Ordinary People

I have another list of home improvements I didn’t know I could do: I fixed the living room ceiling fan, daughter and I lugged the unwieldy secretary upstairs, we assembled some shelving in the basement, we loaded a big piece of furniture into the car and took it to the thrift shop, I took down and broke down some old cabinets that husband has been using for storage. I hammered down nails that were sticking out of boards, I found dedicated storage for sharp tools, for heavy tools, for those big boards that always look ready to fall on our heads. I’ve cleared two carloads of extraneous stuff out of that basement room this week, in addition to the numerous carloads I hauled away over the summer.

The living room looks so nice with piano gone, the secretary assembled, and the room rearranged with some decent lighting. I texted a photo of it to a friend who has been keeping up with my progress. I want to show off my basement, too, but when I scan the room and my accomplishments it looks….ordinary. That’s it. There’s nothing to see, unless you saw it before, and unless you know that it used to be the frenzied depository of my husband’s illness. It was a mess, and such an inexplicable mess at that. I used to offer to help clean it up, but he didn’t really want to tackle it. When I expressed concern about it with our marriage therapist last year, she tut-tutted and explained that some people are messy (read: my creative, brilliant, charming husband) and some people are tidy (read: boring old me). I knew she didn’t get it, but if I couldn’t explain that, then I didn’t really get it, either. The mess bothered me, and it worried me, but I never fully understood it. It was only when I sorted through the things after his death that I came to understand how overwhelmed he was. The mess was the external expression of his internal struggles, and I finally realized how hard things were for him. I walked in his shoes by walking through all this stuff.

And then I got rid of the stuff. I made sense of the stuff that remained. I’ve reclaimed the space for us. The basement is now a safe space for me and the kids. It’s open, it’s organized, it’s a friggin’ achievement, but it’s unremarkable. If you want a tennis racket (or a rake, or a bike rack, or a hammer), you can easily find it. That’s the big accomplishment. I’ve worked so hard to arrive at the ordinary. And we, of course, are not ordinary at all.


O Tannenbaum

I did not want a Christmas tree this year. The kids agreed to that. But over the course of the month, daughter strung Christmas lights inside and outside the house, requested an Advent calendar, asked about those spiral rolls I make, wondered when we were going to bake Pfeffernusse. I complied with her sweet wishes, and the wishes kept coming.

The day before Christmas eve we went to Nearby Midsized City for a little shopping. She was sad to see ornaments in the store, sad she didn’t have a tree this year.

I realized that my feelings about a tree were all about my mourning, not hers. She wanted a tree. She’s a kid.

The kid gets a tree.

When we got home, son and I scoured our town for a tree. The local sites were all out of cut trees. So we came home and chopped down a tree in our yard. It was a rootball tree from a recent Christmas, and it has since been growing in the yard. I just sawed and sawed away at the trunk until I gave it a little tug and lifted it away from the trunk. It was easier than I thought. Of course, I’ve never chopped down a tree before.

We dragged it inside and struggled to set it in the stand (because we didn’t hack off the lowest little branches. We’ll remember that, for the next time we chop down a tree.) The needles are so prickly. We had to wear gloves to hold it and string the lights. Daughter donned a hat with ear flaps when she dove under the branches to screw the tree into the stand.

That’s our tree. It’s tall and gangly. Some branches grew down instead of out. It’s sad. It’s ugly. It’ll poke your eye out. But it works.

Our Christmas was heartwrenching. Some moments were sweet and gentle. Other moments turned into tears and wailing and recrimination. But those passed. We comforted and forgave one another. What else can we do? It all comes from pain, but sometimes pain is ugly, or mean, or inconsolable. And for those moments when we quietly sat, daughter weaving on her new loom, me reading one of her new books, it was awfully nice to have a tree to sit next to, even this one…especially this one.

Check That Off the List

The piano is gone. The antique guy (who didn’t have room for it in his shop) had a customer inquire about pianos. He gave her my number. Tonight, the customer’s slightly-built husband and bigger friend heaved and ho’d and slipped it into a pickup truck and took it away.

It will be a surprise for a little girl on Christmas morning.

We’re trying

When son got home from his midterm on Friday morning, he thought he’d play in the snow. He sorted through the snow clothes and realized that most of them were too small. He still feels like a little kid.

Later, he wondered if he’d fit into his dad’s boots, so he pulled them out of the box-of-things-to-be-donated. Without any ado, he wore them and played with his sister.

He’s so mad at his dad, but he’s not bitter. And now he fills his shoes.

The kids played outside while I made dinner. I went out to the balcony to plug in the Christmas lights daughter had hung. I thought it would be nice for her to see all her lights lit up from the yard.

I powered up those lights, even though I hate this Christmas.

