The Loneliest Number

Hello from jobless quarantine. That’s right, jobless quarantine; where the days blend together and time becomes meaningless until bills are due. The fact that this is happening as we careen from spring into summer only adds to the weirdness of it all. Things are greening up where I live and both the sun and the pollen are out in full force. It makes what’s going on in the world seem surreal. And as I lay in my backyard hammock listening to synthwave covers of songs I liked in my teenage years, I start to feel a bit displaced in time. I’m starting to feel a bit like I did during my teenage summers. Here’s a confession I’ve never made to anyone ever but dear readers, I hated my teenage summers. 

Well, hate may be a bit strong. I was a giant blob of apathy. I probably gained most of my weight during those summers. I spent a lot of time listless, deeply sad, and feeling terribly alone. They weren’t all like that. Although a lot were. For reasons I won’t get into, my childhood summers were sometimes spent as a caretaker but that had blessedly stopped by the time I hit 11. I was learning to connect and be a kid. I was developing a different kind of relationship with my older brother, who was finally starting to trust me with not-kid things. We were hitting a brother-sister stride that you see people carry into adulthood with their siblings. Then he died. And I was alone.

I don’t remember much else from that summer beside the funeral. I think my parents repainted my bedroom with me but that might’ve been the next year.  We didn’t speak much as we did it and it all felt oddly quiet and strained. Early on it was often quiet with just the three of us. The three of us. Even all these years later, it feels unnatural to me. There were four of us.  I had a brother.  Now I don’t?  This isn’t right.  It never feels right.

In the summers, my brother and I didn’t always do a lot together. He was older than me by 4+ years so sometimes we didn’t have much in common. Not to mention how different we were. But he was there. I would walk by his dark room in the mornings and know he was sleeping. He was there. A presence. Sometimes he’d have me make him a sandwich with a lot of mayo. Or tea with too much sugar. Sometimes I would watch him play video games and other times he’d have me join in and laugh at the faces I’d make while playing. Usually it was just nice to know he was there. Somewhere.  

After, it was weird walking by his room. I wanted to walk in there to find him buried beneath his hideous 70’s orange-brown knit blanket.  The worst dream I ever had, he was sleeping in his room and I had to get him up.  It was just that simple and it felt real. So very real. I woke up and walked towards his room hoping he was still in there. Please god, let me wake my brother up. But I felt it, the lack of him being there.  The only things in his room were his stuff and a light layer of dust. Left behind skin cells mixing with dirt. When my parents went back to work, it was just me and the dust in the basement. 

Summers were blurs. I’d wake up at noon. Maybe I’d go to the pool. Sometimes I’d walk down to my friend’s house where Misty and I would watch soap operas. Days of Our Lives had an arc where Marlena was possessed by the devil. I think it was the same year that the OJ trial was everywhere.  Some days I’m not sure I’d talk to anyone but my parents if only because I had to go upstairs to have dinner.  I hated school because it meant people laughing at me for being fat or a loser or what have you but I’d see friends every day, too. So school was a bit of a reprieve from the isolation of summertime.  I’d never felt so alone.  At a certain point it became a blanket. Being alone was just another part of who I was and it became more difficult to feel normal around people.

I grew up and got a job where I had to be social and that helped because even if I didn’t enjoy what I did, it got me out and kept me in touch with people.  It gave me friends I cared about and a disposable income.  When the layoffs happened, the hardest part (outside of the constant worry about what I would do for food and doctors and medicines and the like) was not having a routine and a group of people to interact with everyday.  I had to make routines for myself (which I suck at and I openly admit to that).  I had places I would frequent and sometimes I would force myself to chat with people.  It wasn’t always easy.  I have a lot of social anxiety and sometimes just getting out of a car to walk into a coffee shop requires a 10 minute self-pep talk that would on occasion fail so I would end up just going back home.  

With everything going on (“in this new normal” or “in these strange times” or “as we navigate this new landscape” or whatever all those companies who want to sell you their shit start their emails now), my work dried up and everything closed so I’ve been home.  Alone again, naturally.  I’ve had zoom calls with friends and that helps me not feel so weirdly alone and I’m lucky to get to see my parents. But I have this deja vu heading into the summer.  It’s THAT summer all over again: deathly silent and still and I hate it.  I hate this loneliness that I wear like armor I somehow can’t take off.  I hate this anxiety that burns and bubbles in my chest until it’s hard to breathe because I don’t know how long this will last.  I miss my friends and work and people.  I miss my brother.

I hate this.

(Also, please keep social distancing and self quarantining if/when you can.  It’s about helping other people where you can folks.  Be the helpers.)

And Another Thing . . .

