Wednesday, January 25, 2017

An Unlikely Friendship

I would have stopped just shy of “dilapidated” when describing the house on the corner. The exterior looked as though it’d been threatening to shed its minted green paint for years, and the yard was more dog-trodden earth than green grass. Three black dogs anxiously patrolled the perimeter, making it one of those houses I dreaded passing on our walk, when I knew my dogs – who normally trotted, serene and workmanlike on either side of the stroller – would be stoked into a maniacally barking, territorial frenzy.
The sole non-canine inhabitant of the house emerged only occasionally. Petite and sheathed in bulky cardigans even in the heat of a Missouri July, she just had a hermitic vibe about her. Yet I was intrigued by the license plate on her hulking SUV – “ALL ONE,” it read.
It was our dogs, naturally, who initiated our friendship. I was several months pregnant with a toddler in tow, and both my dogs and hers had a wily habit of finding ways out of our respective backyards. She walked them back several times, and then we exchanged numbers. She worked from home and offered to host a puppy playdate for our larger dog, Tinkerpaw, to give me a break. In fact, she offered to do so every day, and, of course, I took her exactly at her word.
It was the first time I learned a friendship with Susan was a delicate dance that often took two steps back before it took a step forward. She flitted and ducked away from intimacy and social ease like someone who’d been burned, or at least someone who’d never enjoyed the consolation of blending into the majority – first as a black woman who’d acquired an advanced degree decades ago, and now as a middle-aged, childless divorcee. She called me a few days after I’d begun enthusiastically ushering Tinkerpaw up the street each afternoon and rescinded her offer.
Several months passed during which I gave her a wide berth, waving while walking the dogs but otherwise seeing her only upon the dogs’ occasional jailbreak. On one of these occasions, she’d called me to retrieve them, and I walked up the street without Tinkerpaw’s collar. She hesitantly offered me use of her beloved deceased dog, Eddie’s collar, which I profusely promised to return safely.
Oh, had I only removed that collar from Tinkerpaw’s neck a few days later when he impatiently scratched at the door to be released into the yard. He leapt over the fence and was off. (We lived in a rental house, or else a new fence certainly would have been in order). We caught him a couple of hours later, and I remembered that he had had Eddie’s collar on, and now it was gone. I panicked, much to my husband’s bafflement. “It’s just a collar,” he said. “Can’t we just buy her a replacement?” “No,” I replied. He didn’t understand. “You don’t know Susan as well as I do,” I pleaded, near tears. As I struggled to make him understand how very nearly catastrophic this was, how attached she was to her dogs – we searched our neighborhood for a good hour, in vain.
I put off calling her for two days. Finally, my pulse pounding, I dialed her number and awaited the inevitable answer. She was always home. When I explained what had happened, there was silence – an incredibly hefty, crushing silence. Then she said, “I need to go. I can’t talk to you right now.”
It felt very heavy and strangely intimate, gravely disappointing someone I hardly knew. As much as I tried to convince my husband he didn’t know her like I did, the truth was I didn’t really know her at all. I’d never been inside her home, I didn’t know anything about her beyond what I saw from the sidewalk gate.
I am an artist by trade and in an effort to make amends, my husband suggested I draw a portrait of Eddie. I requested a photo reference from a still warily circling Susan. She didn’t say much when I finished and delivered the portrait a few weeks later, but her smile was like a balm to me.
A few months later, we both spotted the large golden dog roaming the neighborhood. I even noticed Susan giving him refuge in her yard a few times, and this friendly vagrant had a habit of following me about the neighborhood as I walked my dogs and toddler. One such day I crossed at a crosswalk only to hear the near simultaneous sounds of a heavy impact and a car squealing to a stop. I turned around in horror to see a truck had run over the dog Susan told me she’d nicknamed “Goldie.” Mostly helpless to assist with two dogs of my own and a toddler, I was relieved when a woman across the street came rushing out of her house, calmly and expertly handling the situation. There was something so tragically sad about seeing this animal, its legs broken and blood pouring from its mouth, struggling to right itself. After seeing the dog driven away to a local vet, I walked on, badly shaken.
When I turned the corner to walk down our block, I saw Susan standing in her yard. She waved, and I started crying immediately. She rushed up to me, and I explained through my blubbering what had happened. She hugged me. It remains one of the best hugs I’ve received because I don’t imagine it was easy for her to give.
Shortly after, Susan moved away. She promised to call with her new address, but she didn’t, and I neglected to call her again as we also moved a month later. As we said goodbye she said to me – totally exhausted and hugely gravid, wrestling with a highly energetic toddler and getting to that point in pregnancy where I was simply done – that I was taking the “right” path. She wanted to have children and always told herself she would, but then a career took precedence and divorce dismantled that dream and now it was too late for her. Suddenly my late third-trimester moaning and complaining seemed ridiculously petty.
Through Susan, I learned friendships don’t always follow the smooth, steadily upward sweep from mutual likehood to increasing intimacy. Sometimes our relationships are marked by fits and starts and awkwardness and uncertainty. And sometimes the ones that touch us and shape us most deeply are the ones that are difficult and challenging and fraught with misunderstandings. Although I’ve been blessed with a few easy, automatic, fated-feeling relationships – my husband and our three-week courtship as well as my best friend of 16 years come to mind. In my erratic friendship with Susan – one in which none of my customary superficial social graces seemed to work, as Susan simply didn’t deal in small talk or politesse, I was forced to completely disarm and just be real. And that is the place where I met this meek, unassuming, cerebral woman with coke-bottle glasses that magnified her eyes and a guilelessness that magnified her heart.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in the light...

