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None of us get through life unscathed. We all have things that caused pain or fear or rejection or shame. Sometimes I look back and I marvel at where I am. I feel incredibly lucky that the hurtful and the shameful and the painful didn’t define me. They are there, but they didn’t win. They were overshadowed and overcome and drowned out by one voice.

It was the voice of encouragement and love and wisdom.

It was always there, always available, always ready.

Thank you, Mom.

Thank you for being the voice that made all the difference.

Thank you for being the constant listener. For never tiring of the endless chatter of a little girl full of questions and observations and random thoughts.

Thank you for not laughing or minimizing my fears or my dreams.

Thank you for bringing a little laughter and silliness to late night car rides to the grocery store on pay day. Our tummies rumbling in hunger momentarily forgotten by your outlandish stories and made up songs.

Thank you for fighting to survive when a lot of women would have given up. Divorced with two little girls, no job, no car. Thank you for reinventing yourself from the timid small town girl too scared to drive, to the independent working woman respected by her peers.

Thank you for giving us a Christmas even when you couldn’t afford to buy gifts. For making a game of giving each other imaginary gifts, pictures cut out of magazines of the things we would give each other if…

Thank you for quietly not eating so you’d have enough food for us.

Thank you for putting up with my endless performances and jokes and precocious antics without ever showing annoyance.

Thank you for encouraging my dreams. For making me believe I could be an actress on Broadway one day. For never shooting down a little girl’s pipe dreams.

Thank you for always talking to me like I was a person. For always valuing my opinions and thoughts. Even when they may have been immature or misguided.

Thank you for making me feel like I had a voice. And that it mattered.

Thank you for giving me a beautiful sister and precious brother who became my best friends.

Thank you for walking with me through a painful back surgery and months of wearing an embarrassing brace and body cast. For being sensitive to my struggle but not letting me wallow in self pity.

Thank you for talking me through my first heartbreak. For not hesitating to come get me when I called you sobbing from the school pay phone. For taking me to lunch and letting me talk about it. For telling me that I deserved better. That I would take that heartbreak and I would be stronger. And that I would NEVER let anyone hurt me like that again.

Thank you for letting me sit in on the adult discussions about life and politics. For letting me chime in on occasion and insisting that others listen to what I had to say.

Thank you for making me feel special when I felt stupid or ugly or unlikeable.

Thank you for exposing me to art, to theatre, to Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Joel Gray and Debbie Reynolds. And to jazz. And for taking me to see Fame and Ghandi even though they were rated “R.” For watching A Chorus Line with me over and over because Broadway.

Thank you for marrying a great man who loved us and took care of us. And whose deep appreciation and knowledge of all things rock and roll gave me an education and a passion for a music that influences almost everything I say and do.

Thank you for teaching me about working hard and toughing it out and treating every job as if it were the most important job in the world.

Thank you for listening when I called you from my apartment in Atlanta. Not sure if I should walk out on a long term relationship that I’d thought was my future. For telling me that I would never settle. That I would find that amazing love that is written about in great novels.

Thank you for not laughing or questioning me when I called you after the first date to tell you that I’d met the man I was going to marry.

Thank you for taking care of my brother. For being his nurse and his mom and his friend. And for taking hit after hit during a brutal 18 months and standing with him as he stared Cancer in the face and said “I don’t have time for you. I’ve still got a lot of living to do.” For being steady when your legs were shaking in fear.

For not giving up on life when Cancer won. Even though you wanted to.

Thank you for showing up at my wedding ten days after the worst heartbreak any mother could face. For showing up and smiling and laughing and dancing. For allowing all of us to have a few moments from the grief… to do what he would have wanted us to do.

Thank you for still talking about him. For letting me talk about him. For making sure he is still a part of everything we do. For listening to me when I’m struggling and in pain and missing him so much I don’t think I can breathe. Even though you’re struggling more. For putting your pain on hold to be there for me.

Thank you for still walking through life 15 years later. When I know sometimes each step is just as painful as it was in those darkest days.

Thank you for always being a fighter. For showing me what strength is. For being an example of persevering and not giving up and for being real while doing it.

Thank you for helping me breathe in moments where I felt like I couldn’t.

Thank you for showing me how to be a mother and a friend. And how the two can come together to be a beautiful thing.

Thank you for being a mom and a grandmother who will stop whatever she’s doing to be there for any one of us.

Thank you for being that strong voice for you grandsons and granddaughters too.

Thank you for having a louder voice than any of the bad. For speaking to me over the negative. For giving me the confidence and the optimism that the negative tries so hard to steal.

Because of your voice I was able to grow. To love. To dream. To learn.

Thank you, Mom.

Mom and Todd. One of my favorite pictures of all time.
Mom and Todd. One of my favorite pictures of all time.

 

heart-break15

“I see him sometimes and the look in his eyes

Is one of a man who’s lost treasures untold,

But my heart is gold, I took back my soul”

-Lauryn Hill, I Used To Love Him

I remember my first heartbreak like it was yesterday. I fell in love for the first time at the age of 16. Naive, vulnerable, tender. I fell hard and handed my heart over to a boy two years older than me. This was not the love of my life, but it was my first love. And it brought me to my knees.

