Worn Out Carpet

I stepped on the bottom stair and it felt as if it was going to give way: somehow it settled under my foot. I noticed the wear on the center of the stairs: carpet worn over twenty years of people going up and down.

I never lived in this house; it was built when I was in college. My brother only lived there for 6 months. When they decided to build, we asked them: why such a big house when neither of your children will ever live in it?

We should have known that the house was part of it, of course, how could it not be? But we were young then: I was 21 and my brother 18.

When my father died in November, my brother and I were working from an assumption that the problems were all caused by him, and therefore, upon his death, our mother would just calm down and seem better; maybe she would become the person she used to be before the last ten years or so. She used to have this smile that was so pretty and a glint in her eyes. Now the look in her eyes is of worry, judgment, or tears. I have a horrible photo of us from years ago. I must be in my mid-20s. It is a selfie from before smartphones and I am smiling with some crazy twenties hair-do, and my mom is pretending to smile with tears in her eyes. I hate that photo.

A few years ago, I wrote a post here entitled “My Mother’s House“, based on wandering through an old, huge, Maine summer house that she was selling. I loved the house and how out-of-time it was. As she was getting it ready for an open house, I wandered all its rooms and thought about my mother and her life and my life and the lives of all the people who had lived in that house.

That essay poem was written almost exactly four years ago. My brother and I have discovered that our assumption about our mother was wholly wrong. I would now like to adjust my earlier concept of my mother’s sense of self being divided into a series of adjoined rooms. It seems to me now that there is only one room and it is the room of Marriage.

I see marriage in the 21st century as a radical act, as it is not socially necessary and wholly driven by choice. Hopefully, the choice to marry is happy and joyful, and the relationship itself is based on communication, affection, mutual respect, and unconditional love. Marriage is hard, and even the great ones have difficulties. I cannot imagine being in a marriage for 44 years that was unhappy for the last 32.

Last week at the table in the kitchen, I sat with my mother and tried to talk about some of the elephants in the room. She told me last week that she thinks that they were happy until 1990, the year he lost his job. She said that they were fine before that, but since then it had been a neverending series of dramas, fights, disappointments, and financial recklessness. These elephants all have my father’s name stamped on them somewhere, but for my mom, too, there is this indelible stamp that says “Marriage” on it. Marriage as defined by social status, belonging, and that dirtiest of dirty words, should.

If you have been a reader here for a while, you know that I hate the word should; should only serves to make you feel guilty.

Like the carpeted bottom stair on the staircase that I noticed last week, my mother’s concept of Marriage is worn out. It makes no sense; the dead horse has been beaten and is now an unrecognizable heap. And yet, Marriage persists as a defining characteristic of her life. She said to me that going to England (a recent trip to do my dad’s ashes) was very emotional for her because it represented the End of Her Marriage. I felt bewildered: how could she want a marriage like hers?

It was then that I realized that she did want that marriage, that she had wanted it the whole time, that both of them had wanted it, and it was a creation of both she and him. We couldn’t blame him anymore: this was mutually assured destruction.

I don’t know enough about domestic violence to share psychological reasoning or meaningful quotes here. I am committed to reading more books about domestic violence and abuse moving forward. Here, I am confused and saddened and I am angry. I am angry at both of them, and one of them is dead.

I asked her why she stayed when she was offered multiple opportunities to leave and she said that “children need a father”. I said, “children needed that guy?”. I told her that lots of single moms do an amazing job raising kids. It was clear that it was not that we (the children) needed this father. My mother felt that she needed my father; which would be fine if there hadn’t been the years of consistent abuse, denigration, violence, codependency, financial hardship, and alcoholism.

When I think about the years of manic crazy fights that my father and I had when my mom and brother would just stand mutely by, when I think about all the times that my father was horrible to my mother and she would sit and cry and we would console her, when I think of all the times that my mother told my brother and I stories about their blowouts and we would listen and console her, I feel, at this moment, very very angry because it seems a very selfish path to follow by two people who supposedly really cared about their kids.

Sidebar: my parents care about us very much, don’t get me wrong. But just like the famous trial that we all followed religiously in the spring of 2022, the two parents involved had no business being together because their togetherness was explosive, damaging, and, seemingly, permanently harmful.

