3. Fever, cough, and shortness of breath are the most common symptoms.
  4. There are reports of people experiencing loss of taste or smell who later tested positive for coronavirus.
  5. Coronavirus can survive on a hard surface for up to three days.
  6. Children’s symptoms tend to be mild and cold-like — fever, runny nose, cough — with some reports of diarrhea and vomiting.

I’m not an infectious disease specialist, but even if I were, I couldn’t tell you without a test, for sure, whether or not all these sick family and friends had Covid-19. Whether the mild virus that swept through some of my sons’ friends the week before spring break was novel coronavirus before we thought it was here or something else. But it’s not at all far-fetched to think that it could have been. I’d even venture a “probably” in some instances.

This virus has likely been insidiously working its way through our communities for longer than we’ve been aware, with people mistaking milder cases for colds, allergies, flu. People who, like me, went about their daily lives, traveling, going to the store, attending social events, before Covid-19 was on anybody’s radar in the United States.

I’m betting MANY more people are currently infected or recovered from it than our official reported “confirmed cases” numbers. Don’t assume you don’t have it just because you are asymptomatic or because you haven’t been around anyone “confirmed” to have had it. Preventing the spread of the disease to protect our vulnerable populations and keep our medical facilities from being overwhelmed is not just the responsibility of healthcare workers or those who are elderly or immune-compromised. It is ALL of our jobs to do what we can, and for most of us, that simply means staying home. No matter who you are or where you have or haven’t been lately, this is the time to keep your cooties to yourself.

Pandemic Thoughts: If You’re Not Okay, That’s Okay

Businesswoman hiding behind plant wearing disguise
Copyright: Shannon Fagan

Idea Overload

I quit social media again today. Okay, so “quit” may be a strong word since I’m posting this, but I am definitely dialing back. I do this periodically when it starts making me feel like a failure in my own life. And since the response to Covid-19 has ramped up, I definitely feel like I’m falling short.

The internet is saturated with ideas for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy but also stuck at home.

  • Make a schedule!
  • Go for a walk!
  • Have a family game night!
  • Read these 18 self-care tips to stay happy and healthy at home!
  • Do these 47 education crafts!
  • Here are some video links to free yoga! Free online classes! Free footage of California Condors doing the congo!

Here’s what happens to me as I scroll through all of those helpful posts (sooo much help): I start to feel pressured. I begin to feel like I am falling short, like I am not enough. I haven’t hand-sewn any face masks for healthcare workers, I haven’t made my kids do any school work yet, I have availed myself of zero free YouTube workout videos. We are basically acting like it’s summer vacation around here, sans day camps.

The Good

We’ve been on some hikes and some walks. We are making the kids do housework, and we are discovering some new shows to watch. I am enjoying our lax schedule and the idea of distance learning as a fun social experiment. It will be interesting to see what we learn as a society from all this, what will change permanently. <— See! Positive attitude!

I have also learned that even when you do chores, go running, read a book, play a board game and make everyone rake leaves, there is still a LOT of time left in the day to binge-play video games.

The Not So Great

Here’s what else has happened in our house since social distancing began: Jason yelled and threw things because (not really because) he lost at a video game. The kids have gotten in fights. I have cried in my morning coffee because I don’t have a job. Ou dog is driving us all nuts with her constant scratching because her foot thumps on the floor, and when she does it upstairs, it’s like a seventy-pound Thumper from Bambi is sounding the alarm for approaching doom. Our very own pandemic herald.

It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay

You can do all the “right” things. You can meditate, make schedules and mentally list everything you have to be grateful for, and still have a hard time. This IS a hard time. Whether your stress is derived from health issues, financial worries, being cooped up in the house with your family or a combination thereof, it is okay if you’re not totally okay.

We all feel better when we take good care of ourselves and our families. I’m not suggesting everyone spend the next several weeks wallowing alone in dark bedrooms with nothing but Netflix for company. Not the entirety of it, anyway. But there’s nothing wrong with you if all those helpful suggestions don’t make the anger, worry or fear disappear.

The big stressors are there in the background, so if you still grind your teeth, get irritable and yell at someone or close your bedroom door and cry, congratulations! You’re having a normal human reaction to things that are stressing out the entire damned globe. No amount of family game night is going to fix the downward-sliding economy, make a sick loved one well or get us back to our normal lives any faster. It just might make it a bit more tolerable, that’s all. Those big things will take time; we can’t repair them with essential oils or apple cider vinegar.

