A week ago from last Saturday (March 28) I had a really comforting dream of my mother. I dreamed she brought me a tray of cupcakes while I was still in bed. I got out of bed and we were having a nice chat and I was telling her about a craft project I’m doing where I’m repairing an old afghan. I told her, “You know, the one you used all the time when you were—” I was just about to say “dying of kidney failure” when I realized (in the dream) that she was dead. I put my arms around her and hugged her tight and said, “Oh Mama, it’s so good to see you.”

I woke with such a profound sense of comfort and presence. I thought she’d come by to comfort me because I was so worried over a friend who’s really sick—and that may be part of it. But I didn’t realize that the day before two women who were a seminal part of my childhood, and also very important to her, Vera and Irene, had died within a day of each other. I got the notification for their death this past Saturday (April 2). Neither family knew each other and so it’s just a fluke I got the notification the same day.

To say it knocked me flat is an understatement. I wrote both condolence letters today because I didn’t want them to get lost in the shuffle and procrastination is not my friend. Platitudes and vague expressions of sympathy would not do for these ladies. I needed to let their families know they truly mattered, but you know, condolence letters are tricky. I’ve received several in my time and know the ones that had the most impact delivered more than platitudes but kept it relatively simple because when you’re grieving you don’t need or want a complicated or goopy message. Simple and heartfelt is best. Making it about them, the dead, not about you.

Which isn’t always easy, but I think I did a decent job. And at least it gave me a chance to purge some of the emotions I’ve been holding back. I hope their families can receive them in the spirit they were written, but that’s out of my hands and beside the point. They have their grief to deal with—and that’s a thousand times more than mine and will take time.

All last week I had a potent feeling of spirits in the house. Ginger was acting scary, too, staring wild-eyed into corners of the room, cringing. Because of the rough time she had before coming here, she does tend to be jumpy at sudden noises or movements, but there was none of that going on at the time, and it seemed…off. Excessive. So more than once I found myself saying to the room, “Ancestors are welcome, spirits of place are welcome, but if you’re some transient spirit here and scaring my kitty, you can get the hell out.” Curiously, Ginger relaxed after that.

Since Saturday I’ve wondered if it was Vera and Irene I was telling to get the hell out. I hope not. They are always welcome and Ginger will just have to live with it. After all, those two monumental women were ancestors of mine, too, even if only one of them was related by blood.

I once knew a woman who was an echo chamber. She echoed things she’d heard other people say and pass it off as her own wisdom. I caught her at this several times (although I never confronted her with it). She once even echoed back something I’d said to her without remembering where she’d heard it from. She was also fond of spouting platitudes (another form of echo, really), and I took to calling her Platitude Woman to my friends. But this strategy worked, for the most part. She projected an image of competence and charm, even if it was only skin deep.

There had to be something more to her, I know there was something more to her, but she was so broken, so tragic-playing-at-I’m-fine, so holding herself together with bits of wire and cellophane tape, so wanting to be thought wise and whole and strong and charming that, it seems to me, she only had these echoes to sustain her.

Surely there had to be more.

Surely there were things in that years-long blank in her memory of her childhood that she sometimes talked to me about that made the hollow sound of other people’s thoughts and words preferable to anything genuine from her own psyche. She drove me crazy so much of the time with her terrifying need to talk about I-me-mine, turning every conversation no matter how far afield back to a discussion of herself and her family and the bad old days. She steadfastly refused therapy, saying she was scared of what she might find out.

I used to think it was my duty to listen to every person who needed to talk, to use my empathy in an attempt to rescue and to heal. This woman cured me (mostly) of that. I have, at least, learned that I have limits, that at a certain point I will damage myself if I persist in my savior complex. That, really, it is an insult to the needy person to think that I know best, that I can turn things around for them.

But it’s so easy to slip back into that fantasy of being able to fix people. I regularly wound up in the glide path of needy people who engaged my empathy. I was frequently told I was such a good listener. I suffered from the delusion that I could rescue people, help fix them. But it is a delusion. You can listen, you can help, point them in the direction of people who are trained to actually help, but ultimately people have to find the will to fix themselves. It’s not weakness of character that turns needy people away from that will to change. Some, like my echoing friend, are so broken it doesn’t even seem an option to them. Especially if that brokenness happened in childhood.

The echoing woman drained me dry—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I sat next to her at work every day for years and couldn’t escape those conversations. Some days as soon as my feet hit the door she started talking until finally I’d have to say, “I really need to get some work done” and turn my back on her. But I felt her staring at my back, willing me to turn around, needing me to listen. Some days I had to get up from my desk and take long walks around the building just to keep my sanity.

Then she injured her back, had surgery, followed by heavy duty pain medicines, developed a problem, was carried along at work by those of us who cared for until she was finally urged by management to consider retirement. Her job was an important part of her ego structure and it took a great deal of increasingly strong persuasion to get her to finally agree to it. The urging became another source of her victimization: she was doing a great job, anyone could see that, and the company was picking on her. Those of us who had actually been doing her work, even those of us who did not usually come down on the side of the company vs. the employee, tried to make it as easy as we could without feeding her sense of outraged victimization. It was not easy.

She had nothing left to anchor her at that point. I think, finally, she found relief from the echo chamber of trauma in her mind and soul by numbing them instead of dealing with them. I can’t judge her for that. What I heard of the parts of her childhood and young life that she did remember was pretty bad. Her mother was schizotypal in a time when that diagnosis wasn’t common, and, like my echoing friend, never got treatment. A brother and a sister were diagnosed, years later, and a third brother was frequently homeless and living on the margins. The burden of caring for them often fell on my echoing friend’s shoulders. Her brothers, who she’d fought so hard to take care of and shepherd through a heartless system, died within twenty-four hours of each other. The sister finally reconciled with her estranged son and he took over her care. Then came the drugs, and my echoing friend let go completely. She retreated into dreams, to a place where the harsh sounds were muted, where someone else could take over the burden of being wise and held together with wire and bits of cellophane. Where she could turn her face away from the world and slowly, peacefully slip into death.

Surely, there must have been something more. I still sometimes wish I could have fixed her, though she’s been gone years now. I hope she found healing on the other side of dreams, the other side of sweet oblivion.

But I’ll never know. Or, at least, not until I slip into the other side of my dreams.





Random quote of the day:

“APPLAUSE, n. The echo of a platitude.”

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Desus and Mero, Beyoncé, or the Marine Corps Marching Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“Platitude—An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.”

—H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Key and Peele, Celine Dion, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.