Holden

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Between Him and Me

        They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. They told me he was covered, and peaceful. They told me he spoke of love that night, that he laughed. They told me he made plans for tomorrow before he closed his eyes.

        Next morning, in the warm heart of summer, my son’s body lay cool and slack, the scaffolding that held up his being for twenty-one years, now absent. When his soul flew, the tent poles collapsed. Only a quiet skin inscribed with markings remained.

>>>>>

        Confusion isn’t new, Holden wakes up in weird places all the time. He is an accomplished couch surfer because he isn’t picky. The first question he asks himself most Saturday mornings is, where am I? The second, who is beside me?

        This is Kara’s place, a studio apartment in the Metropole Hotel in Gastown. He stays here sometimes when he is too tired to make it home, or too faded. Today something is different though and Holden is trying to figure out exactly what that difference is. He is on his back with a red pillow under his head. A colourful Indian tapestry drapes across his middle. Bare chest and feet, tattooed arms splayed by his sides, his mouth yawns as though he is about to say something, his eyes are closed.

        Once, a professor at art school asked Holden to walk around a nude model until he found a perspective that interested or challenged him. Today’s view is like that. Off kilter. He sees the room from a peculiar angle, and so, he knows a different truth. He isn’t awake. He is aware. The grey has cleared off and a pared-down crispness has taken its place. Rather than looking out at the world, he can see into it.

         A feeling settles in, something rare he hasn’t experienced in years, not without artificial enhancements anyway. He is, although the word is not quite right, buoyant. This lightness takes him some time to identify. It seems to be more of a non-feeling, a lack of sensation, and this nothing yells so loudly at him it commands his attention.

        Holden makes a sort of mental checklist starting with the physical differences; no headache, no urge to vomit, no parched dryness in his mouth. He is not agitated, aching or weighted with fatigue, which comes as a relief.

         The inner alterations are more perplexing; there is not a trace of guilt, self hatred or shame. There is no worry about being too little or too much. Dread has walked away for good. No discomfort of any kind is left in him and it is the vacuum created in the wake of their departures, that makes him realize something enormous has rolled away. He has been wiped clean.

         His leather steel-toed boots, caked in dirt, lie beside his body, laces snaking on the bare floor, harbouring no ambitions. They too have laboured their last.

        What the fuck? I was just trying to have a good time. I was just trying to feel better.

         Over by the brick wall, Kara sleeps, snoring softly, unaware. Her ivory face is smooth and young, unburdened by what she is yet to know. Kara is not his girlfriend any more but there is a place in her heart reserved for him. Her chest rises and falls with effortless rhythm. Holden notes the stillness of his own ribcage, the silence enveloping his frame. His thoughts hover as the realization of what has happened begins to crystallize. A blurry downloading picture sharpens into focus.

        Late last night they met up at the bar downstairs, played some pool with a few other friends and drank a few beers. He left for a bit to meet somebody and was back in ten minutes. Around midnight Holden started nodding off at the table. He needed a bed.

        Can I stay with you tonight K? I feel like shit.  

        Of course you can, just don’t barf, okay? Or you’re cleaning it up.

        I promise not to hurl, I just wanna sleep. He slurred.

        Together they rode the elevator up to her room above the bar. Holden draped his arm around Kara’s neck.
        Even though we’re both with different people at the moment, I will always love you. Can we just hang out all the time and drink gin?

        Sure, we can build a house with gin on tap and raise ferrets.

        I mean it K, one day I’ll get my shit together and we can try again okay? I’ll be whole-den. See what I did there?

        His heavy eyelids drooped. He leaned into her and rested his sweaty forehead against her neck, his scraggle of reddish beard prickled her bare shoulder. She stretched one thin arm around his low back to hold him up. They both looked across at their joined reflection in the elevator’s mirrored wall. Her pink hair loose and long. His head shaved close. She pulled the sunglasses down off her head, set them on her nose and smiled at him.

        We are BFF’s all day every day Holden. You’re just fine. What you need is a big glass of water and good night’s sleep.

