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Signs

I don’t believe in ghosts.

I barely believe in people.

It’s been ten months since my mother died and twelve months since my sister died. Still waiting for “signs,” like a chump.

Oh, I see signs, make no mistake. But they are bad ones. Maybe “signs” implies too much stock in an afterlife. Signifiers? Reminders? Reminders of the end. Not signs of where my mom and sister are now. I mean it: not one tweak, one cold spot, one floating feather weighted down with supernatural significance.

Today is the anniversary of my sister’s death. My husband drove like hell to get us to Ohio before she died. Other Ohioans may appreciate the serendipity of speeding down I-80 without a single state trooper pulling us over. When we reached her house, my family was gathered in the living room. I ran up the stairs to Lynn’s room, our sister Lisa trailing behind.

She touched my elbow as I turned into the hallway. “Wait,” she said, “I want to prepare you.”

But what can prepare you? A year later, and I still see Lynn’s wasted, yellow skin…her jutting teeth and cheekbones from the fifty-pound weight loss since her diagnosis less than two months previously.

But there is something else I see, too. As I sat next to Lynn for the next couple of hours, I noticed that she kept moving her legs, and the blanket kept slipping off her feet. I re-covered her feet several times, tucking the blanket underneath, but still she continued moving. The hospice nurse checked in periodically. I am not one to use the term “angel” lightly—or at all—but I think in human form, angels look a lot like hospice nurses. The nurse frowned as he saw me tucking the blanket in. I explained Lynn kept moving and the blanket kept sliding, but he nodded before I was finished.

He said, “Restless legs in the dying are a sign of pain,” and went for the morphine.

Lynn’s daughter, my niece, had arranged for her to get a beautiful pedicure in her last days. My niece’s friend was a nail technician, and she came to the house and lovingly attended to my sister’s feet. She painted her toenails a light, happy blue with tiny yellow and white daisies on her big toes.

The blanket slides. Blue toes and flowers. Cover her up. But still the blanket moves, like it’s a living thing. Yellow skin and cold feet. Blue toes up again. And now the hospice nurse, his auburn beard and green scrubs, his halo and his morphine bottle.

Blue toes, blue toes. A sign, a reminder. I see them when I close my eyes. I see them at the pool a year later, pedicures on my friends, who are gorgeous, living women. Flip-flops and cheery sky-blue toes and sunshine and iced tea and kids running. June days. In my gut I feel a stab of grief, an automatic, Pavlovian response when I see these summery pedicures in shades of sea. Sky blue is the color of death for me, not black. How perfect her toenails looked then, glossy and lovely, and it twists me up because I think that even now they still look like that in the dark and lonely underground.

Two days after my mother died, a drunk driver crashed into the the front of our house, and it’s only been the last week that any of it is getting repaired. The front steps bow to the street in a permanent curtsey, flanked by dead evergreens, like my house is abandoned or wants to be.

Every time I pull into my driveway and see the wreckage of my house, I see the wreckage of my mom. Another sign, another reminder. Am I putting undue emphasis on a broken house? Like my broken mother in the hospital? She fell in their apartment and broke her shoulder, and three days later she was dead. Old people move so slowly when they’re alive and so quickly when they die.

My mom, too, used to put stock in signs. We had a lot of discussions about that. She loved a good ghost story, I will tell you that. When my grandpa was dying, Mom begged my dad to fix the sagging purple martin birdhouse that Grandpa had put up in our yard. In her mind, she saw the birdhouse as a portent for Grandpa’s future. The more decrepit and crooked it became, the worse my grandpa’s prognosis grew. “Fix it,” she ordered my dad—she, who never ordered anyone to do anything. My dad got out the ladder and his toolbox many times that autumn and jury-rigged the birdhouse into a semblance of a standing structure.

Grandpa hung on for a few more weeks, and the birdhouse, propped up by a two-by-four and an old swing set, listed to the south whenever the winds shifted. One evening I found her standing in the backyard wearing my dad’s coat and smoking a cigarette, gazing up at the birdhouse.

“It’s not fair,” she said.

“No, I guess not,” I said.

“I don’t mean that. I mean me, what I’m doing to Grandpa. I thought fixing the birdhouse would save him, but all I’m doing is prolonging his suffering. I’m not being fair to him.”

Maybe through her strange brand of Midwestern voodoo, she really felt that propping up a birdhouse could interfere with the natural order of life and death. I almost said something, but I watched her drag on that cigarette, its ember glowing in the diminished light, and I changed my mind.

“Take it down, Jim,” she called to my dad.

Grandpa died days afterward. I don’t know where the purple martins went. But birds are resilient creatures, unlike people.