Boy (as he shall be called for the purposes of this writing), sucked me in to his world. He made me feel pretty for the first time in my life. He made me feel smart, made me feel important. He would write me poems. He would play me songs that made him think of me. He would look at me in wonderment, always finding different ways to express his feelings for me. It was quite the ego stroke for a young girl.

I put him up on a pedestal. Young love tends to overdramatize and place importance where it is not deserved. It’s not a healthy thing, this love of the young. But it is all encompassing. It rules the world of star crossed lovers.

He would pick me up for school in the morning, his old Chevy Nova covered in black primer rumbling loudly in my the driveway of my childhood home. It was a “work in progress” he said. Then he would grab my hand, squeeze it tightly, exuberant and excited to be with me. His buoyancy was believable, it was contagious. Then one morning he didn’t show up. Didn’t call. Just didn’t show. No warning. Yesterday, on top of the world to call me his. Today, nothing.

I got a ride to school with a friend. I walked, each step heavier than the last, into the open courtyard where students congregated before class. I was immediately surrounded by my girlfriends. They informed me that Boy had showed up with his ex-girlfriend and she was proudly carrying with her a bouquet of roses. I felt like all the air had been sucked out of me. Vision blurry, I made my way to a pay phone as the first bell rang for class. Grateful that everyone was headed indoors, I shakily punched the buttons to call home. My mom picked up and before she could finish saying hello I dissolved. Sobbing uncontrollably. Words broken by the intake of air as I tried to tell her what happened.

She came immediately to pick me up. I will forever be grateful for her understanding. She didn’t minimize the pain I was feeling. She didn’t brush it off as a silly little romance. She didn’t insist that I stay at school. She knew I needed to talk to her and she would never let me down when I needed her.

She comforted me while I cried, she said all the appropriate things. She waited until I calmed down and started breathing normally before giving me the talk. She looked at me with determination, trying to give me strength with her words, willing me to absorb what she was about to say. She told me that I would not sulk, I wouldn’t wallow. She told me that I was strong, stronger than I knew. She told me that I would walk into school the next day and every day after with a smile on my face, laughter on my lips. She told me that I would show him, show myself, that I deserved better. Because I did. She told me that I was destined for great things. That this hurt but that I would get through it. She told me that I was destined for a great love one day. The kind of love that is written about, the stuff of the great songs. And I believed her. I always believed her.

I grieved for the next few days. I woke up from a deep exhausted sleep, the realization hitting me anew each morning, the reminder that my heart had been crushed. But I walked into school every day with a smile. I laughed with my friends. I hid my pain and loneliness behind a smile and a breezy walk. I could do this. I was almost a professional at hiding my true feelings. The whole school was abuzz with the drama of it all. I shrugged it off. I couldn’t be bothered with talk of it. Whatever. But inside, I’m dying.

He came back. He wanted me back. Against my mother’s advice, my sister’s advice- everyone’s advice- I took him back. But I never gave myself, my heart, over to him again. We dated for a few years, through his early years in the Marines. A long distance love fueled by passionate letters and quick visits on his brief leaves. This suited me. I could write about love. But I could never truly give it to him again. Eventually the intense burn of the long distance romance flickered. We were on again, off again. I was having fun with friends, I was planning for college. Then it was over. And I broke his heart.

At sixteen I learned what it was to have loved and lost. I learned to guard my feelings. I learned that I can be forgiving but my heart can’t. I can’t un-ring the bell of hurt and pain. I can go on, I can be strong, but I can never go back. Once forsaken, my heart is done. Never to be reclaimed by the one who tore it asunder. Self preservation? Cold? Smart? I truly don’t know. I just know that it is. It’s how I’m built. I know my limitations, if you want to call it that. But this heart is mine. I’ll do with it what I wish. And I wish to protect it. I will never let it be broken again.

Head in Hands

 “Pick up my guitar and play,

Just like yesterday,

Then I’ll get on my knees and pray

We don’t get fooled again.”

-The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again

April Fool’s Day is a holiday I can get behind. There’s no pressure to get the perfect romantic card and chocolates or flowers (ahem, Valentine’s Day). There’s no expectation of gifts and candy for the kids (I’m looking at you Christmas and Easter). There’s no need to go out and buy green shirts that my kids will wear once (St. Patrick’s Day is for drinking beer, right? Why are the kids even involved?). There’s no Pinterest frenzy of crafts, creations, recipes and hoopla to make you feel inept and inadequate (Pretty much every holiday other than April Fools Day. Seriously- enough, Pinterest.). No, April Fools Day is low-key. It’s all about creativity and having fun at other’s expense. It’s perfect.

I love April Fool’s Day. My personal experience with this holiday goes back to when I was a sweet, naive 12 year old innocent child. I had finished up my homework and was watching the local evening news. The news reporter was interviewing a farmer who was concerned that his crops were suffering from an excessively rainy winter. The farmer was distraught. He was worried about how he was going to feed his family. He and the reporter walked through his fields, through rows of trees. He plucked something off of one of the branches, put it in his mouth and spit it onto the ground, grimacing. The camera zoomed in on the trees, bearing what looks like white fruit. The reporter said there may actually be a marshmallow shortage in the fall because of the damaged crops.

