Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Just Wait

“I hate the sound of a ticking clock.” He said before he pitched back another shot of Jack straight down his throat.

I looked around his apartment, the carelessness of his unwashed body lingered in that sick sour smell that unfortunately always called me. It called me because I cared.

I just let him talk; there was nothing left for me to say. I thought it best to just let him ramble.

“She had this clock, said her grandmother left it for her. She loved the damned thing. I could set my watch to her winding the stupid thing every night at 9 o’clock before we went to bed.”

He stood and wandered over to the bar, put his hand on the neck of the bottle, then hesitated before he poured another shot.

“But the damn thing ticked. The second hand ticked. It never bothered me before, until that last afternoon.”
He poured his drink, took it back to the couch and sat resignedly with a weariness that seemed to weigh down his very soul.

He looked off into the front window, seeing something that was no longer there. The afternoon sun streamed through the window. But something in his eyes remembered and would never forget.

“She said she’d be back, she wouldn’t take too long. I sat here waiting for her, the damn clock ticking louder and louder.”

He groaned and closed his eyes, leaned back into the couch.

“I was reading a magazine, it didn’t take me long, then there was nothing left for me to do but wait. The sun was bright and sunny, I remember kids laughing in the street. But I sat and waited, listening to the damn ticking.”

He didn’t move, his words got slower but still distinct, his eyes fluttered open.

“I don’t know why I sat there, like I was frozen, the damn ticking seemed to take over my head and just hypnotized me.”

I watched him, wishing there was something I could do for his pain, but he was too far gone for me to reach him.

“I’m so angry. First I was angry at him for taking her from me.” His fists clenched, he grimaced and he squeezed his eyes shut against what I knew were his unbidden tears. “Then I got really angry at her for leaving me.”

His breathing slowed, his face seemed to crumble.

“I know it’s wrong, it was an accident just an accident. But I waited so long for her. I waited all my life for her to come into my life. And in the end, I was still waiting.”

He opened his eyes and gazed at the ceiling, beseeching heaven with weary, sad eyes.

“How much longer do I have to wait?”

I could see there was nothing I could do. He made up his mind a long time ago. He took half of his bottle of sleeping pills with his first shot. His breathing was slowing down his heart rate dropping fast too.

Then I waited, as I always do. I waited for his final sigh. 

People don’t realize, that’s what Death really only does, I just wait.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 Ten Years Later

I used to be a store manager at a Blockbuster store. We sold DirecTV satellite dish systems which meant I could turn on the TV and have it running while I prepared for the day to begin. Even though the store didn’t open until 10am, I always made sure I was in the store early to prepare the previous night’s bank deposits, check in the videos that came in from the night before and put the videos back up on the shelves.

It was a small store so we didn’t have a lot of sales, so to keep my store profitable; I cut costs, which meant that during the day, I would be the only employee in the store.  

It started out like any other day; I was there at 7am, turned on the TV monitor and futz around the store. I always turned to the Today show and that day wasn’t any different. I was checking in videos when I heard Matt Lauer break into the show talking about reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Building.

My immediate first thought was “What kind of dumbass hits a building? What, he couldn’t turn? What a moron!” When Matt Lauer was talking about it, the footage of the 2nd plane hitting the 2nd tower hadn’t come up yet.

I just happened to glance up when the Today Show switched to a live feed and we watched the 2nd plane and I remember completely blanking out, uncertain of just what I saw. I don’t think I could even process what I just saw. Then I heard Matt’s voice and my head heard the historical and famous voice of the reporter talking about the Hindenburg crash.

I didn’t know what to do, I was alone. So I reached for my phone and called a friend who I knew was also at his store preparing to open. He was not watching TV and I yelled at him to hurry up and turn it on, aping the commentary I was hearing on the TV.

It was still early, we weren’t open, I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. It took me a few minutes before I could gather myself, then the news started coming in fast and furious, the towers falling, then the plane hitting the Pentagon, the final plane going down in Pennsylvania and the confusion that ensued.

I finally realized I needed to call my mom. She had been watching the news as well and she had already spoken to my dad because his office was only blocks away from the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. I wanted him to get out of the loop. Dad was on his way back home at around 9am.

I opened the store at the normal time 10am. I had spoken with my district manager and she said to go ahead and open but we both agreed there was no way we were going to be busy. Then she told me that one of the other store managers was very worried because his brother lived within blocks of the WTC and he was unable to get a hold of his brother. I spent that whole day, tethered to the TV that wasn’t selling DirecTV, it was airing the news and the few customers I had came to watch it with me and we talked of our grief, our shock and our anger.

