I often wonder if death is my shtick.
My sweet spot. My comfort zone. My “thing,” if you will.
Some writers pen about parenthood (be it to a child, children [plural] or a Labrador Retriever) — others, about their carefully mapped out fitness journeys (#newyearnewme). Some bloggers chronicle the newest season of their favorite television show — others, their worst first dates.
I, however, dabble in death.
Sure, I sometimes venture outside the box (be it with a piece on living life below the poverty line, or on failed OkCupid courtship), but it almost always circles back to that D-word.
(You know the one I’m talking about.)
My first experience with death was in the fifth grade.
Just two weeks before I was to deliver the salutatorian speech at my elementary school graduation*, my only living grandparent — Loretta Carcaterra (nee: Johnston) — kicked the bucket on her 80th birthday.
Her passing — though, by no means unexpected — rattled my world to its core (which, at the time, pretty much revolved around gel pens and whether or not the next Disney Channel Original Movie would star Ryan Merriman).
But, above all, it set a precedent:
People get old, and then they die.
But, how old is old? For most of my life, the magic number was 80.
When my father died, the bar lowered to 66.
Another one by no means unexpected — and yet, another one that uprooted my life (which, at this time, hinged on hair bleach and Mike’s Hard Lemonade) and violently shook it around as if it were a souvenir snow globe.
Five years later, cancer and pneumonia tag-teamed my 59-year-old mother and that number dropped again (as did my jaw and tolerance for other people’s shit — but that’s neither here nor there).
My world as I knew it (which, at this time, consisted of student loans, trying not to lose my keys and other vague introductions to adulthood) was over. By the ripe age of 22, I’d not only lost both of my parents, but I’d also lost my grip on just how long a person is expected to live until — one day — they just stop doing that.
Two years later, any handle I had left on the circle of life was thrown to the wind when a friend of mine’s mother dropped dead at 44. Devastated — both for her and for her younger brother, set to celebrate his tenth birthday that same weekend — I reached for the phone. I (frantically and spastically) typed, backspaced and crafted again long, drawn-out novels of support.
Words of love. Words of wisdom. And then, words of anger.
“What the actual fuck is going on?”
– A real text I probably sent
Life as she knew it had changed forever and — somehow — so had mine again.
We talked wakes and cemeteries and the harsh reality of pity invites until our thumbs went numb. We talked finances and forced sympathy and signs of our mothers’ presence (I see that Coors Light truck, Mom). We talked life after death, and what it really means to grab life by the balls.
Since her mother’s death, my friend has cut eight inches off her hair (a bold move I typically advise against in times of sadness but fully support in moments of crippling, where-do-I-go-from-here heartache), nearly maxed out her credit card and — frankly — YOLO-ed hard.
Some might say she’s walking a fine line — trust me, I’ve been there (whaddup, impulse trip to London), and am paying for it now (Chase Bank: 1, Meaghan -$500) — but I say she’s living, and that’s all we can really do; That’s all we can really do when the world my friend and I are living in — a world without someone we’ve previously never known life without — is new to us.
(Moral of the story,) it’s all we can do when tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
And so, I trade you last year’s slew of unkept New Year’s resolutions (I did not use that stairmaster; it has since become a scarf rack) for a lone vow:
Say yes. Say no. Wear flip flops to the grocery store mid-winter. Do you — and do it well because, as Slim Shady once said, you only get one shot.
* Hold your applause. My name was picked out of a hat.
My mother hated few people. Justin Bieber was one of them*.
Since I’ll never really know how my mother — a once-terrible texter who died just months before Bieber’s first arrest — would’ve felt about his Billboard-confirmed comeback**, I’ve settled for the opinions of some other mothers.
One father was also surveyed, but he was just confused:
* She also seriously resented Robin Thicke, though she likely just thought he was his father.
** She’d probably still detest him, but really get down to “Sorry.”
Last November, 20 some-odd friends and I unfolded metal chairs around two beer pong tables, a snack tray and a music stand. We raised plastic cups of apple cider-sangria and cans of warm Rolling Rock while cheers-ing our inaugural Friendsgiving feast. Somewhere between
(A) under-cooking the sweet potatoes with my best friend and her off-the-boat Irish mother,
(B) ripping my dress at the waistline before a vaguely inappropriate grace, and
(C) Celine Dion karaoke,
I was once again mulled down by the giant hypothetical U-Haul-truck that’s been lugging around all the feelings I’ve been feeling (est. 1991) and all the thanks I have left to give.
