“Because it’s a great big white world
and we are drained of our colors
we used to love ourselves
we used to love one another…”
-Marilyn Manson, Great Big White World
“It seems like every day’s the same
and I’m left to discover on my own
It seems like everything is gray and there’s no color to behold
They say it’s over and I’m fine again, yeah
Try to stay sober feels like I’m dying here…”
-Seether, Fine Again
When I was a young artist, I saw the world in vivid color. Everything I knew, everything I enjoyed was found in the contents of a Crayola box. I played in innocent sand and ate laughter for lunch. It was action and adventure, Super Soaker summers and a spinning imagination. I opened up a hole in my head where I used to step in and float in a world of fantastic creatures and confident superheroes.
Play time was the best time. And I always played best on my own. But when people came into my picture, they muddled my colors. They stepped into that hole in my head and saw fit to trample through my fantasies and tear down my constructed view of the world. War went from being a Saturday morning cartoon to a Wednesday night news headline. The bright blue hues hewed into red chunks of violence. Green grass grew into a greed for money. Yellow corner suns stretched into police tape. Purple popsicles transformed from treats to treating the sting of bruises. All my colors had to conform to the world outside of my imagination, a world I could no longer avoid or ignore.
The art in me dried up. People came into my life to pick my brain, break my heart, and claim another color. I looked up from my canvas and saw the landscape of the earth, the willingness of man to crush anything for cash, character, or clout. People on one side of the world hungry for food, people on the other side starving for power. Killing animals, shitting into the ocean, blowing up everything we are scared of in an orange ball of flame, flaming the fires of an orange man’s ignorance, insecurity, and fear.
My world, my life, my existence was devalued, limited to black and white. It came from near and far, outside the scope of my vision all the way to my front yard. A rotating glass door of people pulled the brown from my hair and stole the pink from my flesh, all leading up to him swallowing up my warm white essence before breaking me in half. All that was left was black and a few shades of gray.
Each day grows dimmer. Black oil bubbles beneath our feet and gray smog fill our skies. We can’t see past the hazy hatred that we type up at our computers and send off like missiles. We praise corrupt politicians and cage innocent children. Death, disease, pollution, and politics come barreling at us like a train and even if we wanted to stop it, what more could we do but put up our hands and brace ourselves for impact?
A man who sits and smirks on top of a floating father and child. A cop who kills without consequence. A woman stripped of her clothing, consent, and clinic. A man beaten to death for being gay. Celebrity justifies insanity. God justifies guns. Power justifies the poor. We use any excuse we can to segregate and spit on those we consider less than human. But when did we get so arrogant to think we could ever make such classifications? And when did we get so stupid not to realize skin, culture, and orientation are all shades of the same color?
Life lights us up. Hatred, ignorance, and intolerance work its way into our lives to dim our shine. But we are too busy trying to fit in, too concerned with climbing to the top that we either don’t see the absurdity around us, or even worse, we turn a blind eye to those with white privilege or black water.
Deep inside the shriveled heart, a time or two I feel a twinge, an awakening of defiance, a simple brilliance of clarity that people will understand the error of the world if only they could listen to reason. But reason is the first thing to go in religion, political parties, and powerful people. Still, it comes alive in hopes it might impress or press down on the doubters, reach deep inside to resonate within the souls of those who might still stir toward a solution. If you can see it, you might care enough to change it. It might be too late for some, even for myself, but I look to those who still maintain their colors. The artist is on his way out but maybe the art can live on and help others do the same.
March wasn’t a great month. It marked a significant change in my life that I’m still trying to understand.
And two of my former co-workers died within weeks of each other. Cancer.
I hadn’t worked with them in a few years so it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it might. I guess I hadn’t worked with them or even seen them in several years and didn’t think I’d be seeing much of them again anyway. In some ways, I’d already made peace with it. It did give me pause, though. Especially for one of them. Very sweet lady. Never married. No children. Didn’t have much going on except for being active in her church and taking care of her ill parents. And by the time they passed and she was able to live her own life, she got breast cancer. So then she had to put her pursuits on hold to take care of that. And she sought treatment and wanted to continue it all the way up until the end. Died a few days after her birthday.
I looked up her obituary and it was little more than just a paragraph: she passed, her funeral was the next day, and the names of family members she left behind. A life summed up in three sentences.
People say she lost her battle with cancer. But I don’t like that phrasing. To me, people don’t ever lose to disease or depression. Because both are deadly and death cannot be defeated.
