Holidays With & Without You

My mom absolutely loved Christmas and she was passionate about getting into the holiday spirit. I remember one year when I was about 15, Mom started pulling boxes of garlands and ornaments down from the attic somewhere around mid-October and had the entire house decorated by Halloween. Which launched a nightly battle between her turning the lights on and me chasing behind her to turn them off so the neighbors didn’t see we had our tree up a month before Thanksgiving.

Still, as proactive as Mom was about decorating, she never quite got the hang of shopping early. Every Christmas Eve, she’d pack me and my sister Amy in the car and drive us to Albany or Macon—the closest towns where there was a decent mall—and we’d spend the entire day running from store to store so she could be sure she had enough stuff to give us a good Christmas.

Susan and Amy_Christmas Underoos

Mom never made a lot of money, but on Christmas she’d go all out. She’d spend every penny she had on expensive gifts like Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and Atari game systems, then on Christmas morning in her last-minute-shopping-hangover, she’d slip deeper and deeper into buyer’s remorse with every present we opened. She’d hand over boxes with comments like, “You have no idea how much it costs to give you a good Christmas,” or, “I sure hope Fitzgerald Water, Light & Bond are still in the holiday spirit when I can’t pay the bill next month.”

By the time we finished unwrapping everything, I’d be surrounded with awesome gifts that I absolutely hated because I felt so shitty about what a financial burden I was on Mom.

Susan Christmas Cabbage PatchAfter I left for college, Christmas soon became the only time I went home to visit, and every year it got more difficult. Mom gradually eased up on the massive number of extravagant gifts, but she also began to see me as an outsider who’d deserted her.

When I left home at first, it was for a 2-year school just a couple of towns over, but then I transferred to Florida State in Tallahassee, studied abroad in Italy for a year, and eventually made my way to NYC when I was in my 20’s. With every move I made toward my increasingly expanded horizons, I felt the chasm between me and my mom widen. “I don’t know, Susan. It’s like you’ve moved up there, and you’re living this high falutin’ life, and now you think you’re better than all of us.”

Which is not true. I never thought I was better than my family, but I am different. I always have been, which was a constant point of contention whenever I was at home for the holidays, which was why I eventually decided I wasn’t going back for Christmas. “I really can’t afford the flight,” I lied to Mom because I knew if there was anything she’d understand, it was a lack of money, and she did.

That year, I spent two nights with a bunch of friends at an apartment in Brooklyn and we drank and danced and watched movies, and not once did anyone mention how much they’d scrimped and saved to buy me gifts I “probably wasn’t going to appreciate anyway.” On Christmas day, a few of us headed to the porn shops on Third Avenue in Sunset Park. We laughed at how edgy and outrageous we were as we picked out gifts for everyone. Cherry red stripper heels for Jane, a rope and instructional VHS tape for Jeanne who’d just gotten a dungeon gig as a dominatrix, and a riding crop for me that I named Lucy after the saint who dug her own eyes out so she didn’t have to look at sin. It was irreverent, and kinda blasphemous, and it solidified my decision to not go home for Christmas anymore.

Once I broke holiday visit barrier, I only went back to Georgia for emergencies like the time a year later when Mom was rushed to the emergency room after Amy found her collapsed in the kitchen floor.

“Well, when Mama woke up in the hospital, she said she had a migraine so they gave her a Tylenol 3, but that didn’t touch the pain so they gave her a Vicodin.” Amy went on to tell me that the Vicodin didn’t work either, so they gave Mom a Percocet, and then another, and then eventually they knocked her out with a Dilaudid. “I’m worried, Susan. She must be really sick if she needs all that medicine.”

I’m not sure about you, dear reader, but I’ve taken Vicodin and Percocet and I can not imagine how one would go about building up a tolerance so high that you could take all those pills and stay coherent enough to ask for more. It was obvious to me what was going on.

“Amy, Mom’s not sick. She’s a drug addict.”

At that point, Mom was fighting stage 3 breast cancer and somewhere along the way, she’d also developed a 90-pill-a-week habit. According to the piles of empty prescription bottles I found at her house, Xanax and Ambien were her top favorites. Luckily, I’d developed a habit of my own—a severe addiction to Intervention on A&E—so I knew exactly what I needed to do.

I took the huge shopping bag of bottles I amassed to Mom’s doctor and we decided to have her forcibly admitted to rehab. Then I spent the next two nights sleeping on a cot next to her in the hospital while she detoxed from the pills. Coming off of benzos is a wild ride of hallucinations and, in Mom’s case, a broken wrist from falling in the middle of the night when she tried to climb out of bed on her own. It was a lot to watch and experience, so I started processing it all in my journal in a series of entries I called, “Stories from the Cot.” Thing was, this was back in 2008 and my journal at the time was this blog.

I posted several stories about Mom’s addiction and detox, as well as some others about my other family members, and when they all found their way to Southern Discomforts, because, of course they did, I got a text from Amy, the only person who’d known about the blog from the beginning. “Susan. They all read it. And they are done with you.”

