Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dramatic irony. It'll fuck you every time.

Last night, I had a dream that I was dying.

It was pretty vivid, this dream. It felt pretty real. And it may sound like it was a nightmare, but it wasn't. Not even remotely.

Oh, don't get me wrong, it wasn't a wish-fulfillment dream, either. Even though there have been times in the last couple of years when a terminal diagnosis would have seemed like a blessing compared to the actual chronic diagnosis I received. I am past that now. I have found new reasons to move on with my life, new things to look forward to, and work toward. Although it would be fair to say that some of those reasons and things feel like consolation prizes sometimes. As I've said before, I'm not a saint, and as such, I'm not the type of person who would feel satisfied devoting my entire life to meeting other people's needs while completely sacrificing my own desires. Sometimes that feels like what I'm being led to do. That said, I wouldn't be happy living a completely hedonistic life devoted only to my own desires, either. But my point is, I have reasons to get out of bed every morning now. This is something that I could not necessarily have said, even a year ago.

Which may be exactly why this dream felt so real to me. Because, given my past history, it seems like exactly the kind of thing that would happen as the pieces of my life are finally falling back into place. Hence the title of this post - it's my favorite line from a favorite movie of mine, about a man who finds out he's probably going to die, just as he's really started to embrace his life (albeit, under much stranger conditions than those in my dream).

I don't know what I was dying from in the dream. I just had a vague sense of increasing weakness and dizziness and fatigue, which really could be just about anything.

What was really striking was my reaction to the knowledge that I was running out of time.

There was no denial, or bargaining, or even depression. My acceptance of my fate was immediate and absolute.

There was, however, anger. Lots and lots of anger. And with that anger came determination and a sense of purpose.

Recently, in the context of a discussion about how being angry is easier than being sad, I made the point that anger can serve a useful purpose, because it can keep you fighting when otherwise you'd just give up. I know this, because I've lived it. Anger can go too far, obviously, and become unhealthy, but it can also be fuel to survive from one moment to the next.

And this was the case in my dream. I remember that I was angry about the fact that I wouldn't finish school, after having devoted this much time and energy to it, and to the goals that I wanted to accomplish once I had my degree. But this anger didn't lead me to drop out. It kept me going to school, trying to soak up as much knowledge as I could about the subjects that have always interested me, in what little time I had left.

In another part of the dream, I was touring a mansion that (in the dream, anyway) I'd always wanted to see. I was weak and exhausted after walking around the first floor, and as the people with me went to go up the stairs to see the second floor, one of them told me sympathetically that they wouldn't mind if I sat down and rested downstairs instead of going upstairs with them.

This just pissed me off, and I pushed myself to follow them up the stairs, even though I felt like I was going to collapse with each step. Because, I remember thinking, this may be my only chance to see what was upstairs.

Not too long ago, I was talking to my mother about those first few months of illness, when I was struggling to find treatments that worked. During that time, I usually worked myself to exhaustion just trying to keep from falling further behind. It often felt like all I did was work and sleep. My house was a disaster because I did not have the energy to deal with it. On rare good days, when the pain was minimal, I tried to fit as much work and play as I possibly could into them, and I usually paid for it, as it left me completely drained and exhausted and took me several days to recover from. It was rough, and I wondered at the time if I would ever be able to balance work and pleasure in my life again.

When I said all of this to my mom, she said, "You get that from your grandfather. He's the exact same way."

It was an insight that surprised me. Not the observation about my grandfather, because it's common knowledge in my family that he always wants to be doing something - fixing, building, cleaning, something - and it's been hard on him the past few years that he hasn't been up to it. It was the observation that I shared this quality with him. It had never occurred to me before that I might be like him in that way.

I think it didn't occur to me partly because it was never physical with me the way it always was for him. You wouldn't find me willingly climbing ladders to paint over chipping woodwork, or doing loads of other people's laundry and carrying them from the basement to the second story, or asking my dad if I could borrow his tractor to mow someone else's lawn. When I do anything along these lines, it's in my own house, and only because it needs to be done (and in the case of yardwork, I pay a neighbor to do it for me). I'm not looking for opportunities to do any of it elsewhere.

It's also because I guard my leisure time pretty jealously. I always have. I never lived to work; it was always the other way around. I kind of resent the idea that 110% is the minimum standard anymore - that if you're not putting in a certain amount of overtime or signing up for extra shifts, or if you leave immediately at the end of the day, you're somehow not a good enough worker. I'm with Office Space on this one - if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, then make 37 the minimum. And honestly, in the social services field, I don't think my view is a bad one. Self-care is extremely important when you work in a stressful field (especially one that doesn't pay well), and it's not always encouraged by employers and supervisors in the field. At least, not in practice. They talk a good game, but when it's between the numbers and self-care, you are implicitly expected to have your problems on your own time, even if you don't have any of your own time left. But, as usual, I digress. And to be fair, when I work, I do work hard.