Exactly one year has gone by since Lynn died, and still no signs. One time after I made my bed, I stood there and waited for an indentation to appear on the covers. I asked out loud, “If you’re here, can you please just sit on the bed so I can see the indentation?” I hear about bed indentations all the time on those ghost-hunter programs and haunted hotel shows, and those people don’t even want to see them. So why not me? I waited and waited, but nothing.

“Let’s go see a psychic,” Lisa suggested recently. “Like a two-for-one deal.” This is what it’s come to: pooling our money so some huckster can fleece our grief.

“No,” I said, “I’m not doing it. Those people are fakes, but they have good intuition and know what to say to make you believe in ghosts.”

My mother, a thrifty woman, would never approve of us spending money to hear her messages from the Great Beyond. If anything, she would refuse to communicate on that principle alone.

I talk to them in the car a lot, whenever I’m by myself. But nobody answers.

I talk to them when I go for walks at Butler Lake because it’s a beautiful place of open fields and flowers and paths and birds, everywhere birds. But nobody answers. I listen and watch for signs—a bird, a flower, a butterfly, anything, anything—and I see those things, but they are not signs. Maybe they are signs of beauty and nature, but they are not signs of my mom or sister reaching out to me.

Yesterday, I walked the shady path that goes from Libertyville High School to Butler Lake, and a black and blue butterfly followed me. It flew in circles around me as I walked, and I stopped and waited. Back of me, front of me, and all around.

“Lynn?” I said.

It fluttered by; the dappled sunlight through the trees glinted off its sky-blue wings. And then it flew on. I watched it fly away, and I understood that I was in a place where nobody knew my heart even a little bit.

The Great Unsold

As a proud grocery-cart Catholic (I pick and choose what I like from that religion, and leave behind what’s rotten and expired), I decided to give up Facebook for Lent. So I haven’t connected with readers much the last month or so, nor with friends on my super secret personal Facebook page. It’s freed up a lot of time for me, which I’ve then used for my hobbies (stressing out and crying). Not really. Maybe. One panic attack in that time, and it didn’t kill me, just like all the previous ones in the last year did not kill me. Both Nietzsche and Kelly Clarkson are wrong, though, because they didn’t make me stronger. I’m the same person. Alive and pulsing like a larva.

serenity!

Trying to assess where this so-called career is taking me, or where I’ve taken it. I’m not sure there is a future for people like me, writers who write what is not popular and that nobody wants and doesn’t sell. I know that is hard to believe. I’m not a marketing genius—or any kind, really—so self-publishing is not the path for me, and never was. I make my living at another career that is not really worth talking about.

Will there be other writing? Soon, sometime, some day. Maybe only here. Maybe only on my super secret personal Facebook page, once Lent is over. Maybe only screeds written on the back of cocktail napkins. Who can predict? The future is mysterious and unknowable.

 

The Time

Deep thought for the day as I watch other writers’ careers take off and resign myself to living and dying in relative obscurity: Wouldn’t you love to be Morris Day? Sure, everyone would, and not just the sexy people. I will tell you something: a lot of writers think they are him. But we’re not; the entire world is Morris Day. The job of a writer is not to be Morris Day, but to be Jerome and hold a mirror up to him.

 

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A Christmas Memory

Truman Capote wrote a tale with the same name, but his was about fruitcake. Nothing wrong with fruitcake, but I have my own Christmas memory.

When I was about ten, I made a candle for my parents in school. We melted down our red crayons and poured them into molds, sprinkled them with glitter, and inserted wicks. Mine looked much as you would imagine it did, but it was handmade and I was rather thrilled about it. I wrapped it and hid it under my bed.

That weekend, my dog found it and ate it and then vomited up waxy glitter all over the shag rug. Oh, what an ash heap of disappointment and failure. I couldn’t tell my parents about their ruined present, so I called my sister Lynn and wept bitterly. By then she was married and had her own home, so she drove over and picked me up and brought me to her house. She bought wax for us to simmer over the stove, a wick, and a pretty glass jar for us to pour the melted wax into. We wrapped the jar with a ribbon and sprig of holly. So much more beautiful than the one I had made at school. Both were handmade, but this one was made with love for me.

What a brief memory. But thirty years on, it shimmers in my mind…her happiness in helping me, her optimism that we could make a new candle, and that it would be fun. It was! We sat in her kitchen and she was excited to do this for me. I’m sure that, in her early twenties, she had other things she wanted to do on a Saturday in December, but I only know that now. Then, it felt like she would have rather done nothing else. Who knows? Maybe she did.

