Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Split Life

Noises echo more at night when you are alone in a house. The first few times you call out to pets or talk on the phone it surprises you, but you get over it quickly. The tricky thing about those amplified echoes is how they insidiously sneak up on you and strike at particularly fragile moments.

Waking up at 2:00 a.m. alone to go the bathroom is one of those times. You open your eyes discovering that even the cats have abandoned your bedside as you fumble for the covers in the gloom. Stumbling into the bathroom isn't all that bad and neither is relieving yourself, but when you flush the toilet, that's when the echo slaps you awake by boxing you right about the ears. Instantly you remember how alone you are and you're painfully aware that what was home is just now house.

Your mind stirs all of that around for a few minutes and inevitably faces of your wife and kids float through your mind and each image makes you feel more alone in the black. Darkness expands in those moments. My bedroom becomes an abyss and I'm floating in limbo with a hope that sleep will come again quickly. Sometimes the minutes drag out interminably and sometimes a glance at the clock shows that hours have passed in overbearing silence.

Strangely that same limbo is in Madison's eyes. When I prepare to leave the Ronald McDonald House after a visit I can't help but look at her. I love her honestly and openly and fervently and she moves through life with easy smiles and infectious laughs. Children and adults move toward her inexorably, pulled by the gravity her joy radiates. You should see her walk through the common areas of the house - it's like watching planets spin around the sun. People, strangers even, call out her name in hellos and grins and she moves with real purpose in everything she does.

She had me in orbit from the moment I saw her, of course, but on those days when I am preparing to leave her and Aurelia and Jillian behind I feel so torn. I feel ripped and and shredded inside because leaving her there is unnatural. I look at her marvelous hazel eyes and feel the full force of her love and adoration. I'm forever bound to her as she moves through life, but it's as if some dark matter yanks me from her. When I'm looking at her in those moments I can almost feel the tug at the back of my neck and it's unyielding.

The moment I say goodbye and turn to go, even if my family is still in sight, I can feel that endless black everywhere. I can look at them and smile, or wave and cry, or tell myself that it's only for a few more days until I see them again, but I'm over the event horizon by that point and I can't even hear what I'm trying to say. The safe passage I took around my daughter and family vanished and I'm drifting through endless space.

It's like time slows to a near crawl in that black hole where I'm away from them. I can't stand to be anywhere but there. I'm motionless like a clock that's lost it's tick and as useless as one without its tock. I get home and unloading the car is a daunting task, let alone cleaning up after the cats or doing laundry or putting things away. I'm paralyzed by being 'home' and I refuse to think or do. I protect myself from limbo by doing nothing because doing anything means noticing how empty it is in Gettysburg for me. Instead I'll read, or turn on HBO to lose myself in re-runs of Boardwalk Empire or InTreatment (I think I'll need more of that myself once this is all over!), or I'll play on the computer or PlayStation or XBox.

Even in the morning I wake up as late as I can so I reduce time in the house to its absolute minimum. Driving to school is easy because I can lose myself in the trip and work itself is nothing compared to being away from my family. Being there is surreal because I have an ethical obligation to do best by my kids and an overwhelming ethical need to be with my family. I teach with enthusiasm still and am prepared enough to get through most of the day without letting on my frustration and exhaustion, but my heart and mind is always somewhere else. I'm listening for my phone, thinking about Aurelia, fighting off fears about going home alone, worrying about how all this is hurting Madison and Jillian, and all my students see is a smile and laugh and an activity on the moral imperitive of a Senator to submit to the will of the constituent. God how sanitized I make this seem during each day.

Every now and then I slip and fall into limbo at work. It usually happens in the hallway or faculty room or on the stairwell. In the relentless pull of being torn away from my familiy everything about me sags. My eyes deaden and my cheeks slacken down over my jaw. My shoulders droop and I lean forward over my feet and the bags under my eyes take on weight. I hate being seen like this, stuck in two places at once and unable to be free. It's not right or natural, or at least that's how it feels. I *need* to be there. I *need* to be with Jillian. I *need* to be with Aurelia. I * need* to be with Madison. I *need* to work because 62 days of Jillian being away and us being on one income means you lose all your savings. I *need* to be here to teach as much as I can because I am a professional that knows his work matters to the lives of kids (not just their minds). I *need* to be happy and smiling for my own sanity sometimes and to fake myself out over this misery and split. I *need* so many things and being this split is not one of them.

I know time passes. I know I'll be back with them in Philly soon. I know that when I'm there I'll be swallowed up in euphoria. I know that when I'm here I do good work and make a difference for kids. I know that foundations and family and friends will come through when needed and that finances will take care of themselves. I know that even the house needs its attention and affection and it's not a bad place to be. I know that so many more are thankful for so much less than me right now, but when I'm split it feels so hard to do anything right.

Sometimes you feel like you let your colleagues down, because they are lifting your dead weight. Sometimes you feel like you're letting your family down because they are struggling along without you. Sometimes you feel like you're letting yourself down when you lack the will to change or act, but all of this is sometimes. That's the thing about this stupid split life - this is all sometimes and never all the time. It can be maddening because you are never one thing. You're only some thing for some of the time and you're still some other thing for some other or that same time, but never all the things you need to be.

I know this whole part of the marathon is coming to a close soon (I hope) but I hate this split life. I can't wait for my selfishness to be fulfilled so that my family is all together and we're figuring out our new life from one place all the time. I know it'll come in time, but for f*ck's sake, now is time enough!


  1. Sending a lot of love and support, Charley. I can't imagine being in your shoes. The range of emotions you must experience -- as you allude to here -- must be immense and overwhelming. In my experience of the girls' NICU time, as well as their early months at home when I returned to school -- I remember people emphasizing the positives or the positives to come. I do think it is important to keep the positives with you, but I also believe that your willingness to acknowledge what you are feeling (and not feeling) in the moment -- as you are able -- will serve your psyche well in the long run. This is a trauma, to be sure, and I think you will find that your thoughtfulness, connection to your feelings, and desire to see the gray (as opposed to black and white) will all contribute to integrating all of this into your larger life experience and to working through how its affected so many aspects of your (and Jillian's) lives and relationships. It's OK to be angry and fed up with this leg of the marathon, and I am hoping every single day that soon you will receive word that Aurelia will be coming home and that you will move to the next phase, where at least you four will be together. Hugs, and thank you for sharing with all of us just a glimpse of what your experience has been.

  2. Your post made me really consider how empty our house would feel to me without Olivia and Bryan ... and yet reminders of them everywhere. I know you probably have some days off coming up with the holiday, but I'd love to have you over for dinner some night, if you're up for it. Don't know why I didn't think of it before. You could fairly easily (I think) swing by our house on your way home from work. I promise not to make anything with tomatoes!! We'll call; I think one of us has your cell.

  3. I don't see it as selfishness at all.
    Now is time enough. ~Mary

  4. I have often said that I can't imagine what it is like going through what you and Jillian are going through. But after reading this post I am beginning to get a bit of the picture. Thank you for sharing so much of what is going on for you. Reading this reminded me of just how difficult this whole situation is on all four of you. As an outsider, my natural inclination as time passes is to imagine things are better for you than they were 6 weeks ago. And while that may be true in some ways, it is still a terribly difficult situation. It is wishful thinking on my part as I WANT your situation to just "get better" but I appreciate posts like this because they remind me of what is going on for you and that helps me try to be a better friend to you and Jillian. All we can do in these situations is keep on pushing ahead. Hopefully, before too long, we stumble out of the dimness and into happier times.