Chapter 14: Ash

As Ellen neared the end of her life I made an oath. “When you wear one I wear one,” referring to the diapers she would soon require.  The day came, and it was as horrible as you could imagine.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,”  she slowly moan-mumbled.

My mom and I held her and cried with her; then we strapped the scratchy, absorbent nightmare onto her graying, atrophied, weary fourteen-year-old body.

I sat squarely in the Fuck You God camp, but Ellen still believed.  Probably more so, because eternity was coming closer and she smelled like death topped with glory shavings.  Her only fear was living away from Mama.

Abruptly, the sobbing stopped.

“Now it’s your turn Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire, oh Claire.”  In an interesting turn of events her voice synthesized into a weepier version of Julia Child’s.  She would get stuck like a skipping CD, moaning “oohhh” in front of certain words.  “Claire” was one of them.

So I stepped into the same nightmare she did, and did my best supermodel impersonations up and down the hall for her, as any 5’10” sixteen-year-old would do. Then a little diaper dance.

Her slow Julia Child laughter barrels down the brightly lit hallway, still.  I can see her bumpy head tilted back in that gray hospital bed.  A human heart never felt bigger than in that moment.  Our tears were transformed.

There’s this picture I took after one of the Malibu fires burned up the hills surrounding my neighborhood—charcoaled soil punctured by sharp green needles of grass.  For a moment the charred ground that brain cancer and impending death left behind suddenly burst alive with love and laughter.

Each cackle and joyful boogery snort punctured the darkness, allowing the solemn scene to morph into a comedy of verdant life and love.

It was here, at this moment, that I decided my Fuck You God stance wasn’t going to serve me so well in the coming month.  I knew I would die in some way, too.  If she trusted Jesus with her bumpy life, maybe I could cling to the same Divine Love that Ellen knew so completely?

Could something be both Good and Hard at the same time?  Can God exist as Good and Hard at the same time?  Do Good and Hard even really exist?  Does anything matter anymore?  Because I’m about to watch my sister die in the back bedroom of my house and I want to pummel the pause button.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire oh Claire.  I can hear it still.

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Chapter 9: Miracles (Family)

 

People say that God, like Love, is a verb.  I think Family is, too.

My very first moment of existence fractured my family, the one posing with the Doberman in front of the tiled fireplace in an old Spanish-style bungalow in LA.  Because the man holding me on his knee, the one who thinks he’s my dad…isn’t.

My biological dad was enjoying cocaine with Charlie Sheen, he isn’t in those pictures…yet.  I am the product of an affair between two high school sweethearts who may have been more love addicts than sweethearts.

Visible cracks must’ve appeared years before the paternity test, because we sold the bungalow when I was five, Ellen three.  Daddy moved to an apartment where my younger sister and I shared a sofa bed, which sucked after her eyebrow split open on a ceiling fan one weekend because—this has yet to be proven but I am still sure it’s true—stitches can jump out of one person and attach to the another human body while she sleeps.

When I think about my own five-year-olds having to say good-bye to David or me I want to reach back into the photograph and beg the two humans in charge to get therapy and/or go to rehab.

Reconcile with the traumas of your adolescences so I don’t have to deal with mine eventually in rehab and therapy!  I don’t want to ever say good-bye!  It’ll never get easier, ever.  I’ll just get angrier and sneakier and more aggressive!  Please!

My mom, who used lots of loud words and belts to discipline me, moved to a small house on Ozone Street in Santa Monica with a skinny one-way strip of street separating us from a park with a swing.  A man with kind, bright eyes started to tear away at the photo with visits to the tiny abode.  He took me to the swings and held out carrots to get me close.  He used to do cocaine with Charlie Sheen, but Jesus met him somewhere in Malibu and he stopped.

You’re not my dad!  Except he was.

At seven, a handful of days or weeks or months after the wedding under the sycamores, my mom fractured me further by revealing that the man with carrots and kind eyes and rage was actually my father.  I could keep calling him  _ _ _  though, because nobody would ever replace Daddy.

