When I was 4, we moved to New Jersey from Turkey, as my parents thought their kids should get a feel for their native land. Our new backfence neighbors were a large and lovely family from Virginia, so I learned to spell “dog” both with and without a “w” by the time I was six.
My Mom was very maternal in her genuine enthusiasm for all my art. (I found that frustrating, because I knew it could be better and had no idea how to make it so.)
Mrs P did not have that problem with me… Her key edicts make reasonable rules for living: For one thing, I should not draw the whole scene until I was capable enough (don’t let things overwhelm you.) I had to pick the parts that were most important or that caught my eye, keep it simple, and do it right – or else there’d be erasing, and, if you erase too much, the surface gets harder to work on. (Isn’t that the truth.)
She was also good for the reality check. She quickly eliminated my grade-school habit of drawing red apples and brown trees, but made me look at a real apple and draw that; hold my colored pencils up to the tree and see which colors really matched.
See what’s really there, not what I expect or what I’ve been told things should look like.
The biggest note of approval I ever got from her was, “not bad.” By the time I was 6 weeks in, I was able to collect a “not bad” or two almost every lesson, which pleased me no end.
CRPS took away the link between brain and hand that let me make art, but one thing really stuck with me …
Why settle for good or even great, when you could aim for making it absolutely right?
“Good” and “great” are about others’ opinions, but “absolutely right” is something ageless that stands on its own.
Later that year, our parents sat us down to have a family meeting. Dad had been offered a job in Cairo, Egypt. He wanted to know what we thought about moving to Egypt in a few months. Mom and Dad discussed pros (long list) and cons (short list.) Older Brother asked about schooling (very good) and the social scene (unknown, but probably interesting.) Younger Brother piped up with characteristic curiosity and adaptability.
It seemed like a done deal, but I was wrong. Dad looked at me and said, “What do you think, Isy?” I must have looked surprised. He said, “You have a good sense of people. I don’t want to finalize this decision until I hear what you think it’ll do to us, either way.”
Should I be nice? My first instinct was to be nice, to stick up for the shabby underdog (in this case, New Jersey), to do what I thought was expected of me … but it stuck in my craw. Perhaps Mrs P’s lessons on seeing things as they really are had sunk in.
I said, quite honestly, that New Jersey was not being good for any of us (except maybe Younger Brother) and that Egypt would be new and interesting. We all liked new and interesting. So, as far as I could see, it was hard to see a downside to going, and hard to see an upside to staying.
So we went. And I got an early lesson in the value of calling it like I see it.
Our vacations were dreamlike, because we were close to some of the most striking sights in the world:
- El Alamein and the remains of fallen soldiers from 5 continents;
- The Red Sea, when it was still the most outstandingly varied and brilliant source of sea life on Earth (it’s still good in spots, as that video shows);
- The southwest coast of Turkey when Bodrum (formerly known as Halicarnassus) was still a fishing town and their medieval castle the tallest building in it;
- And, of course, the remains of roughly 8,000 years of Egyptian history from before the Old Kingdom, down through all those Rameses, Greek absorption, Roman annexation, Medieval flowering and Mameluk co-optation, the French and British tradeoffs, modernization as the royal family fell and the secular dictatorship accepted Nazi help to fend off the British return, the flowering of art and writing as the world wars faded and the newly mobile masses could collect like runoff from the tortured continent to the north. The Ancient history is only the beginning…
During the day, I learned about path-finding, history, and sea life, and in the evenings my mother read to us from local literature such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, My Family and Other Animals, even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (the sharpest satire on jingoism and culture shock ever written.)
My parents had a gift for making the most of teachable moments.
The move turned out to be an excellent choice for all of us: Older Brother became a track star on the international circuit, I found a crop of kindred spirits, Younger Brother’s precocious historicity kept growing, Mom became a successful working photographer (and, as it happened, a role model of working womanhood for every intelligent female friend I had), and Dad got paid to help people – then towns – then governments get better and better at handling their money and improving their chances for a sustainable future.
The day I drafted this is the 38th anniversary of that move.
Dad was great at practical stuff. He genuinely liked humans, despite being such a historian. He often said that people are like table wine. Each one is a blend of different strains: good and bad, clever and foolish, creative and not, good with money and profligate, nice and otherwise… and each person’s blend is a little bit different. If you can accept each of them as the blend they are, and not try to change them – into a different blend, or even into beer, for instance – then you could really come to appreciate the variety that this world has to offer.
People are what they are. Accepting that makes for better connections.
