For the last few days I’ve been trying to write a blog post in my head. It was going to be about one of the weirder phone calls I’d received in the last decade, and the blog post was going to have “memory lane” somewhere in the title. Faceplant on Memory Lane? I’ve Just Been Dragged Down Memory Lane? A Surreal Trip Down Memory Lane? Something like that. But that phone call was connected to my family, and then another family thing happened the same day, and then there were MORE family updates today … so this is going to end up being a family post instead.
Let’s start with that phone call.
So I’m on my break at work the other day when the phone rings in my office. I answer the phone, and a guy starts talking to me and asks me how I’m doing. He tells me his first name (N), which doesn’t mean anything to me, and when I ask his last name he tells me that he was my kung fu teacher many years ago.
And WOW, is that a blast from the past. I mean, I took kung fu classes from the ages of 12-16, and I’m now in my mid 40’s. So he and I go WAY WAY WAY back. And not only do we go way back, but he was an important figure in my life at a time when things were pretty tumultuous for me at home. Kung fu class was a place where I could vent my aggression by punching and kicking things, where I could meet boys, and where I could feel safe. And N was a major factor in helping me feel safe. I looked on him like the older brother I never had (I was in my teens and he was in his 20’s), and when he would walk me home after class I never felt safer in my life. I remember thinking that no matter what happened, during the space of that walk I was wrapped in a bubble. I was absolutely protected and secure and nothing could hurt me. We would arrive at my building, I would kiss him goodbye on the cheek, he would tell me to “take care” (he was the first person I ever knew who used that expression and that, too, made me feel safe), and then I would go upstairs to my apartment. But as soon as I walked through that door, I would walk back into the drama of my unraveling family, and nothing was safe or certain anymore.
So N made me feel safe and secure when I was a kid and a teenager, while my parents’ fights were escalating into a divorce. He was an object of strength at a time when I needed it the most, and part of that was him and (I’ll admit) part of that was what I needed him to be and what I projected onto him. He was my pillar, my rock, my shield, and my strength when I was young. And now I was middle-aged and he was calling me at the public library, which was … very curious.
And then he said, “Your brother was just here. We talked for about half an hour!”
Jesus Christ on a bike.
Okay, so you know how in the vaudeville / silent movie days, when there are two guys there, and one of them is carrying a wooden plank over his shoulder? And then the guy carrying the plank turns around real fast, and the wood whacks the other guy in the head? And then just as that guy is getting back up on his feet, the guy with the plank turns around AGAIN and knocks him over AGAIN?
WELL, THAT’S WHAT IT FELT LIKE.
So suddenly I went from Wow, isn’t this amazing that this important person from my childhood called me out of the blue? to Oh, crap. My BROTHER talked to you for half an hour? Oh, crap. I even went so far as to apologize for him, and added that my brother tends to not talk at all or talk too much (I left out the fact that I would be hard-pressed to talk to my brother for half an hour without putting my head through a wall … because … well, I thought that might sound a little mean-spirited).
N. and I only talked for about five minutes or so, because my break was ending and I had to go and cover a service desk. Our “real” conversation covered the kinds of topics you discuss when you’re catching up on 30 years’ worth of time in just a few minutes:
- So, what is your job like?
- Do you have any kids?
- Do you like your job?
- Do you live in the city?
My imaginary conversation with him was much deeper and sometimes darker, and while it bubbled up in my subconscious while we were talking, it continued in my head over the next several days:
- I can’t tell you how important you were at a time when I felt like my life was falling apart. You were one of the only stable things in it. Thank you for that.
- Do you know how I got the highest score in my class when we had to do overhand pullups in our high school gym class? I imagined you standing at the other end of the gym, staring at me with your arms folded. You wouldn’t let me drop. Thank you for that.
- I know that you cared about me as more than a little sister, but you never pushed me for more and you always respected my space. And I thank you for that, too.
- I still say “take care” when I say goodbye to people.
