The Power of One

I began blogging in 2012 after several exchanges with a newly found friend via email as I toured the country with the Jazz Ambassadors. The correspondence started as friendly banter but quickly developed into a sort of personal discovery as we grew a friendship across the miles. While touring presented opportunities for growth and study, it also created an environment of danger for someone like me: a prisoner of abysmal loneliness in the absence of my family and despite the presence of my peers. My friend, based in New York City, encouraged the daily conversation that I needed at the time. I don’t think he knew what a simple gift he so selflessly provided. To say I was grateful would be a complete understatement, now.

While I wrote fairly regularly until 2015, I didn’t publish everything. There was much I kept private.  Since the death of a colleague’s wife in October, 2015, I have been stuck in an odd existence.  I have retreated back into an unwritten area of life.  I’ve been trying to understand this senseless death since that day, the ripples of events that began in a moment and consequently spread into a sea of grief and pain.

Now, nearly two years later, I can say that I have not come to any logical conclusion or explanation for the taking of life, and that I’m no closer to figuring out the lottery of death than I was after that tragic day in October, 2015.

Yet, I have spent a lot of time trying to identify the concept of “one” – not just a number, but a state of mind, body, emotion and spirit. “One” is multifaceted and complex. It is independent and it is dependent. It is cause and it is effect. It is welcome and it is unwelcome. It is difficult and it is effortless. Mind blown!

When I think of the word “one”, the first thing I think of is being alone. And when I think of being alone, I can imagine unthinkable stories of growth and decay.

I think about a newborn baby who has come into the world too early, too tiny. An infant that is too sick to test her own lungs without assistance; too frail to live in an environment that is not controlled by tubes, monitors and heat lamps. She lies there in her incubator and looks out into a strange world with eyes that can only see inches above her in any direction if she can turn her head at all. She has only spent hours in her world, but she knows it is a big world, despite her confinement. She doesn’t know how she knows it, but she knows she needs someone to hold her close, to feel the warm skin of another, to experience protective and loving arms coddling her in the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day. She needs this, but she is denied the touch and the comfort and the company. She is unfulfilled, and she is completely alone. “One” to her is a very harsh and unwelcoming experience.

“One” is the toddler who cannot walk after being placed on a long, dark, concrete hallway. She feels the coldness of the floor coming up through her young forearms she now uses to hold her body weight as she watches her mother’s heels walk away from her. They click on the cement and echo across the wall, growing smaller in her field of vision. Her mother stops after what seems to take forever to the young little one. As her mother reaches out her arms in a beckoning gesture, a little girl’s panic begins to rise mixed with the coldness in her elbows. Cold and panic are the same sensation now as she gazes upon her mother from an insurmountable distance. She cannot move. She cannot reach out without dropping her body first. She is helpless and she is scared. Why did her mother ask her to move when she cannot? She cries until the exasperated woman snatches her from the ground, and in a whirl, spins towards the doorway at the other end of the hallway. Mother is angry with the little girl, and despite being carried again, she is still alone in her mind, stuck on that cold floor and frightened as she is whisked through the corridor and the next several years.

The little boy plays by himself. He is surrounded by white sand and the warm, ocean breeze. His playmates are lifeless mounds of sand and long, crooked sticks. Large palm leaves at the beginning of their decay swirl past his feet. He is alone but he is safe. It is the weekend, and everyone laughs in the distance, his siblings playing in the surf while the adults talk “adult-ese” to one another. He is lost in his world of imaginary stick figures. Some are men, women and children, and some are animals. His mind creates a universe of peace and joy. There are no giant centipedes or cat-sized rats here. No life-taking fires on the horizon. No monsoon floods filling his yard. No one is angry with him. No one strikes him. No one yells at him. There is simple, carefree life.

