This is the companion piece to the recently posted page entry titled 'Somebody's Mother'.
Women hold their pain like an infant close to the heart lest it startle and fall to the floor, or worse, struggle, and grasp, pulling, digging, and shrieking a banshee's wail. Women hold their pain close to the heart to keep it silent and still. Eventually it quiets leaving footprints and dust. If we're lucky, it closes the door behind itself on the way out.
I don't know what men do with their pain. Sometimes I think I know but then I'm wrong so I just listen when they talk about it which is almost never. When I talk to men about the how of the hurt, never mind the why, I get blank faces, sometimes an argument, and one way or another I end up chastised for holding on. I have not held on with intent but I do recognize what clings and in some part why. I've given up talking to men about pain. It's embarrassing to be that vulnerable and sit there feeling stupid. As an aside to men in general, it would be greatly appreciated if, when a woman talks about pain you just listen quietly. You might learn something; but most importantly you will do no harm.
When I listen to women talk about pain they talk about the what of it or the why and it sticks to them even when, and maybe especially when they don't talk about it much at all. Some of us shovel it into the deep, leaving ripples on our skin and tears in our hearts and we have forgotten that it's in there, down in the deep whispering its secrets about safe, safe, safe, I will keep you safe, safe, safe, this will never happen again.
The how of the pain is the truth. I can make a compelling argument for one woman's pain being greater than another by the what of it, which is just an event before we describe the emotion. I can judge a woman for holding onto something which doesn't seem so big as all that and has gone on for far too long but when I listen to the how, everything changes. Everyone has a story which narrates the collective events, and they are collective but what we feel is the how.
The how of the pain is what matters. It is the thing which has us hold back or build scar tissue. It is the thing from the old brain which tells us how to be safe. It is raw emotion, it is a physical response mechanism which leaves us breathless, or raging, or locked up like the Fort Knox of broken things.
I'll tell you a story made up of events but the events are meaningless without explaining the how. Each event can be looked at differently by any person and so it really doesn't matter; the what of the hurt. I remember being told, 'oh she won't mind at all', and saying, 'yes, she will mind and I mind for her'. It made me wonder how many years of the how she'd shoveled down for whatever reason and when it was going to blow up. He didn't know, I don't think, except for one time when I said he had to ask her before he did a thing which might seem like no big thing and then he stopped. I think he was thinking about the how of the possible pain. I'll never really know for sure. Now I wonder how many times he might say about me, 'she won't mind'. I know at least some of the lengths he's gone to because he understands there will be hurt if he doesn't take care but I do wonder in the privacy of his life if the words, 'she won't mind' have come across his lips.
It is hard to tell the story because it's hard to look. It hurts that much. I am breathless when I think about it and want to push it away until I can breathe again. It sinks back into the darkness until I either explain it away and make it alright or it comes forward and smacks me upside the head leaving me nauseated and dizzy. I hate crying. When you cry you have to feel the how of it. When David left I didn't stop crying for a solid year. I cried until my sinuses swelled shut and my eyes nearly sealed. I cried so hard and long it took days before my face looked and felt right again. I did this over and over in that first year. I had no idea you could do such a thing to yourself. That is the how of the pain, not the what. I notice that in ten months I have never cried like that. I will not cry like that because I can remember the experience of the pain; it felt counterproductive. Eventually it felt pathetic. If I had really cried in the last ten months, even if it sealed my eyes shut I might not have so much collateral damage. Instead I live with the what and force the how deep into my middle. I sleep with my hands crossed over my stomach and the muscles contract and let go and contract like waves in ocean. And then I sleep.
In February or maybe late January there was a request for a two man tent. My gut clenched and tears spilled. I decided I should not ever go back to a place which might carry hurt and so I saw nothing else until later in the month when I wandered back again and realized he was heading into the desert which is a sacred place for him. My gut clenched and tears spilled and I didn't breathe well for days. I felt it in my shoulders and neck and I made something up about his brother and shoved it back down because the HOW was too much. I took in a great many shallow breaths and wondered why I couldn't just make it stop. In the end there were two photographs and despite the intimacy of the hollow in the rocks I told myself they were taken by a stranger and he was just on walk about. I was brave and went back to look at the pictures but there was white noise in my head. This cannot be true. He cannot be doing this. I am not breathing. Why the extreme how? Because of what it took, the amount of work, the establishing of boundaries it took to get to Cape Breton by month eight. The how is wrapped up in the work that was done and then lost and it's near immediate application in another relationship. I know this man, I thought, he doesn't do anything like that if he isn't committed. Great waves rushed over my head and I went under for a bit.
My finger tips get numb or tingle or both when I have stopped breathing. It took a week before that stopped. This is the how of the pain, not the what.
He sent a small gift which got lost in the mail and finally appeared a bit after my birthday. He wasn't much for birthdays; I'd had to get used to that. The day I actually turned fifty he didn't say a word. What he had done was say happy birthday just after midnight the night before. When I turned 51 my gift was his presence when I returned from walk about. I believed I understood him which made this enough. It is right to adjust expectations in many cases and this was one of them. He did not hurt me this way.