Why is it with any other form of death, it’s not a win/lose situation? You wouldn’t say someone lost their battle with a bullet or barreling bus.
Maybe it’s just me but when someone says “lost” there’s an implication of weakness. And we often equate losing with failure. But there’s nothing weak about dealing with cancer. I can’t imagine anyone stronger. In fact, as I was writing this entry, I came across an article in my local newspaper about a woman who has had cancer 3 separate times in 21 years and has managed to get rid of it every time. Think of the toll it takes on your body, your time, your energy, your mental and emotional state, and your relationships with others. Now think about having to endure that 3 separate times. No matter the outcome of that diagnosis, that requires strength.
Because, to me, life and death is not how you measure strength. Cancer will kill you. It doesn’t clear up on its own. You can’t dissolve it away by will. It requires medical intervention. You basically have to douse your whole body in poison and hope it kills enough of the bad stuff and not too much of the good stuff. No, the real strength comes from enduring those painful treatments, the drives to the hospital, the waiting rooms, the vending machine foods, the worry of it going away, of it coming back, medical bills, puking, losing all your hair and the contents of your stomach. The pain, the radiating suffering. The surgery. The hospital stays. The antiseptic smell. The needles and gluey cafeteria mashed potatoes. The tears in your family’s eyes. The chemicals leaving traces of themselves in your skin, the sadness written across the faces of those you love. And knowing all this and picking up and carrying on for another day anyway.
And even if you don’t carry on, even if you let the disease take your body, that’s not losing either. I also recently read an article about a young woman who was diagnosed with cancer and chose to travel the world with the time she had left instead of spending it in a hospital room. She chose not to seek treatment and let her cancer run its course. It’s all a personal choice and one that should be respected. You wanna fight this head on or you wanna let nature take over? Either way, it’s a tough choice. And accepting the inevitable requires a certain strength and resolve as well.
I think about my former coworker lying in a hospice bed. The last thing she said to her caretaker was she wanted to get out of that bad and back to a hospital for treatment. She knew if she could just get more treatment, she would be okay. She was always stubborn like that. Refused assistance. Determined to take care of her parents, and eventually herself, all on her own. But she was beyond treatment. And she lay there and she closed her eyes and her mouth and a few days later, she died. But she didn’t lose.
This past Saturday, I came home and found my cat Moses beside my bed. He was lying on the ground in an unusual manner, his rump sticking out from underneath the bed. An odor of wet excrement wafted up from his location. This wasn’t new. He’d been having stomach issues for the past several months, a revolving door of constipation or diarrhea. And although it wasn’t my favorite job, I grabbed the pet wipes and tried to pick him up to wipe his rear end.
I picked him up and he whined. I put him down and looked at him. His sides expanded and contracted at a fast pace. A worrisome pace. I stood there for a while, took a deep breath, and picked him up again. He grabbed at my bed but I held him against my chest and took him to the den where there was more light so I could see.
Once I made it to the den, Moses meowed in pain and squirmed in my arms. I bent over to lay him down on the ground when he swiped his paw at my face and dug his nail into my nose. He ran from my arms and I went to the bathroom. I’m very anal about my face so I flipped on the bathroom light to see the damage. It felt like his whole nail had gone through my nose but once I inspected it, it was more of a deep scratch. I put some alcohol on it and then went back to Moses.
He was in the dining room and hiding underneath the dining room table, his breathing labored again. My stomach tingled now. I knew this wasn’t good.
I went to reach for Moses and he whined again. And then he looked like he was trying to throw up, his bony shoulders rising as he retched. I stood up and walked from the living room to the dining room, my stomach vibrating now, like a cell phone buzzing in my bowels.
Ohgodohgodohgod this is it.
I went back to Moses and he had drool hanging from his mouth. I’d never seen that before. My own breathing became labored. I didn’t know what to do.
I went into my parents bedroom and…and then I didn’t know what to do again.
“Mom, Dad…” I started. Mom woke up. “I…uh…Moses. It doesn’t look good.” And the buzzing in my stomach shot up into my throat. Out of nowhere, I started sobbing.
“I know,” she said. “He was really sick earlier today.” She got out of bed and I covered my face. The tears came in short, stabbing bursts. “We tried to call the vets we knew but they weren’t open,” she continued. “No one answered the emergency numbers we called.”
