Jill and I met in 1998 in Aurora, Missouri at Union Planters Bank where we were both hired. It was an instant bond since we both “weren’t from around there”. She was from Illinois, around Peoria and I was from Northwest Indiana. We both talked fast and wore weird shoes, far as those Missouri folks were concerned.
Phil was gone a lot. We’d just purchased our very own semi and he was driving it alone. I’d come off the road so we could start trying to have a baby. I conceived Zane January 24, 1999. Jill was my labor coach and only friend. Many days, she’s what kept me from going batshit crazy.
She even painted my toenails.
She was the only one physically with me at Zane’s birth. She fed me ice chips and comforted me.
I’ll tell you more about our adventures when I can get through them. Right now, I’m typing through my tears and I just don’t think I can go there.
Jill had emailed me on my son’s birthday in October 2005 to tell me that she’d had breast cancer for a year, had a mastectomy, chemo and was “allll better”. I believed her.
In November, the following month, I had the chance to go down to South Carolina to visit her, I hadn’t seen her in 5 years. So I went and we had such a good visit.
Then in September of 2006, she called me to tell me her lung had collapsed. She was scared and alone. Zane and I rushed down to take care of her.
A year later, October of 2007, she called telling me she was low on blood and had to get some on Halloween. Just like her. I did some research and found out this meant the cancer was no longer in remission.
I got another call last week, Jill’s neighbor, saying that Jill was not doing well and might not have much longer. So I packed up and headed down there.
I spent a week there, thank God I got to see her when she was still coherent. I got her ice chips and I even rubbed her feet. We used our Lamaze signals for her pain this time.
We spent New Year’s Eve 1999 together, my son’s first and New Year’s Eve 2007 together, her last.
Sometimes God smacks me upside the head in a playful way with themes in my life. He gives me clues and I think he starts laughing at me the way I laugh at Phil when he turns circles in the kitchen because he can’t figure out what it is he should be doing.
God is a God of truth, and acting as if our situation or emotions didn’t exist dishonors him and does violence to our own souls. God created us as emotional beings, and he is not glorified when we try to pretend away our feelings—even the ugly ones. Worse, this response robs us of the opportunity to engage with God and to hear from him in the midst of whatever we are experiencing. How can he help us work through our feelings to something holy and righteous if we won’t let him shine light into our hearts?
Acting as if our emotions don’t exist dishonors God.
God is not glorified when we try to pretend away our feelings.
That’s pretty intense, don’t you think? Oh how guilty am I of shoving stuff aside? I remember clearly my Uncle Ed’s funeral and how I was so numb. I pretended I could handle it, and people thought I did. People kept apologizing to me saying, “I’m sorry, I know how hard you fought for him.” And I kept telling myself, “I knew this was going to happen. In May of 2005 I told his hospital appointed psychiatrist that he needed to be in a facility he couldn’t check himself out of. The doctor told me the only places like that were state facilities and there was a 6-8 month waiting list. I said, and I’ll never forget that day, “He’ll be dead in 6-8 months.” The doctor looked away and said, “I know. I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do.”
9 months 15 days later, he killed himself. And I knew it was going to happen. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I was plagued by depression and nightmares in the weeks following his suicide. I knew I was grieving, but I denied my emotions. Until that night I wrote a very, very hard to read piece. I sent it to a few people (you know who you are and I’ll love you for two eternities for going through this with me) I know it was hard for them to read, it was harder to write. But it was the first time I was honest with myself and God. I shared it because I had to.
On the outside, I’m not a very emotional person. But inside, where people can’t get to, where they can’t chip away at the core of my being, I am me. A very vulnerable, emotional person. One who is trying to learn to deal with the emotions that are a natural, God-given gift.
I wrote a story called Whisky Lilacs and when writing it, certain scenes were in my head like I was watching a movie. Today, I watched a video of the song Whiskey Lullaby by Brad Paisley and Allison Krauss that reminded me of the process in my head when writing that story.
Sometimes things are beautiful even when they’re dark and painful. As a writer, I struggle to fully explain things like the cross, which is at once the most beautiful expression of love and at the same time, the darkest of moments as Jesus cries out to His Father, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Chronologically speaking, I’m not doing well here and I’m going to have to back things up a bit. Most of the story I’ve told has been from 2005 until now, but there’s a pretty big event that I skipped right over, it was what put me in the hot seat.
