Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Do I Like You So Much?

It’s hard for me to feel truly comfortable in a place. Maybe it stems from being teased as a kid. Maybe it’s genetics, the hereditary hyper-sensitivity I garnered from my father’s side of the family. I think that it must be the latter, because at thirty years old, I’m still uncomfortable in most social situations. The older I get, I find it more and more difficult to relax and just “be myself.”

Does anybody have it figured out? I think my grandfather did.

“All I remember about your father is that he had a big bald head,” said my Aunt Mare to my mother, a few weeks ago at the shore. “He had a big bald head and big round eyes.”

He did have a big bald head and big round eyes. Also a big nose and saggy jowl, strong hands and bad knees.

He died this past Sunday night. Natural causes. He was ready to go; he’d been saying it for months. He could no longer walk, hold a pen to do crosswords, remember long enough to joke with people or enjoy music. For the last month or so, we’ve all been praying that he’d get to his rest soon. And he got it.

Still, my family is sad. He was a remarkable guy, the kind of personality that makes you mad that there’s this thing called death that has to happen to everybody. He was so good-natured, and it was catching. Even in the planning of the arrangements, flying the family down to Florida at the end of the week, we’ve been slightly jubilant.

“Six of us on a plane for two days?” said my twenty-seven year old brother. “This is gonna be awesome!”

Grandpop would appreciate the sentiment. Not to be ear-twistingly cliché, but it IS how he would have wanted us to be.

So many people say in mourning: “So-and-so wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.” Most of the time, I think it’s bullshit. I mean, who doesn’t want people to cry at their funeral? If I attended my funeral as a ghost and saw nobody crying, I’d be like: Well, thanks a lot. I want melodrama. A mire of people emotionally embarrassing themselves. Crying. Sobbing. Throwing themselves on my casket. Like the end of Godfather III.

That’s not my grandpop though. I know this because he made everyone’s happiness his priority. He often reminded me of Sinatra in that way; I saw him move around his house like I imagined Sinatra moved around the Sands, spending time talking to every single person in the place, making sure that he or she was happy, taken care of for the evening. He also mastered this inner calm, a feeling that spread through the room with his smile. If not cracking jokes, he’d remind us, incessantly, how much he loved us.

“Why do I like you so much?” he often asked.

My grandmother would cross from the family room to the kitchen, and in those few steps, he’d tell her that she was wonderful, and he loved her, at least four times. I’m not exaggerating. It wasn’t just lip service either. He wore that love on his face, in his eyes, in his smile, and the gentle way he spoke to her, and all of us.

Neither he nor my grandmother ever raised their voices. They never got cross with each other. They were quiet and patient. When they visited, Matthew and I woke early, ran to their bed and climbed right in. We stayed there for the early dawning hours, singing songs.

“Here we go,
Into the wild blue yonder…

“You are the B-E-S-T
Of all the R-E-S-T
And I’ll L-O-V-E
Love you,
All the T-I-M-E

“Be kind to your web-footed friends
‘Cos a duck may be somebody’s mother.
They live in the woods and the swamp,
Where the weather is cold and dahmp.
Now you may think that this is the end.
Well it is!”

For breakfast, he made us pancakes in the shapes of the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty—a feat I’ve tried to replicate many times, and failed. (Seriously, try to make a pancake in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It’s impossible.)

Later on in the day, he’d get down on the floor with us to play, build castles with blocks. He taught us Checkers, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit. When we did well, he marveled at our smarts, bulging out his eyes, terrifically impressed.

As I got older, he taught me how to mix the chemicals for the right pH level in their pool. He let me help him with his crosswords. He taught me everything about Sinatra. Recently, I found a photo of him from the seventies, where he’s lying on the floor with his hands tucked under his head, right next to the speaker cabinet in his living room. The look on his face is pure joy. I felt like I was looking into a mirror; I was like: Yeah, music does that to me too.

The last time I saw him, we drank vodka tonics and joked and laughed. I stopped smiling only when he asked how writing was going. I replied, “Well I’m writing, but I haven’t been published yet.”

“You will,” he said.

This shut me up, not because it had to do with my career, but because of the way he said it. He replied so simply, like I’d said that I wanted to take out the trash, or do the dishes. To him, it was simple. There was no doubt in his mind.

You will.

My grandfather carried this unflinching optimism through his whole life. Who knows where he got it? He grew up in the Philly neighborhood of Tacony, so poor that he stole Christmas trees for his family. He could not afford college, so he went to war, flew planes in WWII. He went to college on the GI Bill. Like a classic old movie, he started working in the mailroom of an insurance company, and worked his way up until he was an executive. People liked him so much that they put him in charge of starting new branches all over the country. He inspired people to feel pride and love in their work. He worked hard, planned frugally, but always enjoyed life.

“You are number one,” he often said.

For years, I thought he meant simply that I should take care of myself, first and foremost. But now I see that he was trying to teach me his recipe for happiness. To be happy is to love yourself, truly, completely.

When you truly love yourself, you carry that unflinching optimism with you everywhere. You are confident. You glow. You spread those good feelings all around. You have a hard day at work, but so what? At the end of the day, you can lie on the living room floor with your head in the stereo cabinet, smiling. You can surround yourself with the people you love most.

I take a lot from my grandfather—his love of music, his big bulging eyes, his saggy jowl. Most important is this. His gushiness. His need to constantly remind everyone around him that he loved them.

It’s important. Not because it’s the nice thing to do or because you never know when they might be taken from you. Because love is how you survive in this world. Love helps you carry that unflinching optimism through every obstacle.

