Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Secret Garden in a Box

November 29, 2011

For some unknown reason, while lying in shavasana (rest pose) in yoga class this morning, with the rain drumming on the street outside and washing down the enormous arched windows, a memory from childhood surfaced.  My mother was (and still is) an avid gardener.  When we lived in our attached Tudor rowhouse in Queens, she’d diligently plant dozens of flats of sunny marigolds, red impatiens, and white begonias along the borders of clipped decorative bushes that rimmed the front of the house and lined the beds of pachysandra that scalloped the side of the house with flaming celosia.  She filled planters with purple petunias and happy-faced pansies and created her own hanging baskets with geraniums that seemed to explode like fireworks.  In the alleyway out back, there was a narrow strip of soil along the fence line where she planted tomatoes and cucumbers which were staked and labeled or grew in tangled vines along the ground.

Let me make one thing clear.  My mother is not the back-to-the-earth sort.  She is a PhD’ed professor of nursing who enjoys her bi-weekly manicure, her Starbucks, and now, in her suburban Colonial on a cul-de-sac, the landscapers who come each week to maintain the yard.  But she still adamantly is the flower gardener.  It is her escape, her retreat, bringing her, I believe, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment: she can sit on her patio and look out over her garden with a cup of coffee in the mornings or the afternoon with the latest issue of Oprah and admire both the order of color and the variety of flowerings and know that it was by her hand alone that it looks so beautiful, like something out of Home and Garden.  This is in contrast to so many of the flowering tableaus at the homes surrounding hers, planted and maintained by hired landscapers, contract workers, who are told what to plant and where to plant it, or who are shown a page from a magazine and told merely “to make it look like this.”

But I truly digress because this is not what I was thinking about while lying on my back, eyes closed, listening to the rain.  What I was remembering were the many trips my mother and I made to Garden World, a vast gardening pantheon, a precursor to Home Depot that stocked all possible necessities for the home gardener: seeds, flowers, mulch, tools.  But more importantly, and this was why I never protested going on the hours long excursions as a kid (because I am not, let me reiterate, am not a gardener in any way, shape or form), a greenhouse of exotic flowers--orchids, Venus flytraps, Birds of Paradise, cacti—and an entire room of fake flowers.  (Of course, once I hit the cranky, hormonal, I-have-better-things-to-do-with-my-time years of adolescence, I refused to go with her to spend hours debating this flat of pink petunias over that flat of more pink petunias; but in the age range of seven to eleven, I eagerly hopped into the station wagon.) 

This was in the late seventies and early eighties, a time when my mom didn’t worry about letting me wander the vast aisles of Garden World on my own.  So she’d go off with her red wagon and I’d dilly dally first into the greenhouse to marvel at the exotic plants, run my fingertips over the cacti spines, draw a prick of blood; tease a Venus flytrap with my forefinger; imagine the Bird of Paradise in my bedroom, beside my bed, its strange, magical orange flower taking flight over me in my sleep; hover over the frangipani tree, breathing in its sweetness, realizing all those yard flowers—the impatiens, the petunias, the begonias smelled really, like nothing in comparison.  The frangipani flower smelled like the other side of the world, like adventure, like some secret, sweet spot deep inside of me that I had yet to discover.

And then I skulked off to the fake flowers.  Racks and racks of expensive silk blooms.  Cheaper, rigid plastic sprays.  Ropes of ivy and weird feathery boas.  But I wasn’t there merely to admire the tempting ersatz flora; I was on a predetermined mission: to steal the fake blossoms.  New ones, if possible, each time.  I drifted up and down the aisles, past clusters of velvet roses, frosted grape garlands, silky turquoise tulips and clutches of purple calla lilies, until I spied what I did not yet have: a poinsettia bloom misted in glittery silver and metallic blue; a spray of Chinese lantern in dazzling orange; a stargazer lily with its six tongues of pink.  Quickly, I snapped the chosen bloom from the stem and tucked it into my coat pocket, then jotted down its name in a small memo pad I kept in the same pocket for that exact purpose.  The list was suspiciously, gloriously, thrillingly long.  Who would ever suspect me of shoplifting a simple flower?  And if caught, couldn’t I claim I was just helping out, doing what I’d seen my mother doing every afternoon in her own garden, deadheading the wilted, the dying, thinning the herd, so to speak?