“These Uncertain Times”

I have a hard time answering when people ask me how we’re doing in these “uncertain times” as the media like to put it. We’re doing pretty good. We’re not too stir crazy or bored, and we all still like each other. With more free time, we’ve been getting outside a lot and spending some actual quality family time together. And also, Jason and I are worried about our finances and the medical vulnerability of some of our relatives. Sometimes that leaks out as irritation and anger. But at least we’re talking about it.

I’ve only got one suggestion to go with the mountains of advice you’ve read lately: If you are scrolling through your newsfeed, and you start to feel bad about the way you’re handling the Covid-19 crisis, close the app and social distance yourself from social media, just a little. Hell, you don’t even have to put your phone down; go play Words with Friends or something. Call a real-live friend and vent to them everything that’s pissing you off lately.

Bottom line, at our house, we’re okay, but we’re not totally okay, and as I remind myself daily, eventually, all of this will be okay. If you’re not totally okay, either, that’s okay. Don’t make not being okay even less okay by feeling not okay about feeling not okay. Okay?

 

Dickens Was Right, Damnit

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Copyright: Paul Rushton

Dickens, be damned.

My ninth-grade English teacher was obsessed with Charles Dickens. She made all of her classes read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. She was a member of the Dickens Society and attended Dickens-themed soireés where all the guests donned 19th-century garb and spoke in 87-word, obtusely-structured sentences. I assume.

We had to memorize the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, which didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized it takes up the ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF THE BOOK. I still fail to understand how it can be “good writing” when you have to go back and re-read the first part of the sentence because, by the end, you’ve forgotten what the subject and verb were.

I remember parts of that sentence. My brain cannot recall where I put my phone or what time a soccer game is, but it holds onto useless detritus like my childhood phone number, the lyrics to an old Velveeta cheese commercial and, yes, the beginnings of famous novels I don’t even like.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is how it begins. It then trails on for another sixteen lines with a series of very similar (and unnecessary) oxymorons. “Epoch of belief, age of incredulity…blah, blah, blah, noisiest authorities…blah, blah, blah…superlative degree of comparison only.” WTF, brain?

I hate it when he’s right.

BUT. Despite his mellifluous method of stating it, I’ve grudgingly decided Dickens had a point. That sentence applies to just about every era on the timeline of significant history. The heroics of the American Revolution alongside the appropriation and slaughter of indigenous peoples. The discovery of radiation’s miraculous cancer-killing properties and the deaths of thousands of innocent people in the form of a bomb. A new awakening for feminist activism but spurred by the election of a presidential misogynist.

My own, private heaven/hell/Idaho

It even works on a personal level. My twenties were filled with fun, friends, partying and carefree selfishness without guilt. I had a job and nothing to pay for except myself. And I cried a lot, lost four pregnancies and was in an unhealthy relationship.

My 30’s were an incredible time of self-discovery. I felt confident in myself as a person. Jason’s and my relationship grew deeper and wider. I had kids and discovered a love like I’d never known. I also worried a lot about fucking up and struggled with breastfeeding to the point of tears. I mourned the loss of time to myself. It was great and terrible, just like Oz.

The best of times weren’t that good.

I read somewhere that we recreate good times as better than they actually were. We look back on an overall fun vacation and remember playing in the ocean, relaxing on the sand, snuggling in bed with a mate. We forget the one rainy day we were bored, the lost luggage or the fight we had on the plane on the way home.

It’s helpful when thinking about now. With all the challenges — worry about kids, working on relationships, concern over finances and all the stuff I am constantly forgetting (with the exception of outdated commercial jingles) —  I know I will look back on these years and smile wistfully to myself. I’ll remember the kids young and not yet jaded by adult experience. I’ll recall learning to be a writer, the freedom to work from home, and the security of the built-in social network that comes with school-age children. Overall, this is a good time.

There have been some true, worst of times, where the “best of” part was indistinguishable: the immediate aftermath of my miscarriages, the throes of divorce, intense struggles with depression and loneliness. In comparison with those, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Why didn’t you just say so?

So, what I took 618 words (Dickens would be proud) and 15 minutes of your life that you can’t get back to say is this: PERSPECTIVE.

And also…

“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”

(I never get to use the partial Shakespearean quotes that float around my brain, so now I’m just showing off. This is where you nod, virtually pat me on the head and roll your eyes. Go ahead. I totally deserve it.)