When I heard that I’d been disowned—that’s what “done with” means in Georgia talk—I wasn’t really surprised. I mean, what did I expect would come from airing our dirty laundry on the world wide web? Still, I was also really hurt, so I wrote another blog post.

Stick a Fork In Me

This one was the story of my Great Uncle Elzie, the only other family member I knew of who’d gotten the done with treatment, and I addressed it directly to my family who’d apparently reading my posts for quite a while at that point. It felt powerful and triumphant … for about an hour until my mom made a comment. She asserted that she’d never used the word “done” then accused me of lying about Uncle Elzie, and of trying to “destroy my family, my hometown and especially my mother.” She signed it, “Now I’m done.”

After that, Mom and I didn’t speak to each other for over a year and then it was only because her doctor suggested that she get her affairs in order. As we talked on the phone that day, I told her how sorry I was that I hurt her so much with the blog and assured her I’d taken all the posts down as soon as she left her comment. She told me how hard it had been to be estranged from me and that she’d missed me. “Susan, it’s just that I used to love you so much.”

“Excuse me. Was that past tense, Mom?”

“Well, Susan.”

Mom ended the conversation by telling me that we could probably repair our relationship if I called her more often, but after she told me that she didn’t love me anymore, I just didn’t see the point. We didn’t speak again until a year and a half later when Amy called me home because Mom had been put on hospice care.

It was the beginning of December 2010 and despite Mom’s health, the whole house was decorated just like always, which made the living room feel like Santa Claus’s nursing home. Every surface was covered with a nativity set or a Santa figurine. There was a poinsettia on the end table, garlands and bows on the mirror above the piano, a big tree in the front window surrounded by wrapped presents, and in the middle of it all, was Mom on a hospital bed where the sofa used to be.

Hospice Living Room_Image

She glared at me and asked, “What are YOU doing here?” when I walked in, and my first thought was, “I’m here to watch you die,” but of course I didn’t say that. Instead I walked over to the bed and hugged her. “I’m here to see you, Mom.” I said, “I love you.” She didn’t say it back.

“You didn’t need to come. I know how you feel about me from you not calling.”

“Mom. You told me you used to love me, past tense.”

“You’ll never understand how much you hurt me.”

I’d managed to hold back my tears so far, but when she still wouldn’t say she loved me again, I broke down. “Please, Mommy. I’m so sorry that I hurt you. I took everything down and I never wrote anything about you again. I don’t know what else I can do but tell you how awful I feel. I can’t take it back, what do you want me to do? I need you to please forgive me; we don’t have much time left.”

“Susan … you broke my heart more than you can imagine.”

The hospice nurses had given Amy a checklist of 9 things to look for as Mom’s health declined and not long after I realized I wasn’t going to get the death bed reconciliation I’d hoped for, Mom hit 7 out of 9. At that point, she was hardly waking up at all anymore so we decided that even though Christmas was just a week away, we’d go ahead and celebrate the next time she came around.

It’s not easy to buy a gift for your dying mom and I was relieved that Mom laughed when she got to mine that day. “Oh Susan, if I had been able to get out and shop, I was totally going to get you a Snuggie, too!”

It wasn’t lost on me that she’d planned to get me a gift, despite how angry and hurt she was, and it made me sad that I’d missed out on so many Christmases with her, miserable or otherwise. A few days later, she hit 8 out of 9 on the checklist. Although Mom hadn’t moved or spoken in a couple of days, one of the hospice nurses told us that we shouldn’t be too sure she was going just yet. “I’ve seen ’em last like that for years.”

The next morning, we moved Mom into a temporary care facility so Amy could have a little time to prepare for having her on the hospital bed in the living room for the next couple of years. Mom wasn’t talking, but she seemed lucid and when I asked if she knew where she was, she nodded her head that she did. She nodded again when I asked if she was scared. I explained to her that we were just moving her in for a couple of weeks and she jerked her head away from me to show how mad she was. Later, as we were walking out to get dinner, she looked directly into my eyes and forced out a single word: heartbroken.

It was a curse. My heart shattered and I left the room feeling more defeated than I ever have in my life. Before we made it to the restaurant, Amy got a call from the care facility. They’d found Mom unresponsive in her room and rushed her to the hospital. Just over 12 hours later, on the morning of December 29, a nurse put a stethoscope to Mom’s chest and told us, “I’m sorry, she’s gone.”

Since then, I’ve hated Christmas more than ever. But instead of feeling dread about coming up with an excuse to not go home, it’s about my preoccupation with avoiding reminders I no longer have that home to go to.

This is my fifth December since Mom died, and my therapist assures me that just because the last ones were an emotional shit storm, doesn’t mean this one will be. And as of yet, I have not spiraled into a drinking binge to avoid my feelings, or crawled into a hermit-y hole of depression to avoid everything else. Instead I’m channeling that energy into doing what I know works for me: processing my emotions through my writing, and just over a week ago, I premiered my first solo show, Into the Belly of the Beast, on Mom’s birthday.

