Hell away: My messy beautiful.

*** This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.  To learn more and join us, click here. And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here. ***

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

P and me, circa 1968.

The fact that Kate called me from college during the middle of a business meeting, which I was leading but which I interrupted to answer, was odd enough.

Her questions were even odder.

“I have Sunday off and I’m going to the city to have lunch with Aunt P. I was wondering if you know of a good place to eat in her neighborhood. Also, I want to go to the cemetery and place flowers on Grannie’s grave and I don’t know how to get there.”

On the surface, there are easy answers to Kate’s questions. But my sweet daughter unknowingly unleashed a hornet’s nest of angst in two simple sentences — so much so that I excused myself from the meeting to step outside, where stepping outside equals stepping into the vast wasteland of  my emotion on the topic of my sister.

I’ve had what can politely be described as a “difficult” relationship with my sister. At the time of my mother’s death nearly four years ago, she and I were estranged for reasons not necessary to detail here but related to her lifetime of addiction and my lifetime of carefully cultivated anger. Right before my mother passed, Mom said very little other than she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid to die. But she had a final request: “Please stay close to P,” she asked quietly. “She doesn’t have anyone and she needs you.”

Let me tell you — I could write an irrefutable essay on why deathbed requests should be immediately outlawed, but that’s not the point of this story.  To those living and those departing, deathbed requests are an unfair entreaty, or at least that’s how I felt after eight weeks of being the only family member holding vigil at my mother’s side during her final illness. But faced with my mother’s last request to do the one thing I knew I couldn’t do, I did what any loving daughter would do.

I lied.

“Okay,” I whispered. “I will.”

Six months later, I moved out of state. I moved for a lot of reasons, but being five hours away from my sister was surely at the top of the list.

And, now, here was my daughter, away at college and willing to drive two hours to have lunch with her aunt, whose calls I mostly don’t answer and whose texts I only occasionally return. I’ve always believed the universe sends people signals when they most need them. On this day, I thought the universe must be drunk, too. I didn’t like this signal and it surely was nothing more than a kind of cosmic glitch, an errant sign that had nothing to do with me.

But I took a deep breath and answered my daughter’s questions amid the traffic noise outside my office. I was surprisingly composed but unsurprisingly terse. I told her my sister lives in a terrible neighborhood and there’s no decent place to eat within miles of her house. But don’t take her anywhere fancy, I cautioned, because she looks like a homeless person. And don’t bother going to the cemetery because the grave is still unmarked and you won’t be able to find it. It’s a long story, I said, with the kind of exasperated tone that made it clear the failure to buy a headstone had everything to do with my sister’s broken promises.

It was the worst kind of explanation a mother could give a daughter, especially one as good-hearted as mine. It was shameful, really, but it was all I had. Love didn’t exactly win at that moment.

You know — those of us who are fans of Glennon Melton would break a leg to meet her. I adore Glennon, but you know who I really want to meet? I want to meet Glennon’s Sister. I want to pull Sister aside and ask how she managed to be Sister to the Drunk all those years. Because during my sister’s awful, horrible years when she stole my car and my money and my jewelry and found every way humanly possibly to hurt my mother and nearly got herself killed, more than once by a drunken male companion — I stayed the hell away.

I made sure P knew she was not invited to my wedding. I made my mother promise not to take my children around her. When she was sent to jail, many times, I never bothered to ask where or why or for how long. I refused to visit her in the hospital after she was nearly beaten to death with a steel pipe until my mother tearfully begged me to go, after which I stood in the doorway of her dingy hospital room because I wasn’t brave enough to cross the linoleum abyss between my anger and her pain.

You know, for as hard as it must be to be Drunk — and Glennon has given me so many insights into that experience — it’s also hard to be Sister. I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying sobriety, especially my kind of protective sobriety which looks a lot like furious disapproval, is hard, too. The addicted and the sober — we’re like two jagged stones tumbling down a dirt road, crashing into each other and knocking off our smooth edges, unintentionally making each other sharper and scarring up the soft earth around us. We might be doing the best we can, the only ways we know how — and for Pete’s sake we ought to give each other a break given the circumstances — but it’s so ugly and so painful we don’t know what to do so we just keep tumbling.

Surprisingly, though, after my mother died the anger I had nurtured about my sister over so many years began to fray in a way that startled me. The unraveling of what had safeguarded and sustained me, the tattering that had moved beyond the edges into the center of my tightly woven gall, left me unsteady, as if I had lost the only emotional compass that worked for me with P. I sought a counselor’s assistance because the problem with losing your anger is that it’s not immediately replaced with an emotion you know how to work with.  The absence of fury doesn’t create compassion.  It’s something more like benign forbearance, which isn’t particularly conducive to family reconciliations. The counselor advised me to set the boundaries I needed to protect myself, but to commit to taking action in keeping with my values. Apparently the boundary I needed was 300 miles wide.

I figured I’d think about the values part later.

You know, my husband has this theory that the incarcerated aren’t the only ones in prison. He believes the wardens — and the System that retains them — are locked in the same dreadful dynamic, and the keepers aren’t any more free to leave than the criminals. Who’s to say which side of the bars is more subjugating, he asks?

His insight resonates with me because I haven’t known for a long time who’s on what side of what jail, P and me. She’s paid a steep price, including her health, a good bit of her sanity, and an unbreakable tether to her daily dose at the methadone clinic.

