That first morning I made fried eggs. I scooped out a glob of coconut oil and watched as it seeped to the corners of my grandmother’s cast iron skillet. The heat, turned up too high, made this short task an emergency. I frantically fanned the shrieking smoke alarm with a nearby cutting board, quickly switched the stove vent to HIGH, and uttered a concise expletive underneath it all.
I grew up giving to Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. We held rummage sales at our church, and my parents would volunteer, which meant I would volunteer. And yet in my adult life, giving away things seemed more of a selfish act, wanting to clear away clutter or free up space in my closet. If some place wanted my leftovers, they were doing me a service.
One Sunday night, I found myself in a church van, with three other people I had just met, plus our church’s pastor, headed out to the City to hand out blankets, jackets, jeans, socks, underwear, and lunches to the homeless. I didn’t necessarily want to be there. I hadn’t volunteered. My husband had volunteered. Then he got sick and suggested I take his place. I went because it seemed like the right thing to do, especially because they were short handed on a night when most of the country was tucked warmly inside their homes or sports bars rooting for two football teams they had some sort of interest in and watching the most expensive commercials of the year. I, however, had a lifetime of not caring about football, so I had no alibi.
All of the serious reasons I didn’t want to go could really be bundled up into one reason of not wanting to go: I didn’t want to be uncomfortable. The first sign of uncomfort was in the unexpected thoughts this stirred in me of my birth story. I don’t know much, but I was told my birth mother lived on the streets in Costa Rica. I think she already had boys, but I was her first girl. Not wanting her daughter to endure that life, its difficulties and vices, she put me up for adoption. I have managed to compartmentalize most of my feelings on this topic, until recently. I am wondering now if they have been simmering just underneath the fabric of my every day life, and this experience enabled a fissure of escape, but I just can’t be sure. I am forced to accept these emotions are here, stirring in me, giving me uncomfort and pressuring me to look into faces that remind me of a life from which I was saved, faces that could easily have been mine, faces that may be my brothers, my mother.
What I wasn’t expecting, was that our night seemed enveloped in grace. These men and women, having almost nothing, were polite, gracious, thankful. They were seeking just a bit of comfort. They asked first for blankets. We only had four that night, and they went to the first four who asked. We helped these men and women, with what we had, as best we could, locating sizes and colors to suit. The hours leading up to this night were full of personal doubt and dread. The first stop we made erased these feelings entirely and I was finally able to shift my focus towards the service we were sharing.
Why must I always approach a new situation by what it means to me? Why must I fixate on my own feelings of comfort or discomfort and inadequacy instead of pausing to consider the intent of the experience?
Service of this sort seems inevitably tangled between personal feelings and motivators and the actual helping of others. I drove home with images of faces, eyes, hands, all wanting the same thing, seeking to fill a desire for a moment of comfort from a world that, for a wagon wheel of reasons, has led them to this space.
I thought of the men sleep-resting on a sidewalk, taking shelter provided by a building alcove. I talked with a few who were still awake and handed out personal hygiene bags. One man took it and immediately asked for a different one with soap. I thought they all had soap in them. But I looked through my bags and found one with the biggest bar of soap that I could. True joy in his eyes. Immediately I thought of this basic need. How often I wash my hands, the faces of my children, their hands. Take a shower. Wash my clothes. To be stripped of this ability, to the point where when someone hands me a basic needs kit to look first for soap, caused in me a sadness that lingers. I am unable to find a place to put this sadness, to categorize it, so that it can be a “thing I know what to do with,” instead of a “thing that confuses me,” or a “thing that makes me feel guilty,” or a “thing that I ignore.”
When I came home, I washed my hands, my face. I tucked myself into bed beneath my four blankets, the warmth of my husband making up for the slight chill of the sheets. I couldn’t sleep. I felt a glutton of warmth and comfort.
Hours later I woke to cries of my youngest child. I went immediately to his room, scooped him from his crib and just held him, wrapped him in a blanket of fish and turtles made by his Nana. I held him long after his cries went to whimpers and the whimpers back to snores. I slow smelled his hair. I wanted to pause this moment, a moment of true gratitude for this safe, warm place to let my son sleep. Gratitude for a painstakingly uncomfortable choice made by a woman who gave me life, but whom I’ll never meet. A choice that would take me 28 years to understand, and only after holding my own son and feeling both magnitude of love and weight of responsibility for his precious life. Gratitude to be in this exact space at this exact moment and the billions of choices that brought me here.
As I went back to my room, I paused at the top of our stairs, out a window that showed a glistening pavement. I always love when it rains, but this time I felt again that uncategorizable sadness. The first image being of a woman who had done a little sing-song dance of thanks for a weekend of no snow. The second, of a man who had built his bed of cardboard boxes. I thought of how, out of all the jackets we handed out that night, only a handful had any hope of providing shield from the rain that insisted on falling early that morning then persisted throughout the day.
What had started in uncomfortableness was ending in uncomfortableness. And yet, of the two, I will take the latter; the latter having provided me a new context for what matters in service. Giving me the opportunity to disconnect the (un) from comfort. To focus on my (able)ness to give comfort, and to begin to sort through the uncategorizable sadness that lingers.
I wish I wasn’t forced to walk away. I wish my legs would somehow moor me to the spot where he said good-bye, so that I could stay in this one place without trying to go back and live my life – a life that endures his absence while his presence is all around.
