Sunday, December 29, 2013

#659. My Year in Parentheses

In the fall of 2011, my life kind of went to hell.

I mention this now because in some ways, all of that came to a head in 2013, and I'm hoping was resolved or at least began to be resolved.

The whole chain of Borders bookstores closed that fall, if you remember.  I finished my five-year journey with the company as it concluded its liquidation process.  At the time it was an exhilarating experience, but at the end of it I was also without a job.  I spent the rest of that year unemployed and looking for work.  When I finally got a new job, it was in a hell of a different stripe entirely.  (Call centers are patently criminal affairs.  They prey on stupidity.  If I were ever able to convince the United States, or any other country, to regulate businesses the way they regulate other things, this is where I would start, not, ironically, the asshole practices that gave us the Great Recession.)  I lost that job within six months and went back on unemployment.

(Unemployment, by the way, is both a terrific blessing and a terrible curse.  You have the whole day to yourself, basically, but you also feel a pounding pressure to once more contribute to society so that you can make money.  I get why we have money.  Money makes the world turn round.  I also see the real possibility that we could one day turn that ridiculous institution on its head.  I'm not a revolutionary.  I'm a human being.)

I spent a year working for Walmart.  Yeah.  So that happened.  Then I came back home.  I mean that literally.  I went full-circle all the way around.  I even went back to work for L.L.Bean.

Let's rewind the clock again.  It's now the fall of 2010, a full year earlier than the period at the start of this reflection.  My mom has just been diagnosed with cancer.  I've never written about this, but it has been dominating a significant portion of my life for three years now.  The worst days I've had in this period weren't on the unemployment line or a really bad job, or the financial crisis that led to the decision to move back home, but a week in the fall of 2010 when my mother for all intents and purposes looked like she had already lost her fight.

We need to rewind again.  The worst day I ever had at a hospital was some twenty years earlier still, when my mother's father was in his final days.  I cried more nakedly that day than I had before or have since.  I was all of ten years old, but knew it was incredibly serious when I saw that even my grandfather's distinctive pencil-thin mustache was gone.  (I'll never forgive the mortician who completely botched putting it back on him, because he was given a full mustache in death, and that was a rank insult.)

My mother spent the week in an induced sleep, and that was the worst way to visit her, at the start of her battle with cancer.  To me, who sees connections in everything, it looked like the end, right there at the beginning.

I'm not looking for your sympathy, by the way.  I don't want a single comment in that regard.  This is my battle.  If you're not busy supporting all of mankind every single day, even the people you lightly despise, you are not much of a human.  I hate to put that so nakedly, but there you are.  I'm not looking for popularity based on a morbid fascination.  I'm not looking to inspire you.  I'm a weak person trying to be strong, and I fail constantly.  I'm not being humble.  I'm not putting on an act.  Maybe I'm being this honest, in a reflection I've been planning for months, because that's the mood I'm in as I finally write it.  I live with the constant awareness of my failures.

She got better, of course, thankfully by the end of that week, just before I had to head back to my then-home in Colorado.

And although there were a lot of emotional developments along the way, she kept getting better, despite all the prognoses she received.  As far as her doctors were concerned, she should be dead by now.  We gathered the whole family for her 70th birthday in February of 2012 with the express belief that it might be the last happy memory she'd ever have.  We're headed toward the two-year anniversary of that reunion.

Earlier this year I began making daily phone calls to her.  I always tried to make weekly phone calls previous to that, but I decided that wasn't good enough, that she deserved more than that as she tried to fill time she now had in abundance.  This sometimes had the effect of forcing her to think about the very thing that had come to dominate her existence, which gave her true mortal fear, which sometimes only made it worse.  I tried to get better, stressing positives rather than negatives.  You can only go so far with that.

And I could only do so much.  Even now I can only do so much.

My life continued, of course.  My money stretched thin.  I never made much working for Borders.  They don't pay you well to sell books, mostly because even though a lot of the Internet or at least the corners I know best would seem to contradict this, books are hardly the most popular mode of entertainment we have in the 21st century.  They probably come in after the Internet itself, even though the things we have to promote the Internet today have also gone out of their way to promote books all over again, to inadequate effect as far as I'm concerned.

Money stretched very thin indeed while I was unemployed.  They paid worse for unemployment than for selling books.  As you may or may not have gleamed reading my thoughts and experiences for however long you have, I love popular culture.  I spend more money on it, or certainly have in the past, than I've made promoting it.  This is a a bad financial combination.  When I had my terrible job, I was making a good amount of money, and when I was working at Walmart I made a bad amount of money.  Eventually I couldn't outrun my bills anymore.  I was in dire straits this past summer.

I was also in the midst of a bed bug infestation.  (I will never ever again listen to the term "don't let the bed bugs bite" with any trace of good humor.)  I spent the last six years or so living in the same apartment with the same habits, and yet was blamed for the infestation, even though it became apparent later that it had come from someone else.  I was never given an apology.  My whole world was turned upside down all over again.  And I was already in the midst of knowing I needed a drastic change.  And so that was the definitive turning point in my decision to move back home.

It took bed bugs to make me do the right thing, both by my own finances and by my mother.  I feel pretty ashamed about that, by the way.

My parents had been trying to sell the family house for two years.  They finally succeeded in the fall.  (Change is appropriate for this season.)  When I got back I was immediately thrust into the blitzkrieg of clearing out a house that had accumulated nearly thirty years worth of living in it.  We didn't make the deadline.  We pushed on with some much-appreciated help from some of my father's co-workers.  It was accomplished.