New Year’s Resolution, No Thank You

people write down an important note, using on the paper stickers post it
Copyright: marctran on 123rf.com (I added the “Nope.”)

Why I Don’t Like New Year’s Resolutions

So I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, and the past two Januarys, I’ve ranted here and here about why. But I have in recent years, used the beginning of the year to reflect on how I could make my life a little better and set a focus for the upcoming months. That may sound like a bullshit way of saying “New Year’s resolution,” but thinking about it as a focus has less baggage for me. The term “resolution” makes me feel like I have to come up with a socially acceptable goal related to exercise or finances and achieve it so I have thus performed the act of being a good, responsible adult for the approval of everyone else…..

…or, more realistically, failed at it and felt like I also am failing at being the right kind of person who exercises, eats right, saves her money and never says an unkind or negative word. Then, I can simultaneously feel like a bad person whilst feeling resentful about social pressure to make and keep resolutions.

Some of you relate to this. Others of you are thinking, Jeezus, why do you have to make things so complicated? Others, I don’t know; I’m just lucky, I guess.

What Happened Over the Holidays

I had kind of forgotten about setting my yearly intention until I read Candid Kay’s recent blog about how she does pretty much the same thing, picking a word she can focus on for the new year. Then, I remembered this that happened over the holidays:

We were in Telluride, staying with Jason’s family, for a ski vacation. This particular day, lots was happening. Our oldest wanted to ski, the youngest didn’t, a bunch of the family was going snowmobiling, and it was approximately six degrees outside. Jason and I were trying to decide which of us would ski with the oldest and which would snowmobile with the youngest, when he asked me, “But what do YOU want to do?”

I suddenly noticed I was thinking, “Well I should probably spend time with this one, Jason probably wants to go skiing, but I should take advantage of my lift ticket I’ve already activated today…” It was all practicality and what other people might want. So when I paused and asked myself, “Yeah, April, what do YOU want to do?” I couldn’t even tell what that was. In the midst of that house full of people, noise, wants and needs, I couldn’t begin to discern what my own were. I silently excused myself to the bedroom to think, because I hate crying in public. I was distressed I could be so out of touch with my own desires.

I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want.

Not being able to tell what I want is a pattern born from a people-pleasing past and having small children, who until their recent maturity, haven’t known Moms even had preferences. So my focus for 2020 is to take the time and space to figure out what I want to do, whether it’s what movie to see or which direction to take my career. That doesn’t mean I never compromise (in a family of four, it’s inevitable) but I, at the very least, want to KNOW what I’d prefer. I don’t want to perform my life so that everyone can see that I am a “good person.” I want to feel it for myself.

So, do you set a New Year’s resolution, intention or focus? Do you say “screw it” to the whole idea? What’s your take on it? What are your plans, if any, for the upcoming months?

For Javier ~ Goodbye Old Friend

MS 150 2005
Javier completing the MS150, 2005

Javier died last Sunday night. He passed from this world after a long battle with prostate cancer. We used to be close friends, and we were married once upon a time. I’d seen him only once in the past 13 years. This post is for him, to honor the part of him that I knew, best I can.

When we were in our early 20s, Javier was fond of saying cheerfully, upon introducing himself, “Most people don’t like me when they first meet me.” My late grandmother, Sue, found this delightful and hilarious. She told people about it all the time. It may have been true, but first impressions aside, he made a friend out of most people. His boisterousness and enthusiasm for spontaneous adventure was infectious.

I owe many of my wilder stories and youthful adventures to Javier. He was behind more than one last-minute midnight trip to Mardi Gras. He is the reason I took up mountain biking and scuba diving, two things I still enjoy. He talked me into quitting my job so I could backpack the western United States with him for two months. And as improbable as the stories from those adventures were in actuality, he always felt the need to embellish — to make the tale just a little funnier, a little crazier. I, the factual curmudgeon, was fond of raining on his hyperbolic parade: “That’s NOT how it happened!” It was a schtick we repeated because it got a laugh.

He could be a perfectionist. When we tiled the floor in our house, he dry-laid tiles for days in all directions to make sure the seams would hit the walls just right and was frustrated to discover that no wall is totally square to the floor or anything else. Several months (and fights) later, we finished the floor just in time for Christmas. We went to Home Depot on Christmas Eve, and everything was five dollars. We got a tree and a kick-ass stand for ten bucks and were thrilled at our fortunate procrastination.

