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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Funny Valentine

One of my father's favorite jokes went something like this:

"The good girl said to the bad girl, 'A good man is so hard to find!'

The bad girl said to the good girl, 'Oh, but it's so good to find a hard man!'"

He probably shouldn't have been telling that joke in the presence of his young daughter, but he always did things his own way. (Or the German way.) He'd always start laughing before he even finished the joke, too, with his shoulders shaking and nostrils wiggling.

The point of that little story was: It's Valentine's Day! And yes, it was hard to find him, but I've found the most wonderful man. (That doesn't mean I'm a good girl.) Our first married Valentine's Day is spent with him at orchestra rehearsal, meaning we have a good excuse for avoiding the crowded restaurants. I paused at the cards while we were in Target, thinking we should probably get something to mark the occasion. But we looked at the picked over selection and my husband suggested we make our own, instead. It's true, we'd all love to hang onto those lovingly signed pieces of good paper stock forever, but how long can we honestly hang onto something like that before we have a room full of storage bins containing nothing but paper covered in faded ink? So instead of a card, or paper that eventually has to be thrown away before we end up on an episode of Hoarders, I decided to invent (because surely no one else on the entire internet has ever thought of this) the Valentine's Day Blog.

Without further ado, I bring to you a list of reasons why I love my Valentine more than anyone in the world:

1.) He has a megawatt smile that lights up the world, and he's not afraid to use it.

2.) "I'm in charge of the Gross Things," he will explain proudly, before taking the poop bag from my hand when we walk the dog together.

3.) Once, when I finished a venomous rant about society with a vehement flourish proclaiming, "I'm happy being a bitch!" he responded excitedly and in all seriousness, "That should be the name of your blog!"

4.) He still sleeps next to me after I eat a huge bowl of beans saturated with garlic for dinner.

5.) There's more information about music crammed into his head than there are molecules on the planet. (And like #1, he's not afraid to use it!)

6.) No matter how many times I wake him up by playing the Burp and Fart Piano App on the iPad, he still can't keep from cracking up.

7.) He's full of witty one-liners. For example:

Me: "You have to go in there and deal with her. I swear I'll just rip her a new one."
Him: "You'd rip Mr. Rogers a new one today if you could."

8.) He's a drummer. ('Nuff said.)

9.) He looks like this:

10.) After we go to bed on chilly nights, he lets me put my icy cold feet on his legs to warm them. (Not without a good deal of complaining, but still.)

11.) His uses his large vocabulary in every day conversation. For example:

"You're lucky I find your vitriol so charming."

12.) There isn't a day that goes by wherein he doesn't tell me he loves me and that I'm beautiful.

13.) He always stops to give me a hug if I want one, no matter what he's doing.

14.) Badda bing, badda BOOM! Ya know what I'm sayin'?

15.) Even though I had our dog for eight years before he came into our lives, he will scoop her up into a hug and say, "I love my dog."

16.) He comes running, valiantly brandishing a kleenex box, as soon as he hears me screaming at a roach.

17.) He's always on my wavelength, even when it's all wobbly.

18.) He goes on Nom Hunts for me, sometimes late at night.

19.) After the pillow talk had died down one night recently, I said, "It really hurts losing a baby. We only knew for a week, but..."

He jumped in with, "But it changes your whole life. How you think, how you view the world... it's all different."

He's not just a man who "gets it." He feels it, too.

20.) Every time I get my hair done, or buy a new shirt/dress/whatever, he always notices and compliments me.

21.) He's secretly proud that I still refer to him as my boy toy.

22.) He's seen me do the Naked Fart while clipping my toenails (naked farts are so much more vile than clothed farts) but yet still loves me.

23.) Even though he only knew my dad for a year, he laughs harder than anyone at the stories I tell about him.

24.) It makes sense to him that when I ask for "my stinky things," it means I want his arm around me. And he immediately complies.

25.) He has the biggest heart of anyone I know. And I'm so honored he gave it to me.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I can feel it as soon as the sand is beneath my feet. Stepping from behind the cement curtain of "civilization," the sound of the ocean washes over me. Buildings left behind, the gritty stage of Mother Nature emerges and displays her drama.

Choking on every-day life, stifled by responsibility, expectations, society, I give myself into the sand to let her breathe for me -- just as I do some nights, unable to sleep, curling myself around my husband so our lungs move together. I am instantly lulled by the steady waves; the gasps of water that sigh back into the cradle of earth.