At the end of the strip mall where my store was positioned was a blood bank. By 11am that morning the line to give blood stretched from that store and weaved around the strip mall because so many people wanted to give blood to help out. I will always remember that for me it was the sight of that line getting longer and longer, bringing different people together to help in this extraordinary tragedy that made me so proud to be an American.

The American psyche was hurt, but as is normal in moments of great history, a people gather strength from the shared experiences of grief and tragedy, even more than moments of pride and joy, a major failing of our species. We were united in our grief and anger; we showed the world a united front.

I never knew anyone lost that day, I never knew anyone who knew anyone lost that day. But what that moment means to me is best summed up by the immortal words of John Donne:

"... all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

We were diminished by those deaths, and we need to remember that their deaths need to mean something greater than memorials and platitudes. We need to be the nation that those people died for; we need to insure the families they left behind are left with a country strong and secure, proudly facing a future with hope, determination and perseverance.

Ten years later, what 9/11 will always mean to me is the reminder of how precious life should be. I watch the specials and heard those phone recordings and the one thing that resonates is the messages of love some of them were able to send out on their last few moments. Because in the end, it is the love that we remember, the love we cling too and it is love that will keep hope alive in all of us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beautiful Chicago

I’m not born nor bred Chicago, but I’ve spent more time here than any other place I’ve ever lived so I consider myself a Chicagoan. Chicago is a beautiful city. So much like a beautiful woman who gets under your skin and deep in your blood, you love her one minute, then you hate her. You're not sure of a lot of things, but you know you just can’t live without her.

In Spring, she is hope incipient, all the wistfulness that you hoard in winter’s dread seem to come true with the first shy buds of magnolia trees start popping out. The lazy drip of melting snow from in the gangway between the houses and the apartments, remind you, summer is coming.

Then one day, Summer is here, brandishing bravura like a shiny, slick, flirt’s smile you can’t deny. She is emboldened and sweet, seductive and irresistible. Summer in Chicago has to be experienced to be believed. The street fairs, the city festivals, the jazz/food/lalapalooza heady times in the lake front, all remind you that this city teems with 3 million people.

Then suddenly, always too soon, Summer flees. Like the girl who, after the shock of being kissed for the first time in her life, abruptly turns around and runs away, leaving behind a confused suitor who wanted her to linger and yearned for just one more perfect kiss.

Fall arrives without warning, her smile bright and gorgeous over a deepening blue sky and proud, vast clouds. But she brings with her a peckish breeze to remind you that she will easily turn a weary cold eye upon anything she finds displeasing.

Then one day Fall starts to darken and brood, expectant and forbidding and one morning you know, Winter has arrived.  You wake up as she throws on a mantle of snow; she is quiet, demure and has that dangerous beauty that hides black ice, wind chills and snow drifts. But she’s beautiful to look at and you love her first snow, then you hate as she turns into blackened mounds accumulating detritus on the streets.

Labor Day is supposed to be a commemoration of the everyday working man, yet in Chicago it is always the turning point when Fall stares down Summer and Summer begins to fade. We pack away our shorts and our t-shirts and wait for next year.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

He Ain’t Heavy, He's My Brother.

It’s interesting that April is Autism Awareness month; April 8th is my little brother’s birthday. My little brother will be 36 years old this year. He’s about 5’9” overweight but he’s still “Midget” to me. That was my nickname for him when he was little.

3 month old giggly baby
I remember when he was brought home all those years ago; I was utterly fascinated by this bald, big headed baby boy. He had one of those baby giggles that would have made him a youtube superstar. My other brother and I would spend our days making him laugh because it was utterly infectious.

Then one day he got sick, an ear infection that the ER doctor didn’t catch. By the time the hospital finally admitted him, he was bleeding from his ear. Back then the hospital (luckily it’s no longer in business), refused to let my mother stay with my brother. So they admitted him and took him from us.

You have to understand, in the Philippines, family members are not only allowed to stay with the patient, it is an expectation. There is no better medicine than care and support from loved ones. My mom was heartbroken, dad was out of town on business and no one wanted to deal with a hysterical woman with a thick accent.

The next day my mom, my other brother and I took the bus to visit my brother and the sight of my brother in his hospital bed is still seared in my mind. Our family is close, my brother’s crib was in my parents room, so if he fussed, mom and dad were there for him. So even at 18mons, he knew and keenly felt the separation.

The hospital had physically strapped him down in his hospital bed and had strapped his IV on his head! Just typing that out makes me want to really hurt someone.

We weren’t allowed to take him out since he still had to be on his IV. His little voice was hoarse, he had spent the entire night screaming.

A few days later when dad was back home, we went to get him from the hospital because he was being released. We arrived at the hospital and found that he was feeling well enough that he was in the kid’s playroom. So we went to get him. My brother refused to acknowledge our existence, he didn’t answer by name and completely ignored us, twisting away from our touch. I think I heard my parent’s heart break at that moment.

It wasn’t until he was 6years old that my parents FINALLY found a doctor that was able to tell them what was “wrong” with my brother.  He had begun to talk before that hospital stay, after, he was silenced.

There wasn’t a lot of information on autism; it had barely made it into the psychiatric medical journals. But my parents did their research, made a lot of phone calls and read everything they could get their hands on. This was long before the internet and support groups.

My parents got him involved in the Special Olympics, through that organization; my brother has enough medals and ribbons to make a very full cabinet.  But when he was about to graduate from the special needs classes in grammar school, the only program left for him was to be enrolled in a west side high school. This was a high school in the west side of Chicago, street toughs and uncaring teachers. My brother would get killed going to that school. But it was the only one in our home district. So my parents took the drastic step to look for another option.

They thought they found it. It was in Boston, a private live-in institution. The live-in arrangement was the big drawback, but my parents felt they had to do it. In time, he may end up living in a special community home so he might as well get used to it. But as a compromise, my mother moved out to Boston and my dad supported two households. Mom had to learn to drive.

It went on for almost an entire school year. Until we found out that that specific school’s ‘successes’ were achieved by beating the special needs children into submission.

Mom and my brother came back to Chicago. What they did find was a very good program in Grand Rapids, MI. My brother was enrolled into their school system and mom lived in a cute little 2br apartment. She had her little car and my brother thrived. He continued his special olympics activities and he even learned to show jump horse back riding. 

Every Friday afternoon, my dad and I would switch off; one of us would drive to Grand Rapids and pick up my mom and brother so they can spend the weekend with us in Chicago. Then on Sunday, dad would take them back and he’d commute from Grand Rapids starting his drive back to Chicago at 5am to make it to his office by 8am.

I knew every twist and turn of that drive. Even knew just exactly where I can put the pedal to the medal because there was never any traffic patrol.

But when he was 25years old, he graduated out of the program. He came back to Chicago and now flourishes at the Austin Special Workshop. My brother’s infectious giggles have matured into an infectious smile. It’s featured on their homepage. He’s an artist, my brother studied at the Art Institute of Chicago taking art classes, paints, charcoals, even sculpting. His pieces, when it went up for charity sales, always sold out.

I love my brother, I don’t know if and when I tell him he understands, most of his answers are animated head nods and ‘oh yeah’ or furious shakes ‘NO NO”.  But he’s got his moments.

20 years old
He was always a handsome young man. Looking at this picture, it wasn’t uncommon to have girls giving him inquiring looks and knowing smiles. My brother’s open face and sweet smile always made their days.

30 years old
I love this picture because of that sneaky look on his face, like he’s completely in the joke. My parents take him with them everywhere, they will never think of putting him in a home and separating from him ever again. But they have made arrangements for when the time comes.

When he was small, his favorite song was “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” Sometimes when he was upset and no one could get to him, he’d put the song on his little stereo (he had the 45rpm) and sing. Sometimes when he was super upset, I’d have to hold him and sing the song for him.

I’m no saint, neither is he; I know sometimes I irritate him and he irritates me. We’re siblings, that’s what siblings do, for when all is said and done, he’s my brother. 

For all that we’ve gone through as a family, for the dirty looks we got over the years, the well-meaning but nonetheless inappropriate comments and patronizing, we’ve endured.

There is that dramatic line, “I would die for you.” There are very few people I would say “I would kill for.” My brother is one of those very few people.

Because as heavy as he might get, I’ll carry him, because he’s my brother.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Zombie Nation

Last week I had one of those dreams that had me waking with a burst of energy and shouting in my head. I dreamt that we lived in a Zombie Nation. 

