April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

You are Helen,
And charming,
And a paragon of what a woman
Should be.
Locked up in your ivory tower,
Lost without your worldly power,
Continue on your odyssey.

Odyssey—
Keep going.
You can never go home once
You’ve gone.
Sinking in your self-restraint,
You nurse your wounds without complaint,
And sing your silly siren song.

You are virtue,
And wonder,
And the girl you always wished
You’d be.
Would he love you violated,
How he loves the things you’ve hated;
You’re drowning in tranquility.

(May, 2006)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

They don’t tell you
In the basement;
In the belly;
Of the Cathedral;
Silk-lace-beads-satin pillowed at your feet,
As the warm streams out of you;
Out of your marriage parts,
They don’t tell you what it feels like to have emptied yourself.

And years later,
They don’t tell you
In the silence;
In the tundra;
Of Battery Park City;
Surviving the simulacrum of seven years together.
As the life surges into you;
Back into bones and blood and complexion;
They don’t tell you that the belly-moment
Was the moment to say No.

(December, 2009)

(This is the seventh and final in a short series of posts)

After the service, we stand in a makeshift receiving line outside the church. JRA performs the social duties of widowhood, which seem not unlike those of being a bride, except unfathomably lonelier.

This is the way marriage is supposed to work, right? I think as I watch her, Only one of you comes out alive. But what do I know about Till Death Do Us Part – I’m the only one of us who has been divorced multiple times, which suddenly seems pretty lonely too.

In the receiving line, my first husband and his wife greet me warmly. He is wearing the cashmere scarf that I bought him for Christmas many years ago; I am wearing the necklace of rough-cut citrines he bought me in Shanghai. The trappings of our life together are still omnipresent and unavoidable. Even after all these years, I still recognise pieces of his wardrobe as things I bought him; I still know exactly who gave us what as a wedding gift. The one thing whose giver I could never identify was the sturdy mortar and pestle on my counter that I would use to grind spices and make guacamole. Then one day JRA noticed it and said I’m always so glad you always have that out, Pete and I were so worried when we gave you something that wasn’t on your registry.

I wonder, briefly, where people who haven’t had first marriages get their Stuff; and how, once divorced, they manage to cleanly untangle their necklaces and cashmere scarves, and separate their kitchen gear, and uncouple their iTunes libraries.

All the mourners are invited to Pete’s parents’ country club for a reception following the service, and we spend the better part of the afternoon reminiscing and eating miserable sandwiches. Eventually, I settle in and chat with Andrew’s wife. There is an easy intimacy between us because we are both members of the same strange sorority of being Mrs. L—.

The afternoon wears on and the club is closing, and we all head for the exits. Andrew and his wife and I are the only ones left waiting for our coats, and we leave together. I watch them get into my beloved, ageing Jaguar – the car Andrew is still driving, which is now covered in the accoutrements of family life: a badly placed ski rack; children’s car seats covered in toys.

It makes me laugh a little, and reminds me of a line from a song that had come on the radio as I was making soup the night Pete died:

And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

Towards the end of his life, Pete had stopped eating solid foods. Soup was always on the menu, and at our social gatherings, there was always a thermos of it; at restaurants, we always remembered to check the menu for drinkable dinners. He’d tired of the fact that soft foods were nearly always sweet – he was desperate for savoury; threatened to make a pizza smoothie, which caused endless eye-rolling from JRA.

That night he’d died, I’d sung along to Talking Heads in my kitchen, and served up chicken soup to a friend who came over for dinner. We’d had a lovely, quiet meal, but neither one of us had known that it was a beginning and an end when JRA had called later that night and said, Pete’s not doing so well.

And now, I stand in the golden February afternoon and watch as my first husband gets into my large automobile with his beautiful wife, and for one split second, I laugh in astonishment at myself as I wonder: How did I get here?

As I pull out of my spot in the overflow parking on the golf course, a flock of Canadian geese rise towards the sky.  It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be surprised at all; I have known all along exactly how I got here, which was that fifteen years ago, Andrew introduced me to JRA, who walked down the aisle as my bridesmaid when I married him, and JRA fell in love with Pete, who together created Lady H, who walked down the aisle as my flower girl when I married Paul, and Lady H danced that night with her dad, who is the one who brought us all full circle today.

