Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Eight defining moments

Well, all the cool kids are doing it, so why can't I? Rather, it's about time I did. I've been double-tagged by Miss Kitty and Rev Kit to do the eight defining moments in one's life. Let's see if I can limit it at eight.

First, the 5 rules:
1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Sadly, everyone whom I would tag has already been tagged, so I'll skip four and five. Yes, I know that makes me a slacker. Also sadly, my defining moments will be described nowhere near as eloquently as Miss Kitty did. As a former stand-up and improv comic, I'm much better in-person than in print.

September 24, 1980

It's my fifth birthday, and Daddy says me-n-him-n-Kitty are going to see our mom "in the hospital." What no one will say is that Mom has had a nervous breakdown and has been hospitalized in an inpatient mental health facility. When I hear "hospital", I think of a sterile white-and-tile place where people go to die or be healed from major injuries. I have no idea Mom's kind of "hospital" exists.

We walk into modest brick building into carpeted hallways with warm paint colors, groups of people standing or sitting around. As they turn to see the little triumvirate walking through, they brighten: there are children here! Little hopeful faces brighten everyone's day. Mom greets us in the main meeting room, shows us around: a kitchenette where they can make snacks, some board games, we play volleyball out there and I helped my team win. She shows us her room. She has a roommate, whom we meet. She's a nice lady, with I think dark hair. What I learn later while doing my thesis on a mental health facility for the homeless is that most psychiatric inpatients are roomed with a roommate because people are less willing to commit suicide when another person is actively or possibly present. Mom shows us how cool it is that her bathroom door opens in both directions, in and out, so you can open it whichever way you like. I learn later working on healthcare facilities that this is called a double-acting door, which allows staff to rescue someone if they fall or barricade themselves in a room.

We walk back into the main activity room. A huge group of people turn, see us, and commence singing "Happy Birthday" to me. To me. A tiny little now-five-years-old person who doesn't know them, yet for whom they are glad. I receive a teddy bear and a yummy cake. As those people sang, I thought, Why are all these people in the hospital? They're not sick. That visit has forever shaped my view of mental illness. It's not a curse from God, it's not witchcraft, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes it's emotional, sometimes it's chemical, sometimes it's biological. Whatever it is, I've never feared or stigmatized those with a mental illness. Because I understand it a great deal, I know when I can help and when I can't help someone, but nonetheless, it's nothing to fear or feel shame about.

Late spring of 1987

I'm at an academic awards banquet with Dad and Kitty. My name is called and I'm given a small trophy for keeping an A average all year. I've had an A average every year in elementary school, really, but this is the first year Booger County Elementary decided to do an awards ceremony like this. I take my trophy and go stand on the stage up on some folding metal bleachers. When all the names have been called, my principal says through the microphone, "Let's give all our star students a hand!"

The applause from the packed lunchroom-turned-auditorium nearly (and this is not an exaggeration) knocked me over. I felt the energy rush at me from all those hands impacting one another over and over. I realize how very important being smart and getting good grades is to me, how the dare-I-say-it perfection of my academic performance would be what would help me, take me where I wanted to go in life. I also realized that I was comfortable being on a stage. Later, I'll get to enjoy that on-stage sense when I perform with an improv comedy group and almost perform for strangers as a stand-up comic.

Summer of 1987

Dad decides that our little house in Alabama is too small for two teenage girls, so he decides to build a new house in Booger County, Georgia, only a mile from where we're about to go to junior high and high school. I walk around the foundations, watch the 2x4 walls go up, watch the flooring and cabinets get installed. I will later call cabinets "casework" and only ever deal with metal studs in walls. I don't know this, but it's coming. I walk around the house in its unfinished splendor and marvel: why the triple-height living room ceiling? Why are the bedrooms so big and the kitchen so small? (My grandmother says that's because the architect was a bachelor. Years later, I can't help but agree with her.) After it's complete and we live in the house, I find that despite its vast expanses we keep ending up all congregating the kitchen or a similiarly small space, the bathroom. Dad has a phone installed in the master bathroom because he flatly asserts that he always seems to get a call when he's on the can. Years later on our one-year anniversary to the Venetian in Las Vegas, my husband revels in the phone in the toilet room of our hotel. I echo my dad's assertions: this room is, after all, where one doesn one's, um, business. Though this house eventually ends up being my prison, it makes a light bulb come on: I want to be an architect when I grow up. It's art you can use, art you can live in. You actually shape people's behavior in a building. I want to do that. Later, I will attempt to use my powers for good by designing hospitals. Hopefully no one will die as a result.

