The Queen of Octobia: a short memoir
My screen saver at work tells the truth about me. “Queen of Octobia: Ruler of the Known and Unknown Universe” it proclaims in large hot-pink type. No one bows.
I’ve been struggling to make sense things for while now (43 years) and it doesn’t get any easier. I admit I understand more now than I did when I was first crowned, but my little-girl self had a lot going for her that seems lost now.
They talk in books about writing about finding your voice, and speaking in your own voice. I seem to have too many–not that I’m a multiple or anything dramatic like that–but I see stuff from different levels at different times–cosmic stuff seems clear sometimes and then there are times when I’m a sleeping doink. Perhaps if I stop worrying about how I sound (metaphorically) and just tell the stories I know, my voices will merge into harmony with myself. It certainly is worth the effort.
I only vaguely remember the Queen of Octobia’s birth. It was in the car going to Brooklyn to see my paternal grandparents. Guido driving, Ruth in the front seat, Mary to my right in back. I’m crouched on the floor of the back seat, why I don’t know–I feel like I’m hiding but I can’t remember if it’s a game or there are unpleasant adult-vibes. I remember (and I see it from inside the experience and as if I was “behind” me watching) jumping up and loudly starting to speak in Octobian (nonsense stuff). My father asks what is that–and I say, “it’s Octobian.” Everyone laughs and smiles, the tension subsides – was that my point?
Guido later determines that Octobia is a misunderstood rendering of Utopia. I do have a recollection of Guido and Uncle Alex talking politics and using that word. So he may have been right. Be that as it may (and that voice sounds like my grandfather Fusco), Octobia was created in that moment and grew quite complex and civilized over the next few years.
I’ve been keeping a journal sporadically for years now. Lot’s of changes. No wonder I feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes. I must have been a psychic delivery zone or something…..beep beep beep, back it on in…dump it right here. . .
Now that I’ve come out of the closet, so-to-speak, about my true identity, I keep expecting things to be different. Maybe they are and I haven’t noticed.
Expectations. Lord! They never end. Self-imposed, family, societal, financial, physical, relationship, spiritual, (what, spiritual expectations–isn’t that an oxymoron? Wait! An oxymoron–how did stupid cows slip in here?)
Puns (smooth segue). A lot of my relationships include a bond over the verbal quickness and skewed take on reality that comes with heavy punning. There’s a slyness and delight in word play that also has an element of competitiveness, of showing off and appreciation for quick understanding. It’s a way of bonding in the moment–sharing the same sense of the world or appreciating another’s take on things. The cleverness can be nearly awe-inspiring, which is a great joy to encounter over a small thing.
My mother’s death last year was a trigger for so much change and growth. It still reverberates daily. I struggle with how to share the heart of it, how to convey the mundane, exhausting nature of caregiving, at the same time conveying the subtext of awareness. How small moments are illumined and transparent. You see through the moment to its true essence.
While holding her up one day, early in her illness, I was gripped by a sense of lovingness so profound, so immediate and intense that I could have dropped her! This woman, who for years I had avoided touching even casually, was being supported in my arms. Held up by my strength, which she had of course made possible, and my holding her up became holding her, became a hug, a caress, a direct expression of a love I didn’t really believe was still in me.
Duty turned in that moment. Love really did conquer. Doing the right thing really did transmute my experience into something rich and glowing. I held her, I loved her, I wanted to take care of her. I forgave her and myself and in the moment we moved into a future that was richer and more healing that I would ever have believed — had I read it in a book I would have thought the author was smarmy and exaggerating!
I was eventually even freed to be snitty when those feelings arose. Not repudiating how I had felt for so long, that, but able to remember ALL of how felt about her–both the unbroken years of connectedness, happy or sad, the broken years of false fronts and false peace, the inner work, the inner rage, the inner fears.
I still talk to her, you know, and she answers. But now she always says the right thing. No more hurts, no more misunderstandings.
I faced the things I feared the most. Carol, my therapist, helped me through a bunch of fears at the beginning of the process. I remember right after Ruth fell and it became obvious what we were facing, that I was at Carol’s, babbling about how scary it was–how was I going to deal with all the mess? I didn’t want to. I was afraid I couldn’t do it and would fail Ruth/myself/my family. I really didn’t want to–and the mess really petrified me.
Finally Carol said, “I was a nurse for over thirty years, and I don’t know what mess you’re talking about.”
It turned out that I never could figure out why people were so scared of death. But since I’m scared of mess (my shorthand for dealing with vomit and poop and stuff like that), I assumed that it must be really, really messy. Carol explained that no, it wasn’t the mess that scared people, it was the emotion.