Andrew and his wife pull away, I think that maybe hope is not the thing with feathers, love is.

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Unexpected // During the year, we all have had unexpected surprises that have thrown a wrench into our plans.  What was one of yours and how did you get through it?

I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.
-Joan Didion, Where I Was From

It is late, and I am placing the top tier of our wedding cake in the refrigerator to thaw before our anniversary dinner. We have been married a year, the cake has been frozen for a year, and our fury is simmering to a boil.

I have spent months trying to adjust to a new reality – one in which I am no longer a Rheumatoid Arthritis patient; one in which the problem is my genes – and Things Have Changed. For instance, in April and May, when this all came about, I sat in the austere, open offices at Cornell’s fertility clinic Reviewing The Options When You Have a Genetic Disorder. I had gone through the other, more complicated and solitary pieces of the Disease Journey on my own, quickly, and what was left was the part we were supposed to handle together.  The test results were not encouraging.

Fertility clinics, in my limited experience, are grim places. At Cornell, the main waiting room was divided into The Part for Newer Patients, and The Part For Ongoing Treatment and there was a palpable divide in the anxiety in the room.

It reminded me of the one Orthodox Jewish wedding I went to fifteen years ago, where there was no mixed dancing. But I didn’t know until I got there what I was in for, and much to my surprise and horror, I found a screen separating the men from the women. My then-partner and I were ushered to separate sides of the room, and I was left to sit in the mortification of shuffling through an evening with strangers in wigs. Cornell’s clinic was a bit like that, except there was no physical screen; nothing keeping the men from the women; just a metaphysical line separating the couples who still thought they could do this on their own from the couples who were in for a long and wild ride.

It is now The End of The Journey, and the options have been exhausted – primarily because I am exhausted; after four major surgeries in three years, I cannot tolerate any more Medical Procedures – and the anger is no longer Pit of Stomach, but Back of Throat, and here we are, preparing to share a cake that neither of us wants.

In the white, Christian, upper middle-class culture in which I live, you are meant to save the cake topper to serve on your first anniversary, or at the baptism of your first child – whichever comes first – a tradition that was slightly less gross in the Days of Yore when wedding cakes were fruit cakes and could survive a nuclear holocaust. Now, if you’re the Right Kind of WASP, you’re expected to freeze your cake for twelve months, and choke down the freezer burn, and pretend that it tastes just like pear and hazelnut, not open packets of niblets corn and vegetarian meat substitutes.

(If you’re really the right kind of WASP,  you’re smart enough to simply have your baker make you a replica topper, but I did not have that kind of foresight.)

I didn’t eat cake on my wedding night. I openly dislike cake; I always have. I forgot to order a cake until days before the wedding, and then the baker laughed at me; indulged me by topping the thing with fresh flowers and the fortune cookies I’d hauled in from my ever-present stash at home. We decided against making a spectacle of cutting the thing, too. I never saw it – cut or uncut – it just appeared in slices on the tables, and in photos in my email. Someone wrapped up the topper and presented it to me at the end of the party, then it sat in my freezer for a year, nestled in beside the Morningstar Farms “meat” and the endless packets of frozen veg.

Before I put the cake in the fridge, I changed out of my contact lenses and into my glasses, which I keep in the drawer of my nightstand when they are not on my face. There in the drawer, I keep my weirdest treasures – a handful of seashells from the North Sea shore; a volume of Kahlil Gibran poetry someone gave me when I turned 13; a scrap of fabric from some old trousers and sliver of an old dress. I also keep some bits of my wedding gown – my dressmaker had preserved them because she’d made my gown out of my mother’s, and she’d said Since this is an heirloom, you’ll want these to make baptismal gowns instead of cutting up the dress. At the time, I’d laughed a little – both at the idea of my mother’s silk-jersey 1970s wedding gown being an heirloom, and at the thought of ever needing baptismal gowns. It all seemed ludicrous and far away.

And now? Now what?

Now we will go and have that dinner, and we will eat the cake and it will be gone, and I will remember to take the scraps of dress and put them away – out of sight – in a box somewhere, so they can become a memory of a thing that never was instead of a hope for a thing that was going to be. Because there is no real way to deal with everything we lose, is there?

Sarah, Kat, Kim & I are continuing to host Reverb through 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. Here’s (a very late entry for) July’s prompt. 

