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

This Arc Of Time

I was fourteen when I met Kristina. I lived with two dancers who retired from the ballet and moved to Las Vegas. I was their live in babysitter. They were young, in their mid-20’s, beautiful, in exquisite shape, and determined to make a living with bodies that were considered too old for the grueling regime of professional dancing. They instead, danced on the strip. Nude. Wearing only strategically placed pearls.

One night, one of their friends helped sneak me in to watch their show from the shadows as I was much too young to be anywhere near a casino. They turned me over to a girl I remembered from school. Her mother worked in the wardrobe room and we hid under a pile of giant ostrich head dresses taller than we were and watched enthralled. It was the most beautiful performance I ever saw. Yes, they were nude, but all the controversial bits were covered up so what was left were two exquisite human beings dancing as if they were the only two people left on earth. I always think of them when I dance alone like I’m the only person left on earth.

For the next year when I wasn’t in school or helping my dancers care for their young daughter, I spent it with Kristina helping repair costumes her mother brought home. Her brother lived with a dancer and we often met at her apartment in the same complex. It was tedious work, but enchanting to a young girl who never imagined work clothes as sequins, pearls, tiny bits of material all elegantly stitched into a costume. I was never the princess type, but I held magic in my hand with all those beautiful pieces of sparkly things. I saw everything differently then because you can’t hold magic in your hand and see the world the same.

I was a painfully shy kid. I still have trouble with that. I have accepted that it’s a lifetime thing. I learned if I tell people upfront that I have a “problem” with shyness, they will help me out by talking, asking me questions, or letting me sit quietly until I feel comfortable enough to join in. People are mostly kind. And they understand what it means to be shy. Kristina was the complete opposite. She was outgoing and everyone she met was a potential friend. When I met her my friends were all in books. She changed that when she became my first real friend. It turned into a lifetime bond.

Recently, during one of our long email exchanges that writers often get into with each other, I realized she was the only person who knew me in all the transitional phases of my life. She was my support, my ear, the one person who understood why I cried so hard when my dancers got a job in Europe and I couldn’t go with them. I remember how she hugged me and told me it was going to be okay, that she would help me survive going back home. Neither of us believed it, but we said the words anyway, her to me, and me to her. Her father was just as violent and mean and drunk as mine, and her mother, like mine, put up with the abuse because she “loved” him.

None of the people who became part of my life after I left Las Vegas know what I went through just as none of her friends know what she went through. We knew. We understood. And over the years as we grew into our new lives, we kept in touch, but rarely mentioned those days. They were the past, buried, dead, gone, forgotten. The scars became fainter. People quit asking how we got them. We no longer had to lie.

But the wounds were still there. When we both turned 70 this year, the quality of our emails changed. We began to poke around in what we thought was forgotten. For both of us, the realization that ripping the bandage off old wounds hurt like hell came as a shock.

I suspect we’re going to have a lot more to say to each other about this in the next months. It’s way past time. In a strange way we both are looking forward to it, much as one looks forward to finally cleaning out that dark closet with all the clothes that no longer fit, the pieces of broken things that are saved for the memories and not because there’s anything left to repair. It’s time.

In her last letter we told each other how we healed some of the worst of the wounds. Unlike Kristina, I was never able to verbalize my feelings or talk about what happened to me. I was forty before I was able to say I love you easily. I’ve always put everything in my journals, into my poetry and my art. I tried traditional talking therapy and it went nowhere, mostly because the words just wouldn’t shape themselves into anything that described that time.

But life often gives you what you need to move forward if you let it. For me that was finding a way to heal that didn’t involve talking. I learned to heal the physical trauma through the body, to change where and how I stored the bad stuff. I learned that I kept my arms crossed to protect myself. The months of relearning to walk, sit, and talk without needing to protect myself opened the door to the rest.

I learned that I was afraid to look at someone because I associated eye contact with pain. Look at me! Look at me! He always wanted me to make eye contact before he hit me. He wanted to see my fear. I learned to look at people’s noses when I talked. It helped but it’s still difficult. Some things never go away. I’m like a wild animal that way if someone tries to make eye contact with me. But it’s getting better.

One of the other things Kristina and I shared was the simple joy of being outside in the desert, climbing rocks to get high up a canyon where we could look out and see nothing but desert for miles. Las Vegas was a small place then, just the strip, downtown, and a few houses on the west end where we lived. In between there was desert, great big open expanses of it. And that blissful silence. We would sit for hours in that silence. We drew strength from it. And for most of our lives, we looked for it. Neither one of us are loud or noisy. We are the peace we sought.

We both live in quiet, small, isolated places. She lives in a small cabin in the mountains up a dirt road no one drives up by accident. I live on a small island with a few hundred people and a ferry that stops running for the night at 8:30. I have few neighbors, and they are several acres distant in the trees, along the water where I can’t see them. Kristina has taught herself to paint because most of her neighbors are artists and they convinced her to try. She learned she’s quite good. Many of my island neighbors are artists, writers, musicians, people who require lots of quiet time alone. We know we are there but we don’t need to see each other to feel supported, loved, welcome.