It is there that I hear them, the whispers in the briny air. The words of the dead swirl in the water, bubbling up in the foam. They dissipate, slipping away only to reform into silent screams. Millions of years' worth of emotions broil in the depths, fighting each other for a voice but can only fizz into nothing. They are desperate for someone to listen, biting through my flesh to speak. The sea has messages, but no bottles to harness them.

The wind slashes through me, buffing away all regrets. I close my eyes, and hear only what cannot be said. Tiny granules of sand rub my skin raw of guilt, of agony, of sadness. The deepest loneliness opens up into the chasm of earth filled with the tears of ghosts. Their cacophony splashes onto me and bits of my life sluice away down my flesh.

I bury my self-hatred in wet clumps of sand, piling it high over my legs. It is smashed away by the surf, and I am left open. Here is my flesh, broken for you; eat all you of it. God devours me, stripping me to the bone, gnawing off the cartilage to spit back into the cauldron of life. There is no blood left to shed, no more tears to spill.

The sun burns off the fog of depression, leaving me as the raw, white flesh under skin sliced open. Vulnerable, with salt in my wounds, I am kneeling upon the grains as penance for my sins. Forgiveness rushes through the chambered nautilus of my soul, etching its way into the rough edges.

The waves bathe me in death to breathe life, saving me. I raise up cleansed, chest rising and falling in time with the tide. Nature has baptized me, broken me free from the hell of my own prison. The maelstrom has been swept away, placing me on dry land. The whispers in the foam turn to sweet murmurs of prayer.

It is here, breathing at one with the earth, that I am reborn into someone I love.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Picture Tutorial: How to set up a perfect writer's retreat

My husband is out of town for a few days. This afforded the perfect opportunity to create my own little writer's retreat for the weekend -- yes, starting on Thursday night. As a service to you, the reader, I am giving you a tutorial -- complete with photos! -- on how to start your very own writer's retreat. It is imperative that each step is followed exactly as my instructions direct, or else you will write nothing but absolute crap. While it is also possible to follow my instructions exactly and still write nothing but absolute crap, I'm just not going to go there because I am busy writing nothing but absolute crap.

First, you need some wine. No self-imposed writer's retreat is worth a tinker's dam without wine. Go to the liquor store and buy yourself an assortment from which to choose over the next few days:

Here you see some merlot, sauv... BLAH BLAH, it's alcohol, whatev.

Before breaking open one of these bad boys, you need to get your pasta started. Carbs are an essential part of my diet as a writer because I hate to exercise. Carbs force me to get up off my carbolicious ass and onto the treadmill so that I can fit through my door. So, this is the one part of my tutorial that is flexible because you don't have my recipe for Kickass Tempeh Pasta Sauce. But I can tell you that I made some yesterday. So pretend you made some Kickass Tempeh Pasta Sauce and that you are reheating some leftovers.

Boil fresh pasta because leftover pasta always tastes like crap.

Go ahead and pour yourself a glass of wine, because water takes forever to boil when you are freaking hungry as hell.

Do not bother trying to explain why you have fruit on your microwave or a flashlight lounging on your countertop. You are a writer. You do not have time to care.

Now you need to dress in appropriate attire for a writing weekend. Personally, I find my best ideas come to me while I am wearing this:

Old Navy Comfy Pants and sweatshirt -- but it is so important that they are mismatched shades of hot pink. I cannot stress enough how much this matters. Your aim here is to be completely repulsive to any unfortunate human who might show up unannounced at your door so they will spare you the effort of explaining you are busy and just run off screaming instead. Mismatched shades of eye-throbbing hot pink. Got it? And throw on a shelf-bra tank underneath for maximum comfort. This will make your boobs sag enough under your sweatshirt that no one will care if you have any or not.


Stop by the mirror to see if you can do the cute wink you saw another blogger post once that you liked, but fail miserably:

Attempt other snarky looks, but don't be surprised when they turn out to be just plain weird because you are a dork.

Go to check on the pasta, but instead find your cats giving you accusatory looks that insinuate you will never feed them again because you are a cruel person who hates animals.

The more food in the cats' bowls, the longer they will let you write undisturbed.

Better take care of the dog, too.

Give a dog a bone! This old man came rolling home. (What does that even MEAN???)

Now remember how you were too lazy to take down all of the Christmas lights? And how you and your husband decided to just leave them up and call them "party lights?" Plug those in, because you are about to have the writing party of the ages.

Yes, that is a yoga mat inside the cupholder of my treadmill. The cats use it as a scratching post otherwise.

Say hi to facebook while you wait.