The lady who I traveled to England with, who I sat across from last week, is not the lady I remember from when I was a kid. She is a lady who has locked herself inside her Marriage. (I keep capitalizing Marriage because it seems that my mom regards it as this meaningful institution for her that demands capitalization due to its importance in the definition of her life. For me, I would use Friendship, Creativity, and Reflection as my pillars of identity, for example).

What to do when the guy who was abusive to you, and you in turn abused, dies quickly without saying he loves you? It seems the solution is to pretend that Marriage was exactly what you wanted, that you were both in love, that it could have been different but it wasn’t and you just have to “deal with it and move on” (one of my mom’s favorite sayings). The problem being, of course, that she is not dealing with it and moving on, because she has never dealt with her relationship and has never moved on.

I know that this is my mother’s work and not mine. I have to step away because she is on a journey and has to travel it herself. This reflection of mine also has codependency written all over it, and I am really working on stepping away from that tendency of mine. And I, who lives across the country from her, can do this with dedication and practice and forgiveness when I slip up and engage with her about it. I have my own complications to understand; the biggest one was realizing last week that it was never just my dad, but the issues that impacted me came from both of them. I know that their relationship was their choice, but it impacted me so much. In some ways, it created the sweet, good, smart, beautiful, creative, and sensitive person that I am. It also contributed to some major anxiety, trust issues, fear, hyper-vigilance, and some strange physical ticks.

I am fascinated by grief, which I will begin to write about here in detail. Grief is a strange thing; something that each of us will encounter many times in our life, and each time will be entirely different. More on grief later.

For today, all I can say here is that many aspects of my personality are present, and are quite shocked at the behavior of my mother and the realizations of myself. Little Patience is standing over in the corner with her mouth open in disbelief. Teenage Patience is standing next to her, smoking a cigarette and looking pissed. Adult Patience, present Patience, is standing tall next to them, remembering to breathe, trying to understand, and knowing that ultimately, everything is ok.

IT’s been a while since I have written, and I apologize for that. Mostly, I apologize to my future self who is going to look back on this and say, “goddammit, why didn’t you write it ALL down, all the time, every moment?”. But such is grief. It is, to me, a fundamentally arresting force. It is also uncontrollable.

I am in the end stages of becoming certified to become an assistant principal; I am excited and intimidated about it all. I know where I want to be an assistant principal, but of course there is no guarantee that I will get exactly what I want. I am in the midst of trusting the universe and understanding I will end up where I am supposed to be. I had a vision tonight, whilst watching the end of “October Sky” (one of my favorite science nerd movies), of myself standing in front of my school as an assistant principal. I was wearing a blazer, of course, and a smile. And I realized that my dad would be so proud of me and it is a son of a bitch that I won’t be able to talk to him about it. I will only be able to thank him for it all. I remembered him teaching me my multiplication tables when I was 4-5 years old in my bedroom. He bought a poster with them and tacked it to my bedroom door.

My best friend (I am lucky to have several, but I speak of one here) who has cancer is in the midst of her own process; today she was told that she can stop taking chemo if she wants to and just take pain medicine and ride out her cancer. Apparently, it has spread to her bones now so it is pretty much everywhere, in small amounts, and she is having gnarly side effects from her chemo drugs. When we talked, I said to go for a lot of walks til the answer comes. She said she hopes the answer comes when we are eating lobster in Maine in June! I will always remember her perspective and her ability to make me laugh.

Another best friend texted today. He is also going through a huge loss, although not one that wrestles with death, but is grief nonetheless. He is on a six-month break from his husband, and told me today that he realizes he took his relationship for granted. I think this is inevitable in long-term relationships and, I think, in marriage especially. You aren’t supposed to take the other person for granted per se, but they committed to staying around with you in front of God and the law and your family and everyone, so I think everyone must take their spouse for granted at times. I suppose we only realize this, though, when they are gone.

My friend who has cancer has always taught me to be present with life and with death. That is her greatest gift to me. I learned so much about my relationship with my dad after he died. It turns out that it wasn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t a bad relationship at all; in fact, it was one of my most consistent and valued relationships. I just let the baggage overwhelm the present beauty and the truth of it all. I miss talking to him so much it about makes me crazy sometimes. Just like my friend who is realizing he took his relationship for granted; I wonder if he is realizing that the relationship he thought he had wasn’t the one he actually had. How does that work, how do we confuse ourselves so?

