02 April 2011

Head wounds

"I can see that you bottle things up," she said. "You need to talk about things. You can't be a stuffer, like I am." I was facing the aunt on her couch, acutely aware of the mint green walls of her living room. It had been what, a day, a week since my girls and I plus our bags were dropped off here?


I wanted to make this work.

But I just couldn't shake my reservations about this woman. I looked at her and my eyes pleaded for someone to fall on, someone who could understand the hellish nightmare of uncertainty, injustice, confusion, and pending loss of a know-nothing, newbie immigrant.

Granted, I was only an American coming into Canada, but still. I had nothing. I had only been there a year with no status, no job, no provincial driver's license and it had been a year of major upheaval and transition--my husband's 2 other cancer episodes, moving five times with a toddler, a new baby, his just-barely-there new career, and all the post natal emotions which hadn't even subsided by this third diagnosis. There hadn't even been the time, much less the money, to start or pay for application of residency. So. To recap. I had no job, wouldn't have been allowed to work (immigration rules), and had no car with which to even escape. I relied totally and completely on everyone else.

And here I was. In the house of a stranger, wondering how I got there, how I got to that place in my life, no more assured of where I was than my own children. (I had been an independent woman before, hadn't I? I guess writing bad checks and scrambling to make ends me for me and my baby barely counted as independence, but it was hard to remember. It seemed like a lifetime ago.)

I looked at her. I was going to try this anyway. This getting-to-know-her thing. She was family albeit not the kind of family I knew. Maybe there was some value to us sitting there on that couch that winter day, her trying to get me to talk; and what did I know? Except for not to judge at first glance? But I was oblivious. Things? Stuff what things? I didn't even know what she was talking about, much less what I was thinking or processing.

I sputtered a response that somehow had nothing to do with my then-current state, something scattered and half thought out about the way I grew up. I think that's what she wanted to hear. I was able to pry into something more than just my current state. I waited for her response. This would be anecdotal or wise.

I don't remember what she said.

Whatever specifics that were exchanged, all I remember is being left with a feeling like she didn't understand what I was going through. I should have used that opportunity to tell her, to scream it maybe, "My life is a freaking nightmare and here's why!" I guess I just thought that she would be like every other basic compassionate, observe that I was young with two very young daughters, and put it together herself that being newly married and facing what our whole family was facing was terrible!

But maybe that is quite a lot of information to assume someone could know or put together. She at least knew that her nephew and I were newly married with a second child because she came to visit us back when the baby was born. That had only been 5 months prior. Hmm. The fact that she missed it just exhausted me more, and I at least sensed that she wasn't perceptive enough to be the person I should be talking to.

Then, just like that, I was beginning to feel like I was under a microscope. Instead of being relieved to find someone I could talk to, I just shut down (or realized that talking about my fears with this woman was just not going to happen,) and diffused her questions with lighthearted (if you could call it that) small talk, well-being of the in-laws, and... rent.


There seems to be a common theme in those times, and for several occasions and moments after. The way my brain was working. For all of the hard times I've had in my life, I've been able to look back now and understand that for what I was lacking in being able to acquire things/resources to make my life better, to help myself, it has been FAR less due to being wiser on this side of the fence than it is the compounded number of dramatic things to have happened in my life in those days, less than a year after having been behind the wheel of a rollover in August of 1999. My head was bashed around so bad that I was in ICU for three days with a concussion, and I've had to wonder just how much that head injury affected all/any of my abilities to process things in a logical fashion.

I have been hesitant and irritated to develop this theory too far. It doesn't speak to the choices I made, it doesn't excuse the shit decisions I've employed, and it wouldn't get me off the hook for anything. But I am curious just the same. A whole lot of unspoken, blurry time was spent searching for answers when I couldn't even recall the simplest exercises in memory (where I left my house key, my papers for school, even how the campus layout was from the year before) and then when my fog cleared--or what I thought was my fog clearing--my responses were always emotional, not always rational, and concentrating took on a whole new effort. I would get headaches from concentrating on something--the kind of pain I had after the accident.

Sometimes, even today, 12 years later, I will feel myself get dizzy from time to time. It's only slight, but it feels too familiar... I think that I would have made ridiculous jumps in conclusion for just about anything, but most especially when I was in a state of stress. Being the mom of two young girls, being young myself, and having a young husband in the hospital living with an aunt who upped the rent every month of our stay with her and threatened to call Child and Family Services on me when I couldn't fathom what or why out of thin air would qualify as stress.

It wasn't until I worked at the crusher of a local excavating company and had lots of time to journal, reflect, and otherwise beat myself up about stupid shit in my life that I actually felt such a clearing of my mind, I had to wonder if I snapped. Lucky for me, my snapping came in the form of realizing the world was opening up and I could match logic to emotion (a sweeping miracle for someone like me!) It was to be the beginning of being responsible for myself, rather than waiting for someone to come rescue me and live for me; and I was relieved for that. But it was extremely painful to take a look on my past with that puzzle piece in my hand and see with new understanding all that I could have done.