I think the biggest difference between my grandfather and me is that he suffered because he was no longer able to work, and I suffered because I was no longer able to do anything else, when I was able to do anything at all. But ultimately, my mom was right. It was two sides of the same personality trait.

And it's the same personality trait that has allowed me to maintain a 3.95 GPA over the last two semesters, despite the personal struggles I was going through. That, along with anger.

The same anger that was fueling me to keep moving forward in the dream, even knowing the end was in sight, even knowing that I wouldn't accomplish my goals in the long run, even knowing that I was driving myself to collapse.

So, no, it wasn't a nightmare. It was simply a reminder that even when things are at their most dire, I can still keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"When are you going to get married?"

When I was in the last year-ish of my undergraduate program, I worked for a daycare center that was owned by a hospital, for the children of the hospital employees. Because many hospital employees work odd hours, it stayed open until 8 p.m., which worked well for getting hours around my class schedule - I typically worked from 2-8 p.m. I worked primarily with the 3-year-olds, but when the numbers started dwindling later in the evenings, typically around dinnertime, we would combine the children who stayed later. I closed up 2 or 3 nights a week, so often I would be left alone in the building for the last hour or so with a group of 5 or 6 mixed-age kids.

Two of those kids were an adorable brother and sister, ages 5 and 3, respectively. Seriously, they couldn't have been cuter. Blond and blue-eyed and fair, the boy was very rough-and-tumble but sweet, and the girl could have been a child model (and she knew it) but she was also sweet. They were relatively well-behaved, and when they did act up, it was mostly because they were fighting with each other. (I can still hear the 3-year-old's plaintive whine that I heard at least once every day that I worked there: "Hunter's aggravatin' me!") But overall, they were good kids.

(It just occurred to me that they would now be 17 and 15, and I want to cry.)

The reason I bring this up is because Hunter, the older brother, was always very concerned about my marital status. It disturbed him deeply that I was not married yet, and he often took pains to point out that I was not getting any younger.

For example, one day when he said something about what he wanted to be when he grew up, and I made a joking comment about what I wanted to be when I grew up, Hunter looked at me incredulously, and said, in a wearily patient, matter-of-fact tone, "Miss Natalie, you already are a grownup, and you already have a job."

Since I was only 22 at the time, I was mostly amused by this.

As I was by his attempts to help me find someone to marry. "Do you think maybe you could go to the grocery store and meet a man who was shopping there, too, and you could marry him?" he would ask.

"I guess anything's possible," I would tell him, laughing, before letting the matter drop.

Hunter and his sister's mother was single, and my psych-major self reasoned that Hunter was projecting his anxiety about not having his father living at home with him onto my love life.

Still, truth be told, I kind of took it for granted at the time that I would get married at some point over the next several years. A few years later, when I was 26 or 27, working at my first really professional job, my supervisor, who was a good twenty years older than me, would talk about her boyfriend, whom she'd been dating for something like 17 years. They didn't live together and had no plans to live together. I didn't understand that at all at the time. If they were going to put the energy into maintaining a relationship for that length of time, why not just take that next step? I just didn't get it.

I totally do now. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In the last 12 years since my conversations with Hunter, obviously, I haven't gotten married.

At some point during that time frame, I ceased to view marriage (or even long-term marriage-like cohabitation) as an inevitability for me. I think it may have been sometime around when I bought my house - on my own, on my income, with no cosigner on the mortgage. That was around the time that I started to realize that I might, possibly, just be able to survive on my own resources in the long-term.

It was also because my house was mine. It was filled with my stuff and decorated the way I wanted it. I did not want to move again, ever. And I kind of couldn't imagine changing it to accommodate another adult's furnishings. And I liked being alone in it. I could see adding a child, and making changes to accommodate said child, but making changes to accommodate a grown man? No, thanks.

It was then that I started to understand my old boss's relationship. I could totally see myself having a lifelong exclusive relationship that would give me someone to go to the movies with and do other grownup activities with when I felt like it, but who would leave me alone in my own house when I didn't feel like it. That would totally work for me.

