18. The Bleak Midwinter

December 25. Christmas Morning. 

I get up early to start breakfast. I make my daughter her favorite hot chocolate- lactose-free milk topped with fresh-made whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg. I want it to look picturesque and abundant, as though I might cram all my best intentions and care-worn love into that single cup. By the time she comes downstairs, the whole of it has grown cold. And anyway, she says, her stomach hurts. It sits forgotten, the fluffy white peaks caving in on themselves. Unwanted, unneeded. I take this in. Motherhood, the teens years.

Her godmother and grandmother arrive, and we watch as she slowly works her way through the piles of wrapped boxes and stuffed bags. We have each overcompensated for this shitty year by buying a few extra things. Still, she is grateful. Still, it seems normal and cozy and worth the effort. 

Christmas breakfast is usually oysters and crepes, one lucky shucker stationed at the table while I roll thin pancakes off the sleek French pan my brother and his wife bought me a few years back. Except this year, there are no oysters. My mother had placed the order a week prior, but when I drove to pick them up on Christmas Eve, trudging through the pouring rain to the roadside canopy, I was told they had never made it onto the truck. The man behind the table looked apologetic… wary even… as though he anticipated or had already encountered raised fists over the matter. 800 oysters, he said, defeated. Not a single one arrived. He offered shrimp and clams, helplessly moving his hands in and out of his pockets as though he might find a few within. He had spent that entire day huddled under that canopy in 35 degree weather and sheets of relentless rain. I laughed out loud. Oysters! What a ridiculously first world problem! Of course they didn’t make it on the truck, I said brightly. It’s 2020!

Despite the lack of oysters… and my brother… breakfast is a success. Our COVID bubble is small but feels like family. A deck of cards is produced once the plates have been cleared. We make it through several hands before my mother bursts into tears. I stare at the wooden table in front of me as our friend David reaches across to grasp my mom’s hand. I am frozen and mute, unable to offer comfort in her grief, unwilling to cross the chasm and join her. After a time, she dries her eyes, and we play another round of SushiGo. We are climbing small mountains here. 

We spend the afternoon lazy, movie watching and then head to dinner at the home of our dear friends, now nearby neighbors. The smell of pot roast and mulled wine, Christmas, greets us at the door. Dinner is good. So good. Not just for the food, which is delicious, but also because my daughter speaks in full sentences and poignant thoughts. We are engaged and interested and present. It feels like stepping off a boat and onto land for the first time in a long time. Precarious and solid all at the same time. After, we eat pie and play games and laugh as though it hasn’t been the worst year in the existence of our collective lives. 

We arrive home late to find my daughter’s cat lying like a beached whale across the hallway floor. His belly is full and distended and he meows in protest when I pick him up. Something feels not quite right, but I refuse to believe anything is wrong, simply because I no longer have room in my life for the possibility. I pull him into my lap and sit on the foot of my daughter’s bed while she digs for her pajamas. She is full of the day, sweet and docile and beautifully chatty. I am half-listening as I ponder the cat’s condition, until, unexpectedly, she asks about my brother’s death. My head snaps up. Eleven months have gone by, and not once has she wanted to know. But now, like the rest of us, she senses he should be here now, feels the need to pull him into the room. Her questions are hard questions, difficult to contemplate and answer but also overdue and necessary. I answer each one as best as I can, knowing they will be hard to hear.  

She takes it all in. When I hesitate, she assures me that she can handle it. I know she can, but that won’t account for the initial seconds and minutes of a body knowing things too hard to know. We are calm, sleepy even, as we discuss it. She takes it all in, assures me she is ok. But minutes later, something strong and fierce rises up in her, and we spend the next hour arguing over a completely unrelated and inconsequential topic. It is the sort of nonsensical arguing one does with a teenager, the circular kind that loops back on itself, louder with each revolution, that solves nothing but serves as a release valve for all the other things they have been unable to say in the weeks and months prior. I am too slow to realize what is happening. I stay engaged too long. It’s nearly 2am by the time I see it, and by then she has dissolved into a mess of agonized tears. I should have recognized the fatigue, the length of the day and weight of the emotion and sent us both to bed an hour ago. But that moment of connection… that sweet hot chocolate cup of love moment had been so sweet, so worth staying for, that I had missed its obvious passing. 

When she rejects my comfort, I take myself to bed. I want to be the rock she can reverberate against, but I worry I am not strong enough right now. I worry that my own insecurities and habits and patterns will cause her pain. At 3am, I hear her crying again, a shuffling of blankets, a cough. I crawl into her bed and hope she will let me console her, be a presence at least. She asks me to leave, and I do. 

