Monday, August 17, 2009

this wingless bird

Let me close my eyes and come back

with one less question, without this need to know
the real meaning of the fish who belongs

in water but insists on growing feet,
about the persistence inside this wingless bird

who longs to remember flying in her dreams.

From Tell Me About the Laughter of Angels by Amy Uyematsu

The full story:
Part one.
Part two.
Part three.
Part four.
Part five.

This is the casualty of remembering, bringing up the bitter as much as the sweet, swirling them together into a brown mass of tangled strings--- each one waiting to present itself as a singular thing, something to give back to the moment and say Yes, this is what you were. This is what you are. This is what you mean to me. The problem, of course, is that nothing can ever fully define the moment the way you experience it. Nothing good. Nothing bad. Nothing perfect. Nothing can fully encompass your body and soul in one single word, no matter how hard you try.

This is part six.

After picking up the various antibiotics and Benedryl's and Gatorade's at Walgreen's (Ding! Score another one for a random drug store stop!), we headed up into the mountains. Climbing higher and higher on Chip's already battered lungs, he drove silently sweating, hoping that the antibiotics would soon give him relief.

At 8,200 feet elevation, the YMCA of the Rockies is an impressive sight. It's a sprawling complex of
various buildings erected anywhere from 1940 to now. Think children's sleepaway camp from the movie Meatballs. And families. Families everywhere connecting and playing and talking and enjoying each other. The Rocky Mountains tower in the backdrop of every building, never letting a person forget that they are surrounded by majesty.

Driving into the complex, we didn't notice any of it. We were focusing on getting through the next minute, the next hour, getting ourselves on the other side of the trip.

Chip stayed in the car with Alice while I went inside to check us in. When I asked the student from Paraguay who was checking me in, what cell service was like this high in the mountains, she made a face and waved her hand from side to side, "It's good and bad--- not always the same." I wasn't hopeful.

I wasn't hopeful twenty minutes later when we were finally in our room --- Chip laying on the bed, arms over his head, barely uttering a single word, telling me that his head had never hurt so bad in his life, that he couldn't breathe, that he was honestly worried he was going to die (coming from Chip, these were not idle words).

For the next hour, I did my best to keep things normal, nearly shouting WE ARE THE WHIMSY FAMILY, WE WILL SURVIVE. I was doing a decent job of it until I found a box elder bug the size of a quarter crawling haphazardly through my suitcase. I screamed. Chip leaped off the bed, suddenly aware and focused and incredibly ready to defend his family from the (sure to be) rabid cougar that must be crouched in our doorway (considering the volume of my scream). I just pointed madly into the depths of my suitcase as the creature scaled some of my skirts and started to contemplate hanging out on top of Alice's pink dress. Chip jumped into the fray, caught the beast, and took it outside. When he walked back in the door he was a different man. The sudden flood of adrenalin must have done what nothing else could: it knocked his headache down to a nice tolerable dull roar.

I had my Chip back, and I was so happy.

We are thankful to that bug, that awful, brown, scaly, creepy-crawly bug. We are thankful for it. It changed the trip for us.

What also changed the trip: the family talent show that took place the next evening. We'd done our best to pull things together mentally and physically that first morning in the mountains, knowing I'd be meeting a lot of people, wanting above all else to put on a brave and happy face, hoping to not disappoint any expectations.

They were wonderful, the entire lot of them. From Phylis and Bill, calling us the night before to check in with us, see how we were doing, make sure Chip was okay. They were so warm, so generous, so kind--- as they'd been from the very beginning. They treated us like family with no questions or limitations to their concern. I started to feel warm for the first time in a few days.

By that night, I had really been honestly dreading the family talent show. I knew that Ana had pu
lled something together (she wrote a children's story about the farm, and wanted us to make animal noises), but me being the uber ridiculous control freak that I am, didn't understand what we needed to do exactly for our part of the story and I kept worrying that I'd look and feel stupid in front of so many people I didn't know.