July’s prompt // Freedom: What is freedom to you?  How do you celebrate freedom in your daily life?

We are in a Copenhagen bar talking about our brothers.

We have run two half marathons in two countries in two days and I am shocked that I have finished. I say that running is mostly mental for me – when I run, I think about music; my dog; kissing and being kissed; the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean; running with my brother. I think about happy, positive things, because to become tangled up in the voice of self-doubt during a race is Game Over.

But it is a lie to say that I have just run 26.2 miles in two countries in two days by the power of positive thinking. I have just had both of my hips and a knee reconstructed and been diagnosed with a serious collagen disorder – whether I admit it or not – running is intensely physical.

We are here because in December, I had messaged a group of running friends suggesting we sign up for the Copenhagen Half Marathon – Smplefy; eee; Nat, and their respective partners, Laly, E, and Fox, who would come along to Sherpa. I’m not entirely sure why I did this, but it Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Everyone quickly signed on to this suggestion and added another half marathon in Oslo – even the partners were keen to go (except Paul, who begged off).

So we have each finished triumphantly, albeit for different reasons, and now we are in a bar, wearing matching shirts and our race medals, and we are talking about our brothers.

Nat’s brother died almost a year ago; Laly’s brother died about ten years ago. My brother is alive. I say this in my head, and I chew it and turn it over like a wad of gum in my mouth: My brother is alive.

It is not to diminish Matthew’s hard work to say that it is luck that he is not dead, but there is an element of happy statistics at play too. I listen to these women talk about their dead brothers, and it is real to me how close we came; how lucky we are. Sometimes, I think my parents cover up their raw memories of dread with Republican bootstraps and it was never that bad and stop being so dramatic, you weren’t here! But maybe when you’re in it, or when you’re a parent, you have to do that in order to survive what you’ve seen and how it all played out.

I listen to Nat’s grief – the depth and complexity of it; the nuances of the joy for the things that she experienced with her brother. All we can do is listen. Laly, too, knows that grief in a more intimate way than I do; I merely stood on the precipice and backed away.

It’s different when it’s your sibling, Laly says, It’s the only other person who knows the experience of growing up in your family. Also, it’s out of order.

It is out of order.

I remember my revulsion at the thought of losing the only other person who knew my family experience. He would disappear for a few days and we wouldn’t know whether he was in jail or dead – my mother would obsessively search the county jail inmate register – and I would try on the grief from thousands of miles away; seeing how that heavy suit of loss hung on my little frame.

I realise, now, that when I run, I prepare for every race with the thought of my brother’s first race – of watching him tie on the bandanna from his best friend’s funeral; of hearing his footsteps like a heartbeat beside me. I still dread phone calls after 8pm because I always used to think it was someone calling to say that my brother had died. I wonder why nobody ever dies during the day.

I look at Laly and Nat and wonder how they have borne the loss I narrowly escaped.

When Paul and I were out at the beach with my family this summer, a friend texted that he was in Atlanta with a colleague of his – a sorority sister of mine. I had been her advisor – she’d been in college when I’d taken the call that my brother was in jail and the world was about to end. I laughed and expressed my surprise – he sent me a photo of the two of them together. It was a worlds-colliding moment – strange and wonderful – a reminder of the way we are all connected; how past pain doesn’t necessarily taint future or current happiness/success. The photo came as I was driving back up the coast to see a project my brother was working on; managing in his new life as a builder. Sober eight years, he was working with a friend and he’d asked me and Paul to come see what he did for a living and switch his car back with my mother’s, which he’d borrowed earlier that day.

Paul stayed back in Oxnard, and I drove up to La Conchita to make the switch and see Matthew on the job. To travel that weird bend in the 101 where the sun sets over the coast and blinds you if you time it wrong; to see how far he’d come; we’d come.

As I am sitting in this bar in Copenhagen, thousands of miles from the depths of my brother’s addiction and from that day on the California coast, I think of that moment of seeing my brother at work; of that photo of my two friends; of the bend in the 101 where the sun sets; of the fear in the eyes of everyone around me the day I got the call that my brother was in jail. I think about how lucky I am. I hear Nat ask How do you explain this grief; this loss; to your partner? And I think you can’t explain it; I think your partner won’t ever believe it; I think about how addiction ends and loss is just a snapshot in time, but grief gets you, like a noose, and it works its way around your throat and never really lets you go, even once you are free.