Susan Kent_Belly of the Beast Vertical Image

I performed live at RISK! a couple of days ago and my first Snap Judgment podcast story dropped yesterday. So, although Christmas is still a week away and how that day will go remains to be seen, I’m happy to report that so far, holiday season 2015 is a huge success.

 

Sensing Spirits & Finding Stars

My favorite earrings are these flat little gold stars that, when worn together on the same side, make it look like my earlobe did awesome at school. They’re simple and sweet and I get tons of compliments on them. I love them a lot.

When I took them off a couple of weeks ago and put them on the table amid several Thai takeout containers, I knew it was a bad idea. I actually thought it in the moment, “You know this is a bad idea,” but I did it anyway. Obviously, I’d learned enough from throwing away my retainer (wrapped in a napkin, of course) when I was 13 to recognize the danger, but not quite enough to thwart it.

I asked Erica if she’d seen my little stars when she cleaned up after dinner the night before. “Nope. Did you check the pile?” she asked, indicating the ever-present collection of jewelry and pens and uncompleted NYT crossword puzzles she maintains for me in hopes I’ll eventually clean my shit up.

I checked. They weren’t there. So, I turned to Saint Anthony, as I always do when I lose things. “Listen. I know this one’s totally my fault, but I’d really appreciate some help.” It’s not that I’m religious (and even when I was, I wasn’t Catholic), but the patron of lost things likes me for some reason and has never let me down. However, even as I asked, I had an instinct that this time it wasn’t up to him.

I addressed the ghost of my dead mother. “Mom. Where did you put them?”

Actually, hiding my poorly placed things to teach me a lesson was more my Grandma’s bag. She’d come across a ring I’d left on the kitchen counter or a necklace I’d laid across the arm of the couch, and hide it in her top dresser drawer. Then she’d ask, “Susan, where’s your add-a-bead chain at?” She’d watch me head for the den to get it then let me panic and search underneath cushions for a while before going to her drawer. “I’ve got it right here. How many times have I told you to keep track of your stuff?”

But, Grandma’s spirit hasn’t hung out a lot since she died; Mom’s has. In fact, she was around so much right after her death that I eventually sage-smudged and botánica-candled her out of the house. Besides the fact that she was making our dog crazy, I just didn’t like having her energy around me. We hadn’t exactly ended things on good terms, and I wasn’t sure whether her dying made her any less angry than she’d been while she was alive.

After my Santeria-esque ceremony, I didn’t feel Mom inside the house anymore, but a cardinal started to show up in our yard on a regular basis. He’d come every morning of the warm weather months, when the sun shone directly in our glass doors, and beat himself nearly senseless as he repeatedly head-butted his reflection in the glass until the shadow finally shifted. Naturally, I decided it was a harbinger of Mom’s spirit trying to get back in the house.

IMG_2560_2

 

For the past four years, I’ve seen that cardinal in our yard almost every day. He started his 2015 warm-weather rap attack at the back door about a month ago, but around the time I lost my earrings, he stopped. He’d still drop by each day, but would only hang out on the gate, still looking in, but never making a move on his reflection. A day or two later, he stopped showing up altogether. And I miss him.

As irritating as he could be when I was trying to sleep in on spring and summer mornings, I’d become accustomed to having my little red alarm clock around. And as ridiculous as it may sound, when he left, it felt like my mom had given up on me once again.

When I got the call that Mom had been put into Hospice care, she and I had been estranged for years. Two days after my 40th birthday, I flew back to Georgia to see her before she died, and when she saw me come in the door, her first reaction was to snarl an angry, “What are you doing here?” Which hurt, but it wasn’t a surprise.

Our estrangement began after my family found my blog where I’d written very openly about Mom’s struggle with prescription drugs, while she was mid-struggle. Obviously, I get it now that it was the worst idea ever to write about her online, but at the time it was my way of coping with Mom’s addiction, and my role in having her forcibly committed to rehab.

When I arrived at Mom’s house in Fitzgerald that day, I’d long since removed the posts from my site, but the damage was done; the whole family had seen it, not to mention all of our friends, and my mom was still humiliated and furious. Which, I get. At that point, the last time we’d spoken was a year earlier when she called after her doctor suggested she get her affairs in order. During the call she told me, “I used to love you so much,” (past tense, I made her clarify), which is a big part of why I didn’t speak to her again until my sister called to say it was my last chance.

We’d both been so hurt and broken by our relationship already, and if she didn’t love me anymore, well … what was the point?

During her last weeks alive, I begged Mom for forgiveness. Sitting beside her hospital bed in the living room, I cried with my head on her stomach. “I’m so sorry, Mommy. I need you to please forgive me. We don’t have much time.”

“You’ll never know how much you hurt me,” was all she said back.

