When things were at their worst with our girl in 2009, when she’d been in and out of psych units 5 times in 6 weeks and was suffering from antipsychotic drug whiplash, Sherod and I took a class called “PCM” (Professional Crisis Management). It was intended to teach us how to manage LM’s violence as safely and humanely as possible. One of the most painful things our child could do was grab a big clump of my hair and do everything in her power to tear it out. Sometimes my scalp bled. It always gave rise to an extraordinarily primitive impulse for self preservation that made me want to beat the living daylights out of her. We were functioning at the most primitive level of survival possible, all of us. At PCM we learned a very simple tactic that involves starting with the pinkie finger and, one finger at a time, breaking that kind of grip without doing harm. I’ve used it many times in these past few years. It isn’t only that I don’t miss the pain. There is great relief that I don’t have to brutally clamp down on my own self to prevent myself from harming her in return.
Today, my life feels like it is clenched just that tightly, in anger, in self-preservation, in despair. What it is clenched around is hard to describe: the persistent, childlike magical, wishful thinking that resists accepting that one week from today Maria is moving and all the reason why. I keep trying to clutch these days to myself with an obstinate determination that they should count in some kind of way. We carefully made plans to make these days meaningful with our daughter and she refuses to play, moving into the future in her own way and in her own time. I am trying to gently and safely unclench and let my life, all cramped and achy from holding on so tight, release its death grip.
This morning, that took the shape of starting to clean up and clear out behind our girl while she spends time with her dear friend and companion, Sally. I tackled her bathroom. How could I have known it would be a lesson in archeology? The space under her sink told a lot of her story. There was a little plastic plate and spoon, leftovers from her earliest days with us, when I’d get in the tub with her and we’d have bubble tea parties. I found innumerable Nebulizer parts and pieces from lots of rounds with asthma. And a small bottle of “Pillow Mist”—something I’d spray on her pillow and tell her would help her have sweet dreams when the night terrors were particularly bad. Lurid pink and green hair dye from more recent times, when she talked me into letting her put those god-awful “highlights” in her hair. And all kinds of gunk and goo related to being a teenager who has an unerring instinct for using the most appallingly scented lotions, creams and perfumes imaginable.
I thought cleaning her bathroom would bring relief—after all, we only have two bathrooms in this house and I am already coveting that bathroom space for my own stuff. I’d talked myself into thinking I’d feel good getting to see just how much space I’d be able to lay claim to soon. Instead, in one more way, I had to revisit hopes, failures, the ever-so ordinary stories and bits of memory that I’d have thought were lost but were only put away in the bathroom cabinet until a day like today. The day after my mom died, my dad asked me to clean out her closet and I did. I thought that was hard. This was harder.
I have to stop in these kinds of moments. I have to tell myself to breathe. Even when I think I can’t finish and I want to walk away and disappear, I make myself keep going because there is something so important about going through, and not around this time. And so I do. A lot got thrown away. What is left in the bathroom cabinet and drawers, she will take with her. There will be a lot of empty space and I will put it to good use.
After I was finished, I sat down to check in on some of the blogs I read most regularly—my friend Robin’s blog and QuantumTheology by Michelle, whom I don’t know but who constantly inspires me. In her latest posting, Michelle makes reference to a poem, so I followed the trail to that place. Now that I’ve read it, I wonder if later, decades from now, I will still be able to practice the kind of archeology of choice, grief and life I’m in the middle of. I hope I will.
A Cedary Fragrance
I wash my face with cold water –
Not for discipline,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.
by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt, 2001