Escape From New York

Yesterday I left Staten Island for the first time in nine years. That’s right, I hadn’t stepped foot off the island, even for other boroughs, in nine long years. Actually that time went by rather quickly.

The drive was surprisingly non-horrific. With two and five year olds in tow I braced myself for the worst. A couple older kids came along for the ride and Mom did the driving, which was heaven sent- I dislike highway driving to the point of phobia.

We went over the Goethals, the turnpike, various parkways. We stopped for lunch at McDonald’s; I had a double quarter pounder sans ketchup and I threw out the bun (not before offering it to the rest of the family, they declined). It was awkward but doable eating the floppy hamburger patties with my fingers, the meat was terribly overcooked. It was edible, but barely, to the tune of $5. My little guys shared french fries and chicken nuggets, mom had a salad, older kids had an egg mcmuffin, more nuggets and fries. For drinks we had water (me), lemonade, mocha latte and diet coke.

I was surprised how many black people and hispanics are now north of NYC. Nine years ago non-asian minorities faded out a certain radius beyond the metro area with the exception of Springfield, MA. Most of the diners at that connecticut McDonald’s were black or hispanic, and it didn’t turn all/mostly white until Vermont.

After five hours we reached my hometown; I didn’t move here until age seven but it’s essentially my hometown. I wondered if I would start crying after all these years. But it was anticlimactic. There were the gorgeous mountains, lush green rolling in distant landscape. There was the guns-n-ammo shop. More lush greenery, an auto shop. Some kind of manufacturing plant (the sole one in the area, industry here has been decimated). The veterinarian where our sick pets were euthanized so long ago. Pretty colonials and victorians, many but not all in disrepair.

We arrived home to my very grouchy father. Grouchy is my dad’s version of happy, it only goes downhill from there. My little guy was all over the place while we unpacked- I tried to lock him in a playroom via baby gate but he howled pitifully so I let him escape.

My parents had dinner but I told them I would eat later. I went for a walk around local roads and hopped briefly into the woods, climbing a steep incline padded with pine needles and thin weeds. Pine trees towered overhead like solemn angels. I sat under one and patiently slapped mosquitoes as they landed on my skin. Later I ate some salmon and semi-raw hamburgers. My mother was horrified as she packed them out of sight into the fridge, asking wasn’t I worried about eating rare beef? Nope.

This morning I went to walmart. I needed shampoo and razors, my five year old requested pretzels. My mom warned me: the town looked worse than ever, but as I drove it looked the same. There was a new CVS. There was an abandoned something or other. There was the middle school where I was mercilessly tormented by my peers. I peeked down the street to my childhood best friend’s house- I considered driving past but that would feel stalkerish. I have no idea if her parents are even still living, and she has long since moved away.

Walmart… it looked exactly the same as nine years ago, except the shopping carts were in terrible shape (nothing irks me more than lousy shopping carts) and the walls were dinged up, in need of repainting. Two women said hello and politely asked how are you? This jarred me. They don’t do that in Staten Island, not that Staten Islanders aren’t friendly in their own way.

I am here for my aunt’s funeral. There is some drama with her estate that has darkened my father’s mood from bad to worse. I feel mildly vulturish hanging around waiting for the proceedings to unfold, but I never asked for this money. It’s all very sad. She should have lived a good twenty, thirty years further. God gives and god takes away.

No es lo que piensas

As I mentioned previously, my parents did not want a girl when I was born. This was before ultrasounds, so the news of my gender after 9 long months of anticipation must have been a guillotine through my parents’ hearts. I know my father well, and I can see his 1973 face in the hospital waiting room– devastation, anger, his serious face all the more serious behind his black-framed nerd glasses. He probably swore colorfully in German, lit a cigarette (he quit when I was 4), went for a long drive, then hit some adult beverages. Not necessarily in that order.

So there was exactly one person in the household happy to see me when I was carried through the doorway in a pink blanket bundle: my paternal grandmother, who lived with us. She was 63 years old at the time, gray hair still black at the nape of her neck, her complexion perpetually suntanned to bronze, fiendishly smart and impeccably neat. Whether she took pity on my circumstances, or whether it was just kismet, I don’t know, but we took to each other like a fish to water. We were inseparable through my childhood. If I had a nightmare I stole down to her room. For a period it was unclear to me that my parents were my parents; I thought she was my parent, and that my parents just happened to live there. She took care of me day to night, kept me company, told me she loved me, nicknamed me Tesora (“treasure”), and held my always cold feet when we watched TV together. We talked about everything from politics, to TV shows, to her life in Buenos Aires before she came to the states at the behest of my father.

