Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Meep-moop" means I love you

Blogging about my client’s sister last entry got me thinking about family.  There are different kinds of family and sometimes friends can be the family you choose for yourself.

My first memory of Vicki is from junior high, before it was called middle school.  To me, “junior high” sounds cooler than middle school, which sounds like middle aged kids having middle aged kid crises.  Vicki and I toppled into puberty around the same time.  Some of the pushy, strangely confident girls in our gym class made us stand back to back in the locker room so they could compare our boobs.  I was horrified.  Vicki thought it was funny.  And so began the dearest friendship of my life with my sister friend, my confidante, my person.  Her boobs were bigger than mine then, and they still are.  She continues to take everything in stride, while I still seize up with worry

I don’t remember when our friendship eased away from being fellow uneasy in-betweeners on the periphery of more popular girls and into full fledged best friendship.  Looking back, I don’t think that either of us felt entirely accepted, although we both treaded social water with the feathered alpha dogs as best we could.  We threw each other a neon 1980’s life preserver and clung to each other during good times and bad for the next thirty plus years. 

The 80’s were an awesome and yet dangerous time to become teenagers.  Our parents weren’t all that concerned about what we were doing or where we were, as long as we didn’t get caught.  There were no cell phones to check in, no internet to point out the hazards.  I rode my bike seven hot summer miles down a busy highway to Vicki's house. I’d flop, exhausted and sweating, on her couch where her spazzy dog would jump up and pee on me.  I'd borrow a clean shirt, and we'd walk to Taco Bell, where we would pollute ourselves silly.

Remembering some of our teen shenanigans makes me shudder and consider installing LoJacks on both of my children.  We wandered and experimented and made stunningly risky choices, usually followed by long, tears-streaming, belly laughs.  I think we only saw Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight once, but we successfully used it as a late night excuse for all sorts of other secrets.

My only real date to a high school dance was thanks to one of many visits to Columbia, Missouri, where Vicki spent summers with her dad.  We’d cruise up and down “the loop”, gaping out car windows at cute boys, pretending not to be interested when they shouted suggestive come-ons at us.  We were 17 years old and lucky not to be dragged into an empty lot somewhere.  We met a slew of boys and it was all sort of innocent, but sort of not.  My Missouri souvenir boyfriend had a southern accent, a full beard and I dated him through prom until college, when I promptly dumped him.

Vicki visited me at U of I while she was taking her twisty, winding path through growing up.  Her father was in the Navy and she moved constantly as a child; a habit she's kept.  As we became young adults, Vicki was so utterly gorgeous that it was sometimes annoying to be her friend.  We’d be out at bars and guys would smile at me sheepishly after Vicki shot them down.  “Okay.  Well… how about you, then?” they’d ask me dejectedly, trying not to be too obvious about lowering the bar.  Vicki earned a degree in social work, modeled awhile, got a degree in nursing.  She had tumultuous crazy relationships with the guys who adored her and/or wanted to kill her.  She could wreak havoc when she wanted to, driving her mother and boyfriends nuts on cue.  There was just no stopping her when she made up her mind.

U of I and Mizzou. 
I'm sure the floral print and haircut weren't helping my odds. 

At my wedding reception, there is a fabulous scene captured on video when Vicki’s date of the moment was incorrectly doing the electric slide.  He was faced the wrong way and it looks like he’s having a dance off against the entire floor of people.  He was the last of Vic’s guys to be out of step, as she was about to find her husband, Steve and hang up her naughty hat.  I recently teased Steve, for the hundredth time, about how very quiet and shy he was when Joe and I first met him.  Steve patiently explained that I was so damn hyper and loud, nobody could get a word in edgewise.  Plus, I think we freaked him out. Touché.

Alec and Maxie
Vicki is my son Joey’s godmother.  I’m not religious, so for me, it was a chance to show Vicki again, in every way and in a new way, that she is my family.  Her son Alec and my son Max are less than a year apart.  They are hilarious and unusual and they remind me of Vicki and me.  They aren’t vanilla mainstream kids and in miserable middle school, that can be hard.  They’re full of imagination and laughter and they love each other, which is unexpected and delicious.  Vicki’s daughter is beautiful like her mother and means business; she wants her own way in very much the same way Vicki did when I first met her.  We agreed just today that justice will probably be served when Olivia is a teenager.

We’ve lived seven minutes door to door when our babies were little.  We’ve lived a plane ride away for years; we’ve had long, long drives between us for other stretches.  Some years we’ve only needed to drive 45 minutes or an hour, and visits seemed as hard to schedule as the plane rides when we were sprinting around with work and kids.  When Vicki’s dad was dying, she was a million miles away, in shocking pain she couldn’t share, even though we lived close.  As of three months ago, we’re back to being only 15 minutes apart after four years of rare visits between Arizona and Illinois. 

