I’ve been home from the family cabin on Lake Superior for five days. My mind had been like the lake when it’s filled with silt–cloudy, murky, particles swirling around, obscuring from view the rocks on the bottom. I’ve settled. The silt is gone. The rocks are all there. Waiting for me to look at them. Part of me prefers the lack of clarity.
Rocks
During the years my dad was deteriorating from Alzheimer’s and since his death, I’d begun to romanticize him. As we often do with the sick and the dying and the dead. But since my trip to the cabin, the man I’d constructed over the past few years has dissolved. I’m back to seeing him as he was before. As he was always. Except when I made him someone else.

When I was up at the cabin, I spent a little time with my mother’s youngest brother (along with my aunt and cousin), who also has a cabin in the area, and my mother’s other brother and his wife, who came in from California for the Labor Day weekend. I also spent some time with the ladies who own the cabin next to us. And the handyman who came by to help me with the water. Everyone wanted to share stories about my father. It seems he’d regaled the people around him with tales 0f his life’s adventures: jumping ship in Brazil when he was with the Merchant Marine, his father’s bootlegging at the cabin during prohibition, his invention of a picture tube that he sold for far too little. He told these stories to many people. But never to me. My California aunt told me she was afraid of my dad. Her husband (my mother’s brother) seemed to feel like the chosen one because my dad liked him.

I remember feeling chosen when my dad would take me sailing. Looking back, he didn’t take me along to spend a day on the Gulf with his daughter. He took me because he needed crew. My parents dragged me to the boat every weekend during my high school years, when my friends were spending time hanging out together. I rarely took a friend out on the boat because my dad was ill-behaved, prone to fits of rage. It didn’t matter who was around; if my dad felt like throwing a temper tantrum, he threw it. I didn’t have friends over when my parents were around. And my parents didn’t socialize much. For years I felt uncomfortable around adults.

We moved a lot when I was growing up. From the time I was born to the time I was fifteen, we lived in six different states and seven different houses: Chicago, Denver, Saginaw (MI), Charlotte, Houston, Northport Long Island, and back to Houston. We stayed in Charlotte less than a year. I was the youngest, and so before I was born, my brothers and sister had endured many moves already. Mississippi and Louisiana. Other states I’ve forgotten. People always ask me if my father was in the military. Which is the only rational explanation for moving four children around the country, picking up and changing schools over and over. At the time, I didn’t realize it was so aberrant. My explanation: my dad is smart, ambitious. He gets lots of promotions and job opportunities and he takes them. And with each move we did seem to be moving up in the world. Granted, he wasn’t around much. He had so many things to attend to with work. He was doing it for the family. And when he was home, unless he was yelling at us, we were invisible. Of course, we tried to be invisible so he wouldn’t yell at us. Or worse.

My friends and colleagues always find it odd that I am estranged from my family. They wonder how a daughter can be content to see her family, including siblings, only at Thanksgiving and Christmas–three days a year, tops. (Except those Labor Day weekends I spent with my mom and dad at the cabin.) My brothers and sister and I had learned to strike out on our own to survive. We all stayed away from the house as much as we could, doing what we needed to do on our own to avoid the abuse. And then when my dad got the boat, there was no escaping for me. At least not until we got underway, and then I got as far away from him as I could, spending the day on the bow of the boat, drowning out the sound of his voice with the sound of the bow cutting through the waves.

When I was little, he liked to play this game. We’d be on the floor crawling around in front of his chair trying to get his attention. He’d trap us with his legs and it was up to us to escape. He enjoyed our struggling. And at first it was fun. But often he took it too far. I’d start to feel trapped, get scared, begin to whimper and whine. Still he wouldn’t let me go. Eventually I’d cry, and when this happened, he’d get angry and fly into a rage, telling me I was being a pathetic baby. My father took no interest in me. He didn’t know my friends. Didn’t know my boyfriends or who I went on dates with. Sometimes he helped me with my homework, which was always awful. It was a lesson in how smart my father was and rarely had anything to do with the homework assignment. I was not allowed to interrupt with questions. “Shut up and listen,” was his constant refrain. Until I went to law school, I had no idea I was smart.

