The Tommy H. Suit

The copy of the slideshow on DVD came with a case that has her picture on it. I keep it in the top drawer of my dresser, where I keep my meds, so I “have” to look at it every day. Have is in quotation marks because I could move it, but I don’t… even though every time I open the drawer, I get a frightened feeling in the pit of my stomach like I am seeing a ghost for the first time, every time. Shock and disbelief flood my body every single time, because I simply cannot believe that she is dead. Logically, of course I can. Emotionally, especially because I haven’t seen her in so long, it is as if she is still in Houston and we just haven’t talked in a while… but we will when she’s not too busy at the teacher’s center making her little cutouts of jazz musicians and eighth notes. Logic does not override emotion very often, and there have been several times that I have thought of burning the suit in effigy that I wore to her funeral. I haven’t- in fact, I wore the pants to church week before last… but I can’t put on the jacket.

It’s a Tommy Hilfiger, so under the collar, there is trademark red, white, and blue plaid. In my eulogy, I got a laugh by turning around, popping the collar, and in my mother’s Southern drawl (having been raised in NE Texas, so her accent was much thicker than mine), imparted the image of my mother shopping with me, saying something when we got home like “now that’s nice… I didn’t even notice THAT.” Everyone laughed because both the impression and the characterization were spot on, as if she were in the room. In that moment, nothing felt real because I’d taken enough Klonopin to ensure that I could speak without emoting too much. I wanted my sendoff to be memorable and funny, because that’s what I do in front of a crowd. I am comfortable in front of one person and a thousand, but hardly ever at a party… the former is too close, too personal, the latter a feeling of looking into a small city where nothing is. I am trying hard to find middle ground, but so far, I got nothin.’ I can either be leslie, heart on my sleeve, or Leslie Lanagan,™ suiting up for “battle.”

I am not completely inauthentic when I’m wearing the mask of protection, but there’s only so far I will let people in before the fence and barbed wire shows up unannounced. When I am speaking confessionally in front of a crowd, sometimes it’s like I’m speaking about someone else to get through it, because who cares if an entire congregation knows personal things about me, because they are unlikely to respond.

Although some do. It’s always a shock when people quote me to me. I am glad that I have imparted something meaningful to them, but tend to crawl into my shell after the conversation is over. When I’ve manuscripted a sermon, sometimes I know what they’re talking about. When I don’t, as the adrenaline wears off there are times when I have no idea what I just said. Martin Luther King, Jr. always said about preaching that if you have something important to say, write it down. However, more than one person has told me that when I preach off the cuff, I’m much more engaging. To me, though, it’s hit or miss. Sometimes I’m brilliant on my feet, and sometimes I walk away thinking, “well, that was awful.” The interesting thing is that sometimes when I think something has been a disaster, those are the quotes people remember as meaningful. Sometimes, I get nervous and talk a little too fast, which is probably why people tell me that off the cuff makes me more relaxed and easily relatable. Sometimes, with a manuscript, there are just too many words. Three of the sermons I’ve preached while manuscripting have been huge hits… but only one of them has made it to this web site because I didn’t save them… so even when I write it down, there’s a chance that later I won’t remember what I said…. but they will.

I have an incredible ability to read a crowd, and when I notice that people are staring into space, the feeling that I’m losing them, I can change tactics on a dime… and perhaps that is the point of preaching off the cuff. I am not looking down. Even though I am off the cuff, I can still remember the diamond pattern I’m going for, because as my dad has told me (I don’t remember whether it came from him or whether he was quoting his homiletics professor from SMU), in a sermon, you are competing with everything from a sunny day to lunch afterward to the memories that come to people’s minds as you’re speaking. In order to combat this, you have to tell them, tell them again, and close by telling them again. It helps to have a really good line that people will remember, especially if you say it three times during the course of your sermon, because at least one of those times, people will be present in the moment. It’s also not the repetition itself, but three illustrations of the same point, repeating the thesis statement either before or after each one. The diamond pattern is the three illustrations and the conclusion that ties all of them together… and sometimes, you unpack three seemingly dissimilar ideas and the puzzle pieces fall together at the end with what is hopefully a huge AHA! moment, something which usually leads people to come up to me afterward and say, how did you do that? Usually complete with fist bump and assurance of a mic drop, again, along with the deep knowing that I have no idea what I just said unless they tell me. Even with a manuscript, I have to go back and look it up.

However, just because I am speaking off the cuff, that doesn’t mean that I’m just winging it. In fact, it takes more preparation to speak off the cuff because you have to memorize everything you really want to get across without forgetting in the moment. There’s nothing worse than the feeling of stepping back down from the pulpit and remembering all the things you meant to say.

I didn’t manuscript for my mother’s funeral because I started and I sounded like a writer. Too many words for something spoken, so that there wasn’t one main idea, but many. No one would have remembered anything I said, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep people in the present. I could only do that by looking at the crowd, judging their emotions, and knowing when to show grief and when to be hilarious. At a funeral for one’s mother, those memories come in equal measure. You don’t just mourn the dead, but celebrate their lives. I think it worked, because I talked about how I was sad that my mother wouldn’t get to attend my own church… two pastors at different times came up to me at the reception and said, “in order to be a successful preacher, you have to have it… and whatever it is, you’ve got it. I’m going to hear great things about you, and your mother would be so proud.” It was interesting how two different men at two different times used the same words nearly verbatim.

