Break a bad habit.
Learn a new skill.
Do a good deed.
Visit a new place.
Read a difficult book.
Write something important.
Try a new food.
Do something for someone who can never pay you back.
Take an important risk.
These were my goals for 2014.
How did I do?
Well, I intermittently did better on some bad habits. Clearly I need to work harder here, or get some help. I do plan to read Gretchen Rubin’s new book on habits as soon as it’s available.
Topsail Beach was my new place. I fell in love. It was perfect in every way. I also went to San Diego, which was fabulous!
I have learned a new skill at work – well, maybe not a skill. I have learned a tremendous amount about the world of low-income housing. It is not a pretty world. It is gritty and heartbreaking and probably the most difficult thing I have encountered, career-wise. There just isn’t enough safe, decent, affordable housing available. Not in Charlotte, not anywhere. Learning ways to improve that is an ongoing struggle.
I tried to do good deeds. The one that stands out the most was paying for breakfast for an older veteran who was eating alone near our rather raucous family. I just took his check and we paid it, and I told him “thanks for your service, sir. Breakfast is on us.” I think it made me cry a little.
I read The Goldfinch. I read All the Light We Cannot See. I read If I Stay, and Where She Went. I read The Fault in Our Stars, Life After Life, The Signature of All Things. I am not sure if these are what the author of the original list meant by “difficult” but for me, some aspect of each of these books was difficult.
Write something important – yes I did that. I don’t want to say any more than that. But yes. I did that.
I tried sponge candy (no), I was able to eat shellfish again.
I don’t know if I did something for someone who can never pay me back. Does my work count? I got a dog, but he pays me back with love…and fur everywhere.
Take an important risk…yes, I did that too. No further comment.
So I guess I did ok. I think I will continue the tradition and keep these as my resolutions again!
Happy New Year, everyone!
Dreams, constant dreams
Dreams of places we used to live,
of carpet pulled up to reveal hardwood floors
of refrigerators reorganized with
drawers and no old condiments in sight.
Dreams that persist through the night,
Through the cold
through waking up and taking the dog out
Dreams that mean something
Something that I can’t quite articulate.
What am I missing?
What is the lesson I am meant to learn?
Where is the epiphany I am obviously chasing?
I awake tired from running, tired from wondering.
Tired from figuring it out.
Enchanted by flames,
even those reluctant to spread,
to make the jump from paper to wood.
I cannot walk away, cannot stop watching, trying.
clings to my skin,
scents my hair and my clothes,
invades my imagination for examination later.
Ash, too, settles on the flyaway
wisps of my hair.
At first glance it could be snow
but it is still, for the moment,
too warm for snow.
I dreamed that night of death,
I dreamed of peace
and quiet for friends; for old, dear friends
and I dreamed of, saw again, the smoke and spirits heading for the sky.
And now my pillows smell of smoke,
though the wood is wet and the
chiminea is put away,
and the dead in my dreams are alive and well
and the driveway is not on fire.
I want to eat peaches,
sweet, chilled peaches
stained red by the leaking juice
I want to eat BLTs by the ocean,
only no L but add some avocado
I want to drink lemon martinis
that sparkle in my mouth
and pucker my lips
and soften life’s harsh edges.
I want to dare the sea
to come to my chair,
to wet my towel,
to swallow my feet in its foamy embrace.
I want tank tops and flip flops
beach bags and the smell of Coppertone
and sandy children
laughing and squinting into the sun.
I want to listen to music
made by actual living, broken people…
drifting to me, my eyes closed
my heart open.
I want to read your true story
I want to hear your deepest darkest
I want to hold your hand
I want peaches, stained by berries, sweet and juicy in my mouth.
I try not to make New Year’s Resolutions because, you know, no one ever keeps those. So I found this list of “Things to Do” instead. I like the tone of it. See what you think:
Break a bad habit.
Learn a new skill.
Do a good deed.
Visit a new place.
Read a difficult book.
Write something important.
Try a new food.
Do something for someone who can never pay you back.
Take an important risk.
