Opening Gifts

There is almost nothing now that I want or need that I do not have. The gratitude I have for that is deepened and underscored by your absence.

During seasons like this I wonder what you would have made of abundance. I like to imagine that where you are you know what it is to revel, to be of good cheer, to adorn yourself with fine raiment and tinsel and reindeer antlers. I am hoping that there is some good Donny Hathaway playing, followed by Stevie Wonder since I know you favor sharp shifts in emotional altitude, for your spirit to slink then soar.  I know you are drinking egg nog, but I wonder what you’re spiking it with.

Three years to the day, I said goodbye to you and, for the last time, you corrected me. You wanted me to say See you later because you hated that word goodbye so much. I’m not much of a fan of it myself.

You are the person who knew me best in the world and that may never change. This is the year I let myself rest in the reality of that and surrendered the need to change for the sake of anyone else. You were such a good model, just like my sister, of self-possession and strength. I have no idea what took me so long.

It feels like so much time has passed since you left and, at the same time, like time only kept picking up speed. Since then, I discovered how hiding from myself and others prevents real love and joy from finding me. I learned that sometimes missing the chaotic parts of us makes me seek out insanity that I only tolerate as a placeholder for the memories we survived. Gradually and then, all at once, I remembered that my life goes on — or it can — if I let it. I realized that I do not have to suffer or tolerate because I know I can handle it. Strength is neither shield nor sponge. It is a pose and a position and mostly, a choice.

You know that saying about time healing all wounds? I don’t know if I believe it. I think time gives you space from what maimed your heart so that if you can’t keep yourself from being wounded again, at least you have perspective on how to grieve with honor, while loving and living. Love and loss are not mutually exclusive.

This was the year that all of the cheerleading you offered me reached a fever pitch in the back of my mind and played like an anthem in the background of my daily life. This was the year I heard all the things you tried to tell me. This was the year that I believed that I was worthy of the big, broad blanket of love for me you unfurled and let hang from your shoulders like a superhero as long as I tried to know you. This was the year that I understood that it is ok to just miss the reality of you and the tangible motherly things you shared: that laugh, that smile, the long unfiltered list of impossible dreams that you were always ready to recite like the rosary you cherished.

This is the year that I can finally wrap gifts again for the ones I love and listen to Christmas songs and sing along. The tears are willful and come when they want, but I don’t fight like I did before. I let the sadness in for tea and whatever comfort food I can find so that it can have some space to be. I learned, too, this year, that after awhile, sadness politely will excuse itself and leave me to my efforts to celebrate the season, whatever season it is or whatever the season wants to be. This, too, is a gift.

Running Through Madness

On Sunday, I ran what must have been my seventh or eighth half marathon. I did it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the last year has been more intense than I anticipated it would be and I wanted to process what that means for me now, what it means for the future. Whenever I come to a point of pivotal change like this, there’s nothing like running more miles than most people consider normal to help me sort things out and come back to myself.

Whenever I run a race, I think about why I started running in the first place. I always come back to the fact that my mother’s insanity made me run for my life until I discovered that what I really needed to do was chase down my own sanity. We always need more than that, of course, but this was the core of what I felt I needed when I became a runner.

Marguerite had both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. She was officially diagnosed when I was in my twenties. She tried medication briefly when I was in my thirties, just a few years before she died from cervical cancer, but said it interfered with her relationship with God, so that was that.

I was an adult when I was told for the first time that my mother was bipolar, but I always knew, the way you can tell from the sound in someone’s voice when they are hurt or in love or enamored. Marguerite was a meteor hitched to emotion, bright candor and love exploding and ascending, her voice high, arms spread, warmth around me, a million words effusively scribbled beautifully with a deep ballpoint press on reams and reams of notebook paper from her oft-abandoned community college endeavors. She lit up darkness and she made the foundation of a thing rock with ease and joy, however temporary, however artificial. This is how I learned how to move in the world. Riding the crest of her waves of emotion, trying not to worry about the crashing to earth, the unfurling of furious waves.

You are brilliant.

Everything you touch turns to gold.

You are a miracle.

The words of a mother who loves her daughter with language are gifts that last forever. They are the royal blue film over the lens of life, making lovely everything that was before just mediocre. To believe you are cherished and special by the one who gave birth to you is believe in your ability to be immortal, to be a superhero. To fly even when you are pinned to earth.

When she was down life was hell, a pit of seething anger, sad tears in her voice but not on her face because she said her tear ducts had stopped working. My mother’s sadness clipped my wings, made me a girl-Icarus who flew too close to the heat to ever soar for long with comfort or confidence.

I was the subject of all her shame as I had been for all her glory.

She hated me, she told me so, she repeated it to me and as a girl it played with the kind of steady repetition of a march. Left, left, left right left. I hate you I hate you I wish I never had you I hate you. This was the undoing of my belief in myself for quite a long time. My survival became more about rugged stubborn tendencies and less about reinforcing the belief of my delightful mother when she was up. I was never sure which version of me I wanted to save but I was more terrified of dying most of the time so the only other option was to try to make my life into something as dreamy as my mother’s mania.

I wanted to always get her back to loving me with her words, instead of hating me with them.

So from the beginning of my life until the end of hers, I grappled with how to cope with the invisible ghost that was her unique brand of crazy. I tried wrapping my arms around it, then avoiding it before I realized there was no way to deal with it but trudging through.

Along the way, I learned that the folks we call crazy have been broken in places where most of us are confident we are capable of bending. They embody the potential of pain and heartbreak to warp a soul and murder the spirit. To encounter them intimately is to be singed by a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Running would be my salvation, a mechanism for avoiding the flames, in the end, even when I thought it was too late to start, even before I knew what my heart was leaning toward for me by doing it.

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