Happy 75th Birthday to my Mother-in-law

Carmela

This is my mother-in-law.  Today is her birthday.  Four weeks ago she was given two weeks to live, and she is still here.  She has cancer, you see.  She received her diagnosis on January 20, 2009.  She’s been fighting it ever since.

She moved here from Italy when she was still a teenager.  She didn’t speak English.  She still prefers Italian. 

She is small and I always think of her as a hummingbird.  At the time I met her, a little over ten years ago, Tony told me he’d never seen her wear pants.  She always wore a skirt, always looked impeccable. 

She has been unfailingly generous to me.  She has never forgotten my birthday, not once since we met.  She always sends a card, and a check.  This year she and my sister-in-law sent an Amazon gift card.  Even after losing her son, even as she faces the end of her life, she remembered me on that day. 

In many ways, Tony was like his mother.  He, too, had to be busy.  I never would have called him a hummingbird, but another creature that had to keep moving.  A shark, maybe.  He had to be working, Tony.  Even on Christmas Day.  He rarely took time off, and yet he worried constantly that it appeared that he wasn’t working because he worked from home, writing. 

I wrote earlier this year about the first time I met my mother-in-law.  It was July 4th, a broiling hot day.  We spent a good part of the day in the basement of her house in Dedham, watching movies and enjoying the air conditioning.  Later in the day she took us all out for ice cream, and I’ll always remember what she said to me when I placed my order: “Oh, Aimee, you like-a the pistach’?”  It was a moment of bonding.  A recognition that in spite of my obvious lack of Italian-ness, we had something in common.  She likes pistachio ice cream too. 

I hope she gets some today.  I hope she feels my love, and Tony’s.

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Liebster Award — Answers to Ten Questions

liebster-blog-award

Thank you to one of my favorite bloggers, MeWhoami, for nominating me for the Liebster Award.  This actually happened a while ago and I’ve been delinquent in both thanking her and answering her ten questions. 

Here are the rules for the Liebster Award:

The rules:

-Each nominee must link back the person who nominated them.

-Answer the 10 questions given to you by the nominator.

-Nominate 10 other bloggers for this award who have less than 200 followers.

-Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer.

-Let the nominees know that they have been nominated by going to their blog and notifying them

 

So right off the bat I’m sort of breaking one of the rules because I’m not going to do my nominations right now.  It’s hard for me to find time to read enough blogs to find ten to nominate, and several of the ones I read have more than 200 followers.  I will do it eventually, but it will probably happen piecemeal.  However, I did want to say thank you and respond to Mewhoami’s questions, so here goes:

1. What is the most adventurous thing you’ve done?

The most adventurous thing I’ve done was to pack up my entire life and move to California with Tony, in spite of the fact that we’d only known each other a few months, didn’t have that much money saved, didn’t have jobs in San Diego yet, and had only a temporary place to live.  In spite of everything that’s happened, I don’t regret having done it.

2. Where is the most beautiful place you have ever been to?

I’ve been to a few, but the one that I think spoke to me the most was Ogunquit, Maine.  There’s something about the waves crashing on the rocks, and the jade green water, that has always stayed with me.

3. If you could do one thing tomorrow that you have always dreamed of doing, what would it be?

Travel to Paris and spend a month writing in cafes and walking around the city.

4. If you won a million dollars, what would you do with it?

Buy a house, just a small one, near my family.  Put some away.  And use some to start a charity in Tony’s name.

5. What is your favorite pastime memory?

I’m not 100% sure I understand this question – a memory of doing a pastime?  Or a past memory.  I guess I’ll answer both.  Favorite memory of a pastime?  Probably sitting on the sea wall at La Jolla Cove brainstorming story ideas with Tony.  Favorite past memory?  It’s so hard to pick one, but one of the most meaningful was being in the delivery room with my sister Laura when my nephew was born.

6. Who is the first person you go to, in your times of need?

Two people, my sisters

7. What is one goal that you have not yet met, but are working to achieve?

Seeing any of the screenplays I co-wrote with Tony on the big screen.

8. What do you believe is the greatest flaw among people?

I think there’s a widespread tendency to think we are alone, and therefore not to take the time to imagine ourselves into someone else’s shoes.  In the end, we are all human, and I think a lot of us forget that.

9. If you only had time to save one thing in your home, what would it be?

Assuming all the people and pets were safe, I would take my laptop because all my writing is on it.

10. In your life, what brings you the most happiness?

My family and friends

Thank you again for the nomination, and I will pay it forward soon!

An Attitude I Wouldn’t Have Expected

I’ve written before about the different ways that people talk – or don’t talk – about suicide.  Often it’s treated as something shameful, secretive and not to be discussed in polite company.  Sometimes it’s treated almost as a figure of speech: If this happens one more time, I swear I’ll kill myself! 

