Home Sweet Home.

03/11/2011

I’m in the suburbs, in the basement I used to spend so much of my time when I lived there, when my phone tells me that my text messages are full. I accept the option to clean them up and as they’re being deleted, I realize the last conversation I had with my dad – The last few texts we’d exchanged the day he died – are amongst those being erased. I wait, with the precision of patience, for the fleeting feeling of being submerged underwater – The usual precursor to my panic attacks – but it doesn’t come. And I realize that no matter how long I hung on to those text messages, or the bracelet my dad bought me that had broken earlier in the day, that it doesn’t matter. He’s gone. And holding on to those mementos will not bring him back.

Later that same night, I am standing in the kitchen, bare legs, cigarette in hand, wrapped in the same coat that I’ve come to identify with this week of death so, and I remember the constant disappointment I was to my dad, the conversations that we had about how I could never support myself as a music journalist, that I should throw in the towel because I’d never be a self sufficient adult the way I was living. Sure, that big magazine job had come through once but it had gone under three months after I packed up my life and moved for “the sake of the job” and economically, reasonably, a person can’t live as a writer these days, they just can’t. Some people are lucky enough to have their march into adulthood punctuated with a wedding, a birth – My transition from “post college layabout” to “fully functioning adult” was instead marked by my move to Ann Arbor, only three months ago. And that move, to my dad, signified that I was okay. I remember this and I go outside and light a cigarette from the last pack I’ll ever own, and I realize: My dad died and he was proud of me when he did.

It’s this realization that calms my taciturn nervous system, always so close to the edge of sanity these days, and lets me know: Everything will be alright.

I come home and everything’s in disarray – My living room is still strewn with bottles and lighters from Bri’s twentieth birthday. It seems so long ago but it was the day before my dad died… And I’d never bothered to clean up before I left that night for Gray and Melissa’s to be delivered the fateful news that everything was about to change. I put down my bags and I walk into the bathroom to find my toilet’s broken and my bedroom is still a pit of laundry, just as I left it. It’s cold and it’s lonesome but it’s mine, this place, it’s mine, and coming back, even though I’ve only been here moments, restores all the order to my life that I needed. Everything’s okay. And right now, that’s all I need.

The worst is over.

Wake and Be Fine.

03/09/2011

It makes sense that this song is here for me, right now. Tracing the trajectory of my life, during the important events that have marred the lackluster backdrop of my day to day existence, all of which pale in comparison to what I’m dealing with now, there has always been one person who’s towering presence has been an unwavering constant and that person? It’s Will Sheff, lead singer of Okkervil River. Of course.

As I languish in eating-disorder-recovery hell, finally being dismissed by doctors after I gain enough weight to warrant their dismissal, I hear “Savannah Smiles” and the titular character is living my life – She sleeps and lies around and then she goes out. The next year, I make a disastrous attempt at being an adult, moving away to Illinois, and it’s “A Girl In Port”, “Starry Stairs”, “Red” – And I realize that the reason that Okkervil River has been endeared to me in such an intense manner is because of Sheff’s predilection for writing extremely honest, realistic, severely troubled female characters that I relate to intensely.  So of course it only makes sense that the band releases “Wake and Be Fine” four days after I burn my dad’s corpse in a pyre that divides my life evenly into “before” and “after”, only two days after I scream and sob and take the little bit of order my life had and shatter it in shards all around me, only one day after I cry into the inept arms of a boy that doesn’t know what to do to make me feel better. I tell him I need to fix things and I do – I need to fix things, I need to fix everything, I need everything to be okay. He looks at me and he tells me: “You can’t fix things.” These are the truest words I’ve heard since my dad died.

Suddenly, my life is a movie, a montage of days the order of which is shown through the devolution of my hair’s state of being. I’m a girl on couches and beds, laying under blankets with tragically wide eyes, the kind a deer has, framed in the cylindrical glow of headlights right before impact – It’s an impact I keep waiting for that never comes. Wouldn’t it all be so much easier if I died too? These half-thoughts enter her brain and linger for a moment before dissipating. She’s stopped wearing the makeup she never used to leave her room without days ago and constantly, she shakes. Boys lend her books but all she can do is stare at the pages. It takes her an hour to get out of bed and when she does, she wanders around looking lost and all anyone can do is ask her “Are you okay?” There are cut scenes – A dozen cut scenes – of everyone asking her “Are you okay?” and a flashback – She’s in Gray and Melissa’s kitchen and she’s sobbing and she’s shaking and she’s screaming and Archie Powell, a boy that’s known her longer than anyone in her current state, comes over to her, puts his hand on her shoulder, and tells her “Amber, I don’t want you to think no one wants to do anything to help you. We just don’t know what to do.” She calms down for a second and realizes that she’s everything she never wanted to be right now.

