Sorting Through The Remnants

The first year is for grieving, and the second seems to be settling in as a time of contemplation, of remembering and sorting. In the time since Kristina’s death I’ve read as much as I could handle about the type of personality changes that occurred when her tumor spread to her brain. Much of what happened to her mentally followed the set pattern for prefrontal tumors, but some of it was rare and uniquely her, as she was, as her life was.

We met when we were both fourteen years old, behind a wall of headdresses worn by showgirls in Vegas shows. Her mother was what they then called the wardrobe mistress. She kept all the little pieces of sparkly material and shiny things whole. I remember how her fingers sometimes bled from hours of stitching beads onto tiny pieces of fabric. I also remember her kindness, her love for her daughter, and her acceptance of me, a strange little white girl from a family who mostly spoke something other than English.

I remember that night so clearly. The dancers entered the stage in a mist that cast a muted light on their nearly naked bodies. It allowed every toned muscle, every shadow, every curve to stand out. They wore tiny pieces of flesh covered gauze on their mandatory covered parts, and a powdery glitter on their bodies that danced with them as they moved. It was magical and both Kristina and I watched enchanted as they danced to the haunting notes of a single flute.

This is how our friendship of fifty-six years began. Over the years we became the vaults of each other’s darkest nightmares. I listened to her fears that one day her father would kill her mother. She saw my bruises, the welts, the broken fingers I showed no on else. We became good at hiding each other, of waiting in the shadows until it was safe to come out.

We were with each other during our first high school crushes, and then through all those that came after. I was with her the night her father killed her mother. She was with me the night my father cracked two of my ribs when he kicked me in a blind rage because I wouldn’t give him money.

We learned love broke our hearts over and over again, but we still continued to believe in it. We fell in love with each other, with others, with those who loved us back and with those who didn’t love us back. We both got married in college to men who were not like other men, men we knew would never hit us, abuse us, or abandon us. We were determined to break the pattern, to fight back, to say no, to not live our mother’s lives.

When it came time for graduate school, we ended up on opposite coasts, but not a month went by without a letter, a card, a phone call, and in later years, emails, texts, messages, long full pages of thoughts we worked out on each other. We used our ability to shape thoughts into words for a business that was uniquely suited to who we were as ourselves and to each other. We worked as freelance artists in both print and digital. And we wrote 500 word essays for blogs, news sites, individual writers. The buyer would fill them in with their own words, their own expanded ideas.

We worked hard for little money. It was mostly boring. One of us would start the essay, the other would add to it. We emailed each other the pages back and forth until they were done, ready to sell, boringly complete and precise. Vanilla writing for vanilla people. Even now it is impossible to tell who wrote what sentence. We both did is the only correct answer. It was how our minds worked with each other.

As we got older birthdays became milestones instead of celebrations, and the one that stood out for both of us was the 70th. We called it the year of no fucks left to give, the year we would finally experience complete and total freedom from the expectations of anyone and anything. We plotted and planned, thought of contacting our old peace rat collective from high school, and all the artists from then whose friendships kept us alive during those awkward years. But shortly after her 68th birthday, Kristina was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She dealt with it the way she did everything. She researched it. She studied it. She interviewed those who had it. She visited the dying when she learned it was terminal. But she thought she had time. We both thought she had time. We continued to plan. We continued to hope. And then it spread to her brain and everything turned upside down, inside out, and changed everything forever.

Her memory seemed burned away, forgotten, and replaced with nothing but confusion. Except for one small piece, a period of time when we first met, our high school and undergraduate years. Those years were clear as the present, as real to her as me and Stefano and everyone else in our lives. Except for the holes in her memory of specific times and places, she seemed the same Kristina, as long as we lived with her during that period of time.

But she wasn’t the same Kristina. She didn’t just remember those years. She moved into them. They became her present, her current life, her only memories. In retrospect I can understand how it was more than the tumor. It was also something else that happened as we aged. We remembered the past again. Things that were forgotten are suddenly remembered.