While I was there, I watched her snowboard down the hill.

I didn’t know she could snowboard.

We’re all trying. We’re all changing.

Daughter had a meltdown after dinner. The reason doesn’t matter. Our simple annual rituals dug up the pain, I think. Afterward, we lit candles and read their children’s book about the Solstice, about ancient people who huddled in the darkness, hoping for the light.

The symbolism was not lost on us.

She spent the night in bed with me.

We’re all trying. Trying is hard.

First Snow

I woke up daughter a few minutes early. “Look out the window,” I whispered.


She bundled herself up, pulled the sleds out of the garage, and slid down the front yard.

I thought about how I was going to get down the driveway.

For the first snowfall on my own, this one was a gentle introduction. It was just a powder. I only had to sweep it today, instead of shoveling. But it kept coming down and, surprisingly, it stuck. I made my first pass of snow-sweeping in the dark, then took my son to his midterm exam. I needed to do another pass before driving daughter. I could see her sailing down the hill out of the corner of my eye while I pushed the broom.

The driveway is long and steep, and it tends to ice up where it meets the street. On the drive down, I reminded myself that the car is an all-wheel drive, it wasn’t icy, people do this all the time. I dropped daughter off at school, where she announced she forgot her lunch. *wince* I picked up son from his midterm. He suggested we drop off $2.50 at her principal’s office and make her buy a school lunch.  I, of course, dropped him off at home, grabbed the lunch, and dropped it off at her school. That was three trips down the driveway this morning.

I got some other errands done while I was out. It was fine, it was really fine. But when I returned home, I crawled into bed. I needed to sleep it off. I only dozed off for a few minutes, but I slept off the fear, the underlying fear that I can’t keep them safe. The fear does me no good. I take pains to keep them safe, and they feel secure, but the fear lingers, anyway. Blessed sleep.


These rats really wear me out. During the showdown with Thom on Saturday, I needed to nap. I remain enervated.

While the kids were at school I went to Big Lots to pick up Xmas decorations I don’t feel like buying. The kids want some semblance of Christmas, and Geoffrey (our summer rat) ruined half of our decorations, so I had to restock the Xmas stash. I bought such cheap crap. I don’t care anymore. The kids won’t care. Standing on line, I felt really hot. In the car, I thought I might vomit. Then I thought I might cry.

I came home and tried to sleep by streaming a boring tv show. I ended up with an endless loop of Martha Stewart Christmas decorating episodes on Hulu. I’d fall asleep and awake to some outlandish craft, such as weaving evergreen branches onto a six-foot sheet of wire, then draping it around the columns on her porch, then draping lights over that. Martha must be joking. When we got to the lady pulling apart pine cones to use each individual piece as roof shingles on tiny houses, I knew this couldn’t be true. I was riveted.

Martha is so over the top that I am coming to terms with Christmas. I almost want to invite someone over so I can make that batch of eggnog. So many eggs, so much booze. Just pour it all in.

Exterminating My Spirit Animal

The rat is back. Or, rather, rats are back, and new ones.

We think we killed off Geoffrey in late August. The exterminator assured me there was only one, so I’ve been doing my laundry confidently since then. But every time I walk in there, I know there’s the possibility that Geoffrey could be in there, and I go in anyway. Geoffrey has been my intractable problem. He has taught me so much. He taught me that problems are not there to be solved. We can’t defeat every challenge that comes before us; we need to live with the danger (in this case, the danger of a rat being stuck in the laundry room with me). I live with the uncertainty of never knowing if he is there or not, and I act anyway. Geoffrey taught me how to cope with this life, rather than overcoming it. Geoffrey was some sort of spirit guide.

Still, I always said that if I encountered Geoffrey, I’d crush him with my bare hands.

We never saw Geoffrey. We figured the poison dehydrated him and he died before school started.

This past Tuesday, I saw insulation spilling out of the rat hole in the wall of the laundry room. A Borax box was on the ground. Signs of a rat, scurrying around my laundry room. Ugh. The rat guy came by first thing Wednesday morning. He found a dead rat in the wall. I wouldn’t look at it. Although he didn’t have to, he removed it and bagged it up for me. I signed a one-year contract. There are now six poison stations inside and outside the house.

On Saturday morning, I was ready to let the dogs out when there, perched on the dogs’ water bowl, was a rat.

I shrieked. It ran into the baseboard heater. We all lingered a while. We slipped The Zapper at one end of the heater and a glue trap at the other and left. About an hour later, I heard one of the dogs growling. The two dogs and the cat were on guard in front of the heater. Daughter and I observed, gradually inching ourselves onto the kitchen counter. I called my friend to ask her what to do. She gave me advice, letting me know (and I didn’t even ask) that her husband was grabbing a box…husband left the house. The rat dashed out of the heater, across the floor underneath us, and into the kitchen area! The dogs belatedly followed, and one dog kept vigil in a corner. That nice husband was at our front door.