I stared at the t.v. dumbfounded. Huh? Marshmallows? I slowly made my way into my Mom’s room. “Mom? Do marshmallows grow on trees?”. She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. “I mean, I always thought they were made, like in a candy factory. But the news just said that the marshmallow trees are damaged from all the rain.” My mom started laughing. When she saw the genuinely confused look on my face she tried to compose herself. With amusement in her eyes she explained that it was an April Fool’s joke. I was indignant. You’re supposed to be able to trust the news! Why would they play a joke on their viewers! That’s just not right, don’t they have more important things to do?

Thus began a long-running joke in my family. I was teased relentlessly for being so gullible. This story was told to every friend I brought home. Family friends, neighbors, anyone who would listen was regaled with the story of my flaky air-headedness. Any opportunity to bring it up and give me a hard time was not missed. It has been roughly 29 years since that perplexing and vexing April. And still, the joke lives on. Just a few months ago, on my birthday, my nephew had a small tree branch with marshmallows taped to it that he proudly presented to me. They will never tire of this joke. My kids have now taken up the cause to make Mom feel stupid and will gladly carry on the tradition as well.

And there’s more. When I was older, I apparently felt the need to break up with boyfriends on April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure why. I never was aware that I did this. But I broke up with my high school boyfriend and two different college boyfriends on this day. Each time, the guy thought I was pulling a prank on him. Ooops. My family also took to warning guys about this. They told my husband when they first met him that if he made it past April 1st, then he was o.k.

So, me and April Fool’s Day, we have a history. I feel connected to this holiday and it’s spirit of absurdity. I have always wanted to pull off the perfect April Fool’s hoax. I have ideas, I think about it months ahead of time. But every year, the day sneaks up on me. I tell myself next year will be the year. I’ll plan ahead. It will be awesome. If I can execute the perfect deception, the most clever trick, then maybe I’ll have some peace. If I can leave people befuddled and shocked, them maybe I can finally shed the stigma of that long ago spring day of mischief.

And one final note to my family, my friends, my husband. All of those people who have relished the teasing and the taunting for all these years. I’m not alone. I am not the first person to be duped by a news show. In April 1, 1957 the BBC aired a segment on a false spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. This prank resulted in hundreds of inquiries as to how people could grow their own spaghetti trees.

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First, let’s make a few rules. News stations, news reporters, you are not allowed to take part in the shenanigans. Your job is to fixate on one issue to the exclusion of all other news or to drum up partisan political scandals. You stick to your hyper vigilant obsessive reporting and leave the funny stuff to the funny guys. It’s already hard enough to believe what’s being reported without your throwing in silly little pranks.

Second, as for the spaghetti trees… Maybe it’s just me, but marshmallows growing on trees seems much more plausible than spaghetti trees. Those silly Brits.  Imagine, thinking spaghetti grows on trees! Ha!

And third, I just checked and Pinterest is in fact trying to ruin April Fools Day. Dear Pinterest, Just. Stop.

 

 

This week’s Remember the Time blog hop is “I remember where I was when….”

“Hard wired to concieve, so much we’d have to stow it.  Even needs have needs, tiny giants made of tinier giants, Don’t wear eyelids so I don’t miss the last laugh of this show (the dashboard melted but we still have the radio)”

-Modest Mouse, Dashboard

It was 1992, I was a sophomore in college.  I spent a lot of time in the library.  I would go there to do research, to study.  I loved all the quiet places you could hide.  Desks tucked in between rows of books.  Endless shelves filled with endless knowledge.  Even though I found myself supremely frustrated at times – all of the tables and desks would be occupied, the one book you needed would be checked out- it was still my refuge.  The computer lab was quite different.  That was a place that I despised.  I hated the harsh fluorescent lights, the rows of humming computer monitors, the room full of people who were obviously way smarter than me.

Luckily I didn’t have to venture in to that cold, foreign place often.  I had a word-processor that I was able to get by with.  Most of my needs were met by this little gem.  Basically it was a glorified electronic typewriter, but as an English major, I didn’t need much more.

She was a beauty...
She was a beauty

Every once in a while I would have to suck up my pride and my swallow my fears.  I would run out of ink and not have enough money to buy more.  Or some sadistic professor would come up with an assignment that needed more than a word processor could handle.  On these occasions I would try to tag along with a friend or recruit someone to go with me.  Yes, sad.  But I would rather ask a friend how to turn on the computer than ask the lab assistant.  I preferred to keep my level of ignorance to a close circle of friends.  DOS commands confused me and made my stomach twist in to knots.  I was convinced that I was going to hit the wrong button and blow up a computer.  Then I would be known around campus as that girl that broke the computer lab.

Still gives me chills...
Still gives me chills…

I really didn’t bother to put in the time to learn how to work a computer.  I figured that as a writer and/or English teacher I wouldn’t ever need to touch a computer.  Only engineers and technology types would really need to master these confusing beasts.  Your brain had to be wired a certain way to grasp codes and prompts and all the necessary details to be fully functional on a computer.  All I had to do was fake it through the few assignments that popped up occasionally, graduate college, and I would never have to use a computer again.  Just like algebra.