For me it was difficult beyond words. It was a painful time of my life, one I’ve done my best to bury. But because the woman who carried my life inside her, the best friend who knew everything about me went to live there, I had no choice but to follow her.

But I was a bystander and she was a participant. She imagined events were happening that long ago passed into faded memories. She tried to set me up with my high school crush, like she once did all those years ago, only he was long gone. But her brain couldn’t grasp that. She simply did not understand me when I tried to explain. The extent of it didn’t become clear until Stefano and I went through her laptop.

She used voice to text software to contact our past, to give it shape in a world that no longer existed. She wrote to people who didn’t exist, and she wrote to those who did, but not as she remembered them existing. She professed love to those who damaged her ability to love, and she apologized to those who hurt her. Her world was upside down and I was merely a member of the cast, a silent one too numb to do much but shut down everything I felt so it wouldn’t hurt so much when I lost her. But it still hurt. And it still does.

And now it has been over for a while and I understand much more than I did. I know why she chose that period of time. It was where all the unresolved issues lived, because as we aged we developed the skills to at least smooth the edges of those issues that came after. But then we were clueless and so they festered inside us, interfered in everything from choice of lovers to career paths. Our pasts didn’t go anywhere. They just lay in wait.

So besides her loss, besides cleaning up a very large mess she left behind with her strange and bizarre letters to people in our pasts, besides learning to say to myself what I once said to her, I’ve been cleaning up my past. I’ve been confronting the worst of it.

I’ve been painting some it with the help of an art therapist. But most important of all, I’ve been healing from it. I can’t change the damage that was done to me physically, spiritually, psychologically, but I can find the point where I can live with it. In a strange sort of Kristina way, that was the best parting gift she could leave me and I thank her for it. I thank her for living. For loving. For helping me get to this point of delicious freedom where I have no fucks left to give, and all the best memories live in my heart.

Kate Taylor’s Art

Dancing With The Demons

One of my twitter followers asked me when I knew I was a writer. It’s not an unusual question. I also get asked when I knew I was an artist, when I knew I was different, when I knew I was never going to fit inside the world around me. The answer is the same to all the questions. It was the day I learned to dance with my demons.

I did not have a happy or easy childhood. Much of it was brutal and traumatic. Before I started school, it was just me, my grandmother, my mother, and my younger brother. My father was the only American in the family. He spoke only English. It was normal for us to not speak English when he wasn’t around, which was frequently. On the rare times he was home, he went into a rage when I no longer understood him when he talked to me. I forgot English because no one I was around spoke it except him.

I don’t remember who gave me my first notebook, but its purpose was to help me practice English so I would no longer have to suffer my father’s beatings when he was home. By then I was in school, and like most immigrant children, I picked up the language quickly. I didn’t need the notebook to practice.

I used it to draw pictures instead, the kind of pictures a depressed, isolated, child draws when hope is something so out of reach it becomes a fantasy. I have vague memories of what I drew, but not of the reactions of a teacher when she saw my notebook. I still remember the look on her face. She was clearly bothered by what I drew.

But it was a different time then. There wasn’t much she could do to help the kid that drew those pictures, but feel sorry for me. I remember hating her pity and feeling ashamed of it. I stopped drawing. But the urge to create was not something easily set aside.

I began to write stories in my notebooks. I was the main character. My father was always the monster. My mother and grandmother were always the first to end up his victims. I was always the one saved because I knew how to hide from him. I knew all the good hidey holes, all the secret places in the desert I could walk to and disappear inside the canyons. And while I was gone and safe, another bigger, stronger monster would tear my father to pieces and save us all. It was brutal stuff.

I filled up one notebook and immediately started another. I still remember how it felt to write those stories. During the time I wrote, the demons sat quietly and left me alone. I wasn’t depressed anymore. I didn’t think constantly of ways to kill myself.