She had a friend in Buenos Aires who was some years older. They made a pact, the two of them, that whoever died first would make every effort to return– in some form– to advise what awaited on the other side. Not unexpectedly her older friend died first; not long after she appeared to my grandmother in a dream and said simply: No es lo que piensas– It’s not what you think.”

So of course my grandmother and I made that same pact with each other. Whoever died first, and it would probably be, and it was, her, would make every effort to return to the other to illumine the afterlife.

My grandmother died a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. I was newly pregnant at the time and remember enduring the nausea through the preparation for her funeral; at the wake I touched her cold face and felt the earth swallow me up on the spot. When I stood by her grave I wanted to throw myself in alongside her. If I hadn’t been pregnant, I would have just curled up in a ball somewhere and slowly wasted away.

In the back of my mind I remembered our pact, and while she did occasionally appear in my dreams it was nothing spectacular or informative. In fact when I dreamed about her she seemed simply alive, as though she’d never died, and it wasn’t until I woke that I’d remember she was gone. But seven years after her death, not long after my fourth daughter was born, I had a vivid dream that left me shaken.

In the dream I stood outside our old house. My grandmother lay on the ground gravely ill, and she died before my eyes. Not only did she die but I watched her body decay. It all happened quickly, as though in time lapsed photography, and then seamlessly her bones transformed into a lovely pink baby which was, to my surprise, suddenly in my arms. I walked into the house holding the baby.

I woke from this dream wondering if it was finally the message from beyond I’d been promised. And what did it mean? Was it a message of reincarnation? If so, why couldn’t she just come out and tell me? Or send a hindu mystic to lecture me?

I try not to think about her much. On the one had I feel she’s still alive inside of me. On the other hand the acknowledgement of the loss, that I’ve gone 17 years without her, years stacked on years, is unfathomable. So I don’t fathom it. I don’t even talk about her to my children, though I tend to keep my entire life before them a closely guarded secret. It took 16 years for the story of Pi Guy to come out.

The Suicide Forest

I was in my room early this evening, hiding from my parents (yes, at almost age 40, I’m hiding from my parents), watching youtube videos of baby sloths getting baths.  Somehow, by following links on the side, I ended up on a 20 minute video about the “suicide forest” of Japan. Being a sucker for documentaries, I watched it.  (The baby sloth video has 4.3 million views; the suicide forest video has 5.6 million views.)

The Aokigahara Forest grows at the foot of Mount Fuji and is a popular “suicide destination” for, on average, one hundred hopeless Japanese souls each year.  Most die by hanging, others die by sleeping pills, though the sleeping pills don’t actually kill them. They just make the person sick enough so that they gradually die of dehydration, usually over a matter of days.

Our tour guide of the forest is the very thoughtful Azusa Hayano.  It’s unclear if he’s an official forest ranger, or if it’s his personal mission to keep an eye on the goings-on of the forest.  As he hikes through the lush, peaceful terrain, he points out strips of tape people use to mark their path as they progress deeper into the forest; these people, he surmises, are unsure about taking their life so want to know how to retrace their footsteps. Likewise, people who bring supplies with them, like a tent, are also unsure about whether or not they want to go through with their plans.

Cut nooses litter the ground, and piece of cut rope– from which bodies were removed– dangle eerily from tree limbs. At one point, Mr. Hayano finds a skeleton: its hiking shoes are still neatly tied and in place, a car key sits in the leaves near what might have once been a hand.

Hayano speaks eloquently on what drives these people to the breaking point, and indeed, he speaks gently to one young person found camping out in the hot zone.  But I came away from these 20 minutes not really sure what to think or feel.  On the one hand, Hayano is a sympathetic figure, but the thought of so many people deliberately driving, hiking, then tying the noose for their deaths is so disturbing, that Hayano’s gracious commentary did little to quell the sadness welling up within me while watching this.

100 suicides is a tiny fraction of the suicides that occur worldwide each year.  The real numbers are so large that they’re difficult to contemplate.  So, if you want to watch this short documentary, proceed with caution, and only if you have a strong stomach.  You may want to opt for the baby sloths instead.