The Crossword

The other day I was going through some papers in my nightstand drawer, and I found a small glossy blue and white folded paper that I’d come across many times in the last few years and done nothing with. I recognized the paper as a folded crossword given to me by my dad several years ago. I had been saving it. For what, I didn’t know.

I live in the Rocky Mountains and my father lived in California. Being his only daughter and the mother to his only grandchildren, he visited often. And my dad only flew here on United Airlines. I used to joke with him that I don’t think he chose that airline because of the prices or his growing Mileage Plus account. It wasn’t for the (at the time) free cocktails or the Priority Seating that he got for being 6’4″ tall. I swear he flew United and no other airline strictly because of the crossword puzzles.

From an early age, I could remember my father doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle on a daily basis. He always did it in pen. He used either a fine-point Sharpie or a felt-tip pen of another brand, never ever a ball-point pen. And when he started the crossword he might use one color, but if he put it down and had to return to finish it at a later time, he always used a different color ink. In addition, he always used all capital letters to fill in his answers. Everything was always done the same way: the way he folded the paper, where he sat when he worked on the puzzle (outside on the patio in good weather, at the kitchen table in bad), the colors of the ink and the capital letters. I thought it was tradition, or perhaps even superstition. I know now it probably had to do with his bipolar disease. It goes hand-in-hand with OCD and he likely worried that if he changed anything around, the outcome would be different. And his outcome was always the same: that man never failed to complete a NY Times crossword puzzle, even the harder Friday versions. It might take him several days, and several colors of Sharpie, but he always finished. That crossword puzzle was his peace. His quiet retreat. His “time-out”.

When my father would fly to see me, he would reach into the seatback pocket of his airplane seat and find the United Airlines magazine with an “undone” puzzle. And he would very, very carefully remove the puzzle page from the magazine. Then he would fold it in half, then in half again, and again and again until the clean, unsolved page measured about 2″x 3″. Then he would put it in his dress shirt pocket (where he kept his Sharpie) and remove the United Airlines magazine from the seatback pocket of his yet unseated neighbor, hoping for another blank puzzle. If he found one, he would not remove that one from the magazine. That magazine he would keep for himself and that puzzle he would start before the plane lifted off, and he would usually finish it before the flight attendant came around with that first free cocktail.

When my dad arrived at my home, he typically had gifts for my three children. Stuffed animals or handknit sweaters from my mom, or other fun trinkets. And there was always a gift for me: a small, glossy, folded white magazine page with blue squares and tiny blue typing. My United crossword. He brought one every time. And I would wait until my children were in bed before sitting at the kitchen table, trying to solve my puzzle, my simple gift from my dad.

My father died in my home during one such visit. Cardiac arrest. They claim he died in his sleep, but I saw him as he left this world, and his eyes were open. And he was scared. And I could not save him. And as my mom and I were going through his clothing the following day, I found my crossword. Shiny and small, folded with perfect right angles and even corners. I put it in my nightstand drawer and never opened it. Since my dad’s death 6 years ago last week, I never once opened that puzzle. I never unfolded its perfect page. I never looked at the theme. But in the corner, without having to open it, I could see the date. And it is dated for the month of his death. April 2007.

Well, here it is now, April 2013. My life, in many ways, is worse. Since that time, I have been given a name for what troubled me for so many years: bipolar disorder. I have learned that my daughter suffers from the same illness. My children are growing and no longer need me as they used to, my husband has left me, friends have abandoned me, my only brother no longer speaks to me, and of course, my father is dead. And there is nothing I can do to fix any of it.

My life is a bit of a puzzle itself, but with no “answer key” at the back of the magazine. My dad didn’t remove that page, only the crossword. The answers I will have to come up with on my own. I can use as many colors of ink as I want, and I can fold it back up and put it away in my drawer if I can’t bring myself to solve it all at once. Or if I simply don’t have the answers. It will never be as neat as when my father first tore it from the magazine. It has been bent and crumpled around the corners, and the ink has faded near the folds. But it’s still my puzzle. And I’m pretty sure I can do it. I might have to ask for help, because I don’t know all the answers. But I can complete it. I may have to put it down and return to it later, with a different color Sharpie, but I will finish it eventually. I may not finish it the way I originally planned, but it will get done and my answers will be correct.

And in honor of Earth Day, I think I’ll start with green.

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What’s in a name?

