Wednesday, August 3, 2016

From the Gwyneth and Chris playbook (insert a hundred eyeroll emojis)

Many of you have wondered, asked and guessed by now that there are some pretty substantial changes happening in the Vogt-Hennessey household. Kim and I separated in July of 2015 quietly and not without significant pain. But we’ve found ourselves a year later in more peaceful, happier places. We’ve finally discovered a co-parenting rhythm that works, and we recognize that we are better friends/co-conspirators in the efforts to get our child to go the f*ck to sleep than romantic life partners.

Facing the end of fifteen formative and pivotal years doesn’t come without its fair share of tears, regrets all around of different heart-achy varieties, and cords that need to be gently and lovingly severed. We’re working on that together, and I can say unreservedly that I’m still so glad to have Kim on my team as we navigate these not-so-stormy-but-still-emotionally-tumultuous seas. I find myself, daily, feeling wrecked in a hundred ways even as I look forward to what is in store for us as a family. After all, we’ve already begun to see new growth in each of us and our lives are already richer for those who have been brought into these endless circles of loving which have grown between us all these years. 

It is, perhaps, the selling and packing up of this house that has made me the most heartsick. With my military upbringing, I’ve never been one to get attached to “place.” In other words, a house has never been indicative of “home.” But this house comes close; here, I tended to my hopeful, though teetering, conception of place/home. It’s the place where my baby learned to walk, where I nursed my mother through her dying days, where I gathered my siblings and their people to feed them, where I allowed my imagination to take root as I contemplated my son growing up and stomping up these stairs in teenage angst. I settled into this place, and let myself be lulled into the beauty of the everyday. I learned to find comfort in the return to the familiar. I began to understand the desire of belonging to a place rather than being lured by the prospect of the “beyond”—another house, another city, another state. 

Yet, here we are, at the place where ends and beginnings meet. Maybe in another fifteen years I’ll look back at this particular point that we’ve plotted out in the long lines of our lives and it will feel less like an end and more like the beginning of other things. In this moment it feels impossible, as endings often do, to decipher (despite knowing all the intricacies of the past several years) the cracks and fissures that led us here. And somehow, we’re still responsible for guiding our sweet little guy through this moment. If I can say so, I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far of providing him with as much stability and support as we have been able to muster and then some. But this part? This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult parts yet.

You know me, I’ve already talked to death, waded through and asked all the appropriate things with/for Bennett. I’ve prepped him, made space for, walked delicately around and stared down the barrel at the ways this move might affect him, just as I have every step of the way in this process. I’ve already told him that we take all the important things with us. We take the memories we’ve made, the stuff we love, and the people who belong to us. I joked that we are like Kakuna or Metapod. We have to leave our outside shells behind to evolve, and this house-shell just isn’t the right size for us anymore. (What can I say? Pokémon Go metaphors are where he’s at right now.)

But the sadness and loss are also real. I'd be remiss not to recognize that for him. For all of us, really. So once this house is emptied out, we’ll come back here to say our goodbyes and pay our respects to the way this house has sheltered us, held us and afforded us so much solace in some seriously shit-tastic years. I keep thinking through and playing out the various scenarios for how this might go. I can imagine the three of us crying and laughing together as we remember our favorite/special memories of each room. But I can also imagine Kim and I dissolving into weeping puddles while Bennett delights in the emptiness, in the novelty of the newly created space that might be transformed into numerous play scenarios/places. I suppose that I, too, will begin to race ahead, imagining the way a new family will fill these rooms.

That’s how it works, doesn’t it? We’ll leave the traces of our sorrow in the empty hallways. We’ll leave our laughter in the living room that’s filled with light and air and that sold this house to me when I first entered it. We’ll leave the echoes of lives lived well, here, even in the midst of pain, death and loss. And before we know it, in bits and pieces, those things will fade. They’ll be filtered through the nostalgia of memory like some hazy instagram filter. The rooms will feel bigger or smaller, brighter or darker, warmer or colder depending on the day and the way I’d like to rewrite our lives.

