“There were no formerly heroic times,
and there was no formerly pure generation.
There is no one here but us chickens,
and so it has always been.”
For the Time Being, Annie Dillard
I fall into a practice of getting up early to practice my body scan exercise. My mind remains active, but I’ve learned to stay awake through the whole session. I try to focus on my breath when my mind begins to wander. Sometimes though, it’s less like wandering and more like an invasion. My mind is with me in the moment, yet thoughts from the outside world invade:
- I have a slight headache
- My cat sits on my head purring
- I don’t smell the coffee because I forgot to push the “on” button
These silly thoughts then give way to larger, more disturbing ones. I think about how I’ve given up going to church. I wonder about isolation. I’m concerned that I don’t communicate with my friends of my family. I never follow through. I don’t write the letters I say I’ll write, don’t practice the songs I say I’ll practice, don’t go to the gym on the weekend as I say I will. I lack commitment. I lack discipline.
And how much of this is real? How much of it is self-defeating behavior, self-defeating thought? Am I exaggerating the negative?
“Why am I like this? What’s wrong with me?”
I am in my Monday morning visit and have just repeated the litany of the things I never finish, the things I never accomplish, the things I never do to my therapist, Cynthia (my therapist does actually have a name, so I’ll use it).
“To ask ‘why this’ and ‘why that’ is very judging. Think about it. How is it different to ask yourself, ‘Why don’t I ever call my friends?’ as opposed to ‘I wonder why I don’t call them?’ There is a difference. Can you hear the difference?”
Well of course I can hear the difference. I’m depressed, not a dolt. One voice is very harsh, the other more of a “hmmm… I wonder…”
The thought of being judgmental doesn’t sit well, even if I’m being told that I’m being judgmental of myself. It’s an awful quality, I think, but as I stop and listen to what I say, as I pay more attention to what I think, I can’t help but recognize it. I’m incredibly judgmental. I pass judgment on everything. And in this practice, I notice that there’s not a great deal of room – or difference – between my judgment and my arrogance. This is all the more upsetting. I think about how often I walk my dog in the park, look at the trash on the ground, and fly into a mental, profanity-laden tirade about the state of humankind in general. Disgusting, disrespectful, despicable, goes my alliterative rant. “What the hell is the matter with everyone?!?!” the frequent wrap-up as Zeb and I reach the stairs to the street and head for home. I’m out of bed for all of 20 minutes and already I’ve judged the world to be a lost cause.
“But I don’t particularly care why people litter. I don’t really want to wonder why they act like morons. I just want them to act decent. Why can’t they act decent? Why can’t we all just treat one another decently? Why must we make everything so goddamned difficult?”
“How many people use that park?”
“I don’t know. A lot.”
“Does every person who goes to the park throw trash on the ground? Do you throw trash on the ground?”
“Do you think more people don’t throw trash on the ground than do?”
“So ‘What the hell is wrong with EVERYONE?’ is a bit of an exaggeration?”
“I guess so.”
It’s hard work, this thinking differently.
Besides teaching me these new skills, though, Cindy also has a way of bringing the conversation back to my family. We’re still returning to my family. She must believe there’s something there. I don’t, but she keeps asking me questions or prompting my thoughts about my dad, my brother, my mom, my grandparents… I oblige and rehash different stories from different times. Things I remember. She asks if I’ve heard from either my dad or my brother lately.
“No, but that’s not really unusual. We don’t talk very often. They’ll probably call me on my birthday in a few weeks, if my dad remembers. My brother will remember. He’s pretty good about that. He sends me a couple of CDs or a DVD, something related to music. We have the same tastes. And he’ll send a stupidly funny card. We do this for each other.”
Despite all of our differences, we are each other’s only sibling. I share more DNA with him than anyone else on the planet. And even though it always goes unspoken, we also share the experience of losing our family.
“We have never talked about it, really, my brother, my dad, and me. We have never really talked about what happened. We have never talked about Mom, at least not about losing her. My dad still hardly ever even mentions her. On a rare occasion, he might say something about ‘your mother’ or he’ll use the pronoun ‘she’, but usually if my mom comes up in a conversation, it’s because I bring her up. I still think of my parents as my parents, a unit. I don’t do it because I don’t recognize that my dad has been married a couple of times since. I don’t mean to be ignoring that fact. It’s just that they were – are – my parents. Together.”
“Have you wanted to? Have you wanted to talk with them about what happened?”
