I am not an island.

The first time I let someone take care of me in years was two weeks ago.

I have to type that again. The first time I let someone take care of me, really take care of me and hold me and carry my soul for a second, was just a matter of days ago. I didn’t realize til I let go how tight I’d been holding on.

It took such a weighty slate of things all at once at a wedding in rural Canada. My brother’s psychotic break, my parents’ desperate need for me to show them which way is up, being thousands of miles from home, a lifetime of Being Strong and a bottle of wine, two whiskey shots and two glasses of champagne for me to let someone else rub my back and get me water.

I wish I was exaggerating when I say that it was the first time in years and years that I let someone take care of me. It’s not a positive reflection upon me — rather the opposite. What kind of asshole is so stubborn that she’ll go through an all-consuming, abusive break-up, life-altering family mental illness and two heart surgeries within a year without letting anyone take care of her? Apparently I’m that asshole.

It was the strangest feeling, letting go. My favorite aunt in the world held my hair while I vomited up all of the alcohol I’d drank too quickly because I was so overwhelmed and tired and scared and the way they got me into someone’s soft pajamas while two sweet cousins got me water and toast and rubbed my back and said the nicest things and held me while I cried and apologized for being drunk and sad and broken. The way they tucked me in and left me with everything I needed to sleep and heal. The way that my cousin hugged me when I stumbled up the stairs of an unfamiliar house in the morning in foreign pajamas and asked if I was okay. The way I fell into her arms and needed them all day long. I was cracked open all day at the prospect of having showed my private war. The way the countryside of beautiful Alberta was so quiet you could hear your own heart break at night.

I can’t tell if the hardest is behind me or in front and in truth it doesn’t matter but the squishing down I have been doing for six years will kill me unless I let some out. I have to both be strong and get stronger every day. The brother I have is the brother I have. The parents have are the ones I will take care of as they age. I will always have to keep a basement room open for my mentally ill brother. I will always see things for what they are.

My whirlwind tends toward seeing everything as possibility and light. Telling myself things should be easy and I should be smarter and better and more and that I should do it on my own. That if I tried harder it would be okay.

I am not an island and I have to remember that. I have to let myself be vulnerable.

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Scars I Keep

My body is a cage
We take what we’re given
Just because you’ve forgotten
That don’t mean you’re forgiven

I have a little indent above my right eyebrow, left over from the chickenpox I had in the third grade. When the blisters turned to scabs, I couldn’t help but pick at them. My mom scolded me, saying “One day you’ll care what you look like, you don’t want scars!” I defiantly told her that I’d never care, and went right ahead.

I have a faint pink line on my left shin. Jake Bean was the fattest baby and then the skinniest child as we grew up together on Millview Court, skateboarding down the “cut-through,” learning how to ride our bikes, hiding in the bushes, and dirtying his mother’s clean carpet with our gloriously muddy shoes. He was almost like a brother to me, so we fought like it. One sunny afternoon we were wrestling and he pushed me and I fell onto a rusty nail on a board of our wooden platform in my backyard. It bled a surprising amount and he was more scared than I.

Some tissue in my heart’s AV node is lifeless, burned and frozen to death by two rounds of catheter ablation. It never worked as it should and now it doesn’t at all. The incision points on my neck and the tops of my femoral arteries in my groin bear the only external reminder of the murdered bits in my most important muscle. That, and the deep exhaustion under my eyes that I’ve yet to kick from having two heart surgeries in the space of five months.

In the middlest-middle of my back is a small circle the size of a dime, where, when I was 16, a nice lady who smelled like bleach scraped off a mole to be tested for cancer as it grew and grew. My first touch with feeling as if my body had limits.

I have a matching round pink scar on each knee. One from gleefully racing my best friend down a steep hill and skidding into a patch of gravel, which I picked out of the wound for days. The other is more fresh, from literally running after a man in a time of alcohol and my most potent insecurity. He was never good to me in the first place and neither had the one before. My mind has spun 360 degrees, but the knee scar remains.

My arms and fingers are dotted with a few swipes of the lightest pink; burns from learning how to cook in my first few strange adult years as I figure it all out.