Mom could barely speak anymore by the time we had her admitted to a care facility. As the family started to leave her room that first night, I paused to reassure Mom that the nursing home was only a temporary situation. She glared at me and managed a single word. “Heartbroken.” Half an hour later, we got a call that Mom had been found unresponsive and was rushed to the emergency room. The next morning, she was gone. “Heartbroken,” would be the last thing she ever said to me, or to anyone.

I’ve had a really tough time dealing with things since Mom’s been dead, but then again, I had a pretty tough time dealing with them when she was alive, too.

Feeling her spirit around me has been hard, especially in the beginning when the memories of her anger and sadness were still so fresh in my mind. I’d like to think that our souls work some of that shit out simply by crossing over to the other side, but I just couldn’t imagine Mom’s ghost as anything other than pissed off.

Once she became the cardinal, it got easier. I still imagined Mom as angry, but the consistent visits made me feel like she cared, on some level at least. And thinking that she might love me again, even in the form of a potentially brain damaged bird, helped me cope with the fact that we’d run out of time to work things out in real life.

When my favorite earrings went missing, I logically knew they’d probably been swept up in a flourish of paper napkins and disposable chopsticks, but it felt nice to think it might be Mom’s ghost teaching me a lesson; it was the first time since she died that I wanted her spirit around me. I’d missed her when the bird left, and it gave me peace to know that I still cared, too.

Yesterday morning when I was getting out of bed, I saw an eye pillow that had fallen on the floor behind our mattress. I picked it up to put it back where it belonged and heard something clatter to the floor. It was one of my little star earrings. “Thanks Mom, I knew it was you.”

I searched all around the bed for the other one, but as of yet it hasn’t turned up. And if I know my mother, it won’t until she’s good and damn ready for me to have it. Still, I’ve got the one and that’s enough for now.

 

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“…then someone said something.”

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When I saw this post on the Humans of New York Facebook Page, I was inspired to share my own story. Here’s what I wrote:


December 15th, 2010 was also one of the saddest moments of my life. Not that specific day exactly, but from 13th through the 29th that year I was home in Georgia with my sister and my niece watching my mother die in a hospital bed in her living room so, really any of those days would qualify as one of my saddest moments.

December 15th, 2010 could have been the day I drove from my hotel at 90 mph through the backwoods of Tift County at 5AM after my sister called to let me know mom had escaped the hospital bed again and she needed me to help lift her off the floor.

Or maybe it was the day when Mom was so comatose we’d only known she was still alive by watching her blood pulse through the veins that stood out from her bony, frail chest – the same day that, when my niece and I ran out to Wal-Mart for a minute, we got the terrifying call from my sister, “Hey, you don’t think Mom’s already dead and it’s just her pacemaker keeping her heart going, do you?”

Maybe, December 15th, 2010 was the day I found myself sobbing in the aisles of Staples after deciding that a Snuggie would be the last Christmas gift I’d ever buy my mom. When I pulled myself together, I went to pay and just as I got to the front of the line, the cashier put up the sign. “Next register, please.”

All I wanted to do was escape with my stupid Snuggie so I could have another breakdown in the car before driving back to Mom’s house. When that sign went up, in that moment, it felt like I’d been sucker punched in my soul.

I felt I held it together pretty well, but I must have sighed or something because as I turned to walk to the back of the line next to me, the woman at the front of it, without even looking at what I had in my little basket, gestured for me to go ahead of her. “Here honey, you can go first.”

“So much stuff was going on, then someone said something.”

I was more broken that day than I’d ever been in my life. And that simple, “Here honey, you can go first,” remains to be one of the most magnanimous gestures I’ve ever experienced.

That woman will never know what she did for me — how she saved my life — that day, just like the person who said something to the girl in this photo may never know how close they came to being the catalyst that made someone take theirs.

“So much stuff was going on …”

Remember, you never know the entirety of what is going on for other people, just like no one else can ever know the entirety of what’s going on for you.

You’ve got a choice people. You can either be the person who builds others up or the one who breaks them down. It doesn’t take much on either end. It’s just about which person you want to be.

How about for today you choose to build other people up? If you like it, maybe you can try it tomorrow, too.

 

 

Because things have gone too far.

Back when #YesAllWomen created a flood of “Because…” posts on the web, a friend posted her list on Facebook. I asked if I could share it; she said I could. I started a draft that day, then drifted away from it as I frequently do with my posts.

Today I came to my site to add a new post and saw CS’s list again. Now, in light of the recent Supreme Court “Hobby Lobby” ruling, it seems like it’s a good time time to share it.