Sunlight is like a foreign tongue when you’re sitting in the parking lot of a mental hospital, trying to decide whether to check yourself in. It doesn’t warm or illuminate like it should. It seems invasive, discordant. Insanity is a closed system, an echo chamber where dysfunction and unreality ricochet off the walls like coins in a dryer, gaining velocity as those walls contract, the din eventually drowning out any external noise.

I didn’t look at my husband next to me but instead stared straight ahead, my gaze empty, trance-like, except for flashes of genuine bewilderment at the families playing in the park across the street. They were mysteriously immune to the reality, so stark and horrifying to me, that just beneath life’s surface yawned an inescapable void which every moment threatened to swallow the universe into oblivion. Sound dramatic? It was. But if felt real. And as far as mental hospitals go, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

What could have catalyzed this paralyzing existential crisis? In short, the “mommy wars”. It seems absurd to say it now. That phrase, which I don’t even like using, is tossed about glibly to refer to harsh inter-mom judgment on parenting issues. But undergirding the so-called ‘war’, as undergirds so much of human conflict, is both a perspective that says mistakes are absolutely irredeemable, and also a creeping anxiety that seeks absolute certainty, an algorithm that will produce a perfect child and eliminate risk. Wed the two and you get an unholy marriage of venomous condemnation of people who are “doing it wrong” according to your imagined algorithm, and simpering self-righteousness.

I once prided myself on “getting it right”. While pregnant for the first time, I identified the “type” of mother I wanted to be, the club I wanted desperately to join. And I did everything in accordance with that type, at first. My smugness inflated as I got everything “right”, in proportion with my pitying judgment of all those who were scarring their children for life by making different choices.

And then, I had to make a choice for my child that directly contradicted the dogma into which I’d so passionately and wholly bought. Suddenly, I was on the outside looking in, and I vividly felt the cruel sting of that judgment. With the measure I had once used, it was being measured to me, and it was crushing. Granted, it was largely in my head, and via articles I read while obsessively combing the internet, searching for a voice from “my side” that said this medically necessary choice was okay, but a couple of times it came directly from other mothers. And over a period of weeks the fear, anxiety and dissonance crescendoed until it brought us to that parking lot.

But mercifully, something broke there. The void still yawned but suddenly chinks in the darkness beckoned, their promise faint and susurrant but perceptible at the margins of my vision. My husband, as much as I love him, didn’t necessarily say anything magical. No angels trumpeted. Yet I have no doubt it was pure grace. And my appetite, which I hadn’t heard from in days, suddenly issued a very declarative order for powdered donettes. We sat in a donut shop and I licked my snow-tipped fingers and started to heal.

My experience was extreme, of course, its intensity atypical and influenced in part by other factors. But I know almost all of us mamas experience this anxiety, if, mercifully, to a lesser degree. As painful as this ordeal was, it was rife with precious lessons, the most pronounced of which was this: the story we believe in matters. It colors and pervades every dimension of us, every word that leaves our lips and our every action, and it can be balm or poison. And the belief that there is a formula for parenting, that such certainty exists, is toxic. Such a belief renders mistakes irredeemable and unforgivable. Such a belief suffocates its adherents and shames others. It is, as my dear friend Stephanie says, a graceless perspective.

If we live into any worldly philosophy or ideology or any story at all other than the Gospel - that the Creator of the universe desires mercy not sacrifice, that One died for all and therefore all died, that He loved us so much that he was willing to give up everything to win us back, that death does not have the final say and that this isn’t the end of the story - it makes us sick. I was given the ultimately merciful opportunity to fully live into the logical conclusion of the perspective I’d been embracing, a perspective that masqueraded as comforting surety. It was anything but. And I emerged reborn somehow, tender, fawn-legged and new - but with empathy and humility I couldn’t have gained any other way. To hell and back - there for the grace of God went I.