Sunday, June 28, 2015

15 Years? I call bullshit.

I got a flyer in the mail the other day from my Alma mater about homecoming, in November. I looked at it fondly, smiling, thinking of the best days of my life, and I noticed that there would be a special gathering for the class of 2005, because it's their 10-year reunion. And it hit me. My heart dropped into my lower intestine, my jaw fell open and I grabbed my throat as if to stifle a scream. My boyfriend grabbed my arms in fear and asked what was wrong, if I was OK...

I closed my mouth, swallowed, and nodded slowly. I walked into the living room with my head bowed, stopped, turned around slowly to look at his concerned face, and finally spoke. "I just realized. I graduated college 15 years ago. 15. 15! Fif-fucking-teen! No. Nope, no, nuh uh, nope, no no no no no. Not possible. Nope" etc, etc. 

Seriously, it went on for a while, me just repeating the word "no" while shaking my head and pacing the room. I looked like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, except there is no more Wapner to watch. It would have to be Judy. Or Alex. What the hell, TV judges don't go by their last names anymore, like Judge Wapner. I don't think I even know his first name. He looked like a Bubba. Bubba Wapner. Or maybe Mitch. Mitch Wapner. Short for Mitchell. But he still went by Bubba. Because he just looked like a Bubba, and I bet he had a shotgun next to his bed. TV judges today only go by their first names. It's all very informal. Where's the mystery in that? Part of Bubba's appeal was that he was mysterious, and a bit scary because you didn't know his name. He was like a terror for which you have no words. And if they did tell you his name I don't remember so don't fucking tell me, because I don't want to know it was some bullshit name like Jonathan, or Timothy, or Alexander. Fuck that. He was Bubba. Bubba Wapner. So bite me, Judge "Alex". 

Wait, where was I? Oh, right! Fif-fucking-teen. My 28-year-old boyfriend shrugged and said, "Well you're still my college girl", which was terribly sweet, because he actually meant it (love is apparently completely blind), but it didn't help. He doesn't understand. How could he? Yet.

Has it really been that long? It feels like yesterday I was running onto the field at the Orange Bowl for the first time, at my first college football game with thousands of people watching me. (Well, kind of. People don't exactly watch the marching band. But the OB sold beer, and drunk kids cheer for anything, so it was still pretty intense) I thought I was going to have a heart attack. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was high on adrenaline and could barely breathe. Which doesn't bode well for a horn player, by the way. My legs felt rubbery as we started to run, and I told myself, "remember this moment", this moment of terrifying euphoria, because it was like nothing I'd ever felt before. And for once I actually listened to myself and I do remember that moment. Vividly. Although that was freshman year, so that technically would've been 19 years. Nine-fucking-teen oh sweet Jesus let's go back to 15, shall we? But it really does feel like maybe it was a year or 2 ago. My friends, well I just saw them not too long ago, right? Most of them are now married with children, but it was only a few years, right? Like 3, maybe. Right? Shit, I'm having another heart attack.

I remember being young and stupid and trying to fit in with everybody, afraid to just be myself because myself wasn't good enough. It was ironic, because when I finally started to become one of the group, I got comfortable and would slip a little and be myself. And that's when I actually became liked, not just accepted. College Life Lesson #492. Honestly, I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about life, in college. Although I didn't realize it until about 5 years ago. (What? I'm a slow learner) Probably because I did everything wrong. Apparently, I learn the hard way. Looking back, I have so many cringe-worthy "what the actual fuck, Kate?!" moments. Many, many, many. Like, a lot. More than a normal person would have. But, I'm not normal, and that's OK. (Another lesson I learned in college, and again, the hard way.) I also remember learning how to make friends. I learned there are other silly, goofy people like me unfortunately for the rest of the world. I learned it's possible to be friends with another woman and not feel like you're in competition, because you're both just comfortable being your own weird selves. I learned a lot from the people I met. Lessons that didn't really stick then, but fif-fucking-teen years later, they've finally sunk in. Sort of.

Where did the past 15 years go? It seems like maybe 2 years ago was my last Swamp Toga party. 5 years tops. But 15? (Forgive me for repeating that number, but I still haven't fully grasped it, and it's been a week) 15. I remember being 15, for fuck's sake. That's when my brother was born. I used to change his diapers and give him baths and hold his hand walking down the sidewalk; he just graduated college. What the fucking fuck. Didn't I just graduate college? What is happening right now? No for real. I think I'm having an aneurysm.