As I type this, I’m sitting at the kitchen table in front of the nearly wall-sized window that my mom sat in front of every day as she drank her morning coffee. A black capped chickadee is perched on the feeder that I hung in the tree just a few months ago. I can’t help but wish I’d hung it sooner. It’s another regret of sorts, but Bennett and I have also found such immense joy in this little thing, even if only for a little while. And at the end of things, isn’t that all we can ask? That’s what I’ll tell him one day. Ends let us leave, to some extent, the painful parts that no longer serve us as we move forward into the joyful parts of our choosing. May we not drag any more shit than necessary along with us.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Time Passes

There’s a section in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse called “Time Passes.” It’s somewhat jarring compared to what comes before, because the people who filled up the novel’s pages are suddenly mere echoes; their deaths—a mother, a daughter, a son—are relegated to brief parenthetical commentary. Things, once beloved, lose their luster and light. Dust accumulates on surfaces. And, indeed, time passes. Emptied out of human form and filled to the brim with inanimate objects, these pages capture so profoundly the quiet vacancy of death. Take this passage, for instance:
What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coasts in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.
The absence of these individuals is magnified in relation to the spaces they filled, the clothes they wore, and the objects they used. In this second year of grief, as disbelief has been replaced by the new realities which have taken root, I keep finding myself face to face with the various things that have been emptied out, both literally and metaphorically, things once “filled and animated” by my mother’s presence: a salt container, a sweater, my kitchen. I feel her absence most, however, with my son. While he talks about my mother now more than ever before—he’s always questioning, narrating and elaborating on “Halmi”—I suspect that he does so increasingly as he remembers less and less. She is an absence around which he walks.  He understands that she is, somehow, important, but to him she’s little more than myriad things that she has shed and left behind: this picture, this table, this uncle, this aunt, this mommy. And though, perhaps, his coming-to-be was initially a difficult thing for her to grasp (because it fell so far outside her comfort zone and understanding), watching the two of them love one another became one of my greatest joys and deepest sources of healing. Appropriately, I suppose, watching him reach for memories that are little more than "Halmi" shaped objects has been a source of profound sorrow.

As we find in To the Lighthouse, however, the dead don’t disappear easily. Yes, different rhythms spring up, the house is aired out and new characters move into the foreground while others recede. But those who are absent continue to haunt the pages of the novel; they fill in the gaps; they lie at the center of various visions, motivations and excursions that the remaining characters experience and undertake. And so it is that even in death my mother continues to compel and constrain me. The work of disentangling ourselves from the ties that bind us to one another apparently doesn’t end with death as I naively thought it might. Those cords are still drawn taut across time and within me. And though I am in some ways a little freer to undertake the knotty work of undoing those ties, the loosening and unbinding is still a painful and laborious endeavor. Because, after all, we can’t be chained to the dead forever (Unless, of course, you’re Michonne. Sorry, folks, a little nod to The Walking Dead). Even as we’re loving them, missing them and grieving them, we also move beyond them, like the characters in Woolf’s novel who finally make the trip to the lighthouse sans mother, brother and sister. 

Here, at the end of year two, I understand how people who figure so enormously in our lives slowly become parenthetical; we fill up the hollowed out space (              ) of our lives with these reminders of their human shape. They are too vast to be contained so, paradoxically, we shrink them down to make them manageable and deliverable: “This,” we attempt to say, “is my mother. This is your grandmother. This was a  woman—flawed, difficult, beloved and alive.” As life tumbles by relentlessly, they become the narrative asides, the how-to-explain-this-thing-about-me-or-you, the anecdotal evidence of the ways that we were lashed together and how, inevitably, we find ourselves lapping at the shores of life again—present and past, ebb and flow, together and alone, moored and adrift, “rising and falling with the sea."

Monday, March 16, 2015

Burn me up, Scotty.

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, then you’ve heard about the migraine. Saturday was a beautiful day—sun, blue skies, mid-sixties. It was the kind of day that makes everyone feel alive again. I know, because I found all of Bloomington at the park where Bennett and I choose to spend a big portion of the afternoon. He played happily while I chatted with other parents from around town. But here’s the thing, I never know about sunglass etiquette. It was really bright out, but I always feel like it’s so rude to hide behind dark glasses when you’re talking one-on-one to someone, so I took them off. Bad choice.

It got too late to cook dinner and Bennett asked to go to the only fast food place he knows—Chipotle. I said yes. I felt fine until we got inside and suddenly it happened. I had one of those pre-migraine auras. Everything was shiny and slippery in my field of vision. The sunlight that had been such a welcome source of light and warmth all day became too much to bear. I don’t know how to explain it except to tell you that things felt reversed; the sunshine came, instead, from some source inside of my head and burst outward through my eyes. It was blinding. And that’s what I thought, initially, as I stared at the shadowy Chipotle employee who was asking me what I wanted: “I’m going blind. I wonder if my eyes are as fiery right now as they feel. I’m dying. I’m obviously dying. I’m going to die in this Chipotle, of all places, with my son at my side asking repeatedly if I can transform his toy back into a truck.” I couldn’t decide if it was tragedy or comedy in the making. Then the pulsing began. It was quiet at first, just a tiny “tap, tap, tap” in the top of my head, but it signaled what was coming. And I panicked. What if I didn’t make it home before the tapping became a hammering? What if I stopped being able to see enough to drive home? What would I do with my kid? What if my son didn’t cooperate? I knew I had somewhere between 20-40 minutes before I was completely incapacitated. We made it home. I took the ibuprofen/Benadryl cocktail that Kim gave me last time (I don’t know the science, but it works) and then I curled up into a ball on the couch and only moved to start the next episode of Bennett’s show. He was quiet and gentle, worn out from the park but also concerned because he’d never seen me like that before. “Don’t worry,” I mumbled, “I’ll be okay soon. I just need to close my eyes and be still for a little while.”