This week I encountered a new sort of attitude – new to me, anyway – not once, but twice in the same twenty-four hour period.

The first happened at a lovely restaurant with my friend Liz.  We were talking with two retired teachers sitting next to us at the bar.  When one of them found out where Liz lived, she struck a gossipy tone and asked Liz if she’d heard about the man who “went bonkers and committed sui (sic) in the basement.”  Liz shot me a look, and I found myself doing a quick mental calculation about whether to address my personal history with this total stranger, or to just let it go.  Raising awareness about mental illness is, as anyone reading this blog knows, really important to me.  This, though, hardly seemed the proper venue.  This woman knew that the dinner was a birthday celebration because she’d joined in singing Happy Birthday to me, and lecturing her when she clearly would have felt terrible had she known about Tony seemed inappropriate at best, cruel at worst.  So I didn’t.  I signaled to Liz that I was okay – we’ve been friends for thirty years, so the smallest movement of my eyebrows was enough to let her know that she didn’t have to worry about me.  It didn’t stop there, despite Liz’s numerous and valiant attempts to change the topic.  My inner debate continued, but I stuck to my decision not to make an issue of it.  Liz and I talked about it in the car.  I was fairly stunned by it, truth be told.  What a thing to joke about, gossip about.  On the one hand, she wasn’t afraid to bring it up, and I don’t want people to feel they can’t discuss suicide.  On the other hand, her attitude was odd and flippant and could have been deeply hurtful.  It was a strange experience.

The next day we were poking around in shops in Northampton, and I came across the following book:

bunny suicide book 

This, I have to say, floored me.  The woman at dinner meant no harm.  Her attitude was unusual, certainly, and probably more of a mask to her own discomfort with the topic than anything else.  This book, though, is another story.  This is haha, isn’t suicide funny and wouldn’t it be great to draw cartoons of bunnies killing themselves and won’t people laugh?  And won’t we – the author and publisher – make money out of mocking something that kills one million people annually?  Something that kills more people each year than breast cancer.  Can you imagine, even for a second, any store carrying a book that mocked people with breast cancer?  It’s October, and almost every store we went into carried some kind of pink bracelet, necklace, scarf, hat, whatever, meant to remind people how horrible breast cancer is.  No mockery.  Sympathy, support, dialogue and money.  That’s what breast cancer gets.

I am not minimizing breast cancer.  My grandmother had breast cancer, and we lose way too many wonderful women and men to that disease every year.  But this, to me, is illustrative of a divide I have written about before.  A deep and dark divide that separates our perception and treatments of those things we consider medical problems, and those we have chosen to label as mental problems.  It’s okay to mock those, you see, because those are things that are just in people’s MINDS.  I think maybe it would help if we stopped using the word “mental” because it implies something controllable.  “Mind” is not that helpful a word either, because we can make up our minds, can’t we?  If we can make up our minds, why can’t we control so-called mental illnesses via sheer willpower?  The reason that we can’t, of course, is that they are not in our minds.  They are in our BRAINS.

Part of me wishes I could go back to that restaurant, back to that moment, and find a way to gently yet firmly let that woman, whose name I do not know, that more people are affected by suicide every year than she probably has imagined, and that talking about it the way she did is thoughtless.  I truly didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but at the same time, her attitude is as much of a problem as the air of secrecy and shame that most people adopt when they are discussing suicide.  I made my choice in that moment, though, and I think it was probably the right one.  That wasn’t the place for a lecture.

I will, however, write a letter to the publisher of that book and give them a piece of my mind.  I can at least do that.

A New/Old Voice in My Head

NaNoWriMo

Something happened this week that hasn’t happened in a long time.  Before I met Tony, before we started writing screenplays together, I was working on a novel.  I wrote short stories.  I always knew I had a story that needed to be told when I could hear the characters, clear as day, talking to me. 

About sixteen years ago, I wrote a couple of short pieces on Halloween.  Both were for a Yahoo group I belonged to, a group of people who were Northern Exposure fans and had met on a separate group.  Shortly after forming that group, we decided to have an Halloween party, a sort of online costume party where the costumes were words.  I thought about it and got an idea – heard a voice, really – and wrote, lickety-split, this one page monologue.  The character was a 12 year old boy named Charlie, talking a mile a minute about what some friends of his had seen at the cemetery.  His words said he didn’t believe in ghosts, but I think it was clear that he did.

That’s the only thing I ever wrote about that character.  Sixteen years have passed.  And yet last Saturday, on the way home from the Out of the Darkness walk, he nudged me and started talking again.  This time he’s got a longer story to tell.  A story about loss and love and cemeteries and ghosts and bravery and yes, suicide.

