September 5, 2018

Content warning: grief, loss of a parent, suicidal thoughts. Readers, please don’t share this on Facebook. Dad, if you’re reading this or hearing about it: I’m really sorry. This is my truth.

I wrote what follows on October 25, 2018, six weeks after my mom died, almost two years ago, fourteen years after my brother died. I wrote it in the middle of the night while I was binge-watching The Haunting of Hill House and single-handedly working my way through a bottle of Laphroaig 10-year. I’d just learned my collarbone hadn’t healed, my mom was dead, my dad was still looking cancer square in the eye, and I was in constant physical and mental pain. I remember everything about that day very vividly: I remember looking at my bottle of pain pills, I remember considering them very seriously, and I remember calling Drew up to talk me out of taking them all.

I wrote this post that night.

I never showed this to anyone, save one person who doesn’t talk to me much anymore. Another loss I grieve. I couldn’t put my pain on anyone else… doing so still hurts me now… but I did send the post that follows to my husband and my dad this week, so they would know beforehand what I had written.

Last week, I tried to rewatch The Haunting of Hill House. After a night of stormy tears and intense nightmares, I gave up the effort. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great horror show, one that looks honestly into the darkest corners of grief and trauma. But I can’t ever rewatch it. It hits the nerve directly; that’s what makes it great.

Still, the memories were triggered, and I think I cannot exorcise my own ghosts without shining some light onto the places where they live.

I’m doing better these days. I’ve had some important mental health help, some medication adjustments, and I did, after all, get a plate put into that broken collarbone. My dad remarried and is in remission. On damp days like today I hurt a little more, but mostly I’m okay.

Still, I really can’t move on until I’ve faced these things: the raw pain of my past self, the fuck-ups of Last Year Me who tried to escape that pain in some toxic ways, the art I created in those dark days that I haven’t been able to finish. (I’m looking at you, A Veil of Smoke and Shadows, aka Candles, the book I have to write right before I am free.)

And so. I am acknowledging this ghost and setting it free. If you can read, thank you. If you can’t… believe me, I get it. I don’t remember a lot of what I say in this post that I do, but I remember other, worse things that I didn’t write about. I won’t tell you those things now. But I do know and will tell you that I did my best.

I hope that’s what I’m doing now.

Looking back and realizing that the last time I wrote anything on this blog was two years ago, and that it was about the tragic, shocking death of my brother, I’m not sure whether I want to cry or laugh.

Mostly, I want to cry.

This was never intended to be a blog about grief. I still don’t mean it to be. But here we are. Two years have passed since I last posted here, and thirteen years, eleven months, and two days later, my mom died.

Typing those words hurt. But, God help me, writing things out helps me process them. That’s why I gave the eulogy at my brother’s funeral. I didn’t speak at my mom’s funeral. I did speak a lot between the day she was admitted to the hospital and the day she died, though. I laid my heart out for strangers to touch every day for almost a month, and it didn’t make a damned difference whether she lived or died.

I don’t think I can write about what happened in a linear fashion. I don’t remember it in a linear way. Grief does funny things to the brain. Certain memories stand out, crystal clear, stark and brutal, while other things take on a dreamlike quality. The mind tries to protect itself, but some things hurt too fucking badly to blank them out. Moments can change us forever. It takes a split second to shatter glass, and the mind, the heart, the spirit, are much more fragile and more permanently changed than the most delicate trinket. Physical things can be destroyed, but what we carry within us never goes away.

***

Before they performed the life-altering LVAD surgery on my mom, the surgeon needed to see that she had suffered no neurological damage after multiple heart attacks sent her to the ICU. She was responsive to the doctors, but they needed her to stay awake and alert. One of the doctors talked about me in the third person, like I wasn’t standing in the room watching her smile at strangers, faces she’d never seen in a place she’d never heard of. “Can we use the daughter?” he said. He turned to me. “Can we put you to work?” I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember talking to my mom for three hours straight. A nurse brought me a chair. Someone brought me a Coke after about 45 minutes. I talked about everything I could think of — the Kansas City skyline, the ridiculously handsome doctors in the ICU, my latest sewing project, the weather, the book I was reading. I’m not a talker. But I talked. I talked until my throat hurt and my brain went numb. After that, I read aloud from Harry Potter. I kept her awake until my dad came back and took over.

