Note: My cousin’s widower’s wife Laura Didricksen asked me to find pictures of my aunt Della Mae, her husband’s former mother-in-law. And so I began pulling boxes down from shelves and up from the basement, searching for pictures of those summer trips to Tinley Park which Patrick and I took in the years before Della’s strokes. I have not found them yet, but I found two typewritten pages — yes, typewritten — of an essay that I wrote which I feel compelled to include in this, my ever-expanding record of learning to live complaint-free and embrace joy. And so, here it is. The beat goes on:
The time has come, as I knew it would, when I feel the need to write, and so, as in the past, I write. Each time life frightens me into periods of numbness they are followed by periods of writing. Sometimes I share, I copy and mail; sometimes I store away. I never know which I will do before I do it. Even as I write I wonder. And sometimes when I share what I share is rejected. Which sends me into a period of numbness again, sends me behind the frozen smile some call pleasantness. Sometimes what is rejected is the act of sharing, as when I lean into another’s happiness and am pushed way with the greed of the poor, the homeless turned territorial huddled in a doorway. When this happens I lash out in desperation.
Dan Fogelberg on the stereo. I have it low but hear the familiar catching sound of fingers sliding across the strings of an acoustic guitar and I quickly turn up the volume: “Silent sea, tell this to me, where are the children that we used to be?” I know the words, and sing them as I always have, changing keys, only now I am embarrassed because I notice the notes I never knew I skipped; hear the vibrato I never knew I had until someone told me, and am saddened at its sound.
What I feel as I write is movement. Like the rise of a curtain in a room where you know you are alone, movement within my soul is unexpected. I thought the years had paralyzed the nerves of my being, thought the frequent periods of numb fright had left me incapable of stirring. Apparently they haven’t.
In 1984 my brother’s daughter died. we all said that 1985 would be better for us. In 1985 my mother died, and my grandfather’s soul left his Alzheimer-ridden body. We said that 1986 would be better.
In the 1970’s I went from bright and searching to clutching and scratching. I wanted nothing more from the 1980’s than love. Now I am silent, watchful. I have been accused of relying on others to define my existence. Perhaps I have. I have been accused of many things, including sudden mood changes, including poor choices in lovers, including being careless with the word love, including unprofessionalism, including selfishness. I have been accused of re-ordering my life to accommodate others’ needs. I was not aware that this was wrong, but you can hardly blame me, as I learned to be accommodating at my mother’s knee. I have also been accused of being blind, and naive.
I steal a line from Jackson Browne: Do not remind me of my failures. . . I have not forgotten them.
Nor has anyone on the receiving end of my accommodations ever declined them as long as they found them useful. Or as long as they were not in turn asked for something. And I, because of need, or goodness, or foolishness, or some trait as yet unidentified, continued giving. Perhaps I am casting pearls before swine; I prefer to believe that I am casting my bread upon the water.
Love steals into your heart when it is sleeping, and so it crept to enter mine. I was not given time to prepare, to tuck away my failures like wisps of grey hair, slightly unappealing but nonetheless present. I was not allowed to spread a fine layer of make-up over my blemishes. I truly believed that love does not put on airs. But I guess love should, at times, or at least a lover should.
Love caught me in a time of writing, a time of stirring from five months of numbness. I feel a lump in my throat now — when love came to me in February 1986 I was so terribly vulnerable. I had been numb from August 21st, 1985 at 7:25 a.m. until late December 1985, and in February 1986 I was still learning, or re-earning, to open myself to life.
Love found me shaky and left me much the same. Love left, or the lover did, because I was too moody. As we said on hard prie-dieux, on bended knee, with bowed head, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”. For the uninitiated, that is, “Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”.
Do not remind me of my failures. I have not forgotten them.
I was not surprised when my spring lover left. So many have. Some have left to return to a girl that had once left them, to go to a girl that beckoned, or to be alone. Many lovers have I had, but, sadly, only two whom I loved. The first whom I loved, left with neither malice nor explanation. The second, this last, with little explanation and with something close to guilt. Both of which I regretted, and perhaps also caused.
And I returned to the business of living. Of establishing my career. Of playing cat and mouse with men, an endeavor I have never undertaken successfully. I returned to cultivating my non-lover friends. I returned to numbness, too, at lest for a time. And then, to the business of grieving for my mother, a process halted in February by the distraction of love. And finally, I returned to the realization, upon which I stumbled in early December 1985, that I am a complete person without a lover. I may be still forming, but I can and do exist as an entity, entire unto myself.
Love will come to me again, love of a man, I mean, and from a man (other kinds of love are, thankfully, all around me). When love comes, I may be numb. I may be vulnerable, or I may be ready. But I may also be occasionally bitchy and tearful and giddy. I cannot abandon growth, I move forward. But I have sometimes subverted real growth for a pretended capability, an artificial assumption of characteristics I had not yet acquired, some of which I may never acquire.
True, though, that I mellow as I grow. Ask anyone — ask the first musician to sing to me, a man from Canada who was never a lover but who knew my soul like a lover does. Ask the various men who haved used me, partially because they saw in me a willingness to be used. Ask the women who observed this devolution and turned from me in contempt. Ask the women who did not turn away, who, observing, anticipated the pain and stayed to comfort. I am not perfect, but I have been much worse, and I remember being much worse.
Do not confront me with my failures: I have not forgotten them.
Love may be a gamble. Life itself is, I know — I who know only too well that you can, indeed, be killed crossing a street.
Or you can live, to take another roll of the dice.
I would love again, if love came my way. I am no longer certain that I would love as effortlessly, or as openly. Perhaps, perhaps not. I have cursed love before, all kinds of love for all kinds of reasons. I have told several men that I loved them when I did not, and told several men I loved them when I thought I did. I have tried to play roles for these men. That was not wise.
And the one lover who left without malice or pain, whom I truly loved, I never told. I think he knew — but we never discussed it.
My mother, whom I know I characterize as a saint, used to say that God only gives you as much suffering as he thinks you can bear. In later years, she would add, somewhat ruefully, “And he must think the Corleys are awfully strong.
And indeed, life goes on. I am blessed in many ways. Often I catch myself gazing at someone more disabled than I, or less intelligent, or less endowed with friends, thinking, “There, indeed, but for the grace of God, go I.”
And indeed, I go, as I have always gone, one crooked step forward two backwards, always, as Johanna Lyons admonished us, with my best foot forward. And still unsure, as I was unsure as a child, exactly which foot that was — but nonetheless determined that it should precede the other into the street, where, in crossing, I might get killed.
Or might make it safely to the other side.
Corinne Corley, 01 June 1986