- So … you talked to my brother for half an hour. About WHAT, might I ask???
So that conversation was the weirdest part of my day … or at least I thought it was. And then I got home from work to see that someone had left me a voicemail on my cellphone. Which never happens unless … okay, if my brother gave N my cellphone number, I was going to strangle him.
But no, it was a message from my brother. I started to relax, and waited for him to give me the heads-up about the conversation with N. Except that wasn’t the topic of his voicemail at all. I forgot the cardinal rule of what it means whenever my brother calls me: a) the world is coming to an end, or b) my brother needs something. Or in this case, it was a reason that covered both a and b: HIS MICROWAVE WASN’T WORKING.
God in heaven. Two freezers full of frozen meals, and NO MICROWAVE???
Well, the jist of the message was that he needed a new microwave and when was I going to get him a new one. It’s assumptions like this that get me frustrated, although 10% of my frustration is directed at him and 90% of it is directed at my mother. Who didn’t listen to me on this subject when she was alive, and I suppose is even less likely to listen to me now that she’s dead.
Logically, I know this and I understand this. But it’s still hard not to be retroactively pissed.
Anyway, my mother spent most of her life assuming that my brother couldn’t do things, so it was easier and faster to just do them for him. I started arguing with her about this back when I was in high school, but I never won those arguments. And then I moved out when I was 20, so my brother spent the next several decades living with her and doing very few things for himself. And now I have these conversations with him where I don’t do what he wants and I feel like a horrible monster, but goddamn it I’m just trying to kick him out of the nest to force him to fly.
Over the last year, my boyfriend and I have taken major steps in forcing my brother to become more self-reliant. This has included showing him how to do things for the very first time — use an ATM, attach a Swiffer pad to the Swiffer itself, and bring one of those buzzy-flashy things up to the counter to get your burger when it’s ready. And as of this week it also included explaining to him how he could get a microwave without doing it for him. We walked through all the steps we could think of, and then answered additional questions along the way. Bring enough cash to buy a microwave (up to $100). Take the bus to Target. Go to the electrical appliances section. Look at the microwave ovens on display and pick one. Find the box that matches the model you picked and make sure that you can carry it. Bring it to the checkout line and pay for it. Etc, etc, etc.
When my brother called me from Target with follow-up questions (YES, the plug is included in the box!) he sounded excited and nervous and happy. Good for him! I might not be able to handle having a half-hour conversation with him, but I WILL kick him out of the nest with the best of intentions.
Anyway, that happened a few days ago (and as my boyfriend pointed out, no follow-up questions about the microwave is a good sign). And then today happened.
Today we got a call from the medical institution that has my mother’s body (she donated it to them to save us from paying funeral expenses because she was both thrifty and unsentimental). Back in the day when she signed up for this program, they would cremate the body and then inter the ashes. Well, times have changed a little and apparently the institution started running out of money and room, so now they give the ashes back to the family when they’re done.
And apparently they are. Done. With her. And now I have to decide what I want to do with the ashes. HER ashes. HER.
Oh, and there’s also going to be a group memorial service for a bunch of donors, and do we want to attend?
So this news has just added to the surreal quality of the last week. Now I have to decide what I want to do, and how much to involve or shield my brother in this decision. And when we have the ashes, what do we do with them? Do I fly them over to Latvia and set them free in her homeland? Do I scatter them in one of her favorite parts of NYC? Keep them in a box in the closet? These are the kinds of questions that are rolling around in my head right now.
When I told D what was going on, we chatted back and forth for a little while, and then he gave me an important piece of advice involving not being downwind when I release the ashes. This explains why one of my browser windows is still open to a google search for the word “schmuck” because I had to double-check the spelling (I always forget that first ‘c’). Still, though, he did help to snap me out of my blue mood, which is what I needed at that moment.
Anyway, I’m going to find out when the memorial service is going to be, and then take it from there. I’m also open to any suggestions involving what I should do with the ashes, Dear Readers. This is brand-new territory for me.