My collarbone was broken. When we first got to Kansas City, the broken ends kept clicking against each other. I was in a lot of pain, and I had to ask an ICU nurse for an icepack. I took prescription painkillers and washed them down with coffee. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My ‘tell,’ I realized, was that I gripped my own hands together tight in my lap, so hard my knuckles went white and I could feel the pressure in my upper back. However calm I appeared, my clenched hands were holding me together.

When my dad first called to tell me what had happened, all I felt was intense rage, hotter and more potent than any anger I had ever felt in my entire life. I wanted to throw my phone against the wall. I wanted to break dishes, electronics, my own body. On the drive down, Dad called to tell us she was getting worse. He texted first, and I had to pull over to the shoulder of the interstate somewhere in Missouri. My husband and I switched places in the car; I scooted across the seats and the gearshift while Drew ran around in traffic. My hazard lights blinked, off and on, off and on. Dad told me what was happening and I hit the dashboard of my car so hard I bruised my hand.

The chaplain came and talked to us. I mentioned my brother, and how my mom talked to me on the phone every night for months after he died. My dad started to sob. I took his hand. The chaplain said that gesture told her everything, that our strength as a family would get us through whatever happened.

Shortly before that first surgery, my mom took my hand and kissed it. It wasn’t easy for her. She had a breathing tube and a feeding tube and a dozen other machines connected to her, but she still gripped my hand and told my Dad and me how much she loved us. She made sure we knew.

I met so many ICU nurses in those four weeks. I tried to remember their names, and I failed. One of them gave me her personal phone number and a promise to text me from the OR. Later, she told me I could call to talk, as a friend. I never called, but I do remember her name.

The day of the final surgery, September 5, I knit frantically on a sock in the waiting room. They gave me an update after Mom left surgery, and I had such a bad feeling. The surgeon, a man I had come to like and trust, seemed so exhausted, so beaten down. He had been honest with us, and I couldn’t feel relieved after they left the operating room. But I did what they said; I went back to our hotel room, I showered, I tried to sleep.

I ran, literally ran, back to the hospital as soon as they called.

My hand shook violently in the grip of the doctor who oversaw her final moments. He had to be a foot taller than me and almost 100 pounds bigger, but my trembling made his whole arm shake. I stayed with her the whole time, my hand in hers, gripping tight enough that, could she have felt it, it probably would have hurt her. There was a keening sound, so quiet it took me a long time to realize it was my own voice, sobbing. Behind me, my husband cried and gripped my shoulder. He held me up, and I thought about how no marriage vows cover moments like those. I didn’t even know I was still standing, but somehow I was. The clock had kept ticking, and the doctor marked the time.

My dad got chemo 180 miles away that day. He couldn’t be there. He didn’t tell the doctors until those last few days that he was fighting his own battle. I told him over the phone what was happening, what happened, but I don’t know what I said.

That’s a lie. I know what I said.

There are things I will not burden you with, memories I would block out if I could.

Weeks later, I cried into my mare’s mane. Sobbed. On the drive home from the barn that day, on a date I don’t remember, I screamed into traffic in the privacy of my car, raw and brutal, so loud my throat hurt and something cracked in my vocal cords. I did it again and again and again. No one at the red light seemed to notice.

***

Grief changes you. There are times now, not quite two months later, when I don’t know myself. Those closest to me still seem to know me, though, and that gives me hope that maybe I haven’t changed as much as I fear. Maybe I’m still in here somewhere. I still need to write, though I’m not sure just what I need to say.

I’ll figure it out. And my people will help me.

Where I’ve Been

Hi. It’s been awhile.

The last eight months have been hell. I’m not exaggerating.

On June 30, 2018, my horse and I hit a jump. I hit the ground, shattering the center of my collarbone into three pieces. (It refused to heal, and I eventually had surgery in late November to repair it.) On July 11, 2018, my dad started chemotherapy for prostate cancer. (In 2017, he went through radiation and two surgeries related to the cancer.) On August 11, 2018, my mom had a heart attack. She went into intensive care the next day. Four days later, she was transferred to a hospital in Kansas City (eight hours from my home in Indiana, four from my parents’ in Missouri ) to undergo an advanced surgical procedure that would have essentially replaced half her heart.

She passed away on September 5.

So, yeah. Hell. You haven’t heard from me in a long time. I did write a post about the experience I had, living in a hotel for four weeks, walking around and driving with a broken collarbone, supporting my dad through chemo, visiting my mostly-unconscious mom in intensive care, sitting with her in her final moments, but I couldn’t publish it.

Honestly, I couldn’t publish anything. I could barely function for weeks after her funeral.

