22 February 2005

"Letters Never Sent"

"The greatest give you ever give is your honest self." ~ Fred Rogers - "The World According to Mister Rogers"

This week has been completely strange. My son has been sick for several days with what has evolved into a nasty case of bronchitis. No, that's not the diagnosis of Dr. Mom, I took him to an actual doctor, the kind with the letters "MD" after his name, and he made the initial diagnosis. I simply concurred.

It's funny, but even though my son is at the advanced age of 18, when he is sick and it's quite obvious he's not feeling anything close to well, I instantly switch into hyper-vigilant, "Stick-this-thermometer-in-your mouth, and you need to drink 32 ounces of fluids every hour. Is your throat sore? DON'T TALK WITH A THERMOMETER IN YOUR MOUTH! Are you going to answer me? Does your throat hurt? Shhhhhh - one more minute - close your lips! Would you like me to help you blow your nose?" mode.

Naturally, this annoys Justin to absolutely no end, as well it should, but try though I might, I just can't seem to contain those overly protective maternal tendencies. Somewhere deep inside, as much as it irritates him, I think he knows I mean well. I really don't take all of the eye-rolling too personally. We both have a job to do. I'm supposed to be way too attentive and he's supposed to wish I'd take a trip overseas until he's feeling better.

This week has been very much like that. We went to the doctor's office Monday afternoon, and as we were registering at the front desk, it was crystal clear that my role was different now. The first clue was when the appointment secretary, upon noticing that Justin was now 18, handed HIM the forms to fill out, requesting HIS signature on the HIPPA Form, handing HIM the yellow copy to keep for HIS files. Ha! Crazy woman doesn't know he has absolutely NO filing system nor does he possess a filing cabinet to house these "files" that don't exist. I think this made him feel instantly better and about 30 years old, and I started to feel instantly superfluous and an inanimate prop. I was now an accessory without a great deal to contribute.

When "we" were invited into the suite of examination rooms by the nurse, once again, my role consisted of sitting in the corner and remaining quiet. The nurse's questions were directed at HIM; what were HIS symptoms? How long had HE felt this way? Anything peculiar happening that the doctor should be aware of and had HE taken any medicine today? HE can't remember homework assignments or even what HE had for dinner yesterday, and HE'S supposed to be able to answer such a complex set of questions?

Wait a minute, is this all about him? I guess it is. Turns out that he has become his own person. An individual. Legal, in fact. He is someone I adore.

She took his temperature and I asked if he had one. Both of them looked at me as if noticing, for the first time, that someone else was in the room. What was his blood pressure? Again, my query seemed almost too probing and I was eyed suspiciously as I was reluctantly informed that his BP was 122/80. What was it to me?

It's everything to me. It's my son. I don't care if he's taller than me, outweighs me and that he now shaves and has a deep voice. It was my little boy being checked, the one that offered two days of really hard back labor to occupy me until he FINALLY deemed it appropriate to make his entrance into this world, way back on the night of November 21st, in that ancient year of 1986. Even after the passage of all this time, it still matters to me if he's running a fever or if his lungs sound a bit congested. I make no apologies for that, no matter how many annoyed glances are cast my way. I wasn't asking for etiquette, I wanted numbers and I was going to get them, even if I had to pry that chart out of Nurse Ratchett's claw. It's my place to be interested and maybe even a little pushy and I'd hate to disappoint everyone by not assuming the role I was meant to play.

The doctor, fortunately, was much more gracious and actually shook my hand when he entered the exam room. I had been elevated from an accessory to a real, live, actual person. This doctor obviously understood that "Mother Angst" is hopelessly terminal and apparently he learned to make peace with it long ago. My questions were now answered without the glare and a couple of his questions were kindly directed toward me. I must have appeared like Amy Sedaris' character "Jerrie Blank" in "Strangers With Candy" - "I'VE GOT SOMETHING TO SAY!" And someone listened. I love this doctor.

Apparently, he's not only kind and respectful of my position as overprotective mother, but he's a pretty sharp cookie in his own right. He detected that my voice sounded a little on the raspy side, and ordered me on the table for a quick "look see". I protested, reminding him that we were here for my son, but he just ignored that completely. Before I could say "this isn't really necessary", he had his icy cold stethoscope attached to my chest and was asking me to breathe in such a way as to encourage dizziness and hyperventilation. Bottom line, we both left out of there with prescriptions for potent antibiotics and really strong cough syrup. He didn't even charge me for the impromptu exam. What a guy!