But I’ve paid a price too, one I’m just beginning to calculate. I’ve never believed in a literal hell but I can tell you hell away is a torturous place, maybe exactly what God warned us about, but so close to our noses that we humans couldn’t see it and instead we told stories of fire and brimstone because, you know, speck in her eye.

I don’t have a tidy answer today. I know P loves me, because she never fails to tell me. I know I love her too, because I am starting to let myself feel it, no matter how hard I try to resist and how few times I say it. I know we are sisters because we are breathtakingly imperfect in our sameness and because a million years ago, when she was 16 and I was 6, we rode around in the car together, the windows rolled down and the am radio playing Janis Joplin, who taught us “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

The lyrics held true for her and I suddenly think they have held true for me, too.  Maybe we were destined to spiral downward together, to plumb the depths of our souls in tandem until she hit the rock bottom of reckless addiction and I hit the rock bottom of hardened sobriety.  The landing always hurts, I suddenly realize, but there’s comfort in finding hard ground, in stopping the free fall.

Who knew we would be emancipated together 45 years later?

With gratitude {for daughters, sisters, and second chances},

Joan, but, like my sister, you can call me JM




Pardon my tantrum.

Dear friends,

Sunday was not bery good to me.

In fact, she was a cruel mistress who made me cry. Made me lose my temper. Made me wish I could go to bed at noon and wake up on Monday, which despite its longstanding reputation as the week’s unkindest day, looked to me yesterday like the place I would most like to be.

I woke up early because I was planning a very special supper and wanted to get my cake complete before noon. (Imagine this: a dark chocolate cake, layered with blackberry-rum filling, iced with vanilla buttercream icing and topped with fresh berries and chocolate curls.) I had baked the cakes Saturday night, so all I had to do Sunday morning was slice the layers, make the filling, and ice and decorate it. By 10:00 am, my cake was assembled and crumb-coated and it looked like I was going to breeze through the rest of my meal preparations.

Problem was, my fridge was full. There was no place to chill my cake for its final icing. Against my better judgement, I took it outside (where it was still a perfect 42 degrees) and set it on a high brick ledge surrounding our front porch. Then I went inside where I immediately thought better of my decision.

You see, in December, I had hosted a Christmas party at my home for dozens of colleagues. Among other deserts, I baked two cheesecakes and made the mistake of leaving them on my outdoor dining table to chill, only to discover that my Golden Retriever, Ed, had climbed on the table and eaten them both an hour before my party started. Surely Ed couldn’t reach the brick ledge out front could he? I turned on my heels and went right back outside.

Ed was on the porch, licking his lips. My cake was still on the ledge, only apparently Ed had managed to jump up and take a perfect bite out of the side of my cake.

And you know what? One little dog bite wasn’t enough to deter me. I grabbed my cake, marched inside, sliced out the edges of the bite mark to remove any dog germs, and covered the hole with an icing patch. Take that, stupid dog!

Then I removed several items from my refrigerator and slid the cake in on top of the chicken breasts that were brining for supper.

All was well for approximately 10 minutes until Mr. Mom opened the fridge and my cake came tumbling down at his feet, bouncing off the milk jug and a few other items along the way and landing in a jumbled heap on the kitchen floor.

And that’s when I went to my room and cried. That’s when I pulled the covers over my head and thought screw it. Screw the brining chicken and Mark Peel’s secret method for making the world’s best mashed potatoes and my beautiful table that I had already dressed and that looked like this:

I cursed the whole day and everything about it and silently vowed that those people could make their own damn supper and eat without me this week.

Mr. Mom picked up the pieces of my cake, put them on a plate, and then cleaned up the cake debris still clinging to half of the items in our fridge door. “Your cake tastes really good,” he told me. “You should eat a piece. I saved it.”

“I don’t even LIKE CAKE!” I exclaimed. “I only bake them because they are pretty and I enjoy making pretty things! I don’t want any cake!”

And then I stayed in bed where I pouted for a good long time. The fact is, I really do like cake. I love the challenge of creating them and making them beautiful, but in the end, I like slicing them up and eating them, too. And I like my Sunday Suppers, despite how much work they are, because there’s no where else in the world I could get meals this good served on tables as lovely as mine.

So I eventually dragged myself out of bed and made the rest of our supper, including a newly configured cake, now topped with whipped cream and called trifle.

I know, I know. You’ve heard the “my-cake-fell-apart-but-I-triumphed-anyway” story before. I’m sorry. Last time, it was no big deal. This time, it was. This time, I didn’t so much as roll with the punches, as punch back.

I can’t explain why some days are easier than others, why sometimes life’s little catastrophes are no big deal and other times they feel like the very worst thing that ever happened and make you cry.

But I know that the next time I encounter someone who’s frustrated or crying over seemingly nothing, I will remember my cake — my silly, dog-bitten cake — and I will do my best to offer the person a kind word and a helping hand.

With gratitude {for a husband who cleaned up the mess and two sweet children, both of whom loved my trifle — one so much she photographed it with her phone and texted it to a friend with an invitation to join us},

Joan, who had calmed down enough by supper time that she actually laughed when Mr. Mom said “If you ever need help with your desert again, I’ll be happy to dump it on the floor if it turns out as tasty as this one”