This is how I know I’m really from another planet. The emotion? That’s the good part! That was how I was going to get through this event. There would be feeling, intensity and connection. . .there would be truth revealed and shared, fears faced, issues wrapped up, and all that. The mess, I thought, was the price I had to pay for the good stuff.
So, Carol promised me there wouldn’t be any mess. . . .well it didn’t turn out quite that way, but the heart of her promise, that there wouldn’t be anything I couldn’t deal with, couldn’t conquer my fear of, couldn’t grow gracefully into sitting with…that was true. Later we laughed over the fact that I did indeed have to deal with every bodily fluid possible…and then some. But she didn’t lie. Because she promised there would be nothing I would get freaked out by. And there wasn’t. That which I greatly feared came upon me and I passed over me, and I remained, but the fear is what died. Certainly not Ruth, just her body. Certainly not love. Most certainly not sisterhood.
Ruth’s death freed me in a lot of ways. Fears were only a part of it. It reinforced how much of my experience is MINE and not intrinsic to the event. Moments of caring were imbued with such rich emotional texture that they have become treasured memories, bright with feeling. These are some of the random highs and lows from Ruth’s amazing transition time: the final months of her 82 years.
The Timex Mother
Tick, tick, tick. . . She takes a licking but keeps on ticking.
There were so many times we thought “this is it.” “This is the day.” “This is the final decline.” Boy were we wrong. After the bout of septicemia, after the thrush infection, and the diarrhea, and the urinary tract infection, Ruth seemed to sink gradually. We were really ready–she was lethargic, disoriented, wouldn’t eat or drink. We were giving her moistened swabs instead of drinks–I mean, really end-stage stuff. Her urinary output was almost nil, her breath shallow and she was waxen-pale.
Then Mary came out of her room laughing and crying at once. “Mom’s awake. She wants to know what’s for breakfast.” She ate an egg and toast. Drank some juice. Sat up and watched a little TV (The Mets) and dosed off again.
The next day, she started from a nap, looked around, said “shit, I’m not dead yet,” and went back to sleep. She lived three more weeks, with some pretty lucid moments during them, and several ups and downs. We waited with baited breath dozens of times. Tick, tick, tick….
Shark! Shark! Shark!
The hallucinations were constantly fascinating to me. I guess because of all the acid we took, none of us was particularly disturbed by Mommy’s hallucinating. It seemed natural and sort of cool. Early on she started seeing things upside down. One day Mary came in and Ruth was scowling at the corner of the room. “What is it?” Mary asked.
“That man. He’s upside down in the air over there,” Ruth replied.
“That one, in the corner!”
“Well, who is it?”
“Oh, whoever. . .” she trailed off with a shrug and a dismissive wave of her hand.
Dun dun…dun dun…. About a week before she passed, she got very agitated one morning. She was fighting hard against things right then, battling fears and judgments. She started yelling for us to help her…. “Girls, girls, we have to warn everyone. Shark! Shark! Shark! Yell with me! Shark! Shark!” While she was doing this–at a volume we couldn’t imagine she could have achieved–she was looking around the ceiling of the room, clearly tracking the circling fins. “Come on girls, help me. Shark! Shark! Shark!” You could practically see them. We clung to each other in the middle of the room, weak and laughing and helpless….shark! Shark! Shark!!
Jerry Lewis, hypnotist. There was a spell for about two weeks on and off when Ruth would get extremely agitated and anxious. She couldn’t settle, and would keep trying to get up (at this point she couldn’t roll over without assistance). Mary and I would become frightened and try to quiet her down any way we could. At times we were near despair because she was so stirred up, and we were so helpless to alleviate whatever was bothering her.
One day, during one of these spells, I called Dennis in to help with changing her, and he came in and started “doing” Jerry Lewis, going “QUIET, QUIET IS GOOD. RESTING AND CALM. CALM IS GOOD. CALM AND QUIET AND RESTING. THESE ARE VERY GOOD. CALM CALM QUIET” all at the top of his lungs in Jerry’s voice. Ruth instantly said “okay,” nodded, and quieted right down. From then on, whenever she was in that state, Dennis would do Jerry Lewis-style relaxation with her–CALM AND QUIET–and she would cool right out.
Ever Crafty. Ruth always had a project going. Needlepoint, counted cross stitch (her favorite), knitting, rug hooking. The last years of her life she was limited in what she could see clearly and how steady her hands were. Near the end, on sunny afternoons, I’d walk into her room and she’d be “air embroidering,” the invisible needle darting and swooping gracefully over invisible cloth, invisible stitches holding her mesmerized.
When Mary and I were little, my mother went on a pretty sustained bender. We were unaware of the big picture, but we did know that we got to have cereal for dinner several nights in a row (a treat) and she’d fall asleep on the couch and we’d watch movies late into the night. We were about five and seven. Still living in the old house, but Guido wasn’t home much.
