I wrote this for an anthology of essays I've been working on with a friend over the past year, but now it seems past it's expiration date so I want to throw it out into the world before it turns to yogurt. The girlfriend I mention in it is now my wife. The Mom I mention in it is still dead.
I never once felt my age until my Mother passed away on October 31, 2013. At the time of her passing I was 36, and she was 62. Six plus three is nine, and six plus two is eight, which is a digit of difference, but that doesn’t mean anything in the context of this story. 36 flipped around is 63, which is again, one number off, and one ahead, but it’s a random detail, and that’s all. To go further into it, adding up the individual numbers of 31,2013 makes ten, bump that up to the numerical for October, which is ten, and you have 1010, which is the address of my Grandma (my Mother’s Mother)’s house. 1010 Prince Valiant Ln. (And VALIANT no less!) I was born on Friday the 13th, and my Mother died on Halloween, creepy, but again, doesn’t mean anything. Everything is symbolic if you want it to be. And at the same time, everything can mean absolutely nothing if you look at it long enough. Enough focus directed at any idea or thing just blurs the edges. Blurs the edges until they close in and in and in, and it’s all just static. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s too painful to think, well, to know, because you do, that everything, and I do mean everything, means way too much. Oh so very very much. And all of the time.
What could possibly mean something is the fact that months before meeting the woman who is now my live-in girlfriend (and future wife) I sat in the dark on the bloated, cracking hard wood floors of my studio apartment in Brooklyn with a pad of paper, a pen and a candle. I sat with these things, idle, only briefly, because I had a plan and there was no reason to sit there and think about anything. I knew what I intended to do, and I did it. I lit the candle, I can’t remember what kind it was, to be honest, could have been a cheap vanilla scented thing from the corner store, it doesn’t matter. I lit the candle, took the pen in my hand, moved the pad of paper closer to me, where the sprig of light illuminated the page just enough to see what I was writing, and began to make a list of all the qualities I would want in an ideal mate. After I had written everything I could think of that would be of the utmost importance in someone perfect for me, I read them out loud until I felt like I had read them out loud enough to make whoever was listening know that I was serious. When I was done reading, I blew out the candle and went to bed.
Months later. More than one, and less than five. I had a girlfriend. A girlfriend who I knew upon sight, was going to be the last girlfriend I ever had. On our first date, which was in early October of 2012, she brought me a mini pumpkin. I can still see her smile in my head, and how she looked - shy, and a little nervous, as she pulled it out of her bag and set it on the bar we were having drinks at. I kept it on my work desk until it rotted, and then I threw it in the East River - upon her request. It was a sacrifice. A way of closing a circle. A way of giving thanks for a wish granted. And also just a fun way to dispose of a rotten pumpkin. I can’t help but wonder, as I’m sure you would too, how much of a sacrifice it really was.
November 17th, 2012 I asked my girlfriend to officially be my girlfriend while standing at the foot of Elvis’s grave in Memphis, TN where we had traveled to celebrate her 30th birthday. Elvis died in 1977, which is the year I was born. Reading all this now as I’m writing it, I know I’m straining to piece these things together and make signs out of coincidences, but you have to admit … there are a lot of them. There always are, if you look hard enough, which makes the world seem so much bigger than it is. Or smaller, depending (as always) how you look at it.
The piece of paper I wrote my wish list on still exists, and is kept by my girlfriend in a wooden box tucked away in her bookcase. The paper has bite marks out of it because there was a time when we thought that maybe she should eat the paper. Seemed fitting since what I wrote came to be - and she was the fruit of that. The side of my family on my Mother’s side were all farmers, so I’ve learned from them that naturally, all fruit comes from soil that is tampered with, altered, to insure a particular result. Dirt is prodded and poked to yield fruit, and then seeds of that fruit go right back into the dirt to make more. And on and on and on. Like a magic that vaguely makes sense to us in an ingrained primitive way. The box that this nipped at paper is kept in, in the bookcase, is beneath and to the right of my Mother’s laminated obituary, which is pinned to a wooden bird house that’s filled with little things that I collected from her house after she died. The tree above the fruit that fell from it, and we’re holding onto the seeds, just in case. There’s all different kinds of farming. I know that now. I taught myself that. It wasn’t until recently that I took the piece of paper out to read what I had written and reminisce about it that I noticed I had put a date at the end of it, a deadline for when I’d meet this person I was listing all the qualities for. The date I had put was October 31st.
I spent the night of my 30th birthday at a dive bar in Chicago, Illinois with a girl I was dating who I didn’t like all that much, and a friend who I was embarrassed of. I had attempted to throw a party for myself, which never works anyway, and this time it especially fell to shit on account of it being Mother’s Day. Everyone who I invited out was occupied with Mother’s Day activities, or so they said, and I wasn’t, and wouldn’t have been even if it hadn’t of been my birthday, because I hadn’t spoken to my Mother in months. My most vivid memory of the night was playing a game where we pretended to be zombies by filling our mouths with beer, swishing it until it turned to foam, and spitting it at the window when people walked by on the sidewalk outside. No one even looked or seemed to care and I’m pretty sure, even if I’m remembering it wrong, I thought something along the lines of “this birthday was supposed to be special.”