These things – they are doable, but they aren’t necessarily easy. And that’s the goal, right? Stretching beyond where you are and seeing where growth can happen.
I wish there were 12 so I could do one a month, because my brain likes that level of organization. But not all of these tasks should be done in exactly one month. So I am going to work on things until I am done and then move on to the next one (though it’s possible, because life, I may be doing some concurrently). First up:
Break a bad habit.
I uh, I may have more than one.
The two I want to work on are: Fresca and making my bed. My bad habits are drinking Fresca mindlessly and never, ever making my bed. So I instituted soda rules for me and the girls, and we are definitely going to get this under control.
1. Bottles of soda stay in the kitchen. You must come to the kitchen for a refill.
2. Drink an equivalent amount of water between each soda.
3. No soda at bedtime – take milk, water or tea to bed with you.
So far, one day in, not too many complaints, and my older daughter volunteered to be responsible for refilling the water pitcher. Excellent.
As for making my bed- I bought some new sheets and I am spending part of my day today sprucing up my room. Of course no room looks fully spruced until the bed is made. Then I will just make it as I get out of it and hopefully break my slovenly, frat boy-like habit of leaving my bed unmade for weeks on end.
Kaizen, the practice of taking small steps to change a bigger thing, really works for me, so I will be using it on many issues that need work. I’ll keep you posted.
I sat on the couch, curled up in a little ball, for hours. There was no way to fix this. Johnny would have to know the truth – my son had set wheels in motion that could not be stopped, and I would be the one to pay the price.
Finally I stretched out and slept, still in the clothes I wore home from the Y. Johnny came downstairs at his usual early hour and turned on the coffee maker. I sat up, blinked. My eyes settled on Johnny and I smiled a very small smile. Maybe he would let this go.
“What are you smiling at? Are you ready to talk?”
Apparently he was not going to let this go.
I closed my eyes, shook my head. I heard him open the refrigerator, get the cream out. “Jenn, you know, no matter what it is, you can tell me. I can’t imagine anything that would make me stop loving you. Are you in trouble with money? Drugs? Having an affair? I’m not saying I won’t be mad, but I am saying we can work through it. No matter what it is.”
I felt tears leak from my eyes, run down my face, drip onto my shirt. I tried to speak, but it came out as a whisper. “I’m sorry, Johnny, I just can’t.”
“I hope you can figure it out, Jenn. This is important.”
I nodded. I couldn’t speak.
As soon as Johnny left, I texted my boss and said I had a migraine and I wouldn’t be in. There was no way I could work today. I closed my eyes again and tried to imagine how this was going to go. I could not imagine any good ending. I wanted my mom, my dad, someone to make this better, someone to help me make him understand it wasn’t all my decision, it was what had to happen. I couldn’t risk another breakdown. i couldn’t go through a pregnancy worried that the hormones would throw my delicate balance off.
Wait! I thought. My dad!
I picked up the phone and tapped his picture. “Daddy.” I said when he answered.
“Oh, God, Jennifer, no.”
He thought I was pregnant. That actually could be the only thing that was worse than this.
“No, Dad. I’m not pregnant. But there is a kind of, well, situation. I need your help.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
I sighed. “It’s…can you just come over?” I asked him, whining a little. It seemed so complicated to go into over the phone. And I needed him to be there with me, physically present. I needed to see his face when I told him so I could figure out how bad this really was. I needed him to tell me it was going to be ok anyway.
“I’m on my way. I’ll see you in 20 minutes. Put on the coffee, dear. This is going to be a long day I think.”
“Thanks Dad.” I got up and started a new pot of coffee, did a little straightening up around the house. I brushed my teeth and hair and folded my blanket.
Hmmm, I didn’t remember getting out a blanket. Had Johnny gotten it for me, covered me up, even though he was so mad he could barely speak to me?
I shook my head. We had to figure this out, dad and I, and make Johnny calm down. This just had to be ok, one way or another.
My dad didn’t even ring the doorbell, he just used his emergency key to let himself in. “Jenn? Jennifer?” he called. I met him as he headed into the kitchen and hugged him, burying my face in his chest. I was a grown woman with a job and a mortgage and a husband and sometimes I still just needed my dad.