I’m still not really sure how to be ‘normal,’ whatever that means, because I have no idea what normal looks like now. But somehow I’ve been writing, reading books, playing D&D, riding my horse, living life. There are times when I stop and realize I am no longer the same person. My life is not the same, even as I do the same things I did before any of this happened.

There are good things. My dad finished chemotherapy last fall, and we’re counting down the weeks till official remission can be declared. No Saving Throw will be out on May 14. Life carries on, I guess.

I don’t have any words of wisdom. Someday I may post what I wrote last fall about what happened, but it’s so raw I can barely stand to read it, let alone inflect it on someone else.

So if you’re still here, if you’ve liked some of my Tweets or posts or books over the years, thanks for sticking around. Truly; thank you. The support I’ve gotten from my online friends and family has been incredible, and I think that support network is half of what’s kept me going when I’ve been at my worst.

If you’d like to see more of me, I’m pretty active over on Instagram, where I post little snippets of my gaming, knitting/spinning, and horsey life. (There are also loads of cute bunny and cat photos if you’re into that.) I tweet, too, if that’s where you hang. I’ll try to update here a little more often, especially as release day approaches.

Finally, if you actually want to MEET me, I’ll be on the Writer’s Symposium programming at GenCon in Indianapolis this year, and that includes a couple of signings. I’d love to talk writing and games with anyone who wants to chat with me. I’ll likely be carrying a MtG deck and a Keyforge deck, too.

As for how I’m doing… Well, I’m here. I’m compulsively knitting socks, I’m creating a new D&D character (Dragonborn rogue, hell yeah), I’m obsessing over Age of Sigmar. I’m dragging my dad to a ranch in Wyoming later this summer, and I think I’ll finally venture over the pond to Scotland in November to hang with my bestie. There’s a lot of life ahead of me right now, and I’m doing my very best to keep living it.

Roll 20s, y’all.

October 3, 2004

Do you remember exactly what you were doing on this day, twelve years ago?

I do.

You never know the days that will change you forever. They start out like normal days, with normal things. Breakfast and tying your shoes and buying groceries. But by the end of a day, you’re a completely different person. Everything you did takes on an awful significance; you think about the day before, and the day before that, and wonder if you’d done one thing differently—not recommended a movie or picked up the phone instead of writing an email—the day might have had a different ending. Everyone has those days. They become the landmarks of our lives, forever burned into our hearts.

Twelve years ago, it was October 3, 2004. I was 19, a sophomore at the University of Dallas. I lived in Catherine Hall with my friends. It was the weekend before Charity Week at UD, one of most students’ favorite times of year, a golden time on the cusp of midterms when everyone pulls together in silly stunts and festivities to raise funds for the junior class’s chosen charities: hard work and hard play mingled together for a good cause. My parents were in town for the weekend.

I’d recently gotten out of a longish relationship, one that had me feeling trapped and miserable, and for the first time, I was free and single and really, truly happy. My friends were all within shouting distance, I loved college, and I was going to spend the next semester in Rome. I felt like things had finally fallen into place for me.

So when I dragged myself out of bed after going to bed at 2 or 3—my friends and I had gone to a late-night showing of Ladder 49, of all things—and I went to meet my parents for breakfast, life felt pretty perfect. After my parents left, I did normal Sunday things: laundry, homework, a quick trip to Kroger, chatting with my brother on AIM.

I distinctly remember telling my brother I needed to get tea. He told me to get green tea instead of black tea because it was better for me. Those were the last words he ever said to me.

Oddly, I remember scattered things from later in the day more clearly. I bought Stash Chai tea because my dad had just introduced me to chai from Starbucks and it was so delicious, I needed more. I had an economics test the next day, but I didn’t study. Instead, I went to my friend Alicia’s room and we watched our favorite scenes from Return of the King. At dinner, I ate a bowl of whipped cream on a dare. I went back to my room, and I still didn’t study, which is, of all the quirky things I did that weekend, the most out of character for me.

I was lying on my bed, staring blankly at my notes, and I turned to my roommate and asked if she was going to Mass that night. She said yes, and I packed up my notes and went with her. Skipping study for church wasn’t something I did, ever, and I still wonder why I did it.

After Mass, I tried to call my parents. No one answered. I left my brother a message on AIM, asking where everyone was.

Eventually, I gave up on studying and went to bed.

When the phone rang at about 4 a.m., I knew something was wrong. I answered. My parents were at the dormitory door and needed me to let them in. It had to be bad, for them to have driven three hours home and three hours back again. My hands shook as I tied my new robe–purchased that weekend with my mom–over my pajamas. I still have that damned robe, for some reason, even though I think of this night every time I wear it. I ran through the halls and down the stairs to front door. My parents were there, pale and red-eyed.