Christmas Eve today. It’s a hard road, and make no mistake…my first Christmas without her and my mom. What a long morning this has been, simultaneously wanting to make the holiday fun for my kids, yet there it is, those prickly fingers of dark dread creeping toward me in every room.

I’ll light a candle, though. For her, for them both. There will be a pinpoint of flame, a comet, a star following me when night wraps a velvet blanket around me tonight. A light in the darkness when all others have dimmed.

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Lonesome Life

All of 58 degrees today. Still, I wore shorts and flip-flops.

I don’t want this summer to end. Not because I feel nostalgic for these last three horrific months, but because if I agree to let this summer go, then it means we are marching forward, and HELL NO, I am not going on that hike.

I am staying right here. Spinning on this hamster wheel.

Keep on, summer. If you keep on, then I keep on. Deal? We can tread this hamster wheel together, and I will tell you something—I can spin this thing forever, even in my flip-flops.

Three months ago my sister died. One month ago my mom died. Summer, let me explain something to you, don’t mind if I catch you by the sunlight and yank you a few steps back, because you are not going anywhere.

What an action-packed season. Packed with crippling anxiety, full-blown panic attacks, medication and more medication, impulsive big decisions about my home and life and its mincing counterpart, indecision about even the smallest daily details (should I have toast? Should I have nothing? Should I waste a plate, or just shovel it into my mouth over the sink? Should I shower? Should I go to bed at 7:30? I think I can make it till 7:30). I can measure the summer days in quantities of tears shed and breakfast vomited up and miles walked and strings of snot and, best of all, the amount of alcohol it takes to fill up this empty shell. What a full life I’ve lived these last three months, which is more than my mom or sister got.

I talk to my dad every day, often two or three times. Last week, he caught me at the crest of one of my anxiety binges. I picked up the phone anyway, even though I knew I couldn’t hide the mess of me. If he calls and doesn’t get through, he spirals into a panic of his own, and doubling his panic and tears on top of my own is sure to drown us both.

“What’s the matter with you?” he demanded. “You sound horrible.”

I choked out something about feeling overwhelmed.

“What?”

“Overwhelmed.”

“What?” My father is 90 percent deaf.

“OVERWHELMED. BAD. I FEEL BAD.”

“I’ve never heard you sound like this in…in…how old are you?”

“Forty seven.”

“My God, you’re old, I thought you were forty. Anyhow, never mind that, forty-seven years, my God, never heard you sound like this. What’s going on?”

I hid under a pillow and a blanket with the phone. “There’s something wrong with my mental health.”

“What? Blood test?”

“Blood test? No, I said my mental health.”

“Blood test?”

“MENTAL HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH.”

“Go to your doctor,” he said. “Tell him you need a calming-down pill.”

“I…okay.”

“That’s not the medical name. Just say ‘calming-down pill,’ he’ll know what you mean.”

I promised I would ask about the calming-down pill even though I have a cupboard full.

“And call me later or I’ll worry, and you’ll give me a stomach ache.”

I hung up and screamed into the pillow for a while and then I walked my sister-in-law’s dog.

Together, my mom and my sister were the sun that the rest of the family, my dad and myself and my niece and my other sisters, revolved around. All the intergalactic mumbo-jumbo fits them. They kept us all turning nicely around the galaxy. Without them, we are planets spinning out of orbit, wildly clutching at one another as we break the bonds of gravity.

After each funeral this summer, my dwindling family and I sat outside on my sister Lisa’s deck, crying and drinking pitchers of margaritas. It was so close to being a perfect summer family party, except for the funerals.

“Nothing can happen to you.” I lurched drunkenly at Lisa, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Nothing can happen to you.”

She held on to my shoulders then, too. We were like two skydivers, the atmosphere threatening to force us apart. Then we slugged back another drink and stumbled through her neighborhood on a walk, where she was attacked by a poodle.

“Get away from her!” I screamed at the puffball.

It scampered away as its baffled owner called out, “Pretzel! Pretzel!”

My sister slumped against me on the way back home. “How embarrassing,” she murmured. “I can’t believe I was just attacked by a poodle.”

“I know! Are you bleeding?”

“No,” she said. “You saved me.”

My dad called me back that day last week when I fell to pieces over the phone. “I’ve been worried sick! You didn’t call! I don’t feel good.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. What’s wrong?”

“I have a stomach ache because of you, but never mind about that. Are you any better?”

“I guess,” I lied.

“Call me tomorrow morning,” he ordered, and then hung up.

Later, I got a text from Lisa.

Lisa: I’ve been talking to Dad…he wants me to make sure you are OK! 