Summer of 1993

Dad's only been remarried for a year to his wife, a longtime girlfriend. She has two younger children who are utterly unlike anyone or anything I've ever seen. They fight constantly; if they're awake, they're at each other's throats like Rottwilers on PCP. Kitty and I got along extraordinarily well growing up, and we're not prepared for this utter bullshit behavior. Luckily for Kitty, she's off at college, and Dad's off working, which leaves me alone with this woman I realize I barely know and these two crazed weasels drinking CapriSuns. I go from being nearly independent to being Cinderella in my own home. Not that anyone in the house is particularly wicked, just unable to really understand what kind of teenager I am. I'm one that is rather grown up for being seventeen-almost-eighteen. I make sure her kids are out of bed, help them get breakfast, and take them to school. I attempt time and again to mediate their ten-times-a-morning arguments. I return home and do more for them. I go pick up firewood, which does make some sense since I'm the only one in the family with a pickup truck. During the school year I'm in marching band, jazz band, concert band, basketball team, president of the band and the French club, and I make the highest grades I've ever made...ever. For my troubles of being the most problem-free child in the family, I'm treated like I'm twelve: where did you go? what did you do? with whom? how much did it cost? These are not the questions of a concerned parent, but an inquisition on someone who may have reason to believe that my presence threatens the stability of her brood. A pattern I developed as a child of being the perfect child, the perfect person in fact, became ingrained in me as my identity. If i was good enough, smart enough, nice enough, everyone would trust me and like me and and not treat me like a second-class citizen in my own home. It wasn't to be.

I express my concerns to Dad in an angry letter one evening, which prompts a discussion with Dad, the stepmom, Kitty, and me the following day. As I bring up my concerns one by one, I get shot down. Here's why it is the way it is, I'm told. It's not changing. I'm asked now and then if I have an idea of how to change it. No, I don't. I've been not given a say in things for so long that I don't know how to form solutions to sticky emotional and social problems. As our meeting winds down, the realization hits me: I'm on my own. No one is listening, no one's going to help me make this better. I either need to come up with solutions or mark time until I can get out. At least then, if I'm miserable it's my own damn fault. But I'm on my own. No one in this house is looking out for me but me.

Unfortunately, it gets worse before it gets better.

January 16, 1997
I don't hear that my father has been murdered until twelve hours after it's actually happened. An ex-boyfriend has to come find me on my college campus to bring me home and tell me. My older sister, Miss Kitty, tells the story much more eloquently than me here.

The ensuing chaos in the wake of Dad's murder by his own brother causes me to decide to remain in Georgia for the remainder of my undergraduate career, instead of going to Paris for my senior year as I'd hoped. Dad and I were going to talk about me going to Paris the very last weekend he came home, except we didn't get to talk because he came home in a box. I learned the value of a well-placed word of understanding, for one thing. The day after it happened, every relative came to me and said ridiculous things like "that wasn't your uncle that shot your daddy" and "he didn't mean to do it." All except for my uncle's daughter, then in her late twenties or early thirties. She came to me in the front room of my worst aunt's house, put her arms around me and said: "I am so sorry. My daddy has taken something from you that is so precious and irreplaceable, and you have my permission to hate him as long as you want." In that instant, my anger at my uncle melted away. Which was a good thing, since the other truth I discovered in the subsequent months was that the living piss me off way more than the dead.

I also discovered how strong I was. One of the aunts, the worst one, managed to get her hands on one of our insurance funds, which was legal due to the wording of the fund. She wanted to talk to us about the fund, mostly how to disburse it to us, and she wanted to do it now, even though it had only been a few months since Dad died and she'd cleaned out the cash into her own bank account. I said we needed to wait until Kitty was home from grad school one weekend; she was fit to be tied, trying to finish her thesis and plan a wedding. Auntie couldn't wait, she said, had to be next weekend. I met her and her no-good husband at my house, which was empty. She read from some notes on a piece of yellow paper: "Your daddy loved you. He wanted the best for you. He wanted you to be taken care of." The light over her shoulder shone through the yellow paper, and I could read in reverse her notes: dad loved her, wanted the best, wanted you to be taken care of. I thought to myself, What kind of fucked-in-the-head bitch can't remember those three things without writing them down? Should she maybe have brought a fucking teleprompter? So first, I realized I was unimpressed by people who cannot remember basic facts and feelings without writing them down, and I also realized what my aunt was trying to do. She was committing the Cardinal Sin:

She was trying to get between my sister and me.

