Penmanship.

For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand — maybe it was just because I needed a summer job or maybe it was because she recognized the same perfectionist gene in me that had been her hallmark — my grandmother decided to teach me the ins and outs of accounting (she called it “bookkeeping”) when I was in high school. She had been in charge of the books for the family business since its inception, which was something she did with both pride and precision. Yet, by the time I could drive, she had already taught me to post sales transactions, balance the night’s receipts, handle deposits, balance the bank accounts, prepare customer statements, write payroll checks, and compile the related tax returns.

“To the penny,” she’d always say, because she believed that it wasn’t right until it was exactly right. She did everything by hand, all in the sort of pitch perfect cursive handwriting that they used to teach in elementary school. There was nothing flowery or eccentric about her handwriting. It was deliberate with no frills, precise, and consistent… much like her. I used to practice my own handwriting obsessively (which, it should be noted, now looks nothing like hers) because there was something about her penmanship that, for me, spoke to who she was as a person. Every so often, even now, I’ll be going through old papers at the office or helping my grandfather sort through something at the house and I’ll encounter a note that my grandmother had written — there’s no mistaking her handwriting for anyone else’s because nobody writes like that anymore — and it always makes me smile.

I think I was in middle school when I first remember my grandmother, who would have been in her early 50s at the time, talking about the fear of “losing her mind.” She didn’t call it “Alzheimer’s” (I’m not sure anyone really ever used that word in her presence, even years later when it was clear that it had consumed her) or even “dementia.” Her fear was that she would lose-her-mind. This was often said in hushed tones, as though it was something akin to insanity or, at the very least, something shameful. Every time she’d forget or misplace something, like we all do from time to time, she’d lament what she knew to be the beginning of the end. She wasn’t a fearful woman, but this — this — she feared. She would talk about her various family members (parents, siblings, etc.) who she’d witnessed lose their grasp, too, which was something she felt certain was a precursor to her own eventual fading. It was, she thought, an inevitability.

Some years later, she did lose her mind, although the process was far more gradual and insidious than I think even she feared. There was a span of years where she had “good days” and “bad days,” the former being those days where she recognized people and wasn’t generally confused by her surroundings. As the years passed, the threshold for what constituted a “good day” became a bit of a sliding scale. The in-between years, when her days of lucidity were sprinkled amidst days of complete mental disarray, were the worst because she spent those moments of clarity being upset about the other days, those muddled days that she was all too aware were happening on her crippled watch. There was a specific point when my single prayer became that she would lose her mind completely, simply because the fleeting lucid moments seemed to bring her more pain than joy. For each moment that we were heartened to have been recognized or called by name, she was experiencing a moment of fear and regret for the forgetting that she knew was lurking around the corner.

Amidst the incredible soul-crushing sadness of her decline — for anyone who has witnessed the gradual loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s, you understand what I mean — there were also moments of curiosity, even moments of humor. For a while, she was convinced that my sister was her sister. My sister would leave the room, her own kids often in tow, only to have my grandmother immediately begin to tell me a story about when they were growing up together. Strange how the mind begins to play tricks when one loses a defined concept of time and place. Then there was the time at a family Christmas gathering, in a room full of grandkids and great-grandkids all taking turns greeting my grandmother, when she pulled my wife aside and quietly asked, “just who are all these people?”

Mostly, I learned a lot about commitment during my grandmother’s illness. Their “in good times and in bad” exchange was decades earlier and yet, in that moment, when times were far from good, their marriage remained. Granted, it looked nothing like it did when I was a kid (there’s no clearer example of this than when I learned that my grandfather decided to bake cookies on his own), but the core of their marriage was unshaken, even in what I imagined to be the worst of circumstances.

My grandfather would often come down to the office in the mornings, on a short break from his primary job as my grandmother’s provider-of-all-things, and share a funny story about something my grandmother had said or a frustration about something she’d done. Sometimes he’d come down to the office and say nothing at all. But he would always return to her, without any apparent bitterness or resentment, and continue on with his pledge. In sickness and in health, even when that sickness seemed to dawdle on for years.

As the spouse of a recovering addict, it’s easy to get lost in the notion that my wife’s disease may in fact be with us for the rest of our lives. It seems like an overwhelming thought, even in these times when the addiction is being held at bay. I want to be able to embody the commitment and resolve that I witnessed, without succumbing to the very real fear of what may lurk.