And I wrote in English because it was far safer to record my thoughts that way than it was to draw pictures. My father was illiterate. He couldn’t read nor write. My words were private and all mine. Until the day I realized my mother was not illiterate and was secretly reading my notebooks.

I began to make up stuff then, stories that had nothing to do with me but were meant to punish her for reading my notebooks. Like most sensitive children in abusive situations, I learned early to watch for danger signs. I knew which drink was the one to send my father into a violent rage. I knew which behavior from me would disturb my mother.

I knew how to scare her, because I knew she struggled with her own demons. She drank vodka then to escape the miserable existence she found herself living. I can still smell it on her breath all these years later. Her life was far from the dream my father promised her when he brought us to America. It was a betrayal, a prison she couldn’t escape. He would come home and beat her, she would drink, and then pass out, leaving me alone with him.

I wrote a story about a little girl who was captured by a monster while her mother slept. I described horrible things the monster did to that little girl, things that meant little to me other than in the fantasy world of imagination. But when my mother read that story, I saw the horror on her face. She saw something in my words I never wrote. But her reaction made me feel strong, it made me feel powerful to know I held such an effective weapon in my hands. I was about 7 or 8 years old.

That was the moment I understood what it meant to dance with my demons. In the next few years I filled my notebooks with their voices, not mine. I gave all the ugliness, all the brutality of my life a voice to have its say. And slowly the thoughts of suicide lessened. Slowly I began to see myself differently, to see my place in the world differently. I learned to give all those thoughts, all that despair, all the moments of extreme depression to the demons and let them write my words.

It took me several years to turn back to art, and when I did I understood how it lived in me, what it wanted from me, and how to make it another voice for my demons. But it also disturbed me, because unlike words, what I drew, painted, sculpted was clearly the voice of the demons. It was like stepping into a crowded room naked, exposed, and vulnerable. It made everything inside me visible.

By the time I graduated from high school my friends were pretty much the same. We were artists, writers, musicians. We knew how to make the demons dance. We were kids who never fit inside the parameters of the ordinary world, because we weren’t ordinary and never would be.

That’s when I learned we also lived in a world that expected us to feed those demons with one hand tied behind our backs. There was little support for the compulsion to create that defined us. It was seen as a hobby, an amusement to practice in our free time when we had a day off. We were never expected to choose it as a career path. That was unrealistic. That was impossible.

That’s why so many creatives in this country often slip over into mental illness. When you deny someone the right to live as themselves, to work as they were meant to work, you slowly chip away at the social constructs that allowed them to live within the acceptable boundaries of society. You steal their soul and then expect them to be some absurd concept of normal. Not all are strong enough to survive this stripping away of their vital self.

I have always worked to support my art and writing. My aunt and uncle were classical musicians. They taught piano to practice their art. I still remember when my uncle came to America. We lived in San Francisco then, and I just started school. He would wait for me to come out of the building and then we would walk the streets to look for a place with a piano he could play. We stopped at coffee shops, book stores, music stores, even a church once, just so he could play for an hour or so.

I often think about those who heard him play. He was a child prodigy, an exceptionally talented pianist. I still remember the silence that filled whatever place we found that day, the awestruck silence of those who recognized a gifted moment just blessed their day.

I learned what it meant to not only need to express what lived inside, but also how the raw honesty of that expression affected others. I knew when he despaired over the separation from his wife and daughters because I heard it in his music. And so did everyone else. It was the first time I saw people cry when he played. He moved them to tears with his need to express the despair, the loneliness inside himself.

And afterwards when the demons were back at rest and we could calmly walk around and look for an ice cream cone instead of a piano, I learned there couldn’t be one without the other. And that’s the day I began to understand without the demons I really had little to say. They gave my art, my writing, my very existence the authenticity to create as myself.

My new novel about the pandemic WHEN THE LAST OCEAN DIES is now available on Amazon. It’s about solitude, artists, musicians, creativity, and the awesome life-changing power of love.

Kate Taylor’s Books and Art Ursine Logic