Ever wonder which train you’re on?

This has been coming up like a portent in my life in one way or another for a few days now: the message behind the oh-so-true aphorism, Man proposes, God disposes. Or, the best-laid plans of mice and men. . .Or the quote I just saw on Twitter: Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters won’t have a title until much later (Bob Goff).

How many times in my fifty-three years of life have I proven this?!

So I wonder why someone’s so bent on sending me the message now.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I had fifteen years of relatively uninterrupted bliss in a condo at the top of the building with the best friend I’ve ever had, a loud, bold, curious, in-your-face high-maintenance SCARY-smart Siamese cat named Tonka.

Then two years ago all hell broke loose–and a lot of good stuff, too. I defied the odds (and the draconian lender requirements) and bought the house of my dreams–the perfect little bungalow with the big back yard, a half acre backing up to the wooded town swamp right in town. A conservatory/dining room with windows all around jutting out into a back yard right out of a Disney cartoon: deer and bunnies and constant birdsong. LOTS of mature trees, a shaded patio, a lovely bedroom loft, a hammock and a tree swing would come, and I’m still working hard on the creative financing needed to score a white gazebo. Even as I convert the back lawn into an English cottage garden.

My Writing Retreat, right at home.

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So why have I scarcely moved in? I’ve only just now given up painting the ugly mustard dining room so-I-could-even-use-it myself and hired someone? Every single room (except my loft) the same dull color: I love coffee with two creams but not on the walls.

Tonka was already old; she enjoyed several months having her own back yard, then passed away. A profound depression ensued. And the Goff quote above applies to the sad chapters of life, too: depression has a way of fooling you into not realizing you’re not in it WHILE you’re still in it. Just. . .nothing happens.

I occupied my new house; I didn’t LIVE in it. With nothing painted, nothing decorated my way, and half my possessions still in my parents’ basement, I felt like I was staying in someone else’s house. My sister and a roommate live here, too; the rent was sorely needed to finance central AC and gutter guards and the evicting of seven red squirrels from where they lived in my basement ceiling.

For months I juggled finances and the cat situation: my second cat Peaches was terrified of my sister’s cat, who had to stay cooped up her bedroom all day till she could come out, supervised; both suffered till my sister’s cat, also old, passed away a few months after Tonka. But not till after a bizarre episode when my sister broke up a cat fight and her cat inflicted infected wounds on her hand that turned so bad she was three nights in the hospital and six weeks on a pik line antibiotic!

Then there was a heartbreaking episode with the new Siamese George: we loved him but he was an energy that could scarcely be contained, our possessions in constant danger, and the stress was too much for Peaches, and we had to let him go.

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I tried to warm up my numb, cold emptiness and assuage the constant ache of a genuinely broken heart with the activity of keeping up a new house. I almost lost my writing altogether. A lot happened but I was on automatic.

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Last summer brought a flurry of joyous family weddings and a new baby in the family, my great-nephew, who is SO clever and engaging and cheerful and funny. Then, one year after Tonka died, the life that was finally being saved and buoyed up with joy sank to the lowest point yet: my brother had stage 4 cancer. Having metastatized from the colon to liver, there was talk of chemo, but he never regained strength, and I knew in the back of my mind what not everyone accepted. He passed away on Christmas.

This time I thought I was going to embrace depression for what it was, but in truth I was in denial mode from day one: I began hiding out at the coffee shop, before and after work, my head down as my writing flowed. Still doing it. But gradually I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself every day, feeling the most gut-wrenchingly angry I’ve ever felt and nothing to be angry at, and spring finally happened.

I’m not done with winter yet

Spring in my yard is, in spite of my half-hearted efforts, pretty spectacular. Tulips and daffodils everywhere, and now, the most fragrant peonies will soon open.
And spring brought the most joyous wedding yet, my (very) young niece. My great-nephew grows and is the miracle that pulled my family through the suckiest winter ever–especially my parents, burying a child.

The dining room is new and waiting to be filled again with the table where I can write comfortably at last–and save a fortune on coffee shop bills. My painter’s taking on the kitchen next. Maybe the ball will keep rolling–I don’t know, life is STILL in flux. But I hope I continue to embrace my new home and allow myself to actually enjoy it, to make plans again, to find peace.

Chapter: not yet named.

