During the 8 months I was on my OMG-it’s-cancer blog sabbatical, a lot happened. I mean, a LOT. Not just with me, but also with Jerri and the rest of the family. I need to catch you up. But where to begin?
Hmm, let’s see. I could tell you about Jerri’s eviction and frantic search for new housing. Housing for New Hope, the organization managing Jerri’s apartment complex didn’t call it eviction, of course. They called it “helping Jerri to achieve her goals.” In all fairness, Jerri did want to move to a safer part of town but I don’t know. She was told she had to vacate the premises by October 1. She was given 8 weeks to find a new place and that’s not much time when you’re unemployed with bad credit and no deposit saved. Not to mention your income is only $700 a month and there’s a waiting list for all subsidized housing in the city. That reeks of eviction to me. Just stinks to high heaven. Plus your sister, who would normally help you is recovering from a thyroidectomy and treatment, which Hap, the apartment manager knew. It’s as if someone was purposely taking advantage of my incapacitation and inability to advocate for her.
I could tell you how Jerri found an apartment all on her own–a brand new apartment in an elderly gentleman’s home with a separate entrance in a good part of town with utilities included for $600 a month. Her new landlord interviewed several prospective tenants then called Jerri to say he really wanted her to take the apartment. I could tell you how she teared up when she told me. “He really wants me. Nobody ever really wants me!”
I could tell you about dumpster diving for a microwave that works just fine except for the LCD panel. Dumpster-diving. I can check that off my bucket list.
I could tell you about Jerri’s job search, because let’s face it, no one can live on $100 a month after paying for housing. I could tell you how “felony friendly” companies like Walmart and Sears hired her and then took back their offers when her background check included a 21 year old felony charge. A charge, BTW, that our parents filed. I could tell you how she persisted and again, all on her own, found a part-time position doing in-store promotion for a new dog food.
Those are all great stories filled with indignation, wonder, potentially useful insights, and tossed with just the right amount of snarkiness. But perhaps I’ll leave those for another day. What I find I most want to tell you about is this, a recent conversation with my sister. She was in her new apartment which is virtually unfurnished, sitting on an air mattress, which aside from one chair is the only place to sit other than the floor, and she looked around at the dumpster microwave in her tiny kitchen, her ancient TV on a bookcase (another dumpster find), and said, “You know, I’m lucky.”
I looked around too, and said, “How’s that, Jerri?”
Her eyes lighted. “You probably don’t think so because you’ve got a nice house and a good job making good money. You drive a Lexis and can pretty much afford whatever you want. But for a person like me, I’m really lucky.
“Just look at all I have!” She swept the room with her hand. “I’ve got a nice, safe apartment with heat and air conditioning. A lot of people like me don’t have that. They live in a ratty boarding house, or a group home, or they go to a shelter at night or sleep in box on the street.
She got up and took the 2 steps required to reach her tiny kitchen and threw open the refrigerator door. “I’ve got a refrigerator full of food.” (Her case worker had taken her to a food bank that week.) “Just look at how much food I’ve got! I can eat for weeks and weeks. A lot of people like me don’t have enough to eat.
She motioned to her coat closet. “I’ve got a coat and plenty of clothes and shoes.” (She buys everything at the Durham Rescue Mission store or Good Will.) “A lot of people like me don’t have clothes like I do.
She sat back down on the air mattress and looked up at me. “I’ve got you and Catherina (her case worker and friend). A lot of people like me don’t have anyone. They’re all alone. But I’m not. I’ve got you.
“When you think about all I have, I’ve got so much more than a lot of people. I’m just, you know, really lucky. For someone like me.”
You know, when I embarked on this grand adventure of helping my sister recover from bipolar, I never expected to be the one who gained anything from the experience. Life is just full of surprises.
This week, the lead headline in my LinkedIn Today news blast was Why Weirdos Outperform Normals. The banner across the top boasted ‘Top Content, Tailored for You’. Thanks for that, LinkedIn. Good to know you scanned my profile and this is the story you came up with.