  • Because when I was 9 to 10 years old my stepfather started sexually assaulting me daily and when I finally got the courage to turn him in after a year, the advice I was given by people I trusted was “DON’T FLIRT.” At 10 YEARS OLD.
  • Because when I was at my friend’s restraining order trial to keep her rapist from contacting her they showed her naked pictures she had sent him as “evidence.”
  • Because when I was in 6th grade, a boy named Richard punched me in the face and we both got office referrals because I “must’ve done something.”
  • Because when I was 18, I woke up to a guy’s hands up my shirt feeling me up the morning after a party. I was so scared I had to pretend I was waking up slowly so he’d stop.
  • Because I was afraid to be labeled as a female in the comedy world because I didn’t want to be perceived as “weak” “emotional” “nagging” or “unfunny.”
  • Because I rarely wear a ponytail except when I’m at home because I’ve read countless articles that rapists use them to grab their victims.
  • Because when I got my first kiss at 12 it was with a boy who was cheating on his girlfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him. When I also refused, he told kids at school we had anal.
  • Because out of the 14 solid years I’ve spent writing, filming, acting, conducting interviews, web shows, producing live shows and performing comedy at prestigious festivals and venues I’m STILL brought up on stage with my only credit being “cute.”
  • Because when we try to share these experiences we get comments like “it’s not all men,” as if we’re so stupid we can’t differentiate.
  • Because way too many of us attempt to share our stories and delete them out of fear of being mocked, judged or told ‪#‎notallmen‬
  • Because we’re afraid that we’ll come off as man-hating when all we’re doing is trying to find strength.
  • Because we’re tired of being told we’re overreacting when we say we don’t feel safe.
  • Because I’m scared to post this.
  • Here is the fucking hashtag. ‪#‎yesallwomen‬

So, why did I feel it was appropriate that I post CS’s #YesAllWomen list today?

  • Because the Supreme Court ruled that any company I work for has the right to make decisions on how I maintain my sexual wellness based on their religious beliefs.
  • And because that scares the shit out of me.

* The Hobby Lobby has actually invested in numerous companies that manufacture both contraceptive devices and abortion products. Don’t believe me? Check it out at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2014/04/01/hobby-lobby-401k-discovered-to-be-investor-in-numerous-abortion-and-contraception-products-while-claiming-religious-objection/

 

Pop a Lock

My first diary was a 5 x 8 hardback book with a crushed blue cover and a golden lock that matched the engraving on the front: Dear Diary. I was an avid reader from the time I could make out words, and when I opened the gift, the thought of writing my own thoughts down felt important and grown up and because it was from my mom,  a little scary.

Not that she had ever given me any reason to believe that she would give me a diary, with a LOCK, just to in turn open it and read what I’d written, but somehow that was my gut instinct. Still, I forged ahead.

What did I care? I had a diary and I was on a mission to write down everything that happened to me in my tiny world, just like Anne Frank did. I mean, she didn’t realize that her diary would become as monumental as it did, maybe there was something happening around me that people might want to know about one day.

I remember filling the pages with entries written in fat pink marker. Things like, “It was cold today. I had to wear a jacket. I lost one of the sleeves,” or, “We had pork chops and peas and cornbread for dinner. It was good.”

Like most people’s first diaries, I began with the innocuous stuff, but eventually I became more comfortable sharing my inner thoughts. As I began to spend more time writing entries, my mom made it a point to warn me about the dangers of writing. “You know Susan, once it’s written down, anyone can find it and read it.”

“Yeah, but not if they don’t have the key.”

“Oh that,” she said. Then she took the book with one hand and grabbed a bobby pin from her hair with the other, “Anyone can break in this little things,” and with a skilled turn of her wrist, my diary popped open to the most embarrassing page possible:

Author’s Sketch from Memory. Not the Original Work.

 

Scarred as I was by the experience of not only having my (super flat-chested mom, btw) see my aspirations for having big boobs, but also seeing the ease with which she popped the little gold lock, it never occurred to me that Mom would use her skills to read my diary behind my back.

Of course … she did. And when I wrote about bigger things as I grew older, she began to use my writing against me.

It took me a long time to learn though. I just couldn’t help myself. The more complicated my emotions became as I entered puberty (and started to develop those boobs – visualization works!), the more I felt the need to express them in writing. Notes to friends, notes in book margins, journals and diaries, old notebooks – any place I could find space to write I would. Then I’d hide them all. In really good places.

Under my bed. Between my mattress and box spring. Behind the dresser. You know, all those sure fire hiding spots your parents used when they were teens up to no good.

The thing is, at that time, I was a really good kid. I didn’t drink. I was terrified of just the thought of drugs, and according to whether the time I’m remembering was pre or post-theater release of the original “Footloose,” I had barely even kissed a boy beyond following a stupid freeze tag rule.

Then one night something MAGICAL happened.

I was around 15 and my best friend C was spending the night when K, the dreamiest bad boy in Fitzgerald High School, showed up at my bedroom window with C’s boyfriend, W. We had been expecting W, but when K showed up, I thought I would die.

He looked so hot in the glow from the streetlight, and all I could think was, “How do I get my  hands on that straw he’s chewing?” (I already knew the night would warrant a souvenir.)

The ever fearless C snuck her way past my mom’s room and out our back door for what I suspect was a pretty intense make out session in the truck with W. I, being the nicer/scared-er one of the two, refused to cross the threshold because as much as I loved K (from afar), there was no way I was going to get in trouble for one night of fun that I was sure was going no where.