“Well, sure, but they’re not like that. They don’t talk. After awhile, I kind of felt like my wanting to talk was just my inability to move on. They would say that they have moved on. Nowadays I’d say that they never moved anywhere and that’s a big part of their problem, but they’d tell me they have no problem. It’s a losing argument. There’s no point in bringing it up.”
“Maybe the reason to bring it up has nothing to do with them. You could bring it up because you need to, because it’s important for you.”
I feel frustrated at this point. I feel like, “Trust me, I know these people. I have known them my whole life.”
“Maybe. But I just don’t want to go there. You know, I have a certain image of my brother in my head. For me, it’s the image I’ll always believe to be the real him – my real brother. It’s the only one I really want to hold on to. When all of the other crap happens, when I think about so much other stuff that’s hurtful, I make myself remember his arm around my shoulder, riding home after I told him about the accident. THAT is my brother.”
Over the next couple of hours after my dad got home from the hospital, people started to gather at our house – people from church, people from Scouts, and some of our neighbors. My parents had two distinct groups of “couple friends”; there were the couples from church, those that they had known for years, and those from my brother’s scout troop, something my parents continued to be a part of long after Marty had earned his Eagle Scout. They did different things with the different groups. The “Scouts group” went out to dinner once a month, four or five couples piling into a van and opening a bottle of wine, drinking and laughing as they went off to some new location. I found this out when I was invited to go with them the year before, when they went on their annual pilgrimage to the Williamsburg Inn during Christmastime. I remember feeling half-mortified and half-relieved at the site of my parents carrying on like … well … like my friends and me.
My mother’s best friend, Ethel, was part of the church group. Ethel and my mother were the kind of friends who could talk on the phone for hours after they just returned to their respective homes from a meeting together. They went out to lunch and faux argued over who would pay the check. They went to flower shows and art shows. They laughed together a lot. Ethel and my mother were like my roommate Carla and I, the closest of friends. When Ethel and Perry, her husband, walked through our front door that night, I finally cried.
After awhile, attention turned to my brother. Somehow, the message of what had happened needed to get to him. He needed to be told and he needed to come home. Marty lived in Chesterfield at the time, a couple of towns over from us. He’d finished up graduate school recently and gotten a job working for the county, doing inspections (he was a civil engineer). It took about 45 minutes to get to his house. I overheard a couple of the “church couples” talk of sending a state trooper to get him. I chimed in that this would definitely NOT be a good idea. My brother, consciously or not, had balanced out the teenage rebellion quota for the Gore kids by taking on all of the trouble that I avoided. He did not like the police. He had some bad history there. Sending a state trooper to tell him that our mother had died could maybe get him a ride in the cruiser, but for the wrong reason. I offered to go tell him and bring him home.
I rode in the back seat while a couple of men from church drove me to his house. When we got to Marty’s, he wasn’t home. His housemate, Bruce, answered the door and gave us the look that people give when they know something is wrong but don’t want to know what it is. There’s that moment that hangs in the air, the moment that you think if you’re not told what the bad thing is, maybe it won’t be true. I’d known Bruce for years. My brother was practically the fourth Faison brother. I’d had on-again, off-again crushes on a couple of them, Bruce included. I said, “Our mom was in a car accident. She’s dead.” and he immediately sat down on the couch.
We’d not gotten much in the door when I saw my brother’s truck pull in the driveway. He walked in, saw me and said in a cheerily surprised way, “Hey!” as if I’d come over for a couple of beers and he was glad to see me. But it didn’t last and turned quickly to a “Hey” of a different sort.
“We need to go home.”
Mr. Cash gave the details that I couldn’t and then my brother put his arm around me and we walked out to the car. We rode all the way back to Petersburg like that, his arm around my shoulder. We didn’t say a word to each other. No one said anything.
My brother and I have had our fair share of sibling differences over the years. We went for a long time not speaking and until the summer before I began therapy, I had not visited with him in a dozen years. Sometimes I’m convinced that we are so far apart on the spectrum of beliefs and behavior, that we’re the same. But regardless of anything or everything else that ever happens in our life together, the one image of him that I will always keep closest is the one of he and I in the back seat of that car, his arm around me the whole time. This is who we are, my older brother and I, in the truest sense.
We got home and he went to see our dad. I don’t remember much else of the night other than putting on my pajamas and lying in bed. Ethel stayed with us. She sat up beside me in my bed all night except for the few times when we’d hear my dad cry or moan from my parent’s bedroom, and then she’d get up to go and sit with him.
