At the TriAdventure Sprint Triathlon, April 7, 2013, aged 54 1/4
At the TriAdventure Sprint Triathlon, April 7, 2013, aged 54 1/4
“...and the congregation averted its eyes.”
- J. K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy
The woman in the photo could be a resident of Pagford, the fictional village in J. K. Rowling’s new novel The Casual Vacancy. The woman vibrates with ambivalence. She hopes the bright pearls and bright smile will distract the photographer from her tear-reddened eyes, the loose, lined skin on her face, the way she clutches and offers mementos from her childhood as if they are precious and matter.
When the woman saw the photo online, she felt the horror of a realization had too late, fists clenched, arms shaking with the desperate wish for just one more moment to do something, anything to unback the car from the parking meter, to unpour the boiling water from the shattered glass pitcher, to unclose the car door on the child’s hand.
She wanted to save the elderly woman in the photo from the inevitable: people will increasingly perceive her as inconsequential because she won’t have time to finish what she starts, or, more immediately, the strength, wits or wherewithal to do much of anything well. The rah-rah about aging is darling but changes nothing of the truth that one is increasingly less than one was and dies in the end.
Only in the past few years have I heard the adage about fiction, “It may not be factual, but it’s true.” I felt at home in Rowling’s Pagford, not because of its familiarity, but because of Rowling’s relentless candor.
I was raised in Blacksburg, Virginia, home of silence. Of the two suicides of my classmates, two deaths by car wrecks, and deaths of three of their parents that occurred in the years I attended Margaret Beeks Elementary School and Blacksburg High School, not a word was spoken by my parents, by my teachers, or by my classmates. The odd behavior of the swim club manager was not mentioned. Faces of the “poor kids” in the class photos from my elementary school years were missing from my high school yearbook. About loss and absence and its accompanying confusion and pain one did not speak in Blacksburg.
In Blacksburg, at Virginia Tech, I fell in love and married and moved away. I expected to have a baby, stay home and raise the baby, have another baby, and live happily ever after as a family. Only when I was unable to conceive a child and looked in anguish and bafflement at a future for which I had no ability did I see how silence had disabled me. The pain was greater than I was. I cannot remember the moment I first spoke, but only then did a slip of a self come forward. Only then did I feel a chance to not be broken by pain.
Rowling’s characters break each other’s hearts. They long to undo the undone. Then they do again, blindly and knowingly. They are alternately hurtful and calculating, brave and foolish, merciless and merciful. They and I are one. And they must, as I must - or choose not to - live with what what’s happened to us and with what we’ve done.
I find it excruciating at times to not be a member of the congregation, especially now that I'm back in Blacksburg, to not avert my eyes from the truth of who I am, from what I am feeling and thinking and remembering, from what I see when I look at what others feel, think and do or have done to them or have happen to them. I can feel upset, weak, vulnerable, even traumatized at the time of the looking. But I know, paradoxically, that I strengthen myself for what is and what will come from every truth I muscularly embrace. I live as fully as I can, not partially. On my deathbed, where it all must end, I will not regret not having tried to wholly live my life. I will not regret my silence.
I am the ambivalent woman in the photo.
Photo credit: Travis Williams for The Roanoke Times
My mother died one year ago today on August 27, 2011.
I know an anniversary is a concept, not a tangible reality. My mother will be just as gone yesterday as she will be tomorrow. I am experiencing the one-year anniversary of her death as a time of reckoning, however. Her death marked a before-and-after in my life that I had no idea then would have existed now.
In the immediate after, I felt like my father and sister and I became one, that we needed three minds to handle the aftermath of her death, from what felt like an explosion of our family system, to the phone calls and meetings and papers required to end a person's documented existence. When any one of us remembered a meeting, we would call or email to remind both of the others. One of us had always forgotten.
Many times over the past year, I have felt helpless with grief, unable to answer a question, read a map, choose something from my wallet with which to pay for groceries. That happens less often, but today, of all days, it is likely to happen again, so I have cancelled all of my regular appointments and have added no new ones. Except to have lunch with my father and sister.
Today is Monday. Early Saturday morning, I could see each day of my life since my mother's death like a deck of cards, with unpleasantly taupe-colored ribbons piercing and sewing them together. I made a list of those ribbons - unhappy conditions and states and ways operating in my life that I've been unconscious of or too driven or too tired to address - and now they are named and conscious. Some I can't change and I will have to learn to be with. Some will take time to change. About the two over which I have the most direct control, I took action on one on Saturday by mid-morning and one on Sunday by mid-afternoon.
