Calendar and the Internal Critic
Tomorrow is my mom's birthday. It's the second one we'll be facing without her.
I feel like I just came through the dark, treacherous tunnel of Christopher Robin's stillbirthday. On Thursday, I felt kind of invincible, actually. Triumphant. I survived, and spent some much needed time feeling all the love for my lost little boy.
But now here's another tunnel. Another dark anguish, this time more complicated. And I am resentful. Why are there so many dates on the calendar?
Remembering is such a fucking waste of time.
I confided to Ian that I have an internal critic sitting on my shoulder, chiding me every time my heart stumbles over some morbid anniversary. And while I didn't exactly detail my critic's horrifying abuse, I did confess that the critic was there.
"I feel like I'm just using this all as an excuse to be lazy," I said, because my grief and depression completely derail any attempt at productivity I'd been pretending to muster. Clothes get left in the washer for days. We order in because I can't figure out making dinner. I try because I want to be "stronger" than my grief, but I just wind up circling the kitchen with an onion in one hand and a knife in the other. Eventually Ian will gently take them from my distracted hands and make Chinese food happen.
Sometimes, surviving looks kind of weird.
And when it looks weird; looks like ordering in and letting the whole house go all to hell, I sit back and hate myself for not being better at gritting my teeth through it.
Your grandmother buried all three of her children. She survived the Great Depression, the bombing at Pearl Harbor, losing her parents, her husband, and watching her native language fall into a hazy shadow. You can make dinner tonight, you stupid lazy cow. Cut the fucking onions, and then cut your fucking tongue out if you feel like complaining about it.
Sometimes, my brain isn't very nice to me.
And for my whole life, I've accepted it as the truth. I've felt like maybe I've been trying to hang on to all of this pain, rather than just doing the right thing by letting it go. Am I being a trauma queen? Looking for sympathy? Using my grief to get out of doing laundry?
For my whole life, I've listen to the shitty things that people have said to me and used their words to fortify my own self loathing. When my middle school friends accused me of just wanting sympathy, I didn't know it was okay for me to say YES, I want sympathy, is that so hard to bear? I heard the truth in their words and assumed I was wrong and horrible and just plain broken to need safety and landing and all of the gentle things that had disappeared when my father's mobility did.
It never occurred to me that we were children, getting more than a few things wrong. It never occurred to me that my friends were simply parroting the things we all heard the adults around us say. We were children! How could we have known any better? We were just acting out the way we'd been taught.
The adults, however. It was the adults who really fucked this shit up for me.
My mother didn't have time for my precious emotions. Do your homework; clean your room; just keep going on because there is simply no time for falling apart. Didn't we see that she had it so much worse, what with the job and the husband and the three moody children who just wouldn't do as they were told? And *poof* she disappeared, into the noxious cloud of being an aggravated caretaker.
My grandmother, the sweet and secret mother of my heart, went with her. I was alone, in a house filled with dying.
My teachers tried, I guess, but nobody knew worth a damn what to do. They excused me from doing my homework, a giant concession in my productivity focused Catholic school. I slipped farther and farther behind my classmates as homework time was replaced by hours spent wandering the hospital halls with my sister, or trying to finish assignments in the waiting room as anxious, nearly-weeping families stared at the chattering television.
And in between all of that, the moments spent at my father's bedside as we all started to understand that he would never walk again.
I was twelve when I learned that trauma meant you just put one foot blindly in front of the other. Or, at least, that is what you're expected to do. I also learned at twelve that I was a failure in this exhausted forward trudging. Weeks of homework went undone as I took the one source of glee available. I absolutely used my father's sickness to excuse half empty worksheets and hastily scrawled sentence diagrams. I felt like I was getting away with something, never understanding that I was just getting away.
Never understanding that I had needs of my own, outside my father's sickness.
Or that they were valid.
When my dad finally did die, my mother quit her job. She was the happiest I had ever seen her. Probably the happiest she ever was in her entire life. She cleaned my room. She made me lunch. Our living room was emptied of my father's hospital bed; of the supplies and stench that accompanied his infirmity. We got furniture, again. Turned the television to something other than the channel guide.
And we marched on. When my great-aunt died, we marched on. When my cousin was murdered in front of her children, when my other cousin was murdered in front of his. When my mom learned that her brother died, it barely even registered. Always she marched, wearing her much rehearsed smile mask.
This is how you go on.
But of course, that was just a show. Again and again my mother slipped into a pool of quiet rage. She'd try to find her footing, but fumble. And without knowing what else to do, she'd revert to the frozen silence that terrified me.
I have that same silence inside me. I have my own giant pool of rage filled with the injustice of grief and loss and heartbreak. I know why my mother pursed her lips and shook her head. Why she disappeared into herself and behaved as if we were alternately invisible and unbearable. I understand, but I am still angry.
I am so capable of being my mother. Of being exactly as fake-faced smile and "everything's just fine" and we all go marching on together. That's in my blood. It's what I know. But I know even more how damaging and painful it is when the containment of rage and injustice fails. And because I know that, I also know that my internal critic, my mental illness, is lying.
I know it's lying because I look at my calendar and I see mark after mark of remembrance that I was given no choice but to write down. I did not choose for my father to die. Or my son. Or my grandmother. I didn't choose for anyone I love to say goodbye. I did not choose any of my heartbreaks.
I am not choosing to be heartbroken just to get out of dinner. Or even laundry.
And I can't just choose happiness, either, if happiness means march-smiling without doing the time of proper tooth gnashing and breast beating. Means casting aside or roping in or pressure treating my sorrow.
But what I can choose...is remembrance. Is grief. Is time well spent in the absolute knowledge of all that I have had to let slip through my reluctant fingers. That these fingers are reluctant, because I would never ever have wanted to give back any of these people who have made my life everything it has ever been.
It hurts, you know. It hurts so much to walk around in this stupid world when I have already lost the best people I have ever known. It hurts so much that nothing seems worthwhile. Dinner seems meaningless. Everything seems shallow.
I wander, in circles, alone.
And then Ian takes the onion, and he takes the knife. He empties my hands until I can only be idle. In my idleness, I remember, and all of it fucking hurts. But none of is lazy, or stupid, or worthless. Because it takes an ocean of energy to live against all of this dying. And it takes even more smarts to know that you love more living people than you love ones who've already died.
And it's worthwhile, I think, to remember them. To plot all of these names onto a calendar, and remember. Because, in the end, it's all of us ever really have.
(So take that, mental illness. I'll not be your cow today.)