One day in Spanish, our professor sent us down to the computer lab.  He was going to have one of the students show us a great new tool that we could use for research.  I groaned.  I really didn’t see the need.  Any research that I couldn’t find in a book or encyclopedia I could find on microfiche.

Remember microfiche???
Remember microfiche???

I followed the class, yawning and detached.  My mind wandered as the student held court in front of a computer.  He was animated as he tried to explain this new “program” to us.  I knew he was one of those technology types so I didn’t really pay attention.  Of course he’s excited, he’s in his element talking about his passion.  But then I started to notice the other students leaning in.  They started peppering him with questions.  They seemed intrigued.  They seemed interested.  I tuned in to what they were asking, what the student was explaining.  It was confusing and didn’t make a lot of sense.  The world, via computers, was connected by a vast web of…  I don’t really know what.  What he was trying to explain seemed incomprehensible.  Like infinity or what is beyond our solar system.  I knew that this was something big.  I knew that this was something that we would all learn more about.  I knew that my plans of never touching a computer again were probably just a pipe dream.  That computer lab in the English building, that is where I was when I learned about the internet.  That is the moment that I knew the world just got a lot smarter.

Still boggles the mind...
Still boggles the mind…

Looking back on those years, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come.  My first job out of college I had to master Power Point and Excel, programs my kids have since learned in elementary school.  My hatred of computers has turned into an all out love affair.  I’m still not the most technically proficient, but who among us could imagine our lives with out our computers or smart phones?  Who could imagine life with out the World Wide Web?  Something that I had barely heard of only 20 years ago (dear lord) is so integral to our everyday lives now.  The very thing I despised and didn’t understand is the vehicle for something that I do that I love, that gives me so much happiness.  I still get frustrated. I’m still trying to figure out how to add side bars and widgets, but I know I’ll figure it out.  So, I’m not afraid to admit that I was wrong.  Computers are here to stay.  They have become more user friendly to be sure, but I was wrong in my dismissal of them.  I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t have a need for them.  I was ignorant as to all they could do.  Computers were not just some academic requirement that served no practical purpose.  Unlike Algebra…  I was right about that.

“Remember the times that we used to share…  You got to remember the times that we used to share….  But the only way for you to survive is to open your heart, it will guide.”

-Lenny Kravitz, Sittin’ On Top of the World

I didn’t want a younger sibling.  I wasn’t completely opposed to the idea, it just wasn’t something I had wished for.  What I wanted was a puppy.  The day that my mom and step dad announced they were having a baby I knew the dream of a dog had just died. I acted happy, just kind of went through the motions of how I figured I should feel.  It wasn’t that I was unhappy,  more like indifferent.  I found the subject completely boring and all the talk about the baby for nine months (which to a seven year old feels like about 3 years) got really old and boring.

Then he was here.  My little brother.  Todd.  I was expecting to be unimpressed.  I didn’t expect to really care too much about this little thing that had taken over my family before he was even born.  But I was sucked in.  I had never seen anything so adorable.  I immediately felt love and protectiveness and awe.

My life didn’t change much at first.  Aside from having to tiptoe around our house when he was sleeping, I still went about my business.  I still played with my friends every day.  The only thing that was different was that I rushed home from school to see him before going outside.  There was  a different feeling in our house.  There was a light, an excitement.  He made our little blended family a real family.  We all were madly in love with this little person and we all laughed together at his every coo and grimace.

Eventually the baby became a toddler and no less cute.  He continued to charm us all.  But our roles became clear.  My sister was like a second mother to him.  She was 11 when he was born and had always had a maternal side.  I was his sister.  I doted on him briefly, then I would go do my thing.  As my brother got older, it was clear he and my sister had a very special bond.  He adored her and was very attached to her.  And it was clear that I was his sister.  I was the person he would harass when the urge struck.

I was defenseless against his antics.  I couldn’t respond in kind.  I was 8 years older than him and any retaliation would have resulted in swift punishment.  I couldn’t even really complain or tell on him.  The response would be Really?  He’s 8 years younger than you and you’re tattling on him???   I’m not saying he was ever mean to me.  His stuff was just mischievous little brother shenanigans.  But annoying to an older sister for sure.

One year, his best friend brought him a souvenir from a trip to Asia.  It was a Japanese spinning drum, just like the kind used during the final fight scene of Karate Kid 2.  I was about 15 or 16 years old.  Like any typical teenager, sleep was incredibly important to me.  Not at night, night time is fun.  But in the morning.  All week I would look forward to sleeping in on Saturday morning.  My brother was an early riser at that age.  He would get up early on Saturday mornings with my Stepdad and they would watch He-Man cartoons and eat Cocoa Pebbles together.  At some point, when he got bored with cartoons, he would sneak in to my room with his little drum and get as close to my ear as possible and spin it fast.  I would wake to the sound of this hellish toy, jumping out of bed in a startled flurry.  “Todd!!!” I never really yelled anything else.  Just his name.  What else can you yell at a little mischievous twerp who is so good natured at the very moment that he’s pestering you?  He did this off and on for months.   He would scamper out of my room gleefully.  He wasn’t scared of me at all.  And he was super proud of himself for riling me.

