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Letter from My 48th Year (Mar 26)

I’m feeling a little bothered by the fact that yesterday when I was putting the poems from my manuscript on the wall, I was already scheming to take a photo to put up on Instagram. This is not a “social media” is bad situation. I think social media is a tool and, like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil.

What really bothered me is that it was a physical manifestation of my need to be seen, which is not a bad thing in and of itself; everyone deserves to be seen. But having had a childhood where my parents never took the time to see me, that need to be seen doesn’t feel like a normal human reaction to me (which intellectually I know it is). It always feels like a wound (which it also is).

I have obviously based my career as a poet on displaying my wounds to anyone who’ll look. But still, when that exposure is not quite intentional, when it feels like a reaction to something that happened long long ago rather than a decisive action, I feel what I guess is shame, or something close to it. I feel like I’ve lost control, which is another thing I dread. I also feel like I’m doing something wrong as a poet by letting you into the early part of the process. Maybe I feel like I’m jinxing it. Or maybe it feels like hubris: who am I to brag about the book I’m writing like anyone really cares?

And perhaps that’s what I’m really fighting. That leftover-from-childhood voice that’s screaming its head off: You don’t matter! Nothing you do matters! No one cares! Stop trying so hard to make everyone care cause they just won’t! You’re not worth caring about!

And yes, I do know that that voice is an asshole. And I also know it’s dead wrong.

And so I’m going to keep listening to Josh Groban’s “Symphony” and start some preliminary work gathering poems for the next collection while I give the Dad poems some time to rest and breathe before I look at them again. And yes, I’m going to prove that damned voice wrong.

PS You should read this article. And listen to this podcast episode from Thirst Aid Kit. Then give Chris Evans my digits and tell him to text me.


Letter from My 48th Year (Mar 25)

This book of poems I’m working on is breaking my fucking heart.

There’s really no other way to say it. I’m at the stage where I’m taping it all to the wall as I arrange the pages into sections (cause Katy Day was right about that!). I know I wrote the poems. I know I know what’s in them. But to see all of that rage and grief all in one place is overwhelming. And I’m also realizing how much I miss my father. Our relationship status has always been, “It’s complicated,” but I miss talking to him about what we’re watching on TV. I miss sitting at his kitchen table and listening as he holds forth on whatever’s on his mind. To read these poems over and over again as I find their right spot in the book is a little like losing him over and over again, which I suppose is how it was in our actual lives together.

I’m also listening to Josh Groban’s new song “Symphony.” Though it’s a romantic love song, it seems to resonate with what I’m feeling and thinking about my father right now.

“I’m staring at the empty page trying to write the things I didn’t say to you.”

“You deserve a symphony.”

“I need to know you feel me with you even when I’m gone.”

I had planned to write something different to you today. I was going to write about the panel discussion I was part of the other night at Forum Theater after a performance of Nat Turner in Jerusalem (which you need to go see!) The other panelists included someone from Black Lives Matter DC, a reverend who works in urban ministries, and a woman who works in the arts in prisons. We were asked what justice looks like for us in our work. I wasn’t sure what to answer. I am certainly concerned with the issues of the day but they don’t often show up in my arts practice. Eventually I said that for me, justice looked like everyone having a voice and like everyone feeling seen.

And that’s why I need to keep slogging through this book though it keeps breaking my heart over and over again. Someone needs me to articulate my complicated grief because they’re desperate to see their own. So on I go…


Writing About My Father, Day 31*

I am like a cat on the couch rubbing
my face–nose, mouth, cheeks–across
the blue velvet. This couch is my father’s
money, a small forgotten-about portion
left to the three kids he had first
and left first. No, he didn’t forget us
but he didn’t remember us either, not the way
the phone company he’d worked for through all
its identity crises had remembered that once,
possibly with a blue pen, my father had signed
our names and his name on company insurance documents.
My father’s money, too, bought the giltwood, caneback
chairs dressed in golden yellow upholstery and a blue,
white, and gold bracelet. And some bottles of wine
and several ice cream cones and a pound of unground
coffee. It may even have bought something hanging
in my small closet though I don’t remember now
and even if I were to push the hangers one by
one down the painted rail, I couldn’t be sure
I’d recognize my father. I am not a cat and the coffee
is long spent and the chairs are only chairs and my father
was a little too surprised when I wore a pretty black dress
and red lipstick to see him in the hospital his last
Christmas. And even when I scroll through my bank statement
sometimes and look for the small portion of the small portion
I’ve stuck into savings I see a little grace, I see a little
security, I do not see my father.

*I wrote this draft on September 6 after writing my morning pages when I didn’t really think I’d been thinking about my father at all.

Writing About Love, Day 4

This morning two friends of mine called to wish me “happy birthday,” and I nearly burst into tears. When they called, I was in the middle of reading my sister’s texts updating my middle brother and me about my father’s condition. Why is it that when we’re heartbroken and most need to be loved, that it’s actually the most painful time to be loved? That when that protective layer is pockmarked and wounded by grief, even the kindest, most well-meaning of wishes becomes an abrasion.

