I’m posting a piece that I wrote for a Memoirs class in November of 2011 for Victoria Slotto’s prompt, but before I do, I must post a joyful Happy Birthday message to my daughter, Emily!
Happy 23rd, Baby Eyes!
On the day she was born, it was pouring rain in California and CNN was reporting the end of the Gulf War. Does that mean she’s special? Well, of course!
Okay. Now my memoir piece. Not surprisingly, it is visual-heavy.
Sluggishly wiping the drool from the side of my face, I rose from the floor and went down the hall to look in on Jim. He was not in our king-sized bed. I found him in the master bathroom, weak and sweating. He was sitting on the mauve vanity chair, his massively swollen torso slumped over the toilet. He had been throwing up. I knew this meant another infection somewhere, and another trip to the E.R.
“Becca! Em! You kids are going to have to find a ride to the high school,” I called out. “Your dad’s got to go the hospital again.”
“Aw, Mom! Can’t you drive us on the way?”
I mustered that stern, guilt-inducing look that I imagined would silence them until their own anxiety took hold. Was there a better way to tell them that I needed them to grow up and parent themselves so that I could take care of their father? “Save it for therapy,” I told myself and bundled my shivering husband into the passenger’s side of his car.
My own remorse was beginning to gnaw on my conscience. I had spent the night hiding out in my college son’s empty room, Seagram’s gin in hand, crashed on a bare mattress, convulsing in tears and bitter anger, muttering aloud my rejection of the realities of my life.
“This is not right! This is not the life I deserve! Why have you failed me, God? Just make it all go away!”
In the master bedroom suite, Jim was already medicated with his 15 different evening prescriptions and hooked up to his nightly round of technological prophylactics: his insulin pump, his peritoneal dialysis machine, his CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask and the flat screen TV. His dark blonde head was propped up on several pillows, puffy blue eyes straining in a vain attempt to clear the haze of bleeding retinas. There was no way I could sleep with all that whirring and beeping and blinking of light. I wanted to slip into oblivion for just eight hours, escape the strain of appearing sane while chaos, stress and fear overwhelmed me. I figured that if I went into suspended animation and let time go by, things would have to be different when I surfaced. And different could be better. It could hardly be worse. I lay back and let the world spin.
We had arrived on the block 15 years earlier, The Golden Couple from California, high school sweethearts who married right out of college, refugees from the cinder block crack yards of Pomona, eager to raise our four above-average children in the economically stable Midwest. Our baby Emily had been hospitalized with bacterial spinal meningitis just a week before, but miraculously survived without a trace of brain damage. I unbuckled her from the car seat and held her up to see our new four-bedroom house. The moving van driver pulled up, squinted at the August sun, and looked around the neighborhood. “Good move,” he said wryly.
I thought we were finally safe, ready to live out our American dream unscathed. That winter while Jim was shoveling snow for the first time in his life, he felt pain radiating from his chest to his jaw. His doctor said “Mylanta”, but the cardiac stress test said total blockage in two main arteries. How does this happen to a 31-year old, tennis-golf-bowling athlete? We discovered he had diabetes and probably had had it for a decade or so. He had gained weight during our first year of marriage and during my pregnancies, but we never suspected anything. But again, we were saved from tragedy by open-heart, double-bypass graft surgery.
Jim had lived to see his children grow into troubled teenagers, and they had lived to see him grow sicker each day. Which was the cause and which the effect? And why had I failed to be able to pray another miracle into our life? Were we being afflicted for some extraordinary purpose? Driving to the hospital, I kept trying to make everything fit into a positive outlook suitable for our fairy tale life, but a nagging skepticism kept surfacing. We had lost our magic. We were no longer charmed. The dragons were winning, and I was mortally terrified.
Two days after my alcohol-induced escape, I rode the hospital elevator up to the fourth floor, cynically noting how routine the trip was becoming, how familiar and sad the décor seemed. I stepped into the room and saw Jim in the first bed with a tube sticking out of his neck. Betadyne colored the surrounding skin a bruise-like orange brown. Flakes of dried blood speckled the area. A dark-skinned male nurse was applying bandages to the wound.
