In 2014, while packing up my home of 15-years, I found myself going through the contents of my old, dingy gray, full-sized, garage freezer. To my shock and horror, I found 5 or 6 stiff, heavy packages of "meat" (and one large Tupperware container whose contents defied identification). Brushing the top frost-layer off one of the butcher-paper packages with a frozen, index finger, I could see that the "sell by" date (which was re-written in black Sharpie in my own careless handwriting) was several years old.
I wrote these dates? Why did I keep these?
Disgusted, I threw each package one-by-one into the open mouth of the flaccid, black garbage bag that lay on the floor next me. I was just about to toss in the tupperware container too when I was struck by a realization.
This is just like my other deep freezer.
Once, while trying to describe "how I am" to a friend, I told her "Its like I've got this deep-freezer filled with all of the unsettling and unsavory experiences I'm not ready to look at or feel. When something is too tender, too volatile or just too shameful, I simply shove it way in the back, carefully wrapped in emotion-proof cellophane."
And just like I forgot about all of this old meat in our garage freezer, I actually forget about the stuff in my internal "deep freeze" until long after its "use by" period has come and gone.
I slid down to the floor of the garage next to the garbage bag and folded my bare arms over my knees, clasping my left hand over the opposite forearm so I could rest my head. The tupperware container in my right hand was getting too cold and heavy so I dropped it on to the cool, gray, cement floor. The loud thud startled Venus and Serena, who were resting on the floor near my feet. Venus jumped up and walked over to me with an inquisitive look.
"Sorry babies," I whispered.
I rubbed the top of Venus's downy-soft head as I zoned-out on the May 2011 date written on the Tupperware.
As far as I know, the first item went into my "deep freezer" when I just two-year's old. My parent's, both University of Chicago students, decided to get divorced. I'm told that my father drove my then-22-year old mother and I to the airport, where she and I were to leave for Copenhagen, Denmark via Montreal. (Why there? That's what the two of them came up with -- you'll have to ask them.)
My Mom says we made it as far as Montreal and then we had to turn back. For the entire flight, the plane's cabin was filled with the sounds of my crying, choking, screaming and wailing. My face was slicked with tears and snot as I was gripped and re-gripped my mother's clothes with my small fingers. The sound of me trying to catch my breath between wails, drew looks of both concern and annoyance from the other passengers and the stewardesses.
"I want Daddy...!"
By the time we landed, my Mom was crying too. She tearily explained to the stewardesses that we had to deplane and go back to Chicago.
"I'm so sorry. I have to take her back to her father."
They brought us down to the tarmac while a baggage handler pulled all of the plane's luggage out piece by piece so that we could retrieve ours. She says she could feel the hatred of the other passengers radiating down on us from the windows of the plane. I cried all the way to the bed and breakfast where the airline paid for our over night stay, and I wouldn't even consider being comforted until we were on a flight back to O'Hare the next morning.
My parent's waited until I was four and half before trying it again. The summer I turned five, my mom and I settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts (not Denmark). I'm told I that, post "traumatic plane incident" -- I seemed to be a happy child who transitioned fairly easily from my mother's household to my dad's (when I flew to Florida from Cambridge to see him at least twice a year). I can only figure that all of the feelings of abandonment, which caused me to breakdown that time on the plane, were subsequently sent to my deep freezer so that I could participate in my life in a way that looked more like everyone else.
From that point on, any tricky or sticky emotions were pretty much immediately jettisoned to my "deep freeze". There's no cognitive process here. It just happens. For years, I was actually quite proud of this anomaly. I looked smugly upon those of you who seemed to be deeply troubled or affected by loss or the possibility of loss. Now, don't get me wrong, there were times when I had all of the "normal" feelings of desperation, gloom and doom when my romantic relationships were threatened or ending. I also wept off an on all through my divorce and I was plagued by bi-weekly crying jags during my first year of recovery. But when it comes to situations where most people would lean on each other for support in their time of grief, I find myself oddly alone and deeply unaffected by the common feelings of loss. But it never really bothered me much. And the truth is I might never have looked at my seemingly innate detachment as anything but a character attribute if it weren't for the fact that a little over eight-years ago I began a program of recovery that encourages you to uncover, discover and discard your past resentments and disappointments. And then there's this - I rarely cry. A fact which, up until now, like I said, I've always seen as an attribute. But when I say I rarely cry, I mean almost never. Not even when it's really appropriate. Not even when it's really sad. Not even when really I want to. And the truth is that some really sad stuff happened lately in my life. And I'm finally at the point where I'd actually like access to these elusive tears, and the accompanying emotions.
Three-year's ago, I consulted with a trusted friend at lunch about my "condition." I was explaining to her how cool and removed I felt at a funeral for a woman I knew. A funeral where it seemed that all the other people were sobbing in each other's arms.
"It's not like I didn't feel anything," I said as I scooped sea-salt onto my avocado toast. "I did feel sad for the family, you know? I felt real tears welling up in my eyes when her children spoke from the podium. And I was sad -- for them , her kids. I felt compassion for their loss. But I didn't at all feel connected to her death as my own loss. Let's put it this way, no one's ever had to say, 'It will be okay' to me at a funeral. I'm always the comforter, I'm never the one that needs comforting."
My friend stopped chewing and looked into my eyes for an uncomfortable length of time.
"Awww, Sweetie," she cooed as she reached out and grabbed my hand. "Nothing is wrong with where you are. Recovery is always a thaw. The more you evolve in recovery, the more these things will melt away."