Eventually, I met up with my mom and her overloaded red wagon at the cash register and we drove home.  I immediately raced upstairs to my bedroom, pulled my wooden box from under my bed (a horse engraved on the top), and opened it.  Inside, twenty, maybe thirty silk flowers, heads only, an explosion of colors and shapes and textures.  A world’s offering of floral possibilities crammed into a teeny tiny box under my bed.  My secret, sweet spot.  Impossible bedfellows: African violet with Bird of Paradise with cosmos with iris with hibiscus with lunaria with dahlia with peony with larkspur with pussy willow with anemones with ranunculus with lilac with stargazer.  I sat cross-legged, counting them out one by one (of course, there were some repeats, but who cared? ), trying to match them up with the scrawled names in the memo book, and then dropped them in the empty bowl of my lap, filling that space between my crossed legs—a fantastical garden of my own making.  Maybe I’d momentarily dream of being Mary in the real Secret Garden unveiling, with the rehabilitated Colin Craven, all that resurrected rose-arbored loveliness to Archibald Craven.  Or dream of my wedding bouquet, a cascade of roses—though at the time, I couldn’t dream of any accompanying boy loving me enough to marry me.      

Mine, I’d whisper.  All mine.  I wasn’t exactly sure what I meant by that, if I meant anything more than mine by the sheer fact of my taking, my stealing.  But I felt a strange embarrassment, a shameful self-consciousness in trying to imagine something MORE, something beautiful, something secretly, meaningfully mine in the making--as if IT was already staking a claim: Silly, stupid girl.  Just a bunch of fake flowers.  Plundered heads.  But there they were, all those beautiful, impossible bedfellows gathered together in my lap, in my very own dream garden.  Star of Bethlehem. Bird of Paradise.  Stargazer.

And then I’d hear voices downstairs, footsteps coming upstairs, so I’d cram the flowers back in the box, and shove the box back under the bed.  And shove IT away, too, for a few more years, a few, very few more years.  That secret garden in a box was mine, all mine. 

And then shavasana was over, and the memory drifted away, and I opened my eyes and sat up in sukhasana.  Cross-legged, once again my lap an empty bowl.  But not empty.  My impossible garden is full of wild, extraordinary blooms: my life rehabilitated; my recovery resurrected; a boy who loves me enough not only to marry me, but to love me through all of IT and beyond; my daughter with her own secret box filled with secret dreams under her bed; and my son who has staked his claim in my heart, whispering his “I love you’s” to me day and night.                

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Look Into My Crystal Ball

Dr. B's Assignment Part 2:

10 years into the future, what would I say to me now?

A harder assignment.  No retrospective knowledge to work with, no failures or humiliations to rehash, no do-overs to imaginatively do-over.  Retrospectively project knowledge I have yet to gain. 
IT’s voice is loud and clear on this one: Idiot, wasting everyone’s time on you.  All the chances they kept giving you, and you just fucking up over and over.  Not to mention a decade of your young, attractive, real-life-professional-life building "life" down the tubes.  How could you have been so stupid?  And see how you’ve damaged your kids?  See how you’ve exhausted your husband?  See all the fallout from all your various mental “ills”?  You are a sham of a wife, mother—all the exuberant dreams, all your naïve ambitions have just turned you into a washed up, Social Security Disability reliant hag.  Why you ever believed all those people who told you to hang on to hope?  I’ll never know why.

Okay.  Time to turn off IT.  But that’s IT’s crystal ball voice.

Excise IT with a state-of-the-art krypton laser.

10 years from now: Here I am, 49 and Christopher has stuck it out with me because he loves me.   Sophia is 19 and Alexander is 16 and they are thriving—I have not ruined their lives; they are not swirling in my black tar, but are normal maladjusted teenagers.  We all look out for each other, have helped each other through the various stumbles and pitfalls and, likewise, have leapt over the fences together.  No, not all hearts and flowers and holding hands at the dinner table, but our summers in Greece and evenings slinging pies together at our outdoor pizza oven help.  Oh, and the fact that we don't lie to our kids and our kids generally feel like they can tell us the truth--even if it means they were smoking pot with friends down by the lake or that it's time to go on the Pill--that helps, too.
What I would say, free and clear of ITs butting in?  It’s worth the fight.  Your 40th year can be a turning point (though don’t get too heavy-handed symbolic with that milestone—don’t put all the perfectionistic pressure of recovery on that equator year).  You will learn to manage the storms; take shelter when needed, have the emergency kit at hand if needed, though you will not need it as often as you think.  Sometimes, when the waves kick up, when the waves aren’t in the red zone, they will even be surfable.  Yes, you will take up surfing because you might not be in Meadville for much longer.  You might be living on some sun-drenched coast with your family, small cottage on a cliff, you and Christopher teaching in a graduate Creative Writing program.  You thought you’d never teach again?  Never say never.  You’re teaching again because you finished that novel you started in your 40th year, and because you stuck to truth, because you stuck to that "Fuck It and Be Real" voice and put yourself out there, the novel meant something to a lot of people—people that matter in the literary world, but people that really matter, too--people out there, like you, people who are struggling with IT, people who are lonely, people who feel ashamed, people like you who believe that if they can find a glimmer of themselves in someone else's story, they might not feel so alone. 