When my husband and I were expecting our children, a lot of thought went into choosing their names. We wanted their monikers to have meaning, and not just decide their lifelong label by choosing from the “top ten most popular girls names of 1998”, or naming them after celebrities or famous athletes. Of course, we couldn’t possibly know that our three children would grow into their names like they grew into hand-me-down clothing. It’s almost as if we pre-destined them to have these amazing personalities just by naming them for traits we admired.

My first daughter’s name means “strength”, and she is the epitome of all things strong. She is a little mother to her siblings and someone her friends look up to and admire. She stays tough, even when most people would bend or break. Her name fits her perfectly.

My son’s name means “defender, protector”, and he is living up to that meaning as a loving brother to his two sisters. He is the first person to throw his arms around me and tell me he loves me when he sees I’m having a bad day (which sadly, is more often than not). He sticks up for anyone being teased, and he is a true defender and protector of his girls (myself included) and his friends. He is a little man with a strong sense of family responsibility.

My baby, my ten-year old daughter who suffers from mental illness, has the most suitable name of all. Her name stands for “little hero”, and she has suffered more in her short ten years than most people might have the misfortune to experience in a lifetime. She falls two steps backward, but leaps three steps forward. She just keeps trudging along, pointing forward, trying to stay positive. She is a hero to her parents and to her brother and sister because she never gives up. She knows that life for her is going to be tougher than for other kids her age, but she tries so hard not to let that get her down. She is my hero, and will continue to be even when she is grown.

My husband (if you’re a regular follower you know we are separated) is also my hero. But his name has an even more fitting meaning: “mighty king, ruler, chieftain”. Did his mother know when she named him that he would grow to be this amazing man who “rules” over his family with love and compassion? Who would take charge of the issues surrounding his family and stay strong in the face of adversity? Did she know how aptly his name would suit him, as the president of a small corporation and the head of a growing household? That he would make decisions he believed to be best for the welfare of his children? That he would be king of his castle, never backing down, always standing his ground and never, ever going back on his decisions?

I should mention, finally, that after we investigated names for all of our children, I decided to look up the meaning of my name. I received my name as a “gift” from my father – it is the feminized version of his name, and of his father before him. I have always hated it. It is unusual and non-phonetic, making it impossible for others to spell, pronounce or remember. When I discovered its meaning, I hated it even more. And in the last year, I have come to find that for me, the meaning of my name suits me better than I wish to admit.

My name means “blind”.

Blind to the dangers of bipolar disorder. Blind to the consequences of bad behavior on account of my illness. Blind to my illness in general, refusing to seek help when first diagnosed, blind to the fact that if I didn’t reach out I would lose my world. Blind to realizing that my actions and inactions would cost me some of my friends and family, my home, my faith, my children’s trust, and the man who loved me.

Blind. How fitting.

Who gets what?

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, you already know that I have been separated from my husband for nearly a year.  A lot goes on in a separation that might be taken for granted by outsiders looking in.  The couple makes the announcement that the decision to separate has been made, and then nobody really knows what’s going on behind closed doors (because nobody wants to know) until the couple makes the announcement that the paperwork is complete, the judge has affixed his stamp, and the separation is now final.

It’s a well-known fact that divorced and separated couples split the “marital” or “mutually-acquired” assets.  Money gets split pretty evenly down the middle, and retirement packages are divided and redistributed.  Value is placed on everything, and the question of “who gets what” becomes the only topic of conversation that seems to matter for a while.  Obviously, the children are shared as equally as is realistic (and not cut down the middle, if possible), and someone usually ends up with the house.  Each person keeps his or her own car, but the rest of the “assets” have to be designated to someone.

In many cases, the couple hopes to amicably settle the “who gets what” without much disagreement.  The items in question might include the piano, china cabinet and its contents, artwork and maybe even season tickets to sporting events.  Much of the rest of it falls neatly into a “his” or “hers” pile:  pilates DVDs, the autographed hockey jersey, framed diplomas, and even jewelry.

But what about the friends?  Those “mutually acquired assets” that have been part of the couples’ life for a dozen years or more?  Surprisingly, and sadly, those decisions are typically made for you by the friends.  One of the most heartbreaking parts of my separation has been to see who chose me, and who chose him.  In only the rarest of cases did the friends choose us both.  And those have turned out to be the rarest and most valuable of friendships.  But those other friends, the ones I mistakenly thought were lifelong “acquisitions”?   Make no mistake, most of them do choose.  And most of them chose him.  I never realized that “who gets what” quickly turns into “who gets who”.  I never would have guessed that any choosing had to take place at all.