He is suddenly aware of the absence of human voices. He looks and sees no one. He is alone, and he is abandoned. He starts to cry. He yells for his mother and father, then for his siblings one by one. No one answers. He runs to the last place he saw them, but there are only trails in the sand where his family had trudged. Did he wander away? He doesn’t know. He is just one small boy against an endless ocean, and he is afraid. He cries out again as hard as his young lungs can scream. This time, he hears yelling in the distance. He looks at the tree line behind him but no one is there. He hears the yelling once more, and sees the pontoon he and his family brought to the beach. It seems like it is miles away. He realizes that his family is on the boat and they are calling to him. But he cannot swim. He spots the inflatable raft on which he rode to the beach. It is in the surf. Grabbing it, he jumps on and begins desperately paddling towards his family. There is a clear window of plastic on the bottom of the raft that allows him to see below him into the salt water. He sees jellyfish, hundreds of them – everywhere. He paddles as hard as he can, his tiny 3-year-old body growing exhausted as he flails away. Finally, his father is in the water with him. He pulls the youngster safely to the vessel. He then endures a spanking and lecture that would make the most courageous of heroes cringe. But in the moment, he doesn’t care. He is reunited with the people he loves. Fear has left him.  He sits by himself on the boat, wrapped in a beach towel and thinking about how bad he must be to cause such an uproar. He hopes his family will love him again. Maybe by the time they reach land, he dreams. He will try hard to make them love him.

He is in the 5th grade. His grandmother has just passed away, and after a long flight, he and his siblings step on the jet way from the plane. At the other end they would find their parents waiting. The children have traveled alone to the funeral, the first funeral any of them would attend. He doesn’t know what to expect, and he doesn’t expect he will see his grandmother again. Later that evening, he walks into the funeral parlor with his family. The room is full of people he is told are his relatives, but he doesn’t remember much about any of them. Then his mother takes his hand and announces he is going to see grandma. He doesn’t dare speak a word of his confusion, and allows the hand grasping his to pull him forward to the front. There is a small child lying in a long, polished box. The flowers fill the air with a noxious sweetness that he will never forget. There is another smell there that he cannot identify yet, but it will reappear many times in his life. As he is yanked to the side of the box, the sleeping child transforms right before his eyes into his dead grandmother. It is not a child at all. But this is not his grandmother, either. The perfumed air makes his stomach turn. He is frightened again, but he doesn’t know why. Suddenly, a voice from the back of the room speaks loudly, and everyone falls to their knees. It is the priest beginning a ritual of Catholic prayer as he enters the wake. His mother yanks him to his knees with a pounding and painful thud. She will not be embarrassed at the funeral of her mother-in-law! When the prayers are over, everyone rises and goes about their conversations as if nothing happened. There is laughter roaring from different pockets of people in the room. How can they laugh? His grandmother lays there dead, in a shell of a body that used to cuddle him and give him the best kisses. She used to send him out to play in the mornings when she was visiting. It was unusual because he usually woke to yelling parents and chores that never seemed to end in the day. He adored this woman who was now lifeless in front of everyone.

The next morning, he finds himself in the front row of the Church, the box his grandmother was laying in the day before is centered between the two aisles of church pews. It is closed up tight, and he wondered if grandma could see in there. Was she afraid of the dark? Would she know he was here if she got scared and needed him? The Church organ began to crank, and a soloist began singing “Ave Maria”. He remembers thinking how beautiful the song was, and he knew his music-loving grandmother would like that song, too. Suddenly, he felt sad. But he didn’t dare cry. His mother might smack him for embarrassing her in front of this congregation full of friends and relatives. So he bit his lip and looked up every time he felt the well of tears building. Finally, after a lot of chanting and slinging of incense, the priest turned to the congregation, the altar boys just behind him, and began a procession down the middle aisle. Next came the box and six grown men. In his thoughts, his silently begged his mother not to make him follow the box. But just as it passed by his pew, the familiar yank came, and he found himself staring at the box as it was rolled down the aisle. He couldn’t contain the tears any longer, and he began to sob uncontrollably . His mother bumped his arm and handed him a tissue. At least she didn’t hit him.  The tissue was useless as his sobs turned to wailing.  He cried all the way down the aisle out the front doors to the top of the steps.