31 March 2011

The aunt

So when we got in, it was a bit of a whirlwind. My so-called, so-very-different-from-me friends were right behind me in the doorway with some of my belongings. I had my 5-month-old in one arm, a bag and my 2-year-old's hand in the other. I budged into the tiny entryway area, hesitant to track in snow or grit, encouraging my girls to go into the stranger's home. Both girls took one look at the woman in front of them, who was already wobbling toward us, not helping us with our things, and clung to me. My baby twisted in my arm, turning her head over my shoulder away from the woman she did not know, and clenching my jacket. Even my sociable, bubbly 2-year-old was wincing and finding protection behind my arm. The friends who had driven me two hours to get there were dropping my belongings at the door.

The flurry of activity and rush to get out of the January cold subsided momentarily. In the arrested moment, I couldn't dispel the feeling that washed over me that this was not going to be good. Small, needless talk was made. Whatever introductions and formalities were exchanged between the friends dropping me off and this aunt of my husband's were so fleeting and perfunctory that whatever hope of good there could have been from this new arrangement disappeared as quickly as we came in.

I feebly, desperately thanked my friends, the wife-and-husband duo I'd been living with for two months prior. My gratefulness for them bringing in my belongings was washed away in a moment of desperately wishing I could turn around and go back with them. But it was done and I knew it. We were here. Now. And it hadn't been working out between the three of us and our three kids (my two, their one), so here I was. I knew they were probably just relieved to get their house and life back; not have a living zombie of depressing emotions moping around in their house and the wife of a cancer victim to make their lives depressing. It still stung, though, when the moment for them to leave came and all of us stood in the entryway with nothing more to say and they left without pomp or circumstance. Nor telling emotion. The way they swept out of there made me wonder just how relieved they were to have me off their hands.

It was kind of a theme in my life. Needing way more emotional support than anyone could give. It made me realize that I asked too much of people. So instead of figuring out how I could fix that, which I neither had the time for or the patience (and that time in my life being when I needed someone to feel sorry for me the most,) I just balled it up and choked it down, just like every other injustice I'd learned to tolerate. I did it again just then, in that moment the door closed behind my friends, and I turned to the next endeavor. The aunt.

* * *

Did she welcome us? Smile? I don't remember. What I do remember is standing in that strange new doorway, feeling as alien and wanting to hide as my own children, praying and hoping that this would be a welcoming new start. A place to find refuge from the tsunami that was my life just then. I also remember the aunt, with her waddling gait and cold black eyes, who didn't give me a warm impression at all. If she was trying, it got lost the moment my 2-year-old started to whimper and the aunt dragged her away from me telling her to come into the house, forcing adjustment on my little girl, rather than waiting for her to warm up with my support.

I remember her taking the baby from my arms so I could take my shoes off, but when I finished and stood up--all of a minute--she was in front of me with my two children. The picture of this strange woman, who I'd only met once before then, with my children beside her, was an eerie snapshot of wrongness. The aunt looked almost... what was that look... defiant. Without being able to put it into words, I just knew it didn't feel right. I moved in towards my children to comfort them and take them back. It was a silly thought and I shook it out of my mind as I stepped further and further into this strange house, strange life, strange world to reassure my little ones that Mommy was right there. But it was just the thing that haunted me, an inaudible and undefined feeling: take them back. It was a ghost of a feeling that would stay with me for my duration there. What was that? What was that exchange? It was just another of many more gut feelings I'd learn to set aside. What else could I do with no landed immigrant status to get a job, no car, no money, none of my family around?

Not one to be easily defeated, I followed her to I don't remember where. Did she show me around first? Did she show me my room? Did we sit on the couch that day? It doesn't matter. I proverbially and literally tip toed around everyone in that house---the aunt, the uncle, their daughters, who were practically my age and remarkably normal in comparison--and tried desperately to keep a low profile so I could do what I was trying to do, and get out.

It wouldn't be that easy.

On top of everything else, and I mean EVERYTHING else, I was 21 years old. To everyone else around me, I was still just a know-nothing kid, which pissed me off. It worked against me in every way youth works against even the most level-headed, ambitious, qualified or intelligent person.

It is for this very reason alone, I digress, for why I can never and will never tell a young person that their opinions don't matter or wave off concerns I know, standing on this side of the age fence, they will outgrow with some dismissive, diminutive gesture or guffaw. Even when my ear has been bent by the same person for the same things ad nauseum and I get frustrated because I don't feel like they're doing anything for themselves to better their situation, I still shut up. I just listen. And then I try to ruffle up some inspiration with a tidbit for them or use my creative ability to offer a suggestion or two, based on the limits of their situation. (You'd be surprised about how giving someone something they can really chew on will actually enable them to see where the options are for themselves.) The fact is, you just don't know what their life is like. You can make intelligent assumptions, you can make belligerent ones, you can make generalizations, you can be as self-righteous or as concerned as you want to be, you can even be really good at understanding. But at the end of the day, you don't wear their shoes and you don't put your head to rest on their pillow. That deserves understanding.