“What’s wrong? Come on, pour us a cup, sit down, and tell me what the hell has you in such a state.”
I pulled myself together and did as he asked. I took a deep breath and dove in.
“Someone has been writing me letters for the last 2 years. Once a month, the letter shows up. The return address is Lakewood Drive. The handwriting is definitely male.”
I stopped, waiting for his outrage. None came.
“And, yesterday I was at the gym late and Johnny came home and got the mail before I did. One of the letters was in there. He took it up to our room, put it on my nightstand, and noticed that the drawer wouldn’t shut. He pulled it open and found all the letters – and he freaked out.”
Dad was starting to look concerned.
“He was really drunk and mad by the time I made it home. He said I have 24 hours to tell him what it’s all about, or we will open the letters one by one and read them together. I’m pretty sure they are from…him…my son. And Dad, if they are from him from my – my son, Johnny will know that I lied to him. That we all lied to him.That I AM able to have children, I just refused to…”
Dad stood up and started pacing. This was a very bad sign indeed.
The last time he had paced like this was when I told him I was pregnant.
“Where are the letters now?”
I shook my head. “Johnny has them. He was afraid I would burn them.”
“How do you know that they are from…him?”
I shrugged. “I just assume they are. I mean – the timing is right. He’s in his 20’s now, there is no reason for him not to look for me. And what else could they be? I have no other secrets. There is no other reason for someone to write me letters.”
“Still, maybe it’s something else.”
I was doubtful. And I wanted to just come clean and let the chips fall where they may. As horrible as it was to imagine what my evening would be like, at least this would be over. I just wanted it to be over in a way that I could live with. I wanted Johnny to know the truth and still love me, still want me, still be married to me. I wanted him to understand that I loved him, but that I absolutely could not get pregnant and risk my life for him.
“Dad, what exactly did you tell Johnny before we got married?”
He thought for a minute. “I told him that you had a medical condition that prevented you from having children, and that if he wanted to marry you he needed to be aware that children were not possible.”
“OK, well, that is what I told him, almost word for word. And what’s wrong with me is, in fact, a medical condition.”
“Yes, but you did also have a child that he knows nothing about. A child who is now grown and apparently wants to find you for some reason.”
I chewed my thumbnail, trying to find a way to tell the story without losing my husband. “Dad, could you…”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’ll back you up, I will corroborate anything you want to tell him, but you have to do this on your own.
Of course I did. It wasn’t really fair of me to even ask.
“So, Jenn, what are you going to say? Let’s practice.”
I thought for a few minutes. I paced. I studied my nails, the floor. Eventually I took a deep breath. “Johnny, I told you the truth when I told you, and my parents told you, that I have a medical condition that prevents me from having children. You see, when I am pregnant, my body reacts very badly to the hormones and causes me to go into a deep depression with suicidal ideation, and in fact, a history of a suicide attempt.” I held out my wrists, the scars pale and silvery, almost invisible. Almost, but not quite. If we were in the kitchen, where the light was bright and focused, he would see them. “You see Johnny, we know this because before I met you, I had a baby. I got pregnant and I had the baby when I was 17 and I gave him away. And in the midst of my pregnancy, I attempted to kill myself by slitting my wrists. My father found me and saved me and I promised him that I would never have another baby, that I would never put him through that again – the worry that he would find me, bleeding, again.”
My dad was crying, remembering.
I could only hope that Johnny would cry in his imagining.
“So the letters are from, well, I think they are from, the son that I gave up. I don’t know why he would be writing to me, or how he could have possibly found me. But that’s who I think they are from, and that’s why I couldn’t open them, and that’s why I couldn’t burn them. They are all I have of him, and I don’t want them but I can’t part with them, and I’m sorry.” By now, I was crying too. I was crying for all I had lost, all I had done, all I had lied about and protected us from. I put my head down on the table and for the first time since I found out I was having a baby, I cried for that baby. I cried for the hurt and the loss and the wonderful, terrible beauty of the whole damn horrible thing.
