Monday, September 28, 2009

The illusion of control

Two recent situations helped me identify one of the vehicles I used to drive my life forward since Ron's death: the illusion of control.

What I was driving away from was the polar opposite of control. Suicide, like any other murder, is chaos. No matter how heavily foreshadowed: that full day standoff with a heavy police presence might have been a clue, right? No matter how many hours, waiting, waiting for word, fully realizing the only possible outcomes for Ron would be self-destruction or imprisonment. Still thinking: This. Can't. Be. Happening.

Then word came.

By then it had already occurred, that horrific moment in which all choice and all plans and all determination and all hope were ripped from my grasp. The violence was already over but its echo would live on.

The choices I made in response to Ron's actions were the control I had. Until recently I hadn't realized how reliant I'd become upon my need to make them.

But my choices were good enough, because as you may have read in the last post, we made it. Over the past twelve years, on this farm Ron and I lovingly renovated, on this farm where Ron killed himself, I raised my two sons to adulthood. I am now selling the farm and wrapping up this chapter of my life.

All that was fine and good until someone else grabbed the wheel.

Incident 1: The oil burner man
To ready the house for sale I made an early appointment to have our oil burner serviced for the heating season. When I heard the gravel popping out in the driveway I went out to meet the truck and let them know they should come in the office door. But the van had already turned around at the top of the driveway and come back to me.

"So you've been here before," I said. I didn't recognize the technician; in recent years someone else had been coming.

"Oh yeah, I've been here before," he said, looking around. Then he looked right at me. "Didn't you have a big suicide standoff here a while back? With all sorts of police cars showing up?"

His unexpected words hit me with the force of a shotgun blast. The twelve intervening years dissolved. I stammered as I searched for a response.

From the beginning I have been able to talk with some sense of detachment about the events of that day. But it was only in that moment I realized that I had initiated those conversations. Always. Luckily for me, few people, as much as they might be burning to know, actually walk up to you and say "So what's it like when your husband offs himself?"

His questions felt like an assault because the control was his, not mine. As I sputtered for response his reason for bringing it up became clearer: his brother, too, was involved with a suicide standoff around the same time. It, too, was covered in the local papers. Turns out he had serviced our heater for some 25 years; had even met Ron. He would soon retire, and we would soon leave the house. This was his last chance to connect, however clumsy the approach.

Incident 2: Marty leaves home
My younger son has not taken to campus life at Drexel. He has often returned home on weekends to see his friends here, and lives at home for the six months per year he is on co-op.

Now, with a move to Doylestown wavering on the horizon for us and a new co-op beginning for him, I don't know how much longer I can offer him a place to stay in this geographic area. I told him she should start exploring options. Then assumed he would deal with it when push came to shove.

Two weeks ago, while I was away at my writing retreat for women, Marty stayed at a friend's house while Dave handled a bunch of house showings. When I returned from the retreat, Marty was just returning home as well. He gave me a hug and I settled in for a nice catch-up chat. He began.

"Doug and Brad said I might as well just move in with them," he said. "So I guess I'll just grab some stuff and go."

And he left the room to pack. My first thought: Not yet!

I wasn't ready. Of course it was time for him to make this move. He's twenty. Plus I had told him to make it. But push hadn't yet come to shove. Meaning, of course, that I had not yet done the shoving.

As proud as I am of him for growing up to be the kind of responsible young man who would take this proactive step, I did not respond well to losing my illusion of control over the situation. After he left I curled up in a ball on the couch and cried for all of the illusions I had lost in this home.

"Surrender" is still a tough concept for me. But I'll keep working on it. Because for each unexpected twist life has been good enough to substitute something even greater than the thing I was hoping to cling to. Lost Ron, gained Dave. Marty freed me to pursue the next chapter of my life without undue worry over him. Even the oil burner man came bearing gifts: I could survive the intrusion of unbidden memory.

For Marty and the oil burner man: I wish for you the same grace as you face whatever twists occur in the next chapter of your lives.

About the photo: this is Dave's grandson Liam, born well after the mayhem in my side of the family. But that look! His innocence already fading: "I want to take the wheel, but will I get away with it?" All I can say is, it's a good thing we can't see too far down the road, or we'd never drive anywhere. Only innocence gives us the courage to begin anything. But it is surrender, ultimately, that helps us stay the course.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What he left behind

If you are returning to my blog after my summer hiatus, thank you for coming back! I couldn't seem to handle writing these posts while also clearing out our little farm to ready it for the real estate market. Some periods of my life require so much energy that I must defer the recording of them for later. Leaving this farm was one of them.