I closed my eyes but my brain remained hell-bent on birthing its extravagant and excessive pain-light. I shivered and shook, feeling unbearably cold (though it was probably a pain response) and waited for it to subside. And as I lay there, I recalled the last time the sunlight had brought so much pain. It was the summer of my mom’s illness. As the tumors resumed their growth post-radiation, she’d begun getting headaches with increasing regularity. They were mostly brief, but intense. You’ll remember how full our house was then, my brother and kids driving in with regularity for weeks at a time, my own child, my sister (who has never known a quiet day in her life), my father, my partner and myself. It was unavoidably noisy. My mother had never been one to complain about physical discomfort, not really, and the effort of talking made her even more reticent about her pain. So I would watch her for the telltale signs that she was having a headache or that she was experiencing discomfort and I would go around the house shushing people, driving them outside or upstairs, snapping in hushed whispers at the kids or at my siblings. It was awful. I was probably awful. I felt how horrible and unfair the whole thing was but I couldn’t help myself; her pain was my pain. I lost weight without trying. I was more sensitive to noise, to smells, to the way the world expanded or contracted according to the time of day. I wanted more than anything to make her last few months as peaceful and as comfortable as possible, but the world and those tumors kept interfering.

But with the headaches came another particularly nasty side effect of the tumors—her body’s inability to regulate her temperature well. So when we moved from the heat of the day to the coolness of an air-conditioned building, she would become dizzy and collapse or she would get one of those awful headaches and then be sick. It was hard to predict when and where this would happen. Sometimes she was fine and other times she wasn’t. On one of the last days she was with us, she had a bad episode. We decided to go out for lunch. My sister and I helped my mom out of the car while my dad parked the car. With one of us on each side of her, we began the slow trek to the door, and I felt her legs buckle. We were too far from any bench and I knew we’d end up dragging her if we tried to go any further. So we just sat her down in the middle of the sidewalk. Her limbs sort of convulsed, but the doctors had assured us that these were muscle spasms of sorts, not seizures, and we simply had to wait them out.

I felt the heat of embarrassment as I stood helplessly by. Not for me, but for her. People stared as they walked by; one man stopped to ask if he could help. “No, but thank you,” I responded, as politely as possible. I wanted to shield her from the prying curiosity and pity I saw in people’s faces. There’s no dignity in those moments. Movies so often portray the heartbreaking but peaceful sides of death. They show us people setting off on one last grand adventure or individuals gasping out last words from the sterility of their beds. Rarely do they show the gruesome, the humiliating and the altogether too-awful-for-words parts of dying. Who wants to see that? There’s nothing sensational about the fetid underbelly of death. I sat there beside her pissed at everyone and everything. And suddenly I was enraged at the sun. The warmth was no longer welcome. It was, instead, heavy and oppressive. The sunlight sizzled, white and blinding, as it came at me from the pavement. The heat of embarrassment blossomed into blazing fear as I realized how utterly frail we were, how insubstantial. As a kid I worried about so many weird things and one of them came back to me as I sat there beside my mother.  Poised on the verge of incineration, I contemplated what it would be like to spontaneously combust into flames.