Since he had to wait for W, K figured out a way to create a seat in the boxwood shrub outside my window. He and I whispered and laughed and joked about what might be going on in the truck until C came sneaking back into my bedroom. “Hey K, W’s waiting for you.”

As K rose from the dent in the boxwood I stopped him, “Hey! Gimme that straw.” I reached my hand underneath the screen to grab it and was thrilled to see that not only was it filled with his saliva, but that it also contained flecks of his dipping tobacco. I showed C the dent that K’s perfect butt had left in my bush, and she assured me that it would pop right back out by morning.

Well it didn’t, and when Mom made her way to this juicy entry in my journal, she not only solved the case of the stunted boxwood, her ensuing castigation also stunted my urge to write things down.

You Get The Idea

You Get The Idea

As I grew older, Mom and I would return to this topic over and over: whether she had a right to read my journals and use the evidence to punish me. My point was that they were my thoughts, and were put into a safe place where I should be able to trust my family members, of all people, to respect my privacy. (Besides, I didn’t even do anything that night! I had a chance to be the cool one in front of K and I stayed INSIDE. Couldn’t she understand that?)

Her point was that she was my mother and she needed to know everything, “Because you sure aren’t ever going to tell me the truth.”

My rebuttal was that she never gave me the option to tell the truth, because she never asked what was going on in my life. To which she’d usually reply, “All I have to say is that that boxwood has NEVER been the same and if I hadn’t read your journal, I would have never known why.” Which is true to this day, but I still don’t see how it applied to the argument.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Almost there.

December 8 – Dead Grandma’s Birthday

December 9 – My Birthday

December 11 – Dead Mom’s Birthday

December 17 – Baby Girl’s Birthday

December 23 – Estranged Father’s Birthday

December 29 – Dead Mom’s Deathday

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Cotton, Racism & The Delicate Nature of Friendship” or “The 25th Reunion of the FHS Class of ’88”

When I asked the black girls whether they had a 7th grade graduation dance, they looked at me like I was crazy.

“We didn’t have any 7th grade dance.”

“Well, I was wondering since ours was held at the Elks’ Lodge and I knew you couldn’t go there.”

“Hell. We couldn’t go anywhere,” one woman said to me. Then she listed all the fun places in Fitzgerald: the roller rink at Lake Bea, the bowling alley, Crystal Lake. “Just because they didn’t have rules about black folks like the Elks’ Lodge, it didn’t mean we were welcome.”

Crystal Lake Post Card

I’d never considered it before. Growing up (white) in such a segregated society, I was accustomed to being surrounded by only white people and it never occurred to me to think about where the black kids went to swim or to roller skate. Or what it must have felt like to hear your privileged white classmates talk about weekends on water slides and floating docks at the water park just outside the county line.

For the millionth time in my life, I apologized for my home town’s ignorance and soon after, ended up in a conversation where a white friend told me his wife had explained to one of our black classmates that he’s bowlegged because, “I have a nigger dick … or I’m hung like a nigger … something like that.”

Cause, you know, those are the kinds of conversations that happen at your 25th high school reunion in South Georgia.

His wife who was standing next to him laughed at her bravado and looked to me for a response. “Oh. Well, you are bowlegged, aren’t you?” I asked, not knowing what else to say. (I mean. There were things I could have said, but I also knew there wasn’t much point. So I just deadpanned it.)

“Tell her what I said last night at the football game,” she prompted her husband. He told me. When I didn’t laugh at the second racist comment either, she switched things up.

“Well, you know. We are friends with this one black guy. He even invited us to his church a few weeks ago and we went, didn’t we baby?” She looked to her husband to soothe the uncomfortable vibe.

The husband, who I’ve known since my teenaged years of outwardly attacking every bigoted statement I heard (while sporting a spiral perm and full-on hair metal regalia) looked at me. “Yeah. It was different.”

“Different could be a good time if you gave it a try,” I replied, looking him in the eye with an expression he totally understood.

“You know me, Susan. I don’t like different.”

“I know you don’t, boo. You never did …,” I trailed off and took a sip of wine in a transitional pause. Then I continued, “So, listen. Do you think I could grow cotton indoors?”

He gratefully accepted the change of topic and after sharing his thoughts on best practices for growing cotton indoors in Brooklyn, he gave me directions to one of his fields where he told me I could dig up as many plants as I wanted. The three of us ended up taking group photos and I drove back to NYC with pots of cotton so I can harvest seeds for next fall.

Actually stolen from the Dorminy Farm.

Now, I know that’s not the intense confrontation I promised before I went down to Georgia, but the thing is … well, the things are:

  1. I love that guy. We’ve been friends since 7th grade and although we obviously have different views on race (and religion and politics), the fact is we always did. Still, we found a way to connect with each other despite our integral differences. We built a friendship I truly value that has tested both of our boundaries in ways that are fully beneficial to our growth as people.
  2. Like I mentioned, in this case there’s no point. As much as I’m sure my way of thinking (and choice of language) is right, he and his wife are, too. They don’t see themselves as bad or even hateful people, and honestly neither do I. At least I don’t in the fact that I really believe they’re not intentionally mean … just that they’ve grown up (and existed solely) in a society where that kind of exchange is acceptable. And I don’t think they’ve ever really, really thought it through.

