Midnight, not a sound from the pavement… except for the random fireworks going off hither and yon and the distant sounds of idiots discharging their guns into the air. Apparently the basic laws of physics like what goes up must come down never occurs to them and the Birmingham PD spends most of New Years night trying to keep people from injuring themselves with stray bullets.
I did go to a New Years Eve party at Sara James and Mike Cunliffe‘s house. Lots of theater friends and family whom I am always happy to see and catch up with. I could not stay much past midnight though as deep rooted anxieties were welling up and I knew I was not going to be good company a lot longer. When I have such feelings these days, time to go home and write and try to figure them out.
This year is not just the turn of a year, but the turn of the decade (alright purists, I know that the decade doesn’t officially start for another year but we all have to start putting two new digits in the year tomorrow rather than one so I’m going to let it slide). Therefore, lots of conversations about where we were ten years ago, twenty years ago… I could go up to fifty years ago quite easily but as most of the guests were millennials, that would mean about as much to them as tales of the Depression did to me as a young person. That of course got me thinking about all the radical changes in my life over the last few decades and then focusing in on New Years Eves past, bringing up some highly unpleasant memories which are the likely cause of tonight’s interior sturm und drang.
New Years ten years ago – 2009 – this one was most notable for my having broken my foot a few days before mopping the floors at the old house getting things ready for Tommy and my annual Sunday after Christmas holiday extravaganza. Despite a broken metatarsal, the party went off without a hitch but by the end of the evening, I was barely moving due to the increasing pain in my foot. I went to the orthopedics department the next day where X-rays confirmed the fracture and I was immediately put in a short leg cast as they didn’t trust me with just a boot with my crazy schedule. Tommy and I stayed home for New Year’s Eve, me with a cocktail of hydrocodone and single malt scotch and a clunky cast to get used to. We went to bed early. 2009 was a bit of a nadir for the two of us. Tommy was at this point in his third year at Montevallo. He had to take a semester off due to his back problems culminating in surgery. We were missing his income, the crash of the economy had left our finances in some disarray and we were paying for the major remodel of two years before. We knew the next decade had to get better, and, until the last couple of years, it did.
New Years twenty years ago – 1999 – these were the memories that came welling up tonight, a number of which I had suppressed for some time. I remembered them intellectually, but not emotionally. At this point, Steve and I had been in Birmingham for just over a year. We had discovered how ill he was about two months prior. When his respiratory disease became apparent around Halloween of 1999, he went into denial. He refused medical care or to see a doctor and just wanted to be left alone to die. I could never fight him on such things and did what I could to make sure he was comfortable at home, assuming he would eventually change his mind. We got through Christmas. He was weak, but his usual self. New Years Eve, we set out in the morning for breakfast at the Original Pancake House in Five Points South. I parked the car, we got out, and proceeded to walk the block. Half way across the crosswalk in front of the restaurant, he stopped, turned to me, and said ‘I can’t do this anymore. Take me to the Emergency Room’. We turned around, I did, and he was admitted to UAB hospital for the first time of many of his final illness. Oxygen and some judicious morphine made his breathing easier and we got him up to a hospital room.
I think everyone of my generation, starting in the late 70s or early 80s, wondered about where they would be or what they would do at the turn of the millennium, the night that 1999 gave way to 2000. I know I had fantasies of some fabulous evening at the Rainbow Room or a fancy beach resort. The reality was holding my partner in a strange hospital room, knowing I was going to lose him, and having no idea what the road ahead was going to look like. That feeling of anxiety, fear, and bleakness was percolating to the surface again this evening and I can still feel it whirling around inside.
The doctors were able to stabilize Steve and he did amazingly well for about a year. Well enough that we could travel some, that he could work prodigiously at his art, do his volunteer work, and be genuinely happy for the first time in his adult life. The last six months were more difficult but even then, he had more good days than bad ones. I learned to channel my fears and anxieties into being a better caregiver, personally and professionally – it was that experience that completely changed me as a physician and allowed me to develop the persona that has made me so well known in my field. The side effect of all that was a deep feeling of exhaustion, and of frustration – which eventually gave birth to the wacky world of Mrs. Norman Maine.
Those past griefs are still there. They still feel fresh in some ways which is why I did not feel like I could stay out terribly late this evening. When I am emotional, I am like a wounded cat and I seek out a rock under which to hide and lick my wounds until they either heal or fester. It’s all still feeling strange inside my head, but at least I’ve identified what it is and why which is the first step to channeling it into more constructive arenas. I expect troubled dreams tonigh, but soon it will be morning and tomorrow, as Katie Scarlett once said, is another day.