Me: I’m fine. He feels useful looking out for someone else.

Lisa: Go get a blood test.

Me: What?

Lisa: idk…Dad said that.

The next day I walked my sister-in-law’s dog again. I took him to a park and I told him about how my mother and my oldest sister both died this summer. He was like, I don’t even know where my parents and siblings ARE. We went into the woods, and he rolled in something stinky.

“Oh shit, I forgot to call my dad,” I said to the dog.

There’s surprisingly good reception in the woods.

“I called you and called you!” Dad shouted his greeting. “Where were you?”

“Did you try my cell?”

“I don’t know where all those phone numbers are! Bah! Do you feel any better today?”

I looked down at the dog. “A little.”

“Did you get the calming-down pills?”

“I did,” I said, “and they’re awesome.”

“I have them, too,” he confessed.

The dog and I finished our walk. He was staying with us while my sister-in-law and her family were out of town. “You’re on vacation,” I told him. “You haven’t been abandoned.”

He looked at me, so sly and knowing. He waggled his sad dog eyebrows.  I know I was abandoned.

“You haven’t been abandoned,” I repeated.

I have. We all have.

Before bed, my cell rang.

“Dad said you’re not feeling well.” My other sister, Lori.

“I’m just depressed and having panic attacks and crying all the time, that’s all.”

“I hear you’re getting a blood test.”

“Christ almighty, I’m not—oh God, I don’t know, maybe I should just go get the goddamn blood test.”

She said, “I cleaned Dad’s apartment today, and his vacuum really sucks.” And we had a good, long, hollow laugh about that.

The dog went back to his rightful home on Sunday. “I won’t miss you. You didn’t belong to me,” I explained as we hopped in the car.

I know.

“You have a family. That’s where I’m taking you right now. And you were very congenial while you were here, I have no complaints, but that’s it. It’s over. We don’t belong together, and while I wish you well, it’s better if we just part now without too much fanfare.”

I will tell you something, though; he gave me a little bit of fanfare. But when I reached the agreed-upon halfway point and the other car pulled up, like two estranged parents in a custody battle, I couldn’t open the door. He panted, waiting for release.

“I really don’t like being touched,” I confided to him, “but here, just let me…I don’t know, maybe we could lean near each other or something, or have a warm handshake.” I took his paw. “There. That was nice. It was a pleasure having you. Best of luck.”

He bolted into the blue.

I drove forty-five minutes back home, blinded by rage and tears. “Fuck! Fuuuuck! Fuck this fucking life!” I hyperventilated into my sleeve and then pulled off the road near a farm stand. I slammed my sunglasses onto my swollen face and emerged from the car, trying to breathe.

“Goddamn it,” I said, striding up to the cashier sitting on a hay bale, flinging my wallet open like I was the Warren Buffett of Lake County, “I will take three pumpkins and a mum and I will take that hay bale, too.”

The fruits of fall, the harvest, crammed in the back of my Subaru. “Summer is over,” I wept into the steering wheel.

I made it home. I made it home. The sky above was gray and the air was thin and the grass was that peculiar shade of summer green dying into fall.

I called my dad. “This will never go away,” I cried.

“I know,” he said, “I know. It won’t. I don’t want it to. It’s all I have of her, of them both. Without it, I would be so lonesome.”

My family has a cemetery they can visit and each other and Lisa’s deck and Dad’s apartment and home, home, but I am 400 miles away and all I have are the woods where I walked a dog who wasn’t mine. I don’t even have the ghosts, only the ghost stories that I told the dog. But they still echo in the trees.

 

Good Grief

After the death of a loved one, you fall into one of two camps: those who grieve well or those who don’t grieve well.

Guess which camp I’m in.

Will this be a poetic post? Meaningful? Dark? I am 35 words in. I don’t know.

My sister died a month ago. Right now, as I’m typing this, I’ve stood here for ten  straight minutes, unable to type the next word. But there: I just did it. Also, I stand at my work station. Sitting is the new smoking. Just another unknown part of life that will kill you.

She died in my home state, where my entire family lives a short drive from one another. I live 400 miles from them. Nobody here knew my sister, not really. I live alone with this grief, but I don’t live alone, so grief is like a tenant in the basement. He comes upstairs for meals and to answer the phone and just hang out on the couch with me, uninvited. He sits on the edge of my bed and watches me not sleep.

My sister died of pancreatic and liver cancer, seven weeks after diagnosis. Seven weeks can be long for some things: morning sickness, housebreaking a puppy, dieting. Seven weeks is not long enough to process my sister going from feeling relatively okay, to feeling very unwell, to incoherence, to death.

I can tell you all the things that made up her life, but you would not know her life. I can say what I wrote in her obituary: that she was a mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. That she was an artist. That she worked in art therapy. I can write of her lifelong optimism, her otherworldly kindness. Her quiet and gentle nature. None of this means anything to you; it’s okay, I understand. You didn’t know her. And amid the pity I drown myself in, above all I feel pity for you because you didn’t know her, didn’t have a sister like her.

I drove 400 miles through the flash floods of Indiana, the sideways rain of Ohio, to say goodbye to her. I made it in time. Do you have any idea the difference this has made to me? I laid next to her on the hospital bed that hospice care had brought into her house, and she knew I was there.

“I love you,” I said, squeezing her hand.

“I love you,” she said, eyes wide.

Eyes shut. Eyes wide again.

“I’m sorry this is happening to you,” I said.

“I know.” She lifted her arm with effort and laid it across my shoulder. Even then, comforting me.

Less than three hours after I arrived, her pain was so intense that the hospice nurse had to up her morphine level. And then she fell into restless sleep. And eight hours later she died.

I did not know how grief, my freeloading basement tenant, would insinuate himself into my life after that. I thought the worst of it was having to drive to my parents’ apartment and tell them their daughter was gone. Or the wake and funeral. But once a freeloading tenant has made up his mind to live in your basement, he will stay until you evict him, by fire or force.

Sometimes tenants steal things from you. As a landlord, you must know this. Mine stole my sleep and appetite, and repaid me in a currency I had never used before: panic attacks and terrordread. Spell-check tells me that’s not a word. But that dictionary is old and doesn’t have all the new words.

Terrordread, terrordread, day and night. Suffocating in the shower, a burning tide that ascends from my belly into my throat. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die. I think I am going to die. I am going to die, let’s face it. But terrordread grips me by the throat and shakes me—he is in cahoots with grief, and together they shake me till what’s left of my old brain (sanity, mental health) rattles out like coins from a pocket with a hole in it.

Oh my God, here, take all of it. On the bathroom floor, I offer up the last of my currency. Please don’t kill me, I can’t die like this on the floor, my children are downstairs. Well, well, grief and terrordread are not completely heartless after all (they can’t be; they took mine), so they leave me with a headful of overwhelming fear.

You know that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Lucy asks Charlie if he thinks he has pantophobia, the fear of everything? And he leaps up triumphant, pointing to the sky like a Spartan warrior, and shouts, “That’s it!”

That’s it.

The fear of everything. I mean, that’s like the best sort of fear that exists, you know? Number one. The top kind, and I have it. Not to brag. But, wow…everything. Life and death and what comes between.

How can this happen from losing my sister? It doesn’t seem related. But it must be.

I’m going to tell you something now, landlord to landlord: we can’t let these sluggards just live in our basements for free. For one thing, my house is not zoned for multifamily living. But more than that, I want back what grief stole from me: my ability to think and breathe properly. I want to eat again without my esophagus closing up, I want to sleep, I want to feel emotions except terrordread. I want to stop crying at the pool with my kids. I want to stop resenting people for not mentioning my sister.

Grief is necessary, with all its attendant stages, but non-rent-paying basement tenant grief is not okay. I’ve started eviction proceedings.

I won’t ever, ever stop missing my sister. I loved her to death, and beyond. She was the best sort of sister that exists, and my other sisters will attest to that. Number one. The top kind, and I had her. Not to brag. But she was everything.

Kentucky Derby 2015

Time for my annual Kentucky Derby pick. Friends will recall their massive payouts during my four-year winning streak from 2001-2004. It began when my buddy Ralph the barber gave me a tip in 2001. I alone sauntered up to the betting window in Waukegan at the world’s sketchiest OTB (and that’s saying something) to collect on 20-1 Monarchos.

Things went quiet in my prognosticating abilities for a while (oh please, like it hasn’t happened to you) but resurfaced in 2013 with Orb. Ralph the barber, I think of you often, elderly now and living it up in Florida, hopefully blowing your retirement at Hialeah.

This 2015 field is deep and strong. I don’t often pick the favorite, but this year I have to go with the incomparable American Pharoah. I’m worried about his post position (#18), but I guess if it doesn’t bother Bob Baffert, it shouldn’t bother me. This video (shared with me by my pal, racing writer Ed DeRosa) is of a recent workout. Watch him blow by that other horse early on and give it another gear in the stretch. Watch how motionless the jockey is. He doesn’t urge him on, doesn’t even show him the whip; his hands are still as ice. The Pharoah is doing this all on his own. There’s a reason why racing analysts say he wins with “condescending ease.” Good golly goddamn, he’s something special.

We hate our brains

For a disease like Alzheimer’s, which has a trajectory that goes in exactly one direction, the challenges in dealing with it are varied and unique and always, always changing.

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Mom and me, 1973

The first few times your parent repeats herself in conversation, you might think, “Oh, a senior moment!” That might be patronizing, or it might be denial. After all, most people repeat one story or another now and again, and older people often do forget when they’ve already told you something. But when your parent (or in my case, my mother) asks me how old my son is three or four times in one conversation and doesn’t remember she has asked before, it feels surreal. I have to work hard not to dismiss the conversation as a strange collection of unrelated words. Will she even remember tonight that we talked?

“What grade is he in?”

“Fifth.”

“Oh, he’s so old!”

But there is one thing I never do. I never say, Mom, I already told you that, or Mom, you asked this five minutes ago, don’t you remember? One reason why I don’t lapse into those natural responses is because that’s kind of cruel. She can’t remember that she already asked me. She’s not doing it to annoy me. The other reason is more complicated, but more interesting. If I let her just talk, just ask whatever she wants or bring up topics that occur to her, I can learn new things about her. About not only the progression of her disease (She never used to ask how old my kids were, but now she does. Maybe the disease is accelerating right now), but about the different feelings and opinions that occur to her each time she asks the same question. Those things change. Her opinions change within one conversation. Can you say that?

“What grade is he in?”

“Fifth.”

“Aw, he’s still just a baby.”

And I see that maybe, with just the mere act of talking and listening, it inspires her brain to fire its synapses in new ways.

This morning she told me, “It’s soup day.”

“Does that mean you’re making soup?” I asked in horror, as she is not supposed to be cooking anymore.

“No, it’s just some silly thing they do in the building. You just drop in at my neighbor’s apartment anytime, like an open house, and she’ll have a bunch of soups for us to try.  People can stay. You can also come back for dinner.”

“Well, that sounds fun,” I said.

“I’m not going! I don’t want to have soup with a bunch of … of old people”—they are younger than her—”or … or strangers!” She knows them all. There are no strangers there.

“At least you wouldn’t have to cook. Plus you like soup. I mean, who doesn’t like soup? You would have to be a crazy person to turn down free soup.”

“Hmm,”  she said, considering. “Well … I do like soup.”

She changed tacks immediately. “It sounds quiet there by you. Where are the kids, in school?”

“They’re here. It’s Sunday, so …”

She cackled instantly. “Oh, of course! I’m so stupid. Every day is the same, I don’t know what I’m talking about.” But she said it good-naturedly, laughing at herself.

That’s another thing about Alzheimer’s. So much of the personality becomes blunted, but so much of it remains the same. I think if you are an easy-going person in your youth, you retain that into your dotage. I think bitter, angry young people become bitter, angry old folks. Just my opinion. My mom rarely yelled or flew off the handle when my sisters and I were growing up. She isn’t belligerent now.

“So what grade is he in now?”

“Fifth.”

“How’s he doing?”

I answered, and I awaited the new twists and turns ahead of us. I was not disappointed when my mother announced, “You know that Beyonce?”

“Yes!” I cannot wait to hear how Beyonce, that Beyonce, will reroute this conversation.

“In her video, she is dancing on the grave of Ulysses S. Grant! I think that is terrible!”

I laugh out loud. Among my friends, I am the arbiter of bad taste, but I’m not up on all pop culture. Did Beyonce do that? I cradle the phone between my shoulder and ear and Google “Beyonce Ulysses Grant” and discover that she indeed danced (using “lascivious choreography”) upon his tomb during a performance.

In 2003.

If nothing else, I adore that Alzheimer’s has allowed my mother to hang on to this juicy, lasciviously choreographed tidbit, waiting, waiting, for the right opportunity to unleash it twelve years later during a conversation about fifth grade and soup.

“I agree,” I say. “Terrible!”

“Disrespectful, is what it is. He defeated the Confederacy.”

And this is the thanks he gets. Beyonce’s patently inappropriate, scantily-clad gyrations on his grave.

If you don’t interrupt a person with Alzheimer’s, if you don’t constantly cut them off and say, “What are you talking about?” or patronize their conversational tangents, you can learn some pretty amazing things.

Other things, too.

“There’s no food in the house. We’ll have nothing for dinner,” she said, soup day forgotten. Her voice grew plaintive, confused, panicked. “What will we eat? They won’t let me drive to the store. Why aren’t I allowed to drive anymore?”