In many ways, mine and Kristina’s lives have followed a similar arc. We began as abused children who made a blood oath to protect each other. Two 14 year old girls who didn’t know much but had already experienced too much. We went through the hell of high school together with our meager handful of friends, none whom we knew how to get close to the way we were close to each other. We were part of the antiwar movement and got spit on together by people who also threw garbage at us and called us commies. We both lost people we cared deeply for in Vietnam. It only motivated us to fight for peace harder. We still do.

And now as we age, the arc takes us on yet another similar path, one where the good memories seem to magically rise to the surface to push the bad memories aside. We’ve both contacted the good people, the kind people from those days because we both feel it’s important they know that kindness matters, that the world needs more of it, and especially to remind them it’s still there in them. If enough of us let kindness rise to the top and push the bad stuff away, maybe just maybe we can still make that bit of difference we always swore we would make to change the world. Maybe we can heal not only each other but also all the other wounded children who never stopped hurting. It’s worth a try.

My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art

The Metamorphosis of Memory

There are many interesting things about getting older that I didn’t anticipate, some good, some strange, some oh holy hell why me. But the one that fascinates me most is the process of remembering the past. I call it a process because I’ve learned it evolves, it changes, it picks up hitchhikers, it weeps and it laughs. Memory is like that. It dances away from what is remembered to how it is remembered. I’ve learned that matters a lot.

In the last year, since I turned 70, I’ve noticed the bad things that happened to me begin to fall away to make room for the good things. I didn’t do this intentionally. It just happened, as if the inner workings of this bear beast of a human chose to have a happy end game. But I didn’t choose.

That’s the part that amazes me and takes me again to scouring the internet tubes for brain stories. It’s hard to let the scholar go when it’s so ingrained in me to research my ideas before embracing them as my own. But I’m learning to let that go and just fly with them, because it turns out nature is a fantastic research library. I’ve learned a lot about myself sitting with the trees, breathing in the saltwater that brings that scent of ocean into my house. I don’t have to show my work because I am my work.

Here is one way this all seems to evolve, using me as the example. I’ve written often about trying to come to peace with my childhood . Basically, I didn’t have one. My father gambled for a living. He wasn’t very good at it. He was also not very good at being a human being. War leaves many victims behind and he was one of its most defective. He left a lot on the casino tables, but not his rage at the world and especially at women. That, he brought home to share with the family. My mother rarely spoke. I remember her as the silent ghost he used to take his rage out on before he came for us.

When he told me I reminded him of his mother, that was not a good thing. It was a condemnation, a chance for him to make up for the damage she inflicted on him. I understand that now. But then I understood only that he was dangerous

I was terrified of him when he was drunk because his violence had no limits. He left a lot of ugly bruises from his rages, a few of them that I carried into the future. He told me I was ugly. I wasn’t. He told me I better study because no man would ever marry me. He was wrong.

I was the classic runaway. On paper. In the real world where I lived I was a shy, awkward high school kid who worked full-time jobs in restaurants, took care of other people’s children, even sold an underground newspaper on street corners. I knew college was my only way out of that hell so I studied even when I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open.

I didn’t have time or the social skills for friends. I can count my high school friends on one hand. For a long time they became part of the memory of then, the bad times, the invisible people who were there but not there. But as I grew more into myself, their faces became more visible. And then an amazing thing started to happen. They began to show themselves as significant influences on my life, even though their time in it was so brief as to seem not worth noting. In the stew of bad memories they rose to the top as the good foam, the tasty, lovely bits you remember in your heart because they made a difference.

There were five in particular I owe my life to. Of course, they undoubtedly have no idea why, but I do. I picked the memories apart and found them. Of course, they were all artists. They lived in the good part of my life, the one with music, dancers, singers, painters, sculptors, writers, and performers. My father was the outlier in this world, the only American in a crowd of exquisitely talented refugees. He was also the only one who was uneducated, who didn’t play an instrument, who didn’t read books, who never went beyond the third grade and was basically illiterate. But in my memory, the rest of my family took the place of him. As I grew older that world became larger than the one he forced me to live in. Memory changed the script for the better.

But those five people, they weren’t part of my family. They weren’t people I worked with. They were my high school friends. They were also mostly gay because I could be friends with them and not have to deal with the whole concept of relationships, boyfriend-girlfriend, commitment and all those other phobias. And two of them were black during a time when just hanging out with me was dangerous for them. I learned a lot about courage from them.

But of that tiny group of friends, one in particular stands out because I saw myself in him, in his lovely shyness, his sweet nature, and his strange home life. Of course, I see that now with the gift of memory metamorphosis. Then, my memories of him were simple. I remember his house and how he made a fort out of his bed with hanging curtains. I recognized a hiding place when I saw it.