My dad consoled me, his hand rubbing my back. “I’m sorry, Jenn. I am sorry I made you promise me, I’m sorry I made you do it. I should have saved you with no conditions. I should have just…”
I hugged him, my old, grizzled father. “None of this was your fault, dad. We were all doing the best that we could.”
He nodded, and backed away, and wiped his eyes and blew his nose. I went into the powder room and washed my face. When I came back out, he was holding my phone. “Call Johnny. Tell him to come home and get this over with. If I need to move you out of here today, I want to do it before it gets dark.”
My dad, ever practical. He hugged me one last time and told me to let him know what I needed. I nodded, and watched him leave. And I texted my husband.
“I am ready to talk. Can you come home?”
No reply for a few minutes.
Then, finally, “Yes.”
I stood in front of the locker room mirror at the YMCA and checked out my ass. It wasn’t sagging; it looked great. My relentless routine, my relentless fight against gravity was working. Spin class, running, weights, yoga and swimming had my ass as perky and round as it had been when I first met Johnny 23 years ago as a college freshman. My tummy was flat, my boobs were doing as well as could be expected – big boobs always had a little sag – and I was generally happy with what I saw. I peeled my sweaty clothes off and I headed to the shower.
The warm water relaxed my muscles, made tight by work stress and working out. It was late, almost closing time for the Y, and I knew I needed to hurry. Unlike most people, I preferred working out after work. It was a tangible barrier between work and home, and an excuse to skip dinner and late night snacking and burn some calories at the same time.
Johnny worked late most nights anyway, so we usually got home around the same time. It was important to me that he not know how hard I worked to maintain my figure. I really preferred for him to think I just went for a quick walk most days. I thought he would object, for some reason, to my punishing fitness routine.
I put my clean yoga pants and t-shirt on and headed home. I was a little surprised to see Johnny’s car in the driveway, but it wasn’t totally abnormal. It’s possible I could have worked out a little longer than usual, or maybe the time I spent admiring myself in the mirror had caught up with me. I walked inside, a smile on my face, hoping Johnny was in a decent mood. It was hard to tell – he worked so much and sometimes he got so stressed. I relieved my stress at the gym, but he usually ate and drank his stress. It was not ideal, but I tried to work with it as much as I could.
Johnny’s back was to me as he poured himself a scotch. I stifled the sigh that almost escaped and instead greeted him as though nothing was bothering me. “Hey, honey. How was your day?”
He turned to look at me, his eyes red and stormy. “You’re late, and there’s no dinner.”
“I’m sorry, I must have walked a little longer than usual. And you usually just eat dinner at the office so I was going to make a quick sandwich or something.”
“There’s something I want to show you.” He led me to the family room and there, on the coffee table, was the stack of unopened letters. All addressed in the same hesitant hand. One a month for the last two years. 24 letters, all addressed to me. All unopened. All with a return address of Lakewood Drive.
“Care to explain?” Johnny asked.
I fell to the couch, my hand over my mouth. “How did you find these?”
“This one came today.” He held up the letter with yesterday’s postmark. I took it up to your nightstand, and I noticed the drawer wasn’t closed all the way. I tried to close it, but it was stuck. I pulled it out to fix it and I found the rest.”
He bent down, his face right in front of mine, many hours of scotch on his breath. “Again, Jenn, care to explain?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. There was no explanation.
“I can wait all night, Jenn. You’re my wife and I want to know who the fuck is writing you a letter every month. A letter that you won’t open, but you keep. A letter addressed to you, mailed from across town. Every month for the last two years.”
“This has nothing to do with you, Johnny. I’m begging you to put those letters back where you found them and pretend this never happened. Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to know what this is about.”
He took a deep breath and put his drink down. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, the anger between us was practically palpable. “I want to know and I want to know now.”
The endorphins from my work out wore off instantly, but my fight or flight hormones were raging. I wanted to run, but I knew I couldn’t. Not yet. “Johnny, back off. This is not about you. We can discuss it later when you’re not…when you’re feeling better. But we are not doing this now.”