 

Writing to Exorcise Profound Grief, Part 3

I don’t often write poetry these days, and really this poem was more to be written than to be read–though I have some hard-fought wisdom to share about Exorcising Profound Grief Through Writing:

It doesn’t work.

But writing passes the time, and time, perhaps, helps a little tiny bit. What are those 7 stages again? I’m hitting quite a few of them. Anger: I don’t live in a world without my big brother by choice, and though the hubris of it isn’t logical, the fact does make me angry. And depressed. And even afraid.

And yet, somewhere WA-A-AY deep inside of me is a small part of my psyche that’s at peace, and even grateful. I must be grateful that in all history and in all the world, my brother was given to me, and I walked the earth with him for a time. Maybe soon I’ll be able to write about that.


I turned my back on the sun.
My long shadow drags itself over rocks and freshly-mounded dirt,
and hickory hulls,
Refuses to look up.
My long, dark shadow has more substance than I do.
It finds the cracks in the earth and dives down fast to Lethe.
Silent splash, achingly cold.

I turned my back on the earth.
I walk wooden, work hard, I look sad and cry angry.
No day, no night, nowhwere to hide. So I write.
Got to get away quick and stay gone.
(If I don’t remember, he’s not a memory.)
Always behind my eyes, something behind my eyes,
Maddening. The tight lump high in my throat. Maddening.

Aching somewhere far away.
Maddening.

If I don’t remember you, you’re not a memory.
Never a stupid, hollow mistake, what an obscene and ugly word: memory.
I lose. I lose forever and ever.

I turned my back on the world because you weren’t in it.
You went somewhere, didn’t you?
I stare at a mound of dirt and ache, something behind my eyes.
Because you went somewhere swiftly
And I stayed in no place at all.
Where the quiet comes from,
The cracks to the void at the center of the earth.
The void that was you at the center of me.

–Gabriella L. Garlock, March 2018

Waiting for the Eagles

Dear God, this has to stop. I didn’t know people could react this way; I’ve never known such a great loss before. I didn’t know I could so awkwardly push aside the thought of someone I claim to love, and a month later I’m still in high escape mode.

Before and after work at the coffee shop; now my novel is in the hands of beta readers and I’m committed to furiously reading and critiquing at least four other stories. Guilt-ridden that my cat is so lonely. I’m too old to run from my feelings by blasting music in the car. I’m too aware to keep being such a coward.

“Best Big Brother Ever”

Because Michael deserves me thinking about him, not forgetting how much I need him, how much I need to know I’ll see his wry smile again. He deserves better than being brushed out of the way by words on a screen until all I have left of him are the mere glimpses that bubble to the surface inevitably in the course of any given day.

It seems I’d rather turn myself into whatever-this-is, I’d rather feel guilt than the pain of grief and losing my brother. Because it still doesn’t feel real. How do you go from the point where he’s alive and part of your life to the point where he isn’t and you’re used to that? No, I’ll never get used to that! I refuse to.

It seems I have a long way to go.

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor

Because no one ever simply walks into Mordor. You trip and fall, painfully you slide over broken rock and turn aside into the beckoning arms of forgetfulness, frozen in time.

And you never come back from Mordor whole–isn’t that what I’m running from? You have the scar from a Morgul blade, you can see the Thestrals, you can see Both Sides Now.

If I remember him, he’s a memory

Why on earth do people always die at the END of stories? How does that help me? How am I supposed to know what the scene looks like after he’s gone? How do I write the rest of this stupid story that just won’t stop playing out?

Michael doesn’t deserve to be a memory avoided; I don’t even yet know how to make him a memory at all. Not JUST a memory; he’s so much more. But if I remember him, he’s a memory. Certainly if I memorialize him, then I can’t deny that now he exists only as a memory.

The Seven Stages of Falling Off a Cliff

And if I sublimate what he means to me in a work of fiction, have I buried him once and for all? If I imagine myself one day explaining, Oh, yes, that’s how my brother inspired me. This is what he taught me. This is why I wrote this story. There I go–trying to paint a future without him when I can’t even see-feel-touch the present without him.

It’s so much easier to talk about myself, how hard I work and what I think about and what I avoid like a coward. Look how busy I am, look how well I’m carrying on.

