17 Jun 2024

TW: Death, loss, trauma, child abuse, childhood SA mentioned but not detailed.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

I was dreaming about you, coming back to me on the beach.

Safety and security and love all around you,

The miracle of you wet from the ocean and in my arms again.

So I took you home, but the water on the floor turned into a flow and then a flood

Water coming out of your mouth and eyes endlessly endlessly.

My hope was all that made you whole again.

Not a miracle after all

Just the standard delusion of a long broken heart.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

A while ago, I wrote a poem about grief. It was about the wetness of ghosts and the inexorable return, not to dust, but to water, that we all must take.

When I found it and added it to my blog, I misremembered the dream it was about. I thought it was about my dad, but it was actually about my childhood dog, Oso.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in stillness these last few years. First the stillness of exhaustion as the twin flames of eating disorder recovery and full workaholic burnout hit me like dueling blast furnaces. Then the stillness of someone who, for the first time ever, doesn’t feel the need to move.

Coming out of this and into pandemic, getting branded with new trauma. It felt like just as I finally decided I actually wanted to live, the threat of death rushed in to loom over the whole world. It got worse when governmental and regulatory bodies stopped monitoring infection rates and everybody was cheerily urged to get “back to normal.”

Normal for me was one meal a day, 4 hours of sleep a night, nonstop working, constant hypervigilance, and the heavily laden sloshiness of carrying around a pit of grief so deep it felt like an endless ocean inside of me.

But the grief has edges. Maybe not for me. I think I’ll always be at the center of it, but I can see the extent of it now.

I got tired of writing these personal essays. I used to write this shit compulsively. Like a little submarine, pinging my location from 20,000 leagues below the surface.

I remember when one of my businesses closed, I felt out of time and space for weeks afterwards. People would talk to me, but it felt like they were talking to someone just behind me somewhere. My business was my whole identity, I didn’t exist without it. So when it died and I lived, I didn’t feel real anymore.

This is like that, but in reverse. The dead are all still dead, but I lived. And living is moving, even when you’re standing still.

These years of not writing much, not working much, not making much have been filled with substance. I’m processing my grief like washing laundry in a river. I dip in and out, I let the feeling flow through me, I wring myself out and I start again. Each time, a little more clear.

I learned how to nap, and then I learned how to sleep, even if I sometimes still struggle with it. I’ve had dreams that feel prophetic in their gravity, even though they’re about the past. About my ghosts. I had the dream about finding Oso on the beach and bringing him home only for him to collapse into water in my arms. In the dream, I carried him, wet and streaming back to the sea in case that’s what he needed. I woke up before I got to the water. Like so many of the things I’ve loved, he belongs to the water and I do not. Not yet.

I stopped talking to my dad again. But it’s different this time. I’ve never gone this long without contact with him. Even when he was doing crack in Griffith Park, I’d see him at least once a year.

I had this idea that because he never hit me, or tried to rape me, like others had, that made him a good dad. But our relationship was always on his terms. I used to say he was there when I needed him, but that wasn’t true. He showed up in my life when he wanted to escape strife and drama in his life, and like a dutiful daughter, I discovered something to need him for on his timeline, not mine.

A few months after our last conversation, he sent me a card, something he’d done for most of my childhood. He’d send me easter cards with pictures of him dying easter eggs with someone else’s family. He sent me cards with foreign money he’d made as a tip driving a cab at the airport. He sent me Christmas cards and birthday cards and at least once a Halloween card. Almost always with some snapshot of the life he was living without me. And I used to cherish them, because he was thinking of me.

Simply being considered three or four times a year meant so much in a situation where I was being literally starved, for nutrition and for affection, being threatened and attacked and having to fend off sexual advances from family members and my mom’s friends.

I was the one who took being an afterthought and made it into an entire childhood. I strung together random cards, impersonal gifts and photos, half a dozen summer and winter school breaks where I spent most of the time with my grandmother, and created the narrative of a loving and supportive relationship.

I don’t remember what that last card was now, or even what holiday, but I do remember explaining to a friend of mine how he’d always send me cards to show he was thinking of me, and how sometimes they’d have pictures in them of meals he’d made, holiday traditions, places he went, people he knew.

As I was saying that, I saw my child self from outside of the narrative, sitting alone on the floor of my tiny room, small hands clutching yet another card, yet another picture of my dad living life without me. I never decorated easter eggs as a kid, but I had pictures of him doing that with other people’s kids.

He used to make New Year’s rice every year. I’ve never tasted it. I got pictures of him decorating Christmas trees while I hung a single sad stocking from the TV stand and got physically attacked by my mother when she didn’t like the books I bought her.

All of this washing does heal my wounds. When I needed someone to love me and be there for me, I took my old scarecrow of a dad and I made him whole with my hope. And every time he made plans with me and didn’t show up, or when I had to remind him of my birthday, or other extremely mundane facts about myself and my life, every time he said or did something horrible; I sunk a little deeper under the water of my grief.

Letting go of the idea of him and starting to accept reality is like dropping weights I didn’t know I was holding. And as I drop the weight of him, I drop others as well. My grief at a childhood spent running, hiding, working, striving. My grief at never ever fitting into a world where casual abuse and exploitation is not only the norm, but held up as aspirational. Over the years, I’ve begun to surface.

Up here, everything is so dynamic. I’m no longer trudging along the bottom of a dead sea, pinging my sad little radar ping, hoping against hope someone hears it. I am in a tidal swell, I’m swept up in moving currents, riding the trade winds. I have a million miles in every direction and I can move towards any of them at any time for any reason. Everything else up here moves too and I don’t know how to track it like I used to. I don’t know how to ping a location that isn’t relative to the ocean floor.

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can put my finger on that isn’t going to scoot out from under it. So I try to keep still, find a focal point before it also moves again.

Ultimately, I know that the answer is to look up, physically and metaphorically. Because the stars, while they do move, will be a focal point for any creature with a life as brief as mine. Especially when I spent the first half of it under water.

Which is to say, now that I sleep the whole night, I dream the whole night too. And I don’t want to dream about ghosts anymore. I want to dream about stars.