There’s so much backstory that its hard to really know at this point what is important and what’s not. Uncle Ed was only thirteen years older than me, he was my big brother that I didn’t have. When mom and dad got married, they bought a house across the alley from Grandma and Uncle Ed and I spent the majority of my childhood there because my grandma spoiled me. She bought me Cocoa Puffs and microwave chicken patties and took me to the bowling alley on her league nights and let me have all the Coke and fried mozzarella sticks I wanted on top of giving me pocketfuls of quarters to play Ms. Pac Man. Uncle Ed and his buddies treated me like the kid sister. In one of his old yearbooks, all his friends signed messages to me. I was two at the time. I remember one said, “Give me smoochies, Michelle” because I’d toddle around kissing all my big brothers. I wish I had that yearbook now. Most of them were at the funeral and I miss them.
I wasn’t a very nice kid growing up and I caused my parents dump trucks full of problems. I don’t know why. Can you imagine me…being rebellious? Ha! I haven’t ever been able to deal well with rules, its something that is just in my blood, something that makes me fight to break out. When I’d fight with my parents I’d go to grandma and Uncle Ed’s. But the time I started driving, Uncle Ed had married and moved, so I’d drive to his house. I’m pretty sure I spent more time at his house than I did my own. Aunt Tammy had to go back to work weeks after Andrew was born and they paid me to come straight from school to their house to watch the boys, Frank was a toddler and Andrew, newborn. Uncle Ed worked midnights and slept from the time I got there until it was time for him to leave and then Aunt Tammy would come home. I can’t remember how long I did this, but it seems like it was quite awhile.
I moved to Missouri in March of 1995 and Uncle Ed’s third son, Kyle was just a little tyke. The week after I left home for the first time, Kyle was admitted to the hospital for a rare blood disorder and I got a call that I might have to come home for a bone marrow transplant if no one else matched. I was mortified that I was 600 miles from home, there wasn’t anything I could do. Things worked out, Kyle’s a teenager now and healthy as ever, but I still have a hard time with the whole not being there thing.
Zane was born late in 1999 and I wasn’t clear on what religion I was and Catholic ritual says you baptize a child around six weeks of age. So I told Phil that I thought I should do it, otherwise I’d never hear the end of from my grandmother. This was the first time Phil and I had spoke of God, religion, denomination, etc…it didn’t go well. At.all.
Phil refused to be part of it.
His grandmother, Grandma Barnes, wanted to meet my family so she drove with me to Indiana for the Christening and Phil met us there (he was driving the semi). I think the only reason Phil came was because Grandma Barnes was there and I often wonder if that’s why she asked to come with me?
Phil refused to even come to the church. Uncle Ed stood in Phil’s place. I understand now why Phil was so dead-set against the Christening, but I didn’t then and that’s a story for another day.
When we moved back to Indiana in 2000, we lived with Uncle Ed for maybe a half a year or so, I really don’t recall exactly how long it was, but I loved being with him and the boys. I had missed them so much the six years we were in Missouri.
By 2004, which is the year I’m trying to get to for this event that was so pivotal in the story, Phil and I had bought a house about an hour from the rest of my family. Uncle Ed’s downward spiral had started maybe in the previous year or two? Until September 2004, I was pretty unclear and had just heard stories of him acting strange and taking a lot of over-the-counter Rx narcotics.
He’d have withdrawls, which none of the doctors or hospitals saw for what it was. Sometimes I wonder if my brother, sister-in-law, Phil and I were the only ones to see things clear? Uncle Ed would take a ninety day script of Vicodin in just three or four weeks and shortly after develop “symptoms” uncontrollable shakes which he said was nerve pain. Please don’t think I’m crass, cold or unsympathetic to his actual pain. Uncle Ed did suffer a horrible accident and several complications, and I know in my heart, he did have pain. However, I’m convinced that his shakes were not nerve related. They were the direct result of coming off of highly addictive narcotics. This is the kind of stuff I learned in September 2004.
It was a big weekend for our family. My cousin Jen was getting married! You know how Catholics love weddings, it was something all of us were looking forward to. In telling this story now, I realize that no one in the family really knows what happened that night except me. Uncle Ed didn’t feel good. He didn’t want to go to the wedding and told my mom he was going to stay home, my mom called and told me.
My stomach sank and a feeling of dread like I’ve never known wrapped me up and squeezed, breathing was difficult. I told my mom I wasn’t going to the wedding either, I said it before I even knew the words were coming out of my mouth. I don’t think she really thought it was necessary for me to stay with him, but I knew if I didn’t he’d be dead. I saw it as she was telling me he was staying home, but I couldn’t tell her that.