“Oh, hi! You’re the wife, right?” he greeted me and began his instructions again. “Let me show you what we’ve got on him now. This is where he’s catheterized for hemodialysis. You can’t get this wet, so no showers while he’s using this port. Just sponge baths for a few weeks, okay? If the bandage gets wet or bloody, you’re gonna want to change it. Use gloves when you’re putting on the gauze, and cover it over completely with this plastic patch. These tubes can be taped together and then taped down on his chest like this. Careful of the caps. They unscrew to hook up to the catheter. If you take them off, you have to wear a surgical mask because, you know, this jugular vein goes directly into his heart. Any infection at this site is gonna travel swiftly in a life-threatening direction. Got that?”
I breathed deeply and felt as if I were still on the elevator, dangling by a cable. I then became aware that I had missed the last instruction.
“Um, hold on. I don’t think I heard that last bit. Actually, I’m suddenly not feeling too well. May I sit down?”
My semi-conscious brain was frantically sending warning messages. “This is not sustainable. You are not going to be able to keep him alive.” Jim’s ever-friendly and imperturbable countenance looked meekly on in an odd juxtaposition to this feeling of dread. It seemed like he could take any amount of medical abuse and be grateful for it. “Better living through technology,” he always said. I wanted to cry out, to interrupt this surreal charade, but I felt like I was under water. I realized we had no endgame and had avoided discussing it entirely. Platitudes and prayers were not addressing the issue adequately. Death. Mortality. It wasn’t supposed to be part of our story, and I was woefully unprepared. I blinked dumbly and swallowed.
“Okay. How do I do this?” I finally asked. The nurse blithely continued, never noticing that I wasn’t talking about the bandages.
© 2014, essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
This week’s photo challenge is about a grouping of perspectives: the big picture, a relationship, and a detail. I like the idea of shifting points of focus because awareness and depth probably can’t be captured at first glance in any circumstance. Perhaps the way you approach a scene can tell you a lot about yourself. When you go to a party and walk in the door, what grabs your attention first? Do you look at the big picture – how the place is laid out, how crowded it is, what music is playing, what food fragrances are in the air – and get a feeling about it all at once? Do you look for people you know and zero in on them? Are you drawn to particular objects and familiar or quirky things about the decor? If you find yourself spending time exclusively on one aspect, do you want to challenge yourself to turn to the others to see what you might be missing? It might be an exercise in awareness worth looking into. Here is a grouping of shots from my second year hosting the Wiencek family Thanksgiving:
From manic to panic
to sinking, slowly,
letting go, breathing with the flow,
the end of woe,
the bliss of weightlessness,
the natural company of fish.
It’s been kind of a crazy week inside my head. Steve admitted to being a little scared of me. It started out on a real high – Valentine’s Day. I was full of positive energy, on my biological upswing, energetic and eager to communicate my passions, my dreams, my optimism. I went face-to-face with Steve’s downswing and asserted my intent not to be the killjoy in his life or the cause for his anxieties. “Go ahead, follow your bliss and don’t worry about explaining it to me! I’d rather come home to a mess in the living room and you deep into an exciting project than be greeted by restrained order and depression.” I went face-to-face with a family issue the next day, emotionally charged and endlessly repercussive, feeling open to multiple possibilities and honestly vulnerable. My karma was kickin’, I thought. My vibes were sure to cause some awesome progress in the near future.
The next day was a Federal holiday, but I was at work at the museum and anticipating starting lessons with a new student directly after my shift. Families with kids home from school opted not to venture out, however, because of a huge snowstorm in the forecast. The staff was dismissed at 2pm because the place was so empty. I drove 2 co-workers home in a complete white-out and was barely able to maneuver my car into the driveway through ankle-deep snow. I decided to cancel my lesson, hoping my new client wouldn’t mind. She never called me back. I began to doubt my decisions.
The next day, I bundled up boxes of books for shipping and headed out the door for work, running a little late in order to get the last package included. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I noticed there was still snow crusted on the windshield wipers. I pulled the door handle to pop out and clear them off, but nothing happened. I thought perhaps the door was frozen. I pushed with my shoulder. Nothing. “I’m trapped!” I phoned Steve in the house. He told me that he had a similar difficulty the night before when he returned from shoveling at his mom’s house. “Just roll down the window and open the door from the outside,” he suggested. The window is frozen. I finally squeeze my way out the passenger door into a snow pile and meet Steve in the driveway. “When? Why? What do I do?” I’m late to work, and I don’t know if my window will thaw in time to let me collect a ticket and enter the parking garage without parking the car and climbing out the other side. What if the gate closes on me? And I REALLY have to pee! I arrive at work late, flustered and cramped. I wonder why Steve didn’t mention this door issue to help me prepare. Is this a small fire? Why am I feeling angry and unsettled? We talk at dinner, and I tell him my plan to slow down, breathe and concentrate on my bliss the next day.