It's hard to believe: when Marty turned 20 this summer I completed my goal of raising my sons to adulthood here at this farm Ron had chosen. I am free to move on, to choose a home for the first time in my life, and Dave and I are free to finally make a home together. This place hasn't suited our lifestyle for some time. It's for riding horses and animal romping and playing outside. But our barn has stood empty and cobwebbed for more than 10 years. Of all the chickens and goats and ponies and horses and cats and dogs, the last of our many animals--my cockapoo Max--died almost three years ago, and most of my day is now spent in front of a computer or a manuscript. I am ready to leave.

That didn't mean the farm was ready for us to leave it, though. This summer Dave and I and several stalwart family helpers cleared its most neglected recesses of 12 tons of junk. Most of this came from six outbuildings, one of which is a cavernous Pennsylvania bank barn that can hold a sinful amount of crap. We hoisted and we carried and we swept and we blistered and at the end of each day we tore respirators black with dirt from our sweaty faces and we didn't stop until we'd filled a 12-yard dumpster. Then another. Then another. Then another.

Leaving this farm turned into an extreme sport and my actions tell the tale: I'm ready to start the next chapter of my life in a new setting. But it would seem I had one more character study to complete first. Because this summer, going through the detritus that had accumulated in the house and outbuildings, I think I got to know Ron a little better through what he left behind.

What Ron left behind
1. Scraps of wood. I finally got it, this summer. Ron loved to work with his hands as much as I love to write, and he felt about wood scraps the way I feel about books: you'd better keep a lot on hand just in case you'll ever need them again. We cleared out room after room piled high with scrap lumber, saving only a few piles of respectable looking oak planks to give away to friends. (I was almost as hard on my own collection: I gave away eight boxes of books to the library for its fundraising sale.)

2. Well organized bric-a-brac. Part of what fed Ron's sense of material wealth was amassing metal and wood shelving filled with hand-labeled boxes and jars holding everything from clips and U-bolts to old door hinges and plumbing supplies. I think he would have been happy owning a hardware store, because that's what several of our outbuildings look like. The man had inventory.

3. Receipts. Ron was not much of a writer so I was surprised to come upon a box chock full of notes he had stashed in one of the barn's storage rooms. The money fixation that eventually devoured him was foreshadowed in a painstaking accounting he'd kept of which bartenders made what tips on what dates, and how this was all divided. I'm sure the IRS would have loved to see those documents 20 years ago. Oops--they'll have to landfill dive to find them now.

4. Booze. I was long aware of Ron's practice of washing out glass orange juice containers and bringing home booze leftover from the weddings he worked. This was all part of the trademark frugality he'd use to justify the extravagances he couldn't afford. I had given away so much booze after his death I guess I just didn't realize how much was still out there. About three dozen half-gallon bottles. All labeled, of course: scotch, gin, vodka, Benedictine, even grossly separated and rank smelling Bailey's Irish Cream. No whiskey, since that's what he drank. Some of the tops were corroded right through. I didn't know if it would be good for our septic system to put it all down the sink, so for lack of a better idea, I poured them all onto the driveway stones on a hot day and let the liquid evaporate. I'm pretty sure that any bird that caught a whiff of it--perhaps even God--caught a buzz that day.

5. A legacy of love. While our house hasn't yet found its next perfect occupant, we have gotten wonderful feedback from the people who've come to see it. My favorite: "It was a joy to show this property. The owners must have loved their home." I take my share of the credit, as my hands transformed each of the house's surfaces. But Ron was the crew leader, the one with the know-how back in the days before online tutorials. We were a good team when it came to the renovation, and I hope he knows what a great job he did. This farm will offer someone new just as wonderful a place to house their horses and raise a family as it did me. If you'd like to take a look at the fruit of our labors, click here.

6. A dream. I truly feel the weight of this, now. When Ron died he left behind his dream of raising his family on the farm we'd renovated--he killed himself just ten months after the final room was complete, when the boys were just 8 and 10. Of course his dream didn't die with him. I was still here to live it.

7. A hell of a mess. From the early biohazard cleanup to the financial and emotional and psychic cleanup to the final wood scrap dumping, we have been cleaning up after Ron for 12 years.

8. Which leaves for last the most obvious answer as to what Ron left behind: Jackson, Marty, and me.

With a nod to my friend and energetic blogger Jon Gibbs, I'll end with a question: after you are gone, what will people learn about you from what you left behind? Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear your answers.