So I came home and pushed fluids and dispensed medicine. His, not mine. I haven't taken mine yet, preferring to save it for a day when I'm really sick. I'm still just popping the occasional actifed and I don't feel all that bad.

This whole bacterial/viral induced illness has left me a little bit RID (restless, irritable and discontent). I haven't been the nicest person in the world, and to be sure, in my interpersonal dealings of late, I could have chosen a few of my words a bit more carefully, but it seems as though when someone I care deeply for is sick, I can get downright surly to the rest of the world or, at least, the people in my immediate sphere. It's not that I am apologizing for having some of the conversations and discussions I've had in the past 48 hours, because I'm not. I've even found myself calling a few people on their behavior and incongruities and taking THEIR inventory, something that Stuart Smalley would surely frown upon. Never mind that I often display the same attributes and character defects. In retrospect, and who doesn't enjoy retrospection, I'm pretty certain that I could have been a little more pleasant in my delivery, especially if I was going to poke around in areas that were basically none of my business.

When I have a sick child, even if that child is 18, I tend to narrow my focus into something very tunnel-esque and my peripheral vision mysteriously disappears. I trip over anyone other than the immediate patient, and I pay very little heed to other people I care about, and their feelings. I dispense with my usual tact, and common courtesy can take a real beating. I'm sure I owe a few amends, but to be perfectly honest, I just don't feel ready to make them. It may not be right, but it's exactly how I feel and I am owning it, thank you very much. I should probably have a warning label stamped on my forehead that says "Interact at your own risk...no filter on board", right below the one that says "SUCKER", which is visible only to my offspring - and you know who you are.

February is not my favorite time of year. It's the month I grow older and am required to add another year to my age. It's the month that winter begins wearing out a welcome I never extended in the first place. I am tired of evenings that grow dark long before I am ready. I become impatient for spring and warmth and new life. Winter torpor does not suit me.

I miss extended daylight.

I miss warm sand, ocean waves with civilized temperatures just begging me to wade into them on long beach walks.

I miss having the luxury of swimming, no matter the hour of the day or night, in water so warm it could be mistaken for a bathtub. Even in the deep end.

I miss turning flips in the water and stretching all of my muscles in my most favorite element. I still enjoy pretending I'm floating in space when I'm doing underwater spins.

I miss laying on my back on the beach in the evening, waves crashing just a few feet away, and staring up at the stars on late spring and summer evenings, almost always catching the glimpse of a twinkling light arcing across the sky, inviting me to make a wish or two. I always oblige. It's not that I put any real stock in wishes made on stars, it's just way too much fun an exercise to let pass by. I never let the opportunity to make a wish slip away.

I miss the smell of honeysuckle and lilac scenting the air as fireflies dart around in the low lights of dusk. I no longer chase them, but I do still love their light show. Memories of mason jars and piercing holes into tin lids so the bugs can breathe, always flood my mind, every single time I see those yellow tail lights.

I miss sitting in my back yard with friends, drinking iced tea and dangling our feet in the warm chlorinated water, talking about things as mundane as shopping and traffic and as existential as finding one's purpose and how best to utilize individual talents. Basically just bouncing ideas about anything and everything. Conversations that have the freedom and flexibility to go anywhere, and often do. I love two and three-way mental excavations.

"In a suitcase tied with string, on the highest shelf.
In a closet down the hall, hidden from myself.
Fits of madness, pools of grief, fevers of desire.
How peculiar these remained salvaged the fire.
Some I've crumpled, some I've burned, some I've torn to shreds
Lifetimes later here they are, the ones I saved instead..."

Finding one's purpose creeps into a lot of my thought these days. I know I have one and I have a hunch as to what it is, but I just need to find a way to get from Point A to Point B and, more importantly, I need to extinguish all of the reasons I can find to avoid facing my challenge. Procrastination can be crippling and downright lethal. I realize more and more that my time on this planet is finite, and all of those seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years are becoming so much more precious and isn't it just a shame that some of us are so slow to grasp this realization until we have more than a couple of years under our belt? I must have been too busy wasting time to understand that it is not a thing to be squandered.

I was talking to a friend the other evening and it suddenly dawned on me (remember, I am blond) that in turning 45, my life is more than likely half over. That's such a chilling thought at times. I have to tell you that, though some moments have felt more like months, for the most part, 45 years has gone by pretty darn fast. I have no reason to believe that 45 more years, particularly given that they are my LAST ones, will only gather more momentum and swoosh by at an exponential rate of speed. I wish I could locate the brakes or slow down the second hand on the clock of life, but I'm sure I'd have just as much luck trying to lasso a tornado. A most impossible task.