My last note for tonight is about how crying makes you dehydrated and that makes me frustrated as I cry a lot and therefore, am dehydrated a lot. That in combination with living in a very sunny, dry place, makes me always thirsty, and then my anxiety takes over and wonders why I am always thirsty and if people notice how many times I go to the bathroom per day. I wonder if the anxiety that has definitely been triggered by grief is a permanent thing, or like everything else, will pass and change inevitably over time?

It is dark and quiet. I am reading a good book. Tomorrow is a new day. Love.

Let Everything Happen to You: Beauty and Terror

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

Today I reflect on a day. A day that is part of a week, which is part of a long, but short, month. February. February. No month can drag on quite like it; the month that is the bridge between winter and spring. The month that has so few days, but so many of them are grey, cold, and icy.

Life feels interminable in February.

But! Tomorrow is its last day.

Reflections on loss for February:

I felt myself for the first time since October last week. I felt that I was actually a good teacher who was engaged with her students, her curriculum, and her process. I thought of this yesterday as I was driving into Austin, on a flyover between US Highway 290 and I35 North to meet a friend for brunch. I thought of a photo of me and my dad in west Texas in 1983 or so. I am wearing pink corduroy overalls, and he is wearing a cowboy hat. Neither outfit makes sense, and yet it does in this image. I am sitting on a shelf, and he is looking at me. I thought of showing this to the students and telling them about this realization of last week, and I started to cry.

Fort Davis, Texas, 1983 – Two lost English people

These tears were different. These tears are acceptance tears, and tears of peace. These are tears that come with the realization that he is gone and he did a lot of amazing things for me and was a complicated person who made a lot of bad decisions. These tears are also an acknowledgment that my relationship with him was not the relationship I thought we had when he was alive. I was always mad at him, disappointed in him, judgemental of his behavior, questioning why he did all the things he did. In death, I realized how much I talked to him. I would call him, randomly, all the time, and talk for about 5-6 minutes each time. Then he would say something like, “well this must be costing you a fortune!” to get off the phone.

The hardest thing about death, for me, as the obviously loquacious person that I am, is that I can never speak to my lost friends again.

Sometimes, at night, I go outside and sit on a hard surface and talk to my friend Meredith. I have no idea why it has to be a rock or a road or a sidewalk. I look up into the sky, into the stars, and talk to her until I hear her laughing at me. She always laughed at me, with me, she always thought I was the best person, the most knowledgeable about education and school, and she was always one of my best friends. At 52, she counted on me, and I was only in my twenties. She laughed at the absurdity of it all, she wrote me all the time (all of her emails are saved of course). She died back in 2011. When she was dying, she complained about the British being imperialists who tried to take over the world. This was clearly aimed at me. She also told me, over and over again, how much she loved her children.

Today I thought about my Dad, and I visited my friend Patty who is my quilting friend and the mom of one of my best friends, Ann. Patty recently was diagnosed with cancer as well, although they caught it early and everyone is very hopeful. I had to see her today and give her a hug and a kiss and we went through bins of fabric that she had inherited from a friend’s grandmother who just went into a residential home for people with dementia. I went through tubs and tubs of fabric and I watched her and her daughter play fight about her inability to use the Costco website.

Afterward, I drove up the highway, on my way home, to see my friend who tomorrow goes in for the first dose of her last possible chemotherapy. First of the last. We talked and ate cheese and walked and chatted with Sarah, her friend and owner of the big house, and ate spicy Thai food with Marie that made all of our lips burn but was delicious. We laughed and talked about weddings and old friends. She said she thinks tomorrow will be fine and is not worried.

Earlier, I found Marie in the road as she was on the phone with me. We are dealing with a hard situation in this mix which I will enumerate later, but today we drove to the UT Campus and sat on the steps of the Texas Memorial Museum in the sunshine and talked about losing our friend, and what we want for her and for our friendships. Marie is so strong and wise it is daily amazing to me. She was born across from a special star, I am sure, and inherits this wisdom and palpable love from her mother, Ruth. We talked about how maybe we will take care of her in Denton, at Marie’s house, and she will be comfortable. I don’t want her to be in any pain or any worry.

Such a strange time on this Earth. In one place on its surface, there is a war brewing. In another, there is hateful rhetoric spewing from a small man in a wood-paneled office in downtown Austin. In another, my friend is celebrating her 5th anniversary with her sweet boyfriend in New Jersey. In another, my friend is planning her first restaurant. In yet another, I sit at a table, in the dark, typing away, as my husband eats dinner 4 hours north in Grapevine.