        Inside the one room apartment Kara yanked the top mattress off the bed and let it fall to the floor while Holden slumped onto the only chair, fumbling with his phone. He nearly toppled forward but Kara put a hand on his shoulder to brace him just in time. She kneeled to help him pull off his boots, then his shirt. He collapsed onto the mattress and let out a long sigh. She propped up his head, slid a pillow under it, then she covered him.

        Thanks K-bomb, Holden said into the pillow. You’re one of the good ones. Can you make sure I’m up for work?

        He was asleep instantly. She bent down low and kissed his cheek.

         Good night you big mess. See you in the morning.

 

         A seagull screams outside the window, the ocean is close. A square of morning light glows from behind the blackout curtain. The fridge hums. Down in the street a man shouts. A truck hits its brakes then accelerates with force.

        Just last week Holden pulled a drowning man from the ocean at Wreck Beach. The man was drunk and went swimming wearing jeans. When the weight became too much the man had struggled and called for help. Holden didn’t hesitate. He ran across the hot sand, dove into the sea, swam out, hooked the stranger under the arms and dragged him coughing through the green salt water back to shore.

        So much for all those years of life saving.

        He remembers the fabric of his own t-shirt and cargo shorts curling around him like vines that day, strange and cumbersome against the skin of his chest and legs. Laundry swishing in a washing machine,  pulling him down.

        This morning the weight, the pulling and the awkwardness are gone. He swims naked, released from the resistance of gravity and fear. He is painless. He is free.

>>>>>

         Children are not bound by earthly constraints. The lost ones disregard the limitations of oxygen and blood. A mother’s child is a mother’s child always.

        I hold my son now, as I did for his breathing years, and I wonder how such a beautiful song could be so abruptly halted. From full throated choir to…echoes. He was fully and completely alive just a moment ago. It is impossible.

        Though he is gone, he is going nowhere. Sometimes, the ones we love most remain swirling smoke. No amount of sleuthing, guesswork or naive maternal assumption will make sense of this, but I have too much love left unspent to let him be. So, I follow the breadcrumbs through the forest.

        I dig to understand more of how his path led to the room above the bar with the brick wall and the colourful tapestry. Though I have uncovered some of the facts, truth is a slippery fish. My view is tilted too, making this an imagined story, and a reluctant one. It is a love song to my son, who grew too old too young.

         They told me his body lay on a mattress in a room that wasn’t so bad. There can be nothing good about the room housing the body of your child. They told me he wouldn’t have known what was happening. That he was asleep when that border was crossed. Someone said small mercy. It may have been me.

 

~ originally published in eMerge 17 – The Writer’s Studio Anthology ~ 

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The Biggest Headstone

I have no grave to place flowers by.  I have no headstone to polish and sweep.  I do have a beautiful, smooth, wooden box, made by my husband Cam, that we keep on the same shelf as the vodka. We don’t reach for the vodka often, or the box for that matter. The box contains the burned bones of my son.

And now I also have a sixty-five foot cement wall in a parking lot in East Vancouver covered in glorious red paint, at the centre of which there is a huge and uncanny portrait of my son Holden in black and white, smiling out at the world.  He looks truly happy.  I hope it’s true. There is no good resting place for your child, but this wall makes sense.   If there has to be a symbolic location for Holden to be recognized, well, this is his kind of place.  

 Continue Reading →

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Permission

“Mothers are all slightly insane.”

― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

*****

        First there is the sigh, then, “Why are you doing that to yourself, Babe?”  His voice drifts toward me from the other side of the king size bed jabbing at my bubble.  Just a slight whiff of exasperation trails along behind his words.  I wondered what he is talking about?  Doing what?  I blink a few times, sharpening focus.  He has cracked the shell leaving me no choice but to  look at what is exposed.   Oh God… it’s me, a curled up feverish child tangled in the rumpled duvet, clothes unchanged and musty, hair unbrushed, breath of the morning though it is night.  I have been here for hours, for days, for months sobbing quietly, or not so quietly, with a book in my hands and an unending stream of hot, fat tears rolling sideways across my nose onto the damp pillow.