Other times he would sneak on to the phone while I was talking to my friends.  I would only realize he was eavesdropping when we would say something that made him laugh.  I would hear his laughter that sounded like light bouncing around the room.  He didn’t even try to muffle it.  “Todd!!!”  I would yell, then apologize to my friend.

When I went off to college our relationship changed.  I was still his sister and he still enjoyed playing his little jokes on me, but this is the time when we became friends.  He missed me.  Or maybe he missed having someone in the house to harass.  Either way, I had transitioned from his annoying older sister to his cool sister who was in college and did all kinds of cool stuff like go to awesome concerts and parties.  He occasionally would call me at school to ask for my advice about girl problems.  The first time he did this I got off the phone and cried.  My little brother was growing up, he was starting to be in to girls.  And he wanted my advice.  I was honored.

We both loved music.  He leaned more towards hip hop and I was definitely more into rock and alternative, but sometimes our musical tastes melded.  He started liking Bob Marley.  I started liking Biggie.  We both loved Lenny Kravitz.  I would make him cd’s when a new Lenny album came out and he made me cool mix cd’s of rap songs I liked. Even though our relationship had matured beyond sibling rivalry, he still didn’t miss an opportunity to tease me or make a joke at my expense.  Except now his humor had evolved and it always had me laughing hysterically.  I couldn’t stay mad at him.  He could annoy me one second and have me laughing in spite of myself the next.

Then Todd got sick.  Real sick.  He had Stage 4 cancer.  It was bad and we were all devastated.  He was only 16.  Somehow he still managed to be funny.  He took his comic antics to the chemo room with him, to the hospital, everywhere.  No one was safe.  His Doctor, who was brilliant and wonderful was also quite serious.  My brother always found a way to break through his facade and get him to laugh. He had a gift for making you fall for whatever prank he dreamed up.  When the nurses would flush out his i.v. lines, he would act like the saline was burning him.  They would fall for it every time, panicking for a second before realizing he was just having fun with them.  A lot of people laugh in the face of pain, but we were all amazed at his way of coping with things.  He actually was having fun, he was finding little moments, little pockets of time, when he could lighten the situation and have a good laugh and look around at a room full of smiling, laughing faces.

He took to prank calling me at work during this time.  He was missing a lot of school for chemo treatments and I would often meet him and my Mom for lunch near the hospital on my lunch break.  But he couldn’t just call me and tell me where to meet them.  He had to take advantage of these moments and be my little annoying brother once again.  He was a master at using different voices and dialects.  He would call me up, claiming to be one of my customers and would make up crazy stories about his pager and what he “accidentally” did to it, or he would be an angry customer getting me all flustered before revealing his identity with his trademark laugh.  A laugh that was pure joy and glee and self satisfaction.  I was barely able to feel happiness during this time.  Yet somehow he laughed and joked and didn’t let the situation get the best of him.  And in the process he helped all of us get through those days.  I know his intention when he would pull these pranks was not to brighten my day, he was doing what he loved doing.  Finding a situation that no one else would think of laughing about and figuring out how to make it funny.  Every time I would hear the laughter over the phone and realize I’d been had, I always said the same thing, “Todd!!”  I still had no other words of recrimination for him.  Even being the butt of his jokes I had to laugh and aside from the early Saturday mornings, I can’t say I every truly minded.

For 18 months life stood still and moved at breakneck speed all at the same time.  We packed a lot in to a year and a half.  Every Thursday Todd and his girlfriend would come over to the apartment where Joe and I lived and we would go out to eat dinner and go see a movie.  We took them to one of my friends’ Halloween parties with a lot of my college friends.  He later told me it was the best night of his life.  We took him to a Lenny Kravitz concert with us.  We spent a lot of quality time together for those last 18 months.  That time was a gift that I will cherish more than anything the material world could ever have to offer.  I got time with my little brother.  Time to bond as adults.  Time for him to really get to know my husband before we got married.  Time to laugh.  It was by far the most difficult time in my life, yet the most precious.  In spite of the gripping fear I felt every day that I would lose my brother…  in spite of waking up every morning for 18 months and being hit with the realization that it all wasn’t some bad dream…  in spite of everything, I wouldn’t trade those 18 months for anything.  And through those last months, he gave me the greatest gift.  He was still my little mischievous brother.  He still played his pranks, he still made me laugh.  He still annoyed the hell out of me.  I still said my exasperated “Todd!!”  multiple times a week.  He always said he didn’t have time for cancer.  By that, he meant that he wasn’t going to let cancer stop him from living and having fun.  But he also showed me that cancer wasn’t going to change our relationship.  Yes, it evolved, as it would have if he hadn’t gotten sick.  But he still was the little boy, catching me off guard, pulling off his jokes and making me laugh even when I wanted to get mad.