One of my neighbors died around Thanksgiving. She was an elderly lady so it wasn’t a great shock but it was enough of one that I’m still thinking about her. I didn’t know her well. I’d only talked to her twice in the almost 5 years I’ve lived here. The first time was when she went around the neighborhood on her mobility scooter to hand out envelopes asking for donations to the American Heart Association (she’d survived a heart attack). The last time we’d spoken was when I returned their wayward dog. The inmate, a curly mop mini dachshund named Chuckles, liked to escape from their back yard. I went to return him to his prison and we chatted a bit about nothing in particular. After this, I’d usually hear him bark at me from their white fenced back yard as I came and went. They seemed nice, all three of them. I wish I could remember everyone’s names. Unfortunately only Chuckles’ name seemed to stick with me. The only clue I had that my scooter-bound neighbor had died was from seeing her family come and go after Thanksgiving. They were cleaning out the house and left a lot of stuff piled for the garbage truck. Inductive reasoning, my dear Watson.

I rarely thought of her at all unless I saw her or anyone around her home. They were always fleeting thoughts that vanished as soon as I got in the house or in my car. I probably thought about her more since she’d passed on than I did in all the years she’d spent alive and less that a couple of thousand feet away from me. I watched her family from the window in my office (between bouts of working) as they cleaned, painted, and fixed things. Sometimes the kids played outside, chasing each other with rollers or reading on the hood of a truck. The legacy of someone’s life in some small degree playing out in front of me. It was somehow both a little heartwarming and a little sorrowful at the same time.

And that brings me to something that happened this week. Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gigi, died in a helicopter crash. It’s shocking on a different and somehow similar scale. He was 41 and she was 13. They were both entirely too young as were the 7 other people who died with them. I rarely thought about Kobe or his daughter except for when I saw that meme of them talking at a basketball game. Probably less than I thought about my neighbor (odd that I know more about Kobe but I guess that says something about me that I don’t like). I’m sad for him and his daughter. I’m sad for the 7 other people that died along side them. I’m sad for their families most of all. I can empathize to a degree. I still remember thinking that the pain was going to be permanent; an ever-expanding galaxy where I’d never find the edge and would have to float in the darkness of it forever. It was permanent but became bearable over time and I’m grateful for the reason I have it.

I mention him because I had a conversation with someone who was upset because of the amount of public mourning. In this person’s mind, Kobe was a stranger to these people and a villain of sorts. There were greater tragedies to consider, in their opinion. I didn’t completely agree but I could see their point. Over 150,000 people die every day around the world. Every death is sad but we can’t stop and mourn the unknown. Unless we know them, it’s high level tragedy. We aren’t close enough to touch it or have it touch us. I understand why some grieve for Kobe and his daughter, too. I can’t articulate people feel like famous strangers are close to them. I’m not smart enough to speak about parasocial relationships but I know a little something about grief. Grief is a complicated emotion and emotions can’t be policed. I can’t pretend to know the totality of Kobe Bryant’s legacy. To some, he was more than a basketball player: he was a legend, a mentor, a role model. He was also a problematic person with a complicated background (and on some level aren’t we all). Others can speak about what he meant to them more than I could. But I can acknowledge that people can feel a multitude of ways about him without placing a judgment on that. It’s terrible that a person who made such an impact is gone. There’s a weight to it that I don’t feel but I can see.

I wonder if this isn’t all part of the contract agree to keep in continuing to be alive – that we have to face death. Not only of other people, including the ones we love, but our own death. It’s the deal we make every day we wake up and continue breathing. We will always be facing death on some level. I struggle with it. I used to lay awake at night thinking I could solve death like some word problem (if Erin is going 30 miles and hour headed north). But it can’t be solved. It simply is. There’s no getting around it. Sometime it can be delayed but death (O death, you fiend) is still waiting in the wings for the grand entrance. Or exit, I guess. Permanent impermanence. I guess if you work at it, you can avoid the reality of it. In a way, that’s both good and bad. We should be aware of the limited time everyone has here, ourselves included. If we’re lucky, it can inspire us to do great things with the time we have left. But I also think, what a wonder it is that we can be essentially surrounded by death and still find a way to feel something when we notice it. Somehow we aren’t all completely inured to it. We still feel the weight of loss, be it the loss of a stranger, a neighbor, a friend, a family member. And in this world that’s too big, too complicated, and too on fire, I’d like that to count for something.

I decided to look up my neighbor to find her name and I found her obituary. Her name was Dorothy. She was 98 years old and grew up in Iowa. During World War II, she was a defense worker at a bomber plant. Dorothy had 6 children, 12 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and 2 great-great grandchildren. And a dog named Chuckles. I hope that she was the kind of person who will be missed by them all. If not for her sake, then definitely for theirs.

The Magic of Movies and Memory

Movies and music are pretty powerful in that they can evoke memories.  Sometimes it’s a lot like a magic spell.  They take you traveling to the past, your past.  And sometimes it’s a good past with warm memories and loving thoughts.  Sometimes it’s a dark past with unpleasant events.  But the good thing is you can control it by either turning off the tv or the radio.  Sometimes I like to go to those dark places, either because I feel like being sad (I know sometimes you just need to mope though) or just to have a good cry.  Crying can be incredibly cathartic.  Continue reading “The Magic of Movies and Memory”