Shortly after I graduated from law school, my oldest brother fell at work and hit his head. He probably was intoxicated, but that’s irrelevant to the story. My brother began having convulsions, and so was taken to the local hospital. He needed emergency brain surgery, and was life-flighted to Hermann Hospital due to their state-of-the-art trauma center. I recall standing outside the hospital with my parents as the helicopter carrying my brother flew away. My mom was crying and my dad stood there, emotionless.

“Put your arm around your wife! Comfort her!” I said.

He looked at me, not moving. “I can’t,” he said.

At the time, I thought he meant he couldn’t because if he did, he would fall apart. Now I wonder whether he couldn’t because he just couldn’t. Because he didn’t know how to comfort my mother. My brother recovered from his head injury after spending several months in TIRR. (The same rehabilitation hospital where Gabby Giffords recovered after being shot in Tucson.) He stayed sober. Met a woman. Got engaged. His fiancée, who wasn’t sober, would fall at my niece’s wedding and hit her head, go into a coma, and die months later. And then my brother would fall off the wagon, and ultimately die of cirrhosis.

I believe there is something to the trite adage, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am the god damn Amazon Warrior Princess. With Three Black Cats. Stealthy panthers.

My father was an alcoholic. I’ve written about that before. He was the binging kind. The functional kind. Unlike his sons: non-functional. And dead from the drinking. I thought I’d done the hard work of recovering from growing up with an alcoholic father and an enabling codependent mother. When I told my therapist years ago, out loud, that my dad was an alcoholic, I felt I’d finally set myself free. I spoke of the family secret. I’d go on to tell her about how he flew into rages, physically abusing my brothers, and later, me. How my sister moved out and got married at 19 to escape him. (Turns out her husband’s a pedophile–frying pan, fire.) How, along with the rest of us, he verbally abused my mother. (All abuse is physical.) And about all the ways my upbringing manifested itself. As a part of my recovery, I moved away from my family and did minimum contact (only I didn’t know there was a name for it, at the time). And I healed. I still couldn’t get the relationship thing right. But cats are spectacular, so that’s OK.

And then everyone started dying and I was thrown back into the family soup. I’ve been swimming around in this shit for two and a half years, beginning when my oldest brother died in April 2012. It’s been a swirl of death and memorial services and ashes. Estate lawyers and assisted living arrangements and realtors. Mom’s finances. Dad’s business. Navigating my relationship with my sister and her husband. Sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes, I look forward to the day my mother is dead and I am free. Sometimes.

I’ve been home from the family cabin for five days. Twice in those five days I’ve gotten on my knees in front of the toilet and vomited. I thought I was done with that.

Here’s the thing. I’m only now realizing that my father’s drinking was the least of it. My father was a narcissistic abusive asshole. Yeah, I’m only now figuring that out. I saw it in the men in my life, but never in my father. I had a mighty fine set of blinders. I could have been a racehorse. So where are we now? My father is dead. My brothers are dead. From where I’m sitting today, my father and mother may as well have shot them in the heads. It would have been quicker. Less painful. More humane. My mother, at 78, has decided I am responsible for her finances, and whatever else strikes her fancy, until the day she dies. She goes from sweet and reasonable, to demanding and manipulative. I can’t decide whether she’s simply a codependent needy elderly woman, or whether she has coopted my father’s narcissism now that he’s dead. At this point, I’m leaning toward both.

At this point, my fantasies of spending my summers in the family cabin upon retirement aren’t quite so sparkly. It’s a beautiful place. And my father was always at his best there. But the things I see when the water is calm and the silt settles–well, the rocks aren’t quite as pretty as I’d remembered.

 

I just returned from a short trip to my father’s cabin on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. The last time I was up in August 2011, my father and brothers were still alive. My parents went up every summer in late July, after the bugs cleared out, and stayed until late September or sometimes early October. Before this year, I’d never been to the cabin without my parents being there with me. It was the place I went to spend time with them each year. Visiting them in Houston, a 2.5-hour drive from my home, would have been closer. But the cabin is special. And so I traveled to Canada in late August nearly every year. 2011 would be the last trip for my dad.