 

This is the eighth (and final) piece in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and thirdfourthfifthsixth, and seventh.

By mid-June, I am feeling crazed by Not Knowing whether I have the type of EDS that will make my organs rupture without warning, and also by Not Being Able to run now, or potentially ever again.

There is nothing that makes a woman feel less attractive than spending a summer recovering from surgery. My skin and stomach are both taking a beating from the constant onslaught of anti-inflammatories. I have been nauseous for weeks; constantly dissolving Zofran tablets on my tongue. I sleep in long, monogrammed PJs even as the temperature rises because I am sick of looking at the scabby holes in my leg. I’m walking on my own, but my gait is like that of a baby giraffe and I cannot walk for too long without epic fatigue.

These are First World Problems, so I try to power through. I focus on how quickly I am healing; I talk about my progress with physical therapy. I take pictures of the scars and I post them on Instagram because when you are full of holes, you only want people to see the supernova of your body on your terms. I have two constellations of incisions – one on each hip – and a whole galaxy of scars on my right knee from repeated, failed arthroscopies during my days of competitive sports. There is also a several inches-long vapour trail running down the inside of my right leg from my running accident last summer.

I have to do something. I search for any activity that I can participate in that will Take The Edge Off and will not require more medication and that will not bore me. Under the influence of the last of my narcotics and Royal Ascot, I decide horseback riding is the way forward. I ask my physical therapist whether equitation is permissible, and he tells me that it is possible, but not advisable because Meredith, squeezing a piece of horsemeat between your legs could irritate your hip flexor.

I love making dirty jokes, but I do not take his bait because the last time I did that, I wound up announcing to the entire gym that I eat boxes for breakfast! I was talking about my prowess in conquering the eight inch riser they were having me step-up and step-down to prove my quad strength before they’d let me in the anti-gravity treadmill. But I got a few looks that morning.

I spend the next few days scouring the internet for barns that are not too stuffy, that are close to the city, and that accommodate adult beginners.

The last time I rode a horse was when I was leaving my first husband. Jade told me that when I was ready to leave Andrew, I should come home. When I knew it was time, I called my parents to come pick me up at a wedding in Las Vegas and take me back to LA. I had had several moments where I knew my first marriage was over, but that wedding where Andrew had dragged us to Vegas insisting he was the best man in a wedding in which he was not even in the wedding party provided a particular moment of clarity as to the direness of my circumstances.

Once I arrived in LA towards the end of that particular shitshow, Jade took me to her mother’s house. Jade’s mother, Das, is an accomplished equestrienne, and was one of the only divorcees I knew intimately at the time. Das took me out on the trail and we rode for hours and hours. It had inspired me to write a poem about Frederic, and horses, and divorces, which I had shared with him, and which he had praised in that way that made clear he thought it was stupid.

And that was that.

Within months Frederic was legally separated, and so was I and I thought things might go somewhere, sometime. But then he surprised me by telling me that he’d been seeing the Danish girl all that time, and what was I doing, still writing him letters? Didn’t I know that I’d caused a terrible flap between him and his girlfriend because they’d moved in together and one of my letters had been forwarded to their shared abode?

I shrunk back in a special kind of shame, then, when I realised I had left a man who couldn’t handle rejection to the point of refusing to admit he wasn’t the best man in his childhood friend’s wedding, only to find myself sending poems to a man I failed to notice was living with another woman.

I sign up for riding lessons at a farm in Pleasantville, NY near where Paul and I were married. My instructor wears concert t-shirts and has turquoise hair and tells me that I need to feel things; that I will suck at this a little to start; that feeling is first. I cry the first time I get on the horse – a giant gelding called, of all things, Bill – not out of fear, but because I am certain I haven’t felt much of anything in years.

I don’t suck at horseback riding, but I am not instantly good at it, which is exactly what I need. I need something to take my mind off of the EDS; and the whole of my lower extremities.

Hold the reigns up, like an ice cream cone! Tamara the instructor shouts from the centre of the ring, and I apologise for not doing it right. Why are you saying you’re sorry? she asks me, truly baffled, You’ve done this like three times in your life!