This morning I felt ridiculous and even somewhat petty reading everyone’s lovely birthday wishes—some of which made me actually laugh out loud—as they populated my Facebook wall. Because I’m connected via social media to many people at work, there was a steady of cacophony of “Happy Birthday” as I ran into people in the halls. I didn’t quite know what to say. I said thank you, of course, but I felt as if I needed to qualify that thank you. “Thanks for remembering, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to celebrate and be happy when my father is dying such an unkind death.”

I briefly though about canceling my plans to have dinner with a small group of friends after work, and throughout the day I kept incanting under my breath, “It’s okay if you cry at dinner; they’re your friends.”

I did decide, ultimately, to not cancel dinner. And I did let myself fully enjoy the well wishes. Love hurts. But finally, I’m learning, that’s not a good reason to run away from it. And if we don’t learn to bear the hurts, maybe we never learn to fully bear the joy of love either.

“The Life I Don’t Have” by Katrina Murphy

It’s just after 10 p.m. on May 22, 2013. I am sitting in a cozy apartment in Charleston, SC, close to the ocean and pretty far away from my family. I live here with my cat, Spenser, and my books and the art that makes me smile—much of it made by y’all. I stay out as late as I’d like and have, really, only myself to consider when making decisions. Many people, perhaps, dream of a life as “fancy free” as mine. Certainly, I enjoy it most days.

Someone asked me the other day if I was Irish. I told him, as I tell everyone who asks, that I married Irish. And, I married well.

Someone else asked me the other day what my age limits were on dating. I told her, as I tell everyone who asks, that I absolutely draw the line at someone as old as my daddy—that creeps me out. I’m not judging other people, but, ick. The other part of that answer was instinctively that 50 is the upper end. I’m 40, after all. A decade is reasonable.

I went on to do something else, then I got to thinking. If he were still here, tomorrow, May 23, would be Phil’s 50th birthday. I’d be planning a big party—maybe 2 depending on where we lived—convincing people to fly in, drive in, get there from Atlanta, Asheville, Ohio, Oklahoma, any way they could figure out how. I’d be baking Granny Allen’s pound cake, and I might even agree to make tuna casserole for our private celebration. I’d buy 4 or 5 different birthday cards to be sure I’d gotten just the right one. I’d spread them out over that many presents: books, music, whatever the current hobby was. I’d be cleaning and scurrying and saying I love you lots and lots.

Instead, I’m looking around here at the few tangible bits of him I keep out, thinking about his parents and brother and sister, his nieces and nephews, my parents and siblings, all his friends, knowing they are as bereft as I without that quiet, smiling man around. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t mention him, at least in conversation. Every fellow I’ve spent time with since has heard about him (some of them took it well, others had too much ego, all are in the past. go figure.) All of my friends have heard stories and seen his cowboy hat. From time to time, he still shows up in my dreams, young, smiling, sweeping me away again.

I know, as well as I know his social security number all these years later, that there will never be a day that I won’t still love him. I also know that I am the one still alive, and I have to take the lessons he taught me and keep becoming the best woman I can, a woman he’d be proud of. I have to move past the fear of offering my heart and having someone take it with them when they leave me forever. I’ve made real progress in that direction this year—examining motives (my own) and making deliberate changes.

I gave all of my heart to Phil the first time he kissed me not long after my 17th birthday, and he took very good care of it. I have every faith that someone, some day, will come along and do so again. Until then, I’ll live this full life with all of you and the ocean and poems and music and cats and pots and late nights and sunrises and hold onto my heart, open and ready and thankful.

Katrina Murphy is a poet, teacher, baker, host of the Internet radio show Questions That Bother Me So, and a dear friend who not only kindly allowed me to re-publish this piece after I read it on her Facebook page, but also reminds me each and every day to appreciate just how well taken care of I am in this world. Hang out with her on Twitter via @QTBSradio.

First Comes Mourning

I spent my morning in the wilds of Rockville seeing a specialist to see if my fibroids could be removed laparoscopically. I was hoping he’d say yes, in great part, because the surgery would then have been done via robot and, come on, who doesn’t want to be able to say they’ve been operated on by a robot? I did, however, have an inkling going in that because of the size of the largest mass that laparoscopic surgery, which would’ve meant basically cutting the mass into smaller pieces so it could be extracted through tiny incisions, wasn’t going to be an option for me. Turns out size wasn’t the doctor’s concern at all; rather there was a line in my ultrasound report that hinted that there was a slight possibility of cancer cells, and so it’s best to remove the mass intact so that if it does turn out to be at all cancerous, there’s no risk of accidentally spreading it throughout the body because the surgeon’s sliced and diced the tumor into little bits. And while the fact that Dr. B raised the “c” word made me face a possibility that I’d steadfastly been avoiding, it’s actually a conversation that happened after my exam that was more troubling.