It’s been nearly two years since he died, and I thought I’d healed enough that I could manage being there in his absence. And if I couldn’t, well, the Big Lake has energy that can heal broken hearts.

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The Big Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

Soon after I’d arrived, I realized I should have taken the trip alone. It would have made it a lot easier to just let go each time I burst into tears over seemingly random things. My father’s clothes hanging in the closet. Working on the water pump in the rain. Watching the chipmunk filling his cheeks with leftover blueberry pancakes. Sitting on the deck in the misty morning with a cup of coffee, the loons floating out front fishing for breakfast. The memory of my father sleeping upside down in the bed because of the spatial disorientation from Alzheimer’s.

On this morning, I fed him peanuts rather than pancakes.

On this morning, I fed him peanuts rather than pancakes.

Morning Loon

Morning Loon

But I brought a friend, and so I kept trying to keep a lid on the emotions that kept bubbling up and overflowing. When I wasn’t busy trying to keep the tears from leaking out of my eyes, I was trying to keep myself from shushing my friend. As it turns out, she is a talker. She simply could not bring herself to shut the hell* up for five minutes at a time and just enjoy the sound of the waves, and the wind, and the quiet. She talked endlessly of the most mundane and uninteresting things. And when I didn’t respond to her prattle, she talked on and on to herself, an endless loop of mumbling interspersed with loud cackling. I imagined tying a rock to her neck and throwing her into the lake.

*The word in my head here was not hell. But I am trying to be more judicious in the dropping of the F bomb into my posts.

I’ve got nothing against talking. I too enjoy opening my mouth and letting thoughts spew forth. I can prattle on with the best of them. But I know when to shut up and listen. I know when there is not one thing I can possibly say that would be more important than the call of the loon. The rippling of the water against the rocks on the shore. The wind brushing through the leaves of the birch trees.

Just the thought of those sounds soothes me. I needed a tremendous amount of soothing this year. Soothing I did not get. And so I will conjure up those sounds and lose myself in my imaginings, until next year.

Next year, when I return to the Big Lake they call Gitche Gumee. 

I hate being a lawyer. There. I said it. Out loud. I fucking hate being a lawyer. I dread getting out of bed in the morning. I feel utter despair when I think about doing this job for Ten More Years. Or even five. I spend a lot of time at the office these days crunching numbers on the Best Retirement Calculator, frittering away countless billable hours plotting my escape. Hours I should spend doing billable work in 6-minute increments at $53.50 a pop. I wonder how long I can continue in this manner before the equity partners at the top of the pyramid determine my contribution to the pile of money they share isn’t big enough. And if they were to make that determination, I wonder if I’d care.

When I was a 3L and clerking at a mid-size firm, I had a conversation with a young female partner, Patty. Patty impressed me because not only was she a female partner in firm with a predominantly male partnership (men by far rule the profession, to this day), she still managed to dress like a cool chick. (Later, I would learn she’d been reprimanded for not dressing in the standard uniform: dark suit, white blouse, pantyhose, dark pumps.) I was in her office with another law clerk, and we were discussing our excitement about being nearly finished with school, and on our way to actually practicing law.

“Don’t you love being a lawyer?” I asked her.

“It’s OK,” Patty said. “It pays the bills.”

“But isn’t it cool? Isn’t it fun?” I implored.

“Sometimes. But mostly, it’s just boring.”

This undoubtedly is the most honest conversation I have ever had with a potential legal employer. At the time, I thought she was being ironic like the cool kids often were. Luckily for Patty, she left the profession a few years later, after marrying a lawyer. In fact, I have several friends with whom I went to law school who went on to marry lawyers and quit practicing law. In the two decades since my portentous conversation with Patty, I’ve come to learn that boredom is only a hint of the negative aspects of practicing law. In fact, it’s much worse.