I think that this is why my grandfather was so adamant about saying, “I love you.” Those three words are like spells for love and happiness. They also make a place comfortable. They turn four walls into a home.

Howard Hoke Ireland, flying in WWII
my grandpop Howard Ireland flying in WWII

Ireland and grandchildren, 1988
look how despondent grandpop looks

Ireland and granddaughters, August 2007
mo, me and grandpop-from-florida

Saturday, August 9, 2008

memoir: prologue

I look asleep. But I’m not. Sure, my eyes are closed, my lashes are fluttering, and my breath is slight leavening in my chest. It means nothing.

Look closer. I’m a little nerd. Woody Allen in an eleven-year-old girl’s body. Coke bottle glasses. Buck teeth. Greasy braids. Chicken legs. My pj’s consist of an orange Flyers t-shirt and hole-y pale pink bottoms with the feet cut off.

The nightlight burns bright on the bedside table. Somewhere in the swells of blankets, there’s a book. I’ve fallen asleep with my glasses on. But I’m not really asleep.

Inside I feel awake. I can see my room around me, but I can’t move. I lie stuck inside a pocket, halted on the path to sleep. It’s as if I’m lying in a clear casket, cut to the exact perimeters of my body. The blue walls of my room look crinkly, as if awash with static from Channel four. The grainy air hums like a million little mouths. I get the feeling that I’m not alone. Something stirs in my bed.

I look down at my body. Many hands have sprouted from my sides. I look like a spider girl or the Hindu goddess Kali. Only I have no control over the hands. They don’t lie dormant or paralyzed with the rest of my body. They turn on me. They tickle me in my most secret places—behind my knees, the small of my back, the arches of my feet. They stroke the crooks of me, not in a way that makes me explode with laughter, but in a way that makes me squirm and wince. They pick at my torso, my belly, and my legs. They pluck me like a guitar.

The humming air begins to chuckle. It itches the insides of my ears. It feels like something is holding me down in my bed. If I struggle, it will smother me.

It’s not just a dream. It’s sleep paralysis and it’s been happening since I was four.

SP is a condition where a person, either falling asleep or waking, feels unable to move or speak. It happens when a sleeper moves through the stages of sleep too fast. The result is death-like paralysis, coupled with intense fear, and sometimes hallucinations.

I call the episodes, trances. I’ve never told anybody about the trances—partly because I don’t think they are that dangerous, just a little scary and weird, and partly because I don’t know what to tell, or who to tell.

Who will believe me? There’s so much about me that’s wrong. Each of the hands that sprout from my sides is another thing about me that I don’t like. My glasses. My smile that’s like a retard’s. My nose dripping snot. My throat making me cough until I puke. My head that’s so tired. My body that can’t sleep. My brain that won’t shut up. My mouth that always says the wrong things.

If my body is a garden from where these hands grow, then I’m the gardener, fertilizing it with hate. Self-hate, when done right, becomes part of everything I do and don’t do. This is why instead of telling my parents or a doctor what’s up with me, or researching sleep disorders, I stay quiet and still, suffering through the nights of my childhood.

There’s only one way to get out of sleep paralysis, and it’s painful. I have to wake myself up.

It’s like I’m in a little shell, with just enough room to wiggle. I start rocking forward. I tell myself: Wake up, wake up, wake up. I focus all of my energy on these words and where they are coming from, the very center of my forehead. I rock once, twice. I grit my teeth and wrench up, pulling through what feels like twelve feet of water.

I sit up. I feel like I’ve been pelted with bricks. If I stay in bed, I’ll conk out again, and slip right back into paralysis. The rest of the night will be a cycle of strangulation until dawn. I jump out of bed and go to the window.

It’s around four in the morning, I judge by the royal color of the sky. Not much longer until daytime. I place my hands on the windowsill, and rest my chin on my hands.

I live in God’s Country, the suburbs of Philadelphia. Behind our house is a rolling acre of grass and a farm. At this hour, not even the horses are awake. The silence is so loud that it bangs in my ears. The stillness wraps me like a blanket. I feel like I’m the only person alive on earth. And it’s lovely.

I stare at the line of trees at the edge of my backyard. The branches have grown in such a way that they look like a portrait. Their shadows make faces, kinda like how clouds look like different shapes and faces in the springtime. This morning, the trees look like Gone with the Wind, Rhett dipping Scarlett back for a kiss, saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I want so badly to fall into someone’s arms, and have someone fall in love with me.

I am eleven. I think that everything that happens to me means something. I think that this picture in the trees is a sign.

I sigh, wish into the screen: Someday, someone will take care of me.

The wind picks up. A bird lifts off Scarlett’s shoulder. It flaps into the dying sky. For a moment, I watch it fly. Its body catches the dawning light; its muscles throb and flex beneath its threadbare coat.

Flying is hard. Often, I’ve wondered: Do birds even enjoy it?

If not, what a shame. Although sometimes when the body is hardest at work, it feels the most calm, we feel the most alive. This is something I’ve yet to learn, that lying around, doing nothing, and waiting for change only makes a person go more insane.

I circle my room for a while. I flip through teen magazines. I organize my closet. I read my favorite Baby-sitter’s Club book for the 88 millionth time.

Two hours, and the sky begins to change. It turns a deep Navy Atlantic, and grows paler and paler until settling on a crisp salty blue.

Across the hall in my parents’ room, KYW news radio clacks on. Their bed creaks. Mom groans. Dad coughs. I turn and look to the alarm clock on my nightstand. Six. Time to get ready for school. I lay my forehead down on the windowsill and close my eyes. Suddenly, I feel so tired.