Maybe I’m giving them too much credit. Maybe I just want to avoid confrontation in my old age. Still, we’re talking about people who live, and have always lived, in a place where the high school proms are segregated. (Yes. Still. In 2013.)

Before I left the final event for our reunion weekend, I talked to another friend (an African-American woman who had helped organize everything) about my feelings regarding whether I wanted to stay in contact with people who are so intrinsically different from me, but who also share such a rich history with me at the same time.

“All I know is now that this reunion mess is through,” she told me, “I’m deleting these fools who keep posting all that ignorant shit on Facebook. Who needs ’em?”

She’s got a good point. But for whatever reason, my answer to her question is, “I do.”

At least for now.

Georgia On My Itinerary

More than two decades ago, I graduated from Fitzgerald High School, which is located in a small town in the sweltering midriff of South Georgia. Next Tuesday, I’m renting a car (in Jersey – NYC rental prices are obnoxious) and driving home to attend my first class reunion since 1998. On the way, I’m also visiting my best friend from 10th grade who I haven’t seen face-to-face since 1989.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 4.02.09 PM

AKA – shit’s about to get real.

I’m actually pretty excited about it – which I wouldn’t have expected even 5 years ago – but there’s seriously something about making it to 40 that changes your perspective on things in ways you never expect. (That and getting an invite with options for a 5XL-sized t-shirt, which makes me feel way better about the amount of weight I’ve put on since ’88.)

Now, seeing the best friend is one thing. She and I were that level of close that never goes away and I expect it to feel just like we’re 15 again, except she’s now a mom who teaches spin class in Dawsonville and I’m a lesbian who … does a lot of things in NYC that spin class moms in North Georgia probably haven’t tried before. Still, there’s no doubt we’re going to have a blast reminiscing about the 80’s and comparing lives and laughing our faces off.

But, because I’m friends with many of my former classmates on Facebook (and classmates.com, for that matter, though who even remembers that site?), I know … I mean I KNOW … that we have completely different views on almost every single issue there is to view. And, because I’m friends with them on Facebook, I’ve also had more than a few encounters online that might make our impending face time a little tense. (Read: awesome.)

Take B for example, my dance partner from the 1987 FHS production of “The Music Man.” Once when I posted something on FB about feeling bad for the planet but loving the warm January day, he instantly wrote, “Really? Isn’t that what you liberals call global warming?”

Excuse me? This motherfucker almost literally hadn’t spoken to me since The Music Man, we’re only friends on Facebook because HE asked ME (I think, I don’t actually remember), and he had the nerve to just jump on my status update (which was so obviously tongue-in-cheek – god knows I love the environment) and write some shit like “you liberals”?

I made a snarky comment back, but really get into it with him at the time. Since then, I’ve seen a lot of his other comments – mostly about Democrats, Obama and Mexicans – and I just know he’s gonna say something stupid at the reunion. And I hope I’m right next to him when he does. Just gimme a reason to start, B and it is on.

The truth is, I like to poke a bear. Always have. Especially a minimally-educated, narrow-minded bear who wants to engage in verbal arguments with me. Poke pokedy poke.

(Remember Old High School Friend? The one who called Obama a nigger online? Poke. Poke. Poke.)

Actually, as much as I love the poking, I try really hard not to do it. I scroll away from the Tea Party updates and anti-gay posts as quickly as I can because it’s not worth it. They’re as convinced they’re right as I am, and after 15ish years in Fitzgerald poking everyone I could about their bigotry, hatred, ignorance, racism and overall assholeishness, I know there’s very little good that will come out of it.

However, that’s online. There I can open a different window, shut the laptop, go back to Candy Crush. In person I’ve got less discipline. Not in that I couldn’t simply walk away without saying anything in person, just in that I know I won’t.

It’s like some debate switch gets flipped and regardless of how loudly my inner voice screams at me, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I  keep going until somebody’s completely red-faced and furious (rarely me) to the point that the breaker trips and the switch goes back off. From there, I add one more name to the “Thinks I’m a Bitch” list, and move along with my day. It’s not my most honorable attribute, but definitely one I not-so-secretly enjoy.

Obviously, not everyone I graduated with is narrow-minded and hateful, and I look forward to being surprised by a lot of people who I’ve possibly misjudged. After all, it has been 25 years. We spent the majority of our significant formative years together and I’m curious to see how everyone’s grown … or hasn’t … since then. So, overall I’m pretty excited for my adventure.

But still, I know for sure there are gonna be some hairy moments down there, and I can not wait to get back and tell you all about it.

Last Moments

The last word my mom said to me was, “Heartbroken.” She glared at me with her devil eye – this look she had perfected early in my youth – and spat it through gritted teeth.