I. Friends, family and cheesecake
I’m thankful for friends that still love and (somewhat) respect me even after I spent Thanksgiving Eve ’14 bawling my eyes out at the bar because “that bitch looked at me like I was fucking orphan Annie” (and for family that helped nurse the subsequent hangover). I’m thankful for our strong and powerful clan (not to be confused with cult, though that is–at times–an understandable mix-up), however small and occasionally petty. For friends that inspire me, challenge me, dance with me and actually like me. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be ticket #46 at a 45-person dinner at the home of my second family; the one that offered up their basement futon for a few
days weeks months because the odds were stacked against me and there was no one else sleeping on it at the time.
“Who are you here with?”
“Oh, I used to live in the basement.”
I’m equally thankful for said family’s Aunt Barbara and her cheesecake, but that’s neither here nor there.
II. The 21st century/popular culture
I’m thankful for tights with built-in spandex, strapless bras, and pizza. For autocorrect, for auto-enhance, and for oversized sweatshirts. For self timers, red lipstick, cheap wine, and old My Chemical Romance (RIP). I’m thankful for bars that are also on boats, open bar wristbands, and all the open bar tabs that I remembered to close this year (pour some out for the ones that I left cold, alone and very much open while I stood in line for street corner falafel). I’m thankful that Snapchat is time-sensitive (unless you’re a dick), and that I didn’t die those two times I went to Delaware. I’m thankful for the Internet and the ability for someone’s words, thoughts, and ideas to go viral. I’m thankful for drugstores that still carry disposable cameras and for those few and far between moments we get all the girls in one picture. I’m thankful for dresses that photograph well and for Mexican street corn. For beards and booze and bars with Dirty Jenga. I’m thankful that Instagram version 6.4.0 finally allowed for edits (and therefore, for all of my emojis to fit on the same line).
Also, for back-up hard drives and deep fried Oreos.
III. Amy Poehler
I’m thankful for anything Amy Poehler gets her presumably soft and sensual hands on (including but not limited to: Chris Pratt, Yes Please and “Broad City”).
Writing is a nightmare.
– Amy Poehler
See also: tiring and taxing and often entirely thankless but, if Amy Poehler was able to birth a best-selling memoir while also filing for divorce, co-hosting the Golden Globes, and closing the book on a seven-season sitcom, I’m pretty sure I can pencil it in with throwing clean laundry on my freshly swept bedroom floor and burning every piece of toast I touch.
I’m thankful for roommates who are also my friends, i.e. roommates I want to come home to. I’m thankful for roommates who sit at the foot of my bed when I’m crying (and offer to call an ambulance because they’re boys and are new to the idea of panic attacks); roommates who splurge on a $15 tree from the 99 cent store across the street, even though the fake snow might just be asbestos; and roommates that don’t mind that said tree’s been up all year.
V. My lungs and legs
Coming from a family with an aggressive medical history (cancer loves us, what can I say?), my okay health is something I’m thankful for each year.
Plus, having not broken a body part since that bottle of Smirnoff helped shatter my kneecap in high school is something worth celebrating.
VI. My parents
Not only am I thankful for the time I had with these two beautiful humans but I’m also thankful for the subtle reminders they’re still here; like the time my phone buzzed to tell me that a band named “MOM” had followed me on Twitter, or the time I reached into my purse for a pen and pulled out a golf tee.
Perhaps most of all, I am thankful for this platform. For the ability to (occasionally over-)share my thoughts (however self loathing and riddled with comma splices they may be) with readers who give somewhat of a shit*.
* Even when I go six months without posting.
There are very few things I remember from my childhood.
One being the time my six-year-old self, with both doe eyes fixed on the television, took a long-winded sip from my mother’s lukewarm Coors Light instead of my own Happy Meal Sprite. (Why she had a straw in her beer is something neither of us ever figured out.)
Apparently I wasn’t a fan.
Another, the scarring moment four-year-old me plummeted to the ground off a set of presumably high-end, Bermudian monkey bars. Later in life, my mother would say with a straight face, “I can’t believe that’s all you remember from that fucking trip.”
Apparently it was a nice one.
A third, in elementary school, when my mother confiscated my brand new Looney Tunes pencil case after discovering that I’d reported her to D.A.R.E. informants because she smoked Marlboros, not marijuana.
Apparently those little baggies were for buttons.
One of the hardest parts about losing both parents has been losing the memories that went with them. The stories I would ask to hear over and over again at thirteen, but couldn’t care less about come high school because I was a hormonal monster with a Myspace to manage.
The little things that only they took note of and either, A. never told me or, B. told me so long ago that it’s been excommunicated to the dark chamber of my brain where Math B is stored.
The ones I’m interested in now more than ever.
A good friend of mine just started a blog called, “From Russia, With Sarcasm.” In it, she plans to detail every thoughtful/embarrassing/life-molding moment from her immigrant childhood (and her parents’ coinciding immigrant parenthood) — a conquest, I admit, I am equal parts fond and jealous of.
