Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Time for Reflection and...

The year 2015 was strange for me. It was a year defined by major and, in moments, debilitating struggle, but also by my ability to overcome that struggle. It was a year defined by sad recognition of my own and others' limitations, but also by a happy readjustment based on that recognition. It was the year in which, more than in any other, I determined and took concrete steps towards having my own life.

You'll notice that I did not write much here throughout the fall. My last entry, dated from October, recounted reunion with a longtime college friend, and after that it was radio silence from old BB for a full two months, longer than I have ever been absent from this site in its nearly eight-year history.

I had cause. I dealt with a terrible professor, the worst of my academic career, and when his initially unhelpful behavior advanced to vindictiveness and then outright lying about me to my adviser, I was moved to, for the first time ever, file an official complaint against an instructor. Failure to pass his class would have barred me from student-teaching and, in effect, delayed graduation and a job by another half-year. The day his final project was due, I was a hysterical wreck and reached a level of stress that unhinged me a bit from the surrounding world. Those days were a frightening blur to which I never want to return.

Starting around the beginning of the fall term, and due at least in part to the burdens of that time, my obsessive-compulsive disorder came roaring back. If this condition were in fact that cutesy preoccupation with neatness that is depicted on TV, a recurrence of it would not have been a problem. But my life isn't Monk. By October I was convinced of the inevitability of my failure, and was routinely afflicted by horrifying nightmares in which my hair and teeth fell out.

And then, at about the end of August, my hair actually started falling out. Along with patches of my eyebrows. A recurring forgetfulness that had first surfaced as early as the summer of 2014 amplified, and I began losing words, misplacing items, and falling victim to disorienting moments of what I can only call "fog." My emotions were heightened and I cried easily. My energy plummeted, and I wound up tiring out after even brief moments of exertion.

"You need to see someone, BB," my grandmother told me this summer. I'd been helping her with yard work, and about twenty minutes in just hit a wall and could do no more. I needed to sit down, and urged her to take a break, supposedly out of concern for her wellbeing but actually so I might mask that I was being outflanked by a seventy-three-year-old woman. "You're too young to be so tired. And you've been like this for years. You get winded so quickly."

After a dermatologist determined she could not help me because my hair loss was not age related--i.e., not natural balding and thus a symptom of something else--I was referred to several other doctors, and began a semester-long odyssey of blood tests and physician visits that required me to explain why, at the age of twenty-seven, I was exhibiting signs consistent with very early dementia. One doctor even asked if there was a family history of early-onset Alzheimer's.

The actual culprit does seem to be hereditary, but not so bad as all that: hypothyroidism, which runs on my father's side but which may have been missed in my case because of my relative youth and because men are affected nine times less often than women. One more blood test, to be done shortly after the New Year, should confirm the problem and justify a medication regimen that will hopefully put an end to this nightmare.

But the nightmare had a big casualty. In September, I made the deeply painful decision to cut my gorgeous, waist-length hair, which I'd spent nearly nine years growing into a waterfall of golden waves in which I took great pride and happiness. The result, though still long, falls far short of the spectacular beauty for which I'd become known in the near-decade since 2006.

When this is over, though, and this health issue resolved, I will not lose one more thing to it. Not one more word. Not one more memory. Not one more instant of clarity. Not one more day of yard work. Not one more strand of hair. I will grow that hair back, to as long as it ever was, and wear it like a flaxen badge of vigor. I will achieve that by this time three years from now, in the fall of 2018. I will have just celebrated my thirtieth birthday.

I overcame the professor from hell and pulled an A in the class I thought would sink me. I overcame the extraordinary apathy of my family and the dismissiveness of one breathtakingly arrogant doctor to finally get something concrete when I knew something was wrong with me. But there were also things I could not overcome.

This November, Our Family celebrated Our Family Day, the annual remembrance of our immigrant ancestor's arrival in the New World. Last month marked 396 years since my 11th great-grandfather set foot in King's City, Southern State, in the fall of 1619, and the party included tales of the past and somewhat dubious plans for the future.