The two movies I remember are Mighty Joe Young and Shall We Dance. Million Dollar Movie was on Channel 9 (or 11?–Mary will know) in those days. They showed the same movie a 5, 7, 9, and 11 pm. The theme music was from Gone With the Wind (I didn’t connect that up until years and years later).
We’d sit very quietly on the floor in front of the sofa, which was a dark nubbly fabric, and watch the same movie over and over. Did I mention they showed the same film all week, too? So we must have watched Mighty Joe Young a dozen or more times. Ditto Shall We Dance. These, and the Leonard Bernstein Concerts for Young People, Frank Sinatra, and Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met were the core of our cultural exposure. Not to mention the usual: Wonderama, The Lone Ranger, Fury, Sky King, My Friend Flicka, Father Knows Best, Donna Reed. And I Love Lucy –I always resented her for being dumb when I thought she knew better–all that misplaced intelligence just stunned me.
Wagon Train! I remember my mother (drunk? Angry? Both?) calling the station after one episode because it was too violent. Flint McCullagh got beat up, hit in the face repeatedly, I believe, and my mother was horrified at the graphic violence on TV when children would be watching. . .I remember the shrillness of her voice on the phone, the impotence in it. I’m sure she was crying with rage and frustration. I’m just like that when I’m bearding my own lions.
So, elegance, music, restrained sexuality, the hugeness of beasts, the evil of men, the romance of it all. . .Mighty Joe and Fred Astaire. . . Ginger Rogers and the girl who had the gorilla. These were powerful women, who could attract and influence such figures. Commanding a gorilla to stop rampaging with a stern “Joe, stop it.” Enticing a man to act a bit like a fool by the power of your dancing. Laughing together. Hurting each other. Losing each other. Finding each other again. All punctuated nightly by commercials. I don’t remember these at all, but I bet I still use some of those products. . .whatever they were.
Mary and I pretty much lived in our own worlds. Of course, mine really WAS my own world. I just visited this one. We did dolls, fighting, make believe, played in the dirt, told stories, played board games and card games, arts and crafts, TV, listened to records (Burl Ives) read books, cut paperdolls. . .played with friends and fought with friends and each other. But we always returned to center. Center was Mary. I don’t know how it was for her. Lot’s of the time our parents were peripheral figures to me, but Mary was always there.
I could write a book. . .I guess she’s THE central figure of my life. I never put it that way before this. But our relationship has outlasted every other one, transcended every era of our lives, every phase. The most depressing time in my adult life was while she and I were on outs. We had lost the deeper ways we had been connected. There was no current of understanding and sympathy, but only judgments and secrets.
Mommy’s way of dying gave us back our sisterhood. It was just what she wanted. On the first anniversary of her death, we spent the weekend at Mary’s, just playing–we did lunch, garage sales and flea markets, went to antique stores, gardened, watched movies, talked and hung and made dinner. We played nicely together all weekend. Ruth would have been pleased. I can see her satisfied grin.
Bird Song and Voices
Dennis says I could entertain myself in a dark closet. I’m just hearing stories from the inner voices. They aren’t psychotic-type ones. I know they are internal. Aspects of me conversing, calling for attention, wanting to share or draw my inner eye to something. Notice this. Hear this. See this. Don’t forget. Pay Attention. So often it is the flash of wings that triggers the knowing, saying “remember, this is important.”
During the course of writing this “memoir,” we moved to the country. The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. Talk about upheaval and challenges! There’s much to address about getting from there to here, but one wonderful constant has been the birds.
Birdfeeding has always been a part of my life. We had a great feeder in the backyard on Northumberland and I sat for hours watching, Peterson’s guide in hand. Nothing exotic, but still beautiful and fascinating. Chickadees, sparrows, juncos, titmice, robins, jays, cardinals, mourning doves, a towhee or two, grackles, cowbirds. Then on Grove Street I got really into it and added nuthatches, small woodpeckers, house finches and gold finches. At the pond I’d see wonderful ones like great egrets, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, cormorants, ruby kinglets, warblers, larger woodpeckers, and the ever-present redwing blackbirds, crows, gulls and winter wrens. Now I’ve added more: cardinals and goldfinches by the dozens, mockingbirds, indigo buntings, carolina wrens, a pileated woodpecker, red-bellied woodpeckers, bluebirds, even a hawk or two winging by.
