|BWS Stories - "You Keep On Playing Those Mind Games"...From Depression to Hope|
"You Keep On Playing Those Mind Games"...From Depression to Hope - Blue Sky
Heather Haldeman lives in Pasadena, California. She's been married to her husband, Hank, for twenty-eight years and has three children. She began writing personal essays seven years ago when her oldest son went off to college. Her essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul's syndicated newspaper column and two of their books. She has also been published in the Christian Science Monitor and several other on-line websites.
It's summertime, our annual family vacation to Newport Beach. The cars are packed, the mail's been put on hold, and we're off. Everyone's excited except me. I hate sand. I'm scared of the water, and my skin burns to a crisp in the sun. This is no vacation for me, just a change of scenery from the kitchen window.
Our younger two children in college, and our oldest son, now working, join us along with a sea of their friends. "It's tradition," their friends all say.
Year to year, we have no less than ten big guys sleeping on the couches and on the floor. I do it all - provide the meals, bake the cookies, clean up after they think they've cleaned up, unload the dishwasher twice a day and sweep the sand from the porch - all under the continuous hum of a washing machine and dryer in the background. It's my own fault. "Sure," I say cheerfully to my kids, "invite your friends!"
My husband, Hank, reminds me that I don't need to do all the work myself. But, I take it on because I want to be this "do-it-all-perfect-mother-type" which is ridiculous because a perfect mother would probably delegate.
This year, there was madness right from the start. No sooner had we put the suitcases down when two of my youngest son's friends showed up. The next day, three more came, followed by two of my older son's friends by dinnertime. By day three, I had made four big trips to the market.
On day five and my sixth trip to the market, I was in a daze as I pushed the wobbly-wheeled grocery cart. Scanning the seafood case, I paused. The fresh swordfish looked good, but was too expensive for this evening's count of thirteen. I moved forward toward the chicken. Behind the meat counter, a butcher stood wearing the standard white-wrapped cotton coat. He seemed to be studying me under the brim of his blue baseball cap that sported the market's logo. I met his eyes and said "Hi," while trying to center the three stable wheels on the cart from going the way of the bad one and crashing into the marinade display.
"Heather?" he asked. Not recognizing him at first, I tentatively said his name. "Jim?"
"It is," he confirmed. "How are you!?"
Thoughts quickly ran through my head - old Pasadena neighbor, successful corporate executive, proud suburban Tudor-style home, dinner parties, Halloween parades on the cul-de-sac... He and his wife and kids had moved to Louisiana for a "better life." They'd divorced. I'd heard the gossip. I tried to avoid the obvious and started with a litany on how tired I was as chief cook and bottle-washer for my never-ending brood down at the beach.
He listened patiently with an easy smile as an older man joined us at the counter, eyeing the T-bone steaks. Jim looked over at him. "I'll be right with you, sir," he said politely.
"No problem," the man replied. He checked the list in his hand. "I'll finish the rest of my shopping and come back."
I'd heard the rumors about Jim. What was I thinking going on about such trivia? "Maybe I will have some of those chicken breasts," I said, pointing to the neat row in the case. "About fifteen." He placed a large piece of brown paper on the scale and began piling chicken. I asked about his wife and his children. He told me that they were still in Louisiana. The wife's got a good job; the kids are doing well in school. I could tell that he missed seeing his children every day.
"I have a new life now," he said, arranging the pieces with plastic-gloved hands. "I'll be sober a year this September." He reached for two more pieces in the case. "Yep, I was drinking heavily, and when Katrina hit that was the end. My business tanked, and it sent me over the edge."
Punching the price code into the scale, he explained that he had moved back to Southern California to go to rehab and was living here now. "I do this," he said, referring to his job as a butcher, "on nights and weekends. I work another job on the weekdays."He wrapped the meat and placed the price sticker on it. "I've got a lot of financial things to pay back, but it's O.K."
"It takes a lot to do what you're doing, Jim."
"I've been given a second chance, Heather," he told me handing me the chicken. "Life's good."
Maneuvering the cart up the next aisle, I couldn't stop thinking about what Jim had been through. And I'm complaining about cooking and cleaning for family and friends?
Day six, market trip number seven. Some of the kids' friends have gone. I've done a quick sweep of the house. My husband's business friends from London are due to arrive in the early afternoon and will be staying for dinner. The market is freezing. Do I have enough shish kabobs?
By day eight, I was back to feeling sorry for myself. Three more of my daughter's friends were coming down. Grumbling, I set out, yet again, for the store. Picking up my car keys, I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror above the table. Heavy bags under my eyes, I look like ten miles of unpaved road. Hank has offered to help, but knowing that he usually is working 24/7, I insist that he needs HIS time off. Am I nice about it and pleasant to be around? Not hardly.
"No, you may NOT have that last package," I barked when my oldest son's friend, Dan, asked to cook up more sausage. I'd had it with his insatiable appetite. At the other end of the kitchen, my youngest son, having just finished cereal, places his dirty bowl in the sink. "Would you PLEASE rinse that and put in the dishwasher! I'm NOT your servant." Hank claims that I not only hate the sand, but I'm starting to hate the family, too.
I cringe as I sign the screen for another triple-digit market bill. As the cashier at Pavilion's hands me my receipt, the customer in the next check stand, turns around. "I'd know that voice anywhere," she says. "Heather?"
I look up from stuffing the long receipt in my wallet. Her voice doesn't go with her hair. She places her sunglasses on top of her head like a headband and pushes the cart of bagged groceries toward me. "Sally - yoga class."
"Oh my gosh, hi! I'm sorry; I was thrown by your new hair color. You've gone dark brown." Thinking how beautiful her thick blonde hair used to be. I wanted to say something nice - I added, "Looks good!" "It's natural," she said, touching her wispy ends. "I lost my hair last year, and this is how it grew back." Losing hair meant scary things, so once again, not wanting to pry, I avoided the obvious and started in on the woes of marketing for the masses.
"We're Moms. It's what we do to make everyone happy," she commiserated. "I've just been to Trader Joe's, and now I'm here. And, of course, the food'll all be gone in a day," she laughed.
Turns out she'd had breast cancer this past year. "But, it hasn't been all bad," she told me snatching the dark glasses from her head and sweeping a hand through her short brown waves. "It's the new me! I mean, not just the hair." She folded the dark glasses over the neckline of her white cotton top and went on. "I'm finished with my treatment and I'm so different now. Like this morning. I always get up at six."
"I get up early, too." Her eyes brightened. "Oh, when you got up, did you see those little patches of blue sky that were coming through the thick cloud cover? It doesn't usually do that. Wasn't it beautiful?"
I'd seen it, but I'd been more concerned about the hot coffee that had burned the roof of my mouth minutes before. I felt awful. How could I have complained about such nonsense to someone like her. Sally's battled cancer. I'd battled what? A sandy porch? Too many trips to the market?
"This year, I'm just so happy to be on the beach," she continued. "Last year, I was in bed all vacation. My husband was scared. My children were scared. I was scared. It feels so good to be alive. To be active, you know?" Moving toward the exit to the parking lot, we said our good-bye's and promised to get together in town.
I dumped the groceries in the back of the car and slid behind the wheel. I needed to sit for a moment, though, before starting the engine. I thanked Sally. I thanked my old neighbor, too. Then, I thanked the Man upstairs, the One behind the blue sky this morning, for helping me see the light.