As the memory of that day came back to me through the fog of my pain, I thought, “Maybe this is how it starts.” I imagined myself as a pile of ashes on the couch, opposite my son, just like I’d seen in those books so many years ago when I’d been obsessed with images of people who’d spontaneously combusted—a mound of black char in an otherwise untouched environment. It made me almost hysterical with laughter or sadness or incredulity to imagine someone coming in to find my son still sitting, oblivious, at his end of the couch watching television. There’s an episode of the Twilight Zone for you.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, I had a migraine hangover. I felt like I’d been dragged back from the brink of myself. I felt my heartbeat more acutely than I usually do. It felt steady and sure, but that spot in my head pulsed gently, a quiet reminder of my mortality. That morning, I ventured out into the sun—fearfully, glasses on, taking no chances. But by late afternoon, the last vestiges of pain had dissipated. I watched Bennett run around the park again with his friends, so much life coursing through their tiny limbs and I remembered that the things that make us vulnerable are also the things that set us apart from those inanimate objects that will, likely, long outlast us but will never know the fly-by-seat-of-your-pants-coming-down-the-slide-too-fast rush. There’s nothing new under the sun here, folks. That we feel joy or pain, that we can be blindsided by illness or surprised by the delightfulness of our bodies, that that we sometimes heal and other times find ourselves wounded in ways we can’t always mend—well that’s life, right? Eventually, we’re all just grit and dirt again. We might as well get close to the sun in the meantime. It warms. It’s life giving. And according to fringe statistics and a handful of YA apocalyptic novels, we’ll probably combust in its orbit one day. I’m not chasing death, but maybe I’m just saying that for today, I won’t bemoan (as much) the cost of living. For now, feeling just means I’m not yet a pile of ash. That’s okay with me. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

“I grow old.. I grow old..."

I watched my son as he zoomed around the fellowship hall. He was flying high. Well, as high as a three-year old can get when he’s riding a tsunami-sized blood sugar spike from liberally doled out cookies and full-strength juice. I cringed. I was less concerned with the peace he might be disturbing and more worried about safety. You see, at our church we’ve got a lot of older folks, and I mean people who are well into their eighties and nineties. The intergenerational aspect is one of the things I love most about the place we’ve found, but it also means coming face-to-face quite often with the many ways that our bodies succumb to those currents of time. I tried, in the moment, to redirect my son and ask him to calm his body, but he’s the kind of kid who really needs quiet and stillness to process. He also needs to understand the reason behind the request. So I waited. And when I laid him down for a short nap that afternoon, I revisited the issue:
“Hey buddy, do you remember when you were running around and having so much fun at church?”
“Yeah, I do!” He giggled.
            “I love watching you have fun. But do you also remember that I asked you to slow down a little bit and make sure your body wasn’t bumping into other people?”
“Well the reason I asked you to do that is because we have a lot of people whose
bodies have gotten older and might not be as strong as they were. If you bumped into them zooming around so fast, they might fall down and break something…like an arm or a hip. Can you understand that?”
            “Yeah, I do.”
He was quiet for a few seconds as he continued to process this information, and then he asked, “mommy, are you very old?” He cupped my cheek with a tiny hand, caressing my face in that way that I’ve caressed his so many times.
“Well,” I laughed, “not yet, honey.”
“Yeah, not yet,” he said in his half-serious, half-amused way, “but one day you might be.”
One day, I might be old. It’s a notion that I hadn’t really considered. I’ve never really been a visionary. Sure, I make plans and work toward goals, but I don’t ever look toward the future in a “one day when” kind of way (hello, despair with a smile, here). Lying there beside him, at the end of another exhausting holiday season, I was suddenly enthralled with the idea that I might get old one day. I suppose it was especially revelatory because around this time of year I feel a deep-down-in-my-bones weariness that tricks me into thinking that I’m older than I am. This year, that was compounded by the weighty realization that my mother is no longer with us. I know, I know, this whole blog is more or less about that fact, but last year we were still reeling, still in a state of disbelief; I think I’ve reached a place of acceptance. I feel the fullness of her absence stretching itself out in me from limb-to-limb and settling down quietly in that place of real knowing. That is to say, that there are few things I know more fully right now than my mother’s absolute and irrevocable absence.
That certainty found me as I began the process of playing Santa for my son. At 11 pm on Christmas Eve, after six hours in the car, for a five-hour visit, with family one state away, I packed all of his trains and tracks into a bin so that I could erect a construction site in their place. And as I stared at the table emptied of all it's clutter, I was struck by the way that we typically move, almost imperceptibly, from one phase of life to another. We never really clear out the clutter completely, we sort of just shuffle through it. New things make their way onto the table while, hopefully, old things find their way off of it and before we know it, we’ve transitioned into something different. So there was something jarring about the table’s absolute barrenness.
The past and present coalesced momentarily on the surface of that table through that telescopic lens of my mother’s absence. She bought the table for my son’s first birthday “because,” she said, “it was something that would grow with him for awhile.” And it has. It served, first, as a supportive object: he pulled up and walked around it, beaming at his newfound dexterity and independence. Then it became a catchall for whatever toys happened to be in favor at the moment. Eventually, we laid tracks and rolled trains. We’ve spent incalculable hours around that table over the past two years, and in that time he has grown inches, acquired language, discovered those first inklings of interest and passion, skyped grandparents, and daydreamed about whatever it is that toddlers daydream about. We’ve bumped our shins and stubbed our toes on it. We’ve found joy and frustration in equal parts at that table. In hindsight, it was both utterly remarkable and categorically mundane in its everydayness; we barely noticed the way that we moved from phase to phase.
That table has been, in all the myriad ways we might use this phrase, a transitional object. It was the first and last tangible gift that my mother gave to us, and it signified so much more than a space for play. Bennett and I have both found ourselves in the four corners of that table—him as an individual with interests apart from me and myself as a mother and a woman apart from my mother's understandings of those things.  I realized, as I placed the tiny orange cones around the table’s perimeter and poured the rice into the plastic bin, that this newest phase, the things that I was in the process of laying down and the things I might later remove were things that she would never know. And when the moment righted itself and time resumed, I felt the shift inside me in the way that you might feel a bone popping back into place—my mother was thrust into the past and I was firmly relocated in the present, in that space of endless transition that we claim for the living.
It’s always around this season of Epiphany that we begin to throw those tired phrases around. You know the ones I mean—“carpe diem!” or “Live each day like it’s your last!” We make promises to ourselves and to others about the things that we’ll change or that we’ll endeavor to do. But this year, I’m not doing any of that. I won’t feel harried or hurried to fit it all in, to cross things off the bucket list, to know where I’m headed or what I want, to be fully actualized (whatever the heck that means), to unburden myself of all the things that weigh me down, etc. Nope, I won’t live with the scarcity of time biting at my heels. I’m going to live as if, one day, I might be old. I’m going to live slow and sure and steady, for the long haul rather than the sprint. My mother didn’t have time to grow old; she died at 58. But even then, as she was dying, it wasn’t the things she hadn’t done that she regretted. If anything, it was having done too much. She sat in my living room for weeks just looking out the window and she said, as I hovered anxiously, “I don’t think I’ve ever had time to just sit here like this.” If I live to be 65 (which, for the record, isn’t very old at all), I will have grown older than my mother, and I will have lived longer without her than with her. Certainly I hope to have done some things along the way, but I also hope that I will have taken the time to clear off the table completely, to bask in the stillness and emptiness that can be found between things. So long as there are transitions to be had, there is new space to be remade into almost anything we can imagine. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Thing About Love Stories