"On the 400th, I'm getting smashed," laughed Thomas.

Towards the start of this blog, when I was a boy of twenty and Thomas one of thirteen, I made the conscious decision to attempt stamping our our father's ruinous legacy. Where David--my father--showed inconstancy, I showed steadiness; where David showed disproportionate anger, I showed even temper; where David was quick to build minor mishaps into life-defining crises, I didn't sweat the small stuff. I taught Thomas how to drive because our father wouldn't. I helped Thomas with his homework because our father couldn't. I helped Thomas plan ahead because our father was unconcerned. I listened when he needed someone to talk to, because our father couldn't be bothered. Time after time, I showed Thomas kindness that I hoped he would internalize as a way of living rather than just as an act from which he benefited. Of late, though, I wonder if I ever had a shot.

This fall, I asked him several times to pay me back the small sum of money I'd loaned him when he was in a tight spot. About the third time, he snapped.

"BB, I have a lot going on right now," he said, shooting me the look of disdain I now so often receive from him. "And paying you that money isn't my priority."

He might've slapped me. I stood in his doorway, not believing that the selfish, inconsiderate young man sitting before me with such indolence was the same person in whom I'd reposed so much confidence just three years before.

"Well, Thomas," I said quietly. "When you needed that money, it was my priority to give it to you."

Two weeks later, he put a down payment on a piece of expensive music equipment. A bit after that, he had to have work done on his car and I was happy to let him use mine. I even gave him gas money because I know he doesn't make much. And then, when I was away with family out of state and asked him to return some movies I'd forgotten to take back, he wouldn't. He didn't have $5 to cover the trip to the next town. When I told him I had about $50 in change in my room, he shrugged me off with a scornful text.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not paying for gas with quarters. I'm just not doing that."

This has accompanied increasing blue-collar mannerisms (including a maddening affected laugh), a refusal to make realistic plans for the future, a tendency towards overblown criticism that is reminiscent of our father--Thomas recently berated me, for instance, for "always doing things halfway" because I waited a bit to clean up dishes from a dinner I'd prepared for him and Pie--and a draw to heavy drinking.

"BB, you and Mom have to do something," Powell told me by telephone. "You guys have to help him."

"No, I don't," I answered. It was cold and it was definitive and it had been building a long time. "I don't have to save Thomas. I can't save Thomas. I'm not his father. I have to think about a boyfriend and a husband and having kids of my own one day. I need to have my own life."

I love Thomas, and every moment isn't a bad one. But he's becoming someone I don't know, someone so far removed from the boy he used to be that thinking of it makes me want to weep. I'll always love him. But I can't help him. And that's what I meant earlier, about recognizing not just others' limitations, but my own: I can't save the world. I can do my very best to be a positive influence on others, and to extend them what help is within my ability to give, provided they demonstrate a willingness to take that help and use it constructively. Someone who won't do that reveals themselves quickly. When I was offered help from my grandmother, I ran with it and earned a bachelor's degree. When Rowdy Cousin was offered help from his parents, he did the same thing and on graduation was hired by an accounting firm who offered him a salary that would have been generous for a person twice his age. If someone doesn't want to do something, though, you can almost never make them do it. And I will no longer waste precious energy trying.

Aunt Crazy said it best.

"Powell is a lost cause," she pronounced, her jolly face cooled by calm certainty. "But Thomas...maybe not yet."

I'm done with lost causes. My father, my mother, my stepmother, my brother Powell, all lost and never coming back. My door is closed to them. Thomas stands on a threshold whose precariousness he does not yet recognize. Pie is still a great light to me, but not my life. I will let her go, too, not to a place that I throw away, but to a place I visit in moments and with love. She has a harbor with me. Just not my most important harbor. I'm saving that for my own family, and leaving behind the siblings and stepmother who have, if we're stripping away politeness, been astonishingly ungrateful to me. I've given too much to the wrong people. Now, at least for quite a while, I'm going to give to myself.