Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's All So Personal Now

I have always been the sort of person who is passionate about politics. Raised in a military family, I took my patriotism seriously from a very young age. I love my country unabashedly; I cry when I hear the National Anthem and I wear red, white, and blue on all the appropriate holidays. Couple that with an adolescent love of historical fiction set in Revolutionary America, and it didn't take long for the ideals of our founding fathers to take root in my psyche. I joined the ACLU when I was 17 years old and have remained convinced that our constitutional freedoms are the backbone of this nation, worth defending at any and all costs. I voted in my first presidential election in 1984 and was sad, but not surprised, when my very first candidate - Walter Mondale - lost to Ronald Reagan. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Walter and I hope he's enjoying his retirement years in Minnesota.

By the time the next presidential election rolled around, I was the mother of an extremely precocious almost-three year-old. She liked to do what ever Mama did and so I took her to the polls with me to experience democracy in action. Thanks to the kind-hearted women working the tables that year, Britt was allowed to accompany me into the voting booth. I showed her how to flip the levers and pointed out the ones we wanted. In 1988 we (or Britt on my behalf, really) voted for Dukakis. She was heartbroken when he lost and she vowed to "vote harder!" next time. We did vote harder, each year heading to the polls together and requesting (and getting) a booth for two. The next two elections gave her a taste of the power of the ballot. 'We voted for him and he WON!" Indeed. We also developed a shared crush on Al Gore and were thrilled to get to see him in person when he and Tipper campaigned in one of our downtown squares.

As the years of the Clinton administration went by, her admiration for Al Gore continued to grow. She embraced his environmental causes with the sort of fervor that only teenagers know and she campaigned hard for him in the 2000 election. She was stunned by the shadiness of that election and took to referring to the sitting president as The Shrub. Where she'd once been a Democrat by default, she had now embraced the party on her own terms. On her 18th birthday, in December of 2003, she asked only for a Voter's Registration Card. I was happy to oblige and I still remember how miffed she was to realize that Georgia does not register voters by party. It pained her that her card didn't label her a Democrat.

In 2004, we voted separately for the first time in her life and I voted alone for only the second time in mine. Her own booth. Her own vote. Her own voice. I really couldn't say which of us was more excited. We talked for a long time that night about how important so many things were to her: gay rights, women's rights, the environment, immigration reform, access to health care, the poor...and I remember her saying "It's all so big, maija, and so important. How can anyone not see?" And I reminded her that it's our job to help people see, in the way we vote and in the way we live.

This week, I'm watching the convention without her for the first time in 20 years. I miss her passion and her commitment and some days it's So Hard to summon the energy to keep caring. But, I made her a promise: I won't forget that it's still our job and now I'm doing it for both of us.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Not Enough Duct Tape in the World

One nice thing about the Ostriches and Eggshells of the world is that they run away so fast; one is spared having to expend precious energy trying to explain anything to them. They’ve left skidmarks; they cannot hear you; save your breath. You’re going to need it for The Fixers.

The Fixers are not afraid of death. In fact, they’re not afraid of anything because they’ve never had a problem they couldn’t solve, a situation they couldn’t handle, or a relationship that wasn’t perfect or ended for a perfect reason. Of course, they’ve never had a child killed in a motorcycle accident either (a great many of them have never had a child at all) but that is, according to them, an insignificant detail. What they know is that something in my life is broken and needs repair. These are the fixers I’ve met so far:

  1. What-You-Need Girl: What You Need Girl has no children and most often no significant other. She may have a cat, but that’s iffy. Her MO is being self-sufficient and self-contained and she’s the sort of friend you love to have around when you're newly, unexpectedly single (What you need is a night on the town!) or feeling your advancing age (What you need are highlights and a manicure!) or feeling stressed and overworked (What you need is a vacation…here’s the key to my beach house!), because she’s always been so great at distracting you and finding things to fill the holes in a life. In the last year or so she’s become prone to saying things like “What you need is a new hobby!” or “What you need is to volunteer!” What she really means is she wants me to find something to fill up this hole in my heart. She doesn’t know how to let an empty space just be empty.

