Burning Down the Room

I just came back from visiting my son, now 21. As I think about my next steps in the world—I’ve moved into my third rental space in less than two years—it seems like a good time to post this draft of a blog post I found in my files recently. I’m not sure why it never got pushed live when I wrote it over a year ago.

 

Burning Down the Room

 

Burn it all down. Room by room. Tree by tree.

I was in a trauma counseling session, trying a technique my doctor had recommended called brainspotting. It’s based on EMDR, and doesn’t seem significantly different to me. In any case, I’d been having a lot of panic attacks and my doctor thought this would help.

I had headphones on, playing music that randomly went from ear to ear, so that both sides of my brain could process the episode I was grappling with. My eyes were open and focused on a single point in the room, I think to give my mind a point of “rescue.”

I’d been cooped up all winter with a broken ankle, so it hadn’t mattered so much that whenever I had to go anywhere I had to put my head down between my knees for several minutes, maybe an hour. But now that I needed to catch up on a bunch of tasks as well as move forward in my life, this type of handicap was unacceptable.

We started by focusing on a wildfire that affected my neighborhood the previous fall. I didn’t think the fire itself was the problem. It was a metaphor for many other disasters in my life, many lovingly built structures that had been destroyed. I was having a hard time finding shelter. Believing in shelter.

The trauma specialist told me to burn the whole house down. And the entire surrounding forest. And then see what happened. In my mind’s eye, obviously, not for “real.” But when you mentally enact these scenarios with these headphones on, you’re in a slightly hypnotized state, and the affect is high. It does feel real.

house8However, it wasn’t as hard as I’d expected to burn down most of my little house. The kitchen I’d designed so carefully. The walls I’d stayed up all hours mudding and painting. The floors I’d refinished. My wonderful soaker tub. Those beautiful windows and skylights. The gleaming golden ceiling. The “spirit in the sky” turquoise paint in the hallway. Bye to the Persian rugs chosen for these spaces. I had to close my eyes, but all the bookshelves my brother built and all their contents went to house3ash without the world collapsing into a black hole.

It was harder to see the old lilacs and the monster Ponderosas go. Some of those trees are among the oldest in the canyon.

I stopped when I came to Julian’s room. I mentally stood in the doorway for twenty minutes or more, keeping the flames at my back.

What’s happening? the trauma specialist asks.

I’m trying to burn my son’s room, I say.

Oh, she says. We’d both been expecting other, older events to come up, stuff from my own childhood, as the walls of my house fell.

It wasn’t what this room was, but all the things it wasn’t. It was never sunnyhouse7 and welcoming, like the south-facing corner room Julian had in our pre-divorce home, with its warm, pine-paneled walls. I was never able to get the furniture arranged so the room in this “new” house felt right. Partly because while we lived there Julian was at an age where whatever I said wasn’t going to be received.

There were things I found in this room, over the years, things I didn’t want to find. In some cases the use was all too clear. I never figured out what some of those other things were for.

This room was empty a lot of the time. When you’re divorced, you only get to be a parent half time. If there’s a hint of conflict—and when isn’t there?—with a teenager, there’s always the other parent, promising no curfew.

Standing, in my mind, in Julian’s doorway as the flames try without success to eradicate all of that—the rap and the Sponge Bob posters with their mixed messages, the other signs I found, almost too late, of his psychic pain, I realize it’s not that I don’t want to let it go. It’s that I don’t want to let go of the hope that I can roll back time and fix it. THEN.

But how’s Julian NOW? the trauma specialist asks, gently.

I want to say he’s fine, but then I realize that’s just a statement of faith, or even hubris, like some guy from Arkansas who knows nothing of foreign policy who pontificates on Iran. Julian’s in college, and I see him once or twice per year. I had the money in savings to pay for tuition, but not much extra for travel. All I have to go on is what he tells me over the phone, and what he posts on Facebook, which isn’t much.

What’s your relationship like?

Pretty good for long distance, I say. But we don’t talk or text every day like some parents do. He tells me what he’s thinking about as a consequence of his physics seminars. I listen to his music uploads on Soundcloud. He shares his thoughts on relationships.