The scars we keep.

They break us, they make us, they take us, they forsake us. They fade and we forget but the littlest patterns and lightest dappled parts are part of our tapestry forever. And the imperfections make us perfect…

A carcass, a carcass in the street near the park where I grew up. The choices I’ve made and not made and the way they look at me with their eyes. The heavy crush of disappointment that shows in the sigh as we pass someone who might be on the Right Path. The stomach squished full of the feelings I can’t and the muscles that can’t run so fast anymore. The way I try. I sit on a wall and idly kick my legs against the tough gray stones, scratching my soft baby skin that pokes out from beneath my homemade skirt. I’m high on the wall, posing for a picture with my tall tall tall sunflower. I did a good job growing it. The blue ribbons at the county fair for crafts and art and knowledge about guinea pigs mix me with her hopes and unfulfilled experiences. The crust and stiffness that naturally comes from a life of holding on so hard. The hands that hurt from gripping the tricycle handlebars so hard and for so long that when you take them away, they relax into that shape, the little metal safety situation covered in rubber and gendered paint colors and shiny foil tassels like the ribbon grandpa used to use to scare away bluebirds from the blueberries. The light reflecting on prize winning roses and playtime in the sprinkler and being afraid to say that I accidentally hit Kerry in the stomach with the badminton racquet. The vein that pops out of my father’s forehead when he is trying so hard to be the perfect man to take care of everyone, the vein that I inherited that snakes a different path down my face and mostly shows when I’m smiling so hard. Is that progress? The semi-truck of expression and the clinking of generations prior that has for so long been unspoken, that wagon I will pull behind always until I can set it free.

My Grandfather

When my grandfather died, my brother didn’t cry. It really stressed him out. The funeral was small, at the veterans’ cemetery, in the rain. My grandma, my parents. My aunts and my cousin and my brother and I. It was outdoors, under a pavilion. Afterward we went to the spot where he would be buried and looked at it, me with some sense of bewilderment at how a man that had lived so large could end up in a rectangle so small. It was the end of December. He died on the 23rd.

Ben was probably 13 at the time. He knew he was supposed to be sad, but his grief didn’t look like crying. He confided this to me, his guilt at his lack of tears. It was one of the first, closest moments my brother and I had as we grew towards being adults, and one of the most serious moments in which I felt the gravity of being his only older sister.

I distinctly remember telling him quietly, while straightening his little blue tie, that he didn’t need to cry to honor our grandfather. That however he was feeling, that was okay. His feelings were valid. There is no right or wrong way to feel – it’s all truth somewhere in there. I remember it being a very important moment and the words flowing easily as I tried to comfort him in my clumsy 16 year old way.

—–

High as fuck on morphine.

I have been thinking about that moment a lot in the last year, and what it means to me as I go through two consecutive heart surgeries and deal with my ongoing heart condition. The visceral experiences and how they should and do make me feel. The submittal of my body to a straight-backed bed on wheels, into a brightly lit metal room. Submittal to the team of twenty, who burned the tissue of my heart as I lay there, somewhere between awake and asleep, naked and prostrate in the hands of strangers.

The woman who snapped the hospital bracelet onto my right wrist and smiled wanly as she pointed down the hall. The seven holes they bored into my flesh to take my blood and refill me with saline, anesthetic, morphine, and myriad other things. The paper-thin gown; the refrigerator filled with warm blankets to soothe the chill of the cardiac ward. The way many pairs of hands touched me, the many pairs of eyes that saw my breasts, as they stuck and snapped electrodes and monitors into place, the lines on the computer screen coming on one by one by one. The way the other patients regarded me as I was wheeled to surgery, and the way I regarded them, blinking and adjusting my hospital cap in the last few minutes of consciousness before — black.

The first time; the anesthesiologist asking me if it hurt. The flashes of the equipment moving. The doctors chatting about their weekend plans as they prepped me; the rustling of paper as I was lifted onto the operating table. The nylon straps, not unlike a seatbelt, tied around my arms and legs so I wouldn’t move an inch during the surgery. The futility of my attempts at covering myself as two aides unceremoniously and professionally lifted the gown from my body and began to sterilize my most private pieces with an antiseptic that left me stained green for days.