The distance was different this time, because we really needed each other and it was just so far.  When we had visits, they were more precious than ever because we knew the next one would be a long time coming.  We were needy and hurting, at times, and we’d put all our friendship eggs tenderly into each others’ baskets.  It’s hard to lean on someone new when your lifelong friend suddenly can’t hop in her car to hold your hand the way she used to hold your hair when you made all those forever ago bad choices.

So now my person is back, and it’s funny.  I don’t even need to be talking to her or see her; life feels different knowing that I can.  I am so insanely lucky to have my husband, my kids, my parents nearby.  But now I have my neon life preserver back within reach and I feel grounded and safer and more like one of the cool kids, even though it’s just in our own weird little world.

Olivia recently asked Vicki if she and Aunt Wendy ever had fights.  All these years and we really haven’t, probably partly because I am terrified of arguments.  Plus, we are both usually too awesome and entertaining to irritate each other.   When I was working full time and Vicki was a stay at home mom with baby Alec, I would try and listen to her on the phone while I was working on the computer.  I’d half listen to her while click-clacking away and then give her my full attention when I had something to say.  It was the closest thing we had to a real fight.  She was pissed that I was half-assing my part of our bargain.  She gave me the silent treatment for a little while, maybe to let me know how it felt not to feel heard.  Now, Vicki is the one who is crazy busy with work and her active family, trying to fit in chats with me between endless discussions about cancer with the frightened patients who need her help.  We’re still growing up together and learning how to balance it all. 

My husband Joe imitates Vicki’s soft, rather nasal voice,  by saying, “Meep, moop.”  Sometimes when he calls me on the phone from work, he says “Meep, moop,” in greeting, which I take to mean that someone I love is on the line.

I talked Vicki into hosting our high school Bunko group last week.  She’s only been back home for a few fast months, but in some ways, it feels like she never left.  I sat in her bathroom while she was getting ready for Bunko, just like we did in junior high, in high school, during college visits, on our wedding days, for grown up girls’ nights out, before our high school reunions.  Talking and laughing and looking forward to sharing time together.  And yet that ordinary moment that we’d had a thousand times before, was suddenly a kind of miracle.  And I’m just so grateful.  Love you, Vic.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hey soul sister, justify my blog

Man, I can't seem to make time to write in my blog.  Have you missed me?

How embarrassing.
How did Housewives of DC get on there?
I'm also having trouble finding time to run, shower, grocery shop, watch the 500 educational shows on my DVR, call my wonderful friends (you know I still love you, right?), etc. etc. etc.   People often interrupt my complaining by saying, "You're lucky to work from home doing something you love." And I am. I am.  But it's sort of like college. There were things about college that were off the charts fun-tastic. And yet, while I was knee deep in the fun stuff, there were so many other things that I should have been doing. Like homework or finding my ID or not pushing anyone into the bathroom to drunkenly make out. And then feeling guilty and procrastinating more.

Having your own business means that whenever you are laying around drinking wine and eating cheez-its, you probably shouldn't be; and not just because of the calories/hangovers/inappropriate texts.  You should be drawing, marketing, fixing your broken website, putting layouts together, preparing for art shows.  I can sort of justify writing this blog because it loosely falls under the marketing category.  Even if I'm complaining about Facebook or confessing my marathon 50 Shades sessions, as long as I also mention the fact that I can draw your kids, pets, or belongings, then presto... marketing!  I do have a degree in advertising, you know. 

But really, I just want to tell stories, preferably in a bestselling book.  Although that's rather unlikely, as only my friends on Facebook and a few artists from my favorite artist websites (artfairinsiders and the corner booth) read this blog.  Getting discovered is even less probable than working hard enough to make it happen on my own.  It's hard to justify this rambling blog when I've got drawing to do, plus it's past dinner time, RIGHT NOW. Listen closely and you'll hear the Zumpano men sighing and snacking in the background.

Thank goodness this time, Beth will help me justify my blog. 

Out of the blue, I got an email from someone who had been reading my Pencil Envy posts.  Not only did Beth order a chunky sized portrait, she wanted a story.  A story about her sister.  Hey!  That's almost like getting paid to write stories, only she's not paying me to write, she's paying me to draw.  But I'm making it a package deal.

My first thought about the portrait and story about Beth's sister, was that I don't have a sister, because I'm rather self-absorbed that way.  I wonder what it would be like... would I be close with a sister?  Fight with her?  Would she love me despite all my many flaws?  Would I love her beyond hers? 