He stood up, stepped back. “I don’t like this, Jenn. I am not happy about this. You have twenty four hours to tell me what this is about or I start opening and reading the letters. This is my house and I will not have secrets in my house.”
He picked up the stack of unopened letters and banded them together. “I’ll keep these with me, in case you thought you’d burn them by tomorrow. You will tell me what this is about, or I’ll find out, because either you’re going to come clean or we’re going to open these letters, one by one, and read them together. So figure out what you’re going to say, because you have one day to say it.”
And with that, he took the letters and he stomped upstairs.
I pulled my knees under my chin and hugged them to me. I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted him to find out. I should have burned the letters when they arrived. Or sent them back. Or something. Even though I didn’t want them, didn’t want to deal with them, didn’t want to read them, I had to keep them. Unwanted as they were, unwanted as he had been, his letters were all I had of him.
Which would be worse, to tell Johnny the letters were from an old boyfriend who couldn’t let go, or to tell him the truth? If I lied I to my husband, made up some believable story about the letters and then he read the letters anyway, he would find out that I was lying, and it would be devastating. I sighed, It didn’t matter what I said now, he would find out the truth. Wheels were in motion and I would have to eventually tell the truth and let him know that I had been lying to him since we met. I couldn’t imagine that he would stay. I may as well spend my 24 hours packing my things and finding a new place to live because this lie was too big to get over. It was too much to expect that he would be ok with it, that he would even be willing to try to work through it.
Because, you see, the letters were from my son.
The son I had borne at 17. The son I had been encouraged by my parents to abort, and when I wouldn’t, to give away. The son I had been carrying when I had a breakdown and tried to kill myself. The son who had survived anyway, and had thrived, and was now in his 20s and had found me and was living on Lakewood Drive and wanted, I’m sure, to meet me.
The son I had never told Johnny I had had.
I told Johnny when we met that I had been born with a medical condition that prevented me from having children. I told him that if he wanted to be with me, we would not be having children because I couldn’t. Now he would know it was because I wouldn’t. He would know that I had carried and borne a child, with someone else. I had given another man this gift that he hadn’t wanted, and had then withheld that same gift from my husband, who wanted it desperately, even to this day.
So you see why I could never tell him my secret. It was too much, too deep, too devastating. I had never told anyone – not Cindy, not Lauren, and not even Lissa, my very closest friend, about this child. My parents knew, because they had to know. They guided my hand as I signed the papers giving up my parental rights, they accepted the pay off from the father’s family and put it in my college fund, they agreed to never speak of it again. My father found me when I had cut my wrists but before I bled out. My father found a plastic surgeon to keep the scarring to a minimum. His fee was huge, unimaginable. When I was in the psych ward, and the call came that the surgeon would take a look at my wrists, my father took me by the shoulders, and looked me in the eye, and said “Jennifer, if I do this for you, you have to promise me that you will never have another child. You are not meant to be a mother. Your body and your chemistry is all wrong for this, and you have to swear to me that you will never, ever do this to yourself or me or your mother again.” And I nodded, and he saved me, and he made sure no one would be able to look at me and tell what I had done, and we never spoke of it again.
When I met Johnny in college, and I brought him home to meet my parents, and then brought him home a few more times and they figured out it was serious, my father took him out to play golf and had a talk with him. I had already told him, when we started sleeping together, that I couldn’t have children. And when he started talking about marriage and forever and ever I reminded him that I was damaged, that I couldn’t have children, that I would never make him a father. And when my dad took him out for a golf game, he said the same thing, and encouraged Johnny to think really hard about whether or not I was worth sacrificing the chance to be a father. And my mom talked to him the next morning over coffee, before I got up, and Johnny told them both that it didn’t matter, that he loved me, that children weren’t a deal breaker, And he kept saying it, to them and to me, until we all believed him, and they acquiesced and allowed us to get married.
As he walked me down the aisle, my father was perfect. And when he leaned over to life my veil and kiss me on the cheek, his finger grazed my wrist, a secret reminder.
No children. Just tell him you can’t.
Just keep telling him you can’t. And just don’t.