THEN WHAT ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT? she asks. Do you realize how many parents don’t have this?

I don’t know, I say. I wasn’t the kind of mother I thought I’d be. I never made this room into what I imagined. In fact, I was sort of thinking this house was just the first post-divorce house, and then I’d give him a *real* home.

So it’s okay if this house burns?

In a way. If I had a better house to go to. But that never happened. And now it doesn’t matter, because he’s gone anyway. It just all seems…irrelevant… now. I didn’t finish the nest, really, and now what’s the point?

I kept trying. I kept thinking tomorrow would be another day. But it feels like we’re out of tomorrows.

So now it’s time to go build your nest, she says. What would that look like?

Good question. I never for one minute thought I’d have a tough time answering that. I’ve always been an independent person, with a strong sense of who *I* am. But maybe because I also had a strong sense of WAIT, GET BACK HERE, KID, I’M NOT DONE WITH YOU, I wasn’t quite as ready for this next step as I expected. 

I move out of the doorway and let the roof come down on the last room standing.

But I don’t feel right about it.

 

Hat tip to Andi O’Conor’s blog, Burning Down the House.

<<Please note that post draws on an exercise, a guided meditation of sorts, that took place in a therapy session. The purpose of the session was to process fear and uncover underlying issues (I’m simplifying). As those who have been following this blog know, there was a fire, but it did not reach my house. I am not literally planning to burn down my house, nor have I ever burned any structure, intentionally or otherwise.>>

 

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Dearly Beloved

It took 22 years to come to this.

I never knew what to do about letting Jacob’s ashes go.

But I am taking a creative writing fellowship on the East Coast this fall. My ex-husband is also moving, and our other son is in college on the West Coast. It didn’t seem right to put Jake in storage, or to drag him around the country.

It’s pretty hard for parents to design a memorial for their own child, especially when they have no religious community. When it’s a baby it can be even more difficult, because no one else knew the person or has any memories to share.

In the last few months I’ve been getting a strong sense that it’s time. And finally some ideas for how to go about it.

Return to the source, the place where he was made. Where both our boys were made.

Eldora1

Climb to an overlook on Spencer Mountain, where I used to hike, ski, or snowshoe nearly every day. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes pregnant with one boy or the other, and sometimes with the second son on my back or at my side. (And always with a dog or several.)

Hold up the urn, a hollowed-out piece of an aspen branch, and show Jake the view he never got to see with his eyes.

SpencerView

Point out the house he would have lived in.

Houseview2

Kiss some of the ashes, taste them on my tongue, and offer them to the wind that slips out of the jet stream to help make Eldora such a place of power.

Then lead my ex-husband and my living son back down the mountain to “the rock,” a boulder jutting into the rapids in North Boulder Creek.

P6120417

When I was depressed and drained I would lie there and draw on the heat of the rock, the roar of the water, and all that melting light from the glaciers above. I did this when pregnant with one son and then the other and after Julian was born I brought him here for picnics in the summer. I took him snowshoeing here in the winter, when the hurl of the wind supplanted the thunder of the melt. “Icy ri-ber” was one of Julian’s first concepts.

As the three of us approach the rock, there are many shared ah-ha’s and remember thises and remember thats. But also some shocks as a treasured memory turns out not to be shared by the other.

For years I’ve had a hard time revisiting this valley because its beauty pains me. I hate that I don’t still live here, that I couldn’t hold on to the magic for the sake of my living son.

And that’s part of why this ritual needs to happen, and why Jacob needs to go now. He doesn’t need to be tangled up in this confusion and regret any longer. This is a farewell to a marriage, a segment of motherhood, and a childhood, as well as to a little son and a brother.

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All this source water. Jake may never have seen this place, but he certainly heard and felt it.

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One of the most challenging moments comes when the box is empty. We’ve talked about burying it nearby, but I’ve forgotten to bring a trowel. Julian dangles the box over the river, stroking it. Should we just drop it? his dad and I wonder. It feels right. But when we do, we all are shaken by the violence with which the water grabs it away. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I guess you’re never ready,” Julian says later.