We are all part of this world, and yet are alone and floating within it at any given moment. Some of us read poetry, and some of us listen to music. Some of us ride horses, drive trucks, sing, or dance. Some play sports, some walk in the woods. Some watch television. Some sleep. Some watch the sunrise, some the sunset. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; I see it rise through the boughs of my 200-year-old post oak tree when I walk home from my early morning walk with my dog.

The light changes each day; as I get older, I notice how each day is different. I never noticed that when I was younger.

Tonight, I looked at the lighted windows of my friend’s apartment while I talked to my friend Marie in the street. I looked at the silhouetted branches of trees, the muted colors of the curtains, the outline of lamps. I thought about her sitting up there, facing all of this. I thought of all the things we have done together and all that I have learned from her; I thought of the time she had a steroid reaction and I drove full-speed through tiny Texas coastal towns in our friend Jenny’s brokedown car, and how we had to get out on the side of the road and pee and how I ran into a hospital yelling, “HELP ME MY FRIEND HAS CANCER” only to be looked at strangely by all present. I thought about being on the jetties in the wind, about hearing her story, about going to the Barbican in London, and her chastising me for always having horrible shoes to walk around in. I thought about her laughing, laughing, laughing.

I hear my dad’s voice in my head, but the sound of it is fading. I will always be able to see his face and to remember my memories of him, and I hope I will always recall his distinctive voice. But I don’t know. All I can hear of Meredith now is her laugh, and the one time she told me “it was a really great wedding” after my first wedding, which she paid for.

Hugs to you and yours wherever you are in our strange world. xx P

My Odes to Grief

“I used to be a great and powerful man”, my father said to me the third-to-last time I saw him, in October of 2021. I walked into his room and he looked so old: white as a sheet, with slightly pink skin, hair all akimbo, eyes wet with tears. He spent those last few weeks crying so much of the time.

I said, “you ARE a great and powerful man, and you know as well as I do that strength comes from here” (pointing to his heart) “and here” (pointing to his head). He apologized for crying and I said, “well you know me, I am the most emotional person in the world and I cry all the time“.

He would die about 6 weeks later, about one week after speaking to me oh-so-clearly on the phone from his hospital bed in Bar Harbor, Maine for the last time.

I have had a hard time writing lately. I am not sure if it is the pandemic, the death of Cody’s grandmother who lived with us, teaching during the pandemic, graduate school, the nonstop droning length of COVID19, or my father’s death. But now, I am faced with two immediacies. I am gripped by grief: it is holding on to me something fierce and fast. It will not let go. People keep telling me just to “let it all out” but I am afraid to let it all out lest it consumes me and renders me a puddle of tears on the floor.

Those people who know me or my father, Michael Blythe, know that we had a very difficult relationship. He was a difficult person; he was highly intelligent in all areas except for emotions and communication. He was afraid of emotions and so diluted them, and he was afraid of communicating his emotions so he covered them with anger and rage. Ask his friends, the breakfast crew, about how much they loved him while recognizing the fierceness inside.

At the same time that my dad died and I came to understand the grief of a child for her parent, specifically the grief of a daughter for her father, especially a daughter who is so like her father minus the rage and anger, one of my best friends, my sister, really, has taken a turn in her cancer journey and now is in the hospital, breathing with the aid of oxygen, and worrying us all very much.

Death comes a-knocking. We must welcome it as an old friend, as one of the only guarantees of this life, and yet, we don’t talk about it because it is so frightening and so utterly sad.

I was speaking to a friend last night about my feelings of grief. She said, “you aren’t writing”. I said, “I know. I am afraid”. She encouraged me to start again.

I feel I am of two minds. One of them is rational and logical and understands that everyone dies and that it is ok. That brain says: everything in life is fine, and it is just sad that you can’t talk to your father anymore. The other mind is a tiny animal with gnashed teeth and sharp claws whose heart is outside her body. I had an internal analogy at first that I was a reverse pincushion; instead of the pearly ends facing out to protect hands and fingers, my sharp ends were facing out to catch me, gouge me deep, and feel the horrific bottomless pain that is losing your father.