“I think just for, you know, safety reasons,” I said. My sisters and dad had decided it was for the best. And it is for the best. And for the worst, too.

“Where is the car?”

Two summers ago during a visit (the Alzheimer’s had just begun its ascent—or descent, if you want to think of it that way), my mom made spaghetti and meatballs for my kids, husband, and me. She wrung her hands the entire meal, apologizing for forgetting the salt.

“I can’t believe I did that. God, am I a fool or what? I’ve only made this FIVE HUNDRED TIMES in my life.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” I said.

“She’s getting old. Old people forget everything,” Dad said, smirking, no idea then what lay in store for the future.

She probably apologized for the salt six times.

“It’s okay, Mom. Salt is bad for you anyway.”

She shook her head and sighed. Then she said, “You know that Eminem?”

Oh God. My eyes darted over to my children’s impressionable ears.

She took my cue. “He sings about”—she lowered her voice dramatically, as one does when one discusses things too awful to discuss out loud, such as cancer and landlords and Eminem—”raping his mother! Honest to God, I heard it on the news.”

When? In 1996? Her altered brain doesn’t care.

She spends a lot of time pacing back and forth through the apartment, picking up little bits of lint and fuzzies off the carpet. She puts them in her pocket. She puts a lot of things in her pocket, like silverware. When people come over and leave their boots in the hall, she goes out there and picks up snow from the floor, examining it. She doesn’t know what it is.

She’s cooked broccoli on the stove and forgotten about it, burning the pan and setting off the smoke detectors. She has worn her shoes on the wrong feet all day and not noticed. She cannot understand how to put sheets on the bed. She throws parts for the coffee pot in the garbage.

“I better go,” Mom said on the phone today. “I’ve got to get your father off to church.”

“I don’t need help!” he shouted, his voice farther away. “You’re the one that needs help!”

“What do I need help for? I’m not going anywhere.” Some muffled sounds then…maybe she was looking for his coat or his keys. “Actually I’m …” Her voice trailed off and then there was silence for five or six seconds. “I don’t know what.” She expelled a gust of breath into the phone, sharp with frustration. “I hate my brain.”

“Me, too.”

“Hah! Wait, I know. It’s soup day. Our neighbor has people over.” And she told me the whole thing a second time.

“That sounds fun,” I said again.

“I like soup,” she said. “I think we might go.”

                                                        

[This video reveals a 12-minute virtual tour of what people with Alzheimer’s experience. It is an incredible experiment and shows you  exactly what it must be like to suffer with this affliction. It reminds me to have patience and compassion for my mom.]

This Year’s Life

Facts, figures, lists. How I love them! No matter how I add them up, they equal 2014.

Around Christmas, my FitBit stats were as follows:

  1. Sat through a 2.5-hour Hobbit movie
  2. Sat at my desk
  3. Curled into a depressive, fetal ball in bed
  4. Stood in front of the fridge eating a chicken leg
  5. Walked downstairs every day at 4:30 a.m. to move the Elf
  6. Stumbled around Target, looking for husband’s present
  7. Sat in my car, crying
  8. Clicked links
  9. Played Wii bowling

Rather fantastic, no? I think crying burns calories, as does moving my arm to eat the chicken leg. Emotionally, it was liberating, eating that chicken leg in front of the fridge like a barbarian, though I don’t know if barbarians had fridges, so perhaps I am culturally stereotyping them.

But that was just one lonely week. I thought I would tally all my figures from 2014. See if I could make sense of this year’s life.

The Profession

  • Books written this year: ½
  • Books on submission: 1
  • Offers: 0
  • Manuscripts cannibalized to make another manuscript: 2
  • Blog entries: 22
  • Journal entries in the book in my nightstand: 49
  • Full-time jobs I was offered that I didn’t even want: 0
  • Permanent freelance gigs lost: 1
  • Permanent freelance gigs won: 1
  • Conference calls where I: 1) called in, 2) announced myself, 3) pressed Mute, 4) put down phone: 4
  • Money earned from anything remotely related to writing: $0
  • Money earned from editing other people’s books: All of it
  • Satisfaction level from career pursuit: -987
  • Satisfaction level from correcting other people: +1