Even now, I revert back to those times.  Sometimes when my husband has teased me or pulled off a prank at my expense.  Or when one of my kids does something mischievous and funny at the same time.  I catch myself blurting out my little brother’s name in mixed joy and frustration.  Those moments, I know they happen out of a conditioned response to certain behaviors, but I also think it’s my brother’s way of telling me to lighten up a little.  There’s always a reason to laugh, always a reason to smile.  And it reminds me of what he and I shared.  Yes, it was sibling rivalry.  But out of sibling rivalry comes the best friendships.  And when I look back on my memories of him, the ones that come to my mind the most- the ones that make me smile- are the ones where he was being my little brother.  Those times when he irritated me and exhausted me and frustrated me, those are the times I cherish the most.  Those memories are the ones I share with my children so they will know who their Uncle Todd was.  Those memories are the ones that I reach for when I’m missing him most.  Those antics that helped me laugh through 18 months of pain and fear, and those are the memories that help me now.  After 14 years I still get caught off guard and overwhelmed with the pain of missing my little brother.  But I always think about those times.  Inevitably they have me shaking my head and smiling… laughing through my tears.

remember-the-time-blog-hop

Once again I have the joy of participating in the “Remember the Time” blog hop.  The subject this week was “Sibling Rivalry”.  I’m so grateful to the hilarious and talented writers of The Waiting and Are You Finished Yet for creating this and allowing me to participate!

“And you can tell everybody this is your song, it may be quite simple but now that it’s done, I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind, that I put down in words…  How wonderful life is when you’re in the world”

-Elton John, Your Song

I occasionally get to participate in a blog-hop with some funny, talented writers. They pick the subject and the rest of us get to write about it. This week the subject is our imaginary friend. I recently wrote about Billy Monkey and all the trouble he and I got in to. I don’t think we need to re-hash his short stint as my partner in crime. Selena was an imaginary friend of a different kind. She wasn’t my creation…. she was inflicted on me.

My sister is 3 years older than me.  And she spent most of our childhood leveraging those three years for all they were worth.  She was older, smarter, cooler, prettier.  I looked up to her, I wanted to be her.  I must have driven her crazy following her around, trying to copy her mannerisms, trying to hang with her friends.  Where she was cool, I was awkward.  Where she had boys of all ages fawning all over her, I was getting into fist fights with the boys on my street.  Where she had perfectly feathered blonde hair, I had mousy brown hair that wouldn’t be tamed, that she “affectionately” called “Greg Brady hair”.

Her.
Her
Me.
Me.

Even though we were very close, we fought often and we fought viscously.  It didn’t take much to set us off.  A simple disagreement would escalate into a scuffle in a matter of minutes.  Some of this was due to the fact that we were constantly in each other’s way.  We shared a small bedroom and a tiny closet and a half broken dresser.  It was tight quarters and her 80’s glam leg warmers and glittery hairspray didn’t mesh well with my dirty socks and endless piles of junk.  But the living arrangement also made us closer.  We would stay up late at night talking in the dark, long after we were supposed to be asleep.  In those moments we were each other’s confidants, supporters, therapists, best friends.  But in the light of day, it would fluctuate from camaraderie to down right brawls.  We would be covered in bloody scratches, pulled hair, bruised limbs, sometimes bloody noses.  I usually held my own in these physical match ups, but in the messy minefield of psychological warfare I was outmatched and outplayed.

She took joy in finding small ways to torture me.  She would wake me up for school in the morning by spraying me in the face with a squirt from a water bottle.  To be fair, I have never been a morning person and the job of waking me up every morning probably wasn’t a pleasure.  The worst was when she would wait until I was walking out the door to the bus stop in the morning and say “Aren’t you going to fix your hair today?”, or “You’re wearing that?” or sometimes she would just look at me and snicker, implying that I looked ridiculous.  I eventually started getting ready at my best friend’s house so I wouldn’t have to go to school with her words echoing in my head all day.

One night she just started talking to someone in our room and carried on a one-sided conversation.  Of course I played right in to her hand and asked who she was talking to.  After pretending to not want to tell me, she finally revealed to me that there was a spirit who lived in our closet named Selena.  It became pretty clear that Selena was on team Kristen and didn’t care much for me.  Selena only communicated with my sister.  My sister would often ask me to do things for her.  “Go get me a glass of water”, “Get up and change the channel”, you get the idea.  I think this is part of the older sibling DNA, they are inherently bossy and demanding.  If I refused, she would just have a little conversation with Selena that would always end in some kind of implied danger to befall me or veiled threat from our closet dweller.

Of course, I kind of knew that Selena wasn’t real.  But after years of looking up to my sister, the power she had over me, coupled with the occasional abuse, it was like a sibling’s version of Stockholm Syndrome.  I bought in to it.  I usually gave in to Selena’s requests because what if?  Selena had an evil streak and I didn’t want to piss her off.  And my sister was incredibly convincing.

Selena didn’t last for too long.  I don’t remember if my sister got bored with the whole thing or if my mom caught wind of it, but eventually she just stopped appearing in our lives.  She is just one part of the timeline of our childhood that all seemed to center around that tiny little bedroom with the broken dresser.

My sister got married after high school and moved out and I had my own room for a few years before I left for college.  She only lived a few miles away, and I loved having a room all to myself.  But I missed her.  In spite of the teasing, the fighting, the manipulating, she was my friend.  No one knows me like my sister knows me.  We can speak volumes with a look, with one word, with a hug.  No one else has shared the experiences we have shared together.  I don’t know if anyone can understand you better than the person you shared your childhood with.  These are the years that form you, that make you who you are.  And your sibling goes through all of it with you.  There’s nothing I can’t talk to her about.  I know that I can go to her, call her, show up on her door step- and she is there for me.  And I can do it with little explanation because she knows me that well.