This entire moment – This entire strange transitional time in my life, condensed down from one week into three minutes – is orchestrated by the cutting waltz of “Wake and Be Fine”, anchored on the lines Someone said to me it’s just a dream, why don’t you wake up and you’ll see it’s fine?

Wake and be fine, you’ve still got time to wake and be fine.

I take these words and I commit them to memory, listen after listen, hoping that if I hear them enough times, this part of my life – This week, this scene – will be over and I will be, just as Sheff says, “fine”. A sense of structure and normalcy will return to my life, an order, and everything will be like it was. I understand that it can’t be like it was but all I want out of life is for everything to return to the exact moment everything changed and to never receive that phone call, the one that turned me into the daft, hollow cynic I’ve turned into. I want to have made mojitos and laughed at shitty pop punk bands. I want the biggest thought in my brain to have remained the quandary of whether or not the boy I liked liked me too. I want to have been taken home that night and I want to have kissed him because I was planning that, that’s what was going to happen. I want everything to be like it was. And I feel cheated that it’s not. And I feel naive for believing that if I try at normalcy hard enough, I can go back to that moment and fix everything.

Can I wake and be fine?

My phone rings and I know it’s bad news. My sister’s calling and it’s right after midnight. She’s usually in bed by ten.

“Hello?”

“I need you to get somewhere quiet.”

I start to walk out into the hallway as she repeats “I need you to get somewhere quiet”, adding an urgent “right now” to the end of her statement and I sink inside, my stomach succumbing to the quicksand that has appeared in my gut. I’m walking, I’m moving, and I’m mostly sober, but I’m still not fast enough. I leave the apartment, close the door behind me, and I stand in the hallway. I tell her “Okay”, giving her the go-ahead to change my life forever.

“Your dad stopped breathing.”

I lose myself immediately. I shake and I cry and I say something exclamatory, what, or why, or something like that but suddenly, I forget that I’m saying anything. The paramedics are there and they’re trying to resuscitate him. I hang up and I’m on the carpet, footing lost, face on the floor, phone still in my hand. I sob and every time my rib cage contracts, I feel as if I’m being physically crushed, an egg in a fist, yolk leaking through the space between fingers and shell shattering. Inside, I hear Melissa. “Is Amber crying or laughing out there?” I stand on shaky legs and I walk. Inside. Left foot. Right foot. This should be easy. But it’s not.

I walk inside, door closes behind me and I open my mouth but I don’t feel the words in my throat as I start to talk.

“My dad stopped breathing.”

Gray’s there and he hugs me and someone says something. I respond. They say “sit down” and I do as I’m told, everyone directing me. We’re going. Where? No one knows. I call my sister back and I ask and she tells me. “They’re taking him to Macomb County Hospital.”

The drive seems to simultaneously take all the time in the world and no time at all, music intermittently interrupted by phone calls and we’re 18 miles away when Sara tells me “Amber… It doesn’t look good.” Inside, I’m dying, shellshocked and sad and the sickeningly hopeful idea that everything will be alright doesn’t even occur to me. All I can think of is the night, seven years prior, when my dad’s older brother died. Fifty-five. Massive heart attack. I was asleep on the couch at my dad’s house, a directionless college kid clad in a Radiohead tee shirt when the phone rings. Eyes open and I look at the clock. It’s past four. “Hello?” My dad answers, sleep audible in his voice before he screams. “No. No, no, no!” Tom Valentine was with his wife. They were eating popcorn. He stood up then fell down, a valve in his heart explodes and he’s dead instantly. I do the math in my brain and it takes so long – Fifty… One. Two? No, one. My dad was fifty-one. Four years younger than his brother. And that… It was hereditary. I remember that much.

Gray and Melissa drop me off at the entrance to the emergency room. Justin’s with me. My phone rings again. “Where are you?” “I’m here. I’m at the emergency room. I’m walking in.” I’m in the hospital, white tiles glowing in florescence and I round the corner, seeing my sister as she says on the phone “Your dad’s dead.” Read the rest of this entry »