Dudes

  • Elderly men who tried to lure me into getting into the same revolving door compartment that they were in: 1
  • DILFs I wanted this summer at the community pool: 6. What? Delicious Icy Lemon Freezies
  • Grizzled losers who told me how no one at work was as smart as them: 2
  • Epaulets on any given shirt belonging to my husband: 2
  • Discussions with husband about epaulets: 500
  • Monologues I’ve sat through from husband about Trotsky’s epaulets: 10
  • Photos of husband wearing pink-and-white-striped shirt called “Cabana Boy”: 31
  • Times husband was asked if he was a member of the Kingston Trio while wearing “Cabana Boy”: 12
  • Epaulets I cut off otherwise nice olive drab men’s shirt: 2
  • Dances shared with husband: 0, because dancing is stupid
  • Old boyfriends who resurfaced by emailing me after 20+ years: 2
  • Old boyfriends who resurfaced by emailing me unpsychotic messages after 20+ years: 1
  • Dudes half my age that I checked out: 208
  • Dudes of any age who checked me out: 5
  • Dudes who I thought were checking me out but were actually looking at someone younger behind me: 4
  • Dudes who checked me out that were not trying to lure me into the same revolving door compartment that they were in: 1

Driving

  • Rage blackouts I had while driving behind cars with stuffed animals in their rear windshields: 8
  • Rap feuds I began while sitting behind a car that did not pull up fast enough in the Starbucks drive-thru line: 3
  • Eminem lyrics I wrote while stuck in traffic on I-94: 27
  • Bruised hands from pounding my fists on the steering wheel: 2
  • Nights I’ve driven to Target, talking to myself like Matthew McConaughey: 13

Self

  • Gray hairs: 6
  • Makeup that changed my life: 0
  • Makeup that will change my life: undetermined
  • Number of lipsticks I blend together to replicate the natural hue of my lips: 3
  • Shades of brown eyeshadow that I own: 15
  • Pounds gained: 4
  • Pounds lost: 4
  • Days ruined by number on scale: 100+
  • Number of scales I now own: 0
  • Pretty dresses purchased: 3
  • Hideous dresses purchased: 3
  • Pairs of ugly Old Navy shorts I ironed while crying in the basement: 1
  • V-neck t-shirts accidentally worn backward: 1
  • Sweatpants: 1 (don’t need more than 1 when 1 is my soulmate)
  • Sexy sandals: 4 pairs
  • Sexy sandals that in reality are flip-flops/Birkenstocks: 3 pairs
  • Scarves: infinity
  • Times I’ve been in denial about the size of underwear that fits me: 7
  • Amount of perfect-fitting bras I found in the irregular bin at TJ Maxx: 1
  • Times I’ve worn white socks/brown shoes/black sweatpants combo or Uggs/sweatpants combo: 25
  • Running shoes: 1 pair
  • Running shoes worn not for running but for walking to Walgreen’s to buy candy: 1 pair
  • Prescriptions for Lexapro: 1
  • Actual number of Lexapro pills consumed: 1
  • Underground zits currently gathering strength: 2
  • Tears shed over stupid shit that doesn’t matter: zillions

The Family

  • Times I walked Dad (over the phone) through mundane household tasks, such as changing bed sheets: 3
  • Cookies Dad returned to Costco: 1 tray (flavorless)
  • Rotisserie chickens Dad returned to Giant Eagle: 1 (dry)
  • Pork chops Dad returned to Heinen’s, grilled but put back in packaging: 2 (inedible)
  • Peaches Dad returned to Heinen’s: ¼ (mealy)
  • Episodes of Dad crying on phone: 5
  • Times I was able to help him feel better: 0
  • Assorted family batshit emails: 6
  • Margaritas shared with siblings: 4 pitchers
  • Dogs that died: 1
  • Arguments with Dad about how to activate a gift card: 2
  • Conference calls with family members about assisted living facility: 1
  • Emails about assisted living facility: 7 or 70
  • Thoughts about assisted living facility: 300+

Etc.

  • People who have thanked me for my understanding: 5
  • People that I actually understand: 0
  • Times I bought a book that was a number-one bestseller: 1
  • Times that book was the D&D Player’s Handbook: 1
  • Nights I’ve been drunk drunk: 1
  • Nights I’ve been a charming drunk: 6
  • Times I’ve been told by others that I am a charming drunk: 0
  • Dreams deferred: 1
  • Career derailed: 1
  • Groupons expired: all
  • Miles walked: 1,095
  • Miles paced: 1,095
  • Miles to go before I sleep: undetermined, if sleep is a metaphor for death; otherwise, zero
  • Resolution for 2015: Fear everything

Library Life

This fall I did a presentation at Mount Prospect Public Library for the Suburban Mosaic Book Award, for which my novel Permanent Record was chosen as their 2014 Teen Book of the Year. I sweated my way through the event, and the cable show “Library Life” was kind enough to document it. My segment starts around 17:34.

Whew. Even thinking about public speaking right now, from the safety of my dark, lonely desk, gives me the fears. Luckily, the library provided cupcakes at the event.