Somehow Dr. B thought I wanted a hysterectomy while I was looking for a myomectomy, which would remove the fibroids but leave my uterus (hopefully) intact. It was while I was filling out paperwork to secure my surgical date that I noticed the error. Dr. B popped in again to talk to me and said that he would be happy to do just a myomectomy, HOWEVER, I had to understand that given the size of the mass I might end up with a hysterectomy as the only course of action once they had opened me up and could really assess the situation.

My feelings about my uterus have always been ambivalent. It was the reason I was grouchy once a month, but, for the most part, except for one abnormal pap smear in my early 20s, it’s behaved itself quite admirably. As for kids, well, when I was in college, I was convinced that I wanted to be a mom, but as the years went by and I remained unmarried—a prerequisite for me when it comes to having children—I decided I was fairly ambivalent about the situation. I figured that if my husband wanted kids, we’d have some, and if he didn’t, we wouldn’t. Also, having watched a dear friend struggle with the heartbreak of fertility treatments that just didn’t work over a period of several years, I decided fairly early on that if I couldn’t get pregnant the old-fashioned way, I had no interest in pursuing assisted options.

Given all that, I was surprised, after my fibroids diagnosis shortly after my 40th birthday, to find out that I did want kids. In the initial consultation with the gynecologist, the first option she asked me about was a hysterectomy, which would immediately relieve my symptoms. The obscenely heavy bleeding during my period, the chronic anemia, the heartburn, the difficulty breathing that was unrelated to my pneumonia-generated issues, the insomnia. But I found myself telling her that she needed to only give me options that meant I could still conceive a child. I had taken the whole day off from work, even though my appointment was in the morning. The doctor’s office was in Takoma Park and I had planned to walk to Old Town Takoma and treat myself to lunch cause I believe everyone deserves a treat after poking and prodding from lab-coat types. As I wandered the long stretch of Carroll Avenue from Adventist Hospital to Mark’s Kitchen, I was overwhelmed by my longing for a child. It occurred to me perhaps my ambivalence was only another protective spell, a way to stave off the true grief at not having found a partner though I’d fully expected two decades prior to graduate with a Mrs. degree, or at least to “earn” one fairly soon after graduation.

For various reasons, I did not go through with the surgery that year. And sometimes, I think it’s a minor miracle, or maybe not so minor, that this time around, I’ve been researching my options and making doctor’s appointments to find out which procedures are viable for me if I’d like to keep my womb.

I’ve had more than a few conversations with my best friend D, and she doesn’t quite understand why I’m so attached to my uterus. I sort of see her point given how many sheets I’ve ruined because of the fibroids, or how many overnight visits to friends I haven’t made because I’m scared of damaging their furniture, or how many times I’ve spent the day dizzy and semi-delirious at work because my flow has been so relentlessly heavy that I’ve done a good approximation of “bleeding out.” But somehow it feels like if I give up my uterus, it means that I give up my chance at marriage, which makes absolutely positively no sense to my brain, but is absolutely positively the view my heart takes. I am terrified of the emotional devastation I will feel if I come out of anesthesia and Doctor B. has to break it to me that my uterus is no more.

Do I know that I can adopt or foster? Of course, I do. Do I know that given the age range of men I’m looking to date that there’s a good chance I’ll have stepchildren to love and mother? Of course, I do. But again, that part of the conversation’s taking place in my head. My heart really can’t see past the possibility of the emptiness inside me. Somehow she seems to think that not only babies, but also love is born in the middle of me, at my center.

I can’t help but think that maybe it would be easier if there was some ritual, some way to grieve this loss. Even if I don’t lose my uterus in the surgery, the fact is I’m turning 43 tomorrow, which according to most gynecologists is when a woman’s fertility significantly plummets. The italics aren’t mine. They’re the way my primary gynecologist emphasizes the word every time she reminds me that my biological clock is winding down. And yes, I know women have conceived in their 40s, but the fact remains that for women who have never been pregnant, it’s a possibility to have baby mojo past that point, but not a probability. (And yes, for my believer friends, I know that God can make anything happen, but I’m talking about the purely biological view right now.)

Don’t those of us who didn’t make the choice to not have children, but for reasons of just not finding the right person in time, or medical issues, or whatever reason, that’s the end result get to grieve that loss? There should be some symbolic way of saying goodbye to our fertility when we’re desperate to hold onto it for a few more years but biology or health issues won’t allow. There should be a way to mourn that hollowness radiating from that place where you were sure that some day you would feel the squirrellings of life.

I’ll end here with the fact that I know some of you will want to post comforting things. Sure, it could be worse and I’d be better off worrying about the cancer possibility if I’m going to worry about something. Sure I can adopt. Sure my life can be—and is—significant and meaningful and worthwhile irregardless of the state of my uterus or whether or not I have kids. But none of that should mean that I don’t get to grieve. That I don’t get to fill my mouth with wails of grief and loss, to sob an ocean of tears. Morning will come, but first comes mourning.

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