  • It steals your time. Not only are you chained to your desk for far too many hours of the day, you are chained to your smartphone once you leave. You can never, ever escape. Unless you’re somewhat rebellious, like me, and take vacations in places with no cellular coverage, like the Great Bear Rainforest or a cabin on Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. In addition to the office hours spent billing time, BigLaw strongly encourages you to volunteer what little time you have left serving on State Bar committees and local boards of directors. Marketing. Rainmaking. All part of the job.

 

  • It steals your creativity. I’m in the middle of a 4-week evening writing Webinar about (re-)finding my writing voice. One of the first exercises we did was to write about a time when we abandoned ourselves to the joy of creativity. I spent the 10 minutes, while others wrote, trying to think of a time I’d recently abandoned myself to any creative endeavor (aside from this blog). When I couldn’t conjure up a single moment of joyful creative abandonment over the past decade, I spent the rest of the meeting distracted and deflated. I used to be creative. In addition to personal essay, I wrote poetry and fiction. I listened to music. I danced. Where has that girl gone?

 

  • It steals your health. I’ve gained 50 pounds since my boutique firm merged with BigLaw. Granted, the dying didn’t help, but having time to heal and nurture myself, having time for my grief, might have lessened the impact. In addition to the weight gain, there’s the overactive bladder. For years I’ve thought it was just some hereditary thing I’d have to deal with. (I’ve come to learn many women suffer from OAB, and so I allow myself to write about it in some detail. Yes, I’m Ella, and I pee myself from time to time.) Lately, since I quit the medication, I’ve noticed something. When I’m away from work, my bladder is relatively calm. When I’m in the office, it goes haywire. So I’ve taken to wearing pads to work. I prefer to use them over the medication. My bladder’s reaction to the office is quite telling. It’s like a clap-on light: Office-On, Office-Off. Having OAB is a minor effect of the stress compared to what some lawyers suffer. Substance abuse, depression, suicide. Here’s an excerpt from a recent CNN story on lawyer suicide:

“There are a lot of high stress professions,” said Yvette Hourigan, who runs the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program. “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.”

I’m so fucking sick of adversity, I could vomit. And my disdain for adversity has been increasing exponentially since the dying. I don’t have the stomach for it. I don’t care. It seems so pointless. To try to center and ground myself, to try to lessen the stress of the job (coupled with the stress from the dying), I’ve finally begun to soothe myself in ways other than alcohol and food. Yesterday I completed 30 consecutive days of meditation (and still going strong). I’m feeling a bit better. My sleep is improving. I’m finding the motivation to do consistent daily exercise. This week I began week two of morning walking. It feels wonderful to get out of bed in the morning and start the day outside, moving my body. But none of this is helping to make work more tolerable. In fact, it’s only getting worse. The healthier I get mentally, the less I can stand going to the office in the morning. I’m getting better. And the job is getting more distasteful.

WritingI can’t take it another 5 or 10 years. I just can’t. And so I need to figure out a way out. I feel in my gut that the way out is through writing. I don’t know what form that writing will take. How the escape hatch will manifest. All I know is that if I keep writing, I’ll find my way out. Writing is the key to my freedom.

Being alive is weird. I’m sure being dead is weird, too. Or maybe not. Maybe your consciousness is dead along with your body and so there’s nothing left of you to witness whether being dead is weird, or not. But back to alive weirdness.

We put my mother’s beach house on the market this weekend. (It’s been 20 months since my dad died, and I’ve finally moved from calling things “my parents'” to calling them “my mother’s”.) My parents bought the beach house when the grandchildren were little. My brothers were still married to their wives. They were still alive. They spent weekends at the beach house with their wives, and kids, and with my parents. My sister and her husband and their kids went, too. No one knew yet what my sister’s husband had done (was doing) to their daughter. My brothers’ alcoholism hadn’t yet stolen their lives. Dementia hadn’t stolen my father from us. And now my brothers and my dad are dead, and we know what my brother-in-law did. And the beach house is up for sale.

We’ve spent the past weeks sprucing things up, moving things out, and dealing with my mother’s need to hang on to her things. Her memories.

“I can’t leave that coffee table. Mike made that. I won’t just leave it with the house.”