I met him at the worst time in my life when my father was the most violent. When he nearly knocked one of my teeth out with a belt buckle I began my career as a runaway. One of the places I ran away to was his house. It didn’t last long, mostly because my father had found out about him so to protect him I ran away from him too. I couldn’t take the chance of him being hurt by that monster. He was too good a human being. When he called me he would use different names but I always knew it was him. And then I got scared for him and was afraid to answer the phone. Try and I might I just can’t remember how we parted. I did see him again a couple years and it was the last time, but he’s always held a place in my heart.

In later years I thought about him. I wanted him to know what it was like to have someone care about me as a person, to hold me and make me feel safe. I got to sit in his lap crammed in the car with everyone else and enjoy the teasing that I had a boyfriend. I had a sweet crush on him, my first experience with those kind of feelings. It’s a good memory.

What he never knew was that he saved my life one night when I showed up at his house. I had reached the limit of living on this planet. I was exhausted. I had bruises all over my body. I made him turn the lights off in the unlikely chance he tried to remove my clothes because I didn’t want to explain what was underneath. There’s so many stairs you can fall down. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted the hurting to stop. I came to his house to say goodbye. Instead he held me, let me hang out in his fort, and saved my life. He came to visit me shortly after I got married and then he moved away. For the longest time I saved the cartoons he drew for me. And then the box they were in got lost. I remembered how sad I was about that.

The only one who wasn’t gay was my first experience of being loved by someone I didn’t have a clue how to love back. He was two years older, an immigrant child like me, but he came from France. I thought that was wonderfully exotic. And he thought it was exotic that most of my family was born in the same city but different countries. He would introduce me to his friends as the girl who was from that place where the boundaries always changed.

Without even sharing so much as an innocent kiss, we made plans to move to France. I applied to the Sorbonne and was accepted, much to my shock. All I had to do was get another job to pay for the tuition and living expenses. I did and began saving my pennies. And the plans began to take shape. I had a future that would take me away from the brutality of my father. I would get to be an artist, to write poetry, to live among those who didn’t think I was too ugly to love.

And then he was drafted. I begged him to run away. We were part of an antiwar group that helped conscientious objectors with letter writing, witnessing, making up shit to get them rejected, and when all that failed, arranging for our network to hide them in Canada. It would have been so easy. But he was an optimist. We were both poor broke kids. He saw a chance to pay for school, buy a house for us, and make a life together. He was killed in Vietnam within weeks of being sent there. I burned the flag they gave me from his coffin. I was done with love, even though I never really loved him. But I needed him. That was better than love. Memory works that way.

And I ran away for good. This time I was 17 so the police couldn’t bring me back, especially since I had a full-time job and was capable of supporting myself. I stayed away for many years and made contact again only after my father finally died.

I met a man at work when I was 18. He was a lot like me, a loner, the oldest child in a family with dysfunctional parents. I told him the first time we talked that I had no interest in marriage, I didn’t want children, and I was an Atheist. Turned out he didn’t want the same things. So I took him to a party where we were the only white people because it mattered to me that he accept two of my closest friends.

Within five minutes he was explaining the significance of her astrological sign to my friend’s wife. He left with my friend’s BBQ sauce recipe, an honor reserved for those he liked. “He’s a good man,” my friend whispered to me on the way out the door. “You deserve good. Take it.”

I thought okay this one has potential. So I took him to meet the family, starting with my grandmother who didn’t speak English and moving on to the others who spoke with accents. The only ones who didn’t have accents were my cousins. We grew up in America. I explained to him the role of immigrant children as translators, that we were the ones who answered the doors and the phones, and that’s why it was easy for me to go from one language to another. I’d done it most of my life.

I put that in practice, that moving from one language to another when we moved in together and began what has become a 50 year plus friendship. We talked a lot during the pandemic. He learned things about me. I learned things about him. We talked about how memory changes as we grow older. We talked about those we loved, the relationships with others we never denied each other. We have always believed in love and there are no limits if you truly believe. You love or you don’t. We loved and still do and always will. It’s who we are.

In the last year I’ve done something that I suspect other old people do when the memories change from bad to good. I’ve gone back and tried to find those who saved my life just with their presence. I’ve connected with two so far. It’s been affirming, necessary, good for all involved. They needed to be thanked. Still waiting to hear back from my high school crush, but if he doesn’t that’s okay. I love him differently now than I did then. It’s the love of gratitude, of appreciation, of knowing love doesn’t need an object or a presence, but merely the feeling in the heart that stays with you for life. One of my life lessons was learning once you love someone, that feeling never dies. Love is like the sun. It doesn’t die because night falls. It just changes and becomes easier, a softer and more gentle part of self. He’s one of my sweet, gentle memories.

And yes, part of my wanting to contact these people, was first of all to say thank you. But also to make sure they were okay, to reassure myself and especially them, that when you save someone’s life they will always be there to save yours because memory works that way.

My personal website:
Ursine Logic’s Books and Art