Every month, it was just a natural part of life that zombies moved around our world, so if you were alive, you simply took precautions. So it must have been that time of month – DON’T SAY IT! – and the zombies were coming.

I was with a group of people and we were preparing for the assault by making sure all the doors and windows were secure. We were in an old, large, commercial building. So as people were checking the windows, I went to check the bathrooms. I saw that they were public restrooms with old wooden doors for stalls. The windows were secured and locked down and I was about to leave when I did a double take. Two of the three stalls were those old, old fashioned type of toilets that just looked like a box with a toilet seat. Anyone could crawl up through it to get inside.

Holy Crap!

So I ran out of the room and into the main room, which now I realized, wasn’t an old building at all but a church. I ran screaming down the aisle that the zombies were coming! 

Instead of springing into action, all the people sat quietly in the pews, listening to words of encouragement from the priests. He had given everyone a large crystal; each crystal would ‘cover’ two people. One person held the crystal close to their heart and another person would hold them so the crystal would press between each of their hearts, protecting them from the zombies. But no one moved, they were all like scared sheep.

So I try to get in with someone because I had come in late and, as usual, had no one to hold. I didn’t know what else to do and just followed along with the crowd. I could see the zombies come shambling inside and hysteria starting to mount, when suddenly, the priest who was supposed to be our spiritual leader and guide suddenly threw his hands in the air in despair.

“Oh forget it! This isn’t going to work! This isn’t crystal! It isn’t magic!” He screamed before he took a bite out of his crystal, the crystal were only giant cookies masquerading as rock. It was all a lie.

In my dream, I quaked in disbelief, now that the hell are we supposed to do? I watch as the zombies get closer, I jump up and run. After all, they are zombies, I can outrun them. But there are a lot of people still sitting around just waiting to be bitten. I didn’t understand why they didn’t run.

I am about to run out into the vestry when I had a thought run through my head like a bullet.

We’re just sitting here scared and surrendering. What can you do that when you do it, you can’t be scared? You smile, you laugh….

So I start screaming to everyone “YOU LAUGH! YOU CAN’T BE SCARED WHEN YOU LAUGH AND SING!!!”

I run back up the aisle and start laughing, I sit down and start singing, oddly enough the old Coca Cola song, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” It starts out quietly, hesitant, but the song and the laugh catch on. The singing spreads around the room and builds to a roar of laughter and joy and the zombies stop. They get a confused look on their face and their blank stares turn into a look of recognition. The zombies come back to life and join in the chorus. Through the laughter and the song they are reminded of their humanity and join the living.

People who have been dead are alive again, joyous and singing and suddenly there is a full orchestra and choir and I’m introducing the fabulous “Ms. Fitzgerald.” I have a brain fart in the middle of my dream and can’t remember her name so I call her “The fabulous Gwen Fitzgerald!” I am overjoyed because now there is nothing to fear, the zombies have been cured and I wake up with a smile and a name on my lips:

“ELLA!” It’s Ella Fitzgerald singing.

I woke up feeling - not knowing - the meaning of the dream converge on me like a wave. Am I living in a zombie nation, where people are already dead and don’t know it? Because they kowtow to the ‘powers that be’ simply because they are the ‘authority’, the moral majority or whatever it is they call themselves these days?  You know, the people who know how you’re supposed to live, how to talk, when to talk, who to talk to? Who, if you don’t abide by their unwritten, unspoken rules are somehow deviant and weird, crazy, psycho, etc.

 So what if I laugh a little too loud? So what if I have an ear worm every five minutes? So what if I burst out into song now and then? So what if I’m not your average everyday bore? So what if I’m ‘different’?

I’m alive and I won’t pretend otherwise.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Suicide Dream

I went to bed last night tired but ebullient. 2011 is starting out well for me and I have only the most positive outlook. Considering what an incredible challenge 2010 was for me, that’s an incredible statement for me to make. So when I woke up from one of the most incredibly vivid dream I’ve had in years, it shook me.

A few days ago, I had an idea for a new story; actually it was a TV show about fraternal twins. Now, I don’t know where that came from because I am not a twin and I have the same passing curiosity for twins as the next person, but nothing more.

Last night my dream began in medias res, as dreams often do. I was a fraternal twin but I was the male twin! Something had happened to my sister twin and I was devastated. I’m only assuming she had died because the sorrow was unceasing.