“Heartbroken.”

“I love you Mom. We’ll be back after we eat. I promise.”

The next time I saw her was after a 45-minute stint in the “nice room” at the ER in Tifton, Georgia.

“You guys. This is a bad sign,” I said to my sister, niece & Erica as we walked into the floral-papered room with plush leather sofas and a TV. There were silk flower arrangements on the end tables and we had a private phone. There were boxes of tissues everywhere you looked.

That afternoon my sister A and I had signed a DNR release, despite knowing Mom wanted otherwise. “This isn’t a life for her … for any of us,” I remember one of us saying.

I offered my call first – DNR all the way – to make it easier on A to say what she really wanted.

“I can take two of you at a time,” Dr. B said from the doorway. A & niece V jumped up. They needed to go first.

“Get ready. It’s bad,” A said as I got up to take my turn with Erica.

“Susan, I’m so sorry. We didn’t get the DNR from the nursing home,” Dr. B, who’d been my GP when I lived in Fitzgerald, told me.

“I understand. If you don’t know for sure, better safe, right?”

When he left us in the curtained space, I heard myself cry out for my mommy and watched my hands trace her frail, bony body.

“Mommy. Mommy. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

When I noticed the nurse in the corner by the monitors, I asked, “Did you know her?” Mom had worked as an RN in that hospital and had gone to school with a bunch of the staff.

“Yes, ma’am. We were in clinicals together.”

“I’m sorry. This must be hard for you.” I tried to console him.

When they moved her to a room, they disconnected the oxygen and a man attached a pump bag to the tube that led to her lungs. “Isn’t that magical? You’re keeping her alive right now. That’s really incredible, isn’t it?” I asked him as we rode the elevator to the “letting ’em go” floor.

It wasn’t until I got to the sitting vigil part of the night that I allowed myself to be present in what was happening. Once we were alone – me, A, V, Erica – for the first time with Mom all together, her with a breathing tube and swollen Mickey Mouse hands, I started taking in every moment. And I remember it all.

The doctors asking us to leave the room while they removed the breathing tube (the closest they come to actually pulling any sort of plug).

A visit from S & J who prayed with us and hoped the brief improvement in mom’s heart rate was a sign she was going to make it.

The night nurse offering, “Anything, anything at all,” and his shock when we were so grateful for the thin hospital sheets and pillows he brought in.

Someone half joking, “She’s not totally dead. No need to make it feel like a morgue just yet.”

Finally, finally getting someone to explain the numbers on the monitors and what to look for … to know.

Wedging the rolling office chair — “I’m so sorry we don’t have any more without wheels” — against the hospital tray table so I could hold Mom’s hand while I slept.

Waking up to, “It’s almost time.”

Watching a last tear roll down her left cheek while V watched one roll down her right.

“I lost my mom 7 years ago,” my doctor said to me last week, as she wrote the prescription for my anti-depressants. “You eventually stop remembering the pain of those last moments and start remembering just the good stuff. It’ll get better.”

The thing she doesn’t understand is … I don’t want to forget.

Why We Need AED Stations

Yesterday, I got an invite for my high school reunion and the sizes for the optional t-shirt ranged from small to 5XL. This explains why there’s a defibrillator every 5 feet in the Atlanta airport. However, it doesn’t explain why there are so few options for healthy food in a land of farms and farmers.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

There are more than 200 of these throughout Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

The last time I went back to Fitzgerald, I hoped to make dinner for my family. I headed out shopping – at the Super Wal-Mart, where you now go for groceries in my hometown – and I was floored by the lack of fresh produce.

The majority of the foods available are shrink-wrapped, boxed, processed, chemical-laden products and you guys, there isn’t a sprig of basil or rosemary in sight. No wonder I had no idea about fresh herbs until I moved to Italy.

Sure, you can get romaine lettuce, tomatoes and carrots but the variety practically stops there. Standing in the “produce” aisle, I got so disheartened by the fact that every healthy option was paired with some gross manufactured product that would negate any health benefits of the natural food. Apples sat next to packaged caramel dip. Cucumbers were surrounded by jars of fatty, creamy dressing. Peaches were accompanied by recipe cards for delicious yet, super unwholesome cobbler.

At every turn you are encouraged to drown, distort and disguise fresh, raw food so that it ends up being much simpler to just drive down Highway 129 to McDonald’s where they do all that extra work for you.

My classmates and I are in our very early 40’s and already someone has had to endure a heart bypass procedure. Full disclosure: I do not know what led to that surgery but, I will venture a guess that there are at least a dozen people using one of those sleep apnea machines at night.

In the two years before I graduated, and for several after, there was a rash of teen suicides in Fitzgerald. It was a devastating trend that left a lot of us more broken than we’ve ever been able to share with each other.

So, what gets to me about those 3, 4 and 5XL options isn’t that my classmates are overweight. It’s the sad fact that we haven’t been able to get past our self-destructive phase.