When I write each bird’s name, I see it in my mind, a little movie-clip of color and movement: vitality and delicacy in one never-still package. People think the brown and gray birds are drab, but they are so wrong. A wren is exquisite: rich red-browns of a million hues blended together, seasoned with grays; the white eye-streak giving sleekness to the head; the perkiness of the tail, bobbing and almost vibrating with lifeforce; the tilting head, curious and alert, and the serene acceptance of being. Magical. Then, from the hopping food search, the sudden flight — always my heart soars with her. Without birds, there are times I might forget about joy, but that can’t happen. The birds are always there: from first rustling at dawn to final calls winging back to nests and perches at dusk. Thank God for the birds.
Another F**king Growth Opportunity
The move down here was pretty much just one after another. What did we even manage? (I know, I know, 95 south to 81 to 40 west, bu-dum-pa). I heard of Asheville and started reading about it, and saw a video of the Biltmore Estate. I decided in that secret place that Asheville was IT. But I needed to be more practical and convince the family that this wasn’t just a random whim. So when Josh went to Florida to live with his father, I came home via Asheville and fell in love. Two years later when the Grove Street house sold, I returned to Asheville and rented a house.
Just like that…and boy, does that gloss over things! In between the Asheville bookend-visits are more dramas than imaginable: Ruth’s death, jobs, firings, business failure, lost friendships, soap operas, rich benefactors, dentist bills, fear and loathing in the suburbs.
We live now in West Asheville at the bottom end of a half-mile hill. Suburbs, a little dilapidated and now, after 9 years, on the verge of gentrification. Houses going up across the street and down the street and around the corner. Our wild yard is the haven for the neighborhood birds. Dozens at a time on the feeders, bird song echoes through the neighborhood, only occasionally overwhelmed by car noises or construction. A lull, then the breeze carries a fresh wave of song across the porch. The wind chime tinkles, a counterpoint to the birds and a persistently barking dog up the street. It’s early spring in Asheville. A beautiful time, a magical moment in the scheme of our days. Like the birdsong, I’m rising free from a long winter.
Can sorrow just catch up with you? Without a new cause? Can the slow insidious build of stress suddenly crescendo like Bolero run wild? Seems so.
I’m feeling so peaceful in this moment, yet a little weakened, a long convalescence that has left me limp but whole. Is my life making another turn? Last time I worked on this piece I was 43-ish – Now I’ve just turned 54 and so little has changed and so much is different. Josh is grown up, a Navy vet, and married. They live in Austin. Dennis and I are still together. His health is more precarious than ever and his mental and emotional state less stable than ever, too.
I’m blessed with a job I love that actually pays a pretty decent living. My finances are still pretty tenuous – medical and helping Josh have taken their tolls, then there’s the knitting-eating out- buying-things thing.
Oh, and, I’m still fat.
I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret – anyone who sees me gets the magnitude (pun intended, duh!) at first glance. But in my inner self, it’s still a shameful secret, a place that’s unhealed and unforgiven. I was slender until my early twenties, then comfortably normal, then fat. I lost it all about a year after Josh was born and then gained it back and kept going.
Experts call people like me morbidly obese – which so doesn’t reflect my inner truth, is so hurtful a label, and so ugly a concept that many fat people simply hide inside the cushion they’ve created – usually created to block some intolerable hurt. We become our own human airbags, deployed once and never reset, puffed up to cushion the impact of a nuclear bomb of emotional pain. Puffed up by the creamy filling we’ve ingested to soothe the emptiness, the gnawing, ulcerous pain of loss and sorrow, the dismissal of our sacred selves.
This is some of the tough stuff and I can’t seem to find my funny voice. I remember, though, how safe it felt at first to be fat. I’d been one of those girls who looked 18 at 12 or 13 and I was pretty traumatized by come-ons and grabs and comments and fear by the time I hit 16. I was an army fatigues hippy for a while– big and baggy and asexual. Then I got angry and in your face. I went bra-less, baring my midriff a generation before it was fashionable. I flaunted and taunted and was brave – but it was exhausting. Then, I got pregnant. It was like having a cone of safety around me. No one grabbed or commented or “hey chicky chicky”-ed me for months. Once I regained my slender form, I felt so vulnerable and bare. Pregnant had been better! So, if not pregnant, then what about just looking pregnant?
Well, it worked pretty well. Not that it was smart or even particularly sane, but it was effective. I haven’t been hit on in nearly 30 years….Boy, do I miss it. Once you’re a grown-up, you see, it’s not so scary to be attractive.
What a mess we make of our young people– keeping them from experiences they need and then shoving them in front of the speeding bus of sexuality without any preparation or protection. We let them loose on life with so little to nourish them out there. We watch them grow, boot them from the nest like good mama birds, worrying about their ability to fly high. Some do, singing their triumphant flights to the skies, but others flounder and fall.
Dennis died six weeks ago.
So I’m on a new curve, like the ever graceful sweep of upward wing, against a bright autumn sky. I’ll find a way to soar to joy with that wing, and reign again as Queen.