I haven't ruled out the possibility of marriage entirely, I just see it getting less and less likely. And I'm okay with that. Because the reality is, I hate dating. I hate it with a passion. I hate the whole nervous awkward phone conversations and tiptoeing around sensitive topics to keep from derailing things early on and do you wait until the third date or the fifth date to have sex? I hate it all. And I've rarely made it to a third date, much less a fifth, because on the rare occasions that I have a first date, I usually go home at the end saying, "Oh, hell, no, I am not putting myself through that bullshit again." But that's a whole other post in itself.

There are times when I think it would be nice to have a partner, but that's mostly for practical reasons, like financial security. When I say that, I'm not talking about marrying a rich man for his money. I'm talking about the security of having a dual household income. I'm talking about having the ability to pay all of my bills on time every month, rather than the bill roulette of "which utility is least likely to be shut off this month if I leave it unpaid until next month?" that I currently play every month. It would also be nice to have somebody who I could automatically assume would drive me to my colonoscopy instead of having to call my parents for that.

But overall, those are fleeting moments, and I'm okay with not having those things. I get by. Once I'm done with school, I might even do more than get by. I might be able to save and invest and other grownup things like that.

The real practical benefit I would get from having a husband would be that I wouldn't necessarily have to go through artificial insemination to have a baby. I would still have to use fertility drugs, probably, but the sperm would be free. But if I can pull together the financial means to buy sperm and do fertility treatments, I'm not really worried about it. In the long run, it would only save me about three or four thousand, an amount that could be easily trumped by the cost of a wedding, even if I went the City Hall route. (And I would totally go the City Hall route. Big weddings are a ridiculous waste of money, in my opinion. And I have no princess delusions with the associated need to wear some ludicrously expensive dress. If I must spend thousands on an inane ritual that would really be more about joint health insurance and death benefit eligibility for me (because, all else being equal, I would be perfectly fine with living in sin indefinitely), I would rather spend it on a honeymoon in an all-inclusive resort in the Maldives.)

My point is, though, that I may very well never get married, and I am totally okay with that.

But that has not stopped people from asking me over the years when I'll get around to marriage, as if that's all there is to it, I just have to want it enough, and for that matter, as if it's any of their business. But it doesn't happen all that often, and when it does, mostly, much like my reaction to Hunter's questions, I'm just amused by it. Maybe a touch defensive, because I wish they wouldn't assume that I even want to get married. There was only one time that it ever really irritated me, and that was mostly because the person's tone indicated that I was somehow less of a woman if I was unmarried, and that I apparently had some kind of societal obligation not only to get married, but also to be a model 50s housewife.

But just a couple weeks ago, when we were alone in my car during a visit, completely out of the blue, my 8-year-old niece piped up from the backseat: "Do you think you'll ever get married?"

(Ex-Social Worker Tip for Parents: If you want to discuss sensitive topics with your child, the car is the place to do it - especially if the kid is in the backseat. I think it has something to do with the lack of direct eye contact. Freud may have been onto something with that. But I have had many a deep conversation during long placement transports, and most of them were initiated by the kids.)

Anyway, for some reason this question surprised me coming from my niece, even though it shouldn't have. I asked her what made her ask, and she responded by talking about how one of her other aunts is married and the other lives with her boyfriend, and her uncle, my brother, is also in a long-term relationship. And though it may not have occurred to her, it was certainly glaringly obvious to me that all of these people she mentioned were significantly younger than me, and I felt that defensiveness rise up in me.

But that only lasted for a moment. Because after that moment, I realized that my niece had just handed me a gift-wrapped teachable moment.

So I talked about the life that I'd made for myself, how I'd had a good job before I went back to school, and I'd have an even better job after I graduate. And how I bought my house on my own, and supported myself, and found meaning in my life in ways that did not require having a man in it.

And though I didn't mention it specifically, I hope it was strongly implied that my sense of self-worth (and hers) is not and does not have to be dependent on whether or not I have a man. And that I do not have to lower my expectations or standards and settle for someone who is not good enough for me, just to be able to say that I have a husband, and neither should she.

Because that's certainly not a message she'll get from her mother.

I can, and do, live a completely fulfilling life without marriage. And so can she.

I also talked about how I wasn't ruling it out entirely, and if I meet the right person, I might get married someday. But I made it clear that it wasn't my sole mission in life to find that person. Basically, if it happens, great. And if it doesn't happen, great. I'll be fine either way.

Life doesn't offer many opportunities like that one, and I'm glad I recognized and took advantage of this one. I can only hope that I planted a seed of empowerment in the child that I love most in this world that will continue to grow throughout her lifetime.