It was raining now. He watched as the six men put the box into a funny looking station wagon and closed the door. He remembered the feeling of gratitude that he felt as his grandmother was no longer in the rain. Then he was being shoved into a car with the rest of his siblings. They drove to a place that scared him. It was a cemetery, and he’d never been to one before. He doesn’t remember getting out of the car, or what happened directly after he did so. But he remembers driving away from the graveside in the rain. He kept looking out the window at the shiny box, sitting by itself out in the rain. The tears came again. She would be cold and she would be wet and she would be in the dark. How could they just leave her there? Please! Stop the car! But it didn’t happen. His grandmother would remain there – alone. The sadness was unbearable to him. She was “one” among the dead now, and he would never see her again, except in his mind when she appears as a lonely, fragile and small child – forever.

Her mother drank too much. Her father probably did, too. But who could blame him? They were married but hadn’t been “one” together very often. The girl doesn’t remember them showing much affection towards each other. She supposed that was normal. Through the years, different events were looked forward to, and most ended up in drunken yelling or worse. She remembers when her mother tried to show her how to apply makeup, but it scared her. She didn’t want to be this woman who was demonstrating to her in the mirror. If being a woman meant being like her, she didn’t want any part of it. She didn’t hate her mother. She just didn’t really like her that much, and she was terrified of her. After several failed attempts at stirring up an interest, her mother flung a handful of rings across her face and told her to get out. So she did just that. She ran out of the room, out of the house and into the countryside behind her home, welcoming her escape and her ability to be alone with herself, to be “one” again. She was free, and for the next several hours, she ran carelessly through the woods, barefoot, sometimes crying, mostly okay and completely alone.

When he was about to graduate from high school, the boy would wait until his parents were in bed. He would knock on their door and announce that he was running out to see a friend. They would always carelessly let him go. He would get in the car and drive for hours – just drive. He would reflect upon the countless times his older siblings beat him. He never knew what he had done wrong. Sometimes, he was just there and within reach. So they would ruthlessly beat him up, sometimes badly. He was glad they were all out of the house and not around now. He was “one” with the AM radio in the hideous beater car that his parents had bought so he and his little brother could get around without pestering them. He cherished his alone time, and he would often slip into daydreams as he drove in the darkness, down country lanes and rain-slicked streets. He learned a lot about how intricate music could be as the greats serenaded him through the night. When the gas got low, he’d stop and put a couple of dollars worth in the tank so he could get to school in the morning, and then go home. There, he’d go to bed with headphones on, in his own world, alone in the darkness. He wouldn’t know how much he had learned from these musical sessions in the car and in his bed until many years later. But he was no longer being beaten, and that was okay with him.

Music became his voice when he was afraid to speak for fear of being struck, embarrassed, or sometimes both. When he allowed himself to feel music, whether it was listening to it or performing it, the emotions would become so great that it was not unusual for him to have to brush tears from his cheeks – sometimes joyful and sometimes sorrowful. It was always real: a young man and a story that originated from a place deep down that he couldn’t identify. As he sang, he felt unsettled, knowing in his heart that no would want to hear him. No one had ever bothered to hear him in the past. But he shouted anyways – as loud as he could – through his music – hoping that he might just touch one person in some way. He had nothing to lose.

When no one heard him, he quietly retreated back to his world of “one” and his headphones, where he was safe in his protective isolation.

Now a grown woman, the young lady was successful.  She was creating a promising career for herself. She had worked hard and was on her way to achieving respect and conquering a dream. She was told she was beautiful but she never believed it, just like her mother. When a handsome man finally paid her some attention, she dug in deep. She could not lose this person. If he was crazy enough to propose to her, than she would hang on to him with everything she had. Finally, she did not have to be alone ever again. But slowly, the clouds drifted in, and although married, she and her husband began to live lives as individuals again. She was lonely, and looked to drown her sorrows in anything that would take her mind off of her sadness. She tried to tell others how unhappy she was, but in doing so, she drove them away. She was always down, and no one wanted to be around that kind of a person. So she built a wall around herself that consisted of exercise, wine, work and sleep. As long as she had those things, she could cope. But she married a man just like her own father, and as her husband’s drunkenness became worse, her life became endangered. Still, she would not give up on this man. She wished he would change, and despite all of his promises to do so, he never could. She must have loved him more than she loved herself because she sacrificed everything for him. She even allowed him to insult her and belittle her when he was drunk. He didn’t mean it after all, she would tell herself. He couldn’t be held responsible for the things he did and said when he was drunk, could he? When the time came for her to take care of herself, she just couldn’t pull the trigger. It wasn’t until the baby came, and danger grew from his actions that she finally drew a line – for the baby. She left him for the last time after more than 10 years of drunken hell. And the baby was safe. She was alone in a big house, caring for others. She could do that, and she was good at being a lone, distracted woman.