In the morning, I got up and made my bed. I said to Ethel, “Mom would tell me to make my bed.” Make your bed. Clean your room. Eat your brussel sprouts. Do your homework. It’s what moms tell you to do. Who was going to tell me these things now? It made no difference that I now lived in a sorority house, I ate in the dining hall, and I skipped class on occasion. Who was going to tell me what to do? Who was going to tell me how to go on? My mom was by far the person best equipped to help me deal with this mess, but she wasn’t here.
We continue to talk about this, Cynthia and I. For awhile, each week seems the same. We talk about this and that, and eventually she guides me in a direction where I end up talking about my family. And then the tears come and then I feel sick. I get a headache. My legs feel numb. My eyes hurt. I say, “If someone asks me, ‘What’s the matter?’ and I reply, ‘My mom died… 25 years ago!’ don’t you think that a little bit ridiculous? Why am I thinking about this stuff NOW?”
“I want you to stop asking ‘WHY NOW?!’ I want you to wonder, ‘Why now?’”
I try. I do. But I keep thinking that there must be some reason that I’m depressed. Something I’ve done or something that’s happened. It seems crazy that someone can simply be depressed for no good reason.
“It isn’t ‘either, or’,” Cynthia keeps reminding me. This is hardly Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but to me it might as well be quantum physics. I just cannot seem to grasp the message. And so I decide to make a list.
Things I have lost in the past year or so:
- Jim got sick and died
- Lee died unexpectedly
- Tanner died
- Jim retired
- Hof’s mom died
- Truck got recalled at 99,985 miles
- Turned down for mortgage
- Zeb arrived (not a loss, but loss for him – sad circumstances)
- Donna moved away
Donna moved away. It’s really hard to make close friends as an adult. This is something I’ve come to believe. Once you’re past the constructed environments of dorm living and required classes, it becomes harder and harder to meet people that you bond with easily. Sure, there is work, but work brings people of so many different ages and backgrounds together, it doesn’t lend itself as easily to creating close friendships. Besides, it’s work. You spend all day with these people. Why would you want to see them other times? (Note: I realize the faulty logic in my thinking here. I was always hanging out with my sorority sisters, with my classmates in seminary. It didn’t matter if we lived together or spent all day in class together, we still hung out, too. But by now you should have deduced that logic isn’t the driving force in my thinking, hence therapy.)
I met Donna during my first week of work at the Library. We had an all-staff retreat at the offices of the Regional Medical Library in Shrewsbury. Our staff includes the folks from the RML, though they are kind of on the periphery. There offices are outside of the Library – even off-campus. They do different kind of work; lots of outreach for the New England Region. They are the branch library of the National Library of Medicine for this part of the country. Donna worked for the RML.
I spotted her first thing, the way you sometimes spot a person in a room full of strangers, the one you intuitively know is a person you could connect with. While waiting in the sandwich line during lunch break, another librarian from the RML asked if I’d met Donna yet. She then proceeded to tell me something about Donna and her partner and same-sex marriage and such. I believe people think this is the politically correct way to say, “You’re queer. She’s queer. You’ll like each other.” They mean well, even though by this rationale, we really should have achieved world peace by now. Why don’t all of the heterosexuals get along? She wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know already, anyway. My intuition had already filled in the blanks on Donna’s sexual orientation.
After lunch, when it came time to do some group exercises at our tables, I strategically placed myself at Donna’s table. And indeed, we did like each other right away. Over the next couple of years, we developed a friendship closest to any I’d had since the days of school. And better, Donna was MY friend. She liked Lynn very much and we did, on a rare occasion, do things as two couples, but mostly we did stuff together, just the two of us. We’d meet for long “professional development” lunches once a month or so. We roomed together at conferences out of town. We’d meet for coffee and talk for hours. I missed her when she traveled for work. I saved her the seat next to me in meetings. I looked forward to any time that I’d see her. Donna filled a hole in my life that I didn’t even realize was so big.
Donna became for me what Ethel had been for my mom. It made perfect sense in the context of my parent’s relationship that they had good friends outside of each other. Men and women, in married relationships, often have friends that they do things with and this is seen as perfectly normal. Men go out with the guys. Women go away for weekends with their girlfriends. Something different happens with same-sex couples, though. Somehow the thinking goes that once you’ve found that certain someone, all of your emotional, spiritual, physical needs are met by that one person. It’s crazy thinking, really, and certainly not the sole purview of queer couples, but I do think it’s more prevalent there. And it’s certainly less accepted that a woman in a relationship with another woman need another woman as a friend, at least not singly.