My shift starts slowly, sun streaming through the windows, small family groups perusing the museum. Suddenly, the school groups arrive. I will be calm and proactive. I will greet them all and give them information and safety rules and smile. But they’re arriving one on top of another, and not listening to me! I whirl around and lunge at a girl going head first down the ladder and drive my knee into the boards of the ship. Ouch! Can’t think about that now, I’m still talking to this other group…and I realize I’m talking so fast that I can’t breathe. My chest is constricting. Asthma? Heart attack? No, you’re still talking. Stop talking and take a breath, you fool!
I am panicked. I am going way too fast. Where is my Willy Wonka detachment? “Stop, don’t, come back…” I am addicted to my thoughts (as Eckhardt Tolle would say), to my ego, to my responsibility, and it’s causing me to suffer. I need to let go and get grounded once more. My knee throbs. I can’t walk. I must slow down now. I have no other option.
I had my first lesson with another new voice student last night. It went very well. I rang the wrong doorbell initially; I don’t think it hurt my client’s first impression too much. Steve and I had planned to go to Madison to take a class at the arboretum this morning, but with a “wintry mix” of snow, sleet, and rain on the roads, we decided to stay home. Initially, this was one more disappointment in my Manic to Panic downfall, but it dawned on me that I could choose to look at it as an opportunity. An opportunity to really slow down. To sink. Like the Titanic.
It’s a very real, natural environment down here. Nothing is “good”, “bad”, “successful” or “progressive” among the fish. It simply is. Things happen. Fish eat fish, waves come and go, and any drama is simply in my head. I meditate on plankton, sucking in and gushing out, enriched by the flow, going along. I’m staying here for a while. I’ll let you know when (and if) I surface.
© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved
The Bardo Group, which mercifully counts me as a contributing writer and core team member, has invited its visitors to share Valentine’s Day posts in celebration of our love for this awe-inspiring planet. Planet Love has been on my mind for a week now; I’ve scribbled phrases and ideas on scraps of paper at work and engaged in ardent discussions with Steve about it, but until now I haven’t had time to sit down and write. “You don’t have time for the planet!” Steve jokes.
Au contraire. I AM the planet.
I have been thinking about the nature of my Planet Love. It starts with the obvious. Duh! I depend on the planet. I need it desperately – the water, the air, the energy from edible sunshine. Without it, I would die! My survival depends on this environment that birthed me and sustains me every breathing minute. I am an infant, perhaps a parasite, a needy lover hopelessly driven by biology into the thrall of her. She is my EVERYTHING!
But my ego shrinks from this debasing posture. I would much rather be the poetic admirer, the worshipful devotee who praises her and charms her, caressing her with ardent words of love. I would describe her in vivid, pleasurable detail. My senses delight in her. I rub against her textures: sand beneath my feet, bark under my fingertips, meadow grass against my back. I inhale her fragrance: sea air and pine and sulfurous volcano. I taste her bounty and drink in her landscapes, satisfied and still wanting more. I strain toward the whisper of her winds and dance to the rhythm of her tides. Her specific excitements are too numerous and various to be composed. She is more vast than my words. The vaulted roof of the cosmos lifts away, and I am exposed.
Suddenly, I realize that the cosmos is not only endless, it is edgeless. There is no ‘It’ and no ‘Not It’. It is integrated. And here I am. Not ‘I’, not ‘It’. WE. We are. The planet, the cosmos, and me – together. We are. What kind of love is this, without borders? Without egos? Is this perfect love? Perfect love casts out fear. I am not afraid, not of death, not of survival. But I know suffering. We suffer. We suffer desecration. Everywhere the planet is fouled, I am wounded. I am sad. I feel a lover’s pain. I stand with her in this pain and take my vows. We are one. We must be at one. At-one. Atone. Heal. Integrate. Become whole. Forgive my ignorance. Forgive my ego. Forgive my parasitic need. I will love without borders. My life, my time, my energy is cosmos – and I will remember that.
© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved