My Face, My Beautiful Face

It was my first time. I’d never had anyone fuss with my face, shape my eyebrows, those were things other women did, not me.

I lay back on the table and she put a pillow under my knees. As she studied my face, she pulled a bright light down to help her get a closer look like a dentist might do looking for an especially subtle cavity.

After she was done with my eyebrows, the waxing and tweezing, I asked her a question I’d been wanting to ask somebody for a long time. “Do you think anything can be done about my face?” I was sixty then and had long vertical creases in my cheeks, lines across my forehead, and branches of worry on the side of each eye.

She studied me for a long moment and then stood back, returning the examination lamp back to its place.“No,” she said, “I can’t do anything. Maybe a doctor could.” She seemed repelled somehow like she wished she could roll her eyes but it would be unseemly, not appropriate in front of a paying customer, especially one so seemingly unaware, unlearned, so naive. She turned away and then she said this.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

The creases in my mother’s face had been even deeper than mine, so deep that it seemed that her skin had been borrowed from a much larger person and hung on her head by mistake. I remember when the creases in her face were made. I watched from a window in the kitchen while she lay on a lawn chair in the backyard.

She wore a tiny halter top, one with no straps, just elastic top and bottom. It was white and maybe just three inches wide, just enough to cover her mastectomy scars. Running from the center of the halter top to the top of her shorts was a long thin scar where surgeons had removed her gallbladder or appendix or had explored. She had had several exploratory surgeries which I envisioned as doctors hunting for something to make real her complaints of illness. There had to be something the matter. We kept asking but she said, “No, nothing’s the matter.” As a child, I probably asked her that question 10,000 times.

She would wait until noon,when it was hottest, to go in the backyard. And then she would lay, first on her back and then on her stomach, always in her white halter top and her blackshorts, the rest of her body bare, offered up to the heat and the sun. She would lie flat on the lawn chair, perfectly flat, until the sun began to set. She didn’t read or converse unless I spoke to her, asked if I could go to my friend’s house or whether I should start dinner. She just baked herself until she became brown, my fair, freckled mother became as brown as the table next to me as I write this. Not mahogany, lighter, but just barely as I remember. But I was a child.

My mother was lovely and soft, not hard, her toughened brown skin notwithstanding, and she was very gentle, all the time gentle, and melancholy, this last thing being what I remember most. She gave me her wisdom as much as she could and one important thing was this, “You don’t have to be pretty as long as you’re neat and clean.”

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

I was in the bathtub one night. I remember this so clearly because I was concerned about one of my toes and thinking I should ask my mother if something was wrong with my toe and then I heard sirens. The sirens came right at me, right at our house, and I waited for them to pass and go to the house across the street where the dad sometimes hit the mom and then she would come running to our door and my dad would let her in and go talk to the dad and then say he calmed everyone down. But instead the sirens stopped and doors started slamming.

I stood in my pajamas, wet and dripping because I’d jumped out of the bathtub and dressed so fast, wanting to see what was the matter. The firemen were in the living room and my mother was on the couch. She was breathing into a brown paper bag and one of the firemen was patting her on the back. “Just breathe, ma’am, just breathe.” And she did just breathe while the revolving lights of the fire truck flashed through the window and I realized the truck was on our lawn, not even on the street. It was such a terrible thing, I thought, that they had to drive on the lawn and not even use the driveway.

The next morning, I took my Girl Scout sash and my new badges into my mom’s bedroom. It was dark in there, she was still sleeping although my dad had left hours before to go to work. I wanted her to sew my badges on, she sewed everything, drew patterns for dresses on newspaper, and made curtains out of old skirts. But she said I should find some safety pins to fasten my badges because she couldn’t sew them now. That would have to do, she said. And so I went downstairs to her sewing table and found safety pins but I couldn’t make the badges look like they’d been sewn on because they hadn’t.

“I bet you wash your face with soap.”

When I got older, I understood why my mother had roasted in the sun day after scorching day, why she sometimes lay on the couch, facing the wall, for hours on end, so long sometimes I would stop what I was doing to watch her breathing. Was she still breathing, I would wonder, sometimes sitting on the slimmest edge of the couch to rub her shoulder and ask if she wanted me to turn on the television or make her some tea. She always said no, she was fine. But she was not fine, she was never fine, but eventually I left home and I didn’t think about it all the time.

The lines in my face deepened every year. They weren’t as extreme as my mother’s, no, but the time I’d spent in the sun, the afternoons swimming in lakes and then lying still on a towel, so pleased to feel the sun on my face, all those times added up to a time and sun-worn face so dramatic that only a doctor’s intervention could repair the damage. I considered that, I thought about plastic surgery and Botox shots, wondered what might be possible to restore my face to an earlier version and I emailed my daughter in California and told her of my thinking.

I told her how my face was bothering me and I thought I should try to fix it and what she wrote back made me decide to do nothing. She wrote, “Your face, your beautiful face.”

I still wash my face with soap. I stand in the shower with the hot water streaming and I lather up and wash myself, my arms and legs and chest, and then my face and I let the water run on my face like it is rain falling on grass that has been parched by the sun.

Smoke

I woke up smelling smoke. There was a fire somewhere. Was it here?

It was still dark, maybe 5:00 or so this morning. Over the roof of the house across the street, I could see a beginning glimmer of sunrise but slight, so slight.

In the bathroom, I leaned into the opened window, pressed my nose against the screen, wanting the smoke to be from outside somewhere, someone else’s home, a peril not here.

Back in bed, I woke my husband to ask him if he smelled smoke and he said yes but it wasn’t our smoke because the smoke alarms would have gone off. And I wished hard that the smoke was someone else’s catastrophe and then I went back to sleep.

When I woke again, the sky was pink over the neighbor’s house, brilliant and glowing until it started to get dark like dawn had opened and then pulled back. I closed my eyes and waited for coffee, now worried for the day, afraid of what might happen next.

I am going to be afraid all day. I knew that. Nothing would abate the fear brought by the smoke except the day having been gone through.

When night came, the fear would be gone. I believed that. Unless there was more smoke coming from somewhere. Not from here. From somewhere else.

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Photo by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

 

 

You Need to See a Shrink

Remembering that time with a fair amount of gratitude.

Red's Wrap

Lincoln Memorial Drive

Every time I drive this patch of road, which is almost everyday, I remember being told right at this exact spot, “You need to see a shrink.”

I was the passenger in the car. The driver was my friend who was also my boss who used to be a priest and then a therapist. He had come when I called, dropped what he was doing and drove to my house and then took me for a ride down this very hill, figuring if we drove along Lake Michigan, I would calm down and start thinking more clearly.

I was hysterical and paralyzed at the same time. Depressed, anxious, smoking constantly, pacing, and frantic, the only idea I could form in my head was to call my friend and then keep circling the living room looking out the window at every pass to see if his car was outside. And then…

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Wishing for Monsters Under the Bed

Children on swings

I wish I had been less worried.

If you ask me how I wish my childhood had been different, that would be my answer. I wish I had been less worried.

It’s not a good thing for a child to be worried. Every day. About things outside of her control. About things she didn’t cause and can’t control. About things that exist, like the air and the rain, but aren’t named.

I worried constantly about my mother. When I say constantly, I mean constantly, from the beginning of conscious memory until I grew up, married and moved away. I worried that she was sad. I also worried that she was sick. Since she was almost always sad or sick or sad and sick, it wasn’t unreasonable to worry. It wasn’t as if I was imagining monsters under the bed that weren’t really there. The monsters would have been a relief, frankly, from the oppression of worry on my little kid self.

“What the matter, Mama?”

“Nothing’s the matter.”

Every day, many times a day, I’d ask. It was so obvious that something was the matter. The silence in the house made me tiptoe so as not to bother her. When my brother, nine years older than me, came home from college and started blasting Harry Belafonte on his bedroom stereo when my mother wasn’t home, it felt like jubilation from the heavens.

Day O, day o

Daylight come and me wan’ go home

Day, me say day, me say day, me say day

Me say day, me say day-o

Daylight come and me wan’ go home.

–Harry Belafonte

It made me feel joyful and hopeful, like a prisoner with a life sentence allowed to work in the warden’s flower garden. There were happy things. There were ways to be happy. Music was one of those ways. Why didn’t my mother listen to music, I wondered. Why did my brother always turn the music off when she came home? Maybe we all would have danced. We wouldn’t have. He knew that better and longer than me.

Children growing up with a chronically and seriously depressed parent have a burden they can’t describe. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I even understood that my mother’s depression was unrelated to any event or person although I’m sure it worsened in some times and improved in others depending on our family situation. Her depression was hers. When she was asked what was the matter, it’s likely she had no way of explaining. This was in the sixties, when treatment for mental health issues was sparse, alternatives meager. Better to be mute than risk other people’s panicked reactions. Maybe that’s what she thought. I don’t know. We never discussed it.

A few years ago, I sat up late one night with my older brother, the one whose Belafonte music blasted through the neighborhood. I asked him about our mother’s depression, what he thought caused it.

“I don’t know what caused it. All I know is that she was always that way.”

I don’t feel sorry for myself or blame my mother for anything. She was always kind to me. She was gentle, her hand on my cheek the most precious memory from my childhood. She was just never happy. I don’t remember her laughing, not once. There’s no picture in my childhood inventory of my mother with her head thrown back laughing, clinking the ice in a glass on a hot day and smiling a big grin. That’s someone else’s mother.

But she stayed alive. Sometimes I think she did that just for me.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Childhood Revisited.”

Secrets

Long ago, when I was a young woman and my boyfriend tried to end his life and ended up in intensive care after surgery to repair five stab wounds to his abdomen, my mother gave him rocks she’d found at the beach and a jade plant she’d bought at the grocery store. She held the rocks in her hand like she was holding a surprise for a small child. He held out his hand, the one without the IV, and she dropped the three rocks on to his palm and he closed his fingers around the rocks like they were fine diamonds that needed hiding from robbers.

This was their introduction, their first and only meeting.

He didn’t question her about the rocks, why she’d chosen them, or more to the point, why she thought to make them a gift. That seemed to have been secretly communicated between them while I was standing there unsuspecting. I wanted to ask her why she was giving him the rocks but it seemed to be none of my business. That she had brought a gift of any kind was a surprise to me. That there were two gifts, the rocks and the jade plant, was a puzzlement.

In the layers of time since then, that fleeting wonderment has come back many times. What was it that gave my mother and my suicidal boyfriend a secret pathway of communication. I’ll never know for sure because both of them are gone now. But I think it was because my mother felt for him in the most basic, fundamental way. She had never attempted suicide but that doesn’t mean she hadn’t thought about it. She had spent most of her life coming in and out of deep episodes of depression. I think it made her bilingual.

I was on the outside looking in with both of them. Their depression occupying different stages of my life but sharing a common theme of stress and worry. Everything I did had implications for, first, my mother, and then, my boyfriend. Separated by a dozen or more years, the pressure was the same. I was responsible, what I did or didn’t do would have consequences and the consequences might be fatal. Often, with my boyfriend, I felt like my life had been hijacked by his mental illness, that the most benign action on my part could instigate a terrible result. Like hanging up the phone to terminate an argument that was going nowhere.

Oh, it went somewhere. It went to the ER.

That I had hung up on him was the normal everyday thing that became the avalanche. If I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be standing there in the ICU with my mother and my boyfriend communicating over rocks. That’s what I thought. The thread of responsibility was wound around my finger. I didn’t put it there. I didn’t want it. It just appeared, wound tight and knotted in a hundred places.

I wish the suicide experts would talk about how, over time, people take on responsibility for the consequences of their loved ones’ mental illness. It isn’t intentional, it’s not like the people with mental illness are purposely putting responsibility on their loved ones. It just sort of happens. It’s insidious, makes relationships cautious, inelastic, brittle, so that nothing is worth the risk.

It’s a terrible burden to have, never being able to hang up.

____________

Photo: Feifei Peng

The Limits of Our Experience: Understanding Depression and Suicide

A few days ago, some people had a suicide story. Now, everyone has one.

If you never knew anyone who died by suicide, not a single friend or relative, someone at work, down the block, you knew Robin Williams. Everybody knew Robin Williams.

We knew his face, his elastic, electric face that every second, even in repose, had the potential for explosion, a firecracker of surprise. I loved his face. He had the face of a favorite cousin, the one who could charm everyone with a new card trick learned last week at camp, who was thinking about becoming a ventriloquist, an option he would explain while helping clear the table after Thanksgiving dinner. He was the person you always wanted to be with because he was so joyful, full of mirth, but so aware of you, conscious of what would make you laugh and what wouldn’t. Taking care of people with his jokes and antics, taking care of them, not entertaining them.

There is the sense that Robin Williams cared for his audience in that same way. Today, all the millions of people who felt cared for by Robin Williams are reflexively thinking why couldn’t he find someone to care more about him. That’s what they think was missing from his life. If more people had reached out to him, if he had been able to make more of a connection, tell others his problems, seek their support, he would still be alive.

Maybe. I don’t know. I have never had suicidal thoughts despite having rough times and spending time feeling quite extraordinarily alone. It never occurred to me and I know why. I was depressed by life’s events. I didn’t have major, clinical depression. The first condition is one that can be ameliorated by friends’ support and kindness. That and time and sometimes other strategies like exercise or overwork or, in my case, sitting in a bathtub running the hot water for hours every night while my young daughter did her homework on the bathroom floor eventually repair what is broken and life goes on. This kind of depression is a stomach ache compared to the stomach cancer that is major, clinical depression.

I have known a couple of people with major, clinical depression. One of them was my mother. A couple are friends. I don’t know whether my mother contemplated suicide. She never said and, as far as I know, she never attempted suicide. She would go through great patches of time, several months, when she would barely move from her bed. She was in a darkened bedroom when I left for school and in the same place when I returned. I didn’t know about depression. I just believed her to be sad. About what it wasn’t clear.

Friends with clinical depression make reference to suicide, ending it all, not having the strength to continue. When I hear this talk, I try to do the things that Mental Health America and other suicide prevention organizations instruct. Ask questions. Be direct. Talk about resources and the plan to use them. When I listen to these friends or read about Robin Williams or hear about friends whose relatives have died by suicide, it strikes me that my own understanding of clinical depression is largely framed by my past stomach aches. It’s almost a reflex to start suggesting activities to get better, ‘hey, go sit in the bathtub for a while,’ and I think that my friendship will make someone decide not to continue on a suicide trajectory. So foolish.

Clinical depression, when it is at its most severe, is a giant anvil of despair and hopelessness. It takes extraordinary effort and a lot of resources, psychiatric, medical, social, to keep breathing under the weight of the anvil. And because it’s an anvil and unrelenting and growing heavier by the day, the depressed person’s ability to exercise choice about living or dying keeps shrinking.

“Why didn’t he think of his family? What about his children? How could he leave them? How could he do this to us?”

Relatives and friends of people who die by suicide, and now Robin Williams’ fans ask these questions. The questions come out of their own experience, experience which might even include terrible dark times which they survived and now think are comparable to what Robin Williams experienced. I heard these questions asked by relatives of a dear friend who died by suicide at age 61 after having first attempted suicide in his twenties and living forty years with serious depression. Had he suddenly stopped caring about his friends and relatives? Or did the anvil crush him?

Like so many things viewed from the outside looking in, we have no idea what major depression that leads to the brink of suicide looks and feels like. Only the people who have been there know and they are hard pressed to describe it in a way the rest of us, with our stomach aches, can understand.

When I think of Robin Williams, having lived to the age of 63, I wonder how many other times he was nearly crushed by the anvil but survived. This time it was just too heavy, too powerful. There was no choice involved. He didn’t commit suicide. His depression killed him as sure as if a stomach cancer had metastasized to his brain and heart.

I hope the people who have traveled the same road as Robin Williams find ways to speak out about major depression; I hope they keep trying to help the rest of us understand. Speak the truth to us. Educate us.

Tell us what they need to stay alive.

__________________________________

#64/100: 64th in a series of 100 in 100

Missing Her

I am on the hunt for Carefree. I once was best friends with Carefree but I haven’t seen her since I was about seven.

You know Carefree. She’s the one who’s barefoot. She’s not worried about being hungry because she’s got a peanut butter sandwich and a dollar in her backpack. She knows when the ice cream man is coming and that’s all that’s important.

She doesn’t worry. She doesn’t fret. She doesn’t think about the future unless it’s happening tomorrow. She’s just living her life.

If she steps on a piece of glass on the playground, she cries. But she never thinks about stepping on a piece of glass ahead of time. If she did, she’d be looking down all the time or wearing shoes. Then she wouldn’t be Carefree. She’d be Careful.

I am tired of being with Careful and want to be with Carefree.

Do you have to be seven to pal around with Carefree? That’s my question. Is it a state of mind only for people with a lot of blank space in their brains? For people, like children, who are too dumb to know how hazardous the world is?

Oh, sometimes I have glimmers of Carefree, maybe when I’m on a road that isn’t on the map, swimming in a very blue lake, sitting in the sand amidst the ferns and blueberry plants and filling my cup with tiny ripe blueberries. It is just enough, like a wee shot of abandon, to remind me what being with Carefree feels like.

And then she’s gone. Just like that. Snap.

I’m not hopeful but I’m going to stick with the hunt. No matter how long it takes.

I want her back.

_________________________
Because I have a pain in my neck, literally and now for days, I am especially missing Carefree and wish we could hook up. This is a post from last summer.