After a phone call to Uncle Ed, I was on my way to pick him up, he’d stay a couple days at my house. He’d just had something–a surgery, a hospital stay, I can’t remember, but he wasn’t released to drive, although he made short trips to the grocery store, etc…so it wasn’t like he was completely disabled. Insisting that I be in control of his meds, I took charge. Things were already at a point that some of the family was aware he was abusing his medication, but from my perspective, no one really seemed to do anything. He handed over the pills willingly and we had a great talk, about God even, on the drive to my house. He started to dose off towards the end of the hour trip, so I let him sleep.
Phil had dinner ready when we got to our house and we ate together and talked, Phil had to work five in the afternoon until five in the morning, so he left shortly after Uncle Ed and I arrived. On our property is a place we have huge bonfires. In the summer and fall, Phil and I often have a fire and sit with a glass of wine for me, a beer for him and watch the fire, the stars, listen to the frogs, and talk. Uncle Ed wanted a bonfire and I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to relax and talk, but it was too early to start the fire. He asked if he could get on our riding lawn mower because it was relaxing for him and his yard was so small he couldn’t enjoy the wide openness of the country. So of course I let him. Figured it couldn’t hurt anything.
He didn’t even make it around the yard once. This is the best picture I have to help describe the scene. Just to the right, where the tree is cut off in the picture…there’s a telephone pole. If you look at the road in this picture, you can almost tell there’s a ditch between the road and the yard, but it doesn’t look that deep, the picture is kind of deceptive. Anyway, right before the telephone pole, Uncle Ed crashed the riding lawn mower into the ditch and was hanging over the steering wheel, unconscious.
Except Jesus forgot one very important detail. He forgot to let Uncle Ed live.
The downward spiral of Uncle Ed’s mental and physical health began without many noticing, I’m afraid. To pinpoint an exact date or time frame would resemble an attempt to duct tape water to the wall.
My Uncle Ed is my mom’s baby brother. She was the oldest of four and at the young age of eleven, had to become an adult and raise herself along with her siblings.
I could surmise the downward spiral never actually started anywhere, it began before his birth with genetics. His uncle committed suicide, also.
I could presume that environment piled on genetics led to his demise. His mother was constantly saying, “I just wish I was dead.” They’d come home from school to find her down on hands and knees, head in the oven, trying to kill herself. His father was sleeping with his uncle’s wife. This is what led his uncle to suicide and the catalyst for his sister, my grandma, my mom’s mom, to stick her head in the oven and take up Vodka. Kind of a family tradition, huh?
He was around three when his uncle died, when his dad married his aunt while still married to his mother, when his mom and dad finally divorced. DNA tests later in life, proved that the kids Uncle Ed thought were his cousins were actually his half-siblings.
Hatred and bitterness were just a way of life in this family. Dysfunction exists to a certain degree in every family, seems like we got a bigger dose of it than most.
I could assume, which I did for many years, that the role of the Catholic church played a part in Uncle Ed’s ability to cope in a healthy manner. Maybe it was just my grandmother, the Priests, and the nuns twisting the Catholic doctrine, but really, when you’re told enough times as a child that you’re going to hell–you eventually believe it and then it doesn’t really matter what you do because you don’t have someone to save you, you don’t have a loving God. What you have is a God with a big whip waiting to beat you every time you fuck up and a dead savior hanging bloody from a cross.
Maybe it was the fact that Uncle Ed got into an accident on 80/94, captured by Chicago news stations on film that some of us believe was actually his first suicide attempt. The footage looked like he ran his car right into a semi on purpose. He survived however, life really headed south at this point. He was in and out of hospitals and had a doctor who thought narcotic pain killers were Tic-tacs and doled them out without guilt. Uncle Ed was definitely addicted to them. He had several overdose attempts. I think it got to be something like 6 attempts in 8 months.
In late April of 2005, I got a call around 7:30 in the morning. I hate 7:30 in the morning, it seems to be when all of our family emergencies occur. Anyway, my mom called me and told me they found Uncle Ed passed out in his bedroom, unconscious. They called 911 and he was at the ER, unresponsive. His organs were shutting down and the doctor was suggesting that the family gather because he wasn’t going to make it.
I live an hour from the hospital he was at. I woke Phil up, we prayed and I got in the car with my Bible.