Phew.

Then Fiona and her turquoise eyeballs joined the mess.  Six months later Ellen—wait, does that mean Ellen isn’t my real sister?—got sick.

Because of the dying little girl nobody had time or energy to make the divorce any yuckier than it was by definition.  When you’re not sure if each Christmas will be the last, you spend almost no time fighting about who gets her on holidays, and you just make one big feast for everyone to enjoy at the table.

Somehow, civility never left the frame.  All my parents could exist in a room and function well enough.  Thanks God.

Daddy remarried, too.  She had a lot of energy and a lot of fun family members and a lot of love for us and her golden retriever.  She painted a Tigger mural in Ellen’s bedroom at Daddy’s new house off National Blvd.  There’s a Ross right there at the offramp where Daddy would buy my clothes, except I was a large child who kept getting larger and the kid’s clothes didn’t fit me, so he bought women’s sizes sometimes and I felt like such a failure because I had two chins & flowy flowery pants that my teachers wore, too.  And just past the Ross, a Vons.  That’s where I bought the Easy Bake Oven WITH MY OWN MONEY.  Ellen and I listened to Shania Twain and “What a Wonderful World” on the drive back to the house that would never feel quite like a home.  Then he got divorced again.

Sean, my youngest brother and a fellow bastard, was conceived just like I was; but instead of a high school sweetheart it was a worship leader at our church.  That’s why God blessed him with musical genius.

For fifth grade Mama made the single best decision of her life and put me into private school.  When she tells the story she uses both hands to illustrate the two paths, one leading to drugs and jail and an early death.  The other leading to Hillcrest Christian School.  She didn’t know that eventually even the Jesus path would lead to drugs and social services and a nearly-narcotic death.

Jesus is in all of that too, though.

Hillcrest became the home my address never could.  At Hillcrest they didn’t hit me, and they did’t get divorced, and not a single human there had brain cancer.  Nobody ever called me a bitch on wheels, and even though I was fat they made room for my body and my pain.  I don’t think God ever intended one woman to serve as her child’s only mother, and at Hillcrest I had a handful of women who held up all my filleted pieces.

My sawed up heart bled onto them as they sat covered in crimson & salty tears.  They reminded me that no matter how many times a dad left, I had a Daddy who specialized in restoration, a Daddy nobody could replace.

And my friends were family, too.  We had twelve in our graduating class and most of us had been together since sixth grade.  Sarah, the tumor-namer and cutter-of-hair, whose family sustained me in every possible way.  Shanen still has perfect eyebrows and a perfect little place for Claire in her heart.  And all the rest of them who let me ask year after year after year that they please pray for Ellen because her brain is broken.

I don’t know if it’s relevant, but I do know that the fact that my mom and biological dad have been married and divorced three times is worth noting.  Between all my parents rest seven divorces, a graveyard of Goodhardgood.

Family is the fracturing and the act of stitching back together.  It’s the ripping apart before the hot-glue-gunning.  Family is the people pictured in the photo, and those who choose to show up for them when it has all hit the fan.  Family are the in-laws who help rewrite every old story you ever told yourself about True Love.

It’s the community of people singing and yelling amen behind the big open doors of my church, where  big stained glass windows help us all see the humanity in each other on Sunday mornings.  My brothers and sisters at Denver Community Church Uptown welcome my sorry as AS IS. They’ll welcome yours too!

Later this afternoon we’ve got a big party planned to celebrate the end of summer, and my family is in town.  Daddy is here, like he always has been—steady and supportive.  Aunt Fi and her giant blue eyes flew in and did puzzles with the big girls before watching Project Runway with me.  Mama will be here too and I finally found an identity outside of her, which means I don’t have to explode.  _ _ _  won’t be here because I don’t want carrots, rage, or rejection for a fourth time.

Also in attendance:  Arm fulls of people who’ve helped Jesus hold up and stitch together the carnage that family can cause.  Lots of family-ing going down today, and I cannot wait to keep partnering with God in the redemption of it all.

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