There was no rat to be seen. He figured it slipped into the gap next to the dishwasher. We patched up one side of the washer with steel wool. We laid a trap of Zapper + glue trap in front of the other side of the dishwasher. We found some of the exterminator’s professional bait on an old glue trap and threw it into the gap. Nice friend told us about the time he lived in a farmhouse and had a tug of war with a rat over a bag of chips. It happens to the best of us. He left.

The current outgoing fellow is definitely not Geoffrey. We named this one Thom.

I had one meltdown in the afternoon, when the kids argued with each other. “Get away from my daughter!” I yelled at my son as I crumbled to the ground in tears, realizing that it wasn’t him I was talking to.

A few hours later daughter and I took a look and saw that a big chunk of poison had been taken. We moved the poison station from the laundry room to the dishwasher. We set up a glue trap on the final exit, with a wee bit of dog food to bait it.

photo (4)

A few hours later, the glue trap was dislodged and the dog food gone.

We went to daughter’s play. She was a hit. As she beamed on stage, no one would know that she battled a rat all day. When we got home, the glue trap was upside down in the middle of the kitchen. One dog was sheepishly hanging out by the water bowl. Something was up.

Then we spotted him, lying underneath that baseboard heater. We had just said goodnight to our friend, L, at the show, so I knew she was up. I called her to ask for advice. While we’re talking, Thom twitched(!). She said she’d be right over.

She and her high school daughter arrive, as calm as can be, and with a plan in hand.

I give her the special rat-catching gloves I’d bought in July. We found a tupperware from the summertime dinner donations. She picked him up and put him in the tupperware, declaring him nearly gone. She put the lid on, but not tightly. She started to talk and gesticulate, and the kids and I couldn’t take our eyes off the tupperware, thinking Thom was going to jump out. Son admitted that, and we all laughed. These rats have been such a presence in our thoughts. How could it just lie there like that? L taught us how to not be afraid.
Her daughter asked if we had a large rock, to put it out of its misery. I get some plastic bags to put it in before we smashed it. Then L opted for drowning. She used the spigot outside, filling the tupperware.
We went inside for more discussion and laughs while Thom expired. L then said it was time to dispose of it. I suggested our gully, but son pointed out that daughter plays there. So we opted for woods where nobody goes. That led to the weirdest funeral procession ever. L led the way down our driveway, still waving that tupperware. I brought up the rear with the flashlight, illuminating the kids in front. We chatted about weird funerals we knew. Daughter was doubled over with laughter. It was surreal. It all is.
L found a nice log in the brush off our street where daughter doesn’t play, and that’s where Thom rests.

Just do it. Or do that other thing.

I planned a visit to the office this morning to get ready for next semester. I didn’t take a shower and all the clothes I tried on fit terribly and didn’t feel good on me. I accepted that, grudgingly. As we walked out the door, daughter admitted she did poorly on her math test. She threw a little tantrum. In the car, she explained that the teacher had explained how to do it one way but then marked that way wrong on the test. I held her hand and commiserated. My children’s biggest problems at school involve miscommunications from teachers. These teachers can’t know how much that is breaking my children’s hearts. They feel so powerless. When she left the car, I didn’t feel like going to the office, knowing I wouldn’t concentrate. So I went to the home improvement store to find out how to patch potholes in the driveway.

Ends up you just buy a bag of rocks mixed in tar and tamp it down. I found the only piece of plastic I haven’t given away–an Obama-Biden 2012 cup from our East Hampton visit–and a medium-sized shovel. I proceeded to scoop, spread, scoop, spread. It was pretty Zen, except for the delightful interruption of the tamping–Bam! Bam! Bam!

I got the worst hole filled and went in pursuit of more. At the end of the driveway, I wondered what all the brown stuff on the ground was. I looked up. No tree to shed any droppings. I looked to the side and saw a cleanly sliced tree trunk. The lawn service guys came! The owner came by about a month ago, took a look around, and said he’d be free after Thanksgiving. Not having heard from him, I figured he forgot about me. But, no, he must have just sent his guys and they went to town on the most dangerous trees hanging over the driveway.

Potholes: filled.

Perilous trees: chopped.

This is what I’ve learned this year. When I can’t do one thing, just do another. There’s always something to be done. Do something. Do anything.