Since the world was too cruel to allow me this sort of favor I headed back to my car, turned up my Cranberries CD, and made my way down 9A. I pulled in to the all too familiar parking lot of Total Wine. I left twenty minutes later with eleven bottles of wine. In my own defense, there was a buy one get one free event and an impulse purchase as I headed up to the counter. But if I were living in reality, I would know that a trip of this kind happened all too frequently and that eleven was on the lower end of my average.
I settled back in the car and took care to drive slowly home. Not because I was worried about damaging my eleven precious bottles (I made sure they wrapped them well in the store), but because I dreaded pulling into my driveway, seeing his truck, knowing it probably still smelled of his morning cologne and held his coffee cup, where the marks from his lips were still visible. I dreaded even more opening the door and having to get on with the business of getting on for the next six months without him.
When I opened the door to our house the aroma of flowers– an enormous bouquet full of yellows, pinks, and fuchsias, surprised me. My heart sung as I wondered how he was able to sneak these in, but the handwriting on the card stopped me. They weren’t from him. They were from her.
She was always so thoughtful. The best thing I had ever done was to give her a key to my house. I loved coming home and finding that she picked up the mail and set my favorite magazine on top. Or to see my dog playing with a new chew tow, beside a bowl of clean, fresh water. Sometimes she even put her leftovers in my fridge, an odd yet welcome in gift my world. She even once had my new ceiling fan installed so I didn’t have to waste an evening on it and could instead watch something really important on T.V. like, Desperate Housewives.
The flowers were a nice touch, and only slightly stinging that they weren’t from him. That he would have the foresight for a romantic notion such as flowers on this day was a hope that I would eventually release six years down the road. But flowers are flowers, no matter whose intent and these were beautiful. I picked up the phone to call her and say thank you, but all that came out was an unintelligible mess. She said, “I’ll be over in ten minutes.” And I knew she would be over in five.
With such an amazing friend, it seems like I wouldn’t need so many bottles of wine. But you’d be wrong. Friends, family, everyone, no matter how awesome they are, they eventually go home. In the space between the door closing behind them and the morning sun, that is when I need my wine. Or it needs me. Because at this point, now that it’s in my house, I decide that it needs me to drink it, to fulfill its purpose as wine.
Again, living outside of reality.
One day when I was standing in Total Wine trying to find the cheapest bottle of red so I could buy the one that was a dollar more, a guy told me not to take it all so seriously. (I of course wondered if he meant Life or the buying of the wine.) I had actually been standing in the ‘Pinot Noir’ section. At the time I hadn’t realized this was any different from a Cabernet or Merlot section, I just thought it was all red wine. So this angel of a man told me, “You can’t go wrong with a Pinot. $5 Pinot tastes just a good as $30 Pinot, so find a label you like and enjoy.” I noticed he grabbed a $3 bottle and walked away. What did I tell you about weakness finding weakness? It just happens. So I followed suit with the $3 Pinot and made my way to the ‘Chardonnay’ section, and I say ‘Chardonnay’ because I distinguished between white wines the same way I distinguished between reds. I grabbed a couple $5 bottles thinking I’ll see if this ‘all wine is essentially the same’ theory works out here too.
I’m fairly certain this was my addiction in its infancy.
I’m also fairly certain that I didn’t notice there was any sort of issue, daresay, problem until recycle day and the clank of bottle upon bottle sent up a flare of repulsion down my street and my throat. I was grateful for, at the time, a short driveway and an early start to my day and not having to pretend to ignore the sound of my sins around another human being. Praying also that no one walked a dog or child past my house until the recycle guy came to wipe my slate clean.
Days passed. Weeks passed. Nothing changed. He was still gone. My friend still came by leaving leftover chicken parm in my fridge and her copy of PEOPLE on my counter.
I still bought my bottles.
Why couldn’t I be the person he loved while he was under the sea, serving his country, providing for our family, that I was when he was in port and in my arms?
I had tethered my identity so closely to his that when he was absent, so was I.
I did what any reasonable person might: went out with friends, got a hobby, threw myself into my work, scrubbed my house from top to bottom, cried for hours into the neck of the world’s most steadfast and trusty chocolate lab that ever existed, I went to church.
I prayed. I know I prayed for all the wrong things. Praying for another two-for-one sale at your favorite liquor store probably didn’t count towards actually wanting to change one’s life and probably increased my chances for being struck by lightning, but I’m hoping I got points in the ‘hey, it’s a start’ category.
It was a bad start. I kept buying and I kept drinking.
In my emails to him, everything was fine. Letters to him were, ‘miss you baby,’ and ‘holding down the fort.’ I had no idea what he was doing out there and he had no idea what I was doing back here.
When it comes to drinking, there are many categories: social drinking, weekend drinking, party drinking, binge drinking, those who only drink beer, or only drink wine, or only drink schnapps, or only drink when they smoke (I’m certain this is the other way around), or during the ball game, or with out-of-town guests, or if it’s been a bad day, or if it’s been a good day or if it’s a Friday, or never alone or always alone and always to excess.
I fit into all and none of these categories at the same time. The difference being, that when he was home, those glorious weeks or days he was at home, I didn’t need to drink.
So because I can reason down any situation where I might be culpable into zero degrees of separation of him being culpable, I reasoned out this situation to being, yeah you guessed it: