OLD ARGUMENTS, WON AND LOST

OLD ARGUMENTS, WON AND LOST

ideas

My husband has always had ideas—lots of ideas. He’s relentlessly curious, willing to pursue any cockamamie theory that intrigues him. These qualities have helped make him a creative and original academic psychologist; they are some of the traits I love best about him but they also make me want to strangle him from time to time.

If you’re married or involved with someone, you probably know what I mean. (In fact, if I were an academic psychologist, I’d design a study to see whether what you love best about someone is coincidentally what drives you nuts about him— especially over the course of a long marriage. But I’m not an academic psychologist.

I’m a writer. I have opinions. I air them. It’s a lot easier.

Anyway, over our 47 years of marriage, one of my husband’s worst ideas was his harebrained theory about controlling grief.

“Power grieving!” he announced one night. “Think about it! You could submerge yourself in grief, let it overwhelm you, work through it. It might not have to take that long to get over it and feel better.”

Power grieving? The minute he mentioned that name, I hated it.

“That’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” I said. “You can’t control grief! Grief controls you!” I was furious at him, outraged at his scientific arrogance and illusions.

He loved that, of course. My husband has always enjoyed agitating people with his wild ideas—especially me.

“Just think,” he said, “a new widow could start dating again in two weeks—”

“That’s a vile idea! A desecration! Stop it!”

This brouhaha took place 35 years ago, give or take. It was a noisier, more volatile time in our marriage and our lives. Teeth were bared, voices raised, doors slammed.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I was so enraged about power grieving then. I was only in my mid-30s—and what did I know about grief? I’d been disappointed plenty of times, I’d had my adolescent heart bruised and pummeled, I’d been depressed. But real grief, profound grief—wrenching and saw-toothed and life-shattering? It was a distant rumor, a flimsy abstraction, something that had never really touched me.

But again, that was a long time ago. I was much younger and the horizons were more distant and I could still see them without bifocals. The years passed, merging into decades.

 Power grieving never really panned out—as I’d loudly predicted—but many of my husband’s other ideas were very successful. His research flourished, focusing on writing about traumatic experiences, then exploring how language reflects personality. He traveled widely, lecturing about his work.

We both worked hard, we succeeded, we failed, we kept going. Our two kids grew up and left home, we became grandparents, all four of our parents died. We no longer launch into frequent, heated, mutually self-righteous arguments, the way we once did.

Somewhere over the years, both of us realized life wasn’t that simple.

Instead, these days, we often elbow each other on city streets when we see versions of our younger selves pushing through crowds, far too confident, too convinced of their own importance. They’ll learn, we murmur to each other, they’ll learn. They’ll grow up the way we finally did.

“Somewhere over the years, both of us realized life wasn’t that simple..”

Last week, I got home from a nighttime class to find my husband had lined up four skinny liqueur glasses with amber-colored liquid inside. “I just bought a bunch of new bourbon,” he said excitedly. “We need to do a blind taste test to see what we both think.”

As a psychologist, he loves blind taste tests. I tolerate them. I swirled the liquor around in my mouth and tried to come up with a few pithy observations.

For almost 50 years now, it occurred to me, our domicile has been an off-and-on hothouse of psychological research and discussion, a venue to talk about good ideas and bad ideas, ideas that made it, ideas that didn’t. Like most other long relationships, our marriage has been a battle of wills and wits, laughter, agreements and disagreements about politics and culture, quiet and contentment, pain, warmth, affection, occasional fury. I don’t have to run a study to tell you that some of what I love best about my husband is, in fact, what can drive me crazy.

I think, too, about marital arguments I’ve won and arguments I’ve lost over the decades we’ve been together. I’ve always loved to win arguments, especially with my husband.

But, power grieving—the idea you can manage grief and alter its shape and work through it quickly and maybe even dull its pain—it was one of those arguments I eventually won.

In recent months, though, my husband’s old, discarded idea has had a strange resonance for me. It’s a burr in my mind I can’t quite shake free of.

During these months, I’ve grappled with the most shattering loss of my life—the death of my sister and only sibling. I am now the last survivor of my original family. Night after night, I wander around our apartment, sleepless and searching for something I will always miss. I can’t rest. I just keep moving.

Power grieving, I still maintain, was a wild and ridiculous idea. But good lord, what a solace it would be to me now! In these lonely and restless nighttime hours, I find myself wishing from the bottom of my heart that my husband had been right.

 

Oh, hell. Out of all our arguments, over all our years of marriage, why did I have to win that one?

Of Cattle Crossings, Barbed Wire, and Cuddle Corners

Of Cattle Crossings, Barbed Wire, and Cuddle Corners

An excerpt from a memoir on grief, addiction, and love 

Bride

I really was a devoted wife. I was called that in a proclamation about my husband’s life from the City of University Heights, Ohio. I still am, in the biblical sense. My relationship with Lee was as hot as a splash of grease, hotter than that pepper sprout down in Jackson that the late Mr. Cash sang of, and lasted a long time on simmer, through years of secret trysts, until we felt comfortable to break the news to people that yes, we were in love, and yes, by God, despite the 27-year age difference and our on-again-off-again love affair of 20-years, that we were to be married in 2017. 

People hated me for my past with him, and many loved me for making him happy. Ying and yang, yippity-yap, that’s the way the cookie crumbled. You can’t please everyone. Nor did we try. I sold all of my belongings in Columbus, Ohio, scooped up my cat, and Lee brought me out to the dusty desert – a prickly place of heat and adobe houses, menacing critters that shoot out blood and vinegar to predators, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bugling elk.

We got married in a hotel suite in Las Vegas by an off-duty Elvis impersonator (it was 100 bucks extra to have him dress up, but he still couldn’t hide the hair or years of training his voice by singing “Love me Tender.”) My family clapped, and our friends let out whoops of glee, and we danced to Bruno Mars songs and popped a bottle of Dom.

Our marriage was the stuff of contentment, giddiness, and a partnering of kindred souls: when Lee sneezed, I sneezed. When I bent over to tie my shoe during our daily walks, Lee looked over at me as he looped his shoelaces. We agreed on which movies to like and dislike as we watched from our “cuddle corner,” a term used by Furniture Row to market our gigantic sectional couch to loving couples.

Our differences? He snored peacefully; little gulps of air escaped his mouth like a guppy popping out bubbles. I paced the floors at all hours, looked out the windows for elk and wildlife, and once asked him how he slept at night. 

Close your eyes,” he said. 

“He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen…”

That was the Lee K. Abbott, author, master of the short story, and beloved professor and head of the creative writing program at The Ohio State University, which we knew and loved. His nickname growing up was “Kit,” short for his middle name, “Kittredge,” since he was named after his father (his brother still calls him that). He would admit that he never read To Kill a Mockingbird, although he threatened students not to plagiarize by saying in his syllabus that he had read everything. He unapologetically smoked his Marlboro Reds and told the truth with a swipe of a pen whether it be a “nope, nope, nope” on a poorly-executed plot or a paragraph full of praise with the same forethought and twist of phrases that he used in his stories.

Things were simple yet, in the core, oh so twisted and kinked and deeply rooted to long-gone memories and emotions and a sense of place. When we shopped for home decorations in New Mexico, we agreed we were not the flowery type; instead, we were made of barbed wire, cattle crossings and electric fences.

Lee died of acute myeloid leukemia on April 29, 2019. The long and short of it: he had shrunken to a waif, his body positioned like a question mark, slumped over and no longer able to take the pain of a blood-pressure cuff. The disease took him five months after diagnosis.

The disease still has me by its bony, speckled hands. My own disease, that of addiction, tried to take me down when grief knocked me for a loop.

I returned to our house in Las Cruces, New Mexico, broken and bewildered. I began chain smoking and talking to the bird feathers that floated before me in the air, some landing on me after churning in slow circles. 

The multiple pillows on our bed became Lee. I rubbed his back in dreams and even in a haze when I awoke and realized it wasn’t him. Almost each morning for a few months, I woke up unaware of where I was, thinking I was at my parents’ house in Ohio, in their master bedroom since the layout is the same. This made no sense. None of it did.  

I was an emboldened caregiver, strong and mighty with the feeling that I would keep him alive. And then I was downing a gallon of Tito’s vodka every other day, with alcoholism hot on my heels. Lee and I had afternoon cocktails every day at three. I broke this cycle and kept a glass beside my bed in case I woke up in the middle of the night, and I definitely had it for the morning when the shakes set in. 

I forgot the basics that make us healthy citizens of the world: I threw out food instead of eating (oh, baby food was my go-to for vitamins); I didn’t brush my teeth (I now need expensive dental work); I didn’t update my prescription glasses; I thought my seizures due to drinking or stopping drinking for a bit were just the norm, and who cared what happened because of them? I bathed (a couple times a week, if that) in a partially-filled tub because I didn’t feel like standing up.  

The stuff of life gets thrown into your face in the form of, well, forms. Paperwork and bills and settling the estate while your brain is floating somewhere in Mars is not the stuff that sissies can handle. My attorney told me that many people, trapped in grief, give up and leave things unsettled.

 

“…there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password…”

“I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight…”

Grief makes you a grey, big-eyed alien when the mind goes in a million different directions – there are shooting stars in your head and arrows in your back when you can’t remember a password or even think of getting out of your pajamas to go to the bank. There are trillions of what-ifs, and why didn’t we do such-and-such, and how did I let him die? I didn’t – I fought like Shirley McClain did for her daughter in Terms of Endearment, blasting down hospital corridors demanding attention be paid to my husband.        

He thought (and I thought) he could keep getting blood transfusions to stay alive. We thought it could be like filling up a car with a tank of gas, with a complete system overhaul once in a while. He would’ve been a vampire coming in for blood, honk, honk! Is a bay open? Time to fill ‘er up. 

When someone is dying there is the initial fight and many words. I won’t leave you, he told me. 

And then as the body is ravaged, the mind gives up and gives in to fate, the person recoils a bit like a sick animal – their way of preparing you to be ripped apart from them forever. 

I knew we had little time together since he was 71, but this diagnosis gave too short of a window. Our laughter together, our synchronicities, him taking care of me, me cooking for him, our trips, our beautiful house, our everything.    

These were a few of his final moments: Lee cupped my face; I asked him if he was ready to die; he said yes. My brain zapped and jumped, yet I had to stay calm so he would tell me the truth. 

“I will call hospice, okay?”  

He muttered a yes and kept his small, bruised hand on my face and said he loved me. 

In his final hours, there was one more smoke for Lee. He sat up with a start in bed, took a drag off an imaginary one made of the glowing red oxygen monitor on his index finger. He dragged in slowly and blew out the fake smoke and fell back to sleep. 

One more time he told me he loved me. His mouth was dry, and I sponged his lips, his tongue. 

In the end, he died 24 hours after entering hospice. 

Lee was all about brevity, and while I can blabber on about the cookie, being me, crumbling almost to my own death, I will tell you instead that I sought help. This was only after people began to notice that I traveled with my gallon of vodka, turned quick to yell and throw things and repeat the words: You try this. TRY IT. See how you do. 

My family intervened in a loving way. Others dropped me – again, you can’t please everyone, and if they didn’t stay for my ending, it’s still their loss. I wanted to be a widow out of the limelight that Lee (although he didn’t know it) was in. I told people to leave me alone and deleted their phone numbers, all part and parcel of this newly-named cancel culture. It’s easy! Just hit “Block” on Facebook! But first, send them a drunken message of how you won’t be messed with anymore. That’ll show ‘em. 

I can tell you that drinking does not numb the pain and you wake up one day free of grief – drinking prolongs it. You will still feel all the things. You will realize that your little missives of hate shot to the world reflect more on your emotional instability.  I am in the stage now of understanding the roots of my love for Lee, roots that reach deep into my soul and poke out each day when I turn into our cul-de-sac, thinking of how he told me to recognize our road by looking for the flagpole and the 25 mph signs.   

 

 I am still in southern New Mexico, near Spaceport that has promised to shoot rockets to outer space from the desert. Actually, this is Mars. Unencumbered. Untouched. Lost. Left alone for lovers to travel through time and forget the world.

Out here the severe rains, known as “monsoon season,” pound down the landscape into rock / sand formations that could be on another planet. The rains twist and curve the landscape into arroyos to handle the water. When the rains come, cars, trucks, heavy street signs, and even people, float away. 

It’s a land of contradictions – friendly folks and jagged edges, sand that hits your face like shards of glass when the wind decides to spit at you. 

I’m here in some ways to stay close to Lee, to feel his love and fulfill my own passion for the southwest. This is where the world stops, where junked cars and Texaco signs dot the landscape. It’s here that I found my forever love, losing it soon thereafter, and where I will remain. 

Five Children and Me

Five Children and Me

Bride

 

In December 1960, when I was six and a half, my paternal grandmother, whose beautiful given name was Feliciana, gave me a book for Christmas. I had just been skipped up to second grade in school, having been bored to tears in first grade because I was already reading at a fifth-grade level.

My grandmother, wisely, gave me a book that didn’t bore me. In fact, it changed me forever. In some ways, I think it saved me. 

The book was E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, a classic British fantasy first published in 1902 that later would inspire J.K. Rowling. 

Five Children was funny, smart and unlike any other book I had read. It conjured a magical Edwardian world of vicars, pony carts, shillings and Norfolk suits. Five Children made me an Anglophile and a fan of Edith Nesbit and her other books, especially The Enchanted Castle and The Railway Children. And ever since, I have loved imaginative literature. 

My grandmother died just four years after that Christmas. She died on New Year’s Eve, in fact, the last day of 1964, on the way home to Corpus Christi after spending the holidays with us in Pensacola. She had come to visit us with her elder daughter, two granddaughters and a grandson –- my three teenage cousins and my aunt. Grandma was 66, the same age that I am now. She died, along with all of them but her grandson, in a horrific, fiery automobile accident on a coastal road in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

 _____

It was early in the morning, probably about dawn or not much later, dim and very foggy there on the coast. A young woman, a minister’s wife, somehow got on the highway going the wrong way, and an approaching gasoline tanker truck spotted her and jackknifed to avoid her. The tanker truck rolled, gasoline spilled, and then cars began to crash into it, and the tanker burst into flames that consumed the cars in an instant.

The shocked young woman abandoned her car and fled. We heard later that she had a nervous breakdown and spent some time in a hospital when she realized she had caused the deaths of so many people –- the four in our family, who were all in one car, and a woman in another car. She lived for nearly another fifty years and died in her 80s, having had a full, long life –- having had the children my cousins never got to have, the grandchildren my aunt never got to have.

I suppose I should not begrudge her the fact that she caused so much heartache, changed so many lives for the worse, destroyed three generations of a family, and still she lived while Feliciana died, and Elia, and Cynthia and Betty. Only their brother Frank, whom we called Buster, had survived somehow.

I was ten and a half that New Year’s Eve. I remember that the phone on the kitchen wall rang, and when my parents answered it, we did not know who they were talking to –- only that, from the profound shock and sudden sorrow in their voices and in their faces, it must be very bad news. 

“What happened? What happened?” I asked, dreading the answer but desperately needing to know.”

-My mother turned from the telephone, where my father was still listening to someone –- probably one of his brothers –- telling him that their mother and sister were both dead. It must have seemed incredible to Dad, when just a few hours before they had waved goodbye to him and driven away in the dark. 

Mother’s face was ashen. She spoke brokenly through her tears, nine words I will never forget:

“They’re all dead except Buster, and he’s all burned.”

I ran to the room I shared with my sister, threw myself on my twin bed and sobbed for a long time. I could not believe it could be true, yet I knew it must be true or my parents would not be weeping. I had never really seen either of them cry before. Both of their fathers had died long ago in the postwar years and still fairly young, it was true; but nothing, nothing like this had ever happened to us.

It felt like the end of the world. I remember thinking to myself, and then saying aloud in a wail: “I’ll never laugh again. I’ll never sing again.” I really believed it, then. It felt impossible that I might ever be happy again, that any pleasant future could exist in the aftermath of that terrible morning.

Much of what happened afterward is a merciful blur to me. My parents packed their suitcases and drove to Mississippi, where my cousin lay in a hospital in critical condition. He, at barely 18, had been the one driving. He had been thrown clear somehow, most likely having instinctively reached for the door handle just before the impact.

It was useless; he couldn’t have reached any of them. But he had to try to get them out, and he nearly killed himself trying.

Finally, my cousin had to retreat from the flames, sobbing and screaming in terrible pain from the burns and from the knowledge that they all were gone. He would suffer untold agony and undergo numerous skin grafts to repair the severe burns covering his hands and arms. But he would survive and would, as an adult, become a firefighter. To this day he carries those scars, the mute reminders of that morning when he tried so desperately to save his mother, sisters and grandmother, all trapped in the burning car.

“The scorched-black place on the pavement stayed there for years…”

When my parents got to that part of the coastal highway, later that same day, there was a detour constructed around the still-smoking wreckage and the sizzling ashes from the accident. The scorched-black place on the pavement stayed there for years, and for years we saw it every single time we drove to or from Texas to see the family. It stayed there until the State of Mississippi at last, to our everlasting relief, paved it over and it vanished into memory.

____

My parents stayed gone for what seemed like a very long time, two weeks at least, perhaps three. They took none of us with them. They had serious family business to do; we, meanwhile, all had school to resume after the holidays ended. They had adult friends from the church move in temporarily to look after us during those unending weeks. I don’t remember anything about that time, except for my kindly, white-haired principal drawing me aside in the corridor to tell me: “I’m sorry about your grandmother.”

I nodded dumbly. It wasn’t only her, though, I wanted to tell him. It was all four of them. They were all gone, except for Buster, and he was all burned.

I don’t remember my parents returning from that trip, but of course they did, and we picked up the frayed threads of our lives and went on, after a fashion. Nobody laughed or sang in that house for a long time. And every time my parents traveled for any reason, even just for the day to a church conference, my worry would simmer and then come to a smothered boil as I panicked quietly until they got back.

____

 

Because we did not live in Corpus Christi, we did not get any of my grandmother’s personal belongings or any pieces of furniture from her little white house. It’s a house that I remember well, because it had stairs up to a second-floor attic bedroom where the big boys got to stay. I had never been in a house with a second story except for Grandma Feliciana’s house on Mary Street. Those stairs were always tempting me to go up when I hadn’t been invited there.

They emptied her house before I ever saw it again. Then they sold her house, and eventually it was torn down. I suppose something else was built there on the lot, some commercial building probably. There was nothing special about that house, except to us. 

Five Children and It was one of the very few things that I had to remember my grandmother by, along with a last Christmas gift or two. I read it over and over again as a child, as a teenager and as an adult, so many times that I can’t even guess at a number. I probably have much of the book committed to memory by now.

That volume shows the signs of devoted reading, but it has held together amazingly well. I never open it without looking at the flyleaf page where Feliciana had written in her graceful blue-ink script:

 

        To my dear granddaughter Joyce, with much love from your Grandmother Sáenz.

 

She did love me, and I loved her. And every time I read the book that she gave me –- as I’ve done countless times now –- I escape into that wondrous place I first discovered when she was still alive. I am transported to that sunny Kentish summer where five ordinary kids could get into incredible amounts of trouble with the help of a cranky, wish-granting creature called the Psammead.

  

I imagined myself best friends with sensible Anthea, the heroine, but I grew to love the rest of the Five Children as well: Robert, Jane, the baby brother called The Lamb, and even bossy big brother Cyril. Of course I loved them: They got me through one of the worst times of my life, after all, that second half of sixth grade. That time when I don’t remember laughing, when I might’ve sung but rarely, only as directed in music class or in church. Never because I felt like it, that year.

I don’t recall if I ever told my grandmother what she did for me, by giving me that book. I often wish I could tell her how profoundly she changed my life, how Five Children and It helped me survive the miserable year 1965.

The children in Edith Nesbit’s story wished for wings and magically had them for a single day. But my grandmother’s gift gave me wings of imagination. All these years later, they still let me escape into books.

Editor’s Note: This essay has been adapted and expanded by the author from its original publication in The Dallas Morning News on Dec. 25, 2016.

This post “riffed” on the earlier essay by Millie Davis “Riffing on How Books Save Lives”: https://writersatlarge.com/riff/riffing-on-how-books-save-lives/