Dinner Parties

Saturday’s Dinner

We traveled up a gravel road, down a long forested driveway, across a moat, ushered by labradors to a door that opened onto a high fireplace, lighting the hearth. A guest brought her knitting. The son of the hosts sat knitting a scarf for his friend. The host brought back oysters from the shore. Such charmed lives. Everyone is so lovely, so productive, what with their knitting and pumping their own natural gas and traveling, all with the same job I have. Coming from the scorched earth that I live on, I am stunned that this sort of living still goes on.

Couples and I sat around the table. They shared stories. Occasionally someone landed a perfect one-liner. That used to be husband’s job. I smiled and nodded politely, hoping no one would ask me a question. If I spoke, I’d lose my composure. Once people moved from their plates and began peeling the clementines and cracking the nuts that decorated the tabletop, I slipped away to clear my plate. I stepped outside and found a place to sit in the dark. I cried out the tears I’d held in. I looked up. The moonlight showed me that I was sitting on top of a ridge, trees all around. People make such beauty possible in their lives. I am able to acknowledge that now without cursing my husband for not realizing that all this is possible. Instead, I am touched and happy for the family that has made this beautiful home and am grateful to be received into it.

My children had a lovely time. Son was caught up in a game of Magic, while an out-of-town guest enlisted my daughter and other kids in a card game. Card games. I completely forgot about card games. Engaged in their games in the glow of the fire, my children were flushed and beautiful, like all the other beloved children there. I am grateful to be included at this party, even if it’s a gift I can hardly bear to receive. I take care to be gracious. I share a funny story about my research, about a movie I’ve seen, book I’ve read. I remember how to engage in such niceties. They are nice.

Sunday’s Dinner

I spent a long, dark night trying to fall asleep, reminded of how lonely I am, how bereft we are, but I woke up this morning feeling refreshed enough. My poor son, however, launched into a series of anxiety attacks. We tried techniques the therapist recommended, but he passed his difficulties onto the rest of us, until we were all a crumbled mess.

I tried a yoga nidra meditation. My intention was compassion for myself, compassion for my son.

By the time I finished, fencing class had already started. Son admitted that he hadn’t gotten his act together. I told him that, given the hardships of the day, I couldn’t get him there. It was a gently delivered punishment. We hugged each other, arms wrapped tightly around one another, holding. I added that, too, that plans for a hearty meal following his class were also canceled. It’s gotta be pizza night. Hooray, the kids cheered.

After eating, son thanked me for pizza. I told him to consume some spinach and asked him to bring me the last can of sparkling water. I heard rattling downstairs and “just a minute!” He appeared with a plate topped by an upside-down silver mixing bowl.  With a flourish, he lifted the bowl to reveal my bubble water. I took a sip and declared it the most expensive tasting bubble water, ever. He laughed and tumbled onto my bed. The bowl clanged into the plate and the plate cracked in two.

There was a pause.

I was worried he’d cry.

He was probably worried I’d freak out.

I laughed.

“Cheap Ikea plate,” I offered. We all laughed in gratitude.

Son put the two halves of the plate on my nightstand. Daughter added a shard she’d carefully picked off the bed.


I’ve learned recently (for reasons I won’t go into here) about exposure therapy. With some mental disorders, it is better for the patient to confront his fear and live with it, no matter how anxiety-provoking, than to avoid it. I’ve been exposing myself to more these days.

For the first few months of grief, I was so closed up. I wore longsleeved shirts when I went out this summer, because they felt like a layer of armor against people’s discomfort, their kindness, their energy. I was so physically tense that I would creak myself out of bed and hobble down the stairs. I stopped dreaming for the few hours that I slept. I was uncomfortable and/or numb, but living this way made me feel safe.

Opening myself up has been a months-long process. I’ve taken baby steps–I received a few manipulation treatments from the acupuncturist to soften the stiffness, I ventured to the farmers market on Saturdays, and so on, until I went to yoga.

I’ve been going to yoga a lot in the past week. I’m out of shape and not as flexible as I used to be and heavier than I used to be. But that doesn’t frustrate me. I know that I can do what I can do today. I used to be able to do more. I probably will do more, someday. But today, this is what I can do. This, of course, is how I live my life these days. I am humbled and chastened but I haven’t been defeated. Yoga is so gentle, so forgiving. It takes this crumpled body and mind of mine and pushes the body without pressuring it, focuses the mind without frightening it.

In reading up on yoga this week, I learned more about integrative yoga, which is a treatment suited for trauma survivors. I sat through some guided meditations on my own. I am surprised by how amenable I am to meditation. The thoughts come. So many thoughts come. Some are mundane. Some are ruthless in their horror. I don’t shy away. I don’t stop. I think those thoughts, see those visions, then I move back to my breath.

It isn’t always easy. It is sometimes scary and appalling. But the thoughts aren’t going away. I am ready to face them now, so I expose myself to them, knowing that there is gentleness and quiet strength to support me.