Growing bored waiting for the damned pasta to cook, take photos to send to your husband. Put on your best "come hither" look...

...and realize why you never got asked out much in your single days. Jesus Christ, woman! Try for more "sexy" and less "homocidal."

Try the wink again.


Experience technical difficulties as you attempt to take your own photo with a touch screen phone.

This is why my phone will never entirely replace my camera.


Got that sexy look mastered, yet?

Keep trying. You'll get there some day. (Hint: use make up. Powder, foundation, something!)

Show all two of your readers your writing environs:

Do not apologize for the cluttered desk, because you are a writer and do not care.

Was that the timer? Pasta is ready!

Take the pasta and wine to your desk to enjoy while posting your writer's retreat tutorial.

Kick the damned cat out of your chair before he eats your beloved carbs. Just because he snubbed the food you gave him gives him no right to eat your pasta.

Write a kickass blog.

Now you are ready to write for real.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Them's Fightin' Words

Words have the power you give them. It's up to you how you want to own them, whether you are speaking or listening. If you heard a word you find offensive and it upsets you, it had better be directed at you, or you're wasting a whole lot of energy. If you want to waste energy and be upset by words directed at something or someone else, good luck with that. If you are willing to look past the surface and into the deeper meaning, good for you.

I am owning my words right now that are not directed at you. Some will be profane. Deal with it or not, I don't care. This is me ripping back my power through verbal aggression.

Two days ago, I had a miscarriage. And that pisses me off.

It pisses me off because I'm not supposed to talk about it. Have you ever noticed that? We don't talk about one of the most devastating things a woman can go through. We talk about rape and sexual abuse a hell of a lot more than we talk about the loss of pregnancy. Why is it ok to take back our power and cease to be victims of others, but not when a random genetic code betrays our hopes and dreams? It's whispered about. Most women tell a few trusted friends and family members who may or may not understand. That's been me the past two days.

And now I'm wondering why the hell that is. I see it all the time. I've seen it for years. You don't talk about it. And I'm such an idiot that I've done the same thing when women I know have had miscarriages. I don't talk about it because I don't know what to say. The pregnancy message boards have a special place for women who have lost a pregnancy (or several), as if they are off in quarantine. The ones who lost their babies must be cordoned off in their own private corner of shame and grief. Sometimes I wonder if the ones with healthy pregnancies are afraid the others are going to be contagious. The ones drowning in grief and loss try to help each other but it becomes an endless cycle of raised hopes, lost dreams, and everyone choking on their own moans of bereavement.

It's depressing. And it pisses me off.

I'm going to fucking talk about it. Because I can.

Not in the way most people do. I'm not going to sit down and have a good cry with my mother or my best friend, or whatever. I'm not going to depress everyone with endless questions of "why me?" Because I don't really care. It happens. Sometimes there's a reason, but most of the time there's not.

I think society doesn't talk much about it because it has to do with our vaginas. It's ok to talk about the gore and beauty of childbirth, but we use the term "birth canal." It's a fucking vagina already, ok? Or at least it is until it gets shredded by the giant baby bursting through it.

Well guess what? I didn't go through childbirth. I'd just had the doctor call me to tell me my results were positive and the levels were great. Home free, we can surprise everyone for Christmas!


So I can't use the wonderful euphemism "birth canal" to describe what happened to me. But I felt the blood in my vagina, I saw it stain my underwear, and I saw it billow into water. I felt my swollen uterus wring itself out like a sponge full of dirty water. I felt my heart crack and bleed out all the wonderful visions of our happy little family we'd built up together.

It pisses me off that people are ignorant and insensitive and don't know what to say. It pisses me off that I don't know what to say. I did my time in grief. I put in the hours of crying, of staring numbly out the window, of questioning my self-worth and ability to be a parent. I've already dredged up every bad thing I've ever done and assumed I'm being punished for them. I've yelled curses at the horrendous physical pain no one really prepares you for. The emotional pain is whispered about in hushed, piteous tones with wide eyes eager for gossip. But no one ever told me how I would feel like my entire reproductive system was being ripped apart, or how I would shake uncontrollably for hours from shock. No one prepared me for the fucked up soup of hormones that would be pumping so fast through my system that it would seem to steam out of my pores. I've had muscle soreness and cramping from the blood loss.

And my heart has felt more abused than my uterus.

Our society doesn't prepare women for such a loss, but neither does it prepare people for how to react to it. The worst thing you can do is to tell a woman who has just suffered a pregnancy loss that she will have a baby some day. Fuck that, it's absolute bullshit and totally beside the point. The point is, the woman lost that baby. Don't minimize it by making grandiose and insincere promises of more to come when you have absolutely no guarantee (not to mention a medical degree) for such empty assurances. It doesn't ease the pain or provide any comfort at all, it just sounds patronizing.

Consequently, women (or maybe just me) feel isolated. I don't really feel like being cheered up with jokes. I don't really give a shit about Christmas this year. If one more person tells me it just wasn't "the right time," I will personally shove a wristwatch up their ass. I don't need material items to fill the void, and I don't need to hear about your aunt who lost fifteen babies before having quadruplets one summer because she ate raw bacon dipped in chicken shit for three days straight.

I know people mean well, and I'm not singling anyone out who has said any of those things to me personally. (Honestly, I've been in such a daze for three days that I have no idea who has said what or if they said anything at all.) This is what we have to work with for our society, so that's just what comes out. I appreciate all the attempts at trying to make me feel better even if they didn't. My frustration is with how society handles it in general, not individuals in particular.

So what do I need?

I wasn't sure until today. The worst part about this whole thing is that there's no enemy to fight. Someone does you wrong, you can fight back. Even depression is an enemy you can face and punch the shit out of if you really want to. But losing a baby? What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Who the hell do I get mad at? Where's the blame supposed to go?

When I'm hurt and upset, I let it get me for a while. Then I do one of two things: run off or get even, whichever is most appropriate.

I am both hurt and upset right now. And neither of those things is an option.

But sitting around crying and feeling sorry for myself is getting really boring. I mean, I'm trying to do the whole grief thing, I really am, but it's just not my style. Neither do I want to go shopping and have holiday parties because that doesn't sound any better. I'm misanthropic in the best of times, so you can imagine my desire for social activity after all this shit.

What I want to do is take control of myself again. I'm still bleeding like a stuck pig, and it's recommended I "take it easy," and don't have baths or sex to prevent infection.

Well. You know. Fuck that.

I had prepared myself for a whole new life in 2012. Now I am adjusting again to something different. Nothing will be the same, because I am not the same. My edge is sharper, harder, and honed. A loss like this doesn't just carve out your uterus, it cuts scars into who you are.

I've never been one to just "take it easy." The day I got my driver's license, I drove from Maryland to Texas. When I was tired of being teased at school for being a chubby child prodigy, I walked home and declared I wasn't going back. (And I didn't.) Once, a boyfriend I barely remember now broke up with me and so I moved to a different state.

My father died, and I moved to Tennessee to elbow my way through a four year degree in two and a half years. (Figured I'd put it off long enough, might as well get it done quick.)

Tired of sitting around with this grief paralyzing me, I got up and jogged. Fuck the whole shitty mess, I needed my body to move. Death has been pouring out of me for three days, and I cannot abide another minute of not living my life. I jogged and felt oxygen and life pumping back into me. Blood was pumping through my body, not just out of it. I gathered my thoughts, narrating my way through 2.5 miles as I always do when I need to distance myself from stress. It's a great technique, and even those who aren't writers should try it. I did sit-ups, not caring if it hurt. I did push-ups, forcing myself to get strong. My body is mine, and I will take it back from this invasion of death and heartache. I'm sorry I lost my baby, but I refuse to let it define me or take away any more.

The morning of the day my father died, he tried to get up and walk out of the hospital. That's a Kriewaldt for you: you've got to take us down before we'll give up the fight.

These are my fighting words. Maybe they offend you, but they empower me. They give me strength in my isolation, in my quarantine from the world. This is my corner, but when I come out, I'm coming out fighting. I won't be taken down. Not by loss, not by grief, not by the weakness of my body needing to be rebuilt. I may not have a tangible enemy to fight, and there may not be anyone or anything to blame.

Sometimes fighting isn't about what you're fighting, it's about how you're fighting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Lost Memories

When you've lost someone you love, it can be difficult to remember them accurately. Their feats and faults can be equally exaggerated, yet the details of their face or the unique mannerisms they used may become quite hazy.

Sometimes this happens to me when I think about my dad. He was sick for so long, that it's hard to remember what he was like before the symptoms started. I dream of him quite frequently, but 99% of the time, he's sick and dying. Once in a while, I dream about him as he was before Lewy Bodies took over his brain. In those dreams, he's smiling. His hazel eyes twinkle and dance with mischief. Last week I had one of those rare dreams of him in good health. It was such a gift that I tried to laugh and turn to my husband in my sleep to tell him my dad was in the room. But struggling up from the depths of sleep made me realize that I was less awake than I'd hoped.