So I read it – with a title like that I practically had too – and I was both intrigued and repulsed all at the same time. The author named four extremely successful business people and factors that differentiated them as “weird”. You know. Things like “wants his daughters to be lesbians and drug addicts.” Wait. What? That got me pretty fired up – what kind of freaking idiot parent would EVER wish addiction on his daughters – and I followed the associated link over to a blog entry by James Altucher called I Want My Kids to be Drug Addicts. In it, he tells the story of his kid’s babysitter, Lynn McKay, who overcame an addiction to Ecstasy, wrote a book, wound up on Oprah, traveled the world encouraging other recovering addicts, and then started a gluten-free bakery to the Stars. As you can imagine, it was tweeted over 100 times and at last count, there were 53 comments.
One commenter wrote, “Very interesting and inspiring. We need darkness to see light.”
Lynn McKay, responding to another commenter, said:
Every day is a choice, will I take responsibility for my life, my happiness, my choices, etc. or will I lay blame to my past, my limitations, and clutch my misery like a comfy old blanket? Sometimes when you dig deep you realize that you like the misery, the known, the old ways of acting, doing, and being. It is the light that truly scares the shit out of us.
There is a lot of darkness in life. There is darkness around us and there is darkness inside us. I understand what Lynn is saying – sometimes there is so much darkness, we get comfortable with it. It feels like a friend. The light tries to break through and we close the curtains and put on our sun glasses. As if its the light that’s going to hurt us.
Jerri reminded me of this just yesterday when she brought up a particularly dark moment from our past.
When we were teenagers, she brought home a stray dog, a German Shepherd mix, and named her Chelsea. Jerri has always had a soft spot for animals and was forever bringing home the lost, the injured, and the unwanted. Chelsea was a beautiful, warm-hearted dog and not too long after she came to live with us, our family moved from a house on a dirt road in a very rural area to a house in another town on a busy highway. Dad put up a fence around the backyard but Chelsea was a jumper. She liked to hang out in the neighbor’s yard, terrorizing her cats, and after several calls and said neighbor’s husband threatening to get out his shotgun, Mom began confining Chelsea to the garage. We had other dogs at the time, all of them house dogs but seems like Chelsea didn’t play well with others.
At the time Chelsea was sentenced to life in garage, Jerri was 15. She hadn’t adjusted very well to the move, she’d finally reached her limit with Mom’s constant criticism and had begun talking back, and she’d started dabbling in drugs. Chelsea was Jerri’s responsibility and in the midst of her own emotional chaos, she’d forget to feed the dog. One day, after she’d forgotten yet again, Mom took Chelsea to the vet and had her euthanized. Just like that. She could have taken Chelsea to the pound. She could have put an ad in the paper and tried to find her another home. But no. Mom had a healthy dog, in the prime of her life, killed. And after it was done, she told us.
I can still hear Mom trying to justify her actions. “She was locked up in the garage all the time anyway. It was no life for a dog.” Yeah, but it was, at least, LIFE. I can still feel the horror of that moment. I can still see Jerri’s face as she processed what Mom had done. Her outrage and utter despair.
Years later, Mom admitted, in so many words, that she regretted killing Chelsea. That she was so angry with Jerri for all the trouble she was causing, for making her life hell by refusing to be a perfect daughter and positive reflection on her stellar parenting skills, that she used Chelsea to lash out. That is one scary, vengeful streak. What I suspect is, in that moment, when the darkness was rising, when Mom could have fought it, instead she succumbed and carried out a terrible act that could never be undone.
Ok, so we’ve all felt this, haven’t we? The moments when the darkness creeps in, lurks in the recesses and waits for the perfect moment to rear its ugly head. It starts as a whisper, encouraging you to do that thing that you can never take back, that thing that will destroy you or someone around you, or both. It gets louder, building within you, driving you to the edge of the cliff. I’ll admit it. I’ve experienced it, most often at work when I suspect some of the decisions are being made, at worst, by flying monkeys, or at best, by the senior leadership team passing around a Magic Eight Ball. Thank God, I’ve never succumbed to pressing send on those emails to the CEO.
Most of the time, I recognize when the dark tide’s rising before I drown in it. I ask myself, if you do this, what will be the consequences today? Next week? Long term? I think of my life as a story. If I do this thing, how will it change my story? Will it make me the villain? Because I want to be the heroine. The light shines through the darkness. I come to my senses. I recognize the destructiveness of the contemplated action. I take a deep breath and make a course correction. The world is safe (at least from me) for another day.