Sure, there are the anecdotes that stuck — like how, to keep this pint-sized human off the couch, my mother would simply lay down the vacuum (a household object, I’m told, I was terribly afraid of), or how, come hell or high water, I would try and stick my tiny hands in the VCR (a household object I apparently was not).
Though, there will always be gaps.
There will always be gray areas because there will always be stories, whether proclaimed at dinner parties or published for the world to see, that haven’t been properly fact checked — some filled with unintentionally stretched versions of the truth (Was Mom a Grateful-Deadhead or did I dream that?) and others with sentences that could always be better.
Sentences that would benefit from said little things.
Take this piece, for example.
When did Mom first learn I was paralyzed by the vacuum?
Was I alarmed by any other inanimate objects?
Did I shriek in fear or lay fetal on the floor?
For a writer, these details (or the lack-thereof) can make or break a good piece. And, for someone still grieving, the missing pieces are just another reminder of how real a loss is.
So, like us writers usually do, we improvise (just like us grievers do with things like inherited debt and all that dreadful funeral paperwork we never knew existed).
It was probably an accident, and she probably laugh-cried.
I was definitely wary of the George Foreman grill.
If I was then, like I am now, fetal. Definitely fetal.
It’s all any of us can ever do.
Also featured on Huffington Post Healthy Living
A friend recently informed me that I’ve been living below the poverty line.
Since blowing through my savings in a mere two-ish years on my own, I’ve had the nice, expensive Pursian rug pulled out from underneath me. The one that paved the way for lavish, week-long music festivals and all of the bar tabs I so heroically-and regrettably-offered to pay.
I’ve kicked the iTunes habit my stay-at-home mother so desperately begged me to curb in high school (she was less than thrilled that my father’s hard-fought-for pension was going towards things like the “1,2 Step” music video and the “Goofy Movie” soundtrack) and nixed my morning cappuccinos, all in hopes of keeping afloat — and finding the center in my checkbook.
In a world where there are college courses on wine (Cornell University), maple syrup (Alfred University) and even “The Art of Walking” (Centre College) — but none on being a self-sustainable human being, learning to cut the crap must, instead, come naturally (often on its own time).
And so, I present to you, Adulting 101: The Sparknotes edition.
1. That’s definitely mold. You should definitely do something about it.
2. Make sure you’re not paying part of the previous tenant’s cable bill because you
more than likely definitely are.
3. Never read the comments section.
4. Check that tupperware before microwaving.
5. Tupperware is spelled “tupperware.”
6. The IRS doesn’t care that you also need to eat.
7. Open your mail.
8. No, seriously. Open your mail.
9. Never tell your dentist (pre-procedure) that you don’t care how it’s going to look.
10. Your DNA is on everything.
11. Snoozing “five more minutes” than you did yesterday, every day, will catch up to you and eventually get you fired — in the same way that those Seamless orders will come back to haunt your bank account.
12. APR stands for “annual percentage rate.”
13. Annual percentage rate has something to do with your credit cards.
14. Which you should have, apparently.
15. Say no if you want to.
16. Say yes if you want to.
17. Feel if you want to.
18. Snack if you want to.
19. Wine does not equal dinner and neither does air, even if it’s all you can afford at the moment.
20. A savings account is called a savings account for a reason.
21. If you use it like you would a checking account, your bank will (not so) politely threaten to strip it of said title.
22. Cutlery ain’t cheap.
23. Carpe dormio (seize the nap), also known as,
“This is fine.”
“Are you sure you want to put your roommate down as your emergency contact?”
“Hell, what if you forget to cook breakfast that morning?” asked an overly aggressive, semi-sexist personal trainer during a free consultation I wish terribly I had slept through instead.
“I’m sure,” I said confidently, dodging — if only for a second — a bullet I knew damn well was going to whip around and rattle my ribcage. (I was right.) Not three minutes later would she seek out my medical history and ask my father’s age.
“My dad is dead,” I said, “but he would have been in his early seventies.”
“Honey, I’m so sorry. How long ago?”
“Seven years now.”
“Well, what about your mother?”
“Oh, she’s dead two years this October.”
The thirteenth month feels like a brand new chapter, if only for a sentence or two.
By fourteen, you stop measuring the passing of time in months as her absence begins to announce itself, instead, in moments. And, quite frankly, those moments — triggered by, for example, her nonattendance at a wedding or her presence, still, on speed dial — don’t give a fuck where you are, what time it is or (as it turns out) whether or not it’s your best friend’s birthday.
See also: your first time back at the gym in a year or an awkward first-date with a sports writer who you can only assume never texted you back because your baggage was showing.
“What do you write about?”
“A lot about drinking and a lot about death.”
By the beginning of year-two, the world as you once knew it has been remodeled — or, at the very least, provided a feasible blueprint. You’ve gotten up, you’ve gotten on and you’ve kind of, sort of gotten your shit semi-together.