Dad being "in the room," isn't just something I'd say in my sleep. I've felt his presence a few times. Not as often as I would like. You are probably skeptical and wondering why in the world an intelligent woman would believe her dead father was in the room (or wondering if I am, in fact, intelligent), but it has happened. There are no visions, or chats, or anything we need to call the Ghost Hunters about. It's never when I "call" him to come talk, and I haven't participated in any seances. But sometimes, when I least expect it, he's there. I know it, I can feel him, but I see nothing. I tell my husband because he's perhaps the only person who doesn't think I'm insane (or perhaps just accepts my insanity as part of my charm), and I become flooded with a warm, peaceful feeling that makes me smile. It's only happened three or four times since he died.

In my dream, he was standing beside me at my bed, telling me a joke. He was young (I never knew him as a young man), and laughing at his own joke before he could even finish it. I laughed myself awake, though I can't remember the joke to save my life.

Most of the time, however, my dreams are part of reliving the trauma of his last days. You see, I don't feel upset that my father died. Yes, of course I miss him more than anything. But when I think of him, the sense of loss I feel is for what he had to endure during the last year of his life. He suffered unfathomable mental anguish as his brain deteriorated. Those dark spots called Lewy Bodies robbed him of his security and confidence. They gave him nightmarish hallucinations, constant confusion, and blurred his reality entirely. He was tormented relentlessly by rage, doubt, and helplessness. There were times when he wondered where his parents were because his brain told him it was a different decade than he was truly in. He had to relive finding out of their death more than once, his heart broken over and over by traumatic events he'd already had to endure once in life.

So remembering him when he wasn't addled, tormented, confused and suffering is sometimes difficult. When I'm gifted with a dream of him telling a joke, I hold onto it as tightly as I would any material object that was his, hoping to have a piece of him for just a moment to keep with me.

But at times, who he was before he got so sick comes back unexpectedly. Wonderful little surprises, little imprints of his personality flash by like birds flitting through the air, or a butterfly just out of reach. It's there, you can see it, but you can't touch it.

The other night, I was watching the original The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. I always did think Jack Lemmon looked quite a bit like my dad when he was younger, or at least what I can see from the photos. In the movie, one of the men pulls out a handkerchief. The memory that flashed before me was such a wonderful reminder of my father's unusual eccentricities.

I remember being a little girl in church, sitting with my dad. My mother was the organist, so going to church was something I always associated with my father. He sang hymns deliberately off-key to make me laugh, all the while keeping a straight face so no one would accuse him of heresy. He would always listen intently to the sermon, however, nodding now and then when a phrase particularly struck him. He's the man you'd hear giving the lone short burst of genuine laughter to the joke from the preacher that fell flat with the rest of the congregation. He had a funny little chuckle that came in three nervous bursts when he was done with the belly laugh but wanted to indicate he thought something was funny even when it might not be.

Sometimes, as any child does, I'd sneeze in the middle of the sermon. Being both the doting parent and the conscientious gentleman, he would learn forward to withdraw his handkerchief from his back pocket. He was a man who really used his handkerchiefs. I mean, he really used them. They were always stuck together with all manner of vile goo, stained, and usually a corner was shredding. He had a few white ones, but for some reason, I mostly remember the charcoal grey ones. Perhaps because I wasn't sure why anyone would carry around one of such a disgusting color until I saw the way the white ones were pasted together with the aforementioned "goo." It was a chivalrous gesture, to be sure, as he proferred the dirty, folded square to me, and I was loathe to deny him his moment of good deed. But having to place my hands over the thinly veiled crust brought more than one drop of bile to my throat. I would pretend to dab at my nose a bit before handing it back to him and being firmly determined to not let out another sneeze. To this day, I still pinch my nose closed when I sneeze.