I have felt the urge to write my mother a letter, knew I would do it today, but felt overwhelmed by the enormity or what one says after fifty-two years together. I woke up this morning realizing I would give myself a 14-line, sonnet-like limit for prose: one page. Done. Important to have done.
I have one single, last, precious voice mail from my mother that I have saved for 13 months. I will listen to it again today.
Much is touted as being "once in a lifetime" but the death of one's mother happens only once. The first anniversary of her death happens only once. I can imagine on the second anniversary of my mother's death that I won't cancel my appointments. I will probably ask my father and sister, though, if they're available for lunch.
Mary Wilson Burnette Giles, May 29, 1933 - August 27, 2011
For the past 3 years or so, I have done circuit training during my sessions.
Circuit training is a series of lift-run intervals using weight-lifting equipment which I term "machines."
Here's my regimen:
2-mile warm-up run, approximately 20 minutes
1 mile follow-up run, sprinting the last lap. Then, some abs and hamstring work.
Total lifts: 288
Total miles: 5 5/9 miles
Total time: 2 hours
Personal record for timed session of 8 machines and 23 laps, set March 26, 2011: 56 minutes.
Around the time of that PR, my mother, who had been ill for years, began the decline that would end in her death on August 27, 2011.
Some Saturdays since then, I haven't been able to run. I just sit at the machine, lift, talk with Don, sometimes cry. In recent months, I've gotten back slowly to finishing 7 machines.
On Saturday, July 28, I felt stronger and faster during our session and asked Don at the end, "Was that eight machines?!" "No," he said, "Seven."
The next Saturday, August 4, I said to Don, "Let's have our own personal Olympics. Let's go for eight." He looked at his cell phone and said, "You would need to stop talking and get going." I went. When I ran back up to the machine to do my second set of lifts, I said, "Can we go for eight?" He said, "We'll see."
I so wanted - maybe needed - to do 8 machines, to assure myself of the readiness of my strength for the upcoming anniversary of my mother's death on August 27, 2012.
I ran and lifted, ran and lifted. I always have a think during the run and shared my insights with Don a few times, but kept lifting. Around the 30-minute mark, though, I could feel the heaviness of fatigue starting and stopped talking. Don's "We'll see" meant that 8 machines was contingent upon his judgment of my fitness as I progressed through the circuits.
When I descended the stairs from the elevated track for machine #7 and looked for Don, I was crushed to see him waiting by the assisted pull-up machine with which we end each session. I started lifting and almost begged, "Will you set me up for 8?" "Keeping going," he said. "We'll see."
When I came down after the 3rd set of lifts on #7, I found him at another machine. "I think I can do it," I said. "I think you can, too," he said.
I set a personal circuit training record for 8 machines at 53 minutes. It took 11 months and 1 week to recover and return to near the level of fitness I had before my mother died.
During coverage of the Olympics, I watched the story of Kerri Strug and her last, leg-destroying, career-ending vault that won her the gold medal, and of her coach Bela Karolyi carrying her in front of all the crowds and cameras to the podium to receive the medal.
I think heroic coaching took place with no crowd and no cameras at a gym in Blacksburg, Virginia with Don's "We'll see."
Under the scrutiny and oversight of my coach, I won an invisible, private medal and carried my own sweaty, tired, still-sound body out of The Weight Club with my own strength, by myself.
c. 1999 - November 20, 2010
I adopted my cat from the Humane Society of Tampa Bay on November 2, 2004.
So many people suffer because they try to bury things or pretend they didn't happen or say it didn't affect them.
- Gail Billingsley, Comment on "I See You"
For me, too, Gail, yes and yes.
The challenge is that we often "bury things" because they cause us so much pain we think we can't bear them in the open. For me, the "buried things" do affect me and they affect my relationship with myself and others. In fact, counter-intuitively, they cause me more pain buried, not because I can't see them, but because I can't see - and therefore can't change - how they're operating in my life in ways that cause pain to me and those I love.
Here are ways I have kept "things buried":
Here is what helps me "unbury things" so that I not only survive the process, but thrive from it:
Buried in the dark, the "thing" has the power. Unburied, in the light, I can take its measure and choose how much power I give it.
I have shovel in hand.