But the year went on and I didn't feel any closer to "the thaw". When we met another time for her birthday the following April, I complained again that nothing had changed since we last met.
"I've been trying," I said, avoiding her probing gaze. "But I still feel so disconnected from loss."
I felt a rush of frustration cloud my vision for a moment.
"I am tired of being unplugged from my own circuitry."
"Laura..." she interrupted me.
I used my index finger the wipe the lower lash-rim of my right eye. It glistened as I held it in front of my face .
"Okay, so why do I have tears in my eyes now?" I laughed. "I'm sad about not being able to be sad?"
She laughed with me. "Could be the thaw...!" she singsonged. "Somethings going on there," she said using her finger to circle the air around my face. "And there," she said pointing to my heart. "My guess is that, yeah, something's melting."
Early of the morning on July 8th of this year, Scottie's mom Nancy drew her last breath. He and I had started traveling the day before, taking three planes, renting a car and then driving for over two-hours before arriving at her home in Richmond, Virginia at 3:00am. After welcoming us at the door, Nancy's dear friend Gail, told us that she had passed away about an hour and a half before we got there. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Scottie and I walked slowly into the bedroom of her apartment where Nancy lay in repose. She looked like she was sleeping. I sat on a chair in the corner and put my head in my hands, while I watched Scottie reckon with the fact that we had missed her. We had both wanted so badly to get there in time. We wanted the comfort of knowing that she knew that she was surrounded by love as she transitioned out of this world.
Am I going to wake up and we'll still be on the plane? Is this a nightmare?
Scottie's tears came easily after the shock of what was actually happening wore off. I held him and then I left him alone with her for a bit while we waited for the mortuary. We stayed in her place long after they left, just wandering around and looking at each other. Finally, as we sat in her bedroom, still unable to really process what had happened, I felt the old, familiar detachment settling in. That in itself almost made me cry.
We didn't make it in time to say goodbye. Scottie's heartbroken!! What am I not crying?
Scottie and I checked in to a hotel in downtown Richmond as the sun was starting to rise. We cuddled up together under thin, hotel blankets and slept for a two or three hours before getting up and going to the mortuary to make the "arrangements". On the ride there, I felt like my dry, throbbing eyes were mocking me. I faced the window as we drove and felt anger building inside me toward my "lack."
I loved Nancy too. How come I'm not crying yet?
I went through the rest of the funeral preparation-period vacillating between being helpful and being in self-pity. No tears at the as we spoke with the mortician. No tears when Lily and Nora arrived from Vermont for the funeral. No tears when I watched Scottie practice the eulogy he'd written the night before in the mirror of the small hotel suite.
I gave up on myself. I gave up on waiting for the ice to melt. I sat through the services and watched Scottie and Lily deliver their eulogies. I hugged them and held their hands and tried to offer myself as a place of refuge from the sorrow. After the services, the family limo ride to the gravesite was filled with social chatter. I relaxed a little and thought that the teary part might be finally over.
Maybe I'm off the hook now. I can just be how ever I feel.
Scottie and the pallbearers walked Nancy's casket over the gravesite. The sun was blazing through the high, moist clouds over head. Sweat glistened on the foreheads of every mourner who wasn't fortunate enough to sit in one of the 6 chairs under the awning next to the grave. I took my place on a "family" chair between Lily and Nora. Scottie sat next to Lily. He peeked over Lily and stared at me. I returned his gaze held it.
"Are you ok?" I mouthed.
He nodded and smiled. "Are you okay?"
I half-smiled at the irony of his question.
You never have to ask me that, Honey!
The young pastor opened his bible and began the short service. I glanced over at Nora who was looking down at her new shoes. For a second I listened to the pastor and tried to make my face look like the face of someone who was sitting at her boyfriend's mother's funeral.
"And from the Corinthians 15:58..."
I drifted away and looked at Nancy's casket, admiring the pretty, mauve color of the shiny wood.
"Mom picked it out herself," I remembered Scottie saying at the mortuary. "She wouldn't buy it until she had seen the exterior and interior," he smiled. "She was 'Nancy' until the very end..."
The tears startled me as they came. My whole body seemed to rock back and forth with their ferocity. I heard myself draw in a loud, hoarse breath and then exhale with a jagged sigh that filled the air around me with the sound of weeping.
Am I making that sound?
Scottie looked back over at me with a look of -- was that disbelief? Or was it just relief? I couldn't name it. Nancy's best friend, Beverly, stepped up behind me and put her hands on my shoulders, patting me like one would burp a baby.
"Now, now," she whispered. "It'll be okay, I know it's hard. She loved you too."
Tears gushed down my face into the neckline of my dress. I sat there with my hands folded in my lap, unable to make eye contact with anyone.
I'll miss you, Nancy
Some clean tissues were pressed into my hand and I immediately used them to wipe my eyes, nose and neck.
As my chest continued to convulse with the sobs, I had an out-of-body experience. I could almost see myself from above, sitting there under the awning, crying uncontrollably while everyone else stared silently ahead.
Finally, I felt myself pulling out of it. My chest filled with one, long, sweet, breath after another. I peeked back over at Nora who was gazing up at me with an odd look.
I put my hand on her leg, blinking my eyes to flush out the salt-sting. A rush of warmth flooded my body and left me with this quiet sense of calm.
The fist that held the tissues slowly unclenched. My ears started to key-in on the conversations of the people around me.
"I'm okay," I leaned over and whispered to Nora, even though she hadn't asked.