You do have to experience darkness to fully appreciate light. I’ve experienced enough of it to know that I can’t overcome darkness on my own. It is too much for me. Darkness is relentless. It is too clever and too strong. But here’s something from John’s gospel I hold onto:
The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Remember ABC’s video series “Our week in 3 words”? Years ago, my friend Susan shared one that included a dog with a sign around his neck and his week in 3 words was “I was rescued.” If I had to sum up my life in 3 words, I would just lift that sign from around that dog’s neck and put it around my own. Jesus rescues me from the darkness every day of my life – the darkness within and the darkness without.
Darkness has existed from the beginning. It is always with us. But the good news, on Easter Sunday, is it cannot overcome the Light.
I am not a Scrooge. I may say a lot of Scrooge-like things around this time of year but that’s only because I, too, am haunted by the Ghost-of-Christmas-Present and the Ghost-of-Christmas-Past. So much so that some years I host my own personal little Occupy Christmas movement to protest the bastardization of a season meant to be a celebration of the coming of the Christ. I don’t put up a tree or send cards or string lights. I don’t play carols or give gifts or make sausage balls or gingerbread or hot spiced tea. This doesn’t actually solve anything but as the song says, “whatever gets you through the night” or the unbearably long over-commercialized holiday season that appears to begin some time immediately preceding Halloween.
This, apparently, is not one of my Occupy Christmas years as I’ve already hung lights on the decks of the beach house, attended a Mannheim Steamroller concert, and stocked the Frig with eggnog. Still, the Ghosts are hovering and the days are filled with reminders of why I find this season to be so noxious.
This week the Ghost-of-Christmas-Present introduced me to the lady seated to my right at Shrek the Musical. As I was squeezing my way past and back to my seat after intermission, she leaned in and said, “You’re tapping your heels to the music, I’m sure you don’t even realize, but could you possibly stop? It’s bothering me.”
Seriously? One has to wonder what she was even doing at a show like Shrek. Does she sound like the kind of person who would be entertained by public farting to you? (Afterwards, I impersonated her using the voice of Gingy the Gingerbread Man and felt ever so much better.) Being a notorious people pleaser, I did cease the tapping and the earth miraculously resumed its rotation around her.
The Ghost-of-Christmas-Present is after my sister too. In mortal dread of the holiday, she asked Bryce, her psychiatrist, to add Lamictal to her bipolar cocktail. I had to break the news to Jerri over Thanksgiving that she couldn’t spend Christmas at the beach with us because Stan’s brother and family are scheduled to visit. I feel incredibly guilty when she has to spend Christmas alone. She’s had to do that most years over the past two decades because she’s purposely excluded from family gatherings. So am I, but to be honest, for me its mostly a relief.
The Ghost-of-Christmas-Past has started whispering in my ear, reminding me that the event that shredded our family fabric occurred the Christmas Stan and I tried to treat everyone to a week at the Outer Banks. She reminds me of all the sadness and confusion at Christmas I endured as a child due to mom’s depression and overcompensation for parenting sins throughout the rest of the year. She reminds me that it was Christmas when I first realized my parents were never going to love me, no matter how hard I tried, that they really didn’t even understand the word, let alone, the emotion. The-Ghost-of-Christmas-Present chimes in and says, “They’ve totally replaced you and Jerri with her children. They have a new family now. They don’t even miss you.”
Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP!
This year I refuse to listen. I also refuse to kill myself trying to have the BEST Christmas EVER. I refuse to feel guilty because I can’t make Jerri happy. I give myself permission to do the things that I can manage, to spend as much time alone as I need, to celebrate with people who may not be my blood relatives but are family all the same.
Tonight is the first night of Advent. And even through I’m not Catholic, or Lutheran, or any Protestant faith that traditionally celebrates Advent, tonight I will light a purple candle and read Isaiah 9 about the Light of the World who has penetrated the darkness. I will remember again how Israel longed for the birth of its Messiah and I will savor the longing in my own heart for His return.
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.