I stood to the side as Mom moved past me to check on Moses. I paced the den again and tried to collect myself. I thought I had prepared myself for this moment. He hadn’t looked good for a long time. There was always a piece of me that worried it was going to happen soon, that he didn’t have much longer. But I tried to shrug it off. He was old. He wasn’t as quick. He had some tummy troubles but he wasn’t in terrible shape. It was just old age at work. He was okay. He was okay.
But he wasn’t.
I work in a retail clothing store. There are only two other places to shop for clothing in the town and they have less options than our tiny store provides so the majority of people come to us.
The town I work in is filled with older people. There are no opportunities for jobs or fun things to do for youth so as soon as they graduate high school, they hightail it out of town and find a larger space far away with more choices. The whole town is basically a nursing home.
Because of this, I see a lot of death and decay at my job. There aren’t many companies here that require its employees to wear suits and the employees that do wear suits can afford better quality than what we provide. So every time a younger person comes in to buy a suit, it’s usually because someone has died. And if it’s an older person, they are usually buying something new to wear to church.
It always goes one of three ways:
“I need a suit for a funeral and I don’t know what size I am.”
“I need a suit for church and I don’t know what size I am.”
“I need a suit for my husband for church (or funeral) and I don’t know what size he is.” They go on to tell me how the husband has lost a ton of weight due to illness and/or advanced age.
And the illness and/or advanced age will then lead to the wife to want a pajama set for the husband while in a nursing home or for recovery after surgery. We don’t carry pajama sets. We never have. No one else around here does either. That only adds to the stress of a sick spouse. And I have to be the recipient of their frustration.
I am constantly bombarded with older people and their disintegrating bodies. They’re always shrinking in size and health and when I look into their pale, watery eyes and observe the folds of their skin and the stray eyebrow hairs and sun damage on their deeply lined faces, it’s almost as if they’re sucking the life out of me as well.
It’s hard to always hear about how someone is sick or someone has just died. It’s awkward for me. I never know how to react. I don’t want to seem cold but I also don’t want them to fall apart on me so I try not to let them focus on grief. I express my condolences but then I get down to business, measuring their necks and arms for sizes, smelling their stale stench, assessing the misshapen bodies due to years of hard labor or disease and wondering how I’m going to fit their many bumps and grooves. It doesn’t help that our suit selection is piss poor. And oftentimes, so are the customer’s attitudes.
I’m young to them. But to me, I feel as old as their weathered faces and limp gray hair convey. I’m going gray myself and finding my eyes are crinkling more and more when I smile, the creases in skin not plumping back the way it used to. I see myself in them, tired and broken down and sometimes just angry to be alive.
I feel like an old, defeated man. I’ve led a privileged life but I hesitate to even call it a life. I’ve filled up my short years with decades of despondence. I peaked at 23 and my life and body has gone downhill since. It’s been a combination of bad luck and admittedly, a bad outlook on my part. I’ve lost friends and faith and a passion for art. I’ve lost some opportunities and passed up on others. And now I work in a dead-end job with half-dead customers. I have made no difference to anyone. I’ve put myself in a debt I cannot get out of and I have burdened my family with my lack of finances. I’m not talented enough to reach my readers. I am not kind-hearted enough to keep friends.
And most of the time, I don’t even feel well-suited to suit up a customer for a casket or convalescent home.
I wasn’t going to mention this because I hate when people talk to me about dead or dying animals and I wanted to spare you all that uncomfortable reading experience. But something happened recently that I think is worthy of writing about. If you’re sensitive to such matters, you can skip this one.
Anne-Marie: Charlie, will I ever see you again?
Charlie: Sure you will, kid. You know goodbyes aren’t forever.
Anne-Marie: Then goodbye, Charlie. I love you.
Charlie: Yep… I love you too.
-All Dogs go to Heaven
Our family dog, Sam, passed away in October. He was 14-years-old. It was a sad time but he had advanced in age and I saw it coming. So when it happened, I was prepared. I was sad but I was also relieved that he was no longer hurting.
Our family dog, Sam, that we had for fourteen years passed away in October. My dad took him to the vet after we’d noticed he’d been acting strangely. The vet informed my dad Sam had suffered a stroke some time earlier. Sam was given medication but it didn’t help. A few days later, he passed away.
It was a sad time but because of his advanced age, concerning behavior, and grim vet visit, and I saw it coming and so when it did happen, I was prepared. I was upset but also relieved because I knew he wasn’t in pain any longer. For a few days after the vet, I lived in a fog of intense worry, scared each day would be the day he’d die because he was getting worse but also hoping it would go ahead and happen so he wouldn’t continue to suffer.