She was trying to put the idea in my head that I, as the supposedly more level-headed sibling, had to make decisions without Kitty's consent. Nothing pisses me off more than anyone trying to insult the intelligence of my sister, a woman with a talent for languages and a photographic memory with bucketloads of film. It Fucking. Pisses. Me. Off. I remained steadfast in not making a decision about the money until I talked to Kitty, thanked her for coming by, and sent her on her way. She left behind some worksheets printed out on an old dot-matrix printer, typed up of her old Apple IIe computer . (Did I mention it was 1997 already? Enough with the Apple IIe!) A few months later at Kitty's wedding, she came up to me and pressed again that I needed to fill out the "Education Needs Assessment" sheet she left at my house, in which I'd detail out how much money I needed each month for the next nine years, when I was supposed to fully inherit the money. I said Kitty was going on her honeymoon tomorrow and she'd be back in two weeks, and we could talk then. She said it just couldn't wait.

She was doing it again. Trying to get between Kitty and me. I went home and looked at the ridiculous worksheet. It spun me into a dimension of pissed-off that I had never inhabited in my entire life. I would most certainly not fill out the worksheet, and neither would Kitty. This was bullshit on a stick. While Kitty was on honeymoon, I wrote Auntie a polite but firm letter: Kitty's and my lives were moving further and further our of Booger County, and we're both in college. My expenses vary from month to month, depending on what supplies my Sutdio professors required. You say our Dad raised us well? Prove it, bitch. Give us our money, we absolve you of any responsibility, and walk away. Otherwise, we're waiting until we're 30 to come get it. We're not going to fill out worksheets printed on outmoded technology like we were students at an underfunded rural high school. A few months later, her lawyer sent us the appropriate paperwork, we signed it, and got our insurance money. All of it. And I haven't spoken to her or any of Dad's relatives since the summer of 1997. It feels good.

I realize that I have a great deal of strength. This is good: I'm gonna need it during...

June 9-11, 1998
My stepmother has lost her fucking mind, and her kids are following her right off the cliff. In the wake of Dad's death, I've gone from Cinderella to the Holy Grail. More than once, my stepmother says, "At least your dad left me you." As if it was my job to be Dad for her, so he wasn't quite so dead, perhaps. As if I were a talisman left behind in Dad's will, meant to help her ward off reality so she didn't have to mourn or heal. I'm the only person in the house in therapy, and I feel the walls closing in as graduation from Georgia Tech comes and I know I have to spend a summer at home with these crazy people. I have figured out that she's coming into my room while I'm gone and touching things, like a couple of my dad's shirts I have on my dresser. I'm freaked because I have to help these people.

My therapist gets right down in my face. "Pixie, you can't help them. Your stepfamily is extremely depressed, and if you spend the summer with them, you're going to undo all the work you've done here. If you can swing it, move out." And I do. My first brush with real grace comes in the form of family friends on my Mom's side who offer to let me spend the summer with them. I spend the three days before graduation cleaning out my room while everyone's gone to work and school, my things from the attic, from the garage, my entire life. I throw garbage bags of trophies and awards into the dumpster at the grocery store--I know I won these awards, but they're holding me down, gotta be light to travel fast and far. I give away two-thirds of my clothes to Goodwill, as well as all my instruments, like my beautiful Ludwig concert snare drum and my drum set that Dad gave me for Christmas the year we moved into the new house. Don't need 'em--won't be playing in a band, I'll be drawing in grad school at the University of Florida. Gotta be light to travel fast and far. The husband of the couple I'll be living with owns a furniture store, and the day before graduation he send his two movers to my house after I have emptied everything. They help me move the rest of my posessions swiftly into the truck and take them to stay at the furniture store until I go to college in three months. I walk around my house one more time to touch the walls and say I'm sorry, I know you gave me my path but I have to leave you, I'm sorry I can't rescue you from her, I'm sorry.

I speak to my stepmother that evening. She noticed I'd moved out. This means she opened the closed door of my room and looked in. I already knew but now I really knew. She wanted to talk. I was uninterested. I never speak to her again. We trade a couple of letters, but there's nothing more to say. I hear now that after moving to Florida with the kids in college (who are also doing very well), she's in a great place. I'd like to think this is because I left her and made her face reality, that Daddy was dead and Pixie was not Dad and would never be and was not going to take care of her in his place. I don't know that for sure. I sometimes feel sad about it, but I also know that she and I would not have been close friends if we'd been coworkers or neighbors. Just different people made worse by a terrible situation.

