Here’s a snippet from my NaNoWriMo effort in 2012. I don’t think I’ve ever put a piece of the G Mel/Sluss story out here without context and lead-up. But, why not, eh? It’s all about the DNA and practice.
I confess I didn’t know this flavor of adrenaline could course through my body. I don’t like it. It tastes of self-disappointment, disillusionment, and chocolate chip cookies. The cookies ought to be delicious. They may well be again, but for now they have staled. Or maybe taken a different shape and flavor. Maybe they’ll morph into butterscotch-worry-lemon-regret-macaroon-hope gingersnaps … with chocolate chips. A combo I never really thought about, but maybe this is the real flavor of life.
I listen to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy in the background, hear the wheels of her walker touring the floor, stops here and there. I wait for her to come to the study door despite a promise not to disturb, despite a promise to disappear. And it’s this word, this desire in her that I can barely stomach.
If she wheelied through the house at 100 miles an hour or two miles per hour, if she dripped tortilla soup all over the stove, if she spilled coffee down the front of every shirt she owns, I wouldn’t care. What I cannot stomach is the self-loathing that trails her. It is evil, doesn’t belong here, and is not the woman I know. Knew. This is not my grandmother who survived two previous husbands in some form (divorce and death), who has lived the life of a poor child, a wealthy woman, a penniless divorcée, a self-frugal but others-generous senior, and a sassy single touree of the north and southwest in a fifth wheel all her own. She is a survivor. She is brave. She doesn’t take crap but she is not ugly about it. She is genteel. She is no-nonsense but giggles with her children and grandchildren.
This woman is hollowed out like a Halloween jack-o-lantern. She trembles at the timbre of a voice suggesting anything more adamant than, “Would you like ice in your tea?” or “Please pass the butter.” She cannot express a consistent, confident thought, a clear trail, a singular desire. She has been left bereft, decimated, of words, of wits, of wants, of worth. And I hate that I am disappointed at moments, angry at moments WITH HER, instead of compassionate or angry with where the anger belongs. The anger belongs with the Enemy, with life, with culture, some with her, and with her third husband.
Where has she gone? And can she get back?
November 1, 2012, I come home to a platter of chocolate-covered strawberries that she called me at work hours ago to tell me had arrived. She wouldn’t dare open them or eat one, despite my urging, which in one sense is sweet, since we can share when I get home, but in another sense I just want her to live like a human and be able to receive something, to be able to confidently take me at my words when I say, “Sounds delicious. Open ‘em up and get crackin’!”
Instead … I come home to a hovering hummingbird, who can’t settle down and who can’t do enough for me, and who can’t make a move unless it’s okay with me. This is the physicality of the aftermath of abuse. And a lot of loneliness.
I can’t even stomach opening the strawberries … or the pita bread, pancakes, or tiny rye loaf she has out on the counter.
Why the weird combo on display? And why two containers of bean soup thawing on the stovetop?
“Well, we are down to just a few things, so I found these in the freezer, and I didn’t know what you wanted, and so you can choose and there’s these little rye pieces and …”
And thus begins a tour of the carbohydrates on the counter. Why are we out of normal bread and lunch meat? Because I have pretty much stopped offering to stop by the store, bring anything home, see what she might like, ask what we could use. It can’t be done. There is no answer that includes “milk, scallions, eggs, syrup, and turkey breast”. The only answer includes, “Oh, you are so busy and I am fine and I don’t need anything and you shouldn’t have to get me anything and I am sorry to be such a burden and you don’t need to go out of your way and I feel so badly that you have to shop for me …”
There is no way to win the grocery war. I can’t win the coffee war, the towel war, the make-the-bed war, the brush-the-dog war.
I am so flustered by her fluttering that I can’t settle, either. I can’t make a decision, can’t find an answer or a food that will be compatible with unwinding my day and give her the satisfaction of preparing something and that will meet my nutritional desires and my, let’s just say it, very odd tastes. I DON’T CARE what combination of things go in my mouth … fix something and let’s be on with it. The best part of any meal prepared by someone else, offered by them, is the word “served”. For me, it’s not the food itself; it’s the generosity of your serving me that is sweetest on my tongue and most filling in my belly. But she can’t move without my permission.
“Vegetables? Chicken breast? Bread? Green Beans?” The litany of all the food in the house that could possibly be prepared and consumed begins and I need to make a choice.
Too often lately I have just said, “Thanks, not hungry.” I am ravenous, but I can’t sort out the math: the time it will take her to prep it before bedtime (because she CANNOT start before I arrive home) + an actual food combination we would both like + a complete meal that seems like something a responsible grown-up would eat + what will not come back like a Technicolor yawn after it lands on the churning acid in my stomach.
Tonight, I run from the kitchen and even from the strawberries. It looks like a walk to the naked eye, but my guts are sprinting down the hall. When she slinks to the door to ask where she should put the berries, back in the fridge or leave them on the counter, where she put them so prettily so I could come home to them, next to a lit candle, even, I have no answer.
Is this because there is no right answer anymore? Is there no way to bring calm, bring peace, bring reassurance to a heart that knows no matter what she chooses, she will be stupid and selfish and wrong? He who taught her that she can never be right, never get it right, has infiltrated my life. Now I can never get it right, even with someone who has loved me so beautifully for 42 years, who thinks I am perfect, who thinks my heart is unending and my smarts off the charts. He has broken me, too.
And maybe he has done me a favor.
I flee to my study with arms full of laptop and eyes full of frustration and brow clouded with lines and the Rorschach inkblot that weighs on my forehead when I don’t know what to do and someone is waiting for me to make it all better. After 15 minutes of typing, and getting hungrier, frankly, and not being able to come up with a way to sneak into the kitchen for food and then back out again, and thinking, “Well, hell, she’ll eat when she gets hungry,” a phrase I previously reserved for dogs and small children, it finally dawns on me that the strawberries will never get opened unless I go out there and do it. A beautiful, flouncy cellophane wrap, tied off with peach and pale green ribbon might as well be Fort Knox. Her heart can’t open it. Her trembling fingers would wrestle with it anyway, but the permission that I carry, the assent to open those berries, is enormous. I am the only one who can bust through the cellophane and invite the shy, but berry-ravenous kitty, to come eat one, too. By the time I get there, she is heating the pancakes I was hoping for, but as soon as the berries are unwrapped and one is deliciously in my mouth, she gleefully pops one on her plate and is all smiles. She announces, slyly and proudly later as she eats it, mouth covered in chocolate and her hand fumbling around for one of the tissues she has stuffed in her waistband, that she didn’t even ask; she just took one.
I point out that I told her on the phone that I wanted her, invited her, to open them and enjoy. She says that’s just because I was trying to be a good granddaughter.