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the pieces i keep

My Bars

My bars are so tight around my neck. Bars are supposed to stay at a distance, straight and true, to keep you locked inside; they are not supposed to creep toward you, to grasp your neck and choke the life out of you. But my bars, they choke and they close tighter and tighter. Sealing off the air, sealing off the vital life-giving supplements.

I try to fight them, I try to relieve myself, but I cannot. I grasp through the bars, hands catching only air. There is no one to hold the bars back, no one to relieve the pressure.

They tell me only I can fight the bars. Only I can relieve my suffocation. But I’ve spent all of my time trying to relieve theirs. So what am I left with? I am exhausted from the everyone else’s fight and have left nothing for myself. And so they close-my bars-tighter and tighter. Bruising my neck and cutting off my air.

Fight them like this, yells someone who has never fought my bars. But I am unconvinced that they know the secret to my bars, and so I do not fight like that. You have to do it like this, says someone else who has no idea of my bars. But again, I know that they cannot understand my bars, and so again I refuse. And in the end amongst the confusion, I do not fight.

I let the bars choke and hold until I have no air left. But perhaps the dark unknowing will be a relief to these bars.

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My Mother, My Struggle

I cut my mother off today. It doesn’t feel nice, though it is relieving. It’s like putting alcohol on a cut; it hurts and it stings, but you do it because it cleanses the wound. Of course, it isn’t entirely acceptable to refer to your mother as a wound. By rule, it makes me a bad kid. But quite frankly I’ve run out of things to call her that don’t, by rule, make me a bad kid.

My mother. In my earliest memories, she was shimmery. Like an angel. I wanted her golden hair and blue eyes so badly. To me, those two things were all that a person absolutely had to have to be beautiful. She thought so too; she was very disappointed in my green eyes. I don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t have done in my early years to make her happy. I let her dress me up, paint my face, curl my hair, and parade me around on any stage she could get me on. I grew up thinking that’s what I wanted. To be the center of attention, to be talented, to be adored. I rarely won the pageants, and eventually she gave up on them. And me.

She gave up on other things too. My dad was sick and couldn’t take care of her, so she left him. She couldn’t seem to keep a job, so she gave up on that, and we moved to my grandpa’s farm. We didn’t have a home, we lived in his camping trailer. It wasn’t much, but we were close–my mother, my brother, and I. She played “Angels Among Us” by the old, county band Alabama every night before we went to sleep. That moment in my memory feels warmer than any other I have of her.

Time moved on, and Grandpa bought us our own mobile home and moved it to his farm. With more space, we moved farther apart. I missed the camper. I still miss the camper. She went on dates, got remarried, got divorced, went on more dates. I wanted desperately to be the center of her attention again. I taught myself to sing. She said I couldn’t do it, that I was terrible, but I proved her wrong. And it worked! Suddenly, I was the star again, I was worthwhile. I was perfect. I studied hard, I got great grades, I was moved into the “Gifted Program,” I made the top choir, I got solos, I got parts in plays, I was exciting to her again. For a moment.

Another man broke her heart, but this time, the blame was mine. He lived in Kansas City, and we lived two hours from there. She wanted to move, but I wanted to stay. My father was here, my friends were here, and I felt important here. I couldn’t leave. When he left her, he told her it was because he couldn’t break up the family. So it was my fault. She let me know. Often.

For as long as I could remember, she had struggled with depression. I would spend hours in her room trying to cheer her up; eventually, I always succeeded. It didn’t matter how long I had to sit there, I never left until I had made her feel better. One particular day, her birthday, my brother and I made her breakfast in bed, we had a great day planned. But she didn’t want it, she wanted to sit in her room and be sad. I couldn’t cheer her up, and I was furious. We had a great day planned for her, and she just wanted to be sad over Mr. Kansas City. And it was my fault.

I left. I got my brother into my car, and we left. We left her there. She called me about an hour later. She told me that she had taken every pill in the house, and that it was my fault. She would die, and it was my fault. I called the ambulance, they pumped her stomach, and they saved her. But it was my fault. We never talked about it, and I never told anyone. I was too ashamed. All I had to do was to stay there and cheer her up, and I had left.

It’s been well over a decade since that day. I’ve given up trying to impress her or to be enough for her. No matter how much you give, no matter how much you love, it isn’t enough. It’s never enough. I’ve given up singing and trying to be the center of attention. I’m not really sure if it’s something I ever wanted, or if I just did it for her. I can’t tell anymore.

We got into a fight recently, because I didn’t give her everything she wanted, because I didn’t do enough. Just like that day, her birthday years before, I was furious. I finally told her how that day had made me feel, how it had eaten away at my soul and emptied it out. I wanted an apology, I wanted understanding, I wanted forgiveness. I got none of it. I got, “You left me.”

Yesterday, she tried to sell me a ring left over from one of her failed relationships. She still hasn’t learned to keep a job, she’s running out of people willing to help her, and she is in desperate need of money. The thing is, I don’t want the damn ring. I don’t want it. And I’ve utterly exhausted every single shit I’ve ever given. I think she finally broke something in me the other day when she denied me my apology, my understanding, my forgiveness. I think she finally broke a link in the chain that has tied me to her for thirty years.