What my mother wouldn’t necessarily be so proud of is the way I have completely fallen apart, because she never would have wanted her death to hold me back from getting out into the world and creating new experiences. I don’t mean that she wouldn’t have wanted me to miss her, just that she wouldn’t have wanted me to completely stop functioning, walling myself off in grief and taking to my room like a hermit. However, sitting alone in my room without trying to numb myself out has probably led me further in my grief process than anything else ever could’ve. If I’d been a social butterfly, I would have drunk more and thought less… not that there’s anything wrong with a glass of wine with friends, and sometimes necessary. I probably haven’t done enough of it, because while there is room for deep introspection, there’s also room for distraction from it for a few hours. I’ve completely skipped over that part, except in the confines of my own room, watching videos or playing games.

Because sometimes distraction with friends is not helpful, so therefore I am afraid of it. I am afraid of those moments when people don’t know what to say to me that will help, and they unintentionally gut me… and if there is anything I hate more than sitting alone, it’s being hurt and inconsolable in public, afraid to come undone… because what would people think? Why do I even give that part of it attention?

Because I’m afraid of becoming the woman whose mother just died, treated differently and with kid gloves, everyone asking how I am doing way too much… because the answer hasn’t changed in the last few months, much less the last few minutes. I am afraid of it because it’s happened before, not an unfounded or untested fear. I think it’s because only one of my friends, Dan, has lost a parent, so therefore my other friends have absolutely no frame of reference as to what I might be going through. What’s interesting is that people think they have to say something, when the reality is that just hugging me and sitting next to me in my silence is enough. I don’t need them to do or say anything, just to show up… because there is nothing to say. There’s nothing that’s going to make anything better, there’s nothing that’s going to bring my mother back, and there’s nothing that won’t tap into my entire range of emotions, which at times I feel as if I have no control. There’s nothing I’d want less than to isolate the friends I already have, showing emotions that have nothing to do with them because of redirection. They may not be able to see that I am having a hard time with my disbelief and take it personally, when it was never personal.

I am afraid of letting shit roll downhill, also not an unwarranted or untested fear, because in the last few years I’ve lost both the great romantic and the great platonic loves of my life… people I counted on to be my family and both cut and ran when it all became too much. I am not blaming them for anything, because it was too much. No one should be expected to stay in a relationship no matter how bad it gets. I can’t apologize enough, I can only take the lessons I learned and put them into practice now. It’s no excuse that I was not mentally well, because just like an alcoholic, the fact that my disorder spiraled me out of control doesn’t mean that I have no culpability for my actions. I can make amends all I want, but it is not up to me that they accept them, or even acknowledge their existence.

This creates a drive in me to never let it happen again. I can’t afford to lose more friends, because I am already in deep grief. To add to it at my own hand is unacceptable to me, and always will be. As I have said before, James told me that if I stopped writing about my grief regarding Dana and Argo, it would stop feeling like death by a thousand cuts… and as I replied, true change does not come from seeing the cuts they left, but by emotionally taking a chef’s knife to myself, cutting out the parts that made me capable of my own actions, because there’s nothing I can do or change about theirs. They did what they needed to do for them, and I see myself as no different. When you have a tumor, generally a surgeon cuts it out. When you have an emotional mass, it is imperative that you cut it out yourself… because with emotional wounds, the responsibility of surgery does not fall to someone else.

One of the lines that I keep repeating to myself came in a letter from Argo, who said that my bedside manner sucked. It unlocked me, and I sobbed for hours when I read it.

First, do no harm

Coming from a medical family, not respecting the Hippocratic oath and knowing deeply that I’d done it was the first cut, damn near cracking my chest. Of course, in my illness, it didn’t change me overnight, but I didn’t forget it, either. Now that I’m stable, those words mean even more as my future begins to take shape. It is as if those words from Argo opened a door that had been locked for decades, one that had remained closed for far too long. My defense mechanisms were at Defcon Oh My Fuck, even though the stimulus for it was gone… emotional fibromyalgia that got a lot worse before it got better… indescribable pain, fear, guilt, and shame even though I’d seen the thing that caused the PTSD and surgically removed it so that there was never a chance it would come back.

It is in those moments, thinking about what happened, I realize my own shortcomings in knowing what to say to people, speaking off the cuff and causing more hurt than I know. I am just as fallible as those who accidentally hurt me with their comments regarding my mother’s death, because even though the subject matter is different, the reactions are the same. With Dana, because she was not a writer, speaking off the cuff has led me to forget a lot of what I said to her… perhaps the reason Argo has gotten more of my attention in my grief because there’s a manuscript, so that when I forget what I’ve said to her, I can go back and look it up. I think it’s for the best, though, because with a written record, I have benchmarks for how far I’ve come and just how far I still need to go to make the wrong path into the right one.

But the first step is admitting there’s a problem, and I did that long ago. Now, I just have to say the words for the first time out loud that I will say in perpetuity until they work.

I have made all the amends I can, and now I forgive me, because at least I can say I tried.

I have accepted all of my flaws, failures, and vulnerabilities.

I am popping my collar to expose the plaid, hidden unless you are looking for it.

I am looking for all the words I meant to say, and didn’t.


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