Nope, false alarm. Just a minor stroke. You grow up hearing adults say "time goes so fast", and "they grow up so fast", and you think it's total bullshit that old people just like to say, because for you it feels like fucking forever until you turn 18 and get the hell out of the house. But now that I'm staring down the barrel of -- Jesus, I can barely type it, it seems so ludicrously impossible--40, I hear myself saying that same bullshit, and finally realize it's not bullshit. It actually does go fast. I guess it's partly because I remember those 4 years of college better than I remember the 15 years since. Everything was new then. A new experience, a new lesson I would inevitably learn the hard way, a new depth of pain, a new height of joy. Now those things I experienced for the first time 15 years ago are old hat. Those amazing new feelings and experiences are no longer amazing and new; they are just a part of my everyday existence. I guess I take them for granted, much like the time that has passed.

But every once in a while something happens and I feel that incredible joy I discovered 15 years ago. I relive the incredible sense of pain as if it were brand new. I revive the strong determination I found a decade and a half ago, and I despair under the incredible sense of helplessness that found me. And everything is all right. Even the pain, because it takes me back 15 years, only now I can experience it with much clearer eyes and a calmer mind, and I actually embrace it. Because it's part of my youth. To be able to experience something for the first time all over again is an incredible blessing. It keeps me young. Maybe that's why I forget that it's been 15 years since I first felt that emotion, or had that experience.

My grandmother used to say -- and I always understood what she meant, but now I get it -- that she was surprised every time she looked into a mirror and saw an old woman. I'm far from an old woman, and when I glance at a mirror I barely notice the new wrinkles or the gray hair that has begun to proliferate in earnest. But when I look, really look, I see it. I see the 37 years of laughter and pain and hope and despair, and I wonder, where did the girl go? I could swear she was just here a minute ago. When did this woman show up? She kinda looks like me, but her skin isn't as bright and soft, and she has some wrinkles, and quite a bit of gray hair. You see, I'm 22. My skin is smooth, I have only a few stray grays, my knees don't hurt, and I can stay up late and when I get up don't look like I got hit by a truck carrying some kind of weaponized chemical. I have my whole life ahead of me.

I still do, actually. Except now, it's shorter. That would be a terrifying thought, long as I allow myself to re-experience those things all over again for the first time, I don't mind so much. That way I'll always be 22; only a stronger, calmer, wiser, kinda less crazy version. That woman in the mirror is just a better version of my 22-year-old self, and let me tell you, 22-year-old Kate was pretty fucking awesome. So I guess those 15 years were a good thing after all.

But still. Fif-fucking-teen? Jesus.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

My Superman

On paper, he was married to my aunt. In real life, he was everything. My uncle, my grandfather, my father and mentor. I don't know if I can call him a friend, because I was too in awe of him to ever consider myself on such a level.

My Uncle Ben died at sunrise on December 15th, at the age of 85. I had watched him fade away, ravaged by cancer, his features turn ashy and sunken. I fell asleep holding his hand, perched precariously between two uncomfortable chairs, my head balanced in the crook of my arm. I sat for hours, for days by his bedside, holding my own breath with each unnatural pause in his painfully slow, labored breathing, with nothing to say but everything.

Mostly I cried silently, because he had told me I wasn't allowed to weep for him. Four days before he died I started sobbing openly and apologized to him; by that time he was in a comatose state, eyes glassy and half-open. He squeezed my hand. Whether he was telling me it was OK, or to knock it the hell off, I'm not really sure. A little of both, probably. He had said repeatedly in the final few weeks, "just throw me in a trash bag and put me out". It was only half in jest. My Uncle Ben was the most humble man you could ever imagine. Given what he had done in life, his humility was just another amazing accomplishment.