I had never considered cutting her off before, but I have never felt nothing for her before. After all this time, and all of the pain and energy spent trying to make everything alright for her, I just can’t feel her anymore. I don’t feel a warmth in my heart where a mother should be, I feel a cold and gaping hole. Quite frankly, the cold is strangely comforting after the thirty years of throbbing pain. At least a hole–even a gaping, frigid one–can be filled back up again. But pain? Pain just permeates until it eats you alive.

My Father, My Fighter

When I was five years old, my family was pretty much on top of their game. My dad owned his own radio station, which had been a dream of his for quite some time. And it was doing really well. I still have memories of the county fair, and all the cool people that my dad brought in to do concerts. We lived in a little, tiny town but he still managed to book everyone from Garth Brooks to Meat Loaf. We were living in a beautiful Victorian home, something my mother had longed for. She loved that home and decorated it to excess every Christmas; we were even on the town’s Christmas tour. And to add a cherry to the top, Mom was pregnant with my little brother. We were middle-class Americans on top of the world, living the American dream.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been like had it not changed so drastically, if I could have just lived out that life. But fate was getting ready to deal us a blow. My father got sick. He started having terrible migraines, numbness in his fingers, and he was having trouble controlling his right foot when he walked. He started getting tests done. But no one could tell us what was happening.

I don’t have a lot of memories from that period, but I remember a dark feeling prevailing in the house. Foreboding, I suppose. Even at five, I knew something was wrong with my beloved father. He who had taught me to swim, he who was teaching me to ride my bike, he who caught me every time I dove off of the couch giggling and flailing. Something was wrong with him. I could feel it in my gut.

Finally, after numerous trips to various doctors and many more tests, we were told that he had a disease–Multiple Sclerosis. Those words were too big for the mouth of a five-year old. I didn’t understand. Nor did I understand what it meant for my father or my family. My parents tried to keep the station going, but my father’s quickly-deteriorating and incurable condition made it impossible for him to keep up with his previous workload. Plus, he had a bigger problem. Multiple Sclerosis was raiding his body, but the piles of medical bills proved to be the undoing of our entire family. He had to sell his station. We had to sell our house. We moved away from our little town and our American dream.

We tried to start a new life in a different part of the state. By that time, Dad was on disability and couldn’t work. That left my mother to take care of our entire family on little education or formal skills. We bought another home. A trailer. Even that we ended up losing to our debts. We bounced around from town to town for a while, renting whatever we could afford.

I have more memories of this part of my life. Vivid. My father had changed. Not just his physical abilities but his entire demeanor. He was angry and prone to bouts of erratic temper. He was never violent toward any of us, but all the same I was terrified of him. We all were. Eventually, I think the strain of everything got to my mother. She demanded a divorce. My father moved in with his widowed mother. My mother, my brother, and I started sleeping in my grandfather’s travel trailer. It was the kind you could hitch up to the back of a truck; we had no running water, no power, and nowhere to call home.

It had all fallen apart so quickly. I turned ten the summer we lived in that tiny travel trailer. My father was only thirty-five years old. In five years, the hopes and dreams of my parents had been dashed to pieces and left so little in their wake.

I’ve been through a lot of different phases of my life since then. I’ve gone from terrified of my father, to proud and respectful of the man he has become despite everything. His temper has improved, he’s done a lot of work over the years to help others dealing with the same disease, and he has become a truly kind, gentle soul. Everyone in our small town knows and loves him. Dearly. Seeing his struggle has made me stronger and wiser than I probably would have been otherwise.

But I can’t help but wonder if our story should have played out differently. I can’t help but be sad that my brother never got to see the man that I got a glimpse of. No father, son camping trips to the woods or swimming lessons. I can’t help but be furious that I live in a country that has let this happen to families over and over again. I can’t help but struggle to understand why so many are calling for more funding cuts to programs that help people like my father. He has so little left as it is. So little dignity.

A few years ago, when I was home visiting from college, he pulled out a stack of papers. He calmly informed me that he had taken out a life insurance policy on himself. He apologized for not being able to provide my brother and I with the kind of life that he had set out to. He was sorry that we had been forced to make due with so little. There was so much pain in his eyes. So much remorse. I saw him as the man who prevailed in living a positive life, even in a wheel chair. He saw himself as a failure.

This story doesn’t have an actual ending yet. He is, thankfully, still with us. Sitting in his chair. Watching television. Everyday. But, I believe, that this story does have a moral. None of that “try hard and you will prevail” bullshit. He didn’t prevail; he survived. We subsisted. The moral is that we live in a country that doesn’t seem to give a damn about people like my father. Look it up, there are hundreds of stories like this one. Families ruined because someone got sick, and they couldn’t afford the healthcare. The drug industry, the insurers, the health care system, even supposed research-based non-profits are making billions off of the failing health of Americans. I need something to change. Families all over America need something to change. Now. Before another father looks to his death with open arms, hoping to finally provide his family with all of the things he couldn’t in life.

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