        I am reading “The Catcher in the Rye.”  Well, trying to.  Swimming in it is more like it.  The quirky words, that gorgeous dialogue and the vivid scenes it creates scrape my heart raw but somehow this etching and scouring feels … right.  It’s a good kind of pain, like the sore muscles in your back after a day of gardening in the Spring. It feels right to me anyway.  As right as a table with three legs can feel.  I am desperate to spend time with any Holden I can find. Continue Reading →

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How to be a Basically Normal Human Being

Make eye contact.

Respond when people speak to you, full sentences please. 

Ask questions. 

Listen to the answer.

Consider offering a thought or opinion.

Engage.

Care.

Smile.   

I feel like I am parenting a young child who is off to school for the first time or teaching a newly arrived foreigner how to conduct herself in our culture.  I’m not.  I’m talking to myself.  Asking, what a level-headed, un-crazy, pre-wounded, sound and solid person would do in this situation?  The conversations in here are endless spirals of complete and total fun.  It’s good times.

There is coaching from within too.  A softer gentleness has replaced the suck-it-up-buttercup cheerleader voice that used to run commentary before my son died.  Now it’s more like: Way to go, you held a meaningful three-minute conversation at the grocery store.    You made it an entire day without crying.  High five.  You used an exclamation point in an Instagram comment!  Woo hoo!!

The inner talking never stops.  It’s a two-way conversation. 

Smile?  I don’t think so.  You go too far.   

I mean it …crack a grin once in a while.  It will not kill you to smile.  

But it feels like it may?  It feels like a lie. 

It’s not completely untrue, there are many things to smile about.   And whatever you do, resist the urge to turtle.  The turtle no longer serves you.  She might be a groovy spirit animal but the turtle is not your friend.  When you start to squirm  just take a deep breath and look to the light.  You are in charge here.  Direct this mess.

You’re not the boss of me. 

Oh for God’s sake.  When you want to look down or run, don’t.  Stay.  Do the work to build some happy.  When someone says ‘how are you?’  the appropriate response is ‘I. am. fine. thank you.’ 

But that’s not true either?  I’m not fine, what about this is fine?

It doesn’t have to be 100% true.  Partial truth is still truth.

You should be a lawyer.  Or work for Donald Trump.

Hey, look at you making jokes.  See…I knew you could do it. 

I’m sure it seems rudimentary and even obvious but this really does feel like beginning at the beginning.  I’m in human pre-school.  Searching for joy as if she’s tucked in last winter’s jacket in the back of a closet, or is it the basement, or the garage?  The mechanism of happy is simply not a 24/7 buffet any more.  It takes some pushing and cajoling.  Have you ever tried to get a three year old to appreciate broccoli?  It’s like that.  I used to resort to chocolate sauce. 

I just realized I’ve been ducking behind the barricades for a year and a half.  I’m not sure if I’ve been sheltering myself from the painful world or sparing the people I care about from…well…me, the unidentifiable stranger.   So the question now becomes…how to behave when the person I was before doesn’t live here any more?   

Oh sure, I appear basically the same.  Skeleton and skin arranged in a recognizable stack.  Address and phone number status quo.  Solid freckle game.  Outdated clothing, not a trace of makeup.  Apple shaped.  But there’s an imposter in here.  Some days I can see that old me in the distance, running just out of sight.  I really want to have her back.  To inhabit her.  She was so much fun.  Hang on, there’s a flicker of dark hair as she disappears behind a cold barren tree in the woods. 

It’s time to stop chasing that out of date model and let her go.  She’s done her years of service and she is exhausted.  Moreover she’s obsolete.  New upgrades are typically faster, slicker, more flashy.  Tara 2.17 is slower, more contained and hopefully a little more functional.  I get to re-design so I get to choose.  This time I’m going for a substantially more peaceful, mindful version.  When that crackling static starts to fire up in my ears I say to myself – look to the light tara.  Put him in you pocket and look to the light.  He’s not gone, you’re not ignoring him, you are choosing to rise.  Holden won’t mind.  In fact, he’ll probably be pretty stoked about the idea.