The night that he died I stayed up so late, drinking a whole bottle of wine by myself over the course of a long evening (this was when I thought that alcohol would help: turns out, it makes everything much worse). I spent the evening looking at photos of me and my dad, especially of photos when I was little. I looked at photo after photo and I began to ask myself: what did we even fight about? I could not answer the question; I still do not know. I think it was that I was a headstrong teenager, and he was going through a crisis after losing his job, and those two storms met head-on and became thunderclouds that brewed for twenty years. I am so blessed that we smoothed those clouds out the last three years, he attended my wedding to Cody, and we talked all the time. I am so thankful to Cody for showing me the importance of healing my relationship with my dad, because he had lost his many years before, and was, like me now, always wishing he could call him.

The night he died I cried and cried. I felt like I was drowning under a heavy wave of water that would not let me up. I felt I was on a cliff’s edge about to fall. I felt a huge weight, like a stone, on my heart. It pushed deeper and deeper down and in, like what I imagine a black hole does to matter: I was collapsing. I went to bed at 2:30 and my mom woke me up at 4 to go to the hospital. I went downstairs and sat on her couch and said, “pull yourself together, kid. You have to drive your mother to the hospital where her husband has just died”. I said, “I am driving you to the hospital”. She said no. I said, “yes, I am” and she handed me the keys. We arrived at 4:25 and he had passed just a few minutes earlier at 4:19.

In that room, he was so peaceful, laying slightly to his side. His face was pink, pinker than it had been anytime over the last few months. When he finally was medicated for pain, he received so much medication that the nurses told us he must have been suffering for a long time. This was no surprise: he was always a pain in the ass about admitting anything was wrong. The nurses had cracked the window to let his soul slip out into the air, up to the mountains, out to the sea. He was so peaceful. He never had been so in his life. I sat next to him and smiled. In my mind, I said, “Daddy? Where are you? Are you on a plane? A ship? Traveling somewhere first class on an adventure?” I suspected so, and still do.

Grief is grabbing hold of me and won’t let go, and one of the only ways I have ever found to discover what I really feel and am thinking about is through writing. I also know that writing about death is hard for others to read, but perhaps that can change. Another friend and I were talking today about our friend in the hospital, and she told me that she envisions me as someone who writes and gardens, gardens and writes. In other words, she was the second angel to appear with the same message: write, Patience, write.

As I walk through the stages of grieving my father, experiencing an immense, tangible, and tragic shift in the public schools in which I have worked for 16 years, and support my friend who is also, perhaps, transitioning away from this reality into another one, I will write it all down. I hope you will join me.

Thanks for your patience.

Gloriousness & Wretchedness

Fear

“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ” 

Pema Chodron

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Fear sat behind us on a beige couch as we ate dinner together at a short table. Fear sat and watched, and waited for us to notice its presence as we talked and laughed and touched.

Into the kitchen, it followed us as if it knew that one of us would look up and see it staring us in the face. It had been a glorious afternoon and evening. Fear stepped in and overtook a simple request, twisting it into something with a meaning it didn’t really have. Fear caused silence and a lack of joy: it caused confusion and awkwardness and a smidge of sorrow. Later, in bed, it caused us to turn away, and later still, to miss each other somehow, and to drift away.

What happens when fear drives the bus? What happens when it overtakes simple affections and communication and steers us away from each other? All too easily can this happen, and sometimes, only a couple of hours or days of clarity can help shed light on something so murky as those feelings of: Will s/he listen to me in the future? What is happening here? Is this meaningless, or meaningful?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the area of deep breaths and clear thoughts, of truly listening to the other and attempting to meet their needs even if it inconveniences our own momentary desires. There can be such anxiety in moments, as if the whole world hinges on a singular passing segment of time, when, with perspective, we of course can see and realize that we are all, after all, only living and acting out of our own beliefs and our own minds in that selfsame moment. It is so difficult not to ascribe deep meaning to things like the sweet words lovers speak to one another late on a fall afternoon, or to a feeling of uncertainty very early in the morning.

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Time, in its passing, teaches us that although we may notice the moments and feel them intensely, that perhaps instead of acting based on reactive decisions made in those moments, that we should see the experience as a whole, and take a deep breath, a step back, and realize that…the only thing to fear, is Fear itself. And keep moving: understanding that the value of the whole outweighs momentary confusion or inconvenience or uncertainty or that dirtiest of dirty words, insecurity.

“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. ”

~ Pema Chodron

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