Beauty in the Hellscape

Two things happened today.

One: While we were driving, my friend spotted a tiny, raggedy pup frantically running down the sidewalk of a busy street and heading for the road. My friend was the driver, so I leaped out of our car and chased the little dog down, frantically waving down speeding traffic, with the help of a kind young woman, and as I cradled the dirty, terrified little critter, figuring I would have to post about her on some missing-pets pages, I heard a yell and it turned out to be her worried owner. I gave her into his arms, and we breathed. It was a miracle, and it felt like a harbinger of good luck, to save that tiny, terrified life alongside strangers and loved ones.

Two: I lost a bunch of work. It’s an emotional loss and a bit of a blow in a hard financial month. I want to throw a Donald Duck tantrum, but that doesn’t help anything, and the best thing I can do is acknowledge those pesky feelings, look on the bright side (the document is short), start in redoing the work, and keep plugging along so that the client has the edits.

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2019, the eve of another new decade. And today’s wins and losses really sum it up for me. This year, this decade, this adulthood.

In this last decade, I went from age thirty to forty. I accidentally had a third baby right when I thought my brother might die of alcoholism. I got divorced. I went through the financial stressors and lost relationships that go along with that. I lost my last grandparent. It was kind of the first decade where things really went wrong in my life–and did they ever!

And yet, I finally found happiness and some semblance of peace and hopefully the beginnings of maturity. You see, I learned that I can’t control anything but myself–and I can only barely do that. And that was the best thing I ever learned. What a relief to stop trying to control, save, change, fix, help, convince, or otherwise meddle with other humans who aren’t working toward the same goals. That meant accepting my circumstances, my loved ones, my life, and thus enjoying the small moments and just plugging along and moving forward whenever things inevitably hit the fan.

Just as importantly to happiness, I really had to lean on my community, and did my community ever show up. I never really lived anywhere before where it seemed like the general community was particularly available, but funnily, here in Sacramento, which is just kind of medium and not particularly fancy, I found that when I had a baby, people I didn’t even know showed up with free baby gear and lovely, gluten-free meals for my family. When my brother was struggling, I was able to share that with my church family, who lovingly supported me and shared their own stories. When I got divorced, I lost people or drifted from people who believed bad things about me, but that was good for me because they weren’t the ones who really loved me. People who were newish friends and people whom I hadn’t known were really committed to me as a person showed up. They sat on my couch. They brought me groceries. They went places with me when I didn’t feel brave enough. They helped me clean. They babysat. They gave me discounts. They came back and sat on my couch again. They told me their own sad stories that gave me hope. They knitted me a prayer shawl. All of those people and all of those little gestures really are what got me through. I realized that I was lovable. I realized that just being an honest and open person who cares and tries means that other honest people who care and try tend to show up.

I dated again, I married again–I’m a better spouse now that I have things like self-awareness and confidence and maturity–and kind of miraculously, again and again, I have felt lucky and happy and blessed and supported. No matter what. I have known that bad things will keep happening, again and again. But it’ll be OK. The OK may not be what I hoped for. But it will be OK.

And then came 2019. This year was a bit of a hellscape, or at least the last five or six months were.

I started training for this three-day bike ride to support local refugees. It felt like the perfect blend of personal challenge and a way to help. Amid all the hectic life stuff, I fell just a little behind on training for the October event, a 180-mile, three-day ride that was only about 150 miles further than I had gone before. But I was excited about each milestone and felt excited, worried, and proud.

But then, in July, my brother, who was seemingly doing really well, did die at the age of forty-nine. He was my big brother, ten years my senior, my childhood hero even in all of his naughtiness, and my camping and beach companion. It had been hard at times to know how to be close to him through his mental-health struggles and then substance-abuse struggles and then more severe mental-health struggles. He moved far away and didn’t usually have a phone or the ability to travel. But I very much knew he loved me, loved all of us, a lot. He unconditionally supported me through my divorce, wrote me letters, remembered Grammy with me at her memorial, and played with my children and gave them small gifts whenever possible.

You never think this kind of thing will happen. I never got to be sure he really understood how much I loved him too. I haven’t been to his house. He didn’t get the presents and letter I had just sent him. I hadn’t seen him in a year. I didn’t say goodbye. A huge hole got chopped in my childhood.

I don’t remember a lot of late summer and early fall, to be honest. I still worked. I still did things. I don’t really know what they were. I do know that I probably acted kind of weird, and I felt like my resilience was broken. But a lot of people showed up for me and my family. My garden was dying and my cats needed care and I couldn’t somehow do anything that made sense, and all these friends helped. I got cards and grief books and hugs and presents, litter box cleanings and plant waterings. I went out on a limb and was honest and told people I needed help. And there they were. It was pretty damned beautiful.

Gathering my tiny amount of energy, I determined that I was still going to ride on my tour. Dennis wouldn’t have wanted me to quit. Even though he probably didn’t really understand much about refugees and he didn’t bike and might have thought the whole thing was a little crazy. He loved the outdoors, and I would ride and feel him in my body as I took him with me. That was a miracle. We would look at nature and I knew that his breath was still in the trees from when he had lived here. I looked at the birds for him, and I enjoyed the exercise for him. I got pretty depressed sometimes, and I got pretty sad sometimes, and other times I forgot for a little while and it all came crashing back.

I managed to raise all of the money because of that beautiful community of incredibly big-hearted people I find myself in who generously donated. And two or three weeks before my ride, I hurt myself. I pulled my calf muscle on a training ride. I stayed way too optimistic for too long, sure that since it felt minor it would just go away.

It didn’t. I had to accept right before my ride that I couldn’t go and it would be harmful to try. I fell into a depression all over again. I was embarrassed and even stupidly guilty because of all the financial support I had been given. How ridiculous–it was never about me. World Relief still got all that money! It still helped. An amount of money I could never have donated on my own. That was a miracle.

And I adopted my brother’s dog. From the moment I heard he died, I began fretting, because boy, did he love that pup. His dog sent my sister’s dog a Christmas card. He wrote about her in his letters. I think she kept him going when he was really lonely. And by more miracles, his son got the rest of the family looking for her, and they got her from the SPCA and my beautiful friend flew with her across the country and she’s here. She’s another miracle, and I know that while I couldn’t help him while he was alive, I could help him in this way. She’s the best dog ever, just like every other really good dog.

I found out my brother’s community loved him too. While he was alive, I had feared that he was too alone, and in many ways he was lonely, but his neighbors cared and checked on him and knew him and even knew about his struggles. He helped them and they helped him. He was always a really good friend. And we got a lot of kind words from the high school peers we hadn’t been sure knew him (they did), and we got sweet and hilarious stories from his old best friends we hadn’t talked to for a long time. Dennis was a really good storyteller and so funny. My whole family still loves to talk about the funny (and maddening) things he did and said.

At the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of the decade, I know that you have to be aware that everything is going to go wrong sometimes. You might lose everything or lose someone really special. But it will be OK. I have learned how to say, “Everything is OK right now.” And even if the worst happens, well, we’ll figure out. And that’s partly because I have the strength, and it’s partly because my community, my family, and my friends have the strength when I don’t.

Happy New Year. May you not have to endure too much catastrophe or “character building,” but if you do–I hope it builds character and that you ask for help when you need it.

In Memory of Dennis Patrick Garwood, 1970 – 2019


One response to “Beauty in the Hellscape”

  1. May the world be free from disease

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