2. Move On Girl: Move On Girl is fairly certain that we have exceeded the allowable time for mourning by at least two years. Her mission is to help us box up our remaining grief and get on with the businesses of living. She offers books and seminars and self-help tapes. She talks a lot about resolution and closure and most of her sentences begin with “Don’t you think it’s about time you….” She doesn’t know how to take no for an answer.

Hmmm…there doesn’t seem to be a number three. Maybe that’s because “What You Need Girl” covers such a broad spectrum. Regardless, it’s getting harder every day to know they look at me and see someone broken instead of someone broken hearted.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hard Truths and the Occassional Easy Landing

So, that last bit was a little harsh, yes? These days, I find it's best to get the hardest bits on the table early in the game. It's a fact that's not ever going to change and frankly I don't have enough energy to deal with people who cannot deal with that. The bad news is that's a lot of people. An astounding number of people. During the last three years I've met scores of them and have begun categorizing them in my head. So far, they break down something like this:

1. Happy Girl* – Happy Girl’s whole life is about, you guessed it, being happy. She likes to go to fun places, do fun things, tell funny stories. There’s no room for death in Happy Girl’s world because it is most definitely not fun. Happy Girl disappeared sometime between the accident and the funeral. We haven’t seen her since.

2. Eggshell Girl* – Eggshell Girl cannot bear it. It is just too hard for her and she doesn’t understand how we cope. In truth, she resents that we cope and rarely misses the opportunity to tell us how she wouldn’t be able to do it. She says things like ‘I’d still be in my bed’ and ‘I would have had to quit my job.’ Fortunately, her opportunities to say these sorts of things are rare because what she mostly cannot cope with is seeing us coping.

3. Ostrich Girl* – Ostrich Girl has reality issues. In short, she doesn’t like it. She spends her life pretending that bad things happen only to faraway people or people who deserve it and we are a constant reminder of the absurdity of that belief. Ostrich Girl doesn’t always avoid us but she avoids the topic or anything remotely related (motherhood – her own included – , traffic, college, etc.) as though it were the plague. The best we can say about this is that conversations are mercifully few and brief.

4. It Could Happen To Me Girl* – It Could Happen To Me Girl is convinced we are now carriers of some awful virus. If she gets too close she might catch Tragedy and then all sorts of terrible things will befall her and so it’s just better, you see, to keep as much distance between us as possible. She will call occasionally and we’re still on the Christmas Card List, but she won’t be dropping by. And just forget all about those holiday-party invitations and afternoons at museums and getting together for coffee. It might be catching and a girl’s got look out for herself.

The good news is that the people who are left are what my friend Kat would call 'Finest Kind.' And, if you're reading this, you're probably one of them; an easy place to land in a sea of rocky ground. It's pretty rare and I am grateful for every one of you.

[*This naming convention is not meant to imply that guys are any better at this stuff. I'm female and 'she' is my preferred pronoun default. There are plenty of Happy Guys and Ostrich Boys to go around.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Word I Won't Find

Before I plunge headlong into the words I’ve found, I want to mention a word I won’t be talking about here because it doesn’t exist: What am I, now that my only child is dead? I cannot name it. I haven’t been widowed; I’m not an orphan. I’m definitely not childless (more on that another day); my daughter is just as much my daughter now as she was the day before she died.

Try to imagine being something, becoming something, so outside the realm of rightness that no word exists for it. Try to wrap a brain that has spent a lifetime immersed in finding just the right word around the idea that it is now nameless.

Yes, I am a mother and a wife and a daughter and a sister. I am a niece and an aunt and a cousin and a friend. I have a title at work and some funny nicknames known only to a handful of people. But I can tell you all of that and you still won’t have the most important piece of the puzzle: I am a mother whose only child is dead.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Finding My Words

In the months after my daughter was killed, I often found myself at a loss for words. Not just the specific words for what had happened and who I had become, but the regular every-day words that had always come so easily to me. I could not describe what I was feeling or explain what I was thinking. I struggled to remember the simplest names for the most ordinary things. I pointed a lot and secretly wished everyone would stop talking to me just to save myself the effort of trying to talk back. Or that they'd at least have the compassion to learn to read my mind.

It took a long time for the words to start coming back. These days, I still struggle for the specific words (what am I now? who am I now?), but the ordinary ones have returned in a flood that threatens to overwhelm me. I will spill them here.