Just do one thing. Just do one thing. Just one.
Like, for instance, breathe.
Everything is not okay. That’s okay. Just breathe. Stop trying so hard and just breathe.
Grandma is dying.
My book is taking too long.
My kids are neglected.
Clients are waiting.
New projects are waiting.
Bills are waiting.
Other things too, big scary things I won’t name out loud.
Last night, three chickens died because I did not remember to close their pen.
Everett comes into the room and wants to know what FMG stands for. I have to look it up. Why that? Just breathe.
“The best way to avoid responsibilities is to say ‘I have responsibilities.’”*
Things are changing. They’re changing fast and it’s like riding a big scary beast that I can’t even see or hold on to. Terrible and thrilling and in between the rushes are these cavernous depths of exhaustion and sadness where I wallow before catching the next upswell.
Grandma is dying.
I’m afraid of flying.
God says don’t fear.
Get me out of here
No no no no no Y’all
One moment is All.
Stay here and breathe
Stay here and breathe.
I am a point of light, one tiny point of light. You are too. This little tiny prick, one dimension. Every moment before and after is outside my grasp. We are ants on a two-dimensional pipe, except the pipe’s got a third dimension wrapped around the second and we move back and forth and can’t even see that we live in three dimensions let alone four and more.
Friday night in Charleston we stay up late with folks we meet in the hotel bar. “Kelly and Heather,” says our new friend, his dark face shining with glee, “Those are two of the whitest names I have EVER heard,” and we collapse into each other with laughter because yes, they are. Funny the things you don’t notice when you’ve lived with it all your life.
We play an improv game:
“I like my men like I like my coffee: Dark and spicy.”
“I like my women like I like my coffee: Sweet and chocolaty.”
“Yeah? I like my men like I like my coffee: Hot and in my mouth.” High fives all around, peals of laughter.
When we get back to the hotel room I check my email one last time: There’s a note from my mom. Grandma’s in bad shape. Mom thinks she’ll die tonight.
I cry for two hours. Why am I here? Why did I make her say goodbye to me again? I could have stayed and she would never have had to say goodbye to me, I would have been there to the end.
Instead I’m here, so selfish. So, so selfish. When I left her house two days ago, she said, “Noooo,” in that moaning voice she has sometimes now, the otherworldly voice that hurts my gut. She cried. Then, in her playful fake British accent: “I’m sad sad sad,” letting me know she’s sad, and also: It’s okay. You can go. I got this.
I shouldn’t have made her do that. I should have let her hold me there. Tomorrow could be a big day for me, it could be the day I make the connections that send my author career into flight. It could be a big fun day. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it doesn’t make sense. I can’t make sense of it. I shouldn’t be here. I should be there, in California, holding Grandma’s hand.
I cry and cry, lying on the hotel bed still in my clothes, wringing myself until I’m dry.
Kelly listens. I wanted to be there for the end, I tell her. I never wanted to make Grandma sad again. I want to bring my kids to her again, so she can see them one last time. It’s too late and it makes no sense.
That night, I dream. I’m in a room with Grandma. She’s in the bed, lying on her side, and I can’t tell if she’s breathing. I’m scared she’s not breathing, but Grandpa is missing, and I have to find him. He should be here, with Grandma. Where is he?
I go looking for him, and I’m frantic. Out of my mind with worry. Where is he? And why isn’t Grandma breathing? Where is everyone?
I find my dad, and he’s totally calm. Cool as a cucumber. I try to tell him, but he has things to tell me. Unimportant things. But he keeps talking over me and I can’t get him to understand how bad things are. He just keeps talking. And then I see Grandma: She’s walking down the hall toward me. Frail, but no wheelchair, not even a walker. She hasn’t walked on her own in years.
I’m flooded with relief, and turn back to my dad. He says, “Your grandfather is in physical therapy. Scheduled therapy.” And the way he says it, I realize I’ve been foolish to be worried. He was in good hands all along. I didn’t have to worry about either of them. I’m not responsible for them. And they’re okay. Everyone’s okay.