Lynn didn’t particularly understand my need for such a friend, but then she’d never really understood my need for friends in general. I need people in a way that she does not. We had some dinner table discussions about this and I always came away feeling like I’d been heard, but not necessarily understood. This is probably the way Cynthia often felt after I left our hour of therapy.
“It’s not ‘either, or’.”
“Yes, I know.” <pause> “Maybe I should quit my job and play my mandolin all day.”
Therapist notes in her book: Sally just doesn’t get it.
Despite this lack of understanding though, Lynn took my relationship with Donna pretty much in stride. Donna’s spouse, however, did not. She was jealous – crazy jealous – and out of this jealousy she accused us of having an affair.
Then something odd happened. The accusation became like one of those things that can go completely unnoticed until someone says it out loud. You’re riding along, not thinking about ice cream at all, but then someone says, “Let’s stop for soft serve” and all you can think about from that moment until you find the Dairy Queen is a soft serve vanilla cone.
I was NOT having an affair with Donna.
Or was I?
But then, before I could begin to answer the question, Donna moved away. She got a job in Upstate New York, an offer that she felt she needed to follow for a number of reasons. Our last time together was a lunch date the week before she moved. It was a meeting that I’m sure she had with me without telling her partner, if for no other reason than to spare her the grief of false accusations. She dropped me off on campus afterward, and I watched through tears as her car drove away. I watched until I couldn’t see it anymore. And then I went inside and I cried at my desk.
Was that when the crying started? I try to think back on the timeline. When I first went to see my doctor and told him about the workplace (and every other place) crying episodes, was I describing something that started that day – the day my friend moved away? I wasn’t quite sure, but the loss was certainly one that threw me and certainly one that caused an awful lot of heartache and an awful lot of tears.
Between that August when she’d left and the following May in Chicago, Donna and I didn’t see each other at all. Her spouse would have none of it. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t figure it out. And I started to think that maybe I really did have something to be ashamed of. Maybe this was the lesbian version of “When Harry Met Sally”. Maybe lesbians couldn’t be friends. It seemed preposterous, but it also seemed very much the reality of what I was experiencing.
When we finally did see each other, it was bittersweet. I loved being with Donna. I loved seeing her in the hallway of the conference center. I loved sitting next to one another during sessions. I loved having coffee together again. When we said goodbye again, after she left to catch the van to the airport, I sat on a couch in the hotel lobby and felt my heart break all over again.
One of the many good reasons for finding a person to share your life with is that you hopefully spare yourself the pain of break ups. I was happily married. I’d been such for many years. So why was I now sitting here, feeling that same way I felt when Cathy Staples took those flowers from me and said, “Sorry, I don’t love you anymore.”? It felt like I was 19, like the person I loved didn’t feel the same way. But the person I loved DID feel the same way. Lynn loved me. I loved Lynn. But, I realized, I loved Donna, too. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t in any way how I’d imagine an affair would be if I’d ever have one. We were not sleeping together. The annual meeting of medical librarians was not some sexual tryst for us. Still, I felt at a loss. And I started to believe that maybe Donna’s partner was right all along.
Riding back from Chicago, 21 hours on an Amtrak train with a close colleague, I shared about what was going on. Up to a point, anyway. Judy wisely pointed out that people can have all sorts of affairs other than physically intimate ones. She also noted that sometimes it’s the emotional ones that are way more threatening. Donna and her spouse hadn’t been on the best of terms for a good while, pretty much as long as I’d known them. I was threatening. Our friendship was threatening. Maybe I’d do well to just let it be. There was geographical distance between us, emotional turmoil, manipulation and bullying. Who needed it, meaning I didn’t feel as if I needed to add to any of it for my friend.
But I missed her. I was lonely and I was really sad. And then I started to cry.
When I landed in my doctor’s office the fall of that same year, I’m sure it wasn’t the loss of my friend alone that brought me there, but I was pretty much convinced now that it played a significant part. It was both a very real loss and the epitome of too many other losses I’d felt in life. It was sudden, it was unfair, it was nothing I had control over, and it really, really hurt. Maybe it was the last straw, the camel’s back broken. Maybe it was my “bottom” for losses.
It’s not “either, or” says, Cynthia. No. It wasn’t either Donna leaving or Lynn’s dad dying or our sweet dog, Tanner, being put down. It was all of them. It was all of them added to every loss I could think of all the way back to my mom’s death. “No wonder,” I thought. No wonder I was depressed.