But a memory like that, gross as it may be (and it is, in fact, gross), is a little gift. Those little memories are all I have. He wasn't an easy man to get to know. I still have so many unanswered -- and unasked -- questions. We didn't really talk much; we communed. When we were in the same room, we'd find a companionable silence as we became engrossed in our individual tasks. My mother would breeze through the room between piano lessons, chattering non-stop all the way, and we'd look up, smile, perhaps dad would reply to one of her many remarks, but he'd immediately return to whatever was absorbing his interest. Instead of talking, we'd watch television and nod at each other when we both saw or heard something interesting. There was no need to discuss it, we'd just acknowledge that something interesting had occurred and that was our way of noting it. I inherited his awkward social skills, but instead of limiting our conversations, it made words unnecessary. There was comfort in that, that we could simply be in the same room without speaking or feeling a need to converse. Sometimes we'd try. I tried near the end of his life when he'd forget where he was and what year it was by increasing increments. I'd sit in a room with him while I crocheted a blanket. He'd pipe up with something he thought he'd heard on the radio, or share one of the vivid hallucinations he thought was a real event. I'd listen, comment, tried not to react when he'd talk about having heard on the radio "the other day," an event that had transpired decades earlier. I'd comment how interesting that was, and then watch from the corner of my eye as he tried desperately to connect the dots in his brain and climb out of the confusion drowning him. To salvage his pride, I'd mention something that truly had only happened "the other day," and he'd latch onto the recent memory with gratitude, as if it was a lifeline. In a way, it was; our discussing the present was the only road map he had back to it.

I am sometimes jealous of my siblings because they knew him so much longer than I did. They had memories of him when he was still relatively young. When I was born, he was a month away from 50. My school friends assumed he was my grandpa, but I explained with pride that he was my father. I wish I had more memories of him before the illness started taking root. Though he was diagnosed with Lewy Bodies just three years before he died, I can identify some of the symptoms as having started up to twenty years earlier. The nightmares about animals, the subtle personality changes, the eccentricities that became more exaggerated, and the increasing paranoia. What I would give to have more memories of him as a healthy man! But they come back, here and there, little rays of sunshine amidst the trauma of his illness.

Being a vet, he loved animals. It didn't really seem that strange when he started having nightmares of bears chasing him. He used to work with bears, so of course he would have nightmares about them. In fact, he got a bear drunk once since he didn't have any anasthesia handy. I'm glad I was too young to remember all the details of that story. But as the nightmares increased over the years, and the nighttime terrors that had the whole household on edge waiting for the yelling to begin came with more frequency, it became clear this was not normal. Little did we know how his brain was slowly being covered in little spots that were slowly sucking the life from him and changing who he was.

Though he adored my mother more than anything in the world, the real love of his life was my dog, Tangy. Because I was infected with wanderlust, Tangy lived mostly with my parents the first five years of her life. She was his constant companion, his pride and joy. He loved to take her out for walks and would regale me with tales of her bowel movements over the phone when I called.

Another memory that popped back into my head recently was when my husband mentioned wanting to give Tangy (now almost 12 years old) some ground up breath-saving treats. When he said, "We need to grind up --" I started giggling before he could finish his sentence. All I could think of was perhaps the grossest part of my father's legacy.

I don't know how it started. I don't want or need to know.

My dad had some untreated toenail fungus. Before the days of Lamisil and laser treatments, you just watched your toenails grow into fossil-like stalagmites. Dad had an impressive array of "toenails" that had visitors running for the barf bags when he came lumbering down the stairs in his bare feet. Our staircase was such that you'd be eye-level with the monstrosities when you sat on the couch. He always went to bed earlier than most school children, so it wasn't uncommon for a pleasant conversation with a visitor to be interrupted by his cursing out some polar bear in his nightmares, followed by the opening of the bedroom door upstairs. Everyone would get quiet as the heavy footsteps clomped down the stairs, and his impossibly white legs would peek out from beneath his long flannel nightshirt. At the end of those legs would be the toes plagued by an out-of-control fungal growth that is probably even now spreading throughout Arlington National Cemetery. I mean, it was just unreal, the sheer size of the stratified layers beneath what used to be his toenails.

Because nail clippers were of no use to such a disease, my father one day had a brilliant idea while sitting in the breakfast nook by the kitchen. He didn't tell us the reason why he wanted us to bring him his power drill with its assorted attachments, but we probably should have known since he was examining his feet during the request. When he carefully rummaged through the attachment case for the sander, I don't think we really got it until he revved that baby up and started grinding up his own toenails. There were screams from me that irritated my brother and made my mother clamp her hands over her ears. She was busy trying not to throw up, and my brother wasn't sure whether to leave the room or go get the video camera. In the end, there were protests that were lost amidst the scream of the power drill digging into dead tissue.

To be fair, he was as clean as he could possibly be. He carefully ground up a fine grey-white dust in a little pile on the floor. It grew higher and higher as he moved from toe to toe, but it was neat and tidy. He was accurate, I can say that much. After sanding down his toenails to just a thin layer of crust covering the skin, he smiled with satisfaction as he turned the power drill off and looked at us with pride. He'd solved his own problem, and that was all that mattered -- kind of his silent motto in life, but add "to hell with everyone else," and that'd be about right. He grinned happily as he swept any remaining little grains of toenail dust up to the base of the pile that was a perfect pyramid with softened edges.