Then I wake up. I tell Kelly my dream. I’m not responsible for them. They’re okay. No new emails from Mom.
Time for a good time. I’m going to have a good time. I’m careful to turn my phone to airplane mode, though. There are certain calls I don’t want to receive in the middle of my coffee meeting.
This is a BFD meeting, possibly one of the biggest of my life so far. Big F Deal. This is the morning where I’m meeting a well-known author I have admired for a long time, and who has offered to help me with my book.
On the way to the coffee shop, I breathe hard and sweat. I practice my power poses: Hands behind head, fake confidence. I worry about the frayed snags on the front of my shirt, formerly completely unnoticeable but currently magnified to epic proportions in my mind’s eye. My jacket is stretched too tight across my front, shows the weight I’ve gained. Do my pants look stupid stuffed into my tall black boots?
You’ll be awesome, you’ll be awesome, says Kelly. All I want is to be somewhere else. Well then, nothing to lose, right? Just be here.
And then I am. And it’s amazing.
He’s brought a friend: Another well-known author whose book happens to be in my purse. A two-fer. We talk books. They workshop my query. We laugh. We tease each other. We argue. We laugh again. They tell me things, helpful things, and I tell them things: It’s okay, be brutal with me, I can take it. So they are and it’s good.
Then they look at my first page, the first page of my book. It’s hard to believe, but when they read it, they light up, both of them. Surprise, enjoyment. Genuine pleasure. They say nice things about it. Things I wish I could record so I won’t forget, but I’ve already forgotten. Something about the voice. The idea’s originality, maybe. Bottom line, they like it. I can tell in their faces, their voices–not just the words–it’s in the way they say it. They genuinely like it. I try to memorize the timbre of their voices, so I’ll believe it later when I’m convinced it sucks.
At one point, they debate how long the first Harry Potter book was, and I say, “79,000 words.” He looks at me: “I’m impressed you’re nerdy enough that you know that.” I grin. It’s almost like I’m in the club, the one I always wanted to be in: The authors, the famous ones, the nerdy folks who talk about books and stories and then write actual books that actual people read. I’m not quite there, but so close to the curtain that separates us, I can taste what’s it’s like on the other side. I’m hungry for it.
I wonder if it’ll be everything I want, or if it’s smoke and mirrors, a real-life Brakebills: Cool and all, but really just another level of ordinary, only as good as the people in it make it. Doesn’t matter. I want to be there so bad it hurts, the way a powerful crush hurts when you’re not sure but you think maybe your crush likes you back.
Later, an email from that author: My enthusiasm for your book is very real, he says.
I’m sitting in a bookstore, working on my book. It’s too much. I didn’t dream it then. I cry.
It’s too much crying.
Grandma is still dying. What is life anyway?
For two days since, I’ve been wrung dry. Lying here in bed messed up and dry. I want to work. I’ve got emails from clients wondering if I’m in town, if everything’s okay. I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s too much. No, everything is not okay.
Everything is changing. Grandma is dying (“Nobody lasts forever, oh, not even that good little dog, oh”) and I’m afraid of flying (sweaty palms racing heart terror please not again OH) God says fear not (be brave be brave, love and be brave that’s all, yeah) I will fear not, yes yes yes yes I will (life is your playground so play on it,** now), moment by moment by moment by moment
Yes. Breathe. One thing at a time. I’m breathing. Everything is okay.
(Please forgive me if I’m flakier than usual recently. Be kind. I’m riding a whale. I’ll come to shore when I figure out how, and when I do…)
P.S. Grandma is still hanging in there, still touch and go. The hospice nurse thinks she will be with us only a few more days. Mom & Dad are on their way out there again. I will go back too, soon. I don’t know when exactly. It’s a big whale and I’m not sure where to grasp it.
*Quote from Richard Bach, in his book Illusions
**Quote from Keli Semelsberger, in improv class