Mike. Her oldest son. Oldest child. Dead in April 2012 at 56. Liver failure. Fucking alcohol. It’s a god damn thief.

I didn’t know it was going to be hard to sell the beach house. I didn’t know I was going to well up with grief all over again. My sister, who is not terribly sentimental, couldn’t bring herself to throw out an old metal dog bowl.dog bowl

“It was Sandy’s originally,” she told me. Sandy was my dad’s boxer. The first family dog after I was born. I recall a photo of me as a little girl, leaning over toward Sandy, pressing my forehead into his. After Sandy, there was a series of black labs. Rebel, then Nugget, and then Lacy. Each of those dogs had, over four decades, lapped water from that metal bowl.

“Maybe you should take that,” I told my sister. And so she did. She took it to her beach house, where the dogs of her daughters will drink from it. And maybe some day, the dogs of her grandchildren. Dogs that will be around long after my sister and I are dead.

We die. And the beach houses and dog bowls remain. Weird.

My writing spot at Doe Bay

My writing spot at Doe Bay

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a writers’ retreat on Orcas Island taught by memoirist, Theo Nestor. It was a momentous four days. Four days of clearing the hurdles I’d constructed between me and writing my story. I thought, having cleared those hurdles, I’d come home and begin filling the pages. But up until today, I hadn’t written a word. As I worked my way through this post, writing and rewriting, adding and deleting huge chunks, I finally realized: I’ve been mentally working through the events of those four days. But mentally working through things doesn’t work nearly as well for me as working through them via writing. And so today, I wrote through them.

One of the most formidable hurdles I would work through at the retreat was how write my story with the specter of my sister’s husband hovering over me. How to write about his sexual abuse of their daughter, my niece, and my possible (probable) abandonment by what’s left of my family when I do so. Just look how I phrased the issue: (1) To write my story I have to write about my brother-in-law’s pedophilia/sexual abuse of my niece (and to a lesser extent, me); and (2) if I write about that, what’s left of my family will abandon me. Yeah, that’s a little bit of a block, don’t you think? And what about my arcless story; the not knowing where my protagonist is headed, if anywhere? Not knowing how she’ll be transformed? If she’ll be transformed? And if she is transformed, whether it’s the kind of transformation anyone will give a damn about? Without an arc, without transformation, there is no story. How can I write a storyless story?

I decided to be brave and meet privately with Theo hoping she would have some sage advice on these issues. Turns out, she did. As for the abuser, I simply need to write the story to sort out how I want to deal with it. Do I need to employ a take-n0-prisoners approach, and torch the whole village? Will I feel OK if I omit the abuser and the abuse entirely? Or will I find some middle ground that feels like truth? It all depends upon what kind of memoirist I want to be; which depends upon who I am. Writing it will help me sort out whether I have to burn it down to feel I’m being true to myself; to my art.

Next up was how to deal with my seeming lack of arc–a protagonist who has not had a readily identifiable happily-ever-after transformation. Theo suggested that if I write the story, I might find the transformation I’m in search of. She then asked what I hope to find. What drives me to write my story? Well that’s not hard. I want to find Peace.

Peace.

And when I thought about that word–Peace–I thought about Sophie, the little black stray cat. About the months and months, amidst all the death and despair, I spent trying to save her. How I did save her. And then I had it. My story was about saving a little black stray cat named Sophie. And through saving her, I would find Peace. And my Arc.

Last night my mom called me from her assisted living home. Her cousin, my Uncle Gary, had died. Gary has been sick for years. Diabetes, kidney disease, dialysis, heart attacks. He’s younger than my mother. Seventy-four, we guessed. His father, my Great Uncle Heinz, was from Germany. Heinz was a tall, hulking man with a thick German accent. Heinz fascinated me. But I was also a little afraid of him. Heinz was missing half his index finger on is right hand. His trigger finger. The story whispered amongst the family was that Heinz had accidentally cut off the tip of his right index finger in a wood shop. Accidentally during the war after he had received conscription papers. Heinz, who had become an American citizen, would have to have fought against the Germans, his countrymen, had he had a fully-functioning digit.