Then, he called Tangy's name. The rest of us in the house were still blissfully ignorant of what we were about to witness, so we watched with naive curiosity. The little Pomeranian scrambled down the stairs from her post on the bathmat in the upstairs bathroom, and her little nails clicked curiously across the floor as she ran into the kitchen to see what treat my father had in store. He'd taught her to pick up any little crumb that fell to the floor by pointing her in the direction of the morsel; we didn't even need a vacuum cleaner. Her little tongue just mopped up anything that might have once been food.

So when dad pointed to the little pile of fungus-infected toenail dust, Tangy eagerly went toward it with heightened anticipation. She licked at the dust as if it was the finest delicacy. My mother gagged, my brother howled, and I think I ruined everyone's hearing with whatever you can call what was streaming forth from my own mouth. We watched with fascinated horror as she cleaned up every last bit of my dad's handiwork. Dad's shoulders were shaking as he enjoyed the strength of our revulsion, mirth convulsing his body beyond speech while he carefully wound up the cord to the power drill and put it back in the case. Tangy licked her chops and looked up at him greedily, wanting more. Dad pat her on the head, told her she was a good doggie, and went happily up to bed. We were left stewing in our own histrionics.

Ok, so maybe the things that I remember before my dad got sick are sick in another way entirely. I remember other things about him, of course. But one of the most salient aspects of his personality was his love of making people react strongly to things. The lengths he would go to in order to achieve this are legendary. And you were never really quite sure if he was serious about any of it or not. Did he plan the whole toenail dust debcale, or was he improvising? I don't know. We'll never know.

While these little memories flit by, gifts that remind me of a man who always did things his own way, there is one detail about my father I never forget: his smile. While he was fond of making silly faces, his real smile could knock you right off your feet. His eyes sparkled, his mouth curved slightly crooked in a way that revealed his inherent shyness. That beaming smile that conveyed so much life, so much love, so much joy in the world.... that's what I miss when I think about my dad, above all else. But the best gift he left behind for me was that any time I want to see that smile, I have only to look in the mirror.

Thank you, Daddy. I miss you.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Wedding Ring

A few nights ago, I was agonizing over a very difficult decision. Needing to find strength, I picked up a ring from my dresser and slipped it on my finger. I closed my fist as if I could draw its power through my flesh and into my quickly breaking heart.

When I was a small child, I played with this ring for hours. It is white gold, with five tiny diamonds embedded in five circles etched into the metal and linked together by a curved design. My tiny fingernails used to fit perfectly into the curved grooves, which kept my tactile sense happy as I listened to sermons I didn't understand or to older relatives recounting the precious bits of news gathered from rarely seen family members. I remember how it fit loosely on my mother's hand, never falling off because her knuckles were slightly twisty just as mine are today.

It's not a particularly pretty ring, I'll be honest. It's a wide, flat band, and the design is typical 1970's weirdness. But it means something; it signifies a successful marriage.

I'd like to think my father saw something special about it, which was why he gave it to my mother. That very well may be the case, seeing as how he had about as much fashion sense or taste as you'd expect from a man who grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. It could also be something he'd bought for one of his previous wives and had been rejected. I just don't know, and even if he was alive he wouldn't say a word except something along the lines of how it's just the beauty of the beast, or how it puts hair on your chest, or some other deflective phrase. But he did give it to my mother, in a private ceremony at home after only six weeks of dating. It was his fourth marriage, her second, and they had seven children between them.

What in God's name were they thinking?

As if that wasn't chaotic enough, I came along after a few years and gave them a whole lot more to worry about.

For thirty-five years that ring stayed on my mother's finger through thick and thin. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, until death did they part. She didn't take it off for anything. It was kind of gross. It stayed on while she squished together hamburger patties, as she rubbed lotion into her hands, while she changed my diapers, cleaned up vomit, washed dishes without gloves, held juicy slices of watermelon, and whatever else a person's hands go through when raising eight children.

It was on her hand during countless arguments, and during even more tender moments. The night he died, it was on the hand holding his as he left us.

My dad didn't wear a wedding ring. He was neurotic about a lot of things, but he seemed to have a fear of getting his finger ripped off. He was convinced that having a ring of metal around his finger would cause it to get caught in something and he'd lose that finger, or hell, his whole hand. I kind of suspect it was just because he was cheap. But a year or so before he died, he finally relented and got a wedding ring. My mother teased him about how it was so he wouldn't have 40 virgins waiting for him in heaven or something to that effect. He wore it faithfully, proudly, until they had to take it off in the hospital.

When my ex-husband was shopping for an engagement ring, he expressed frustration that a malleable metal should mean so much to a marriage. He was cheap, too. He didn't understand why that symbolism was so important. I never told him about my mother's ring. I ended up with a beautiful ring that meant nothing, and it took me a lot longer to get rid of it than you'd expect.

Recently a friend told me that it's pointless to get married if you're not going to have children, because marriage is supposed to protect them. While I smiled and nodded because I am a coward who hates confrontation, I disagree.

Despite having just ended my third engagement and already having one failed marriage under my belt, I absolutely still believe that marriage is first and foremost about love. And trust -- in each other and in God.

My parents didn't have a perfect marriage, because there's no such thing as one. If you honestly believe you have a perfect marriage, you need intense therapy immediately. And possibly the surgical removal of your head from somewhere lacking daylight. I can say that because I have had a perfect relationship for the past three years. No, I'm serious. It's been perfect. We get along beautifully and never fight, we're always supportive of each other, maintain our sense of humor, perform tasks that are both large and small to make the other one's life easier. It just couldn't be a nicer, more loving relationship. And yet that wasn't enough to get us down the aisle. So don't even pretend to have a perfect marriage because it just hasn't blown up yet.

No, I don't believe the point of getting married is to have children. That's why I support gay marriage, too -- I believe it's about love and partnership between two people.

I believe marriage is about putting each other first, finding compromise, and making equal sacrifices.

It's about getting through the fights and still being in love; coming home to a smile every day no matter what; laughing at 3am for reasons only the two of you understand; putting the toilet seat down because it makes her happy even if it makes no sense; being able to cry together; bringing each other little gifts for no reason; making his/her favorite beverage just to be nice.

It's also about holding each other up during those gut-wrenching times. Losing a child together; years of failed fertility treatments; the death of parents and family members; healing betrayals; forgiveness.

It's about loving someone through five years of illness while you watch them slowly fade away, and still being happy on those days when they recognize who you are. It's about having the strength to smile at them on their deathbed because you're just so happy they're alive to share one more moment together.

If a marriage can withstand the heartbreak of parenthood, then it can withstand the joys. When you can stop each other from killing your teenager who has been up on the roof playing guitar in the middle of the night, causing the neighbor to call the police; or find real comfort and solace in each other while your child is in the operating room; when your infant is screaming all night long from colic, you haven't slept for weeks -- yet you still have it in you to not throw every plate you own at the wall out of exasperation, then perhaps you can handle the intense joy of creating (or adopting) another human being. Perhaps that kind of love will protect the child. If you can look at your spouse who has just been pooped on by the new baby, laugh uproariously before cleaning it up for them as they try not to hurl, then perhaps it's a marriage strong enough to succeed.

It was not until my father was dying that I understood how much love my parents shared. Through all the years of moving around, financial highs and lows, eight children (so many teenagers!), and I'm sure many other things I'll never know about, they stood by each other steadfastly. They fought bitterly, and yet they still held hands in church like teenagers after thirty years together. They weren't together that long out of any sense of obligation or because they felt the need to stick by those vows. Both of them were bullheaded enough that if one wanted to leave, they would have. They weren't together for the kids, either.

They just truly did love each other that much.

When I saw my dad deep in the throes of dementia but still reaching for my mother as his anchor, his one constant source of stability in the midst of the horror of his tortured mind and body, and I saw the strength they still drew from each other even in those last days together... then it hit me just what that malleable metal is supposed to symbolize.

Then again, they got married after six weeks; what the hell did they know?

They knew when to take a chance. They knew when it was right. They knew how to trust each other.

While love and marriage isn't just about still being able to look at someone after twenty years and still feeling your heart stop and like your soul is tumbling down some invisible vortex when you look into their eyes, that's got to be there as well. At least, it does for me.

Perhaps my friend was at least partially right, though. I found strength from my parents to make a pretty gutsy and gut-wrenching move because I knew I couldn't take a chance. I knew it just wasn't quite right. I knew I had to trust myself. I found it by wearing the symbol of some of the deepest love I'll ever see in my lifetime. In that way, even two years after my father died, my parents' marriage is still protecting me.