In the package was a spiral, like a primordial anemonite petrified to stone and polished on the open side to a beautiful amber gloss. I let him know it had arrived. I sent a text. We never talked anymore, just the occasional text and Facebook message. Mostly I sent information about Elizabeth. I had no idea what was going on in his life and didn't know what or how to ask. He volunteered only about the well-being of his son. The anemonite, if that's what it is made me smile and then I cried. I still have the package sitting in my kitchen because I don't know what to do with it. The middle 'e' from my name was gone; I was suddenly invisible, a near meaningless ghost in his world. Here's what I did to myself: Don't be ungrateful, let it be. The waters washed over me briefly and then I dropped the anemonite into the small bowl on my night table which Elizabeth made in second grade. I touched it in the morning and at night and wondered why he'd done it. It was a beautiful thing, this frozen in time thing of the Golden Ratio. I let my guard down and I forgot what was happening.
One day a photograph changed. He'd been hiking and caught the valley just right. It made me smile. Later, because he was back in my feed I noticed he'd commented and also tagged the photograph. I clicked the name on the photograph without thinking, assuming it was someone from the dance world I knew but couldn't place by name.
The what of it was as intense as the good-bye email I received at work February last. She sat under an arch in the desert with her back to the camera, his green jacket either draped across her shoulders or on. Blond hair in a short ponytail and I shut it down. I unfollowed, removed myself from a group or two and realized I was never going to Greenfield again.
The how of it is the knowledge that he drapes the same green jacket over the shoulders of whoever he is with. The green jacket I wore had been worn before me and was being worn again. Soon, if he hasn't already, he will get her her own. Maybe it will be navy blue like mine, maybe it will not. The how of it is the feeling of transparency. I thought about the light blue shirt I used to wear when I was North and was she wearing it now. I thought about the soft grey sweats I kept and wondered if I sent them back would she be wearing them next? I remember a boy just out of high school who owned an impressive collection of lingerie. He didn't wear any of it, it wasn't in his size. He kept them for his girlfriends, one at a time because he knew what he liked to see and wanted to be sure it was available to be worn. I asked my friend who was currently dating him if she wore any of it. The answer was, yes, but I try really hard not to think about before and I never think about after. The green jacket is not the same as the boys collection of lingerie and it doesn't even come from the same place. The pale blue shirt, on the other hand, that's another thing entirely.
In all this thinking, the how of it is that I wasn't breathing.
The story cannot be judged; it is only a series of events and it's taken a great deal of courage to write it.
But here is what I do know. I know that pain is collateral. I know it piles up on itself leaving no air between events, no breathing or healing. I cannot expect anything of him. I know we were in different places in the relationship and I know we left it in very different places. He has done nothing wrong and yet I am on my knees again.
When there is too much piled up, eventually we bleed fire. We breathe it out into the air and scorch our own skin.
When David left my father said, 'I don't think you'll have it in you to do this again' and I said, 'I think you're right'. I did it again anyway, four years later, piling up the forth on top of the first three, the first of which started when I was nineteen. I can feel the how of it all the way down to the bottom and then some, one stacked upon the other. I learned by the time David came around that I had to wait until I'd scrubbed away most of the how or I wouldn't have much to give at all or what I would give would be only halfway there which might have been OK for some men but not OK for me.
I am thinking about Lisa who set herself on fire eight years ago and what I know and do not know about her life. I know her marriage had been suffering and I know her husband was spending most nights in Framingham, MA with his girlfriend. Framingham is 146 miles from our town. I'm not sure where he worked. I am thinking about Lisa who set herself on fire not three miles from here and that Lisa had a son in college and another in my daughter's class in high school.
I am thinking that the how of Lisa's hurt must have been astonishing. It is as if she burnt up from the inside out. Had she been able to speak of the how of it without judgement about how she felt about the why of it or the what of it, would she have been heard? Would the flames have died back just enough to let her breathe?
We are told, we women, to get the hell over it. We are told to let it go. Even when our children die, eventually, well before we are ready, people stop listening and sometimes say, it is time to move on. Maybe it is too much to hear; I don't know. I laugh when I think about how relieved people were when I finally did manage to move on. It wasn't because I was maybe going to be happy, it was because I let the how of it stay right up at the surface and THAT scares the shit out of people.
I haven't been able to find a way to do that this time. The how of it dives down deep and tells me to be still, not to risk, and to throw myself into my job (which is a fine job and deserves my time and attention). Mostly it tells me, don't look don't go there don't tear your skin open again, we cannot bear it, you and I. 'I' is the old brain which has gotten me this far but no further.
I am thinking about Lisa and the things which were said about her in the comment sections of local papers. At best she was called selfish and a horrible mother; at worst, and this really is awful, she was denied her suicide when people were just certain no one could possibly have done that to themselves and it must have been murder despite the note left on the seat of the car.
I am thinking about Lisa and how much collateral damage must have accumulated over the years with no space in between. I am thinking that Lisa's how must have been like tsunami through which she clawed her way to the surface only to come crashing down again each time.
I am thinking that Lisa is a terrible reminder that we MUST experience the how no matter what anyone says about it being right or wrong or too long or too short. Only we know when the how has dissipated, left the room and closed the door behind it.
I know I should be wondering about men, but asking and not hearing has gotten old. Maybe I will feel better in a little while and that little while will be as long as it needs to be.
And finally, I used to be able to move right on too. I could go from husband to boyfriend like it was nothing until I worked out that I was blocking an awful lot of processing in the basement. Thinking about Lisa helps. I cry when I think about Lisa but it helps keep me centered.
and now you know...