Once, we went rock climbing with friends — the first time for us both. I was tentative, but Javier, like always, went for it with gusto. When he slipped and fell, the second before the belay rope caught him, I saw a look of terror on his face like I’d never seen before. I’ve not rock climbed since, but I’d be surprised if he hasn’t.

He was REALLY allergic to poison ivy. He once got a case so bad, I could smell the infection coming off of him. At the doctor’s office, his itchy, red skin impressed even the nurse, who said it was the worst case she’d ever seen. A cortisone shot took care of it, but he was more careful where he biked after that.

One night, when Javier had been downtown drinking with friends, one of them got arrested. He was desperate to get him out of jail, but several failed attempts to see him and a handful of phone conversations later, I drove to pick him up. It was around 3am, and I had a test the next morning. When we got home, he asked me to help him reinstall the seat in his truck so he could go pick up our friend the next day. I completely lost it and yelled at him for being inconsiderate of my need for sleep. The next day, I brought the two of them breakfast tacos after my test, tossed them onto the table and said, “Here you go, riff-raff.” Javier chuckled. In the retelling of it (embellishments included), he could laugh at himself.

He was into all sorts of things: biking (road and mountain), hiking, photography, camping, building things, softball, soccer, snowboarding, scuba diving, nursing. He’d discover a new activity, dive headlong into it, and inevitably love it, taking friends along for the ride. He was always planning the next vacation.

I know, 13 years later, he was different — changed, evolved from the person he was then. I glimpsed it in the few hours our families spent together a couple of years ago. To this day, I am sad we were unable to remain friends after I left, not that I expected to. I would like to have known more of the Javier he became.

Javier was smart and passionate, and he treated friends like family. He was honest, sometimes to a fault. He had a wonderful, belly-deep laugh. As I’ve been reminiscing, I realize there is much I have forgotten about life back then. I wish I could remember more.

Despite not having spent time with him for many years, I am going to miss him. His absence from this earth is palpable. I am so sad for the family he leaves behind; it seems really fucking unfair his kiddos should have to grow up without him, and it feels impossible that someone so enthusiastic about life should leave it so soon. But life is not about “fair.”

If I could tell Javier one last thing, it would be this: “Thanks for being in my life. We weren’t good at being married to each other, but I am better for having known you. I’m glad you found happiness.”

I only wish for him, his family, the people who know him now, that the universe had let him hold onto that happiness for longer.

Throw Me a Rope ~ Climbing Out of the Depression Hole

pawel-czerwinski-rV8Hg07t61I-unsplash
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Imagine you are running a track.

You know it well because you jog it daily. You see where the cracks and potholes have grown. There’s grass creeping into its edges here and there. It’s weathered, but you still like it. For years it was smooth, but as the imperfections appeared, you learned to navigate them after turning your ankle once or twice. You’ve even gotten good at jumping the large ditch that’s appeared lately, in one particular spot, though you fell in a few times before you got the hang of leaping over it.

You’re running one day, congratulating yourself on avoiding all the small cracks and holes. You leap over the big pit, sail through the air, land on the other side, take a few steps and WHAM!

You’re in a hole.

There’s a brand new one just a few strides from the old one. How did this get here, you wonder? You haven’t actually fallen to the bottom of it but are clinging to a ledge on the far side. You begin to try to climb out, grasping at roots and rocks embedded in the earthen wall, but they all dislodge in your hands and tumble to the bottom, which you’re beginning to realize is very far down indeed.

Fuck. You sit on the ledge, knees to your chest and think. It disturbs you these holes keep appearing. You’re afraid your beloved track is going to completely fall out from under you one day, and there will be nothing left but dark holes.  A few joggers run by, but they don’t notice you down there, and you are too busy worrying to think to call out to them. You stand on your ledge. You look up. You know the sun’s still there, you can see the light, but you can’t feel it’s warmth. It’s cold down here.

This is what PMDD is like.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder is menstrual-cycle-related depression. It also comes with fun physical symptoms like sore joints, bloating and fatigue, just to name a few amongst many. PMDD is relatively predictable, usually beginning a week to ten days before a period starts, but like all things hormonal, it’s hard to pin down, especially if your cycle’s not regular because you’re young and not ovulating yet, older and not ovulating regularly, or just because it’s not.

Looking back, I’ve likely had PMDD for most of my adult life. It only got to a point where it couldn’t be ignored seven or eight years ago when being depressed while caring for a toddler and a four-year-old became untenable. I took antidepressants, I learned things about cognitive behavioral therapy, I did a lot of reading and introspection and visiting with other sufferers online. Over the years, I have become intimately knowledgeable about the nuances of my hormonal and emotional cycles, just like you know every bump and cranny of that track you run every day.

A brand new pit of despair

This month, as a gift from perimenopause, the new hole appeared after my period started. I sat crying in my office yesterday, sad and pissed. Sad because no reason, sad because depression. Pissed because it tricked me. Jason said, kindly, “I thought you usually got better now,” mirroring my more caustic mental response, What the fuck? I just shrugged, threw my hands in the air, and continued leaking out of my eyes and nose.

The new hole shows up unannounced. There is no earthquake rumble to warn you it’s developing. You didn’t trip, you didn’t lose your job or your family or your house. It’s a hole with no rhyme, no reason. You know the great job/family/house/life is still there, but it is unreachable from the hole.

Throw me a rope.

Jason doesn’t have a ladder, but luckily he’s got a rope — one woven with hugs, errands, gentle offerings and patience. He secures it, throws it down, and encourages me as I struggle to pull myself up — using arms, legs, the scratchy rope, the crumbling dirt walls — everything at my disposal to get out. And I will get out. I always do. New hole or old one.

If you suffer from depression of any sort, I hope you have someone. Know that sometimes you have to find that person and tell them what you need. And if you have someone in your life who sometimes falls in that hole, know this: you can’t make them feel better any more than you can climb out of the hole for them. But you can throw them a rope.

The Fighter Still Remains

The Fighter Still Remains
The Fighter Still Remains

Back when my maternal grandfather was still here and the last of my living grandparents, I wrote, The Fighter Still Remains. With diabetes and heart problems, his health was poor and his morale was even worse. On the way home from seeing him, The Boxer, by Paul Simon was echoing in my head.

I was driving back from visiting and caring for him. The thirty-minutes of travel was enough for me to mull over his life, our generations, what the future holds, and by the time I was halfway home, I was sobbing.

When I got home, it came pouring out of me in the only way I know how to cope effectively. I wrote this essay. It’s been edited, but it’s not far off from that first, emotion-laden waterfall of words.

That was five years ago. I’ve just now entered “The Fighter Still Remains,” in an essay contest. Winning entries are based on writing quality and votes/likes/comments. Please read and like or comment if you enjoy the essay and don’t hesitate to share it with others. Thanks for your support, friends.

My Two Grandmothers

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(not my actual grandmothers)

Every time I make up a bed, I think of my grandmother, June. She’s the one who taught me the secrets of fitted sheets. First, do the hardest corner, then its diagonal. She schooled me in their folding as well. Because of Grammy June, I don’t share the rest of the world’s fitted-sheet angst.

It seems like a trivial thing to remember, but with the memory of learning to wrangle sheets comes a feeling of zenlike order. Grammy June was a calm and soothing person, a creature of routine, and with the sheets and everything else she did, she taught me the peaceful feeling that can come with a task well-done, efficiently accomplished.

Grammy June baked and read us stories and did water aerobics. Dinner was served at the stroke of six in the evening, and no one ever ate more than one piece of pie for dessert. Grammy June, for her calm demeanor, was loved by every baby and every dog she ever met. She giggled a little “tee hee” when she laughed; she was the quintessential grandmother.

Granny Sue was not. Granny Sue was loud. She stayed up until the wee hours of the morning arguing about politics, and she was a bit overwhelming. At Granny Sue’s, you got to eat a whole can of vanilla frosting while sitting in front of the TV.

Granny Sue worked outside her home at a time when most women didn’t. She was a writer and a poet. She was fiery. She ran hot and cold and was hard to get along with sometimes, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a friend to all lost souls, welcoming them into her home like family.  Her car sported a bumper sticker: Well-behaved women rarely make history.

Granny Sue taught me to say the uncomfortable things when they need to be said. She taught me to stand up for myself, and the last thing she said to me was, “keep writing.”

My two grandmothers were diametrical opposites. They got along okay on family vacations, but Grammy June sometimes discreetly turned down her hearing aids when Granny Sue ranted on too long and too loud.

I feel a little of each of them in me — Grammy June’s calmness when I feel overwhelmed, her sense of peace, order, and comfort. Granny Sue is there, cheering me on when I write something controversial and am afraid to hit “publish.” She tells me it’s okay that I feel like a mess sometimes.

