I've spent the past few weeks in a master class in tribe-building. It coincided with the Holidays, and as much as I love the Norman Rockwell fantasy Holidays that glow softly through the frost-covered windows of my equally fantasy home, in reality the Holidays always entail hyperventilating, and cursing, and credit cards. This year was particularly bad.
I woke up to an empty house on Christmas Eve. My kids had spent the night at their dad's. Fantasy Christmas Eve was to be a day of tying up loose ends, present-wrapping, cookie-baking, and generally Norman Rockwelling the fuck out of my house so that it would be appropriately festive and warm and--let's not avoid what my fantasies are really about, here--nuclear-seeming on Christmas morning.
But the 23rd (Real, not Fantasy, Christmas Eve-Eve) had been spent trying to medicate away the hollow ache in my chest with my favorite narcotics, boys and food.
(Twenty years of Catholic education leave me feeling like I should be ashamed to admit this, but if I know one thing to be true, it is that Shame is the oppressor of Truth, and Truth is how we Grow. I grew up believing Shame, which said that it would be more respectable if I would just quietly take up Mad Dog and meth and anorexia until I finally died a meek, indirectly self-inflicted death in a Kentucky ditch. Today, the SoCal adult version of Shame says I should opt for a Stepford-esque marriage, retail therapy in excess of my own or the planet's means, carcinogenic manicures, and silicone. Instead, I'll just tell you the Truth: Boys and Food. Doesn't sound so bad now, does it?)
(I thank A. A. Milne for the capitalization in that paragraph.)
Like any junkie can tell you, spending the 23rd with my narcotics of choice meant spending the 24th bargaining, atoning, and crashing. For me, that looked like a juice cleanse, laundry, and a little good old-fashioned exercise bulimia. Put another way: things to make me feel like my life was tidy and in my control.
But Shame has a partner in keeping us from the Truth, and it is Delusion. It didn't matter if both my house and my colon were sparkling clean, throw a brick through one of those Rockwellian windows and you'd see the ugly truth: Broken home. It didn't matter that in a few hours I'd be spending an amicable dinner with my kids at my ex's house, or that the following morning he would join us for Christmas breakfast and opening presents from Santa. The only thing I wanted to put under the tree for my kids was a nuclear family.
On my third jog of the day, I felt the familiar wolves circling: tightness in my chest, burning my throat, ache in my gut. Grief's jackboots leave imprints on the heart so deep, no amount of filling up the body's other hollows can erase them. I fought the tears for a little while, swallowing hard, staring into the day's white hot sunlit surfaces, singing along loudly and poorly to ragey music.
Finally, though, I surrendered to grief, because it turns out I cannot outrun that fleet-footed bastard. Leaning against a light pole, sobbing. Choking sobs, back heaving, snot coursing down my face, Oh, Holy Night. Eventually I composed myself enough to jog another 10 yards or so, and then I collapsed on a set of bleachers at the local park, head on my knees. More wracking sobs. Fifteen minutes later, round three left me supine in the wet grass, arms over my face. I looped the dog leashes around one foot so they could snuffle around my prostrate form. Half of me wished someone would happen by and help me up. The other half hoped no one would ever see me like this.
Jack, my ever-faithful dog and easily the most empathetic male in my life, pressed his muzzle under my hand. His tufty eyebrows twitched as he looked at me; sobbing is deeply unsettling to the quadrupedal members of the tribe. I stroked his fur.
When all else fails, put one foot in front of the other. I stood up. The dogs looked relieved. We started home, my cadence faltering but persistent. I sang a lot, because Beyonce kicks the wolves to the curb.
Then I did the thing that was hardest of all for me to learn to do: ask for help. I rallied the tribe. I called Richael and explained that it seemed I had to cry 2013 out. She sagely arranged to meet me for green bean tempura and oolong. I texted my patron saint of hip-hop, Joel, and described my situation. He agreed to make make me a playlist to kick 2013 in the ass and welcome in 2014, something "split 50-50 between angry and happy." I called Karen, my guru in a gi who always says things like "so what do you think the universe is trying to teach you?" and doesn't mind when I say "Fuck the universe and her sadistic lessons." And I called Sam, whose therapeutic bent is to either ask me long winding didactic questions or teach me how to punch things, both of which have their merit. I got home and hung the Christmas lights that Older Daughter so badly wanted just to show the Universe that even on Christmas Eve, it's not to late to fake a little Rockwell. I dressed up.
I showed up on the doorstep of my ex's house, grateful for small miracles like amicability. We exchanged presents and laughed and enjoyed his traditional Christmas Eve dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. At the end of the night, I gathered up my girls and brought them home with me.
One family, two homes. The book The Good Divorce describes my situation as the "bi-nuclear" family. After I finally get my girls in bed and eat the cookies they left out for Mrs. Claus and drink the wine I left for her, I wrap presents and consider this metaphor. I decide we are a molecular family. Maybe we always were one: for years, my ex and I were joined by an ionic bond, positive and negative, linked by that attraction. Now we share a co-valent bond, linked by our daughters' orbits.
Christmas morning he comes over; we eat cookies and watch the girls open their presents. We laugh. He leaves. I text him: I wish we could've worked things out. He replies: Me, too. I close my eyes and picture our molecular family. I can't make it what I wanted it to be, but I can appreciate what it is.
To be continued: Molecular Family, Part II: Extended