First two weeks of June, 2000
I'm driving across the country from Florida to Denver, Colorado where I will start my first real architecture job out of grad school. Mom makes me get a cell phone so I can call someone if I have any trouble. Kitty and I weep; this will be our first real separation in our lives. Even UF was only a five-hour drive from Small Town, chump change in my Ford Ranger or Kitty's Mustang. I realize how bad it sucks not to have cruise control or a CD player in my truck. My leg cramps from driving twelve hours a day, and my throat aches from singing along with the same cassettes I have. There's only so many times one can sing along with the soundtrack to Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame". I drive through St. Louis and think, Well, they have a river and an arch, but who would want to live here? I have lunch at an Applebee's in Hays, Kansas where my waiter tells me he attends Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. "The Little Apple!" he jokes. I chuckle and think, Boy that's lame. Who the fuck would go to a college way out here in Kansas? I also realize how utterly unafraid I am to do this. I know absolutely no one in Denver. This will be my first real job in architecture, and after a refresher course on AutoCAD 14 from my mom, with her associates degree in CAD drafting from Tiny Tech, where Miss Kitty now teaches online classes (and once had to teach Mom in an in-person English class), I feel ready to do this. I'm generally apprehensive about change and not knowing what's coming next, but not this time. Especially because in a week's time, I'm about to meet a fantastic fellow indeed, who goes by the name of [suave look] Guy. Mile High Guy.

When I meet Guy on my introduction tour through the office, I realize that I can only stare at his eyes. They're perfect. Abso-fucking-lutely perfect. Crystal blue with brownish eyebrows, a gentle voice. (He hates it when I tell this story.) We talk again a few days later. I can't remember his face, but I remembered his voice and his smile. We get to know each other. He's from St. Louis and got his degree from Kansas State. In Manhattan, Kansas. "The Little Apple," he says. I bray with laughter. We also find out on our second date that we have the same birthday seven years apart. He might be worth my time, I think. But how will I know?

October 6, 2000
Here's how I know. It's the day after my Dad's birthday, and he's nowhere. He's not here. I'm alone in my loft in downtown Denver, curled in my robe and crying. The day of his birthday, Guy rented a Robin Williams standup DVD, which we watched in my loft on my laptop (I had no TV) and took me out to dinner. But today, he's still gone and it still hurts. I don't know what to do with myself, feeling small and alone again. So used to feeling alone. The phone rings. It's Guy. How am I? Are you okay? You don't sound okay? Do you want me to come over? No? I'll come over if you want.

I don't want to bother him. It's a Sunday night and tomorrow is a weekday, we have work, don't go schlepping around at this time of night. He's quiet on the other end.

"I love you, you know," he says.

I start weeping again. He tells me to hang tight, he'll be there in ten minutes. He makes it in five. He holds me for a couple of hours while I alternately sob and laugh while telling stories about Dad. He literally tucks me into bed and locks the door as he leaves, going outside to fish a parking ticket off his truck where he parked illegally to come see me.

Months later, this man urges me to see a therapist when he notes that my sour mood has veered from hormonal into hypervigiliance and depression. Every other boyfriend I've had didn't want me to see a therapist--it made me look crazy, they said. You might find out the problem is me, they said. (They were often right.) Guy wanted me to feel better, get better. I still se a therapist now, and I ask him if it bothers him. "Fuck no," he snorts. "Shit, I can't help you with your problems. Besides, you going makes me act better." He comes in close when I need a hug, and he goes away and gives me some room when I need it, like when I'm writing a book, teaching a class with a friend, working on a project at work, cooking, whatever. I nearly lost him last summer when working too many hours for too long on Wheatlands plus taking the ARE made us tired in general and tired of each other. But we both seem to manage to talk each other down off our ledges. We both prop each other up when we need it. I finally realized that I'm not alone. I have my sister, and I have my husband, and sometimes it takes the both of them, propping me up Weekend-at-Bernie's style, keeping me going onward and upward. It is knowledge that makes me weep with gratitude, sigh with relief, and cackle with amusement. A few years ago, I gave my sister a little plaque witha butterfly on it that said:

I smile because you are my sister. I laugh because there is nothing you can do about it.

And I mean it.

Fuck, this was exhausting. I'll write about something amusing later. Thanks for playing.


ms. kitty said...

Ah, Pixie, you have told us so much about yourself. Thank you for sharing your life and the insights it has brought you. I'm glad you're in my life, even just online.

Miss Kitty said...

Boodles, this is awesome, not "inept suckitude at WAD" as you had predicted. :-P Isn't it funny how some of our defining moments are similar, yet some so different...and I barely remember your b-day party at the Center. Wow.

BaxtersMum said...

Pixie - you give me hope.

I wish we'd bumped into each other at Tech. We certainly could have had a great time.

did you ever make it Paris??

Katharine said...

Pixie, what an amazing post. I know I'm late here, but I read Kitty's post today and went back to reread her Defining Moments, and then had to catch yours, too.

I'm crying.

I am so sorry for all the yuck both of you have been through. I am so very thankful for the counseling and support you've received from others and shared with each other along the way. It's just amazing how messed up life can become, through no fault of our own, and what a huge price you've paid to reclaim your self.


Thank you for sharing here, but especially thank you for making sure you turned out normal and able to give and love and laugh. I am so sorry about your dad.

Take care.