It’s a thing people say, that people live on in those who remember them, and it is only now that I realize it’s true — how often I think of them, how I can feel them at different moments, two very different women. Sometimes I feel like two different people, and that can be confusing. But I loved Grammy June, and I loved Granny Sue, so I guess I can love them both in me.

This is Not What I Expected

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Photo Credit: Catherine George

Yesterday, I was wading through old photos on my computer looking for one I could use for an article when I happened upon some pictures of myself, roughly eight years ago. I’m feeding baby Gage with a bottle and looking over at toddler Jack, smiling. I totally look like I have my shit together in those photos. I totally did not.

I often wonder, when I see parents at the grocery store toting two young children along, parents who look like they also have their shit together, are they really that chill? Or is it like that photo of me — only calm on the outside? Is everyone kind of a wreck when they have little kids? I wonder this because I have…let’s say a history behind my quest to have children. That history gave me an unusual level of anxiety once I had them.

I always wanted kids. I have introspected on that desire a lot, and I’m pretty sure it was a biological/emotional urge that originated with me and not societal norms. So in college, I mapped it out in my head. This may seem weird, but I know of at least one other person who did this, so it’s a thing. I wanted to be done having kids by the time I was 30. To space them out by at least two years, I needed to be pregnant with the first one by the time I was 26. I wanted to be married for at least two years before having them, so that meant a wedding by the time I was 24. I wanted to date at least two years before getting married, so that meant meeting Mr. Right by the time I was 22. And, since I figured this out when I was 21, I panicked.

This absurd logic is what prompted me to get married, just slightly off my timeline, at 25. This doesn’t mean I was a heartless asshole who didn’t marry for love. I was deeply in love with my first husband. We were great friends, we were okay dating partners, we were shitty at marriage together. (Not that anyone knew it, not even us. We were delusional.)

I was the catalyst for all of this. I don’t think he was quite ready to get married, and I think he was even less ready when I suggested going off birth control when I was 27, but he went along with it because he loved me and he did want kids at some point.

I got pregnant. We celebrated. We told everyone. I gave my grandmother a birthday card from her great-grandchild, and it brought tears to her eyes. Then, I miscarried. It was awful, and we had to tell everyone what happened, which was a lot shittier than telling them I was pregnant. I was devastated. Then, I had three more miscarriages, and I was a wreck. I was profoundly depressed and panicked that I might not ever carry a baby to term. My timeline was all fucked up now. He said, “I’m afraid you’ll never get over this.” I said, point blank, “I won’t.”

He went back to school to change careers, and we decided to take a break from trying to conceive. That’s when I realized how unhappy I was. I’d been distracted by the baby thing, and taking a step back, I noticed how dysfunctional our marriage was. I knew it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I let it fester, the childish part of me pushing it down and ignoring it, despite the more adult part of my brain knowing that wasn’t going to work long term. We got divorced.

At that point, I was 30, and I finally stopped clinging to my stupid timeline, stopped adjusting it and projecting forward with the ridiculous notion I had control over the matter. I decided, in my dogged way, I would have children. If I had to beg, borrow, steal, or adopt them, if I had to raise them by myself in the woods amongst the wolves, it was going to happen sooner or later. So when Jason and I got married, I had no ulterior baby motive.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon. Nine months later, we had Jack. Two years later, I had another miscarriage. I got pregnant with Gage when I was 34, and gave birth to him when I was 35. During my last pregnancy, I had to talk myself out of a panic attack repeatedly; my uterus hadn’t magically expired on my 35th birthday. Then, there was a measure of relief. Procreation, which had dominated my thoughts for over a decade, seven pregnancies later, was complete. I could stop worrying about baby-making sex and relax. But I didn’t. Because after all that time, I couldn’t believe it was real. I couldn’t fathom that “they” (I have no idea who “they” are) were going to let me keep my children.

When they were infants, I worried about SIDS, I worried about whooping cough and the flu, I worried about BPA in baby bottles and pesticides on lawns. If it existed as even a remote threat to my babies, I worried about it. Something in my brain could not wrap itself around the idea that they weren’t going to be yanked away from me. The saga I’d gone through to have children made their existence feel fragile to me.

Thankfully, I grew out of that. I’m pretty free-rangy as a parent these days, and it would be hard to know I was ever so anxious about their safety. Those close to me back then knew — my parents, Jason’s parents, and certainly Jason. But not the people in the park or the people in the grocery store. They saw what I see in that old photo — a calm, smiling, competent parent. More and more these days, I am that mom, but I still have my moments.

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Photo Credit: Catherine George