In a way, I’m still practicing my own handwriting, in the hope that it will say something about who I’ve become or who I may yet be.

Memory keeper.

When we were dating — and then, later,  during the early years of our marriage — my wife kept a box full of mementos, an accumulation of various items meant to mark this occasion or that. Movie tickets, concert passes, mix tapes (yes, kids, we used to make mix tapes), letters, notes, and Hallmark greeting cards… they all found their way into this physical cataloging of a new romance. Proof of our love, I guess. The truth is, I didn’t really understand it at first — you kept that, why? — because I was a “read the card, say thank you, then throw it away” sort of guy, but I appreciated the overt sentimentality of it all. And so, dutiful boyfriend (and later, husband) that I was, I started keeping a box of artifacts, too.

We still have those memory boxes, his and hers, now upgraded from random shoe boxes of yesteryear to something more permanent and aesthetically pleasing. Now, the leather-bound boxes find themselves tucked neatly away behind glass doors in a bookcase, marking a specific time — a collection of important moments — in our lives, like the framed wedding pictures sharing the same shelf.

When my wife’s addiction began to take a greater hold of her life, she started to lose moments instead of collect them. I’m not talking about the stereotypical alcohol-induced blackouts that we’ve all seen dramatized in a movie of the week. My wife was never really that sort of addict, never the town drunk waking up in a situation or place unplanned or unknown. Instead, she just started to have small holes in her recollections, book-ended by vague memories with confused and distorted details. The worse her immediate situation, it often seemed, the less she was inclined to remember later on. From my perspective, these memory holes often seemed like a convenient “out” for someone wanting to avoid responsibility. It’s difficult to apologize for something you claim not to remember, after all. Surely, this was a willful part of the plan.

And so, I started to, yet again, catalog moments. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision, or something borne out of the pain and conflict of the time, but I began to store away memories of some of our darkest times, making sure to memorize her every hurtful word or deed. “Words have meaning,” I’d often tell her after the fact, then I’d play the words back while she claimed some sort of wide-eyed amnesia. How could you say this? What did this really mean? It was my way of holding her accountable, part of an effort to shame and embarrass her into sobriety, and more than a little bit of passive-aggressively declaring my own hurt, too, without having to risk the vulnerability of actually saying the words “I’m hurt.”

Those darkest memories, though, began to take on a life of their own, often haunting me long after any retaliatory mileage I’d been able to get out of them. Soon, I was battling the hurt of the obsessive recall of this word or that inflection, more than I was battling any new situation at hand. Just how many times could she really apologize for a tape that I continued to replay, over and over again, first for sport and later out of self-flagellating habit?

Years into her sobriety, we still encounter times when her memory fails her and I am the one to keep, and then recall, it for her. In many ways, it’s one of the worst parts of being the non-addict spouse, this unwanted position as keeper of memories.

The other day she was telling a seemingly innocuous story to a family member. She had the major details right, more or less, but I sat there knowing that she was forgetting what preceded the specific moment she was recalling. It was one of those holes, filled with a crushing personal pain that I (and only I, apparently) so closely associate with it. I said nothing and let the moment pass, wishing that I, too, could pick and choose a few holes in my memory.

I’m trying to learn to put my catalog of hurt away, behind glass on a neglected bookshelf, just like the memory boxes from our young lives together. The memories mark an important time of our lives, certainly, but I’m ready to retire the constant reminders. I’m ready to allow the memories to fade and collect dust, even just a bit.

A passing, follow-up.

Not long ago, I wrote about the loss of our friend, Michele, to an apparent drug overdose. [You can read that post, called A passing., by clicking here.] I wrote about how, since Michele’s death, I’ve thought a lot about her last hours. Specifically, I’ve debated whether or not it was her intention to end her life that night. Over the course of our friendship, I often found myself assuring her that she was around on this earth, despite pretty unbelievable circumstances, because she must have a purpose bigger than either of us could imagine. I’m not sure how much of that I even believed, to be perfectly honest, or how much of my strained encouragement was based in my own fear that she might lose the will to live.