I thought my dad would take him back to the vet and have him put to sleep. And maybe that was his plan. But he didn’t have to. Sam knew it was time and walked to the pasture behind our back yard. He laid down under a tree and closed his eyes for the last time.
I had a dream the other night…
I walked along my usual dirt road route. I concentrated on my iPod and tried to find a few uptempo songs to carry me through the next mile when a school bus zoomed right by me on the narrow dirt road. It shot up a cloud of dry sand that landed in my eyes and the crevices of my mp3 player. When the dust cleared, I saw the driver had horns jutting out of either side of his head.
That’s when I knew it was time to turn around and head home.
The distance from the dirt road to home lengthened the farther I walked. My stomach tightened with a growing anxiety I couldn’t place. That’s when the memory of a dead kid crept into the forefront of my mind. He was found underneath a small bridge in a shallow body of water near where I was walking. His face had been torn away. He had greasepaint smeared on his hands.
The road lengthened even more as the school bus appeared in the distance in front of me. But during the time it took for the bus to circle back around to me, it had changed. It was armored with steel rods like some kind of brace or support system fused to the sides. It tore into the dirt and kicked up a blinding cloud of dust. It charged toward me, the engine growing louder. The sound caught up to me first, entered my ears and invaded my body.
I saw my house on the horizon and ran as fast as I could to make it to my front door before the school bus could make it to me.
I burst through the door to my kitchen and found my mom putting away dishes. I wheezed as relief pushed away the engine noise in my guts. I told her about the school bus.
As I spoke to her, she closed the cabinet door and turned to me. There was something off about her face.
“What’s wrong with your nose?” I asked.
“It’s just blistered,” she said. But as we talked, it grew bigger and bulbous. It flushed red as if all the blood vessels in her nostrils had burst in unison.
Something wasn’t right. I took a step back. I kept my face to her as I inched closer to the front door. My hand reached for the doorknob as her nose bloomed into a blood-filled ball.
And then she lunged.
One of my co-workers went in for her usual dialysis on Monday. There was a complication. She was transported to the local hospital. Then transferred to a different hospital. On the way to the second hospital, she died. Just like that.
I’ve known and worked with her for four years. And she was one of the coworkers I liked the best. She trained me when I became a supervisor. She was an older lady who had lived everywhere and had her hand in several different businesses. She was interesting and cultured and an overall cool lady.
I don’t think it’s really sunk in that she’s gone. So many people come and go in that store, quitting or retiring, and I never see them again. It sucks but you move on. This feels like that. It’s like she’s retired. I feel like I might see her pop in every once in a while to check on the store. But I won’t. I won’t ever her hear her page a supervisor over the intercom or see her in her department or joke with her about the dumb customers.
I feel kind of bad but I’m okay. I’ve been fortunate that not many people I’m close to have passed away. And it’s not that she and I were exceptionally close but I did work with her and see her often over the past four years so I guess she counts as someone close. I don’t know how to handle it. And so I don’t.
The whole thing is just so weird. It’s in these moments that, of course, you reflect on death and how it works. She went in to get her treatment, like she always did. Something routine. And then over the course of a couple of hours, she’s dead. It’s the suddenness of it, the jarring transition from life to death. She was a person and now she’s a body. She’s gonna be scooped out and put away. She’s going to be replaced at work. She’s going to be gone wholly and eternally. I will never see her again for as long as I live. It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.
People tell me I’m preoccupied with the negative aspects of my life. I focus on the bad and don’t give enough praise to the good. In some ways, I can understand their point. There have been many times when I’ll go inside my head and find nothing but bad and I have to pull myself out and realize I need to give credit for all the good I have going on.
I’ve been made to feel so guilty for not being this shining beacon of light that when I do feel down, I immediately counter my complaints with gratitude. My job sucks but I have my health! I have no friends but I have a roof over my head! I can’t control my weight but at least I have food to eat!
Yes, I recognize and understand all of this but I just don’t think anyone understands how deep the depression runs. It’s not just a matter of inconvenience. It’s a matter of chemical imbalances and separation from people, happiness, and God. It’s a matter of always feeling dead and always wishing I really was. It’s so much more than the outer shell of what you see of me, who you perceive me to be through conversations, and the words you read from me.
It’s like telling someone to ignore a knife wound. You’ve been struck in the chest but you can still walk, right? That’s just not how it works. Every day when I wake up, I can feel the knife sliding in deeper, sawing away at the nerves and edges of organs. I’m sorry, but I can’t just pretend that didn’t happen.