When his mother was dying, he tried so hard to do everything right. He took care of all her affairs for her as she slowly slipped into a world of sickness and irrational thinking. He didn’t know if her mind was losing a battle of age, or if she was incapable of any sort of self-care because she was using other chemicals or substances to cope. Sometimes, she would call him late at night, slurring her words and talking in circles. But she was his mother and he loved her. He would listen to her until she either passed out, or until she couldn’t remember who she was talking to. Then he would gently end the conversation and put the phone down. He’d lie in bed awake and alone, his wife in the guest room because they didn’t talk anymore. He would think about what it must be like to know you were dying and to know you would soon have to say goodbye to your loved ones. He excused her behavior because he could only imagine that dying was hard work.

When she showed serious signs of decline, he and his family decided that she could no longer care for her pets. So he helped to re-home them for their safety. Now, as he reflects on this time, he criticizes that decision from years ago. He played a part in taking away the only creatures that loved her unconditionally. He thought he was doing the right thing at that time. But he wasn’t the lonely one dying. He wasn’t the “one” who was terminally ill.

Now, he feels just like he felt as a child – alone and wanting his mother. She wasn’t a good mother, at all. In fact, she was downright abusive and narcissistic. But still, he longs for the idea of her and a relationship he would never have. He is alone and he is lonely. He sometimes puts himself in grown-up time out. He isolates. But he is safe in his solitude. He is one with himself and he trusts the person he is with when he is alone. Everyone else in his life has disappointed him. Everyone else has abandoned him. Everyone has hurt him. He must not be worthy of love, so he avoids putting complete physical and emotional trust in anyone. Being alone is safe for him and for now.

“One” equals alone. “One” equals loneliness. “One” equals independence. “One” equals abandonment. “One” equals isolation. “One” equals solitude. “One” is all of those things separately, and sometimes it is a combination of some of those things. It is truly multifaceted. It has been said that we only truly have to go through two things alone: birth and death. I used to believe that was true. Now, as I reflect upon the past two years, I realize that life is full of possibilities that include all of these feelings. But there is a vast difference between being alone, being lonely, feeling isolated, feeling abandoned, and enjoying solitude. There is also a place and time for all of them. Despite our past, we have a choice to go around the pain or to plow straight through it. Sometimes the pain is dished out in shovelfuls, and it feels overwhelming, as in the sudden death of our spouse. In times of such great pain, friends feel isolated as they struggle to find a way to help but don’t know how. Sometimes, we turn around and realize everyone has gone, our house is empty and no one needs us any longer. And then there are times when life gets really messy, and we crave our alone time, our peace and our solitude.

It is in times of “one”-ness, whether at our own hands or the hands of something greater than us, that we truly reflect upon ourselves. It is then that we “get to” experience our own moxie. What defines us is not what we do for a living, but how we live in our doings – in our choices of who we spend our time with, whether they be alive or dead. Relationships don’t end in death. They simply take a different, often unexpected turn. The time we spend with the living and the dead is up to us, just as it is our choice to live in a moment and feel pain, or to avoid it by using other tools to keep from feeling it. Eventually there is only one path, and it runs straight through this disheveled thing we call life. So in addition to birth and death, the other thing we must do as “one” is to live. We cannot dictate our past or our future. Our stories are our own individual experiences.  These are our truths, and they belong to us, only.  They can enslave us or embolden us. How we live our “one” life is a choice, not a consequence. Choose wisely and choose often.

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4 Responses to The Power of One

  1. Steve Pettafor says:

    A lot to digest.
    Thank you Liesl.


  2. Will says:

    Yes a lot to think about.
    Would love to hear from you


  3. miketemple7 says:

    You are so awesome Liesl!!!! Your writing and perspective is so profound!!! I really admire you for all you do!!!


  4. Ron Feltman says:

    Fabulous writing Liesl!


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