I still look up to my sister.  We are both married.  We both have three kids.  We still tease each other.  Scars from bloody scratches have healed.  Bloody noses have dried up.  Name calling has been forgiven.  And what remains is the two of us.  I call her on the phone and it’s just the two of us and I’m back in that little bedroom, laying in my bed in the dark speaking to the night.  Revealing my thoughts, my feelings, my insecurities or frustrations or joys – and she is there.  She is still that little girl in the bed next to mine listening and confiding.  She is still the one who understands, she is still the one who is there for me.  She is still my best friend.

remember-the-time-blog-hop

woman__s_back_study_by_letholdus-d4jetp8

“Yesterday, lost in a crowd, yesterday lost in a crowd, I was lost…. now I’m found.  Yesterday I was lost, and you kicked me some food. Boy it was nice, to be here with you.”

-Rusted Root, Lost In A Crowd

My childhood was one long awkward period. Most people have a few awkward years, I had about a decade. I was a total tomboy who didn’t care about clothes or looks. By the time I entered Middle School in 7th grade, I started to notice boys and decided I should get with the program. This also happened to be when I found out that I had severe scoliosis and would have to wear a not so cute back brace. This lovely accessory consisted of a hard plastic shell that wrapped around my torso, covering everything from my shoulder blades to my hip bones. It was not subtle or discreet. Big shirts and sweaters did little to camouflage what could best be described as a large plastic turtle shell.

I was a good patient, I wore the brace for the prescribed amount of time, 23 hours a day. I could only take it off to shower and do my back exercises. I tried to make the best of it. Luckily, the kids at school were pretty cool about it. For some reason they spared me of any kind of harassment. They actually were pretty supportive.

Still, I had a decent amount of self pity. I rarely ever voiced it, but I definitely thought it and felt it. I was pissed that I had to wear this thing, I hated that it cut into the top of my thighs every time I sat in a chair, causing my legs to go numb. I hated that it made me look like a hunchback. I hated that I had sweat trickling down my back even in the dead of winter. I hated that when lying down I could barely get up without someone’s help. I hated the two giant velcro strips that held it in place across my stomach. In all, I really just hated everything about it.

Every few months we had the pleasure of meeting with the doctors to hear how everything we were doing was not working. The S shaped curve of my spine was getting worse. Surgery started to come up more each visit.  I wouldn’t say I sulked when we went to these appointments, but I was not my usual chatty self. I basically buried my nose in a book and tried to ignore my surroundings.  One day I looked up from my book long enough to notice a little girl bouncing around the waiting room, talking animatedly to anyone who would listen. She was about 5 years old and all the nurses loved her.  She seemed to know everyone in the office.  A nurse confided in us that the little girl’s spine was so severely curved that it was in danger of crushing her lungs and heart if it wasn’t corrected. A case like hers at such a young age was extremely rare. Surgery basically stunts the growth of the torso, and the doctor’s weren’t sure how to proceed.

It wasn’t long after we learned about this little girl that the doctors informed us that I would have to have the surgery. Even though it wasn’t unexpected, this was not what we wanted to hear. The doctors started detailing the ins and outs of surgery, risk of paralysis, two weeks in the hospital, a cast for six months. At some point I stopped listening. All I could think was  that I wore that  *$#@-ing brace for over a year for nothing…”  Mom and I had a tearful moment in the car after that appointment. After we hugged each other and cried,  I remember thinking about the little 5 year old in the waiting room. The adorable little girl who walked around like she owned the place and knew all the nurses and staff by name. She was this little spunky ray of light in a dreary institutional office. She was also going to have the surgery. Except her growth was going to be stunted at the age of five. They didn’t know what would happen after that.   Even though I was scared and I knew my Mom was scared, I also knew that I would be ok. That little girl had a much rougher road ahead of her and no one could tell those parents that their daughter would be ok.

The surgery took 8 hours. They placed a steel rod from the top of my spine to my tail bone, tightened it with screws at each end to instantly lengthen and un-curl the S shaped curve of my spine. Everything went well. But the pain was beyond description.  Every nerve in your body is attached to your spine. My entire spine had been tampered with in a somewhat brutal way. There was no part of my body that wasn’t screaming in pain.

Probably the worst part of the whole experience was when the nurses would come in to my room to turn me. I had to be turned over every two hours to prevent bed sores. The bed I was in was a special bed designed specifically for these kinds of surgeries. It was a narrow bed, and when it was time to be turned over, the nurses would lay an identical bed on top of me, clamp a large wheel down and lock the two beds together, with me in the middle, unable to breath. They would then spin the wheel until I was rotated to the opposite position. Not only was this ridiculously painful, but it had to happen 12 times a day.  Once I became lucid enough to know what was going to happen, I would start to panic whenever I saw two nurses enter the room. Two nurses meant I was being turned.