(That was the culmination of a whole journey I did write about, which is part of a whole different running theme in my life, my relationship with my sister, the one I lived with or near for the better part of the last decade, a relationship I greatly value and which greatly affected the course of my life over that period, to the degree that I cannot properly express here.  Suffice to say, but the most visible aspect of this relationship has been evident in my writings, and that for me is one way to define how important something is to me.)

I feel like a failure all the time.  I never quite fit in.  I'm always the odd man out.  My thought process is always operating at a different wavelength than those around me.  I've seldom known what to do about that.  Often, it's made me angry.  This is how I process it, and it's healthy and unhealthy at the same time.

When I approach my own mother like that, though, it just doesn't seem okay.  She's not herself anymore.  She's doing far better than she has any right to be doing, and the cancer itself doesn't seem to be doing anything at this point, but she's on the business end of her mortal coil.  That much seems evident.  It scares me greatly.  Her mind is slipping.  I've learned that this is a stage in a person's life that brings into sharp focus everything they always were.  The more you retreat to protect yourself, the more you become yourself.  I try not to judge my mother in this regard.  But I am struggling more and more with how to deal with this.  She demands a great deal of patience.  She exhausts herself in apologies.  She's in constant conflict with herself.  She doesn't know how she fits in with the world anymore.  And I don't know how to help her with that.

(Still, I beg you, do not reply with sympathy.  You may not even believe in prayer, but when you wish well on all humanity, which I believe all good humanity does as a matter of instinct, that's what you're doing.  Christians have this particular belief that prayers for specific individuals can act as an intercession.  In some cases this is relevant, but I believe in the sense that positive leads to positive.  Otherwise what happens is what is supposed to happen.  We only experience the world linearly.  Everything that will ever happen has already happened.  You can't change that, because you will have already.  It's the basic paradox of life.  It's the mystery that makes it so hard to deal with difficult experiences.)

2013 has been a year of transition.  I've struggled more than in any other year of my life to find my way.  I've struggled to find out where I fit in with the rest of the world.  Even here, in my blogging adventures, I've struggled.  Anyone who's read me regularly will know that.

I consider a good day one in which I'm not actively fighting any battles, or when I've managed to say or write something that makes sense of this crazy life.  I consider my writing a way of processing my experiences.  If I sometimes seem condescending to the writing of others, it's because I cannot comprehend how they can take it so lightly when it means so much to me.  I write as I read, and I read as someone who finds his best connection with humanity in the words of others.  I devote myself to popular culture because of this connection.  It's my one real tether to the world.  This becomes more important when my mother, my first and best tether, begins to slip away.  I'm not looking to escape.  I'm looking to find my way.

In the end, we're all a very small part of a very big world.  Sometimes we feel smaller.  Sometimes our basic survival instinct of arrogance makes us feel bigger.  My parentheses are my arrogance.  I tell myself all the things I never hear anyone else say.  (Again, again, please don't tell me anything like that now.  I would consider the best response to this reflection to be no response at all.  This is my arrogance.  This is my pride.  An isolated individual needs to tell himself a lot of things.  What he doesn't need is the appearance of something that he keenly feels every day as an absence that has come to define and inform his entire existence.)

That's my life at the end of this year.  I'm hoping for better next year.  Conceivably, as it has been conceivable since the fall of 2010, the worst will finally happen in one key element of this tapestry.  I'm not afraid of death.  I'm more afraid of life.  I'm afraid of watching it, experiencing it, slip away.  I'm a coward.  It was bravery and selfishness that brought me back home, a naked financial need.  I find myself inadequate to the task of providing my mother with the comfort she desperately needs, the unconditional understanding she craves.  I thought it would be easier.  I thought, as I thought when I began making the phone calls, that my presence alone would reassure her.  This is not the case.  Nothing is ever that simple.  My battle is the fight of my mother's life, a war that already has a conclusion, just waiting to happen.  It feels bad just knowing that I sometimes thought the worst of this year was money.  What I was feeling in my worst days, my mother has felt for three years on a completely different scale.

I'm only now beginning to fully appreciate that.  My challenge for the new year isn't to fight her battle for her, but to overcome my own limitations.  I can't say how that'll go.  I can only hope for the best.

One final time, because I absolutely mean it, none of this was meant to provoke anything but a clearing of my own conscience, a reckoning with a period of my life that in some ways has come to an end, and in others is just beginning.  We define a lot of our lives by time.  When time becomes a precious commodity we feel it most keenly.  Sometimes I feel as if I'm stealing time from myself.  I'm not even sure which aspects of my life I'm stealing the time from, or if that's my whole life.  I call this the year of parentheses because that's exactly how it felt.  It was a reckoning.  I hope I've learned something from it.  The new job is the same as an old job I had at the start of the millennium, but it's also completely different now than it was then.  That's one way I know I've changed.  I hope for the better.


Spacerguy said...

Fascinating, gripping read Tony, your journey through time makes me feel like a time traveller withnessing a reckoning of core values to regain balance and order in the universe. Writing is a great coping mechanism to 'nurture and nature' and inspire wonder.

Tony Laplume said...

Thank you.

The Armchair Squid said...

(I'm not supposed to comment. I'm not supposed to comment but... DAH!)

I'm very glad to have gotten to know you this year.

Keep on keepin' on, Tony.

Tony Laplume said...

The feeling is mutual. At the very least, this blog would have looked very different in the second half of the year without all those coffeehouse blends.


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