My dad told me there had been a car accident, and my brother had been killed.

He was 24.

After that, the flashes of memory become more scattered and much more vivid. My hand shaking as I tried to unlock the door and let us back into the dormitory. Sobbing on a couch in the common room, asking if Brandon knew how much I loved him. The RA poking her head out of a study room door, wide-eyed, asking if she could do anything to help. The moment of renewed horror when I realized my brother had died while I was at church. My roommate tucking my rosary into my backpack before I left. The stuffed rabbit that went everywhere with me when I was a kid, waiting for me in my parents’ car. The message I’d sent my brother on his computer screen, unread.

There are other memories I won’t tell you about—memories I wish I didn’t have, and I have no desire to share that pain. We’re all shaped by our own pain, and putting more of mine on you won’t help lessen the hurt.

I am not who I was. I am not who I could have been. I am me—but the other me, the me that could have been, died in a car accident on October 3, 2004 with my older brother.

I don’t have a nice resolution to this post. I could say happy things about who I am now, how my brother would be proud of everything I’ve done, that my family and friends saved me from my grief, over and over again. That’s all true. But that’s not the point.

The point is to say that those memories, awful and jagged as they are, are a part of me now. Sharing them won’t make them go away. And I know that everyone reading this probably has a day like this one.

I simply hope, for everyone who has an October 3 in their life, that someday you reach a day, a year, a lifetime, when you don’t have to stroke those jagged edges with fretful, anxious thoughts. I hope that someday you can look over them with the clarity that tells me now that there was nothing I could have done. I hope someday the obsession that resurrects those painful days at the worst moments of your life gradually eases its hold on you.

I hope, above all, that you have someone who listens when you want to talk or distracts you when you don’t want to think.

And if you need someone, I’m here.

 

Evangelion and Shards of Identity

I wrote this post for Spellbound Scribes, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Spellbound Scribes

asuka I’ll talk about Evangelion. I promise.

We see the word identity a lot these days. “Self identity.” “Cultural identity.” “Identity politics.” “I identify as…” It’s part of the human condition to constantly question who we are as individuals, as a society, as creatures who live linearly but exist non-dimensionally.

Any one of us can name a number of roles and characteristics that define us for ourselves and others: male, female, agender, parent, person of color, spoonie, bisexual, candlestick maker, superhero, whatever. Each of us is some amalgamation of descriptors that can only start to sum up the who and what of the stuff between our ears. And as intersectionality becomes a more widely recognized and emphasized facet of politics and personality, our society is coming to realize that each of us is more than our nationality, sexuality, or vocation.

asuka head tiltBut in spite of that recognition, most of us have one…

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Things I Tell Myself So I Can Keep Writing

I’m not going to lie. Writing is hard. For a long time last year, I thought I’d given it up forever. I knew, deep down, that I probably hadn’t, but sometimes you have to quit for a little while so you can keep going in the long run.

I’m drafting a new book now. It’s not easy. I just started, so every day, I have to give myself a little pep talk to get started. If you’re like me, it’s difficult every single time. It doesn’t exactly get easier: people say we never learn to write books—we learn to write this book. Every time we begin, we really are starting at the beginning. It would be so much easier not to try than to start all over again every single time.

But we writers are masochists, and sometimes not trying isn’t an option. Instead, we torture ourselves with our own perceived inadequacy, the book’s general suckiness, the difficulty that is this art. We don’t write, but we spend our time agonizing over the not writing, and the end result is a miserable writer with no words on the page.

Luckily, we can conquer those feelings. I’ve learned few things that help me get going. I’ve been known to write these on Post-Its and put them on my bulletin board. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

  1. It’s just a first (or second or third) draft. If it sucks, you can rewrite it later. But you have to write something now if you’re ever going to rewrite it and make it better.
  2. No one will write this book but you. You, right now, sitting there at your computer. The you who will write it ten months from now isn’t the you who is compelled to tell this story as it is in your head right now. If you want it to exist, you have to do it. Now.
  3. When you’re putting words on a page, there’s only so much that can go wrong. Typo? Big deal. Comma splice? Who cares. Saggy midpoint? Fuck it. Yes, it’s your dream, but the truth is, you’re moving pixels on a screen. If it’s bad, you can fix it.
  4. You WILL fix it… later.

Now go get to work.