There are four walls around you but, now that the room’s stopped spinning (and you’ve finally paid off the better part of her debts), it feels like they’re caving in. You come to the harsh realization that, with a lack of loose ends to tie up, the gravity of a loved one’s death can come crashing in — anytime, anywhere — with the same intensity as the morning after. And it does.
In the 24 months since my mother died, I’ve battened down the hatches more times than I can count. I’ve spent sunny afternoons in bed with the lights off, self-diagnosed myself with a type of depression I found on the Internet and even cancelled an appointment with the head of the New York City Police Department Press Office because I thought I was having a heart attack. (Oh, anxiety. You devil.)
And still, I’ve weathered each storm (and the subsequent night terrors), just as mom did when dad died.
I’ve learned to laugh harder and to open a wine bottle without breaking the cork. I’ve learned to balance my checkbook, to refresh the weather app before leaving for work and THAT WRITER’S BLOCK IS REAL AND IT TOTALLY FUCKING SUCKS. I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff and that whiskey makes me an animal. I’ve learned the importance of “I love you” and that, sometimes, it’s better to just say, “No. I don’t want to. I’d rather sit in and order Chinese.”
I’ve screamed and I’ve cried (and I’ve scream-cried outside of McDonalds). I’ve moved mountains (see: filing my taxes) and I’ve cowered in fear (see: paying said taxes). I’ve tried new things like seeking therapy and opting for goat cheese and keeping my dentist appointments (all but one of those she’d truly be proud of).
I’ve grown closer to friends and family who, like I, never asked to be a part of this club.
And, most importantly, I’ve accepted that — whether it’s been two years or seven — it’s okay to not be okay because, contrary to popular belief, time isn’t a miracle worker.
The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.
– Amy Poehler, “Yes Please”
Ten weeks ago, I went back to school. Well, sort of.
Two hours of Googling and one very reassuring “this can only be good for you” text later and I was giving Gotham Writers Workshop my address and credit card information. A 10-week workshop sounded nice, and I was getting pretty tired of staying faithful to community news (hell hath no fury like a resident scorned). Both my blog and bedroom were collecting dust, as they still are (consider this a public apology to my boatload of dedicated followers and anyone whose clothes I have stolen and let pile up on my floor). Basically, I considered myself long overdue for one of those life-changing “a-ha” moments you see on the big screen. Like when Harry meets Sally or when Blanche realizes she’s the sluttier of the Golden Girls.
I said to myself, “If all else fails, I guess I’ll have something to write about,” followed by,
“Maybe I’ll even meet a boy.” *
With one class left — and at least 18 pages I would have never otherwise written under my shiny new belt, I can safely say I got my Hollywood ending (minus the part where Lena Dunham shows up at my apartment to offer me a book deal with little to no fine print and a lifetime of free Taco Bell). With just one more rush hour train ride to Bryant Park on my horizon, here’s (a SparkNotes version of) what I’ve taken away from Memoir Writing 101:
Some people are going to really dig your writing,
and others would rather read the back of a takeout menu. Some will grow fond of your flow, your style, your voice, and maybe even your excessive use of commas. Others will not. That’s just how this thing goes.
Some people are not going to “get it.”
Many will. Just make sure they understand who’s who. The rest is up to them.
Make sure you’re getting on the right train.
This is not a metaphor. Balancing work and class is the fucking pits. Make sure that D train is not a B train, or else you might end up taking an Uber home from East Flatbush at midnight with nothing but two dollars in your pocket and a half eaten bag of white cheddar popcorn in your purse.
Times Square is the worst.
Also not a metaphor. Just the cold hard crowded truth.
Keep a journal,
be it in a composition notebook, in the notes of your iPhone or on the back of a receipt. Whatever you do, write it down because, if you’re anything like me, your memory — or lack thereof — will prove to be your greatest enemy in the quest to finish your piece. Think of it as the troll under the bridge that won’t stop asking questions you don’t know the answer to. Be prepared to pay the toll.
Simple right? One would think.
The realization that I will never, ever write enough hit me like a nasty hangover as early on as Week One because — spoiler alert — you can never, ever write too much. Make the time, even if you swear you don’t have it (I, for one, have pledged at least one hour per day I would normally spend Facebook stalking former flames to my forthcoming collection of personal and painfully embarrassing essays).
Write often and write it all, but don’t dwell on writing well. Spill your guts on the page even if that means devoting three and a half pages to the way your college boyfriend looked at you when you drank too much Pinnacle Whipped, and another two to the time you were physically removed from B.B. Kings for spewing on a table full of someone else’s food.
Don’t sweat the small stuff in the first draft (this one’s a metaphor!). Save the heavy editing for drafts seven and eight because, if you’re doing it right, you won’t ever really be finished writing.
* I did not meet any boys.