A year ago today, my phone rang. I knew what the news would be before I answered and in those few seconds before I pressed the button, I thought: “No. Not yet. I’m not ready. I’m on my way. Please, not yet.” In those almost-five months after my mother’s diagnosis, we’d waited every day for this very thing to happen, but when my dad said the words, “your mother just passed away,” I still wasn’t ready. My bags were already packed, and I was already on my way out the door to school that Saturday morning to ensure that I had planned and prepped everything that the substitute would need. When I hung up the phone, I swallowed a sob and calmly called my brother and sister. I kissed my son and drove to the quiet, dark halls of Bloomington High School North where I finished writing up lesson plans, making copies of things and sending out emails. I did it all calmly. Quietly. Numbly.

What I wanted to do was kick a hole in the wall. I wanted to scream. I wanted to lie down somewhere and not get up for a week, maybe two. I was heartbroken that I hadn’t made it to her in time. I was mad at my dad for waiting so long to call. I was angry with myself for not having gone when I got that little twinge of whatever-we-call-it that told me the time was near. I was pissed at my mom for getting cancer in the first place and for not recognizing the signs sooner. I was irate at the miracle cancer drug that had put so many stage four cancer patients in remission or bought them more time, but hadn’t been a match for my mom. I was furious at the universe and at God and at whatever else because I wasn’t ready. My mom and I, we’d just begun in so many ways. My son had only spent a short two years with her. We weren’t done. It wasn’t time. But she was gone.

But here’s the thing about love stories, the end is never really the end. So many great love stories end in death, and we’ve been taught to mourn love’s end. It’s tragic. It’s hopeless. It’s final. I suppose the thing that Christianity gets right is that love doesn’t have a “best if used by” date; it doesn’t expire. Let’s not quibble about theology; whether we take Christ’s resurrection literally or metaphorically (or not at all) isn’t the point here. The point is that love is transferred and transmuted over and again until it becomes impossible to find all the places where it begins and ends. However imperfect we are in our loving, love somehow still persists.

Most days I’m still not ready. My mom and I, we aren’t done. For now, I’m still caught up in the loop of loving which she drew me into and into which I’ve drawn my son. But I’m also caught up in those circles of love that we, you and I, have drawn together—the ones you’ve offered up to me and the ones I’ve extended in return. Holy Venn diagrams, people, that’s a lot of love. This is my love story, and it isn’t finished yet.