As things started up, it was everything you can expect from a family talent show: the goofy singing, the skits, the corny jokes. When our turn came, I felt exactly as odd as I knew I would, standing there not saying anything, feeling pretentious and weird, knowing that I didn't fit in here any more than I fit into New York high society or Idaho potato farmers or Northwest salmon fishermen or a family of California winery owners. It was in the moments that followed after, watching another skit and thinking about how easy it was to float high above the crowd, knowing that I fit here only by the blood running in my veins that I started to think about the movie About a Boy. It's based on the Nick Hornby book by the same name - and if I was smart and pulled-together at this point, I'd go pull my copy of the book off the shelf and see if this scene is in both the book and the movie - and therefore I'd be able to cut the movie out of this reverie altogether and look SMART. But I'm not pulled-together and quite frankly, this is one of those rare movies that does a decent job of living up to the book, and if I'm being super honest, I'll tell you that it was the MOVIE that I thought about in this moment that is taking me entirely too long to recount. So the movie? About a Boy? With Hugh Grant? It's about this thirty-six-year-old Londoner, Will, who is selfish and self-centered and admittedly shallow and perfectly happy to stay that way. He meets a 12-year-old boy Marcus who forces him to change. Early on, Marcus has Will over to his house and is hoping that his hippie-hairy-sweater-wearing mother will marry Will, the only single guy he's come across. Will is certainly not interested in Marcus' mother. She is earnest and worried and way too sensitive where he is fly-by-night, concerned only about what other people think, and too plugged into what's cool to seek anything other than that. So Marcus and his mother, they're singing at the piano-- Killing Me Softly. Which Will narrates is killing HIM softly. Because as they really start to get into the song, the feel of it, they do the dreaded singing with their eyes closed, which is just too painfully committed for Will. He says that "you have to mean it to sing with your eyes closed." And sitting there in that multi-purpose room surrounded by a good three-quarters of the M family, they all meant to be there, they meant what they were singing about and how much fun they were having. In this respect, they were singing with their eyes closed and I was Will, standing there in the back of the room with my arms pulled around me, wishing I was anywhere else.

It's a commitment, being in a family. You share yourself, who you are, with these people. You sing the songs with your eyes closed. You wear the hairy sweater because it's something you like, not because you're trying to impress anyone or make a statement other than Hey, I like this sweater.

And here I was, doing my best to be ignorant and miserable, to stand above and beyond--- to limit my interaction because I was afraid of the commitment of closing my eyes and waiting to see who else would be singing along with me. Am I making sense? This idea that I had done
everything in my power to be miserable, to not trust my foothold, to not trust the people I was with and what their reactions to me would be.

I looked back on the days that had passed by and I could see beyond my own limited judgement
s and recognize the generous hospitality of Bill and Phylis and their family. I could see Phylis crawling on the living room floor to hide behind a chair in order to play peek-a-boo with Alice. I could remember Naleta telling us how much she was enjoying our visit. I could feel her hand on my arm as she offered us one of their brand new Labrador puppies. I could hear Bill's voice on the other line of my phone, asking if Chip was doing okay, worried that we were alone and offering us the option to meet up with everyone that evening. I could see only kindness--- no matter if it came from a hand I didn't know. Kindness just the same. Most of all and of course I could see Matt standing in front of his family just a few moments prior, before Ana started reading the story, telling everyone how proud and happy he was to have me there next to him, his sister. A sister they'd been searching for for such a long time.

As I thought about this business of singing with your eyes closed, I knew that I'd been blind precisely because I'd been doing everything I could to avoid shutting my eyes. I felt ashamed.

"And I don't know what difference it made, this sudden flash. It wasn't like I wanted to, you know, grab life in a passionate embrace and vow never to let it go until it let go of me. In a way, it makes things worse, not better. Once you stop pretending that everything's sh** and you can't wait to get out of it, which is the story I'd been telling myself for a while, then it gets more painful, not less. Telling yourself life is sh** is like an anesthetic, and when you stop taking the Advil, then you really can tell how much it hurts, and where, and it's not like that kind of pain does anyone a whole lot of good." -Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down

I wish I could tell you that I was different for the rest of the trip, that this epiphany changed how uncomfortable I was feeling, but I can't say that. I am slow to catch on to things when they have anything to do with how I'm behaving. You can ask Chip and he'll tell you that it takes me about 437 tries before I get it right, and by "right" I mean that I still mess up. A lot.