So in the dream, I decide to take my own life. I have a number of sleeping pills and I take them. But somehow I know that from the time I take the pills, I have time to sit, compose my final thoughts to say good bye. As I try to gather my thoughts, I reach for a folder on my desk, there is paperwork and something that looks like a newsletter, I can’t remember. But whatever they are, they set off a melody of memories in my dream self’s consciousness. And my life replays in my head.

Suddenly I am faced with the unexpected realization that my life was filled with small quiet moments of joy and bliss. There were memories of people who slipped through the cracks of my life but left a semblance of grace and warmth. Moments of grace that I did not recognize at the time I was living through them. But only in hindsight did I see all the things I had missed and realized that life could always be more than just the pain and sorrow that I felt and if I had just hung on a little longer, the hindsight would have come.

But for my dream self, it was too late. I had taken the pills and my eyesight was starting to darken. I knew I didn’t have as much time as I thought I had, I realized in a panic, I did not want to die. I wanted to live because I saw that the joy was there, I just had to look. But as I panicked, I knew it was too late, my dream self was dying and my eyesight faded away and I died.

I died in my sleep and I woke up gasping. Relief flooded through me like an immersion into warmth, I was alive and it was all a dream. But what was the morale of the dream?

Life is a mosaic of emotions, riotous moments of unexpected joy, inexplicable anger, unbelievable love and a multitude of intangibles that made life worth living. When we only stare at the dark colors of grief and sorrow, we miss out on the bright colors of joy and love. We must step back and allow the picture to evolve into the landscape of our lives. With each color providing the depth to our existence, each color having its place and adding meaning to our lives.

But what was the meaning for me? I’m not suicidal; I’m too stubborn to ever admit that kind of defeat?! Then it dawned on me, I was close to giving up on something I loved, but for all the frustrating moments I’ve had, there were moments of giggles and laughter that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. I was about to hang up my sword and relinquish my general duties. The dream told me, not just yet.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Winter is the graceless season.

Those of us who labor under wintry skies know that to truly be warm, one must dress in layers. There must be an undershirt, thermal pants, a shirt, a sweater and for me, a hoodie then my coat. Actually I don’t have an actual winter coat; I just have a thick jacket that I bought in Vegas for $20. It’s thick, made of some strange fake velour and I’m happy with it. I don’t like to spend money on outerwear; it’s the optimist in me. Winter will only be three months, why buy clothes that I can only wear for brief time? So I have a baseball-type jacket which I can wear for several months, fall, winter or spring. I add a thick hoodie in the winter for added insulation.

I bring this up because by the time I get out for the day, I feel like a bumbling, stuffed sausage. Sometimes, if it’s really cold, I wear double socks; don’t laugh until you’ve walked in my shoes. That’s where the gracelessness begins.

How do you swing your arms in careless abandon as you walk down the street feeling the sunshine on your face? Your arms are in a permanent position of being stretched out, bending them is a feat of strength and the only thing exposed to the sun, if you have sun that morning, are your eyeballs.

I have a knitted sweater hat (handmade by mom) that is itchy and scratchy and makes me look like I have a really big afro hair do with no forehead or eyebrows. The hood comes over that and the scarf that has stretched out to 4ft long (It’s my homage to Doctor Who-although it isn’t multicolored) wraps around my neck twice. Effectively cutting the range of motion for my neck, with the hood narrowing my peripheral vision, when I turn to glance around me, my shoulders have to rotate completely. It’s a bitch when I drive. When I drive, whatever freedom of movement I could pretend I had is effectively taken from me.

So inevitably, when I get out of my car, I do my version of ‘spilling out’ I open the door, release the seatbelt and roll sideways in a 360°. When I am on both my feet, I am facing the back of my car, as if that’s exactly how I wanted to be. Two days in a row, I have caught my seemingly growing scarf in the seat belt and any movement to straighten out jerks me back towards my car as if I’ve just been clotheslined.

Then as I grab my things and stumble in the parking lot, spinning around to make sure no one saw me, I have to watch the ice patches or I will do a double back flip and an inadvertent roundhouse flying kick that results in my landing spectacularly on my back. Which I have done before as someone (a stranger) who was heading towards me, simply walked over me as I flailed like a turtle stuck on its shell. At that time, I had on a backpack full of books which cushioned any actual physical damage. Then it took some tries to get back up before anyone else saw and try to regain my dignity.

Winter is a graceless season where one learns that embarrassment is one snow boot away.