As I brushed my teeth before I went to bed last night, an image of Heinz’s son popped into my head: Gary in a shower cap, paint brush in his hand, standing in front of a two-tone cabin. We had all pitched in that day to paint my parents’ cabin on Lake Superior for my father’s birthday present. It had been log-cabin red for many years. The new color was to be slate gray–the color of the lake with the sun dancing of its surface on that hot September day. My mom’s brothers had organized the painting party, and my aunt and female cousin had pitched in. My dad barked directions at us, and the cabin went from red to gray as the sun set.

Gary in his shower cap to keep the paint out of his hair. He worked with his paintbrush on the bottom half of the cabin. His wife wouldn’t let him climb a ladder due to his health issues. My cousin and I did the second story, along with my mother’s youngest brother. The brother who is now helping me save my dad’s business; his legacy.

The Out House

The Out House

It’s funny how we can be in the midst of life’s best moments and not recognize them as such. Painting the cabin on an Indian summer day on the shores of Lake Superior. Everyone was still alive. Still healthy. A fresh coat of paint. The cabin ready for the winter storms. I still have the periwinkle blue tank top I wore that day. Periwinkle blue with dabs of gray paint. I haven’t worn it since. But it hangs in my closet. A reminder of the painting party. My mother’s brothers. My aunt. My cousin. My father. And my mother’s cousin in his shower cap flecked with slate-gray paint.

I’ve been avoiding the page for the past two weeks because I haven’t wanted to deal with life head on. The year anniversary of the death of my brother was a couple of weeks ago–March 25. I took the day off work and drove out to Pedernales State Park to commune with nature and my brother’s memory.

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Pedernales River March 25, 2014

I generally don’t like people in my nature photos, but if you look closely you can see the itty bitty people standing on top of the rocks right of center, which gives some perspective as to the vastness of this place.

On my way home, I saw these little guys, so I pulled over to stop for a visit.

As spring finally appears in Central Texas, I’m only now beginning to appreciate how weighed down I’ve been by all the grief. The change of seasons is prodding me to awaken, and the fact that it’s so difficult to do so highlights grief’s impact. As I hiked around the park, I thought of Steve, and my dad, and my other brother, Mike. All the loss has changed me. Irrevocably. It had to.

I no longer know what I want from life. I don’t think I want much of anything, in fact. I don’t want to excel at my job. I want to do good work, but I don’t want to achieve, get ahead, become a star. I don’t want to pass the time in idle conversation. I don’t want to buy things. I’m not much interested in world news or politics, including Facebook bickering. It just seems so inconsequential. To me. (I did accidentally shake hands with a tea party candidate at my office last week. One who is expected to win a powerful post in my state. I felt like I’d contracted cooties, afterward.) I used to care deeply about this stuff. But many things that used to matter, don’t now.

What does matter is this beautiful rainy Sunday. The squirrel eating out of the bird feeder. The gold finches and the doves. The cat on my lap. My visit with my mother at her assisted living home yesterday. The doctor told us last week that based on her EEG results, she’s got dementia. They are starting her on Aricept and Namenda. I kept hoping her memory loss was due to grief, but it’s only getting worse. The doctor says she’s still very high functioning. And she is. But I can’t help but think of my father’s deterioration and the fact the Alzheimer’s killed him, albeit indirectly. (Disorientation caused him to fall out of bed and hit his head on a nightstand–he died a year and a half ago from a subdural hematoma, exactly a month after emergency brain surgery.) I asked them to do an MRI of my mother’s brain, which will be done next week. Hopefully it won’t reveal any additional concerns.

All of this has brought me back to a familiar spot. Wanting my mother to live and enjoy life for many years to come. But not wanting her to live long enough to make it to the devastating late stage of dementia. My father got close, but the brain injury spared him (and us) from the worst of it. And now with both my parents having been diagnosed with dementia, it’s bound to catch up with me at some point. I’m trying to stay in the present. Focus on the beautiful moments in front of me. But my mind keeps racing ahead.

Here is a photo I took last weekend, to bring me back to now.

Texas Bluebonnets

Texas Bluebonnets

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