I think about what I want to do, what I feel in my heart lead to pursue, and it both frightens and excites me all at the same time. It can be a very scary proposition, this setting out on a new track, a new topic, a new genre of writing - nonfiction in nature, but in a completely different area of real life. I know that if I don't give it my best shot, I will only beat myself up and make my next 45 years completely miserable, courtesy of my own self-inflicted punishment and disappointment. I can't allow that. Wasting time feels obscene.

Where does one find a nice, large crate of courage?

"Never reached their destination.
Mostly borne of pain.
They surface with the purpose of a trip down memory lane.
Broken hearted, breaking hearts, all the ways it went.
Evidence of what I saw in my experiments..."

Perhaps setting out on a scavenger hunt for courage is simply one more form of procrastination and I can no longer afford to do that. The writing I am working on is steeped in self-exposure. It's one thing to share deep secrets with a friend or two or three, but writing about deeply personal experiences, the kind of life-altering stuff that most folks work assiduously to keep under wraps, is intimidating and yet, it's also very freeing. We don't really get to decide all of the truth, but we do get to choose most of the secrets and revelation brings with it a certain vulnerability, lots of unknowns, questionable judgment and begs the question, how will it all be received?

It's so trite to tell someone not to worry about what other people think - it's a lot like saying to a worried Mom with a very sick child, "Don't be silly! A 105 degree fever isn't anything to be alarmed about - these things just have to run their course.". Such advice is easy to dole out when it's not YOUR kid with the "off the thermometer" fever. When it's your child spiking that temp, it's a whole other ballgame. When it's your reality, it becomes a crisis.

Of course, we worry what people think, even when we swear we don't. It's part of being human. It's nice to be unique to a degree, but we're taught that being "too unique" isn't always a good thing.

"Life's a riddle, life's a dream, life's an accident.
Now I'm going to set them free.
Letters never sent..."

The next few weeks are going to test my mettle and I will find out exactly what I am made of and just how bold I am. It's time to get honest with myself. Writing, in and of itself, is a solitary business. It doesn't coexist very easily with distraction and, speaking only for myself, it doesn't take a great many distractions to entice me to slack off. I can't afford many distractions in the next few weeks. It's crunch time and everything else is going to be scaled back. People will either understand or they will move on. I have to stay on task and staying on task means that I won't have the time to obsess about how those close to me are handling my self-imposed silence and non-participation in things I enjoy. I know me and I know how I get when I am set on a course like this. I become consumed and that's just how it works for me. Before this is over, I might wind up taking surly to a whole new level. I'm thinking that I might want to appoint someone to be my "amends" keeper. I'm sure I'll have a few apologies to make on the other side of this. But if I am to have a prayer of being successful and producing an honest body of work that I can be proud of and stand behind, I have to be willing to risk ruffling a few feathers - finches notwithstanding. I am willing to take that risk.

These days I find myself going back to a passage in "Letters to a Young Poet" by the ever so eloquent Ranier Marie Rilke; "This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, "I must," then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it."

The answer to that question reminds me, quite often, why I am doing this. Its both my rudder and my compass. Digging into this past I am writing about, the one that has brought me to this present that I am living, sometimes feels like a sea that will swallow up my little boat with one tall wave. Believing in the durability of my vessel, secure that it can take a few knocks from a sometimes confused ocean, is the key. I think of the advice I give friends who are just starting to write, to explore everything going on around them and to trust their selection of words, and then I must remember to apply such advice to myself. And I must also invite myself to trust it.

Beneath the self-doubt, the insecurities, the "what ifs", I recall some of the lessons Anne Lamott speaks of in "Bird by Bird", which isn't about birds at all. I'm pretty certain it's a book everyone should read, even if writing is of absolutely no interest to you. Anne Lamott's treasure of a book is more about living life and less about writing of it. Make no mistake about it, writing a book is a tricky business, but living a life with purpose and meaning is a much more formidable pursuit. Both are worth the effort and occasional angst. Both require courage and no small measure of faith.

"Life is a riddle, life's a dream, life's an accident.
So glad I saved them, here they are.
Letters never sent..." ~ "Letters Never Sent" by Carly Simon

Let us hope the end result will more than justify the means. I'm grateful for this medium, this chance to put things out there and write for fun release and decompressing catharsis. To my friends and family, please accept my most humble apologies for all the times you are going to get annoyed with me in the next few weeks. We'll catch up on the flip side, that is if we're still speaking. Promise.