So don’t imagine that at 49, you are some washed up, on-the-verge-of-psychotic hag rummaging in dumpsters.  You are loved.

But you are also loved at 39.  Right now at 39, imperfect as you are and should be.  Trying to be real.  Trying to be real in getting to be real.  Trying to become who you really are. 

Trying to remember the five year old girl who thought she was Wonder Woman and vaulted from the top of the staircase (okay and broke her arm trying)—but who believed she had superpowers hidden inside of her. 
Trying to remember the girl who believed she could ride horses before she ever rode a horse—who checked our horseback riding books by the armful from the library, memorized them—and every night, imagined riding horses to get to sleep, to quiet anxiety, to soothe loneliness—so when, at age 9, she rode her first horse, the instructor said, “You seem like you’ve been riding for years!  You’re a natural!” 
Trying to remember the girl talked to her best friend Erin for hours on the telephone about everything (What does a penis look like?  Was my pimple that noticeable?  I'll never get boobs!  He dumped me in a fucking note.) and nothing (Should I wear the purple sweater or the blue one tomorrow?  Did you finish your Chem homework?  I love Eddie and the Cruisers!) after school every day for 6 years straight. 
Trying to remember the now-almost woman who, despite being inside the hell of an abusive relationship, managed to write a senior honors thesis for college, a very long 80 page short story about a woman whose husband suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s, a story about her loneliness, about her love for him, yet I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s, but took risks with imagination and empathy and was told by my writing professor (mentor/surrogate father/writing idol), "Sit down, Kerry.  I have some bad news: You're a writer." 
Trying to remember the woman who moved clear across to Texas, who started her own life, who fell in love with a man who was kind and caring and loving and loved her back. 
Trying to remember the woman who loved what happened as her body grew and grew in pregnancy, who felt those miraculous kicks and jabs of her children growing inside of her body--her body giving life, instead of a body turning its back on life.
And now once again, taking risks.  Trying to have integrity again.  Trying to be honest.

If you stay on this path of recovery, you can stay on the path to recovery.  Sounds simple, and it is ultimately simple.  Your life can be much less complicated.  Yield to those who can help, to those who have been there and have achieved some measure of recovery.  Allow you stubborn-assed self to follow at least some of their path. 

Your life can be fulfilling without being overfilled with achievements.  Enough can be good enough: a marriage that lasts, children who you have seen through the tumultuous years of their adolescence.  You have made it through your 40's, a decade which has looked nothing like your 30's, filled with hope and serenity because you have yielded to balance, because you have accepted the fact of your diagnosis which has placed some limitations on the "everything-all-at-once" that you thought you could do, because you understood that trying to be perfect at everything-all-at-once meant complete an utter collapse.

You have also yielded to and accepted a real body: one that isn't built upon rigidity, one that isn't controled by negation and starvation, one that isn't confined to bones and hollows, but is allowed to be--to feel hunger and feed its hungers; one that has wants and needs and can satiate its wants and needs; one that feels desire and isn't ashamed to feel desire and can satisfy those desires; one that can revel in pleasure; one that can enjoy the touch of her husband's hands, his body with hers, their bodies together--mutual desires satisfied.  A body that can yield to natural appetites of all varieties: biological, emotional, sexual, spiritual.

You believe that your place is in this world, that you belong here, with family and friends, that you can accept and feel their love, that you are worthy of their love.  Simultaneously, that your love doesn't damage anyone, that they need your love, too--that they rely on you staying alive, being here every day and night.  Your life, your being alive from one day to the next is a given.  At night, when you have difficulty sleeping, you no longer fantasize about suicide, but about family vacations to a wildlife preserve in South Africa, or walking along the beach with Christopher and Athena (who is now an old, calm dog, though still leaping for Frisbees in the surf), the serenity interrupted by phone calls (or texts) from the kids,  or tallying up all the things that you are grateful for that day, that moment: recovery, sobriety, hope, authenticity, integrity, your life NOW. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hindsight Is 20/20

November 15, 2011

"Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving."

JOHN FLETCHER, intro, Jean-Claude Favez's Holocaust

Dr. B. recently gave me this assignment which I thought I'd share and would encourage you to attempt for yourself.  No easy task, because I couldn't dodge the hard truths, but well worth the the honest appraisal.

What would I say to myself 10 years in the past?
10 years ago would make me 29 and one month into my pregnancy with Sophia. Most of the previous year, I dashed between Mercyhurst College and Allegheny College adjunct teaching, careening between mania and desperate, catatonic depression—crying jags on the couch, burying myself under blankets in the dark months of Meadville’s winter.  This continued a pattern that I suffered for most of my life—a few reprieves for a couple months here and there—most of them floating on romantic highs with Christopher, or professional highs having to do with my writing life and accolades received from “big-time” writers who admired my work, or chose my work for publication, or teaching awards I’d received while in graduate school. 

Several months earlier, before getting pregnant, I would have been given the Bipolar diagnosis by a rather hapless local psychiatrist who spent a grand total of 45 minutes with me and put me on a combination of Zoloft and Depakote, neither of which seemed to do much good.  Of course, I had to drop all meds once I got pregnant—and did so without any medical consultation—probably not the smartest idea, but that pregnancy was, mental health-wise, relatively stable, since I seemed to float on a hormonal high (not to mention all the Winnie-the-Pooh onesies and French Provencal crib bedding I was manically buying)—surely I would be the BEST mother; surely I could achieve the perfect balance between mothering and teaching and writing and well, wifing (I’d been offered a tenure track line at Allegheny that month because I’d shown them I was ALL THAT)—I was managing it all, doing it all perfectly. 
And then there was the writing I was doing—and publishing.  And the classes I was teaching, and the stellar evaluations I was getting.  And the general stability I was feeling while pregnant—happy and optimistic—this vision of perfect family, with the writer-husband  and bohemian/quirky/alternative home life and the artistic/liberal arts college life I’d dreamed for myself (the Fuck You I’d been silently saying all those years ago when I’d been pushed to go to law school and marry some investment banker and dress in Ralph Lauren suits and buy some Mock Tudor on a cul de sac on Long Island—I could chart my own path and achieve it).

And I was so, so, so healthy in this pregnancy.  Everything organic.  Christopher making sure all the right foods and nutritional necessities were met.  I was taking yoga classes up until the day Sophia was born.  Seeing a midwife, not an ob/gyn, determined to have as natural a birth as possible—sure that my body would know what it was doing, trusting that my body would know what to do—wouldn’t need any unnecessary interventions—unless it was an absolute emergency.  I was glowing—loving my growing belly, the roundness, the kicks and tumbles that I could feel, that body growing inside of me.  I was capable of creating a life?
The ultimate sign of my strength, of my super-strength, of my assumption that all of this was perfectly natural?  I took students (with Christopher) to Greece during the 8th month of pregnancy for 3 weeks.  Traveled the country—swam blissfully in the Aegean—my belly rising above the water like some mystical island.  Perfect peace floating out there, buoyed up by the salt water—the ease of floating, of being, of resting out there with my baby inside of me—so SURE that all would be perfectly well, that all my troubles were behind me.

And then that perfect birth.  I was so calm, so “mindful”—five minutes between contractions, and we were still at home in Meadville—I made Christopher stop at CVS for skin lotion before heading up to Hamot Hospital, a 45 minute ride away.  Christopher has a picture of me in the labor tub: I look like I’m in a spa—naked (though you can only see me from the chest up), hanging over the side of the tub, holding a bottle of designer water in one hand (all I need is one of those cocktail umbrellas), my pregnancy-bikini-Greece-tan lines in full view, smiling, even though the contractions were in full steam—just breathing contentedly, like I’d learned in yoga.  Did I mention I arrived at the hospital 8cm dilated?  All the staff in a flurry, but not me.  I just closed my eyes and listened to Bach.  No drugs, no episiotomy, just 20 minutes of pushing, and out popped Sophia Grace, who immediately nuzzled her way to my breast.
Fairy tale ends pretty much there, because the grandmothers descended a few days later, and of course, the  territorial war began—who knew more about babies, about what was best, about who got to hold Sophia more, about about about about.  Christopher’s mom was a “practical” nurse; my mom was a “PhD’d” nurse.   Christopher was playing referee—I was caught in the middle, exhausted. 

So what would I tell me NOW?  All that supposed perfection?  A crazy, frenetic lie.  It will all collapse on you.  What you are learning in yoga—which you’ve only been learning for one year at this point—is to slow down, to take stock of your body, to inhabit your body, the space you are in, to be present in the moment, to breathe—you need to take these lessons to heart. 
Instead, what you are concentrating on now (i.e., 10 years ago), is on being the best in the class—the most flexible, the one who can hold the pose the longest, the one who can stay in downward dog the longest, the one who can balance in tree pose without wobbling the longest—at being the perfect yogi—in 12 months or less. 

What you know now, (i.e., 10 years later?), yoga can give you back to yourself, can make you REAL again—if you wobble while in tree pose, it’s not because you failed or aren’t good enough, it’s because your mind wandered, it’s because your foot pronates from all those years of forced ballet.  So what?  You wobble, maybe fall out of pose, but guess what?  You can try again.  It’s in the trying that you learn something: that you can try.  Just like in standing pose: when you reach your hands over your head, feet firmly planted in the ground—the most basic stance—easy right?  But symbolic, feet rooted, needing balance, needing a home—but arms reaching, needing an aspiration, needing also to stretch for something, a goal.
What else?  All that need to “prove” that you have achieved the FU life?  Your life doesn’t have to be a life to prove a point.  Yes, this is the basic outline of the life you wanted.  Yes, this is the life you do want—built on the kind of life you are happiest in—filled with creativity, filled with books, and ideas, not built on crass, monetary aspirations and social climbing and material things; you have a husband who shows love, who is involved with his family, who is truly connected to his children (and, no small matter, is a very liberal Democrat); you live a life filled with travel; you fill your home with friends who are empathetic, who are all trying to improve the world (i.e., no Fox news watchers among them).  You take care of animals and lost, wandering souls in the night.  Your children are kind and generous and funny and creative and spirited and independent.

And yet—you are no longer glowing.  You are gaunt.  You no longer follow the laissez faire code (if, really, truly, you ever did).  There is no real room for spontaneous joy or pleasure.  Your body is a mess.  Your arms?  From wrists to elbows, complicated maps of scars no GPS could get anyone through.  Despite the uncompromising love you have for your amazing children and almost saintly husband, you have tried to kill yourself and still contemplate it (and have urges to hurt yourself) at least once a week.  You have tried every medication out there for depression and Bipolar Disorder.  Not to mention 2 rounds of ECT—not just unilateral, but bilateral at high voltages—or pulses—or whatever the most serious kind with the most serious memory consequences there are because of how desperate your suicidal depressions can become.
Part of me wants to say: backtrack to 10 years and five months, when you were sitting on that couch, suicidally depressed, before getting pregnant, and Christopher is off on one of his very long teaching days, and you are home alone, before you have brought anyone into this world who truly needs you to keep yourself alive in the face of the voice of IT who says you really, truly should die.  Now is the time to just do it.  Shake out all the pills in the house—put them in the food processor, mash them up with some bananas, swallow them all down.  Get it over with.  Don’t put your family—families—through 10 years of the hell to come.  Just put an end to it now because you will never learn.  It only gets worse from here on out.  Can you imagine at 39 you will be worse than you are now?  Do you know that maybe a little craziness is a little cute for a 29 year old writer—maybe even adds to a 29 years old writer’s caché?  But at 39?  Pathetic, so over-it.  But now it’s too late.  There are two kids who need you to live in spite of IT’s increased pathological demands.

Shit.  Masturbator. Fuck.
Or, as they say in Greek: Gamoto. Malaka. Skata.

I want to curse that naïve, multi-tasking, frenetic, Suicidal-Pollyanna (how’s that for Dialectical conundrum)?  Shake her.  Show her the road that lies ahead.   Set up an emergency consultation with Dr. B. who I have not yet met.  Head off the tsunami that is yet to come.  Because there have been hurricanes all of her life—every year, hurricane season, for sure—but nothing like the total wipeout of the 6 years long tsunami to come.