So.  It’s been almost a year since I’ve written fiction.  Over a decade since I’ve written fiction that wasn’t a screenplay.  But the other day I signed up for NaNoWriMo.  For those of you who don’t know, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month, and it happens every November.  Participants join for free, and agree that they’re going to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November.  That’s 1,667 words a day.

I’m telling you, my blog readers, because it’s important to me and because I want you to keep me honest.  I’ll report here about my progress, and maybe post an excerpt.  It’s going to be a YA novel, in the form of Charlie’s journal (he fancies himself a reporter) and I am determined to do it.  My working title is The Unraveling of Gracie Stone. Not only is this a return to a kind of writing that I love and have missed, but it’s also a way of raising awareness about something that is so important to me, but in a way that will be, I hope, entertaining and funny and thought-provoking.

When Autumn Leaves Start to Fall

changing leaves

I don’t know why it’s hitting me so hard, this seasonal change.  Maybe because last autumn was so hard.  Tony’s mental health had already started to deteriorate by then, but the last two or three months were often spectacularly difficult.  He was having what I can only describe as paranoid delusions.  He feared that everyone was after him, that so many things that would have meant nothing to someone not in the throes of serious mental illness were ominous to him, signals that the world at large was sending him messages.  A red tee shirt meant the person wearing it was part of a conspiracy.  Anybody riding a bicycle was suspect too.  Any pair of people, because the number 2 meant something.  Most colors – red was the first, but as the autumn progressed other colors joined in – blue, green, pink.  Toward the end, especially pink.  And then on October 15th my boss called to tell me his wife had taken a terrible fall and he would be out for the foreseeable future.  He was so distraught when he called that for a while, I thought she’d died and my heart broke for him.  He told me that the owner of the company would be in to do the daily financial transactions, things that I wasn’t yet authorized to do. 

And she didn’t show up.  9:00 came and went.  10:00 came and went.  I emailed her, I called her cell phone and her home phone.  No response.  I knew something had to be wrong.  I called her elder daughter, not realizing she was in Mexico and thus without her cell phone.  Later in the day I finally called her younger daughter, who was away at college in northern California.  I got her voice mail, but she called me back that evening and told me that her mother had had a stroke, and she cried and told me that I had probably saved her life.  Throughout the day I could feel my back tightening, and by the end of the day it was really hurting.  I had a trip planned to Seattle for the end of that week to celebrate my sister’s birthday, and by the time I got off the plane I could hardly walk.  By the time I got back to San Diego it was clear something was really wrong with my back.

Tony, I think because he already planned what he would do in December, thought for a while that my injury was psychosomatic.  Meanwhile, I couldn’t walk upright, couldn’t stand comfortably or sit comfortably or lie down comfortably.  I had horrible pains down my legs.  I thought it was sciatica, which I’d had before, but it just got worse and worse and pain meds didn’t help.  Finally I was diagnosed with a herniated disk and had surgery December 6.  Fifteen days before Tony died.

Autumn has always been my favorite season.  But this year the cooling weather, the falling leaves, mark the beginning of the end of my first year without Tony.  The mark the approach of dates that I wish I could erase from the calendar forever.  The mark the approach of my birthday, tomorrow, and all I can think about that is that I’ll be 45, and Tony never will be.  He never saw 43, let alone 45.  He’ll never be any older.

The other things this early autumn have brought are the death of my sister’s beloved dog, CJ, who helped me immeasurably with her sweetness after Tony died; and the impending death of Tony’s mother, who last week was told she has about two weeks left to live.  I was not at Laura’s when CJ died, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to her.  I know she knows I loved her, just as I know that Tony knew that I loved him; but that doesn’t make it any easier.  And Tony’s mom?  I can hardly stand to think about that.  She’s been battling cancer for nearly five years.  In that time she lost most of her colon, part of her liver, and her only son.  Now she is going to lose her life, soon, and I’m not sure I can bear it.  I don’t want to bear it.  I wrote before about walking through the fire, leaning into the pain.  Now, for the first time, I truly fear it.  I don’t want to think about the time leading up to Tony’s death.  Already, a few times, I’ve had to type that date, December 21st, and each time it makes me want to vomit. 

I can’t think about my birthday.  I can’t think about the anniversary of that awful day that Tony’s life ended.  I can’t think about his mother’s impending death, or about anything really.  I don’t want to.  I am wallowing and I know it and I can’t seem to stop.  I just want someone to take this away from me, to tell me I don’t have to feel all these awful feelings.  I know that’s not the way it works.  But somehow, today, this fall, it’s not helping.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll keep going.  I’ll feel the feelings.  I just wish I didn’t have to.