One time in particular I decided I’d had enough. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would not be turned again, bed sores be damned. I kind of freaked out. I had no control over what they did, but I freaked out as much as someone who can only move their mouth and eyeballs can. One of the nurses calmly knelt down next to my bed so that I could look her in the eyes. In a gentle, yet firm voice told me about another patient who was down the hall who’d just had the same surgery as me. He had been in a horrible car accident and experienced a devastating impact on his spine. He was lying down the hall experiencing everything I was experiencing. Except he was deaf and blind. He was in the same situation as me. Except he couldn’t hear or see. I was stunned. This shut me up pretty fast. What she was telling me sounded like hell. To be in this kind of pain. To be in the dark, in every way, while lying immobile in a hospital. To be in this, the most vulnerable of positions, and to not know what was going on at all times, to have to rely on someone else being there with you to communicate everything that was going on….   the thought of this man and his experience haunted me the whole time I was in the hospital. As bad as this all was for me, I still could see who entered my room. I could communicate with each person that entered my room. I could refuse medications that I knew would make me sick when a new nurse came on duty. I still had some control. This man they told me about was vulnerable in every sense of the word. This man’s story didn’t make my pain or my fear go away, but it sure put it in perspective.

As a parting gift before I could leave the hospital, they put me in a “body cast”. It could be more accurately described as a “torso cast”. It was a hard shell, this time of woven plaster. But this shell didn’t stop at my shoulder blades, it came up over my shoulders, covering every part of my torso. And this was permanent, for six months, at least. This one wasn’t coming off until it was sawed off. As much as I hated those loud obnoxious velcro strips on my brace, I really missed them now that I had to live in this contraption.  I cried for a while back in my hospital room after they put it on. No one really had explained what it would look like. And it was so bad. And I would have to wear it for six months.

I had to be on bed rest for a few weeks after returning home from the hospital. Finally the day came when I was declared liberated and could leave the house. I should have been excited, but I was dreading going out in the real world. I had always been on the go, spending all my time outside. I got stir crazy really quick, so it wasn’t like me to want to prolong my confinement. But I was terrified of people laughing at me, of looking ridiculous. I knew that my cast was going to attract a lot of stares. I tried to give myself a pep talk. I knew my parents were excited for us all to go out to eat. I’m sure they felt liberated themselves. I tried to will myself to not care what people thought. The old me, the tomboy who didn’t care about looks, she would have come in handy at that time.

When it was time to leave I broke down. I confessed my vanity to my parents. I was so ashamed to feel the way I was feeling, but I couldn’t help it. Of course they understood. But they also knew that I couldn’t become a shut-in for 6 months. My mom tried. She told me that I was strong and after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t let what other people thought stop me from enjoying my life. Everything she said made sense, but it didn’t cut through the stubbornness that had taken a hold of me.

A few minutes after she left my room, my Stepdad came in to my room. I was braced for him to order me to get up and get in the car. Instead he sat down on my sister’s bed and put his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to talk and it wouldn’t be easy for him. This was unusual. Emotional matters were always handled by my mom. He started explaining that he knew exactly how I felt, that he had actually felt the same way many times. I had no idea what he was talking about. He held up a hand and kind of waved it, trying to clue me in as to what he was referring to. Ohhhh. That. He had been born without fingers on his right hand. Of course I always knew this, but I never really thought about it. I never thought of it as something that would bother him. It was just part of him, it seemed normal to us.

He explained the looks he gets from some people when they see his hand. The reactions he gets when someone reaches out to shake his hand and pulls their hand back startled.  He had been teased when he was younger. And his hand was there forever. It’s not something he just had to deal with for six months. He pointed out that it never stopped him from doing anything. And it didn’t. He played football in high school. He built a deck on the back of our house, he could fix just about anything. I guess that’s why I never thought too much about it, he never let it stop him.  He goes on to tell me that he had to learn at a young age to shrug off people’s reactions.

As he’s telling me this, I feel like he’s sharing something really important with me. He is a quiet man. He doesn’t share his feelings or emotions easily. But he was talking to me about something I’m sure he didn’t really like to discuss. I felt honored. He approached me with understanding and love and patience and he shared a piece of him that I had never understood or even really thought about. And he got through my insecurity, my nerves, my anxiety. If he could go out in the world and deal with people’s reactions and not let it affect him, then I could too.

I got through surgery. I got through the ordeal of wearing a cast for six months. I survived the humiliation. I was incredibly lucky that once again all the kids at school were totally cool about it. My friends weren’t embarrassed to hang out with me. I was so lucky that I came out unscathed. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the brave little girl in the waiting room. I am grateful that the nurse told me about the patient who couldn’t see or hear. But what I’m most grateful for, the part that has stuck with me all of these years later, is that my Stepdad shared his experience with me. I since then have paid a little more attention and I am amazed at all the things he’s accomplished.  So many of them are things that are especially difficult to do with a disabled hand. I kind of wonder if he subconsciously chooses hobbies like golf, rebuilding a car engine, making specialty bullets for his collectible guns, precisely because they are difficult for him to do. It’s like he is continuously showing himself and the rest of us that nothing’s going to stop him. In addition to helping me leave the house that night, he also gave me an even better gift. He showed me that he loved me, that I was his daughter, that I was worthy of sharing a very private part of himself with. At the end of it all, this scoliosis….  this surgery….  it showed me just how lucky I really am.