And so, a year-and-a-half after her death, I’m left with an internal conflict that I haven’t yet been able to resolve. Was it an accident, simple foolishness, a gross miscalculation, a body finally giving out, or had that hope for pain’s end pushed her toward something more deliberate? This was the question asked and not answered by my blog post.

You know, in my few short months of blogging, I’ve discovered that I really write for myself. If someone ends up reading my words and on some level connects with them, it’s just icing on my therapy’s cake. The comments and responses have been great, too, giving me a sense of community and support when I didn’t know I needed one. I’ve found myself encouraged when I least expected it and, on occasion, challenged. The following comment, offered after the blog post referenced above, challenged me in a way that stopped me in my tracks.

Here it is:

You’re absolutely right, we do not talk about suicide. And my first comment is incredibly risky but I’ll make it nonetheless. Why is it so bad? If someone is suffering, knows that they’re suffering and courageously (it takes a lot to actually kill yourself) decides to end it, why isn’t that any more their right than other choices they make? With that said, then the work of forgiveness is about them leaving us, divorcing us, breaking up with us, moving away for good, stopping contact. Imagine what life would be like if we could talk about it and our loved ones could say good bye first?

First, let me tell you something about the comment’s author. I’ve known Beth for a couple decades now. In many ways, we began as the most unlikely of friends. Beth was someone who walked the straight and narrow when I was, well, decidedly not. She had an undeniable warmth and openness when my arsenal was full of caustic detachment. Yet, she was then — and is now — the dearest of friends. When she says something, I listen, because Beth has this habit of saying some really good things. Often, things I need to hear.

I do know that Michele was suffering. That much is true. For too many years to count, she’d been tormented by the effects of a robbed childhood, a broken body, and an unrelenting addiction. The emotional exhaustion of imagining yet another rehab, another attempt at sobriety, and another expected failure must have been indescribable. The physical pain, the loneliness, the despair, the arduous keeping of the facade… all of these things had become part of her “normal” and none of them seemed to show signs of abating. Would I have been able handle all of that?

The biggest challenge of Beth’s comment, for me, was her final provocation. Imagine what life would be like if we could talk about it and our loved ones could say goodbye first?

I’ve tried to imagine that conversation. What if Michele would have been able to tell us about her intention, explain her reasons, and offer us the opportunity to say goodbye? What would we really have done? Would we have honored her pain? Would we have contained our impulse to convince her that she was wrong, that we somehow knew better, or that things would be different tomorrow? Would we have been able to set our own fear and grief aside long enough to hear her? I suspect not. And I suspect that’s the reason there was no such conversation.

I can’t embrace the idea that our friend made some sort of courageous or honorable decision. I’m not sure if I ever will or even should, for that matter. But I regret that she might have surveyed the situation and decided that we — mostly, that I — would not have been able to handle or accept her crushing reality in that moment.

One of my favorite spoken word poets, Taylor Mali, has written a lot about his wife’s suicide. He has a way of putting into words the internal conflict that I still have yet to let completely to the surface. While our situations are different — he lost his wife, while we lost a dear friend — I still connect with and am oddly comforted by his words. A sample:

A passing.

Recently, an acquaintance of mine spoke about her husband’s suicide for the first time since his passing several months ago. She’d talked about his death before, tragic and unexpected as it was, eloquently detailing the pain left behind in his absence, but she hadn’t mentioned how he’d died. Now, with the passing of a little time, maybe she found the necessary strength to be able to say the words — he took his own life — for the first time publicly. Maybe she was just tired of dodging the inevitable questions, in a situation full of nothing but unanswered questions.

In August of 2010, our friend Michele passed away from an apparent drug overdose. She’d been battling addiction for years — in recent months, unsuccessfully — and had both drugs and alcohol in her home at the time of her death. Few people who really knew her history assumed that it was anything other than a tragic drug-related death when news of her passing began to spread. There were a lot of knowing glances at her funeral. We knew this would eventually happen, people seemed to be saying with their polite nods.

My wife and I had been spending a considerable amount of time talking with Michele about the risk she was taking each and every time she decided to drink or use and about the very real possibility that her body would at some unplanned point just give out, due to the years of unimaginable abuse it had endured. We said things like “you don’t get to pick the last time you use,” hoping that the fear of addiction’s randomness would be a catalyst for sobriety.