Little clues of lost friendships seeped in slowly at the beginning.  I would call and invite a “friend” to lunch or coffee, hoping to have a shoulder to lean on in my time of confusion and grief.  That’s what girlfriends are for, am I right?  But maybe I leaned a little too hard, because unreturned calls and texts became more and more frequent.  Sure, they made excuses at the beginning as to why they couldn’t meet up with me, but then they stopped contacting me altogether.  They stopped waving from their cars when we would pass on the street, and turned down the produce aisle to hide if they saw me headed up the dairy section at the grocery store.  I felt like a leper.

But as for my husband, suddenly he was being invited to dinner at people’s houses, happy hour at the bar, sporting events, and to other forms of entertainment and companionship with these same friends.  First the male half of the couple reached out to him, but then it became obvious that both halves of the pair had “chosen” him.  Friends I had introduced to him.  Friends who I had consoled during divorces and family deaths.  MY friends.  And they abandoned me in favor of my husband.

Now, my husband is a great guy.  Likable and friendly, handsome and kind.  And, maybe most importantly, emotionally stable.  If I were them, I would choose him, too.  Me?  I’m a wreck.  Most of our friends know I’m bi-polar and they also know I have not handled our separation well at all.  I’m messed up.  I have cried in nearly every restaurant and coffee shop and bookstore in town, to nearly every friend I thought I had.  Maybe that’s the problem.  These “friends” don’t want to be reminded that other people have troubles.  It’s too much work to be friends with someone who is grieving or sick.  And my kind of “sickness” does not evoke sympathy, like the bubonic plague or appendicitis might.  People don’t jump at the chance to bring meals or offer to watch kids for people with a mental illness.  They back away as if it’s contagious.  And a newly-separated bipolar person?  Forget about it.  That seems to be the worst possible combination.  Apparently, it’s easier to simply back away than to engage and offer help.  And friendship.

Today, a graduation announcement arrived in the mail for the daughter of a couple who my husband and I met at the same time.  It was addressed to him, and only him.  For whatever reason, this caused me half an hour of wasted tears.  I don’t even LIKE this family, but just the thought that a simple graduation can’t even be “announced” to both of us slid swiftly into my heart and caused me a great deal of sadness.

Maybe I’m blowing this all out of proportion.  Maybe they chose him because he’s simply a more desirable person to hang out with.  Maybe they just tolerated me because I was with him, and maybe they figured I had to be OK if a great guy like that had stuck with me all of those years.  But when he decided he’d had enough, so did they.

And it broke my heart.

But during the last few months, my realization of who my TRUE friends are has emerged.  They are the women who text me weekly (even daily!) just to say hi, to check in, to update me on their lives and make sure I’m still involved in mine.  My REAL friends return my calls, ask me to the movies and send me Christmas cards with more than just a generic name stamp at the bottom.  My FOREVER friends have stuck with me through the good and bad (and it seems like it has all been bad for the last year), and if they grow tired of my tears, they don’t let on.  Three of them have been divorced and they know what I’m going through.  Others I’ve known for a couple of decades and maybe it’s an “I knew her before he was around” kind of deal, but the fact remains that they remain.  And I really don’t see them going anywhere soon.  This group may be very small, but they are worth their weight in gold to me and I wouldn’t trade them for a world of “convenient” friendships.

As for the rest of them?  Good riddance.  It think it’s safe to assume they were never really my friends to begin with.  When the going got bad, they got going.  And I don’t need them in my life.  That kind of recognition hurts, but it’s reality.

So in terms of “who gets what”, I think I got what I deserved.  And it’s enough.

“Pure Happiness”

I take a lot of pictures, mostly of my children.  I do it partly because I am afraid that my ECT will erase precious memories of my three babies that I won’t ever get back.  And I do it partly because I think my kids are so darned cute…..

And because I take so many photographs, I spend a lot of time looking at them on my computer.  Again, I find that they help me see parts of my past that I wouldn’t otherwise recall.  Typically, there are few pictures of me amongst the thousands of my children and the rest of my family.  But while on vacation, I asked the waiter at the restaurant where my children and I were celebrating with Easter dinner if he would please snap a quick picture of the four of us.  It would be the first photographic “documentation” of my new family dynamic since separating from my husband nearly a year ago.  When I downloaded the pictures today, I was pleased to see that the picture of my foursome came out really well.  So well, in fact, I made it my Facebook profile picture.  And within a short amount of time, the feedback on that picture was so positive.  I received compliments I hadn’t heard in months – maybe even years.  The one compliment that really hit me was, “Pure happiness on all your faces!”  And as I looked again at the photograph, I realized my friend was right – all four of us had huge, happy smiles.  “Pure Happiness”.