The first time he taught me to drive was when we were on vacation in France, which was cheaper to get to than the US. We had rented a historical farmhouse that was about to become a gîte (at which point the price would go up), so we got all the benefits – a fireplace Younger Brother could stand up in, window sills two feet thick to sit on, a lush yard going down to a creek at the bottom with a moat up one side of the yard, a line of stately chestnut trees, twittering birds, fresh eggs and raw milk from the neighbor – for considerably less than we should have paid.
The rental car looked like it came straight out of a matchbox, but it was a real, rattly little French Renault. Dad sat in the passenger seat and directed me to the driver’s seat. He told me about the brake, the gas and clutch, the gear shift, the friction point, and how it all came together. I got the friction point coordinated and tested it a few times.
Then he said, “Okay, here we go.” I checked the friction point again and then stopped. He said, “No, I want you to go. Go ahead and drive across the yard.”
Oh, okay then. I can do this.
I grabbed the wheel tightly, engaged the gear, and eased past the friction point.
The car snorted briefly, pawed the ground, took the bit firmly between its teeth, and off it went. Or so it seemed to me.
The car charged off the gravel, kicking it up behind. It careened over the lush yard, carrying us past (fortunately) the huge stone house. It rocked and bounced off of molehills, scoring crazy tracks through the soft green earth.
I noticed my Dad was yelling, but he never yelled, so that was confusing. I didn’t understand a word of it, anyway.
Completely out of its metallic mind, the car charged past the trees, heading straight for the neatly-dug moat.
I was helpless to stop it. My own involvement had escaped my awareness completely. I simply hung onto the steering wheel for dear life, eyes wider than ever, completely absent to the fact that MY FOOT WAS ON THE GAS.
All at once, Dad finally got his full-grown leg around the gear shift and kicked my foot off the gas pedal and stamped on the brake in one astoundingly swift move.
The car sputtered, died, rocked to a standstill.
Its front wheels were on the lip of the moat. Below us, three feet of water and unimaginable depths of sticky mud glittered silently.
Little clods of earth trickled out from under the front tires and dropped in, stirring tiny clouds as each one descended through the water and into the mud.
All was quiet. Even the birds were too shocked to peep.
I sat there, frozen, hands locked on the wheel. I was alive. And dry. It was shocking.
I didn’t dare to move.
I heard Dad take a breath, and then take another. I felt, even with my head still turned away, two completely different speeches considered, then thrown away before he even made a sound.
I turned to see what he’d finally settle on, and whether it would finally involve a pair of hands wrapped around my throat – something I’d never seen him do yet, but you never knew, especially after a performance like that.
A pair of blue lasers drilled me to my seat.
Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, he said, pronouncing each word distinctly:
“When what you’re doing doesn’t work… Try. Something. Different.”
Words to live by.
It was years until I was anywhere as green as Bordeaux. I lived along the Mohawk Trail in my 20’s. My excellent friend Paul was the hub of a wide circle of friends who, even if we couldn’t always stand each other individually, felt strangely as if we were still part of the same tribe: Paul’s tribe – or, as we called it at the time (such was his gift for invisible influence) The Tribe.
Paul was a master of appreciating people just as they were – even if that was not necessarily what the person in question wanted to be. He was the first to say, in assured tones,
“You’ll figure it out, Bella.”
He wasn’t kidding, either. He had complete faith in me, in spite of the evidence. I don’t know why. It sure helped, though.
My Dad died in early February 1999 while swimming in Egypt. I still remember the way the word “No” echoed off the walls of my little room at 4:08 am, when I got the call. The second flight on my 3-legged trip back East was overbooked, and I was going to get bumped.
I went up to the desk with my untucked button-down shirt, uncombed hair, and my own pair of blue lasers. Very quietly, very clearly, very firmly, I said, pronouncing each word distinctly, “My father is dead. I’m going back to bury him. I will be. On. That. Plane.”
And I was.
On January 23rd the following year, Paul decided to sleep late, and never woke up. On the plane to his funeral, I wrote to the father of one of my oldest friends from Egypt days, who had end-stage cancer. It started something like this:
“I’m on my way to a dear friend’s memorial, and I’m keenly aware that life is short and time is passing. Even though I don’t know you well, because you were my friend’s father rather than my friend directly, you matter to me. I want to let you know how important you’ve been throughout my life.” And then I told him about the ways his life had intersected mine over the years, brightening it along the way.
It was the last letter he received in this life.
That’s my word for those days that sneak up on the calendar, dropping shards of stabbing tears out of a clear blue sky, breaking my knees for a moment as the agony of the unfillable absence hits me anew.
Now, not to strain the violins further, but the period that encompassed the deaths of my father, Paul, and my friend’s father also encompassed several other bereavements, a crippling stroke of my grandmother’s, the heartbreaking failure of my almost-marriage, the end of my nursing career due to illness, being too sickly-weak to make it to the mailbox and back for months, starting a new tech career from nothing but raw talent and pure luck, and moving.
And I really hate moving.
That was all in 18 months. I was a different person at the end of it. I’m sorry to say that it was someone who could face the devastation of CRPS with a lot more poise, but it still sucks.
Last Monday, January 20th, my old neighbor and teacher Mrs P died in her sleep. I haven’t seen her in 38 years (minus a week) but something as sharp and bright as faceted crystal slid out of my world.
My kitten Ari was a comfort to me, flinging himself firmly onto my body, as if to shove his strength and warmth into me.
He was enormous in every way: 10 pounds at 10 months and all of it lanky muscle, enormous love, enormous cheer, enormous charm, enormous athleticism, enormous independence, enormous courage, enormous confidence, enormous sense of humor … he was enormously unusual, even for a cat. He was an enormous invitation to life, just by the way he lived it.
Four nights after that, Ari disappeared. The following morning he was found on the road, dead and cold. Our Lovely Neighbors got us through, from finding his body to explaining to J to telling me. (I’m weaker now. It’s the buckling knees I remember.)
Partner J dug a perfect meter-deep grave, bedded it 6” deep in sprigs of fresh California bay while I blew sage smoke in, and I carried my kitten down to his final spot in the sun, at the bend in the path where he played with our dog and the Lovely Neighbors’ numerous cats.
I took the loss hard.
I’m an old hand at grieving. I can walk through the stages and the process in my sleep, although my body handles it worse all the time.
- The initial devastation and shock.
- The tasks:
- communicating the news,
- planning the funerary rites,
- preparing the final rest,
- performing the rites one needs to lay the deceased, as well as life with the deceased, to rest,
- cleaning up their things,
- comforting each other,
- getting something to eat,
- reminding everyone to be extra careful and remember to drink lots of water, which we tend to forget nevertheless.
- The reactions:
- Noticing the way sunshine lands on my skin and birds sing in the trees but it seems to come from a world that’s not quite the one I’m in.
- The way I have casual surges of wishful thinking: wouldn’t a bullet in the brain be nice about now? This isn’t suicidality (I promise), it’s my mind’s way of signaling that it’s overwhelmed by horrible feelings that it can’t do anything about, and it’s tired and doesn’t know what to do.
- Re-learn the daily habits that this person (of however many feet) used to be involved in. That’s so dislocating. I don’t need to eyeball a certain corner of the bed before moving my feet now. I’m not even awake when I do that. It’s so horribly weird to wake up by realizing I don’t have to look.
Then the misnamed “stages” of grief, which are really nodes, which can be visited in any order.
- The anguish, where life without that person has to be faced.
- The anger, like, why couldn’t that little cuss cross under the bridge as usual, instead of testing one more damned limit and crossing over?
- The bargaining, although I stopped bargaining years ago. I don’t seem to do that now. Too many unanswered prayers wept and bled into silence.
- The sweet memories that stab like a ray of sun in my eyes, bringing tears that gradually wane over time, until those memories bring mostly sunshine.
- Finding a new pattern beginning to emerge in my life, one that encompasses that absence without filling it, but making it less of an obstacle over time. They call that “acceptance”, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I’d call it adapting.
I’ve only realized how very deep and interconnected life is by losing parts of mine. In that 18-month period of multiple losses, I found myself mulling the image of a complex weave on a loom, where each person and each influence in my life was a thread.
Some threads were solid and stable, some were wildly colorful, some thick with burrs, some wove in and out of the pattern, some were knotty and strange, some were pure gold.
When a major thread, or a lot of threads of any size, were ripped off the loom, then the fabric was distorted and there was a visible gap in it for a long time. I could weave on, but that band of the fabric was weaker – sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. It takes a very long time to rebuild from the loss of enough warp threads.
It takes time to work new threads into the weave of life, and longer still to see which ones work in the overall pattern, and which ones fall out on their own – or need to be pulled out, for the damage they do to the rest.
Some people and influences are part of the warp, as they’re meant to stay in the weave for its length and are made to be strong. Career, close family, good friends, matters of identity – these are all warp threads which usually shape and color our lives all along its length. Each one has its own color and texture and breadth, which varies from person to person, and each contributes a depth of color and texture to the weaving that nothing else can provide.
In life, unlike fabric, the warp threads are highly individual.
When one of those gets ripped out, the whole weave … well … warps.
Some people and influences are weft threads, and are easier to change out. Doctors are usually weft threads, although the need for medical care is a warp thread for some of us. Jobs are weft, while careers are usually warp.
I lost a number of warp threads in that 18-month period. Between the end of January and the second week of February, the closest bereavements hit, year after year. The weave of my life has warped, over and over, in the armpit of winter.
I shift my stance from relying unthinkingly on having a lot of strength inside and out, to being mindful and precise about where to put my diminishing attention and energy.
I’ve learned to be more and more aware of good times, genuine love, beautiful days, radiant people, perfect moments, delicious food …
When I look back, I have far fewer regrets when I really noticed good things at the time.
I didn’t expect to have that kitten in the first place.
Even in this season of bereavement, I didn’t expect to lose him so soon.
But when he was here, keeping me permanently in a mild state of befuddlement because he was so much larger than life but still so very young, I sure noticed.
One day, that should be a comfort.
Meanwhile, as CRPS continues to change the game on me, I’m trying to learn to handle bereavement-amidst-deathiversaries with this new and different body-system.
My autonomic system is normally in a state that maps most closely to that of someone who’s being continually beaten with a live cattle prod, but years of practice have taught me when to ignore it and how to manage the results somewhat.
It gets better and worse from time to time. Stress, uncertainty, poor diet, missed meds, solar flares (believe it or not), and injuries, all crank up the volume on my oscillating central nervous system.
Bereavement is stressful, unpredictable, and contributes to poor diet, missed meds, and injuries. (Possibly solar flares for all I know.) Deathiversaries are a hardwired physical memory of bereavements. Having both at once is like being hit from both sides at once. Double oscillations that don’t cancel each other out, but feed into each other and magnify their effects.
All right… What’s an oscillating nervous system like?
Right now, the skin on my face is so raw that my partner’s nice springy beard feels sharper than a cheese-grater. My left lower leg wants to turn into a lump of Dacron, impenetrable and basically useless. My wrists and forearms, well, the less said the better, but I have to hold my mug with both hands to avoid wearing what’s in it. I went outside in soft shoes today (I usually wear hiking shoes) and the friendly little stones in the yard slowed me down considerably, as each one wanted to get way too personal with my foot-bones.
That’s the physical side of CRPS.
Because of the brain changes that make that stuff happen, there’s a parallel process that happens on the emotional side. Imagine the same degree of relentless rawness and unquenchable pain inside the heart and mind, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like.
I’ll give you a minute, if you like.
I don’t mean to whine, it’s just a fact of life with this disease. It takes a lot of managing, because my mental state wants to default to, well… how distressing and upsetting it is to be beaten continually with a live cattle prod.
How do you deal with an oscillating nervous system?
When your world is being purged, it’s important to replenish and nourish. This means extra antioxidants, extra meditation/biofeedback, extra hugs, and – if possible – someone else to clean the house and help with laundry and cooking.
One must eat, clean, and cope, and if it takes help, then I ask for help.
Herbal lemon balm extract helps cut the flared nerve pain. Chamomile and lavender tea, maybe with tulsi, helps me get to sleep. Some people do well with vervain or ashwaganda.
Homeopathics like ignatia amara and hypericum ease other parts of my nervous system responses. Also, I use an essential oil blend from Young Living called Valor, to reduce the hotwired panic reflex and hyper-alertness.
In case it isn’t obvious …
I don’t care what academics say, I only care what works for me. Empiricism is the only form of science that matters in the individual case.
I keep busy in order to keep my mind from exploding over the surfeit of losses and memories of losses, while CRPS takes the brakes off of all the feelings – physical and emotional alike.
This leaves me to manage the resulting inward chaos with whatever poise I can fake, because I know that a certain part of it is grief but a certain part of it is simply brain damage.
Either way, it will ease up in time.
So I keep busy, take my supplements, comfort the dog (whose heartsick look would make a stone weep), try not to draw attention to my partner’s look of not knowing what hit him, and wait …
Mostly, I wait for the balm of time, because it doesn’t change the loss, but it helps me learn to live with it.
Also, it moves the deathiversaries into my rearview mirror for another year. Until then, I’ll hold the love and leave the pain as much as I can.
Lastly, I wait for the fierce oscillations of my nervous system, humming and shaking like a five-foot-high tuning fork, to decrease and diminish and eventually …
quiet down …
to … a …
There is always an afterwards. Survival is simply a matter of getting to it.
Managing CRPS under this kind of duress is not magic, it’s persistence.
I keep breathing and let the awful moments pass. I’m old enough, both as a person and a CRPSer, to know that there are better ones ahead.
All I have to do is get there.