That doesn’t mean I’ve twisted the weapon further in, either. That doesn’t mean I’ve laid myself down and given in to the damage. I don’t point to the penetration and pray for pity. I talk about it. I’m open. I’m honest. I am not diluted into thinking things are okay when I know they aren’t.
And that’s the problem with people who tell me I’m too negative. I’m not negative. I’m just real. And I have enough strength to be aware of the limitations and disappointments in my life. I don’t put a bow around the base of the knife and wear it like a decoration. I know it’s there and I won’t dress it up or work my way around it. I don’t ignore it. I don’t settle for the steel inside skin like others do, rotting them from the inside out.
Every time I sit down at the computer and write like this, I’m facing it head on. I’m working out the blade by working out my problems. And pain and disappointment comes with facing it head on. There will be challenges. There are arteries you have to navigate through. And sometimes you’ll hit a new nerve and you’ll want to give up and just leave it in to prevent further damage. But you’ll never truly be healed until it comes out fully. You can’t be healed if you don’t give your wound some attention.
As with anything, it’s all about balance. Sure, I shouldn’t focus on all the bad. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t deal with it in some capacity. I’m working on it. I go about my business. I get up and drive to work and collect my paycheck. I look forward to the temporary deaths of sleep and the ecstasies of eggs in the morning. All the while, the pain lingers and the fact that I’m not on the floor in a fit should be seen as a sign of progress.
And when someone asks how I am, how I really am, not in an informal salutation, but during an actual conversation, I tell them because I think they genuinely care. And then they tell me I’m too negative, that I should ignore the knife wound. And I withdraw because they don’t get it or they don’t care.
I go home and sit in my room, alone, and get to work on unsticking the blade from my bones.
You know how, when you’re in a zombie apocalypse, you’re always struggling just to make it through the day? Sometimes you run out of food and fresh water and you watch the sun set with a pain in your stomach. Or sometimes you make friends and you think you’re safe, that you’ve finally found a family but they steal all your supplies while you’re back is turned or they leave you in the middle of the night because you’re just slowing them down.
But you press on because that’s what humans do. You’ve got to make some sense of this mess made of the world. You find an abandoned gun and gather up some bullets and you scrape by. It’s tough but you make due with what little you have.
And your days are spent as the tension tightens in your body and stress exhausts your limbs. You spend the day looking for edible food and sleep to pass the time. You daydream and wonder while you wander. Your mind is a nomad. You think of strategies to make it through the cruel world, worry your gun won’t last long enough or if you could beat off a group of ghouls with a dented baseball bat. Where’s the next meal going to come from? You hope you find someone to save you, someone to make you feel less alone in a world of monsters.
And sometimes when the thought of another grueling day of hiding and fighting brings you to tears, you wonder what would happen if you just stopped. What if you sat down and pressed your face to the dirt and melted into the ground? But you can’t bring yourself to give up so you go forward.
And then one day you’re lying down in an unprotected shed and a zombie shuffles in. With an unholy grunt, you’re startled awake to see the rotting corpse rip into your chest with its skeletal hands. Its serrated fingernails slice through your skin, pressing further into the meat of you. Is knuckles get caught in your rib cage as it squirms its fingers further down, nicking your heart with each grasp.
The pain grips your senses like a bear trap, a concentrated fire so deep and intense it chokes you. You can’t speak or scream. The strength gushes out of you like a broken dam and you lie there paralyzed. The burning is so great your soul screams to God to end you but the zombie doesn’t bite into your brains. Through the holes in the boarded up window of the shed, it spots a sprinting survivor and sets its milky eyes on a fresh kill.
The taste of copper covers your tongue and you hope a less sportsman-like zombie will shuffle over to you and finish you off or a random survivor will find you and put you out of your misery. But no one comes with a bite or a bullet.
Blood and saline pool around your body as the pain spreads to your limbs, tingling your fingers and circulating away from your body.
The moans outside are muffled by the sound of your heart beating, growing louder, the blood rushing in your ears in crashing waves. Your eyes are blurred by tears you cannot wipe away, only light and shadows dancing across your face. You turn tiny, shriveling inside yourself. You gasp and find no air. The nerves blow out and leave a numbness that spreads like ice water in your lungs.
You grasp at the grass and dirt and still no one comes.
And no one cares. The living sprint toward safety. All around you the world is still alive. But you’re beyond help.
You close your eyes as you give in to the gaping wound. You press your face into the dirt. You melt into the ground.
The beating eventually stops.