treeChristmas was tough.  Perhaps more difficult than last year.  Last year I prepared myself for the awful newness of the first holiday season without him.  Everyone told me the first everything was the worst.  I barred the door and wallowed.  This year I thought it would be easier, that time and distance would round the edges, but I was very wrong.  I was a big fat faker.  It was okay for a while.  We went to a couple of parties early in December and enjoyed ourselves.  Not the old ‘life-of-the-party-dance-til-two’ couple but a decent effort.  I’ve never used the expression ‘meh’ much but it seems to fit here.  My sweet husband felt the same way.  That old, easy jubilant nature was a slippery fish for him too.  I am furious with Holden for stealing the happiness of the most naturally big hearted, joyful man I have ever known.  Not even Grandma’s butter tarts could cheer him up.

Then something happened.  About half way through December a shift or acknowledgement that it was all just pretend.  That true contentedness was impossible and the missing was just too strong.  I was sucked into a black vacuum I call the ‘blackuum.’   Amongst the cookies, visitors and gravy I fell apart for hours and days at a time.  When our puppy chewed Holden’s stocking so it could not be hung up by the fire I sobbed like a toddler.  When we put up the tree I, imagined the four of us in years past and shuddered while fat tears raindropped into my eggnog.  Eggnog that did not taste anything like it was supposed to.  Thank God for Michael Bublé or the afternoon may have been a total loss.  Doing the brunch dishes one morning I crumbled and shook.  I think I scared my Mom.

I went through the motions like a marionette being controlled by a wizard behind the curtain. His name is Mr. Tradition.  At times I felt like all that was holding me together was a clear film not unlike the top of a crème brûllée.  Now I completely understand the term “cracking up.” Let’s just say there is a lot of snot on some very solid shoulders around here. 

Then a surprising thing happened.  New Year’s Day.  Such a cliché I almost laughed out loud in my bed.  I woke up and before I even opened my eyes I said to myself – enough, time to look for the light.  It was that simple.  You’ve had your head between your knees for 18 months.  Give yourself a break.  Start over.   Maybe it was hormone fluctuations, the earth’s orientation to the sun, sugar withdrawal or the quietness of the house.  The relief that ‘The Holidays’ were over actually felt like a crane had lifted a skid of shit off of me.  I walked around that day feeling elevated.  I rearranged the furniture.  I dusted! 

I have decided to try to authentically inhabit this new self.  She is a vastly different chick from her former edition.  She says ‘no’ more, she is quite lazy, she eats junk food, she reads constantly and rarely watches TV (except Gilmore Girls re-runs on Netflix with her daughter because… Gilmore Girls!).   She does not lead conversations or fill in awkward silences. 

I have put a moratorium on longing for the former, easily joyful, flippant person who used to reside in me. To unapologetically direct this gift of a life with more intention.  That means driving the boat instead of being dragged along behind it.  It’s a very hard thing.   I hope I can do it.  I mean hey, we are five entire days in and it’s working so far.  Well, actually, I’m crying right now because writing has a way of releasing the hounds.  But basically, it’s better.  Looking ‘to the light’ is physical, as in the splendid sunshine that we have been blessed with since the year began.  It’s also figurative.  Choosing the light option on the menu.   For instance, when I’m out walking the trail near my home and thoughts of sad unfairness and confused anger bob up into my consciousness I just say to myself ‘look to the light,’ and there it is, the blue sky and the cute tumbling dogs and the clear blue icicles we so rarely get to experience here on the coast. 

Often when I would ask Holden how he was, he would say ‘I’m alright Mom, I’m alright’  which I totally get now.  ‘I’m alright’  means ‘I survived another day but I am in pain.  Nothing is fine here.  I am not fine, I am simply functioning and life sucks.  I am confused, anxious and I don’t know what my life is for.’  I used to get so excited when he would say ‘I’m good’ or ‘I’m fine’ or use an exclamation point in his texts or emails because if Holden was anything he was impeccable with his written word.  He would never snow-job me with some puffed up punctuation. 

As with any renovation it happens in stages.  One day soon I hope to be able to honestly answer the question ‘how are you?’ with ‘I am fine thanks,’ and really mean it. 

Then I might feel like a basically normal human being.