At 4am, the dog begins to bark, and I worry that perhaps the cat has died. I go to the room where they are both sleeping and pick up the now-doubly bloated body of our otherwise, soft and sweet kitty. He meows, affirming life, and snuggles closer. I walk to the window to look at the stillness of the street, the frost-covered trees, and haloed lights. And then I hear the sound of a small waterfall, the thunderous sound of cat pee splashing to the floor. It was as though by tipping the cat upright, I had uncorked the damn. He cannot seem to stop. I freeze in place, trying to remain on the patch of hardwood floor and avoid the carpet. I swear, loudly. 

And then I laugh, as though my own deep damn has erupted. It is a slightly hysterical laugh, bordering on a scream, except I don’t want to wake my finally sleeping daughter. I double over with the cat clutched to my chest, not sure whether to first address the small lake of urine or my soaked shirt, pants, and socks. 

All at once, I feel deeply exhausted. For six months, I have tried to keep all these moving pieces from drifting too far apart, all the various parts of our lives. The dog… the cat… the sense of home… stability… so my daughter will not know any more loss than she already has. 

And I thought I had. But here, it is apparent that something is very wrong. 

Our kitty is in trouble and in pain. And too, so is my daughter. I do not know how to make either thing right. 

Saturday, December 26

My phone refuses to make outgoing calls, as it has intermittently done since I returned from the island. I cannot get through to the vet and I cannot call my carrier to fix it. I try my daughter’s phone, but her screen cracked the week prior and finally bit the dust the night before. And then I remember that my mom left her cellphone behind on Christmas day. For once, I am grateful for her forgetfulness. I call the vet and get their first appointment. On the phone, they tell me they will need to do an ultrasound and x-ray. I know the cost of these tests. My stomach begins to knot itself. 

While coaxing the cat into his crate, I wait on hold with my phone provider. During the drive, I try to explain the ongoing problem. They send me through four rounds of holds and transfers and ask me to repeat all the steps I’ve already tried over the last few weeks. I finally decide it might be better to wait until 2021 to deal with electronics and hang up.

At the vet, I make it as far as the counter before I burst into tears. I don’t cry easily… or often… and I especially don’t cry in public. But when I open my mouth to try to explain to the vet assistant that I need them to be as conservative as possible with tests and medications because I have been out of work for the past four months, that is precisely what happens. She nods knowingly and takes the cat from me. Half an hour later, the vet appears. She asks if there has been any abnormal stress in the house lately. I start to answer and begin crying again. She explains that cats are very sensitive to change and stress, which most often manifests through their urinary system. She explains that he’s been holding it when he needs to go to the bathroom. She explains that the situation is now critical. She explains that this is all my fault and that if I had only made better decisions along the way, I wouldn’t keep ending up in these kinds of situations (ok, I added that last part, but I’m pretty sure she was thinking it). 

I explain that he is accustomed to going outside but that we’ve recently moved to the city and that I’ve been keeping him in so as to prevent any injuries and avoid any emergency vet bills. We both laugh. She prescribes medication and advises that he could either get better or get worse in the next 24 hours. She instructs me to keep him as comfortable and as low-anxiety as possible. I think of how to best do this when my own nervous system feels like it constantly being driven by a freight train. I fill the prescriptions and buy the special food and drive home to rearrange the house.

By now, my sister has arrived to my mom’s with her three girls, having driven from North Carolina. I check to make sure the cat is as calm and “stress-free” as possible before we leave to meet them. We exchange gifts and the two oldest girls- my daughter and her cousin- disappear. They are six weeks apart and still bosom buddies. The house grows quiet, and I go upstairs to find my youngest niece quietly coloring in one of the bedrooms. 

Quiet is an understatement. She is ten years-old and hasn’t spoken a word in over two years. She has chosen a world of silence with which to shroud herself. I get down on the floor and pick up a fine-tip marker, crawl into the hush of her space. We become invisible together, heads bent beneath the sunlit window. For just a moment, I envy her silence. How much noise I have made these past few months, trying to fill the empty spaces with the sound of my own voice. And yet, she is so small to bear the burden of voicelessness.

My daughter stays behind for a sleepover with her cousins and I head back to the cat. On the radio, a musician talks about manifesting positivity and envisioning a brighter future. I drive with a pang in my heart, wondering why I cannot muster the willpower to do either, feeling my life has become one big, rotting pile of “negative energy” and harbingers of doom. I am manifesting dead car batteries and feline kidney infections. I trace back over this year and last and wonder where I have gone astray, how I muddled it all so horribly. 