I suppose I also want to tell her that she doesn’t have to wait 10 years to say Fuck It—not to life, but to all the expectations and demands for perfection that she puts on herself—or has internalized from others that others have demanded of her over the years.  She knows what Voice is—she’s a writer.  That’s the first thing that comes to her when she sits down to write a story—any of the award-winning stories that fly from brain to fingers to the page—the voices that are strong and sure and witty and smart and vulnerable and honest on the page.  Why can’t she harness some of those fictional voices and allow her own to speak out loud for once? 
Really and truly, she only has so much of this surface self left—this perfect self left before IT will finally erupt and take over.  Trying to keep all the seams together is exhausting.  Things are fraying.  Flashbacks surface, sink their fangs.  Small, at-first-hideable, explainable cuts reappear.  Drinking escalates again.  Sleep becomes an impossible afterthought.

Rest.  Rest.  Rest?  Don’t you see that you are missing yourself?  Parts have gone missing on the inside, so no one else notices.  And you are mostly numb, so maybe you don’t feel that they are gone.  But you are hollowing out.
What I would tell you now: Standing pose.  The hardest one for you.  Stand still.   Arms above, reaching for the sky.  Find the place where you are steady.  Keep breathing.  Allow the racing thoughts to dissipate.  Just be for 30 seconds.  1 minute.  5 minutes.  Can you do that?  Don’t you know your life depends upon it?   

Monday, November 7, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

November 7, 2011


A dinner party Saturday evening with some of our best and oldest friends, and as you can imagine, a necessary and worthwhile challenge for me.  These are friends who have been by our side since we first moved to this small town from Texas, who have been teaching colleagues, late night dinner party companions, who have seen my slides and multiple climbs back up the monkey bars, who have seen me throw myself off from the top perch into the dirt—and who now get to see me try again, this time, with some sobriety and hope and honesty.  
I told Christopher, “No easy meal, nothing I can skate by on--no pureed squash and hummus on toast points; no mashed bananas delicately drizzled with chocolate syrup.  Let’s test out my recovery muscles.  Lamb Bolognese and fresh pasta and I’ll make dessert.”

His eyebrows shot up.  Skepticism?  Honest to goodness supportive surprise?  “You’re sure?”

I’d been leafing through Bon Appetite and spied a recipe for a Pumpkin Pie with a Gingersnap and Pecan Crust finished off with a Fresh Cranberry Glaze.  Heavy cream was involved—my biceps flexed at the idea.

“I can do this,” I said.  “I need to do this.  Besides, I need to see my friends.  It’s been too long since we were all together.”  The fallout of an Eating Disorder—isolation, the obvious tendency to stay away from any gathering involving group dining.  ED likes to conjure up this exaggerated cinematic picture: I have devolved, am in a group of Neanderthals, ravenously gathered around the bloodied carcass of some poor wooly mammoth, tearing at it with bare hands and jagged teeth, passing around the bone-in-ribeye in a moment of congenial fellowship, raucously sharing some wild barley moonshine.
Of course, Saturday evening was the exact opposite.  Friendship, fellowship, food lingered over, savored.  ED was virtually silent, mostly because I was able to talk to one of my friends, B., at the start of the evening about my fears, about the progress I’ve made over the past several months, got it off my chest, before getting it into the gullet so to speak.

And then, as we were finishing up the Lamb Bolognese, scrumptious, unctuous, delicious, and yes, I kept telling myself, nutritious (anymore “ous” words out there my ECT brain can summon up without the help of a Thesaurus or my Husband’s dictionary-brain?), my husband, who sat in view of our front door, suddenly said, “There’s someone at our door!”
My whole body tensed.  I don’t know why.  It was late-ish.  We live on a busy street, frequently populated by stumbling drunks.  For some reason, my anxiety-fueled brain imagined some meth-fueled, gun-toting home invader (too many episodes of Criminal Minds and Dexter?) about to break in, and I thought about my kids screaming like banshees in the attic and my only defensive weapons were a stainless steel dinner knife and an Italian pottery dinner plate I could fling like a Frisbee.  Panic and complete immobility took over.

But Christopher, genuine descendant of Vikings, stood up and strode over.   “Can I help you?” he said, through the storm door.  The rest of the men from the table followed him: a professorial posse-at-PhD’ed arms.  And then they were all outside on the porch talking to the stranger in the night.
Soon we all followed because it turned out this invader was in fact a confused old woman dressed in a housecoat, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, with one slipper on, the other foot naked.

“I don’t know where I am,” she said.  “I was following someone, and then I just kept walking.”
“What’s your name?” S. asked.

“Henrietta,” she answered.
“Do you know where you live?” Christopher asked.