If anyone in my home state of Delaware ever has to call 911, you can thank him for that. He set that up. If, after you call 911, the paramedics show up, you can thank him for that too. (At the viewing and his funeral, there was a paramedic color guard, and uniforms in white gloves manning the doors; it was too much for me) If your best friend is in a horrible car crash and rushed to the emergency room, you can thank my Uncle Ben for the care your friend receives. He created the ER as we know it today, a specialization all its own. You're welcome, George Clooney. He had vision and passion like no other. His passion was helping people. That sounds stupid and corny, but it really was. He believed in God, and that his God-given talents were on loan, so he sure as hell better use them wisely. He believed in people, and the goodness in people, and he did everything he could to help others realize their own potential for good. He built schools in third-world countries, drilled wells for those families to have fresh water. And he did all of this...because in college his cleats got stuck when some asshole base runner ran into him at home plate and blew out his knee. He would've been a catcher for the New York Yankees. So, Plan B? Doctor. And not just any doctor, a surgeon. Yeah, blows my mind, too. 

But his greatest accomplishment, if you ask me, was just being my uncle. He was Superman to me, and I didn't know about half the shit he did to save the world. He was such a monumental part of my life, and that's all I ever knew, all I ever cared about. He was always there, as far back as I can remember. He and my aunt were a cornerstone of my childhood. My grandfather on my mother's side died when I was 4 years old. I'm the only one of my 3 siblings who remembers him. On my father's side, we saw Grandfather once a year, at Christmas, when he gave us socks....

We spent our entire Christmas break every year with my aunt and uncle; belly-sliding down the stairs, playing Chopsticks on the baby grand, running from the monsters in the basement. 
I gave him manicures while my sister played dentist. We hid stealthily under the covers in my aunt & uncle's bed, shushing each other and giggling wildly, waiting to "surprise" Uncle Ben when he came back into the room. (We got him every time, by the way) Our ocean-front house at the beach every year, broadway trips and the corner suite at The Plaza Hotel, dinner at Le Cirque and cruises to the Caribbean; looking back I was so indescribably lucky to be showered with such love and attention, such incredible generosity from a man whose only tie to me was a piece of paper stamped by the county clerk. But I had no idea. I didn't know anything different. It was just the way things were. We were family, and I loved him so much. And I think that was what made him so spectacular. He truly loved me, regardless of what anyone's definition of "family" is. That was my reality. And I loved him, regardless of who he was to the rest of the world. Finding out 30 years later he was a real-life super hero, well, it doesn't surprise me in the least, because he was a hero to me already.

Every single event of my life, big and small, from my christening to my wedding, he was there. Both of them. They've always been there. And now they're both gone, and I have no idea how to mend this gaping hole in my life. The family was split in two after my aunt died, and one of his final acts on this good Earth was to bring us closer. The two separate branches that had thinned out and broken away over the years, made whole again during his final days. Laughter and lively conversation at a dining room table that had been unused for years. Surprises, revelations, hugs and tears, and even an "I love you".

I don't know what life without Uncle Ben looks like; I can't imagine it. I guess now I have to live it and find out; God help me I don't want to. But I know he'd be pissed if we stopped living our lives. I'm sure he'd make some wonderfully witty remark about us moping around, as was his specialty. Even in the final days when his mind was foggy, he was making us laugh. He always knew exactly what to say. I wish I had that gift. I don't know if I said everything that needed to be said, or if he even heard. I don't know if he knew how much I loved him, that he is a part of nearly every happy memory I have, or how the tapestry of my childhood was so vibrant in color because of him. I don't know if he knows I'm sorry. I let him down in a lot of ways; I disappointed him and angered him. I pray that he knows that I am so very sorry. Although I think he'd probably admonish me for that, "Katie, don't be ridiculous, there's nothing to be sorry for." But most of all, I hope he knows how important he was to me, the impact he had on me and my life. He helped shape who I am, and I am so very grateful to have been able to call him mine.

He was my Superman:

"In the end, the only satisfaction you will ever have is the knowledge that you accomplished what you set out to do. There will be no statues of me, my name won't be on any plaques or anything, but I'll be sitting back, sipping a vodka tonic, knowing that...I made a difference, the trip was worth it. There is nothing else in the end when it comes down to it but your own personal satisfaction. And if you can have that, that's what makes all this so much fun." - Ben Corballis, MD

We love you, Uncle Ben. Always.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The North End

A grand exit
in spectacular form.
Her most egregious flaws
so crassly on display
in the decadent lobby
of the Ritz hotel.

At the airport,
sick with shame.
Regret burns her cheeks
and stings her eyes,
but there are some things
that cannot be taken back.

Perhaps though, a fitting end
to such a passionate affair.
Burning out
so spectacularly
in the decadent lobby
of the Ritz hotel.