With that, I begin to realise how far off the rails I have gone. Literally. Figuratively.

At the end of my first lesson, I sign up for many more because even if I never master the sport, I am coming to terms with the fact that nothing will be the same again, and the future, whatever it is, will be entirely different and wholly Okay.

This is the fourth in a brief series of posts. Here are the firstsecond, and third.

It is April – a week after my appointment with the geneticist, and I am meeting with the surgeon and his entourage again. I am once again standing in a pair of paper shorts and I find myself chattily filling in yet another doctor about my medical odyssey. The surgeon listens, seemingly wide-eyed, because this story is nothing if not interesting.

You’re not the typical EDS patient, the physician’s assistant, Jonathan, interrupts, With our other EDS patients, the surgeries fail. Your right hip is still intact. You had a great outcome! Anyway, I thought you had Rheumatoid Arthritis.

They think I was misdiagnosed, I say, aloud. In my head I say, Shut up, Jonathan. This is my story.

That’s the other thing about All This: I have spent ten years being told that I have RA; injecting myself with Chinese hamster ovary derivatives; taking chemotherapy drugs; doing all the weird and horrible shit RA patients are supposed to do. In the beginning, I did it with a sort of maniacal devotion to my ex husband, who told me he couldn’t love a woman with “claws.” He was so concerned about my appearance that we did everything it took to prevent my joints from ever becoming deformed. Then it just became habit – if you’ve ever sunk a syringe into your thigh, it becomes easier over time until eventually, you don’t even notice how freaked out people are by the sharps container on your kitchen counter.

Apparently, I didn’t need to do any of it. I am not suggesting I ever wanted to have RA, nor am I suggesting that I miss it, but it suddenly feels very weird to Be One Thing for a decade, and then suddenly Not Be That Thing. To have to live your life with a set of clear and somewhat onerous limitations, then poof, one day that all disappears.

The PA nods when I say I was misdiagnosed, because as he speaks, I am bending my thumb all the way back to my wrist in order to make a point.

The surgeon and I schedule a reconstruction of my left hip for Monday, May 9th, and I decide to run a 5k two weeks before surgery because I do not know if I will ever run again.

Before my first hip reconstruction, I ran the Big Sur Marathon – a bucket-list race – because the Pacific Coast was where I lived out the last days of my first marriage, and the first days of something else, and it was where I trained for the 2009 NYC Marathon. It was an incredibly stupid idea, but I figured, if I never ran another marathon, running a slow, painful race in the place where my Whole Heart resided was the way I wanted go out. My bestie eee was there, and so was Smplefy, though I barely saw either. I wanted to have Highway 1 as my Triumphant Finish, even if it meant crawling across the line (which I did).

I have no special affinity for the Jersey Shore, but it is a friend’s birthday weekend, and we are running together as a group  and having a fun dinner after. If I never run another race, I want to remember that my running career ended with my toes in the sand, on the shores of both the Pacific and the Atlantic, with the people I love all around me.  We are all confident that if it were just the hip I would be back up and running by the Autumn. But since we do not know exactly which gene is the faulty one yet, I do not want to expect to be running by September and then find that I have the type of EDS where my vascular system might rupture at any moment.

As a matter of course, I do not tell anyone I am about to have another joint surgery, except for a handful of close friends. While I know exactly what to expect with a hip repair, I do not know what I am getting myself into with The Rest of This; I barely know what EDS is. I do not have a lot of answers for myself, let alone to give other people, and I hate the idea of being challenged or grilled by well-meaning or pushy friends and family. I am dreading any/all of the following:

-This could have been prevented if you’d just stopped running!
-You shouldn’t worry about this, and you and Paul should just be focused on having a family now!
-So how did you do this to yourself?
-Why did your doctor misdiagnose you?
-Tell me more about [This Thing That I Know Little to Nothing About].

I play out each comment in my head, trying it on for size – trying to separate curiosity from blame. I am afraid of answering wrong; I am afraid of looking like a fool because for a decade, I so confidently managed the RA I thought I had, and told people how they should manage their RA. I thought I knew what I was doing.

I want to be healthy; I do not want to get hurt again.

I want you to be happy.

I want that too.

So I run the race on the Jersey Shore, and I take my shoes off in the sand, and if it is my Last Race Ever, I may not be fully satisfied, but I will be happy.

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