All these months later, though, I’m left wondering if, in some small way, Michele did get to pick the last time she used. It wasn’t long after the funeral when my wife first told me that she thought Michele had intentionally overdosed, an idea that was almost immediately offensive to me. Michele was in tremendous emotional pain and was exhausted by the unrelenting torment of her losing battle with addiction, my wife would reason, and it would make some sense that she would just want the torture to end. It was the recovering addict part of my wife that could look at Michele’s death and see the logic, albeit twisted, in what might have been her willful leap toward the end. This pissed me off, not just because I didn’t want to believe it about the friend we’d just lost, but even more because I didn’t want to accept the fact that a part of my wife could look at the situation and, at least on some level, understand its crushing conclusion.

A year and a half later, I find myself angry about our friend’s passing. (I still say “passing,” you notice, because it sounds less blame-worthy than “suicide” might.) I’m angry that she didn’t reach out to us on the phone when we talked the day before her death. I’m angry that I didn’t sense it — sense anything — even if she was unable to communicate the true finality of her despair. I’m angry that I often took her resilience for granted, that I sometimes allowed myself to be bothered by her pestering neediness, and that I was not powerful enough to somehow step in and make it STOP for her. Mostly, I’m angry that she was either stupid enough to not understand the risks of using that night or thoughtless enough to understand and do it anyway. I’m angry, long after those ridiculously cliché “stages of grief” might dictate.

I’d begun to make some peace with the loss of Michele, only to find out that I have more work to do before I can make peace with the way we lost her. It’s about forgiveness yet again, which seems to be a rather persistent reoccurring theme for me. I have to find it in my heart to forgive Michele for what might have been a choice that night, forgive the people who helped drive her to her addictions in the first place, and forgive myself for feeling as though I failed her when it counted most.

Beneath the anger, there’s a very real fear, as well, that comes from living with a recovering addict, knowing that her potential relapse could end in the way it did for our friend. I believe in my wife’s resolve, in the strength she has displayed in her hard-fought battle with addiction’s demons, and in the courage she exhibits in each and every day of her sober life. I also know, all too well, the reality of relapse and all that it can mean. It’s a call to remain vigilant for us both, learning how to allow enough of the fear in to prod and motivate, but not so much as to paralyze and destroy.

I don’t know what it would have taken to prevent our friend’s death or the death of my acquaintance’s spouse. I’m still not even sure how to classify the loss of Michele, whether it was something careless and accidental, or possibly something more deliberate. It won’t change anything, I realize, but I can’t help but wonder if this grief roadblock is related to the nagging feeling of this unanswered question.

We don’t talk about suicide a lot in this country, nor do we do a good job of talking about the things that are typically related to it… depression, substance abuse, mental health issues, or how we deal with life’s major stress events. The truth is that suicide is the eleventh most common cause of death in the United States and the third leading cause of death among teenagers.

Let the gravity of that really sink in for a moment.

I fully believe that there can be power in awareness and in community. To that end, I want to share some information with you about an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms. TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. If you’re not familiar with TWLOHA or know someone who might benefit, please spend a few moments on their website, at www.twloha.com.

Their vision is a simple lesson for us all: You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.

For more information:
To Write Love on Her Arms > Vision
To Write Love on Her Arms > Find Help
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Nip and tuck.

In honor of the new year — or maybe because I was a bit bored — I’ve given the blog a little bit of a nip and tuck. Nothing extreme. This isn’t some Real Housewife lip plump situation. It’s just a subtle color tweak and a new font or two. You might not even notice the change. Maybe you’ll just think it looks like the blog is well rested or something.

Even so, you could take this opportunity to catch up on some missed posts. Or, if you really want to commit, you could subscribe (click on the “Ramble me!” button under my picture), so you can receive an email greeting each time I publish something new. Who doesn’t want more email, really? There’s a button to add my blog to your RSS feed, too, if you’re into that sort of thing. I don’t judge. I should also mention that all of my posts now have buttons under them that allow you to share a link to the post via email, Facebook, or Twitter. I’d be honored. Even if Twitter makes me crazy. And for the love of all things holy, please feel free to comment and participate. I like it when you ramble, too, after all.

Mostly, I’m just glad you’re here. If you weren’t, I’d be the crazy guy who talks to himself.