I don’t remember my 31st birthday, my 32nd, or my 33rd, but I definitely do remember my 30th, and not because I had left my 20s and was now this age that some consider “old,” I’ve never felt “old,” and I still don’t. I remember it because I was disappointed in a way that I hadn’t been on previous botched birthdays. Turning 30 seemed like an opportunity that could have been had, but wasn’t. I felt like I could have done more, but didn’t have the proper tools to do so, and I hate that. It has never felt good to me to, even loosely, be in situations where I need anything outside of myself to make something more enjoyable, or more tolerable. If it didn’t come from me, it wasn’t dependable. That’s what I believed, and in a way (though a much healthier way now) still do. Still makes for difficult party planning though.
I have spent my life as an only child, raised in well decorated, quiet homes, in various parts of Illinois and California. Almost every childhood memory I have revolves around only me. Me trying to secure a sun bleached board in between two branches of an apple tree to sit on and read during a hot summer day. Me setting up my Garfield tent in the front yard of our house and singing to the orange stray cat that came around sometimes. Me roller skating in the garage with the door pulled down, listening to the Dream a Little Dream soundtrack on my silver boom box. Me swimming in a pool and trying to remember to not surface anywhere near the dead wasp that was floating in the middle while the only sound heard was faint traffic noises in the distance and the rustle of breeze in our magnolia trees. Most people would be lonely, or look back at a childhood like this and think “those were lonely times.” I consider myself lucky though because what it’s hard to realize, if you didn’t grow up like I did, is that being raised like this trains you to never fully know what “lonely” even feels like. There’s no alternative, so nothing seems at all wrong with it. You’re just alone and that’s the way it is. You learn to find and feel love like it’s the rising or setting of the sun. It’s a warm feeling that’s out there, and it’s just as much yours as anyone else’s - all you have to do is aim yourself towards it when you want it to touch you, and when you feel like you’ve had enough, you go inside.
Pretty early into my teenage years I started noticing that the way my parents did things was not like the way I did things, or, since I was too young to have really done anything, different from the ways I saw myself doing things when I became an adult. They relied on a lot of ignoring. All kinds of ignoring, of just about everything. I started having a dream around this time that I still have every now and then more than 20 years later. I would dream that I had a cat that I forgot about, and forgot to feed, so long that one day I found it nestled amongst the stuffed animals on my bed, long dead and decomposed. I don’t like how it feels to ignore things. It feels like intentionally making ghosts. It’s very easy, I learned from them, to choose not to live your own life, but just sit calmly and wait for it to be over. I liked quiet, but I had had enough of quiet being enforced like a rule upon me. I started studying apartment classifieds in the daily paper at the age of 13, and moved out at 17 the week after I graduated high school. I’ve never been anywhere near as alone since.
The day before my Mom died I wrote this as a status update on Facebook: “While standing in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and heating up a pizza in the oven I stopped to ponder the fact that when my mom was my age I was eleven years old.” I can specifically remember, more so than any other age she was, aside from maybe 62 because it was her last, my Mom being 36. She smoked like a chimney, had shoulder length blonde hair - poofy like a yard weed, and her mouth and everything in her pockets and purse smelled like mint gum. She seemed old, like mom aged. She seemed like a person who hadn’t done much in life, and didn’t care. I could not relate to her at all, and she knew absolutely nothing about me and didn’t care to ask. She was everything I don’t want to be, and although she didn’t teach me much, actively, she did teach me by example that ignoring things is a childish trait that one should aspire to grow out of. She taught me young that although everyone alive does have a life, it’s not going to live itself. Sure, it’ll live in the sense that it exists and is the opposite of death, biologically, but if left unmotivated, it’ll drift away like one long, hot, exasperated breath.
As a kid I always assumed that you were owed certain things in life, and that all that was coming to you would come to you when it was supposed to. I saw life’s pre-arranged milestones as being spaced out finish lines, presenting little treasures that the map of your personal existence led you to in a casual way. Blips in time where you’d pause, acquire new tools and knowledge, and move on to the next level. I’ve come to learn that getting what you want out of life is less like treasure hunting, and more like milking a cow. You gotta squeeze it out. I didn’t learn this when I was 30, and I didn’t learn this when I was 35. I learned this, concretely, when I was told by my Dad over the telephone on the morning of October 31st, 2013 that my Mother had died, slumped over on the love seat in their front room. Upon hearing these words, with no wishing or thinking of my own, the gap of difference between the age I felt and the age I was came together like the loud clap of two sweaty hands. My childhood, though I never really had much of one to speak of, was over. My Mother, who, with the help of my Father’s seed gave me life, floated away somewhere I couldn’t follow. And with all the symbolism I can force, allow, or realistically recognize, I’ve turned the rotting pumpkin shell of her life into love. Love pulled out of nowhere. And I know what to do with it now, and I know the words to keep it warm and safe. It took me almost 37 years. I am just now the adult that I’ve always wanted to be. Oh, and three plus seven is ten.