No. You never are. Not for the final good-bye.

So I think of Charon and his boat on the River Styx, Moses and his basket of reeds. This valley was once a container for all of us, and now we’re all taking different paths. It wouldn’t be right to leave Jake behind, rooted.

Jake&John

Well, little boy. We’ve kept you close for so long. Travel far. Stay safe. Please, please check in. Our hearts are always open to you.

Unpreparing

A further post on the matter of mentally preparing for death. Or un-. Not sure why I’m on this kick. But as I was in the middle of all these thoughts, a high-school English teacher of mine, David Weber, sent me the gorgeous poem below. It was written by another former teacher at Exeter, Charles W. Pratt.

The poem takes the opposite angle from my last post, where I was saying that I would want a little bit of time to meet my own death. Not enough to linger, but enough to say my goodbyes, to express gratitude, and to beg forgiveness where necessary. To get the kind of footing under me that Jane Kenyon seems to have found in her famous piece, “Let Evening Come.”

Let me be immersed in life when it happens, Pratt says in his powerful poem. I hope you’re as moved as I was.

 

Resolution, by Charles W. Pratt

 

When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters

And crushes the city, let me for once be ready.

Let me be washing the dishes or patting the dog.

 

When the great windstorm angles across the flatlands

Hungry and howling, let me be patting the dog.

Let me kneading the bread or picking an apple.

 

When the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall,

Let me writing a letter or kneading the bread.

Let me holding my lover, watching the sunrise.

 

When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger

And fierce the flames spurt and wild the body parts fly,

Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee.

 

Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared.

 

“Resolution,” ©2010 by Charles W. Pratt. Used with permission. In From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, New and & Selected Poems, Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. www.hobblebush.com

 

PC250309 (2)

Julian and Tony on The Ridge at Loveland Ski Area, Christmas Day, 2010.

Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.

Night Terrors

Just last week I met a very elderly man with a terminal illness (let’s face it, we’re all terminal) at a party. We had a frank discussion. He said he was tired of funerals and hoped when he returned to his home state he could attend a few weddings or christenings instead. He dreaded reading alumni publications, he added.

eclipse

(Solstice Total Eclipse, photo by Melinda Johnston)

I said, You know, it’s getting to be the same for me, even at my age. Nearly every year, if not every issue, there’s a death notice for someone in my class. Maybe only one, but it’s happening.

We were interrupted, but I was about to ask this man if he feared dying, because it sounded like he did. It actually felt like a comfortable question in the context of our conversation, and I suspected that his own family was steering clear of questions like this.

He had mentioned his minister, so I wondered how his thoughts about death fit into his religious system and if his beliefs affected how he felt about dying. And if he grew more or less fearful with age.

Right now, I feel afraid. No particular reason, I just do. I felt less fearful when I was younger.

When I was 23, I had a terrible horseback riding accident. There were quite a few seconds—I’m not sure how many, because there’s always time dilation in these situations, so maybe 10, maybe even 30—between when I lost control of the horse and when I hit the tree to contemplate my fate.

My mind was and is capable of handling a lot of threads at once.

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The horse was an Arabian, going at a full gallop, and the trail through the woods was narrow. I knew I would be thrown, if not into a tree or rock, then over the horse’s head when he stopped. Aside from the horse, I was alone. Serious injury or death seemed the only likely outcomes.

So, I was lucky.

Some of the injuries took years to recover from, but I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.

When I realized I’d lost control over what might happen, I experienced a tremendous calm. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before me, exactly, but there was a kind of… reckoning. I let it go. I thought, this could be it, and there came an acceptance.

No fear at all.

I think my body was scared, but on a mental and spiritual level, the I-ness of me, there was serenity.

And then a few years later, my first child died. Afterwards, I sort of wanted to die, too. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, though I did think I might not fight the wheel if my car started to drift toward the edge of a cliff. I was very curious about dying. Even if death meant oblivion, which I didn’t think it did, I wanted to know. I wanted to discover what Jake had experienced. I figured there would at least be an instant when you would realize that, yes, you were being obliterated. And at least it would be settled. 9780385262217

When my second son came along, I knew I was committed to living. And delighted by life again. Even so, I was certain that if I lived a very long time, eventually I would welcome death. I’d be tired of loved ones dying. Death was part of what made life, and it was the contract we all signed.

