Eleanor's father, Jay Spain, from the novel
How exactly do we manage to “lose” ourselves? I’m not talking about people who off searching for this or that with the excuse of trying to find themselves. Truth is, they haven’t looked hard enough inside to realize that they already have. But for the others of us, how do we manage it? To lose ourselves. You can suffer from a disease, physical or emotional, or some disaster in your life, or a bad relationship. It all comes out the same in the end.
This morning, I walked into a small newsstand to buy a lottery ticket. The woman who owned and spent most of her waking hours inside the store smiled at me, as she usually did. We been through this routine before, even if it was my routine, and she wasn’t privy to that fact. She had begun to open up to me, and was telling me all about her husband, who was a compulsive gambler. She just couldn’t understand it -– how he kept hurting her, time and time again. Why couldn’t he just stop? He could see he was hurting her. She did everything from cry for hours, she said, to scream at him. There was no secret about how she felt, how this was killing her inside, because she loved him, and how do you begin to understand that love can kill you. Well, maybe not. Maybe it can only kill you if you let it –- if you give up, or you want to commit suicide by loving somebody too much.
“Every time I need to leave to run an errand, or when I’m not feeling well, and I need him to watch the store for me,” she said, “I come back and there’s money missing. Or he’s been at the scratch-offs again, and he doesn’t go for the dollar scratch-offs. He goes for the $20 scratch-offs. And then I have to rob Peter to pay Paul, because you can’t be short on the lottery or they’ll come and take it away from you. And that means I’m short with my store accounts.”
She went on, even as I held my money in my hand and the card that had my carefully penciled in numbers: “He’ll deny everything, of course,” she said. “You know, it’s gotten to the point where I have to take money home with me and I have to sleep with it under my pillow. Like stuffing money in your mattress! And if I’m not careful, and leave my purse out, I’ll find money missing, or sometimes I’ll even catch him. The other day there were two twenties on the table next to my purse and I walked in, and he was standing right there, and he had the nerve to look at me and tell me he found the money, and it must be mine, because I knew he didn’t have any. It’s so crazy – well, it’s so crazy it drives me crazy. But I’m 58 years old, and what’s my future like? I’m so far in debt because of him, but I can’t throw him out. I just tell him he’d better hope that I don’t die before he does because then he’ll be in big trouble. I can’t afford life insurance and I don’t have health insurance anymore. He’ll be in big trouble if he has to bury me before I bury him.”
Sometimes –- not today –- but sometimes, her eyes would become glassy, and she’d say, wistfully, as if she were dreaming, “When I met him, I thought, here’s a real catch. That’s what I thought.” Her words would trail off and she’d blink a few times and that would be that.
This kindly woman, my friend, she would see me coming through the door, and immediately go to the back of the store, and bring me a cup of coffee. She knew I liked it black. We’d been through it before. She never charged me for the coffee –- just asked me one day if I drank coffee, and she always made more than she could possibly sell in a day, so she’d be happy to give me a cup. I guess she did this because I was a regular customer, but also because I was a good listener. And the reason I was a good listener was partly for me, and partly for her. I wanted to hear of someone else’s misery and pretend I was better than that. Not her misery, but the misery I knew her husband endured – the very misery my friend could not comprehend, why he did what he did and couldn’t stop doing it.
Oh –- but he did love her, I so wanted to tell her, to reassure her, that he did love her! But he could not stop hurting her, because he was killing himself first. You’ve got to love yourself in some way before you can love anyone else, and he was killing a whole lot of love at once.
This morning, after my friend got me my cup of coffee, and after I decided what numbers I was going to play, she said, “I want to be me again.”
And it just made me want to hold her tight and tell her everything, instead of just doing my listening.
So how do we lose ourselves? I don’t know how it starts. I wish I did. For a moment I wished I had the courage to suddenly put on a show for my friend, and be somebody who was worse off than her husband, and tell her my secrets, and raise my voice like I never did before –- to scare her, you know, to scare her. To let her know, somehow, through this kind of shock therapy, that she was still intact. Her husband, he was another story, but she had not lost herself. Or if she did, it would be possible, maybe even easy, with enough distance to look at all this with a clear heard, to wipe away the clutter and the dust and the other nasty stuff –- sort of like cleaning a car window after you’ve driven along a dirt road in the rain. You stop the car, you get out, you begin to wipe the windshield clean, and eventually you can see both ways again –- in and out.
This morning, after she said, “I want to be me again,” I thought those exact same words. Couldn’t say them out loud, of course, but I thought them. And that’s when I began to wonder about how we manage to lose ourselves in the first place. How could we let such a horrible thing happen –- unless we were horrible to begin with, and in that case, well, who wouldn’t want to lose a previous self. But I have to believe that most of us are good people, and that we have good hearts, and that we mean well even if we don’t always do well.
As you entered the store, there was a large birdcage, near the window, but far enough back to protect it from drafts of cold air. The weather was getting colder, so my friend had a space heater set up to keep the birds warm. She told me that at night, when she closed the store, she would leave the radio on for them, even after she covered the cage with a blanket. The birds with all of their chirping and activity, they were part of the total picture -– of me trying to self-medicate and heal myself and keep my secrets from at least some people who still trusted and believed in me. There were times when I just visited the store to say hello to my friend, and also hello to the birds.
“I want to be me again,” she said, but then she began to tell me about how the female had just laid an egg, and her boyfriend was being so good in protecting her. There was a small wooden box that looked like a bird feeder you’d put outdoors inside the cage, resting at the bottom. It was inside this box that the female had nested.
“Do you want to see the egg?” my friend asked, and of course I did. There weren’t any customers in the store, so she came around and we both went to the cage, and I hovered over her shoulder as she reached in ever so carefully and lifted the top of that wooden box. There was the female, and she looked up without otherwise moving.
“You can’t see it now, I’m sorry,” my friend said, “but next time, we can try again.” She put the lid back on the wooden box, and closed up the metal cage, and the other three birds, including the female’s boyfriend, started up their chirping again.
What I saw here was love, and trust, and nurturing. What I saw here was that my friend couldn’t have lost herself, she just couldn’t have. Maybe she was too close to her pain to realize this, but she was going to be okay. I could tell through all of her actions not taken that she was a fighter. Funny how you can see this kind of love and tenderness and know that a person is also somebody you just don’t want to mess with, because there is a point you’ll reach when she won’t back down anymore, when she won’t be so nice anymore.
Her husband hadn’t reached that part of her yet, the part of my friend that was hiding, and doing such a good job of it that she didn’t even understand all of the dynamics herself. So maybe it is something else, I thought. Maybe it is that we don’t lose ourselves, but we become like an absent-minded professor and forget where we put who we really are, or maybe our survival instinct kicks in just when we need it to and places who we are in a safe house, like the wooden box with the female bird and her egg. That egg is being protected at all costs. We would sooner die than lose the egg, which also means, we would sooner die fighting for ourselves than give in, and with this running through my head, as I left the store, my lottery ticket in my pocket and my cup of coffee warming my hand, with all of these thoughts like mathematical equations running through my head, that such and such equals this, and this makes for a reaction, but this and this mean you’ll find the right answer -– the right answer, I was thinking, the right answer is another day, waking up and going about your business, and the right answer is also hope, and the right answer has to include love, some nearly forgotten version of love that’s still strong enough to get you through the nights when you hurt the very most.