After hearing such surprising input regarding one small Easter family photo, I started scrolling through the rest of my digital pictures on the computer.  I realized that I could plot my (un)happiness during the last five years just from whether or not I was smiling in a picture.  And, sadly, there are not a lot of smiles on my face.  In fact, there is not one smiling “me” in any pictures taken on any holiday for the last three years.  Sure, there are forced pleasantries and more smirks than I could count, but I’m talking about REAL smiles.  You know, the ones your parents begged to document after your $2000 orthodontist work was completed in your teens?  The REAL smiles involve teeth.  Big, happy, toothy smiles.  And I realized that those smiles and my face didn’t coexist in more than about a dozen pictures taken in recent history.

Pathetic.

Too quickly I recognized that my manic episodes (which are never the euphoric, ecstatic kind but instead the violent, angry kind) and my deep depressions were all too obvious in my iPhoto compilations.  I could actually tell when in my life I had been “normal”, and sadly that wasn’t very often in recent history.  The few times I was photographed with a smile of “pure happiness” typically coincided with the births of my children, romantic getaways with my husband, time spent with my dad or with lifelong friends, and visits to my childhood home with my children.  There are the pictures taken during last spring break when my husband and I brought our children to Santa Barbara to see where we met, attended college, worked together and got married.  “Pure Happiness” smiles on my face in every shot.

I place tremendous value on those pictures – they document a time in my history when I was truly happy, when I had not a care in the world.  It is my hope that I will be able to share more and more of those “pure happiness” pictures with my family and friends in the near future.  I want to believe that is the “real me”, the smiling woman in the photograph who recognizes that despite her heartbreak, her mental illness, and the other difficulties life has thrown her way, life is good.  Life will be good.  I just have to be patient and work hard and take each day one at a time.  I have decided today that I am going to achieve “pure happiness”.

It just might take a little while, so bear with me.

“That Wasn’t Me”/Brandi Carlile

I’ve long been an admirer of singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile. She’s a talented musician with a beautiful voice. This past summer, I was driving with the radio on and a new song of hers was being featured. I actually pulled over to the side of the road halfway through the song because the lyrics were such a reflection of everything I was going through at the time that I was overcome with emotion. When the song ended on the radio, I immediately Googled the lyrics on my phone to see if I’d heard her correctly. And then, because that wasn’t enough, I downloaded the song and sat there crying by the side of the road as I played and replayed and again replayed that song.

I went home and copied those lyrics into a card and left it for my husband to read. She sang every word I’d been trying to tell him for months. I was admitting my faults; I was desperately sorry for disappointing my family; I had changed, that people are capable of great change. And, most importantly, “that wasn’t me”.

It didn’t matter. He still left me. How unrealistic of me to think a song would change his mind, would make him finally understand what I’d been trying to verbalize to him for months.

Brandi Carlile, if you’re out there, I would love to know your inspiration for that song. Because I still get teary-eyed when I hear it. Are you bipolar? How could you come up with such heartfelt lyrics if you were not suffering, or writing about someone who is? Because that song mimics my life.

For those of you unfamiliar with the song, here are the lyrics to
“That Wasn’t Me”:

Hang on, just hang on for a minute
I’ve got something to say
I’m not asking you to move on or forget it
But these are better days
To be wrong all along and admit it, is not amazing grace
But to be loved like a song you remember
Even when you’ve changed

Tell me, did I go on a tangent?
Did I lie through my teeth?
Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?
Did I bring shame on my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
Whatever you see, that wasn’t me
That wasn’t me, oh that wasn’t me

When you’re lost you will toss every lucky coin you’ll ever trust
And you’ll hide from your God like he ever turns his back on us
And you will fall all the way to the bottom and land on your own knife
And you’ll learn who you are even if it doesn’t take your life

Tell me, did I go on a tangent?
Did I lie through my teeth?
Did I cause you to stumble on your feet?
Did I bring shame on my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
Whatever you see, that wasn’t me
That wasn’t me, oh that wasn’t me

But I want you to know that you’ll never be alone
I wanna believe, do I make myself a blessing to everyone I meet
When you fall I will get you on your feet
Do I spend time with my family?
Did it show when I was weak?
When that’s what you see, that will be me
That will be me, that will be me
That will be me