I got back yesterday from an unplanned trip east. I’m supposed to drive to DC in two days, this quick turnaround to Connecticut was a tight squeeze, an interruption of production runs. A friend has been in hospital and it was unclear how bad things were, so we went.
She’s one of my dearest friends and the one who knows the longest arc of my life, one of those people who don’t seem to understand even in concept the notion of being anything other than kind. She took me in during a bad time early on, she’s been my biggest cheerleader. It’s hard to imagine a world without her in it. The week before her accident she had gone to the Yale Museum to see an opening in which one of her carved porcelains is on exhibit. This past year the museum excitedly accepted her gift of twelve pieces for their permanent collection.
One thing I have learned this past year is that trauma exacts a price on the mind. I’m talking about the person who is hurt, not those around her (that’s another story). This seems to be especially true for an elder. You can’t know in the immediate aftermath, how much of the addled mental state is a long term problem and how much is just post-stress. My friend’s mental status improved in the two days we were visiting, and as well, we discovered that a battery replacement in her hearing aid made a dramatic difference. All her friends have been telling the nursing staff that this slowed, wandering, struggling for words person is not her, not the normally incisive person we know. Her primary nurse said to me it’s still very early in her recovery, too soon to know how much she will come back. I left feeling more optimistic, feeling she is in good hands.
One good thing that happened on this trip was meeting my cousin. I haven’t seen him since he was too little to know who I am, so I didn’t have a clue what to expect, seeing him all grown up and then some. After we parted company my daughter said he and I share certain facial features. I said, I don’t see that, but I do feel this odd sense of familiarity, like I can talk to him without explaining and we understand one another very well, so there is some palpable genetic resonance between us–or the shared sensibilities of having been raised in families with overlapping quirks.
When you are connected with very little blood family, it’s exciting to discover someone who knows the history, who can fill in some blanks, maybe offer a reality check. My friend who we’d come to see always tells me it’s very lucky, when one’s chosen family happens to also be blood family.
I traded notes with one of the local friends who has adopted my friend as chosen family. When you live alone and you’re not young and your blood relations are gone or distant you rely on whoever will step up in a crisis. This friend of my friend lives in Newtown and told us about the descent, after last week’s shootings, of mobs of press on that small and grieving town. She said every night they pray the press will be gone the next day. She described microphones thrust in the faces of family entering a church for their child’s funeral, mobs of photographers camped across the street because the minister forbid them on church property, “looky-loos” who drive in to gawk at the places they’ve seen plastered all over the media. On our first day in Connecticut we’d been at a small post office in New Fairfield, in that same part of the state as Newtown, when the postal clerk asked for a moment’s silence. It was exactly one week since the shooting, we stood there barely breathing, deciding not to cry.
On the morning we were to drive home I pulled into a cafe parking lot to fill the coffee thermos and suddenly we had a small car emergency, a piece of plastic undercarriage pulling off and dragging on the pavement. How it happened is mysterious and possibly slightly embarrassing. I went in and ordered the coffee, then came back out and asked the nearest person getting into his SUV if he happened to have a Pillips head screwdriver. He apologized and said no but a guy two cars over stepped forward and said he did, and pulled it out of the toolbox in his flatbed, and came over to the car, and removed the piece that was dragging. I said, the car’s at around 70,000 miles–meaning, we are all entitled to get a little cranky at that age. He scowled and said, that’s not very old, misunderstanding my joke. My daughter was a little miffed that he assumed a woman could not wield a screwdriver, but I said, no, he’s just being nice, it’s a sort of chivalrous impulse to take care of it for me. I thanked him, threw the plastic piece in the hatchback and we drove home.
A few hours later we were driving through Pennsylvania, listening to Parenthetical Girls, drinking coffee and carrot juice and eating sweet potato chips. Driving through Pennsylvania turns me to mid-American thoughts. You might think that living in Cleveland would do that all the time but Cleveland is one of those places where, in small pockets, a coastal ex-pat does not necessarily feel so very midwestern–and no offense, but this is part of how I survive on the north coast, dislocated from most of the places where my sensibilities are more accepted and more at home. Seeing a friend in dire straits is draining in its own special way, where half the time you are just doing-doing-doing whatever you can possibly do to be of use, and the other half, a paralysis sets in, heavy as lead, and you don’t even want to lift a phone. At least, that’s what it’s like for me. We got home after eight hours on the road and I felt like someone let the air out of me, flattened, empty.
Some nourishment I found this morning: From Hyperallergic, Yau on Artschwager. On The Rumpus, a 2010 Bennington College commencement speech: Nick Flynn on making art. And from Cold Drank, an epistolic eulogy, A Letter to Uncle Jimmy by Kiese Laymon, which reminds us all to speak what love needs spoken while we have the chance.
Wishing you sweet holidays,