The rest of the trip was a blur, but I felt different. I felt changed in a way that I know is going to last into the next trip, and the next. I can't stop myself from being so fussy, it's part of my genetic make-up (and I know this to be true because I witnessed a BRILLIANT interaction between Matt and Buddy about getting to the airport to allow for enough check-in time, etc. And in this case, "Matt" was me, and "Buddy" was Chip and it was THE EXACT CONVERSATION THAT CHIP AND I HAD HAD JUST A WEEK EARLIER. I turned to Chip, "Thank you for loving me."

In the end it doesn't matter that we didn't have anything near consistent cellular service for three days, even when Chip stood on the hill behind our lodge, turning in circles to catch an errant beam of blessed technology. It doesn't matter that when we descended the mountain a few days later, I had half a dozen messages from people trying to reach me. In the end it doesn't matter that we were both suffering from the immense altitude, huffing and puffing five feet to stop as we gasped for air, watching ten-year-old boys outdistance us in lap after lap. In the end it doesn't matter that our bathroom smelled... off-putting, to say the least. In the end, it doesn't matter that the humidifier wouldn't work that first night because I didn't have any salt to add to the water, so I took forty-five minutes to stand hunched over a small bowl, pulling individual salt crystals off Alice's hard pretzels, hoping I'd harvest enough salt to do the trick (I did, and it worked, and the next day Chip borrowed a salt shaker from the cafeteria, looking every bit like the cat who caught the canary when he pulled the tan salt shaker out of his pants pockets that night).

Maybe in the end what matters is this: Matt standing in front of his family, with me and Chip and Alice by his side-- proof of the journey he and Buddy had made to find me. And me, standing in a room full of people who look like me, who can tell me stories of Connie and Buddy, who can tell me something about the blood in my veins.

When I started this journey, I told you that it was a story with no beginning and no end, a story that crossed through so many others that it was difficult, at times, to find the exact thread to foll
ow. In truth, I've wondered how many times I've dropped the string only to pick up the wrong one anyway, to follow it until it led me to a brick alleyway I was never intending to explore. The necessary and painstaking steps to follow it back out, to walk through causeways and over bridges that I never imagined, that I never wanted to see. Doing these things has brought me here, even now, to a place I don't quite understand.

But I guess that's how it is, that's how it will always be: we are all in the middle of our stories hoping to witness the beauty while avoiding the pain, and hoping, above all else, to find a way out.


M said...

Don't mind me. It's just Monday and I'm just homesick for my friend and her wisdom and insight and humanity and loveliness.

Will someone please hand me a tissue? Or a bag of M&Ms.

Also, I like Buddy's face. He has kind eyes. So do you.

serenity now said...

The family resemblance between you and Matt and even between Alice and Buddy is undeniable. Thanks again for letting us witness your journey.

Swistle said...

I am assuming that when I say this whole thing sounds DREADFUL you will know I include the WONDERFUL in that, but that I share your anxieties and your appealing quirks and so I empathize at a CELLULAR level.

artemisia said...

I am going to re-read this series. It deserves it. You deserve it.

Thank you.

Amy said...

Thank you. I agree with serenity now's words - the family resemblance especially between Alice and Buddy is so evident.

Anonymous said...


I don't know what to say other than that. This entire series has been so touching and moving and I feel honored that you've shared it with all of us.

stacie d said...

I agree. Thanks for sharing all the wonderful (and, ok, sometimes disturbing) stories! I'm so glad you got to feel the love from these amazing people!! However, they are even more fortuntate to get to know YOU! xo

Sibley Saga .... said...

These folks, I'm sure by now, have realized what a TREASURE they've discovered in you. This whole series just confirms in my mind that you have the wisdom and heart to allow ALL sorts of people in your life and love them. I mean, seriously. I'm just excited to be one of your friends.

Eleanor Q. said...

Man, I need a hanky.

I was so happy for you at the end of this post- that even though things didn't magically change after your "killing me softly" moment the fact you still felt more ready to open up more of yourself to your family was so pure and all that one could ask for. Then I saw the picture of Buddy and Alice sitting together and I got all teary thinking of how greatful everyone must feel to have found eachother even if the relationship is still new and shaky. Hugs all around.

Heidi W. said...

I know it is kind of a late comment but thank you for sharing your beautiful story. I loved reading every bit of it.

The Importance of being Allen said...

Love it Amy! So you and I love the pictures. I am glad that you got to meet them. Very interesting and yet we can't seem to really put our finger on things can we. Feels good but bitter sweet at the same time. I love you and am glad that you are my sister.