The surgeon who had shaken my hands several times and now stood in command of the room. The jokes I tried to make to mask my fear while looking up at the ceiling, thoughts racing. The doctor who kindly put his hand on my head as he asked if I had “any music requests, dear?” The glass windows behind which students sat, twirling their pens, to observe the procedure. The six by six foot x-ray machine positioned over my entire body; the rainbow of cords running from my chest, pumping my secret soul statistics to a large screen for all to see. The timeout moment, where all movement stops and they take a moment to call out why we’re all here. “Patient: Jennifer Smith. Procedure: Catheter ablation, second attempt, for supraventricular tachychardia. Date of birth…” The blur as the world spins, and then I’m gone.

Waking up and being wheeled back to my little pen. The moments alone as I awoke from my stupor, as the nurses raced to get morphine into my little body. The tears running uncontrollably down my cheeks, through the mascara I had so carefully applied that morning on an empty stomach. The pain I clenched my teeth through, trying to smile as I thanked the surgeon for the procedure as he told me with a solemn face that it hadn’t been successful, I’d probably have to try again. The eyes cast downward as my parents, with new worry lines, tentatively approached me. The ham sandwich that I scarfed down, and the Coca Cola that they let me have.

I don’t know how to feel about having had two heart surgeries. I don’t know how to feel about the handful of pills I swallow each morning to keep my bum ticker going at the correct pace and strength. I don’t know how to feel about the lonely quiet at 4 in the morning when I woke up, alone in my apartment, the night after going home from the hospital, and reaching for the vicodin bottle and the light switch. I don’t know how to feel about the friends who worried about me and took care of me; I don’t know how to feel about my concern for myself. I don’t know how to feel about the optimism that springs from me like a Benson Bubbler, uncontrollable and sometimes inconvenient. I’m not sure how to feel about my calm in the face of such things, or how I managed to just gaze around as my femoral artery burst in recovery and bled all over my leg and onto the floor as nurses pushed panic buttons and applied compresses with lots of shouting and worried looks.

I guess we are able to do what we need to do, and step up when it’s our turn to bat. I’ve got a good heart but a bum ticker.

It’s been a bit like a movie, but it’s as real as they get.

Musings in the Middle of the Night

Writing by candlelight in the middle of the night with a glass of wine, age 24. In the middle of two control towers, unmoored. Navigational systems are down.

I carried a used tissue around in my pocket for weeks just to remind myself that I can cry. Even so, it’s become hard for me to remember. I intellectualize my feelings so much and have become so incredibly good at squashing them that it’s hard for me to find them even within myself and even when I try. I’m scared of not feeling anything or that I can’t anymore.

I feel pangs of the void in my stomach and in my throat and I notice them in the catch in my breath or in the moment that I unlock my front door. I notice the fleeting nature of the moments of joy — not in a sad way, just that it is. In some ways, my eyes are clearer now than ever before. I feel pangs of feeling when I lift my hand to my heart, silently counting the beats and checking for arrhythmia.

I know that in order to continue growing and healing and doing the Figuring Out that is part of becoming a hell of a thing, I must feel. I must allow my stomach to hurt and myself to cry and instead of holding the pieces together and inside like I’ll die if I don’t, I must let the pieces fall, sometimes, and the cracks show, because I will die if I don’t let go.

I think if I met me it would be obvious I’m in some sort of deep existential pain. But I’m pretty good at obfuscation.

I need space that’s wide enough for me to feel some degree of the grief that are the cannonball holes in my heart. To loosen my grip, to let myself be. I’m always doing and I’m never being.

I need space that’s wide enough for me to lie down in and let the edges blur with the rest. I try to heal my wounds with salves that hurt. It works for a while.

It’s always been hard for me to look ahead to the future. I’ve always had lofty goals and I love making plans, but somewhere inside I know it’s all up to chance so it’s hard to plan.