Thursday, September 2, 2010

Making Sense With Stories

Nothing happens quickly in my life these days. I’m on a slow boat out at sea with no view of land and I can’t tell if I’m moving. I’d go mad if I tried to figure out where I am, so I surrender to the pace of how life is right now, and let go of the need for reference points.

I have nothing new to report about my physical health.

In this limbo where I live these days I feel compelled to tell stories: stories of my childhood, stories about my family, stories about people I've known and loved, strange things I’ve seen and done. Since I can’t make sense of my actual life, I enjoy making sense of the stories I like to tell about my life. I love to find a thread of connection and weave it through multiple scenes.

I’m particularly interested in stories about my mother. She is a mystery to me. Gone nearly 32 years, I’m not sure if I remember her or if I only remember the stories I like to tell about her. I’m not sure if it matters which it is. Whatever the case might be, I enjoy memoir writing, so here is my latest:

My mother called out from her deathbed, “Be sure to get something to eat before you get on the plane,” as I exited her hospital room for the last time on the way to the airport. I assured her that I would, and I realized that this would probably be my last exchange of words with her. She would die a few days later from the ovarian cancer that had ravaged her for the past 5 years. We began and ended our life together with great concern for nourishment. I've been trying to get enough nourishment for "the long ride home" since that day.

I was 21 and living in New York City, pursuing the adventures of an urban college student and finding exotic odd jobs. To finance my education I searched for work that fit my school schedule. I was a pioneer of dinner-time telemarketing, selling cremation packages to complete strangers over the phone. I drove a truck around Manhattan delivering newspapers and magazines to newsstands. I was a waitress in a restaurant that was a front for selling cocaine. I had nothing to do with the drug deals, but I benefited from the large tips that were often left afterwards. I race-walked the city streets for a foot-messenger delivery service. I worked for a Catholic hospital, who had me removing stamps from envelopes with a clothes steamer so that they could be re-used. I volunteered as a subject for medical, dental, and psychological experiments at Rockefeller University that were well-paying and (relatively) non-invasive. I couldn’t bear the thought of a mundane job.

In 1978, the year my mother died, I was studying psychology and neuroscience, and working in a hospital managing the admissions and outpatient billing departments by day. By night, I frequented music clubs: CBGB, 7th Avenue South, Sweet Basil, Max's Kansas City, The Bottom Line, and The Bitter End in search of the cathartic and inspiring effects of live music that I so desperately craved.

I discovered the dress rehearsal schedule at Lincoln Center and roamed the complex of Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Halls, The Metropolitan Opera House, and The Julliard School yearning for a free taste of the week’s performers. It wasn’t entertainment I wanted; it was medicine. Experiencing live music penetrated my being and connected me to something greater than my seemingly small, suffering, barely post-adolescent self. I desperately wanted to soothe my tortured soul.

My mother entered Julliard in 1942 to study opera. In addition to the classics she sang 1940s girl-group pop songs in 3-part harmony. She sang jingles for radio commercials. She played the piano, the upright acoustic bass, and the glockenspiel. She had a flare for drama and effortlessly exuded the tragic personas that characterize most operatic roles. Throughout my early childhood she would intermittently and quite unexpectedly slip into character. She might fall to her knees on the kitchen floor and break into an aria from Madame Butterfly after burning a spaghetti sauce. Breaking a dish in the kitchen sink could drive her to burst into a lamenting passage from Carmen. Finding an empty box of cereal she once belted out, “No more rice crispies. . .” to the tune of Pagliacci.

The war came and ended her musical education. There was no money for tuition or for the train she needed to take her from her home in Spring Valley to New York City, just 30 minutes to the south. Everyone was joining the war effort and she took a job at Camp Shanks, an army base near her family home. It was there in 1944 that she met my father. Post-war marriage and motherhood precluded her singing career. She became a caged bird.

I couldn’t carry a tune, but I could perceive music and all its nuances, and I relentlessly searched for opportunities to be immersed in musical performances of all varieties. I discovered the free chamber music at The Metropolitan Museum of Art every Friday evening. If there was a free concert of any sort, I was there in a heartbeat. I am a sucker for a schmaltzy Broadway musical, but couldn’t afford the ticket price as a starving student of the late 70s. Security was lax in those days, and I discovered that I could lurk around theater entrances at intermission and sneak into the second half of shows, which always offered the best and most cathartic and cheesy songs in the grand finale.

The day before my mother died (somewhat unexpectedly) I traveled to Philadelphia to accept an offer from my cousin Rick, a dentist, to extract my impacted wisdom teeth. I awoke from anesthesia to gauze packing in my mouth and the news that my mother had died. I spent the night at my cousin’s home and they took me to the airport in the morning with a baggie full of extra gauze pads and a bottle of pain killers. As the flight took off I could feel the pressure rising in my gums. I bit down hard on the gauze to stop the bleeding, but I couldn’t compete with the change in atmospheric pressure. I began to bleed profusely from all 4 incisions. As soon as the fasten-your-seatbelt light went out I got up to run to the bathroom, and blood poured down the front of my shirt. The flight attendant who met me in the aisle screamed and fainted. Passengers around me began to panic and pandemonium ensued.

I cleaned myself up as best I could and a more composed flight attendant fetched me some ice packs. I landed in Miami 2 hours later looking like a boxer who lost the match.

I arrived at my mother’s funeral after an emergency visit to an oral surgeon who did his best to help patch me up. I was drugged with Vicodin and nauseated from antibiotics on one of the worst days of my life, and I had to get back on a plane to return to work and school the next day. My mother was dead at age 53 from ovarian cancer, my ravaged mouth was swollen and infected, and I had no way of getting something to eat before the long ride home.