My beau bought me a book, The Moment, in which 125 writers and artists (basically none of whom I've ever heard of) describe a moment that changed their life: when you knew it was time to leave him, when you first felt like an independent person capable of making decisions about your life, when you decided to come out to your family, when you first kissed her, when you almost died and realized how much you had to live for.
They're all short, and I find the shortest ones are the best ones. I also may have a very short attention span, so the 1-3 pages of each entry is perfect for the time I'm willing to give strangers describing very intense moments of their lives.
It was the summer before eighth grade.
My mother and I were in her stationwagon, in the grocery store parking lot.
She was very angry at my father over something related to money.
Well: more specifically: over something related to financial freedom. (My mother has not worked since I was born.)
She slammed her hands against the steering wheel.
"Emily: I want you to remember ONE THING!"
With every word of the next sentence, she slammed her hand, accenting her lecture:
"SHE. WHO. MAKES. THE. GOLD. MAKES. THE. RULES!!!"
At that moment, I realized that I never wanted to live by anyone else's rules.
So: I needed to make my own gold.
I became the first female in my family to go to graduate school.
The first female to be unwed at 27.
The first female to be childless at 30.
The only one still working, except for a younger female cousin I suspect won't work after she becomes a mother. Which I suspect will be before 30.
But I make my own gold.
I don't have to follow anyone else's rules.
And I am really proud of who I've become.
I have long believed that apologies cannot start with "I'm sorry if..." or "I'm sorry, but..." My father often apologized this way, and it drove my mother crazy. (So much of what any of us learn about love and relationships begins at home, n'est-ce pas?)
You're not in fact sorry if you're sorry if. Or if you're sorry, but. You have to be sorry that.
One of the many important lessons I have learned in therapy is to neither blame or credit other people for my feelings nor to accept blame or credit for theirs.
You make me happy.
You make me feel guilty.
You make me disappointed.
Nope. I'm not responsible for any of that. Your happiness, guilt, disappointment? Yours. Not mine.
A recent voicemail (paraphrased): "I'm sorry you hurt me. I'm sorry you ruined us. I'm sorry that this is hard for me. I'm sorry if I lashed out at you. I'm sorry, but, I'm just so upset!"
These are not apologies. At all.
I should start over. My parents were high school sweethearts. Then they went to colleges in the same city, and then my mother broke my father's heart. Then he went to graduate school in a different state, where he had the audacity to do just fine without her. Then she "came to her senses." (Divergent recollections of their story exist.)
They have been married for almost 34 years.
Most days, they have made marriage look easy. They complement each other really well. They share the same values systems and the same idea of fun. They are affectionate, they take care of each other, and they have an incredible partnership.
But it's work. Their relationship is still work. They still have to apologize. And mean it.
When my brother and I were little, and we would get into a fight, Mom would make us hug and kiss each other, say we were sorry, and say we loved each other. It didn't matter who was at fault, who was the victim, who was hurt. We both had to say, "I love you."
I explained the effect of this in a letter I wrote my parents in August 2008, when they had not spoken to me in nearly 10 weeks. (Nate was my boyfriend at the time. He gave permission to reprint with his name. "Feel free to post. My name is really auxillary to the whole thing.")
I used a blank card with a black and white photo of a girl's feet dangling from a pier, barely touching the surface to create a ripple.
Nate's father died two weeks ago. Nate's father and Nate's uncle did not speak for several years before his father was diagnosed with cancer in April. But then they realized that life is short.
Nate's family put together a DVD photo montage of Bobby's life. It was really fun to see pictures chronicling his life, although it was difficult to watch Uncle Ray witness and realize all he had missed.
I couldn't help but think of what we all might miss if we continue our silence. I know you've been to Birmingham and Napa. I know Andrew [my brother] has a new girlfriend. Y'all probably know that I was laid off. Maybe you heard I've learned to drive a manual transmission, my friend Kerry came to visit for July 4, I have tried to like baking, and I miss you some days more than my heart can hold.
You do not know that I was diagnosed with cervical precancer in late June. I haven't told anyone because I didn't want y'all to feel emotionally obligated to speak to me. Additionally, my doctor doesn't seem too concerned, so neither are we. Nate drove back from Houston within the hour of my doctor's call of abnormal Pap results, without my prompting and despite my resistance, so that he could hold my hand while a vinegar solution was applied to my cervix. Because life is short.
When Andrew and I were little, and we would fight, we were forced to kiss and make up. This taught me a lesson that has become integral to my soul: You must forgive and love people, even when you don't want to.
So, here I am. Testing the water. Saying I'm sorry for hurting you, and I love you, and I would like to kiss and hug you both. Because life is short, and I don't want to miss yours.
For the record: I don't remember a time in my life when I tried to like baking.
My point is this: You still have to apologize, and mean it. And you must forgive and love people, even when you don't want to.
I wrote this last week, when I
didn't know how the story would end.
I'm publishing it now because the story hasn't ended; Cait is
still beautiful and patient and kind in ways I cannot fathom becoming, so I
will strive to be more like her.
I'm in Pensacola for a friend's mother's funeral.
The death was sudden. The cause is unknown. Most likely, the cause
will remain unknown, as her primary care physician, the one who will sign her
death certificate, overmedicated her for years. If he doesn't call for an
autopsy, one won't be performed. (This is how I understand it. I'm sure someone
else can fill me in on Florida legal procedure.)
It's kind of like how I imagine Michael Jackson might have died,
except she wasn't famous, and she is survived by my friend.
My friend's father also passed suddenly, in the fall of 2006, so
she is now parentless at the age of 33.
And she doesn't know why. And she probably won't.
If any of us found ourselves in this circumstance, we would
probably throw a pity party. We would be entitled to scream our anger, sadness,
rage, relief, frustration, guilt, and hurt from the rooftops. All of our
friends and loved ones would understand our grief.
My friend is not doing any of those things, despite the fact that
she's feeling all of those feelings, trying to deal with four estates (because
both sets of grandparents' and both parents' estates are in the one house),
and, for kicks!, raising a seven month old.
The grace and dignity she is showing in the face of incredible
defeat is more inspiring than I can begin to describe.
I helped my friend edit her mother's obituary. I will listen to
her give the eulogy later today, as I listened to another friend give his
mother's eulogy 25 months ago. She intends to write it as though she's writing
to her daughter, telling the stories of her mother she intends to pass along to
her daughter, and, in this way, keep her alive.
And I will hold her hand when she needs it, or bring her ice cream
or a case of wine or some Kleenex once we get back to New Orleans. I will laugh
with her good times and listen during her bad times. Because that's what
friends are for.
My all-time favorite quote, and one that has become my mantra, was
published in Real Simple in May 2009. I cut out the thought and put
it on my office bulletin board during a month when I met Ray Nagin after
facilitating AP exams for 76 students, when I got pneumonia, when my parents
weren't speaking to me.
"Be pretty if you can, be witty if you must, but be gracious
if it kills you." --Elsie de Wolfe