She shrugged.  “My house overlooks Spencer hospital.”
Spencer hospital has not been Spencer hospital for years.  It is several blocks away and now part of the city hospital.

“Do you know where your other slipper is?” K. asked.
She shrugged again, smiled flirtatiously.  “I had it on when I left the house, but it was light then,”  and waggled her bare foot.  Her toes looked cold, the nails long, untrimmed.  It had been dark for hours.

S. ran to his car across the street and came back with one of his slippers, a cozy, suede fleece boat which he gently put on her foot.  Why he had slippers in his car?  A small miracle even if they were 10 sizes too big.  But the slipper looked sweet on her small foot, and sad, too, a sign of how lost and helpless she was, wandering alone in the dark and cold, without any memory of how to get home, even though home could only be a few mere blocks away.
We invited her inside and sat her down on one of the dining room chairs we pulled into the hallway.  She gazed around, into the dining room, at the table lit up with candles, at the dinner plates, and the platter of pasta quickly growing cold, at the collection of empty wine bottles.  Note: my green water goblet filled with sparkling water.  Double note: I had ABSOLUTELY NO urges to drink AT ALL.  None.  Nada.  Though I did smoke a few cigarettes to quell food anxiety.

“Why are you all here?” she asked.
B. smiled and knelt down by her side.  “We’re having a dinner party.  We’re all good friends and we haven’t seen each other in a long time so we wanted to get together.”

Henrietta smiled wide.  “That’s nice.  It seems like I came to the right house.”
Christopher asked her if she knew her address or if she knew the telephone number of any of her friends.

She shrugged again. 
Could she describe her house?

“Brick.  No, White.  Wood.  I live upstairs.”
Christopher decided to drive down the street to see if the nursing home, brick and across the street from the hospital might be missing her.

While he was gone, we chatted with Henrietta.  She was lively, sparkled with wit.  “Never married, thank god,” she said.  “Never needed that trouble.”  She was 84, and worked most of her life as an “inspector, inspecting things.”  Her sister, older by a year, had recently died, and she had a brother, but didn’t know where he lived.  Every day, she walked to McDonald’s for breakfast—the staff  knew her by name and knew exactly what she wanted: Egg McMuffin, black coffee. 
I offered her a brownie I had made for the kids. 

“Oh!  A Brownie,” she said, “I’d love one!  God led me here, that’s for sure!”
Henrietta, though snaggle-toothed, was beautiful—her white hair was pulled up in a 1920’s style bun, loose along the sides; her skin was smooth, few wrinkles—I wanted to ask about her skin-care regime—did she use the $135 La Mer that had been recently recommended to me?; her blue eyes lit upon everything around her.

And yet, my heart was breaking, too.  She’d carried with her an envelope with $35.  For what?  In the other hand, television remote control pamphlets.  And she kept talking about following someone to somewhere—which we’d managed to work out was probably someone on a television program she’d been watching.  She lived alone—entirely alone—and had no friends, no family, no one looking after her.  And she’d been wandering the streets in her housecoat and blanket, one slipper, one bare foot—no fairy godmother or prince charming to complete her fairytale.  Lost and alone, except for us.
But she kept repeating that God had led her to us.

Thank god—or the goddess--that all the lights in our house were blazing, that she could probably see us all gathered around our dining room table from the street.  Friendship and fellowship could draw her in from the cold to the warmth of my home and our help.

B. whispered to me, “We could drive her to McDonald’s and then ask her to show us her route home.  Since she walks it every day, she knows that route by heart….”
Logical, yes, but horrifically disquieting.  This was where loneliness and the loss of memory lead?  Being driven around by a group of strangers in the dark of a cold November evening along the only route wedged into memory—the path from McDonald’s to home?  Egg McMuffin and coffee back to the empty, silent apartment somewhere a few blocks away where no one waits for your return?

Christopher opened the front door, shook his head.  “No one at Hillside Home knows Henrietta.”  He turned to her.  “Your sister was Catherine?’
How the heck did he know that?

While B. was chatting with Henrietta about the gratifying contentment of a life lived sans husband or children, Christopher told us he had called the local funeral home to inquire about Henrietta’s recently deceased sister.  We knew her last name, so it was only a matter of the funeral home checking records to find the sister’s name—maybe, on the off chance they had an address for Henrietta on file.  Catherine.  They knew that much, but nothing about Henrietta.
But why was anyone at the funeral home at nine o’clock on a Saturday night unless, of course, there was a wake?  And going by the usual obituaries in our town paper, likely for someone not unlike Henrietta—though those obituaries were usually packed full of descendants—children and grandchildren, and often great-grandchildren, the ties that bind lives together, that announce to the world that we have mattered and to whom. 

Christopher said he had called the police; it was what Hillside Home staff advised.  They’d have her address on record, would be able to get her home more quickly than our hapless detective work.
So we waited with Henrietta, whose cheerful dismissal of her own forgetfulness was beginning to turn into self-recriminating anger.

“I am so stupid,” she kept muttering.  “I should never have left my house.  What was I thinking?  How could I have wound up here?  How could I have gotten so far away from home?  Why don’t I know how to get back?  How could I forget how to get back home?”

What I wanted to say, but didn’t, couldn’t find the right moment, was, “Oh, it’s so easy to forget how to get around.  I just got through a round of ECT, and I’ve been getting lost while driving around from Big Lots to Giant Eagle.  So don’t feel bad.”  But I also didn’t want to sound flip, didn’t want to minimize her pain, her suffering.  Alzheimer’s and the brain cells which have shriveled and dried up vs. Chosen Zaps of Electricity meant to fire up the black and blue parts of my brain.  And then of course, perhaps she didn’t even know to know that she was in a state of acute deterioration—self-directed irony would truly be a cruel joke.
The police arrived, young, friendly, gentlemen, who, as it turned out, had escorted Henrietta home from a similar adventure earlier that week.  “We’ll be back with your slipper,” they said.  “We found her lost slipper just up the block but wanted to make sure it was a match before taking it.”

And then she was gone.  For future reference, the policemen gave us her address: 999 Grove Street.  Literally, one block away.  One block, but it might as well have been a trek to Nepal.
I saw Dr. B. this morning and told him this story.  “Does it remind you of anyone else who lost a slipper?”

I stared at him blank-faced.
“C’mon,” he said.  “Iconic fairytale?”

“Oh, yeah.  Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming.  I don’t think Henrietta had either of those waiting for her,” I said.
“But she kept telling you that God led her to your house,” Dr. B. said.

“I try to stay away from the Disney fairytales and all that fairy godmother stuff.  Thankfully, Sophia never bought into the princess crap either.”
“But that lost slipper.  Doesn’t that remind you of anyone else?”

“Me?  You mean me?  I’m certainly not waiting on any Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming to fix things.”
He laughed, knowing that my feminist hackles were raised.

“Okay.  But aren’t you also lost and trying to find your way home?  What else can you take from the story of Henrietta?  How did she get home?”
“Please don’t say that God got her there.”

“No, but you did.  She found her way to your house, and with a group effort—the help of you and her friends, the warmth of your house, your friend’s slipper, you all took care of her—you helped to get her home.  You didn’t let her panic, you eased her fears, and you managed to help her get home.”
“O yeah, I didn’t tell you, when the police came back with my friend’s slipper, they said they couldn’t stay to chat because they had to go and break up a fight.”

Diversion, deflection, irony.  Thou shalt not appear soft or sentimental.
“But it’s also a sign of where you could wind up if you keep listening to IT.  Lost, alone, without anyone, wandering in the cold, following some false figure, some voice lying to you, leading you out into the dark, without your slipper, no way to get back home,” Dr. B. said, his gaze holding mine, his voice steady, clear, truthful, not lying.  This is exactly why I took the risk and decided to come back to him.  His voice can help lead me back to truth and sanity.

I sit here now, writing this, on the edge of the pool watching my daughter at swim practice, swimming her countless laps, diving with strength and ferocity off the blocks.  We’ve just come back from a bathroom break where I helped her peel her wet suit back up her body.
“Momma,” she said, “I need to tell you something.  When I was just swimming, I was trying to see how long I could hold my breath under water.  I was trying to see what it would be like to drown.  But I couldn’t.  Every time, I just kept popping back up to the surface.  I needed to breathe, no matter what.”

I arranged her straps back into place, kissed the top of her swim cap.  “It’s almost impossible to drown yourself,” I said.  “Your body has instincts.  It will fight to breathe, to live.  It wants you to stay alive.”
It’s why Henrietta arrived on my front porch.  It’s why I arrived back on Dr. B’s couch.  It’s why I chose the complicated, challenging meal.  It’s why I chose friendship and fellowship.  It’s why I found out from my nutritionist today that I have gained two pounds this week through deliberate, self-willed effort.  I will no longer try to drown myself, will not let myself sink, but will swim.