But now I’m scared of it.

Why is that? I really wanted to talk about this with the man I met at the party. The poem below poses one reason, but I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

 

 

 

Night Terrors

 

I was around 40,

after the embolism,

waking nightly

in the track-lit bathroom.

Sitting to pee, I’d think,

I’m going to die.

Not because of the embolism

exactly, or directly.

Just death, its certainty.

 

I was surprised

by my terror.

After your death,

nothing seemed more certain

than death.

I would follow you gladly,

full of curiosity,

even eagerness.

How can a bereft

mother fear death?

 

Yet, as the chips

come closer to being down,

I do. Fear I won’t find

you there, either.

PTSD—What It’s Like

Ever had stage fright? Levine

I don’t mean the good kind. Where you have some butterflies in your stomach and a bit of a metallic taste in your mouth. Maybe that’s slightly unpleasant but it can also help you focus a little better and in the end it seems to come out all right. The audience applauds, your boss loves the PowerPoint, you rock the guitar riff and even forget yourself in it.

I mean the bad kind, where you throw up.

Have you ever hyperventilated to where your fingers and toes curl up and lose circulation?

If you’ve never had this level of anxiety, take the flutter in your stomach, multiply it by a factor of at least 10, add a pulse around 160, shortness of breath, numbness in your hands and feet (even if you’re not hyperventilating, or aren’t aware that you are), and a feeling of “floodedness,” where the cortisol seems to rise out of your gut, up through your chest, and into your throat and head until you feel like you’re going to pop out of your skin like an overcooked hotdog. Jump out of that skin at every loud, or even medium, noise. Have nightmares every night, if you can sleep at all.

Put your head down between your knees and breathe. Maybe for several hours.

Be grateful you work from home. Hide all this. Become even more stressed out by the effort of hiding it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a blog post about it.

What causes these episodes? That’s the thing. Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Stuff in the past.

“In circumstances where others sense more than a mild threat or even a challenge to be faced, the traumatized person experiences threat, dread and mental/physical listlessness, a kind of paralysis of body and will.”  —Gabor Mate, MD

This isn’t always like me. There have been plenty of times when I had a fight response to challenge. Sometimes, I’ve thrived under stress—graduating double summa cum laude while working 32 hours per week, creating a career out of thin air after my divorce—but other times I’ve collapsed under what’s looked like a lesser load.

For a long time I thought it was over. Medication I was taking for another condition had so well controlled the PTSD symptoms, I practically forgot I had it. Then along came #boulderfire. And several other stressors that simultaneously attacked my baseline sense of my core survival capabilities—home, job, relationship. Whether you want to look at psychoanalytically in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or new-age-ically in terms of the root chakra (I have lived near Boulder for 29 years), I felt pretty undermined. Even if my house didn’t burn.

When I was little, my alcoholic father, a WWII vet and likely PTSD sufferer himself, would burn through the house, tossing children headfirst into walls.* Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, wildfire.

I’ve been calming down a little, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because I haven’t had as much deadline pressure in the last month or so. My experience is that in the absence of external stress, the symptoms do subside with time. But it can be a vicious cycle: you take better care of yourself and as a result you feel better, so you take on more responsibility—most of us want to be productive—and then you have less time to take care of yourself, and wham, there you are again…

I planned this blog post wanting to talk about the difference between post-traumatic stress, which anyone can have after anything bad, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But apparently there may be more hope for all of us than I thought. There’s some new thinking, as well as some more insight coming out of Peter Levine’s ongoing work, suggesting that PTSD may be more injury than disorder, and more amenable to healing than previously believed. It’s still controversial, but as I said, there’s hope.

In the meantime, this seems to be what I’m in the middle of, so I thought I’d stick my neck out and tell you what it’s like.

 

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*(Re my father’s rage: this type of potential response to combat trauma is discussed with insight here.)