I assumed that Beth's story would be about sisterly love, a Walton's hair-braiding slumber party childhood with some eventual grown up wise advice with wine.  But it wasn't.

"Saying my sister and I have never been close is an understatement," Beth wrote me.  "We hated each other growing up.  The only thing we're close in is age; for six weeks every year we were the same."  She said her sister could be mean, choosing exactly the right words to form the kind of word weapon only the most familiar family can wield.  The kind that cuts you to your core. 

As adults, they had an uneasy relationship, going months without speaking. They lived less than an hour apart, but only saw each other a few times a year. "We are polar opposites," Beth explained.  "She's a minimalist, I collect everything. Her house is sparsely decorated, mine looks like a gypsy’s den. She has a firm sense of right and wrong. I have often been described as having no moral compass.  She's successful, I was always just getting by. We just never meshed. I often said if she wasn’t my sister we would have never been friends. But still, we're family."


If you've ever told me a story, you probably enjoy how I immediately butt in and relate the story back to myself, even though I've read Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and I know I'm not supposed to.  I told Beth how I've struggled in my family relationships, too; how my closest family friendship has deteriorated and how terribly painful it's been.  How I could relate all too well to those mean missiles that leave such deep, gaping wounds.  Here, I thought, is someone I can understand; I'm not the only one.  I've counted each month of silence with a pit in my stomach.  It wasn't supposed to be this way.  

"I know," Beth told me.  "My sister got mad at me in June and she didn't speak to me or my mother until September.  The next time we spoke was when she called to tell me in her matter-of-fact cold tone that she was sick, probably dying." And Beth was forbidden to tell their mother.  "I was as close to my mother as you are to yours," Beth stressed, "maybe closer.  It devastated me not to be able to tell her, but I knew if I did, my sister would never ever speak to either of us again."  It was excruciating for Beth, fearing her mother would hear from someone else, until her sister was just too sick to hide it anymore. 

"My sister told me she wouldn’t have done the same thing for me, wouldn’t have taken me in and cared for me as I was dying, cared for my family, pets, my belongings, my affairs. I told her I knew that. I wish we had shared that moment much sooner. It seemed to bring some peace to her to know that I wouldn’t change no matter who or what she was. That’s when she finally got me.

"She thanked me for making her watch Fight Club. She forced me to watch Eight-Legged Freaks. The last movie we watched together was Man on Fire. She loved Denzel and really wanted to see it. I begged the Blockbuster guy to help me locate the last copy in the store, a needle in a mountain of movies haystack. It took over two hours but we finally found it. As I was checking out, he said they could’ve ordered it, it would only take about a week to come in. I remember thinking we probably didn’t have a week. She died four days later."

"My sister's death haunts me, much more so than the deaths of my mother and father," Beth told me. "I am guessing it’s some form of guilt I just can’t let go of. Some sort of ‘it should have been me, not her’ thing."

This summer, her nephew told Beth he can't remember the sound of his mother's voice. She tries to keep the memory alive, knowing that the hardest part about dying for her sister was losing her kids. Not being there to see who they will become.  The best photo the kids had with their mother was when they were quite young and Beth's niece hated her hair.   Funny thing about death, there are no more "through the years" pictures, no more do overs.  Beth asked that I combine recent photos of the kids with their mom, taking extra care to make sure I got her niece's hair just right.  A Christmas memory for two wonderful kids who can't yet fully realize what they've lost.

There are children in my version of Beth's story too, and I worry about them.  At first, I listened to Beth's side, thinking, yes, yes. I get it, I can relate. Up until the cancer. Then I'm a puddle thinking about it. I'm torn up. I'm thinking how maybe my family member would probably take me in; but I don't know if I could do the same. I don't know if I can be as forgiving.  I shared more about my own family experiences with Beth, eager to connect, telling her about our long struggle of distance and disease and pain and tough decisions and judgment.  That the hardest part is how we'd always loved each other like crazy and now neither of us can get past old wounds far enough to have a healthy relationship. I know I have some terrible faults that have made things worse between us - I'm too critical, I'm too sensitive.  And now I'm too scared.

Beth shared that she's had many of the same struggles. But not the same as me. The same as the person who has hurt me the most.

And then I realized, this whole time I'm rooting only for Beth, thinking I'm in the Beth role... But I'm not. I'm the cold one. I'm the judging one.  And I don't know if I can be the one to forgive and open my arms, and my home and my heart again. I'm too closed off and I'm just so hurt.  But people make mistakes.  Does it really take something so catastrophic to build that bridge?

Beth owns her part of her story and I own mine.  I do.  Writing this entry about a client's family has caused me to do more soul searching than any that I've chosen to write on my own.