Monday, December 28

I wake to find a trail of bloody urine through the upstairs hallway, and briefly wonder if Charles Manson made a visit to our house during the night. In the “could get worse/could get better” scenario, the cat chose worse. After a day of waiting on hold and for return calls, we head back to the vet. This time, we get the scans and x-rays (a huge shout out to acap for lending a hand!). Thankfully, he did not need surgery (please… let that remain so).

Thursday, December 31

Twice this week, my car… my two-year old, relatively new, well-maintained car… has refused to start. A credit card got lost in the mail. My phone still isn’t working properly. My cat has bled all over the house. All of these are tiny little things, things that pale in comparison to the rest of the year. But the fact that these little kicks keep on coming when I am trying SO DAMN HARD to stand up… has caused something inside of me to shift. Some deep and incontrovertible thing. All this time, I felt I needed to find meaning in these moments, to create some sort of path toward hope. I felt driven by the sensation that I have to apply some sort of optimistic outlook to everything that’s happened.

I heard a story the other day about soldiers who died while imprisoned in the Vietnam War. Admiral Stockton, the highest ranking Military officer in the Hanoi war camp reported that the first soldiers to die were the optimists. Around every corner, they were sure things were going to get better. They told themselves they would be home by Christmas, but then Christmas would come without rescue, and they couldn’t cope with that new disappointment. Eventually it became too much and they gave up their will to live. They couldn’t accept the reality of their situation. 

I’m not an optimist by nature. In fact, my New Year’s Resolution last year was to start working with some of the habits and belief patterns I adhere to that are always preparing me for doom and gloom… for the next hard thing. It’s difficult… when you have, actually, encountered many hard things in life… to believe that all of life won’t be that hard. That it can be easier. 

Despite that, I have spent this year telling myself that if I can just get around the next bend, things will get better. And then the next bend comes and things are still hard and I am devastated all over again. This is, in part, because I so strongly feel that things are hard because of some choice I made, some action I took, something I did somewhere along the way… call it sin, karma, fate. Things are hard because of my inability to look on the bright side or see the positive or focus on gratitude or manifest goodness. But ohmygosh… when you’re at the bottom of a well, you can only look up for so long before your neck gets tired. I just don’t have the energy for all that anymore.

I hate that all of this has made my life an internally focused cesspool of neediness where I am barely able to see or assist the pain of those around me who are likewise suffering. And I don’t want to downplay that sentence in any way… there are a lot of people who are WAY worse off than I am at this moment. Way worse!

So I am going to stop. I am going to stop trying to be optimistic about this year, stop applying lessons and putting on rose-colored glasses (not that I was doing a very good job before, but I’m at least going to stop feeling bad about failing to do a good job). I am simply going to fully and completely accept that this is the absolute, most ridiculous, hardest year, of my life.

Yes, there are things I will learn. Yes, I will grow. Yes, I will be grateful for much of the changes that have taken place over this year. Yes, I still believe Elohim is present. Yes, there are things in this right now moment for which I am extraordinarily grateful. 

But for today, I am just going to allow this to be one horribly, awful, shitty year. For today… this day on December 31… I am going to say loudly and definitively, without even wishing a Happy New Year… 

Fuck 2020. 

Published by dainsworth

The tether. That thing that binds us to our families of origin, not by any desire of our own, but through the mere act of existence. We spend our lives exploring the roots of this connection, be it to an unending wellspring of love or the heavy, unshakeable burden of pain. We create new ones. We watch as old ones fray. And sometimes, in life's most painful moments, we witness those tethers break. (un)tethered traces the paths of old and new connections through family, love, the modern church, and fourteen-years of single-parenting. I begin this blog in a time of deep uncertainty, having recently left my position at the boarding school where I lived and taught for the past five years. Technically, I still live in Charlottesville, VA, but the next steps in life could take us anywhere! There are many unknowns ahead, but I know I am not alone in this. I hope this will be a place of solace for all who are wandering/wondering through this time.

2 thoughts on “18. The Bleak Midwinter

  1. It is very difficult being a single parent; I know & have been single parent of 2 the last 13 years. I would recommend moving in w/your mother if possible to achieve stability & financial “grace” for awhile. I lived w/family “rent free” for the last 5 months to help me….you’ll qualify for assistance via Obamacare and possibly more rent assistance/food stamps for basic groc; Do NOT shun these programs! My kids are on Pell Grants at college; and I qualify for many assistance programs. I am college educated like you; apply for any & all federal assistance!

  2. So sorry about the cat; but do NOT let that unnerve you. Kitty may be beyond saving. From a financial point—-that’s just a decision you’ll hv to make….

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