Don’t look at the lost little girl, heartsick, waiting for her wandering brother to come home and make it all better. Because he always came back home. Just when I needed him. I just need to wait a little longer. I’m told that the eagles are coming.

No, one doesn’t simply walk out of Mordor, either, do they?

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Self-Pity and Resolve: Fighting for a Happy New Year

Real Life gets really real, the final part–I sure hope

I don’t know what I expected to find, the morning after the grayest day. It was still bitter cold but–typical Michigan, harsh just when it’s breathtakingly lovely–the sun was shining, on the snowy lake, the hills, the snow-covered trees, the newly-mounded dirt at the base of the hickory tree just inside the cemetery gate. Even though the roses were now frozen, ferns and lilies waving slightly in an arctic breeze, I thought I could still smell them in the air the way it smelled through the funeral.

I’m not at all superstitious about graves or earthly remains–and I’m still not, because apparently this morning wasn’t spiritual at all. God, give me this last minute of self-pity, here on the last day of the year, then I promise I’ll try to move on with life. I cried and cried finally–a good old-fashioned, wipe your red nose on your icy gloves kind of cry. I wasn’t crying for my parents or my sister-in-law or my little great-nephew Archie who won’t know the best uncle ever as he grows up. This was all about me. All the many ways I feel small right now.

Unattached. Lost.

The sun was shining and there were even birds singing and I did hear my snow-boots crunching on the ground, so the earth was definitely still turning, logic said it was, but I hardly felt like I was attached to it anymore. I don’t mean just light-headed or light and airy; I honestly stopped feeling like I belonged on the earth. What was I doing here? It feels like the whole world can see that I’m all alone: it feels like there’s a big sign around my neck telling the whole world I’m a lost little girl who doesn’t have a big brother. Any more. So what’s the point of me now?

Michael was there when I was born. He left home–to stay the summer with his grandparents, but when my sister was born he came back and decided to stay with me, because I cried so happily when he returned. He left home when he graduated to walk the length and breadth of the country, but he always came back. I was very sick on the couch one time he was away and woke up in the middle of the night and saw his silhouette in light from the dining room, and I was just as giddy as the toddler seeing him again. He watched over us all and waited patiently through three sisters and two nieces until finally after sixty years little Archie came along–but Michael was already sick, we just didn’t know it yet.

Avoiding pain as motivation

When we did find out his time was limited, about two months ago, I went into severe escapism mode. I bragged about learning to get up an hour early to write every single day at the coffee shop before work and most weekends. I’ve been more productive revising the novel in two months than I’ve been in two years. Only in retrospect do I see that that kind of intense focus is particularly effective for avoiding pain. When all is said and done, I know I should have spent more time with Michael. Time spent struggling not knowing what to say but spent with him all the same.

So after a frenzy of funeral preparation, now the friends and distant family have visited and gone and I woke up to the empty disbelief that it really was final. No, that’s another euphemism: I woke up no longer able to avoid the fact that it’s Too Late. So somehow I ended up back at the cemetery in the obscenely brutal cold.

Guilt motivates even more–till it paralyzes

I don’t know what I expected to find, but I told myself somewhat self-righteously I was only going there to “check things out” after the brief, frigid graveside service the day before. The big blue tent was gone now. Everyone was gone now, and it was just me and the palpable absence of my brother.

Still, it’s a pretty place, the kind of place nature-loving Michael liked to walk in; in the summer there will be squirrels and some rabbits and in the spring even the rare soft-shelled turtle up from the lake to lay eggs. They have long necks and run really fast: zip across the cemetery path, zip back to the safety of the water. I mean, I’ve been taking walks here all my life because it’s that much nicer and more peaceful than the city park next door.

Forever attached to the earth

I have five generations of family buried here–no, now it’s six. My dad went to try to buy a plot for Michael and found he inherited, like, a dozen, in the oldest family spot here by the gates, places now for me and my sisters and still some more.

Huh, I realized. I’m standing here bawling my eyes out on my own grave.

God, please let me get through this last minute of self-pity. It feels like I’m drowning in it but I know I have to crawl out. I don’t have any kids but surely the next generations need me. My cat, at least, needs me. I need to accomplish something in 2018. Even if it’s just putting my brother in the dedication of my first book.

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“The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” –Walt Whitman

…from the obituary for my brother Michael. My first best friend and hero.